HC Deb 25 May 1965 vol 713 cc519-28

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Whitlock.]

6.9 a.m.

Mr. Ernest Popplewell (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West)

I rise more in sorrow than in anger at this hour for having kept the Parliamentary Secretary up so late and especially because he must be setting a record for the number of times he has had to remain in the House to answer Adjournment debates. But, perhaps, that very fact illustrates the considerable disturbance there is about transport and I think that my subject is of importance.

Meldon Quarry is a long way from my constituency, sited as it is on the borders of Dartmoor, near Okehampton. It is a railway-owned asset, and has been within the ownership of the railways for well over 60 years. It is alarming to hear that this very efficient quarry is to be sold to English China Clay. I understand that although no agreement has yet been signed the company has expressed a wish to take over the quarry, and that it will take control at the end of the year. I would ask my hon. Friend to confirm that that is the exact position, and that a contract has not yet been signed.

The Railways Board has been trying to sell this quarry for a long time, and has approached many undertakings with a view to its sale. I hope that my hon. Friend can tell the House what price English China Clay is paying for this quarry. I also hope that he will be able to inform me to what use English China Clay will put the quarry.

From the information available at present we know that the quarry has a staff of 130. From available reports we understand that English China Clay will employ only 27 of these people, leaving 103 highly-skilled quarry workers whose services will be dispensed with. There is no other work available in this rural area. This quarry is the economic and social life of the area. Twenty-three of the workers whose services are to be dispensed with are over 60 years of age, and have spent a lifetime in the quarry, and there is no hope of their getting a job anywhere in the area.

Of the remaining men the younger ones may be dealt with under the relevant redundancy arrangements, but the British Railways staff officer has told the men who will become redundant that he cannot offer any permanent employment to them at all, and that should it become possible to fix them up elsewhere he will not be able to offer them any accommodation when they move from their homes. This indicates the human problem involved in the sale. I do not raise this matter solely because of the effect upon these men; I say that it is not possible to stress too highly its important social consequences.

There is no question about the efficiency of the work of this quarry. Labour relations are excellent. Everybody is working together as a team. It is a good quarry. It is worked at three levels and has been highly commended by H.M. Inspector of Mines and Quarries for its safety and efficiency. The layout of the quarry is such that the cost of crushing the stone is very low and the movement of the stone to its final crushing is by gravitation. It is producing 350,000 tons of stone per year, and covers 200 acres of land. That is the background story of the quarry.

Tests made by the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research indicate that the life of stone from Meldon Quarry is 13 years, compared with 10 years for that from the Frome Quarry, where the Railways Board will now get its stone. This appears to be disgraceful. The one-third greater life of the Meldon stone should be an important factor in determining the cost involved. It would appear that the Board is not concerned too much about the quality of the stone. Its argument seems to be based entirely on £ s. d. The old London and South-Western Railway bought the quarry originally. It has been working ever since, and has formed the main source of stone for the Southern Region. It is the only railway-owned quarry in the country and provides an extremely useful yardstick of production costs and is very beneficial in checking prices, compared with the private quarries.

Some new plant is required at the quarry, particularly a secondary crushing plant and some modern loading facilities. The manager is an expert in quarry workings, holding high qualifications, and he claims that, if he were given this small amount of new plant, he would be able to reduce even the present prices of stone by at least 1s. 6d. per ton. As an example, he quotes the fact that, since 1960, when he had a new primary crushing plant installed, the stone from the quarry cost less now than it did in 1958, which indicates the efficiency of the quarry. It is very difficult indeed to analyse the Railways Board's figures. The Board says that if it supplied this new plant, the price of the stone would go to 12s. 10d., compared with the Frome stone at 10s. 8d. No reference is made to the longer life of the Meldon stone.

Experts in quarry technique and management cannot understand how the Railways Board has arrived at this figure. Experts inform me that the Railways Board's figure is grossly overweighted, and that this has evidently been done deliberately to support its case.

The Railways Board argues that the haulage from Meldon to Salisbury, which has been done ever since the London and South-Western took over the quarry—a distance of 100 miles—would cost 7s. a ton. Experts in cost and management accountancy holding high degrees have worked out, according to the Railways Board's own figures, that if the present steam engines were replaced by the diesels and the fitting wagons were employed—the liner trains principle about which we hear so much—it would not cost more than 2s. per ton for haulage. This makes absolute nonsense of the Railways Board's claim that the quarry is losing £147,000. There has been a considerable dispute over these figures, with the National Union of Railwaymen taking a particular interest.

The behaviour of the Railways Board has been astonishing. I hope that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will initiate a thorough investigation into all these matters, particularly this point. The Board informed the hon. Member for Torrington (Mr. Peter Mills)—who hopes to speak in this debate if he gets an opportunity to do so—that the railway unions had completely surrendered their claim in view of the financial figures which had been put forward and had accepted the Board's figures. Only last night I received a letter from the Meldon Action Committee which included this passage: Dear Mr. Popplewell, You might like to know that the Plymouth reporter of the Daily Mail telephoned today asking for information about Meldon. Mr. Endle said he had telephoned the B.R.B. and had been told that although the unions had not at first accepted the figures submitted by the Board claiming savings on haulage costs, the unions had since accepted the Board's figures. We have telephoned the N.U.R. who have completely denied the Board's statement. From the information I have to hand, including information from the general secretary of the N.U.R., I can confirm that it was indeed a totally incorrect statement. It was dishonourable of the Board to tell a deliberate lie to the Press about the N.U.R. and I sincerely hope that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will have the fullest inquiries made into this case. I regard it as shocking behaviour, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Torrington will support me in this view.

Another alarming matter comes into this and the N.U.R. was in communication with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport about it. The Minister's reply was interesting, because in it he stated that the N.U.R. had accused him of deliberately giving permission for publicly-owned assets to be sold to private enterprise. The Minister stated that that was not the correct position and he went on to speak of how the railways were extending their shipping fleet. It is obvious that false information is being given to my right hon. Friend by the Railways Board. I realise that I am making a grave charge and I trust that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will inquire into the allegation I am making.

Evidently the Board told the Minister that it is extending its shipping fleet. When we consider the changes which have been taking place—on the Southampton—France run and so on—and the fact the Board sought to get the Norwegian Thoresen Line to take over the Southampton—Le Havre service which, the Board said, was not a paying proposition, we see what the actual position is. The Thoresen Line has put two car ferry services on that run and is about to introduce a third. I should not mind too much about that if it were not for an announcement which appears in The Times this morning drawing attention to another service—the Goole—Copenhagen shipping service—which is railway owned. The Board has deliberately approached the Ellerman Wilson Steam Line with a view to taking over the British Railways services on this run. The T.U.C.C. is advertising this change.

Mr. Francis Noel-Baker (Swindon)

I know that my hon. Friend realises that there is the greatest anxiety through the country, particularly in the railway centres—in particular Swindon—about the disposal of railway assets, sometimes profitable ones, and that the railwaymen in my constituency do not know what is going on.

Mr. Popplewell

How true that is. That is why I am raising this matter even at this late hour. I have a great deal more evidence to prove my case, but I must allow the hon. Member for Torrington time in which to say a few words.

There is an outstanding case of efficiency, on costs, on quality of stone and on the general layout and convenience. For instance, the quarry is being closed and yet the Great Western line will bring stone from North Wales to lay down in the Meldon area. I plead with the Minister to give a directive to the Railways Board refusing to allow the sale.

6.26 a.m.

Mr. Peter Mills (Torrington)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West (Mr. Popplewell) for allowing me two or three minutes in this debate, and I will speak quickly to cover the points. This is a serious problem for the town of Okehampton in my constituency and one which will affect many people. That is why I have pressed with all the strength I have and in every avenue to reverse this decision by the Railways Board. The story goes way back to the time of my predecessor, when we had doubts and fears that the quarry might be closed.

I have raised the problem of Meldon quarry by at least four Questions in the House. I have been in touch with the Prime Minister, the Minister of Transport, the Minister of Labour, the Department of Economic Affairs, Dr. Beeching, the managers of Western and Southern Regions and the chief civil engineer, all to no avail. This, to say the least, is a very sorry state of affairs.

It seems to me that this is a deliberate effort on the part of the Railways Board to have an excuse to close the Exeter—Okehampton line. If the major portion of the freight is taken away, there is a very good excuse to close the whole line. This would have even more serious consequences to my constituency. There is no doubt that Meldon Quarry has been starved of capital over the years to bring about the position in which it can be said to be uneconomic.

I also feel that if Meldon Quarry continued under the control of Southern Region, we should not have any fear of closure, because I believe that Western Region never liked Meldon Quarry and has sought to close it all along. Southern Region knows the value of the stone. I believe that Southern Region will require this stone in the years ahead.

I should like to make one other point, which concerns the costing figures. There seems to be serious disagreement over this. I know that figures can be made to prove anything, but I should like to know the truth. Why does not the Minister set up an independent inquiry into the costing figures to satisfy us all? It is important to know what is right. It is important for the sake of the manager, who has done a first-rate job, to prove that his figures are correct. I certainly would like to know what is correct.

What of the future? This closure will cause grave social problems for the district. I have said all along that I would fight it on that basis. The men who are redundant must be looked after. If we cannot get the decision reversed, they must be cared for. There are many elderly men in the employ of this quarry. They have given their life to its service and have done their job well and loyally.

However, I hope that if there is no reversal, the quarry firm of E.C.C. will make a success of it and expand it as rapidly as possible to absorb the men who will be without a job. Let there be no mistake: there are no other jobs in the district for these men. My main fear is the closure of the line. This is the excuse which the Railways Board has. I should like the Minister's assurance that the line will not close.

6.30 a.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Stephen Swingler)

I have only about 10 minutes in which to reply and I hope the House will forgive me if I go rapidly over the ground.

Some very serious allegations have been made, of some of which I have had notice, of others not. All of them will be carefully investigated by us, and if necessary a public statement will be made. May I deal with one of the allegations straight away? The hon. Member for Torrington (Mr. Peter Mills) has mentioned something which I have noticed in the West Country Press, namely, that there is some connection between the proposed closure of Meldon Quarry and the Exeter—Okehampton line. I say quite definitely that nothing could be further from the truth.

Earlier this year the British Railways Board told my right hon. Friend that there was an urgent need to do something about the bridges carrying the Exeter—Okehampton—Barnstaple lines north of Exeter. The expenditure needed was so great that it would make it uneconomic, said British Railways, to maintain this service. My right hon. Friend immediately made an urgent examination of the implications which the closure of passenger services on these lines would have. He decided that it would be essential to maintain passenger railheads at Okehampton and Barnstaple. As a result I can say that the Board is going ahead with the repairs to the bridges. I can state definitely that these lines will re main open. That disposes of one of the points.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West (Mr. Popplewell), who is ever-vigilant about the interests of railwaymen, raised another serious allegation. He will appreciate that the question is very difficult. The proposed closure by the Railways Board of Meldon Quarry is undoubtedly a blow to a small isolated community. As the hon. Member for Torrington said, many of the workers there are between 50 and 60 years of age and some are over 60. Many of them have spent all their working lives in railway service there. We can well imagine what their feelings are.

May I say a word about the position of the Railways Board and of ourselves in the Ministry of Transport. The Railways Board is managerially responsible for the whole of this situation. It tells me that the quarry, the only quarry it has, was found to be uneconomical to operate. It said that it could get the stone it needs for its ballast more cheaply elsewhere than at Meldon Quarry and that this would save the Board £146,000 per annum, a substantial sum. That is the Board's case.

I understand that in January, therefore, the Board wrote to the trade unions and informed the staff employed at Meldon Quarry that it would close down at the end of this year. This is entirely a matter for the Board's commercial judgment. Where the Board obtains ballast for railway purposes is a matter for the Board, and the closure of the quarry, or the disposal of assets of the Board, with the consequent reduction in railway staff, is an operational decision for the management of the Board which my right hon. Friend must leave to the Board itself.

My right hon. Friend recently announced that the Government had decided to free the nationalised industries, including the railways, from the statutory restrictions on their manufacturing powers, but this, I fear, cannot change in any way the decision in this case. In fact, we understand that the new owners who are acquiring this quarry from the Board intend to change the character of the business entirely. A large sum of money, I am informed, will be spent on new plant for the purpose of going into the business of road-making materials. As this appears to be the only way to make this quarry financially viable, the Board too would have been faced not only with the need for large redundancies but also for considerable capital investment in order to make it a going concern.

I am informed by the Board that it has studied the market for crushed stone as it is now produced at the quarry and finds that it would be a totally uneconomic proposition to keep Meldon Quarry on the present basis, even if it were statutorily permitted, which it is not at the moment, to sell its products in the open market.

We are very concerned about the position of the workers affected by this decision. I have been assured by the Board that it intends to do everything possible between now and the end of this year to find alternative work for those displaced. As my hon. Friend knows, the Board has a Director of Resettlement whose task is to ensure that the fullest use is made of the resources available through the Board and the Ministry of Labour to assist displaced workers to find new employment.

What steps are being taken? First of all, the Board gave about 12 months' notice to those concerned that it intended to sell the quarry as a going concern. That fact would provide reemployment for some of the quarry staff, as my hon. Friend said. The quarry has been sold to English China Clay Quarries, which will take over operation on 1st January of next year, and the firm is prepared to offer re-employment to 27 of the existing staff.

Secondly, I understand that the Board has now interviewed personally every worker at the quarry, and has offered each one alternative employment in the Southern Region. But I know that, as in many cases the alternative work offered may not be suitable and may involve disruption of the lives of those concerned, the Board is urgently examining the possibility of suitable openings in the Western Region for those who are displaced.

If any of the men are willing to accept transfer to other railway employment, the arrangements agreed between the Board and the trade unions have been specifically designed to reduce, as far as is possible, the human and individual problems that arise in situations such as this. There are generous safeguards for former rates of pay, and provisions for free residential travel, lodging allowances, disturbance payments, free removals, and so on.

Thirdly, the Board tells me that it has approached the Devon County Council about the question of alternative work in the district. My right hon. Friend the First Secretary of State has been in touch with the new regional Economic Planning Board at Bristol and has asked it to keep in mind the needs of Meldon. The Ministry of Labour, of course, is prepared to offer all its facilities—including retraining, where appropriate—to those seeking its help.

The Government have given the assurance that the Board of Trade will give sympathetic consideration to the issue of an industrial development certificate to any firm that is willing to establish a suitable project in the Meldon area. These are the steps that have been taken by the Board, by the Government Departments concerned and by notification to the new Regional Economic Planning Board to help between now and the end of the year those being made redundant as a result of the sale by the Board of the Meldon Quarry.

The displaced employees will be covered by the Railway Board's redundancy arrangements which have been agreed with the trade unions. They provide for redundant staff who cannot, for some reason or other, accept transfer to other work, to receive lump-sum compensation and continuing resettlement payments—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Tuesday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-one minutes to Seven o'clock a.m.