HC Deb 21 December 1967 vol 756 cc1569-76

4.15 p.m.

Mr. Hector Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

I wish to draw the attention of the House to a disgraceful and invidious loss which has been inflicted upon British seamen as a result of British Railways withdrawing from them travel facilities which they had long enjoyed. This imposes a grievous penalty not only upon the seamen, but upon their wives and families, and upon the well-being of the seafaring trade.

Seamen do not always return to their port of embarkation. For instance, a seaman may embark at Southampton, but his ship may return to Aberdeen and if his family is in Southampton he must travel there at his own expense. It was not always so, and it is only during the last few years that British Railways have withdrawn this facility. This was withdrawn suddenly and unreasonably, thereby inflicting pain and suffering upon the seamen, their wives and children.

To remedy this sad state of affairs I obtained the unanimous leave of the House to bring in a Bill entitled "Travel Concessions to Seamen". Leave to bring in the Bill expired at the end of last Session. I have had upon the Order Paper a long-standing Motion in the following terms: That this House is of opinion that for social, family, economic and other reasons the withdrawal by British Railways of the cheap fare railway vouchers hitherto available to seamen and their families is wrong as it frustrates family reunions, deprives British Railways of fares, diminishes British Railways' income— and my Motion then called upon the Chancellor and the Minister of Transport, by legislation or otherwise—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. and learned Gentleman must be careful how he argues his case. If what he is arguing for can be solved only by legislation then he cannot raise it on the Adjournment. He must not mention legislation.

Mr. Hughes

In the case that I am making against British Railways I am supported by the National Union of Seamen, of which I have the honour to be a member, by petition signed by hundreds of Cunard seamen and by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Exchange (Mrs. Braddock). I am also supported by all decent hon. Members who have family feelings, and who have the welfare of the seamen and the British maritime trade at heart.

The petition from the Cunard seamen is brief and says: We, the members of the above ship wish to add our support to the protest over the withdrawal of the privilege of railway voucher system since this has been stopped. We find many cases where this causes hardship to a man and separates him from his family. We offer this protest in the hope that you can have this privilege reinstated or arrange for some similiar scheme. Merchant seamen were entitled to cheap fares from the port at which they landed to the port where their homes were.

Another important aspect is that the seamen perform great services to the industry and employment of our country. These services are also essential to British trade and finance, and they have long been recognised by responsible bodies such as the British Shipping Federation, the National Union of Seamen, the National Maritime Board and British Railways.

Until two years ago British Railways accorded these facilities to seamen and then, unreasonably, they suddenly withdrew them. Naturally, the National Union of Seamen took up the matter. At the instance of the union, and because of my humanitarian feelings, I asked a number of Questions on the subject. Correspondence ensued, and I shall refer briefly to parts of two letters which are relevant.

On 4th July, the National Maritime Board wrote to British Railways. It said: The National Maritime Board has, amongst other matters, recently been considering a revision of an agreement under which, in certain circumstances, seafarers are entitled to a rail fare concession from owners when discharged at a port other than the port of engagement. The shipowners have expressed their willingness to extend the concession to seafarers not at present covered by the agreement, by granting them a warrant equivalent to 25 per cent, of the cost of a single journey. The purpose of this letter is to ask your Board whether they would be prepared to accept such a warrant and debit the British Shipping Federation Ltd. with 25 per cent, of the cost of a full single fare. At present. you do, in fact, accept from the Federation railway warrants for the full fare. There was an astonishing and brief reply from British Railways. It said: Referring to your letter of 4th July, the British Shipping Federation have also asked me if it is possible to help them with this problem. I can only repeat what I have told the British Shipping Federation that one of the reasons for withdrawing the concession was to remove the paper work and so reduce administration costs. We cannot therefore agree to accept your suggestion which would increase and complicate the accountancy work. Was there ever such an unfeeling, uneconomic and irrational reply? The warrant proposed by the National Maritime Board was fair and reasonable. The rejection of that proposal by British Railways on the ground of, forsooth, paper work, administration costs and accountancy work was trivial, unworthy and an offence to reason.

In a further letter of 22nd August, 1967, to me, British Railways admitted: We appreciate that the British Shipping Federation and the National Maritime Board wish seamen to continue to have this reduction. Yet the British Railways Board contumaciously persists in its refusal to withdraw the ban which it imposed on 23rd April, 1966.

I ask the House to take the view that during this course of conduct British Railways are behaving unreasonably and improperly. I ask the Minister to take urgent steps to see that the facilities are given back to the seamen, their wives and families who are being deprived of them in this disgraceful way.

4.26 p.m.

Mr. Edward M. Taylor (Glasgow, Cathcart)

Perhaps I might have the leave of the House to intervene very briefly. One thing is clear—that the hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hector Hughes) has pursued this matter in all possible ways and that we should pay tribute to his determination in pursuing it.

It may well be that the Minister will take the view that at present, when British Railways are supporting a deficit of more than £150 million, any concession which involves additional administration or paper work or cost would have to be looked at very carefully. On the other hand, the House appreciates that shipping makes an enormous contribution to our national wealth by way of invisible exports, and if there were any question of any concession being made then I am sure that the House would have some degree of sympathy with the seamen because they have to involve themselves in a very difficult life which means that they are apart from their families.

May I ask two brief questions with which the Minister might care to deal in his reply? First, are similar facilities available to any other group within our community? Secondly, in the change which was made, was there consultation with the Chamber of Shipping or the National Union of Seamen?

We have all enjoyed listening to the hon. and learned Member's speech and we have watched with great admiration the way in which he has pursued the matter—the way which we have come to expect of him.

4.27 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. John Morris)

In the last speech in the House before Christmas, may I join the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward M. Taylor) in the tribute which he paid to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hector Hughes). The tenacity of my hon. and learned Friend in pursuing this matter has earned the respect of us all. He has left no stone unturned in Parliamentary procedure in acting on behalf of the seamen in this matter. As we all know, he is a very doughty fighter for causes which touch his heart. However, that does not alter the fact that his argument tends to be in many ways misleading and that some of the basic assumptions of the case which have been presented by him are not borne out by a close examination of the facts.

My hon. and learned Friend argues that there is a strong moral and social case for subsidising seamen's travel. That was echoed in the speech of the hon. Member for Cathcart. That may be so, but it is not for the British Railways Board to provide cheap travel on social grounds, however deserving it might be. That seemed to be the unanimous view of the House in the course of our deliberations yesterday and that is the whole theme of our approach to the finances of British Railways.

This concession for seamen, like all other concessions provided by British Railways, could be justified only if it attracted sufficient extra passengers to increase total revenue. Quite simply, the Board decided earlier this year that the seamen's concession was no longer justifying itself from the commercial point of view. My hon. and learned Friend may consider the Board's commercial judgment to have been at fault and he may argue that the withdrawal of the concession has lost the Board potential passenger traffic. But it is, I think, hardly for us to take the view that we know better than do the railway management what is commercially advantageous to them.

It is, I think, important to put this matter in the context of the Transport Bill which had its Second Reading in the House yesterday. It is a fundamental principle of the Government's railway policy, as contained in that Bill, that the railways should be enabled to meet their financial obligations and be freed from the demoralising burden of deficit which has laid upon them for so long. In particular, the Railways Board is to be relieved of the burden imposed by those unremunerative passenger services which are nevertheless necessary on social grounds. Against that background, it would not be consistent to require the Railways Board to provide concessions for seamen on any grounds other than those of commercial justification.

If there is, in fact, a special case for reduced fares for seamen, it is surely on the grounds that their employment involves them inevitably in certain travelling expenses. Reduced fares can and should be seen to be analogous with the subsidised housing or clothing or food provided by employers in other walks of life. If the shipowners wish to provide cheap travel, rather than taking the special circumstances into account when considering wages, they can, of course, do so; but they must not expect British Railways to be out of pocket or to involve themselves in administrative arrangements quite different from those provided for other firms and organisations.

The hon. Member for Cathcart asked whether there was any other organisation in receipt of concessions of this kind. I would refer to seamen employed by the Ministry of Defence. The Ministry of Defence, as employer, is meeting the cost of travel concessions just as private shipowners could do.

I should like at this point to explain in detail how the previous voucher system for seamen differed from the warrant arrangements which are acceptable to British Railways. When a seaman wished to travel at a reduced rate, he used to present his voucher at the ticket office, and the ticket clerk then calculated the discount on full fare to which the traveller was entitled. If it were the case that an ordinary reduced fare, for example a period return or a special midweek return, was cheaper than the discounted full fare, then one of the special reduced tickets would be used instead and no discount would be allowed.

Clearly, there were a number of problems involved with this system. From the railways' point of view the system was administratively cumbersome, and expensive. In withdrawing the system of vouchers the Railways Board did not leave a complete void, as my hon. and learned Friend suggested. It was left open to the shipowners, if they wished still to help their employees, to participate in the normal British Railways' warrant scheme. This system of credit facilities is already used by many large companies including the British Shipping Federation and most major shipowners and operates by means of the issue of a number of books of warrants to an organisation, which can then re-issue them to individual members or employees, the warrant bearing details of the journey they are to undertake and the kind of ticket required. The warrant is then exchanged for the ticket, and at regular intervals the company is billed with the cost of the various tickets for which warrants have been exchanged. The company pays this bill and can if it wishes to do so reclaim part of the cost from the employees.

This scheme has been running smoothly for some time and represents an annual revenue to British Railways of between £8 million and £9 million. The administrative costs have been reduced to an acceptable level through standardisation of the procedure.

The basic point which I want to make is that it is not only for the Railways Board to decide whether it is in their own commercial interests to provide reduced travel in the hope of attracting extra passengers and hence increase net revenue. It is also for the Railways Board to decide by what administrative methods it will allow other organisations, particularly employers like the shipowners in this case, themselves to make travel arrangements for their members or employees.

I am sure all hon. Members will agree that none of this is in any sense a matter of transport policy for the Government. Indeed, the only transport policy issue is that of ensuring that the Railways Board are freed from the necessity of providing unremunerative facilities, and are thustions and to show the country that they are able to operate profitably and efficiently when given a fair and workable made able to meet their financial obligastatutory remit.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-four minutes to Five o'clock till Wednesday, 17th January, pursuant to the Resolution of the House of 19th December.