§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Speed.]
§ 10.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Charles R. Morris (Manchester, Openshaw)
I should like to preface my comments this evening by the traditional courtesy of congratulating the Minister on his appointment and then to move on to the subject of this Adjournment debate.
This debate takes place against a background of increasing public concern in the greater Manchester area about service inadequacies, escalating fares and developing trends associated with the provision of public transport in the South-East Lancashire and North-East Cheshire passenger transport authority area. It takes place at a time when a former chairman of Salford City Transport Committee feels so frustrated that he is calling publicly for the reconvening of that committee and one commuter advances the wholly remarkable proposition that the mechanical condition of buses which serve the north side of Manchester, in the area of my constituency, is such that he and his fellow commuters have on occasion been obliged to get off and push.
I should like to say at the outset, certainly as a former chairman of Manchester Corporation Transport Committee, that I am not unmindful of the inherent problems associated with the provision of public transport or unaware of what the challenge of the private motor car has meant to public transport in Manchester over the years. Nor, might I emphasise, do I lack confidence in the abilities of the present director-general of the S.E.L.N.E.C. P.T.A. My Parliamentary colleagues and I would, however, be failing in our duty if we did not seek to reflect the increasing concern of our constituents about these matters.
In a letter dated 18th May last, the then Joint Parliamentary Secretary conceded that there had been what were termed temporary difficulties in bus services catering for the Newton Heath, Clayton, Bradford, Failsworth and Open-shaw 990 areas of my constituency, but he went on to express the view that normal standards of bus services to those areas were high. My only comment on that statement is that that is not a view which is shared by my constituents. In my opinion, it would be in the interests of the travelling public in Manchester and the S.E.L.N.E.C. P.T.A. area if we had more public discussion—a great debate, if you like—on public bus and commuter services in the greater Manchester area.
I stress that, ideologically, I was, and am, a firm advocate of the need for amalgamating public transport undertakings in the South-East Lancashire and North-East Cheshire area. I must confess that I had not envisaged that S.E.L.N.E.C. would, politically speaking, be quite so Tory-dominated, with a Tory chairman and a sizeable anti-Labour majority on the Passenger Transport Authority. In practice, it has turned out very much like putting a gang of atheists to organise a Christian revival. Perhaps I am being uncharitable, but I question whether the present Tory members of the Passenger Transport Authority believe in private enterprise or in a public service industry succeeding.
However, by far the most pressing area of concern in Manchester at present is the proposed 3d. peak hour surcharge which, it is rumoured, will be introduced in the next week or so. It will, in effect, be a poll tax on those citizens of Manchester and Salford who are obliged to travel to work in peak hours. How many workers, how many people, can determine the hours at which they must attend for work? Yet these are the commuters who will be burdened with a further 5s. to 6s. per week in bus fares in travelling to and from their employment. This added imposition comes on top of the general fares increase which was introduced in February last, only a matter of months ago.
It can be argued that S.E.L.N.E.C. Passenger Transport Authority is facing a formidable financial problem and an estimated deficit on its bus operations of £2,587,000 for the year 1970–71.
§ Mr. Paul B. Rose (Manchester, Blackley)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and also for initiating this debate. Is he aware that in areas such as the Blackley area of the city the 991 position is that many workers have to take as many as three buses to go to and from their places of work, and that they will be paying the poll tax not once but perhaps six times a day?
§ Mr. Morris
My hon. Friend has certainly made a particularly valid point.
In seeking to deal with the problem of the 3d. peak hour surcharge, I would say that I think it was neither just nor equitable for the S.E.L.N.E.C. Passenger Transport Authority to restrict the imposition of the 3d. peak hour surcharge to the central division of its operating area. In my view, the burden of producing the additional income required should have been spread evenly throughout the whole of the Passenger Transport Authority area.
It may be said that this point was considered by the North-West Traffic Commissioner, and I am mindful of the limitations of Ministerial responsibility in regard to that. It could be said that the Commissioner considered the point when he considered and rejected some of the objections to the fare increases and the 3d. peak hour surcharge earlier this year, but since the hearing presided over by the Commissioner there has been a highly significant and important development.
In January this year S.E.L.N.E.C. Passenger Transport Authority announced that it had decided not to precept on local authority rates. One assumes that this was a factor taken into consideration by the Commissioner. In June this year, after the Commissioner had made known his decision, S.E.L.N.E.C. Passenger Transport Authority, in a joint policy statement, indicated that it was now in favour of a selective precept on local rates. This poses the question, would the judgment of the North-West Traffic Commissioner have been different had he known of the Passenger Transport Authority's view on the precept was to change somewhat dramatically after he had made known his decision?
§ Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)
I would ask my hon. Friend if he could tell the House on how many occasions the S.E.L.N.E.C. Passenger Transport Authority has met. It is charged with very serious responsibilities. 992 Can he say how often it has met to discharge those responsibilities?
§ Mr. Morris
This is an important question, because it illuminates the gulf between the Passenger Transport Authority and the Executive. My information is that since its establishment in November of last year the P.T.A. has met only on five occasions, and this does not give grounds for public confidence in the level of liaison.
Is public transport in the greater Manchester area to suffer a general increase in fares, a 3d. peak-hour surcharge and a precept on local rates, all within a matter of months? What is the Minister's view about the provisions of the Transport Act which will oblige S.E.L.N.E.C. to contribute to any financial loss on the operation of railway services in the S.E.L.N.E.C. P.T.A. area after 1st April, 1971? Does he propose to follow the lead of his predecessor by again deferring this statutory obligation?
One could take the view that bus fare increases are inevitable. We could be tempted to ignore the facts that in Manchester between 1960 and 1969 there have been seven fare increases; that the 2d. fare of 1959 now costs 6d. and the then 6d. fare now costs 1s. or 1s. 3d.; and that the imposed economies in the frequency of service have produced a situation that whereas in 1959 buses in Manchester ran 47 million miles they now run 36 million miles. What the Minister will ignore at his peril is the statistics which show the number of passengers carried. In 1949 there were 500 million; in 1959, 411 million; by 1969 the number had plummeted to 252 million—a vicious spiral of diminishing returns. The more the frequency of the service is cut back, the more the fares are increased, the more certain it is that the bus passenger will resort to the use of the private car.
Stabilising the present level of fares is one thing, but frequency, convenience and reliability of service are equally essential. The real danger is that the level of fares is accelerating the switch to the private car.
A precept on local rates is obviously an area of revenue-raising which will have to be considered for the future—
§ Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Ardwick)
The local rates are the responsibility of the local Conservative 993 Council in Manchester. Is not it remarkable and perhaps to be commented on that neither of the Conservative Members of Parliament for the City of Manchester have taken the trouble to attend this debate which is so important for their constituents?
§ Mr. Morris
That point will no doubt be noted. How much of S.E.L.N.E.C.'s crippling burden will the greater Manchester commuter and ratepayer have to shoulder? Recently London's public transport was assisted to the extent of £2 million. What about the major provincial centres such as Manchester and the North-West? Irrespective of what one may feel about the need to innovate an experiment with new forms of public transport, it was perhaps unfortunate that S.E.L.N.E.C. chose this time to introduce the Hale Barns "Executive" coach service. To pander to the elitism of the Hale Barns executive, to discriminate in his favour, when there are so many other inadequate bus services in the P.T.A. area is wholly questionable. One is mindful that the travelling public in the Hale Barns area already enjoy two fast means of access to Manchester by rail. I accept, however, that this is a peripheral point. I am prepared to await the outcome of this so-called innovating experiment.
On my main point, I ask the Minister to consider—
§ Mr. David Clark (Colne Valley)
My hon. Friend talks about the commuters from the south end, Hale Barns. But there is a problem at the north-eastern end where we find certain small authorities within which there are no concessionary fares given to old people. For example, the urban district of Saddle-worth in my constituency claims that the terms and conditions asked and demanded by the S.E.L.N.E.C. are too high for it to accept. Does my hon. Friend agree with that?
§ Mr. Morris
I am aware of the close and continuing interest which my hon. Friend takes in these matters, that is a point which merits serious consideration.
§ Mr. Michael Fidler (Bury and Radcliffe)
Will the hon. Gentleman bear in mind that some of the local authorities, including the Bury local authority, had to give up profitable transport undertakings to the S.E.L.N.E.C. and are now 994 experiencing much increased fares, worse concessions for the elderly, and far less frequent services at greater cost? Will the hon. Gentleman take this into consideration? Will he also tell me how much this is due to what is virtually the nationalisation of local authority transport?
§ Mr. Morris
The point made by the hon. Gentleman poses a question. If indeed these problems exist, then the P.T.A. ought to be meeting more often. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Rose) makes a particularly valid point about the political control of the P.T.A.s concerned. The only point which comes to mind about the transfer from certain local municipal transport undertakings is that I wish that some had transferred their financial reserves to the new P.T.A.s.
To revert to my main point, I ask the Minister to consider convening a conference of representatives of all local authorities in the S.E.L.N.E.C. P.T.A. area to consider the long-term financial problems associated with providing public transport in the greater Manchester area. This is an urgent issue. I leave the Minister with the thought that action is necessary, and we hope to see it taken very soon.
§ 10.33 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Michael Heseltine)
First, I thank the hon. Member for Manchester, Openshaw (Mr. Charles R. Morris) for his kind remarks about me personally, which I greatly appreciate.
I also say that it is a great privilege for me to come to the Dispatch Box with you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in the Chair. Perhaps we may be forgiven for thinking that we are back in Committee on the Transport Bill considering our respective positions.
However, it is not just the juxtaposition of ourselves that reminds me of that. These arguments have a familiar ring. I remember spending a great deal of time in 1968 listening to the arguments about the establishment of P.T.A.s and the benefits which would come, and arguing, with all the persausion that I could, that the local authorities in the areas affected were likely to find problems if the P.T.A.s were imposed on them against their wishes.
995 The hon. Member for Openshaw will remember the Guillotine Motion—I think that he voted on it—that imposed the P.T.A.s on the local authorities in his area against their wishes. It is interesting that he should be asking this Government, after only a fortnight in office, to call a conference of the very local authorities which he was then prepared to disregard to try to achieve action.
§ Mr. Charles R. Morris
I made it clear during my speech that I am an advocate of the amalgamation of these municipal transport undertakings. What I am asking for is a conference to consider the long-term financial problems with which the S.E.L.N.E.C. P.T.A. is beset.
§ Mr. Heseltine
The hon. Gentleman will remember that it was for that reason that P.T.A.s were set up. One of the great arguments was that there was a problem in the provision of urban transport in this area and in others which could be solved only by the establishment of a local authority in the form of a P.T.A. The P.T.A.s were set up for precisely that reason, and it seems strange that, having established them, the hon. Gentleman should wish to reverse our proceedings and call all the local authorities together to come to a solution which would be imposed upon P.T.A.s.
We must get into perspective the relationship which the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends created between the P.T.A.s and this House. The argument used at the time by hon. Gentlemen was that these decisions about which the hon. Gentleman has been talking and questioning should be taken by local people, and it seems to me that the hon. Gentleman is being less than fair now in criticising certain of the things that are happening, largely on the ground that it was the will of the local people that they should be run by Conservative-controlled councils.
The problems of local transport are vastly bigger than any political discussion or division, and the hon. Gentleman, with his experience of transport undertakings, knows that there are certain long-term trends which have greatly accentuated the problems. I had hoped that he would tell the House what he would like to see happen, and what the action to which he referred should consist 996 of. Had he done that, it would have been possible for me to take a view about whether that action would help. In the absence of any concrete proposals from the hon. Gentleman—his only reference was to Conservative councils not being interested in public transport—I can only tell him that almost every matter that he mentioned is for the P.T.A. and the P.T.E. These things are in the hands of local people, and if the hon. Gentleman has any complaints the proper place to air them is in Manchester itself.
§ Mr. Stanley Orme (Salford, West)
I dispute that. When the G.L.C. took over the running of the transport undertaking in the Greater London area the Government wrote off most of the debt and subsidised the council. What we in the S.E.L.N.E.C. area are saying is that we want Government finance to keep down prices, which the Government are supposed to be pledged to doing.
§ Mr. Heseltine
The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that Government finance will be available once the capital schemes are put forward. They have not yet been produced. The Manchester transportation survey is still not available. It will not be available until the autumn. The rapid transit scheme and other ideas will be considered and examined by local people, and if the P.T.A. and the P.T.E. decide to ask the Minister to approve these schemes, it is in their power to do so, and the Minister will then have power to make a 75 per cent. grant towards the financing of the schemes. Until the P.T.A. for S.E.L.N.E.C. tells the Minister "This is what we want to do", the Minister cannot finance schemes which nobody has asked to have financed.
§ Mr. Kaufman
Is not what the Minister saying totally against the policy of his party? The Prime Minister and the Chancellor have both said that they will tackle the spiral of rising prices by intervening in rising prices in the public sector. These are fares in the public sector. Instead of arguing with my hon. Friend about who should put forward proposals, what is the Minister going to do to keep down these rising prices?
§ Mr. Heseltine
I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman has only come into the House at this last election—and I welcome him as an old friend from our 997 Oxford days—but he will appreciate that the problems of passenger transport in the S.E.L.N.E.C. area are the result of the policies of the previous Government. He will be aware that the two principal contributing factors to rising fares are the wage increases which were granted recently, which led directly to increased fares—because wages represent 70 per cent. to 80 per cent. of the total cost—and the legislation introduced by his Friends when they were the Government to curtail drivers' hours, which greatly increased the difficulties of recruiting sufficient staff to provide the services. These increases, therefore, are the result of the policies of the last Government. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] That is fair. The Conservatives have been in power for only a fortnight and it will take more than a fortnight to cure the problems of the last six years.
§ Mr. Alfred Morris
Would not the hon. Gentleman agree that the Conservative majority on the P.T.A. has been in power from the outset? Will he come to terms with the important proposal made by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Openshaw (Mr. Charles R. Morris)? Will he accept that it is just not good enough gratuitously to increase one of the most important aspects of the cost of living at a time when the Government, admittedly newly-elected, have been talking in such strong terms about holding down prices in the public sector?
§ Mr. Heseltine
But the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the costs have already risen and, therefore, the problem is facing S.E.L.N.E.C.—and it is entirely a problem for that body and not for the Government—and it must put forward its proposals. I was waiting to hear what proposals the hon. Gentleman had. The increase has been the subject of an inquiry by the Traffic Commissioners who, as far as I am aware, have accepted the fare increase and the surcharge which may be put on peak-hour travel. The local people have to decide the means of dealing with the increase in costs, but the only suggestion from the hon. Gentleman was that perhaps it could be a matter for precepting on the rates. That is just another way of increasing prices.
§ Mr. Rose
Is there not a fundamental difference of philosophy here? What my 998 hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Openshaw (Mr. Charles R. Morris) is arguing is that by forcing people off public transport into motor cars and thereby increasing congestion and increasing accidents and delays on the road, one is incurring a greater cost to the public than by levying a small amount from the rates, which would allow costs to be kept down and allow people to use public transport more and to have a more civilised form of existence in our present polluted urban environment?
§ Mr. Heseltine
This may be a philosophy of public transport which commends itself to the people of Manchester, but the fact cannot be ignored that it is for the people of Manchester to decide. The hon. Member for Openshaw went on to knock one of the most imaginative schemes introduced by S.E.L.N.E.C.—[Interruption.] I listened to the hon. Member with great patience. The scheme was to try to combat the very people most likely to want to use their cars in the congestion. This is precisely the sort of scheme with which transport authorities should experiment. It was a relatively small experiment which, along with the Trans-Lancashire Express, was exactly the sort of innovation in the bus industry which it was said would follow from the establishment of P.T.A.s.
One must realise that this is a very small part of the activities of the S.E.L.N.E.C. P.T.A., but, nevertheless, it is precisely the sort of imaginative approach which one hoped would follow from the establishment of P.T.A.s. It is silly to try to knock it, because if public transport is to offer a valuable service and a quality service, it must be allowed to introduce new services without hon. Members opposite trying to make party political points out of it.
§ Mr. Kenneth Marks (Manchester, Gorton)
But in this case it was to provide a luxury service in an area which already has a very good fast rail service. If the rail loses that traffic, the local rates will have to bear the burden.
§ Mr. Heseltine
It is entirely a matter for the local people to decide. I must go on making this point. I have actually sat through a whole committee meeting of the Passenger Transport Authority in S.E.L.N.E.C. One learns a great deal about the problems of Manchester by 999 doing that, and I commend it to some hon. Members opposite. The fact of the matter is that these decisions are taken by the local people. If hon. Members opposite have alternative and positive suggestions, they should make them to the P.T.A., and I am sure that they will be welcomed and well-received.
There is no doubt that Mr. Harrison is a man determined to push all opportunities to expand the service which he makes available, and I have no doubt that he has brought a breath of fresh air to the bus industry in this country. A very fine man has been found to do that job. It would be much more helpful if Labour Members would try to find ways in which to make suggestions about what to do about a problem which is worldwide—congestion in the cities. I am sure that in the course of the ensuing years we shall talk about the provision of public transport services, but I do not believe that the small nigglings which we have 1000 heard from the hon. Member for Openshaw will make much contribution to a solution of this major problem.
The Minister is of course now looking at the policy, as one would expect, but at the moment we are administering legislation which was guillotined through the House of Commons by the Labour Party when in office.
§ The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock 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 a quarter to Eleven o'clock.