HC Deb 14 February 1972 vol 831 cc201-8

Question proposed, That the Clause stand part of the Bill.

11.55 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Mulley (Sheffield, Park)

I do not wish to detain the House at this hour on a Bill which, as we explained on Second Reading, we want to see passed as soon as possible. The points we might have wished to make in Committee are clearly out of order because we want more money to be made available to both British Rail and to the National Bus Company, because we are extremely concerned about the future of public transport.

I hope that the Government will not just wait until the situation has got beyond repair. Following the events which have happened since we last debated this Bill, only a week ago, the grave crisis which faces British industry also means a grave crisis for British Rail. This will have its impact on the finances of the National Bus Company and our municipal undertakings.

Clearly neither the railways nor the bus operators will get out of it merely by putting up fares. We shall before the end of the year face a grave crisis in public transport. I wish the Government had taken the decision to assist them on broad social and economic grounds and not merely for the limited purposes of the Bill. I hope the Government will bear all these matters in mind.

Mr. Ron Lewis (Carlisle)

I do not intend to detain the Committee for very long because I spoke on Second Reading, but I wish to raise a small constituency point involving the bus company.

According to the Bill, £7 million is to be allocated to the National Bus Company, for which hon. Members on both sides are very grateful. Since much of my area is sparsely populated, the fares charged by Ribble Bus Company in Carlisle and Cumberland are much higher than those charged in other parts of the area. Mileage rates vary considerably from city to city and people in Carlisle feel they are being penalised because they have to pay more per mile than is paid in other parts of the Ribble area. We have had two bus fare increases since 1970, and a third increase is due on 1st March. We are perturbed that the Ribble Bus Company has decided to withdraw the off-peak fares. These off-peak fares were a boon to many of my constituents in the countryside of Cumberland.

I shudder to think what the increase might have been if this sum of £7 million had not been made available to National Bus Company. It will be interesting to know what proportion of the £7 million will go to the Ribble Bus Company to help subsidise the people of my constituency and other parts of the area. Even the local manager of the Ribble Bus Company has said he could not forecast what is likely to happen in six months' time. It appears to be highly likely that before the end of the year there could be another increase in Cumberland. Naturally, this will hit old age pensioners and those who have to use buses to get to and from the centre of the city. While we are grateful that £7 million is being given to the National Bus Company, I shudder to think what is likely to happen by the end of the year, with fares ever on the increase.

I understand that, by the end of June, my part of the country will probably be the first major area within the ambit of the Ribble Bus Company to go over completely to driver-only buses. The outlook in Carlisle is very bleak. Bus fares look like increasing, while some services are being cut.

While we are grateful for small mercies, if I might attempt to take a leap into the future, I am perturbed to think that some of my constituents will have to face extortionate bus fare increases in addition to the one that is in the pipeline for 1st March.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Eldon Griffiths)

If I may deal first with the points raised by the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Ron Lewis), I cannot tell him what proportion of this grant will become available to the Ribble Company. It is a grant made to the National Bus Company as a whole. The Bus Company's arrangements with its subsidiaries are a matter of management, and it would be wrong of me to intervene in that.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will use his best endeavours on behalf of his constituents to ensure that wage increases on the buses, which are responsible for a very large proportion of the additional cost of running the buses, are held down. That is the way in which the hon. Gentleman can serve his constituents best.

The right hon. Member for Sheffield, Park (Mr. Mulley), who has been very co-operative and helpful throughout all the stages of the Bill, raised a number of points. I must deal with two of them.

He said that he thought there should be more money. I am sure that he recognises that the purpose of the Bill is a quite limited and specific one. It is to enable the National Bus Company and the British Railways Board, against the background of the C.B.I. initiative to hold down fare increases, to do their statutory duty of breaking even one year with another. When my Department came to calculate the sums of grant which would be payable for that purpose, it had to have regard to the facts before it, and it would have been wrong to come to the House asking for more money than was required for that specific purpose.

Mr. Mulley

My short point was that, in view of events which have occurred since the introduction of the Bill, the possibility of British Railways breaking even this year had disappeared, I should have thought.

12 midnight.

Mr. Griffiths

The Bill was introduced before the difficulties arose to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. The purpose of the Bill is simply, against the background of the C.B.I. initiative, to ensure that the statutory duty of the two nationalised undertakings can be fulfilled. I am certain that my right hon. Friend will bear in mind the effects of the present difficulties on the British Railways Board and the National Bus Company to such extent as they are relevant, but not in this Bill.

I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that his words never fall on stony ground. They have been heard, and they will be considered.

Mr. Will Griffiths (Manchester, Exchange)

Originally, I had no intention of taking part in this debate. I came into the Chamber to listen to the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Park (Mr. Mulley). However, the attitude of the Under-Secretary in response to the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Ron Lewis) was so intolerable that I felt that it should not be allowed to go without comment.

Let us consider what the hon. Gentleman said. First, he told my hon. Friend in an off-hand manner that he could not inquire where the £7 million would be spent. No doubt that is common practice. I dare say that that has been the answer of Transport Ministers since way back. But it would be a good thing if Ministers—especially Tory Ministers—took more interest in where public money is spent. As long as I have been a Member of the House of Commons I have had to endure speeches, not least from the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Eldon Griffiths) who constantly upbraided my right hon. and hon. Friends, when they occupied the Treasury Bench, about their profligate handling of public money.

Now we have a Minister in this "new-look" Government who has brushed aside a perfectly reasonable request by my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle, who is quite rightly concerned about the burden placed upon his constituents by this Government. whose policies have resulted in a constant escalation in the cost of living, who additionally now face increased transport fares—a matter of some importance to them—as to what proportion of that £7 million, which the Minister is blithely disposing of, may reasonably be attributed to the needs of Carlisle. That is not a matter which should be brushed to one side.

I anticipate that I may be told that this has been the common practice over the years. If so, it is wrong. It is no good saying that it is a matter of management. This is £7 million of public money, and a Member of Parliament is perfectly within his rights in asking a Minister what he knows about its disposal. The hon. Gentleman should give a better answer than that which he has given tonight.

I should like to comment on the Minister's absurd recommendation to my hon. Friend that the best contribution which he can make towards solving the problem of the people of Carlisle and West Cumberland is to go back to Carlisle and tell the transport workers not to ask for an increase in wages. I hope that there is somebody lurking in the Gallery—maybe in the Press Gallery—who still has some contact with agencies which will print in full in West Cumberland what the Minister said tonight. There could be no better exposure of the limitations of this Government and their callous disregard for what is happening to people like my hon. Friend's constituents than the Minister's speech tonight.

Mr. David Steel (Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles)

Like the hon. Member for Manchester, Exchange (Mr. Will Griffiths) I had not intended to intervene in the debate. However, reverting to the Second Reading debate, I understand that the only reason no payment is being provided in the Bill for the Scottish Transport Group is that it has been remiss enough to carry out its statutory obligation to balance its books. This is the only interpretation which can be placed on the Under-Secretary's remarks on Second Reading. If so, I should like to repeat what I said on that occasion.

First Deputy Chairman (Miss Harvie Anderson)

Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not try to speak to the Amendment which is out of order.

Mr. Steel

I realise the difficulty, Mr. Deputy Chairman. We tried unsuccessfully to frame an Amendment which was in order.

On Second Reading, I asked the Under-Secretary why the National Bus Company was receiving £7 million and no payment was being made to the equivalent body north of the Border. I was told that the difference was that the National Bus Company did not anticipate being able to balance its books whereas its counterpart North of the Border did and therefore it would receive nothing.

I should like to reiterate that in future presumably we are to encourage the Scottish Transport Group to spend money on improving the quality of its services, possibly at the risk of going into debt, because then it will be favourably treated and perhaps receive something proportionate to the £7 million which is being paid to the National Bus Company in future Bills of this kind. Is that a correct interpretation to place on the words uttered by the Under-Secretary on Second Reading?

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 2 and 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Bill reported, without Amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Miss Harvie Anderson)

The Question is—

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles (Winchester)

Mr. Deputy-Speaker—

Mr. Frederick Mulley (Sheffield, Park)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. On the point of order which the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Park (Mr. Mulley) was about to raise, I must inform the House that the Bill cannot be debated at this stage.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles

The Third Reading of the Bill cannot be debated?

Mr. Deputy Speaker


Motion made, and Question, That the Bill be now read the Third time, put forth-with pursuant to Standing Order No. 56 (Third Reading), and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.

  2. cc207-8
  4. c208
  5. ADJOURNMENT 12 words
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