HC Deb 30 November 1972 vol 847 cc745-76

9.2 p.m.

Mr. James Wellbeloved (Erith and Crayford)

The tragic subject of the Desramault family has been ably put to the House, and I join with the Under-Secretary of State in paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West (Mr. Robert C. Brown) for the tenacity of his fight for justice for Mrs. Desramault. My hon. Friend will understand the reasons why, under parliamentary procedure, I do not follow him in talking about that case.

I want to pursue another matter on the Adjournment. My subject is something which has leaped into the headlines of the evening papers tonight—the traffic congestion in the central London area and the extraordinary behaviour of the Prime Minister. I must say that I am amazed that the Prime Minister is not in the House to take part in the debate. If in the middle of the night he can snatch up a telephone and get through to Tokyo, surely he could have dragged himself away from whatever function he is attending to be present in the House to give expression to his new-found concern for the people of London.

Every day for years the people of this great metropolis have suffered. I say this in no party political sense, because they have suffered under successive Governments. They have suffered because of inadequate public transport facilities. They have waited patiently for bus and train in cold weather and in wet; they have waited patiently in the queues for transport to work and back home. This is to say nothing of the housewives, their shopping bags brimming over with the family food, with both themselves and the food being thoroughly soaked while they wait in growing anger and frustration for the bus to arrive.

The Prime Minister and I both represent constituencies in the London Borough of Bexley. In the right hon. Gentleman's constituency, Bexleyheath suffers from the same disadvantages as my own. It has an inadequate, overcrowded train service on the Bexleyheath and Dartford line and on the North Kent line which runs through my constituency and takes in the new town of Thames-mead. It is no secret that the sudden creation of the new town will put an even greater burden on the already overburdened North Kent railway line and, despite all the promises made from 1965 until now, there appears to be no new provision being made for those additional travellers who are being brought to live in Thamesmead.

The Prime Minister and I suffer from another disadvantage. Those who use the train services to London seem unable to get from their homes to their nearest railway stations without using their private cars for the journey. Once they have got to railway stations they park their cars outside other people's homes. Around Bexleyheath station in the Prime Minister's constituency and around Barnehurst station, the roads are crammed with commuters' cars which are parked there all day.

Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will concede that the railways, both the Metropolitan and Southern Region, are making tremendous efforts to provide more parking for those who prefer to leave their cars at railway stations and travel by train. Great progress has been made in recent years.

Mr. Wellbeloved

Certainly progress is being made. It is surprising, however, that the Prime Minister has not taken an earlier interest in the matter with a view to making progress a little faster. It appears to have taken the situation in which he found himself yesterday to produce his sudden late conversion. In his constituency there is a tremendous amount of car parking in residential streets near railway stations providing train services to central London. All our constituents who live near those stations know the frustration and anger that the Prime Minister must have felt last night when he could not get from this House to his other house just along Whitehall.

Mr. Robert C. Brown (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West)

I commend my hon. Friend's initiative in raising this important issue. But he must be aware that the Southern Region of British Railways has quite major plans for the South-Eastern area which will bring badly needed improvements. However, those plans need finance. If the article in the Evening Standard is to be believed, should not my hon. Friend be questioning the liberal lashing out of public money—the squandermania at £1 per minute—to telephone Sir Desmond in Tokyo?

Mr. Wellbeloved

My hon. Friend is just a few sentences ahead of me. I shall be coming to that important point very soon in my brief remarks. However, I wanted first to impress upon the House and the Prime Minister—assuming that he condescends even to read the report of this debate—the difficulties and frustration from which those whom he and I represent have suffered for a very long time.

Sir Elwyn Jones (West Ham, South)

My hon. Friend will be aware of the additional anxiety that is created in areas like West Ham by the parking of huge commercial vehicles, their accumulation on our roads, and the danger of many tragic accidents, which do occur, with children rushing out from between parked vehicles. This problem constitutes a major nuisance in our areas.

Mr. Wellbeloved

It does indeed. My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. I have no doubt that the Under-Secretary will say something about heavy lorries using the roads of London and causing the dangers and delays to which my right hon. and learned Friend referred.

It is sad that the Prime Minister has only just awakened to this problem because he suffered personal inconvenience. That is the tragedy of the situation. He wanted to get from this House to Downing Street and, because of congestion outside, was unable to get there by car. If reports in the Press are correct, the poor chap had to do what lesser mortals who inhabit this great metropolis do each day if they cannot get to their destinations by wheel—walk. As a result, the Prime Minister flew into a fit of rage.

I wonder what the Under-Secretary, in his former position as spokesman for the Police Federation, would have said if somebody who had been frustrated because of traffic congestion blew his top and tore a strip off the first available policeman. The hon. Gentleman would quite rightly condemn that member of the general public in this House. I hope that tonight the hon. Gentleman will express regret that the Prime Minister vented his anger upon a serving police officer—the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police—[Interruption.] If he did not, I am sure the hon. Gentleman will make it clear that the Press has got it wrong. I am relying for the claim that this is what he did on reports which have already appeared and are no doubt correct. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will put us right.

Mr. Robert Cooke

The hon. Gentleman has already admitted that the only evidence he has is a newspaper report. He will know that newspapers are not always quite accurate in what they say. If I catch your eye later, Mr. Deputy Speaker, perhaps I might say something about that.

Mr. Wellbeloved

The hon. Gentleman is entitled to make whatever condemnation he wishes of the Press. In my view, the Press serves a useful purpose in defending the rights of individual citizens against the type of Government from which we suffer today.

Mr. Cooke

The hon. Gentleman knows that we all defend the freedom of the Press to say exactly what it likes; but the Press sometimes gets its headlines crossed. I shall seek to prove that the Press can be very wrong, even on a matter like this.

Mr. Wellbeloved

The Press certainly have not got the facts wrong about the telephone call. I hope that no one will dispute that that took place.

What an example this kind of behaviour by the Prime Minister is to the people we represent in this House. The Evening Standard, one of the papers that no doubt the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke) dislikes—

Mr. Robert Cooke

No. It is a jolly good paper.

Mr. Wellbeloved

—states: Angered, frustrated and inconvenienced the Prime Minister demanded that Sir Desmond should make an explanation and take quick action to improve conditions. Angered, frustrated and inconvenienced has been the lot of our constituents for a very long time.

I find the Prime Minister's behaviour quite extraordinary. This is the Queen's First Minister, the man who, if this country were faced with a grave international crisis that called for an immediate response, would have his finger on the trigger, the man who can blow his top, grab a phone and make a call to Tokyo. This is the kind of man in whom we have to repose our trust to react to a crisis.

Mr. Robert Cooke


Mr. Wellbeloved

I shall not give way again. The hon. Gentleman can make his own speech in his own time without being provoked too much by me.

The Prime Minister is the man on whom this nation has to rely to respond in a moment of crisis. What about poor Sir Desmond? What a flutter must have gone through his breast when, in his hotel room in Tokyo, the phone rang, he picked up the receiver and a voice said, "Sir Desmond, I have a call for you from the United Kingdom, from the Prime Minister himself." Sir Desmond must have thought, "What honour is about to be conferred upon me? Am I to become a member of the Government? Do they want yet another lame duck to join them? Or am I to become a peer in the New Years Honours List?". Poor Sir Desmond. With great expectation he picks up the phone and says, "Yes, Sir, it is I, Sir Desmond. I am here" and then, Voomph! the Queen's First Minister tells him the facts of London life and the troubles—

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

I hate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman's romance, but he should know that the Prime Minister himself made no telephone call.

Mr. Wellbeloved

Indeed! Perhaps it was some poor unfortunate civil servant or, worse still, perhaps it was the hon. Member for Richmond, Surrey, (Mr. Anthony Royle) phoning on his behalf. We know not. Whether Sir Desmond heard the voice of the Prime Minister himself or that of one of his servants matters little. Poor Sir Desmond. How distraught he must have been to discover that the call was only from the Prime Minister's Office, if that be the fact.

That is the purpose of having an emergency debate of this nature. When one reads in the Press about this sort of thing happening, and when one finds that the Prime Minister appears to have taken leave of his senses, the purpose of raising the matter in the House is to give one of his Ministers the opportunity, if there has been a misunderstanding or a misquotation, to come to the Dispatch Box and put forward the official version of what happened, and I hope that the Minister will be able to do that this evening. If the facts as reported in the Press are incorrect, I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that I am doing a service to the Prime Minister by giving his junior Minister this early opportunity of putting on record the facts of the situation.

I hope that the Government Whip sitting alongside the Under-Secretary of State will not have the kind of difficulty that the Prime Minister had and blow his top because of inconvenience or frustration at having to sit silent while this debate takes place.

Mr. Gordon A. T. Bagier (Sunderland, South)

The Under-Secretary of State said that the Prime Minister did not make the telephone call, or that he had nothing to do with this. I wonder whether my hon. Friend would invite the hon. Gentleman to accept responsibility for somebody very important in 10 Downing Street, because, according to the report in the papers Sir Desmond telephoned orders to County Hall soon after his brush with Number 10. Metropolitan Police and GLC traffic experts immediately started preparing recommendations for action. All this because the Prime Minister could not walk more than 400 yards. I wonder whether my hon. Friend would invite the Minister to say whether that was the reaction to some junior person, or whether the call was made on behalf of the Prime Minister himself.

Mr. Wellbeloved

The hon. Gentleman will no doubt reply to that when he winds up the debate. I do not envy him the task of replying on behalf of the Prime Minister. I suppose we should say that the Prime Minister's sudden conversion to the problems of London traffic congestion and his irrational response to it are matters of humour, but the difficulties which Londoners face every day are not humorous—they are very serious indeed.

I want therefore to leave the Prime Minister for a few moments—no doubt some of my hon. Friends will want to come back to him—and examine some of the solutions to this problem which we all face in the London area. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for West Ham, South (Sir Elwyn Jones) has already referred to heavy lorries. The vast increase of container traffic passing through London and to premises in London has contributed dramatically in recent years to the ever-increasing chaos and congestion in the Metropolis. I am therefore delighted that the House agreed, without a Division, this week to oppose the European Community's desire to inflict even greater monsters upon us.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Acton)

Did my hon. Friend notice that, according to the newspaper he quoted, the report of the police was that at the junction of Bridge Street and Victoria Embankment a lorry breakdown caused long delays to traffic in Parliament Square and the Westminster area generally? Is he aware that not only lorry delays but loads which fall off lorries are a major cause of congestion in London? It was unfortunate, or perhaps fortunate, that the Prime Minister was delayed by that sort of incident yesterday.

Mr. Wellbeloved

We await with great interest the Minister's version of the facts of the delays that we in London, and the unfortunate Prime Minister in particular, suffered yesterday. It may have been primarily due to the lorry which broke down just round the corner. I have heard another version—that the chaos this week has been due to the experiment in Oxford Street conducted at the express wish of the GLC. Perhaps the Minister will be able to throw some light on that.

These monster lorries have been the major cause of the increasing congestion and chaos. I hope that the Government will stand by the clear wish of this House that if the Community's desire for 40-tonners should be resolutely resisted and that if the Community is unwise enough, two weeks before we join it, to impose this regulation, the Government will make it clear that we will not operate it and that it will be unacceptable to the British people and to this House.

I turn to the other major factor in our considerations tonight, the delays and the costs involved in public transport. It seems that we shall never even begin to solve the problems, to remove the frustrations and to quell the anger of Londoners unless we radically review the system of public transport in the metropolis. The Greater London Council has been considering this matter and has put forward some very novel ideas for discussion. One of those ideas has been that public transport in London should be free.

A major contributory factor to congestion is people—I plead guilty to this myself—who travel to work by car, with only one person in the vehicle. We congest the roads. But why do we have to use our cars? We have to use them because of inadequate transport and because of the delays suffered by public transport—delays to which we contribute and which we worsen by the use of our private cars. Many people are using their private vehicles because, if they are fortunate enough to have a parking place, it is sometimes cheaper than travelling by public transport. So there is much to be said for the idea that travel by public transport should be free. This would have the great benefit of maximising the number of people who would return to the use of public transport and forgo their private motor vehicle.

Mr. John Hall (Wycombe)

The hon. Member will be aware that an experiment with free public transport was carried out in Rome not very long ago and that it proved to be a dismal failure.

Mr. Wellbeloved

We may not share all the characteristics of our new-found friends in the EEC. I should want to see an experiment conducted in this country before I was prepared to say that it was not a good suggestion that we should have free, or at least heavily subsidised, public transport. It may be that, rather than making transport free, as a public service it should have a contribution from public funds in order that it may have both low fares and high efficiency without having to depress the wages of those who serve in the industry.

I am always frightened that if we move into these new areas of trying to deal with London's traffic problems, and if we are to have a free or heavily subsidised service, it may well be those who are employed on the service who have to contribute to that subsidisation. That would be an unacceptable scandal.

I want briefly to refer to the Press reports this evening, and in particular to the response of the Greater London Council to the Prime Minister's outrageous outburst. Mr. Horace Cutler, the Deputy Leader of the GLC, said in a Press statement today: The trouble is that we have asked for stronger enforcement powers and while the Government agree in principle, they say that because the parliamentary machine is congested they cannot find time for the necessary legislation. It may well be that the hon. Member for Bristol, West is right and that the Press has got the GLC and Mr. Cutler wrong.

Mr. Robert Cooke

I never said that.

Mr. Wellbeloved

That is the impression the hon. Gentleman is giving.

Mr. Cooke

Only to the hon. Member.

Mr. Wellbeloved

For the purposes of the Under-Secretary's reply, let us assume that the Press is accurate and that that statement is a correct statement by the Deputy Leader of the GLC. Let us apply the test to the Prime Minister's sincerity. The anger the Prime Minister reflected last night may well not have been based upon his response to personal inconvenience. It may well be that in the short walk from the Houses of Parliament to No. 10, he underwent a conversion to the understanding of the suffering and the problems of Londoners.

If so, the Prime Minister must give time for the House to debate and approve the legislation which the Greater London Council says it requires. If the Government do not provide time this Session for the Council's proposals to be considered, they will be showing that they do not care for the frustration and the suffering that Londoners have endured with a patience that appears to be completely foreign to the Prime Minister.

The Government's duty is clear. If the Under-Secretary is to put any gloss upon the Prime Minister's extraordinary behaviour, he must tell the House that time will be found to respond to the Greater London Council's plea for legislation to be considered in this Parliament.

9.32 p.m.

Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)

I rise to address this packed House of eight, supported by a large number of hon. Members who are waiting to catch their trains to their constituencies for further work at the weekend, and to comment on one or two things that the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved) said and, I hope, to follow him in some of his suggestions for relieving the traffic difficulties in central London on which we would all like to see progress. Indeed, certain progress has been made.

Some of the hold-up that occurred yesterday may have been due to an experiment in other areas having adverse effects elsewhere.

Because I interrupted the hon. Gentleman at the beginning to ask him how he could justify some of the wilder things he was saying about my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, the hon. Gentleman tried to attach to me all kinds of things which, first, I did not say and, secondly, I do not believe. Without wishing to go over again the newspaper report which the hon. Gentleman flourished at the House, I should say that it is obvious that several of the inferences which the hon. Gentleman drew even from the newspaper report could not in fairness possibly be drawn by anybody except someone who wanted to make a good knockabout turn, which the hon. Gentleman certainly did—and I am sure that we greatly enjoyed it. I hope that those who read the reports of it will keep their sense of humour about the whole thing, certainly about the way the hon. Gentleman handled the matter.

I do not wish to get involved in going over again what is alleged to have happened with regard to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, except to say that it is quite inaccurate to interpret the alleged reactions of a Minister of the Crown, if indeed the Minister of the Crown reacted in the way the newspaper suggested and the hon. Gentleman alleged, by suggesting that the person was reacting merely because of personal inconvenience. I cannot believe that any Minister or any hon. Member, certainly not the hon. Member for Erith and Cray-ford, reacting in a case of public frustration has ever reacted because of his own personal attitude. It has always been because of the greater good of the greater public.

The hon. Member sought to suggest that I, because I have questioned the accuracy of certain things which he read out or to which he referred, was suggesting that the Evening Standard is a thoroughly inaccurate newspaper. I did not do anything of the sort, except to say that all newspapers are inaccurate at times. The Evening Standard is a great paper and it has done an enormous amount to make people better aware of the environmental problems of central London.

Last week I had the privilege in an Adjournment debate to speak on the subject of the improvement of the whole of the area of Whitehall and Parliament Square, the creation, as I hope, of a greater Parliament Square and a traffic-free precinct. I made a brief speech and the Minister for Housing and Construction replied to the debate and he conceded gladly all the points which I and my hon. Friend were making, points which are supported by a large number of people outside. As a result of what he said, all of historic Whitehall is now to be preserved.

I do not complain that when the Evening Standard reported this matter it did not even mention my name. It is glory enough that these buildings are not to be destroyed. The Evening Standard devoted a centre page spread to the subject. It said "Saved" and there were pictures of the buildings. We hope that the Evening Standard will conduct admirable campaigns in the future and I look forward to its support. But, oh, misery! This week, continuing the Whitehall saga on page 31 of the Evening Standard of Tuesday 28th November 1972, the headline said "Whitehall Disaster". It said: While delighted with the Department of the Environment's decision to preserve new Scotland Yard, Richmond Terrace and other famous Government buildings, I think the character and appearance of the Embankment will be altered disastrously by the proposed demolition of Whitehall Court ". Everyone knows what Whitehall Court looks like. It has the appearance of French chateau and it can be seen across St. James's Park. It has a magnificent skyline and is listed as a protected building and there are no proposals for its demolition. Yet the Evening Standard said that it was to be demolished. As if that were not bad enough, the article appeared under a picture of the War Office. This little story illustrates how easy it is for a newspaper, bent on publicising a matter of public interest, to seize upon a particular thing and to make a magnificent story out of it.

I have no complaint about it. It is all good clean fun. It is good journalism. Newspapers can print what they like, thank heaven, although many Labour Members would wish it otherwise, and a lot of them would wish that the television and broadcasting media were more closely controlled.

Mr. Wellbeloved

I hope that in his excursion from Bristol to London the hon. Member will not get the idea that this is meant to be a humorous debate. It is very serious because the GLC has said how it believes the traffic problem can be eased and it has said that this would be possible if the Government provided parliamentary time. I hope that before the hon. Member resumes his seat he will join London Members in demanding of his Government that time should be provided for these essential matters.

Mr. Cooke

The hon. Member said all that in his own speech. He is perfectly entitled to say it again because we have plenty of time and he knows that I am serious about the matter. I have referred to the less serious aspect of his speech and he must realise that the rest of his speech was hardly serious and deserves to be treated with a certain amount of humour. I have made the point that last week we won a great victory and that now we shall see a great enhancement of the Whitehall area.

I return now to the serious point about the unfortunate state of the traffic, although yesterday there were exceptional reasons for it. But the lesson to be learnt is that an unexpected happening can cause difficulties, as we all know. This happens in our other cities, including Bristol. What I shall say in a moment has a bearing on every great city's problems. An unexpected happening can result in great trouble for many people, not just for those who have to walk a few yards. It will not do anyone any harm to have to walk a few yards; most of us walk a few yards to this Palace many times during the week.

There is one serious point to be made about the traffic congestion, which has a bearing on last night. I happened to traverse—if that is the right word—Parliament Square at about the time when the alleged action might have been initiated because of the conditions that existed there. There is no question of their being merely alleged. I counted 10 large, friendly London omnibuses, and I looked carefully inside each one. I had plenty of time to do so, because I was in a motor car stuck in the Square. Not one of those buses contained more than three passengers, and some were empty. It is no good certain people—I shall mention no names—complaining about lack of parliamentary time or of funds to deal with the matter, because parliamentary time is not required to reschedule the buses.

Mr. Bagier

Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that the Prime Minister should have caught the bus?

Mr. Cooke

That intervention is not worth referring to.

The point is—here I return to the question of inconvenience to the public—that a certain amount of reorganisation is obviously necessary. We have all seen what happens in our big cities with heavy vehicles. The public services are much at fault. Even if they are free of charge, people do not seem to use them. We see the public service juggernauts blocking up the roads. It does not require more money or parliamentary time to examine that problem.

Mr. Robert C. Brown

The hon. Gentleman asserts that public service juggernauts, as he calls them, are blocking the roads, and that even if they were free people would not make any more use of them. How can he make that assertion? We have never tried free public transport, even experimentally, in London.

Mr. Cooke

It has been tried elsewhere. I do not think that the GLC requires parliamentary time to make the buses free on a particular day. There have been experiments, and the lesson has been that people do not necessarily use the services.

I come to a concluding point, because there are no doubt other hon. Members who want to catch the eye of the Chair and, I hope, to make a serious contribution. I am sure that on one will disagree with this last point. We all want to see the area of Whitehall, Parliament Square, historic Westminster and its surroundings greatly improved. We all know that, whatever the argument about what is said in a certain newspaper, the area is being destroyed for the people who try to live and work here, and, perhaps even more important, for the millions of visitors from abroad who come to the area, the heart of the Commonwealth. It is being destroyed by traffic, both heavy through traffic and local traffic.

There could be more co-ordination of the efforts to deal with the problem. That would not require parliamentary time. It would eventually require money, but only when the right decision had been made. The people concerned must be the GLC and the Westminster City Council. Although successive Governments have believed in local authority freedom to decide local matters, perhaps the time will come for the Government to give more of a lead, because we cannot get rid of the traffic from the area without making adjustments elsewhere, without producing a number or underground routes to take it away from the surface and separate it from the pedestrians.

A number of suggestions have been made. One was a riverside tunnel along the side of the Palace of Westminster. It does not seem to be much in favour now. A tunnel buried in the centre of the river might be a possibility. Perhaps we might have a debate about it before very long. Certainly, we are making a little progress in building the highly controversial underground car park on our very doorstep. This is not a selfish whim of Members of Parliament. It is part of a series of underground car parks and roadways which could remove a great deal of the surface traffic. It would be a valuable contribution to the amenities of the neighbourhood.

Somehow we have also to provide a through route for the traffic which now surges through the Square. Often we are stymied in our considerations by the position of the underground railway. I do not believe that sufficiently serious considera- tion has been given to the possibility of following the railway route for the vehicles and diverting the railway in perhaps a rather tighter curve.

Possibly we could have the road route on the same site as the railway but at a different level. There are a number of studies which ought to be done to see what can be achieved. Obviously it would be fatal for the nation—I do not say Parliament—to say that Westminster and Whitehall is so historic and splendid that we must push the traffic out of it and make everyone else's life a misery. We have to try to get something to go underground.

That could be carefully and successfully done over a period but at present there is perhaps not enough detailed planning. Here the Government and the local authorities can help us. If necessary, we could have a triumvirate. I do not expect my hon. Friend to say very much about this, but perhaps he can give us a little encouragement. We never get anywhere in this House if we try to do something on our own. We need a certain amount of support, perhaps even across the Floor of the House. Perhaps hon Gentlemen, when they have forgotten about this imaginary incident over which they are so excited, will combine with us in pressing those concerned, through local authorities and the Government, to take seriously this question of traffic, particularly in these historic areas. Who knows, perhaps all of us together may yet in this century achieve what we would all like to do.

9.47 p.m.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Acton)

All hon. Members will agree that the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke) had a great success in the Adjournment debate last week. I too am sorry that the newspaper which reported this at length did not have the courtesy to say that the subject was raised by the hon. Gentleman. Who knows, but for the fact of the Adjournment debate the announcement may not have been made. The Adjournment is one of the great freedoms of this House, a freedom which I compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved) for taking up so avidly tonight.

The hon. Member for Bristol, West spoke of buses, with which I will deal later. Perhaps, seeing those empty buses in the square, it did not occur to him that they might have been empty because they were returning to garages to be taken out of service after being fully loaded in the rush hour, or alternatively, having got gummed up in the square, like the Prime Minister, the passengers had decided that it was quicker to walk. Perhaps the point was not as valid as the hon. Gentleman thought.

Mr. Robert Cooke

I will not interrupt again because I must now catch my train to the West Country. If London Members study the London omnibus, that friendly juggernaut, they will find that all too often, not just in the evening—or for all I know the early morning—but on many occasions during the day, these delightful things are virtually empty. Something must certainly be done to reschedule them.

Mr. Spearing

I will deal with the buses later, perhaps when the hon. Gentleman has left to catch his.

My hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford said that the Prime Minister had suffered this frustration. Perhaps he did not realise when he mentioned the question of time that in the Evening Standard report the matter to which Sir Desmond Plummer or his colleague was referring was that of fines for cars that are towed away. I cannot see why the House should be concerned in terms of time with an increase in these fines.

Many orders are passed by the House "on the nod" and I doubt whether it would be necessary for such orders to be taken on the Floor. The Government could make the orders almost immediately if the matter of fines for tow-away cars was important, as I fancy it is.

I should declare an interest in that I am a co-opted member of the GLC Environmental Planning Committee, whose responsibility it is to see that London traffic flows properly. In 1966 I was co-opted to the Highways and Traffic Committee.

I am glad that the Prime Minister has experienced something which ordinary people experience. He might be a much better Minister of the Crown if that experience were extended to many other frustrations which affect ordinary people. The Prime Minister lacks knowledge of how ordinary people live; otherwise he would not have said and done many of the things he has said and done in the last few years.

In the next few months the Minister and his right hon. Friends will have to take important decisions on London planning, London traffic, the degree of support that should be given to public transport and road plans. The Greater London Development Plan panel report will be on their desks between now and the New Year and they will have to take many important decisions.

The policy of the Government and the GLC is that if anything can be done as well outside London as in it, a firm wishing to move should be allowed to go. That policy leads to a great deal of difficulty which is not unconnected with traffic congestion. I am glad to say there will be a wide-ranging debate on the future of London on 15th December because I have been fortunate enough to draw a place in the Ballot for Private Members' Motions that day. Representing as I do a London constituency, I shall initiate a debate on London matters, which many hon. Members will welcome.

The Prime Minister does not realise that, by and large, congestion in London is not continuous. For most of the time the traffic flows relatively freely. There is congestion, which may be serious, at certain places at certain times, sometimes predictable, sometimes unpredictable. It is unpredictable because most congestion in London is not caused by traffic. At first hearing that sounds an extraordinary statement, but six or eight months ago the GLC published a technical paper on the congestion of the West London traffic area, which is controlled by a computer in Scotland Yard physically connected to all traffic lights within an area of between three and four miles. The conclusion from that study was that most congestion was caused by incidents such as broken-down lorries, lorries which lose their loads, causing part of the road to be closed, traffic lights which go wrong and emergency repairs to roads, gas mains and water mains. Those are the things which cause traffic build-ups and congestion that floods back.

The GLC has been relatively efficient in its traffic management schemes. Traffic moves faster, although it may have to go slightly further through one-way streets. But the more efficient is the use of road space, the greater the difficulty when something goes wrong. If something goes wrong, the capacity of the road cannot be made up. Therefore, an incident that occurs at three or four o'clock in the afternoon may have repercussions all through the evening, particularly when the weather is wet and the traffic goes more slowly.

The unfortunate experience of the Prime Minister last night—by no means new to Londoners—may not be able to be avoided, however many computers are installed. It is a rule of life that some lorries and cars will break down and that some traffic lights will go out of order. The more efficient the road system, the more serious the delays become.

This does not disguise the seriousness of the problem outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Cray-ford. We all tend to forget that the car has to fit into an area which was built hundreds of years ago, or much of it in Edwardian times when people used horse-drawn carriages when they wanted to move about. Too many cars are trying to get into a small area and it will not work. This problem was perhaps burked and not tackled properly by Professor Buchanan in "Traffic in Towns"—a report which I believe was not as good as it was made out to be. It is not just a question of motor cars or traffic in towns but is a question of human movement in towns. If some people are to be privileged by parking policies to be able to use their cars, other people must be able to use other means of transport with equal facility. This has not happened in London because neither the Government nor the GLC are wedded to a policy which would make this possible.

Mr. Maurice Edelman (Coventry, North)

This is an interesting point. Perhaps I may tell my hon. Friend that I was involved in the problem last night because I was trying to proceed to the House of Commons along Park Lane. The habitual problem in that thoroughfare is that the road serving a whole sequence of hotels is used to set down and pick up visitors and for parking by privileged people. In other words, instead of the road being an artery it is a blocked and congested passageway which has no direct relevance to the passageway that it should be, with freedom of movement for through traffic. This is a purely administratively matter which I believe could be prevented by the intervention of the Minister.

Mr. Spearing

I am obliged to my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North (Mr. Edelman), but the problem is not that simple. It is not only a matter of the size of the road, because I am informed that even a large motorway can take only about 3,000 passenger car units per hour—perhaps 4,000 if one is lucky. The problem mentioned by my hon. Friend about parking control has now been brought to the Prime Minister's attention. In London at present we are controlling by parking policies, perhaps with only partial success, the number of vehicles in the centre. This presupposes that parking policies can be enforced. At the moment this policy is not being enforced as well as it might. For that reason we have heard much about parking fines and tow-away fines.

My hon. Friend has not yet grasped the point. Generally speaking, it is only the privileged who are able to ride around in cars in London. The Prime Minister was privileged, as are many hon. Members, in being able to drive out of the gates of the Palace of Westminster from what was our car park into the street. A high proportion of people who drive cars in London are not doing so entirely at their own expense. A recent study carried out by London Transport showed that a high proportion of drivers were driving their cars aided by some form of business expenses. Certainly very few people who travel on buses and other forms of public transport are on expenses most pay for their travel out of taxable income. Therefore, to begin with, anybody who is using a car in London is a privileged person, and this is something which the Prime Minister might like to consider—although he perhaps takes his privilege almost for granted.

The alternative to public transport which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford will work only if the differential cost between public and private transport is favourable to public transport—and it is not favour- able at present. A man can take his wife and children with him in a private car in London much more cheaply than if lie travels by public transport, particularly by rail, the cost of which is penal. We are encouraging people to travel by car because, once a car has been acquired, travel by it is cheaper.

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Spearing

That is the problem to which both the GLC and the Government have not yet addressed themselves. Until recently, Sir Desmond Plummer, despite his protestations to the Prime Minister, has tried to run London Transport on a commercial basis, and only in the last few weeks, I believe, has he seen the light. He is performing some sort of somersault, if we are to believe the Press reports. He has waived the £2 million profit which he wanted London Transport to make, and he is relieving it of certain costs. Also—I speak subject to correction—I believe that there is a Press statement to the effect that fares will not go up next year.

I am delighted to hear it. Sir Desmond Plummer takes a bit of time to educate, like the Prime Minister, but he is learning. I hope that the Government will learn from him, for their attitude to the transport problems of London has so far been as illogical as Sir Desmond's We cannot run a healthy city society unless people can move about with relative ease, with relative cheapness, and with regularity and reliability. Certainly, the buses have not got that, whatever the hon. Member for Bristol, West may say, and, in my view, London Transport is grossly at fault in that respect. However, I shall not develop that point now.

We cannot, as I say, run a healthy community unless free and relatively cheap movement is possible. There are ways by which it is possible to fund public transport, particularly the railways, ways which would make it much cheaper to travel by public transport, albeit slightly less conveniently, perhaps, and at a slightly longer travelling time, so that we could have a physical balance between public and private transport, so that the pressure to use one's vehicle would be less than it is today, and the sort of difficulties of sudden congestion as experienced by the Prime Minister last night would not become more frequent but would remain much the same or, perhaps, even decline in frequency.

To that end, hon. Members opposite will have to change their political philosophy regarding movement in towns and cities. If I am right in my impression, I discern signs that Sir Desmond Plummer in County Hall, with his responsibility for London Transport, is now being a little more realistic about it. If that be so, if he changes his policy before next April—which he will have to do if he has any hope of returning to power—he will also have to change the policy so far exhibited by his friends in the Government.

I am delighted that the Prime Minister has tasted a tiny bit of the frustrations of London life. My constituents have to wait an hour for a bus. They do not know when they will see a bus. This is the sort of frustration which not thousands but hundreds of thousands, or even millions, experience. On the tape tonight, the Prime Minister is quoted as saying that he intervened personally on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of people who experience these terrible delays. He ought to know that many more times the number who experience occasional delays in cars, most of which they are not paying for, experience delay by bus. They are the people for whom the right hon. Gentleman should be concerned.

I hope, therefore, that our Prime Minister's difficulties will have contributed to the conversion not only of Sir Desmond Plummer, who is already half converted, but also of the Government, for without a healthy city life and without healthy transport we cannot have the healthy community life which all hon. Members on both sides want.

10.5 p.m.

Mr. Gordon A. T. Bagier (Sunderland, South)

I hesitate to enter the debate at this stage, being a North-Easterner, but I confess to an interest in the matter slightly different from that of my hon. Friends who come from London. I was amazed at the instant reaction, so to call it, which took place because our Prime Minister experienced some delay.

Because of the accident of timings in this place, we now have a debate on the very disturbing feature of transport in London. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will take note of the fact that probably the main cause of the delay last night was perhaps that a lorry had broken down. Part of the problem that we have in London and throughout the country is that lorries are gradually snarling up our roads and making progress difficult, while British Rail operates with great line capacity available. During the five days in which I am in London each week, I have cause to know that the problems in London are very disturbing. The delights of travelling by car in the North-East should prove a great attraction to anyone who wants to go there.

However, I am disturbed by some of the remarks which have been passed and the headlines in tonight's Evening Standard. I am not calling in aid as being the gospel truth everything that appears in the newspapers. We have all had our moments from them. But two eminent journalists, Robert Carvel in London and Simon Jenkins in Tokyo, get together to produce a headline which says Snarled-up London—Heath blows his top. I wish I had been there as I should have liked to see it happen.

The hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke) said that we must not believe everything that we read in the press. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will see the article which says: Angered, frustrated, inconvenienced, the Prime Minister demanded that Sir Desmond Plummer should make an explanation and take quick action to improve conditions. The Prime Minister made his demand at midnight, which is 7 a.m. in Tokyo. He got in touch with Sir Desmond because he could not get by car from the Palace of Westminster to No. 10 Downing St, a distance of all of 400 yards. Poor soul!

I can understand the frustration of the Table when some of us have tried to table Questions asking whether we might have a chiropody service in the House or whether the area can be flooded so that we can have a yacht freeway between the two places. The Prime Minister's anger was caused because he was prevented from making the great walk from here to there. I do not suggest for one moment that he is too idle to do so. But the fact is that at that time of night—we must also consider that some poor old-age pensioners do not have such money available—the Prime Minister can spend £1 a minute, or somebody else on his behalf can do so, in telephoning Tokyo. I hope that the Under-Secretary will say whether he made the call himself or whether he got somebody else to do so.

Mr. Arthur Lewis (West Ham, North)

A telephone call was made costing £1 a minute, yet the same Prime Minister, whose uses taxpayers' money for that purpose, refuses to allow those who have complaints against price rises to be allowed the cost of making a telephone call to report those rises. Will the Prime Minister now change his mind about that? Will he let these people have transferred charge calls to London to make their complaints?

Mr. Bagier

I am obliged to my hon. Friend. No doubt he is quite right. It is a question of getting activity. If the personal frustrations of the Prime Minister result in activity, so much the better. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman gets stuck in a queue of unemployed people in my constituency. If he does, he may do something about it. He may activate matters by making a telephone call and doing something about it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved), probably introduced the frustrations of the Prime Minister in a light-hearted manner. But with all his frustrations and with all the important matters in the world, the Prime Minister can suddenly seize upon a matter like this and get on the telephone to Tokyo. It is a sad reflection on a Prime Minister who has to do that.

Is it true, as reported by those two eminent journalists, that the Prime Minister was so frustrated and inconvenienced that he made this call or initiated a call? It is also true that the reaction of Sir Desmond was to telephone orders to County Hall soon afterwards and give orders that the Metropolitan Police and the GLC traffic experts should immediately make recommendations for action? If this is the effect of such things on the Prime Minister, the sooner we see him in the unemployment queue in Sunderland, for example, the better, and the sooner we get him in traffic congestion in Birmingham and elsewhere, the better.

10.10 p.m.

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

The hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved) moved the House by his great concern for the poor people of London. The House is always moved by his anxieties. He spoke about the housewives with their brimming shopping bags soaking in the rain. He spoke about long lines of his constituents waiting for buses. As always, the House was deeply moved by his eloquence.

I wondered why it was, when his heart was bleeding for the housewives with their soaking shopping baskets, that he did not raise this matter before. I pondered for some time on why it was that on this particular evening he felt he must come to the House and share his distress with the rest of us. Then he gave me that answer. He said he had been forced to bring the matter to our attention because the congestion of London had leaped into the headlines. I would not like to suggest for a moment that he seeks to get into the headlines, I know that he himself would have no wish to do so. He is a shrinking violet. But it happened on this particular evening that his concern and anxiety for the housewives with their sopping shopping baskets rent his heart and he came here to raise the whole matter.

Mr. Wellbeloved


Mr. Griffiths

I must get on for a little while. The hon. Gentleman based his speech on what he has read in the newspapers.

Mr. Arthur Lewis


Mr. Griffiths

I will give way in a moment. I have had some little experience in journalism myself, and I am bound to say that as I listened to the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford I thought that I would prefer him, if I were an editor, to be writing fiction and not news reports. What he had to say— and I think he knew it himself—was largely fiction and romance, although he put it in a very fetching manner.

In replying to the many points, serious and comical, which have been made, I must start with an expression of regret that so many of our fellow citizens are inconvenienced by traffic delays. We all of us regret this undesirable side effect of an affluent society, where the very motor cars which have given us mobility and a certain measure of liberation, also cause us a great deal of frustration and annoyance. So I start by expressing my regret to those people in London last night and, indeed, on any night that they should suffer inconvenience from traffic delays.

Secondly, I must say at the outset that in indicating his dissatisfaction with the traffic congestion in the centre of London, and in particular in the area of Parliament Square, Whitehall and the West End, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was quite properly expressing the sentiments of millions of people. Certainly he was expressing the views and feelings of all of us here who live and work in this part of London.

The hon. Member said that my right hon. Friend was a London Member. So he is, and a very good one. I think that many Londoners will share his feeling that something needs to be done to improve the traffic situation which Londoners suffer.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

Will the Minister now give way?

Mr. Griffiths


Mr. Lewis

I support the Prime Minister in his action. I only wish that he had acted 12 months or two years ago. The Minister is aware that hon. Members on both sides of the House for years have tried to get his Department, the Home Office and the Government to carry out the present law, which would help relieve the position. Persistently they have refused. Lorries are parked on the pavements outside the front doors of my constituents' homes. I take the matter up with the police, the Home Office and the Department of the Environment. Nothing is done. Millions of pounds in fines are outstanding. Nothing is done about it. A third of the total number of cars on the road should not be there because they are neither taxed nor insured. Nothing is done about it. If only the Government would put 0.1 per cent. of the effort that they put into, say, industrial relations into doing this part of the job they are paid for, they would solve the problem tomorrow.

Mr. Griffiths

I promised the hon. Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis) that I would give him an opportunity to intervene if he did not catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, before I did. I think that the hon. Gentleman has done that—

Mr. Lewis

Deal with my point.

Mr. Griffiths

I shall come to the hon. Gentleman's point at an appropriate stage in my speech.

I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, together with my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Minister for Transport Industries, will have the backing of the whole House in seeking, together with the Greater London Council, ways and means of resolving or at any rate ameliorating what successive Governments and successive London council's have found a most intractable problem. The hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing) very properly indicated some of the parameters of this problem and I much appreciated his speech.

However, I must make clear the exact legal responsibility. The Greater London Council is the traffic and the highway authority. My right hon. Friends the Minister for Transport Industries, the Secretary of State for the Environment and the Home Secretary have no powers given them by this House to manage traffic or to build roads in the greater London area. They do not have responsibility for traffic management. It rests with the GLC. But it has not always been that way. There was a time when Ministers of Transport had responsibility for traffic and roads in the London area. However, this was taken away from them in 1969 by the Labour Government. Since then the clear statutory responsibility has lain with the GLC. Therefore, in putting questions to me hon. Gentlemen opposite should remember that it was their own Government which removed from Ministers the ability to control traffic in the London area.

I happen to agree that it was right to do that. It is appropriate that the Greater London Council should control traffic in London. But it comes ill from hon. Gentlemen opposite to seek to place responsibility on my right hon. Friends when it was their own Government which placed that responsibility upon the Greater London Council.

I want now to answer the points made by—

Mr. Wellbeloved

May I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Deputy Leader of the Greater London Council, Mr. Horace Cutler, made it clear in his Press statement today that he requires more powers? Will the hon. Gentleman make it clear that his Government will provide time for those powers to be granted by this House?

Mr. Griffiths

I shall come to that in a moment. I want to turn to last night's incident. I can give a first report of the information available to me about what happened to bring about this heavy congestion in Central London. It is subject to correction because there is still a good deal more information coming in from the police—

Mr. Lewis

Why the police?

Mr. Griffiths

The hon. Member for West Ham, North must listen—

Mr. Lewis


Mr. Speaker

Order. The Minister must be given a chance to reply.

Mr. Griffiths

I am giving the House the best information available from the traffic authority, the Greater London Council, and the Metropolitan Police. I have the police records before me and if the hon. Member for West Ham, North will do me the kindness of listening I shall tell him what the police have reported.

There were, as there always are when large congestions arise, a number of factors. One was rain. In rain more people use cars, they tend to drive more cautiously and therefore traffic bunches up. Secondly, it was rush hour. Unfortunately, in all rush hours there is a peaking of traffic demand. It was also a Wednesday evening. For a variety of reasons, with which I need not detain the House, there happens to be more traffic in the West End of London on Wednesday evenings than on most other evenings of the week.

I have here the detailed traffic reports from the Metropolitan Police. The hon. Gentleman who asked what happened might be interested in what they say. There were 12 police units in the general area of Park Lane, Hyde Park Corner, Marble Ach and the West End. The report states: Heavy weight of traffic and the wet roads caused severe congestion in this area generally, centred on Hyde Park Corner. No specific cause was located, although during this period many parked vehicles were removed at police direction from Park Lane southbound. … Units assisted at junctions until traffic returned to normal. … All minor roads in the West End became congested. —That is the report from the police units in that area.

Mr. Arthur Lewis


Mr. Griffiths

No, I will not yield again. There are 12 police units reporting from Park Lane, Hyde Park Corner and the Marble Arch areas.

I turn now to those in the Vauxhall Cross area where there were eight police units. The report from those units—I read from the central traffic control report—states: Heavy weight of traffic and the wet roads caused severe congestion. … The southbound flow along Vauxhall Bridge Road tailed back into the Victoria system, causing congestion there which was not helped by the tailback from the Park Lane situation above. Westbound flow following the line of the River Thames was continuous and stationary for long periods. The majority of vehicles were making for the south and south-west and there was little tailback in the opposite direction. All bridges, therefore, tailed back for each southbound flow. In the case of Westminster Bridge —this is a crucial point— this was complicated by another situation causing a northbound tailback". It arose from a traffic accident the specific accident which has been mentioned by hon. Gentlemen.

Mr. Lewis

Will the hon. Gentleman now give way?

Mr. Griffiths

I said to the hon. Gentleman that I would allow him to intervene if it happen that I caught your eye, Mr. Speaker, before he did. I think the House will agree that I gave him the opportunity of a very long intervention. I hope he will now do me the courtesy of allowing me to answer the debate.

Mr. Lewis

May I ask one question?

Mr. Griffiths

No. I will not give way.

The particular incident concerned an articulated heavy goods vehicle which broke down in Bridge Street at the junction with the Embankment. I am sure the House will recognise that that is a critical point in the West End traffic. It caused considerable congestion. The police report states: This combined with the congestion stemming from Vauxhall Cross, resulted in the entire area becoming severely congested. Foot duty officers attempted to alleviate the situation at 1740, but by 1800 all traffic stopped. Foot duty officers manned all junctions under the command of Commander 'A' and other units assisted where necessary until traffic returned to normal. The BBC was informed and was able to tell motorists not to proceed into that area. There can be no doubt that a very large traffic jam, caused by a variety of circumstances, brought much of the traffic, though not all, in the West End to a stop.

I must now try to deal with some of the points which have been put.

Mr. Lewis

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Griffiths

I must get on. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was returning from this House to No. 10 to welcome guests at an official reception beginning at 6.30 p.m. He had to return to the House to vote at seven o'clock, and hon. Members will know that that is a very short time. The Prime Minister made no telephone calls himself to the police, to Sir Desmond Plummer or anywhere else. A call was made by a junior official, and these are the reasons why it was done. The Prime Minister has been concerned for a very long time with the conditions of traffic in the West End of London. Having seen these for himself on this occasion he asked of his staff where the responsibility lay. Thereafter his staff quite properly got in touch with the Metropolitan Police and asked for a report. That report was provided and the Prime Minister asked that the GLC should be informed of his concern.

The Prime Minister's staff did as they were bid, and I think the House will recognise that it is a normal courtesy of a senior Minister of the Crown, when he is making inquiries about the functions of a statutory body, to ensure that the head of that statutory body is informed of this concern. [Interruption.] Hon. Gentlemen opposite may shout as they wish but the important point is that the Prime Minister thought that the GLC as the traffic authority and the Metropolitan Police should be asked to look into what had happened and how it could be prevented from happening again if possible. He thought it right that Sir Desmond Plummer should know of the inquiries he had made.

It seems to me that the House will accept the Prime Minister's view that we simply cannot have a situation where the centre of the Metropolis is brought with increasing frequency to a standstill in this way. Plainly something has to be done and my right hon. Friend felt it right to make known his concern on behalf of the many thousands of people in London and the South-East who will be far more pleased that my right hon. Friend has expressed his concern on their behalf than they will be impressed by the interjections of the hon. Member for West Ham, North.

I must now deal with some of the more fundamental questions which the debate has thrown up. One of the reasons why there is congestion is that there are more motor cars. Another is that there are more lorries and more buses, particularly those bringing in tourists. There are many more people who are shopping and there is generally more pedestrian congestion in central London.

A number of proposals have been made to relieve this. One is that more should be done to assist public transport. I think the House will be glad to know that the present Government have been able to provide in the London area no less than £66 million to the LTE, plus more than £50 million to British Railways to assist in moving people and goods round the metropolitan area. No other Government have come remotely close to making such efforts and providing money in those terms.

There are no fewer than 30 bus priority lanes at various stages of planning in the GLC area. This Government have provided new bus grants at the rate of 50 per cent. and a measure of fuel tax remissions as well. Beyond that there has been the Greater London Development Plan which provides for a substantial number of motorways and ringways. These have produced more than 20,000 out of 28,000 objections and I am interested to discover that the Labour Party has said that it would not have any of these ringways in order to reduce the traffic impact on central London. It is the Labour Party's privilege to say what it would not have but the plain fact is that its policy simply is non-existent.

With regard to lorries, we have taken substantial steps to reduce fumes and noise, to provide lorry parks and to provide recommended routes. I am sure that everyone in the House agrees that conges- tion in our urban areas is a serious matter. I hope we can all agree that it is the duty of this House as a whole and of individual Ministers to seek to take steps to resolve the problem. But it cannot be solved overnight. Successive Governments have not managed to wave a magic wand and move the traffic. What is the fact is that this Government are concerned about congestion. We are doing more about it than any Government before, we have the support of the GLC just as it has ours, and a debate such as this, while it has helped to air the problems, has demonstrated—

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

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.