HC Deb 17 March 1976 vol 907 cc1407-60

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

7.28 p.m.

Mr. Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)

In this short debate we are concerned to raise the plight of rail commuters. We raise their plight at this stage for one very good reason. The Government are currently preparing their review of transport policy, which they promise will be one of the most important statements on transport policy for a decade. We shall wait to see whether that is true. But clearly if the results come anywhere near to matching the claims, they will have an important effect on railway policy. I hope that we shall have the privilege of the attendance of the Minister for Transport in this debate so that he can hear what is said.

The only effect of the Consultative Document has been uncertainty. Rumour has followed rumour. There have been rumours about services and manpower being cut and commuters having to face even further fare increases. The result has been uncertainty, and that uncertainty has been increased by Sir Richard Marsh's announcement on Monday that he does not intend to seek a second term of office as Chairman of the British Railways Board.

I believe that there is now a feeling on both sides of the House that this period of uncertainty must be brought to an end. What is needed now as a matter of urgency is the production of the Government's plans, and within those plans we want the position and problems of commuters clearly recognised.

The transport debate is all too often dominated by the lobbies. We hear the conflicting arguments of both the rail and road lobbies. I do not dispute that they have a legitimate and necessary point of view to put forward. But we should never forget that the crucial people in this debate are not the lobbyists but the customers and the taxpayers. Their interests are paramount.

Certainly, in terms of rail travel, one of the most important consumer groups is the commuters. In the South-East alone, nearly 500,000 commuters travel into London each day, a movement which is duplicated relatively in other major cities such as Birmingham, Glasgow, Manchester and Liverpool. For the commuter, travel is a matter not of pleasure but of necessity. He travels in order to work. So the commuter has two major concerns. First, as a traveller, a consumer, he wants efficient, low-cost travel. Second, it should never be forgotten that, as a taxpayer, he has an interest in ensuring that the public subsidy is kept to an inescapable minimum.

May I again draw attention, to the fact that the Minister for Transport is not in his place to hear this debate? He has had long notice of the debate and it is discourteous to the House for the Minister not to be here to hear the arguments. I hope that the Under-Secretary can assure us that he will be coming to the Chamber, but if we are talking in terms of the Consultative Document—the Minister has at last arrived. He is welcome, but he is very late.

I shall seek to deal with both of the points I mentioned in turn. The commuter is now paying dearly for his journeys and this is causing much genuine hardship. Since June 1974, there have been no fewer than four fare increases, amounting to an overall rise of 68 per cent. The chief reason is not difficult to discover. We can argue about the effects of price restraint, but we should not forget that the biggest factor has been general inflation. The Government's delay and their failure to tackle inflation have cost the commuter dear. He has been left as one of the main casualties of inflation, which has also put at risk future employment prospects on the railways as more and more people examine alternative forms of travel or even alternative jobs.

Anyone who doubts the effect of inflation has only to read the annual report of the British Railways Board. This shows that, in 1972, costs rose by 10 per cent. and in 1973 by 6 per cent. But in 1974, costs rose by no less than 33 per cent. and last year the same inflationary pressure continued. The result, in a labour-intensive industry, has been sharp fare increases.

The House should remember how much commuters now pay to travel to work. By the end of this month, when the new fare increases come into effect, the commuter from Bishop's Stortford, Guildford or Tonbridge will be paying over £360 a year for a second-class monthly season ticket. The commuter from Southend will be paying about £400, from Brighton over £475 and from Winchester over £525.

Mr. Julian Ridsdale (Harwich)

The commuter from Clacton will pay £500 second-class.

Mr. Fowler

I am most grateful for that information. I chose my examples simply because they are the examples given by British Rail of the effect of the new fares.

On top of that, the commuter will be paying the costs of getting from the station to the office by Underground services or bus. So even on the most conservative estimate, the commuter from those stations will be paying between £8 and £12 a week purely in travel costs, and it must come straight from disposable income. That is an enormous burden, which falls most heavily, perhaps, on the young married couple with young children who have moved out of London not only to be able to afford a home at all but also in an effort to find the right conditions in which their children can grow up. So let us remember that behind the cold statistics lie some acute human problems.

Of course, fares are not the only problem of the commuter. The wear and tear of commuting is considerable. The other day, a senior figure in British Rail confessed that if he carried cattle in the same conditions as he carried some commuters, he would be prosecuted. I thought that he was exaggerating, but after checking I find that it is true that, under the Transport of Animals Order, animals have a legal right to an adequate supply of fresh air and that another provision prevents overcrowding. Many commuters would argue that they are deprived of both rights. The commuter is now paying record fares and sometimes travelling in what we would all agree are conditions of extreme discomfort.

Concern, as my hon. Friends will confirm, is high. It would be a profound mistake for the Government to believe that this concern is confined to what they insist upon regarding as the affluent middle-classes. It is certainly true that those in the middle income groups are concerned—as well they might be, caught between the double thrust of record taxation and record inflation—but their concern is shared not only by other commuters who are by no means wealthy but by those who work on the railways.

Mr. Les Huckfield (Nuneaton)

Tell us what the answer is.

Mr. Fowler

I will, if the hon. Gentleman will stay to listen.

Their concern has been heightened not only by the extent of the latest fare increases but also by the manner. The commuter is not seeking to be treated as a special case exempt from increases affecting other rail passengers but he has a right to expect that he will not be singled out for especially harsh treatment. These fears have been heightened by the latest increases. As a result of those increases, the inter-city traveller will pay between 5 and 12 per cent. more, while the commuter will pay up to 17½ per cent. more.

British Rail makes no secret of the fact that this is not because of any differential, or because costs have risen significantly higher on commuter services. That is not the argument, as Sir Richard Marsh would be the first to agree. The increases have been worked out on the basis of what the market will bear. Intercity demand is elastic; commuter demand is inelastic. In other words, the commuter to all intents and purposes, and apparently with the acceptance of the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Huckfield), is seen as a captive market and treated in that way—this is the significant point—by a monopoly supplier. The commuter will find all kinds of obstacles in his way if he tries to use alternative means of transport.

So the commuter fears—those fears should be recognised here—that he will not only be clobbered but be clobbered time and time again.

Mr. Ronald Bell (Beaconsfield)

This is an important point. Did my hon. Friend see that, in his evidence to the Select Committee yesterday, Sir Richard Marsh said that commuter traffic had fallen by 17 per cent. since the fares went up, which suggests that commuters are being driven to find alternatives?

Mr. Fowler

That is an important point and I think that the House will look forward to my hon. and learned Friend developing it.

To return to what I was saying, in the face of this concern British Rail will and does argue that its remit is to work towards a more viable railway. Of course that is absolutely right and the commuter as taxpayer has a crucial interest in seeing that the current public subsidy of about £500 million a year is reduced.

But it is also fair for the commuter to make two points in reply. First, he has the right to far more exact information about the costs of commuter services. If British Rail's case is that the commuter services are making heavy losses, it should detail them and the ways in which they are compiled.

Secondly, and perhaps even more important, the commuter has the right to say to British Railways, "You tell me that you are making losses but will you also prove to me that you are doing everything in your power to keep costs to a minimum?" Thirdly, if commuters are to be asked to pay more, they have a right to expect British Railways to do everything in their power to put their own house in order.

I will take those three points in turn. The first is the availability of information. Any commuter service in any country has to face the difficulty inherent in a service of this kind—the need to meet the demand of two short peak periods with resources that are adequate for the peaks but over-generous for the rest of the day. It is certainly not part of my case tonight to suggest that there are easy answers to this question.

The amount of information available on the profitability of the commuter lines—and this was a point made in the last debate that we had on transport policy—is totally inadequate. To some extent this is a result of the 1974 Act which went for blanket subsidy rather than seeking to identify the loss makers. My impression is that such information could be provided at no great effort. It is important, because without such information we have no yardstick. We rely upon generalisations such as the claim that all commuter lines make losses and need heavy subsidies. However, as Dodgson points out both in his book and in an article which was published two weeks ago in New Society, some commuter services have, at least until very recently, run at a profit. He says: For example, in 1973, the Liverpool Street/Southend/Clacton group of services earned a surplus of £1,625,000; the Liverpool Street-Cambridge group, £329,000; and the former London, Tilbury and Southend Railway routes, £296,000. These surpluses were equal to 13, 18 and 4 per cent. (respectively) of the services' total revenue. Many of the longer-distance Southern Region services have been profitable too".

Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)

Many commuters have felt somewhat aggrieved at the apparent willingness of British Railways to divulge information to the unions which was exhaustive, apparently, to judge by the leaks, but which was not matched by any similar willingness to give the users of the service such information, who also have a powerful point to make.

Mr. Fowler

My hon. Friend makes a valuable point and underlines the concern felt by all hon. Members for much better information to be provided on this matter. A study that British Railways carried out says that rail subsidies to commuter services are very unevenly distributed with outer suburban services in London and the South-East being only slightly subsidised.

We must ask whether it is inevitable that commuter lines make losses. Until we know the answer to such questions and the detail of that answer, it is impossible to make decisions on subsidies and the rest. I hope that here at any rate there will be agreement on both sides of the House that the Government must give this kind of information in the Consultative Document, not only as an aid to discussion but also as an indispensable aid to decision.

Secondly, British Rail should do everything in its power to provide an efficient and low cost service. It is not in the interests of the railways that the users and those who work on the railways should be in any way divided into warring camps. The true interests of both are very close, for it is only when we have a demonstrably efficient railway that there will be anything like job security. An industry which veers from crisis to crisis as it becomes more and more dependent upon public subsidy can never provide that security.

It is also right to say—and it should be said—that the kind of unofficial action that we saw at the end of last week helps absolutely no one.

Mr. Les Huckfield

Absolute rubbish.

Mr. Fowler

To strike against cuts in service can only lose revenue and necessitate further cuts in services. Not only is immediate revenue lost but also the future custom of the man who has been let down once too often, as well as the good will of the travelling public. That is an inevitable effect of unofficial action. The point was made by the Passenger Action Confederation—itself formed as a result of the concern there is—that: unofficial action can only put commuters against the unions or, as the Evening News put it, it represents one more nail in the coffin. Therefore, there are no easy answers but it should not be beyond our power to avoid actions which succeed in making the position worse than it is at present.

I want to suggest three areas where the Government should examine closely their railway policy as it affects commuters. First, it is clear that if greater efficiency and increased productivity are to be the goals, there must be the closest examination of overmanning and overstaffing. Everyone is familiar with the points about restrictive practices and double-manning, but just because they are familiar territory is no reason why they should be ignored. What is sometimes forgotten is the argument advanced by Stewart Joy, a former chief economist of the British Railways Board, that, since Beeching, general administration expenses have risen from 10 per cent. of the railways' working expenses in 1963 to 15 per cent. today when, as Joy points out, the trend should be entirely in the opposite direction.

Mr. Les Huckfield rose

Mr. Fowler

I will give way but I am speaking against the clock.

Mr. Les Huckfield

Will the hon. Gentleman quote some examples of overmanning on the Southern Region, because that is where most of these commuter services are?

Mr. Fowler

The Pryke and Dodgson book and article set them out. I was trying to make the alternative point about the overmanning of staff but I will ask my hon. Friend the Member for Welling-borough (Mr. Fry) to deal with this matter. The hon. Gentleman laughs, and we are glad to see him with us even if he is laughing, but if he is talking about greater efficiency and increased productivity, perhaps when the Under-Secretary of State replies he will define it. The solution does not lie simply in reducing the number working for British Rail.

Secondly, for the commuter services the peak is all-important. Therefore, we must examine schemes for spreading it, for staggered hours and the rest. I appreciate that that is not a new solution but it is important that at this stage of financial crisis it is examined.

Lastly, there is a matter of more general application. It is quite clear that the Government have not succeeded in developing a successful working relationship between themselves and the British Railways Board. Sir Richard Marsh's complaint was always that the Government had not given him a clear or constituent guide of what was required. In his letter to the Secretary of State he complains about: the total lack of clarity of the Board's objecting. As he explained the position to me a week or so ago, he wanted to run a business, not a social service. He wanted a clear set of objectives from the Government. The other part of the bargain was that if the Board failed to meet those objectives, heads should roll. Ironically, what has happened is that his head has rolled, albeit with himself as executioner. However, the objectives still remain unclear.

Therefore, in this short debate we do not intend to divide the House but to use the opportunity to express the genuine and real concern felt about this matter in the country. We want to see the commuters' problem dealt with in the Transport Policy Review. If it is not, clearly we shall want to return to this subject. We do not want to gloss over the difficulties of commuter services or to suggest that commuters can have specially preferential treatment. However, we insist that the hundreds of thousands of commuters in this country deserve and should have a fair deal.

7.49 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Kenneth Marks)

I had understood that the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) would be starting the debate with a five-minute speech, and I was asked to do a similar thing.

I should like first to take the three points that he mentioned. Overmanning and spreading the peak will be referred to in the Transport Policy Review. The points that the Chairman of British Rail made about working relationships with British Rail apply certainly to both Governments, as does a lack of definition and a lack of policy. However, I should like to point out that the Transport Policy Review that we are undertaking, which will be published next month, is the first review since the previous Labour Government's review in 1968.

The subject of this evening's debate is important. It affects the daily lives of millions of people. I say "millions" because when we talk about commuter services we are concerned not only with the passengers themselves but with their famines and children and, of course, the people who work with them. The frustrations that a passenger can experience on his way to and from work easily spill over into the home and workplace.

I had hoped that we would hear from the hon. Gentleman some positive points for our consideration in the Transport Policy Review, but there has been none. Emphatic speaking is no substitute for proposals.

I propose to be very brief. There are three reasons for this.

Sir Anthony Royle (Richmond, Surrey)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Marks

Not at present. I shall give way shortly. I have promised to be very brief.

There are three reasons for my being brief. First, we had an Adjournment debate on commuter rail fares as recently as 2nd March. There was not the same attendance. It was held at about 1 a.m. However, I do not wish to take up the time of the House by repeating all that I said on that occasion. Secondly, I know that many hon. Members on both sides of the House are anxious to speak in this debate and I think that it is incumbent upon Front Bench spokesmen, therefore, to exercise a self-denying ordinance. Thirdly, my hon. Friend the Minister for Transport will, of course, be winding up the debate.

Sir Anthony Royle

There is one matter that causes concern to hon. Members on both sides of the House. That is whether it is possible for the Government to have another look at the possibility of Members of Parliament raising in this Chamber problems affecting commuter traffic which is involved in London Transport. At present Members cannot raise this subject with Ministers in the House at all because London Transport is under the control of the Greater London Council. Will the hon. Gentleman give some thought to methods whereby Members with constituency matters at stake may raise this point with Ministers in the House?

Mr. Marks

I do not think that that is a matter for me, because the procedure on the questioning of nationalised boards and local authorities and their functions is one of long tradition.

The first point I want to make is that the Government are not commuter-bashers. It is no part of our policy or the Railway Board's policy to soak the commuter. We fully recognise that, at this stage at any rate, by far the great majority of rail commuters are ordinary people on ordinary incomes. I say that despite the example quoted by the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley) on 2nd March. His single example was that of a man on £8,500 a year who travelled first-class from Farn-borough. Many of the people who travel on these trains have no alternative but to commute to work by train.

Secondly, we recognise that some of the rolling stock and the other equipment needed to provide the commuter railways is getting old and sometimes breaks down, causing delay and frustration to passengers. Both we and the Board wish that we could make wholesale and immediate improvements in the quality of all services. Some improvements are being made. I am thinking, for example, about the rebuilding of Blackfriars and London Bridge stations, the Great Northern Suburban Electrification Scheme, the new rolling stock for the Liverpool Street-Shenfield service and, outside London—and there are railway commuters in other places besides London—the work being done on Merseyside on the Loop and Link, and other areas. But we simply cannot afford to allocate the very substantial additional resources which would be needed to make across-the-board improvements in all commuter services.

We are currently investing, in real terms, more in our railways than at any time since the mid-sixties. The only way that we could raise that level over the next few years would be to find the resources by cutting other programmes. Expenditure on roads has already been cut and will be reduced further over the next few years, as indicated in the Public Expenditure White Paper. However, we cannot afford to allocate substantially more. What this means is that improvements in commuter services are likely to be slower and more selective than the Board and we would have liked.

Having said that, I hope that hon. Members will not overlook the very substantial expenditure which is required every year simply to maintain and renew the existing infrastructure and rolling stock.

My third point concerns commuter rail fares. I dealt with this at length in my reply to the hon. Member for Alder-shot on 2nd March. As I said then, we do realise that these fares increases are biting into family budgets. But fares would have had to go up by much more had it not been for the massive grant of over £300 million which we paid to the passenger system this year.

Despite our economic difficulties, we are not cutting our revenue support for the passenger system. What we have had to say, however, is that the passenger support payment for 1976 should not exceed last year's level in real terms.

Mr. T. H. H. Skeet (Bedford)

Does the Minister appreciate that the commuter has to pay twice? He is not merely paying increased fares but he is also contributing by taxation to the subsidies which are made payable to the railways. Therefore, it must be a ridiculous situation if fares are rising and contributions are being paid by taxation. After all, the subsidies to the railways are 31 per cent. of the total revenue.

Mr. Marks

The fact is that the commuters, on average, are subsidised as much as the average rail traveller. Some rail travellers in remote country districts may be subsidised by as much as 5p a mile. Some South-Eastern commuters are subsidised at the rate of 2p a mile and can pay as little as 2.2p a mile when there is a season ticket contract. Therefore, it is not the South-Eastern commuters who are subsidising the rest. It is those who, in the main, do not travel by rail at all who are subsidising railway travellers.

All I would add on this point is that commuters have not been singled out for harsh treatment in the March increases. Certainly some London and South-East commuter fares are going up by more than the national average. On the whole, however, the South-East area is subsidised as much as the others.

Finally, I do not think that we should lose sight of the contribution railways can make to commuting elsewhere than in the South-East. All the English metropolitan counties and the Strath-clyde Regional Council recognise the value of railways in meeting local transport needs. I know that they and the Railways Board are anxious to make the best use of these local commuter rail networks, and I am sure this is something which the House would want to welcome and encourage.

7.58 p.m.

Mr. John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling)

I shall be very brief, as many of my hon. Friends wish to take part in the debate.

I cannot stress to the Minister too strongly the truly crippling burden on family budgets caused by the increase in fares over the last two years. I should like to take an example from my constituency. In February 1974 the annual Tonbridge-to-London season ticket, second-class, cost £164. With the new increases in March, the cost will be £340. That represents an increase of 107 per cent., which has taken place in a two-year period; an increase that is, as we know, payable wholly out of taxed income.

Perhaps I may make a comparison. In the last two years, for someone on average industrial earnings his after-tax income has increased only by about 45 per cent. Probably the average income of commuters is somewhat higher. This means that their after-tax income has been increased by a lesser amount than 45 per cent. I would judge that the rate of increase of commuter fares has been about three times greater than the rate of increase of the after-tax incomes of those who are commuting.

This has been an enormous financial burden. It is quite evident, from correspondence that one receives, that people are literally threatened with being priced out of their jobs. That is a very dire situation for many families.

I should like to pose a single question. The central question which must be faced is whether there is any case for the subsidising of commuter fares and, if so, what is the rational relationship between the level of fares and the level of subsidy. At present there is no sign at all—we hope that the Government's policy paper will change this—of any rational coherent policy towards commuter fares.

I should like to make one proposal to the Minister. I suggest that we need a cost-benefit study into the worth of expenditure on subsidies for commuter fares. As far as my area is concerned, this study should obviously be confined to the South-East. We need this because if commuter fares are uneconomic, to a greater or lesser degree, we must cost the consequences of discontinuing the level of subsidies.

At present, about 300,000 people commute from outside London to inside the Greater London Council area. If they are effectively priced off the railways they will either go by road or stop working in London. Either of those situations would create serious financial implications. If people start to travel by road it will put an enormous extra burden on the roads. Already it is estimated that 250,000 people per day travel by road into the Greater London area. The implications for road expenditure would be enormous.

There would be equally serious public expenditure implications of a fares policy that makes people move out of London to find employment. One must bear in mind what that employment is worth to those in London in terms of the commercial rate. Yesterday, in a Written Answer the Secretary of State for the Environment said that it is estimated at the moment in the current financial year that the rate yield from non-domestic premises in Greater London is going to be £775 million.

If we try to reduce by a few tens of millions of pounds the subsidies on commuter fares in the South-East we must look at the possible jeopardising of possibly some hundreds of millions of pounds of rates in the Greater London area, which would necessitate a major increase in rate support grant. The implications should be set out and published. In the current year the Exchequer has paid out £760 million to the London authorities in rate support grant. That is the taxpayers' contribution towards keeping London afloat. London's solvency depends on keeping employment for people who live outside London. If the Government kill off rail commuters they will kill off London as well.

May we have a rational cost-benefit study of the return on subsidies for commuter fares? On any analysis I believe it will be shown that even if there is a small saving in those subsidies the public expenditure implications will be far more serious for London as a whole.

8.3 p.m.

Mr. Les Huckfield (Nuneaton)

The hon. Member for Tonbridge and Mailing (Mr. Stanley) has made one of the most constructive speeches that we will hear from the Opposition tonight. He has just made out a pretty constructive case for a full cost-benefit study into the continuance of public subsidy for commuter rail services in London. I wish he could pass down some of the information on his case to his own Front Bench, because they are constantly calling for the need to reduce public expenditure, particularly on the nationalised industries. It seems that the hon. Gentleman's remarks do not correspond to those of his own Front Bench.

Hon. Members on the Government side have a great regard for the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Mailing because he has done his homework, which is more than can be said for his Front Bench. The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) made no constructive suggestions. As usual, he blamed the whole of the railway system's faults on overmanning. Anyone who knows just a little about the railway system would tell him that the Southern Region is the last place where there is overmanning. The hon. Gentleman represents a Midlands constituency, as I do, and he knows that commuter travel is different there—people travel by bus. The hon. Gentleman must have travelled by rail and he must have noticed that services are often cancelled because there is no driver.

If the hon. Gentleman travelled by train he will have found that there is often no ticket collector or anyone in the ticket office late at night. That is the sort of overmanning there is. Southern Region's most acute problem is that it cannot recruit the staff to man the trains or collect the money.

I speak as the parliamentary spokesman for ASLEF and a member of the Transport and General Workers' Union, and I was chairman of the study group financed by the magazine Socialist Commentary, which submitted a report on transport policy to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. We made certain criticisms of the mode of railway operation and we noted that it was this Government who got the money for the present level of railway subsidy. It is all very well for the Opposition to say that they provided the framework in legislation. They may have done that for the Railways Act 1974, but the finance to subsidise the present operation of British Rail came from this Government, and it was a Labour Minister who guaranteed a provision of £1,500 million for the next three years to run the railways.

It is interesting to note that when the British Railways Board submitted its interim strategy it did not ask this Government or the previous Government for a major slice of the investment to be spent on commuter services. Many hon. Members on the Labour side were critical of that investment submission for the 10-year programme, because its main impact would have been not on the commuter services but on the high-speed inter-city services. We should criticise the British Railways Board because in the past it has paid little attention to the modernisation and improvement of rolling stock and facilities for commuter services.

When I took a deputation of my hon. Friends to meet Sir Richard Marsh we pressed strongly the case for improving some of the cattle trucks which serve as our suburban rolling stock in the West Midlands area. Sir Richard said that it was the job not of the British Railways Board but of the West Midlands Transport Executive to provide the initiative. He apparently thought that the onus was on the Executive to improve rolling stock. That attitude, in conjunction with the Board's investment strategy, leaves a great deal to be desired.

No doubt we shall hear much about the article by John Dodgson—once a member of my committee—in New Society two weeks ago, and no doubt we shall also hear reference to the book by Richard Pryke and John Dodgson on what should be done about the railways. Anyone who thinks that railway subsidies at the present level benefit the better-off should go to Waterloo and Victoria each morning and see the number of millionaires who get off the trains. I cannot help agreeing with my hon. Friend the Minister that there may be a few well-to-do people who come in from Brighton, Clacton or other far-away areas, but it has always been my impression, when I have been at Euston, Liverpool Street or King's Cross in the morning and evening peak periods, that the bulk of those travelling by rail are ordinary working people.

It may well be that the inter-city business man has been enjoying the benefits of subsidies. It may be that there is a case for making him pay the market rate. I agree that we probably need much more information about the costing and profitability of each service. I, too, should like to see that sort of information made available.

There may be a few well-to-do people who benefit from railway subsidies, but it is mainly the ordinary person who benefits. The main reason for railway fares having increased by more than 100 per cent. over the past two years is that it was the deliberate policy of the Conservative Government to hold down nationalised industry prices as a means—so they thought—of controlling inflation. Conservative Members should bear in mind the result of their Government's counter-inflation policy. It was their Government's policies that started the rot and made necessary the increases in railway fares.

It seems that the Opposition do not want fares increased. At the same time, they do not want subsidies or rates increased. What do they want? If we are to pay for our railway system we must pay for it from taxes, rates or fares. What do the Opposition want? It is a pity that no Liberal Members are present. It would have been interesting to hear what they think. All that we shall be having from the Conservative Opposition is a demand not to increase fares any further. It seems that we must not increase taxes or rates.

If the Opposition want to be constructive and want to be listened to, they must give us their prescription. All that we have heard from the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield is that the present situation is all the fault of overmanning. I suppose he will realise, in the end, that that is the worst choice he could have made as a basis for his argument.

Dr. Alan Glyn (Windsor and Maidenhead)rose

Mr. Ivor Clemitson (Luton, East)rose

Mr. Huckfield

I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, East (Mr. Clemitson).

Mr. Clemitson

I have been trying to follow the logic of my hon. Friend's argument. He seems to have omitted one possibility—namely, to increase usage, thereby increasing revenue.

Mr. Huckfield

Yes, I am in favour of that I shall turn to that argument in a moment.

It seems that the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield has not done his homework. I have heard much criticism from his hon. Friends about the nationalised industries. They want them to behave more like commercial enterprises. They have attacked their pricing policy. They have said repeatedly that when a publicly-owned industry gets its pricing policy wrong its gets its investment strategy wrong. But even the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield admitted that the British Railways Board is charging on the basis of a market economy. It is charging for services on the good old-fashioned principle of what the traffic will bear. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the nationalised industries should not be charging on that basis? If so, I wish that he would make his party's position clear.

If the Conservative Party is advocating that nationalised industries should not charge on the basis of what the traffic will bear—if it is advocating that they should not charge on the basis of profit maximisation—surely it is arguing for increased subsidies. There must either be profit maximisation—namely, the market economy—or a continuation of subsidies. I do not suppose that we shall have an answer to that argument from the Opposition.

The hon. Member for Sutton Cold-field referred to the unofficial action that has taken place on the Eastern Region. Again, I do not believe that he has done his homework. One of the main reasons for the difficulty last week was that the Eastern Region refused to abide by the procedure which the British Railways Board agreed last November. It agreed that if there was any difficulty about the alteration of services the matter would be referred to the joint consultative machinery at national level. It was because the Eastern Region refused to abide by that procedure that the difficulty ensued.

I eagerly await the consultative document which is about to be produced. I believe that once and for all we must interpret our party's transport policy. We believe in a co-ordinated and integrated public transport system. I also believe in the continuation of subsidies for commuter services, especially in the South East. I hope that the consultative document will make our attitude clear. I wish even more that the Opposition would make their attitude clear.

8.17 p.m.

Sir Stephen McAdden (Southend, East)

I am glad that the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Huckfield) has made it clear that he categorises commuters in general as those who work for their living. It seems that he dissociates himself from the remarks of his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. If the Minister were to depend on the commuters for his chances in the activities that are now taking place within his party, he would be at the bottom of the poll. If he went to Fen-church Street Station and if the people coming off the trains were informed of his views, he would probably be lynched.

I am a commuter and I travel every day from Southend to Fenchurch Street. I know what those who commute are talking about. I have known for the past 30 years. Their main beef is about fares. In recent years the second-class annual season fare from Southend to London has increased from slightly over £100 to over £400. The increase has placed an astonishing burden upon working people who must travel to London to earn their living. It must be remembered that they were lured to live in Southend by the promise of cheap fares.

Mr. Ridsdale

That applies to Clacton.

Sir S. McAdden

Two years ago there were advertisements trying to persuade people to live in Clacton. In fact, the advertisements are still being used. The advertisements suggest that those who live in Clacton can enjoy the benefit of cheap fares to London. The railways have induced people to live in outlying areas. Now that they have their captive commuters they choose to ignore them, increasing the fares to levels which people cannot afford.

The hon. Member for Nuneaton says that there is the choice of higher fares or increased subsidies. That is not true in my constituency. The London-Southend line is not subsidised and it does not make a loss. My constituents do not mind paying the economic cost of their transport to and from London, but they object to being asked to pay more than the economic cost, and that is what is happening.

Over the years in Finance Bill after Finance Bill my colleagues and I have argued that we should set the cost of travel to and from work against taxation. Successive Governments have turned us down. The position is becoming serious when it costs £400 or more to get to and from London from Southend. I hope that the Minister for Transport will use his influence with the Chancellor of the Exchequer to ensure that the burden placed on the commuting public is fully recognised.

Commuters also beef about the rolling stock. Five years ago the Transport Users' Consultative Committee recommended that the line should have new rolling stock. It has not yet arrived and looks as though it never will. Therefore, we are subjected to continual delays and frustrations. Instead of having 12-set trains, we have four-set trains. People have to stand shoulder to shoulder in grossly overcrowded conditions. This would be avoided if we were given better rolling stock and improved maintenance.

The travelling public also beefs about the remoteness of the Transport Users' Consultative Committee, situated, as it is, in Norwich. The London-Tilbury-Southend line and the Liverpool Street-Southend-Victoria line are self-contained units. People in those areas do not want to travel all the way to Norwich to discuss their problems. We should like to see a more personal relationship. For example, the general manager is in York. Those two self-contained units are without any real means of communication for discussion and understanding of their problems.

It was not like that in the old days. In the old days, people such as Gerry Fiennes and Henry Johnson, who operated from Liverpool Street, understood our problems. We used to see them four or five times a year and our problems were dealt with immediately. But today the set-up is so remote that we do not have the contacts we used to have with those in charge. Those officials were railwaymen and understood their job. We want to see more railwaymen occupying similar positions.

Furthermore, we used to have thorough discussions before timetables were produced. The Mayor of Southend and also the three constituency Members of Parliament' used to attend those meetings. Although we now have a very good representative on the Transport Users' Consultative Committee, we definitely do not have the communications that used to exist. I believe that there is a great need for a public inquiry into the way in which British Rail is run. The needs and problems of commuters are not as fully understood as they used to be.

I appreciate that this is a short debate and that many other hon. Members wish to take part. We have already been told that this matter was debated in the House earlier in March, but I would point out that that was an Adjournment debate lasting only half an hour. Indeed, this debate- should have started at seven o'clock but did not. I do not believe that debates of this length are sufficient to discuss the many problems facing the travelling public.

Let us remember that there is no way out for these commuters who travel to and from London in order to attend their jobs. They live 40 miles from London and they must come to London to work. There is certainly no local work available for them. They are captive travellers. If they wanted to move to London, they could not get a house here at a price they could afford. After all, they were encouraged to move to Clacton, Southend, Billericay, Rayleigh and so on, and acquired houses in those areas in which they have now sunk their life savings. Those people are being disgracefully treated.

The time for debate is running short, and so I shall conclude. Commuters are being subjected to huge fare increases and are suffering ever-worsening services. In these times, they should almost be paid danger money because of what has been happening on the railways recently. I pay tribute to one of my constituents, Mr. Peter Chalk, who made a brave attempt to arrest the murderer who put the bomb on the West Ham train. Commuters are experiencing enormous stresses and strains in their travel to and from London. They know that they are almost sitting targets for those who leave bombs on public transport.

Therefore, let us do all we can to help those travellers. We know that we cannot stop the bombers, except by constant vigilance on the part of everybody who travels. There are other ways in which we can ease the stresses and strains of travellers. Let us at least see that they are not penalised as they are at present. Let us see that the fares they pay are not greater than the economic costs of transport and that they are not subjected to the kind of travelling conditions we now see.

8.25 p.m.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

I am glad to be called to speak following the remarks made by the hon. Member for Southend, East (Sir S. McAdden) because it was in my constituency of West Ham that the bomb exploded. I am sure that we all wish to pay tribute to the brave driver who lost his life in trying to do something about the situation.

Sir S. McAdden

Perhaps I ought to tell the hon. Gentleman that I was in the train behind the bombed train. Thank God, I did not catch the one before!

Mr. Spearing

Many people have had to move out of London, not from choice but because of the mortgage-season ticket balance. I suggest that some commuters want it all ways. We all know that many commuters do not own private transport, but there are large numbers of travellers who have their own motor vehicles. They use rail for work journeys, having reached the station in their private vehicles. That factor must be taken into account.

What we are now facing—and perhaps Whitehall has not yet appreciated this fact—is that in the last 10 or 15 years there has been a revolution in the changing techniques of private transport. Those techniques undermined the economics of public transport. However, everybody wants some form of public transport to remain particularly in serving urban areas. That appears to be common ground on both sides. We differ in terms of how those public services should operate. If some Conservatives had had their way in earlier years, there would be no public services at all.

I wish to comment on some fundamental points and hope that they will be borne in mind by the Government. We must not forget the important question of work journeys to and from urban centres. This matter is dealt with in the National Expenditure Survey. We are told that the top 20 per cent. in the earning brackets contribute 40 per cent. or more of the earnings of British Rail. That occurs because those travellers make the same journeys repeatedly and includes some first-class travel. In other words, only a small proportion of the population produces that revenue.

I hope that forthcoming documents on this subject will take account of these factors. The Minister for Transport and Whitehall officials have only to visit the great London termini at weekends to judge people's travel habits. They will see that the thesis advanced by the Secretary of State for the Environment does not hold water. It does not hold good in terms of the large proportion of the population who do not own public transport. It is the people at the other end of the scale whom we must bear in mind. Only a small proportion of the revenue is produced by those who use public transport for social journeys, family reasons and holidays. I hope that that factor also will be taken into account in the documents which are to be produced.

I wish to emphasise that urban work journeys are essential to the health of urban centres. Those centres are largely areas of late nineteenth century and early twentieth century growth. The Greater London Council, which is Labour-controlled, is not happy with the trends. The health of London as an urban centre largely depends on rail services in inner and outer London. If fares continue to rise, people will use road rather than rail and the GLC's policies will be put at naught. There are secondary effects of rising rail fares which ought to be examined in Whitehall, albeit in a different Department or by a different mechanism.

Unless the Government take cognisance of this fact, they may save a few million pounds in subsidies but there will be terrible damage in social costs and, even if the Government pay out these costs, they will not recreate the community which will be lost. The flight of business and work from London is of serious proportions. If the idea gets around that those travelling by rail into and inside London will have to pay more and more, the atmosphere for employers will become even worse.

The GLC is the authority responsible for London Transport and planning. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Richmond, Surrey (Sir A. Royle) has gone. If he had listened to the debate, he might have learned something to his advantage. We have 500 stations inside the GLC area and 680 route-miles of railways. On the London work journey routes, there are 10,000 railway coaches. This is a tremendous organisation, but unfortunately it is not used to its full capacity. I understand that on the London Transport rail system the passenger miles travelled each year are decreasing. The figure was 675 million miles in 1961 and it had fallen to 640 million miles in 1973. Rail traffic through Westminster station has fallen 25 per cent. in the last 10 years.

Money has been screwed from work journeys in London because the travellers are a captive public. This policy was started by none other than Mr. Horace Cutler when he was in control of the GLC. He said that as people living inside the Circle Line had to pay fares, the GLC would put a surcharge on inner London travel. He also said that because a high proportion of journeys by Underground were work journeys, tube fares would be increased more than bus fares. Consequently, London now has a two-tier transport system.

Because of the policy carried out by the Tory GLC—and I hope the Minister for Transport will not go the same way; there is a danger of it—instead of an integrated road and rail service, we have a relatively cheaper bus service and a relatively more expensive tube service. We have lost the co-ordination which existed when London Transport was set up in 1933.

Dr. Glyn

I am following the hon. Member with considerable interest. Is not the most important point in the Consultative Document the actual cost of journeys? There are many cases where commuters are paying a higher rate for their travel than other people in the rest of the country. They are subsidising the rest. Should the figures not be broken down to show the exact cost of a journey so that we could all know it?

Mr. Spearing

I hope that the next part of my speech will help the hon. Member. The middle part of what I want to say will, I hope, be getting towards a solution acceptable to both sides of the House.

Because of the increasing reliance on work journeys for revenue, a remarkable situation has been brought about in London. About 63 per cent. of the revenue of London Transport comes from rush hour travel and 77 per cent. of British Rail's revenue in the London passenger area is from peak hour travel.

I think we all agree that we must have the facilities to carry peak hour traffic. From calculations I have made and checked with London Transport, it seems that about 25 per cent. of the population in Greater London pays for about 60 per cent. to 70 per cent. of the cost of rail travel in London. A diminishing proportion of the population is paying an increasing proportion of the costs of rail travel, even including some subsidies. That is the spiral into which we have got ourselves. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment does not appear to have seen this fact. He seems to be following the road of Mr. Cutler a few years ago and making that spiral even worse.

Coming back to the point raised by the hon. Member for Windsor and Maidenhead (Dr. Glyn), it is difficult to find out just how much a rail journey costs. Indeed, it is virtually impossible. One accountant does the calculation one way and another calculates it in a different way. As the Minister for Transport knows only too well, the fixed costs of rail transport are very high—track, signalling and stock which has to be used at peak hours is there all the time. So, too, are the men. The costing of a journey is an accountant's nightmare. These high and growing fixed costs depend upon a reducing revenue base. A smaller proportion of the population is using the rail services. This may be partly because it is a matter of fares.

The difficulty is that London Transport and British Rail are not imaginative in the way they can try to get out of the spiral. For example—it would not necessarily work but the onus is on British Rail to say why not—supposing that commuters who are beefing were told that for a season ticket which costs so much a month they could get unlimited weekend travel on London services for nothing. I do not believe that it would cost British Rail any more to carry them because its conveyor belts are at work throughout the weekends and in off-peak periods anyway. They are running all the time. The fixed costs are there. There would not be another penny in expenditure. It would be good value for money. I think that it would stop at least some of the complaints. Those involved might take their wives and children as revenue-paying passengers, which would bring in more money.

Two years ago, I asked London Transport to look into such a scheme but its reaction has not been promising. I do not think that there is enough initiative and enterprise of the right sort in the managements of these undertakings. I believe that managements should manage and that we must not interfere too much in day-to-day activities. But they must be accountable and tell us not only why certain things cannot happen but why some of our suggestions are not feasible. After all, if a scheme such as that which I have suggested were operating, more people would travel, and if for the same outlay of money there is a total social gain, paricularly for town centres and areas accessible to public transport, that is a community gain all round.

Some years ago, the Department and the GLC set up a committee to look into the rail services in London. It reported in November 1974. One of its recommendations was that a London rail committee should be set up to look at transport by rail in the area and the relationships between British Rail and London Transport, with the possible exchange of routes and so on, including a new fare structure. In December 1975, the GLC said that it would like such a committee to be established. It has no power over British Rail as it has over London Transport. I understand that my hon. Friend is considering appointing such a committee and defining its terms of reference. I hope that he will tell us about it and will take account of what has been said in the debate. I hope that he will make it a committee with teeth.

As long ago as 1933, there was a pooled system of fares for London. Both bus and rail fares were put into a pool. The railways were privately owned then. There was no rivalry as there is today, with everyone trying to grab the revenue. In some ways, it was a more progressive system than now operates under public ownership.

Public transport is vital to the health of the community. It must be treated as perhaps the importance of fresh water was treated in the nineteenth century. The philosophy of the Opposition will not make that come true. It is that philosophy which has put us into the parlous position we are in today. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister for Transport will not continue down that road.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)

Order. It would be desirable that I should explain the timetable of services for the House of Commons for the rest of the debate. The winding-up speeches are, I understand, due to begin at 9.40 p.m. but still 14 hon. Members wish to take part in the debate. The more we can speed up the service, the more passengers we shall be able to carry.

8.40 p.m.

Mr. F. A. Burden (Gillingham)

The debate has arived at a fortunate time, so soon after the statement from Sir Richard Marsh, indicating the problems that have faced British Rail under successive Governments. We shall all look forward with interest to the Consultative Document promised from the Government.

The Government must decide the responsibilities of British Rail. They must decide whether British Rail is to be run as a profitable undertaking—in which case presumably without any subsidy and as an ordinary commercial concern—whether it is expected to break even, with a certain amount of subsidy, or whether it is to be looked upon as a necessary social service requiring a very considerable amount of subsidy and assistance in capital expenditure.

When the Government have decided on its rôle, and whether British Rail is an essential need—which I believe it is for a great many people—involving quite large subsidies, they must allow the British Railways Board to carry out its policy, and the Government must back the Board. After all, the Government are responsible for setting the guidelines of British Rail. When the objectives have been set, the Board must be supported by the Government in formulating clearly defined, measurable, time-based and feasible policies, with all the permutations and considerations involved. Only by such a philosophy and procedure shall we bring about the improved performance and efficiency demanded by the Secretary of State for the Environment.

Inevitably it will mean some reduction in staff. It is the Secretary of State who has said that there is over-manning. It has not been said by people from this side of the House. According to a leading article in the Daily Telegraph of 13th September 1975, wages account for some 70 per cent. of the costs of British Rail. It is perfectly clear that there will be quite considerable difficulties in bringing down the over-manning, if it exists. The Government must accept this, because the Government will have the responsibility for setting the targets of British Rail in the future.

When the policies are decided and the targets are set, it is essential that the fare-paying public and the staff should be fully informed of them. This has been lacking in the past. Neither the public nor the staff have been able to assess the future policy of British Rail for any reasonable period. Indeed, it is obvious from Sir Richard Marsh's remarks that the British Railways Board has been so inhibited by Government interference that it has been unable to give this information. Any odium that may result from the Government's involvement must be shown to result from their objectives and their instructions and not set against the luckless Chairman and Board of British Rail.

Whatever policies may be decided, the public will inevitably bear the consequences. In recent years the consequences have been very harsh indeed. My own constituency illustrates very clearly the impost on the members of the travelling public. In 1972 an annual season ticket from Rainham to London cost £117. It now costs £372—an increase of £255, or more than 200 per cent., in four years. Now we are told that commuters are threatened with an increase of a further 50 per cent. in railway fares. That would bring the cost of a yearly season ticket to £558. As the Minister must know, that must come from net income after tax.

I assure the Secretary of State for the Environment that the 6,000 people who daily commute to jobs in London from my constituency are not, as he was allegedly pleased to call them at a Parliamentary Labour Party Transport Committee meeting on 24th February, wealthy commuters who can afford to pay more. If that is what he believes he should tell my constituents so and the constituents of my hon. Friends and Labour Members. These constituents are ordinary working-class people, comprising middle management, secretaries, Post Office and shop workers and civil servants—people without resources to meet the increases in the cost of living now being imposed on them. Many of these people are striving to meet increased mortgages, higher rates and general living costs. They are the people bound by the maximum wage increase of £6 gross, £4 net. Now, we are told, they are faced with further increases.

The 50 per cent. increase would mean, in my constituency, that each commuter would have to pay another £3.54p a week on his railway fare. There are higher rates and electricity charges in the pipeline as well as other increased living costs. This applies to the constituents of all hon. Members. In addition, very shortly the £6 increase will be a thing of the past. We are told that future increases will be much lower. The problem will be that much greater for these people. Many people are even now unable to make both ends meet. There is real poverty.

Any further large increases in rail fares will have a catastrophic effect on living standards and will drive people well below the poverty line. These people are compulsory daily users of the railways. They have been singled out to pay more, proportionately, than those who use the railways on a casual basis. They are captive passengers who can do nothing but pay. As has been said, they often travel in cattle-like conditions.

Most of the 2,500 people who live in homes on one of the biggest estates of my constituency of Gillingham are commuters. They were tempted to come to Gillingham from London because they thought they could afford to buy a nice house at a reasonable price. Had they known of the increased costs they would have to bear in railway fares, rates and so on, they would never have moved. It has brought them great hardship. It is not surprising that they are disillusioned, and in many cases bitter. Neither British Rail nor the Government can go on putting the boot into these people. They have surely been clobbered more than enough already. Many have reached a state of despair in which they feel that they would be better off if they gave up working, stayed at home and lived on National Assistance.

Instead of adding to their misery, the Government, whose ultimate responsibility it is, should be thinking of easing their plight. If British Rail cannot hold down fares, the Chancellor of the Exchequer should consider allowing the whole or part of the cost of a yearly season ticket to be offset against tax. I hope that the Minister will give very serious consideration to some relief at this time and possibly persuade his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to help.

Labour Governments have always said that they are the champions of ordinary working people. If that is so, this is the opportunity for them to show it by extending a helping hand to many people who at the moment are in very grave distress.

8.50 p.m.

Mr. Ted Graham (Edmonton)

Like many hon. Members who have spoken, and certainly like the hon. Member for Gillingham (Mr. Burden), I claim some experience in speaking in a debate about the commuter. We try to represent our constituents, and many hon. Members who have spoken represent commuting constituencies. What is more, many of us also have practical experience.

I declare my interest first as a member of the travelling public. I live in Bush Hill Park. I represent Edmonton. For the past 15 years, I have travelled on the Enfield-Liverpool Street line. For the first 10 of those years, I travelled from Enfield Town to Liverpool Street itself. For the past five or six years, I have travelled from Bush Hill Park to Seven Sisters and thence on to the Victoria Line, so I am not unfamiliar with the problems facing commuters who travel on those two lines.

I declare another, side, interest. My son is a trainee driver with British Rail. As a result, I am not unfamiliar with the problems about which he tells me.

I do not wish to try to elevate this debate into a matter which is the subject of any party animus. I hope that we are all concerned primarily to try to ease the lot of the commuter either by making his journey more comfortable or to do all that we can to avoid making it very much more expensive. I hope that at the end of the day we shall all be committed to ensuring that a public transport system of quality and efficiency at a reasonable cost is at the beck and call of the British travelling public.

Opposition Members have put themselves on the horns of a dilemma. They have committed themselves in general to a reduction in public expenditure and to the philosophy that the nationalised industries should pay their way much more in the future than they have in the past. If their plea is that the commuter shall pay less—either less than he does now or less than he may have to in future—they must remember that the money will have to be found from some source. If we agree that the rolling stock needs improvement, that the service needs to be maintained and that we need to have cheerful and reasonably well-paid staff in sufficient numbers, inevitably the money must be found from one source or another. It must come from the fare-paying passenger, from a rate subsidy, or from some form of central subvention.

One suggestion for reducing or controlling travel costs is to have a go at wages, and that immediately takes one to the allegations made about overmanning. Whenever I use Enfield Town station, Bush Hill Park station, Lower Edmonton station or Silver Street station, I see no signs of surplus staff. In the morning, I travel up at 8.30. Very often I travel home on the last train. Frankly, I see no evidence anywhere of the overmanning about which many hon. Members complain. From what my son tells me the footplate staff are not overmanned.

I am puzzled by the generalisation that by some magic formula one can look at the global entity of British Rail employees and say that one can reduce their number by 10,000, 50,000 or 100,000. If we study the problem in detail we realise that there has been a slow process which is due partly to a need to control costs and partly to the unsatisfactory nature of the work. Over the years there has been a gradual diminution in the number of people who have been working on the railways.

Members of the commuting public must know that if they are to pay the kind of fares that have been mentioned, and which I do not dispute, they are entitled to know what they are paying for and how the costs are created. They are also entitled to have the justification for those costs explained.

In addition to producing a Consultative Document, which I believe is generally welcomed by both sides of the House as a new starting point, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister and his advisers will take a fresh look at the philosophy of our public rail services. I hope that the public will be treated as adults and told what they are paying for, even if fares have to be increased inordinately. The case that is made behind closed doors should be capable of being translated into simple language for the people who travel on the railways.

Reference has been made to the change in the mode of travelling. Undoubtedly there are many thousands of people, certainly in Enfield Town and Bush Hill Park, who travel to the station by car and then make their journey by rail. The local council, the Greater London Council or British Rail should pay due regard to an adequate provision of car parking facilities.

I shall refer briefly to the frustrating situation at Bush Hill Park station where there is a disused goods yard which is ideal for transformation into a car park Unfortunately, British Rail has recently advised local residents, ratepayers and travellers that for one reason or another, primarily financial reasons, it is not possible to provide that car park. This is an ideal illustration of a case in which the social cost and the social good should take precedence in this small area of the accountancy of British Rail.

It is extremely easy for the Opposition to criticise the fact that 31 per cent. of the cost of the commuter fare is subsidised. However, they do not say whether they want a bigger public subvention or want a bigger share of the fare to be paid by the members of the travelling public.

Reference has been made more than once to the departure of Sir Richard Marsh as Chairman of British Rail. I hope that serious consideration will be given on this occasion to finding his successor from within the ranks of those who are serving in British Rail. It is about time that the morale, confidence and pride of those who have spent all their working lives in British Rail and who have moved up the ranks, very often from the bottom to near the top, were recognised, and that such people were rewarded by being given the top jobs and some of the near-top jobs in running British Rail. They have a major contribution to make. The appointment of one of those people would be a great morale booster to those who work on the railways.

I like the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Southend, East (Sir S. McAdden), who referred to the problems of the commuting public in making their complaints known to the transport users' consultative committees. In spite of the attempts of the Government to inform the public of the existence of these bodies, far too few members of the travelling public know that they exist, let alone where they are located. I should like the committees to take a more aggressive, adventurous and exciting attitude, and to take the public into their confidence. They should invite the public to form a partnership, aimed at improving services.

The Consultative Document, when it comes, will be greatly welcomed and useful. I pledge myself to support an integrated transport policy. I believe in a subsidised transport system. Tonight we have been complaining about different aspects of the railways, but none of us has come up with much by way of practical suggestions. The problems are enormous, and the answers will be found only with time and money. We should give the Minister and the commuting public the time and the money so that improved services can result.

9.2 p.m.

Mr. Andrew Bowden (Brighton, Kemptown)

Since we have to be brief I do not intend to comment in detail upon the speech by the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Graham).

The patience of commuters is near to breaking point and many of them are desperately worried about their present financial situation. Many hon. Members have quoted the cost of season tickets to their constituencies. I am sure that every hon. Member has at some time been to Brighton. The present weekly season ticket from Brighton to London costs £11.25, and the monthly season, £42.70. Ten years ago the monthly season, at just over £12, was virtually the same as the weekly season is now. The impact of this cost on the earner with a gross income of about £60—and many in that category travel up from Brighton every day—is frightening. It is a question not just of the cost of the season ticket but of the cost of getting from home to the station and then from Victoria or London Bridge to the office and back again. The price of these additional fares can often be anything up to £3 or £4 a week.

Commuters from all over the South-East and from the North of London provide the capital with its essential workers. Without them the operation of the City and London as a whole would probably grind to a halt. Over the last 25 or 30 years Governments and local authorities of all political complexions have been actively encouraging people to move out of central London, down to the coast and into the South-East. Many of these people were told that such a move carried an important social duty and responsibility. Now they find themselves trapped in an impossible situation.

There is a very strong argument for allowing at least some form of scaled tax concession linked to the mileage that a person has to travel to work each day. Obviously it would not be very high for someone who has to travel only 20 miles each way, but it should be higher for somebody who has to travel between 40 and 60 miles each way. A fair scheme could be worked out to minimise or reduce some of the hardship now being suffered.

I want to make some positive points which I trust the Minister for Transport will take into account. The Department is working on the Transport Review. There is no doubt that we must look at the overall needs not only of the South-East but of the country as a whole in relation to its economic lifeline, which depends in part on the railway system.

Has enough research been done on the subsidies that come from the Government, either directly or indirectly, for both road and rail? For example, accidents on the road cost the nation about £1,000 million. Happily, the figure for the railways is negligible.

An article in the New Scientist of 23rd October 1975 contained these words: No one knows what the capital debt of the road system amounts to, but careful estimates indicate that it lies beween £24,000 million and £31,000 million. Even taking the lower end of the estimate, all motor taxation currently levied represents only 1 per cent. interest on this capital, after provision has been made for administration costs, accidents, policing, maintenance, and new road works. I wonder whether sufficient research has been done on the form and type of subsidies that we are talking about for the railways. We must think about those figures. I hope that the Transport Review will take them fully into account.

I wish to speak about only one other major area. I hope that this will be regarded as practical and helpful. Those who have seen the Evening Standard tonight will be aware of the report: Southern Region train drivers are threatening to strike on April 20 if planned service cuts go ahead. Any strikes, most of all unofficial strikes, would be a disaster not only for commuters but for all railway employees and for the future of the railway system. I urge the men of ASLEF and the staff at Brighton, many of whom I have the privilege of representing in this House, to think very carefully before involving themselves in any unofficial action. Indeed, I urge them to follow the advice of their union leader, Mr. Ray Buckton, with whom I had the pleasure of speaking at a public meeting in Brighton only a few weeks ago.

Unofficial action will inflame the commuter, make life even more difficult for him than at present, and do great damage to the whole of the railway system. Commuters are near to open revolt. If fares continue to rise at their present rate, many families will suffer genuine hardship and some will be on the bread line. They need help now.

9.9 p.m.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

I shall take only five minutes. Commuters exist in other parts of the country than London and the South-East. "Commuters" is a dreadful word. It describes people who travel regularly. Such people live in the provinces and use lines radiating from Leeds, for example.

Although hon. Members from London and the South-East complain, their rol- ling stock is vastly superior to the ageing and tatty diesel multiple units which are frequently the sole means of transport of commuters in the provinces. I urge the Minister to encourage British Railways to concentrate what little investment they have on refurbishing the diesel multiple unit stock on which they have started, because to regular travellers the programme seems attenuated and slow. The new white diesel multiple units-or the old ones painted white and with the interiors refurbished—seem an isolated attraction, something of a star, for many passengers.

In previous debates, it has been suggested that the £238 million a year allocated to British Rail is not sufficient for it to maintain its services, and that this will lead, for example, to a 40 per cent. reduction in the maintenance of terminals and station buildings and equipment. That means that the lines themselves are becoming increasingly unattractive. Many of them are Victorian anyway and in a very tatty condition.

This leads to a decrease in passenger numbers, and a search for alternative means of transport, which means greater costs for those who continue to travel by rail. This is a vicious decreasing spiral which can only harm the railways. Already it has brought about bad industrial relations. A strike has taken place on the Eastern Region as a result of cuts in services inflicted on the railways because of this lack of investment.

There are alternatives for investment. Although the road programme has been under some scrutiny, I agree with the hon. Member for Brighton, Kempton (Mr. Bowden) that it could come under even closer scrutiny. This sort of alternative is vividly illustrated by the Airedale route from Leeds which passes, hon. Members will be startled to learn, through my constituency, and for which there is a proposal for a £43 million trunk road. It might be salutary if the existing railway were improved, with "park and ride" stations, to see whether that method could ease the travelling problems of people going into Leeds and Bradford every day, before we spend £43 million on a new road.

However, the decision about the road is needed because one of the dreadful consequences of road building is planning blight, which casts such gloom over so many houses—many of them owner-occupied. This needs considering. I hope that the Minister will assure us that roads expenditure can be severely pruned.

The position of commuters will be helped if the existing track and signalling equipment is used more, for example, for freight carriage. Neither British Rail nor the Government are doing enough to encourage the use of rail for freight transport. The private sidings which are subject to grant aid under the 1974 Railways Act have not been a tremendous success. Only three were opened in 1975 and probably only a dozen or so are under current review. There must be a much more massive movement of freight from road to rail before we can be assured that freight haulage is playing its part in providing revenue for British Rail to help to keep down passenger costs.

When we talk about an integrated transport system, as we must when talking about commuter services, we should point out that National Carriers and Freight-liners should be reintegrated in the general framework of British Rail. At present, much freight which is going by British Rail would continue to do so if this service were part of an integrated unit.

I take the point that much more information and accountability is needed from British Rail. That would also include industrial relations, by starting on the path of industrial democracy. One of the reasons for strike action—it is a last resort in every case, contrary to what the Press might say—is the fact that many ordinary working railwaymen do not get information, and are not consulted properly when new duty rosters and schedules are drawn up.

As a good start, since Richard Marsh has been mentioned, the Government might consider introducing provision for the election of the Chairman by the work people. That might be a good presage for much greater industrial democracy and, hopefully, better industrial relations than sometimes exist at a time of great difficulty for railwaymen who are facing redundancy.

I add this concomitant. Mention has been made of the good safety record of British Railways. I do not suppose that any hon. Member would talk about overmanning if redundancies meant a reduction in safety standards on British Railways. Many people are employed by British Railways to ensure those high safety standards. Whatever else we do, we must ensure that there is no reduction in those safety standards which have been placed so high and which are guarded so jealously by operating railwaymen.

I hope that the Minister takes these remarks to heart. We do not want a withering away of the railways through inadequate investment and a lowering of safety standards of rolling stock, terminals and stations. We want to attract people to the railways. We have 11,000 miles of rail and a potentially first-rate commuter railway network. It must be the Government's political priority to retain and improve it.

9.16 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Dodsworth (Hertfordshire, South-West)

It is no part of my case this evening to present a catalogue of complaints, which could well be lodged in respect of the commuter services which serve my constituency. However, some lessons can be learned from a consideration of some of those complaints, and it is to those considerations that I wish to refer.

It is quite clear that many of the difficulties experienced in 1975 were overcome by an improvement in staffing levels. That is a lesson for us to take on board. Subsequently there was a slight deterioration which, perhaps, improved training facilities might remedy rather than discussions about more staff. It is clear that the service has improved when staffing levels have also improved.

I wish to refer to the definition of "commuters" and their requirements. I address myself in part to the possible requirements of commuters. Commuters are people who travel mostly during the morning and evening. It is the unremitting nature of the problem which presents many frustrations. There is the pressure of time. In between their journeys there is the working day, and they then return to another set of pressures, perhaps domestic pressures, which may arise from some of the travel problems and frustrations which they have experienced. Certain requirements arise and stem from those pressures.

There is a need for services to be punctual and reliable. That should not necessarily be confused with the requirement for the services to be frequent. A commuter is far more concerned that his train will be at the appropriate platform and arrive at his destination on time. A commuter probably has to continue his journey—and he may have an employer who expects him to arrive at work at a specified time. The commuter will expect to leave the station of departure on his return journey at a specified time. Therefore, he has a contract of time which he is anxious to observe. We must help him to do that.

Commuters want to travel in a degree of comfort and not in overcrowded conditions. They are not unreasonable but they do not expect to be herded like cattle, which happens on some occasions. Commuters want to travel at a tolerable cost. The issue of cost-benefit analyses was raised. We must consider what contribution these services can make to other operations and what other costs may be incurred if subsidies are withdrawn. We in Parliament have an obligation to see that we act on behalf of the nation as a whole and not merely in the interests of one narrow section. We have the difficulty of reconciling our social obligation with our economic sense and economic realities. That is a problem, and one to which we are trying to address ourselves now.

In trying to remove some of the causes of irritation, there are some simple things that would be helpful. I believe, for example, that the question of information remains unsatisfactory. From my own hearing and observation, the expression "The delay is due to operating problems or needs" is not very satisfying to a traveller at a station. He is quite clear that there has been an operating difficulty. What he wishes to know is something rather more accurate. I agree that that will not take away the delay. However, we are dealing with reasonable people, and reasonable people need information.

If people are on a train which has broken down, it must be—and I understand this—a very difficult task for the guard to walk through a series of carriages to tell people that they will have to remain where they are for an hour or and hour and a half. However, it is better that that should be done, because people will respond, rather than leave people in isolation, in limbo, not knowing how long they are to be stuck or when they may return home. If they are transported to another station to await further accommodation, they still find that they are not told the full story. There has been some improvement in this matter, but there is room for more.

That brings me to a point that was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sir S. McAdden) on the question of consultation and knowledge. I believe that public participation exercises ought to take place just as much in relation to changes in railway services as they do on the question of new routes for motorways. The public participation exercises have been extremely beneficial in providing information for the public to help them to arrive at a logical and rational conclusion as to the most desirable routes. The Minister will recollect that we have shared some knowledge of those exercises. They have been beneficial. Being aware of the problems, people can, of course, create aggravation. However, that does not mean that ultimately we do not have a better solution.

If there are to be timetable and cost changes, the public ought to be brought into the matter by way of participation in those changes, being given the reasons for them and asked how they can be best accommodated. It is not the same problem as choosing a motorway route, but the principle of information and knowledge would be helpful if it were applied here.

Lastly, we could improve the areas of co-operation between, for example, London Transport and British Rail. From my own observation in my constituency, I have an example of a refusal to stop a British Rail train because it was alleged that the platform was too short at Rick-mansworth Station. However, when the matter is pursued one finds that this is not so and that the real problem lies in the fact that there is a refusal by London Transport staff at that station to call British Rail and to point out that certain other trains on London Transport have been cancelled. One then has the irritating fact that commuters standing on the platform may watch a half-empty train travelling through the station at high speed when they know they will have to catch a similar train later by a connection at Harrow-on-the-Hill. Such a lack of co-operation is frustrating and irritating.

We can address ourselves to these matters to the advantage of our commuters and of the service that we are seeking to provide.

9.24 p.m.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

I represent a constituency from which about 20,000 people travel to London every day. They suffer in the way about which other hon. Members have spoken this evening. They suffer not only the financial penalties of living where they do but the indignities of being packed in like sardines at peak hours.

Many things have been said in the debate, and hon. Members on both sides of the House have made excellent points. I do not seek to repeat them, save the point about tax allowances. I think that in matters of policy we have now reached the stage about which that question must be reconsidered. It is almost a logical corollary of the Government's policy of scaling down subsidies for commuter rail transport for them to say that they will at least consider giving tax allowances for expenses wholly, exclusively and necessarily incurred in earning taxable income. I say that because if we agree that consumers of services should pay something like the total economic cost of the services that they enjoy, we should also appreciate that some people have no choice other than to use the only service that is provided. My constituents are particularly unfortunate, because the only public transport they can use to travel to town is the South-Eastern Region rail service. There are no Underground or bus services into London.

At one time it was possible to say that if one moved to the outer suburbs one would be at a financial advantage because of lower housing costs, rents and mortgages, and that one could therefore afford to travel up to town every day. The extra sum that one paid for travel was the price that one paid for living in the surrounding green belt. That position has changed. The rents and mortgage rates in my constituency are now as high as anywhere in the South-East, and there is also a housing shortage. There is no longer any differential for the people living in the outer London suburbs of the South-East.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden) referred to the financial burdens on his constituents and said that they were well-nigh insupportable, but his constituents pay about 30 per cent. less per mile than my constituents do for a monthly season ticket to travel up to London. That is discrimination between the inner suburban areas and the long-distance commuter areas which is not taken into account by many people.

Mr. Bowden

But they have to spend longer on the train.

Mr. Stanbrook

They can read The Times or the Daily Telegraph.

These costs should be allowed against tax, because the extra costs that people have to bear are necessarily incurred because of their employment. That seems a logical argument if one considers the original tax principles.

I hope that the Minister will tell the House about his views on the so-called PEP train—the high-density prototype commuter train. Some say that the initials stand for "Pack-em in perpendicular". The whole point of the prototype electro-pneumatic commuter train is to increase the ratio of passengers to available space and to do that at the expense of the number of seats. I understand that the number of seats in each coach will fall from about 100 to about 70. Undoubtedly it is a great technological move forward. It will be a great improvement. It may be a more efficient form of transport. According to a recent Written Reply we have spent £1.38 million on the new rolling stock. It has been tested round the London area for the past four or five years. When shall we get it?

9.30 p.m.

Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst)

I have a personal interest in the subject because I am one of the 20,000 commuters to whom my Member of Parliament, my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook), referred. I, too, represent the heart of commuter land. My constituency is almost entirely residential and a large proportion of my constituents travel daily to London, using one of four stations in the constituency or one of the six immediately around it. Conversation in the area often turns to travel, and it is not always very flattering to British Rail. We grumble but we are grateful for the services provided because they are our lifeline. It is thanks to them that, all being well, I can leave my home and he in the House or in my office in the City within 50 minutes.

The journey is completed in speed and in safety, although safety can be hazarded. The unfortunate incident that occurred at Cannon Street Station might have been very much more serious. I pay tribute to the Southern Region and the police for the prompt and efficient manner in which they handled the incident.

I appreciate the effort that the Southern Region has been making to improve services. A most extensive track relaying took place last year between St. John's and London Bridge, with relatively little disruption to services. A new £10 million signal box has been constructed at London Bridge. Much work has been going on in the past few months in preparation for the new timetables which are due to come into operation next month and which will give improved timings.

A short while ago I mentioned a journey which is normally completed within 50 minutes, all being well. Often, alas, all is not well. There are a number of grumbles. We often hear about industrial action. When it takes place it is the passengers who suffer. Those responsible do not attract sympathy for their cause.

Passengers also have to suffer delays. Some trains are regularly late. Occasionally all trains are late. I realise that in the South-East of London there is a complex system and that one breakdown can have many repercussions. It would help if passengers could be given some explanation when trains arrive late. Some explanations are more enlightening than others. To be told that delays are due to congestion in the London area is not terribly helpful. To be told that the delay has arisen from track or signal failure is easier to understand, but the frequency with which such failures occur gives rise to some concern about the quality of maintenance.

Fares are constantly increasing. They place a heavy burden on those for whom a season ticket is an essential part of their expenditure. The price of a season ticket has become so high that it is common practice for employers to make loans to their employees to enable them to meet the cost.

It has been suggested that the railways have a captive market. It is as well to remember that although many people have no alternative there is not a 100 per cent. captive market. If British Rail is not careful it could price itself out of the market. There was an interesting article to that effect in the Evening News last week. It pointed out that in 10 years the cost of car travel has doubled while the cost of train travel has nearly quadrupled.

My hon. Friend the Member for Orpington has referred to the PEP rolling stock. British Rail consulted passengers in an endeavour to obtain a view. Why does not the Southern Region consult passengers on other matters, such as the proposals now going through to cut back services and to close some stations on Sundays? The unions were consulted but not the passengers or their organisations. One organisation approached the Southern Region and asked the general manager for a meeting. Its request was refused outright.

Is it not rather strange that, having prepared new timetables, the Southern Region should now, even before they are operative, propose to cut them and to close certain stations? Only yesterday Sir Richard Marsh said that to take out the odd train saves little, because of the basic costs of the infrastructure, yet that is precisely what Southern Region is proposing.

The Region is proposing to close certain stations on a Sunday, including some in my constituency. I accept that the traffic at these stations is low on Sundays, but some of my constituents work for newspapers and in hospitals. They are engaged on shift work and they will be greatly inconvenienced by the closures. They hold season tickets, yet they will be unable to use them. I do not know why the stations should be closed.

Mr. Tom Bradley (Leicester, East)

To save manning.

Mr. Sims

A number of the stations involved are not manned at all at night. Why is it necessary for them to be manned on a Sunday? The inconvenience to my constituents will be considerable.

I should have liked to make a number of suggestions if more time was available, but I wish to give other hon. Members the opportunity to make a contribution to this brief debate.

Commuter services are special cases. They are not merely important to commuters; they are vital. If they do not function properly the routes into inner London and within the City will become so overloaded that traffic will grind to a halt. I hope that the Government are seized of the importance of commuter services and that they will support the proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Mailing (Mr. Stanley) that there should be a full inquiry into fare increases.

9.35 p.m.

Sir Bernard Braine (Essex, SouthEast)

I believe that there is no better example of what is wrong with our country today than that provided by the ludicrous way in which we run public transport. I do not seek to make a party point, but I am saying that for years there has been no consistent policy, no clear objectives and no proper accounting.

It is high time that we were fair to the railways. Despite a considerable run-down of the work force in the last decade, we in this House have allowed British Rail to become a chronic loss-maker, whose only answer to shrinking passenger and freight traffic is to put up its charges still higher, which in turn drives still more customers on to the roads, at a heavy, though as yet unquan-tified, cost in terms of misused resources, increased road congestion and injury to life and limb. Nowhere is this clearer than in my own area, where two heavily used commuter lines run parallel to two inadequate trunk roads.

I shall not repeat many of the points made in other speeches, but it is quite true to say that many of my constituents are being driven to near despair by swingeing increases in rail fares. They have experienced savage increases in fares over the last three years and are reaching the limit at which the lower paid commuters, especially young people, can pay to get to work. Many tell me that that point has now been reached.

There is a strong case for re-examining the possibility of giving tax concessions on the cost of getting to work. However, we have reached a stage at which tinkering with the problem will no longer suffice. The moment of truth has arrived. It is deplorable that every time I make a plea for the hard-pressed commuter I am met with the parrot cry "But commuter lines are subsidised. No more public money should be spent on them." My reply is that the commuter lines in South-East Essex have been exceedingly profitable and are not subsidised. British Rail may be receiving subsidies to the tune of £500 million but at least we can see where losses are made. For example, these are made in keeping open unremunerative services for socially justifiable reasons.

Where can we find a balance sheet setting out the position on the roads? It is generally true to say that lorry traffic and buses are less efficient in long-distance high-speed traffic than is rail. Road transport uses more manpower, more energy and more track space per unit of output and the social and amenity cost is far higher than is the case with rail transport. The minor road system in Britain, viewed in economic terms, is just as uneconomic to provide and maintain as are many branch lines on the railways.

This is not an argument against roads, which are essential to civilised living, but it is a plea for a fair comparison to be made between road and rail transport systems. Unhappily, there is no British Road Board which publishes annual accounts. If such a body existed and if it were obliged to report to Parliament, we would see that the loss per unit of investment in roads would far exceed that of the railways.

The inference that railways are loss-makers and that road transport is not is therefore wholly false. In short, we have no proper transport accountacy, no awareness of the true financial and social costs of the two systems, and no real grasp of the way in which the two should be harnessed and financed to serve the best interests of the travelling public and the national economy.

As for the movement of passengers, a fully integrated bus and train system can compete with the motor car, is a better use of national resources, and makes better sense in environmental terms. Yet we must reflect that we never close a road because it is not paying its way. In the past 15 years I suppose that we have demolished well over half our railway system, which was at one time the best in the world. We have done so without giving any thought to whether roads were or were not profitable. Merely staggering the hours of work in big cities would greatly ease the problem. It would encourage workers to travel with far less strain, and make more economic use of rolling stock. Yet no Government have bothered to do anything about this situation.

Mr. Speaker

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but he must realise that he is eating into the time that the two Front Bench contributors will require to reply to the debate.

Sir Bernard Braine

I was just reaching my conclusion, Mr. Speaker.

This is not the time to argue transport policy in detail; that must await the White Paper. In the meantime, however, let the House take serious note of the intolerable burden which past failure to tackle the problem intelligently has placed on the unfortunate citizens who are obliged to use the railways to get to work. Something must be done about it.

9.40 p.m.

Mr. Peter Fry (Wellingborough)

I hope the House realises that what was to have been my speech has been totally ruined by the short amount of time left to me. I should like to refute entirely the alternative costings of road and rail given by my hon. Friend the Member for Essex, South-East (Sir B. Braine), but in the few minutes available, I had better stick to some of the other comments made in the debate.

The hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Huckfield) said that British Rail was suffering from problems created by the last Conservative Government's policy of restricting fare increases. This argument is trotted out again and again, but we cannot get the figures. The Table Office will not accept Questions on the subject and Sir Richard Marsh has not yet replied to a question I sent to him. The only source of information is the book written by Messrs Pryke and Dodgson who give the figures as £31 million for 1974—for which hon. Members opposite are largely responsible—and £15 million for 1973.

If those figures are anywhere near accurate, their relevance to the current operating deficit of £340 million can be seen for what it is—an excuse to try to keep attention away from the problems which British Rail and the Government have failed to solve.

There is no doubt that, whether on fares, the quality of services, the state of morale of the work force or the quality of management, British Rail has not had a very good record in recent years. We can understand and perhaps sympathise with campaigns in opposition to any proposed rail cuts, but it should be put on the record that the enormous reductions in the number of staff which rail unions talk about have not occurred in the last six year. The massive reductions took place in the 1950s and 1960s, not in the 1970s.

British Rail's management has very little of which to be proud in recent years. Some critics have said that most of British Rail's financial problems were caused by the fact that it saw the Transport Act 1968 as an opportunity to obtain subsidies on even the most inefficient lines and therefore had no incentive to improve the system to make it more economic. It seems that British Rail holds up its hands in horror and says that the railways will never pay. British Rail says, "Tell us how much public money we can have and we will tell you how much of a system you can have". What a way to run a railway !

The hon. Member for Nuneaton criticised my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) on the question of finance, but the biggest criticisms about money have been made by members of the hon. Gentleman's team and were set out in Socialist Commentary. Messrs. Pryke and Dodgson were members of that Labour Party team which made the strongest criticisms of over-manning.

I do not know whether all the savings they suggest are possible, but far too much overtime is being worked in British Rail and there is a shortage of key workers in certain departments. A lot more could be done by British Rail to see that the work force is used efficiently. The rail unions and British Rail should sit down together to look at problems of over-manning, overtime and efficiency so that a much more efficient management operation can be put in force.

Mr. Les Huckfield rose

Mr. Fry

I will not give way. The hon. Member for Nuneaton is one of the reasons I have only a few minutes in which to speak. I am sure he takes some satisfaction from that fact.

I conclude by making four quick points. First, the Government must come clean over the costing of commuter lines. It will not solve any problems but it will remove a sense of injustice among many commuters. Secondly, one of the answers to British Rail's problems must be the right form of investment—for example, the electrification of the Bedford line, if it will get a good return—rather than some form of research which may never be put to practical use.

Thirdly, the Government, British Rail and the unions should sit down to examine all procedures, rules and manning requirements. Fourthly, I agree that there must be a concerted attempt to do something about the peak. Every reduction of the severe strain on British Rail during the peak hours must be a net improvement. I ask the hon. Gentleman not to be too critical of schemes such as that proposed in the Home Counties for transferring commuters to coach operations. That is not unfair competition but a genuine attempt to help the commuter figures and to reduce the peak hour problem.

We do not suggest that we know all the answers and I do not suppose that the Minister does. We are conscious that, in the Consultative Document that he is to issue soon, not only is his reputation at stake but the future of British Rail itself.

9.47 p.m.

The Minister for Transport (Dr. John Gilbert)

I have only about 13 minutes in which to speak, so I hope that the House will acquit me of discourtesy if I do not deal with all the points raised in this interesting debate. I am in an additional difficulty—with which I am not unfamiliar as a former Treasury Minister—in being in a sort of purdah because we expect to produce a Consultative Docu- ment next month. It might be helpful if I say some preliminary words about our intentions with regard to that document.

In the first place, despite what has been said in the Press, the Government have not made up their minds finally about ways in which transport policy should develop. The consultations we shall seek after the document has been published will be genuine. We shall be asking the transport unions, the transport industries' management, the local authorities which organise and run transport systems, and, of course, the transport users' consultative committees and consumers generally to look at the facts about transport that we have found and some of the ideas we are putting forward to deal with the problems. We hope that they will all come forward with their own ideas for solutions and with suggestions, and we shall fully consider and discuss them. Only after that process has been completed will the Government decide firmly on the policy they wish to adopt. I cannot anticipate what will appear in the document itself, but I assure tha House that it will cover the question of rail fares and service levels, subjects about which many hon. Members have asked.

I am grateful for the acknowledgments on both sides of the House of the difficulties British Rail are encountering, difficulties which have persisted under different Governments. It is clear that our Consultative Document will stimulate a lively debate. Indeed, the debate has already started. In some respects, it is taking place between the Back Benches and their respective Front Benches. I have taken note of many of the questions put to me by my hon. Friends.

The hon. Members for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) and for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry) will have to answer some questions from some of their hon. Friends. There was not much to agree with in the speech of the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield because he did not say much, but I did agree with him that there is no easy answer to the problem. But I have been encouraged by the attitude of many hon. Members opposite in the debate to public transport generally.

I do not criticise him for not being here, but I think that the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) will find himself in some conflict with some of his hon. Friends. It was not long ago—13th March 1976—that the hon. Gentleman was saying: Again and again, the true cost of running services has been hidden by artificially holding down prices as part of incomes policy. The result is that the tight managerial discipline, higher productivity and clear accounting that are so necessary in an industry like the railways have not happened". A little earlier the hon. Gentleman said: I must make it clear that it is inevitable that housing, transport, land and local government spending are bound to come under rigorous scrutiny. This means in particular reversing the trend by which housing and transport have become more and more social services financed by public money rather than paid for essentially by the users. I envisage a very lively debate between the Front Bench and the Back Benches opposite while the general debate about the Consultative Document is taking place.

Many hon. Gentlemen opposite have suggested that tax relief should be available for commuter fares. Questions about tax changes are a matter for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who will shortly be bringing in a Budget, but it is only right to say that tax relief of that sort would give disproportionate benefit to those who are already paying the highest marginal rates of tax. If it were to be given to those who have to pay for rail commuting costs it would be very difficult to refuse it for other ways of getting to work.

The point, made very clearly by the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook), is that to justify a deduction of that sort, even under the present income tax code, it would be necessary to prove that the expenses were wholly, necessarily and exclusively incurred. One of the great difficulties in questions of this sort is that there is inevitably an element of discretion in where people choose to live. I shall be surprised if my right hon. Friend finds himself able to give concessions of the sort asked for by hon. Gentlemen opposite.

I was much obliged to the hon. Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) for being so fair as to point out that there had been examples of considerable improvement in certain areas of British Rail services for the commuters. Conditions are not as good as we should like them to be. We are all aware of that and no one more than British Rail management. Unfortunately, the resources are not available to improve the quality of services and rolling stock over the whole network at the same time. My postbag tells me every day of the criticisms that commuters have as to the unreliability of services and the dirty and worn-out rolling stock many have to use.

One of the elements that are not generally recognised by the travelling public—and here again I pay tribute to hon. Gentlemen opposite who raised this point—is that commuters not only get relatively cheap travel compared with other ways of getting to work, such as the private car, as a recent Evening News survey demonstrated, but they also tend to forget that they have very safe travel. That is an element in the equation that is taken for granted by commuters, but the public need to be reminded of it not infrequently.

A considerable amount of investment has gone into improving British Rail services in the South-East in recent years. There have been electrification schemes on the Great Northern Line, the London Bridge re-signalling scheme, the London Bridge and Blackfriars reconstruction scheme, the re-signalling scheme in the Feltham area, and investment in several areas in new rolling stock. In the Eastern Region alone, some 76 vehicles, costing £4 million, are being introduced for commuter services out of Liverpool Street, and Fenchurch Street, and a further 244 vehicles, at a cost of £21 million, are to be built in 1977–78 to replace old rolling stock on the line to Shenfield. There are other major projects under considertion.

The main question raised by hon. Member opposite is that of fares. I shall not seek to bandy statistics about at this hour. It would be fruitless to do so. But I think it right to set on record that I totally endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Huckfield) said—that the seeds of this problem for British Rail, and the reason fares have had to be increased so rapidly over so short a period of time, lie in the fact that fares were artificially held down for several years while the rest of living costs were going up.

It is only fair to say that fares would have had to go up a great deal more had it not been for the Government grant to the passenger system of over 300 million this year. I want to emphasise not only that that is a record figure in real terms, after allowing for inflation, but that the Government are not cutting revenue support for the rail passenger system. All that we have done so far is to set a limit on it which, in present economic circumstances, was inevitable. We have said to British Rail that they must keep the rail support payment for 1976 to no more than the 1975 level in real terms. We had no option but to do that.

Conservative Members who talked blithely about manpower savings must recognise that while I accept that some manpower savings are possible—and I hope that the Board and the unions will be diligent in seeking them—they cannot come about overnight. I place on record a tribute to the statesmanship of the leadership and the rank and file of the railway unions. They have seen railway manpower decline from 475,000 in 1960 to about 230,000 now.

I do not suggest, and I never have suggested, that there is no more scope for manpower savings on the railways. But one thing needs to be quite clear, namely, that a lot of this depends on additional investment. For example, new rolling stock with power doors would help towards the single-manning of suburban services while the replacement of manned barriers with automatic ticket-checking devices would permit station staff to be reduced.

I certainly take the point of my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) that it would be folly to try to envisage manpower reductions that would in any way reduce the superb safety record of British Rail.

I hope that hon. Members, quite legitimately and properly representing the anxieties and, in many cases, the hardship of their constituents in London and the South-East in view of the rapid rise in commuter fares, will not feel that their constituents are being soaked by comparison with other rail users. Commuters have not been singled out for harsh treatment, even taking account of the increase in fares that is coming on 28th March.

British Rail are trying to minimise the extent to which the passenger system is being subsidised by taxpayers. They believe—and I agree with them—that the best way to do this is to fix fares selectively. In other words, they have been following a policy of relating the fare to the market for the particular service, the class of travel and the type of ticket involved. Because of that there is a wide range in the increases to be made at the end of this month.

Although fares will, on average, go up by 12 per cent., commuter fares in London and the South-East will rise by between about 10 per cent. and 17½ per cent. Inter-city fares, on the other hand, will probably rise on this occasion by something less than that—about 5 per cent. to 12 per cent. The fares on the provincial stopping services outside the South-East and the metropolitan areas will be going up by broadly 17½ per cent., a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley. It will be seen that the London commuter is not being asked to bear an unfair share of the burden that all railway users are having to shoulder.

As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said on 2nd March in the debate on commuter rail fares, the indications are that, in general, commuter services are more heavily subsidised than inter-city services. This will continue to be the case after the March increases. According to estimates published in a reputable London newspaper this week, it will still be cheaper, even after the March fare increases, to travel to work in London by rail than by car.

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