§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Graham.]
§ 1.40 p.m.
§ Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)
The House is accustomed to dealing with matters on the Adjournment at a much later time either on a Friday afternoon or late at night on other weekdays. It may be regarded in retrospect as fortunate for a number of reasons that today it is possible for us to devote more time to this debate.
I am grateful for the opportunity to initiate it. It is about the undeniable and well known fact, about which the newspapers have been writing in the past week particularly, that commuters in the Greater London area, whatever means of transport they use, are fed up. They are increasingly feeling at the end of their tether. I know very well that that phrase may have been used on previous occasions.
There is a growing feeling among millions of citizens in the Greater London area—I include those citizens who live outside the fringes of Greater London itself—that reform is necessary, that a strong and firm hand will be needed to get a grip on things. An increasing number of commuters are feeling battered, bruised, bewildered, resentful, angry, and prone to violence on a number of occasions, as perhaps the Secretary of State for Transport has seen for himself, about the way in which the services continually let down the consumer.
I am very grateful to the Secretary of State and to his colleague for finding the 861 time to attend and answer this debate. The debate will have been useful if the Government state that they are prepared to make some energetic responses to that which I and succeeding speakers, if there are any in this debate, will enunciate and express, not on behalf of ourselves directly, but on behalf of the millions of hapless consumers of deteriorating services on buses, tubes and trains. That would justify the debate; and that, therefore, is the solemn obligation that the Secretary of State for Transport must undertake.
There has been a little publicity of late—overnight, perhaps—about the payment that the Government may be prepared to make to the transport management authorities—London Transport, in particular—to enable them to deal with the serious financial problems now afflicting them. We may hear more about that in due course.
I am also grateful for this opportunity because it enables Members of Parliament together, crossing party lines and acting in concert, to seize their opportunity to try to reassure the public outside that we as their elected representatives are not ignoring their collective plight, are as worried as they are, and share the view of the media as expressed in the past week particularly, but all the time by definition, that there is a growing number of problems in this whole area which must be tackled.
I must first inflict a number of statistics on the House. I apologise for that in advance and I hope that the House will be patient with me as I give them. I must set the background to this by stating the depressing facts and figures which bring home to us all as ratepayers, taxpayers and commuters in London just how serious the problem is and how intractable it will be unless firm action is taken by the central Government, by the Greater London Council and, indeed, although this is much more remote by definition, even by individual boroughs.
Let us look at the background to the situation. London Transport has engaged on a policy of re-equipment over recent years. That would have been justified if only the immediate operational results had been there for the consumers to see. This is the hideous dilemma. Despite the large sums that have been spent—we are living in a highly inflationary era, 862 despite the Government's policy, when the pound will not be worth as much six months hence as it is today—results have worsened in practical terms.
It is easy to criticise transport authorities. They have a very complicated and difficult task. It is an enormous headache for them to run a huge consumer transport network like London Transport's Tube and bus services. We accept that. I am reluctant to use this word, but the only word that can describe their policy of spending in recent years is "profligacy", because it has produced no results which would have been justified, for instance, if only travellers had been able to say "I remember how appalling these conditions were four or five years ago on the journey I make every morning and every evening. How much better they are now."
One can make that comment in respect of only a small number of services, be they bus, Tube or train. The criticism applies to most of the services. I deliberately except the Victoria Line from that criticism.
§ Mr. Ted Graham (Lord Commissioner to the Treasury)
§ Mr. Dykes
Most people regard the Victoria Line as an outstanding example the other way, and I am happy to pay tribute to London Transport in that respect. I note the Government Whip's enthusiastic "Hear, hear".
However, that is the exception. It is the most recent line to be built. It carries a message for all of us and for the management of London Transport. The deterioration of the old rolling stock and the track on the London Transport network is one of the major headaches, and London Transport must tackle this problem with energy.
There is, too, inevitably a political consideration. It is all very well for 64 Labour Members apparently to support a campaign by a London newspaper to get a better deal for the commuter in the London area, together with the relevant Greater London Council committee or its chairman. We are well aware that the GLC elections will be upon us in due course. The change of political management at County Hall has coincided with a striking deterioration in the management skills at London Transport itself.
863 That is a serious charge which I make with reluctance.
I cannot explain exactly the labyrinthine methods by which the result will have been achieved within the internal arrangements of London Transport's own management, but the political nature of the ultimate financial control has a direct reciprocal effect on what the direct managers, with all their practical problems, do at the lower level.
Let us consider the policy of the introduction of the enormous revenue subsidies on which the GLC embarked under the change of political management across the river. The GLC gets a substantial slice of this money from the Government, and that is why it is in the final analysis, as with all these financial matters, the ultimate responsibility of the Government to propose new solutions if that is what the public believe are increasingly necessary.
I remind the House that in 1973 none of these revenue subsidies was applicable to these services. I include buses in that In 1974 fairly small amounts of money began to be paid. The sum of £8 million was spent on concessionary Tares. Admittedly that is a separate subject. By 1975–76, £15 million was spent on revenue subsidies on the Underground, £78 million on buses, and £11.9 million on concessionary fares. In the current period, £79 million—more or less the same sum—is to be spent by way of revenue subsidies.
It would be different if the commuter were able to say that as a result of that major switch in financial policy the fares had been contained. That is the ultimate rationale of such a policy. After all, we are talking about revenue subsidies and not capital re-equipment.
However, what has happened to the long suffering consumer? Fare rises in April 1975 amounted to 36 per cent. on average; in November 1975 they amounted to 26 per cent. on average, and in July 1976 to 25 per cent. on average. Now the sword of Damocles is hanging over us, in that London Transport is to make an average increase of 15 per cent. next summer, bringing the total average increase in two and a half years to 146 per cent. That is the measure of exas- 864 peration of the commuter—partly caused by the swingeing increase intself, and partly caused by the physical deterioration in many services, which is the final insult.
The statistics of passengers vis-à-vis staff and the way in which these have moved over a period are depressingly alarming. Over a three-year period the number of miles travelled by passengers have decreased while staff numbers have increased. In 1973 passengers travelled 3,246 million miles on the underground, and 2,958 million miles on the buses, making a total of 6,204 million miles. That was an increase of 0.43 per cent. over the previous year. During the same period staff numbers were reduced to 54,897.
In 1974 passengers travelled 3,210 million miles on the Underground, and 3,061 million miles on the buses, making a total of 6,271 million miles which is an increase of 1.08 per cent.—a very tiny increase, and less than was expected. In that year staff numbers increased by 2.99 per cent. to 56,541.
In 1975 passengers travelled 2,969 million miles on the Underground, and 3,039 million miles on the buses, making a total of 6,008 million miles, which was a decrease of 4.23 per cent. In that year staff numbers increased to 60,230 an increase of 6.52 per cent. A breakdown of the staff figures shows that operational staff-drivers, conductors, and all those who have to bear the brunt of public criticism—totalled 31,467 in 1973, 32,346 in 1974 and 34,431 in 1975. The background to this is that in 1973 London Transport was suffering from a shortage of staff and from wage relativity problems, and staff numbers at the important end of the business went up. Acute shortages which existed on some lines declined in general terms.
Engineering and mechanical staff, who regard themselves as important as operative staff, totalled 15,373 in 1973 and 16,688 in 1975. Therefore, their numbers were commensurate with the increase in operative staff.
Administrative and other staff totalled 8,057 in 1973 and 9,111 in 1975. Therefore, the percentage of administrative and other staff compared with operatives and engineers rose over the period. In a public enterprise, when money becomes 865 scarce and administrative staff increases as a proportion of the total number of staff, other staff feel great resentment because it is they who must bear the brunt of criticism. Yet they know that inflated central staffs have increased without any real improvement in physical services.
Although I acknowledge that London Transport has a very complicated and difficult task, and it is easy to be critical, the reluctant conclusion to which I must come is that the enterprise is relatively badly managed. It is a conclusion shared by fed-up commuters. I am very reluctant to come to this conclusion and I must pay tribute to the way in which London Transport has tried to deal with individual complaints.
However, is London Transport going about things the right way? Is its inefficiency partly due to the fact that it has to rely on GLC and Government subsidies, coupled with the fact that the GLC does not have a proper say in the central strategic management of London Transport? Because the GLC has no say in the management, it cannot produce its own ideas about problems, such as the bunching of buses. Despite the fact that the GLC is landed with providing increasing amounts of money, which have not prevented fares from rocketing, the GLC has no control over the management of the services.
The total revenue subsidy, excluding concesionary fares, was £90.43 million in 1975–76 and in the current period it looks like being about £81.5 million. The Minister may have an up-to-date announcement to make on that issue. What will be the effect on commuters, unless major changes are made, as fares soar to levels which are beyond their ability to pay? That is the central question which faces the Government and the GLC at present.
The Government have said recently that they wish to reduce the GLC's capital and revenue spending. This is what the argument is about. The amount of the reduction is not clear yet. I ask the Secretary of State to go into this in some detail and to declare the Government's policy. There are rumours all over the place suggesting that the Government will soften their previously hard line on the amount of cash to be handed over, and the GLC is waiting with bated breath.
866 The problems could be greater if the subsidy, for which London Transport is now waiting were drastically and abruptly reduced. However, if the Minister decides to soften his line, what will happen afterwards, as continuing public expenditure restraints impinge themselves on the Government? The Government cannot think only of the short period immediately ahead; they must look to the long-term future.
London Transport therefore is faced with the need to improve its efficiency as quickly as possible to cushion the effects of any cuts. In due course, even if there is a softening in the Government's attitude to the subsidy, has the management the ability to be sufficiently incentive-minded?
Capital investment is the other headache facing all these services. There are the new Tube lines, including the new line to Heathrow, which is to be a year later than expected. There is also the rolling stock and the poor quality of some of the cars, particularly on some of the outer Tube lines. The age of the buses and the continuing headache of getting new equipment and spares is another aspect of the problem. All this needs new money poured into it if services are to be improved without any consideration of fare rises in the future.
How will this problem be tackled? Do the Government have any views, and, if so, what are they? Or are they staring like the rabbit at the headlights of the oncoming vehicle of disaster not knowing what to do? The only unambiguous reaction I have noticed among the Labour majority at County Hall is bewilderment and panic coupled with the vague notion that it is necessary to get a public relations campaign into action as quickly as possible; hence the recent actions of Mr. Jim Daly.
If I had to guess about the future I would say that the problem of the fare increases will come next year and that fares will go up by 15 per cent., which would raise about £10 million. Then London Transport would do what one newspaper has mentioned, and that is spend the London Transport reserve. The actions of the Minister are referred to in one newspaper today. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm or deny those references?
867 The difference could be made up by increasing the rates by about 1p, which would raise about £15 million to £20 million. The immediate problem with this kind of solution is that it would not actually cut the £40 million policy now been superseded by the Government's new stance? What is the precise position? An awful lot of people would like a definitive answer to that question.
This is not only a financial debate, but a debate about human beings and about their problems of getting to work, usually with an increasing tendency to arrive late through no fault of their own, either on British Rail or on London Transport. It is a human story because of the way in which older commuters particularly feel that they can no longer stand the pressures which afflict them every day on the average bus or Tube journey. Familiar stories of overcrowding, cattle truck conditions, and the bunching of buses—perhaps the worst problems of all afflicting the buses—provide individual examples of hardship and worse.
The Government have the ultimate financial responsibility, but they do not have the operational responsibility. Yet they must have the means in their own internal departmental arrangements to make sure that their officials are constantly in touch with the officials at the operational end of the business in London Transport and British Rail, continually swopping ideas about how to introduce improvements.
If commuters are at the end of their tether, time is certainly running out. There will be social trouble of an inevitably indefinable nature in railway and Tube stations and by bus stops unless these problems are sorted out. Time is needed for them to be sorted out. But letters are now reaching the newspapers, and the independent radio stations are hearing not merely from members of the public but from the operatives who are venting their feelings of resentment and anger as the public try to take it out on them. The notion that a 6 ft. 1 in bus driver is anxious that he may be physically ill-treated by his passengers, yet understands their feelings of anger and frustration, is absurd, but because it is an absurdity that does not mean that it does not exist.
868 I have interest to declare as a frustrated commuter. I have started using the Great Northern electric line in the mornings. It has replaced the old City Line into Moorgate. Fortunately, I do not have to use the service every day. It is brand new and it has been fully operational for one week. Until then there was a partial pilot service. The service has been a disaster and I felt obliged, not because of my personal suffering but because of the seething resentment on the platforms along this service from Hertfordshire into the City, to telephone the Chairman of British Rail. I did so on Tuesday when the average delay in the early morning services was half an hour.
This service with the new luxurious electric trains is described on the posters—the promotional activity has been gigantic—as the smart way to travel to London. The trains are supposed to run every four minutes, but in some instances the delay was greater than 30 minutes.
I was unable to get through to the Chairman of British Rail, but I spoke to one of his five or six assistants. I understand that Mr. Peter Park travels to work by Rolls-Royce. That is a pleasant way to travel, but most people to not have the chance. I suppose that even Socialist millionaires can be conscientious enough to realise that when they get complaints about a line like that—I understand that British Rail headquarters has been inundated with letters and telephone calls about the service—it is the chairman's job to take immediate action to try to sort it out.
I wish to be fair and balanced about this. I understand that there have been the inevitable teething troubles which afflict new services. I remember when I was taking part in the German General Election travelling by electric train to Hamburg. It arrived five seconds late and the guard was ticked off by the platform supervisor for inefficiency. If only we could have those German standards in our country!
I understand that on this Great Northern service there was some bad luck. A window was broken. There was also a rumour that one of the drivers, about to retire, reached Drayton Park where the train was held up while he was presented with his gold watch there and then. These sorts of stories tend to build 869 up among commuters who begin to impose the fantasies over the realities when they suffer so much.
It is a new service and time will be needed to see how it works out. However, if the so-called seven-minute run from Islington to the City is to be plagued continually with half-hour delays, disillusionment will be enormous. The fares on that service are above average for the length of route. For the commuters who use the service from the beginning of the run the burden is even greater.
I hope that the Minister will not think that I am pursuing any excessive self-interest when I dwell on the new service. However, it is important in psychological terms for British Rail and London Transport to bear in mind with a new service the overall decree of resentment and dissatisfaction among the average commuters. Is it excessively ambitious for the management deliberately to set out to make sure that the service is perfect? Would that be such a shameful objective?
My other stance as Member of Parliament for Harrow, East is perhaps on some occasions not too effective. However, there is the question of my constituents' interests in using the Metropolitan Line from Harrow-on-the-Hill to all parts of London and of using perhaps the Baker-loo Line which ends at Stanmore. That was in a bad way a year or two back, but I acknowledge that it is better now. There have been improvements and the problem of crew shortages has abated.
I pay tribute to the efforts of London Transport and British Rail to improve their services, but I also pay tribute to the newspapers of London, one of which is currently running a campaign for commuters. I have its latest dramatic headlines here. The Secretary of State will see that his name is mentioned on page one, which is an interesting coincidence on the day of this debate.
I acknowledge the enormously energetic and successful work done by the Evening News. I do so with some enthusiasm because the paper was kind enough to refer yesterday to my efforts in this debate. It is crystallising the seething resentment of many of its readers who have sent in examples of unfortunate incidents which are not isolated, but part of a general, multi-faceted, everyday pattern affecting millions of people.
870 The Secretary of State has the misfortune to be presiding, at one stage removed, over what people regard as a disgustingly inefficient and disgraceful commuter service. When the people of London describe the service in this way, I do not believe that they are being pragmatically unfair.
The Evening News has done a great service in bringing these facts to the attention of the authorities. It is rumoured that even Ministers sometimes read newspapers and might have seen reports of occasionally amusing but usually distressing examples of the catastrophic nature of some commuter services.
It would be wrong not to pay tribute also to the Evening Standard, which, with some justification, has been concentrating recently more on the special problems affecting the bus services. It has done an equally notable and successful job in bringing problems to the attention of those responsible.
A number of cases have been brought to my attention. The Secretary of State rightly is driven around in an official car in the performance of his onerous duties. I do not criticise him for that. But if we are to escape the charge of being remote from these problems, we must pay attention to them and realise just how citizens can be affected.
Let us take, for instance, the case of Mr. Derek Guard, an architectural assistant from Ruislip. He goes to Tottenham Court Road every day and normally arrives later than expected and after the time he is due to start work. On 10th November he missed the 8.17 a.m. train from South Ruislip. The next train, the 8.29 was cancelled and no one bothered to tell more than 200 commuters waiting on the platform. They eventually got on a packed tube train at 8.50 a.m. The cost of this service is £1.20 per day.
London Transport apologised later for not having informed the commuters. It said that the service should be running every 12 minutes and that the 8.29 was cancelled because a guard was sick, did not turn up for duty and did not tell London Transport. A spokesman for London Transport said:We do not always announce a cancellation in case we can rustle up a spare crew at the last minute. However, we are trying to improve the information system.871 "System" seems too grand a word for this kind of arrangement.
I have with me details of the case of another commuter, Mr. Charles Bryce, whose journey from Stamford Hill to Tufnell Park—two 10p bus rides—takes one and a half hours. He blames the No. 106 bus which he takes from Stamford Hill to Finsbury Park where he changes to a No. 4 bus. He says that the No. 106 buses are supposed to run every eight to ten minutes and adds:that is the biggest lie I ever saw. I wait half an hour, then three come at once.There is also the case of Mr. Martin Woolhouse from Oxhey, a dairy depot manager, who bitterly regrets his transfer to a new job at Eastcote because of the problems with the No. 282 bus route. He writes:Today, I started queuing at 8.20 a.m. and was still there at 9 a.m. when four 282s came down the road in the opposite direction. It is the same most days—a terrible start to anybody's day.London Transport confirmed the daily delays and said that they were due to a combination of buses cancelled, because of spare part shortages and extensive road works causing serious traffic congestion in Western Avenue.
A bus conductor from Cricklewood claimed in the Press that at least 10 drivers a day were working rest-day overtime when there were no buses for them to drive. He said that this was known in advance and that the total cost worked out at about £5,000 a week. Including other garages it must cost London Transport about £1 million a year. Perhaps the Secretary of State has never heard of this arrangement. I was shocked to hear of it and I would appreciate his comments.
I know that you are always patient, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I do not wish to tax your patience, but these are matters which must be aired if improvements are to be made in future.
I have here details of another service —the S2 six minute journey from Bromley by Bow to Clapton Pond—which has gone from bad to worse. A regular commuter who works in a maternity wear shop at Clapton waits at Cadogan Terrace. On one rainy morning she waited from 8.25 until 9.5 a.m. and was understandably angry. She 872 was late for work again, but luckily her employer is an understanding person.
London Transport told the Press:It is some old stock that is not very reliable and keeps breaking down. We are doing our best, but these off-the-peg buses do not stand up to working so long in London. With better tools, we could do a better job. We apologise, but it is a problem with the entire fleet.That last sentence sounds rather ominous.
Mrs. Pat Tiley lives in Chingford and usually has dinner ready for her 18-yearold son when he returns from his job with a clearing bank in the City. However, the meal is often ruined and Mrs. Tiley blames the No. 102 bus that brings her son the 10 stops from Chingford station. On the day to which she refers, the bus was 45 minutes late and that was not an isolated incident. She says that it happens most evenings for scores of people exhausted and anxious to get home after a long day's work.
The night before, said Mrs. Tiley, her son and other passengers got on a No. 102 at 6 p.m. and in the next 45 minutes two more No. 102s arrived and formed a three-bust queue. At 6.45 p.m., the first bus pulled out. Mrs. Tiley rightly asks:What are we supposed to do with a bus service like this?As a result of the publicity, I have been inundated with examples of problems. One can understand the depth of public feeling about this matter.
Much to the Secretary of State's relief, no doubt, I shall not go on quoting incidents, but he should know that this is happening every day. The examples that I have quoted are not isolated incidents when there has been an aberration or bad weather affecting a service which is normally smooth, streamlined and efficient.
Apart from the experiences of individual commuters, there is the general picture. I have enunciated some aspects of the overall financial picture, hoping for some clarification and explanation from the Government. But inevitably there are certain questions, with which I conclude my speech in the hope that there may be some encouragement for the public in the Greater London area.
I have inevitably dwelt mainly on London Transport and its financial problems, but there is a huge problem affecting British Rail commuter services in financial terms now facing the management, particularly in the Greater London 873 and Southern Region areas. I hope that the Secretary of State will explain his specific policy in the light of the threatened fare rise coming in January on top of eight increases in fares in the last few years for commuters who now find season tickets more elaborate and luxurious than foreign holidays and other matters which families naturally want.
Inevitably, because of pressure on public finances, we are approaching some kind of intellectual watershed about these matters. Undoubtedly we shall have to think of those things against which successive authorities have perhaps set their faces because they felt that they would open up new areas of means and methods of financing the hard-pressed commuter who is finding it increasingly difficult to pay the present level of fares.
Another aspect of this problem concerns tourism in London. There is no magic and easy way in which to get the wealthy tourist to pay more for some services. However, I hope that the Government will consider that aspect with the management of London Transport. It seems wrong that ratepayers and residents of London boroughs, and indeed on the fringes of London, should have to bear the same kind of direct financial burden, and more, because they are paying for other things as well, as the wealthy overseas visitor who could pay a differential rate.
I make that suggestion tentatively and with some hesitation because I know of the enormous problems surrounding the practical implementation of such a policy. It may be that something along the lines of the consolidation of a single fare in inner areas, just as they have in other foreign cities, might be the right way to go about it if we were confident about the statistics showing that short journeys in inner London were overwhelmingly undertaken in the summer months, above all, by foreign tourists. I know that is a problematical area.
I now make a suggestion which I believe Parliament will have to embrace at some stage. I am conscious that this suggestion is more for the Secretary of State's colleagues than for himself, but I have to make it in the context of the debate. I have shared objections to this idea in the past and I am therefore more of a passionate convert. We are now at the point where we shall have to consider giving 874 tax relief for regular travel so that people can file with the Inland Revenue the amounts they spend on regular tickets or season tickets and claim relief in their annual tax returns.
The Secretary of State, by definition, may say that is a matter for his right hon. Friend the Chancellor and that there is nothing for him to say. However, I should like him to succumb to the natural temptation, which I am sure he feels, to express even a tentative opinion about that matter.
I appreciate that this suggestion has been made on other occasions. The cost of season tickets, particularly for British Rail commuters, is now a large part of their regular weekly expenditure in the domestic budget. These amounts are now so large that they represent major items of expenditure incurred wholly, essentially and unavoidably in the pursuance of jobs, professions, careers, or whatever.
Tax relief would be another way of giving a subsidy, but it would take pressure off the direct amount of subsidy increases which will be necessary to contain future fares increases, whatever may happen to GLC rate increases, and so on. If it comes out of another drawer of the Exchequer as a whole, it does not detract from its potential respectability as one way of creating a new threshold of easement of the increasing financial burden which commuters have to bear.
I have referred to the fact that managements have become increasingly top heavy as services have deteriorated in quality and efficiency. Surely there is a powerful attraction in saying that it would be better to expend any additional subsidy directly not to managements in the way that we have done automatically in the past for them to spend on things under their control and at their discretion, but to the commuter, leaving it to him to make the necessary decisions about the costs of travel, how to travel, and so on, and to use that tax relief to the best benefit of the community as a whole.
Part and parcel of that idea, of which I am in favour and formally propose for the Government's consideration, would be that firms should be allowed to hand out travel vouchers to their employees on which the firms would receive some kind of appropriate tax offset. Luncheon vouchers are often considered, but they 875 are regarded as too low in these inflationary times.
However, when we consider the burden and hard work involved in travelling and the importance of trying to reduce the extent to which employees arrive at their work exhausted and washed out as a result of difficult journeys, I should think that the idea of travel vouchers would have a great attraction to commercial enterprises and other bodies in London which draw their staff from the outer areas.
Coming back to the management of London Transport and the commuter services of British Rail, I suggest that it is time that the worst examples of overmanning were tackled. We are all conscious of high levels of unemployment prevailing, even in the South-East and London. But I suggest that at the operational end of commuter services as a whole there are visible examples of overmanning. That usually means the non-mobile staff. However, I should like to pay tribute to a category of staff which I have not mentioned which comes in for a certain amount of criticism, often unfairly—namely, the supervisors. They, too, are fed up with what has been happening in recent years.
It may be necessary to consider many aspects, but perhaps the most important is the Government subsidy to London Transport and British Rail. Of course, these other matters come into the general context. They are important, undeniable, and increasingly necessary for the success of an overall rational commuter policy in London.
It may be necessary further to restrict private cars in some of the streets in inner London. I make that suggestion with obvious hesitation. However, where it has been tackled with courage in other big cities in the world, the results have been pleasing. Even the ardent motorists have said that they do not wish to see the return of the private car to particular streets. It is negative to reflect that all we have so far is a restriction in Oxford Street, but even that is not properly observed. That is all part and parcel of the whole picture.
I am grateful to the House for being so patient in listening to me. I am conscious that I have taken a long time, but 876 I feel that it is worth while, bearing in mind the feelings of the average citizen about this matter.
Again, I express my gratitude to the Secretary of State for coming here today. I hope that it will not vanish if he does not live up to his well-earned reputation for being a politician who is prepared to face things squarely. I hope that he will give an assurance that the Government are taking the whole issue to heart, are prepared to do the right things, are as worried and anxious about the situation as everybody else, are prepared to tackle these problems, and have a message of encouragement for Londoners.
§ 2.30 p.m.
§ Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)
I think that all those who have heard the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) will congratulate him on being able to quadruple the length of his speech at relatively short notice. I shall comment on some of the things he mentioned, but my speech has the consequent disadvantage of having been prepared virtually within the ambit of the hon. Gentleman's remarks because, as hon. Members will have gathered, we have an unexpected opportunity to debate this important and timely topic because of the unexpected withdrawal by the Government of the previous business about Standing Orders.
The number of hon. Members in the Chamber is no reflection of the concern of London Members over this matter. They were assuming that it would be dealt with in two short speeches in half an hour from 4 o'clock. As that is not the case, although I do not know how long I shall be relative to the speech of the hon. Gentleman, we can all agree that we have an opportunity to do justice to this important debate.
I was surprised at some of the things said by the hon. Gentleman, because if some of his friends at County Hall had had their way some time ago—indeed, if his party had had its way; I do not want to be controversial, but it is only fair to mention it—and won the GLC election, we should at this moment be throwing up massive ringways around London to take still more people by motor car and absorbing still greater amounts of public expenditure on roadways, when clearly 877 the situation since the oil crisis and in the environmental sense has changed. The hon. Gentleman ought to remember this when he and his hon. Friends complain about public transport.
Secondly, any further increases that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my friends at the GLC intend to divert by way of subsidy mean further public expenditures which the hon. Gentleman and his party vociferiously and continuously require to be reduced. I hope that from now on party controversy can largely be stilled, but it would have been wrong not to have made those specific comments before looking at the main problems.
I go along with the hon. Gentleman in some of the things he said about London Transport, although he skilfully paid tribute to all and sundry and then criticised them in particular. I am unhappy with London Transport, and it knows it. I was glad to introduce a Bill to enable it to manufacture and sell certain items of bus equipment in relation to bus suppliers, but the "No bus available "—the NBA—scandal has been going on for far too long. It started before the three-day working week. Therefore, that alibi of London Transport can be dispensed with.
One has to say things fairly firmly in this place for them to get out. One of the basic problems of the NBA scandal is to be found in the assumptions of the Government. I shall not go into this in detail, but the bus design subsidy that the Government decided to reduce had side effects that were unexpected and have been extremely bad, coupled with certain technical inefficiencies in the organisation of British Leyland.
I shall not go further into that, but it is right that somebody, somewhere—perhaps a Select Committee—should follow up what has been a most unhappy train of events. If this sort of thing goes wrong in one of the sectors of British technology which heretofore has been in the forefront—namely, vehicle design—it is an example to the whole country. I hope that a Select Committee will root out this problem, because it is an example of what is wrong with British industry and to some extent with relations between the Government and top management.
878 The London Transport organisation is in many ways admirable, but I find some of its local management decisions and lack of concern for the individual passenger intolerable. As a Member of Parliament for six years, I have consistently pointed out some of its administrative failings, with no response—or, at least, no response to my satisfaction. But that is a matter for the elected members of the GLC in detail and not for me, although I hope that the London Transport Passengers Committee of 26 Old Queen Street, SW1, will get some publicity out of the current controversy, because that is the consumer body for London, and if the hon. Member for Harrow, East would send some of the letters that he has received to that body they might get more attention than they will from my right hon. Friend, who has no direct responsibility for London Transport.
I turn now to the underlying theme of this debate, because the transport and commuter problem and its finances in London are a reflection of the public transport problems over the country as a whole.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)
Order. I remind the hon. Member that this is not a debate on transport policy as such.
§ Mr. Spearing
I realise that, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but the fact that rail journeys in London and the South-East account for 43 per cent. of total British Railways passenger mileage tells its own story. That is equivalent to passenger miles by Inter-city. Therefore, while thoroughly understanding the point you have made, it is my contention that although, technically, this is a debate on the Adjournment, one cannot separate the problems of London Transport from those of the railways as a whole. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport would not be here but for that.
My right hon. Friend's consultative paper overlooks one major point that is exemplified in London, and that is that public transport is vital for those areas that grew up before the private car became widely available. That is a fundamental political and financial problem that many Governments and, indeed, my 879 friends at the GLC have consistently failed to understand. Any urban area that was built and whose facilities and transport modes were established prior to the middle 1960s or late 1950s—the year is immaterial—have to be based on public transport, and this public transport association must be maintained. London is the prime example of that in the nation.
Our problem is that private car economics—I am not anti-car, although I do not happen to be a car owner so I can understand the problems of public transport—consistently undermine the finances of public transport, and will continue to do so, however much the Government pay in subsidy and however much they require commuter fares to go up. Quite apart from those who get a direct subsidy from their jobs for the maintenance of motor cars, those who have motor cars and travel to work instead of using public transport are continually internally subsidising themselves, because the higher the level of fares, the greater the amount of money spent on basic car costs that would otherwise be spent elsewhere.
As everybody knows, particularly with the reduction in congestion, travel by car on the whole reduces uncertainty and is of much greater convenience. If two or three friends get together for social or work purposes, in certain circumstances they can travel very much more cheaply by private car if parking is available at their place of work—terminal facilities are fundamental to using a private car—than they can by public transport, yet in terms of social cost and in terms of absolute cost to the economy the chances are that the cost of travel by public transport is much less. That is one dilemma that my right hon. Friend has to solve for London, and London's problem is pre-eminently the one that faces the nation.
The situation is well explained in my constituency. I receive many letters of the kind referred to by the hon. Member for Harrow, East. One gentleman who has a wife and two children wrote to me. He says that if he wishes to travel from Plaistow to East Ham the journey costs 30p per mile. We know that the cost of running a car is about 11p to 15p a mile according to the official statistics, 880 certainly for Members of Parliament. Most of my constituents do not own motor cars. Therefore, if they wish to travel on the London Underground they have to pay nearly three times as much per mile as it costs to travel by private car. That is the inverted situation which we have already reached.
People who pay for season tickets to come into London, as many of my constituents do, are paying vastly increased costs because of the diminishing revenue base. It is no wonder that greater inconvenience and increasing costs tighten the spiral. It is a dilemma that the Minister cannot easily get out of, particularly in respect of British Rail when there are reductions in freight revenue.
This difficulty, which is now facing the country as a whole, was faced in London in the late 1950s. The response of County Hall in the late 1960s was the same as that of my right hon. Friend—to put up the fares. In the early 1970s the GLC put up the fares on the Inner Circle line and when things got more difficult it put up the fares on the Underground as a whole. One of the anomalies we now face in London is that Underground fares are substantially higher than bus fares, whereas in 1912 they were the same and have been until relatively recently.
Before the war in London all fares from the private companies—the Southern Railway, the railway groups, the buses and the Underground—were pooled. But that came to a end when London Transport became officially nationalised in 1947. In many ways we are being forced backwards in terms of convenience by the inexorable advance in techniques which we cannot control, namely, the private car. At the same time, the public mechanism, despite public ownership—I say this advisedly—has also gone backwards even when compared to private competition before the war.
The London Rail Study Report was published two years ago but it has taken Whitehall two years to set up the London Rail Committee. That committee was called for by the GLC and was agreed to by the Government, yet it has taken two years to set it up in order to look at the recommendations in the London Rail Study Report.
I asked Questions about this of my right hon. Friend and his predecessor in 881 the Department of the Environment. I know that there are problems. There are always problems when setting up committees. One has to find a good chairman. I wish Mr. Herring, the new chairman, all the best. He has great experience of air transport and aeroplanes. I hope that he can fully grasp the subtle and different field of urban transport in London. But I wonder where we are going if it takes Whitehall two years to set up a committee to have a look at the recommendations of the Barran Report.
My right hon. Friend told us only two days ago where he is going. He is going by electric train to Luton and St. Albans from St. Pancras. That is an improvement in its own right, just as the Great Northern electrification scheme is an improvement, although I understand the complaints of the hon. Member for Harrow, East regarding its teething troubles. I believe that the St. Albans scheme will cost many millions of pounds.
We have been waiting two years for some of the modest schemes that the Barran Report advocated. It advocated Cross-Rail and suggested that trains could go from the Holborn Viaduct station through existing tunnels. It was a modest scheme. The track was there and was used by 20 goods trains a day until three years ago, when British Rail took the tracks up. But the route is there at very little cost. My right hon. Friend can announce vast sums for the electrification of St. Pancras at the drop of a hat. I would suggest that somewhere in his Department there is a good assessment with regard to how public moneys should be used for London railways. I asked his earlier predecessor, the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton), Questions relating to the Great Northern electrification but I did not receive satisfactory answers.
My constituency has waited for an interchange station at West Ham. That would cost perhaps £10,000. The official estimate was one of £250,000 which is ridiculous for an interchange station on existing tracks. There is no means of knowing whether by investing marginally small sums we should gain great benefits.
Another anomaly is in respect of the North Woolwich and Stratford line—an important line for the redevelopment of Dockland—which the Barran Report said should be upgraded and for which the 882 GLC is paying a subsidy. But British Railways are cancelling trains because they say that they do not have the equipment. Here we are paying a rail subsidy to keep open a line which would otherwise be closed because British Rail cannot even supply the stock for that particular line.
The NUR members who operate that line say that they are overstaffed and that they have no confidence in the local management, I cannot judge whether they are correct, because the facts are not known. But certainly their morale is low because they do not like having to tell people sitting in the diesel multiple unit train at Stratford, "Sorry, this train is wanted elsewhere. You will have to get out". That is what is happening. I suggest that perhaps the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries might have a look at this problem.
I do not want to be entirely negative in my remarks. The massive increase in revenue support to transport in London has not been sufficiently realised. We have got to give credit to the Government for this. In 1970 there was virtually no support but from 1970 to 1975 GLC support has increased, so that now it is of the order of £106 million a year. The speed of the cycle has come very fast indeed. Because of pressures that we all understand, the Government cannot now say for how much longer they can support that amount of revenue. That has been the result of discussions which the Minister has been having with the GLC and which have been reported in the Press today.
Whatever happens, the situation cannot be solved by reducing subsidies and increasing fares. I am not even convinced, assuming that the country had plenty of money, that the situation would be properly solved by increasing subsidies and keeping the fares as they are. I do not think that that would be using the basic London Transport network in the right way.
The House may not realise that inside the GLC area there are 500 stations of one kind or another. The running cost of a train is about one-third of the total cost. Two-thirds of the cost of the railway network, possibly more, is in the considerable capital overheads. Those who wish to use the network at weekends and in off-peak hours are deterred from doing 883 so because of penal fares. Therefore, for a considerable part of the time trains run half empty. I am not talking about the commuter services. Those who travel on commuter services in full trains must remember that for each full train there is an empty train going in the opposite direction, so that commuter trains are used only to 50 per cent, capacity in the rush hours.
My right hon. Friend and the transport intellectuals of the country should be considering means of funding public transport other than by season tickets and journey fares proportional to the distance. That system suppresses traffic and in the long run we cannot sustain the system by it. My right hon. Friend should investigate some of the commercial and financial mechanisms which can stem the vicious circle and, if not convert it into a benign circle, hold the position steady.
There are various ways by which that could be done, certainly locally. It could be done, for instance, between North Woolwich and Stratford, between Harrow and Wembley or between other places which are a short distance apart where there is a shopping movement, particularly urban centres. Urban centres can live only if they are given proper public transport. A ticket could be issued either for off-peak periods or for all time for. say, a month, which could be used for un limited travel. That is the origin of "commute". A single fare is commuted by a lump sum.
If that were to be done, the people would know that every additional journey they took would, in effect, be free. No one—except for some public transport authorities elsewhere in the country—has considered that method. Three or four years ago I asked London Transport to consider using it in the outer areas, but no action was taken. It is a sensible proposal which might increase revenue without increasing expenditure.
The second proposal, which I know will please the hon. Member for Faver sham (Mr. Moate), is that those who al. ready contribute considerable sums by way of season tickets should, for an additional lump sum—perhaps on a sliding scale related to what they are already paying—get an additional ticket which would allow them free additional travel over the whole network.
884 A season ticket only entitles a person to travel between two points. That is fair enough for peak-hour travel. But by this method during weekends and off-peak periods a person would be able to travel over a defined network for as many journeys as he liked at no extra cost.
A relatively small proportion of the London public sustain railways in London. They are already paying considerable sums to help to keep the basic services going. Why not, on the payment of a relatively small additional amount, allow them to travel widely at no increased cost to the railways, because the trains are running anyway? There is the additional possibility of Sunday travel by this means to enable families with a relatively low income to see relatives. It is very expensive for people without cars to travel about London to visit their relatives or even to visit hospitals, even if a journey of only two or three miles is involved.
I do not put forward my final suggestion in a definitive sense, but we may have to adopt it in time if not now. The car is a convenient form of transport. A driver who bought a gallon of petrol might get a token of lop which could be exchanged anywhere for the equivalent fare on public transport. I do not say that that suggestion would work, but it would bring into balance the financial difference between private and public transport. It has not engaged the attention of transport economists. The idea is not to prevent people travelling by car but to put into their pocket a token representing part of the money they pay for their petrol which they can exchange for public transport.
I do not say that there would be no snags, but I think that the suggestion should be investigated. In that way the amount of revenue accruing to public transport would increase and people could hardly complain that the motorist was being robbed, because the tokens would be encashable—they would almost become a coinage—and would add to public transport income.
I hope that the media in mentioning this debate will not say that that is a firm suggestion, but unless something of that nature is brought into the economic working of public transport I see no end to the dilemmas that will arise in terms of revenue support or increasing fares.
885 The chances are that we shall intensify the present unsatisfactory position by massive inputs of Government support. I pay tribute to the Government for giving a massive subsidy of £100 million a year to London Transport. But we have high fares as well, so we get the worst of both worlds.
The consultative document does not go far enough into the fundamental problems of maintaining coherent centres of business and industry, which can only live, thrive and develop if they have a public transport system alongside and in competition with a private transport system which does not undermine the economics of public transport and the coherence of the society on which it depends in the older urban centres.
§ 2.58 p.m.
§ Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham)
There Is a political version of Parkinson's law that speeches extend to fill the time available for their completion. It is clearly true of Adjournment debates on some occasions. The House will be relieved to know that I do not intend to follow that doctrine. I shall be brief.
We should be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) for providing this opportunity for us to discuss the plight of commuters in the greater London area, and we are grateful to circumstance that several hon. Members have been able to contribute to the debate. That is particularly so because the transport debates which would have allowed us to make these comments have been postponed—not cancelled, I hope. I hope that their postponement or deferment does not mean that the Government are not giving the question of transport the attention that it deserves.
There is a crisis of public transport. When my hon. Friend referred to the plight of commuters, he used the right word. It is a sad and sorry plight. Many of the commuters living in my area face the future with grim foreboding, not only because of the announced increase in rail fares but because of the increases which they foresee being made thereafter. The situation is gloomy. I emphasise to the Minister how bad it is for many of the thousands of people who travel fairly considerable distances to London each day. They have no choice but to do so.
886 Many of them are captive commuters. They live too far away to travel by car or bus and there is no local employment for them, so they have to come to London.
Many people moved out to the areas in which they live because they saw the prospect of cheaper housing. They were encouraged to do so by advertisements and so on. They are suffering most in the present economic circumstances. They work in town for large employers. They have no opportunity to earn overtime. They are very much subject to the Pay Code. They see nearly all of an extra £4 a week, less tax, being swallowed by higher rail fares. They are paying higher mortgage interest rates and local government rates. They are faced with increased electricity and gas bills. Therefore, when British Railways announced that there would be a 16 per cent. increase in fares in January, their hearts sank, because they do not know where the money will come from.
For commuters from Faversham, that 16 per cent. increase means that a monthly season ticket will cost more than £45. For those coming from Sitting-bourne, the cost will be about £43. That represents about a 100 per cent. increase in two and a half years. It is an enormous increase, far greater than increases made in incomes in that period and far greater even than the increase in the Retail Price Index. Is it any wonder that they say "What is all this business about a social contract and a Price Code? It does not seem to apply to any of the things which most affect our standard of living."
In many cases the £45 season ticket will apply to young married couples buying homes for the first time. I calculate that such couples must earn about £1,700 a year extra in gross income to have sufficient net income to pay their joint rail fares. Therefore, with a forthcoming increase of 16 per cent. one can well understand their dismay about what is happening. They are further angered—I emphasise this point to the Minister—by the feeling that they are being discriminated against when fares on other lines—for example, Inter-city lines—are increased by only 10 per cent. They have long felt that they have been selected against to pay higher increases than other 887 rail travellers. They could never prove it but they felt it.
I ask the House to understand the feelings of those people when the late Chairman—I should say former Chairman—of British Railways, Sir Richard Marsh. makes statements as soon as he has ceased to be chairman which confirm everything they have always believed. Only then does he say that commuters are travelling in cattle truck conditions. I have not his precise words, but I do not think I have misquoted them. He went on to say that, as an act of policy, commuters were being squeezed to the utmost because they were captive and could pay the most. Disregarding the question of profit and loss, they were being selected against. British Railways hotly deny what the former chairman has said, but as soon as he leaves office he confirms people's suspicions.
§ Mr. Dykes
I imagine that my hon Friend will agree that it is not so much the chairman who is late as most of the trains. My hon. Friend has said that for a young married couple an increase of £1,700 in domestic earnings is necessary to pay for the increased cost of a season ticket. Does he agree that it would be tremendously welcome and helpful if those people were able to claim tax relief on a substantial proportion of the cost, as happens with mortgage interest?
§ Mr. Moate
Obviously it would be a welcome relief to those individuals, but I have never been totally convinced of the case for tax relief. There is a strong argument against it on national grounds. We cannot give tax relief to commuters, no matter how hard-pressed they are, without doing the same for others. We might just as well reduce the rate of income tax, which would apply to almost everyone.
I hope that the Minister will look favourably on the suggestion that employers should provide travel vouchers. We should never try to disguise the fact that the ultimate cost of travelling within London has to be borne by employers, whether by way of higher wages or in another form, such as travel vouchers. In any capital city the income levels have to be that much higher to compensate for the extra cost of travelling to and from work. I hope that the Secretary of State will 888 look at that suggestion and encourage the Chancellor of the Exchequer to look favourably on it. That would be a proper way of ensuring that travel costs are reflected in earnings and not necessarily regarded as a fully taxable benefit in kind. Any suggestion like this should be considered, because something must be done to relieve the financial burden and the worry of hundreds of thousands of families who are subject to the wretched £4 a week pay limit. They have no way of financing massive rail fares.
The Secretary of State comes to office with a high reputation, and I hope that he will leave it with an equally high one. He has something of a bed of nails to to lie on. His first Question Time demonstrated the understanding for which he is renowned. He answered Questions with great understanding, sympathy and awareness of the problems. I asked him about public inquiries. I pointed out that if an increase in bus fares was proposed there had to be something akin to a public inquiry before traffic commissioners. The bus company has to prove its case. When there are rail increases, British Rail does not have to prove the case publicly. It may have to do so to the Secretary of State, but that is not satisfactory to the commuter who feels—and he has had his worst suspicions confimed—that he is being discriminated against.
There is no statutory obligation to have a public inquiry when there are rail increases. The Secretary of State would win acclaim throughout the country if he were to tell British Rail that it must not introduce the proposed fare increases in January but must instead defer them until such time as a public inquiry is mounted. This would give an opportunity to commuter associations and others to cross-examine British Rail about the rail increases, to find out which lines were making a loss and which were making a profit and how overheads were apportioned and to question levels of productivity and efficiency. British Rail may feel that such a suggestion is hostile, but the more that British Rail demonstrates to the public the nature of its problems the greater is the likelihood of the public accepting inevitable increases—if they are inevitable. There would be a greater opportunity for people to make suggestions to British Rail about how it could improve efficiency.
889 I ask the Secretary of State to consider introducing a system of public inquiries. That would generate good will towards British Rail and would persuade commuters more readily to accept inevitable rail increases.
At present, I do not believe that we are getting fair treatment on our railways. There is discrimination. We ought to know the facts and figures so that we can decide whether the charges are right and proper. Certain lines are subsidising other lines, which is not as the situation should be.
Those are the main points I wish to make, and I hope that the Minister will fulfil the high expectations we have of him. I was hoping he would say that the fare increases will be deferred until he has had a better chance to get to grips with the transport system. He has not done so but perhaps that was asking too much.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
The hon. Gentleman has not yet given the Minister a chance to reply. In those circumstances, how does he expect that he can make that kind of statement?
§ 3.12 p.m.
§ Mr. Norman Fowler (Sutton Cold-field)
I wish to intervene briefly and, at the outset, I wish to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) on raising this important subject. This is clearly a matter which we shall seek to raise in a debate on general transport policy, but certainly the situation of commuters merits a separate debate. The last occasion when this matter was raised in the House was in March this year when half of a Supply Day was devoted to discussing the subject.
Let me make clear that there is no doubt that commuters, particularly those in London and the South-East, have been cruelly affected by the worst series of fare rises we have ever seen. This is particularly true in the London area, where in the past two years fares have doubled.
890 British Rail fares in two years have risen by 88 per cent., with more to come in January next year. London Underground fares have risen in the last two years by 114 per cent., and London bus fares have increased by a total of 94 per cent. These are vast increases and we should be in no doubt about the catastrophic effect of such increases on family budgets.
The major reason behind these increases is the inflation which affected us with particular force in the past two years. This has hit the labour-intensive industries such as transport, in which 73 per cent. of costs are represented by labour. Anybody who needs proof of this situation needs only to look at how the working expenses of organisations such as London Transport have increased in this period. Clearly, the Government must take the responsibility for failing to tackle inflation early enough.
I do not pretend that there are easy answers to these problems, and the Minister will not find me seeking to say that the solutions are easy. Clearly, the first priority of policy of any Government must be to tackle inflation. That is crucial in seeking to contain fare increases.
I wish first to refer to the situation on British Rail. Although fares have increased on British Rail, there is a serious shortage of financial information setting out on what criteria fares are based. My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) mentioned the situation of commuters, and what he said was substantially correct. The new fare increases average out at 12 per cent. Those using commuter services in London and the South-East will pay appreciably more than will Inter-city services. This is somewhat curious because hitherto British Rail has maintained that it does not apportion the costs of services. A few years ago it was its practice to do so. The 1973 annual report showed the costs apportioned for all the various services but today those costs are not published.
This leads to two possible interpretations. The first is that apportionment does take place but the results are not published, and the second is that apportionment does not take place, in which case the question arises as to what basis the fare increases are made upon. The 891 point was made by a commuter in a letter to The Times a week or two ago. He said that he paid one-twelfth of his take-home pay on fares to go to and from work and that at the very least he had the right to know where that money went. I agree with him. It is the public's right to know.
But the matter goes further than that. Unless we have a reliable system of apportionment of costs, it is also difficult to see how the managers within British Rail can judge the effectiveness of their policy—what services and what initiatives are making profits and what are making losses. Productivity within the transport organisations must be a crucial question. In an industry where over two-thirds of the costs are labour costs, it needs no emphasis that productivity is vital.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East talked of improvements in the administrative staff employed by London Transport, and I am sure that that is true. It is equally true within British Rail. But, as we have said for some time, improvements in productivity within British Rail are possible and necessary.
Such statements have hitherto been scoffed at and rejected by the Government but are confirmed now in the Board's response to the Government's transport consultation document. The Board says that it is possible to have improvements in productivity, and that it is possible to think of reductions in staff by about 40,000 by 1981. That will be achieved not by massive sackings but by wastage and control of recruitment.
I pay tribute to the improvements in productivity which have taken place during the last 15 to 20 years within British Rail. Staff has been reduced very substantially over that period, and it is right to recognise the fact and pay tribute to it. Nevertheless, it is clear that further improvements are not only possible but necessary, and we expect the opportunity to be taken.
The Secretary of State, in talking about the fare increases which will come into operation in January, has said that basically he has a choice—fares can go up or public expenditure will have to be increased. That is substantially true, and I do not challenge it. But the element 892 he missed out was that productivity improvements in British Rail are also possible, and I hope that he will confirm that that is his understanding of the position and his aim of policy.
Clearly, we accept—the Conservative Party above all—the limitations upon public expenditure. I must emphasise that point. But the situation has one clear implication—we must see where we are using our money at present. The position at the moment is that subsidy is going not only to passenger services but to freight services.
A subsidy of £66 million a year is going to British rail freight operations. A subsidy of £31 million a year is going to the National Freight Corporation, although I understand that there is a prospect that that figure may reduce in the current financial year. Nevertheless, it is a formidable sum for subsidising the carriage of freight from one part of the country to another.
§ Mr. Spearing
Will not the hon. Gentleman agree that it is extremely difficult to put an accurate figure to the apparent cross-subsidy between passenger and freight services? Is he not aware that under the accounting procedures imposed on this country by the EEC in respect of transport, the amount of money attributable to freight is very often an arbitrary figure and therefore not a true reflection of the actual ascertainable costs?
§ Mr. Fowler
It is an interesting point. It does not happen to be a relevant point to make about the figures I am using. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to go into the question of apportioning of costs, I suggest that he reads his own Govern ment's consultation document. In his consultation document his right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State for the Environment, now Foreign Secretary—not my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham or my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East or myself, but his own right hon. Friend—said quite clearly that the apportionment of costs used in British Rail freight operations was not unfair to British Rail freight operations but was favourable to them. That is the point. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to go further down that road he will only be emphasising the point that I am making.
893 My substantial point here is not one of detail but one of principle. It is whether there is any social, environmental or public need to subsidise freight operations. In my view there is not, and I hope that the Secretary of State will confirm that it is now the intention and aim of the Government to eliminate the freight subsidy in this country.
Lastly, let me add this to what my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East and my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham both said so eloquently on the problems involved. There are very important and serious human problems involved in this question, and I do not think that anyone should seek to under estimate its importance.
Commuters resent being regarded as a captive affluent middle-class travelling group. Many commuters moved out of the centre of London for one reason and one reason alone—so that they could buy a house or home which they could afford to buy and in which they could afford to live. That is the problem we have to face. It is a real problem and we must pay serious attention to it and give proper priority to it.
§ 3.23 p.m.
§ The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. William Rodgers)
The debate has been a great deal longer than any of us anticipated, but I think it has been worth while. I ask hon. Gentlemen on both sides—and particularly the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler)—not to expect me to follow them in all the important matters raised.
This is not to diminish their importance in any way or to suggest that they are irrelevant to our main transport problems. But, although there is still time available to me to make a long speech this afternoon, I am not sure that that would entirely accord with the wishes of those Members present. I have made already my views on freight clear, and I shall no doubt find an opportunity to do so again.
As for passenger subsidy questions, I have expressed the view on a number of occasions that we should as far as possible seek to identify needs and then to meet them. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) said in his intervention, this is not as easy as it sounds. But certainly as long as there is a very substantial Exchequer sub 894 sidy to public transport, we should do out best to make sure that the public get value for money—in other words, that those most in need are getting their proper share of the resources which are made available.
I am glad that we are having this debate this afternoon. I have lived in London for 25 years and for some months I travelled on the then notorious Dartford loop line. It was then served by the most extraordinary double decker train which could barely get under the bridges on its way to Waterloo and Charing Cross. Whether we were packed in like cattle, as the hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) suggested, or like sardines, it was a pretty uncomfortable journey. I grumbled about it then, as I expect many commuters do today. I still live in London and I have a family who travel into town, so I am aware of the problems of commuters.
It is a good thing that the Secretary of State should be always aware of the purposes of the system for which he is responsible. However, there have been times when it has been suggested that I am personally responsible for every train that is late, every bus that breaks down, and every guard who does not turn up. But the fact is that I do not have managerial responsibility for the day-to-day working of our transport system.
It would be improper for any Minister from this Dispatch Box or from an office in Marsham Street to try to run the railways or the bus system. What I must do is try to lay down the framework within which others can make the proper managerial decisions. This fact was recognised by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South. If my responsibilities are to be a bed of nails, which is how the hon. Member for Faversham described them, the bed should be reasonably limited in size, and I should not be held guilty for crimes which it is not within my capacity to commit.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) for raising this question. I am aware of the anxieties of many commuters. They have a very strong sense of resentment. especially when faced by rising fares and deteriorating services. However, I think that we have a great deal to be proud of.
As Londoners keep telling us, London is unique in the world, and therefore its problems are unique as well. Despite 895 the present sense of grievance and the difficult travelling conditions, there is a great deal in London in which we can take pride. Let us not diminish the successes which have been achieved or the problems which have been handled. Let us give credit where this is due.
Traditionally, the role of the House of Commons is to redress grievances. I do not cast doubt upon the campaign which is being conducted outside this House by saying that it is, nevertheless, what we decide here, by proper discussion, which determines the future shape of transport policy, and which solves the problems of commuters.
We had hoped to have a wider debate on transport policy on the basis of the consultation document, but the Opposition were playing games, and as a result we lost the time available. I hope that time will be found for that debate which will be an occasion to pursue the matters which lie behind the speech today of the hon. Member for Harrow, East.
§ Mr. Norman Fowler
We cannot allow the right hon. Gentleman to get away with that. The games that were being played were played by his own side who shipped half their Members to the two by-elections, and we on this side regard that as a substantial contribution to the famous victories that we won.
§ Mr. Rodgers
All I remember is that a full day was allocated for a debate and that, on the initiative of an Opposition Member, a substantial part of that time was pre-empted and circumstances created in which it was not practical to go ahead with the discussion as planned. I do not want to argue the toss on this. I hope that I may be permitted an occasional divisive remark, since the hon. Member allowed himself to make one such remark.
§ Mr. Rodgers
I think that the hon. Gentleman's ear must be closer to the usual channels than mine is. I had not been alerted to that possibility. I 896 think we have it in common on both sides of the House this afternoon that we should have a wider discussion of some of these problems as soon as time can be found.
Perhaps I may say something which is not seriously in dispute, although a gloss may be put on it on both sides of the House. It has to be accepted that there is an inescapable equation. In any business revenue must cover costs, or other resources must be available to make up the difference. In the case of railways or public transport generally, and particularly the commuter services, if revenue from fares does not meet the costs of operation, there must be a subsidy. This must fall on taxes or rates or on both. There is no other way.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South made a number of interesting suggestions upon which I shall be reflecting. He suggested that there are other ways of funding based upon an imaginative commercial approach to the problem of fares. However, either the money comes in in fares or it comes from rates and taxes. If it comes from rates and taxes, it is a charge on public expenditure, with the full implication that that carries.
Of course there is room for increased efficiency in the provision of public transport. I would not argue in any other way for London, but that is true of every business. The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield referred to productivity, and I am sure that there is room for improvement there.
But let us assume that any present impediments to efficiency were removed. It would mean that costs, especially at a time of inflation, would have to be met by increased fares or increased subsidy. I put it therefore to the London commuter, because he is capable of facing this problem, that the choice can be his. If he does not want increased fares, is he prepared to pay more in rates and taxes to meet the deficit?
In an aside my hon. Friend used the phrase "assuming that the country had plenty of money". But I am sure that he used that phrase guardedly, because, like the rest of us, he is aware of the level of public expenditure and that the prospect is bleak. The question of priorities means that there must at any one 897 time be limited resources for public transport, and within those resources hard decisions must be made.
Certainly I would not lead the House to believe that more funds were likely to become available for public transport, particularly when we are preoccupied with the complicated question of the public sector borrowing requirement. My question therefore is totally fair. How does the commuter prefer to meet costs incurred in providing the services he uses? Should it be by fares or by rates and taxes? Should those who travel pay the true cost, or should the cost be met at least in part by those who do not use the service from which commuters benefit? When, if at all, is subsidy justified and to what extent? We may all answer these questions in different ways, but there is no means of escaping their reality.
§ Mr. Spearing
Does not my right hon. Friend agree that his carefully worded questions are too narrow? In urban areas many of those who do not use commuter services depend upon them to keep the urban social fabric alive. This was the major omission of his predecessor's consultative document which approached the matter from a financial motivation rather than a functional one—which would be there even if the country had plenty of money.
§ Mr. Rodgers
I accept that we could add another question in relation to those who do not use the services and whether they would be willing to pay rates and taxes because of the benefits the services bring to them. The point I am making is that we cannot have it both ways. We must make a choice about how resources are to be found.
We hear from time to time the argument that raising fares loses passengers and is destructive to London Transport. In logic it follows that if fares are reduced it might be possible to transform the position, bring back passengers and increase revenue. My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South made some interesting suggestions about revenue-raising devices.
This is an important issue and I should like my position to be clear. I have my responsibilities and the Chairman of British Rail has his. We have a mutual 898 understanding of this and it would be wrong for me to give him instructions on managerial matters. In so far as he believes that a reduction in fares might at any time increase revenue in relation to costs, I should greatly welcome such a reduction.
The chairman has said before that experiments with fares are commonplace within the British Rail network as a whole. Indeed, some would argue that they produce curious anomalies and additional difficulties, but British Rail may wish to go further still—and risk taking is a function of any business, though in this case it would be within the ceiling of Government support set out in the White Paper.
If the Board, after discussion with trade unions, decides to proceed with such an experiment, there would be no impediment on my part. But it is for the Board to decide within available resources what it can do best. I should welcome experiments in reducing fares to enable wider decisions to be made in the light of the evidence produced by such an experiment.
British Rail has a great deal of expertise in the relationships between fares and traffic and revenue and costs. I am sure that the House will recognise that the Board is as concerned as any of us to provide the best possible service for the greatest number of passengers. It is for the Board to exercise its judgment and decide on this matter. It has my blessing if it feels able to proceed with an experiment.
The hon. Member for Harrow, East referred to the transport supplementary grant and I have here a copy of today's Evening News with the headlines:First victory for the commuterand:Minister climbs down over cuts in services".I wish to make clear that I have not climbed down over anything, nor, by implication, have I ever required any cuts in services in London or anywhere else. I have been concerned in my statutory capacity with the allocation of the transport supplementary grant. The position which adopted some weeks ago is the position which I have maintained and will continue to maintain.
899 During that time, I have been seeking to persuade the GLC and the metropolitan counties of the need, in the national interest, to reduce the expenditure programmes which they had put forward. All had planned to spend more on transport in 1977–78 than was consistent with their share of available resources. I am glad to be able to say that six out of the seven authorities, including the GLC, have now said that they will do what I have asked.
These decisions have, I know, involved painful choices over priorities, but the authorities understand that, if we are to achieve the Government's strategy for the economy as a whole, they must keep within the severe constraints affecting all sectors of public expenditure which were set out in the public expenditure White Paper, Cmnd. 6393, revised by the Chancellor's statement in July.
I welcome the help which I have received from the authorities. As a result, I am reasonably confident that the limits on transport expenditure will be held to. This is good news. I recognise the difficulties which the authorities have faced and their commitments to providing adequate public transport systems and dealing with other problems.
London's problems are immense. I pay tribute to the professions and all those involved in the politics of London who have played their part in past years in seeking to solve these problems. I am very pleased that, as seems to be the case, they are now able to go ahead with their task within the public expenditure limits which I am obliged to impose—though with no difficulty on my part, because I think that they are necessary in the national interest—to govern the total of the transport supplementary grant in the coming year.
I shall not seek to cover all the points which have been made today. I am sorry that the establishment of the new London Rail Advisory Committee took Whitehall two years. It took me less than two months. To be absolutely fair, I must tell my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South that when this proposal arrived on my desk I said "What? Another advisory body?" Therefore, while I am grateful for his applause for making my decision within two months, I think that it could have been one month earlier, had I not thought it right to satisfy 900 myself that such a new body was justified. I satisfied myself and I am glad that Mr. Cyril Herring has taken on these responsibilities. I believe that the first meeting of the London Rail Advisory Committee was held on Wednesday. I am sure that it will play a part in trying to solve these problems.
The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield fairly said that there were no easy answers to the problems and plight of the London commuter any more than of our public transport system as a whole. The hon. Gentleman said that it was crucial at this time and a first priority to curtail and to control inflation.
I though that the hon. Member for Harrow, East had his tongue in his cheek when talking of tax relief and travel vouchers. I say that because I think that he has been honest in recognising that we cannot, on the one hand, seek to curtail public expenditure and, on the other hand, seek to find ways, in effect, of raising it.
The hon. Gentleman said that the easiest answer would be for me to say that this was a matter for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I do not believe that in Britain's present financial circumstances it would be right to give tax relief or, for that matter, to allow travel vouchers against tax, because that would be contrary to the Government's policies, for which I think there is widespread support, for dealing with inflation.
These are matters to be reflected upon and to be discussed in this House and elsewhere. I promise no joy today or tomorrow. I ask all those who might seek to endorse these suggestions, with less hesitation than the hon. Member for Harrow East has done, to reflect on the consequences.
I ask for responsible public debate in London and elsewhere, not in terms of headlines, not in terms of battles won or lost, and not in terms of anger with no acceptance of the problems as a whole. We are in this together, and we shall find solutions together by facing realities and recognising in full the part that we have to play.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at fifteen minutes to Four o'clock.