HC Deb 27 October 1976 vol 918 cc443-5
2. Mr. Skinner

asked the Secretary of State for Transport whether he has any plans to meet the leaders of the rail unions; and if he will make a statement.

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. William Rodgers)

Yes, I have met them informally already and I plan to meet them again soon.

Mr. Skinner

When my right hon. Friend next meets the rail unions, will he tell them that the Government's consultative document is now discredited, as a result of the passage of time, and that several Ministers have refused to debate the issues involved? Will he give them a guarantee that in future under his guidance there will be full consultation before any other documents are produced dealing with the future of the railways? Will he also give a guarantee that, within that policy, there will be an effort to hold down rail fares?

Mr. Rodgers

I take note of my hon. Friend's soft and persuasive words, but he is a little unfair to the document to which he refers, which was not my direct responsibility. It was a consultative document, supported by a consultative process, and there was a great deal of written evidence. I am seeing a number of the bodies which submitted evidence. I hope that we shall arrive at a policy that makes sense, and I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to approve it.

Mr. Moate

When the new Chairman of British Rail was appointed he said that one ultimate objective was a reduction in manning by a figure of 40,000. Is that objective shared by the unions?

Mr. Rodgers

I do not think I can discuss matters that are really very much for the Chairman of British Railways, with all his responsibilities. I hope very much that the unions and management will get together to try to solve some of the problems of which the House is fully aware.

Mr. Flannery

Will my right hon. Friend take on board very seriously the question of railway fares? Will he accept from all of us who travel regularly on the railways—in fact, most of us do so—that if fares go up much more it will begin to look like a plot to get rid of the British Rail system? We are all aware that if there is a threat to strike for even half a day the whole country is plunged into chaos. Will my right hon. Friend take note of that and consider putting fares down for once, instead of putting them up?

Mr. Rodgers

What my hon. Friend says is plausible. I have a great deal of sympathy with him and with all those who travel by rail and have to pay higher fares. However, if the necessary revenue is not raised in fares it must be paid in subsidy. If it is paid in subsidy, the burden falls upon the taxpayer or ratepayer. There is no way round that, unless services are cut. It is a difficult dilemma. I share my hon. Friend's view that we should try to reach a level of proper stability.

Mr. Norman Fowler

First, I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his new post. I must warn him that he has taken over at a time when rail commuters face a crisis. Does he realise that over the past few years rail fares have doubled? The major reason for that has been the Government's failure to tackle inflation early enough. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the long-term solution must lie in controlling inflation and making improvements within British Rail?

Mr. Rodgers

I share the hon. Gentleman's view about the need to control inflation. That is at the heart of the Government's economic policy. However, whether or not rail commuters are facing large fare increases, we cannot get away from the fact that the revenue comes in fares or in subsidy. If we are to hold down fares, we shall have to increase public expenditure. I understood that the Opposition were not in favour of increasing public expenditure; on the contrary, they want to cut it still further.