HC Deb 05 July 1978 vol 953 cc438-41
10. Mr. Crouch

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what recent representations he has received from railway commuter organisations.

Mr. William Rodgers

None, Sir.

Mr. Crouch

Is the Secretary of State aware that many hon. Members have received representations from commuter associations to the effect that the recent higher-than-average fare increases that have taken place constitute an unreasonable discrimination against a largely captive commuter market? Perhaps he recognises those words.

Mr. Rodgers

I think that we have been over this course before. I appreciate, and British Rail appreciates, that there is bound to be irritation on the part of those who find themselves charged more than the average increases. I hope that we shall get away from the very high increases that we have had in recent years. I am glad to know that we are at least getting on to an annual cycle. That is a start. But British Rail must make both ends meet, and it is not easy. However, I am sure that the chairman is fully aware of the extent to which there is dissatisfaction.

Mr. Raphael Tuck

My right hon. Friend said that "British Rail must make both ends met". Is he aware that in 1977 it realised a surplus of £68 million? In the interests of keeping fares down, would it not be better if my right hon. Friend were to allow British Rail to retain a greater proportion of that surplus rather than hand it over to the Treasury, as it has to do today, and then have to go back to the Treasury with a begging bowl when it wants funds? That seems to me to be perfectly cock-eyed.

Mr. Rodgers

With respect to my hon. Friend, the finances of British Rail are more rather complicated than he suggested. When the chairman of British Rail refers to a figure of that kind in his annual report, allowance has to be made for the substantial sums of Exchequer money which go to support the railways under what Sir Peter Parker calls a contract. I think that we have got the balance about right. It is not easy for British Rail to do all that it wants to do, but that is true of every one of us.

Mr. Tebbit

Would the Secretary of State at some time care to meet some of the commuters from Chingford? Is he aware that they can stoically ensure the inconvenience caused by a landslip on their railway line but are unable to understand why, with 4,000 people registered locally as unemployed, British Rail is unable to recruit signalmen? Is there something wrong somewhere with the Government's policy on incomes and British Rail's pay scales?

Mr. Rodgers

I do not think that there is anything wrong in the sense that the hon. Gentleman has in mind. I am ready to admit that there are peculiarities, in that British Rail cannot recruit all the men that it wants for particular grades. Signalmen are specialist workers and standards have to be high. The problem is recognised by and has been discussed between the British Railways Board and the trade unions.

Mr. Newens

If we are to keep back increases in fares to commuters—I know that commuters in Harlow are deeply concerned about this matter—is it not a fact that we have to allocate public funds for the modernisation and development of the railways in order that we may have a decent system? Is it not time that Opposition Members also made clear that public expenditure has to be maintained on the railways if we are to have the conditions for commuters which they are demanding?

Mr. Rodgers

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the ambivalence of the Opposition in the area of public expenditure. We must have adequate investment today to guarantee the future of the railways. However, the running costs of the railways will still have to be met out of public funds through either Exchequer grants or fares. I hope that, with falling inflation, increases in fares will be significantly less than in the past.

Mr. Temple-Morris

In view of what the Secretary of State said, may I ask him a question and hope that in the answer he will not be ambivalent? Does he accept the Price Commission's report that British rail commuters have been discriminated against in this year's fares increases and that there should not be any further increases which amount to discrimination until the question of rail costs has been resolved?

Mr. Rodgers

Both I and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection made a statement at the time of the Price Commission's report and made it clear that we accepted the Commission's view although I think that its precise wording is slightly different from what the hon. Gentleman suggested.