HC Deb 23 July 1980 vol 989 cc469-72
1. Mr. Stephen Ross

asked the Minister of Transport when next he plans to meet the chairman of British Railways to discuss future investment.

3. Mr. Adley

asked the Minister of Transport when he will next discuss with the chairman of British Railways the future financing of British Railways.

16. Mr. Hooley

asked the Minister of Transport when next he plans to meet the chairman of British Railways to discuss future investment.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Norman Fowler)

Next Monday.

Mr. Ross

When the Minister meets Sir Peter Parker, will he be able to offer him some financial assistance to speed up the railways' electrification programme and to bring new vehicles into use so that the railways can play, as stated in Sir Peter's statement today, a ready and relevant role when the economy finally recovers?

Mr. Fowler

We are awaiting the final report on electrification, which I expect to receive during the autumn. The hon. Gentleman will recognise that we are devoting a great deal of public money to British Rail. We are spending £ 575 million on passenger support. The hon. Gentleman will recognise the amount of commitment by the Government to the railway system.

Mr. Adley

I support the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross). Will not my right hon. Friend agree that there is a difference in terms of public investment between putting money into British Leyland or British Steel, which are manufacturing, goods, and supporting British Rail, which is part of our national transport infrastructure? If we are, as we do, to ask British Rail whether it makes profits or losses overall or on individual routes, is it not odd that we never seem to ask ourselves how much profit or loss is made on the Ml or the M6?

Mr. Fowler

The comparison between road and rail is a matter on which we are trying to make progress. I remind my hon. Friend that we are making available up to £ 277 million in investment, the same as the last Government's ceiling.

Mr. Hooley

Is the Minister aware that the appalling service between Sheffield and London is not likely to be improved unless there is substantial electrification or the right hon. Gentleman allows British Rail to spend money on HS125 sets which would give a decent service?

Mr. Fowler

I shall mention that matter to the chairman of British Rail. I know that he has taken the point made by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. McCrindle

Has the Minister seen the advertisement by British Rail implying that the M25 should be scrapped so enabling the cost of a number of advanced passenger trains to be met? Will he accept that my commuter constituents, who pay dearly in fares and taxes to sustain British Rail and who are looking forward to the completion of the M25, consider that public money should not be spent in this manner to oppose what is, after all, Government policy?

Mr. Fowler

I agree with my right hon. Friend. I do not think that that is a particularly distinguished piece of advertising by British Rail and I do not think that there is any justification for these expensive and barren knocking matches between road and rail.

Mr. Bagier

Would the right hon. Gentleman agree on reflection that he made a bad mistake in using the occasion of closing a debate to announce an important investment project and "privatisation" plans for the ports? Will he take note of Sir Peter Parker's comments in an interview yesterday, when he said that if there is to be investment in the various sections of British Rail's subsidiaries, it should be done in a fragmented way and not in a block, in order to leave control with British Rail? Does the Minister agree with that statement, and will he pursue it with Sir Peter Parker?

Mr. Fowler

I know that the hon. Member realises that the chairman of British Rail has nothing to do with the British Transport Docks Board. Certainly, I do not believe that I was mistaken in any way in making that announcement on Monday evening. On the question of the attitude of the chairman of British Rail, I am sure that the hon. Member has seen Sir Peter Parker's letter in The Daily Telegraph two days ago in which he said that the move to introduce private capital into the capital-hungry subsidiaries was welcomed by the British Railways Board. I hope that the hon. Member will note that welcome.

Mr. Garel-Jones

Further to the answer that my right hon. Friend gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. McCrindle), will he confirm that the completion of the M25 remains the top priority for this Government, as it was for the previous one? Will he instruct British Rail not to place advertisements in publications calling into question either the wisdom or the cost of the scheme?

Mr. Fowler

I am not in the business of instructing British Rail but I am sure that the chairman has seen the anger that that advertisement has caused. I can confirm the view of both sides of the House that the M25 is the number one road priority in this country.

Mr. Prescott

The Minister will have seen the statement by Sir Peter Parker that the industry has lost nearly £ 30 million due to the recession. At the meeting next Monday will he give Sir Peter an indication that he is prepared to allow him to use the surpluses on his external financing limit, built up over the last four years, or will he accept the conclusions of the Riley committee, which will increase the borrowing possibilities for British Rail in line with the EEC rail systems?

Mr. Fowler

We shall certainly talk about the flexibility in external finance limits. I hope that the hon. Member will recognise that most of that loss on British Rail was in the freight area and a great deal of that loss was a direct result of the steel strike. It was one more unfortunate effect of that strike.