HC Deb 23 July 1980 vol 989 cc485-8
12. Mr. Kenneth Lewis

asked the Minister of Transport whether he will issue a direction to British Railways and London Transport to keep down rises in fares in the next financial year to less than 10 per cent.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke

No, Sir. Fares policy is a matter for the operators concerned. I am sure that they will consider carefully the effect of fares increases on the use of their services and seek ways of avoiding unnecessarily steep increases by reducing costs and improving efficiency.

Mr. Lewis

Is my hon. and learned Friend aware that a large number of people commute to and from work via British Rail and London Transport? Is he further aware that there have been considerable increases in fares during the past year? Does he realise that the Government will find it difficult to keep down wage and salary increases to 10 per cent. if British Rail and London Transport increase their fares again? Is he aware that, despite OPEC, it is cheaper to come into town in a car than as a commuter on public transport?

Mr. Clarke

The Government continue to hope that British Rail can maintain a system of annual fares increases. We are currently holding discussions with the board about its financial difficulties. The Government have firmly set their face against any suggestion that the captive market of commuters should be singled out for high fare increases. London Transport is a matter for the GLC. My hon. Friend will be aware that the GLC is anxious to make progress on improving efficiency and reducing costs on the London Transport network.

Mr. Newens

Is the Minister aware that users of the Central line in Essex are not only paying higher fares than other users of the Central line, but are threatened with the closure of the line between Epping and Ongar because of the refusal of the Essex county council—unlike the GLC—to support that line? Will the Minister say when he will meet the deputation that has asked to see him to settle the matter? What action will, he take to safeguard the interests of users of the Central line in Essex, both in keeping the line open and in paying the same fares as other users of London Transport underground lines?

Mr. Clarke

The consent of my right hon. Friend is required before any line can be closed. I would not wish to prejudice the statutory proceedings that lie behind that. I have already met deputations about that issue, and I should be happy to meet more. I cannot understand why Essex county council feels unable to make any contribution to the line. In the end, it must make choices about transport priorities in the county.

Mr. Ian Lloyd

Because the unfortunate fare increases seem to be becoming biannual, if not tri-annual, agonies for the commuting public, will my hon. and learned Friend approach the management of both concerns to suggest that their public relations be improved so that the travelling public know precisely what proportion of the increase is attributable to wage increases, to energy cost increases or to other causes?

Mr. Clarke

The figures are difficult to break down. The travelling public do not expect any of the passenger industries simply to pass on to them the effect of high wage increases. They must look for ways to increase productivity, reduce costs, and generally improve the efficiency of services.

Mr. Walter Johnson

Does the Minister agree that with inflation running at 20 per cent. it is quite impossible for British Rail or London Transport to keep down their fare increases to 10 per cent? Does he agree that they cannot isolate themselves from inflation any more than anybody else?

Mr. Clarke

I accept that point. But, like any other well-run business, they have a duty to keep their costs under control and their fare increases to a minimum.

Mr. Bruce-Gardyne

Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that the proposition advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Stamford (Mr. Lewis) would mean that the generality of taxpayers would have to subsidise the users of British Rail and London Transport? Is not the real answer to proceed along the lines set out in the Transport Act 1980 and widen the choice for all customers, and provide an opportunity to break down the artificial barriers that British Rail has enjoyed, such as privileges of monopoly rights?

Mr. Clarke

There is some case for subsidy of public transport in relatively restricted areas such as providing services to isolated rural communities, or relieving urban congestion in commuter services. I accept my hon. Friend's point. There is no reason why the generality of taxpayers should give a general subsidy to reduce fares for that section of the population which travels by train and bus. We put our faith in increased competition and efficiency. That is underlined by the Transport Act.

Mr. Booth

Does the Minister realise that railway fares in Britain are higher than in any other country in Europe? Does he further realise that investment in railways in Britain is lower than in any other country in Europe? Is that the Government's transport policy at work, or is it the consequence of other policies that they are pursuing, the cost of which they expect the British travelling public to bear?

Mr. Clarke

As my right hon. Friend has said, the investment being provided for British Rail is at the same level as that provided by the previous Labour Administration. The investment ceiling for British Rail is exempt from the Government cuts in public spending. Many international comparisons are made about railway systems. It is true that ours is a high fare-low productivity system. I know that the board is anxious to improve the position.