HC Deb 28 January 1981 vol 997 cc915-6
11. Miss Richardson

asked the Secretary of State for Transport when he will raise the public service obligation to the level required to meet the obligations placed on the British Railways Board by the Railways Act 1974, in order to maintain a passenger service at a level comparable to that provided in 1974.

Mr. Fowler

I have already announced that the ceiling on the public service obligation grant in 1981 will be £678 million, which is £23 million higher than previously planned.

Miss Richardson

Does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate—I cannot believe that he does—the strong feelings of hundreds of thousands of commuters in London and the South-East about the deteriorating services for travel to and from work in London? In spite of the increase which he announced, will he consider the matter yet again and recognise that the present provision will not be sufficient to improve the services and remove the frustration and the hardship felt by so many thousands?

Mr. Fowler

Obviously, I appreciate the difficulties in general and, in particular, I appreciate the difficulties for commuters. But I must point out that we are at present spending almost £2 million a day on direct passenger support for the railways, and a vast amount of resources is going into the railways. I believe that, given everything else that is happening in the economy today, anyone who looks at the situation objectively will recognise that the railways have a fair deal. Perhaps the hon. Lady will consider also that the external finance limit for the coming year has been accepted by the board of British Rail as being a realistic EFL.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

If we cannot get improved services, as we now have "Mr. Ten per cent." presiding over 10 per cent. unemployed, why are the trains so filthy dirty? Is it not possible to wash them? They used to be washed once upon a time. If cattle instead of human beings were treated so badly, all the various associations would be working for them and there would be an outcry.

Mr. Fowler

I shall pass the hon. Gentleman's comments on to the chairman of British Rail. It is obviously one of the complaints, and I think that on the general issue, if not on the particular, the hon. Gentleman will have the sympathy of both sides of the House.

Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson

What constraints are there on how the public service grant can be spent by British Rail? In particular, will my right hon. Friend say whether the £23 million increase for this year has been earmarked to cover wage rises?

Mr. Fowler

No, the intention for the £23 million extra this year is to help to maintain the fare level for a full 12 months. In other words, we have sought to help British Rail to maintain the fare level over the next 12 months instead of having two increases in the space of 12 months, which is obviously a blow to anyone using the commuter services.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. To hold the balance, I shall call one more hon. Member from the Government side.

Mr. Cockeram

Since, by choice the majority of passengers and the bulk of freight travel by road rather than by rail, will the Minister subject British Rail to the same controls and cuts that the British road programme has had to suffer?

Mr. Fowler

Both the road programme and the support which we have been giving to the railways have obviously come within the same general constraint. There is a balance to be struck, and I think that we have that balance about right at the moment.

Mr. Prescott

Does the Secretary of State accept the conclusions of his own Monopolies and Mergers Commission inquiry into the London and South-East rail services, which showed that the decline in services was due to the severe financial constraints of Governments in the past few years, and that productivity alone would not pay for the deficiency? If that is the case, will the right hon. Gentleman now look at the investment constraints on the services, as he specifically excluded examination of these constraints from the commission's inquiry?

Mr. Fowler

That is one of the proposals made by the monopolies and Mergers Commission. We shall be talking to British Rail—indeed, I am talking to the British Railways Board—about how the proposals can be put into effect.

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