HC Deb 25 November 1981 vol 13 cc872-4
4. Mr. Walter Johnson

asked the Secretary of State for Transport when he expects to announce his decision on the level of financial aid to British Railways to enable them to go ahead with further electrification and other essential modernisation.

5. Dr. Edmund Marshall

asked the Secretary of State for Transport whether he will increase the external financing limit applicable to the British Railways Board to enable it to meet its current investment ceiling.

Mr. David Howell

Decisions on external financing limits for all nationalised industries will be announced in due course.

Mr. Johnson

What steps does the Secretary of State intend to take to keep the one and only overhead electrification team in being since, unless the Government are prepared to make a decision now about electrification, it will disband and it will probably be difficult to reassemble it? The Government have done nothing about electrification since they came to power in 1979.

Mr. Howell

I am not sure whether that is correct. In June the Government made clear their commitment in principle to a 10-year rolling programme. I am looking forward now to a project and a programme being put forward by the British Railways Board so that they can be evaluated and we can move forward. That is desirable. No one doubts the reality of the problem of the electrification team. I have been aware of it. However, I have good grounds to believe that, from the firm's point of view, British Rail's announcement last Friday was precipitate, to say the least.

Dr. Marshall

What is the point of Ministers fixing for British Rail an investment ceiling which the board can come nowhere near attaining because of the effects of the external financing limits?

Mr. Howell

The investment ceiling is set by the Government. Within that, the board must organise and operate its business to make available the funds for investment. That is the nature of an external financing limit on a nationalised industry. The constraints are similar to those within which businesses have to operate. Good business will give the board the funds to invest up to the ceiling, which the Government have held in real terms since the Labour Government left office.

Sir Anthony Boyle

When my right hon. Friend discusses investment with British Rail, will he discuss the proposal to close Broad Street station and ensure that British Rail does not close the Broad Street line, which is of great interest to commuters all over the London area?

Mr. Howell

I take note of what my hon. Friend has said.

Mr. Stephen Ross

Will the Minister clarify the conflicting comments appearing in the press, and particularly the press release by British Rail, to which he referred earlier? Hon. Members do not know where they stand. Is it the Government's policy to encourage British Rail to continue with electrification? If so, what further information is the Department now seeking?

Mr. Howell

The matter was set out very clearly. There has been no change in the policy since my predecessor set out the decision in the summer, when he declared the Government's commitment in principle to a programme of electrification related to the business performance and productivity improvements of the railway system. Since then, the Government have been waiting for the British Railways Board to bring forward the programme and the projects worked out within it based on profitable main line routes. That programme and those projects have not yet been put forward. I hope that they will be.

Mr. Spriggs

In considering the necessity to keep the electrical contractor's team together, will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that many thousands of unemployed workers in the cable manufacturing industry are relying upon rail electrification for jobs?

Mr. Howell

Yes, I bear those matters very much in mind. I wish to see British Rail bring forward its programme on the basis that was set out by my predecessor and widely agreed and supported in the House. When that is brought forward and examined, we shall be able to proceed.

Mr. Bowden

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that all available funds are made available to British Rail for completion of work on the Brighton line, which is causing great inconvenience? Is he aware that commuters in my area subsidise inner London commuters and are having a rough time at present?

Mr. Howell

I appreciate what my hon. Friend has said. In a sense, those people are having a rough time because the work is indeed going ahead and that involves disruption. The answer to my hon. Friend's question is therefore "Yes".

Mr. Stott

Further to what the Secretary of State said earlier, is he aware that British Rail submitted plans to his Department on East Anglia electrification at least a year ago? Is it not time that he stopped vacillating on this and decided whether that project is to go ahead?

Mr. Howell

Clearly, I cannot deal with the Anglia question in isolation from the board's finances. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] We are looking forward to the submission from British Rail. I hope that it will come soon.

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