HC Deb 07 April 1982 vol 21 cc945-7
17. Mr. Parris

asked the Secretary of State for Transport when he next plans to meet the chairman of British Railways to discuss investment in the railways.

19. Mr. Campbell-Savours

asked the Secretary of State for Transport when he next intends to discuss with British Railways their future investment programme.

Mr. David Howell

I meet the chairman regularly to discuss matters of mutual interest.

Mr. Parris

Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that the entire British Railways Board, without dissent or resignation, is prepared to stand up and fight for the only settlement that will justify future investment in the railways?

Mr. Howell

Both the chairman and the board of British Rail recognise the basic fact that they must secure higher productivity. If there is to be—as I wish to see—a modern, efficient and well-invested railway system, there must be a recognition that work practices must move on from 1919. I only wish that there was full support on both sides of the House for those inside the unions and the industry who are trying to press that view on the ASLEF workers, who appear to resist it.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Is the Secretary of State aware that if he pursues his present strategy towards the funding of British Rail there will be very little of it left by the time of the next general election, which his Government will lose? Is he aware that during the past few weeks, on the Carlisle-London line, hundreds of passengers have had to stand for the whole of the journey because of the insufficiency of funds made available by the Government to enable British Rail to carry out proper coach maintenance? When the Peat, Marwick and Mitchell inquiry takes place, will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that it deals with the real issues and not the spurious issues put up by the Treasury?

Mr. Howell

If the hon. Gentleman had listened to earlier questions, he would have realised the inaccuracy of his remarks about funding. There has been a considerable increase granted over last year's original public service obligation claim. As to the real cause, I suggest that he combines with other hon. Members and those in the railway industry to bring home the need for higher productivity and modern work practices to those who have so far resisted them. Then we shall begin to see lower costs and more resources available for investment and maintenance, as the hon. Gentleman wishes.

Mr. Robert Atkins

Has my right hon. Friend had an opportunity to discuss with the chairman of British Rail the continually deteriorating standard of the catering facilities in both dining and buffet cars? Has he considered that perhaps private enterprise could do the job without making the same loss as British Rail and produce a much higher standard of service, similar to the Pullman service that used to exist?

Mr. Howell

I have discussed such issues with British Rail, which is always anxious to consider ways of improving the quality of its services. That is true in many areas, although my hon. Friend's specific point has not yet been identified. It is considering harnessing and making use of private capital as well as public finance in many areas, which I am sure is sensible.

Mr. Bagier

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the board and the railway industry in general are fed up with being sniped at about the state of its finances? Will he note that in his published statement of Government expenditure for 1982 to 1985 he suggests that British Rail should set up a joint review into its finances, with the Government, under an independent chairman? When will that inquiry be set up and when does the right hon. Gentleman expect to announce the name of the chairman?

Mr. Howell

I hope that there will be an announcement after Easter.

Mr. Donald Stewart

Does the Secretary of State accept that, whatever the current arguments, the failure of the Government to back electrification shows them up as mean-minded, short-sighted Luddites? Does he agree that electrification would be of great assistance in achieving, a better railway system?

Mr. Howell

I do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman. The Government have committed themselves in principle to a 10-year rolling electrification programme. However, I am sure he will agree that before there is a commitment of major investment funds it must be clear that there will be higher productivity—it is no use having the equipment if it is not properly worked—and that the investment will be profitable. Those are sensible ways of achieving the right hon. Gentleman's objectives.

Mr. Colin Shepherd

Will my right hon. Friend make it clear to those who are being difficult about productivity improvements in the railway system that they are wrecking the job prospects of many thousands who would be involved in electrifying the railways, not to mention the many more thousands involved in supplying export contracts, if it were possible to obtain them with such a narrow home base?

Mr. Howell

I have sought to make that clear, the railways management has sought to make it clear, and, indeed, the National Union of Railwaymen has sought to make it clear to some of its own members and ASLEF. The only group that does not seem to have sought to make it clear is the Opposition Front Bench.

Mr. Robert Hughes

Will the Secretary of State, for once, stop insulting the railwaymen and address himself to the real problem, graphically expressed yesterday by Sir Peter Parker, that even if the Government approved electrification proposals now, the financial position of British Rail is so serious that it probably could not proceed? Does that not make nonsense of cutting the PSO by 15 per cent. from the figure that the right hon. Gentleman gave in the middle of the year?

Mr. Howell

The hon. Gentleman would do better to express his concern to those within ASLEF who cling to 1919 practices. The British Railways Board is the first to recognise that these practices must be left behind and overcome if there is to be the modern, efficient railway that all want to see.

Mr. Waller

Is it not a fact that the British Railways Board has told the Railways Staff National Tribunal, in the clearest possible terms, that unless there is agreement to a rostering system that ensures greater utilisation of footplate staff it will be unable to ask the Government for more money for investment in the railways? Is this not bound to lead to a reduction in the total rail network?

Mr. Howell

I think that the British Railways Board has made clear to its employees and railway staff exactly what is at stake. It is widely recognised. We shall have to await the outcome of the tribunal's deliberations.