HC Deb 10 March 1982 vol 19 cc837-9
15. Mr. Jim Marshall

Secretary of State for Transport when he next intends to meet the chairman of British Railways to discuss future development of the railway system.

Mr. David Howell

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

Mr. Marshall

At his next meeting with the chairman of British Rail, will the Secretary of State take the opportunity to deny that the Government have any plans to sell British Rail Engineering Ltd.?

Mr. Howell

The policy of privatisation and of bringing in private capital is based on a clear agreement between the British Railways Board and my predecessor. That policy will be pursued vigorously. It is in the best interests of the railway system that funds are found for the much needed investment that all hon. Members recognise is required.

Mr. Sainsbury

Will my right hon. Friend emphasise to the chairman of British Rail that if British Rail is to hold, let alone expand, its volume of passenger and freight business, it is necessary that the service provided should be of a comparable quality to the alternatives? That is a matter not just of price, but of reliability and of providing reasonably clean carriages on commuter lines.

Mr. Howell

These are important points, which I have emphasised and shall continue to emphasise to the British Railways Board. I think that the board recognises them.

Mr. Ennals

When the right hon. Gentleman has discussions with the chairman of British Rail, will he take up again the question of electrification? Does he accept that there has been an intolerable delay in proceeding with electrification under both him and his predecessor? When does he expect to be able to give a timetable for the electrification of the Colchester to Norwich route, which is at the head of British Rail's list?

Mr. Howell

The board is bound to look again at its traffic forecasts, which were previously based on assumptions that are now in question as a result of the pointless, senseless and self-destructive ASLEF strike and resistance to higher productivity. That means that it must re-examine the calculations, and that is bound to mean some delay.

Mr. Cyril Townsend

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the burning resentment in south-east London at the outcome of the McCarthy inquiry? Will he make it clear once and for all that the Government in no way leant on the chairman of British Rail to accept the findings of that inquiry? Is he further aware that on the Conservative Benches there is nothing but complete support for him when he insists on greater efficiency in British Rail?

Mr. Howell

I make it clear, as I always have done, that the chairman and board of British Rail have pursued their policy of seeking productivity increases. The arbitration is not by any means over, nor is the outcome decided. There is a further procedure to go through. ASLEF has undertaken not to exclude from its consideration any questions, including flexible rostering and the 8-hour day. I expect it to be as good as its word and to meet the needs of the railway system—needs that are fully recognised by all the other unions and all those working in it.

Mr. Booth

When the Secretary of State meets the chairman of British Rail, will he explain to him why he is so grossly misrepresenting the position on main line electrification and why, when he knows full well that his predecessor took a decision against picking up any of the five main line electrification options before there was any question of a dispute, he now suggests that the decision not to invest in electrification arises from the dispute?

Mr. Howell

I suggest no such thing. My predecessor and the Government made quite clear their commitment in principle to a 10-year rolling programme on proper conditions, such as that the inter-city and freight businesses should be run commercially. Plans were required to show how that could be done. Those plans were ready before Christmas. Unfortunately, the ASLEF strike has produced the need for new traffic forecasts. If the right hon. Gentleman feels so strongly on this matter, perhaps a little more speed by himself and his colleagues in condemning the ASLEF strike would have been in place before the damage was done.

Mr. Moate

Does my right hon. Friend agree that many Conservative Members regard the electrification programme as essential for the creation of a modern railway, but that it depends on modern attitudes from all the unions involved? Does he also agree that more damage has been done to the investment prospects of British Rail by the recent ASLEF dispute than by any other factor in recent years? Is it not essential that, if we are to secure the investment programme that is needed, we have an agreement on flexible rostering and commitments to single manning when we have electrification on these crucial lines?

Mr. Howell

I agree with my hon. Friend, who puts these matters with his usual clarity.

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