HC Deb 12 May 1982 vol 23 cc740-2
8. Mr. Flannery

asked the Secretary of State for Transport if he has recently discussed the amount of subsidy for British Railways in the current year with the chairman of the British Railways Board.

Mr. David Howell

I meet regularly the chairman of the British Railways Board to discuss this and other matters of mutual interest.

Mr. Flannery

Does the Secretary of State realise that the complete inadequacy of investment in the railways by this Government is bound to run down the railways and that it seems to be deliberate policy by the Government to get rid of the railways? Does he think that we can stand idly by while this is happening? Many areas—it is certainly the case on the line between St. Pancras and Sheffield—suffer with old rolling stock, late trains and all the inadequacies that flow from low investment. Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that this is bound to cause trouble among railway workers? All the excuses put forward about, flexible rostering and so on are completely inadequate when one considers the serious lack of investment.

Mr. Howell

The hon. Gentleman's remarks about Government policy towards the railways are without foundation. It is the board that decides on investment. The considerable resources made available to the board by the Government or the resources that it can generate internally provide the finance for investment. If the board can control its costs, get rid of restrictive work practices and make its inter-city business profitable, it will have the investment to proceed towards building the modern railway that we all want to see. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will join everyone else in wishing to see that progress achieved. However, this depends a great deal on the railways and the unions.

Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the size of the PSO grant depends to a great extent on the size of the total network that the railways are asked to operate? Is the size of the network one of the matters under consideration in the current review of British Rail?

Mr. Howell

The review that I have announced, which is being led by Sir David Serpell, will look at the options and finances of British Rail. It will also consider whether the very large grant, which is £100 million more in real terms than at the end of 1980 will buy a worthwhile return for the taxpayer in terms of the services that the taxpayer and the ratepayer want for this large sum of money.

Mr. Cook

Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that during the past couple of months he has announced two separate cuts in the PSO grant, one of £15 million in real terms and the other of £6 million in real terms? Does he further recognise that there is no point in putting a passenger service obligation on British Rail to maintain the present size of the network if he then denies it the money to run trains on those lines?

Mr. Howell

The hon. Gentleman's arithmetic is wrong. The passenger service obligation grant for 1982–83 is £100 million more in real terms than the original application for grant for 1981. It is correct that during 1981 a unique record-high increase in the social grant was made to British Rail. The figures for 1982 maintain very nearly that unique high level. Any suggestion that there has been a massive cut in the grant is wholly wrong.

Mr. McNally

Is the Minister aware that it is shabby of him to shuffle off responsibility on to the unions and the British Railways Board? Is he further aware that in my region the north-south bypass at Manchester, which would link Scotland and London via Manchester, and the link into Manchester international airport are imaginative projects that could go ahead with a fair wind from the Department?

Mr. Howell

I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not condoning the continuation of restrictive practices that are damaging to British Rail and are widely recognised to be damaging by many of those working on the railway. If the hon. Gentleman has the interests of a modern and well-invested railway at heart, he should approach the matter in a slightly more even-handed way than he has with his supplementary question.

Mr. Neil Thorne

Will my right hon. Friend give the taxpayer the comfort of an assurance that he will not consider giving any more grants to British Rail unless and until it accepts at all levels, both management and workers, that it must adopt modern working practices? Is my right hon. Friend aware that the taxpayer is heartily sick and tired of being told that the workers are prepared to work only on their terms?

Mr. Howell

I believe that the British Railways Board, many responsible people working on the railways and the unions recognise that it is essential to achieve higher productivity and to adopt modern practices. The Government wholly back the board and all other interested parties in achieving those changes.

Mr. Stott

Is the Secretary of State aware that 2,000 constituents of mine who work in the Horwich locomotive works have contributed to productivity agreements, the like of which the railway industry has not seen? Is he further aware that the constituents of my hon. Friends the Members for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) and for Swindon (Mr. Stoddart) have done exactly the same thing? The right hon. Gentleman should be aware that if he and the board close those railway workshops, with job losses of 5,000 and the deaths of three towns, the Opposition and the industry will not be prepared to put up with it. It is the responsibility of the Secretary of State and of British Rail to ensure that sufficient finance is forthcoming to keep those workshops open.

Mr. Howell

The loss of jobs through closures is a serious matter for all the communities mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. Everyone must recognise the social implications when these changes occur. The decision to close the workshops and to rationalise railway workshops generally is for British Rail. The board has reduced its orders for wagons—an example that will interest the hon. Gentleman—not because it cannot afford them, which would be the implication of giving more money for investment, but because it does not need them. Modern wagons last longer, can be moved faster and can carry more freight than old wagons. The demand no longer exists for these workshops. It is with great regret, but nevertheless with realism, that British Rail has decided to take that course. I believe that it is right to do so, but I fully recognise the social and unemployment implications.