HC Deb 14 November 1983 vol 48 cc595-7
7. Mr. Canavan

asked the Secretary of State for Transport how many representations he has received about the objectives he has set for British Rail; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. David Mitchell

Fewer than the eight parliamentary questions that have been tabled in the House.

Mr. Canavan

The Secretary of State said in his letter to the chairman of British Rail on 24 October that the guiding objective should be to run an efficient railway. Is it not a fact that one of the biggest stumbling blocks to the running of an efficient railway is the Secretary of State himself? The right hon. Gentleman went on in that same letter to announce further cuts in railway investment, which will put British Rail into a financial straitjacket and cause even more closures, more fare increases and the destruction of possibly thousands of jobs on the railways.

Mr. Mitchell

The hon. Gentleman is misinformed. My right hon. Friend did not say anything about cutting investment in British Rail. He said that there was to be a reduction of about £200 million in the PSO. That is to be achieved by the more efficient operation of the railways and not by cutting investment.

Mr. Moate

Will my hon. Friend confirm that British Rail has accepted the objectives and, in so doing, has accepted that they can be substantially achieved by greater efficiency? Is it not extraordinary that the Opposition seem so to dislike the concept of efficiency?

Mr. Mitchell

The chairman of British Rail has broadly accepted the objectives that he has been given, but he has to wait until the 1984 plan before he is able to ascertain how he will deliver.

Mr. Cowans

Are not the objectives issued to British Rail based on Serpell part I, which is a discredited document? The Secretary of State calls for the speeding up of redundancies and factory closures within British Rail Engineering Ltd. Will the Minister explain how that can help BREL when such actions will restrict its capacity to dealing only with British Rail? How will that help British Rail to go into the expanding export market? Is not the Secretary of State really seeking to destroy BREL''

Mr. Mitchell

The hon. Gentleman is wrong to assume that my right hon. Friend's objectives are based on Serpell part I. They are based on British Rail's own plan for 1983—merely speeded up to be carried out over three years instead of five.

Mr. Hanley

Is my hon. Friend aware that, as recently as 1982, "Labour's Programme" admitted that the railway network was unlikely to remain at the size it was at the time of the Railways Act 1974?

Mr. Mitchell

My hon. Friend is well informed about the Opposition's statements. I am grateful to him for drawing the information to the attention of the House.

Mr. Anderson

In the letter of 24 October the Secretary of State said that he was bringing forward by two years the reduction in grant, and was ruling out major route closures and what are called unreasonable fare increases. In the light of that, what will have to give? Is it not clear that, with the proposed abolition of the Railway Staffs National Tribunal, the Government and the board are preparing the way for massive increases in unemployment through a massive decrease in manpower on the railways? Is it not that which will have to give as a result of the letter of 24 October?

Mr. Mitchell

What will have to give is more efficiency and productivity. As for the suggestion that there will be massive reductions in staff, I repeat that the Secretary of State's proposal in his letter to the chairman is simply a speeding up of exactly the programme that British Rail had set into its corporate plan for 1983.

Mr. McQuarrie

My hon. Friend may not have received more representations than parliamentary questions, but no doubt his attention will have been drawn to the many comments in the press on the Serpell report, which will have some bearing on the objectives of British Rail's activities next year. I refer particularly to the threat to the line to Aberdeen from Glasgow and Edinburgh. Will my hon. Friend try to ensure with the chairman of British Rail that the line continues to have an adequate service? Indeed, the sooner that it is electrified, the better.

Mr. Mitchell

I assure my hon. Friend that I have not received any suggestion of a threat to the Aberdeen line and I know of no proposal that is likely to affect it in a way that would cause my hon. Friend concern.

Mr. Prescott

The Opposition are amazed that the Secretary of State is not answering for his letter. That infamous letter, which means less rail in our times—produced within five days of his taking office—has shocked all those concerned with transport, because it recommends a reduction of £200 million, meaning higher fares, line closures, job losses and fewer services. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Secretary of State is seen as a Treasury mercenary implementing a Treasury policy? Will the Secretary of State catch a train to Europe to see the difference in the quality of services there, with higher quality public services? Will he admit that his statement gives the green light to the implementation of a Treasury-inspired Serpell report—a fact so often denied in the general election campaign and even now?

Mr. Mitchell

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his appointment to the Opposition Front Bench. I am delighted to welcome him. However, far from my right hon. Friend's letter having shocked those involved in transport, a British Rail press notice included the following words from the chairman: We have been asking Government for a long time to clarify the objectives for our industry and this statement is the first significant move in that direction. The hon. Gentleman compared British Rail with railway services in Europe. I say to him and the House that we should stop knocking British Rail. The fact is that British Rail runs more trains at over 100 mph than any other railway in the world.