HC Deb 24 July 1986 vol 102 cc765-81

3 am

Mr. Michael J. Martin (Glasgow, Springburn)

Before we rise for the recess I am glad to have this opportunity to highlight the serious problems in British Rail engineering workshops. For the assistance of the Minister, I should point out that some of my remarks would be better addressed to the Secretary of State for Scotland and his Under-Secretary of State the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart), who is responsible for employment in Scotland. I hope that the Minister will pass on those parts of my speech that are appropriate to them.

I recently headed a delegation of councillors, youth leaders and people in tenants' associations in Springburn to the Scottish Office. One of my colleagues on that delegation and the longest-serving councillor on the regional council, Mr. Patrick Trainer, made a valid point. He said that even if the British Railway workshops in Springburn were working at full capacity with some 3,000 workers, the number that they had in the good old days, Springburn would still have a serious unemployment problem.

At present, over 8,000 people in my constituency are out of work. In the Keppochill ward adjacent to the railway workshop 1,800 people are out of work and 59 per cent. of the people unemployed in that ward have been out of work for over a year. Over 50 per cent. of unemployed people in the constituency as a whole have been out of work for over a year. The picture throughout the six district council wards in my constituency is serious.

I know that the Minister will say that which he has said in the past, that he leaves the policy decisions and the day-to-day running of the workshops to BREL. That is too easy an option for any Minister to adopt. The Minister, like me and like every hon. Member, is keen to see an upturn in the economy, and in our different ways we are all trying to achieve that. If there is to be an upturn in the economy—and I hope and pray that there will be—one of the things we shall need is a sound industrial engineering base. We will not be able to cope with such an upturn if we lose our engineering workshops.

Mr. Greg Knight (Derby, North)

I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. Is not the main problem in the British Rail engineering workshops the reduction in the maintenance work as British Rail has progressed from diesel traction to electric traction and from Mk 2 to Mk 3 coaches? It is very well for the hon. Gentleman to say that he is worried about jobs. We are all worried about jobs, but if the maintenance required in those workshops is reduced, surely it follows that the number of people required to carry out that maintenance will also be reduced. I am little puzzled about why a number of the hon. Gentleman's colleagues voted against the Channel Tunnel Bill, because that project would provide many hundreds of millions of pounds worth of work, particularly in the midlands, and would give British Rail the greatest opportunity it has had this century.

Mr. Martin

I am not an expert on the Channel tunnel, but if the Channel tunnel is the greatest thing since sliced bread and will bring employment, perhaps there is a case for keeping a railway workshop. If a workshop is capable of repairing and maintaining railways, it is capable of building new railways and of diversifying to other engineering.

It is argued that the Government will bring about an upturn in the economy. We shall be in trouble if workshops are not able to cope with the work that that upturn will create.

It would be false economy to send all the work to Derby, York and Crewe and, for a limited period, to Wolverton. BREL says that the new locomotives and stock will require less maintenance because of the new methods. But the best laid plans of mice and men often go wrong. I know from my engineering background that machinery which manufacturers say will not need major repair does need it.

BREL is making a serious mistake which could have repercussions for the country in terms of a major transport programme if every repair job has to travel at least 300 miles to a workshop.

The Government are looking to the core workshops to put together a package to sell off BREL to the private sector. That is shortsighted. Are the Government serious about looking after the economy? It would be dangerous for stock to have to travel 300 miles for repair and for the Government to sell BREL to a company which, after five minutes, will throw promises into Ministers' faces. The Secretary of State for Scotland can testify to that.

Another shocking indictment of the Government is that they have given approval for Strathclyde regional council to spend money on the refurbishment of urban trains in the Strathclyde passenger executive area. I have no complaint about giving the council that power, but the Government will not give any assurances to Strathclyde that the work will be carried out in the Springburn railway workshops.

The first phase of that repair work has already been carried out, and I understand that it has been done to the satisfaction of the Strathclyde passenger transport executive. It is, therefore, galling that because of the consequences of BREL's decision this local authority will have to cope with increased unemployment and will have to try to bring industry into the area, despite the fact that it wants to place the order with BREL.

Next to British Rail, Strathclyde is BREL's second largest customer, yet it has been told that there is a possibility that the work will go to Wolverton. That is ridiculous because millions of pounds of Strathclyde ratepayers' money—over and above the money that will be put in by Government — will go into this project. Everyone in Strathclyde hoped that the work would go to the Springburn railway workshops, yet BREL has said that it will go to Wolverton, which is not even a main core works. It is similar to Springburn in that the workshops there are being run down. That is ridiculous. The Minister should intervene to do something about this. Surely he will give the Springburn work force the dignity of carrying out work that has been initiated by their own local authority. After all, they are all ratepayers of that authority.

BREL has said that it does not wish to hold on to the Springburn works, and is making arrangements to allow ScotRail to convert those works into a repair depot. I get the feeling that if it were not for the wheel shop and the heavy lifting equipment, we would be talking about the complete closure of those works.

A maximum of 200 jobs will be created as a result of the ScotRail project. I say "maximum" because no one has been specific. All we have been told is that up to 200 jobs will be created. It could be anything from 100 to 200. If the 1,700 jobs at Springburn cannot be saved, surely the Minister can tell BREL to put on its thinking cap and to create something more than the miserly 200 jobs that have been mentioned. Surely it is not beyond the wit of BREL to provide more than 200 jobs in a community that has given generations of hard work to the railway industry.

BREL has set up a holding company, of which great play has been made. During the Adjournment debate that I initiated, the Minister encouraged the shop stewards to co-operate as much as possible with the initiatives that BREL was introducing —a move that he claimed had been successful in other parts of the country. Although in a PR context, BREL has played this holding company to the hilt, it has produced no jobs except one for the manager, who came from Springburn, anyway. The only other jobs created were that of the manager's secretary and one or two support staff. I may be wrong, but certainly that was the situation two weeks ago, before the workshop broke up for the Glasgow fair holidays. Something may have happened during the holiday period, but I doubt it.

If BREL is serious about its initiative to create a holding company it should come forward and tell us its plans. How many jobs does BREL intend to create with the money it has made available? It is unfair to claim that there is a holding company — the months are ticking away—when nothing seems to be happening other than one member of the staff being lodged in a part of the company's premises.

I have previously mentioned that on 14 July, a delegation met the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland. I want to put on record that we were received most courteously by the Minister and his civil servants. Every member of that delegation, including myself, felt it was a constructive meeting, especially since the Minister agreed to a Springburn initiative. Before the first world war Springburn was a borough on its own and the delegation believe that it if it was a town in its own right like Clydebank, Greenock, Port Glasgow or Kilmarnock, Ministers would be more inclined to sit up and consider what is happening in that community. We are proud of belonging to Glasgow, but we are at a disadvantage because we are lost in the Glasgow scene. The serious situation in Springburn is not clear.

The Minister has agreed to a major initiative which will start with a meeting of Strathclyde regional council, Glasgow district council and the Scottish Development Agency. I would be keen for BREL to take part in those meetings. I have not counted the acreage of the Glasgow work site, but it is immense. The acreage is both covered and uncovered. Only a quarter of it will be required by ScotRail. The remaining three quarters of the site will be free, but it will still be in the hands of BREL. It is important for BREL to play a constructive role in the work of a Springburn initiative. I am keen to see it think again about the 200 jobs, but there must be about 600 more jobs even after the announcements. Even if there were a standstill and no further redundancies, there are 600 jobs still to be found, or lost, in the area. I should not like to see BREL, or the holding company that is created, going in one direction and the Government and local government agencies going in another. I want to see every resource that we have available to create work being utilised to the full. I hope that the Minister takes that on board and conveys the message to the Secretary of State for Scotland.

I am proud that I served an engineering apprenticeship. If an employer had not been prepared to take me on as an apprentice, I would not have the skill that I have today. The Government stated that the youth training scheme has been extended and that it will now run for two years. The one-year scheme was the subject of a great deal of exploitation and I do not think that that can be denied. A two-year YTS cannot replace a proper, recognised apprenticeship, but I hope that the Government will take every opportunity to ensure that boys and girls who are involved in the two-year schemes are given the best training possible. If there is an upturn in the economy, at least these people will have a skill that they will be able to use in later years, not, I hope, too many years hence.

A training school at Springburn was opened in 1979. Indeed, I was present when it was opened. It was able to cope with several hundred apprentices who had been taken on by BREL, Springburn. In recent years no apprentices have been taken on. The school has turning lathes, drills, workbenches, welding equipment and all the various pieces of equipment required in the course of training apprentices from start to finish, from first year to fourth year. It is a public scandal that the padlock remains in place and no one is using the school's facilities. There are workshop facilities and proper washing, toilet and changing facilities and lockers.

If the Minister is not prepared to take the responsibility for the school, his colleagues who are responsible for manpower services should do something to ensure that it is used for the purpose for which it was built.

I live in Springburn and it is a proud community. Our spirit is by no means broken because of the redundancies. We do not want to dwell in the past, although we have a proud one in engineering. We were the railway engineering capital of the world at one time. Despite the unemployment problem, we still feel that we have many positive factors in our favour. We have an excellent motorway system. We are to the north end of the city arid in 10 minutes by car we can be in the most beautiful countryside in the world. Glasgow offers first-class facilities, such as the Burrell collection, the Scottish National Orchestra, and the Scottish Opera. Most major chain stores have branches in Glasgow.

Springburn must be sold to potential employers, both at home and abroad. Everyone in the community has a responsibility. I can say that tenants' associations, community leaders, clergymen, elected Members, and myself, will give every encouragement to anyone from the Minister's Department or any other Department who considers the area in that respect. We have excellent sites for employment. I hope that the Minister will give a commitment to get initiative into a community that has served railway transport well over many years.

3.25 am
Mr. Conal Gregory (York)

I am proud to represent the fine railway city of York. Some 8,000 of my electors who live and work in the city of York are employed by British Rail. British Rail Engineering Ltd, employing some 3,000 people, is a major employer in the area. The restructured business groups formed in April this year—York with Crewe, Derby Litchurch Lane, Derby Locomotive and Horwich foundry — will concentrate on new product construction for local and overseas customers, as well as heavy overhaul and component repairs for British Rail.

The work force looks forward to developing its design expertise, rather than adopting a hand-down position as occurred with British Rail. The decision to form a separate business group—the other is for maintenance and light repair of rolling stock—was prompted by the need for British Rail Engineering to respond more effectively to outside markets, as well as British Rail's new build and maintenance requirements.

Many hon. and right hon. Members will have had an opportunity this week of reading British Rail's annual report. That report declared that BREL had responded to the challenge of an independent future by creating programmes for new product development and export activities. It is appropriate that we place on record praise for BREL's deliveries over the past year. I do not see the doom and gloom for that company that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Martin) suggested.

In the past year that the hon. Gentleman tried to gloss over, BREL has meant 100 sprinter vehicles to British Rail and 100 pacer railbus vehicles built in partnership with Leyland Bus for British Rail's provincial sector, as well as 28 first class coaches for intercity Pullman routes.

British Rail orders to BREL total some £165 million —the substantial part won after competitive tendering. That will probably wound the Labour Front Bench, but it tells the lie to those who said that is would not be able to compete.

I draw attention to the real export potential of BREL, because that is the unsung hero of the past and of the future. It is exciting that BREL has won a foothold in the Chinese market after 15 months of talks. Let us hope that the three prototype vehicles, based on its design for the high-tech coach, which I have seen at Derby, will lead to solid orders, especially since the Chinese plan to build 1,500 coaches by the early 1990s.

I know that at York and other BREL sites which I have visited there is high morale and the workers feel that they are, if hon. Members will excuse a pun, on the right tracks, but they are sadly let down by those funeral directors, the union shop stewards. I have to say, because words spoken in this House are clearly monitored by the appropriate ambassadors, that the greatest disservice to BREL has been and continues to be done by one J. Knapp.

Mr. Knapp has been touring the country and whipping up the 40,000 staff. [Interruption.] I can well understand that the Opposition wish to drown this point. If they will bear with me and listen for a minute, they will hear the cogency of my argument. But I can understand that they do not want to do so. Mr. Knapp has been going around the country trying to whip up the 40,000 staff employed at the British Rail workshops and at British Rail maintenance depots so that they take strike action. He has suffered a second humiliation within 12 months. Thank goodness for the British Rail engineering work force and for British Rail that they have had the good sense—for their future, for the home base, but especially for the export market and for solid jobs not only in Crewe and Litchurch Lane in Derby but York and the other sites which I have mentioned—to keep this small clique away from the efficiency to which they strive. We have a solid company that can offer goods on competitive terms, not just on the home market but on the international one. I look forward to a global future for BREL. I hope that we shall get common sense and leadership out of the shop stewards and that, in future ballots, the work force will have the opportunity to continue along the right road.

3.31 am
Dr. John Marek (Wrexham)

I take issue with the hon. Member for York (Mr. Gregory). It is one of the sad facts of life in the United Kingdom that these personal attacks by one side of the industry on the other continue. It does the industry no good for Conservative Members to attack the trade unions, the working people within British Rail and their elected representatives. I could easily attack the chairman of British Rail and many of the board's members for their shortsighted decisions.

The Minister of State, Department of Transport (Mr. David Mitchell)

Unless I misunderstood my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Gregory), he was praising the work force for their sound common sense in rejecting strike calls. My hon. Friend can hardly be seen to attack the work force who are exercising their democratic rights in that way.

Dr. Marek

The Minister has got it wrong. The hon. Member for York was attacking the elected representative of the work force, the general secretary of the NUR. It is a pity that Conservative Members can do nothing but make personal attacks. As I said, I could easily mount the same type of attack on many of the decisions of the British Rail board. I shall not do that, because it does not add anything to the argument. It is far better to concentrate on what the policies should be so that we can at least ensure a future for BREL. My worry is that, if we proceed along the lines of the past five or six years, there will no longer be a British Rail Engineering Ltd. The same fate will befall BREL as is now befalling, for example, the shipbuilding industry.

Mr. Gregory

I do not wish to extend this point unduly, because clearly I have hit a raw nerve in the Opposition. I should rather we returned to BREL's efficiency, the work force and its design potential. We cannot get away from the fact that, if an elected union leader goes around the countryside, that demoralises the people working there. Those people at home and abroad who are placing orders say that there is a large question mark over whether the work force can supply on time if a strike threatens. It is important to the future of the work force and the company that we analyse that point.

Dr. Marek

It may be useful to try to analyse that point. However I want to get on to what we can do to improve British Rail. I always thought that democracy was about persuasion and argument. Either one persuades people or one does not. In this case, some people were persuaded, but many other people who were not affected, or for reasons of their own, were not persuaded. It is central to the well-being of any organisation or any country that people are free and able to try to persuade people about a particular view, as we are able to in the House. I do not think that there is any short cut. There is a price to be paid for democracy in some ways but I think that it is a price that all of us want to pay.

The House will know that I am a Member sponsored by the National Union of Railwaymen. I want to make a few comments as a traveller on British Rail. I have not travelled on British Rail quite so much in the past six months because of some of the incompetent decisions of the British Rail board. However, going along the M6 and the M1 by car, trying to compete with heavy lorries doing 70 miles an hour and not being able to do anything about it without breaking the speed limit, is an even worse fate than having to put up with the inadequate service on our mainlines.

I very much prefer to travel by rail when possible. I know that the Minister travels by rail. Not many Conservative Members do. I know that the hon. Member for York also travels by rail. The next time they travel by rail I ask them to consider whether everything is right on the journey and whether the journey is going as it should. For example, is the train on time? Did it leave on time and did it reach its destination on time? If it did not, there must be a reason. That reason may not be connected with the design, engineering or maintenance of the coaches or the engine, but it could be.

Are all the comforts and advantages that one has when travelling by rail present and working? For example, on a number of mark 2 and mark 3 coaches—this is only a minor matter — I have noticed that the microphone cannot be shut off. There may be a fault in the microphone and it makes a buzzing sound over the seat. The guard says that he cannot do anything about it because he cannot switch it off. About 15 or 20 per cent. of the time there is that rather nasty noise in certain seats, especially on the west coast mainline. That is clearly a maintenance problem. No doubt it has been reported. However, I doubt whether the coaches get checked for that when they go in for maintenance.

Something that is a little more obvious is what the wheels are doing when they go round. Are there square wheels on the coaches? If so, and if as the coach starts to speed up it goes click, click, that does not disappear. It will continue throughout the journey. The coach can go all the way from Euston to Glasgow and back again many times and it is annoying for the customers. I know that that can happen if the coach brakes too hard, but it should be reported and the coach should be taken into maintenance to have the wheels skimmed so that customers have a better ride. That is not being done.

The wheels can do all sorts of other things. At certain speeds coaches can suddenly start juddering violently from one side to another. That fault now appears to have been mainly rectified by British Rail. It may be that hunting by the wheels is a dangerous sport. However, on occasions I still travel on trains on which at certain speeds the coach suddenly starts vibrating and it should not do that. That problem should not occur, passengers should not have to put up with it and the coach should go into maintenance. One should test whether the seat goes back as it should. Many do not. One should ask oneself whether the seats are padded or whether the padding has worn so thin that the seats are extremely hard. One may want a meal on the train or a snack in the buffet car. Does it have everything.

Many of the pipes on the mark 2 boilers seemed to be frozen from 10 January to mid March with the result that nobody managed to get a meal or a hot drink. One should find out whether the food is available in the buffet car. If it is not, perhaps because the boiler is not working, it is an everyday maintenance problem and should not exist.

One should ask oneself whether the windows are clean and one can see out of them. Often one cannot. On almost every other train trip the automatic doors do not work. They either remain open or work irregularly. Sometimes toilets do not work, although I have not often found that on British Rail. In the past three years, I have not travelled more than a handful of times when everything was working. There is always something wrong. Why? There is a lack of maintenance and coaches are not looked after properly. That is true of the mark 2 and mark 3 coaches, some of which are extremely modern.

The Government say that many of the job losses in British Rail Engineering are due to the introduction of sprinters which are new technology, will be built to much higher specifications and will not need much maintenance. I do not believe it. I will apologise to the Minister if they need substantially less maintenance than our present stock, but we shall have to wait until about 1992 before we can tell. It is extremely shortsighted to close works and cut jobs on the basis of a supposition which may well not be borne out in practice.

I think that the class 142s will fall to pieces quickly. Newspapers have already carried stories about how they cannot climb inclines and drivers are kitted out with bags of sand to lay down in front of the engine so that it can make the gradients. They are cheaply built coaches and they may well have a place, but if we were a wealthy country and could afford the best, we would not build class 142 coaches. Basically they are glorified buses with one axle at one end and one at the other. I would not care to sit over the axles, and I recommend everyone to sit in the middle, otherwise the ride will be extremely bumpy.

From my experience I can say categorically and unequivocally that our rolling stock is not sufficiently well maintained and that if we want to serve the public well, we should maintain the coach fleet to a much higher standard than we do now. Engines also break down. How often have hon. Members travelled by train when the engine breaks down and there is a delay of about 40 minutes? The length of delay depends on where the engine breaks down and there are not enough engines. Earlier this year on a journey from Wrexham to Euston two engines broke down. That has happened to me only once, but it says something about the state of our railway system. Statistically, perhaps that is not significant, but it is symptomatic. It would not surprise me if it happened again.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) provided me with some information about times. On one day, British Rail tested train times and found that 50 per cent. of express trains were late and that 40 per cent. of those were late because of faults in the engines or wagons. That must be an unacceptably high percentage of delays. Why does it happen? It is simply that the trains are not checked often enough and, when they are checked, there is so much pressure on the people who work on them that they can carry out only cursory checks. It does not happen on the continent. Whenever I have travelled by train on the continent, I have always been on time. In Holland, trains leave and arrive to withing 15 seconds of the stated time. That seems to be impossible on British Rail.

Another important argument as to why the Government are wrong when they say that BREL does not need so many employees because of the new build is that new build accounts for only about 10 per cent. of the coach and wagon stock. If that is the case, the Government's excuse does not wash, because 90 per cent. of stock is old. That will continue to be so, despite the building programme. No doubt the Minister will say that Br:tish Rail is building more new trains than ever before, but most of the stock is old and clapped-out. Had there been no new build, the system would have broken down completely.

Not enough coaches are available. Trains are being shortened, with the result that passengers have a much more uncomfortable ride. British Rail could provide more coaches and give passengers a rather more comfortable ride. To give another example, two passengers travelling together on a fairly full train might be unable to obtain seats together. The British Railways Board follows that policy on purpose. It is more efficient and produces more income, but it serves the public less well. It is possible to fill every seat in a railway carriage, but others will have to stand and parties of two or more will be split up. The Government may say that people should reserve their seats. Of course, they could, but it would diminish the flexibility of travelling by train.

We do not have enough coaches, and engines break down far too often. We do not have enough freight wagons. BREL is capable of building them, but people are being made redundant and the manufacturing capability is being thrown away. It is inconceivable under the present policies that any new slimmed-down BREL will revitalise the manufacturing sector of the United Kingdom in regard to railway equipment. This will not happen. It will grow ever smaller and, if we carry on this way, we will have no manufacturing capacity.

First, we need new build and, secondly, better maintenance. The possibility is there if we want to take it. I understand—although I do not expect the Minister to agree—that the Government's policies are to cut public expenditure. This means that British Rail must lose, in the Government's terminology, as little money as possible. That involves making life as difficult for the passenger as possible or as difficult as the Government can get away with. It is the same with London regional transport. There are complaints in the evening papers every day now about more waiting time for buses and the deteriorating standards of service. Efficiency for the accountant is not the same as efficiency for the passenger and for the public.

Mr. Gregory

I am following the hon. Gentleman's argument with interest. When he talks about investment in British Rail, I do not think that he is being entirely fair. If he had done his homework, he would recall that £1,000 million has been invested by British Rail in the last three years. Can he give a comparative figure in real terms in relation to investment of such a sum by Labour?

Dr. Marek

Without immediately using a deflator to take account of inflation, it is very difficult.

When DMUs were built in 1956 to 1958, nothing was done about it for something like 25 to 27 years. Without something being done, the BR service would have collapsed completely. Willy nilly the Government had to invest the £1,000 million, if that is the true figure. I note that the Minister is shaking his head. Whatever the figure was, the Government had to do it. Indeed, I am not accusing the Minister of trying not to invest in British Rail, because I believe that the present Minister is much better than any previous Conservative Minister. But I stand by my point that the present Government had to invest in British Rail, or the service would have collapsed completely.

I have not mentioned exports or the Channel tunnel. Those offer two possibilities for railway manufacturing to increase if the will is there. As to exports, I would not blame this Government particularly because I do not think that the Labour Government did any better than this Government. Either we grasp this nettle and insist that we continue as a manufacturing country in the railways and export, or we do not. I wonder what will happen in China. I think it was the hon. Member for York who mentioned China and the scope there. I would not be surprised if the Germans, the Japanese and the French all have agents in China who can speak Mandarin and are going about trying to get contracts. Meanwhile, our Government are no doubt saying, "It is nothing to do with us, it is purely private industry. It is a self-standing group that will have to look after itself, and there is no way in which we can help". I suspect that that is the truth, and that is why we will not get anything from China. If we do, it will be some small sop.

If we are going to do something for the country, the Government will have to get off their backside and do it, and I have seen no sign of that in the last six years. I suspect that the British public have cottoned on to this and that, after the next general election, we will have different people sitting on the Government Front Bench.

3.55 am
Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East)

The House will be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Martin) for his habitual championing of the employees of the BREL factory in his constituency, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek), who did well to remind us of the reality of expenditure in this sphere in the last six years.

Perhaps the Minister will comment on the talks between Strathclyde regional council and the Scottish Office. While he may not be directly involved in those talks, they must impinge on the responsibilities of his Department, especially as they could result in additional orders and maintenance work, and a greater number of workers being retained at Springburn. The Minister may find that such information cannot easily be rustled up in the midst of a debate at nearly 4 o'clock in the morning. I hope that he will at least acknowledge the importance of the talks, certainly from the point of view of Springburn.

The remarks of the hon. Member for York (Mr. Gregory) were predictable. I am not a great one for tradition, but it used to be the custom for hon. Members not to attack people who were not in a position to answer back. The hon. Member for York regularly has a go at trade union leaders, who are not here to defend themselves. Conservative Members embrace a strange form of democracy these days. They insist on ballots being forced on people prior to any form of industrial action, but they complain when general secretaries of trade unions tour the country urging the workers they represent to support—unsuccessfully in the case with which we are concerned — the official view of elected trade union executives. I had hoped that that form of democracy would be favoured by the hon. Member for York, but no such luck.

Mr. Gregory

The hon. Gentleman should declare his interest.

Mr. Snape

I need not declare my interest. It is in the Register of Members' Interests. Nor do I need any reminders from the hon. Member for York about the protocol of this place. He has not been here long enough to instruct me in that matter, and he will not be here after the next election to tell the rest of us to declare our interests.

Mr. Gregory

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it not the normal custom and procedure of the House that an hon. Member, when making a major speech, declares his interest?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

Yes, it is the normal procedure for hon. Members to declare any interests that they may have.

Mr. Snape

If interests are declared in the Register of Members' Interests, they are there for all to see. I should have thought it was an open secret—if that is the right term to use — that I am sponsored by the National Union of Railwaymen.

Mr. Gregory


Mr. Snape

Oh my foot. When I speak from this Dispatch Box I have the honour to do so on behalf of my party, not on behalf of the NUR. The hon. Gentleman's intervention — sadly, typical of him — was about as relevant as much of his speech.

The ballot with which the hon. Gentleman should concern himself is the one that will take him back to full-time wine tasting following the next general election. Then he will be able to join the Minister, who, I am told, peddles the stuff.

Mr. Norman Hogg (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth)

I urge my hon. Friend to deal in some detail with the speech of the hon. Member for York (Mr. Gregory), because it was highly complacent and expressed an ideology that was peddled by the Conservatives in 1979 and was recycled and peddled again by them in 1983. That ideology has patently failed to expand the nation's manufacturing industry. BREL is suffering from the effects of that ideology and it cannot succeed so long as the Government force it to accept that ideology. That is why my hon. Friend should deal in more detail with the speech of the hon. Member for York, who is in this place, albeit temporarily.

Mr. Snape

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I do not intend to waste any time on what I regard as the contemptible little speech of the hon. Gentleman, the temporary Member for York. He will not be missed when he is replaced by somebody who I hope will know something about the manufacturing industry that he and his Government have helped to destroy during the last six years.

The Government peddle two great myths relating to BREL. The Minister of State repeats, like a ritual incantation, that the new railway rolling stock needs less maintenance and that BREL therefore needs to employ fewer employees. That is not true. If our railway system were modern and up-to-date, there might be some justification for that attitude. It is interesting to note what the £1 billion has bought for the railway industry during the last six years. I hope that the Conservative party, and in particular the hon. Member for York, who has demonstrated his palpable lack of knowledge of these matters, appreciate that it is instructive to consider the procurement policies that have been followed since 1979.

New orders until 1980 were, of course, placed during the period of office of the last Labour Government. Since 1980, 194 locomotives and power cars have entered service with British Rail. That is 7 per cent. of the total fleet size. The other 93 per cent.—I shall do the arithmetic for the hon. Member for York because he is more used to litres and gallons than to the realities of manufacturing industry —is more than six years old.

As for coaches, we hear about sprinters and pacers rushing about the country. Out of a current fleet size of 16,105 coaches, just over 2,000 have entered service since 1979. That is just 13 per cent. of the coach fleet. Only 15 per cent. of the current fleet of 39,866 freight vehicles that are in service with British Rail entered service in the last six years. There is plenty of old rolling stock to maintain. Indeed, there is too much of it. My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham reminded us of the old slogan that British Rail has got rid of, along with Jimmy Savile. It is the age of the train that causes the problems. It takes more than a beefed-up advertising budget, proclaiming that British Rail is getting there, and a few buckets of red paint on various stations in the south of England, to convince me that the service on British Rail is not worse and that it is not less punctual and reliable than it has ever been during my lifetime.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham regularly and understandably publicises the difficulties he faces in travelling between Westminster and Wrexham. The rest of us could tell a similar tale. I, too, prefer to travel by train. The risk of the train running late on three journeys out of five between Euston and Birmingham is infinitely preferable to one of the many contraflow systems that clutter up the M1 and M6. Travel between London and Birmingham becomes more and more difficult as each year goes by, and the age of the rolling stock is a major contributor to delays and unpunctuality.

When we talk about the attitude of those who work in BREL and those who represent them nationally, it is important to reflect that, since 1980, more than 17,000 employees have lost their jobs. The latest proposals—the ones that led to the ballot that the hon. Member for York complained about so pathetically a few minutes ago —will mean another 7,870 job losses according to our estimates.

If we had a modern railway system, there might be some justification for that champ that we hear from the Dispatch Box that, because of modern rolling stock, fewer people are needed to repair and maintain it. Since 1980, because of the Government's investment policies, the number of freight wagons in service has declined dramatically. That arises directly out of decisions taken by the Government.

As recently as 1980, BR published its rail plan, which identified a need for a programme of investment in new rolling stock. It said that, given investment, the freight business could be made viable. The Government, with this industry as with others, turned logic on its head and stipulated that BR would have to improve its overall financial results before there would be any approval of large-scale investment. BR decided that, being unable to build the replacement wagons that were required to produce a modern, high-capacity wagon fleet, it would withdraw altogether from wagon load traffic and concentrate on the bulk market in an effort to achieve the better financial results that the Government sought.

The second great myth that the Government, and especially the Minister, like to perpetrate is that everything that BR has asked for in investment, it has got. That is true so far as it goes, but, like BR's old-fashioned rolling stock, it does not go very far. The Minister knows that there is an investment committee, which looks into these matters, on which representatives of the Department of Transport sit. He also knows that there are certain financial criteria which must be met before the committee approves any proposal, still more before any proposal appears on the Minister's desk in his eyrie in Marsham street. He also knows that many of the long overdue proposals for modernisation never get even to the investment committee because BR knows that they will not meet the financial criteria. It is a vicious circle.

Much the same was true for investment under the last Labour Government. Many of us had some stringent criticisms to make of our Ministers, who were apparently prepared to accept this crazy system of cost-benefit analysis to justify road building schemes, but insisted on strict financial returns on railway matters. I readily concede that, but it is no coincidence that two Ministers in the Labour Administration in the late 1970s were among the first to pack their bags and decamp to the Social Democratic party where, presumably, they advocate a programme of much greater investment in BR in the 1990s than they were ever prepared to authorise back in the 1970s.

The sooner we compare like with like when it comes to investment in different modes of transport, the sooner we shall be able to get back to running a railway system that is a pleasure for passengers to travel on and capable of moving bulk freight.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham said, travelling up and down the motorways these days is not only a nightmare; it is pretty dangerous too. The proportion of heavy goods vehicles on our roads, despite promises, pledges and blandishments offered to the road haulage lobby, increases year by year. Unless we have a railway system capable of moving freight in the way that British Rail used to, 25 or 30 years ago, in modern rolling stock behind modern and, I hope, electrified locomotives, the decline of railway freight traffic will continue and our raod network will become more and more congested, overcrowded and dangerous.

There should be a future for British Rail Engineering Ltd. There is not a future for it under this Government. There will be under the next Labour Government, and, fortunately, for the standard of debate in the House, the hon. Member for York will not be around to see it.

4.10 am
The Minister of State, Department of Transport (Mr. David Mitchell)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Martin) on his success in securing a debate tonight on this matter, albeit at such an unpopular hour in the morning. Naturally, he has taken every opportunity to argue for the retention of the British Rail Engineering works at Springburn.

The House will know the main reasons for the job losses in BREL that BR has announced from the statement that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, now the Secretary of State for the Environment, made to the House on 20 May. During the hon. Gentleman's Adjournment debate on 4 June I was able to explain some of British Rail's thinking on this, and the steps that it is taking to help those affected by these changes. I welcome the further opportunity tonight to explain the board's position.

May I say, en passant, that the hon. Gentleman referred to the beauty of the countryside just outside Glasgow. I went there last weekend and I concur entirely with what he said.

Mr. Snape

By train?

Mr. Mitchell

By train.

British Rail has been reviewing its policy on the maintenance of railway rolling stock. Its aim is to make maintenance more efficient. Maintenance standards have not declined, as some people have suggested, but British Rail believes that they need to be improved, and that is the Board's objective in bringing forward its current proposals. The review has naturally taken full account of the rapid investment that is taking place in new rolling stock. I shall come back to the point that the hon. Gentleman made in a moment.

British Rail has embarked on the biggest fleet renewal programme for more than 20 years. Since July 1984 alone we have approved 10 major investment projects, worth over £630 million in total, including nearly £400 million of new rolling stock and £200 million of new electrification. Over £700 million of investment in new rolling stock is plannd by BR over the next five years.

It makes no sense for BR to invest in modern vehicles if it cannot ensure that maintenance is done as efficiently as possible and that it gets the maximum availability of the new vehicles. On its annual report, published earlier this week, the board says: The trains being built today replace vehicles built 25 years ago, and they are designed, like modern motor cars, for minimum maintenance. Far greater opportunity exists for exchanging components and avoiding costly time in workshops away from revenue earning service. This brings lower costs and greater reliability, but there is a price to pay in fewer jobs. That is a very clear summary of the factors that lie behind the Board's proposals.

Mr. Snape

This is the same old brief. It is time it was thrown away.

Mr. Mitchell

I shall come to some of the points that the hon. Gentleman made.

The hon. Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek), unfortunately, spent a good deal of time attacking BR's management. He will have heard what his hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) had to say about attacking people who are not in the House or in a position to defend themselves. I make no point about that—

Dr. Marek

I said that I could have attacked some of the incompetent decisions taken by the British Railways Board. I did not blame any member of the board and I do not think I described any of those incompetent decisions. I could certainly go on at length if the Minister wanted me to do so.

Mr. Mitchell

It is not realistic for the hon. Member to talk about incompetent decisions and then say that he is not attacking the people responsible for taking those decisions. The people in British Rail management are dedicated and hard working and, with the co-operation of their staff, they are trying to give a good service in a much more complicated operation than many people realise. In the peak hours of the London commuter services, a train arrives every 11 seconds. In an intensive operation of that nature there is bound to be a ripple effect when any minor thing goes wrong, and that ripple affects subsequent trains and causes difficulties.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about meals on British Rail trains. I spent yesterday with the Inter-City director and the general manager of his catering operation and we looked at the new work which British Rail is doing on its catering facilities. Food of an improved standard is available and there is an improved choice. The hon. Gentleman does not help British Rail or the truth by failing to recognise that the old Aunt Sally of a curled-up British Rail sandwich of years ago has gone and that British Rail has moved into a new generation of better standards. The hon. Gentleman should have the grace to recognise that.

The hon. Gentleman talked about unwashed windows. I do not think he saw such windows on recent journeys. It could well have been in February. I do not know how frequently the hon. Gentleman uses trains, but when there is a freeze-up of washing equipment, trains cannot be washed.

Dr. Marek

Must I keep a count of when the restaurant service was working between October 1985 and January this year? For about 50 per cent. of the time that I travelled it was not working. I travelled about 20 times and on 10 of those trips there was no restaurant car when there should have been. I saw the dirty windows yesterday on the Southern region when I took a trip just to see what was going on in the region.

Mr. Mitchell

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will supply me with the time of the train, because I certainly want to draw the matter to the attention of those responsible who have now set themselves a standard of washing the trains every 24 hours. The south-eastern network is seeking to achieve that standard and I have been promised that by September there will be a discernible improvement to the standards in the south-eastern network. I hope that when that happens the hon. Gentleman will give credit where it is due instead of indulging in constant carping criticism which does no one any good.

I should like to return to the matter of maintenance. First, new vehicles need less maintenance than the ones they replace. The new Sprinter is a good example of that. Secondly, as soon British Rail takes the decision to order new rolling stock, heavy maintenance ceases on the old stock that is to be replaced. The hon. Member for West Bromwich, East failed to appreciate that point when he talked about what he called two great myths. One of his myths was that no new rolling stock is in service. New rolling stock is on order and there is no point in continuing to carry out heavy maintenance on rolling stock that is about to be thrown out because a massive amount of new rolling stock is on order.

All the necessary day-to-day maintenance continues to be done and British Rail handles that in its local depots and not at BREL. The building of new vehicles calls for fewer men than are required for a programme of heavy maintenance on old vehicles. I regret that British Rail considers that this means 4,200 to 5,000 fewer jobs in BREL over the next three years. But we cannot turn back the clock. If British Rail is to compete successfully with road, air and coach, and if it is to secure custom from travellers, it has to provide modern, efficient and attractive rolling stock. If it does that, it will not keep the old rolling stock and it will not need the old heavy maintenance.

My hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Gregory) rightly referred to the potential for exports by BREL. That must be encouraged. But I regret to say that the hon. Member for Wrexham irresponsibly condemned the 142 vehicle just when BREL was doing its damnedest to sell it around the world. It is a pity that he should seek to damage a major export drive just as it is getting under way.

The hon. Member for Wrexham also talked about his experiences. I hope that he will regret his miserable and curmudgeonly approach to British Rail. He said that British Rail had to invest. There was no question—for example, on the cast coast main line—but that it could have gone on with a second generation of HSTs. British Rail put to the Government its decision to invest in electrification and the Government approved. Even the hon. Gentleman was heard to say some good words about that investment.

Mr. Gregory

Will my hon. Friend confirm that British Rail has not taken up all its external financing limits and that it is an indictment of the Opposition that they are unable to produce any comparative figures for when the Labour party was in power and influenced British Rail?

Mr. Mitchell

My hon. Friend is, as always, very perceptive. I must correct again the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East, because he believes in a second myth. He was wrong to say that representatives of the Department of Transport sit on the BR investment committee. They do not. That is a myth.

Mr. Snape

Is the Minister saying that at no time before these matters arrive on his desk is there direct consultation between the British Railways Board and representatives from his Department?

Mr. Mitchell

The hon. Gentleman knows well what happens. The board considers an investment proposal. If it agrees to it, and if it involves more than £5 million, it is sent to the Department. My officials will ask questions before they send the proposal to me so that I have a full report. Often I then ask further questions. That frequently means going back to the board and asking for further information. But the decision about that investment is taken by British Rail. The Department does not participate.

Having killed both the myths of the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East, perhaps I can return to the problems of Springburn. Scotland is particularly affected by these changes because British Rail is improving services there through major fleet changes. In a few years a high proportion of Scottish services will be operated by modern, low-maintenance vehicles. There is the new electrification, with the east coast main line and the Ayrshire schemes. Sprinter-type vehicles will appear on many services that currently use loco-hauled coaching stock. There are also likely to be more HST-type services.

Well over a year ago BREL told its trade unions that the work force at Springburn would need to be reduced substantially by March 1987, and it was clear then that Springburn's future beyond that date was uncertain, and no assurances were given on that. In May this year, British Rail announced details of the new BREL organisation. Without a change in strategy, BREL was in no doubt that that reduced maintenance workload would lead to the complete closure of Springburn in 1987. Its new strategy offers a new role for Springburn as a regional maintenance depot, offering work for up to 200 people.

I must stress that these are British Rail's proposals. The board's future maintenance arrangements are essentially matters for it to decide in consultation with its work force. Following the clear decision by the work force in the recent ballot against industrial action, I am glad that the unions are coming back to discussing the proposals with BR and BREL at a meeting next week.

I know that the substantial job losses proposed by BR, especially at Springburn, Doncaster and Wolverton, are causing deep concern in the areas, and I need hardly add that it is a concern that I share. I can assure hon. Members that BR will be doing all that it can to soften the impact of these changes and to manage the problem as sympathetically as it can. It will have my full support on this.

Mr. Martin

I asked the Minister to ensure that BREL, which is a substantial property owner in the community, got involved with the Springburn initiative. Will the Minister assure me that he will encourage BREL to do so?

Mr. Mitchell

Perhaps I can come back to that point in a moment.

British Rail has announced plans for a senior BR director to co-ordinate measures to help those affected, heading a special directorate to look at alternative employment prospects and to develop retraining programmes. BR will be working with BREL to find alternative jobs both within BR and outside the railway industry. In particular, BR will—as it mentions in its annual report — try wherever possible to match the recruitment needs of railway departments in the next three years with the employment needs of those displaced in BREL.

At Springburn, BREL has set up Springburn Holdings to support the efforts to create new jobs. There is a job creation package on similar lines to that offered at other sites affected by works closures, with £1 million available from BREL. I gather that in the next few weeks BREL will be seeking to build on these initial steps and expects to be giving its development proposals wider publicity.

BREL has been seeking to enlist the co-operation of local authorities in the Glasgow area, but with mixed results so far. I urge hon. Members to recognise the inevitability of change and modernisation on the railway. We must do all that we can to press local interests to work with BR and the Scottish Development Agency on finding ways to promote alternative jobs to replace those which, it is clear, will be lost.

The hon. Member for Springburn knows that I am personally committed to helping in job creation. Last month I invited him to join me in going to see what has been achieved at Shildon—and what might be achieved in Glasgow. I hope that he will take up that offer. Then we can study in more detail some of the opportunities which have been seized and which may be suitable for transplanting to Glasgow. Nothing will be achieved unless there is the fullest co-operation from the local authorities; the work force and the Scottish Development Agency. All must be involved in a team effort to achieve what has proved to be most successful at Shildon.

It is for British Rail to decide how to put forward its proposals in consultation with the work force. I am sure that if that co-operation is available much can be done in the constituency of the hon. Member for Springburn.

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