HL Deb 24 November 1954 vol 189 cc1956-62

6.17 p.m.

THE PAYMASTER GENERAL (THE EARL OF SELKIRK) rose to move, That the British Transport Commission (Organisation) Scheme Draft Order, 1954, reported from the Special Orders Committee on Wednesday last be approved. The noble Earl said: My Lords, in moving this Order, I would recall to your Lordships the fact that we had a full discussion on the subject in your Lordships' House and in another place, and I do not think that at this hour your Lordships will expect me to give the details of the Scheme at very great length. Since we discussed the Order there has been one small alteration as a result of the discussions in both Houses. In Article 9, before the words in the third line "with the approval of the Minister" the words "after consultation with and" have been inserted. That is intended to leave the initiative with regard to operating costs and statistics with the Commissioners but to make quite clear that in approving the form in which these should be published the Minister should have prior consultation. With those words I beg to move that this Order be approved.

Moved, That the British Transport Commission (Organisation) Scheme Draft Order, 1954, reported from the Special Orders Committee on Wednesday last be approved.—(The Earl of Selkirk.)


My Lords, I am in complete agreement with the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk. For my part, everything that needs to be said about this Order has been said. On the principle that an ounce of fact is worth a ton of theory, I am prepared now to suspend judgment until the Scheme is in operation and working. We shall have plenty of opportunities of criticising, if criticism be necessary, in the future.

6.20 p.m.


My Lords, I am not in such a happy position as my noble friend Lord Lucas of Chilworth. He has declared himself to be quite satisfied with this Scheme and says, "Let it be brought into operation and let us study it thereafter." I am not suggesting that we divide against it or anything of that kind, but before we part with this Order I should like to make a few observations. I am glad that we have had it clearly established that overhead policy is to remain in the hands of the Commission. But I still have a lurking fear that this scheme is more evidence of opposition to nationalisation than a genuine desire to enable this great nationalised service to earn a greater measure of public approval and support or, alternatively, so far as Scotland is concerned, to give Scotland real control of this public asset.

There are one or two points that I want to make, arising out of my misgivings. One point, particularly, I should like to have explained, because I think there may be some misunderstanding over what was said in another place when this matter was under discussion. In reply to a question by Mr. Collick yesterday about the flexibility of charges in the various areas, the Minister used these words (OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, Vol. 533 (No. 186), col. 1115): As the honourable Gentleman will appreciate, under the proposed charges scheme there will be much greater flexibility in Charges, and it is a question of using that greater flexibility for local variations which seemed to me to be a particularly appropriate matter for the Area Boards to consider. I think that statement may lead to some misunderstanding, because surely the question of the charges is a matter of major policy, and to give anything in the way of an overriding power to the various Areas to fix charges for themselves might lead to difficulty. There is central control of policy, as I have indicated. There will be, I feel, a general railway classification book to decide that goods coming under certain categories will be charged at certain rates. I would ask whether the Minister's statement means, for example, that coal from the coalfields in Scotland which has to be taken to places in the West Highlands, or the North of Scotland, could be carried specially and exceptionally at lower rates than coal going in other directions. That is something within the Scottish Area that is to be set up. There is another way of looking at this: would it be possible for the Scottish Area to apply special rates, for example, for fish going from Wick, or Mallaig, or Aberdeen to English cities beyond the Scottish Area? I hope that we may have the position made clear, because unless a firm statement is made I think the Minister's statement may lead to confusion.

It was indicated in the other place that the total railway expenditure will be about £445 million. I wish to ask how that amount will be allocated between the six Areas. I ventured to indicate, when the White Paper was under discussion, that one of my apprehensions arose from the fact that I was afraid that, in any comparison made between the Areas in respect of the earning capacity per train-mile, or in any other way, Scotland might show up in art unfavourable light. That is something over which we have no control. We have longer tracks of railway in Scotland Than there are south of the Border and it could not be expected that, over these lines the traffic will be sufficient for the line to earn the amount that might be earned in more highly populated and industrialised areas. I would ask how that £445 million is to be allocated. It was shown that only £1 million would be left in the hands of the Commission for their own purposes, and that the best part of the expenditure would be for the Areas to handle.

These are detailed questions. My feeling about this whole matter is that the railway need at the present time is a greater sense of vocation and, if possible, a renewal of the old loyalty and devotion to the service that existed in the first quarter of this century. It was then looked upon as a privilege to have the opportunity of working upon the railway. It was felt then that if a young man entered the railway service, if he behaved himself, he had a job for life, whereas in most other industries employment was more precarious—there were slumps and fluctuations that made it less certain that there would be continuous employment. I speak from experience in this regard, because I am the third generation of a family of railway workers. It was a proud moment for my father and mother when I went into the railway service, and I was proud to serve in it. I am glad to think that one of he greatest trade union leaders I ever knew inspired me further along that line of pride in the service. Some noble Lords in this House will have a clear memory of the late Lord Walkden, who was general secretary of my own trade union, the Railway Clerks' Association, which I joined in 1908. I am not a paying member any more, but I am still an honorary member of that great union. His urge upon us in the service was to put the best that we knew into the service, to make of it a great public service; he said that on the basis of the work we did we should be able to claim the best conditions that could be obtained by the industry in the light of its resources. I ask noble Lords to note that the prerequisite was the putting of the best we knew into the service. That was the atmosphere in which I worked during the whole time that I was serving in the railway service.

But since that time there has been a change. Two world wars are partly responsible for the change that has taken place, and I just make this comment upon that fact. It is impossible to turn ploughshares into swords for years on end without doing harm to normal standards of conduct, and even to standards of morality. Great changes have taken place. Better material conditions have been established in the railway service, and these improved conditions have, to some extent, reduced the power of the railway service to recruit workers, because even better conditions have been obtained in other industries; and that old loyalty and attachment to the railway service because it was the railway service, has largely gone. There is the handicap which naturally applies to an industry that works "round the clock." Young people demand that their weekends be free, and they are reluctant to engage in work which restricts that liberty. Another factor is that the railway trade unions came late in the queue of those who were calling for better conditions when the last war ended. The result of being late, and the result of the conditions that could be offered, told against the recruitment of the best type of workers for the railway service.

Good conditions and amenities are needed to counteract these disabilities. I am not saying that the conditions are bad. In many cases they are quite good, and there are many amenities connected with the railway service which are provided deliberately—convalescent homes and the like are supported from railway funds, and by the staff, and there are super-annuation schemes and all the rest. But there remains the disability of this desire of young people to have their Saturdays off, and not to be working at unreason able hours, as they would consider them. When I say that better methods and good conditions are needed, I am not offering any detailed items which I think can be brought into effect immediately. That would be a task, and a great task, for the Area Authorities when they are set up. I merely mention these things in order that those who are recruited for this service will regard it is a great and honourable service to work for—the proper functioning of what I look upon as the great arteries of our industrial and commercial life in this country and, indeed, of our social life as well. The new Area Authorities will have to give attention to these things in order to get the best they can in the way of staff, and I wish them well in the task that they will undertake once they have been appointed.

6.35 p.m.


My Lords, we all appreciate the deep feeling with which the noble Lord, Lord Mathers, has addressed your Lordships, particularly on the subject of the railway employees. I feel sure that any organisation, and certainly the railways, would be delighted if all their staff had the sense of devotion which the noble Lord has suggested is desirable. I would, if I may, suggest to him that this matter has been very much in the minds of the British Transport Commission in drawing up this Order. I would draw the noble Lord's attention to the Explanatory Memorandum of Cmd. 9191, paragraph 27 (f) of which says that one of the purposes of the Area Authorities is to encourage loyalty and esprit de corps among the staff and to ensure attention to the welfare of the staff in all its forms. That is quite specifically laid down as one of the tasks for the Area Authorities to undertake; and I am sure that it is their wish, as the noble Lord has expressed, that those who undertake this work will regard it as a great honour to be asked to play such an important part in this organisation.

The noble Lord asked me one or two questions which I think I can answer satisfactorily, although they will require perhaps rather fuller explanation. First of all, he asked about charges. The position about charges is really quite clear, because it is laid down in the Transport Act, 1953. Section 16, under which this Order is brought forward says that whatever the Order does, it shall reserve to the Commission general financial control and general control of the charges to be made for the services and facilities provided. It is quite clear that a charges scheme, as such, is the responsibility of the Commission. What, however, I think my right honourable friend had in mind is that there is no reason why there should not be some measure of flexibility in the charges scheme at the recommendation of the Area Authorities, should they think it desirable, and the Commission agree, if they wish to encourage any specific traffic. The noble Lord knows a great deal more about this aspect than I do. I see no reason why that should not be done, but while the Area Authority might be given a margin within which to work it does not alter the fact that the charges scheme is essentially a matter for the Transport Commission. But there is no reason, so far as I can see, why the Area Authority should not make a suggestion to the Transport Commission and be permitted to work within certain margins at certain times. That is my interpretation of it.


May I just make that clear? The noble Earl means that the authority in respect of these charges lies with the Commission.


Certainly, without any question. The noble Lord then asked whether the running expenditure—I think it is £440 million-odd—would be spent in Scotland. I must make this fact abundantly clear. There is no question of a Goschen scale. The noble Lord knows the range of current expenditure on the railways could not possibly be subordinated to a Goschen scale. What I can tell him is that over one-tenth of that expenditure at the current rate is being spent in Scotland at the present time. It is perfectly clear that money has got to be spent to meet requirements. We made it clear that these Areas should not be self-balancing as such. It is intended that the railway system should work as a whole, so the actual local expenditure, I submit, is slightly irrelevant. The actual amount of expenditure is not of great relevance—the question is whether essential standards are maintained.

The noble Lord expressed some anxiety as to whether Scotland would like the scheme. I do not think there can be any doubt about it. If there is one part of the country which is glad to have an Area Authority of its own it is Scotland. I was struck by what the noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, said the other day. He said that when he went up to Scotland (I am paraphrasing) he felt strongly that some organisation of this sort was necessary. I feel—and I believe noble Lords feel—that for a long time Scotland has wanted to have some body broadly responsible and physically situated in Scotland which could in some measure look after its railways and transport needs. That is precisely what this reorganisation does. I have every reason to believe that it will be very welcome indeed in Scotland. But that does not prejudice what may be done in other fields. One of the things that we have in mind to do is to set up a Scottish Transport Council. That cal only be done after the Area Authority is already in operation. It is not intended that this Council shall be an executive body, but it will be a body which is representative of all forms of publicly owned and publicly assisted transport in Scotland—whether by road, rail, sea or air. They will be brought together, but, I repeat, they will not be an executive body. We do not want over-centralisation in Scotland any more than we want it in London. The object is that it should meet and discuss matters of common interest with a view to developing an efficient and coordinated system of public transport in Scotland. As to how it will work out only time will tell, but if we get the right people the Council will be of great value and will achieve a useful purpose in the public interest.

The proposal we have to-day is only one of three important developments which are taking place on the railways and deals solely with organisation. At the present time there is a charges scheme which is being considered by the Commission—that is the second development. The third is modernisation of equipment and we hope to hear something about that shortly, but such a scheme will need very wide consultation with the different interests concerned. Those are the three lines on which the railway system in this country is going ahead. I know that I can express your Lordships' entire agreement when I say we wish the Transport Commission every good fortune and success.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House adjourned at eighteen minutes before seven o'clock.