HL Deb 12 March 1964 vol 256 cc528-31

3.15 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

[The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether, in view of the statement by Lord Cameron, Chairman of the Highland Panel, that "there was very good reason for saying that the figures given by British Railways, in support of their plans, did not present either the whole or an accurate picture of the true accounting position in relation to the passenger services", they will now instruct the Railways Board to supply accurate profit and loss figures in respect to each proposed closure; and whether, pending production of this information, they will suspend action on closures on which transport users' consultative committees have made recommendations based on the incomplete and misleading figures supplied to them.]


My Lords, I am sorry that both parts of the noble Lord's Question are founded on misconception and therefore the answer to them is "No". The transport users' consultative committees do not make recommendations at all on closure proposals, nor do they base their reports on financial figures. They report to my right honourable friend, the Minister of Transport, on any hardship a proposed rail passenger closure may cause, and, if they wish, make proposals for alleviating it.

By agreement, the Railways Board supply the committees with certain financial data as background information, and to help them avoid abortive work in investigating alternative services in detail, if they would clearly cost more than the existing rail service. The validity and appropriateness of these figures was considered by Sir William Carrington, an independent accountant appointed by my right honourable friend, after consulting the President of the Institute of Chartered Accountants, to investigate the matter. Sir William reported that the figures currently supplied by the Railways Board were appropriate for the purposes of the consultative committees. He also found that the bases used in the calculations were well founded and sound in principle.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that, after first saying that both parts of my Question were not relevant and therefore the answer was "No", he then proceeded to prove that they were relevant? Is he aware that if figures are supplied to a transport users' consultative committee for the purpose he indicated and they are told a line is losing £100,000, they may recommend a certain alternative which they would not, or might not, recommend if there were no loss at all? Therefore, obviously they make recommendations, as he is well aware. May I ask the noble Lord also whether the Government propose to disregard completely this statement by this highly responsible Government advisory panel?


My Lords, to answer the second part of the question first, the Government certainly do not intend to disregard the work of the Highland Panel, if that is what the noble Lord meant by his question. The Chairman of the Highland Panel, who made the statement on which the noble Lord based his question is perfectly free to make that statement if he so chooses, just as the noble Lord is, and has done. But that does not mean either that it is right or that the Government agree with it; and that has, in fact, already been said elsewhere. Reverting to the other half of the question, I would say that the noble Lord is quite entitled to his opinion on that, too, but, as I have already explained in my Answer, we do not share his view on that either.


My Lords, while not disputing the arithmetical calculations of the noble Lord's right honourable friend, in view of the fact that the only effective means of communication in that part of Great Britain is the railways and that there is no effective alternative means of communication, will he give instructions to his right honourable friend to keep the railways open as a social service?


My Lords, I have frequently said in this House, and it has been said frequently elsewhere, that every case is considered fully on its merits.


My Lords, did I understand the noble Lord to say that the transport users' consultative committees do not make recommendations to the Minister? If that is so, is it not rather anomalous that, after they have heard the arguments for, and also, presumably, against, the proposals of the Board, they should not be able to make recommendations? And did not the Minister say, towards the end of his first reply, that in fact they can draw attention to hardship that may be caused or to the adequacy or otherwise of the substituted transport? Does not this amount to making recommendations? Would it not be a farce if, having gone through these hearings, the transport users' consultative committees were not to be able to advise the Minister on what, in their opinion, is the course he should take?


My Lords, the noble Lord knows perfectly well what are the statutory duties of transport users' consultative committees under the Act: they are to report on hardship and on suggested means of alleviating it by alternative services, if they so wish. I was perfectly right in saying what I did about "recommendations" in the sense in which the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, used the word in his Question. That is not the function of the Committee, which is to report on hardship, and I do not think there is any possible doubt on that matter.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether he will shed a little more light upon these arithmetical calculations which he mentioned? Do they take account of not only the cost of providing alternative transport, but also the cost of improving the roads in order to allow that transport to be provided?


My Lords, I think I must resist the tendency for supplementaries on this Question to develop into a debate on the Beeching Report, and I think that the noble Lord should put down a Question. I have answered the Question on the Order Paper, which is whether certain action would be taken in relation to a certain statement, and I have said "No", and why.


My Lords, will not the noble Lord confirm that transport users' consultative committees, in reporting to the Minister on hardship, do in many cases recommend that there shall be alternative transport provided in order to alleviate that hardship? Secondly, will he ask his right honourable friend to have an investigation into the allegation made by the Highland Panel that the financial information did not present a true picture of the situation of the alleged financial saving for the railways through closure? Is it not highly desirable that that vital statement should be fully and properly investigated, and the facts then reported?


My Lords, I am not going to indulge in an exercise in semantics with the noble Lord as to the exact meaning of the word "recommendations". I have tried to answer his Question as straight as I can, and I have tried to interpret the words which he used as honestly as I am able to. If he insists that the suggested alternatives they may wish to put forward are classifiable as "recommendations", then he must have it, but that is not the sense in which I have read that word in his Question. So far as this statement is concerned, I do not feel like recommending or suggesting to my right honourable friend that he should have such an investigation, because he is satisfied as to the position already.

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