HL Deb 31 March 1965 vol 264 cc1027-33

3.35 p.m.


My Lords, for the convenience of the House and particularly of my noble friend, because there is nothing worse than being interrupted, with your Lordships' permission I will now repeat a Statement on two aspects of railway policy, one of which affects other nationalised industries, which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister of Transport. With your Lordships' permission I will use his words. The Statement reads:

"In my Statement to the House on November 4 last, I explained that my policy on passenger closures was being developed in accordance with the Government's policy on national and regional planning. Now that regional economic planning councils and boards have been established for most of the country, I have decided to consult them about any proposed withdrawal of passenger services. Accordingly, as from to-day, where regional councils and boards exist they will be given full opportunity to advise me on the planning implications of any proposed closure for the regions with which they are concerned, before I make a decision. This arrangement will apply to all outstanding proposals published by the Railways Board on which I have not yet reached a decision and to all proposals which are published in the future.

It will apply also to those not published but referred to me, to consider whether they are clearly unacceptable front the start, under the special arrangement I announced in my previous Statement.

This procedure will ensure that regional planning is not prejudiced by rail passenger closures, and will ensure that in those cases in which I decide that closures are justified, I have been able to take account of all relevant considerations.

As the House knows, I have also undertaken to make a further Statement on workshop policy. This involves much more than British Railways workshops, although these are the establishments about which honourable Members have expressed most concern. The Government are convinced that not only the British Railways Board but other nationalised industries should be free to employ and develop their manufacturing resources to the best effect. We intend, therefore, as opportunity arises, to introduce legislation to remove statutory limitations which impede the nationalised industries.

The reorganisation of British Railways workshops is now almost complete and their modernisation well advanced. The removal of the restrictions will enable these national assets to be employed to the fullest extent."


My Lords, I should like to express our thanks to the noble Lord for giving us the Statement. So far as the second part of the Statement, referring to the workshops, is concerned, I do not think it would serve any useful purpose for me to comment on that now. Obviously we shall have to wait for the legislation which he has promised and which we shall have to study very carefully.

As regards the earlier part of the Statement, on the closures, what immediately strikes one is that the Government, for reasons which no doubt seem good to them, are deliberately imposing a new link in the chain, so to speak. How much further delay is this going to entail before essential decisions are made? Obviously it could mean a very great deal of delay, and we wonder whether the noble Lord would give some assurance that they simply are not going to put back making difficult decisions for a very long time.


My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Newton, about the second part of the Statement, which obviously is very controversial and I think will need special debate. With regard to the first part, I have rather a different view from the noble Lord. It seems to me that the Government have a good policy on national and regional planning, but they are now looking to these regional committees, whatever they may be, merely for advice, which the Minister may or may not take. They are not yet strengthening enough the regionalisation and letting responsibility come from the regions as much as they indicated they were going to. I hope they will take a much stronger line, give more power and more decision to the people involved, so that questions such as the closures of railways against very strong popular opinion in the areas concerned may have much more consideration, and so that other questions of the same sort may have more consideration than in the past.


My Lords, may I thank both noble Lords for their references to railway workshops? I am glad they have taken that view, because I am only a Parliamentary Secretary and not a Parliamentary draftsman and I should have been in deep water if they had asked questions on the possible extent of legislation. To return to the new procedure for railway closures, and to deal with the point of the noble Lord, Lord Rea, about advice to the Minister and the right of the Minister to make a decision, the view taken by the Minister—and I think most Ministers would take the same view—is that the decision must be his. He cannot pass his responsibilities on to outside bodies. He has the right and the duty to take advice and, in the light of that advice, to take the responsibility for a decision, which he must make and which is, through the Minister, the responsibility of the Government.

The noble Lord, Lord Newton, referred to the possibility of delay, and this is a point that will have to be watched. It is not intended that there will be an opportunity for delay. Submissions to the transport users' consultative committees and to the regional boards will be simultaneous. There will be a time limit on their discussions and we hope that the decisions will be very speedy. But the Minister takes the view that transport is an essential part of the economic development of a region, and, therefore, that those who have been given the responsibility for regional development ought to have some say in the part that railways, that transport, should play in regard to it.


My Lords, may I ask one further question, for clarification? The noble Lord, Lord Lindgren, has just said that a time limit for consideration will be imposed. Does that mean that a time limit will be imposed on the regional economic planning councils and on the boards?


My Lords, perhaps I went a little further than I ought to have done. The position is that closure proposals are made to the Minister and then they are published and they will go both to the T.U.C.C. and to the regional boards. In many cases the regional boards will have had a preview of them because they are submitted to the Minister first in order that he can decide whether or not they should obviously be rejected on economic planning grounds. Cases will go direct to the boards before they are published and we do not think there will be any delay. There may be a slight delay later because there will be decisions already awaiting the Minister's consideration that have been to the transport users' consultative committee. They will be submitted to the regional boards immediately this arrangement comes into operation, but, with the co-operation of the regional boards, we do not think there need be any delay.

3.44 p.m.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord a question? If it is right for regional boards to be consulted about passenger closures, is there not also something to be said for them to be consulted about the withdrawal of freight services? I appreciate that the Minister does not come into the matter in the same way in each case, but it would not follow from that alone that the regional board should not be consulted.


My Lords, passengers and freight, as the noble Lord appreciates, are two different entities. The person who is sending goods from place to place does not really worry by which route they go. If a passenger service is not withdrawn and the line is open the tendency is for freight to remain on the line. The withdrawal of freight services generally arises only when the passenger service is withdrawn and there is a requirement for the removal of the line, but it may also arise where there has been a concentration of collection and delivery stations. In these instances it is entirely a matter for those who have the responsibility of managing the railways and arranging the collection and delivery of goods to do it in the best possible manner, so that the services they give to their customers are in the interests of the economy of the country.


My Lords, with regard to closures in Wales, will the decision be made by the Ministry of Transport or the Secretary of State for Wales? If the Minister consults the Secretary of State for Wales and they arrive at different decisions, when the Minister gives his decision shall we be informed of what the Secretary of State recommended?


My Lords, having listened to a number of Welshmen over a period of time, I did not know there were any railways left in Wales; but in so far as this procedure arises, of course the Welsh Regional Board will be consulted and my right honourable friend, as is usual among Ministers, will consult his right honourable friend.


My Lords, I was asking about who would make the deci- sion because, after all, the promise was made that the Secretary of State for Wales was going to take over tremendous responsibilities and I wondered whether this was one of them.


My Lords, he will not be taking over that one, but, of course, the Minister of Transport is a member of the Government and the Government accept corporate responsibility for all their actions.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord two specific questions? I understand there have been proposals for the closure of the Heath-field line and the Forest Row link line. This has been considered by the T.U.C.C. Will this now go before the regional board and, if it does, will the regional board be able to consider the question of the feasibility of light railway operation?—because I understand that the T.U.C.C. can consider only the question of hardship and not another form of operation on these or other lines.


My Lords, I cannot remember all proposals in regard to individual closures that are coming forward, but I can say that if a decision has not yet been given on any proposal by my right honourable friend, it will be referred to the regional board for consideration and for their observations. The transport users' consultative committees are different. They are concerned with hardship to individuals, the numbers of persons likely to travel, whether they are, say, men going to work or women going to market. Submissions to boards are on social and economic grounds from the point of view of productivity and the creation of wealth. So far as light railways are concerned, I cannot give any authoritative answer, but if the noble Lord would like to put down a Question I should be only too pleased to answer it, or I will send him a reply by letter.


My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord. If I understand him aright, the regional boards will be able to accept a wider view of the problem than the T.U.C.C. can.


My Lords, yes: they will be considering the economic and social problems arising from a closure.


My Lords, if the matter comes before the board and the board advise the Minister that the railway should not be closed, will the matter then be considered by the T.U.C.C.?


My Lords, all proposals will be considered by both bodies. Their functions are different. The transport users' consultative committees are concerned only with hardship to individuals, whereas the regional boards are concerned with the general national and regional planning of the area and the productivity of industry within it.


My Lords, can my noble friend tell us what will be the position in what is known as the South-East Study area? That can conceivably be one part or cut up into two, three or four parts. If the regional boards in that area are not going to be formed soon, will there be a standstill on all closures until they are?


My Lords, as my noble friend is aware, so far as the South-East is concerned there is as yet no regional board, and pending the establishment of such a board there will be discussions between the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, the Department of Economic Affairs, the Treasury and the Board of Trade and so on in regard to them. So consultation, instead of being with the regional board, will be among the Government Departments concerned.

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