HL Deb 21 December 1966 vol 278 cc2075-86

11.22 a.m.

LORD LINDGREN: rose to move that an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the Regional Railway Boards Order 1966 (S.I. 1966, 1508), laid before this House on December 7, be annulled. The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving this Prayer against Order No. 1508, I should perhaps declare an indirect interest. Many of the staff adversely affected by the Order are those among whom I worked before entering Parliament and in the brief period between my leaving another place and entering this House. Also, for many years I was a voluntary officer of the Transport Salaried Staffs Association, which is the trade union catering for the clerical, professional and technical staffs affected by this Order.

The Order facilitates the amalgamation of the Railways Board Eastern and North Eastern Regions and the establishment of a new regional headquarters at York. Some 5,500 staff are affected, almost equally divided between the two regions. To-day I am most concerned with the 2,800 Eastern Region headquarters staff at present located in London. Although for the North-Eastern Region headquarters staff it will mean some dislocation and uncertainty as to their future, for the Eastern Region headquarters staff it will mean a major upheaval, the movement of homes from London and the Home Counties, interruption of children's education, the loss of one social life and the making of another.

I ask the House to remember that this is a movement of a complete range of staff, from the youngster who has not been very long in the service to those with 30 to 45 years' service, many of whom are reaching retirement age. I ask the House to remember, too, that over the past ten years staff have suffered many organisational upheavals. They have been centralised, decentralised, reorganised, and, in fact, disorganised. The Prices and Incomes Board, in their recent Report on pay and conditions of British Railways staffs, referred to—and I quote: reorganisations following in quick succession as policy changed, leaving the staff bewildered and dispirited. And in paragraph 79 of the same Report, the Board said: Difficulties over past years and continued contraction of the industry have led to a lack of sense of direction in the minds of management and to insecurity in the minds of the staff. In this proposed merger we have a further example of a change of policy and." lack of sense of direction" by management, and again "a bewildered and dispirited staff". Can one wonder that the staff are asking: "Just when and where is it all going to end?" They say, too, that if management would give their mind to running the railways and securing traffic, instead of to successive changes in structure, organisation and administration, we might get somewhere.

My Lords, there are compelling reasons why this merger should not go through. In July of this year, we had the White Paper on Transport Policy, outlining the Government's ideas, which showed that some major changes are likely in the organisation and administration of transport in this country. New concepts, such as the National Freight Organisation and the conurbation transport authorities, were put forward. If these changes come about—and discussions on them have already begun between the management, the staff and the Government—it will mean another upheaval in railway organisation and further movement of staff, many of whom are affected by this Order. I ask: Why not wait until the implementation of the White Paper proposals, until the implications are known, before deciding whether this merger is advisable?

The Minister herself must have some doubts, for she has set up a steering group, under the chairmanship of the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, Mr. John Morris, M.P., the terms of reference of which include …to consider the suitability of the Board's management, structure and procedures for the future operation of the system in the light of the context of the White Paper and of the changes which may stem therefrom.… To make consequential recommendations, including suggestions for possible legislative changes. How daft can you get! Surely, having set up a steering committee to examine these matters, it is only right to await its report before embarking on a further reorganisation affecting many hundreds of staff.

The new region will cover a vast straggling area, from South end to Berwick-on-Tweed, an area with such different problems as the London conurbation, the rural areas of East Anglia and the heavily industrialised North and North-East. I ask—and I hope that my noble friend will be able to reply: is the Minister satisfied that it will be possible to administer such a vast region efficiently? I am delighted to see the noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, here this morning, because in his days at the British Transport Commission the Eastern and North-Eastern Regions were kept separate, in view of the dissimilarity of the functions they have to perform.

The White Paper on Transport Policy, to which I previously referred, says: The Government is deeply conscious of the difficulties of the past which, in the atmosphere of an unstable and declining industry, have inhibited the fullest co-operation among all concerned. British Rail staff are wondering when stability is going to come to them. Time and time again railway staff have been told, "This is the last reorganization".Is it any wonder that they are sceptical of the statement that this proposed merger will be the last reorganisation that will affect them, especially when they have no confidence that the Railways Board themselves are sure of the direction in which they are going?

Further, they have studied the White Paper, and know that radical changes are bound to come from it. They know of the John Morris Committee and its terms of reference. They feel that this is just another gimmick of accountants who know very little about transport in general, and perhaps even less about railways in particular. They know that, as with other schemes of centralisation, some other bright boy will come along a little later with a further scheme of decentralisation to fit in with the National Freight Organisation and the conurbation transport authorities. They feel that they will again have to pack up their bags and move.

I ask the House to remember that it is not only the employees themselves who are involved: their wives and families have to move with them. There are bound to be major housing and educational problems with thousands of people converging on York. I should like to ask what arrangements have been made in regard to housing. Is the Minister satisfied that adequate educational facilities exist in York to provide for this influx of a child population? Even at this late stage, I would ask the Minister to reconsider her decision, and to withdraw her consent to the proposed merger, so that we might await the result of our own investigations and the implementation of our own White Paper before there are further upheavals of staff. I beg to move.

Moved, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the Regional Railway Boards Order 1966 (S.I. 1966, 1508), laid before this House on 7th December, be annulled.—(Lord Lindgren.)

11.32 a.m.


My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Lindgren on bringing this very vexed question before the House. I am sorry that I cannot agree completely with his line of argument. Probably I ought to declare an interest inasmuch as for all my working life, before going into the House of Commons in 1945, I was a working railway man. The constant changes that have taken place in recent years, as referred to by my noble friend, are something that few people are aware of. I think it is right to say that during the last three or four years something like 150,000 railway men's jobs have been dispensed with. A gigantic reorganisation has taken place. We have often heard the railwaymen condemned for the particular line they have adopted in regard to branch lines, liner trains and such like, but little or nothing has been said with regard to the wonderful co-operation that has taken place (and here I want to choose my words carefully) particularly by the better trade unions in the railway world, and I specifically refer to the N.U.R. My noble friend understands that I am quoting his own words used in a speech about the N.U.R. on May 27, 1965. In the speech that my noble friend then made he referred to this and made it clear that at no time has the Labour Party or his trade union"— referring to the speech of one of his friends— gone on record in support of a policy of petrifying the present railway structure".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Vol. 266, col. 991; May 27, 1965.] It is odd that, with all these 150,000 changes, when we get what is in my opinion a really common-sense change—that is, the amalgamation of the Eastern and North-Eastern Regions—which will mean a saving of £1,500,000 in administrative costs, criticism is made. In my view, this is a step in the right direction. I think that one of the weaknesses of the 1947 Act was that it established too many regions. It established six regions. 1 never thought, with all due deference to my noble friend, that there was any justification for this. The noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, was in charge, and I can well understand his difficulty, because there was this nationalistic wave of feeling that Scotland must have a separate region. I think the structure of the old 1921 Act, with just the four big group companies—the L.N.E.R., Great Western, L.M.S. and the Southern—was the best administrative structure that has yet been established. To be quite frank, I should like to see a return to that situation because, as has been said, the railway unions, and particularly the better ones, among which is the N.U.R., are not against efficiency. They are seeking a greater degree of efficiency.

My noble friend refers to 5,500 staff being affected. Of course, there are not 5,500 staff affected in this merger. I am told that it is likely to affect rather less than 2,000, so far as the Eastern headquarters is concerned. But I also understand that out of these 2,000 there are some 400 who will remain in London in the departments that are to be there. My noble friend shakes his head, but if he checks I think he will find this is the correct position.

I think my noble friend was right to bring to the notice of the House the hardship and the human problems involved in all these changes. I, for my part, feel that I also am right in bringing to the notice of the House the wonderful co-operation that has constantly been given by the organisations concerned within this service. Just think, my Lords, 150,000 jobs have been dispensed with in the railway service in the last three or four years without a murmur, without any strike, and purely by wonderful co-operation!

In this particular merger, the redundancy and transfer arrangements include even the paying of legal charges for the cost of a house in the new area, and this has been undertaken by the Railways Board. I think that every man in the Eastern Region who is to be transferred up to York is being contacted to find out whether he is willing to go, and if not, so far as possible, arrangements are being made for employees to remain where they are. I think this is an indication of the good will existing between the Railways Board and the men concerned in the changed policy. I think it is as well that these thoughts should be expressed in this House, because it will give all of us a better appreciation of what is taking place. My noble friend will no doubt know that it is not possible to make any change at the moment, and I am sure that he will withdraw the Prayer.

11.39 a.m.


My Lords, I will not detain your Lordships for more than a few moments, but as my memory goes back to the original amalgamations under the Geddes régime in 1921, and as I was personally responsible for the reorganisation of the regions of British Railways upon nationalisation in 1947, I should like to make one or two observations on both of the speeches that have just been made. The Geddes reorganisation into the four amalgamated railways lasted, after all, from 1921 to 1947. As some of your Lordships who were in another place at that time may possibly remember, it was the Scots who forced upon Sir Eric Geddes what he did not want to do—namely, the amalgamation of the numerous Scottish railways of that day with what they thought were the wealthy North-Eastern and Great Northern Railways south of the Border who could carry their financial burdens. It was on that political ground that Sir Eric Geddes got rid of the railways in Scotland and some of them went into the North-Eastern group and some into the London, Midland and Scottish group.

When I became Chairman of the Transport Commission in 1947 almost the first problem I had to consider was what should be the regions in the new régime and what changes, if any, should be made. I thought then, and I still think, that on on any ground, not merely that of national feeling but that of efficiency, the formation of the Scottish railways into a single group instead of being split as they were then between the two sides of the country, was sound. It was really intolerable that every time the businessmen of Glasgow and other Scottish interests wanted a decision they should have had to come up to Euston or King's Cross.

On the other hand, the North-Easternarea presented a problem. York is one of the great cities of the world, and happens also to have a fine railway tradition. Names of great managers and engineers are attached to it, and there is there an admirable local museum, among other things. It is a very good centre. I thought then, in 1947, that the industrial interests of Tyneside and Teesside, and many of the great Yorkshire manufacturing cities, were entitled to have access to management rather closer to their own doors than London. It was an easy change to make, and it worked very smoothly.

So far as I can remember, in all my six years, if there was one region that caused the Transport Commission and the Railway Executive no trouble at all it was the North-Eastern Region. It was well staffed, both on the engineering and on the commercial and management side. Now, apparently, the emphasis has shifted even further. The business interests and the freight traffic element in what is at present two regions has shifted preponderantly to the North. The doubt I have—and I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Champion, when he replies will deal with it—is whether on this reamalgamation the passenger interests that centre on the Metropolis, and the important transport interests of East Anglia, will get sufficient attention. The argument which convinced me in favour of the division in 1947 might now be turned round. Instead of saying that we must give more weight to the freight interests in the North, shall we now have to say, "Will enough weight be given to the passenger interests in the southern part of the area if in future they are managed from York?".

I am sure that the answer to that problem can be found by internal reorganisation on the commercial and managerial side. On the engineering side, the civil engineering problems are dealt with in divisions in any case, and I should have thought presented no difficulty at all. But the passenger interests in the southern part of this combined area will remain very important.

Incidentally, may I say how glad I am that the present Minister killed the proposal to close the railway from Ipswich to Lowestoft? Though I am entirely in favour, and always have been, of getting rid of many small spur lines on which the traffic only goes by rail to suit individual convenience on odd occasions, and does not carry the regular traffic which goes by road, 1 think it is quite wrong to say that you cannot serve an area from Ipswich to Lowestoft with a railway.

On balance, I should have thought that the present proposal tore amalgamate the two regions was right. In saying that, I feel that in point of fact the shift of staff would not be so great as the noble Lord, Lord Lindgren, fears. One does not want to underestimate the inconvenience and even the hardship when people are required to move their homes, but, after all, transport, the railway transport largely, lives by shifting people about from one place to another, and occasionally those who serve in that industry must be asked to move. That does not seem to me to be unreasonable, because in spite of what the noble Lord, Lord Lindgren, said, in this matter there has been great stability over a very long period. As I say, the amalgamated railways in their original form lasted from 1921 to 1947, and the reorganisations of 1947 have again lasted nearly twenty years. Therefore, if the noble Lord who is to reply can give us some assurance that the passenger interests of East Anglia and London will not be handled from some remote centre in York, but will receive proper and adequate attention under this reorganisation, I feel that I am bound to support the change which is now proposed. As to the level of the economies, I have no knowledge. They will undoubtedly be substantial, and that again is another reason why the change should be accepted.

If I may conclude, I would say that my own experience in the past was that in these matters (though I cannot honestly say that either management or the trade unions were as enthusiastic about integration as they might have been) I had nothing but co-operation from the leaders of the great railway unions, and in the "great unions" I am bound to say that I include all three of them, not merely the N.U.R.

11.47 a.m.


My Lords, may I, as one who has always lived in the North of England, add one word to this debate? Half my life I have lived in the North-East, and half in the North-West. Though I appreciate all that the noble Lord, Lord Lindgren, has said about the interests of the staff, with which we all sympathise, there are other interests involved, and the noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, has touched upon them. Latterly, railway organisation, as seen from the north of England, has of course included one great difference: the North-East had its area headquarters in its own area; the North-West was dependent upon Euston.

I should like to ask the noble Lord who is to reply one question: whether he can assure us that that feeling of remoteness which we have in the North-West of England—it is no good gainsaying it—will not be repeated under this new organisation, because I think there is an advantage, as the noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, has said, in having the centre of railway management at least not too far distant. This looks a little as if the disadvantage which we have in the North-West may be repeated in the North-East. I am sure that that is not in the interests of passengers or of local people.

11.49 a.m.


My Lords, my noble friend Lord Lindgren and I share a common trade union experience, although in different trade unions, and with a very short break have spent some 21 years of Parliamentary life together. I think I can say that this is the first occasion upon which I have been at variance with him in any matter. In the case of the Order against which he has tabled a Prayer, he feels that the Minister has acted with undue haste in respect of the reorganisation mentioned in the Order while I, speaking for the Government, have to justify the Minister's decision. I hasten to add that, having studied all the papers available to me on the matter, I am bound to say that not only am I about to justify a decision taken by someone else but I would have taken the same decision as the Minister has taken, had the task of deciding fallen upon me personally; and this, despite the fact that, as a railway trade unionst, I would be well aware of the consequences of my decision on many of the staff who will have to uproot themselves and their families, and the upheaval in their lives that the decision would involve.

It seems to me that the Minister had to consider and answer three main questions. First, was the Board's proposal one that would fit into the transport policy outlined in the White Paper of July last, and also into any developments of that policy which it is expected to flow from the studies now going on? Second, will the change in the managerial and administrative proposal, and the siting of the headquarters away from London, affect beneficially or otherwise the running of the two merged Railway Regions; and is the change likely to bring about any really worthwhile economy? Third, are the advantages and savings projected of the order that would justify the staffing upheavals involved?

My Lords, the Minister has answered the first of those questions by saying that on a careful study of the problem, together with the closest consultation with the Railways Board, who are well aware of the implications upon their administrative machine of the possible setting up of a national freight organisation, that she is satisfied that the proposed amalgamation will not conflict with the scheme she has in mind. She is satisfied that, whatever changes result from the policy review, there will be a continuing need for an administrative centre at York of the kind mentioned in this Order. Such a centre would always be required for the efficient operation of an East Coast railway network.

On the second question, there are good geographical and business reasons for merging the Eastern and North-Eastern Regions and siting their headquarters at York. I believe the very fact that they will be sited at York should remove any feeling of remoteness to which the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, referred. This would be very much nearer to them, covering the whole region. There is, I am sure, no need for me to stress the importance of the railway system to the developing North-East of the country. The increasingly large-scale movement of coal to the new power stations, and the development of the Humberside area in relation to our traffic into Europe are factors known to us all. This last factor is perhaps an addition to the factors which caused the noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, to feel that York was a useful centre for the Eastern Region, as it then was. On this aspect of the merger and the placing of the administrative centre, the Minister has been advised by the Board, who are, after all, the experts in this matter and would not lightly advise the Minister to agree to the change unless they were absolutely convinced of its desirability. All this, is in addition to annual savings which are estimated at a figure of the order of £1½ million a year by 1969.

This close look at the headquarters staffing of our railways certainly appeals to me, for in so many of the talks I have had with my old railway colleagues in the uniform and comparable grades about the reduction of railway manpower that has been going on over the past few years—resulting, as my noble friend Lord Popplewell said in a reduction of some 150,000 staff in that short period alone—I have always been faced with the bitter comment: "We are being cut to the bone, but what about those 'so-and-so's' at headquarters; they seem to be dodging all this and we are having to carry the swollen administrative weight at the top." I have always felt that there was just a little something to be said in justification of that feeling which did, and does, undoubtedly exist in the uniformed and comparable grades. Added to all this, there is the fact of the release of valuable office accommodation in London, and the movement outwards is very much in line with the Government's policy of moving as much as possible of offices and office staff out of this overcrowded South-East Region.

In answer to my noble friend Lord Hurcomb, who asked about the administration of the area around London, especially the commuter services and the passenger services, I would say that there will, of course, be strong divisional management retained in London to ensure that this part of it is not neglected.

My Lords, I have just had a note passed to me to the effect that I must be down by 11.55 a.m.; it is now 11.56 a.m., so, with your Lordships' permission, I will postpone the remainder of my remarks, which will not take long, until after the Royal Commission.