HL Deb 26 May 1966 vol 274 cc1493-511

3.59 p.m.

Debate resumed.


My Lords, in terms of length, this Bill is an extremely short one, but I do not think any of us should be deceived by its brevity into thinking that it is not a Bill of great importance. It is in all senses of the word a Bill, and looked at financially it presents a bill for the vast sum of no less than £366 million. Once this Bill is on the Statute Book that amount of money can be charged to the British taxpayer.

The Minister, in moving the Second Reading, has told us that in general the purpose of the Bill is to provide this sum of money, £366 million, for the purpose of financing possible deficits in the Railways Board and the Waterways Board of £350 million, and a further £16 million in the London Board, up to the end of 1968, which is in 2½ years' time. I must confess that I was a little surprised that the Minister referred to it as a "stop-gap" measure. Two and a half years is a very long stop-gap. I should have thought that a stop-gap referred to a matter of months rather than 2½ years. I would query the use of the words "stop-gap" for such a long period.

I suggest to the House that this is a most extraordinary time to introduce such a piece of legislation. I understand that the full accounts for British Railways were laid on the Table of another place yesterday. As I understand it this means that the accounts of British Railways for 1965, and all the vital information they contain, are known to the Government and, in particular, to the Ministry of Transport. Yet the Government see fit to ask now, with really the most indecent haste, for a blank cheque for £366 million. Surely it should, and indeed could, have been arranged either to publish the accounts a few days earlier or to postpone the introduction of the Bill until after the Whitsun Recess, when the details of the British Railways accounts for 1965 would be available for all those interested to examine them.

In moving the Second Reading, the noble Lord said that this legislation had to be on the Statute Book by the beginning of July. The House resumes early in June. Surely there would have been plenty of time for this Bill to be discussed after those of us who were interested and those in another place had had an opportunity of examining the accounts of British Railways. We are also being told—to make it even stranger—that the Bill will be passed within a very short time of the publication of a major item of Government policy: that is to say, the Government's White Paper on Transport. We are being asked to pass legislation voting this vast sum of money without the Government's giving any indication of the way in which they propose to spend it. After all, the Government have no earthly need to pursue such a reckless policy, even if they wish to get the legislation through before the Whitsun Recess. They could have followed a perfectly easy alternative course: that of introducing legislation that would have provided the Boards concerned with sufficient money to allow them to carry on until the end of the current year. This sum would have been well under £100 million, instead of the £366 million now under consideration. But the Government have not proposed such a course. Instead they are demanding this vast sum without giving any indication to the taxpayer, or to Parliament, how it will be used.

Surely this is a classic example of putting the cart before the horse: demanding money without informing the country of the purposes for which it is to be used. Ought it not to have been the other way round?—the White Paper, a statement of the Government's transport policy, followed by detailed estimates showing the amount of money required to carry out that policy. Instead, we have the Government's policy, all too clearly summed up in the Explanatory Memorandum to the Bill. The last sentence of that Explanatory Memorandum goes as follows: The actual payments made will depend on the financial performance of the Boards in the future, which cannot be forecast with any accuracy at this stage. Why not leave this legislation until the performance can be forecast with some accuracy? I cannot express too forcibly from this side of the House that it is putting the cart before the horse and asking for money when, if we waited a matter of weeks, not only should we have the accounts of British Railways to look at but, on a wider field, we should have the Government's White Paper on Transport. I think the last course would have been the only proper one.

During the Second Reading debate on this Bill in another place, the Government were pressed on this point of why it was necessary just before publication of the White Paper, to ask for the money to last the Boards up to the end of 1968. In winding up the debate, the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport had this to say: Once the Government's White Paper is published, the House will need time to consider it and debate it. There will have to be consultations and then legislation will have to be drafted. The legislation will then have to be considered and will have to come into effect. It seems a reasonable margin that, to allow sufficient time for full and mature consideration for the coming into effect of legislation, we should ask for this money in order to finance not the White Paper, not to carry out our own policies, but rather to ensure that British Railways, which now has to operate under the statutory limitations of the 1962 Act, will have money to pay its way in the interim."—[OFFICIAL REPORT (Commons), Vol. 728 (No. 23), col. 1460; 18/5/66.] From that, I can only assume that the Government expect it will be at least 2½ years before that transport policy comes into effect. I can see no other explanation, and if the noble Lord who is to reply has another explanation, I shall listen to it with added interest.

I would say only this. If my interpretation is right, the Government expect that it will be 2½ years before their transport policy comes into operation. This does not speak much for the Government's boasts of streamlining the procedures of government. Having already been in office for more than 1½ years, they require a further 2½ years before they can bring their policies into operation. The noble Lord complains, but I think that is a fair point. In modernising Britain, transport must play the key role, but under this Government obviously we have to wait for at least another 2½ years before it can play its part in a modern Britain.

I return to my main objection to the Bill, which is (how shall I put it?) the blank cheque philosophy behind it. The Minister, in moving the Second Reading, gave no detailed reason why this huge sum was required. Nor in listening to the noble Lord, Lord Champion, in moving the Second Reading in this House, could I find any detailed reasons why it was required. The right honourable Lady, the Minister of Transport in another place, expressed the hope that it would not be required and, indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Champion, said the same thing. I think his phrase was, "The Government hope to do with much less." It was hoped that this sum would be amply sufficient for the Ministry's needs for the period concerned.

My Lords, the last thing I can do is to put myself before this House as an economic expert, but surely this kind of vague, sloppy, financing of a great nationalised industry must be disastrous, particularly at a time of such national economic stress. The fact that the Boards will have such vast sums upon which they can draw is virtually an open invitation to spend that amount of money. Surely economy must be the first principle. It is folly of the highest order to give the green light to the spending of these hundreds of millions of pounds without giving any indication whatsoever as to how they are to be spent. Who of us, having been granted an overdraft by our bank, have not been sorely tempted, and then succumbed, to the temptation of overdrawing to the limit set? Perhaps the noble Lord opposite, who seems to disapprove of what I am saying, is more fortunate than I am. Speaking from my own experience, I would say that if one has a limit one tends to draw up to the limit. It is only human nature to do so.


My Lords, I was wondering what the noble Duke thought when the previous Administration passed the 1962 Act. Surely it did very much the same thing as this Bill.


After getting on for two years of office, it is extraordinary that the present Government can only hark back to what has happened in the past and can never cast their minds forward to the future.

I return to my point. Surely the likely result of this legislation is that the full £366 million will have been spent by the end of 1968. I do not wish to weary the House with statistics, and I will give only one, which is this. The amount of money involved is the equivalent of putting no less than 7d. on the standard rate of income tax for the two years that lie ahead and that is enough to make anyone think very seriously of the wisdom of such a policy.

Before I leave this aspect of the Bill, I should like to refer again to the speech of the Parliamentary Under-Secretary in another place when winding up the Second Reading debate. Something he said in his speech to my mind gives all too clearly the attitude of the Government to the spending of the taxpayers' money. The Parliamentary Secretary was referring to the increased cost involved in getting further information about local conditions before any railway closure took place, and he went on to say: I make no apology about the additional cost involved in the extra care which we are taking. We are proud of it, and we are proud that we scrutinise very closely and carefully all rail closure proposals. The additional cost is not more than a few hundred thousand pounds in a full year …" [Col. 1464.] Of course I have absolutely no objection—indeed I support the fact that the utmost care should be taken before a railway closure takes place, but I have the strongest possible objection to the attitude so clearly implied in the remark of the Parliamentary Secretary, "A few hundred thousand pounds". Had he said something like, "Unfortunately, this means that several hundred thousand pounds of the taxpayers' money has been spent: we think it is being wisely spent ", that would have been a different matter entirely, but he did not say that. He just said, "A few hundred thousand"—as if it did not matter at all. I must say that I should like to see the Parliamentary Secretary and the Minister be made to write out five hundred times the following sentence, "Take care of the pence and the pounds will take care of themselves."

Quite truthfully, my Lords, I cannot see this country regaining its economic strength so long as Government spokesmen think that "a few hundred thousand pounds" of taxpayers' money is of little or no consequence. So much for the Government's general attitude to the financing of a nationalised industry, and for their apparent determination, on the one hand, to milk the taxpayer of a vast sum of money for the nation's transport system, while, on the other hand, they are equally determined that the wretched taxpayer shall be kept entirely in the dark as to how his money is to be spent.

Before I close, I should like to refer to two aspects of the affairs of British Railways which I think are relevant to this debate; namely, railway closures and the future of liner trains. With respect to the noble Lord, Lord Champion, I thought that his speech lacked any reference to this question, although it occupied a great deal of time, particularly during the Committee stage of the Bill, in another place. I recognise, as all of us must do, that the closure of a railway service is an extremely difficult and delicate problem, and that all sorts of factors must be taken into account. Nevertheless, the fact remains that if British Railways are ever to play their proper part in any up-to-date and modernised transport system, then the principles set out in 1962 by Lord Beeching must be followed. I am quite sure that, in their hearts, noble Lords opposite and the right honourable lady realise this.

I may be wrong, but I have an uneasy feeling that in order to court popularity the Government have adopted a soft policy towards railway closures. I can think of no easier way of becoming a popular Minister of Transport than to adopt the attitude of the present Minister; of taking the line that, unlike the wretched, thoughtless Tories, her policy would be to go much more tolerantly on closures. Such a policy may well be popular, but it cannot be in the national interest. I should like to quote some of the same figures as were quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Champion: they refer to the deficit on the railways. In 1962, the deficit reached its highest level, £168 million. By 1963 it was substantially down, to £134 million. In 1964 it was down to £121 million. but then last year, 1965—a year of Socialist rule—it was up, for the first time for four years, to £132 million. I believe this increase is in no small measure due to the Government's policy on the closure of railway services.

I repeat that this is a difficult problem, and one that raises many difficulties, particularly for Members of Parliament, of all Parties, who have constituents. But perhaps in this House, where we have the good fortune, or the misfortune, not to have constituents, it is fair to speak quite honestly. Of course, it is difficult and it leads to unpopularity by those responsible for the closures, but I firmly believe that a Minister of Transport has no business to be a popular figure. I always thought that stickers, "Marples must go" were the greatest tribute to him as Minister of Transport. After all, it is the duty of the Government to do what is in the national interest and not to look after narrow sectional interests.

I turn now to liner trains, and to ask the Minister who is to reply to tell us what exactly is the position in this most important development in the carrying of railway freight traffic. It is clear that the Government attach the greatest importance to these liner trains, and evidence of that is there for all to see in what has been said on the National Plan. I think I am right in saying that in the National Plan only four paragraphs are devoted to the railways. One of them is to liner trains, and as it is relevant I will quote what it says—and since it is in the National Plan, it presumably has the support of Her Majesty's Government: The railways cannot hope, however, to maintain, let alone increase, their carryings of general merchandise on an economic basis unless the new concept of liner trains, or freight liners, proves successful. This will depend on these trains providing services of a quality and at a price which will induce road hauliers, among other customers, to make use of them to carry a substantial quantity of longer haul traffic between main centres. The Government look forward to the inauguration of the first group of these services later this year. That is a perfectly clear statement of Her Majesty's Government's policy on linertrains, and of course the Government are quite right to stress their importance. I believe I am right in saying that it has been estimated that by the investment of £100 million in this project the existing loss on freight-carrying operations of £32 million could be transformed into a profit of £18 million, thereby bringing about an improvement of £50 million in the finances of British Railways and thus saving that long-suffering character, the British taxpayer, a large sum of money.

The plan for liner trains first appeared in the spring of 1963. About a year later came the news that it was probable that the National Union of Railwaymen would agree to accept goods for liner trains only if they were carried to the terminals in nationalised lorries. If such a policy were adopted by the Government, it could mean that British Railways could accept goods from only 14 per cent. of the lorries on the roads of Britain to-day. That surely must be absolute nonsense, and to accept such a policy would surely be condoning a very pernicious restrictive practice.

A good deal was said on this subject during the Committee stage of the Bill in another place, and I read the OFFICIAL REPORT of those proceedings with the greatest care. I fear, however, that I am still far from clear as to the National Union of Railwaymen's attitude to liner trains at the present time. So far as I can see, it would appear that the National Union of Railwaymen are saying that private road hauliers shall not in the foreseeable future have free access to liner trains, in spite of the fact that all political Parties, not least the present Government, as my quotation from the National Plan shows, regard this as being highly desirable in the national interest. If, however, I have the attitude of the National Union of Railwaymen wrong I shall be extremely grateful if the Minister, when replying, will put me right and tell me what it is.

The matter has been made more complicated by the fact that the right honourable lady the Minister of Transport, when challenged in another place on the attitude of the National Union of Railwaymen, had this to say—and I quote from the OFFICIAL REPORT: There is the expression of what, to me, is a legitimate view, that the N.U.R. believes that if there is traffic to be got by hired cartage—cartage hired by British Railways—then it is fair to assume that there is room for an expansion of the British Railways cartage service to carry that traffic without going to the expensive expedient of hiring it."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. Commons, Vol. 728 (No. 25), col. 1833; 20/5/66.] I have studied this statement very carefully and taken advice from my friends who are very knowledgeable on this subject, and, so far as I can make out, what this means is that if a private haulier wishes to deliver goods at the terminal so that those goods may be carried on liner trains, the haulier will have to arrange to be hired by British Railways. The Government would then no doubt put forward the argument that, since British Railways have to hire so many lorries, to save money they should substantially increase their own fleet of lorries. Such a policy would surely be yet another example of nationalisation by stealth.

This is a complicated matter and the Governments intentions have, no doubt deliberately, been obscured. I would, however, ask the noble Lord who is to reply for a categorical answer to this question. Do the Government intend, or do they not, to allow genuinely free access to all hauliers to liner trains, regardless of the attitude of the National Union of Railwaymen; or, when it comes to the crunch, will they take their orders from the Union? Secondly, what exactly does the right honourable lady mean when she says she thinks the National Union of Railwaymen have a legitimate view. What exactly is implied by that somewhat ambiguous statement?

For reasons which I confess I do not understand, this is not a Money Bill, although it seems to me entirely concerned with money. Nevertheless, it would not be proper for my noble friends on this side of the House to divide on the Second Reading, or indeed to amend the Bill. However, I wish to make it absolutely clear that we on this side regard it as a thoroughly unsatisfactory Bill, likely to lead to waste of the taxpayers' money, to no increase in efficiency in our railway transport system; and we feel that, by asking for this amount of money, without telling any of us, Parliament or the country, how they intend to spend it, the Government have fallen far short of the principles of democracy which this country has the right to expect from its Administration.

4.24 p.m.


My Lords, I have every sympathy with Her Majesty's Government in the very difficult position which they have been put into in the matter of this transport Bill. The fact of the matter is that everyone who was at all close to the inside workings of what was going on in the transport world knew that time was running extremely short if we were going to produce a good transport Bill at this exact moment. An enormous amount of consultation still remained to be done. There were very considerable financial problems.

The alternatives were either to produce a hurried Bill, hastily slapped together and smashed down on the Table in front of our faces, in which case not nearly so much time would have been available to debate it or amend it or to consider what ought or ought not to have been in it; or, alternatively, to go for what the Government has now gone for, a temporary Bill, which means taking two bites of the cherry (a thing no Government ever likes to do because it means doing with two Bills what it is possible to do with one) and then producing a White Paper, giving a lot of time to discuss that White Paper, and then bringing in the legislation at a later date. The difficulty, of course, is this. If you do that, you put Parliament in exactly the position that the noble Duke has complained about because it is necessary to have a Bill asking for a very considerable sum of money without stating exactly what that sum of money is for—a very legitimate complaint. But the alternative would have been to scrape together a transport Bill at high speed and slap that on the Table, giving Parliament and the country at large very much less time to discuss the main measure for what needed doing, which, let us face it, might have meant very considerable changes.

I believe it is very much better if we can have this temporary measure, sad though it is to have to have two transport Bills, and then have the leisure to produce a White Paper, study the White Paper, study the Minister's proposals on that White Paper, discuss that White Paper, and then stand by for a transport Bill which can be considered at leisure. I believe that will give the country a very much better chance of seeing exactly what ought to be done, of discussing what ought to be done, and of doing something worth while. It has one further disadvantage, of course, and that is that it perpetuates a certain amount of uncertainty. I know, for example, in the case of the waterways, about which I have talked so much in this House, that uncertainty about their future is what has been killing the waterways. And undoubtedly in the railway world the same thing holds true to a large extent.

But the uncertainty need not be entirely done away with by a Bill. The uncertainty could largely be reduced, if necessary, by a White Paper. Then at least we should know what was in the Government's mind. If that were agreeable to the country, we should know that the Bill would follow very much the same lines, with the result that the uncertainty would not be all that serious. Indeed, if a White Paper could be brought forward sooner than a Bill could—and there seems no reason why it should not—it might be that the uncertainty could be got rid of more quickly than we originally believed.

For these reasons I believe the Government have done exactly the right thing in bringing forward this preliminary, temporary Bill, even though it has created this unfortunate picture of a large sum of money being asked for without exact details of its purposes being given. I believe the long-term effect will be much better, and I congratulate Her Majesty's Government on having had the courage to do it.

4.28 p.m.


My Lords, I hope I may be forgiven for speaking for a very few minutes, not at all for the purpose of delaying assent to this Bill. On that I feel that the House really has no option. The rail- ways and London Transport are running out of money, and they must not be allowed run out of money; and not even the noble Duke, who disapproved in some ways of the manner in which this matter has been handled, is suggesting that we should do other than pass this Bill. What I am daring to do in these few minutes is to make an appeal to the Government, while they are preparing the White Paper they have promised us, and to the Opposition Parties, as they study that Paper, when it appears, and consider their own attitude for the debate we shall presumably have in this House on it and on future transport policy.

In 1947 the ownership of the railways and London Transport and certain other elements of transport was vested in the nation. That action is now past history and nobody I know of seriously suggests that it should be reversed as such. That is something which exists and which must necessarily be the basis for any study of the problem. But since that date one scheme of reorganisation has succeeded another in rapid succession. The one thing which to my mind is proved by the necessity of our passing this Bill this afternoon is that yet another scheme of reorganisation has failed—failed, at all events, to attain the objective it set out to achieve and to fulfil the promises which were at that time made. But this is only one in a long succession of such schemes which have been produced, first by one political Party and then by another. I want to make an appeal to the Government and to the Opposition to appreciate that no industry, no great organisation, can stand a continuation of this sort of process. If reorganisation succeeds reorganisation, time and again without ceasing, no good result can possibly be expected. We shall never get the railways running, and we shall never get London Transport right, unless we adopt a different attitude from that.

I hope that our political leaders will take the attitude that this is a really complicated problem that has defeated everybody so far. It has defeated not only people in this country, but people in Germany and France and many other countries as well. I hope they will appreciate that the answer to this problem is not to be found in one or two off-hand remarks, as it were. It is not even to be found, if I may dare to say it, in Socialist Party dogma, or in the stated philosophy of the Conservative and Liberal Parties. I am certainly not one of those who say that transport should be taken out of politics. That is going too far; it is making a statement which is not practicable and sensible; but the answer to the transport problem is not to be found simply out of Party philosophy. I hope this will be well borne in mind, so that when we come to see the White Paper, and to debate it, we shall do so in a really objective spirit, with a view to finding an answer that will hold water, and with a view to giving these industries that measure of stability without which we cannot possibly expect them to succeed.

4.32 p.m.


My Lords, I heartily agree with every word that the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Oakridge, has just said. The speech of the noble Lord, Lord Champion, will make sad reading. The only thing that is to be said on the other side is that we are getting a rapidly increasing revenue from the road vehicles which are displacing the railway. That is a small comfort, of course. I did not know that the Railway accounts were out to-day otherwise I should have had a look at them, but, from memory, I would say that it looks as if the railways are still employing 100,000 men who are not being paid for by the consumer. The Beeching Plan, a most comprehensive plan, to my mind, got off to a bad start because, through unfortunate publicity, the Press gave a slant to the closure angle. To my mind, that was not the real nub of the problem at all. The closure angle was much more sensational and likely to interest the general public; but the real gist of that Report was the more efficient deployment of men throughout whatever system was left.

I personally do not share the view of my noble friend the Duke of Devonshire that the elimination of unrewarding manpower is to be found chiefly in closures. I do not believe you save a great deal in manpower that way. Where you are going to find men inefficiently deployed at the moment is in paper work, which I believe has increased greatly, in restrictive practices and in the parts of the railway which employ a number of people—the big yards, stations, workshops and so on. Wherever you find a large body of men employed, there you are almost bound to find that, by modernisation and redeployment, you can make considerable saving. To my mind, this saving would be vastly bigger than any that can be achieved by closing branch lines.

I could not quite gather all that the noble Lord, Lord Champion, said about canals and waterways. I would suggest one thing to your Lordships: that we have now got State waterways, State railways, State aeroplanes and State roads. I question whether we can afford to invest heavily in all those four branches of transport. I consider that the nation is probably investing more in transport than we can really afford. Is it really necessary nowadays that, in order to benefit a comparatively small amount of traffic, we should continue to keep open the waterways? Is it necessary that we should invest large sums in aeroplanes to fly short journeys which can be performed almost as quickly by railway? And so on.

With those few words I conclude by saying that I am afraid this Bill is one which it is inevitable that we should pass, though I heartily agree that it would be preferable to have it in instalments, one year at a time.

4.36 p.m.


My Lords, it seemed to me that the noble Duke was in a fighting mood. I can only imagine that he did not have the good fortune to back the winner at Epsom yesterday, where perhaps he was to be found at round about an hour before this time. Nevertheless, he is, of course, doing something which Oppositions must do, namely, examine the policies of the Government and bring to bear upon them the thoughts of Opposition.

In answer particularly to his point about this being a stop-gap, and a stopgap that was untimely, I would say that he knows the difficulty. He knows enough about transport to know perfectly well that the Acts that we have had since the end of the war, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Oakridge, has said, the White Papers and everything else that have come out in connection with transport, have not provided a solution to that which is a great problem to ourselves and, as the noble Lord rightly said, is a problem which has not been solved anywhere, I think, in the whole world. That does not mean that we have not got to go on trying to solve this problem, which undoubtedly transport is.

In this connection, I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Hawke, that the most careful observation is required in order to ensure that we are not wasting our resources in manpower and wealth. The tendency is for everybody concerned to look at one bit at a time, and to say that it needs so much money, so much resources, and that so much must go into it, while to some extent forgetting the fact that it will have its repercussions on other forms of transport and is, indeed, wasteful of the resources of the nation.

Here I certainly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hawke. What I think is being done at this moment, what the Ministry are trying to do and certainly what the Minister is trying to do, is to look at the whole problem over the vast field which is transport, and then to present to the House a White Paper which will give her conclusions, her thoughts upon this matter. Then I am hoping, with the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Oakridge, and certainly others who are thinking about this problem, that we in Parliament will bring what combined wisdom we have in both Houses to bear upon that White Paper; and eventually that there will emerge from our discussions a policy which will solve some of the problems which undoubtedly this industry is still facing.

I think it is known in this House that I am an old transport man. I went into the industry as a young boy. But throughout the whole of the inter-war period I lived through a period of "Fair play for the railways", and "A square deal for the railways." The companies were not then in a position to get capital in order to keep the railways reasonably up to date and reasonably well-maintained; and they were certainly unable at that time to pay railwaymen decent wages. In post-war years we have had the Transport Act 1947, the Act of 1953, and a number of successive Acts, White Papers and policy statements by Ministers, but we have not yet solved the great problem which transport undoubtedly presents. However, the House is not at the moment considering the wider aspect of this matter; that doubtless will follow the White Paper.

If the noble Duke is going to come at me in a fighting mood, I am bound to say that we are only continuing the 1962 Act, an Act for which we were not responsible. That failed in its basic task, partly because of the very fault of which he is accusing the present Government: that they failed in their estimates and forecasts. Therefore, what we have to do at this time, while we are still considering the major problem, is to have sufficient money to enable us to carry on, in this stop-gap period, the 1962 policy decisions. I agree with the noble Duke that it is not pleasant to wait perhaps for 2½ years, but the last thing we must do is to rush hastily into a number of decisions without doing everything which we said we were going to do, matters which I have mentioned in my opening speech on this Bill. We must have a comprehensive policy; we must endeavour to bring about some measure of integration—that is the difficulty. Integration is vital, for we must, as Lord Hawke suggested, avoid the waste that takes place over the whole transport industry. I do not want to hark back to what the Tory Government did or failed to do, but this is a continuing industry. It did not start its work in October, 1964. It has gone through all the difficulties of the "Square Deal" and everything else that followed in the inter-war years—and here I am speaking chiefly about the railways—including competition from the road.

The noble Duke accused us of hiding the figures and facts. There is no question at all of this. The Select Committee on Estimates in another place presented to the House a Report—a first-class Report, I would say, although perhaps I would not agree with every word of its conclusions—which set out the whole of the facts, each and every one of which is available to the noble Duke and to the country as a whole.

The noble Duke asked me about liner trains. The issue of whether private hauliers should be able to bring goods directly into the liner train terminals is primarily a matter between the Railways Board and the railway unions. My right honourable friend the Minister of Transport has, like her predecessors, endeavoured to use her good offices in the matter. She has made no secret at all of her view that there should be free access to the terminals, so that the fullest advantage may be taken of this new technical development. But this moment, a moment when there are signs that things are moving in the right direction, is not the moment to say anything that might jeopardise the solution which we are hoping to achieve. The noble Duke told us that this was going on in 1963. I believe that we are now nearer a solution than we were then. I look forward to a solution of this matter, because I believe this will put right at least one of the problems of the Railways Board.

The noble Duke referred to railway closures. The Minister's current policy may be summed up in this way. There is still a certain amount of dead wood in the railway system, and it would be quite wrong to attempt to maintain parts of the 19th century system which eat into our scarce resources but fail to meet the economic and social needs of the 20th century. How right this is. These railways were built in the "Fanny by Gaslight" era and have got to go on working in the age of atomic energy, but to some extent they must be streamlined.


My Lords, may I interrupt for one moment?


My Lords, I am coming on to say some other things about that. It would be quite wrong to close services simply because they do not pay, if this might conflict with regional planning or cause social and economic damage. It is essential to ensure that all these factors are taken fully into account. In particular, any proposals to close commuter services in the large cities and conurbations need to be scrutinised with particular care, bearing in mind the need to make public transport more attractive in order to help with problems of traffic congestion. We know something about this in London, as indeed they do in Manchester, Glasgow and all the big cities. Moreover, the pruning process cannot be carried on indefinitely.


Has the noble Lord finished?


I am still on pruning, Beeching and all the rest.


The noble Lord has given me my point by mentioning the "Fanny by Gaslight" era. One of the commuter lines in Sussex which has recently been closed was much used by commuters and students. They have had to go back to the "Fanny by Gaslight" era, because their journey is longer than it ever was before, because the roads are not coping sufficiently with the traffic, as the railway did.


I am not going to he drawn on that point, but I will take note of it. I dislike the thought of slipping back to the "Fanny by Gaslight" era or of doing anything which causes difficulty. But there was a tremendous amount to Beeching. He brought to bear on the problem of the railways an acute intelligence, and he had the courage to present a Report which deserves, as it deserved at the time, close and careful study, and some action on many of the things he said. I was going on to say that the pruning process cannot be carried on indefinitely. Real stability is essential if the system is to be properly developed to serve essential needs efficiently. This means that the size and shape of the basic system which will not be considered for closure in the foreseeable future should be determined now, and that the future of the rest is decided as soon as possible. The Government are studying the ideas on the basic system recently put forward by the Chairman of the Railways Board and will make a statement as soon as possible. This I believe is essential.

However, we must always remember this simple fact: that we cannot go on with the system which was built up in the last century if that system is wasteful, as much of it I am certain is bound to be to-day. We always have to consider, too, the social needs of the people. In some parts of Somerset, where I happened to be born, they would almost have to go back to the old village courier to get transport into the towns, because there are no bus services and so on to take the place of the old courier.

How right the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Oakridge, was about the successive schemes. I would strongly—as I think I did at the outset—support his appeal that this matter should not be considered in a Party spirit. The noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, will perhaps do me the courtesy of remembering that in the other House I never could bring myself to approach a debate on transport from a purely Party angle, partly because of my interest in it as a whole. I appeal to the House to adopt that attitude in relation to the White Paper, which we shall receive as soon as it has been possible to conclude the considerations which are at present going on.

The noble Viscount, Lord St. Davids—and I welcome his support here—made a point about the uncertainty in regard to the waterways. The Government have already made it clear in the White Paper, Leisure in the Countryside, that they are very much alive to the considerable potential for all kinds of recreation in the extensive network of inland waterways. The Minister of Transport has indicated in another place that in the forthcoming White Paper she will have something more to say about the waterways. But careful consideration must be given to the amount that we are prepared to spend on their continuation and the part that they will have to play in the future.

I hope I have answered the main points that have been raised in this debate. I ask the House to give the transport system—because that is really what it amounts to—the money it will require, by enabling us to pass this Bill through all its stages to-day.

On Question, Bill read 2a: Committee negatived.

Then, Standing Order No. 41 having been suspended (pursuant to the Resolution of Tuesday last), Bill read 3a, and passed.