HL Deb 11 July 1973 vol 344 cc735-9

3.3 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 they can now say what discussions are taking place between the Post Office authorities and British Rail anent the reorganising of British Rail's 300 parcel depots to 90 super depots; and further, whether this contemplated major shift of mail to the already overloaded road system will be prevented because of the damaging environmental implications, and the folly of further contraction of our rail services.


My Lords, the Post Office is discussing with British Rail and the National Freight Corporation arrangements to replace the present contract for the rail conveyance of postal parcels. The Government will naturally expect to be informed before any major changes are made. The reorganisation of British Rail's own parcel depots referred to in the noble Lord's Question is a separate matter not under discussion with the Post Office, and it is being considered in the Government's review of rail policy.


My Lords, while thanking the noble Lord for that Answer may I ask whether he is aware that in closing down our rail services we are throwing away one of the greatest assets that this country possesses? Is he further aware that with the 2 million casualties on the roads in the last 20 years and the 150,000 dead, the social cost of the roads as compared with rail has never been worked out? Will he and the Government help to protect us from the tyranny of the balance sheets so far as the social services are concerned, and help maintain the railways and maintain a postal service that will be able at least to deliver letters on time?


My Lords, on the more general point referred to by the noble Lord, of course Her Majesty's Government have the interest of the general public in mind the whole time. I think that the noble Lord is probably more worried over the limited point about the possibility of postal parcels being sent by road rather than by rail adding a great deal to road traffic. I am informed that the effect will be negligible, and that anyway most postal parcel deliveries go by night.


My Lords, in the noble Lord's original reply, did he say that Her Majesty's Government would need to be consulted about this matter, or did he say they would need to be acquainted of it, presumably before anything was done, and that Her Majesty's Government would in some way have some influence over the matter? Can he say how that ties up with the Answer given to my noble friend Lady Burton on the previous Question?


Yes, my Lords. May I repeat what I said in the original Answer: The Government will naturally expect to be informed before any major changes are made. With the nationalised industries Her Majesty's Government are not responsible for the day-to-day running. They have various reserve statutory powers, but mainly it is their influence on the matters of day-to-day decisions that they use rather than invoking any reserve powers.


My Lords, can the noble Lord say what they will do when they have been informed?


My Lords, they will consider the matter.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the Post Office has already expressed a preference for using freightliner services and road transport for this change which is taking place? Will the Minister ensure that strong representations are made to the Post Office that this seems to be contrary to national policy?


My Lords, I understand that freightliners will be used to a large extent; but I should be misleading the House if I did not suggest that there was also a possibility of a certain amount of postal parcel traffic going by road over short distances.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that this will not be the first time that negotiations have taken place between British Rail and the Post Office in regard to the postal service? Is it not correct to state that Post Office regulations in regard to parcels stipulate that they must not weigh more than 26 lbs?


My Lords, I should hesitate to agree with the noble Lord on those figures; for I am afraid I do not know the answer. But knowing the noble Lord's interest in the Post Office, I have no doubt that he is correct.


My Lords, will the noble Lord bear in mind that this country is the only country in Western Europe of comparable status which, over a long period, has shown every year a reduction in the amount of freight carried by rail? Is he further aware that there is a rather undesirable lobby developing on behalf of the road transport industry in this matter, as exemplified by the article in to-day's issue of The Times?


My Lords, I will certainly draw the noble Lord's remarks to the attention of my noble friend.


My Lords, will the noble Lord, when lobbied by the attractive tyranny of the transport industry balance sheets, remember that the last but one Road Research Report pointed out—and I quote, pace my noble friend Lord Wigg— Each fatal accident costs the country £10,660; each serious accident, £1,220; each slight accident, £220; each damage by accident, £90. The total figure was given, five years ago, as £260 million a year. We could increase that sum now by 25 per cent. When we consider the future, will he ask for more than "acquaintance" from the powers that be in these nationalised industries? Will he ask also for consultation, and will he also give advice for the benefit of the people?


My Lords, nobody would deny the seriousnes of road accidents and the importance of doing anything that can be done to cut them down; but as regards this particular Question on the Order Paper I would again assure the noble Lord that the amount of extra road traffic that any result of these negotiations might cause will be negligible.


My Lords, would the noble Lord care to commit himself about the far greater folly in the contraction of our rail services by undue delay in the construction of the Channel Rail Tunnel, especially in view of the fact that those who are totally opposed to it will give no limit to the period of delay involved?


My Lords, not within the context of this Question.


My Lords, from the point of view of the consumer and of general efficiency could the noble Lord say whether this proposal is going to be examined by the Post Office Users' National Council, under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Peddie.


My Lords, I am afraid that I cannot give an answer to that question straight away, but I will write to the noble Lord. The whole purpose of these discussions from the Post Office point of view is to increase efficiency.