HL Deb 13 April 1976 vol 369 cc2058-69

3.54 p.m.


My Lords, with the leave of the House I should like to repeat a Statement which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend. The Statement is as follows:

"We are publishing today a Consultation Document in two volumes, copies of which are now available in the Vote Office. It contains, I believe, a thorough, balanced—although still incomplete—examination of the major issues arising across the whole field of inland transport affairs. It covers the main modes of transport both public and private. The document represents the first stage of a comprehensive review: the first of its kind for 10 years. The review represents only the Government's preliminary consideration. Contrary to some assertions that have been made this is in fact a truly Consultative Document.

"It is, I believe, essential that we get our future policy right: for transport touches the interests of every citizen of the country and is of central importance to their daily lives. The next stage is therefore to consult a wide range of interests including transport industries and organisations, management and unions, local government and the public. Not until these consultations are concluded will it be possible for the Government to take a firmer view and to reach decisions on the future course of transport policy.

"The review was undertaken in order to take a fresh look at the major trends which have emerged during the past 10 years and the problems that have flowed from them. I refer particularly to the growing ownership and use of cars, the decline in the use of public transport, the impact of roads and vehicles on the environment, the energy situation and the growing calls of transport and other services on public expenditure.

"It is now generally accepted that the provision of transport cannot be left solely to market forces. What we have already and must continue to develop is a managed market, but one which takes stronger account of the economic, social and environmental objectives of our time.

"These objectives can be summarised as follows: first, we want an efficient transport system—one which gives value for money and makes the best use of skills and resources. Second, in the passenger field, we must provide reasonable mobility for the large minority of people who are and will remain without access to a car. In our view, the Government must accept responsibility for maintaining a strong public transport network—though we shall need to be flexible in the means by which it is provided. Third, we must give higher priority to enhancing both the urban and rural environment in which people live and protecting them against the ill-effects of transport noise, fumes and visual intrusion. Fourth, we must, within the context of these objectives, give the user of transport as much freedom of choice as possible coupled with improvement of standards.

"To achieve these objectives, we need a coherent, rigorous and on-going analysis of the various transport options that are available. This is essential if we are to establish the right priorities and make sensible decisions on the balance of transport expenditure as between, for example, road and rail, trains and buses, subsidies and investment. In this analysis, taxation—and other Government imposed costs—and subsidies will have to be considered together if we are to achieve sensible and equitable pricing policies for the different means of transport.

"There are many questions which the policy review provokes, but I would like to draw the attention of the House to just a few which seem to me to be of particular importance. First, there is the priority accorded in the document to the maintenance of adequate bus services; how is this to be done, and what is a reasonable balance between fares and subsidies? Second, rail. Let me assure the House that I have no bias in favour of either road or rail. Each mode of transport has its advantages and disadvantages and the public as well as most of us here in this House are users of both. The Government have no plans for railway line closures. Some may prove necessary in the future but I see no case for substantial—let alone massive—changes in our present rail network. I would certainly like to see more freight moved by rail where this is appropriate; but a massive switch from road to rail or the inland waterways does not, on the evidence available, seem attainable. The document does not propose to cut out passenger subsidies but recognises that open-ended subsidies for passenger services cannot continue. It also takes the view that permanent subsidies for freight whether by road or rail are not justified. The more that can be done to reduce costs, the less it will be necessary to increase fares and charges.

"There is also the sensitive question of further restraint on cars in congested urban areas. The document poses the possibilities of greater physical restriction and promises a separate Consultative Paper on control over private non-residential parking.

"The Consultative Document concludes by putting forward a proposal for a national transport council which will bring together the transport industries, management and trade unions, local government and consumers in a new high level organisation under Ministerial chairmanship. The proposed council would not be an executive agency but it would certainly not be a talking shop. It would be an authoritative body, fully capable of assisting the Government in keeping transport objectives under continuing and open review.

"Finally, a further word about the consultation procedure. I think it would be valuable to have a fairly extensive period of discussion and examination. We shall have to press ahead faster in some areas of policy than in others. In particular we shall need to reach a view about any changes in the pattern of transport expenditure in time for them to take effect in 1977–78. I have decided to extend the time for consultation beyond the mid-June deadline proposed in the document—until the end of July. I hope by then that those with a major interest in our transport system will have had an opportunity to send me or the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales their comments on the document. I hope to arrange for those interests to discuss the review with me or my fellow Ministers or with the Department. I hope too that it will be possible for this House to have an opportunity of debating transport policy before the Summer Recess, so that the Government can take account of the views of the House.

"Given the scope and importance of transport policy, discussions and conclusions will inevitably be an on-going affair. It will be my intention to make a further Statement to the House after the Summer Recess."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.2 p.m.


My Lords, all your Lordships will be grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, for repeating the Statement. I can truly say that it is a Statement which is possibly overdue, although I say this with no disrespect to the noble Baroness. We have had transport problems, involving petrol, roads, railways, and air travel, for a long time. We are very grateful that in this Government allotment, the Gov- enment have, at last, admitted that there is such a person as the private motorist. The private motor car owner has not been recognised for a long time in Government policy. We are pleased that in this Statement of Government policy it has at last been recognised that the motor car owner is a major person in charge of transport; far more so than airways and railways, in a way. The owner of a car is a chap who is paying very heavy taxes to the Government; indeed, he is paying his way in a very big way.

Having said that, let me not be niggardly in paying tribute to this Statement. I must confess that I would have preferred to have seen the Statement after having seen the document, but the document is to come after the Statement, so we have to accept what the noble Baroness says the document is about. It would have been more helpful to have had it the other way round. Nevertheless, we are grateful to have had the Statement.

The trends in the past 10 years, to which the noble Baroness referred, of the growing powers of private transport against Government public transport, have been so self-evident that I do not think that anybody can argue the matter. We on this side of our House, and our colleagues in the Commons, have been asking your Lordships, and honourable Members in the other House, to listen to us. We are not living in the past. The noble Baroness may like to think that these things are over and done with. But, quite honestly, transport today is just as important to the people in this country as it was in the days of donkeys and horses, and when one had to walk on one's bare feet.

As I have repeatedly said, noble Lords opposite have got the idea that transport is somehow a Government wished-on benefit, which is not necessarily available to all mankind. Most people own a car today, but public transport is there as a necessity for those who do not have motor cars. On this side of the House we totally accept that public transport must remain available, and to that extent we are very grateful for this document. The maintenance of adequate bus services is of the utmost importance. This subject has been considered by us many times, and we cannot but pay adequate thanks to the Government for their reiterated statements that this matter is to be looked after. If the noble Baroness can see that that is done, we shall be extremely glad.

We have not seen the document; we are talking about a Statement on a document. I think that I have now said quite enough. I have given my views, which I hope are adequately sensible, and I hope that when the document comes out I shall be able to say, "Thank you" for the Government's views.

4.8 p.m.


My Lords, we also wish to thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement made in another place. Is the noble Baroness aware that copies of the document are available in the Printed Paper Office, that we had no difficulty in obtaining them, and that we have already taken a considerable amount of time to examine them? Is the noble Baroness also aware that the time scale allowed for consultation on the document, notwithstanding the extension announced by the Secretary of State, is still wholly inadequate, bearing in mind that this document consists of no less than 80,000 words, which it has taken the Department eight months to prepare, while it is proposed to give the public only three and a half months in which to react? This is quite unfair on people who are expected to express the views which will be of assistance to the Government in arriving at their own conclusions.

Can the noble Baroness say how bodies which wish to make representations to the Secretary of State may do so? Will it be the policy of the Secretary of State, and other Ministers who are to meet these organisations, to group them together so that bodies with what the Secretary of State considers to be kindred interests will have to see him with their colleagues from other organisations; or will they be entitled to individual interviews? Is the noble Baroness aware that on a first reading it appears to us that this document is based on a passive acceptance of recent trends in traffic growth? At no point does it ask the question: what is the maximum level of various kinds of traffic that is tolerable in an overcrowded island like Britain?

Does the noble Baroness realise that far from agreeing with the views expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, we think that too much account is taken of the needs of the motorist and that the needs of those who do not have cars are far too readily dismissed? This point can be seen by the fact that in the document there is no mention whatsoever of pedestrians, and there is a mere one paragraph devoted to the cyclist. Since I understand there is to be a debate on the matter shortly, may I ask the noble Baroness one further question? The proposed National Transport Council, she has told us, will include representatives of the trade unions, of consumers, of industry and so on. Will it also include people who are against the prevailing doctrine of economic growth and the growth in transport services which has to accompany it?

4.10 p.m.

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, I thank both noble Lords for their contributions, and the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, particularly, for answering the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, for me on the point of the document being available. It is not unusual for a Statement to be made—and it was a fairly lengthy Statement—and for it then to be said that the document is available, because a Statement is not meant to take the place of a debate. But let me say immediately in answer to both noble Lords that there will be an opportunity in the middle of next month to debate the document itself.

The noble Lord, Lord Mowbray, referred to our at last admitting that there was a private driver. I had assumed that this had been accepted by all Governments for a considerable time now; but it is perfectly true that in the last ten years there has been a great increase in car ownership. There was certainly no major transport review during the Conservative Administration of 1970 to 1974, so no doubt the noble Lord's Government did not think it was necessary at that time. We believe that this review is comprehensive. It certainly takes into account and deals with private as well as public transport. I think that I have covered most of the points of the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray.

Perhaps I may turn now to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. I certainly do not agree for one moment that the time allowed is inadequate. It is not an enormously long document; and Volume 2 covers a great many explanatory points and figures. The whole point of the document, as was explained in the Statement which I read, is that it is a truly Consultative Document. It is not a Green Paper with a very strong and pointed Government viewpoint put forward. It raises a great many questions, flies a certain number of ideas and asks for comments. I do not accept that there is a passive acceptance of recent growth. What there is, my Lords, is an acceptance of the present facts of the situation and a discussion on how we are going to deal with the present situation taking into account economic considerations, social considerations and environmental considerations. The Paper most certainly deals very strongly with the case of those who will never have access to a car; and when the noble Lord has a chance to reread it more carefully (because I appreciate he has had very little time) I think he will see that the needs of such people are taken into account and that we make the point very strongly that there are many who will never have access to a car. This is the whole point of there being considerable discussion on what will be the best way to balance the different means of public transport and to distribute those between the various needs.

The question of pedestrians, I imagine, comes on the environmental side, because when one is talking about transport I suppose the noble Lord is here referring to the transport being one's own two legs; but maybe we ought to have a different Paper for that. As a recently converted cyclist, I am inclined to agree with the noble Lord on his point about cycles. So far as the National Transport Council is concerned, I think these are early days to say what views people on it will represent, but my right honourable friend is certainly of the opinion that if the Council is to have some bite and is to have the influence which it is intended to have, then obviously it must be composed of people with differing views and knowledge.

I think the noble Lord's last point was accessibility and how consultation would take place. This is a matter which I personally have discussed with my right honourable friend. I pointed out to him—and he was in total agreement with me—that I hoped it would be made absolutely clear that not only should those concerned with the transport industry, whether on the side of management or on the side of the unions, be considered as being concerned, but also the consumers, the public and, indeed, the organisations which are concerned with pensioners and with disabled and blind people, who also have an interest both in the type of transport and in the question of fares. As to whether or not people should be grouped together, I am quite certain this will not be very difficult to sort out if organisations or individuals write in, either to the Department or to my right honourable friend, or to the Minister of Transport. Finally, I would merely repeat that this is an absolutely genuine attempt to get the maximum consultation. This is really whta we want. It is the only way in which a coherent and socially and environmentally acceptable transport policy can possibly evolve.

4.16 p.m.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that we on this side of the House welcome, at long last, the Statement that she has presented today? It has certainly been a long time coming. Just glancing through it, one appreciates what my noble friend has said about this being a Consultative Document. Yet, if we look at the final chapter, Chapter 13, paragraphs 8 to 11, we find that the Government have taken a decision. That decision is to establish this National Transport Council, which appears to me to be an advisory body chaired by the Minister. But paragraph 8 says quite clearly: …the Government do not believe that setting up a new executive organisation, neither elected nor democratically accountable…". In view of that very definite statement, it would appear that many of us who have views on a properly co-ordinated transport system are going to be subjected to an advisory council only; and I would ask my noble friend (though I suppose we shall eventually get to know) what exactly will be the powers of that advisory council. We do not want it to be like the Post Office Consultative Committee: we want something with some power in it.

My noble friend referred to the debate, which of course we shall all welcome. I would draw her attention to the fact that for a considerable period of time I have had on the Order Paper a Motion drawing attention to transport, particularly to railways, though one would like to extend that. Would it be proposed to take my Motion as the occasion for the debate, or are the Government prepared to give a day of their own time for the purpose of having this overall debate? The noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, said: "If we had only taken notice of the Tory Party policy on transport!" It is because we took notice of the Tory Party policy on transport that we have got into the mess that we are in today. The Marples-Beeching era is one of the factors responsible for the difficulties that we are experiencing at the present moment.

As I said earlier, this review is long overdue. This document is extremely interesting, and there has been opportunity to glance through it. It is extremely interesting to know that at long last we are given some figures so far as the subsidy is concerned, so that we can compare roads with railways. In the review, as we shall all see, the expenditure of £1,375 million a year on upkeep and maintenance and on new roads is most interesting, and some of us will have quite a lot to say about it. One questions some of the basis of what is there in the document regarding the pattern of transport and as to whether we are going to accept it as it is. One would hope in the future discussions that are going to take place that the whole question of the pattern of transport as a whole, and looking at transport as a whole, will be taken into consideration and not just its development as of now.


My Lords, we have now been 25 minutes on the Statement. May I remind your Lordships with all due deference that it is the convention of the House that questions only are asked following the Statement. There will be an opportunity for full debate as my noble friend has said. I suggest that we now move to other business as my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor wishes to make a statement.


My Lords, may a Backbencher on this side put a question? It was the noble Lord's noble friend who made rather a long statement. May I ask the noble Baroness whether she would put her attention to Volume 2 of the Consultative Document on the size of the EEC railways? It is on page 87. This is relevant to the question of greater efficiency and better maintenance and the question of the fare structure of our railways vis-à-vis the other railways of the EEC countries. Would she not agree, as is metnioned on page 81, that the French railways operate over the largest network in the Community which is 21,400 miles with a workforce of 283,000? And would she bear in mind that this country operates a route mileage of 11,500 with a work force of 230,000? Does she not feel too, regarding the fare structure, that, in effect, we have the highest route mile fare of all European Community countries?

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Merrivale, has put a question which will take some time to discuss. I think that it is slightly simplistic to make direct comparisons in that way between France and this country. There are a great many other factors. I have the figures before me. I think this is something which ought to be raised in debate or in writing during the period of consultation. Although it was perhaps more of a speech than a question, I think I ought to take the opportunity of answering briefly the main points raised by my noble friend Lord Popplewell. The debate that will take place during the next month I understand, so long as it is agreed through the usual channels, will be the one in his name on the Order Paper. After what he said, I shall be the reluctant recipient of his comments.

I think I should say in regard to his point about the National Transport Council that they will have a powerful influence on all policy; they will monitor developments and commission research and will be doing something which he and many of his friends will, I feel, approve of. They will bring together, for the first time, unions and management as well as others in a body which will have a real influence over transport policy as a whole. So far as the proposed National Transport Planning Authority is concerned, it is true that in the consultation paper it states that the Government point out reasons why they find this not a particularly attractive proposal. But, nevertheless, as we already said, this is a consultation paper and even on this point the Government's mind is not completely closed.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Baroness whether the consultative document will cover the London bus service and whether the consumer of that increasingly indigestible morsel, the London bus, will have the opportunity of making his views known?

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, most definitely so. The Consultative Document covers all inland transport in England, Scotland and Wales. It is certainly concerned with the bus service.


My Lords, may I ask the Government whether, as part of the process of consultation, they will make available as much information as they can regarding their estimate of which sections of the community gain the most from the existing subsidy for passenger rail services? Is the noble Baroness aware that I neither own nor drive a motor car, nor am I provided with one? I am dependent on public transport. Is she aware that a number of us in distant parts of the country feel concerned, at a time when the priorities in Government expenditure are all-important, at the, frankly, two-thirds empty trains on Inter-City services at certain times of the day and that giving information of the kind I have suggested is important as part of the consultative process?


My Lords, may I ask the noble Baroness whether taxis are included in the document which I have not had the chance to look at? Taxis are important. Have they been brought into the whole scheme?

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, the taxi is relevant, as the noble Baroness will see when she reads the document. So far as the point about Inter-City trains and the empty periods are concerned, we are aware of that; and the noble Lord will see that this is mentioned in the Document. The trouble is that the trains are full with commuters in the morning and evening. Again, this is something on which it is important that there should be discussion and pooling of views.


My Lords, I suggest that we now move on to the next business.

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