§ 4.15 p.m.
§ The PARLIAMENTARY UNDERSECRETARY of STATE, DEPARTMENT of the ENVIRONMENT (Lord Bellwin)
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend, the Minister of Transport. The statement is as follows:
"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a Statement on contingency plans for the London Underground strike which has been threatened from next Monday. 739 "There is as yet no sign of any settlement of the dispute, although I understand that further talks are planned for this evening.
"The offer which has been made matches that recently agreed with the London busmen. I am advised by the Leader of the GLC that if the unions' much larger claim were agreed, this would entail a very significant increase in fares in addition to those already planned, or cuts in services.
"I very much hope that the strike will not take place and that those who live and work in London will not be subjected to the widespread inconvenience that such a strike would cause. But I am sure the House would wish to have an early indication of the action the Government propose to take to ensure that people can continue to go about their daily business if the strike does go ahead.
"London Transport estimates that half a million people use the Underground daily on their way to work in Central London. Clearly the strike will impose great pressure on bus services and if too many people try to bring their cars into the centre there will be serious congestion and delay.
"We therefore propose to take the following steps.
"As far as Central London is concerned, 8,000 extra car parking spaces will be made available in the Royal and other London parks. On the advice of the Metropolitan Commissioner of Police we shall not at this stage be lifting waiting restrictions or suspending meter charges. This is to reduce the risk of congestion bringing traffic to a standstill.
"As far as outer London is concerned, where there is additional demand for extra parking spaces near suburban British Rail stations, the Commissioner has told me that enforcement of waiting restrictions will be relaxed in certain roads where this will not impede traffic movement.
"In addition the Police are taking steps to operate clearways on key routes between 7 and 10 a.m. and between 4 and 7 p.m.
740 The police will be issuing detailed advice on this over the weekend.
"The motoring and freight industry organisations are urging all their members to keep out of central London if they possibly can. Congestion will be minimised if employers adopt the maximum flexibility in hours of work to enable people to travel outside the rush hours and if people who have to use their cars take other people with them.
"I am advised that fuel supplies for public transport in London are unlikely to present a special problem, but the Government will watch this aspect closely.
"I shall be keeping in close contact with the police on the effectiveness of these arrangements and will consider, as the situation develops, whether any changes are needed".
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
§ 4.18 p.m.
§ Baroness STEDMAN
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, for the way in which he has repeated the Statement. May I also take the opportunity of welcoming him into your Lordships' House on the occasion of his first speech from the Dispatch Box. I am sure that he will be happy in the Department which he has been allocated and I hope that he will also enjoy his work in your Lordships' House.
Like the noble Lord, we on this side of the House hope that the proposed strike will not take place. However, I must say that faced with the prospect of 17.5 per cent. inflation by the end of the year, I can understand the determination and concern of the workers. What I should like to know is whether the Government intend to maintain the existing support to London Transport through the transport supplementary grants or are cuts likely to be proposed in those grants.
Secondly, as regards the steps that are proposed to be taken, it seems to me that they are continency arrangements which follow what has been the procedure in other cases, but will the co-ordination of 741 those arrangements be the responsibility of the Minister of Transport himself or will he delegate that responsibility and, if so, to whom?
Thirdly, we note that the police, quite rightly, will have the duty and responsibility of keeping the clearways and so on, but will the police also be monitoring the traffic in the early days if the event happens, and will they have the power to amend or to extend the proposals as they deem to be necessary?
The noble Lord has referred to the fact that fuel supplies for public transport in London are unlikely to present a special problem. However, can he also give an assurance that, if necessary, fuel will be made available for coaches which firms have arranged to bring their employees into the capital? Will fuel supplies also be readily available for those who are compelled to use their cars and are public-spirited enough to offer car-sharing? Finally, there was no reference in the Statement to any proposals for the Minister to meet—or, indeed, any indication that he had already met—either the representatives of London Transport or the unions, or both. if the Minister decides to intervene, am I right in assuming that both Houses will be kept informed of such negotiations as they proceed?
§ Viscount SIMON
My Lords, from these Benches may I also offer a warm welcome to the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, and congratulate him on his first appearance at the Dispatch Box. The circumstances in which he has had to make the Statement s give us all much cause for concern. We must all hope that the further discussions that will take place this evening will lead or show the way towards a settlement. I am sure that the parties to the dispute, as well as the Government, will bear in mind that there are still three days between Thursday and Monday. If, unhappily, an agreement cannot be reached tonight, I hope that further efforts will still be made to avoid what would be a terrible inconvenience to half a million people—indeed, more than half a million people—who are not connected in any way with the dispute.
I should like to support what the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, said about the possibility of the Minister himself inter- 742 vening, if he has not already done so. I have only one comment to make on the proposals. If, indeed, there are half a million people trying to get into London, I wonder whether the provision of 8,000 extra car parking spaces might not be almost counter-productive, because there will be many, many more than 8,000 people thinking that they will get one of those car parking spaces. When the contribution is necessarily so small—and I am sure that it cannot be greater—would it not be better to have no extra car parking spaces? I should like to leave that thought with the noble Lord.
§ Lord BELLWIN
My Lords, first I should like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, and the noble Viscount, Lord Simon, for their very kind remarks to me. I must confess that had the choice been mine I might well have chosen as my opening foray in this House a topic with which I had marginally greater familiarity than either London Transport in general or the Underground in particular. However, the fates have decreed otherwise.
The noble Baroness asked about coordination being the responsibility of Ministers. I think the answer to that is "No", in that this is essentially a matter between—at this stage at least—London Transport and the GLC. We very much hope that there will be no need for any further action to be taken, but if it should prove necessary, in my submission, at least initially it should be left to London Transport and the GLC.
The noble Baroness asked whether fuel would be made available. At present the Government see no necessity for any new or extra steps to be taken on this matter, because it is not felt that there is such a necessity and it is hoped that it will not prove to be the case. On car-sharing, I cannot emphasise too strongly the appeal which my right honourable friend the Minister of Transport is making to those who have to come into London in their cars to give lifts wherever possible. Each morning 130,000 cars enter Central London carrying 175,000 occupants. Therefore there is spare capacity for another 240,000 passengers in these more than half empty vehicles. Clearly, it would go a long way towards mitigating the effects of the strike if only that spare capacity were utilised. About 743 half a million people travel into Central London each morning by Underground. Therefore, if motorists with spare capacity would make that capacity available, they would contribute in no small measure to easing the lot of those who normally travel by Underground.
The noble Baroness then referred to discussions taking place with a view to ensuring that a strike does not happen. I am glad to tell her that, in fact, this very evening ACAS is meeting, and we hope that something may arise from that. The same point was made by the noble Viscount, Lord Simon, as regards ministerial intervention. I repeat what I said to the noble Baroness: we hope that that will not be necessary. As to the noble Viscount's point about 8,000 extra spaces being counter-productive and that possibly it would be better to make no extra spaces available, in these situations one must take a view and decide on the best way to deal with the matter. Clearly, the Government believe that at this time it is in the best interests to do it this way; hence their decision at this time.
§ Baroness WOOTTON of ABINGER
My Lords, on the radio last night there was a threat that the strike by the Underground might also be supported by the National Union of Railwaymen and affect railways. Can the Minister comment on that?
§ Lord BELLWIN
My Lords, we accept that some parts of the British Rail Service may be affected, but, in general, we are encouraged by the fact that the rail unions did not specifically say —or, at least, as yet have not specifically said—that it is their intention to do anything to exacerbate the position.
§ Lord GISBOROUGH
My Lords, will the Minister consider following the example of Los Angeles, where cars with one occupant are forced to park outside and are not allowed in the town at all? Secondly, will the Minister consider giving very positive and active encouragement towards the greater use of bicycles, perhaps by the provision of making certain streets available only to bicycles, providing parking spaces and so on?
§ Lord BELLWIN
My Lords, I am sure that the Government will be very glad to take note of the points made by the noble Lord.