George Strauss – 1967 Speech on the Transport Bill

The speech made by George Strauss, the then Labour MP for Vauxhall, in the House of Commons on 20 December 1967.

I am certain that the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Peter Walker) has been looking forward immensely to this debate so that he could deploy all his debating skill in attacking the Bill. He has excelled himself in turning a discussion on a largely technical matter into a political debate. He has emphasised certain aspects of the Bill and invented others which, he suggests, have a big political content which does not in fact exist.

I will mention only two. The hon. Gentleman spoke many times about this being a Bill to extend public ownership. There is not one Clause in the Bill which will bring about any compulsory public ownership. How, then, is this a Bill to extend public ownership?

The hon. Gentleman laid enormous emphasis at the end of his speech, which was obviously the climax of his remarks, on the provisions in Clause 45 which enable the nationalised industries to undertake trading where they already have facilities for doing so, in the same way as private enterprise is able to do at present. It is inconceivable that hon. Members opposite, who say they want to save public money and are interested in efficiency, should continue to deny, for example, to a railway workshop the ability to use machines and the skill of men who are there when there is no work which the railways can give them. It is a most wasteful thing that those machines and men should stand idle when there is other work available.

What nonsense it is to say that, although railways may have big car parks adjoining their suburban stations, they should be prohibited from selling petrol at those car parks and from making repairs to vehicles that use the car parks. It is obviously in the public interest that public bodies should be able to do this in exactly the same way as private interests do. It is the fear of competition from public bodies which induces hon. Members opposite to take up this wholly anti-social attitude.

My right hon. Friend the Minister and the hon. Gentleman suffered from a disadvantage in discussing the Bill, in that it is a whale of a Bill containing a large number of diverse proposals. It is a comprehensive Bill. It is a meaty Bill.

It is impossible to discuss all its contents and many suggestions in the course of a short speech. As a backbencher who wants to confine himself to a quarter of an hour at the outside, obviously all that it is possible for me to do is to make a few brief comments on some of the issues raised by the Bill. I would not attempt to do so had I not been associated with Transport Bilk for very many years, from the time when I played a small part in carrying the original nationalisation Bill through the House in 1947. I have also played some part in every subsequent Bill dealing with transport matters. I may have a little knowledge of the subject. I therefore certainly have strong feelings about many of the proposals in the Bill.

Before making a few critical remarks and inquiries, I want to congratulate my right hon. Friend warmly on a number of things. I want first to congratulate her on providing us with three White Papers which set out in great detail, and very admirably, the background to, and purpose of, the proposals which she intended to bring before the House. Never has a Bill come before the House with so much information provided for hon. Members before its Second Reading debate.

Second, I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her exposition of the Bill today. Third, I congratulate her on the contents of the Bill, which boldly tackles problems besetting almost every aspect of British Transport in one way or another. Although some people may disagree with the solutions which my right hon. Friend proposes, they are at least a serious attempt—and basically, I think, a correct attempt—to deal with present and future transport problems. Many of these have been neglected for far too long because they are difficult or controversial. In this Bill my right hon. Friend proposes many realistic and original solutions for them.

Furthermore, my right hon. Friend finally buries one myth which has clouded thinking on transport matters for far too long. She is no longer apologetic, and this party has for some time not been apologetic, about the need to give public funds to transport because transport is a public service. For far too long the party opposite has believed that there was something wrong and shameful in subsidising railways or other forms of transport. It has always been apologetic about it. Conservative policy towards transport has been and is based on the idea that any form of support from public money must, as the first major objective desideratum, be cut out. This was the reason for the Beeching Report and Conservative support for it. It was to make our railways viable. It would never have done so, in fact, but that was the purpose. Viability is desirable, but this Bill recognises that there are broad social benefits in many transport activities which can be financed only by society as a whole through taxes or rates. We are not ashamed of that.

One of the many examples provided by the Bill is the grant which the Government will give in respect of rural transport services. Six years ago, the Jack Committee made a survey of these services and came to the conclusion that they were inadequate and likely to deteriorate and that, unless certain public money was given to support them, they would become much worse. The Conservative Government did nothing about it. They were thinking about it, but no more. At last, the present Government have said that something must be done. They make provision for £2 million a year which, if the local authorities spend a similar sum, can be spent on maintaining and improving bus services. This provision is apart from the large reduction in fuel tax for buses. I mention that merely as an indication of the sort of thought which the Government give in the Bill to the social purposes of transport for which some financial support is needed.

My right hon. Friend is to be congratulated for her general approach to transport problems and, in particular, for devising machinery for integration, a matter which has for too long been no more than vague aspiration. We now have machinery proposed by which integration can be accomplished. I believe that it will work. For providing that machinery in a sensible way, my right hon. Friend deserves the support of this side of the House, and I am sure that eventually, when the process is seen to work in the country, she will earn the country’s gratitude, too.

It is against that background of general enthusiastic support that I wish now to express anxiety about certain provisions. I shall deal only with the more important ones. First, my right hon. Friend suggests, more in the White Paper than in the Bill, that, after all “the financial readjustments have been made, the railways should become viable in the early 1970s. It is more than a hope; it is an expectation on my right hon. Friend’s part. I hope that she will not pin her faith too closely to that expectation. Those who have long experience of the reorganisation of the railway system recall that, right from the time in the 1950s when General Robertson produced his great re-equipment programme—and a very fine programme it was—we have always been told that, in about five years, the railways would pay. But they never have.

Again and again, there seems to be an unfortunate rule operating in railway finances which provides that, whatever economies are devised and whatever financial benefits are envisaged as accruing from increased capital expenditure, at the end of the day costs and expenses swallow them all up. I fear that, however desirable it may be, after the financial changes now proposed are implemented, after the various subtractions and additions have been made on the debit side of the railway accounts, the railways will not be viable. But I do not believe that it matters very much so long as they are performing the services which they ought to perform and carrying freight and passengers in the way the nation needs.

My next doubt is in regard to the National Freight Corporation. This is an ingenious idea for integrating the country’s freight transport, but I have asked myself one or two questions about it and I now put them to my right hon. Friend. Is it necessary to set up a new statutory body for this purpose? Is it the idea that that statutory body should be the first step towards the abolition of the Transport Holding Company? The National Freight Corporation will take over a large part of railway activities. It will take over the depots, vehicles, warehouses and containers of British Railways, though not the trains. Will not this be disheartening to all sections of British Railways, when they are deprived of the most promising and profitable development which they have? Will it not damage the morale, which is already low, of all railwaymen from the highest to the lowest?

Second, will not the existence of this body create a large area of conflict between British Rail and the new Corporation, especially in regard to costs and charges? As far as I can see—I may be mistaken—there will be further areas of conflict between the Railways Board and the freight liner company which is, as it were, to be put in between the Railways Board and the National Freight Corporation and which will be responsible for the marketing and management of the whole freight system. The financial obligation is on the Corporation. Management and working is on the company. The Railways Board is to have only a 49 per cent. interest in the company. It seems to me that there is here the possibility of much conflict and confusion. Nevertheless, I hope that I am wrong and that everything will be resolved.

Would it not have been possible to bring about the desired co-ordination without setting up a new statutory body, which is undesirable if it can be avoided, by some co-operative method and without having a drastic surgical operation which is bound to be upsetting? We are told that there is already in existence a joint freight organisation between the Transport Holding Company and British Rail whose purpose is to promote closer inter-working between the two. Would it not have been possible to achieve the desired result through this body? It would certainly be more desirable to do so if that were possible.

Another statutory body is to be set up. It is a bad habit to set up more statutory bodies than are essential. There is to be a Freight Integration Council, whose purpose will be to advise the Minister about integrating the freight set-up and organisation. I cannot see what this body can usefully do. I should have thought that under the Bill’s proposals integration will be complete and tight. I do not know what more can be done.

I am fearful that a body of this sort, established under Statute and containing a variety of important people, will either become an academic talking body or, if it comes down to earth and considers practical and detailed matters, will be interfering with the responsibility of British Railways, the Corporation or the Minister. This is an advisory body for the Minister. But the Minister could bring together an advisory body any moment she liked without having a Clause in the Bill demanding that she should do so.

The idea of the Passenger Transport Authorities is admirable, but, however much I hope they will work well, I cannot help wondering whether they can work smoothly until there has been a reorganisation of local government. Let us look at the proposed set-up. There are four bodies which will have some share of responsibility. There are the local authorities, which will be responsible for traffic management in their area. This is extraordinarily important. One cannot run buses and so on as one likes through a city unless one has some voice in the traffic organisation and management of the flow of traffic.

The Passenger Transport Authorities themselves will consist of nominees of the local authorities drawn from the whole area, and they will be authoritative bodies. They will consist of local government nominees of diverse interests and perhaps different political views. They may have strong and divergent views on whether rates should be paid by their local authority on some proposal to subsidise the commuter train service in another area.

The Passenger Transport Authority will be solely responsible for appointing the main body, the Executive, which will do the running of the whole scheme and receive the subsidies to be paid by the Minister. The Executive will receive them although it is a body appointed by the Passenger Transport Authority and, therefore, dismissable by the Authority. On top of that one has the Minister coming in all along the line. I do not object to that. It is inevitable if grants are to be paid by the Treasury, but one has a four-tier body to carry out the reorganisation and integration of passenger transport over a large area, and the key body is one which consists of people probably with diverse interests, ideas and objectives, nominees of the local authorities in the areas.

Sir R. Cary

The Executive would also become a monopoly not answerable to the Traffic Commissioners.

Mr. Strauss

That is a possibility. However, the Minister says in the White Paper that the relations between the Authority and the Executive will in many ways be similar to those between a Minister and a nationalised industry. But it will not be anything of the sort. A nationalised industry, through its chairman, comes to a Minister and says, “I want to do this. Do you agree? What shall we do?” The Minister will say, “Yes” or “No” or “I will consult about it and let you know.” But here the Executive has to go to the Passenger Transport Authority, a body of 20 people with different ideas, and get its views. The local authority nominees on the body will be likely to find an important issue one on which they will have to consult their local authorities about, certainly if it is a question of a precept on the rates. I do not put it higher than that, but I see great difficulties in the running of these bodies, and I hope that the Minister has some ideas about overcoming them. I think it will be a long time before the bodies can work effectively.

Mr. Ronald Atkins (Preston, North)

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. David Webster (Weston-super- Mare)

Will the right hon. Gentleman—

Mr. Speaker

Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will decide to which hon. Gentleman he is giving way.

Mr. Strauss

I will give way to the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Webster) and then my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, North (Mr. Ronald Atkins).

Mr. Webster

I am following the point that the right hon. Gentleman is making about the difference between the Authority and the Executive. Clause 13(6) says: Notwithstanding anything in this Part of this Act, nothing done by the Executive for a designated area shall be held to be unlawful on the ground that the approval of the Authority for that area to the doing of that thing was required by or under this Part of this Act”—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Interventions ought to be brief.

Mr. Ronald Atkins

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way—

Mr. Speaker

We cannot have an intervention on an intervention. Mr. Strauss.

Mr. Strauss

My hon. Friend wanted to ask me a question, Mr. Speaker, and I am perfectly willing to give way to him.

Mr. Ronald Atkins

Is it a fact that the chairman or head of a nationalised industry—British Railways, for instance —consults die Minister on questions of day-to-day management? Are not the bodies which are to be set up to deal with day-to-day management rather than questions of policy?

Mr. Strauss

My hon. Friend asks a very big question. All I can say is that when I was in charge of a nationalised industry the chairman and vice-chairman came to see me every week, and about not some detail but some important policy matter which had arisen. I am perfectly certain that in the work which the Executive has to do—it will be very important work, especially in the early years—important issues will arise constantly on which it will want some direction from its superior body, the Passenger Transport Authority.

The highly controversial point of the new quantitative licensing has been raised. I am not as frightened of it as the hon. Member for Worcester is. I think it is a sensible idea. I do not think that anyone would question that if the railways can carry a consignment as cheaply, reliably and speedily as can be done on the road it should go on the railways. The only question is whether this is the best way of deciding whether in any particular case this is so or not. Should one leave it to the consignor? Should one leave it to the road haulage company? The consignors may be set in their ways, or prejudiced. There may be a number of reasons why they may not take an impartial view. The suggestion is mat the Commission should do it. I do not see why it should not be able to. At worst after some trouble and time—consuming work on die part of the people involved, the consignments will in the end continue to go by road; but at best there may be a considerable diversion from road to rail, which everybody in the House wants.

I am not upset about the approaches made by the road hauliers. One is used to protests from them on every occasion when any change is proposed. They are exceedingly vocal. My views about their attitude were very well expressed in an article in the Sunday Times. I do not think that the writer of the article was a member of the Labour Party or a Labour candidate. In fact, I have no idea who it was. It was an unsigned article. It read. One cannot help feeling that they”— that is, the road hauliers— are really upset because the Bill will compel more vigorous competition than the industry has grown used to. I think this is probably true.

There are many other proposals in the Bill that I have not time to deal with, but I would just mention one or two briefly. The provisions of Clause 45 are long overdue. I am glad that my right hon. Friend has incorporated in the Bill the idea of allowing nationalised industries to enter into trade in certain conditions. A matter which is very important is the remission of a further part of the fuel tax for bus services. This is logical and, again, long overdue. Ministers of Transport and Members of Parliament have for a long time been saying that what we have to do is to try to get the public to use buses rather than private cars.

We have to make public transport—the buses—more attractive so as to get people to move to their use. Everyone has been saying it, Some of us have been advocating that the best way to do it would be to reduce the fuel tax on them, but this is the first time it has been done. It is a good thing and should have a marked effect in reducing bus fares. I am glad that my right hon. Friend has done it. I am a little doubtful about the huge tax on the transport of large and divisible loads. It is a technical matter which can be thrashed out in Committee, but it seems to me that it may be a burden on exports and, Under no circumstances, however theoretically justified it may be, should additional costs be added to such transport at a moment when we are trying to increase exports at all costs.

But, by and large, the Bill is excellent. It is based on sound principles. I think that we all recognise that it will not be easy to put some of the major provisions into operation. Carrying out the proposed changes will be far more difficult than devising them, putting them in a Bill and getting them through Parliament. Getting them into operation will indeed be a colossal task. There will be difficulties and opposition but it is all important that my right hon. Friend should succeed, and in that task I am sure that she will get all the support from this side of the House that she needs and deserves.