I seem to smell in the air this afternoon a smell of the hustings rather than of a debate in the Committee. I thought that we were to have a serious debate on a very serious subject. Although I welcome the preface of the hon. Member for Enfield, East (Mr. Ernest Davies) that we are not here to discuss the railway wages situation, about which we are all anxious, I am bound to say that a good many of his remarks could have had more value perhaps on his own hustings than here.
Simultaneously with the debate, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is receiving the deputation from the Transport Commission, with the Chairman and representatives of the unions, and I am sure that it is the common wish of all of us that there shall be a successful outcome. As soon as my right hon. Friend returns to the Committee from the meeting he will, with your permission, Sir Charles, make a statement so that we may know what is the course of events which has taken place. As the outcome may have some general bearing on the Commission's affairs, I feel that the Committee may wish to be informed about what has taken place.
In the meantime, I need only reiterate what has been said before. Apart from our general policy of standing by awards of a national tribunal, we see the prospect of better wages for those who work on our railways as inevitably and entirely bound up with the fortunes of the railways themselves. With those we are closely concerned, and, despite what the hon. Member for Enfield, East said, my right hon. Friend and I are making every effort to help them with their problems.
The hon. Member for Enfield, East recited lengthy charges of what he regards as unfair interference with the Commission by the Government, but I do not think they are borne out by the record over recent years and I feel that it would be more helpful to the debate this afternoon to deal with the immediate problems and particularly the history of events concerning what are called the capital cuts of last autumn. I am most anxious to give the Committee, and indeed everyone who is interested, the facts on this matter. As the hon. Member for Enfield, East rightly said, the 1956 White Paper predicted that the Commission's capital expenditure on modernisation for 1958 and 1959 should be £135 million and £140 million. In the event, the Commission proposed, last autumn, an expenditure of £151 million for 1958 and of £148 million for 1959. The Commission discussed those figures with us and, despite the fact that we were by then into a very serious financial crisis, we agreed substantially to those figures by allowing £145 million for 1958 and £145 million for 1959. Despite all the other difficulties which we were facing at the time, these were no more than marginal reductions.
The hon. Member for Enfield, East has tried to deduce how the difficulty has arisen of the denial of the regional board's accelerated programme. What happened was that some three or four weeks after the Commission had agreed those figures with us and my right hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (Mr. P. Thorneycroft) had announced them, the regional boards' proposals were received with their accelerated programme. It was quite impossible for us then to reconsider the capital provisions for these two years in conditions of immense financial difficulty for the country. We took the view—and I held it most firmly—that however concerned we were with the Commission's future—and I am certainly deeply concerned with it—our first concern must be with the stability of the £.