British Railways

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 26th October 1960.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Sir Toby Low Sir Toby Low , Blackpool North 12:00 am, 26th October 1960

I will leave that to my right hon. Friend to deal with, but he is eccentric in some ways and does not always stick to practice; but to impute a bad spirit to him seemed to me to be falling far below the level of debate. Let us end it like that.

There is still doubt about how much further decentralisation there should be. On that I would say to the House that I believe that the right decision is the decision of management, and the right decision may well change from time to time and from person to person, and that we should leave that decision if we can to those in authority over British Railways. If we think they are capable of running British Railways that is a decision that we ought to expect them to take, and to take aright, and I think we should be making a great mistake to impose a rigid, statutory structure of decentralisation of one particular type on the Transport Commission, or on any of the nationalised industries.

This brings me to this point on organisation. I do think that when we in this House talk of and advise more decentralisation we should remember that the advice to decentralise, like charity, should begin at home, and the first thing we have got to do is to make quite certain that we are not interfering too much in decisions which ought to be taken by the Transport Commission. Here I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford said about Parliamentary Questions, and I would add to that that if a Minister interferes too much with nationalised industries he does so because the House of Commons drives him to do it. So I hope that in considering this whole problem of the future organisation of the railways we in this House will help the railways and those who run them by looking to our own action in interfering. It is, of course, true that the Minister is bound to interfere in the affairs of nationalised industries. That is one of the reasons why they were nationalised, but what I think we have got to do is to try to get a much clearer line between what is the Minister's responsibility and what is the Commission's.

My final point on organisation is one of management too. I want to make it quite shortly because I stand by everything which is in the Report. The system the railways had up to 1958 to 1959, under which they really could not tell whether particular services or even regions were being run at a profit or a loss, they really could not tell what was financially good and what was financially bad, I really do not think can be justified at all. It only existed because, as the evidence shows, they found it very difficult to move forward to a system of profit and loss account. There were arguments about having a pool or a clearing house, and so on. However, they gave us plenty of evidence that they have now got a system in various parts of the regions which give them a rough guide to the profitability or the loss of particular services. I think they will go on to develop the system further, and if they can find any way, as a result of the accountants' report, of improving it still further, I hope it will be done. It is really a matter of good management. A manager should know whether that which he is managing is profitable or is not.

There are many other things which I should like to say, but I shall not because I have taken far too long already. I should like to finish with just two pleas, and the first is about the Select Committee. This is not the first time a Select Committee's Report has been widely welcomed. Many sweet words have been spoken about it from all quarters of the House, but what most of us who spend a great deal of time and effort and energy on this work want to know is whether the House thinks we have been working on the right lines or not, because if we have not been working on the right lines—and, as I have said, our main recommendations have been consistent over the last three years—we should like to know before we spend a lot of time working on the same lines in the future. What we should like, of course, is broad acceptance of all the main recommendations which we made, but we should like to know as quickly as possible what the House and the Government think of what we have recommended.

The second thing is about the railways themselves. The crisis there is not just one of money and trains and machines. It is now a crisis of morale and confidence and men, and they are inextricably bound up together. I say with great humility that I think a return to confidence must begin here—in this House. It can begin only when there is a clear-cut plan for the future of the railways on an efficient and generally profitable basis, as, indeed, the Minister has promised us. None of us would ask the Minister to rush that over hastily. We want a good plan. But it can begin then.

My right hon. Friend himself has special qualities of mind which will help him to play a special part in the restoration of confidence of the railways and in the railways and in the railways' customers, because of his inexhaustible energy and his infectious vigour—and some of his eccentricity, too—and he has a decisive mind which will help. But it is not just the Minister who can help in this. I believe that all of us Members of the House of Commons can help to get this return of confidence. I think that we have tried today, but let us remember that we cannot manage the railways. What we can do and what we must do is not to prevent others from managing them well.