Transport Policy

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 21st November 1977.

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Photo of Mr Ronald Atkins Mr Ronald Atkins , Preston North 12:00 am, 21st November 1977

Those countries are high flyers because they invest in their public transport systems and make money in that way. They are not the only countries. France is another example. This has nothing to do with public ownership either, because the United States has found the same great difficulty with its privately-owned railways. The railways in the United States have been reorganised time and again, yet the federal Government still have to pay billions of dollars to keep them going—and they are kept going because they are needed in order to build up the wealth of the country.

The hon. Member for Wellingborough also spoke about the rumbling of heavy lorries outside houses, but this is bound to happen with a criss-cross network of roads. Other countries make sure by way of public grants, that a much larger proportion of freight traffic is taken by rail. We have the lowest proportion of freight carried by rail of any major industrial country.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned fair competition for our lorry firms with those on the Continent, but firms on the Continent are taxed much more heavily than British firms and they have to deal with tachographs and limited drivers' hours as well. Our firms are being sheltered compared with those on the Continent.

The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) said that criticism of the Government's transport policy was not confined to Opposition Benches, but the policy is not really opposed by the Opposition at all. There has been a good deal of shadow-boxing in the debate between the Front Benches, and the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield has more strength in his footwork than in his punches. This is partly because he is a friendly sort of person, but partly because his case is lacking.

The Opposition's chief criticism is that the Government are not doing as much as hon. Members opposite would like in cutting Government expenditure. I have some sympathy for the Government Front Bench because it is having to operate at a time of great financial restraint. There is no doubt that it is inhibited in that way. It prevents it from formulating the transport policy that we should like to see. The Opposition are always complaining about Government expenditure in general and about expenditure on transport in particular. They demand better public transport, but they are prepared to spend more money to get it? That is the way to get better public transport.

We could provide many schemes that would improve public transport immensely if the capital expenditure were provided. I believe that the expenditure would be recouped as a result of increased production. The Government's grant to British Rail is extremely modest compared with the grants made by other countries in their rail systems. I wish that both sides of the House would acknowledge that public transport throughout the modern world poses a difficult problem. That is not due to the inefficiency of public transport or to the sort of ownership under which it operates.

The Conservative Party, as well as the Labour Party, expresses aspirations about transferring freight from road to rail. That is stated in the February 1974 manifestos. It is definitely stated that the transfer of goods from road to rail should be encouraged. At that time we had just suffered a great oil crisis. The Front Benches were in harmony. They were both claiming credit for the Railways Bill in our debates in 1974. There seemed to be unanimity at the time of expenditure on the Channel Tunnel. All that has changed because of the financial crisis that came upon us.

Despite the aspirations of the Conservatives to transfer freight from road to rail, I have heard the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield call for the abolition of the diminishing freight grant. That is his call even before heavy road vehicles are taxed at their true attributable cost.

At present, British Rail is in great difficulty because petrol is so cheap. Road haulage is relatively cheap. It would be a sad thing if rail services were so eroded that they could never be re-established so as to meet our requirements when they will be truly needed as a result of oil shortages.

I heartily congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on taking the practical step of retaining rail freight services by putting Freightliners under the control of British Rail. That will make for easier integration with the air-brake wagon that British Rail is trying to develop. It will make co-ordination easier.

There was some conflict between the two organisations not so long ago when the National Freight Corporation chairman complained about British Rail's investment in air-brake wagons which were so badly needed. It is important to remember, bearing in mind that British Rail is so often hit by politicians, that it was British Rail that pioneered Freightliners. It was well ahead of railway organisations in any other country. It showed its ability to run the service, which was extremely successful.

It is true that the real opposition to the Government's transport policy comes from Labour, both in the House and in the country. There is no doubt about that. I can understand that it has been difficult for the Department of Transport to provide the money that is necessary. However, the Labour Party and Labour Back Benchers are consistent. We believe that Government funds in the short term, and perhaps in the longer term, will be needed to hold fares and freight charges. The Opposition do not believe in that increased expenditure. That is where the fundamental difference lies.

I agree with the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield that an attempt to devolve transport responsibilities to the shire counties would be unsafe. I agree that an attempt to cut down total expenditure may be the reason behind such a move. Would the Opposition agree to the extra expenditure needed to provide good transport in the shires? That is absolutely vital if we are to retain transport there.

The hon. Member for Wellingborough spoke about freedom of choice. There is no freedom of choice in passenger transport for the majority of people, and there never will be. The majority will never have individual access to a car.