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Holyhead Cattle Ferry (Closure)

Volume 901: debated on Sunday 2 March 1975

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1.4 a.m.

On the night of 23rd-24th May 1970, the Britannia Bridge linking Anglesey to the mainland was severely damaged by fire. The consequences for the Isle of Anglesey were very grave, but by dint of hard work and perseverance we have overcome them. As a result of decisions by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and you, Mr. Deputy Speaker—as you were Secretary of State for Wales at the time—which were subsequently confirmed by the Conservative Government, the bridge was rebuilt, and it is today safer and less vulnerable than it was when the disaster occurred.

Since then, despite the set-back, the trade has continued to recover and this year, up to the date of closure, which was last Sunday, 30th November, the number of cattle imported through Holy-head was 80,573, a substantial increase over last year.

The other major port for cattle from the Republic of Ireland is Birkenhead. It is now the only major port, and the service there is conducted by a private firm, Messrs. Frans Buitelaar. The number of cattle imported through Birkenhead has remained fairly static at about 120,000 a year.

The importance of this trade will be obvious to the House. We need the cattle for fattening and for beef. The trade through Holyhead is centuries old and is important to farmers in Anglesey and far beyond. It is important also to the consumer in terms of beef supply. We are likely to be short of beef next year for other reasons, but if Birkenhead is unable to carry the additional 90,000 head or so which would have come through Holyhead the shortage will obviously be far greater.

Earlier this year British Railways announced that they proposed to withdraw this cattle service. The users of the service, co-ordinated by the Anglesey Borough Council, decided to exercise their rights under Section 54 of the Transport Act 1962 to ask for a hearing by the Transport Users' Consultative Committee for Wales. The Committee is an independent body appointed by the Government and carries out its inquiries with judicial objectivity. The Committee met in Holyhead on 16th and 17th December last and heard evidence from British Railways, Messrs. Frans Buitelaar and witnesses on behalf of the objectors. It was a detailed inquiry in which every aspect of the services both at Holyhead and Birkenhead was examined.

British Railways' case was that they were sustaining a deficit on the trade of about £450,000 a year and that Birkenhead could handle the traffic if Holyhead were to be closed. After due consideration the Transport Users' Consultative Committee for Wales in October decided to oppose the proposal to withdraw the service and sent a comprehensive report to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment setting out its reasons.

I quote two paragraphs from that report, which is available to hon. Members if they wish to read it in full. The first is paragraph 4, which stated that members of the Committee
"had misgivings about the ability of the proposed alternative service to cater expeditiously at all times for the additional traffic which would arise from closure of the British Rail shipping service now operated by MV 'Slieve Donard' between Holyhead and Dublin."
Paragraph 7 reads as follows:
"The Committee noted the conflicting views of British Rail and the objectors as to traffic trends. On the evidence before us, however, members were not satisfied that cattle traffic as a whole, or via Holyhead in particular, shows signs of decline."
Notwithstanding this, British Railways continued with their decision to close the service on 30th November.

Last Thursday, 27th November, my hon. Friend the Minister for Transport announced that he would not intervene
"to overrule the commercial judgment of the board"—[Official Report, 27th November 1975; Vol. 901, c. 269.]
As a result, the cattle trade service through Holyhead was closed last Sunday.

I was deeply dismayed to hear that decision. The Minister for Transport was profoundly wrong to make such a decision. It was wrong because it is in the national interest that we should import as many store cattle as we can from Ireland. If we fall short because Birkenhead cannot take the cattle, we shall cither have to do without or import more from elsewhere, with severe balance of payments consequences. It will take some years before we can produce more ourselves, and this will cost more in beef and hill subsidies than the deficit that British Railways allege they are sustaining at Holyhead.

Is the Minister completely satisfied that Birkenhead can handle upwards of 200,000 head of cattle per year? Messrs. Buitelaar, a private firm, will be in a monopoly position, and it has not been able to cope with crises arising in the last 12 months. The lairages and landing stage at Birkenhead are unsatisfactory and are causing acute concern. The operators themselves are not happy about the situation. Will the Minister now say that he is personally satisfied that the Birkenhead landing stage can cope with substantially more traffic than it is handling at the present lime? What is the present state of the landing stage? How much will it cost to put it in order, and how long will it take?

Another point is that the carriage of cattle from Birkenhead is by road and from Holyhead it is mostly by rail. Is it not the policy of the Government to encourage rail traffic and thereby relieve road congestion? These are some of the matters upon which the House will need clarification.

In withdrawing this service British Rail have closed the best cattle port in the United Kingdom. I call in aid the evidance which Prof. O. G. Williams, a distinguished agriculturist, gave in September to the TUCC. He had visited Holyhead and made a detailed examination as a member of the O'Brien Committee on the Export of Live Animals. He said:
"Facilities at Holyhead are far and away better than anything else I have seen, either in the United Kingdom or on the continent. There is sufficient lairage in one block to handle 1,500 cattle daily and this number was passing through the lairage almost every day up to 1969. The number was slashed as a result of the burning of the railway bridge across the Menai Straits. The lairage itself is connected to a quiet harbour and the boats dock at a point with connections to well-constructed passages leading into different pens. The unloading ramp is adjustable and the animals walk off the ship and are directed along the passages with high concrete walls and with ample room, and are diverted into their various lairages.
As a member of the O'Brien Committee established by the British Government to investigate conditions affecting the export of live animals from Britain, I also feel that the excellent facilities at Holyhead coupled with the short sea journey and the close proximity of the North Wales fattening areas…enable cattle to be transported under exceptionally humane conditions and with the least possible discomfort to the beasts."
In the light of debates we have had in this House, that is a very significant paragraph. I am surprised that this important factor should have been so lightly dismissed by British Railways.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Transport said in answer to my Question last week that he based his decision on the commercial judgment of British Railways. I do not share his confidence in that judgment. British Railways abandon their best cattle port—the best in Western Europe, according to Professor Williams—withdraw the service when the traffic is on the upturn, argue at the inquiry that there would be a decline in live cattle imports from Ireland, and adduce no evidence in support. The expert evidence is to the contrary.

It emerged that British Railways had lost interest in carrying cattle and had taken no positive action to reduce their operational costs and attract additional trade. What kind of commercial judgment is this supposed to be? It is a small, short-term saving in return for a long-term loss to the nation.

It was always held that two major cattle ports were needed for the Southern Irish trade lest there be another outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. When I was Minister of Agriculture in 1968–69, after the report of the Northumberland Commission I was advised to state categorically that two cattle ports were needed on the western seaboard for the Irish trade, because if foot-and-mouth disease occurred in the hinterland of Birkenhead Holy-head would be available, while if the disease broke out in North Wales or the Midlands Birkenhead would be available. At that time this was regarded by my veterinary advisers as an overwhelmingly important point. Has there been a change of policy on that?

It is possible that a private firm will wish to use the facilities of the port for the import of cattle—in other words, to take over where British Railways leave off. Can my hon. Friend give an assurance that such a development will be facilitated and that British Railways will co-operate in allowing the landing areas and the lairages to be used, subject to normal commercial agreement? I hope that the ship "Slieve Donard" and the other facilities will be preserved to provide this opportunity to private operators who may be interested.

Finally, I shall be grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister of State if he will comment on the redundancies which may now take place at Holyhead. The male unemployment rate there is about 12 per cent., and this is deeply worrying to me and my constituents. I should like to know whether British Railways can absorb those who have been engaged on this work. In the last few months, because of the recession, the number of ships operating from Holyhead has been reduced from six to two. For a small port, that is a very grave development.

We have made sacrifices in Holyhead in the fight for economic survival, and British Railways know this well. This move will have few friends. The farmers and consumers will lose substantially by it. The Irish Government and Irish exporters are against it. The TUCC for Wales will and does resent it. That body was set up by the Government and it took two days to hear the evidence with the greatest care. It consists of men and women of great experience. The Committee was set up to recommend and advise the Government on matters of this kind, and arbitrarily its advice has been cast aside.

This is a bad business. I ask my hon. Friend to convey these considerations to the Minister for Transport, the Minister of Agriculture and the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection, all of whom are affected by this development, so that the whole matter can be further considered. That is the least I can ask my hon. Friend to do. It is not only in the interests of my constituents, although I am deeply concerned about them, but I believe, as a former Minister of Agriculture, that it is in the national interest that a second look should be taken at this important matter.

1.20 a.m.

May I first express the apologies of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Kelvingrove (Mr. Carmichael), who would normally have dealt with this matter but who is absent on other business of the House in Europe? In his absence, I have been asked to reply.

What strikes me straight away, having read the papers, is the persistence of my right hon. Friend the Member for Anglesey (Mr. Hughes) in seeking to safeguard the interests of his constituents. His tenacity in questioning every fact that has been advanced by British Rail or by my hon. Friend the Minister of Transport and his thoroughness in analysing every argument have been an object lesson in the way in which a Member of Parliament might represent his constituents in a difficult situation such as we have here where national economic factors have to be balanced against very real problems for his constituents.

I see that my right hon Friend started by discussing this with my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Park (Mr. Mulley), the previous Minister for Transport, before any formal proposals were published. He appeared at the public hearing of the Transport Users Consultative Committee. He had further discussions with the Minister for Transport, the Minister of Agriculture, the Secretary of State for Wales and the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection. Finally, I know that he is having a continuing discussion with the Chairman of British Rail and the British Rail Shipping Division.

I thought it right to put that on record, because no Member of Parliament could more assiduously carry out his constituency interests. That makes it even more difficult for me to give my right hon. Friend what, to him, will be a disappointing reply in all the circumstances

Before dealing with the detailed arguments advanced by my right hon. Friend, let me say a few words about the statutory position concerning the closure itself, because it is important to understand this.

Under the Transport Acts, the shipping services are intended to be part of British Rail's commercial activities. It follows, therefore, that the Railways Board must be reasonably free to exercise its own judgment in deciding whether the continuation of an existing service is justified. For these reasons, ministerial consent is not required before the Board withdraws a service.

On the other hand, Ministers have power under the Transport Act 1962 to give directions to the Board in respect of recommendations made by TUCCs. In this case, after holding a public hearing at Holyhead on 16th and 17th September, the TUCC for Wales submitted a thorough and comprehensive report recommending that the service be retained.

The issue confronting the Government was not, therefore, whether to approve or refuse closure. They said that the consideration was whether the evidence submitted by the TUCC and other parties justified a decision to intervene in the proper management of the Board's commercial affairs.

There is also the question of finance. As I said, it is the intention that the Board's shipping services should be run commercially, and we have been pressing the Board to eliminate its non-passenger deficit in the interests of the country's present financial situation.

The decision by British Rail to close the cattle ferry was taken in the light of hard economic facts. For some years now the level of cattle traffic passing through Holyhead has declined significantly. In seven years the level dropped by almost a half. Compared with 143,000 head which passed through in 1967, only 73,000 were imported to Holy-head in 1974. Based on traffic in the first 10 months of this year, the effect of the decline was that the service was losing some £650,000 a year.

The closure, from Sunday, will have resulted in an immediate improvement in current cash flow for the Board of over £110,000 a year. These figures take no account of the £2 million or so new investment in capital equipment which would have been required in the next five years had the service been kept running. I am told that £1·8 million of that would have been for new cattle wagons and £0·2 million for improved dock facilities.

To break even on existing investment alone, the service would have needed to carry 150,000 cattle a year. That represents an increase of more than 50 per cent. over the current year's carryings. An even larger increase would have been needed to justify the heavy new investment.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Transport has investigated these figures with the Chairman of the Railways Board. Before deciding to close the service, the Board carried out a thorough appraisal of future traffic prospects. I will, however, convey to the Chairman a full report of what my right hon. Friend the Member for Anglesey has said tonight. On this matter, on the question of redundancies, the important issue of a possible alternative buyer and the need to maintain the viability of the Holyhead port while such a possibility exists, my hon. Friend will be willing at all times to keep in constant touch with my right hon. Friend and to see him whenever he thinks it necessary, as he knows the important issues which are involved and is anxious to do everything he can to ensure that every factor brought to his attention is thoroughly and properly investigated.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Anglesey attached importance to Birkenhead and questioned whether the alternative services were adequate. My information is that, apart from an exceptional period around the turn of last year when a lot of fat cattle were imported for slaughter, the peak throughput at Holy-head since January 1973 has been at the rate of 1,880 per week. The average use of Birkenhead has been 3,400 per week, and that rose to a peak of 6,700 in August this year. In normal times, therefore, this represents a considerable margin.

In addition, I am advised that we have established that, if demand grew, Birkenhead would be capable of expanding to handle 8, 500 cattle a week. Silloth, in Cumbria, also has capacity to handle additional traffic if the need arises. Silloth is able to deal with 3,000 head a week, and the highest recent peak has been no higher than 1,600.

I apologise for interrupting my hon. Friend, but I must contest the figures. The traffic through Holyhead up to the end of October was 80,000 head of cattle. The traffic through Birkenhead was not much greater than that—about 90,000. Therefore, I cannot accept the disparity to which he has referred.

If my right hon. Friend has detailed information which is contrary to the figures I have given, on the best advice available to me, I shall undertake to have it examined with him to ascertain the exact position. I have given the best information at my disposal, as I know my right hon. Friend will accept.

My right hon. Friend specifically asked for information about the private offer and whether the Government will give an assurance that nothing will be done to prejudice that possibility. As I have already explained, Parliament has given the British Railways Board the task of running its shipping services and harbours on a commercial basis. Therefore, it is not really for the Government to tell British Railways what they must do in the management of their affairs, especially as the Government are at this moment telling British Railways that the deficits on which they are operating, especially on the non-passenger service, must be eliminated as soon as practicable.

If my hon. Friend the Minister for Transport knew of a firm that wished to undertake this service, he would certainly encourage it to do so. I can give my right hon. Friend that assurance immediately. We would ask such a firm to open discussions with British Rail as soon as possible. My hon. Friend the Minister would be glad to have discussions with my right hon. Friend should such an eventuality arise. He would be glad to ensure that it was properly investigated by British Rail. If it were feasible, everything possible would be done to bring it about in the interests of my right hon. Friend's constituents.

My right hon. Friend asked me to comment on the extremely important issue of redundancies as they involve his constituency, given the unemployment which already exists in the area. The Government's understanding is that the agreement which has recently been reached between British Rail and the railway unions will also cover the shore-based staff employed on the cattle ferry.

That means that for those people there will be no compulsory redundancies before next June, provided that staff are prepared to accept similar jobs elsewhere in British Rail if they are offered to them. That will not achieve everything that my right hon. Friend seeks to achieve, but it should help considerably during the difficult period of the winter immediately before us.

British Rail are investing substantially at Holyhead in connection with other parts of their activities and my hon. Friend the Minister for Transport will be happy to keep in close touch with my right hon. Friend about those possibilities. He will be happy to examine with him whether after next June, in respect of those further investments, some further progress might be possible in terms of redundancies. I cannot go further than that this evening.

As I have said, the decision was taken by British Rail in the first instance on the hard economic facts. It is difficult, given the national policy, to suggest that the wrong decision has been reached. However, we know of the serious concern about the difficult situation that exists in my right hon. Friend's constituency. We are anxious, because of his continuous attention to these problems over many months, to give every possible facility to him to ease the burden of redundancies and to make it possible, we hope, through the medium of other investments, to alleviate the situation by taking a practical interest.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes to Two o'clock.