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Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 929: debated on Wednesday 6 April 1977

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Traffic Commissioners (Licensing System)


asked the Secretary of State for Transport what further representations he has received on the reform of the traffic commissioner licensing system.


asked the Secretary of State for Transport what further representations he has received about the reform of the traffic commissioner licensing system.

In response to the consultation document on transport policy the county councils have asked for road service licensing to be transferred to them, the Association of District Councils and both sides of the bus industry have opposed such a transfer, and a handful of private individuals have supported each side.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer, which seems to leave an indeterminate situation in terms of making the decision. Is he aware that commuters in Hove and Brighton find it unacceptable that their fares have increased by 130 per cent. in four years? When the traffic commissioners take account of the question whether a route is adequately served, as they are required to do in determining whether to grant a road service licence, does he think it reasonable that they should also take account of the price charged for the service, and whether it includes a degree of cross-subsidisation by British Rail of one route by another?

There is certainly no cross-subsidisation in British Rail. That is evident if one looks at the allocation of costs within the system. The House has had a number of debates about commuters. The Government are very sympathetic to commuters who have been faced by very steep increases of over 100 per cent. in a period of two or three years. We are looking closely at this question in our review of transport policy.

Irrespective of who has responsibility for issuing these licences, will the Minister recognise that there is a growing feeling that some bus companies are more concerned with preserving monopoly routes than with providing services for the public? In the light of the situation in rural areas particularly, will he make it absolutely plain that the needs of the public must come first, even if this means stepping on the toes of some monopoly interests?

Of course the needs of the public come first, but the hon. Member must realise the real fragility of the situation in rural areas, where many services are running very close to what is economically possible. If we were to accept the letting in of competition in a totally free manner, we might do more harm than we intend.

Will the Minister consider proposals that have been suggested for experiments with commuter coach services? Will the Government seek to promote a number of experiments with such services from towns around London? We should not turn our backs on any scheme that promises to cut the cost of travel for commuters who are most hard hit by fare rises over the past two years.

Experiments may be made on private initiative. I believe that one has been carried out by the Brighton Line Commuters Association, but this has not done so well because it takes much longer to get to London by bus than it does by train. If the journey takes two hours, it is not really a viable proposition. However we are anxious to encourage experiments wherever we can.

Road Haulage


asked the Secretary of State for Transport what plans he has for nationalisation of road haulage; and whether he will make a statement.


asked the Secretary of State for Transport what plans he has for nationalisation of road haulage; and whether he will make a statement.

I have nothing to add to the answer that I gave to the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Hodgson) on 9th February.

Is not road haulage the only form of inland transport that requires no subsidy? Is it not time that the air of uncertainty was removed by the Government withdrawing their 1974 promise to nationalise the industry? The situation has been made even worse by the Chancellor's recent impositions, which make life harder still for the industry.

I do not think that there is any need to take a strenuous view of this. As far as I can judge, the road haulage industry is doing reasonably well, both the publicly owned and the privately owned sectors, and good luck to them.

Is it not a fact that road haulage seems to be such a great success because of the hidden subvention of cash to heavy lorries, due to under-taxing? Is this not the essence of the problem and one of the realities that seem to make the railways run at a loss and the road haulage industry run at a profit?

I take my hon. Friend's point. He knows what the Chancellor did in the Budget to help remedy the question of costs, and the extent to which they are covered. However, although I should like to see more freight carried by the railways, we must recognise that we also want an efficient road haulage business. It has a job to do in the interests of the nation and in support of industrial strategy.

Surely the House is entitled to a much clearer statement of Government policy than that which the Secretary of State has just given us. May I remind the Secretary of State of his manifesto commitment to an extension of public ownership in road haulage? If that is still Government policy, what takeovers has he in mind? If it is not, is it not his duty, as a much proclaimed moderate, to remove this threat to the industry by formally abandoning that commitment?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's advice. He will also be aware of what the consultation document said about the Government's intentions. There has been no change. However, if the hon. Gentleman is looking for a further declaration of the position on transport policy, I hope that it will be with him by the end of May.

Motor Cycle Training


asked the Secretary of State for Transport what plans he has for encouraging the extension of voluntary schemes of motor cycle training.

The Royal Automobile Club and the Auto Cycle Union have a training scheme for motor cyclists which they operate in conjunction with local authorities at about 250 centres. The schools traffic education programme, which is sponsored by the motor cycle industry, has recently prepared plans for a national scheme. I welcome this initiative and am studying it urgently, together with other proposals to reduce casualties among motor cycle and moped riders.

I am grateful to the Minister for the tributes that he has paid to the voluntary side of training for motor cyclists. He will be aware, as many of us are aware, of the awful vulnerability of motor cyclists to accidents. Have the Government any proposals for further encouraging the voluntary training of motor cyclists?

As I said, we are looking at this matter as closely and as urgently as we can, with every intention of trying to be positive about the matter. The real problem is to catch people early. It is in the first weeks or months of a young person's possession of a moped or a motor cycle that he is most vulnerable. That is the area on which we really want to home in.

Does the Under-Secretary realise the harm that he has done by announcing on a BBC television programme that mopeds are capable of excessive speeds, which they are not capable of achieving?

In fact, we introduced a regulation, which will come into force this summer, to reduce the design speed of mopeds to cope with this problem. Therefore, even if the problem exists—I gather that the hon. Gentleman thinks that it does—it will not exist in the future.

Is there not perhaps insufficient financial incentive for young motor cyclists to have training and, ultimately, to take the test? Apparently it is almost as cheap to continue using a machine without having passed the test as it is having passed the test.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is one of the salient points. People can go on with provisional licences year after year, and there is no real incentive to take the test. That is precisely the sort of point that we are looking at in the course of the comprehensive review that we are now undertaking.

Now that it is the Government's policy to drive more people from motor cars to motor cycles, does the Minister accept that there is a great deal of apathy among young people towards taking this kind of training? Therefore, will he make a special attempt to take into schools the teaching of the necessity to undergo training?

The new efforts of the people who run the schools traffic education programme are designed precisely to that end. They already have an expanding programme in schools. That is a sensible thing. However, we need to consider whether that is the right way to approach the matter in total. Other things are needed as well, but we are certainly pursuing that line.

Motor Cars (Insurance Write-Offs)


asked the Secretary of State for Transport what conclusions he has come to in the light of his preliminary investigations into the problem of insurance write-off cars being put back on to the road without test.


asked the Secretary of State for Transport what conclusions he has come to in the light of his preliminary investigations into the problem of insurance write-off cars being put back on to the road without test.

We have examined the details of badly damaged and repaired vehicles that been supplied to us, but these do not enable us to measure the size of the problem. We are therefore arranging to discuss with the Vehicle Builders and Repairers Association a research project that it has proposed.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that that reply will come as something of a disappointment, and shows a rather uncharacteristic unwillingness to deal very urgently with a problem that endangers a large number of lives?

On the contrary, we are looking at the matter as urgently as possible, but it takes a little time to undertake a proper sample survey, which we need, and to make up our minds on the basis of the results that are forthcoming. We must find out whether this is a serious matter or only a small one.

Is it not becoming increasingly clear that what is needed is a comprehensive vehicle testing system, as the only testing system that exists in this country at present is the MoT testing system? Has the hon. Gentleman given any consideration to building such a system upon the national network? Is he aware that if he were to do that he would find all the information that he needs forthcoming from the British insurance companies?

The British Insurance Association does not consider that the problems arising from written-off vehicles are serious, so there is some contradiction in what the hon. Gentleman said and the information that we have had from the BIA. At present, the BIA does not believe that this is a serious problem, so the hon. Gentleman should take that into account.

National Freight Corporation


asked the Secretary of State for Transport what plan he has for reorganising the National Freight Corporation; and whether he will make a statement.


asked the Secretary of State for Transport what plans he has for reorganising the National Freight Corporation; and whether he will make a statement.

The organisation of the National Freight Corporation is under consideration as part of the current review of transport policy.

Why has the right hon. Gentleman hitherto refused to publish the report by Cooper Brothers? Secondly, as the public have to pick up the bill for any losses that are made, will he assure the House that the future will be based solely on the commercial viability of the new organisation that is set up?

We have discussed the question of the Cooper Report on several occasions in the House. I have made it clear that I am very much in favour of the nationalised industries publishing as much information as possible for the convenience of the House, but commercial considerations must also be borne in mind. However, I believe that the NFC will in due course be able to make a substantial contribution to our industrial strategy, and I think that it ought to pay its way.

If this is a nationalised corporation, what possible public interest can arise from keeping the report secret?

I think that the hon. Gentleman expresses a somewhat naÏve view of the rôle of those publicly-owned industries that are in a highly competitive position. I was asked earlier this afternoon about the future public ownership of the road haulage industry. If the hon. Gentleman had been listening to that Question, he would have found an adequate answer to that which he asked just now, about why a report should be kept confidential.

Will the Secretary of State congratulate the Chairman of the NFC, Sir Daniel Pettit, on his new additional appointment as a director of Lloyds Bank? Does this imply an increase in the activities of Sir Daniel Pettit, or dare we hope that it implies a decrease in the activities of the NFC?

Sir Dan is a man of many parts. I am sure that the confidence that the private sector shows in him is a measure of the success that he brings to the NFC.

Is it the Secretary of State's intention to ask the House for extra finance to support the pension fund of the NFC, which is a burden at present? Is there any consideration of the need to find extra moneys?

I shall not be expressing a view on that matter today. It has been discussed in Committee. I know that it is of concern to hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Speed Limits


asked the Secretary of State for Transport whether he will now make a statement on his proposals for speed limits.

Yes, Sir. From the beginning of June the national speed limit on dual-carriageway roads will be restored to 70 m.p.h. On single-carriageway roads the limits will be raised from 50 to 60 m.p.h. Where, of course, safety considerations require it, lower limits will be indicated in the usual way.

Is the Secretary of State aware that there will be widespread public relief that he has at last taken notice of the views of the vast majority of road users? Will he tell the House whether it is the beginning of a review by the Government of all the Acts on the statute book, with a view to eliminating those Acts that are unnecessary, unenforceable and interfering?

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's opening remarks—though perhaps he put them in a way that I would not have chosen. These are serious and difficult matters. The whole House has discussed them many times. I think that the House appreciated the circumstances in which, in 1974, the lower speed limits were imposed. When I first became aware of them I thought that they were right, but consultation has indicated, as the House has indicated, that it was time for a change. We have responded to that. I would draw no larger conclusion, as the hon. Gentleman has attempted to do.

Is the Minister aware of the need to encourage local authorities, in conjunction with police authorities, to review local 30 m.p.h. speed restrictions? Some of these were introduced up to 40 years ago, when conditions in built-up areas were different. Does he realise that these limits are now often totally anomalous and that there is often great resistance to altering them—although there is a need for that to be done?

I agree that limits must be looked at frequently to adapt to changing circumstances and to allow for public opinion—although that is often divided. If the hon. Member has a specific question, I shall be grateful if he will let me know about it.

Is the Minister aware that in the past there have been no speed limit signs on single carriageways? Has my right hon. Friend any estimate of the cost of signposting such roads?

My hon. Friend has misunderstood. The new speed limits of 60 and 70 m.p.h. will not be signposted, because they are upper speed limits. There will be signposting where there are downward variations for safety and other reasons. It would be expensive and time-consuming to signpost the upper limit.

This is a substantial victory for those who have pressed for change. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that one of the major reasons why we have pressed for change during the last 12 months is the confusion that has been caused to motorists by having three speed limits at 50, 60 and 70 m.p.h.? Does he realise that although I welcome the reduction in speed limits, because that will give great help to motorists, I regret that the decision was not taken earlier? Will he emphasise to the public that the changes will not come into force immediately, but on 1st June?

The hon. Member made an important point in his final remark. It should be noted that these limits will come into force on 1st June and not before then, and that the present position will be maintained in the meantime. I hope that the changes will be welcomed. They should not be regarded as more than a victory for common sense in the light of the change in circumstances.

Will encouragement be given to the police not to prosecute between now and 1st June, because there surely could not be any greater incentive?

It would be presumptuous of me to give such advice to the police. Where law exists, it is important that it should be enforced, but it is more important that it should be respected. I am sure that every hon. Member will endorse that view.

What is the possibility of an 80 m.p.h. speed limit for motorways? Will the Minister explain why we must wait until June for the new speed limits?

The 80 m.p.h. speed limit is not being adopted. We are maintaining the 70 m.p.h. limit on motorways because we believe that that is right in the circumstances. There is a considerable job of work to be done in changing from the present speed limits, and it is important that everyone should be aware when the change will occur. I think that the gap is reasonable enough. We are now moving to new limits that make good sense and will, by common consent, be welcomed and respected.

As it has been suggested that the majority of motorists will welcome the increase and as travelling at more than 50 m.p.h. will be more expensive, does that not throw an odd light on the outcry about the increased petrol tax that was proposed in the Budget? Does my right hon. Friend reject that outcry?

I agree that the outcry was something of a nonsense. It is a matter of individual choice. It is certainly the case that if one drives at more than 50 m.p.h. in a family car one consumes more petrol and pays higher costs. I assume that those who want to make a saving will take the necessary action and will remain below the speed limit.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that speed is a contributory factor to road accidents and that as a direct result of his announcement today more people will be killed and injured on our roads? Are we not all guilty of having a schizophrenic approach to this matter? It is no use the House or the public throwing up their hands in favour of safety when such an approach is adopted. Is it not only fair to say that?

Yes, it is only fair to say that. All of us, including me, suffer from schizophrenia. We want to save life, but we like driving fast. Although we should all travel slowly, with a red flag in front of us, people do not choose to do that. We must strike a balance. It is dangerous in some respects, but that is life.

British Railways (Chairman)


asked the Secretary of State for Transport when he next intends to meet the Chairman of British Railways.


asked the Secretary of State for Transport when he next intends to meet the Chairman of British Railways.


asked the Secretary of State for Transport when he will next meet the Chairman of British Railways.

When the Secretary of State meets the Chairman of British Rail on 26th April, will he resist the Chairman's likely demand for a blurring of the distinction in British Rail's finances between investment payments and public service support? Would that not make it more difficult to secure the necessary transparency in British Rail's finances which is necessary to sustain the level of public understanding and support for British Rail's operational network?

The Chairman of British Rail does not usually make demands on me when I meet him, but I am willing to discuss—as I often do—such matters with Peter Parker. He is as anxious as I am to ensure that information is freely available so that the public can judge the performance of the railways.

Is the Secretary of State aware that many commuters in my constituency who normally travel by train are considering travelling by coach because they cannot afford the rail season ticket? When he meets the Chairman of British Rail will he do what he can to ensure that British Rail will do nothing to obstruct the granting of licences to commuters who are planning to charter coaches?

I am sure that the Chairman of British Rail recognises the choices that people have, and that they are free properly to exercise them, but, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said earlier this afternoon, we all regret the necessity of increasing rail fares. Many people find that travelling by train is convenient and the best way of going to work.

Is the Minister aware that since 1974 commuter fares have risen by 90 per cent. on a cumulative basis and are likely to rise by another 7 per cent. a year over the next four years? Are the Government totally indifferent to the plight of commuters?

That is nonsense. I wish the House would face up to the realities of the situation. The Opposition are against increased public expenditure, but if railways are not paid for out of fares they must be paid for by subsidies, and those come from public expenditure raised from the taxpayers and ratepayers. Let us have a little more hard common sense about this matter—whatever conclusions we may reach.

When my right hon. Friend last met Peter Parker during his visit to the railway workshop in Derby this week, did he see the impressive and advanced technical work that is being done there? Is he aware of the high export potential in that work? Has he discussed with Mr. Parker what effect any freeze on investment that might be outlined in the coming White Paper would have on this high and advanced potential?

Questions relating to investment and exports appear later on the Order Paper. I was greatly impressed by the work that is being done at the railway workshops in Derby, both for British Rail and for export. The railways are in a high technology business and they have a great deal to be proud of by way of innovation.

When the Minister meets the Chairman of British Rail, will he ask him why he finds it so difficult to reply to the questions of Scottish hon. Members about the use of disgracefully old rolling stock in Scotland—sometimes on long routes? Will he ask the chairman to open his fat file of complaints about the lack of heating on these long-distance trains, which was very frequent during the winter? Will he ask whether the reports that numbers of restaurant cars, buffets and the like are to be reduced are idle threats?

I am sure that the Chairman of British Rail will note what the hon. Lady said. If she was implying that he has not been replying to her letters, I hope that she will let me know.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the unsatisfactory nature of that reply, I beg to give notice that I shall seek to raise the matter on the Adjournment at the earliest possible opportunity.

Pigeons (Carriage By Rail)


asked the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement about the delay in reaching a decision on carriage of pigeons by British Railways.

I wrote to the hon. Member about this on 31st March. A memorandum has now been submitted to the Central Transport Consultative Committee and a final decision will be taken when the views of the CTCC are known. Meanwhile, British Rail is continuing to carry the traffic.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that in addition to continuing to carry pigeons, for which we are all grateful, British Rail has put up the price? Is that part of the tactics to drive them off the railways?

It is part of the tactics of British Rail's breaking even on its freight business, which it has to do by the end of the year.

Is my hon. Friend aware that there is considerable concern about this matter throughout the country and that pigeon racing is a pretty harmless pastime, which gives a lot of enjoyment to thousands of people? Will he prevail upon British Rail to make some concessions?

The amount of time that British Rail has already devoted to this matter since the initial announcement in April last year shows the amount of concern that exists. I understand the point made by my hon Friend, but the CTCC has been brought in precisely to give the public point of view and I am sure that British Rail will take account of it.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that British Rail has increased its prices by between 75 per cent. and 200 per cent.? Is that fair for a sport that has such traditional and loyal enthusiasts?

The problem in British Rail's mind is one not of cost but simply the operational difficulties that arise from dealing with such livestock. If British Rail is to continue with this trade it should be costed properly. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, with his views on public expenditure, would not want British Rail to proceed otherwise.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that although many of us are in favour of cut rates for the carriage of pigeons, we are terrified that if general fares go up much more British Rail will be carrying more pigeons than passengers? Hon. Members on the Opposition Benches may laugh, but they deplore the losses of British Rail, and we know that more public expenditure is needed. Will my hon. Friend make clear to Opposition Members, who would go mad if there were a one-day strike on the railways, that we must have public cash pushed into British Rail to keep it going and to enable it to carry more passengers than pigeons?

I have great sympathy with my hon. Friend's priorities. I do not think that I need to elaborate further.

Rural Bus Services


asked the Secretary of State for Transport when he hopes to announce definite proposals designed to improve bus services in rural areas.

This subject will be included in the forthcoming White Paper on transport policy, but meanwhile the Government have accepted 98 per cent. of the total bid made by the shire counties for bus revenue support this year and are encouraging new initiatives where they can.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that action on rural transport is even more overdue in the light of last week's petrol price increases? Does he further agree that basic mobility is essential to the livelihood of country areas and that it is time that the Government acted quickly, since in the last three years they have steadfastly refused to take account of the transport problems facing country areas?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely wrong. We have a Bill going through the House to encourage experiments in rural areas. What worries me more than anything, in the light of the current situation, is that some Conservative-controlled county councils are threatening not to pay bus companies the money that they have received from the Government. This is extremely dangerous, because they are damaging the finances of bus companies and playing with something that the hon. Gentleman regards as important, namely, the community's bus services. Last year, North Cornwall failed to pay £250,000 that it had received in bus revenue support.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important for the maximum amount of public funds to be used to maintain bus services in rural areas but that we also need a far more radical approach to the provision of public transport in rural areas, apart from the conventional buses? Will the Government therefore put the maximum urgency behind the experiments to ensure that public transport is more widely available in rural areas?

I am very interested in what my hon. Friend says and I am sure that he is right. We must take into account the importance of transport to rural areas and we firmly intend to do that in the transport White Paper. We shall make every effort to be as positive as we can.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that one of the items that are exacerbating relationships between some NBC companies, such as the Hants and Dorset Company, and district and county councils is the argument over concessionary fares? I welcome what the Minister has done with the NBC, but does he accept that it is our impression that the Government are distinctly unenthusiastic about rearranging concessionary fares for old folk? Will he therefore consider setting up an inquiry within his own Department so that it is not conducted by the NBC, which is a party to maintaining the status quo?

We are looking at the whole matter in the context of the White Paper discussions and we are giving it a high priority. It is a subject of great concern. The discrepancies that exist between some Labour and some Conservative authorities, which may be neighbours, are very serious and the hon. Gentleman should take account of that.

Buses (Licensing)


asked the Secretary of State for Transport what proposals he has for abolishing the bus licensing responsibilities of the traffic commissioners.

None at present, Sir. This is a matter that we are considering in our review of transport policy.

Will the hon. Gentleman take this opportunity to pay tribute to the founder and members of the Society for the Preservation of Old Buildings in London, which is running a commuter bus service from Brighton to London and saving its 52 members £8 per week on the rail fare? Will he pay tribute to the free enterprise, ingenuity and excellence of the founder and members of this society?

A great deal of effort went into that initiative, but it produced only one journey to London—and not even a return journey. If the hon. Gentleman is serious about trying to solve the problems that we all know exists he should make a much more considered contribution. It is too easy to be primitive about these matters.

Policy (Consultation Document)


asked the Secretary of State for Transport what representations he has received about the Consultation Document on Transport Policy.

Bearing in mind that some of the best representations have come from trade unions in the transport service, will my right hon. Friend emphasise the importance to employers in that service of giving full and adequate recognition to trade unions and trade union agreements? Is it not disgraceful that the Shadow Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales should pretend to represent the interests of the people of Scotland and Wales while maintaining their connections with a crowd of international pirates, such as Globtik Tankers?

I think that the appropriate answer is "Yes". Reverting to my hon. Friend's initial point in the opening part of his supplementary question, I entirely agree that many of the representations from trade unions have been extremely helpful and very constructive. I hope that both sides of the industry, particularly in the public transport sector, will attempt to ensure that we have a system that meets the needs of our people, whether in town or in country.

Is the Secretary of State fully aware how angry the National Association of Rail Passengers is at his consistent refusal to meet a deputation of its members to discuss the consultation document? Does he recall that at the last Question Time on transport matters his hon. Friend undertook to review the matter, but that I have heard nothing from him? Will he now agree to meet a deputation from the NARP, which represents commuters who at the moment are going through hell?

I am very sorry if they are angry. I do not think that the National Association of Rail Passengers can claim an exclusive right to represent commuters. I believe that the association has made representations to the Chairman of British Rail, who is in fact to meet some of its members. I am always prepared to receive anything in writing and am happy to consider it.

The consultation document touched on the question of the taxation of heavy goods vehicles. Will the Secretary of State clarify the Government's intentions in that respect? As the Chancellor has now taken steps to increase licence fees, will the right hon. Gentleman assure the industry, so that it can plan ahead, that there will be no further increases in licence fees in the foreseeable future?

No, I cannot give that assurance, and the House would not expect me to do so. It was for the Chancellor to make the decision. As my right hon. Friend explained to the House, he bore in mind at the time the extent to which there was general agreement that tilting the vehicle excise duty to heavy goods vehicles made good sense. It may be that it should go a good deal further.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the vast majority of representations made to him about British Rail are to the effect that the present network should, by and large, be maintained? Will he also confirm that amongst those representations are views that it is desirable that the correct amount of investment should be provided in order that those services should be maintained at a proper level? Does he agree that some of the representations concerned the diesel multiple units, which are now 20 years old and therefore need investment to provide the kind of service that is required in many rural areas?

I confirm that a number of representations have been made on the lines of my hon. Friend's remarks. I fully recognise the importance of future investment levels. I sometimes feel that we fail to emphasise the extent to which the railways have a continuing and central rôle in our public transport policy and a great deal of which to be proud. I wish that people would not always take too gloomy a view. However, I understand my hon. Friend's anxieties.

What effect is the present investment policy having on the repair and maintenance of British Rail's coaching stock and rail track, and what is it likely to be in future when the new investment figures are known?

There is not a great deal of argument about the present levels of investment being adequate for immediate purposes, but there is a good deal of discussion about what may happen five years and more ahead. These considerations were very much in my mind during the consultations, and they will inevitably be commented upon when the White Paper is published.

British Railways (Exports)


asked the Secretary of State for Transport what proposals he has for further encouraging British Railways export potential in the light of the £40 million export order recently secured by British Rail Engineering Limited for rolling stock for Kenya.


asked the Secretary of State for Transport what proposals he has for further encouraging British Railways export potential, in the light of the £40 million export order recently secured by Britsh Rail Engineering Limited for rolling stock for Kenya.

The Board's achievement in Kenya is greatly to its credit and I shall do whatever I can to support further such initiatives.

Has my right hon. Friend taken on board the repeated statement by BREX—the British Rail export combine—and BR-Metro that unless there is more investment in British Rail there will not be a sufficient home market from which to seek export orders? Would it not be tragic if British Rail and its industries were to be excluded from growing export markets because of lack of sufficient investment at home?

In the course of my visit to Derby this week these matters were in my mind when I met senior representatives of the Board. With respect, I think that my hon. Friend makes a connection, which I find is often made but seldom justified, between home and overseas markets in all kinds of different commodities. There is a huge home market in any case for modern railway equipment. I believe that the British Railways Board can build upon that and its recent achievements in Kenya, because exports are important for the country, for industry and for employment.

My right hon. Friend has been very generous in his tributes to British Rail Engineering Ltd. Will he acknowledge the initiatives taken by the National Union of Railwaymen regarding exports of British Rail materials? Will he, in an endeavour to increase export potential, see that British Rail workshops are tooled to and kept working at the maximum, so that we can have all the rolling stock that we need to keep the railways going? Will he encourage British Rail Engineering to tool up, to invest and to proceed with its export potential?

Yes. I was impressed by British Rail's resources. I met a number of members of the NUR who are employed at the Derby works. They have first-rate equipment and are anxious to continue doing a good job by keeping the workshops full of work. It is important to them, and I shall do all that I can to help them.

Is the Secretary of State satisfied that British Rail has adequate risk capital to take up these jumbo-size contracts abroad? What discussions has he had with his colleagues in the Department of Trade to ensure that export credit facilities are available?

The answer to the first part of the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question is that I am satisfied. I keep in close touch with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade to ensure that export credit facilities are available. It is important that British Rail should be competitive in these respects.

White Paper


asked the Secretary of State for Transport when he expects to publish his transport White Paper.

May I put in a plea to the Secretary of State that the White Paper should deal more seriously with the commuting problem than in the consultation document, in his speech in the recent debate on transport, or, frankly, in his answers earlier today? In particular, before he makes further cracks about public expenditure, will he ensure that serious consideration is given to the expenditure that could arise if more commuters were forced on to the roads or if more firms were driven out of London because of their employees' travel problems?

The hon. Gentleman should be careful in his choice of words. I made no crack about public expenditure; I simply sought to remind the House that we cannot have it both ways. It is necessary to face reality, whatever conclusion we may reach about the levels of subsidies. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there is still a high level of subsidy to commuters in the London area. Of course it is necessary to take account of the alternative costs that would arise if rail commuters took to road. We have discussed these matters many times in the House. I am only sorry that the hon. Gentleman's debate on Friday had to be curtailed. That was no fault of mine.

Will my right hon. Friend again take note that the Conservative Party, while having a policy against public expenditure, is asking for more public expenditure? Does he accept that on this point the Opposition are in a cleft stick, from which they can never escape as long as that is their line?

My hon. Friend is right. Labour Members have always argued, and rightly so, that there was a substantial case for a subsidy to public transport. I appreciate the difficulties of hon. Gentlemen opposite who have constituency interests which they must fairly represent, but we also have a job to educate the public to the reality of public expenditure. Money does not grow on trees; it is raised through rates and taxes, which nobody likes to pay.

Is the Secretary of State aware that in his Budget Statement the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that there were "reasons of transport policy" for increasing the petrol tax? Will he say what those reasons of transport policy are? Surely the reasons of transport policy in rural areas are totally against such an increase.

I think that it is generally recognised that there is a need to make sure that a proper balance is maintained between private motoring and public transport. As the House recognised, heavy goods vehicles should pay a higher proportion of their true costs. This is a matter concerned not only with having a heavier vehicle excise duty, but with the cost of fuel. The whole question of rural transport is far more complicated than the price of fuel. I shall have to deal with that matter in my White Paper.

St Neots (Ring Road And Bypass)


asked the Secretary of State for Transport whether he will make a statement about progress made towards building the ring road at and a bypass for St. Neots in Huntingdonshire.

The inner ring road is a matter for Cambridgeshire County Council. Preliminary investigations for a trunk road bypass are in progress.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the most heavily used route between the East Coast ports and the Midland manufacturing towns is the A45, which passes through the centre of the old town of St. Neots, with its narrow streets causing terrible congestion? Therefore, there is as great a need for this bypass as for any other in the country. Will he give the House some idea of the starting date for that bypass?

I accept and understand the right hon. and learned Gentleman's concern about this matter. As he will know from the recent Consolidated Fund Bill debate, I share that concern. The road will probably not start until the early 1980s. We are now starting on the preliminary work, and it will take some time before we can begin constriction.

Rural Transport


asked the Secretary of State for Transport what conclusions he has reached on representations about rural transport received since the publication of the consultation document.


asked the Secretary of State for Transport what conclusions he has reached on representations about rural transport received since the publication of the consultation document.

I cannot anticipate the content of the forthcoming White Paper on transport. My right hon. Friend's conclusions will be set out there.

Does not the hon. Gentleman consider that answer to be completely inadequate for the terribly serious problem of today? People living in rural areas are desperately concerned. Does the Minister realise that some people are in danger of being stranded in country areas because they are unable to afford the fares to go to see relatives in hospital, to go to the chemist's to get a prescription serviced, or just to see their friends? Will he do something with the National Bus Company to try to right this position, because the National Bus Company seems to be completely out of touch with the problems of the people?

As this is a large problem it demands a proper and considered review, as I said earlier. The hon. Gentleman should take on board the fact that many county councils—they are almost exclusively Conservative-controlled county councils—are threatening not to pay over to the National Bus Company, in particular, money that we have given them for bus revenue. The NCB now fears that it may be far short of the money that it requires if this trend continues. I urge hon. Members opposite to talk to their county councillors and urge them to settle this matter quickly, otherwise people will be stranded in rural areas and it will be the fault of their councillors.

Given the latest increase in petrol tax, does the hon. Gentleman accept that the situation in rural areas has become much more urgent? Does he recall the supplementary question asked by his hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Madden) on Question No. 11, in which his hon. Friend expressed a great deal of common sense? Does he recall that he replied that his hon. Friend was quite right? If the hon. Member for Sowerby was right, why does not the Minister do something about it?

Of course I accept what my hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Madden) said, and I accept what the hon. Gentleman said. It has been made more urgent, and it continues to be a problem that escalates the entire time. We must therefore reach sensible and sympathetic conclusions.

Driver And Vehicle Licensing Centre


asked the Secretary of State for Transport if he will visit the Swansea Driver and Vehicle Licensing Centre.


asked the Secretary of State for Transport if he will visit the Swansea Driver and Vehicle Licensing Centre.

My right hon. Friend hopes to visit Swansea. I have myself visited the centre twice.

Is the Under-Secretary aware that the complacent answer that he gave us at the last transport Question Time was considered by some to have been amazing, by others to have been insulting, and by almost everybody to have been unsatisfactory? Is he aware that many of my constituents find a grave discrepancy between his satisfaction and their experience? Will he please ask his right hon. Friend to bear in mind, when he visits the centre, that many people are far less satisfied than he is?

I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman says, but I think that it is fair to say that the situation, which once was very unsatisfactory—I concede that readily—has systematically improved over the past nine months or so. The Automobile Association specifically acknowledged this a couple of months ago. So there is objective motorist-oriented evidence that the Swansea centre has continued to improve its performance to the public. However, I accept that it should aim for the highest standards.

Is the Minister aware that the time taken to process vehicle ownership registration changes at the centre is causing considerable difficulties in certain sectors of the motor trade? Will he undertake to look into this as a matter of great urgency, with a view to speeding it up?

The position at present is that registration documents take between eight and nine days, on average, and that 75 per cent. are currently being dealt with within 10 days. I accept that there is concern about this, although from the point of view of the ordinary motorist this aspect is not as time-critical as is his vehicle licence.

Is my hon. Friend aware that if one case goes wrong at Swansea the centre seems to be paralysed completely and cannot untie itself?

The problem is that there is a very large turnover at Swansea and a small percentage of mistakes leads to a large absolute number of mistakes. It is a problem common to computerised bureaucratic systems. As I said before, we are continually trying to improve the situation, and I hope that we are succeeding.

May I remind the Under-Secretary that in its Ninth Report, published a few weeks ago, the Select Committee on Statutory Instruments criticised the Government for the methods that they have adopted to deal with the transfer of cherished number plates at Swansea? What steps are the Government taking to revise the regulations to meet those express criticisms of the Select Committee?

We are looking closely at the regulations and how they are working. We are trying to meet individual cases as they arise and in so far as they are proven to be ones that we can meet. In general, we are being as flexible as we possibly can be.

M25 (Extensions)


asked the Secretary of State for Transport if he will give an assurance that the statutory processes which will precede the construction of that part of the M25—the North Orbital extension—from Micklefield Green to South Mimms will be instituted at an early date, and that that section of the M25 will be timed for construction at the same time as or earlier than the Egham-Maple Cross section.

The M25 is a top priority road, and we shall publish draft orders for the section between Micklefield Green and South Mimms at the earliest practicable date. Subject to the satisfactory completion of the statutory procedures and to the availability of funds, it is expected that construction of the sections between the Heathrow Airport spur and Maple Cross and between Micklefield Green and South Mimms will both begin in 1981.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Is he aware that the people of Watford are desperately hoping that he will speedily relieve the A41 and the A405 of the traffic congestion to which they are subjected and that if the construction of the Micklefield Green-South Mimms section is delayed or the Egham-Maple Cross section is done first it will intensify and prolong the misery that the residents of North Watford are experiencing?

I am indeed aware of the misery of the people of Watford—[Laughter]—only because they were graphically explained to me at great length by my hon. Friend when he saw me last week. I am sure—as he says—that it is entirely a consequence of the traffic going along the A41 and the A405. There cannot be any other reason. I therefore accepted, as I continue to accept, that we must try to relieve this at the earliest possible moment. This has the highest national priority.

As the M25 is intended to orbit round to the south of London to join up, one day, to the north end of the M23, can the Under-Secretary now assure the House that he will not extend the M3 beyond its present terminal point at Hooley?

I cannot give the House that assurance at present. None the less, we are aware of the very strong feeling that has been expressed by the hon. Gentleman and by my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Mr. Douglas-Mann) on a number of occasions. We will certainly bear that point in mind.

Disabled Persons (Vehicles)


asked the Secretary of State for Transport what work has been done by the Transport and Road Research Laboratory in the search for a suitable vehicle for issue to severely disabled drivers.

A system to help certain severely disabled people, known as "drive by wire", has emerged from the Laboratory's work on applications of automation to road transport. This system enables the disabled driver to work the controls electronically through minimum pressure on a conveniently placed knob or joystick, the position of which can be varied to meet different needs. The system has been installed in a small production car and is now being tested on the road. Any question of issue of vehicles to disabled people is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services.

Does the Minister accept that many disabled drivers, especially the young disabled now seeking their first job, are placed in a hopeless position because they are no longer receiving a tricycle, and the mobility allowance is so inadequate that it prevents them from purchasing a vehicle? Will the hon. Gentleman apply himself to bringing the manufacturers together with a view to agreeing on a suitable vehicle for disabled people, which can be produced at discount prices?

Yes. Last week I talked to officials of the Transport and Road Research Laboratory about this matter. We are anxious to bring people together with a view to finding out what is available throughout the world in the way of cars for the disabled. We must also consider how to produce this at a reduced cost. We therefore have the matter well in hand.

There is no single vehicle that is applicable to all the disabled. What we need is a flexible approach to this matter. In reply to the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam) —

Order. The hon. Gentleman is not going to answer Questions as well, is he?

It is a national characteristic, Mr. Speaker. Does my hon. Friend accept that there is no universal vehicle that is suitable for all disabled people? Will he take up the point made by the hon. Member for Exeter, who has a good record in this matter, that where employment is involved his Department and my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for the disabled should bring pressure to bear in the Department of Employment to make provision for people who obtain jobs to have the opportunity to get to work? That is the key to the problem. Will my hon. Friend please look at it?

I undertake to talk to to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment about this matter. We are already discussing it with the Department of Health and Social Security, but, if my hon Friend feels it important for me to talk to my right hon. Friend as well, I take his point on board.