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Policy (White Paper)

Volume 941: debated on Wednesday 14 December 1977

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asked the Secretary of State for Transport, what further response he has had to the recent White Paper on Transport Policy; and whether he will make a statement.


asked the Secretary of State for Transport how many representations he has received to date about the White Paper on Transport Policy.

The White Paper itself did not invite a general response. However, several hundred comments have been received on the subsequent consultation papers.

Is the Minister aware of the sort of response that I have had from commuters in my constituency and in the wider area of the South-East who are being asked by British Rail to accept on 8th January an increase in the rail fares that they must pay? Does he realise that in some cases for my constituents travelling from Herne Bay to London this means an increase from £522 a year to £602 for the pleasure of travelling to and from work?

This is not a point on which I want to argue the toss with the hon. Gentleman, who has a proper concern for commuters to London. The decision of the British Railways Board does not arise directly from the White Paper which was published in June.

Will the Minister pay particular attention to the submission that has been made by the Scottish Association on Public Transport, pointing out that lower public transport fares could have a tremendous benefit on the conservation of energy and also be of great benefit to people on lower incomes, including young people, old-age pensioners, and those living in rural areas? Would it not make good economic as well as socal sense to subsidise a low fare system using some of the money which was announced on Monday for energy conservation?

I have sympathy for proposals that public transport should come first, and that was a plain theme in the White Paper. We have made provision for a higher level of subsidy for buses than had hitherto been anticipated. It is a difficult job to find the right balance between the level of fares and the rate of subsidy and the problem is that if fares do not rise to keep pace with inflation, subsidies must rise, and that is money out of the taxpayers' pockets.

Is the Minister aware that the White Paper recommends another cut in road maintenance, of 5 per cent? Does he realise the burden that this places on the shire counties which have the overwhelming responsibility for roads in this country when that is allied with the rate support grant cut?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for drawing attention to the problem of the many claims on resources and the need to choose priorities. I recognise that some councils have genuine problems with road maintenance, but there are others with problems of maintaining public transport that I know the hon. Gentleman would want to see solved. We have to strike a balance, and I feel that we have done it, broadly, in the right way.

In the White Paper, the Government accept that steep fare increases cause great hardship to commuters and should be phased. Is that not even more true at a time of Government-imposed wage restraint, and could the Government do something to ameliorate the 16 per cent. increase in fares in the South—if necessary by increasing the subsidy to British Rail?

Any subsidy must be a sum of money diverted from other good causes with a claim on public expenditure, or the money must be raised from the taxpayer. The House has generally accepted that a number of rail services must pay their way, so that subsidies available should go to the lines that can never be cost-effective but where the need is greatest. There must be some hardship at a time of rising prices.

It is not simply a choice between increased fares or subsidies; there is another factor involved with the railways, namely, improved productivity. Does the Minister agree that if the railways achieve the improvements in productivity that the British Railways Board says are possible, it would be a giant step towards containing rail costs and keeping fares down?

I wish I could agree that it would be a giant step. It would be an important one, and the White Paper has made plain that improved productivity is essential and that there is no other way of securing the future of the network. However, we should squarely face the fact that as long as the level of inflation is too high we shall pay more subsidy out of the public purse through higher public expenditure, or else fares will go up—however uncomfortable that may be.