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Oral Answers Toquestions

Volume 959: debated on Wednesday 29 November 1978

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Oral Answers Toquestions

I propose to intervene if supplementary questions advance arguments rather than ask questions.

Transport

M56 Motorway

1.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport when he expects completion of the dual carriage connection between the M56 and the Welsh border.

That is very good news to the whole of North Wales. Will the hon. Gentleman do what he can to ensure that this timetable does not slip?

Yes, indeed. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the North Cheshire motorway is now under construction. I am therefore confident that we shall complete the work by the date that I have suggested.

Will the Minister state what representations he has had about the proposed extension of the M66 motorway, the one which will go round the outer ring road of Manchester—

Order. That is another matter altogether and a Question about it should go down on the Order Paper.

Vehicle Excise Duty

2.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what representations he has received about his recent statement proposing to eliminate road fund tax.

5.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what representations he has received on his suggestion that vehicle excise duty be replaced by a tax on petrol.

The Government's decision to phase out vehicle excise duty has been widely welcomed.

I recognise the superficial attractions of the Secretary of State's proposals, but is there not a danger that the main beneficiaries will be two-car families, where the first car is run by the company and the second car is the wife's runaround, while those who will bear the most hardship will be low income workers in rural areas who need their cars to get to work? Is the Secretary of State satisfied that he adequately and fully consulted everyone concerned before making his announcement?

I readily agree that if there are to be winners as a result of the abolition of VED, there will be some who will be worse off. But I have considered this very carefully. I ask the hon. Gentleman, and other hon. Members, to look with some attention at exactly what we say about rural areas in our information paper. The picture for rural areas is a great deal better than some people initially supposed.

Can the Secretary of State explain how his proposals will lead to savings, in view of the need to continue the Swansea centre for licensing diesel vehicles and heavy lorries, and also for checks on MOT and insurance? How will those checks be made if even the present checks on the tax cannot be made?

There is no doubt in the minds of all those most directly involved that there will be a substantial reduction in staff as a result of this proposal. I do not think that there are any arguments about that. The role of Swansea is far larger than merely collecting vehicle excise duty, and, given the normal length of stay in employment there, I am glad to say that there will be no compulsory redundancies. However, there will be fewer people working there once VED has been phased out.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of my constituents, and others in remote and rural areas, have to drive much further than the 16 mile round trip to work which is quoted in his proposals? Is he prepared to make a much deeper analysis into the effect of these proposals on rural areas?

Yes. If my hon. Friend will read the information very carefully I think he will discover that we do not say simply that those who travel 16 miles to work will be the beneficiaries. That is the average journey to work in rural areas, and this leaves a substantial extra amount of mileage which someone doing an average number of miles per gallon can drive. Additionally, and this is a very important point, I believe that these proposals will enable some people in rural areas who until now could not afford to put a car on the road, and who do not intend to do a long mileage, to do so.

How can it make sense, even in the name of conservation, to introduce a change which could make motoring cheaper in central London and yet more expensive in rural areas? If the Secretary of State is to make the transfer to petrol tax, which is not something to which one could object in principle, will he consider varying the tax regionally?

I confess that I had hoped that the House would rejoice at the ending of a tax. I am slightly surprised at the somewhat grudging approach of the Opposition. I am comforted to know that on the basis of the MORI poll, which has been published, there is a clear majority in favour of abolition, not only among Labour voters but among Conservative and Liberal voters, too. In practice, I think that the effect of abolition will be far more favourable than the right hon. Gentleman suggests.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is the fairest tax possible because it taxes the use of the road? The majority of the population realise that, especially the 8 million of the 14 million road users who will benefit.

My hon. Friend is quite right. This is much the fairest way of raising taxation from the motorist. The House has been concerned with the level of evasion. It was plain that evasion could not be eliminated without an unfair intrusion into people's privacy. The abolition of vehicle excise duty will get rid of the unfairness.

Is the Secretary of State aware that he is simply replacing one tax with another? Will he confirm that a new registration document will replace vehicle excise duty? Will he tell us how often that document will have to be renewed, whether it will have to be displayed and how much it will cost? Unless he can tell us that, it must cast doubt on all the estimates in the Department's booklet concerning administrative savings as a result of which the motorists will be better off.

I am surprised that hon. Members are so halfhearted about a proposal which will reduce a great deal of the bureaucracy about which they have complained in the past. It will make life a great deal simpler for the motorist, and as a result, the great majority of motorists will be delighted. I have taken full account of the need to maintain minimum form of registration. It is all in the document, and those details which have not been settled will be matters on which we shall be consulting while VED is being phased out.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the unsatisfactory nature of the Minister's answer, I beg leave to give notice that I shall seek to raise the matter on the Adjournment at the earliest possible moment.

9.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what changes he is considering in the rate and methods of charging road fund tax.

I have already announced the Government's decision to abolish vehicle excise duty on petrol driven vehicles and to review its future on diesels.

Unlike some of my hon. Friends, I welcome this initiative by the Government, but I do not think that the Secretary of State fully appreciates the great concern felt by those living in non-metropolitan areas about the levels of tax that will be introduced and about the schedule for the introduction of all those taxes that will replace the present road fund tax. Can the hon. Gentleman alleviate that concern and reassure the House that we shall have an opportunity to debate the matter?

I should greatly welcome a debate at a time convenient to the House, because I think that sober consideration of the proposal will bring more hon. Members than earlier appeared apparent to the same view as the hon. Gentleman's, namely, that the change makes good sense. It will also give me an opportunity to spell out the broad timetable that we have in mind. We shall be consulting on all the outstanding issues and phasing out the duty by 1983, but it will be for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to make the particular decisions at the appropriate time.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his announcement about the abolition of the road fund licence has been generally welcomed, but does not he think it strange that Conservative Members, who in other contexts are in favour of a tax on expenditure rather than direct taxation, should be against this measure?

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is strange, but the Opposition never fail to amaze me by their lack of judgment on issues of this kind. It is clear that the abolition of vehicle excise duty is a fair way in which to proceed. I think that the fact that the change will fall more harshly on a man who owns a Rolls than on someone who owns a Mini is a move in the right direction.

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that the answers that he has been giving recommend us to jump from the Swansea frying pan into the fire, without the benefit of abolishing the Swansea licensing centre? Will he recognise that his figures show that motoring and delivery costs in rural areas will rise significantly?

I do not agree. Exactly how an individual's motoring costs will be affected will depend upon how much he uses his car, the size of his car and the miles per gallon that he obtains. It is plain that in the rural areas a number of people who today lack mobility will be able to achieve it by putting a car on the road for the first time and using it for a relatively modest mileage.

19.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what timetable he envisages for the discussions and subsequent action on the Government's proposals for phasing out vehicle excise duty.

Consultations with those principally concerned will begin as soon as possible. We shall then consider the timetable for phasing out.

If the phasing out of the existing computers is crucial to the timing, what is the difference in scale and costs between ordering new computers to replace the present system, including those used for vehicle excise duty, and ordering computers to deal with registration and insurance? So that we can judge the proposal fairly and properly, will the Secretary of State now answer the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) and tell the House what will be the level of fee for drivers to cover registration, insurance and so forth?

I cannot answer the latter question. This is an issue on which there must be consultation. Phasing out will take place by 1983, so there is adequate scope for working out a satisfactory formula. The overall administrative saving as a result of abolition will be about £20 million. Had we proceeded with re-ordering the computers we should have faced the possibility of a considerable amount of abortive expenditure, running into several millions of pounds.

Does the Secretary of State propose to consult the moped and lawnmower lobby? Does he realise that many people will feel that they are being badly treated when they realise that there is to be an increase in their petrol costs, without any compensating advantage?

I shall be delighted to consult such people and to receive a deputation led by the hon. Member for Rutland and Stamford (Mr. Lewis).

Is the Minister aware that he has got it wrong when it comes to the rural communities in these matters? Whatever he says, his proposal will bring about more unemployment and depopulation in the rural areas. Will he bear in mind that this shows once again the bias of the Government against the rural community?

That is the most awful nonsense. I appreciate the anxiety felt by hon. Members on both sides of the House about transport problems in the rural areas. But the Government, in the past year, have made provision in a Bill—which the Opposition voted against—for improving public transport in the rural areas and for introducing more flexibility.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Opposition always ignore the needs of the majority of people who live in the country—those who do not have cars? Perhaps the new taxation system will do something to help public transport in the rural areas.

My hon. Friend is right. The provision for better public transport in rural areas and more flexibility, which has been welcomed by a number of Opposition Members, is designed to help those who are most in need. It is certainly a move in the right direction for people to be able to use a car to go to work, or for other reasons, when they could not previously afford to do so. I am surprised that hon. Members do not endorse that.

The Minister may have my support for his intentions, but will he come to my constituency with me to explain to car drivers there, first, why they have been paying an extra 10p a gallon for petrol over the past three years. and, secondly, that his proposals will probably add another 20p to their costs? How will he get away with that one?

As the hon. Gentleman recognises, there will be no relative cost to his constituents as a result of any increase in the price of petrol which may occur in due course. I agree with the hon. Gentleman, however, on the matter to which he has drawn our attention before. The Isle of Wight and some other remote parts of the country have to pay more for their petrol, and I appreciate entirely the price which falls to be paid by the hon. Gentleman's constituents.

Roads (White Paper)

3.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport if he has yet concluded his discussions on the White Paper on roads.

Is the Minister aware of the deep anxiety felt by people in Havering, Upminster and similar areas about the safety of their children on the roads, the noise level in their homes from the road, and the frustrations of commuter travel to work? Will he, at long last, aim to have a debate on his White Paper on roads so that these real fears can be discussed?

We are always anxious to have debates on our White Papers. May I suggest an Opposition Supply day?

Will the Minister take time to discuss what is said in the White Paper about co-ordination between Government Departments? Is he aware that in relation to the Stroud inner ring road, for example, his Department has been giving grants for the roads to be made and the Department of the Environment has been listing buildings, thus preventing those roads from being built? Will he take an early opportunity to meet his colleague and decide which view should prevail?

The hon. Member has made a fair point. I am well aware of the problem in that case. I shall be going to Bristol tomorrow to talk to representatives of the county council concerned and I am sure that they will raise this matter with me.

Will my hon. Friend take account of the fact that, over a number of years, the condition of roads in this country has been deteriorating? Is it not time these roads were repaired to bring them up to a reasonable standard so that potholes will not damage vehicles and cause accidents?

I understand my hon. Friend's view. He will be interested to know that the spending on road maintenance throughout the country next year will be increased substantially over this year. That is after two or three years of restraint following public expenditure cuts. We are not only bottoming out, but are improving maintenance expenditure by local authorities. Maintenance expenditure by the Government on trunk roads and motorways has substantially increased anyway.

M11 Motorway

4.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what representations he has received about access to the M11 motorway from central London; and if he will make a statement.

Representations have been received from hon. Members and motorists. Improvements in signing to the M11 have been made in recent months and will continue to be made in conjunction with the Greater London Council.

Is the Minister aware that it takes between half an hour and one and a half hours, according to the time of day, to reach the southern end of the M11 from central London? In those circumstances, is it not irresponsible to claim that as a result of the construction of the M11 there is easy access from Stansted airport to London? Has the Department any plans to improve access to the M11?

Yes. As part of the programme that has been announced, partly in conjunction with our inner city package it is proposed to build extensions to the south of the M11—the link between South Woodford and Hackney Wick on the one hand, and South Woodford and Barking on the other. Those are programmed to begin between 1981 and 1983. This will help the problem, which is a difficult one, because we are talking about a heavily built-up area.

Is my hon. Friend aware that any proposal to extend motorways further into inner London will meet with a great deal of opposition?

We must take that perfectly legitimate view and weigh it against the fact that there are many communities in inner London, particularly in East London, who feel the need for some connection with the motorway system in order to encourage commercial development. We must balance both those viewpoints.

Will the Minister ensure that he does not signpost, or allow the GLC to signpost, heavy lorry traffic bound for the M11 through residential streets in the London borough of Waltham Forest?

That is precisely the problem which has led to some delay in adequate signs being put up for the M11. There is the problem of where the signs go, because wherever one puts them one is bound to affect someone's environment adversely.

Roads (South Humberside)

6.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement about the road construction programme on the south bank of the Humber.

Of the 28 miles of the M180 South Humberside motorway, 12 are already open to traffic and a further 11, comprising the Scunthorpe southern bypass and the M181 link, will be opened on 15th December. We hope that the remaining five miles, which include the Trent bridge, will be opened next summer. Proposals to provide a new all-purpose trunk road between the eastern end of the M180 and Grimsby will be the subject of a public inquiry next month.

Is the Minister aware of the grave concern on the south bank of the Humber about the lack of progress in building our road, particularly to the port of Immingham? Immingham is the fifth largest port in the United Kingdom. It is larger than Hull and Liverpool combined. We welcome the decision that the two-tier system is to be allowed on the Brigg-Scunthorpe to Grimsby road, but it is vital that the spur road to Immingham is built.

Proposals for the Immingham link road will be considered at next month's public inquiry, so we are making excellent progress. More roads are being built now on Humberside than in any other part of the country. I am not sure that that would have happened under a Conservative Government, bearing in mind their attitude towards public expenditure.

Port Of London Authority

7.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport when he next intends to meet the chairman of the Port of London Authority.

The Port of London Authority has made it clear that the Royal group should close and that there should be a reduction in the work force of 2,050. The Price Waterhouse report, which has been relied on by the Secretary of State—

Order. Is the hon. Member asking a question? It sounds like a statement.

I take your point, Mr. Speaker. Dealing with the number of lay-offs, Price Waterhouse recommended—

Is it correct, and is the Secretary of State aware, that according to the figures we have descended to the magnificent total of 1,489 by way of a reduction of the work force, with no closures? Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that this justifies the expenditure of £35 million of taxpayers' money?

The hon. Gentleman misunderstands the position. The figure of 1,489 relates only to the period from May 1978 to June 1979. I am generally satisfied with the progress that we are making, and 1 think that there is a good prospect that in due course, despite the difficulties, we shall chart a path to viability.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that some of London's difficulties arise from the fact that London is competing with cross-Channel ports which are heavily subsidised? One of them receives as much as £60 million a year. Also, London has certain responsibilities for maintaining the Channel. Is it not time that we had some conformity of charges within the Common Market?

I take my hon. Friend's point, which he has made before. I agree that we should seek as far as we can to have a system that is fair to all. But the problems of London are more deep seated than that. They are part of the history of our industrial decline, and in that respect I think we must face them as being unique and peculiar to London.

Given that the Government propose to give £35 million to the Port of London, and £10 million extra in loans, will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that Parliament will he asked to authorise any scheme that he puts forward and that for the debate he will make available all relevant information, including the Price Waterhouse report.

Road Haulage Industry

8.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what plans he has to expand public ownership in the road haulage industry.

Will the Minister say how he thinks the public interest would be served, if at all, by an extension of nationalisation in the road haulage industry?

It is important that we set good standards in the industry. There are notoriously many cowboys in it, many bad employers. Although the average standard may be good, the existence of a good public sector employer in this area redounds to the health of the industry as a whole.

Does the Minister appreciate that we understand his difficulty, which is that he and his right hon. Friend want to drive on the right but his party keeps pulling to the left? Can he explain to the public and the road haulage industry whether the commitment in Labour's programme for 1976 to nationalise a substantial part of the industry represents his party's policy?

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the White Paper on transport policy, where we firmly, clearly and very simply—so simply that the hon. Gentleman should be capable of understanding —set out our views.

British Railways

10.

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

23.

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

24.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport when he is due next to meet the chairman of British Railways.

When the right hon. Gentleman meets the chairman of British Rail, will he give him an extra incentive to remove the cause of the unofficial strikes which have created such havoc for commuters, by saying that the proposed fare increases will be delayed by one month for every day's unofficial strike?

The simple answer is"No, I certainly shall not make such a preposterous proposal ". I am trying very hard to work out the logic behind it. For the moment I am defeated.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the service from Liverpool Street to Chingford is possibly the most unreliable commuter service in London? The number of cancellations is so great that they are not even advertised. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that British Rail tells me that that is because the wages of a signalman or a guard are scarcely higher than the unemployment benefit for a married man with three children? How can the right hon. Gentleman help British Rail overcome this problem?

The question of the wage structure on the railways is very important. It is curious that although I am often urged in the House to draw the attention of the chairman of British Rail to the need for greater productivity, meaning lower levels of manpower, there are at the same time substantial numbers of vacancies in the country, which must be filled. I hope that the productivity agreement, if it is negotiated between the Board and the railway unions, will result in the removal of anomalies of the kind that the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Will my right hon. Friend take advantage of the meeting to congratulate Sir Peter Parker on the tremendous advance that is now taking place in the railway industry? Will he ask Sir Peter to discuss with him the plans for the further electrification of the railways, particularly the east coast route? Will my right hon. Friend also talk to him about the possibility of going further ahead with the Channel tunnel venture?

British Rail is discussing with the French railways a proposal of its own for a Channel tunnel. I have not yet received the proposal, and it has not yet been published. But I think that in due course it will be a matter that the House may well wish to consider.

As for electrification, there is a joint working party on the matter between British Rail and my Department. The work involved is considerable, but as soon as the results are available I expect that hon. Members will wish to be informed about it.

I was very glad to hear what my hon. Friend said about the chairman of British Rail. I think that on both sides of the House there is an appreciation of all that he has done in his two years of office.

As journey-shrinking has been going on apace between Edinburgh and London and between Cardiff and London, will the right hon. Gentleman consult the chairman of British Rail about the possibility of shrinking the journey time between Belfast and London by reinstating the Dumfries-Stranraer railway line? Will he undertake to consult his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland about the advantages that that would have for the people of Northern Ireland?

I note what the hon. Gentleman says, and I shall discuss the matter with my right hon. Friend. The problems involved are often those of cost, but I shall look into the matter.

When my right hon. Friend next meets the chairman of the British Railways Board, will he point out to him that we carry the lowest amount of freight by rail in the EEC? Will he recommend ways of improving the position—for example, by maintaining subsidies to freight? Does my right hon. Friend accept that grants under section 8 of the Railways Act 1974, for example, are not enough to redress the drift of freight from the railways? Will my right hon. Friend urge the chairman to carry by rail dangerous cargoes, such as those from Flixborough?

I agree with my hon Friend that section 8 grants alone are not sufficient to ensure the transfer of freight from road to rail which he and I would like to see. I believe that the marketing policies of British Rail are more likely than they were in the past to enable the railways to carry the freight to which they are best suited. If a transfer can take place, so much the better, but I cannot change my policy of giving no subsidy for freight.

As the Secretary of State today appeared to make an announcement about the Channel tunnel, about which the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe has been trying to find out for some six months, will he guarantee that he will advise the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe what he is really up to in this connection?

The hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain) is quite right to draw my attention to his particular interest. My reply to the question which he did not ask is that the Government's position remains unchanged since the announcement made by the then right hon. Member for Grimsby, the late Anthony Crosland, some years ago. This study has been taking place between British Rail and French railways. It is their document, and it is for them to decide what to publish and when.

Railways (Electrification)

11.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what is his policy on railway electrification.

As my right hon. Friend told my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) on 24th May, we are conducting a joint study, with the British Railways Board, of the case for a programme of main line electrification. In the meantime, we are ready to consider any specific British Rail schemes put to us in the normal way.

Is my hon. Friend aware that there is a splendid electrified line between Sheffield and Manchester which goes under the Pennines and through a great civil engineering project, the Wood-head tunnel, and that the only prospect for this in the eyes of British Rail is to scrap it? Will he impress upon the chairman of British Rail that this is an extremely shortsighted policy, especially since everywhere else in the country electrification is proceeding?

My hon. Friend has made a fair comment about the Woodhead tunnel and the electrified line which runs through it. The future of the line is being discussed by the Board and by the unions, and I am informed that no decisions have been taken yet.

Does the Minister recall that the Leitch committee asked for a uniformed method of appraisal of major transport projects? In those circumstances, is there not a clear need for all British Rail electrification proposals to be measured against proposals for new road building so that they can be compared on a more equitable basis?

The hon. Gentleman has slightly misquoted the report of the Leitch committee. It said that where it was practicable there should be relevant comparisons with a railway alternative. We intend to do that.

Will my hon. Friend accept that there is strong feeling in Sheffield and, we have reason to believe, in Manchester about the possible scrapping of the Woodhead line? Does he know, for instance, that the line runs through the great Woodhead tunnel, which was probably the first great railway tunnel in the world, and that we want to know whether he will consult both Sheffield and Manchester before any major decision is taken about that line?

In the first instance, as I have said, this is a matter for the study at present being undertaken by the British Railways Board and in its talks with the unions. It is right that the Board should make its initial views known before we go any further.

Driving Licences (Endorsement Removal Fee)

12.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport why a fee of £2 is charged to remove an endorsement from a driving licence; and whether he will reconsider changing this regulation.

The fee covers the administrative costs of issuing such licences. We can see no reason to change it.

Does the Minister understand that those who have endorsements on their licences have to pay what is virtually a further fine to get them removed? Is this justice?

Frankly, I think that it is. The costs of performing these small functions should be met by the public who incur them and not by the general taxpayer. I am surprised that a Conservative Member should advocate the contrary principle.

When motorists are exchanging their old type five-year licences for the new type computer-produced extended-period licences, will it be possible to feed into the computer the detail that records of endorsements which have already expired should not be shown on the new licences?

My hon. Friend has made an interesting suggestion and I shall consider it.

Concessionary Fares

13.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what representations he has had about a national scheme of concessionary fares for retirement pensioners and the disabled.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is a national disgrace that local authorities fail to take up £20 million of Government assistance which is available to subsidise transport costs, and that the worst offenders in this respect are Tory-controlled councils? In view of this, and in view also of the disparities which exist between the various local authority schemes, will the Government introduce a national scheme of free travel for pensioners and the disabled?

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. It is a local disgrace that a number of authorities do not provide schemes of any kind for old people and the disabled. It is quite wrong, and there is no need for it. As my hon. Friend said, we made clear more than a year ago that resources were available under the rate support grant system.

To move to a national scheme of free fares would cost more than £200 million, on the best estimate. It is difficult to see an immediate priority for that. But I am looking at the possibility of some form of national concessionary fares scheme, because I agree very much about the need for transferability. It should be possible for pensioners to visit their children and grandchildren wherever they may be and obtain the same benefits as they have for travelling in their own localities.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, in a recent debate on a Private Member's motion, there was support from both sides of the House for a national scheme for concessionary fares for pensioners and the disabled? Is he also aware that, contrary to the estimate that he has just given, the opinion was that such a concession, far from costing the nationalised industries money, would generate new traffic as a result of pensioners and the disabled taking up seats on buses, trains and boats which otherwise would be empty?

I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that if pensioners travelled free, although they would generate new traffic, they would also generate additional costs. For that reason, it is difficult to see the prospect of free fares for all without a substantial additional sum being involved. I recognise the feeling on both sides of the House. This is a genuine social problem. My deep regret is that in the meantime some councils have failed to take up the opportunities open to them. That is deplorable.

Will my right hon. Friend accept that all Government supporters see the Tory councils which have acted in this indefensible way as once again attacking the elderly and those least able to look after themselves? The National Association of Old-Age Pensioners would welcome a scheme which was applicable right across the country. I am encouraged by what my right hon. Friend has said today.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that his January circular and his subsequent condemnation of some councils have served only to give a misleading impression? Will he make clear that local authorities will still have to bear nearly 40 per cent. of the cost of concessionary fare schemes, at a time when the Government are urging local authorities to keep down rates at least to the level of inflation and at the same time are penalising many of the shire counties which he is now criticising, by means of the distribution of resources?

I agree that under the present financial arrangements local authorities have to find some money to contribute towards concessionary fares schemes. But I think that this is a test of meanness, because some of them do and some of them do not. If the hon. Gentleman suggests that this information is not available, I shall publish in Hansard at the earliest possible date a list of all those local authorities which are failing to provide schemes of any kind.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I beg to give notice that, in view of the Minister's unsatisfactory answers, I shall seek to raise this matter on the Adjournment at the earliest opportunity.

Driver And Vehicle Licensing Centre

14.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what are the latest figures for the annual cost of the Swansea Driver and Vehicle Licensing Centre; how many people are employed at the centre; and what were the equivalent figures under the previous non-centralised system.

The estimated cost of running the centralised licensing system in 1978–79 is £49·3 million at November 1977 prices; the old system by now might have cost about £47 million. There are 5,100 staff at the DVLC and 2,100 in local offices. There were about 5,800 staff employed in local authority local taxation offices in 1972–73 before the change-over. Since then the number both of drivers and vehicles has increased by some 20 per cent.

How does the Minister justify the Secretary of State's statement that the scrapping of the vehicle licence will cut the costs of Swansea? Will we not still be required to have a registration document which we will have to renew annually? Will we not still have to show Swansea a current MOT certificate each year and an insurance certificate? Bearing all that in mind, how will this move cut the costs of Swansea?

It will do so quite simply. We are cutting out all the handling costs involved in processing well over £800 million, which has to be collected, and the problem of rebates and repayments of different kinds. All that will be cut out, and the saving, as my right hon. Friend has said, will be roughly £20 million. I am surprised that the Conservative Party in particular should be opposing a reduction in bureaucracy and a simplification which can lead only to the improvement of the service offered to the consumer, as well as to a further increase in the efficiency of government.

Will not the Minister agree that much of the cost problem to do with Swansea is the result of the sort of computers which are being used there and which are soon to be replaced? Will he give his Department's view about the future purchase of a replacement computer and say whether the best one for the job can be purchased whether it is British or foreign?

I simply do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. The problems which have arisen at Swansea over the last three or four years have been transitional, arising from running in a new system. That is why, in reply to a question at the end of the last Session, I was able to say that there had been a massive improvement in the efficiency with which the centre has handled consumer complaints.

Heavy Lorries

15.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what further steps he plans to take to reduce the nuisance caused by heavy lorries in towns.

In addition to our efforts to develop a quieter heavy lorry and more effective means of controlling diesel smoke, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State recently urged local authorities to make more extensive use of the Heavy Commercial Vehicles (Controls and Regulations) Act 1973—the Act to which the hon. Gentleman has given his name—and advised them that we would always try to look favourably on road schemes designed to help to divert lorries from sensitive areas.

Since the Minister has mentioned that Act, I hope that he will forgive me if I ask him this question. Since there would be a widespread explosion of anger in this country from serious environmentalists and citizens if there were any plan to make lorries heavier than 32 tons, will he now confirm that he has taken action against the civil servants who leaked to the press the fact that there was a departmental plan so to do —or will he confirm that he is still out of control of his own Department?

At no time have I been out of control of my own Department. If Parliament thinks that I have been, Parliament can express its view to that effect. The policy of my Department is the policy of Ministers and will remain so. I personally regret that a confidential minute of one of my officials who is not in a position to defend himself became more widely available. I have complete confidence in that official and, generally, in the loyalty and the integrity of civil servants as a whole. That is how it has been and how it ought to remain.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the proposals of the Manchester airport authority to transport large quantities of limestone from Buxton through my constituency to the airport for its reconstruction, causing a great deal of damage to existing congested roads? Will he insist that this heavy limestone is transported by rail and not by road through my constituency?

I was not aware of the problem and I am not sure that I have the powers to insist, but I shall certainly look into the matter.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that many residents in South London, particularly in my constituency, are reaching a state of despair about the ever-increasing numbers of heavy juggernaut lorries passing through the area? Will he take steps to" de-prime"the Kew Road and also ask his officials to make sure that they answer telegrams and communications from local authorities sent to his Department, which recently were not answered at all?

On the last point, if the hon. Gentleman has a complaint I shall certainly look into it, because overall I think that my Department deals very well with queries of the kind it receives —often urgent, frequently complicated and generally demanding. As for heavy lorries in the way that the hon. Gentleman describes them, no one likes heavy lorries wherever they go. That is why I agreed with the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) that we do not want heavier ones.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that a few years ago all the limestone being transported from the Derbyshire or Buxton area to other parts of the country was always carried by rail? Why has it been transferred to the roads, and what will he do about it?

With regard to the document referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes), does not the Secretary of State agree that, whatever view one takes about the heavier weight argument, that memorandum has made the situation much more difficult? Is it not the case that a Civil Service document which claims that the main end of an inquiry should be a clear and overwhelming case for heavier weights is bound to convey the impression that, far from such an inquiry being impartial and objective, it could have been cynically manipulated? As it is in all our interests that the public accept such inquiries as impartial and objective, does not the right hon. Gentleman now have an obligation to take some steps to restore public confidence in the sort of inquiry which is likely to be established by his Department?

It is very difficult to deal with a statement that there has been a loss of public confidence. I agree that there has been some disquiet, and I greatly regret that circumstances do not allow me to explain in more detail how these matters fall out. However, the proposal for an inquiry was mine and it is the task of my officials to advise me as they think fit. As I say, I make the policy and very often the views of my officials differ one from another. That is the way it is, and I think that that is the best way in which we can ensure that policy when it is made has taken account of the opinions expressed. However, I have no doubt at all about the integrity of the official himself and I greatly regret that he has been the subject of some unfair criticism.

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

Driving Instructors

16.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what arrangements he intends to make with regard to the licensing of driving instructors; which body or bodies those who give driving instruction will be required to join; and whether he will make a statement.

My right hon. Friend intends to seek powers to abolish trainee licensing at the first suitable opportunity. Only those registered in the Department's register of approved driving instructors would then be authorised to give paid instruction. Qualification for inclusion in the register is a question of individual competence tested by examination, not a matter of belonging to a particular body.

Is the Minister aware that there may be plenty of driving instructors but that there are very few ministerial appointments of instructors to take those who wish to pass their test? There is a shortage throughout the country and this is affecting employment, particularly among the young who have to make long journeys to work. What is the Minister doing about that?

I accept that there is a real problem at the moment over the length of time that people have to wait to take their driving test. It is something which gives me great concern. What we are doing about it is, first, trying to redistribute the existing examiners more evenly around the country to sort out the worst problems and to recruit 250 more to cut down the waiting time at the first practical opportunity.

Will my hon. Friend look again at a matter about which I have been in correspondence with him—the amalgamation of the Government scheme with some of the RAC schemes for training and testing, since these not only might fill the gap in waiting for motor-cycle tests but have a very stringent acclimatisation programme, which the State scheme does not?

That is something which has been gone into from time to time. I will certainly look at it again, but we must always proceed so that we do not reduce the standards of our testing procedures.

National Union Of Railwaymen

17.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport when he next intends to meet the general secretary of the National Union of Railwaymen.

Can the Secretary of State elaborate? When he meets the general secretary, could he make a point of discussing improved productivity, since it is probably more important to talk to union representatives than to talk to the chairman of the British Railways Board on this matter?

By"soon"I mean either before Christmas or after. As for productivity, I agree with the hon. Lady that the trade unions have a part to play. However, as I said earlier, discussions are taking place between the trade unions and the BRB about the productivity scheme, and I hope that they will succeed

When the Secretary of State next meets the general secretary of the NUR and other leading figures in the rail unions, will he see whether he can take any initiative that will prevent the type of action that took place today which has led to thousands of my constituents being unable to travel to work on the Fenchurch Street line, which has been shut by the action of a small number of men?

A number of the stoppages, particularly in London and the South-East, have caused much inconvenience to the travelling public and have been unnecessary. I expect that that is the view of the leaders of the trade unions concerned. Industrial relations are difficult, but the record is a great deal better than is sometimes suggested.

Will my right hon. Friend ask the general secretary of the NUR to meet the hon. Member for Plymouth, Drake (Miss Fookes) so that he can explain to her that a considerable number of productivity agreements in the rail industry have led to a massive reduction in manpower on the railways and to increased efficiency? Would it not be a good thing if credit was sometimes given for this improvement?

My hon. Friend is right to draw the attention of the House to this. There has been a substantial reduction in manpower. It is generally agreed that only through the increased efficiency of the railways—and there is always room for improvement—can we secure their future.

When the Secretary of State is good enough to meet the general secretary of the NUR, will he tell him in no uncertain terms that unless the industrial action in the South-East is settled and my constituents and many others can be sure of a regular service they will look for alternative means of travelling, which will have a catastrophic effect on the railways?

If the hon. Member knew more about these matters, he would know that it would be unwise of me to talk to the general secretary of the NUR about matters which concern ASLEF.

Will my right hon. Friend repeat what he said earlier about the NUR not being involved? Will he tell Opposition Members who raised the question of consultation with trade unions that the vast majority of trade unionists in the industry behave in a responsible fashion and provide a tremendous service for the country but that they are referred to in the House only when difficulties arise? They are ignored when things are going smoothly.

My hon. Friend has paid a fitting tribute to the majority of railwaymen who do a first-class job and who are representative of an important and worth. while national tradition.

Roads (Public Inquiries)

18.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what proposals he has for improving the operation of public inquiries into highway matters.

25.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport whether he is fully satisfied with the present operation of highways inquiries.

Substantial changes were made as a result of the review of highway inquiry procedures, the report of which was published as a White Paper—Cmnd. 7133—in April. I shall be considering the effectiveness of the new procedures as soon as we have adequate experience of them.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that just as public confidence was boosted by that review, so it has been jolted by the leaking of the Peeler memorandum? Does he realise that many people believe that any attempt by civil servants to set the agenda so as to rig an inquiry—whether it is a committee of inquiry or a public inquiry—should be disavowed by the Department, whether or not the Secretary of State has confidence in those civil servants?

My hon. Friend is rather untypically confusing two separate issues. His Question relates to inquiries into highways, for which there are specific and plain procedures. Those inquiries are now conducted by inspectors nominated by the Lord Chancellor.

The other matter to which reference was made earlier is whether a committee should be appointed to conduct an impartial and independent inquiry into lorry weights. The two procedures are totally different. I should be happy to do anything that would restore public confidence because I am sorry that it has been jolted.

Is the Secretary of State aware that there is widespread understanding of the need to widen the MI in Hertfordshire but that there is dismay among those who attended the inquiry because the inspector's report was swept to one side by the Minister in an arbitrary fashion? Is he aware that this has resulted in a loss of credibility in the procedures?

I do not agree that any report would arbitrarily be set aside. There are differences of opinion and emphasis among almost every section of the public about such proposals. The inspector's task is to report on objections to any proposal. The Minister's job is to decide and to answer to Parliament for that decision.

What is the state of play on Archway? What difficulties are involved in making public the information that is obtained?

The issues are highly complicated. I have made it clear that I have no intention of moving on the proposals made previously for Archway. I hope that on that basis everyone will agree that the relevant information has now been made available.

Does the Secretary of State agree that under successive Governments great efforts have been made to improve the road inquiry procedure? Is it not therefore all the more deplorable that disruptive tactics should still be used at road inquiries? Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to state clearly that this type of tactic will in no way influence his final decision?

I am happy to take the opportunity to confirm that. There is no justification for the disruptions which have occurred. The inquiries are set up under procedures agreed by the House and the inspectors are nominated by the Lord Chancellor. It is only fair to all the objectors that these procedures should be conducted in an orderly fashion so that the inspector can make his report.