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British Railways (Divestment Of Assets)

Volume 20: debated on Tuesday 16 March 1982

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3.31 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for the sale of the ancillary assets of British Railways.
My proposed Bill has a fivefold effect on Britsh Railways. I have been encouraged to promote it by my constituents. They have been exasperated, as have I, by the recent ASLEF strike which cost the British Railways Board about £100 million, comprising about £75 million from lost revenue and about £25 million in paying non-ASLEF employees. Either the taxpayer or the British Railways Board must foot the bill.

My constituents and I strongly object to paying one penny of the cost of that strike, especially as its sole purpose was to preserve an archaic rostering system. It has been estimated that if the flexible rostering is introduced British Rail's productivity will be boosted by 6 per cent.

The House may be interested to hear that in the past six years British Rail's productivity has increased by only 1½ per cent., or about 0·25 per cent. per annum. That compares with a lift of no less than 35 per cent. in productivity resulting from the Beeching axe.

My Bill requires the British Railways Board to divest itself of some of the assets with which I shall deal in a moment. The Bill requires it to get out of property, catering, hotels and shipping businesses and to concentrate on the single purpose of an efficiently run rail network. I am well aware that the provisions of the 1962, 1968 and 1981 Transport Acts enable the board to exercise its powers of disposal. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is urgently examining that aspect now.

Since the Transport Act 1981, the economic position of the railways has dramatically worsened. Once again, the long-suffering taxpayer must pick up the bill. My proposals reflect what I believe is a widespread view both in the House and in the country today. They require, first, the disposal of British Rail's 26 railway hotels, secondly the disposal of its 30 Sealink ships as soon as possible to the highest bidders, and, thirdly, the selling of the 13 railway workshops, which employ about 39, 500 people.

The workshops are grouped together under British Rail Engineering and enjoy a monopoly of British Rail business while private wagon builders such as the Standard Railway Wagon Company of Stockport are not allowed to compete. British Rail Engineering has existed for 12 years and, despite having the monopoly of British Rail supply, its export efforts have been meagre. According to the latest available figures, it has succeeded in supplying less than 1·3 per cent. of the world rail equipment market. Fourthly, the Bill would enable private caterers to operate the restaurant car service and cafeterias on British Rail stations.

I turn now to what I believe will be a new lease of life for the branch lines. British Rail currently operates about 20, 000 miles of track, and I understand from recent reports that it is threatening to close 3, 000 miles of it unless the Government inject more than £700 million. That is an outrageous view. Every mile of permanent way left after Beeching is a national asset.

The Bill would set up a holding authority which would take over one-third, or about 7, 000 miles, of track at once, with the duty to dispose of those lines to local consortia of business men, local industrialists, and hotel and tourist interests. For example, a consortium could be formed to take over its own branch line, often with local authority or tourist boared participation, or, in Scotland, with the participation of the Highlands and Islands Development Board.

The lines would not necessarily be profitable as a result of such consortia, but at least they would serve local needs. With local knowledge, business acumen and enthusiasm, I believe that they would gain a new lease of life. That would be of local benefit. It would also benefit British Rail, to which those lines are now a financial burden.

The House may be interested to know that that system has been tried successfully abroad, notably in Switzerland where State-owned and independent operators exist and work in harmony. Too often rural railways are operated as sleepy backwaters and no attempt is made to win and develop new business, especially freight traffic. In some cases, there is little effort to make worthwhile and possible economies.

If the House accepts my Bill, British Rail will be left with a much slimmed down operation and will be able to concentrate its efforts on providing the nation with an efficient inter-city network into the 1990s and beyond.

I understand that the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) wishes to oppose the Bill.

3.39 pm

As a member of the National Union of Railwaymen, I urge the House to oppose this in my view unnecessary but in some ways fascinating proposed Bill.

The most fascinating idea that the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) has put forward is the proposal for private management of British Rail rural services. That prescription for British Rail's ills involves one minor fly in the ointment. Who will buy them? Among the famous 40 branch lines so often cited by Government supporters as ripe for closure, the ratio of costs to earnings is approximately 2·5 to 1. What private company—if there are any left after the Government's ravages—would want to take on that prospect?

The hon. Gentleman suggested the formation of little consortia involving local authorities. In 1982–83, the shire counties of England—the hon. Gentleman's constituency is smack in the middle of one—will contribute less than £500, 000 of the countrywide total towards British rail support out of a total current expenditure of £575 million on transport provision. That is less than one-tenth of 1 per cent. There is not a shred of evidence that councils in the sort of area represented by the hon. Gentleman will be willing to spend more—or indeed anything in the case of his own area—on local rail services. They will certainly not be encouraged to do so by the Secretary of State for the Environment who, had he been here, would no doubt have been very cross to hear the hon. Gentleman's proposing even greater local government expenditure. That is why it is necessary now, as always, for the Government to support these services through the public service obligation grant.

If the Bill were accepted, there would be no future at all for stations such as Melton Mowbray, Narborough or Oakham, in the hon. Gentleman's own county. On the other side of the country, on the branch line between Stourbridge junction and Stourbridge town, the total costs recovered by British Rail from the travelling public is less than one-sixth of the overall cost of running the line. Despite the rush of tourists every year to see the birthplace of the immortal bard, the line between Stratford-upon-Avon and Leamington recovers less than half its total cost through passenger use. Returning to the hon. Gentleman's part of the world, the local service between Leicester and Derby, which includes Market Harborough station in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, covers less than half its total cost. Is the hon. Gentleman therefore proposing that his own local railway station should be closed? That would certainly be the effect of his bill.

The hon. Gentleman cited the precedent of Switzerland. He has a point, as, in addition to making excellent clocks and watches and banking everybody else's money, the Swiss are extremely good at subsidising their railway services. Their financial contribution to the running of the federal railways is currently four times greater than that of any Government in this country in the past 20 years. That is perhaps the only precedent that the Government would be wise to follow.

If the hon. Gentleman were proposing the doubling of investment in the railways, I should not hesitate to urge my hon. Friends to vote for the Bill. On the contrary, however, the underlying purpose of the Bill is to add to the pressure on British Rail to dispose of its saleable assets as quickly as possible. The more the price can be knocked down, the better for the Government's paymasters in the City of London. The British Railways Board has been increasingly starved of adequate investment by successive Governments, and the pressure for quick sales since the Conservatives took office has steadily mounted.

In the past 10 years, land sales by British Rail have totalled well over £200 million. In 1980 alone, land sales by the British Rail Property Board amounted to £40 million. The property board's total contribution to the main British Rail business was £67 million, and it will be much the same in 1981. The properties owned by British Rail constitute an asset which, if carefully developed and disposed of at the right time and in the right conditions, can make a long-term contribution to railway finances, but if the Government maintain their present posture of blackmail on the British Railways Board there will be continued distress selling of the assets on a massive scale. What a way to run a railway!

Sheer financial necessity is only one barrel of the shotgun that the Government are now holding to British Rail's head. The board is already under statutory notice to sell off its hotel and shipping interests. No doubt the hon. Member for Harborough was suitably upset when the Monopolies and Mergers Commission turned down the fairly recent attempt by his hon. Friend the Member for Dorking (Mr. Wickenden) to take over Sealink. No doubt he would have been only too happy to see that national asset carved up by European Ferries, which in the past decade has not bought one British ship or paid one penny in United Kingdom tax.

The enforced sale of British Rail ships, hotels, land and—if we are to believe what we have heard—even branch lines is still not enough for the hon. Gentleman. He wishes railway workshops and catering also to come under the auctioneer's hammer. His comments about the workshops' export record are an insult to hard-working men in towns such as Swindon, York and Doncaster which for more than 100 years have set an example to the world in railway craftsmanship and exports. For the hon. Gentleman, from the exile of his farms in this country and overseas, to attack working men in railway factories in this country is nothing short of an insult.

A valued amenity for rail passengers which is unique in Europe in its range of services but not very profitable, as Pullman discovered a long time ago, is British Rail catering—Travellers' Fare. We can all imagine the type of company that would wish to take over Travellers' Fare at a knockdown price. They would be companies such as Trust Houses Forte and Granada which now ply their wares, if that is the right expression, on Britain's motorways. I can only suggest that any hon. Member wishing to avail himself of their facilities should take a full wallet and plenty of indigestion tablets, as in terms of price and quality those companies have a great deal to learn from the likes of Travellers' Fare.

The hon. Member for Harborough provided us with an entertaining few minutes, but if the Bill were accepted, who would be responsible for the sale of those national assets? It could scarcely be the Secretary of State for Transport, whose lugubrious face looks at us across the Dispatch Box about once a month. No matter how desperate we were, we should be hard put to consider buying a clapped-out diesel multiple unit from him. Perhaps it would be the Secretary of State for Energy, who represents the nearby constituency of Blaby—the man who gave us, or perhaps the City, Amersham International.

The Bill is nonsense. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends, and indeed Conservative Members who take the time and trouble actually to read it, will join me in voting against it.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 13 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business):—

The House divided: Ayes 152, Noes 166.

Division No. 92]

[3.50 pm


Alexander, RichardClarke, Kenneth(Rushcliffe)
Atkins, Robert(PrestonN)Cockeram, Eric
Baker, Kenneth(St. M'bone)Colvin, Michael
Baker, Nicholas(N Dorset)Cope, John
Banks, RobertCorrie, John
Beaumont-Dark, AnthonyDickens, Geoffrey
Bennett, Sir Frederic(T'bay)Douglas-Hamilton, LordJ.
Berry, Hon AnthonyDover, Denshore
Best, KeithDunn, Robert(Dartford)
Bevan, DavidGilroyElliott, SirWilliam
Biggs-Davison, SirJohnEyre, Reginald
Blackburn, JohnFairgrieve, SirRussell
Boscawen, HonRobertFaith, MrsSheila
Bottomley, Peter(W'wich W)Farr, John
Bright, GrahamFenner, Mrs Peggy
Brinton, TimFinsberg, Geoffrey
Brooke, Hon PeterFookes, Miss Janet
Browne, John(Winchester)Forman, Nigel
Bruce-Gardyne, JohnFox, Marcus
Bryan, Sir PaulFraser, Peter (South Angus)
Buck, AntonyGardiner, George(Reigate)
Budgen.NickGarel-Jones, Tristan
Butcher, JohnGlyn, Dr Alan
Cadbury, JocelynGoodhew.SirVictor
Carlisle, John(Luton West)Goodlad.Alastair
Carlisle, Kenneth(Lincoln)Gorst.John
Carlisle, Rt Hon M.(R'c'n)Grant, Anthony (Harrow C)
Chalker, Mrs. LyndaGray, Hamish
Chapman, SydneyGreenway, Harry
Clark, Hon A.(Plym'th, S'n)Griffiths, Peter Portsm'th N)
Clark, Sir W.(Croydon S)Grist, Ian

Gummer, JohnSelwynPrice, Sir David (Eastleigh)
Hamilton, Hon A, Proctor, K, Harvey
Hamilton, Michael(Salisbury)Pym, Rt Hon Francis
Hawkins, PaulRaison, Rt Hon Timothy
Heddle, JohnRathbone, Tim
Henderson, BarryRhodes James, Robert
Higgins, Rt Hon Terence LRifkind, Malcolm
Holland, Philip (Carlton)Ross, Wm, (Londonderry)
Hooson, TomRossi, Hugh
Hordern, PeterRost, Peter
Hunt, David (Wirral)Shaw, Michael(Scarborough)
Hunt, John(Ravensbourne)Shepherd, Colin(Hereford)
JohnsonSmith, GeoffreyShepherd, Richard
Jopling, RtHonMichaelSilvester, Fred
Kaberry, SirDonaldSmith, Dudley
Kilfedder, JamesA, Smyth, Rev. W. M. (Belfast S)
Kimball, SirMarcusSpence, John
Knight, MrsJillSpicer, Jim (West Dorset)
Langford-Holt, SirJohnStainton, Keith
Lawrence, IvanStanbrook, Ivor
Lee, JohnStanley, John
Lennox-Boyd, HonMarkStevens, Martin
Lewis, Kenneth(Rutland)Stewart, Ian(Hitchin)
Lloyd, Peter(Fareham)Stradling Thomas, J.
McCrindle, RobertTaylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Macfarlane, NeilTebbit, Rt Hon Norman
MacGregor, JohnTemple-Morris, Peter
Marlow, AntonyThomas, Rt Hon Peter
Marshall, Michael(Arundel)Thompson, Donald
Marten, Rt Hon NeilThornton, Malcolm
Mather, CarolTownend, John (Bridlington)
Mawby, RayTrotter, Neville
Mills, Iain(Meriden)Viggers, Peter
Moate, RogerWaddington, David
Molyneaux, JamesWalker, B. (Perth)
Morris, M. (N'hamptonS)Wall, SirPatrick
Mudd, DavidWalters, Dennis
Murphy, ChristopherWard, John
Neale, GerrardWarren, Kenneth
Nelson, AnthonyWheeler, John
Neubert, MichaelWilkinson, John
Onslow, CranleyWinterton, Nicholas
Page, John (Harrow, West)Wolfson, Mark
Page, Richard (SW Herts)
Parris, MatthewTellers for the Ayes:
Powell, Rt Hon J.E. (S Down)Mr. David Myles and
Prentice, Rt Hon RegMr. James Pawsey.


Adams, AllenCampbell-Savours, Dale
Allaun, FrankCanavan, Dennis
Alton, DavidCarter-Jones, Lewis
Archer, Rt Hon PeterCartwright, John
Ashton, JoeClark, Dr David (S Shields)
Atkinson, N. (H'gey, )Cocks, Rt Hon M.(B'stol S)
Bagier, Gordon A.T.Coleman, Donald
Barnett, Guy(Greenwich)Concannon, Rt Hon J. D.
Barnett, Rt Hon Joel (H'wd)Conlan, Bernard
Beith, A.J.Cook, Robin F.
Bennett, Andrew(St'Kp'tN)Cowans, Harry
Bidwell, SydneyCox, T. (W'dsw'th, Toot'g)
Boothroyd, MissBettyCraigen, J. M. (G'gow, M'hill)
Bradley, TomCrowther, Stan
Bray, Dr JeremyCryer, Bob
Brown, Hugh D. (Provan)Cunliffe, Lawrence
Brown, R. C. (N'castle W)Dalyell, Tam
Buchan, NormanDavis, Terry (B'ham, Stechf'd)
Callaghan, Jim(Midd't'n&P)Deakins, Eric

Question accordingly negatived.

Dean, Joseph (Leeds West)Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)
Dixon, DonaldMorton, George
Dobson, FrankMulley, RtHonFrederick
Douglas, DickOakes, Rt Hon Gordon
Dubs, AlfredO'Halloran, Michael
Duffy, A. E. P.O'Neill, Martin
Eadie, AlexOrme, RtHon Stanley
Eastham, KenPalmer, Arthur
Edwards, R. (W'hampt'n S E)Park, George
Ellis, R.(NE D'bysh're)Parry, Robert
English, MichaelPavitt, Laurie
Evans, Ioan (Aberdare)Pitt, WilliamHenry
Evans, John (Newton)Powell, Raymond (Ogmore)
Flannery, MartinPrice, C. (Lewisham W)
Fletcher, Ted (Darlington)Radice, Giles
Foot, Rt Hon MichaelRees, Rt Hon M (Leeds S)
Ford, BenRoberts, Gwilym(Cannock)
Forrester, JohnRobinson, G. (Coventry NW)
Foulkes, GeorgeRooker, J. W.
Freeson, RtHon ReginaldRoper, John
George, BruceRoss, Ernest (Dundee West)
Golding, JohnSandelson, Neville
Graham, TedSheerman, Barry
Hamilton, James(Bothwell)Sheldon, RtHon R.
Hamilton, W. W. (C'tral Fife)Shore, Rt Hon Peter
Harrison, Rt Hon WalterShort, Mrs Renée
Haynes, FrankSilkin, RtHon J. (Deptford)
Hogg, N. (EDunb't'nshire)Silverman, Julius
Homewood, WilliamSkinner, Dennis
Hooley, FrankSmith, Cyril(Rochdale)
Howells, GeraintSmith, Rt Hon J. (N Lanark)
Huckfield, LesSnape, Peter
Hughes, Mark(Durham)Soley, Clive
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)Spearing, Nigel
Hughes, Roy (Newport)Spriggs, Leslie
Jay, Rt Hon DouglasSteel, Rt Hon David
John, BrynmorStewart, Rt Hon D. (W Isles)
Johnson, James (Hull West)Stoddart, David
Johnson, Walter (Derby S)Stott, Roger
Jones, Dan (Burnley)Strang, Gavin
Kaufman, Rt Hon GeraldStraw, Jack
Kerr, RussellTaylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton W)
Kilroy-Silk, RobertThomas, DrR.(Carmarthen)
Lambie, DavidThorne, Stan(PrestonSouth)
Lamond, JamesTilley, John
Leighton, RonaldTorney, Tom
Lestor, MissJoanUrwin, RtHon Tom
Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)Varley, Rt Hon Eric G.
Litherland, RobertWainwright, E.(Dearne V)
Lyons, Edward (Bradf'd W)Wainwright, R.(Colne V)
McCartney, HughWalker, Rt Hon H.(D'caster)
McElhone, FrankWatkins, David
McGuire, Michael(Ince)Welsh, Michael
McKay, Allen(Penistone)White, Frank R.
McNally, ThomasWhitehead, Phillip
McNamara, KevinWhitlock, William
McTaggart, RobertWilliams, Rt Hon A.(S'sea W)
Marshall, D(G'gowS'ton)Wilson, Gordon (DundeeE)
Marshall, DrEdmund (Goole)Winnick, David
Martin, M(G'gowS'burn)Woodall, Alec
Maxton, JohnWoolmer, Kenneth
Meacher, MichaelYoung, David (Bolton E)
Mikardo, Ian
Millan, RtHon BruceTellers for the Noes:
Miller, Dr M.S. (E Kilbride)Mr. John Home Robertson and
Morris, Rt Hon C. (O'shaw)Mr. A. W. Stallard.