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Serpell Report

Volume 35: debated on Wednesday 19 January 1983

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6.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the Serpell report.

7.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what action he intends to take on the recommendations of the Serpell report on British Rail finance.

10.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport if he will publish in full the report of the independent committee to review British Rail's finances, chaired by Sir David Serpell.

12.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport when he will now publish the Serpell report on British Rail.

13.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the Serpell committee's report on British Rail's finances.

14.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what action he intends to take on the recommendations of the Serpell report on British Rail finances.

The full reports and detailed supporting work of the Serpell committee will be published tomorrow at 2.30 pm and will, of course, be available to all hon. Members at that time. I also hope to make a statement to the House then.

Order. I propose to call first the six hon. Members whose questions are being answered.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is thoroughly unsatisfactory that the press has analysed, and the British Railways Board has discussed and apparently rejected, the contents of a report that the House has not seen? My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State has this afternoon said that the speculation has been wild and deplorable and wild and speculative. Is my right hon. Friend aware that that is because we have not seen the report and have had to rely on rumour to know what has been happening? Before the recess I suggested that it would be in the Government's interest to publish the report, without comment, so that all hon. Members could have an equal opportunity to read it. May we look forward to a change in procedure?

I wholly agree with my hon. Friend that the alleged leaks and speculation have been deplorable. The comments have been speculative and grossly distorted in many cases. As soon as the manuscripts of the report were received, I informed the House and authorised publication. There are many maps in the supporting documents and publication was not physically possible before tomorrow, when the full documents will be available to hon. Members.

Manuscript copies were sent to the British Railways Board on a confidential basis as soon as I received them. It was right to do that, as the report obviously concerned British Rail and its operations. Those were the only manuscript reports circulated outside the Government.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the wide revulsion in all sections of the community towards the contents of the Serpell report so far leaked, especially the part that recommends wholesale closures by British Rail? Will he confirm his predecessor's view that Beeching-style cuts in British Rail would be a disaster and give the House a clear undertaking that he will loyally uphold his predecessor's decision?

I repeat that the speculation is, in many cases, wholly and wildly inaccurate. I ask the hon. Gentleman to await the report and documents, which will be published in full tomorrow, and also my statement, and not to make the mistake of some right hon. and hon. Members, who rushed to condemn the report before they could carefully study the substantial work involved.

If the Secretary of State is so certain that the comment has been wild, will he give an absolute guarantee that no suggestion that in any way damages British Rail Engineering Ltd. will be accepted by him? Does he accept that it must not be privatised or sold, and that the degree of engineering expertise available to it is one of the strongest cards held in Britain? Should we not do everything possible to encourage it and its export markets?

The hon. Lady will have the full report in her hands soon. I ask her to await it and to study it. She will find much valuable information in it on that subject.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I share the disappointment of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and Lymington (Mr. Adley) at the manner in which publication of the report has been handled, because any leakage of whatever dimension would seem to have come from the railways side? In view of the great uncertainty that the leakage has created about the future of rural railways, electrification and many other matters, does my right hon. Friend agree that it behoves British Rail to work in conjunction and co-operation with the Government rather than to seek to box them in.

I have expressed my strong feelings about all the speculation that has taken place. Some have described it as "astute", but I believe that it is counterproductive and highly damaging to the future interests of the railways and their users.

What useful purpose has been served by delaying publication of the Serpell report until tomorrow? As the right hon. Gentleman has said that many reports have been inaccurate or misleading, will he tell us whether the reports that one of the options was a 40 per cent. increase in commuter fares and that options for substantial cuts in the network were inaccurate? If those reports were inaccurate, will the Secretary of State give a clear assurance that the Government have no intention of proceeding with any proposals on those lines?

There has been no delay in the publication of the substantial reports and detailed supporting work. They are to be made available to Members of the House at 2.30 pm tommorrow, which is the first time that it is physically possible for them to be made available in printed and published form. There has been no delay at all in these matters.

As for inaccuracies, of which the right hon. Gentleman has just repeated one or two, I repeat what I said earlier. To go on record condemning a report before there could possibly he time for it to be published and studied seems to me to verge on silliness.

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that if the Government carry out any part of the leaked report—I stress "leaked", because none of us has seen the printed report—or instruct the railway authorities to carry out its recommendations, it will be a virtual death sentence for the railway system as we know it? In view of the intense interest of the nation in this matter, will he give an undertaking today that, following publication of the Serpell report, there will be a full day's debate on the subject in the House?

I ask the hon. Gentleman, who has considerable experience in these matters, to await the full report and the supporting detailed analysis, which I believe he will find extremely interesting and valuable. I have no doubt that he will have the opportunity, which will be welcomed by many, to participate in the invormed public debates and discussions everywhere on the issues involved when the report has been published.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that one aspect of the Serpell report that has leaked out is that commuters in the south-east, several thousand of whom are my constituents, will have to pay as much as 40 per cent. more to get to work in London? I hope that when my right hon. Friend has had a chance to study the report he will quickly scotch that rumour.

That is among the many speculations that have been made. As I have said, they are widely inaccurate. I assure my hon. Friend that when he has the opportunity to study the report fully—it will be published in full very shortly—he will discover that many of the so-called leaks are not leaks at all but manufactured speculations bearing no relation to what is in the report.

Will the Secretary of State incinerate the minority Goldstein report, which proposes that track product orders from British Rail be diverted to overseas producers, especially as the existing track producer in the United Kingdom in my constituency is highly competitive in international markets and exports more than 60 per cent. of its total production? Is he aware of the resentment that this has created in BSC towards the Serpell report and its findings?

I do not think that burning reports is a healthy course to follow. As I have said before, the hon. Gentleman should await the full report and detailed supporting work, which will be in his hands very shortly, and then make his comments, rather than follow the foolish course of condemning the report before he has even seen or had time to study it.

When my right hon. Friend considers the options in the Serpell report, will he bear in mind that many Conservative Members have branch lines in their constituencies, such as the Harrogate-York line, which now carries 900,000 people and which, although loss making, we regard as crucial to the economy and to society?

I ask my hon. Friend to await the report. I am sure that he will find what it says about all these aspects valuable and useful.

Order. It is clear that there will be an opportunity for questions on the report after the statement tomorrow. I shall call one more hon. Member from each side and then move on.

Is the Minister aware that it is not our fault that today we can discuss only the report's antecedents and not its contents? Why was it thought appropriate for the firm of Travers Morgan to produce the report on British Rail Engineering Ltd. which would apparently decimate all the rail workshops in this country, in view of the malign influence of Mr. Goldstein on the committee?

I do not expect the hon. Gentleman to believe everything that he reads in the press. I hold him in higher esteem than that.

Experienced consultancy back-up was required by the committee, and it was considered by far the most efficient arrangement to appoint consultant firms which could work directly with the distinguished committee members.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the availability of the report to hon. Members at 2.30 pm rather than 3.30 pm tomorrow is greatly welcomed by Back Benchers, but will he go the whole hog and make it available at 1.30 pm?

The volumes concerned are substantial. I wish to be absolutely sure that they are available in the Vote Office so that hon. Members may have the first opportunity to see and examine the considerable work involved.