HC Deb 27 June 1977 vol 934 cc49-73
The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. William Rodgers)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on transport policy.

In April last year my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, published a consultation document on transport policy. The House will recall how much that document owed to the late Anthony Crosland. Since the creation of the Department of Transport in September, my hon. Friend the Under-secretary and I have had discussions with a wide range of organisations. The House debated the consultation document on 20th January.

The Queen's Speech promised that the Government would bring forward proposals for developing a transport policy best suited to economic and social needs. Our main conclusions are set out in the White Paper which is presented today by my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales and myself. I regret that, owing to an industrial dispute at Her Majesty's Stationery Office, printed copies are not yet available for right hon. and hon. Members, but typescripts are available in the Vote Office. In this statement, I cannot set out all the proposals in a document over 30,000 words in length. It may help the House, however, if I refer to some of the principal features.

First, public transport. The maintenance of our public services is the White Paper's main concern. Expenditure in support of public transport will not be reduced, as had been proposed in the consultation document and in this year's public expenditure White Paper. The White Paper provides for support to local bus services to be maintained at present levels in real terms to sustain essential networks and moderate fare increases.

Secondly, we intend to place more responsibility for planning and securing properly integrated local public transport on local authorities. They are in the best position to assess local needs and how to meet them. They, with the operators, are best able to co-ordinate the different modes in a practical way, taking account of the views of the consumer, of local industry and commerce and of the trade unions. But outside the metropolitan areas the present arrangements are inadequate. The Government will introduce legislation to require county councils in these areas to prepare local public transport plans.

We attach particular importance to our proposals for the rural areas whose special problems we recognise. The new county public transport plans should give greater stability to conventional bus services and there will be increased support for them. In addition, the licensing system will be modified to allow for flexibility and innovation in meeting needs in the most cost-effective ways. We see scope for more self-help and more community buses, based on local initiative in the light of local conditions.

Thirdly, we provide for an increase, by 1980–81, of £25 million over present levels of expenditure on concessionary fares for the elderly, blind and disabled.

Fourthly, the White Paper marks out a central and continuing rôle for the railways, notably in long-distance passenger transport, in important commuter services, in the movement of bulk freight and in providing essential local services. There can be no question of imposing major cuts on the network. By concentrating on the tasks they do well, by increasing efficiency and productivity, and by skilful marketing, the British Railways Board, working closely together with the trade unions, can build an assured future for the railways. In the longer term, it may be possible to look to higher levels of investment. Meanwhile, we shall give the Board more flexibility to deploy the available resources to best effect and agree rolling programmes for suitable investment.

The Government have set two financial objectives for the railways: to contain, and then to reduce, subsidy to the revenue account for the operation of passenger services; and to eliminate any continuing requirement beyond this year for support to the other railways business. New arrangements are needed for setting targets for sectors of the business, but the Government have not set a specific financial objective for reducing subsidy to the London commuter services.

National resources must go first and foremost to equip the railways to carry out those national tasks which they alone can perform, and where their contribution to the industrial strategy is the greatest. But the railways provide many local passenger services also, some carrying few passengers at high and increasing cost. We propose discussions with local government, the British Railways Board and the unions on how best to involve local people in any necessary decisions on the future of such services and on how best to use resources to meet local needs.

Finally, there is the level and nature of the road programme. The last 20 years have seen substantial improvements to the core of the national road system. For the future, there will be a new approach. The programme will be more selective, directed to meeting specific economic and environmental needs rather than to completing a national strategic network to a uniform standard throughout. For the next few years, at least, expenditure will remain at about the reduced levels of the current year.

The White Paper deals with many other matters which time does not allow me to describe in detail now. They include wider powers to control car parking in congested areas, while recognising the importance of the private car as a means of transport; greater attention to the needs of pedestrians and cyclists; and measures to civilise the heavy lorry. However, some matters will be the subject of later statements—notably our proposals for road safety and the future rôle and structure of the National Freight Corporation, including the ownership of Freightliners.

Transport policy must be directed towards economic growth and higher prosperity, ensuring for everyone a reasonable level of personal mobility, and minimising the harmful effects on the environment that result directly from the transport we use. It must take account of the conservation of energy and of land use planning. We have to meet these objectives within the resources of public expenditure which are available for transport. The Government's proposals make no claim on public expenditure beyond those set out in the Public Expenditure White Paper—Cmnd. 6721.

As the House knows, the transport picture is complex but there is a tempta- tion to look at it in simple terms. In practice this is the position traditionally adopted by the many lobbies that bring pressure to bear in the making of policy. It is the task of Government to understand these conflicting interests and if possible to reconcile them. But, above all, transport is a service to people, industry and commerce.

Well over 1 million people are employed in the transport industry, half a million of them in public passenger transport. They all have a lesser or greater responsibility for the public's experience of it and for helping to translate the proposals in this White Paper into everyday reality. In the years ahead transport planning must remain flexible if it is to match changing circumstances and meet real needs. In the meantime I hope that the House will welcome the White Paper as a positive and major contribution to the solution of transport problems.

Mr. Norman Fowler

Is the Secretary of State aware that his statement is as significant for what it omits as for what it contains? Clearly all the transport promises in the last Labour Party manifesto have been omitted, including the promises to nationalise the ports, to extend the nationalisation of road haulage, to make this a nation that is less dependent on the car and to secure a massive shift from road to rail and water. [Interruption.] All those proposals have been abandoned.

Mr. Skinner

Yes, they have all been abandoned.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The constant interruptions from a sedentary position by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) are becoming beyond what is reasonable. The hon. Member does not realise how strong his voice is. Fortunately, I am able to hear little of it, but I must ask the hon. Member to try to control his feelings for once in a while.

Mr. Skinner

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am seeking to answer some of the questions posed by the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler). He was trying to indicate that the Labour Party manifesto had been thrown overboard. I was trying to tell him that—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am much obliged to the hon. Member for his explanation, but I should be grateful if he would try to restrain himself in the same way as do other hon. Members in the House. If every hon. Member kept interrupting as he does, and did so in such a sustained fashion, debate would be impossible. Mr. Fowler.

Mr. Skinner rose

Mr. Speaker

Has the hon. Member for Bolsover a point of order? He is not going to argue with me. He might as well understand that now.

Mr. Skinner

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I was trying to give an explanation in response to your quest for information from me. The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield was speaking about the failure to carry out the policies in the Labour Party manifesto.

Mr. Speaker

I did not seek information from the hon. Member. I asked him to restrain himself. He is making it difficult for me to restrain myself. Hon. Members must co-operate with the Chair when another hon. Member is trying to speak.

Mr. Norman Fowler

Will the Secretary of State now say clearly and frankly whether the proposals in the last Labour Party manifesto have been abandoned? I am sure that that would be for the convenience of myself and the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner).

I have three specific questions to ask the Secretary of State. My first question concerns railway policy. We also want a future for the railway industry, for those who work in it and for those who travel by it. Can the Secretary of State therefore say what improvements in productivity he foresees and what effect these will have on keeping fare increases to a minimum?

Secondly, I turn to rail transport. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to modify the licensing system, why did his Government scrap the moderate proposals in the 1973 Bill introduced by the last Conservative Government which would have achieved just that? We welcome the apparent conversion but deplore the delay.

Thirdly, what has happened to the proposal in the consultation document that there should be a National Transport Council to integrate transport? Why is it taking so long to decide on the future of the National Freight Corporation and Freightliners?

Is the Minister aware that, whatever else, his statement will be taken as marking the end of the so-called integrated transport policy of the Labour Government? Is he aware that even now there is insufficient emphasis on the importance of competition and on the freedom of choice for the customer?

Mr. Rodgers

The House is in some difficulty because hon. Members have not read the White Paper, through no fault of mine but because of the custom and procedures of the House. When the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) reads the White Paper, he will find—as will my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner)—that undertakings given in our October 1974 manifesto are very largely fulfilled. The hon. Member will also find that there is a plain reference to our intentions for road haulage. That is contained in paragraph 47 of the White Paper.

There is an omission on road safety, but the House has discussed that matter on a number of occasions and will no doubt discuss it again. The hon. Member should not say that there is so little of the October 1974 manifesto in the White Paper until he has read it.

The White Paper makes it clear that I attach the greatest importance to the Railways Board and the railway unions working together to achieve a high level of efficiency and productivity. As I have said before, I think that it is right that those whose duty it is to carry out day-to-day responsibilities should work closely with the unions. It is not my desire to set out detailed proposals for the day-to-day running of the operation. As productivity rises, the need for fare increases will be moderated.

The hon. Member was grudging about rural areas. The problems of the rural areas have been acute and are becoming more so. Although there is no need to debate this today, I greatly regret that the hon. Member's own Government did not do more in the past. I am not disclaiming responsibility, but we must concentrate on the future. Let us try to work out the proposals contained in the White Paper. There is a genuine charter for the rural areas which will do a great deal of good. The House will find that there are responses to points made by hon. Members on both sides of the House who have constantly drawn attention to the severe problems that arise because of the decline in public transport. These are important problems.

With the establishment of the new Department of Transport, we believe that there is no point in proceeding at the moment to establishing a National Transport Council. We do not want another talking shop. The right place for decisions is the House. The House should decide.

We think that it is worth exploring the possibility of a little Neddy. These are all matters for consultation. We have had a good deal of discussion about the National Freight Corporation. There has to be a major reconstruction. I hope that it will be possible to make substantial progress by the autumn. That will be the right time for a further statement about Freightliners.

Mr. Walter Johnson

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there will be general support for his statement?

Mr. Skinner


Mr. Johnson

However, is my right hon. Friend aware that I am disappointed that he shelved the question of returning Freightliners and National Carriers to British Rail? I hope that something will be done about that in the further statement later in the year.

I turn to the promise of further investment in the railways in the future. Is my right hon. Friend aware of the necessity of making an early decision on this matter, because British Rail cannot plan modernisation? For example, changes in the general network, electrification, power signalling, the modernisation of stations and track renewal require long-term planning. Is he aware that it is therefore necessary for the Government to make an early decision? May we have an assurance that adequate discussions and consultations will continue to take place even though this is now Government policy in the White Paper?

Mr. Rodgers

I greatly appreciate my hon. Friend's kind remarks giving a general welcome to the White Paper. Certainly, there are several matters in the White Paper which will require a good deal of consultation even in areas where the Government have made decisions—and for the most part what I have announced today are decisions firmly made. I understand my hon. Friend's anxiety about Freightliners. He has been persistent in his questioning on this matter. But it is important that, when we make a decision, we should get it right and that it should take in the whole context of the future of the National Freight Corporation and NCL.

My statement and the White Paper recognise the importance of investment. Although short-term financial constraints make it impossible to hold out an immediate prospect of improvement, we leave the door open, so the better the railways do in the interim period the more likelihood will there be of further investment into the 1980s. But the proposals for the renewal grant, which is quite new, and for the rolling programmes should, I think, do much to please those who have the future of the railways at heart.

Mr. Penhaligon

I am sure that there is much in the White Paper which we on the Liberal Bench will be pleased to see. Will the right hon. Gentleman let us know, in particular, what legislation is likely to come out of the White Paper—30,000 words is a great deal—and when that legislation will be introduced? Further, may we know when legislation with regard to safety on the roads will be introduced? In the right hon. Gentleman's view, how many of the 8,000 people who died in the past 12 months—that is about the number dying each year—would not have died if a sensible review of the drink and drive rules and our seat-belt laws had already taken place?

Mr. Rodgers

Again, I welcome the hon. Gentleman's kind remarks. I believe that there is a great deal in the White Paper which right hon. and hon. Members on both sides will find themselves able to approve. The question of legislation is not for me but for my colleagues, including the Leader of the House. I should attach particular priority to legislation on our local transport plans. It is important that these go forward if we are to have an effective integration of public transport at local level and give the public services in many rural areas real security, which has been badly lacking in the past. I should myself, therefore, attach some priority to that.

On the question of safety, there is no need for me to rehearse the sad story of the seat-belts Bill, which failed—I must recognise this—because of substantial and determined opposition by some hon. Members on both sides of the House. But I hope that we shall bring safety proposals back, and, again, in company with the hon. Gentleman, I think that proposals on drink and driving are particularly urgent and would deserve full support from both sides.

Mr. Bagier

The House will need time to study the White Paper, but will my right hon. Friend take it that we welcome the knowledge that there is to be no direct curtailment of the present railway system in a sort of Beeching atmosphere? Will my right hon. Friend examine two matters? Arising out of his statement, there appears to be a fares implication underwritten which points towards a higher fares structure. Will not this lead to less use of the system and possibly to closures in the system? Second, with reference to what my right hon. Friend said about the involvement of local authorities in the structure, will not this lead to a complex procedure, and perhaps lead to a curtailment or a weakening of the current safeguards to stop closures which now operate?

Mr. Rodgers

I agree with my hon. Friend that it will be necessary to give a good deal of time to consider all the aspects of the White Paper, and the last thing I want to do is to mislead either him or the House today. But my hon. Friend is quite right: there will not be another Beeching—and a good thing, too. There is no such proposal in the White Paper.

May I now take my hon. Friend's specific questions in reverse order? I recognise that any proposals involving local authorities in decisions on the most cost-effective way to use resources for public transport are bound to be complex, and this is one reason why the proposals in the White Paper are, perhaps, green at this point. In other words, they must be discussed very fully with the local authority associations, with the Railways Board and with the trade unions as well. But if we are to have proper co-ordina- tion and integration, and if the rail and road services are to meet local needs, we must find a way. I do not believe that the man in Westminster or Whitehall knows best, even if I am there myself. I believe that there is much more scope for getting local people involved in decisions which are properly theirs.

As regards fares, there is nothing in the White Paper which would contribute to an increase in fares beyond anything expected at present. The stable financial régime and maximum managerial freedom which the Railways Board has been seeking, and which, I believe, is covered in the White Paper, should help the Board towards spacing any necessary fare increases at annual intervals, and I hope that, when it has studied the White Paper, the Board will find that it can manage without a further increase before the end of this year.

Mr. Donald Stewart

Will the Secretary of State take it that this White Paper will be regarded as direct sabotage of any chance of getting fair and economic services in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland? As regards the airways, the nationalised British Airways, which is advertising reductions from £292 to £85 on flights to Athens, is charging on flights from Stornoway and Benbecula to Glasgow double per mile what it charges from Glasgow to London? Further, will the right hon. Gentleman take it that his refusal to look at the road equivalent tariff, which has been backed by the Highlands and Islands Development Board and which has been approved in Norway, will be seen as a tremendous setback for transport in the Highlands and Islands?

Mr. Rodgers

I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman has been so ungenerous today, and I hope that, on reflection, he will regret it, since it is not worthy of him. In so far as the right hon. Gentleman made points to which, I know, he attaches importance, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State at the Scottish Office is here and will take note of them.

Mr. Roy Hughes

As regards financial support for public transport, will my right hon. Friend appreciate that there are certain loopholes in the present system in as much as certain local authorities are using at least part of the money for road schemes, and there have meanwhile been further cuts in public transport, as have already been experienced in Gwent? Will my right hon. Friend do something about tightening up the procedures?

Mr. Rodgers

My hon. Friend makes an important point. This matter has been in our minds. The present arrangements for transport supplementary grant are unsatisfactory. Not only is there a problem for the public bus services, which need a stable basis for making decisions, but money has sometimes been, if I may so put it not unfairly, diverted from purposes for which it was intended. That is why we want public transport plans on a five-year basis and a firm commitment to support bus services.

Mr. Temple-Morris

I appreciate that it is not the right hon. Gentleman's fault, but I hope he is aware that both sides of the House have great difficulty in questioning him about a White Paper of which we cannot secure a copy until he gets to his feet. I am sure that he acknowledges this. Will he, therefore, bring his influence to bear to ensure that we have a debate on the subject before very long?

Although it was belated, I welcome what the Secretary of State has said about rural transport. He mentioned the increasing ô of county councils, county plans and so on and said that the licensing provisions were to be modified. Does he accept that there is a case—it has been made by many people—for licensing powers to be given to local authorities? Even if his reforms do not go that far, may we know what power local authorities and their plans will have in respect of licensing and the traffic commissioners, the present licensing authority?

Mr. Rodgers

As the hon. Gentleman very fairly said, the first matter which he raised is not for me. I think that it would be for the Procedure Committee. I am sure that the point has been noted, since it is difficult for all hon. Members and, in a sense, embarrassing for me, but, as I said, I have followed the procedure which has always been adopted. I should welcome a debate very soon, but I know that we have a heavy programme of work between now and the end of this Session. However, I shall draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the hon. Gentleman's request.

I recall the hon. Gentleman's important contribution in the debate which we had on rural transport earlier this year. We considered the question of giving licensing powers to local authorities. We rejected it, but we make clear in the White Paper that the licensing authorities must take account of the transport plans which I described, for which we shall make provision in legislation.

Mr. Spriggs

May I preface my question, Mr. Speaker, by pointing out that we have been waiting at the Vote Office for the White Paper, and that those who were waiting were informed that they could not have copies until the Secretary of State rose to make his statement? My right hon. Friend and his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will therefore understand why most of us knew nothing about it until the statement was made.

Will my right hon. Friend study the present position of the Railways Board in relation to the present system of financing? Is it not time that we ended the present arrangement whereby the Board comes along with a begging-bowl and we allowed the Board now to make a contract with the Government to run the railways on a businesslike basis, with a man such as Peter Parker, one of our most successful business men, to lead it to success?

Mr. Rodgers

Yes, I hope that the provisions in the White Paper will be, in the sense in which my hon. Friend uses the phrase, a contract with the Board. We have set out the parameters. We have indicated how much money will be available. We have introduced very important flexible arrangements for financing. I hope that the Board will feel that it can proceed on this basis in the way that my hon. Friend indicated.

Mr. Wyn Roberts

The right hon. Gentleman made much of increased support for rural transport. Can he spell it out in greater detail? Is more money to be invested in rural bus services? As regards rail policy, is the right hon. Gentleman saying that there will be no rail closures under any circumstances? Finally, as regards roads, does the implied cutback mean that some schemes will be taken out of the Government's preparation pool?

Mr. Rodgers

On the first point, there is an additional provision for rural transport of some £15 million, but this is not the most important point. It is an endeavour to give real stability to existing public transport in the rural areas. That is the most important aspect of that part of our rural transport provisions. But there is to be more money available. There is to be some diversion for that reason.

On the second point, I cannot say that there will never be any rail closures in any circumstances. It would be wrong to say that. What I have said is that, in so far as I now have powers which I can exercise on rail closures following certain procedures, we are now proposing that discussions should begin with a view to setting up a new procedure which will allow local opinion to make its views known on the best use of the resources available for public transport. The discussions will begin, and we shall have to see how they go.

On the third question, it would be a mistake to think that I was saying that there was to be a cutting back of a muchreduced road programme. We said in the public expenditure White Paper published earlier this year that there was to be a rise slowly towards the levels which road building reached a few years ago. That rise will not now take place. In other words, there is a straight line. There will, however, be scope for a number of very important schemes for the improvement of our roads to the ports, for example, and for bypass schemes, which have a very high amenity value. I am not saying that there will be no more motorways, but we shall have a much more sensitive and meticulous approach to make sure that we get real value for the money that we spend.

Mr. Ronald Atkins

I regret the fact that extra funds are not available for badly-needed railway investment, that being the way to increase profitability and productivity. But I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement that the present railway system will remain intact—I hope in its entirety. Bearing in mind the difficulty of formulating transport policies for years ahead in times of financial reces- sion, will my right hon. Friend's attitude be truly flexible and take account of increasing improvements in the Government's finances and scarcer and more expensive oil in providing for railway investment?

Mr. Rodgers

The White Paper makes it very clear that the whole question of the future of energy supplies is a fundamental one which lies behind our decisions. I do not think that I could improve upon the way in which my hon. Friend puts it when he says that we must be flexible because of changing circumstances in that area, as in others.

The White Paper proposes that—instead of a White Paper of this kind, perhaps every nine years—there might be a much more regular procedure, perhaps a three-yearly While Paper which would enable the House to assess the very questions that my hon. Friend raises. Nobody can foreclose the options which circumstances may require in the years ahead.

I take my hon. Friend's point that, in a sense, for me, as for others, to produce a White Paper at present when there has been a severe cutback in spending on transport is much the most difficult time, when it is not easy to bring joy to anyone without making further demands on public spend, which would inevitably involve cuts in public spending in other areas which are important to us all. When my hon. Friend regrets the lack of funds for the railway network, this is one of the matters that will have to be looked at year in, year out by the House.

Mr. Crouch

Will the Secretary of State comment on a statement in the White Paper that transport can serve us best if it responds to change? May I take up the point that the right hon. Gentleman has just made and ask him to say something more about the fundamental changes which transport may have to go through in the next 30 years in the face of the changing pattern of energy supplies? In particular, has he closed the option on the Channel Tunnel, which would enable us to develop rail communications with Europe much better than relying on road transport and oil consumption?

Mr. Rodgers

On the question of the Channel Tunnel, I cannot go any further than the statement made in the House by the late Anthony Crosland at the time of the Government's decision. This is a matter which will remain in the minds of right hon. and hon. Gentlemen, but I certainly cannot make a statement of a change of Government policy this afternoon.

I would love to speak on the subject of energy at length, Mr. Speaker, but you would not allow me to do so. It is easy to take a simplified view of the consequencies of the likely shortage of energy in the years ahead. But a much more sophisticated analysis is required to get a proper balance between forms of public transport and between public and private transport.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyons

Is it not unfortunate that there should have not been in the White Paper a clear decision to move more freight to rail in order to help with British Rail's income and help with conservation? What does my right hon. Friend mean when he says that rail passenger fares will not go up more than is contemplated? Does the White Paper mean that there will be higher fares for passenger rail services or not? With regard to the publication of the White Paper, is it not a fact that Departments can produce White Papers at any time they wish and that there is nothing in the rules of the House which says that they must wait until the Minister rises to speak?

Mr. Rodgers

My reply on the third of my hon. Friend's points was meant to be helpful to the House, in recognition of the fact that it is perhaps rather unsatisfactory that there should be such long intervals, as we all know there are, between serious debates on transport policy, intervals which may encourage a certain laziness in Government in introducing proposals and revising their own ideas. That is for the House and successive Governments to decide, but I thought it helpful to suggest that perhaps we should discuss transport more often.

I chose my words on rail fares very carefully. I do not think that anybody is suggesting that road and rail passengers can be shielded from the effects of inflation. We still have inflation at a higher level than we find tolerable. Therefore, we must accept that there must be some catching up in this regard. What I tried to say was that, certainly for bus fares, the increases in real terms, the increases on top of inflation which would have taken place on the basis of the January White Paper, are likely to be halved on average over the country as a whole as a result of the proposals made here.

As for the question of transferring freight to rail, I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the fact that in the White Paper we have made clear that there will be no restraint on Section 8 grants to enable new railheads, new private sidings, to be established. We believe that this is a very desirable way of moving forward. As we say in the White Paper, we greatly welcome as much freight travelling by rail as possible in the areas where the railways are singularly well-equipped to carry it.

Mr. Fry

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that he still keeps to the view of the consultative document that any major transfer of freight from road to rail is a pipe dream? If he does, will he try to square his statement this afternoon, that transport policy should lead to economic growth and higher prosperity, with his apparent abandonment of the strategic road network? Does not he realise that that will place this country in transport terms at a severe disadvantage in comparison with most of our Continental rivals, and that investment in roads is one way to achieve higher prosperity and more economic growth? Can he please explain the apparent contradiction in his remarks?

Mr. Rodgers

I certainly have not used, and would not use, the phrase that the idea of a major transfer from road to rail freight is a pipe dream. What I have said, and will say again, is that road and rail are particularly suited to carry certain sorts of traffic. We must recognise this and allow our industry, the public sector as well as the private sector, to make a choice, because only in this way shall we ensure that industry achieves the objectives of the industrial strategy. That is plain. It is a thought which comes through in the White Paper. The more we can do to transfer freight, the better.

As for the economic strategy, we cannot have it all ways. I know that we try, but the question is one of our priorities for the sums of money available to us for spending on transport. I have spoken of the substantial improvement in the road network. I remember that when Harold Macmillan opened the Preston bypass in 1959 the rejoicing was like that at the Jubilee. Since then a great deal of road building has gone on. There has been a vast improvement. As of now, we take the view that the priorities should change.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

The House can see that many hon. Members still wish to put questions to the Minister. We have been on this subject since 12 minutes past four. I am prepared to allow questions on it to continue for a little longer, but it is as clear as a pikestaff that not every hon. Member will be able to put a question.

Mrs. Dunwoody

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's assurances on the railways, but it is important that there should be onward investment. Is my right hon. Friend aware that there are a great deal of expertise and many jobs tied up, particularly in the engineering works end of British Rail? I hope that my right hon. Friend will give us an undertaking that the new flexible proposals will also allow us in future to put more investment into rolling stock and the other items that are particularly needed on the railways.

Mr. Rodgers

Any hon. Member representing Crewe is right to make that point. I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that our proposals for rolling programmes are meant particularly to help the railway workshops.

Mr. Mawby

Clearly, we shall not be able to comment upon the White Paper until we have looked at it closely. The right hon. Gentleman referred to concessionary fares for the elderly. Does that reference mean that he will do something at last to remove the disparity between the treatment of elderly people in the rural areas and the treatment of the elderly in many of the metropolitan areas?

Mr. Rodgers

I hope that the White Paper will help in that direction. I do not want to exaggerate. To have free fares for all old people, which is a very attractive proposition, would cost over £200 million more a year. That money is not available. But there is a disparity between, broadly speaking, the GLC and metropolitan counties and the rural areas. My guess is that the £25 million will go mainly in the direction of helping those areas.

Mr. Robin F. Cook

Will my right hon. Friend explain how he reconciles his statement that the White Paper will not result in higher rail fare increases with the statement in Chapter 10 of the White Paper that the public service subsidy obligation will be £20 million less than in Cmnd. 6729? If he is to take £20 million off the public service obligation, may we at least have it back in the investment that we need?

Mr. Rodgers

There is a simple answer, which my hon. Friend will see if he reflects on the period that the White Paper covers. I hope very much that any loss of that size in the public service obligation subsidy will be made up by increased productivity and efficiency. I see a large part of the destiny of the railways lying in this area. But my statement on fares was very carefully judged. My hon. Friend may have slightly simplified the words that I used.

Mr. Evelyn King

With regard to rural transport, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, at least in Dorset, what he said will receive a generous welcome? We are grateful to him for what he said and in particular for the added rôle of the county councils. But the warmth of that welcome depends to a considerable extent on the financial provisions, which the right hon. Gentleman has not really outlined. Does he accept that in recent years the towns in Great Britain have received great financial help while the countryside, particularly in the matter of rate grants, has been very ungenerously treated? May we ask him this time to see that a great deal of the expense—and there will be expense—falls on the Exchequer, not the local inhabitants?

Mr. Rodgers

We have discussed many times the balance of spending between town and country, and we shall do so again in terms of transport as in other areas. It is not right to attribute it simply to the decisions of Government. Some county councils have shown very little interest in maintaining public transport locally and are guilty of serious neglect. For that reason we intend to place requirements on them to produce county public transport plans. At the same time, we are to make resources available. If the counties take their obligations seriously, they will recognise that maintaining a public transport system should have very high priority.

Mr. Watkinson

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in rural areas such as mine his proposals, especially his commitment to expenditure on buses, will receive a warm welcome, but that those who live in rural areas have had reforms and changes dangled before their eyes on previous occasions and have seen nothing come of them? Will he give an indication of when we may expect these changes to be implemented, and will he say something more about the county plans? My right hon. Friend referred to certain areas which had been very poor in their provision of transport, particularly in rural areas such as mine in Gloucestershire. Will he retain powers to call in the county plans and send them back if they are not adequate in their provision?

Mr. Rodgers

I agree with what my hon. Friend says. There may be cynicism about what is proposed for rural areas. One reason why I am determined that this Government shall complete their present term is to ensure that legislation goes through to deal with these serious issues. I hope very much that the House will facilitate that. The details of the planning arrangements are matters that, very fairly and legitimately, we must discuss with the local authority associations. We could not do that before my statement and publication of the White Paper. Certainly, the idea of having a requirement of this kind is to allow a local option but to ensure that that option is responsibly exercised.

Mr. Rathbone

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we welcome the priority given to development of transport systems to the ports but that we question whether this embraces the developing ports, such as Newhaven in my constituency, although we hope that we are correct in understanding the Secretary of State's reassurance about the new priority the Government are giving to transport systems in the South-East?

Mr. Rodgers

It would be true to say that over recent years there has been—I think quite rightly—heavy emphasis on investment in roads in the North-East and other developing areas, including the North-West. We now recognise that there must inevitably be some shift, particularly as there is a growth of ports in the South-East and East Anglia, for example. But I think the hon. Gentleman will find that the first claim on road resources for these purposes is recognised in the White Paper.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

I propose to call two more hon. Members from each side of the House.

Mr. Skinner

Is my right hon. Friend aware that he will not campaign for and succeed in achieving a Labour victory if he issues a White Paper and a transport strategy based on the disastrous White Paper on public expenditure of the year before last? If he wants to ensure a transfer from road to rail, he must shed the Lib-Lab policy which has been accepted and applauded on the Opposition Benches today and revert to the Labour Party manifesto of 1974, about which Opposition Members derided him. Until he does that, the prospects for ensuring that railwaymen and their families will take part in a great exercise to elect a Labour Government will be a forlorn one.

Mr. Rodgers

I regret that my hon. Friend is not more charitable. He takes an extremely pessimistic view. I am prepared, as I hope he is, to campaign successfully on the proposals in the White Paper. I think that they have a very great deal of attraction, and I think that we should put our full weight behind them.

As for the manifesto, I say again to him that I am prepared at any time which is convenient to him to meet him with our October 1974 manifesto and go through it word for word on the question of transport, comparing it with proposals in the White Paper. I believe that he would be satisfied in that respect. The purpose of the White Paper is to meet the nation's needs as we the Government see them. I believe that the circumstances of the White Paper are not governed by any arrangements short or long-term but by the best interests of Britain today.

Mr. Burden

Since commuters are always the hardest hit by increases in rail fares, will the right hon. Gentleman indicate what effect the proposals will have upon fares and services for commuters? It seems that commuters, because they are a captive community of travellers, are often singled out for particularly harsh treatment when fares are increased.

Mr. Rodgers

I agree that it sometimes seems like that because there have been substantial increases in recent years. However, there is the real difficulty that I have mentioned to the House more than once. What we do not pay in fares we must raise in rates and taxes where the difference is not achieved through increased productivity. However, we do not spell out a specific financial objective for London and the South-East as the consultation document did. We hope very much that the Railways Board will take decisions that it thinks wise to make up the shortfall that would otherwise occur. Certainly if increases have to be made in the South-East beyond what is required by inflation they must be phased in such a way as to minimise the hardship that would otherwise occur.

Mr. Whitehead

Does my right hon. Friend accept that for those of us who have a particular interest in the railways the construction of the White Paper seems to be a long march to the least worst alternative? There is much in it to be commended, particularly the commitment to a quinquennial programme for rail freight, which will be greatly welcomed, I think, on the investment side of British Rail engineering.

Will my right hon. Friend go into more detail on one point on which I think some in the House found a little evasive, and that is the question of rail closures? If the procedures in paragraphs 99 and 100 are followed, can he honestly say that there are safeguards similar to those that now exist against hasty line closures, bearing in mind that a railway line once closed cannot be reopened in the way that a bus route can be restarted?

Mr. Rodgers

Yes, I think that there are safeguards. The arrangements are complicated and subject to consultation. There are, however, a number of essential safeguards whereby I and my colleagues must decide whether it is right that there should be a local option about a rail line, and I think that this will be subject to considerable discussion.

In addition, the White Paper makes clear that we recognise that a decision made today could be outdated by a change in the energy situation, and we have in mind that in the event of any closure taking place it might be desirable to reinstate services at a later date. That view was not taken five or 10 years ago, but it is a view that is clearly taken in the White Paper.

Mr. Moate

Will the right hon. Gentleman say precisely what he means by the statement in paragraph 47 of the White Paper which says that it remains the Government's intention that there should be an extension of public ownership in road freight transport? Precisely what steps does he have in mind? Will he say when we might expect statements on the National Freight Corporation and on road safety?

Mr. Rodgers

I do not think it will be possible to make a statement on the NFC before the end of July, but I shall make it as soon as possible in the autumn. That does not mean that the actual preparation will not go forward during the recess as it must. I recognise the urgency and I am sorry for the delay, but we must bear in mind the inevitable complexities of the problems.

I would guess that the proper moment for the statement on road safety legislation will be in the Queen's Speech in the autumn, but if it is proper to make a statement to the House before then I shall do so.

Paragraph 47 means precisely what it says. We do not believe that this is something to which we can give priority in the present Session of Parliament. There are some important matters concerning the reorganisation of the NFC. We believe there are many virtues in an extension of public ownership in road freight transport.

Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Not for the first time, we have had the problem of a White Paper being available to everyone but Members of Parliament. I leave that, however, because the problem takes a new twist. As I came into the House at 4 o'clock, much of the White Paper was already on the tape, but the Vote Office was not prepared to release it to Members until the Minister had risen to make his statement. I assume that the embargo to the Press was for 3.30. May I ask you, Mr. Speaker, to use your undoubted influence to persuade the Leader of the House to refer this matter forthwith not to the permanent Procedure Committee but to the Sessional Committee? Hon. Members are getting sick and tired of the action of Governments, of both parties, in treating Members as third-class citizens.

Mr. Rodgers

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Were it proper for me to do so, I should support any such proposal. It would be a considerable embarrassment to Ministers to be in a position in which they could not make a final revised copy available to the Press before the time at which they were to speak in the House, and that procedure was followed very carefully on this occasion. I can assure the hon. Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg) that, apart from the procedures affecting the Press, no copies were made available to any individual before they were made available in the Vote Office.

Mr. Burden

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Do you not agree that it is wrong for statements on White Papers to be made to the Press before the Minister or some other person puts those White Papers before the House of Commons? Would it not be proper that in future no statement regarding the contents of a White Paper should be made to the Press until the White Paper has been produced for Members of Parliament so that they also may see and comment on it?

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. We shall not be arguing this out now. If there is a point of order in it for me, I am ready to rule on it. Has anyone anything new to say?

Mr. Norman Fowler

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I hope that what I have to say is new. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead (Mr. Finsberg) raised an important point. As the Secretary of State will know, we made detailed representations to the Government to improve this procedure, but those representations were specifically refused. I made a request to the Vote Office that we should have the White Paper at 3.30 and was told that it was not available. If, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead says, it was available and it was in the Evening Standard, that seems to be an entirely new point. I urge that this is a point on which an inquiry should be held urgently, because the way in which this procedure is organised is scandalous.

Mr. Forman

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is there not a legitimate distinction to be drawn between when a Minister comes to the House to make a statement, when perhaps hon. Members should listen to his statement before commenting on it, and when he comes to make a statement which is attached to a lengthy White Paper? In such circumstances, should it not be the practice that the White Paper is made available to hon. Members at least as soon as to outside interests?

Mr. Ogden

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. There seem to be different points arising here. The House recognises the conventions whereby some information is made available to Opposition spokesmen or to the Press for release at a certain time. Today, because of other business arising, the White Paper was not available to Members. Surely hon. Members ought to have information made available to them inside the House at the same time as it is released publicly outside the House. That is a matter of concern to you, Mr. Speaker, as guardian of the House.

Mr. Skinner

If there is to be some form of inquiry and if you, Mr. Speaker, are to participate in setting it up, I ask you, since this problem has happened many times, certainly over the past seven years while I have been a Member, to bear in mind that increasingly over the last three or four years there have been a number of occasions on which we have debated Common Market matters without any information whatsoever being supplied to us. Not only have hon. Members not had any copies; on some occasions they have had the wrong copies. We have not even had the Evening Standard or the tape to tell us what they knew about the matter. If there is to be an inquiry let us have an all-embracing one, because there is no doubt that we are being treated with more and more contempt by Ministers and others, particularly on Common Market matters.

Mr. Speaker

I have listened with especial care to the points that have been made because I consider it to be one of my duties to try to protect the rights of Back Benchers in this House. My experience is that Ministers are able to look after themselves—at least, I did when I was a Minister. Most Ministers do. This matter is not my responsibility but the responsibility of the Leader of the House. I shall discuss it with him.

May I leave the House with this thought on the subject: that for many years interviews with the Press on forthcoming White Papers have been held before the White Paper appears before the House. I did it myself when I was a Minister. I am drawing on my own experience. Of course, however, the White Paper is not available today and the Minister has explained why. I shall discuss this with the Leader of the House.