Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

Margaret Thatcher

HC I 2R [Transport (London) Bill]

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Hansard HC [774/1295-1302]
Editorial comments: Around 2137-2158. MT intervened at c1296.
Importance ranking: Trivial
Word count: 2442
[column 1295]

9.37 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Bob Brown)

My right hon. Friend did not attempt in opening to cover every detail of this complex and comprehensive Measure. None the less, some of the less fundamental elements which he men[column 1296]tioned in passing call for a somewhat fuller explanation, and I have in mind also the comments and questions which hon. Members have made. In the light of what has been said, I hope now to fill in some of the details on matters of interest to the House.

The hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) made great play of giving the Greater London Council £270 million worth of assets for £27 million, and she went on to labour the point that the taxpayer will have to find £11 million annually in interest charges. The hon. Member for Tavistock (Mr. Michael Heseltine) said much the same. I wonder how the hon. Lady and her hon. Friend can talk in such terms about those £270 million assets, which have been nonasset for a long time. She implies that, if the Government pay the £11 million, they are saddling the taxpayer with that annual charge. Clearly, the G.L.C. will not pay it. If the Government are not to pay it, who is to pay? I suggest that the only people who can pay it are the London travelling public, through increased fares above the £8 million about which the hon. Lady already complains—

Mr. Ellis

Or London ratepayers.

Mr. Brown

Or, as my hon. Friend says, the ratepayers of London.

Mr. Michael Heseltine

I did not put this question specifically, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman will say how much economy he thinks could be achieved from the suggestions made on page 19 of the Report of the Prices and Incomes Board on London Transport?

Mr. Brown

I am delighted that the hon. Member has intervened, because I am coming precisely to that. The hon. Lady cannot have her cake and eat it. She cannot complain about the proposed fare increases next year and at the same time berate us for saddling the taxpayer with this £11 million a year subsidy.

Mrs. Thatcher

Many different sorts of financial arrangements could have been made and I do not know what course the negotiations took. This is the arrangement which the hon. Gentleman has recommended.

Mr. Brown

I am coming to that. The hon. Lady made a general statement [column 1297]about the write-off and about the other write-offs of other nationalised industries, but in fairness she must concede that this writing off on behalf of the nationalised industries was something in which her own Government had their share.

The hon. Member for Tavistock and the hon. Lady flogged the issue of the National Board for Prices and Incomes and its suggestions. The hon. Lady mentioned non-producers and the hon. Gentleman mentioned administrative staffs and suggested that economies could be made in those directions. I find it amazing that their underlying suggestion seemed to be that if we got shot of those non-producers, we would save this £11 million a year in interest charges. If the L.T.B. is carrying so many non-producers—

Mr. Heseltine

The hon. Gentleman must be fully aware that the Aubrey Jones Board's recommendation was centred around the re-negotiation of a productivity agreement with the unions.

Mr. Brown

I am coming to that. All the things which Aubrey Jones and his Board suggested—one man operation, automatic fare collection and so on—have already been put in hand to some extent and the effects are already accounted for in the financial arrangements proposed in the Bill.

I remind the hon. Lady and her hon. Friends that the N.B.P.I. approved fare increases amounting to £3 million more than LT.B. was able to introduce The L.T.B. was prevented not by the Government, but by the Transport Tribunal. It will be up to the N.B.P.I. when it gets its next reference on fares to decide whether the proposed £8 million is justified.

The hon. Member for Tavistock asked about present operators in London other than the L.T.B. Under Schedule 4 they will clearly get an automatic right to continue within their present rights. Prevailing rights differ in different cases. Some have rights for a further 12 months, and some have indefinite rights. If these rights are not renewed, compensation will be paid under the same type of provision as is made in the Transport Act.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Molloy) spoke about [column 1298]consultation. I am shortly to meet the Executive of the London Trades Council. If it is wise, and I am sure that it is, the G.L.C. will use all the powers for consultation at its disposal and if it is to enter consultation with all manner of bodies, the Federation of Trades Councils should be consulted.

The hon. Member for Tavistock mentioned Clause 20(1)(b) which gives the G.L.C. the right to instruct the Transport Executive to make proposals for taking over other transport facilities or services. These proposals would normally incorporate some form of agreement for buying or otherwise taking over, but not compulsorily taking over against the will of the present operators.

The provisions for compensation would relate to the staff affected. The hon. Member mentioned the powers in Clause 6(1)(i); the safeguard for commercial operations is in Clause 12, enabling the Minister to direct the Executives to discontinue or modify any activity which is not being operated economically. My hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Leslie Huckfield) asked me to elaborate on the travel concessions provision. As one who takes some pleasure in regarding himself as the author of Section 127 of the Transport Act, 1968, dealing with travel concessions, and as I have introduced two Private Member's Bills on the subject, I am naturally delighted to do so.

The Government have, as a matter of policy, thought it right since 1964 progressively to widen, as the legislative occasions have arisen, the opportunities for travel concessions on public transport for the elderly, the disabled and the blind. Under the 1968 Act we gave this power to most local authorities, but we left London to await this Bill. Under the Bill local authorities inside and outside Greater London can make arrangements for concessions with the L.T.E. and the other bus operators in the London area. With the Green buses, the arrangements will also apply to the London Country Bus Services Limited, the subsidiary of the National Bus Company, which will be taking over these services in the area at present covered by the L.T.B. The Bill enables concessions to be arranged on the tube services as well. We are giving the responsibility to the [column 1299]London boroughs and the Common Council of the City of London.

In our view, these are the right bodies to carry out the job. They have welfare responsibilities, which the G.L.C. has not. Because they are more closely in touch with the particular needs of the people, it is for them to decide the scope and type of concessions that they are willing to grant. They are not fettered in any way at all, there is no mileage limit. I realise that some hon. Members feel that London needs an over-all scheme, devised and operated by the G.L.C., but we do not believe this is the right answer. The London boroughs are large compared with some of the small authorities which have been given this power under the Transport Act. We have given it down to district council level in other parts of the country, and if a district council can successfully operate these concessions, there is no London borough which should not be able to do so, given the will to do so.

Mr. Molloy

Can we assume that the local authorities giving the concessions will be able to think not merely in terms of the district they operate, but of all the local authorities?

Mr. Brown

I have already said that there are no mileage limits placed upon them. It might be that the London councils will get together and agree on a London-wide scheme. This is a matter for them to discuss.

The hon. Member for Finchley made great play about operating powers. I want to continue with the bus and Underground services, and deal with the operating powers to be given to the L.T.B. The hon. Lady argued that they are too wide and that we should take steps to place a mileage or geographical limit on the exercise of these powers. In the Government's view, these arguments are misconceived.

London is a special case. It is the capital city. The geographical extent of London is very wide, and I am referring not only to Greater London, but to the wide catchment area surrounding London whose transport services must be related to the existence of London. These facts mean that future transport developments might well make any limitation completely unrealistic. We need to place the L.T.E. in a position to do the job laid [column 1300]down by the Bill—to provide services which best meet the needs of Greater London. That is what the Bill does. We split hairs when we talk about providing adequate services and providing services which best meet the needs of Greater London.

To give an example, it might be decided that a new London Airport should be situated well outside the Greater London area. Perhaps London Transport has the skills and experience to build and operate the kind of rapid transit link needed to get passengers into central London. It would be patently absurd to discover at that stage that the Executive did not have the basic capacity and power to allow it to offer such a service.

Mr. Heseltine

The hon. Gentleman must be aware that precisely this power is built into the 1962 Measure.

Mr. Brown

We are simply putting it in today's legislation, which is right.

There are plenty of safeguards to ensure that London Transport cannot go beyond its terms of reference. Clearly, there is no intention that it should run long-distance rail services or compete on an overnight coach service to Edinburgh. Its services will be related to London and its environs, as the Bill makes clear. There are adequate safeguards in the form of Parliamentary procedures involved in, say, a railway extension, and traffic commissioner control on long-distance bus operations.

We have heard about the fears of independent bus operators concerning the freedom which the Bill will give the L.T.E. in carriage contract operations. I agree that the Executive will have a freedom of manoeuvre which it has not had before, and these services are not subject to road service licensing. The fears have been overstated. In practical terms, the job of the Executive will be basically the job which it has at the moment.

The question of manufacturing powers has aroused great interest. This is clearly a thorny subject with hon. Members opposite. Strong views on it are held on my side of the house, too. It is fair to say that the G.L.C. is not entirely happy about it. On the one side, it has been argued that we should hold back the scope of London Transport more than we have in the Bill and that we should [column 1301]place it in the same position which it was in under the Transport Act, 1962. On the other hand, it can be strongly argued that we should confer on the Executive the manufacturing freedom which the nationalised industries generally enjoy under the Transport Act, 1968. I am sure that some of my hon. Friends would strongly argue this point.

The proposals in the Bill are generally tailored to match the resources and new status of the London Transport Executive. The Executive will not be a nationalised industry. It will be a body placed in a novel way under local government control. It must have all the powers it needs to do its job properly, and it must be able to make reasonable use of the facilities and skills which it possesses. The Executive will be able to manufacture for itself, for the nationalised transport authorities and for the Greater London Council. This gives the Executive a wide field for development of its facilities. We do not think that it is right to deny an undertaking of the size and with the facilities of London Transport the basic powers which it needs to manufacture to this extent. We clearly must hold to this. The G.L.C. has no legitimate cause for complaint given the powers of direction that it will have.

There have been criticisms of the same kind about the powers concerning garage facilities at car parks. A similar power is conferred on the passenger transport executives under the Transport Act. Again, we believe it to be essential to give London Transport this power to provide such services on its own property. It may well be that it may not want to use the powers, and it might proceed by way of letting out concessions to other operators, but it should have the basic power if it wants to use it, again subject to G.L.C. directions, in case of need and also to put the Executive clearly on equal terms with other car park operators in negotiating concessions.

Great play has been made with the traffic and parking measures in the Bill, and the new licensing provisions for car parks have aroused interest not only in the House tonight but in this morning's newspapers. The first thing that I wish to make clear is that this is a provision that the G.L.C. has strongly urged upon my right hon. Friend. After listening [column 1302]to the Council's views and discussing the matter with the London Boroughs Association, my right hon. Friend came to the opinion that the G.L.C. needed the powers in question. This is not a case of my right hon. Friend foisting anything on the G.L.C. This is something for which the G.L.C. has asked.

Hon. Members opposite have argued that the provision in respect of off-street car parking provided far too detailed control. What is proposed in Clause 36 is a new departure, and the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Bessell) asked a question about this. At first sight it might seem revolutionary. Close examination does not bear out the theory that the control is too detailed. After what my right hon. Friend has said, I hope that hon. Members will feel able in general to accept the principle of full control over the provision of off-street car parking. It would be convenient if such control could be exercised by a general statement or pious expression of broad policy such as that the Council could exercise broad control over the amount of off-street car parking in particular places and over the general level of the charges made for it.

The trouble is that any such arrangement is untranslatable in terms of a Bill and would be quite ineffective in operation when dealing with the situation which we are trying to deal with in London. The only way to turn a general parking policy into practical reality in the existing London situation is to devise a licensing system and to specify in detail points which may be considered in the licensing arrangements.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.