§ 10.16 p.m.
§ Mr. Ian Winterbottom (Nottingham, Central)
I wish to bring to the notice of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport the delays which have occurred ever since the war whenever the Nottingham Corporation has applied to increase its transport fares. Although my raising of this issue is prompted by the concern felt in Nottingham because of these delays, it applies also to the country as a whole.
I am not proposing to discuss whether or not these increases in fares are justified. That is an entirely different question. I shall, however, this evening criticise the administrative machinery which must be used by a local authority when it wishes to increase its fares. This machinery has not been designed deliberately. It has grown up over the years. It is a peculiar hybrid born of 167 the fusion of the private and local tramways Acts, the Road Traffic Act, 1930. and the Defence Regulations of 1939. The Minister is in no way responsible for this peculiar hybrid, but I consider it right that he should be told that the machinery is not working efficiently, and I shall suggest certain steps that I think he should take to remedy these defects.
Since the war no fewer than six applications have been made by the Nottingham Corporation to increase its transport fares. Not one of these applications has been granted in less than 26 weeks, and the longest period between application and approval has been 30 weeks. During this time there has been no tendency for the period for consideration to decrease, although the information that is available to the Minister of Transport and to the licensing authorities—the background of information which they require from the local authority in order to make their decision—must have been increasingly well known to them.
The reason for this delay is quite obvious. It is that the authority for reaching a decision is divided. It is divided between the licensing authority, who under the 1930 Act are responsible for proving increases in motor bus fares, and the Minister of Transport, who under the Defence Regulations is responsible for proving the increased fares for trolley buses. To a certain extent this division of responsibility has been recognised. It is recognised at the court of inquiry which is held on these occasions, when the chairman of the court sits first of all as the chairman of his own authority, and secondly as the representative of the Minister of Transport. During the inquiry he is acting in a dual capacity.
Now, this is clearly sensible, because motor buses and trolley buses run over the same routes and charge the same fares; but while divided responsibility is avoided during the inquiry, it becomes painfully obvious during the period leading up to the inquiry and during the period after the inquiry has taken place.
It should be noted that the licensing authority, acting independently, can reach decisions very quickly. In a recent case, when an application by the Trent Motor Traction Company came before the licensing authority in the Nottingham 168 area, the authority announced its decision immediately after the hearing. But when the Minister of Transport and the licensing authority are acting jointly, the advance must be at the rate of the slower of the two, since both of them must advance in step. An inquiry is generally not called until both the Minister and the licensing authority have satisfied themselves that the application is in its correct form. No announcements of the findings are made until the licensing authority has put its two reports on the trolley buses and the motor buses to the Minister, who then considers them and. in due course, announces his decision on trolley bus fares. A few days later, the licensing authority, having obviously waited for its lead from the Minister, announces its own decision concerning the motor bus fares.
To illustrate this point, I will run through the time-table of Nottingham's most recent application in order to show how these delays occur. Application in this particular case was made on 4th November, 1950, to both the Minister of Transport and to the licensing authority. Upon completion of the preliminary formalities, certain further queries were raised by the Ministry of Transport six weeks later. These were answered on 9th January, and it is clear that no decision to hold an inquiry could be reached until that date at the earliest, because these preliminary inquiries had to be got out of the way before a decision on the date of the inquiry could be held. This shows a delay in the first instance, owing to this divided responsibility, of eight weeks.
The inquiry was finally held on 26th February this year; that is, 15 weeks after the application was first made. When it had been held, a further period of seven weeks elapsed before the licensing authority made its two reports to the Minister. I should be glad if the Minister would satisfy himself that this period of seven weeks between inquiry and report is reasonable, in view of the fact that the licensing authority has shown quite recently that it can make a decision immediately after a hearing, and, furthermore, in view of the fact that the chairman of the licensing authority has recently been given a full-time assistant to help him in his work. Is the Minister satisfied that this period is the shortest possible?
169 After the report had been made to the Minister, a further period of five weeks passed before the Minister informed the town clerk in writing of his decision to permit an increase in trolley bus fares Two days later, the licensing authority gave its permission in writing to increase the motor bus fares. The total machinery took from the 4th November, 1950, to 27th May, 1951–29 weeks in all—to produce a decision.
At this point, I should like to digress for a moment. During this period, one event occurred which I consider should be brought to the notice of the Minister, because it shows, first, that a decision could have been reached at an earlier date than in fact was the case, and second, because it shows an unfortunate attitude of mind, in that the licensing authority had a complete lack of perception, if I may say so, of the dignity of a city council and the authority of a town clerk. The first information that the town clerk received that the application he had made on behalf of the council had been reviewed was an announcement in the local Press.
I have not been able to find out how this information reached the Press. Quite rightly, the local editors have refused to disclose the source of their information; but when in my presence the town clerk phoned the chairman of the licensing authority to discover how the leakage had taken place, the chairman not only did not show surprise about this premature announcement, but went so far as to question the town clerk's right to be the first person to be informed in writing of the authority's decision. The town clerk since then had to take positive action to get this right of prior information confirmed, a right which seems to me, and no doubt to my right hon. Friend, to be self-evident. It is the authoritarian attitude of mind revealed by the attitude of the chairman of the licensing authority which is one of the causes of discontent in Nottingham against the existing procedure.
Another cause of discontent and, of course, a very much more important one, is the fact that, although in the application made to the licensing authority and to the Ministry of Transport, it was shown that losses were at that time being incurred by the Corporation at the rate of £2,000 a week, and, therefore, an early 170 and urgent decision on fares was required, and that although full information from previous hearings was available to the licensing authority and to the Ministry of Transport, nevertheless it took 29 weeks for the administrative machine to churn out the necessary authority, resulting in a loss to the Corporation of a sum somewhere in the region of £50,000. That has caused dissatisfaction in Nottingham.
In my opinion, this analysis shows conclusively that the existing machinery is not satisfactory. It is in fact, based on two fictions, one that a trolley bus is a light railway, presumably in the same category as that running from Far Tottering to Oyster Creek and only subject to the jurisdiction of the licensing authority. The second fiction is that a state of war still exists, making it necessary for the Minister of Transport to continue to use his war-time powers.
The division of responsibility thus created, in my opinion, is bad enough, but the Minister will agree that the position will become worse when the period of emergency is declared at an end. That may come pretty soon now that a state of war has ceased to exist with Germany, and when that happens all local authorities must once again start introducing private and local bills whenever they require to increase their trolley bus and tram fares.
I urge my right hon. Friend to take action to end this costly administrative tangle, and, while he is considering what action he will take, I suggest that he should impress upon his Department the need for reaching speedy decisions, and at the same time urge upon them a self-denying ordinance, which will cause them to renounce voluntarily any rights to influence the licensing authority's decision on fares. The Department should simply act as a post office, passing the documents to the licensing authority, and when the licensing authority has reached an independent decision forwarding the decision of the licensing authority to the town clerks concerned.
The long-term solution would, of course, embody these temporary arrangements in some statutory form by passing a simple general Act to empower the licensing authority to decide on motor bus and trolley bus fares. That will kill the two fictions which are causing trouble at the moment, and will not present a 171 division of authority, which is causing so much costly delay and so much exasperation.
§ 10.30 p.m.
§ Mr. Shepherd (Cheadle)
We have had tonight one more example of an hon. Gentleman opposite pleading for a bigger and speedier increase in fares. It seems axiomatic that members of the Socialist Party must say that any tardy process in raising fares to a community must be condemned. We on this side are glad that there is machinery in existence that prevents the rapid increase of fares without due consideration, but hon. Members opposite are quite happy to sweep away these safeguards to the community.
Our view is that transport fares have already reached such a high level that many people are discouraged from travelling who want to travel, and any device which impedes the rapid increase of fares should be welcomed. The country can see from the speech of the hon. Member opposite that the Socialists show no sympathy at all for the traveller. All they want is fares, more fares and higher fares as quickly as possible.
§ 10.31 p.m.
§ Mr. Norman Smith (Nottingham, South)
The hon. Member for Cheadle (Mr. Shepherd) has intervened rather fortuitously in this debate. He has tried to convey the impression that he and his party fight for the consumers' point of view. Nobody knows better than he that what my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, Central (Mr. Ian Winterbottom) has been pleading for is that this transport undertaking should be enabled to pay its way.
For 44 years I have been advocating that transport should be free. When my hon. Friend says that the Nottingham transport authority have lost money because of the tardiness and dilatoriness of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport, I would say that what the authorities have lost, my constituents have gained, because they have been travelling under the cost of production. As the only advocate of Social Credit in this House, I believe that people should have these services below the cost of production. Having said that, I should like to endorse, from the purely administrative point of view, what my hon. Friend has 172 said, and said very well. I hope the Minister will be able to give some satisfaction to the good people of Nottingham.
§ 10.33 p.m.
§ The Minister of Transport (Mr. Barnes)
It is about time I brought this debate back to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, Central (Mr. Ian Winterbottom). I should like to say at once that I think there is a good deal of force in his criticism of the machinery. I generally do not feel that in matters of this kind divided responsibility can work effectively. I want to correct one point my hon. Friend made.
At the beginning of his remarks, my hon. Friend criticised the machinery which local authorities must apply when they wish to alter their fares structure. That does not convey the correct position.
If they wished to determine these matters for themselves, Nottingham Corporation and any other local authority could promote their own private Bill and seek the authority of Parliament to raise their fares within the maxima which Parliament sanction. Before the war, the Nottingham authority's fares maximum was1½d. a mile, and, as the hon. Member has indicated, within the last two years there have been four applications by Nottingham Corporation to adjust their fares, mainly in an upward direction.
I should like to remind my hon. Friend that during the whole of that period it was open to Nottingham Corporation to promote a private Bill to give themselves the freedom to adjust their fares as they wished and as public opinion in Nottingham might have approved; but Nottingham Corporation, together with the majority of local authorities, have preferred to use this machinery which my hon. Friend has criticised. Within the last 12 months, something like 39 applications from local authorities have been made to my Department to use the powers which Parliament has conferred upon me under the Defence Regulations.
Later on, my hon. Friend suggested that the Ministry of Transport should become a post office to delegate its responsibilities to the licensing authority. While the Defence Regulations which Parliament has sanctioned apply, what my hon. Friend has suggested as a solution tonight is an impossible one. Parliament does not confer powers on a Minister without 173 detailing the safeguards and responsibilities he must carry. Therefore, a Minister is bound to satisfy himself in every way, not only that the general fares increase is justified, but that each particular increase is justified.
Present day circumstances, with rising costs, are bringing about a great number of applications simultaneously, and delays of this kind do occur. But I do not want to dwell unduly on that aspect of that problem tonight. My hon. Friend has detailed very clearly, and if I may say so correctly, the kind of procedure that is followed in this matter, with its relevant time-table. I would like to express my regret that the procedure of the licensing authority being in touch with the transport departments of the local authorities, in this case caused some offence to the town clerk, and action has been taken to prevent a recurrence of an error of that description.
174 This is one of many aspects affecting transport today where the licensing authority deals with motor buses, the Ministry of Transport with local authority trolley buses, motor buses and tram services under Defence Regulations—and, on the wider aspect, the Transport Tribunal which deals with the British Transport Commission and its affairs. At a time when costs are changing rapidly, it means that this type of machinery can give rise to delay. To alter this state of affairs would involve legislation, and I cannot give any firm undertaking in that regard tonight. But I do not like this division of responsibility, and I am examining it to see how we can expedite the machinery.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-two Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.