§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 3.46 p.m.
§ The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation (Mr. Hugh Molson)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
It is sometimes the fate of moderate proposals like those which I am commending to the House today to incur criticism from both sides. I must, therefore, choose my arguments with care, lest in rebutting one criticism I lay myself open to a contrary one. Indeed, I find myself somewhat in the position of an Independent councillor who was unexpectedly elected mayor because of a deadlock between Socialists and Conservatives, and who, in the embarrassment of an impromptu speech, said:I will tread the narrow path between right and wrong. I do not quite mean that. I will show neither partiality nor impartiality. No; what I really mean to say is that I will be like Caesar's wife—all things to all men.I hope to show that this Bill fits logically into the Government's policy. I believe that it will make a contribution towards settling the transport problem and taking it, as I hope, outside party conflict. I shall not have time to go into the various Clauses in detail. Owing to the structure of the 1953 Act, they are somewhat complicated, but I hope, at any rate, to make the purposes of the Bill perfectly plain.
Let me, first, deal with the background. In 1951, before the Election, the Conservative Party issued, "Britain Strong and Free."[An HON. MEMBER: "Horror comic."] Hon. Gentlemen opposite would be extremely fortunate if they could point to earlier pronouncements by their party and be able to say that they had been completely carried out.
In "Britain Strong and Free" we said:Both public and private enterprise will be needed in transport. Publicly-owned transport will be reorganised into regional groups of economic size. Private road hauliers will be given an opportunity of coming back into the business, and the crippling restriction of the 25-mile limit of operation on private lorries will be modified. Any publicly-owned road transport will be subject to the control of 1818 licensing authorities on the same terms as private hauliers. The existence of some genuine competition will make it reasonable to give those in control of publicly-owned transport greater freedom in charging and in other matters than would be tolerable in conditions of monopoly.The result of that statement and of our success at the 1951 Election was the Transport Act of 1953, which had three main purposes. First, it removed the 25-mile limit from the operations of private hauliers in order to set them free to compete with British Road Services. Secondly, it subjected British Road Services to the ordinary requirements of the Road and Rail Traffic Act, 1933, and required them to obtain carriers licences from the licensing authorities in exactly the same way as private hauliers. Thirdly, it required B.R.S. to sell a large proportion of its haulage fleet.
The policy of the Conservative Government in 1953 was not to prevent the British Transport Commission from having a road fleet. We were quite agreeable to B.R.S. continuing to be a State-owned undertaking and, indeed, to be the largest single unit in the haulage field. It was only intended that B.R.S. should not enjoy a privileged position, but should be obliged to compete and to face competition. "Live and let live" is a good principle, and nowhere is it better applicable than in the realm of transport.
Our reason for not treating road haulage as we treated the railways was based on purely practical and empirical considerations. The railways, by their nature, run to routine and cannot alter services to meet small, unexpected haulage demands. On the other hand, the road haulage industry sprang up after the First World War, and many of the big hauliers who then started—having been demobilised and having bought one or two R.A.S.C. lorries—were particularly well adapted to meet the needs and convenience of their neighbours.
It is our belief that it is desirable that there should always be small hauliers running their own businesses and able by an immediate decision to meet any particular demand for the transport of goods. Such a service as that is least suited to nationalisation, which inevitably means some general control in accordance with certain general principles which have been laid down at the centre.
1819 There have also grown up, however, during those thirty-five years, great trunk services which run on fixed schedules. We are convinced that they are highly efficient, although they have gained greatly in efficiency since 1953 as a result of the keen competition which has been provided by private hauliers.
§ Mr. Molson
Speaking, if I may, for a moment with complete detachment—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Yes, indeed, with complete detachment, I would say that those who advocate whole-hog nationalisation of road haulage seem to me to underestimate the importance of small units and flexibility in local and feeder services, while I also feel that those who advocate whole-hog denationalisation often underestimate the value of a co-ordinated system in the case of the trunk services.
The disposal of the B.R.S. vehicles under the 1953 Act began, and proceeded until last spring, with a very large measure of success—[An HON. MEMBER: "Rot."] An hon. Gentleman, with his usual elegant choice of phrase says that that is rot. But at the end of May, 1955, 24,569 vehicles had been put up for sale and 15,008—or about two-thirds—had been sold. Those lists, generally speaking, covered the smaller units, tailored to meet the needs of the small man. In 1953, Parliament showed great solicitude for the small man, and it was laid down in the Transport Act, 1953, as a direction to the Disposals Board and to the Commission that… the Commission shall have regard to the desirability of securing that persons desirous of entering or re-entering the road haulage industry have a reasonable opportunity of doing so notwithstanding that their resources permit them to do so only if their operations are on a small scale.…
§ Mr. H. Hynd (Accrington)
Was it foreseen at that time that that direction would involve a loss to the taxpayer of £12½ million?
§ Mr. Molson
If the hon. Member will look at the Third Schedule to the 1953 Act he will see that it was foreseen that a loss would result, and that elaborate principles were laid down for calculating what the loss would be.
At the end of the fifth Report of the Road Haulage Disposals Board there are 1820 some tables analysing the results. Table I shows how conscientiously the Commission and the Board designed units in the early lists to meet the requirements of the small man. Table 5 shows that his response in these sales was good, while that of the big man was disappointing. Nearly 77 per cent. of the vehicles sold were sold in lots of less than 10. A pattern was already quite clear which made it appear unlikely that when List S.4, which contained the trunk services, was put up for sale there would be many good bids. The result, in fact, was very much what we had expected, only 528 out of the 6,115 vehicles being sold.
Confronted with this situation the Government had to consider whether it should put up S.4 for sale again. If we had done so one of three results would have ensued. First, it was conceivable that if put up a second time the list would have sold successfully, the trunk lines being taken over by hauliers able and willing to maintain them as great going concerns. We were advised that this was extremely unlikely to happen. The chances were estimated to be more than ten to one against such a great success. That was the first argument against offering S.4 a second time.
In the second place, it was possible that just a few of the best units might have been sold. That would have meant that the B.R.S. trunk system would have been broken up but that a great many of the vehicles and depots would have been left unsold. We should, in fact, have been left with the problem of how to dispose of the least attractive and profitable parts of the B.R.S. haulage services. That was the second argument against offering S.4 a second time.
The third possibility—and we were advised that it was much the most probable—was that the sale would again be an almost complete failure. That was a third argument against offering S.4 a second time.
Although it had thus been shown to be impossible to sell the trunk services as going concerns, there still remained, of course, the possibility of selling them as penny packets. There was still an unsatisfied demand for second-hand lorries which small men were anxious to buy. It was, therefore, possible to sell the vehicles, if we wished to do so, but only 1821 at the price of breaking up the trunk services. The Government had to make up their minds whether they were willing to do that.
I have suggested earlier in my speech that there is a great difference between rural, local and feeder services, on the one hand, and the great trunk lines, on the other. After careful consideration we came to the conclusion that the road trunk services are now a vital form of transport to industry and commerce. We felt that it would be entirely wrong to destroy an organisation of that kind.
§ Mr. Molson
To have done so, we felt, would have been to sacrifice a valuable national asset to an ideological prejudice. We, who on occasion of party controversy have been inclined to bring that reproach against hon. Members opposite, were anxious not to fall into the same error ourselves.
§ Mr. Molson
Once we had decided to maintain the trunk services and had found that private enterprise was unwilling or unable to take them over as going concerns, there was no satisfactory alternative to leaving them in the hands of B.R.S. This new policy involves a substantial Amendment of the 1953 Act, but it is a change of degree and not of principle. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] As I have already indicated, the 1953 Act contemplated that the Transport Commission should remain a large participant in the haulage industry and should, indeed, be the largest single haulier in the country. The effect of the Bill will be to increase the number of general haulage vehicles left in the hands of B.R.S. from 2,350 to 7,750.
§ Mr. Molson
This change is made by Clause 1, which provides for the taking over of this number of vehicles by companies under the control of the B.T.C. This figure was arrived at by Sir Malcolm Trustram Eve, who was asked to make an estimate of the number of vehicles needed to preserve the trunk services in being. The number of special A licences 1822 which B.R.S. will retain as a right will be 7½per cent. less than that number. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"]
I am asked why. In any fleet of vehicles, a certain number of vehicles are always out of use undergoing repair and maintenance. This proportion has been agreed between the Transport Commission and the Road Haulage Association as approximately 7½per cent. The Commission will, of course, be entitled to apply for additional licences for this 7½per cent. and to obtain them if it can satisfy the licensing authorities of the need in accordance with the provisions of the Road and Rail Traffic Act, 1933.
§ Mr. Gerald Nabarro (Kidderminster)
Would my hon. Friend not agree that it is fair to say that Sir Malcolm Trustram Eve was not unequivocal in his statement of a figure of 7,750 general haulage vehicles to be retained? Is it not a fact that in his report he wrote:The answer to the reference to me is not, however, capable of mathematical answer. It involves a difficult matter of opinion.
§ Mr. Molson
I have often wondered what a rhetorical question was. When an hon. Member stands up and reads a question from a document which is available to the whole House, I suppose that is a good example of a rhetorical question.
§ Mr. Molson
The answer, of course, is this: this was a question of an estimate and it was for that reason that my right hon. Friend who was then Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation asked Sir Malcolm Trustram Eve, as the person most likely to be able to arrive at a sound estimate, to give him that estimate in his personal capacity. Had it been capable of being calculated mathematically it would not have been necessary to call in an arbitrator, as Sir Malcolm Trustram Eve was called in.
The Road Haulage Association has, naturally, protested against what we are proposing to do. No doubt it is disappointed that what is had led the Conservative Party, when in opposition, to believe to be likely to happen has not, in fact, materialised.
§ Mr. Molson
Those hauliers whose businesses have been nationalised and whom the Association believed to be willing and able to come back into the business have not, in fact, done so. The whole course of the sales has shown that small men were anxious to add to their fleets by obtaining second-hand lorries, but that big men either would not or could not buy large units. The offer of List S.4 was their chance to buy and they did not take it. I have already explained at length why the Government did not feel able to give the hauliers a second chance with S.4. There is no reason to suppose that even if the list had been offered again the units would have been sold.
After the failure of that sale some inquiries were made. They amounted to 19, and only in two cases did the inquirers suggest that the imminence of the General Election had anything to do with their failure to bid. The units to which these inquiries related were only 830 vehicles out of a total of 5,587 vehicles remaining unsold after the first offer.
I do not doubt that the Road Haulage Association believed that the large units in S.4 and other lists would sell, but I cannot accept the validity of its arguments as to why the sales did not go better and I wish to reply to two of the Association's principal arguments. First, the units offered for sale were generally in the form in which they had been operated by B.R.S. In cases where they were not, they had been modified in size and form to appeal to potential customers. On more than one occasion a customer for whom they had been designed made no bid or only a derisory bid.
Secondly, it is not true to say that reserve prices have been unduly high. They were often substantially lower than the Transport Commission's valuation. In fact, the reserve prices were fixed by the impartial Disposals Bid, which quite conscientiously fulfilled the promises made by the Government to the House in 1953 that State property would not be sold to private investors at a sacrifice.
Experience suggests the need for amending the method of sale through the formation of companies under Section 5 of the 1953 Act. It is not likely to work satisfactorily for three reasons. First, 1824 because that Section does not provide for any loan charges in the companies and, therefore, the only thing that can be put up for sale are the ordinary shares. Secondly, these have to be sold in one parcel and that rules out the possibility of any underwriting contract. Thirdly, there is no power to keep the company for a time, to run it, and to issue two or three profit and loss accounts, because counsel have advised the Disposals Board that the shares must be put on sale as soon as the company had been formed and a prospectus issued.
How very unattractive such a precipitate issue of the shares upon the market is, has been shown by the fate of the offer of the parcels company, the prospectus of which was issued on 25th October. Only one offer was received and that came from an unconscious humorist who made it a condition of his offer that the Government should first lend him £10 million. Clause 2 and the Schedule of the Bill rectify these defects.
I come to the question of trailers. They were not important in the 1953 Act because the total fleet left to B.R.S. was so small, but they obviously become important when the fleet being left is so much larger. That Act required the Commission to surrender any licences which it held in respect of motor vehicles as soon as those motor vehicles were sold. There was no corresponding obligation in the case of trailers. The Commission, therefore, has licences for a large number of trailers which it either has disposed of or intends to dispose of. Clause 4 of the Bill removes this anomaly and requires the Commission to drop all licences for trailers disposed of under the earlier Act.
Trailers, of course, are of two kinds. There is an articulated trailer drawn by a tractor where, of course, the trailer carries the whole load. There is also a draw-bar trailer towed by a vehicle which itself carries a load. It is the practice in the industry for there to be two or three articulated trailers for every tractor, because only one trailer is on the road at a time, and one trailer is being loaded and another is being unloaded at a depot.
Of the 3,200 licensed trailers referred to in Clause 1 (1, c) there are 2,057 articulated trailers for use with motor vehicles in categories (ii) and (iii). The rest are draw-bar trailers to be used with vehicles which are themselves load carriers. The Commission will no doubt 1825 wish to keep more articulated trailers than they might have on licence for the reason that I have given, that three can be in use although only one is on the road and, therefore, only one needs to be licenced. These extra trailers will require to be approved by the Disposals Board under Clause 1 (1, d.)
I come now to contract hire vehicles. B.R.S. has a number of contracts for the hire of vehicles. Some big concerns requiring delivery vans have found it convenient and economical to hire a fleet of vehicles, often wearing the concerns' own livery, for their own exclusive use for a term of years. In a number of cases the hirer would not agree to his vehicles being sold nor would he agree to his contract being transferred to a purchaser. A number of quite famous concerns have taken this line. I mention Lyons, Cadbury's, Crosse and Blackwell and the General Electric Company.
In such circumstances, the Commission was allowed to carry on with the contract until the first legal opportunity to terminate it occurred, and then it was free to compete with private hauliers for a new contract. If, however, B.R.S. was successful in the competition in obtaining a new contract, it was still obliged under the 1953 Act to sell the old vehicles and to buy new ones. This seems unnecessary, and Clause 3 of the Bill will give effect to this change.
There remains only one other matter to which I ought to refer and that is the Transport Levy. Sections 12 to 15 of the 1953 Act and the Third Schedule deal at length with the establishment of the Transport Levy out of which the Commission was to be compensated for the capital loss inflicted upon it by that Act. The Bill will very substantially reduce that loss, and Clause 7 will terminate the levy as from the end of this year. We believe that this will do rough justice, and we shall be happy to explain it in detail when we are in Committee.
The Bill is, at the same time, an amendment and a completion of the 1953 Act. The general policy of that Act has been carried out and has been justified by our experience up to now. The freeing of private hauliers from the 25-mile limit and the subjection of B.R.S. to the need to obtain licences from the licensing 1826 authority have both resulted in an improvement in service due to the keen competition which exists between public and private enterprise.
Out of 35,561 vehicles held by B.R.S. when the Act came into operation, 18,830 have been sold, and most of them, as I have said, have been bought by small men who operated so efficiently before nationalisation and who are doing so again.
§ Mr. Molson
The Government gave the private hauliers an opportunity to buy also the great trunk services, but they have not chosen to do so. It follows, therefore, that in this field road haulage can best be preserved and run by public enterprise. I believe that in transport there is ample room for both public and private enterprise, and I think that they ought to compete, but on fair terms.
It is vital for the welfare of transport and, therefore, of the country that it should cease to be the victim of rival political ideologies. This Bill represents a compromise between nationalisation and denationalisation. It will no doubt be criticised from both sides of the House, but the Government put it forward as a sensible settlement which could give to the industry certainty, security and stability.
§ 4.20 p.m.
§ Mr. Ernest Davies (Enfield, East)
I had expected the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to come to the House today in sackcloth and ashes, instead of which he has tried to clothe himself in a white sheet. I listened very carefully to his speech, in which I had expected to hear from him an apology for the reversal of Government policy. Instead of that he endeavoured, as he stated, to take a detached view and set out to claim that the Bill we are now considering fitted logically into Government policy. The hon. Gentleman is putting a very different interpretation upon Government policy from that put upon it by the previous Ministers of Transport and Civil Aviation when they moved the 1953 Bill and defended it subsequently in this House.
§ Mr. Davies
Of course, we cannot blame the present Minister or his Parliamentary Secretaries for the chameleon-like transport policy of the Government. We have seen the policy shuttled between Berkeley Square, Downing Street and the Palace of Westminster and we have now seen a complete reversal of the policy which was presented to us in 1953. It is no use the Parliamentary Secretary now taking credit for having decided to allow B.R.S. to retain its trunk services on the ground that they are efficient. What the Government are doing now is to take the advice we gave them as long ago as 1952.
Why have the Government had to come here with this Bill this afternoon? It is because of the inevitable failure of an unworkable policy, forced through this House under the Guillotine at the relentless insistence of the road hauliers for purely party political reasons. In spite of what the Parliamentary Secretary has claimed, that policy, in my view, has been thoroughly discredited, and so have all those who were responsible for implementing it. This Bill is unnecessary—[Laughter.] I mean it is necessary. A large section of this Bill is quite unnecessary. The only part that is necessary is Clause 1.
Apart from the first Clause, the Bill is unnecessary. It would be far better if the Government had come to the House with a single Clause Bill enabling British Road Services to retain all those vehicles which have not been sold. That would have been a non-controversial Bill and would have got through this House with expedition.
§ Viscount Hinchingbrooke (Dorset, South)
Is the hon. Member really telling the House and the country that only Clause 1 is necessary? Is he really telling hundreds of thousands of C licence holders that they must go on paying the levy?
§ Mr. Davies
I would remind the noble Lord that the provision for termination of the levy is included in the 1953 Act. This Bill is necessary simply because the Minister cannot sell the lorries, because he has not the power to allow the Commission to retain them and because he does not dare to defy road hauliers and his own back benchers, who are persisting that powers be taken for facilitating the sale of those lorries within the parcels 1828 organisation and the meat organisation which have not yet been sold.
In my view, the Bill follows inevitably from the pig-headed persistence of the then Prime Minister and his Minister of Transport, who brushed aside the wiser counsels of the British Transport Commission, which described denationalisation as then proposed as quite unworkable as well as undesirable. They brushed aside the opposition of the British chambers of commerce, which feared the break-up of the national net-work of services. They also had opposition from some of their own back benchers who, when it came to the point, had not the courage to go into the Lobby to vote for their Amendments which proposed the very procedure of disposing through the company organisation which the Government have now had to incorporate in this Bill.
Had the Government listened to the advice of those organisations and certain of their back benchers at that time and not forced the 1953 Act through under the Guillotine, forced it through in the form in which it now appears on the Statute Book, this Bill would not have been necessary. What a story of gross incompetence and false prophesy!
The Parliamentary Secretary suggested that the Government had been successful in selling off the lorries. I should like to remind them that when the Minister of Transport was introducing the 1953 Bill he predicted that disposal would be completed by the end of 1953. He stated, on 3rd December, 1952:By 'time' we do not mean over the years. It is our hope that it will be possible to finish with the procedure of disposal by the end of the year.The Minister meant 1953. He also said:That is our hope, but, by the very provisions of the Bill, we retain flexibility.… We have every hope that it will be possible, so that those who acquire these businesses will have one year of clear protection before the 25-mile limit is lifted at the end of 1954."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd December, 1952; Vol. 508. c. 1590.]What a hope! How it has been falsified by events! By the end of 1953 not a single vehicle had been sold. It was not until February, 1954, that the first vehicles were transferred. The Minister did not learn his lesson and, through his P.P.S., sent a message in November, 1953, to the road hauliers at their annual dinner in which he predicted that 10,000 1829 vehicles would be sold by April, 1954. By June, 1954—two months later—only 5,000 vehicles had been sold and it was not until November, 1954, that 10,000 vehicles had been sold. What is more, by the end of 1954, when the 25-mile limit came to an end and there was freedom of operation for road hauliers, instead of those who had entered or re-entered the industry having had a year of freedom, there were 20,000 vehicles which still remained to be sold. That is the "success" of the disposal of road haulage undertakings.
What is the position today? Nearly three years after that Bill left this House—31 months after it received Royal Assent—only half of the Commission's original road haulage fleet has been sold; 18,000 vehicles out of 36,000 vehicles which the Commission held have been disposed of. For the parcels vehicles no serious bid was received, and for the meat organisation the only bid came from a fishmonger.
Government policy has failed for precisely the reasons that we on this side of the House said it would fail. The only difference between our predictions and the predictions of Government spokesmen during our debates is that our predictions have come true and theirs have not. The two previous Ministers of Transport brushed aside our demands for earlier action in allowing the Commission to retain further vehicles. They brushed aside our claims that their policy on disposal had been a failure and that amending legislation would be necessary. They brushed them aside with slick and inaccurate answers.
From the beginning we asked what was to happen to the rump of the British Road Services; what was to happen to those vehicles which would not be disposed of. The Government said that there would be no residue and that it would not be necessary to decide upon that. When I asked the last Minister of Transport when it was proposed to introduce legislation to terminate the sales, he stated that the only proposals he had heard had come from the Opposition. He said:The time of their introduction is, therefore, so remote as to amount to the merest speculation."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th November, 1954; Vol. 532, c. 1182.]Seven months later he told the House that amending legislation would be necessary. That is a queer interpretation of the word 1830 "remote." Within a few months the Minister found it necessary to admit that the Opposition had been correct and that amending legislation was necessary.
As the Parliamentary Secretary pointed out, the main objectives of the 1953 Act have been fulfilled, in as much as the 25-mile limit has been abolished; the B.T.C. vehicles have been brought under a licensing system; progress has been made with disposal, and competition for long-distance has been reintroduced. That being so, why is it necessary that the Government have to proceed with any further sales? Why is it necessary for the Government now to take powers within this Bill, as they propose to do, to enable companies to be formed to facilitate the sale of the parcels and the meat organisation?
The conversion, or reconstruction of the parcels organisation into a new company and the offering of it for sale on the market will not increase the competition in long-distance road haulage. It will not add to the efficiency, or the greater success, of the road haulage industry. All that it will do if it succeeds—that is, if the sale takes place—is to transfer from public to private hands a very successful and profitable organisation; for it is a profitable section of British Road Services today.
The Parliamentary Secretary informed us that it is proposed that British Road Services should not be allowed to retain 7,750 vehicles with special A licences, but that number of licences is to be reduced by 7¼per cent. In justification, he claims that there is that number of vehicles normally under repair or not in operation. That being so, I take it that, if the parcels organisation is sold, not all the 4,000 vehicles will receive licences when they are disposed of—transferred into the company—but that equally, the licences will be reduced by 7¼per cent. That is the logical conclusion which I arrive at from the statement the hon. Gentleman made about the 7,750 vehicles.
The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that the reason why the number of licences is being reduced by nearly 600, which, in effect, means that British Road Services will have 600 fewer vehicles operating upon the roads, is the pressure which has been brought to bear upon the Government by his own back benchers at the insistence of the Road 1831 Haulage Association. This is done to placate his own back benchers and the Road Haulage Association.
§ Mr. Davies
The hon. Member should be the last to ask that question. One need only look at the benches opposite; the answer is there. I suggest to the Minister of Transport that he has no need whatever to fear his own back benchers. They will not vote against the Government now or even in Committee.
We had experience in the debates on the 1953 Bill. During that time the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hall Green (Mr. Aubrey Jones) moved an Amendment which we on this side supported. It proposed that there should be a form of disposal, through companies, on very much the same lines as the proposal incorporated in this Bill. We challenged a Division: the right hon. Member for Hall Green went into the Division Lobby with some of his colleagues who had also supported the Amendment, and voted against his own Amendment. That right hon. Gentleman is now the Minister of Fuel and Power.
§ Mr. Davies
No doubt the lesson of that is in the minds of hon. Gentlemen opposite, and their behaviour will be precisely the same.
§ Mr. Nabarro
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way to me. I wish to place on record at this stage that nothing but the most cordial and amicable relations exist between my right hon. Friend and myself——
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Rhys Hopkin Morris)
Order. That is a very improper use of an intervention.
§ Mr. Davies
But it came from the hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro).
The road haulage organisation has been sufficiently broken up. The Government have already done enough damage to the road haulage industry. The industry has been fragmented, except for those vehicles which remain with British Road Services and which carry on the national network of trunk services. It has been atomised. The reason the trunk 1832 services are to remain with British Road Services is not the one which the Parliamentary Secretary gave. The Government do not deserve any credit for making this decision. It is because the Government could not sell them off without further atomising the industry, without further breaking it up into a very large number of small units, and trade and industry have objected to that being done. It would be against the public interest, and industry has made that clear.
The vast number of vehicles sold have been sold in lots of one, two, three or four. One finds from the fifth Report of the Road Haulage Disposal Board that there were over 3,000 vehicles sold in lots of one vehicle; nearly 4,000 in lots of two; 2,000 in lots of three, and so on. In fact, of the 18,000 vehicles sold, 11,800 were sold in units of one to four vehicles, and 13,875 were sold in lots of under ten vehicles each—of between one and nine.
The Parliamentary Secretary nods. He took credit for the fact that the sales had taken place to the small man. A large number of these vehicles has passed into the hands of other than small men, and a very large number have been re-sold and re-sold again, assigned to a different operator and re-sold, frequently at considerable profit. If the Parliamentary Secretary takes any of the technical transport papers he will see, each week, column after column of advertisements for the sale of these vehicles carrying special A licences.
What does this mean? It means that the one guarantee or assurance given to us during the passage of the 1953 Act has not been fulfilled. The Minister assured us that British Road Services vehicles would be sold off as businesses and that they would continue to operate in and to serve substantially the same areas as previously. In practice, however, these vehicles have been transferred from one part of the country to another, and the terms of the 1953 Act in this respect have not been fulfilled.
That Act provides, in its First Schedule, that a special A licence can be refused if a vehicle is removed from the base from which it has previously operated to another base where it is not able to serve the same area. Section 9 (4) also provides that if, when a licence is applied 1833 for, false information is given about the base from which the vehicle will operate, the licence can be revoked. But in answer to Parliamentary Questions which I have put to the Minister, I have been informed that as far as refusal of licences is concerned, less than a score of refusals have been known; and as far as false information is concerned, there has not been one revocation of a single licence.
I could, however, quote instance after instance of vehicles being transferred from one part of the country to another. I have a list of vehicles which were sold from Kent depots, showing that vehicles were transferred from Canterbury, Maidstone, Swanley, Strood and elsewhere, to Leicester, Whitley Bay and other towns in the North of England. In the case of Strood, three vehicles were transferred to Dundee, in Scotland, and one was transferred from Swanley to Motherwell. Can it be claimed that these vehicles can possibly serve substantially the same areas and provide the same services as the B.R.S. was doing previously? In this respect, the Act has not been fulfilled, and there has been a deterioration in the road haulage service which is being offered to the country.
If proof of that is necessary, I would refer hon. Members to a case which came before the licensing authority for the south-east of England early this year. It was reported in the trade Press of 20th January, I refer to a case which concerned an application by the B.R.S. for 15 A licences. This arose from the disposal from August, 1954, of all but seven of the 26 vehicles licensed at Sheerness. The 19 vehicles, after they had been sold, were removed from the Medway area by their new owners.
The B.R.S. had to bring in vehicles from other depots or to hire vehicles to meet the needs of its customers, one of whom, the Canning Town Glass Works, insisted that its requirements could only be adequately met by B.R.S. and that it would not think of relying on the facilities of other hauliers, which were considered to be quite unsuitable. B.R.S. had to resort to quite abnormal and excessive use of the vehicles until, in October, 1954, it was forced to inform these customers that it would shortly be unable to cater for them. The customers thereupon demanded that B.R.S. should obtain replacement vehicles because they could not rely on local facilities.
1834 Here was a case where the vehicles were sold off, they were removed from the district, the service could not be provided, and the customers insisted on B.R.S. finding alternative vehicles. B.R.S., therefore, had to go to the licensing authority and the licences were granted. In granting them, the licensing authority said:The position of the Commission, particularly at Sheerness, was extremely difficult in that customers there demanded a service which a number of smaller operators would have found it difficult to provide. If the B.T.C. felt it its duty to cater for these needs it ought perhaps never to have decided to dispose of the fleet at Sheerness.What option did the B.R.S. have but to dispose of those vehicles? It was Government policy that they had to be put up for sale. The Government were forcing the sale. If the vehicles at Sheerness had not been put up for sale, vehicles somewhere else would have been put up if the Act was to be fulfilled. The same thing is happening all over the country. The B.R.S. is not able to provide as comprehensive a service as its customers desire, and private road hauliers are not able to give the alternative facilities.
The incredible fact is that in spite of the great difficulties, B.R.S. has carried on so satisfactorily. I see from the Press that for 1955 it is likely to have made a profit of £4 million. It has been no easy task for the staff to maintain its keenness and morale when it sees its tools being literally driven away by its competitors. To work for an organisation in the process of disintegration is disheartening to say the least, but such great faith have the B.R.S. staff, of all grades, in the organisation that they rightly believed it could never be destroyed. They improvised under extremely difficult conditions and have pulled through and carried on. What is more, they have made this profit and have now the great satisfaction of knowing that they cannot be broken up, and will not be broken up, and will be able to carry on. Industry and the nation owes gratitude to the staff of B.R.S. for the task they have performed.
What better testimonial could the B.R.S. have than that which was given by the licensing authority? These unsolicited testimonials are of far more value than the solicited complaints which some hon. Members of the House have 1835 produced on previous occasions. Members opposite, but not the Minister, based their case for further disposals on the alleged inefficiency of British Road Services. The hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Hirst) has burnt his fingers in the House when he has quoted an occasional instance of dissatisfaction; but the hon. Member is quite unafraid and has returned to the fray.
The hon. Member has sent out a letter to a large number of customers of B.R.S. soliciting complaints from them. [HON. MEMBERS: "Shame."] I will read the letter, of which the hon. Member kindly gave me a copy, although I had already received one, when I informed him that I would raise the matter. It is headed "British Road Services" and states:Dear Sir,I am in the course of making a study to discover the degree with which B.R.S. are providing a reasonable service to industry and commerce, and this applies especially to the trunk road services. I should be most grateful if you would help me with any information and details of your experience. This applies more especially if your experience has occasioned serious delays. I undertake to keep your firm's name entirely confidential. I might add that apart from being a Member of Parliament, I am the immediate past President of the Leeds Chamber of Commerce and thus have a special interest in serving the interest of industry and commerce.
§ Mr. R. Gresham Cooke (Twickenham)rose——
§ Mr. Davies
I would give way to the hon. Member for Shipley, if he wishes to intervene, but not to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke).
§ Mr. Geoffrey Hirst (Shipley)
Since the hon. Member invites me to intervene, I do not withdraw or apologise at all for that letter. As soon as he drew my attention to it, I wanted to make quite sure that he was fully informed and I sent him a copy. The hon. Member is jumping to conclusions. If I get a chance later, I will explain the reason for the letter. I have nothing at all for which to apologise.
§ Mr. Davies
I am sure that the whole House will look forward to the hon. Gentleman's explanation and will expect an apology from him, because I consider that this is a despicable abuse of a Member's position and reveals a mean 1836 mind. It shows that hon. Members cannot rely on complaints coming voluntarily to them, but they must tout round for them. Will the hon. Member, when he produces the complaints, if he has received any, also produce all the letters which have reached him in which compliments have been paid to B.R.S.? I know that the House will place far more value on unsolicited testimonials than on the hon. Member's solicited complaints.
Clause 2 and the Schedule to which the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport referred enable companies to be formed to facilitate the sale of the parcels and meat organisations on the lines which were rejected when the Transport Act, 1953, was under discussion. I hope that when the Minister replies to the debate he will tell us his intentions in this respect. I regard the Clause with grave suspicion. We have seen this procedure followed in the case of the iron and steel industry. In many instances the companies which have been put up for sale have been disposed of by means of the Iron and Steel Holding and Realisation Agency which has been left with the fixed interest debentures, the equity capital being sold off.
If that procedure is followed in this case, the British Transport Commission will be left with a large block of fixed interest bearing capital bringing in low interest yields whereas the equity stock, carrying the profits which B.R.S. has been making, will be transferred to private enterprise. I cannot see any justification for transferring into private pockets the profits which a public concern is making through successful operations. It means that in the process substantial profits will be made on the Stock Exchange. Who can benefit from the sale of the parcels and meat organisations but the profit-takers?
I hope that the Minister will tell us when the reconstruction of the parcel company is to take place after the Bill becomes law, whether it is to be put up for sale and, if so, whether he is going to protect the interests of the Transport Commission or sell at any price to any comer. I have great fears that if a sale is forced, the loss which will accrue to the Transport Commission will be substantial and more than the levy will be able to recompense. Not only should the House be informed of the Minister's intentions with regard to parcels and 1837 meat, but he should give an assurance to the House relating to capital reconstruction.
The Minister has considerable powers, indeed too great powers under the Bill, to arrange or order and direct that reconstruction should take place and to direct when sales shall take place. He should give an assurance that if there is capital reconstruction the Commission will retain its proportionate share of equity capital and that it will not have to hive off that section of capital which carries with it the profits and retain only the fixed interest bearing stock. If it retains managerial responsibility, which has also been suggested, it must retain financial responsibility, too.
In this respect an assurance is needed concerning the staff, because under the 1953 Act employees are considered as employees of the Commission for the purpose of negotiating machinery and working conditions until the company is sold but, as I understand the Act, they are not considered employees of the Commission in respect of compensation for displacement or worsening of conditions. I believe that representations have been made by the trade unions on this matter. It would be helpful if the Minister could indicate whether or not the compensation regulations are to be amended.
As to the levy which Clause 7 brings to an end, that levy was introduced to provide compensation where there was displacement of workers and the like and to meet the cost of disposal and any loss incurred through disposal. During debates on the 1953 Act, the House was assured and reassured by Government spokesmen that no loss should accrue to the Commission, that the main purpose of the levy was to meet that loss, and that the Commission was not to carry any loss whatsoever from disposal. The former Minister of Transport, in reply to Questions in the House, went so far as to say that there was no loss. The Bill provides that the levy shall cease at the end of this year. In reply to Questions which I put to the Minister yesterday, the right hon. Gentleman said that, when the levy comes to an end, if the Transport Fund has not sufficient in it to meet the loss which has occurred, the Transport Commission itself will have to bear that loss.
1838 This is a breach of the undertaking which was given to the House. The levy should not cease unless it is certain that it is adequate to meet the purposes for which it was intended or, if it does cease, an alternative source of finance should be found. The Government should give a guarantee to the Commission that it will meet any deficit which the Transport Fund is unable to meet.
The Minister has estimated that the total requirement to meet the loss will be £12¼ million. It is one of those agreeable coincidences which are so helpful to politicians that the loss on disposal happens to be precisely the amount that it is expected will be realised by the levy by the time it ceases at the end of the year. How fortunate it was that when the Minister gazed into the crystal ball he saw in all innocence the figure of £12¼ million as the loss. How surprised he must have been, but how happy also it must have made him, when he discovered—subsequently no doubt—that the levy would bring in precisely the amount which it was estimated would be the loss to the Transport Commission.
This is one of those coincidences which one is justified in gazing at a little cynically. I should like to know from the Minister how the loss has been computed. Was the Commission consulted as to what it estimated the loss would be, or did the Ministry itself compute the loss without full consultation with the Commission? Has the Commission itself agreed with this estimate?
Instead of bringing the Bill to the House in its present form, which provides for both retentions and further sales, it would have been more honest and it would have served the country better if the Government had brought forward a simple one-Clause Bill, as I suggested, permitting the retention by the Commission of all its unsold vehicles. We support the retention Clause, but we shall resist any attempt to weaken it by reducing the number of vehicles which B.R.S. is allowed to retain, or any reduction of the number of licences below the figure of 7,750.
The Clauses facilitating sales of parcels and meat are unnecessary. They are harmful to industry and financially dangerous to the Commission. The powers of the Minister are such that he can force 1839 sales without any protection against excessive loss. The levy is ended without the Commission being guaranteed against having itself to make good losses from such forced sales. On all these matters the Opposition will fight during subsequent stages of the Bill.
No case has been made out for proceeding with this further break-up of a highly successful public enterprise. The Government are persisting in a vindictive policy which is inspired not by the economic interest of the country, but by the greed of the road hauliers, to whom they are politically indebted, and by the relentless pressure of their "stooges" on their own back benches.
§ 5.2 p.m.
§ Mr. J. C. George (Glasgow, Pollok)
In making this, my maiden speech, I have no doubt the House will extend to me its usual kindly tolerance. I have the honour to represent a residential constituency in the great industrial City of Glasgow. Many and varied are the pursuits of its people. Shipbuilding, engineering, steel and other branches of industry and commerce provide a livelihood and enable its citizens to play an important part in the rising prosperity of this noble City.
Large areas in my constituency contain fine homes, fit examples of the gracious architecture of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Great areas, where but a few years ago cattle quietly grazed, now provide modern homes for many thousands whose lives hitherto had been cramped and confined in old, insanitary and cheerless dwellings. Never did the sun shine brightly. Green fields and the quiet peace of the country, although but a few miles off, were almost unknown to the children. Now, by the diligence and foresight of the civic leaders, all has been changed. A vast human experiment is in progress. Forty thousand souls from the old heart of an ancient city now dwell in open, unindustrialised country, far from the clamour and smoke which tormented their lives in other days. With high hopes we watch progress from year to year and trust that finer, happier and healthier citizens will grow up in this new environment.
I succeed that able and kindly Parliamentarian—now Lord Strathclyde—who 1840 contributed so much to the labours of this House as an hon. Member and, as a Minister, to the welfare and progress of Scotland. Now he deservedly occupies a high post in another place. I respect his many achievements and hope to serve my constituents and this House as faithfully in my time as he did in his.
I intervene in this debate because, before transport nationalisation, I managed a road transport company. Since the Disposal Board began its task of denationalising, and until I became a Mem-of this House, I have been engaged with others in trying to build a company by buying vehicles back. Therefore, I am in a position to hear at least the view of the Scottish hauliers on this Bill. Criticism has been vigorous and forceful, mainly from supporters of the Government. Their general faith in the Government remains unshaken, of course, but they advance three main arguments against the Bill. They say that by seeking to retain 5,000 more vehicles we act contrary to our election pledge, violate fundamental Conservative principles, and betray free enterprise hauliers.
Why, then, is such a Bill brought before the House by a Conservative Government? It is here because, as the Minister has explained, with the best of intentions it has not been possible fully to implement the provisions of the 1953 Act for the sale of vehicles. Honest attempts to sell have been made and have failed mainly, as the Minister has said, in respect of trunk transport.
Certain special conditions govern the disposal of trunk transport. The sale cannot be of bits and pieces, as has been the case with other forms because the units must be of sufficient size to give stability to the system. Thus it was that units larger than had been normal were offered, and doubtless prices bearing a reasonable relation to real value would have been accepted. I am informed that no offers of this nature were received. To go on advertising would simply highlight our failure and encourage speculators. To break down the units and offer them in insignificant lots would be madness and would ruin the trunk transport system.
Therefore, the realistic alternative, unpopular as it is in some quarters, was adopted. To my mind no other course was sensibly possible and I congratulate the former Minister upon his courage. To 1841 reject this Bill would be to order the Minister to go back to the market place and sell the trunk transport system at any price—an intolerable alternative. He could have taken the intolerable alternative, but I feel that the action now taken is simply plain common sense, the facing of hard, even unpalatable facts, and so I do not feel we need fear a charge of broken pledges or of violating Conservative principles. Therefore, I congratulate the former Minister upon his courage in bringing the Bill before the House.
Now I come to the charge that the Bill betrays the private hauliers who bought vehicles from the Disposal Board. The charge could also be made that, far from our having betrayed free enterprise, free enterprise has betrayed us. Both would be equally false. I am concerned that those who ventured should have a fair deal from us in the future. This Bill came to them as a shock. Many have, staked their all in new businesses and, in addition, saddled themselves with onerous hire-purchase commitments. They did not expect the type of opposition which the Bill appears to create. They expected medium-sized firms in the same financial troubles as themselves. Instead, they are faced with a giant, a colossus, a State-financed concern owning 7,500 vehicles.
However, time has passed since the Bill was first brought before the House, and on reflection the Scottish hauliers are not daunted. They do not now fear the opposition as much as they did in the beginning. They look back on past experience with British Road Services and say sardonically, "This opposition which the Bill creates is the best we could desire. Apathy, lethargy, lack of enterprise were dominant features in the past. We expect the future will be the same."
They are not daunted but, speaking with all humility in a maiden speech, I say that, while it may be the view of the Scottish hauliers that apathy, lethargy and lack of enterprise will persist, I cannot accept that view. The passage of this Bill must not create a wider area of apathy and lethargy. Free enterprise hauliers must be undeceived. They must face vigorous opposition, which I am certain they can match provided the opposition trades on fair and equal terms.
Therefore, I make several suggestions to my right hon. Friend. First, I suggest 1842 that, having failed to sell, he should organise and operate the additional 5,000 vehicles as if they had been sold. If they had been sold, they would have been dispersed in units of varying size, competing with our friends who bought earlier. That was the type of competition we expected if the Transport Act, 1953, had been fully implemented. Therefore, let us arrange that under the Bill competition takes exactly that form.
I suggest that those 5,000 vehicles be kept separate and only very lightly tied to British Road Services, so that we can see what happens to them; that they be broken down into units of not more than 500 vehicles; that the Minister appoints local boards of a small number of fully experienced business men, with a general manager in every group having a sound and thorough knowledge of the industry and of customers' needs. He should reward those men according to results and not be deterred by envious critics. Cash earnings should reflect the degree of diligence and success.
However, these new groups with no capital worries, no hire-purchase commitments, with business already well established, could, if they chose, offer better working conditions than could free enterprise and thereby seek to entice labour into their service. They could use the benefit of cheap capital to cut prices and even operate uneconomic services. Losses would not put them out of business, but that would not be fair trading on equal terms.
There must be, if these groups are considered, a degree of co-operation through the federations, between these new groups and free enterprise hauliers, remembering that loose, friendly cooperation does not mean collusion. If a system of that nature were adopted, very high profits indeed could be earned. Here is a chance to prove what we have so often preached, that this side of the House can provide business brains able to tackle and accomplish tasks beyond the ability of the party on the other side of the House.
I put forward these proposals with some hesitation in a maiden speech and, whether they be accepted in part or in whole, or completely rejected, I trust that they will give the Minister some idea of how some practical Conservatives, with 1843 little political experience but some transport knowledge, view the position in which unhappily we find ourselves. In the wider scope of nationalised industries; success with this Bill—and we can have great success if we tackle the problem properly—can set new targets for other State industries whose dismal record blights our immediate hopes of prosperity and annually gives the main, malignant twist to the upward spiral of rising prices and wages.
The time has passed when we can excuse the results of nationalised industries on the ground that the party opposite nationalised them. I despise those who preach that the greater the losses in the nationalised industries, the fewer will be those who vote for the party opposite. We must not act in a negative way but, by positive action, we must win the approval of the country. Bolder thinking than hitherto must be brought to bear not only on the question of the 5,000 vehicles which we are now discussing, but on coal, electricity, gas and the railways. We must provide better planning, superior management, greater drive, dynamic leadership, from the Minister down. Not one of those industries need be a national liability. The Bill provides my right hon. Friend with the first and fascinating opportunity to prove our case. Let him grasp it gladly.
§ 5.14 p.m.
§ Mr. Frank McLeavy (Bradford, East)
I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will join with me in congratulating the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. George) upon a very able maiden speech. It may well be that all he has said this afternoon will not find support on this side of the House. Indeed, he may find himself in some difficulty if he repeats the same arguments at a later date in the House or in Committee. Nevertheless, making a maiden speech is an ordeal. In fact, even those of us who have been Members for some years continue to find that making a speech is an ordeal. We hope that the hon. Member will find ample opportunity to make contributions to transport debates. Those of us who are especially interested in transport sincerely welcome a new voice on behalf of transport, even though it expresses opinions with which we might differ from time to time.
1844 Workers in the road haulage industry welcome those provisions of the Bill which go towards repairing the damage of the Transport Act, 1953. To allow the Transport Commission to retain a larger number of vehicles than permitted by that Act is a step in the right direction. The ill-conceived Act of 1953 was passed purely upon the extravagant assurances given to the Government by the Road Haulage Association that the available vehicles, if sold, would find ready bidders among people in the smaller section of the industry. Events have proved to the Government that they have been badly let down by the Association, and I presume that the Bill is a consequence of the Government's realisation of the folly which they committed in 1953.
There will be general regret in responsible quarters of both sides of the industry that the Government have not taken their courage in both hands and allowed the Transport Commission to retain all the vehicles and services at present in its charge. I can never understand why any Government should treat a vital national service like transport as though it were a bankrupt concern and should seek to sell off its assets by a form of public auction.
That they should establish an expensive system of a Disposal Board, coupled with a levy for compensation, seems to me shocking and a sign of mal-administration and shows a serious disregard of the main duties of Government. The first duty of Government is to safeguard the nation's assets and not to give them away to political friends. The Transport Act, 1947, was designed to bring about a system of integration of rail and road transport. The main purpose of the Act was to enable the many serious problems of transport to be dealt with on a national basis.
There still remains a great need to cut out wasteful duplication of services and to combine road and rail services in an effort to cut down the rising costs of transport. It is only by unification of the industry that a really economic system of transport services can be achieved. The cost of transport, both goods and passenger, can play an important part in keeping a fair balance between prices and wages and can ease many of our economic problems.
If we allow freight charges and passenger fares on rail and road to go up, 1845 we do two things: first, we increase the price of goods for foreign and home markets and may very well altogether price ourselves out of the foreign markets, and, secondly, we increase the cost of living at home and invite further applications and demands for increases of wages and pensions.
The real issue before the House today is clear and simple. Parliament must decide whether we are to approach this problem from the point of view of the national interest, or allow a handful of profit seekers to ruin any chance of creating a first-class national transport service. I warned the Government in 1953, as did my colleagues, and I warn them again today, that their failure to put the national interest first may have a serious effect on the economic life of our people.
There are a number of basic industries which we have nationalised in the public interest, and they have been referred to in this debate. Transport is closely allied to all of them. It is on transport that those industries depend for the conveyance of their products to the markets throughout the country and to the docks for export, but it is no earthly use for the Government to decide to retain the nationalised railway services if they propose to pass to private ownership the more profitable section of road haulage. If the railways are to be denied some financial assistance from the more profitable transport services, who will pay for the large schemes of railway modernisation which are contemplated?
Let us examine another aspect of this problem, that of transport services in the agricultural areas. How often have we heard hon. Members opposite complain about the decreasing services in agricultural areas? Many of my hon. Friends have been equally concerned, because there has been a growing tendency to cut down the services on the ground of the inability of the undertakings to meet their financial obligations. Everyone knows that if we are to provide unremunerative but vital services in the countryside the cost must be met out of the common pool, at the expense of undertakings which are making a reasonable profit. The problem in the agricultural areas is one of providing uneconomic services the cost of which must be met by those 1846 sections of the transport system which can afford to set it off against their profits.
Let us examine the position of the Carter Paterson parcel service. By the Act of 1953 this £7 million enterprise was put up for sale last October and prospective buyers were given until 25th January to bid. Not one single tender was received. This service has grown in size since nationalisation to 4,000 motor vehicles and trailers. It is three times its former size. A network of interlocking services was set up, fresh routes were started, and in the first six months of 1955 it made a net profit of about £462,000. It is estimated that for the full year this section of the nationalised transport industry will make a profit of about £1 million.
I ask the Minister, seriously, what public service will be rendered if the Government persist in selling the shares of this undertaking? The shares may well put money into the pockets of private investors at the expense of the financial position of British transport, but the serious problem will still remain to be solved by the Minister. I am anxious to find a practical solution in the interests of the nation and of every section of the community. I am sure that both employers of labour and the trade unions wish to see some stability in our transport industry. Nothing is more harmful than a state of uncertainty about ownership.
When the 1953 Act was before Parliament, hon. Members on this side of the House suggested that a public inquiry should be held. The Government rejected that suggestion. In view of all the serious implications arising from this problem of transport and in view of its vital importance to commerce and the very life of the nation, I wish to ask the Minister whether he will consider, with his colleagues, the desirability of setting up a Royal Commission to examine impartially the whole question. The Commission should have wide terms of reference so that it may survey the whole field of transport. Meanwhile, the present position should remain unaltered. Let the Transport Commission retain control of the undertakings which it operates today.
I have spoken in almost every debate on transport which we have had in this House in recent years. I have tried to 1847 make a serious contribution to the solution of this difficult problem. I urge the Minister and the Government to think again about this matter. There is nothing which has a greater effect upon the economic life of the nation than our transport industry. The Chancellor of the Exchequer or the Prime Minister cannot talk about the danger of wages chasing prices or vice versa; it is no use any responsible Minister appealing for restraint on the part of industry and organised labour, unless the Government are prepared to set an example.
By dealing with the transport problem, by setting up a Royal Commission to investigate the matter and to discover what the nation requires, and what is best suited to industry, the Government will give a lead which will inspire confidence throughout the country. Transport may very well decide our economic future. If the cost of transporting coal, iron and steel, and all the other materials which we export, continues to rise we may well price ourselves out of the export market. Our industrial position will then be very serious.
I ask the Minister very seriously to consider the points which have been made. The more we investigate the transport system and strive to find a solution of its problems, the more we are serving the national interests. I am not so much concerned about political issues in this matter. I am concerned about the men who are employed in the industry, who do not want to have their employers constantly changed. Within the road transport industry—whether it be passenger or goods—we have a type of workman who is prepared to play the game. These people are prepared to serve the nation well, and they ought to be given a fair deal.
They can be given a fair deal only if we set up a Royal Commission to examine this vast industry, and do not make too much of a political issue out of the recommendations which it later places before the House. We must see that there is no question of putting on Government or Opposition Whips; the House must survey the whole position. The Royal Commission must have the advice of the big industrialists, the T.U.C., and those unions which are concerned in the industry.
1848 This is a glorious chance for the Government to say, "We are trying to settle this problem once and for all upon a basis of common sense and common understanding." If they do that we shall all be happier. Transport is the very lifeblood of our nation, and if we allow it to flow away in wasteful tides we shall run the risk of destroying the nation's prosperity.
§ 5.33 p.m.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Wilson (Truro)
In recent years, any Measure dealing with transport has tended to engender heat in this House and, judging by the violence of the language of the hon. Member for Enfield, East (Mr. Ernest Davies), this debate may follow in that tradition. This happens because there is a fundamental difference of view between those who pay at least lip-service to the theory of nationalisation and the integration of transport under a centrally-owned authority, and those who, on this side of the House, believe that the travelling public and traders are best served by private enterprise and competition.
However violent may have been the language used in such debates, any outside observer will have noticed that when it came to action neither side pressed its arguments to their logical conclusions. I have repeatedly pointed out that, whatever may have been the express intention of Section 3 of the Transport Act of 1947, that Act never gave the British Transport Commission sufficient powers to produce that "properly integrated system of public inland transport for passengers and goods" to which Section 3 referred, because large parts of inland transport—such as C licence holders and municipal bus undertakings—were not touched by the Act.
If the hon. Member for Bradford, East (Mr. McLeavy) really thinks that British Road Services, as set up under the 1947 Act, were capable to paying for the very great cost of the modernisation of rail transport, he will have to refer to the conditions as they existed under that Act, because the amount of money available from that source was much too small to do anything of the sort.
§ Mr. Ernest Davies
Whatever makes the hon. Gentleman think that that was the intention of the 1947 Act? It was never suggested that one section of the transport industry should pay for 1849 another. The suggestion was that there should be a general pooling of the finances of the Commission.
§ Mr. Wilson
I respectfully suggest that the hon. Member was not listening to his hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, East, because he quite clearly indicated that he thought that the road services could pay for railway modernisation. That is a preposterous proposition; it could never have been so.
§ Mr. McLeavy
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not wish to misrepresent what I said. I made no such statement. I referred only to the question of making a contribution towards the common pool. If the hon. Gentleman misunderstood my speech, I am sorry. No one, by any stretch of imagination, could suggest that a mere contribution from the profits of the road haulage side would meet all the costs of railway modernisation.
§ Mr. Wilson
I am glad that the hon. Member has cleared up that point. If I went beyond what he represented I withdraw my remarks, but when he reads the OFFICIAL REPORT tomorrow he will find that it was possible to put that construction on what he said.
On the other hand, whatever may have been the popular impression, the Government by their Transport Act of 1953 never set out completely to de-nationalise even road haulage, since that Act left a large section of road haulage in the hands of the British Transport Commission. In other words, when it came to practical results, our debates have been concerned not with whether there should be nationalisation or private enterprise in transport, but to what degree a compromise should be reached between two strongly opposed theories. Each side naturally pressed for a compromise more in favour of its own theory than that of its opponent. This seems to be the British way, and it is quite a reasonable way, because only if the Government of the day take some notice of the strongly held opinions of its opponents can democracy work.
I have said that the 1953 Act did not provide for the complete denationalisation of road haulage. It actually went some distance further in the direction of de-nationalisation than could have been expected from the Conservative Party Election pledge of 1951, 1850 as set out in "Britain Strong and Free," which has already been quoted by the Joint Parliamentary Secretary. I would remind hon. Members opposite that we not only said that public and private enterprise will be needed in transport, but we placed in the forefront of our proposals the removal of the 25-mile limit. That limit was subsequently removed. We next referred to publicly-owned transport being made subject to the control of licensing authorities upon the same terms as were private hauliers, which has also been done, and finished up by stating that the existence of some genuine competition would make it reasonable to give those in control of publicly-owned transport greater freedom in charging. Greater freedom in charging has been permitted to the railways as a result of the 1953 Act.
Thus, to complete our Election pledge, the question now is how far we have made it possible for genuine competition to take place between private enterprise and the nationalised section of the industry. There is bound to be a difference of opinion in relation to the distance we should go in that direction to complete our pledge, but I suggest that any question whether the Bill has gone too far in providing for competition or not far enough is a Committee point.
Hon. Members opposite seem to think that we have gone too far, because they would like everything to be retained while some hon. Members on this side think that an excessive number of vehicles has been retained, even if it is desirable that the present trunk services should in no way be disturbed. There are also those who feel that it is questionable whether the industries of this country have not put an undue weight on the value of the present trunk services.
§ Mr. James Harrison (Nottingham, North)
I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman. What I should like to put to him is this. I know that the hon. Gentleman is Chairman of the Conservative Party Transport Group, and that is why we are particularly concerned about what he has been saying. We feel that there have been no voluntary arrangements on the part of the Government in this set-up. We feel that they have disposed of as many lorries and as many of the B.R.S. assets as they could, and, having reached 1851 the limit, they now come to the House with this Bill to cover up their defects or their inability to sell.
§ Mr. Wilson
That really is an interjection arising from the hon. Gentleman's imagination. He cannot have listened to the opening speech of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, from which it was perfectly clear that these lorries could be sold tomorrow and that we could continue to sell them in small lots. The only argument is whether it is desirable in the national interest to preserve the existing trunk services. That is quite clear from the speech of the Parliamentary Secretary. If we look at the lists of the sales that have taken place since the General Election, we find that the proportion of vehicles sold is very high indeed, and that the three sales since the General Election provide nothing to indicate that the sale of lorries in small lots could not go on.
§ Mr. H. Hynd
Why does the hon. Gentleman say that the Government do not want to sell? If they did not want to sell these lorries, why, in fact, did they put them up to sell and find they could not sell them?
§ Mr. Wilson
I am not saying that we did not want to sell them. I was replying to the interjection of the hon. Gentleman's hon. Friend, who implied that the lorries could not be sold. That is not so. They could be sold, and some hon. Members think that, if slightly different arrangements had been made, they could be sold in bigger lots than in fact has been the case.
I am not proposing to go into that argument at all, but merely pointing out that I have already suggested that hon. Members on this side of the House at any rate should concentrate on seeing how far this Bill does provide for more genuine competition between the remaining sections of the nationalised industry and private enterprise. If it does provide genuine competition, then it certainly falls in with our theories about transport. We believe that competition stimulates a better service, and if the results will be a better service, then that is all we want for the public.
On the other hand, I venture to suggest to hon. Members opposite that it is really quite useless for them to pursue the argument as if what they expected to happen 1852 was complete nationalisation—the hon. Member for Bradford, East has left the Chamber, but he used the words "unification of transport." Not only are they not in the least likely to get it, but they never could have done so under their own Act of 1947. Therefore, it is much better, I suggest, that they should concentrate on seeing how the nationalised section which is still left in being can be run in a businesslike and efficient manner.
There are other features of this Bill which will receive a greater degree of commendation from a wider section of the House. I think that hon. Members on both sides will be very glad to see that the Transport Levy is coming to an end. It is to be noted that whereas some people think the amount of compensation in connection with the Transport Levy is not sufficient to compensate the B.T.C., there is a very strong expression of opinion that it is too much. If that be so, it suggests to me that it is quite likely that the Government are somewhere about right in suggesting a figure which on the one hand is thought to be too high and on the other to be too little. It may be that they are very near the real figure of the reasonable amount of compensation.
Again, in Clause 2, there is provision in regard to selling the shares of companies under Section 5 of the 1953 Act, which can be done otherwise than in one parcel. A number of hon. Members have already referred to this point, and I think there will be a considerable degree of appreciation of this improvement on the 1953 Act. Although it applies only—or appears to apply chiefly—to companies envisaged by Section 5 of the 1953 Act, it is quite clear that a number of people, and not only in the Conservative Party, have been wondering whether an extension of the company system to transport with mixed ownership may not be a good thing in opening the way to political peace in the transport industry, which the hon. Member for Bradford, East so well commended to the House.
I have made this point before, and I do not apologise for referring to it briefly again. My own experience as a servant of the Great Western Railway before the war was that the co-operation of the railway company and bus undertakings in the management of jointly owned bus companies worked very well and still continues to work well after nationalisation 1853 as between the B.T.C. and private enterprise. It may well be that co-operation between private enterprise and the nationalised industry in the running of other transport services by means of companies in which both have financial interests might be a very good thing. In so far as this Clause of the Bill tends in that direction, a number of people will welcome it.
I return to the point which I made at the beginning, and suggest to hon. Members that, instead of arguing about what happened in the past and whether this is going back to nationalisation more than was envisaged by the 1953 Act or is not going far enough towards nationalisation, we should concentrate on seeing whether we can make this into a Bill which will provide a more efficient service by giving a degree of competition between the two sides of the transport industry.
§ 5.48 p.m.
§ Mr. James Harrison (Nottingham, North)
I should like very sincerely to believe that the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. G. Wilson) has modified his views on the nationalisation or de-nationalisation of transport to the extent which he has suggested this afternoon. I can remember our earlier arguments on these matters, and I remember very vividly the attitude of the hon. Member for Truro on this question of nationalisation.
When I interjected a few moments ago to say that I did not think this was a voluntary compromise, I did so in the knowledge of the submissions of hon. Members opposite over the last five or six years. I could not imagine any voluntary compromise on this question of nationalisation, and the illustration is quite forceful as far as the hon. Member for Truro is concerned, because he was an employee of a railway undertaking before nationalisation.
§ Mr. Harrison
I was about to recall that, as an employee of a nationalised undertaking, the hon. Gentleman came to my constituency shortly after the railways had been nationalised. He told us in Nottingham with great gusto and oratory that, owing to the fact that the railways had been nationalised, he himself felt no longer able to serve as an employee. When the Parliamentary Secretary spoke 1854 of ideological grounds I think that he meant prejudice against public ownership, but I have never known a shabbier example of prejudice against a national undertaking——
§ Mr. G. Wilson
The hon. Member has made a personal attack on me. I do not know whether he was a member of my audience at Nottingham—I did not have the pleasure of knowing him then, so I could not know—but I think that I recollect the incident to which he refers. I said that I found I could not continue to work in a nationalised industry because I was then a Conservative candidate, and it was not appropriate that an employee of one of the nationalised industries should be publicly criticising them.
§ Mr. Harrison
That is a very important admission for the hon. Member to make. I had intended later to congratulate him by pointing out how far we had brought him over the years from that rather unfortunate position. Let us look at the other side of the picture as he has just described it. If I, as an employee of the nationalised railways, said when it was proposed to denationalise them, "If you denationalise the railways I shall cease to be an employee," I should be adopting an attitude similar to that which the hon. Member then took up. If the drivers of these lorries said, "If you denationalise, we will not work for you," I should call it a form of sabotage, and, though we sometimes make these comments rather lightheartedly, these matters are very serious in their effect on the national economy.
I remember the arguments we had in 1953, and I think that it would have been a good idea had the Government put up the present Colonial Secretary to reply in this debate. It would have been most interesting.
§ Mr. Harrison
I prefer the Colonial Secretary. He piloted the 1953 Bill through the House, and it is astonishing to read some of the comments he then made.
I remember going with a photographer to one of the big road haulage depots in Nottingham because, having listened to the debate here, I was quite sure that the mountain of prejudice against 1855 nationalised industries would guarantee that B.R.S. would soon disappear. I wished to make a photographic record of what I knew to be the wonderful success of a nationalised undertaking. When the managers and administrative staff at the depot asked what I was doing I replied, "I have come to get a permanent record of something that is to pass away." They did not believe me. They said, "Believe us, friend, we are not going to pass away."
They told me that quite a large number of the most prominent firms in the City of Nottingham, and round about, had indicated to B.R.S. officials and to the Government that they could not envisage anything which would replace the tremendous service given by the then new B.R.S. At that time they had confidence that the Government would not destroy the institution which had been set up. I regret that after all these years the Government have been forcd into the position about which we warned them when the 1953 Act was passed. It is a great pity, because my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, East (Mr. McLeavy) stressed over and over again the vital importance of transport in our general economy.
I should like to draw the attention of the Minister to the announcement, made today for the first time, that a limited company has been established to deal with the meat side of B.R.S The announcement in the Financial Times says that the British Transport Commission is not yet able to say how it will dispose of that part of its assets, that it appears to be awaiting guidance from the Ministry as to their final disposal and that this limited company was formed yesterday to deal with the matter. It will be illuminating and helpful if the Minister will say something about what is to be done before this valuable asset is finally sold.
We are debating now merely the sequel to other discussions. Time and time again we have listened to those hon. Members below the Gangway who are particularly interested in traffic telling us that they want to introduce some form of competition into the road services.
§ Mr. Harrison
Personally, I am very pleased that the Government have 1856 brought forward this Bill. It means that we shall avoid the complete wrecking of cur road services, particularly the long-distance services which are the most valuable. Retaining the long-distance services means only that the short-distance feeder services are being hived off. Nevertheless, to keep intact the long-distance services has become vital to the industry, and I am very pleased that the Government have recognised the need for keeping that part of the organisation going before the long-distance services were completely destroyed.
I know that it is not good Parliamentary manners to refer critically to a maiden speech, but at least I can say that I am looking forward to an opportunity of talking in Committee to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. George), especially on transport matters. To help him on such things would be a very well-worth-while task.
There is another matter to which I should like to refer. I am told that a suggestion has come from road haulage interests that the Bill in its present form should be passed but that the operation of its terms should be delayed for twelve months, and that month by month during that period the lorries of British Road Services should again be put up for sale. I gathered that from the report in the Financial Times today. I gathered that application will be made during Committee or at some other period in our proceedings to delay the operation of the Bill, and that, during that delay, each month the assets of the B.R.S. will be put up for sale to see if a reasonable bid can be obtained.
The biggest part of the British Road Services organisation had not been in existence for twelve months before it was threatened with extinction by the 1953 Bill. Most of the organisation had not existed for twelve months when the Bill was introduced. Hon. Members opposite are now suggesting that we should keep this indecision hanging over the organisation for a further twelve months. Is it not clear to everybody who knows anything about transport that it is remarkable that, despite all these deterrents to good organisation and all these difficulties, the operations of British Road Services have functioned to such an extent that hundreds of firms have pleaded for their restoration and they have made a profit?
1857 Imagine what the services could be if, instead of being threatened every month with extinction, they were encouraged by the Government to proceed with their organisation. Imagine what could be done. When my hon. Friends from this side of the House sit on the other side of the House, it will not be a question of imagination; we will show the House what can be done.
§ 6.2 p.m.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Hirst (Shipley)
I trust that the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. J. Harrison) will have a long time in which to cogitate over his imagination. Apart from that comment of his, I think we have generally enjoyed his speech, although it is going a little too far to say that most of the B.R.S. organisation had not got going by 1953. We will let that go, but it was a little exaggeration.
I want to return for a moment—and I will not be long—to the speech of the hon. Member for Enfield, East (Mr. Ernest Davies). It was a very interesting speech, and some of it reminded me of the cadet who scrounged a few extra rounds at the end of a field day and proceeded to fire them off haphazardly into what he supposed to be the target area. Certainly one of those rounds he fired at me.
The hon. Gentleman referred to this as an unnecessary Bill, apart from Clause 1. I was a little confused; at times he said it was unnecessary and at other times he said it bore out exactly what he had told us in 1952. One way or another, it is difficult to see what hon. Members opposite wanted and what they did not want.
I must say that for some time I have held the view myself that a good deal of what is in this Bill is unnecessary. Indeed, if the Government at the time of the 1953 Act had been prepared to go as far as some of us thought desirable—and I am acknowledged to be one who thought they should—in making what I call a bigger job of the show and in taking some of the powers which they now take in Clause 2 and running certain trunk services through company formation, they would not have had much difficulty in disposing of those trunk services. Some troubles flow from the difficulty of disposal; that I will not deny. It is well known from my speeches in the country 1858 and in the House, and I do not want to hide behind the views which I held. To that extent, of course, I look upon the Bill as unnecessary.
I was deeply concerned about it and, as has been announced, I had in mind some form of reasoned Amendment to the Second Reading, partly because of the views which I have long held and, partly because I received a considerable number of completely unsolicited complaints long before the letter which I sent out.
In view of the opinions which had been expressed in certain quarters, I quite frankly thought it only reasonable to send out my letter. I do not want any plaudits for it, but hon. Members know that one does not take action hostile to one's own party without being reasonably satisfied that one's case is sound. Surely that is elementary. I therefore decided to send out a number of copies of a printed letter to a considerable number of firms—about 240. I received over 200 replies. The letter was sent out pretty well to every quarter of the country. I selected the firms as broadly as I could throughout England and the Lowlands of Scotland, and to a certain extent Wales, too.
The replies were extremely interesting. I will be straight with the House: more than half expressed considerable satisfaction with the B.R.S. service. Of course I had a number of complaints, but I will not read them out and make a splash of them. What was much more important—and if the hon. Member for Enfield. East had appreciated my reasons they might have attracted rather kinder remarks from him; not that I mind what he said—I wanted to get a general appreciation of the situation before I took the action which I was contemplating.
I received those replies and, combined with my conversations with the new Minister of Transport, I decided not to table an Amendment. I must say that I have found the new Minister extremely reasonable and flexible to talk to; he is approaching this matter in a thoroughly sensible, and, as far as possible, entirely non-party way. I personally considered, after these conversations, that the action which I had contemplated was not only wrong but could not be upheld in fact.
That ought to be fair enough for hon. Members opposite. Here again, I am being factual, and if the hon. Member for 1859 Enfield, East doubts my words, all these letters can be considered by an independent source, although I promised the firms not to use their names. I will leave out those who had some quibble about the service, but certainly 75 per cent. of the people who were satisfied gratuitously and of their own account mentioned in the letters that this considerable improvement had dated substantially from the passing of the 1953 Act. In other words, there had been the spur of competition.
It does not matter where it came from; I am not trying to make a party point, but simply to give the facts disclosed to me in those letters; and those letters revealed that this competition had put B.R.S. on their toes and, as a result, B.R.S. were giving a much better service than some, perhaps including myself, had appreciated. Equally, it had been a spur to new entrants into the private sector of the industry, and the sum total was an infinitely better service in every quarter. That is a perfectly candid and straightforward answer to the hon. Member's attack.
§ Mr. Ernest Davies
I appreciate the way in which the hon. Member is handling this, but in view of his earlier remarks that he wanted an appreciation of the services of B.R.S., why did he put this sentence in his letter:This applies more especially if your experience has occasioned serious delays.Does he not consider that a leading question with the purpose of seeking complaints and not seeking appreciation?
§ Mr. Hirst
It may be elementary to the hon. Gentleman, since a good many things are elementary to him. What is elementary to me is that it is a perfectly reasonable thing to ask people whether they are receiving satisfactory service or whether they are receiving a number of complaints. Those were the two alternatives I wanted to know, and I make no apology for putting the question in that way. I received exactly the answer I 1860 wanted, and it enabled me to take the decision which I have taken. That is a perfectly clear explanation, and I will deal with the subject no more. I have been perfectly honest with the House.
§ Mr. Jack Jones (Rotherham)rose——
§ Mr. Hirst
I would rather not give way.
I must put the House in possession of this additional information, which was entirely unsolicited; there is no reference to it in the letter, as the hon. Member for Enfield, East knows. In nearly every single instance where the parcels service was mentioned at all, and that would be in about 25 per cent. or 33 per cent. of the letters, they went on to say that this degree of satisfaction did not apply in anything like the same degree to the parcels service.
The great mass of the complaints, such as they are, and some of them are quite severe, applied to the parcels service. That is interesting because this was quite a broad investigation carried out on an area basis all over the country, taking three to fifteen firms according to the size of the area. I am quoting it now because it will interest the Minister to know the extent to which, from the same sources as other people are quoting in defence of the transport service, there is a mandate for continuing to deal more effectively in one form or another—I am not going to say exactly how—with the parcels service.
That clearly came out in these letters. I support the powers contained in Clause 2 and the Schedule of the Bill on the very basis that I myself argued and wanted for the whole of the scheme. There is only one thing that appeals on a private business footing and that is to decide what is a satisfactory and sensible operating unit in the interests of transport generally, and then allow it to run so that there are figures available to enable the service to be judged on a profits and loss basis. That has never been properly available in the ordinary service. I support that, and I want to see a much greater degree of competition in the parcels service which is not proving as satisfactory a section of B.R.S. as the other sections admittedly more or less are.
I shall not go into mourning if the Minister decides that the Road Haulage Disposal Board is to go in demise. I should like to see some better instrument for this purpose. I think that it had to 1861 drag its feet somewhat at the request of B.R.S. Be that as it may, the Board has not the confidence of the buying public. That has not necessarily anything to do with the personnel but arises from the set-up under the Act. I think we should have a better hope of dealing with the situation if there were a new system. That is only a suggestion.
I will not argue now about the number of lorries for B.R.S., but I must give notice that in Committee I might suggest a slight variation in the number. Whatever number is decided, I think that as far as possible they should be hived off to a certain degree from the day-to-day management of B.T.C. and operated on conditions and in circumstances such as are within the field of the 1948 Companies Act in such a way as to give a little more confidence to the private sector of transport, so that the private sector may know that competition is on an even keel.
I know that it could be argued that the division has been made more or less on a fair lorry basis in terms of numbers, but it has been divided up rather like a milk bottle; if it is firmly shaken it is all right, but if it is not firmly shaken the cream comes to the top. The cream then remains with the B.T.C. and competition is not on a level keel. That may have to be so. Ordinarily I would deprecate it to a certain extent, but in the decisions which are being forced upon me by the logic of argument, the force of circumstances and the opinion of a great section of the industry, I realise that that may have to be so.
If it has to be so, I want as far as possible some organisation which will ensure reasonable competition in licence matters, etc., so that motors or lorries cannot be run about the country to jam up or dilute the situation locally from the point of view of licences. If that sort of thing arose it would not be satisfactory. I have every reason to think that the Minister of Transport will do his best to meet the demand of both sides of the House, and I think that he will go a long way, so far as I am concerned, in supporting the wisdom, if I may say so humbly, of the position that I took.
§ 6.16 p.m.
§ Mr. David Jones (The Hartlepools)
I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Hirst) was damning this 1862 Bill with faint praise or praising it with faint damns. It is quite clear that if the hon. Member had been conscientious and wanted a real opinion he would not only have sent this questionnaire to the British Road Service depots but also to the private operators, the customers of the private operators, and the employees of private operators, to find out what they had to say. After saying that, I now leave the hon. Member to his right hon. Friend on the Front Bench.
I want now to turn to the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. G. Wilson), and to get this on the record. He reminded me of a little boy in a Devonshire village, whistling on a dark night to make himself brave. He tried to persuade himself and his constituents that the Government did not denationalise the whole of the road haulage service. All that was left of the British Transport Commission under the original Bill was 2,341 vehicles out of 36,736 vehicles. The bulk of the vehicles left to the British Transport Commission were either used in the cartage and delivery from railway stations or were vehicles used for special purposes.
The hon. Member said that the Government did not completely de-nationalise road transport. It is a pity that he did not remember the Bill which he voted for so assiduously in 1953. Section 1 (1) of that Act states:Subject to the provisions of this Act, it shall be the duty of the British Transport Commission … to dispose, as quickly as is reasonably practicable, of all the property held by them for the purposes of so much of their undertaking as is at the passing of this Act carried on through the Road Haulage Executive.
§ Mr. Jones
Certainly, but the Road Haulage' Disposal Board was given the specific responsibility of breaking up the Road Haulage Executive completely. I think that the hon. Member for Shipley was unfair to the Road Haulage Disposal Board. It tried to do an impossible job in the best way it could, and I think that he was a little unfair to the Chairman of that Board and his colleagues when he used the words which he did about them.
§ Mr. Jones
If the hon. Member agrees with me that the Road Haulage Disposal Board was given an impossible task to undertake, then I would agree with him at once. I, at least, had the satisfaction of going into the Lobby to prevent the Road Haulage Disposal Board from being set up, but the hon. Member cannot claim that to his credit.
§ Mr. Jones
This is what Sir Malcolm Trustram Eve said in his First Report:The Act imposes upon the Commission the duty of disposing of the whole of its existing road haulage undertaking as quickly as is reasonably practicable. In performing this duty the Commission are to consult the Board on certain defined matters, and on those matters are to act on lines settled from time to time with the approval of the Board and also to act in accordance with detailed approvals given by the Board.Then the hon. Member for Truro went on to say, "We could sell these vehicles if we wanted to do so." Of course, the Parliamentary Secretary said that they could be sold as second-hand vehicles in ones or twos. The hon. Member ought to read the information available to him. The Fourth Report of the Road Haulage Disposal Board states:Almost all of the vehicles available for sale in transport units or companies have now been put on offer at least once, except for the Parcels Company which will be offered in October. Some 47 per cent. of the vehicles have been offered twice or more. Considerably more than half of those offered have been sold.Then, in the last Report—which I hope will be the last Report of the Road Haulage Disposal Board, because I can see no purpose for its retention any longer—it is stated:In our last Report we were able to indicate that 24,569 vehicles had been put on offer at least once and of those 15,008 had been sold.
§ Mr. G. Wilson
Is the hon. Member aware that I referred particularly to the three lists put up since the General Election and that the percentages of vehicles sold were—List 12, 76 per cent.; List 13, 96 per cent.; and List R6, 88 per cent.?
§ Mr. Jones
Yes, I agree, but is the hon. Member also aware that of all the vehicles that have been sold nearly 14,000 out of 18,200 have been sold in lots of not more than nine—in ones, twos, threes, fours, up to nine? Only 272 were in lots of between forty and fifty and 676 in lots of fifty or more?
1864 Before the hon. Member for Shipley leaves the Chamber, I want to remind him of another matter. I have a recollection that when the 1953 Bill was going through the House the hon. Member challenged my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Champion) when my hon. Friend produced a document issued by the Associated British Chambers of Commerce in which that organisation warned the Government that if they broke up the trunk services they would be imperilling the economy of the country. That document was produced and the hon. Member went on to say that, as the ex-chairman of Leeds Chamber of Commerce, he was dissociating himself from it.
It is a fact that at that time the organisation made a statement and warned the predecessor of the present Minister, now the Colonial Secretary, that if he went on with the task of breaking up the trunk services it would affect the economy of the country.
§ Mr. Hirst
The hon. Member has looked up his reference fairly well, but not quite accurately. What I was dealing with at that time on the Second Reading of the 1953 Measure was the statement issued by the A.B.C.C, which I was able to indicate had not actually received the support of individual chambers of commerce. It is a different story now. This time the A.B.C.C. has made a statement and, as I have indicated today, it broadly agrees with public opinion.
§ Mr. Jones
I suggest that the hon. Member should re-read the debate. It was the Transport Committee of the A.B.C.C. which issued a document, which was in the hands of the Minister of Transport, in which it warned the Government that to proceed with that Measure would in fact wreck the trunk services. I think it is also true that many times since then the organisation has warned the Government of what they would be doing if they persisted in selling off these vehicles in small lots of twos and threes. More than two years ago, in a Question, I reminded the predecessor of the Minister of Transport—the present Minister of Pensions and National Insurance—that the British Transport Commission was at that time having to take off some of its feeder services in order to make vehicles available for the market.
1865 It is no use hon. Members telling us now, "After all, we did not want to denationalise altogether; we only wanted partly to denationalise." The plain fact is that the Act of 1953 has completely failed to achieve its purpose. I cannot think of anyone on the Government Front Bench who could have done the job given to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary this afternoon better than he did. One would scarcely expect him, with his reputation, to come to the Dispatch Box in sackcloth and ashes, but one has to admit that he did not make a very good job of it. For instance, he talked of the small man returning to the industry. He took good care not to tell us how many new small men have come into the industry as the result of the sale of these vehicles. He took good care not to tell us that by far the bulk of the vehicles sold in small lots have been sold to people already in the industry before the 1953 Act was passed. Therefore, it is not only the big man who did not want to come back into the industry, but the small man as well.
The Transport Act, 1953, came into operation on 6th May, 1953, and the Road Haulage Disposal Board started its task on 28th May. It has been in operation for approximately thirty-one months. May I remind hon. and right hon. Members of paragraph 8 of the Government White Paper? I do not absolve the present Minister altogether from some responsibility because he was the "pigeon post" sitting behind the Minister at that time. He must, therefore, accept some responsibility for the White Paper. The White Paper said:The Government are convinced that the undertaking of the Road Haulage Executive set up under the Transport Act should revert to private enterprise. For this purpose it is proposed that the undertaking should be divided into operable units (including a suitable proportion of small units) and be offered to the public for disposal by open tender.That was in the White Paper in May, 1952; this job started in May, 1953.
I am glad that at least some common sense has prevailed in Government circles. It was clear from the beginning that the Act was inevitably doomed to failure. Let us look at the circumstances under which it was born. It was conceived in a connection between the Colonial Secretary and the Road Haulage Association and suckled by the present 1866 Minister of Transport—two of the most doctrinaire politicians there have ever been in this House. Did we expect a Bill to succeed under those circumstances? What kind of offspring would anyone expect from parents of that kind? The hon. Friends of the Minister cannot escape responsibility——
§ The Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation (Mr. Harold Watkinson)
I do not want to interrupt the hon. Member, but I think there was a slight confusion of parentage in what he has just said.
§ Mr. Jones
Probably there is, but I am glad that at least the right hon. Gentleman is going to perform the suffocating ceremony.
The present Colonial Secretary said, on 3rd December, 1952:The questionnaire put out by the Road Haulage Association among their 17,000 members, some time ago, elicited only 2,000 replies. Those 2,000 replies gave an indication of an interest in some 10,000 vehicles … We have had many indications to suggest that considerably more will be forthcoming to apply for these transport units.That is now four years ago. Shortly afterwards, on the same day the Minister said:It is our hope that it will be possible to finish with the procedure of disposal by the end of the year."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd December, 1952; Vol. 508, c. 1589–90.]The right hon. Gentleman meant 1953, not 1956.
On 6th July, 1954, there was a debate in this House, on a Motion moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan), which stated:That this House, in view of the facts disclosed in the First and Second Reports of the Road Haulage Disposal Board and of the continued financial and operating success of British Road Services, calls upon Her Majesty's Government to abandon further sales of the vehicles and premises under the Transport Act, 1953.In July, 1954, the Government were invited by the Opposition to abandon the sales. I should like to quote one or two shining examples from some of the hon. Gentlemen who adorned the benches behind the Government. One of them was the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell), who now adorns the Government Front Bench as Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry 1867 of Housing and Local Government. He had this to say:When the Opposition, in this Motion, invite the Government to abandon further sales of vehicles and premises under the Transport Act of 1953, they are under no illusion, nor has the hon. Gentleman the Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) sought to create any, as to what that invitation amounts to. It is, in fact, a demand for the repeal of the 1953 Transport Act under which these sales must take place. That is embodied in Section 1 of the 1953 Transport Act.That is perfectly true.
It would have saved a good deal of trouble to trade, commerce and industry, and to the Government, had they listened to the Opposition at that time. What they are now doing, a year and a half later, is precisely what the Opposition asked them to do in July, 1954. The hon. Member who is now Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government went on to say:However, the question to which the House must address itself today, and the question to which the public want to know the answer, is whether the experience of the last 12 months is such as to justify, let alone enforce, such a change of policy and opinion as to reverse the decision which the House took in the Transport Act of a year ago."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th July, 1954; Vol. 529, c. 1986.]How much trouble and headache would it have saved the present Minister and his predecessor had they listened to the Opposition in July, 1954?
The hon. Member for Bedfordshire, South (Mr. Cole), in the same debate, at the conclusion of his speech, said:I believe that in one or two years' time hon. Members opposite—who now think that they are having such a wonderful time at the expense of other people—will live to regret the remarks they are making today and will find that the argument behind the Motion has not been justified."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th July, 1954; Vol. 529, c. 2022.]Will the hon. Member repeat that tonight?
§ Mr. Jones
Let me turn to the right hon. Gentleman who was then the Minister but is now Secretary of State for the Colonies. In winding up the debate, he said:We were prepared to face the inevitable disturbances caused, but we have not been prepared to undo the Act, and I hope that in the light of these circumstances the House will reject the Motion."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th July, 1954; Vol. 529, c. 2032.]1868 Naturally, the very obedient hon. Gentlemen who were then sitting behind the Minister responded to that invitation and voted down the Motion. Would it not have been better if that Motion had been carried?
Let us take the latest example. On 10th November, 1954, my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, East (Mr. Ernest Davies) asked the present Minister of Pensions and National Insurance, who was then Minister of Transport,when it is proposed to introduce legislation to terminate sales of road vehicles owned by the British Transport Commission.The right hon. Gentleman replied:The only such proposals of which I have heard are those of the hon. Gentleman and his friends. The time of their introduction is, therefore, so remote as to amount to the merest speculation."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th November, 1954; Vol. 532, c. 1182.]Would it not have been an advantage to trade, industry and commerce if the right hon. Gentleman had not been quite so doctrinaire on that occasion, and had accepted the advice that was being tendered to him? Could he not see at that time, in November, 1954, a year ago, that the sale of the Road Haulage Executive's assets was doomed to failure, and that even up to that point the bulk of the vehicles which had been disposed of had been disposed of in small lots? They were being used to replace and to extend and expand undertakings already in the business. No new men, or only very few of them, were coming into the industry.
I understand there are rumours that the figure of 7,750, which was contained in the statement of Sir Malcolm Trustram Eve, is to be reduced——
§ Mr. Jones
—in response to pressure from hon. Members behind the Minister. Are the Government being really fair to Sir Malcolm Trustram Eve? After all, when the present Minister of Pensions and National Insurance, as Minister of Transport, realised that the vehicles were not being disposed of, he decided to remit the matter to the Chairman of the Disposal Board. It was examined, I assume, by Sir Malcolm, in his own efficient way, and he reached a conclusion. Are we being fair to that eminent gentleman to say, "Well, you took the responsibility of ascertaining the figure"?
1869 I well remember that during the Summer Recess, when the Report was announced, I made it my business to write to the Ministry of Transport to ask for a copy, and I got a copy of Sir Malcolm's Report. That Report, I presume, was arrived at after careful consideration of the situation and all that it entailed. Can we have some more explanation, when the right hon. Gentleman winds up the debate, as to why it is now proposed to reduce the figure by 7½per cent.? Is there any logical reason? I understand that the figure of 7,750, allowing for the necessary spare vehicles, is the minimum required to maintain the basic trunk services.
Why do not the Government "come clean" in this matter? They must now realise that all their preconceived notions on this matter have been proved completely wrong. Why is it necessary, even in the Bill, to endeavour to hamstring the Commission with a lot of regulations? Why does not the right hon. Gentleman, new to his job, come to the House and say, "We have been proved wrong in this job. The trunk services are necessary for the industry and commerce of the country." This is the answer to one or two of the speakers on his own side of the House who suggest that the organisation should be broken up. If the 7,750 vehicles are broken up into units of 50 or 100 vehicles, how are we to have an integrated trunk service all over the country? Perhaps the Minister will direct his attention to that when he replies.
I was more than interested a week or two ago to read a letter in Motor Transport of 28th January which stated that 280 business firms had shown a substantial measure of agreement with the desire to leave the trunk services now run by British Road Services in the hands of B.R.S. Is that not sufficient indication for the right hon. Gentleman to leave these vehicles with the Commission? Is it not sufficient indication for him to cease trying to wrap them up with regulations, as he is proceeding to do?
The hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) will know the journal Motor Transport very well. At times, it treats him very kindly.
§ Mr. Jones
I hope that the hon. Member will listen to what Motor Transport said on 3rd February:British Road Services performed a useful service last week in drawing attention once more to the advantages of mechanical handling devices and their associated pallets. It was demonstrated to an audience of B.R.S. men and traders how these items of modern equipment can save time and money. Any machine which can do certain work at only part of the cost of a man's wages saves money, fatigue and tempers.… Are independent hauliers taking full advantage of mechanical handling equipment? In too few cases, we think, are they doing so. While a fork-lift truck, for example, will not show a saving if used for too short a time per day, it is an item of equipment which could effect considerable economies in many depots. If palletisation is out of the question the same machines without their forks but with clamps or other attachments substituted can still be a sound proposition.I hope that the hon. Member for Kidderminster will listen to the next part of the quotation:It is futile for independent operators to make the excuse that they are not justified in mechanising because they are not as big an organisation as B.R.S. Some B.R.S. depots are no bigger than those of private operators. Even for really small operators there are some simple devices which can be of value.
§ Mr. Nabarro
Would the hon. Member mind telling me where I come into all this? He started a quotation, lengthy and totally irrelevant, by saying that it should be directed to me because Motor Transport had referred to me. This quotation does nothing of the kind.
§ Mr. Jones
Therefore, I presumed that the hon. Member thought that Motor Transport was a good source of information. I thought that I would convey this information to him as an indication that the private operators are not as efficient as the hon. Member sometimes would lead us to believe.
Again, and this time directly for the benefit of the hon. Member for Kidderminster and others, I should like to quote from the Railway Gazette, which perhaps has not such a high opinion of the hon. Member. That journal said recently:The principles of this Bill, despite backbench criticism of the Government, are the right ones. It would be foolish to split up an organisation which has earned the praise 1871 widely accorded to British Road Services. It is to be hoped that this Bill will become law and that opportunities for co-operation between the rail and the road services of the Commission will be taken to the full. If no offers for the parcels organisation are received, there may be a case for its retention also by the Commission.I welcome Clause 1, but there is no case for the hamstringing of the Commission by the regulations which are provided for in subsequent Clauses. There is no case for making the British Transport Commission carry any loss which might arise if the levy is terminated too soon. I welcome the Bill, and I hope that it will become law as quickly as possible, but I also hope that some of the Clauses will be altered in Committee.
§ 6.47 p.m.
§ Mr. Leslie Thomas (Canterbury)
I was somewhat amazed and confused by some of the statements and arguments which we heard from the hon. Member for Enfield, East (Mr. Ernest Davies). He began by charging us on this side of the House with inconsistency in that we were now pursuing a policy which hon. Members opposite had advised us to pursue throughout the years that the transport services have been discussed in the House. He accused the Government of pursuing a vicious and vindictive policy. I find it somewhat difficult to justify that, particularly when the hon. Member indicated that probably this year B.R.S. would show a profit of about £4 million.
§ Mr. Ernest Davies
I did not use the word "vicious," though I agree that I could have done. I used the word "vindictive." What I considered vindictive was the insistence upon facilitating the sale of the parcels and meat organisations contrary to the interests of the country.
§ Mr. Thomas
I had another impression. The hon. Member indicated that he thought that B.R.S. would make this year the biggest profit in its history.
§ Mr. Thomas
We do not know the figures yet. We must wait until the 1872 accounts are published. They could quite possibly be very much bigger, but the profits which B.R.S. has made during the past two or three years have justified the whole purpose of the Transport Act, 1953.
It is an extraordinary thing that during the past two years and more, whilst the B.T.C. has been selling off and has by today disposed of approximately half of its fleet, with all the disorganisation which was supposed to have resulted from all these things, its profits could have been maintained. In other words, the weaknesses and dangers of a monopoly, particularly a State monopoly, are exposed, in that the organisation was overloaded with vehicles and was not running efficiently.
§ Mr. Thomas
The Bill clearly provides all the evidence that we as a Conservative Party are not guilty of the charge so often made from the benches opposite that we are governed by considerations of doctrine or dogma. We have amended our point of view. All the evidence goes to show that our policy today is directed to considerations of the practical problems of the economy.
§ Mr. Thomas
I should like to make two points, to one of which the hon. Member for Enfield, East has referred. I should like the Minister to clarify one point in connection with the meat organisation. The following information is given, in Item 6, paragraph 5, of the Fifth Report of the Road Haulage Disposal Board:
I always understood that the meat section was one of the five sections of the Pick-fords organisation. That organisation is highly successful. It has been operating successfully ever since it was taken over by the railways in their pre-nationalised form before the war. I should like to know the considerations upon which the former Minister of Transport came to the decision to break up that part of a very successful organisation.
"Meat Vehicles on offer 498 Retainable under 1953 Act for purposes other than general haulage (Pickfords and contract hire) 1,222"
§ Mr. Thomas
Yes, but if the Commission expressed the wish to break it up and the former Minister concurred, the House should consider whether or not the whole or each of the separate five parts of Pickfords should be sold. The meat organisation could probably not be sold, because it could not show a reasonable return on the capital figure required. I do not know, I have not seen the individual figures. But, in fairness to that section of private enterprise which wants to come back into the business, they must not only be offered the dross—that is, those things which the British Transport Commission cannot make profitable—but a little of the gilt as well. So I should like to know the facts upon which that decision was reached.
§ Mr. G. A. Pargiter (Southall)
Did I understand the hon. Gentleman to say that the bulk meat transport organisation was a part of the Pickfords organisation? My understanding was that it was set up in the war and has been operating ever since.
§ Mr. Thomas
I do not think that I am wrong; my impression is that these meat vehicles which are to be sold are one of the five parts of the Pickfords organisation. The other four are furniture, tankers, heavy indivisible loads and special contracts.
§ Mr. Ernest Davies
If the hon. Gentleman would look at the second report of the Road Haulage Disposal Board he will find the position explained there. There it is stated that the 530 vehicles are a part of the chartered meat pool under the meat control organisation. They have always been a separate part of the organisation.
§ Mr. Thomas
I still think that these vehicles have come under the control and management of the Pickfords organisation. Perhaps the Minister will clarify the point when he replies?
I am not one who feels that we must denationalise merely for the sake of doing so. I do not believe that this great road network would compete unfairly with the railway trunk services which have been built up over many years. In fact, the railway trunk services and the road trunk services today are complementary in the light of the change and 1874 expansion that has taken place in our economy.
However, I am somewhat perturbed about the extra 4,500 vehicles making up the 7,750 that are to be retained. I have not been long in this House but it seems to me extraordinary that a specific figure in a matter of this kind should be placed in an Act of Parliament when that figure has no statistical background but is based on the opinion of one man only. I give first place to no one in my regard for Sir Malcolm Trustram Eve. He is a great public servant, a man who in this job as in others has been objective and impartial.
§ Mr. D. Jones
Has the hon. Gentleman read the Report of Sir Malcolm Trustram Eve to the Minister? If he has not, I suggest he looks at it.
§ Mr. Thomas
I have not read the Report but I have read the statement made by the Minister on 18th August. I was away at the time. My hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) made a point in an interjection to the speech of the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, and I want to emphasise it. This is the answer that Sir Malcolm Trustram Eve gave in the last words in that statement:The answer to your reference to me is not, however, capable of mathematical answer. It involves a difficult matter of opinion.I respect his opinion but no man can say that he is always right, and I feel that if an opinion was required, not only Sir Malcolm Trustram Eve but possibly also the other members of the Board—in fact, the whole of the Disposal Board—should have been asked to make a recommendation on this point.
I do not want to see this service fragmented but I can see that the B.R.S. could again be overloaded with too many vehicles, particularly of the heavy type, to the detriment of private haulage and the national economy. The method by which this figure has been arrived at is not satisfactory, and I suggest that the additional 4,500 vehicles which are now to be retained should not automatically receive A licences. Instead, application should be made for these by B.R.S. or the B.T.C. to the various licensing authorities. They are bodies with a wealth of experience, and all the knowledge of the districts and areas and their 1875 transport requirements, and these are coordinated in every way. By that means we would strike a happy and a truer balance in this matter.
I was perturbed at the S.4 list but the Joint Parliamentary Secretary has cleared up that point. It is a pity that the decision not to offer these units a second time was not made before the S.4 list was offered for the first time. I feel that we have broken faith with certain members of the public who would have liked to tender and, after all, that was the consistent policy of the Disposal Board throughout all the other lists. So we can perhaps accept a charge of a breach of faith there.
The problem of transport has been too long the shuttlecock of party politics, and, frankly, I agree with the general policy and principles underlying this Bill. The Bill will go a long way towards taking this industry, buffeted as it has been, out of the arena of party politics. Thereby it will create an atmosphere of security which the industry has not experienced for many years, and will enable it to proceed with the long-term planning of the road section, just as it has done for the railway side of its activities.
§ 6.58 p.m.
§ Mr. H. Hynd (Accrington)
It is not often that hon. Members on this side of the House feel sorry for those on the other side, but this is one of the occasions when we almost do so——
§ Mr. Hynd
Yes, only almost. Today the Parliamentary Secretary has had to present this Bill, which has come as a great shock to the Road Haulage Association and to certain political interests opposite, and he was in the unfortunate position that he was not responsible for the original Act.
The Minister who caused all the damage is not here but has been moved to another job. He was the one who was so vehement about the undoubted successes of the denationalisation of road haulage. It was he who said that anyone who even worked for the nationalised undertaking would be a quisling, but he has disappeared and left the unfortunate Parliamentary Secretary and the new Minister of Transport to hold the baby.
We watched with great interest today the approach of the Parliamentary Secre- 1876 tary to the penitents' form, wondering how he would do this job. Would the hon. Gentleman come clean? He did not. He started by taking refuge in a very light tone, talking about walking the tightrope and being neither partial nor impartial. Then the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends behind him made a gallant effort to ride off on various improvised arguments and almost convinced themselves, if not the House, that the Bill was forecast in the Election programme called "Britain Strong and Free." If that was not the purpose of the argument I do not know what was.
The hon. Member for Truro (Mr. G. Wilson)—I am sorry he is not here— following the same line, claimed that the Bill was a compromise. He said that the Government had made up their minds that it was in line with their policy to allow a certain number of vehicles to remain in the hands of the Commission and the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. L. Thomas) said words to the effect that they were approaching this from the practical point of view and that there was nothing doctrinaire about it. It was apparently decided in the Conservative transport group that it was necessary to allow the Commission to have a certain number of Bills.
However, that flies directly in the face of the evidence, which is that the Commission tried to sell these vehicles under the orders of the Transport Act, 1953. The Disposal Board was forced to try to sell the vehicles. Fortunately for the country, it was unable to sell them all. Having failed to sell them, it is no good hon. Members opposite saying that they never intended to sell them in the first place and really wanted to have this pool of vehicles left in the hands of the Commission in order, as the hon. Member for Truro said, to provide for a certain amount of genuine competition. Was there ever such a hypocritical argument as that? They did not want the vehicles for genuine competition. They wanted to get rid of them, and it is only because they have been unable to do so that they have been compelled to bring in the Bill and shock their supporters.
The Parliamentary Secretary used the words "rough justice." I do not understand what he meant by that phrase, but there is one Clause which recalls those words to my mind. It is Clause 7 which 1877 deals with the Transport Levy. If there was ever rough justice, it was the Transport Levy. Here was a special tax put on a section of industry that happened to run vehicles in order to pay for the loss which the Government knew would be incurred in selling these vehicles. We have had an estimate of about £12½ million. That £12½ million has had to be made up by people who had no connection at all with this business. The people who happened to run vehicles—municipal undertakings and others—were the people who had to provide the £12½ million, and that is rough justice with a vengeance. They will be delighted, as will everyone else, that it will at last be possible to terminate the Transport Levy.
The Parliamentary Secretary skated rather lightly over Clause 2 and I hope that the Minister will tell us a little more about what is intended in this system of companies to which Clause 2 refers. Neither did the Parliamentary Secretary say enough about the worry and uncertainty caused in the last few years both to the Commission and its staff. It must be remembered that since the 1953 Act the many thousands of people who are employed on road services have been worrying about their future. Even now there are certain Clauses in the Bill which leave uncertainties. We must pay some attention to the feelings of the staff and try to let them know a little more definitely what they are to do in the future.
A most extraordinary suggestion was made by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. George). It was that there should be some kind of new system of local boards to run these services after they had been split. I do not know whether the hon. Member intends to develop that suggestion in Committee. It will be very interesting if he does, but I cannot see that the introduction of some new kind of machinery and another lot of officials—he suggested the appointment of other people—would improve the position. It seems to be introducing even more chaos into the chaos caused by the 1953 Act.
I should like to refer to something said by my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, East (Mr. McLeavy) who appealed to the Government to have a Royal Commission which could go thoroughly into the matter. I regret that I am less opti- 1878 mistic than my hon. Friend about the utility of a new Royal Commission. We have had plenty of Royal Commissions on the transport services over many years and they have all reported roughly to the same effect, namely, that without some unification or co-ordination of transport we will never have a successful transport system. All their recommendations have been abandoned by the present Government and their predecessors of the same colour. They have ignored all the decisions of the Royal Commissions and I do not know how my hon. Friend can feel optimistic about a good result coming from another Royal Commission. I am, therefore, afraid that I cannot support him in that suggestion. We have all the information we need. We know all we want to know about the industry.
I want for a moment to turn to what was said about the letter sent out by the hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Hirst). It was a disgraceful letter. I have often wondered where hon. Members opposite found fiddling complaints about the nationalised industries which they have brought before the House from time to time. We have now had a glimpse of their methods. The letter was sent to more than 250 firms throughout the country. Did the hon. Member send them out on his own responsibility, as the ex-chairman of the Leeds Chamber of Commerce, or in his capacity in connection with the Federation of British Industries?
Is it the custom of hon. Members opposite to circulate the country in this way and to say, "We hope in the near future to make a speech against some nationalised industry. Can you please provide some instance of bad administration so that we can bring it into our speech?" Is that the way it is done? That sort of thing should not be encouraged. It must have come as a shock to the hon. Member for Shipley when, as he admitted, more than half the firms expressed satisfaction with British Road Services. He attributed that, rather naively, to the fact that British Road Services has improved under the spur of competition since the 1953 Act. With that logic, had there been a 'flu epidemic in 1953, he would have attributed it to the 'flu epidemic of 1953. With your classical education, Mr. Speaker, which is much better than mine, you will know the saying post hoc ergo propter hoc. That is not the kind of argument that impresses us 1879 very much. The fact that something happened after something else, does not mean that the first caused the second.
I want in a general sort of way to support one thing which the hon. Member for Canterbury said and to which the Parliamentary Secretary referred. It was about taking transport out of politics. In general I would agree with that and I would go on to ask, who brought transport into politics?—[HON. MEMBERS: "Your party did."] Not at all. This business of expecting that important industries and services will be nationalised when there is a Labour Govenment in office and denationalised when there is a Conservative Government in office must stop: there is no doubt about that. If hon. Members opposite are beginning to think along those lines, I am pleased about it; but when they say things like that and appeal to other hon. Members to be reasonable about this Bill, to look at it in a practical and objective way, and all the rest of, let them give a lead by accepting some of the Amendments to the Bill which obviously will be moved.
Let them stop any further sales of these vehicles. If they propose to dissolve the Disposal Board, I say that they should stop any further sales here and now as a gesture towards arriving at agreement about the future of the industry. Let them abandon the idea of a 7½per cent. reduction which was suggested today. If they make a gesture of that kind, they may expect some co-operation. There will be many Amendments moved later and I hope that the Government will regard them in a reasonable way.
This whole business of where the frontiers of nationalisation should lie is something which deserves serious consideration, not only in the transport industry but in other industries as well. I hope, as a result of the shock which the Government have received from the failure of their road haulage policy, they will at least begin to think about a planned future policy for public ownership. Let them survey the whole of the basic industries of the country and the essential public industries, and decide whether these should be regarded as something to be exploited privately or as public services. If they do, I am certain that there will be a response from hon. Members on this side of the House, which in the long run—although it will be a 1880 lengthy business—may lead to something of the kind I have suggested, with the possibility of abandoning this game of shuttlecock, where industries are nationalised under one Government, denationalised under the next, and renationalised when the first Government are returned to power. That just cannot continue.
§ 7.13 p.m.
§ Mr. Norman Cole (Bedfordshire, South)
I can answer one question put by the hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. H. Hynd). Speaking for myself and, I believe, for my hon. Friends, I say that we do not think there should be nationalisation at all; therefore there is no question of where we should place the frontiers. But now that we have some nationalisation, we will try to make the best of it. May I remind the hon. Gentleman that if the Socialist Party, with its majority of about 200 in the 1945 Parliament, had not passed the Transport Act of 1947, we should not be debating this Bill tonight?
§ Mr. H. Hynd
May I remind the hon. Gentleman that that matter had been debated by this party for years and that it was in our 1945 Election programme? Unlike the party opposite, we carried out our Election programme.
§ Mr. Cole
If the party opposite had not passed the 1947 Transport Act, the whole question of transport would not have come into politics and the industry would have been a healthier and happier one today.
The hon. Member for Bradford, East (Mr. McLeavy) reminded me of a remark I made in a similar debate two years ago, when I said that hon. Gentlemen opposite would live to regret their words. I do not know whether they do regret them. I do not know whether in this matter regret is within their mental capacity. But I do not regret what we have done. I am glad that we have proceeded with de-nationalisation for as long as we have. I am pleased that over 18,800 vehicles have been sold back to private enterprise within the last two years. Earlier in this debate an hon. Member opposite did a little specious figuring to prove that because only 18,000 vehicles had been sold and there were originally 36,000 vehicles available the sale had had only a 50 per cent. success. I shall not follow the hon. Member in 1881 the use of specious figures, but I will mention a couple of straight figures which may be checked.
The actual number of vehicles available for sale, ordinary sale, leaving out those mentioned in this Bill, which include 3,600 allowed for in the 1953 Transport Act, and along with the special disposal arrangements for the special vehicles yet to be sold, the number of ordinary vehicles available is just over 19,000, of which 18,800 have been sold. In other words, there are a few hundred ordinary vehicles yet to be sold. I hasten to say that these figures allow for just over 9,000 vehicles in the present Bill.
§ Mr. Ernest Davies
I have never heard such a specious argument as the hon. Gentleman is now advancing. The fact remains that when the 1953 Bill became an Act there were 36,000 vehicles operated by the Transport Commission, and 18,000 of them have been sold. Therefore, half the fleet has been sold. It is true that the 1953 Act allowed for just over 3,000 vehicles to be retained, but, apart from that, the rest have not been sold, and that is a fact.
§ Mr. Cole
Yes, but from the arguments advanced by hon. Gentlemen opposite, it looks as though 36,000, less 3,600 is the number of ordinary vehicles. The hon. Member for Enfield, East (Mr. Ernest Davies) knows as well as I do that there are several classes, including the parcels fleet of over 4,000 vehicles, and a number of other special vehicles. In point of fact, of the ordinary vehicles, allowing for those in this Bill, almost 100 per cent., or over 18,800 out of just over 19,000, have been sold to hauliers. That does not suggest a complete failure in the operation of the 1953 Act.
I suppose that I should not have expected anything better, but I have been rather disappointed that hon. Gentlemen opposite have missed a wonderful opportunity. Speakers from the benches opposite have spent their time voicing various adaptations of the words. "I told you so." The degree to which they have reiterated that has not been justified. If transport is more important to them than politics, would it not have been better to have had it recorded in HANSARD how they rose to the occasion and did their utmost to assist my right hon. Friend? But that opportunity has been missed, though I 1882 suppose one would not have expected anything else.
We shall proceed with this Bill. The hon. Member for Enfield, East said that we had not been able to sell these vehicles. He knows that we could have proceeded to the end with that operation. We could have carried out completely the ideas and intentions contained in the 1953 Act, and the hon. Gentleman cannot deny that. But the difference between the actions of the previous Socialist Government and the line we are taking is that we have regard to the larger issues rather than to the carrying out of doctrinaire intentions 100 per cent.
This Bill requires far more political courage and statesmanship than would a Bill which merely pursued dogmatic beliefs to the very end. If my right hon. Friend had moved a Bill to wind up the Disposal Board, knowing in his heart that the almost 100 per cent. sale of vehicles had taken place under all kinds of conditions in order to make sure that they were sold, he might be a more popular man, but he would not feel so happy about it.
§ Mr. H. Hynd
If those vehicles, having been put up for sale, had been sold at the first offer, where would the interest of the nation have come in?
§ Mr. Cole
If those vehicles had been sold—as we believed they would, under the 1953 Act—to hauliers all over the country, the transport situation would be much better than it is at the moment.
Like most people who are firm and unrepentant believers in private enterprise, and who believe that this country is where it is today not because of nationalisation but because of the success of private enterprise in the past and at the present day, I have naturally given much thought to the Bill. I have said that it represents a statesmanlike action. It can be called a compromise, perhaps, but as a nation we are masters of compromise, for the common good, and the Bill represents that kind of compromise. 1883 We have had to consider the practical results which would be brought about if the trunk services were broken up, and have come to the conclusion that the Bill needs to be brought forward—leaving out any question of politics.
After some study and consideration of the matter for many months, I am fortified in my argument by the thought that we have done much of what we promised to do in the 1953 Act. We all know that the 25-mile limit has been brought to an end. In addition, the British Transport Commission has been made subject to the licensing system, and the levy will come to an end at the end of December of this year. No one will be sorry to see the back of it, and this aspect will not be overlooked by private enterprise hauliers.
I should like to put forward a few general points for the earnest consideration of the Minister. There has been much talk today of the figure of 7,750, mentioned in paragraph (b, iii) of subsection (1) of Clause 1. I wonder if it is possible to arrive at a closer approximation to the number of vehicles actually used on the services to which we are referring. I appreciate that this is a complicated matter, but if we could have some accurate statistics, based upon fact, I should be a happier person—and I believe that the Bill would be more palatable.
I commend the 7½ per cent. limitation. The hon. Member for Accrington asked why this limitation was being imposed. He thought that the idea ought to be abandoned. The limitation is not unreasonable, because 400 or 500 vehicles of the Commission's fleet are out of use at any time, for various reasons.
§ Mr. Strauss
Would the hon. Member apply that principle to the fleets of vehicles kept by private enterprise, many of which consist of several hundred vehicles?
§ Mr. Strauss
The hon. Gentleman is making this a point of principle. Does he suggest that it would be proper that 7½per cent. of the fleets of private companies—many of them very substantial fleets—should be refused A licences on the ground that that percentage is normally being repaired?
§ Mr. Cole
No, I do not, and if the right hon. Gentleman likes to accuse me of advocating unfair competition against the Commisson, I accept it. The Commission will have about 10,000 vehicles running. Unlike private enterprise vehicles, their licences are not restricted to the depots from which they operate. They are able to switch their vehicles all over the country. The ordinary private haulier has no such flexibility in this respect. For that reason he has a right to some kind of special concession.
As one of the safeguards which could be put into the Bill, I suggest that my right hon. Friend should consider providing that any licences for which the Commission apply and which are granted will have to indicate upon them the bases from which the vehicles concerned will operate. A provision should be inserted which will prevent the Commission having carte blanche in the matter of using its vehicles in any part of the country. I do not blame the Commission for using that carte blanche and switching its vehicles about, but private hauliers would be happier if they were on all fours in the matter of the application of licences.
I have already referred to what I regard as the most important point which can be made today, namely, the mixing up of transport with politics. Let us forget who started it. I have my own opinion, and I have expressed it. Let us only remember that the country is experiencing considerable economic difficulties at the moment. We want to overcome those difficulties and be able to look forward to an era of increasing prosperity for the next twenty years. If we are to have this transport question continually bedevilled by politics, be it by this Government or one of a different colour, our attempt to achieve such prosperity will be continually delayed.
Would it not be a fine thing if, with the passing of this Bill, hon. Members on both sides of the House adopted a broader outlook and made a mental resolution 1885 that there would be no more politics in transport, irrespective of any future Government, and that both nationalised and private enterprise transport—which both have their experts—should be allowed to compete side by side with a minimum amount of interference from politicians?
§ 7.29 p.m.
§ Mr. Thomas Steele (Dunbartonshire, West)
I listened to the hon. Member for Bedfordshire, South (Mr. Cole) with some interest and amazement. His speech was typical of the sort of speech which hon. Members opposite make upon public platforms, when they try to indicate to the general public that they have the national interests at heart and hon. Members on this side have not, because of their doctrinaire ideas.
The hon. Member should refresh his memory by reading one of the speeches made by a member of his party who is no longer with us, namely, Lord Glyn, who spoke from the place now occupied by the hon. Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Hinchingbrooke). He said much about politics and transport, on which subjects he was a great authority. If I remember rightly, he spoke very bitterly against the introduction of the 1953 Bill. That is where politics come in.
The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. L. Thomas) was very sound when he applied his mind to the practical application of the Bill and the practical problems of transport, but when he entered into the doctrinaire field and that of policy generally, he was not at all sure of himself. The hon. Member for Bedfordshire, South this evening stood up in his place, and was almost beating his chest and throwing out his arms, saying "I stand for private enterprise." Only a few minutes later, he was making an appeal to the Minister to limit the freedom of enterprise which is to be enjoyed by the British Transport Commission. The hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. If we are to have competition, then let us have competition, but what the hon. Gentleman says is "Let us have competition, but, at the same time, put something into the Bill to prevent the British Transport Commission having the opportunity of that competition."
§ Mr. Steele
That was the purpose of the 1953 Act—to bring the British Transport Commission into that position. The hon. Gentleman added, after giving an indication of what a wonderful thing private enterprise is, that in any case we should act like statesmen and ought to make a compromise. Of course, the compromise which the hon. Gentleman indicated was along the lines that they tried in the 1953 Act to ensure that the British Transport Commission would be paralysed and demolished, that they were not successful, and so they had now decided to allow the Commission to retain a certain number of vehicles.
The hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Hirst) really gave the game away entirely when he answered an interruption by my hon. Friend the Member for The Hartle-pools (Mr. D. Jones). The hon. Gentleman made it quite clear that his complaint was not that the vehicles were not sold under the 1953 Act, but, in effect, that the machinery under which the Disposal Board was set up made it impossible to sell them. Under the 1953 Act, the Disposal Board was set up, and there were certain guarantees. The Minister himself gave an assurance that the public interest would be looked after, and that these vehicles would not be got rid of at throw-away prices. That is the point, but the hon. Member for Shipley made it perfectly clear that that is exactly what he wanted—that the vehicles should be given away, and, in fact, that the British Transport Commission or B.R.S. should be completely demolished. It has always been the view of certain Members sitting on the Government Benches——
§ Mr. Steele
Well, at least some of them. That has been their argument all the time, and there was an agitation against the Minister which was perhaps why the first Minister of Transport lost his post.
May I say that the introduction of this Bill is a complete justification of the attitude of the Opposition, and particularly of those Scottish hon. Members who, in submitting an Amendment during the Committee stage of the 1953 Bill, attempted to have Scotland taken out of the Bill altogether? My hon. Friend the 1887 Member for Bradford, East (Mr. McLeavy) indicated that he would like to see a Royal Commission, but, like my hon. Friend the Member for Accrington (Mr. H. Hynd), I am not at all in favour of any more Commissions.
After the publication of the 1953 Bill, and before it received its Second Reading in the House, the Scottish Council for Development and Industry made an inquiry into this matter. The Scottish Council is composed of representatives of chambers of commerce and local authorities in Scotland and many other important people of that kind. Between the publication of the Bill and the Second Reading debate in this House, and in full knowledge of what the Bill proposed, the Council, as a result of this inquiry, said:It would seem desirable that the Scottish transport authority should retain the ownership of the road haulage which is already publicly owned so that the authority can effectively integrate its road and rail services.My right hon. Friend the Member for East Stirlingshire (Mr. Woodburn) and myself, together with other Scottish hon. Members, drew attention to the advice given by that Council, by the Glasgow Herald, The Scotsman and other representative newspapers in Scotland at the time, and also to the attitude of Scottish Conservative hon. Members who said that the Conservative objective was to reorganise and not disorganise the transport system.
We have had only one speech from a Scottish hon. Member in support of the Government this afternoon. Unfortunately, it was a maiden speech, and in accordance with the courtesy which we show to a maiden speaker, I shall not criticise it. I hope, however, that the hon. Gentleman will speak during the Committee stage of the Bill, when we shall have the opportunity to question him. Where are all the Scottish hon. Members who support the Government and who spoke so vigorously behind the scenes when the 1953 Bill was going through this House, when there was all the going to and fro between the Tory Party and the Minister?
The Scottish Council for Development and Industry was also involved, and ultimately some compromise was arrived at but the Tory Party did not always have the same kind of election literature as 1888 that which has been quoted by Government supporters this afternoon. In the literature of Scottish Conservative Members, they were committed to something very different, and I am sorry indeed that not one of them is in his place at the moment. In fact, I have not today seen any of them who have been either interested or prepared to take part in the debate on this matter. Therefore, I say that the attitude of the Opposition on this question, as on others, has been completely justified in view of the advice we gave to the Government during the passage of the 1953 Bill.
The hon. Member for Shipley is to be congratulated on the way he came forward today and on the speech he made. The hon. Gentleman could very well have left it alone altogether, but he was brave enought to admit his error. At the same time, I think that the information which he gave was very interesting indeed, in view of the implications of the questionnaire which he sent out.
During the Committee stage of the 1953 Bill my right hon. Friend the Member for East Stirlingshire said that the B.R.S. depot at Dumfries had gained an award for being the most efficient depot. A prominent Sunday newspaper thereupon sent a representative throughout the town and the country solely to find out what complaints people might have against that Dumfries depot. He was unable to get any complaints at all but such action is typical of the Government supporters in transport affairs.
The hon. Member for Bedfordshire, South said that today the attitude on this side has been one of "I told you so," but let us recall what we said during the passage of the 1953 Bill. We who are particularly interested in trade unionism said that the giving up of the conception envisaged in the 1947 Act and the handing back of these vehicles to private enterprise meant that the drivers of the vehicles would suffer. I think that all of us have evidence that that is what has happened.
Only three weeks ago, when travelling from Glasgow to my home, I gave a lift to a fellow who wanted to go to Lark-hall. He told me that he and his brother were in the long-distance transport business. He was hurrying to see a relative who was seriously ill in Larkhall and he gave me the following facts. After 1889 having his lorry loaded in Glasgow he had travelled overnight to London, had gone round the various London depots, had distributed his goods, had then collected his return load and—that same evening—had travelled back from London to Glasgow.
Many of us on this side of the House said that that sort of thing would happen and it is exactly what is happening. Anyone travelling on the main Glasgow—London road on a winter evening is in danger because of the presence of that kind of driver on the road. I know because I live on that main road and see the traffic on it. I was very happy yesterday to hear the Minister of Transport state in answer to a Question that many of these loads—and especially the overhanging loads—ought not to be on the roads at all but on the railways. It was because we believed in a properly integrated service that we passed the 1947 Act.
The other argument we used was that many of the bases which had been built by British Road Services would, by the operation of the 1953 Act, be abandoned, and evidence of that has been produced today. I have a personal experience. A British Road Services depot very near to my own home was completed, staffed and operating successfully until the 1953 Act came into operation and the vehicles had to be sold.
What happened? As the vehicles could not be sold as a unit with premises attached, they had to be sold separately. They were taken away and are now operating, as far as I know, in some other part of Scotland. Two road hauliers in the vicinity share the work of the base but, unfortunately, in neither of their depots do trade union conditions operate. I regret that the work done—taking miners to work in the morning, running lorries during the day, and then taking theatre parties at night—puts the conditions of the staff well outside the protection of any Transport Act.
Before the passage of the 1953 Act the Scottish Conservative Members carried on an agitation because they were in some difficulty about promises which they had given to the electors, and they asked the then Minister of Transport to help them. He did so by announcing during the Second Reading debate that a Transport Council for Scotland would be set up. 1890 He inferred that it would cover private industry as well, but during the Committee stage he further announced that the Transport Council would be concerned only with publicly-owned transport.
That announcement was made in 1953, and it has taken until 1956—in fact, until this week—for the Minister to be able to announce the formation of that Council. I only hope that the Minister read the comments of The Scotsman the day after his announcement. We on this side would like to know just what this Council is to do. Scottish Conservatives have looked to it to do a wonderful job, but we regard it only as a sop thrown to those Tories for their continued support of the Government's 1953 Act—and so does the Scottish Press.
I should like the Minister to tell us something about this Council and whether it is hoped to bring private enterprise within its scope. Quite clearly, this new Transport Council will have no authority. It has no executive power at all and what difference there is between it and the Transport Advisory Committee I just do not know. It seems to be a duplication of effort, and a few more jobs for the boys. Nevertheless, the one great thing which this Bill does is to justify the arguments which we propounded in 1953, and, while the Conservative Party is trying to make the best case it can, the fact remains that the Bill is evidence of the failure of the 1953 Act.
§ 7.50 p.m.
§ Mr. R. Gresham Cooke (Twickenham)
I was particularly pleased to hear the hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. H. Hynd) say that the game of shuttlecock—nationalisation and denationalisation—must stop. I hope that will become the official policy of the Labour Party.
I will not repeat the arguments of stale debates of 1947 and 1953—indeed, I was not in the House then—but I would point out that, as Members, we are all elected to serve the public interest. We may see the public interest in different ways, but I think many of us agree that it will be best served by taking transport out of politics in the future. This Bill is an honourable attempt to do that, and I hope that, perhaps after amendment, it will be accepted as the final solution to the problem. There are many interests in the country which want that. Industry has 1891 expressed, through the F.B.I., its wish that the trunk services should remain. No doubt the employees of the British Road Services want to feel that they have some security of employment.
It would have been possible to go on selling these vehicles by dribs and drabs over the years until we had come down to the basic figure of 3,250 vehicles, but that course has not been taken, and in future a state of competitive co-existence will exist. I was very glad to see it welcomed in the speech of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. George), which I think was well worth hearing.
There are, however, some grounds for amendment of the Bill which should be considered in Committee. British Road Services, with 9,000 vehicles and 3,200 trailers, will be a giant among the minnows of the road haulage industry. Our job is to see fair competition between this great giant and the small firms of the industry—and they are small firms. About the largest which will remain outside the B.R.S. will have 200 to 300 vehicles.
The B.R.S. will therefore be in a very powerful position and will start with some enormous advantages, first, in purchasing. When it buys a thousand vehicles a year—because it will be buying about that, and going perhaps to only three or four manufacturers for those vehicles—it will be in a very strong position. In my view, therefore, it will be able to buy those vehicles more cheaply than the ordinary haulier can buy his. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] I am asked "Why not?" I am only outlining some great advantages which this very big commercial concern will have vis-à-vis the other units in the industry.
§ Mr. McLeavy
Is the hon. Gentleman not aware that that also applies to the big combines and trusts in the industrial field? Because of their size they can purchase requirements much more cheaply than the smaller man. If he is proposing some limitation on the British Transport Commission, does he propose to apply it to the Unilever combine and all the other big combines in the country?
§ Mr. Gresham Cooke
I am well aware of that, but the size of fleets in industry is numbered generally in hundreds. There is not such a great disparity in industry 1892 as in this case—a disparity between 9,000 and 200 vehicles. I suggest that that disparity might well lead to unfairness.
§ Mr. Gresham Cooke
I will come to that in a minute.
It is the usual practice in industry for discounts to be given on the supply of materials, according either to the size of the fleet or the size of the purchase. In the purchase of tyres, this very big unit will be enormous buyers, and in consequence will get the largest possible discount. Further, I see that in 1954 British Road Services bought 67 million gallons of diesel fuel and petrol. In the future it will be buying, I estimate, about 40 million gallons a year. The largest competitor in road haulage will be buying less than a million gallons of diesel fuel and petrol. Here, again, this great giant will be in a powerful bargaining position vis-á-vis the smaller companies and will be able to buy its fuel at a much lower price.
All these benefits, together with facilities for cheap capital, will give it enormous advantages over the private haulier, and I therefore suggest that we should consider whether we should not introduce some limitation on the possible growth of British Road Services in the future. It might be perfectly fair to say that its fleet should be limited in tonnage and in numbers. It might be limited to the number set out in Clause 1. The 3,200 trailers perhaps ought to be limited in tonnage as well as in numbers, perhaps to two tons unladen weight each trailer.
In all its history, British Road Services, with its emphasis on trunking services, has been buying bigger and bigger vehicles. That has been the policy from the start. I saw, in Commercial Motor of 16th September, 1955, a report on the buying policy of B.R.S.:B.R.S. have already placed orders worth £3 million for Leyland vehicles, the bulk of recent contracts being for Octopus models, over 600 of which have been demanded. The new vehicles are for 24-ton gross loads.That is the very largest possible vehicle.
In considering whether there should be insistence on fair competition between the public utility and private enterprise, I asked myself whether there had ever 1893 been a precedent in previous Transport Acts, and I found that there had been a precedent both in the Act produced originally by the right hon. Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison) and in the 1947 Act produced by the Socialist Government.
In the old days, in the 1920s, the London General Omnibus Company had body-building shops at Chiswick. They were taken over by the London Passenger Transport Board. By Section 21 of the London Passenger Transport Board Act, 1933, provision was introduced whereby the new London Passenger Transport Board was not to manufacture more bodies than the old General Omnibus Company had manufactured at Chiswick in the 1920s. That was about 527 vehicles a year.
That proviso against the growth of the public monopoly as opposed to private enterprise was carried forward into Section 2 (4, a and b) of the Transport Act, 1947, which reads:the Commission—(b) shall not manufacture in any one financial year of the Commission, otherwise than for purposes of experiment or research, bodies for road vehicles in numbers exceeding—(i) in the case of bodies for passenger vehicles, one fifth of the total number of such bodies estimated to be required to be manufactured for use for the purposes of the Commission's undertaking during that year, with the addition of the number of omnibus bodies authorised to be manufactured under section twenty-one of the London Passenger Transport Act, 1933;That is 527 vehicles.
Under the Act produced by the Socialist Government which came into force in 1947 there was laid down—I think quite properly—a limitation between public enterprise and private enterprise. I suggest that that precedent might well be applied when we reach the Committee stage of this Bill, and I would ask the Minister to consider that point.
I should like to support the limitation being proposed that B.R.S. should be placed on exactly the same basis as the private hauliers in that the licences should specify the bases from which the vehicles operate, so that the strength of its fleets is known in the same way as that of private enterprise. I think that is perfectly fair.
1894 Therefore, I ask my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to convey to the Minister a strong plea that this great giant, because that is what it will be should be controlled, otherwise it may gobble up the whole of the haulage industry: I ask that he should put limits on its growth to prevent it from becoming, as it may become, a complete monopoly of the road haulage industry in the future.
§ 8.1 p.m.
§ Mr. G. A. Pargiter (Southall)
The speeches which we have heard, and particularly the last one, have been most interesting. In many ways they have little to do with the substance of the Bill but they indicated what is in the minds of right hon. and hon. Members opposite with regard to transport policy and the idea of taking it out of politics. It looks as though in a relatively short period we shall get a new Minister of Transport and a new change of policy. I am wondering how long the present Minister will last, and how long it will be before we get another change of policy, because a change is obviously in the minds of many hon. Members opposite, according to the speeches which they have been making.
Reference has been made, particularly by hon. Members opposite, to the question of 7½per cent. reduction in licences on the principle that a certain number of vehicles are off the road for repairs and maintenance. That is introducing an entirely new feature into the licensing system, and if it is to be introduced it must be dealt with as a matter of principle and not as a matter of expediency by the Front Bench opposite, and as a sop to their back benchers whereby they can say they have reduced the number of B.R.S. licences by 600 by the 7½per cent. reduction.
My recollection is that the percentage of vehicles off the road for repair before the war was about 5 per cent., if they were being properly maintained. We know that in many cases they were not properly maintained and there might not be that number off the road. It might be a good thing if, generally speaking, in the application for licences a percentage of vehicles was regarded as being off the road and not available. That would ensure better maintenance than we get today. I should be inclined to advocate it if it were to be general and not a punitive measure adopted against one 1895 body of hauliers while allowing private hauliers to run vehicles at a risk.
Apparently 7½ per cent. is to be the figure for B.R.S. We shall not get a better repairs organisation than that of B.R.S. There are some good private companies, but in the main I would say that there are very few that come up to B.R.S. in their standard of maintenance. I will accept the view that, provided that it is to be a principle, it may well be a good one in the interests of road safety and of maintaining vehicles in good condition, but I cannot conceive that it is a good thing to do with regard to one organisation. It was argued that it is right to cut down British Road Services because we had been told that there was a probability that it would make £4 million profit this year, and that if it could make that profit it obviously had too many vehicles before. The answer was that when B.R.S. had more vehicles it made £7 million profit, and seven to four is a pretty good ratio when we consider the number of vehicles now operating against the number previously in operation. It looks as though B.R.S. is operating pretty efficiently, and that it was operating efficiently before.
The hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke) will know about B.E.F.. and he will not be unaware of other organisations which operated in a very big way on the passenger side. Does he not think that B.R.S. should be able to operate in the same way as firms in private industry? We must be able to do a thing or not able to do it. If large organisations are good they remain good whether in public hands or private hands. They may do better in public hands because the public will not be exploited.
I do not think that in the matter of trunk services the private haulier can hope to compete with British Road Services even if it has fewer vehicles than at present. That is why many private hauliers have not gone in for the trunk service; they know that they would not be able to compete with British Road Services.
The fact that B.R.S. will get enough vehicles to run its organisation efficiently means that there will be more competition from it and less ability for the very small organisation to earn profits at all, 1896 not because they will charge less or because British Road Services will not charge a proper figure. It will be a question of the facilities which they have available. We have heard this argument about vehicles being tied to their bases in British Road Services. One of the things which hon. Members opposite talk about particularly is restrictive practices. Could there be a worse restrictive practice than tying vehicles to one place when there is a shortage in another?
One of the advantages which we have here is the advantage of flexibility. If vehicles are required more in one place than another the answer is to shift the vehicles to do the work. Under B.R.S. there has been far less empty running time on vehicles than under private enterprise. That is another fact that must be borne in mind in relation to the question of maintaining the services.
I now come to the doctrinaire policy that the parcels service must be disposed of. The parcels service started in a pretty fair way when it was taken over. It was no longer a private organisation at all; it was the Carter Paterson organisation. That has been extended and developed until it has given a service to traders all over the country which they do not want to lose. When the 1953 Bill was presented, and there was the possibility of that service being broken up, the Government were faced with petitions from traders, saying," This is of great value to us and something we do not want to lose." We have reached a position now when it is undesirable to break it up.
We cannot sell it in one piece because no one is prepared to take the risk of buying it so far as private enterprise is concerned, and therefore it is said, "We will form a company and farm out the shares so that private people can have the profits that the service will make." All this does not make sense when we look at it in conjunction with the rest of the transport problem.
Who is going to help the railways out of their problem? We know that until modernisation has gone on for a number of years the railways cannot possibly make a profit if they are to give a proper service. That will be so for a long time. Here we have a complementary service which could run in conjunction with the railways for which we have a Commission, which could allocate traffic to a very considerable extent and organise the 1897 different requirements between road and rail transport. As a result, it is able to make a profit on one side which would go very much to help towards a loss on the other. Is there anything wrong in that? It is done in business every day.
In any business which is concerned with a variety of products there are some which pay less than others, but it is essential that those sales should be maintained. There is nothing wrong with that in practice; it is part of the general pattern of industry. Why should a nationalised industry be deprived of the same sort of arrangements which every day are practised in private business?
We have heard a lot of talk about taking this business out of politics. We only hear that when the Tories are in power and when there is opposition to the policies that they want to pursue. They have done exactly the same with steel. They say, "For goodness sake let us take it out of politics." They are quite hypocritical about this and there is not a shadow of honesty in any of the statements that they make about it. The only reason they have not denationalised other industries is because they cannot. Where would the railways be without nationalisation? Where would the coal industry be without nationalisation? We can look at the other side of the picture and ask how much better are the gas and electricity industries since they were nationalised than before. Look over the whole range——
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
The hon. Member will not go over the whole range on the Second Reading of this Bill.
§ Mr. Pargiter
I am sorry, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, I was following rather closely some of the arguments which have been used, and nationalisation has been dealt with fairly generally. I will not pursue the question too widely except to draw an analogy.
The analogy I want to draw is that the Government did not particularly want to denationalise electricity or gas or coal, because those industries are very helpful to industry and are probably more helpful when nationalised than they were under private control. Road transport is something which has been yielding a profit, and there is always an objection by hon. 1898 Members opposite to a service of this kind showing a profit for the public purse.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
Whichever gas industry it was, it does not arise on the Second Reading of this Bill.
§ Mr. Pargiter
I am sorry that I am not permitted to reply, but some rather telling answers could be given.
I turn to the question of the meat vehicles. Someone said that they were part of the Pickfords organisation. I would remind hon. and right hon. Members opposite of how the meat transport organisation came into being. There were a number of firms engaged in meat haulage and also a number of people engaged in carrying meat for their own organisation. On the outbreak of war the Government had to say, "This is a most inefficient method of carrying meat. We have to put all these vehicles together into a pool in order that meat can be more efficiently carried between the slaughterhouse and the butcher, and from the docks."
It is now proposed that because the service is to be maintained a company should be formed and, because it will be profitable, people shall be able to buy shares. Therefore, instead of yielding a profit for the public purse the organisation will be yielding a profit to those who purchase shares. We find that because the Government have failed to dispose of these vehicles in the way in which they proposed to do so by the 1953 Act they now propose to hand a great deal of the profit to private individuals in another form. I suggest that during the Committee stage the Government might well look at that question.
We welcome the proposal in regard to the vehicles to be maintained by British Road Services. It is because the Government do not know what else to do. That is the answer. We are glad to see that that is so. We can only express the 1899 hope that the Government will also see the wisdom of maintaining other complete units and leaving them under the control of the Commission, which has built them up very considerably from what they were and made them successful. It has been largely responsible for the success of the organisation. I suggest that the Government should abandon their political doctrine in this matter and give the nationalised transport industry a chance.
§ 8.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Harold Gurden (Birmingham, Selly Oak)
Several things which I think are of importance to all of us have emerged from this debate. One thing I particularly noticed is that hon. Members opposite—some of them at any rate—have shown very clearly that, in spite of the last Election, they are still in favour of nationalisation. I do not know what the modern term is, whether it is tiddly-winks or Rugger, but I think hon. Members opposite ought to remember that there was a General Election and that the main body of the public certainly told us they did not want any more nationalisation.
§ Mr. D. Jones
The hon. Member has referred to the last General Election. Will he tell us whether there was anything in his Election address about taking away housing subsidies?
§ Mr. Gurden
I am quite sure, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, you would not like me to reply to that question on the Second Reading of this Bill. If there was anyone in this House who was obviously realistic—with both feet on the ground—about this matter, and who wanted to make a continued success of the road services, it was certainly the Minister in producing this Bill for Second Reading.
§ Mr. Gurden
The 1953 Act has at least given us back some competition and so brought back some efficiency into road haulage. That is the experience of the last two years.
So many points have been discussed that I hope I shall not be repeating any of them; and I have not been able to be in the Chamber for the whole time. I should like to point out that the failure to dispose of the vehicles as envisaged in 1900 the 1953 Act was, in my opinion, through deliberate obstruction on someone's part, and I rather suspect B.R.S. because, obviously, it was an interested party. There were people in that organisation who had most to gain by preventing the sale of vehicles as far as possible. That was quite against the will of this House, but that did not seem to matter, and they have not been penalised for their misdeeds so far as I can see.
To explain the point I am making, I should say that one of the groups of vehicles which was offered by the Disposal Board—I presume it was put up by B.R.S.—was a group of 26 vehicles which were carrying steel to the Briton Ferry Steel Works. When that group of vehicles was to be put up for sale—actually before the offers were made—B.R.S. approached that steel works pointing out that there was an impending sale of those vehicles. I am advised that that is quite true. B.R.S. officials arranged a contract with that steel firm to continue to carry the steel. The vehicles were subsequently sold, but the buyer had no work in that area for which they could be used.
Earlier today, an hon. Member opposite complained about buyers taking over vehicles and transferring them to other parts of the country. The buyer of these 26 vehicles was forced to do that very thing simply because British Road Services had taken away his business by previously contracting with this steel works to carry its goods. That is sabotage of the 1953 Act. The buyer of these 26 ramshackle old vehicles bought them because he thought that he was going to do local business with them.
We must remember that when the road hauliers were nationalised, British Road Services had the goodwill as well as the vehicles, whereas the buyer of these 26 vehicles paid more than book value for them. He was surely quite entitled to expect that on denationalisation there would be a return not only of the vehicles, but also of the business previously done with them. It is no use talking about vehicles being transferred from one part of the country to another when that sort of transaction has taken place.
We also hear stories about British Road Services switching vehicles from one part of the country to another to suit its own purpose. I am rather nervous in case B.R.S. may continue to do this. I 1901 hope my right hon. Friend will see that there is not so much of this sort of sharp practice on the part of British Road Services, because, if it continues to transfer vehicles from one part of the country to another, it may well go to the licensing authority and show a need for vehicles in a place from which it has already taken some, and thus try to obtain more licences.
As I have said, there has been a good deal of sharp practice which has forced the Government into this position. In another case, 28 vehicles were offered for sale, together with an office and a warehouse. The vehicles included one six-wheeler, two eight-wheelers, two tippers, one van, one tanker, three livestock vehicles, three furniture vans and one meat container. What sort of business is that to offer? Of course, British Road Services were hoping that the vehicles would not be sold, and this was a good way of defeating the 1953 Act.
It was no use expecting the Disposal Board to be able properly to carry out its work when this sort of thing was going on. Half of the vehicles offered for sale in the past two years were about ten years old. As we know, the life of a transport vehicle is something like five or six years. After that, it depreciates into a pretty rough state and has to be renewed. If we look at Table 6 of the Report of the Disposal Board, we see that only about one in every eight or nine vehicles was manufactured within the last five or six years. More than 1,800 of the vehicles sold were manufactured before the war.
What has happened to all the vehicles manufactured during the last five years? The B.R.S. has kept them. It did not offer them for sale because it wanted to retain the best and to sell off the scrap. These vehicles were not fit to run on the road. Why did the Disposal Board put us in this difficult position? I doubt whether it was the fault of the Board, but certainly somebody adopted some pretty sharp practice tactics of which I can imagine hon. Members opposite would have complained if that sort of thing had been done by private enterprise.
§ Mr. Gurden
I sincerely hope that my right hon. Friend will put British Road 1902 Services on to a proper business basis. In fact, I have every confidence that he will do so, and that after this Bill has become law he will make British Road Services enter into proper and fair competition, thus indicating to the trade that he means to have a good road service competing fairly in every way with all the traffic that is available.
§ 8.26 p.m.
§ Mr. John Hynd (Sheffield, Attercliffe)
I listened with great interest to the hon. Member for Selly Oak (Mr. Gurden), and I must confess that I was surprised, as I have no doubt were other hon. Members, at his constant reference to sharp practice on the part of British Road Services. I would remind the hon. Gentleman that the alleged sharp practices to which he has referred were all matters under the supervision of the Disposal Board. The Disposal Board was charged with the responsibility of seeing that fair prices were asked when the vehicles were sold.
To suggest that this matter was left in the hands of British Road Services, which it was the specific purpose of the 1953 Act to prevent by the establishment of the Disposal Board, is absolute nonsense. If the hon. Gentleman had taken any interest in the debate on the 1953 Act, he would know that the whole of the Government argument was that the Disposal Board was necessary because it would not leave the matter in the hands of British Road Services.
The hon. Gentleman has given some curious examples of what he has described as sharp practice. He related how British Road Services had sold some vehicles to some person but had kept the traffic. Who made British Road Services keep the traffic? B.R.S. could not seize the traffic. The traffic was given to it by the firms who had previously had the traffic. Are these not private enterprise firms? Did they not want the best service? If they preferred to give the traffic to British Road Services, surely it is because they wanted cheaper and more efficient service and they knew that they could get it from British Road Services.
The hon. Member said that British Road Services had sold ramshackle vehicles. I hope the Minister will look into this case and see where his beloved Disposal Board has failed in its duty. It has no right to allow the sale of a 1903 parcel of ramshackle vehicles, particularly when the prices charged were above the book value. But then the buyer was not forced to buy the vehicles. It was British Road Services which was forced to sell.
Here is a story of so-called sharp practice by British Road Services, which has nothing to do with British Road Services, because it was not its responsibility. In any case, the trader was not forced to buy, but British Road Services was forced to sell. B.R.S. could not sell ramshackle vehicles, and it could not sell above the fair price without the authority of the Disposal Board. The trader preferred to give the traffic to the most efficient service. That is the complaint, and it is a curious charge against either British Road Services or the Disposal Board.
The hon. Member for Selly Oak started by saying that he had made the great discovery that the Labour Party still believed in nationalisation. That is magnificent. One would have thought that it was known universally that the national ownership and control of the means of production in this country is basic to the Labour Party's case, and that without that principle there can be no implementation of Labour policy in this country or any other country. Social ownership and control of the means of life for the increase of production and the maintenance and improvement of the standard of living is the basis of Socialist policy. The hon. Member may say that it could not be carried out; he may say that that is a bad policy; but surely he knows that that is our policy, and that we believe in that policy? To say he is surprised to learn we still believe in nationalisation is to show a naïveté that is almost incredible.
I would point out to him that we do believe in nationalisation, and that we shall continue to believe in nationalisation so long as we are a Socialist party, and that we carry out our pledges pertaining to those matters. We were returned to power in 1945 and again in 1950 with a programme based on the national ownership and control of the key industries, and we carried it out, What have the present Government done?
§ Mr. Hynd
The Government had no mandate for the 1953 Act. The Government passed the 1953 Act and went to the country in the General Election of 1955 apparently committed to carrying out the Act. Now what do they do? They come to the House now saying that they cannot carry it out or that they do not want to carry it out and that anyhow it is not going to be carried out. We on our side carry out our pledges, and we shall continue to carry them out, for otherwise we should be ashamed of ourselves as a political party.
I think it was the hon. Member for Bedfordshire, South (Mr. Cole), who started his speech by saying that the game of shuttlecock with transport should stop. I can assure him that when the Labour Party is returned to power the game of shuttlecock with transport will stop, and it will be stopped in the only way in which it can be stopped, and that is by the complete nationalisation and co-ordination of all the means of inland transport in this country. I can assure him of that on behalf of all my right hon. and hon. Friends.
If he thinks there is any other way of taking transport out of politics, he does not know much about transport history and must be unaware of the long and sad—indeed, tragic—story of the chaos in the transport industry of this country. The problem of transport has been and is growing in every other country where modernisation is advancing and where, consequently, transport is becoming a major factor in its life and economy. The history of transport in this country contains a long tale of Royal Commissions and various public inquiries undertaken to try to find an answer to the problem, a way to bring order into the chaos. Every one of them was driven by the logic of the economics of transport to the conclusion that there is only one solution to the problem, and that that is co-ordination of the means of transport, all of them, in a co-ordinated service.
What the Tories are trying to do is what they have always tried to do and will always try to do so long as they remain a Tory Party—though from time 1905 to time we have thought we had seen little sparks of enlightenment amongst them, little signs that the young Tories were beginning to learn a little. However, what they have been trying to do, and what they continue to try to do, is to bind us tightly to nineteenth century notions and practices. They have found, as this Bill shows, that that just cannot be done, and now they themselves are being inevitably and irrevocably drawn to twentieth century methods. Their reluctance to be drawn to the twentieth century causes them to do much damage on their way and to leave much damage behind them. We see it over the whole range of our transport today.
What is the cry from those benches opposite now? Hon and right hon. Members opposite want to spend millions of pounds building new trunk roads—to accommodate what? They want them to accommodate more and still more lorries running in competition with one another and with other transport services, causing more and more congestion on the roads and increasing the number of deaths and injuries on the roads, which are already over-crowded. That is nineteenth century economics in transport, and it will not do. The Bill is the latest piece of evidence that even the Conservative Party cannot get away with that.
The hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke) had some most interesting and enlightening contributions to make. He said that, even after this Measure, British Road Services will start with great advantages over smaller road haulier units of 100 or 200 vehicles; and he does not like that. He said that the great advantages will arise because the B.R.S. units will be bigger and better organised than the others, being a coordinated service under a central control, with the result that they will inevitably be cheaper to run and more efficient. The hon. Member said that that is not fair and that a more efficient and cheaper transport service is not required, and, therefore, British Road Services must be restricted until they are as inefficient and as expensive as the smaller units. That is the Tory transport policy.
Surely if, because of their size, elasticity and central control, British Road Services, even the truncated edition with which we shall be left, will have great advantages in cheapness and efficiency over other units, the logic of the argument 1906 is that we ought to build the small units into as large and as co-ordinated a unit as possible, thereby enabling us to increase efficiency and still further reduce charges. That is what the Labour Party sought to do in its legislation, and it is what all public inquiries have decided is inevitable if our transport system is to survive on an efficient basis.
What the hon. Member was admitting was that the Tory Party is not primarily— I emphasise the word—interested in securing the most efficient and cheapest national transport service. The right hon. Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill) said during the 1950 General Election that the aim of the Conservative Party was to set the people free, to let each person win for himself what prizes he could obtain, and to let the best man win. That is the policy and philosophy of the Conservative Party. The establishment of the most efficient and cheapest transport service takes second place to its great purpose of scattering prizes to those who can win them. I am sure that in his heart every Conservative hon. Member must admit that that is so.
§ Mr. Hynd
I said "in his heart"; not "publicly." The logic of the argument of the hon. Member for Twickenham was that we must reduce the efficiency of British Road Services and increase their costs so that their competition with the more expensive and less efficient private services may be on an equal footing.
The hon. Member for Bedfordshire, South said he did not believe in nationalisation at all and thought that in transport we ought to have complete denationalisation and complete private enterprise. He said that by the 1953 Act the Government had carried out their mandate. He seemed to overlook that what is happening now is part negation of the 1953 Act and, therefore, part reversal of his party's mandate.
The reason why the Bill is now before the House should have been clear to the hon. Member, as it is to all Members on this side. It has been said over and over again that the 1953 Act has been a failure. I do not see why the Government should make any bones about it or why their supporters should try to hide the fact. The 1953 Act tried to dispose of all the nationalised road haulage services. It tried to get rid of the lot 1907 and to achieve the Tory Party's purpose of handing it back to private enterprise. But the Tory Party has not done it, not because the Conservatives did not want to do it, but because they have failed. That is the reason for the Bill.
We can understand the argument of hon. Members opposite that they do not like nationalisation, but to try to argue that nationalisation is necessarily inefficient does not square either with the Bill or with the fact that even in the 1953 Act the party opposite still left the railways in public hands. If members of the party opposite were such champions of private enterprise and really believed that it was necessarily more efficient and better in the public interest than nationally co-ordinated enterprise, particularly in transport, why leave the railways in public hands? They have never tried to answer that one.
Railways are very closely bound up with the 1953 Act and with the Bill. I speak as a railwayman, and I tell the Government that one of the reasons why the railwaymen are so concerned about the attempts to break up the road services is not that the railwaymen thereby will gain anything to their particular advantage, as might be assumed if the Tory argument were correct—that railwaymen would welcome the nationalisation of road haulage, for it would stir up the railways, provide a better service and bring about higher incomes, better wages and more security of employment; the railwaymen are primarily concerned, as they always have been—one needs only to refer to their decisions in annual conference over the last 50 years—not for what they will get out of it, but because they subscribe to the Socialist conception of society. They want for the public, for society and for industry the most efficient and co-ordinated service. That is why they are so concerned lest the Bill should go through—and it will have to go through, because we cannot oppose it—because it breaks up the 1953 Act.
If the Bill has got to go through, a number of Amendments must be made to ensure that what remains of the British Road Services will have a fair chance. All that the Bill does is to save what is left of the wreck created by the 1953 Act.
The Government would not for one moment attempt to argue that the figures 1908 they have given of the number of vehicles to be retained, or the calculation in the Bill for the new format of what remains of British Road Services, is a logical or businesslike calculation to make the most efficient service. They will not say that it has all been worked out as the kind of national road system to provide the best service and to be the cheapest and most efficient, for they know that what is in the Bill is simply the bits and pieces that are left from the failure of their own 1953 Act. There is nothing ordered or premeditated about it.
The Government cannot dispose of the bits and pieces that remain of the 1953 Act. Because even what remains, as hon. Members opposite have several times admitted, could still be made more efficient than all the private services that are being built up, the Government produce the Bill to tie it all up and put an end to the folly of 1953.
The cream of the British Road Services was taken away after all the organisation and trouble put into building an efficient, co-ordinated and national service under the British Transport Commission. The original intention was to build, in coordination with the railways, an overall system in which there would be balanced charges and services, standards of employment and wages and the rest. Glowing tributes were paid to that work not only by private enterprise but by Ministers, who spoke of the high standard of efficiency achieved even after a few years. Now, having failed completely to destroy that work, the Government, by means of this Bill, are trying to tie together the remaining bits and pieces into a service which, I repeat, will still be more efficient than were private units.
But having done all that, the Government are still seeking, by means of the Bill, to strangle and hamper these services in every possible way. They are bringing into the Bill the same kind of penal legislation which they tried to impose in the Transport Act, 1953, when they even went so far as to include a provision in the first draft of the Bill which favoured the coastal shipping services and the road hauliers who were losing traffic as against the more efficient nationalised transport service. When customers felt that the railways were charging so low a figure as to be too competitive with the coastal service and road 1909 transport and damaging to traffic on those two services, traders could appeal to a court to force the railways to increase their charges to a more equitable figure. At the same time, if the railways were charging too high a figure, their customers could appeal to the same court to have those rates lowered.
All the penal provisions were against the railways, but no appeal was possible against the charges made by the coastal shipping services. Fortunately, we on this side of the House were able to remove that provision. We hope that in Committee we shall also be able to remove the penal provisions of this Bill.
I appeal to the Minister to have some consideration for the national interest in this matter. Is British Road Services to be curtailed to this extent, and are the Government insisting that this is to be the end, that there is to be no repeal of the 1953 Act and no opportunity for British Road Services to expand and extend, as it ought to be able to do, and build an even more efficient and much cheaper service? If that is to be the case, I appeal to the Government to let British Road Services have at least a fair run with what it has got.
We on this side of the House cannot oppose the Bill, because it saves something from the wreck. There are many points which we shall have to oppose in Committee. Many Amendments will have to be moved. Despite our long experience of the Tory Party's attitude to nationalisation and private enterprise, I hope that our efforts in Committee will bring forth a better scheme than is now incorporated in the Bill. I hope that it will be a scheme which will allow us to give fair play and a chance to British Road Services, not to compete with private owners for it can do that anyhow, but to give the maximum service, even with this truncated system, in the national interest.
§ 8.50 p.m.
§ Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (Isle of Thanet)
We have been treated to a dissertation on dialectical materialism of which the relevance was only related to the remarks you made earlier, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, when you said that we should not discuss gas. It was a speech of which twenty minutes or half an hour was irrelevant from beginning to end—[HON. MEMBERS: "Order."] It was a 1910 speech which was singularly unfortunate and right out of temper with all other hon. Members on both sides of the House who have spoken.
§ Mr. D. Jones
On a point of order. Is it in order for the hon. Gentleman to impute to you that you permitted my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. J. Hynd) to continue speaking when he was outside the scope of the Bill?
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
I did not gather that the hon. Member was making any imputation as far as I was concerned.
§ Mr. Rees-Davies
On the contrary, I was paying a decorous compliment, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, to the relevance of your earlier remarks. The speech of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. J. Hynd) was unfortunate, because it attempted to destroy the spirit we have created in the last few months, in the Road Transport Bill and in other Bills, of trying to get as far as possible a non-partisan approach.
§ Mr. Rees-Davies
I would not say for a moment that in this case it is possible to get a non-partisan approach, because there is a fundamental ideology concerned here. I want to make some practical and constructive remarks on this Bill.
I welcome the Bill in its general out line. I welcome the abolition of the Transport Levy. The views I shall express in relation to the Bill, although entirely my own views for which I accept full responsibility, are none the less expressed on behalf of the two major long-distance private road haulage organisations of this country. One is the Road Haulage Association, with which I have been in consultation recently over this matter. The other is the National Conference of Road Transport Clearing Houses, of which conference I have the honour to be president. In putting forward these views I have the accord of what is virtually the whole of the long-distance men who are private operators.
I shall take two separate themes and I shall try to deal with them shortly. Because of time I will not give way, if 1911 I may say that in advance. First, I say emphatically—I am not in the industry myself and so I am looking at it entirely impartially and taking a purely objective view of the facts, not of the question of opinion—that I have no doubt that these men have not had an opportunity to buy the trunk services, and it would be false to say that they have had any reasonable opportunity to do so.
I shall develop that first point and then go on to say that I believe the danger of the future—the matter which is of paramount interest—is to ensure that the State through the British Road Services shall not become too big a competitor as against the private section of the industry; or, put the other way, that there should be fair competition between the two sectors, the public and the private. If the Bill goes through in its present form there is no doubt that we shall be setting up what is virtually a monopoly and we shall be giving the cream of the trunk routes to B.R.S.
Before establishing those two matters I want to state the two principles. The first principle was stated by the Minister in opening the debate, namely, that there should be an opportunity to come back into the business, as stated in our party manifesto in 1951. The second was that conditions of monopoly would be avoided. As to the rest, I am not interested in the party politics of the matter in the slightest. Those were the two simple pledges, and I believe that it is the view of the Government that those two pledges should be carried out.
I do not believe that in this Bill there is any intention to abrogate either of those pledges and I am convinced that the Minister will be satisfied if he can fulfill them. I most earnestly beg the Minister, during the present Bill's progress through Parliament, to give the men in the industry one last opportunity to buy the units that have never yet been offered under fair terms.
§ Mr. Rees-Davies
Let me come to it. I have all the facts. I want an opportunity for those men, while the present Act is still current, to have an opportunity to purchase the vehicles which they were entitled to have a right to buy under the Transport Act, 1953.
1912 The second point is that I hope the Minister will look into conditions for the future to see that we do not get a monopoly. As to that I want later to make six very short suggestions. I must be brief, because time is very limited. In regard to the opportunity to buy; people have not had an opportunity to buy six-wheelers or eight-wheelers. The first offer of any substantial number of six-wheelers or eight-wheelers was in the S.4 List offered at the time of the General Election. Before that practically no group of any account whatever was offered.
Of the 18,000 vehicles which up to date have been offered, only about 2,000 odd came into the group of twelve-tonners or six to eight-wheelers. That is to say, 15 per cent. of those offered were heavy vehicles. Of that 15 per cent., none has been offered in sizeable lots. It is perfectly true that the small man has had an opportunity satisfactorily to get back into the industry. That pledge has been fully carried out. What has not been done is to give an opportunity for the person who wants to buy units of 20, 30 or 50 vehicles.
In March, 1955, a few large vehicles were offered, but recent units have not been offered. At that time the Road Haulage Association made an approach to the Minister at a meeting on 25th April, 1955. It was pointed out to the Minister that he could not possibly expect satisfactory tenders for any large units on the eve of the General Election. The Minister asked the Association not to express that view at that time, but to defer its public comments on that list until after the General Election. The Association agreed, and it was a very proper thing to do.
The effect was that at the time of the General Election 24 units representing 544 vehicles were sold, that is 4½per cent. of the S.4 List. After the General Election 96 per cent. of all vehicles offered were sold. I want now to ask whether it is not a fact that, at the time of the General Election, Sir Malcolm Trustram Eve indicated it as his opinion that, once the Election was out of the way, it would be possible to offer units of almost any size and in any group, and that reasonable tenders could be expected.
It has been said that since the General Election these vehicles might not have 1913 been bought. The only occasion on which any units of any size—in groups which, at any rate, the Conference which I represent would desire to buy, large units of 20 and over—have been offered was in March to April, 1955, at a time when it had got around that it was a very unwise time to buy.
It cannot honestly be said that this is implementing a pledge to give an opportunity to buy. However, the past is less important than the future, and I ask that we should implement the pledge in accordance with the spirit in which Parliament passed the 1953 Act. When we have introduced an Act, let us implement it until a new Act has been passed. The 1953 Act is still on the Statute Book. I ask that we should now give these men an opportunity to buy units and to buy them properly.
May I deal with the main point? We have heard a lot about the agitation that might affect trunk services, but these men I am talking about, who have 40, 50 or 60 vehicles, are able to run these trunk services and have had experience of doing so. They have pledged, and in the deputation to the Minister have said, that they would be prepared to buy. Let me give an assurance, on behalf of these two associations, that they are now ready and willing to buy units of 20, 30 or up to 50 vehicles, of which at least half are six-wheelers or more, and they are willing to buy them according to any reasonably open tender.
I will give one example. Mr. W. A. Hyman, managing director of J. and H. Transport Services (Peckham) Limited, writing to the National Conference of Road Transport Clearing Houses, said:This company operates 49 vehicles, eight of 7-tons unladen weight; one of 5-tons unladen weight and the remaining 40 of 3-tons unladen weight. This means that we are very badly handicapped for large carrying capacity vehicles and will find it extremely difficult to compete with the British Road Services on a competitive basis as the proportion of their vehicles is something like 2–1 in favour of the large carrying capacity vehicle.Therefore, I say that these men have never had an opportunity of buying six-wheeled and eight-wheeled vehicles——
§ Mr. Rees-Davies
They have given a firm assurance that they will do so now. There is power to do so until this Measure is carried out, and the only 1914 reason it has not been done is because of the attitude of B.R.S. in this matter from the start, and the efficiency of their very fine managers, often first-class Tories, who wanted to run the business in the best way that they could—and I do not blame them—and they were unwilling to get rid of the vehicles.
I say emphatically that they have not had the opportunity to buy, and they ought to be given that opportunity until this legislation comes into force, I ask no more than that. This Measure will not come into force until 1957, and there is therefore opportunity during the remainder of this year to offer proper units. I ask the Minister to consider giving an assurance that they will be offered; that those units will be of twenty and over; that they will comprise a fair proportion of vehicles of twelve tons and over and that they will offer a proportion of two-thirds of those of six-wheelers and eight-wheelers. Those will be snapped up without any difficulty whatever, and that would reduce the number of vehicles.
I wish now to turn to the question of the monopoly and the points I desire to make under that head. With regard to the future of this semi-monopoly and the dangers that lie ahead, I suggest that the figure of 7,500 is clearly too high a figure in order to give parity—and in my submission that should be the principle—between the private hauliers and the industry. Clearly, we should specify the tonnage and the number of trailers, because the policy of B.R.S. at the moment is that they have never sold trailers at all. In fact, they are building up a large long-distance carrying fleet by the extensive use of trailers. Thirdly, and this is most important, let us have some business methods in the B.R.S. in future.
I want to make three points. First, let us hive off B.R.S. and make it into a separate concern from the British Transport Commission. Let us hive it off as a quite separate corporation which, in future, may make a great name for itself and I wish to give it the opportunity to do so—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I am quite sincere about this matter. The second point is: let it publish an annual balance sheet. Let us see whether the parcels service is satisfactory. The parcels service is unsatisfactory. It is run at a loss and it would be better if it could 1915 have a good breath of public opinion and fresh air through it.
The third point is: why should B.R.S. be allowed to have a financial guarantee from the Treasury and not have to go to the open market as other businesses have to? I wish to see that system done away with. I wish to see B.R.S. run as a separate corporation in the same way as Unilever is run, and publishing accounts.
To make my last three points, I turn to licences. First, we have not got parity of licensing. I wish to see A and B licences held on reasonable parity between these people. I entirely agree that the B.R.S. should be given licences which entitle it to go all over the country, but why should that condition not apply also to private enterprise hauliers, who are only to be permitted to operate in certain areas? Let us have absolute and honest parity between these two conflicting ideologies.
When we sell off the balance of the vehicles, let us do so in company units, suitable to fit into the structure of a business. What happens in regard to S licences? At the moment, if a man has two or three lorries of two or three tons gross unladen weight, he is not allowed to bulk those licences together. He should be able to do what is done by the nationalised sector of the industry, namely, to bulk his licences together so that he can have a six-tonner instead of two three-tonners. In that way real competition would be assured, because private enterprise might then be able to get back the cream of the traffic, which will otherwise be kept by the growing State monopoly.
§ 9.6 p.m.
§ Mr, G. R. Strauss (Vauxhall)
I do not want to refer directly to the speech of the hon. Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies). It can best be answered by the Minister, because what he said was in conflict with the statement made by the Parliamentary Secretary, who told us categorically that the chances of selling these vehicles under the S.4 list, if they were put up for sale again, was almost nil. In this matter I prefer to accept the evidence and views of the Parliamentary Secretary rather than those of the hon. Member.
This debate has not had so much passion in it as most of those upon 1916 transport which have taken place during the last few years, whether it is judged by the number of hon. Members who have attended, or by the temper of the speeches made. But the Minister must not be misled by the atmosphere of this debate into thinking that we regard the Bill's proposals either with indifference or with acquiescence. That is not so. We feel very strongly about many of its Clauses. That view has been expressed by many of my hon. Friends in very definite and vigorous terms, and I can assure the Minister that at later stages we shall move such Amendments as we think necessary to eliminate Clauses which we regard as harmful to the interests of the nation, and others which appear to us to be purely vindictive towards the publicly-owned transport system.
Some hon. Members opposite have said—I do not know whether they really meant it—that they hope hon. Members on this side of the House will accept this Bill as a final solution of the transport problem. That is ridiculous. To us, this Bill—except Clause 1—reeks of Tory prejudice. Not only does it appear so to us, but I think that it must appear so to any unpolitical and unprejudiced observer who studies its proposals.
There can be no doubt that the Bill is a confession of the failure of the Government's road haulage policy. It is a confession, too, of miscalculation and of folly in acting up on the advice of the Road Haulage Association, which we have now been told by the Parliamentary Secretary was bad. The Government, prompted by the Road Haulage Association, which we now know made a wrong assessment of the situation and advanced views which were untenable, tried to restore the road haulage system in this country to the old pre-nationalisa-tion pattern. They believed the road haulage service should be broken up and returned to its previous owners; and that then everybody would be happy, or at any rate the previous owners would be.
They told us that all this could be done quickly. As my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, East (Mr. Ernest Davies) reminded the House, the previous but one Minister of Transport said that it could be completed by the end of 1953. We said at the time that that policy was not only wrong in principle, 1917 but also unworkable and impracticable, and on that aspect at any rate the Government have been proved wholly wrong and we have been proved wholly right.
We have now arrived at a situation in which the Government have been confronted with the impossibility of selling the vehicles which were put up for sale last year. We are told by the Parliamentary Secretary that if these 6,115 vehicles were put up for sale today there would be little chance of selling them. As we know, out of those 6,115 vehicles, only 554 were sold at the time. That is the situation in the general haulage services section of B.R.S. We know too that in the meat section the Government have not been able to receive any reasonable or acceptable bid, and that this is also true of the parcels section.
So the Government are confronted with a situation in which they are unable to sell any more vehicles, and get a decent price for them. Of course, they could sell them as chattels or as scrap, but they cannot sell them at a fair price. The Government are also confronted with the fact that industry as a whole has said through the British Chambers of Commerce that it does not want any further break-up of the B.R.S. road haulage system and that it is satisfied with it. Independent papers, which usually take a rather anti-Socialist view, like the Economist, go out of their way to say what an efficient and profitable service B.R.S. has built up and what a great pity it would be to dissolve it.
As a result of all that, the Government are forced, unwillingly I am sure, to eat their words and go back on their previous policy. They now make a concession to the demands which we have made throughout and which others have made, later to the extent of permitting B.R.S. to maintain a substantial fleet of nearly 8,000 vehicles for general haulage purposes. We are naturally relieved that the Government have at long last seen the error of their ways, but we cannot congratulate them on their change of policy.
It was not the result of any widom on their part. They were forced to do so by the pressure of events, and one does not congratulate a sinner on giving up sinning when reluctantly forced to do so by circumstances which he did not foresee and which he tried to avoid. That has happened in this case, and on this re- 1918 versal of Government policy we are entitled to say, as previous speakers have said," We told you so," and we are entitled to add that we deplore the obstinacy with which the Government so long refused to face facts and persisted in sacrificing the obvious national interest to party dogma and the selfish and unrealistic demands of the Road Haulage Association.
It is this atmosphere and this doctrinaire attitude which quite plainly characterises the remaining Clauses of the Bill, in which the Government are trying to make easier the further disintegration of the road haulage services now under B.R.S. Why they persist in this policy I do not know.
We have been given no reason this evening—and were given no effective reason when the 1953 Bill was originally brought before the House—why the Government are so anxious, with all the experience they have had, to break up the parcels service and the meat service. We have not been told that those services are unsuccessful, inefficient or uneconomic. One hon. Member opposite has said that he had received some complaints about the parcels service. I should be very much surprised if there were not some complaints. Does the House realise that 2 million parcels are dealt with by this service weekly? If from the handling of 2 million parcels a week some complaints did not arise it would be most extraordinary.
On the whole, I think it is generally admitted that this service, this new service, this great national service which has been built up, is a very fine one indeed. In fact, the Minister of Transport's predecessor in July, 1954, referred to it as… the very large, extensive and, recognise, admirable parcels and smalls service …"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th July, 1954; Vol. 529, c. 2031–2.]In those circumstances, and having failed so far to sell them, why do the Government persist in their policy of breaking up this organisation and introduce devices they had not thought of before to get rid of it at all costs? Is it because it is a monopoly? Surely not. If sold, the service will presumably be sold in one parcel to one organisation and, presumably, would still be a monopoly, but a private monopoly, and, by definition, a private monopoly is less under public influence and control than is a public one.
1919 We know that the workers in the industry very much oppose the idea of the selling of the organisation. One would think that the Government would pay some attention to those people. But their views are to be completely ignored and the Government will continue in its purpose.
In order to find out what the Government's original ideas were and whether there were any specific reasons which I did not know for the selling of these two services to private interests, I looked at the debate which took place on the introduction of the 1953 Bill. I read the speech of the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor in order to find out what arguments he advanced, but he only submitted a general argument which covers the break-up of all the road haulage services of the Transport Commission. He said:… integration having failed—the road haulage services, whose only raison d'être was to provide an integrated service along with the Railway Executive, having failed—there is no argument whatever for not handing back to private competition the long-distance road services."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17th November, 1952; Vol. 507, c. 1415.]In view of the passage of time and the experience we have had of the success of these services, I suggest that we now want something more, and we are entitled to ask why the Government are persisting in this policy of breaking up. Moreover, I submit to the Government that they are being exceedingly illogical. It is now said that in view of two circumstances the B.R.S. is to be permitted to maintain its trunk network. They are that B.R.S. is doing well—everyone has said that it is doing well—and it is popular. Secondly, that it is very difficult to sell the lorries. Those arguments apply equally to the parcels service and to the meat service. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Of course they do. It has so far not been possible to get a reasonable bid for either of those fleets and services. Moreover, according to general account and independent opinion both organisations are doing exceedingly well.
§ Mr. Strauss
The hon. Gentleman said that he had sent out 200 questionnaires. Most of the people replied that they were in favour of the general haulage system, but many said that they had some complaints about the parcels system. Of course there were complaints.
§ Mr. Strauss
It would be very simple to get a large number of unsolicited testimonials in the opposite direction.
Why, then, are the Government persisting in the sale of these two sections of the B.R.S. when they have agreed to permit B.R.S. to maintain a viable general road haulage service? It is particularly idiotic, if I may use that word—it is not too strong—to sell those two services now that the Government have agreed to maintain the general haulage service because the two, the parcels service and the general haulage service, ought to be fully integrated.
It has not been possible to integrate them until now because the Government have said that they intended to sell off these services; and they have had to be maintained in separate organisations and companies. But there is enormous scope for integrating the parcels service with the general haulage service and for trunking many of the parcels in containers. It would be exceedingly economic and efficient and would save a great deal in overheads.
One can only imagine why the Government are doing this—and here I exercise some imagination. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Well, let us see whether I am right. Why are the Government being so illogical in devising ways and means for getting rid of these two excellent B.R.S. services at the same time as they are retaining the important network service? One can only imagine that it is as a result of the sort of compromise which has been struck between the Government and the Road Haulage Association.
It is clear from the Parliamentary Secretary's speech that the Road Haulage Association has been brought into consultation and discussion over all these matters and a bargain effected. The Government have said, "We intend to maintain the general haulage organisation and 1921 to allow it to run with a substantial number of lorries. On the other hand, we undertake to take even further steps than under the 1953 Act to make easier the disposal of the parcels service and the meat service." Hon. Members may call it a compromise; I prefer to call it a squalid bargain in which the national interest is sacrificed.
I want to ask the Minister a number of questions which I hope he will be able to answer in his speech. First, has he considered, or has he had pointed out to him, the considerable economy which could be achieved by a proper co-ordination of the parcels service not only with the general trunks road service of B.R.S. but with the railways? It would be exceedingly wasteful from the point of view of efficiency for the parcels service to be sliced off into independent hands which will run it as an independent organisation trying to make as much profit out of it as possible. Has he considered that?
Question No. 2: Will he please tell us a little more about the 7½per cent. of the B.R.S. lorries—the 7,750 which B.R.S. is to retain—for which the service will not be permitted to have A licences without making specific application? It seems to me that that will cause enormous administrative difficulty. I understand that the argument is that 7½per cent. of all fleets are normally out of service and being repaired at any time and that it is therefore argued that 7½per cent. of the B.R.S. lorries will not need an ordinary A licence.
Every time a lorry goes in for repair and is out of action there will be administrative worry and difficulty in obtaining a licence transfer from the licensing authority. Each licence will have to be re-transferred to a lorry when it has been repaired and put back on the road. It will be a great nuisance, but it is apparently part of the sordid bargain reached with the Road Haulage Association in order to appease it and prevent its political opposition from being too formidable.
We must remember that the figure of 7,750 was put forward by Sir Malcolm Trustram Eve as the correct figure for a viable road haulage system. Why do the Government propose to cut that figure by 7½per cent.? As far as I know, no cut is 1922 to be imposed on private road hauliers. Such a haulier may have 200–300 lorries. Is the number of his A licences to be reduced by 7½per cent. of the number of his lorries because that is the number normally in repair?
My hon. Friend the Member for Southall (Mr. Pargiter) said that if this new principle is to be applied to the public service it should be applied to the private services as well. I agree. I wonder whether the Minister has appreciated that the parcels service which he now proposes to sell appears to bring in a profit of about £1 million a year. That is not unimportant. It is very attractive to the people who look forward to buying it but it is not unimportant to the British Transport Commission, which is in a very difficult financial situation. Has he entirely ignored that £1 million a year?
It is not clear exactly what the Minister means to do with the parcels service. Does he by any chance mean to break up the service into small competitive units, as suggested by some, or does he propose, as suggested by others, to make a mixed company out of it, with the B.R.S. retaining 50 per cent. of the shares and private interests holding the other 50 per cent.? Is that the intention? If so, it is very interesting and important. Or are they to be sold in their entirety to private interests?
The Parliamentary Secretary said something about postponing the sale of the parcels company. He said that the Bill enabled the Minister to do that. I hope that he will tell us what his intentions are in this respect. Does he mean to postpone it and, if so, for how long and for what purpose? I hope that we may have an answer about that. That is important, and brings me to another question.
Does the Minister realise the unsettling effect of not having a final decision on this matter, with these services as it were, floating in the air, publicly owned but prepared for sale to private interests, with no chance of equipping them with new lorries and other essential requirements. In that way, they become inefficient and subject to criticism, and the people employed in them do not know where they are and become demoralised. It is essential to have finality in this matter. I ask the Minister to say that there will be finality and that anything 1923 that is not sold after a certain date will remain in the possession of B.R.S.
Is he prepared, when he is dealing with the question of the Transport Levy and the recompense to the B.T.C. for any loss that it incurs as the result of the Government's policy, to say that it is his firm intention that the B.T.C. shall not be losers as a result of all this business? He has told us that the income of the levy until the end of this year, which will be about £12½ million, is to go to the B.T.C. in compensation for the losses to which they have been put. I think the Minister said that it was not too easy at the moment to reckon what those losses would be. What we are concerned about is that the B.T.C. ought not to be put into the red as the result of these activities of the Government. That was the policy of the Government when they introduced the 1953 Act, and it ought to be the policy of the Government today.
I invite the Minister to say that when the final calculation is made, and it should be done by independent accountants and not the Ministry's accountants, the B.T.C. will not be a loser.
It is perfectly true that we have a different attitude on this side of the House to that held by hon. and right hon. Members opposite. We want a publicly-owned transport system, under all proper safeguards, to flourish and to render a great service to the industries of the country. But it is clear from the sum of all past actions of the Government and the Clauses in this Bill, apart from Clause 1, that the attitude of the Government and their supporters to the nationalised transport system is this: They want it to survive, but they do so grudgingly. They make that survival as difficult as possible and load it with every conceivable handicap. They say that these handicaps are designed to bring about fair competition. Whatever the reason may be—it is really to ensure that private road hauliers will be able to make good profit—they are undeniably loading it with handicaps.
In this Bill the Government are making it easier to sell to private interests for private profit two very important public services. We believe that is a wrong outlook. We believe that behind it is the Conservative Party's inherent dislike for 1924 any incursion by the Government or the State into business on a large scale. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] There is agreement from very many hon. Members opposite. They dislike this publicly-owned transport service and, disliking it, look upon it with hostility and try to crib it and confine it on every possible occasion. That is the natural outcome of the hostility which has been expressed openly—not by the Minister maybe—but by many of his hon. Friends.
We take the view that the British Transport Commission through its various activities is a great national endeavour rendering successfully an efficient and great public service. We believe that a Government which has the national interest foremost in mind should encourage and help it in every proper way to render yet more successful and more efficient service—to succour it, and not to knock it about at every opportunity. In particular reference to this Bill, we hold that the integration of the parcels fleet with the general haulage fleet and with the railway system would be the right policy—not their complete and, maybe, final separation as proposed by the Government.
Because this Bill does contain certain concessions about the greater size of the general haulage services, we obviously cannot vote against it, although we realise that those concessions have been forced on the Government much against their will. But when we come to the later stages of the Bill and consider in detail the many objectionable Clauses it contains, we shall do our utmost to get those Clauses amended, modified, and if possible, eliminated altogether.
§ 9.34 p.m.
§ The Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation (Mr. Harold Watkinson)
First, I should like to say a word of congratulation to my hon. Friend the Member for Pollok (Mr. George), who made his maiden speech today. Whilst I think I would not be quite expressing the sense of the House if I said that it was wholly uncontroversial, it was nonetheless a very good and very honest speech, and the House always listens with great attention to a Member who brings here long, practical, working knowledge in his subject. I know that we shall listen very attentively to my hon Friend when he speaks in this House again.
1925 I listened to the debate with close attention, not only for what hon. and right hon. Members have said, but equally to try to gauge the general views which have been expressed on the broader context of the transport industry, from which the provisions of the Bill cannot be divorced.
Like a good many other Members of the House, I have a considerable affection for this great transport industry. It is very hard lines upon it that since 1939, for one reason or another, it has had a very rough time. First, to suffer the attacks of the Luftwaffe, and then to be subjected to even more intense political warfare is no way to treat a major public utility if one really wants it to be successful. If, coupled with that, it has been impossible for previous Governments to allow road or rail transport to spend adequate capital on bringing themselves up to date, here is the reason—I am trying to be factual—for a great many of the troubles that beset the industry, and certainly one of the reasons for its low morale in many cases. That, I think, is a fact with which few hon. Members would disagree.
The right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. G. R. Strauss) seemed a little worried when he said that there was much less passion in this debate than in some of our previous debates on these subjects. I think he considered it a defect. Nevertheless, he did his best, I thought, to bring a little passion into his closing remarks.
There is one point I must make. I have made no squalid bargain. I have taken my own decisions on the Bill and have consulted all the interests concerned before taking them. There has been no squalid bargain so far as I am concerned, and I intend to show in my remarks that I and my right hon. Friends in the Government as a whole consider only one thing in relation to the Bill: that is, to try to get a sensible and practical solution in the national interest.
I thought that that spirit was not entirely absent today from speeches from the other side of the House also—and they were fair speeches. I listened, for example, to the speeches of the hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. H. Hynd) and of the hon. Member for Bradford, East (Mr. McLeavy). I certainly do not agree with the proposal of the hon. Member for Bradford. East to have a Royal Commission. Let us have fewer com- 1926 missions and a little action to try to get this industry more efficient. Nonetheless, as my hon. Friend the Member for Truro (Mr. G. Wilson) said, the important thing now is to consider the successful working of this great transport industry and not to worry too much about its political past.
I was interested the other day to see that the Chairman of the British Transport Commission said of the undertakings for which he was responsible:We must never fall back on the heroin shot of subsidy, however administered. Nobody in our organisation has any doubts at all about the ultimate success of our plans.Those are sentiments which I most strongly support.
But there is another kind of shot in the arm that this House can give to the transport industry, if it wants to do so: that is, to remove it from the arena of acute political controversy.
§ Mr. Watkinson
I will come to that. If guilt lies in this matter, it lies on both sides of the House and not on one side only.
I am sure that that desire is shared by management and men alike. Equally, I think, trade union leaders and Transport Commission management feel that their duty now is to concentrate on increasing efficiency, reducing costs and improving the service. They want to get on with that job, and to be left alone to get on with it.
That is why the whole purpose of the Bill is to try to strike a reasonably fair balance. If we try to do that, all the parties, quite rightly, see that something that they would like to have had included is omitted. That is one of the necessities if we are striking a fair balance. But unless we do strike that balance, I do not see how we shall bring this endless controversy to an end and allow this industry to get on with its job. That is the spirit in which I and my right hon. Friends approach the Bill.
I do not mind at all when hon. Members opposite admit—they admitted it when they were taxed with this by my hon. Friend the Member for Bedfordshire, South (Mr. Cole)—that they spent a lot of time today looking backwards and saying "I told you so." It is a quite 1927 proper political exercise. All I shall say—and I am sure this is nowhere more welcome than in the transport industry—is that we are concerned with the future of this industry and not its past. [Laughter.] It is the future of the industry that is important to the men who work in it—and I hope that hon. Members opposite will not laugh at that.
Therefore, the Measure is brought forward because we on this side of the House believe, and believe it just as passionately as hon. Members opposite believe in their way of running things, that the right thing for the nation is to apply the test of efficiency to this industry and not the test of party politics. My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke) had a very good phrase for it when he said that it was "competitive co-existence." I am not sure that that is not a very good way of explaining the kind of relationship which we want to see established between private and public road haulage interests.
It is quite wrong, therefore, for hon. and right hon. Members opposite to say that the Bill is a sort of confession of failure. Perhaps it would have been a confession of failure if we had been doctrinaire enough to sell off the whole of S.4 or any remaining lorries, as we could well have done, in small lots. I cannot answer my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies) because he has not left me enough time to do so, but he said that he knows of many interests who are still willing to buy lorries.
The important issue was whether the Government were going to be doctrinaire enough to say, "We go through with this to the bitter end, regardless of the national consequence." No one who played a part, as I did, in planning services during the regrettable railway strike last year was left in any doubt of the value of trunk road services. Competition has improved and continues to improve them, but they are a national asset and we would have been quite wrong to break them up, if that had been the only way to deal with the matter. If private enterprise had come forward and made reasonable offers it could have played its part in this task, but for one reason or another many of those engaged in private enterprise, understandably, have not been able to do so.
1928 That leaves me with the numbers to be left with British Road Services and the question of the 7½per cent. which the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. G. R. Strauss) asked me to explain. I will explain it in a way which shows that we are making some progress in the right direction. I am glad to tell him that this figure of 7½per cent. float is an agreed figure between the Chairman of the British Transport Commission and the Road Haulage Association, who met under the chairmanship of Sir Malcolm Trustram Eve, whom I should like to thank for bringing them together for the first time.
They agreed on this figure as a sensible and practical float between the actual number of lorries left to British Road Services and the number it was likely to have in normal operation. This is the first agreement ever registered between these two sides of the industry which will have to work together in the future. I hope that it is a sign that our way of trying to get free and friendly competition may work.
I want to thank the Chairman of the Road Haulage Disposal Board for that and to make plain that it is my view and that of the Government that the Board has done a difficult and somewhat thankless task particularly well, and especially Sir Malcolm Trustram Eve who served in recent months at his own request without salary. He and members of the Board have tried to serve the public interest. It is certainly not their fault that the disposals went no further than they did.
All this, however, really represents the past, and the Bill deals with the future. I am surprised that hon. and right hon. Friends opposite have not concentrated more on the future of this great industry. It could not stay as it was, and this, I hope, is a sensible attempt first to put it into a workable state, and, secondly, to try to take it out of the arena of party politics.
Some of my hon. Friends quite rightly have expressed the view that on the whole British Road Services has had too long a start in this matter. Other hon. Gentlemen opposite think that B.R.S. has not had enough. This may indicate that it has the right number, but let us see the position of the licence figures at the end of last year.
1929 Open A licences for British Road Services amounted to 3,718. Open A licences for independent operators were 3,881. In other words there was a perfect balance. There were just as many open A licences in the hands of the independent operators as in the hands of British Road Services. If one includes the contract A licences and the B licences, independent operators had 5,800 compared with 3,749 for British Road Services. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, these are the heavy lorries, the 12-tonners. This is where it is always contended that B.R.S. has an unfair lead over private interests. Those figures show that that is not so, and already a lively and expanding private enterprise part of the industry has not only caught up B.R.S. but, indeed, surpassed it. That sort of balance is what we want to see the industry develop.
At this stage there are two points with which I want to deal. The first is the question of the levy. My hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary said fairly that it was a kind of rough justice, and rough justice is not bad when it achieves at the moment a balance.
§ Mr. Watkinson
I agree. As I said in the House the other day, it is entirely a matter of estimate at the moment, but the figures have been agreed by the British Transport Commission auditors and therefore they are the best estimate we can get at the moment. How the levy will work out we must see, because this is not yet a completed operation, but British Road Services has been saved the loss of goodwill on a large number of lorries. As I have said, the figures are even at the moment, and again it looks as if the kind of solution the Government want to get, which is a fair balance, may yet be achieved.
There is one small point to which I attach great importance. The hon. Member for Accrington referred to compensation to employees. I am prepared to deal with that, and I am considering laying amending regulations in this House as soon as I have cleared the terms of them with the Commission and with all the seven trade unions concerned. I need not go into the details at the moment. If requested, I will deal with them upstairs, but I want to make it plain now that we must try to clear these matters which 1930 are disturbing those who work in this industry. I propose to take steps to do that in due course, when I shall ask the House to approve an amendment of the 1953 Compensation Regulations, so that we shall have done what we can to put that matter right.
Several of my hon. Friends have dealt with the parcels and the meat companies and the right hon. Member for Vauxhall also mentioned this point. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Hirst) said fairly that he had received many complaints about the way in which the parcels company operates. I do not want to go into that, but I do want to say, as has been said quite rightly, that we offered this company on quite impossible terms. They were such terms that nobody was surprised when no offers were received.
Therefore I think it is our duty now, in the public interest, to run this company as a proper operating commercial concern for a period and then see how it gets on. It will also show what sort of trading results it can give, and that is the right thing to do in the public interest, certainly not to attempt to sell again at this moment when it is obvious that we cannot get any acceptable offer. The same general principle applies to the meat company. There again we must, in view of the lack of an acceptable offer, say that it shall be run as a company for a time, and we will see what its results are.
There is one other point which I want to make. I am sorry that I cannot answer all the queries put by my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies), although he raised one which I must answer. It had to do with the re-offering of S.4 or any part of it. Having made an examination myself, I find that out of the 23 units which were sold in S.4, the Disposal Board has now told me that 13 of those did not go as transport units and were broken up into smaller units by dealers after sale. I have tried to form my own view of what the demand is, quite apart from the view of the Chairman of the Disposal Board, who still adheres to his view that the re-offer of the list would not be a success. I have come to that conclusion, too, and, therefore, I have no intention of trying to re-offer the list, because I consider that if we were to do so, it would only be a failure.
1931 I believe that that deals with most of the matters raised in the debate. I want to return to what I think is by far the most important matter which was rightly raised by several of my hon. Friends, the future of the industry. There is one general remark which I have to make. From the other side of the House have come allegations that we do not mean it when we say that we are trying to make this great transport industry work, and that behind the scenes we shall always try to fetter and curb it and make life difficult for it. May I make plain the Government's attitude?
We have announced that in due course we shall bring forward proposals that will deal with monopolies and restrictive practices in private industry, because we take the view that, in the competitive world into which we are moving, that sort of thing cannot be tolerated. I myself see no reason why a national industry—and I think that the phrase "national industry" is very much better than "nationalised industry"—like the transport industry, should not be subject to something of the same kind of principles.
In other words, I think that it should not become monopolistic, that it should play fair and exercise fair competitive methods, and that it should not, for example, be able to cut its prices on the ground of being able to increase its deficit or any particular practice of that kind. That is the kind of control to which we wish to subject the transport industry; subject only to one other thing. That is of course—and I believe that the figures I have quoted show this—that we think we have introduced into the industry enough competition to make both sectors of it work at their maximum efficiency.
If I may give them both a word of advice; they should do what all other competitive industries do, and that is, while having free and frank competition, none the less, consult one another on the matters of general interest to the industry as a whole—wages, conditions, general terms of service and that sort of thing. There is great scope there for co-operation between private enterprise and the public sector of the industry. It is something which certainly is not encouraged if we in this House continue trying to play off one against the other. It is a 1932 far more important proposition to those who work in the industry than any arguments about who was right and who wrong in 1947 or 1953. I want to make that quite plain, because I do not want there to be any doubt in the mind of any hon. Member of the spirit in which the Government have brought forward the Bill.
I very sincerely hope that this argument, which has been going on in this House for a long time, as to the merits of nationalisation and denationalisation is not now a live issue for transport. I do not for a moment doubt the sincerity of those who thought that devotion to a political cause was a better driving force than free competition. I am sure that that argument was brought forward with the greatest sincerity. Equally, if they are honest, I think hon. Members will say that in the 1953 Act we were, on the whole, equally sincere in believing that without some competition no industry can really work at anything like its maximum efficiency.
As I have said, we were not doctrinaire about that, and when we found that it was necessary to preserve the trunk services in public ownership, because it was impossible to get private owners and buyers to run them in large enough units, we brought forward this Bill. That is not the end of the chapter, because this industry has to go on. We shall set its pattern, a sensible pattern, which I hope will not be unduly disturbed. But when the House has done that, I believe we shall best serve the nation if we encourage it to go on, subject to the spur of fair competition, as a national industry that will find its driving force from a determination to provide a fair deal for those who work within it, and a good, sensible and practical service for those industries and those people who look to it to carry them and serve them.
§ Mr. J. Hynd
May I ask the Minister this question, as he has made one important point? He does not consider that a nationalised industry or service should be permitted to reduce its prices below a certain point in competition with other trades. Does that mean that we shall hear no more of the demand that nationalised industries should give a lead to private enterprise in cutting prices?
§ Mr. Watkinson
I made one important point, that a nationalised industry should not be allowed to cut its prices if that was merely increasing its deficit; in other words, fair competition.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 38 (Committal of Bills).