HC Deb 26 February 1919 vol 112 cc1819-28

4.0 p.m.


May I make an appeal to the Leader of the House? I have been asked to do so by the Committee of the Harbours and the Docks of the country, that he should allow some decent interval between the introduction of the Ministry of Ways and Communications Bill and the Second Reading, in order that a measure of such vast importance may be thoroughly studied?

Mr. BONAR LAW (Leader of the House)

It is intended to give reasonable time. It is intended to give proper facilities and as reasonable time as possible.


I beg to move, That leave be given of the House to bring in a Bill to establish a Ministry of Ways and Communications, and for purposes connected therewith. We have had during the four and a half years of the War a great many questions pressed upon this House of the highest importance to the country at large. I do not think it is any exaggeration to say that probably no question is of more pressing importance to the country than is the question of transport and communication. You cannot develop any industry in this country unless you have adequate facilities for transport and unless you have cheap transport. You can do nothing with the housing question unless you are able at the same time to control suburban and inter-suburban communication. You cannot develop agriculture unless you can provide for adequate transport, and, indeed, there is hardly any form of industry you can mention which does not largely depend for its success upon facilities for transport and upon cheap transport.

In the past we have had many means of transport in this country, but we have had no co-ordination; we have had no stimulus but that of private gain, with, of course, the honourable exception of municipal tramways, but, speaking practically, in pre-war days our transport depended largely on private effort and private gain, and in a matter so vital as this of transport it is not altogether to the public good that private interest should be the main stimulus of those who control it. No doubt in the past competition, especially in the railways, has played an important part, and, indeed, for many years a beneficial part. But the day for unfettered competition has gone. Equally with regard to roads—roads, no doubt, were at one time purely local questions, but the introduction of the motor has prevented road traffic being any longer merely a local question—it is now essentially an Imperial question, and one which cannot be dealt with by a very large number of local authorities each controlling its own roads, constructing its roads, and generally dealing with them in its own way. It is, therefore, proposed that a Ministry should be set up which is to co-ordinate the whole of this important means of transport.

May I remind the House that in August last a Committee was set up by this House to inquire and report what steps it was desirable to take to develop and improve the internal facilities for transport in the United Kingdom and to secure effective supervision and co-ordination in order to ensure that such developments and improvements should be adequate and suitable to meet the national requirements. That Committee, a strong Committee of this House, has taken evidence and has arrived at certain conclusions, namely, that we cannot allow the organisation of all the transport agencies of the country to revert to their pre-war circumstances and conditions. They are equally satisfied that the temporary arrangements which were made for the course of the War in order to meet the emergencies and the exigencies of the War are not in themselves satisfactory. But they have not been able as yet to recommend what the great changes should be in order to procure the best possible system of private transport in this country. For example, they have not yet been able to say whether they do or do not recommend the nationalisation of our railways. May I also remind the House of another thing. When the control of the railways was taken over in 1914 an arrangement was made by which their net receipts were guaranteed. My hon. Friend (Mr. Walter Runciman), who was then a Member of the House, in a letter which he wrote to the railway companies, promised that the Government would undertake to extend the period of the guarantee to two years after the termination of the War. Therefore, we are in this position that a Committee of this House has made up its mind that the pre-war system cannot be reverted to, that the temporary arrangements for control are not satisfactory and cannot be continued in their entirety, and that we have to guarantee the net receipts of the railways for two years after the termination of the War. The result of that is that the Government propose to set up a Ministry to maintain for the two years during which the receipts are guaranteed the whole of the control which they had during the course of the War, and at the same time to give them powers during these two years to consider the whole question, to consider it with the assistance of the Committee of this House which is still in existence. [Several Hon. Members: "No, no; a new Parliament."] Well, you can set it up again—and at the same time to make such changes as and when they may think desirable as are desirable.


Does it mean that they will nationalise the railways?


I will explain that afterwards. Not without the consent of this House. Of course, any step which the Ministry take must be brought before this House and must be passed by this House. They cannot do it on their own initiative. The Government propose first of all to take control of the railways, light railways, tramways, canals, waterways and inland navigation. With regard to the railways, they had the control during the period of the War. It is considered essential that those means of communication and transport are so essential for so many purposes to the community that they ought to be under one central control. Equally with regard to roads. As I have said, they have been up to the present under diversified local control. The Road Board has had some control, but not really a working or an efficient control. Take, for example, the case of engineering. More and more large, enormous masses, such as boilers, and so on, are being moved about this country which cannot be moved by railway; they have to go by road. Some of them have to pass through an enormous number of areas belonging to different local authorities and meeting with different difficulties in each area; but a matter of that sort really requires centralised control. It is therefore proposed also that roads and bridges for vehicular traffic should be included in the Bill. Already there are a large number of powers exercised over the roads, railways, canals and tramways by the Government, but they are exercised by the different Departments of the Government. There is no one Department which can co-ordinate the whole of the control. It is divided among several Departments and that is obviously not a desirable thing. Therefore, it is felt that this necessary control, this necessary co-ordination, is better in the hands of one Minister who has the whole subject before him, the whole of the evidence before him, and can deal with it in the best interests not of any individual or locality, but of the community as a whole.

The final power which it is proposed to take is the control of the supply of electricity, and as to that there may at first sight be a considerable difference of opinion. But if the House will recollect that probably transport is the greatest and most permanent customer of electricity and further that transport depends entirely for its successful management on the development of the industries of the country, the House will see how important it is that this Minister should have control of electricity. It is suggested, I know, in some quarters, that the interest of the railways and the tramways, so far as electricity is concerned, is not that of the consumer. The exact opposite is the case. The more prosperous are all the industries in any of the areas—the more industry prospers and is enabled to increase its output and to use the railways and transport the more transport will prosper. Therefore there is every inducement for the railways and those who control the railways to see to it that every individual in the country, everyone who can improve his business by the use of power, is enabled to get his power as cheaply and as easily as possible. As every person connected with electricity knows, the load factor is one of the most essential points which has to be considered. If the railways were able to establish a load factor they would enable themselves to use electricity on the railways far more efficiently and far more cheaply and to a far greater extent even than at the present. For these reasons I submit to the House that it is essential that whoever has to co-ordinate the control of this means of transport should also co-ordinate that which is essential to transport, namely, the supply of electric power. This Bill no doubt will require considerable discussion. Whether it will meet with any wide opposition I very much doubt, when it is thoroughly digested and understood. As has been promised in reply to the hon. Member for the Scotland Division of Liverpool, time will be given for the House to consider the Bill before the Second Reading. In a matter of this kind I felt that it was right in asking leave to introduce the Bill to give some brief sketch of the object, motive and intention of the Bill and the method by which it is to be carried out.


Will it apply to the whole of the United Kingdom?


Yes; it applies to the whole of the United Kingdom, and the right hon. and learned Gentleman will admit that there is no part of the United Kingdom where it will be more valuable than in Ireland.


Will the Manchester Ship Canal and the Sharpness, Gloucester, and other ship canals be included?


Yes, that would be the intention.


The right hon. Gentleman has given us a speech on, I think, the most powerful Ministry that it has ever been suggested to set up in this country. A single Ministry which is to control the roads, canals, railways, bridges, vehicles, and traffic regulations of this country, which I presume includes the whole of London as well, and in addition to that is going to be responsible for the supply and control of electricity, and, as we are informed in reply to a question, is also to have the Manchester Ship Canal thrown in as a little extra, will need its Minister to be a superman. He will need to be a. very great man, and I almost think it would save the time of the Government, if they included in the Bill the provision that the Minister for Ways and Communications should also manage the whole of the affairs of the country. I am not rising to oppose the whole of the Bill, but I rise to outline a very grave opposition to the Bill with regard to the roads. The House may not be aware that quite recently a private Committee was appointed in this House to promote the use and development of the roads of this country and only to-day there are 280 Members of the House who have joined that Committee. I cannot go to a Division on the First Reading, but I can tell the House that I have the full support of that Committee, and I think it right to outline the views of a great many Members of this House who strongly object to the inclusion in one Ministry of all these vital essentials to the well being of the trade and commerce of the country.

I am going to ask my right hon. Friend to omit roads from his Bill. I think the right hon. Gentleman who is going to be the Minister of Ways and Communications will find that there is enough for any one man to do in managing the railways—including nationalisation, an enormous problem—the canals, and the whole of the electric supply of this country. The roads might be left to a new Ministry. There are 152,000 miles of roads in this country that will have to be dealt with by this single Ministry. At the present time these roads are dealt with by no less than 2,000 road authorities, the whole of whom must necessarily be consulted before this Bill is passed into law. The real point I want to make, quite candidly, is that the road users of this country and the great motor interests, who are also concerned in the use and development of our roads, are gravely suspicious of the roads being put under railway control. Let a railway-man manage the railways if you like, but let a roadman, a man who knows the roads, who has been born on roads, trained on roads, and who knows something of the management of roads, have the management of the roads under a single Ministry. The Road Board to which the Home Secretary referred today has been allowed to become moribund by this Government. The Road Board did excellent work before the War and during the War, but it has been allowed to become moribund and is doing actually nothing. The last thing the Road Board did was to submit a Report to the Ministry of Reconstruction stating that at least £30,000,000 are required for the reconstruction of the roads, £7,000,000 for the reconstruction of bridges, and a similar amount in respect of deferred maintenance to bring the roads into a proper condition for the traffic of this country. The Treasury have already allowed £10,000,000 to the Road Board to be distributed among the local authorities as a commencement for the improvement of the roads. The roads are not altogether feeders of railways, but they are competitors. My right hon. Friend told the House that many large commercial articles have to be carried by road because the railways cannot take them at the present time. I altogether differ from him in his statement that these boilers or great iron castings are carried with difficulty from one side of the country to the other because of the multiplicity of districts through which they pass. I have had a great deal of experience and I say that there is no real difficultly, and provided that there are good, well constructed and well founded roads, these loads do no damage whatever.

It is often said that criticism is destructive, and though I strongly agree that a physician should not prescribe until he is called in to prescribe, I suggest a line upon which my right hon. Friend might get his Bill, and the roads of this country might be developed for the enormous work we expect them to do during the next few years. Let him, instead of killing the Road Board, revivify the Road Board and give it representation on that Front Bench. There is ample work on the roads for one Board and one Minister to do. There are the present powers of the Road Board, the powers held by the Board of Trade in regard to tramways, the whole of the motor car Acts, the whole of the petrol Acts, and the whole of the Home Office regulations in regard to traffic. Surely it would be enough for one Minister, in addition to the negotiations that will have to take place with over 2,000 road authorities, and the making of arrangements with them to bring their roads up to a proper condition. If my right hon. Friend says that my scheme provides no co-ordination between the railways and the roads, I am prepared to admit that he is perfectly correct. The proper way to co-ordinate is not to appoint a railway Minister to co-ordinate the roads and the railways. The proper co-ordination is for the Cabinet itself to co-ordinate the work, and to make perfectly distinct departments of railways and roads. I submit that to roads even more than to railways—because it is utterly impossible during the next few years to build any new railways, to reconstruct our railways, or to build any number of light railways—we must look in facing the problems of reconstruction, such as the problem of housing, the problem of developing agriculture, and the problem of public health. All these depend upon the development of the roads rather than upon the development of railways.

What we want is rapid, effective motor transport in order to enable the small cultivator to get his produce right from his farm to the market place, and not have to bring it from the farm to the station, tranship it there, and then tranship it at the other end in order to get it to the market. As the whole House knows, this War has been a war of motor traffic. The motor services, not merely of Great Britain but of the other countries in the War, have enabled the War to be carried on on all sides. We know now far more than we did five years ago about the development of motor traffic. Perhaps there are new Members of this House who do not know me, and I wish to state that I have no money involved in any sense in the motor question, though I frequently speak on motor matters in the House. I am interested in such matters, but not financially. Old Members know that, and new Members will forgive me in making this point clear, because I shall have to speak several times on this Bill. The motor trade of this country is to-day in a position to cope with the roads as soon as the roads are developed and made fit for heavy motor traffic upon them. I want the Home Secretary to realise that there will be a very determined and very definite opposition to this portion of his Bill, and I would suggest that just as the Secretary for Scotland is prepared to deal with one portion of the Health Bill and that Scotland is to have a separate Bill, I would advise the Home Secretary to pluck out from his Bill the part relating to roads, and let us have a separate Road Ministry. Above all, do not let him attempt to rush this Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for the Scotland Division of Liverpool has asked that there should be ample time before the Second Heading. This is not a Reconstruction Bill in the strict sense of the word like the Housing Bill, which is an important Bill that ought to be got upstairs to Grand Committee as soon as possible. This Bill requires consultation and consideration on the part of the great industries concerned, and it must receive the consideration of the 2,000 local authorities who are administering the roads. It would be perfectly unfair to force the Second Reading until those great industries and local authorities have had an opportunity to consider the terms of the Bill.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. SHORTT, Sir Albert Stanley, Major Baird, and the Attorney-General.

MINISTRY OF WAYS AND COMMUNICATIONS BILL,—"to establish a Ministry of Ways and Communications; and for purposes connected therewith," presented accordingly, and read the first time; to be read a second time To-morrow, and to be printed. [Bill 11.]