HC Deb 01 July 1919 vol 117 cc881-9

Notwithstanding anything contained in this Act the rights of a consignor or consignee of goods or minerals, any trader or class of traders, or any port or harbour authority or dock company to complain to the Railway and Canal Commission under the Railway and Canal Traffic Acts in respect of the provision of reasonable facilities, undue preference, or undue disadvantage, or allowances, or rebates in relation to the provision of station accommodation or terminal services shall not be deemed to be affected, and it shall be no answer to any such complaint that' the railway company in respect of which the complaint is made was acting under the directions of the Minister.—[Mr. JoynsonHicks.]

Brought up, and read the first time.


I beg to move, That the Clause be read a second time. I really do not see why my right hon. Friend should not accept it. It will do no harm to my hon. Friends above the Gangway, and I think it must be admitted that it is quite a non-contentious Clause. Under the provisions of the Bill the Minister takes over from the company the responsibilities and powers of railway companies, and in regard to charges and facilities the railways are entirely under his control. Before this Bill was passed there were various Acts of Parliament passed at the instance of the trading community in order to protect the rights of that community against oppression by the railway companies, and preventing the companies giving undue preference to any particular port or trader, or undue disadvantage by giving allowances and rebates to one trader against another. We have heard in Debates in this House and in the public Press of cases in which railways have from time to time enabled traffic in goods coming from abroad to reach our great centres of the population more cheaply than goods coming from parts of this country. For instance, fruit from the Channel Islands to the Midlands has been carried more cheaply than fruit from Kent. These questions have lately been dealt with by the Railway and Canal Commission which was set up in order to provide some tribunal to which the public or any- body interested in railway matters could appeal against arbitrary or unfair action on the part of companies. No doubt the work of that Commission has been exceedingly beneficial to the trade of the country. The Mansion House Association with regard to railway rates was formed for the purpose of keeping a check on the railway companies by appeal, if necessary, to the Railway and Canal Commission. That association is still in existence. It has done very good work. Although the Minister is now responsible. the object of my Clause is to secure that it shall be no answer to any complaint for the railway company to say that it is acting under the direction of the Ministry. It is sought to provide that if complaint is made to the Railway Commission, it shall be no answer to say, "We are acting under the direction of this Minister under the special provisions of the Ways and Communications Act of 1919, and, therefore, we cannot help ourselves. Whether it is a case of undue preference or unfair advantage, we have no option, because we have been told to make the charge, and therefore we cannot be taken before the Railway Commission." There are one or two points in connection with this Clause that I would like to make quite clear. Take the question of undue preference or undue disadvantage, which can be proved quite easily. Suppose the railway company charges 20s.per ton to carry goods from Hull to London, and it charged either a lesser or a higher rate to carry the same class of goods from Immingham to London. That, of course, would be perfectly unfair to the traders who are in the habit of using Immingham port. Let me put even an easier case. Bananas mostly come to Bristol. Supposing for some reason the Minister thought it desirable to transfer the traffic from Bristol to Southampton. It would be quite simple to say to the railway company, "You shall charge 20s. a ton for carrying bananas from Southampton to London, but the Great Western Railway shall charge £5 a ton for carrying them from Bristol to London." That would kill the banana trade at Bristol and move it to Southampton. It may or may not be desirable, but it would certainly be unfair to the people who have been in the habit of carrying on the importation of bananas at Bristol. Anything could be done by altering the rates for carrying produce. It is quite right that some power should be reserved to someone, and I can think of no better body than the Railway Commissioners to whom the traders of a port may go and say, "The action of the railway companies under the Orders of the Ministry is going to ruin the trade." Then there is the question of reasonable facilities. These arise under the Railway and Canal Traffic Act, 1884, Section 2 and Section 25 of the Railway and Canal Act, 1888. For instance, a railway company may refuse to carry a certain class of goods at all. At present the person who wants the goods carried can go to the Railway Commissioners and insist upon the company giving him reasonable facilities. The question of fruit from Kent occurs to anyone at once. The railway company may say, "We do not like this traffic, it is not very paying to us, and we are not going to carry it any longer." Under the present law the fruit grower can go to the Commission and say, "I must have reasonable facilities for carrying my fruit." I want that right to be preserved

Then there is the question of station accommodation and terminal services. The trader may have a private siding, and he is entitled, if he does not get proper terminal facilities and arrangements for running his train in and out of the siding, to go to the Railway Commissioners and say, "I must have proper railway facilities into my siding." I want that right reserved, too. These are the main rights which are now preserved to traders. The right hon. Gentleman will probably say, as he has said to so many of my Amendments, that it would knock the bottom out of the Bill. That was rather his common from of commencing any objections to my Amendments. But, after all, he came in the course of Debate to be more reasonable When I moved a Clause in regard to undue preference, he would not have it, for a moment, and he made a furious speech, and said that it: undue preference rates were retained the whole bottom would be knocked out of the Bill. However, he came to realise that I was not such a terrible person as he thought, and honest and fair proposals, suitable both to the railway companies, to the Ministry, and also to the trading community, were established with regard to undue preference. I want something of the same kind in regard to these other points, because undue preference has come to have a rather technical meaning. I am afraid it has not been altered by the provisions of the Bill. But there are other matters besides undue preference that ought to be preserved in some way or another, and 1 think something should be done. I am not wedded to the actual words of the Amendment. I think the right hon. Gentleman could propose a certain form of words which would preserve to the trading community the rights which they have now. We have accepted the Bill, and I am quite prepared now to do all I can to help the Minister in making it of advantage to the country. After all, we are a trading country, and upon the success or otherwise of the trade of the country depends the well-being of the country and of the great mass of labour which is engaged in trade. I am asking for nothing new. I want the right hon. Gentleman merely to preserve to the trading community the rights which the wisdom of Parliament has already given them.


I beg to second the Motion.

I do so just to show that there is no ill-feeling and to heap coals of fire on the hon. Member's head. I represent a peculiarly industrial constituency, having vital staple industries, such as chemicals and glass. For more than half a century it has enjoyed a preference rate much lower than the ordinary rate. 1 believe this Amendment safeguards those rights and still retains the preference rates for this industry, no matter how high the rates may go in other directions. It would be ruinous to the constituency I represent if some safeguard was not provided to retain the preference rates they have at present.


I assure the hon. Member that the Amendment will not touch the particular case of his constituents. If it has any effect at all, it will take away the undue preference they enjoy. But it will not touch them at all. Their preference rests upon a statutory contract, if I remember rightly, and as long as it exists they will have the advantage of it. If the Bill takes it away, they lose it, and this Amendment will not preserve it.


It is not an Act of Parliament at all.


Then it is all the more easy to take it away, and this Amendment will not preserve it in the slightest. The Amendment is really much too wide as it is drawn. Its result will be not merely to prevent unfairness as between traders, but to enable any trader who chose to say "You have taken away a facility, or have not given me some allowance that I ought to have" to hold up the Ministry by taking it before the Railway and Canal Commission. It is not an expeditious procedure before that Commission. I do not say it is worse than other Courts, but a case takes some time to get up, and it can always be dragged out and can hold up the Ministry to a very great extent. This is chiefly aimed at what is done under Clause 3. The hon. Member himself has apparently appreciated that any safeguards of this kind would be better discussed on Clause 3 than on the new-Clause. If it is put in as a new Clause it is permanent, but if it is discussed in Clause 3 then it is a two years' arrangement, and if there is any chance of unfairness to traders it can be discussed on Clause 3 and we can discuss what are the proper safeguards. My hon. Friend no-doubt appreciates that, because if hon. Members will look on the Amendment Paper they will see an Amendment to line 42 on page 5 of the Bill, and will find this identical Amendment put clown for discussion under Clause 3. That is the proper place to discuss it. It is not a matter for a new Clause at all. If there is anything in Clause 3 which is going to affect unfairly any individual, whether he is a trader or whatever he may be, we want if possible to avoid that, but we do not want by a new Clause to put powers into the hands of obstructionists which would be used to the immense detriment of the usefulness of this Bill. The new Clause as drawn goes far beyond the prevention of unfairness, and therefore I ask the House not to accept it


The Home Secretary has given a statement which is contradictory. He said that this did not affect the interests referred to and later on he said that those interests had advantages which could be taken away from them by the Minister if this Bill proceeds, and they have no appeal unless they could appeal to the Railway and Canal Commission under this scheme.


I am glad the Minister agrees that there is something in the new Clause. It does not matter to me whether it is dealt with now or later on under Clause 3. The London Chamber of Commerce has passed a resolution, which I received this morning, which state: This chamber regards the retention of the right to complain to the Railway and Canal Commission as of the utmost importance as a safeguard to the interests of traders and the public. This matter is of considerable importance, and so long as the Home Secretary will deal with it in another place, I do not want to press him now, but I want to support the hon. Member for Twickenham in assuring the Government that this is a point which is viewed with considerable anxiety by chambers of commerce and the trading community generally.


I should like to associate myself with what has been said, and to ask for more explicit statements from the right hon. Gentleman than the House has so far received. It is immaterial whether the question is discussed here or in relation to Clause 3, but if when we reach Clause 3 we are to receive only the same sort of answer as has been given in the discussion now, we have made no progress. I did not gather from the terms of opposition levelled against this Amendment that when we reach another page of the Amendment Paper the attitude of the Home Secretary will be in any way altered. The terms of the Amendment later on are exactly the terms we are now considering. Therefore, I would like to know whether it is intended that when we reach Clause 3 the attitude of the Government will be altered in relation to this proposal. I look upon the proposal as distinctly in the public interest. It is true that it will expose the head of the Department, and occasionally the Government in this House, to the irritation which Ministers feel when criticism is levelled against them, or whenever occasion is taken by somebody who proposes to interfere with what a State Department is doing. But what are heads of Departments for but to meet and deal with criticism levelled against them, either in this House or out of it? I think the probability of traders taking upon themselves to invoke proceedings against the Minister is not completely answered by the reply that any sort of odd trader could frivolously take action against the Ministry. It has been admitted that it is not only a long proceeding, but a costly proceeding, because it is long, and even in these days traders have not so large a margin of money as to wish foolishly and frivolously to throw it away on proceedings which have no real purpose. The right hon. Gentleman said that the terms of this Amendment were too wide to obtain the object in view. Surely he must have forgotten what was said by my hon. Friend who moved the Amendment, when he pointed out that he did not claim perfect draftsmanship, and indicated his willingness to accept any set of words more skilfully framed to meet the object in view. As the Government and those who are behind this Amendment are agreed as to the object in view, I think some assurance ought to be given that language will be found to reach that agreement, and that we ought not to be left with the gloomy prospect which has been foreshadowed when we reach Clause 3. Accordingly I invite the right hon. Gentleman to make a more explicit statement as to whether there is any hope of the House having its wishes met in regard to the intentions of this particular Amendment.


I wish to join in that invitation. The right hon. Gentleman's remarks did not go far enough. He said that this Amendment went too far. I expected to hear afterwards that he would indicate how far he himself was prepared to go. It does seem to me, either on this Amendment modified and altered, or at some later stage, we ought to have an assurance from the Government that they will do their best to meet the real gist of the Amendment now before the House.


Naturally the Government will always be very anxious to do all they can to meet the wishes of the House, but I cannot pledge myself to meet what is meant by this Amendment, because it is so wide, but it is very difficult to know what it is aiming at. My hon. and learned Friend has said that in the Committee upstairs I changed my views, and that apparently he was not so wicked as I thought he was. I have not changed my views. I am just as suspicious of him now as I was before.


I was going to say that perhaps you never thought I was wicked.


That was the last thing I was going to say. At the same time 1 think I made it clear that if it is necessary to safeguard any individual who may be unfairly treated under this Bill, we are very anxious to do it, and we have in Clause 3 repeated word for word this Amendment. I think the hon. Member must appreciate that that is the proper place to discuss it. There we have pre- served all claims in regard to undue preference. If there are any other matters which ought to be preserved in Clause 3 for the protection of the public, we shall be pleased to introduce them, but I cannot promise anything so wide as that I will endeavour to find words to carry out the intentions of an Amendment whose intentions I do not know. Any proposal that is put forward for the protection of the trader or any other member of the community will receive most careful consideration. We have already introduced in Clause 3 words protecting traders in the matter of undue preference, and if hon. Members can suggest any other matter which requires protection we will give it careful and sympathetic consideration.


After what has been said I am very anxious that this Clause should not be lost in some form or another. The reason why I put it down as a Clause and as an Amendment was that I was not sure which would be the right place. As it turned out Mr. Speaker thought that this was the right place. I think the general sense of the House is that something ought to be preserved for the trading community. In these circumstances I think it is better to withdraw the Clause now, and to bring it up in some similar form of words on Clause 3, and in the meantime perhaps my right hon. Friend would be willing to consult with me or with his own advisers, who might be able to tell him that something of the kind is essential. I might even suggest that the Rates Committee which we established upstairs for another purpose might be used by traders with a right of appeal. However, my right hon. Friend (Mr. Shortt) has not given us as much hope as I thought he would give. But if my right hon. Friend the Member for Miles Platting (Mr. Clynes) thinks that this would be a wise course I certainly feel myself that a night's reflection would do the Home Secretary good and will withdraw the Clause now so that it may be raised in another form.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.