§ The PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY to the MINISTRY of TRANSPORT (Mr. Neal)
I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
The Bill is to give power to certain public utility authorities, namely, the authorities in charge of harbours and docks and piers, to continue increased charges upon their statutory maxima for a period extending to 15th February, 1925. The classes of public undertakings concerned may be subdivided into three, and different methods of legislative action are in force at this moment with reference to two of them. First, there are the undertakings, set up under statutory authority, whereby those undertakings are vested in and administered by gentlemen who receive no remuneration, in most cases, but give their time and services to the interests of the localities and the industries which are served by those particular undertakings. The second class are the harbours, docks and piers owned by the railway companies. There are a few minor and unimportant undertakings vested in companies, which exist for private profit, with control of their dividend-earning account.
As to undertakings other than railway-owned undertakings, the position is that by an Act which was passed in the year 1920' the Minister of Transport was authorised to modify the statutory provisions for such period, and under such conditions as he might determine up to a period which ends on 15th February next; and the way in which the charges were to be arrived as was as follows: Where they were non-profit-earning undertakings the charges were to be fixed at a sum estimated to produce financial stability. As to profit-earning concerns, they were to secure, with due economy and careful management, a reasonable return on capital. The Statute provided for the making by the Minister of interim Orders which would have validity for only six months, and in every case, whether there was an interim Order or not, before the Minister exercised his 1954 power he was to refer the matter to the Rates Advisory Committee, which was specially set up under Section 21 of the Ministry of Transport Act. That Committee consists, not only of the ordinary permanent members of the committee, but had two added members, one representing trade, and one, representing the Chamber of Shipping. Any Order that has been made under that Statute by its terms expires on 23rd February next, or such earlier date as may be fixed in the meantime. That is an important matter to be noted by hon. Members, because no Order which has been made will be continued under the provisions of the present Bill. In every case it will be necessary for the undertaker, at present having orders operative under the sanction of the Minister, to come again to the Minister before 15th February next for the purpose of getting new orders, and in each case there will be a new reference to the Advisory Committee.
Under the Statute, 39 Orders have been made and the whole of them will expire by 5th February next. The other class of undertakings are those which are owned by the railway companies, and one, an extremely important one, the undertaking of the Port of London Authority. None of these undertakings has availed itself of the provisions of the 1920 Act. They found it unnecessary to do so, inasmuch as they had been taken possession of by the Minister under the powers of the Ministry of Transport. Act and charges which he had directed them to make during control remain operative until the date mentioned, namely, 15th February, 1923. They remain operative in the sense that they change from being obligatory charges during control to optional charges when control ceases. There are some 47 dock and harbour undertakings which come within this second class, making, with the 39 I have mentioned, 86 undertakings in respect of which it hill be necessary, or would have been necessary but for this Bill, for each undertaker to, come to Parliament in the present Session with a private Bill asking for an increase, of his statutory charges.
Under these circumstances, the Government was approached in the autumn of last year by all classes of harbour and dock authorities, who pointed out that it would be quite impossible for them to make ends meet with pre-War charging powers only. They put this problem to 1955 the Government as to whether or not they were to be compelled to come to Parliament with this great mass of private Bill legislation at great public expense—most of them are public trusts—flooding Parliament with legislation and producing a block. In the circumstances, the 'Government undertook to introduce a Measure which should extend the period for 12 months. The effect of limiting it for 12 months would he that almost immediately, that is to say, in the autumn of this year, these undertakings would again have to face the problem of private Bill legislation next Session. For that reason, and for another reason which I will mention later, the Government invite the House to accept an extended date, namely, two years from February next, which would carry the authorities up to February, 1925. The railway companies and the Port of London Authority were in a different position. As to the railway companies, unless legislation becomes effective this Session, they would revert in February next to their pre-War charging powers.
Have the railway companies not referred to the Rates Advisory Committee in respect to the charges at docks?
§ Mr. NEAL
No. I am advised that their powers of charging would revert, as from February next, to their pre-War maxima, and they would have no power of applying to the Government or the Bates Advisory Committee or anyone to increase those charges. Therefore, the railway companies this autumn would have to consider, just in the same way as the other undertakers would have to consider, the question of coming to Parliament next Session. In other words, we should only be postponing by 12 months the difficulties which we were called upon to face last autumn. Hon. Members will notice that Clause 1 of the Bill deals specially with railway companies and it may save time if I explain how that comes about. The Statute of 1920 dealing with profit-earning concerns, provided that charges were to be fixed in such a way as would give a reasonable return upon capital. In the case of railway undertakings their capital is not so divided as to show how much they have invested in their docks and harbours, and it becomes impossible to assess what amount of capital should be 1956 taken for this purpose. We should therefore be called upon to fix charges upon what is in fact an unknown and unascertainable figure.
§ Mr. NEAL
No, indeed they do do not, and that is the trouble. As my right hon. Friend has put the question I trust he will accept my answer. It is the result of careful inquiry. There are no statistics available which would show with anything approaching precision, what capital is invested by the railway companies in these particular branches of their undertakings. In these circumstances they did not in the past avail themselves of the 1920 Statute, and great difficulty would arise, not for themselves so much as for the Rates Advisory Committee and the Ministry, in saying what was the capital, in respect of which they were to be allowed a reasonable return on these undertakings. The plan which we propose to adopt I now submit to the House. It may well be that in Committee other plans will be suggested which one might consider as preferable to the plans contained in the Bill. The plan in the Bill is to take the known capital, in respect of a similar undertaking which is a self-contained undertaking, and adopt that as a guide to the Rates Advisory Committee in estimating the revenue which a particular dock or harbour ought to produce. The plan has another advantage. Many times we have had complaints both in this House and outside that those docks and harbours which exist under the management of private individuals, not for the purpose of earning profit, have been starved and rendered incapable of paying their way by the competition of the railway docks—the railways not minding whether they made a loss upon the docks or not. The plan in the Bill does to some extent ensure that there shall be no competition to the detriment of the non-profit earnings undertakings.
§ Mr. NEAL
That is dealt with in the Railways Act, with which my hon. and gallant Friend was familiar, when we were discussing it in detail in Committee. It may have escaped his memory at the moment, but there is a Section of the Railways Act dealing with that question. The point I am making is, how we are to arrive at the sort of charge which the railway company ought to make for these services, because if they carry on their docks at a loss, they merely carry over that loss to the other users of the railway and the public ultimately have to pay. What we desire to secure is, that the charges made shall be fair and reasonable. May I say why we have selected the two years' extension, to February, 1925? Hon. Members will recall that the process of the grouping of the railways is taking place, and that at the end of the present year the schemes of the four big undertakings will be completed. We have thought it right again, with the object of preventing a waste of money and an expenditure of time upon Private Bill legislation, to fix a period which will enable the companies to have become groups and, therefore, reduce railway Private Bill legislation, as to docks and harbour charges, to four Bills instead of something over 40 Bills. I hope that reason will commend itself to the judgment of the House. No one realises more fully than I do the extreme necessity of cutting down all items of cost, which have to be taken into account as factors in trade, and this scheme provides a means of doing so. I have already intimated that the non-profit earning concerns will have to come before the Rates Advisory Committee. The Committee is bound to give public notice to chambers of commerce, chambers of shipping, representative bodies of traders, and local authorities, and these will all be heard at practically a negligible expense, because the formalities are almost nil. They can be heard before the Rates Advisory Committee and make their case to that Committee for a reduction of the charges. They will get an opportunity for the discussion of the effect of the reduction in wages. Hon. Members will recall that one of the main factors in the high dock charges to-day arises from the wages that were given to the dock 1958 labourers under the award of the Committee of Commission presided over by Lord Shaw.
§ Mr. NEAL
They were 16s. and they are now 12s. That is a factor to be taken into, consideration. All these facts will be taken into account by the Committee in considering what charges are necessary, in order that these undertakings which are not working for profit, which are in the hands of private gentlemen who are giving their services, may be enabled to keep themselves in a solvent position. There is ample opportunity for a revision of the charges in respect of docks, ports and harbours. As to the railways, and as to the Port of London Authority, if this Bill passes in its present form or without substantial amendment, they would come under the power of revision as from the i5th of February next.
§ Colonel WEDGWOOD
Will this power of revision only be exercised when the traders make complaints, or will the Government at stated intervals revise the terms in order to see whether a better bargain may not be made?
§ Mr. NEAL
There is a power of initiation in the Minister. He may of his own motion put the matter before the Advisory Committee and modify the charges as he may be advised. In addition to that there is constantly going on, in the Ministry, an examination of the accounts of the companies and the result of representations which are made from time to time on the examination of the accounts has been, in the past, that the undertakers have voluntarily reduced the charges which they were entitled to make. Since I came into the House to-day I have had handed to me information that the railway companies themselves propose to reduce the tonnage rates on vessels on the North-East coast, the Humber ports and the South Wales and Bristol Channel ports, from the increase which was authorised of 150 per cent. on their actual charges to 100 per cent. That is a concession which the railway companies are making voluntarily and in connection with the ports of Fleetwood, Garston, Heysham and Widnes, they are reducing them by 25 per cent. of the increased charge.
§ Mr. A. SHAW
Do I understand the hon. Gentleman to say 25 per cent. of the increased charges? Is it not 10 per cent. of the increased charges?
§ Sir G. COLLINS
Is it possible to ascertain the net revenue of these undertakings in 1913 and the total net revenue last year? Are not these figures available?
§ Mr. NEAL
No; I ought to have said that the reduction I have mentioned on the North-East coast did not apply in the case of vessels taking bunker coal only, for which the rate will remain as at present. I hope I have made it plain to the House that at the present moment no one has any control of the railway charges for docks and harbours, and no one will have any control up to February next.
§ Sir D. MACLEAN
The hon. Gentleman has asked that the Bill should receive careful consideration. I assure him that will undoubtedly be the case. I hope it will receive intensive consideration in Committee upstairs, because it is a matter 1960 of real importance not to any particular section of the community, but to the whole community which depénds so much upon its trade and its ports. I had hoped that when some such Bill as this was introduced, it would have been introduced by a Minister—and I should have been very glad if that Minister had been my hon. Friend—representing the Board of Trade. It is now over six months since Sir Eric Geddes recommended that there was no justification for retaining a separate Ministry of Transport especially having regard to the financial stringency.
§ Sir D. MACLEAN
It is out of order to debate the continuance of this Ministry now, and I merely make it a general observation before passing on to other points, but I will finish the quotation I was making. Sir Eric Geddes proposed to take part in the discussion as to the best method of distributing the Ministry's work among the existing Departments of the Government, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer replied, on the 21st November last year:I entirely agree with the course he proposes to take in connection with the deliberations of the Committee in regard to the Ministry of Transport.Still the Ministry is in existence, and we have had the pleasure of my hon. Friend introducing this Bill, but apart from that there is no doubt that the time is long overdue for this Ministry to be abolished and its duties distributed amongst other Government Departments. As to the Bill itself, I lay down this general proposition, with which I am certain I shall have hearty agreement in all parts of the House. Measures of this kind are of real daily importance, not to lawyers or to railway experts alone, but to commercial men and their heads of Departments, and Bills of this kind ought to be framed as far as possible in such a way that they can be construed with comparative ease and without any reference to other Acts of Parliament. Let hon. Members look at this Bill as a complete example of the disadvantages of legislation by reference. It starts off by reference to the principal Act. of 1920; then at the end of that Clause—Clause 1—it makes a reference again, to Section 3 of the Ministry of Transport, Act, 1919, a 1961 very long and a very complicated Section, as I happen to know; then, in the next Clause, it makes another reference, to the Railways Act, 1921. Every one of these references is necessary to anything like an intelligible understanding of what this Measure is, so that hon. Members may have noticed that since I came in I have been surrounding myself with the various Statutes concerned, for the purpose of understanding this Debate. What will happen in a commercial office when this Bill is on the Statute Book? The head of the department who is supposed to have charge of this particular matter, before he can move one step in the matter, will have to take up these three different Acts of Parliament, passed in three separate years, and then settle himself down to an elaborate study of these Acts and their complicated Sections before he can make his way through the jungle even of this minor Statute, which I suppose will find its way also on to the Statute Book. I see no reason at all—there is nothing in the expense—why this Bill should not have been elaborated to four or five Clauses and made to carry on the face of it a reasonably clear statement of what its objects are.
The Bill is required, as my hon. Friend tells us, because, if it is not granted by the House, there will in November of this year be a host of applications from numerous companies for separate Bills for powers to continue the very high charging powers which they at present possess. Of course, that is rather a terrifying prospect for the companies concerned, although it would be a happy outlook for the legal profession and that host of ancillary bodies who accompany them in the Committee rooms here, but what we have to do is to be very careful that in avoiding that we do not give too large an extension. I hope the Committee upstairs will take the earliest opportunity of indicating to the Minister in charge that it will not give an extension of time till 1925, but that the utmost it is prepared to concede is till 1924—another 12 months. What is the position of trade at the present moment? It is one of deep depression, with some signs of improvement—I cannot put it any higher than that—and at the same time we have to face the fact that the competition between ourselves and other ports of discharge is very keen and very severe. It therefore follows that nothing should be lacking on our part to 1962 cut down to the lowest possible minimum the charges on our railways and at our ports. Let me give one instance by way of illustration. There is a vessel of which I have knowledge which discharged at the Port of London within this year 6,800 tons of her cargo at a cost of 7s. 4½d. per ton. The remainder of her cargo, 4,000 tons, was discharged in Hamburg, and she discharged those remaining 4,000 tons there at a cost of 1s. 0½d. per ton. Hamburg always has been a cheaper port than any port in this country, but—
§ Sir D. MACLEAN
Whatever difference there may be, it does not cover that, and, indeed, I think that was taken into account.
§ Sir W. RAEBURN
I had a vessel there myself lately, and this rate was only arrived at when the mark was at 750. It is now 1,250, and so the 1s. 0½d. referred to would be down to not much over 6d.
§ Sir D. MACLEAN
I will allow my hon. Friend, for the sake of our common nationality, the 6d. That will not really account for the difference at all, but there is a very severe competition set up, and, of course, we cannot cope with it. We cannot hope to have anything like parity of charge at the docks of the Port of London, or Cardiff, or Hull, as compared with what it is at Hamburg to-day, but my point is this. It is of the very greatest importance that these charges should come down to their lowest possible minimum at the earliest possible moment, if we are going to retain our home and our world trade. The position up till quite recently at some of our ports, of which I have particulars here, may be of some interest to the House. Taking a comparison with the pre-War rates in the South Wades ports—Cardiff, Newport, Port Talbot, and Swansea—that was until a little while ago 150 per cent., and that has been reduced to 125 per cent. I could say a word or two about the further decrease to which my hon. Friend has just referred; I understand it has come down to 100 per cent. as and from 1st June. At the Hull, Grimsby and Immingham ports, 150 per cent.; Garston and Fleetwood, 150 per cent.; Southampton Docks, 100 per cent.; Middlesbrough and Sunderland, 150 per 1963 cent. With trade at so low an ebb as it is at present and the charges as high as these, the wonder is that on the whole the trade has managed to survive at all. That is the real marvel to those of us who are acquainted with the business carried on at our great sea ports. Let us compare those charges, however, with the general position of other factors in business. Wholesale prices have shown a, very great fall. Shipping freights are down. I speak without any knowledge that is right up-to-date, but I do not suppose I am very far out when I say that shipping freights are very nearly down to the pre-War level now, and in some cases I have known they have been under it, but speaking generally they are down to pre-War level.
§ Sir D. MACLEAN
My hon. Friend says "Not quite," but I have known cases where ships have gone out below the pre-War level, and are, indeed, trading at a loss in order to keep going. Retail prices, of course, are very largely down also—38 per cent. But the railway charges—and I cannot elaborate that now, although we are dealing with railway-owned docks —have shown little or no response to the public demand for a lowering of those rates and charges. Fortunately, my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary was able to make an announcement of a further decrease. Was he referring to the letter of the 23rd May from the Secretary to the Railway Clearing House?
§ 5.0 P.M.
§ Sir D. MACLEAN
I have had it put in my hands also, and it is satisfactory to note that the tonnage rates on vessels —that is, dock and harbour dues on ships, excluding the dock rent—as far as the South Wales and Bristol Channel ports, the North-East Coast, and the Humber ports are concerned, are down by another 50 per cent.; that is, they are down to 100 per cent. The House will note, after the intervention of the hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. A. Shaw), that that is a reduction of the increase, but not of the total charge, so that the reduction of the total pre-War charge is round about 20 per cent. It is not a reduction really of 50 per cent. The actual reduction of the total pre-War charge, plus the post-War charges, does not amount to more 1964 than 20 per cent. There is one other concession which has been given, and that is the way in which they reckon fractions of a penny. They are prepared to give the fraction downwards to the trader or shipowner, rather than upwards as against him, as they have been doing. That represents a favourable attitude on the part of the railways owning these docks, but I would draw the attention of the House that this reduction comes after this Bill has been before the House for some weeks, and the persistent determination of Members in different parts of the House to have this subject discussed. I hope and believe that the railways owning docks, and the railways generally, will take note of this, that this House, or, at any rate, a very considerable portion of it, is determined to seize every opportunity of bringing before the public the powers of the railway companies, and the immense and overwhelming necessity for a reduction of railway and of dock and port charges. I hope and believe that the able and wise men who are at the head of these great national undertakings will do their best to meet this House and the great trading communities, in seeing that that necessity is met as speedily as possible, because nothing could be worse—and I speak with some experience of this House—for railway companies or dock companies than for this House to get into its head that they are not playing the game by the public. Their Bills—very necessary Bills —have been stopped at great expense to themselves, and at some loss to the public. I do not want that to happen again.
There is a new start being made under the Railways Act, and these great concerns are with very great expedition, considering all the difficulties of the case, making their amalgamations, framing their fresh arrangements, and—as I hope and believe, with a proper amount of competition, because that is a most useful thing to keep alive—they are settling down under the new conditions to give as good a service to the public as they can. I say this to them. Let them keep Parliament sympathetic towards them. Do not let the idea get abroad that they will only lower their rates and meet the public when they are compelled to do so. This Bill has in it some points.
1965 which require the most careful investigation by the Committee upstairs. Let all those concerned know that the House is going to discharge its duty fully to the railway companies and the public by the most careful investigation of every Measure of this kind which is brought forward. Let me, by way of illustration, draw the attention of the House for one moment to the first Clause. It is really very difficult for those who have not, in some form, expert knowledge, to find out what the real meaning of it is. It provides that for the railway companies owning docks, proviso (b) of Sub-section (1) of Section 1 of the Act of 1920 shall not apply to these concerns with which we are now dealing. I must, at the risk of wearying the House, go over again some of the ground which my hon. Friend has covered. What is that proviso? Just imagine the departmental head of some business house trying to construe this Bill. He will pick up the Act of 1920, and look at proviso (b) of Sub-section (1) of Section 1, and find that this is what Parliament said by way of protection of the public:No such modification shall be authorised"—That really means no increase. That is what it amounts to in practice. The word "modification" there means, for the purposes of our consideration, no increase,which is more than sufficient to provide, with due care and management, for interest on loan capital and for a reasonable return on share capital, regard being had to the pre-War financial condition of the undertaking and its prospective development.That is, Parliament said that they were to have increase of charges if necessary. But by what standard are you going to judge it? They are to take the standard of the pre-War position, and see that they have a reasonable return on the capital invested, and the interest on loan capital as well. We want very careful consideration to see that that safeguard is not removed, and something put in its place that does not protect the public as well. The proposal of the Government is to refer my unhappy friend, the departmental manager again, not to this Bill, but to Section 3 of the Ministry of Transport Act, 1919. Section 3 of that Act is a little Act of Parliament in itself. He then has to work out for himself what Section 3 means, and I confess I do not know myself exactly what it means; I 1966 have really not had time to look into it. You have to go through the whole of that very carefully to find out what the Government proposal really is. That is a job for the Committee, and it is a very difficult job for the ordinary Member of Parliament. You want an expert to study these things.
Again I come back to my point. It is not a fair way of dealing with the public in general and the trading public in particular. They ought to know, on the face of the change of law proposed in this most important matter, what the Government really mean, instead of being referred to a Statute which is just as complicated and difficult to construe as any railway statute, and we know what that is. I hope the Committee upstairs will take into very careful consideration that most important point. It is really on occasions like this, when there are present h few Members who take a special interest in the subject, that wide, sweeping changes in the law take place of vital importance, not to special classes in the country, but to the whole community. If our shipping trade goes, or is unduly hampered, the whole country suffers, and I hope that the consideration which the Committee upstairs will give to this Bill will be of such a nature that it will safeguard the public, will not discourage the railway companies, and, at the same time, see that any fresh change in legislation is accompanied by every method of developing trade and protecting the public that this House can possibly afford.
§ Mr. ALEXANDER SHAW
I beg to move to leave out the word "now." and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day six months."
I move this Amendment for two reasons. The first is that this Bill offers no prospect whatever of that which trade in this country most requires at the moment, namely, a substantial reduction of dock and port charges. The second reason is that, in spite of the excellence of my hon. Friend as a Minister, his Ministry of Transport is really not the proper body to deal with this subject, at all. I know how anxious the House is to give consideration just now to the factors which are seriously impeding industry, and I wish that I could convince the House, as myself am convinced, that one of the most serious factors in 1967 keeping back our trade at this moment is the terrible weight of these exorbitant dock and harbour dues. May I trouble the House with one or two figures? My right hon. Friend opposite has put them from one point of view, and I would like to put them from another. If you take the figure of the Board of Trade index of wholesale prices to-day, you find that the high peak of wholesale figures in this country was in May, 1920. Taking that figure at 100, wholesale prices have fallen to-day to 49. It is true that retail prices are lagging behind, as they always do for weeks or months, but they, too, have fallen, and the cost of living accordingly.
What about harbour and dock charges? These, even with the falls promised to be brought into operation on the 1st of June, will only have fallen from 100 to 80. [An HON. MEMBER "Harbour charges."] Harbour charges will have fallen from 100 to 80, as against general wholesale prices from 100 to 49. As my right hon. Friend opposite has stated, shipping freights, on the whole, are just about pre-War, and I think my hon. Friend will bear me out when I say it is no over-statement, but it is well within the bounds of truth, that the great majority of the round voyages made by British ships to-day show a loss, and sometimes a severe loss. Shipping freights have fallen by about 60 per cent. and in some cases even lower. I might give one concrete example. The pre-War liner rate for grain from New York to the United Kingdom was 3s. 6d. in 1914 and is now 2s. Why should dock and harbour rates lag so far behind? I was very much surprised to hear my hon. Friend on the Treasury Bench make the extraordinary suggestion that the railway-owned undertakings had been undercutting other docks. He did not say it in words, but he gave me the impression, and I believe he gave the House the impression, that their charges had been more favourable to traders and to shippers than the charges of the non-railway controlled undertakings. [An HON. MEMBER: "Pre-War."] Ah, pre-War; that is a very important qualification, because if you take the present position—and I have here in my hand a document which shows exactly what is that present position—you will find that railway undertakings are amongst the worst sinners upon the whole. The charges they make are very considerably 1968 in excess of the charges made by statutory undertakings. Railway undertakings have their own difficulties. I admit that; and I do not come here in any spirit of hostility to them, or say that these undertakings, whether they be railway-owned or owned by statutory bodies should not have fair play. But I do wish to point out to the House that some of these are still 150 per cent. above pre-War level in their charges, and that even in the case of the most extreme reductions which have been—not made, it is true, but, promised—the reductions are only some 20 per cent. of the total charges which have been in operation since the 1920 high water mark.
A concrete case was given by my right hon. Friend opposite. May I give two other cases of vessels within my own personal knowledge'? If any hon. Member would like to go into the matter, I have brought here the actual accounts, the actual bills rendered, and so on. The first was a vessel of 5,190 tons, loaded at Middlesbrough. It took in 1,465 tons, and the total charges were £1,034 9s. 2d. If that vessel had loaded at Antwerp the charges would have totalled only £419 3s. 4d. If she had loaded at Hamburg the charges would have totalled only £200 10s. 1d. It has been suggested that Hamburg is an unfair comparison. So I will leave Hamburg out of it altogether. I would point out that there is an added burden on each ton of cargo loaded at Middlesbrough, as compared with Antwerp, of no less than 8s. 4½d. The hulk of that excess is composed of port charges and clock dues. Take the case of the Clyde. My hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton (Sir W. Rae-burn) represents it. On this question the authority there shows a magnificent example to other dock undertakings. If other undertakings of the sort were anyway near so well and economically managed as the Clyde is, I should not be rising to-day to move the rejection of this Bill.
§ Lord E. PERCY
Is the tonnage of the vessel referred to by the hon. and learned Gentleman the registered tonnage?
§ Mr. SHAW
Yes, the vessel was of a tonnage of 5,190. These charges in the loading of a vessel make it very difficult for the exporter of steel and iron. Turn the thing about, and take the actual case of a vessel discharged in this country, 1969 shall I say the Port of London. In London here is a vessel discharging 3,200 tons of cargo, and the charges for that work out at 9s. 10d. per ton. The vessel went across to Hamburg and discharged there 2,000 tons and the charges were Is. 4d. per ton. That means a handicap as against London of 8s. 6d. per ton.
The House, I know, sees the grave bearing which figures of that kind have upon our export trade. That is the kind of competition that the iron and steel trade particularly have to meet. One heard the other day here in this House of contracts given by the Government of India for steel constructional work. The slightest difference or advantage in making these great contracts means either employment or unemployment for thousands and tens of thousands of our people—a few shillings a ton makes the difference between getting the contract and losing it. Employers and men in the great steel industry have made great sacrifices. No one realises more than I do the great sacrifices which have been made. The sacrifices I say have been made by men as well as employers. A deputation, I am informed, though I was not present on the occasion, came in March to the Chamber of Shipping from the iron and steel traders of the country. What they said was this in effect:—We have talked the matter over with our men and they have played the game. They have come down to a wage which we are sorry to have to ask them to take, but they are loyally co-operating with us in the task of getting back British trade.The chamber of shipping told the deputation that shipping freights were down to a level which was unremunerative, and that losses were being incurred. They looked into the whole situation. Then they said, "Let us co-operate together to cut down some of the charges which have not yet come down; those that remain at the peak level of the boom period of 1920." They consulted together, with the result that my hon. Friend has mentioned. Together they approached not the Ministry of Transport, which is singulary heedless and singularly ineffective in this matter, but they approached direct, the great railway companies. This trade is worked on very fine margins, and it is very unsatisfactory to know that before it leaves the shores of this country British steel, sent away in a ship from Middlesbrough, should be handicapped to 1970 the extent of 8s. 4½d. per ton as compared with Belgian steel which is sent. abroad from Antwerp. Look where you like. Every business to-day is struggling to reduce its cost, and there is great suffering in the process of reducing costs and getting back to an economic level. As the hon. Gentleman has said, we cannot go on bolstering up one business after another. Each trade must stand on its own feet and have the incentive to struggle for economy, and, moreover, they have to realise that if they do not they will go under, whether or not they like it.
What about the docks? They have not been feeling the draught. They have not had this incentive to economy, a hard school though it be, that brings things down to an economic level. They have had in my hon. Friend (Mr. Neal) who sits on the Treasury Bench, a benevolent mandarin under whose ample umbrella they could shelter from the severe, although 'salutary, blasts which have blown on other people. Parliament, by special favour of emergency legislation, has placed these great dock undertakings in a very special position, and I would submit to the House that Parliament is entitled, when a Bill like this comes before it, to make provision both as to the period in which this entirely exceptional legislation shall operate, and the conditions under which the operations shall be conducted. I hope my hon. Friend will not persist in pushing the Second Reading of this Bill. If he does, I hope that he will bear in mind certain suggestions which I now venture to make.
The first is this: I wish to support what was said by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Peebles (Sir D. Maclean) and that is that the whole of this exceptional legislation should have a period put to it. You can make the period of the Bill merely 12 months. That is all you are committed to. My hon. Friend himself told us that that was the limit of the Government's obligations. Make it 12 months in the condition of affairs which is shifting and where prices and costs are falling! We should leave it to the House of Commons, and give the House a chance 12 months after this to say what action it desires to take upon a review of the facts then available. The House of Commons will never refuse powers of the kind so long as they are reasonable, and extended only to a reasonable period. 1971 That is, then, my first suggestion: that the period for the operation of the Bill should be limited to 12 months. The second suggestion is this: that no Order should be made by the Ministry of Transport for a greater period of operation than six months. We are not living in a stable world. We are living in a world where costs are falling from day to day, from week to week and from month to month. The House knows that once an Order of that kind is made by the Ministry, the tendency is for that Order to go on automatically and for the Ministry not to bother to look into the descending scale of costs. I am speaking of our past experience. Therefore I make the suggestion that the matter should be brought up for review every six months, and that no Order made by the Ministry should have a longer life.
The third suggestion I know will. be welcomed by my hon. Friend, because he says something very like it is already in operation—that before any Order is made at all there may be a thorough inquiry applied to it, and that the onus should be clearly upon the authority or undertaking which asks for these exceptional powers to prove its case; that there should be given proof of that case, and that there may be given to the proper interested parties a right to be heard either by the Minister or someone with his authority. For once this Bill passes into law, these concerns may have a clear run of the present enormous charges that are crippling industry until 1925. Experience justifies the conclusion that they may go on having a long run in their charges until 1925, and I will tell the House why experience justifies that observation. It was only after the great trading and shipping interests of the country got together and bestirred themselves that anything was done. So long as the matter was left in the hands of the Minister of Transport the position was absolutely hopeless. "Oh, but," says my hon. Friend with that charming manner we appreciate in him, "all you have to do is to come to the Ministry of Transport and make a complaint." What is the position? A small shipping company or a small trading concern, in the grip of a railway port, stands up against that railway company and makes complaints against it to the Minister of Transport. The Minister persuades that 1972 little concern to take upon its shoulders work which he ought to be doing in the public interest, and work which I venture to say he has neglected to do, and left to the traders and shipping interests themselves in a great combination of effort to do.
I would recall to the mind of the right hon. Baronet whom I hear behind me that this is one of those Bills which can do real good or be a real detriment to trade. I might remind him of something which, I think, everyone knows, and with which he in particular agrees:How small, of all that human hearts endure,That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman that this Bill is really one that can cure ills or can perpetuate them. This Bill is intimately concerned with the prosperity and trade of the country. I will deal quite briefly with my second point, which is that the Ministry of Transport is not the proper body to which these powers should be given. My right hon. Friend opposite has quoted, I think, from the letter which Sir Eric Geddes, the author of the Ministry of Transport, sent to the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 18th November, 1921. The House will remember that Sir Eric Geddes said he had come to the conclusion that there was no justification for retaining a separate Ministry of Transport, especially having regard to the existing financial stringency. I would ask my right hon. Friend on the Treasury bench has that existing financial stringency disappeared? Here is Sir Eric Geddes saying that, owing to financial stringency, it ought to be abolished. Here we are in view of the same financial stringency proposing even to add to it! We are passing a Bill to prolong and justify the existence of the same Ministry of Transport until at least the year 1925. Sir Eric Geddes' colleagues on the Committee, who were thus left to get on as best they could without him, expressed themselves as being in entire agreement with him on this point, and they declared that in all the circumstances they agreed with the view expressed in the letter of Sir Eric Geddes, that economy and efficiency would be better attained if those functions were handed over to the Board of Trade. In their second Report they expressed the opinion that "The Ministry 1973 of Transport should cease as a separate Ministry, and that its functions should be transferred to the Board of Trade." Therefore, sentence of death was passed on the Ministry of Transport in the name of economy and efficiency, meaning economy not only departmentally but in the carrying on of the trade of the country. Therefore, in the name of economy and efficiency, I ask the House to insist upon a withdrawal of this Bill, or, at any rate, upon a substantial amendment of it. Sentence of death having been passed on the Ministry of Transport by its parent, the Parliamentary Secretary opposite now comes down to the House and, with a bland countenance and a specious air of immortality, moves a Bill without a word of apology which takes it for granted that the Ministry which has been condemned to death shall remain alive until at least the year 1925. The House knows perfectly well how these War Departments fight for life, and I hope will reject this Bill which is an attempt on the part of the Ministry of Transport, which consists of very able men respected by everybody, to bolster up the existence of their own Department.
I beg to second the Amendment.
There is an argument which is always used by the Minister in charge whenever he is introducing a Measure of this kind, and it is one which always commands the assent of the House. I recollect a good many of the hon. Gentleman's speeches in introducing Bills of this character, for he always points out that we have a number of great utility undertakings performing very useful services and that it would be false economy not to equip them with full powers. We do not want to be penny wise and pound foolish. We are told that what we gain on the swings we should certainly more than lose on the roundabouts, but that ought not to prevent us from giving the very closest attention to any Measure which gives further powers to undertakings or gives them any opportunity or facility for increasing their charges.
It is quite true that these undertakings are not carried on under the ordinary conditions of business. You do not simply leave them to fight it out in an ordinary competitive way because, owing to their position, you are bound to put them on 1974 a different footing from an ordinary business undertaking. That is the special danger to which special undertakings are subject. They get a measure of protection; they are allowed to make charges which are not always closely related to their service; they are given facilities and opportunities for increasing their charges, and there is a natural tendency to make themselves safe without regard to the effect that those charges may have upon the trade of the country. A Measure of this kind is really a proposal to allow what you might describe as private taxation.
The people of this country are burdened in at least four ways. Firstly by the very high load of Imperial taxation; secondly by the way in which local taxation is increased; thirdly by the high prices to which the people are subject; and fourthly by the increase of charges made by these public utility companies. We have a whole series of this sort of Measures passed by this House. Here we are dealing with the charges which may be levied by those who are in control of docks and harbours for the services which they have rendered. Bills of this kind have been passed not only for such undertakings as these, but also for other undertakings rendering public service. We have Bills enabling gas companies, water companies and railway companies to increase their charges, and I understand that the Minister in charge of this Bill intends to follow up this Measure by one enabling canal companies and similar comppanies to raise their charges.
We have also before us in this Session the Electricity (Supply) Bill which will give electricity undertakings powers even greater than are given either to railway companies, or any other kind of public utility companies. The net result of the whole series of these Bills is that the country is not only being subjected to a heavy burden of public taxation, but also to a heavy burden of private taxation by the powers given, and therefore it behoves those who wish to bring down the cost of production to give their very closest scrutiny to these Measures as they are presented to us. Every charge of every kind enters into the cost of production. For a considerable period of this Parliament, the attention of the House and the country was directed to that element in the cost of production which arises out of the payment of labour wages and it 1975 was said, "Wages must come down before we can compete because they are too high."
It was said that this was essential in order to improve trade. Now wages have come down, and I think it is time that attention was directed to the fact that the wage cost is not the only element in the cost of production, and that such charges as are permitted under the powers given in such Bills as the one before us are themselves a very important element in the cost of production. That does not mean that anybody who has taken any part in the opposition to this Bill has any desire at all to see ether railway, dock, or harbour undertakings put into such a position that they cannot carry on, and there is no intention of depriving them of a sufficient revenue to meet their expenses. I do not approach the question from that point of view. What is the history of this Measure? It is brought in because of the position in which dock and harbour undertakings, which are in the possession of railway companies, find themselves.
In 1920, a Measure was passed dealing with docks and harbours and giving certain powers in respect of their charges. The undertakings of ports, harbours, docks and piers were dealt with, but railway companies were not included because they had sufficient protection under the Ministry of Transport Act. Under that Act the Minister of Transport had power to fix the charges for a period of three years and six months from the date of the passing of the Act. It was passed on the 15th August, 1919, and, therefore, those powers continue until the 15th February, 1923. I understand the position is, that the ports, harbours, docks and piers, forming part of the undertakings of a railway company, came under the operation of the Ministry of Transport, in so far as they were taken possession of by the Government.
Such undertakings as were outside those belonging to the railway companies had not such protection, and it was found necessary to pass the Harbours, Docks and Piers (Temporary Increase of Charges) Bill. That Bill extended until the 15th February, 1923, and I understand that date was chosen so that the powers 1976 under that Act might come to an end at the same time as the powers given under the Ministry of Transport Act. What are the proposals of the present Bill? The first is to extend the original Act from February, 1923, to February, 1925. We might have hoped that by the 15th February, 1923, we should have reverted to normal conditions, and that we should have been able on that date to go back to the practice and procedure of pre-War times.
I am not now dealing with the question of wages, and I do not intend to be drawn along that alluring path. I am now dealing with the way in which the undertakings of this Bill were carried on. In the opinion of the Government that is not so. They think it necessary for two years longer that the powers in respect of charges which these undertakings may make shall be vested in the Ministry of Transport rather than in this House. The Minister tells us that if he does not get this Bill there will be something like 40 Private Bills which will have to come before Parliament next year.
But what is going to happen at the end of these two years? The same situation will arise, and the Minister has not given us any indication as to how it is to be avoided. He desires to avoid the congestion in 1923–24 by putting it off till 1925–26. I quite agree that that is in consonance with the general policy of the Government. In one or two Bills they have lately brought before the House they have entered into financial obligations the meeting of which they propose to leave to their successors. I can quite understand their doing so. They may want to avoid trouble in the coming year. But that does not get rid of the difficulty, because any advantage the procedure may present, so far as the Government are concerned, would be a serious disadvantage to other people. They want the review of the question raised by this Bill to be undertaken not by the House but by some tribunal or some department quite outside the House. Sooner or later we shall be called upon to make a choice between the two evils. Celerity may be obtained in some directions by removing questions of this sort from the consideration of this House, 1977 but there are great disadvantages in that procedure when it is remembered that Bills of this kind are really taxing Bills. They impose charges on the public—charges which are quite as real as charges which can be included in any Finance Act passed by this House. There is no difference really between the sovereign one pays to the Income Tax collector and that which one pays to the railway company. When accounts are balanced up, the one has to be deducted quite as much as the other. Whether we give powers to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to tax us or whether we give powers to the chairman of a railway company to charge us, the effect is the same in both cases. Our pockets are depleted. Therefore, to remove these Bills, which really are taxing Bills, from the purview of a Committee of this House and to send them to a tribunal or Department is to pursue a policy the evils of which are greater than any advantages that may be presented. So much for the question of extension.
There is more than that in this Bill. It is not simply a question of extending the Harbours, Docks, and Piers Act as a whole and of giving such facilities as are suggested to all these undertakings. This Bill deals especially with the undertakings that belong to railway companies. Its main Clause, Clause 1, removes these undertakings from the operation of the proviso in the original Act. That proviso has already been brought to the notice of the House. One cannot believe that in endeavouring to rid themselves of it the railway companies do not regard its omission as of some advantage to themselves. What were the conditions laid down in the original Act? They dealt with two classes of undertakings—those that were carried on for no purpose of profit but for the services they rendered, and in regard to these the House laid it down as a condition for increasing the charges of the company that the charges should be limited to what would be sufficient to enable the undertakings to be carried on without loss. Further, the Act dealt with those other undertakings which were carried on for a profit, and it laid it down that those which were carried on for profit should not be allowed to make charges which would give them more than the interest of their loan capital and a reasonable return on their share 1978 capital, having regard to their pre-War financial condition and their prospective development. That was the wisdom of the House in 1920. Now the railway companies come along—I understand the Minister has told us that this Bill is the result of representations made by them—and ask to be relieved from the operation of that proviso, and the Minister has given us reasons for so relieving them.
§ Mr. MURROUGH WILSON
Is the hon. and gallant Gentleman suggesting that the railway companies had increased powers of charging under the Act of 1920?
I think it is perfectly clear that such powers as the railway companies have till February, 1923, they get under the Ministry of Transport Act. The Orders made under that Act do not come under the operations of the Harbours, Docks and Piers Act. But they now ask to be put in a category by themselves and to be relieved of restrictions which are imposed on ordinary private undertakings. The Minister has put forward reasons why that should be done and one reason is that, in the case of similar undertakings which are complete by themselves and are not linked up with any of these docks, it is possible to ascertain the amount of capital that has been invested in such undertakings, and therefore it is possible to calculate what is a reasonable return on it and so work under the proviso. But the Minister said that that was not possible in regard to undertakings linked up with railway companies, because the companies do not know what money they spend on their docks, harbours, ports and piers. He asked us to believe that the accountancy of a railway company is so inadequate for the task which has to be discharged that it is not able to allocate its capital in that way. The Minister says he has come to that conclusion as a result of very careful inquiry, and, of course, the House will accept it as a perfectly honest conclusion. Still it is very difficult for anyone to believe it who has had anything to do with railway accounts. At all events, if the capital is not so allocated, the accounts can be supplied. When this House passed the Railway Companies Returns Act in 1911, a form of account was laid down on which the railway companies had to return their receipts from undertakings of this kind, 1979 and that clearly separated such receipts from the receipts for general railway workings. It may be that such a division of their income does not necessarily apply to a division of their capital, but still it seems to me not to be impossible to make a computation of that kind and to leave them under the operation of this proviso.
I should like to ask the Minister this question. Before he brought this Bill in, did he ascertain what in fact has been the result of the working of the railway docks, ports and harbours? Can he tell the House if accounts were taken for last year and what the result was? Would it be true to say that, while there has been a loss on the working of the railways, while there has been a decrease on the net receipts from the working of the railways, there has been an increase in the net receipts from the working of the docks and harbours? Such information would be of some interest to the House, and it would enable us to form our own judgment as to whether a good case had been made out for this Bill. One other point was made by the Minister of Transport which I think ought to be cleared up. He said, "If you do not pass this Bill, if you do not give these undertakings these facilities, if you do not enable them to make these increased charges, there will be a loss on the undertakings, and that loss will be thrown on the general railway world and will have to be borne in the shape of increased charges by those who use the railways." I have some recollection—it is growing rather faint, I admit —of a discussion which took place in Committee on the Railways Bill. If I remember rightly, there was a good deal of Debate on the question whether the railway companies, having their standard rates fixed, were to be allowed to charge to railway working losses which they might make on ancillary undertakings.
The Section which dealt with the adjustment of charges provided that when fixing the charges necessary to produce, a standard rate, the tribunal should take into consideration the charges with respect to the business carried on on ancillary undertakings.
§ 6.0 P.M.
This Bill is to go on for two years, and at the end of that time perhaps the tribunals will not allow any losses on the docks to be thrown on the railway. Do I understand the Minister to say that the object of this Bill is to allow the railways to do in the interim period that which this Bill is intended to prevent in the future. If so, it does not appear to me that the case for the Bill is fortified to any extent. My hon. and learned Friend opposite who moved the rejection of the Bill gave indications of what could be done if we were not successful in carrying that Amendment, and pressed on the Parliamentary Secretary some considerations for the Committee. I hope that those considerations will be given due weight, and none more than the last one that was made, namely, that in dealing with matters of this kind the onus should be thrown upon the people who want the increase, and not upon the people who want the reduction. I believe there is a general feeling throughout the country that the task of getting a reduction before the Rates Tribunal is one that is too heavy even for well-organised bodies of traders. I would press the hon. Gentleman, during the passage of this Bill through Committee, to do something to make it easier for those who are carrying on the great industries of this country, and who are suffering by reason of the high transport charges both of the railways and at the ports, to get a real consideration of their case and a real reduction, not too long delayed, of the burden under which they lie.
§ Colonel WEDGWOOD
It seems to me that in this Bill the House has to consider, not merely the interests of the railway companies on the one side or of the shipowners on the other, but the interests of the public as a whole. There has been, I think, sufficient evidence to convince every Member of this House that nothing is retarding the recovery of the trade of the country more than the very high dock charges and freight rates that are being imposed upon the industry of the country at the present time. If we really want to do something to facilitate a recovery of trade, to get employment for people who are anxious for employment, to bring down 1981 prices, we must manage somehow or other to reduce the very heavy charges which are levied upon industry at the present time by those interests which have the power to fix those charges. Above all things, it is a question for the public. In the old days, the front Government Bench was regarded by the whole of the House as being the depository of the public interest. We looked to the Ministers on that Bench to see that the public interest was not sacrificed in any bargain that was struck between two competing vested interests. That certainly used to be therolô of every Minister in the House. Now, after the Railways Act and after this present Measure, we begin to wonder whether putting the protection of the public solely into the hands of the Government is altogether wise, and whether the ordinary Member of Parliament must not himself attempt to see what is being done in these small Acts of Parliament, and to see for himself that the public is being protected from the deals that are arranged between the great financial interests in the country. The purpose of this Bill is quite simple. The business portion of the Bill is quite simple. It is to enable the railway companies next February to keep up their present high dock rates upon all goods shipped at the various docks in this country. If this Bill were not passed, dock rates would come down to the legal maximum which the companies were entitled to charge, but in many cases did not charge, before the War.
§ Colonel WEDGWOOD
All dock rates would come down to the legal maximum. Some may be at the legal maximum now —I do not know; but, if this Bill were not passed, we should be back again in the position in which we were before the War.
§ Sir W. RAEBURN
Does the hon. and gallant Member know that most dock companies have powers far beyond the 1919 Act?
§ Colonel WEDGWOOD
I know that the legal maximum was far beyond what they charged. If this Bill is not passed we shall merely return to that.
§ Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER (Sir Edwin Cornwall)
It will be better to let the hon. and gallant Member make his speech.
§ Colonel WEDGWOOD
if this Bill is not passed, the railway companies will be in the position of having to go back to the legal maximum rates which they were empowered to charge before the War. If that is not so, I have misunderstood the hon. Gentleman who introduced the Bill. Therefore, this Bill is introduced, just as the Railways Bill was introduced, in order to enable the railway companies to get over the difficult period and to keep up their charges more than they otherwise would have been able to do, in spite of the fact that the community as a whole has to pay those charges. I think that in the case of the railways and of the docks the Government gave far too much away to the vested interests. They have not got the best possible terms, but have made terms which have been obviously sc beneficial to the railway companies that the ordinary shares in many of the companies have almost doubled in value since the Railways Act was passed. So far from driving a hard bargain, they consented to a bargain which was of enormous advantage to the railway companies. It may be that, in this matter of the docks also, they are accepting a bargain which is equally beneficial to that vested interest. Therefore, we must look at this particular Bill with the more care, seeing what has been the result of the previous bargain.
There is no doubt that the Railways Act has kept up freight rates, and there is no doubt that this Bill is intended to keep up dock rates. In both cases the public interest is to get the lowest possible rate. In the old days there was a certain amount of competition. One dock could bid against another; they could give specially low rates and so get more traffic; and, under the stress of competition, the public got the best bargain that they could get. The more the competition, and the lower the rate, the better it was for the consumer as a whole. But those days are over. We finished that sort of competition when we passed the Railways Act. Now, if you go to South Wales, where the tinplate workers are out of work on account of the freight and dock rates, you find, from one end of South Wales to the other, that every single dock, and, I believe, every single 1983 shipping facility is in the hands of the new Great Western Railway, which has swallowed up the other companies under the Railways Act. If you go to Hull, you find the Hull and Barnsley and the North Eastern lying down together like the lion and the lamb, bound together by a firm and competent monopoly. All over the country, under this new grouping, the docks and the shipping facilities are being got into the hands of a narrow ring which has monopoly powers. That was realised by the Government and by the public, but it was assumed that under the Railways Act it was possible to deal with these monopolies, and prevent them from unduly taxing the public, by the complicated machinery of saying that, if the costs of running were reduced, a court should determine by how much the freight rates and charges and fares should likewise be reduced. Four-fifths was to go to the community, and one-fifth to the railway companies. The House will realise that the costs of running the railways have come down very materially, not only in wages, but in other ways, and there has been no reduction so far in freight rates, and no reduction in fares. Practically every reduction that has been in force has been voluntarily made by the monopolists, because they believed it to be in their interests. No reduction has been made against the wishes of the monopolists. No reduction has been forced upon them by the Government as a result of inquiries into the savings made.
§ Colonel WEDGWOOD
That makes it all the more difficult for the public, as a whole, to get their reduction from the railway companies at the present time. I think that when the Railways Act comes into force, the Government will be able to initiate an inquiry. I hope that that is so, and then it may be possible to get the rates down, but at the present time we are absolutely in the hands of these monopolists, who can get what price the consumer can pay. It is the railway trust which we have now that really dictates whether trade and industry in this country shall survive. 1984 We have to depend upon concessions made by them, for which we are very grateful, but which we have no right to wring out of them at the present time. The reductions quoted by the hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. A. Shaw), which they have made in dock rates, show quite clearly that the various dock companies may be persuaded to make small reductions, but they are reductions which bear no relation whatever to the reduction in the cost of living or of running a dock or harbour. They will make some reductions, but we are dependent upon their good will.
The general managers of railway companies are bound to consider first and foremost the interests of their shareholders, and not the interests of the general public. The right hon. Baronet the Member for the City of London (Sir F. Banbury) would be false to his trust if he considered first the advantage of the community, and only secondly the advantage of his shareholders. It is his business as a railway director to look after the interests of his shareholders first, and we cannot complain if he keeps his rates up at what will give his business the maximum return. We can complain, however, if this House puts more power into their hands on the supposition that they will be kind to trade first. We know that their first duty is to their shareholders, and it is our duty so to tie their hands that the public may have a chance of getting a reduction in freight rates, even though the railway shareholders do not want to give them a reduction in the interests of the profits of their concern. The trade of this country is coming to a direful pass. The monopoly has been formed. The North Eastern and the Great Western have gradually got their hands upon the trade of this country, and here is another Bill which gives them further powers. It gives them powers to keep up their dock rates, and it gives them powers based in a curious way upon what would be a reasonable rate of interest on the capital sunk in the business. We did not have a word of explanation from the hon. Gentleman as to what was considered to be a reasonable rate of interest, and I did not understand from his speech how fresh adjustments could be made in the charges provided that the reasonable rate of interest fell. We are seeing now from day to day a cheaper rate of interest on 1985 money. The bank rate has fallen. Does the reasonable rate of interest vary with the bank rate, or has that anything to do with the reasonable rate of interest?
§ Colonel WEDGWOOD
Reasonable return on capital. I apologise for not using the right words. Does that vary with the bank rate of interest or is it supposed to be something that is fixed, like the laws of the Merles and Persians? Is it 5 per cent.? Most of the railway companies now are giving a return upon the capital value of their shares of about a 6½ per cent. Is 6½ per cent. considered to be a reasonable return upon capital, or are we to go back to six months ago when railway shares were returning about 10 per cent. on their capital, and is this 10 per cent. considered to be a reasonable return? What is the basis? What sort of interest do you contemplate, and does that rate of interest change as money becomes cheaper. Does it change as you are able to borrow money more cheaply to carry out alterations and repairs, and does a reasonable return depend in any way upon the guarantee which in effect these concerns are getting by the passage of this Act? Instead of being, as in former days, under competition, you have a trust. Instead of being subject to the turn of the market as to what price you can get, you have a Government guarantee as I understand it—an effective guarantee—that you may keep your dock rates up at their present level, and those dock rates will go up if the cost of working goes up and go down if the cost of working goes down. In any case you will get a reasonable return upon the capital invested. That amounts in fact to a guarantee, and wherever you have a guarantee we are entitled to suggest that a lower rate of interest is permissible than what would be normally required if the capital was without any sort of guarantee whatsoever.
§ Colonel WEDGWOOD
There is this amount of guarantee, that if you find that the cost of operating that dock is going up you are entitled to charge a 1986 higher dock rate, and if it goes down you may be forced to accept a lower rate.
§ Colonel WEDGWOOD
There is a guarantee that you can charge a price that you had not got before and there is a complete monopoly which would enable you to get it even if there was not any special regulation. Surely we are entitled to ask that a reasonable return upon capital should be considered to be somewhat less than it was in the old days when railway companies were competing more or less with each other and were getting a higher return on the capital invested in preference or debenture shares. I should suggest that money invested in this way, with this pseudo guarantee if you like, was entitled to be placed on a basis of preference rather than ordinary shares, and of course the charges will depend under this Act very much indeed upon what is taken to be a reasonable return on capital.
But there is another point. The hon. Gentleman made it quite clear that it was impossible to estimate the amount of capital sunk by railway.companies in docks and harbours. I think that is very likely correct, but the capital was to be assumed on that account to be the sort of amount of capital which was sunk in other concerns where the capitalisation was known. That is to say, that in estimating the amount of capital sunk in any of the South Wales docks, like Cardiff or Swansea—
§ Sir W. RAEBURN
Has this anything to do with the Bill? This is a matter for the Rates Advisory Committee and nothing else. It has nothing to do with the Bill.
§ Colonel WEDGWOOD
Surely the Deputy Speaker will call me to order if I am out of order without some new Member doing it.
§ Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER
The hon. Member for Dumbarton is entitled to raise a point of order, although I do not rule that the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme was out of order.
§ Colonel WEDGWOOD
The point of Order was perfectly correct except that I am not out of order. I beg the House's pardon, but in a very difficult economic 1987 argument it is awfully inconvenient to be interrupted and to get back. We are dealing with figures and it is extremely difficult to deal with arguments like this if I am interrupted over and over again by Members in all parts of the House. I have given way to them about 15 times, and I think hon. Members ought to consider that in maintaining this case, a very difficult case to maintain, they should give me a fair chance. They will have their chance afterwards and no doubt will make their speeches. Let us have fair play all round. I was saying that in the case of railway companies the docks are to be valued by comparison with all the other docks the capitalisation of which is known. There can be no direct estimate of their capital value and therefore you have to have a comparison with some other docks, as I understand it, in order to arrive at what you believe to be the value of these docks. That at first sight appears to be a fairly sound line of argument, but when you come to think of it, is it quite a fair comparison? If you take the Clyde, where everything has been done upon economic lines, where there have been no docks bought out at fancy figures, where the capitalisation is down at cost price almost, where there has been no inflation whatever, you have a very fair parallel to what the capital sunk in the railway docks really ought to stand at. But if on the other hand you take these South Wales Docks, where they bought up the Barry at a gigantic price, if you take your comparison with the Port of London, where all the existing docks were bought up at a high figure—if you take that figure as your comparison for the value of the railway docks and harbours, you are going to have a very much inflated value, and in making your comparison, attention should be paid to the actual cost rather than to a comparison with already watered concerns. Let us know what the real value is rather than risk the whole community having to pay what is called a reasonable return upon capital when that capital is already three times what has actually been sunk in the harbour or docks. Here you see the possibility of enormous charges being made by a monopoly upon the trade of the country. Apart altogether from the merits of this Bill, apart from the desirability of having a Bill which gives an opportunity to certain vested interests 1988 to levy a higher charge upon the community, we shall have to look very carefully in Committee particularly on this question of what constitutes a reasonable return, and more particularly to see that inflated capitalisation is not attributed to the concerns which are going to get a reasonable return.
The last comment I would make, to which I hope we shall have attention paid in Committee, is that this scheme should last for one year and no more. Prices are going down now everywhere. You have already brought your wages down from 16s. to 12s. in these docks. There has not been, particularly in the case of the Port of London, a corresponding drop in the charges. Wages are coming down, the cost of capital is coming down, the reasonable return upon capital is coming down. Let us see that this Bill only lasts for one year—only tics the House for one year—and as it is not an ordinary Bill, but in reality a taxing Bill, levying a tax upon the community, let us see that it is an annual Bill, so that we may know the amount of the tax and be able to revise it as often as we revise any other tax.
§ Colonel WEDGWOOD
The Trust has got us under this Bill for two years. In the interests of the public we should confine that domination of the Trust at least to one year and give us an opportunity, when perhaps another Government sits on that Bench, to look after the public interest and allow the railway companies to make both ends meet by reducing their charges upon the public even though the value of their stocks and shares falls to what it was six months ago.
§ Sir W. RAEBURN
I have listened to four speeches delivered by hon. Members who have no personal knowledge of the subject—
§ Sir W. RAEBURN
And very little knowledge of the ordinary interests of this country. I should like to give a few facts. The right hon. Gentleman (Sir D. Maclean) complained of legislation by reference, and said those engaged in business would find it hard to understand it. 1989 I have laboured under this disadvantage since I came into the House, but there need be no difficulty. Everyone interested in trade has legal advisers who are able to dissect a Bill like this, and to lay before you in quite clear language what it all means. I had no difficulty whatever in knowing what the wording of the Bill meant. I knew the import of the Bill all along. The dock companies never asked for the Bill. They were rather asked if they had any objection to it, and the dock authority, of which I am the deputy-chairman, saw no objection. The large privately owned docks have powers apart from this Bill altogether. They could continue their present charges, and even more, for many years to come. They do not object to the Bill because they feel that there are private dock companies whose powers will come to an end in 1923, which is not so very far off, and we know perfectly well that those minor clock companies will be compelled in self-defence to come to the Government and ask for an extension of their present powers, otherwise they will simply be faced with bankruptcy. No one engaged in business now can have the slightest hope that we are going to get back in nine months to pre-War wages and conditions of employment. The thing is absolutely absurd. Some authorities have had to charge more than others.
I am not going to speak particularly, in what I have to speak, with regard to railway docks, because the railway docks will no doubt speak for themselves. I know their case pretty well. It is somewhat analogous to that of the privately-owned docks. What is the position? Who are the component parts, directors or trustees or members of these privately owned docks? They are not the paid officials. Three of the largest dock companies in this country have as their chairmen shipowners, and we have among the members representatives of almost every conceivable trade in the country. Would not anyone rather come to the conclusion that these men, who have nothing to gain by giving their services to these dock companies, but have a great deal to gain by a reduction of dues, would be rather inclined if anything to study the interest of their trade, perhaps to the detriment of the docks? If you are going to make insinuations, that is the insinuation I should think it would be more 1990 natural to make. These privately-owned docks all along have had as their trustees or directors business men. Does this House believe that these men are not animated with a desire to bring back dues and rates to the lowest level? It is inconceivable.
My hon. Friend, who moved the rejection of the Bill, made some very sweeping charges about dock management. He seemed to think that because these dock companies have these powers that they take no care to reduce the charges, and that they are spending up to the maximum that the law will allow. Anybody who knows anything about the merits of dock management, knows that that is out of the question. The argument that we hear is this: "Wages have come down, coal has come down, prices of stores have come down, why have not dock charges come down?" The reply is simple and plain. Had the traffic kept up to its pre-War condition there would have been reductions in dock charges, but how are you going to give reduction in dues when the falling off in traffic is greater than the reductions mentioned. I will give a set of facts which have reference to the Clyde Trust. The argument that is being put forward is, that if the Clyde Trust, which is admitted to be well managed, only puts its rates up to 061 per cent, above pre-War, while the charges at other docks are up by 150 per cent., that shows that charges can be reduced. It is absolutely fallacious to argue from one dock to another. Let me give a few statistics to show why even the well-managed Clyde Trust cannot give any reduction in dues. I have been accustomed to receiving deputations from all sorts and conditions of traders. They are at us constantly. Only a fortnight ago I was present at the Ministry of Transport, when we had 11 representatives of the Federation of British Industries. Therefore I know pretty well the arguments of the traders. They argued on these lines: "Wages are down, coal is down, the cost of living is down, freights are down, commodities of all kinds are down, and, therefore, dock dues ought to have come down." I will give the arguments which I addressed to them.
This is the position of the Clyde Trust. Imports and exports for 1921, compared with 1914, have fallen to the extent of 4,000,000 tons, or 40½ per cent. The 1991 tonnage of vessels has gone down 20½ per cent. Under the powers granted to us by the Board of Trade we are enabled to charge higher dues. Our revenue in 1921, compared with 1914, showed an increase of 67 per cent., which is almost the identical figure of our increase in dues, which is 66§ per cent. When we come to the question of wages, which is the biggest item in our expenditure, we spent in 1914 £150,000 and in 1921 £314,000, taking into account the reduction of 4s. under the Shaw award from 16s. to 12s. The last reduction comes into operation to-morrow. There is an increase of 109 per cent. above pre-War in the expenditure on wages, compared with a rise of 66⅔ per cent. in dues, a falling off of 40 per cent. in imports and exports, and a decrease of 20 per cent. in tonnage. Other things have fallen, such as the interest on our loans, but one item has enormously increased, and that is rates and taxes. Our rates and taxes have more than doubled since 1914. I am not sure that this item is not very far short of half the whole revenue of the Clyde Trust when I entered it 32 years ago.
What have we been able to do in the matter of labour? The number of men employed, apart from new work, has only been reduced 17 per cent., although the falling off in traffic is 40 per cent. Trade now is fax more spasmodic than it was in 1914. Sometimes we have no grain steamers in the clocks for a week or ten days, sometimes no ore boats in for days. Would any Trust, properly managed, pay off its skilled men to the extent of the minimum of its requirements? Will it keep only sufficient men for a slack week or a slack fortnight? It has to try as far as possible to keep a sufficient staff for arrivals and departures. I should like to hear the comment of traders and shipowners if vessels were held up and kept idle, and the Clyde Trust manager had to say: "We have paid off a great many of our skilled men, and we cannot put unskilled men on to your work, so you must simply lie and wait." That would be a nice sample of dock management. Some of the dock authorities have been paying in the last year more money for idle time than they actually paid for wages. They had to keep on these men, who had really more time when they were doing nothing than they had time in which they were 1992 working. That is inevitable if your docks are to be run. It comes to this, that all the savings you have been able to effect in wages, etc., have been more than swallowed up by the reduction in the amount of trade.
To compare a dock concern with a shipping company or an engineering concern or some other industrial concern is absurd. To say, for instance, that because the price of wheat has gone down so much a quarter, and that freights have gone down to nearly pre-War level, that that is any reason why a dock company should reduce its rates proportionately, is to argue fallaciously. I wonder that my hon. Friend who moved the rejection could have used such an argument The two things are incomparable. What happens if a ship loses money? You either lay her up or you make up your mind to suffer the loss. What happens if a (lock company loses money? You cannot lay up the dock. Where are you going to get money with which to tide over these losses? Nearly all these dock concerns live largely upon credit. A great part of their money is borrowed money, and it was our boast, and the boast of some of the best managed docks in the country, that we were able to borrow as cheaply, and, in our case, more cheaply, than the British Government. No concern badly managed could ever attain to a position like that. What is to happen if we cannot even put by enough for the sinking fund? It means that our credit is at once impaired. I said to some of the traders: "What advantage would it be to you if we had to pay another 1 per cent. or 1½ per cent. for our money? We should be bound to put that extra charge on to the dues. Therefore, we are doing you a far greater service by seeing that our dock concern is properly managed and is solvent, than by recklessly reducing dues in order to try to attract traffic." There is great competition, and there always will be.
What I want hon. Members to understand is that dock Boards are just as much alive as any Member of this House or any member of the trading community to the advantage it will he to trade to have a reduction of clues, but what we are up against are facts, and it is no use generalising and saying: "Freights have fallen, commodities have fallen, why have not dock dues fallen?" The two things 1993 have nothing to do with each other. Will this House be able in my time to alter the eight-hour day to what it used to be? It is not only a matter of the high wages per man, but it is a matter of the additional men who have to be employed because of the eight-hour day. I will take the case of the Manchester Ship Canal. The cost of manning of the locks has increased to the extent of 270 per cent., and that is due to the increased wages, the number of extra men per shift, and the change in the number of shifts. I could give instances from every port in the country. I have particulars regarding Liverpool, London, Swansea, Manchester, and the Tyne, and they all tell the same tale, that the rates are up because of the rise in the cost of wages, the increase in the number of men employed, the heavy taxation and, above al], the enormous decrease in the traffic coming in and going out.
We had a very interesting and lengthy discussion with the Federation of British Industries, who represent most of the traders in the country. They were very much against this Bill. They pleaded that the period should be reduced to one year, and also made a proposition that I should not have thought would come from business men, and that was that there should be a uniform increased maximum charge of 30 per cent. I think we proved to them that a period of one year would only be postponing for a short time all this trouble and argument. 1923 is very nearly here. The big docks do not need this Bill. We have the powers without it, but because we have the powers that does not say that we are going to charge the full amount. It is said that we have been subsidised because we have been able to increase our rates. Of course, there was only one alternative to not being given power to charge over pre-War limits and that is to default. I am glad to say that none of the big ports did in any way default, but some of the small ports have still to make up a heavy deficit. It is impossible for them to give any reduction.
When we compare the ports of this country with ports on the Continent, it was known to every shipper long before the War that Glasgow was a cheaper port than Liverpool, and Liverpool a cheaper port than London, and when you go now to ports where the exchange has gone up to a very great. extent and the disburse- 1994 meats are calculated at the current rate of exchange, you see exactly what it means We all want to send our goods where they can be handled most cheaply. I am not very keen to trade again with Germany, but if you want to get the best value out of a freight you must realise that the German charges are very low. But it is not fair to compare a port like Hamburg with the mark at its present value with a port. like London. Perhaps hon. Members may think that 1924 is a long enough period of extension. In regard to the small docks, they will simply come here and do what they are doing already. The investigation by the Ministry of Transport is of the keenest character. I must say for them that they look into every penny. You have to product your accounts, and satisfy the Department that you really need the powers for which you ask. If the Department be satisfied, the Department grants the request, but our experience in the past has been that we generally got less than we asked. If afterwards we showed that we required more, we generally had our application granted. This Bill only continues existing powers. In no sense whatever can it be called a subsidy. Such a contention is absurd.
It is only to give protection which this House would be bound to give if an individual dock came and said, "Our powers have expired. Our wages are high. We ask you to give us a little longer this power." I am very glad to have had the chance, as I am up against this difficulty every day of my life, of laying a few facts before the House. Anyone who like myself has had to sit on a Whitley Council will appreciate the difficulty of getting wages down. It is the most disagreeable duty I have ever had in my life. You have got to convince these men that you cannot go on paying the high wages, and you are always met with the answer, "How can we live?" What you have to do is not to make big cuts of 4s. or 5s. a week, but to get reductions of about 2s., divided by two or three months, agreed on between the two sides. Those who say that we have done nothing to reduce wages and charges had better come on some of our dock boards and go through the experience which some of us have had and they will tell a very different story.
§ Sir F. BANBURY
The hon. and gallant Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Colonel Wedgwood) made a vigorous attack upon the railway companies and upon the Government for introducing the Railway Act last year. The hon. and gallant Gentleman is one of the leaders of the Labour party. I was a regular attendant during the whole of the Committee stage of the Railway Bill, and the most earnest supporters of the Government were the Labour party. They attended in such numbers that they defeated any Amendment moved by other people against the Bill, and they attended day after day from the beginning to the end of the sitting and with one exception always voted for the Government. They took every step to allow the Government to get the Bill. They hardly ever spoke, but they wore there to see the Bill through. So it is surprising to hear the hon. and gallant Gentleman complain that the Government have done all sorts of things to the railways when his own party supported the passing of the Act which he now abuses. The hon. and gallant Gentleman made the extraordinary statement that the railway companies are now getting 6; per cent. on their capital. They are getting nothing of the sort.
§ Sir F. BANBURY
On the actual value, not on the nominal value. If that is what the hon. and gallant Gentleman means, I do not think it worth while arguing it. Everyone knows that before the War the return on the capital of the railway companies was something like 4¼ per cent. or 4⅜ per cent., and the railway companies during the whole of the War did not receive the return which they had before the War, while the hon. and gallant Gentleman's friends received a great deal more than they had before the War, as did also a great many other people of all sorts and kinds, and the railway companies only received a less sum in dividends than before the War. The hon. and gallant Gentleman says, "Look at the rise." Yes, but look at the fall. The fall was such that in many cases there was practically hardly any value for the stocks. They went down to very low prices owing to the enormous 1996 wages which were given to the friends of the hon. and gallant Gentleman, and the very short hours which were worked. The result was that when the figures were published by the Government up to the end of August, 1921, there were many companies which were barely earning more than their debenture interest. When those figures were made known, of course there was a fall in the value of the stock, because a large number of people thought there was no chance of getting any interest.
The railways were returned to private management. Private management was assisted by the fact that wages fell owing to a fall in the cost of living, but in addition the Scotch companies and afterwards the English companies came to an agreement with their men whereby there was a further fall, and it is owing to the fall in the wages and also, to a certain extent, a fall in material, that the prospects of railways are better now than they were. But the hon. and gallant Gentleman knows perfectly well that under the Act of the Government railways are not able to pay more than they did in 1913, and that if there is any surplus over the net revenue of 1913, which I regret to say yields a percentage on the whole of the railways only of something like 4¼ per cent., which is not profiteering, then 80 per cent. goes to the traders and passengers and only 20 per cent. to the railway companies. Then the hon. and gallant Gentleman alluded to the London docks. He could not have put forward a, better illustration of the futility of his own argument. He says that there was great competition in the old days. Let us go back to the old days. What happened when there was great competition in the London docks? I happen to know because about 40 years ago I was a. shareholder in the London docks. Owing to the great competition in the London docks there was practically no dividend on either the East or West India or the London or St. Catherine Dock. They could not get money to improve or extend the dock or to put in the more modern apparatus which was necessary. The result was that the docks were taken over by a trust and then the charges were at once raised.
If you put an undertaking into such a position that it cannot run satisfactorily, and pay a moderate return to its share- 1997 holders and obtain money to keep the undertaking in proper order, one of two things must happen. Either the people using it must suffer or it will be taken over by the State or some trust, when immediately the charges are raised, as was done in the case of the railways during the War. The hon. and gallant Member for Newcastle (Major Barnes) attempted to meet the argument, which I understand was raised for the Ministry of Transport, that if the dock charges were lowered there would have to be an increase in the railway rates, and therefore it did not make any difference to the public whether they paid more in railway rates or less in dock rates. The hon. and gallant Gentleman said something about ancillary businesses. Sub-section (4) of Section 58 of the Railway Act provides:When fixing the charges necessary to produce the standard revenue the tribunal shall take into consideration the charges in respect of any business carried on by the company ancillary or subsidiary to its railways, the charges for which are not subject to the jurisdiction of the tribunal, and if in the opinion of the tribunal the company is not making, or has not taken reasonable steps to enable it to make, adequate charges in respect of such business, the tribunal shall in fixing the charges under this part of the Act, take into account the revenue which would be produced by any such business if adequate charges were in operation.7.0 P.M.
After that the argument of the hon. and gallant Gentleman falls to the ground, and the argument of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport is shown to be true, that under this Bill the public will not suffer in any kind of way because, if there is no reduction in the dock rates, and if the result is that there is an increase in revenue beyond the revenue of 1913, there must be a reduction in the railway rates. One word with regard to the real conditions and the real reasons why this Bill is brought in. Up to July, 1920, there was no increase whatever in the charges of the railway docks. During all that time, that is for six years from 1914 to 1920, the people using the docks had been making an enormous profit. They were not content with 4¼ per cent. on their capital. In 1920, the charge powers were reviewed, and it was found that the charges actually made in railway-owned docks were up to the level of the maximum charges, and that in spite of that a heavy loss was being incurred on the working of the docks as a whole. There is no object in making people work 1998 at a loss; they cannot go on with that sort of thing, and you cannot have proper development under such circumstances. Therefore, while the charges were increased, they were subject to revision should the result be an increase of the railway companies' revenue beyond the revenue of 1913. There is another remedy, however. The Act of 1920 contains provisions enabling Chambers of Commerce or Shipping or any other such body to apply for the revision of dock charges and to be heard before the representative advisory committee. This new Bill does not disturb that practice, which should be adequate for all requirements. Therefore, if these people have a just cause of complaint, they have a tribunal to which they can go.
The hon. and gallant Member for East Newcastle says "Why send them before a tribunal? Why not send them before a Committee of this House?" That would be devolution with a vengeance, if every case had to go before a Committee of this House. How could such a Committee take evidence and judge of a thing of that sort? Without in any way desiring to reflect on a Committee of this House, would it not he subject to pressure from its constituents? Is that the sort of tribunal to which these matters ought to be referred? The hon. and gallant Gentleman said this was a sort of taxing Measure. Would he like the railway companies to fix their own charges? If so, I can assure him there would be no objection on the part of the railway companies, for there would be no taxing charges and no expenses, and no tribunals would be necessary. The hon. and gallant Gentleman would not really like that. Instead of being a taxing Measure, the Bill limits the charges which the people who have invested their money in certain undertakings may make.
I felt that it was necessary to put the true state of matters before the House. The hon. and gallant Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme, for whom I have a very great respect, and I might almost say a liking, has, I am sorry to say, gone out of the House. I think he has deteriorated since he joined his new party. I have always had not only a liking but a respect for him. What has happened to him during the last four or five months I do not know; he seems to have lost his balance. In the old days, he used to be concerned about land, but now it is rail- 1999 ways also. He seems entirely to lose his head, and to make all sorts of statements which really are not founded on facts. This Bill is a modest one. It is very moderate, and it ought to be passed.
§ Mr. T. P. O'CONNOR
I think it would be very unfair on the House to detain it, except with a very few observations. The mind of the House is pretty well made up on this Bill, and the result of the Division will be such as to represent the opinions which have been expressed. As a representative of Liverpool, however, and as Parliamentary Chairman of the Dock and Harbour Authorities Committee, I feel obliged, in the interests of my city and my constituents, to say one or two words. I am in the unhappy position of agreeing with all parties and with none on this question. I cannot imagine the right hon. Baronet the Member for the City of London (Sir F. Banbury) and myself agreeing on anything.
§ Mr. O'CONNOR
I am afraid I have a sort of incapacity for following his lead on this Bill, though I take the same view of the Bill as he does. I agree with the hon. and gallant Member for East Newcastle (Major Barnes) who has spoken of the caution needed in regard to these Bills of railway companies, dock companies or others, which increase their charges, and which should be reviewed with the closest scrutiny. He suggested that instead of an Act of Parliament like this being brought in by the Government those public authorities should be allowed to adopt the ordinary course of bringing it a private Bill. I wonder if the hon. and gallant Gentleman has thought out that proposition? I think the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport said that the number of authorities engaged were about 100 in all.
§ Mr. O'CONNOR
I put it to my hon. and gallant Friend, how is he going to enable these public authorities to reduce charges if he adds to those charges all the gigantic expense involved in carrying through this House 80 private Bills? It is a terrible charge, it is an exaggerated charge, which some day or other, in some form or other, will have to be remedied, to compel these great companies to pay enormous fees to great counsel during pro- 2000 longed sittings of Committees of this House in order to obtain the smallest modification of their arrangements. I regard this as an Emergency Bill; emergency, not really on the conditions which demand it, but emergency because of short period to which it refers. The operation of this Bill terminates after two years. I put it to my hon. and gallant Friend, or to any other hon. Member, however careful and vigilant he may be with regard to the plans of great corporations like railway companies and dock companies, is it right to subject these bodies to the expense of 80 private Bills for the short period of two years? That is my answer to my hon. and gallant Friend.
With regard to the general charge of my right hon. Friend the Member for Peebles (Sir D. Maclean) that the Bill is obscure because of its constant system of reference, I quite agree. When he read out that Clause I knew very well that nothing under about 48 hours would have enabled me to interpret it. That, again, however, was irrelevant. The right hon. Gentleman should adopt the excellent example of the late John Bright, who never throughout his life read a Bill through. He found it far easier to trust to picking up the threads and the main points by listening to the discussions than to go through the weird and strange language of either Bills or Acts of Parliament. I rather resent the tone adopted with regard to some of these dock authorities, and especially the dock authority in my own constituency. We have there a number of the leading and most prominent citizens of Liverpool, who give all their time for nothing. Except for a very small interest of the bondholders, the docks of Liverpool are carried on in the interests of the trade and the public, and not as a private profit-making concern. I cannot see why bodies like that should not be trusted to have the judgment to adjust their dock charges to the very difficult position of the shipping and the trading community to-day. Many representatives of the shipping companies are on most of these dock boards, and they are there to see that the charges are not too great. I find a difficulty in understanding how the dock company of Liverpool and such bodies as that would be able to give the comparatively satisfactory wages which the dockers enjoy if they were prevented by the caprice or 2001 ignorance of this House from being allowed to make charges which would render this service remunerative.
§ Mr. WIGNALL
I feel it necessary to make clear my position with regard to this Bill. We have listened to a good many speeches to-night which seem to have wandered far away from the real purpose of the Measure. So far as my memory goes, only one speech dealt with the practical issues of the Bill and placed the exact position before the House. We have heard some speeches from this side of the House with which I am in entire disagreement. The old proverb says, "Necessity makes strange bedfellows." I am in agreement with people to-night with whom I am very frequently in disagreement. I am in agreement with them because of the necessity that underlies this Bill. I have been connected with dock works and dock workers for the last 33 years. I know something of the difficulty dock authorities have in carrying on their business, and I certainly do know something of the docker's life. I know this, and it is the one thing that influences me above all else, that if you reduce your clock charges, you relieve the shipowner a little bit, and the trader a little bit. You may relieve the general public to a small degree, but as sure as you do that., down it will come upon the dock worker in reduced wages, and he will feel the burden and suffer most as a result. I remember, during the period when the claims for increases in charges were submitted by the dock and harbour authorities, that I sat on a Committee for many long months. We heard statements and examined accounts, which all went to prove that unless these authorities could increase their charges, they could not increase wages in order to meet the rise in the cost of living. And so it continued.
To-day we are face to face with the fact that, unless some provision is made, the dock companies will lose revenue, and they will come to the dock workers and say, "We cannot continue to pay even the wages you are receiving, and you must submit to a further reduction." So it is the toiler who will have to bear the burden at the end. I wish to utter my protest against an attempt to reduce charges which in their turn enable the authorities to pay the present wages. We have heard a statement about the loss 2002 of trading. That applies to every dock in the country to-day. It means that the dock worker is getting only one, two or three days' work a week. If the trade was sufficient to give the man a full week every week, there would be an opportunity, probably, of discussing even a further question of reduction. But when you have reduced wages and reduced earning power, it is a tragedy to those who have to live at the ports. I listened to the hon. Member who moved the rejection of the Bill, and I was surprised at some of the reasons he gave. I could understand a comparison between one port and another in this country, or between North and South, but comparisons between Middlesbrough and Antwerp are unreasonable. I do not know what were the circumstances concerning the cargo to which reference was made. I know Middlesbrough as well as any man. It is a noted port for steel rails. It is certain that shipping would not go to Antwerp to load a cargo of steel rails from Middlesbrough.
I do not know what was the intention of the hon. Member's comparison, whether it was a reference to lesser wages paid in Antwerp as against those paid at Middlesbrough, or to dock dues at Middlesbrough compared with dock dues at Antwerp. The hon. Gentleman did not make his point clear. It is useless to adduce arguments of that kind to show that wages, however high, will affect trade. You can re-duce the wages at the docks to the pre-War level if you like. That will not bring one ship more into harbour. The argument used to-night seems to have been that high charges were keeping trade away. The volume of trade does not exist. I want to make it clear that I represent the transport workers. I know that if this Bill does not pass we shall have a great difficulty later on. It is because I am interested in the safeguarding of the wages and earning power of the docker that I shall support the Bill.
§ Mr. NEAL
The right hon. Member for Peebles (Sir D. Maclean) made certain criticisms of the draftsmanship of the Bill. I am not going to discuss the draftsmanship. That may be dealt with in Committee. The Clause criticised is perfectly clear and will cause no confusion. The right hon. Gentleman—his bad example was followed by the hon. Gentleman who moved the rejection of the Bill— 2003 thought this a convenient opportunity for discussing the continued existence of the Ministry of Transport. If that matter has to be discussed, it is obvious that I am not the person who ought to discuss it. If hon. Members had given the matter further consideration, they would have realised that fact. The economies which were recommended by the Geddes Committee have been more than realised, and as to the question of efficiency I must leave the House to judge. My hon. Friend, who moved the rejection of the Bill, made a complaint which on consideration he will see had no foundation at all. He said we had been sheltering the companies. I suppose he meant the railway companies. He must be aware that we had no power, and have no power at this moment, to interfere with the charges which the railway companies have been making. When the Government decontrolled the railways in August last year they gave up, with the general consent. of the House, and, I believe, with the entire approval of the country, the right to fix railway charges. You cannot have decontrol and abandon the right of the Government to interfere in these charges, and at the same time blame the Government for not interfering in the charges.
It comes singularly badly from those who have had given to them by the Act of 1921 free access to a tribunal established for the purpose—a tribunal which has been constituted and waiting to hear the complaints of traders and of other persons, representative bodies, such as the Chambers of Shipping and Chambers of Commerce—it comes singularly badly from them to hurl against the Government the statement that the Government have been sheltering interests under some sort of umbrella. It is not for me on this question of railways and charges to say anything one way or the other. There is an impartial tribunal established. The road to it is easy and the costs involved are slight. The traders have their right to be heard. I am glad to say that at last the Federation of British Industries have lodged an application, which will be heard early in July. It cannot be said with fairness or propriety against the Government that we have sheltered some railway company or other persons when we have divested ourselves, or invited Parliament to divest us, of any right to interfere.
2004 Let me come to other criticisms, apart from the railway companies. It is quite true that the Minister has had the power under the Act of 1920 to regulate charges. I will give the names of the Committee appointed to deal with this matter. No better tribunal could be selected for the purpose of advising a Minister. The Chairman of the Committee is a distinguished lawyer, Sir Francis Gore-Browne, K.C. Agriculture, our second largest national industry, is represented by Sir Walter Berry. Transport, in the shape of ports and docks, is represented by Sir Joseph Broodbank, who up to a short time ago was an important member of the Port of London Authority. The railways are represented by Mr. W. A. Jepson; the traders by Mr. Stanley Machin, President of the London Chamber of Commerce; and the Chamber of Shipping by Sir Wm. J. Noble. It is on the advice of that important Committee that these matters have been dealt with in the past. I was delighted to hear it stated that no more careful and skilful work could have been done than that done by this Committee.
If the Bill passes, the position will be that every one of the dock and harbour undertakings will come under review by the Committee before February, 1923. You could not leave 80 undertakings to come to Parliament for Private Bill legislation. That would have blocked business in the House and wasted valuable time this Session, and I doubt very much whether you could do it next Session either. The Government have no interest in the matter except the interest of seeing that all the charges are reduced to the smallest point consistent with re-establishing the industry of the country. The Bill provides for that. It calls upon every undertaking to justify its position. I am a little surprised that there should be any attack made on the ground of the Ministry being careless, when the chamber of shipping, which is specifically named in the Act of 1921, as a body which can make representations as to reductions of charges, has never made a single representation with reference to a single undertaking. If I may, as a junior Member of the Government and a somewhat young Member of this House, be allowed to say it, I would state that I do not minimise the importance of the Committee stage of 2005 this Bill. To stand here and to pretend that the last word has been said upon this question or that the Amendments put forward are to be laid aside as nothing, is not the attitude I wish to take. My hon. and learned Friend suggested certain Amendments. I do not think this is the time or the place to discuss those Amendments in detail. They can be much better discussed when their terms appear on the Order Paper and one can take time to consider what their effect will be. We must protect these public utility undertakings which are managed by gentlemen, not for profit, but for the public good, against insolvency. We must protect the interests of the trader. At the same time the interests of the trader is not protected by keeping any of these great ancillary services in a state of impecuniosity. All I can say to the Mover of the Amendment is, that every point raised by him or by other right hon. and hon. Members in the course of this Debate, will receive the fullest and most careful consideration, and I hope the conclusion may be to the advantage of the traders of the country.
§ Sir D. MACLEAN
We have had a very general statement from the hon. Gentleman that he will take these matters into consideration. Will he answer a specific point? Will he view with favour in Committee an Amendment to limit the operation of this Act to 12 months instead of two years.
§ Mr. NEAL
With great respect to my right hon. Friend, I suggest that is not quite the measure of courtesy I should expect from him. I repeat, notwithstanding his great knowledge of the business, that notices have to be given in the autumn for the Bills of next Session unless the 2006 promoters of Private Bill legislation are prepared to take the risk of asking leave to introduce late Bills, in which case they are at the mercy of the procedure of the House. I do not imagine my right hon. Friend, if he were advising one of these undertakers, Would advise him to take that risk. I have said quite frankly to the House that the Government pledge is limited only to one year. There is something to he said from that point of view. There is a good deal to be said from the other point of view. I will keep an open mind upon the subject, and hear what is to be said on any Amendment which is put upon the Paper.
§ Sir D. MACLEAN
The Bill says that the principal Act shall have effect till 15th February, 1925. My point is, that it should be 1924. You do not require to give notice for private Bills in November, 1922, in connection with a matter which only comes into operation in 1924.
§ Mr. NEAL
I must be allowed to make my point, even if it happens to differ from the views of my right hon. Friend. If these charges are to be operative in February, 1924, they must receive Parliamentary sanction in 1923, and private Bill legislation for 1923 must be subject to notice upon the Order of 1922.
§ Mr. A. SHAW
In view of the fact that my hon. Friend has been good enough to say he will give the fullest and most careful consideration to the specific points that I raise, I beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Main Question put, and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee.