HC Deb 29 March 1939 vol 345 cc2056-65

Question again proposed, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to restore to the London County Council power to provide a service of passenger vessels on the River Thames and for purposes connected therewith.

Mr. Herbert

I was saying that the heads of the London Passenger Transport Board are a landlubberly lot; but Parliament has placed upon them a duty and they have failed to discharge it. If it is only a question of money the Minister of Transport is able to assist, and I am a little surprised not to see him here today. I notice that the Parliamentary Secretary is here but I would prefer to have the Minister. He has power under the Ministry of Transport Act, 1919, to provide assistance for such services as this; but the Minister has rather curtly declined to do any such thing. Yesterday the Minister in one of his delightfully glib speeches was talking about the co-ordination of transport: and yesterday Mr. Frank Pick was talking about the congestion of transport in London. This morning I came down the river from Hammersmith to this place in my boat, eight miles, and the only traffic I met were two police boats and the University crews: but every bridge under which I passed was blocked with stationary buses. Mr. Pick was talking boastfully yesterday about the £45,000,000 which they are spending on development: but they cannot provide the £500,000 which would be required for this service. I must say that I am fed up with the whole lot. I have given them six years and that is enough.

Therefore, I now propose that these powers should be transferred to the London County Council, which has had experience and, on the whole, profitable experience in this affair, though I am also bound to say that I have no reason to suppose that they themselves desire these powers to be transferred to them.

I am not asking the House to accept my own experience or my own knowledge or my own assertions. In 1934, the London and Home Counties Traffic Advisory Committee inquired into this affair. I wish to repeat my previous statement about their findings in view of the suggestion made by the Minister in which he did me, I am sure unintentionally, an injustice in saying that I had misquoted those findings. It is not my habit to misquote anything, and I said then, as I say now, that they found that such a service was (a) desirable and (b) practicable. It is true that there were limitations and qualifications which it was impossible to get into a supplementary question. They found that such a service was desirable since it would add to the amenities of London and would have advantages from the point of view of health and education; and they found that it was practicable from the point of view of operation as far as Putney. They also used some of the old antediluvian stuff about there being no public demand, and about not being sure whether such a service would be self-supporting or not; but, as I remarked the other day, is there any other form of transport which, on the same basis, can be said to be self-supporting? Has there ever been any "public demand" for any form of transport at all? When I think of the unemployment figures and the approach of war, I dismiss all that stuff contemptuously, and I say that any Minister who was worth his salt would do the same. May I say, in parenthesis, that I cannot continue to support His Majesty's Government in unemployment Debates as I have done on three occasions in the last few weeks, if schemes like this, about which I know, which are small, maybe, but are symptomatic of bigger things, are dismissed as contemptuously as this has been.

So much for peace. In the event of war, the Port of London will be one of the first and most important targets of the invading aeroplanes and it is essential that the river should be thoroughly equipped and ready for that emergency. At' the present moment the proper authorities—or rather the improper authorities, for it is not really the business of the Port of London authority to do these things—are making, I think, very good and elaborate plans for that occasion. They are not A.R.P. plans of the "funk-hole" variety, but plans which are aimed at keeping the work of the Port going or to use the horrible language of the Civil Defence Bill to "secure the due functioning" of that undertaking. The object of them is to provide transport and protection, and if necessary rescue, for the men who work on or about the river. I believe that on any given day there are 20,000 such men on the water. Nothing could be too good for those men; and when anybody tells me that you cannot bring such a service into being for such an aim because it may not pay, because it may involve a loss amounting to a ¼d. rate, then I say that is no answer.

Leaving aside the question of the boats let me go back to the question of piers. This is highly important for many reasons, but I should like to borrow a bold phrase from the Front Bench and say that it would not be in the public interest to say all that I know. But you, at least, Sir, will at once perceive the point. This is Boat Race week, and you, Mr. Speaker, may remember that this time last year I had the honour to transport you in my own boat from the Speaker's Steps to Hammersmith; and you will remember, I think, how comparatively smooth and unobstructed that passage was at a time when every other form of transport was congested. But when we arrived at our destination there was another story to tell. For it was half-tide, there were no piers, and the Speaker of this House had to be decanted into a dinghy and marched through the mud, an ordeal which was borne with characteristic fortitude but was an intolerable affront to the dignity of the House. You, Sir, therefore at least understand what I mean. I wish I could think that the Minister of Transport understood as much. To-day he assures me that this subject is under constant review. That is very encouraging but only a fortnight ago I asked him whether he was aware of this deficiency of piers and that the emergency services were likely to be hampered by that deficiency, and he said that he was aware of no such thing. Now he says that the question is under constant review, and that is extremely encouraging, I am sure. I am not in this matter talking any airy-fairy academic nonsence. I am speaking about things I know from practical experience, having navigated the river for the last 20 years; and, what is more important, I speak with the knowledge and advice of men of action who are, in practice, preparing plans, and they say that those plans are being hampered in fact and in prospect; and it is no good now saying that the thing is under constant review. What is needed is instant action.

It is a singular and saddening thing that in this great maritime country whose greatness has been built upon the water, and even in this House which stands beside the mighty Thames, anyone who suggests that our waterways should be more efficiently equipped and more fully utilised is regarded as queer and cranky. I have suffered that cheerfully for many years in the times of peace, but I suggest that the time has now come when that kind of thinking ought to be put aside. I know that in principle there is nothing to be said for this Bill, but I am tired of grandiose plans and principles which do not lead to any action. This Motion may be no more than a desperate prod at that immovable mass the Ministry of Transport, but it is at least that. As to the London Passenger Transport Board, I understand their financial difficulties, and I know that they are loath to engage in any new speculative undertaking. But the Ministry of Transport has no such excuse. Ever since it came into "being it has maintained in the matter of waterways an unbroken record of inertia, ignorance and indifference. I have had hopes, and I still faintly hope for better things from the present Minister; but I am bound to say that his recent answers upon this question remind me of the old Irish story of the 13th stroke of a defective clock, which not only is itself discredited but casts a shade of doubt over all previous assertions.

If the Parliamentary Secretary is interested enough to make any reply, I hope he will assure me that the Minister is now going to give his creative mind to the question of utilising the Thames for transport, that he will bend a dominating and directing mind on the various competing and overlapping authorities, the London County Council, the Port of London Authority and the London Passenger Transport Board, and I shall then be glad to withdraw my Motion. But if not, I do suggest that these powers so long neglected should be handed over to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Hackney (Mr. H. Morrison). He is a man of creative energy and civic pride; he has always regarded as a fault and a shame the way in which we neglect our river; and though I am quite prepared to hear him say that, in principle, these powers should remain with and be exercised by the London Passenger Transport Board, I am sure that if he had these powers he would not be content for ten minutes to look out of the windows either of this Parliament or of the other Parliament opposite, and see the mighty river of London inefficiently equipped and insufficiently utilised whether for the purposes of peace or war.

Sir John Mellor

I rise to oppose the Motion. I think my hon. Friend admitted that he is only concerned to-day to make a demonstration. He said that Parliament had cast a duty upon the London Passenger Transport Board to run a service. The terms in the Act were, "to run a service if they thought fit," and it is clear that they have thought not fit. My hon. Friend has referred to the possibility of conditions of war. If we are to consider exceptional conditions such as would arise in an emergency, it is for the Government to supply the initiative, and I have no reason whatsoever to doubt that the London Passenger Transport Board would give every assistance in their power. My hon. Friend has not asked that the London County Council. should have concurrent powers. What he has asked is that powers should be restored to them by taking those powers away from the London Passenger Transport Board. Of course, statutory bodies, in order to run a service, must have statutory powers.

I want to make it clear that the powers that we are discussing to-day are not in any sense exclusive powers. It is perfectly possible, without any statutory impediment, for private enterprise to run a service to-day provided that it satisfies the regulations of the Board of Trade and the Port of London Authority with regard to the safety of the craft. There is no monopoly at all. With regard to piers, the piers are in existence, and there is a right for anyone to embark or disembark at those piers on payment of the appropriate tolls. My hon. Friend referred to the report of the London and Home Counties Traffic Advisory Committee of 1934. That body, after holding a public inquiry and hearing a great mass of evidence, came no this among other conclusions. They said: We are not convinced that any regular service would attract sufficient traffic to be self-sup porting.'' In view of that, and very likely for other reasons, too, there has been no desire whatever evinced by the London County Council to have these powers restored to them. My hon. Friend referred to the experience that the county council has enjoyed. Their experience was this. In 1905 they began a service of passenger steamers, which they abandoned in 1907. In 1920 the highways committee of the county council reported against a revival of the service. In 1933 the county council quite cheerfully agreed to the transfer of their powers to the Passenger Transport

Board and in 1934 the county council recommended that the Passenger Transport Board should run a service when financially practicable. I do not think the ratepayers of London would desire to encourage the London County Council to embark on another flutter.

My hon. Friend has dismissed a good deal of what the Traffic Advisory Committee said rather lightly as being limitations and qualifications. It is true that that committee expressed broad sympathy with the idea but they did say that there was no evidence of public demand, that such a service would not tend to relieve pressure upon existing traffic facilities, that it would not be comparable in quickness and that the Passenger Transport Board was the authority best qualified to operate a regular service. Finally they said that there was a poor prospect of such a service being self-supporting. I do not feel that the London Passenger Transport Board, having regard to the present state of its finances—it is unable at the moment to fulfil its statutory obligations to one class of its stockholders—ought to be called upon to run what in normal times would be mainly a pleasure service at a loss, neither do I think the ratepayers of London ought to be asked to shoulder such a liability. If subsequently it should appear that such a service would be likely to be a paying proposition, the Passenger Transport Board would be the proper authority, and not the county council, to operate such a service.

Question put, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to restore to the London County Council power to provide a service of passenger vessels on the River Thames and for purposes connected therewith.

The House divided: Ayes, 174; Noes, 132.

Division No. 73.] AYES. [4.37 p.m.
Adams, S. V. T. (Leeds, W.) Cazalet, Capt. V. A. (Chippenham) Entwistle, Sir C. F
Anstruther-Gray, W. J. Channon, H. Evans, E. (Univ. of Wales)
Apsley, Lord Cluse, W. S. Everard, Sir William Lindsay
Balniel, Lord Cooks, F. S. Fox, Sir G. W. G.
Banfield, J. W. Cook., J. D. (Hammersmith, S.) Fremantle, Sir F. E.
Barr, J. Courthope, Col. Rt. Hon. Sir G. L. Fyfe, D. P. M.
Barrie, Sir C. C. Cove., W. G. Gardner, B. W.
Bellenger, F. J. Crossley, A. C. George, Megan Lloyd (Anglesey)
Bernays, R. H. Culverwell, C. T. Gilmour, Lt.-Col. Rt. Hon. Sir J.
Bevan, A. Davidson, J. J. (Maryhill) Graham, Captain A. C. (Wirral)
Bossom, A. C. Davies, S. O. (Merthyr) Grant-Ferris, Flight-Lieutenant R.
Boulton, W. W. Denman, Hon. R. D. Granville, E. L.
Boyce, H. Leslie Donner, P. W. Grattan-Doyle, Sir N.
Brown, C. (Mansfield) Drewe, C. Griffith, F. Kingsley (M'ddl'sbro, W.)
Bull, B. B. Duckworth, Arthur (Shrewsbury) Guest, Lieut.-Colonel H. (Drake)
Bullock, Capt. M. Duggan, H. J. Guest, Dr. L. H. (Islington, N.)
Burton, Col. H. W. Eden, Rt. Hon. A. Guinness, T. L. E. B.
Butcher, H. W. Edwards, A. (Middlesbrough E.) Hall, G. H. (Aberdare)
Campbell Sir E. T. Elliot, Rt. Hon. W. E. Hambro, A. V.
Cazalet, Tholma (Islington, E.) Elliston, Capt. G. S. Hannon, Sir P. J. H.
Harbord, A. Mathers, G. Sinclair, Col. T. (Queen's U. B'lf'st)
Harris, Sir P. A. Medlicott, F. Smites, Lieut.-Colonel Sir W. D.
Harvey, T. E. (Eng. Univ's.) Mills, Sir F. (Leyton, E.) Smith, Bracewell (Dulwish)
Haslam, Sir J. (Bolton) Mills, Major J. D. (New Forest) Smith, Rt. Han. H. B. Lees- (K'ly)
Heilgers, Captain F. F. A. Milner, Major J. Somerville, A. A. (Windsor)
Henderson, T. (Tradeston) Mitcheson. Sir G. G. Spens, W. P.
Heneage, Lieut.-Colenel A. P. Montague, F. Stewart, J. Henderson (Fife, E.)
Hepworth, J. Moore, Lieut.-Col. Sir T. C. R. Stewart, William J. (Belfast, S.)
Holdsworth, H. Morrison, G. A. (Scottish Univ's.) Stuart, Lord C. Crichton- (N'thw'h)
Hunter, T. Muff, G. Stuart, Hon. J. (Moray and Nairn)
Hurd, Sir P. A. Naylor, T. E. Sueter, Rear-Admiral Sir M. F.
Jones, Sir H. Haydn (Merioneth) Nicolson, Hon. H. G. Summerskill, Dr. Edith
Jones, L. (Swansea W.) O'Neill, Rt. Hon. Sir Hugh Sutcliffe, H.
Kerr, Colonel C. I. (Montrose) Palmer, G. E. H. Taylor, Vice-Adm. E. A. (Padd., S.)
Kerr, H. W. (Oldham) Peake, O. Thomas, J. P. L.
Kerr, j. Graham (Scottish Univs.) Petherick, M. Thomson, Sir J. D. W.
Keyes, Admiral of the Fleet Sir R. Pilkington, R. Thorne, W.
Knox, Major-General Sir A. W. F. Plugge, Capt. L. F. Thurtle, E.
Lamb, Sir J. Q. Ponsonby, Col. C. E. Touche, G. C.
Lambert, Rt. Hon. G. Poole, C. C. Turton, R. H.
Lancaster, Captain C. G. Porritt, R. W. Walker, J.
Lansbury, Rt. Hon. G. Procter, Major H. A. Wallace, Capt. Rt. Hon. Euan
Lawson, J. J. Radford, E. A. Ward, Irene M. B. (Wallsend)
Leslie, J. R. Raikes, H. V. A. M. Wardlaw-Milne, Sir J. S.
Lindsay, K. M. Rathbone, Eleanor (English Univ's.) Warrender, Sir V.
Locker-Lampsen, Comdr. O. S. Rathbone, J. R. (Bodmin) Watkins, F. C.
Loftus, P. C. Roberts, W. (Cumberland, N.) Watson, W. McL.
Mabane, W. (Huddersfield) Ross Taylor, W. (Woodbridge) Watt, Lt.-Col. G. S. Harvie
Macdonald, Capt. P. (Isle of Wight) Rothschild, J. A. de Wayland, Sir W. A.
McGhee, H. G. Russell, Sir Alexander Wedderburn, H. J. S.
Macquisten, F. A. Russell, R. J. (Eddisbury) Welsh, J. C.
Magnay, T. Salmon, Sir. I. White, H. Graham
Mainwaring, W. H. Sandys, E. D. Wilkinson, Ellen
Maitland, Sir Adam Seely, Sir H. M. Willoughby de Eresby, Lord
Mander, G. le M. Sexton, T. M. Wilson, C. H. (Attercliffe)
Margesson, Capt. Rt. Han. H. D. R. Shakespeare, G. H Wragg, H.
Markham, S, F. Shaw, Major P. S. (Wavertree)
Marsden, Commander A. Shepperson, Sir E. W. TELLERS FOR THE AYES.
Mason, Lt.-Col. Hon. G. K. Simmonds, O. E. Mr. Alan Herbert and Sir Edward Grigg.
Acland-Troyte, Lt.-Col. G. J. Dodd, J. S. McEntee, V. La T.
Adams, D. (Consett) Doland, G. F. MacMillan, M. (Western Isles)
Adams, D. M. (Poplar, S.) Duncan, J. A. L. Makins, Brigadier-General Sir Ernest
Adamson, Jennie L. (Dartford) Eakersley, P. T. Messer, F.
Adamson, W. M. Ede, J. C. Moreing, A. C.
Alexander, Brig.-Gen. Sir W. Edmondson, Major Sir J. Morris-Jones, Sir Henry
Anderson, Sir A. Garrett (C. of Ldn.) Edwards, Sir C. (Badwellty) Morrison, Rt. Hon. H. (Hackney, S.)
Anderson, F. (Whitehaven) Emery, J. F. Morrison, R. C. (Tottenham, N.)
Astor, Viscountess (Plymouth, Sutton) Errington, E. Munro, P.
Astor, Hon. W. W. (Fulham, E.) Evans, Capt. A. (Cardiff, S.) Parkinson, J. A.
Baley, J. Fleming, E. L. Pearson, A.
Baxter, A. Beverley Fletcher, Lt.-Comdr. R. T. H. Pethick-Lawrence, Rt. Hon. F. W.
Beauchamp, Sir B. C. Gallacher. W. Pownall, Lt.-Col. Sir Assheton
Beaumont, H. (Batley) Gibson, R. (Greenock) Price, M. P.
Beaumont, Hon. R. E. B. (Portsm'h) Glyn, Major Sir R. G. C. Quibell, D. J. K.
Benn, Rt. Hon. W. W. Graham, D. M. (Hamilton) Rayner, Major R. H.
Benson, G. Green, W. H. (Deptford) Reed, Sir H. S. (Aylesbury)
Blair, Sir R. Greenwood, Rt. Hon. A. Ridley, G.
Briscoe, Capt. R. G. Grenfell, D. R. Riley, B.
Broad, F. A. Griffiths, G. A. (Hemsworth) Ritson, J.
Brown, Brig.-Gen. H. C. (Newbury) Griffiths, J. (Llanelly) Robinson, J. R. (Blackpool)
Burke, W. A. Groves, T. E. Robinson, W. A. (St. Helens)
Cape, T. Guest, Hon. I. (Brecon and Radnor) Rowlands, G.
Castlereagh, Viscount Hacking, Rt. Hon. Sir D. H. Royds, Admiral Sir P. M. R.
Cayzer, Sir C. W. (City of Chester) Hall, J. H. (Whitechapel) Sandeman, Sir N. S.
Chater, D. Hammersley, S. S. Sanders, W. S.
Clarke, Colonel R. S. (E. Grinstead) Henderson, A. (Kingswinford) Simpson, F. B.
Clarry, Sir Reginald Hicks, E. G. Smith, E. (Stoke)
Cobb, Captain E. C. (Preston) Hunloke, H. P. Smith, T. (Normanton)
Colfox, Major W. P. Jagger, J. Sorensen, R. W.
Collindridge, F. Jenkins, A. (Pontypool) Stewart, W. J. (H'ght'n-le-Sp'ng)
Conant, Captain R. J. E. Jenkins, Sir W. (Neath) Taylor, R. J. (Morpeth)
Cripps, Hon. Sir Stafford Johnston, Rt. Hon. T. Tinker, J. J.
Crowder, J. F. E. Jones, A. C. (Shipley) Tomlinson, G.
Dagger, G. Kennedy, Rt. Hon. T. Viant, S. P.
Dalton, H. Kirby, B. V. Walkden, A. G.
Davies, Major Sir G. F. (Yeovil) Kirkwood, D. Walker-Smith, Sir J.
Davies, R. J. (Westhoughton) Leach, W. Ward, Lieut.-Col. Sir A. L. (Hull)
Day, H. Lewis, O. Wells, Sir Sydney
De Chair, S. S. Logan, D. G. Westwood, J.
Denville, Alfred Lyons, A. M. Whiteley, W. (Blayden)
Dobbie, W. Macdonald, G. (Ince) Williams, E. J. (Ogmore)
Woods, G.S. (Finsbury) Young, A. S. L. (Partick) Sir John Mellor and Mr. Higgs.
Wright, Wing-Commander J.A.C Young, Sir R (Newton)

Resolution agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Alan Herbert Rear-Admiral Beamish, Mr. Crossley, Commander Marsden, Mr. Mabane, Sir Percy Harris, Sir Hugh Seely, Lieut.-Commander Fletcher, Sir Patrick Hannon, and Mr. Ross Taylor.