HC Deb 16 March 1944 vol 398 cc518-28

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Captain McEwen.]

Mr. Keeling (Twickenham)

This is the story of a well-known firm of civil engineering contractors employing many lorries on Government work, one of which broke its tipping gear. The firm adopted the only method which was possible to get this tipping gear repaired; they sent it back to the makers. The journey was reported to the Petrol Officer in the ordinary way, and the Petrol Officer made no comment. But a police constable happened to stop the lorry on its return journey, and it turned out later that the licence for petrol did not cover this journey. A prosecution followed. The firm was fined £2, but the Bench stated that they had listened sympathetically to the firm's explanation and were satisfied that they did not wilfully break the Regulations. The Bench were satisfied that there was no wilful breach, but the Regional Transport Commissioner was not satisfied. His chief assistant sent the defendants a letter which, after reciting the facts of the conviction, went on as follows: My Commissioner takes a serious view of the irregularities which have come to light, and I have to give you notice that in the event of evidence being received of any further irregularities on your part, or on the part of your servants, he will have no hesitation in taking the strongest possible action against you. Receipt of this letter should be acknowledged within seven days. I suggest that it is an English tradition that after a man has been tried and fined and has paid his fine he has purged his offence. He should not be submitted to castigation and threats by a Government Department. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary yesterday made a most remarkable statement. He quoted the defence which had led the bench to impose a nominal penalty, and he argued that the defence was unsound. He said: The defence was that they had not known what they ought to do. They ought to have known, and the warning"— That is the warning of the Regional Transport Commissioner— was intended to make it quite plain that such a defence would not carry any weight again with the Commissioner."—[OFFICIAL, REPORT, 55th March, 1944; col. 218, Vol. 398.] This statement by my hon. Friend seems to me to amount to a claim that the decision of a court, come to after hearing the evidence of both sides, which the Regional Transport Commissioner did not hear, may be questioned by the Executive. That is an extraordinary claim. It undermines the principle of the separation of the judicial power from the executive power, to which the Donoughmore Committee on Ministerial Powers drew attention. My hon. Friend said that the purpose of the letter was to warn, and that it was the practice in his Department to issue warning letters after petrol offences. I say that it is not the business of civil servants, after judicial proceedings have taken place, to warn. Nor does it make the slightest difference whether the penalty is a substantial or a nominal one. If the penalty is a nominal one, if the magistrate says, as in this case, that the offence was purely technical, to warn is harsh and unfair. If, on the other hand, the penalty is a substantial one, surely it is in itself a sufficient warning. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary admitted that the civil servant might have been overzealous. That seems far too mild a word. I say that the practice of issuing this letter —for it is a practice—is tyrannical, subversive of liberty, entirely unnecessary, even in war, and ought to cease.

I have a second complaint to make about this letter, but it is a subsidiary one. The tone of the letter is objectionable. It is not a letter which ought to be sent by a civil servant, who, in the eyes of the law, is the equal, and not the superior, of the ordinary citizen. The Minister said that this was not a threatening letter. I have looked up the word "threat" in the Oxford Dictionary, and I find two definitions of it there. One is, "An indication of coming evil"; the other is, "A declaration of an intention to punish or hurt." I submit that the words used, which I have read, answer both definitions; and, quite clearly, a civil servant ought not to threaten. But the attitude of this civil servant is illuminated by the final words of the letter, which are: Receipt of this letter should be acknowledged within seven days. What right has a Ministry of Transport official to demand acknowledgment of his letter within seven days? This sentence seems to me to read much more like an order from a court of law than a letter from a servant of the public; and I could use harsher language than that. I am not making any general attack on the Civil Service. It would be foolish to base a general attack on a single practice of the Ministry of War Transport. But, as the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. W. J. Brown)—who I am sorry is not here—who is the parliamentary secretary of the Civil Service Clerical Association, once said: There are signs that here and there civil servants have forgotten that they are the servants of the public. I suggest that it is the function of this House to remind them.

Lieut.-Colonel Dower (Penrith and Cockermouth)

I rise to support what has been most eloquently and very accurately stated by my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Keeling). I hope that the Minister will realise that this is a serious matter. It is not a small matter, but a matter which we have to watch very carefully, to make sure that it does not increase. As my hon. Friend said, this case was tried by a bench of magistrates. I can only think that the Department considered that the award made by the magistrates was not adequate, was not sufficient, and probably was not correct, and, therefore, they sent what is undoubtedly—I have a copy of it here—a threatening and abusive letter. Since this war started it has been necessary to increase bureaucracy and bureaucratic powers immensely. We all realise that it is a necessity of the war; but it is also necessary for us to see that these powers are not misused. It is a very grave duty of this House to see to that. I believe that in one of the letters the Minister said that there was no actual damage done by this letter.

Mr. Tinker (Leigh)

Will the hon. and gallant Member tell us where this happened? The hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Keeling) did not say

Mr. Keeling

Is it relevant?

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of War Transport (Mr. Noel-Baker)

The journey was from Sudbury to London.

Mr. Keeling

From Sudbury to Twickenham.

Lieut.-Colonel Dower

I gathered that no actual damage resulted from sending this letter, but that is no answer. That is equivalent to saying that it does not matter how rude and how abusive the letters sent by a Department to an individual are, so long as no damage results. I hope that my hon. Friend, when he replies, will have the courage to say that in this single instance an official has exceeded his duties, that it does not meet with his approval, and that he will take such steps as are possible to prevent that kind of occurrence again.

Major Manningham-Buller (Daventry)

I rise to support what has been said. It seems to me that this raises a most important question. This House cannot possibly judge whether the penalty imposed by the magistrates was right or wrong. I would like to know whether any letter of this sort was sent to those responsible for the conduct of the prosecution, and whether any complaint was made that the full facts were not put before the court. I do not know whether anything will be said about that, but it seems to me that once a court has judicially determined a question, neither side should seek to override it by letters of this sort, and particularly not those responsible for the prosecution. If a man is acquitted no one can appeal against his acquittal, save by way of a case stated that the case has gone wrong in law. I hope we shall he told that this is an isolated instance, that this letter is not a regular-type letter sent out in hundreds when anyone incurs the displeasure of a Regional Transport Commissioner, or, alternatively, that if that has been the practice in the past, it will be stopped immediately.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of War Transport (Mr. Noel-Baker)

I am most grateful to my hon. Friends for raising this matter. If I may say so, I take no exception to the language used. If I agreed with the facts as they have stated them, I should agree with everything they have said. Our difference really is about the facts. Founding himself on the case described my hon. Friend asked me to agree with him that my Regional Transport Commissioner made a mistake in sending out this warning letter on 29th December. He has asked me to disfavour this action and to give instructions that no Commissioner shall take any such action in cases which arise in future. I hope to persuade the House that it is wiser for me not to do as he suggests; that, in general, it is wiser to trust to the Commissioners' discretion, and to allow them to do what they judge to be right. If I understood my hon. Friends, and if I understand the feeling of the House, more importance is attached to the general principle than to the special case. If so, perhaps it will be convenient if I argue first the general principle, and deal with the special case, as an illustration, at the end.

I will begin by reminding the House of the general nature of the functions which Regional Transport Commissioners, under Act of Parliament, perform for the nation, the kind of authority they hold, and their relations with my Ministry and the public they serve. They perform certain statutory duties. They decide where omnibus services are to run, they fix the fares and they grant the licences; they decide what vehicles are required for road haulage work and they grant the licences; they have to make sure that the vehicles are kept up in good and roadworthy condition. They act in an independent, semi-judicial way. They consult us, and they consult each other on general questions as they arise. But the whole system would have become unworkable, the whole basis to which Parliament agreed would have become upset, if we had tried to make their decisions for them, if we had interfered before or after they had made their decisions, so much that their authority with the public would be undermined. In the war, it has been different, in this sense, that the regional commissioners agreed to become our executive officers. But we must still leave them a wide discretion, within the general policy which we laid down. That applies, and must obviously apply, to the detailed work of the rationing of fuel, which they must carry out.

I think perhaps the most arduous and difficult of all the tasks which the Commissioners have had has been the issuing of fuel rations to road haulage firms. It is a very arduous job and a job of the highest importance. The Commissioners are the nation's guardians of our petrol and rubber resources. At a certain stage of the war the petrol and the rubber front looked as though it might become perhaps our most dangerous front of all. It was vital then, and it is vital still, to save every ounce of rubber and all the petrol that we can. The transport industry were given a certain target figure, and so many tons of rubber per annum had to be saved by cutting down civilian transport. The savings of rubber and petrol had to be made. We could only do it by cutting down petrol allowed to omnibus companies and for retail distribution and road haulage.

The reduction of omnibus facilities was bad enough. At one time hon. Members were writing me 100 letters a week about the restrictions that we were obliged, very reluctantly, to put on. But road haulage was far worse. The Commissioners had to issue fuel rations for a month in advance. They had to decide, after consideration of the application of any given firm, whether the work on which the firm was engaged was really essential in the national interest. They had to decide whether the goods could or could not be sent on the railway or by canal. If the Commissioner refused fuel, as he often had to do, he knew he might be depriving the haulier of very profitable work or diverting him from more profitable to more essential work. Sometimes he knew that he might have been causing the vehicles of the haulier to stand idle and the drivers for a Commissioner to be unemployed. It would be very easy indeed to be generous in granting fuel, and, incidentally, more agreeable both to him and to all concerned, but it was vital in the national interest that he should do nothing of the kind, and that he should grant only the minimum quantities required in order that urgent and essential transport could be run.

Mr. Keeling

I would tell my hon. Friend that other hon. Members want to speak, and I hope that he will come to the point. He has not come to it yet.

Mr. Noel-Baker

I want my hon. Friend and the House to understand the very gravely important duties with which Commissioners are charged. [HON. MEMBERS: "We agree."] It was vital that the Commissioners should be ruthless in cutting out non-essential transport. A good deal of the time and energy of the Commissioners was taken up by checking mistakes, evasion and abuse. I have explained that the fuel had to be given a month in advance. It was very easy at the end of a month, when a Commissioner questioned a certain journey, for a haulier to say, "I understood that it was essential. I may have made a mistake but I was told that it was an urgent job." Sometimes the real purpose of the journey may have been to carry some very profitable traffic for which that road transport should never have been used. That would happen. The Commissioner would protest, and the next month there would be another excuse. There have been far too many cases of that kind. Sometimes these cases were genuine excuses, but even so, they were breaches of the law. In the case of a breach of the law, it is for the police to prosecute. The Commissioner provides a witness to explain the facts. It often happens that the defence of the haulier is that his irregularity was a mistake and he did not know what was wrong, he was ignorant of the right procedure, and it all happened through a most unfortunate inadvertence. That is defence which a Commissioner must naturally treat with great reserve. Sometimes it is capable of factual disproof, sometimes it is not.

Sometimes, though the Commissioner could not prove that the haulier had known the rules, he might have known in his own mind that the haulier ought to have known them, and that it was culpable negligence if he did not. Anyhow, when an experienced haulier with a large business and a number of vehicles has been let off with a light punishment, on the ground that the offence was committed inadvertently, the Commissioner was bound to do everything in his power to ensure that the thing should not occur again. That is why, the Commissioner sends out a warning letter. He sends out a letter to the haulier that it shall not happen again. My hon. Friend says that, as the court convicted, that ought to be the end of the matter. I agree, and so it is, if I can make myself plain to the House. It is, so far as that offence is concerned. I do not agree that letter comes under the heading of a "threat," as defined by the Oxford Dictionary. No evil will come unless another offence is committed. There is no question of disciplinary action about it; it is a warning to the haulier that, if the offence happens again, then disciplinary action will follow.

Major Manninger

Does it not say that if he errs again, a very severe sentence will be passed?

Mr. R. J. Taylor (Morpeth)

Does "disciplinary action" mean that his petrol could be cut off by the Commissioner?

Mr. Noel-Baker

Yes, Sir. I was going to ask my hon. Friend to remember that it was not only within the power of the Commissioner, but it is the duty of the Commissioner to cut off his petrol, or to restrict his ration if another offence occurs whether or not there are any further proceedings in a court. Therefore, I think, with great respect, that it is desirable these letters should go. It is desirable in the interests of the haulier himself, that he should know exactly where he stands, and it certainly is the duty of the Commissioner to try to make him understand it.

Mr. E. P. Smith (Ashford)

Can my hon. Friend say whether a similar letter was sent to the Bench involved?

Mr. Woodburn (Stirling and Clackmannan, Eastern)

Do I understand the position to be that if the Commissioner did not send this letter giving the haulier warning, and he committed another offence, he might find himself having his petrol cut off without having been warned, and there might be complaints from hon. Members that he had not had the warning due to him?

Mr. Noel-Baker

Yes, Sir, certainly and it is better that the man should be warned. The language used is a different question, but, in principle, I think the House will agree with me that it is right, after this thing has happened, that the Commissioner should make it plain that, if there has been inadvertence once, there must not be inadvertence twice. After all, it is very simple. The haulier has simply to ask the Commissioner, in respect of any journey about which he is in doubt, whether the journey ought to be made or not. Let me come, as my hon. Friend wishes me to come, to the actual case. I do not agree with him altogether about the facts; my information is a li tie different. This 23 horse power vehicle, one of a fleet of 12 which the firm had at that time, was sent from Sudbury to London, a distance of 66½ miles. The firm had a fleet of 12 vehicles. They were an experienced firm but they said they did not know the rules. We say, and surely we are entitled to say, that they ought to have known them, and it is quite plain that they ought to have known that they had to apply for fuel for this journey before the journey was actually made.

If they had asked our local office, they would have learned that there were repair facilities on the spot. Again, there, my information is different from that of my hon. Friend. They would have found that a long journey was not necessary, that this 130 miles of empty running could have been saved. But I am informed that they did not ask the local office, that they sent this lorry off to London, that the police there prosecuted, which meant that my Commissioner had to send a witness. The magistrates convicted the firm, but my hon. Friend says the magistrates expressed the view that the offence had been committed through inadvertence which resulted in the Commissioner sending a warning letter so that they should not make the same plea again. I submit to my hon. Friend that, in principle, that was right. I ask my hon. Friend to remember the great responsibility with which the Commissioners are charged, the great difficulty of their task in dealing with infractions which occur—and they are many. I ask him to remember that the waste of petrol is not a technical or petty error; it is a matter of the highest gravity from a national point of view. In some cases, a Commissioner may act in a way which some hon. Member may think unwise. Maybe, in his choice of language many hon. Members think that this Commissioner went too far. A standard letter may be more appropriate in some cases, but may be less appropriate, in others. It may be that in this case as my hon. Friend thinks that no letter should have been written—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear"]—but I ask my hon. Friend to consider whether it is not right, in general, to trust the Commissioners to use their desire for and to show the fairness, probity, wisdom, and courage by which they have gained the high respect of the transport world.

Mr. Hutchinson (Ilford)

I think the House is not likely to be satisfied with the explanation which the Parliamentary Secretary has just given us. As I understand the facts of this matter, the magistrates who tried this case came to the conclusion that an offence had, undoubtedly, been committed but that it was of a technical nature due to inadvertence, and that they imposed a fine which corresponded with that view. It was for the justices to say whether that inadvertence was culpable or not. It is abundantly plain that the justices came to the conclusion that it was not culpable.

Mr. Mathers (Linlithgow)

Is not that tantamount to saying that the inadvertence was, in fact, ignorance and that what the Commissioner set out to do was to remove that ignorance? Is it not also a fact that the Members who are pursuing this case strongly support the hon. and gallant Member for Coventry (Captain Strickland) when he raises cases of the empty running of vehicles, as being contrary to the national interest and a waste of petrol?

Mr. Hutchinson

My point is that it was for the magistrates who tried this case to decide whether the inadvertence was culpable or not. That is the whole point of this matter, and I say again that it is abundantly plain, from the penalty they imposed, that the view they took was that this inadvertence was technical and not blameworthy. If they had taken another view, they would have imposed a penalty commensurate with the blameworthy inadvertence, but they did not do so. The justices having come to their conclusion after hearing the evidence, the point of this case is whether it is desirable that a Regional Commissioner should go behind a decision come to by justices and take a quite different view. I should have thought that the Parliamentary Secretary would have been justified in saying to these officers—and we all recognise the difficult duties they 'have to do—that where a case is dismissed by a court of justices, in the circumstances in which this case was dismissed—[HON. MEMBERS: "It was not dismissed."] I am much obliged. Where a case is dealt with in a court of justice in the manner in which this case was dealt with, and where the court make it plain that in their view the offence with which the person was charged was of a technical nature, I should have thought that an instruction might have been sent to the Ministry's officials that no further action ought to be taken.

Mr. Woodburn

As I understand the last speaker, there seems to be a misunderstanding. I gathered that the Parliamentary Secretary said that the letter referred to the future and not to the past. Obviously, discussion about inadvertence could not possibly refer to a future case. If a similar case occurred again, that could not be inadvertence because the offender would already know what should be done. Prevention is better than cure, and it is open to the Minister to punish the next offence through the courts, but it is much better, from the point of view of saving petrol and rubber, that the offence should never take place at all.

It being the hour appointed for the Adjournment of the House, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.