HC Deb 22 January 1947 vol 432 cc289-300

7.11 p.m.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter (Kingston-upon-Thames)

I beg to move That the Road Haulage and Hire (Charges) (Amendment) Order, 1946 (S.R. & O.,1946, No. 1890), dated nth November, 1946, a copy of which was presented on 13th November be annulled. I do not know whether the Order at present before the House is, in intention and object, a good Order or a bad Order. The language in which it is couched, having exceeded even the usual departmental standard of obscurity, is such that it is not clear, in my submission to the House, as to what the Order means; and, therefore, my hon. Friends and myself have put down this Motion with, in the first place, the intention of obtaining, as I am sure we shall, some elucidation from the Parliamentary Secretary. The Order before the House, Statutory Rule and Order 1890, is an Order which, perhaps, in these days inevitably, takes effect merely by amending a previous Order. The previous Order to which it refers is Statutory Rule and Order No. 251 of 1942. the Order of 1942 provided that charges to be made by road hauliers could be raised, in the absence of special circumstances, by 7½ per cent. above the level running in October, 1940. The present Order, No. 1890 of 1946, removes that provision and inserts in its place a provision that these charges may be raised 55 per cent. above the level running in July, 1939. As the House will speedily appreciate, the question of whether October, 1940, prices plus 7½ per cent. are greater or less than July, 1939, prices plus 55 per cent. depends entirely upon the relative levels running on those two dates; and there is neither in the Order nor in the explanatory memorandum which accompanies it any indication whatsoever as to what the effect of the Order is, in the only respect in which it matters to the ordinary man, that is to say, whether it raises prices or whether it lowers prices.

After all, this Statutory Rule and Order is legislation in the form of delegated legislation subject to the scrutiny of this House, and I do say it does make nonsense of the responsibility of thi9 House to supervise legislation, if legislation is produced in such a form that no hon. Member can, by reading the Order, even discover whether the effect of the Order is to raise or lower prices. I hope that in the course of the Debate the Parliamentary Secretary will tell us what, in effect, is the effect of it. I am sure he will. But I also hope he will be prepared to give some indication that he and his Department admit that this is an unsatisfactory method of legislating, and that this method will not be used in the future; because legislation which neither hon. Members nor other subjects can understand by reading it is a very grave interference with the responsibility of this House, and with the liberty and independence of the subject.

I am fortified in the view that the language of this Order is extremely obscure by the report of the Select Committee on Statutory Rules and Orders. As the House knows, that Committee acts as watch dog of this House in matters appertaining to delegated legislation, and in this case the watch dog has barked. In the Second Report of this Session, which was submitted to this House on 18th November, the Select Committee reported as follows: They have also considered the Road Haulage and Hire (Charges) (Amendment) Order, 1946 (S.R. & O., 1946, No. 1890), a copy of which was presented on 13th November, and are of the opinion that the special attention of the House should be drawn to it, on the ground that its form or purport calls for elucidation. It is proper, I think, in fairness to the Department, that I should also invite the attention of the House to the Memorandum which was submitted by the Department to the Select Committee. It is printed as Appendix I to the Select Committee's Report. This is the explanation submitted by the Department to the Select Committee: I It is understood that the Committee consider that the Explanatory Note appended to the above Order is not sufficiently informative in that it does not indicate whether the extent of the permissible charges has been increased or decreased by the new Order. 2. The Department would desire to explain that the cost to Road Haulage operators of operating their services had greatly increased between July, 1939, and October, 1940, and had increased still further by February, 1942, when the Road Haulage and Hire (Charges) Order, 1942, was made. The purpose of that Order …was to reflect in the permitted charges the increase from October, 1940. The percentage of 7½ established as the standard in the absence of proof to the contrary was fixed by reference to the latter date rather than by fixing a greater percentage by refer- ence to July, 1939. Since February, 1942, costs have still further increased and accordingly it became necessary to reflect this increase by permitting a further increase in charges. It was, however, considered that it would now be preferable to do so by reference to a prewar date and consequently this was done by fixing the percentage of 55 referable to July, 1939, again in the absence of proof to the contrary, rather than by fixing a smaller percentage by reference to October, 1940. What the last mentioned figure would have been cannot be exactly stated as no calculation has been made on that basis but broadly speaking it would probably have been approximately 25 per cent. With due respect to the Parliamentary Secretary and his Department, that explanation, which apparently failed to satisfy the Select Committee, can hardly be described as an example of extreme lucidity, but, even accepting it at its face value, the House will appreciate that within even this explanation no attempt is made to give the precise effect of the Order. There are the words "broadly speaking," "approximately," "no calculation has been made. "I do submit to the House that that is not a proper way in which to carry on public business, and that where changes of great importance to one particular industry and, through it, to the community are made, by virtue of the very wide powers, in the Defence Regulations and the Supplies and Services Act, which the Department has, it is incumbent upon the Department not only to legislate clearly, but, also, to know exactly what it is it is trying to do It is, surely, essential that these changes in prices should be effected as the result of some precise calculation and some accurate degree of planning. When the Department itself comes along and says" Broadly the effect is this, but no calculation has been made, "it does appeal a very slipshod method of conducting public business. This Motion has been put down, as I venture to suggest to the House, as a direct consequence of the reporting to the House of this Order by the Select Committee, and I am perfectly certain that, in the circumstances, the Parliamentary Secretary will welcome the opportunity which has been given him of supplying that elucidation of the Order which, so far, has not been provided My hon. Friends and I do not approach this Order with a feeling that it necessarily raises any great question of principle, though it is a little difficult to say because it is not very clear what it does raise. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to satisfy us, and obviate the necessity of taking the matter to a Division, but in view of the perfectly clear Report of the Select Committee it would seem necessary, if we are to be able to avoid taking that course, for the Parliamentary Secretary to do two things, first of all to succeed—where his own staff have so significantly failed—in providing a lucid exposition of the Order, which I am sure is well within his compass, and secondly, to give some reassurance to the House as to the future conduct of his Department in these matters. I do not believe, from what I know of the Parliamentary Secretary, that he is prepared to come to that Box and say that this is a satisfactory method of legislation which he desires to continue, and I hope he will be able to agree that this Order, which has attracted first the attention of the Select Committee and now of this House, is unsatisfactory in form by reason of its lack of clarity and that his Department, pressed though they may be by other responsibilities, will in future legislate more lucidly if not perhaps more wisely.

7.22 p.m.

Sir John Mellor (Sutton Coldfield)

I beg to second the Motion.

First, I should like to associate myself with everything that has been so well expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) I myself only wish to raise one point. I want to ask the Parliamentary Secretary why this Order has been made in the form of an amending Order —why the Department did not take the course of making a fresh Order, which would have appeared to be quite as convenient and infinitely more clear to those who have the misfortune to have to try to understand these things. The amending Order, it is true, only makes two or three quite brief amendments in the original Order, but in the ordinary way there would be no apparent reason why a fresh Order was not made. The only case I can think of where, as a rule, an amending Order should be preferred to a fresh Order is where consolidation would involve a great deal of reprinting; where perhaps the original Order was of considerable length and the amendments quite short.-In that case it might be considered un- reasonable to expect the whole thing to be printed over again for the sake of making some quite brief amendments.

That consideration, however, would not apply in this case at all, because the amending Order is only about six lines shorter than the original Order which it amends and, moreover, it is interesting to note that the original Order was reprinted after the date on which the amending Order was made. The amending Order was made on nth November, 1946, and if one looks at the end of the copies of the original Order now available in the Vote Office, one sees that it has got at the bottom"1947 reprint." On the ground of reprinting, therefore, there could have been no justification whatsoever for issuing an amending Order rather than a fresh and consolidated Order. I want to ask the Parliamentary Secretary why that course was taken. Now, quite unnecessarily, we have to look at two separate pieces of paper and piece them together, inscribing details from the one on to the other and so on, in order to understand, or try to understand, what is intended. I think that this is one of those cases where, through the indifference of a Department to the convenience of the general public, we have been put to quite unnecessary trouble, and I do hope the Parliamentary Secretary will be prepared to deal with this with some thoroughness, because it is just the kind of thing that is causing us and all people throughout the country a great deal of unnecessary annoyance. A little thought, I am sure, would have led to the production not of an amending Order but of a fresh Order, consolidating, and there would certainly have been no increase in the amount of printing and paper involved.

7.26 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. G. R. Strauss)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for raising this matter, particularly in view of the comments of the Select Committee, which make it desirable that some explanation should be given by a representative of my Department so that their criticisms may be answered. The complaint which was made by the Select Committee, and at much greater length this evening by the hon. Member, is that the amending Order is not precise enough; that it is difficult for any member of the public who reads it to understand exactly what its effect will 'be and the extent of any changes which may result, and that we should have been more definite in stating, either in the Order or the explanation, the exact consequences of the amendments.

The difficulty arises because the charges made by road hauliers vary enormously. It is quite impossible to say as one can in respect of railway charges, what they are. Road haulage rates vary from day to day; the rates which a road haulier will charge for carrying goods from One point to another will depend, it may be, on whether he can get a return load. They will depend on the amount of competition which he has to face during a particular week or month. They depend on a variety of circumstances, and the rates charged by one haulier may be entirely different from those charged by another over a long period. Therefore, it is impossible to say with any precision what, at any date, the general level of rates is in the road haulage industry, or what the rates are for a haul between any two points. We have a certain amount of information on the subject to give us some guidance, but we can do no more than make a very rough estimate ourselves of the result of the Amending Order. We cannot say with any precision whether road haulage rates will be permitted to go up by this or that amount.

Perhaps it would be as well if I gave very briefly the history which led up to this Amendment. The Minister of War Transport at the time made a public announcement, in October, 1940, making clear to the industry that he had certain powers of control over road haulage rates under the Defence Regulations. In 1942 an Order was made in an attempt to establish the level of charges to be made by the road haulage industry based on what would have been considered fair and reasonable in 1940—not on what the 1940 rates were. It would have been impossible to ascertain what they were precisely as they vary in the way I have indicated. If any haulier charged a high rate, he might have to argue before a Traffic Commissioner that the rate he proposed was reasonable, in relation to the general level of charges in 1940, plus 7½ per cent. increase.

There was a good deal of argument as to what was considered fair and reasonable in 1940. When the road haulage organisation came to an end, and the Minister set up an emergency scheme, the industry asked for a revision of the provisions of the 1942 Order. They argued, however, that it would be far better to base calculations, not on the 1940 level which was a war-time level, but on the 1939 level, and that there should be permitted an increase of 70 per cent. over what might have been considered fair and reasonable in 1939. My Department considered that there was merit in their first contention, as there was rather more information available about 1939 rates than about 1940 rates. We therefore accepted that contention, and then we examined carefully their argument in favour of a 70 per cent. increase over the 1939 level. We came to the conclusion that that request was unreasonable, and we suggested, what seemed to us to be reasonable under the circumstances, an increase of 55 per cent. That increase was accepted, as the industry said, reluctantly. We have incorporated these changes in the Amending Order we are discussing.

If I am asked, as I have been asked by the Select Committee, and as I have been asked today, what precisely is the effect of that amendment, I shall have to reply that in view of the set-up of the industry, the large number of units and lack of uniformity in charges, I cannot say precisely. But if I am forced to guess what the result will be, I would guess that it might mean a permitted in-, crease of something in the neighbourhood of 25 per cent. over the 1940 level. I am afraid that it is impossible to give any more precise information than that. It was because of our difficulty in providing any more exact calculation when we amended the Order, that the charge has been made against us that it is vague and not sufficiently precise.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

The Parliamentary Secretary has dealt with the point concerning the failure of the Order to state the precise amount of increase permitted, but does he appreciate that on the face of the Order itself, or in the Memorandum, there is no statement of any increase, as opposed to a decrease, being authorised?

Mr. Strauss

I appreciate that, and I think there is merit in the argument of the hon. Member that the explanatory note might have been fuller in that respect, and stated that it represented an increase, even if it was impossible to state precisely what it would be. The House will bear in mind, however, that everyone in industry who uses road haulage and of course road hauliers themselves will appreciate immediately on glancing at this amendment what the change means.

Then the point has been made by the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir J. Mellor) that it would have been more satisfactory to have produced a new Order rather than an amending Order. I do not agree with that suggestion. The Order sets out at some length the procedure to be adopted in trying to establish these charges, and it occupies a page and a quarter. What the amendment does is to alter one date and one figure, and I should have thought it would have been much better to make an amending Order for one date and one figure, rather than to reprint the whole of the provisions of the original Order, as suggested by the hon. Member.

Sir J. Mellor

I pointed out that the Department have reprinted, in 1947, the original Order. After the amending Order was made on nth November, 1946, they proceeded this year to reprint the original Order, and there are thus two printed pieces of paper to be used. If there had been a consolidating Order printed, only one piece of paper would have to be used.

Mr. Strauss

I suppose that the number of copies of the original Order ran out. I am not perhaps as familiar with the Statutory Orders as the hon. Member, but I should have thought it was a reasonable thing to amend the two figures rather than isssue another Order.

Sir J. Mellor

Is it not easier to understand one piece of paper than two? If a man has to consider an original Order, as amended by a new Order, he inscribes on the original Order details in respect of which it has been amended. Surely it is convenient to save that trouble by having a consolidated Order?

Mr. Strauss

I understand the argument of the hon. Member, and we might discuss this for a long time. I appreciate his point of view, but I still think that mine is the right one. If I had an Order by me on my desk and there were two alterations, I would find it more convenient to have a slip showing the alterations in figures, than to have a new Order and have to read it all through.

Sir J. Mellor

Surely, to avoid the industrialist having to read through the whole Order, it could be dealt with in the explanatory note, which is one of the purposes of an explanatory note? The amending element could be put in italics.

Mr. Strauss

I still maintain that it was more simple and more direct for a man who has to operate this Order to have the amendments rather than the whole of the Order reprinted. But I will undertake this: I have attempted to give the reasons which led to the amendment being worded in a way which the Select Committee found unsatisfactory. I have pointed out that it was not wholly our fault; that it was because the industry itself has a charges system which is so unprecise, that we could not be more precise when we came to the House and wanted the Order amended. I will, however, bear in mind the arguments which have been put forward about trying to make amendments to Orders more clear in future. I will also undertake to bear in mind whether, when we have to amend an Order, it would not be better for all concerned to issue a new Order instead.

7.41 p.m.

Mr. E. P. Smith (Ashford)

I hope the House will deal tenderly with this Order because, whatever its merits or demerits, it has undoubtedly discovered an imaginative writer of the first importance. I cannot disclose his name, but he happens to be an assistant secretary in the Ministry of Transport, and he has certainly been responsible for what I regard as an absolutely classical example of the literary art. He has given us one of the most picturesque and dithyrambic sentences which it has ever been my lot to encounter. It reminds me of a lovely, cloudy landscape by Constable. In that sentence the writer says: What the last mentioned figure would have been cannot be exactly stated as no calculation has been made on that basis, but, broadly speaking, it would probably have been approximately ‖ I hope that this may find its way into one of the prose anthologies of our country.

7.43 p.m.

Mr. Maude (Exeter)

I am far from satisfied with the way in which the Parliamentary Secretary has received my hon. Friend's objections in this matter. It is quite unsatisfactory to us, for him to say simply that he will bear in mind the possibility of my hon. Friend's being right that it would be more convenient to have the Order reprinted. It is a nuisance, not only for lawyers, but for people in industry to have to keep on noting up Orders instead of taking one sheet out of a book, discarding it, and inserting in its place a new Order. Here the Ministry have had to produce two sheets of paper. It would have been as simple as pie, to do the job at one bite. The explanatory note, which is a boiling down of part of paragraph 2 of the Order of 1942, and then a boiling down of part of paragraph 4, took, I should assume, about 20 minutes writing and thinking, but nothing has been done to explain to the ordinary Member of Parliament why somebody is to get a 55 per cent. increase when, in the old days, he was' allowed only 7½ per cent.

I beg the Parliamentary Secretary to see that instructions are given about this matter in the right quarter. I ask him to say, "Please explain this so that Members of Parliament can really understand what it is all about." When the figure goes up to 55 per cent. it really does call for some explanation. No doubt within the secrecy of the walls of the Ministry it might be said, "They are all very stupid; they will not understand this unless you explain it. Of course, the industry knows all about it." But it will be awkward for Members of the House to have to ask what it means when the explanatory note has been drawn in such a way that only industry understands it. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to say, "We really ought to have given more particulars," instead of simply saying, "I will remember it." There is nothing more painful to the lawyer than legislation by reference, than having to keep on looking up these wretched amendments. We felt strongly that we ought to come here and make a fuss about this. This sort of thing may happen again. I am not satisfied that the Minister should go away possibly bearing in mind that there had been a fuss, but without putting it on record that this was a slovenly bit of draftsmanship and very unsatisfactory indeed.

7.46 p.m.

Mr. Janner (Leicester, West)

I want to say a word or two about some of the remarks which have been made by Members opposite. I think they have overlooked the fact that this is not the first occasion on which this type of amended Order has been made. It is no aspersion, either on the Minister who has presented this Order, or on any particular party, that Orders are made in this way. Hon. Members opposite will recall that in the course of their old misdeeds similar troubles occurred.

Sir J. Mellon

Would the hon. Gentleman also appreciate that this is not the first time that we have complained?

Mr. Janner

I recognise that. That is merely the preamble to what I have to say. I quite agree that this occasion should be taken by the Minister to try to influence, not only his own Department, but every Department, so that this kind of complaint may not be experienced in future. Undoubtedly, it is extremely difficult to deal with these Orders in any circumstances, and it becomes much more difficult when one has to refer to one Order while reading another. My hon. Friend has said that he will consider this matter, and I think that that is a concession on his part which we ought to accept. But we should urge him to try to carry it further to other Ministries. When new Orders are made I think it would be an advantage to adopt the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir J. Mellor), about putting new words in italics, or printing the old words in such a way that one can see what change has been made in the document. That would be useful, not only to the trade or individual concerned, but to those who have to interpret the Order.

On the other hand, I do not agree at all with the hon. and learned Member for Exeter (Mr. Maude) that the explanation given by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary is not satisfactory. After all, these Orders are made for the particular trade concerned, and while lawyers and others have to look into them, the fact remains that the trade will readily understand the explanatory note. I think the comments which have been made by the Minister are quite satisfactory in that respect, and, in those circumstances, I think there is little cause for complaint. Most of us, no doubt, imagine that we could do very much better, but that is rather beside the point. I think the explanatory note is sufficient in itself, and conveys what the trade requires to be conveyed.

7.50 p.m.

Mr. C. S. Taylor (Eastbourne)

The Parliamentary Secretary, in his reply, went to considerable length in explaining why it was impossible to be precise and accurate, either in the Order or the explanatory note. One of the reasons which he gave for not being precise was that there were so many rates in the road haulage industry. Those arguments show that the road haulage industry is no closed ring. I do not want to widen the Debate any further, but I suggest that if there are so many varying rates in the industry, that shows that there is good competition among road hauliers. It also means that many hauliers are not charging the maximum rates permitted. Why do we continue this control of haulage? Surely, there is a time when war-time controls will be relaxed one by one; and why cannot this control be relaxed when, as the Parliamentary Secretary has said, many road hauliers are not charging the maximum permitted rates? They are charging rates which vary from one road haulier to another, and if a man, who wishes to have his goods carried from X to Y, does not like the rates of one road haulier, he can go to another, and get competitive rates. I hope that when controls appear to be as unnecessary as this control, that even this Government will relax them.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

In view of the assurance which the Parliamentary Secretary has given as to the future conduct of these affairs by his Department, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn