HC Deb 27 April 1950 vol 474 cc1262-72

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

10.1 p.m.

Lady Tweedsmuir (Aberdeen, South)

Having listened to the Debate on fish all day, I find it difficult to switch my mind to the subject of road haulage in Scotland. I have chosen this subject because, since State control, we have so very few opportunities to Debate this vital and key industry. We have perhaps one annual Debate on the British Transport Commission's report, and even that is not our right. We have perhaps a Supply Day and an Adjournment Debate, and it is very difficult to frame Questions in such a manner as to elude Mr. Speaker's eye. It is for that reason that I welcome this opportunity of a short discussion, when the Minister is present in the House and accepts responsibility for making a reply. I am very glad to see him here tonight, as I have given him prior detailed notice of the points I wish to raise. I trust that he will be able to give a specific reply to these points so that we may have a constructive and useful Debate.

I wish to draw attention to the interpretation and administration of the Transport Act. In the very short time that is available I can give only a brief summary of a subject so vital to those across the Border. I shall not discuss the merits of State control, because for a short time, at any rate, we must accept the fact that this is a nationalised industry — rather like the lady who once said to Doctor Johnson " You know, Doctor Johnson, I accept the world as it is," whereupon he replied, " Madam, you had better." I accept nationalised transport only in the happy belief that not many months hence we on this side will be sitting opposite and will, therefore, have an opportunity to implement our policy towards this key industry, a policy which is well known.

I feel that our duty now to our constituents is to ensure that the Transport Act is fairly and efficiently administered. The main point I wish to draw to the Minister's attention is the granting of permits of all kinds to road haulage operators in the north of Scotland, generally, and in the north-east of Scotland, in particular. Under the terms of the Act, when the Minister vests his authority, through the British Transport Commission, to the local road haulage executive, he thereby divests himself of his power to intervene in these matters. Surely however he should personally give attention to the administration and interpretation of his own Act and issue general directions as to the carrying out of his own policy. If this is not done the Transport Act is differently regarded in various parts of the country, entirely according to the different composition and attitude of mind of the local road haulage executives.

As regards Scotland, it is well-known that the further north one goes the greater the geographical disadvantages. There is a sparse population and there are few industries and long distances to cover. Those operators who have their bases on the coastal towns have the additional disadvantage that the 25-mile radius is even more restricted, because on one side they have the open sea. It will be remembered that when the Transport Bill was debated we on this side moved Amendments to the effect that the 25-mile radius should be extended to 40 and 60 miles. respectively, under various conditions. and that these Amendments were defeated.

We realise that it is almost impossible to get over the geographical difficulties to suit everyone, but under those circumstances is it not more vital that the granting of permits should be done with far greater latitude than has been done at present, taking into account the special geographical and other difficulties that affect certain parts of the country?

To give some examples, local road haulage executives vary in their strict or wide interpretations of the Act. For example, the Road Haulage Executive for Penrith and Newcastle have granted operational permits to private hauliers to operate over a 300 miles' radius. Which means that an Englishman can go all the way to Aberdeen, carrying a heavy load. and take a load from Aberdeen all the way back as far south as London. Headquarters in Glasgow have refused permits time and time again to Scottish contractors without taking into account the special factors involved in Scotland.

There is one particular point regardinp a constituent of mine which I should like to raise tonight, and it illustrates very well the different attitudes of the various road haulage executives. This contractor was one of the largest in Aberdeen and the North before the Transport Act came into operation. After that date his various businesses were compulsorily acquired by the State. However, he acquired an interest in a private limited company doing local work, and managed to secure a milk contract with the Aberdeen and District Milk Marketing Board, acting on behalf of the Ministry of Food to carry milk in the counties of Aberdeen and Kincardine.

This contract was to last for a period of five years, starting from October, 1949. He obtained the necessary " A " carrier's licence, despite the fact that his case was dealt with before the local licensing authority in public and despite the fact that objections were raised both by the local Road Haulage Executive and the railway company. Having obtained the contract, he applied to the local R.H.E. for the necessary permits to go beyond a radius of 25 miles. These permits were refused, except for a period of three months, although the contract was to go on for a period of five years.

Representations were made on his behalf both to the Glasgow Headquarters and to London, and were supported by the Ministry of Food, but this decision was upheld. I maintain that certain very peculiar circumstances surrounded this refusal, and that it also proves that a local road haulage executive can, if they so wish, with the powers at their disposal, restrict the activities of their competitors in business. I cannot believe that the Minister would wish for biased or interested decisions to be made in his name, and it is for that reason that I draw his attention to this particular case.

The peculiar circumstances are that the local road haulage executive, before the Transport Act came into operation, held this milk contract in the name of a certain firm, Messrs. Wiseley and Sons and they held that contract up to October, 1949. The Ministry of Food then asked for competitive tenders, and Mr. Alexander received this particular contract, despite the fact that the local road haulage executive, in the guise of Messrs. Wiseley and Sons, wished to carry on the work.

I maintain that the peculiar circumstances are those that when the owner of the contract applied to the local road haulage executive he found that his ex-competitor in business refused to give him the necessary permit for, at any rate, 25 per cent. of the contract, which was the six vehicles out of a fleet of 24 which have to go beyond the radius of 25 miles. One appreciates that one can get over the difficulty by requiring that the contractor should re-base the six vehicles which have to go beyond the 25-mile radius, but doing so would mean that the vehicles would have to be kept away from their main bases of maintenance and repair, which would add inconvenience and cost to the carrying out of the contract.

Despite public demand, despite the support of a Government Department, the Ministry of Food, and despite the necessary contracts to give the public the best service, this permit was refused by a local road haulage executive. The Act says that it has to be administered in the public interest, and I therefore maintain that the necessary facilities should be made available.

I want to give another example in connection with household removals. A good many Aberdeen hauliers have requested permits for " A " and " B " carrier licences for the purpose of carrying household goods on removals. These have been refused by the local road haulage executive because they say that adequate transport is available. Yet since the Act came into force, the British Transport Commission, in the shape of Messrs. Pick-fords, Ltd., of London, have opened up branches in Aberdeen and Inverness. That is bound to lead to the query whether the opening up of these branches and the refusal of the licences to private hauliers is a coincidence or not.

Just to give the Minister of Transport a little relief. I must say that I am very glad indeed that he investigated a complaint which I put before him the other day to the effect that certain applications for job permits were not even being made available by the local road haulage executive. They were not being made available on the grounds that in any case the jobs would not have been permitted because adequate transport was available. Let us consider this subject in relation to private enterprise. If private enterprise found that there was not the public demand for its services, it would either have to sell its lorries or end its licences, but the State, in the form of the British Transport Commission, can, with the taxpayers' money behind it, carry on in any circumstances.

While, under the terms of the Act, it may be true to say that Transport Commission's services are available, I cannot believe that this is a fair way to go about the business for it does not give private hauliers an opportunity to compete. I maintain that in the circumstances it is essential that the State should ensure a greater latitude in granting permits to private hauliers, that it should ensure that there is no whittling down of permits to cause inconvenience and more expense to the private haulier, and that it should in no circumstances compete within the 25-mile radius. What otherwise happens is that the State — that is, the Minister of Transport—through the local road haulage executives, is forcing the private haulier either to run at a loss or to ask to be acquired by the State.

The main question which I have to ask the Minister to answer tonight is: What exactly is the policy of the Government in this respect? I find two completely divergent views. First of all, the right hon. Gentleman wrote to me on 3rd April, saying: The Transport Act, 1947, gives a monopoly of long-distance carriage to the British Transport Commission. If this is the case, it appears a very fit subject to come before the Monopolies Commission. On the other hand, to quote the divergent view, I find that Sir Cyril Hurcomb—who has, after all, the responsibility for administering the Act under the British Transport Commission—wrote this in July, 1949: It is our intention that the latitude to issue permits to continue operation shall be exercised in such a manner and in such a spirit which will acknowledge the importance of a just treatment of the individual haulier and the interests of trade as well as the convenience of administration, which should be a secondary consideration. That sounds fine, but Sir Cyril Hurcomb wrote that in July, 1949, while the right hon. Gentleman wrote to me about the monopoly in April, 1950. I would like to know whether, without our noticing it, the policy of the Government has changed in this respect.

In conclusion, and because I trust the Minister will give a long, exhaustive and detailed reply, I appeal to him to examine personally the grievances I have put before him tonight, because they are real grievances and are only an example of what is happening, not only all over Scotland but all over the United Kingdom. I suggest to the right hon. Gentle—man that he should remove any rigid or arbitrary interpretation of the Transport Act, remembering that the private haulier has no court of appeal to which he can turn. It is, therefore, even more essential that he should ensure just and fair treatment if we really live in a democratic community.

10.17 p.m.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Barnes)

I should like to acknowledge fully the charming manner in which the noble Lady has launched this attack.upon me tonight, and also to express my appreciation of the fact that she informed me generally of the views she would express so that I could furnish myself with some information.

The first considerable point she raised was the suggestion that the organisation of the British Transport Commission has been arbitrary in dealing with permits generally in Scotland. From the information at my disposal, I do not think that can be fairly substantiated by the facts. I am informed that, taking Scotland as a whole, 1,500 applications were made for original permits. Of these, 200 were invalid, which meant that no licences were held in 1946, the date of qualification. In 100 cases no permits were required for the work to be performed, 250 were refused, and 950 were granted. I do not consider that on those figures one could argue that Scotland as a whole has been unfairly treated.

Mr. Peter Thorneycroft (Monmouth)

The right hon. Gentleman said that 250 were refused and 950 were granted. Does he mean granted in full or for, say, a 12 months' period?

Mr. Barnes

It is not possible for me to give information with regard to the terms upon which permits were granted.

Mr. Thorneycroft


Mr. Barnes

That would be an impossible task.

Lady Tweedsmuir

I do not want to interrupt the Minister more than necessary, but the point put by my hon. Friend relates to the example I was giving from Aberdeen, showing that a permit was granted but only for three months instead of five years.

Mr. Barnes

Of course, none of these permits are granted indefinitely. In this respect there is no real contradiction between the statement which I made and the interpretation which Sir Cyril Hurcomb placed upon the powers of the British Transport Commission.

There is not the slightest doubt that. while the Act was passing through Parliament, which eventually sanctioned those provisions, the intention of Parliament was to give to the Commission a monopoly of long-distance road transport; but discretion was given to the Commission to meet the circumstances of any particular period. I think that the general figures which I have quoted prove conclusively that there has not been any arbitrary action with regard to Scotland as a whole.

In the area of the Highlands north and west of the Caledonian Canal, 93 applications were made for original permits. I am informed that 80 were granted and 13 refused. Of the 13 refused, 10 were not required because the distances were already restricted by the conditions attached to ff.; " B " licences, and three were not valid. These are important figures.

Hon. Members often overlook that in the Road Traffic Act all the principles of restriction were introduced. It is no new practice for existing road hauliers to resist applications for new licences. This has been a common procedure of the licensing courts ever since the introduction of the Road Traffic Act.

Mr. Thorneycroft

They are judges in their own cause.

Mr. Barnes

I should like to emphasise that it was common practice long before the Transport Act was introduced for the licensing authority, in granting these licences, to impose restrictive conditions. There is no alteration, therefore, in this procedure.

Let me turn to the problem which was raised by the noble Lady the Member for Aberdeen, South (Lady Tweedsmuir) of Messrs. Wiseley and Sons and Mr. Charles Alexander. When the facts are stated, an entirely different interpretation can be reached. The interpretation which is put upon these matters depends very largely upon whether the political views are against the interests of the Transport Commission as a public concern or are in its favour. The firm of Messrs. Wiseley and Sons was acquired voluntarily by the Commission in August, 1948. No compulsion at all was introduced; the acquisition was by voluntary agreement.

This company held a contract with the Milk Marketing Board, but the contract contained a cancellation clause, of which the Milk Marketing Board took advantage. [An HON. MEMBER: " Very wise of them] That may be, but it is desirable to have the facts on record rather than a prejudiced political interpretation of them. By taking advantage of the cancellation clause the Milk Marketing Board showed quite clearly that they were under no influence and were in no way concerned with the interests of the Commission. When the Board called for new tenders, Mr. Charles Alexander, it is interesting to note, put in a lower tender than did the Road Haulage Executive and obtained the contract.

Lady Tweedsmuir

Hear, hear.

Mr. Barnes

Subsequently, his business fell to be acquired compulsorily and, normally, the contract would have passed to the Commission; but Mr. Alexander, after disposing of his business—I agree he had no alternative under the compulsory Clauses of the Act—

Mr. Selwyn Lloyd (Wirral)

" Disposing of his business! "

Sir William Darling (Edinburgh, South)

After disposing of his livelihood.

Mr. Barnes

Not a bit. If hon. Members will wait until I give the subsequent information, they will find that is not the case. Mr. Alexander then acquired a number of other vehicles and applied to the licensing authority for licences to operate them. Although the Railway Executive and the Road Haulage Executive objected to the licences being granted for these new vehicles, nevertheless the licensing authority granted the licences to Mr. Alexander.

I want to emphasise that that proves what I have often stated, that the licensing authorities, representing another section of my Department, operate in a judicial sense in matters of this description. Obviously these licences could be operated only within the terms of the Transport Act—namely, within the 25 miles radius, and the bulk of this contract for the Milk Marketing Board is within such a radius and the majority of Mr. Alexander's vehicles are being used in that direction. With regard to the other vehicles, Mr. Alexander applied for a change in the operating centre of the six vehicles which are affected and which were outside this provision. At the moment his application is before the licensing authority and it would not be right for me to comment on the matter, which is still under consideration.

Lady Tweedsmuir

That is true. I did say that Mr. Alexander could rebase his vehicles, but on a five year contract surely he had the right to have permits granted for six vehicles so that he would not be involved in extra risk?

Mr. Barnes

It is all very well to say that an individual has the right, but the facts I have given show that the whole case submitted to the House this evening did not give the full facts. When the full facts of the case are given, in my view it is not a case of an individual being subjected to any severe central authority but of an individual who has got away with a good deal by being able to get this contract and carry it out. The noble Lady seems to consider that the British Transport Commission have no right to expand their business like any other concern. Nothing of the kind. Removal concerns generally are outside the provisions of the Act, but in Messrs. Pickford's the British Transport Commission have an organisation for removals which perhaps has more experience of removal of furniture than any other firm in the country. I commend their enterprise in extending that organisation and giving the Scottish people the opportunity of availing themselves of a magnificent and very efficient removal organisation.

It is no use evading the position that when Parliament passed the Transport Act it did indicate its desire that the British Transport Commission should have control of long-distance transport in this country. I do not think we desire to evade that issue. Although permits are granted from time to time, we must bear in mind that where the British Transport Commission have facilities for carrying out these services it is their duty and obligation to do so and to spread throughout the country an efficient co-ordinated organisation for the purpose of carrying out the transport services of the country.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Half-past Ten o'Clock.