HC Deb 31 January 1951 vol 483 cc1034-42

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

10.2 p.m.

Mr. York (Harrogate)

As the Minister concerned has not yet arrived it is a little difficult for me to start presenting the case to him. Some of his hon. Friends might tell him that the debate has now started. I see that he is arriving. The question which I wish to raise tonight is the matter of the failure of the British Transport Commission to provide services partly for my constituents and also for a large variety of other people, firms and organisations in the country.

The original cause of my putting down this matter for the Adjournment has, I am glad to say, been straightened out; but I shall, of course, give details of this, and I shall also draw some conclusions from it. The criticisms that I am making tonight are criticisms of bad administration, and the spirit in which I make them is that, whatever we may think of this organisation of nationalised transport, for the moment, at any rate, it is in being, and we must all do what we can to try to improve it, and where failures are proved then those failures must be closely investigated and sternly dealt with.

Let me come to the first case which I wish to put before the House. It concerns a constituent of mine and a firm of furniture manufacturers who live in Shoreditch. As I have not their permission to use their name I shall call them "Shoreditch." In May, 1950, my constituent ordered some new furniture from this Shoreditch firm. In July, 1950, that firm wrote to my constituent and said that British Transport had promised to collect next week. I have, of course, a copy of that letter here.

The next thing that happened, after sundry efforts on the part of my constituent, was that on 22nd September this Shore-ditch firm again wrote and said to my constituent: As far as the B.R.T. is concerned"— that is, British Road Transport— believe us when we say we are heartily sick of their treatment not only as regards delay but mainly because of the terrific amount of damage they are doing to our goods. We say without fear of contradiction that we have had more damages in three months than we had in 20 years. When we complained to one sub-manager and threatened to report to his superior we got the answer, 'I don't care if you report to The King' only with an adjective thrown in. I wish the House particularly to note that letter in view of another letter which I shall read in a moment. On 18th October, with still no sign of the furniture in Knaresborough, the British Road Transport Services wrote from Marylebone Road to my constituent and said it was a fact that the Shoreditch firm had placed this order, but we have not been able to carry it out, firstly because it is unpacked new furniture which requires special handling, and, secondly, we have had difficulty in operating a service for this kind of traffic for your particular district. That is the British Road Services saying that they have, in fact, failed to carry out their promise.

But by 24th October something had happened to waken up the Road Haulage Executive, and I have little doubt that that was the fact that a Member of Parliament, myself, was brought into the picture. We then have a letter from this Shoreditch firm to the Road Haulage Executive with a very different tale from that in the letter which I read out earlier. They now say: We now have to tell you that we have found an immediate and vast improvement in services of all kinds. Also, without gushing, there is now a great improvement in feeling. For our part we promise, as we always intended, to help this scheme. There is only one conclusion that can be drawn from this series of letters, and that is that there has been some bullying, or at any rate some indirect threats, used upon this firm as to the future of their trade. I am sorry to say that it is not altogether to the advantage of the British Transport Commission that that should be so.

Pursuing my objective of obtaining redress for my constituent, and still trying to get this furniture from Shoreditch to Yorkshire, I wrote to the Chairman of the Transport Commission, and on 11th December I got the following information in a letter: There are a number of places to which the Executive are not yet in a position to give a regular direct service. Later in the same letter he says that my constituents were told by the Executive on 18th October that the Shoreditch firm had placed an order, but I am sorry to find that this statement was incorrect as no order was actually placed. So one part of the Transport Commission is now contradicting the other.

I also wish to draw the attention of the House to the money spent on publicity by the British Road Services, when they advertise the following in the trade Press: British Road Services specialise in the carriage of new furniture all over the country. I think that there is a little lack of liaison between Lord Hurcomb and his publicity and advertising manager. While pursuing my endeavours to get this furniture from Shoreditch to Yorkshire, on 3rd January there arrived a further letter from the Chairman of the Transport Commission, in which he said: Our Road Haulage Executive have again gone into the matter and arranged to interview the Shoreditch firm. As a result, these two people now confirm that at no time was an order placed with British Road Transport. We must conclude that somebody is lying, and we must leave it to the conclusion of each hon. Member as to which party is lying the most.

Despite the fact that there has been a considerable amount of misrepresentation of the truth in these transactions, I am glad to be able to report to the House that on 19th January the goods arrived. They arrived in a private enterprise lorry. Yet it is these private enterprise lorries that the Transport Commission are driving out of business, in spite of the fact that there is no alternative method of transporting these goods. At least, I hope to obtain from the Minister a promise that before these licences are revoked he will make quite sure that there is a regular and full-time service in this part of the country.

My second problem concerns a firm called Aerite, Ltd., which ordered their packers to send three parcels from London to Edinburgh. The firm is in Westminster. On 8th September, 1950, the packers despatched these three parcels to unit A.38 in Macclesfield Street, London. On 25th September, the parcels had not arrived in Edinburgh. Under the private enterprise system they never took longer than 48 hours. As a result, the order which was placed with Aerite, Ltd., had been cancelled and the customer had obtained American goods of the same description instead of English goods.

This is the point of this sad tale. When the representative of Aerite, Ltd., rang up the unit manager and complained, he was told that he had no redress, and, in any case, he must put his complaint in writing, as the road haulage organisation would not listen to any complaints over the telephone. Surely, if we are to have this organisation, it must be run as a live organisation, and it should be possible if proper and efficient unit managers were put in for them to take complaints on the telephone and deal with them on the spot. Either this unit manager is useless, or the rules and regulations laid down by the Road Haulage Executive are quite unable to operate and must be looked into closely.

My third point is one about which the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Brigadier Mackeson) informed me, and it concerns sprats. At Hythe and Folkestone there is a considerable number of small fishermen going out in their boats and coming in at all hours of the day and night, bringing their catch of sprats. The sprats may appear at the harbour at any hour, may be at one or two o'clock in the morning, according to the tides, and they need immediate transport to London. The loads are quite small—one ton or perhaps up to three tons—and, under the old system, the fishermen were able to ring up the road haulage man in Hythe and say to him, "We have some sprats; please take them to London." At any time of the night or day that man was ready to take them to London. I should explain to the Minister that under that system it was possible to get sprats from the sea to the table in eight hours. A sprat, apparently, will not keep very long without being cooked in some way or other.

Under the new dispensation, of course, the office of British Road Transport does not remain open at all hours of the night and day, and there are no facilities for getting these sprats from the coast to London. The fishermen cannot wait until the office opens at eight or nine in the morning to ring up; by then they have gone to sea and the sprats have gone bad. All this has happened because the permit of the small haulier has been taken away and he can operate only within a 25-mile radius. I suggest that a job licence should be given for this particular work as the British Road Transport people are incapable of producing the service.

My next case concerns two antique bookcases despatched from London up to part of my old constituency in Ripon. They were handed to British Transport on 18th September but they had not arrived by the end of November. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Ripon (Colonel Stoddart-Scott) then wrote to the Minister, who, in his turn, wrote to Lord Hurcomb, and eventually the efforts of the Minister and Lord Hurcomb found these antique book-cases hidden under general cargo in a warehouse of a unit in London. The excuse, in a perfectly fatuous letter sent by Lord Hurcomb to my hon. and gallant Friend, was that these antique book-cases could not go in a general cargo; but apparently they could remain under a general cargo in a unit storehouse. I do not think, therefore, that there is very much excuse in that.

I can tell Lord Hurcomb that apparently the only way in which all these numerous complaints can be dealt with is by these people writing to Members of Parliament, and that he will be deluged with correspondents bringing his attention to all these small cases.

My next case—I shall have to leave out one or two—concerns a consignment of barley from the North Riding of Yorkshire. This is an incredible tale. I have a letter from the farmer in my hand. He does not wish his name to be mentioned, so I will call him farmer A. On 14th November, he threshed and sold 12 tons of barley. I cannot go into the methods by which barley is sold and taken off the farm, but normally I get very annoyed if barley is left on my farm much over a week. In this case, it was well over a month.

On 20th December, a British Transport lorry and trailer and two men arrived from a Scottish unit to take this barley to Scotland. It was duly loaded and went off. On 22nd December, another British Transport lorry arrived at 4.30 p.m. also to collect the barley. This is only the middle of the tale. This lorry was three-parts full, having picked up part of a load from farm B. The lorry driver explained that he had left seven tons at farm B in order to take up part of the 12 tons at farm A. Farmer A told him that the barley was by now at its destination in Scotland. He suggested that he should take his lorry back to farm B to load the other seven tons. But the driver said, "Oh, no, it is my tea time and I am going home."

That is not the end of the tale. There was a third British Transport lorry. Fortunately, farmer A heard of it and was able to get a message through to stop it coming to his farm. So far I know farmer B's barley is still on farmer B's farm. I do not think that that is an example of the efficiency of the managers of road transport in this country.

I shall have to stop my illustrations, but, in conclusion, I must say that all classes of traders are complaining about the services they are obtaining. The courtesy which they used to receive is seriously declining and the service is very slow. Second, the cost is increasing. There was an increase of 7½ per cent. in the summer. of 1950 and an increase of 10 per cent. on 29th January this year. Third, there are no real methods of obtaining redress from the Transport Commission. It is a monopoly and one cannot go elsewhere. Fourth, it is an inefficient monopoly and is squeezing out efficient businesses.

As an illustration of that I want to tell of an incident which was brought to my notice. A tender for a consignment was put forward by British Transport which quoted £32. A private firm quoted £6, so that there must be some very curious and mysterious method by which the British Transport monopoly are making an attempt to reduce their deficiencies. Fifth, drivers are now telling me that they are losing interest in their jobs because of bad management, lack of freedom to use their own initiative in picking up cargoes, and getting extra work for their lorries, and because they are being prevented from earning what they used to be able to earn under free enterprise. From all that I have seen throughout the three years it is apparent that the service has deteriorated.

The Minister of Transport and the Transport Commission must review every part of the management of this vast organisation and investigate the management of those units I have mentioned. Is it the fault of the managers or the rules laid down by the British Transport Commission? I believe it is partly both. I believe they both need to be very seriously reviewed. Personally I believe that this organisation can never work, but the Minister believes it can. While it is in being, and while we have to endure it, we must try to make it better, and for those reasons I hope the criticisms I have put before the Minister will be considered and investigated.

10.23 p.m.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Barnes)

By what he has said the hon. Member for Harrogate (Mr. York) has demonstrated the opportunity that is provided for Members of this House to raise matters of this description. I want to admit that he has put his case in a light and humorous way, which does not in any way undermine the seriousness of some of the points he made. He ought to recognise that many of his comments and assertions were hearsay and based on what other people had obviously seen, but that he had no opportunity of checking their accuracy himself. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I do not accept that at all. The report about the furniture represented a series of contradictory statements, and in his own analysis the hon. Member stated that when he raised the matter it had some effect. I do not think that any Member of Parliament ought to complain if, when he makes representations, the representations are taken seriously and steps taken to remedy the defect.

The hon. Member stated that, while the effect of his representations had been satisfactory, some threats had been used towards this particular firm. He finally admitted that, in the conversations that have taken place, the firm did not admit that they had any contract with the British Transport Commission. Three statements of that kind show that the main issue has not been adequately checked.

The information that I have about this consignment was that it was unpacked furniture. When the hon. Member talks about private enterprise delivering furniture, I would remind him that the removal of furniture is an exempted traffic under the Transport Act, so that there is no question here of eliminating competition. I give the hon. Gentleman an undertaking that I will examine very carefully every statement he has made here this evening and will have it checked as far as possible, and will see if any remedy can be applied. I know that the British Transport Commission and the Road Haulage Executive are as anxious as anyone to improve their services.

Mr. John Hynd (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

Do we understand that the Minister has not been informed in advance about these matters so that they could be investigated?

Mr. Barnes

Yes, I have in one instance, and I have pointed out that in the main case the firm acknowledges that no contract was actually placed.

Mr. York

They say the opposite.

Mr. Barnes

Let me give the House a comparison with regard to the experience of one firm, a well known firm taken over by the British Transport Commission. It was the Carter Paterson organisation, one of the largest firms of road transport in this country. Naturally, we have the record of this organisation when it was administered by private enterprise, and during the recent year when it came under British Transport administration. In 1946, the claims per 10,000 parcels handled by the Carter Paterson organisation were 28. In 1950, the first year it was operated under the British Transport Commission through the Road Haulage Executive, the claims declined to 21.2.

If we apply the same test to this organisation in regard to proof of delivery inquiries, then in 1946, for every 10,000 packages, the inquiries with regard to accuracy of delivery amounted to 50. In 1950 the proof of delivery inquiries declined to 27.2 per cent. [HON. MEMBERS: "What about 1949?"] I recognise, as does anyone who deals with transport matters, that there always have been defects in delivery, and there always will be. I am arguing tonight against the propaganda that very often ignores comparisons and is only animated by a desire to injure the reputation of this public organisation.

I recognise that there are bound to be weaknesses. We cannot take over 2,500 to 3,000 businesses in the course of a year and re-shape them into a national organisation without defects and loose points in some directions. I can only state broadly the general case here tonight, but I want to emphasise that the Road Haulage Executive with their lorries handle 1 million tons of traffic each week. That represents 2 million consignments, ranging from 1 lb. to many tons. Any organisation handling 2 million consignments each week is bound to get incidents of this character which can be treated either in a serious way or not.

I recognise that matters in that part of the hon. Member's speech are my responsibility to remedy and that of the British Transport Commission, but it seems to me that there is too much propaganda at the present moment being directed to undermining the authority and prestige of this organisation. I venture to suggest that when one strips the case put forward by the hon. Member for Harrogate, and which he presented in such a light, humorous and enjoyable way, and tests the facts, one will find that a good deal of his complaint tonight disappears. Whether that is so or not, I recognise my responsibility, and I am anxious to improve matters. I will investigate these cases and see whether the organisation can be improved.

Adjourned according at Twenty-Nine Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.