HC Deb 20 June 1951 vol 489 cc665-74

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

10.48 p.m.

Mr. Pannell (Leeds, West)

I want tonight to raise a matter of great public interest to the City of Leeds—a matter about which there has been considerable controversy. The Leeds City Council transport department has had under consideration for a great deal of time, since about last December, a revision in an upward direction of the fares in buses and trams. While it is within the power of the licensing authority to increase the fares upon buses, it has to seek the consent of the Minister of Transport in order to increase the fares on trams. It is rather the Minister's responsibility in the latter regard which gives me the right to raise the subject tonight; because this is where Ministerial responsibility lies.

The Minister's agent in communicating to the public his decision, and his order in connection with the increases in tram fares, is the chairman of the licensing authority for public service vehicles, In this case it is Major F. S. Eastwood. I would refer to him for the purposes of this debate as the Traffic Commissioner.

Now negotiations had taken place over a very long period of time in regard to this matter. It would be true to say that there had been many representations on behalf of the City Council through its Town Clerk to the Minister to bring these negotiations to a head. I want to make that abundantly clear at this stage, because it has been suggested that there has been procrastination on the part of the Leeds City Council in order to defer a decision until after election day. That is not true, but it is an important statement to make at this stage. I am now going to quote from a statement made by Councillor John Rafferty, who was until recently Chairman of the Transport Committee of the Leeds Corporation. He said: On Tuesday, May the 8th 1951, on arriving at Leeds City Transport Department, I was informed by Mr. Findlay, the Manager, that the Traffic Commissioner had that morning intimated to him the fact that the Minister of Transport was prepared to make an order with regard to the increase of tram fares, if the Committee would accept an amendment with regard to workmen's fares. You will appreciate, Sir, that in local government, in all matters of emergency the chairman always speaks and makes a decision on the assumed wishes of the committee. Councillor Rafferty goes on: After considering the details involved, I, as Chairman of the Transport Committee, instructed Mr. Findlay to inform Major Eastwood, the Traffic Commissioner, that on behalf of the Committee I would accept the new position and would he, the Commissioner, indicate his wishes in regard to the publicity so far as the public were concerned. Mr Findlay thereupon telephoned to the Traffic Commissioner and I was informed by him, Mr. Findlay, that Major Eastwood had expressed the desire that no statement should be made public until the Minister of Transport had made the order. I repeat that Major Eastwood had expressed the desire that no statement should be made public until the Minister of Transport had made the order. That is the gravamen of the charge this evening, that in effect, after binding other parties to silence, Major Eastwood himself broke faith with those with whom he was in negotiation and disclosed on election day the new schedule of fares. Councillor Rafferty goes on: No further communication of any kind was made to me; I was therefore amazed to learn from various members of the public during early evening of May the 10th (Municipal Election Day) that all the newspaper placards in the City bore the words, 'Increased Tram and Bus Fares approved.' On reading the newspapers I found that in addition to indicating the Minister's decision. Major Eastwood was emphasising the distinction between the Corporations application and the actual decision. When I enquired of the Manager on May the 12th if the order had been made by the Minister, in view of the announcement, I was told 'No.' I then asked if any communication had been received of any kind concerning this matter and he told me of a letter from the Town Clerk of Leeds, which he had received the day after the election, Friday, May the 11th, which informed him that the Minister had the intention to make an order in due course. From May the 8th, when I consented to the requirements of the Minister regarding tram fares, up to and including today, May the 25th, the Manager has continued to assure me that no communication other than the Town Clerk's letter has been received by him. As statements to the Press do not in any way authorise fare increases, and in view of necesssary legal formalities and the changes that must follow the making of a Ministerial order, I cannot accept the implied urgent need for a public anouncement before the order is made without reference to the Chairman of the Committee responsible for the application. There was a disclosure in the City of Leeds on election day at a time when all the wards in the city were up for election due to the reconstruction of the boundaries. There was a disclosure by a civil servant of what was considered by Councillor Rafferty to be something that was at least of a confidential nature.

Anyone who has been connected with municipal affairs knows well how this sort of thing should have been done. The courteous way would have been for an intimation to have been made to the town clerk and the chairman of the committee. Councillor Rafferty, that this disclosure was to be made. It was not done in that way, and, it being election day, the matter got into the local papers. I refer particularly to the "Yorkshire Evening News" where it got banner headlines, that Leeds tram and bus fares were to be increased.

As a matter of fact, Major Eastwood went beyond the bare announcement. He said that the Leeds Corporation applied for a 7d. minimum workman's return and that had been changed to a 5d. minimum. Where is the precedent for any traffic commissioner disclosing to the public what was the interim basis for the negotiations? Everybody who negotiates for fares—

Mr. Kaberry (Leeds, North-West)

What negotiations?

Mr. Pannell

Of course there were negotiations. I think my right hon. Friend will agree that it is usual for a corporation to put to the commissioner proposals, and he makes suggestions and counter-suggestions, and eventually a figure is agreed. It is the agreed figure which is published. There was no point in importing into all this on election day that the commissioner had saved the customers from a worse fate. As a matter of fact, it was a purely gratuitous remark that went into the Press statement. I do not know whether the newspapers got the impression that it was not quite right, but later in the day the banner headlines were relegated to page three.

I suggest, and I hope I carry the House with me, that any public servant operating in a great city like Leeds would be aware of the emotional atmosphere engendered on election day. There was no hurry for this statement. There was no need to make it at all. Anyone with a proper sense of what was demanded of him would not have disclosed it in this way, but would have deferred the statement until, at least, the day after the election. There was no point in making it, because the Minister had not then made the order. It was only a proposed order. I do not know whether the Minister has made the order now—

Mr. Kaberry

He has, and they are paying the fares now.

Mr. Pannell

At the time I had this information the Minister had not made the order—I quote from Mr. Findlay—and it was intimated plainly that the increase would date from some weeks ahead.

I wish to address myself to the decencies of public life, which seem to have been abrogated in this case. Councillor Rafferty would speak as the chairman on the assumed wish of his committee, and one would have thought that in such a case the traffic commissioner would have paused before he acted in this way. I do not like to impute motives to him, but I believe he acted, possibly with some stupidity, with a belief that he was doing the right thing, but the people of Leeds, not all of my own political party, have expressed to me considerable surprise.

Colonel Cyril Banks (Pudsey)

Who are they?

Mr. Pannell

There will be plenty of opportunity for the hon. Gentleman to speak, if he catches your eye, Sir.

If we are to come to motives, I am forced to one conclusion by a speech made last evening by Alderman Croysdale, printed this morning in the "Yorkshire Post." He was speaking in the Westfield by-election, and I wonder whether this gives the answer. He said: Why were Socialists making so much fuss about the disclosure of the transport fares increases? They were responsible for the increases. I do not think anybody would deny that. There was only one answer. They knew they had put the fares up. They knew they would go up when the Conservatives got into office, and they were hoping to say at some future time: 'See the result of putting the Conservative Party in.' Their annoyance has arisen because their plan to throw discredit on the Conservatives has been discovered in time. What are we to assume from that? That there was a huddle between the Conserva- tive interest and the traffic commissioner to make an unwarranted disclosure on the day? They are the words of the leader of the Conservative Party in Leeds. Yet we know full well that the negotiations and suggestions for this increase in fares had gone on over a long period. We know the electoral result, because the Conservative candidates say that the most was made of the traffic commissioner's statement.

The traffic commissioner himself is appointed as the chairman of the licensing authority by the Civil Service Commissioners. His functions, in many ways, are of a quasi-judicial character. Ministers on both sides have always said that people in these offices should do everything to maintain public confidence in themselves, and I rise tonight in order that there should be a protest by one of the main parties to show that at least that part of the public has lost confidence.

Why election day? The whole thing shows a degree of irresponsibility that I find it very difficult indeed to excuse. If this were just an isolated action, if it happened in another sphere, one could have left it; but when Major Eastwood came back from London—I do not know what his business was or whether he went to see the Ministry—he said, according to the "Daily Mail" of 25th May: It is ridiculous to suggest I was trying to influence the election. To attack me on a question like this seems to me to be near sour grapes on their part. I did so because the city council—Socialist-controlled then—were extremely anxious for the fares to be raised quickly, as they were losing £2,000 or £3,000 a week. That disclosure has not remedied that position at all. The putting it back by one day would not have altered that position. He goes on then to say that he is attacked also because of a statement that he made at a meeting or dinner two years previously. Then he goes on to make this remarkable statement himself: I merely made a suggestion to a Conservative and a Socialist present that they should stop nattering about each other and remember that Communism is the real menace. The answer to that is that this was not brought into the discussion. The traffic commissioner charged with judicial functions takes it on himself to lecture the Conservative or Labour Parties at a public function—that shows, again, that he is rather a talkative person, with not much sense of responsibility.

What is the truth of that incident? It is a fact that Alderman Beevers, who is an ex-Lord Mayor, and leader of the Labour Party in the Leeds City Council, attended a luncheon at the Guildford Hotel on 22nd July, 1949, in connection with the opening of an extension of Messrs. Wallace Arnold & Co.'s garage at Leeds. Major Eastwood, as traffic commissioner, declared the extension open. At the subsequent luncheon he made a speech in which he said this country at the moment is run by five or six Communists. Whether we agree with that or not, it does not seem the type of statement that should be made at such a function by a man who was invited to attend it because of his position as traffic commissioner. And yet he made it. Turning to Alderman Beevers who was also at the function, although not as a speaker, and therefore in no position to reply, he also said: That is what I think of Alderman Beevers. and he added: Everyone knows my opinion of the Road Traffic Act. Yet that is the legislation he is supposed to administer. If he has such a poor opinion of it, one would have thought his self-respect would have forced him out of office. He delivered this opinion in a sneering and derogatory manner, and prefaced his remarks by saying he was not making a political speech. Alderman Beevers was not down to speak at this function, and it was not fair to make any personal reference to him.

Alderman Croysdale, who was also a guest at the function, and one of the speakers, remarked to Alderman Beevers after the luncheon, that if it was not a political speech Major Eastwood had delivered he would like to have heard him make one. A principal of the firm at a later function expressed his regret at the treatment Alderman Beevers had received at the hands of the traffic commissioner. I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that Alderman Beevers was placed in a very difficult position, where he had no opportunity to reply, when Major Eastwood took the occasion to give all sorts of opinions on political matters which had nothing to do with Alderman Beevers whatsoever.

I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman to inquire why the announce- ment was made on that day, why there was that hurry at the last moment—because there seemed to be feverish activity in the last two days to see that it was made on that day—and also to find out the truth of the statement made by Alderman Croysdale that somehow or another the plot was discovered in time. That can only leave one with the impression that there was a huddle between the Conservative Party and the traffic commissioner

Colonel Banks


Mr. Pannell

I would not expect anything else but nonsense from the other side of the House. Alderman Croysdale has made this statement, and I therefore ask the right hon. Gentleman to make the fullest inquiries into that and, in making them, to consider the whole background of this incident to see whether these are the sort of things likely to foster confidence either in the officials of the Department or in his own Acts.

11.10 p.m.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Barnes)

I was anxious to hear the views to be expressed on this matter by my hon. Friend, because we can all appreciate how at election times feeling can be easily aroused. It would certainly be a matter of regret to me if any officers of my Department were to become embroiled in any controversies of this kind. In most of its activities the Department is not engaged in highly controversial political matters.

On the question of the increased fares, I have noted what has been stated and I will give attention to these points later, but I think it is desirable that I should make this general statement, that all transport authorities in recent months—and in the case of local authorities it does not matter what party is in power—whether they are concerned with bus or tram services, have been met with increased costs, like every other business organisation.

A great variety of organisations have come to the Ministry during the past 12 months to seek authority to increase their charges. In regard to any increase in bus fares, the licensing authority has full power to give a decision, but in regard to trams and trolley buses the decision falls to the Ministry of Transport. When there is a dual application, as in this case, it falls to the licensing authority to decide the increase in bus fares, and to the Ministry to decide the increase in tram fares.

The public hearing in regard to bus fares took place in Leeds on 28th February. I should like here to say that these are the dates I have in my Department, and that it is not possible for me tonight to go into detail with regard to many of the statements my hon. Frend has made, but he will appreciate that I shall give full and careful attention to everything he has said and examine it with great care.

On 19th April, and again on 2nd May, the town clerk of Leeds urged on my Department the necessity of giving a decision. On 8th May the licensing authority received a letter from the Ministry indicating that the Ministry was prepared to agree to the increased tramway charges, subject to one modification dealing with a specific workmen's fare. The general manager at Leeds was asked for his observations on 8th May. If I have gathered the point made by my hon. Friend, he discussed the question with the chairman of the transport committee and they agreed to this modification.

It appears to me that at this stage confusion has crept in about the difference between the Minister's decision and the Minister's Order. Later in the day on 8th May the licensing authority informed the Ministry of Transport that the transport committee had agreed to this modification, and on 9th May the licensing authority was informed by the Ministry—and I want my hon. Friend to note these dates—that a letter had been posted to the town clerk authorising these increases.

At the present moment, I am unable to comment on the discussions that took place between the chairman of the Leeds transport committee, the general manager and the licensing authority, but I will go into that subsequently. On the same day, 9th May, the Corporation's transport office was notified by phone by the licensing authority that, on receipt of a letter from the Minister of Transport, the licensing authority would announce his decision, probably at the next day's public sitting of the court.

Mr. Pannell

The right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that that is contested.

Mr. Barnes

It is customary for the decision of the Minister to be conveyed immediately to facilitate the arrangements necessary to put any increased charges into operation, and it is possible here that some of the confusion is due to a misunderstanding of the decision of the Minister and the order which follows later. I agree that that has no bearing on many of the other matters which my hon. Friend has submitted tonight. Nevertheless, I can see that possibly the Minister's decision and Order may have been confused in that respect.

On 10th May, the licensing authority received the Ministry of Transport's letter and announced the decision that the application had been approved. Knowing that my hon. Friend was going to raise this matter, I looked to see whether any previous application had been made by Leeds Corporation and what procedure had been followed on that occasion and I was informed that in August, 1946, application had been for an increase in fares. The transport commissioner notified his decision on 5th December, and the Minister's letter, with a copy of the Order, followed on 9th December and came into effect on 29th December. I do not think that the procedure in this case was very different.

With regard to the statements quoted this evening, I shall look into these and I ask my hon. Friend to accept at the present moment that his statements will be carefully investigated.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Eighteen Minutes past Eleven o'Clock.