HC Deb 08 April 1952 vol 498 cc2704-10

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

2.22 a.m.

Mr. J. A. Sparks (Acton)

I desire to bring before the House the direction of the Ministry of Transport to the British Transport Commission that the acquisition of road haulage undertakings by that body should be suspended for a period of six months. I should like to quote the words used by the Home Secretary on 12th November last which indicated for the first time that this action had been taken. If the Commission were to acquire any more road haulage undertakings at a time when the Government policy is to facilitate the expansion of private road haulage activities, it would obviously not only cause hardship but be contrary to common sense. I am glad, therefore, to inform the House that the Road Haulage Executive have delivered notices to operators whose acquisition is pending, offering them, if they wish, a postponement of the date of transfer for six months."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th November, 1951; Vol. 493, c. 726.] At that time the Transport Commission were negotiating with 95 road haulage undertakings for the acquisition of their undertakings, and as a result of this direction negotiations on the part of 63 of them have been suspended for six months. But, in addition, the field is very much wider than that because there are 6,807 original or substitute permits in force under the Act which although they do not terminate until 1954, nevertheless are permits held by private haulage operators who really want to know where they stand in this matter. This standstill order has been in existence now for five months and only four weeks remain before the period will have expired.

I appeal to the Minister not to renew that direction when it expires in four weeks' time. The reason I ask him to do that is because this action by the Government tends to undermine the foundation of the Transport Commission's organisation. It causes great uncertainty among those charged with the responsibility of the transport organisation of the country, and it must slow down those important measures necessary to integrate road and rail transport.

I would remind the Minister that for 25 years this internecine warfare has raged between road and rail and has been keenly but unfairly fought. The railways have had to carry heavy capital charges for acquiring and maintaining their track. That burden is being maintained at the present time and runs into a considerable sum. Road haulage is faced with no such capital charge. The roads are there for them to use. Unrestricted road haulage during the past 25 years has, economically speaking, brought the railways to their knees. That happened before the war and is threatened again if the proposal of the Minister is maintained.

Commission after commission and conference after conference have inquired into the problem and have come to the conclusion that the only solution is the co-ordination of road and rail transport, and that the competitive system between road and rail must be abandoned in favour of co-operation. I would refer the Minister to the final Report of the Royal Commission on Transport in 1930. I know it is a long time ago, but certain fundamental principles were then laid down which apply with equal force today.

The Commission expressed the view that for the main business of transport the railways were indispensable. The nation could not afford to place that capital on the scrap heap or even render it partially unremunerative. The aim should be to harmonise and co-ordinate the newer and older forms of transport with the object of obtaining the maximum advantage. They went on to say they were satisfied that unification in some shape or form was necessary in order to reach complete co-ordination of transport. I would remind the Minister that in 1938 the warfare between road and rail had reached a climax. The railways went to the then Minister of Transport with what was known as the "square deal" proposal. They urged the Minister to repeal the statutory regulation on charges. In other words, they asked the Minister to give the railways the freedom to accept or reject traffic as they thought fit, and to fix their own charges for conveyance. They asked to be placed on all-fours with the road haulage transport organisation which was then in private hands, as to acceptance and charging of traffic.

The Minister referred this proposal to the Transport Advisory Council. He clearly indicated to them that he was inclined to the view that, in existing circumstances, there was prima facie a case for some material relaxation of existing statutory Regulations provided that due regard was had to the ultimate objective of the co-ordination of all forms of transport.

The present Minister is trying to reverse engines. He is acting in the face of all the experience and expert advice that has come to us in the past 25 years. Fortunately for the country, in 1947 we had a Government who carried out in the Transport Act those principles advocated over the past 25 years. It was the obvious and logical step to take, but the Minister's present policy is not the integration of road and rail traffic but the disintegration of what has already been built up by the Transport Commission. He is heading for a relapse to the chaos of the inter-war years.

The Transport Commission, in three years, has great achievements to its credit. Among other things, it has built up the finest road haulage organisation to be found in any country. That has been built up on the basis, laid down by experience in the past 25 years, of co-operation, co-ordination and integration with rail transport and, to some extent, with the docks and inland waterways. This great road haulage organisation possesses 41,305 vehicles and 3,005 trailers. Last year it covered 765,000,000 miles, and traffic carried, excluding vehicles let out on contract, was just under 47 million tons.

That brought a revenue to the Commission of £77,398,000. This great organisation has been operated by 80,245 staff employed in the undertaking. In all quarters it is acknowledged by those who know and understand the nation's transport problems that the road haulage organisation is a fine system doing a grand job of work for the country. It is producing economies in co-ordination and integration of road and rail transport.

There is not the time, and this may not be the occasion, to go into detail showing the substantial economies which have been effected as a result of the co-ordination of road and rail transport, but they are substantial and growing, and, in the next few years, unless the organisation is destroyed by the Minister, there will be very considerable economies in transport organisation as a result of this process of co-ordination. Any hon. Member interested may obtain the information from the Transport Commission, and, indeed, I would advise anyone interested to ask for it, because it reveals quite clearly the very great progress made in knitting together road and rail transport by the Commission.

In my view, the Minister's policy in giving this standstill direction to the Transport Commission to halt the integration of road and rail transport is a blow at the transport organisation of our country. The Minister's policy threatens the greatest achievement in our transport history, and will throw road and rail transport back into the morass from which it is finally and surely emerging. The nation's interests must come first in this matter, and the direction should not be renewed, but an "All clear" given to the Commission to go ahead in its great work for the nation's welfare and benefit.

I should like to ask the Minister to reverse his policy because I believe that, in the general interests of the country's transport, and in the face of the mountains of evidence, he is trying to put the clock back. It is not good for the country that he should take our transport system back into the period of internecine warfare that existed before the war. I beg of him not to renew this direction in four weeks' time, but to allow it to lapse and give the Commission the freedom and initiative to carry on the great work which it has started, and build up a greater and more efficient transport undertaking especially in regard to the unification of road and rail transport.

2.38 a.m.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. John Maclay)

It is difficult to reply to the debate which has been initiated by the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Sparks). His main argument about a direction or standstill order has been founded on a misconception, and I think that the only way to make it clear is to go through some of the points in the Transport Act which deal with acquisitions.

There are two important types of acquisition. First of all, there is voluntary acquisition by agreement, and, at the time this Government came to power, there were practically none of these. When we come to compulsory acquisition, they fall into two categories. The first one concerns taking over undertakings which were predominantly long-distance ones, which the Commission was bound to acquire under Section 39 of the 1947 Act. These compulsory acquisitions had been completed at the time we came to power. There was another type, in which the matter is the other way round. The compulsion did not come from the Commission, but from the individual hauliers who, under the Act, could ask to be taken over, and this is the category to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

The Commission was not bound to take over these firms, but the firms themselves could, in certain circumstances, insist on being taken over. The circumstances which could give rise to that right to insist on being taken over were, first of all, where the Commission had refused the original permit or had imposed a limitation or had refused to continue the permit. That is one of the circumstances, and the second one was where the conditions involved substantial interference with the carrying on by the haulier of some activities in which he had been engaged before the introduction of the Bill. It is entirely that category that we are in, and not compulsory acquisition.

Mr. Sparks

Is the hon. Gentleman telling me that this standstill only applies to those road hauliers who had no need to be taken over by the Transport Commission? If that is so, why is it that 65 of them have accepted the postponement of acquisition, if it was a voluntary act on their part originally to ask to be taken over?

Mr. Maclay

That might well be connected with the change of Government. I am only setting out to explain the circumstances, because I think the hon. Member was under a misapprehension about them.

I now come to the next main point. The Act provides for postponement of the vesting date on take-over by agreement between the Commission and the haulier. That is under Section 44 of the Act. Last November, the Commission offered each of the hauliers whose businesses were then in course of acquisition—the category I have mentioned—the alternatives of either proceeding with the transfer in the normal way or of postponing the transfer for six months, or withdrawing the request to be acquired and continuing in business, but restricting their activities to within a 25-mile radius limit.

As the hon. Member knows from the reply which I gave to a Question asked by the hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) some time ago, the offer was made in 91 cases where the vesting date specified in the notice of acquisition was in the early part of November or later; but under the Section which I have quoted, it is possible for the vesting date to be postponed by agreement between the two sides. That is all that happened. There was no direction by order. It was purely a question of the Commission voluntarily agreeing with the undertaker in question that the vesting date should be postponed. That is where the position stands, and any other argument is a misconception of the position.

Mr. Sparks

Does the Minister now say that the Transport Commission has taken no notice of his general intention to suspend acquisition for six months? Does he say that it has done this on its own initiative without any reference to him or to anybody else?

Mr. Maclay

What happened was that under the powers which I have stated, which gave a clear right for postponement by voluntary agreement, the Commission acted as it was entitled to do. It had regard to the change of circumstances, I presume. In the change of circumstances it was clear that, as these were people who had said they wanted to be taken over, it was not unreasonable to ask them if they still did, and by voluntary agreement to postpone the date. That is what happened. The fact that these particular firms had of their own accord and not compulsorily come into this arrangement was a good reason, in the circumstances, for the Commission to see if it still wanted to do it. As to the future, I understand that the Commission is no more in a hurry now than it was before to do it.

That deals with the main substance of the hon. Member's argument. I have very little more to say because this is not the time to go into a long and detailed discussion about some of the matters which the hon. Member raised in the latter part of his speech; though I would like to do so. I think the hon. Member will find that a very large number of people in this country do not agree about the magnificent efficiency which he has attributed to this nationalised undertaking. There are many who feel that it would be a disaster to the country, and one which should be remedied.

I do not want to go into a long discussion of the various Commissions and other bodies which sat on this problem, but, having dealt with the main substance of the hon. Gentleman's argument, I hope he will feel that I have covered as much as is reasonable in my reply.

Mr. Percy Collick (Birkenhead)

When does the Minister anticipate being able to deal with the wider issues to which he has referred?

Mr. Maclay

I must refer the hon. Member to a reply I gave to the House during Question time on Monday.

Mr. Sparks

Could the Minister add just a word about the standstill period? It was originally for six months, and is expiring in four weeks' time. Is it his intention to allow it to lapse, or will it he continued indefinitely?

Mr. Maclay

I have stated in the last few minutes that there is no hurry to go on with these acquisitions, and it may well be that they will not be rushed.

Mr. Sparks

It is a matter entirely in the hands of the Commission?

Mr. Maclay


Adjourned accordingly at a Quarter to Three o'Clock a.m.