§ 11.25 p.m.
§ Mr. Ernest Davies (Enfield, East)
I beg to move,That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Railways (Additional Charges) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations, 1951 (S.I., 1951, No. 2194), dated 13th December, 1951, a copy of 'which was laid before this House on 14th December, be annulled.I think it would be for the convenience of the House if this Motion and the two following were discussed together:That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Harbours, Docks and Piers (Additional Charges) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations, 1951 (S.I., 1951, No. 2195), dated 13th December, 1951, a copy of which was laid before this House on 14th December, be annulled.That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Canals (Additional Charges) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations, 1951 (S.I., 1951, No. 2196), dated 13th December, 1951, a copy of which was laid before this House on 14th December, be annulled.I move this Motion because the Minister of Transport came to the House on 6th December last—the day before we adjourned for the long Christmas Recess—and informed us that he had received from the Transport Commission a request for increases in freight charges, which he had referred to the permanent members of the Transport Tribunal on 23rd November, and said that they had accepted the recommendation or request that these increases be made.
§ That recommendation was for a 10 per cent. increase in freight charges, and after the Minister had made his statement, his predecessor in office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham, South (Mr. Barnes), asked for a debate on the matter. It was felt in various parts of the House that to announce so important a change in transport charges on the very day before Parliament adjourned—and which was to be imposed during the Recess—was hardly a courteous manner in which to treat this honourable House. However, we adjourned until 29th January, and the charges came into effect.
§ I would point out that during the term of the previous Government, when it was found necessary to increase transport charges—
§ Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham, West)
I believe, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that it was understood to be convenient if we discussed this Motion and the two following ones together. If I may, with respect, say so, I did not notice any observation from you. Are we, in fact, discussing the three Motions together and, if so, may I make this point'? It will be within the recollection of hon. Members that when these three Regulations were discussed together in the last Parliament they were discussed at four o'clock in the afternoon, and then occupied some considerable time because discussion ranged over a whole series of aspects. If taken together tonight, I hope that we may be allowed to go fairly widely even although, through no fault of ours, they are being discussed at this hour of the night.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Colonel Sir Charles MacAndrew)
I am in the hands of the House. If it wishes to take them separately, well and good; but I think it would be convenient for the Motions to be taken together, and, if necessary, hon. Members can divide on each at the end.
§ Mr. Hale
Thank you, but there was one incident, probably by inadvertence, when the Closure was accepted on a number of Prayers, and had those been taken a little earlier in the day hon. Members would have been enabled to have a little more latitude. When these matters were discussed last year, I would remind the House, they occupied five hours and fifty-one minutes of our time.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
I am not in a position to accept the Closure from anyone; I am in the hands of the House.
§ Mr. Davies
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. When the last Government gave time for the discussion of these very matters, a whole day of Parliamentary time was set aside for it, because a rise in transport charges, whether it be in freight or fares, is of the greatest concern to everyone. If freight charges go up the incidence on goods of all kinds is great indeed, because there is a transport charge at every stage of manufacture, whether it be on the transport of raw materials to the factory, the removal of the semi-finished article, or the transport of the finished article to the wholesaler and retailer. The effect on prices is serious, so that the public cannot but be concerned whenever there is an increase in charges.
It was for this reason that we hoped, when the Minister announced that there was to be a change on 31st December, that the Government would be able to find time to debate it. The Order was laid during the Recess, but since we returned on 29th January, the Government have made no attempt to find time to have the matter debated in the House, and it is only at this last minute—because the Government did not find time—that the Opposition has put down a Motion to enable us to debate it.
The action of the Minister in not finding time is made the more serious by his statement on 6th December. He pub- 1722 lished in the OFFICIAL REPORT a memorandum he received from the Tribunal, and in which the Tribunal say, in paragraph 3:If we may be permitted to say so the request for our advice as a matter of urgency has placed us in some difficulty.It seems to me that the Minister of Transport acted a little precipitately in this matter for it was only on 23rd November, not a month after he had taken office, that he remitted this question of increased charges to the Tribunal. As the Tribunal pointed out, they were on the point of concluding a public hearing into a passenger charges scheme submitted by the Transport Commission when they received his letter.
They added:We shall, therefore, in the reasonably near future have in effect to decide what, if any, additional contribution can be expected of passengers in relief of the evident financial necessities of the Commission. In these circumstances we do not think it would be right for us to enter upon any detailed discussion in this memorandum of the extent of those necessities.That is to say, the Tribunal felt that this matter had been thrown at them at a time when they had other financial matters under consideration, and, therefore, they could not, and, in my view, were unable to, give adequate consideration to this matter.
I should like to ask the Minister what the hurry was in this matter. I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will make some attempt at an explanation, but I would suggest to him that there were many other considerations which might have been of greater value to the future finances of the Commission if he had delayed in this case. I would draw his attention to the last paragraph of the statement he made in the House—the more tendentious statement at the end of serious information about the rise in transport fares, there he was introducing partisan party politics. He said:While this increase in charges is necessary, and cannot be avoided by immediate economies which it is within the power of the Commission to make, the House will be aware that the Government is not satisfied that the structure of the country's transport system as a whole is such as to secure the best and most economical service to the community. This whole question, which of course includes efficiency, is under close and urgent examination by the Government."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th December, 1951; Vol. 494, c. 2574–7.]1723 If these matters wereunder close and urgent examination by the Governmentwhy did he take this hasty action of immediately raising charges by 10 per cent., and do so at a time when passenger fares were under consideration? During debates under the last Government, hon. Members opposite were continually attacking the transport system of the country and bringing forward grandiose schemes for improving its efficiency and its economy, and proposing decentralisation and the rest; but they have now been in office for several months and they have not made any suggestions except that of putting up charges and, more recently, of putting up fares—a step for which the Minister claims he has no responsibility.
He cannot avoid responsibility in the case of these charges because the Transport Act, as shown by the Order, gives him authority, in Section 82, to act precisely in the way he has acted—that is, to consult the permanent members of the Transport Tribunal and to accept their recommendation.
I do not share his view that he has no responsibility for the recent rise in fares, because under Section 4 (1) of the Act he has an over-riding responsibility for the Transport Commission and can give directions to it when required in the national interest. He told the House that he had no responsibility and that he could have acted in no other way, but I do not share his view.
When the Transport Commission asked the Minister for a rise in freight charges, I suggest that he should have delayed his decision. Coming fresh to his post, he should not have accepted so readily that the only way to meet the situation was to send charges chasing after costs, because as soon as charges are put up to meet costs, then costs rise even further and the inevitable result is that the Transport Commission claim another increase in charges.
There is another reason why action need not have been taken at that time. The Transport Commission had already done a great deal of work on the freight charges scheme. They have in preparation a scheme which in due course they will present to the Transport Tribunal, who will consider it; and it will come 1724 into operation in one form or another. That means that in due course there will be further changes in freight rates. We are, therefore, having a series of increases which must be very disturbing to trade and industry.
We had a rise of 10 per cent. early last April, we had this 10 per cent. rise on 31st December and, as soon as the freight charges scheme comes into operation, there will obviously be further adjustments. It might well have been better, therefore, if the Minister had waited until the examination by the Transport Commission of their freight charges scheme had been completed and until the deliberations of the Transport Tribunal had been completed, too. By that time the Minister would have been able to give full consideration to the results of the review of the transport system of the country which he said was so urgent. Then we should have had one single measure dealing with this situation, rather than so many and so frequent bites at this cherry.
I want to point out that, in dealing with this question of transport charges, particularly in this case of freight charges and the increased charges in the docks and harbours and on the canals, in the other Regulations, one cannot consider them entirely separately from the finances of the Transport Commission as a whole, because the Transport Act lays down that the Transport Commission shall be considered as one undertaking. Section 3 (4) says:All the business carried on by the Commission, whether or not arising from undertakings or parts of undertakings vested in them by or under any provision of this Act, shall form one undertaking, and the Commission shall so conduct that undertaking and, subject to the provisions of this Act, levy such fares, rates, tolls, dues and other charges, as to secure that the revenue of the Commission is not less than sufficient for making provision for the meeting of charges properly chargeable to revenue, taking one year with anotherSo the question of transport charges cannot be considered in isolation or out of relation to passenger fares and all the charges made by other Executives.
When the Minister considered this question of putting up freight charges he really should have taken into full consideration the question of the other charges the Commission were making or would be likely to come to him to have 1725 increased or adjusted later. There was the question of the passenger charges scheme at that time before the Tribunal. Here he again, in complete independence, as it were, of the finances of the Commission, went ahead with raising freight charges.
The Commission consider the finances of all their Executives as one. They go into a common pool, and when the consolidated accounts are published the full details of the financial results of the different portions of the Commission cannot be given, as there is one single financial pool, in accordance with the Act that all their undertakings should be considered as one undertaking.
There is the further reason which makes me question whether it was really necessary to take this action so quickly, and that is, that we were then in the middle of what was proving to be a very mild winter; and during this period there was very heavy freight traffic being carried by the railways. Their takings are very much affected by the volume of winter traffic.
As it happens, the railways, during what is considered the peak 20 weeks of winter ending 28th January, carried a volume of freight traffic this winter greater than in any winter since 1948, and much higher than in pre-war years. This is true both of the originating tonnage and of ton miles. The coal traffic carried, for instance, due to increased production in the coalmines under nationalisation, rose from 3,886,000 tons in 1948–49, during these 20 weeks, to 4,187,000 tons in 1951–52, whereas the total in ton miles, which is the basis for assessing the amount carried by the railways, rose from 8,700,000 to 9,054,000.
This increased volume of traffic has been carried with reduced stocks of locomotives and reduced numbers of wagons. It has been much more efficiently organised through the railway unification which has been steadily taking place. The staff has also been fewer than in other years. The wagons held at marshalling yards and exchange points have been fewer, and traffic has been kept moving.
I refer to these matters to show that the railways, during the period when the Minister decided to increase the Commission's charges, were carrying a high 1726 volume of traffic, and were doing so more efficiently and economically, than in any other comparable period. Why was it necessary to make this quick decision and to raise freight charges at this time? It might also be asked why, in spite of increased efficiency and more economic operation, it has been necessary to raise transport charges. There are several reasons, some of which were discussed during the debate on the British Transport Commission Bill about 10 days ago.
The main cause of the financial difficulties of the British Transport Commission is the inadequate replacement of permanent way and rolling stock, and inability to modernise the railways. Tills has resulted partly from the poor condition in which the railways were taken over following the wear and tear and their excessive use during the war; and as regards certain sections, the poor state they were in following pre-war operation under private enterprise.
The principal difficulty at present, however, is that the railways have been starved of capital investment. No doubt the Minister saw in "The Times" this morning the report of a speech made by the Chairman of the Railway Executive, Mr. Elliot, at a luncheon yesterday. He pointed out that it was probable that the railways would he able to fulfil only 65 per cent. of their normal construction programme for goods vehicles this year. I am not attaching, or assessing, blame, but only pointing out the difficulties confronting the railways, and finding out what action ought to be taken to overcome them.
What I am suggesting to the Minister is that the railways are suffering from the restrictions on the capital investment programme, and inadequate allocation of steel, particularly during recent months. This has compelled short-time working at railway workshops, and even the closing of workshops, with cessation of the manufacture of wagons. I would, therefore, suggest that there should be a review of the capital investment programme of the railways, and that there should be a fairer allocation of steel and of other materials to them. A large amount of rolling stock is required, and there is a particular need of diesel engines for shunting to enable the railways to operate more economically and more economic operation prevents further bur- 1727 dens being imposed upon the travelling public and the shipper of goods.
I think a further explanation of the financial difficulties of British Railways today is that, of course, there has not been the speedy integration or co-ordination that one would have liked to see between the different sections of the Commission and between road and rail. It has not gone as fast as was hoped in the first days of nationalisation. Another reason is the large amount of traffic which has been lost from the railways to the road hauliers and to non-Commission road hauliers. That has been partly due to the C licence holders carrying their own goods, and also to the regrettable evasion which is taking place at the present time.
There is a considerable volume of traffic carried by operators under C licences, some of whom were operating previously and were bought out and compensated by the Transport Commission; and by those who are operating C licences held by their customers and not by themselves. I do not want to weary the House with details, but there are two very well-known ways in which there is evasion of the Transport Act whereby goods are being carried by road by what I might call "pirates." There is, for instance, the shipper of his own goods owning a C licence without owning a vehicle. He can hire a vehicle from a contractor, who operates under the shipper's C licence.
I do not want to go into all these details, and anyway it might get me out of order, though I would argue that charges by the railways are certainly very much affected by the amount of traffic which is lost by the railways to road vehicles which are not abiding by the Transport Act and, therefore, obviously not owned by the Transport Commission. That is relevant to the question of transport charges.
§ The Minister of Transport (Mr. John Maclay)
Before the hon. Gentleman goes further, I should like to know from you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, how I should handle this question when I come to reply. The hon. Member is going fairly wide of the Motion, and I assume it will be in order for me to follow him as far as he has gone.
§ Mr. Michael Foot (Plymouth, Devonport)
In the debate which took place on similar increases in the last Parliament, 1728 held on 23rd April, a speech was made by the present Home Secretary in which he discussed at length the whole question of economies on the railways, and efficiency on the railways. There was no suggestion from the Chair that he was transgressing beyond the Regulations. These Regulations, I understand, are framed exactly in the same terms as those which were discussed on that occasion.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Bing (Hornchurch)
Mr. Deputy-Speaker, you will no doubt recall the debate referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Devonport (Mr. Foot), because you were in the Chair at any rate for part of the debate. A whole day out of Government time was given for it, and it was opened by the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for West Derby (Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe), the present Home Secretary. He dealt specifically with the problem of road transport, and he argued that if he did not deal with that aspect of the matter, the general question could not be dealt with.
If these Regulations are looked at, it will be seen they are cast in precisely similar form to the No. 1 Regulations on which that debate was based. The only difference I can see between the two Regulations is that there is reference to amending Regulations here and the proviso to paragraph (4) is omitted. Otherwise, the Regulations are cast in the same form of words only, of course, the charges included are very much greater. So that surely, with great respect, criticism addressed to the lesser charges when we had a whole day's debate on the matter must surely be in order when addressed to the greater charges in these Regulations.
§ Mr. R. J. Mellish (Bermondsey)
Further to that point of order. I am personally interested in the Regulations relating to harbours, dock and piers, and a similar argument applies to increased charges, bearing in mind that it is a Regulation arising from the original Regulations in 1950. No. 702. When the debate took place on those Regulations, the whole question of efficiency in docks, and so on, in connection with which these charges are now to be applied, was dealt with.
I submit, with great respect, that if we are to discuss these Regulations in the 1729 light of the extra charges now being made on the charges dealt with in the Regulation of 1950, No. 702, we are entitled to discuss the whole question of the relationship of these charges to the efficiency of the industry and so on.
§ Mr. Mellish
The Minister will have plenty of time. I submit it would be a very good thing if we had a clear understanding on this point, because if it was possible for the Government, then in opposition, to have a full day to discuss the efficiency of the industry, then it is perfectly in order to do so now, because unless the efficiency of the industry is related it is difficult to argue about the charges.
§ Mr. Davies
Further to that point. A further point to be taken into account is that the Transport Commission have to act as a single undertaking. Therefore, everything relating to the accounts and finances of the Commission is really relevant to this debate, because the charges of one undertaking are certainly affected by the finance of the whole undertaking.
§ Mr. Maclay
I do not know whether it can go much further—I was not complaining. I was merely seeking guidance.
§ Mr. Ede (South Shields)
To re-assure the Minister, may I say that we shall not object to anything he likes to say or to how wide he likes to go in his reply?
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
I think that as far as road transport is concerned, we cannot deal with it in any detail. But I gather the hon. Gentleman was seeking to say the rise would not have been necessary had road transport not been skimming the cream of the traffic.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
Perhaps I may be allowed to finish. We cannot go in detail into road transport. That would be out of order.
§ Mr. Bing
I beg your pardon. I was going to call your attention, Sir, to the degree of wideness to which the previous debate went. The hon. Member for Truro (Mr. G. Wilson) dealt in some detail with a section of the Railway and Canal 1730 Traffic Act, 1854, in discussing what would be appropriate remedies for the position in which we then found ourselves. Anything wider than that it would be hard to find. I would respectfully suggest that if matters of that sort were in order, surely matters dealing with 1950 must also be in order.
§ Mr. Davies
I am sure you are never blameworthy, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I thank you for your Ruling, because you took the words out of my mouth when you referred to skimming the cream of the traffic. That was exactly the point I was making in arriving at my argument about the evasion which takes place by the carriage of goods by hauliers not operating for the Transport Commission. They skim the cream. A considerable volume of traffic is lost, and as a consequence much revenue too.
The instance, I was about to give was of road hauliers who own their own businesses getting customers to obtain C licences for carrying their own goods. That is to say, the haulier goes to a man who has a regular tonnage to ship and says: "You get a C licence—I can carry your goods in my vehicle." He does not go only to one customer but to a large number, and as he proceeds along the road he will switch one C licence disc for another according to the goods he happens to be carrying at that time.
In fact, he is acting as a road haulage operator quite illegally by having these C licence discs. I say that is quite illegal because under the Act the driver is supposed to be employed by the owner of the C licence, whether the vehicle is owned by the C licensee or by someone else; and here the customer tries to get round the Act legally by paying so much for the tonnage carried and so much for the driver's wages.
Here is a leakage which I urge the Minister of Transport to look into because it is making serious inroads into the finances of the British Transport Commission both by depriving the Road Haulage Executive of a certain amount of traffic and also by depriving the railways of some of this traffic which would otherwise go by rail.
1731 These Regulations provide also for increased charges on merchandise carried by passenger trains as well as other charges. Passenger trains at present are, of course, inadequately loaded and they are not contributing their full share towards the Commission's finances. I do not want to go into the question of passenger fares because I am sure that would be ruled out of order, but the position here is that the same problems apply to the railways as regards the carriage of freight as they do to the carriage of passengers. Both sections of the system, both sides of the business of British Railways, are affected by this lack of capital investment which I have already raised.
What applies here might apply equally to freight charges. When charges are too high a very large volume of traffic is lost. In the case of the rise in freight charges in 1951, the Transport Tribunal suggested that there would be a loss in freight income of £9 million worth of traffic per annum from the railways owing to the increased charges. Of course we have a parallel example in passenger traffic, where an increase in fares invariably leads to considerable loss of traffic.
The transport operators often make the great mistake of having charges and fares at too high a level to attract the traffic; that is particularly so in the case with passenger fares. I should have thought that the Commission's finances would be considerably assisted if passenger fares were kept at a lower level and if more cheap fares were introduced rather than by allowing fares as well as freight charges to go up periodically as they are doing now. I should have thought it better for the Commission as well as for the pockets of the senders of freight and the travelling public to run full trains at a level the public can afford rather than half empty at high fares.
I suggest to the Minister that before fares or charges are raised any further—and I would much rather be pressing him to bring about a reduction, but I fear my persuasion would have little result—that the time has come for serious consideration of the financial structure of the Transport Commission. The Commission have proved very successful during the years since nationalisation as far as economic and efficient operation is concerned. Their goods traffic has improved. 1732 Their cost of operation has been very substantially reduced, if one does not take into account the change in their employees working conditions.
In the past we had low freight charges and low fares because we did not provide the workers on the railways and other transport workers with the working conditions and wages to which they were entitled. They were badly paid, comparatively speaking, and their conditions of work were also bad. While the largest increase in costs has been for the improvement in wages and working conditions, wages are still low in comparison with a great number of industries, and there is still room for further improvement. Quite likely there will be a further demand for greater revenue to meet further increased costs, and further increased costs to the railways are inevitable following this week's Budget.
Petrol, although it affects mostly road transport and may well lead to a rise in bus fares, also affects British Railways because of their large collection and delivery service and their use of other vehicles. Although the Commission have done an exceedingly good job during the years since 1947 it has been revealed that with rising costs, with the granting of decent conditions to the workers they are up against financial difficulties, and will continue to be up against them. Each year they have operated at a loss. They have made a working surplus but have had a net deficit because of the high capital interest charges which result largely from the compensation which was given.
I am not for a moment suggesting that the interest charge, as far as the holders of transport stock are concerned, should be in any way changed, but I am saying that it is a burden which I am sure the Commission cannot continue to bear. The £44 million which is the main interest charge on British transport stock is at a level which is such a drag on the finances of the Commission that whenever costs rise there will be a demand for increased charges and fares to meet this charge. The Commission will never be able to carry out—or will have great difficulty in doing so—that Section of the Act which requires that, taking one year with another, it should balance its costs with revenue.
1733 I suggest that the Minister, as he says he is making this close and urgent review of the transport system, should take into account the necessity for reviewing the financial structure, see what steps should be taken to eliminate the annual deficits which have accumulated so far, and see whether there is not some financial reconstruction which is necessary to relieve it of some of the burden of the capital charges.
I would further point out to him that he stated in the debate on the British Transport Commission Bill the other day that he wanted the railways to operate successfully and be financially successful, and he now indicates assent to that, but I would point out to him that he cannot operate British Railways in isolation. The very reason for nationalisation was to bring all the main transport of this country into one undertaking, to co-ordinate and integrate it so that the total revenue from the integrated system should be adequate to meet the costs of operation, and provide an economic and efficient system for the whole country.
If the right hon. Gentleman is considering any reconstruction of the transport system of the country, and if he is considering taking away from this integrated system—or the system which is working towards integration—any section which is profitable today, such as any section of the road haulage industry, or if he is even thinking of extending the radius of operation of the non-nationalised road haulage operators, then he will make it even more difficult for British Railways to pay and for the British Transport Commission to meet its deficit and for fares and charges to be held at their present level.
So I suggest to the Minister that, before he considers making any further changes in charges, there should be a thorough review, taking fully into account the greater efficiency and the economies which have been effected, the improvements in working conditions and so on. He should consider whether there is not a case for a fresh financial start so far as the Transport Commission is concerned, so that, in future, we do not have to be concerned with rises in costs bringing about alarming rises in fares and charges.
§ 12.15 a.m.
§ Mr. F. Beswick (Uxbridge)
I beg to second the Motion.
I shall be very brief, and I use the term in its literal sense, and not in the special sense in which my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale) usually employs the term. I second this Motion because I believe that the increases in freight charges have a very special and vicious influence in the inflationary situation which faces us at the present time.
I put a Question on the Order Paper at the beginning of this year calling the attention of the Minister to the fact that one reason these freight charges had been necessary was because of a previous increase in the price of coal, and it was stated at the time when the increase in the price of coal was announced that one element in the increase was due to a previous increase in freight charges. I intended to ask the Minister whether, if the increase in freight charges, which was due in part to the increase in coal charges, which in part was due to a previous increase in freight charges, was not going to lead to additional increases in coal charges, and whether this increase would not also lead to additional freight charges.
§ Mr. David Renton (Huntingdon)
Bearing in mind that the hon. Member was a member of a Government which introduced the present system for fixing freight charges, and the present system for fixing coal charges, and that this process of freight charges and coal charges forcing each other up had been going on for two years, will he say, as a member of that Government, whether he contemplated that, as a matter of Socialist planning, that process would take place, or was he taken by surprise?
§ Mr. Beswick
I really do think that now, after six months of the present Administration, the Government should tend to consider proposals for altering a bad situation rather than that they should merely point to the fact that something happened under the Labour Administration. I do feel that, from now on, we should look for something to be done instead of hearing continually the story of what happened under the Labour Administration.
1735 I was about to say that, due to the fact that we do not make such good progress with the answering of Parliamentary Questions nowadays, the Question to which I have referred was put off for a period, and during that time of postponement, we had questions about increases in coal costs; and we heard, also, of steel price rises. I should like to ask if the increases amounting to £11 million which the Transport Commission say they will incur in this calendar year include an estimate for the increases in steel and coal prices which, in turn, have been rendered necessary, in part, by the increase in freight charges. I should be glad if I could be told if this £11 million includes those items and, if so, how much they represent in the total.
I do hope that hon. Members opposite will not question my sincerity when I say that this matter affects both sides of the House; and I am sure that we all want to find a solution. But, there was another reason why I speak tonight and that is that when the Minister announced these increases, he said that he was giving close and urgent attention to the matter. He also said, in answer to a Question of mine, connected with aviation, that he and his Government "worked fast."
Those were his words, and yet it is now three months since he told the House that this Government, with a special brain brooding on the transport problem, in a sphere even rarer than that in which the Minster now moves, was giving "close and urgent attention" to transport problems. Therefore, can we now have the constructive and positive proposals which he promised to lay before the House in order to end the inflationary spiral taking place?
There are two other matters to which I would call attention. The Minister said that our transport system, the railways in particular, was in need of improved capital equipment. I would make the point that it is not merely in the sphere of physical equipment that the transport industry, and the railways especially, are behind the times. It is also, and I say this in no disrespectful way, the same so far as the personnel are concerned. I noticed in the 'Railway Gazette" a week or two ago that attention was called to the fact that out of one million people 1736 employed in the transport industry, fewer than 100 earn £3,000 a year or more. I believe it is also true that out of the one million people employed fewer than 2,000 earn £1,000 a year or more. I do not believe that there is another industry in the country in which the proportion of highly-skilled and highly-paid men could be so small.
The difficulty is that the railways have been working on such a tight margin that, in trying to catch up with themselves, they have been unable to invest in capital investment or personnel the amount of money required if a constructive solution to this problem, which the Minister described as an economic service to the community, is to be obtained. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to tell us now, three months after he announced the increase in freight charges, how he proposes to end this vicious circle of increased charges leading to increased costs leading to increased charges.
§ 12.21 a.m.
§ Mr. Michael Foot (Plymouth, Devonport)
I should like to begin by referring to some of the first remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, East (Mr. Ernest Davies), who moved this Motion. He referred to the circumstances in which this announcement was made by the Minister, and when he did there seemed to be some mutterings on the other side of the House, chiefly from the Patronage Secretary and several other hon. Members, who seemed to be mystified that we should be discussing this matter now. When it was suggested that it was the fault of the Government that we were discussing it now, there seemed to be some objection by hon. Gentlemen.
I should like to recall the exact circumstances in which this matter came forward. A statement was made on 6th December, the House departed on 7th December, and did not meet again until the end of January, when the charges were in operation. What we are now doing is to carry on the debate which should have taken place when we were in recess. This debate could have taken place on 8th December, 9th December or 10th December, and we could have discussed it earlier in the day. That was what the Opposition did propose at the time, and it was rejected by the Government.
1737 Furthermore, if that course had been adopted, we should have had the advantage of discussing the charges before they came into operation. I do not know whether all hon. Gentlemen agree that it is a good thing to be able to discuss charges of this nature and importance before they come into operation. There may be a few who would object to that proposition, but few on that side of the House who could object to it, because when we were discussing the earlier set of charges imposed last spring by the late Government, many hon. Members insisted that it would be a great advantage if the charges could be discussed before they came into operation.
Among those who took that attitude, if I remember correctly, was the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport, who took the view that it was a good thing to discuss these charges before they came into operation. He protested that we were going on an Easter Recess and said this was a nice Easter egg to give to the people of the country—or words to that effect. He wanted to have the Easter egg opened before the Recess. That was a matter of going away for 10 days, but this time he was a party to sending the House away for—
§ Mr. Speaker
I think it is a somewhat long exordium. I hope the hon. Member will now come to the content of the Regulations.
§ Major H. Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)
Has the hon. Member forgotten that one of his right hon. Friends, the right hon. Member for Fulham, West (Dr. Summerskill) introduced an Order dealing with seasonal workers in the middle of the Summer Recess and caused great inconvenience to a great many people?
§ Mr. Foot
I hope not to be out of order, and I certainly should be out of 1738 order if I discussed all the seasonal Orders and the various times at which they were introduced at various intervals in the past six years. I will leave the matter there, except to say that there were difficulties why the previous Government could not have these matters discussed before they were introduced, for we were at that time engaged in the Budget debates. No such difficulty occurred this time.
Turning to the subject matter of the Motion, I do not think any hon. Member would contest the importance of the issue we are debating. It is a matter of first-class importance to the nation's industry as a whole, and for the country as a whole, and when my right hon. Friend the ex-Minister of Transport introduced the previous charges, in exactly the same terms as those in which we are discussing the 10 per cent. increase today, the present President of the Board of Trade referred to the "gravity" of the statement which my right hon. Friend had made.
There was a long discussion on my right hon. Friend's statement. The present Prime Minister said the 10 per cent. increase was a very heavy tax on the public. If the previous 10 per cent. increase was a very heavy tax on the public, then I presume the Prime Minister considers that this 10 per cent. increase is an even heavier tax on the public.
It was not only the Prime Minister who held those views, for there was another Member of the present Government, whose opinions on economic matters may be regarded as of greater significance—the Chancellor of the Exchequer—who said the subject matter of the 10 per cent. increase in freight charges was a vital matter which would affect the whole of British industry and commerce.
That is what we are discussing tonight, according to the present Chancellor of the Exchequer. In those same debates, the present President of the Board of Trade stressed the inadvisability of having to discuss these matters late at night. He appealed to my right hon. Friend to make plenty of time available in the day-time for such a discussion, and the Government acceded to his request.
So we have the extraordinary situation that at least half a dozen members 1739 of the Government, and some of the most prominent—the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the President of the Board of Trade, and, coming down a little, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport—were all agreed on the paramount importance of this question.
How was it, then, that a debate was not arranged? It seems to have been a great triumph for the Minister of Transport himself. He seems to have swayed all the other Ministers, including Cabinet Ministers, who insisted on the gravity of the subject, and that a debate should take place, to meet the convenience of his Ministry, and to allow the charges to be imposed before debate.
It was a great triumph for the National Liberal Party—a rather rare event. I think we all ought to celebrate the fact that the National Liberal Party were able to sway the opinion of other members of the Government and insist that Parliament should be packed off and that no debate should take place on this matter which the Chancellor of the Exchequer has described as of vital importance affecting the whole of British industry and commerce.
I should like now to deal with the remarks of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Renton) but, unfortunately, he has departed. He intervened with a most childish interruption. He said we were discussing a problem that this party had created and which the party opposite were going to solve. He was so interested, he said, to hear the solution—and he was so interested to hear the solution he has apparently gone off. I should be prepared to await his return. I will come to his remarks if and when he returns.
When this matter was discussed before, when we discussed the previous increase of 10 per cent. in freight charges, what was the case put by the then Opposition who are now the Government? What was their argument against accepting that 10 per cent? Let us not forget that they voted against the whole proposition. There were several arguments, but they were all for the purpose of reinforcing one main claim. I do not think the Parliamentary Secretary will dissent from what I am saying. He took part, or was at least present, on that 1740 occasion, and he will, I am sure, not dissent from my interpretation of the case.
Their main claim was that an inquiry should take place before the charges were introduced. Many different arguments, ranging over road transport and the finances of the Commission and the economies that might have been introduced—different arguments ranging over every other aspect of the field—were used to lead to that one claim, "You must give us an authoritative answer to all these arguments. Why not have an inquiry?"
What was the answer. It was, "We cannot have such an inquiry as that. It would take several months, by which time the finances of the Commission would be very much more seriously in deficit than they are at present. It is an impracticable suggestion, that we should have an inquiry before the freight charges are increased."
I am sure we shall not hear that from the Minister tonight. I am sure he will not tell us there has not been opportunity for an inquiry. I am sure he will not tell us the matter was so urgent he had to impose the charges without an inquiry. I am sure that will not be his reply because, although he is a National Liberal he is consistent, and I am sure he would not wish to stab the Home Secretary in the back in his absence—[Laughter.]—A very creditable feat, on account of the difficulty, that would be, I agree.
But we can put nothing beyond the achievements of the National Liberals after their achievement in swaying the whole Cabinet to their opinion in this matter. So all those arguments about there not being time for an inquiry and the urgency of having the charges increased were used against the claim for an inquiry, and the then Opposition had a single answer to all those defensive arguments.
They said, "We are not asking for a big inquiry which will take several months. You can easily have an inquiry, a quick inquiry." I daresay that some of my hon. Friends remember the debate in which the present Home Secretary said we could appoint a couple of business men, get them to look into it, and in a few weeks they would have something to put matters right. If it was possible to suggest in April last year that one could have such a quick inquiry, why is it not 1741 possible now? There has been a matter of five months—November, December, January, February, and here we are, halfway through March—a matter of four and a half months. When the Home Secretary spoke in the debate on fares, even he did not suggest a four-and-a-half months' inquiry.
If the Government believed what they said when they were in Opposition, one would have thought that one of the, first things they would have done on coming to power would have been to propose a consultation between the Minister of Transport and the Home Secretary. The Home Secretary might well have said, "You remember what I said in the debate. We ought to have a quick inquiry." They might also have consulted the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who said that this was a matter which affected the industry of the country, and that something must be done. He might have said, "Let us have an inquiry as we suggested and voted upon in the House of Commons."
But it has not been done. It appears that the whole of that argument we had on that occasion was a fraud. It was just a trumped-up debate to say that this inquiry could be held. Many of us in this House did not believe it was sense for anyone to suggest that, with a great industry, having great ramifications, and which only a few years ago had been nationalised, an inquiry by a couple of businessmen could in a few days bring proposals to set things right and save £20 million being put on freight charges.
Therefore, the whole of that debate is exposed as a fraud, and it adds to the difficulties of the Minister of Transport this evening; because answers of that kind were given by the Government of that time, and it would be difficult for him to employ those exact words. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Huntingdon has not come back, but we will give him a little longer.
There is another reason why it would have been desirable for this House to have had a debate before these charges were introduced, or, as my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, East, has put it, to say that it would have been better if this could have been delayed a little longer. There is a series of other factors which have since come into the picture, and which ought to be taken into the pic- 1742 ture when the House is considering an increase of freight charges. Some of these were mentioned by the hon. Member for Enfield, East, but I should like to refer to a few more. Here again I recall some things which were said in the previous debate about a year ago.
The present Home Secretary, speaking then, talked of the effect of the new charges upon the lowest income groups, and the present President of the Board of Trade went on to say,This type of increase bears most heavily on the people least able to bear it."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd April, 1951; Vol. 487, c. 142.]That was one of the arguments employed then. Taking into account not only the effect of these charges on the lowest income groups, but also the other charges which are being imposed at present, it is clear that since the announcement was made by the Minister a quite new situation has arisen.
In particular, the problem of the low-paid workers is probably a bigger problem with the railways than with any other industry in this country. Ever since 1945 there has been tension inside the transport industry because of the low wages which are received by great numbers of railway workers. No one can dispute these facts, and since the Minister announced the new freight charges there have been some factors, and especially in the last few days, which have greatly influenced that situation.
I am told that roughly there are something like 100,000 railway workers getting a good deal less than £6 a week. I have worked it out that a railwayman with a wife will get £4 a year less, taking all the decisions in the Budget into account, as a direct consequence of the Budget. The railwayman with one child will get £12 less a year as a direct result of the measures introduced in the Budget.
§ Mr. Speaker
I do not know how the hon. Member connects what he has just said with the increased charges proposed in these Regulations.
§ Mr. Bing
On a point of Order. In the last debate which we had on this subject on the No. 1 Amendment Regulations, the right hon. and learned Gentleman, the Member for West Derby (Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe), now the Home 1743 Secretary, when opening that debate, which occupied a whole day and was in Government time, dealt with matters very similar to what my hon. Friend the Member for Devonport (Mr. Foot) is dealing with at the moment. For instance, he dealt with the Guillebaud Court of Inquiry, which is very far from the actual question of the charges, and with such things as trade restrictive practices in the railway service.
§ Mr. Speaker
I cannot remember that debate with any clarity, but I am merely asking in the light of the present circumstances how the hon. Member for Devonport (Mr. Foot) connects what he is saying to these Regulations.
§ Mr. Mellish
If I may refer back to that debate on 23rd April, it was pointed out that these increased charges were related to the efficiency of the industry itself, and that they were also connected with the conditions under which people worked. My hon. Friend is only following the course that was set then.
§ Mr. Speaker
I can see quite well that on these Regulations it is relevant to discuss some of the expenses of the railways and also their efficiency, but I thought the hon. Member for Devonport was talking about the wage structure of the industry, and I could not see the relevancy of that.
§ Mr. Foot
I am very content to telescope my argument, Sir.
What I was saying was this. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, East, said—and this was one of the main arguments put forward about the Prayer—that it would have been advisable that the imposition of the freight charges should have been postponed for a period, because there are some new factors which should be taken into account when we impose such charges. He said that it was unwise and of no advantage to this House in dealing with these matters if we had to take several bites at the cherry, and he produced several arguments which showed that factors which have recently come into the picture should be taken fully into account when these charges are imposed. Therefore, he argued, it would have been to the 1744 general advantage if the Minister had delayed the imposition of the charges a little longer.
What I am saying is that other factors which have arisen have made it advisable for the Government to postpone the imposition of the charges. As a result of the measures taken by the Government in the last few days, it is possible there will be a demand for increased wages in the railway industry in the coming months, and those demands are bound again to lead to some raising of the freight charges, because more than 50 per cent. and up to as much as 70 per cent. of these increased charges are accounted for by the demand for wage increases.
As a result of other measures taken by the Government, which they must at any rate have been contemplating when they introduced these new charges, they have taken action which means they will have to come back to this House and demand fresh increases in freight charges, unless, later, they are proposing to take some other way of dealing with this matter. I should have thought that argument must be in order, because it is addressed immediately to the reason why it would have been beneficial to delay the imposition of these charges a little longer.
§ The Speaker
I see the point the hon. Gentleman is making. I hope I am not too unreasonable in suggesting that if his argument is correct and the railways will be faced with greater expenditure because of the demand for increased wages, it seems a curious reason for denying them the increase which is asked now.
§ Mr. Foot
It might be a reason for denying the increase asked for now if it were thought it is a good thing that the increased expenses in the railway industry are to be met, say, every few months. One of the main arguments of the hon. Gentleman for Enfield, East, was that it is much better to have consolidation of the different reasons which may lead to different increases rather than to come every few months and make further erratic demands for increases in freight charges or passenger fares.
I do not wish to pursue that part of the argument very much further, but I would say that if any hon. Friend of mine wishes to pursue the argument that it would be better to have delayed these 1745 Regulations until the full factors affecting the increased expenditure of the Transport Commission had become better known, it would certainly be in order.
As the hon. Member for Huntingdon is not here yet, may I turn to another matter which was discussed at great length in the previous debate and was also referred to by my hon. Friend for Enfield, East. He discussed one of the causes of the increased charges—of which we have had several in the past few years and of which we might have more in the future if some other course of action is not taken. He referred to the capital assets of the railways and the fact that they have not been able to improve those assets at anything like the speed they would have desired.
I think we have a right to have a very specific answer from the Minister. We had an announcement about capital investment during the last few days and we should be told by the Minister tonight what effect the Government's cut in capital investment is to have upon the railway industry, because that will certainly also affect the question of whether these charges are necessary and whether they are the right way of going about dealing with this kind of industry.
This matter was discussed at some length in the previous debate we had last April on precisely similar Regulations. There were many suggestions from the spokesmen of His Majesty's Opposition that we could make economies; we could save here and there and cut down branch lines and various other things. Some might have been possible propositions—some not so good. What was very strange in that previous debate was that they never seemed to look at the plans made by the Transport Commission itself. We have the report of the Commission for 1950 and the immense demands put forward by the Commission for assisting them in meeting this ever-increasing demand for freight charge increase.
The first demand is concerned with their arrears of investment. In fact, they are in a situation of having to do patchwork instead of replacing assets. I find that some hon. Members in that debate suggested that, of course, the nationalised industries were greatly favoured by the last Government and that they could not have any complaints about capital invest- 1746 ment because the Government looked after the nationalised industries. That was not the case. Let me quote from the "Economist" of 20th October last, which said:Transport certainly has not been treated as a favourite child.That is a very moderate statement of the facts. The hon. Member for Enfield, East, quoted a statement of Mr. Elliot on this precise subject. I should like to quote a statement—which also confirms his claim—which was made by Mr. Valentine, the President of the Institute of Transport. He said in a recent speech that two-thirds of the present investment quota of British Railways is usedfor track and other works essential to maintain safe running at existing speeds.In fact, the railways have very little investment left over for anything which might properly be called modernisation. May I again quote the "Economist," which said:The transport system creaks along, bearly able to maintain itself and is quite unable to improve its efficiency by the wise use of new capital.That is the position of the railway industry of this country today. The railway industry is not only important for us in peace: it would be vital for us if the calamity of another war befell us. Therefore, we have a right to know, when we are being asked to agree to charges already imposed by the Commission, what aid the Government are giving to the Transport Commission to help it to escape from its difficulties.
One of the ways in which we can avoid the possibility of having a series of debates on increased freight charges and passenger fares in future is that more money should be invested in the railways; but we want to know whether this new investment cut of the Government does affect the railway system. I hope that the Minister of Transport will tell us. Many other hon. Members have tried at Question time to ask Ministers how these capital investment cuts affect different parts of our industry and we have a right to know what sum will be turned out because many people believe it is a crazy notion in the interests of defence to cut capital investment now and thereby, in the words of the "Economist," leave our British transport system "to creak along." That would not be a 1747 defensive measure and it is not very good economy.
The hon. Member for Huntingdon is still not here, so perhaps one or two of his hon. Friends will be able to speak for him. He said that this transport problem, which results in frequent demands for increases in freight charges, was one that we on this side agreed that the Government would solve. Let us take the second part of the proposition first. If it is the claim of the party opposite that they are to solve this problem, then we shall be very glad indeed. The Minister should be grateful to us for providing an opportunity to state his solution. We are not suggesting he has a cast-iron solution, but we should like to hear a few tentative suggestions on how he intends to act. If he is not going to give us any tentative suggestions, then it is just as well that the hon. Member for Huntingdon was wise enough to depart.
We heard nothing of any solution of this problem while hon. Gentlemen opposite were in opposition. The only remedy they proposed then would have made the position very much worse. Now they are in office they may have to abandon that proposal. Perhaps that is one of the matters the Minister may refer to when he gets up to try to convince us that if this demand is accepted then we will not be faced with similar demands in the near future.
The hon. Member for Huntingdon suggested that any increase in coal charges leading to an increase in freight charges was due to this side. [An HON. MEMBER: "Hear, hear."] I am glad to hear one hon. Gentleman support the hon. Member for Huntingdon, but I do not think the party opposite really believe that to be true. However bold a face hon. Gentlemen may put on, I do not think they are so stupid as to imagine that the basic problems in our coal and transport industries were created by the nationalisation Acts.
§ Mr. Foot
The hon. Gentleman can go home if he wants to—if his Whips will let him.
The accusation, if it means anything, was that there had been a greater increase in charges for nationalised coal or nationalised transport than there had been in private enterprise industries. That is not the fact. The increase in the charges on the transport industry are less than 100 per cent. as compared with prewar, and British coal is probably still the cheapest in the world. Therefore, it is very foolish for hon. Gentlemen to suggest that these increased prices and the spiral that has taken place is due to the operation of nationalisation when, at the same time, as we all know, the prices of many of the needs of the railway and coal industries have gone up, not merely 100 per cent. but 200, 300, 400 per cent. since 1938.
Hon. Gentlemen know that perfectly well. Therefore, it is a foolish argument. But I would agree on this much, that it is certainly desirable if at some point or another one tries to break the spiral by positive Government intervention. That, I think, was exactly the proposal of the previous chairman of the Steel Board. That was exactly what he wanted to do and was denied the right by the Government.
§ Mr. Foot
I apologise, Sir. I am afraid that my parenthesis became somewhat extended, but I think the same principle applies to this industry.
I have always been in favour of the positive methods of subsidies—although the previous Government were not, and it appears the present Government are not, unless they are to announce their intention to intervene to try and stop this spiral of freight and coal charges going up by this method. I have always believed that that was the right course, and I believe it would be the proper course to follow in the present state, particularly as the President of the Board of Trade, speaking in the debate on 23rd April, 1951, said:If we wanted to select one particular increase which would have a more dramatic 1749 effect than any other in forcing up prices, it would be to put up transport charges."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd April, 1951; Vol. 487, c. 140.]I think that was a gross-over-statement of the facts. The right hon. Gentleman says it does not really bear any relation to the situation. We expected that sort of thing from the right hon. Gentleman when he was in Opposition, and we still get a bit of it from him now he is in the Government, but there is a grain of sense in it, and the grain of sense is that, if we help to check the vicious spiral at one particular point, we should not be confronted time and again with the possibility of having to come back to the House and demand more money to be devoted to helping to deal with this industry.
It is very foolish for hon. Gentlemen opposite to suggest that the difficulties of this industry are due to nationalisation. They know it is not true. The noble Lord the Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Hinchingbrooke), we know, holds highly original views of his own, and believes that we can have real cut-throat competition in the transport industry of this country, but I do not imagine that his views are shared by any of his hon. Friends. The noble Lord is in a difficult situation, because he is a believer in free enterprise and champions it with great eloquence and courage—and it does require courage, even in the days of a Conservative Government.
But the noble Lord, although an eager advocate of free enterprise, is also a good enough politician to know that he has no hope of seeing this industry handed back to private enterprise, and that is why he is so gloomy about it.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Colonel Sir Charles MacAndrew)
If the hon. Gentleman is going into that, it will be rather outside the scope of the debate.
§ Mr. Martin Lindsay (Solihull)
On a point of order. Is there any precedent for an hon. Member speaking for three-quarters of an hour and still having six or seven pages of notes in his hand?
§ Mr. Foot
The fact is, and I think hon. Members on all sides recognise it—and I think the Minister of Transport stated it in the debate to which my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, East, referred, and which dealt with transport matters a few weeks ago—that he has to accept the present situation and make the system work, and that there is a very good reason for that. I quote again from the "Economist," to which I referred earlier, and which said:It is useless to talk of scrapping the Transport Act, if only because the railways, and almost certainly the bulk of the long-distance road haulage, would remain in public ownership for want of outside bidders.That is the fact, and one of the reasons we have initiated this debate is because, following the previous debate on this subject, in which no indication was given by hon. Gentlemen opposite that they had the faintest inkling of the real problem, now that the Minister of Transport is in charge of this industry, now that, for a temporary period, we have a Conservative Government, we have a right to know whether they all hold the same views as they did in Opposition or if they have devised a new policy for dealing with this situation, and are going to come down to this House and ask for the charges to be put up.
I admit that I do not think we went far enough during the past six years in dealing with this problem. I think, as my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, East, has said, we have to start on a bold policy of integration; but, as this industry is bankrupt—and that is not only the view of some hon. Members, but the view of the "Economist"—we should consider, instead of merely imposing these extra burdens on the industries and the consumers of the country, producing an absolutely new plan for this basic industry which was bankrupt when taken over.
§ 1.5 a.m.
§ Mr. Hale
May I call your attention, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, to the fact that we are really discussing three sets of Regulations, but that two have not been mentioned. If the Minister answers on all three, he will have exhausted his right to reply on points raised by my hon. Friends on this side on the other two—the Harbours, Docks and Piers (Additional Charges) Regulations, and the Canals (Additional Charges) Regulations. May we be told who will reply to discussion on those two?
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
I have not heard what has been said during the last hour, but previously, I heard both docks and canals mentioned.
§ Mr. Mellish
The Minister of Transport has a personal interest in this matter, and those of us with docks and harbours in our constituencies would like to hear something from him on these two Regulations. Are hon. Members like myself to be denied an answer.
§ Mr. Hale
Surely this is an unprecedented situation. The debate last year lasted for a whole Parliamentary day, while now, apart from my hon. Friends who moved and seconded the Motion, only one hon. Member has spoken. Is it not unprecedented that, in such circumstances, the Minister should be called upon?
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
That is not a point for me. When a Minister rises, he is always called, and that is what I did.
§ Mr. Mellish
In view of the fact that so many of us are concerned with the other Regulations, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, surely the Minister should wait to sense the feeling of the House by giving other hon. Members the opportunity to rise.
§ Mr. Hale
Although, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, you have called the Minister, would he hold back while you call another hon. Member? After all, the Minister was the recognised expert during discussion on the Transport Act several years ago, and on other transport 1752 occasions, on voyages around the islands and journeys to the Highlands, and the expert on piers and harbours. Surely he ought to wait to hear the views of hon. Members on that very subject, and it would be grossly discourteous for him to rise now. Let me remind the House again that a whole day was given to this same subject nearly a year ago.
§ Mr. Donnelly
I understood the Leader of the House to say yesterday that he was grateful to my hon. Friends for withdrawing some of their Prayers so that there could be a serious discussion on this particularly important matter. I am sure that the Minister would not like it to go on record that he disregarded many of the points affecting constituencies of hon. Members and the effects on the whole of a great industrial service; and that is something very germane to the cost of living.
§ Mr. Maclay
Let me say with all frankness that I have been astounded that three hon. Gentlemen should have been talking since 11.15 p.m. I have been watching for the substance of their speeches, with which I am anxious to deal. It has been interesting to see the width of colouring given by hon. Gentlemen who have spoken, because it was a little difficult to fix on the point they were interested in. Let me start straight off with the hon. Gentleman the Member for Enfield, East (Mr. Ernest Davies), who opened the debate. He developed rather a remarkable argument about the question of courtesy because he said, and he made great play with it, that it was discourtesy on my part to make a statement -and not give the House an opportunity of discussing it in debate.
May I suggest that it is remarkable that having said that, and having made a number of comments on the previous occasion, it is only tonight, at the last possible moment, that a Prayer has been put on the Order Paper. Hon. Gentlemen opposite made the further point that they had been waiting for the Government to give time for the debate, and referred to an occasion almost a year ago. They must remember that there were Prayers down on the Order Paper when that debate took place, and the circumstances were, if I remember correctly, rather interesting, in that the Prayers were taken in the afternoon. This time 1753 there were no such Prayers on the Order Paper until this morning.
If I understand the situation aright, it was suggested through the usual channels to the Government that Government time should be found for this debate, in view of the fact that the late Government gave a whole day of Government time for a similar debate. I am afraid if that is the case the decisions of the usual channels did not reach my ears. Let us finish with this question of courtesy, because there is no parallel with last year, and there have been all these weeks since the House re-assembled in which this debate could have taken place. If there was real concern, and the speeches of hon. Gentlemen meant what they said this debate would have occurred weeks and weeks ago. As the hon. Gentleman the Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) knows, I would never be discourteous to him, because I know that he has a most genuine interest in the docks. The position being as it is I feel bound to get on with a reply to the debate.
The hon. Member for Enfield, East, and other hon. Members—
§ Mr. Maclay
I hope I said the debate so far. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] That was intended. There has been some discussion for a long time, but I meant the debate so far.
The main theme of the hon. Member for Enfield, East, was to inquire why I, after only a short period in office, and it was a short period in office, made this decision to come to the House with the statement I did. My answer, which will reply to a great many things said by hon. Gentlemen who have spoken, is that it was simply because, having found myself in office, I found that I had inherited a Transport Commission which was losing £750,000 a week. Could that be allowed to go on? I suggest that it could not. That was the position with which we were faced, and which had been left to us by hon. Gentlemen opposite. That had to be dealt with straight away.
How did those figures arise? I agree that they were not necessarily the respon- 1754 sibility of hon. Members opposite; I should not argue that they were, because they were huge figures, as there had been big wage increases and big increases in prices in 1951. But how much is that the responsibility of the Government of the last six years? We have heard a good deal of talk about the inflationary spiral, and one hon. Member was frank enough to say he thought the Government should have done more to check the inflationary spiral. I entirely agree with him. What we are faced with is an industry which was caught in the inflationary spiral, which hon. Members opposite apparently completely failed to get under control in those six years—and that deals with the question of the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Beswick), too.
§ Mr. Maclay
I was pointing out that in the period after the war the Government of the day failed to check the inflationary spiral. There can be no argument about that; prices went up and up, and the great problem which we face is how to get that in check. I suggest that certain events of earlier this week are a very good sign that the Government are capable of tackling that problem and that they will tackle it.
The success of any Minister of Transport in the task of trying to get the railways on a sound basis must, to some extent, depend on the success of the Government in checking the inflationary spiral. I have supreme confidence that we shall check it. We have started on it. The measures which will be taken in relation to the railways and transport generally are things which, as I have said, are under close and urgent consideration—and close consideration should be given to many things before they are done instead of rushing in, with the results which we have seen in some cases.
§ Mr. Mellish
How can the Minister talk like that about trying to stop the inflationary spiral when the Budget increases the tax on petrol, which will send up fares? He said that this was a wonderful Budget which would stop the inflationary tendency. In a matter of a 1755 few weeks we shall be asked for a further increase in fares. What is he going to do about that?
§ Mr. Maclay
The hon. Member is putting words into my mouth which were not there. It was a paraphrase. I do not think it would be right for me to get into an argument about the merits of the Budget.
§ Mr. Maclay
I agree that I started it, but it was a general answer to the general point, and all I was saying was that I ought not to develop it too far or I should be in trouble with the Chair.
§ Mr. Hale
On a point of order. Perhaps I could assist again. In the course of the last debate, the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Hay), whom I do not see in his place, made a very severe attack upon the policy of Sir Stafford Cripps in increasing the price of petrol, which, he said, was one of the principal reasons for the Regulations, then being introduced. In those circumstances, is it not clear that the Minister need be under no inhibition about answering the very relevant question of my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish)?
§ Mr. Maclay
I understood that the hon. Member rose to a point of order, or I should not have given way. I suffer from the disadvantage of a not unnatural desire, which I also had on the occasion of the British Transport Commission Bill, of wanting to talk about the subject we are discussing, and we are discussing these three Regulations.
Perhaps I may give a word of explanation, because hon. Members do not seem fully to understand what they are about. Before Christmas, I made a statement to the House, when I touched on the matter, and I will do so again. The position left to me was that losses were running at £750,000 a week. There were reasons for that being so. There was a passenger charges scheme before the Tribunal and it had been there for a longish time; and at that time there seemed to be no visible date on which it might be concluded.
There were £26 million of increased wages awards, which began in 1951 and were to take full effect in 1952. Of that 1756 sum, £18 million was due to an award made by the Railway Staff National Tribunal as late as 7th November. There were also rising prices. I think the hon. Member for Uxbridge, who, I am sorry to see, is not here now, talked about £11 million. That was based on the assessment of the rise in prices in 1952. All these factors were present, and something had to be done to arrest that drain of the resources of the Transport Commission.
I followed the procedure I was bound to follow, under Section 82 of the Act, when asked to consider granting this increase. I referred the matter to the permanent members of the Transport Tribunal sitting as a consultative committee. That is what the procedure called for. When the hon. Member for Enfield, East quoted from the Tribunal's Report to me he read only that part of it where the Tribunal said:The request for our advice as a matter of urgency has placed us in some difficulty.He did not read on beyond that.
The next two paragraphs give the full statement, and I think the House ought really to realise what the position was. The Report went on:We are on the point of concluding a public hearing into a Passenger Charges Scheme submitted by the Commission. We shall therefore in the reasonably near future have in effect to decide what, if any, additional contribution can be expected of passengers in relief of the evident financial necessities of the Commission. In these circumstances we do not think it would be right for us to enter upon any detailed discussion in this memorandum of the extent of those necessities.Now comes the critical part:All that we think it proper to say at this juncture is that as a result of the examination of the financial position and prospects of the Commission which the public inquiry has involved and of the additional information in the Commission's memorandum we are satisfied"—and then it sets out that the Tribunal was satisfied that it should recommend and that I should approve the 10 per cent. increase.
The point I am making is that it was given consideration urgently because of the tremendous drain on the resources. The, Tribunal said that the…the general considerations advanced by the Commission are, in substance, well founded.1757 That really must dispose of the whole question that there was undue haste or that there was discourtesy to the House or discourtesy to the Transport Tribunal, or—
§ Mr. Ernest Davies
What did the Tribunal mean by saying that the matter of urgency had placed it in some difficulty? If it had not been put as a matter of urgency, it would not have said so.
§ Mr. Maclay
The problem was it had not yet concluded the inquiry into the passenger charges scheme, and that, obviously, was a bit of a dilemma, but the over-riding problem was this £750,000 running out every week. The Report said:There is at present no prudent alternative to an increase in freight charges aimed at providing in a full year additional revenue of the order of £20 million.That body are the advisers under the Act. That was what it said. There was the situation which we found when we came into office. This transport scheme was the baby of hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite. There was the situation, existing partly for reasons out of the control of anybody, I quite agree; but there were other reasons which we are now examining closely because we are convinced that there can be great economies made in the whole transport system of the country. It is no use hon. Members asking me tonight to say precisely what they are, because I have no intention of telling them. We are examining all possible means of effecting economies.
§ Mr. Foot
I am sorry if I raised a point the hon. Gentleman is proposing to deal with. However, it is directly relevant. When his party were in Opposition they suggested that, before such increased charges were imposed, there should be an inquiry. They said it could be a quick inquiry, that would not take months, but a few weeks. Why did not the hon. Gentleman carry out what his hon. Friends proposed when they were in Opposition?
§ Mr. Maclay
These proposals were made at a time when the party opposite had been in power. They had started this Act. They nationalised the railways, the docks, and road haulage, and they ought to have known what they were doing. They had had time to have an 1758 inquiry. We found an immediate crisis. [Laughter.] It is no good the hon. and learned Member opposite laughing, or was he stifling a yawn?
§ Mr. Maclay
No, I cannot.
I will come now to the next point, the capital investment programme. We went into this last week, and I would not like to be guilty of tedious repetition. If we are going to have greater efficiency in the railways and in other things we need greater capital investment. I am as keen as anyone to get it for the railways, but they must take their proper place in the relative priorities in a time of desperate shortage. We fought for the railway allocation, as we ought to, if we are interested in them, and I am satisfied that the railways got their full and proper share of the available funds for capital investment.
§ Mr. Maclay
I cannot give way.
Other points were raised, including that of the mild winter. It was a very peculiar reason to bring forward. What the hon. Member for Enfield, East, really suggested was that at the beginning or the end, of November one ought to be something of a necromancer; that one should have guessed that it would be a fine winter and that all the way through the traffic would move and the volume rise. We have vivid memories of a right hon. Gentleman opposite who, in a celebrated winter, did some necromancing and landed us in a mess.
We do not believe in that kind of necromancing. We believe that we have to deal with the situation as we find it That is what this government will do in every situation. Increased docks charges were necessary as the docks are faced with a difficult position. Many of them were badly damaged during the war, and it has not been possible yet to get done all the work which ought to be done.
I think it is a good thing, in relation to the turn-round of shipping in general, that my noble Friend has just announced the setting up of a committee to look into the whole question of improvements. 1759 Out of that we shall certainly get more knowledge on the question of efficiency in the docks, how we can cut costs and possibly keep the rise of charges better under control.
I would also deal with canals, but no one has evinced much interest—
§ Mr. Maclay
If the hon. Member had given me half a second I would have added, "as yet." The fact is that there were three speeches of great length, almost fabulous length.
Finally, let me say that with all seriousness that these Regulations are essential. I sincerely hope that hon. Members opposite have no intention of dividing against them, because it would be an extraordinary situation if they did. They would be striking at their own creation. They would be condemning it to heavy loss, and would be merely carrying greater responsibility for something for which I do not think they have any great reason to be proud.
§ 1.30 a.m.
§ Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham, West)
So great is the noise and so disorderly the conduct of hon. Members opposite that I am not sure, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, whose name you called, but I believe it was mine.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
I had called the hon. Member, and I might add that the call "Divide" is disorderly if carried to the extent it has been just now.
§ Mr. Hale
We are discussing freight prices and up to this moment only three speeches have been made. It was by courtesy of the Opposition and of my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, East (Mr. Ernest Davies) that the House was permitted to discuss three important Regulations contemporaneously, but, after the recent disgraceful behaviour of hon. Members opposite, on matters of importance in future my right hon. 1760 Friends will consider whether we can ever again accord to the Government the courtesy of saying that we will discuss three important matters contemporaneously and so assist the Government in economising the time of the House. [Interruption.] The heckling which is going on just now on the benches opposite is a little disgraceful in view of the fact that on the last occasion that these charges were increased there was a debate in this House.
The debate on that occasion was opened by the right hon. and learned Member for West Derby (Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe), who is now Home Secretary, and he described the whole issue as one of fundamental importance; as one which affected everyone in the country; and as one which, in particular, affected the lowest wage earners and the people suffering most at that moment. It was in his opening sentence that the right hon. and learned Gentleman made all those remarks.
On that occasion the three Regulations were taken collectively and were in precisely the same words as those we are now discussing. The only difference was that the figures then presented to the House were lower than those now presented, and those figures were substantially increased to overcome—[Interruption.] If any hon. Member opposite wants to make a speech in this debate we shall welcome it, and if he wishes me to give way in order to get some information from me on which to base his speech, I shall be only too happy to give way.
As I was saying, the previous debate was opened by the right hon. and learned Gentleman in the way that I have described. It was a debate of great gravity. I do not think that the Home Secretary is here tonight. The only thing that took place in that debate, which lasted five hours and 55 minutes—
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
If we go over the whole of the five hours and 55 minutes, we shall be out of order on these Regulations.
§ Mr. Hale
With very great respect, the whole purpose of this discussion is to find out what has happened in the minds of hon. Members opposite since 23rd April which has altered their views and has enabled them to present to this House a 1761 series of proposals which they so roundly condemned then. The arguments which they put forward then are the arguments which I support now, and they put them forward much more efficiently than I can ever hope to do in this debate. I shall venture to adopt the reasoning of the Home Secretary as my reasoning, and it is for that reason that I must call the attention of the House to that debate on 23rd April.
Quite remarkable were the arguments put forward by hon. Members opposite in the course of that debate. I have already referred to the speech of the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Hay). I am glad to see him in his place tonight. In particular, he pointed out the iniquity of the conduct of the late Government in increasing the tax on petrol. He called it a swingeing addition to the cost of petrol by Sir Stafford Cripps, although, of course, he had not been Chancellor of the Exchequer for some time before April, 1950; but still it was sufficient reason for—
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
I think that point should be postponed until Monday. I do not think it is in order on these Regulations.
§ Mr. Hale
May I mention this point. It is only two days ago since another swingeing addition has been made to the price of petrol, and that is a matter which has to be taken into account. We are surely entitled to ask the Minister whether it was taken into account when these Regulations were made, or whether he is going to come down to the House again and ask for a further amendment and whether we are going to hear the argument used last April by the present Home Secretary, that this is a continuous spiral which will go on for ever.
No one can accuse me of partisanship in this matter.—[Interruption.]—I am so glad to hear even a whisper of sound from hon. Gentlemen opposite who have been sitting silent for the last 2½ hours. In the debate on the first increase of fares in 1946, the Minister of Transport used the argument that it was a very real danger, and apart from that we were diminishing the losses of the private enterprise railway companies for which we should have to compensate them later on. There are three separate measures before the House tonight, and the first 1762 one—I do not know whether the right hon. and gallant Member for Leicester, South-East (Captain Waterhouse) wishes to intervene or not. Well, would the hon. and gallant Gentleman shut up for a moment. There really should be some facility for hon. Members to address the House without constant interruption and noise from the other side.
I had the privilege of being a Member of the Committee on the Transport Bill together with the Minister of Transport. I am sorry, because I think he knows that personally I have a great respect for him, but I cannot congratulate him on his intervention tonight; not on the timing of it, nor the nature of it which gave no information to the House at all and made no effort to reply to the very important points put by my hon. Friends.
§ Mr. Hale
I am going to deal now with some of the questions to which he did not refer. In the whole course of the debate on the Transport Bill the hon. Gentleman was expressing the keenest interest in the cost of transport. He was very keenly interested in the Calshot Ferry.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
I do not think we can discuss the proceedings on the Transport Bill now. I listened to long speeches at the time because I was Chairman of the Standing Committee. I do not want to hear them again.
§ Mr. Hale
I am much obliged, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. The increase of dues will, of course, vitally affect transport to the island. If I may take another example, so that there will be no question of irrelevance, a few weeks ago I was in the Isle of Wight. I am sorry I do not see the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight (Sir P. Macdonald) in his place tonight, because this is a matter which vitally affects his constituency. I went there for the purpose of a broadcast. We saw in the course of our observations that transport to the island was a matter which vitally affected its welfare.
Last June I took over an 8 h.p. car to the island and the charge for transporting it was £3 12s. 6d. Now there is to be an increase in harbour dues both 1763 at Portsmouth and at Ryde, and indeed in every port in the country. What is the result of that increase in charges going to be on the cost of transporting goods, passengers and vehicles to these islands which depend so much upon this facility for their existence and for the welfare of their people?
The hon. Gentleman said previously that no one had said much about canals yet. It may well be that the canal system of this country is going to become increasingly important in respect of the diminishing trade we can expect to operate under the régime of the present Government. It is the cheapest—it is one form of transport which operates without large expenditure on fuel. We have been told nothing at all about what the effect of these increased charges will be. No one who reads this Regulation can form a very clear view whether it refers only to those canals controlled by the British Transport Commission or whether it also refers to the cost of transport along the canals not purchased by the British Transport Commission. The two items are vastly different, and I think it is remarkable that the Opposition did not raise these points on the previous occasion when these same words were used in a previous Regulation.
Those who believe in the great traditions of the House and that full freedom of discussion and debate are essential matters vitally affecting the life of the community must have watched with the deepest possible concern the attitude of hon. Members opposite. They were so free to take time months ago when similar proposals were put to the House, but today there has not been a single Member who has been prepared to get up and make any observations upon this important matter. There has been one exception—in one hon. Member who took part in the debate a few months ago.
This is deeply to be deplored, for when we were in office we gave long and diverse facilities for debate which were freely accepted by hon. Members opposite. It is to be deplored that no one should have risen tonight to state the views of Government supporters on these important matters, if, indeed, there are any wholehearted supporters of the Government.
§ Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)
In his statement the hon. Member referred to the Highlands and islands of Scotland. Is he aware that there is not a single Conservative Member for Scotland present tonight?
§ Mr. Hale
I have observed, for example, that the Kyle of Lochalsh is included in this Regulation and the question of access to some of the most favoured of the various islands of Scotland is also concerned. It is really a little surprising that this should be the position with hon. Members opposite, and it is very much to be regretted.
I did venture to suggest that it is quite essential in dealing with these matters to look at the general basis of these increases. It has been said that this is a continuous process. When coal prices go up transport charges go up, and when coal prices go up again so do transport charges. This is, after all, only a rather sudden realisation by hon. Members opposite of—[Interruption.] It is merely a recognition of a very ordinary economic process which we call inflation, and which, in fact, is concerned with almost every commodity of life and will affect every commodity of life.
We are quite entitled to ask the Minister tonight what his proposals are in the matter. Is he coming before the House to say that here the Government inherited another crisis, that there was a crisis in every Department when the Conservatives came in and that, having to face this inflationary situation, they have had to ask the House to take temporary measures? If so, we should have some figures dealing with the permanent measures likely to be taken, and we should be told when they will be introduced and what course they will take. The proposals for the denationalisation of road transport are not likely to reduce the burden on the railways, and that is the only proposal before the House. We must now consider once again, and for the third time since May, 1950, that we have to make a staggering, substantial and crushing addition to the burden of freight charges and of the cost of all goods transported by rail.
Everyone realises that the Transport Commission took over when it had 1765 frightful arrears of wage increases, long overdue, which had to be met. Everyone realises there were special problems affecting the Commission, and that it took over at a very bad moment indeed. But that time has passed. Today one would have expected the Commission to be operating fairly normally in fairly normal conditions. As I understand the argument of the hon. Gentleman—and his reply was neither very clear nor very full—he says there has been this increase in coal and other charges, and therefore the Government are merely taking the ordinary course in inflation of letting the price go up. This is a very serious matter.
I am sorry we are not going to have the assistance of any hon. Member opposite, unless the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Sir W. Darling), means to give us his encouragement and advice. This course of inflation just cannot go on. The time is rapidly approaching when, unless this House exercises care and wisdom and does not sit and cackle at a quarter to two in the morning, but tries to discuss these matters at the proper time, we shall find ourselves in the middle of an inflationary spiral which no one can stop. I am a little shocked when most of us are looking anxiously at Paris and the hopes of preserving the integrity of the franc, when we are concerned at the widespread unemployment in Italy and wholesale disintegration—
§ Mr. Hale
I did think I was merely giving an illustrative example of the effects of inflation, which I thought was apt because it is happening at this moment. But I will merely confine myself to what may well happen in this country. We may reach the point where the £ has lost its permanency and the whole country will suffer. So we have to consider with great care whether this matter should be allowed to pass unchallenged.
1766 The Minister has suggested that our action was in the nature of an afterthought. I am surprised he does not know the facts. We sought the opportunity to debate this subject at a proper time, and our present course was taken only when these facilities were refused. Because of the very long Recess at Christmas, and then because of the sudden death of the Sovereign, we could not raise the matter as we did not want to press controversial subjects at that time. So we were placed in a difficulty, which everyone recognised, and, in that difficulty, we tried to meet with consideration the needs of the Government, and we agreed only a few hours ago to postpone a large number of Prayers so that we might have a full discussion on this matter.
I want to be brief, so may I conclude by saying that there are some points which the House is entitled to be informed about? I hope that my hon. Friend the member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish), if he is fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, will be able to deal more fully than I can with the matter, because of his close knowledge of the situation in the docks today.
What is the effect of these charges on the cost of transport? What protests have been received about this proposal from the islands? To what extent will these charges affect the cost of transport by barge of the canals, and what will be their effect in terms of tonnage? The question of real importance is what the Government intend to do about this transport system. Everybody knows what will happen in terms of what has happened before. We shall have these increases, and the higher charge will be passed on to commerce and industry, so that all this will result in further increases, and, finally, we are bound to face a situation in which they will be coming back every few months with further proposals for increases as a result of this all over again.
I ask the Minister to tell the House what his intentions and plans are, and, unless he is prepared to do that, we shall be in very great difficulty in not forcing a Division upon this matter. If he is prepared to give us the fullest information about his intentions, I am sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends will con- 1767 sider it, in the light of what he says, with a view to co-operating in facing a situation of such obvious gravity and danger.
§ 1.53 a.m.
§ Mr. R. J. Mellish (Bermondsey)
The Minister of Transport really did treat the House discourteously, because, after all, we have always regarded him as one who treated us with fairness and who put his point of view quite honestly, when he was in Opposition, particularly in anything connected with docks and harbours. We have always respected him in the past, because we knew he had a close interest in the docks industry. I believe I am right in describing the hon. Gentleman as a shipowner. That being so, it was unfair for him to get up in the middle of a debate dealing with transport charges and say that these charges are inevitable, because much of the transport taken over after the war was in bad condition, and that, therefore, the charges are fully justified.
What sort of a reply is that? Why are the charges justified? What are the details? What sort of a position has he found since he took over the Ministry? What are the intentions of his Ministry regarding more efficient working in the docks? None of these things were mentioned, but we are entitled to know. When the Minister was in Opposition, he quite rightly criticised the way in which some of our major industries were run.
Let us have a look at these Statutory Instruments, and, first of all, at No. 702 of 1950. The dock and harbour charges made there deal with dues on vessels on voyages made wholly between ports within the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, and an additional charge was put on these vessels of 50 per cent. There was another charge of 50 per cent. on cargoes loaded at any port in the United Kingdom, a 75 per cent. additional charge by all authorised docks, and a charge of 100 per cent. on all other rates, dues and charges. That was in 1950, under Statutory Instrument 702.
§ Mr. Mellish
I must ask you, with very great respect, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, 1768 to note that, unless I refer to the original Regulations, the House would find it impossible to follow the argument which I intend to put at a later stage.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
We are not arguing about those details; we are concerned with an increase of 10 per cent.
§ Mr. Mellish
We are arguing about Statutory Instrument No. 2195 of 1951—the Harbours, Docks and Piers (Additional Charges) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations, and if one is talking about Regulations No. 2, one has to know what Regulations No. 1 stated.
§ Mr. Mellish
We are arguing about the 10 per cent. rise falling within a year of a 75 per cent. rise, which was based on a previous 50 per cent. rise.
§ Mr. Bing
It might help, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, if I call your attention to the speech of the right hon. Gentleman who is now President of the Board of Trade on this very matter. On 23rd April last year, he went back a long way, saying,We have had one demand already, which resulted in an increase of 16f per cent. last May.Then he referred toanother 10 per cent. making a total of 28⅓ per cent., within a period of 12 months.Then he asks:Are they going to ask time after time for another 10 per cent?"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd April, 1951; Vol. 487, cols 141–142.]Surely this was an argument on previous increases, and at that time all previous arguments were taken into consideration without, with respect, Sir, action by the Chair.
§ Mr. Mellish
I have never known the hon. Member for Gillingham (Mr. Burden) rise on a sensible point of order.
§ Mr. Burden
If I may say so, it is very difficult, when the hon. Member is speaking, to put a sensible point of order.
§ Mr. Mellish
Perhaps I may be allowed, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, to say that there is a mutual affection between the hon. Member and myself because, when we fought each other in an election on one occasion, he lost his deposit against me.
§ Mr. Burden
No, Sir, but the hon. Member's remark merely shows the lack of wisdom of the constituents in that division, and his remark certainly has no bearing whatsoever on the matter we are discussing.
§ Mr. Mellish
But let it be remembered that, in the hon. Member's present constituency, there are a number of dock workers, and they might be interested in these charges. He implies that dockers are not very intelligent people, but they may bear that in mind at the next election.
But let me return to the point. There were rises previously. For example, the 60 per cent. went to 65 per cent., and the 100 per cent. went up to 120 per cent., and another went up to 92½ per cent. Now we come to the Regulations under discussion, and I am sure it will be appreciated why I wished to quote the earlier Regulations. The 65 per cent. charge goes up to 81½ per cent., the 92½ per cent. to 110¾ per cent. and the 120 per cent. to 142 per cent. And this by a great Tory Government, a Government which was going to reduce the cost of living—"Vote Conservative and everybody will have a free life for a short time" and all that.
These increased charges, of course, affect every branch of industry. What are they for? They are for dues for vessels trading between the ports in the U.K., Channel Islands and for cargoes loaded at any of the 1770 ports in the U.K., Channel Islands or the Isle of Man, and any increase must, as even that hon. Gentleman the Member for Gillingham must know, reflect itself in other forms of industry. The Minister was hardly fair in brushing them off by saying that charges of this kind are justified.
The Minister mentioned that a committee, which he called the Port Efficiency Committee, had been established. I am not unhappy about it: I am all for efficiency committees. I hope that this Committee is efficient. At least one of the persons on it knows something about the docks, and that will be a change. What happened at the last minute? The efficiency of the industry was discussed in debate opened by the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing) on 23rd April, 1951. The Minister of Labour, in conjunction with the Minister of Transport, worried as they are about the efficient working at the docks, has instituted this Committee. If it can do some good—if it can—these charges may go down.
On Monday this week there was a Question addressed to the Minister of Labour by one of his hon. Friends. I forget the hon. Gentleman's name, but the Question asked the Minister of Labour whether he had considered a report on the freight handling industry prepared by the Aims of Industry, Ltd. This is a body composed of business men, who have issued a report saying there is a shocking mismanagement at the docks and indicting the dock workers. As the Question was on the Order Paper I came to the House, but the Question was withdrawn and a Press handout was given out stating that this Efficiency Committee was to be set up. Why did the Minister of Labour do that? Why did he not leave the Question on the Order Paper and allow supplementary questions to be asked? Why did he want to hide it?
The trouble is that for a long time the docks industry has been accused again and again—at Tilbury, West Ham, my own area, Hull, Goole and other places—of inefficiency, that in comparison with their foreign counterparts they were not pulling their weight, that charges in the dock areas were exorbitant and foreign ships had to pay so much more here than they do elsewhere.
What are these charges going to do for the dockers? Some of the docks— 1771 and I will not bother the House by reading all of them there are about 60 mentioned—are no use at all many are out of date and many should have been repaired years ago. When the Transport Commission took these places over, they took over a poor proposition. Because of that inefficiency, charges have gone up. The dock worker is being accused of not working so hard as his foreign counterpart, when, in fact, he works harder and better and under difficult conditions. I speak for dock workers generally, and they resent very much the charge which is constantly being made by such people as the Aims of Industry Committee and the British Chambers of Commerce that—
§ Mr. Speaker
It is relevant to refer to the efficiency of the docks, but we cannot have the debate on these Regulations bringing in the whole question of dock labour. That would not do.
§ Mr. Mellish
With great respect, Mr. Speaker, we have argued this earlier, as you know. I am trying clearly to establish the point that it is no use indicting the men who are working in this difficult industry, under difficult conditions which are not of their making. It is no use suggesting that they are not pulling their weight and saying that we should have a special committee to investigate the way in which they work, and at the same time introducing this Order, which includes charges rising from 65 per cent, to 81½ per cent., from 92½ per cent, to 111¾ per cent. and from 120 per cent. to 142 per cent.
These things have to be taken into account, and I say there are other factors in dockland which the Minister could have mentioned in the few minutes for which he spoke. What about the shortage of craft? No mention of that; why did he not say something about it? What about the hundreds of man hours being wasted by men waiting for craft to turn up? What about the frustration of the men wanting to do the job but not having the materials with which to do it? The Minister did not say much about craft, because that is a managerial responsi- 1772 bility; it is not the fault of the men that there is a shortage of craft. These men want the tools to do the job, and they have not been given them.
Take the case of the lock gates in the Royal Albert Docks in London? These gates have to be opened to let craft through. They are the responsibility of the employers. The employees, the dockers, are told to work with all they have got, to give everything they have got for this great country; that is the sort of thing hon. Members opposite say. What is the good of the employees working like that when they see the building contractors working on the gates—they are employed by private employers—working from 8.15 a.m. to 4.45 p.m.? Why are they not working night and day? If this work is required so urgently and if craft are held up while the gates are being repaired, how can we expect the dockers to believe that the Government are sincere about these things when—
§ Mr. Mellish
It is because these things have not been tackled before that we have these charges; that is the main reason for them. I have tried in the past, and I try now, to bring these things to the attention of the Minister. I see he has started to take notes; are we to assume that he is to reply again? I am sure that if he asks the leave of the House it will be granted.
These charges will affect almost every industry in the country. Consequently, charges will be made against the dockworker. Some other Tory organisation will point out that the charges have gone up and will say it is because of the dockers. Before these charges were introduced it should have been the duty of the Minister to see what could be done to improve the industry. I am certain of this: that the dock worker is as good today as he was in the past, provided he is given the tools with which to do the job.
Imports have been cut, and there will be a lot of unemployment in the docks. The so-called incentive given through the Income Tax will not interest them a bit, because there will not be any work for them to do. These are the men who have been criticised in this House in the past, and who, no doubt, will be criticised 1773 again by hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite. They have had a difficult history. Now that a Tory Government have come into power they fear unemployment once again. The river front on which my constituency is situated is literally a bloody field of battle against the Tory Party and all they represent. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] It is. I see the Parliamentary Secretary shaking his head. I do not know why he is sitting there tonight. He has not said a word—
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. There is no criticism of dock workers in these Regulations. The hon. Member has pursued that point, and I have allowed him to make it, but he must not pursue it further.
§ Mr. Mellish
With great respect, Mr. Speaker, there is an implied criticism of the dock workers, because there will be criticism of the dock workers because of the increased charges. However, I will conclude on this note. Unless something is done to improve the proficient working of dockland, and to ensure that the dock workers get a decent future—and they do not believe they will get it, because of these cuts in imports—the dock workers cannot be expected to give of their best, although in the main, I believe, they have always tried to do so.
§ 2.12 a.m.
§ Mr. A. J. Champion (Derbyshire, South-East)
I can fully understand why the Government do not want this Prayer fully debated tonight. If I were in the Government's position in this matter I should try to prevent any debate taking place on it at all, and I can well understand why the Minister got up when the debate had gone on only for an hour and a half. I can also understand why, during his speech, he did not act as courteously as one expected of him, knowing the man, and did not give way to reasonable interruptions from this side of the House.
It is a very serious matter that this debate comes on at this hour of night. It is almost an insult to this great industry that the debate on it should take place at so late an hour, particularly as during the last two Parliaments time was always given at a reasonable hour of the day to permit us to discuss this sort of thing.
1774 I have always had the pleasure of intervening in transport debates, and I have always intervened at a time when my brain was at its best. No one can pretend that after 12 o'clock at night his brain is at its best. I am sure that the brain of no hon. Member in any part of the House is at its best at this time of the night.
The railway industry is an industry which has cost this country about £1,000,000,000. What happens to it and how it is dealt with by the Government is of importance to the House and the country. I was surprised that the Minister complained that there was nothing to answer, and yet dared to get up to answer that nothing. He might at least have waited for more speeches before he rose to tell us that sort of thing. I noticed that when an attempt was made to interrupt him the Whips said, "No, do not sit down." He ought not to have obeyed those Whips. They were Tory Whips.
§ Mr. Champion
I did not notice it.
All these things have been debated at a proper time under the past Government. I can imagine what would have happened if we had tried to do this when we were in power. Cannot we imagine what the present Financial Secretary to the Treasury would have said? What would the hon. Baronet the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir J. Mellor) have said if we had tried to get the thing through as the present Government are doing? What would the. present President of the Board of Trade have said? Having regard to his usual style in debates on transport, we can imagine him swinging from side to side and appealing to his hon. Friends.
I am sure that this Prayer is bound to succeed, and that these Regulations will be annulled. After all, has not there been appeal after appeal by the Prime Minister for political and national unity? Surely this is a matter on which we can have perfect unity, because all the hon. Gentlemen now sitting on the benches opposite have always gone through the Lobbies to pray against increased charges for transport. Therefore, I am sure we shall see all hon. Members opposite accompanying my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, East (Mr. Ernest Davies), and the other hon. Mem- 1775 bers who have spoken in support of the Prayer, into the Division Lobby. That will be an example of unity which will hearten the Prime Minister. I dare say that he will be here to participate in it.
§ Mr. Champion
I am coming to them, after dealing with some of the things which arise from the way this matter was presented and the fact that there is opposition to the Prayer.
These Regulations are of as great importance as those discussed on the 23rd April last, when the present Home Secretary said:I do invite the House to approach this Motion with a responsibility appropriate to the grim problem of the ever-mounting spiral of the cost of living which faces our people."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd April, 1951; Vol. 487, c. 46.]Let us face it in that spirit. I am prepared to face it with him in that spirit. The Minister of Labour, in an excellent maiden speech, referred to the fact that an increase of transport charges leads to a rise in the cost of commodities, and askedis this spiral to go on without our attempting to do anything about it? Are we satisfied that we are doing our task?"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd April, 1951; Vol. 487, c. 61.]Is the great party which hon. Members opposite represent satisfied that they are doing their duty in this connection? It perhaps is strange that I should be asking that, but it is only right, having regard to such statements that I should do so. The matters discussed in the debates of 10th May, 1950, of 23rd April, 1951, and this present debate are on similar lines. They cannot be divorced from what is happening in the world around, from what is happening in the whole of our economy. The Regulations we have before us were necessitated in part by the rise in railway wages.
My hon. Friend the Member for Devonport (Mr. Foot) referred to the fact that of the people working on our railways over 100,000 are at this time in receipt of wage rates which are less than £6 a week. Their position is, of course, serious. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, East, was right when he said that these Regulations should be with- 1776 drawn and the whole thing reconsidered in the light of the events which have taken place since the Minister laid the Regulations.
We cannot close our eyes to the fact that something which has been done by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, will have serious repercussions on the whole of the 100,000 men who are in receipt of less than £6 a week. I know many of these men who are earning such low wages. They are platelayers and relayers and they are receiving £5 10s. 6d. a week. A man who happens to live in the same street as I do is in receipt—
§ Mr. Speaker
The hon. Member is really going too far into this question of the wages paid to railwaymen. As he said himself, no doubt it has something to do with the increase in prices, but that does not justify a long description of the wages being paid at the moment.
§ Mr. Champion
What I am doing, Sir, is arguing precisely the same thing that was argued by the right hon. and learned Gentleman who is the present Home Secretary, namely, that we cannot separate these Regulations from the wider events, including this rising spiral of costs which is taking place. That is why in this very brief part of my speech I was pointing to the fact that the Regulations should be withdrawn and all the circumstances looked at in the light of the fact that these very men about whom I was talking will be pressing on those who represent them immediately to stake a claim for a large increase in wages.
It will mean that the Minister of Transport will shortly be coming to the House again to cover the increase in cost which will inevitably result because of the rise in wages, which will be a consequence of the Budget. That is why I am suggesting that these Regulations should be withdrawn so that the whole matter can be looked at in the light of the changed circumstances. In the meantime, I hope the hon. Gentleman will endeavour to persuade his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer—and here I will end what I have to say about the Budget—that his Budget is a disaster to the lower paid transport workers, and will inevitably have serious consequences to the economy of the whole country.
1777 This is a serious position. I recognise it as such and I feel that while it is right that charges should be raised in certain circumstances, on this occasion, if this matter goes to a vote, I shall vote for the annulment of these Regulations because of the reasons I have given. The points I have made are germane to this whole problem, and it is right that we on this side of the House should point out that which we have referred to tonight. The only regret I have is that they should have to be pointed out at this late hour.
The Financial Secretary to the Treasury, in the debate on 10th May, 1950, said, in reference to my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross):…the hon. Member's constituency will follow the way in which the hon. Member decides to vote with a perhaps rather unusual interest.—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th May, 1950; Vol. 475, c. 485.]I feel sure that those who watched hon. Members opposite in their voting on 10th May, 1950, and 23rd April, 1951, will watch with unusual interest what they do tonight upon these Regulations which, in fact, they have brought before the House.
I cannot help ending by saying that I am sorry the Minister of Transport should have had to come here to hear the pounding which he inevitably had to get, when the man who is truly responsible for this happens to reside in another place. He is a noble Lord. It is said that leather is a substance made hard by tanning, but he will not get his hide very much tanned by any pounding he is likely to get in another place. The pounding has to be borne by commoner clay in this House. These Regulations should not have been made without greater consideration. They certainly should have been held back until after the results of the Budget were fully known, and all its consequences taken into consideration.
§ 2.26 a.m.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Bing (Hornchurch)
There were a number of problems before the House when these Regulations were first introduced and the Minister of Transport added one further problem by his speech. I do not know why he ever saw fit to make it. He said that no one had said anything to which he need reply, and in these circumstances how was he 1778 to get up and make it? That is not really treating the House with a great deal of respect.
In my constituency there will be some interest in the fact that the thing that most concerns the people living in Hornchurch—railways and charges—was debated by hon. Members at this time of the night when the Government were not prepared to give reasonable consideration to it. I think the real reason the right hon. Gentleman got up when he did was not that he could not answer the arguments from this side of the House—he knew that before he started—but that he was embarrassed because he might have been asked to answer arguments from his own side.
Less than a year ago there was a complete set of remedies—contradictory, but, nevertheless, remedies—presented by hon. Members opposite in regard to this matter. I refer to the Regulations we are considering. Paragraph 3 (2, ii) actually sets out the increased charges. If hon. Members will look at this and compare them with the No. 1 Regulations they will see that each of these charges goes up by 10 per cent. Where it was £20 it is now £22.
We were faced, when we debated these Regulations in April last year, with exactly the same situation.—We were faced with freight rise of 10 per cent. and hon. Members had a lot of remedies and reasons why the increase should not be made, why they divided the House against it under circumstances when the House was so evenly divided that they might have succeeded in having the Regulations removed. But they were prepared to take that responsibility for a series of reasons which they put down.
I do not suppose that the Parliamentary Secretary is going to say that some of the people on his side were particularly responsible. I think he should pay a little more attention to the advice given by the President of the Board of Trade. After all, if his hon. Friend is distinguished enough to be elevated to be President of the Board of Trade, at least the Parliamentary Secretary ought to pay attention to what he had to say on this important economic matter.
Let me deal with one or two other arguments some of his hon. Friends put forward. The hon. Member for Henley 1779 (Mr. Hay) said that one or two principal matters were responsible for the charges we were facing last April—as I understood his speech, and it was not clear. The first was the increase in the price of petrol. This point has not been dealt with yet. The hon. Member for Henley said:As to petrol, another element in this price rise, it was, of course, the previous Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Stafford Cripps who last year put that swingeing duty on petrol which the railways themselves, as well as the private road hauliers and the nationalised sector of the road haulage industry, now have to pay. If the Government are searching for new revenue, they ought, before deciding to put up the price of important raw materials like petrol and oil by imposing an increased duty, to remember and reflect upon the consequences of that duty so far as the transport industry is concerned."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd April, 1951; Vol. 487, c. 128.]Hon. Members may have thought and reflected on the matter, but if they put up charges before they increased petrol charges and if there was anything whatever in what the hon. Member for Henley said, then, of course, they will have to face the further fact that charges will have to be put up again.
§ Mr. John Hay (Henley)
I am sorry to interrupt the hon. and learned Gentleman, because he is so obviously enjoying himself, but I do think I should point out that my complaint, to which the hon. and learned Member has made reference, was that the previous Chancellor, Sir Stafford Cripps, had imposed that particular "swingeing duty" without regard to the economy, whereas the present Minister is bound to impose a similar charge now because the last Administration lost us Abadan.
§ Mr. Bing
I appreciate the point, Sir, but I do not feel that everything that could have been said on the last debate on the same subject was out of order and, therefore, I am confining myself strictly to what was said last year, so that by debating points used then I can get some answer.
All I am saying is that if the hon. Member was right in saying last year that the price of petrol would affect freight charges, then this is a matter which must be taken account of now, because, presumably it was not to the 1780 Parliamentary Secretary that the Budget cuts were disclosed in December. Presumably, too, when his hon. Friend made the Regulations they were not aware that this step was to be taken. Thus the hon. Member for Henley was quite wrong in his calculation. He went on:I now pass to the major topic—the wages paid by the transport industry…what we on this side object to very strongly is the way the whole business was managed by the Government."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd April 1951; Vol. 487, c. 128.]How is it managed by the new Government?
§ Mr. Hay
We shall certainly not do what the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan) did, which was to intervene in an arbitration between the Railway Executive on the one hand and the railway Unions on the other and order the Railway Executive to pay £12 million increase in wages when the independent arbitration had said that only £6,500,000 should be paid.
§ Mr. Mellish
Does the hon. Member realise that that action resulted in the avoidance of a national dispute which would have cost this country millions of pounds?
§ Mr. Bing
It is very valuable that we are getting—if only from a back bench—some indication of the views of the party opposite. They are quite prepared to allow the country to drive into chaos. However, I do not want to pursue the hon. Gentleman. He will have an opportunity of putting his own point of view. He dealt at some length with my right hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan) last time. If he wishes to pursue the same course the House is at his disposal.
I want now to deal with the five principal points made by the President of the Board of Trade in the debate last April. The first point he made was the same one as was made by the present Home Secretary. I do not know whether these were serious points because these Regulations are no answer to any of them. He said:May I repeat one of the points which he put?"—That was the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for West Derby (Sir D. Maxwell Fyfe)—He asked that there should be an independent and expert inquiry into this great railway industry1781 He went on to say, after dealing with the various arguments:Let them have their 10 per cent. and let it be on condition that the right hon. Gentleman will come to that Box and say that we can have the independent and expert inquiry."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd April, 1951, Vol. 487, c. 133.]My first point is this. Has an independent and separate inquiry been set up now? If it has why has there been no announcement to the House, and if not, why has there been this change of policy?
The next point is that the President of the Board of Trade dealt with the reference to wages and some valuable points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. P. Morris). Speaking of the limit on railway wages he said:Today he said that if we were dependent on the profits which were to be made in the railway industry, there would not be very much chance of anybody getting a decent living out of it.And he went on:We could not agree with him more about that: There is not the slightest doubt that we shall not get much out of the profits made in the nationalised railway industry."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd April, 1951, Vol. 487, c. 134.]That is one of the reasons why, when we considered this matter, we did not consider it on the basis of the railways alone but on the basis of the whole integrated transport system. But if we are going to hand the road haulage part back to private enterprise then the part from which a great part of the profits would go to pay this increase will depart, and what charges will the railways then have to make to meet their overheads? The King's Speech gave us no guide to any possible legislation in this direction. We ought to know whether we are debating these charges on the basis that they are going to be only for the railways.
§ Mr. Mellish
Will the hon. and learned Gentleman also take into consideration the fact that the road transport section of the industry is threatened with denationalisation? This has unsettled the workers in the industry? What is to happen to the railways then?
§ Mr. Bing
I am glad I have agreement from both sides of the House.
1782 It is an important point for people who are working in that industry, and who know something of what are to be their prospects of promotion and increased wages, though it may not seem important to some hon. Gentlemen opposite. We are, after all, concerned with transport in this country, and I should have thought that, next to housing, transport is something—certainly it is in my constituency—which bears most heavily on the lives of the ordinary people. I should be willing to stay here two nights if necessary so that the matter could be adequately discussed.
I come now to the third point made by the President of the Board of Trade. After quoting from the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Perry Barr (Mr. Poole), he said:He said that the railways were like a sick child—a very sick child,' he said. Well, if you have got a very sick child, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, you do not stand back and say 'It will come out all right. Probably by 1954 he will be all right.' That is apparently the policy adopted by the Government. You get a doctor you call in the experts, and try to find out whether there is anything you can get to make the child a little better. That is exactly what our intention is in asking for an inquiry—Is it the intention still to have this type of inquiry, or have they abandoned the plan of the President in regard to rail services?
Then, the right hon. Gentleman went on to deal with another issue which I am surprised the Minister did not deal with at all. It concerns a very important subject which was discussed at some length in the previous debate. What are the charges that should rightly fall on the railway services? What is the position in regard to strategic lines. The President of the Board of Trade said:It is a very difficult thing to determine. It must always be difficult to decide how far a line is essential from the point of view of military defence and how far from the point of view of ordinary transport needs of the country It is certainly not a matter upon which one could make up one's mind across the Floor of the House. It is a matter at which we shall have to look.That was nearly a year ago. Have they looked at it yet? We never get a straight answer. They only say that it is one of the things they overlooked or that it is a matter at which they have looked and decided to do nothing about it. The right hon. Gentleman went on to say: 1783I may say that we should look into this matter very closely. There are all sorts of interests—naval, air and military—to be taken into consideration."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd April, 1951; Vol. 487, c. 138.]What more charming subject for discussion in the Cabinet presided over by the Prime Minister? His valuable suggestions would be available, and the whole issue could be dealt with.
Now, I come to the fifth point made by the right hon. Gentleman, and it was an extremely interesting one. He argued that, if we increased the railway charges beyond a certain point, we then get no increase at all, and, in fact, we get a certain diminution. His economic thinking may be entirely at fault, but, of course, his case was not, and was made very clearly. It is no use increasing railway charges because it would not bring additional revenue. Suppose that he is wrong about his first 10 per cent. May he not be right about the next 10 per cent.? There must ultimately be a point where the President of the Board of Trade is right.
Finally, the point made by him with which I agree was a warning to the House. In speaking of the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham. East (Mr. J. Harrison), he said:The final point raised by the hon. Gentleman, and one with which I agree, was a warning to the House. He said, coming to this matter of diminishing returns, that there is a limit to the extent to which we can raise prices to the consumer, even in a partial monopoly of this character."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd April, 1951; Vol. 187, c. 138.]Is that the view of the Parliamentary Secretary? Does he believe that? If he thinks there is a limit, is it the same limit as the President of the Board of Trade, or does he fix it at another point? If so, what is that point?
Then, the right hon. Gentleman went on to say that this is a type of increase which falls most heavily on the people least able to bear it. Is that the opinion of the hon. Member who is to reply? Does he think that this is an increase bearing most on the people least able to bear it? Either the President of the Board of Trade spoke complete nonsense such as should not have been made in this House by a responsible Member, or else it is true that hon. Members opposite have placed a charge on those people 1784 who can least bear it. He said that it hits the special areas, those very places where industrialists had encouraged the introduction of branch factories to diversify industry in a particular area.
Is that the view of the Parliamentary Secretary? Does he think that these charges will hit most the development areas—those areas where, if we have unemployment, it is most likely to be seen? I am not going to weary the House with going through the very long speech made on that occasion by the present Home Secretary, but at least I must say that I am surprised, since he took so much interest on the previous occasion, that he is not here to listen to the answers to the interesting points he made.
§ Mr. Bing
Perhaps, and we appreciate his difficulties.
But, leaving the right hon. and learned Gentleman, these matters ought to be discussed. Perhaps they have been discussed in the Cabinet, and although it is not the policy of this party to discuss the private papers here and there, I would ask if the Government have rejected entirely the arguments of the present Home Secretary. Have the Government decided to have an inquiry; has that been decided already, or is it to be decided at some time in the future? What are the Government doing about the strategic railways? What about wage negotiations?
All these matters were discussed in a long, nearly six hours' debate, in time given by the Government, and we answered questions about the way that they should be dealt with. Yet, right hon. and hon Members opposite voted against the Regulations; now is their opportunity to give an answer. Are we tonight going to have the real answers from the Parliamentary Secretary or is he going to copy the Minister of Transport?
This is perhaps the most important issue of all issues before the country as a whole because, unless we have an efficient transport system we are going to have this continually rising spiral of costs. Transport charges form the one thing which, in every home around London, and other great cities, is bearing down on the ordinary people. Here is 1785 another point; perhaps we should make the freight charges heavier and take some weight off the man with the suburban season ticket.
There are people in my constituency who are paying almost twice as much as before, and it is not satisfactory for the Government to try to brush all these matters away in the middle of the night, and put up a Minister who says, "I do not know the argument; I do not know what I am supposed to reply to, but here I have a prepared speech, and I hope that nobody puts anything against it."
I beg hon. Gentlemen opposite to join in the debate, or, if they do not join in it, to use their influence on their friends on the Government Front Bench to give a sensible and serious answer to the points raised. Let us have an answer to the five points raised by the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade and to some of the back bench points, but let us have an attempt to grapple with this difficult problem.
§ 2.51 a.m.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. P. G. T. Buchan-Hepburn) rose in his place, and claimed to move,
That the Question be now put.
§ Question put, "That the Question be now put."
§ The House proceeded to a Division.
§ Mr. STUDHOLME and Mr. REDMAYNE were appointed Tellers for the Ayes, but no Member being willing to act as Teller for the Noes, Mr. SPEAKER declared that the Ayes had it.
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Railways (Additional Charges) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations, 1951 (S.I., 1951, No. 2194), dated 13th December 1951, a copy of which was laid before this House on 14th December, be annulled,
§ put accordingly, and negatived.
Motion made, and Question,
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Harbours, Docks and Piers (Additional Charges) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations, 1951 (S.I., 1951, No. 2195) dated 13th December 1951, a copy of which was laid beore this House on 14th December, be annulled.—[Mr. Ernest Davies]—
put, and negatived.
Motion made, and Question,
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Canals (Additional
Charges) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations, 1951 (S.I., 1951, No. 2196, dated 13th December, 1951, a copy of which was laid before this House on 14th December, be annulled—[Mr. Ernest Davies]—
put, and negatived.