HC Deb 02 May 1952 vol 499 cc1924-32

4.4 p.m.

Mr. A. Edward Davies (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

The matter I wish to raise this afternoon is of some public interest and has been considerably discussed, not only in Glasgow but elsewhere, and in the newspapers, because it has some bearing upon what might happen in other parts of the country. It has to do with an announcement made by the Minister of Transport on 4th April concerning Northern Roadways Limited road service licences. The difficulty in this case is in large measure due to the time which elapsed between the date of appeal against the Scottish licensing authority's decision to grant a licence—on 6th April, 1951—and the Minister's decision, on 27th March this year, to revoke the licence.

On 6th April, 1951, the decision was registered that Northern Roadways should be permitted to operate certain long-distance services from Glasgow and Edinburgh to London. This was made the subject of an appeal by a number of objectors, and, as I have said, the matter was not resolved until 4th April this year. Some of us think that although the inquiries were of a difficult character and of a semi-judicial character, a little speeding up in reaching a decision would have obviated some of the difficulty. I hope that when the Minister replies he will take note of that point, and indicate whether it is not possible to speed up these decisions, though we know that considerable inquiries have to be made if correct decisions are to be reached.

The main burden of my complaint is that companies in Scotland were operating on this long-distance passenger service work from at least as long ago as 1930 and probably some years before that. The S.M.T. and the Western S.M.T. are the companies involved. Before 1930 there was a position in which people could operate on the roads much as they liked. It was because of the chaotic condition that was arising that the Road Traffic Act, 1930, was passed.

Some attempt was made to cut out a great deal of the waste and duplication. Some attention was given to wages and conditions, and a serious attempt was made to regularise the industry and to relate it to existing forms of transport so that the country should profit by the best use of the means of transport at its disposal, and, at the same time, ensure to the workers in the industry reasonable standards of life; and, above all, to give to the public the best possible service, having regard to all those considerations.

Section 72 of the Road Traffic Act, 1930, gave certain directions which, I understand, require licensing commissioners to have regard to existing facilities when they consider applications for licences to operate on the roads and railways and it may have been, in some cases, water services. For those reasons, after examination, the S.M.T. and the Western S.M.T. were granted certain certain facilities to run these trunk services, but these were of a limited character and those concerns could well have done with many more vehicles operating on the roads even at that time, because the potential demand is considerable. Having regard to existing forms of transport, the licensing commissioners restricted or limited the number of vehicles that those concerns could run. It is said by one of the companies that they operated—at times it must be made clear—as many as 20 vehicles; but on the average about 4½ vehicles a day on some of these services.

Repeatedly, throughout 1930, up to the beginning of the war they made application for an increase in the number of vehicles they could run. Demand was increasing and the fares charged were attractive, because they were considerably lower than existing railway fares. No doubt the journey by rail was quicker, but there were some who found it convenient to travel by road because of the cheaper fare.

The point I am making is that in every year, as I understand it, from 1930 onwards to the beginning of the war, they made application for an extension of the service but they were refused. I suppose the commissioners took their stand on the ground on which they made their original decision, that existing facilities were adequate.

During the war most of the services were cut out altogether, because of petrol rationing, staff shortage, and so on; until about 1946, when the firms began to open up again. This firm, the S.M.T. and the Western S.M.T. resumed business and have continued to the present time. The gravamen of their complaint is that a new operator came along in 1950 and asked to be allowed to open on the road and that the Northern Roadways are allowed a licence to operate, as the original company think, unfairly in competition with them.

There is no argument that there is a great demand for these services. But the question arises if, under the Road Traffic Act and the decision of the traffic commissioners, the existing operator has been precluded from extending his service, whether a new operator should be allowed to come in and take a substantial amount of the revenue which might have accrued to the original firm. There have been considerable changes since the early days of 1930. We have had the Transport Act, 1947, which has laid down other principles, and requires the Commission to do its best with existing facilities to pay its way and provide an integrated, adequate and efficient service.

The point arises, whether, having made their decision in 1933 limiting the facilities under which the S.M.T. and the Western S.M.T. were able to operate, the Commissioners were right in granting additional facilities to a new company. Having applied for some eight or nine years from 1930, and having been turned down repeatedly by Ministers and by the commissioners, having appealed against their decisions and having been willing to expand their services, it does not seem fair that at this point they should have to meet this competition, when they can argue that they could meet the demand from their own services if they were given the power to duplicate their vehicles. This is a point of some significance, because it relates not only to Glasgow and Edinburgh but to London and elsewhere.

I was under the impression that, having made a decision that an existing operator should limit his services, where the commissioners found that new conditions had arisen which required some sort of extension, then there was an obligation on the licensing authorities to go to the existing operator, to point these things out to him and to ask whether he could not adjust his services, because, clearly, they could not extend facilities to other people without prejudicing his services.

That does not seem to have been done in this case because, as I have already said, the original operator, the existing operator, had made repeated applications. It is argued that he made no application until after Northern Roadways were granted the licence from 1950 onwards, but if the position is as I have stated there was an obligation upon the licensing authorities to go back to the original provider of the services, and, clearly, they did not fulfil that function and that duty—and as I have said, this applies not only to Scotland, but is a ruling which will affect every licensing commission in the country.

What I want to know now is this: in view of the Minister's decision to revoke the order or to permit, as I understand commissioners are permitting these services by Northern Roadways to be run until the end of the year, what is the intention of the Minister and of his Department in relation to a subsequent appeal from Northern Roadways and many other similar companies in the country, which he will no doubt receive? We are not taking a partisan view on this matter; we take the view that the position is not clear and requires some elucidation, both from the aspect of the conditions laid down in the 1930 Act and the 1947 Transport Act and from the aspect of satisfying a wider public interest.

I would not argue that there is not a great disparity between rail and road fares, but that is not the matter at issue. I hope that in his reply the Minister will be able to give us some guidance upon these matters. If it is argued that rail fares were so disproportionate that they had to listen, as the commisioners seem to have listened, to the request of Northern Roadways, the fact remains that they must have known that the existing road services provided by S.M.T. were much cheaper, comparatively, than those suggested by the new company. I know that certain facilities are offered in addition, in this case, but I do not think they account for the difference in price. In any case, in both instances they were cheaper than the railway fares. The point is that the commissioners were aware of the disparity in fares when the original conditions were laid down.

There is a great deal more than can be said about this matter, but I understand that one or two of my hon. Friends may want to say a few words, and certainly the Minister will want to reply. I will, therefore, conclude.

4.24 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Gurney Braithwaite)

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Mr. Edward Davies) has called our attention, with studied moderation, to a matter which, if I may say so, has had its fair share of publicity and a good deal more than its share of misrepresentation. I had hoped to have rather longer to deal with this subject, which has aroused such a large amount of public interest, but owing to circumstances over which neither the hon. Gentleman nor myself had any control, our opportunity has been somewhat truncated.

I will endeavour to deal with the main aspect of the question. So far as the obligation upon the licensing authority is concerned to notify existing operators of new applications, the position is that a notice has to be published, and the existing operators are, naturally, on the look out for such a notice in order that they may make their objections—and in this case this was done. The unusual aspect of the case is, I think, the deferment of the revocation and the time taken to arrive at a decision.

That is what has caused the trouble. Normally, a few weeks is sufficient in which to arrange for the revocation of a road service licence without undue inconvenience to the travelling public. In the Northern Roadway case, however, the Company, while the licences were under appeal and the objectors were about to be heard, had accepted advanced bookings covering the whole of the summer from a very large number of intending passengers. May I say at once that it would have been quite wrong for the Minister to allow this factor to influence his decision in the direction of letting the licences stand, because that would open the door to anyone awaiting appeal to use similar tactics.

But his orders allowed the licensing authorities discretion as to the date on which the licences should be revoked and the services cease. The magnitude of the problem presented by the cancellation of these bookings led the licensing authority for the Scottish Traffic Area, to announce, in consultation with the licensing authorities for the backing areas, through which the services also pass, that revocation of the licences would be deferred until the end of the holiday season. Of course, such a long extension is unusual, but it was done to minimise any inconvenience to the public which pre-booking on such a large scale might otherwise have caused.

It is one of those conflicts which sometimes occur, even in this House, between logic and common sense. The Minister's decision to revoke the licences was taken mainly because he thought that the grant was unnecessary and undesirable in the public interest having regard to the alternative services available by road and rail. The licensing authorities' decisions to defer the revocation until the end of September was taken because it was undesirable, in their view, to create a situation in which a very large number of bookings for summer holiday travel would be cancelled suddenly at the beginning of the season.

These two factors involving the public interest, which is the over-riding consideration under the Act of 1930, had to be balanced—and in this case were balanced—by decisions which have the effect of revoking the licences at a time when the travelling public will suffer a minimum of inconvenience from the cancellation of bookings.

I will now come to the delay in making the decision. About 50 appeals were involved in respect of the grant or backing of licences. The decisions appealed against were made by the licensing authorities on various dates from March to July of last year. The appeals were received between April and August. They were ready for hearing in September, but the hearing was postponed until the middle of November for the convenience of the parties who asked for long notice in view of having to brief counsel.

The inspector's reports were not received by the Minister until 23rd January of this year; the inspector had been promised a transcript of the inquiry by one of the parties, and there was some delay in furnishing him with it. The decision was announced on 27th March. The documents to be considered were so voluminous and the issues at stake appeared to be so important that I admit a great deal of time was taken up, but I do not think that a charge of undue delay can be made against anyone who took part in it.

May I now turn to one aspect of the problem about which there has been a great deal of public criticism? It was alleged that my hon. Friend the Minister was, in fact, engaged in bolstering up the nationalised transport system, a wounding accusation against anyone on this side of the House. The authorities in each of the 11 areas into which Great Britain is divided for this purpose, administer this system. Outside London the licensing authority consists of three persons, a chairman appointed by the Minister and two other persons appointed by him from panels nominated by local authorities.

In deciding whether or not to grant road service licences, the licensing authorities exercise an independent jurisdiction. The Act requires them to hold a public hearing and sets out in some detail the considerations to which they must have regard when coming to their decisions. Those considerations are laid down, as the hon. Gentleman said, in Section 72 of the Act of 1930. I was going to rehearse them to the House, but in view of the time I am not going to do so now.

Fares are not specifically mentioned among these criteria, but the licensing authorities have power to fix fares of road services so that they shall not be unreasonable, and, if desirable in the public interest, shall be such as to prevent wasteful competition with alternative forms of transport.

Fares are therefore taken into consideration but have never been regarded as an over-riding element. Hon. Members will thus see that the object of the licensing system, which is the main pillar on which the structure of passenger transport rests in this country, was to secure and maintain a reasonable balance between road and rail services and, equally important, between competing road services. That is a point which the public has entirely missed. A return to unregulated competition would inevitably create conditions even worse than those which, by common consent, the Act was passed to remedy, for the reason that there would be a congestion on profitable routes and those living in remote areas would be ill-served.

Many operators of road passenger services are private or independent concerns and the licensing provisions of the Act are as great and as necessary a protection to them as to the railways, be they nationalised or under private enterprise. The Minister of Transport has no power to direct or influence the licensing authorities in their decisions on individual applications, but appeals can be made to him by aggrieved parties.

On such an appeal the Minister, like the licensing authorities, must have regard to the considerations set out in the Act. His normal practice is to appoint an inspector, not an officer of the Ministry, to hold an inquiry into these matters and make recommendations. The question of nationalisation has no relevance to these appeals, except to the extent that the appellants include the Railway Executive and some road passenger undertakings controlled by the British Transport Commission through shareholding.

Of the 38 appeals lodged against the four licences in question, six were lodged by a bus company completely independent of the British Transport Commission, and 13 by three companies in which the Transport Commission have only a minority interest.

I would reiterate that the question at issue on these appeals was not one of protecting a nationalised undertaking but of regulating passenger transport in accordance with principles developed over a long period under the Act of 1930, which was planned and drafted following the Report of the Royal Commission, left on the stocks by a Tory Government and enacted by their Labour successors. So hon. Members will realise what a distinguished and exceptional parentage this system has had.

In my view the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North, has done well to raise this topic, and I am grateful to him for this opportunity of making this brief statement upon it.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-seven Minutes to Five o'Clock.