HC Deb 12 May 1952 vol 500 cc855-8
44. Mr. James Callaghan

asked the Minister of Transport when and where consultations took place between him and the British Transport Commission as required by Section 4 of the Transport Act, before he made his standstill order on fares; on what date notice was given to the members of the Commission that such consultation was to be held and of the nature of the matter to be discussed at such consultations; what members of the British Transport Commission were present; and what reasons were given him for the absence of those who were not present.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Alan Lennox-Boyd)

Mr. Speaker, I must apologise for the length of this answer.

On 10th April, the Chairman of the Commission, who was then out of London for Easter, was asked by my predecessor to meet him and the Secretary of State on the morning of the 15th. As the conversation was by long-distance telephone, the exact purpose of the meeting was not discussed, but I have no doubt that the Chairman knew that, among other issues, the fares problem would be discussed. Lord Hurcomb said that the Commission would also be available that day.

A meeting took place between the two Ministers and Lord Hurcomb on the morning of 15th April at the office of the Secretary of State. The Chairman was told that the Government had had under consideration the question of fare increases outside London and that the Minister proposed to issue a direction under Section 4 of the Transport Act, 1947, to suspend them. The Chairman was invited to consider this, consult his colleagues on the Commission and return with them later that day to meet the two Ministers. At this point he said he did not think it would be necessary for them to come.

Lord Hurcomb spoke to the Secretary of State on the telephone in the afternoon saying that he had met his colleagues on the Commission and had discussed the matter with them. While the Commission did not welcome the course proposed, they did not consider it necessary to meet the Secretary of State and the Minister.

Mr. Callaghan

While I wish the Minister no particular harm, may I congratulate him on his new office? May I ask him whether his predecessor's consultation with the Chairman of the Commission was not much more like an ultimatum than the particular form of consultation which was supposed to be laid down in the Transport Act, and does he not think that his predecessor was sailing very close to the legal wind?

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

No, Sir. The Act in no way suggests that the concurrence of the Commission must be obtained. Policy must be a matter for the Government. The Government decided what they thought was best, and consulted, in the strict sense of the term, the Commission, whose concurrence was not obtained but whose concurrence was not necessary. It seemed to Her Majesty's Government, and I am sure that this was quite right, that this was not one of the moments where large increases on individuals should be made in order to iron out anomalies that had gone on for a long time. A quite proper view was taken by. Her Majesty's Ministers of their responsibilities.

Mr. H. Morrison

While agreeing that, in the end, the Government's view could legally prevail, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he does not agree that it is clear from his answer that the Commission were told what the Government had decided to do, given an opportunity, within a matter of hours, of expressing an opinion, but clearly given the impression that whatever the Commission said the Government had made a decision. In fact, that is what the right hon. Gentleman said. Surely he will agree that that does not conform in either spirit or letter with the word "consultation" contained in the Act of Parliament.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

I cannot accept the view of the right hon. Gentleman. The hon. Member for Enfield, East (Mr. Ernest Davies), who took an active part in the debate on the 1947 Act, said that the purpose of the Transport Act would fail unless the Minister concerned was responsible to the House for the actions of that public corporation. That procedure has been exactly followed.

Captain Robert Ryder

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that the repeated objections from the Opposition Front Bench to Government intervention in this matter are in no way in keeping with the urgency of this situation as regards London, or the interests of the travelling public? Will my right hon. Friend do what he can to speed up the Transport Commission's consideration of the anomalies?

Mr. Callaghan

Is the Minister aware that we are not discussing London, but the provinces? This has nothing to do with London. Does the Minister not appreciate that his predecessor had a period between 15th April and 1st May before these increases were due to come into force? Why should he give the Chairman of the Commission just a few hours' notice in which to consult his colleagues and have a proper meeting before taking a final decision of this sort? May I, finally, ask him if it is not the case that the question of consultation was specifically written into the Act to prevent this sort of thing from happening?

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

It seemed to the Government—I think quite rightly—that public anxiety should be allayed at the earliest opportunity. The Easter holiday intervened—[An HON. MEMBER: "The elections."] The elections had nothing to do with it. Thursday, 10th April, when Lord Hurcomb was telephoned, was the eve of Good Friday. It appeared to be best to meet as soon as possible after the Easter holiday. That is why the meeting took place on the 15th.