HC Deb 09 February 1953 vol 511 cc80-7

5.45 p.m.

Mr. Norman Cole (Bedfordshire, South)

I beg to move, in page 10, line 3, at the end, to insert: (3) The Minister may give directions to the Commission as respects the issue of permits referred to in section fifty-two of the Transport Act, 1947, and such directions may require the Commission to grant any particular application or any particular class of application for such permits. The purpose of this Amendment is to complete the intention in subsection (2) of Clause 7. The existing subsection (2) gives protection to holders of original permits and, by the same token, those who now have substituted permits in place of original permits; but there is no indication of such similar protection to those who may desire or who may have ordinary permits both at the present time and in the intervening period up to the end of 1954.

Since October, 1951, at the coming into office of the present Government it has, by and large. been the policy of the British Transport Commission to maintain the status quo about the issue of original, substituted and ordinary permits. The purpose of this Amendment is to make sure that the status quo is maintained until the end of 1954. In other words, we are asking the Minister, in giving him these powers, to exercise the practice which has been in existence for the last 18 months. We are anxious to secure that there shall be no change or variation of this policy during the time until the 25-mile limit is abolished.

There are many hauliers in the country who hoped that this Bill would mean the end of the 25-mile limit. There are reasons, which have been explained, why it has not been possible to abolish that limit in this Bill and that it will not be possible to do so until the end of 1954. I hope that all those hauliers who have been disappointed at the non-abolition of this limit will realise that the reason why it has to be maintained until the end of next year is by the very fact that the Transport Act of 1947 ever found its way on to the Statute Book. They would not now be disappointed if the 25-mile limit had never been imposed by the 1947 Act, and I want that to be clearly understood by all the hauliers in the country.

If it is not possible, and, in view of the necessity to try to sell transport in units there are good reasons why it is not, to abolish the limit until the end of next year, at least we want to make sure that those people who wish to carry out their ordinary lawful undertakings in haulage shall be allowed to do so. We ask the House to make certain that those who want original permits, substituted permits and ordinary permits will, by means of this Amendment, added to the existing provisions in subsection (2), be allowed them for the next 18 months.

It is very necessary that there should be such a system of permits in any kind of general haulage undertaking through- out the country. The Commission appreciated that in order to give good service to traders in this country, and to stop disruption and distortion, special permits for certain times and over certain periods of one to three years were necessary. That is another reason for this Amendment. If the Minister has power to authorise the Commission to grant these permits it will be possible, where necessary, to stop disruption or upset of the haulage undertaking. We ask the House to give the Minister those powers.

I hope the Minister will accept this Amendment and make certain, by the addition of these words, that the system of permits and the policy of the Commission, which has been in existence since October, 1951, will be ensued for the next 18 months; and that in due time when the limit is abolished, the whole haulage service of this country will be able to operate for the benefit of traders and public alike.

Mr. Richard Fort (Clitheroe)

I beg to second the Amendment.

I am aware that the drafting of this Amendment is perhaps not up to those standards which distinguish Government draftsmen because, as the Minister himself said on an earlier Amendment, the mysteries of draftsmanship are obscure even to the best instructed, and they are certainly so to those who are least instructed.

We should be grateful if he would accept at least the intention of the Amendment, even though he may have to say that the drafting difficulties are such that he cannot introduce the necessary wording into the Bill. Our intention is that what has already been granted to the holders of the original licences should be extended to the holders of the ordinary licences, and if he can give us either an Amendment to that effect or an undertaking on the matter we shall be very grateful to him.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bedfordshire, South (Mr. Cole) said, the Bill does end the 25-mile limit though, because of reasons which he has advanced quite correctly—the need to effect a smooth transfer to private enterprise—its abolition cannot take place at once. On Third Reading I hope to say something more about the implication of that fact.

On the question of permits I have a statement to make to the House which I hope will be of interest and value and which may cause my bon. Friends to withdraw their Amendment. As the House knows, under Clause 7 (2), original and substituted permits will be continued and cannot be revoked or reviewed by the Commission early in 1954, as was provided in the Act of 1947. As a result, original and substituted permit holders need have no fears. The permits will go on until the end of 1954, when the 25-mile limit will end.

There are some 7,000 of these permits which are still current. As the hon. Gentleman said, the real difficulty arises in connection with ordinary and job permits—ordinary permits issued for three or four months and job permits for round about seven days. They will continue as before, revocable at the discretion of the Commission. The numbers vary between 2,500 and 3,000 ordinary permits and between 60 and 70—at any one time—job permits.

If I were to accept this Amendment I should be given the power to issue directions to the Commission on the question of the issue of permits and I should be authorised to tell them that they must issue permits, instead of leaving it to their discretion, until 1954, whether or not to grant an ordinary or job permit to holders of A and B licences.

I wish I could accept this Amendment, moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Bedfordshire, South, because he would not be in this House if it were not for an act of kindness on my part, in that the constituency which he represents was carved out of my constituency. But I feel that that close association cannot be regarded in Parliament as an adequate reason for accepting an Amendment which I think is not desirable. I wish I could have accepted the proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for Clitheroe (Mr. Fort). I cannot do so for reasons which I think are clear to most hon. Members who have followed the transport activities of the last few years.

The Commission remain under a great difficulty. They have a statutory duty to do their best to make ends meet in a period that will be one of acute difficulty to them until they know whether the vehicles at their command are adequate to carry the traffic offered, and I am not prepared to restrict and hamper them in the particular way suggested by the Amendment.

But I can say that in July last year the Commission instructed the Road Haulage Executive that, in general, existing ordinary permits should be continued or renewed in accordance with recent practice, but that permits should not be issued to new applicants unless the resources of the Commission were unable satisfactorily to meet the customers' requirements. Where there was evidence that permits had been abused it was left to the Executive to use their discretion whether to revoke them or refuse to renew them on that ground.

In areas where the demand for transport had declined owing to trade recession or other causes, the Commission thought it reasonable that the impact of the decline was to be fairly shared among all concerned.

The Chairman of the Commission has recently informed me that no change has been made or is contemplated in this policy, which, I think the House will agree, is a fair and even a generous one. In fact, the Commission are of opinion that its practical application may have meant that, in a desire to be just, the Executive have surrendered a certain amount of business which they could well have undertaken themselves.

I should like to pay a tribute to the Commission and to the Executive for the co-operation they have shown in this matter and in view of this I would ask my hon. Friends to be good enough to withdraw their Amendment.

Mr. Ernest Davies

This is the second time this afternoon that the Minister has referred to the fact that on Third Reading he proposes to make a statement on some very important issue which we are discussing—

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

I am sorry to have to interrupt, but the hon. Gentleman cannot—to use a colloquialism—get away with that. No Amendment has been put down with regard to the 25-mile limit. If there were, I should have been delighted to make a statement on the Report stage.

Mr. Davies

But there was an Amendment on the Committee stage which was Guillotined and could not be discussed. If the Minister had waited until I had finished my sentence he would not have needed to get up so rapidly. I was going to add that it was very lamentable that the Guillotine worked in such a way that we were unable to discuss an important Amendment such as that dealing with the 25-mile limit, and only when we have reached the stage where it is impossible to introduce certain Amendments does the right hon. Gentleman propose to make important statements in connection with them.

I was glad to hear that the Minister does not propose to accept this Amendment, because its acceptance would have been most unfortunate. While he was speaking I was wondering to what extent he had influenced the Commission to follow their present policy. On the other hand, I was glad to hear him pay a tribute to the Commission and, particularly, to the Road Haulage Executive in regard to the generous policy they are following in regard to permits.

He stated that the Executive had had to surrender business which they might otherwise have had in regard to the exercising of their discretion in the renewing of the original permit and the granting of other permits. I hope the Minister will remember that when he next tells us that the Road Haulage Executive is unable to make profits at present, and that it is not doing well. I hope he will bear that in mind when for that reason he casts aspersions upon it, as he is inclined to do. It is quite clear that the interference which has taken place with the business of the Road Haulage Executive as a result of the introduction of this Bill has been very largely responsible for their difficulties, and what the Minister has said this afternoon regarding the permits emphasises that.

All I wished to say was that we are glad that this Amendment is not being accepted by the Minister. The fact that it had to be introduced and that he had to make the remarks he has made emphasises the difficulties which arise through the muddle and confusion which has resulted from the dislocation caused by this Bill. This Amendment would not have needed to be put down had the Bill itself been drafted with a little less confusion.

6.0 p.m.

Mr. Renton

The right hon. Gentleman, for good reasons which he has given, cannot accept the Amendment, but I hope he will keep an open mind on this very important matter because two conflicting considerations arise. The first is one with which we are all familiar. That is the need to dispose satisfactorily of that part of the road haulage undertaking which is not to be continued by the Commission. We understand that the 25-mile limit has to be retained and we realise that there must not be too great a relaxation, but another consideration comes into conflict with that. It is that during the transitional period we have still to maintain a flexible system of transport. Unless the Commission are prepared to grant special and ordinary permits when the consumer need arises for them to do so, we shall not have that free flow of transport during the transitional period which the public will need.

What I respectfully suggest is needed in the Bill but which is not in it at the moment is the necessity to which the Amendment calls attention. It is necessary for something to be in the Bill to draw the attention of the Commission specifically to the duty, to which it ought to have regard, to issue permits in accordance with its discretion in such a way as to meet the special need which will arise during the transitional period, for the very reason that it is a transitional period.

Mr. Nabarro

I want to appeal to my right hon. Friend in connection with a matter of which I am sure he will be very well informed. A large part of his constituency represents horticultural interests, and so does mine. In the period until April, 1952, the British Transport Commission issued a number of special permits which were restricted only in their mileage to 150 miles radius specifically for the purpose of enabling horticultural growers to get perishable goods sent, in the case of Worcestershire, to Liverpool, Bristol and South Wales.

Those permits were arbitrarily withdrawn a few months ago on the plea that the British Road Services organisation were able to look after the traffic. In fact the nationalised organisation did attempt to look after the traffic for a period between April, 1952, and the end of last year. It did so somewhat unsatisfactorily and there was a great deal of complaint. Now the decision is that the road services organisation shall be disbanded steadily and the incoming vehicles, which we hope will not operate on permits after 1954, will not be available for the traffic during 1953. I think, therefore, that there is a special case in the matter of perishable goods for the British Transport Commission to behave with a great deal of latitude and benevolence in granting permits for distances up to 150 to 200 miles in order to take the place of the services which were only operated quite temporarily—for no more than six or eight months— by the nationalised undertaking.

Mr. Cole

In view of the remarks of the right hon. Gentleman, and in the hope that the British Transport Commission will not be oblivious to the ideas which inspired this Amendment, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.