HC Deb 29 July 1953 vol 518 cc1296-303
The Minister of Transport (Mr. Alan Lennox-Boyd)

With permission, I should like to make a statement about the future of the British Transport Commission and its Executives.

As regards the Commission itself, Lord Hurcomb told me some time ago that he did not seek reappointment at the end of his present term of office on the 31st August next. Sir William Wood has also said that he would like to retire on that date. The rest of the Commission will, I am glad to say, remain, and their great knowledge and experience will be available so that there will be no break in continuity. The House will remember that the size of the Commission is increased by the 1953 Act from nine to 15. The chairmanship of the Commission demands of its holder qualities not easily to be found. I have devoted much thought to this question and have narrowed the field, but I am not yet in a position to say who the new Chairman will be. Pending his appointment, I should not think it right to appoint any new members, whole or part-time, to the Commission.

After consultation with the Commission, I have decided that the Executives, with the exception of London Transport, should not continue after 30th September next. I should like to take this opportunity of expressing my gratitude to these Executives for the energy and devotion which they have brought to their tasks, and to their staffs of all ranks who have stood loyally by them during a difficult period. I am sure that the whole House will join me in this. The Transport Act, 1947, envisaged that the Executives would not necessarily be permanent institutions and their cessation at this juncture, except in the case of London Transport, will, in the Commission's view, help them in the discharge of their duties. In appropriate cases full-time Members of the Executive will of course be given the opportunity to continue to serve the Commission as its officers. For instance, nearly all the full-time Members of the Railway Executive have had life long experience on the railways, and have attained leading positions in their profession. I understand also from the British Transport Commission that it is their intention that the present Chairman of the Road Haulage Executive should be offered a senior post in their organisation and that other steps should be taken to ensure continuity of operation.

As to the London Transport Executive, Lord Latham announced publicly some time ago his intention of resigning the chairmanship of the Executive at the end of his present period of office. This, as everyone in the House will agree, is a position of high importance requiring not only a wealth of skill and experience, but also, what is so necessary in this particular position, a keen realisation of the views and feelings of the public on matters relating to their daily travel. I am giving close thought to the appointment of his successor. In the circumstances, however, I have thought it desirable to re-appoint all the present members of the London Transport Executive apart from the Chairman for a period of one year. This will not, of course, preclude their re-appointment later for a longer period, and London Transport must remain for as far as one can look into the future as one of the most important transport entities in the world.

Time does not permit me to pay, at this moment, an adequate tribute to Lord Hurcomb. As one of the greatest of our civil servants, he has brought the highest qualities to the discharge of the onerous duties placed upon him by the 1947 Act and this is not the first or only office in which he has given great service to the nation.

The thanks of all Londoners are due to Lord Latham for his work in administering the elaborate network of services upon which millions of people depend for their daily travel to and from their work. An organisation of this kind can attain the requisite pitch of efficiency only at the cost of continual effort and search for improvement, but London Transport as Lord Latham leaves it, is without doubt the finest metropolitan transport system in the world.

Sir Michael Barrington-Ward is retiring on 30th September and Sir William Wood, whom I have already mentioned, on 31st August. The retirement of these eminent railwaymen will be a great loss to the Commission and to the railways and I should like to pay a tribute to their long and distinguished service. Apart from those I have mentioned, there will be few other retirements and if time does not permit me to refer in detail to the services of those concerned, it does not mean that I do not realise the hard work, the ability, and the devotion which they have brought to their tasks. The fact that in some directions the Commission will be making a fresh start, does not detract, I am sure, from the thanks which the whole House will feel are due to those who are now laying down the burden of their office.

Mr. H. Morrison

I join with the Minister in paying tribute to the service of Lord Hurcomb as Chairman of the British Transport Commission. He was the first Permanent Secretary with whom I worked when I became a Minister, and I have a high estimate of his abilities. My only regret is that the Minister has not taken more notice of the advice he has had from him. I join the right hon. Gentleman also in paying tribute to Lord Latham, who has served the London transport organisation with ability and fidelity.

I hope that the House will forgive me if I put a series of questions of some little length to the Minister on this most unsatisfactory and revolutionary statement—[Interruption]—but it is. May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether, in relation to the appointment of the Chair- man of the British Transport Commission, he has not known for quite a long time that this vacancy would arise, and why is it that the Government cannot make up their mind as to the new Chairman? Why should there be this delay? Moreover, may I ask the Minister why he has not been able to make up his mind about the appointment of the new members authorised by the new Transport Act, and why there should be that delay?

I wish to put a point to the Minister about his decision to abolish all the Executives with the exception of London Transport, which means the abolition of the Hotels Executive, which I should have thought ought to have been separate from the railways; and the abolition of the Docks and Waterways Executive. Has not the Government's argument been in favour of decentralisation of the organisation, and why have they gone in for this wholesale system of centralisation under the British Transport Commission?

The Minister says that the Commission agrees with the decisions. May I ask him if he would be good enough to lay the letter from the Commission on this point so that we may know exactly what it has said. One notes that the Minister is transforming persons who are at present on boards into officials of the Commission, which will make them subordinate officers. In the case of the London Transport Executive, in respect of which it has been known for months that Lord Latham was retiring, why is there this very grave delay about the appointment of the new Chairman?

It is a great pity that this announcement should be made on the eve of the Parliamentary Recess. It is characteristic of the dishonesty of this Government, and particularly of this Minister, with whose political tendencies we have been familiar for years, that the House should be held up until this moment, when obviously this is a matter which ought to command immediate debate. I give notice that we shall require an early opportunity to debate this thing, which is a manifestation not only of the bias of the Government but of their utter incompetence to run the country.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

I hope that I can deal briefly with all the points which the right hon. Gentleman has raised. I am anxious to get the best Chairman for the Commission and the best Chairman for London Transport. I am more concerned about getting the right people than on coming to a hasty decision on matters involving millions of people and our public credit.

Turning to the other questions of the right hon. Gentleman, he chided me with not having taken sufficient notice of the advice of Lord Hurcomb. It is the unanimous wish of the Commission that I take this action, and here, on the greatest field of all, I have accepted its advice. The Commission has fully satisfied me that a system of executives appointed, as is the Commission itself, by the Minister and not by the Commission is not the best way. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to look at the debates in 1946, when the present Home Secretary made it clear that this was and would continue to be our view. As to the right hon. Gentleman's charge that this will lead to more centralisation, I would say that that will depend on the railway scheme, and I shall certainly see, and so will my colleagues, that the intentions of the Act in that field are fully carried out.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman asked me to lay before the House correspondence which I have had with Lord Hurcomb on this matter. Apart from saying that the Commission is in entire agreement with my decision to bring the executives to an end, I have no intention of doing any such thing.

Mr. Renton

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the praise which has been given to Lord Hurcomb should not be regarded as a mere formal expression of Front Bench opinion but that on the back benches on both sides of the House there is genuine admiration for the zeal and ability which he has shown in the discharge of an exceptionally difficult task?

Mr. Ernest Davies

As the Minister has failed to fill the vacancies on the Commission, would it not have been better to continue the executives until reorganisation had taken place, until the railway reorganisation scheme had been produced and the disposal of the road haulage vehicles completed? Can the Minister tell us what form of management there is to be in the interim period? Is the Commission to act as a functional body? How is this organisation, in which the Minister himself says our public credit is involved, to preserve the national assets in the interim period?

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

These are two quite proper questions, if I may say so. [Interruption.] They are at least related to the problem before us. I seriously considered continuing the Executives for a short period until the new Chairman was appointed and the new Commission established, but on the urgent entreaty of the Commission itself, which represented that a continuance of the uncertainty was highly undesirable, I have come to the conclusion not to re-appoint them. As to what happens, the right hon. Gentleman should know that under his party's own Act, the powers and authority of the Executives now revert automatically to the Commission, which has always been in a position to issue directives to the Executives. I have every reason to think that the Commission whose responsibility it will be will at an early date make it quite plain what form the organisation will take after next September, though the full railway scheme will take a good deal longer than that.

Mr. H. Morrison

Does it follow that because there is a power and elasticity under an Act of Parliament under which the Government are not bound to appoint Executives and can make changes, it follows that they have to abolish the lot? The right hon. Gentleman did not give the slightest indication, during the discussions on the Transport Bill which led to the Act of 1953, that he was going to abolish all the Executives. What is his case for centralising all these functions under the Commission when the whole of the Government's argument has been in favour of decentralisation?

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman clearly under stands all the considerations involved——

Mr. Morrison

Yes, I do.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

—in talking about the Executives as if they were subject to precisely the same considerations. The Railway Executive has to come to an end with the making of the railway scheme. I am told that the uncertainty is bad for all concerned and that it is better to make it plain now. The Road Haulage Executive comes to an end at the conclusion of the disposal of the road haulage vehicles and I am told that the anxiety is bad there. We are ending it there, too. In the case of the Docks and Inland Waterways Executive, I am satisfied that as part of the Commission they can be better administered than as a separate Executive—[An HON. MEMBER; "Under the railways."]—though there is no question of docks and inland waterways passing into railway control. I have not abolished all the Executives. London Transport, as I have announced, will of course remain separate.

Mr. Beswick

The Minister has mentioned most of the personnel concerned and the future. He has made no reference to the Chairman of the Railway Executive. What happens to him in the rearrangement? Are we to lose the services of this able person?

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

I think it would be most unwise to be drawn into the question of the future of any individual, however distinguished. I have made an exception in the case of General Russell, Chairman of the Road Haulage Executive, for I am conscious that the recent Act of the Government has created more change in the field of road haulage than anywhere else, and it seemed desirable to make clear that the services of the Chairman, whom men throughout the country have come to respect, will be available to the Commission as one of its senior officers.

Mr. Callaghan

Is the Minister aware that we are automatically drawn into the field of personalities by his inability to announce who the new members are to be. It may be that Mr. John Elliot is to be one, we do not know. We think we have the right to ask the Minister why he has not come here in order to announce to us the names of those persons who are to carry on an organisation worth £1,500 million. Will the Minister not reconsider his decision to abolish the Docks Executive and the Hotels Executive—he cannot reconsider the Railways Executive—also the Ports Executive, and the Road Haulage Executive, which need not come to an end?

In view of the fact that the appointments of the Chairman and Sir William Wood run out in four weeks time; that the Commission are to be left with only three experienced full-time members, who will have the responsibility of initiating into this business the remaining nine—I imagine it will be nine which the Minister intends to appoint—and will also have the responsibility of taking over, apparently immediately, the work of the new Executive, may I ask the Minister if he realises the turmoil into which he will throw the whole organisation of transport by this process of immediate centralisation at this point? May I invite him seriously to consider whether it would be worth while to continue for another 12 months so that this appointment may be made?

Does the Minister realise—he may shake his head in annoyance, but this is a most serious and important subject—with what dismay the decision to abolish the Docks and Inland Waterways Executive will be greeted in South Wales ports, where, for the first time since 1947, they have been able to get free from the grip of the railways and act independently in the running of the ports?

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

The expression "turmoil I am causing" by failure to reconsider the decision not to reappoint these Executives is a curious description to apply to the acceptance of advice from the Commission which the hon. Gentleman has praised so often.

Mr. Callaghan

May I ask the Minister one final question; will he reconsider the position of the Docks and Inland Waterways Executive, in view of the special position it has built up for itself in South Wales?

Mr. Lennox-Boyd indicated dissent.

Mr. Callaghan

All right.