§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 11.5 a.m.
§ Mr. Edward Short (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Bill has two objects, first, to empower local authorities to run contract carriages and, secondly, to subsidise the travel of certain deserving classes of their people. I shall deal with the second object first, not because I regard one as being more important than the other but simply because it is more convenient for me to develop my argument in that way.
Towards the end of 1954, a Birmingham ratepayer called Mr. Prescott challenged Birmingham's scheme for free travel for old people on the city's buses during certain off-peak periods. The Court of Chancery found that the corporation had neither the power to authorise nor the power to prohibit such a scheme. Therefore, the question of whether the corporation's scheme for free travel was ultra vires the corporation or intra vires had to be decided on general principles. As the corporation had the duty of holding the balance fairly between all classes of its people and as this scheme amounted in fact to a gift to one particular section of the ratepayers, and therefore was a case of differentiation between the various classes of its people, the court found that the scheme was ultra vires.
Later the corporation appealed against this decision, and the Court of Appeal upheld the Chancery Court's ruling. Birmingham Corporation decided to take no action by way of appeal to the House of Lords but immediately promoted a 756 Private Bill to regularise its scheme. But there are 96 local authorities throughout the country which operate concessionary fare schemes of one kind or another. Over 20 give some sort of concession to old people, 93 give concessions to the blind and 59 give concessions to disabled people. The Birmingham decision meant that all these schemes were apparently illegal, in the absence of any specific power in a local Act.
§ Clause 3 gives the local authorities the power—
§ Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)
I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman so early in his speech, but I should like to know whether I am correct in assuming that there is a misprint in Clause 5 and that it should read:… the council of any county borough or county district.
§ Mr. Short
Yes. The hon. Gentleman is right. I had intended to point out that there was a misprint and that the word should be "council" and not "county."
Clause 3 would give to local authorities owning transport undertakings the powers which they thought they possessed until Mr. Prescott intervened.
§ Mr. David Renton (Huntingdon)
Does not Clause 3 go very much further than the powers which local authorities have so far purported to exercise? I will not go into detail, but does not it go much further?
§ Mr. Short
I will deal with that point later. The real issue in the Clause is one of broad principle which is of national rather than purely local importance. One of the glories of our system of local government is that it gives wide discretionary powers to local authorities for administering our social services. Both "Britain, Strong and Free" and "Challenge to Britain" promise to increase these discretionary powers. A great many of them are concerned with subsidising various classes of people in some form—the rents of council houses, meals for old people, travel for school children, clothing for school children, maintenance grants for school children, and so on.
On the whole, these powers are administered with scrupulous fairness by our local authorities. They are administered with a praiseworthy public and social responsibility. I emphasise that 757 point, because of a memorandum which was sent to the Minister of Transport by the National Union of Ratepayers' Associations. This memorandum was quoted in "The Times" on 9th February and said:If it were once made possible for a council to authorize free travel to any particular section of the community the temptation to political parties seeking to gain control of the council at the local government elections would be overwhelming. Indeed, if one party included such a policy in their election pledges, thereby virtually guaranteeing the votes of 100 per cent. of the beneficiaries, it would be impossible for the other party to refrain from doing likewise.I have been associated with local government work for a good many years, and I cannot recollect any case of any political party anywhere ever using its discretionary powers in that way. It is an irresponsible memorandum and something of a libel on the thousands of public-spirited men and women who are giving a good deal of time and public service to local authorities.
Against that opposition, Birmingham has operated the normal Private Bill machinery and called the usual town meeting. The town meeting decided by a majority of three to one in favour of the Birmingham Private Bill to authorise concessionary travel. So I do not think that the National Union of Ratepayers' Associations can really claim to represent the views of all ratepayers. [HON MEMBERS:"It was a majority of 10 to one."] I was going by Press reports, which said the majority was three to one.
Local authorities who own transport undertakings are very strongly of the opinion that their discretionary powers should be extended to include the power to subsidise fares of certain clearly defined categories of people. Clause 3 seeks to give them that power. Both sides of the House would agree it is far better to have as many of these discretionary powers as possible vested in the local authority and as few as possible vested in the State. Locally elected people know their district intimately and are obviously the right people to have these powers. Discretionary powers to help those of their people whom they consider to be deserving are the life blood of local government in Britain.
I emphasise that the powers which Clause 3 seeks to confer are, by and large, those that local authorities thought that 758 they possessed until the Birmingham decision. They are all permissive powers and all they do is to mark the outer limits of subsidised travel which could not be exceeded. The categories of people mentioned in Clause 3 are those included in the various schemes of concessionary travel up and down the country. There are a great many schemes, and Clause 3 is intended to cover all of them. It does not quite do so. It does not cover free travel for councillors, but, apart from that, it covers concessionary schemes fairly well. Of course, it covers the categories which would appear in the many Private Bills which would come to the House if this Bill did not reach the Statute Book. It does not cover workmen's fares, because I am advised that apparently workmen's fares cannot be brought under the Birmingham decision. By and large, workmen's fares are a good business proposition and, unless they are excessive, result in an increase of revenue.
The Clause also contains two financial provisions. The first is an arrangement with neighbouring local authorities served by the undertaking's transport and provides for financial contributions from the neighbouring authorities to the local authority owning the transport undertaking, so that concessions can be made available to the neighbouring authorities.
For example, there is the urban district of Gosforth, which I think the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Miss Ward) knows very well, because she lives there. It is served by Newcastle transport. Old-age pensioners and so forth in Gosforth can have concessions made available to them, provided that the Gosforth Urban District Council makes a contribution to Newcastle. The same thing would apply in Glasgow with Lanarkshire and in Sheffield with Dronfield.
The second financial provision is that the local authority is empowered to assess the cost of its scheme and put a levy on the rate and make a grant from the general rate fund to the transport undertaking fund. This is like taking money out of one pocket and putting it into another, but it has the virtue of letting the ratepayers see how much their generosity is costing each year and allowing them to keep a close check on the scheme.
I want to say a word about the opposition which I have seen in the Press. The 759 British Transport Commission, I see from "The Times," has made an objection to the Birmingham Bill, and I take it that its opposition would equally apply to this Bill. The Commission opposes the Birmingham Bill on two grounds. The first is that the Birmingham Bill would have created a precedent which would have obliged every other operator in the country to give a similar concession. But that has not happened so far. There have been many schemes of concessionary fares throughout the country and they have not obliged other operators in the area to introduce similar schemes. All Clause 3 does, as I have said twice already, is to empower local authorities to carry on with schemes which they thought to be legal before the Birmingham decision was made.
Secondly, the Commission said that this sort of scheme would subject the railways to unfair competition. That is rather a frivolous objection. I cannot conceive of any set of local circumstances in which it would occur. The Commission also makes the point that it is a large ratepayer in many big urban areas which have transport undertakings and would be subsidising its competitors. Whether we like it or not, that happens in many cases in the application of our social services. A man who owns a private school has to pay rates to help to subsidise State schools, and there are many similar examples.
There were two leading articles in "The Times" and the "Economist," both very fair articles, which were opposed to the Bill. I make no complaint about that, but I want to point out the conclusions they reached. "The Times" reached this conclusion:This, rather than the Birmingham Bill, will afford a proper opportunity for considering what is involved.The "Economist," on the other hand, reaches this conclusion:The proper course for Parliament is to allow the Birmingham Bill to go through, but to oppose Mr. Short's to the end.It could be argued that those two articles cancel each other out, and I will not comment further upon them.
Before I leave the question of opposition, I must comment on one very inaccurate, irresponsible and, if I may say so, rather scurrilous comment in a journal 760 called "Motor Transport." I take very great objection to this article, because it is so grossly inaccurate and obviously intentionally misleading; so much so that I am sending the report, with my comments, to the Press Council. One statement is this:Captain Short, I understand, has decided to make this"—that is not the Clause I am now dealing with, but a Clause relating to contract carriages—the principal issue of his Bill, and he has been advised to do so by the Socialist Members' transport committee.I will say quite clearly that neither the transport group of this party, nor any other committee of the Labour Party, nor any other person in the party or outside, has advised me on what this Bill should contain, nor how it should be arranged. The object of the article is made quite plain all through. Later, reference is made to the Clause on contract carriages as the "main part of the Bill." Obviously the object is to make a division on this Bill on party lines. Indeed, it states:A struggle is now likely to develop on party lines which is what the Opposition seem to want.I hope that I have not introduced any party politics into what I have said, nor shall I do so. I do not think that party politics are involved.
The same journal carries a small article on a resolution passed by the Wallasey Corporation, in which it says that the corporation refused to pass a recommendation of the transport committee to support this Bill. What the journal does not point out is that Sheffield, Middlesbrough and many other local authorities have passed resolutions in favour of it, and I do not call that fair reporting at all.
Very powerful support for this Bill has come from a conference called by the Newcastle Corporation. I wish to make it clear that, although I represent part of Newcastle, I had no hand either in the conceiving of the idea of this conference or in the calling of it. I was not present at the conference, nor was I invited. I had no connection whatever with it. In view of something else which appears in "Motor Transport," I would also state that Newcastle, of course, has a Conservative-controlled council. This 761 journal has analysed the politics of the 20 local authorities represented at the council and decided that the majority were Labour-controlled councils and that therefore the move came from the Labour Party. That is entirely false. I do not think that the politics of the authorities concerned entered into it at all. The 20 local authorities present represented populations amounting to almost five million people, and politics certainly did not enter into it.
This conference passed a resolution, which I understand has been forwarded to the Minister, and which reads:That we, representing the Councils of the twenty local authorities whose names are attached hereto, request Her Majesty's Government to support or (if found necessary) to introduce legislation which will give local authorities operating passenger transport undertakings clear powers to afford free or concessionary travel to certain specified categories such as old, blind, disabled, and young persons and that a copy of this resolution be forwarded to the Minister of Housing and Local Government"—and so on. I understand also that the Minister has received a deputation from that conference.
I leave Clause 3 and now turn to Clause 1.
§ Mr. Renton
Before the hon. Gentleman does so, would he answer two questions about Clause 3? Would he first say whether or not the privileges proposed are to apply to passengers travelling in contract carriages? The second question is, bearing in mind that the very limited privileges mentioned in the Birmingham case amounted to £90,000 a year or thereabouts, can he give an estimate of the value of all the privileges exercised by all the local authorities likely to exercise them?
§ Mr. Short
Both those are committee points and could be dealt with more fittingly then. Obviously, on the second point I cannot give an estimate. The figure of £90,000 is, of course, the figure estimated by the Birmingham Corporation. I would make it clear that the powers concerned are permissive powers and make out a certain limit. Within that limit the authority would have power to develop a scheme and show fully the cost of its own generosity, so that the ratepayers would know exactly what it was costing.
762 While Clause 3 would cost money, Clause 1 aims at providing a new source of revenue for the 96 local authorities with transport undertakings, and therefore, in that sense, the two Clauses are complementary. The need for a new source of revenue for local authorities' transport undertakings, is overwhelming, and I do not think that anyone would deny it. I have gone carefully into their financial position. In the financial year ending last March the 96 undertakings had a total surplus of slightly more than £2¼ million. But in December last there was a wage award of £2¼ million, so that it would appear that unless some additional revenue is found, either by raising fares or otherwise, and assuming that the same number of passengers are carried, the undertakings will this year be showing a deficit of nearly £1 million. Many of us believe that fare increases have reached the point of diminishing returns. If not, I should think that they very soon will.
Part of the difficulty regarding municipal undertakings is that they are not permitted by law to make the fullest use of their capital assets unless they have power under some local legislation. Most local authorities with transport undertakings possess very large fleets to cater for rush hours and peak periods. But in the off-peak periods and on Sundays their fleets are not fully used. My own local authority in Newcastle-upon-Tyne is a very good example of this.
The position in Newcastle is that they possess 229 buses. At peak periods 93 per cent. are in use, but in off-peak periods during the week from Monday to Friday only 54 per cent. are in use. On Sundays the figure is 58 per cent., and the average number of hours worked by our corporation buses in a 16-hour service day is only 10 hours 15 minutes. In one local authority, the Teeside Board, the buses work only four hours out of the 16-hour service day. At the other end of the scale, I think that Ipswich has the best record with a 14-hour working day out of 16 hours.
The approximate average number of hours worked per service day by municipal buses is nine. It is quite obvious that fleets of buses owned by ratepayers up and down the country are not being used to their full capacity in the way that buses owned by private operators are used. This is because, under the present law. 763 they have not the power to run contract carriages. The situation is that ratepayers who own a large and efficient fleet of buses cannot hire one of their vehicles to take a party to the seaside or a football match, although probably dozens of the vehicles are standing idle in the garage.
Clause 1 seeks to give local authority transport undertakings this power, but the power sought is very limited indeed and is not equivalent to that possessed by private operators, because it is laid down that the journey which the contract carriage makes must begin within the municipal boundaries of the transport undertakings. We are, thus, making a very modest request, but it does something to put local authority undertakings on the same footing as private firms, and I am sure that even hon. Members opposite will agree that a little healthy competition between public enterprise and private enterprise is not a bad thing. The power has been requested unanimously by the 96 authorities, irrespective of their political complexion. They saw the Minister earlier in the year and I understand that his reply was by no means hostile to the principle of local authorities being given power to run contract carriages.
I have dealt with the two main points in the Bill and the general principles on which the Bill is based. I have no doubt whatever that hon. Members who follow me will develop these general arguments with reference to their own localities. I have not discussed Clause 2 which relates to the British Transport Commission, because I understand that the power sought by the Clause would not greatly benefit it. Consequently, I am not completely wedded to the principle in the Clause, and, if necessary, during the Committee stage I shall be willing to drop the Clause.
The Bill is very modest in scope, being limited to two simple points, and the powers which it seeks to confer are very much desired by the local authorities concerned. If the Bill succeeds in getting a Second Reading today, I shall be willing to discuss any part of it with the Minister, hon. Members from either side of the House or any other interested parties. In view of this assurance and the assurance that I have given about 764 Clause 2, I hope the House will feel able to give the Bill a Second Reading.
§ 11.33 a.m.
§ Mr. David Jones (The Hartlepools)
I beg to second the Motion.
I am sure that I shall be expressing the views of the whole House in offering congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central (Mr. Short) upon his presentation of the Bill and the very modest and impartial way in which he has described its contents.
Two of the Bill's Clauses go very well together. It may be argued that it was the 1930 Road Traffic Act which, in Section 72, prohibited municipalities from running contract carriages and placed a further prohibition on them in Section 101 whereby they had to get the consent of the licensing authorities to undertake journeys of any kind outside the immediate confines of the local government area.
Since 1930, times and circumstances have materially changed. That is indicated by the attitude of the Minister of Transport and his Department. The 1930 Act set up the traffic commissioners, now the licensing authorities, and it gave them power to control fares, frequencies and routes relating to public service vehicles. The Act did not place on the licensing authorities any responsibility for determining fares for public service vehicles operated by municipalities in the form of trams or trolleybuses. So far as the control of the licensing authorities was concerned, trams and trolley buses were completely outside the purview of the Act and the power to determine minimum fares was reserved to the Ministry of Transport.
However, in the recent Transport (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, which the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary successfully piloted through Parliament, the Minister took upon himself the responsibility of transferring the powers for determining the fares of trams and trolley vehicles to the licensing authorities. I do not quarrel with the transfer. When the provisions of the Act were being worked out in 1930, probably the bulk of municipality transport consisted of trams or trolley vehicles but even in that regard times have substantially changed and a far greater number of 765 petrol and oil buses are now being operated by municipalities than was the case 25 years ago. I suggest that the first indication of the need for reviewing the matter and altering the situation arises from the action of the Ministry of Transport.
During the war, under a Defence Regulation, the provisions of the 1930 Act relating to contract carriages were abrogated, and towards the end of the war and for a period after the war municipalities were allowed to operate contract carriages. The reason for that is easily understandable. The fleets of the private operators had been depleted, and the municipalities had had the bulk of the public service vehicles provided during the war because they were running essential services.
Under the Defence Regulation and for a year or two after the war my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham, South (Mr. Barnes) who was then Minister of Transport, permitted municipalities to undertake contract carriage work. Some time after I came to the House in 1945, I approached the Minister on behalf of a municipality in which I was interested asking him to continue to extend the authority for running contract carriages to municipalities, but my right hon. Friend and the Parliamentary Secretary decided that to use a Defence Regulation to get around the existing state of the law was not the proper way to do it. Quite rightly, I think, in the light of my later experience, my right hon. Friend declined to do it.
Other changes have taken place too. The introduction of a fairly general five-day week in industry has meant that municipalities who have to undertake large numbers of workmen's services find a substantial proportion of their fleet idle in the garages on Saturdays and Sundays. The extension of workmen's services throughout the first five days of the week, however, has necessitated an increase in their fleets. In a moment, I shall give one or two specific figures relating to some local authorities of which I have some experience.
The establishment of new housing estates and new neighbourhood units on the periphery of a number of large towns has meant that very many more working people live much further away from their normal places of work than 766 they did 25 years ago, with the result that municipalities have to run very many more workmen's services in the mornings and evenings, necessitating a substantial increase in their fleets, but those vehicles are in use only for a few hours during the day.
I now turn to some specific figures relating to two authorities of which I have some experience. For my sins or otherwise, for 12 years I was chairman of the transport committee of the Pontypridd Urban District Council, in South Wales. At that time the authority had a large number of workmen's services, but in order to bring the figures up to date I sought from the present manager of that undertaking the latest figures. He informs me that the present total number of vehicles in his fleet is 49; the average number of vehicles required for his normal services is 17, but the number in service in morning and evening peak periods is 41. In the morning the peak period lasts from 7 o'clock to 8.15 and, in the afternoon, from 4.30 to 6.15—a total of three hours a day. On Saturdays, even with his supplemented ordinary services, he has 18 vehicles standing in the garage, and these vehicles do not do an hour's work. On Sundays, 38 vehicles are in that position.
I am advised that the present cost of a modern double-decker omnibus is about £3,500, and if that vehicle can be used only for three hours per day for five days a week it is easy to see how much revenue has to be earned by it during those 15 hours a week in order to meet the capital charges alone, not to mention the wages of the platform staff—or the platform costs, as they are described in the industry.
I should also mention that the conditions under which drivers and conductors are employed provide for a minimum payment—I think in respect of six hours—for one booking-on, and as the period between the beginning of the peak in the morning and the termination of the peak in the evening is so long it is usually necessary to provide one crew for the morning and another for the afternoon. As the vehicle is in use only for about two hours in the morning, including preparation and disposal time, it is fairly clear that the burden of transport costs alone is heavy.
767 I now want to refer to another local authority about which I know something—the Municipal Corporation of West Hartlepool. That corporation has 65 vehicles in its fleet. The normal services require 30, so that for the greater part of the day more than half the fleet is standing idle in the garage, but the peak periods necessitate an additional 25 vehicles. The length of the peak period in the morning is one and a half hours, as it is in the evening, making three hours a day or 15 hours a week. In those circumstances, I suggest that the burden which has to be borne by a municipality if it provides these essential workmen's services is a heavy one.
If they were given power by Parliament to undertake contract carriage work in competition with private contractors they would be better off. We seek no preferential treatment for municipalities; all we seek is an even break for them, so that they can compete with private enterprise for this traffic. I am fortified in making that statement by a further article which appears in the issue of "Motor Transport" to which my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central referred. It is to be found on the first page, and it says:An appeal involving the principle of whether municipalities have an exclusive right to provide transport services for newly-developed housing estates was decided by the Minister of Transport this week. He informed Leeds Corporation that it had been unsuccessful in two appeals against decisions of the Yorkshire Licensing Authority, and would have to pay the costs.What the Leeds Corporation sought to do was to claim the exclusive right to operate ordinary stage carriage services between two housing estates on the periphery of Leeds and the city centre. That claim was appealed against by the private enterprise companies operating into Leeds, and, as I have indicated, the Minister's decision was that this traffic, although within the city of Leeds, was not exclusive to the Leeds Corporation, and that privately-owned companies operating services over those roads and passing those housing estates were entitled to compete for that traffic.
I think that that decision was right, but if it be right to permit private enterprise companies operating into Leeds to compete with the vehicles of the Leeds Corporation passing through these hous- 768 ing estates, it is not unreasonable to ask that Leeds and the other 95 municipal corporations concerned should be permitted to compete on equal terms for this contract carriage traffic, and thus be given an opportunity of acquiring some additional revenue which would help them to make both ends meet.
What is the peculiar effect of this restriction in relation to the operation of contract carriage services by municipalities? Again I refer to the county borough which I have the honour to represent. West Hartlepool's local education authority takes part in running a school camp located at Carlton, in Cleveland, which is in the Yorkshire hills, about 20 miles from West Hartlepool.
In the local newspaper dated Wednesday, 16th February, there is an article which states that the local education authority has decided this year again to send a large number of its children to the Carlton school camp for periods of a fortnight. It normally sends these children in batches of 50, but, although its own transport department has vehicles lying idle in the garage, it cannot use them to send the children the 20 miles between West Hartlepool and the site of the camp. It has to make application to and secure tenders from private firms operating in the town in order to take the children, for whom the ratepayers are paying, to a camp run by the local education authority some 20 miles away. I suggest that that is unreasonable.
The Municipal Passenger Transport Association, which acts for and is the organisation representing the municipal transport operators, as the Minister well knows, gave evidence on these lines before the Thesiger Committee, and in paragraph 319 of its Report, that Committee indicates that it was not within its terms of reference. The Report says:Suggestions were put before us in support of and against a proposal that local authorities should have a general power to undertake private hire work, i.e. operate contract carriages. As such work requires no road service licence and only affects the licensing system in so far as contract carriages compete with stage or express carriages, we were inclined to the view that the power of local authorities to join in this competitive work was no direct concern of ours.The Report goes on to make five suggestions, which the Committee says are not recommendations, but merely 769 suggestions. I do not want to weary the House by reading them all, though I will do so if any hon. Member so desires. I should, however, like to refer to the third suggestion, as follows:Local authorities who embark on this work operate by committees who control the General Manager and such committees may find that local organisations expect to get preferential terms from their local authority on the pretext that it is not the business of the local authority to make a profit out of them.With all due deference to the Thesiger Committee, I think that suggestion falls below the general standard of the suggestions in its Report. To suggest that thousands of people in this country and 96 gentlemen who are managing transport undertakings would be so influenced by organisations of one sort or another in their areas as not to treat this matter as one of business is not, I suggest, really being fair to the municipal transport managers of this country. I speak with some knowledge of this, because I have known some of these gentlemen, and I think that they are equal to, and in many cases better than, the people who manage private concerns.
My hon. Friend made reference to the deputation which waited on the Minister. That deputation made the case for the municipal authorities, and so impressed the Minister that, in his reply, he said that both he and his right hon. Friend had been impressed with the case that had been made. I want to be fair to the Parliamentary Secretary, and I will quote from the report of what he said:He realised that the general course of events is increasing the desire of municipalities to find some way of increasing their income from the large capital assets involved. He had full sympathy with the position whereby owing to the large number of vehicles required at 'peak' periods, men and vehicles were having to be kept idle. He presumed that the matter had been raised at this stage owing to the possibility of impending legislation in the matter.I should not like to accuse the Parliamentary Secretary of being a mind reader, but he certainly could not have thought of my hon. Friend's Bill at that stage, because my hon. Friend had not then been successful in the Ballot. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman must have had something else in his mind. If we have saved him the trouble of asking his right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal for Parliamentary time by providing it out of Private Members' time, to put this question of 770 contract carriages right, we shall not weary in well-doing. The hon. Gentleman continued:It should be noted that the Thesiger Committee, in stating that the subject was beyond its terms of reference, had not made any specific recommendations in the matter, and he referred the deputation to paragraph 319 on page 98 of the Thesiger Report.He went on:He appreciated the force of the arguments put forward by the deputation; he was also familiar with arguments of other operators who are opposed to the Association's proposals. No Minister of Transport, he said, would be anxious to introduce something at present which would start up a new controversial issue.The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation (Mr. Hugh Molson): Will the hon. Gentleman tell me the date of this letter?
It is a report of an interview which the hon. Gentleman had with a deputation from the Municipal Passenger Transport Association on Thursday, 30th September, 1954. There were at least seven people on that deputation.
I do not want to say any more than my hon. Friend the Member for New-castle-upon-Tyne, Central has said about Clause 2, but I wish to deal with Clause 3, which deals with concessionary fares. I agree with my hon. Friend that both these proposals are complementary one to the other. I think it is right to say that in the transport world most people would believe that the law was that municipalities were entitled to grant concessionary fares. If I may hark back to the authority over which I once had the honour to preside, I should like to refer to a rather unusual concessionary fare which we gave.
In the town of Pontypridd, which is my native town, we have a large public park in the centre of the town, and in order to get the children off the streets during the month of August, when they were away from school, we transported them, between the hours of 10 a.m. and 12 noon and 2 to 4 p.m., any distance from the periphery of the town to the central park for 1d. We felt that we were doing a good turn to the parents, and that we were getting the children off the streets and keeping them away from mischief by taking them into the public park, where they were under the supervision of 771 the park attendants. Generally, we believed that, by that kind of concessionary fare, we were doing something which the ratepayers would desire us to do.
Therefore, I commend this Bill to the House, and suggest that, if it secures a Second Reading today, we shall do for the municipalities in these matters something which will help to make the local government system in this country, which is already held in very high esteem by most of the people who come here from all parts of the world to examine it, even more important than it is at the present time.
§ 11.58 a.m.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Wilson (Truro)
I think that all hon. Members of this House will agree that we do not doubt the good intentions of the hon. Member for New-castle-upon-Tyne, Central (Mr. Short), and I should like to congratulate him on the extreme moderation with which he put his case and with which he steered clear of party issues, which really should not arise on a matter such as this.
It seems to me that, if this Bill were to pass into law in anything like its present state, it would create so many anomalies that it might very well result in doing more harm than good. Serious objection might be raised to almost every Clause in the Bill, except Clause 7, which is the Short Title. Clause 6 deals with Scottish law, and as a Cornish hon. Member, I should not like to make any comments on it, although I am what the right hon. Member for East Stirlingshire (Mr. Woodburn) would call a "Sudeten Scot."
Clause 1 repeals Section 101 (2, a) of the Road Traffic Act, 1930, which prohibits local authorities from running their buses as contract carriages for private hire. It has existed for 25 years, and was introduced by the party opposite in the Measure which is always associated with the name of the right hon. Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison). Until quite recently that provision has not been seriously criticised. There is already intensive competition in the field of private hire, and one would be a little surprised at hon. Members opposite wanting to intensify that competition, as their general principle is to integrate transport.
772 We believe in competition, but we want fair competition. I am not sure that the Bill would result in fair competition. The bus companies have to operate their undertakings solely on commercial considerations. That applies to buses owned by the British Transport Commission as well as to private buses. A municipal bus company is supported by the rates, and is controlled by a committee of elected persons. It might be influenced by non-commercial motives.
The hon. Member for The Hartlepools (Mr. D. Jones) referred to paragraph 319 of the Thesiger Report on contract carriages, and quoted sub-paragraph (3), which he criticised. That was an expression of opinion, which did not exaggerate. It merely said that local authorities which embark on these schemes may be subject to pressure from people who think they ought to get preferential treatment. In the next sub-paragraph but one it said:Whether a particular local authority should be empowered by statute to undertake contract carriage work would depend, apart from general principles, on the demand for contract work locally, the facilities available in the locality, and the equipment of the local authority's undertaking.There is no evidence of lack of facilities for private hire work.
Municipal private hire work would be quite different from any of the municipal trading which exists, such as in water, market stands, car parking, deck chairs, and so on, or in those enterprises in which municipalities used to trade, such as gas or electricity, for in such cases there always is, or was, a published tariff. Every consumer knows, or knew, the price, as there is, or was, a fixed charge. That cannot be the case in private hire work, in which there cannot be any published charge because each contract must be made privately, on quotation. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that pressure may be brought to bear on a municipality to give preferential rates in particular instances.
§ Mr. D. Jones
Does the hon. Member suggest that municipalities are not competent to deal with private hire work? In the height of the summer, when the contract carriage demand is high, private companies who cannot get any of their friends to help them to undertake more 773 work sometimes borrow vehicles on Sundays from a municipality.
§ Mr. Wilson
That may be. The Thesiger Committee said that a municipality is at a disadvantage in entering into private contract works because it might be subject to political pressure. I was attempting to justify that point by saying that the trade which the Bill would permit municipalities to enter is different from the type of trade usually carried on by municipalities.
There are about 21,000 municipal buses. The Bill proposes to throw the whole of them into competition with the already crowded field of private hire work. The only logical reason for so doing would be to produce a better service for the public but—
§ Mr. Wilson
The whole 21,000 would not be used on any one particular day. Some of those 21,000 vehicles could be used for the purpose.
§ Mr. Wilson
It is well known that bus companies, whether privately or nationally owned, running in rural areas, often do so at a loss. That applies in my own area, which is almost wholly nationalised and where the Western National Omnibus Company is owned by the British Transport Commission. It is well known that many rural services are not paying. The bus companies have to make up the loss from some other sources, and they rely on private hire work in order to do so. The small man or small company running local services, which are not run by the bigger companies because they are not a paying proposition, very often has to depend upon contract carriage as the only way to make the business pay.
I wonder whether a provision such as the Bill embodies might not result in worsening rural bus services. That is the last thing we want to do. Our 774 desire in recent months has been to improve rural bus services. The Bill would, incidentally, bring municipal buses into competition with British Railways which runs trips by rail.
The hon. Member for The Hartlepools referred to Clause 2, which I suppose is intended as a sop to the British Transport Commission in that it repeals Section 18 (3) and (4, a) of the Road Transport Act, 1953, under which the British Transport Commission was prohibited from running public service vehicles as contract carriages except for journeys beginning or ending at Sheffield, Halifax, Huddersfield, and so on, or within the London passenger transport area, or within 10 miles of that area, or within five miles of it in Kent. That rather complicated provision is the existing law.
§ Mr. Wilson
Of course I did, because it did away with anomalies which existed between 1947 and 1953.
At present, London Transport cannot—I speak broadly—operate contract carriages outside the London area, and private enterprise cannot operate express or stage carriage services in the London area. There is a balance between the two. The Bill would set up a situation similar to what happened in the Korean War, when the Chinese Air Force, based apparently on a neutral territory, was able to raid the United Nations Forces from that territory in absolute safety, knowing that it could not itself be raided.
I now turn to Clause 3. It seems to me that, notwithstanding what has been said, this may raise more anomalies than any of the other Clauses in the Bill. It is well known, and not disputed, that the transport undertakings, both road and rail, have always made a custom of granting reduced fares to certain limited classes of passengers. The railways have done that for years. Ever since the 1930 Act came into operation, the traffic commissioners have agreed to bus companies in many parts of the country giving concessionary fares of one sort or another.
My hon. Friend the Member for More-cambe and Lonsdale (Sir I. Fraser) has informed me that it is almost common form for most transport undertakings to allow a blind person, and the guide who 775 accompanies him, to travel on a single ticket which covers the fare of both of them. That is a valuable concession which is much appreciated, and no one wishes to stop it.
§ Mr. Wilson
Several municipalities have gone a good deal further in their concessions. Reference has been made to the case of Prescott v. Birmingham Corporation, which has thrown doubt on the legality of many of these practices. I understand that the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central considers that Clause 3, as drafted, does no more than restore the state of affairs which existed before the decision in the Prescott v. Birmingham Corporation case.
§ Mr. G. R. Mitchison (Kettering)
Has the hon. Member considered the effect of that case on the practices which he has just mentioned? May it not be impossible in future to allow a blind man and his guide to travel for a single fare? May it not be impossible to continue that concession for these people?
§ Mr. Wilson
My recollection is that in that judgment there was some reference to blind men, which implied that they were excluded from the effects of the judgment. I do not want to go into the legal aspects of that decision.
I am merely saying that this Clause, as drafted, is extremely wide, and ought to be looked at again very carefully. It seems to give rise to many anomalies. No one wants to make the lot of an old-age pensioner or of a blind person harder, or to take away from them the privileges which they now enjoy. But it seems to me that the Clause is so loosely worded that it may mean almost anything. T understand that it is supposed to be a codification of the existing practices, but subsection (2, c) appears to envisage that it would be lawful for a local authority to permit free travel toa young person whose age exceeds fifteen years but does not exceed eighteen years and who is undergoing full-time education.There is no reference or indication there as to whether that young person can travel free when going to and from his place of education, or of any limitation on the time during which he can so travel.
§ Mr. Wilson
These provisions are very loosely worded, and, at any rate, I think that this subsection needs to be looked at again. It goes on to say:a person who is suffering from the loss of a leg or from any other disability or injury which seriously impairs his ability to walk.I do not know how that would be interpreted. I do not see the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. J. Hudson) in his place, but perhaps the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Mr. Black) may take notice of that one. What is the disability thatimpairs his ability to walk."?
§ Mr. Wilson
It does not say physical disability. I think that these matters will have to be carefully looked at if the Bill goes to a Standing Committee, because it seems to me that it may create a number of anomalies.
§ 12.15 p.m.
§ Mr. E. A. Hardy (Salford, East)
I support the Bill because I think that it will ultimately remove many of the anomalies which exist today. I do not want to traverse the ground which my hon. Friends on this side of the House have already covered, except to point out the difficulty and the unfair competition which we have to face in the City of Salford, where 326 buses cover 10 million miles a year in a densely crowded area, covering 5,200 acres and containing 178,000 people.
Prior to the introduction of the Road Traffic Act, 1930, it was possible for anyone to run a bus service with a licence from a local authority. In those days, there were many difficulties with regard to unfair competition because of the wages and labour conditions which were imposed by the "pirate" companies, as they were known to many people.
Salford is in a peculiar position. Manchester is, of course, just a village on the other side of it, as we all know. The Lancashire United Transport Undertaking, the Ribble Company, and the North Western Road Car Company all have contract carriage licences, and they pick up and set down in all parts of Salford. Salford is not permitted, even 777 under present circumstances, to take a party of Sunday school children by single-decker or double-decker bus to a park. It is not able to provide any facilities in that way, and we feel that that is a very great hardship.
It is perfectly true, as a previous speaker said, that in summer time—when we have a summer—other authorities have to neglect their ordinary normal services to come to the rescue. That is a big handicap to local authorities. It is something which should be considered in Committee. I think that we should leave the ultimate decision to the North-Western Licensing Authority. I do not think that any serious anomalies would exist if this House decided to approve the Bill, perhaps not in its present form, but so as to provide for the provisions contained in Clauses 1 and 2.
One of the greatest difficulties so far as my town is concerned, and this applies to many industrial areas, such as Manchester, Salford, Bury, Westhoughton and Rochdale, is that the drivers and conductors have to be given a guaranteed week. A large proportion of them are not working a full week, but they have to be paid in accordance with the agreements.
On Saturdays and Sundays more than a third of the rolling stock, together with the necessary crews, is in the depots and garages. If only those operating the vehicles had the same power to pick up and set down in Salford as have those running the normal joint services during the week, many of those buses and men could be well employed. Joint services which can pick up and set down passengers at many places are operated during the week by Manchester, Salford, and other corporations. The Ribble Company can pick up passengers in the various areas, and it runs services every 10 minutes to Blackpool, and also to Southport, Morecambe, and Windermere.
Hon. Members should remember that Lancashire is very densely populated. To make sure of getting away for their summer holidays the Lancashire folk have to book their seats months and months beforehand. The Minister of Transport, like all of us, has great regard for the traffic commissioners. I am sure that the commissioners would see that all operators got a fair deal, and that no anomalies would exist, and the public bodies, the 778 municipal undertakings, and the private operators would be happy. I appeal to the Minister and to the House to support the Bill.
§ 12.22 p.m.
§ Mr. Kenneth Thompson (Liverpool, Walton)
I join with other hon. Members who have congratulated the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central (Mr. Short) on his good fortune in the ballot, on the design of his Bill, and on the moderate, well-informed, and careful way in which he has introduced it. When selecting this legislation, and when preparing the speech with which he introduced it, I am sure that he must have been aware that at any rate some parts of the Bill were hardly likely to meet with the unanimous approval of both sides of the House.
I wish to leave aside the parts which contain the elements of party political controversy and to deal with Clause 3, which contains the references to concessionary travel. Those of us who serve on the councils of local authorities which operate public transport services of their own, and which have, in the past, granted concessionary travel in one form or another, were naturally concerned and alarmed by the decision in Prescott v. Birmingham Corporation.
In Liverpool, we have a very large passenger transport undertakings, and for a very long time we have operated a wide variety of concessionary travel rates for different sections of our community. I do not know the comprehensive history of the subject covering the whole country but I should imagine that the system which Liverpool has been operating for a great many years must have been one of the first concessionary travel systems.
As early as 1915, Liverpool Corporation arranged to carry free members of His Majesty's Forces, as they then were. In 1919, the Corporation initiated a scheme for the issue of single free tickets for blind persons, and on 31st December, 1919, a similar scheme was started for disabled ex-Service men. That is a very long time ago. A great many people in all conditions of life have benefited from and shared in these concessions. If the decision of the Appeal Court in the Prescott v. Birmingham Corporation case is to take effect without this House giving thought to it, then a long-established 779 tradition will be destroyed and long-held benefits taken from those who have come to regard them, rightly or wrongly, as part of the normal facilities they enjoy in going about their daily lives.
The concessions to which I have referred were for blind persons and disabled ex-Service men, but as long ago as 1930–25 years before Mr. Prescott's intervention—Liverpool Corporation introduced a system of free travel for old-age pensioners during certain hours of the day on trams and buses. I have heard many arguments here and elsewhere about the merits and demerits, the rights and wrongs, of the granting by a municipal trading organisation of concessions to a limited section of the community. None of the arguments has impressed me.
There was a time, perhaps 25 years ago, when local government was both local and government. In those days it was within the power of the local authority, using its collective wisdom, judgment, and knowledge of local affairs and conditions, to arrive at decisions and, those conditions being reasonable, to carry them into effect. Twenty-five years ago the enlightened citizens of Liverpool elected a Tory city council, which they have sustained with great vigour ever since.
That city council regarded it as its duty to introduce this system of concessionary travel for the old people of the city. It has operated ever since. However hon. Members may feel about the financial considerations, and arguments about what is right for one is wrong for the other, the damnification of one and the blessing of the other, none would agree to the situation in which these people are being placed as a result of the Appeal Court decision without wanting to do something about it.
I am not sure that what the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central is proposing is the right or the only way—he himself has not been dogmatic—to put right what now appears to be a most unfortunate situation. Various municipal corporations are busy promoting Private Bills. The Liverpool Corporation has at present before Parliament a Bill containing no reference to concessionary travel for old-age pensioners, but is thinking of adding a new Clause to 780 enable that concession to be granted. If the provision in the Bill which the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central has brought forward will meet these cases, and if it is considered by a Committee—to which I hope that it will be sent—to be the right way to do it, it may be that all this Private Bill legislation will be avoided.
§ Mr. D. Jones
There are many small authorities which have transport undertakings, and which have been making these concessions. They would find it a very heavy financial burden to promote a Private Bill in the way that Liverpool and Birmingham are doing. Surely it would be more suitable to proceed by general legislation.
§ Mr. Thompson
That may probably be so.
I do not intend to be any more dogmatic than the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central. But when we deal with the question of granting to bodies power of this kind covering the whole of the country, I wonder whether private Members' legislation is the right procedure. However, that is a matter which the House will decide and which, no doubt, the Standing Committee will refine in its judgment.
I hope the House, making whatever reservations it thinks fit about every other Clause right down to the Short Title, which is extremely long, will give this Bill a Second Reading, and will send it to a Standing Committee so that those things which we believe local authorities ought to do will be written into the Bill, thus letting local authorities know exactly where they stand.
§ 12.32 p.m.
§ Mr. Frank McLeavy (Bradford, East)
I should like, in the first place, to congratulate the hon. Member for Walton (Mr. K. Thompson) upon his speech, which at least has been helpful and understanding and has indicated a line of thought which is characteristic of the Merseyside area. Most of us who know Liverpool believe that the system of free travel and reduced fares which has been applied in that city is an indication of the public spiritedness of the citizens of Liverpool. In common with the large cities and towns in the country, like Bradford, Liverpool has played its part in leading the way along the line which 781 has been of great advantage to the less fortunate citizens of our country.
I was rather astonished by the argument of the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. G. Wilson). He always makes a contribution to our debates on transport matters, but I felt that he realised this morning that he was on a very sticky wicket, and he made an awful job of it. He spoke of good intentions. I suggest that it is a question not of good intentions but of common sense. He said that he does not object to competition as long as it is fair. But my hon. Friend is not suggesting that the competition should be unfair. Indeed, the Bill will make the competition of municipal authorities so limited that there will be no question of unfair competition.
§ Mr. G. Wilson
Will the hon. Gentleman explain how he applies those remarks to Clause 2, relating to London Transport? How can there be fair competition between London Transport and transport concerns which are not allowed to come into the London area for certain types of service?
§ Mr. McLeavy
The hon. Gentleman is wrong in his remarks about the rights of private enterprise concerns to run services into London. Even if his argument were correct, there is no case against Clauses 1 and 3 of the Bill. Perhaps he will allow me to come at a later stage to Clause 2 as it affects the London Transport position.
The House will be aware of the very serious financial position of municipal transport undertakings throughout the country arising from all kinds of difficulties outside their control, such as increased costs of materials, increased wages and the like. It is very difficult for them to decide how they are to provide, in the first place, a reasonable fare structure and at the same time meet their financial obligations to those in their employ and balance their budget.
Let me cite the position of the City of Bradford. Bradford's municipal undertaking is managed most efficiently, and yet it is estimated that the City of Bradford transport undertaking this financial 782 year will have a deficit of £52,000 and next year a deficit of £40,000. Hon. Members should appreciate the serious problem confronting these municipal transport undertakings.
The Minister of Transport must try to find ways and means of giving extra assistance to these transport undertakings in order that they can use to the fullest possible extent the fleets which they control. In Bradford we have, apart from trolley buses, 196 motor buses. The case which was made by my hon. Friend the Member for The Hartlepools (Mr. D. Jones) applies to Bradford. We have a number of motor buses available even during peak traffic periods for providing a contract carriage service.
It is important that, confronted with all these financial difficulties, municipal transport should be allowed in the ordinary business way to make the fullest possible use of their resources, and provide for their ratepayers, who incidentally in the last resort have to meet any financial loss on the undertakings, the service for which at present they have to go outside the municipal authority. There seems to me no fair case for refusing to the local municipal transport undertakings a chance to recover some of their losses by utilising their spare vehicles.
I was rather sorry that my hon. Friend intimated he was prepared to reconsider Clause 2 if and when the Bill goes to Committee. The position relating to Bradford and most authorities throughout the country surely applies to the British Transport Commission. It is having to face the same problems of increased costs and increased wages and the same difficulties of maintaining a fair system of fares whilst at the same time balancing its budget.
Some of the difficulties confronting the transport industry are due to the heavy taxation on fuel oil. It is interesting to note that in taxation of fuel oil alone the British Transport Commission is paying the Treasury a sum exceeding £16 million each year. All those factors are aggravating the position of the passenger transport services. Whenever I have spoken on transport matters, I have always held in this House that there should be a non-partisan approach to the problem. It is a very serious problem when we find that any increase in fares immediately sets in motion a demand for 783 increased wages in order to meet the added cost of increased fares.
On the commercial side, the tax on industry has repercussions on freight charges, which reflects itself in the price at which our commodities can be sold in the foreign market, and so we have a vicious circle. I urge the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport, the Minister and the Department to examine the whole question of the bearing of taxation on the transport industry, in the interests of the community and of maintaining our position in the world as a trading nation.
The British Transport Commission ought to be allowed to use its surplus vehicles in a way which would bring revenue to the undertaking. There is no argument against allowing all types of transport to use vehicles in the most economical way if we are to make a serious contribution to solving the problem of financial difficulties in road transport.
On Clause 3 it is vitally important that the position of local authorities should be clarified by Parliament because of the circumstances arising from the Birmingham case. We may have differences of opinion on particular subsections of the Clause, but I suggest that those are Committee points rather than points to be argued in the debate today. As a general principle, we ought to allow local authorities the right to decide for themselves whether to provide special facilities for old-age pensioners, the blind, disabled and so on. We ought to allow them local discretion.
I have the utmost confidence in the structure of our local government. I make no distinction of party when I say that I believe our local authority system is the greatest system of democratic control the world has ever known. Parliament would be wise to say to local authorities, "We know you will not abuse this privilege. We know you will use it in a commonsense way. At least we have the satisfaction of knowing that in the final resort the ratepayers of the city, town, or urban district will decide how far one shall go with the system of preferential fares for old-age pensioners and the like."
This is such a human matter. The pioneering work of great cities and towns 784 to provide help for old-age pensioners, the blind, crippled and people with very small incomes who might otherwise be deprived of getting into the fresh air makes the underlying principle one which this House ought unanimously to endorse. We ought to say to local authorities, "Go on with this good work; consult your ratepayers and do it in a way which will reflect great credit upon the administration of our local government system."
§ 12.47 p.m.
§ The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation (Mr. Hugh Molson)
I hope it will be for the convenience of the House if I intervene at this point in order to express the point of view of the Government about this Bill. I do so without any desire in any way to cut the debate short. This is a Private Member's day, and I hope that the debate will continue in the same way as it has begun and will last for quite a long time.
I should like to associate myself with most hon. Members who have spoken in paying tribute to the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central (Mr. Short) for the tone and character of his speech. It was most agreeable to listen to and was a very lucid exposition of the Bill. There was in it no party propaganda of any kind. Indeed, the one Clause in the Bill which immediately would revive a party controversy which ended only about three years ago, he indicated he would be willing to drop. Therefore, although the hon. Member for Bradford, East (Mr. McLeavy), expressed regret at that proposal, I will not take long over Clause 2, as the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central indicated he would not seek to retain it in the Bill.
The House will remember that the British Transport Commission, which in this relationship means the London Transport Executive, under the Socialist Government's Act of 1947 enjoyed the powers which would be restored to it under Clause 2 of this Bill. Under the Act of 1953, passed by this Government, those powers were taken away. Hon. Members would hardly expect that the Government would be willing, after passing the Act of 1953, that a considered decision of the House should be reversed by a Private Member's Bill. That is 785 all I will say on that subject in order not to take up time, in view of what the hon. Member who introduced the Bill has said.
The hon. Member, in commending the Bill, gave a general explanation, but I should like to go into Clause 1 rather more fully. Public service vehicles fall into three categories: stage carriages and express and contract carriages. The same vehicle can be used for all three purposes. For ordinary purposes, I may describe the stage carriage as the ordinary bus. The express carriage is not relevant for the purposes of this Clause. The contract carriage, which is dealt with in Clause 1, is usually a coach as opposed to a bus, but there is no reason at all why buses should not be used for this purpose. The private hire arrangements are usually for the purpose of taking parties out for what is generally called an outing.
The purpose of Clause 1 is to enable a local authority operating a transport undertaking to enter the private hire business. The Government do not think that this would be a wise step to take. It is as a result of the work of successive Governments, of both political parties, that we now have a system of passenger road transport all over the country which provides a co-ordinated service and controlled fares for both stage and express services.
When I use the word "co-ordinated," I do so quite deliberately. We Conservatives do not believe in the deliberately planned co-ordination which hon. Members opposite sought in the 1947 Act to impose upon the country and which in every debate they ask us to adopt. What we desire is to have a co-ordinated service arrived at by free competition under circumstances where fair competition is possible.
Thanks to the system of licensing authorities, that is what we have on the whole over most of the country If there is an exception, it is in the rural areas. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House are constantly representing to my right hon. Friend that services in rural areas are unremunerative and that they are not satisfactory. As my hon. Friend the Member for Truro (Mr. G. Wilson) pointed out, the only way in which we can keep those rural services going is to enable the companies running them 786 to make a profit over the whole of their enterprise; then perhaps as a result of pressure from the licensing authorities, they often run a number of the unremunerative rural services. Therefore, anything which would have the effect of reducing the profits at present being made, and which, I know, are in no way excessive, would almost certainly have the effect which my hon. Friend has indicated and would have an adverse effect upon the rural areas.
§ Mr. McLeavy
It ought to be clearly stated also that the unremunerative country services, to which the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Wilson) referred, are also provided by many of the municipal corporations on the same basis as that on which the Parliamentary Secretary states that the private companies should operate. Often a traffic commissioner has laid it down to a municipal undertaking that in granting the licence, he expected that undertaking to run unremunerative services to country areas, and he has very largely enforced his will by the pressure which he can very properly apply.
§ Mr. Molson
Yes, but as I shall point out presently, the great distinction between municipal and private undertakings is that municipal undertakings can have recourse to the rates to obtain assistance.
This system of licensing authorities has worked extremely satisfactorily. They were the work of the right hon. Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison), who introduced them in the Act of 1930 for dealing with passenger services. Their powers were extended to road haulage by the late Oliver Stanley in the Act of 1933.
During the last 25 years, as a result of the work of the licensing authorities, which are independent of the Ministry of Transport except in the matter of appeals, we have arrived at this reasonably satisfactory network of road passenger services. That equilibrium has been reached upon the basis that municipal undertakings are not allowed to compete in the contract work. It therefore appears to us that to make the change which is proposed in Clause 1 of the Bill would upset that equilibrium.
I was familiar, as the hon. Member for The Hartlepools (Mr. D. Jones) is aware, with this problem before this Bill was introduced, and I received a deputation 787 from the Municipal Passenger Transport Association upon this subject. I was surprised to hear that my right hon. Friend had not expressed any opposition to the proposal and I was even more surprised to hear the document which the hon. Member for The Hartlepools read out.
I received the deputation and as is becoming in the case of a deputation representing a responsible body which put forward weighty arguments, I did not give a final answer then and there; but I was not really encouraging. I said that I felt bound to say that the Minister would not be anxious to promote a new proposal that was likely to create controversy in face of the general conclusions of the Thesiger Committee that the licensing system had worked reasonably well.
After that, I consulted my right hon. Friend and I then wrote to say thatthe Minister does not feel able to include this proposal in any legislation to be promoted in the present Parliament.I always like to express unpalatable decisions in as mild and agreeable a manner as possible, but I thought it would be understood, when we said we were not prepared to include the proposal in legislation—and it was known that we had the Road Traffic Bill in preparation at that time—that we were opposed to the proposals.
§ Mr. D. Jones
I was conscious that that was probably the legislation that the hon. Gentleman had in mind. He is aware, of course, that the Thesiger Committee stated quite categorically that in its judgment the question whether local authorities should have contract carriage powers was not within the Committee's terms of reference. The Committee, therefore, said quite definitely that it was making no recommendations whatever. The Parliamentary Secretary said in reply to the deputation that there were powerful arguments in favour of the proposal but because there might be powerful pressure against him he did not feel disposed to put the proposal into legislation.
§ Mr. Molson
I did not mean to say that there were arguments on only one side and pressure on the other. The pressure has been brought from both sides and the arguments have been advanced from both sides, and my right hon. Friend is of the opinion that the 788 arguments against the Clause are much stronger than those in support of it.
§ Mr. Molson
It really is not relevant. As the hon. Member for The Hartlepools has pointed out, that did not come within its terms of reference and the Thesiger Committee did not make a recommendation on the subject.
§ Mr. Popplewell
This is exactly what the Thesiger Committee said about it:Whether a particular local authority should be empowered by statute to undertake contract carriage work would depend, apart from general principles, of the demand for contract work locally, the facilities available in the locality, and the equipment of the local authority's undertaking.What my hon. Friend said is in the observations in the Thesiger Report. The inference is that until facilities are available this power should be granted.
§ Mr. Molson
That is correct; it is one of the observations. However, if the hon. Member will look at the top of the page he will find that the Report makes no recommendation on the subject, and that is why I said that it was not entirely relevant.
We recognise that Clause 1 raises an important matter, and I want to give a few reasons why the Government are of the opinion that it should not be passed, and why, if the Bill went upstairs, we should find it necessary to oppose the Clause. In the first place, we think that local authorities should confine their activities to providing local services. It is one thing for a local authority to provide a bus service to carry the inhabitants of the town from the housing estate where they live to the factory where they work, but it is quite a different thing for the local authority to run a coach to the seaside at an inclusive charge. That does not seem to us to be a suitable activity for a local authority.
That is a definite statement of what we regard as being a Conservative Party principle, and that is the view which I put to the House. To some extent, the view is supported by Section 102 (4) of the Road Traffic Act, 1930, which provides that the commissioners, in considering any application from a local authority to provide a service outside its area, shall 789 have regard to the extent to which the requirements of the applicant's district will be served.
The second argument against the Clause is not of such an absolute kind. It could, of course, be argued that, if hon. Gentlemen opposite were agreeable to the Clause being amended to provide for free competition, we ought not to have any objection to free competition between a municipal undertaking and a privately owned concern. The Bill, as drafted, contains no such provision. Even if it did, we should still consider the safeguard inadequate. There is no impassable barrier between the transport fund and the rate fund of a municipality. Although the accounts are kept separate, transfers have constantly been made in the past, and are still being made, between one fund and the other. It would be impossible to prevent unfair competition with private enterprise by a local authority enjoying these powers.
If it were provided that control should rest in the hands of the traffic commissioners, it would involve constant and vexatious interference with the day-to-day running of the municipal transport enterprise. In the last resort, also, it would be a matter of opinion. Who can say how many vehicles are required to maintain an efficient and adequate stage service inside an area and whether the actual number of vehicles is not larger than it need be in order to enable the enterprise to embark upon contract services? Who can say exactly how the overheads should be distributed between the stage services and the contract services? This would be particularly difficult because of the arguments which have been advanced that vehicles should be used for contract purposes in off-peak hours and at weekends. Therefore, we do not believe that it would be possible to ensure conditions of fair competition between private enterprise and municipalities. It is for that reason that the Government are opposed to Clause 1.
The hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central has explained why he thought it necessary to deal with the matter contained in Clause 3. Many local authorities have for a great many years been granting concession fares or free transport to various deserving classes of the community, especially the aged, the blind and the disabled. The effect of the 790 decision in the case of Prescott and the Birmingham Corporation suggests that some of the concessions are illegal and that all free travel certainly is. I am sure that hon. Members in all parts of the House will feel the very greatest sympathy for those who have for years been enjoying the valuable concessions which have been given to them freely and voluntarily by the ratepayers of the areas concerned. It was entirely unexpected that a decision of the courts would deprive them of the benefit.
Therefore, we fully understand the purpose of the hon. Gentleman in introducing the Bill and in seeking to deal with a problem which is causing all of us a very great deal of concern. At the same time, I am sure the House will also feel some doubt as to the wisdom of the Clause in its present rather wide form. Generally speaking, it is the responsibility of the Government to ensure that the needs of the aged, the disabled and all other specially deserving classes of the community are met. That is done in the first place by the provisions of the National Insurance Act, and most of these people are now receiving retirement pensions. We are very glad indeed to think that it has been possible in recent legislation to increase the pensions. At the same time as that was done, the allowances made available by the National Assistance Board were increased.
It was under the National Assistance Act, 1948, passed by the Socialist Government with the support of the Conservative Party, that the responsibility for maintaining the aged at a certain standard was laid on the Board, and the cost of it is met by the Exchequer. The responsibility of local authorities was dealt with in Part III of the Act, and it was largely confined to the provision of accommodation. It is obviously in some degree a departure from the general and rational principle of that legislation that local authorities should at their discretion be free to provide, at the expense of the ratepayers, concessions for retirement pensioners living in their own part of the country which do not apply in other parts. The exercise of this benevolent discretion, with which we all sympathise, undoubtedly creates differentiation between the treatment of similar and equally deserving people in different parts of the country.
791 Under the Clause, it is only local authorities… who are operating a public service vehicle undertaking…who will be empowered to make any concession of this kind.
So far as I know, no county council anywhere in England or Wales is in this category. Therefore the Bill would not in any way confer the same benefits upon those who are living in county areas. The case of London is similar. The London Transport Executive enjoys monopoly powers over a very large area. There is no suggestion in the Bill that reduced fares should be provided by London Transport for the benefit of the aged. The present financial position of the Executive would quite obviously make it impossible for that to be done.
§ Mr. Ernest Davies
Can the Parliamentary Secretary say whether it is not permissible at present for the London Transport Executive to do that if it wishes? London Transport has a passenger charges scheme which fixes maximum fares, but the Executive has discretion to charge what fares it wishes within those maximum fares.
§ Mr. Molson
I would not like to give a definite answer to that point at the moment. It is an extremely complex subject. The Bill would apply only in the cases of those areas where there is a local authority operating a transport concern.
We must also beware lest the granting to local authorities of discretionary powers of this kind should lead to extensions in other directions. It might be argued that the Electricity Authority ought to provide electricity at reduced rates for aged people. It would obviously be wrong to confuse the finances of the nationalised services with the finances of the Welfare State. To some extent, the Bill is confusing the finances of the municipalised transport of certain towns with that of the welfare of the aged.
I invite the attention of the House to a separate, but closely related matter. In many cases these municipally-owned undertakings are running in competition with private enterprise and with concerns owned by the British Transport Commission, in whole or in part, or with British Railways. Such undertakings have 792 no rate fund from which they can obtain a subsidy for granting concessions of this kind. Yet they might find themselves obliged to grant concessions in order not to lose a large amount of traffic. That is a matter which we may have to consider further during the Committee stage.
I have tried to state some of the problems which presented themselves to us when we considered the Bill. They do not all arise out of the Bill. Some of them already existed, and the Bill is a genuine attempt on the part of the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central to solve some of those problems. I think it right to point out, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Truro, that there is a danger that the Bill will create other problems while seeking to solve certain of the problems which are now facing us.
The case of Prescott against Birmingham Corporation has occasioned the drafting of the Bill. The Government have naturally had to consider all its aspects, not only from the purely technical transport point of view, with which I am primarily concerned, but also from the point of view of broad human sympathy with those who, under this decision, are in danger of having taken away from them concessions which they have been accustomed to enjoy for a very long time.
If the House in its wisdom decides to give the Bill a Second Reading, we shall recommend certain Amendments to the Committee upstairs. We sympathise with the desire of the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central to restore to retirement pensioners and similar categories of people the benefits to which they have been long accustomed, but we think that the general enabling power contained in Clause 3 at present should be limited to those local authorities which have in fact been granting free or concessionary fares. If local authorities desire to have the same powers, we think that it would be appropriate for them to promote a Private Bill in each case and to seek such powers from Parliament.
§ Mr. Barnett Janner (Leicester, North-West) rose—
§ Mr. Molson
I will give way after I have finished what I am saying.
That would enable the British Transport Commission and private transport undertakings and any other person or interest that was adversely affected to 793 state their case against powers' being given, if they wished to do so.
§ Mr. Janner
There is a very important point arising from what the Parliamentary Secretary has said. It concerns a Bill which is now being promoted by Leicester. Would he convey what he has said to his hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale (Mr. Erroll), because I understand he is objecting to the Leicester Bill on the specific ground that it contains a provision for granting facilities to the aged and to pensioners and so on. If the Government hold the view that Private Bills should be encouraged for this purpose, will he please convey that to his hon. Friends?
§ Mr. Molson
The hon. Member will realise that there is an entirely different procedure for Private Bills and for Public Bills. What I am concerned to do at the moment is simply to state to the House the attitude of the Government on this Bill.
§ Mr. Molson
We desire to ensure that, so far as concerns free travel facilities and concessionary fares for old-age pensioners, children and cripples, the Bill will do no more than legalise practice already in operation in certain areas.
§ 1.17 p.m.
§ Mr. W. E. Wheeldon (Birmingham, Small Heath)
I am sure that the majority of local authorities will read the Joint Parliamentary Secretary's speech with considerable disappointment. I am not particularly concerned with the matter of contract carriages, because it so happens that Birmingham will make arrangements with other companies. Nevertheless, municipal transport undertakings are direly in need of the Bill, if only because their finances are considerably handicapped by having to maintain for peak periods of traffic a considerable number of vehicles which quite often cannot be used except at those limited periods.
As a Birmingham Member, I want to deal with Clause 3. As the House will know, this matter has caused considerable controversy in Birmingham in recent months. The Court of Appeal said in effect that the Birmingham transport undertaking had certain discretionary 794 powers, but that the Birmingham scheme went beyond what could reasonably be regarded as being authorised by those discretionary powers.
It is true that the Birmingham case dealt only with aged people. It made no reference at all to anybody else. The hon. Member for Truro (Mr. G. Wilson) said blind people were excluded. That is not so. It was expressly stated in the judgment of the court that concessionary fares for disabled or blind people may or may not be strictly justified; they may perhaps be classed as a minor act of justice to which no reasonable ratepayer would be likely to object.
Whether there is such a thing as a reasonable ratepayer is a moot point which I do not intend to argue, but there is considerable doubt, not merely on the matter of pensioners and old people, but about the whole range of concessionary fares. The Bill is an attempt to dispel that doubt. I emphasise that these concessions for old people, the blind, the disabled, and so on, have been in operation for a number of years. Birmingham has operated schemes for as long as 35 years, and pensioners have had facilities in some places, for example in Hull, for 30 years or more.
One can reasonably draw the conclusion from that, that schemes of this kind have had the approval of the ratepayers. Otherwise there would have been discussion, controversy and probably a change in the political nature of the local authorities concerned. There were, generally speaking, no political differences. All parties were agreed as to the reasonableness and good intentions of those who suggested the operation of these services. It was recognised that it was good social policy to provide for people of the types mentioned in Clause 3, and that some services should be placed at the disposal of citizens without requiring any direct or personal contribution to the expenditure involved.
It has been argued that this would amount to the granting of a subsidy or a gift to certain sections of the citizens at the expense of other ratepayers. Of course it would. No one denies that, but it is rather late in the day to advance an argument of that kind. That principle has been inherent in local government legislation for 100 years or more. It is a good policy which can be quoted as 795 part and parcel of the excellent work done by local authorities.
If one advances an argument like that one is saying, in effect, that in respect of any given service the recipient must pay directly and personally. Obviously, that cannot be done. There are a number of local government services which could not possibly be operated in that way. Education is an outstanding example. Local government expenditure, as well as national expenditure, is based, at least in theory, on the principle of ability to pay—a person shall contribute in accordance with his means, and so on.
The argument against so-called subsidies does not hold water. It is not merely the poor who receive the so-called subsidies of local government. For example, even before the 1948 Local Government Act, some authorities made fairly substantial contributions to activities such as the maintenance of an orchestra or a civic theatre. These are activities which I applaud as being part and parcel of civic life which ought to be developed. It must be remembered, however, that the services provided in that way were enjoyed by only a very small proportion of the population, and that they were paid for, either directly or indirectly, by many poor citizens.
Those subsidies do not go to one class of the community only. They are spread in various ways over the whole community. This would not be the first time that subsidies have been paid to old people as old people. Many authorities, such as Birmingham, pay considerable sums for the maintenance of what are called sons of rest associations or Darby and Joan clubs, and so on. This principle of so-called subsidising and helping one section of the community at the expense of another is not new. It is an old and well-established feature of local government which ought not to be prejudiced by the decision of the Court of Appeal.
Hon. Members have discussed the right of municipalities to undertake these services. I believe that if a local authority wants to do work of this kind it should be free to do it. It should be free to undertake any expenditure for the benefit of its citizens out of its own revenue, as this Bill would permit, provided always that the object of that expenditure is not 796 hostile to the interests and welfare of citizens elsewhere, as might conceivably be the case.
That may appear, on the face of it, to be giving rather wide discretion to local authorities, but I do not think so. The local authority, like Parliament, is subject to the sanction and the verdict of the electorate. That sanction over a local authority is more frequently applied and at times is much more severe than the sanction to which Parliament has to submit.
When he was discussing Clause 3 the Minister said that, in the opinion of the Government, these concessions should apply only to those local authorities which are now operating these schemes. That is very much to be deplored. The Government are saying that some local authorities, if they want to aid their disabled people, and so on, or to apply these Clauses to their citizens, must expend considerable sums of money in promoting Private Bills. The Government say that they must go through the rigmarole of the antiquated town meeting and the town poll, which is a very imperfect instrument for registering public opinion.
These are the obligations and liabilities which will be placed on those local authorities which, by chance, have not been operating such facilities as are mentioned in the Clause. I hope that when we consider the matter further in Committee the Government will revise their opinion. I hope that local authorities will bring legitimate pressure to bear on the Government and on Members of this House to point out just how difficult the position will be.
The Minister complained of certain anomalies that might arise, and commented on the differences between one place and another. Surely, he will be perpetuating those differences if he insists, as he appears to be doing, on maintaining that this provision shall apply only to certain authorities. We ought to give to local authorities the full powers suggested in the Bill.
Local government today is a most valuable instrument, but it is not merely local government that we want, it is local self-government. This Bill proposes to give to local authorities the power to grant concessions to certain of their 797 citizens solely at the expense of the ratepayers. It is not asking for any subvention. In my opinion, that is a justifiable request which should be fully met under the terms of the Bill. I hope that the Bill will be given a Second Reading and be supported substantially in its present form.
§ 1.31 p.m.
§ Sir Ian Fraser (Morecambe and Lonsdale)
There would seem to me to be three principles involved. There is, first, the principle of municipalisation which I happen to think unwise, and I am glad that the Government propose to delete it in Committee. It also seems to be irrelevant to the matter under consideration, as I shall explain in a minute.
The second principle would seem to be that of supporting the poor and needy, the old and others who are less fortunate, out of commercial, or quasi-commercial undertakings. On the whole, I believe that to be a bad principle. I think it far better that such people should be supported properly by way of pension or allowance or, where possible, by earnings, or by help from their relations and friends. I do not think it a good thing to look after the poor and needy and the old in extraneous ways and especially in commercial or semi-commercial circumstances.
But in considering this matter we come up against the old and well established English principle that one does not lightly take away from persons a privilege or benefit which they have long enjoyed, and that is a very good English custom. It is, therefore, the duty of Parliament, it seems to me, to take these three principles into account, and I come down on the side of remedying the result of the judgment in the Prescott v. Birmingham Corporation case. If we do that, we shall have done no less than is required of us and no more than is necessary.
I had intended to develop the various points to which I have referred at some length, but in view of the general and widespread desire that we should be able soon to pass on to other business, I leave the matter by saying that the Government, in my judgment, are acting rightly in what I might call a policy of "carry on" in spite of the Prescott judgment.
§ 1.33 p.m.
§ Mr. Edward Shackleton (Preston, South)
I, too, will speak briefly, but I feel that some of the remarks contained in the debating speech of the Minister must not pass without comment. At one time the Minister had the reputation of being something of a planner. He used to be an advocate of public control and ownership of transport. Now his views seem to take the form that, since the coordination ideas which I know that he once dreamed about are impossible, we must co-ordinate on doing nothing and on levelling down.
The party opposite has always accused hon. Members on this side of trying to produce dull uniformity, but those very views were expressed by the Minister today. I am not anxious to start a party wrangle, but the hon. Gentleman talked so much about Conservative principles that it is worth referring to. It is a ludicrous argument to say that, because one cannot do something for everyone, nothing must be done at all. The Prime Minister used a very apt phrase the other day when he said that he always refused to accept the principle that if we cannot do everything now we must do nothing now.
This suggestion that what cannot be given to the whole community must be given to none has never been applied either by national or by local Government. There are countless examples which might be cited to destroy that argument. For instance, is it wrong—and in Preston we operate the very scheme which we are discussing—for a local authority to support welfare homes for the old, and yet to deny them a little extra assistance to reach these homes? I hope the Minister will appreciate that for many of the people who take advantage of these concessionary fares the choice is not between travelling at a higher or a lower rate but of travelling or not travelling at all. He should think again about these Conservative principles of which he spoke and introduce a little of the Conservative freedom which he says works so well. If he takes that more flexible view, he will realise that the suggestion that other authorities should go through the incredibly cumbersome poll procedure is not very helpful.
If Clause 3 goes through in Committee, I beg the hon. Gentleman not to try 799 to amend it so as to limit it merely to those local authorities who are already operating such schemes. After all, many of these schemes have been operated by local authorities under Labour, Independent and Conservative majorities. Surely he can trust the local authorities in this matter, and I would there fore urge most strongly that he should think again about that aspect of his argument. Whatever may be said of Clauses 1 and 2, which are much more contentious, but which I personally strongly support—though I realise there are Conservative principles which make them objectionable to the Government—I ask—
§ Mr. Molson
It was only with regard to Clauses 1 and 2 that I quoted Conservative principles. They do not apply to Clause 3.
§ Mr. Shackleton
We are gratified to know that Conservative principles are not involved in Clause 3. Naturally, I accept what the Minister has said; it may be interpreted in various ways.
On behalf of all those towns which have the support of all parties for the introduction of such schemes, and for other authorities which may be willing to introduce similar schemes and may be stimulated to do so, I ask that the Clause may go through more or less unchanged. If the Minister gives a welcome to it and does not damn it with faint praise, as he would appear to have done today, I think he will find that it will be greatly appreciated both in this House and in the country.
§ 1.38 p.m.
§ Mr. G. R. Mitchison (Kettering)
I do not propose to take more than a very short time or to say more about the merits of the Bill than that I support it.
Clause 4 is the form of Clause which is put into a Bill by Private Members who want local authorities to make a small money concession and who are faced with the difficulty that if the Clause is not put in the Measure will be out of order because of the effect of the Exchequer equalisation grant. It is a mere device in all these cases, and it would be a very troublesome device to operate. I hope that we shall not be driven to keeping that Clause in the Bill, but the matter rests entirely with the Government.
800 They alone can propose a Money Resolution, and a Money Resolution will be required even for the very limited support indicated by the Minister.
Without asking for any undertaking today, I suggest that the Minister should give effect to what he says by having a Money Resolution brought forward in the usual terms, so as not to limit it merely to that part of the Bill supported by himself and his hon. Friends. I suggest that he should give us the Money Resolution and not use that bit of machinery to limit any discussion or decision on the merits of the Bill. That is sound practice; it is usual practice, and I hope that note will be taken of the request.
§ 1.40 p.m.
§ Mr. Ernest Davies (Enfield, East)
As it is the general desire of the House that time should be left for further business this afternoon, it might be convenient if I sum up the case for my hon. Friends. First, I want to add my congratulations to those which have already been given to my hon. Friend the Member for New-castle-upon-Tyne, Central (Mr. Short), who moved the Motion for the Second Reading of the Bill so ably, and my hon. Friend the Member for The Hartlepools (Mr. D. Jones), the seconder.
Compliments to my hon. Friends have been paid by hon. Members opposite, and it is rather regrettable that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary made such a disappointing reply. I say "disappointing" because, although we are all grateful that the Bill is apparently to be given a Second Reading today and allowed to go to Committee, it appears that what will emerge if the Government have their way is something very far short of the Bill as it now stands.
I do not think that the Parliamentary Secretary emulated the reasonable manner in which the Bill was presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central, who was so reasonable as to indicate that he was willing to withdraw Clause 2—relating to the running of contract carriages by the British Transport Commission—which he knew to be controversial. I should have thought that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary could have been a little more receptive to the proposals contained in the Bill.
801 What are the Government doing, apart from not opposing the Second Reading? They accept in principle that concessionary fares shall continue where they already exist, but that is as far as they go, as I understand it. If any other local authority wishes to introduce a system of concessionary fares it will have to go through the cumbersome Private Bill procedure, and the only advantage of that procedure which the Parliamentary Secretary suggested was that petitioners against the introduction of concessionary fares could be heard. The expense, trouble, and labour which is involved in going through that procedure seems unnecessary and undesirable. It is rather a poor argument to say that the Government will not take anything away, but will certainly not give anything new. That was the philosophy put forward by the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale (Sir I. Fraser).
§ Mr. Davies
The Government will not permit anything new. The operation of systems of concessionary fares is to be limited to the local authorities who at present operate them.
I would point out that Clause 3 is permissive, and that no local authority need introduce a system of concessionary fares unless it so desires. Some hon. Members opposite seem to take a rather poor view of local government and of those people who serve upon local authorities. Their attitude seems to be that local authorities who operate transport undertakings would make use of the powers provided by the Bill to gain some electoral advantage and would not operate their undertakings upon a fair, just, and businesslike basis. The hon. Member for Truro (Mr. G. Wilson) was one of those who indicated that that was his view. Those hon. Members are casting entirely unjustified aspersions upon our democratic system of local government.
The Parliamentary Secretary advised the House that it would not be wise to approve Clause 1, and went on to expound the present system of control of public omnibus services. He described them as co-ordinated services, through free competition, where fair competition is possible. If he imagines that free and 802 fair competition exists today in public transport services he has a very mistaken idea of the true position. The licensing authorities largely control the services which operate, and the areas of operation are apportioned between the different undertakings in such a way that competition does not exist in many areas. In many cases these undertakings are quasi-monopolies and agreements exist between different omnibus companies not to encroach upon each other's territory.
In saying that a certain equilibrium had been established, and that it would be upset if local authorities were allowed to engage in contract carriage work, the Parliamentary Secretary was carrying his argument a little too far. The entry of these 96 municipal operators into the contract carriage field cannot really upset the whole equilibrium of a national network of public transport services.
If the hon. Gentleman believes in free and fair competition, why is it that as soon as there is a possibility of competition from municipalities in contract carriage work the Government say, "This cannot be"? It is because they are fearful of this competition, and their only argument against it is that the Road Fund might be drawn upon—in other words, that contract carriage work might have to be subsidised.
We must keep in mind the fact that the transport managers of municipalities are non-political. They are business-men, employed to carry on their business undertakings in a businesslike way. If contract carriage work is entered into by municipalities there is no reason to think that it will not be conducted in precisely the same commercial way as that in which other services are operated.
The Parliamentary Secretary argued that local authorities should confine their transport services to local services, but what he has unfortunately not grasped is that the running of those local services today is more expensive and difficult to maintain upon a comprehensive scale at reasonable fares, because of the great difficulties which confront the transport industry in connection with such matters as the heavy fuel tax and the greater demands thrown upon it during peak periods, which compel transport undertakings to maintain far larger fleets than would otherwise be necessary.
803 The basis of our argument for giving contract carriage work to the municipalities is simply that if they operate coaches or omnibuses in this way they will be more fully and economically employing their assets. Thereby, we hope they will contribute towards the cost of operating transport services, and, overall, reduce those costs. That is the basis of our argument, and it is no use the Parliamentary Secretary saying that the system was set up 25 years ago, that it has been approved by the Thesiger Committee Report, that it is the general basis of the licensing system, and that, because under that Act of 25 years ago municipalities were refused permission to run contract carriages, that system should not now be changed.
My hon. Friend the Member for The Hartlepools pointed out that there have been considerable changes in those 25 years. The position today is very different from what it was then, as far as the operation of transport by municipalities is concerned, partly because trams and trolley buses have, to a large extent, been replaced, and partly because of the great growth in transport and the need to use the assets as economically as possible and in the way which we are now suggesting.
While we are glad that the Government are not advising the House to oppose the Bill at this stage, we regret that the indication which has been given leads us to believe that it will be very difficult to get this Bill through the Committee stage and to bring it back to the House on Report in anything like the form in which it has been presented. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will consider the arguments put forward today, and, in particular, that he will consider—even if he is unable to change the Government's policy in regard to contract carriages, and so on, much as we should regret that—the arguments put forward for giving general enabling powers to local authorities to introduce these concessionary fares. It would be a permissive power, and no municipality would be obliged to use it. I therefore ask the Parliamentary Secretary to impress upon his right hon. Friend the feeling of the House in that regard.
§ 1.53 p.m.
§ Mr. Barnett Janner (Leicester, North-West)
I want to try to make clear to the Parliamentary Secretary what I endeavoured to bring to his notice a few minutes ago. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman understood that, in spite of the fact that he has indicated that in the view of the Government the proper method of dealing with the position regarding facilities being afforded to pensioners, the aged, the blind, and so on, was by means of a Private Bill, that is not the opinion of some hon. Members on his side of the House.
I do not say that I agree with the views which he expressed, but, in the interim period, the Second Reading of a very important Bill which is now being promoted in my constituency of Leicester is being held up in consequence of objections which have been raised, I understand, on this very point. The point is that the hon. Member who has from time to time objected has indicated to the Press at Leicester that he objects to the Bill on the grounds that this matter is one for the Government.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Charles MacAndrew)
I do not see how we can discuss a Private Bill. This is the Second Reading of a Public Bill.
§ Mr. Janner
I do not know whether you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, were in the Chair at the time, but an indication was given by the hon. Gentleman that he thought that the proper method of dealing with the points raised in Clause 3 was by means of a Private Bill, and I am following up a point which he himself made in that regard. That being the indication which he gave, all I am asking him to do is to follow it up.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
I heard what the Minister said, and I understood that the people concerned would have to approach this matter, if they wanted to do so, by means of a Private Bill. I do not think that gives us authority to discuss a Private Bill which is not before the House at the moment at all.
§ Mr. Janner
What I was saying was by way of illustration. If that is the attitude which is to be taken on the Committee stage of this Bill, surely I am entitled, when discussing the Bill on Second Reading, to emphasise a point made by the 805 Minister himself, and that is all I want to do. I do not want to carry it any further, except to say that, in the interim period, I quite agree that something should be done by that method, as far as Leicester is concerned.
§ 1.56 p.m.
§ Mr. Cyril W. Black (Wimbledon)
I think that it has been made clear from the helpful discussion that has taken place on this Bill today that, whatever differences of opinion there may be on other parts of this Bill, there is general agreement on both sides of the House with the object the promoter seeks to achieve in Clause 3.
There may be differences of opinion as to how far Clause 3 should extend and exactly how the various categories of persons to be benefited by Clause 3 should be described and limited, but, on the general object of trying to assist in their difficulties the deserving classes of people who are referred to in Clause 3, there is, I think, no difference of opinion among any of the hon. Members who have spoken from either side of the House.
I am bound to say, however, and this follows upon a point made by previous speakers, that while everyone has the fullest sympathy with the classes of persons referred to in Clause 3, we are very much entitled to inquire whether the particular method employed in Clause 3 is the most appropriate and the most correct method of alleviating their difficulties.
Reference was made, I think by the promoter of the Bill, to a circular issued by the National Union of Ratepayers' Associations, and the hon. Gentleman read from that circular a paragraph regarding which, I think, there was general agreement that it was expressed in rather extreme and certainly exaggerated terms. It is the fact that the National Union of Ratepayers' Associations has considered the general principle inherent in Clause 3, and the conclusion which it reached was expressed in the following resolution, to which reference is made in the circular which has been sent to hon. Members of this House. The resolution reads as follows:The National Union of Ratepayers' Associations is of the opinion that if old-age pensioners are to be allowed free travel on buses, the costs involved should not fall on the ratepayers, but should be a national responsibility.806 In my judgment, there is a great deal to be said, on the grounds of general principle, and, in particular, from the standpoint of the interests of the ratepayers of any local authority operating these schemes, for the proposition that the relief of the difficulties of the old-age pensioners and other similar types of people should be a matter for national action and a charge upon national funds, rather than for a subsidy from the ratepayers' funds in the very limited number of local authority areas in which transport services are operated by the municipality.
Reference has been also made to the question whether the classes of persons mentioned in Clause 3 (1) are correctly described. If my reading of that subsection is correct, while it refers to persons of pension age—that is to say, to men of over 65 years of age and to women of over 60 years of age—it does not in any way limit it to persons who are, in fact, in receipt of pensions. It simply deals with the whole class and generality of persons who fall within those age groups.
If I am right in that assumption, Lord Nuffield would qualify by reason of age to receive a preferential rate of travel under the Clause, or exemption from payment at all if he travelled upon a municipally-owned bus or tram in one of these areas.
§ Mr. Black
I am greatly obliged to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I had not overlooked the subsection. I was only making the point that when the Bill goes to Committee, as I hope it will, this kind of question will require very careful examination. We must be certain that the definitions in Clause 3 are drawn in terms which carry out the wishes and intentions of the House.
I come to the categories of children to which reference is made in Clause 3. The question here is whether there might be overlapping between the Education Act, 1944, and this part of the Bill, in covering, in certain cases and in respect of journeys over a certain distance, the 807 cost of fares of children to and from school. That question also should be examined in Committee, as it would be undesirable to have overlapping.
I would point out again the rather wide terms in which Clause 3 (2, e) is expressed, particularly the phrase:from any other disability or injury which seriously impairs his ability to walk.Those words open a very wide door. Suppose a man suffers from chronic heart disease. He might be said to have a disability seriously impairing his ability to walk, but is that the kind of case the proposer of the Bill has in mind? That is only one example of others that might be mentioned, showing the need to examine the categories with very great care in Committee, so that the line is drawn in the right place and we include all whom we desire to include but do not bring into the scope of the Clause those who are not deserving of its benefits.
There is a point on Clause 3 (4), which needs modification or restriction. If there is no restriction, residents of other local authority areas might be subsidised from the rates of the operating local authority. I see no stipulation in the Bill that the contribution must be not less than the cost of providing the service to the other local authority. It would be wholly wrong for the ratepayers of the operating local authority to subsidise from the rate fund a service provided for the ratepayers and residents of another local authority area.
§ Mr. Short
I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Member again, but I would point out that this provision is inserted to overcome the very thing he is afraid of. It says:Such sums as may be agreed between them.Naturally the authority providing the transport would ensure that the contribution decided upon would cover the cost of the service.
§ Mr. Black
I follow that point, but I do not think it meets the point which I am making. As I read the Bill, there is nothing in it to prevent two local authorities agreeing upon a contribution which does not adequately cover the cost of the service. Unless that point is safeguarded, the ratepayers of the operating 808 local authority may subsidise the transport service provided for the benefit of ratepayers of another area.
§ Mr. Glenvil Hall (Colne Valley)
Surely the hon. Member can leave this matter to the authorities who are involved in the transaction. We can rely on the ratepayers in one or the other locality to see that justice is done between one authority and the other in a matter of this kind.
§ Mr. Black
I cannot see any difficulty in writing into the Bill that the contribution must be not less than the cost of providing the service. I suggest in all seriousness that it would be wise to put that safeguard into the Bill.
My final point refers to Clause 3 (5). Here again is need for clarification and limitation. The subsection authorises the transfer of money from the rate fund to meet the cost of providing the service described in Clause 3. There should be some limitation upon the amount of money that can be charged against the rate fund in respect of these items. We have many precedents for imposing a limitation. The one most recent example which will be within the memory of hon. Members relates to local authorities who provide an entertainment service, whether in the form of a municipal orchestra or a dramatic entertainment. They are expressly limited to the maximum of a 6d. rate on such an object. There are solid advantages in putting a ceiling upon the amount which can be charged to the rate fund in respect of the benefits proposed in Clause 3. Possibly a 6d. rate would be an appropriate and reasonable limitation to write into the Bill at that point.
These are all matters which can well be considered when the Bill reaches Committee. I hope the Bill will receive a Second Reading and the opportunity of detailed consideration in Committee. I think that would be in accordance with the wishes of all hon. Members.
§ 2.10 p.m.
§ Mr. James Hudson (Ealing, North)
The hon. Member for Wimbledon (Mr. Black) sometimes advances causes which I am better able to support than on this occasion. He was really repeating the case made earlier by the Minister, and I wish to join issue with him on one or two points.
809 This question of the provision of services of a rather unusual character by certain municipalities, until the recent court decision, is one about which I have always felt the greatest satisfaction, particularly in regard to the powers which some local authorities were taking to provide special assistance to blind persons, children and the disabled.
I think it unfortunate that there should be a rallying together of certain Members of the House of Commons in an attempt to prevent that work going forward. It will never go very far because the interests of ratepayers and of those who organise the more selfish interests of ratepayers in localities, always receive expression regarding these matters, and the local authorities are never able to make much progress.
It would be a good thing if some local authorities in the country were in a position to do what Glasgow did for many years with the assistance of what they used to call their "common good fund." I do not know whether that fund exists today, and, if it does, whether it is used in the same way as in those earlier days, when it was used in connection with the Socialist movement to help to extend the facilities of local government. In those days, we used to point with pride to the example of Glasgow, which did all sorts of things for the more unfortunate citizens at a time when the legislature did not provide the mass of services which now exist, and which are accepted in the ordinary course of things.
In Glasgow they provided means for the common good, such as trips at the weekend on river steamers for the poorer citizens in order to take them out of the crowded areas to Loch Long and similar places. This was done to the great pride of Glasgow as a whole and to the general encouragement of other places which did not have the same facilities.
In the course of years, we have seen in Birmingham and elsewhere the development of services to help the poorer people, and especially the aged, the disabled, the children and the blind. It is most unfortunate that the House should now be spending so much time in suggesting limitations on those powers by the legislature. Nothing like the development which could very well have taken place has gone on in these matters.
810 I take exactly the opposite point of view to that of the hon. Member for Wimbledon, concerning the example which he gave of some people getting facilities provided for them at the expense of another authority. Is not that happening all the time today, particularly to the more fortunate people in a community? Is it not a fact that in every great urban area we find the more fortunate people who are able to travel by car far out into the countryside where the rates which they pay for their houses are much lower than those which they would have to pay if they stayed in the great urban centres where most of them work?
They run out in their cars, through well-lighted streets, and reach their homes more easily as a result of the services provided by the local authorities. They move about and live in comfort in the country at lower rates, because in the places where they work, and where their wealth is made, good local services are provided, which they are able to enjoy like everyone else. The fact that they have the opportunity of enjoying a fuller life at the expense of a local authority to whose rates they do not contribute to the same extent as other citizens, might, I think, have been taken as one of the balancing points when we are considering this question of allowing the blind of one local authority to get on to the bus of another local authority, and of being given a lift at someone else's expense.
This is a matter of such minor importance that I feel it could very well be accepted. I thought the same thing when I listened to the Minister talking about the different quality of facilities that might arise in the country because some authorities were providing these transport services and others were not. Of course, the same thing applies in all manner of local government matters.
It is true, for example, that some authorities today provide a much better education service than others. The child who has the good fortune to be born in the locality of one of the better-equipped local authorities has the opportunity of attending a well-equipped elementary school, a proper system of scholarships, and a good secondary education; indeed, he may go to one of the universities because he was 811 born in a locality where the local authority took a line regarding education which was more advanced than that taken by other local authorities.
There is nothing inherently wrong about this difference of opportunity which comes to people who are living under different authorities. All that happens is that those authorities which do not come up to scratch and which are constantly behind by comparison with the better-equipped authorities are a constant advertisement to the citizens who live under the worst type of authorities of failure in their duty to appoint the right sort of councillors and representatives, who would get them services which would come up to the standards of other places.
In the long run, by democratic processes, we get an evening out of the provision of services so that, in time, everybody comes nearer to an equality. The fact that one authority will be providing a free ride for the blind when another authority is not, or doing something for the disabled which another authority is not, only emphasises the same point that the people of the authority which is backward in these matters should agitate until their councillors and representatives bring their facilities up to the standard of the better authorities.
Although the court was responsible for the decision—and I will not spend time criticising the court itself, even if I were allowed to in this House—I feel that it was most unfortunate in the decision that it made. The opportunity is now being taken by a private Member to introduce a Private Member's Bill to put the matter, as he thinks, right again, and as I think right again. I think that it is unfortunate that the Government should have adopted such an unsympathetic attitude towards it and should have encouraged, as I am sure they have encouraged, hon. Members who sit behind them to adopt the attitude which has been expressed today. If the Bill reaches the Committee stage, the Members of the Committee will certainly continue to struggle for those equal opportunities all round for which we are pleading in this Bill. I heartily support the Bill, and I hope that the House will give it a Second Reading.
§ 2.20 p.m.
§ Mr. Ronald Bell (Buckinghamshire, South)
I felt a good deal of difficulty about this Bill and about the course which the Minister proposed. Upon consideration I have decided that I should support the line of action he outlined because, although I have a very great reluctance about any Measure or proposal for replacing money by chits—in general, it is retrograde—it must be remembered that in those cities or towns which have already been operating a system of concessionary or free fares, a good many people who have been enjoying those concessions will have fixed their place of residence in the knowledge of, and reliance on, enjoying that cheap travel.
As a result of the decision in Prescott v. Birmingham Corporation they have suffered a clear detriment. There is a case to be made out for restoring in those cases a long-existing privilege. To that extent I am willing to support the Second Reading, but in Committee I shall support the narrowing of its scope proposed by my hon. Friend.
My further observations are purely consequential on that. I hope that we shall not have a very considerable extension of this practice by Private Bill procedure. The hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. J. Hudson) referred to the way in which local authorities in the past had extended their help to and consideration for the old and infirm. Of course, as he rightly said, that was before the central Government had assumed responsibility for those things.
That work is now better discharged by the central Government through Parliament because, on the whole, it is more dignified for the recipients of the benefits. I should be sorry if their interests were bandied about in local government elections and got involved, as could happen, in bidding for votes. It rather degrades and cheapens the wish to help when such things are brought into the arena of local politics.
I am, therefore, always happier when these arrangements—about which we all feel the same way—are made in the rather more distant perspective of money provisions through central Government machinery. National Insurance and National Assistance, are, on the whole, the right way to proceed. I hope that the provision which we make will never 813 dry up the wells of neighbourly charity and fellow feeling; but that, I feel, is much better done privately than through public bodies. I do not ask hon. Members opposite necessarily to agree with me but that is my view.
If there is a multiplicity of public bodies dealing with the problem one is getting rather to the chit system. I regret the tobacco concession system because of that. I should like to see the concession valued in money, added to the old-age pension, and chits abolished. A system by which people are sent round with chits is bad. One does not want great extensions of that system—complicating the finances both of the country and of local authorities and not really adding to the dignity with which we should administer this part of our public affairs. That is my general attitude. Because of that, I shall support the Second Reading, but I shall also support the Amendments which I gather will be moved in Committee.
§ 2.25 p.m.
§ Mr. Glenvil Hall (Colne Valley)
I have been asked by one of my local authorities to raise a point, and as I understand—and I am delighted to hear it—that this Bill may receive a Second Reading and go to a Standing Committee and as it is more than likely that I shall not be on the Committee. I take this opportunity to mention it.
Where a borough is running public transport into adjacent areas and, as I understand Huddersfield now does, grants facilities to old-age pensioners for cheap or free travel, that borough should be under an obligation to extend the same facilities to the old-age pensioners and disabled people in the urban or other areas outside its boundaries into which it runs buses and other forms of transport. In the Colne Valley, in spite, I believe, of representations by the urban district council to the Huddersfield Corporation, it has not yet been possible for facilities granted to old-age pensioners in Huddersfield to be extended beyond the borough boundary.
Where buses are run by such corporations, and as it is quite impossible for an urban district council to run transport of its own, there is a good deal to be said for the argument that an extension of such facilities should be granted by such borough or other authority. I hope that when the Committee is set up some- 814 thing can be done to assist urban districts which are in this position.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 38 (Committal of Bills).