HC Deb 21 July 1955 vol 544 cc572-8
The Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation (Mr. John Boyd-Carpenter)

As I informed the House on 11th July, during the debate on the Annual Report of the British Transport Commission, Her Majesty's Government have been giving consideration to the position which has been reached in the reorganisation of road haulage under the Transport Act. 1953.

Her Majesty's Government are satisfied that the main objects of the Act as regards road haulage have been achieved. The 25-mile limit on private hauliers has been abolished; vehicles operated by the British Transport Commission have been placed under the licensing system of the Road and Rail Traffic Act, 1933; and considerable progress has been made with the disposal of vehicles owned by the British Transport Commission.

Of the 32,500 vehicles originally thought to be available for disposal. 16,748 vehicles have been sold. In addition, the parcels company with 4,000 vehicles will be put on offer under Section 5 of the Act in October—[HON. MEMBERS: "Shame."]—and arrangements have been made for dealing between now and the end of next year with the Commission's 2,000 contract hire vehicles.

When allowance is made for a small number of vehicles which are for one reason or another unsaleable, there remain for disposal under the Act of 1953 some 8,000 vehicles. The majority of these are at present used to operate the Commission's trunk services. These services have developed substantially in scope and efficiency during the last year or two, and are rendering a good service to industry and commerce. In these circumstances, Her Majesty's Government have decided not to dispose of such vehicles as are required for the continuance of the trunk service network. This does not preclude, however, such subsequent changes in organisation as experience may show to be desirable.

Her Majesty's Government have asked the Chairman of the Disposal Board to advise them as to the number of vehicles required to be retained for this purpose over and above the total of 3,500 vehicles for all purposes already authorised for retention under the Act of 1953. Before this advice is received I cannot state precisely what this number will be, but the information at present before me suggests that this may involve increasing the number of vehicles to be retained by the Commission by about 4,500.

Her Majesty's Government have asked the Disposal Board to put up for sale as quickly as possible the balance of the vehicles still held by the Commission which are available for disposal and not required for retention to operate the trunk services. These vehicles will be offered for sale in a list or lists to be put up for sale in the near future. At least one list containing small units suitable for purchase by the small operator will be offered. All other arrangements previously announced will be carried out.

Legislation will, of course, be necessary as a result of this decision, and Her Majesty's Government propose to lay a Bill before Parliament in the autumn.

Mr. G. R. Strauss

While we are glad that the Government are showing some sense in stopping the sale of 4,500 out of the 32,500 vehicles they proposed to sell, may I ask the Minister to tell the House why he proposes to continue with the sale of the remainder, in view of the fact that we now have conclusive evidence that neither small nor large road hauliers want to return to the business, and that it is only possible to sell these vehicles in units, usually of ones or twos, mostly to dealers at cheap prices for the purposes of resale? As we have plenty of evidence that industry is satisfied with the present situation, and that it appears to be only the ranks of Conservative Members in the House of Commons who want to effect any further sales, why does not the right hon. Gentleman stop the whole thing altogether and be sensible about it?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

The right hon. Gentleman has put so many implications into his supplementary question that I cannot deal with them all without replying at inordinate length. The short point is this: the basis of the position which I have just announced is a desire to preserve, for the reasons I have given, the trunk services. That desire does not affect our intention to dispose of the vehicles not required for those services, of which an appreciable number still remain. We believe that in that way the benefit, both to industry and to the country, of increased competition will be obtained. I certainly do not accept the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion, which is in contradiction to representations which have been made in public in the contrary sense, that the sales have been carried out other than at a fair and reasonable price and in a proper manner.

Mr. Mellish

Surely the Minister agrees that the British Transport Commission's record of service since nationalisation has been extremely good. Will he not give the Commission an honest chance and let it retain as many vehicles as possible, where it can be shown that they are giving an efficient and useful service to the community?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

No doubt the hon. Gentleman noticed that in my statement I paid tribute to the increased efficiency during the last year or two.

Mr. Mellish

Then why take more vehicles away?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I am inclined to think that one of the major factors in that increased efficiency has been the general stimulus of increased competition.

Mr. Renton

Is my right hon. Friend aware that this realistic decision should do a great deal to stop this section of industry from being made the shuttlecock of party politics? Will he assure the House that by the time the further lists, which he announced, are over, the small men will have had ample opportunity to return to the industry?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I have little doubt that when the final lists have been put up and tendered for, the small man will have had the full opportunity to go back into the industry which he expected under the 1953 Act and of which he has in very large measure taken advantage. In reply to the first part of my hon. and learned Friend's supplementary question, I very much hope that a decision based on practical rather than doctrinaire considerations will evoke the flattery of imitation.

Mr. H. Morrison

Dealing with the reference to the shuttlecock of party politics, was it not started by the Government and not by the Opposition? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that it is undesirable to break up the parcels service, which is running very successfully and is doing very well? Why do the Government want to upset the contract services of the Transport Commission merely for the purpose of handing them over to private enterprise? Cannot he say something more cheerful about the maintenance of the trunk services which, as he admits, have proved of advantage to British industry? Should he not therefore leave a higher proportion of vehicles available for the trunk services? Is it not time the Government started to think in the interests of Britain about this matter instead of in the interests of those who subscribe to Tory Party funds?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

The right hon. Gentleman apparently has not appreciated that the proposal to put up the parcels service in a company in October does not involve breaking up the parcels service at all. That part of his question is, therefore, based on a misapprehension. As for the major matter which he raised, I should have thought that our concentration on the national interest as opposed to doctrinaire considerations compared very favourably with the provisions of the 1947 Transport Act.

Mr. Nicholson

Is my right hon. Friend aware that throughout the country this will be hailed not only as a wise decision but as a very significant one, showing that the Tory Government are not influenced by theoretical and doctrinaire views but act for the good of the nation? Is he aware that it will add great lustre to the reputation of the Government?

Mr. Popplewell

In view of the Minister's statement and the desire by outside business interests to continue an efficient road service, will he now drop his doctrinaire policy altogether and allow the B.T.C. to retain the whole of the vehicles and not be niggardly with this 4,500? Will he have another look at the directive to the B.T.C. to dispose of these 4,000 vehicles of the parcels service? Does he not realise that he is following a doctrinaire policy in requesting the B.T.C. to sell these vehicles and hand them over to private enterprise just to satisfy himself? The B.T.C. has built up an efficient system, as he himself has been compelled to acknowledge. Will he drop the nonesensical attitude which he has been adopting the whole time and give the B.T.C. the go-ahead to improve its services, as it is so ready to improve them if it is given complete freedom of action?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

The hon. Member, I think, is seeking to revive the controversies of the 1953 Act. I must make it clear that this decision relates solely to the desirability of preserving the unity of the trunk services and that I therefore continue to disagree with the hon. Member on the other parts of his supplementary question at least as emphatically as I always have.

Mr. Ernest Davies

The Minister has said that the purposes of the Act have now been fulfilled. That being the case, why is he proceeding with further sales which will increase the loss to the nation, as they are being disposed of at a loss? Has he made a further estimate of what will be the total loss, in view of the changed policy forced upon him? Does it mean that he will be able to drop the Transport Levy? When the change has taken place, will the Transport Commission be left in equality of position with its competitors—that is to say, will it be allowed, subject to the licensing authority, to increase its fleet to the extent which is necessary to meet the demand for trunk services?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

The hon. Gentleman knows quite well that these vehicles have not been disposed of at a loss, so the hypothesis on which his question is based is unsound. It may be that when we have the final figures, with the advice of the Disposal Board, the question of the levy may arise for consideration. Apart from altering the figure of retentions by the Transport Commission provided for under the Act of 1953, we do not intend to alter the position.

Mr. Holt

As the trunk services will still be a very large organisation—8,000 vehicles—will the Government, when they consider legislation, also consider the desirability of this service being under a body independent of the Transport Commission?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

That raises interesting questions as to the future organisation, but the present intention is to modify the retentions figure in the Act of 1953 but not the organisational basis.

Mr. D. Jones

Is it not the case that the right hon. Gentleman had representations more than six months ago by the Association of British Chambers of Commerce that the Transport Commission was having to withdraw some of its feeder services which were feeding the trunk services? If he is now satisfied that any further sales of vehicles will impede the capacity of the Commission to continue its trunk and feeder services, why not make a clean break and let the Commission keep what it has?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

I am quite certain that some further disposals are possible, consistent with the retention of the main trunk network. As I have told the House, I have sought the advice of the Chairman of the Disposal Board as to the precise figure which will be necessary for that purpose.

Mr. J. T. Price

The right hon. Gentleman claimed that the vehicles already disposed of have been sold in a fair and reasonable manner. How does he explain that vehicles which have been sold by contract at purely nominal prices have later found their way back on to the market and have been sold at inflated prices after slight alterations? How does he explain that they have been identified by people in the trade?

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

Prices have been considered between the Disposal Board and the Commission and I entirely disagree with the hon. Gentleman in the suggestion that other than fair and proper prices have been obtained for the vehicles sold. The rest of this question, therefore, is purely hypothetical.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot now debate the subject further.