HC Deb 15 May 1958 vol 588 cc672-5
Mr. McInnes

I beg to move, in page 4, to leave out lines 18 to 20.

During the Committee stage we directed the attention of the Secretary of State to the question of discontinuing certain grants, particularly to the one to which this Amendment relates, namely the question of Section 17 (2) of the Transport Act. The Secretary of State indicated that he would have another look at the matter between Committee and Report. I am hopeful that he will accept the advice we then tendered, because here he is discontinuing a grant which in volume amounts to £44,000 and which, in a way, gives him a degree of control over the appointment by local authorities of engineers and surveyors dealing with roads.

The proposal to discontinue the grant would mean that local authorities would have freedom and liberty, as it were, to appoint anyone they cared to appoint, even those with no qualifications of any kind. We believe that today that is very undesirable. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will show his willingness to delete this part of the Clause.

Mr. T. Fraser

I beg to second the Amendment.

Although my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. McInnes) hoped the Joint Under-Secretary would accept the Amendment and delete this provision, we would feel equally happy if the Joint Under-Secretary could say that the Secretary of State has given this matter the fund of thought he promised during Committee stage and will ensure that road engineers employed by local authorities will, in fact, be competent and qualified engineers. These appointments have been made with the approval of the Minister of Transport, and this function in Scotland was transferred to the Secretary of State last year. One of the justifications for getting the approval of the Minister to the appointment was that part of the salary was paid by grant out of public funds.

This kind of control by local authorities over the appointments they make has been to the advantage of local authorities and allowed them to appoint qualified men, whereas in other circumstances qualified men would not have been appointed. In Committee, I gave examples without naming persons concerned, for obvious reasons. We are all anxious that our roads should be in good repair, properly aligned and well constructed in the interests of road safety and of traffic movement. All these things can best be seen to when there are fully qualified engineers. I wonder if the Secretary of State can say what result there has been to the consideration given this matter by his right hon. Friend.

Mr. N. Macpherson

I would not for an instant dissent from what the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. T. Fraser) said, and certainly I agree that it is to the advantage of everybody that qualified persons should be employed as road surveyors. That was the purpose of the grants provided for in 1919. I can also tell the hon. Member that we gave very careful consideration to this matter.

The reason for introducing the grants in 1919 was the need to reconstruct the highway system to meet the requirements of increasing motor traffic. In fact, all important highway posts are held nowadays by fully qualified men and even in the smaller localities—where, I would remind the House, one official may have to take charge of highways as well as other functions of the authority—a fund of experience in road maintenance and construction has been built up over many years. There is little doubt that forty years later the object of Section 17 (2) of the Act has been achieved and the decision to abolish the grant is justified.

The hon. Member asked whether there would be any other means of ensuring that highway authorities employ only qualified persons. I am bound to tell him that at present—I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. McInnes) was fully aware of this—there is no compulsion on local authorities to appoint qualified persons. They do not get the grant if they do not do so. The House might like to know that, of the 232 road authorities, a considerable number, 148 authorities, are at present applying for and obtaining grants. In practice, many of the smaller Scottish authorities do not consider the small amount they would get would be worthwhile, and some of the most important do not apply for the grant because they prefer to retain full control over the appointment and dismissal of their officials. We are quite satisfied that the highway authorities are fully aware of the need to ensure that their officials are fully qualified.

As a matter of practice, it is doubtful whether it would be possible to draft regulations in suitable terms. Scottish highway authorities are the county councils and all burghs. The range of responsibilities of individual surveyors is very wide, because in many cases they have other responsibilities as well as those for roads, and while it would perhaps be possible to prescribe qualifications for the largest authorities, it would be very difficult to prescribe qualifications to meet all circumstances. As I said at an earlier stage of the Bill, the salary scales for surveyors are negotiated nationally, and it is in the interests of each council to appoint a qualified man if one is available. Under the national agreements they could not pay an unqualified man less, so obviously it is to their advantage to appoint a qualified man rather than an unqualified man.

Mr. McInnes

I could not follow the hon. Gentleman on one point. If, as he indicated, the purpose has been achieved over the past forty years, how is it that in 1956 we still expended the sum of £44,000? I realise that that amount was to encourage local authorities to appoint fully qualified individuals.

Mr. Macpherson

I think the answer is that we did not get round sooner to considering whether the purpose had been achieved, and there was an entitlement to the grant if the qualifications for the grant were fulfilled. We do not feel it is now necessary. But, as has been pointed out already, the grant will be built into the general grant in the first place. I do not think the House will expect me to explain that again. In those circumstances, I do not think the Opposition would wish to press the Amendment.

Mr. Malcolm MacMillan

A rather extraordinary statement was made by the Joint Under-Secretary. He explained that the 1919 reason for the introduction of the grant was the need to reconstruct roads and associated services up to the requirements of increasing modern motor traffic. He ended his speech by saying that that purpose had now been achieved and that was the basis for the withdrawal of the grant. Surely he does not suggest that the purpose has been completely achieved throughout all the counties of Scotland? Perhaps I was mistaken; if so the hon. Gentleman could interrupt me.

Mr. Macpherson

I did not mean to say that the highways all over the country had been brought to perfection. What I meant to say was that the purpose of appointing qualified men in general has been achieved. That was the purpose, to ensure that qualified men were appointed in order that the quality of the roads might be improved.

Mr. MacMillan

Only one consideration prevents me from entering on to a very long and detailed argument with many local examples. That consideration is that time is running short. It was an extraordinary statement and perhaps it explains some other things about the Government and transport, but I shall not enter into that question at the moment.

Mr. McInnes

The Joint Under-Secretary indicated that today it is compulsory on a local authority to pay the same salary for an unqualified man as for a qualified man. That in itself might achieve the result we desire in Scotland. Therefore, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.