HC Deb 14 July 1959 vol 609 cc370-80

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Hughes- Young.]

11.35 p.m.

Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (Isle of Thanet)

My purpose in raising this matter on the Adjournment is to draw attention to the present position which arises on the licensing of the carriage of goods in Great Britain. My main purpose is to try to ensure that there is fair play, in particular for the small haulier, whose position at present may be in jeopardy under the licensing system as it is now developing.

I should particularly like the Minister's assurance on three matters. First, I believe that it is necessary at this juncture to draw the attention of all concerned to the basic fact that the pattern of trade and industry in the country is for ever changing, that transport must follow trade and industry and that, if road haulage is to succeed in carrying out its duty, the small operator, in particular must be given the greatest flexibility of operation.

The second assurance that I want is that the Minister will make clear to the Transport Tribunal, which, in turn, instructs the licensing authorities, that an A licence is unconditional and shall not be subject to the attraction of any condition. It is also time that it was made plain to the tribunals that they are not judicial tribunals but administrative tribunals, that the Minister has the power and the right and the authority to make plain what the policy of these tribunals shall be, and that they are subject to that authority and not to any overriding authority of their own.

Thirdly, I should like an assurance that in view of the increased flow of traffic on our roads at present and the increasing flow in the future we shall ensure a full and proper economic use of our roads. This means that it is time that the Government prepared a way for action designed to encourage traffic in the future into the normal trade channels, namely, those who are engaged in the trade, that is, those who hold A licences, the British Road Services and the railways, and away from those not so similarly engaged in trade.

First, I want to show the basis of my argument for a flexible policy. Transport of all kinds is similar in its nature and I hope that in future we may have a policy for all transport which has a similar and integrated philosophy. Transport being similar, we find that the large operators with recognised traffic routes have defined spheres of operation. Then there are the small operators who tend to act as the tramps of trade, whatever aspect of transport they follow. In shipping there is no licensing system. In road transport there is. The small tramps at sea provide invaluable services both locally and over long distance from port to port or place to place wherever there is surplus traffic to be lifted. The same applies in the air.

On the roads, the bigger undertakings are gradually buying out the small operators, but it is the small operator who is adaptable. He has to change from route to route wherever there is traffic to be lifted, wherever heavy traffic may develop on a trade route, or even in an emergency or for other special reasons. Thus, whilst it is easy for the large operator to define his normal user, the small operator may find that the pattern of trade changes so fast that his trade may change completely within a matter of a few years. Indeed, some small tramps, if I may continue to use the word, may find they have to move wherever there is a surplus of traffic to carry.

The spirit of the licensing system of the Road and Rail Traffic Act, 1933, confirms what I have said. That Act made it clear that there should be no condition attaching to an A licence of a long-distance road haulier, small or large. In seeking to restrict the A licence, as it is trying to do on occasions, the Transport Tribunal is quite wrong. I see no argument to the contrary. If reference is made to the House of Lords decision in the Great Western Railway v. the West Midland Traffic Area Licensing Authority in 1936 Appeal Cases, at page 132, Lord Blanesburgh said: An A licence is a licence granted to an applicant whose business is that of a carrier of goods. A limited carriers', or a B licence, is one granted to an applicant whose business is other than that of a carrier of goods… An A licence when granted is always unrestricted in area…. There is in the case of an A licence, no power under the Act to restrict its operation to any district, or between particular places. It is fairly well known that no restriction of area can be made, but there are some who think—among them inspectors under the Minister's guidance—that when a licence is due to be renewed, as large numbers are now falling due to be renewed, the licensing authority should refuse an A licence where the carrier has changed, or intends to change, his normal pattern of trade or user. This is quite wrong, and it arises because of a misunderstanding of Section 5 (1, c) of the Road and Rail Traffic Act, 1933, which says: A person applying for a licence shall submit to the Licensing Authority a statement in the prescribed form … specifying, the facilities for the transport of goods intended to be provided by him under the licence for other persons including particulars of the district within which, or the places between which, it is intended that the authorised vehicles will normally be used for the purpose of carrying such goods for hire or reward. As to the future, the Government should look carefully at this Section, which, in my view, is unnecessary, and requires amendment. At present it is important to see its purpose and limitations. It is not intended to limit the area of operation. It is intended to specify the normal area of operation so that objectors may enter objections and contend that there is more than sufficient traffic in the area to meet its needs.

In 1933 it was put in for two purposes—first, the protection of the railways, and, secondly, the protection of the industry against an unnecessary quantum of traffic. Thus, it is intended to assist the licensing authority at the time of the renewal, and no more. In the light of this, I want to consider what was said at the time. The Minister of Transport in 1933 was that brilliant Minister—indeed, he was one of the most able Minister of this century—Mr. Oliver Stanley, and in reply to a very p½riment question put by Mr. Aled Roberts, of Wrexham, who asked why the Minister should be asked these questions if the operator was to be allowed to go all over the country, the Minister said—I am quoting from the 10th July issue of Motor Transport: From the point of view of the licensing authority, it is true that if they decide to give a man an A licence, there are no restrictions on the licence, but usually a licensing authority, in deciding whether or not to grant a licence at all, has to consider the question of the excess facilities for transport, and, clearly, one of the factors is a knowledge of the area in which the transport, for which application is made, is to be used. It is clear that this information will not defeat the intention of the Bill, which prevents any restriction as to locality of user being put on the holder of an A licence. The Motor Transport then goes on to deal with the arguments that arise.

On 30th June, this year, Mr. Hanlon, sitting as the Northern Licensing Authority, came to the clearest of wrong decisions, for this reason. On the resumed hearing of the application by S. and J. Wanless of Haltwhistle, for an A licence for one vehicle, he said that he would give the applicant his licence only if he would agree to a normal user for goods for Robson's Border Transport Limited. A solicitor argued that this could be dangerous, because, if Robson's no longer gave him the work, he would have no work at all. To which retorted Mr. Hanlon, "In that case, he can apply to me for a variation."

But there is no burden on the person to do that. I want to make clear, with respect to Mr. Hanlon, that he had no power to do that and was going far outside the spirit and intention of the Act. He was not making a judicial but an administrative decision and one for which direction should be received. So far as the Transport Tribunal is laying down the rules for the guidance of licensing authorities so, also, should the Minister make plain the position with regard to the Tribunal. In that case the proper licence should have specified, "general goods, Great Britain." A person operating with one, two, three or four lorries is no danger to British Railways, or British Road Services, or any of the holders of a large number of A licences. He will not interfere with the competitive power of anyone. The interest of the small man is that flexibility of trade requires that his operations should not be limited. Therefore, it is clear that the proper application for the small man is merely to indicate on the form what is the pattern of his general trade and to point out that that may change and go to a wider area.

Many of these men have paid substantial sums of money for what were known as special A licences at the time of the 1953 Act. They came into the business after many years in which there had been no pattern of trade, nothing since before the war or immediately after, and after a period when they had had to stand the abomination of Socialism. Having got rid of some of these restrictions which had altered the whole pattern of trade and expanded and extended the C licences out of all recognition, they found themselves emerging into a pattern of trade which might be different and they feel there may be a danger of not getting an A licence as a renewal for the C licence. I hope that the Minister will disabuse them of this fear.

The large operator is not in this danger. As we know, there has been a relatively enormous increase in C licences compared with A and B licences which, I believe, have increased by only 30 per cent. over the 1947 figure when the Act came into force. If we have a clear sphere of influence of British Road Services and the railways and the large operators in fair competition, an integrated system of road transport will be achieved. With the overhaul of the licensing system, no doubt after another General Election, we shall be able to ensure that both road and rail have a free interplay and are able to operate effectively.

The small road haulier, like the farmer, is. thank heaven, not a lawyer. I have examined this matter carefully over a period, and my interests are well known to the Minister as those of a lawyer and one who has regard for the interests of the road haulage industry. The road haulier will not go back to the licensing authority for a variation any more than will the farmer. He does not want to, nor does he think that he ought to. He does not take professional advice, nor has he the funds to fight with lawyers before the licensing authority or on appeal to the Tribunal. It is manifestly unfair that he should be penalised by the big purse of the railways and the British Road Services, which are both subsidised by the taxpayer, in his fight against them to achieve his own freedom.

This penalty can be obviated by a clear statement by the Minister tonight, or at an early date if he feels unable to make it tonight, that these small men will be protected in their livelihood and will be given the opportunity, even if they play only a small part in the transport trade, to play the part which it was intended that they should play when the Conservative Party gave them the opportunity to buy back their business.

May I conclude with a personal note? I have been dealing with the principles of the case of the Great Western Railway against the West Midland Traffic Authority. You may remember, Mr. Speaker, that the then Mr. Walter Monckton led you in that case back in 1936. The principles which were laid down in that case and argued by you, Mr. Speaker, and by your leader then, are the principles which I seek to see upheld in the House tonight.

11.53 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation (Mr. Richard Nugent)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies) on his speech on this interesting subject of the licensing of goods vehicles in Great Britain. I listened to him with interest, because I recognise that as President of the National Conference of Road Transport Clearing Houses he speaks with authority on the subject. I congratulate him on his lucidity, and would say that although I am not able to agree with everything he said I was certainly interested to hear his case.

I have no difficulty in agreeing with my hon. Friend that the small longdistance road haulier needs flexibility if he is to meet the continuous changes in the trade pattern of this country. I accept that in such a highly variable business as road haulage a large measure of flexibility is essential, not only for the small hauliers but for all, and it is evident that Parliament recognised this in the Act of 1933 in giving licensing authorities such a wide discretion in dealing with applications as is set out in Section 6. The Government's view certainly conforms to this.

My hon. Friend fears that this intention is in danger of frustration by present trends and he also fears that the smaller hauliers may be intimidated by the great strength of British Railways and British Road Services. I will deal with those points in a moment, if I have time.

First, I want to deal with my hon. Friend's contention that the A licence is not restricted for area. That is true, but, as my hon. Friend rightly said. Section 5 (1) (c) of the 1933 Act, which he quoted, requires that the applicant for a licence should state what his normal user will be, as it is now known. In addition, as Section 6 (2, b) says, the licensing authority, in reaching his decision, must take into account the previous conduct of the applicant in this capacity as a carrier of goods. In other words, the licensing authority is bound to take into account on an application for renewal what was the declared normal user at the last application and what has happened in the meantime.

My hon. Friend is, therefore, quite right in saying that an A licence cannot be restricted for area but, in effect, the normal user does set a limitation on the licence, and the licensing authority is bound to have regard to that not only at the time of the granting of the licence, but also, as Section 6 makes quite clear, at the time of the next renewal. Despite the ingenuity of my hon. Friend's argument it is quite clear to me that that is the law as laid down, and that a major amendment would be required to alter it. It would, therefore, not be possible for my right hon. Friend to contemplate giving the instructions that my hon. Friend suggests to the Transport Tribunal and to licensing authorities to vary the practice in this matter.

I think that it is also clear that my hon. Friend is not right in his view that licensing authorities and the Transport Tribunal are purely administrative. They have, of course, administrative functions, but Section 6 of the 1933 Act makes it plain that the licensing authority is to have very wide discretion in granting licences and that, in practice, amounts to a semi-judicial function. That has certainly been the practice for the last twenty-five years and, in my belief, that is what Parliament intended, and that is the right way for this very difficult technical and practical matter to be dealt with.

That being so, although I listened with interest to my hon. Friend's argument, I cannot entirely agree with his interpretation there. However, I would say, having made this qualification about the conditional effect—indeed, the restrictive effect—that the declaration of normal user is bound to have on the A licence, that, in practice, of course, it is well understood that the normal user is no more than normal user, and that the licensing authority does accept a reasonable degree—a considerable degree—of flexibility in the haulier's interpretation of it. That is to say, the licensing authority will accept runs and business other than were actually defined in the declaration provided that, substantially, the business does conform with the declaration of normal user. But that is the essential degree of flexibility which I fully recognise in my hon. Friend's contention should be there to meet the obvious practical needs of the industry.

Let me say just a word on recent decisions that have been made by the Transport Tribunal in this matter. There are two cases—although I think that my hon. Friend did not refer to them—the Knight case and the Hesketh case. The latter went to the High Court. Both have caused a great deal of interest and, I think, some concern in the haulage world. In both cases the haulier lost his case for renewal of his licence, and in both cases the facts, broadly, were that the actual haulage business that had been carried on in the previous five years had been completely different from that declared in the original application

If an application is to have any significance at all this does not seem surprising or revolutionary to me, but really an inevitable decision if the law was to be conformed with on the lines I have already indicated. In both cases, the Tribunal was at pains to make it clear that licensing authorities have power to grant or to refuse an application within their discretion. In other words, that the decision of the licensing authority would depend on the facts of each particular case.

As I have said, the licensing authority does import a degree of flexibility. That has been the practice in the past, and it continues; and I am sure that it should be so. That is the view of the Government, but it may help if I add this. We regard it as important. If we should find that the natural development of the law as it stands was resulting in too much rigidity in the goods licensing system and hampering the road haulage industry then we should be obliged to look again at the present legislation and to consider whether any change was called for; but, our view at present, is that the system is functioning satisfactorily. I hope that this will be some assurance that the Government does regard this element of flexibility as essential—quite as essential as does my hon. Friend.

There are just a few words about the danger of intimidation by the "big boys", if I may use the colloquial words of the industry. The machinery is such that the small man has protection. He normally appears in person before the licensing authority, which treats him courteously and sympathetically, and he need not incur the expense of legal representation. Of course, if he goes to appeal, he may have to face the costs of engaging counsel because that is usually advisable at a Transport Tribunal hearing. That may cost him £50 or £100. The court costs are £2 a day, so they cannot be serious, and the total is not high enough to form a basis for intimidation against any haulier who thinks that he has a good case. I should have thought that the procedure here is far from likely to expose these men to intimidation. I should think that it would be a protection.

So far as the informal procedure of the road/rail negotiating committees is concerned, that is an entirely voluntary arrangement. The initiative came from the Road Haulage Association and I cannot see that this procedure is against the haulier's interests. The haulier need not, of course, go to his local committee. He can go direct to the licensing authority, and I think that this machinery is as much for his protection as for the big men.

On the point about C licences, I should like to remind my hon. Friend that although there has been a great growth in these the survey which was published by us recently does indicate that in the broad picture there is no evidence to show that C licence operation is inefficient. In any case, I can certainly hold out no hope of this Government restricting in any way the operation of C licence vehicles. We feel that their unrestricted operation is an essential part of industry and should so continue to be.

I have not been able to deal with details of my hon. Friend's speech, but T know of his great interest in these matters and of the great help which he has given to the haulage industry. I hope that I have said enough to reassure him that the Government regards flexibility as an essential part of the machinery which will enable the road haulage industry to meet the changing pattern of industrial life, and that we recognise the essential part which the small road haulier plays in this picture.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Tuesday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order

Adjourned at five minutes past Twelve o'clock.