HC Deb 25 November 1959 vol 614 cc517-28

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

10.35 p.m.

Mr. Cyril Osborne (Louth)

I am very grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for allowing me to raise this matter tonight, and I apologise for doing so at this rather late hour. An important point is involved, and I was compelled to raise it in this way because I tried to put a Question on the Order Paper about ten days ago and the learned Clerk said that it would not be in order to ask Questions about nationalised industries in the manner that I desired. I was advised to seek your indulgence, Sir, so that I might raise the matter on the Adjournment, and that is what I am doing.

In passing, may I say that this in itself raises another important issue which one day the House will have to face? A few days ago the Leader of the House said that he thought that both sides of the House were now agreed that the nationalised industries as a whole would have to come more under Parliamentary control. I think the only way that that can be effective will be to allow more Questions. Already complaints have been made to you, Mr. Speaker, that we car not get through the Questions put down. If more Questions are going to be allowed on nationalised industries, the House will, I think, have to make up its mind to have not one hour but 1½ hours for Question Time. However, that is another issue.

I wish to raise the question of the inefficiency in certain respects of British Road Services, and I want to make it clear to my hon. Friend who is to reply that I am not now questioning the wisdom or unwisdom of nationalisation. The industry has been nationalised by the will of the nation. It is here, and we have to accept it. Our duty as a Conservative Government is to try to make nationalisation work. We are not going to alter it. It is here for good, and our job is to see that we get as much efficiency into the system as possible. I believe that one way of doing that is, from rime to time, to discuss the failings of certain nationalised industries in the House so that they may be considered by the House, and then the Minister can go back to his controlling authority and see what can be done.

I also want to make it quite clear to my hon. Friend that I am not condemning the whole of British Road Services. In some respects, they do a fine job. In other respects, they fall down lamentably. The real question I want to put to my hon. Friend is why it is that this nationalised industry can in some respects do such a really good job and in others fall down so terribly badly. I have given my hon. Friend the evidence on which I base my questions, and lie knows the firms to which they relate, but I do not propose to give their names to the House. I feel that that is the best thing to do.

I will give three examples of where British Road Services have broken down in a most remarkable way. The first is a case of transformer parts that had been manufactured in Leicester. They were despatched on 28th October and arrived at Farnborough on 9th November. It took British Road Services 12 days to deliver the consignment a distance of about 100 miles.

One important aspect of the problem is that my friends who manufactured these transformer parts had been requested by the main contractors to get the job done quickly. The firm had asked its workmen to work over the weekend—on both Saturday and Sunday—to get the job ready for despatch on Monday morning and hoped that the consignment would reach Farnborough that day. The men were paid for their overtime. They gave up their weekend sport and leisure to do the job.

I realise that my hon. Friend is a kind of post box in this debate. I hope that he will pass on to his right hon. Friend what I am about to say. It takes the heart out of both men and management if they work like fury over the weekend to get a job ready for a bigger job and then find that the fruits of their special labours are lost because of the inefficiency of British Road Services. Those men could just as well have enjoyed their weekend leisure and finished the job on Monday or Tuesday. The consignment could then have been taken to Farnborough in normal time and been there at least a week earlier than it arrived. It appears to the men that the fruits of their labours are wasted, and they lose heart when they are asked to do special jobs.

The second case comes from the same big firm. A group of transformer parts were despatched from Leicester on 4th November. They were handed over to British Road Services. A week later they were discovered at Surbiton and delivered to Farnborough the same day. It was only because complaints were made that they eventually arrived at their correct destination.

The third case is worse. Transformer parts were despatched from Leicester on 13th October to Chessington in Surrey. When the information was given to me by my industrial friends on 10th November, that consignment could not be found. British Road Services had lost the lot.

The important point is that those transformer parts were part of a much bigger unit which was held up because the essential parts were not delivered. I am not sure, but I think that part of the consignment was for export.

The House has been debating the vastly greater problem of shipbuilding and ship repairing, and it has been emphasised that efficiency is essential if we are to survive. It is tragic when one section of our industry makes such an effort to make itself efficient only to find that its efforts are wasted by one section of our transport system.

Mr. R. J. Mellish (Bermondsey)

I suppose that many instances of inefficiency could be quoted. Would the hon. Gentleman not be the first to admit that British Road Services have done a magnificent job for many of the industrial firms in this country?

Mr. Osborne

If the hon. Gentleman reads the OFFICIAL REPORT tomorrow, he will see that his intervention was not necessary. I said at the beginning of my speech that, in many cases, British Road Services had done a fine job.

My point is that some sections of British Road Services are working satisfactorily and efficiently but that other sections are not. It is disappointing to the men who make special efforts to get jobs done in a certain time to see the fruits of their labours thrown away.

I assure the hon. Member for Bermondsey that I am not damning British Road Services or nationalisation. Nationalisation is here to stay. We must accept it whether we like it or not. Our job is to try to make it work efficiently. I hope that that satisfies the hon. Gentleman. I am not talking about anything that happened in the past. Nationalisation is here to stay, and it is the duty of both sides of the House to make it work. That is the problem, and I hope it is in that sense that hon. Members will allow me to make my points.

Is my hon. Friend satisfied that British Road Services, or, as a matter of fact, the whole of the Transport Commission, is getting the best type of labour it can and ought to have? I doubt it. Are these breakdowns due to an underpaid, overworked and badly organised labour force? From my own experience, I am convinced that cheap labour is seldom, almost never, efficient labour. If we pay workmen poor wages, we cannot expect the finest service from them. I wonder whether the Government ought to examine the whole of our nationalised industries to see whether the wages paid are too low, whether it would be possible to provide a better service with fewer men who were paid better wages.

I wonder whether what I have discovered about the railway service applies also to British Road Services. I should like to recount to the House what happened to me only this week. I was due to attend a meeting of the council of the Leicester Chamber of Commerce, of which I have been a member for thirty years. I had to make a report. The meeting was at two-thirty. I asked whether I could make my report first in order to catch the 3.20 p.m. train to London. I might have waited for the 4.31 p.m. one, but I dared not risk it because the trains have been so late. I was due to take part in the television programme "Panorama," and the B.B.C. wanted me at the studio at 7.30 p.m., so I had to catch an earlier train.

The train arrived at Leicester twenty minutes late. I do not complain about that so much, but it was necessary to change the engine, which took twenty minutes. I am told that in the old days it was possible to change an engine in four or five minutes.

Mr. Charles A. Howell (Birmingham, Perry Barr)


Mr. Osborne

That is what I am told by people who ought to know.

Mr. Howell

I worked on the railway.

Mr. Osborne

It is a case of a difference of opinion. I got my information from an old railwayman. It took twenty minutes to change the engine, and I am sure that it did not take as long as that in the old days.

There is a feeling, whether justified or not, that there is no one present with drive and efficiency to organise things, that the system runs on its own momentum. No one takes the business by the scruff of the neck and gets the most efficient service. We left Leicester at 4.54 p.m. instead of 3.20 p.m.

I asked the conductor why things were so bad. He put a point to me, and I am wondering whether it applies also to conditions in road transport. He said, "When I am 65 I shall have been working on the old Midland Railway for 51 years." He told me that since nationalisation he had been paying into a superannuation fund. He said he would receive a miserable pension of 9s. 8d. a week plus the choice of a gold watch or a clock. I say that men who have given 50 years of good service in industry ought not to be thrown out with a pension of 9s. 8d. This man said to me, "How do you expect us to put our hearts into the job if you treat us in that way?" and I have every sympathy with him.

I talked with an old man on Leicester station while the engine was being changed. He said he was 74 years old and had started work when he was 14. The pension was so miserable that the old man did not feel he dare retire. This is the point about which I want my hon. Friend to inquire. If we are to get good services from the British Transport Commission, we have to pay the men who produce these services. We cannot get good services from men who are half paid.

Mr. Wedgwood Benn (Bristol, South-East)

Is not this a case for the national superannuation scheme which we advocated in the General Election?

Mr. Osborne

I am not talking politics, I am trying to deal with this problem. Cannot you forget politics for a bit?

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member should not address his remarks to me.

Mr. Osborne

I am sorry, Mr. Speaker. We shall be having the next General Election four and a half years hence and the hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) can take that matter up then. In the meantime, I wish to see British industry improved to the highest pitch of efficiency, because it is on efficiency that the standard of living of our people depends.

If men feel they are not being treated properly and are not getting a square deal, surely we cannot expect the best from them. I ask, does this apply also in British Road Services, and is it the cause of the unfortunate delays which hon. Members on both sides of the House must deplore? The older servants in the transport world feel that since nationalisation a new grade has been brought in—some of them call the grade "college boys"—who have been put in over the heads of the practical men. They feel that their promotion has been blocked by those in this new grade, and the heart has been taken out of them. I do not know whether that is true; I am reporting it to my hon. Friend.

I put it to him this way, there is a great deal of dissatisfaction with certain sections of British Road Services. There is no good denying that. If we are to get the best results from our transport system, we have to have these things removed, if they can be removed. I beg him to consult the authorities and see whether these questions can be looked at—not from a party political point of view or to get votes, but from an efficiency point of view. If he does that, he will do the workers, the Services and the people for whom they work, a very great service.

10.53 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. John Hay)

My hon. Friend the Member for Louth (Mr. Osborne) has raised a number of points concerning both the operations of British Road Services and of the railways. I must begin what I have to say by reminding him and other hon. Members of what I might call the constitutional position. My right hon. Friend the Minister, as the House knows, is not responsible for the day-to-day management and administration of any of the branches operated by the British Transport Commission. For these, the Commission alone is responsible. The Minister's position is simply that on these matters of day-to-day management which are raised on the Adjournment he can only give the House such information as the Commission can provide.

The subject of tonight's debate, delays on British Road Services, comes under these general rules. I must tell my hon. Friend at once—I think he appreciates this from what he said earlier—that I can give him only such general information as has been supplied by the Commission. I have, however, a little detailed information on some of the specific complaints he mentioned and of which he was good enough to give me notice. In any event, I will assure him that the attention of the Commission will be drawn to what he has said not only in respect of the allegations of delay on the part of British Road Services, but also on the rather wider and extremely helpful and interesting matters he also raised.

Turning to the general information given to us by the British Transport Commission in regard to British Road Services, speaking generally, there is little complaint about the general haulage side of the Services. I am told that, on the general haulage side, B.R.S. provides a very good and competitive service.

There is, however, a good deal of complaint from time to time, I am afraid, about one of the five companies which operate under the British Transport Commission on the haulage side—the company known as British Road Services (Parcels) Ltd. I am informed by the Commission that during September, October and November of this year this company has been having a very heavy surge of traffic. This is by no means unique. It is not unknown to all carriers of parcels traffic at this season of the year. I am informed that, as a consequence of a large amount of traffic suddenly being offered, delays may be experienced. The Commission points out that in this respect it is in no different position from that of most other haulage firms.

This autumn pressure of traffic is an example of the dilemma which faces all road haulage organisations and, I suppose I can say, all transport organisations—the dilemma of the peak load. Every organisation dealing in transport has to be ready to provide facilities to handle peak traffic without congestion, dislocation and delay, if it can, but it can do that only by having surplus capacity which will stand idle throughout the non-peak period. That is one of the traditional problems of the transport industry.

The only solution is to try to strike a balance. This means, I am afraid, that some measure of congestion and delay has to be accepted by customers at the height of the peak. This is well known to the traveller in the London bus or by underground at the peak hours of the day.

B.R.S. (Parcels) Ltd., the company with which I think my hon. Friend is mainly concerned, is in a fairly good position to meet this situation. It is a fairly large organisation with, I am told, about 4,000 vehicles throughout the country. As a consequence, it can call spare vehicles into service from the less busy depôts to help with the peak traffic at busier depôts. The company, however, is aware of the delays and assures me that it is taking what steps it can to improve its organisation and reduce delays to a minimum.

It has given me details of its plans to reduce delays to a minimum and to improve the organisation, but I must remind the House that this firm, albeit nationalised, is engaged in a competitive business and has no monopoly of parcels services in this country. It has represented to me that it wishes to keep its plans confidential to avoid giving what might well be useful information to its private enterprise competitors. This is an attitude of mind which I am sure both my hon. Friend and I applaud—an attitude that the firm is involved in competitive business and that all its trade secrets should not be displayed before the public through the House of Commons simply because it is publicly owned. I hope that my hon. Friend will not press me further on the point. The firm has assured me that it is doing what it can to improve the situation.

One further difficulty which I should like to mention briefly is that concerning staff. My hon. Friend mentioned this in a wider context. It is the firm's custom at the peak period to take on extra staff. We all know that the pre-Christmas rush necessitates the engagement of a lot of casual labour in many industries and businesses. The main example with which the Government are concerned is the Post Office, which takes on a good deal of casual labour at Christmas. The Post Office, which has a parcels handling organisation, has less difficulty in recruiting the extra staff at Christmas than has B.R.S. (Parcels) Ltd. for the reason that the Post Office does not have to handle packages weighing more than 15 lb., whereas B.R.S. (Parcels) Ltd. is obliged to carry parcels often weighing one cwt. or more. It is a fact that in an era of full employment B.R.S. (Parcels) Ltd. finds it extremely difficult to recruit the temporary additional staff at some of its harder-pressed depôts in competition with other industries and trades.

All these problems are exemplified in the three cases to which my hon. Friend has tonight drawn attention. I can now tell him that the despatches by his constituents coincided in a four-week period with this formidable surge of autumn traffic. That it was formidable is proved by the fact that during that period of four weeks, no less than a quarter of a million more packages were carried by B.R.S. Parcels, Ltd. than in the corresponding period in 1958. It was a heavy load which had to be taken. This meant that much greater than average pressure came upon certain of the depots, particularly one large depot just outside London, where, we believe, these three consignments from Leicester were handled.

In, I think, the last case mentioned by my hon. Friend, in which a delay of at least a month was experienced—by 10th November, my hon. Friend said, no information was available about what had happened to the parcel—I am informed today that what happened was that the parcel was lost because the label became detached. It was discovered; it has now come to light in the lost property section of the depot. This is a warning to all of us and to the public not only to label properly our packages at this season of the year if they are sent by post or other means, but also to manufacturers of the importance of labelling. Now that the parcel has turned up, the firm has been approached to ask whether it wishes it to be sent on to the consignee.

If there are any complaints, not only in respect of the railways, but also in respect of British Road Services generally or B.R.S. (Parcels) Ltd., I hope that hon. Members will do what they can to bring to the notice of the public the statutory machinery that Parliament has set up to deal with complaints—the transport users' consultative committees. If complaints about services carried out by the Transport Commission are not, in the opinion of the complainant, satisfactorily answered by any branch of the undertaking, the individual is at perfect liberty to refer the matter to the transport users' consultative committees. They are, as the House knows, representative not of the Transport Commission alone, still less of the Ministry, but of users' interests. They are committees of consumers whose job it is to deal with complaints which cannot be, and have not been, settled by the Transport Commission. I hope that their existence will become much more widely known to the public and that they will be much more used in future.

That is all I can tell my hon. Friend because I labour under the handicap of not being able to do more than act as a kind of messenger—my hon. Friend used the term "pillar box"—for the transmission of complaints from hon. Members of this House to the Transport Commission. I will certainly see that the Commission is informed of the views of my hon. Friend and of the complaints which he has mentioned tonight. I ask the House as a whole to do what it can to promote the knowledge and use of the transport users' consultative committees, which, I have every confidence, will prove, if they are used properly, to be an extremely useful safety valve for the public.

11.3 p.m.

Mr. Wedgwood Benn (Bristol, South-East)

I thank the Joint Parliamentary Secretary for his contribution to the debate, which proved that there was inefficiency in private industry in its failure to label properly, as well as the unfortunate delays to which reference has been made. I was glad also to hear the repudiation by the Minister, by implication, that the wages and conditions of British Road Services, which stand comparison with those of any comparable industry, are not responsible for the failure to recruit the right people.

When the hon. Member for Louth (Mr. Osborne) made his comment about the college graduates in a rather sneering way, he was referring to the one aspect—the premium apprenticeship scheme—in which the Transport Commission is bringing university-educated people into the service of transport.

Mr. Osborne


Mr. Benn

I shall not give way. I have only half a minute left. To try, on the basis of the delays of which we have heard, which were due to seasonal increases in traffic, to draw conclusions about wages and conditions and the promotion and educational scheme of the Commission, was unworthy of the hon. Member, and I am sure that on reflection he will agree.

This has been a useful debate in that we could not have had it except on a nationalised industry. For my part, I have learnt one of the many lessons which I shall have to learn concerning transport from the Joint Parliamentary Secretary and from the Minister.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes past Eleven o'clock.