HC Deb 20 December 1961 vol 651 cc1525-34

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

11.1 p.m.

Mr. W. R. van Straubenzee (Wokingham)

I am, Sir, very much indebted to you for permission to raise the small and detailed matter with which I seek to detain the House for a few minutes. I have on a previous occasion had reason to comment upon the way in which the House can move quickly from consideration of great world events, such as we have recently been discussing, to the affairs of one person only. It is with the affairs of one person only that I am for a few minutes detaining the House.

I wish to draw attention to the case of my constituent, Mr. Weston, who lives at Earley, which is near Reading, in my constituency, and in particular his experiences in taking to the Government training centre at Slough in Buckinghamshire his car for a overhaul. It was news to me at the time I started inquiries into this difficult case that Government training centres undertook overhauls of this nature. This I have now learned, and, indeed, it is part of my object tonight to sound a warning to others who may be similarly disposed.

My constituent took his 13-year-old car, which was, and mercifully is—just is—a Hillman Minx, into the Government training centre on 10th January, 1961. He received an estimate for the work. The estimate given for the work was £20 1s. 6d. Being a Government-sponsored body, he was not only asked to pay in advance but, in addition, was asked to pay £30 in all to cover contingencies. This is a very pleasant way of doing business which some of us who are in private business of one sort or another would be very pleased to emulate. It was, in fact, the 24th May of this year, 17 weeks later, that he finally recovered the car. For 17 long weeks the car was incarcerated, as I shall show in a few moments, in the Government training centre at Slough undergoing this overhaul.

I want to say to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour, for whose courtesy in attending at this late hour I am deeply obliged, that I make no point at all of the length of time that was taken. It behoves hon. Members, before taking up the time of the House like this, to examine the matter closely by correspondence, and my hon. Friend has been courteous enough in extensive correspondence with me to explain carefully that this delay was caused by the absence of the class instructor over a long period owing to illness. I should like my hon. Friend to note that both my constituent and I quite understand that reason and I am not, tonight, on behalf of my constituent complaining at the element of delay. I would be obliged if that was quite clear to my hon. Friend.

What I am concerned about and seek to raise tonight is the condition of the vehicle when it was returned to my constituent from this Government training centre, for which my hon. Friend's Ministry is responsible. Perhaps I might quote briefly from a description of the vehicle, or rather from the experience of my constituent when he first went to withdraw the vehicle on 7th April, 1961. This is how he describes what happened, and this is after the vehicle had undergone an extensive overhaul at the centre: The car would only start with extreme difficulty. I caused considerable traffic mix-up on the A.4 since the engine stalled every time I changed gear and I had difficulty in restarting. The noise it made was unbelievable. I drove straight back and it had to be pushed by trainees into the Government Training Centre. That, I put to my hon. Friend with some emphasis, was what happened in April. It had been sent to the point of collection after the overhaul for which my constituent had paid in advance and had paid for contingencies and yet had to be pushed back by trainees into the training centre.

The Government training centre then set to work a second time and eventually had the vehicle available for collection on the date which I have already mentioned, 17 weeks after it was first put in, namely on the 4th May. I have a careful and detailed account of the vehicle as it was actually disgorged. I do not propose to worry the House with a lengthy description of it. Suffice it to say that the engine over-heated considerably and it had no pull. The comment was that even the slightest incline required the gears to be changed down. A workshop test of the ignition timing showed the timing marks to be two inches apart. Consumption of petrol was as low as 20 miles to the gallon. The connecting rods of the gears began to fall apart. The radiator emptied itself overnight in the garage because the hose barely overlapped the engine housing and the clip held nothing but the hose. The gearbox cover was not secure. The starting handle was bent and required to be pressed to straighten it. The coil was hanging loose on the engine, and my client was extremely lucky not to lose it on the road.

I am not mechanically-minded, but I can understand a dip-stick, which measures the oil. My constituent found that not only was it not his dip-stick but it was altogether too short for the vehicle into which it had been inserted. The sparking plugs were the wrong sparking plugs. The bolt and two nuts securing the dynamo fell out on the journey back from the training centre, and the fan belt pulley was so badly bent that the fan was already showing signs of wear.

I believe there is nothing more graphic than being able to see these things, and I consulted the rules of order to see if I might bring into the House the vehicle itself, but I find that that would offend against the rules. But I think that I am in order in bringing with me the last-named piece of mechanism so long as it is not a weapon. I have with me the fan belt pulley which, even to an amateur's eyes, has obviously been severely wrenched and damaged in such a way as to indicate that it was probably pulled from its sockets with some heavy implement such as a crowbar.

So far this has been a recital with a certain humour attached to it. But for my constituent this is a very serious matter, and I must say to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary that had this work been undertaken by some non-Governmental body there would have lain with my constituent a proper claim under the legal processes for very severe damages arising from the way in which the work was undertaken. But because it was undertaken by a Governmental body there is no kind of recourse left to him except through his Member of Parliament.

It may be, although I must not stray into this, that this is precisely the sort of situation with which an Ombudsman is designed to cope, but this is a matter that I must not explore for it involves legislation. I believe that my constituent would have been entitled to feel that that the Ministry of Labour would have said, "Not only have we, for reasons which we have explained and for which we have apologised, taken an unconscionably long time with your car, but we have turned out a thoroughly bad job."

Of course, it is understood by the general public that the charges of a Government training centre are lower than in a commercial organisation, and it is also understood that there is an element of risk in the sense that one cannot be given a firm estimate. That is understood. But where, as here, so palpably and obviously a thoroughly bad job is done upon a vehicle, it would not seem to me inappropriate that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary should be generous in his approach. I appreciate that it is merely in his official capacity that so far he has not felt able to be more generous than he has.

I repeat, my constituent paid the sum which was originally demanded of him. He did it because those were the terms upon which it was required that his car would be put in. There is no question, if I am accurately informed, of some allowance having been made to him, for the figure that he paid was the figure that was originally quoted, and no consideration in monetary terms has so far been given to my constituent for the experience which he underwent.

I repeat, I raise this matter for two reasons. The first is the domestic concern of my constituent. The only way in which this matter can be raised is on the Floor of the House, for there are no legal processes open to him. The second reason is to warn other persons who may be similarly inclined that they would be very ill-advised to have their cars overhauled at a Government training centre, certainly at the one in Slough.

I must say in all friendliness to my hon. Friend that this is a view to which I shall adhere and which I shall take suitable opportunities to repeat unless in the general spirit of good will and of Christmas in which we meet he feels, having listened to the catalogue that I have briefly given him, that he is over-persuaded by the case that I have put to him and that it is appropriate that a full remission of the charges made should be repaid to the man whom I now seek to represent.

11.15 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour (Mr. Alan Green)

I agree entirely on one important point with my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee), that although he has called this a small, detailed matter, it is none the less important. On his comments about the value of Government training centres, I propose to say something at the end.

My hon. Friend has quite rightly said that I have more than once expressed through him my regrets that Mr. Weston, his constituent, should have been inconvenienced, and I am quite happy to repeat those regrets now.

My hon. Friend has also said, correctly, that the point about delay is not really a valid one in all the circumstances, because Mr. Weston knew quite well, and accepted, that delay was inevitable if he chose this method of getting his car repaired, and, of course, it was his choice to take his car to this place to be repaired. I am sure that he had informed himself of this beforehand. So Mr. Weston took what was known to him to be a risk. My hon. Friend has also already admitted that there is a known element of risk.

Perhaps it would be a good thing, as my hon. Friend has gone in detail—sometimes quite amusing detail—into the facts as he understands them, if I recapitulate the facts as I understand them.

First, the Government training centres exist to provide training for unemployed and disabled persons. Their purpose is to fit these people to obtain useful work within their capacity. One of the trades in which we provide training for this purpose is motor vehicle repair. To get experience in repair work, the trainees obviously need motor vehicles, and we therefore have arrangements for taking in vehicles in need of repair for use as training exercises.

I must emphasise that our primary duty is to the trainees, and the repair job is ancillary to this. This, I think, is known to all people who take cars in to these training centres. We therefore make it clear to all those who send their cars for repair that the work will be done as part of a training exercise and that it will not be done at a commercial pace. I do not need to elaborate on that in view of what has been said already. Also, we do not accept responsibility for loss or damage to the car while it is at the centre. We think it right that we should make a charge to cover the cost of material used and some element of labour, because private individuals are, in fact, gaining some benefit from the work that we do.

We try to obtain the sort of cars for repair which the trainees are likely to meet when they take employment with garages. We prefer to have more modern cars, because they are more suitable as training material. From time to time, however, we agree to take on older cars which may not be worth repairing on a commercial basis. That is what we did in the present case.

Mr. Weston brought his 13-year-old car to the Slough Government training centre on 10th January with a list of repairs including an engine overhaul which he wanted done. Incidentally, I share my hon. Friend's lack of knowledge of mechanical matters, but I think that he will agree that it is never possible with a car of this age to say what will be necessary until some examination, including a stripping down of some parts, is made.

I understand that Mr. Weston was given a provisional estimate of £16. At that time he also asked for a respray for the whole car, but when he was told that the estimate for this re-spray would be £30 he refused because he did not think it was worth while. I have an idea that he was wise.

Further examination of the car showed that more extensive repairs were necessary, and an amended estimate was given to him of £30. The addition was not to cover contingencies; I understand that it was an amended estimate for £30. It is our practice to require payment in advance for work that we do, and Mr. Weston therefore gave the centre a cheque for this amount.

I should make it clear that it was open to him to say, as he did in respect of the re-spray, that he did not want this work to be done at this price, but he accepted the estimate and the conditions under which the repair work was done, and the centre accepted the job.

Here we come to the first complaint, with which we have already dealt, and that is the length of time which the repair took. Despite the perfectly correct account which my hon. Friend has given of why this delay occurred—it was due primarily to the unforeseeable illness of the instructor in charge of the motor vehicle repair class—I want at this moment to make a further, I will call it an apology, through my hon. Friend to Mr. Weston. On thinking about it, I have come to the conclusion that where the centre really did go wrong, and I take responsibility for this, was in not telling Mr. Weston, when this extra unavoidable delay occurred, that it was going to be much longer than he thought, and offering him the chance of taking the car away if he wished.

As I hope to demonstrate later, in view of the condition and age of the car, I am doubtful whether it would have been in Mr. Weston's interests to have had the car overhauled at commercial rates in a commercial repair shop. Mr. Weston knew that he could have his car overhauled at the Government training centre at something less than commercial rates, and be asked the centre to do it, knowing and accepting the disadvantages inherent in this method of repair.

Here I come to the second complaint, that the car did not go very well when it was handed over to Mr. Weston on 7th April after repair. If I have made an understatement, perhaps my hon. Friend has compensated for that with his statement. I will not call it an overstatement. It is necessary to appreciate that an engine overhaul, including a cylinder rebore, the fitting of new pis tons and the regrinding of the crankshaft on a car of this age involves an inevitable risk. The repair and renewal of old components in one part of the mechanism can put a strain on the remainder which is still in its old and worn condition.

I must admit also, however—and I do this as I have already done in correspondence with my hon. Friend—that some minor jobs had been badly done or neglected. The car was therefore taken back—

Mr. van Straubenzee

It was pushed back.

Mr. Green

It was pushed back, I understand, by the unpaid labour of trainees. The car was taken back and checked over again under the direct control of a very experienced chief instructor who has had 21 years in the motor trade. When the car was picked up on 4th May I am advised that it was in as good a condition as its age permitted.

My hon. Friend may well say that this was not good enough. I must make it clear that there are limits to repair work, as such, on cars of this age. Perhaps I can illustrate what I mean. Examination of the steering box showed that all parts were evenly worn, although not to the point of being obviously unsafe. Incidentally, this is quite a tribute to the original makers of the car. To replace one or two worn parts and hope that the new ones would function properly in conjunction with the remaining worn ones would not appeal to my hon. Friend or to his constituent as being an honest or a safe thing to do. The safe alternatives were a total replacement or a total retention; not a half-and-half operation. The same reasoning applies to almost any major part of an old and much-used car. It is very difficult to know where to stop, unless there is just one specific defect.

A further complaint which has been made is that Mr. Weston was not sufficiently compensated financially for the inconvenience that he was put to. Mr. Weston had accepted that the repair would take some time, but it was nevertheless felt that he should be given some recompense for the extra delay. Now I think there is some misunderstanding here. He was in fact given back £7 14s. 11d. out of the sum of £30 which he had originally paid to cover the repair estimate. He therefore paid, in all, £23 for a job which I shall show would have cost many times more if done commercially.

The work which was done included a rebore of the engine. The centre is not equipped to do this work, and it was put out to a contractor whose charge, including the provision of new pistons, was £14 1s. 3d. In addition, new parts were provided at a cost to the Ministry of £4 9s. 7d. The Ministry therefore paid on Mr. Weston's behalf the sum of £18 10s. 5d. for new material and work done on the car. If it is agreed that it would be proper for Mr. Weston to pay for this in full, it follows that he was charged only £3 14s. for all the labour involved at the Government training centre.

Another way of looking at these figures—and, I think, a fair one—is to estimate how much this would have cost at a commercial garage. We think that it would have taken approximately 52 hours of a qualified mechanic's time, and this alone would have cost about £40. Mr. Weston had that labour for a net cost of £3 14s. The full commercial cost, including materials, would come to about £60, and Mr. Weston paid, in total, under £23. Doubt may be raised whether it would be or was worth repairing a car of this age at a cost of £60. It seems unlikely that the value of the car would be sufficiently above this to make it worth while. But Mr. Weston asked the centre to do what they could for this rather aged car and, in the circumstances, I do not feel that he has been harshly dealt with.

I want to make one final point. I am sure that nobody wishes to present this as being a general experience at these training centres. There are 16 motor vehicle repair classes at 13 centres, and they are doing a very good job in training ex-Regulars and disabled persons for this trade. They repair about 1,300 vehicles a year, and the number of complaints is very small. It is certainly no greater than those which arise with a normal commercial garage. I suggest that it would be a great pity if this thoroughly well meant if over-optimistic effort to repair an elderly vehicle were used, in its turn, as a vehicle for damning some first-class work which is done by disabled people and ex-Regulars at Government training centres.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Eleven o'clock.