HC Deb 01 December 1966 vol 737 cc788-95

[Queen's Recommendation signified]

Considered in Committee under Standing Order No. 88 (Money Committees).

[Sir ERIC FLETCHER in the Chair]

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That, for the purposes of any Act of the present Session to extend section 92 of the Finance Act 1965 so as to enable grants to be made under that section in respect of surcharges under section 9 of the Finance Act 1961 on customs and excise duties charged on fuel used in operating stage carriage services, it is expedient to authorise any increase in the sums payable out of moneys provided by Parliament under the said section 92 which is attributable to the making of such grants, including grants for any period before the passing of the said Act of the present Session and after the coming into operation of the Surcharge on Revenue Duties Order 1966.—[Mr. Swingler.]

11.9 p.m.

Mr. J. E. B. Hill (Norfolk, South)

I wonder whether the Parliamentary Secretary can tell us whether the Money Resolution will enable the Bill to be amended so as to give the Government power to make grants in respect of school bus operators, should the Bill in its present form not include school bus operators. This is a very important matter. The Government are taking powers to make grants to bus operators not only in the immediate future, but in the long-term. It would be satisfactory if it were possible so to amend the Bill, if it needs amendment, to give the Government wider powers to extend the benefits they propose which, in our view, at the moment, are on too narrow a basis.

Mr. Peter Walker (Worcester)

I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to give an answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. J. E. B. Hill), who has asked a very important question. The Parliamentary Secretary must surely know whether the Money Resolution will allow of an amendment to include school buses, or whether they will already benefit.

Hon. Members


Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

I am astonished that the Parliamentary Secretary should so discourteously fail to answer questions which have been put by my hon. Friends and myself. We are not asking anything unreasonable. We are not asking him to make policy, but merely to say whether, in Committee, the Bill can be amended to take account of the needs of rural bus companies taking children to school. He could surely have the courtesy to give his view on this matter.

Apparently, he is unsure whether the financial amount will be £1,100,000, or £1,200,000, and he is not able to give a precise answer on when the payments will be made. Now, apparently, he is not willing to give an indication of his thinking on the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. J. E. B. Hill). It would be courteous and proper for the hon. Gentleman to reply to the questions put to him.

11.15 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Stephen Swingler)

I am always willing to reply, but it is normal—and I think that I showed myself quite prepared to give way—to observe certain customs of debate, which usually include the custom that a Minister winds up a debate.

I do not know whether the Opposition have quite finished on this Motion, or wish to keep us to enable certain splenetic points to be made. That does not worry me much, but I did say, in the Second Reading debate, that I was prepared to give way, but for the purpose of a certain amount of trickery another course was pursued, which is not normal in the House.

I said quite clearly in our previous debate—and we have discussed this matter before—that the Bill applies to the stage operators. It applies only to stage operators. That was introduced in 1964 in respect of the additional 6d. per gallon for those providing public transport services. This Bill applies to the surcharge made in the measures announced in July, and allows a rebate on the increase in duty, whatever it may be, to the stage operators. That is what it is for. It applies to no more than that. It is for the assistance of the provision of public transport services.

In Committee, we can discuss what the money actually amounts to, but I hope that it is clear that about £4½ million has been rebated by the Finance Act of 1964 on the 6d. per gallon. This pledges the Government to rebate the additional amount of the surcharge announced by the Prime Minister in July this year.

Mr. David Webster (Weston-super-Mare)

This is the Committee stage, and there is no intention of trickery at all. If the Parliamentary Secretary thinks this is so I apologise to him, but it certainly was not my intention to trick him. However, if the hon. Gentleman intends to cast "polite" remarks like that around, he probably will not get as much co-operation from the Committee as he might have got.

If I have made a mistake I apologise, but to have an allegation of trickery made against me is something that I resent. I have always acquitted the Parliamentary Secretary of any discourtesy in debate in the House or Committee, although things have gone funnily sometimes. To be accused of trickery, however, is something which I cannot accept, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw it.

Mr. Swingler

The hon. Gentleman really wants to have this out, apparently. He says things have gone funnily sometimes. We have had this upstairs, and we had better thrash this out. I am not aware of things having gone rather funnily, but I am aware that in a Second Reading debate it is normal for the Minister to open and close the debate. That is exactly why, on our previous proceedings—

The Chairman

Order. I think that it would be inappropriate to pursue this matter any further in this Committee.

Mr. Webster

I think that we had better have that misunderstanding out another time. I have apologised if I have unwittingly tricked the Parliamentary Secretary. It was not my intention.

To come back to the Money Resolution, this is a Committee stage, in which hon. Members are allowed to ask questions. Can the Parliamentary Secretary assist us? I gave notice that I wished to move Amendments to make rebates to deal with the loss of investment allowances and with the Selective Employment Tax, and I asked whether it would be necessary to extend the Money Resolution to bring this into order.

I want to keep in order, and that is my intention, but I wonder whether if it is possible for the Parliamentary Secretary to give me an answer to this and say whether or not we have to amend the Money Resolution?

Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)

While the Minister is getting ready his reply to my hon. Friend, I want to support what my hon. Friend has said. I did not come here with any intention of intervening in this debate, but to keep a watching brief on the next matter before us. But I was so appalled by the remarks of the Minister about my hon. Friend that I could not let this go by without saying that the reason I rise on this occasion—

The Chairman

Order. As I intervened to prevent the Minister proceeding on these lines, it is right that I should intervene to prevent the hon. Gentleman from doing so.

Mr. Cooke

I will not refer further to what the Minister said, but come back to what my hon. Friend said.

The reason that my hon. Friend and so many of my hon. Friends are here this evening is because we are passionately devoted to this cause, and we are not satisfied with the Government's replies on this or the previous stage. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will give my hon. Friend satisfactory answers, because we are all anxious that this Measure, which is basically a good one, should proceed with all speed. Perhaps the Minister could give us more help at this stage.

Mr. J. E. B. Hill

Before the Minister does speak on this again, may I say that I am not trying to be tricky, but am trying to elicit some information to repair my own ignorance. The Minister said that this referred only to stage carriage services, but he did not say specifically that school bus services are ruled out of the Bill as it stands. Neither did he say whether or not the Bill could be amended to include school bus services if the House thought it was desirable for the Government to be given these powers.

To prove, I hope, that this is not a frivolous inquiry, I think that it can come about in certain circumstances that school buses, where there is room in them, are allowed to carry fare-paying passengers. This, I think, is the important point, because we may well find this very helpful to a school bus operator who has to meet the cost of running a bus, if he has fare-paying passengers, and that could get him within the definition. That, obviously, is a very desirable thing to do, but what I hope is the position is that the school bus operator would be within the scope of the Bill and that the Bill could be so amended that the Government could have power to make grants in the future and benefit the local authorities trying to run school buses.

That is all I am asking for, but if we do not get the answer at this stage it may be that the Government are letting a Money Resolution go through which prevents them from having the power which the Opposition would like to give them. This is a very rare situation in this Committee. Here are some hon. Members of the Opposition—I apprehend, most of them—wishing to give a Labour Government extra powers. This, surely, is really something not to be sneezed at. I have twice asked a question. I am not hoping for bread, but I had at least hoped for one stone, at any rate.

Mr. Eric Ogden (Liverpool, West Derby)

Some of the questions from hon. Members opposite seem to be a little strange. It was suggested at first that unless the Government had these specific powers local education authorities would not be able to get the school bus services they required. Bus operators in rural or city areas tender to the local authorities for specific services. If the local authorities go without this power of rebate they will have to give the operators less for their services, but there is nothing in this Bill to prevent an operator, wishing to operate buses for schoolchildren, from providing that service. Everything else hon Members opposite talked about is irrelevant.

Mr. Paul Hawkins (Norfolk, South-West)

I think that it will prevent local authorities. I am a member of the Norfolk education authority, and we have constant pressure on us to expand our school services in the rural areas, so the question as to whether we can run them more cheaply and whether we obtain this rebate or not is most important. If the local authority did not pay so much we could run more services to other villages and so be able to expand our services. That is why we want to know the answer to the question whether local education authorities are going to get this rebate or not. It is a simple question.

Mr. Robert Cooke

This really must be the very last time that I intervene in the debate. I was hoping that the Minister would have got the answer to the question posed. This is a matter of resources. If the resources are being increased by the provisions of the Bill, then we shall all be very happy. If they are not, we shall be extremely unhappy. Can we have an answer to that simple, straightforward question?

Mr. Swingler

Yes, hon. Members can. I think that I should begin by saying that I think that the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Webster) and myself are perhaps quits on the exchange up to now.

The hon. Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. J. E. B. Hill), who was a member of the previous Government, and who, I remember, quite early in my experience as Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport, came along to us to get subsidies for his local railways, now wishes us to commit ourselves to additional subsidies for school buses and other kinds of buses in addition to the subsidy for stage carriage services in his area. The Government of which he was a distinguished member provided none of them. Because that was the Government who proposed to close the railways, as well as being responsible for a decline in other transport services.

The Money Resolution deals with the operation of stage carriage services. We have dealt with this previously in relation to the rebate of the 6d. fuel duty in 1964, and now it is in relation to the Surcharge on Revenue Duties Order, 1966. I am interested that hon. Members opposite now wish to extend the subsidy system, presumably, beyond what we propose here. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Yes, the hon. Gentleman proposed that the system of rebating tax should go beyond the public transport services here defined as stage carriage services and the rural transport grants and transport infrastructure grants for which the Government will provide legislation next year. We are very interested in this pressure from the Opposition for additional rebates. I undertake seriously to consider, with my right hon. Friend, whether the system should be further extended in that way.

But let us at least take this first step, not provided for by any previous Government, of discriminating in favour of public transport, by rebating increases in tax. We can consider later possible extensions to other kinds of services such as have been suggested.

Mr. Robert Cooke

The hon. Gentleman has introduced several new types of transport into the discussion, the possibility of people travelling on Post Office buses, school buses, and so on. He must not put words into my hon. Friends' mouths and accuse them of starting a new and highly revolutionary scheme. It is he who has introduced all sorts of new ideas. Before we pass the Money Resolution, we want to be sure that the things we want to do for the rural communities will be possible.

Mr. Swingler

If they become stage carriage services, as we hope some of them will, they will come within the terms of the Money Resolution and the Bill.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

The Parliamentary Secretary must be very careful in using the word "subsidy". He said also that this was the first step in discrimination in favour of the bus operators. If someone steals the silver from my house and then gives me a candle-stick, am I supposed to be grateful? The Government have taken something from the bus operators. They now propose to give some of it back.

I want to know whether the buses which carry children to school, no matter who owns them—they are not necessarily stage operators—will have the tax rebated. If the school authorities or the owners are not to have the rebate in respect of children's buses, I shall not regard this as a satisfactory rebate.

Mr. Swingler

The Money Resolution applies to the operation of stage carriage services. It applies to all such services.

What we are doing is to be contrasted with what the hon. Gentleman's Government did. This is discrimination in relation to the tax system in favour of public transport inasmuch as an increase of tax imposed on the rest of the community is not imposed on public transport operators.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That, for the purposes of any Act of the present Session to extend section 92 of the Finance Act 1965 so as to enable grants to be made under that section in respect of surcharges under section 9 of the Finance Act 1961 on customs and excise duties charged on fuel used in operating stage carriage services, it is expedient to authorise any increase in the sums payable out of moneys provided by Parliament under the said section 92 which is attributable to the making of such grants, including grants for any period before the passing of the said Act of the present Session and after the coming into operation of the Surcharge on Revenue Duties Order 1966.

Resolution to be reported.

Report to be received Tomorrow.