HC Deb 29 May 1968 vol 765 cc1861-9


Mr. Daniel Awdry (Chippenham)

I beg to move Amendment No. 277, in page 97,line 7, after ' Act', insert: ' within five days of receipt of the application in the form prescribed in the foregoing section '. I understand that we shall also discuss the following Amendment standing in my name, No. 278, in page 97, line 20, leave out ' fourteen ' and insert ' seven '.

This Clause deals with objections to special authorisations. There are three steps in the procedure. First, the operator must apply to the licensing authority for the special authorisation. The authority then sends a copy of the application to the Railways Board and the National Freight Corporation. There is no time

limit in the Bill for this stage—the authority can take its time. The third step is that the Railways Board or the N.F.C. can object and they are given 14 days in which to make their objection.

The purpose of the Amendment is to try to speed up the procedure. This is surely desirable. It is reasonable to ask the licensing authority to send an application at once to the Railways Board and the N.F.C. That is only common sense. We appreciate that we must allow for weekends and Bank holidays, so we propose that term as five days.

Secondly, we do not consider that the Railways Board and the N.F.C. need a fortnight in which to make up their minds whether or not to object. We think that seven days is quite long enough, and provide for this in Amendment No. 278. We have had a number of representations that the whole procedure of special authorisations will cause unnecessary delay, and in transport unnecessary delay causes chaos. It is simply our intention to reduce that delay to the absolute minimum.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Neil Carmichael)

We all wish to see as little delay as possible, but the Amendment is an unnecessary elaboration. The licensing authority's duty to send an application to these two bodies is a necessary part of the machinery for dealing with special authorisations, just as the publication of applications for A and B carrier licences was a necessary part of carrier licensing; in both cases the purpose is to give potential objectors the opportunity to object.

It was not, however, thought necessary in the carrier licensing system to provide in the Road Traffic Act, 1960, that the licensing authority must publish the application within a specified time. Nor is it necessary here to provide that he must send copies to the two potential objectors within a specified time.

If, contrary to experience hitherto, unreasonable delays take place in the sending on of applications to the Railways Board or the N.F.C. the Minister has reserve powers of direction under Clause 55(2). But there is no reason to suppose that it would be necessary to use them for this purpose.

The Bill proposes to follow the same principle of allowing 14 days for objections as was allowed in the Goods Vehicles Licences and Prohibitions Regulations made under the Road Traffic Act, 1960. It is important, if the system is to work efficiently, that potential objectors should have sufficient time to consider carefully whether they wish to object to a particular application. A period of seven days would be too short in some cases, bearing in mind that it is timed from the date of despatch of the copy from the licensing authority's office and that the regional office of the objector may sometimes wish to refer to headquarters for advice.

The tendency under the Amendments might be towards longer delays in the actual granting of a licence. This is because the seven-day period proposed in Amendment No. 278 may be considered too short for a thorough study of the matter. And so as not to lose the right to object, unnecessary objections may be lodged, holding up the granting of the licences.

Clause 71 provides for the streamlined granting of special authorisations to meet unforeseen, urgent needs. Clause 69(2) provides that applications endorsed by the Railways Board or the Freight Corporation are to be granted without having to go through the objection procedure. Both these procedures—the latter was introduced in Committee—make Amendment No. 278 largely unnecessary as well as undesirable. I hope that the hon. Member will agree to withdraw the Amendment. We are anxious that there should not be any unnecessary delay, but it may be that this Amendment would lead to greater delay.

Mr. G. Campbell

We are very disappointed with that reply, because we are worried about the question of delays where there are ordinary applications and questions of urgency do not arise. Earlier, I said that the fact that substantial amendment was made to Clause 71 was welcome because we have been pressing for changes here, but it is still urgency that has to be proved.

Obviously, that Clause cannot be overworked so that great numbers of businesses are forced to claim that their application is urgent. We believe that the ordinary system provided for by the other Clauses in the Bill should not cause long delays. The Minister spoke of the present system of licensing, but under the present "A" and "B" licence system there are several possible objectors, and there is need for time to be made available so that they can be made aware of the proposals.

In this system, there are only two possible objectors, known beforehand, the Railways Board and the National Freight Corporation. Therefore, we think that there is a case for making the period shorter than 14 days. I hope that the Minister will ensure that the Government keep this under review when the procedure starts, because the Railways Board and the Freight Corporation could so organise their administration that they could deal with these matters within seven days.

Amendment negatived.

Mr. Bessell

I beg to move Amendment No. 279, in page 98, line 3 at end insert: (c) the requirements in paragraph (6) of this subsection shall only be applied if the licensing authority is satisfied that an objection by the Railways Board is an objection of substance. In view of the shortage of time and the nearness of the Guillotine, I do not propose to speak to this Amendment.

Amendment negatived.

5.15 p.m.

Mr. Bessell

I beg to move Amendment No. 280, in page 98, line 10, leave out 'a public inquiry' and insert: 'an enquiry which shall be held in public unless the applicant requests otherwise, when the licensing authority shall order that the enquiry be held in private'. Once again I do not propose to spend a considerable amount of time, but this is an Amendment which contains a substantial point, because it is the result of representations made to me by a large number of people. It is an important Amendment in the sense that it would give protection to many people who fear that their privacy would otherwise be invaded.

The Minister of State will recognise that if a public inquiry is held in connection with an application for a licence, as set out in subsection (5) it would inevitably follow that the person making the application might have to reveal in public a great deal of the nature of his business, and a considerable amount of financial and other details, which would clearly be of the greatest benefit to his competitors.

I recognise that it has been the practice in the past that where new applications are made the inquiry is subject to objection, and in such cases there is a degree of publicity. In this case dealing with loads which are to be carried over the specified distance on vehicles over the specified weight, obviously an application will have to be made. This will apply to well-established companies, and manufacturers and others conveying goods produced by themselves, by road.

It is felt very strongly by those in the industry responsible for heavy transport that there could be a serious situation arising from this subsection. If' the inquiry is held in public it follows that a good deal of information will, or could be, disclosed.

If this could be reworded in the manner that I have suggested and the inquiry held in public, unless the applicant requests otherwise, there would be the saving factor that when the applicant wished it, the licensing authority could authorise the inquiry to be held in private. I cannot believe that there is any intention on the part of the Minister that there should be a wide disclosure to the public of knowledge which is essentially confidential for the successful maintenance and conduct of business. There is clearly a danger that this will occur under the present subsection.

Mr. Carmichael

The purpose of this Amendment is very similar to that of Amendment No. 216. The hon. Member may recall that the Minister of State commented on a similar Amendment to this in Committee saying that consultations were going on with the Council on Tribunals. We recognise the importance of the point, and that proper consideration needs to be given to it. The consultations have largely taken place and final details are being worked out. An Amendment will be introduced into the Bill at a later stage to meet this point.

Mr. Bessell

As I understand the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, there is likely to be an Amendment introduced in another place. This will meet the requirements of the points I have made and in those circumstances, with my thanks to the hon. Gentleman, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. G. Campbell

I beg to move Amendment No. 281, in page 98, line 10, at end insert: (5) Where an objection is successful under the provisions of section 70 of this Act the objector shall not refuse to carry the goods in question in accordance with the terms of the application. There is a point of clarification here. The arguments about this part of the Bill so far have assumed that the Railways Board or the N.F.C. wanted the business and were objecting in order to carry the goods in question themselves. There is a possibility that, having succeeded with their objection, either of the two bodies might later find it inconvenient or uneconomic to carry out the service. They might start it and then discontinue it. Alternatively, they might decide never to undertake it.

Is there any obligation upon an objector, having succeeded in his objection, to carry out the service? If not, the customer, who is so often forgotten in these debates on transport, may find that he has been denied a special authorisation for road vehicles which would carry his goods and that the National Freight Corporation or British Railways are not prepared to do the job either.

Under the system of A and B licences there have been many occasions when British Railways have objected to new road services where they had no intention of carrying out the business themselves. The procedure is such that an objection can be made and sustained and there is no obligation upon British Railways to carry out the service in question. Because that is part of the existing system, it could be that British Railways and the Freight Corporation might go on with this habit, thinking that the same process under the quantity licensing procedure is provided for.

I hope that the Government will take this opportunity to give their views on the matter and state whether an Amendment in this form is necessary or not.

Mr. Swingler

I am glad that the hon. Member for Moray and Nairn (Mr. G. Campbell) put the issue in this form, because I had some difficulty about the terms of the Amendment. The Amendment states: Where an objection"— from either the Railways Board or the National Freight Corporation— is successful … the objector shall not refuse to carry the goods in question in accordance with the terms of the application. The "terms of the application" would be to carry the goods by road. We should have the curious situation that if the objector was successful and got the traffic, he would be obliged to carry it by road. That would be extraordinary after he had spent so much time devising an argument for trying to get a transfer of the freight to rail. Thus, the hon. Gentleman will easily see why I could not accept the terms of the Amendment. Nevertheless, I take the point he has raised.

When a disputed case has been dealt with and the Railways Board and the National Freight Corporation are successful in an objection before the licensing authority, it is very important that they measure up to their responsibilities in terms of speed, reliability and cost, and that they should carry the traffic in accordance with the undertakings that they have given.

As we see it, the sanction lies in experience. Hon. Members who have studied this matter carefully will realise that the whole system is not only a challenge to the road transport industry; it is a challenge to the railways management to prove that it can make a superior offer in terms of speed, reliability and cost and that, by experience, it can be relied upon by the industry concerned, by the consignors, and by the licensing authorities, to carry out the job. It will be clear from experience that, on the first occasion that the Railways Board and the National Freight Corporation let the consigner down and fail to fulfil their undertakings, that example will be quoted before licensing authorities all over the country—quite justifiably. It will be quoted in evidence against them that, especially on the ground of reliability, they have not managed to sustain their case.

Therefore, there is the warning here for the Railways Board, as much as for the road hauliers, that, having put forward and sustained a case in front of the licensing authorities, they had better be careful about carrying and delivering the goods, because the applicant can come back to the licensing authority at any time and make the case that the railways have not done what they said they would do in terms of speed, reliability and cost. Moreover, if that happens in any part under this licensing system, it will be quoted elsewhere and will clearly influence the licensing authorities in favour of road haulage applicants. That, as we see it, is the important sanction contained within the whole system. It should give sufficient assurance to all concerned that those who come before the licensing authorities and make out a case with figures about charges, speed and so on, had better fulfil their promise to undertake the traffic. Otherwise, the licensing authorities will make future judgments against them.

Mr. G. Campbell

I am glad that the Minister has taken this attitude towards the matter. I hope that what he has said has removed some of the doubts of those who have been looking at the terms of the Bill about frivolous objections— perhaps I should not say "frivolous"— being put forward by either of the two bodies when they cannot carry out the task in question.

The drafting did present a problem. The object of putting those words at the end was to make it clear that it would be the kind of goods and the circumstances of the application that would apply. To have drafted the Amendment precisely would have meant drafting a very long paragraph indeed. I am sure that the Minister got the point of the Amendment.

In view of what the Minister has said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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