§ Order for Second Reading read.3.55 pm
§ The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Howell)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Major transport legislation tends to touch on a wide range of issues and to cover many aspects of our lives. That follows, because transport activities touch on many people's lives. The Bill is no exception to that pattern.
The first two parts of the Bill continue our strategy of reducing the role of the State in the transport sector wherever there is no good reason for it to be there. It is a strategy to which we have continued to give high priority from the day that we came into office and with which we intend to press ahead. We do so for the most practical and common sense of reasons—namely, the objective of introducing greater efficiency into our transport operations, more opportunities for expansion and development, a higher quality of service and a more flexible response to the needs of the user and the customer. I believe that that is a sensible and common sense approach.
Part I provides for the opening up of another transport industry—in this case the National Bus Company—to private capital. The Transport Acts of 1980 and 1981 both included measures with a similar objective for other industries: the National Freight Corporation, the British Transport Docks Board and subsidiaries of the British Railways Board. The Bill takes the process a stage further.
In our view, there is a clear role for the private sector to play in the NBC's coach operations and the improvement of passenger facilities. The potential advantages of allowing it to do so are immense. To harness the resources of the private sector will open up opportunities for development and expansion that are at present just not possible within the constraints of the public sector, with benefits to both the travelling public and to those who work in the industry. I hope that the provisions will therefore be welcome throughout the House.
§ Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)
I congratulate my right hon. Friend and my hon. and learned Friend the Under-Secretary of State on the admirable speech on this matter that my hon. and learned Friend made. Will my right hon. Friend in particular say a word about unlocking the development potential of town centre bus depots, which with private investment can be of great value and without it are a dead loss?
§ Mr. Howell
The congratulations to my hon. and learned Friend are certainly well deserved. When I expand on all the parts of the Bill I shall say a little more about the point that my hon. Friend has raised.
Part II is also concerned with extending the role of the private sector in transport. Here we are dealing not with one of the transport industries but with one of the present functions of the Department of Transport itself—namely, the routine service of testing of heavy goods and public service vehicles. The Government attach vital importance to this service in maintaining proper standards of safety in 866 freight and passenger vehicle operation. We are well aware, too, of the high reputation which the present system has long enjoyed.
We have, of course, thought very carefully about the worries that were first expressed when this idea was mooted a year or so ago. I am very glad that the haulage industry itself is no longer opposed but is ready to work with the Government to make the new scheme a success, because we see no reason whatsoever why the function need be carried out by civil servants in my Department when it could be done just as well by the private sector. Indeed, there is good reason to believe that transfer to the private sector will bring positive benefits to the testing system in terms of an even more efficient operation and a more flexible service to its users. I shall return to that in more detail in a moment.
Part III, which improves and extends the fixed penalty system, is also in its way concerned with efficiency, but in this case the efficiency of our procedures for dealing with road traffic offences. The changes that we propose represent a further step in the review of the traffic laws promised when the Government took office. They are designed to reduce the burden of road traffic offences imposed on the police and the courts so that they are able to devote more time to dealing with more serious offences. The changes will also improve the enforcement of fixed penalties, which at present are too often ignored by offenders, leading to widespread illegal parking, with all the familiar problems that that causes, and bringing the system as a whole into disrepute.
I turn now to the Bill's provisions in more detail.
Part I makes provision for the introduction of private capital into the National Bus Company. In doing so it gives further expression to the view of the Government that wherever there are areas of the public sector that could benefit from closer association with private sector energies the obstacles to that association should be removed.
Where the NBC is concerned we have two particular openings in mind. The first of these is the scope that exists for further development of the company's coaching and holiday business. The second is the opportunity for the NBC to co-operate with the private sector in making the best use of its very considerable property assets and, in particular, to improve passenger facilities for the travelling public—the point which my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) raised a moment ago.
Taking the coaching and holiday businesses first, there is no doubt that as far as express coaching services are concerned the NBC, like its competitors in the private sector, benefited greatly from the Transport Act 1980, which removed the licensing restrictions on those services. The results of this new freedom have been an unprecedented increase in the demand for coach travel, wider choice for the traveller and substantially lower fares on many routes.
I do not see how anyone could object to those developments. It is almost comical to look back and read the remarks of the right hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Booth), among others, about the irreparable damage that would flow from the 1980 Act and compare it with what has happened, because in 1981 National Express carried 73 per cent. more passengers than in 1980 and raised its financial contribution to the overall results of the NBC by no less then 50 per cent. That is a considerable achievement, for which both the management and the work force deserve full credit.
867 We believe that a partnership with private capital will make it possible to improve on those results still further to the advantage of the NBC itself, its employees and its customers. It is our intention that the NBC should retain a significant share in this business, and the Bill provides for the establishment of an employee shareholding scheme, which means that the work force will itself have a real stake in the expansion of the coach market.
Similar opportunities exist in the case of National Holidays, the marketing title of NBC's coach holiday business. It is a much smaller concern than National Express, but it is also a straightforward commercial activity which can only benefit from an association with the private sector.
The powers included in the Bill are designed to provide the opportunity for that private sector involvement. It will not be possible to achieve that objective overnight because each of them represents a coherent business, but they are not companies as such and do not, therefore, at the moment constitute fully identifiable units with proven track records which, as they stand, could provide the basis for the sale of shares.
I have asked the NBC to let me have proposals for accounting for National Express and National Holdays, either jointly or separately, in distinct company accounts. I have asked the NCB to do this from the earliest possible date, and certainly before the end of 1982. I also propose shortly to set a financial target for both businesses, which will sustain the momentum towards further improvement on what are already promising results.
I shall now go into a little more detail on the property aspect. The National Bus Company and its subsidiaries own property assets with a book value of more than 100 million. The actual sites vary from quite small rural garages and depots to substantial town centre bus and coach stations. Collectively those properties obviously have great potential, but the difficulty has been that the company has been unable to finance major development within the resources that can be made available from public funds. As a result, there are sites that are under-utilised, and in many places the facilities that the company is able to offer to the travelling public are far less attractive and less extensive than we would wish.
We believe that there is also an opportunity for using private capital to unlock the potential of NBC's property assets and to enable the company to offer much more attractive facilities to the travelling public. The NBC chairman has made it clear that he would welcome the involvement of the private sector in that process.
§ Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)
So that we can have this clarified at the beginning of the debate, am I correct in understanding that the Bill will allow the National Bus Company to sell off some of its regional bus operations, such as Cumberland Motor Services in my part of West Cumbria, on which the right hon. Gentleman will remember the interventions of a few years ago? If that is the case, what will happen to the arrangements for cross-subsidisation, which have nothing to do with privatisation and which the privateers could well say could no longer be afforded? Will the right hon. Gentleman reply directly to that, because it is at the heart of the problem?
§ Mr. Howell
Our plans are concerned with National Holidays and National Express and the property areas that
868 I have been mentioning, but it is correct to say that the legislation covers powers for sales throughout the whole of the NBC.
§ Mr. Howell
I am at the moment describing the way in which our plans are intended to develop in the light of the powers that are sought in the Bill. We have no plans at the moment in relation to the areas that the hon. Gentleman is discussing. That is a different issue, which I recognise is an important and contentious one, but it is not one that arises on the plans that I am discussing for the Bill at the moment.
§ Mr. Howell
No. I have made it clear that we are discussing these plans. I have answered the hon. Gentleman extremely clearly and said that our plans are concerned with National Holidays, National Express and the property area. We have no plans in the areas that he is discussing, although the Bill gives powers that would cover all those areas. I hope that that is as clear as it could possibly be to the hon. Gentleman.
The NBC chairman has said that he would welcome the involvement of private sector capital in this process and I have agreed with him that the company will take immediate steps to strengthen its capacity for bringing forward property development schemes in conjunction with the private sector so as to be in the best possible position to make use of the powers conferred by the Bill.
Part II provides for responsibility for the annual testing of lorries and buses to be removed from the Department of Transport.
§ Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones (Watford)
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that what he is talking about is, as it were, joint ventures between the NBC and private property developers? Is it possible, therefore, that the Bill contains powers for the NBC to contribute its property with capital from the private developers to a separate company and make a separate development? Above all, would that company then be able to raise money without its affecting the public sector borrowing requirement?
§ Mr. Howell
Yes, the powers are there to sell shares in a subsidiary and for it to pass into the private sector. Of course, we hope that the NBC will retain a substantial shareholding, but the companies will pass into the private sector and there will be privatisation.
The clauses in Part II provide the framework for a system under which an approved testing authority will employ authorised inspectors to carry out the work of annual testing and some related functions that the Bill describes.
I know that during the past 10 years or so the HGV testing system has earned a reputation in the road transport industry for its high standards and impartiality. It deserves that reputation, but I believe that the system can be improved, and that is what those clauses aim to do. They are about making a good system better.
Until now the annual testing of HGVs and PSVs has been carried out as part of the wider vehicle safety work of my Department. The system may have had the virtues of the Civil Service and the Department, but it has also suffered from the inescapable limitations of Whitehall's 869 departmental control. That has restricted the development of the services offered to vehicle operators. It is not easy, with the best will, for the Civil Service to experiment with different opening hours—for example offering tests outside normal working hours, at weekends or late in the evening when operators require services that minimise their costs. The system is geared to a uniform national pattern of working, with a minimum of local flexibility to respond to particular demands.
It is also true to say that some of our assets in the testing system are probably being under-used. There may be some spare land in the system and some scope for additional facilities on a number of sites. I want to see all those possibilities explored, with the clear aim of benefiting the users of the testing service.
The Bill does not lay down how the new private sector system should be organised. One possibility is that the whole testing network should be transferred as a single unit to one authoritative body in the private sector. The name of Lloyd's Register of Shipping has been mentioned as a body that could combine the necessary authority and commitment to high safety standards with a tradition of practical service to industry. That possibility is still under discussion.
An alternative approach would be to seek to involve several private sector companies in testing. If I take that approach, I shall begin by setting up a company, wholly owned by the Government, that would take over testing initially and prepare for the second stage of development of the system. I shall be holding further consultations with the road transport industry before reaching a decision on the organisation of the new private sector scheme.
Whatever course I take in making use of the powers contained in the clauses, I can promise the House that my emphasis will always be on maintaining the highest possible safety standards, combined with quality of service to the industry. The essential controls will remain with my Department. I shall still lay down the standards that the testing stations must meet, and it will be my job also to monitor and supervise the new arrangements. I shall ensure that adequate resources are devoted to this very important work.
§ Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)
Will the Secretary of State tell us in some detail how he intends to police the system when it passes to private enterprise?
§ Mr. Howell
The facilities for supervision exist. We are not talking about a vast network—it includes 91 stations—and supervision can be organised on lines that involve no great additional call on manpower. We will ensure that the highest possible standards are maintained throughout the system. There is no great problem on that front. I shall ensure that adequate resources are devoted to that important work.
In terms of service to the industry, I shall of course ensure that the present nationwide coverage provided by the network of test stations is fully maintained. That is important. I shall also be looking for developments that can reduce the length of time that vehicles spend out of service, and so cut the real costs of testing to the industry. That is where costs arise.
§ Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)
Will the Secretary of State give the House an estimate of the cost to his Department of providing a monitoring service? Civil servants will still be employed to ensure that the testing 870 stations—especially if they are split—maintain the high standards that have been set. Is the right hon. Gentleman not concerned that many of the lorries on the road should not be operating and that the new system may make that position worse?
§ Mr. Howell
The system will maintain the standards and, if anything, improve them. Many hundreds fewer civil servants will be required for monitoring and supervisory duties. In evidence, the Department used the word "slight". Small numbers will be involved in the monitoring required for a coherent system with 91 stations.
§ Mr. Howell
I have given way four or five times, and I do not wish to detain the House. The issue involves many complexities and I believe that the House wishes to debate the detail of this important Bill.
The safeguards that exist now against the dangers of faults in buses and lorries will in no way be reduced. On the contrary, before handing over any of that work I shall want an absolute assurance that safety standards will at the very least be maintained, and if possible improved. If there were doubts about the competence or the standards of any company that came forward, that bid would be refused. Far from weakening present controls on safety, my aim is to harness the resources and energy of the private sector to improve and strengthen the system. Nothing in the proposals in any way interferes with the enforcement activities of the Department, which are of vital and growing importance, and which it is anyway my intention to develop and strengthen.
I come now to a complex and important area of the Bill—the proposals in Part III dealing with the fixed penalty system. They are based on the recommendations of the review body set up to look at ways of simplifying our road traffic laws. That working party included representatives of the police and the courts—the people who have to operate the system—so it is right to assume that the proposals have a wealth of relevant experience behind them.
The proposals fall into two parts. First, they extend the fixed penalty system, at present largely confined to parking offences. Our aim here is to relieve some of the burden that road traffic offences impose on the police and courts and to free court time for more serious offences. There are more than 1.8 million successful prosecutions a year for road traffic offences. Among those are a substantial number whose less serious nature lends itself to the fixed penalty system. If those are dealt with by way of fixed penalty, up to 600,000 cases a year could be taken out of the courts.
The offences that we are proposing to bring into the extended system include speeding and various vehicle defect offences, as well as failing to comply with traffic directions. We are, therefore, including endorsable offences for the first time.
By extending the system we are providing a simpler alternative for dealing with those offences—by removing the need for a court hearing, unless the person who is given a ticket asks for one. The right of an offender to contest the charge in court is not affected in any way by what we are proposing. However, those who wish to acknowledge liability for the offence may settle the matter by paying a fixed penalty rather than go through the court process.
§ Mr. Gary Waller (Brighouse and Spenborough)
My right hon. Friend said that the great advantage of the proposals was that someone who wished to acknowledge responsibility could avoid going to court. Is it not true that the person can do so only if he happens to be carrying his driving licence? I understand that the proposals are regarded as an incentive for people to carry their driving licences. Is that not manifestly unfair on those who, through no fault of their own, cannot carry their licences—especially those who have sent them to Swansea, perhaps for correction, and may have to wait for two months before they are returned?
§ Mr. Howell
The issue requires considerable attention. We have sought to speed up and overcome the difficulties, particularly the fall-out from last year's Civil Service dispute.
My hon. Friend is right. If an alleged offender wishes to pay a fixed penalty he will be asked to produce his driving licence, although he will not be obliged—I emphasise this—to show it if he does not wish to. The difficulty that my hon. Friend has in mind is not as sharp as he believes. However, my hon. and learned Friend the Under-Secretary of State will go into more detail when he winds up. If there is confusion in my hon. Friend's mind, I shall see that it is removed by later remarks.
Those who wish to acknowledge liability for the offence may settle the matter by paying a fixed penalty rather than by going through the court process. I emphasise that we are not proposing to have on-the-spot fines. This will simply be an extension of the present ticket system, where the fine is paid subsequently.
Because endorsable offences will become part of the fixed penalty system, procedures have been designed to fit in with the existing endorsement and disqualification machinery. There is no question of devaluing the seriousness of an endorsable offence. The licence will still be endorsed, and its more serious nature is reflected in the higher penalty of £20. The penalty will be £10 for non-endorsable offences in line with the increase that we are proposing for the existing parking ticket, which will shortly be raised from £6.
The other aim of our proposals is to improve the enforcement of fixed penalties. I am sure that hon. Members are aware of the problems that illegal parking can cause, particularly in London. Parking restrictions are too often ignored, because motorists believe that if they get a parking ticket it is unlikely to be enforced.
Over 900,000 fixed penalty notices annually are ineffective, largely because motorists ignore them and the time limit for proceedings to be brought expires. The courts in London are stretched to capacity and the police have insufficient resources to devote to the necessary follow-up work.
We are proposing changes to make the fixed penalty enforcement more effective. This will not only be fairer to motorists who obey the parking laws, but the increased deterrent to illegal parking will be a substantial step towards relieving the serious traffic congestion that it can cause in cities.
We agree with the working party that the best way to deal with evasion is to require a person issued with a ticket to take positive action if he wishes to contest liability for the offence. We therefore propose that in the absence of a response to the notices issued—either by payment of the penalty or a request for a hearing—the penalty will 872 automatically be treated as if it were a fine imposed on conviction. It will be enforced by the courts, together with an amount to cover expenses, without the need for a court hearing.
That is a fairly fundamental change. We recognise that there may be misgivings about the reliance on the presumption that the motorist has accepted liability for the offence if he does not take the opportunity to contest the charge. A safeguard has therefore been built into the system in the Bill which would allow mistakes or disputes about knowledge of the process to be resolved. I am anxious that the full implications of the change should be made absolutely clear in the House, and my hon. and learned Friend will deal with the provisions of that part of the Bill in more detail.
§ Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (Thanet, West)
My right hon. Friend talks about enforcement. It will be within his knowledge that at the moment many hundreds of thousands of fines for criminal and other offences are not being paid. As my right hon. Friend will be opening the field with a large number of fixed penalties in addition, will he consider whether he should include a right, such as the attachment of earnings, to recover such fines?
§ Mr. Howell
I carefully note my hon. and learned Friend's point. I shall reflect on it. He has considerable experience of this matter.
§ Mr. Sydney Bidwell (Ealing, Southall)
I am not trying to score a point, but Department of Transport tests on private cars are at present an aspect of police surveillance when speeding offences are committed and the police are considering proceedings. Will the necessity to prove the roadworthiness of a car remain?
§ Mr. Howell
It would not be easy for a policeman to judge the roadworthiness of a car when giving a fixed penalty ticket. There are obvious difficulties.
Fixed penalty fines are bound to be limited to alleged offences that arise, in the case of parking offences, through a traffic warden issuing a ticket, or, in the case of offences when a vehicle is moving, a police constable issuing a ticket. A roadworthiness offence would be more difficult to establish, so would not lend itself to a fixed penalty fine, unless the defect was obvious. I shall examine the point. If I am giving the hon. Gentleman wrong information, I shall return to the matter.
Let me deal finally with some of the miscellaneous provisions that make up part IV. Clause 45, together with schedule 4, is intended to rectify an anomaly that has prevented licensing authorities from taking environmental factors into account in considering applications for goods vehicle operating centres. This is in line with the recommendations of two important committees of inquiry, one under Professor Foster in 1978 and the other under Sir Arthur Armitage in 1980, and with the undertaking in the Government's recent White Paper "Lorries, People and the Environment".
This problem has in fact been tackled previously by the Road Traffic Act 1974, which amended the Transport Act 1968 to permit licensing authorities to assess the suitability of operating centres for heavy goods vehicles. The intention was to permit licensing authorities to assess environmental matters. However, a ruling by the transport tribunal in 1975 was interpreted as putting such
873 considerations beyond the powers of licensing authorities in decisions on goods vehicle operating centres. A further measure is therefore necessary to resolve the uncertainty.
The aim of the new legislation is to introduce a more logical definition of an operating centre in relation to use and to specify those environmental conditions which licensing authorities may impose on a licence. It will also allow people who may be affected by an operating centre to make their views known to a licensing authority and empower it to take these views into account when issuing a licence.
§ Mr. Matthew Parris (Derbyshire, West)
Does the clause on goods centres apply to licences issued to new goods centres, or does it apply retrospectively to existing goods vehicle centres?
§ Mr. Howell
It will apply to new applications.
Clause 46 amends the definition of restricted road—that is one which is, by virtue of street lighting, subject to a speed limit of 30 mph—by removing the distinction currently made between unclassified roads and classified or trunk roads. Although perhaps a little complex in appearance, it is in fact a simplification of the present provisions. It will leave unchanged existing speed limits as indicated on individual roads. It is an enforcement clause.
Clause 48 enables the Secretary of State to authorise or direct harbour authorities to act in the interests of national defence. Although they have an excellent record of voluntary co-operation in this field, it is important to ensure that the vital contribution made by harbour authorities to defence preparations at a time of international tension is not hampered by such obstacles as a limitation in an authority's local legislation or by contractual obligations to normal port users.
§ Mr. Robert Hughes
Is it intended to use the legislation only at times of national crisis—just before or during war—or as a civil contingency?
§ Mr. Howell
I envisage the former. The provision is for a national emergency or security situation.
As I said at the outset, the Bill covers a lot of ground, as transport legislation tends to do, but it deserves the full support of those who work in the industry, its customers and, indeed, everyone who wishes to see a high quality of transport operation and believes in putting the consumer first. In the case of the fixed penalty provisions, on which I am afraid I had to take time, the Bill will mean a radical improvement in the penal system for traffic offences and will go a long way to free police and court resources to tackle serious crime. It is a thoroughly worthwhile measure and I commend it to the House.
§ Mr. Albert Booth (Barrow-in-Furness)
A pattern is discernible in the legislation pouring forth from the Department of Transport. The Department produces minor Bills to deal with crises which are often of its own creation and prepares a major Bill each year. The major Bills have three essential ingredients. The first is denationalisation or public asset stripping. The second is to get rid of a public body, some public control or the planning or maintenance of standards. The third is to extend road traffic law, often in a way which is misplaced. This being the third year of the Government, the Bill is the third such measure. To use
874 a sporting analogy, I hope that the Government do not believe that, having been successful three times——if they are—they can continue in that way.
Part I of the Bill gives the Secretary of State powers to force the National Bus Company to sell public assets into private ownership. As the Secretary of State conceded, it is not limited to coaching or holiday operations. He does not defend the wider powers. He merely says that the Government's first concern is with the coaching and holiday operations. That fact is important. The proposal serves the Government's narrow and doctrinate aims and damages passenger services and public funds. If the Government give high priority to denationalisating transport services, they should have said so in their manifesto. They gave only one area of public ownership of transport services which would be subject to such an approach—the National Freight Corporation. The manifesto did not mention selling British Rail subsidiaries or National Bus Company assets.
The 1980 Act provided for the deregulation of express services, but the then Secretary of State said that he expected to see a massive increase in private express services. The Bill was put forward in anticipation that entrepreneurs in express services would run the National Bus Company off the road; they would use the new legal freedom to run unlicensed express services. That is what the Secretary of State said. The expansion at the expense of the National Bus Company has not happened. Instead, the National Bus Company has operated under the Act and expanded its express coach operations by 50 per cent. We predicted the great disaster of the Act. The expansion of that small area of its operations has been accompanied by a major collapse in its much larger stage carriage operations.
§ Mr. Peter Fry (Wellingborough)
Has not the success of the coach operations, through cross-subsidisation, enabled many bus services to be retained that might otherwise have disappeared, particularly in rural areas?
§ Mr. Booth
In so far as the operation has been successful, it permits a desirable degree of cross-subsidisation of rural and off-peak urban services. That is a good reason to defeat the Bill and to prevent the operations from being sold. If they are sold it will be impossible for the National Bus Company to sustain rural services. That is an important point. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. The Government are taking their revenge on the National Bus Company for taking over the rote that they hoped the private sector would have.
The Government appear to believe that it is possible to extract the profitable express services from the company's other businesses—that they can be isolated and put into a totally private or a mixed private and public arrangement. That shows a total misunderstanding of the way in which the company operates. Its ability successfully to operate under the 1980 Act and to expand its coaching services is due entirely to the integrated nature of its services. It did not have to set up new depots, booking offices and maintenance and repair facilities to expand the express operation, so it could enter the field swiftly and effectively.
The integrated service has a dual purpose. It is, as the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry) pointed out, enabling money to be earned to cross-subsidise operations, 875 and it is sustaining the fabric of the depot and network as well. What the Government are proposing threatens irreparable damage to that network.
§ Mr. Parris
If the national network is being sustained in that way, why did the right hon. Gentleman not welcome the move when it was introduced in 1980?
§ Mr. Booth
I was opposed to the measure in 1980 because the extent to which the express coaching can make a contribution to other operations is so small that it would not, and could not, have saved the other NBC activities from the decline which flows from the Government policies.
After all, only about 7 or 8 per cent. of NBC's operations are in coaching. One cannot expect NBC to earn enough profit from that percentage to sustain a large part of the remaing 92 per cent. or 93 per cent. of its operation. That is why I did not believe then, and I do not believe now on the evidence before us, that merely leaving the NBC as it is, without regard to the transport supplementary grant, the effect of de-licensing on other areas and the removal of the safeguards and protections that existed before the 1980 Act, will prevent a massive decline.
I have visited a number of county areas in the past year, only to find planned declines in their bus service networks, particularly in the rural areas, of up to 20 per cent. I believe that the NBC's evidence to the Select Committee on Transport shows that it estimates a decline of some 60 million service miles in its total services under the current operational framework.
The efficiency of the whole of the National Bus Company operation depends to a great degree on the integration of the various types of service that it runs. Its ability to be flexible in its use of staff, depots and booking facilities largely contributes to that efficiency. Even if there were some way of extracting from NBC a proportion of its staff, coaches and depots and handing them over to someone else to operate, it would still not operate efficiently. It would involve an increase in the cost of operation.
The implication for the relief to the transport supplementary grant is significant. I do not deny the point of the intervention, although it is the case, and I still contend it, that even if we leave the NBC unchanged, the great contraction will go on. The damage has been done. There is no doubt that the contraction will go on faster if this hiving off takes place. The profits of the holiday and coaching services provide 10 to 12 per cent. of the subsidisation of the rural operations. The hiving off of the holiday and coaching services can only hasten the already serious decline.
I turn to part II of the Bill. The Government's decision to press on with the proposal to sell commercial vehicle test stations to the private sector shows how fanatically devoted they are to the destruction of the public sector. They seem to believe that if they can find a measure which will, at one and the same time, cut the Civil Service and enable somebody else to make a profit out of a service which can be sold, that alone, without respect to any other considerations, must be a justification for the measure that they are putting forward.
The Government have tried extremely hard—I give them full marks for trying—to persuade a lot of people that 876 this proposal may have some merit. All their efforts have failed, as far as I can see. The have not persuaded the own-account sector of road haulage or the hire and reward sector that they can get any better service from private stations. On the contrary, they have aroused great fears in the road haulage industry, as well as in the public service vehicle section, that the uniformly high standard of testing accomplished now by the test stations is at risk by what the Government are doing. They have aroused the understandable fear that they are playing politics with road safety. With the combined testing and repair facilities which the Government envisage going into private hands, there are serious risks of commercial malpractice affecting not only the high standards but the impartiality with which testing is undertaken for a whole range of owners.
It is difficult to envisage how the manager of a combined testing and repair depot, faced with a possibility of making money on repair, could resist the switching of staff from testing to repair at times of considerable commercial pressure.
§ Mr. Iain Mills (Meriden)
The right hon. Gentleman and I have sat on many Committees together. Would he comment on the many detailed, lengthy and genuine consultations between my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and associations such as the Freight Transport Association and the Road Haulage Association representing those in the road haulage industry to achieve this legislation? Does he not also recognise that a brief sent to most hon. Members recognised that the Government have gone a long way towards satisfying most of their original doubts and disquiet?
§ Mr. Booth
I apologise to the hon. Gentleman if I used shorthand when I said that I gave the Government full marks for trying. That was intended to convey that I acknowledge that the Government had considerable consultations with the people who are properly concerned and interested. I accept that it covers the area to which the hon. Gentleman referred.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
Is there also not a danger that, where a fleet operator has approached a private enterprise testing station, the former might be able to subject the testing station management to pressure by threatening to withdraw the balance of the fleet on subsequent occasions?
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
It could happen; it may well be shocking. We are here to review legislation and dangers may arise. The Government should know before those dangers happen, as they will.
§ Mr. Booth
I put it to my hon. Friend that whether that danger exists depends on the area of the country. If it is an area where there are test stations reasonably close together it is possible to threaten the withdrawal of one's trade from one station and to take it to another. However, there are places where population is thinly spread and there are enormous distances between test stations. In those places there may be the opposite threat—that if there is not co-operation between the operator and the test station the test station might make it difficult for that operator to get his testing done at the price and under the arrangements that he wants.
There is thus a double threat involved, and what may come out if the legislation goes ahead is that what is 877 recognised now in the testing as producing a guarantee of the highest standards of roadworthiness might come to be regarded instead as the best certificate that money can buy. The quality and efficiency of stations can be put in jeopardy when there is a financial incentive to cut corners.
§ Mr. Eldon Griffiths
I cannot remember whether the right hon. Gentleman ever was a transport Minister, although I know that he has had much experience in the Department of Employment. He will be aware that those of us who have served in the Department of Transport are conscious that vehicle testing of the vast majority of automobiles on our roads is already done in the private sector. If he or his hon. Friends have any evidence that there is venality in that area, I hope that he will give it, but surely there is no objection to the principle, because his Government also administered a system whereby road vehicles were tested in the private sector. I recognise that there are other dimensions, but why should there be a difference in principle in the case of goods vehicles?
§ Mr. Booth
I have not served in the Department of Transport. 1 am not suggesting that there is a difference in principle. The difference of degree in the commercial considerations involved is enormous. If one operates a vehicle that costs £60,000 and takes it to a station that says that it can be passed only subject to about £2,000 of repair work, which means a loss of earning capacity, that might be regarded as a more serious consideration than not being able to use one's car for a week or two and having to hire another one, or use taxis or public transport. There is a difference of degree. I am not claiming that there is a difference of principle.
There is no suggestion that the Government's proposal will lead to any saving of public funds. The test stations operating a uniform test fee across the country cover their costs or make a small profit. However, a break-up of the network is threatened. I am not certain that the Government will succeed in finding one private organisation that will take over all the test stations. When the Government come to a decision on whether to sell them off in blocks or lots, they must take into account the fact that no one will rush forward wanting to take over a test station that can be used only two or three days a week.
Even if the Government can arrange the stations in job lots so that someone has to take over what is now an unprofitable station in order to get hold of profitable ones, how will the Government be able to enforce the standards of the unprofitable one? If they send an inspector and find that the station is not operating properly, can they close it down or will they say that they will run it themselves? They will not be able to sell it to anyone else. The problems of enforcement of standards are enormous. Another inspectorate, meaning more civil servants, will need to be set up to check what the private operators of the stations are doing.
Therefore. the Government should think again. I do not say that on the basis of only my judgment or talks that I have had with people, but I have been influenced in my view by the work of the Select Committee on Transport. It thoroughly examined the matter. The Government cannot completely reject its report without being subject to considerable criticism during the passage of the Bill.
My approach to fixed penalties is different from my approach to other parts of the Bill. I realise that there is a serious problem in the administration of justice, the 878 workload of the courts and our ability to sustain the principles of a system of justice on which we pride ourselves. However, I always hesitate when I see proposals that smack of a compromise between justice and administrative convenience. I am not saying that one does not have to weigh one against the other at times., but whenever such a proposition is made, we should pause and consider carefully.
I also realise that under our court system there is no automatic guarantee of all the tests, checks and safeguards of justice that we would want. Given the large number of traffic offences that the courts must consider, there may be some rubber stamp justice, even in our courts.
The Bill carries further an idea that the House approved only in respect of parking fine fixed penalties. It takes beyond anything that we have envisaged previously the position of the policeman alleging the offence. His decision to allege or report an offence comes near to a decision that a prosecution will be made if there is no response from the person against whom the crime is alleged.
I should like to ask the Under-Secretary a straight question. I refer to English law. I realise that in Scottish law there is a difference in that there is the safeguard of the procurator fiscal issuing the notice. Who decides whether a charge or a summons will be made? Will the form of notice handed out by the policeman make it clear that he is merely reporting or alleging an offence, so that any decision about liability is reserved? That is of particular importance in commercial matters where there is a combined charge, or a charge laid against an owner as well as the driver. If the driver accepts liability, is the owner also guilty of an offence?
I should also like to ask why the Bill has been drafted in such a way as to require the licence to be shown to the constable when he issues the notice. If the police officer has the right to examine the licence fully before deciding whether to issue a notice, he will see the record of previous convictions—for example, endorsements. I have always understood that it was one of the principles of our system of justice that the body or person who was to decide whether there had been an offence or whether someone had been guilty of an offence should not be influenced by any consideration of previous decisions.
Under our court system we would not dream of telling a jury of previous convictions before it was asked to decide whether the person was guilty. Those convictions would be revealed only when guilt had been established and when judgment was to be made about the seriousness of the penalty. Under the Bill it appears that a person against whom an offence is to be alleged will be subject to a decision to allege that offence after his licence has been examined, which could show that other convictions had taken place.
It is implied that there are two systems of justice in the Bill—one for those who happen to have their driving licence when it is alleged that they have committed an offence and one for those who do not. That raises some objections to the Bill.
I put it to the House for consideration, without having made up my mind, that it might have been simpler if all the offences in the schedule for the fixed penalty system did not carry points towards disqualification from holding a driving licence. In any case, it must be almost impossible to operate a system of variable points towards driving licence disqualification on the basis of the fixed penalty 879 system. If there was merit in our decision on the last Bill—I believe that there was—to have a variable points attachment to licences towards disqualification, that is at risk because of what is proposed.
These are difficult matters of judgment that we must debate with care. They are not susceptible to party political analysis. We should not necessarily approach them in that way. It is therefore the more regrettable that this part of the Bill is contained in a measure which has, in its first two parts, the basis of major party political controversy. It is on the basis of those two parts, which I believe are wrong in judgment and principle, and which are harmful to passenger and road freight transport, that I call upon the House to refuse to give the Bill a Second Reading.
§ Sir David Price
(Eastleigh): My concern is with part II of the Bill, relating to the Government's proposal to transfer heavy goods vehicle and public service testing stations to the private sector. I shall, therefore, restrict my remarks to that part of the Bill.
I took the chair at all the sittings of our Select Committee on Transport last year when we studied the Government's proposals, which were then in the form of a discussion paper, to sell off these important testing stations. Our report was published in July, and I have it here. I do not know how many right hon. and hon. Members have read it. I shall not press that question too far, because I want to retain the good will of the House. I merely say that it is an extremely good report and is well worth studying.
However, it was psychic of Her Majesty's Stationery Office to have printed half the report upside down. In my view, that is how the Government have reacted to our recommendations. Our principal conclusion was:we do not"—I repeat "not"—consider that the Government has yet justified its contention that private operators (still to be identified) would carry out the annual testing of commercial vehicles better than the current Department of Transport testing stations.The Government, following the lead of Her Majesty's Stationery Office, clearly read our conclusions upside down, and decided that their proposal was fully justified, when in fact we had said exactly the reverse. Hence, I regard part II as an Alice through the Looking Glass provision, because it puts everything the wrong way round.
As the House knows, I am an old-fashioned Tory, and I do not believe in changing things unless a good case can be made for changing them. I do not subscribe to the change-for-its-own-sake school of politics. I therefore ask the question, which I asked upstairs, "What, in this instance, is the positive case for change?" We received no evidence that the users of the testing stations were dissatisfied with the current services that they received or that they were too expensive.
We could detect no enthusiasm for the Government's proposal to sell off the testing stations. The only person who, with his immense ebullience, argued the case was my hon. and learned Friend the Under-Secretary, who is a superb advocate. I am sure that he will forgive me for saying that I decided that if I ever found myself in the dock at the Old Bailey, I should immediately turn to him to defend me.
880 I quote from paragraph 77 of our report:It is clear that after more than a year of discussions with the representatives of the vehicle operators, the Government have been unable of persuade them that the proposed changes would be beneficial. Although the Government has stated that firm safeguards would be built into the new system the operators' associations were unanimous in their evidence to us that the impartiality of the testing system would be put at risk, that commercial malpractices could occur, and that standards of vehicle safety might fall. The CPT also thought that the quality and efficiency of the services provided to their members might be put in jeopardy.That is pretty clear. I am not giving my opinion. That is the evidence that we received.
Let us consider the matter in detail, and take the Road Haulage Association. Its views were equally clear. It said,on page 2 of the report:The Government's faith in the concept of competitiveness and free enterprise is misplaced when it is applied to an activity in which competitive motives are entirely inappropriate. The function of a testing station is not to produce a commercial service in competition with other stations. Its function is merely to discharge objectively and impartially a responsibility for ensuring that the condition of heavy goods vehicles conforms to prescribed standards. That function cannot be reconciled, indeed, it is in sharp contrast with, such a commercial objective as providing customers with a service on a purely profit-seeking basis.The Freight Transport Association held the same sort of views. I shall quote briefly from page 29:As a principle, we are very much in favour of the withdrawal of Government from functions which can satisfactorily be performed by private enterprise. We have therefore given our full support to successive proposals of the present Government to denationalise the National Freight Corporation, to hive off other parts of the nationalised transport industries, to withdraw from motorway service centres, etc. But we do not consider that HGV testing is in the same category. In many ways, it is the worst candidate for Government withdrawal because it is an area where the Government has a prime responsibility and duty in terms of ensuring public safety.That was pretty clear.
The coach operators made an equally clear statement, which is on page 40 of the report:This Council which represents all sectors of the bus and coach industry in Britain, unanimously deplores the decision of Government to transfer responsibility for carrying out statutory annual testing of Public Service Vehicles to commercial interests operating for profit. It believes strongly that the present system of PSV inspection by impartial and independent engineers employed by the Department of Transport should be retained in the interests of the safety of passengers and other road users and of accountability for exercising statutory responsibility in a consistent way".Why, in the face of the formidable evidence, do the Government persist in their desire to sell off these testing stations? I quote what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said when he wrote in reply to our Select Committee. The document is available in the Library. He said:there is no reason in principle why straighforward mechanical checks on the condition of vehicles should have to be done by civil servants".I must say that the use of the word "civil servants" there has a certain connotation. I should have preferred "public servants", because "civil servants" suggests of mandarins, and I can hardly imagine mandarins getting under vehicles and testing them. I shall not be naughty and ask my right hon. Friend how many mandarins have ever tested a vehicle.
The phrase "straightforward mechanical checks" is a gross underestimation of what is involved. I shall quote from the memorandum of my hon. Friend's predecessor, following questions that were asked of my hon. and 881 learned Friend the Under-Secretary when he appeared before us in the Select Committee, which said, in regard to the heavy goods vehicle test:The test covers 64 main items and is essentially road safety oriented".It said:The test for lorries takes on average 40 minutes".When we come to the public service vehicle, it says thatthe PSV test is fundamentally a check for safety purposes. No standard testing requirements or procedures are currently laid down. On average the test takes about an hour—longer than the HGV test because it is directed to the safety and comfort of passengers as well as the safe operation of the vehicle".I suggest that that makes it clear that more is involved in the testing of heavy goods vehicles than straightforward mechanical tests, as my right hon. Friend suggested. Indeed—this is the key point in my argument—more is involved in this work than in the majority of work of either a traffic warden or a weights and measures inspector. However, I have not heard it suggested that either of those somewhat similar public service functions should be sold to the private sector. So, why should the heavy goods vehicles and the public service vehicle testing functions be treated differently?
§ Mr. Iain Mills
I recognise the work done by the Select Committee, but is my hon. Friend aware of the current views of the Road Haulage Association, the Freight Transport Association and other haulage organisations? Has he read the brief issued to Members of Parliament that implied that as a result of the excellent work done by that Select Committee and the pressure put on the Secretary of State for Transport, much has been done by the Government to meet the criticisms made when those organisations met the Select Committee?
§ Sir David Price
I have read the brief, but I would put a rather different interpretation on it. The associations have accepted the inevitable and have made the best of a move that they do not basically support. No one, other than my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. and learned Friend the Under-Secretary, is in favour of the provision.
The HGV and PSV inspectors along with the weights and measures inspectorate and traffic wardens have the common interface with the public that, if they fail a vehicle or a piece of equipment, or decide that a vehicle is parked in the wrong place, there are punitive consequences for the citizen. That police-like function distinguishes these public testing responsibilities from the commonality of the ordinary prudent and recommended testing which every fleet operator, and most private car owners, follow. I was not surprised to find that those of my constituents involved in road haulage and coach operations do not wish to see such police-like responsibilities passed to the private sector, which may well include a distrusted competitor.
At the end of the day, the issue is not just mechanical testing, but demonstrable integrity. That same need for demonstrable integrity tells us not to hive off the duties of traffic wardens to a private security company, or those of the weights and measures inspectorate to weighing machine manufacturers. No road haulier likes to see his vehicles fail the annual heavy goods test. He will accept the judgment of public officials, but he will not willingly accept the judgment of his competitors.
§ Mr. Eldon Griffiths
As always, I am following my hon. Friend's argument carefully. However, he seems to 882 suggest that the private sector ought not to test those matters which could involve a penalty for the public. I see his argument but would he apply it, for example, to the aircraft industry? Would he insist that the only people to test the aeroplanes in which people travel, which are ultimately controlled by Government bodies, should be civil servants? That would be a wholly impracticable proposition.
§ Sir David Price
As my hon. Friend knows, that is not a correct analogy. Type testing and approval are involved. The industry is also policed by a quango in the form of the Civil Aviation Authority.
§ Sir David Price
They may do if there is an accident. The accident side is run by the Civil Aviation Authority.
When there is so much concern, both in the House and outside, about how to live with the lorry, it is especially important that the public should retain the fullest confidence in the thoroughness, integrity and impartiality of our national system of lorry testing. I thought that my hon. Friend was going to ask me how I squared that view with the ordinary MOT testing of domestic motor cars. I do not wish to detain the House and, as I have not been asked that question, I shall not answer it. However, the point is admirably summarised in our report.
I conclude, as did the Select Committee, that these are inappropriate responsibilities to sell off to the private sector. There is not only no demonstrable public benefit in so doing, but there is a risk of demonstrable public harm. I shall have no hesitation in opposing part IF of the Bill throughout its passage in the House. As I support in principle the other parts of the Bill, I shall not vote against the Bill tonight but such is the strength of my opposition to part II that I find it impossible to vote for the Bill. I shall, therefore,abstain from voting.
Parliamentary honour demands that we should follow our declared judgments in the Select Committee by subsequent votes on the Floor of the House. That is the action that I shall take at the conclusion of the debate, unless my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is so persuaded by the cogency of my arguments that he agrees—as I hope he will—to withdraw part II.
§ Mr. Sydney Bidwell
(Ealing, Southall): It is a pleasure to speak after my Select Committee colleague, the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Sir D. Price), who was a positive dynamo on one part of the Bill in the Select Committee. If the proposed changes in heavy goods vehicle testing were the sole contents of the Bill, the hon. Gentleman might cheerfully join us in the Lobby. However, we well understand that as an old-fashioned Tory who may believe in privatising wholesale the National Bus Company, he will probably feel unable to do that.
Other provisions in the Bill are less controversial but will nevertheless need to be examined in minute detail in Committee. My right hon. Friend the Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Booth) pointed out that the Government have introduced three highly controversial and detailed Bills that have taken up much Committee time. I refer to the Bills in 1980, 1981 and now 1982. I do not know whether there will be another Bill in 1983 and it is certainly doubtful whether a Conservative Government 883 will introduce a Transport Bill in 1984. We have just heard that the provisions for goods vehicle testing have caused grave public disquiet and that Conservative Members have serious misgivings about them. However, on Second Reading of such omnibus Bills the House cannot throw out that provision alone. If we could do so, we should have a more adequate and just parliamentary procedure.
As I have declared before, I am a Member sponsored by the Transport and General Workers Union. That union gave evidence to the Select Committee on the most important part of the Bill—the heavy goods vehicle testing provisions. It pointed out the widespread opposition to those provisions. During the speech made by the hon. Member for Eastleigh I almost intervened to suggest that the Secretary of State—who is relatively new to the subject of transport and to his responsibilities for transport in the Cabinet—should visit a testing station before the Bill's passage through the House is concluded. Members of the Select Committee visited such stations.
I visited a station in the Hayes/Yeading area, not very far from my home. I got underneath a vehicle and witnessed the thorough way in which tests are carried out. I spoke to drivers who were bringing in their vehicles, to members of the staff who carry out the tests, to engineers and to supervisors. One of the matters that concerns them most is the necessity to subject vehicles coming in from other West European countries to the rigidity of testing to which British operated vehicles are traditionally subjected. The submission given to the Select Committee by the Transport and General Workers Union spoke of the measure of disquiet there would be if there were to be wholesale privatisation of heavy goods vehicle testing. Such a move must place a big question mark over the continuity of the standards to which people have become accustomed.
While I was at the Yeading testing area, the police brought in a vehicle—a tipper lorry—which had one bald tyre and one brake that did not function at all. I am not suggesting that that vehicle would go forward under a privatised system, but will the new testing system be as rigid, as closely defined and as closely followed as the standard that exists at present? On that occasion during the summer, I went underneath the vehicle. Oil was dripping on to my new light suit. One man joked that he had deliberately put a dirty vehicle on to the testing pit to give me a true baptism. If the Secretary of State has not yet sampled that experience, and is drawing heavily on the theories of his predecessor, and his very able assistant the Under-Secretary of State, I suggest that he finds the time to undertake that experience.
After the visit of the Secretary of State's predecessor, the staff believed that the whole matter was cut and dried, that it was a pure doctrinaire approach and that whatever alternative was put forward by drivers, owners and others, the changes were nevertheless going forward. Therefore, one cannot escape the conclusion that this policy emanates from pure dogma. We have had an exhibition today, from a self-confessed old-fashioned Conservative, who sees the value and tradition of what has existed, and who doubts very much the excessive monetarist theories of those who momentarily hold sway in the Government. I say "momentarily" because that will soon change.
The House should also consider the role of the Select Committees in these matters. The Leader of the House 884 raised doubts about the wisdom—I put it no higher or lower—of the Government's current policies in the broad economic sense. During debate on the Queen's Speech in which changes in transport were discussed—no reference was made to the changes proposed today—he said that he believed the new Select Committees were working well. He thought that they were a good development in parliamentary procedure, which was bringing together Members of both sides of the House with varying experience. There was a considerable amount of transport experience in the Select Committee. It would be the best sort of collective wisdom in parliamentary procedure because Committees would report to the House and not to the Government on what was wise procedure and what was not.
The hon. Member for Eastleigh clearly set out the categorical terms in which the Select Committee turned down the proposals, after taking much evidence both from employer, employee and everyone interested in vehicle testing. When I visited the depot I asked the workers why they had such a profound faith in the existing position and they said that they felt safe with it. A co-operative attitude has been developed during the years and one has serious doubts whether it will be continued in the light of the proposals in the Bill.
I do not believe that any hon. Member can be suitably informed in a debate of this sort without going through our painstaking report that was published last summer. As the Government are bludgeoning on with the proposals in the face of all the evidence and the feeling against the Bill, I wonder whether it would not be better for me to use my time as a Member of the House in other pursuits. Why should I and other hon. Members spend hours visiting various parts of Britain, Western Europe, and North America, collectively come to certain conclusions and put them before Parliament, only to have them turned down in a wholly unconvincing way? There is no doubt that what the Secretary of State has said up to now has not met Opposition challenges.
§ Mr. Ted Leadbitter (Hartlepool)
My hon. Friend might emphasise the point made in the Government response to the report—sufficient written matter shows that during a year a wide range of evidence was taken—which was:The evidence which you collected, and the analysis of the central issues which your report provides, have made a useful contribution to the debate on the proposals.That is another way for a new Secretary of State, who has been in office for three months, to say: "I am not the master. The officials have told me what to say.
§ Mr. Bidwell
That is a valid observation. Opposition Members had mixed feelings when the new Select Committee system was developed. We now have a system similar to the American Congressional committee, which sifts evidence and takes evidence from witnesses. I welcome that development, but not all hon. Members do. Some hon. Members believe that everything should take place in this Chamber. The most serious work of Parliament cannot be undertaken in that way. When I was on the Sub-Committee on Race Relations and Immigration for 10 years—I was the longest serving Member—I struggled for a two-party consensus. I believed that it was not a party political matter and that it would be wiser to come to terms with it. Similarly, in our current study of London Transport, which has been affected by the Law
885 Lords decision, if we can say something intelligent that will help the House and the country, we expect it to be observed and given due weight. My complaint is that this part of our report on the main matter of the Bill is not being given due weight. The House would be likely to throw the Bill out tonight if it did not include other wider matters, such as the National Bus Company.
I shall break away for a moment to consider the National Bus Company which is, as we have said in previous debates, an efficient company.
We are all seriously worried about further incursions into and other aspects of the dismantling of the National Bus Company's undertakings and social obligations. My hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) touched on that. I have read that in this area there are serious effects as a result of cross-subsidisation by the National Bus Company. That puts a large question mark over the extent of the damage caused by the Government's earlier measure concerning the National Bus Company's undertakings.
Of course, we all expect that the chairman of the National Bus Company, who is fighting for survival, will not oppose the Government lock, stock and barrel. He will necessarily make compromises and try to salvage what might be left after this doctrinaire approach to the National Bus Company and to the way in which the nation's transport is organised. He will bear in mind the social obligations of the National Bus Company. These have to be carried out under a fair amount of public scrutiny and supervision. We believe that, as a result of both the previous and the present measures, the position of the National Bus Company will worsen.
There are other matters which, although they are a diversion from the mainstream of the Bill, must be examined minutely. The question of road worthiness of vehicles is one, as I have pointed out to the Secretary of State. My right hon. Friend the Member for Barrow-in-Furness has highlighted many apparent weaknesses in the Bill, the examination of which will take much time in Committee. 'The Secretary of State will find that there is widespread concern among Conservative as well as Opposition Members.
I suspect that most hon. Members, certainly those with transport interests, have received communications from the RAC and the AA expressing their disquiet about the Bill in its present form, particularly with regard to relationships between the police and the public. That, too, can be discussed at great length in Committee.
We had hoped that a new Secretary of State, with a fresh approach to transport matters, would step back and honour the profound findings of the Select Committee and not merely shove on regardless. If he had done that, he could have made a great political reputation for himself. As it is, he and his colleagues in the Cabinet—the hardline, "near-nutter" cases—are doomed to perish.
§ Mr. Eldon Griffiths
(Bury St. Edmunds): I shall start with the extension of fixed penalties, which is possibly the most difficult aspect of the Bill, and continue with one of my first loves in transport—the National Bus Company—and the advantages, as I perceive them, which can and I believe will flow to the National Bus Company from the Bill.
On fixed penalties—part III—I give my general support to my right hon. Friend for two specific reasons. First, the 886 burden on the police and the courts will be reduced. About 1 million fixed penalty tickets are never paid each year. That practice brings the law into contempt. In many places, particularly London, it means that there is a great deal more congestion and selfish parking than there ought to be. It means, too, that the great majority of law-abiding people who pay their parking fines are unfairly treated. It must be right to improve the enforceability of parking offences, as the Bill provides. It will also be a great relief to many of us who live in Central London.
The second objective is that the police and the courts will not have to waste so much time. I note with interest my righ hon. Friend's calculation that this could take up to 600,000 cases per year out of the courts. That must be right. Among other things, it will allow the courts to deal more speedily and, therefore, more justly with the many cases of petty and violent crime that at present do not come to judgment sufficiently quickly due to congestion of the courts with traffic offences.
It is common ground in the House—and here I declare an interest—that the more the police are diverted into sitting around in court, waiting for traffic offences to be dealt with, the less time the police will have to deal with their primary task, which is the enforcement of the law in respect of crimes of violence, theft and assault. I therefore greatly welcome my right hon. Friend's aims.
I wish to ask two questions. For the first time my right hon. Friend is introducing fixed penalties for offences involving vehicles moving on the road. Does that mean that traffic wardens will be allowed to deal with them? The Minister will know that over the years the police service has been doubtful about the wisdom of extending to traffic wardens the policing of traffic offences involving moving vehicles. I hope that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister will assure us that that is not the intention. All too often moving vehicle offences involve crimes such as theft as well as merely exceeding the speed limit. Secondly—I hate to say this, but I suppose that I should—traffic wardens, although an admirable group of people. have been known to take industrial action. I believe that it is inappropriate to allow matters that may involve crime to be dealt with by bodies that may from time to time withdraw their labour, which the police service is statute bound not to do. I seek assurance on that.
I also seek clarification from the Minister on one further matter regarding fixed penalty offences. I refer to the cases to which the right hon. Member for Barrow-in-Farness (Mr. Booth) alluded in which a police officer may take away a motorist's licence. I understand that this would be done only with the consent of the motorist and that the police officer would be required to issue a receipt. Much depends, however, on the efficiency of the system once the licence has been taken away to be endorsed, sometimes without a court order, and then to be sent back. I appreciate that the receipt will be sufficient evidence in the event of a further offence being committed.
I take a single example. A constituent of mine, Miss Susan Carter, took her driving test in 1970 or 1971, passed it and was issued with a licence. In 1975 or 1976, she was prosecuted for careless driving, which was not a very serious offence but her licence was duly endorsed. When the 10-year period had expired, she applied in 1980 for a new licence, but was promptly told by the licensing centre in Swansea that she had never had one. The record had been lost. Plainly, the girl had a licence as she had passed her test and her licence had been endorsed, but she is now 887 told by Swansea that she never had one. I use that example to make my general point, although I am not in general a critic of Swansea. Indeed, I set up the centre, so I should be rather careful in that respect. Nonetheless, it is crucial when the police and motorists are exchanging licences for certificates and receipts, that the system should work smoothly and efficiently. Otherwise, they will have many more difficulties than they already have.
Clause 45 concerns heavy lorries. Hostility in rural East Anglia to heavy lorries is enormous. A great deal of it is unfair but many of my constituents believe, rightly or wrongly, that lorries are already too big, noisy, dirty and that some of their drivers are far too inconsiderate. I approve specificaly two aspects in clause 45. First, environmental considerations can be taken into account when permissions to operate lorry depots are given. That will assist in two ways. First, a large lorry depot in a small village has grown rapidly over the years from containing perhaps one or two lorries to 10 to 12 lorries, and begins to dominate the village.
Needless to say, the House will never favour retrospective legislation. One cannot reach back into the past and stop a garage or depot from growing in response to normal trade. However, I hope that the Secretary of State will use such powers and persuasion as are available to him to apply the effect of clause 45 to additional growth, from the moment the Bill becomes law, to prevent any further extension of lorry depots in small villages.
I also welcome the other aspect of the environmental clause. This, I suppose, will enable local authorities to inhibit the inconsiderate habits of some owner-drivers and other regular drivers from taking their lorries home with them and parking them every night or every other night often in front of terraced houses. That has an appalling impact on the environment. Generally, it involves a vehicle being started at 4 o'clock in the morning and waking everybody up. Worse, it damages the road haulage industry in the eyes of the public.
I hope that clause 45 will be applied as vigorously as possible, both to the village lorry depot and to the habit of selfishly parking heavy goods vehicles in front of people's homes.
§ Mr. David Howell
My hon. Friend makes a valid point which gives me an opportunity to clarify briefly my reply on the same point to my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. Parris) about the application of this clause. "0" licences, of course, are usually valid for about five years, so that that would obviously apply to new applicants and to those whose licences had expired and who were reapplying. I wanted to make it clear that that would be the extent of it.
§ Mr. Griffiths
I listened with great respect, and affection, to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Sir David Price), Chairman of the Select Committee inquiry. Since he was promoting the circulation of his report, I am glad to tell him that I have read at least a good deal, if not all, of it. He made a strong impression on the House. I am certain that Ministers will want to reflect carefully on the powerful objections that he and the Opposition Front Bench made on this point.
However, I disagree on the point of principle. It is not a valid proposition that anything touching on safety cannot or should not be handled in the private sector. In much of 888 the mechanical engineering industry—railway trains, cars, aircraft and the vast number of machines operating in factories—safety is inevitably tested, maintained and regularly checked by the private sector.
I join my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh in saying that it must be the Government's responsibilitity to maintain standards, monitor performance and ensure enforcement. These are the proper tasks of Government. However, that does not necessarily mean that only Government servants—I use that anodyne phrase rather than "civil servants" or "bureaucrats"—can be entrusted with the mechnical job of checking the safety of vehicles.
Technology in any event is going to make a profound change in the testing field. The modern dynamometer is capable of checking fumes, noise, emissions, revolutions and all other factors in a modern engine. Increasingly, vehicle engines will be tested in that way. It therefore is not right, inevitably, to suppose that only the State can provide the investment to buy these modern machines in order that the job shall be done.
The heart of the Bill is the possibility of a better future for the National Bus Company. The congestion of roads by motor cars and the increasing cost of petrol mean that the bus could in the long run prove to be the saviour of transport in Britain. The impact of the ASLEF strike on the railways will make it very difficult to maintain some of the rural lines that have operated under the unremunerative services grant over the past 10 years. I should regret it if many of them were forced into closure by the folly of the locomotive drivers' main union, but we must consider the prospect of an effective profitable bus company taking up the slack if that were to happen.
Bury St. Edmunds is the centre of many routes,; almost like a bicycle wheel. Buses arrive from the north, south, east and west into a small town of some 25,000 people carrying every day tens of thousands of people from the surrounding villages and smaller towns to work, shop, be educated and to attend our hospitals. Bury is a natural bus town. It has one of the better rural networks for buses in Britain. But, alas, the town also has what the National Bus Company itself calls the "worst bus depot" in England.
This depot is a mess. Its only advantage is that it is in the middle of the town, which helps the shopper and the person visiting our hospital, school or library; but it is bad for everybody else. It is bad for the bus company because the buses cannot turn round properly, for the bus crews because they have nowhere to take a rest and no proper facilities while waiting to drive their vehicles on further legs. It is very bad for passengers; there are no decent shelters or toilets. As the buses turn, they eject oil on to the road so the depot is also dirty and dangerous. All in all, this bus station is very bad for one of the most beautiful and historical of our market towns. Not only is it ugly; it has sterilised the sensitive development of the centre of Bury St. Edmunds.
The bus company, trade unions, local authority and all my constituents agree with me on this. Therefore, I much welcomed the recent speech of the Under-Secretary when he called for a massive effort to unlock the existing development value in this as in so many other of our town centre bus depots. When I had his job, the chairman of the National Bus Company painted a sorrowful picture. The company was broke. That was the legacy we inherited in 1970; and we had to put in the accountants—virtually the receivers—and practically rebuild the company. Through the ministrations of the last Labour Government, as well 889 as the present Conservative Government, it is now doing better. In particular, some of the express services are now doing better, although at some cost to the stage bus services.
It is unacceptable, however, that valuable real estate in town centres cannot be developed because the National Bus Company does not have the money and cannot borrow the money. It is therefore logical to allow the National Bus Company to bring in the private sector to carry out sensible development.
I return to the example of Bury St. Edmunds. It is not a nationally important town. It simply is a lovely town. If the Eastern Counties section of the National Bus Company were enabled to form, with the private sector, a joint development company, it would in my judgment be able to build, out of Britain's worst bus station, one of its best bus stations. We could have decent shelters, toilets and places for the bus crews. Offices could also be established over such development. Some money too could be earned out of the development of a site that is at present sterile.
I therefore commend the proposal in the Bill that the National Bus Company should be allowed to escape from owning sterilised real estate. It should have powers to get together with the private sector to develop for the general public good.
As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has remarked, this Bill is another step down the road towards privatisation. This is a matter on which the two sides of the House profoundly disagree, but I wish to congratulate my hon. and learned Friend the Under-Secretary of State and the two Secretaries of State for Transport since the last election on the rapid progress made in the sale of British Rail hotels. That represents an important step forward. I back them too on the transfer of road construction units to the private sector. About £2,000 million worth of design work is now conducted, or shortly will be conducted, in the private sector. I am equally glad that when the long leases of motorway service areas expire they will enable them to be offered competitively to the private sector. I am glad also that they have announced that when market conditions are favourable—I hope that this will be soon—the British Transport Docks Board will be floated off to private enterprise.
§ Mr. Leadbitter
I happen to be chairman of the ports committee of the Labour Party transport group in the House. I have never known, in all the years of the British Transport Docks Board, any complaint to be made of lack of efficiency or lack of competitiveness among its ports. That is a sterling example of public ownership. Many people feel that the few small ports remaining outside public ownership should join these ports.
§ Mr. Griffiths
I share the regard of the hon. Gentleman for the British Transport Docks Board's ports. I had some responsibility for them over a number of years. I make no complaint about their general efficiency. The difference between the hon. Gentleman and myself is that he seems to regard privatisation as a penalty.
§ Mr. Griffiths
The hon. Gentleman seems to think that privatisation means that something is being taken away. I take the view that the State should only do that which its citizens are unable or unwilling to do. I believe that the State should not put its hand into the taxpayer's pocket and 890 remove compulsorily the people's money unless there is a compelling reason for this. I do not complain about the British Transport Docks Board. My argument is that there is no reason compulsorily to use the taxpayer's money for its purposes if these can be done in the private sector.
§ Mr. Leadbitter
The hon. Gentleman argues a point of political philosophy. I am not saying that privatisation is a penalty. I am, however, saying that when an industry has been tried and tested over the years and found to be efficient and has also made a considerable contribution to improving the economy, it is dogma and political nonsense for the hon. Gentleman's party to privatise it.
§ Mr. Griffiths
That intervention by the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Leadbitter) allows me to conclude on the point I was about to make. I believe generally that privatisation benefits the industries concerned. It frees them from the straitjacket of Treasury supervision and of the PSBR. To be released from those constraints is the best that can be done. I can say from personal experience that the National Bus Company has been held back more by the restraints of the PSBR and the Treasury than by anything else.
The second group to benefit from privatisation are consumers. There can be no argument about the way in which deregulation and the freeing of competition has allowed the bus companies—including the National Bus Company—to offer new routes and lower fares. That has helped the consumer.
The whole economy, too, is assisted by privatisation. The receipts from the sale of public assets reduce the PSBR.
Above all, the general public benefit from privatisation. It is the only real way in which they can become shareholders in the firms concerned. When I left the Royal Air Force, I supported the Labour Party. I did so because, as a young man, I believed that the ownership of public assets meant that all the people would be shareholders. Since then, I have faced reality. The nationalised industries are not operated on the basis that they are the property of the consumers. They are faraway monoliths managing their own affairs. I want ownership by the people to mean what it says. Privatisation means that institutions, trade unions and individuals can purchase shares and exercise the authority that goes with them. That is real ownership by the people. That is what I want. II is for those reasons of detail and of principle that 'I strongly support the Bill.
§ Mr. Tom Bradley (Leicester, East)
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Booth) on his extremely careful analysis of the Bill and the criticisms that he applied to it. I share particularly his conclusion that it is most regrettable that the Bill has been presented in its present mixed form. Some hon. Members say that parts of the Bill are good whereas others say that parts of the Bill are wholly bad.
Parts I and II form the real substance of the Bill. The rest of the Bill merely seeks to sugar those unpalatable pills. It is almost a discourtesy to the House that the Secretary of State thought it appropriate to bring forward legislation as innocuous as that contained in part III in a single package. Parts I and II engage the mainstream philosophy of the Tory Administration on its must unstable ground.
891 The powers provided in part I for the National Bus Company to sell shares in any of its subsidiaries are all part of the Government's drive towards the privatisation of the publicly owned and controlled transport sector. I should have no objection if the Government were saying, as they implied in the press release when the Bill was published, that there was to be an introduction of private capital into the National Bus Company. The National Bus Company could make good use of that or of any capital, public or private, because, as the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) has said, the commercial development of the many excellent sites owned and controlled by the company in cities all over Britain is long overdue. This company is starved of funds, and investment from any source would be more than welcome.
What are the Government really planning? Are they contemplating the introduction of private capital into the National Bus Company or are they conspiring instead to sell off lucrative parts of the company to its commercial rivals? It is clear that the Secretary of State's intention is to sell off publicly owned assets rather than to introduce capital into a publicly owned enterprise. In the press release on 29 January the Secretary of State said that the Government believethat there is scope particularly for involving the private sector in the NBC's coach operations—including the successful National Express network of inter-city services.In no other public sector have the Government yet been able to put together, thanks to the myopia of the Treasury, a mechanism for introducing private capital into State-owned companies. It is evident that what the Government are talking about is selling off the National Bus Company's inter-city service. Why? What do they expect to gain? As has already been said, National Express represents about 7 per cent. of the total business of the National Bus Company.
§ Mr. lain Mills
The hon. Member mentioned the difficulty of finding a financial mechanism. Does he therefore deny both for himself and on behalf of his party the benefits to employees of the National Freight Corporation of the Government's action which has allowed a management buy-out, perhaps the most democratic shift in ownership for many decades?
§ Mr. Bradley
The new company has hardly been floated. We had better reserve judgment until we can gauge the success or otherwise of the Government's intentions.
As I was saying, National Express represents about 7 per cent. of the total business of the National Bus Company. It is an inter-city express coach service which depends for its success on three things. First, it is an all-embracing national service with a timetable to rival that of British Rail when the trains are running. Secondly, it can economise in the use of vehicles and staff. It has flexibility. For example, it may need only 350 coaches in the winter, but it can quickly expand this to over 3,000 vehicles during the summer peak and drivers can be redeployed accordingly. Thirdly, its services interconnect with those of the separate National Bus Company operators, thus providing the nation with a genuine national bus and coach operation.
Therefore, although National Express represents only 7 per cent. of the National Bus Company's operations, it 892 is the major contributor to its profits. If NBC loses National Express it will lose its profitable arm. Let us make no mistake about that. That is the arm which not only feeds the company's national finances but also provides essential support for local operations across the country.
Why should this even be considered? The reason lies not in the failure of NBC to do its job but in its success. The Transport Act 1980 was designed, we were told, to liberate the nation's bus and coach operations. The aim of the Secretary of State's predecessor was to unleash British Coachways, the Freddie Laker of the roads, on to the English transport system. Private enterprise coaches would outprice at exceptionally low fares the lame and halt nationalised and municipalised undertakings. Nothing like this has happened.
British Coachways, the arm of free enterprise, has more or less disappeared, destroyed by its inability to provide the service required by the travelling public, and it is now resorting to special operational arrangements with the National Bus Company to survive in any shape. In other words, low fares were not enough. A reliable and regular service was what the public wanted. They found it with the nationalised National Bus Company.
Now the Secretary of State has to find another way to destroy the nationalised sector. He has not been able to do it through competition. If the National Bus Company cannot be beaten by private enterprise, he says, let us cut off its profitable arm. The private sector ought to do well when that happens, but will it? Will it have the flexibility possessed by the National Bus Company? Will it have the feeder services provided by the National Bus Company? Will it have the sales outlets?
If the privatisation goes ahead, the rest of the operations of the National Bus Company will be imperilled; the backbone will have gone. Many of the local companies will be unable to finance their stage carriage services. There is no logic and no sense—nothing but dogma—behind part I of the Bill.
Part II provides for the privatisation of heavy goods vehicle and passenger service vehicle testing of lorries, buses and coaches. Here we see this doctrinal Government at their worst. This is privatisation for the sake of it and to hell with the consequences. Testing is carried out for only one reason—safety for the driver and all other road users who are on the road at the same time. The House ought to note that the present system costs the taxpayer nothing. Rightly, it is self-financing, Civil Service costs being covered by the fees paid by the operators. Privatisation will bring no benefit to taxpayers. If anything, it will increase costs to them by the complicated system of inspection and control which the House will properly require.
The Select Committee on Transport has been referred to several times during the debate, particularly by the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Sir D. Price), who carried out the important task of chairing a Sub-Committee examination of the testing of these vehicles. He and his colleagues carried out an exhaustive enquiry into the proposals published by the Department of Transport in August 1980. They took evidence from all the main interests in the bus and lorry industry.
What did those interests have to say? They told the Sub-Committee that they were extremely concerned about a number of aspects of proposed policy. They were concerned that testing stations might be transferred to unsuitable organisations, the fear being that the impartial 893 testing service currently being provided would be undermined. They said that it would be more difficult to maintain uniform standards of testing between different testing stations. They said that some of the smaller testing stations in the more remote areas might be found to be commercially unviable, and the integrity of the testing station network might therefore be impaired. They went on to say that there would be additional costs involved in providing a satisfactory monitoring of the private sector testing stations.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues saw representatives of the bus industry, who outlined particular problems that they faced with the introduction of annual tests for buses, problems which would be compounded by the transfer of testing to the private sector.
Before the hon. Member for Meriden (Mr. Mills) reminds us for the fourth time that he has had a document from the Freight Transport Association, which he has obviously read and suspects that we have not, may I tell him that I have studied it with great care? I believe that the association is seeking to put a brave face on the fact that the Government have brutally overridden all the sensible objections that it has made. In other words, the Select Committee on Transport could find nobody in favour of the Government's ideas, no matter how wedded those organisations were to the concept of free enterprise. Why? I believe that the reason is that they came down in favour of sanity—that is, in favour of safety testing remaining in the hands of impartial Government servants who have done the job to everybody's satisfaction to date. Nobody wished to see the system, which safeguards the public as much as, if not more than, the operators, hived off to interests with commercial considerations. The Select Committee, expressing no doubts, recommended in its fourth report of last Session that the system should remain as it is.
The Government have taken no notice, although exactly the same evidence was available to them. They implied in their observations on the Select Committee's report that the operators' associations were now less hostile to the proposals. The Government's view is no doubt shared by the hon. Member for Meriden. Presumably the associations are now regarded as less hostile—this will no doubt be trotted out later in the debate—because they will have a statutory right to consultation. A fat lot of good consultation is with the present Government!
The overwhelming objection remains, however—the introduction of commercial considerations into a procedure designed to protect the public from unsafe lorries and buses on the roads. This part of the Bill is totally irresponsible and represents a threat to the safety of every citizen. I and the party that I now represent will have no hesitation in voting against Second Reading.
§ Mr. Peter Fry (Wellingborough)
With the exception of the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths), the debate so far has followed an unusual pattern. We have heard from Members belonging to all parties strong reservations about many of the proposals in the Bill. I shall be no exception to the tenor of the debate so far.
It gives me no pleasure to say that I find many aspects of the Bill disappointing, not least because the Bill fails to take any notice of the major transport problem facing 894 the Government and the country, which is the future of British Rail. I do not want to go into detail, but it is clear that at an early opportunity the Government will have to consider what they will do. For example, can they sustain the rural lines, a problem hinted at by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds? If my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is to introduce an annual Bill, I hope that he will before long put right that error of omission and tackle what is clearly a major problem.
Various acts of commission in the Bill do not please me greatly either. First, there are the proposals for the privatisation of the vehicle testing stations and of National Express, as part of the National Bus Company. I am far from opposed to privatisation or denationalisation. On the contrary, I believe that both should be pursued wherever possible, but in the transport context the first priority should not be the pursuit of any political dogma or prejudice. I believe that I am more entitled to criticise dogma than are Opposition Members, in view of their so often nationalising industries which did not need it.
The priority should be the efficient working of our transport industries. For reasons that I hope to make clear, I am far from satisfied as yet that the Government's proposals are either sufficiently clear or sufficiently proved to be in the best interests of the country or the transport industry.
Much mention has already been made of the deliberations and conclusions of the Select Committee on Transport. I do not want to go over the ground so excellently covered already, but I should like to make the following observation. I came to the examination of witnesses and the comments of my colleagues on the Committee with the scepticism of a Conservative. Ir, other words, my natural inclination was to side with the Government's proposals. A reading of the Committee's proceedngs will show that I did my best to get some of the harsher wording tempered in the final report
However, if one is to serve on a Select Committee and to read about the case in detail, one must try to put one's political prejudices on one side. Otherwise, one is not fulfilling the proper purpose of a member of a Select Committee. After reading all the evidence, I found it impossible to avoid the view that the only person who seemed enthusiastic about the vehicle testing proposals was my hon. and learned Friend the Under-Secretary.
I was struck by the large number of outside bodies that were categorical on the subject. I also accept that their latest attitude is an attempt to put a brave face on what they regard as a final conclusion by the Government.
It is clear that the Select Committee's investigation was thorough and that there was universal agreement. The Government should bear those facts in mind, since otherwise they are in effect calling into question the whole purpose of the Select Committee. What are we supposed to be there for? Is it not to try to look objectively at serious problems of our time and to reach conclusions that are not biased by political views but are in the best interests of the country as a whole? I am disappointed that my hon. and learned Friend did not take the advice that we offered him then and are again offering him tonight.
When I come to the other proposal for privatisation. relating to the National Bus Company and paticularly the National Express coach services, I must declare my interest once again. My reservations about these proposals result from my fairly long association with public transport matters and particularly the time that I spent while the 895 Conservative Party was in Opposition as chairman of its bus policy group, when we were preparing our manifesto for the last general election.
For an understanding of the background to my doubts, it is important to consider a little of the history of National Express. When the National Bus Company came into being, National Express was created as a single company, operating its own coaches and employing its own drivers. To put it mildly, it soon ran into serious trouble. Separate accounts for that company were never published—whether they were kept, I do not know—but we know that the running of the company as it was then was almost a disaster. Indeed, it could have been the object of the kind of criticisms that some of my hon. Friends are always making about nationalised industries.
However, the point is that there has been a major and important change in the running of that company. No longer is it a company that depends entirely upon coaches run in its own narrow interest, particularly by the subsidiaries of National Travel. Now, as has been pointed out, it is part of the whole network of the National Bus Company. When the Transport Act 1980 came into being it took off and gained a tremendous advantage from the freeing from the licensing restrictions that had hitherto prevented its expansion.
The National Bus Company has in effect used resources that would otherwise have been surplus in its various operating subsidiaries to try to obtain a national coach network, which has successfully competed, particularly in recent months, not just with the private sector but with British Rail itself. It has been able to do this and at the same time perform two very important functions. First, it has made a contribution to the overheads and the running expenses of the National Bus Company itself. Secondly, and perhaps more important, the use of the subsidiary companies has enabled those operations to support other bus activities which might otherwise have been curtailed.
What, then, is wrong or questionable about the Government's attitude to National Express? It may well be—I have yet to be convinced—that the worst fears of the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bradley) will not be fulfilled, that the Government do not intend to sell off or hive off profitable parts of the company and leave the rest to fend for themselves. The danger surely is that if the company is to be sold off, either it will have to operate as a separate entity or it will have to depend to a greater or lesser extent upon the subsidiary companies which are part of the National Bus Company.
If the company operates entirely as a separate entity, it can of course try to go the same way as National Express did when it was set up—in which case I wish it the best of luck, but I do not think that it will be a very profitable organisation. On the other hand, it could continue to subcontract to the various component companies of the NBC. If so, can my hon. and learned Friend see a company which has been sold off and is presumably operating independently allowing itself to be completely at the behest of a series of companies totally within the nationalised sector? That is an idea that I find it somewhat difficult to accept.
The other side of this is that the company could try to do without the coaches and the services of the subsidiary 896 companies, in which case, if their operations should be stopped, they would suffer a considerable reduction in cash flow and revenue.
It is possible that the new company will not have the free and wonderful future that my hon. and learned Friend obviously hopes because, as I understand it, the 1980 Act enables any coach operator to compete freely with any other coach operator. What is to stop the various component companies of the NBC operating in competition with the hived-off National Express? Furthermore, they will be able to do what some private operators are doing to Cumberland Motor Services; they will be able to cream off the best of the routes when it suits them. Because their vehicles and their drivers can be used elsewhere, their marginal costs will be lower than those of anyone who is trying to run an overall national coach network.
I believe, therefore, that there are many questions to be answered before we can possibly agree that the Government's proposals are right either for the National Bus Company or for the travelling public.
There is a suggestion—at the moment it is no more than that—that the Government might try to alter the rules a little. The 1980 Act certainly made a major alteration in the rules, and if some of the scenarios I have been trying to describe come about I hope that my hon. Friends will not be tempted to try to alter the rules again. It has been suggested that the subsidiary companies of NBC might be directed either to subcontract to the hived-off National Express or indeed not to run coach operations at all. It has even been suggested that the 1980 Act might have to be amended against the National,' Bus Company or its subsidiaries.
I am not standing here as a defender of a nationalised industry against private enterprise, but I am saying that we cannot have one set of rules for one part of the market and another set of rules for the other—at least, not if we are true Conservatives and believe in fair competition. There is a grave danger that unless some of the questions and situations that I have been spelling out tonight are resolved by the Government we will be led down a difficult road and might have to defend situations and attitudes that we never thought would come into being. I think I have said enough to show my great concern about the future of the bus industry and the coach industry.
I am particularly worried that the Government have not made their views sufficiently clear, because the Bill gives such wide powers to the Secretary of State. I hope that before the debate ends tonight we shall have some assurances that those wide powers will not be taken without further reference to the House on some future occasion.
I am concerned about the reduction in other bus services that could result from the loss of revenue because, despite brave words to the other effect, all of us know what is happening in our own constituencies. It is becoming increasingly difficult to move around after 5 or 6 o'clock at night or on a Sunday. The truth is that public transport is still deteriorating in this country, and I believe that anything that happens, whatever the political theory behind it, which causes a further deterioration should be resisted.
It was suggested by the hon. Member for Leicester, East that the third part of the Bill was not quite so important. I believe that in some respects it is equally important.
§ Mr. Fry
As a member of the RAC public policy committee, I know that the RAC regards it as highly controversial. Indeed, we have had representations not only from the RAC but also from the AA, particularly on the problem of the fixed penalty system. The idea that a licence has to be produced which gives the motorist certain benefits over the motorist who cannot produce a licence and that a policeman may inspect it is introducing a new element into British law.
There is a real danger that someone who is innocent until proven guilty may find that, unlike in a court of law, his previous offences are known to the person who may be responsible for initiating the prosecution. It has been an established part of British law for many years that a person's past convictions are not revealed until after the case is heard and a decision is made. There is a real danger of worsening police public relations considerably if there is not a change in the basis upon which the present proposal is put forward.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Kenneth Clarke)
I have hesitated to interrupt before now but my hon. Friend really is labouring under a serious misapprehension about the present arrangements in magistrates courts. Whenever a prosecution is brought against anybody in the courts of this country almost invariably the prosecutor knows whether or not he has previous convictions. It is one of the many facts in the case before the prosecutor when he comes to decide whether or not to go a head
Of course, if there is a dispute about guilt or innocence, the jury or the magistrates who have to decide the case will not be told about previous convictions, and that will remain the position in these instances. If the motorist contests the case, his previous convictions will not be disclosed. However, it is mistaken to believe that it is a novel proposition that the prosecutor or person deciding to prosecute does not know about previous convictions. That is the ordinary course of events in all criminal and motoring cases.
§ Mr. Fry
Despite what my hon. and learned Friend says, the police should not be allowed to inspect a licence to see whether there have been any previous endorsements before reaching a decision to prosecute. It is laughable that a licence can be sent to Swansea and lost for several months while the poor unfortunate motorist has to wander around with a receipt. If Swansea was more efficient, this part of the Bill might be workable. However, we receive many complaints about the way that Swansea operates. A great deal more work needs to be done on this proposal before it will be acceptable to the motorist.
As I have made clear, I am somewhat unhappy about the Bill. I shall find it difficult to support the Government tonight. I wish to put some points to my hon. and learned Friend, which I hope he can resolve when he replies. What real support is there from any interested parties for the privatisation of the testing stations? I do not detect any support at all. What will be the role of the Select Committee which, having investigated the matter in great detail, has seen its advice torn up by the Government?
Because of fears about the Government's intentions and because of worries about the effect of the changes in the NBC that will be engendered by the hiving off of National Express, will my hon. and learned Friend assure the House 898 that before matters are finalised the Government will give the House the opportunity, through the affirmative resolution procedure, to decide whether the final scheme is acceptable? Currently, we are dealing with a hotchpotch of a Bill, of which this issue is one important part. We should be allowed to consider it in isolation and reach a decision on it.
Will my hon. and learned Friend assure us that the Government have no intention of amending the 1980 Act to bend the rules under which coach operators operate or of giving directions to the NBC and its subsidiaries that could be detrimental to its cash flows and, therefore, indirectly to the services that it provides? The answers that he gives to those questions will determine how I vote at the conclusion of the debate.
§ Mr. Harry Ewing (Stirling, Falkirk and Grangemouth)
As the debate progresses I am sure that the Under-Secretary realises the great difficulty that he will be in when he replies, especially following the speeches of the hon. Members for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry) and Eastleigh (Sir D. Price). Whatever happens in the Lobby tonight—the Government may win the vote—it is obvious at this early stage of the debate that the Government have lost the argument.
I turn to the speech made by the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bradley). I make no secret of my dislike of the way in which hon. Members move from one party to another and form themselves into a group. However, it would be churlish of me if I did not recognise his demolition job on and his expert analysis of the Bill. I disagree with him on the same point that the hon. Member for Wellingborough disagreed with him—the fixed penalty system. That matter is more important than hon. Members appear to realise.
I do not want to deal in detail with part I because the NBC does not operate in Scotland, although it transports people to and from Scotland. I do not have any great knowledge of the NBC. I accept the analysis made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Booth) and also that of the hon. Member for Leicester, East.
I am especially interested in parts II and III. The proposition in part II that the Government should privatise the vehicle testing of HGVs and PSVs is highly dangerous. It is worth taking time to examine closely what the Government are suggesting. It is clear in the Bill that anyone buying one or more testing centres can operate them as a combined garage and vehicle testing unit. Every right hon. and hon. Member knows of cases in the car sector where there have been serious malpractices. For example, a garage selling a vehicle may also issue a test certificate. We can all quote outrageous examples of the treatment of our constituents by that system. Recently was informed of an incident where a customer bought a second hand car from a garage which issued an MOT certificate. A year later, when the MOT certificate had to be renewed, the customer took the car to a different testing centre only to be told that the car was not one car, but two separate halves of two insurance write-offs—the front of one insurance write-off and the rear of another had been welded together and sold by the previous garage with an MOT certificate.
I am not saying that that practice is widespread, but there is not one right hon. or hon. Member who cannot say
899 that he does not know of at least two or three such cases that have been brought to his notice either at his surgery or in correspondence. Is that risk worth running with HGV and PSV testing? The Government have the matter fundamentally wrong, and the risk is not worth running. The safety aspect of HGV and PSV testing is a public safety aspect rather than a private safety aspect. I hope that when the Under-Secretary replies he will give the House an absolute commitment that he will reconsider that aspect of the Bill before it reaches Committee, and meet the obvious concern shown on both sides of the House about the dangers involved in privatising PSV and HGV testing centres.
I wish to say a few words about the testing centres in Scotland, which are fairly widespread. Although the hon. Member for Leicester, East said that centres are self-financing, one or two of them are not, but are subsidised by other centres in other parts of the country. There is a danger in Scotland that the number of HGV and PSV testing centres could be substantially reduced if the proposals to privatise the testing services went ahead.
I hope that I have persuaded the Under-Secretary of State that part II has no friends. Not a shred of evidence has been submitted in support of it; it has all been against it. Despite what the hon. Member for Meriden (Mr. Mills) keeps popping up and down to say, we accept that the Freight Transport Association is making the best of a bad job when it accepts that it possibly faces a fait accompli. It is putting on a brave face.
I am pleased that the new Solicitor-General for Scotland is with us. I congratulate him. I hope that he has a happy, but short, term of office. His presence is a recognition of the importance of this part of the Bill for Scotland, particularly clauses 25 and 36 and schedules 1 and 2.
There is a radical difference between the law in Scotland and that in England and Wales, where there is no need for corroboration. The evidence of one police officer is sufficient for traffic and many other offences. Often the police prosecute as well as stopping the offender. In Scotland the law of corroboration requires two police officers. The procurator fiscal decides whether an offence will be prosecuted. The police merely report the offence to the procurator fiscal.
I ask the Solicitor-General for Scotland, through the Under-Secretary of State, to assure the House that the law on corroboration will be maintained. The need for corroboration was abolished for duties performed by traffic wardens by the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1980, but it was made clear that that was as far as the breach in the law on corroboration would go. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will give an assurance that the law on corroboration will be maintained and that there is to be no further breach by the introduction of the fixed penalty system.
The proposals in the Bill are based, by and large, on the Stewart Committee report, which was published before the Government proposed the totting-up system for disqualification for traffic offences. It is interesting to discover from the report that all the police associations in Scotland are opposed to such proposals. The Association of Chief Police Officers (Scotland) expressed opposition, although there was a chief police officer on the 900 committee—Chief Constable Morrison. The chief constables association gave evidence against the proposals. The Superintendents Association and Police Federation for Scotland are also opposed to the proposals.
The police argue that they will be brought into greater conflict with the public than is necessary. The Government should not brush that argument aside lightly, particularly when those of us who are anxious to uphold the rule of law and order are working hard to build good relations between the police and the public after the incidents—with faults on both sides—in the last two or three years.
It is also interesting to note that the sheriffs clerks branch of the Society of Civil and Public Servants was opposed to the proposals. It is not an unimportant body. Due weight should be given to its opposition.
If I can help the Solicitor-General for Scotland, the Association of Chief Police Officers, the superintendents and the Police Federation expressed their opposition in paragraph 3a of the report. I hope that he recognises at an early stage in his career my desire to help.
The Law Society of Scotland also expressed opposition to the proposals, based on the belief that disqualification and an endorsement had more or less the same standing. In other words, an endorsement on a driving licence is just as serious as a disqualification, because it eventually leads to disqualification. The Stewart Committee thought that the police officers, the sheriffs clerks and the Law Society placed undue weight on the endorsement aspect. The committee did not take such a serious view.
I share the views of the Law Society that endorsement, which eventually leads to disqualification, is as serious as disqualification because of the new totting-up system. It is important to record the fact that the Stewart report was published before totting-up was introduced.
I have deliberately not so far mentioned the Scottish Council for Civil Liberties to spare the blushes of the new Solicitor-General, who at one time was its legal adviser. I do not want to put him in an embarrassing situation. But that strong and respectable body of opinion, as one would expect, is opposed to the proposal.
Part III should be a separate Bill. It would be a tragedy to get bogged down in the privatisation of the National Bus Company and the vehicle testing centres. Important aspects of the Bill could slip through and there could be serious consequences for the individual. Serious consequences will not flow from parts I and II, obnoxious as they are. The Government have committed a grave error by including part III. It should have been a separate piece of legislation to give the House adequate time to go into the details of its various aspects.
I do not accept the argument of the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) that the proposal will reduce the burden of court work. There were 1/4 million traffic or summary offences in Scotland last year, and over 50 per cent. of the people accused pleaded guilty by letter.
Clause 36 proposes that the procurator fiscal makes the alleged offender a conditional offer if it is a fixed penalty offence. If the offer is not accepted within 21 days, court proceedings can begin. Within 60 days the procurator fiscal must make clear to the alleged offender the date and place of trial—the diet. That procedure will increase the amount of work and not reduce it. It will also increase friction and tension between the police and public. It is a grave mistake to include in the Bill the provisions in part III. Important issues are involved that affect individuals throughout the country. 901 I conclude almost where I began. Serious consequences will flow from almost every aspect of the Bill, but the most serious for the individual will come from part III. I hope that the Under-Secretary will assure me that the law of corroboration in Scotland will not be further breached. That is an important and serious issue. Without that assurance, the grave and deep concern will remain. I hope, too, if not tonight, in Committee, the criticisms will be answered of the Association of Chief Police Officers (Scotland), the Superintendents Association, the Police Federation for Scotland, the sheriffs clerks, the Law Society and the Scottish Council for Civil Liberties, all of which oppose the proposals. I hope that I have impressed on the Under-Secretary and the Solicitor-General for Scotland how seriously I regard part III.
§ Mr. Iain Mills
(Meriden): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. and learned Friend the Under-Secretary of State on carrying out the Government's policy on transport in this third Bill. Right hon. and hon. Members are mean not to recognise that transport, in which we have been interested for many years, is yet again in the forefront of legislation.
It is bad that the so-called mould-breaking SDP has had only one speaker, who appeared briefly. The SDP has not made a serious attempt to outline its transport policy, apart from saying that it is against privatisation. I hope that SDP Members will do better than they did in yesterday's employment debate. Transport is an integral and important part of the nation's business.
This is a mixed Bill, which should come as no surprise. I enjoyed the long hours on the two previous Transport Bills. I am only sorry that the hon. Member for Westhoughton (Mr. Stott) is not joined on the Opposition Front Bench by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), who, along with the right hon.Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Booth), kept us entertained for many long hours. I hope that those who hear these words do not take them as a sign that I wish to be a member of the Committee on this Bill. The long hours and intellectual debate could so captivate me that I may find it difficult to drag myself away.
The Bill contains measures that will simplify the traffic penalty system as well as other transport items. All that comes within the long title of the Bill and is legitimate. Such a mix of content has been common practice in Bills under other Governments. The 1981 Bill may also have been criticised for its mixed nature, but it contained substantial matters. Some may have been controversial between the two main parties, but on others there was common ground. It cannot be argued that Bills should contain only matters of political importance to the Government. They should also contain matters which are agreed on. It is logical to have mixed Bills. It is hypocritical for right hon. and hon. Members to criticise the Bill for that.
Part I contains the most interesting proposal to allow the National Bus Company to introduce private capital. I deliberately put it that way. Itempowers NBC to sell shares in any of their subsidiaries, with the consent of the Secretary of State, and to dispose of the whole or any part of the undertaking or property of a subsidiary; and, with the Secretary of State's consent, to provide for employee's share schemes to be established in respect of subsidiaries in which shares are to be sold.902 That provision should not be subject to mean-minded and miserly criticism. We should recognise the Government's pioneering efforts, which have not yet come to fruition, in allowing National Freight Corporation employees to consider a management buy-out. As I said earlier, that is the most democratic way to transfer ownership from nationalised industries to private enterprise.
Nationalised industries are financed from the public purse. During the passage of the previous Transport Bills we argued that the introduction of private funds to certain subsidiaries of British Rail freed it from cash limits and other restrictions that the Government have to apply to public undertakings. The taxpayer's pocket is not bottomless. The more that we take out of it the more we feed inflation. We should have learnt that lesson by now. There have been many good examples.
§ Mr. Alexander W. Lyon (York)
Nationalised industries could go to the market for finance, but the Government are dogmatic about not allowing them to do so.
§ Mr. Mills
The introduction of yet more capital, unless accompanied by improved efficiency, which the disciplines of private finance would bring, would be sterile. A nationalised company should not be free to pay more money to employees without justifying it by increased productivity. That would only reduce the organisation's effectiveness and efficiency and it would then have to be bailed out by the taxpayer.
It is obvious that if we can find opportunities for the introduction of private cash that is a good thing, particularly when—I re-emphasise this in the light of the tragic lack of any mention of it by any Labour Memberߞthe Bill, on its front page, points out:Employee's share schemes to be established in respect of subsidiaries in which shares are to be sold".Surely, if hon. Gentlemen on the Labour Benches are taking a mean-minded attitude because of an ideological commitment to nationalisation, they must recognise that this is the most democratic method of allowing the people who work in the company to exercise industrial democracy. I find it strange that this has not yet been mentioned.
The Bill paves the way for the introduction of private capital into the National Bus Company. This would involve in particular NBC's coach operation, which includes the national express network of inter-city services and the improvement of the passenger facilities. I am surprised that no mention of that has been made tonight. I have a number of constituents who, because of the recent problems of British Rail, have had to start using NBC's excellent service between my constituency, which takes in part of Birmingham and Coventry, and London. They have found those services to be extremely good, so much so, that several constituents, including business men who make regular journeys, have said that they will probably continue to use the service. They, find it good, comfortable, quick and cheap.
It is an object lesson to those providing the alternative service of British Rail that some of the changes taking place because of the present difficulties will be permanent. However, one aspect that has been criticised is the facilities. I have in my constituency the excellent facilities of the Birmingham international train station and I can understand how, comparing that with the Victoria coach station, for example, one would find grounds for criticism.
903 Surely, if this service can be developed by the introduction of private sector funds to provide better facilities to make travel for people on inter-city routes on the national express network more comfortable, pleasant, convenient and efficient, we should consider doing so. I can see no problem in doing that. I also find it interesting that the chairman of NBC, Lord Shepherd, seems to welcome the part of the Bill which allows involvement of private capital in the improvement of passenger facilities. If there is some measure of agreement from the chairman of NBC on some aspects of the introduction of private capital, I find it odd that hon. Members on the Labour Benches have been so critical, as have some of my hon. Friends.
With regard to the principles of the matter, I find it strange that I, along with most of my hon. Friends, have been pressed by constituents and party workers to explain why we have not achieved more in denationalisation of our industries. I answer partly by saying, on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) and the Secretary of State for Transport, that in transport the aim of denationalisation, stemming just from ideological principles, which are based on good, sound economic practice, but from the reality of the need to introduce new dimensions in terms of development of companies by private sector cash involvement, as well as better stability of jobs, has been a guiding light in Government policy, designed to achieve a shift back from the public sector to the private sector. This is the third Transport Bill in three years that involves the denationalisation of unnecessary parts of the transport system—unnecessary in the sense that they are nationalised when they could be operated with private capital. I hope that my right hon. Friend will look further. As he knows, I usually press him at Question Time to consider matters further, and to look for innovations of all sorts that will help the country, employees and the customer.
I have not yet heard any hon. Member mention the customer. How does he feel about all these points that have been made so far? If the customer feels that private capital will be of benefit to the National Bus Company—and he is the customer, the man for whom the services are being provided—should we not recognise that he has a say in the matter? In the end, it is his money and his taxes that will sustain the enterprise. If there is a viable alternative, should we not encourage it?
As is the way with monopolies, which are subsidised because of their nationalised nature, we come to the point of efficiency. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry), I have a high regard for the National Bus Company. In my period as secretary of the Conservative Party's transport committee, and subsequently, I have taken a great interest in its affairs. I find that many of its people locally and nationally are excellent. But any enterprise, however good its people, must recognise that any protection from competition is not, in the end, a good thing. Therefore, I congratulate the National Bus Company, whose chairman, in answer to my letter of a year and a half ago on the 1981 Transport Bill, said that the National Bus Company would react to competition, and that when the traffic commissioners and aspects of transport licensing were liberalised, NBC would react and compete. It has done so.
904 It is fascinating to see that in the last three months of 1980 the mileage increased by 2 per cent. while passengers carried increased by 16.6 per cent. I press my right hon. Friend, or my hon. and learned Friend the Under-Secretary, to give us more figures later to show that NBC has responded to the challenge. With private sector fund involvement it can continue to do so even better.
§ Mr. Leadbitter
The hon. Gentleman laid great store on the philosophy of the private sector and the privatisation objectives of the Government. Is he not aware—does he not read the papers—that there is a history, particularly in the past few years, of the concentration of public money into private industries where discipline has been wanting? Surely he must balance his argument fairly in the light of recent history. Public money has tended to go into private enterprise to support it rather than the other way round.
§ Mr. Mills
I wondered whether he meant that. However, I am a pragmatist. One has to recognise that if one is in direct competition with companies abroad that are substantially State subsidised, particularly in certain aspects of their work, such as the development of new cars, this is extremely intensive capital development. Our companies must have some help.
If the hon. Gentleman is criticising this Government for being mean and miserly, he should look at the amounts of money being given to British Leyland. The point that I am making is not that we should not help those concerns that need State money, legitimately and justifiably, but that we should not continue to run nationalised concerns that could quite adequately attract private capital.
For example, following the arguments put forward by hon. Members on the Labour Benches, I find it strange that Gleneagles should have been a State-owned hotel. I see no logic in that. I use the example of Gleneagles because it happens to be an attractive name and a hotel that many hon. Members from Scotland will know. Having been born in Scotland, I appreciate it. The performance of the rest of the British Rail hotel chain showed clearly that, while other chains with access to private capital moved ahead and achieved a greater market share of the available hotel room places, British Rail hotels, because they had insufficient capital, did not do so.
Hon. Members on the Labour Benches will argue that taxpayers' money should have been put in. But why do that when private enterprise capital is available and could be used? We have a mixed economy and the change in the National Bus Company is a demonstration of the mixed nature of our policy towards nationalised concerns.
§ Mr. Leadbitter
The hon. Gentleman asked for some examples. Before nationalisation, the Conservative Government, under the Heath Administration, helped Rolls-Royce. What about British Leyland? Grants given under the Industry Act 1972, sections 8 and 7, go to a large number of private companies. Many of those particularly large grants of public money result from requests from Conservative Members, who go to the Secretary of State for Industry and ask for the money for the industries in their constituencies.
§ Mr. Mills
I am sure that you will be unhappy, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I stray too far from the bounds of this debate to a general debate on nationalisation. The House tempts me to recall that in the West Midlands debate I spoke lengthily of the problems of the West Midlands and criticised heavily the regional aid policy adopted by both Labour and Conservative Governments for allowing section 7 grants to go only to assisted areas. Therefore, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not be sidetracked into a detailed argument about nationalisation.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
The hon. Gentleman referred to publicly owned industries. Will he explain how it is possible for a privately owned company to accept its social obligations and cross-subsidise services that are in the public interest?
§ Mr. Mills
I am tempted by the hon. Gentleman to recall the remarks made in the debates on what become the Transport Act 1980. When we deregulated various aspects of the work of traffic commissioners we looked carefully into the principle of cross-subsidisation. Governments of all political philosophies accept the need to subsidise aspects of transport policy because otherwise, because of their social nature, certain services would not work.
The argument develops. Should one cover up inefficiencies by the use of cross-subsidy, or should one recognise that certain services are socially essential and provide for them? That is partly so with British Rail. Should one recognise that other aspects of the company could be better developed through other means and take them out? That does not mean that one will refuse to become involved publicly with essential social services, but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins) often argues, it places a heavier burden on one's ability to justify those services, and, therefore, the efficiency with which they are run.
One could follow the hon. Gentleman's argument and say that if we nationalised industry throughout the country we would be constantly cross-subsidising on a major scale. I see no problem in attracting private capital to aspects of the National Bus Company. I should have thought that it would help not only the customer but the bona fide employees to be offered a share scheme, as well asthe wives, husbands, widows, widowers or children or stepchildren under the age of eighteen of such employees or former employees.That aspect should have been recognised by hon.Members on both sides of the House as being a suitable and beneficial innovation.
If the Secretary of State is successful in attracting private capital through a substantial employee shareholding, as in the management buy-out proposals for the National Freight Company, it will be a substantial move forward for democracy. I hope that the House will forgive me for going into detail on those principles and for speaking at length on them. There is a need to adapt to change. I congratulate the National Bus Company on its ability to recognise competition and to compete. That will be benefited by the attraction of private capital.
The privatisation of testing stations is a controversial subject. I wonder whether any right hon. or hon. Members have driven a heavy vehicle through one of the testing stations.
§ Mr. Mills
I see that at least one hon. Gentleman has had that experience, as I have. 906 As a private enterprise employee and someone who believed in the system, I felt that there could be many improvements. In saying that I do not denigrate the excellent work that is done by the employees. I was extremely impressed by the high standards that I was required to meet when I went through the test. If that operation were run by private enterprise, it could operate more efficiently while still achieving the same high standards of safety. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State says in the Bill that the number of staff employed could be reduced by about 900.
In our constituencies at weekends we are pressed, not only on the subject of denationalisation but the reduction of the numbers of staff employed in the Civil Service I wonder whether that could be done without a fall in quality. I share the concern that has been expressed about quality. As the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bradley) has said on several occasions, the Government have gone a long way towards meeting the initial inhibitions, legitimately expressed by the haulage concerns.
I refer to the heartfelt, sincere and interesting comments made by many of the members of the Select Committee on Transport. One or two are here. The Select Committee system that we have established in the House has an important role to play. It is wrong if we ignore that. The Select Committee has fulfilled its functions more than admirably. It has given a report to the Secretary of State obliging him not only to change his policy to meet some of the criticisms that have been made, but to consult in detail the haulage organisations such as the Freight Transport Association, the Road Haulage Association and others. If we are to say that the Select Committee system is absolute but do not recognise the dynamism of change, that would be absurd.
If the Select Committee has made an excellent report, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough and the hon. Member for Leicester, East have persuasively argued, is it not right, when the Government recognise the key factors in the change proposed, that we should say that the system has worked and that the Government, having offered some proposals for change in their policy, should now proceed? There is no detriment to the correct operation of testing stations with the controls outlined by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.
There has been hardly any mention of controls, the right of appeal and the mechanisms for ensuring that the correct quality of testing is applied. I press my hon. and learned Friend the Under-Secretary to be more specific about how those controls will operate and how he believes the changes that have been made to the policy will meet the objections of the haulage industry, which must react to its customers.
One of the most interesting parts of the Bill is that dealing with fixed penalties. I was honoured to be asked to serve on the Committee that considered the previous Bill. A few hon. Members who served on the Committee are present. We had an interesting discussion on the change from the old totting up system to the points system. Although we disagreed on a number of the details arid technicalities, we agreed that there was a substantial shift towards greater justice, simplicity and ease of operation for the motorist.
The fixed penalty is an extension of that. In Committee I suggested to the then Secretary of State that it might be 907 of benefit to see the fixed penalty as a direct consequence of the totting-up system, to help motorists who have problems with the present system.
I suggest to Opposition Members who have been approached by constituents or who have had experience in the matter that the ease and simplicity of being able to accept the fixed penalty system on the spot would be of considerable importance not just to motorists in general but to business motorists, whose time and energy would otherwise be devoted to fighting court cases. Through the measure they are not prevented from fighting the court cases should they wish to challenge the charge. It is difficult to find the best way of running the system, especially with regard to the showing of the licence and endorsement points.
It was common ground in the Committee that certain offences should attract a sufficiently serious penalty not only in monetary but in endorsement terms by way of the number of points given to reinforce the importance of the penalty to the motorist. It would be hardly worth moving the fixed penalty to offences that are not endorsable. However, if one seeks to apply fixed offences for endorsable items, the mere fact that those items attract points means that at some stage the chap has to give up his licence for it to be endorsed. Thus, he has to carry his licence. I see no problem in that. I carry my licence all the time, as I am sure do most right hon. and hon. Members, except—as, I think, was said by the right hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness—when it is away, force majeure, at Swansea.
I should like my hon. and learned Friend to comment on two matters in this connection. First, how can the matter be resolved if the licence is away? People who change address have to send their licences to Swansea. Mine took about a month to come back. So if, for reasons beyond our normal control—change of address, renewal or loss of licence—one cannot produce the licence, how will the policeman react at the point of offence?
Secondly, I was interested in a reply from my hon. and learned Friend the Under-Secretary when I recently queried the efficiency of Swansea. He gave me some hope when he said in his reply that the Department of Transport was looking at new computer systems for Swansea. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Obviously Opposition Members have not been completely convinced about computer efficiency by my hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and Information Technology. Perhaps my hon. and learned Friend will comment on his plans to ensure that Swansea becomes more efficient and reduces the time that it takes.
I welcome the introduction of the use of points into the system of fixed offences. In Standing Committee, when we discussed the number of points for each offence, it seemed better that low-level offences which did not attract social criticism or the real possibilities of accidents should be easily and quickly dealt with. I am glad that savings here could involve 600,000 cases and about £3 million in revenue.
Recently I visited the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths). Having visited that town many years ago, I was reminded once again of its gracious nature and history. I was therefore interested when he asked whether clause 45 would produce any benefits in the control of heavy lorries. As my hon. Friend discussed the wider aspects of heavy lorries, I shall 908 say a word in that connection, but only in relation to clause 45. As my right hon. Friend said, this applies only to renewal of licences, so it does not affect the future in general of the heavy lorry.
In clause 45, my right hon. Friend has the chance to put pressure on civilising the lorry. We both wish to reduce the lorry's impact on the environment. I thank him for his written replies to my questions. I asked him whether the Government were committed to ensuring that industry took the right steps to make lorries quieter, cleaner and safer. His response was that his Department was in touch with all the principal manufacturers, and he said that there were a number of promising developments for improvements in environmental and safety standards. He also told me that his Department was already involved in discussions with manufacturers on a major research programme that will contribute to the quiet heavy vehicle—the QHV90 project. He said that the Department of Industry and his own officials were developing further comprehensive proposals for early discussion with the vehicle industry. I hope, therefore, that my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds is not as perturbed as he was earlier. Even the small step in clause 45 is backed up by substantial efforts by my right hon. Friend to ensure that the civilising process for the heavy lorry is not just talk. I hope that the efforts of my right hon. Friend and officials at the Department of Industry will bear fruit.
It appears that there will be interesting debates in Committee on this tripartite Bill that has raised the temperatures of hon. and right hon. Members on all sides. In my view, its provisions will help the customers of buses, provide a mechanism towards democracy, and provide opportunities for private capital in place of public capital. It will bring innovations in control in heavy vehicle testing and reductions in private sector operations. For the motorist, it will be another step among the many steps taken by the Government towards a fairer and more simple form of justice.
§ Mr. Ted Leadbitter (Hartlepool)
The public and those who work in transport industries have an increasing feeling of despair. We seem to approach this major national problem of transport in fits and starts, in accordance with the winds of change, Secretaries of State or the pedantry of the Department itself. It is a sickening indictment of the House of Commons and the Government when evidence is given to Select Committees by men of great excellence and professional standing, whose objective approach to transport always seeks the wellbeing of the economy—transport is just as wealth-producing in economic terms as is manufacturing industry—and after all that the Government say only "The report was very interesting. It has added something to the debate".
There is one thing that can be said about the debate, and that is that mediocrity in a debate usually comes from the Front Bench. We know the ineffectiveness of past Secretaries of State of both Governments who, when they speak without a brief, are embarrassments. The trouble is that hon. Members are not prepared to face properly and honestly, in the name of those who send us here, the difficulties that Departments impose upon us.
I know officials of the National Bus Company very well. I travel with them on my way to this place. I have not heard one of them complain about the industry. They 909 want a transport infrastructure that will serve the conurbations, townships and rural areas. All this fiddle faddle about the nice, purposeful and useful notion of looking for private money is nonsense. The hon. Member for Meriden (Mr. Mills) got his philosophies mixed up because of his political prejudice. He was not honest enough to say that, in the mixed economy that we now have, it is inevitable that politcal prejudice will flounder. If one sticks dogmatically to the philosophy of the mixed economy one must accept that public money has to be pumped in to save essential parts of private industry.
I would vote to support any private industry with public money providing that I was satisfied that it was in the national interest. I hope that Conservative Members will be good enough to admit that the denigration of nationalised and publicly owned industries is not a commendable approach.
I should have liked the Bill to deal with road and rail, so that the House could have discussed those two matters together for once. Hon. Members could have talked about co-ordination and integration, about servicing our townships and conurbations, and about making some sense out of the imbalance of freight distribution.
Last June, a report was commissioned on British Rail and work was carried out by commendable university people. They came to the conclusion that the British transport worker had a productivity record that was higher than average for the whole of Europe. They showed that British Rail had the lowest investment record in Europe, and that Government support for British Rail was the worst in Europe, with the exception of Denmark.
The same argument applies to the National Bus Company. Management and personnel in the National Bus Company are of a high standard. It is a tragedy that the Bill is a pot pourri of subject headings that confuses the most intelligent of readers. The Secretary of State is full of political dogma. He has come only recently from the Department of Energy and he is now the Department of Transport's parrot. How can one read and consider the problems of transport logically when the Bill jumps from part I, on the privatisation of the National Bus Company, to the testing of vehicles and the privatisation proposals, to fixed penalties, and from that to operational centres? The Bill reflects the fact that Government Departments always come to the House with a mixed, confused package that never reaches the nub of the problem of transport in Britain.
It is important to tell the Secretary of State that we are not amused by such a ragbag of confusion. The Select Committee heard excellent professional witnesses. The Members of the Select Committee carry considerable experience of transport, and they brought their responsibilities, as representatives of the people, to the forum of the House. However, the Secretary of State put all that on one side. He said that he did not agree with them. He said that he had been in office for 12 weeks and knew all about the subject. If the right hon. Gentleman is not prepared to accept that, it follows that he is not the master in his own house but a messenger boy for the Department. He is either one or the other.
The hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bradley) spoke succintly about the testing of vehicles. He asked what useful purpose would be served by the provision and I could not have thought of a better way of making that point. He said that those who use the centres pay for them, and that they cost taxpayers nothing. However, the 910 Secretary of State is supposed to know all about testing stations. He may gain some profound knowledge years from now, but at present his political determination to butter up all the Government's notions about privatisation has led him to remove the benefits that taxpayers and operators enjoy. He wishes to change the standard arrangements for testing, which have completely upheld community and transport interests, which have always been efficient and which have cost the taxpayer nothing. He says that we should privatise and that we should accept the expense of appointing people to monitor the private sector.
Is that not an awful condemnation of the Secretary of State's irresponsible actions, of which he should be thoroughly ashamed? This Bill is as daft as last year's Bill. Whether hon. Members believe it or not, that Bill sought to privatise a little pier and boat on Lake Windermere. That was the type of thing that occupied our time.
I agree with the principle behind the fixed penalties in part III. Indeed, the House may well agree upon that principle. Our courts are congested because of motoring offences that could adequately be dealt with in the way suggested. However, I must offer a word of caution. I hope that the Committee will consider carefully the mechanics of the matter. It is a hard fact of life that during a recession the two things that are being most regularly built are law courts——
§ Mr. Leadbitter
——and houses for battered wives. Something strange seems to be happening to society. Before the very eyes of Members of Parliament and leaders a cancer is creeping through our social structure. We are building the best law courts because Bills such as this, with their economic rigidities and prejudices, have screwed up the country and many people find that their family lives have been destroyed. The law courts are full and we are building houses for battered wives.
Hon. Members must know that most of the revenue used for building law courts comes from motorists' fines and local authorities. Therefore, there should be some regulatory control over the police so that their exuberance does not get out of hand and so that their promotional propensities do not excite them too much. The motorist has suffered enough. He is one of the biggest taxpayers. He pays a tax on his car, on his petrol, on his oil and he pays road fund tax. Of the £6,000 million that is raised from road fund tax, hardly a half—I do not have the exact figure—is spent on road maintenance and road structure.
The House should accept the principle of fixed penalties but time should be spent in Committee to ensure that the regulatory determinations to make it work are fair to the motorist and control some of the matters that hon. Members have mentioned earlier. For example, the surrender of a licence is a serious matter. There might be a way in which that could be overcome. The present system is that if a motorist does not have his licence with him he must lodge it at the police station within five days. It might be better if that system could be upheld, and that instead of licences being surrendered to the policeman the policeman could give the motorist some other form. If an endorsable offence is involved, the licence could be transferred from the police station—not from the policeman—to the clerk of the court. That might be a way 911 to deal with the matter. I suggest that the detail of this matter is not appropriate for the Second Reading debate on the Bill.
The Secretary of State would have been wiser if he had taken counsel and brought fixed penalties forward in a separate Bill. That would have given greater time in Committee to deal with the type of problem to which I have referred. I agree with the hon. Member for Leicester, East that in parts I and II the Bill has all the appearance of Government policy, while parts III and IV are little pieces of sugar to sweeten it. I hope that the Secretary of State's major contribution to the Department of Transport—even if he failed in the Department of Energy—is to try to convert it. The Department has an awful reputation. In my lifetime, no Transport Minister has been a success, because the Department has always managed to swallow him up.
§ Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)
We have heard a wide-ranging speech from the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Leadbitter). There have been a number of such speeches but the hon. Gentleman was the only one to have expressed an interest in and said that he was looking forward to serving on the Standing Committee of the Bill.
The Bill is not exciting. The hon. Gentleman was right when he suggested that it was almost a miscellaneous provisions Bill. For that reason, there are detailed questions on which I seek the advice of my hon. and learned Friend the Under-Secretary. I wish to say a brief word about the general issues.
I was surprised to see in clause 6 that special endeavours are being made to exempt from stamp duty transactions that arise out of the privatisation of the National Bus Company and parts of it. I support wholeheartedly moves towards privatisation, but it would be wrong in principle if we were to give some sort of exemption to previously State-owned industries that was not available to private firms in exactly the same position. It appears that the Government are taking special steps to exempt the carve-up of the National Bus Company and other such companies from stamp duty. Why is this being done? Would it not be right and proper to treat them in exactly the same way as any other private company engaging in the dispersal or the selling off of shares?
Secondly, will the regulation that has been recently passed in the House of Commons about the transfer of undertakings apply to disposals of subsidiaries or newly created subsidiaries of the National Bus Company? There has been a greater interest in the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981 since Mr. Clive Jenkins woke up to the potential of the new regulations. The regulations change greatly the law on disposals, transfers and take-overs. They place enormous obligations on the new purchaser of the company. Will the regulations apply to publicly owned transfers as well as to privately owned transfers? It was not clear in the regulations and I wish to ask the Minister whether, when we are seeing the partial or total selling off and change of ownerships of parts of the National Bus Company or its subsidiaries, the regulations will apply.
Thirdly, I have a detailed question about a strange clause to which no one appears to have referred. Clause 912 48 gives the Secretary of State for Transport unusual rights to direct harbour authorities to do what they must to maintain national defence. We have seen suggestions in defence legislation that the Secretary of State for Defence should be able to direct people to prepare the country for its defence in a time of war. It is most unusual to see in a Transport Bill that the Secretary of State has the full power under clause 48 to tell harbour authorities what they must do for national defence. There is no indication of the type of instructions that can be given. It could be an instruction that ships should be deployed in a certain way. It could be an instruction to dig deep holes and to erect defences in a harbour. The range is limitless.
I am amazed that the provision is in the Bill, but even more amazing is that there is no penalty for noncompliance. We know that there are efficient and well-run harbour authorities. There are also some small and strange harbour authorities, which are run by unusual people. I suggest that some of the harbour authorities that are run by small committees of unusual people who have strong local interests might object strongly to or resent advice from the Secretary of State on the use of their undertakings to meet the needs of national defence. I am sure that the Minister will say, as all Ministers do, that he is sure that he will receive full co-operation from all harbour authorities in those matters. I wish to know what the penalty for non-compliance is in this unusual clause and what would happen under clause 48 if there was a breakdown in understanding and communication between the Secretary of State for Transport, exercising his defence role, and a small harbour authority which thought that the advice that it was given would, if implemented, damage its business.
I also wish to ask the Minister whether the compensation proposals in clause 48 will give the arbitrator the right to award compensation not only for the effects of the changes proposed by the Minister, but for the consequential damage to the business of the harbour by what the Minister has directed the authority to do.
My next question concerns clause 45. I recall a legal ruling in 1975 which made it difficult for authorities licensing transport operators to take environmental factors into account. The Government appear wisely to have taken action to ensure that in considering applications for an operator's licence they can take such factors into account. That appears to be a significant attempt by the Minister to control or civilise the heavy lorry, especially since we are to allow larger lorries with heavier weights on our roads.
I put to the Minister a simple question to which I hope the answer will be "Yes". Does clause 45 give the public any greater rights with regard to transport operators? It appears to relate to the establishment of the premises from which the business will be run or where the lorries will be located. Will the Minister confirm that clause 45 will enable members of the public who perhaps live in the same road as a transport operator to make representations to the licensing authority that a licence should not be given? It appears to be a major extension of the public's right to control their environment. I am sure that all hon. Members have constituents who object strongly to large lorries being parked outside their homes and clogging up the streets. There is no doubt that some transport operators operate from premises that are utterly unsuitable for that type of business. I welcome the Minister's initiative in that respect.
913 Having travelled from Cambridge today and twice passed through the Dartford tunnel, which is in the constituency so ably represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn), I must express the hope that if the Government are concerned, as I know they are, to control or curb heavy lorries, they will, either through this Bill or some other, carefully consider how repairs and maintenance of some motorways are undertaken. We have some splendid roads. I travelled on the M11 from Cambridge. That is a good road, but there was appalling congestion on two short stretches because maintenance work reduced traffic to only one lane. The Dartford tunnel is used a great deal, but for a year there has been terrible congestion simply because the road works on one side have reduced three lanes to one. It would help the travelling public enormously, especially in view of the special problems created by heavy lorries, if steps could be taken to ensure that regular maintenance resulted in three lanes being reduced to two lanes rather than one.
While I appreciate what the Minister is doing in clause 45, I hope that he will arrange, either by an amendment to the Bill or by a special study, some means of reducing the problems faced by the travelling public, especially in relation to the extension of the use of heavy lorries. Perhaps he will also consider whether road maintenance and repairs could be carried out in such a way as to create fewer problems for the public.
The new fixed penalty arrangements appeal to the majority of hon. Members, although there are differing views. Views have been expressed about the special position in Scotland, but few people object in principle to the fixed penalty arrangements. Can the Minister give some guidance as to how they will be applied to the increasing number of foreign tourists who come to Britain and use hire cars on our roads? There is, of course, a clause dealing with the special problems of fixed penalties for hire cars, but what is to be done if the official notices provided for in the Bill have to be sent to people resident abroad, maybe tourists from Italy, Turkey, Israel, America or Pakistan? Does the Minister propose to send official forms in English by surface post? If it is proposed to send a large number of forms to a great many people, I see no difficulty in respect of Aberdeen, Hartlepool, Dartford or Southend, but, given that many foreigners are caught speeding in hire cars, how will the official notification provided for in the Bill be sent to foreign residents who may not speak English, and some of whom may have no regular postal service? That is a minor point, but it is the kind of minor point which could create major problems in the future.
On two general issues, I am delighted that we have the fixed penalty procedure, which should reduce the load on the courts. It has been estimated that perhaps 600,000 cases will be removed from the courts.
Of course, the work involved in some convictions is already limited because a letter is simply written to the court, but even written pleas involve some administration and court time. I hope that the fixed penalty procedure will not only give the courts more time and scope to deal with what I regard as more serious crimes, but that it will enable the Government, with the new facility available to the courts, perhaps to take a fresh look at the way in which they are tackling the problem of increasing violence.
A general point of great importance relates to privatisation of the NBC. We have heard two very convincing speeches to the effect that this is a move in the 914 wrong direction. I have a special interest in this, as in Southend we have taken a number of initiatives in privatisation. The arguments against those initiatives were exactly the same as those advanced today against privatisation of the NBC and some of its subsidiaries We were told that there would be no great saving, that the service to the public would be reduced and that, by and large, it would not be a good deal.
Having experienced that major move towards privatisation, I can say in all sincerity that, despite some of the rather silly campaigns conducted by some Left-wing organisations and by the Socialist Workers Party, any resident of Southend or anyone employed by the company will agree that in Southend the scheme has been a complete success. The facts and figures are available for all to see. Southend is one of the few boroughs which managed to cut its rate burden last year. Rates were reduced by more than 1p in the pound. A major contribution to that was certainty the move towards privatisation, not just of our cleansing service but of many other services. The basic rate of those employed in the company has risen by about £30 per week. That is a very substantial wage increase. If additional wages can be paid, it is certainly good not just for the community but for those employed by the business. We have also heard many comments from the public that a better service is being provided by a more modern organisation with more modern equipment.
When the proposal to start on the road to privatisation was put forward in Southend many people and organisations said that it was dangerous, that it could lead to a breakdown in services and that it would involve no saving. This year, we have saved about £500,000 in a very limited move towards privatisation. Those who doubt the Government's proposals for the National Bus Company should know that all the evidence shows that when private capital is introduced into a publicly provided service, not only is a better service provided for the consumer, but more money is available for investment and, by and large, it is a better deal for those employed in the organisation.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
Is there not another parallel? Were not certain refuse collection services withdrawn from certain people in Southend? The parallel drawn by the Opposition is that in the case of the National Bus Company additional services will be withdrawn. Will the hon. Gentleman address his comments to the services withdrawn in both instances?
§ Mr. Taylor
The services were not withdrawn. Business and commerce were given the opportunity to employ anybody they wished to clear refuse. In other words, they were not obliged to go to the council, to Exclusive Cleaners or to anyone else. They had freedom of choice to go anywhere. I believe that a similar move in relation to the National Bus Company could be of great benefit to the public.
Those who are concerned about the move not benefiting the public should consider the examples of privatisation so far. Even the great pier at Southend has been privatised, and a private operator now pays rent to the council. The cliff lift, a service which made a substantial loss, is now also provided by private enterprise and rent is paid for what used to cost the ratepayers a great deal of money. I should like to think that I am not unduly dogmatic, but there is evidence that privatisation works for the benefit of the consumer and also benefits the workers of an organisation.
915 My next point is desperately important to the National Bus Company. When we bring about privatisation, it means that an organisation can attract capital on the merits of its performance, and not simply as part of a general horse-trading exercise on demands for capital from different organisations.
Nothing must be more frustrating for somebody who works for a local authority department, an agency of the Government or a nationalised undertaking to know that there is something he could buy that would improve the service and make it more efficient, but he is not allowed to spend the money because of some direct or indirect restraint from the Government or local authority.
The Bill will do the National Bus Company immense good if it can then free itself completely from control by the Treasury on capital spending. Many people in nationalised undertakings say that it would be much better if they had the freedom to raise their own capital. However, so long as they are financed by Government and the deficits are made up, that simply cannot happen. On the other hand, if they can become private organizations—as in the case of the Southend cleansing operation—they then need much more equipment, which is provided by the Brengreen organisation on the basis of the exercise's profitability, and not on what the Southend or Essex county councils can provide as capital expenditure.
Therefore, despite the doubts expressed, I hope that hon. Gentlemen accept this will be a good experiment which will bring a better service to the public and ensure more modernisation and investment. I urge the Secretary of State to disregard the doubters on both sides of the House and to press ahead with this substantial move towards more privatisation.
Although my right hon. Friend has only recently been appointed as Secretary of State for Transport, he is carrying on the fine tradition of his predecessor in trying to introduce privatisation wherever possible. It is strange that we are discussing a Bill about buses and so on at a time when there is a damaging and dreadful rail strike. I hope that the new Secretary of State will seriously consider the possibility of at least a pilot experiment in privatisation in British Rail's services, now that we have embarked on the consideration of the National Bus Company.
Despite all that is said, the problems that are presently insoluble could be resolved pretty smartly and quickly in the national interest if we were prepared to have an experiment in privatisation. I am not suggesting that we should take one of the golden lines which are very profitable, or an appalling line. Let us simply take one area of British Rail, for example, the Southend to Fenchurch Street line. That would be a good case because it is compact and, by privatisation, we could discover whether a better service could be provided for the consumer as has been the case of privatisation in other areas.
In exchange for my wholehearted support for the splendid Bill proposed by the Secretary of State, I ask whether he can at least give me an assurance that he will seriously consider the possibility of an experiment in privatisation of British Rail's services in a contained area. Will he consider the possibility of that experiment on the Fenchurch Street to Southend line?
§ 8.4 pm
§ Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield, East)
Having served on past committees on Transport Bills and in related Standing Committees, I cannot resist the feeling of deja vu on Second Reading of a Transport Bill. It has all the same ingredients: a bit of privatisation, this, that and a bit of road safety tacked on the end as a sweetener.
I start by mentioning a rather different priority than that expressed by some hon. Members this evening—the privatisation theme. The public sector has been nibbled away for no good reason by many Bills. I served on the Committee on the Civil Aviation Bill which, you will remember, Mr. Deputy Speaker, was aimed at privatising British Airways. That has not yet occurred and we still wait with great interest to see whether it is about to be sold off to a good bidder. Another example, perhaps, is Sir Freddie Laker. Other privatisations have occurred under different Transport Bills.
This Bill reviews the Government's general philosophy. I am reminded that the hon. Member for Meriden (Mr. Mills) earlier said that he was a pragmatist. I also pride myself on being a pragmatist who considers the facts of a situation and makes a decision on them at that time.
Over the past two and a half years we have seen a succession of highly ideological Bills, containing no pragmatism. They will do much damage because they have not shown a pragmatic comprehension of the economy and national problems or reacted in time. Many Conservative Members feel the same. The Administration are papering over some serious cracks in the definition of pragmatism and how it should work its way through to Government policy.
The previous Secretary of State for Transport said that the Government should not be involved in activities which the private sector could carry out just as well. Being a pragmatist, I suppose that that is where I differ from both the philosophy behind the Bill, if there is one, and the Government's ideology. The best economy is a mixed economy, where the excesses of private enterprise can be held in check by a public stake and the excesses of the public sector can be held in check by competition.
That sort of pragmatism is the way ahead for a healthy economy. When considering the Bill, we can see that it is ideology that wins out against pragmatism. No better example of ideology rather than pragmatism is to be found than the Bill's decision to take into private ownershiptesting 'centres for goods and public services vehicles".Considering the background of the Select Committee on Transport, the evidence has been good. Again, as the hon. Member for Meriden said, the Select Committee's views are not necessarily holy writ, but they might at least be considered. The evidence produced by that Select Committee created tremendous feeling in the road haulage industry. It felt that no change was better than some change in the direction the Government suggested. That is a retrograde step and I hope that the Government still have time to reconsider it.
Even if they did not do that—I am a realist in these matters rather than too much of an optimist—let us not see, as we have so often, the main benefits of privatisation, with one exception that I can think of, losing to what I call the "big battalions" and the small man being frozen out. The Government could do more for the co-operative principle—which they say they support—by giving the 917 vehicle testing centres the opportnity to join co-operatives instead of being given away to the big chains and private enterprises in the transport industry.
I welcome broadly the principle of fixed penalties. Whoever serves on the Standing Committee will have some hard work to do in that respect. Our experience on the Transport Act showed that flexibility in negotiation and compromise on similar matters lead to a better Bill. I hope that this will happen again.
The Government accept the tremendous difficulty of administering a fixed penalty system, but nevertheless intend to push on with it to a much greater extent. That is a paradox to which I hope the Minister will refer when he replies. 1 hope that the Government will explain how the Bill tightens up and improves the fixed penalties system.
I have some misgivings—perhaps not to the same extent as some hon. Members—on holding licences and giving them up. I err on the side of making the carrying of licences compulsory. I have never been too worried about the demand that people should take the common precaution of looking ahead to the possibility of being stopped by the police. However, the Under-Secretary will no doubt take the point—I believe he was, and may still be, a practising barrister—that there may be problems if policemen can stop a suspected offender to scrutinise his licence. The policeman can look at the endorsements on the licence and consider what action to take. In a sense he will be acting in a judicial way on the spot. There are real dangers especially when it is known that there are, in any case, problems with licences.
I have always believed that endorsements should be wiped out, free of charge, when their time limit has expired. I also believe that when a licence is returned to Swansea—as mine was recently—the old endorsements should be wiped out. I am afraid that this did not happen in the case of my own licence. I refer only to one small speeding endorsement. I assure the House hastily of the minor nature of the offence.
This is a serious problem. I do not object to policemen scrutinising licences, but it would be wrong if they made an evaluation on steps that could lead to a lesser or more severe penalty. I hope that the problem can be sorted out in Committee.
As regards the miscellaneous provisions, I am a realist. I believe that the Government have introduced the measures on the parking of lorries as a sop, a tiny weight, to balance their decision on the Armitage report on the introduction of heavier lorries. Few of my constituents who are persecuted by heavy lorries will be enamoured of that sort of legislation if they are at all realistic. The Government made a bad decision on heavy lorries and this part of the Bill will not wipe that out.
The House will know that the fixed penalty system is a hobby-horse of mine, but I shall not pursue it or flog it for too long. There are serious problems involving road safety. My understanding is that certain infringements will be treated as minor offences to be dealt with by fixed penalties. Three offences are ignoring traffic signals when red, disregarding a school traffic crossing patrol, and leaving a vehicle in a dangerous position. I do not take the hard line position of the AA and RAC that speeding fits into a fixed penalty system. I am not worried to the same extent about the knock-on effect on endorsements, although I should like to see them worked through. I do not regard these three offences as minor. They are a 918 regular cause of death and injury. One needs only to consider the dreadful accidents that have occurred when people using legitimate crossing areas have been knocked down. To ignore a school traffic crossing is a very serious offence. There have also been some awful accidents involving motor cyclists when vehicles have been left in a dangerous position. A dangerously placed vehicle can result in the most horrific injuries.
I conclude, therefore, on a different note from some of my hon. Friends. This is a familar Bill. I am not happy with the beginning. I am not too pleased with the middle. Whether something can be made of the final parts will be seen when the Bill emerges from Committee.
§ Sir Albert Costain (Folkestone and Hythe)
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Huddersfield, East (Mr. Sheerman). I had the pleasure of sitting on the Public Accounts Committee with the hon. Gentleman but I have not previously heard him in full song in the Chamber. I have sat through the debate since it started, apart from a short break when I had to see a Secretary of State over a constituency matter. The hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Leadbitter) objected that the Bill was a pot pourri. One might criticise the fact that the measure is not called the Transport (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. I can see no objection to a Bill that deals with separate items. How else can the Secretary of State legislate for these different items? Does the hon. Member want four separate Bills on four separate days? I hope not.
There has been some criticism about the privatisation of the testing facilities of motor vehicles. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) spoke of the danger that private firms might expand in areas where they would spoil the environment. I hope that the Secretary of State will consider the process under which planning permission is given. There is not only the matter of the depot itself but also the large number of lorries that draw up and wait outside.
Many Labour Members take the view that inspection or testing should be carried out by civil servants. I wonder whether they realise that the most important testing in the building industry—that of high value cement—has since 1904 been carried out be a private firm. That successful firm, whose name is as well known as a hallmark of silver, has expanded overseas. As a private operation, it has been able to expand its exports. I have never heard any criticism of its testing. Indeed, some products are sent from overseas for testing. The original founder of the firm, long since dead, earned a tremendous reputation.
The testing of motor vehicles provides an opportunity to build up a business with export potential. I inspected in my constituency last week a new device that can be attached to a lorry to test whether it is overloaded. It costs only £39. There is no doubt that if the device is further developed and sufficient sales are made, the price will be reduced even below that figure. If the police had this equipment they would be able to test on the road a vehicle. Overloading is a very serious problem in Folkestone because of the number of lorries from overseas.
I am pleased to see the restrictions that the Minister will be able to apply in relation to parking offences. I receive many complaints from constituents about the nuisance caused by large lorries that are parked outside their houses 919 and that start early in the morning. I hope that the Minister will make it clear that if a person wants to carry on a transport business he should do it from proper premises.
I welcome the proposal for fixed penalties, with one reservation. The problem is that there will not be much, if any, publicity when an offence has been committed. One of the benefits of the magistrates court dealing with these offences is that they may be reported in the press. This reminds other motorists of how easily crimes may be committed, particularly when some of their friends are involved. I do not think the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Lewis) agrees with what I am saying. He is always complaining about the number of lorries without licences in his constituency. Would he not agree that if there were more publicity through people being taken to the magistrates courts, more people would buy licences? We have seen this happen with television licences. If a detector van appears in an area there is a rush to buy television licences. I would have thought that if a few people were fined heavily for not having licences it would help.
§ Mr. Arthur Lewis (Newham, North-West)
Does the hon. Gentleman not appreciate that millions of pounds' worth of fines will never be paid? Does he think that Mr. Smith, Mr. Black or Mr. Brown, who does not pay his road fund licence, who does not pay for his MOT test and who does not worry about a parking offence is going to worry about this? Those people will not pay. When it is taken up with the police, they are overstretched or underpowered, or they cannot or will not take any action. What will happen? Of course, people like the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Sir A. Costain) will pay up. All those who paid up in the past will pay up. But the bloke who has never paid up still will not pay up.
§ Sir A. Costain
I do not think the hon. Gentleman has read the Bill. The interesting thing is that the motorist will be confronted by a policeman and he will have to pay on the spot.
§ Sir A. Costain
We will let the Minister sort that out when he sums up.
There are a number of traffic offences that are not properly policed. I come to London most mornings. There is a bus lane at Chelsea Bridge. The fine for an ordinary motorist using the bus lane may be as much as £100 and his licence may be endorsed. Morning after morning one sees cars in that bus lane.
§ Sir A. Costain
I may have proved my point before I finish. About once a month there is a blitz by the police and they catch two or three people. There is a good deal of effective publicity in the local newspapers. An offender may be fined £100 and have his licence endorsed. If he does it twice he may lose his licence altogether.
I want particularly to draw attention to the provisions for allowing development of National Bus Company property. When the original railway stations were built in the last century, shops were built around them. I do not know one town or village which now has a respectable parade of shops alongside the railway stations. One has only to think of Charing Cross, Euston and Paddington, 920 which all started with good shops. They no longer have them, because when people go to catch a train today they do not have time to do the shopping. Now the shopping parades are beginning to be redeveloped.
The bus stations were built later, in about 1910, 50 or 60 years after the railway stations were built, so they are more often in the centre of towns. Unfortunately, the builders did not have regard for the passengers. They did not provide waiting rooms such as had been provided at railway stations but built what were really bus garages where people could simply get on and off the buses.
There are some valuable sites that could be developed to give better facilities for the passengers, with flats, offices or shops over the bus stations, for the public's greater convenience. The buses should be stored outside the towns or in less prominent places than town centres, just as the railways stored railway carriages away from the main stations. Such development can be carried out only by experienced property developers. By providing the opportunity for that, the Bill will give revenue and profit to the buses. I do not think that "profit" is a dirty word, as some Labour Members seem to think it is.
As for releasing the bus services themselves from nationalisation, a number of constituents who work on the buses asked me years ago, surprising as it may seem, why we did not denationalise those services. A number of people working on the cross-Channel ferries have asked why we do not denationalise British Rail ferries. There is a strike in progress at Newhaven, because British Rail cannot make the Newhaven-Dieppe service pay. The sailors ask "Should we not be taken over by private enterprise, because it would make the service pay?" We have had plenty of examples at Southampton, where British Rail ships came out and private firms went in and had great success.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) gave clear examples of similar successes when ordinary domestic services were taken over by private enterprise. I have talked to people who are very satisfied with the service that they are receiving.
Labour Members who have dogmatic ideas about denationalisation should look at the sty in their own eye. There are very few examples of any nationalised industry or service being more successful than it was under private enterprise. Many people who work for a nationalised industry have the impression that it is a bottomless pit and that it will go on being fed with cash whatever happens. Those working in private enterprise know jolly well that unless their firm is successful and makes a profit the days of their jobs are numbered.
I welcome the Bill. I wish it success and a speedy passage through Committee.
§ Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)
The hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Sir A. Costain) is a kindly man, as we all know, but he has let the cat out of the bag. The Bill is in many ways about the point he has just raised—why the Government are trying to release precious centre city sites currently in the hands of the National Bus Company for development by their friends. It is easy to imagine the lobbying that has been going on over these last six months in the Department of Transport about the best way to ensure that these sites were released 921 prior to the next general election so as to enable a fair old round of property speculation to take place in the city centres.
My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield, East (Mr. Sheerman) made an interesting intervention in the spirit of the debate—because much of this debate has been about privatisation of industry and trade—when he referred to the position of Laker and British Airways. When those hostesses were busy parading themselves down Whitehall yesterday and found that the right hon. Lady the Prime Minister would not let them into Downing Street, what they did not know and what every hon. Member of this House would know is that the reason why the Prime Minister was not going to intervene was quite simply that she knew that the privatisation policy of the Secretary of State for Transport as regards British Airways was at risk in the event of Laker's being saved.
Laker was to pay the price of securing an early sell-off of British Airways assets by the Government, and I think that the country should know what happened. The reason Laker is sinking is that this Government want to protect their right to sell off British Airways as early as possible, and we all know that the greatest restraint upon that taking place is the fact that it is in a particularly difficult position in terms of profitability at the moment.
I regard this Bill as a very shabby and evil one in many ways, especially the section that deals with the selling-off of testing stations for commercial vehicles. I believe that the Government have set up an opportunity for corruption on a major scale and that in years to come there will be questions raised from these Benches and perhaps even from the Conservative Benches. It may well be by me. I shall persist, as I always do. I remember two years ago when the Secretary of State blundered and introduced a clause in a Bill that had a direct effect on my constituency. On this occasion, I hope, it will not affect my constituency. But I am quite convinced that corruption will arise in the area of the testing of commercial vehicles as a result of the introduction of this Bill.
I want to know from the Government what contingency arrangements there are within the Bill to ensure that there can be no link—direct, indirect or in any even remote way—between those people who submit their vehicles for a test in a privately owned testing station and the people who own that testing station. I can see within the Bill as I understand it no possible way of controlling any such relationship.
I should also like to know why the Government do not accept that if a major haulier places all his business for the testing of his vehicles with an individual testing station that particular haulier will be able to exercise an undue influence on the enterprise carrying out the test. I believe that that haulier will be in an excellent position to exert pressure and to say to the tester, particularly if it happens to be a day on which he is short of tractor units and perhaps needs to send his vehicles to the other end of the country, because of the very high standing charges for maintaining those vehicles on the road,"I need that vehicle out tonight and whatever happens I am going to get it out. If I do not get it out, you will not get my business any more and I shall send it elsewhere."
The hon. and learned Gentleman may not think that is the way they work, but I believe it is. I believe that in a year's time or two years' time we shall be saying to the hon. and learned Gentleman that this has happened and asking him to intervene to reverse the legislation that we 922 are carrying through tonight. We all know that within the haulage industry—I am not saying that it goes right across the board—there are people who do not play by the book. The hon. and learned Gentleman will recall an intervention of mine two years ago, soon after I was elected to the House, on the use of permits internationally. Although did not pursue that point with him, for reasons of which he is well aware, he knows that corruption was involved. Now we have all the components in the Bill to secure corruption in the testing of transport.
This is a two-nation Bill. Indeed, the social security Bills of the past few years, various clauses in the Finance Bills, and legislation relating to the National Health Service and a number of other subjects, including the infamous Transport Act 1980, were two-nation Bills. However, whereas those former Bills related to the privileged and the under-privileged in society generally this Bill adds to the problems that will arise in the differing rights of those who live in rural areas and those who live in cities to the transport that is provided for them. Because the Bill introduces private sector criteria into management. the companies will no longer be subject to the same commercial profit criteria under which they live today. The Government may not intend that, but the Secretary of State has said that it is within the terms of the Bill to sell off municipal undertakings, such as Cumberland Motor Services in my constituency. Such organisations will, no longer be required to use cross-subsidisation revenues in addition to revenue support to ensure the maintenance of rural services in such constituencies as mine. The hon. and learned Gentleman shakes his head, as he did on 20 March 1980 when he gave an undertaking that rural routes would not be lost in my constituency as a result of the Bill that he was then introducing. He knows that my constituency has lost six routes as a result of that Bill.
Cross-subsidisation money will be lost under the Bill, which means that more rural routes will be lost. Companies such as Yeowarts in Whitehaven will set up in various parts of the country as cowboy operations. It operates with old buses of between 10 and 13 years of age and uses non-union labour. Such companies hire people for substantially lower amounts than the wages paid by public sector undertakings——
§ Mr. Kenneth Clarke
The hon. Gentleman has accused everybody of dishonest and scurrilous motives and corruption without any evidence to support that. Will he confirm that Yeowarts must operate its coaches under the same rigorous safety standards as every other operator? It is perfectly entitled to break into the CMS monopoly in Whitehaven provided it satisfies the Secretary of State that it is in the public interest to do so. The hon. Gentleman has revealed that his ulterior motive is to defend an over-powerful group of Transport and General Workers Union members in his constituency Labour Party—it is not a somewhat hypocritical concern for rural services.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
I do not have one letter from any member of the TGWU in my constituency. The only people who have written to me are the rural dwellers and those who have lost their industrial services. They are incensed by the implementation of the 1980 Act, and recognise that the operation of Yeowarts in Whitehaven has been directly responsible for what has happened.
I did not link in any way—if the hon. Gentleman wishes to read what I said in Hansard tomorrow—Yeowarts with 923 any suggestion of corruption. I am sure that it is a perfectly straightforward operation, although it does not play by the book as Cumberland Motor Services does. Any established company has to make adequate provision for its work force. The nationalised industries and publicly owned utilities maintain a high standard for their workers.
Over the past few years one has seen examples of companies that have been privatised—the great warriors of privatisation in the economy. I remember them all well. Fire and Auto Marine went bankrupt. Brentford Nylons, Court Line, Laker, which is a classic example and to which I have already referred, the champion of them all, John Bloom, Rolls Razor in the sixties and Cyril Lord Carpets are all masterpieces of private enterprise. There are numerous examples of the so-called effective and successful private sector about which hon. Members on the Government Benches refuse to comment. They all had one thing in common. They tried to run their operations on the cheap in the same way as the little cowboy outfits that have been set up against public transport. The only people paying are our constituents.
The Minister may shake his head. I have referred to my mailbag. He would be interesting if he referred to his. It should take on board the comments of the great Conservative-controlled counties which have made representations about the effect of the 1980 Act. Many of them rejected it and have refused to comply with it as it undermines services in the rural areas and may have upset Tory voters. The hon. and learned Gentleman's record on rival transport may well be excellent, but in the area of privatisation it has been quite dreadful inasmuch as the effect and motivation of the policy has been to undermine rural dwellers. This Bill only aggravates a condition which is the direct responsibility of this appalling Government.
§ Mr. Bob Dunn (Dartford)
I welcome the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) to the Opposition Front Bench. It is a joy for me to see his passage from chrysalid into beautiful butterfly. The same cannot be said for the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours). I enjoyed his speech for its delivery but not its content. He does not see matters in black and white, but in black and blacker still. He is the greatest pessimist to whom I have the pleasure of listening in the Chamber.
Reference was made to the Dartford tunnel. I must declare an interest, as I represent the people there. Everyone south of the river wants the temporary blockage of the Essex roadworks terminated as early as possible and traffic to start moving more quickly.
The hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Leadbitter) said that transport can help create wealth. But a lack of transport inhibits wealth creation.
My constituents—those in business and those who commute—have access to the A20, A2 and M25. I accept that there may be significant differences between the transport infrastructures in the North and the South, but nothing had been done to aid the commuter or to ease the express transport of goods until the election of this Government.
Legislation has been enacted in the lifetime of this Parliament which has been of tremendous benefit to my constituents and those of other North Kent Members. They 924 previously had no real alternative to trains, apart from private cars. Private bus companies were not permitted to seek licences from the road traffic commissioners to run a bus service to provide a different dimension—a real alternative to the nationalised industries and a cheaper service. Due to the Government's efforts, the position has changed radically. Private bus companies are running services at rush hour times from North Kent. Car sharing has also greatly augmented choice.
I welcome the privatisation elements in the Bill. Privatisation is a means to economic recovery, to a better service and to better value for money. The Bill is a further step to liberalise the economic contributors.
I turn to the proposals on vehicle testing. If any argument were necessary to convince me of the need for vehicle testing to be privatised it would be the reduction in the 900 civil servants involved in the testing, which could be done so much more cheaply and better privately.
I make a plea to my hon. and learned Friend. When the testing stations are sold, consideration should be given to small and medium sized businesses, as well as parts of larger chains. If the Conservative Party stands for anything it is for the encouragement of smaller businesses. My hon. and learned Friend takes a positive view. I have been in correspondence with him over the past three years about the need to privatise in that way and to grant the opportunity to smaller businesses to buy testing stations.
Finally, I turn to the fixed penalties in part III. For many years there has been great confusion between areas and between various magistrates courts about the level of fines. The blockages and the tremendous throughput of work in the magistrates courts will be much reduced by the measure.
I wholeheartedly welcome the Bill. As the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) is a black figure in the debate, perhaps I am a shining white example of great support for the Bill. The sooner that we move to privatisation in transport and elsewhere in local government, as my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) said, the better for the British people.
§ Mr. Arthur Lewis (Newham, North-West)
I had not intended to participate in the debate until I heard the comments of the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Sir A. Costain). The hon. Gentleman has left the Chamber for good reasons and has asked me to pass on his apologies. I promised not to say anything nasty about him in his absence.
The hon. Gentleman believed that I was laughing because I was against the enforcement of road fund licences. Twenty-five years ago I pointed out the dangers of the evasion of road fund licences. I was told that, as there were only a few cases, it was not worth taking action. But, like Topsy, the problem grew and grew. It became so great that its size was then used as the argument for not doing anything. The police force is now underpaid and overworked and cannot cope.
I laughed because the same civil servants and the same kind of Ministers are again creating well-paid jobs by introducing a conglomerate of stupid measures in a three-way Bill. They know full well that every time they make these innovations they fall down.
The last big occasion was the Swansea computer, set up to do the road fund licensing and the registration of documents and offences. It was going to work perfectly. 925 The civil servants started off by saying that it would cost only £1 million, or £2 million, or £3 million, or £4 million, and that it would be done in a month or two, or a year or two or three. I do not know how long it took them before it became £20 million or £30 million and then they discovered that it was no good and it all fell through. We are now back to the old days. We have hit the nail on the head by advertising in the press that licences can now be obtained from post offices. Twenty-five years ago that is what we always did. All those civil servants who had good jobs and went up to Swansea will be coming back.
Now we are talking about enforcing penalties. What a joke. The hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe said that we could go down to Folkestone and fine the drivers of lorries which are illegally parked but one has only to walk to Soho or to Oxford Street to do that. If one walks past the Department's office, one finds large numbers of cars parked illegally, and on parking meters with no payments for hours on end. Yet there is no action.
The police are supposed to be over-stretched. We have the biggest police force we have ever had. The police force has things that it never had before—panda cars, Rover cars, black Marias, two-way radios, electronic aids and God knows what else. Yet we have more crime now than we have ever had in our history. One used to be able to walk in any street in London. Today, one cannot walk in daylight in certain streets.
If we introduce legislation which we know cannot be enforced, it will not be enforced. I can take any hon. Member on any work day to Leather Lane, where there is a street market. The street marketeer vans have been there literally for years but have never been taxed or road tested. They have been reported to the police for 20 or 25 years but they are still there.
I can also show cars and other vehicles with huge piles of parking tickets. One chap boasted that he had 54 parking fines. What difference will the Bill make? The hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe was wrong when he said that when offenders receive fines they are enforced on the spot, that the offenders have to pay. They do not. They can still object and go to court. When they do not trouble to turn up at the court, they get a fine which they do not pay but which goes on the list.
The Home Secretary who is a member of the Government, I believe, introduced the Criminal Justice Bill. He said that we had to cut down on prison sentences and on the prisons and that we must not send people to prison for anything that is not really bad. As for those who do not pay their fines, the Home Secretary would not dream of sending them to prison. The police now know that if somebody says that he will not pay the fine, that is it. The Bill will not make any difference. What will happen was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield, East (Mr. Sheerman), who was right to say that there would be dangers.
I wish that the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) were here. If he were, he would be able to confirm, or I hope deny, that the police have a black list. They have a black list of politicians and prominent people. If those people cross the police when in trouble, the police will throw the book at them. What will happen when a politician who may have upset the police is pulled up? Now the police do not know who he is and will say that he can move on, but when the Bill is passed the police will say that driver must give up his licence. When he does so, they will say, "Ah, you are Mr. X the MP, are you? You 926 are on our black list, so you are in trouble." However, if it is Mr. Y or even Mrs. T the police will say that he or she is all right because he or she is not on the black list. That will happen. I do not see why that should happen. I do not see why the police should be the arbiters.
At the moment the police can still decide whether to proceed. However, there is a difference between their actions now on a voluntary basis and having compulsory legislative opportunities to take action. The hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe is right to say that the good law-abiding citizen will pay up. He will follow the law. However, the man who deliberately and incessantly breaks the law will get away with it.
Often both Conservative and Labour Governments bring in legislation to penalise and punish the good law-abiding citizen. I take as an example dog licences. The Government said that the dog licence fee would be increased because many people were not paying it. Therefore, the good old-age pensioner who pays already pays more. What a stupid system. The wearing of seat belts is being compulsorily enforced. Will they be compulsory? No, of course not. Those who want to wear seat belts will do so.
Therefore, I cannot for the life of me see why we should keep on introducing regressive legislation against decent and honest people when we know that that legislation cannot be enforced against those whom we want to affect and that it will be enforced against those who are not the main culprits.
The hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe referred to his constituency. I agree with what he said about: lorries there. However, one does riot have to go all the way to Folkestone to see that. I could take him for a ten-minute trip round London, where the ambulances, fire engines and public service vehicles cannot get down the streets because of illegal parking. Sometimes the vehicles are two or three abreast, sometimes they are on the road or on the pavements; often they are broken down.
If one contacts the police force, which is the largest in our history, it takes a fortnight to receive an acknowledgement of the telephone call. It takes three weeks to receive a card to say that the police are giving the matter their attention. After two months they say that nothing can be done. One still sees the same vehicles on the streets. I cannot and will not support a system that means attacks upon the good law-abiding citizen, while the culprit gets away with it.
Illegal parking can easily be overcome. Why not use the crocodile clamp, which is a big clamp screwed or locked on to the wheel? The driver cannot shift the car. He has to go to the police pound, and he has to take a taxi to gel there. He has to pay a fine. If he has not paid his road fund licence, he has to pay that, too. Then the policeman has to come back to unlock the clamp. The car cannot be moved because the crocodile clamp would cut the car tyre to pieces. If there were a few hundred or thousand such clamps in London, people would soon say "We are not going to get caught like that." That is a cheaper and easier way. However, it will not give 101,000 jobs to the top-paid civil servants in the Ministry of Transport for doing nothing, so I suppose that that is one reason why the clamps will not be introduced
I shall finish now, because I told my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) that I would sit down by 9 o'clock. That I now do.
§ 9 pm
§ Mr. John G. Blackburn (Dudley, West)
This moment takes me back 12 months when I had the privilege to introduce the Zoo Licensing (No. 2) Bill, because we have had a wonderful journey with crocodiles, parrots from the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Leadbitter), pandas, and other animals. Now, in the few minutes that I have, I hope to break all records.
In my judgment, the House of Commons is always at its best when it talks about people—not policies or principles, but people. The 1980 Act has had a tremendous effect on the people in my constituency because it has removed licensing regulations from scheduled express services, excursions, day tours, coach holidays, and so on. It has made a remarkable difference to my constituents who can now come to London for £6. When local authority representatives come to discuss matters of state here, they travel by bus. It is a good Act and it has made a tremendous difference, particularly to people on fixed incomes and pensioners, who can now get to the seaside for their holidays and take excursions—all as a result of the benefits brought to them by the 1980 Act.
If testimony is required, it is interesting that in the last three months of 1980, when the Act was operative, passenger traffic increased by 16.6 per cent. It would be foolish to judge a policy on three months' figures, but I hope that the Minister will tell us the figures for at least the first half of 1981 to confirm the figure that I have given.
I hope that the Minister will give us a commitment tonight that the express services will continue. I do not accept that the word "profit" is obscene. I sincerely believe that we should have profitability, and it will come from an increase in the volume of passenger traffic.
I am particularly concerned that certain aspects of the Bill will be implemented quickly, because it is remarkable how anyone in the West Midlands conurbation is ever convicted of speeding. The latest figures show that traffic in the West Midlands moves at 10.8 miles an hour, and sometimes I feel that that is an exaggeration.
I am also concerned about clause 31. If a police officer, in carrying out his duties, inspects a licence that has endorsements and gives a further endorsement, it can affect a man's livelihood and career. It is wrong that that should be left in the hands of an individual police officer. In my view, the matter should be decided in the courts.
I conclude by expressing my deep concern at what was said by the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) about allegations of corruption. If the hon. Gentleman has evidence of that, it is his moral duty to the House and his electorate to place that evidence in the hands of the Home Secretary. It is time that some hon. Member gave a vote of confidence to the men and women in our police service. I am tired of hearing attack upon attack on the men and women who give such a wonderful service. I will certainly give a vote of confidence to the police service.
§ 9.5 pm
§ Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)
We have had an interesting debate. The first thing to be realised about the Bill is that it is not a Transport Bill at all. It has the most tenuous connections with transport. Given what we have heard today, the Bill's only connection with transport is that it emanates from the Department of Tranport. I 928 regret to say that the Secretary of State was his usual insipid, unconvincing self. He showed no enthusiasm whatever for the Bill. He did not advance any valid reasons for the main changes that he has introduced. Perhaps his arguments in favour of the Bill and his discussion of transport policy were so thin because he was conscious of not wishing to give hostages to fortune. His predecessor, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler)—now Secretary of State for Social Services—was not quite so careful. He certainly gave a hostage to fortune on the Second Reading of the Transport Bill on 27 November 1979, when with great gusto, he solemnly told us—at column 1123—that if he could attract the Freddie Lakers of the world into the bus services, he would regard the Bill as an outstanding success. The collapse of Laker Airways only a couple of days ago must be very embarrassing to the former Secretary of State.
The Government must be seriously embarrassed about the collapse of Laker Airways with an estimated debt of £270 million. I regret as much as anyone the loss of jobs in Laker Airways. With 3 million unemployed, no one can be at all sanguine about the chances of those out of work finding a job. However, some of the press have been hysterical in the lauding of Laker. Many people who bought tickets—not those with package tours—are unsecured creditors. The chances of their getting their money back will not make them very partial to Laker Airways.
Similarly, many people who supplied Laker Airways are also in the position of unsecured creditors. Many of them are the small business men who are so much in the minds of Conservative Members. They will be very seriously concerned about their position.
There is an old saying of my late grandmother which covers the position of people associated with Laker Airways and the whole aspect of transport. She used to say "If you buy cheap you buy dear in the long run". If the attitude towards transport—whether it be buses, trains, or the airways—is to sell the product at the cheapest possible price, we are in for great trouble.
Before I come to the contents of the Bill, I want to raise an issue that is not in the Bill, but which the Under-Secretary of State might be able to answer when he winds up. It is not long since the Secretary of State told the House that, despite all his earlier assurances, the GLC could no longer found concessionary fares on existing legislation. He promised to take powers to allow the GLC to borrow in order to spread the deficit—possibly over three years. What has happened to that promise? This is a Transport Bill. Why is that provision not included? We have everything else under the sun in the Bill. Why have we not got the provision for the GLC on these two limited factors? We need an answer to that. When will we have the legislation promised to deal with these two aspects of the GLC? However, that would not satisfy me, or the Opposition.
The wider aspect of public transport in relation to local authority services also needs to be examined. Despite what has been said, the law is in confusion in England and Wales, as a result of the decision on the GLC in the other place. I hope that the Secretary of State will bear in mind that by 205 votes to 177 the House today expressed its will that the law in relation to the GLC should be restored to the position that everyone thought existed.
Clause 48 is an extraordinary provision for a Transport Bill. The Secretary of State was asked the type of 929 circumstances in which it might apply, but he let such questions pass in a cavalier fashion. To take such wide powers without justification, elaboration of how he intends to apply them, or discussion of the circumstances in which he might be involved is not good enough. Clause 48 makes it clear that he will have the power to order and direct harbour authorities to do anything that he considers necessaryin the interests of national defence".When do the interests of national defence arise? Would national defence be called into play as a result of some civil disorder? Would such powers be taken in a run-up to a crisis, when a war is anticipated within a couple of days? What exactly does the right hon. Gentleman mean byin the interests of national defence"?It has been suggested that if a nuclear-powered submarine was in difficulty, a harbour authority might give good environmental reasons, or reasons concerning the safety of citizens, for not allowing the submarine into the port. Would that situation be covered? If a cargo of chemical warfare weapons from the United States of America tried to enter a port, but the harbour authority said that it did not want it, would the Secretary of State use the powers under clause 48 to order the port to accept the vessel? I have mentioned only two possibilities. In a sense, they are not fanciful, but we can only speculate because the Secretary of State has told us nothing. Therefore, I hope that he will give an explanation.
Part III concerns fixed penalties. Hon. Members have rightly shown great concern about preserving the balance between administrative convenience and the legal rights of individuals. The Government think that they have got the balance right, although there is serious doubt about that. In Committee, we shall have to probe deeply and I hope that the Government will not consider their proposals infallible, but will consider amendments on their merits and be prepared to make changes. Representations have been made from various quarters about the provision to produce a driving licence. The Secretary of State appeared to say that the licence would have to be produced, but that was all. However, that is not what the Bill states. Part III states that a driver must produce his licence for inspection by the constable.
How far does inspection go? If only the front part of the licence is shown, in its folder, the constable will see only the name and address and will not see anything about endorsements. Surely inspection means that the constable is entitled to take out the licence and examine it carefully. People are concerned about that. There is a feeling that if the constable sees that someone has a conviction for speeding or careless driving—despite the fact that the convictions might be technically expunged from the record—he may be influenced in his judgment whether to impose a fixed penalty or to give him a warning.
The matter could be argued both ways. Some might argue that it is reasonable to take into account someone's record if he is to be prosecuted.- The hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) said that the current position is that before a prosecution is made the record is seen. That is true, but it is a different matter to decide whether to go for a prosecution or to prosecute and find guilty at the same time. I know that the motorist who is stopped has the right not to accept the fixed penalty charge. He can opt to go to court and defend it. We have 930 been told much about the pressure on business men. That might lead them to accept the charge rather than become involved in a hassle with the courts.
Some concern has been expressed about how the courts deal with matters that come before them now. There is a feeling—I do not know how justified it is—that those who defend actions in court are dealt with more severely than if they simply send a letter pleading guilty or turn up to plead guilty. It is believed in some quarters that the magistrates, by consultation, have come to the conclusion that if they feel that court time has been wasted by a frivolous defence they will impose a higher penalty. I hope that that is not so. I hope that if a motorist exercises his option, which he will legally be entitled to do if the Bill becomes law, there will be no suggestion that the courts will summarily decide that he should be dealt with more harshly. That would not be justice.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stirling, Falkirk and Grangemouth (Mr. Ewing) raised the issue of corroboration in Scotland. Nothing in the Bill takes away more than was taken away from traffic wardens. There is no question of a lower standard of proof being required than is now the case in Scottish courts. I hope that we can be reassured about that.
There is much in part III about fixed penalties that must be probed deeply. I am sure that we shall have a long and proper discussion of that section. However, it would have been better, as many hon. Members have said, if it had been a separate Bill. It would have avoided the difficulty in which some Conservative Members are placed. They have been unhappy about part II of the Bill and some of them will not support the Government in the Lobby tonight. They may have reservations about part III but they will be compelled to vote for it because the whole Bill carries the issue of the Conservative Party's dogma.
Part II of the Bill is very important. The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Sir D. Price), the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry) and the distinguished Chairrnrin of the Select Committee on Transport, the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bradley), have said that they believe strongly in the recommendations of the Select Committee, which considered carefully the privatisation of the heavy goods vehicle testing stations. They are quite adamant that, having considered all the evidence and having taken evidence from all sorts of bodies, no one is in favour of the measure.
The Freight Transport Association document has been quoted many times by the hon. Member for Meriden (Mr. Mills), who is not in the Chamber now. The document says quite clearly that the industry is unhappy about the proposed changes. It says:Nevertheless Government was clearly determined to press ahead and over the intervening two years the Department of Transport has conducted frequent discussions with the FI'A and the RHA with a view to designing a scheme which would be acceptable to commercial vehicle operators and allay industry's fears.The Transport Bill reflects those discussions and the consultation machinery embodied in clause 14 is in line with the arrangements discussed and agreed between the Department of Transport and industry and goes a long way"——not the whole way——towards meeting industry's constant plea that private testing should not …",and so on. It makes it clear that the FTA is not happy even with the safeguards now evolved and that it will require the Committee to probe deeply into this matter. The FTA still does not believe that the Government will be able to 931 find an acceptable organisation to take over the whole testing function, although it accepts that clauses 8 to 23 are broadly satisfactory to them.
We must ask ourselves why there is a need for vehicle testing stations at all. That is a relevant point which has not so far been touched upon. Vehicle testing stations are required. Indeed, they are vital, as it is obvious that the industry cannot police itself or maintain standards. If there was an absolute guarantee that standards could be maintained within the road haulage industry and the bus industry, there would be no need for vehicle testing stations. It is precisely because of the policing mechanism that testing stations are needed.
The truth is that the privatisation of heavy goods vehicle testing stations has nothing to do with private industry being able to do the job better than or as well as the existing system. It is simply that the Department has been told that it must shed 900 civil servants. The Minister knows that if he does not deliver the goods and somehow get rid of 900 of his staff, not only will he have to find 900 people from elsewhere in the Department, but the blessed Margaret—or the blasted Margaret, one is never quite sure these days—will smack him on the wrist and tell him that he is a bad boy and must do as he is told. That is what it is all about. All the business about private investment and the ability of private enterprise to do the job just as well is a pure smokescreen.
Not only in this clause but throughout this part of the Bill the Minister has shown no concern whatever for the remote areas. He was quite unable to tell us how the remote area stations which operate for only three or four days a week could be retained. He did not tell us how costs could be kept down. He said nothing about the link between testing and repair stations and the problems and dangers of malpractice.
The very suggestion that there might be malpractice in vehicle testing is greeted with horror by Conservative Members. The idea that pressure might be brought to bear on testers to allow vehicles to pass the test is regarded as anathema to the industry. But even now pressures may be brought to bear on testers. An article in the New Statesman a few weeks ago under the headlineMinister seeks to remove official who tried to enforce the lawstated:The efforts of a minor official in Cornwall to enforce the laws on lorry safety so upset Cabinet Minister John Nott that he wrote a confidential letter to the Transport Secretary, Norman Fowler, demanding the removal of the official. The law enforcer is David Broom, a Department of Transport traffic examiner who was based at Redruth, covering Mr. Non's constituency of St. Ives. Last February Mr. Nott, at that time Secretary of State for Trade, wrote a personal and confidential letter to Mr. Fowler complaining that Mr. Broom was doing his job with too much zeal. Mr. Broom has since been reprimanded and transferred. The nearest check on whether local haulage firms are breaking the safety laws in now 60 miles away.If I had time, I could go into all the details of that case and show how in my view quite improper pressure was used to remove a man who was doing his job. If that shocking fact can happen now, we all know what can happen once the private operators begin to gang together and try to rush these things through.
Indeed, the Government are so keen on privatisation of the heavy goods vehicle testing stations, and so anxious to get rid of the 900 civil servants, that they have taken 932 not just the power to establish a company or to encourage companies to take over the whole or bits of an organisation, but the power to give them loans allowing them to set up.
It goes further than that. Clause 12(4) states:The Secretary of State may, with the consent of the Treasury remit in whole or in part the liability of any company in respect of loans made to the company by virtue of this section.Everyone must accept that the Government are using sheer bribery to get the matter off their hands. The Government ought to know better and be ashamed of themselves.
Clause 1 concerns privatisation of the National Bus Company. As I said earlier, the Secretary of State has shown no concern for what might happen to the rural areas if large sections of the company were sold off. Indeed, he showed his total lack of concern for rural areas as the Secretary of State for Energy when there was a petrol crisis and prices were being "bunged-up". His hon. Friends on the Back Benches kicked hell out of him for not taking action. That policy has continued throughout his career.
The Secretary of State introduced the Bill as a mild measure to allow the introduction of private capital. It was said that the poor National Bus Company had difficulty with its capital requirements and that it would be nice for it to get private capital. The Bill does not say that. It deals not with the access of private capital, but with selling off subsidiaries. It is clear in parts I and II that the purpose is to sell them off.
Indeed, not only are the Government to sell off existing subsidiaries, but the power is given for the Secretary of State to direct the National Bus Company to set up subsidiaries and transfer assets for the sole purpose of selling them off. That has nothing to do with the good and integrated operations of the company, but simply with ensuring that private enterprise gets some access to sites which it does not now have. It is all about the private developers, interested in speculative gain, being allowed access to prime sites in city centres for development. The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) let that cat out of the bag.
I only wish that the Government would not come to the House pretending that they were doing one thing when, in reality, the whole tenor of the clauses shows that they are intent on doing the opposite. It is becoming ludicrous.
The Opposition clearly say that when we return to Government we will restore to public ownership the assets disposed of. We make that clear pledge.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
Did my hon. Friend notice the strange inconsistency which developed in the debate when the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bradley), when commenting for the Social Democratic Party on carriage service arrangements, made totally contrary statements to those expressed by members of the Liberal Party during the passage of new clause 6 in the Transport Act 1980? Would he care to comment on the gross inconsistency that obviously exists within the alliance which is trying to maintain credibility?
§ Mr. Hughes
The longer the alliance exists, the clearer it becomes that it is fictional, especially since the Liberal Party did not even bother to attend the debate.
The Bill, along with all other Transport Bills which the Government have enacted, exposes their attitude to public transport. There is no understanding of the issues or 933 strategy for the growth of public transport. When introducing the Bill tonight, the Secretary of State had no more vigour than a broken reed.
No one can have any confidence in the future—not the travelling public, and not those who work in the industry. The Government are concerned only with the short-term public relations image, with showing that they have made some attempt, however bogus, to cut the number of civil servants and, however the books are manipulated, that they have made an attempt to cut the public sector borrowing requirement. The Government have totally ignored the long-term damage to public transport and the travelling public. For those and other reasons we shall vote against the Bill.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Kenneth Clarke)
It is inevitable that a large number of hon. Members who have taken part in the debate should refer to the fact that we have had a number of large Transport Bills in this Parliament and that this is the third omnibus Bill. As my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones) said, each one is better than the last. Each Bill received the same reaction from the Opposition of dogged resistance to change and dogged defence of outmoded restrictions that have affected many of the transport industries for too long.
One of the variations on the theme of how many Transport Bills the Government have brought forward was the suggestion that we should divide the Bill into two or three separate Bills for separate discussion. However, this is only one of the pieces of transport legislation before this Parliament. There are three Bills altogether, and to divide the Bill would make at least four transport Bills. There is a limit to the desire even of this House to debate transport matters on each and every occasion that parliamentary time affords.
The hon.Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) suggested a new variation. He wanted to include legislation on the Greater London Council in the Bill. However, as he knows, the Government have made it clear that we intend to clarify for the GLC such small points of the law that we accept need clarification. The Bill would be delayed if we included legislation on the GLC, given the length of discussion we are promised in Committee. The necessary legislation will be presented soon.
The Bill will take some time to go through the House. I can see that it will begin with constant references to the Transport Act 1980. That Act has made great changes to the inter-city coach services, on which we now propose to build with the provisions in part I.
There is a consistent theme dividing the House. The Government believe that this area of transport, in common with several others, benefits from liberalisation and the removal of outmoded restrictions and can give a better service to the public if freed from them. The Opposition have always been pessimistic about the coach and bus market. They fear change. They prefer the services to be regulated and totally State owned. They accepted that under the old system the bus industry was in decline, but as it was a decline with which they were familiar they hoped that it would continue. But as my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, West (Mr. Blackburn) dramatically underlined, since the Transport Act 1980, which the Opposition fought tooth and nail, there has been an 934 enormous expansion in inter-city coach services, providing cheaper, reliable travel for many people. We believe we can continue that policy.
§ Mr. Clarke
I shall give way in a moment. The right hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Booth) attacked our proposal to introduce private capital into National Express—the most successful of the inter-city coach operations—on the basis that we were disappointed that the nationalised industry had been one of the principal beneficiaries from our legislation. He was unable to cite anything to justify that allegation. Indeed, in the legislation, passed about two years ago, we made it clear that we were impartial on the public and the private sectors. We believe that competition will enable them to take advantage of the opportunities given to them, and to serve the public. I refer the House to the Official Report of the Committee proceedings of the 1980 Act, on 24 January 1980, columns 488–491. I was attempting to explain to Opposition Members the potential of the Bill for the National Bus Company and the National Express network. It was the Opposition who resisted, claiming that they were defending the National Bus Company against competition, and denying the prospects held out the Government that National Bus could benefit from the change. I stated on that occasion:The fact that we shall be giving the National Bus Company the opportunity to win the extra revenue that it is claiming by freeing the express business should not have any damaging effect on its ability to fulfil its statutory role and maintain the rest of its services."—[Official Report, Standing Committee H, 24 January 1980; c. 490.]The Opposition argued that de-licensing would damage rural services. What has happened is that it has been a great success in generating funds for the National Bus Company. Now the right hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness argues that if it is taken away it will damage the rural services because it needs the income that the new legislation has enabled it to earn to cross-subsidise the rural services. This shows that the right hon. Gentleman's approach is one of pessimism. He does not believe that the NBC can thrive given the opportuniies that this Bill will add to the opportunities already available.
§ Mr. Booth
Will the hon. and learned Gentleman concede that his reference to the expansion of the NBC relates only to its express services, representing 7 per cent of its total area of operations? Will he give some indication of how massive has been the decline in the whole of the rest of the operation? From how many millions of miles is it forecast that the NBC will have to withdraw services? How many fewer staff are employed by the NBC and how many fewer buses is it now operating since the passing of the 1980 Act?
§ Mr. Clarke
National Bus has been reorganising its rural and other bus services following market analysis for many years. The steady reduction of route mileage has been a response to demand by the NBC for several years. This has nothing to do with the Transport Act 1980 which. so far as it relates to inter-city services, now under discussion, has generated additional income for National Bus. It has been a growth sector in its activities.
There has been reference to the fact that the remarks of the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bradley). who intervened on behalf of the Social Democrats, were far 935 removed from those of the Liberal Party although the Liberals have not expressed a view during this debate. The hon. Member for Leicester, East must have been exceedingly worried to find himself voting against the Labour Party yesterday. The hon. Gentleman made a speech based on such shell-backed Socialism that it was impossible to distinguish between his views and those of the right hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness. The hon. Gentleman expressed the same fears on de-licensing and de-regulation during discussion of the Transport Bill in 1979. That has driven him to his present pessimism. I should like to refer to the stirring words of the hon. Member for Leicester, East when he faced the prospect of liberalising the transport market. He said:I still do not believe that this is the moment to scorn the regulations introduced in 1930 to avoid the kind of intense competition that would end cross-subsidisation and let loose a price war leading to a decline in certain essential services."— [Official Report, 27 November 1979; Vol. 974, c. 1222–3.]Those stirring words of the new party take us back to the spirit of Ramsay MacDonald and the first Labour Government, who introduced the regulations that the hon. Gentleman was defending. If we continue to listen to the entreaties of the Labour Party or the Social Democrats on new, expanding areas like inter-city long-distance coaches, there will be no change and no expansion. The public will be deprived of a valuable service. Given the fact that we have been extremely successful in developing inter-city coach services, the time has come to enable the National Express services to be further developed.
In the first two years, there has been an unusual development. Traffic has increased rapidly and business has expanded beyond the expectations of National Bus as well as the Opposition. It is, however, inhibited in its access to further investment and capital by the constraints of the public sector. It operates in and out of coach terminals so admirably described by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) that no longer match the expectations of customers attracted to the highly successful coach businesses.
It is the Government's opinion that the best way to provide access to capital and to allow business to develop—this is what interests us—for the benefit of the travelling public is to allow access to private capital through the means set out in part I of the Bill. National Bus will first be able to set up a distinct company comprising National Express and National Holiday either together or apart that will acquire a track record and be able to show Companies Act accounts, enabling it to float the company and turn it into a private sector company with access to capital. The National Bus Company will retain a substantial stake in any companies it floats.
The Bill makes express provision for employees' shareholding, a feature upon which the Government are keen. The Bill also makes provision for the same arrangements to be made, either together or apart from other businesses, for developing the properties. The old bus stations, free from the inhibitions that the public sector has to lay upon them to restrain their use of public moneys, could be developed with attractive development alongside the improvement of the bus stations themselves, which is very much required.
§ Mr. Roger Stott (Westhoughton)
I do not want to develop Committee points on the Floor of the House, but the Minister will recall that he and I had a long argument on the last Transport Act about the position of subsidiary companies. I put it to him that he should tell the House what the position is. If the National Bus Company is forced to sell off its express routes it will have to sell more than 50 per cent. of its shareholding because, if it does not, it will still be confined by the external financing limit. When I was arguing about British Rail, the Minister said that the only way those subsidiaries would be deemed to have been sold was when British Rail lost control of them. Is the Minister telling the House that the National Bus Company will have to lose control of its express services for it to be considered as being outside its external finance limits?
§ Mr. Clarke
The hon. Gentleman is right. He and I always have long arguments about this and the answer is always the same. To be regarded as a private sector company and, therefore, free from the constraints which the Treasury, this Government and every previous Government have had to impose on public sector companies, control must pass to private sector investors. Nevertheless, that does not inhibit them from retaining a substantial interest from which they can derive benefits. The people who work in the express business will benefit from the development of the business that follows once they have access to additional capital.
I have not time to go into the arguments about rural services. I will say only that the Bill is not immediately concerned with that problem, but, of course, it is a problem to which the Government are addressing themselves. There have been years and years of decline in rural bus services. The time has come for new thinking in this area, just as much as in inter-city transport. It will not do for the Opposition to invoke against each and every proposal put forward by the Government the argument that to de-license will threaten rural services, that to denationalise National Express will threaten rural services, that to grant a licence that breaks the CMS monopoly in Whitehaven will threaten rural services.
What is threatening rural services is a lack of demand and inflexibility in response to changing markets. At this stage I shall not detail what has happened following the previous Act by taking the favourable examples of Hereford and Worcester, where, within a trial area, cheaper and better services are operating. I can assure hon. Gentlemen that the Government are just as active in the rural transport area, and intend to be so, as in any other.
Part II of the Bill is concerned with our proposals for heavy goods vehicle and public service vehicle testing. Again, our proposals are certainly novel. They have aroused a wide range of doubt and concern, most of it based on an intrinsic resistance to change. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Sir D. Price) was able to invoke in his aid a worthy Tory resistance to change for its own sake. His motives were more understandable and acceptable to my right hon. Friend and myself than what appears to be the dogged resistance to change of any kind in transport that comes on all subjects from the Opposition.
In relation to the changes that we are proposing in the heavy goods vehicle and public service vehicle testing area, we see no reason why jobs should continue to be done by the Government when this is happening only because of historical accident and when there are 937 limitations in the way in which the job is done. All the employees are civil servants, even the garage mechanics. They are all employed on Civil Service terms and conditions. There is an inevitable inflexibility in management and response to customer demand that does not operate elsewhere. We believe that the changes we are proposing will provide a better service to the road haulage operators, and will help to reduce their costs. In turn, this will be of benefit to their customers whose goods will have their transport costs reduced.
The main benefit that should flow from having the stations transferred to the private sector and operated by private sector management is that it can offer a more flexible service than it is possible to arrange within the inhibitions of Civil Service arrangments. The great problem for road hauliers in taking their vehicles to heavy goods vehicle testing stations is the down time—the amount of time required for a vehicle to be off the road for preparation for the test, the test itself and any adjustments.
A wide range of respectable bodies is interested in the test stations. One of the things that they would all find easy to provide, which the Government do not, is the possibility of evening and weekend testing, the provision of a pit for operators' fitters to work in to carry out repairs at the time of testing, other amenities for the drivers and the sale of spares alongside testing facilities. All those improved services could be offered by the private sector operators.
The fears expressed by my hon. Friends the Members for Eastleigh and for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry) and by others are understandable. They were initially voiced strongly by reputable bodies such as the Freight Transport Association and the Road Haulage Association and by many members of the public, whose principal interest is that this should remain a respected and fully effective organisation.
The Government's prime purpose in anything that we do vis-a-vis heavy goods vehicle testing and public service vehicle testing is to retain the present high standards of testing and its assurance of public safety. One of the first fears expressed about that concerns the kind of people to whom the organisation might be transferred. I shall not go into the wilder and more malign allegations of such people as the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), but fears have been expressed that the testing might be taken over by people who would compromise because they had a conflict of interest in their other arrangements with the road haulage industry.
We are in no way committed to particular bodies, though we are examining the possibility of Lloyd's Register of Shipping being interested in the task. We have agreed with the industry that, in close statutory consultation with it, we shall make a very careful choice of the operators to whom the stations are transferred. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will choose the operators and will impose conditions upon them in consultation, following the provisions of clause 14, with an advisory panel drawn from the very bodies that originally expressed the kind of fears that have been rehearsed again in this debate.
We shall make sure that the people to whom we transfer the stations are of the highest integrity and that they are in no way put in a position involving a conflict of interests. In transferring sites we shall also make sure that the use cannot be changed without the Secretary of State's approval, and that a network of testing stations is 938 maintained, so that any private sector operator will have to take on some less attractive and unprofitable stations together with the profitable ones.
It has been alleged that our proposals give rise to the risk of fraud and malpractice. At present the standards are of the highest and the integrity of the system is relied upon on all sides, but, as one hon. Member said, there is nothing to stop a bribe being offered to a civil servant at present. One must have the protection of supervision and the criminal law.
§ Mr. Clarke
I am running out of time, and the right hon. Gentleman has only just arrived.
I must refute the suggestion that any connection with the private sector automatically involves fraud, malpractice and the possible issue of "bent" test certificates, an allegation frequently made from the Opposition Benches. I have already mentioned that one of the bodies with which we are already in negotiation, with no commitment on either side, is Lloyd's Register of Shipping, which for years has carried out statutory inspection of ships for safety purposes. If any hon. Member had suggested that Lloyd's Register of Shipping was likely to turn to fraud and malpractice in this area, the allegation would have bee n regarded as ridiculous.
My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Sir A. Costain) talked about similar arrangements in the cement industry which have operated with the highest integrity and nobody has ever challenged them as far as I am aware or he is aware.
Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mr. Mills) pointed out that because of the discussions we have had since the report of the Select Committee, over whose inquiry my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh presided, and because of all the reassurances we have been able to give to them people have adjusted their position and modified their concern. It is not only the statutory consultation. We reassured them by pointing out the kind of controls that the Secretary of State and the Government will retain to ensure public safety and to ensure the continued integrity of the system.
We are talking only about the standard mechanical checks to be carried out annually on the lorries and the buses. That is only one part of a whole system of safety checks, including the operator licensing and the like. But, even when we transfer the 91 testing stations and their expert staff, we shall still retain complete control, not only over authorisation of the operators but of individual authorisation of the technical staff carrying out the tests. We shall set the content of the tests, the standards for the staff training and the standards for the premises, equipment, and so on. Our offical civil servants will still be able to visit at any time the premises on which the tests are being carried out and to carry out surprise tests. We shall of course vet all the results of the tests and rapidly detect any variations in performance or pass rates coming out of the individual places. And we shall still retain the system of spot checks by the roadside, which will of course very rapidly begin to throw up cases of unsafe vehicles on the road that have acquired test certificates. We shall retain the present sanctions against those testing, including the ability to withdraw the authorisation from an individual tester or from an operator if any serious doubt arises about the operation of the system. 939 So we can retain the integrity of the system, we can maintain public safety, we can at the same time improve the service to the industry and reduce its cost, and we can get the Government out of a job running garages of a highly specialised kind which the Government and the taxpayer have no business being in. Although we shall retain our staff to do the essential supervising work, there will be 900 fewer civil servants as a result of this policy—900 people who should never have been in the Civil Service in the first place.
I shall touch very briefly on the provisions in clause 45, also on heavy goods vehicles and also part of our policy regardng heavy lorries and adopting what were originally the Foster committee recommendations on operator licensing, so that the licensing authority in future will be able to have regard to the suitability of the premises as an operating centre as well as all the other relevant matters.
§ Mr. Garel-Jones
Is my hon. and learned Friend aware that the clearing up of an anomaly by this Bill will be received with great relief in urban constituencies? Can he tell me whether individual neighbours will be able to make individual representations to the licensing authority on these matters?
§ Mr. Clarke
My hon. Friend the Member for Watford has underlined the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds, that a lot of people are very concerned about the small operators, in particular operating in residential streets and so on. The position is that, first, the licensing authority will be able to have regard to them. Obviously the licensing authority will listen to representations from local authorities, the police and all the people who have access to the system at the moment. But we also intend to make regulations to enable, for instance, owners and occupiers of property in the vicinity to make representations to the licensing authority. Thus, when an operating licence is being given or renewed it will be open to the licensing authority to have regard to the suitability of the area, the impact upon neighbours, and whether it is a desirable place for a heavy goods vehicle business to be run.
I hope that with amplification in Committee all hon. Members will be able to accept that this is a very desirable step towards reducing the impact that the heavy lorry has on the environment, both in suburban London and in rural villages.
Turning to the fixed penalty part of the Bill, this was described by most people as welcome and then gave rise to a very large number of individual points, which are bound, I am sure, to be examined at great length in the Standing Committee. Perhaps I should deal first with the Scottish points upon which I needed the assistance of my hon. Friend the Solicitor-General for Scotland.
The point that was raised most consistently was the question of any possible change in or breach of the Scottish law of corroboration. I am told that there is in this Bill no change whatever to the Scottish rules of evidence, apart from two very minor changes in clause 40, to which attention will be drawn in the Standing Committee.
As far as England and Wales are concerned, the extension of the so-called fixed penalty system to a much wider range of offences will be of benefit to a wide cross-section of the community. I do not know whether the general public know quite what fixed penalties are; they 940 are more familiar with the parking ticket. What they will now have is the speeding ticket, the construction and use ticket and traffic tickets, which will be given for some of the minor moving traffic offences. That will be of considerable advantage to the courts and police. The principal object of the courts and police is to enforce the criminal law and protect us against crime. It is an important part of their duties, but a burden to them, that so many traffic offences go through the magistrates court system.
The changes that we propose are expected to take about 600,000 minor traffic offences out of the court process. Many of those at the moment, as the hon. Member for Stirling, Falkirk and Grangemouth (Mr. Ewing) said, give rise to a written plea of guilty, but, nevertheless, they are a considerable administrative burden. The whole paraphernalia has to be followed on paper, even if the hearing takes place in the absence of the motorist.
The advantage to the motorist will be the same. The process will be much more straight forward. If he wishes, there will be less trouble with the summons and written plea of guilty and the court process for a minor traffic offence. If he accepts a fixed penalty he will know where he stands and know that he has to pay £10 for a non-endorsable offence and £20 for an endorsable offence.
We are tightening up the way in which fixed penalties are enforced. The main area in which people are familiar with them is the parking ticket. As the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Lewis) said, everyone knows that parking tickets are not as effectively enforced as one would wish. Under clause 33 all fixed penalty offences will be enforced as if they were fines. Although the system for enforcing fines is not fully effective, it is more effective than that for enforcing parking tickets. It will enable the magistrates to take fairly rapid action.
I shall deal briefly with the fears expressed by some hon. Members, who on the whole welcomed the clause, but understandably felt that there were matters about which motorists and the general public would have to be reassured. I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds that only a policeman will deal with moving traffic offences and that traffic wardens will be confined to their present powers. When a policeman stops a motorist—I take speeding as an example—he will still have his present options of cautioning the motorist or initiating a prosecution if the offence were a serious speeding offence. Otherwise he can offer the opportunity of a fixed penalty notice to the motorist.
We rejected the working party's recommendation that it should be a requirement that all motorists should carry their driving licence. The motorist can still choose whether he wishes to carry his driving licence. If he has been stopped for an offence that carries an endorsement he will be asked whether he wants a fixed penalty; if he agrees he will need to produce his licence.
Various people have expressed doubts about that, but the policeman needs to inspect the licence. He needs to know whether there are endorsements upon it to make sure that he does not give a fixed penalty notice and allow someone to drive away who has so many points under the new totting-up arrangements that he is about to be disqualified if convicted of the offence.
If the motorist chooses to carry his licence and to accept a fixed penalty he is still protected. If afterwards, when he has thought about it, he decides that he was not guilty of the offence and wants to contest it he can go to the courts 941 and dispute his liability in the same way as he can now. At any stage he can bring the process of fixed penalty to an end in that way. It is only if he accepts the fixed penalty and does not pay within the set time to the office to which he is directed that further steps will be taken as the magistrates begin to enforce the fines. The procedures then followed by the magistrates courts will be under the provisions of the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980. I believe, contrary to some fears, that those provisions would prove effective in practice.
The right hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness asked why we did not exclude endorsable offences from the fixed penalty system. That would take away most of the savings, because they represent a large proportion of the 600,000 cases that are being taken out of the police courts. I cite again the obvious example of speeding. The motorist and the courts will benefit from taking them out.
That is a guide to the Bill's main provisions. I shall with the insistence of the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North deal in Committee with the suggestion that nuclear and germ warfare are somehow wrapped up in clause 39.
§ I commend the Bill to the House for a Second Reading.
§ Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time:—945
§ Question accordingly agreed to.
§ Bill read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bill).