HL Deb 16 May 1928 vol 71 cc61-74

LORD MONKSWELL rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether they have noticed that none of the Petitioners against the Bills now before the. Joint Committee on Railway (Road Transport) Bills appears to be concerned with the interests of the general public; to inquire whether they propose to take any steps to ensure that these interests receive suitable consideration; and to move for. Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, a Committee is at present sitting to consider the Bills which railway companies have introduced, to enable them to go in largely for road transport, but far the most important aspect of these Bills is the effect that they are likely to have upon the transport facilities offered to the general public. I need not labour this point. I imagine there will be general agreement upon it. The question at issue being in the first place the interests of the public, it follows that the manner in which the railway companies have up to the present fulfilled their duties to the public is a matter of first-class importance, as bearing upon the question whether they may properly be given extended powers, and what use they are likely to make of those powers if they are given them. Many Petitions have been entered against these Bills—some hundreds of them, I think—but so far as I can see there is not one petitioning body concerned with the interests of the general public.

I am fortified in this view because I have been in communication with the Parliamentary agents who are acting for various categories of Petitioners against the Bills. I have suggested to them the propriety of calling evidence with regard to the past proceedings of the railway companies in relation to the public. They have all replied, in effect, that the interests of the public are no concern of their clients. The position appears to be that rival commercial, and to some extent political, organisations are engaged in a tremendous fight before the Committee, in order to secure a division of the spoils of the general public, while the Committee are to be kept in complete ignorance of matters which vitally affect the interests of the public. The Committee will, therefore, report in ignorance of all sorts of essential matters that any tolerably competent student of railway history could put before them. They will not be told that the present plight in which the railways find themselves is largely due to the railways themselves; that after brilliant work by the pioneers of the industry, which, in the first quarter century of its existence, made progress almost comparable with that made by motor engineering in a similar period, the officials who controlled the various railways proceeded to enter into a combination, which has existed ever since and is to-day in the full heyday of its strength; that this combination enabled them to slow down progress so that it largely ceased altogether, to neglect every sort of improvement and development tending to increase efficiency and economy, and to withhold from the public facilities which it was their duty to provide.

These people at once perceived that the enemy of inertia was speed, and than if that were got out of the way everything else would follow. Therefore, they put their heads together and instituted a rigid boycott of speed, which has continued uninterrupted up to the present day, with very slight exceptions, and is still in full vigour. High speed is, of course, the greatest and practically the only really searching test of efficiency. It finds out defects and points the way to improvements and developments of all kinds in a manner which no other test can approach. When machinery and equipment are constantly being subjected to the test of high speed rapid progress is certain. Without it any kind of inferior design and inefficient method will pass muster. Probably few people are aware how complete this boycott of the only efficient test of railway machinery has been. I will give a few figures. The first public railway was opened in 1825. The high speed tests of the early years culminated in 1848 in the attainment of the average speed of approximately 67 miles an hour on a start-to-stop run between London and Didcot. These figures have been given by the Great Western Railway itself. There is no record of a start-to-stop speed averaging so much as 67 miles per hour being again attained until 1895—forty-seven years on—and the best train between King's Cross and Edinburgh of the present day averages less than 48 miles per hour. In these circumstances slackness and inefficiency and utter indifference to the interests of the public invaded every department of the railways.

I need not trouble your Lordships to listen to a detailed exposition of the case. I will merely mention some of the matters that were either unduly delayed or not done at all: Development of locomotives, carriages, road, signals and brakes; acceptance of responsibility by the higher officials for the issue of proper instructions to their subordinates; exercise of reasonable foresight with regard to future developments; the introduction of third-class sleeping carriages; the reorganisation of the goods traffic so as to increase the average size of a consignment. While I do not pretend that some of these matters are not open to argument a large proportion of them are simply historical facts that any one can verify for himself. Some of them are not even disputed by the railway companies. Take the case of the London-Edinburgh service. The railways do not, and cannot, pretend that there is no agreement on the subject of speed. It was definitely stated in public by a late Chairman of the London and North Western Railway that there was; and no improvement has taken place since he spoke, though it was more than twenty-five years ago. The thing is common knowledge. When tackled on the subject the railways are so secure in their belief in the ignorance and impotence of the public that they merely make pretences which are insults to the intelligence.

I have with me the report of an interview with Sir Josiah Stamp which appeared in the Daily News of November 25 last, in which he repeats for the ten-thousandth time the ridiculous contention that the public does not want more speed. Apart from the extreme improbability of the public not caring for economy in time, it is hardly necessary to point out that if the railways really believed what they say they would find it unnecessary to have these extremely rigid and widespread agreements with one another whereby every railway pledges itself not to perform each journey in less than the agreed number of minutes. It is probably a fair estimate to put the amount of time lost to reasonable progress at fifty years. That is to say, that if from about 1850 onwards progress had continued to be as rapid as it was up to that time the present degree of development would have been reached about, fifty years ago, and immense further developments and economies might confidently have been expected by now.

I may here remark upon an argument that has, I notice, already made its appearance before the Committee. It is to this effect: Surely the railways will not be so foolish as to ask to be allowed to do anything which they know will lose them money. Probably they would not if it were their own money that the people who control the railways would lose, but it is not. The money that will be lost is the shareholders' money, and the shareholders have, to all intents and purposes, no control over their own property. Circumstances might very easily arise in which railway officials would find it convenient for themselves to adopt courses which would result in loss to the shareholders. For example, the officials of the London and North Eastern Railway and its constituent companies have lately thought fit to put an immense amount of capital into building fifty-seven Pacific locomotives, while there are certainly not more than six trains on the whole London and North Eastern Railway system which require a tractive effort even remotely approaching that which these engines, if reasonably efficient, should be able to furnish. There is a very strong presumption that the railway companies who behaved in a particular manner in the past, with regard to the railways will in the future behave in a similar manner in regard to the roads, or any other matter that may come under their control. I suggest, therefore, that the Committee, before they report, should be given an opportunity to consider whether the record of the railways is such that it is in the public interest that a wide extension of powers should be given them. For technical reasons of procedure the Committee will not, in the normal course of things, hear a word of all this, and unless something is done to put them in a position to study the facts for themselves it appears to me that the interests of the public will suffer.

I have received an unsolicited letter from a correspondent unknown to me personally, which is obviously bona fide, and bears so closely upon the matter under discussion that I will ask your Lordships' permission to allow me to read it. He writes: I am an active railway man of many years' experience, and of academic—Uni- versity—training in my profession, and, having followed your campaign in the Lords and in the Press, I endorse all you say about the inefficiency of British railway management. British railways are in the evil plight of which they are whining to-day, not because of road competition—that is the most convenient, the most obvious excuse—and not because of any other extraneous cause whatever, but because of their own lack of enterprise and commercial sense on the one hand, and because of wasteful, obsolete methods of administration on the other hand. Those with inside knowledge, like myself, who realise the facts, are impotent. We cannot come out into the open and tell the truth, for our livelihood would be gone, but I tell you, for what it may be worth, that in my view the greatest disaster which can befall (1) the railways themselves, (2) industry, or (3) the public, is for the railways to be given the road powers they seek and the consequent (quite inevitable) monopoly. We cannot manage what we have efficiently, and we shall most certainly complete the ruin of our transport system if we get hold of what other people are managing efficiently. It is all very well to say that it is only right that the railways should be allowed to use the roads like other people,' and so on: there is no right above the interests of the State and I assert most emphatically that in my view it is dead against the interests of the State to grant additional powers to the railways until they can at any rate show that they are capable of managing their legitimate business economically, efficiently, and for the public good. Boards of management know absolutely nothing about what goes on in the departments, and it is the interest of the heads of those departments in snug, permanent, pensionable jobs, and with members of the family also in such jobs, to see that they do not get to know. Mismanagement, overlapping and unnecessary work keep huge staffs employed, finding jobs for each other to do, and run away with hundreds of thousands per annum. Efficient public service is utterly impossible, and, in fact, is the last thing thought of, except under the direct stimulus of road competition. I hope you will press for a very thorough investigation into the whole question of railway management, and see that people who know the inner facts are given a chance to speak without ruining their careers. I can support my statement with ample evidence, if and when I can do so under proper safeguards. I think that letter speaks for itself. I have nothing to add to it. I beg to move.


My Lords, I listened with interest and respect to the observations made by the noble Lord, but, to tell the truth I had not really gathered from the Notice that he put down on the Paper what was to be the exact tenour of his remarks. The noble Lord will remember that during the last two years he has brought before the House a very vigorous indictment of the management of the railways, and I have done my best on behalf of the Ministry of Transport to deal with some of the points he raised, and I thought that possibly this time some of the many directors and chairmen of railways whom I see around me would have risen to repel these attacks made by the noble Lord, but they have not done so.


They never will.


But perhaps the noble Lord will excuse me from going on this occasion into the question of whether during the last fifty years the railways have or have not mismanaged their affairs, and the more interesting question as to whether the public dislike speed. The noble Lord said it was absurd to suggest that the public did not like speed. Well, as one of the public, I dislike speed personally very much, and I am perfectly content to go between fifty and sixty miles an hour. But I do not wish to discuss all these general problems, because we have dealt with them very fully before, and if the noble Lord puts down a Motion about the management and competence of the railways one will be very glad to deal with that.

But his Question is of a totally different tenour, and I was rather surprised to find that in the course of his speech he did not devote a word to the proposal which he placed on the Paper. I ought, I think, to recall to your Lordships' minds what the Question of the noble Lord is. He has given Notice To ask His Majesty's Government whether they have noticed that none of the Petitioners against the Bills now before the Joint Committee on Railway (Road Transport) Bills appears to be concerned with the interests of the general public; to inquire whether they propose to take any steps to ensure that these interests receive suitable consideration; and to move for Papers. I do not think the noble Lord devoted, as far as I listened to it, very much of his speech to that very important Question. In fact, the only general inference I drew from his speech was that the railways have been so indifferent in their management of running on rails that possibly it would be better if they devoted their activities to some other field, and changed to the roads, and left the railways to be managed by other persons.

But is it true, or is it not true, that public interests are not considered before this Committee? First of all, I am sure the noble Lord did not intend to suggest it, but he did imply a most amazing fatuity on the part of members of this particular Committee. He appeared to think that they knew nothing at all about travelling or about railways, and that they had been specially selected for their innocence and their ignorance. That had not struck me, I am bound to say, when I looked at the composition of the Committee. Again, I do not think anybody could suggest that this Committee or the members of it were servile minions of a despotic Ministry of Transport or of the Government. There are, for instance, two noble Lords opposite, Lord Russell and Lord Chelmsford, who certainly cannot be regarded as very passionate admirers of the present Government, or as its slaves. They have always taken a very active part in these railway questions.

I will say a word about the Committee in a moment, but I do not think it is at all true to say that nothing but private interests are represented before it. I have looked at some of the Petitions. The noble Lord is perfectly right in saying that there are some hundreds of Petitions. A great many of them come from local bodies, local authorities, county councils and other bodies of that kind. I do not say that they necessarily represent the whole interests of the country; but they certainly represent the public interest in very large localities, and I think they may be trusted to put the public point of view before the Committee. I almost hesitate to suggest that my right hon. friend the Minister of Transport or his Department represents the public interest, because I think the noble Lord has grave doubts on that Subject.


Yes, I have.


Still, I really will contend that the Minister of Transport, who is responsible to Parliament for the transport of the country, does represent the national interest, and that when he puts his considered views before the Committee they can be taken to be representative of the public interest. I was looking through the different Petitions and trying to consider whether or not there was any point of public interest that was not represented, and I found it very difficult to think of a point of public interest which did not in one way or another touch some, at any rate, of these more private Petitions. They seemed to me to cover practically the whole of the ground. Further, I was trying to consider how this public interest could best be put before a Committee of that kind. After all, you have to select somebody to do it. You must, first of all, have a man who has a very profound and thorough knowledge of railway matters, otherwise his advice would be futile on such a subject as that. He would have not only a very wide knowledge of railway matters, but a very wide knowledge of road and other methods of transport. In addition, he would have to be completely impartial because, ex hypothesi, if he had partial opinions and affections he obviously would not be suited to represent the public interest. In addition to that, he would have to be, I suppose, a representative person, and he would have to be selected by somebody or some body of people. He could not be self-chosen or self-elected, otherwise he would not command public respect. Therefore, I find it very difficult to think of any champions of the public interest who could be selected, and of how they should be selected.

The other difficulty, it seems to me, is to define exactly what the public interest is. After all, that is the business of this Committee. From among all these Petitions it has to try to discover what is the wisest course to follow in the public interest. When it has reached the end of its Inquiry it will have discovered, let us hope, what the public interest is, and it will advise Parliament accordingly. But, it will be observed, by the time the Inquiry has been gone through, and the Committee has decided what the public interest is, it will be too late, I think, to select this gentleman to represent the public interest, because the Committee will already have arrived at its decision. The truth really is that the noble Lord need have no anxiety that the public interest will not be properly represented, because that is the business of the Committee. That is why we appoint all these Committees—to inquire into the public interest. What other object can the Committee have than to consider that public interest? If the matter was simple, if there were not hundreds of Petitions, if it were not so complicated and so difficult to discuss the question without proper advice both here and in another place, the Committee, no doubt, would not have been appointed. All these men have been specially selected from both Houses of Parliament and taken from all Parties in order that there should be no question that they are perfectly free and impartial to consider what, from their point of view and after weighing all the evidence, the public interest is. Therefore, it seems to me that that interest is really very fully safeguarded. After all if there were any weak points in railway administration, I imagine that the competent persons who have to cross-examine the witnesses on these subjects would be able to do that very well indeed.

Apart from the Petitions, and apart from the Committee itself, there is a third safeguard. That safeguard is that when these matters come again before your Lordships, When the Committee has reported, you have all the public interest as represented by this House and another place, who will bring all their experience and knowledge and intelligence to bear upon it. If they think that the Committee has in any sense failed in its duty or has failed to recognise certain aspects of the public interest, I think we may vary fairly consider that the two Houses of Parliament are very competent to deal with it. If they are not, I do not think there is any safeguard for the public. For myself I have confidence in both Houses of Parliament. I have confidence in the Committee, and I believe between them, that there is not the slightest hazard or chance of any point of public interest being neglected. On the contrary, I believe that the public interest will be very fully and fairly considered.


My Lords, a Select Committee upon a Private Bill has to exercise, to put it at the very lowest, quasi-judicial functions, and that is not less true when it is a Joint Select Committee of both House of Parliament. In those circumstances I cannot help think- ing it unfortunate that while the Committee is sitting a discussion should be raised in this House upon it, and I hope that the noble Earl, the Lord Chairman, whom I see in his place, will say something on that subject, which comes particularly within his province. It is obvious that no member of the Committee can possibly say anything particularly relevant to the subject matter which he has at present to consider, and on which he has not yet heard the evidence or made up his mind. But I should like to add this to what the noble Viscount has said. It has obviously not occurred to the noble Lord who asked this Question that there is a suspicion that those ten members of the Committee, five from one House and five from another, themselves represent the public interest. That really is the idea with which they are put there.

The Houses of Parliament are supposed to be representative of the public interest, and the members of the Committee are chosen, presumably, to represent the public interest on the Committee. There is no other method, so far as I know and as the noble Viscount has pointed out, by which so vague a term as the public interest can be brought before the Committee. As the noble Viscount has said, we are having before us a great many Petitions and a great deal of evidence. A good many of those Petitions are from local authorities, as he told your Lordships, who also in their sphere represent the public interest, at any rate of their districts, by elected bodies. I must say that I am inclined for myself to deprecate discussion at this stage in the middle of what, after all, is a quasi-judicial Inquiry; it cannot I think serve any useful purpose.


My Lords, I would like to ask the noble Lord upon the Cross Benches one simple question—namely, whether it has occurred to him to offer himself as a witness before the Committee?


Yes, I have offered myself.


What did they say?


They said they would not have me.


My Lords, as the noble Earl opposite referred to me I should like to say in two sentences that I am entirely at one with him. I think it would be a very unfortunate thing if we got into the habit of having debates in the House itself when we have referred important matters to a Committee to be dealt with on our behalf. That being so I would only add that I agree entirely with what the noble Earl said in his description of the position. We always have complete confidence in our Committees and I cannot imagine a Committee in which I could have more confidence than the one which is now sitting.


My Lords, I should not have said a word except that the noble Lord who brought this matter before your Lordships intimated that the answer he got was that the Committee said they would not have him. That may give a very false impression abroad as to what was said and, as the Chairman of the Committee, Viscount Chelmsford, is not able to be here, he asked me to watch the course of the debate and, if necessary, to explain to this House why it was that the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, was not asked to give evidence before the Committee. I had hoped that the noble Lord would have explained to the House that there was not merely such a curt refusal as the House may have gathered from his last statement. I should like to reserve anything that it may be necessary to say in justification of the Committee till after the noble Lord has explained, with the indulgence of your Lordships' House, which I hope will be extended to him.


My Lords, I am sorry that my answer was so curt. Of course it is a fact that the Committee refused to hear me. I thought the noble Lord was asking merely for my "Yes" or "No," so I said "No." No doubt there are all sorts of other things that I might have said. It was merely for the sake of giving a short answer that I said "No." I am afraid it sounded unduly curt. That is hardly fair to the Committee, but that did not occur to me on the spur of the moment.

With regard to the answer of the Government it really seems to be about the most unsatisfactory thing I have ever heard. As I understand it—I hope I shall be corrected if I am wrong—the Committee exercise, as we are told, judicial functions and the only thing that the Committee can exercise judicial functions upon is the evidence that is put before them. The whole point of my question is: Will the Government see that the Committee have the full evidence covering every branch of the case before them so that they can make up their minds upon it? It would have been perfectly useless to wait till the Committee had reported to the House on this matter. The House would not then have time to go through all the work of the Committee again in the interest of the public. It was now or never. I think the noble Earl, the Chairman of Committees, will see that it would have been perfectly hopeless doing that. The present was my only chance.

In my opinion there are certain grave facts to be considered. The Committee are not supposed to be experts and, so far as I know, the Committee are not even justified in taking into consideration things within their own knowledge. They are only justified in taking into consideration the evidence that is put before them. I believe that is so. I shall be glad to hear if I am wrong. I take it I am right. In that case there seems to be complete justification of everything I have done. The noble Viscount who answered for the Ministry of Transport treated the matter in the way to which I am by now become accustomed—that is to say, he never really answered anything, but merely said that everything I said before had already been answered. If you look back at his speeches they simply mean refusing to consider what I have said. Of course he can go on doing that. It really does not get us very much further.

He did definitely accuse me of failing to say anything about my Question, which was to ask His Majesty's Government whether they have noticed that none of the Petitioners against the Bills now before the Joint Committee on Railway (Road Transport) Bills appears to be concerned with the interests of the general public. The noble Viscount does not seem to have been listening when I made my remarks upon that. I hardly like to repeat them to your Lordships, but I would simply say that the noble Viscount's attention was urfortunately wandering while I did make remarks upon that subject. Having made my protest I do not think there is anything more I can do. It does seem to me that the interests of the public in this respect are being neglected and that it is for His Majesty's Government to see that something is done about it. In those circumstances I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.