HL Deb 24 January 1945 vol 134 cc681-704

3.20 p.m.

LORD STRABOLGI had the following Notice on the Paper: To ask His Majesty's Government when they will be ready to state what alterations to the present regulations governing the weights and dimensions of heavy road vehicles and omnibuses are to be made in the future in the interests of the travelling public and the export trade so that manufacturers can begin to plan their post-war programmes; what is their policy for the encouragement of the export trade in light motor vehicles and whether the incidence of the pre-war taxes on road vehicles, petrol and oil as it affected the manufacture of British motor-cars suitable for export is being borne in mind; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the Motion which I have the honour to ask your Lordships' permission to move really deals with another aspect of the same subject as that which we have already been discussing and I was very grateful for something which fell from the noble Earl, Lord Munster, just now when he said that every man and woman in this country depends on the export trade—every man and woman in the country. I have not heard it put so high as that but coming from a Minister of his eminence of course I accept it. The Motion divides itself into two parts, the first dealing with the ordinary light motor cars and the second with the heavy road vehicles, the commercial vehicles and motor buses. I want to tell your Lordships if I may at the beginning that I have no personal business interest of any kind in any branch of the motor industry, and if I am not quite accurate in all my technical details that is the reason.

Parliament cannot bind its successors but I think in this case it can work to help the export trade in motor vehicles of all kinds. There could be some all-Party understanding as to future taxation and as to the regulations regarding dimensions and so on. I would like to suggest that there should be an all-Party agreement or something of that kind which will give the motor manufacturing industries an indication of what they may expect in two or three years time so that they can get on with their designs, build prototypes and make other preparations. Apart horn helping export trade I should have thought that it would have been in the interests of the country to encourage the production in this country of motor cars which can compete with the American models that were so popular before the war. The man who could not afford a Rolls-Royce or a Bentley used to buy one of the big American or Canadian types of cars as we did not produce a British car of a similar performance at a comparable price. If we can encourage the production of a British car at the same price and with a comparable performance, not only shall we be able to sell it more easily but British motorists of the class I have just referred to would buy it and that fact would relieve the dollar exchange.

If I may, I will take the second part of my Motion first. On December 19 last the Chancellor of the Exchequer in another place announced a new basis of taxation by licence duty for horse power. This taxation is now to be calculated on the cubic capacity of the engine instead of, as it used to be, on the cross-section of the cylinders. The Chancellor of the Exchequer said that this had the support of the motor manufacturers. It has not the support of the motor manufacturers. I say that with great respect to Sir John Anderson and the Government he adorns. It may have the support of some motor manufacturers who are content so long as they can build little cars to suit the little man in the British protected market, but it does not suit the manufacturers who have to compete in foreign markets and wish to build a type of car to which I have referred. Furthermore, the Chancellor of the Exchequer insists that the same revenue must be produced. This means that he is taking from this industry, the motor car industry, £90,000,000 a year or thereabouts, and that is in effect a tax on the tools of an industry.

I suppose that we hope in the future to develop an export trade in commercial aeroplanes. I believe we are capable of building the best aeroplanes in the world and we have undoubtedly the best motor engineers in the world. It is true that our design of aero engines is the best of any belligerent Air Force in this war. That is agreed, generally. Therefore, we can obviously build not only the best commercial aeroplanes but the best commercial motor cars and private cars. Supposing that some short-sighted Chancellor of the Exchequer proceeded to tax the industry of manufacturing commercial aircraft on that sort of basis—the basis of a horse-power tax—what chance would it have of developing or of competing in the overseas markets?

I would make this suggestion if I might and I would be very grateful indeed if my noble friend who I understand is replying would pass it on to the right quarter. It has not been done in either House to my knowledge before but I think it very valuable. If we really want to encourage the export of motor cars in the future the Treasury should make a study of the taxation of cars in the markets we hope to supply—for instance, taxation in the British Dominions, in the Middle East and elsewhere—and adjust our taxation to it. That is the simplest way not only to ensure the production of larger motor cars in this country for the general use of the community but also cars suitable for sale in those foreign markets. In this matter there are four important Departments concerned—those of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the President of the Board of Trade, the Minister of War Transport and the Minister of Production—and possibly some others. So far as I can gather they all work in their usual watertight compartments. I should be very surprised to hear that the Treasury have really considered the representations of the Board of Trade on this subject. As to the Minister of War Transport, I do not really know where he enters in this matter but I will come to the Minister of War Transport presently when I refer to the way in which his Department is hindering and hampering the industry of making heavy road vehicles for export.

I must also repeat this point. Motor taxes were originally levied for the purpose of building new roads. That was the undertaking, but the fund was shamelessly raided by a needy Chancellor of the Exchequer for general revenue purposes. Now again we have a Chancellor of the Exchequer insisting on the same enormous revenue of £90,000,000 from one particular industry. The fact of the matter is that the Treasury apparently still regard the motorist as a wealthy idler, a luxury traveller who can be milked and made to pay through the nose. They overlook the fact that if you put these heavy taxes on you encourage the building of little cars which are practically useless for export trade. I quote here from Sir William Rootes. He wrote recently in the Daily Express, which I know my noble friend reads. We both read the Daily Express but I read the Daily Herald first and the Express last.



What is shameful about that? This is what Sir William Rootes wrote: The time has come to regard the motor industry not as the producer of a luxury, but as an indispensable part of our vital transport system and as one of the biggest employers of labour in the country. The motor-car industry has earned the right to be regarded as something more than a convenient till into which needy Chancellors can dip their fingers. That is put much more eloquently than I can put it and that is why I quote it. We ought really to encourage our motorcar manufacturers and help them to build a suitable car for overseas markets both in the Dominions and the Middle East, which will be very lucrative markets in the future for motor vehicles of all kinds, but unless we do something on the lines I have suggested I am informed we shall not have very much opportunity of getting in. Of course in the first two years after the war it will be easy to sell our cars and trucks because the world is crying out for cars and trucks. For two or three years you will be able to sell anything on wheels. But after that it is thought the competition will become keen again and unless we are able to produce at a suitable price the right kind of vehicle we shall be left behind. I would like to quote here an authority, a very well known merchant in London, Mr. A. L. Maizel, who has made a close study of the Middle East. He informs me that the purchasing potential there is very much higher than it was before the war. But they must have the right sort of goods, and that applies particularly to motor vehicles.

This change in the mechanical formula which we have already decided upon and which was announced last month by the Chancellor of the Exchequer still leaves the motor engineer a tax engineer. In the future he will have to devote his great talents to producing not the most efficient and best engine but one which will attract the smallest tax. Thus he will be producing smaller and smaller cars for the home market with the slogan, "Tax only £x." That as I say might suit one or two manu- factures with a protected home market, but it will not be good for the export trade. The pre-war peak of exports was reached with a figure of £8,300,000 for cars and £3,900,000 for commercial vehicles. Yet in 1938 our Dominions and Colonies were taking 13.6 per cent. more motor cars and 196.8 per cent. more heavy Vehicles from the United States than from us. This heavy horse-power tax is, of course, the crux of the whole thing. The ordinary man of modest means hates paying out a lump sum. If the tax was on petrol, tyres or mileage it would be much more acceptable.

I would refer the noble Earl—I gave him notice that I was going to mention this—to some very weighty articles which appeared in the Financial News of January 3 and in some other recent issues, in which the whole matter was put very clearly and plainly, and also to the leading article in the Manchester Guardian of December 20, which I think was remarkable. I will not quote the whole of it, though I think it is well worth the noble Earl's attention, but I should like to read one sentence: That an industry nurtured in protectionism should prefer the safe and comfortable profits of a doubly-protected home market to the high adventure of a large-scale export drive is natural enough; but that Government should pander to such craven defeatism at the expense of the nation's dire need for increased exports is hardly credible. I am sorry the noble Earl, Lord Munster, has had to leave the Chamber because I think that is interesting in view of his remarks in the eloquent speech he made just now.

Before leaving the question of light cars I should like to say that I think the Government might look into the question of the prices of raw materials. The price of steel in this country, as the noble Earl is aware, is 50 per cent. above the world price. The unfortunate British manufacturer has to pay 50 per cent. more than his competitor abroad. That is because of the workings of protection and rings and cartels—but that is another subject on which I do not want to enlarge this afternoon. Another very important raw material which is coming into greater use is aluminium. Aluminium is bound to play an increasing part in the construction of all types of road vehicles. There is a shortage of steel and a free supply of aluminium; but the controlled price of aluminium here is £110 per ton while in the United States it is only £80 per ton. That may not matter while the war is in progress but we shall not have an easy passage if that sort of figure is allowed to continue after the war.

Now I turn to heavy road vehicles and omnibuses. There was a short debate dealing with this particular matter on the Christmas adjournment in another place and I understand that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of War Transport is to receive a deputation. That, however, has nothing to do with us, and I hope the noble Earl will not ride off by saying that his colleague in another place will deal with the matter. I think your Lordships have a right to an answer. In addition to the arguments I have already used, there is a further argument in the case of heavy road vehicles, omnibuses and commercial vehicles generally arising from out-of-date regulations about dimensions. The present rule is that no road vehicle shall have a greater width than 7 ft. 6 ins. whereas in almost all overseas markets, with the possible exception of Scandinavia, the permitted width is 8 ft. If we wish to sell heavy motor vehicles abroad, they must be 8 ft. wide. If we keep our width to 7 ft. 6 ins. our manufacturers must make two different types of chassis, which means two different sets of jigs and tools and two different factory lay-outs, and that is uneconomic. Therefore in the interests of export trade I suggest that the manufacturers of road vehicles are right when they ask that a width of 8 ft. should be permitted here.

They are met with the argument that our roads are too narrow, but that can only apply to certain by-roads and lanes. Are we really going to hamper the progress of a great industry because some of our roads are out of date? You could get over the difficulty by forbidding these wider vehicles to run through narrow, winding lanes. They are for the most part used on main routes where the argument does not apply. In any case during the war we have had thousands of vehicles with a width of 8 ft. driven all over the country by Army drivers and I do not think there is any evidence that there has been an increase of road accidents from that cause. Another argument in favour of a width of 8 ft. has relation to omnibuses. It is very difficult in a passenger vehicle restricted to a width of 7 ft. 6 ins. to make a wide enough passage for the conductor to pass down the vehicle between the passengers. The passengers are crowded and an extra six inches would make a very great difference to their comfort as well as to the convenience of the conductors.

This matter has been urged for months and months but only recently has a decision been given, although I do not think we should complain of that because we know that the Minister of War Transport is very busy. Some concession has been given in the matter of weight and height and a concession with regard to length and width is I think overdue. May I inform your Lordships, if you are not familiar with the regulations, that if a public service vehicle has more than two axles it can be 30 ft. long but if it has only two axles and is double-decked it can only be 26 ft. long? No satisfactory reason has been given for this difference. If it is suggested that traffic congestion may have something to do with it, I would say that a 30 ft. vehicle causes no more congestion with two axles than with three axles and a double-decked vehicle causes no more congestion than a single-decked vehicle. I do not think that even my noble friend the Earl of Listowel, with all his ingenuity, can explain that away. It is a matter of efficient design and the extra length of 4 ft. which is asked for is very necessary for the additional comfort of passengers and essential for the export trade. The same arguments apply here as in the case of the width of 8 ft.

Going back to taxation, there is one further point I would like to make. I appreciate the difficulties of trying to bind future Chancellors of the Exchequer, but I do not see any reason why there should not be a general agreement between Parties as to what is to take effect in the next two or three years. In any case the new taxation system, I am advised, should be so adjusted in its graduation as to remove the discrimination against the exportable motor car. This is an adjustment which Sir John Anderson can well make now. The removal of the discrimination could be achieved by having one flat rate of tax on all cars licensed after January 1 next up to and including 2,000 c.c. capacity. This would not alleviate the total burden, but it would, at least, remove the discrimination against the engine which the exportable motor car must have. That engine is approximately the equivalent of 15 h.p., that being, I gather, the size which is generally most popular for the export trade and with our overseas customers.

The conclusion I have come to from studying this subject is that in taxation policy, and in the administration of the Ministry of War Transport with regard to the regulations I have quoted, the Government Departments concerned have not readjusted their views to the conditions which will prevail after the war. I would like them to read the report of the speech made by the Earl of Munster this afternoon about the vital necessity of export trade. They are still living, I am afraid, in the golden years of the early part of this century, and they have not appreciated the changed conditions in which this country will find itself after the war. An announcement of future policy, for which I am pleading, will not divert a single man or a pound of material from the war effort, but will make a great difference to our future export trade. It will enable manufacturers to plan ahead. They need two or three years to get out their new models, to make preparations, to circularize customers and generally to get ready for what I hope will be a great and successful drive on behalf of a type of goods in which this country is pre-eminent. I beg to move for Papers.

3.43 P.m.


My Lords, in what I have to say this afternoon, I wish to confine myself to the Motion so far as it concerns passenger transport vehicles. I do not wish unnecessarily to expand the tradition of disclaimer in your Lordships' House with regard to private interests, but I should make it clear that I am a member of the London Passenger Transport Board, which, I apprehend, cannot properly be described as having a personal interest but rather as holding a public trust. Apart from that I have no interest in any concern manufacturing or likely to manufacture heavy vehicles, or likely to be engaged in the road haulage business.

I wish particularly to direct your Lordships' attention to the situation facing those operators concerned with passenger vehicles. I must confess that on reading the report of the debate which took place in another place on December 21, I can- not persuade myself that, notwithstanding all the pressure of current events, the Ministry of War Transport has handled this matter in the best possible way. I think it was unfortunate that my good friend Mr. Noel-Baker, the Parliamentary Secretary, should have been so definitive in his answer on December 21, especially having regard to the fact that—later, I agree—he has been, I think, compelled by the force of reason in the claim to consent to receive a deputation from the applicants concerned.

I think it would assist in an appreciation of this question if I briefly indicate what has taken place. The associations of practically all the undertakings representing those concerned in the provision of public service passenger vehicles sent in a memorandum to the Ministry of War Transport on November 5, 1943. What they sought was, briefly, that the maximum permissible over-all length for all public service vehicles, whether single-decked or double-decked, with two or more axles, should be 30 ft. As my noble friend Lord Strabolgi has indicated, the present situation is that, as regards single-decked vehicles with two axles, the limit of length 27 ft. 6 ins., and as regards double-decked vehicles with two axles it is 26 ft. But for vehicles with single or double decks having more than two axles the permitted length is 30 ft. The representations also asked that the present permissible over-all width for public service vehicles should be increased from 7 ft. 6 in. to 8 ft., that the permissible over-all height for public vehicles should be 15 ft., and that the permissible laden weight should be 14 tons.

Now it was said in another place, in, I think, rather tenuous justification of the Minister's decision, that two of the claims had been conceded. If one measures the concession by enumeration it is quite correct; two were conceded—but they are of little importance. For instance, the request for an increase of weight was based upon the assumption of, and indeed is quite closely related to, an increase in the dimensions, and to concede an increase of weight without an increase of dimensions is to concede nothing because weight is consequential upon size. As regards the second concession, that of an increase in the maximum permissible over-all height, that, of course, was done to remedy an anomaly. The principal governing factor in the provinces at all events, as regards the height of vehicles, is the height of bridges, and that concession merely rectifies an anomaly which everybody concerned, including, if I may say so, the Ministry itself, has recognized to be such. So, in point of fact, no material concession has been made at all.

That application, as I said, was made, on November 5, 1943. On February 18, 1944, a reply was received from the Ministry, asking for further and better particulars, and on April 19, 1944, a second memorandum was sent giving the further information requested. Reminders were sent to the Ministry and on August 12, last year, the Minister stated—no doubt with abundantly good intentions—that he appreciated the need for an early decision, but that other interests had to be consulted. Finally, on November 20, 1944, the applicants, if I may use that word, were told that no concession could be made with regard to either length or width, and that that decision had been come to as a result of consultation with other interests and authorities. Nothing could be better than that the Minister should consult other interests and authorities, but no intimation has been given to the applicants of the objections of those interests and authorities to these claims. As regards road authorities, there is this point to be made, that most of the municipal passenger transport undertakings are county boroughs, and county boroughs are road authorities. It is to be assumed, therefore, that the county boroughs as road authorities would not have any objection, on the ground of their roads at all events, to an application which in another capacity they were making or with which they were associating themselves.

My submission is that in matters of this kind, in which there is not involved any question of high political or indeed Party policy, the better technique would have been for the Ministry to get all the interests concerned together—those who ask for these concessions and those who are opposed to them—and let the one come to understand the other, and endeavour to see whether the objections reasonably and properly held could not be overcome, or whether indeed they are insuperable. Unhappily, however, that course has not been adopted, and the passenger transport undertakings themselves have had no opportunity—they will have, I gather, on the 30th of this month—of even discussing the matter across the table with the Minister, with the Parliamentary Secretary, or with the advisers of the Ministry. I want to suggest that that is not the best way of solving problems of this kind.

On the question of width, as my noble friend Lord Strabolgi has said, it is the fact that there is a large number of vehicles 8 ft. wide running on the streets of this country at the present time, and they are not military vehicles only. Quite a number of passenger transport undertakings purchased vehicles in the early months of the war which were 8 ft. wide and which had been manufactured for export. The Government took the view that there was not the shipping space for them, and that in any case they ought not to be exported, and the passenger transport undertakings in this country were permitted to buy them and did buy them. It is a good thing that they did, having regard to the shortage of such vehicles which later occurred, for reasons partly related to the damage done by the enemy. But, as my noble friend Lord Strabolgi has said, there is no evidence—or if there is any, it has not been produced—that those vehicles, though being 6 ins. wider than the normal permissible width, have led to any increase in accidents or to any diminution of safety on the roads. If there be such evidence, that is surely the kind of information which ought to be made available not only to the applicants for this concession but to the general public as well. I really think that there has been an unhappy practice of obscurantism by the Ministry in dealing with this matter. The reasons may be perfectly satisfactory to the Ministry but, if I may say so, they are not the only persons who need to be satisfied.

That brings me to the question of the extended length for vehicles, whether they have more than two axles or not, or whether they be single- or double-decked vehicles. The Parliamentary Secretary in another place put forward what seemed to me to be a very curious reason for the fact that there are large numbers of vehicles running on the streets of this country which are 30 ft. in length. For instance, there are those having more than two axles, and there are trolley-buses. Quite a large number of the trolley-buses owned by the London Passenger Transport Board are 30 ft. in length, and it has never yet been submitted that because of that factor trolley-buses in London are more dangerous than if they were limited to 27 ft. 6 ins. or 26 ft. In the country a large number of 30 ft. vehicles are in operation.

The Parliamentary Secretary seemed to imply that this concession of 30 ft. for a three-axle vehicle was given for some esoteric reason connected with military operations. I do not know to which war or to which set of military operations he referred, but clearly on grounds of chronology it cannot have been this war, because the London Passenger Transport Board have been running trolley-buses 30 ft. in length for a long time before military preparations were even in contemplation in connexion with this war. I hope that the attitude of mind of the Ministry in regard to this question is not one which remains unchanged from the attitude regarding road transport and the use of roads prevalent at the time of the last war. It seems to me that it is not unreasonable to expect that the Ministerial mind should move a little, even though it is perhaps expecting too much to hope that it might move as fast as science and progress.

The Parliamentary Secretary—I think a little tenuously, but I cannot complain of the energy of his language—suggested that these applications were being put forward mainly on the ground of increasing the number of passengers to be carried. He said—I quote from column 2048 of the Official Report: On what ground is the request made? It is not made for the comfort of the passenger, not at all. It is not made to meet the needs of the conductors. The trade unions are all unanimously and vehemently against it. It is made to increase the pay-load. Let us take that point. Is there any real objection, if it can be properly done, to the pay-load of a bus being increased? Is there any reason why accommodation, in terms of numbers of passengers, should not be increased if it can be properly done with due regard to safety and to comfort? Surely that would be one of the factors which might operate, if you had a fixed pool of traffic, to reduce the number of vehicles which it was necessary to keep on the roads. If you have an expanding pool of traffic, then to make your vehicles more commodious is to enable you to deal with that traffic more satisfactorily and avoid waiting and queueing, and I cannot see any ground for contemptuous derision for the suggestion—it might not have been put forward, but if it were put forward—that these concessions would enable more passengers to be carried. But in point of fact the main reason for the extension of length is not, I understand, that it would increase the number of passengers that could be carried. It is only fair to state that it would in fact increase it, but that is not the main reason why the submissions were put forward. The principal reason is that it would result in a greater degree of comfort for the passengers, and especially for the conductors. That is on the point of length.

But on the point of width, let me say that you cannot by increasing the width of a vehicle by 6 ins. increase its carrying capacity. The only thing you can do—and this, I am assured, is what it is desired to do—is to give more ample accommodation and more comfortable seats and, what is not less important, to allow of a wider gangway between the seats. This would make it possible for the conductor to carry out his or her duties with more comfort, more speed and more efficiency, and would also have the not unimportant merit of being at times less fraying to the nerves of the passengers themselves owing to the narrowness of the gangway in our buses as they are now built. The Parliamentary Secretary in another place invited us to consider, as I thought with some amount of terror, the goblins that "will get you if you don't watch out," and referred to the spectacle of Piccadilly Circus if vehicles were 6 ins. wider, saving that this would be a serious matter. He went on to say—and this is true—that there were many roads in the country where vehicles 8 ft. wide would cause some trouble. Well, we are not without experience of the fact that there are many roads in this country where vehicles 7 ft. 6 ins. wide cause trouble, and on a 14 ft. road two such vehicles cannot pass.

I thought my noble friend Lord Strabolgi made a sound point, when he asked: Are we continuously going to restrict applications of progress in the construction of motor vehicles to the limitations imposed by our roads, or are we going to seek to make our roads fit our road vehicles, and in so doing make our roads capable of carrying the traffic which they ought to carry? But it would be to mislead your Lordships to suggest that if this concession were granted the operators would be able to put on any route they liked, notwithstanding what might be the condition of the roads, vehicles of the greater length and the greater width. All passenger transport vehicles before they can run have to be licensed, the routes approved, and the type of vehicle approved by the Regional Traffic Commissioners; and, quite clearly, the Regional Traffic Commissioners would continue to do as they have done in the past, and as they do now: they would decline to grant a licence for the running of a vehicle on a particular route unless the vehicle was suited to the roads which it would have to traverse. And therefore it does not follow at all that the conditions of congestion and of danger which were hinted at by the Parliamentary Secretary would in fact arise. It would not mean the automatic grant of the maximum size for all vehicles, but it would enable those who are providing a service to run the larger vehicles on many of the existing routes, and, it may well be, on new routes without any increase in congestion. In fact, in terms of numbers of vehicles on the roads, it might result in a diminution of congestion, and certainly in no increase of danger, either to the travelling public or the pedestrian public.

I come now to the position of the export trade. It is the case that most of the public-service vehicles exported have to be 8 ft. wide, and it means that you cannot have standardization in a factory; you have to have a separate number of overheads, or a weight of overheads which cannot be spread over the full production because they arise from the fact that you have to make a special vehicle of special dimensions for export. I do not want to exaggerate the importance of exports, and I cannot say that I wholly subscribe to the rather ample statement made by the noble Earl, Lord Munster, but none of us would wish to deny the importance of exports in the economic set-up of this country and of the world after the war. And I should have thought that this was one of the ways in which we could assist the producer of vehicles of this kind to a fairer chance of competition in the export market.

But, looking at it again from the point of view of the operators, all public pas- senger service undertakings face a shortage of vehicles. The standard of repairs has gone down because of the labour shortage; for nearly five years it has not been possible to construct new vehicles to replace old ones. Obsolescence has accumulated until "obsolete" is probably a more appropriate word than "obsolescent"; with the result that immediately there are materials and labour it will be incumbent upon these undertakings to place large orders for the renewal of their fleets. If they place orders on the basis of the size and dimensions at present permitted it means that probably for ten years those dimensions will remain unaltered, notwithstanding that, as we all hope, the road system of this country within the ten years will be very substantially improved—as it ought to be. But, as I said, if they place those orders, and the vehicles are made within the dimensions permitted at the present time there can be no substantial change for a period of many years, which I put at ten.

Now that is not to imply that the passenger transport undertakings would wish to place all their renewal orders on the basis of the new permitted lengths and widths. If the regulations were modified they would have to judge the number which the Regional Commissioners would regard as being appropriate for the roads, both town and rural, which exist to-day, and I do urge the noble Earl who is to reply to represent to the Ministry of War Transport—and this is repeating what I said at the start, perhaps—that the best way of dealing with these matters is not to keep the parties at arm's length but to get them all together in a room and to listen to the pros and cons. Let the applicants hear the objections. It has been said that the trade unions are against this. Well, that may be so. The trade unions were vehemently against speeding-up which became necessary under war conditions, but the transport undertakings, and especially the Transport Board, did not accept that. They said, "Let us talk about it." The result was that they devised a formula and ways and means by which the operatives shared in the benefits of speeding-up. Thus we got speeding-up, to the great benefit of the people of London under war conditions, although no one, I think, would perhaps too strongly urge it in peace- time. The Ministry of War Transport should go beyond this mere receiving of a deputation and should get the parties together and talk the matter over.

I hope that the statement of the Parliamentary Secretary in another place on 21st December does not mean that the door is finally banged, barred and bolted. If there are substantial reasons why the request for a 4 ft. addition to the length and a 6 in. addition to the width cannot at this stage be granted, there is room for consideration as to whether it would not be possible to extend the length by 2 ft. I think the important one is from 26 ft. to 28 ft. I hope that the noble Earl who is to reply for the Government can give not only the operators of public service vehicles but also the manufacturers of similar vehicles for the export trade some hope that this matter has not been finally concluded.

4.13 p.m.


My Lords, I think your Lordships have listened with considerable interest to the well-informed, moderately phrased and, if I may say so, constructively critical speeches which have been delivered in a pleasantly unpartisan spirit by my two noble friends opposite, and I should like to assure them both that the positive suggestions they have made and the criticisms they have levelled at the policy will be conveyed both to the Chancellor o f the Exchequer and to the Minister of War Transport.

The question that my noble friend Lord Strabolgi has raised this afternoon is one of considerable importance, affecting as it does the motor industry and the road users of this country, and His Majesty's Government do share the noble Lord's genuine anxiety to start now immediate planning for the post-war expansion of our motor export trade. My noble friend maintains, in the first part of his Motion—and if he will permit me I will answer his points in the order in which he presents them in his Motion, and not in the order in which he presented them in his speech, because the former is the more convenient form—that if the regulations governing the construction and use of motor vehicles were altered to allow longer and wider vehicles than those now permitted, the change would serve the interests of transport here at home, and also increase our export trade. I think that was the view shared by both noble Lords who have addressed the House.

When this Motion was placed by my noble friend opposite on the Order Paper, the Minister of War Transport had already, on November 20, conveyed to the manufacturers and operators of public-service vehicles his carefully considered decision not to permit an increase in the length and width of passenger vehicles. He has accepted other requests relating to alterations in the maximum height and weight of these vehicles, and although these are no doubt useful and welcome decisions, I appreciate that they are regarded by both noble Lords opposite as something in the nature of minor concessions, and that the Minister, in turning down the major request for longer and wider buses, has not met those of their desires which the industry consider to be of paramount importance.

Now in considering whether the use of longer and wider passenger vehicles could be permitted, my noble friend's first duty, looking at the matter from his Ministerial position, was to judge the effects this change would have on traffic conditions generally and on road safety throughout the country. In the memorandum in which the manufacturers and operators of these vehicles set out their case, they submit—and I shall quote from it quite briefly— that the only reasonable basis for legislation controlling the dimensions of vehicles is the extent to which limits are necessary in order that the safety and convenience of other road users should not be jeopardized, and in order that the road surfaces and structures over which the vehicles will operate should not be adversely affected. Those are the grounds of policy that are suggested by the manufacturers themselves, and it is in fact on those very grounds that my noble friend has come, with the utmost reluctance, to the conclusion that the objections to the proposals far outweigh the advantages that have been claimed for them. The Minister of War Transport did not make up his mind until he had carried out the obligation imposed on him by Statute to consult all those whom he thought likely to be interested or affected. He received, during his preliminary consultations, representative and technical opinions from the police, conveyed through the Home Office and the Scottish Home Department, from the County Councils' Association, from the trade unions and from a number of other bodies. The main weight of this large and representative body of opinion was that in present conditions the proposed changes would be undesirable.

The case which was made out for allowing vehicles of a length of 30 ft. instead of the present maximum of 26 ft. for four-wheeled double deckers, and 27 ft. 6 ins. for four-wheeled single deckers, rests mainly on the desire to carry more passengers at a time. I agree that, from all points of view, the more passengers who can be safely and comfortably carried at rush periods the better, and I can understand the wish of operators to increase the seating capacity of their vehicles, but in my noble friend's view—the view of the Minister of War Transport—there are arguments of greater weight on the other side. A longer vehicle obviously means more congestion on the roads, both in overtaking on the straight and particularly at corners, which would more than balance the relief given by the extra seats. There is also the factor of road safety to be considered, particularly on occasions when vehicles are taking a sharp corner on relatively narrow roads.

It has been suggested—I think by my noble friend Lord Latham, and it was certainly suggested by Lord Strabolgi—that it is illogical to have any lower limit than the 30 ft. already allowed for six-wheelers, but in point of fact the four-wheeled double-decker limited to 26 ft. is the standard vehicle for heavily trafficked urban services operating on the most crowded roads and where road improvements would be most costly. I must point out (and this I think is a fact that ought to be thoroughly considered) that if in practice the use of 30 ft. six-wheelers had become extensive it might well have been necessary to limit them to certain routes as is the case in London. I should add that the trades unions, speaking in the interests of the crews, the men who operate them and who are responsible for their safety and efficiency, expressed very strong objections to the proposed change and I hope this objection will carry special weight with my noble friend opposite.

The case made out for an increase in maximum width from 7 ft. 6 ins. to 8 ft. rests on rather different grounds. Obviously the extra 6 ins. in width would give the passengers greater comfort and, for the conductor, easier working conditions. Clearly also when we are considering the export of these vehicles it would be of great advantage if vehicles in use here were similar in this important respect to those in use abroad, or in demand abroad, so that uniform components, production lay-out and processes could be employed by our manufacturers for the home and overseas markets. That point was very rightly stressed by my noble friend Lord Latham and with it the Government entirely agree. That was naturally the view which the President of the Board of Trade represented to the Minister of War Transport and it was a view to which the Minister of War Transport gave full weight before arriving at his decision. Here again, however, he was forced to the conclusion that road conditions in this country would not allow the general use of public passenger vehicles 8 ft. wide. Our roads have been built to dimensions based on streams of traffic not exceeding the present permitted width, and the proposed increase to 8 ft. would cause congestion in crowded areas and on very many of our roads danger to other road users. It is impracticable to contemplate either now or in the measurable future the general use all over the country of heavy vehicles with a width of 8 ft.

The particular proposal which the Minister of War Transport had to consider last year was put forward as applying to public passenger vehicles. But my noble friend felt little doubt that the question was in reality much wider and that it could not be considered entirely apart from the heavier goods vehicles. This view was confirmed immediately after the announcement of these decisions by a letter from "Britavema," the British Transport Vehicle Manufacturers' Association, who informed him that their members produce 99 per cent. of all the heavy goods and passenger transport vehicles operated in the United Kingdom. Their letter insists that the same width of chassis is required both for goods and passenger vehicles. The noble Lord's Motion itself refers specifically to heavy road vehicles as well as omnibuses. Further the Minister of War Transport has received this month, in response to his invitation of last February for submission of proposals affecting the post-war design of vehicles generally, a memorandum from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, Limited, and the Road Transport Organization Joint Conference, which recommends that all vehicles now allowed a width of 7 ft. 6 ins. should be allowed a width of 8 ft.

I have said already that in coming to his decision on public passenger vehicles my noble friend the Minister of War Transport took account of the export position. Very much more stress has been laid on that point since his decision was announced by those who wish to see the proposals adopted and who no doubt feel that in the eyes of the Government they must constitute the strongest elements in their case. But the manufacturers themselves say that to achieve their object the width must be the same for both goods and passenger vehicles and equally so for both the home and overseas markets. The insuperable objection lies—I do not want to repeat it but it is the essence of the case—in the fact that our highway system will not allow a general standard width of 8 ft. I should like to add that this matter has already been debated in another place—Lord Latham to-day referred to it at some length—and that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of War Transport has arranged to receive a deputation on the subject on the 3oth January. I was very glad to hear that my noble friend opposite favoured this procedure.


May I interpose? I did not necessarily favour the receiving of the deputation, but I suggested a conference between all authorities.


But I do not think my noble friend expressed any doubt about the desirability of the deputation. He merely wanted an additional method of solving the problem. I can assure him, so far as this deputation is concerned, that an opportunity will be given it to have access to detailed information on the grounds of the Government's decision. There is no desire on the part of the Government for a veil of secrecy and they will welcome the fullest inquiry into the reasons on which they have acted. I must, however, emphasize the Parliamentary Secretary's warning that while he will, on behalf of the Minister of War Transport, be glad to hear anything new or relevant that the deputation may have to say, he cannot encourage any hope that his decision will be changed.

I now come to the second point made by my noble friend Lord Strabolgi, when he suggested the possible use of taxation to stimulate the production of models suitable for export. I think he complained that the motor tax was too heavy, but after all motor taxation is a form of revenue and the Chancellor of the Exchequer has to regard it as one of the means of balancing the Budget. Viewed as a suitable object on which to impose a tax, I think would be agreed that a motorcar is less of a necessity than other articles which are taxed, such as cigarettes or beer, and can therefore to that degree be regarded as a luxury. I understand that my noble friend opposite is not satisfied that the recent change in the assessment of motor tax by reference to the cubic capacity of the engine instead of to horse power, because this only helps to improve design for the small car, which he does not consider to be the ideal type for overseas markets, and also because the net annual revenue raised by this duty will remain, in spite of the new basis of assessment, as large as it was before. But may I ask him this question? Is he quite certain that, even if the Chancellor of the Exchequer were to do exactly as he wishes and lighten the tax burden on the heavier cars, there would be then sufficient demand from road users at home for the larger models to bring about the mass production on which a competitive price in the foreign market would obviously depend?

Taxation, surely, is only one among a number of factors that influence design. No less important is the British road system itself—its good surfaces, easy gradients short distances between large centres of population and even the size of the average garage. A view widely held, and of which I would like to remind the noble Lord, is that the conditions of motoring in this country quite apart from the incidence of taxation make England essentially a land for the small car. This view has been expressed by so authoritative a journal as the Motor and I should like to quote from a number of this journal that appeared last week: In the larger models, for which the demand in this country was steadily shrinking for some years prior to the war, it may never be possible for Britain to compete with America on equal terms, for there are factors, more important than taxation, which practically compel our people to use small cars. One of these is that most inbuilt motor houses will not accommodate anything larger than the popular ten, with the alternative of using public garaging at a cost proportionate to the dimensions of the vehicle. There are other reasons, such as ease of handling and manœuvrability on our narrow roads, which inspire a preference for the small car amongst a substantial majority of owners. Those who argue otherwise seem to be governed by personal desires for ample seating room and high power, but it is inconceivable that any system of taxation will produce such cars at lower cost. I am afraid that what I have said so far may have been rather disappointing, but I hope it will be some consolation to my noble friend opposite to know that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has the export problem very much in mind and that he has indicated his readiness to review the spacing of the steps in the taxation of private road vehicles. The Government are at the moment considering in consultation with the representative bodies of the motoring industry and motorists—the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, the Standing Joint Committee of the R.A.C., A.A. and R.S.A.C. and The Motor Agents' Association—the question of the graduation most favourable to the production of cars for export and to economies in the number of models produced.

I should like in conclusion to direct the noble Lord's attention to what really seems the crux of the problem of putting our motor engineering industry on the export map. It is not primarily a matter either of taxation or design. The long-term prospects of the British motor vehicle in overseas markets depend upon the skill and organization of the industry itself. There is ample reason for confidence in the industry's skill, which has been demonstrated afresh during the war. If that skill is matched by equal effort and ability in organization for export trade there need be no doubts as to the result. But to meet the keen competition in world markets there is every reason for the industry to consider the benefits of a greater standardization of components and accessories, of concentration on fewer models and of further steps to improve its overseas sales and servicing organization.

4.33 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure I can speak for my noble friend be- side me and all you Lordships in thanking the noble Earl for the very full and careful reply he has given to the case. I was very pleased to hear that there is to be reconsideration of the spacing of the steps in motor taxation and I think that at any rate will be something as a beginning. I was glad to hear that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is really considering the future of our export trade. With regard to the noble Earl's question to me whether I think we can get mass production of higher-powered cars here—I agree that is important, because export trade must be based on production at home—I can only say that the number of American and Canadian motor cars of high power bought here before the war would seem to show that there is a demand for such cars in spite of what the noble Earl said about small garages. Any one who has to make long journeys would prefer a high-powered car for comfort and safety, though the small car to which I have had to turn under war conditions is excellent and a masterpiece of design.

There is only one other point on which I should like to comment. My noble friend seems to think it somewhat surprising that manufacturers of heavy road vehicles should want the same concession with regard to width of commercial lorries as of motor omnibuses. I think it is the practice to make the same chassis for omnibuses as for the larger commercial vehicles. That is a great economy and a gain to efficiency, and obviously they would ask for the same concession, though I admit that the argument about the comfort of the public would not apply. I was sorry to hear my noble friend still basing himself on our inadequate roads. Six inches does not make all that difference. There need only be hedge trimming and ditching and a reduction of verges. I am very much obliged to my noble friend and I hope that the matter will be more satisfactorily dealt with as a result of the conferences to which reference has been made. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.