§ 2.44 p.m.
§ Amendments reported (according to Order).
§ Clause 1:
§ Disposal of Commission's existing road haulage undertaking
§ 1.—(1) Subject to the provisions of this Act, it shall be the duty of the British Transport Commission (in this Act referred to as "the Commission") to dispose, as quickly as is reasonably practicable, of all the property held by them for the purposes of so much of their undertaking as is at the passing of this Act carried on through the Road Haulage Executive.
§ The part of the undertaking of the Commission referred to in this subsection is thereafter in this Act referred to as "the existing road haulage undertaking".
LORD LUCAS OF CHILWORTH moved, in subsection (1), after "practicable" to insert:
having regard to the desirability of obtaining the best possible price commensurate with the value of the property and the rights conferred upon the purchasers by the subsequent provisions of this Act.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, when the noble Marquess addressed us on Business, I thought he was going to herald his return to your Lordships' House by saying that the Government had decided to expedite progress of this Bill by accepting a few more of the Opposition Amendments. If he had done that we might have been able to get through the whole Report stage by eight o'clock. But perhaps that was too much to hope.
§ LORD MATHERS
Surely, that is what co-operation means. Co-operation is a two-way traffic, and this is a Transport Bill.
§ LORD LUCAS OF CHILWORTH
On Second Reading, as well as upon the Committee stage, noble Lords on this side of your Lordships' House expressed the attitude in which we approached the consideration of this Bill. My noble and learned Leader, as well as said that we did not dispute the fact that the Government had a mandate to introduce this Bill. It was not our purpose at any time to contest the principle. We also made it quite clear that we could not blame the Government for seeking a way to honour a pledge made at the Election when they were returned to power. But 50 we made it very clear that we quarrelled, and quarrelled violently, with the method by which Her Majesty's Government proposed to implement it. We did not seek to delay the Bill, and I do not think—although we have had some protracted Sittings—that we have said one word which we could properly have left unsaid.
We part company on this Bill on the very principle that is contained in this first Amendment. Wesay that the obligations and duties which this Bill imposes upon the British Transport Commission to dispose of their assets are as follows: first of all, to obtain for those assets the best possible price; secondly, during the disposal of those assets to carry on the transport system of this country with as little disturbance as possible; and, thirdly, to get rid of those assets as quickly as is practicable. Right through this Bill that trinity of objectives is emphasised. Her Majesty's Government are actuated—I say this quite kindly, repeating that I do not quarrel with it—by political motives. That must be so, because it was stated in their political programme that they would hand back road haulage to private enterprise. We on this side of the House say that the interests of the taxpayer, who is the owner of this property, are paramount and that the best price possible must be obtained for these vehicles.
My noble and learned Leader, in the speech which he made upon the first Amendment on the Committee stage on this Bill, said this (OFFICIAL REPORT, Vol. 180, col. 1048):After all, they are taxpayers' goods and it is vitally important to all of us that they should be disposed of at the highest possible price. But you do not get the highest possible price if you emphasise in the very opening sentence of the Bill that what matters is that the property is disposed of as quickly as possible.That is why we have put down this Amendment. If noble Lords will look at subsection (1) of Clause 1 they will see that it says:Subject to the provisions of this Act, it shall be the duty of tie British Transport Commission (in this Act referred to as 'the Commission') to dispose, as quickly as is reasonably practicable, of all the property held by them for the purposes of so much of their undertaking as is at the passing of this Act carried on through the Road Haulage Executive.51 We desire to insert in this opening subsection, after the words…as quickly as is reasonably practicable,the following words:having regard to the desirability of obtaining the best possible price commensurate with the value of the property and the rights conferred upon the purchasers by the subsequent provisions of this Act.When we debated this point in Committee, we told Her Majesty's Government, quite frankly, that we were apprehensive that the interests of the taxpayer were going to be sacrificed for the sake of speed of disposal. Not one word which has been uttered by any spokesman on behalf of Her Majesty's Government has allayed those fears; in point of fact, what has been said has increased them. And at this late stage there is an Amendment on the Order Paper which causes us great apprehension.
It is only fair to say at the outset that we do not quarrel with the principle of disposing of these assets "as quickly as is reasonably practicable," because we do not want delay. If this is going to be a protracted business, if this is going to drag on and on—as I said in one of the all too many speeches that I made on the Committee stage—if the auctioneer's hammer is going to hang like the Sword of Damocles over the heads of the British Transport Commission, it will not be good for the country, for the industry, or for the taxpayer. This has got to be done as quickly as possible; with that we agree, but as quickly as possible taking into consideration the interests of the taxpayer—on whose behalf we on this side of the House, at any rate, are primarily concerned. That is why I beg to move the Amendment standing in my name.
Page 1, line 9, after ("practicable,") insert the said words.—(Lord Lucas of Chilworth.)
§ 2.53 p.m.
§ THE SECRETARY OF STATE FOR COMMONWEALTH RELATIONS (VISCOUNT SWINTON)
My Lords, as the noble Lord said, in moving his Amendment, this matter was fully debated when we were in Committee, but it is an important point and it is quite reasonable that we should discuss it again. On the Committee stage both the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, and I gave reasons why the 52 very carefully considered provisions of the clause should stand. The justification for the sale of the Road Haulage Executive vehicles to competitive enterprise is to give the public the best and most flexible service we can. The noble Lord said that it was a political decision, because it figured in our political programme. May I suggest to him that on this side, at any rate, we do sometimes put things into political programmes which are both good business and in the public interest? And it is because we believe that all experience shows that you cannot get a quick, flexible service under a monopoly that we are satisfied that this Bill is completely justified. If it is right to make that change, because only by so doing can you give the public and the traders the service that they require and have a right to demand, then the sooner they can get that service the better. It has also been repeatedly emphasised on all sides that we ought to get rid of uncertainty; and we certainly shall not get rid of uncertainty by increasing the prospect of delay. Therefore it is right, we submit, that the Commission and the Board should dispose of these vehicles "as quickly as is reasonably practicable."
But let me point out that this duty of disposal is subject to the opening words of subsection (1) of Clause 1 which are:Subject to the provisions of this Act…and Clause 3, subsection (7) provides that the Boardshall not give their approval to the acceptance of such tender unless they are satisfied that the price is a reasonable one.…There is in subsection (5), of Clause 5, which deals with sales by companies, a similar provision in regard to sales of shares in a company. The wording of this subsection has been most carefully designed to give effect to the dual purpose of the Act—namely, to secure a quick sale at a fair price. Therefore, either Lord Lucas's words are unnecessary or they are intended to have—or, if not intended, they would certainly have—the effect of deferring a sale. Sales might, indeed, be deferred indefinitely if the Commission and the Board were charged with the duty of considering only the best price that could ever be obtained. They might have to wait two years. The result of such a delay would not be to 53 get a better price: it would almost certainly be to get a worse price, because the sale of units or shares in a company carries with it an "A" licence, the value of which depends, in a progressive degree, on the buyer's being able to start his business, get it going, and get his goodwill before the 25-milers come in and there is completely free competition. Therefore, in all those circumstances, and for the reasons I have mentioned, I submit that the decision which your Lordships reached on the Committee stage, to retain the words in the Bill and reject words which were very similar to, if not identical with, those of this Amendment, should stand. I would ask the House, if we are invited to go to a Division, to confirm the decision taken, after such full debate, in Committee.
§ 2.59 p.m.
§ EARL JOWITT
My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Viscount cannot see his way to do something here. Of course if we go to a Division we on this side shall be defeated. A Division is only a kind of protest, hallowed by long usage. We do not think it is much good trying to settle these things by Divisions. The right way is to see whether there is substance in the arguments we have adduced. The Amendment moved in Committee was a different one. It was to leave out the words "as quickly as is reasonably practicable." I am not seeking to do that now, but I hope the noble Lord will agree that it is desirable that this sale should be dealt with and dealt with promptly. We do need certainty. This uncertainty is bad. The Government have plainly a mandate to see that these things are done, but surely we all agree that, although it is necessary to dispose of these things promptly it should not be done in such a way as to slaughter the price obtained by the Commission.
Everybody who has had business experience must be perfectly familiar with the case where you have to deal with, for instance, vast blocks of particular shares and where, if you placed those shares on to the market at once, you would absolutely slaughter the price. The market could not absorb them. Every business man in some way or another has to nurse a situation like that, and to dispose of those shares quietly and in an orderly 54 fashion. It is in the interests of the taxpayer that that should be done. These are our assets and we all have a common interest in getting the highest possible price we can for them. We want to combine, therefore, two things. As I have said, we want to get over this thing as quickly as we can but, in getting over it as quickly as we can, we do not want to dispose of the vehicles at such a price as, for instance, that at which. Army surplus stores are sometimes sold where you get merely an old song for valuable property.
The contention which we advance is this. If you specify here one thing, and one thing only, in the opening phrase, that you want to dispose of them "as quickly as is reasonably practicable" without also indicating the other point of view, that you must dispose of them efficiently—and by that I mean getting the highest price you reasonably can—then it is a lop-sided clause. What you want to do is to dispose of them quickly and to dispose of them efficiently; and we believe that it is quite wrong to indicate here only one of these factors and not the other.
Our suspicions are made all the greater by the Amendment to subsection (1) of Clause 5. The Amendment seeks to add to subsection (1)and the Board shall not give their approval"—that is, to the formation of a company—unless it appears to them that the proposed course of action is expedient and will not prejudice the purposes to which the Commission are to have regard as aforesaid.It is the last few words which arouse our suspicions. If, in the first clause of all, you emphasise speed and you do not emphasise efficiency, we are afraid that that tendency will run through the whole Bill, and that you will not have regard to the necessity of getting the highest price possible. You may have to form companies, and you may have to form companies for the express object of selling these things to the best advantage and getting the best price you can. Speed is not everything. Speed is important, but speed with efficiency is what you should aim at.
Out Amendment to-day is quite different from the one we moved on Committee stage, when we simply moved to leave out the words "as quickly as is reasonably practicable." Now we are 55 content that those words should go in, but we want also some words to say that, in considering speed there must be some regard to efficiency. I am not wedded to the precise words we have used. If this Report stage is to be a meeting of minds, with concessions and co-operation and so on, surely the Government, if they do not like our words, can devise some other form of words which would make it quite plain that regard must be had not merely to speed but also, in the interests of all of us, to getting the best price possible. That is our Amendment. We venture to think that it is a reasonable Amendment, and I had very much hoped that the Government would find their way to accept it, if not in these precise words then in some words which would indicate that regard must be had to that other factor equally with the mere object of speed.
§ LORD WINSTER
My Lords. I have listened very carefully to what the noble Viscount said, and I entirely agree with him that the covering words at the beginning of this clause:Subject to the provisions of this Actdeal with the question of value by future reference. But I regard it as a cardinal error in this Bill that, in the very first clause of all, no specific reference whatsoever is made to the question of value. All the emphasis is laid upon speed and, therefore, the first impression that the Commission gain of this Bill is that what the Government are after is speed, with the question of value to be discovered only by reference to further clauses of the Bill. Had this clause contained some such words asto dispose, as quickly as is reasonably practicable, having regard to promptitude but with due regard for value also,that would have covered the point. As it is, I think it is most unfortunate that in the very first clause of this Bill the question of speed is emphasised, without any reference whatsoever to the question of value. I feel that it is a very small thing to ask that in the first clause of the Bill the question of value shall be introduced, as well as the question of speed. I greatly regret that the Government do not feel able to grant that very small concession and in the interests of the taxpayer to introduce into the first clause of the Bill 56 a consideration about value as well as a consideration about speed.
§ LORD WILMOT OF SELMESTON
My Lords, it is surprising that the noble Viscount should resist this Amendment, which merely sets out in the opening clause of the Bill that one of the duties of the disposing authority is to have regard to getting proper value for the property. One would have thought that that was a reasonable business precaution which the Government would have been glad enough to accept. It is particularly peculiar, I think, in view of the new wording which is proposed in subsection (7) of Clause 3, which gives us the point which we made on the Committee stage. It is quite inconsistent with that concession to the arguments which we then advanced to resist the insertion of these words in the first clause. I was not at all convinced by the noble Viscount's contention that the insertion of these words might result in the Commission's getting a lower price. Surely, that could not possibly happen. The whole intention of the words of the Amendment is that the disposing authority shall have regard tothe desirability of obtaining the best possible price commensurate with the value of the property and the rights conferred upon the purchasers…and so on. Therefore, if the circumstances pointed to the fact, as the noble Viscount said they would, that delay would lead to a lower price, then obviously the words imported into the clause by our Amendment would not apply. Therefore, I can see no strength at all in the noble Viscount's contention. I should like to emphasise the arguments which have been made by my noble friends, that this is a natural, normal, business precaution to lay upon the disposing authority, the duty not only of doing what they have to do with reasonable speed but of having regard to getting value for the public property which they have to sell.
§ 3.10 p.m.
§ THE EARL OF SELKIRK
My Lords, may I say one word on this matter? Listening to the noble Lord, one might have thought that there was no reference in this Bill at all to price. If I may say so, with great respect, it is set out pretty clearly in different places what is intended. I would refer only to the next subsection, which shows quite clearly 57 what are the duties of the Commission. And, if I may make this point, everything you bring out pushes something else down. One of the important tasks of the Commission is to avoid disturbance. I do not think anyone here will question the importance of avoiding disturbance in the operation of this clause. There are three tasks: one, to get on with the job without delay two, to get the best available terms, and three, to avoid disturbance. All these stand together in subsection (2) of Clause 1.
Now I would turn to subsection (3) of Clause 3 where there is the perfectly specific obligation to get "in the aggregate the best possible price." It is quite clear what is intended, and I say, with respect to what has already been said, that there can be no doubt in the minds of those who undertake the task committed to them as to what is intended here. There is no question of a "slaughter price" as this Bill is drafted at present.
§ THE EARL OF SELKIRK
Would the noble Lord be happier if the words "no slaughter price" were put in? I was rather surprised to hear the noble Earl, Lord Jowitt, say that the Army surplus stores were sold at a slaughter price. I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Wilmot, was responsible for those sales and I believe he did extremely well with them. What words could be used except "in the aggregate the best possible price"? What other words are clearer than those? We firmly intend that the purposes here shall be got under way. There must be no doubt about it, and we intend to give that meaning to the clause. I say, with respect, that in the word "reasonable" there are all the necessary implications of care and attention, and of avoidance of those foolish actions to which the noble Earl, Lord Jowitt, referred. I believe that that is the intention of the Bill, and I think we should stand by it.
§ LORD LUCAS OF CHILWORTH
My Lords, I must confess to great disappointment at the reply. Of course, the noble Viscount, Lord Swinton, really made my case for me. He did not say anything which I had not already said, except this—and I paraphrase him, I think, accurately—"What you have to remem- 58 ber is that to these assets, the vehicles, whether they are sold as chattels or as units, or whether they are sold into the ownership of companies, there is an 'A' licence attached."
§ LORD LUCAS OF CHILWORTH
Perhaps I have used the word "chattels" in slightly the wrong sense. A transport unit can comprise anything from one to fifty vehicles; that is what the Bill says. The unit cannot comprise anything over fifty vehicles without the consent of the Minister. I would not call one vehicle a unit, although technically in the Bill it is a unit; I call it a chattel. But that is by the way. The "A" licence goes with it, and the "A" licence gives the buyers of these vehicles a monopoly for as long as the 25-mile limit remains.
In the ordinary course of business, under the Road and Rail Traffic Act as it is designed to-day, if anybody wants to get an "A" licence he has to go to the licensing authority and prove a good many things. It is not so with the "A" licence that attaches to these vehicles. So, until the due date when the 25-miles radius is abolished, the monopoly is enjoyed by those who are in the long distance transport business to-day, which includes the British Transport Commission and all the 7,000 operators who are now travelling around the country outside the 25-miles radius, because they have permits to operate as "A" licence holders. But on January 1, 1955, in eighteen months' time they get no monopoly, because after that date it is burst wide open and there is a "free for all"—"Every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost." What did the noble Viscount say?—"The sands of time are running out. Every month that goes by is a month off that monopoly, and unless we sell these vehicles, unless we can dispose of the majority of them before January 1, 1955…Speed, my Lords, speed: that is the essence of the contract."
If the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, was entirely accurate—and I would not suggest for one moment that he was trying to mislead your Lordships—there are many things in this Bill which to us are commendable. But there is one thing in the Bill that we do not like and we fought tooth and nail right through the 59 Committee stage to get rid of it, and that is that the Commission cannot do a thing about the disposal of one of these assets without the consent of the Disposal Board. The Commission have to go to the Board and say, "Can we issue this tender?" and "Can we accept this price?" And if the Board and the Commission do not agree, then they have to go to the Minister. Right the way through this Bill the Minister is made the final arbiter. I repeat again something I have said before: I do not say this at all disrespectfully, but the Minister has a political motive. He has promised to get these things back into the hands of the haulage industry as soon as he possibly can, and so if the Minister fulfils his pledge to the electorate, and especially that part of the electorate which happens to be in the haulage industry, he will give a decision along these lines: "I want these assets got rid of, so do not stick out for a price, but get rid of them." If that was not hanging over the heads of the Commission all the time I should be far happier.
My noble friend Lord Silkin moved an Amendment to the Bill to say that every direction the Minister gives to the Board or to the Commission that they have to accept a certain figure should be reported to Parliament, because this could involve the taxpayer in a loss of millions of pounds. That was ridiculed. We lost that Amendment. In any dispute between the Commission and the Disposal Board, the Commission, being the owners of the assets in which the taxpayer's money is involved, will naturally want to get as high a price as possible. The Disposal Board contains a majority of representatives of the buyers. The noble Earl, Lord De La Warr, in the course of his speech admitted it, saying that they are
there to protect the interests of those who are going to pay the levy. Above the Disposal Board is the Minister. So it is two to one. The Commission will want to get the highest possible price for its assets, and I shall argue later on in this Report stage that unless it does, irrespective of the levy, it is going to be saddled with a great loss which the taxpayer in the last analysis will have to bear. So we say that it is of the greatest importance in regard to the Disposal Board and the Minister, who is answerable to Parliament, that there should be an injunction from Parliament in regard to the first subsection of this clause, to the effect that the assets shall be sold:
as quickly as is reasonably practicable, having regard to the desirability of obtaining the best possible price commensurate with the value of the property and the rights conferred upon the purchasers by the subsequent provisions of this Act.
§ We were told upon the Committee stage that the Disposal Board will contain a majority of people selected by the Minister from those nominated by the Association representing the buyers. If that were not so, and if there were not this overriding veto of the Minister, we might be satisfied. But we are not satisfied. We think that in the interests of the taxpayer this is the only reasonable precaution which, at this stage, we can put into this Bill. If, as the noble Earl as good as said, there is nothing against it, why not put it in the Bill? So strongly do we feel on this point, in our view vital to the interests of the taxpayer whose welfare we have a public duty to regard, that we shall ask your Lordships to indicate your opinion in the Division Lobbies.
§ On Question, Whether the Amendment be agreed to?
§ Their Lordships divided: Contents, 29; Not-Contents, 66.61
|Baldwin of Bewdley, E.||Douglas of Barloch, L.||Noel-Buxton, L.|
|Jowitt, E.||Faringdon, L.||Pakenham, L.|
|Haden-Guest, L. [Teller.]||Pethick-Lawrence, L.|
|Elibank, V.||Hare, L. (E. Listowel.)||Rathcreedan, L.|
|Henderson, L.||Shepherd, L.|
|Ammon, L.||Kershaw, L.||Strabolgi, L.|
|Amwell, L.||Lawson, L.||Uvedale of North End, L.|
|Archibald, L.||Lucas of Chilworth, L.||Wilmot of Selmeston, L.|
|Bingham, L. (E. Lucan.) [Teller.]||Macpherson of Drumochter, L.||Winster, L.|
|Mathers, L.||Wise, L.|
|Crook, L.||Morrison, L.|
|Simonds, L. (L. Chancellor.)||Long, V.||Hothfield, L.|
|Marchwood, V.||Hylton, L.|
|Salisbury, M. (L. President.)||Swinton, V.||Jeffreys, L.|
|Trenchard, V||Jessel, L.|
|Linlithgow, M.||Kenlis, L. (M. Headfort.)|
|Willingdon, M.||Amulree, L.||Kinnaird, L.|
|Baden-Powell, L||Layton, L.|
|Alexander of Tunis, E.||Baillieu, L||Leconfield, L.|
|Bessborough, E.||Barnby, L.||Llewellin, L.|
|Birkenhead, E. [Teller.]||Brassey of Apethorpe, L.||Lloyd, L.|
|Buckinghamshire, E.||Carrington, L.||Mancroft, L.|
|De La Warr, E.||Cawley, L.||O'Hagan, L.|
|Doncaster, E. (D. Buccleuch and Queensberry.)||Cherwell, L.||Palmer, L.|
|Chesham, L.||Rea, L.|
|Iveagh, E.||Courtauld-Thomson, L.||Saltoun, L.|
|Munster, E.||Cozens-Hardy, L.||Savile, L.|
|Onslow, E. [Teller.]||Fairfax of Cameron, L.||Saye and Sele, L.|
|Rothes, E.||Freyberg, L.||Schuster, L.|
|Selkirk, E.||Gage, L. (V. Gage.)||Stanmore, L.|
|Gifford, L.||Teviot, L.|
|Bridgeman, V.||Hacking, L.||Teynham, L.|
|Caldecote, V.||Hampton, L.||Tweedsmuir, L.|
|Falmouth, V.||Hankey, L.||Wolverton, L.|
|Furness, V.||Hawke, L.||Woolton, L.|
On Question, Amendment agreed to.
§ 3.30 p.m.
THE EARL OF SELKIRK moved to add to the clause:
(6) Nothing in this section shall compel the Commission, unless they think fit so to do, to dispose of any property, being money or being a claim for a debt or other monetary claim.
The noble Earl said: My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Swinton I beg to move this Amendment. Your Lordships may remember that at the end of the Committee stage we inserted in the interpretation clause a definition of the word "property." This varied the definition in the 1947 Act, which excluded contractual rights. We put in the word "property" to include claims for debts and other monetary claims, with a view to transferring, in the formation of companies and perhaps it some cases in connection with transport units, what amount to book debts. Having included money claims in the word "property," it might be taken that when the Commission have disposed of their road haulage property they would have to dispose of money debts—in other words, they might be under an obligation to hand over cash or bank balances which happen to be standing in the same Road Haulage Executive account. We do not intend that to be the case, so we say here, that
the Commission, unless they think fit so to do.
are not obliged
to dispose of any property, being money or being a claim for a debt or other monetary claim.
I beg to move.
Page 3, line 5, at end insert the said subsection.—(The Earl of Selkirk.)
§ Clause 2:
§ Road Haulage Disposal Board
§ (2) The Board shall consist of six members all of whom shall be appointed by the Minister.
§ (4) Of the remaining members of the Board—
- (a) one member shall be appointed from among persons nominated by the Commission;
§ (9) The Board shall from time to time, and at least once in every six months, make to the Minister a report in writing as to the progress made in the disposal of the property held by the Commission for the purposes of the existing road haulage undertaking and the Minister shall lay a copy of each such report before each House of Parliament.
§ 3.34 p.m.
§ LORD LUCAS CF CHILWORTH moved, in subsection (2), to substitute "seven" for "six." The noble Lord said: My Lords, if I may have your Lordships' permission to do so, I should like to speak upon this Amendment at page 3, line 10, and also upon the next one, which comes at page 3, line 25. On 63 the Committee stage, we had a long discussion as to whether or not the Disposal Board should have its number augmented so as to include someone versed in company law and company procedure, and nominated by the President for the time being of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales. I made rather a painful slip in drafting the Amendment which was before your Lordships on the Committee stage, and I had a sharp reminder from that august body that its title was not "The Institute of Chartered Accountants" but "The Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales." The only reason I can think of why I was so reminded—if I may say this in the hearing of the noble Marquess, Lord Linlithgow, and the noble Lord, Lord Teviot—was that the authorities of the Institute wanted it to be clear that there was a distinction between their members and the chartered accountants of Scotland. But I have now put the title in its correct form.
§ Your Lordships will notice that I am being considerably more modest to-day than I was before. Last time, I wanted two such representatives appointed after consultation with the President for the time being of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales, and also two independent people. As my last suggestion did not meet with the approval of your Lordships, I thought I might, at least, get the Government and your Lordships to agree to have one member appointed after consultation with the President of the Institute. I suggest that this is a very modest request in view of the tasks which the Disposal Board have to carry out. I do not like the Disposal Board; I hate the very sight of it. I think it is an unnecessary Board, and that, if I may borrow an expression used by my noble friend, Lord Winster, it is a fifth wheel on the coach. And it is a fifth wheel with a permanent brake on. But your Lordships have agreed that there shall be a Disposal Board, so I, like a true democrat, accept—for the time being at least—your Lordships' decision, and my sole interest now is to dilute the composition of the Board somewhat.
§ The present membership is, as to about two-thirds, representative of the buyers. Your Lordships will recall the admissions which fell from the lips of Government spokesmen all the way through the 64 Committee stage. They told us that these representatives of the "A" and "B" licence-holders were going to be the nominated representatives of the Road Haulage Association; they admitted that the "C" licence-holders were going to be so represented, and also trade and industry. I should like to know where they are going to find representatives of any section of trade or industry that does not own transport and, therefore, is not a potential purchaser of some of these assets. Out of the six members there is one chairman and one deputy chairman and then the Bill provides that
- "(a) one member shall be appointed from among persons nominated by the Commission;
- (b) one member shall be appointed after consultation with such bodies representative of trade and industry as the Minister thinks fit;
- (c) one member shall be appointed after consultation with such bodies representative of persons holding A or B licences as the Minister thinks fit; and
- (d) one member shall be appointed after consultation with such bodies representative of persons holding C licences as the Minister thinks fit."
§ In your wisdom your Lordships have decided on a course with which we on this side of the House completely agree—that there shall be three methods of sale: the chattel or other property method, the unit method, and the company method. We shall discuss the company method shortly, and I shall argue then that the only way in which an adequate return can be obtained for the taxpayer is by the company method. I do not suppose that many of your Lordships have read the whole of the Hansard Reports of the Committee stage of the Bill. A noble Lord with nothing better to do than read the whole of them would be a poor person. But some of us have done it because we have had to do so. Anyone who reads those Reports cannot but fail to be impressed by the onerous tasks which will fall on the Commission and the Board when they come to form the companies. Some of those companies 65 may have a capital of a million pounds. They must have put into them assets which form the best part of £100 million of taxpayers' money. There will be leases of properly, just mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, to the value of £17 million. There will be book debts of £16 million, although it seems now that it has been discovered that there was a slip in the Bill and the book debts would have had to be got rid of the minute the Bill became law.
§ All the complications of getting these companies working and of company law and all its intricacies have to be considered, and there is no representative on this Board, other than in an advisory position, who can use his voice about the right road to travel to do these things. I do not think it is too much to ask, as a safeguard for the taxpayer, that somebody should be appointed to the Disposal Board who is of an independent mind; because we have not been told what type of man is going to be appointed as chairman and deputy chairman. These appointments rest wholly and solely on the Minister. We think that there should be appointed to the Board a man selected after consultation with the President of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales, though I am not tied to the provision that he should be a chartered accountant.
§ I have never known a body charged with the duties with which this Disposal Board is charged so packed with representatives of the buyers. No wonder we wanted the suggested directive put in the first subsection of this Bill. Do noble Lords think these representatives of the buyers and of the Road Hauliers Association who want to buy these vehicles are going to study the taxpayer's interests and get the best possible price? Of course, they are not. They are mandated before they go there and they are answerable to those who sent them there. They are not free agents. They do not go there to exercise their functions in the interests of anyone except those who sent them there. I can imagine what they will be told if they do not get the best possible bargain of the "bargain basement" type, and I can imagine what directions they will have before they go there—"You have eighteen months before monopoly goes and the 25-miles radius goes." When you take all these things into consideration, do not your 66 Lordships think it would be well to have somebody on this Board who would occasionally remind the members of their public duty? I do. That is why I hope, and why I think the taxpayers expect, that the Government should put at least one representative on the Board who can say what is a fair reasonable price for these assets, instead of there being a continual wrangle between the Board and the Commission, with an ultimate appeal to the Minister. I hope your Lordships will agree that this is a wise provision and accept this Amendment. I beg to move.
Page 3, line 10, leave out ("six") and insert ("seven").—(Lord Lucas of Chilworth.)
§ 3.48 p.m.
My Lords, I should like to support what my noble friend has said in favour of this Amendment and to add another argument. I think that six is too small a number for the Board and that it would be an advantage to increase the number. Even the seventh member proposed by my noble friend would be that touch an advantage. Members of the Board may become ill or have other engagements, and I think six is too small a number to carry out this onerous and important task, which will last a long time. I see that three is a quorum. If there are six members there may be a deadlock, and I can see nothing about a casting vote being given to the Chairman unless that is understood. I think there is a great deal in what my noble friend said about having a member who is either a chartered accountant or one who understands accounts for ibis important duty. I hope the Government will be able to accept this Amendment.
§ 3.50 p.m.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LINLITHGOW
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, was kind enough to mention my name in moving this Amendment. Before I get on to a major point, perhaps I can explain to him the difference between the chartered accountants of England and Wales and the chartered accountants of Scotland. The answer is that they take different examinations. Being a Scotsman, I rather wish I had tried the Scottish examination. In fact, I migrated and 67 tried the English one. They are two very different examinations.
§ LORD LUCAS OF CHILWORTH
Perhaps the noble Marquess will tell us which he thinks is the better of the two.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LINLITHGOW
Being a Scotsman, I would say that the Scottish is—but do not hold me to that. I should like to make this point. Having worked for many years among chartered accountants, and passed the Intermediate examination, but failed the Final (of which I am not very proud), I feel that there is a certain substance in what the noble Lord, Lord Lucas said about having an independent member of the Disposal Board who would represent others than the buyers. Personally, I am satisfied that such a member is, in fact, there. There is no reason to suppose that the Minister will represent the buyers, and the Minister has the power of appointing certain members of the Board. But, as I say, I entirely agree with the noble Lord that there should be an independent member.
I should like, however, to pin myself to the point of the chartered accountant representative. Having tried to pass the examinations, and failed, I would say that a chartered accountant's training is inevitably directed towards an interpretation of what has happened in the past. A chartered accountant is not trained to say, nor is it his business, what is going to happen in the future. I would say that if it were desired to sell the road haulage assets on a net asset basis, if you like, the chartered accountant would be the first man to say what the net asset basis is. But again—I am sure some of my chartered accountant friends will read this—the chartered accountant is the last person I should choose to say what the assets would be in the future—for the very good reason that he is not trained to do so. While supporting the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, in suggesting that there should be an independent representative who has no interest in buying the assets as cheaply as he can—which I think is covered in the Bill—I could not resist taking him up on his choice of a member of this great and honourable profession to judge what, in fact, the business will be worth in the future. I should not choose a chartered accountant 68 to do that; nor do I think the noble Lord would.
My Lords, I cannot follow what the noble Marquess, Lord Linlithgow, has said with regard to the ascertainment of what is going 'to be the future value. After all, a chartered accountant's training, quite apart from what may have happened in the past, would allow him to assess what may be the future value of the assets. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. Whoever may be appointed by the Minister, I feel that it would be of value to have on this body someone with the training and knowledge of a chartered accountant, who could give to this body in their deliberations the benefit of his experience in matters of this kind. Subject to what the Government may advance as a valid reason against such an appointment, I think there is a good deal to be said for this Amendment.
§ VISCOUNT SWINTON
My Lords, the noble Lord who moved the Amendment has, it is true, been more modest than last time. Last time he tried for right and left; this time he is content with a single shot. Though the Amendment differs in degree, it is exactly the same in kind as the one which we discussed before—namely, whether it is desirable to have an accountant as a member of this Board. I agree that if we are to have any, certainly one is better than two—I cannot conceive that two would be needed. I entirely agree with my noble friend Lord Linlithgow that this is not an accountant's job. It is much more an executive responsibility. You want to have on the Disposal Board knowledge of the haulage industry; you want to have commercial experience—and you certainly have that in the trader representative; and you want to have what I may call a sales flair, or at any rate, a good judgment of when to sell and what price you ought to be able to get. As my noble friend Lord Linlithgow said. I feel that the Board provides a reasonably good team to do that. There is a representative of the Commission—he certainly is not there to see that the things are sold for the lowest price; there is a representative of trade and industry; there is a representative, it is true, of the "A" and "B" licences; and there is a representative of the "C" licences, who are certainly going to want the best possible price when these things 69 are sold, because upon the price depends the amount of the levy which they have all got to pay. Then, as my noble friend truly said, there are the chairman and deputy chairman who are appointed by the Minister, which is most important. I agree that a financial knowledge is also most important. It certainly is reasonable to expect that the chairman or the deputy chairman, or perhaps both, between them, will provide that financial knowledge, and also a sufficient knowledge of accounts for this purpose. So I think the point raised by the Opposition is really covered, so far as is necessary; and that is what your Lordships thought in Committee.
Do not let us forget that if specialist knowledge is wanted in a particular case, a specialist can be called in. I remember that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, strongly opposed an Amendment moved from this side of the House by which, instead of the Commission making a scheme for decentralisation, it should be done by an independent body. One of the arguments used by one of my noble friends behind me was that experts would be brought in to do this. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, rounded upon him at once and said: "You do not want to put them on the Commission. The Commission can bring in any expert they want for this purpose." Of course, the Board can bring in an expert, or an accountant, if they wish to do so. A further matter is that you do not want to have the Board too large. I submit that the Committee were right in what they decided before. We have on the Board a membership which is carefully balanced, and which supplies the knowledge and qualifications required to ensure that the operation will be conducted efficiently, expeditiously, economically and in a Way which will ensure that the best price which it is possible to obtain is obtained.
§ LORD WINSTER
My Lords, by resisting this Amendment the Government really increase one's apprehensions as to their dominant motives in bringing forward this Bill. The Bill itself contains two elements of great importance. One is that of speed, and the other is that of value. The question of value, which involves many millions of pounds, is the question which occupies the interest of the taxpayer and of the public more than the question of speed. In the first clause 70 of this Bill, now disposed of, the Government chose to emphasise the question of speed and to ignore entirely the question of value. Here again, in resisting this Amendment—an Amendment which seeks to introduce on to the Disposal Board one member of the Board who, by profession, by training and by instinct will have some regard for value—the Government resist the proposa1 that there should he one man on the Board predominantly interested in the question of value. If the Government are going to resist over and over again any introduction with the idea of value into this matter, they cannot complain if the public come to the conclusion that what the Government are principally interested in is undoing the work of their predecessors, rather than seeing that in what follows from this Bill the interests of the public and of the taxpayer are given full regard to in the matter of value.
§ VISCOUNT BRIDGEMAN
My Lords, I feel that the noble Lord, Lord Winster, has been a little far-fetched in what he said. If I understood this arguments aright, he was trying to make it appear that, because my noble friend in front of me was resisting an Amendment to put a chartered accountant on the Board, therefore it may be said that the Government are not paying proper attention to the need of the taxpayer to get full value. I cannot accept that. If the noble Lord had listened more carefully to what my noble friend Lord Swinton said, he would have heard that he said many times what great importance the Government attached to getting a proper deal for the taxpayer, and how important it was for the Board not only to have general financial knowledge but also to be able to consult those experts who had to be consulted. As my noble friend Lord Linlithgow said just now, the accountants' trade and the financiers' trade are not the same. In this case should say that the seller is more concerned with finance. In the ordinary course of business, the man who wants an accountant is the buyer who wants an investigation conducted. I do not think the noble Lord, Lord Winster, is right in making it appear that, because my noble friends want to resist this Amendment, therefore they have no regard for the taxpayer.
§ LORD LUCAS OF CHILWORTH
My Lords, I find myself in almost complete agreement with my noble friend Lord Winster. Her Majesty's Government have every possible regard for the taxpayer, short of putting that regard in the Bill. I have listened to this discussion with great interest, and I must confess that I have been amused because I sometimes spend my time perusing the pages of the Financial Times, and I am interested in reading company reports. I see "Mr. So-and-So, Chairman, F.C.A." or "Sir Somebody, Chairman, F.C.A." If chartered accountants on boards are so hopeless and so useless, what has industry been doing all these years? Every chartered accountant I have ever met has told me, "Of course, old chap, there is no money in practice. What you want to do is to get on the board of a company." The companies of the City of London are full of chartered accountants. What are they there for—ornaments?
§ THE MARQUESS OF LINLITHGOW
That is because the companies train them into a new trade altogether. The noble Lord has just suggested that the chartered accountant says that there is no money in practice, and that one should get on to a board. If the noble Lord is on a board—and he is on a great many, I am sure—he trains a chartered accountant to look forward, rather than backward.
§ LORD LUCAS OF CHILWORTH
There is the very man. I do not want a practising chartered accountant who sits in an office, because I dare not give your Lordships my opinion of chartered accountants. If any Chancellor of the Exchequer modified the Income Tax law, and made income tax very small, half or three-quarters of the chartered accountants in private practice would be out of business.
But let us get back to the point. I want the very man that the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, wants; and the very man that the noble Marquess, Lord Linlithgow, wants. But the Government will not give him to me. If I were of a suspicious nature—which, of course, I 72 am not—I should say: Are the Government afraid that a chartered accountant would ask too many awkward questions about some of the Board's transactions? Surely, it cannot be that. What is it, then? I should have thought that there would be no harm in accepting the Amendment, and perhaps a tremendous amount of good. I say to noble Lords opposite who are directors of companies—collectively, I suppose, of more companies than I can think of: From what you have heard this afternoon, never put a chartered accountant on your board.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LINLITHGOW
With great respect, we never suggested that. That must not go down on the record. I have too many friends in the profession.
§ LORD LUCAS OF CHILWORTH
At least do not put them on a Board which is going to have charge of taxpayers' assets, because they might find out too much. Quite seriously, the noble Viscount, Lord Swinton, is completely wrong in this, and I tried my hardest to convince him he was wrong when he used the selfsame argument on the Committee stage. What is it the noble Viscount said? He said: "Of course the representatives of the buyers will sit on this Disposal Board, actuated by the highest possible motives, to get the highest possible price, because getting the highest possible price will mean that they will not have to pay so much levy." Now I will ask your Lordships the same question that I asked the noble Viscount. On a 5-ton lorry the amount of levy is £1310s. per annum. It is 13s. 6d. per unit, and the unit is a quarter of a ton unladen weight. Which would any of your Lordships have, if you were purchasing a number of these vehicles from the Commission? Which would you rather do, have a Board who would make sure that you bought that vehicle at £100 to £200 less in price and pay £14 levy, or would you say: "No, certainly not. I am going to pay the highest possible price you ask, because then I shall not have to pay £14 a year for, perhaps, five years." If the noble Viscount cannot find a better argument than that, I would suggest that his case for refusing my request is pretty thin.
The noble Viscount also said that you do not want an accountant on a board that has an executive function. This Disposal Board has no executive function at 73 all. Read the Bill. The whole mechanics of the disposal of these companies, units or chattels vests in the Commission. The Commission have to organise their business for sale, and they have to run the business while they are selling it.
The Bill puts on them the glorious responsibility of developing the business even while they are disposing of it. There is not one mechanical function that the Board has. It cannot sell anything; it merely sits and says to the Commission, "You must submit every tender to us and every offer." It has not an executive function at all. So the noble Viscount is wrong on the second count. When he says that I opposed the idea of an expert sitting on policy-making commissions there is, again, no similarity between the two things. The British Transport Commission is the board of directors of an undertaking having an invested capital of £1,180,000,000 guaranteed both in capital and interest by the taxpayers of this country. They have an entirely different function. They have an executive function; they have to see that their policy is executed.
However, I do not suppose that if I stand before your Lordships for an hour I shall get my accountant. I am sorry that that is so. I think that this is one of the concessions which the Government could give to the Opposition. It is a boast of your Lordships' House that it is a revising Chamber. But it is a revising Chamber only when a Government other than a Conservative Government is in power. We can get the Government to agree to any proposal we make from this side only by persuasion and argument. When we go into the Division Lobby it is but a token—and the Government know that. Unless we can persuade and cajole we are powerless. I wonder how many years noble Lords opposite think that that can go on. We do not mind being beaten by argument. Your Lordships will see from the Marshalled List of Amendments before you that we have not put down any Amendments just to argue them all over again. We think that, on balance, some 74 arguments we have heard have been good. We have put Amendments down where we think the matter might be argued again; and here was something which the Government could easily have given us. But they say "No, we are not going to give you this." With those words, I ask lease to withdraw my Amendment.
§ THE EARL OF SELKIRK
The noble Lord said, "I do not want to take a chartered accountant on the Board." May I ask what sort of man the President of the Institute of Chartered Accountants would be likely to appoint other than a chartered accountant?
§ LORD LUCAS OF CHILWORTH
If the Minister went to the President of the Institute of Chartered Accountants and said, "I want you to recommend me a man with these qualifications"—
§ THE EARL OF SELKIRK
When you are dealing with the President of the Institute of Chartered Accountants you do not tell him the sort of man you want. That is for the President to deal with.
§ LORD LUCAS OF CHILWORTH
Certainly I should tell him. I should tell him the functions which the man would have to perform. Surely the noble Earl is not going to tell me that the Minister would go to the President of the Institute and simply say, "I want a chartered accountant." He would say, "Will you please give me a list of men you think would be suitable for the fulfilling of this particular function?" Then the Minister, I should think, would have a short list of perhaps half a dozen persons: and he would go through this list in consultation with senior officials and study the qualifications of the various men. I should have thought that that would be the process. The Minister would naturally choose a man with wide and varied knowledge. However, as I have said, I beg leave to withdraw my Amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.