HL Deb 26 July 1954 vol 189 cc25-40

3.48 p.m.

Debate resumed.


My Lords, if any of your Lordships had doubts about acquiescing to the noble Earl's request to give this Bill a Second Reading, I am sure that the lucidity with which he moved it, and the almost naïve way in which he threw up his hands, at the end and said that, of course, it was far too technical a subject upon which to answer any questions, will have dispelled them. Let me assure the noble Earl straight away that we shall support this Bill and give him the Second Reading. If I have any questions to raise, I suppose I had better adopt the procedure of asking them and answering them myself. I am afraid that some of the questions I am going to ask will be of so technical a nature that the noble Earl might justifiably find a little difficulty.

As the noble Earl has said, the roads are strewn with Acts, public and private, and a multitude of regulations and orders. This Bill attempts in a small way to bring some order into a whole volume of chaos. I am tempted to ask: why introduce this Bill at the present moment? I am not going to say that What it does is unimportant, but when one thinks of the chaos in the legislation regarding roads, one sees that it does only a very small thing. Take road taxation—I am not talking about the amount, but the method of taxation—it is almost incomprehensible, a mumbo-jumbo. It is just as complicated as the fixation of fares. Take also the question of loads—a subject with which the Government refuse to deal. Ever since this Government have been in office, noble Lords on all sides of the House have impressed upon them the loss to the national economy caused by the congestion brought about by the outrageous loads which are carried on the roads. In every speech I have made on roads—and I have made so many that I am ashamed to count them—I have stressed this point. I have asked the Minister of Defence to contribute to the solution of this problem, as he is one of the culprits. I have asked the Secretary of State for Air to contribute—he is another culprit. I hope that I shall not raise the heat of the noble Earl by saying that there is just as much a Crichel Down mentality in the Service Departments on this subject as there is in the Department which has had to bear the brunt of that criticism.

Instead of having legislation to amend the Road Traffic Act in its entirety, we have this Miscellaneous Provisions Bill, which does not get anywhere near the, real problem. Of course, this Bill is based upon the Thesiger Report. I can only assume—as I followed most carefully the discussions upon the Transport Bill, 1953—that the Thesiger Committee were appointed to enable Her Majesty's Government at some time to find a method of bringing order out of the chaos in road passenger transport which the 1953 Act brought about. I remember the questions that I asked right the way through the Committee stage on that Bill. Whilst the Thesiger Committee have tackled some of the problems of road passenger transport, when they get to a problem which impinges upon the political position of the Government they shy off like a frightened horse. In the Thesiger Committee Report there are only two recommendations of any substance; one is a positive one, and the other is a negative one. I should think it must be a bitter disappointment to some noble Lords sitting on the Government side of House that the Thesiger Committee did not pull their political chestnuts out of the fire for them. After this Bill has become an Act of Parliament, the mess—the almost chaos—in which the road passenger industry of this country finds itself, as an instrument for the benefit of the country, will remain practically as it is.

This Bill really resolves itself into Clauses 1 and 2. What they do, as the noble Earl has said, is to regularise the position as regards the fare-fixing of buses, trams and trolley buses. That has always been chaotic. The fares of trams and trolley buses were fixed in private Acts before the war; those of buses, however, have always been under the jurisdiction of the licensing authority. During the war, under the Defence Regulations, the Minister of Transport was given power, upon application by the undertaking, to increase the statutory maximum laid down in these private Acts. Now if at any time these undertakings—and this applies to both municipal and statutory undertakings—want to increase their maximum fares, they have to promote an Act of Parliament. I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, that common sense dictates against that requirement. I support the provisions of the Bill that bring the fixing of all fares—not only the maximum but the intermediate, as well—within the ambit of the licensing authority.

The noble Earl quoted the Thesiger Committee as being laudatory upon the work of the licensing authorities. With that I agree. By and large, I believe that the licensing authorities of this country have done very good work indeed, although they have had to face considerable difficulty. I have only one doubt in my mind: although the Thesiger Com- mittee try to get near this problem, I do not think they really state it. We now have local authorities, statutory undertakers and private enterprise all running road passenger transport. It has always seemed to me difficult to find out whether the objectors to applications for fare increases are able to state properly their case to the tribunal, which is the licensing authority. The Bill before your Lordships to-day does not provide, in this instance of fare-fixing, any appeal—I think that is right.


Does it not?


On licences, yes, but not on fares. I agree with the noble Earl that this Bill is extremely complicated, and if I had not spent some time in the Ministry of Transport, and so know quite a bit about this subject, I could never make head or tail of this Bill. The Minister has to-day authority to sanction an increase above the statutory maximum for trams and trolley buses; the sole arbiter of fares for motor buses is the licensing authority. When I was at the Ministry—I know that noble Lords will forgive a personal reference, but one lives and one learns; and when one is in the Ministry of Transport one learns a lot—these cases on appeal used to come to me. It was always difficult—because the Minister used to appoint the chairman of the licensing authority to carry out an inquiry for him at the same time as he sat as the licensing authority to fix the bus fares—to know whether or not the whole facts were available. An objector has got to know a lot about the inner working of the applicant.

For instance, does a local authority put every fact before the tribunal—in other words, the licensing authority? Does a private company put all the facts before them? Will the licensing authority, now or in the future have the authority to compel a full disclosure? I should like to give the noble Earl an instance. When I was at the Ministry we found that some of these fare increases were sought because of the lack of reserves of many of the applicants. We found, in the case of some local authorities, that great sums had been paid over in the past in relief of rates, with the result that, when replacement equipment was wanted, fares had to be increased because of the diminution of capital resources. That may have been good politics, but it was certainly bad finance. My right honourable friend the Minister had on many occasions to give a qualified approval of fare increases—qualified by a stipulation that similar subventions would not be paid in future. The objector to increased fares is always at a disadvantage.

The Thesiger Committee dealt thoroughly with this matter and considered whether or not a tribunal should be appointed; and, after careful consideration, I, like them, come down in favour of the Bill. I am not in favour of any statutory authority, or anyone else, having the power to fix fares without a public inquiry before an independent tribunal such as provided by the licensing authority. Therefore, I think the Bill is right. I think the Bill is also right in retaining the present procedure for the grant of licences, under which there is an appeal from the licensing authority to an inspector appointed by the Minister, and then, eventually, to the Minister. I will not go into all the arguments. If noble Lords are interested they can read them all in the Thesiger Report. That really is the substance of Clauses 1 and 2 of the Bill; and Clauses 1 and 2 are the substance of the Bill, apart from Clause 9, with which I will deal later. The rest are, as the title of the Bill so aptly says, "Miscellaneous provisions."

My quarrel with this Bill is not what is in it, but what is not in it. The noble Lord, Lord Teynham, and the noble Earl, the Paymaster General, should recall as vividly, as I think will the noble Earl, Lord Rothes, the debate when the passenger transport provisions were discussed in your Lordships' House on the Transport. Act, 1953. I then asked incessantly: "As you are going to repeal the powers of the 1947 Act, what are you going to put in their place?"—Nothing. I remember the interesting discussion we had on the unremunerative road passenger services. Do not forget that, in the 1947 Act, the British Transport Commission was charged with the specific responsibility of providing an adequate comprehensive transport service—I am now talking about passenger services. That clause was taken out.

The next thing was that the consultative committees were given jurisdiction—so far as they could be given jurisdiction—over the passenger road services of the British Transport Commission, but the bulk of the remainder were left to their own devices. I remember asking the noble Marquess, Lord Linlithgow (although I have mentioned his name in his absence, I wrote to him and told him that I proposed to refer to him, as I did the noble Earl, Lord Rothes) who was going to provide these unremunerative services. At that time, the British Transport Commission had a legal obligation to do so, and could be forced by the Minister to do so. But you have taken all this away, and what are you going to put in its place? Who is to provide all these services which are unprofitable, as they must be in the sparsely populated districts? The answer given then was: "Leave it to private enterprise; they will do it. They have a high moral regard for their obligations." I remember the noble Marquess, Lord Linlithgow, almost with tears in his eyes, impressing on me that 75 per cent. of the country services provided by the company in which he was interested, were unremunerative, but that such was their regard for their responsibilities that they would continue to run them. But it has not happened.

At that time, the noble Earl, Lord Rothes, with, if I may say so, commendable foresight, moved an Amendment to strengthen the terms of reference of the Thesiger Committee. He could see that at some future date all this would arise. But the Thesiger Committee's terms of reference were unchanged, and now the noble Earl is left with this Report, with which he cannot be very pleased. The Thesiger Committee had to deal with this question of unremunerative routes, and some of the things they say are really enlightening. I will quote one or two of their observations. I quote first from paragraph 111 and the opening sentence reads like this: It was part of the purpose of the licensing system that by introducing order into the industry and giving a substantial measure of protection to the regular operator it would facilitate the provision of unremunerative services. That was one of the prime objects of the provisions of the 1930 Act which set up the licensing authorities. The Committee go on to say: The Licensing Authority have no direct power to force an operator to put on or keep on a service but in practice operators have recognised an obligation to provide as full as possible a network of services for the areas they cover. The first statement is true, and the second is more or less true. But the Thesiger Committee then go on to say this: The demand for unremunerative services has not entirely been satisfied (it is doubtful if it ever could be), and indeed in some ways it has tended to grow; but the provision of them has become increasingly difficult. The unsatisfied demand has been swollen in postwar years by several new factors—the greater expectation that social services and amenities should be universally provided, that wherever possible even isolated areas should have main water supplies or electricity, for example, as well as transport services; the generally accepted policy of stopping—or even reversing—the drift of population from the countryside to the town; and, in particular areas, the closing of railway branch lines. The Committee's Report continues: The profit has tended to disappear from these routes"— now they are talking about the profitable routes— and with it the source of the subsidy for the unremunerative routes. I do not think the Committee intended to suggest this, but is it really so outrageous for people who live in the countryside to expect electricity, water or a transport service? Would noble Lords agree that, because a postal service has to be provided to the farmer, he should pay four and five times what the city dweller pays, or get no postal service at all? The Committee talk about the profit having disappeared from the remuneratives routes, with the result that there is nothing left to subsidise the unprofitable routes. The Thesiger Committee, unfortunately, produced their Report before the publication the other day of the accounts of the British Electric Traction Company, but I wonder whether the Committee saw the accounts, which showed that that company had made record profits, increased their dividends and had a bonus issue—all, I suppose, out of providing unremunerative routes.

As the Act stands to-day, if a motor bus service or a public transport service operated by the British Transport Commission is inadequate, you can go to the consultative committee and, via the consultative committee, to the Minister; and the Minister can issue directions. If a public authority provides a transport service which falls short of public demand, it is possible to complain via the representatives on the local authority. But when it is the British Electric Traction company—and I mention that name only because it is the biggest combine outside the British Transport Commission—or any body of a like nature, the public have no redress whatsoever. I had better declare an interest, though not a financial interest; I am not a shareholder in British Electric Traction, I am one of its victims. I happen to live now six miles from the centre of Oxford, at a most delightful place called Cothill. My first bus transport service starts at half-past nine in the morning and the last is usually at eight o'clock at night; on only two nights a week have I a bus service after eight o'clock. I cannot catch a train because there is no rail competition. The nearest railway station is three miles away. This is the service provided by the 100 per cent. monopoly of the City of Oxford Motor Services, a member of the British Electric Traction group.


Is the noble Lord aware that neither British Electric Traction nor the company to which he is referring has anything whatsoever to do with the Bill?


They have. The noble Earl should not make that interruption, because in a minute I will tell him where it is concerned with the terms of the Bill.


Perhaps the noble Lord will do so.


Most decidedly. I shall leave the noble Earl under no delusions whatsoever. This is a private enterprise monopoly that has a monopoly of bus transport in the City of Oxford. It "creams" the remunerative routes from the surrounding countryside. As a ratepayer and taxpayer, I have no redress against this situation. To whom do I go to complain? I complained to the City of Oxford Motor Services and they told me the same story: that 75 per cent. of their country routes were unremunerative; and that they were sorry, but they could not provide me with any better services than they are providing now. This is where it affects the Bill. On the Committee stage, I intend to put down an Amendment to increase the powers of the licensing authorities. The licensing authority issue a licence to the City of Oxford Motor Services to run their existing services. That is where my comments have to do with this Bill. This Bill comes to your Lordships' House as a "Miscellaneous Provisions" Bill and, because the miscellany is not big enough, the noble Earl cannot take objection when I say that it should be extended. I want to extend the powers of the licensing authority so that they can compel the City of Oxford Motor Services—I cite them merely as an example—or any other company which provides a bus service, where the licensing authority are satisfied that the service is inadequate for the needs of the area over which that company operates, to run a service and then equalise the fare structure over the whole of the area served.

This is what the Thesiger Report says about this matter: For example, since the greater the area over which fares are averaged, the greater becomes the opportunity for providing un-remunerative services, it has been suggested that the Licensing Authority should have power to enforce amalgamations of operators. Alternatively, since the more the remunerative services can be concentrated in the hands of those providing or prepared to provide unremunerative services … That was the very essence of the Transport Act, 1947. That was the very thing that the present Government upset. We realised that the only way in which this country could be given a proper, integrated transport service was by having one authority to provide the public services. The Thesiger Committee have come to the same conclusion. The only way in which unremunerative services can be run is by giving protection to the people who are prepared to run them, so that they may run remunerative services as well. There are hundreds of people in the same district as myself who are denied a transport service, for, as I say, there is no transport service before half-past nine in the morning or after eight o'clock at night. I am told by the City of Oxford Motor Services that, because the service is unremunerative, I cannot have more buses. So I am going to suggest to the noble Earl that the Bill should be amended in that respect. I bring that point forward simply as an example of what is happening over much of the country.

There is only one other clause in this Bill that I think needs comment, and that is Clause 9. The noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, said that it was chiefly—I think I have copied his words down correctly —a "safety and welfare clause." It gives the Minister power to license buses and to give permission for buses to be built to carry more standing passengers. That is what it does. So, after congesting, or failing, to solve the congestion on, the roads, the Government are now going to subject the passengers to congestion as well. I believe that the popular terra for this bus is a "standee" bus, as it will carry more passengers, because the Government are going to suggest that 50 per cent. of the number of passengers authorised to be carried shall stand up and not sit down. Frankly, I do not see why buses cannot be provided which, except in unusual cases, will ensure that there shall be no standing passengers at all.

The one task that I think is the most onerous in the whole of the passenger transport services is that of the conductor of a bus. He has an impossible job to do. The authorities lose hundreds of thousands of pounds a year because of the physical inability of the conductor to collect the fares. He is supposed to be on his platform for the safety of the passengers alighting from the bus, yet, more often than not, he is jammed up at the front of the bus because of all the people who are standing. If I had much to do with it, I should advocate that there was no standing at all in buses, and that a number of buses should be provided so that everybody had a seat. If the result of that were so many buses that the roads would not take them, it would merely emphasise the old argument that the roads should be made to fit the traffic, and not the traffic to fit the roads. At the moment we are really coming to the stage when we have to curtail the number of buses and increase the number of standing passengers because the roads will not accommodate the greater number of buses required to shift the public.

Other than that, I have no comment about this Bill. I support the Bill. I say that it does not go far enough. I say that there are other more important matters to be dealt with in the conduct of our roads and our traffic than those contained in the Bill. I have mentioned the excessive congestion on our roads. I see that in The Times to-day there are some very good letters. Since the editor of The Times thinks—and I commend him for that thought—that the excessive congestion on our roads is a major problem, and has allowed his columns to be used to ventilate the subject, perhaps Her Majesty's Government will now start taking some notice. I have put down a Motion to-day to ask your Lordships to debate this matter of the unwieldy and abnormal loads that are fast bringing our traffic to a standstill. That is one thing that could have been included in this Bill—a "miscellaneous provision"—but it has not been. However, for what this Bill is we support it. But I give notice that at the Committee stage I shall put down an Amendment to give the traffic commissioners, the licensing authority, power to see that the area covered by any transport undertaking is adequately served, and that the fares are equalised over the whole of the system, exactly the same as are the charges for the postal services, the telephone services and every other service.

4.20 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Earl in charge of this Bill introduced it with his usual clarity and brevity, and quite modestly, he said that owing to the complexity of the Bill he was afraid that if questions were shot at him he might have to get advice. Well, we know the noble Earl; I feel sure that he has mastered the Bill, and that his observation indicated only his modesty. I must confess, too, that my approach is somewhat different from that of my noble friend Lord Lucas of Chilworth. As I listened to him, I reflected how Whitehall can make its imprint even on an individual mind once a person gets into the inner circle of Whitehall. My approach is different because I have spent somewhere about twenty-five years in local government, and I still have a profound belief in its value and virtue. I would say to my noble friend that a mere tidy administration which looks all right from Whitehall is not necessarily the best for the country.

My noble friend somewhat airily waved on one side the fact that local authorities had to promote Private Bills in order to run their tramways and buses; but my noble friend will remember that under the Tramways Act, 1870, on the insistence of the great Radical, John Bright, a clause was inserted in the Bill to the effect that if a local authority built a tramway and it could find someone to take it over and work it, it would have to be worked by private enterprise. The first local authority to break away from that ruling was Huddersfield, in 1882, when they got their own Act to enable them to run their own tramways, and local authorities have had to do that ever since. That is why these local government Acts came into being. If there had been anything in the nature of an enabling Bill on the Statute Book during those years Parliament would not have been troubled with these applications.


I feel certain that my noble friend does not wish to misquote me. In the interests of accuracy, may I say that I have no objection to the promotion by anybody of a Private Bill to run a tramway. I said that under the Traffic Act they would have to promote a Private Bill even to get an increase in the statutory maximum in fares, and that, of course, is a colossal waste of time.


If my noble friend had had the patience with which we listened to his excellent speech, he would have found that I was coming to that point in a moment or two. But while dealing with the subject of tramways, I should like to call attention to the trouble that the London County Council had, before the turn of the century, to establish the L.C.C. system of tramways. I can remember the days of the North Metropolitan Tramway Company, whose drivers were working sixteen hours a day for four shillings a day. I think no one ought to decry the great work which some municipalities have done in building up their own systems of transport.

My Lords, what is the real point between us? It is in Clause 2. The local authorities, as represented by their own association, the Association of Municipal Corporations, take exception to that clause and to the paragraph in the Schedule. I want to submit to your Lordships that we ought not to go on taking away powers from local authorities. There are to-day, I think, forty-two tramway undertakings, of which thirty-eight are owned and worked by the municipalities. The Road and Rail Traffic Act, 1930, deliberately excluded trams and trolley buses from the purview of the Traffic Commissioners. Trams are on the way out, and most people will say "a good thing, too." In saying that one ought not to forget the contribution they made towards solving the transport problem—incidentally, I wonder how the streets in the vicinity of Whitehall or Westminster would look at the rush hours, first, if standing in buses were prohibited, and secondly, if there were enough buses on the roads to deal with all the traffic. The queues would run, I should think, from the top of Whitehall to the bottom, and the time that they would wait there would be pretty grim.

What I want to suggest to the noble Earl is this. Like my noble friend, I had contemplated putting down some Amendments to the Schedule and to Clause 2. At the moment I do not propose to develop the argument for those Amendments, but I do feel that if it were possible to have some further negotiations between now and the Committee stage, we could find a way out of the difficulties and, at the same time, get away from the emergency regulations, as I fully appreciate this stage the Minister wishes to do. If the noble Earl can undertake that there will be negotiations, I shall be happy to initiate them and to try to find a way out.

4.27 p.m.


My Lords, my interest in this Bill is limited to its bearing on the workings of municipal transport undertakings. myself have no criticism to offer of the Bill itself, because it seems to me, to a large extent, to meet what was wanted by local authorities and by the Ministry. It is, as I think will be generally agreed, not a Party political, contentious Bill. If there is any contention at all it is between local authorities and the central Government. As the noble Earl will be well aware—it is sometimes forgotten that he himself has had considerable experience as a local authority representative—there is strong feeling between local authorities and the central Government whenever the central Government appears to trespass upon the powers of a local authority.

My reason for rising to-day is to say that there appears to be a widespread but erroneous impression that Glasgow has been given a privilege denied to all other municipal transport undertakings in the country. Perhaps it would be putting the matter in a truer perspective if it were made clear, first of all, that the Association of Counties of Cities in Scotland want local authorities not merely to retain the power of fixing fares, which they have had under their own local Acts, but also to include in their powers the power to determine fares for buses also. In their negotiations with the Ministry (and incidentally the Minister has himself paid tribute to the reasonableness of their approaches) the Association realised that there was very little chance whatever of getting the powers they sought. After a good deal of consideration, three of the cities concerned found that there was apparently no purpose in pursuing their objective and they left it to Glasgow to negotiate on its own behalf.

Glasgow did not obtain, through its negotiations, a special privilege. Glasgow always enjoyed a quasi-monopoly which it had obtained in the early days of its undertaking, and it was felt by the Minister, I think rightly, that there should be no interruption of that position which Glasgow had always enjoyed. Indeed it should be added that even in retaining their semi-monopolistic powers they were to some extent restricted, because, as the noble Earl indicated, once the local authority seeks power to increase its fares it leaves itself open to interference with its scale of fares not only from without but also from within its own monopolistic area. So, knowing the possible repercussions, the undertaking would be very wary, indeed, before taking the opportunity to move for an increase. If, however, it were possible for the Association of Counties of Cities to obtain what they really sought, which is a compromise position, they would be content that the licensing authority should determine the charge per mile but should not go further and determine details of scales of charges throughout a route. Could that compromise be granted, I feel sure the Association of Counties of Cities would be content with the whole of the Bill.

4.33 p.m.


My Lords, may I thank noble Lords for the general welcome which this Bill has received. I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Burden, that we shall be glad to discuss the points he has in mind, though I would like to point out the distinction between the points of view of Lord Burden and Lord Greenhill and that of Lord Lucas of Chilworth. The noble Lord, Lord Burden, gave very proper warning that a mere tidying-up for the sake of a pleasant appearance from Whitehall was not necessarily what a local authority wanted. That is what Lord Lucas of Chilworth wants to do: to sit back in Whitehall and run all passenger transport services in the way he, in Whitehall, thinks wise. That was done by the 1947 Act. We removed the possibility of its happening by the 1953 Act.


My Lords, I will make allowances for the noble Earl because he is not quite so well versed in this subject, but that is exactly what I did not say. I wanted to give authority to the licensing authorities who have special knowledge of their areas. I did not want it to come from Whitehall.


That is only one remove from Whitehall, seeing that these people are appointed by the Ministry of Transport.


If that is what the noble Lord said, I am sorry, though I am bound to point out that he said we had something to do with that aspect of passenger transport in the 1953 Act. What we did do was to remove vague suggestions in the 1947 Act which was running it from Whitehall. If the noble Lord did not mean that, then we are agreed. I am glad to see the noble Lord, Lord Greenhill agrees. If discussions are wanted we will certainly have them, but it is doubtful whether we can go further than the position already suggested, which fully met the points raised earlier. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, wandered rather widely from the Bill. When he comes to put down his Amendment he might care to look at the Title to see whether an Amendment of the kind he has in mind can conceivably be included within that Title.


I have already looked at it.


Then perhaps the noble Lord will look again. The reason why I interposed during his remarks was that this first clause, as will be seen from the second line, deals only with independent statutory undertakings. He was talking of Oxford and other places, where the operators are not independent statutory undertakings. Although this is a "Miscellaneous Provisions" Bill, and, as the noble Lord said, we can do a lot of other things, we do not believe that we should do nothing until we can do everything. We are taking the matter step by step. This is a relatively uncontroversial Bill, and therefore a good measure to bring forward. I entirely disagree with the suggestion that there is complete chaos in the passenger transport world. That is a gross exaggeration to which I think the noble Lord would not have given utterance had he been at the Ministry of Transport. It is putting things far too high.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.