HL Deb 04 March 1954 vol 186 cc162-74

4.45 p.m.


My Lords, I now have to ask your Lordships for an Affirmative Resolution in favour of the Civil Defence (Transport) Regulations. They spring from the same complicated legislative background which I have already explained in the case of the gas regulations. As in the case of gas, the main objective is to enable the public utility services to function in the event of hostile attack. The services in question are canals, inland navigation, docks, harbours and railways. Your Lordships will notice that the rate of grant varies. For canals it is 52¾ per cent.; for clocks and harbours, 70 per cent. and 100 per cent.; and for railways, 100 per cent. In the Act of 1939, 50 per cent. was the standard rate, so the present rates are more generous.

The variations are not without reason. One can say that the attitude of successive Governments to the size of grant has been to pay regard, first, to the relative importance of the work required to be done, and secondly, to the extent to which it can be done without Government help. At the same time, it has been desirable to have regard to the ability to spread over the community using these services the balance not covered by grant. In the case of gas, I have just explained how a grant of 52¾ per cent. was arrived at. Docks and harbours are to receive 70 per cent. of the cost of works done to ensure what is called "due functioning." and they are getting 100 per cent. of the cost of works intended to provide what is termed "additional facilities." Such services may be required to boost the capacity of certain ports to enable ships to be handled there instead of at their more normal ports.

The difference between these two categories is important, and I should like to put on record the exact definition Which has been agreed. First of all, the term" due functioning "relates to measures taken to ensure that undertakings shall be able to continue functioning in the event of hostile attack, and covers such schemes as will safeguard the continued provision in war time of accommodation for shipping and facilities for handling traffic on the same scale as the port would normally be capable of dealing with in peace time. Amongst other measures, it includes the protection or, in exceptional cases, the duplication of vital machinery, the provision of spare lock gates, special measures to ensure the immediate repair of vital parts and arrangements for dimming dock lighting." Additional facilities "are defined as those projects designed to secure so far as practicable that an undertaking is capable of receiving, accommodating and handling vessels, persons, livestock and goods, which either in amount or in character would not be required to be provided for by the undertaking, apart from hostile attack or the danger thereof. Where necessary, such projects would include the provision of services and of road, rail and other facilities for dealing with this traffic.

Why the difference in the rates of grant'? First of all, we must remember that the rate in the last war was 50 per cent. It has been agreed that canals should get what one might describe as the standard rate—namely, 52¾ per cent. In practice, we do not visualise having to call upon canals to do very much. But why are docks and harbours to receive 70 per cent. and 100 per cent.? I think one can easily explain the 100 per cent. rate. The reason is that it would be unreasonable to expect them to bear any part of the cost of providing the additional facilities not required for their normal functioning. As regards the 70 per cent. grant for normal functioning, it is by no means easy for docks to obtain extra revenue owing to the competition between them, and, moreover, it would have been impossible to obtain the agreement of the authorities representing docks and harbours to any rate less than 70 per cent. In fact, 70 per cent. was the best rate on which it was possible to agree.

When it comes to railways, a still different consideration arises—that is, that during the last war the grant rate was 100 per cent. Also, of all utilities, the railways find it most difficult to pass on their expenditure to the general public. Therefore in practice it was impossible to deny the railways the 100 per cent. rate they received during the war. I should say a word or two as to the type of works envisaged in ports and harbours. It is such things as spare lock gates, moorings, cables and so on. In railways, it is largely equipment which will provide control should communications be shattered. I hope I have explained the main points of these regulations. I may say that they have been considered by the Special Orders Committee, which had no particular comment to make upon them, and I would ask your Lordships to pass an Affirmative Resolution. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Civil Defence (Transport) Regulations, 1954, reported from the Special Orders Committee on Wednesday, the 24th of February last, be approved.—(Lord Hawke.)

4.50 p.m.


My Lords, I am a little surprised that the noble Lord, Lord Hawke, should come forward in so unblushing a fashion, with no apology for the gross delay which has taken place in bringing forward these regulations. The present Government have been in office for some two and a half years. In the case of the railways, for example, plans were drawn up as long ago as 1950, and nothing was done until the Government were awakened by the Report of the Select Committee on Estimates. I feel that some explanation and expression of regret is due from the noble Lord who has put forward these much-delayed and partial regulations at this late date. I do not know whether your Lordships are clear—I am bound to say that I am not—as to the distinction between these various rates of grant. Railways get 100 per cent.; docks and harbours in some instances, I gather, get only 70 per cent. It is not in the least clear where the distinction arises. Are these grants in the nature of capital expenditure? If so, presumably no question of income tax relief, or anything of that sort, would have any effect on the rate of grant by the Government. I understand that where the 52¾ per cent. comes in it is based in some way on income tax being at the rate of 9s. 6d. in the pound. Apparently 10s, 6d. is 52¾ per cent.—if that be the proper calculation—of £l. But there is no clear explanation of why the Government should discriminate and complicate the situation by so many different rates of grant.

This regulation is an extremely wide one. One hopes that as a result the various transport undertakings may take the steps that are required to enable their due functioning. Here again, if your Lordships look at the regulations, you will see that Paragraph 1 says: It shall be the duty of all public utility undertakers carrying on a canal, inland navigation, dock or harbour undertaking after service on them of a notice to make…a report stating what measures they have taken "… and secondly, to take within the time specified in the notice such measures as may be so specified. I should have thought that the regulation should be put the other way round. In my view, it should be the province of the Minister of Transport to direct transport undertakings to do certain works, and that thereafter they may be asked to make a report as to what steps they have taken. It is a curious reversion to put it the other way round;to say that a report shall be called for first, and that thereafter the Minister of Transport may give directions as to what measures may be taken. However, quite clearly none of your Lordships can object to these delayed-action operations being taken. I should like to ask the noble Lord, Lord Hawke. whether there are many other regulations of this type, relating to other authorities or other functions, to be brought forward, or whether these regulations complete all that is necessary. My recollection is that the Select Committee on Estimates took the view that little or nothing had been done throughout the whole gamut of these matters for which the Government are responsible. It will be interesting to know whether these regulations do all that is necessary, or whether we may expect, on some other date, another spate of them, in respect of which the delay may be one, two or three years, if the present Government remain in office.

4.56 p.m.


My Lords, my attention was drawn to this matter only yesterday when I had some conversation with my noble friend about these regulations. I speak to voice doubts that are held by the Association of Dock and Harbour Authorities. I think the answer to the query of the noble Lord, Lord Milner of Leeds, is that a good many of these authorities have already done work in anticipation of possible hostilities, and it would be absurd for the Government to direct them to do what they have already done. I believe that a report would be called for. But my friends are a little troubled about one or two things, and particularly about the one which I propose to leave to the end. In the first place, there is provision for a grant of 70 per cent. towards works which can be ordered by the Minister: he is the sole judge of the situation. The port authorities concerned are not placed in a position to form a judgment on the matter; they simply have to carry out the work. They may be in considerable difficulty, and to a small port the expense imposed upon them, ever though it is only 30 per cent. of the total cost, may represent an excessive sum. It is in connection with the small ports, in particular, that I speak this afternoon. I submit that in many cases the 30 per cent. may be a rather onerous charge on a small and struggling port. especially if the port authority are called upon to provide a spare pair of dock gates, which may not be required for thirty or forty years, and are compelled to meet the charges themselves. However, that is a small point compared with the second one I wish to make.

The Association of Dock and Harbour Authorities in general take exception to the penalties, and they wish that some other method could be devised of ensuring that the orders of the,. Minister are properly carried out. I would make this point. A great many of these small ports have had their debts guaranteed by outside parties, who have nothing whatever to do with their running. I submit that that is not in conformity with propriety, and, in my opinion, it is not good morals for Parliament, by a Public General Act, to put the guarantors of small public undertakings like this, whose guarantees have been given in the interests of the public, to the risk of a severe loss such as the imposition of these penalties might create. I have been reflecting on this ever since the matter was brought to my attention, and I find myself in an awk- ward position. I must either challenge an Affirmative Resolution this afternoon, or let the matter go. I shall await with great interest the answer of my noble friend. I should like to point out that it is not an answer to say that the penalty is imposed not on the undertaking but on the undertakers, because it would be impossible to impose heavy penalties upon a small congregation of fishermen who are managing their own port with their harbour master, who may not have at his disposal the materials to carry out the works which are ordered. Therefore, I come back to my original point, that it is not proper to impose penalties on public undertakings whose debts have been guaranteed by outside members of the public at a time when such penalties were entirely outside human conception and foresight.


My Lords, as one who was engaged in the transport industry for most of his working life, I should like to say that these regulations are of great interest to me. If the noble Lord, Lord Hawke, can answer the following points in regard to the different rates of contribution, I shall be glad to have the information. What will be the position of the British Transport Commission in relation to work done by the Commission in connection with any docks, harbours or, for that matter, canals they own? Will the Transport Commission receive the 100 per cent. grant, as mentioned in regard to the railway undertakings, or will they, in regard to the docks and harbours portion of the Transport Commission, receive the lower amounts mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Saltoun?

May I ask for some information on another point? Those of us who were in the railway service and connected with civil defence during the last war will know the great part played by road transport. Road transport was very effective indeed in lending help to the railways—which were, of course, worked under the Railway Executive Committee—when the railways were put out of commission owing to enemy attack. I do not say this by way of criticism, but attempts are now being made to break up the road transport organisation of the British Transport Commission. That is now the law of the land, and those attempts are now being undertaken. As I understand it, however, quite a large portion of road transport will be left in the hands of the British Transport Commission. The definition on page 3, as I read it, relates, so far as the Transport Commission is concerned, to the railway, canal, inland navigation, dock or harbour parts of their undertaking, as the case may be. It expressly excludes anything in connection with road transport, or road transport operated still by the British Transport Commission.


From which regulation is the noble Lord reading?


Regulation 6. Does that wording imply that no provision at all is to be made by the British Transport Commission in regard to any road undertakings still left in their hands; and if, in the public interest, they make some provision, is the cost, by that definition, excluded from Government grant? I am not raising those points by way of criticism at all, but only in order, if possible, to understand these proposed regulations better.

5.6 p.m.


My Lords, quite a number of points have been raised on these regulations. First of all, I will revert once again to the question of delay. I do not want to go over entirely the same ground as I covered in regard to the gas regulations. I admitted that there had been delay with regard to those regulations, but I said that the outcome of the delay had not been as serious as it might have been, because of the supply position. I would remind noble Lords that the Act of 1948 was passed in December, 1948, and it was not until mid-1951, I understand, that the rate of grant was agreed—and the rate of grant was the first step, before everything else. So if anybody has to appear in a white sheet, I think we share that white sheet on both sides of the House in regard to this matter of unreasonable delay, because it certainly cannot be pinned upon Her Majesty's present Government.

I can answer the further point about delay at the same time as I answer a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Burden. To illustrate the fact that the supply position has been extremely difficult, I may say that in 1953 to 1954 the railways set out to spend £1,200,000 and they have succeeded in spending only approximately £600,000. To my mind, that is a proof that the railway suppliers of this country were fully occupied in carrying out the normal arrears of maintenance to the railways, and there was precious little manufacturing space available for this extra equipment. As I said before, the rehabilitation, the catching up of arrears on the railways—and there were great arrears—is one of the things which can be regarded as the best form of civil defence. I am sorry I did not answer the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Milner of Leeds, about the logic of the report coming before the direction. That struck me as being very logical You ask somebody what he is doing already, and if you do not approve you send him an order to do something different, and then proceed to ask for a report on the next stage. I think I am more logical than the noble Lord in this matter. As regards the question whether other regulations are to come forward, I may say that I am not aware of any, but I should not like to be bound by that answer. I should like to have notice of that question, if the noble Lord wants to ask it seriously.

I apologise to the House if I have not managed to explain these different rates quite clearly, and I shall have to start again. We regard 52¾. per cent. as the standard rate. The case of canals and gas I have mentioned, arid I will mention electricity shortly. Railways are the exception. Remember, all these things had 50 per cent. grants in the last war, and railways had 100 per cent. When we come to railways we cannot deny them the 100 per cent. they had before, especially in view of the difficulties the railways have in passing on any charges to the public. They have to go to rates tribunals and goodness knows what else before they can get any extra revenue. With regard to harbours, to some extent it was a matter of bargaining to reach a figure agreeable to both sides. I do not think it is unreasonable—although the noble Lord, Lord Saltoun, is suggesting that they are hard put to it—that they are not getting 100 per cent. We felt, however—I think it was the last Government, but I am not sure —that harbours had an easier chance of getting some recoupment from their customers than had, for instance, the railways. Therefore 70 per cent. was considered a more reasonable figure.

I will now deal with two points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Burden. The Transport Commission, in so far as they are dock and harbour owners, will receive the rate appropriate to docks and harbours. The noble Lord has drawn attention to the fact that there is no provision for civil defence expenses in connection with their road activities. Well, my Lords, on that subject one can only ask: Where does civil defence start and where does it end? We have a certain limited amount of money and resources, and it has been decided. that it is best to devote them to the more vulnerable and vital matters. If we start doing civil defence work for every conceivable activity, the other activities of our Island would have to cease because of insufficient resources. I think road activities comes into that category.


I did not raise the point of road companies as such. I felt that they were excluded, again by definition. I would not say that the roads were covered by private enterprise and I would not bring them within the description of "public utilities," to which these regulations refer. I was asking only what would be the position about claims by the British Transport Commission in respect of any cost incurred with regard to their road undertakings.


They would have to stand it out of their own pockets, as private owners of road traffic would have to do—subject to any arrangement they could make with the Inland Revenue as regards depreciation allowances and so on.

With regard to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Saltoun, undoubtedly there may be hard cases among the small 'harbour owners, but the arrangements that have been made have been agreed with the representatives of all harbours. I am able to give the noble Lord this assurance, however, because he was kind enough to give me notice that he was going to raise this question. My right honourable friend does not think that there is any great likelihood of the more penurious undertakings being asked to undertake their due functioning measures. In any event, if these are additional facilities they will get 100 per cent. grant. Moreover, the Department have assured the Dock and Harbour Authorities' Association that in case of extreme need loans might be made from Exchequer funds to assist authorities to meet their share of the expenditure. I think that that assurance should go a long way towards calming the troubled breast of my noble friend. At any rate, I hope it will do so.


I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord, but can he undertake to consider my point about guaranteed harbours, because I think there is something fundamental there? I do not wish to carry on opposition unreasonably but I should like to know that that point is fully considered by the Department concerned.


Anything that the noble Lord puts forward will always have careful consideration by my right honourable friend. but of course it cannot have his consideration in time to alter any regulations before this House now—that is, if your Lordships wish to pass them.

The noble Lord goes on to this question of penalty—and penalties I admit are always prickly ground. I thought that the noble Lord. Lord Milner of Leeds. wanted to be certain that the penalties were sufficient, whereas my noble friend Lord Saltoun rather inclined in the opposite direction. I may say here that the penalties under this order were rather less than those of the Act of 1939. Under the Act of 1939 the penalties which fell on the undertaking were a fine of £100 plus £50 a day for a continuing offence, whereas under these regulations the undertaking gets off with £100, plus £10 a day for a continuing offence. However, I do not think we need visualise that these patriotic and important bodies are likely to disobey the Minister and have to be dragged up in court and fined. The fact that there are penalties at all, and that they are contained in the Statutes, should be sufficient. I hope that that explanation will meet my noble friend. It would be a pity if he were to attempt to vote against this Resolution because of a not very important point. I hope that I have met all the other points raised by noble Lords and I would ask your Lordships now to pass the Affirmative Resolution.

5.16 p.m.


My Lords, with the permission of the House—for I know that we have been having a debate in full session of the House. but this debate on Statutory Orders is rather like a Committee discussion—I should like to say a few words. On this question of delay, I think the noble Lord, Lord Hawke, has done his best to defend the Government. and I congratulate him on his performance this afternoon. On the other hand, what he says with regard to the years 1948 to 1951 can hardly be answered unless one takes account of political conditions, in the international sense, in connection with this matter. into which I would not dare go in detail here, although I will gladly tell him privately. What the Government have to meet is this. The Report of the Select Committee which has been referred to by Lord Milner of Leeds. was a unanimous Report of all Parties, and in the main its criticisms were confined to administrative difficulties over the past two and a half years. That is the real point which we on this side think has not been satisfactorily answered, and on a further occasion we may have to discuss this matter again. No doubt, if I put that comment on record now, the Government will attempt to give a more detailed explanation of the situation on the later occasion to which I have referred.

The point raised by Lord Saltoun, about small harbours, is a matter of considerable importance and one in which I have always taken the greatest possible interest. No one, in any part of the House, would seek to withhold from the people who run our small docks and harbours their thanks for the wonderful work done for us in the last war, especially for the Royal Navy, as well as for the Merchant Service. It is almost incomprehensible to me, looking back, to see what was accomplished in little ports, places with a population of, perhaps, 1,000. 1,500 or 2,000. The noble Lord, Lord Saltoun, is therefore quite right in his reference to the lack of adequate resources behind such localities to enable them to deal with any considerable expenditure.

I was going to say to Lord Saltoun, and I am glad Lord Hawke has referred to it, that of course it is essential in time of war, as I found every week during the last war, to be continuously arranging for additional facilities in the smaller ports and harbours. Much of the cost of that work, incidentally, in time of actual emergency and crisis, is met concurrently out of Service Estimates. Therefore the problem does come back to what may arise under the precautionary steps taken by any Government in peace time to deal with the situation. The only thing that worries me at all in these cases is whether any of these requirements might be put on the smaller authorities receiving only the 70 per cent. grant, recognising fully what Lord Hawke has said, that, where additional facilities are provided, he has taken authority in the regulations that the grant should be 100 per cent.

The noble Lord has done a great deal to clear our minds on the position, but these ports vary considerably in their minimum provision. You get a place which has a harbour and a slip or a pier; you get a place where there is, may be, a small graving dock or something of that kind, in which the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Saltoun about, say, a spare pair of dock gates might arise. Therefore, whilst the noble Lord has very much clarified our minds on the matter and removed a good many of the doubts that have been expressed by Lord Saltoun, it would help if, in conversation or in explanation, we could see to what extent these smaller harbours and ports are likely to be mulcted in requirements under these Orders which would be the subject of only a 70 per cent. grant. The noble Lord said that he did not think we were likely to be asked; but the kind of threat that we shall meet in the next war does not lead me to want to sit back and say, "That is going to be all right." There are various things that we have to think of and undertake now. Any kind of naval and coastal precautions which we take now will be wider than those taken in the last war. It would not cost a great deal more, in regard to preliminary precautionary measures before an emergency breaks out, to give to such smaller ports a reasonable prospect that they would not be mulcted in a debt which they could ill afford to service.


I am much obliged to the noble Viscount.


If the noble Viscount wishes to pursue further the matter of delay, I think he should put down a Motion so that there can be a debate on the subject. When he reads the OFFICIAL REPORT, he will find that I have gone a long way towards meeting the noble Lord, Lord Saltoun, even on the 70 per cent. grant.

On Question, Motion agreed to.