HL Deb 02 November 1954 vol 189 cc969-78

3.47 p.m.

Report stage resumed.


My Lords, we are indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Burden, for the clarity and force of argument which he used in his Amendment and the sincerity with which he always speaks about local government affairs. As an old local government man myself, I always appreciate the way in which he speaks on these problems here. I never meant to suggest that members of the Committee were representative of anything. They were on the Committee for their own personal high qualities. I tried to convey to your Lordships only that it was not the sort of committee which could be accused of bias against local authority ideas. The purpose of this Amendment is to restrict the power of a licensing authority in respect of all tramway and trolley-bus undertakings to specifying the maximum charge per mile, and to leave the rest to be decided by the undertaker. I am sure the noble Lord appreciates that although this is primarily a local authority matter, a number of private companies are also included. In pleading former Acts of Parliament as a basis on which to proceed, the noble Lord forgets that whet most of those Acts were passed there was no licensing authority. There was probably no transport at all outside the urban area, and the need for co-ordination in that sense did not exist.

I will now turn to the second point. Before the war, prices on the whole were fairly steady and, if anything, tended to fall. To-day we face a very different problem. These factors must be borne in mind in considering what we are now doing. The noble Lord is not justified in saying that this is a fundamental change. He said that to-day many local authorities are turning over to buses; but as soon as they go over to buses they will immediately come under the licensing authority. If they are so worried about this, there might be here an argument for them to stay with tramways; but that is perhaps just a debating argument. What is more serious is that the noble Lord expressed anxiety that the licensing authority would exercise detailed and minute control, and questioned whether regard would be had for the building up of reserve funds. I can set his mind entirely at rest: these are matters which will properly and rightly be considered, in so far as they are relevant, with the licensing authority. They are essential parts of what they have to examine.

Turning from that, I would tell the noble Lord of points which we do not like about his Amendment. There is a trifle of doubt whether it would achieve what he has in mind. We think it is much too clumsy an instrument to achieve its object—that is to say, the power exercised by the licensing authority would be very clumsy. I will return to that point in a moment. In the second place, it would not prevent the public from being charged anything that the undertaking cared to charge; it would not afford protection for the public in that respect. Thirdly, it would not achieve co-ordination for regulation of different forms of public transport. The difficulty is that the activities of these municipal authorities must be co-ordinated with the surrounding areas. If I may, I will go into a little more detail. I hope the noble Lord will not mind my saying that we think this is a clumsy arrangement. Fares are nearly always worked out on a tapering basis. You probably have a high point which tapers off at each end. The noble Lord wants us only to specify the maximum fare, presumably for the highest point in the taper.

Now suppose, for instance, that the rate justified was 1.55 pence per mile—that is, just over 1½d. It would be necessary for the licensing authority to approve a rate of 2d. You cannot have a smaller denomination than a halfpenny and fares must be multiples of a halfpenny; therefore the charge would be 2d. per mile. The result is a 30 per cent. variation at which the highest figure could be increased and would, of course, allow a much greater margin at the lower end of the taper. I am giving this only as an example to show that the licensing authority would be quite unable to provide protection to the public against too high a fare. We think it is in the public interest that the public should have the right of making representations to an independent and impartial body, and that is what we have provided here. That is a point I must emphasise. Unless the licensing authority had a measure of power in this respect they would be unable to co-ordinate the activities of the tramways with those of other organisations running in the whole area. It is fundamental to the licensing authority's task to develop road services, whether trams or buses, as a whole.

I should like also to make this point. The Association of Municipal Corporations made their representations, as did other authorities, to the Thesiger Committee and they were considered in the framework when the Committee were making their Report. I would ask the noble Lord to consider that in a competitive sphere, where there is a tramway and buses running side by side, it might fall to the licensing authority to keep the bus fares up in order to prevent the trams from being run off the rails—in other words being financially unstable. So within this system they get a measure of support which would otherwise be entirely lacking. I should like the noble Lord to bear this in mind. If you were to impose the system, making local authorities or statutory undertakings completely independent, you might have an area of completely unregulated competition. I think we are all agreed that we do not want an area of completely unregulated competition. It is for those reasons that I should be glad if the noble Lord could see his way to withdraw his Amendment. I know the noble Lord is being pressed, but I can assure him that we have given this matter most careful consideration.


My Lords, notwithstanding the very high regard which I have for the noble Earl, in view of the feelings aroused in a number of local authorities responsible I am afraid that if the noble Earl cannot accept the Amendment for the reasons he has advanced there is only one thing to do—that is, to let it be negatived. I would say with respect to some of the points which the noble Earl has advanced that I think they are all answered by one simple reply. In the first place, the local authority is responsible to its own ratepayers for the proper conduct of its undertaking, and if it does not run the undertaking in a proper way retribution will be swift and sure at election time. That applies irrespective of political Parties in a city or town. Therefore many of the fears which the noble Earl has expressed as to unregulated competition are groundless. While taking into account all that he has said, I feel that this measure of discretion within their own city or town area boundaries ought to be conceded to the local authorities responsible. The point has been given away, if you like, or conceded, that the local licensing authority should fix maxima, just as various Acts of Parliament have done in the past, and within that maxima local authorities would be bound to take into account the other competing forms of transport. After all, a local authority ought to be the best judge of what its own people desire within its own area.

Let me come down to the concrete. I should think that the authorities of the city of Sheffield, running their tramways and buses, would be more competent to decide how the various maxima should be applied within their own boundaries than a licensing authority sitting at Leeds. I say that with all due deference to the licensing authority at Leeds. I have given your Lordships one practical illustration of what I have in mind. I assure the noble Earl that anyone who is aware of the civic pride of many of these authorities knows how strongly they feel that this matter should be left to their own discretion. It is perhaps little use my saying this at the moment, but I agree that if the noble Earl had been in a position to accept the Amendment there would be a number of consequential Amendments. Those Amendments would be very readily forthcoming. If he cannot accept it and has spoken his last word on the subject, then I am sorry, but this Amendment must be negatived.

On Question, Amendment negatived.

3.58 p.m.

THE EARL OF ROTHES moved, in paragraph 4 (b), to leave out "reasonable or expedient in all the circumstances," and to insert instead: to be not unreasonable nor unfair in all the circumstances. The noble Earl said: My Lords, with your Lordships' permission I should like to move this Amendment on behalf of my noble friend Lord Teynham. In doing so, I must first apologise to your Lordships because it was not possible for me to be present during the Committee stage. In the second place, I must declare an interest, inasmuch as I am connected with the passenger transport industry. During the Committee stage of the Bill, my noble friend Lord Teynham moved an Amendment to leave out the word "expedient" and insert the words "not unreasonable" to ensure that the procedure in relation to the fixing of fares for trams and trolley vehicles should be the same as for buses. He received, I think, some support from the noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, and also I believe from the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth. To what they said I can add that I know that those concerned feel strongly about the use of the word "expedient."

I think it is reasonable to assume that when the Bill was drafted, the Parliamentary draftsmen had a very close eye on the appropriate sections of the 1930 Act, and instead of prescribing what was to be done as "not unreasonable," for some reason, which I am bound to confess escapes me, they inserted the word "expedient." I think that the interpretation of the word might be not only harmful but very dangerous. Accordingly, my noble friend Lord Teynham has put down his present Amendment. I think that in Committee stage my noble friend in charge of the Bill said he would not insist on the word "expedient" but would like "in all the circumstances" to be included in the Amendment. He will see that the words are there. Therefore, I very much hope that the Amendment as at present drafted will meet with the noble Earl's approval and acceptance. I beg to move.

Amendment moved— Page 19, line 9, leave out from ("consider") to the end of the line, and insert ("to be not unreasonable nor unfair in all the circumstances:").—(The Earl of Rothes.)


My Lords, I would again lend my support to this Amendment. I hope the noble Earl will accept it. I am not going to weary your Lordships with all the arguments I put forward before and with those which were so well put forward by other noble Lords, except to give one illustration of the danger of this word. In 1952 an unfortunate political happening took place in the elections to the London County Council. At that time the Transport Tribunal, sitting in an advisory capacity advising the Minister of Transport on London fares, advised an increase. The present Prime Minister, horrified at having lost the L.C.C. elections through the proposal for increase, refused to allow the Minister of Transport of the time to implement the advice he had received from the Transport Tribunal to increase the fares, because it was not politically expedient, thereby losing the British Transport Commission many millions of pounds which the unfortunate users of London Transport had to make up at a later date. I think that "expedient" is the worst word that could have been chosen. I think the Amendment gives adequate safeguards where safeguards are necessary. That is why I hope the noble Earl will see his way to accept the Amendment.


My Lords, I also hope that the noble Earl will see his way to accept this Amendment, or one very like it. No one is fond of double negatives, and I should have thought it sufficient to say that fares "should be fair and reasonable in all the circumstances." In my early days in the public service I was indoctrinated by the noble Earl's present colleagues with the view that, when one had to tell some other authority what they should charge for services which they were required to render, the consideration to be held in mind was that what should be done should be reasonable to the public and fair to the operators. I cannot see why it has been thought necessary to cling to this notion of expediency as a factor in the quasi-judicial decision between the needs and convenience of the public, on the one hand, and the legitimate financial position of the undertaker, on the other. Without taking up your Lordships' time, I suggest that it would be better, even in this comparatively small matter, to stick to the principles which, in my experience, used to regulate, and which I certainly think ought to regulate, the action of any governing authority, whether they be licensing authorities or Ministers themselves on appeal.


Differences of opinion have been expressed this afternoon as to whether the licensing authority should be a negative or positive body. I must say that I am surprised that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, should support this Amendment. I thought that he and the noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, were keen that the licensing authority should be a positive body.


A reasonable one as well.


Certainly, that is in the Bill—yes, it is. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, that we do not like a double negative and I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Teynham, has selected very good words for his Amendment. The noble Earl, Lord Rothes, said the word "expedient" was harmful and dangerous. What is harmful and dangerous about it? The noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, gave an example of political expediency, but that is not the sort of expediency which arises here. It is abundantly clear that what is intended is what is expedient in the minds of the licensing authority, and I am quite certain that no noble Lord is going to cast the slightest slur on the integrity of the officials who will hold this high office. If anyone imagines that the word "expedient" carries through to a Ministerial appeal, I would draw his attention to Paragraph 17 (3), of the First Schedule of the Bill, which says: On any appeal under this paragraph the Minister may make such order as he thinks fit. … The Minister need not even think it expedient; he just has to think that it is fit. That makes it abundantly clear that the word "expedient" has no meaning except in the minds of the licensing authority.

I should like to deal with the point which the noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, has raised, which is really the essence of the word we are trying to get over. He said that what the licensing authorities should have in mind was what was "reasonable to the public and fair to the operators", but we want to make it clear that the whole ambit of public transport is taken into consideration. It may be a case where an independent bus company is running on the same route as a tram company; and here the public who use the trams and the tram operators are not the only people to be concerned, because there is the bus operator running alongside. It is the responsibility of the licensing authority to consider all the elements of transport in the area under review. If I may put it shortly, we want a positive approach. The licensing authorities, if necessary, should take the initiative and make proposals. Your Lordships will observe the opening words of Paragraph 4 of the First Schedule: Any such application or notice shall be published and, after considering any objections or other representations which they may receive … and so on. That means that they take the whole position into consideration and then decide what they consider to be expedient.

I should like to carry this argument a step further. What will they consider to be expedient? It is quite likely that the competing company has to run unremunerative services outside the town. We want to make it clear that the whole of the co-ordination, including this factor, is taken into consideration. We do not want to confine ourselves to what is fair to the passengers in town and to the tramway. We want to look further than that. I should have thought that the noble Lord opposite would have supported me in that. It is quite clear that the licensing authority can take the initiative and must take the whole matter into consideration. As a matter of fact, I should have thought that the noble Earl, Lord Rothes, would have supported me in that, too, and would have been glad to see this point taken into full consideration by the licensing authority. That is why we think it is essential to make it clear in the words here that we mean them to be comprehensive and extensive in their consideration. We want to avoid any suggestion of the licensing authority being purely negative—in other words, "expedient" includes the whole range of representations made. On this matter the licensing authority are free to consider what they feel to be relevant. They have got to do that if they are to attain the desired measure of co-ordination inside and outside the urban area. On reconsideration, I hope that the noble Earl will be able to withdraw this Amendment.


My Lords, while the word "expedient" may include all the virtues to which the noble Earl has given tongue, it can, at the same time, include all the vices, and that is what we are afraid of. I cannot see that the words the noble Earl has put forward do not embrace—


Order, order!


I apologise to the House for not asking permission to speak again. I will not say any more; I forgot that I was outside the Rules.


My Lords, may I be allowed to ask the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, whether he takes the view that "reasonable" means not unreasonably low, and not unreasonably high. I should have thought that "reasonable" left discretion to the licensing authority to have regard to what might be unreasonably high from the point of view of the public, or unreasonably low as creating quite unfair competition with some other operator. That is why I thought the words "fair and reasonable" left them all the possible discretion they would need to do justice.


My Lords, perhaps I may have the permission of your Lordships to answer that point. I think "reasonable" does cover it all. We are underlining it. They can base their judgment on either "reasonable" or "expedient." I want to make that clear.


My Lords, I must confess that I am disappointed and not at all convinced by the reply of my noble friend. I will not detain your Lordships for longer than I can help, but the noble Earl asked me why we adopted two negatives. The answer is that we were copying the 1930 Act, which says that "fares shall not be unreasonable." I agree with my noble friend in preferring to have the negative. As regards the examples he gave, I think that if the words were "fair and reasonable in all circumstances," that must give the proper scope for any example that he gave. I feel that the word "expedient" may mean something much more than any of us can contemplate, or intend it to mean, and it might be dangerously interpretated by the courts. I would ask my noble friend whether he cannot consider this point again, and to see whether he cannot put down something on Third Reading using the words "fair and reasonable in all circumstances." If he can give me an assurance that he will look at it again, I shall be pleased to withdraw the Amendment.


My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, I will speak again. I must point out that nobody has made any suggestion as to any undesirable meaning of "expedient." If any noble Lord brings it to my attention, I will certainly give it consideration.


My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, perhaps I may say this. It is not for me to interpret the word "expedient." It is the doubts I feel as to how it might he interpreted which have caused me to say what I have said. If the noble Earl will look at it again, I shall be pleased, with your Lordships' leave, to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.