HL Deb 03 May 1955 vol 192 cc702-14

2.56 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this Bill started life as a Private Member's Bill and now, after various changes and vicissitudes, it has been adopted by Her Majesty's Government. The actual occasion for the bringing in of the Bill by Mr. Short was a judgment in the Court of Chancery in the case of Prescott v. The Corporation of Birmingham. The Corporation introduced into their bus services concessionary fares for aged people, and Mr. Prescott, a ratepayer, challenged the legal right of the Corporation to do this. The Court upheld his contention, and that judgment was, in turn, upheld in the Court of Appeal.

This decision led to immediate repercussions, because various other local authorities all over the country had been giving various other kinds of concessionary fares on their buses, trams and trolleybuses. Some ninety-six local authorities operating their own vehicles, allow cheap fares to children; ninety allow them to the blind; fifty-nine allow them to the disabled, and twenty-eight allow them to the aged. The statutory authority for this concession is nebulous or non-existent. For instance, the children's concession is believed to derive from ancient railway legislation via the tramway age. There are a few authorities who have specific legislative authority in the matter. On the other hand, so far as we know, there are no local authorities that have specific legislative backing for the other concessionary fares, though there is a possibility that schemes under the National Assistance Act, 1948, might cover the blind and the disabled. So, as the result of this judgment, virtually all concessionary fares are in jeopardy, and some authorities have already started to prepare Private Bill legislation.

It was in these circumstances that Mr. Short brought forward his Private Member's Bill to cover this situation, though at the same time he inserted various clauses dealing with totally different matters. Her Majesty's Government thought that in so far as it protected those in receipt of concessionary fares which had been put into jeopardy the Bill fulfilled a public purpose, and they were prepared to adopt those portions of the Bill which dealt with this particular aspect. In addition to the omission of some parts of the Private Member's Bill, some redrafting and rearranging was necessary, and this was sponsored by the Government.

The Bill which I now submit to your Lordships for a Second Reading legalises the giving of concessionary fares to the aged, to children, to students, to the blind and disabled and to members of local authorities engaged in the performance of their statutory duties; but it authorises concessions only where they were already being given in the year 1954 up to November 30, which was the date of the judgment in Prescott v. Birmingham Corporation. I emphasise the fact that the Bill legalises the status quo, but it does not authorise local authorities which are not now giving these concessions to do so. If they want to do so, they have the usual course open to them: that of consulting their ratepayers and promoting Private Bills. If there is any dispute about whether or not a concession given is truly a concession under this Bill, the matter is to be settled by the licensing authority. That carries us in the Bill up to subsection (3) of Clause 1.

Subsection (4) of Clause 1 allows local authorities to pay for concessions granted on vehicles operated in their areas by neighbouring local authorities. Subsection (5) allows the general rate fund to be used for paying for these concessions. Subsection (6) covers the case of joint undertakings. Subsection (7) takes jurisdiction over concessions to these particular persons out of the hands of the licensing authorities. Subsection (8) is an indemnity clause. Clause 2 provides that expenditure of this nature will be out of purely local funds and will not attract Government grant. Clause 3 is an interpretation clause, Clause 4 applies the Bill to Scotland, and Clause 5 provides that it shall not apply to Northern Ireland. In the Schedule is set out the procedure for getting a certificate from local authorities that a concession in operation is one duly covered by the Bill. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Hawke.)

3.3 p.m.


Lords, as the noble Lord who introduced this Bill has rightly said, it started life with an honourable Member of another place as father; and before I make any comment on the Bill itself, I think it would be without impropriety if I said that there are thousands and thousands of people in this country who will be grateful to that honourable Member for producing this Bill for legalising the concessionary fares that have been granted by many municipalities to the classes of people mentioned by the noble Lord. But the Bill as it now reaches your Lordships' House is somewhat different from the Bill produced in another place. I think the Bill and the history of the Bill provide a good example of the peculiar method by which Her Majesty's Government have dealt with various pieces of legislation. It is a case of Mr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or of the left hand not knowing what the right is doing.

When this Bill was introduced in another place it had three clauses of substance. The first clause gave the right to municipalities to run contract carriages. When I tell your Lordships that this Bill was in its first stages in another place at precisely the same time as the Road Traffic Bill was going through your Lordships' House, you will see that the situation was quite Gilbertian. In one Bill—this Bill—in another place, the Government strenuously opposed the right of local authorities who operated a transport service to use it to the best possible and most economic advantage by running contract carriages, while in your Lordships' House the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, produced a Bill which opened the doors of contract carriage operation wide to everybody in the country with the exception of the municipalities. If that is not a contradiction in terms, I do not know what is. It is a sample of the slipshod legislation to be seen in one or two Bills which I could name—but I will not detain your Lordships by naming them—which Her Majesty's Government have tried to foist upon an unsuspecting populace.

The arguments that were advanced by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport in another place against granting to municipalities who were operating transport services the right to run contract carriages was based upon the view that these wicked municipalities who had access to rate funds might subsidise the rate of hire of contract carriages in order to cut out private enterprise. I think most of your Lordships know that in many towns in this country private enterprise, and not the municipalities, runs the bus services. British Electric Traction, the biggest private enterprise bus service in the country, runs the bus services in exactly the same way as they would be run by municipalities, but it also has the right to run contract carriages. I do not think it was argued by the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, but it has been argued, that one of the reasons why contract carriages should be curtailed on the one hand is the impact which they might make on the stage carriage services of this country. In other words, if the stage service contractor has to run unremunerative services, he wants contract carriage business to put a little butter on the ever-drying piece of bread. That was the argument of the Parliamentary Secretary in another place: that we could not increase competition by allowing municipalities to make the most economic use of their bus services, although we know that all bus service operators, including municipalities must have perhaps 60 per cent. of their fleets idle during the off-peak hours in order to give a proper and adequate service in peak hours.

But the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, when he introduced the Road Traffic Bill, by Clauses 20 and 21 opened the door wide to private enterprise to run contract carriages to their hearts' content, without any licensing and without any restriction. According to the clause in the Road Traffic Bill—a Bill which went through your Lordships' House with more opposition than any Bill has suffered for quite a long time, and then died a well deserved death half way between this House and another place—no concerns need have a licence to run a contract carriage service, but could run a contract carriage service to their hearts' content; their fares were not to be regulated by the licensing authority, and they need not have a public road service. That applied to all, except, of course, a municipality, and that, as I say, was prohibited because of the peculiar argument that was put up in another place. So—I hope the noble Earl will forgive me if I use the only expression that comes to my mind—a little accommodation, a little blackmail or bribery, call it what you will, was quite legitimately enacted. That clause had to be dropped by the promoter of the Bill in another place in order to ensure that Clause 3 survived. Perhaps in the not too distant future there may be an opportunity to have that matter put right.

I think it is a scandalous thing that when the Government have always argued that competition is the breath of enterprise, the only people in the public transport world they should seek to restrict are municipal people. Why should a municipality be prohibited from using its transport to the best advantage, so saving its ratepayers money, as opposed to allowing the British Electric Traction to run their service to the best advantage for the benefit of their shareholders? I expect the noble Lord, Lord Hawke, could ride me off quite successfully by saying that I am now discussing something that is not in the Bill.


Hear, hear!


The noble Earl says "Hear, hear!", but on Second Reading one is allowed to discuss all those things that one thinks should be in the Bill and were in the Bill when it was originally introduced. Therefore, although I am not within the approbation of the noble Earl, I am at least within the rules of order of your Lordships' House. I expect that the question I have asked is beyond even the ingenuity of the noble Lord, Lord Hawke, to answer.

The second clause that was in the Bill originally has also gone the way of all flesh. When we seek to follow the excellent example of the Government to "set the people free," we are frustrated. The second clause that was in the Bill originally was a clause to free the British Transport Commission, the taxpayers' own concern, from the prohibition to run contract carriage services. The nice distinction between a concern that is owned by the taxpayers and one owned by the ratepayers was not observed, and that had to be taken out of the Bill in order to save Clause 3. Perhaps the grounds why the Government opposed that clause are more humorous than the others. The only excuse that the Parliamentary Secretary in another place could find was that the Government did not think it right that a major Act of Parliament, such as the Transport Act, 1953, should be amended by a Private Member's Bill. That, I suppose, was as good an excuse as any other at the time.

Then we come to Clause 3. As originally in the Bill, Clause 3 gave all municipalities who were operating transport services the right to give concessionary fares. As the noble Lord, Lord Hawke, has said, there were about ninety-six or ninety-seven who were giving concessionary fares to the blind, to the aged, to schoolchildren and to other folk, and in a test case in the courts that was held to be ultra vires. The promoter of the Bill in another place, Mr. Short, the honourable Member for one of the divisions of Newcastle on Tyne, sought to give all municipalities permissive powers to give these concessionary fares if they so desired. But that was far too much for the Government, and they whittled it down to the ninety-six or ninety-seven who had given them before the introduction of the Bill in another place—which, if my memory serves me, was November 15 last year—and any other municipality who wished to give concessionary fares on the same grounds would have to promote a Private Member's Bill. I can only think that that was done to safeguard the last bastion of private enterprise—the legal profession.

That is the history of this Bill: it is really a modified form of one clause of the Bill introduced in another place. But as it is, it is good; and we on this side of the House are going to give the Bill a Second Reading and facilitate its passage through this House before Parliament is dissolved at the end of this week. We think it is a valuable Bill and it may make a considerable contribution to the aged. I do not know what some of your Lordships will do, but in ninety-seven municipalities in this country, after this Bill becomes law, you will probably be able to ride in public transport at conces- sionary fares. The Bill does not make any discrimination; it does not even have a means test.


I think you have to register at the town hall—which might be inconvenient to passers through.


I should not think it would be inconvenient for some of your Lordships to save 50 per cent. of your fares. Noble Lords may be resident in the town and not passers through. If they are resident in the town, they can get their concessionary fares, just as today one can get a workman's ticket, even if one is dressed in a top hat and morning coat—but perhaps that is not altogether a bad thing, as we are all workmen, whether we work in your Lordships' House or in a factory. There is one point which I would commend to all the municipalities. The other day I came across an example of a concessionary fare which is most valuable. Perhaps the noble Lord will convey this suggestion to the Minister of Transport. In one town where concessionary fares are already in operation there is a central park, and the local authority are charging a fare of 1d. per child under fifteen years of age from anywhere in that town to the central park, the purpose being to get them off the streets into the park for play, and so to contribute to road safety. I understand that in that particular town the casualties have gone down considerably.

There is only one question I want to ask the noble Lord. In one of the clauses in this Bill the statement is made that none of these concessionary fares is subject to grant. Do I understand that to mean that, for whatever purpose it is made, the concession comes out of either the profits of the transport department or the rate fund of the municipality? Is there not an exception in regard to concessions for children who are attending school? If a municipality puts on a bus service to take children at a concessionary fare from their homes to school, would that not come under a grant from the education authority? That is the only question I have to ask. With those observations we wish the Bill well. We promise that perhaps on some future occasion we shall try to do all those things which the first and original Bill introduced in another place set out to do, and we hope your Lordships will give this Bill a speedy passage to the Statute Book.

3.23 p.m.


My Lords, my original intention in speaking on the Second Reading of this Bill was to indicate briefly, at the instance of the Association of Municipal Corporations, some Amendments for your Lordships' consideration. But I have gathered that, even were Her Majesty's Government able to accept those Amendments, the time factor is such that it would endanger the Bill. As my noble friend Lord Lucas of Chilworth has said, we are in favour of the principles of the Bill, so far as they go, and it is our desire to facilitate its passage. Therefore one is not in a position to pursue the Amendments. However, that fact ought not, I think, to prevent one from protesting that your Lordships are not being given sufficient time to do what I think is the right thing in regard to this Bill—that is, to give adequate consideration to Amendments which we feel should be considered.

I have been making some inquiries, and I find that of some thirty Bills which will, it is hoped, receive the Royal Assent, only one, the Oil in Navigable Waters Bill, was introduced into your Lordships' House first. As my noble friend has said, it is true that the Road Traffic Bill was introduced in this House, but that Bill received such a mauling from both sides—being such a thoroughly ad Departmental Bill—that we hope we have heard the last of it. Not only was only one Bill introduced in your Lordships' House, but of the Amendments which this House made and considered to those thirty-odd Bills, only one was accepted. I understand that we are a Revising Chamber. If we go on as a revising Chamber of that kind we shall revise ourselves out of existence.

I remember my noble and learned Leader Lord Jowitt making a protest on one occasion that this House was not given sufficient time to consider Bills, and that there was always a rush at the end of a Session. It is true that this Bill does not reach us in a rush at the end of a Session, but even this small Bill is not receiving adequate time for proper consideration. As my noble friend Lord Lucas of Chilworth has said, we shall do everything to facilitate the passage of this Bill and nothing which would retard its progress through its various stages. I do not propose to pursue the Amendments to which I referred earlier, but I do protest at the fact that any attempt to consider Amendments which ought to be considered would endanger the Bill. I feel it right to make that protest.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, had a good time—a brief and merry innings. He reminded us that many of us have a vested interest in these matters. Perhaps I should declare my interest, which is rather larger than that of most of your Lordships, because I have six children who come within the concessionary age group; but as we do not live in a municipally conducted transport area, up to now it is of no benefit. The question of contract carriages does not arise in this Bill. The noble Lord dealt very fully with them, and I must say he has caught me out, in that I did not listen to every word of the debate we had the other day on the Road Traffic Bill, though, so far as I am aware, he advanced to-day arguments which he did not advance then. I am not aware that in the course of the progress; on that Bill he proposed that local authorities should run their contract carriages. He may have done so, but, as I say, I am not aware of it.

I do not think it would be right to accuse us of inconsistency. I should say the very reverse. We have at least been consistent throughout, because when adopting this Private Bill or any other legislation we have consistently opposed the running of contract carriages by municipalities. That may be Gilbertian—I think the noble Lord called it Gilbertian—but I am not sure whether consistency or inconsistency is Gilbertian. At any rate, it is consistent. The noble Lord is perfectly free to discuss anything in this House. We always do discuss anything, otherwise our debates would be rather shorter than they sometimes are. The noble Lord is entitled to an answer, I think, to the degree that I have given him. I am not prepared to take shelter behind the fact that there is nothing in the Bill about contract carriages, but at the same time I am not prepared to enter into a long discourse on a very complex subject when there is nothing in the Bill about it.

The other matter the noble Lord raised was the second missing clause, which was apparently to allow the British Transport Commission to operate contract carriages: in other words, to restore the status quo of the 1947 Act, whereby the London Transport Executive could have operated them. It was stopped from doing so by the Act of 1953. But I would remind the noble Lord that over a very wide field of road traffic the British Transport Commission do, in effect, operate contract carriages already, because they are the owners of Tilling and the Scottish Motor Transport group; and they are shareholders in others as well.

The noble Lord's other main point was the question of the possibility of the provision of concessionary fares by local authorities who, at the moment, are not giving them. We believe that if their ratepayers wanted them to give them, they would be giving them now. There are long precedents for some of these concessions. They go back as far as twenty-five years. We think that those people who want to give them had a good opportunity to do so. In all local government procedure there is the old and tried case that when the authority want to take up some project which they have no power to do at the moment and which may be controversial, they shall go to their ratepayers and ultimately get private legislation passed. That, we think, is the right way to deal with this question. As adopted, this is not a Bill in which we seek primarily to amend the law; it is a Bill in which we really indemnify and make restoration to people who have had certain concessions taken away from them. Therefore, it would not be suitable to make far-reaching changes in the law in a Bill of this nature. The noble Lord also mentioned a point which was raised in Standing Committee in another place, about bringing children into the play parks by concessionary fares. I have no doubt that these things are being examined by local authorities. It is really for the local authority, rather than for the Minister, to initiate these matters. They know their own local position.

The noble Lord asked me an important point and I shall reply to it as I reply to the noble Lord, Lord Burden. I understood that the noble Lord, Lord Burden, was going to put down certain Amendments to this Bill. I was informed roughly of the substance of those Amendments. Had there been time, we should have accepted those Amendments in some form or another—not that we think that they are vitally necessary, because we believe they are not; but, at the same time, they would have clarified the Bill, and particularly the point which the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, raised, whether the question of the cost of transport under an education scheme should, or should not, fall within this Bill.

The procedure which I was going to suggest was that the noble Lord, Lord Burden, should put down his Amendments and, in reply to those Amendments, I should make a short statement so as to get on record precisely what the view of Her Majesty's Government was of the intentions and effect of this Bill, so that when it came to the question of the local authority audit, the local government auditor would at least know exactly what Her Majesty's Government intended by the Bill. Of course, he is not the last authority. If his decision is tested in the courts, that is a different thing. But I suspect that the right step is, first of all, to convince the local authority auditor. So, if the noble Lord would like to put down his Amendments and let me treat them in that way, I think it probably would be for the ultimate benefit of this Bill.


I should like to ask the noble Lord whether he will make a reply to my specific question now.


The reply to the noble Lord's specific question is that it is not intended that any concessions under this Bill should be part and parcel of those under separate legislative procedure, such as the Education Act or the National Assistance Act. If there is a power to operate cheap fares under an education scheme which would attract a grant, it is not intended to detract in any way from the grant by the fact that the concessionary fares under this Bill do not attract a grant. It is not an easy matter to deal with, and I do not know whether I have made it clear. I shall certainly make it clear on the Committee stage, because the Amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Burden, will cover that point.


All I ask is this. Paragraph (c) of Clause 1 (2) says, as regards a qualified person—that means a person who can have a concessionary fare— persons whose age exceeds fifteen years but does not exceed eighteen years and who are undergoing full-time education. The question I ask the noble Lord is a very simple one: will the cost of granting concessionary fares to that category of person fall upon the rate fund, the profits of the transport undertaking or the education authority's grant in respect of the transport of young persons going to school? It is a simple question.


If the transport is provided under Section 55 of the Education Act, 1944, it is not a concession given by the transport undertaking but a facility bought by the local education authority and paid for by them. It attracts a grant of 60 per cent. Is that clear to the noble Lord?


No. Will all the young persons who are transported under this clause come within that definition as well? Or does the definition which the noble Lord has just given deal only with classes where there is specific transport provided for a specific purpose? We know that the transport provided under the education scheme is specific transport—for instance, buses specifically provided for children going to school. If the same children travel on public transport, transport provided for the ordinary class of passenger, at the concessionary fare, will the cost of the concession fall on the local authority?


May I put it in this way? Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Hawke, can put me right. Would any local authority transfer to their transport undertaking the cost of conveying those school children, so that the whole cost would be borne by the ratepayers and the 60 per cent. grant of the Ministry of Education would be lost? That is really the point.


I am advised that it is not intended that this Bill should in any way detract from the grant received from the Ministry of Education or in any other direction.


That is right.


Then I understand the noble Lord to say that the cost of transporting children under paragraph (c) of subsection (2) of Clause 1 will attract the grant and will not fall on the rate fund or on the profits of the transport undertaking. That is what I understand the noble Lord to say.


That is the intention of the Bill.




There may be borderline cases which are difficult to work, but that is the intention of the Bill.


I thank the noble Lord very much.


The noble Lord, Lord Burden, made one general point which it is not really for me to receive, but my noble friend the Leader of the House will, I know, read his remarks with interest, because it is a subject in which he takes a keen personal interest. I regret that the noble Lord's arithmetic has turned out quite as it has. I had not appreciated it.

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