HL Deb 01 May 1956 vol 197 cc7-26

2.49 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, in moving the Second Reading of this Bill I think I can say that noble Lords in almost all parts of the House very much hope that this will prove to be the end of a chapter in the history of transport in this country; it is not yet the end of the book of transport, for, of course, that will go on as long as man survives. I would describe this chapter as one in which too much reliance has been placed on the resolution of transport problems by political measures. I believe that to-day people have lost a good deal of confidence in that kind of panacea and realise that the resolution of the transport problem is essentially a question of administration, good labour relations, organisation and the expenditure of very substantial sums of capital. For that reason I, and I believe most people, hope that in the future political solution will not be so warmly welcomed.

May I recall to the House the main results of the 1953 Act? They were first, to break the monopoly of long-distance road haulage, at that time held by the Transport Commission; and secondly, to give the railways much wider freedom to compete with road haulage in the fixing and organising of their charges. As the House knows, there is already in operation a passenger charges scheme. That scheme and a freight charges scheme have been under examination before the Transport Tribunal, which should complete its work before very long. The provisions of the 1953 Act in regard to the sale of lorries have worked quite well on the whole, except in regard to medium and large units. During a period of two and a half years, up to the spring of this year from the commencement of December, 1953, 19,200 lorries have been sold—an average of about 600 or 700 a month. Of the 26,100 vehicles which were for sale nearly 75 per cent. have been sold. We can therefore say that the main purposes of the 1953 Act have been fulfilled. Over 19,000 lorries are now in the hands of private competitors; the 25 miles limit has been abolished and all lorries, whether belonging to the Commission or not, are subject to licensing procedure at the present time. Moreover, it is fair to say that sales have been effected at good prices and both the Commission and the Disposals Board have conducted their business in this matter with the common sense and ability which one would have expected.

The only unexpected aspect of the sales was the lack of demand for medium and large units. The great majority of the sales were in small numbers; over half were sold in units of one to three. It is clear from this that the small man has had a full opportunity in this field if he felt inclined to take it. It was clear, however, that the sales of trunk services would have to be made in fairly large units if they were to operate efficiently. When it appeared that there was no strong demand for such large units Her Majesty's Government decided to draw the sales to a close. I am sure that that was the common-sense thing to do; and it was for that reason that this Bill was introduced at the end of last year. The effect of this Bill is to maintain the existing trunk services, and, further, to maintain a balance which will give a fair opportunity for competition for all in the field of road haulage, whether the Commission or anyone else. The Bill does four things. First, it increases the number of general haulage vehicles which can be retained by the Commission. Secondly, it allows the Commission to retain vehicles necessary for contract hire for contracts which they are able to renew and win in open competition. Thirdly, it abolishes the transport levy. Fourthly, it amends the procedure laid down in the 1953 Act for the sale of vehicles in companies.

May I deal in a little more detail with the clauses? In the proviso to Clause 1 it will be seen that the number of vehicles which may be retained by the Commission for general haulage is increased from 2,350 under the 1953 Act to 7,750. This means that under this heading, and including the first two categories of the 1953 Act, that is, those vehicles carrying abnormal and indivisible loads or vehicles constructed for special purposes, the Commission will be given rather over 9,000 vehicles. This figure was reached as a result of the examination by Sir Malcolm Trustram Eve of the size of the fleet necessary to enable the trunk network of the Commission to be maintained. He says, quite frankly, that it is not possible to reach a figure by mathematical calculation; but that this number, in his opinion, in the knowledge of the whole of the circumstances, would do the job. May I say a further word with regard to this figure. It is the number of vehicles which the Commission are entitled to retain, including, of course, the additional vehicles, which constitute about 582 in number. Although this is limited to special licences, the Corn-mission are free to obtain additional licences should they wish to do so under the procedure laid down in the 1953 Act. They will, of course, be in exactly the same position as anyone else who applies for a licence. No doubt, their applications will be opposed. Still, it is open to them to make applications should they feel that they are in a position to do so; and if they can make out a sufficiently good case no doubt they will get licences.

Clause 2 deals with the transfer and disposal of property through companies. Very shortly, the chief difference here is that instead of having to be sold in one parcel it can now be sold in parts, and the structure of the company may he divided between shares, debentures or any other form of security. In addition, the sale of the securities of a company may, with the consent of the Minister, be deferred if by so doing a better price is likely to be obtained. The Minister's consent may be revoked at any time, and the Commission will be once more under the obligation contained in the opening paragraph of Section 1 of the 1953 Act to sell the securities as soon as is reasonably practicable.

Clause 3 makes special provision for cases where the Commission are operating under a contract hire. Here they will be entitled to continue the contracts which they have, and compete for renewal when the contracts come up again. In so far as they are successful, they will be entitled to have their vehicles licensed. If not, then the vehicles will have to be disposed of. But, in any case, they must give up open A licences when these are transferred to companies. Clause 4 is not much more than machinery dealing with the licensing of trailers which are remaining with the Transport Commission. Clause 5 is really intended to pro- vide for the position should the Minister take over the duties of the Disposal Board and to give him additional powers. These enable the Minister to reorganise the structure of the company and to appoint a minority of directors, which will enable the companies to be more readily saleable. If and when the Board is abolished, the Minister may appoint some person to report on the disposal of vehicles, and the report will be laid before Parliament. Clause 6 makes stamp duty not payable on property made over to companies in the terms of Sections 4 and 5 of the Transport Act of 1953.

Clause 7 deals with the abolition of the transport levy. This will take place at the end of this year. Broadly, the transport levy will have brought in about £12. million by the end of 1956. We think that, taking into account the proportion of the goodwill standing in the books of the Commission, the expenses of the Commission and the Disposals Board, compensation to officers and servants, and allowing for the sale of meat vehicles and the parcels service at at least their book value—which we believe to be a conservative estimate—this figure will just about compensate the Commission for the capital loss involved in the sale. I think everyone will be glad to see the end of the transport levy at the end of this year. I can only express the hope that this reorganisation will prove to be of good service to the public and will restore fair competition in the transport services. I hope particularly that we are coming to an age when we can view these problems as they should be viewed, which is as administrative rather than political problems. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read2a.—(The Earl of Selkirk.)

2.57 p.m.


My Lords, listening to the noble Earl commending this Bill to your Lordships' House in such dulcet tones and with such sweet reasonableness, and the almost reverent way in which he read from the "scriptures", took my mind hack to 1953, when his ferocity, his attack upon the Opposition for wanting to do precisely what the Government have now done, was exceeded only by the abuse which came from the noble Viscount (as he then was), Lord Swinton, who at that time led for the Government. I can assure the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, that I am in complete agreement with him when he says that this should be the end of a chapter. And I certainly think that politics should be taken right out of road transport. If the noble Earl will listen to my plea he will do so. But I shall prove quite conclusively to your Lordships that the very people who are keeping politics in transport are the present Government.

When someone tells me that he thinks the end of a chapter has been reached, and that the time has come to take politics out of the matter, I always think that the chapter should be closed and that the book should be put away. But far from it. This fight is going on, and it is going on at the instigation of Her Majesty's Government. And there is to be no time limit for its duration, according to the present Bill. I am not going to fight again the battles of the past. There is more joy in Heaven over sinners that repent, I have always been told—even if they do make up a Conservative Government; and the noble Earl has given every sign of repentance, and abject repentance. Who are we on this side of the House, who have always shown an enlightened outlook upon this transport question, to refuse the noble Earl his repentance?

I feel it in my heart to be sorry for him. May I remind him of several things that happened in the past. I spent a pleasant Sunday reading speeches made by him and by the noble Earl, Lord Swinton, on the 1953 Act during the Committee stage, when I begged and pleaded with the Government, when I brought forward every argument I could think of, in logic and common sense, to preserve for the Transport Commission, so that it could fulfil its national duty, 16,000 vehicles. And I ask your Lordships to mark that figure 16,000. I was met with ridicule and abuse. I can remember, in the late hours of the night, the play that was made by the noble Earl who then led for the Government—I was just insane. Today, however, by this Bill, the Government are authorising the British Transport Commission to retain 15,350 vehicles—just 650 short of the number I pleaded for in 1953; and to reach that sensible conclusion three years have been lost and it has cost the British taxpayer the best part of £1 million in disposal costs. During that time the Disposals Board have not sold one vehicle which the British Transport Commission could not have sold themselves, in the course of their business, exercising their wisdom and discretion as an ordinary commercial concern. In point of fact, before the 1953 Act ever became law. 10.000 vehicles were ready for sale and were to be put on offer by the British Transport Commission. But I will not indulge in what could be a nice exercise in saying, "I told you so." I am glad that wisdom has arrived in the minds of the Government on this subject of transport. But their wisdom does not go far enough.

As I have said, on the day on which this Bill becomes an Act of Parliament the British Transport Commission will be authorised to retain 15,350 vehicles—7,750 general haulage, 1,100 special delivery, 2,000 contract hire, 4,000 parcels service and 500 meat delivery. The noble Earl mentioned competition between the national network and the independent hauliers. The figures are interesting. The number of A "Contract" licence and B licence vehicles, all over 2. tons unladen weight, for hire and reward in the hands of independent hauliers will be approximately 100,000; and there will be in the hands of C licence operators, 180.000 vehicles of over 2. tons unladen weight. So that, competing with the 15,350 vehicles of British Road Services, there will be 280,000 vehicles.

Let me make this confession. I have never been known as, and my dearest friends on this side of the House have never accused me of being, a whole-hog nationaliser; and at this stage perhaps I can confess that I was responsible for the removal of the C licence provision from the 1947 Act. At least, I had the blame for it; so perhaps after all these years I may now take the credit. I was certain that I was right then, and the passage of time has not altered my opinion. I would say to the noble Earl and to the House that the competition of the future is not going to be between British Road Services and the independent hauliers; it is going to be between both of them and industry which wishes to run its own transport.

I have always held the view that the economic prosperity of this country depends upon industry tooling itself in the cheapest and most efficient manner. There never should be any arbitrary or artificial restriction on the way industry equips and tools itself to meet the battle of costs in the markets of the world. That is why, if it suited industry and if it were cheaper and more efficient for industry to run its own tools in the shape of road vehicles, I was always in favour of allowing industry to do so. I base my view on the sound theory that in this world nobody does anything for himself if he can get somebody else to do it better and more cheaply. That will be the test of the British Road Services and the independent hauliers. If they can supply industry with a more efficient and cheaper service than industry can provide for itself, they will win. It is not a question of competition, cut-throat or any other kind, between the two suppliers of this service. The noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, said that this Bill cuts road transport adrift from politics at last, and that the only test upon which this Bill is founded is the national interest. The Minister said the same thing in another place. That is why I join issue.

The first issue I wish to raise with the noble Earl, who skated over it with such delicacy, is this: why put in a provision, as an amendment to the original proposal in the Bill, to sterilise 7. per cent. of the general haulage fleet of British Road Services? May I briefly tell your Lordships the history of this matter? I am not going to gibe at the noble Earl about the reason why this Bill has came forward; I am not going to tell him that it was because of the complete failure of Government policy. They could not sell the vehicles—we told them that from the word, "Go". The then Minister of Transport (since we started with the White Paper of 1952 we have had four Ministers of Transport; that is enough to give any industry a pain in the stomach, and I do not wonder that this industry has suffered from violent ministerial indigestion) had to ascertain the number of vehicles which could be retained by British Road Services for general haulage. That figure was not capable of being decided by mathematical calculation. Had it been, since there are many experts in the Ministry of Transport who are good manipulators of slide-rules they could have found the number. So the question was put to the Chairman of the Disposals Board. He replied that, as near as he could say, it should be 7,750; and that number was put in the Bill.

Then the trouble started. There was agitation; there were rumblings from interested parties; and it was suggested that some formula should be arrived at by which the number could be reduced. During this time the Chairman of the British Transport Commission was approached, and he said that he did riot want to lose one of these vehicles: he could employ all the 7,750 in the national interest. Let us take that position for the moment. After all, Sir Brian Robertson is a Government-appointed official, and I suppose that he must be regarded as giving the Government advice in the national interest. I would not suggest that his advice to the Government is tinged with politics in any way. Why, then, was his advice—and the Minister admits that he wanted 7,750—and the advice of the Chairman of the Road Haulage Disposals Board, not taken? How was this mythical figure of 582 vehicles arrived at? What justification is there for that? It is only put in to reduce the number because some people were agitating. The very people who were agitating did not want 7,750 vehicles to be left with British Road Services; they did not want seven; they did not want one. What are the Government doing? They are saying to the British Road Services: "You must freeze, or put in a. mothball fleet, 582 vehicles, or 7. per cent. of your A licences." What a business proposition for any Government to put to an industrial concern, at a time when it is vitally necessary for this country to employ every one of its physical assets to the greatest degree!

As the Minister has said, and as I think the noble Earl has said to-day. British Road Services can apply to the twelve licensing authorities, and if they make their case they may obtain A licences for any of these 582 vehicles. And doubtless they will obtain them. That is true. So what is the position we have now? We have twelve arbitrators, they being the twelve licensing authorities, who will now arbitrate as to whether the British Road Services are to have extra A licences to cover these 582 vehicles. These 582 vehicles are spread over 300 depots, and the noble Earl knows as well as I do that, with the law as it stands, it is impossible to transfer one of these lorries from one depot to another. What is the object of this exercise?

I do not intend to probe this matter deeper now, but I shall put down an Amendment on the Committee stage, and I shall ask the noble Earl seriously to consider it. I hope that he will believe in my sincerity. We on this side of the House are as desirous of taking politics out of transport as anybody else in this country. Give the wretched industry a rest from politics; let them go out and do their job. But this was a political decision taken on behalf of the present Government. There was no sense in it. The noble Earl has not tried to defend it. It was a farcical formula of political expediency, and that is all. I have not the slightest doubt in my mind that these twelve licensing authorities will all come to decisions by different measures, and that on balance, the Transport Commission within twelve months will have more than 582 vehicles with A licences. But why the delay? Why put them to a great deal of paper work at a time when they have to get on with the job?

The next point that I quarrel with is again one of political expediency only. If the Government are going to say, "There is an end to this," why then do they want to dispose of the parcels services? Why do they want to sell a nationwide public utility which has proved to be to the nation's benefit and which, according to the prospectus they were forced to issue a little while ago, would make over £1 million profit in 1955 for the benefit of the taxpayer? Why do they want to say to British Road Services: "Go on. We are going to watch your parcels service for three or four years, and the bigger success you make of that undertaking, the sooner it will be sold up." That is what the Minister says: "I am going to wait and see how profit-earning and how prosperous this can be, and then I shall decide whether to sell it, or not." While it is a failure, or if ever they turn it into a failure, then the nation can carry it; but as soon as it is a profit-earning proposition (which it now is, to the tune of £1 million and over; and for 1956 I should think the profit will be greater) it is to be handed over to private enterprise. Was that a business decision, or a political decision? If your Lordships will forgive the vulgarity, it "stinks to high heaven" of politics.

This country owes a great debt of thanks to Major General Russell and his colleagues, who have laboured in the national interest against terrific odds to improve the service; and it is a service which we know must eventually, to reach its peak of performance, be in some way integrated with the trunk haulage service and the railways. What an incentive to them to say: "We will now reconstruct its capital and make it easier to sell"! The present Minister says that the last prospectus was so silly that only a humorist put in a tender for £10 million—and he made it a condition that the Treasury should lend him the £10 million. That is the only tender that was received. It has been said that the only tender that was made for the meat services was from a Billingsgate fishmonger. I do not know who advised the Government to put on the market this abortive prospectus which the present Minister says was about the silliest thing that could be imagined. If you are going to end the chapter, if you are going to say there shall be an end of politics in the industry, why say that you are going to carry on until such time as you can get a bid which you think acceptable for an enterprise which we all know has proved to be one of the best and most profit-earning of the whole of the British Transport Commission; then you will dispose of it?

So I say to the noble Earl, quite frankly: Take the industry out of politics!: you have buried it deeper in politics—because, whichever Government follow this one, if they are worthy of the name of custodians of the national interest, they are bound to rectify that state of affairs. Why do not the noble Earl and his colleagues go the whole hog? What are they going to gain? They have said not one word in this House in justification for doing what they propose; they have made not one effort to say that it will be in the national interest that a public utility which is making a profit for the benefit of the taxpayer should be sold to private enterprise. We on this side of the House will not divide against the Second Reading of this Bill, because we think it goes a long way. In all sincerity we want to ask the Government to go the rest of the way, not for political ideology, but because it has been proved to be commercial common sense.

May I read the words which were used by the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport when he presented this Bill on Second Reading in another place? He said (OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, Vol. 548 (No. 93), col. 1827): After careful consideration we came to the conclusion that the road trunk services are now a vital form of transport to industry and commerce. We felt that it would be entirely wrong to destroy an organisation of that kind.… To have done so. we felt, would have been to sacrifice a valuable national asset to an ideological prejudice. We, who on occasion of party controversy have been inclined to bring that reproach against honourable Members opposite, were anxious not to fall into the same error ourselves. If that is the yardstick by which the Government arrived at their decision in regard to the haulage trunk services, why is a different yardstick put against the other great national asset, the parcel services?

I do not intend to waste any more of your Lordships' time. There will be two Amendments which we shall put down on the Committee stage to eradicate from this Bill what we consider the two great political manœuvres. There will be other Amendments, I suspect, which the noble Earl himself will want to put down. We shall probe and want to know when the Road Haulage Disposals Board is to be disbanded. In reply to a Parliamentary Question the Minister stated—the noble Earl will correct me if my figures are wrong—that salaries alone have come to about £40,000-odd. But he was quick to add that the Chairman of the Disposals Board refused to accept a salary. I do not know whether the noble Earl will think me unkind if I ask whether he received a tax free expense allowance. He might look into that question and let me know at a later date. I do not like these people who work for nothing; I believe in paying the rate for the job. That is a matter which we will probe upon the Committee stage. I repeat, with the utmost sincerity: Let us bury the differences between us. We on this side of the House are honestly intentioned to do so, but you cannot blame us for having great suspicion of the sincerity of the Government when in this Bill they retain two political decisions which we say are contrary to the national interest.

3.24 p.m.


My Lords, I welcome this Bill as a whole, as I think it may lead to political peace in the industry in spite of what has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth. I am not sure that the history of the Bill is quite as it should be, and I certainly do not come with any kind of repentance to the Bill. Perhaps before I go any further with the matter I should declare that I am a director of a road haulage company.

We have heard from the noble Earl to-day that there has been difficulty in the disposal of the large units of road haulage to private enterprise—units which could be used on our long-distance trunk routes. But when were those large units offered? They were offered on the eve of the General Election, and I would say that it is hardly likely that the Minister of Transport could expect satisfactory tenders for any large units at that time. I should like to ask Her Majesty's Government whether the S. 4 list has been offered again since the General Election and, if not, why not. So far as I am aware, larger units of twenty and over have been offered only between March and April, 1955. Not so long ago, I believe a deputation visited the Minister of Transport and gave almost a pledge that groups were prepared to purchase the larger units. These groups were already owners of fifty or more vehicles and had the experience of running trunk routes. I should like to ask Her Majesty's Government why favourable consideration was not given to this deputation who were anxious to buy the larger units. I can only surmise that Her Majesty's Government were perhaps unduly influenced by the managers of British Road Services, who have done all they can—and, I would say, rightly so from their point of view—to prevent their competitors, private enterprise, from entering the trunk routes.

I think it is true to say that, of the 19,000 vehicles which we have heard to-day have been sold, only about 2,000—say 15 per cent—were in the group of 12-tonners, and that, of that 15 per cent., none have been offered in good sizeable lots. There is no doubt that the small man has been given an opportunity to get back into the industry, but I am not by any means convinced that the large operator who wants thirty to fifty vehicles has been given a proper opportunity, except at a very unlikely and disturbed period during Election time. In another place, the Minister of Transport has said that if private enterprise had come forward and made reasonable offers, it could have played its part in these trunk services, but that, for one reason or another, they had not been able to do so. I am at a loss to understand this statement, when private enterprise have never had a favourable opportunity to purchase the necessary long-distance units.

Apart from the bad timing of list S.4 when it was offered, and also the denial of a second opportunity for tendering for these units, many of them were badly consolidated. Let me give an example. For instance, one unit which was offered included these extraordinary miscellaneous items: one six-wheeler, two eight-wheelers, two tippers, one van, one truck, three livestock, three furniture and one meat carrier. I suggest that this was certainly not a unit likely to be bought by a haulier who wished to expand his business. On the contrary, I think it is the kind of unit which would attract a dealer to sell off in small lots.

I maintain that the Government's failure to re-offer list S.4 in suitably constructed units has been a grave mistake, and has been proved wrong by the successful sales from other lists offered for sale since the date of the General Election. I certainly do not propose to ask Her Majesty's Government to reopen the whole of this matter again, as I am anxious, like all of us, for political peace in this industry; but I must say that I am very disappointed at the way in which the sales of the vehicles on the S.4 list have been handled. Private enterprise is quite capable of running efficient trunk services, given the opportunity. I would say that the real effect of the Government's decision is to place the British Transport Commission in the position of a monopoly in long-distance haulage which is contrary to the intention of the 1953 Act.

3.30 p.m.


My Lords, much could be said about the course of events which has made many of the provisions of this Bill inevitable, but I am not going to go over old ground. I cannot profess to view with any surprise the fact that Her Majesty's Government have been forced to take the action which they are now proposing. After the change of Government it was decided (I think, naturally enough, unfortunately) that the Commission should not be consulted at all. We were told of the decisions the Government had reached only after they had been come to, and when we were asked to express our view on the nature of the machinery proposed we were bound in all good faith to say that we thought it was unworkable.

But all that is past. It would have been, as I said at the time, easy to sell 10,000, or perhaps 15,000, lorries as lorries, not with all the property, liabilities and so on attached to them. I envisaged then that could have been done in twelve or eighteen months, and of course it is not surprising that it has been possible to achieve that result, or a rather greater one, when the process has been spread over several years. But I should like again to say, as I did when I last had the privilege of addressing your Lordships, that I appreciate sincerely the degree of realism which the present Minister and Her Majesty's Government have brought to the facts as they are now disclosing themselves. It cannot have been easy to frame the proposals in this Bill, a fact which one can appreciate all the more after listening to the noble Lord, Lord Teynham, who speaks for interests which have had a large part in pressing their views upon Her Majesty's Government.

I want to deal this afternoon with only two points. The first is the levy. Everyone must be glad to see the last of that. As your Lordships will remember, it was put forward three or four years ago as the cornerstone of Her Majesty's Government's policy. But it was very quickly found not to be out of the right sort of quarry from which one could safely build a large structure, and it crumbled very quickly into disintegration under pressure. But there is one point about it which emerges in this Bill, and that is the way in which the final amount due to the Commission is assessed. I am sure the Minister and his advisers have done their best to be fair to the Commission, but I feel that at this stage, when no one can foresee exactly how far the remaining processes of liquidation are to go, no one can assess the proper sum with any great approach to accuracy. The position would be very much easier if the fate of the parcels service were taken out of the arena of doubt and controversy. With that out of the way, the proposed settlement might be perfectly fair and somewhere reasonably near the mark.

That brings me to the only other point to which I want to refer this afternoon and to which Lord Lucas of Chilworth has already referred; that is, the position of the parcels service. It is admitted on all sides that that service has been built up into a fine, nation-wide—I will use that word rather than the word "national," though it is both—service very much valued by industry, and of great value particularly, I think, to small traders who cannot, for one reason or another, resort to fleets under C licences. I cannot see why that particular service cannot at this stage be left finally with the Transport Commission. It is essentially part of a national service. It is efficient. No one else will provide it on the same universal scale as the Commission is able to do. It does not lose money. As the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth said, it makes money, and it is surely open to great objection that a service of that kind should be created with the support of public capital, and by use of the time and enthusiasm of public servants nursed into a position in which it is to be sold away to private enterprise.

This seems to me to be more difficult to justify when one remembers that over twenty years ago the old railway companies, long before they were nationalised, thought it right and proper, and in the interests of their shareholders, to own that service 100 per cent. The vehicles used to run about with the names of Pickford and Carter Paterson on them, but they were owned 100 per cent. by the four amalgamated companies. If that was a right and businesslike proceeding for private railway companies it is difficult to appreciate why it is not thought proper that the public Transport Commission should retain it, and retain the advantages which have been built up by the use of public credit, public money and public time.

There will be on the Committee stage of the Bill, no doubt, points to be raised on the machinery proposed in regard to this matter. The power that the Minister is taking to appoint a minority of the directors of the new company seems to me, on any explanations hitherto given, a proposition very difficult to justify. The Minister has said that they are not to be there just as his spies on the Transport Commission—it is hardly necessary to say such a thing, but he was attacked and had to reply. They ought not to be necessary to advise him over and above the advice he may get direct from the Con-Emission. On what ground is it suggested they have to be there? Is it as some guarantee to those who may want to buy the undertaking that it is really all right? I feel that even at this late stage that particular proposal might well be looked at again, because the explanations and justifications which have been given for it do not seem to me to be by any means conclusive.

The last point I should like to make is this. Everyone must agree that it would be a Godsend if the transport problem could be taken out of politics. It is. I fear, easy to be too optimistic about that, because in my view there is a fundamental problem, which will go on nagging at whatever Government is in power, for a long time to come. It will not be solved by restoring competition between road and rail, and it is not only an issue of private against public enterprise in respect of one branch of transport. There is the underlying difficulty that a public transport service, however given, must be subject, if not in law at any rate in practice, to all sorts of obligations and restrictions from which small individual enterprises are free. There is, therefore, a fundamental public issue which Governments from time to time will have to face. But at least the problem can be taken out of the acute political controversy from which it has suffered for many years past.

For that reason I would ask Her Majesty's, Government, late though the stage may be, to consider once more whether they could not now deal finally with this question of the parcels service. I feel, as does the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, that if this transaction of selling it off ever in fact did succeed—and it is generally agreed that it is not going to succeed yet—it would invite reversal. The Bill is keeping alive this very controversy that we should all like to see finally buried. I quite appreciate that the answer may be that this is as far as it is possible for the Government to go at the moment. I myself think it would be right to settle it definitely now and I venture to think it would be wise to do so. It may not be practicable, after all that has happened, for the Minister or Her Majesty's Government to go that far at this moment. If we must put up with uncertainty for another two or three years while the service is being nursed into company form and an attempt is made to sell it, I shall regret it. But if that must be so, I can only conclude what I have to say by urging again Her Majesty's Government to realise that they are inviting a reversal of that particular part of their present legislation.

3.41 p.m.


My Lords, I do not propose to detain your Lordships for more than a few moments. Possibly at this stage the policy which has been adopted by Her Majesty's Government in the present Bill is inevitable, but there is no doubt that many of your Lordships on this side of the House have been disappointed at the lack of response to offers of the larger units. Some of us feel that this may be because these units were not offered in attractive enough parcels (if I may use that term), and certainly in many cases different types of vehicles were lumped together in a unit. As the noble Lord, Lord Teynham, has already said, these offers were made just before the General Election. Some of us on this side of the House would be glad if, in his reply, the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, could reassure us on this point, because, as I say, some of us are not altogether happy that the offers were made in such a form as to be the most attractive to the large purchasers.

3.42 p.m.


My Lords, we all welcome the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, back from his sojourn on to his favourite stamping ground of road haulage. He has lost in the balmy air of the Pacific none of that revivalist oratory which we so often enjoy in this House, although I think he speaks with slightly more conviction when he talks about competition than when he talks about sin.


I quite agree. I do not know very much about sin.


I thought that was the case. It is not much good the noble Lord coming along nearly ten years after the 1947 Act, and meekly telling us that he was never a whole-hearted nationaliser. It is a little late for him to talk like that.

What has struck me about this debate is quite interesting. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, tells us that we were unduly influenced by the Road Haulage Association; the noble Lord, Lord Teynham, says that we were unduly influenced by the managers of the British Road Services, whereas the noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, who knows more about it than any of us, congratulates the Government on their realism. We have to keep a sense of balance between the points of view which have been expressed and I feel a great sense of strength in that. We have been criticised on this question of the trunk service, in that it was not offered in the way which the noble Lord, Lord Teynham, says it could have been offered. But it was the view of the Disposals Board that better terms would not be obtained, and they did not put up these odd lots; they were put up as operating lots. The Disposals Board may have been wrong—I agree that is possible—but that was the advice which they gave, and we thought they were most suited to give it. That is an answer to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Gifford. They even went so far as to try to ask for possible purchasers to put correct lots, so to speak, together, so that as far as possible it would make them suitable for purchase.

A number of points have been raised, chiefly in regard to the two points made by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, which will be dealt with on the Committee stage, I understand. I would only say this to the noble Lord on what are called the additional vehicles. I do not think that this is a major point which need be of great concern to your Lordships. The position is that there are a certain number of additional vehicles, and whether these were included in the figure or not is a matter of opinion. That was referred to in discussion between Sir Malcolm Trustram Eve, representatives of the Road Haulage Association and the Chairman of British Transport Commission. This was the figure which they were prepared to agree to.


Force majeure.


It was not force majeure at all. They were quite free to agree to it under the charmanship of Sir Malcolm Trustram Eve.


Supposing, for instance, Sir Brian Robertson had adopted the attitude he adopted from the word "Go": "I do not want to give up one vehicle; I do not agree", what would have happened?


It is no use the noble Lord asking me what would have happened if something else had taken place, because it is quite irrelevant. That is something on which the parties concerned may agree.


He would have got the sack.


I see no reason for disturbing it.

Turning now to the parcels service, that is a different proposition from that in the case of the trunk services. The story is this: that the parcels service in any case will be run as a unit. It will show separate accounts and will be a separate company organisation as such, and I do not think that a very strong case has been made for disturbing the decision which was reached in 1953 in this matter. The service is being kept together; it has never been entirely integrated with the railway services over ten years. I should like to add this further point. We always regard this question of capital in our nationalised industries as a sort of automatic thing which flows from some everlasting spring. It is becoming increasingly clear to us all that that is not the case. We all want to get the big organisations on to a credit-worthy basis. It may be a very small part of it—that I agree—and it may be that it is only a small fractional part of the vast organisation. None the less, those are considerations and points which we can consider further in the course of our Committee stage, if we want to. I do not think I need say anything more except to ask that the Bill. be now given a Second Reading.

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

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