House Of Commons
Friday, 21st March, 1952
The House met at Eleven o'Clock
[Mr. SPEAKER in the Chair]
Transport (Freight Charges)
I beg to move,
George Orwell begins his novel "Animal Farm" by saying that all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others. The aim of this Motion is to establish that all parts of this island are equal but that some are treated as more equal than others, and that some of the inhabitants suffer accordingly. The object of the Motion is to diminish that inequality and that suffering. Transport is a good example of this pseudo-equality. I am glad to see the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. Boothby) present, because I am sure that he will support the aim, if not the method, of my Motion. It costs a man at Wick, the fishing port, 195s. 8d. for a return ticket to Billingsgate Market, while it costs a man at Grimsby, another fishing port, only 46s. 7d. What could be fairer than this? It looks fair and equal, if you leave aside common sense and all economic and strategical considerations. This piecemeal presentation of facts gives an impression of equality which is quite fallacious when reason is applied to the economics of the competitive society in which we live. While it costs a man at Wick 12s. 3d. to send a cwt. of fish to Billingsgate Market, it costs a Grimsby man only 5s. 1d. The Wick man has therefore not only to pay higher freight but to charge more for his fish at Billingsgate. This is not equality worthy of an island which is an economic unit. It is, on the contrary, "Animal Farm" equality, where some of our islanders are treated as more equal than others. Mileage is made a deity while the unity of our country is repudiated. This fantastic discrimination works both ways, and in each way it works against the distant parts of our island. Stornoway, Wick, Thurso, and Aberdeen men have to charge more for their fish and pay more for their essentials they buy, such as fuel, fishing gear and every necessity of life. This works north, south, east and west. It hurts fishermen, fish-owners, and shore workers. The railways it hurts, because less fish is carried than is caught. The consumers get less fish and pay more for it. Indeed, the whole community, which should be a compact unit, is not treated so. It is not given equality of opportunity. It is evident that this position damages the community economically, for the reasons I have indicated; ethically, because it is wrong; politically, because it is separatist; and strategically, for it is a military and naval danger. It is not surprising, therefore, that since this Motion appeared on the Order Paper, I have received letters of support from divers and far-widely separated places. They have come from chambers of commerce, trades councils, merchants' associations, workers' organisations, paper millers, granite merchants, even a farmers' union, engineers, shipbuilders and boiler makers, drapery and woollen warehousemen and individuals, both rich and poor, all over the country. It is relevant to quote a memorandum on the burden of freight which was sent to me by a gentleman whose distinctions I shall mention because they show that weight should be given to his views. He is Mr. A. J. Mackenzie, O.B.E., D.Sc., D.L., J.P., for many years and now the Provost of the important fishing port of Stornoway. That memorandum is long and detailed and I shall not trouble the House with much of it. I shall refer to the recommendations and shall omit recommendations A, B and C for the sake of brevity only, although they are relevant to my argument, but I must quote recommendation D, which is as follows:That this House, taking note of the fact that this island is treated as a unit for postal purposes but not for the carriage of essential commodities, such as fish, agricultural produce and coal; that the carriage of letters within this island is charged for by weight only and not by distance, while the carriage of such essential commodities is charged for by both weight and distance; and that this causes unfair competition, unnecessarily increases prices, restricts supplies and penalises producers and consumers all over this island, particularly those in remote districts; strongly urges the Government to introduce legislation to amend the Transport Act, so as to provide for standard freight charges, irrespective of the distance covered.
"The 'zoning' of freights should be discouraged. This last point is of some importance. There is a growing tendency, especially on the part of Government Departments, to fix prices at different levels for different zones. Generally the Hebrides are treated as one zone. The effect of this is that ports in the Hebrides like Stornoway, which can be worked more efficiently, have to carry smaller ports on their backs, thereby increasing the disadvantages from which Stornoway suffers, without significantly lightening the burden on the other ports.
When prices are being fixed, the whole of Great Britain should be treated as a single zone. It is the only equitable arrangement. Already many large manufacturers—such as the manufacturers of cigarettes, radio equipment, clothing and many proprietary articles—have arrangements with the railway to carry their goods anywhere in Britain at a flat rate.
That principle should be widely extended, and even if the full 'postalisation' scheme is not introduced, there is no reason why nationalised industries, such as coal, should not negotiate flat rate freights to cover the whole country as many private firms already do.
The Minister may say that Stornoway is an exceptional case. It is not, and I shall quote some observations from other parts of Scotland to show that it is not so. Aberdeen Paper Works writes of the disastrous effect of the high cost of transport. Inverurie Paper Mills writes:In conclusion, it might be pointed out that the whole basis of Government policy today is supposed to be the provision of equal opportunities for all. While the Western Isles are denied the opportunity to use their natural resources and their native skill because of the burden of transport on industry, equality of opportunity does not exist."
Aberdeen Farmers' Union say:"Unless flat rates for industry are introduced I predict Aberdeen and the North-East in another 50 years will be about as depopulated as Sutherlandshire is today."
Messrs. Hall, Russel and Company, the famous firm of shipbuilders and engineers in Aberdeen, take the same view. They say:"Apparently, many large firms and Government Departments employ a charge levelling in their accounting, e.g., Woolworths, various brewers and whisky firms, Imperial Tobacco, C. and B.'s, Keilers, oil firms and the Ministry of Food. Surely if these firms work a levelling system throughout the country, it is only fair the Government should ensure fair treatment to all."
"Being so far north of the supply centres for shipbuilding an added burden places us at a competitive disadvantage.
There are many others who have taken the same view. I shall quote one more from Inverness, Mr. Grigor. This experienced businessman, who has been for many years Provost of Inverness, has sent me a letter dated as recently as 14th March this year from Scottish Agricultural Industries Ltd. They say:In the reverse direction, where we are selling main engines or machinery components we are again faced with this additional cost which competitors more favourably placed in regard to transport do not suffer."
The present unjust and antiquated system is based on an antiquated idea. It is based on the idea of proximity to producing places—the nearer the cheaper because of short transport; the farther the dearer because of long transport—as if our islands were not an economic unit; as if the people living in the remote places were not entitled to equality of opportunity with people in the south-east where the population is concentrated and where perhaps more of the wealth of the country is concentrated. My argument is that this is entirely unfair, bad statesmanship and should be remedied. The present system looks axiomatic, but it is silly and dangerous and based upon "Animal Farm" logic. It is based upon profit, not service; it fills the community with inequality; it is unworthy of any unitary community; it is repugnant to nationalised industry where the dominant motive should be service rather than anything else. Thus many things are dearer all over the country than they need be. Scottish beef is dearer in London—"In our view, if transport rates continue as at present, they will shortly and quickly lead to the depopulation of the Highlands as it will be impossible for the rural population to exist."
We do not see it.
Aberdeen fish is dearer in London. Southern products are dearer in the north than in the west. Coal is dearer far from the coal mines. Every sound economist will agree that there should be an arrangement to give equality of access to such things, not only agricultural produce and fish, but also coal, all over the country.There is a flat rate for many things in this country. There is a flat rate for old age pensioners but none for the food they need to eat. There is a flat rate for the Forces pensioners, but none for their cost of living. There is a flat rate for many other pensioners, but none for the essentials of life they need. These things vary from place to place and largely because of the variations in the cost of transport. Let me give instances of coal. In Newcastle coal is 84s. 10d. a ton, naturally cheap because it is nearer the coal mines. In Nottingham it is 86s. 1d. and in Cardiff 95s. 4d. But look at the places remote from the coal mines. Bristol has to pay 108s. 9d., Southampton 124s. 7d., Portsmouth 124s. 7d., London 118s. 3d., Aberdeen 114s. 9d. and Wick—the unfortunate and remote Wick—123s. This is very serious for the places that are remote and whose people have to pay unduly high prices because of the high cost of transport. But there is another aspect of this very serious problem to which I should draw the attention of the House. This discrimination against the north of Scotland and the west of England damages the nation strategically. The north of Scotland is, perhaps, more vulnerable to invasion than the south of England. What is to happen if depopulation of the north proceeds further and industry is crushed out? The fishing communities all around our coasts are much praised for their skill and courage on the seas in time of war. In this respect they are, perhaps, more valuable than any other section in the community. The absence of a flat rate tends to penalise them, to drive them out of the fishing industry, to kill the industry, to wreck their communities and to drive them south into the already overcrowded areas. It is, therefore, of vital strategic importance that they should not have their way of life wrecked, that they should be preserved in peace, and that they should have facilities for their fishing. It is their right as citizens to be spared the imposition upon them of higher freights than other places and persons with whom they have to compete. If justice is to be done and wisdom is to be listened to, this island must, therefore, be treated as a unit economically and strategically, as it is a unit geographically, for the transport of the essentials of life, as it is treated for the transport of letters. I ask this not for all goods, but only for the essentials of life, fairly defined, so as to give equality of access and equality of opportunity, in reason and in common sense, to the remote areas. The aims of the Motion look novel, but in fact they are not so. They have been advocated before by many distinguished persons, including the present Minister of Housing and Local Government. That was 14 years ago, when he was a young and idealistic Member of the House. Perhaps even today he would support the Motion. I hope that his colleagues the Minister of Transport and the Secretary of State for Scotland will support it today. I offer them both as Scotsmen every inducement to do so, for I am presenting the Scottish case in its favour. Other parts of the island should be interested also, and no doubt Members from other parts will put their own points of view. From Cornwall to Cumberland, from Newcastle to Newhaven, all the places that are remote from London have an interest in this. It is noteworthy that an Amendment—I do not know whether it will be called, nor do I care—is on the Order Paper in the names of a number of hon. Members, six of whom come from the vicinity of London. The other seven of them come from the south of England and one alone, the scion of a noble family, to whom it does not matter, comes from Scotland.
The hon. and learned Member has referred to Cornwall as one of the remote districts. Has he omitted to notice that my name appears on the Amendment?
No doubt the hon. Member will put that point with his customary eloquence when he rises to speak.I should have thought that the aims of the Motion would have the support of every hon. Member, because the aims are to benefit producers, distributors and consumers—indeed, all the inhabitants of this island, north, south, east and west. The means may require argument, but I hope to persuade hon. Members that the means are right, beneficial, practical and an improvement on the present "Animal Farm" system. This problem has been considered at various times. I mention one such case, because it was historic and very important. In 1938, the Barlow Commission on the Distribution of the Industrial Population considered it in connection with the location of industry and transport. Among the witnesses were the right hon. Gentleman who is now the Minister of Housing and Local Government and Mr. J. R. H. Cartland, who together put in a joint memorandum. On 31st March, 1938, they advocated
In paragraph 33 of their evidence, they said:"seeking to eliminate distance as a factor in costs."
I stress that they recommended, not a distance basis, which we have, but a tonnage basis, which I seek. Weight, not distance, is the basis upon which letters are carried within the boundaries of this island. Those two witnesses further said:"We are suggesting that it should be the aim of national transport policy to average transport costs over the whole of the traffic of the country or, alternatively, over zones where it is necessary to relieve population congestion and apply a flat rate charged on a tonnage basis. The industries away from the congested areas would by this means no longer endure a competitive advantage."
The present Minister of Housing and Local Government was on the right plans on that occasion. It is true that this is a matter of great strategical importance. Every part of our island should be preserved. The fishing community and the agricultural communities should be preserved, in the north, south, east and west. It is not enough to praise the fishermen in war. They should be cherished in peace also. This island should be treated as a unit, not as an amorphous mass of disparate parts to be collected for our own safety only in time of war. It is only right that I should say that the present Minister of Housing and Local Government saw difficulties. Why? Because, as he said, transport was not then nationalised. But the House knows that transport is now nationalised and, therefore, the difficulties which he saw, based upon the non-nationalisation of transport, have been removed. Let me quote the right hon. Gentleman, so that I do him no injustice. In paragraph 39 of the joint evidence he said:"The social economic and strategical advantage of such a scheme would be so great that it is worth investigating how far it is technically possible to go towards its adoption."
That is precisely the object of this Motion. Today we have the advantage that the railways are nationalised. They are under statutory control and so, to quote the right hon. Gentleman, distance could now be eliminated as a determinant of freight charges. It may be objected that such a charge would involve a great financial burden on the British Transport Board. My answer is that because of nationalisation this, too, can be answered and answered in a very simple way, namely, by transferring the financial burden of the permanent ways from the Transport Commission to the State. Today the railways are having to struggle with road traffic on unequal terms. They are bearing financial burdens which should be borne by the State. They are being run in an out-of-date manner—"In order to expedite transport reorganisation the Government should be prepared to give generous financial aid more especially for the purpose of promoting experiments in an entirely new system of transport charges, which would seek to minimise or eliminate distance as a determinant of those charges. It is in our view the aim which should be pursued even if it involves some form of State subsidy."
In saying that, I am not blaming the Transport Commission, because they are doing their best in the limited circumstances in which they act. The railways are being run in an out-of-date manner which discourages traffic by high charges; they are being run for profit instead of being run for public service. I say the railways should be relieved of the financial burden of the permanent ways which, after all, is only about £50 million a year, and that should be made a national charge. The cost of the ordinary roads is not borne by the road users, except indirectly. Why, therefore, should the maintenance of the permanent ways of the railways be borne by the railways only, when in fact they are used by the nation? They are a national service, in war and in peace, and should be so treated.This would have several beneficial results. It would relieve the transport system of its greatest burden, it would enable it to average freight charges, it would encourage greater traffic and enable the railways to become a real public service. It will be remembered that the Post Office charged for the carriage of letters by distance as well as by weight at one time and that it was not very successful. The Post Office changed that and started to treat this island as a unit and gained in popularity and use. So the Post Office developed to its present gigantic stature and became a national service because it was used as a service and for service. The railways should be treated in the same way. They should be preserved and developed as a public service. It is wrong that in this way they should be in competition with the roads; the two should be complementary. It is right that I should say that I wrote the Minister and asked him for his objections to my proposals and he very courteously replied in a long letter, which I shall not quote to the House, but which I shall summarise and answer its main points. I think his objections can be disposed of in a practical way. First, he said that he discounts the analogy between the Post Office and transport. There are two answers to this. One is that this analogy about postalisation of transport has been under discussion for many years—at least since 1938, as I have shown—and the Post Office, which was not a success until this system was adopted, became a success as soon as it was adopted. Secondly, the Minister says:
The House will realise that that is but a generalisation with no argument to support it. It is a piece of pessimism which does not tally with the history of the same ideas as applied to the Post Office. Thirdly, the Minister approaches the problem—I hope he will not regard me as offensive—in a rather private enterprise manner which is unworthy of the manner in which a great public service should be conducted. Fourthly, the Minister says:"The loss of traffic would start a spiral of increase in the flat rate and an impossible situation would soon be created."
I must deal with this with some particularity. He forgets that the remit of the Cameron Committee was very narrow, being confined to the Highlands. It did not consider, as this Motion envisages, the whole country. The paragraph dealing with the flat rate in the Cameron Report is 'based upon a number of unrealised and inchoate hypotheses prophesying without evidence what might occur in certain imaginary events. It is noteworthy how often the word "might" occurs in the Cameron Report. That Report specifically recommended the very objects I have in view. It recommended that the transport should be made more efficient. It recommended that there should be a deliberate policy of lowering transport charges over long distances. That Report did not specify the evidence upon which it acted. That Report is inconsistent with the widespread and insistent demand today for a flat rate and the mass of evidence which today is extant to justify the application of a fiat rate and to justify the treatment of this island as a unit. That Report seems, in paragraph 33, to favour the extension of the so-called "taper system" under which freight charges are stepped down after the 20th, the 50th and the 100th mile. The Report says:"The postalisation of railway rates was rejected by the Cameron Committee in 1950."
My comments on this are that the proper course is to grasp the nettle and introduce a flat rate which would be fair to the whole country and to the whole community. It is only fair to say of the Cameron Report—it is the only thing I can say for it—that it is clear in language and concise in style; but it is poor, pallid and myopic in outlook; it lacks vision, courage and determination, and if the Minister intends to follow that Report, he will not go far, nor do much. It would be absurd for a Minister of Transport today, when science is so prolific, to follow such a Report and to stick in the mud of outworn ways of antiquity and refuse to move with modern times. The idea of a flat rate for all essentials of life all over this island should not be just an ad hoc measure to be applied here and there and now and then with no certainty for the business community, or for the consumers, or for the people at large. It should not be sporadic or occasional like an epidemic, or a thunderstorm. It should not be a zone or a taper system, causing territorial inequalities. It should be a regular part of our transport system, permanent and certain, so that the nation can rely on it and plan its business accordingly in a progressive way. I beg the Minister to realise that he is head of a great scientific organisation which can be used for the good of the whole nation. I ask him to tackle this problem in a bold way, and I present him with a number of points. He should seek fuller legislative power; have the financial burden of the permanent ways transferred to the State; treat this island as a unit for transport service as the postal services treat it today; charge a flat rate for essential goods by weight and not by distance; charge a flat rate all over this island for such goods; make transport a real national service—with the emphasis on "service." I ask the Minister to note particularly that, if he does not do this, then transport will continue to lag behind our national purposes. If, on the other hand, he does as I suggest, he will go down in history as a benefactor, not only to Scotland, for which I plead, but for the whole nation. He has an alternative. If he has any doubts upon the subject he should ask the Prime Minister for a Royal Commission to investigate the whole subject and deal with it in a large way. There are many other aspects of this great problem which I should like to have discussed, including marketing. But I shall confine myself to saying that it is bad statecraft, bad planning and morally wrong that there should be concentrated in the south-east corner of this island most of the wealth and population, the cheapest fares, the best markets and the most numerous consumers; while other places in the north, the east and the west are charged the highest fares and treated like a fringe to be exploited in an out-of-date way. I have indicated what I think is the right course, and I hope the Minister will give constructive consideration to the views which I have ventured to put forward. I hope that something will emerge as a result of this debate for the good, not only of the remote parts of this country, but of the whole nation."Long distance transport should be made relatively cheaper by the introduction of further steps at, say, the 100th, 150th, 200th and 300th mile."
I beg to second the Motion.I should like to congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hector Hughes) both on raising this very important matter and on the admirable way in which he has done so. Everyone will be grateful that we have today an opportunity of discussing the question of transport and freight which, while it is of the greatest importance to the country as a whole, is nowhere of more importance than in my own constituency. Not only is Orkney and Shetland the most remote constituency, but having reached it one finds what I think the hon. and learned Gentleman would describe as an "amorphous mass of disparate parts." The hon. and learned Gentleman put forward one method of tackling this question; that the system of flat rates, which exists today for some commodities, should be extended. I think that is a very helpful suggestion, and I certainly join him in urging the Government to give it the most serious consideration. I like to think that the Under-Secretary, who has been a powerful applicant for a flat rate for fish transport, will also support the introduction of a flat rate for other commodities. While I entirely agree that this is a matter which needs a great deal of examination—and, it may be, even a Royal Commission as was suggested by the hon. and learned Gentleman—very important political decisions are involved, which can be taken only by the Government. We have to face the fact that if we want to achieve the end which the hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, North, had in mind, and which I have in mind, it will involve a change in our thinking and possibly considerable expenditure. We cannot will the end without providing the means. It is a big decision to make and I do not think it should be left entirely to any Commission. I also agree that the introduction of a flat rate for specified commodities presents difficulties and may be met by objections. We have heard that it did not win the complete approval of the Cameron Committee. However, I think the arguments in favour of some big change in our freight system far outweigh the objections, and I hope that at the end of the day the hon. Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Hinchingbrooke) who has an Amendment on the Order Paper, will come to the same conclusion. I am glad to see that he is hemmed in between the hon. Gentleman the Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. Boothby) and the hon. and gallant Member for Down, South (Captain Orr). I have no doubt that we shall have them on our side. I notice, also, that the "renegades" on the back benches are surrounded; and even the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Law) may feel that flat rate will not put the Hull fishermen out of business, but that they will be able to land their far water fish even though there is superior near water fish in the port, and selling at a reasonable price, from Orkney and Shetland. The first thing we have to realise is that for various reasons it is highly desirable in this country today that the population should be spread more evenly. Anyone who has visited the East End of London, or the Black Country, or the Clyde, or Lancashire cannot fail to be concerned about the enormous conglomeration of people living in very unpleasant circumstances. Certainly, if this country were ever to be again subjected to severe bombing the circumstances of those people would be appalling. If we look at the industrial development of this country we find that great cities grew up near to the industries of the 19th century. They grew on or near coalfields, or other sources of raw material. I sometimes shudder when I consider those enormous masses of population on the Mersey, or the Clyde, or the Thames, and wonder what will become of them if the trade on which they depend should seriously decrease. Though we all hope it will not decrease we have to face the fact that there are long-term factors in some industries in this country, for example the textile industry, which raise very serious problems; and there may be a considerable decrease in the number of people who can seek permanent employment in some of those industries. At the same time, it would appear to me that the conditions of industry have changed. With the development of electrical power it is no longer so necessary that industry should rest on top of coal. Again, the extending use of oil as a source of power has changed the desirable allocations, of industry. These seem to be the kind of points which the planning authorities can legitimately take into consideration. That is the sort of range over which we should be endeavouring to plan. I am not a great believer in day-to-day interference by planning, but I think that that sort of development which is likely to take place in the country, and which is desirable, is a suitable matter for a planning Government to have in mind. It is of great interest to look at what is happening in America, where there is a great movement of industry from the North-East over to the West and down to the South caused by these new factors as different sources of power and changes in the other factor deciding location. I am only too aware that many things are different between the Highlands of Scotland and California. But some of the factors operating in America are beginning to operate in this country and make it desirable that we should look to a greater spread of industry.
Surely the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that there is any flat rate in the United States?
No, I am not suggesting that, only that there has been a shift of industry from the iron and coal areas of the North-East over to the West.Third, there is what is to me the most important matter in this connection, and that is the great necessity in this country to increase both the numbers and the welfare of the rural population and of their output. I do not think many hon. Members will dissent from that. We all know that we have a great need for higher agricultural production, but I believe that we all tend to speak too much about output and in terms of statistics, and to forget one most important aspect of the matter, which is the necessity to increase not only the products of the countryside but the number of people who live in the countryside, all round our coasts and in the smaller towns, it is of the greatest importance to this country to preserve and even increase that population. It is always being emphasised in Scotland today that there are movements of population from certain areas, and that the population of those rural parishes in Scotland which do not possess coal or something of a special nature—such as golf-courses—has been declining for the last 50 years and is still declining. But I do not think it is sufficiently realised that the population is still leaving rural areas all over Scotland. Admittedly, the problem is worst in the Highlands, but, certainly, the population is leaving all the rural areas of the North, and, if we really want to stop that movement of population, we have to take far more drastic steps than we have so far taken. Of course, if we are prepared to let it go on, a good deal of my argument falls to the ground. There is one big consideration at the moment, and it is that our thinking is dominated by the centralising and urbanising frame of mind. If we determine to stop the drift it can be stopped. The problem is being solved to some extent in Norway by deliberately giving encouragement to the remote districts by giving them preferential rates for transport on the railways, over telephones and roads, and so on. If we are to stop that movement of population, we must give the more remote areas special consideration, and that probably means spending big sums of money upon them. It is, to my mind, wrong to conceal that we must spend money to achieve our aims. I do not think it is realised, either, how very deeply this whole subject is dominated by the question of freight charges. It is absolutely impossible to get industry in these areas on to a really satisfactory basis so long as freight charges are so very high. We can have Development Areas for Cromarty and other places like that, but nobody will make use of these areas if they have to pay these tremendous freight charges. We shall never get industry in towns like Aberdeen and Inverness to compete with London and Birmingham until they have a fairer freight system. Neither shall we get people to the remoter areas to live when they have to pay so much extra for every single thing that goes into their homes. We shall not get the benefit of a great increase in agricultural production so long as agricultural production has to pay this tremendous levy on freight. Enormous sums of money are being spent by way of subsidies on food, houses, land and so on without getting full benefit in these remote areas. We are spending this money without getting full value, because enterprise is cramped in every way by transport charges. I would like to give a few examples, because I do not think it is fully realised what these charges amount to. The freight charge on coal between Lerwick and Midyell, in my constituency, is 36s. 2d. per ton on top of the ordinary charge. The cost of petrol there is 4s. 8½d. per gallon, and to move a 50-gallon drum of petrol from the mainland to Longhope, in Orkney, costs 7s. 6d. on top of the basic retail price, which already is high enough. The charge for carrying fertilisers to Kirkwall is 36s. 5d.; flour, 33s. 2d.; groceries, 68s. 10d., in addition to the harbour dues charged at Aberdeen, Kirkwall and other ports. Feedingstuffs, fodder, in fact, every single commodity has to pay these additional charges which have recently risen 5s. 10d. on fuel and 6s. 8d. on groceries to Lerwick, and, so long as these charges are levied and continue to rise, we shall be placing people in the greatest possible difficulty in carrying on life in these remote areas. There are certain disadvantages about the idea of flat rates, and we shall have to deal with them. It is said that they might lead to the flooding of local enterprises from the big towns. I have heard that argument, but I am sure that the advantages of the scheme will far outweigh the disadvantages. Then it is said that these remote areas benefit by having lower rates and charges in other directions, and that therefore, these make up for the high transport costs. Such charges are today a far smaller proportion of the cost of production than they were before the war. The disparity in rents, for instance, is far less important than it once was. Next, it is said that an additional charge on the transport system as a whole would be very high. That I do not know, but, as the mover of this Motion has pointed out, there is a flat rate already for some things, such as cigarettes, which works efficiently, and, so far as we know, does not lead to an enormous increase in the transport charges for the whole country. There will, after all, be some economies in accounting. Then there are some people who say that the solution is a return to competition and to give back the transport system to free enterprise. I am most interested in this, because there are certain bus companies in the North of Scotland which have been trying to get authority to compete with the railways in order to run buses at half or less of the railway cost from Thurso to Glasgow and London. I believe that they are not to be allowed to do it. I do not know if that is the decision, but I rather think so, although one case may still be under consideration before the Commissioner at the Moment. So far at least, they have not been able to get that authority. I must, in justice, point out that I rather think that that system was set up by a Conservative Government, and not by the Labour Government. It is simply not true that, if we went back to the system of transport which existed before the war, we should have free competition, and, therefore, necessarily lower rates. I am interested, however, to know whether competition will do something to help, and if the noble Lord the Member for Dorset, South, will address his remarks to that subject, I should be very interested in what he has to say. But I hope he will not quote the prewar system as being one of free competition, and I hope he will deal with the very difficult situation of the railways. The mover of this Motion suggested that the right way to deal with the railways was for the State to take over the permanent way. I think that is a practicable proposition, and I should like to hear what the advocates of free enterprise, among whom I count myself, have to say about it. Furthermore, there is in my constituency, the very important element of coastal shipping, which is not nationalised but whose freights have risen enormously. There is no doubt that, whether we have a free enterprise system or a nationalised system, the real crux of the matter—if the Government are really sincere, as I believe they are, in their desire to initiate a long-term and effective policy to rehabilitate the rural areas of this country, and particularly the Highlands: and also the towns in all these rural areas—is that the Government must face the fact that, in one way or another, they will have to spend money on the transport system to bring down freight charges as an initial move. It is the most valuable subsidy which we could provide. If they are not prepared to do that, I think that the aim of any other scheme will be vitiated by these high and continually increasing transport charges, and I feel that time is getting fairly short, because, as I have indicated, people are still drifting away from these remote areas. These proposals may have their difficulties but there are precedents for them and we must face up to the difficulties in one way or another. Unless there is a real change in the way of thinking of the great mass of the people of this country, and of all parties, that tendency to depopulation will continue until it will be extremely difficult to help those areas, even though we eventually find the will to do so.
I beg to move, to leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
The Motion which the hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hector Hughes) moved with such eloquence is in general terms and I propose to deal with it as such. I agree straight away that there may well be exceptions to the general principle to which we, in our Amendment, wish to speak, and I fully realise that where an industry agrees, for instance, to equalise costs, a beneficial scheme might well accrue in terms of a flat rate. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) referred to my hon. Friends and me as renegades and said we were effectively hemmed in between the hon. Lady the Member for Aberdeen, South (Lady Tweedsmuir), on my left, and the hon. Gentleman the Member for Aberdeen, East (Mr. Boothby), on my right. I realise that and, placed as I am—shall I say between Priscilla and Charybdis—I must stick to the general case with which I now propose to deal. I shall be quite short. We believe that the hon. and learned Member's idea is impracticable for two main reasons. First of all, we believe that it will be very difficult to fix the value of a flat rate at such a level that at any given time it will cover the cost of all traffic offering itself to the Commissioners. That is the first point. Secondly, where the flat rate was more than the actual cost, we believe that traffic would start to seep away, to leave the railways for the roads; and no one wants that to happen. We also say in our Amendment that the hon. and learned Member's idea is undesirable. Under that heading, we believe it would result in wasteful use of transport and in a needless strain on transport, and in spite of the hon. and learned Member's accusation about pessimism, we believe it would put up costs and that there would be a spiral of costs versus flat rate—and there is nothing very flat about a rate which is always rising. Let me give the House two examples which I commend to those who believe in the system of a flat rate over the whole country. Let me ask them to consider, first of all, those industries which rely on a short-haul for their raw materials. For those industries a flat rate would certainly be above cost, and one has only to ask oneself what effect that would have on the export price of the articles subsequently manufactured. That is a point which must be taken into consideration. Secondly, let me refer to the remote areas, which are often quoted in support of a case for a flat rate. Contrary to what the champions of the flat rate suggest, we believe that the remote areas would be penalised and that local manufacture in them would be seriously challenged and possibly killed. The hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, North, quoted from the Cameron Report. As he was quite entitled to do, he quoted from the sections of it which are less inconvenient to his case than other sections might have been; and as I am equally entitled to do, I shall quote from a section of the Report which is convenient to my case."while recognising the importance to trade and industry of an efficient and economical system of goods transport and taking note of the fact that this island is treated as a unit for postal purposes and that the carriage of letters within this island is charged for by weight only and not by distance, does not consider that it is desirable or practicable to adopt this principle for the fixing of freight charges."
Paragraph 35. This is what the Cameron Report says about a flat rate:
There is the opinion, or at least the warning, of a body which has gone just as carefully into the pros and cons of this business as undoubtedly has the hon. and learned Member. It is a matter of opinion, but we must consider both opinions about these vital questions before we can condemn the existing system. The hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned the nationalisation of the railways as being a favourable basis on which to construct the edifice which he seeks. But what do we find in the 1950 Annual Report of the Transport Commission? We find that the Commission are veering away from what they had originally hoped to be able to do and they are asking for"A more drastic measure would be the introduction of flat rates, i.e. rates which do not vary with the distance to be covered, but flat rates, in addition to encouraging the wasteful use of transport, might well have the reverse effect of what is intended and might only benefit those parts of the country where industry is already strongly established."
What the Commission are asking for—and they have had some experience in the matter—is more latitude in allowing the railways to charge according to cost—and that is the very opposite to the system or principle of a flat rate. So much for one or two examples and for the experience of those who have looked into this matter and who have made up their minds, at any rate in the direction in which they think the thing ought to go. The House was as interested as I was, I am sure, in the allusion of the hon. and learned Member to one of the great books in our literature—which undoubtedly it is—"Animal Farm." "All animals are equal," quoted the hon. and learned Member; and he added, as indeed is the point of the book, that "some are more equal than others." I wonder, therefore, why the hon. and learned Member has stopped where he does in his Motion. Why should be stop at coal, fish and agricultural produce? I am not at all certain—and I say this in friendly conclusion to the hon. and learned Gentleman, taking a hint from his animal metaphor—that his eloquent exposition of his case is not the ingenious prelude to a state of affairs in which we shall soon see the hon. and learned Gentleman himself travelling south as part of the next consignment of fish from his constituency."… the introduction of new bases of charges for transport services which will recognise that over a wide field the Commission's services are not a monopoly and that the ordinary principles of competitive business must be allowed a greater place in the fixing of charges in detail."
I beg to second the Amendment.At first sight some may be surprised to see me seconding this Amendment because I am a representative of one of those remote areas to which the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hector Hughes), referred—a Cornish division; and in my division is the fishing port of Mevagissey, which is one of the more substantial of the Cornish fishing ports. My constituency includes a good deal of the best agricultural land in Cornwall from which very large quantities of agricultural products are exported to England; and as my constituents are a very long way from the coalfields, they are very disturbed at the high cost of coal, and they frequently make complaints about the differentiation in the cost of coal as between one village and another. Many of them have put forward suggestions somewhat similar to those which have been put forward by the hon. and learned Gentleman. While I have every sympathy with my constituents, particularly the farmers and fishermen, in the difficulties imposed upon them by high freight charges, I am opposing the Motion and supporting the Amendment because I do not think that standard flat-rate charges are a solution. I am not going to deal at great length with the impracticability of the proposal. My noble Friend the Member for Pent-lands (Lord John Hope) has mentioned some of the points, such as the difficulty of fixing a fixed standard rate which will cover the costs of all the traffic offered because, if the charge fixed as standard is too low, then there is going to be a loss and somebody has got to pay it, presumably the taxpayers, including the taxpayers in the remote areas, so that they do not gain much if they save something on charges but pay more in taxation. On the other hand, if the fixed standard charge is high enough to cover all costs of traffic offered to the Transport Commission, not only is that going to be a greater hardship to the consumers near the source of supply, because then charges are bound to increase, but also it will mean that, unless we are going to make the Transport Commission a complete monopoly of all forms of transport in the sense that the Post Office is a monopoly of all postal services—so much so that it is an offence, for which one can be prosecuted, to interfere in any way, or carry mails or anything like that in competition with the Post Office—unless we are going to make the Transport Commission a monopoly of that sort, any attempt to fix the standard charge is only too likely to defeat its own ends by drawing away traffic from the railways to other means of transport which are bound to be cheaper in certain instances. Already numerous references have been made to the Cameron Committee's Report of September, 1950. The hon. and learned Gentleman was rather disparaging about that Report, but whatever else can be said about it one thing is quite definite, that the Report definitely renounced the postalisation of railway rates. I do not want to pursue this line of argument, which, I hope, will be pursued by other hon. Members, because it seems to me that there is another and even more fundamental reason for objecting to standard flat rate charges—and not only in the interests of those living in the remote districts—because the fact is that charges are not the whole story. Standard charges sound very well, and it is argued by hon. Members who support the Motion that if there is an equalisation in charges between those that are imposed on people living in the remote districts, and those living in the centres of population, the two different types of people requiring transport will be equal. But that is not and never will be so, because if the transport service is slack and inefficient, and if it is too slow and infrequent, if breakages and pilferages are too many, if delays are common, and if frequent embargoes are put on the delivery of goods to certain stations, so that ordinary transit cannot take place, then those whose goods have to travel long distances are still going to suffer more than those who are nearest to the large centres of population. In fact, charges are never the whole story in transport. What the public want is cheapness or convenience, and the two qualities are alternative, to a very large extent. It is quite true that in some classes of traffic very cheap transit, even though it be slow and erratic and inefficient, is quite good enough. With regard to coal traffic, which can be ordered in bulk a long time ahead, that is probably true. I think that that is one of the reasons why for many years the sailing coastal vessel and the horse-drawn barge competed successfully for coal traffic long after the introduction of steam and even long after the introduction of the internal combustion engine, since it did not really matter when the coal arrived. Even if it was a week or two late, it did not matter very much—provided it was ordered sufficiently far in advance and in sufficiently large quantities. But it is a very different story indeed in the case of perishable goods, particularly fish and agricultural products. What is needed most for perishable goods traffic is minimum handling in transit, quick transit, and punctual delivery—particularly punctual delivery. The price of freight is of great importance and of great interest to the farmers and the fishermen, but it is even more important to them that the lorry or the train should be available to load their traffic at the time and place convenient to them, and that the transit should not cause excessive handling of their perishable goods, and that the transport should arrive punctually exactly when they want it to get their goods to the market and so as to get them there first before their competitors. The great difficulty for the farmers and fishermen in remote districts is that only too frequently their traffic arrives late at the market—later than the traffic of producers nearer to the markets—so that they do not get into the markets first, and have to take a worse price as a result. In other words, what the farmers and the fishermen require most in the remote districts is an efficient transport service. Is the proposal to have a standard flat rate going to do anything at all to assist the bringing about of an efficient transport service? I submit that far from doing that, far from doing anything to increase the efficiency of the service, it is only too likely to have the exact reverse result, because standard charges would be a great temptation to any form of transport undertaking, whether road or rail, private or nationalised, to bother as little as possible about the remote areas. If they are going to get the same standard charges for all traffic, their tendency must be to pay more attention to that they can most easily handle, and to bother as little as possible about the remote areas. Therefore, it seems to me that, far from wanting standard charges, farmers and fishermen in the remote areas want competing interests, whether between regional transport groups striving with each other to be the most efficient, or whether between road and rail transport, each keeping the other to the highest pitch of efficiency. In such circumstances the transport undertakings, whether nationalised or private, will bother about the traffic from the extremities of their areas. They will make special efforts to increase the amount of that traffic and take various steps to do so. What those steps may be it is not, I think, appropriate to go into to any great extent in this debate. I dare say we all have our own ideas, and we have not yet heard the Government policy on that. Although I live in Cornwall, which is a long way from Scotland, I do know the north of Scotland, including Wick and Thurso, and I have my own ideas about some of the remote districts in Scotland. It may be that there is a case for considering some of the Scottish lines as strategic lines in which the Defence Departments should take some interest and bear some responsibility. It has often seemed to me, as a visitor to Scotland, that many Scottish railways should be treated as light railways in the strict legal sense, and be relieved of many of the onerous responsibilities imposed by Parliament on the railways in maintaining fences, signal boxes and level crossings far in excess of the requirements of railways which carry a light traffic, and which pass through lightly populated areas. One has only to go to the Continent to see the very great use made there of light railways, even in populated districts, where they have tramways, with no complicated signalling, fencing, and all the rest of it. They depend on the skill and ability of the driver and conductor of the car, who takes the fares and drives the vehicle just as if it were on a road. That is merely a suggestion, and I would not presume to say what are the rights and wrongs of the Scottish case because I have not studied the question. On the general case, many things could be done in extension of the principle of tapering charges, which has already been recognised, in the Railway Act, 1921. As the hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, North, said, there is already a taper at the 20th, 50th and 100th mile, although it is not as effective as it might be because there has since been several standard flat-rate increases. As a matter of interest, I should like to know whether the hon. and learned Member voted in favour of the flat-rate increase of 10 per cent. on the railway freight charges, without any regard to the taper. My recollection, for what it is worth, is that he voted in favour of those increases, which greatly minimise the value of the taper.
Since the hon. Gentleman refers to me, let me say at once that I did vote in favour of the increase because it was a step in the right direction, but not far enough.
Surely it must be a step in the wrong direction, because it was making the taper less effective by putting a flat-rate increase on the charges most applicable to the most distant places.In the existing state of the law, there is nothing to prevent agreed charges from being made with a particular customer, which may include a flat rate, and which may be an average rate of all traffic coming from that customer. There is also nothing to prevent an agreed charge with a particular industry, provided the railways are not left to bear the subsidy. References have been made to the white fish industry, and I hope a statement will be made about that fairly soon; but that is a different matter from having a flat rate for all traffic throughout the country. Apart altogether from these matters, one could mention other things which might be done to help traffic in the more remote districts. Subject to the capital development programme, there might be a considerable extension of the number of express perishable goods trains with greater services. There might also be considerable improvements in loading and unloading at both the start and the termination of perishable goods trains, because one of the difficulties of farmers or fishermen in remote districts is that the traffic does not always get to the market at the right time, and anything that can be done to speed up delivery is of immediate benefit to them. Some perishable goods, particularly flowers, in which my own and other Cornish constituencies are interested, travel by passenger train, and it is remarkable to notice that in the last 40 years there has been a considerable falling off in the book times of passenger trains. There was an article on that subject in the "Railway Gazette" in the past week, which gave a table of 50 typical services between London and representative destinations in different parts of the country, comparing the timings of 1913, 1939 and 1951. In only two cases was the timing in 1951 as fast as in 1939. So much for the "poor bag of assets." In all the other 48 cases British Railways are slower than the private enterprise railways before the war. In only seven cases are the 1951 times faster than in 1913; four were the same, and all the rest are slower in 1951 than they were in 1913. In those circumstances, it seems obvious that there must be room for improvement in the speeding up of passenger trains. Although the figures are not so easily ascertainable for perishable goods express trains, I should imagine that that is probably true of them too. For all these reasons, many things could be done to help producers in the remote districts which would be much more effective than the proposals of the hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, North. I notice that at the end of his Motion he
With that, hon. Members on this side of the House most enthusiastically agree. We do want an amendment of the Transport Act, 1947, and we hope we shall get it seen, but for entirely different reasons from those suggested by the hon. and learned Member, and with an entirely different object."strongly urges the Government to introduce legislation to amend the Transport Act."
We are indebted to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hector Hughes) for giving us an opportunity of discussing this matter. Whatever we may say about his arguments, we are bound to recognise that he has gone to great pains in preparing his case. For myself, I cannot accept his case, and I shall try to show why.Before dealing with my hon. and learned Friend's proposals, I should like to make a brief reference to the speech of the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. G. Wilson), who referred to the slow speeds of the present railway services compared with those of 1939 and 1913. The hon. Member was castigating this side of the House to some extent when he contrasted the nationalised arrangements with the private enterprise set-up, but we shall not get any improvement on the railways unless there is very great expenditure in the terms of capital equipment. Many of our locomotives are thoroughly worn out; many of our methods of signalling on the permanent way do not enable the operators, who have a desire to improve the service, to increase the speed of trains, as the hon. Member will have noticed. Mr. John Elliot, the Chairman of the Railway Executive, said the other day that instead of increasing speeds in the future, the Executive might have to reduce speeds on the grounds of safety.
I think that the hon. Member misunderstood my reference. I agree, of course, that there has been a limitation of capital equipment on the railways since the war. I only made a passing allusion in comparing the nationalised railways with the pre-nationalised railways on the grounds that the pre-nationalised railways had been described as "a poor bag of assets" although, in fact, they were better than the existing system.
In 1913 the position was completely different from that of today, as I think the hon. Gentleman would recognise if he had thought a little more about the matter. In 1913, the railways were in a very profitable position comparatively, as he will know. The position both in 1939 and 1951 was totally different, and I do not think that I need labour that point. The British Railways in fact are not a monopoly concern any more. There has come about a development, well-known to us all, which has completely changed their position as a commercial unit and in respect of which we shall have to examine, as I have argued many times in this House, the whole legislative position of the railways.I think that the hon. Gentleman is something of an expert in these matters. He has said already that the railways are hide-bound with a lot of legislation which is completely outmoded, and which places them in an anomalous and unfair position in relation to their competitors. I think that he agrees with me so far. He said that, in some circumstances, we can put up with inefficient methods of transport, and I think he cited the canals which at one time carried a lot of coal and other slow-moving traffic which was not immediately required. The position is somewhat different today. My submission is that we cannot afford an inefficient and inadequate transport system. If I had been permitted to do so in the Budget debate, I should have criticised the limitations on capital expenditure under this head. As Mr. John Elliot indicated, we are not going to have a first-class service—in fact, we are going to have a very inferior service, but a service, however, which enters into everything we do commercially in this country both in terms of goods, time and efficiency—if we are not to make available to the great transport undertakings equipment which will enable them to take out of service locomotives which have been running for the last 30 or 40 years, and if we are not going to enable them to provide modern facilities at collection and terminal points to which the hon. Gentleman referred, which would make the quick collection of goods much easier. When we look at the terminal stations today, such as King's Cross, Paddington and Euston, I think we can agree that they do not get the amount of money necessary for modernisation, but we need not go into the reasons for that.
I agree with the hon. Member; but does he not recollect that last year the Railway Executive were allocated £82 million by the Government and spent only £66 million, so it is not entirely the fault of the Government?
I appreciate that. That was not because they were unwilling to spend the money, but because of difficulty in getting certain materials and contractors to get on with the job. They could do very well with much more than they are allocated this year. I think that we all agree that in a basic service such as this it is vitally necessary for the good economy of the country and the speed-up of the re-armament programme that there should be proper provision in this regard.We have heard about traffic delays at junctions; we have heard about the inconvenience to traders. If we are to have the permanent way, which we boast is the finest permanent way in the world, coming into a state of dereliction so that it is not going to be safe for traffic to run over it at a reasonable speed, where are we getting to? What is the use of having fine equipment in our factories if, when the goods are produced, they are going to limp across the country to our docks, which will result in considerable delay? I do not think my hon. and learned Friend told us the whole story this morning. I think that he made out a good case in terms of special interest for Scotland and his constituents, and his friends in the remote parts of Scotland. He is, of course, here to look after his constituents, and he does it very well. But that is not the whole of the argument which we are asked to accept this morning. The hon. and learned Gentleman talked about freight rates, and the hon. Member for Truro talked about standard charges. The two are entirely different. There are standard charges on the railways today because the railway companies have to give equal 'treatment to all customers; there must not be any preferential treatment. That is different from the time when they were a monopoly in this country and could hand out their favours to anyone in particular.
I think that there is a misunderstanding. The wording of the Motion is
irrespective of the distance covered, and it was to that wording which I was referring and not to the ordinary classification standards."standard freight charges"
I can see how the confusion has arisen. My hon. and learned Friend was talking about freight charges. In railway parlance, as the hon. Gentleman well knows, standard charges are something entirely different.
They are standard by the fact that they are set up for all to see and apply to everyone who comes along.
The hon. Member has referred to me several times. He says that there can be no preference for any particular users of the railway. My argument is that the higher freight charge for remote districts is in fact giving the nearer places a preference, and that, I say, is unfair.
That is not quite what I said. I do not think that my hon. and learned Friend has quite understood my argument. In fact, within the present arrangement for charging traders for railway services, it is possible for the remote places now to be given some consideration, but they must not give John Smith special consideration vis-à-vis Charles Brown who lives down the street. They have to have equality of treatment in that respect and no special preference. So far as the geographical situation is concerned, in the remote parts there can be some zoning and tapering of charges, and, in fact, some special consideration.I would remind hon. Members that the reason for the present bases of railway charges is this: that the charges were based on what was described as "what the traffic would bear." The argument for this, at the time when the railways were a monopoly, was that if the basic industries of this country and if the economy and wealth of this country were to be developed, it was a good investment to encourage by cheap freight charges easy and cheap transport of primary commodities like coal, iron ore and the things necessary to the secondary industries for the production of machinery and so on. Anyone who examines the table of charges which has operated over a long period, with slight amendments from time to time, will see that that is fundamental to the system of charges. It must be related to what the traffic will bear with an eye to the development of the national economy and the commercial interests of the country, giving preference expressly for that reason. That basis was all right in a condition of monopoly, but if we are now to require the railways to give specially cheap rates for the conveyance of coal, iron ore, and other basic commodities necessary to the development of an industrial nation, we must protect them from outside influences which will take away the more profitable traffic. If not, the railways will be left with the traffic bringing in the smaller amount of revenue while operating a system which assumes that they will carry all the traffic, including the more profitable. Under the present system, everything is topsy-turvy in view of the competition. The legislation which requires the railways to carry traffic unless it is objectionable or of an exceptional length, for which special arrangements have to be made, came about in a condition of monopoly, but the position has completely changed, and if the railways must now offer the same reduced charges when their main competitor on the road—the infant which has developed into a lusty giant—can make its own arrangements and is not bound by similar conditions, the situation is ludicrous. Under the Transport Act, 1947, the Commission was required to prepare charges systems for water, road, and rail transport within a certain time so that we could see what was being done to coordinate and integrate the services. The Act laid down that this should be done within two years of its passing, but the task was found to be so great that it had to be deferred. I hope we may be told what progress is being made by the Commission and the Executives in preparing a charges system and what efforts are being made to co-ordinate and simplify the charging systems. When I had the task of offering rates and charging different traffics, a dictionary had to be used. That meticulous division of traffics is completely outmoded and the whole system requires simplification. The fact that we have 21 classes is the result of the system of charging what the traffic will bear, and I have shown that to be outmoded. Reference has been made to the need for agreed charges. Firms like Woolworths size up their traffic and agree a flat-rate basis with the railways, and during the war the Admiralty, the Air Ministry and the War Office had a flat rate of charges irrespective of distance. Much more can be done in this direction. A road haulier does not require a dictionary setting out the conditions under which he shall carry traffic. He looks at the job, sizes it up and quotes a figure. The railways can also size up jobs, and it would be possible for them to arrange the charges system under five or six classes, which would avoid a lot of misunderstanding.
Do I understand that the hon. Gentleman is now advocating the policy which appeared in the Conservative manifesto at the General Election, that there should be greater flexibility in charging by the railways?
I saw nothing in the Conservative manifesto about railway charges, but I saw other things with which I did not agree. I have studied this problem for 25 years and I believe I thought of that a little earlier than the Conservative Central Office did. Anyhow, whether it appeared there or not, the idea is good. There ought to be more flexibility, and until there is a greater integration of services, a greater simplification of the method of charging on the railways, more modernisation of our transport system, and greater efficiency as a result of that, we shall not get very much further in terms of cheaper freights or better services.The railwaymen have done a marvellous service over the years, but there comes a time when they simply cannot maintain the service unless they have the proper tools. For reasons into which I will not go now, the railways were in a very bad condition before the war and had to be completely neglected during the war, and we are now suffering for that. My hon. and learned Friend has no solution in suggesting a flat rate. He gave us no idea what the cost of the Gat rate would be. That was one of the criticisms of the noble Lord the Member for Pentlands (Lord John Hope), who showed that the short-haul traffic would be seriously handicapped. Nor did my hon. and learned Friend make any reference to the competition which is at present inherent in the situation. There is no monopoly today. What would he do about the competing road services? There are some 800,000 vehicles on the roads, of which only 40,000 belong to the Commission, who have no control in respect of charges over the remainder. Does my hon. and learned Friend propose to have a flat rate for the railways, the Commission's road vehicles and the water systems, and leave the coastal services and all the private hauliers free to compete? That is monstrous. The only reason why the Post Office can have a flat rate is that it is a monopoly. If one does not like a transport monopoly and is not prepared to subsidise transport, one cannot have a flat rate for transport. I do not object to the suggestion that some remote areas in Scotland should be dealt with in terms of defence charges, but I do not agree that they should be treated as light railway areas. An hon. Member referred to areas in France with considerable densities of population which are still treated as light railway areas. For these reasons and many others, I cannot support the Motion, but I thank my hon. and learned Friend for giving us an opportunity to discuss the problem and for giving me an opportunity to urge the Minister to press on with the charges schemes, with the process of integration and with getting more capital for the railways, for these things are fundamental to the life of the country.
I listened with interest to the remarks of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Mr. Edward Davies) and from the general tenor of them I could not help feeling that perhaps he is considering joining us on these benches in the near future. I was also interested to hear the speech of the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hector Hughes), who is now seeking to amend the Transport Act for which he voted with such fervour in 1947.The hon. and learned Member also voted for the flat increase on freight charges and, rather inconsistently, just two days afterwards made a most impassioned speech in this House on the question of the Highlands and Islands. The burden of that speech was that the greatest trouble in the north of Scotland was the expensive freight charges. Therefore, I hope that perhaps he, also, will have a real change of heart, and that he will join the other Member of the City of Aberdeen and find himself a Unionist Member of Parliament. I find myself in some difficulty over the Motion and the Amendment. I am against most of the proposals of the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Aberdeen, North, and in favour of some of them; and I am against some of the proposals of my noble Friend's Amendment, but in favour of some of them. Therefore, I can only say that these middle of the road tendencies are perhaps inherited from my Liberal grand-parents.
I was going to suggest that if there were any swops, the hon. Lady herself might join the Liberal Party.
I believe that there would be plenty of room for me in that party.
I can assure the hon. Lady that whatever swops or transfers take place, I shall remain a Socialist all my life.
No doubt that will be to the comfort of the hon. and learned Gentleman's constituents in Aberdeen, North.Coming, as I do, from a Scottish constituency however, and far as we are from the coalfields and from our markets, I must say that we are very acutely aware of the burden of freight charges. Although I have constantly in this House and outside it urged special consideration for the outlying districts, I have never urged the complete terms of the Motion of the hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, North, for certain reasons which I shall now outline. I do not think there could be a flat rate for what the hon. and learned Member calls all essential merchandise, for two main reasons. First, how are we to specify what is essential? He has mentioned agricultural products, but what about the tools for the trade? Second, in the matter of merchandise it is true to say that commercial circles, certainly in the Chamber of Commerce in the City of Aberdeen, are almost equally divided on this problem. Because if there is a flat rate for all transport throughout the country there would, of course, be the danger to the small producers and also to other firms of being swamped out by merchandise from other areas. If I could give a local example, a big firm of caterers like Mitchell and Muil might be flooded out by merchandise from Lyons in the South. We should consider not only this question of the small producers but also of the consumers, because there are consumers in the industrial areas who would not want, as, in fact, would be the case, to subsidise the person who is living in the rural areas, and who has, of course, certain conditions which are denied to those living in the towns. I have, however, always made a special case for the fishing industry, which I will briefly develop, and also coal and fuel oil. First, one should consider the price that is charged under the present transport system. I do not want to go into all the old arguments, because we had some very interesting and specific arguments from my hon. Friend the Member for Truro (Mr. G. Wilson), who has experience of railways, but we on this side of the House are against a State transport system. We believe in competition and flexibility. The Transport Commission themselves, even under the present system, have also recognised this, because they have argued that there should be greater flexibility to encourage competition and bring down costs. They suggest that in paragraph 96 of their Annual Report. Conservatives have always agreed that emphasis should be laid on loading capability; in other words, on weight and convenience rather than on value. When we come to the question of discussing the flat rate proposals we cannot ignore the Report of the Cameron Committee, which has been quoted already this morning. I agree that their terms of reference were restricted to considering the effect of transport in the Highlands and Islands, but they did bring up two main points. They thought that a general flat-rate system would encourage wastefulness in transport, and they also said, paradoxically enough, that it would benefit the industrial areas. In other words, that brings out the point which I made earlier in my speech about the flooding of the markets of the North by merchandise from the South. In this they agree with the Scottish Councils Transport Committee. The Cameron Committee recommended that technical charges should be greatly extended, as was quoted in detail by the hon. and learned Gentleman, right up to the 300th mile. Let us briefly examine these proposals. It seems to me that the value of the tapering charges was damaged by the fixed percentage increase for freight rates. These were, of course, granted under the Defence Regulations, and, since 1948, under the interim increase procedure of Section 82 of the Transport Act. In December, 1951, they were, however, partially remedied by the Ministry of Transport putting a limit of 10s. a ton on any increase. What claim could one make out for a flat rate or a special scheme for the transport of fish? The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North, accused the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Aberdeen, North, of special pleading for his own constituency. I should like to put it to him that while pleading for the fishing industry, I do it, not for a constituency reason—although that might have something to do with it—but because it has already been recognised that the fishing industry above all others has a strategic value both in peace and in war. The only possible justification for any special treatment is that of strategic reasons. This has been recognised by the White Fish Authority, in that they are already preparing a scheme, and we hope to hear from the Minister later today when this scheme is to be laid before the Transport Tribunal. I understand that the latest date for the general charges scheme will have to be August, 1953, but I am hoping it will be very much earlier than that. The only kind of scheme which we have had for the white fish industry which was different from the general procedure for merchandise, arose during the war, when there was a special arrangement with the Ministry of Food, who, in fact, paid the charges and were financed by a special and compulsory levy on the industry as a whole. This was at a time when there was control of fish, with which I do not personally agree, because I feel that since taking off price control we have had better quality fish in the consumer markets. It is true that any industry or firm can negotiate a certain scheme with the railways. Therefore, we are concerned either with having a renewal of that scheme, or we can have a general scheme, which will take much longer to carry out, of a general increase with tapering charges throughout the country, or a definite flat rate, which is, in fact, a direct subsidy and, as I said earlier, can only be justified on strategic grounds. I suggest that the fishing industry is a special case for subsidy. I see my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Law) here. He represents the port of Hull, which has sometimes been in conflict with the port of Aberdeen on this question. We pride ourselves in the North on a fishing industry which produces good quality, and we think that consumers throughout the country appreciate that quality just as they appreciate the quality of the fish brought in from Hull and Grimsby. This industry has a great many problems, not the least of which is the provision of new boats and their financing. We should give the industry some very important assistance if we could do something towards meeting its freight charges. I should also like, in dealing with the fishing industry, to refer to what I consider to be the basic commodities of all industries in this country, namely, coal and fuel oil. We are severely handicapped by the increases in the price of coal and fuel oils when they reach us in the North. We must consider these matters in connection with a long-term plan for the future of the country. The present situation is that most industries try to build up their power round the coalfields. To make any violent and drastic change would in these districts mean an immediate increase of export prices. Nevertheless, for several reasons, I think the Government ought to take courage, and experiment, to see whether they can do something to benefit the whole country, by distributing these basic commodities, coal and fuel oil, in a way which would help the development areas and would develop industries. These objects are most important, not only from the strategic but from the social point of view. Secondly, by introducing more favourable terms for commercial fuel we should, in time, give very great assistance to this island as a trading community. As we know only too well, our greatest difficulty at this time is the competitive price. Our problem is always that we have to make the best use of our skill, of our flexible industry and of our quality goods. While we are faced with the present costs of freight and of basic fuel we shall find it hard to seek and to keep new markets overseas. In conclusion, I ask the Government to try to be bold on this issue of fuel. I know it involves great political decisions, as was stated by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond). On these two matters, the fishing industry and basic fuels, the Government should experiment, going on the old principle. "Nothing venture, nothing have."
I do not propose to keep the House for more than a few minutes, but I want to take the opportunity which you have been so good as to afford me, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, to support the principle underlying the Motion. I hope that the noble Lady the Member for Aberdeen, South (Lady Tweedsmuir), will forgive me for not following some of the arguments which she has advanced this morning. I could not help but be impressed by the fact that she would like a scheme of subsidies to be advanced by the Government, particularly for the fishing industry.What an extraordinary departure from the philosophy of the Tory Party which I remember so vividly from the years immediately after the First World War. May I remind the noble Lady that one of the most disastrous strikes that ever occurred in the whole of our industrial history was caused by the refusal of the Tory Party to subsidise the coal industry, in 1925, with a view to maintaining a subsistence wage for the coal miners. Had this been acceded by the Baldwin Government, the disastrous lock-out of 1926 would not have been experienced.
As the hon. Gentleman has specifically referred to me, perhaps he will do me the honour of recalling that when I made a special plea for a subsidy just now, I said that the only justification for such a thing was, from the strategic point of view, both in peace and in war.
I imagine that there was nothing more strategically necessary than to maintain the coal miners in their vocation, particularly in view of the extraordinary demand for miners at present. We have not ceased paying the price for that disaster of 1926, imposed by the unimaginative and stupid Tory Party in the years immediately following the First World War.I had the temerity, during the passage of the Coal Industry Nationalisation Bill, to advocate, in Committee, the acceptance of the principle advanced by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hector Hughes). I urged in a short speech that we should depart from the economics of private enterprise in the conduct of the coal industry as a public undertaking and that wages and prices should be determined in accordance with the economic capacity of the industry as a whole. I recall vividly the years of unrest in the coalfields when the miners were convinced that the wages and the prices of coal were determined by the least productive pit in the industry. That was the conviction that lead the miners to the strike of 1921. Hon. Members may recall how the miners came out on strike in support of the national pool because they wanted their wages to be determined by the industry as a whole. The coal owners refused to concede their case, because, they said, it would drive out the least productive coal pit. Therefore, the miners had to pay the price, by low wages, of retaining for the benefit of the private coal owners the least productive pits. The highest and more productive pits not only got the profit of the least productive pits, but the additional profits from the more fertile range of the industry as well. Therefore, I hope that in course of time the Socialist principle advanced in this Motion will be accepted not only for the coal industry, but for the whole of our public utility services. Our postal services represent the economic organisation of a great service. I remember that when I was a young telegraph messenger I was astonished that a telegram which I delivered to the remote parts of Wales would be delivered at precisely the same price as one delivered within my own home town, except for a slight fee according to the number of miles which the telegram had to go. The principle underlying this Motion is one which will be increasingly accepted in the course of years, so that whether a person is living in the remoter parts of Wales or Scotland he will enjoy the same economic benefits from industry and from our services as one living in the more urbanised area. May I say to the noble Lady the Member for Aberdeen, South, who has been such an able advocate for Scotland this morning, that if she wants the right economy for Scotland, she will get it if she will come over to these benches—
—very much quicker than by any other way.
The noble Lady the Member for Aberdeen, South (Lady Tweedsmuir) said she would speak only on one aspect of the proposals in the Motion, and I, too, will confine my remarks to the fishing industry. The hon. Lady also said that she was speaking mainly from a constituency point of view, and my position is the same. However, at that point I part company because I must disagree emphatically with almost everything she said about the effect of this Motion on the fishing industry.The one point of agreement I had with my hon. Friend was when she said that the fishing industry had a special claim for consideration because it is so important from a national strategic point of view. I think a case can be made out for help to the smaller ports from the point of view of national defence and of national well-being. Where I cannot agree with her is that it is impossible to find a solution of this problem less imbecile than the one put forward by the hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hector Hughes). The hon. Member for Oldbury and Halesowen (Mr. Moyle) reproved my hon. Friend for abandoning what he described as the traditional Tory philosophy in respect of subsidies. I do not know whether it is traditional Tory philosophy or not but, if it is, it may relieve him to know that I at any rate have not abandoned it. I do not hold with subsidies. I think all subsidies are bad. Some are worse than others, but the form of subsidy proposed in this Motion is the worst of all. This Motion is rather fascinating in one respect, in that the hon. and learned Member has contrived to get into manageable compass almost every fallacy and confusion of thought and illusion which characterises Socialist thinking on all these matters. I have never seen a better example of the confusion of Socialist thinking—
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way for a moment? I see no advocacy of subsidies in this Motion. I gather that its underlying principle is that the economy of the industry of service should be determined by the capacity of the industry as a whole in relation to costs and prices.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not see any advocacy of subsidies in this Motion. That is the point I was trying to make. If I may say so with all respect, he has just given an example of that confusion of thought to which I have been referring. It would be impossible to make this Motion effective without a subsidy of some kind.Quite apart from the fact that this Motion, like all similar Motions, is endeavouring to impose artificially and by legislation an equality which does not exist in human affairs, there stands out a mile the idea which the hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, North expressed in so many words. It is that every section of the community—the producer, the distributor and the consumer—would receive economic benefits by Act of Parliament if this Motion were to be carried and, at the same time, that no section of the community would pay anything for it. He said in so many words that the great advantage of nationalised transport is that it does not cost anything because the State will pay.
The right hon. Gentleman has entirely misapprehended my argument. It was that this island is a geographical and economic unit, a whole community, and that every part of this island should be treated on that basis by the railway transport system so that the remote districts would not be penalised as they are at present and that this should be paid for out of State funds.
Yes, I heard that part of the speech too. It is within the recollection of the House that the hon. and learned Member said that everybody would get economic benefit from this—the producers, the distributors and the consumers—and after all there are not many other people in the country besides those. He said it would not cost very much because the nationalised state could take over the upkeep of the permanent way and pay for it. But that is a form of subsidy, and this could not be done without some form of subsidy. Who will really pay for this?
The nation will.
I will tell the hon. and learned Member. In the main the working class population in industrial Lancashire, industrial Yorkshire, Birmingham and London will pay for it. For whether we like it or not, the greatest amount of fish caught and landed on these shores comes from the Humber and the Lancashire coast. A very small proportion comes from Aberdeen—I doubt whether it is much more than 10 or 15 per cent. of the total catch. The remaining 80 per cent., or the greater part of it, comes from the Humber and the Lancashire coast.My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South, talked about the quality of Aberdeen fish. I have no doubt that it is very good. I think that the quality of our fish is very good too, but the fact is—
Let me finish this—the fact is that the great bulk of the fish for the great centres of industrial population goes from the Humber and from the Lancashire coast on a short railway journey. The imposition of a flat rate could only be done either by open subsidy or by getting a kind of general average level of freight charges which will cover Aberdeen, Falmouth and Mevagissey, and Hull and Grimsby also.
The whole country.
Yes, the whole country. If that is done, the effect would be to put up the costs of freight very considerably for the great bulk of fish, which goes, in the main, to the industrial centres of population, in order to give a benefit, which I believe to be very largely illusory, to the producer of the much smaller quantity of what my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South, would call quality fish; and the people who would pay for these proposals, if they were adopted, would he the industrial population in the great industrial centres. To me, that does not seem to make sense.There is another aspect to which I am entitled to refer. I am not an expert in rail transport like my hon. Friend the Member for Truro (Mr. G. Wilson), or the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Mr. Edward Davies), who spoke earlier. But it must be recognised that if we were to institute the flat rate all over the country, it would impose a tremendous strain on the railway system. The carriage of this kind of freight has been developed over a very long time on the basis of these particular ports. It has developed that way because that has been the most economic system of getting fish to the consumer in the great urban centres. If a standard rate is imposed so that every port is treated on absolute equality, fish is bound to be forced, so to speak, into channels of distribution that are not economic but which are artificially supported and of their nature uneconomic. That is bound to add to the general congestion and confusion of the nationalised railway system. I do not see how it is possible to get away from that. I can see why the hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, North and the hon. Member for Oldbury and Halesowen support the proposal contained in the Motion. It is because it is incompatible with any rational system of free enterprise that I can think of. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) surprised me very much, because I had the privilege of travelling round the world with him a short time ago and, as a result of our various conversations together, I got the impression that as far as Liberals can be said to believe in such a thing nowadays, he believed in a private enterprise system. I was very surprised, therefore, when he told me that he was proposing to second the Motion today. I wonder whether the hon. Member knows—I am sure he does, because he knows a good deal more than he says sometimes—that in the United States a proposal such as he has been making to the House this morning would be illegal? It is one of the most well known and open devices of monopoly, and it is specifically prohibited by the Sherman Anti-Trust laws for that very reason. I hope that before the hon. Member supports proposals of this kind in the House again, he will refresh his study of monopolistic practices in the United States.
Does that mean that the right hon. Gentleman is going to take his standards of political conduct from the United States? Is that to be the footrule by which our proposals are to be measured in future?
I wish to goodness it was, and I will say why: because the United States believe in free competition and free enterprise. They have effective antimonopoly legislation and have provided for the working classes and for the whole community a standard of life far higher than anything which any other country has and anything that by any conceivable stretch of the imagination the Socialist theories would produce for the people of this country.
The right hon. Gentleman chastised the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) somewhat unduly. May I draw his attention to the fact that even the Tory Party are susceptible to education? Their standard of stupidity is not quite the same in 1952 as it was in 1922. In fact, at the last General Election but one, the Conservative Party announced to the country that they had accepted coal nationalisation. May I also remind the right hon. Gentleman that it was the Conservative Party who introduced the form of Socialism as expressed through the B.B.C.? All that the Motion is suggesting—
On a point of order. Is it in order to make a second speech in an interjection?
I am sorry, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. The only point with which we are involved is that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North, (Mr. Hector Hughes) is asking that the price of coal should be determined by the industry as a whole.
Evidently I shall need to speak longer to the right hon. Gentleman on our next world tour. As far as the north of Scotland is concerned, theirs is a special case because it is an area which has to be developed, having fallen to a very low standard, for reasons which we need not pursue now. I referred earlier to the fact that there was no competition in transport in the north of Scotland even before nationalisation. If it can be shown that the transport can be brought back effectively to bring down the rates and not to build them up again, I should be very much in favour of it.
I agree with the hon. Member that the far north of Scotland, to which he referred in his speech, represents a very special problem, and I should not dissent from the proposition that it ought to receive very special treatment. All I said was that there was no reason, just because the supporters of the Motion want to help one section or another of the community, that we should introduce proposals which would have the effect of doing tremendous harm to the bulk of the people. I believe that we can help the Highlands and the north of Scotland and the fishing industry there without any such measure as the imbecile proposals contained in the Motion introduced by the hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, North, and supported, to my great regret, by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland.I said earlier that while it is true that the effect of this proposal, if carried, would be to tax the great agglomeration, the vast population, of the Midlands, Lancashire, Yorkshire and London—I think it might amount to a 50 per cent. increase in freight charges in those areas—I believe that the benefit to the fisher- men in the far north of Scotland, in Shetland, or Aberdeen, would be very illusory. Assume for the sake of argument that this proposal was made effective and that the cost of sending fish from Aberdeen, from Mallaig, or wherever we like, to Bournemouth was reduced from say 3s. 6d. a cran to 1s. 6d. a cran. There is no reason to suppose that the producer, the fisherman, would get the benefit of that 2s. differential. The fish goes into auction and the auctioneer buys it at the lowest price he can and in his bidding he does not provide for a margin of 2s. which will go to the fisherman. I believe that this proposal would be extremely harmful for the great bulk of the population and would not in fact help those it is intended to help.
Does not the same reasoning apply in Grimsby and Hull? If there is a change in the price of fish, a change in the subsidy, or any change in freight rates in Hull or Grimsby, is there any guarantee that workers in the industry will get the benefit? The same argument applies.
I did not quite get the hon. and learned Member's question.
Is there any guarantee that the workers will get the benefit of a fall of freights, or transport charges, or anything of that kind?
Yes, surely the workers in Hull get the benefit of the so far prevailing free economic system in the fishing industry inasmuch as they have higher wages and better conditions than in any other fishing port in the country and, of course, they get the benefit. The proposal of the hon. and learned Member would mean that all the Hull fisherman's natural and traditional customers would be cut off and he would have to try to force his commodity into other channels of distribution, just as the constituents of the hon. and learned Member would be forcing their commodity into channels of distribution which are not natural to it.The hon. and learned Member said that he had got a shock by the fact that one of the Ministers in this Government had approached this problem in what he described as "a rather private enterprise manner." I hope very much that the Parliamentary Secretary, when he replies to the debate, will not be afraid of approaching this matter in "a rather private enterprise manner." I suggest that we must get away from this idea that everything in life has got to be equal. We have to realise that attempting to create a purely theoretical equality of treatment over the whole country always creates, and is bound to create, anomalies far greater than any it is intended to remove. We are accustomed to hon. Members of the party opposite saying that all men, whatever their differences, may be are equal—
—but I think it a new departure, and I do not think a very helpful one, when they come to this House and say "Not only are all men equal, but all places are equidistant and, if not, we will make them so."
I think it was the famous Tim Healy who, when speaking, was interrupted by little Joe Devlin and turned to him and said. "Down, you diminutive Demosthenes!" I could not help the phrase coming to my mind when the hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hector Hughes) was introducing his Motion, with so much eloquence. I think we are very grateful to him for doing so because it is a very important and fundamental principle that is involved and, like my noble Friend the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Lady Tweedsmuir), I find myself in somewhat of a difficulty.While I agree generally with the underlying principle of the Motion, I cannot support it completely, wholeheartedly and absolutely. At the same time, I feel I must say a word or two, if only to oppose and resist the terms of the Amendment, because it rejects this principle out of hand and in a rather doctrinaire way without really giving it fair consideration. The principle involved is capable, if applied, of making a tremendous change in the whole pattern and shape of our community. The present shape and pattern of our society has been created since the Industrial Revolution. It is probable that the Industrial Revolution has been the principal cause, and it has been going on ever since, of the conglomeration of people into our great, dark, dirty towns and the drain of people from the fair countryside. It has been going on ever since then, but just recently it has received a stimulus, and a very powerful stimulus, in the misfortune which has fallen upon us in this steady, slow, upward trend of freight charges. It is a national misfortune and I think even the most diehard adherent to the policy of laissez faire would admit that if a great national misfortune falls upon a community, in some way or another it is the duty of Government to ensure that that misfortune shall be equally and fairly shared as far as may be possible by all people in the community. We are suffering from the particular national misfortune that our freight charges are going up, and the burden is not being borne equally by the whole community. If we have a 10 per cent. rise in freight charges it does not mean a 10 per cent. rise in costs to every manufacturer. It depends entirely where he is, whether he is in the North of Scotland, somewhere in the Orkneys, or Shetland, or happens to be near Hull. It falls totally disproportionately and, as this goes on and charges rise, the injustice becomes more and more glaring. I agree that the question of freight charges, as my hon. Friend the Member for Truro (Mr. G. Wilson) said, is not the whole story, but it is the principle of what is happening. I could give examples of this ad nauseam, but I do not propose to do so. If I refer to the subject of fish, it is because that subject has been raised. In October, 1950, the freight of fish from Belfast—Belfast is a very important place—to London was 11s. 5d. per cwt. In March, 1952, this month, the charge was 13s. 8d. per cwt.—a rise of 2s. 3d. That is quite a substantial rise. I do not know what the rise has been in charges from Grimsby during that period, but certainly it has not been 2s. 3d. I could give a number of other examples on the subject of fish. My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Law) dismissed the idea of a subsidy in a rather doctrinaire way. If we admit the strategic importance of maintaining the fishing fleets then we might possibly justify the suggestion on strategic grounds alone. But I think we can go farther than that. There is a special case for a freight rate in the fishing industry on human as well as strategic grounds. It seems to me an inhuman thing to allow this national misfortune to drive fishermen off the sea and to make people leave the traditional occupations which their fathers and grandfathers have followed for countless generations. A place like Northern Ireland suffers particularly from this upward trend in freights. It is a long way away, and its industries must depend on the carriage of raw materials to the factories and their products to the markets. In the case of coal there has been a rise of 10 per cent. to 19s. 11d. a ton on carriage.
How much is coal per ton?
I cannot tell the hon. Member the actual price of coal offhand, but I know that the cost of the freight on coal, which is what we are discussing, is 19s. 11d. per ton. It mostly comes from Ayrshire. I admit that we do not have to carry it so far to Belfast as to other parts of the country—it is even questionable whether Belfast would benefit from a flat rate in coal—but I see that there is an argument there, even though it may not benefit my own constituency. In the case of bitumen per ton coming from the refineries in Cheshire to Wigan the cost is £10 19s., and to Belfast, £16 12s. 6d. I could give examples in the case of flour and oil, and so on.The ultimate effect is that the older industries in these far away places will gradually die out. They will find the costs too high to make their products economic. We shall get unemployment in these areas as we are already getting in Northern Ireland, where employment is dependent on certain basic staple industries like textiles. We are experiencing tremendous unemployment because we have failed to get enough new industries of a different type, to take up the unemployment when it comes about through a recession in our basic industries. The reason is primarily this upward rise in the cost of freights. It does not seem to me to be fair that this great national misfortune should be borne by the more remote places like Northern Ireland and not shared by others. Some form of equalisation must be worked out, whether it be an absolute flat rate, as is suggested by the hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, North, or some tapering system, perhaps of a more drastic nature than at present. We cannot disregard the matter utterly and completely. After all, why should mankind have to huddle together, like bees round a honeypot, round the sources of raw materials, or the markets? Are not we much better than they? We have, I presume, a certain amount of intelligence and we ought to work out some method whereby we do not have to gather, like wee pigs round a trough, in the way in we do in these dark, unhealthy, unhygienic, enormous towns, and forsake the fair countryside, the seaside, the mountains, and all the rest of the country. We should resist this brutish tendency and, instead, devise and maintain a system of transport which would make this a fair land in which to live.
I hope I may be allowed, in all humility, to suggest to the hon. and gallant Member for Down, South (Captain Orr) that he should continue thinking along the lines on which he has been addressing the House. I hope that when he has gone a little further he will have the courage to apply political action to the very sound lines upon which his mind is evidently advancing. For no greater contrast could be imagined than the speech of the right hon. Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Law) and the speech of the hon. and gallant Member. It was a bit unfortunate that the hon. and gallant Member alluded to the stature of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hector Hughes) at the commencement of his speech, because I think that if I stood them back to back it would be very difficult to decide who was the "diminutive Demosthenes."I am speaking only for myself in this matter, and I would put this point to the right hon. Member for Haltemprice. I have the good fortune to have two friends who, in spite of violent political differences, at appropriate seasons of the year send me gifts of game. One has a shoot in Sutherlandshire, which is several hundreds of miles from my home. The other has a shoot near Guildford, which is about 16 miles from my home. They send me their gifts of game through the post. For equal weights they pay equal charges, and I get the benefit. What is the difference between game and fish, except that game is more generally consumed by the rich than by the poor?
Perhaps the right hon. Member would allow me to give a brief answer to that point. The difference between game and fish is in fact quantity. I have no doubt that from the pure aspect of economics it would pay the Post Office to charge a differential rate between the various noble Friends of the right hon. Gentleman, if it were not for the fact that the quantities in weight are so small that the administrative burden would add tremendously to the cost. But in the case of fish that argument does not apply at all. The argument is all the other way. A flat rate would make a tremendous additional charge.
May I put to my right hon. Friend one point—kippers. There are plenty of kippers which are sent by post, masses of them, and they are all charged at the same rate.
I rather suspect that the real answer is that the differential rate benefits the fishermen who live in the Haltemprice division of Kingston-upon-Hull, and that game is a matter of complete indifference to them.
That is right.
I recollect that in my younger days there was in this House a distinguished Liberal Member, Mr. Harold Cox, who regularly advanced the argument that the Post Office was a most illiberal set-up, because it did not impose a differential rate on the various letters and parcels it conveyed according to distance. When I sometimes hear of the liberalising of the Conservative Party, I hardly thought it meant that the son of a distinguished Conservative Prime Minister would be adopting in principle the views of Mr. Harold Cox. We do not want to go back to the "backwoodsmen," even of the Liberal Party. I suggest that the hon. and gallant Member for Down, South indicated lines on which this matter ought properly to be examined.There is, I suggest, and I speak only for myself, a responsibility in these days to see that the kind of description which the hon. and gallant Gentleman gave of the way in which communities are forced to congregate round certain spots, to the detriment of their health, both physically and spiritually, ought to be a subject of concern to this House, and of those responsible for the government of the country. While I am not to be taken as subscribing to the doctrine that, of necessity, there should be a flat rate for everything, I think a great deal more ought to be done to ensure that there shall be a more reasonable use of the transport facilities of this country, so that people living in remote areas may both send and receive—because it works both ways—the things that ought to be regarded in this country as essential to normal standards of existence. I receive frequent complaints from my own constituents about the way in which fruit and vegetables which are freely available in the South of England are frequently very difficult to obtain—and difficult to obtain at the same prices as in the South of England—because of the charges that are made, and I have heard, on occasions late at night, hon. Members from the North of Scotland complaining very bitterly about the way in which their constituents were deprived of such things as tomatoes and other products freely available in the South of England because of the differential charges that rule. After all, it should be possible to secure, by a reasonable use of the machinery of these various services, that people living in the remote parts should be able to have the reasonable amenities of social existence in this country.
Will my right hon. Friend apply that also to coal?
I certainly would apply it to coal. I regard the differential charges for coal as among the greatest anomalies that this country has, even especially after we have nationalised the coal industry, but I suggest that this cannot be dismissed in the doctrinaire way in which the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Haltemprice dismissed it today. I did wonder if, when the right hon. Gentleman represented Kensington, South, he would have found it quite as easy to argue his case as he did when speaking on behalf of the Hull fishing industry.I suggest to the House that this is a subject that deserves more consideration than the right hon. Gentleman suggested it should have, and that there may very well be a case for dealing more scientifically than we do at the moment with the problems that are raised in the Motion of my hon. and learned Friend.
I share the view of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Down, South (Captain Orr) about people being concentrated in dark places like bees round the honeypot. This view was strongly supported by the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede), but I wonder if both of them, and particularly the right hon. Gentleman, realise why there are so many bees round the honeypot in Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester, Dundee, London and all the other dark spots.Is it not very largely due to the unrestricted free trade policy of the Liberal Party, so strongly supported by the Socialist Party, down the years? Is it not a fact that people in the remote areas of the Orkneys and Shetlands, Caithness and Sutherland, Cornwall and other places had to seek work and wages in these black spots because it was not profitable to live and work on the land where they lived? That is, fundamentally, the cause of the depopulation of the Highlands, and I am grateful to the mover of the Motion because of the opportunity which it gives this House, and which is so rarely presented, of discussing other matters than the plight of the railways. It is not only a question of the plight of people who are penalised by savage transport rates, but of the plight of the railways running at heavy losses, in spite of the fact that they took over the plum traffics between Manchester and Glasgow and the other big centres, along with some of the sour plums, represented by the remote areas. It also reveals the great social problem, to which the former Home Secretary referred, of too many people concentrated in one place, running up huge bills in preventing disease, which would not have happened if there had been a better distribution of the population. It also reveals that Britain is not getting the use of the remote areas to which she is entitled and which she should have. What is our greatest problem at home? Is it how to feed 50 million people in these islands, and what use we are making of the Highlands area, where thousands of acres have gone back to jungle in the last century and a half—land that is not worth tilling, but which had been made fertile by our forebears by the sweat of their brows, but is now unremunerative because unrestricted free trade made it impossible to compete with the great prairie lands overseas. Transport rates have always been high, even in private enterprise days, when there were between 200 and 300 railway companies, each taking its own pound of flesh for every passenger and every item of goods that passed over its lines. The truth is that the railways have been running away from competition. I believe in competition, and I do not believe in the flat rate, for the economic reasons so ably given by my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Law). I believe that the railways can work out their own salvation, and, in so doing, will make the right approach to the remote areas by facing up to modernising their services and making them more attractive. If one studies the Reports of the British Transport Commission, they reveal that that is wholly true. If the rates are made attractive, people will use the services, and it will be possible for us to send our goods by rail, instead of striving to send them by any other method, because of the penal rates charged by the railways. If we look at the accounts, we find that, on the freight side, 80 per cent. of the income is derived from the favoured rates given to industries which could not afford to pay any more. The railways have had to pay these special rates ever since I have known them, and they have complained about them, and the same applies in regard to passenger rates. Cheap fares have gone up by millions, and the normal rates have gone down. I will not say any more about passenger rates, because I fear I might be out of order. The railways have driven themselves out of business. There should be a change of policy and a realisation that all their capital costs were incurred when the railways were being made—the stations are there, and the signal boxes, and the whole system is manned for 24 hours a day. If ever there was an industry which could benefit from increasing turnover, which is what would follow from cheaper rates, it must be the railways. When newspapers cost several shillings a copy, only a very few people bought them, but when the great national newspapers came down to a penny and a halfpenny, their turnover was enormous and they became highly prosperous while giving an efficient and cheap service to the people. Is not that true of the railways? In my area we run two trains each way each day at a speed of about 23 miles an hour; but we pay the same rates as if we were going at 60 miles an hour between London and Glasgow. I believe that in the summer we could run 40 trains a day if we made the fares attractive, and certainly we could run many more freight trains. But we are hamstrung by the railway monopoly. Every time there is an increase in costs, up go the fares, instead of the railways facing the hard economic truth that they are pricing themselves out of business. It is vitally important, far beyond the terms of the Motion, that Britain should begin to use the Highland areas, and possibly the Cornish area and North Wales as well. We could make a tremendous contribution to the nation's food. Everyone will admit that we have made a great contribution in very fine people; indeed, there is no finer stock in Britain. I wonder whether the House realises that in the great historic county of Sutherland the population has fallen to less than that of an English village—13,400; and that Caithness is next most depopulated. This affects towns where people have lived for centuries and which carried a large number of people. The Highland area carried one-third of the population of Scotland 120 years ago; now it carries less than one-twentieth. Towns like Wick and Thurso, which were mentioned earlier in the debate, are dying of economic decay. There is a tremendous job to be done. This Motion on flat rates will not do it, for very strong economic reasons, but the ventilation of this subject may have done some good. If it is taken up by Press and public and comes back to us in the House, we may be able to galvanise the railways into facing their responsibilities by making their service attractive to the people, because if they fail to do that, there can be no economic future for railways in Britain.
I think we can all agree that there has been a tragic deterioration in our railways during the past decade and, if we are to be quite fair about it, I think we must blame a good deal of it not only on the war but also on the fact that the railways have been starved of capital—necessarily starved of capital, I think—over the last seven years.The result, of course, is that our railway system and the service given by it to the country is generally worse today than at any time during the last 30 years—and I do not think anybody can deny that fact. It is certainly incomparably worse than it was before the First World War, because I am old enough to remember the railway system then, and I took a keener interest in railways in those days than in any other subject. I disagreed in principle with my hon. Friend the Member for Truro (Mr. G. Wilson), but I very much agreed with one passage in his speech in which he dealt with the necessity for the development of a proper light railway system in this country. There are two branch lines in my constituency; one is open, and one is more or less shut. The rolling stock on the one which is open was built some time in the last century. Very few people see the inside of it, because everybody goes to Aberdeen by some other means of transport if they can. It is possible to get there a little bit faster, I think, on a push-bike than by this railway. It is interesting to note that there are only two speeds for this train. One is the very alarming speed of 65 miles an hour while it is going downhill; and for the rest, the speed is about 10 miles an hour. There does not seem to be any speed between these two. The train takes a very long time to draw up, and a very long time to start again; and as it has to draw up and start again a great many times between Peterhead or Fraserburgh and Aberdeen, it takes a long time over the rail voyage, despite these somewhat astonishing bursts of speed for a few frightening minutes. The other branch line, between Aberdeen and Macduff, which served a very important agricultural area, has been closed to passenger traffic altogether. Nevertheless, it is kept up for about one goods train a day. All the signal boxes are working, all the permanent way is kept up—everything for the safe conduct of trains: but no trains. With the best will in the world, I cannot believe that this is a wise form of economy, or an efficient method of transport.
Is the hon. Gentleman seriously saying that all the signal boxes are working on that line?
I am seriously saying that; if they were not, it would be very perilous for the solitary goods train.
I asked that question because it was a surprising thing to hear, in view of the sort of procedure generally followed. Normally, there is only a skeleton staff, and usually an automatic system of signalling is put into operation. It is most unusual for all the signal boxes to remain open for one train a day.
It may be that one or two of the signal boxes have been closed—I do not know; but, generally, the permanent way is kept up, and the line is kept up, and safety is assured. A certain number of station masters have been withdrawn, and that I regard as unfortunate, because they were an extremely nice lot of station masters.To return to the argument advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Truro, what I want to know is why we cannot develop a light railway system in this country for the transport of both freight and passengers by diesel-engine cars? Why cannot this be done? I simply do not know. All I can suppose is that there has been no drive, no imagination, no enterprise by the Railway Executive at all. I have long held the view that we need such a system. I agree that the railways are starved of capital, but I also think that they are—well perhaps I had better not say exactly what I think about them, but the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport already knows, as I have told him on paper. I fail to see why we have not developed a system of diesel-engine transport to feed the main lines in the big industrial areas, and maintain the branch lines in the country. Any hon. Member who goes to almost any part of the Continent will see little diesel cars shooting about all over the place, like trams, fast, efficient, safe and cheap. I think we should now take this matter seriously, and get down to dealing with it. I come to the wider issue, on which I agree in principle with the hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hector Hughes), and disagree with some of my hon. Friends. I thought that the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) got down to the root of the problem when he drew the attention of the House to the location of industry in this country at the present time; to the enormous concentration in the Midlands and on the Mersey and on the Clyde and on the Tyne; to the terrifying possibilities of such a concentration of population from the strategic point of view—with a mass population in an era of atomic bombs, supposing there was ever to be another war; to the extraordinary disbalance between some parts of the country and others. There are, on the one hand, the industrial areas where people live in appalling housing conditions; while, at the same time, in the north and west, we have areas of land which are scarcely populated at all. I think this displacement—or, rather, maldistribution, I should say—of our industrial population lies at the root of the problem which the House is considering today. Never since the end of the First World War has the House of Commons faced the necessity of planning a better distribution and location of industry throughout the country. As the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) will remember, we ran away from the problem during the '20s and the '30s; and we have never tackled it since the war. How are we to get the factories into the remoter areas? We must give them some inducement to go there. I suggest that we shall not succeed unless we do something about transport freight charges, because I think that at present they add just that much extra cost to production which discourages firms from going into those areas. My noble Friend the Member for Pentlands (Lord John Hope) thought that if we made this difference in freight charges, if we had a form of weight instead of distance charge, it would affect existing factories in country districts by bringing hot competition from the factories in the industrial south. One can judge on that only by what goes on in one's own constituency. In my constituency there are—and I will name them—three important factories, one a precision tool factory manufacturing precision tools of the highest possible complexity, and two others that are canning factories. When I tell the House that these belong to Crosse and Blackwell and Maconochies, Members will realise that they are not likely to be challenged by any very hot competition from other canning factories in this country. What are they up against? These factories in my constituency are building up, in the teeth of considerable obstacles, a most valuable export trade—the Consolidated Pneumatic Tool company, so far as precision instruments are concerned; and Crosse and Blackwell and Maconochies in canned goods—canned foods, including canned herrings; and they are developing valuable export markets all over the world. While doing so they have to compete against what, I submit, is a quite unnecessary additional cost in the form of heavy transport charges to the south. I think that that imposes an unnecessary burden on them, and an unnecessary handicap upon our export trade. I further think that this is a serious discouragement to other firms for coming to the north of Scotland and starting up. I need hardly say that, so far as labour is concerned, we produce the best in the world. Up in the north of Scotland we work harder, and are much more skilful, than any other section of the population. So there is in this a great inducement for firms to come up to Fraserburgh or Peterhead or elsewhere. From these enormous additional transport charges, however, they flinch; and I do not blame them. The fact is that population is still drifting away from the north to the south. It is still going on—this infernal drift from the north to the south, from the country to the town. I want to reverse that trend, and I say that if this is to happen, if this trend is to be reversed, something must be done about transport, and some greater emphasis must be placed on weight rather than on distance, even if it takes the form of tapering charges for certain classes of goods. I now want to say one word on the specific subject of fish.
Before the hon. Gentleman comes to another point, may I ask him a question? When he talks about the burden of heavy transport charges, I hope he is not confining his remarks to the railways? He must surely know that the Road Haulage Association, for example, which is a private concern, has just announced a 10 per cent. increase in road haulage charges from the beginning of next month. So the hon. Gentleman must not leave the impression that it is only the railways who are to blame.
The hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Aberdeen, North, addressed his remarks exclusively to the railways, and I have stuck to the railways in the hope that, for once, I shall remain in order. If the whole transport system is covered by the Motion, that, of course, is interesting; but I think that if the hon. Gentleman reads the Motion he will find that it does not cover road charges; certainly, the arguments in this debate hitherto have related specifically to the railways, and I intend to confine myself for once to the narrower subject.So far as fish is concerned, this seems to me to offer an avenue for speedy action on the part of the Government, because there is no reason why a flat-rate charge should not be re-imposed for fish. We have had it before. It does not depend on fixed prices. I am against fixed prices for fish. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Lady Tweedsmuir) that since we removed fixed prices we have certainly got a better quality of fish in the shops. I am therefore against the re-imposition of fixed prices, but it is important that there should be a flat rate for perishable fish transport. It can be done. The plans are all there; and I say to the Government that I would put them into operation—for white fish—as speedily as possible. My hon. Friend the Member for Truro, I think it was, said that freight charges did not matter for the fishing industry, and that it was punctuality and efficiency that mattered. It is not true. I agree that punctuality and efficiency are important: but after the fiat-rate charge was removed from the transport of fish, the trains from the north to Billingsgate were rather more inefficient and unpunctual than usual. Why, I do not know. The fact remains that transport was substantially cheaper before the removal of the flat rate. Take, for example, Fraserburgh and Peterhead, in my constituency. They are building up a really good white fish inshore industry. It is quite absurd that the fishermen of those small towns should have to pay an altogether exorbitant transport rate to get their fish to the markets—exorbitant by comparison with what is paid by the more fortunate fishermen farther south. There are no ethics about it, and there is no sense in it.
Who is to pay for this equalisation?
Not Aberdeenshire. I give a straight answer to that question.
My hon. Friend means that England would have to pay?
I do not think it would be confined to England at all. Cornwall, it is my sincere hope, and Devon would benefit greatly. I can see, too, a great future for Wales in this proposal. My hon. Friend is concerned about Yarmouth. I agree that Yarmouth is much nearer to London than Fraserburgh or Peterhead. All I can say is that Yarmouth, as such, will not have to pay the transport from Peterhead and Fraser-burgh; but, anyway, I do not see why the fishermen of Yarmouth, who happen to be nearer to the great markets of the south than Fraserburgh or Peterhead, should have an unfair advantage over their brethren in Fraserburgh and Peterhead.
Yes, we should like a large contribution from Hull.
Is that an admission, then, that ports such as Yarmouth will, in fact, be subsidising Aberdeen and some of the other Scottish towns?
No, it is not an admission at all. I never admit anything on principle.I will conclude by saying that I advocate a flat rate not only for fish, but that I advocate a flat rate for coal: and I would ask the Government to give an undertaking that they will, at least, look into this particular and urgent problem
It is with some temerity that I intervene in this debate since I do not pretend to any expert knowledge of the transport system of this country, nor do I represent one of the peripheral constituencies. It seems to me that the people who have taken part in this debate so far represent either ports or remote parts of the country. I represent a constituency on the outskirts of London.We have heard a great deal from the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hector Hughes), about postalisation. I think we are very grateful to him for putting down this Motion, because it has given us an opportunity of looking into one of the aspects of transport. We are all agreed that the more efficient we can make the transport of goods for consumers, the better. But what is the postalisation that the hon. and learned Gentleman is looking for? After all—let us face it—75 per cent. of the people live in urban areas, or "conurban" areas, to use the modern jargon. The Post Office have a fiat rate for letters and parcels for two reasons; first, because it is a monopoly, and, second, because the people living in the urban areas are subsidising those living in the remoter parts of the country. There is no question about that. If a municipality were able to have its own telephone or telegraphic system, it could serve the people of its district much more cheaply than the Post Office does. Let us take, for example, the case of Hull. It has a municipal telephone system. It does not have to take that system into the country areas around in the wolds of Yorkshire, so it can supply a telephone service far more cheaply than the national system can.
If they want to go outside the boundaries of Hull, they fall back on the general service rendered by the Post Office.
That is the argument I am trying to develop. If a flat rate is introduced somebody is paying for it; as my hon. Friend the Member for Yarmouth (Mr. Fell) said, trying to score off the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. Boothby), somebody pays for this flat rate, and it is the people in the towns who pay; they are the 80 per cent. who are subsidising the other 20 per cent. I believe that we ought to give more attention to people in the remote areas, but let us not mix economics and defence; let us keep the two things separate. Economically, it is subsidisation by the towns of the remoter areas.If there is a flat rate, since the railway system has not a complete monopoly, the short hauls will be stolen; many of the markets will be stolen by private enterprise road hauliers. That means that the cost of the railways will go up, which means that the price to the consumer will go up, which means that people in remoter areas will be worse off and not better off. The Post Office, for instance, want as many people as possible to use their facilities; they want people to write as many letters as possible. Similarly, we do not want people to use long-distance facilities when they could use short-haul facilities for their goods. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Lady Tweedsmuir) said, local industries will not benefit from a flat rate but will actually suffer. She instanced the case of a local caterer who has a decided advantage from being able to sell his products in the area immediately around his factory. With a standard flat rate there would be nothing to prevent big firms such as Lyons from sending their cakes to the area and competing with this little firm of bakers and confectioners. Far from benefiting local works, a flat rate would tend to create competition, and I believe that we ought to reject this Motion.
This is quite a new economic theory, that an industry does not want customers. My hon. Friend is now saying that these people do not want customers.
I did not say they do not want customers. I said that they want an economic rate. They do not want a subsidised rate. I am all in favour of tapering charges and negotiating special rates.There are one or two questions which rather puzzle me. When the hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, North, talks about a flat rate, is he envisaging a flat rate for all types of commodities? Would there be the same flat rate for perishable goods as for non-perishable goods? That point has already been developed by my hon. Friend the Member for Truro (Mr. G. Wilson), so I need not go into it further. Does the hon. and learned Gentleman take any account of the difference in bulk? For instance, would a ton of cotton wool cost the same to transport as a ton of steel?
The hon. Gentleman has asked me a question and I will answer it. If he had done me the honour of being present when I was moving my Motion, he would have heard me say explicitly that my Motion related to the essentials of life, such as agricultural produce, fish and coal. I do not ask for general application.
I am sorry that the hon. and learned Gentleman did not observe that I was sitting a little further down the Chamber during the whole of his speech.I mentioned cotton wool because of the great bulk involved. I realised that he was not referring to that, but I was referring to bulky cargoes. Let me take the example of milk, which requires special containers. Is the same flat rate to apply to that as to something else which does not require special containers?
I did not apply it to milk.
That brings me to the question: What are the essentials of life? Who decides what are the essentials of life? It seems to me that this Motion is damned out of the mouth of the hon. and learned Gentleman himself, since he cannot answer any of these questions but merely says, "I did not refer to them in my speech." That is no way to argue a Motion which he has put down.I see a very dangerous principle being adopted in the use of a flat rate for weight only and not for distance. If it applies to the goods used in the factories, why should it not apply to the people in the factories themselves? On this principle, why should not the hon. Lady the Member for Liverpool, Exchange (Mrs. Braddock), pay more than the hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn, East (Mrs. Castle), who weighs so very much less? This is a farcical Motion, based on neither economics nor common sense. Under it, why should not my constituents, who live only 30 miles from London, have to pay the same as people living in Sheffield to travel to London. The whole thing is farcical and fantastic. It has no economic basis, and I hope the House will reject the Motion.
Does the hon. Gentleman not realise that this island is a geographical economic unit and should be treated as such for transport as well as for other purposes?
I must say that during the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. Boothby), I experienced a feeling of nostalgia, as I had the honour of serving in his constituency for a short period during the war, and I remember the staggering railway line that serves it through the great thriving metropolises of Udny, Longside and Mintlaw, and so on, and I feel with him for the somewhat shaky state of that institution. There is another line which I equally remember from those war days, the North Down railroad, which used to run along the south side of Belfast Lough, whose stationmasters were just as attractive and delightful as those stationmasters on whose behalf my hon. Friend staked a claim.These branch lines are certainly feeling the draught and suffering from the threat, if not the fact, of road competition. Although my own constituency contains what used to be the great rail terminus from which Queen Victoria used to embark on her way to Osborne, it is now almost without a stretch of railway at all. Such railway as there is has very little traffic, and the biggest branch line has been closed down, although the area is very busy and well-populated. The railways are in danger of losing what goods traffic that they have, except on the obligatory long hauls. The traffic is dropping, and the service is poor. Perhaps the one follows the other—
Have not these branch lines been closed simply because the public do not now use them and prefer the alternative of motor transport, which takes them almost to their own gate?
That is true, but I think I am right in saying that in my own constituency the branch line is a more direct way of getting to a place called Lee-on-Solent than by road, because the roads have been blocked by aerodromes, and so on. It would be preferable to use the railway if it went there and was efficient. I am afraid that there is a clear decline in the lesser branch lines of the railways.The right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede), referring to the flat rate, spoke of his experiences with his noble Friends who sent him game, and quite reasonably drew attention to the weird distinction made between game and fish in this connection. My hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. J. Rodgers) advanced a few reasons why there should be this difference, but I would say that the case for a flat rate for the transport of goods by post as against rail rests on one or two considerations wherein the postal services differ from the main body of railway freight services. For instance, there is an administrative advantage in the postage of parcels and letters in that packages are limited in size and bulk within a very small compass. Secondly, the postal services are running all over the country and except at times like Christmas, when they are notoriously overcrowded, they are very seldom running at full capacity, and as the trains go anyway the letters do not add any extra burden. Therefore, no extra rate need be borne.
That argument applies to the coastal shipping in my own constituency.
I have no doubt it does, and that is a very real point; but if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will leave it just now, as it anticipates what I hope to say later on.I do not know if this argument was one of those that originally justified the flat rate for Post Office charges but I would advance it as a contributory justification for their existence.
The question of rates is one to be reconciled with railway charges.
Certainly, but as the Post Office do not undertake to transport parcels of more than a certain weight it can usually accommodate all the traffic it expects to carry within the standard number and size of the vehicles it employs. When we get on to the railway carriage of freight, we have a different position. The railways have to undertake to carry any load, no matter what it is and where from and to, and no matter how bulky it may be, according to the rates which are stated. In fact, I think it right to say that it is a reasonable assumption that as a rule each load may, in fact, require special vehicles or rolling stock to be provided.That is another sharp point of difference from conditions in the postal service. The Post Office enjoy the limitation to the carrying of light loads with almost equal charges and without great inequalities in justice, whereas the railways, having these large and unlimited loads to carry have to impose large and almost unlimited charges. The right hon. Member for South Shields drew attention to the unequal cost of coal due to transport of it in different parts of the country. In the part of the world which I have the honour to represent, I find that there is a good deal of public feeling—really strong feeling—in Southampton and Portsmouth, and in the districts lying between which I know better than either of those places, that coal is far more expensive to us in that part of the world than it is in the neighbourhood of any of the coal-fields. Yet, although Southampton is a port into which very large flowings of grain come from overseas, and is, in fact, a grain port, grain is no cheaper there than it is in other parts of the country. So we get the dirty end of the deal so far as coal is concerned, and we do not get any offsetting advantage so far as grain is concerned. Therefore, we do rather badly both ways.
So do we.
It does seem, therefore, that we have in fact a partial situation existing in which there are discriminatory rates for distance in some commodities and not in others, and that there is something to investigate here.I would submit to the House that it is possible with certain traffic which runs regularly and which has a foreseeable bulk and a foreseeable load, which may not be regular all the time but which moves in predictable cycles, to have something of a flat rate for that kind of traffic within individual spheres. I think that advantageous flat rates for the whole country could be negotiated by agreement between the individual industries themselves and the railways; but not in general. I fail to see how it can be regarded as equitable to impose the same actual charge to transport say a crate of food between one London suburb and another as to send the same crate from Wick to Mousehole. I cannot think that that would be just, and I cannot bring myself to agree with this Motion. I would rather support the Amendment.
The hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. Boothby) was so scathing in his indictment of the personnel of the Railway Executive Committee that I feel bound to offer just a word in their defence.May I say in passing that, with very few exceptions indeed, its members are those who were selected by the former directors and owners of the British Railways, and if they are handicapped at all we have inherited that handicap. My experience of them, although I sit on the opposite side of the table, requires me to say without fear of contradiction that they have applied themselves to a very difficult task with a very great deal of initiative and enterprise, and have served the country well in most unusual circumstances. With characteristic fairness, the hon. Member did say that the reduction in the capital investment programme had been a very serious hindrance to them, and I was hopeful that he would offer one or two illustrations. I happen to have some illustrations in my hand. In fact, the result of this capital investment programme reduction, so far as British Railways are concerned, is that they will be able to achieve only 65 per cent. of the construction programme for 1952 in respect of freight vehicles. What is perhaps even more serious is that the limitation programme is likely to be cut by half, and it is unlikely that a single new passenger coach of the 1952 programme can be built. I ask hon. Members to try to envisage what that means to the railway system of this country, and how they can expect a largely accelerated and improved service if they are not given the necessary tools with which to do the work. They are faced also with the terrible question of increased costs. How many people realise that they use no fewer than 31 million sleepers a year and have to pay 61 times more for them in the year 1952 than they did in pre-war days? Those figures could be multiplied or repeated in respect of a number of other commodities which they use and which are very essential for the development of the railway service. Despite these handicaps—
The hon. Gentleman has referred to the increase in cost, but can he tell us about the increase of cost in the personnel of the Railway Executive as compared with the directors of these former companies? The figures were something like £98,000 for the directors and £750,000 for the Railway Executive.
The hon. Gentleman is very much mistaken. I am surprised, in view of his experience—I think 19 years' experience in the Western Region—that he should fall into such an error. He must know that if we take the combined directors and personnel—
Is there anything in this Motion about directors' fees.
The point has certainly been raised, and I think it is sufficiently important to be made clear.
I say that, so far as management and personnel are concerned, it is a very much cheaper arrangement under nationalisation than it was under private ownership. If the hon. Gentleman will look at the figures, I think he will find that he has made a grievous error on this occasion.I want to say this further word to the credit of the Railway Executive, that last year no fewer than three million were carried by passenger trains and, although there were 100,000 fewer wagons available than in 1948, the average traffic was higher than before the war. As a result of the integration and responsibility undertaken by the railwaymen themselves, there had been no serious congestion and traffic has moved with greater freedom. If the Railway Executive is to serve the country it must be given a greater share of capital investment and be allowed to complete its programme. If it is given that opportunity, we shall very soon have the finest transport service in Europe. I have already said that it is not my business to defend the Railway Executive and that the Railway Executive and I usually sit on opposite sides of the table, but we must deal with facts and figures in the light of our experience. I now wish to quote from a speech delivered by Mr. John Elliot, the Chairman of the Railway Executive, to the Rotary Club of London at the Connaught Rooms on Wednesday, 12th March. He wished to summarise what the railways had achieved, and he said:
That does not seem to be a tribute to private enterprise. Imagine 400 different types of locomotives!"After four years, British Railways are reflecting the value of economies in organisation and working made possible by unification. Examples of this are 12 standard types of locomotives instead of about 400."
In the old days they were lovely locomotives. They had different colours and they were gay, and everybody was proud of them. Look at them today. They are absolutely filthy. Nobody cares how dirty they are.
I respect the hon. Member's appreciation of colour, form and design. I do not claim to be an authority on those matters. I speak from the strictly utilitarian point of view of service to the people of this country. Even if the locomotives were beautiful in colour and design, I am sure that the hon. Member would have been content with far fewer than 400. At all events, the number has now been reduced to 12. Mr. Elliot went on:
I want to add a word of warning to hon. Members opposite. If they continue to decry this great industry and belittle the men who are responsible for it, let them not complain if the railway employees say, "What we do does not satisfy Members of Parliament. We are treated with contempt by the Government and those in authority say we have no initiative and enterprise and achieve no useful work at all." If hon. Members continue to talk in that strain, the railwaymen may take up the echo and say "Let us have a chance ourselves. Let us take the thing into our own hands." I warn hon. Members opposite to be more loyal to these men and to give this great industry a helping hand, for it is doing a grand job for British transport."Heavier all-steel coaches with shock resistance greater by 100 per cent. Drastic reduction in number of types of wagons. New standard units and fittings enable best advantage to be taken of workshop capacity. This makes it possible to reduce the number of shops to a minimum, with saving of jigs, tools, and machines."
The speech of the hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. P. Morris), had little relation to the subject matter of the debate. There is nothing about the standardisation of locomotives in the Motion, but there is something about charges for distances.
Surely the hon. Member will agree that I was provoked into dealing with such matters by the irrelevant observations of so many of his hon. Friends.
The hon. Member finished on a very threatening note and said that if the customer complains against the treatment he gets from the railways, somebody may seize the railways. Are we to have syndicalism from the N.U.R.? It sounded like that."Postalisation" is a word which was invented by the late Mr. Ernest Bevin in the General Election of 1945. He was speaking to his prospective constituents at Wandsworth about electricity supplies and said that we ought to apply to that the principle which is applied in the Post Office and that there should be a flat rate irrespective of distance. In other words, he wanted electricity to be supplied in the country districts on the same terms as electricity in congested urban areas, despite the fact that the cost of distribution is necessarily higher in a scattered area than in a congested one. We are now discussing the same principle. This is a proposal for a subsidy on one part of the community at the expense of the rest. We ought to have a Motion advocating that everybody should subsidise everybody else and that we should have equality but that some people should be more equal than others. That is what is suggested by the completely nonsensical Motion. I have extracted some figures from the Post Office Estimates. It is difficult to separate the cost of foreign mails from the cost of inland mails, because the cost of foreign mails is necessarily higher than the others, particularly in the case of airmail, but I have a comparison which is reasonably practical. According to the Estimates for next year on the basis of what is called "the commercial accounts," the postal expenditure of the Post Office for home services, as distinct from telephones and telegrams, is likely to be £106,500,000. That is the total expenditure on the conveyance of mails—letters, post-cards and parcels. The transport charges—that is, rail freights and a certain amount of road work—come to £10,100,000. Thus, about 10 per cent. of the cost of mails in this country is the cost of transport. It costs about 10 per cent. less to send a letter from here to my constituency of Croydon, about 12 miles away, than to send a letter from here to Glasgow. The whole thing is dominated by the terminal charges. That is the main cost of letters, and that is the justification for the flat rate which occurred to Sir Rowland Hill in 1840. He realised the problem and saw that the administrative advantages of a flat rate were enormous. We probably easily save that 10 per cent. by not having a series of rates for letters graduated according to distance. It is scientifically sound to have a flat rate. What are the main costs in connection with letters? They are collection and sorting at one end and sorting and delivery at the other. These processes, coupled with the counter work at post offices, also a terminal charge, constitute 90 per cent. of the cost. The economic considerations for having a flat rate, which results in greater administrative savings, are entirely different in this case from those in the case of the Post Office. In the case of railway traffic the situation is quite different. It is true that the railways have their terminal charges in respect of their stations and goods yards—I do not think they have been worked out, at any rate publicly—but the main part of the cost is the cost of operating the trains, the cost of the crews and the cost of the maintenance of the track, which is very high. Therefore, there is no conceivable analogy between goods and passenger charges and postal charges. There is folly in making the task of carrying stinking fish from Aberdeen to—
I must ask my hon. Friend to withdraw that remark.
If the fish were transported by ship, the cheaper method, instead of by train from Aberdeen, it would stink.It is absurd constantly to bring forward Motions to suggest that everyone should be subsidised. Who pays the subsidies? We all pay them. There is no sense in my subsidising the herrings of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. Boothby), unless I call on him to subsidise strawberries from Hampshire for me. People in Hampshire can buy the strawberries cheaper than I can buy them in London. Are we to suggest that everything which is not consumed that the point of production should be subsidised?. If I buy a motorcar I get it at the listed price, but there is also the charge of the cost of conveyance from the factory to the point at which it is delivered. That is quite right. I had a great lesson in economics at the age of 16. With a Brazilian boy I climbed Snowdon. It was a hot day and we had a glass of beer at the foot of the mountain, which cost us 2d. We then walked to the half way house where we had another.
Can the hon. Member tell us how this is relevant to the Motion?
Certainly. We are considering the case of transport, and this is the very basis of it. As I was saying, it was a hot day and when we got to the half-way house we decided to have another beer.
What was the hon. Member doing getting beer at the age of 16 in contravention of the licensing laws?
Because at that time my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing. North (Mr. J. Hudson), had not acquired the dominance he has now acquired. I would remind him of the day we had a swim in the Canadian Rockies. We were both exhausted for reasons which I will not mention, but he was a teetotaller and I was not.When we got half-way up, we decided to have another glass of beer. It cost us 4d. When we got to the top we thought we would have another, and this cost us 6d. That taught me an immense lesson in economics. The value of anything is at the point of consumption, not at the point of production. This Motion is based on the economics of the hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hector Hughes), a city from which have come many learned economists. I remember my first visit to Aberdeen, which was before the hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, East, was born in all probability. It was the 400th anniversary of the founding of the University, and I was given free facilities in the city for a week. The people of Aberdeen are the most generous in the world, but that is no reason why in this Motion those intelligent and thrifty people should degrade themselves here by asking for national assistance from the public purse.
We have reason to be grateful to the hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hector Hughes), whether we agree or not with his conclusions, because his Motion has enabled us to explore quite a large field on a very important subject. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. Boothby), that the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) went to the heart of the matter when he said it was primarily a question of the spread of population; in other words, getting over the difficulties of these vast conurbations which have developed in this country through over-urbanisation.On the one hand, we have got these tremendous towns and cities, and on the other the ever-weakening life in the remoter districts. There is London, which is too big, and there are areas in my constituency in Inverness-shire which are very large in size but small in population. We have some areas as large as Kent which are almost depopulated, which could produce food for this country if they were developed, but although they are only 500 miles from London, they are considered inaccessible. An economic problem which has been forced on us, is that we must produce as much food in this country as we can. but can only increase our food production by going to the remote areas. and the key to it is to get a more adequate system of transport. During this debate there has been a general acknowledgment on both sides of the House that this problem of the remote areas exists. I do not think there has been any particular animosity against the remote areas. Although one or two hon. Members have stated that they do not like the idea of being the people who have to pay for them, I think there has been general agreement that the remote areas of the country should be strengthened. It is a tremendous advance that the House agrees we should do something about strengthening the remote areas. This is a very, important problem for Britain as a whole; it does not only concern the Highlands of Scotland and the remote regions of England and Wales. We must get away from this centralised planning and control to which we have been subject for so many years. We must avoid any kind of doctrinaire policy in approaching this matter. We must avoid saying that nationalisation, monopoly or competition will necessarily solve it. I am personally a believer in competition, and I should like to quote as an example of it the most efficient railway service in the world, which is between twin cities in Chicago where we get seven lines competing with each other, and doing an average of 86 miles an hour with 13 stops. We have not got anything to compare with that in this country. There are some times when competition is useful, and there are other times when monopoly meets the case. It is a good thing on this problem to look at what other countries are doing, and I should like to refer to the case of Norway. There they have very much the same type of country as we have in the Highlands. Some years ago they were having to face exactly the same problem as we are meeting today, that of depopulation because people were leaving the remote areas. The Government quickly tackled the problem, because they realised the importance of it, as I am sure this country is going to realise its importance as time goes on. The Government of Norway tackled the problem in different ways. One was by education. They trained people to farm and live in these areas. They directed the transport there, and it became cheaper the further it went from the centres of population. The same principle was applied to light and heat, which were made the cheapest in the remote districts. This problem has got to be faced and tackled. I should like an assurance that in the meantime we are not going to have any more flat increases on transport of any kind without making some concessions for the remote areas.
I agree with what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness (Lord Malcolm Douglas-Hamilton). To take one item of the economy of the country and impose on it a flat equality would be to tackle the problem in entirely the wrong way. It is a question of co-ordination. If a subsidy is given for a particular purpose, it should always be on the principle that we can isolate it to see what is the effect of that subsidy. If we were to apply a flat system of freights throughout the country, we should never be able to isolate one of them and see what was the real effect.No one wants to belittle the railways, and no one has done so today. However, once an industry is taken under public ownership it is impossible to expect that there will not be public criticism of it, and it is absurd for those in the industry to say that if there is criticism the industry is being belittled. Every industry must realise that it is not perfect and that there is room for improvement. The hon. Gentleman who spoke last from the other side of the House said that in a few years' time we should have the best railway service in the world.
We had it, once.
It is easy to have the best service in the world if expense is no object. We can go on improving and improving, and paying people inside the industry more and more. The only thing which will bring costs down and keep them down is competition; but impose a flat rate and any possibility of competition or of comparison has gone for ever. Competition in transport will do it, unless we nationalise the whole of road transport as well. The effect would be that we should choose always the cheapest mode of transport, sending long-distance freight by rail because that was cheaper and the remunerative short-distance freight by road. The result would be the complete and utter crippling of the railways.There is a fallacy in the comparison with the Post Office for a reason that has not been mentioned. If the Post Office were carrying their own goods, I doubt whether we should have heard of flat rates for postal services at all.
I would point out that the flat rate was introduced by the Post Office before the railways were in general operation, namely, about 1840.
It may be that as it was a monopoly service without competition, it was thought to be of general public benefit, having in mind the size of the units handled and the enormous number of them.Equalisation has already proceeded quite a long way in the railway system. An expert on railways has informed me that the cost per ton-mile on small branch lines is actually 50 times what it is on busy lines; and that shows the extent of equalisation. Hon. Gentlemen opposite may not realise the extent to which equalisation has been carried out by private enterprise. For example, manufacturers of branded goods in common household use have absorbed railway charges to equalise the cost of their branded products throughout the United Kingdom. Having done so, they are then attacked by hon. Gentlemen opposite for imposing what is known as "pre-sale price fixing." That is not always done by saying that the price must be such-and-such, and fixing it definitely, but often by the influence of the manufacturer, to ensure that the same price will prevail throughout the Kingdom. Otherwise, there would be no point in absorbing the charges.
I thought the hon. Gentleman was going on to justify his statement about the tremendous amount of equalisation of rates that has taken place. I wonder whether he has ever seen a railway rates book, and whether he has any idea what a railway rates book at a goods station looks like, or of the thousands of different rates there are.
Naturally, I have not anything like the same detailed experience as the hon. Gentleman, but I have some conception of the great multiplicity of rates.What is required is a practical approach so as to ensure that industry can get the benefit of the best possible rates. The principle surely ought to be that the charge for freight should kill neither the carrier nor the traffic. If the tendency of the charge being made upon the carrier is to kill the traffic, something has to be done. We shall then have to look extremely carefully at the structure of the enterprise of the carrier himself. That is what the Amendment proposes to do, and we can only get a satisfactory result by a practical approach. I agree that this Motion has been inspired largely by fish and that there is a good case for a flat rate on fish. But let us have a practical approach and not try to impose a single flat rate over the whole sphere of industry merely because it is good to have a flat rate for the carriage of fish.
This debate has covered a wide field and has gone far beyond the terms of the Motion on the Order Paper and also the character of the opening speech. It has ranged into the extremes of laissez faire and subsidy, free trade and protection. Hon. Members on all sides of the House have shown up in the most unexpected light. The balance of argument throughout has been with the Amendment. Every Member who has spoken has made his position clear, with the possible exception of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede). He came into the debate rather late and I do not think he can have read the Motion on the Order Paper.
Not so late as the noble Lord
I came here at Five minutes past Eleven this morning and have been here more or less continuously ever since. The right hon. Gentleman listened to a speech or two, I think to the speeches of my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Law) and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Down, South (Captain Orr) and then he carved out a little enclave and discoursed on the relative merits of fish and pheasants.Considering that we are to have a Ministerial reply from my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, I am disappointed that there is nobody on the Front Bench opposite to give the official view of the Labour Party on this great issue moved so eloquently by the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hector Hughes). I do not think it is at all right for the right hon. Gentleman to come and give his own views to the House without having considered this matter in detail. We should have an official expression from the Front Bench of the Labour Party if it is united on any current issue these days. There has been no disposition on any sides of the House to touch the extremes of laissez faire. Hon. Members have talked about the dark and overcrowded cities and the happier, if wilder parts of the extreme north and the extreme north-west of this country. I think the House as a whole will be prepared to do everything possible to see that we do not return to those fatal days of the last century. I think everyone on this side of the House is prepared to see controls of different kinds and qualities used as inducements to overcome the extreme disadvantages to which I have referred. We would much prefer to have them in physical realms—in the realms of location of industry, the careful redistribution of labour, by special housing arrangements or by initiating new industries and services in these more remote parts, and by town and country planning in the great industrial areas to remove the defects of the last century. But, surely, the means of doing this should not be changes in transport charges. I do not think that hon. Members have looked enough at the consequences, both to the industrial areas and to the more remote parts of the United Kingdom, of doing what the hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen. North has in mind.
I am very much interested in what the noble Lord says. Is he expressing the official view of his party, that they are in favour of physical controls to direct industries to particular places and that they prefer this to inducements by means of lower freight charges? That is what I understood to be the tenor of what he said.
I am making no such statement of any kind on behalf of my party. The hon. Member knows perfectly well that I have no right or standing to do so.The consequences of passing a Motion of this kind would be not only to reduce freight charges for long-distance carriage, but to increase the charges on short-distance carriage. That must be so if we accept the idea that the railways or the roads, as an institution and as a transport system, must pay their way. Just as it would bear very much more hardly upon our economy if we increase, as my noble Friend the Member for Pentlands (Lord John Hope) said, the carriage on short hauls in the great industrial areas, so there is an equal disadvantage for the remote parts of the United Kingdom if their short carriage rates are raised. The Motion refers to agriculture. It is conceivable that if the proposal was logically carried out according to the ideas of the hon. and learned Member, the cost of the carriage of agricultural items in, perhaps, Scotland, or in Cornwall or in Northern Ireland, would greatly increase. There would, therefore, be a considerable local disadvantage, both in the industrial areas and in the remote rural areas, by the acceptance of the Motion. I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice that subsidies tend to be pernicious and ought to be eliminated as far as possible. We on this side have always contended on transport questions that a defence subsidy of some sort—or a defence payment rather than a subsidy—should be given to the transport system in respect of local and branch lines which are needed by the Service Departments for their own purposes. The railways should not have to carry them. That has been accepted as part of our policy. But that, surely, is as far as a subsidy ought to go in the carriage of goods by rail or by road. I cannot conceivably understand why fish should qualify for a subsidy. It is suggested that we are approaching a major war and for that purpose must keep alive the fishing industry so as to feed our people with fish. Does not the same argument apply equally to other forms of edible matter besides fish—to bread, for example, and to groceries, meat and a hundred and one other things that are necessary for the national survival?
Will the noble Lord allow me to answer the question about keeping alive the fishing industry? The fishing industry stands by itself in this matter because it has a strategical importance. The industry supplies valuable sailors in time of war. They have been highly praised from time to time; their courage and skill are well known. Therefore, it is of very great strategical importance that the fishing communities all round our coasts should be preserved, not only for the fish they supply, but for their strategical value in time of war.
I agree that that is valuable but, if the principle were accepted in full, it would lead us into all sorts of additional arguments about subsidising certain sources of manpower for the Services as a whole and goodness knows what sort of requests we should have from the Army and the Air Force.I come now to one or two things said by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond). He spoke of the urban populations and wanted to aid them, but seemed quite prepared to do it through the transport charges. As I have sought to show, that would only result in the end, as other hon. Members have pointed out, in the costs of their local carriage rates being increased. If life is grievous today for the urban population of the country—and I do not admit that it is as bad as all that; the hon. Member is thinking in rather old fashioned terms—it would be made more so if they had to pay higher charges for freightage than they do today. The hon. Member spoke of American industrial changes and I could not make up my mind whether he was noting, welcoming, or deploring them.
But they took place in response to economic laws and it is through economic laws that, in the end, we create the greatest wealth for the greatest number of people. I am terrified that we should apply a priori theoretical planning to these considerations. The hon. Member seemed quite prepared to adopt this kind of scheme of uniform charges and project it on the Transport Commission to operate it whether the Transport Commission wished to operate it or did not. As a matter of fact, they do not wish to operate it at all, as my noble Friend the Member for Pentlands said.There is another reason why it would be fatal to do that today, and as far as I know this reason has not yet been given in this debate. That is because the Transport Commission is in a state of suspended animation and, if we have anything to do with it, will shortly die in its present form. In other words, there is to be, in this Session of Parliament, a very large surgical operation conducted on the Transport Commission and all its services, both road and rail. In the process, I hope, of giving them the coup de grace, road and rail will return to private competition. In those circumstances, it seems quite fallacious to try to apply a uniform scheme of charges for the system as it will appear in a few short months. We hope to create a situation in which the transport interests of the country, subject to certain standards and safeguards, will be in full scale competition with each other on rates and upon other things. If we allow the principle of free competition on rates, how can we force upon them a uniform standard system such as was proposed by the hon. and learned Member?
How can the noble Lord say that, in view of the fact that before nationalisation the railways were not in competition one with another but got together on a fair deal campaign, not only with the purpose of relieving competition between themselves, but of demanding protection against road competition?
I know that we are all now agreed that the scheme of charges initially drawn up by the Railway Rates Tribunal in 1921 and taken over by the Transport Tribunal is much too rigid, and that the railways, whether monopoly or decentralised, must be allowed far greater liberty to go out and look for traffic at rates which they can properly apply. Further, I would remind the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland that he is quite wrong in thinking the Railway Rates Tribunal and its over rigid scheme were inaugurated by a Conservative Government. It was done by the Lloyd George Coalition in 1921, and he ought to know more about Lloyd George than we do.A great deal has been said about a flat rate for fish. I can see no reason why the White Fish Commission should not either adopt one of the schemes in operation now with regard to general merchandise, whereby the railways set a standard charge covering the entire distance based on the traffic offered to them; or else adopt a producer-marketing scheme, whereby the differential costs of the railways according to the distance travelled are paid for by a levy made on the industry itself, and in the end the consumer gets the benefit of a standard price. This Motion seems to hon. Members on this side of the House, and, indeed, to several of the hon. Friends of the hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, North, to be wholly misconceived. Having heard the arguments which have been put to him so well by my hon. Friends, and having noted how his own leader had not seized himself of the full significance of what he had to say, and was, therefore, not prepared to give him significant support, I hope he will withdraw his Motion and allow the industry to go forward as we intend that it shall go forward.
May I begin by endorsing the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness (Lord Malcolm Douglas-Hamilton), who said that whatever opinion we may hold regarding this Motion before the House we should all feel indebted to the hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hector Hughes), for initiating what has been an extremely interesting and. I think, valuable discussion?The debate was not so interesting as we had hoped at one time because the hon. and learned Gentleman, who had the good fortune to draw first place in today's Ballot, indicated first of all to the House that he would initiate a discussion on the essentials of life. That opened up so wide a vista that I confess I had visions of every Department of State being represented on the Treasury Bench, and indeed a crowded House to listen to the views which the hon. and learned Member would then deploy. However, he contracted that to the subject of organisation and distribution and the debate today, while not confined, has very largely circulated round the problems of the fish industry—not an unsuitable topic for a Friday debate. When the hon. Member for Croydon,. East (Sir H. Williams), was giving us some of his boyhood reminiscences a few minutes ago, I was reminded of how sharply my young mind was brought into contact with the problems of fishing by recalling the days when it was thought that 3d. a week was a suitable income for me at that tender age. A penny had to be placed in the collection on Sundays, and another penny in the collecting box for the Mission for Deep Sea Fishermen on Fridays, and the House will be able to deduce that this brought a realised surplus of ld. for expenditure on what the hon. and learned Gentleman would call the essentials of life.
Was there only one collection a day?
My visits to church were limited to one, and I succeeded in maintaining that average throughout the years.The debate, as I think most of us might have anticipated, has proceeded not so much along political as along geographical lines, with the noble Lady the Member for Aberdeen, South (Lady Tweedsmuir) hovering decorously and indeed agreeably between the two points of view expressed. We have had a large number of notable contributions from both sides of the House, and it was obvious quite early in the speech of the hon. and learned Gentleman that, although the words are not embodied in what he has placed before us, he was quite definitely in favour of a State subsidy for the railways. I do not think that view was shared by the hon. Gentleman who seconded the Motion, who, I thought, was a good deal more cautious when he reached that stage of the proceedings, and, if he was seconding the Motion in order to put the matter on its feet before the House, he was quite entitled to do so, because there is no specific mention of a subsidy in the Motion itself. At least, the hon. and learned Gentleman left us in no doubt as to what are his views on this particular subject. May I now turn to the main issue which we have been discussing since 11 o'clock? Although some costs are common, many of those for the transport of merchandise vary according to distance, and the first point that I would submit to the hon. and learned Gentleman and the House—and, though it has been made in the course of the debate, I would stress it—is that the same is true of the transport costs of the Post Office, but the effect is much diluted by other factors and items, such as post offices and their staffs, sorting offices and their staffs and local deliveries. Moreover, the number of chargeable postal units is so great in relation to total costs that the average charge which is made is not unduly high, even in the case of a packet going a very short distance. But when we come to the problem of transporting merchandise, the average cost per chargeable unit is much higher, and a flat rate based on such cost would be prohibitive for all short distance traffic, which would therefore go to other means of transport or would not pass at all. Such a loss of traffic would start a spiral of increases in the flat rate itself which would cause an impossible position before very long. May I suggest, with respect, that the hon. and learned Gentleman has not studied this aspect of the matter? Post Office payments to the railways for the conveyance of letter mail are, in fact, based on the railways' general parcels scale, which itself is a scale of charges which, in fact, varies according to both weight and distance, and, for the conveyance of parcel mails, the railways are paid on the basis of an agreement embodied in legislation, under which the railways are entitled to 40 per cent. of the postage paid for all parcels which are rail-borne. This latter system is, after all, not dissimilar from that of agreed charges, which I will explain to the House a little later and under which a flat rate is charged to a single consignor for all his parcels, by agreement between him and the railways. As I have already said, the transport costs of the Post Office vary to a great extent according to distance but, none the less, they are able to average their transport costs over their postal charges because their transport costs are small in relation to their total costs. In 1950–51—the last full financial year—Post Office payments to the railways amounted only to about 7½ per cent. of their total costs, and I think hon. Members will therefore realise that if it were practicable to reflect individual transport costs in postal charges, the range would be very small indeed. But when we come to the transport of merchandise, the range is infinitely larger. In 1950—the calendar year—the average takings per ton forwarded on British Railways was approximately 33s. for merchandise and livestock. Questions have been asked about obtaining this figure, and I have had it taken out. I think it gives a possible indication of the amount of an average charge for this traffic. Charges may range between a few shillings and £10 or more, and I put this to hon. Members: what would be the effect of charging 33s. flat rate for traffic which now pays only a few shillings? I do not think the problem is difficult to answer. Obviously the traffic would go by road or, if it could not, the business concerned would be seriously handicapped, to say the least. If a large amount of the shorter distance traffic were transferred to the road, obviously the average charge for the remainder would have to rise, and this would surely be a recurring process until an impossible position was reached. It was very natural that the debate should turn for a considerable time to the question of coal. May I say a few words about that? Here, of course, the cost of transport is also a substantial element in the price, since it is a bulky and costly product to move. The cost of transport may vary from a few shillings per ton in areas which are closest to the pits to over £2 per ton in the more remote areas of England and Wales—and this is true even within England and Wales, without going to the northern areas, from which we have heard so many enjoyable speeches today. A standard freight charge for coal, irrespective of distance, would necessarily be based on the average cost of transport and would, in consequence, add materially, perhaps 10s. a ton or more, to the prices in the areas which are closest to the pits, even though it would relieve the high prices in districts further away.
Would the hon. Gentleman not say that was fair? Would it not be fair to charge 10s. more to the people adjacent to the pits in view of the fact that people in the south of England now have to pay £2 a ton more for coal than do people near the pits?
I was in the course of trying to deploy the whole situation. I have to begin somewhere, and I begin with areas which are closest to the pits. I was going to add this—and I hope the hon. Gentleman will not disagree with this remark—that our forefathers placed their industries, particularly heavy ones, quite deliberately in coalfield areas because coal was available at relatively cheap rates; and the economic consequences of the equalisation of freight charges would be most serious for those heavy industries upon which this country is so dependent for its exports at this particular time. Their costs would inevitably rise, and they would necessarily have to increase the prices of their own products, with repercussions it is difficult to foresee.
Does the hon. Gentleman deny the right to Portsmouth and those towns along the South Coast, where there are not heavy industries, to have coal at a reasonable price?
I really do not think I shall give way again because hon. Gentlemen opposite seem to think that I have got to arrive at the South Coast immediately. I am endeavouring to deal with a geographical debate in a geographical manner—
—and if the hon. and learned Gentleman can contain himself for a few minutes he will find that I shall arrive in due course at the South Coast—not Brighton, but I give the guarantee to arrive at Southampton, and, indeed, elsewhere.
The hon. Gentleman is going to Beachy Head by way of Bannockburn.
The trouble is that so many hon. Gentlemen from so many different areas are anxious to have the first reply. We often hear advocated a uniform national price for domestic coal, but the objections to this are similar to those in relation to industry, because, no doubt, consumers in the more distant areas—and now I come to these questions from the north and south—of the north and south—[An HON. MEMBER: "Corn-wall."]—yes, Cornwall, the South Coast, which, after all, is not such a distant area as many others, would, of course, enjoy a reduction in price, and it would not be difficult to predict their strong support for the idea; but the other parts of the country would be likely to be emphatically hostile.I want to put the political consequences to hon. Gentlemen opposite, and, in particular, to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede), whose speech I am sorry to say I partly missed because I did not realise that he was going to intervene in the debate. I hope he will not think me discourteous in not having been here for it. I simply did not realise that he was going to take part. I have always admired the acumen of the right hon. Gentleman whether leading the House or redistributing Parliamentary constituencies. I have always admired the right hon. Gentleman's political acumen, but I wonder whether he has really thought this particular point out in its repercussions, because politically these differences of opinion would be emphasised in this way—and I put it to all hon. Gentlemen opposite—that the sufferers would be, in the main, in the industrial areas. For example, it might be said—I think, doubtless, it would be said—that Barnsley was subsidising Bournemouth, Hemsworth Hastings, and Shildon Southampton—to maintain the alliterative effect. Moreover—and I wonder if the right hon. Gentleman thought of this—a great deal of coal is transported by sea. I remember how, during the most critical period of the war, when the E-boats were ravaging the East Coast, and the acoustic and magnetic mines were so numerous, it was still possible to put 12 million tons of coal every year into London from the Tyne by seaborne transport. Well, the House will realise that the equalisation of freights would upset the economics of seaborne coal. The cost of coal, including the transport element, is also a substantial factor—and here I hope that I shall not be interrupted, and that I shall not strike a jarring note—in the price of electricity and gas. Similar difficulties and objections to those already enumerated would apply to the postalisation—which is a polysyllable which strikes me with horror, but which seems to be current now—the postalisation of electricity and gas charges, with higher cost repercussions of a very unpleasant character for us all. I should like to deal now with some common ground which we might find between the hon. and learned Gentleman and those who are not prepared to go the whole way with him, and to say a few words about the type of agreed charge, to which I made reference a few minutes ago. This is agreed at or below the weighted average of the rates which would otherwise be paid by the consigner concerned, who thus takes the rough with the smooth and pays no more, and indeed possibly less, in total. Such flat rates were introduced, partly to secure clerical and accounting economy and partly to enable the railways to tie traffic to themselves. This, however, must not be confused with the type of flat rate which the hon. and learned Gentleman contemplates. To come to the hon. and learned Gentleman's own area for a minute or two, the Scottish Economic Committee of 1939 used these words:
That was in 1939. In 1950 another Committee sat to deal with Highland transport costs—what is generally known as the Cameron Committee. If I may say so, in passing, I thought that the hon. and learned Gentleman made a rather churlish reference to that body. After all, the Cameron Committee was composed of men of very great distinction who have served Scotland well, and I thought that he dismissed their recommendations in language which was a little churlish in view of their service. However, the Committee considered, for better or for worse, whatever their composition, for good or for ill, the postalisation of railway rates and strongly renounced it in their Report. They did recommend an extension of the principle, now embodied in the railway rates system, of reducing the rate per mile as distance increases, but disposed of the question of flat rates chargeable to all consignors in categorical terms, in Paragraph 35, which was quoted earlier today by my noble Friend the Member for Pentlands (Lord John Hope), and as it is on record I will not repeat it. They, in quite categorical terms, rejected the flat rate proposals. The rates charged for the carriage of merchandise can be adjusted to reduce geographical disadvantages by reducing the rate per mile as distance increase. This principle, as I have already stated, is now embodied in the railway rates system, and the question whether it should be applied more extensively will be one of the major issues before the transport tribunal on the draft merchandise charges scheme. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Mr. Edward Davies), was good enough to tell me that he was unable to remain until the end of the debate as he wanted to catch a train to his constituency. He asked specifically for some indication of the position as it here applies and I told him that I would try to leave something on the record for him to study tomorrow. Research has been made, but as the result of the research is somewhat voluminous I will not trouble the House with the use of what I think are technically known as copious notes in this connection. If I may attempt to summarise the position, it is this. Discussions with trade and industry have been going on now since December, 1949, with the object of reaching as large a measure of agreement as possible before the scheme is submitted to the Tribunal. Preparatory work is also proceeding on a charges scheme for docks and harbours, including the detailed examination of existing schedules of charges at individual docks, but having regard to the many complicated matters involved it has not been found possible to prepare a draft scheme. The time allowed for the submission of draft schemes was extended by the late Minister to 5th August last year. or four years from the passing of the Transport Act, 1947. The Commission found it impossible to comply within the extended time and, on 23rd July last, the right hon. Member for East Ham, South (Mr. Barnes), the then Minister of Transport, intimated in this House that they had applied to him for a further period of two years, making six years since the passing of the Act. He pointed out to them that any longer period he might allow must apply to all the draft schemes not then submitted, as he had no power to allow definite periods for particular schemes. The further period of two years for which the Commission had asked was likely to be required in relation to a draft scheme for dock charges, but in the case of the draft Merchandise Charges Scheme, the Commission would require to avail themselves of only a few months of the further period. The primary reason for any postponement in the latter case was the need to allow further time for discussion between the Commission and coastal shipping interests. On 2nd August, 1951, the Minister signed a document allowing a period of six years from the passing of the Act. That brings us to the present Parliament. On 3rd December last, the Minister, in reply to a Question by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North, explained that the expectation that the Commission would need only a few months of the extended period for the submission of a draft Merchandise Charges Scheme could not be fulfilled. Some further time would be required to enable all concerned to consider the matter in the light of the Government's intentions in regard to transport. For some time, therefore, the Commission will continue to rely for power to charge in excess of the prewar powers on authority given by the Minister by orders under Defence Regulations and, latterly, by Regulations under Section 82 of the Transport Act. The Commission have already received a deputation from the Scottish Council, led by the Chairman of the Cameron Committee when this question of reducing geographical disadvantages was discussed between them. Rates cannot, however, be adjusted completely to neutralise geographical disadvantages. One way of doing this is for a single authority to pay the transport charges on particular commodities and to recover the total cost by an equal compulsory levy on all consignors. This, as no doubt the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. Boothby), is well aware, was formerly done by the Ministry of Food in the case of white fish and, as indicated by the Minister of Food on 25th February, the White Fish Authority are now working out the details of a scheme which will be presented to the Minister in due course and later to the House. It is, I think, important for hon. Members who may not be entirely siezed of the problem, for me briefly to give the House the history of this matter, explaining the machinery under which the Government are operating and then to state what the situation is at the moment. The price control of fish was, of course, introduced in 1941. It became necessary then in conjunction with the control scheme to equalise the cost of carriage over the whole of the United Kingdom, not only to remove the natural disadvantage which ports like Aberdeen far distant from some of the main consuming centres suffered by comparison with Hull and Grimsby, but also to remove the incentive to distribute fish in areas close to the ports at the expense of those who live further away. The Minister of Food, therefore, assumed responsibility for discharging the cost of all principal movements away from the coast, and, except during the first three months of price control when the cost fell on the Exchequer, the scheme was financed in the way I have outlined by imposing a levy on all first-hand sales of fish. This continued to operate until decontrol of fish prices in March, 1950, by the late Government. The Minister of Food has no powers to operate a transport equalisation scheme for fish except as part of a system of price control, which, as I have just said, no longer exists, but under the Sea Fish Industry Act. 1951, the initiation of schemes affecting the White Fish Industry, such as a transport equalisation scheme, now lies with the White Fish Authority. Ministers have powers to direct the Authority only on broad questions of policy. In December last, the Authority announced that it had decided to submit to Ministers a scheme under the provisions of Section 6 of the Sea Fish Industry Act, 1951, for the purpose of equalising the cost of transport of white fish in the United Kingdom. The Authority indicated that the scheme, which would have statutory effect when confirmed by order, would be self-supporting and financed by a levy on the gross consigned weight. Hon. Members will no doubt be aware of the procedure. Schemes made under that Section must be approved by the Secretary of State for Home Affairs, the Secretary of State for Scotland, the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries and the Minister of Food, and both Houses are required to pass affirmative Resolutions. Also, before submitting a scheme, the Authority must carry out the procedure laid down in the Act for consultation with the interests concerned, the publication of the draft scheme, and the hearing and consideration of objections. I am informed that the draft scheme is in an advanced stage of preparation, but the levy rate and charges to be made by the Railway Executive and the Road Haulage Executive have still to be determined. In the latter connection a comprehensive review of the present pattern of fish distribution and its cost has been undertaken by the Railway and Road Haulage Executives to ascertain the average cost of transportation. I am sure that the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Aberdeen, North, together with my noble Friend the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South, and my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, East, and all other hon. Members who are so concerned about the matter, will be glad that I am able to tell them that the examination is nearing completion although it may be some weeks before the tabulating of the results is fully completed."At the same time, having regard to the handicap experienced by Scottish industry in connection with freight charges to the South, the main domestic market, augmented as it is by the great concentration of Governmental services of every kind in London, the Economic Committee considers that as part of a general scheme for putting into practical effect the policy in favour of which Parliament has declared itself, the Government should give careful consideration to the possibility of some action being taken in favour of the equalisation of freight rates."
I am sure my hon. Friend will understand if I say I do not share the delight which he attributes to other hon. Members. Am I right in thinking that, although Ministers have to approve a scheme, they are not bound to accept it? Will Ministers take any opportunity of consulting the industry before they approve any scheme?
There is to be full consultation with all who are affected.
May I take it that the scheme will not be tied up with the question of price control?
I understand that it will not. As I said earlier, it is impossible to please everybody in a geographical discussion. Just now I was receiving a rebuke from one side of the Border and I have now had a mild rebuke from the other side of the Border. It shows the difficulty in these matters.We have had a very lengthy and interesting discussion. As I have already said, the discussion ran across party lines and became very largely geographical in character. We have before us the Motion of the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North, and also the Amendment so eloquently moved by my noble Friend the Member for Pentlands. This is a Private Members' day and I understand that the duties of those who stand at the Dispatch Box on such occasions is to give the House advice. Having listened with care to almost all the discussion and having, I hope, weighed the arguments fairly and equitably, I have come to the conclusion that the House will be well advised to support the Amendment. To hon. Members on these benches, perhaps the most interesting and significant part of the Motion is that which calls for amendment of the Transport Act, 1947. I took part in the Standing Committee proceedings, and very lengthy proceedings they were, and I have been through them again in HANSARD, but I have not been able to find any Amendment put down by the hon. and learned Gentleman or anybody else dealing with the problem we have been debating today. He was not a Member of the Standing Committee, but that did not prevent him from putting down an Amendment and getting another hon. Member to move it, nor did we hear from the hon. and learned Member about this problem on the Report stage. I think the reason was that he realised that the Bill was making its way to the Statute Book in circumstances which stifled proper discussion by back benchers owing to the operation of the Guillotine. Many Clauses made their way to another place entirely undiscussed. We note that the hon. and learned Member has added his voice to those from others on both sides of the House, and indeed to that of the London County Council on the other side of the river, for the amendment of the Transport Act, 1947. That is a volume of opinion of which Her Majesty's Government must clearly take note.
I should like to thank the Minister for the careful and courteous way in which he has addressed his mind to the various questions I raised in my opening observations and also to the other questions which were mentioned by hon. Members in the course of the debate. All of us are agreed that this debate has been a useful one, and has directed attention to an urgent national problem. It matters little what line hon. Members took when the Transport Bill was going through the House of Commons, and whether certain Amendments were proposed or not in Committee. We learned from experience, and if the Transport Act needs amendment now there is no reason why it should not be amended in the way that I have indicated.If the Parliamentary Secretary agrees, as I think he does, that this is a national problem, if he will not lend his ear to my appeal to introduce legislation of a character which will deal with the problems I have put before the House, then in the alternative perhaps he will accede to my request and invite the Prime Minister to recommend the appointment of a Royal Commission to investigate all the relevant problems. If it is a very important national matter, why not have it investigated by a Royal Commission or introduce legislation to deal with it. There are the two horns of a dilemma for the Minister, and I hope he will be impaled on one or the other—[An HON MEMBER: "Or both.")—or both. I have not time to answer all the questions raised in the course of this useful debate, but I should like to say a word about the Cameron Committee, upon which the Minister lays such stress. [Interruption]. I do not require any assistance from the hon. Member, who is anxious to jump up at this time of the day when he has only just come into the House.
I have been here quite a long time.
The Minister relies upon paragraph 35, but I would invite his attention to the earlier paragraphs in this Report. This is not the Report of a Royal Commission. This is not the Report of any great authority at all, and I invite his attention to paragraph 31.
I will come to paragraph 35. The Minister relies on that paragraph, but I am suggesting to him that he should take it in connection with other relevant paragraphs. Paragraph 35 is included under the heading of recommendations which begin with paragraph 31, and which is on page 13, where—
It being Four o'Clock, the debate stood adjourned.
Railway Workshops (Employment)
Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Heath.]
My object is almost to continue that railway discussion which we have had today, but my appeal is a rather wider one on railway development generally, in its particular application to towns in my constituency which for 100 years have been famous in the realm of railway construction. I do not think that anyone would disagree with me when I say that railways are the safest means of transport in this country today. They are a tremendous asset in peace and in war. I hope, as do all other people, that we shall never have another war, but we have always to reckon with the possibility of it, and therefore to see that the railways are as good in times of war as they are in times of peace.When we consider the railway construction programme today, we have to realise that, so far from every effort being made to bring the railways right up to date, all railway carriage construction has stopped and railway wagon construction has been hindered. There are other grievous delays which have resulted in checking about a quarter of the forward policy of the Transport Commission. It has been very difficult for me to ascertain the facts with regard to railway construction. There has seemed to be a shroud of secrecy around the railways since 1947. It has been almost impossible to get Questions past the Clerks at the Table and almost impossible to raise the subject in the normal way in the House of Commons. I want to extend my thanks to you, Mr. Speaker, for the latitude that you have shown me in allowing one or two Questions past the Table during these last few weeks, and for pointing out that the one way in which I could raise this subject was on the Adjournment. It was only just over a fortnight ago that I at last began to get at the facts, through the kindness of Lord Hurcomb, Chairman of the Transport Commission. I must confess that I was shocked when he told me that railway carriage construction was to be suspended completely for the rest of the year and that there would be a considerable set-back in wagon construction. I am glad to see with us the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Smithers), who is responsible for the great railway yard there. Lord Hurcomb went on to say that this would mean the dismissal before next July of 300 or 400 men from Wolverton carriage works and probably another 500 from Eastleigh, not to mention some thousands of men up and down the country, including some of our finest skilled craftsmen. These men are skilled not only because of their apprenticeship and of many years spent in railway construction, but because Wolverton is a place where, for at least a century, the best railway construction has taken place. It has the traditions of at least four generations of superb railway craftsmanship. This decision of the Transport Commission would mean these men being dispersed to the four corners of the country, with absolutely no alternative work for them within easy range of Wolverton. Not only will the men be upset, but their entire homes. One might say that if this policy were carried out in all its ruthlessness, it would be a catastrophe for Wolverton and the surrounding villages, that have found so many workmen for the carriage works. I then asked Lord Hurcomb whether it was not possible, rather than dismiss those men, for the railway workshops to take on work for the re-armament drive. That was a fair question, but it was a morning of astonishments, and I was astonished when he pointed out to me a Section in the Transport Act, 1947, which nationalised the railways, completely and utterly forbidding the railways to give a helping hand to the country in its rearmament drive. Section 2 (2, iii) says:
That was a shock and I do not mind confessing that it immediately made me want to find ways and means of getting round an Act of Parliament. I have never encouraged anyone to drive a horse and coach through an Act of Parliament but, for the first time in my life, I had an urge to see if there was not a way round it. In conversation with the Minister of Transport, who has been most helpful in every way within the limits of his limited powers in this respect, I put down a Question for last Monday, asking if there was any way of getting round this Section in the Nationalisation Act. His reply was:"the Commission shall not … construct, manufacture or otherwise produce anything which is not required for … the purposes of their undertaking."
I looked up that Regulation immediately. While it gives the Minister of Transport power to give the railways orders or directions to carry on with such work as he may specify, I have the suspicion that this power can only be used in a national emergency. As far as I am aware, there is not what is legally termed a national emergency at the moment, and, therefore, there are considerable doubts in my mind whether the Minister of Transport could utilise the powers given under the Defence Regulations to compel the Transport Commission to do its utmost to get rearmament work for the railway workshops from which men are being dismissed. I want, therefore, to put a direct question to the Minister this afternoon. I believe in being frank on these occasions and, frankly, I do not want an answer full of soft words and gentle phrases. I want an answer which will give the truth and nothing but the truth, although I realise that life is too short at times for the whole truth. My question is this: Will my hon. Friend ask the Minister of Supply to issue immediate directions that re-armament work shall be carried out in railway construction centres like Wolverton? I want to build up from that because I realise that even if the Minister could get the Minister of Supply to issue those directions immediately, this work would only be a stopgap. It would mean that perhaps for a period of months the 300 to 400 men I have mentioned would be on full time, doing re-armament jobs, but inevitably the time would come when they ought to be back upon their proper railway construction work. There is no guarantee that the Transport Commission has that forward policy for railway construction that ought to have been put in hand this year to help to bring the railways up to date. I therefore want to put a second question. Will the Minister make representations to the Transport Commission that the policy of abandoning the construction of railway stock is bad for the country and disastrous to towns such as Wolverton, where there is no alternative employment for some of the finest craftsmen in the land? Those are two fair questions to put. What I am so anxious to avoid, and what ought to be avoided, is that at a time when there is need for every skilled craftsman to be employed on the job for which he is most fitted, owing to these decisions of the Transport Commission some of our finest men should not only be thrown out of work but, possibly, have their homes disrupted, with the result that the whole economy of towns like Wolverton is thrown into the melting pot. People there begin to ask not merely whether we ought to go on with our housing programme, but whether we dare go ahead with other construction. It is not only Wolverton which is affected, but probably, also, Eastleigh and a dozen other great railway centres. I make no apology for delaying the House this afternoon, because I feel sure that every hon. Member will sympathise with the case I have put forward. I hope that the Minister will answer my two questions fully and with truth."As in the late war the capacity of railway workshops will be tilled for re-armament work where it is suitable and where it is necessary to supplement existing industrial capacity. The British Transport Commission would undertake such work by a direction issued under Defence Regulation 55 (2A).—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17th March, 1952; Vol. 497, c. 175.]
The House must be much indebted to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Buckingham (Major Markham) for raising this matter. In my constituency of Winchester, my constituents who are primarily concerned—those who live in Eastleigh—are aware of the problem similar to theirs which also exists in Wolverton. The unions concerned have cited Wolverton to me as a parallel case, and I should like to associate myself with all that my hon. and gallant Friend has said and, in particular, with his remarks about the human aspects of this matter.In a sense, the railways called these towns into being and the Transport Commission, as heir to the railway companies, is responsible today for the welfare of these communities. Therefore, I address myself once more to the Minister in this matter, in the hope that his influence with the Commission will be able to help us. I have received formal representations from the Mayor and Corporation of Eastleigh about the basic trouble in their borough, which is that it is so much de-dependent on these great industries. They hope that the time will come when it will be possible to have more diversity of industry in their borough. But until that time arrives—and we all look forward to it—it is vitally necessary that the Transport Commission, whose responsibility this is, should exercise their functions, not merely as a hard-fisted business concern, but with some regard to the welfare and interests of the men and their families who are in this matter their particular charge. We all know that steel is very scarce. That is not the responsibility of this Government. We know that the Transport Commission has its allocation and that its division between the various transport activities is the responsibility of the Commission. Since I last had the opportunity to raise this matter, I have been reading in the Press something which may, possibly, bring a new light upon it. I have read in the Press that there is some chance that the steel supply situation may improve towards the end of this year. I know that what appears in the Press is not always true, but everybody in Eastleigh, and I for one, most devoutly hope that that is so. If it be the case that there is some hope of improved steel supplies, there is all the more reason for not dispersing this highly skilled, highly trained staff at this time. Redundancies have already begun and are planned to continue until July. I cannot believe, if it be that there is any question of more steel to come in, that it is wise for this process to begin and to be allowed to continue over the period of six months, when it appears at least conceivable that rescue is in sight. I ask the Minister, who has been most painstaking, hardworking and careful in his investigations into this matter, to pursue it once again with the Commission to see whether, in all the circumstances, it would be possible to make exceptions in the case of towns such as Eastleigh and Wolverton. I cannot believe it to be right to apply the same rigid rule of 100 per cent. cessation to every railway carriage works, regardless of where it is situated, what other industries are in its neighbourhood, and of how heavily the burden will fall on any particular establishment. Therefore, I beg the Minister, if he cannot give us any comfort today—although we all hope he may be able to—to return once more to the question with the Transport Commission and see that in the special circumstances of Eastleigh and Wolverton, a respite may be given until we know for certain that the drastic cut enforced by the Commission is absolutely necessary.
I wish to support the plea put so well by hon. Members opposite. They have stated the case for retention, as far as possible, of highly trained personnel in various railway workshops throughout the country. In my constituency, which includes the great workshops of Derby, we are in danger of losing really first-class people—men who have spent many years of their lives in the industry—as a result of the shortage of steel and the prevention of that great work, which is so urgently necessary, of thoroughly re-equipping our railway industry.Everyone who has spent any time in the railway industry is fully aware of the fact that so much of our equipment is so badly out-of-date that it is obsolete and that to bring our transport industry to a reasonable standard of efficiency and up to the standard we should all like to see, a great deal of work needs to be done in these workshops. We all understand, also, having regard to the shortage of steel, that there might of necessity be some cuts in the work to be performed, but, in the circumstances, if we cannot get that steel immediately for railway purposes, I wish to support the plea put forward that we should at least have a share in the work of rearmament which is going forward. That at least would help the men in those workshops to an extent and would ensure that this valuable personnel is not lost to the railway industry. I must admit that I was surprised that it is possible to get round Sections of the 1947 Act by means of the Defence of the Realm Act and Regulations made under it. We remember this was put in to safeguard private industry in competition with great nationalised industries and perhaps it is understandable in the light of that, but in those circumstances it will be of some advantage and some relief to people working in these shops if the Minister will give an undertaking that he will do his best to ensure that some re-armament work is given to these shops. I will not take up more time as I realise that the Minister wants at least 10 minutes in which to reply and I am grateful for having had an opportunity of supporting the plea which has been put forward today.
It is purely fortuitous that I have to inflict myself on the House for a second time within the hour. I think that fact may be responsible for so many hon. Members having fled from the stricken field, being unable to stand up to the ordeal.When my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Buckingham (Major Markham), was restored to us at the last Election we were all delighted; and if there were any danger that we should overlook the fact that he is back it has surely been dispelled by his activities on behalf of his constituents, and this particular matter is an excellent example of it. I have recently been fully aware of the problem at Wolverton from the urgent representations made to me by my hon. and gallant Friend. I was also well aware of the problem at Eastleigh regarding which my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Smithers) has also been active on behalf of his constituents. I am sure that my hon. Friends and, indeed, the House will appreciate that under the existing system which the Government has to operate the function of the Minister of Transport is to obtain for the British Transport Commission their steel allocation. Having done that he has no jurisdiction over the use, or the uses, to which it is then put. If my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Buckingham will permit me, I will take the second of his questions first because it flows from this fact of the steel allocation. He has asked for the blunt truth. I am sorry he felt that I was likely to haul down the flag of truth after our long and friendly association, but I must tell him with bluntness, and that is what he asked for, that the Ministry of Transport endorses the policy under which carriage construction is temporarily suspended in order to give first priority to track and wagons, and thus concentrate on railway safety and efficiency. My hon. and gallant Friend was present during the previous debate when that was strongly brought out by hon. Members on the opposite side of the House in connection with the better redistribution of commodities. I must remind the House that track is still below pre-war standards, which means, as perhaps the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Champion), knows better than most hon. Members in the House, an unduly high number of speed restrictions. Hon. Members may be alarmed to know that there are still about 100,000 over-age wagons, representing 10 per cent. of the total fleet in operation. Both these factors seriously affect the efficiency of railway working at a time when a higher volume of freight is being carried than ever before in peace-time, and when the railways are being asked to ensure that they continue to move an increasing volume. For obvious reasons, it is impossible to shut down completely all locomotive construction, but a serious reduction has also been made there. There is, of course, a limited field for retrenchment in civil engineering, but this is already reduced to little more than the reconditioning of structures necessary for safety. In other words, in the process of elimination the harsh fact is that the only point where the cut can be borne without loss of operational efficiency is the carriage construction programme. Here let me stress that the railways are most reluctant to lose their skilled staffs. They are doing all they can, by the allocation of repair work and by other means, to keep them usefully employed. Even so there must be some redundancy and by the end of February 1,274 carriage building staff had already been affected, together with 509 from the wagon shops, which are also cutting down output. As a temporary expedient, work on repairs has been found for 677; 131 have been temporarily transferred to other departments, and 580 have found temporary work or retired. During the next six months, it is calculated that 1,720 additional staff engaged on carriage building and 170 on wagon building will become redundant. At Wolverton itself, nearly 100 men have retired or found other temporary employment, and the Railway Executive have provided jobs for about 25. They expect redundancy of rather more than 300 between now and August. The hon. Member for Winchester referred to a statement which has found considerable prominence in the Press, to the effect that large supplies of steel will shortly be available, and the hon. Gentleman will have noticed today that the British Iron and Steel Federation does not support the statement, attributed to one of its officials at a meeting in Birmingham on Wednesday, that there will be a surplus of steel, other than alloy, later in the year. In the view of the Federation, although supplies are likely to improve in the second half of the year, steel will continue to be scarce. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Supply concurs in this opinion. It is only fair to the Chairman of the British Transport Commission to say that he is fully alive to the situation. I saw him earlier in the week, and he made me aware of his anxiety to take ameliorative action to help in this problem. My hon. and gallant Friend will have studied the reply given to him on Monday last by the Minister to a Question dealing with the possibility of Government orders for railway workshops. Here I come to his first question, in which he asked me to make representations to the Minister of Supply on this matter. I am glad to say that that has already been done, and it was not necessary for him to initiate this Adjournment debate for that purpose. We have been on to that matter. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Supply is fully seized of the potential resources available in railway workshops, and is already in touch with officers of the Railway Executive. If I may give the House a concrete example, I might mention the work that is already being done in the locomotive shops at Horwich in Lancashire, and that the Ministry's policy is to use the capacity of the railway workshops for re-armament work, where it is suitable and where it is necessary to supplement existing industrial capacity. I therefore, conclude by informing my hon. Friends that the repair of locomotives and coaches required by the Minister of Supply is normally placed with the workshops. Two locomotives have recently been overhauled, and several coaches are also about to be placed for overhaul, and it is expected that this work will be allotted to Wolverton. I hope that my hon. and gallant Friend will feel that his representations have not been in vain.
Before the Minister sits down, may I ask him if his answer means, among other things, that the dismissals from Wolverton can be avoided, because of this additional work going there from the Ministry of Supply?
That, as my hon. and gallant Friend will appreciate, is really a matter for the Railway Executive. All I am able to report is the placing of some work, but how it will fall on the staff I cannot say.
The Minister did say there was a cut in coach building. The running of over-age coaches is a very expensive and extravagant kind of running, and I therefore hope that he will bear that matter in mind in any further representations which he may make.
If my hon. Friend will look in HANSARD tomorrow, he will see that I used the qualifying word "operational."
May I add that the people of Wolverton are very grateful to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary for the efforts he has made to right the position, and that we wish him speedy success?
Question put, and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes past Four o'Clock.