With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and with that of the House, I should like to make the following statement about the recent decision to revoke certain road service licences issued to Northern Roadways Ltd.Under the Road Traffic Act, 1930, which arose directly out of the Royal Commission on Transport, an operator who wishes to provide a road passenger service has to apply for a road service licence from one of the licensing authorities set up by that Act. Objection may be made to such applications and under the 1930 Act, an appeal may be made to the Minister of Transport, either by an applicant who is refused a licence, or by an objector who is aggrieved by its issue. When such an appeal is made, and appeals are quite common, it is the practice to appoint an independent inspector to hear it and to make a report to the Minister. The procedure in the present case is that which has been followed by successive Ministers of Transport for over 20 years. The decisions which it was my duty to make were in accordance with the recommendations made by the inspector and are, in fact, in line with similar decisions taken by all my predecessors. It has since been represented that the Company, while their licences were under appeal, have made advance booking arrangements covering the whole of the summer with a large number of intending passengers. The Order which I made did not specify a date for revocation and I understand that the licensing authority are in the special circumstances considering letting the licences for the services from Edinburgh and Glasgow to London and from Glasgow to Scarborough run until the end of the summer. It is customary for the effect of such revocations to be delayed by the licensing authority for a short time to avoid public inconvenience. So long an extension as is now envisaged is unusual, but it should minimise any inconvenience to the public which pre-booking on such a large scale might otherwise have caused.
Is not it the case that this decision to extend time is unprecedented since the Act of 1930 has been in force, and is not the Minister running himself into grave danger of frustrating the will of Parliament in connection with appeals of this nature? Will he bear that very carefully in mind? Judicial processes have been gone through.
I think that the Minister knows better than the hon. Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Hinchingbrooke). May I ask whether it is the case that the public inconvenience, which has undoubtedly been caused, has resulted from delay in settling the appeal and from the fact that the company "jumped the gun" by accepting bookings before the result of their appeal had been heard? So that there shall be no further doubt or inconvenience to the public, will the Minister tell us what is his intention at the end of this time when the extension runs out?
Let me deal with these points as far as I can keep them in mind. The first main point is that this procedure is, as the hon. Member has said, one set up under the 1930 Act. The lapse of time between the lodging of appeals and the decision is fairly long. That has always been so in these cases, because a great deal of work has to be done on the preparation of the case by counsel for all the interested parties.The next point is that no decision has been made by the Minister in connection with the extension of the period. As I said in my statement, it is an unusually long period, but this decision is entirely for the licensing authority, who will have regard to the great public inconvenience which would be caused if these services were discontinued straight away, As I said in my statement, it is customary for the effect of such revocation to be delayed by the licensing authority for a period to avoid public inconvenience. I agree this is an abnormally long period. This case has been handled entirely according to the provisions of the 1930 Act, and it would be quite improper for me, acting in a quasi-judicial capacity, to make any comment beyond that.
May I press the Minister on this, because the public must know where they stand, and the Company must know where they stand? Is there any likelihood that this Company will be able to carry on bookings after the present extension of time has run out, or not?
That would depend on whether they lodged applications for further licences.
With respect, this is a very important point. If they do not lodge further applications, am I to understand that the provisions of the report of the inspector will be carried out and this service will have to come to an end?
That is the position under the Act and under the decision it was my duty to make.
Would it be possible for the Minister to go further and to extend the time or for the licensing authority to do so?
The licensing authority has to make up its mind as to what is reasonable in the circumstances. Having made up its mind, that is final.
While appreciating the Minister's difficulties under the present law and welcoming the statement that it is likely that the summer service at least will be run, may I ask him to bear in mind that there are a great many people who, not only this year but every year, can take holidays only if they can get cheap transport? Further, may I ask him whether it is the intention of the Government to amend the law so that these people may be provided with cheap transport and that this uncertainty may be eliminated?
On the first point, the hon. Member will realise that my function in this matter is quasi-judicial, and I could not comment on the first part of his Question. On the second part, that is a matter which must be looked at among other things which are being examined.
On the quasi-judiciality of my hon. Friend's action, would he agree or disagree with this proposition: that the object of providing by Statute for reference to a Minister is not in order that he should give a legal and impartial judgment and thus usurp the functions of the higher courts, but to enable him to perform an act of political and administrative justice? Will my hon. Friend see that those officials who put up to him cases of this kind in future are fully acquainted with that proposition?
I must say to my noble Friend that the position of the inspectors in this matter is entirely independent and judicial. They are bound to act as they have acted in this case.
They are, but the Minister is not.
I too am bound by the case history of these matters and the interpretation of the Act.
Will the Minister tell us what part the nationalised transport system may have had as shareholders in any of the companies or parties which appealed against these licences? Further, will my hon. Friend look into the procedure which results in this considerable delay? Finally, can he say whether the whole question of road touring and the hotel industry was taken into consideration when the inspector looked into the matter?
On the first point, I think that it would be simplest if I gave the detail of what appeals were lodged. There were 38 appeals lodged against the four licences in question. One company, completely independent of the British Transport Commission, lodged six appeals. Three companies in which the majority shareholding is in private hands but the British Transport Commission have a minority interest lodged 13 appeals. Four companies which are controlled by the British Transport Commission lodged 11 appeals, and the Railway Executive lodged eight appeals. On the last point which my hon. Friend raised, the licensing authority and the inspectors act completely judicially in these matters and they are bound to do so. I am afraid that I missed the second question.