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Road Haulage Units (Disposal)

Volume 524: debated on Monday 1 March 1954

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [ Mr. Kaberry.]

10.13 p.m.

I want to raise the matter of the disposal of road transport units by the Road Haulage Disposal Board. Let me, first, set at rest the mind of the editor of the "Daily Herald," who is very concerned that I and my colleagues want to try to get the Minister to agree to sell these units, or to instruct the Disposal Board to sell them, at knock-out prices. Exactly the contrary is the truth as far as I am concerned.

The whole point of my raising this matter tonight is to show that there is a great demand in the country for these transport units and that the fault, if any, lies with the method adopted by the Transport Commission and the Disposal Board in connection with their attempted sales. I entirely agree with the Transport Commission when it says that in connection with disposals up to date it has meticulously observed the letter of the Transport Act, 1953. That is the statement which it made, and which was published in "The Times" of 26th February.

I want to submit that it is not sufficient for the Commission meticulously to observe the letter of the law. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I believe I shall carry the House with me when I say that there is a certain spirit behind an Act of Parliament, and that it is not just sufficient for the Commission meticulously to observe the conditions. It needs to do two other things. One is to have some regard to the spirit behind the Act, and also to set the right climate in which sales can take place most advantageously for the taxpayers of this country. Those are the persons with whom I am concerned.

On a point of order. I ask your guidance, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, on this aspect of the matter now before the House. Some little time ago I raised this matter in another connection by way of Questions which I tabled. I was told it was not competent for the House to discuss this matter, which fell within the day-to-day administration of the British Transport Commission. My Questions were ruled out of order.

That is a different matter altogether. This debate is taking place on the Adjournment Motion, but I was wondering, from the speech of the hon. Member for Kemptown (Mr. H. Johnson), how far he was discussing the Act of Parliament.

The point was that I wanted to show that the Minister had very great responsibility under this Act. Under various Sections he has a right to consent or to approve, and under Section 11 he has the power to dissolve the whole of the Road Haulage Disposal Board. I submit that these are matters that are completely within the power of the Minister.

I come now to what I call the meat of the matter. I think the time has arrived when the Minister might well be advised to give some recommendations to this Disposal Board about the basis on which the board is valuing both the vehicles and the A licences.

I am sorry, but I have very little time, and I am sure we are all anxious to hear the Minister reply.

On a point of order. The hon. Member is suggesting that the Minister can give instructions to the Disposal Board in this connection. There is nothing in the Act permitting him to do so; and, therefore, the hon. Member is agitating for new legislation which is outside the terms of the Adjournment Motion.

If the hon. Member is dealing with new legislation he is out of order, but if he is dealing with the administrative powers of the Minister then he is in order, but he must keep within that limit.

I am submitting it is within the power of the Minister to make recommendations to the board.

I am saying that the time has come when the Minister might well give recommendations to the board that it should let him know the basis upon which both vehicles and A licences are being held. I should like to give one or two examples. One has arisen in my own constituency. First of all, an offer was made for two very old Dodge lorries, one a Vulcan 48 and one an E.R.F. lorry. Those lorries were valued by independent valuers of repute. The Transport Commission must have written off the two Dodge lorries a year or so ago as totally valueless.

The Vulcan 48 was valued at £250 and the E.R.F. at £600. The person who was desirous of coming back into the road haulage industry made an offer for those vehicles of no less than £2,500, and it was estimated that a sum of not less than £1,500 must have been attributable to the value of the A licences. That offer was rejected by the Disposal Board. I want to emphasise that an offer of £2,500 was far in excess of any figure which the private road haulier obtained in the takeover under the 1947 Act.

Indeed, if I had the time, and too many points of order were not raised, I could give many instances of operators who have made bids on exactly the same basis as their business was taken over under the 1947 Act, namely, the value of the vehicle new, less 20 per cent, of the price as new plus betterment plus £70 per ton for unladen tonnage. Every one of those offers on that basis has been rejected by the British Transport Commission and the Disposal Board.

I submit that there is something radically wrong and that it is time the Minister made recommendations on this point so that prospective newcomers, as well as persons who have been in the industry and want to come back, would have an idea of the method of valuation both of the vehicles and of the A licences by the Disposal Board. If we get that position we shall have healthier bids and tenders and better bids and tenders than we have had in the past.

I have one other complaint to make about the methods adopted by the Transport Commission and the Disposal Board to date. That is the fantastically unbusinesslike and sloppy way in which these units have been lotted together. One example I have is of a unit where the vehicles were offered with property. The vehicles were so large and high that they would not go into the garages offered with the lot. Of all the fantastic absurdities, to offer vehicles of such a size and height —[HON MEMBERS: "Names?"] I will not give any names because the reject lists are now coming out, and if I gave names I venture to suggest that these persons who tender again may well find their tenders rejected again—[Hon. MEMBERS: "Rubbish."]—and I will not have anyone victimised.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. The hon. Gentleman has made an accusation against the British Transport Commission which is serious. He has suggested that they are offering lorries with premises—

This is not a point of order for me. The hon. Member is responsible for any statement he has made.

I have other accusations to make about the British Transport Commission—

I want to ask the Minister this question: Do the members of the Disposal Board inspect all these vehicles, properties and lots when they come forward from the Disposal Board and from the British Transport Commission? If they do not inspect the vehicles and the properties offered with them, I fail to understand how they can give a proper and full consent to the method of lotting.

Another complaint is that in any case unsuitable vehicles have been offered together in one lot. At Shoreham-by-Sea, very near to my constituency, 23 vehicles were offered in one lot and of those no fewer than seven were of different makes. I am sure that anyone would agree that any prudent road haulage contractor would wish to have as many vehicles as possible of the same make in his unit. Obviously he does not want to have to stock spare parts for different types, and he wants to have mechanics who are used so maintaining certain types. There were three trailers in the lot and all three were of different makes. Except for one vehicle, all 23 were 12 to 14 years of age.

All this meant that all the bids were rejected, and now we have the farcical position that in the first list of rejected bids these 23 vehicles and three trailers are being offered in exactly the same form as they were in the past. Shoreham-by-Sea is a town eminently suitable for the small transport man to operate in. Prior to nationalisation, Smart Bros, operated a very efficient road haulage service there with nine vehicles which covered the demands of the locality. Now we have 23 vehicles offered in one lot, and no bid accepted.

It is important that the Minister should know—and if I am wrong I hope some one will correct me—that before these 23 vehicles were put up the advice of the local area manager of the British Transport Commission was not asked for and not obtained. I think that that is quite ridiculous.

When I come to question the valuations, I shall say more about what I found out.

This is some of the nonsense with which we have to put up and which those who want to go back into the industry have to endure.

I say that this is part of a campaign by the British Transport Commission to ensure that lotting is most unfavourable to the prospective purchaser. It is time that the Minister interfered and saw to it that the British Transport Commission carried out its statutory obligation to dispose of these units in the quickest possible time.

Is it not correct to say, Mr. Speaker, that if an hon. Member is criticising the Road Haulage Disposal Board, the body which is responsible for disposing of the vehicle in question, he is entirely out of order when so doing in criticising the British Transport Commission?

Further to that point of order. The Act under which these Regulations are made makes it specifically clear that the British Transport Commission cannot accept or invite tenders for any vehicles except with the permission of the Road Haulage Disposal Board. So the responsibility rests entirely on the Board and not on the Commission.

If what the hon. Member is suggesting would involve legislation, that would be quite a different matter, but I did not gather that it did.

I did not suggest that in any shape or form. My criticism was of the method by which these vehicles were lotted together and offered for tender.

I should like to make some suggestions for making improvements none of which, I assure you, Mr. Speaker, will require legislation.

I have suggested already that the Minister should recommend to the Board that the basis of valuation of both vehicles and A licences should be made publicly known. I have also suggested that the method of lotting should be greatly improved so that as many vehicles as possible of the same make are included in one lot. I also say that where property is offered in the same lot as vehicles it should be suitable for the Storage and garaging of these units. I say also that small units should be offered in small towns.

Under sub-paragraph 6 of paragraph 1 of the First Schedule substitute A licences can be given only for a vehicle of the same or less weight unladen. In the lists which have been opened there are a number of vehicles for which bids must be made although they do not carry A licences. I do not think the Minister is aware that, for example, a 1942 Bedford 5-ton lorry cannot be replaced by a 1953 Bedford 5-ton lorry because the 1953 vehicle has an unladen weight of 5 cwt. more. I say that the Minister should recommend—[HON. MEMBERS: "That is in the Act."]—to the licensing authority—

On a point of order. The hon. Member keeps suggesting that the Minister should give a recommendation. But under the Act, as I understand it, there is no provision for the Minister to recommend to the Disposal Board anything regarding the disposal of the vehicles. In effect he is suggesting that there should be legislation.

It seems difficult in this case to draw the borderline between administration and legislation. The hon. Member must keep clear of anything which would involve an extension of the powers of the Minister under the Act. If what he is suggesting, as I am told is the case, is that the Minister should take powers which he has not by the statute, then he is suggesting legislation and is out of order.

With respect, I did not suggest that. I suggested that the Minister should make recommendations to the licensing authority and not to the board. It is well known that the Minister has complete power—[HON. MEMBERS: "No"]—to make recommendations to the authority.

Further to that point of order. Will the hon. Gentleman inform us under what Section of the Act the Minister has any power to make recommendations to the Disposal Board, which is, after all, the authority for the disposal of these vehicles, or to the licensing authority, which the hon. Member has introduced, and which is not concerned with the disposal of these vehicles?

The hon. Gentleman seems to be dealing with the methods of the Disposal Board. That, in general, I should have thought was administration. But, as I have said before, if the hon. Member is suggesting that the Minister should have new powers, that is legislation and is out of order.

I think the hon. Gentleman is making suggestions not in general, but in particular cases, and, therefore, he is arguing against the Act.

The Minister should pay some attention to Section 3 (3) of the Act whereby the Commission shall have regard to the desirability to secure for persons desirous of entering and re-entering the road haulage industry a reasonable opportunity to do so. The tenders which have been issued so far do not require that the tenderer shall say whether he was in the road haulage industry or not.

I say that it is an administrative matter that the Minister can tell the Disposal Board that he would like some reference to be made in the form of tender so that the board will know whether a person making a tender is seeking to re-enter the industry from which he was excluded by the 1947 Act. There is a very great demand for the purchase of these vehicles if only they can be offered on good businesslike terms and not in the slipshod, sloppy, unbusinesslike way in which they are being offered at present.

10.36 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation
(Mr. Hugh Molson)

I apologise for having to rise now, but I am inclined to think that the responsibility for that is evenly divided between both sides of the House, as there is extremely little time in which I can make plain what the legal position is.

I should like to begin by saying to my hon. Friend the Member for Kemptown (Mr. H. Johnson) that under the Act of 1933 the licensing authorities are independent authorities. My right hon. Friend not only has no power to give directions to the authorities but he is always at pains to abstain from attempting to influence them in what really is a quasi-judicial function. Secondly, the somewhat controversial Transport Act of 1953, which was passed by this House before I had anything to do with transport, provided for the disposal of the great majority of the lorries owned by the Commission. The actual responsibility for the sales rested with the Commission but the Disposal Board was specially appointed under the Act to make certain that the disposal should be conducted on lines which were uninfluenced by politics and would be conducted with the single object of making certain that it was done in accordance with the spirit of the legislation.

The main purpose was that the lorries and other property should be disposed of at the best possible price, and a special provision was also inserted to ensure that the small man should have his proper chance. Therefore, when my hon. Friend is criticising what has been done, he is not justified in blaming the Commission.

The body which was appointed by my right hon. Friend under the provisions of the Transport Act has concurred in every action that has taken place. They are gentlemen who command in a matter of this kind the confidence of the general public, and I really believe, of both sides of the House—even the confidence of those hon. Members opposite who disapprove of the general policy.

There is as Chairman Sir Malcolm Trustram Eve, who has been a very distinguished servant of the State in many responsible offices. There is Mr. Orchin, who used to be Director of Finance at the Ministry of Transport; he then became Chief Finance Officer of the Road Haulage Executive during the time that they were acquiring the property which is now being disposed of. There is Mr. Farmer from the Road Haulage Association; Mr. Gordon Grahame, representa-ting trade and industry, who came from the Morris Organisation; Mr. Greenwood, who, as an official of a large steel concern, knows the point of view of C licence holders; and Lord Rusholm, who, after being a very distinguished representative of the Wholesale Co-operative Society, was appointed to the British Transport Commission by the last Government in office.

He still sits there as the representative of the Wholesale Co-operative Society.

I believe that is so.

I can say to my hon. Friend that in the whole of the disposal that has taken place down to the present time there has been no difference of opinion between the British Transport Commission and the Disposal Board.

This House passed legislation which imposed this responsibility upon the British Transport Commission and upon the Disposal Board which was set up for this special purpose, and, really it does not lie in the mouth of any hon. Member now to start telling them how they ought to discharge their responsibility.

So far, the disposal, which is to sell 32,441 lorries, has not even gone half way. It is a very difficult job to undertake. I have no doubt that there are cases where the grouping of the units to be disposed of has not entirely satisfied the wishes of some purchaser. But, really, when one is disposing of a large number of vehicles to a large and unknown number of purchasers, it is impossible to be quite certain that in all cases the allocation will be exactly what is desired. But I have no reason to suppose at all that in any case the British Transport Commission has not tried to allocate them—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock, and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Sixteen Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.