David Webster – 1967 Speech on the Transport Bill

The speech made by David Webster, the then Conservative MP for Weston-super-Mare, in the House of Commons on 20 December 1967.

I always follow what the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, West (Mr. Steele) says with great interest. He talked about the 1921 speech of Lord Geddes, about the railway deficit and the 1923 regrouping. I remember that during the passage of the 1962 Act he tried, with great robustness, to resist the rearrangement of British Railways. I hope that, in view of what he has said today, he will, at the same length and with the same robustness, resist the changes now proposed for British Railways. I look forward to hearing from him at great length in Committee.

The point which the Minister left out of her speech was that the present railway deficit is less than the deficit in 1964. In 1964, the deficit was £120 million. Today, it is £150 million. But, in fact, it is 1 per cent. less because the cost of living has increased by 10 per cent. and the £ has been devalued by 16 per cent. I am sorry that the right hon. Lady missed that out of her speech. Perhaps she will make that point later.

The Minister’s speech today and the Government speech yesterday on South Africa prove the complete incompatibility between pure Socialism and a prosperous country and responsible government. The Prime Minister’s secret is that for the last three years he has managed to keep this from the public view, but now he is no longer able to do so. The crude cost to the nation of what the Minister proposes is an increase of £60 million on the rate burden without any right of appeal. Lest it should be thought that the taxpayer will benefit from the Bill, it should be pointed out that that will not happen.

Mrs. Castle

I am interested in the hon. Member’s statement that there will be an increase in the rates of £60 million. Would he break that figure down so that I might understand it? It does not relate to anything in my Bill.

Mr. Webster

The right hon. Lady knows that the cost of setting up passenger services in urban areas is £60 million.

Mrs. Castle

We should get this matter clear. The Bill makes clear that the provision concerning the passenger transport authorities for suburban railway finances in their area is specifically confined to the conurbations where the losses are, not £60 million, but £8 to £10 million. The figure of £60 million applies to stopping services all over the country, and they are not involved.

Mr. Webster

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady. I am always glad to give way to her, although she was not glad to give way during her speech. Clause 9 gives her power to set up a passenger transport authority in any part of the country. Therefore, what she says is absolute eyewash and is almost on the level of the parody which I put to her just now about how the railway deficit was less than it was in 1964.
There will not be a reduction in taxation. The taxpayer will have to pay £35 million to take over British Electric Traction. The taxpayer has already suffered an increase in the railway deficit of £20 million. There is an estimate of £40 million in the Bill in vehicle taxation alone. Is this justice for an industry which has had its excise duty doubled, has suffered three increases in fuel tax and has lost its investment allowances? If that is the right hon. Lady’s idea of justice—I will not finish that sentence.

The name of the Home Secretary, not that of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, is on the Bill. The fact that the Chancellor of the Exchequer should allow this Bill to be presented straight after devaluation, after the Prime Minister has forced a crisis of confidence and the £ is tottering again, despite the 16 per cent. devaluation, shows the inability of the Government to put right the affairs of the country. I shall probably be accused of being disloyal by pointing out the defects of the Government in trying to put the country right.

The point which my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Peter Walker) made about the chairmanship of British Railways being hawked around, it is rumoured, seven people, the Parliamentary Secretary’s visit to Canada to ask a prominent railwayman there to become Chairman of British Railways and things of this sort are nothing compared with the Minister’s failure to achieve an adequate salary structure for the Chairman and top management. If the Government want to obtain people who can put matters right, they will have to pay them properly and ensure that there are prospects for people further down the scale to be adequately remunerated for a very hard and thankless job. One sees distinguished and devoted servants like Lord Beeching, Lord Hinton, Mr. Shirley and Mr. Fiennes leaving the railways distressed and depressed.

This is the industry which has now also lost the freightliner train, which was to be its white hope, to the National Freight Corporation. It is simply a new bureaucracy with yet another bureaucracy —the Freight Integration Council—set up to try to make sure that there will not be friction between the N.F.C. and British Railways. I cannot believe that there will not be friction between them and so it may be, for once, that this new Council will have purpose in trying to prevent that type of friction. It is known that communication in the top ranks of railway management is not very good. To set in a new authority will make it much more difficult at this time.

The argument that licensing will relieve congestion is simply baloney. It will mean that a person is prevented from having a vehicle of more than 16 tons. Therefore, instead of using proper commercial judgment and getting a 30-tonner, he will keep his vehicle size at 16 tons or less, thus causing more than twice as many vehicles to be on the roads, particularly in the city centres, when using the railway depots. The fact that what is called a special authorisation has to be given to operate a vehicle of more than 16 tons shows that the mentality of the Minister is that this is a privilege which is given to this type of haulier.

The railways will have the right to object and are given 14 days in which to do so. In planning matters, a person who applies for permission lodges his application. Nobody is advised; it is kept secret. In this case, however, the exact reverse will apply and those who might wish to object will be gratuitously informed at public expense. They then have to prove that on either one, two or three of the grounds of speed, reliability and cost, their service is almost as good as that of the person who is applying to give it, regardless of the choice of the customer.

If those who succeed in having an application for a special authorisation overruled then fall down and fail to carry out their undertaking—as the Joint Parliamentary Secretary told me today—no damages or compensation will be given to the person who has falsely been deprived of his licence. It should be almost a criminal matter with damages involved, but there will be none.

There is, of course, a right of appeal, but nobody can afford to keep vehicles when they become obsolescent and there is no use for them. Would somebody who was not allowed to use them wait and go broke in the hope that one day he might succeed in an appeal? There is also the possibility of appeal by the railways should circumstances change, when they can apply for a revocation order, with the result that a haulier who has invested in expensive vehicles could lose his fleet in the twinkling of an eye.

What about one of our best exporting companies, the Leyland Motor Co., well known for its commercial vehicle exports? One of the brightest things in British industry has been the functions of this company and its commercial vehicle exports. How will it manage to export if it does not have a safe domestic market? At a time when industrial management is being hectored and lectured by Ministers of the Crown, from the Prime Minister downwards, to work harder and to do better but is having its freedom of decision removed, it is small wonder that our application to join the Common Market has been turned down, because the Government’s proposals would be completely contradictory to the Treaty of Rome. The Minister knows that an appeal is already being made against the German labour plan, to which she referred with great enthusiasm, to the Council of the European Economic Community on the ground that it is contrary to the Treaty of Rome.

What will happen to our people when we have the annual pre-Christmas railway strike and the annual pre-Christmas freeze-up of points? Who will deliver the perishable and essential goods that are needed to keep people alive?

Mr. Peter Mahon

The hon. Member will, of course, agree that the Leyland Motor Co. is not altogether condemnatory with regard to the Bill. He has not conceded this.

Mr. Webster

I wonder whether the hon. Member met any of his constituents who came yesterday to see Members of Parliament. I met a number of mine and some of my neighbours’ constituents. I met a lot of people from Wales who had been waiting for about four hours. They said that no Member of Parliament had come out to see them and they were furious. They said that the effect of the Bill upon a development area would be exceedingly hard. They said that the penalty on heavy indivisible loads, on which there would be a tax of £15 a mile, would hit the development areas exceedingly harshly. I was glad that as a result of the pressure which we have applied, both at Question Time and in this debate, the Minister will relent. I hope that she will relent thoroughly and make matters a good deal easier.

I hope that the Minister will also relent regarding Schedule 11, which specifies a charge of £50 for a 3-ton vehicle and £190 for an 8-ton vehicle, because the development areas will be very hard hit by this. Many of the heavy loads are plant which is required by bodies such as the Central Electricity Generating Board, another nationalised industry.

I sympathise with the Chairman of British Electric Traction concerning the take-over of his company. He was treated to one of the most brutal forms of blackmail by threat and he was then given a tempting offer which, in the interests of his shareholders—who include many pension trusts with workmen’s pensions involved; he had to consider this—he had to accept. This method of picking off companies like that, taking the biggest operator and then taking, as, I am sure, we will be hearing from my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Sir R. Cary), the best routes of the other companies, is designed by the Minister to ensure the withering-away of private interest which has served the country well.

It is illusory to imagine that passenger transport authorities, for which Clause 9 provides, will be set up only in Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham and Newcastle, because the Clause states clearly “any area”. One-seventh of every authority is to be what are called “independent members” nominated by the Minister. With the different and varying authorities, there is bound to be difference of opinion and the Minister’s nominees will always hold the balance, particularly if they have the way in towards the purse strings.

Clause 10(l,vi) deals with the paying of the railway deficit, which I consider to be nearly £60 million in these areas. If the Minister does not agree with my figures, will she please tell me what they are for the four areas concerned and in the urban areas?

Mrs. Castle

I have just said: £8 million to £10 million in the four conurbations.

Mr. Webster

I should be grateful if the right hon. Lady would publish the figures and give the methods by which they are calculated.
What incentive to efficiency will the Minister, as arbitrator, have between a passenger transport authority and a railway company where the railway company is simply the agent for running an unremunerative service and the P.T.A. pays the bill and precepts the local authority? What defence or compensation will there be to the ratepayer whose assets are being stolen from him under a formula the details of which were given to four hon. Members on this side of the House from Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool and Newcastle? It seems that nobody on the benches opposite is interested in this point. I hope that a number of hon. Members opposite will serve on the Standing Committee and take an acute interest in it. I gather that the formula is almost nothing.

Why do he have this P.T.A. business before local government reform? If it is right to do it after local government reform for the lesser areas, why do it for the most important cities before local government reform? Why do we have to give power to the Executive under Clause 15(6) when it states—this is one of the most outstanding Clauses I have ever seen: Notwithstanding anything in this Part of this Act, nothing done by the Executive for a designated area shall be held to be unlawful on the ground that the approval of the Authority for that area to the doing of that thing was required by or under this Part of this Act and that it was done without obtaining that approval. I know of no blanker cheque in the history of mankind. Why are we giving this power to the Executive? I should like the Minister of State to tell us this when, in this intellectual dialogue with my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell), he winds up the debate. I shall be grateful if he can tell us the purpose of this subsection.

We come, then, not only to Clause 10, which gives power to sell petrol and spares, but to Clause 45, which has been dealt with so adequately by my hon. Friend, which provides for the extension of public ownership enterprise, if that is what it is called. What is the purpose of these Clauses? What benefit will they give to anybody in this country?

I wonder why the Bill has been introduced. Is it that the Minister of Transport has said to the Prime Minister, “Either I have this Bill, regardless of the state of the economy or I go”? If not, why does not the right hon. Lady go. Surely we should all have the state of the economy as our prime interest, and not simply want to extend public ownership, despite the Letter of Intent. This is in complete contradiction of the Letter of Intent, and yet the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer propose to allow this Minister to try to gain control of the means of distribution of everything in this country. This will put at least 10 per cent. on all our export costs. It will take the cutting edge off the British economy. Why does the Prime Minister keep the right hon. Lady there, and tolerate her in this appointment? Is it that he is frightened that if she were to go to the back benches the Left-wing would really have a champion? My right hon. Friend the leader of the Opposition said yesterday that the Prime Minister was first class at looking after No. 1, but he is allowing this Bill to go through, and it will be a first-class disaster to this country.