If and whenever representations are made to the Minister of Transport by any body of persons who, in the opinion of the Minister, are properly representative of the interests of non-statutory road transport proprietors, that exceptional rates are being charged in respect of traffic conveyed in pursuance of the powers of this Act, including traffic conveyed under working agreements made under this Act, which are competitive with the rates charged by the said non-statutory road transport proprietors in such a manner as to be detrimental to the public interest, and which are inadequate having regard to the cost of affording the service or services in respect of which the rates are charged, the Minister of Transport shall (if satisfied that a prima facie case has been made out) refer the matter to the Railway Rates Tribunal for review, and the said Tribunal may, after hearing all parties whose interests are affected, vary or cancel such rates or make such other order as may seem to them expedient and any order so made by the Tribunal shall be binding upon the company.—[Major McLean.]
I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."
This Clause is drafted to meet a position which some of us fear may arise, in which the railway companies would fix very low rates for certain classes of traffic with the object of driving the independent road transport undertakings off the road. This Clause would enable an application to be made to the Minister of Transport in such a case, and if the Minister was satisfied that exceptional rates were being fixed in that way he could refer the matter to the Railway Rates Tribunal. That body would then hear all the parties and make such order as they thought expedient. It seems to me that this is a fair safeguard for the public in general and for the outside transport undertakings in particular. Obviously it would be to the disadvantage of the community as a whole if the railway companies were to use these powers for the purpose of driving the independent undertakings off the road. I do not think they intend that, but I think this Clause would remove any fear of friction. People would be satisfied in knowing that they had the right to go to the Minister if necessary, and I hope the railway companies will accept the proposal.
I think I am the senior Member of this House who sat on the Joint Committee which considered these Bills. That Committee consisted of five Members from this House and five from another place, of different political views, and we sat on 37 days, from 11 o'clock to 4.30 on the average. We had practically all the Members of the Parliamentary Bar before us, speaking from different points of view and in different interests. Every possible argument was brought before us and every point was raised, net once but many times. We were absolutely saturated with the question and, from a more or less judicial point of view we decided the case and came to a conclusion which I may call a balanced judgment on the evidence. I venture to suggest that we came to that conclusion after having been appointed by the regular method and that in the limited time available for discussion here, the whole pros and cons of the matter cannot properly be placed before the House as they were placed before the Committee. I personally do not mind if our decision is upset or reversed, but I would ask the House to remember that the whole decision should be taken as a balanced whole and that if you upset one part of it you upset the equilibrium of the whole.
Subject to that general observation, I would only point out in reference to the proposed New Clause that we are here dealing with a new machine—a new explosive engine—the motor vehicle, which is on the roads to-day. The Preamble having been established, the railway companies are now to be entitled to use this motor machine and this has upset the whole balance of the transport system as we have hitherto known it. If the New Clause be inserted in the Bill the railway users of the new motor vehicle will be placed on an entirely different footing from other motor users. This Clause deals with exceptional rates. I am not clear whether it is intended to apply to rates for goods traffic, or rates for passenger traffic, but if it refers to passenger traffic there is a provision in the Bill under which all fares have to be posted up in every vehicle that runs on the roads. If it refers to goods rates there are no exceptional rates because, hitherto, this traffic has practically been carried on by means of special bargains made with each individual and there are no standard charges of any sort or kind. This Clause therefore would put a burden on the railway user of motors not borne by any other user of motors and the Railway Rates Tribunal would have no means of arriving at a fair decision in any case.
The Committee listened for days and days to the suggestion that the railway companies, having been granted these powers, were likely to use them against other road users. This was the case made on behalf of the traders, including the Farmers Union—who, I gather, have suggested this proposed New Clause. It was suggested that the railway companies, although they were said to be in an impecunious position, were going to engage in this motor traffic at a dead loss with a view to driving the other people off the roads; and that, having done so, they were going to put up the rates and make the public pay. The Committee came to the conclusion that they did not believe that the railway companies could do so, for the reason that a motor service is a very easy thing to start. But having regard to the fears expressed, it will be seen that in Clause 13 the Committee gave the widest protection that they could give in this respect. Under Clause 13, if representations are made that the railway companies are exercising these powers to the prejudice of the public the Minister of Transport can hold an inquiry and call whatever evidence is necessary. If, in his opinion, the case is made out, he reports it to Parliament and Parliament will deal with the question. The railway companies cannot get any other powers without an Act of Parliament. They are under Parliamentary control as no other body on the road is under control. Clause 13 gives the widest means of redressing any abuse of this power. It can he put in operation at the hands of the traders or of the public, and Parliament can remedy that evil in a very short time.
I must confess that I am somewhat disappointed at the speech which was made on behalf of those who support this Clause, because I find a great difficulty in understanding it. The speech was so short, no doubt wisely so, that it left me in complete ignorance as to what the real intention was. I find language, which to me is somewhat strange, in regard to the rates which are to be charged being detrimental to the public interest and which at the same time inadequate to meet the cost of providing the service. I find it difficult to understand how the public can suffer by rates which are less than the cost of providing the service. For my part, I would venture to emphasise what the hon. and learned Member for East Grinstead (Sir H. Cautley) has said, that "exceptional rates" is not a phrase which can be defined. There is no such thing as a standard rate, and, therefore, exceptional rates in regard to goods traffic are not possible in the ordinary sense, and certainly cannot be defined. On the other hand, so far as the service of the railway company is concerned, it seems to me to be a pity, if they are to run an adequate service for the public, that they should be put in a different position from the ordinary omnibus service. Accordingly, I suggest either that this proposal is entirely unnecessary or, if not, that it is not presented in terms which would effect any real service to the public.