I beg to move, in page 3, line 25, to leave out the words "do so." and to insert instead thereof the words "hold an inquiry."
All six Amendments in my name are purely drafting.
For the simple reason that the Committee came to the definite conclusion, as indeed was the intention, that no tolls should be touched under the Bill.
I am very interested to observe the right hon. Baronet's interest in this point. I hope, with his great influence on his side of the House, he will see that in future something more is done in wiping out these tolls than has been done up to the present. I ought to make our position quite plain, as it was in Committee. We objected very strongly to any provision being made in the Bill which might be interpreted by a Minister, who might be to us of the wrong colour, to enable the owners of tolls to go on collecting them after there had been a large expenditure of public money upon main roads. I was told that probably my fears were based upon false premises, but there was some doubt in our minds about it and, after some discussion, it was agreed by both sides that any reference to tolls should come right out of the Bill. The understanding is, I take it, that the present procedure will remain open and that there will be negotiations between local authorities and the owners of toll rights for the extinction of these tolls as occasion may arise. In view of the increased percentage grants which have been very kindly promised by the Ministry of Transport in respect of other works under the Bridges Bill, I hope the intervention of some private or unofficial person, like the right hon. Baronet, will result in a higher percentage grant being promised for the assistance of local authorities who will be buying out the existing rights of toll owners.
After the speech just delivered I may say I was appre- hensive because of these words being brought under discussion in Committee. The fears already expressed by the hon. Member for Hillsborough (Mr. Alexander) might give toll owners ground to look forward with optimism to what they are going to wring out of the Ministry with regard to the buying out of these tolls. I am not at all anxious that there should be a ramp by toll owners because they have the Ministry at their mercy. There is much that is contentious in this Bill, which we allowed to pass in the hope that it would pass quickly into law. I intervened because I am afraid the hon. Member for Hillsborough was rather encouraging toll owners to get very busy. I am very apprehensive of the land owners already, without encouraging their enthusiasm any more. I thank the Minister for coming at last to this point of deleting these words from the Bill. It was difficult to convince him in Committee that they had no right to be there at all, but for these mercies let us be thankful.
I thank my right hon. Friend for this very useful piece of legislation. May I also say how much a lot of us appreciate the very great assistance that has been given by the Opposition in getting through this really constructive piece of legislation. May I add my congratulations on the great wisdom of the Liberal party in abstaining from debate and their complete absence from the Committee stage of the Bill.
This Bill contains some things which we object to but which we did not make a matter of contention on the Committee stage. What we felt all through was that private owners are not going to be called upon to pay any more for the construction of the bridges than they would have been had this Measure not been demanded. We discussed this in Committee but it is quite appropriate to bring it up now. The Bill safeguards private owners in so far as they will be called upon to pay towards the reconstruction of the bridges, whereas the local authorities and the Road Fund will have to make up the major portion of the money required. We should have liked to see a Bill coming upon the owners of the bridges to pay their just proportion towards reconstruction. We do not feel that they are being called upon even under the Bill, in fact they are being safeguarded from paying their due proportion. That, therefore, gives rise to contention as to who should be the rightful owner of the bridge after reconstruction. The Government would not give way on the point. We feel that if the local authorities and the Minister of Transport pay the major portion of the money, that should determine the ownership after reconstruction. I know the difficulties with regard to the railway bridges proviso.
No doubt when the Bill passes into law private owners of bridges will stand to gain considerably, and it is well on the Third Reading to register the fact that private owners, and the owners of land on either side of the bridges, will gain considerably at the expense of the local authorities and the Road Fund. We hope these bridges will be speedily put into commission and that the oversight which we really think it was on the part of the Ministry not to review the problem of the bridges before they undertook many of the main roads will be removed and the roads will now be brought into fuller use by better bridges and that there will be no excuse, certainly as far as the private owners are concerned, for holding up local authorities from carrying out these developments. We had many differences of opinion on the Bill but we were anxious that it should become law so that it should not be laid at our door that we have held it up. I thought it well on the Third Reading to record our point of view for allowing it to pass unchallenged.
I think that the hon. Member was not quite correct as to the cost of reconstruction. As I understand the Bill, the private owner who has a bridge reconstructed either by agreement or by order of the Minister will be expected to pay a fair share of all liabilities. [Interruption.] The Minister has to apportion a fair share as to the reconstructed cost, and the private owner will, in my opinion, gain nothing except the facility of the reconstruction being carried out which he himself would eventually have had to meet. [Interruption.] I very much regret the action of hon. Members of the party opposite in Committee in keeping the toll bridges out of the Bill. I think that we have destroyed the very object which they themselves hope to effect. The local authorities are deprived of any means of utilising the Bill as a method of getting the Minister to decide what is a fair arrangement to be made between the owners of the toll bridge and the highway authority. The whole matter is now left in the air. The toll owners are in a position to make whatever terms they please.
I think that the hon. and learned Member for East Grinstead (Sir H. Cautley) has not put the case fairly before the House. The intention in the original Bill was to place the toll owner in a rather advantageous position. While you might strengthen and widen a bridge or reconstruct it you were still allowing him to collect the toll, after you had spent the money. The tolls were still to remain in his hands giving him a bargaining power which would enable a much greater exaction to be made from the Government or from the authority. That was the position with which we were faced. We found in Committee that while you were going to spend all this money upon bridges which require strengthening and reconstructing you still left the highway authorities in the position of not being able to collect the tolls, and allowed the owner to have a free run. Therefore, I think we are justified in protecting the community against that position. I was under the impression that the right hon. Gentleman himself saw that situation as the discussion went on. I am not going to sing the praises of this Measure. I accept it because it gives us something better with regard to the bridges of the country. I am hoping for a great deal more to be done in the very near future by those sitting with me on these benches.
I am not sure to what extent one of the arguments used by the hon. Member for Burslem (Mr. MacLaren) could be heard owing to the noise occurring in the House. I think that the assertion he made was that the owners were not paying, under this Bill, the sum which they ought to pay, and I think that assertion should be denied. The owners, of course, had to put up the bridges, and they have had to maintain them for the use of the people everywhere.
I do not wish the hon. Gentleman to misunderstand me. Within the arrangements laid down and recognised by law, the private owner of bridges cay be called upon to pay his proper contribution. In view of the fact of the development of roads and the vast expansion of bridge building, I merely pointed out that under this Bill he might be called upon to pay more than he is obliged to pay under his agreement.
I am trying to show that. The liability is placed upon the owner, and why he should be called upon to pay more than the benefit he would receive from the rebuilding of a bridge I do not know. Why the owner of a bridge should himself pay more because some extra liability, from which, possibly, he could obtain no possible advantage, is put upon him, I cannot see. I think that the statement of the hon. Member ought not to be allowed to pass without a denial.
The statement which has just been made by the hon. and learned Member for East Grinstead (Sir H. Cautley) is interesting, but I do not think he quite meets the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Burslem (Mr. MacLaren). My hon. Friend said that proper expenditure is covered, but he also stated that this Bill would relieve, in future, the owners of bridges from obligations which they might have had to meet if it had not been for the strict limits which they had obtained in previous Statutes. All you have to remember is that these Statutes were introduced with a view to giving bridge owners certain duties for maintaining a free way for the public over the part of the road where the bridge was built. They had obligations laid upon them. The Director of Road Transport steps in, and that position has to be reviewed. On the whole, under this Bill, I think that bridge owners come very well out of the matter. Indeed, if it is not so in regard to those who have to maintain these bridges for the free use of the public, it must not be forgotten that, with the enormous development of motor transport in our country, for the last 50 or 60 years many owners of toll rights have made a small fortune. It does not need very lengthy inquiries to find out the true state of affairs. The quotations for shares in some of the companies which have toll rights shows exactly the state of prosperity they enjoy.
The only other point which I make on the passing of this Bill is one which was referred to on the Second Reading. It is a matter of great regret to us that so much public expenditure should be contemplated under the Bill, and yet at the same time so much of the property reconstructed should remain in private ownership. That is a point of principle to which we drew attention on more than one occasion during the passage of the Bill through Committee. We expressed our disapproval and divided the Committee on the point. I do not think that it will help matters to dwell upon it here. Otherwise, I am very glad that something has been done to make it possible to develop work on the bridges of the country and to provide work for those who will be employed on these improvements. I agree very cordially with what fell from the lips of the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Torquay (Commander Williams), that it is very significant, that although we find the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) busily engaged right through the country saying, "We can conquer Unemployment" mainly by works on roads and bridges and the like, when we discussed this Bill in detail for a whole day in Committee, not a solitary Member of the Liberal party appointed to serve on that Committee joined in the discussion. Not a Member of that party appointed to serve on the Standing Committee has attempted, either on the Second Reading or on the Third Reading of this Bill, to join in the Debates. It is a pity that we cannot have their very important views on this matter put forward in the House where they could be checked, rather than upon the hoardings and upon the platforms.