Passenger Transport Vehicles (Construction Order)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 21 December 1944.

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1.49 p.m.

Photo of Flight Lieut Wavell Wakefield Flight Lieut Wavell Wakefield , Swindon

Last week a number of hon. Members put Questions to the Ministry of War Transport about the refusal of that Department to alter the Construction Order relating to public vehicles. Those of us who asked the Questions received a most unsatisfactory answer and I gave notice then that I would raise the matter on the Adjournment at the earliest possible moment. I am, therefore, grateful to you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, for giving me the opportunity of catching your eye so early after this matter was raised, because the refusal by the Minister of War Transport to make an alteration in this Construction Order may just make all the difference between the life and death, in the next two years of our export trade, of an industry which; if helped instead of obstructed, can well bring added employment to many thousands of our people.

The matter is now one of extreme urgency. The history of it is as follows. An application was made on a significant date—5th November, 1943—by the motor trade for a review of the Regulations affecting public service vehicles. That request has been frustrated just as effectively as another form of application was near this place some centuries ago. But there is an important difference, however, between that plot and this plan. That plot was to the public disadvantage, but this plan put forward by the motor trade is to the great public advantage. On 5th November, 1943, just over a year ago, a Memorandum was sent to the Ministry of War Transport. I will read a few lines from this Memorandum, which sets out fully the purpose of it. The Memorandum reads: Before the war, the design of road passenger vehicles was severely hampered by the restrictions imposed by the Road Traffic Act of 1930 and other legislation. The organisations which now submit this Memorandum to the Ministry of War Transport represent virtually the entire road passenger transport of the country, covering both the operating and the manufacturing sections. This Memorandum represents the unanimous proposals of the industry for the revision of the dimensional regulations which affect public service vehicles. So the House will see that this is a unanimous request of both operational and manufacturing sections of the motor industry. A number of requests were made, but I am only going to deal with the two main requests; of the number made there were two of outstanding importance. The first one was that the maximum permissible overall length for all public service vehicles, single or double-deck, with two or more axles, should be 30 feet. The second request was that the maximum permissible overall width for all public service vehicles should be eight feet. On 19th April, 1944, a further additional Memorandum was submitted to the Ministry of War Transport at that Ministry's request amplifying the details of the first Memorandum. This request was turned down by the Ministry of War Transport on 20th November, 1944. I must make it clear that this very reasonable request was turned down without any discussion what- soever with any of the interests in the motor trade mostly concerned. They submitted their Memorandum, but I am informed that there was no discussion of it with them.

Photo of Captain Alec Cunningham-Reid Captain Alec Cunningham-Reid , St Marylebone

Was any reason given for turning it down?

Photo of Flight Lieut Wavell Wakefield Flight Lieut Wavell Wakefield , Swindon

I am coming to that a little later, if the hon. Member will allow me.

Photo of Mr Philip Noel-Baker Mr Philip Noel-Baker , Derby

Was any request made for discussions?

Photo of Flight Lieut Wavell Wakefield Flight Lieut Wavell Wakefield , Swindon

When a Memorandum is submitted surely it is the duty of the Government Department to go fully into the matter, and the substance of my complaint is that the Government Department has failed in its duty and has not gone fully into the whole matter. Before I give the reasons for turning it down, I will give the reasons which the motor trade put forward for this alteration in length and width. There are two main reasons. One concerns the home position and the other concerns the foreign position, that of our export trade. I will deal with the home position first. By altering the length and the width in the way required of public passenger vehicles much additional comfort would be given to passengers. They would be of greater convenience and not only that, there would be much easier working conditions for the conductors. The extra six inches of width would make quite a substantial difference to the comfort or otherwise of passengers. Conductors have to go up and down the gangway and it would make it easier for them, in a crowded bus, to get to the end and ensure, therefore, greater safety in stopping and starting omnibuses and in passengers getting on or off. Therefore, there are convenience, comfort and safety concerned in this required alteration.

The second point I wish to make is that of safety. By altering it in the way required there would be greater stability in passenger vehicles. With a wider chassis, wider brake-drums could be fitted, and there would be better facilities generally for brake-layout. Wider vehicles would be safer and less accident prone. There is another very important consideration which has recently developed in connection with the safety of public service vehicles. The Tyre and Rim Association of the United States of America, an effective world authority on these matters, has increased the width of tyres and rims and the spacing between tyres. A wider vehicle is required to accommodate them and, as a result of experience which has been gained, better lay-out and less road friction result. Furthermore, it is not possible to provide tyres made of synthetic rubber which will carry the normal weight of a bus within the size which is now available.

These are powerful arguments and due and proper consideration has not been given to them by the Ministry of War Transport. I want to put this point to the Parliamentary Secretary. If the 7 feet 6 inches maximum width now allowed is not increased to 8 feet, it will be necessary to reduce the width of the chassis frame. This will mean a reduced safety tilting angle and a greater danger, therefore, of vehicles overturning. The public ought to be made aware of this danger due to the deliberate refusal of the Ministry of War Transport to discuss this matter with the manufacturers and with the operators, who are really much better qualified to judge these things than anybody in his Department.

The Ministry refuses to increase the length to 30 feet for a two-axle vehicle, although a 30 feet 3-axle vehicle is permitted. No explanation has been forthcoming as to why there should be this differentiation. As far as safety is concerned, it is purely a matter of adequate design and nothing else. The refusal of the Ministry on this matter is quite a mystery. The answer given to the motor trade was, "General consideration as to road safety and traffic congestion in urban areas." Now how a two-axle vehicle 30 feet long can cause any more traffic congestion than a 30 feet long three-axle vehicle, exactly the same length, or why a single-deck vehicle, again exactly the same length as a double-deck vehicle, should cause more congestion, is really one of those mysteries that emerge from Government Departments which the plain man in the street cannot understand. With regard to the request for an increase in width—most important, most necessary, most vital—the Minister just brushed aside that request in the most autocratic manner possible. This is what he said about it, that, having regard to road conditions in this country, he was not going to allow it.

Photo of Captain Alec Cunningham-Reid Captain Alec Cunningham-Reid , St Marylebone

Was that in answer to a Question in this House?

Photo of Flight Lieut Wavell Wakefield Flight Lieut Wavell Wakefield , Swindon

No, that was in the official reply made to the motor trade who originally put forward the request.

Photo of Captain Alec Cunningham-Reid Captain Alec Cunningham-Reid , St Marylebone

They replied, then? I understood earlier that there was no reply.

Photo of Flight Lieut Wavell Wakefield Flight Lieut Wavell Wakefield , Swindon

I am sorry that the hon. and gallant Member has misunderstood me. A memorandum was sent a year ago, and the reply came back last month refusing these very reasonable requests which had been put forward.

Photo of Mr Alexander Walkden Mr Alexander Walkden , Bristol South

May I ask whether the motor industry asked for an interview, and, if so, was the interview refused?

Photo of Flight Lieut Wavell Wakefield Flight Lieut Wavell Wakefield , Swindon

No, all I know is this: The motor industry put forward these requests, and the next thing they heard about them, a year later, was a sudden turning down.

Photo of Flight Lieut Wavell Wakefield Flight Lieut Wavell Wakefield , Swindon

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will explain why, because there have been no reasoned arguments put forward in support of this refusal about the width—just a blank wall of refusal. There have been no discussions, so far as I can make out, with technicians, with the experts who are very fully informed on likely developments, new progress being made, new materials coming into use—all those things which must be studied and discussed now which affect future production many years ahead. Now, so far as I am aware, no discussions on all these technical matters took place with the home and the export industry. I am informed by people who are in touch with various organisations that the London Passenger Transport Board technical people do not know anything about it.

A number of city engineers who have been approached do not know anything about it. Some chief constables have had some requests sent to them, I believe; in the case of the Lancashire County Council, which covers a very wide urban area, it was put to their war emergency committee. I do not know what that war emergency committee knows about it. Were any members of the public, any consumers, the users of these buses, asked their opinion of it? I think the House ought to know what the Minister asked, whom he asked, what were the replies sent to him, what questionnaires were sent out, who were consulted. Why was not the motor trade given an opportunity to discuss this matter with all these objectors, whoever they may be? I think it was reasonable to assume that the motor industry would have their request granted, and, if it were not possible to grant their request, would it not be decent and right to say, "We do not think we can accede to your request, and, in consequence, will you please come and discuss the various objections raised with us?" Would that not have been a reasonable and democratic thing to do instead of adopting the autocratic attitude that was taken up?

Photo of Mr Alexander Walkden Mr Alexander Walkden , Bristol South

Would it not have been businesslike to ask the Minister to receive a deputation? Ministers are very busy and are not likely to ask deputations to come and see them. Why did not the motor trade ask for a deputation to he received?

Photo of Flight Lieut Wavell Wakefield Flight Lieut Wavell Wakefield , Swindon

The Minister has made the decision without being informed of all the facts, and I suggest to the House that it is the duty of Ministers to make themselves fully informed of all the facts. From what I can make out, full information has not been obtained by the Minister in this matter.

Photo of Captain Alec Cunningham-Reid Captain Alec Cunningham-Reid , St Marylebone

I do not want to interrupt too much, but the hon. Gentleman says that the Minister has not enough information on this matter. I know that the hon. Gentleman the Member for Swindon (Sir W. Wakefield) is a stickler for etiquette and no doubt, before raising this matter to-day, he communicated with the Minister asking all these questions that he is now asking; perhaps he saw him privately. Surely he can tell the House what was the answer to those previous communications that he sent to the Minister?

Photo of Flight Lieut Wavell Wakefield Flight Lieut Wavell Wakefield , Swindon

I am much obliged to the hon. and gallant Member for St. Marylebone (Captain Cunningham-Reid) for putting that point to me. I raised this matter in the House first last May, eight or nine months ago, and then, owing to the urgency of the matter, I raised it again, and the reply I received was that the matter was under consideration.

Photo of Captain Alec Cunningham-Reid Captain Alec Cunningham-Reid , St Marylebone

The hon. Member raised it by Question?

Photo of Flight Lieut Wavell Wakefield Flight Lieut Wavell Wakefield , Swindon

Yes, by Question on the-Floor of the House. I raised it again on the matter of export trade, and again last week by Question, and I have seen the Parliamentary Secretary as well. It is not for me to put words into his mouth. I am raising these grievances, which are felt by a large and very important section of the manufacturing community of this country, in order to give him the opportunity of making a reply.

That is the substance of our complaint. We want to know why there is all this secrecy; why there is all this hush-hush policy, this hole-in-the-corner business, no reasons or arguments given but just blank refusal. I would like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary this. Is he aware that there are many eight-foot vehicles running on the roads now and for some years past, that there are many American vehicles of all kinds running on our roads quite satisfactorily? Does he not remember that about seven years ago permission was given for certain vehicles, produced prior to 1932, to run on the roads in excess of the width of seven feet six inches, provided that the original solid tyres were converted to pneumatics? Some of those wide vehicles are still running in congested dock areas with no ill effects. I put it to the Parliamentary Secretary, if there is congestion on the roads, then widen the roads; do not make the people suffer, and cause loss of our export trade, instead of giving employment on the roads and in our factories.

Now I come to the most serious aspect of this refusal, that is, the irreparable damage which is being done and will be done to our export trade. In the Gracious Speech many of us were encouraged by the words that His Majesty's Ministers … will try to create conditions favourable to the expansion of our export trade and the re-equipment of our industry. Heartening words those were, especially when it is remembered that the Prime Minister, and many other Ministers as well, have impressed upon the country the need for increasing our export trade by at least 50 per cent. if we are to maintain our standard of living. I want the Parliamentary Secretary to take that extract from the Gracious Speech to heart, because the policy that his Department is pursuing is precisely contrary to those words in the Gracious Speech. There is no help whatsoever, but hindrance being given to our export trade by the policy he is pursuing.

Why is damage being done to our export trade by this refusal of the Parliamentary Secretary to alter this Construction Order? First of all, if we are to compete in the markets abroad, it is essential that as far as possible mass production takes place. It is obviously going to be much more costly to jig and tool up for one kind of vehicle for the home trade and to jig and tool up for another kind of vehicle for the export trade. There is increased need for assembly in foreign countries and, where fabrication takes place, it is obvious that all parts wherever possible should be interchangeable. If we are to get our export trade, we must be able to compete in price. Now, Sir, foreign countries want the greater width because of its greater safety and because of the greater comfort which extra width and greater length give. I want to point out to the House that the Americans build only eight feet and above. American manufacturers are under no such handicap as are the manufacturers in our country; they are a bit more progressive in the United States of America than we are here. Unless we build in quantity, and with all the comforts that the greater width and the greater length give, we cannot get the business, and unless adequate care is taken to take full advantage of the new materials now coming on the market and fresh and new designs, again we cannot get the business. About a week ago, at the time when I was raising this matter in the House, I received from a foreign country a telegram, and I think it may be of interest to the House if I read it because it is very relevant to this export trade business: Consider necessary have British Government's final decision on essential specifications for road vehicles especially buses before approaching Government. Can you urge Ministry of Transport