When we were interrupted I was about to read a telegram which I received last week from a foreign country. This is it:
Considered necessary to have British Government's final decision on essential specification for road vehicles, especially buses, before approaching Government. Can you or Ministry of Transport in interest of British post-war trade expedite decision? Consider this point most important to guard against foreign competition.
I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's argument and I am always interested in understanding exactly what type of pressure is most successful on various Ministries. Was this telegram sent to him or as a Member of Parliament interested in road safety or as one interested in the motor industry?
I really do not know. It arrived out of the blue. I had no expectation of receiving it at all, but it arrived about the time that my Question was due to be answered. It came as a surprise to me. It just happened. That is why I quoted it, because clearly this refusal of the Department to help the export trade is having an adverse effect. Future planning is held up and preparation is at a standstill until a fresh decision is made. Prototypes of the types required for our export trade will not be forthcoming. The export trade is in jeopardy and the position is tragic. I do not believe that the Minister of War Transport gives the export position adequate consideration. The matter was referred to in the recent Debate on the export trade and the President of the Board of Trade knew very, very little about it. I have written to him very fully on the position and he now knows all about it. At any rate, there has been very considerable activity amongst his officials, who are running around wanting to know what all the fuss is about and why it should be necessary to alter the Construction Order in order that the export trade may be assisted. I hope I have shown how serious the position is and that much more careful consideration ought to be given to the request of the motor trade.
I should like to ask whether the Minister will receive a deputation from the trade, led if necessary by Members of Parliament, in order to reconsider the whole question and, if their proposals do not meet with acceptance, which I think quite unbelievable, that there should be a public inquiry, with all relevant documents made public, so that the public may really get to the bottom of this obstinate refusal to study their comfort and provide for their future employment. Congestion on our roads can be overcome by widening them, thereby causing employment. Congestion on our unemployment queues can also be caused by the loss of our export trade. Let the Minister prevent both by speedy action. If he does not, I warn him that grave consequences will follow.
I think the hon. Member's statement is more eloquent for what he has not said than for what he has said. He made a point about six inches greater width for public coaches and stressed the convenience and comfort of passengers and greater space for the conductor to go up and down. That six inches divided out means an inch per seat—almost negligible. What I think he really wants, though he has not said it, is greater width for lorries and heavy commercial vehicles. They want greater and greater vehicles for carrying commercial goods on the road. In this little island of ours the roads are not built for that purpose, neither are our towns. At some of our pleasure resorts, many of which are old-fashioned towns, when a lorry or coach turns a corner all the traffic in every direction has to be stopped. The time has not come when we can put bigger juggernauts on the road. As an old motorist, I think the average driver would be terrified to get behind these juggernauts that will be built, because directly they get permission they will build to the full extent.
The argument as to our export trade is all very well but there are two sides to it. The trade would not be a one way trade. If we sell lorries abroad in great numbers they have to be paid for with something, and that something will be in the form of goods. Does it mean that goods that will come in will be different from the goods which come in now, and that people who might be taken into the motor building trade would be supplanted by people of other trades who are put out of business because of the new imports? I suggest that the whole matter has been put forward in the interests of the motor building trade, but that in the interests of thousands of drivers who will come on to the roads after the war we should not permit this extension of size until our roads are made fit to receive the bigger vehicles.
The question of the design of public service vehicles for the export trade is very important to Britain at the moment. I found when I was in India, a long time ago, America had more or less cornered the market for what were called "Continental models," which were high horse-power cars which had a greater clearance than ours. I wish to raise again, however, the question of right-hand driving which, I suggest, should be introduced now. Most certainly, America will not change to our way, although I would like to say for their benefit, in case they are interested, that it is actually historically right to drive on the left. Nevertheless, I do not think there is any possibility of persuading them to change to our method. We have now come to the time when we ought to change because there are not many vehicles on the roads of Britain at the moment, and most of our troops abroad are now driving on the right hand side of the road in vehicles which have a left-hand drive. It would also be a good opportunity for the few taxis which remain in London to start to drive on the right of the road, as there is now plenty of room for manoeuvre.
Whatever the design of vehicles should be, I should like to say that by far the best truck in the Western Desert in the early part of this war was the British Morris 15 cwt. truck. It was far better than any American vehicle, as I think anyone who has served out there will agree. I have nothing to do with the motor trade but I appeal to the Parliamentary Secretary to consider this matter again. At the same time, I think it would be admirable to change to the decimal system with regard to mileage. It does not matter whether they are miles, rods, poles or perches—they ought to be dividable by 10. When you buy a public service vehicle it would also be much easier to introduce the decimal system with regard to the purchase price. The pound could be divided into, say, 20 florins——
Forgive me, Sir, but it is a good point all the same. To return to the question of the right hand drive, I very much doubt, from the observations which the motor trade have made to me through the post, whether they support me in this matter, but I think this is a good time to help them to help themselves because many people depend for their livelihood, or will do after the war, on a flourishing motor trade and, through that trade, on our export trade. I also think it would be a good thing if street names were lowered, especially for the benefit of drivers of public service vehicles so that it would not be necessary to use a bright torch to read them.
I do not intend to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield (Mr. Bull) in his very interesting theories concerning the decimal system, a matter which is perhaps a little irrelevant to the discussion but which is, none the less, interesting. I would like to associate myself with the remarks made by the hon. Member for South Leeds (Mr. Charleton). I entirely agree with the conclusions at which he arrived. The transport, comfort and safety of the public are undoubtedly of paramount importance, and that was no doubt also exercising the mind of the hon. Member for Swindon (Sir W. Wakefield). I do not know whether I should have said "the hon. and gallant Member," but if I should I apologise for the omission. If that is his objective I think that his speech was not very helpful to that end, and it appeared that he was very confused in his argument. He gave way courteously on several occasions to enable some of us to clear up points, but at the end of his speech I was not at all clear about what he intended to say. In the first place, he said that the Ministry concerned had refused to discuss this matter when it was brought forward by the appropriate authorities and a little later we elucidated that when that memorandum was put in no request was made for an answer to be given to it. It seems difficult to reconcile those two statements. Perhaps there was some very bad staff work. I hope that if the hon. Member had anything to do with that his staff work in Marylebone, for his sake, will be better.
Now we come to another matter. The hon. Member gave us reasons why there should be increased dimensions in public vehicles, with some of which I was in agreement, but he also admitted at the same time that in order to do this it would be necessary to widen the roads of this country. That would have been all right had he not suggested that, first of all, we should widen public vehicles, that is to say putting the cart before the horse, which would be absurd. Then he went on to tell us why this was so important to the export trade. He did not mention though that road transport conditions in our Dominions and Colonies were often very different from those in this country. In the Dominions they have long wide roads and straight streets in many towns. We to-day have first to consider what are the conditions in this country. I agree that the export trade is very important, indeed, but I do not think we should lose sight of another important factor, namely, the growing death-rate on our roads. Before we proceed to widen public service vehicles what we ought to do is to tackle our roads. Having done that, the hon. Member's speech, although somewhat confused, would be appropriate. Until that time I would suggest to the Minister that we should put first things first.
I regret that the House and I should have to perform mental acrobratics in changing with great rapidity from one highly technical subject to another, and I regret still further that some of those who were interested in the first part of this Debate are not at present in their places but they will, no doubt, return in time to hear me talk about the second part. I hope these hon. Members will not think, when they read HANSARD, that I am dealing in a perfunctory way with their speeches by not making lengthy or detailed answers co many things which were said about the Railway Control Agreement. I listened to the speeches with the greatest care, but with all respect I think they brought out very few new points about the merits of the Agreement and that it is not an exaggeration to say that they brought out none which has not been dealt with adequately on a previous occasion. I dealt with this matter fairly fully in the Debate on the Adjournment as recently as 1st August last. Nothing that has happened since, none of the public discussion which has taken place—and there has been a good deal in the Press—has in any way affected the validity of what I then said.
I will, therefore, try to summarise as briefly as I can the main arguments about the merits of the Railway Agreement. I do not at all accept what was said by the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Rye (Sir G. Courthope), that the Agreement was not accepted as a voluntary Agreement between the parties. He repeated the charge that it was made under duress, with the threat of something worse. That is often said, but no evidence has been produced and it has never been maintained by any responsible person who has dealt with the subject. I would like to repeat again what was said by my predecessor, my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Colonel Llewellin), who is now the Minister of
Food. He said in a Debate in this House in October, 1941, that revision of the original Agreement was required, for reasons which he specified, and went on to say:
I would like to emphasise that the Agreement to revise the former arrangements was a voluntary matter, and not imposed upon the railways."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 22nd October, 1941; Vol. 374; c. 1813.]
I should have thought that that had settled the matter for good and all, but if any further assurance is required I would like to tell the right hon. Gentleman, or any other Member of the House and others who may be interested, that my Noble Friend the Minister of War Transport will be ready to give any further assurances of any kind that are required. I, therefore, hope that this baseless charge will not be made again, either inside or outside this House.
On the merits of the Agreement and whether it is just or not to the stockholders, I venture to repeat what I have said on several occasions in the House, that His Majesty's Government believe that the Agreement negotiated by my noble Friend, with the help of my right hon. and gallant Friend, now the Minister of Food, is fair and just. I quote again a letter from the Treasury written when Sir Kingsley Wood was Chancellor of the Exchequer, in which it is pointed out that the annual payment "exceeds by a considerable amount the average net revenue of the controlled undertakings in the period immediately before the war." One of my hon. Friends, I think it was my right hon. Friend the Member for Antrim (Sir H. O'Neill), who opened the Debate, spoke of certain London and North-Eastern stocks. He mentioned the £78,000,000 worth of stock which received no dividend under the Agreement. That is true, but a large part of that stock received none for 16 years before the Agreement was made and the rest received no dividend for if years before. Is it really supposed that, because we are in the middle of a war, we have to make an arrangement that will give dividends to people who have not received them for all that time?
Has not that happened in the case of a large number of companies, and have they not been able to pay during the war dividends on stocks which had not received dividends for many years before the war?
I shall be glad to receive from the hon. Baronet any information on that point which he likes to send me. I hope he will also deal with the question of the nature of the stock. I turn to the London & North Eastern 4 per cent. The last year in which it received 4 per cent. was 1929. Including that year, the average for the last 10 years before the war was 1.2 per cent. In five of these years it got no dividend at all. The highest year was 1¾ per cent. in 1937, while in the three years of this Agreement the average has been 2 7/16 per cent., which is more than twice as much. I venture to think that on the individual stocks, or on the payment as a whole, no case for injustice can be made out.
One of my hon. Friends raised the question of the Excess Profits Duty. I think it was the hon. Baronet the Member for Tamworth (Sir J. Mellor), who said he hoped I would be more explicit than I was in August. I am in the same difficulty now as I was in in August, namely, that this is primarily the responsibility of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and, therefore, I must speak with caution. Broadly, I am in agreement with the admirable speech of the hon. Baronet the Member for South-East St. Pancras (Sir A. Beit). I think it extremely doubtful, as I said in August, whether under any substituted standard the railway companies would do as well as in fact they do under this Agreement. I still hold that a great public service like this, which is of the nature of a monopoly, is in a very different position from an ordinary munitions business. But the real and conclusive answer to the hon. Baronet is that this Agreement was made by the railway companies, and it was voluntarily made. Its purpose was to settle the question of remuneration. It was made for the whole period of control and, therefore, the question of a substituted standard really does not arise.
Has my hon. Friend tried to work out a substituted standard for anything that would be allowed on the basis of the pre-war years? Has he got an answer? I shall be glad to see it, for I have never seen one yet. I have tried to get one, but I cannot reach any result which leads me to think that he is right and I am wrong.
I turn to the question of the standard revenue. My right hon. Friend the Member for Antrim recited a number of facts about standard revenue. I do not remember if he said that it had never been earned before the war. I do not remember if he said that it could not be earned and that the Railway Tribunal had examined the matter and had arrived at the conclusion that an increase of charges would not lead to an increase of revenue. He spoke of the competition from road haulage. Of course, that affects the earning capacity of the railways. It is a very important fact, but that does not mean that, because the general economic position of the railways has been changed by new competition, we should allow for that in this Agreement and adjust the matter. I arrive at the conclusion, which I ventured to put forward in August, that the facts are enough to show that my Noble Friend could not possibly take standard revenue as a basis for the Agreement. If he had taken it as a basis, he would have admitted a claim for greatly enhanced profits as a result of the war, a claim which nobody puts forward and which nobody in this House or outside would admit. To that conclusion the Government adhere.
There is one other point which I did not put in our previous Debate. It relates to the general policy of the Government about transport. During the operation of this Agreement we have been driving traffic off the roads and pushing it on to the railways. By our decisions, we have been cutting down train mileage. We have been increasing very greatly the loading of goods wagons, beyond any standards that existed in time of peace. We have prevented the construction of new motor vehicles. We have prevented the increase of bus services, and abolished coaches. We have virtually prohibited private motoring except for certain purposes. We have cut out cross hauls on the railways. We have cut out clerical and other work which in war conditions could be avoided. We have reduced expenditure in many ways. A vast amount of the additional traffic is military and other Government traffic. The revenue which comes to the Government now comes out of the traffic which the Government themselves put on the railways. In view of that is it not plain that the Agreement is right? Is not that general background of Government transport policy a matter to which serious consideration must be given when the justice of the remuneration allowed under the Agreement is taken into account? I end this part of what I have to say by repeating that I think the Agreement is fair and just, and by giving an assurance to my hon. Friend the Member for Peckham (Mr. Silkin) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Moelwyn Hughes) that my Noble Friend has no intention of making the changes for which we have been asked.
Three other points were raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Antrim; of which he was kind enough to give me previous notice. The first relates to abnormal wear and tear. It is common ground that the calls upon the lines and the rolling stock have been heavier than they have ever been in times past. The Government have not been able to allow to the railways all the labour, skilled and unskilled, which the railways needed for maintenance, repairs and new construction. If you cannot keep up with the normal programme of repairs and new construction, the effects inevitably tend to be cumulative. There will, therefore, be arrears of maintenance. That is why the railway Agreement contained Clause 11 which deals with the matter. Among other things, the Clause plainly makes provision for an allowance for abnormal wear and tear of maintainable assets if it is agreed to be justified over and above the basic figure for maintenance. The Minister met the chairmen of the railway companies last summer, and discussed the whole matter with them. He wrote a letter to Lord Royden, Chairman of the Railway Companies Association, on 16th June, and he then said that, while he could not commit himself in any way—I must repeat that—until the matter had been fully investigated, he was prepared to examine it with the chairmen without delay. My Noble Friend has begun his investigations without delay, but plainly no final arrangements can be made until the period of control is ended. The effects of wear and tear must be surveyed over the period as a whole. Any other plan might be unfair to one side or the other; we cannot now say which. In my hon. Friend's investigations he is bearing in mind the possibility that some interim or provisional arrangement might be come to, which would be taken into account when, at the end of the period of control, the final settlement is made. I hope that my right hon. Friend will think that that statement gives him, at least, some satisfaction.
That brings me to his second point, the duration of the control. The Agreement deals with that point also in article 33, which provides that
control will be continued for a minimum period of one year after the cessation of hostilities. Before control comes to an end, that is, before all statutory rights and obligations as they exist at that time apply to the controlled undertakings, time will be given for the operation of any statutory machinery governing the level of charges.
On that text, two questions arise. First, as my right hon. Friend asked, what is meant by the "cessation of hostilities"? When the Agreement was made it was not contemplated—at least, it was not certain—that there would be two wars, although it was contemplated by farseeing persons on all sides of the House, including, I humbly submit, myself. The phrase "cessation of hostilities" occurs in a great many other official documents, Acts of Parliament and agreements of all kinds, and it will be necessary for the Government to make a general ruling as to what is intended to be understood by the phrase. I have no doubt that that general ruling will govern this particular case, and it is clearly impossible, and it would not be proper, for me to attempt to speak with authority on that point to-day. Perhaps, however, I may say this. The Agreement lays down a minimum period for which the control is due to last. Under these terms the period must be at least one year after the termination of hostilities. It may be more but it cannot be less. None of us can forsee the future and anything may happen, but if I had to make a guess, I think I should guess that the control is likely to go on, with the general agreement of all concerned, longer than one year after the cessation of hostilities.
That is true, and what my hon. Friend says is reinforced by the special technical reasons which arise under article 33. Under that article, as I read it, time must be given to the Railway Rates Tribunal to operate the statutory machinery, to look at the probable level of traffic which there will be under post-war conditions, and then to proceed to fix the charges which they think should then be made. That might mean an increase in charges; it might even mean a decrease. In any case, it is extremely unlikely that the process can be fulfilled within a single year. For that reason, and for the other general reasons to which my hon. Friend has referred, I should say, if I had to make a guess, that control is more likely to last two years than one year after the end of the war. I think that, if that were done, it would be done with the full agreement of the railway companies. In any case, it is a point on which we can hope for friendly discussion with the railway companies at any time they like.
The probable duration of the Agreement has an obvious bearing on the third point put to me in his letter by my right hon. Friend, whether there has been any further decision on general policy concerning the future of inland transport. My right hon. Friend said that in the arrangement made we ought to include both road and rail, and that, unless some arrangements were made for co-ordinating and, as I understood him, for eliminating the competition, or controlling the competition, between road and rail, the future must be dark and difficult for all concerned. He said he hoped we should have prosperous concerns, standing on their own feet.
I think there is general agreement that we cannot, in inland transport, whether on the roads, railways or waterways, go back to the conditions of 1939. I do not think anybody wants to do so, but as to definite, final decisions of general policy, I must frankly say to the House that my Noble Friend has not yet been able to make them. He has, as the House knows, a very heavy operational task. He is pushing on with the technical study of the re-organisation of inland transport which will certainly be required after the war. But he has not yet been able to make, in spite of the discussions he has had and the studies he has made, new decisions which I can now announce to my right hon. Friend, or to the House. I turn now to the second subject which has been raised, namely, the Regulations concerning new road vehicles. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Swindon (Sir W. Wakefield) made it very plain that a grievance is felt in some quarters—if in none other, then certainly by himself—about the way in which this matter has been dealt with by my Noble Friend and the Ministry which he controls. [Interruption.] I hope I shall satisfy all the critics, including the hon. Lady. I think the hon. Lady herself said, in the Question on the Paper, that the Ministry had taken a very long time to reach a decision, that it had not consulted the proper people—indeed, perhaps, had not consulted anybody, I do not quite remember—and that the decision which was taken neglects very important interests relating to the development of our export trade; and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Swindon said that my Department had gravely failed to do its duty. He will forgive me if I say that I resent the charges which he made, and, when I have explained the facts, I hope he will withdraw them.
I will begin by stating the history of what occurred. Last November, the 5th, as he said—I do not know whether there is any significance in that—we received a letter from five organisations, the A.R.O., the C.M.U.A., the Municipal Passenger Transport Association, the Public Transport Association and the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. They sent us a request in general terms for the revision of Regulations for the post-war period relating to public passenger vehicles. We did not take immediate action on that request for two reasons, first, because, with all our optimism, we did not feel, in November, 1943, that the war was as yet very near its end. We thought we still had time. Events have proved that we were all too right. In the second place, we expected—and, as I shall again show, with reason—that other similar requests might be received from other organisations, and, therefore, we waited for a little while before we made a move.
But, in February, we did ask these five organisations, who sent us the original memorandum, to send a full statement of what they wanted, and the reasons on which their requests were based. We asked them to put everything they had to say on paper. They did so.
Their reply came in April, and we thought that they had put forward all their reasons with the precision and the clarity which such great organisations would normally have used. We thought there was no obscure point in the memorandum at all, that we understood exactly what they wanted, and exactly why they wanted it. They ended their memorandum with the words:
In conclusion, the five organisations would repeat that they are prepared to appoint a deputation to meet officials at the Ministry of War Transport to discuss the matters dealt with in this Memorandum.
We did not think there was anything we needed to discuss. We understood it. If they wanted to discuss with us on any point, it was open to them, at any time, to make a request either to officials, or to my Noble Friend or to myself. Any one of us would have been delighted to meet any of them for discussion for as long as they desired. We never heard another word until the decision had been made.
We did not answer the memorandum immediately. Why not? Because, again, we expected, and as I shall show, with reason, that further requests would in fact come in. So we waited till June. In June, we decided that no more requests were coming in, not, at any rate, at that stage, so we then proceeded to apply the provisions of the Road Traffic Act of 1930, by which we are bound. That Act obliges the Minister, when he is drawing up Regulations—and, of course, that means making changes in Regulations which already exist—to consult representative organisations whom he thinks it desirable to consult. That is a statutory obligation. The Minister, and his predecessors, have always interpreted that obligation very widely. In consequence, he communicated with organisations varying in character from the Home Office to the Pedestrians' Association, from the Regional Transport Commissioners to the Standing Joint Committee of the A.A., the R.A.C. and R.S.A.C. and the Road Transport Organisation Joint Conference, Half a page of them. My hon. and gallant Friend asked whom we consulted. We consulted all of them.
Yes, unless I am very much mistaken, it was; if not directly, then indirectly. In making up our minds we had, naturally, to give very special weight to the arguments laid before us by the Home Office, by the highway authorities and by the police. We gave three months—until October—for the answers to come in. Will any hon. Member say that that was too long?
I hope the hon. Lady will consider the difficulty of getting busy people to answer questionnaires, and if we had gone on without waiting for answers from these people none would have been so indignant as the hon. Lady.
May I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that the Motor Association themselves failed to send a reply within the three months which they were requested to do?
I would not like to provoke the hon. Lady and I had no such intention. I will admit to her that I think my Noble Friend does right to follow the procedure which has been followed by his predecessors when carrying out the statutory obligation to consult representative organisations. He has done exactly the same as they have always done and I venture to think that he has been right. He received the last answers about the end of October and on 31st October he closed the list. On 20th November he made his decision and communicated it to those who had submitted the original Memorandum. I am now informed that they included the L.P.T.B., who were therefore bound by the statement of April, to which, on their behalf, someone had set his name. With that record, I challenge my hon. Friend to say that there has been delay.
I am very glad. Others have. I challenge anybody to say that there has been delay and I challenge my hon. Friends who say that there has not been enough opportunity for any interested party to lay his case before the Minister and to make a claim and support it in any way desired. Of course, if anybody had asked for oral consultations we should have been more than glad to arrange them, but they were not asked for.
It has been my experience that people are not very backward in asking for deputations when they want them. I would not like to say how many I have a week, but it is a considerable number. These organisations said they were
prepared to appoint a deputation.
They did not ask for it, and we did not think it was necessary, because we understood every single point that was made in their Memorandum.
Now let me come to the merits of the requests which were made by those five organisations and with which my Noble Friend has had to deal. There were four and they related to the length, width, height, and weight of road passenger transport vehicles. My hon. Friend only dealt with two of the four and he skated very lightly over the remaining two. I will tell the House why; because my Noble Friend agreed to the requests which were put forward with regard to height and weight. He accepted the requests that the height of single-decker vehicles should be increased from 10 ft. 6 in. to 15 ft. and that the weight should be increased from 12½ tons to 14 tons, with certain technical elaborations. Therefore, 50 per cent. of those demands had been accepted.
I do not think we can fight the next General Election on this occasion. I only mention that we accepted two out of four of the requests which were put forward, and I think my hon. and gallant Friend would have acted more fairly if he had mentioned it too. I come to the other two requests, and, first of all, to the request in respect of length. They wanted the permitted length of buses to be increased from 26½ ft. to 30 ft. for four-wheeled, two-axle vehicles. Let me deal for one moment with the point which my hon. Friend made about the three-axle vehicles, the vehicles with six wheels. He said that we had of course permitted 30 ft. for three-axle vehicles, and that nobody but a civil servant could have thought out the ingenious plan of allowing that while refusing 30 ft. two-axle vehicles. In fact, the relaxation was made because it was desired, at that time, for military reasons, to increase the production of three-axle vehicles. The thing was very closely watched, and in London those vehicles were restricted to certain routes. If the numbers had been greatly increased for normal civilian passenger traffic we should have had to control the whole thing, and, quite probably, we should have had to stop that relaxation altogether. There was a perfectly good reason, and the policy was justified in full.
What would happen if we increased from 26½ ft. to 30 ft. the permitted length of all public service passenger vehicles? On what ground is the request made? It is not made for the comfort of the passenger, not at all. It is not made to meet the needs of the conductors. The trade unions are all unanimously and vehemently against it. It is made to increase the pay-load, and to add to the number of passengers which can be taken by a single vehicle.
Not in the view of those who have to deal with the traffic, the highway authorities and the police. On the contrary; the great weight of opinion of those whom we have consulted takes the view that it would increase congestion and would add to road accidents. Consider, if every bus that travels London were 30 ft., what would happen in the big congestions, for example, in Piccadilly or around Piccadilly Circus. What would happen when the buses with the three extra foot swing round a sharp corner and when they come to a narrow place to turn at the end of their routes? All those are very important considerations to which we are bound to give attention. The overwhelming weight of opinion of those whom we consulted was against this change. If Parliament in 1930, when it passed the Road Traffic Act, intended Ministers to consult those people it must also have intended that Ministers should take a little notice of what they said.
I think my hon. Friend will agree that they greatly add to the congestion when they pass, and that war-time traffic is on a far smaller scale than peace-time traffic. I should not have liked to see a "Queen Mary" going down Piccadilly in the days of peace.
In regard to the request for greater width, I think the proposers made out a much stronger case than that concerning length. This proposal is one which affects the comfort of the passengers. In spite of what my hon. Friend says—and it has all been subject to very close technical examination—I understand that six inches extra width inside the bus would make a real difference. At present the seating allowance for each passenger in a bus is 16 inches. The average width of the passengers, at the relevant part of their anatomy, is 18 inches. Therefore it is evident that there must be an eight inch overlap into the corridor, which is already far too small. I think it is plain that to seated passengers, to standing passengers, and to conductors, the extra six inches would be of value. I admit it. It is also true that this would be of advantage for the export trade. We discussed the matter with my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade, and he has told us that in his view and so far as it goes the change would be to the advantage of the manufacturers in the export market. My Noble Friend has taken very full account of these representations in making the decisions he has announced. But he has decided that all the same he must reject the request, and he has done so on what seem to me to be very strong general grounds indeed.
Broadly, the case is this: Our roads both in town and country have been designed for vehicles not wider than seven foot six inches overall. Many thousands of miles of our roads in town and country—I have got a great deal of detail from our Divisional Road Engineers, but I will not weary the House with it—would be much less adequate for their job if there were a six inch increase in each of the vehicles which go along them. If every vehicle at Piccadilly Circus were six inches wider it would be a serious matter by the time one got across to the other side of the road. In many country roads two vehicles eight feet wide would have much greater difficulty in passing without collision, than they have to-day. My hon. and Gallant Friend says, "Widen the roads." I agree with the hon. Member who spoke last, who said we had better widen the roads before we widen the vehicles.
I wish to meet my Scottish Friend's desire to get on with that Debate, but I have had a great number of matters put to me, some of which I did not expect, and as they are important, not only to my Ministry but to a very large public, I thought it was right for me to deal with them as adequately as I could. But I will now bring my remarks to a conclusion. I think that the highway authorities, the police authorities and the others who urge that a widening of vehicles would cause increased congestion and would increase the number of accidents, have reason on their side.
I think I probably travel in buses as often as my hon. and gallant Friend. In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Springburn (Mrs. Hardie) private cars are not seven foot six wide, and I have never heard of any manufacturer who asked leave to increase them to a greater width than that.
That is certainly true, and private cars are relevant to the discussion in another way which I shall mention. The decision was made by my Minister on a request relating to omnibuses alone, and I think I have satisfied the House that he was right. But as we expected, no sooner was the decision made than an organisation known as the British Transport Vehicle Manufacturers' Association came forward, at the beginning of December, with a demand that this should be given to all heavy vehicles including lorries. If my Noble Friend was right in relation to buses alone he is surely trebly right when the demand is made for an enormously increased number of vehicles. The hon. Member said that there were in the country many vehicles 8 feet wide, and that they are doing very well. There are 81 such passenger vehicles, mostly working in restricted areas under conditions of far less traffic than normal. If the hon. Member is quoting American vehicles, he must also admit that certain difficulties have arisen.
He also said we were doing irreparable damage to the export trade. But it was in the private car trade that our manufacturers did so badly in the world markets before the war, and that trade is quite unaffected by this decision. In passenger and goods vehicles our manufacturers did incomparably better in the way of overseas markets. In their own memorandum they said to us that they were building up "a most valuable overseas market" before 1939. I think they may still have hopes of an overseas market, in spite of the decision my Noble Friend has made.
This is very important. Does not the Parliamentary Secretary realise that American competition in this field will be very much greater, and it will be a good deal more difficult for our manufacturers, handicapped as they will be, to meet this competition? That is the whole substance of bringing forward this export trade difficulty.
Of course I have realised that. I have said that other things being equal this concession would be an advantage to the exporter, but other things are not equal. I say that, in spite of the Regulations the export trade will probably go on.
In reply to the hon. Member for Enfield (Mr. Bull) I would say, on right hand drive, that I agree with him about the attitude of the motor manufacturers. The change might help their exports, but they have made no request, and there is nothing else that I can say.
My hon. Friend the Member for Swindon ended by asking if we would receive a deputation and have a public inquiry. Of course we will receive a deputation, if the deputation think they have anything new or relevant to say. I would not like to encourage any hope that the decision will be changed. I have explained why. As for a public inquiry, it would be quite wrong for me to-day to accept that suggestion without giving it much more consideration, and having more consultation than I have been able to do at such short notice.