Orders of the Day — Steel Industry and Road Haulage

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 12th November 1951.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Ernest Popplewell Mr Ernest Popplewell , Newcastle upon Tyne West 12:00 am, 12th November 1951

One feature which must be refreshing to all hon. Members is the discovery at last that there is one election pledge which those on the Government benches propose to honour. Since we started the debate on the King's Speech, we have listened to a series of what might be described as "running-away-from-election-pledge" speeches such as has never been known in history in such a short time. It is refreshing to find that at any rate there are two of their election pledges which the Government propose to do something about. It gives one an impression that there is some sense of lingering decency in the Government and the pledges they made.

Therefore, one looks to see why there should be this desire to honour these pledges in particular. Those who listened to the Minister of Supply this afternoon at once got the answer to the question why iron and steel should be de-nationalised. One of the first reasons he gave was that there is a sellers' market in steel. As there is a sellers' market, there is not that compelling necessity to continue a nationalised undertaking or to exercise full Government control as with food and other commodities. But there is a harvest for the steel industrialist, and this allows the Government to live up to one of their election pledges.

All this is very interesting, but we heard nothing from the Government Front Bench today about what will happen to the compensation which has already been paid to the steel barons. According to the figures given by the Minister of Supply today, something like £240 million has already been paid out on taking over these private undertakings. What is to happen to that? Are we to rely upon the open gamble of the Stock Exchange? Arc those who desire to come into the steel industry to make their gamble there? How are we to be recompensed for this £240 million we have already paid out? Or has it gone down the drain altogether, while we still allow this rich harvest to be made?

Another thing comes to my mind. Remembering the debates in this House on this important topic of iron and steel, I recall the Motion of Censure put down by the present Prime Minister against the Government of the day for refusing to hand over iron and steel to the supranational body under the Schuman Plan. At that time the party opposite were quite prepared to hand over the control of the iron and steel industry of this country to this supra-national body, yet at the first opportunity they propose to hand the iron and steel industry back to private enterprise, which is responsible to no one but itself, and to take it away entirely from complete Government control through a nationalised public corporation. It is very interesting indeed to compare these two attitudes.

It was not my real intention to speak on iron and steel. My intention tonight was to examine further the proposals of the Government to hand road haulage back to private enterprise. This is a very interesting position indeed. It has been most interesting to see how, in this wonderful Government of co-ordination, we have a Minister of Transport in the House evidently not fit to deal with this subject, so that they have to bring the Minister for Welsh Affairs—the Home Secretary—to deal with iron and steel and transport, simply because the true co-ordinating Minister is not answerable to this House. It is a very interesting set-up.

What is the position in regard to handing back road haulage to private hands? The Government are running true to form. We have often said from these benches that, if the Tories were returned to power, they would have learnt nothing in recent years but would reflect the same mental outlook to our national problems as they displayed in the years before the war. How true this has been in regard to road haulage.

One remembers those many Acts of Parliament placed on the Statute Book in the years between the wars in an attempt to get some order out of the chaotic condition of our transport industry. Each one of these Measures was just a mere tinkering with the problem. We witnessed a spate of such Measures—the 1921 Act, the 1930 Road Traffic Act, the 1933 Road and Rail Traffic Act, the 1934 Road Traffic Act, plus the 1936 Committee of Investigation and the 1939 Road Haulage (Wages) Act.

These Acts comprise a complete code of Government interference and tinkering, without getting to the real problem of securing an efficient transport system. We have seen all this take place before. How well and how truly are the Government now running to form in proposing to de-nationalise the profitable side of transport and hand it back to private enterprise, while leaving the other forms of transport to be carried on by a nationalised undertaking.

The Home Secretary went to considerable lengths to try to build up a case which he knew did not exist because he was afraid to tell the real truth concerning the reason for the handing back of the industry, which is, of course, that private enterprise may make a rich profit by taking the cream of the traffic. It was farcical for the Home Secretary to talk about preserving the rights of the small man. One has only to look at the history of road transport to see how completely that theory has been exploded.

What do we find when we look at what happened between the wars when all the spate of tinkering legislation about which I have spoken was introduced? We find there were the square deal proposals and the licensing arrangements. We find that there was developing in road transport the selfsame position as developed in the private enterprise bus services. We remember that the small bus services which were instituted up and down the country were gradually but surely taken over by the large monopolies. We find that the selfsame small road hauliers were being taken over or squeezed out of business by the big road haulage monopolies.

As I say, what a farcical position the Home Secretary attempts to put forward today when he speaks about giving the small man the opportunity to re-establish himself. We in the transport industry know this picture far too well. What happened when a small man applied for a licence in order to conduct his business? In pre-nationalisation days all the big road haulage groups and the railway companies co-operated in opposing his application for a licence. He had to go to the tremendous expense of employing eminent counsel and such like in order to establish his case, and even then he had a very difficult job. We see that situation developing even further, and we remember that the road hauliers are contributors to the Tory Party coffers. Naturally, any legislation introduced will reflect their views as much as the views of anybody else.

We remember how in 1946 these road hauliers suggested that they should set up a road-rail licensing sub-committee which would invite applicants to discuss with them their applications to the licensing authority. If agreement were reached, they would not oppose the application; but if agreement were not reached, then they would oppose it. The Home Secretary's hypocrisy on this particular point is farcical.

There is another important factor on which the House should be given some information. Under these proposals to hand over a section of road haulage to private enterprise, what is the position of these hauliers going to be? Are they to be subjected to the common carrier licence? Are they to be subjected to proper rate charges before they can tinker with their prices? Are they to be subjected to the whole gamut of public inquiry, such as now exists for nationalised road and rail transport in so far as charges are concerned, or are they to be left alone and allowed to decide their own charges? In other words, are they to revert to the selfsame position as they were in previously and be allowed to skim off the cream of the traffic?

The Home Secretary attempted to make another important point on this question. He referred to the monopoly powers of the present transport set-up. It really requires some stretch of imagination to bring up anything like that as a real life argument. Out of a fleet of road haulage vehicles of approximately 801,460 at the end of December, 1950, the fleet of the Road Haulage Executive was round about 40,000. Where does the argument about monopoly powers come in?

There was, again, the argument he put forward about permits and licences. It is just not good enough; it is a complete distortion of the facts to put forward the argument he advanced. It is not related to the realities of the situation. The last figures I have relating to the permits of which the right hon. and learned Gentleman spoke show that out of 17,247 applications to the P.T.C. for the extension of permits, no fewer than 11,000 were granted, together with an additional 1,600 hardship permits. Does not that give away the whole game and show what is behind all this?

I sincerely ask hon. Members to decide this issue tonight on the merits of the case. As long as they are determined that the interests of the nation do not count and that private profit for a group of road hauliers is the test, their job is to vote with the Government. Those people who put the interests of the nation first will look at what has taken place since transport was brought under national ownership. They will find that in rail and road transport, and in every branch of the industry, the efficiency and public service which have been forthcoming are at last bringing transport into a position in which it ought to be instead of its being the cat's-paw in the political game played in the years before the war by Conservative Governments.