Orders of the Day — Road Haulage Regulations (Compensation Case)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 25th July 1952.

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The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Gurney Braithwaite):

For the second time within a period of 48 hours I find myself at this Box replying to an hon. Member bringing a complaint against the administration of the Road Haulage Executive. On this occasion my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. Lindsay) has put his case before us with the most studied moderation and good temper, and if I have to disappoint him in one respect, I think that he will understand the reason immediately.

He asked me for a categorical statement as to whether I agreed or disagreed with certain strictures passed by the Lord Chief Justice. It would be setting a most unfortunate precedent for a Minister either, junior or senior, to express an opinion on observations coming from so high a legal quarter; but if my hon. Friend will accept them I am going to supply some observations of my own.

The Regulations under which this case arises were made, as my hon. Friend has reminded us, by the previous Government in accordance with Section 101 of the Transport Act, 1947, a now notorious Socialist Measure. They provide a basic scale of compensation on what might be called a "good employer basis"—a standard which may or may not commend itself to hon. Members as fair and reasonable, and which they may regard as generous or ungenerous, but which at least aims at making provision for all who qualify for compensation under the Regulations.

If, however, anyone can show that he could have expected more than this in his previous employment, the Regulations provide for him to get more than the basic scale. Such a man would be one who could point to some established practice or some arrangement or understanding in the concern employing him. It was recognised when these Regulations were framed that few in the road haulage industry—a young industry—would be able to show, as the Regulations put it: … right or expectation by customary practice. … But it was considered proper that wherever anyone could do so that fact should be taken into account, as indeed has happened in some cases.

This brings me to the case now before us. Mr. Hurst's original claim was made, as Regulations require, to the British Transport Commission. That body did not accept his contention that he had an expectation of compensation in his previous employment, and awarded accordingly. Mr. Hurst then took the perfectly proper course of appealing to the Appeal Tribunal who, in their turn, found that he had such an expectation and awarded compensation on that basis.

It is significant, however, that the tribunal appeared to recognise that there might be some doubt in law as to the correctness of their finding, since their award was made in a form which not only allowed the Commission to take the case to the High Court on a point of law but actually facilitated that procedure. When the Commission did so the court found that the tribunal had been wrong in law and that there was in this case no right or expectation by customary practice within the terms of the Regulations.

I ought to mention at this stage, because it is only fair that the House should be in possession of the facts, that although costs were awarded against Mr. Hurst the Road Haulage Executive felt that in the special circumstances they should bear all the costs of the application. They did so.

It has been suggested that the Commission might have made an ex gratia award to Mr. Hurst, but this proposal I believe to be misconceived. The Act requires the Commission to pay compensation in such cases in accordance with the Regulations made by the Minister. It gives the Commission no discretion in the matter, and having quite rightly and properly obtained the ruling of the courts as to the meaning of the Minister's Regulations, it was not incumbent upon the Commission to take the view that the Regulations made either too generous or too restricted provision.

In any case, the Minister in another but dissimilar context had previously informed the Commission that he was advised that they had no power to pay compensation beyond that provided for in the Act and the Regulations made under it. The British Transport Commission have, therefore, taken the only course open to them and, whatever view may be held as to the compensation awarded to Mr. Hurst—and my hon. Friend did not mince his words on that matter—it cannot be sustained that the Commission have acted unfairly towards him in this respect. Mr. Hurst's claim, in fact, failed because he was unable to establish a previous right or expectation under customary practice to a higher award.

My hon. Friend very properly postulated the question, what can be done to rectify the matter? To alter the present position—I am sure my hon. Friend realises this—would necessitate an amendment to the Regulations not merely of detail but in one of their essential basic principles. It would not be easy to justify such an amendment at this stage, because already hundreds of cases have been settled under the Regulations as they now are.

Although there was criticism of some features of these Regulations when they were made in 1950, notably by my right hon. Friend who is now President of the Board of Trade on this very point of expectation, they were accepted both in the House and outside as a not unreasonable first measure of provision for compensation in an industry which had been without such a provision previously, and which could not claim the high stability and continuity of employment of industries which had previously enjoyed such provisions because they had been established for so many years longer.

Of course, these Regulations may not and do not fit every case precisely to everyone's satisfaction, and I appreciate my hon. Friend's desire to bring to notice this one where he feels a higher award should have been possible. But I submit that in such a matter as this it would be difficult to devise Regulations which left everyone completely satisfied. To attempt a fundamental change in the Regulations at this stage would present serious practical difficulties, and in trying to meet isolated cases might well upset the generally satisfactory results already achieved.

It is, of course, no new thing in a nationalisation process, notwithstanding all the Regulations and other safeguards which may be made, that many individuals find themselves worse off because of nationalisation than they were before. Certainly I should not be prepared to contend that everybody has benefited from the nationalisation of road haulage and that nobody finds himself worse off than before. Indeed, the nation is worse off.