The Future of Negotiation
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ALTHOUGH there have been many unkind things said about integration during the past few months, it would be wrong to say that disintegration is the main purpose of the Transport Act, 1953. If road and rail were to pursue their respective ways in closed rivalry, they would indeed be turning their backs on the lessons of history.
Friendly contact between hauliers and the railways has continued throughout the lifetime of the British Transport Commission. In the circumstances, one could hardly expect the relations to be lively or comprehensive. The road haulage liaison machinery set up early in 1949 resembled one of those charming and elaboi-ate pagodas in which .nothing very much seems to happen at the top except for the occasional melodious tinkling of silvery bells.
At the foot of the structure came the road-rail negotiating committees, and they at any rate have continued to function vigorously up to the present time. They may welt provide the first means for testing liaison under the new conditions, for already the Commission and hauliers are speculating on the future of the committees and even wondering whether they have a future at all.
Negotiation has been remarkably successful in saving unnecessary and expensive arguments in the licensing courts. Although Licensing Authorities have frequently praised the work of the committees, they are in fact unofficial bodies. Their membership is drawn from panels appointed by the Railway Executive, the Road Haulage Executive, the Docks and Inland Waterways Executive and the Road Haulage Association. Their main, although not their only, function is to interview applicants for A or B licences and endeavour to secure an agreement which will avoid the .need for objections when the case comes before the Licensing Authority.
Preservation of Rights There has been criticism of the committees from time to time. It is alleged that certain operators, such as furniture removers for example, use the machinery to persuade an applicant to exclude their particular interests from the terms of his licence. The representatives of the R.H.E. may also seek his agreement to curtail his licensed radius of operation to 2.5 miles.
In spite of such criticisms, and although the attendance of an applicant before a committee is entirely voluntary, the proportion of people who accept an invitation has always been high, and in most cases an agreement is reached satisfactory to both sides. The committees fulfil the purpose for which they were designed, and nothing more can reasonably be expected of any body.
Their prestige and .influence are largely founded on the supremacy of the objector. The desire to make his application completely unobjectionable is no doubt the magnet that has drawn the applicant to the meetings of the committee in the past. One of the changes now made in the licensing system transfers from the applicant to the objector the onus of proof that there are grounds for the objection.
At first glance this would seem to cut away the ground from under the feet of the negotiating committees. The heyday of the objector is gone. May we expect to see the applicant holding court and the objector making a pilgrimage to seek his favour? This is hardly likely. The new Act clearly envisages that the objector will continue to flourish but that his task will be harder.
Until the important new provisions have been tested in the traffic courts and before the Transport Tribunal, there will be general uncertainty. The committees will be completely at a loss in seeking to reach agreements. On the other hand, they should not be without work to do should they so wish. There will have to be taken a large number of test cases before the situation is clarified, and the composition and experience of the committees should make them of great use in selecting the applications that are, likely to be suitable.
The new provisions are important, but they do not change the main framework of the licensing system. It is possible that the negotiating committees will be abolished, but it would be surprising if this happened. They should still be able to save time and money in the licensing courts in spite of the change of emphasis.
Keeping Business Secrecy
Objectors will welcome more than ever the possibility of an agreement out of court which will save them from having to discuss their business in public. The applicant may feel that the approbation of the committee is of less importance to him, but to balance this he should have fewer qualms about attending. One of his fears has been that the information he gives the committee may be used to his disadvantage before the Licensing Authority. The rules of the committee provide for the destruction of any notes taken during the discussion, and other steps are taken to gfiard against a breach of confidence, but the suspicion is natural that once a fact has been ascertained it cannot be forgotten merely by the process of destroying the evidence. In future the objectors will be just as much afraid as the applicant that their arguments can be more easily refuted when they are known in advance.
The hauliers on the committees should become accustomed most quickly to the new circumstances. After all, they are objectors one day and applicants the next. The railway representatives may take a little longer to adjust themselves and to recover from their present perplexity. When they do so, they will probably take the lead in altering the terms of reference of the "agreed joint procedure," as it is called. The points that the committees are entitled to discuss will probably be increased in number. In particular, it would not be surprising if more active steps were taken to invite newcomers.
Whether the work of the negotiating committees becomes more or less important, they will remain as the base of the liaison pyramid. The rest of the structure cannot fail to enlarge its scope. Co-operation and co-ordination between road and rail are not new. Since 1947 they have been carried out for the most part by the Commission, particularly in the long-distance field. The return to free enterprise will not mean that the links are broken. Machinery for liaison exists and will undoubtedly be used as the basis for what wilt be found necessary.