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13th March 1970, Page 58
13th March 1970
Page 58
Page 58, 13th March 1970 — to l c
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Which of the following most accurately describes the problem?

Mrs Castle's fifth column by janus

yEARS after a government and its ministers have packed their despatch boxes and departed the effect continues of the legislation they have introduced. Usually they frame it for that purpose so that their policy and predilections will be worked out even after they themselves are no longer in charge.

Realizing that this is the accepted pattern of politics, road operators remain suspicious even of what may seem innocuous sections of the Transport Act 1968. They know that the Labour Party or a large proportion of it favours state ownership of transport. They see that this preference is explicit only in the provisions for special authorizations which there is a good chance' may never take effect.

Operators look for the catch. The apparent change of front by the Labour party may be no more than a change of tactics with a similar end in view. Instead of arranging a brutal takeover with all the controversy and unfavourable reaction that this arouses, the supporters of nationalization may be taking the indirect route by providing a situation in which for the independent operator the only sensible course is to sell his business. .

Fears of this possibility are revived by news that the British Overseas Airways Corporation is taking over British United Airways, the country's biggest remaining independent airline operator. Nationalization of air services was part of the great post-war surge towards the capture by the State of the commanding heights of the economy.

The subsequent licensing system was to a large extent modelled on carriers' licensing. It allowed room for independent air operators. More recently the Edwards Committee has recommended that they should be allowed to continue and there is a general opinion that the competition they provide has been a necessary stimulus to the two state-owned corporations. In spite of this the future of the independent lines is dubious.

PART from the acceptance of the

BOAC-BUA merger, which perhaps can hardly be refused, there is no specific step, by the Government which indicates a deliberate intention to eliminate the independents. This does not prevent the allegation that the Government has fostered circumstances which make it impossible for them to survive.

Many road operators cannot shake off the feeling that this is also what is happening to them. They begin by considering what legislation would have been introduced by a Government that wishes to drive independent operators off the road without, in so many words, nationalizing them and without having to pay compensation.

Clearly this will be the effect of quantity licensing and it was the right tactics by the Opposition to make that the main focus of controversy. However, it may have been the Government's plan to use quantity licensing as a decoy which would distract attention from other provisions likely in the long term to have a more serious effect on independent operators.

Even Government supporters were not unanimous about quantity licensing. The Conservatives have promised to repeal it and there seems only a remote chance that the Minister of Transport will introduce it in advance of the general election. If the Conservatives win they will have the embarrassing task of deciding whether something ought to be put in its place as a protection for the railways.

WHAT steps apart from quantity licensing and increased taxation could Mrs Barbara Castle have taken to ensure an ultimate monopoly at least for long-distance goods transport? To make a start she would have wooed the owners of a million or so light vans and lorries, with an unladen weight perhaps not in excess of 30cwt.

These vehicles are safe from nationalization whatever the circumstances. Their owners could be given complete freedom to do what they like with them. The licence fees could be remitted and the money made up by increasing the fees on the remaining operators. Some of these would be harassed by competition from the lighter vehicles but this would be all to the good.

Whether or not for the reason I have suggested, this is precisely what Mrs Castle did. Hardly a protest was raised except from a few operators who saw the danger to themselves. The light vehicles have now escaped from licensing, probably for ever.

This was in line with the recommendations of the Geddes Committee whose opinion on licensing was very much like that of a surgeon on the vermiform appendix. The Government's point of view may not have been exactly the same. Carriers' licensing had prevented rather than helped the process by which. state-owned transport could have extended its sway over an increasingly larger section of the industry.

This aspect was not covered in the Geddes report. It was not part of the committee's terms of reference to consider licensing as a hindrance or promoter of nationalization. Perhaps the Committee shared the opinion of some of the experts that ownership is irrelevant to standards of operation and efficiency.

ON the assumption that this was not the Government's view the next step towards nationalization would be a new licensing system which on the one hand would give the freedom demanded by Geddes—in itself by no means welcome to most established hauliers—and on the other hand would impose strict control not only on the running of vehicles but on the entire management of a road transport business.

Needless to say this step is also being taken and will be completed with the introduction of transport managers' licensing. As with the de-licensing of light vehicles, there was little or no Parliamentary opposition. With almost general approval the Minister has been able to introduce a system which could be used with far more effect than the superseded system to make life difficult for the independent operator and produce within him visions of the state-owned haven.

There are already reports which ought to make the road transport industry uneasy. Established operators called to an inquiry because the Licensing Authority has doubts about them have heard criticisms not only of their vehicles and equipment but also of their maintenance staff. They have been advised to appoint better qualified men.

Such a situation ought to have been envisaged. The Licensink Authority has the right to inquire into every aspect of a business and he may think it also right to point out where the shortcomings appear to him to be the fault of an individual. He has no political or otherwise sinister motive in doing this. The fact remains that men taken on as a result of his observations owe their appointment ultimately to him.

LFGISLATION produces unexpected results. Against the Licensing Authority's wishes there could develop a large-scale system of patronage. The man in charge of the maintenance of a fleet would know that he has to satisfy the Ministry as well as his boss, and that both masters to some extent have the power to dismiss him if he does not measure up to the requirements of one or other of them.

This is only the beginning. Transport managers' licensing will greatly increase the number of key men who will not be looking only to their employer for security of tenure. When objections begin to come in, especially from the trade unions, the pressure will grow on a Licensing Authority to play a growing part in the choice of an operator's staff. The staff themselves will begin to lose the sense of direct responsibility to an individual. In other words their mentality may change in such a way as to fit them more for service to a large, anonymous organization than to an operator under free enterprise.

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