Belling the Cat
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Political Commentary By JANUS
THE word " accountability " wasp invented as a convenient description of a new problem created by nationalization. Like most modern problems, it appears to be incapable of solution. It is, in any event, unlikely to be solved by the method the Government will probably adopt after the unanimous report of a Parliamentary select committee comprising representatives of each political party.
The report was published over six months ago, but Members of Parliament did not get down to discussing it until last week. It recommended the appointment of a permanent committee to keep an eye on the nationalized industries. The proposed committee would look at the published reports and accounts, and obtain further information on policy and practice. The object would be to inform Parliament of the aims, activities and problems of the industries, but not to control their work.
No vote was taken at. the end of the debate. Members were by no means completely in agreement with their select committee, and Mr. Herbert Morrison in particular urged his favourite solution of a thorough investigation into the work of the public corporations once every seven years. .
There remains a doubt whether it would ever be possible to bring a nationalized industry to book, at least in such a way as to satisfy Parliament and the public. If nationalization is regarded as a commercial venture, the industry concerned must be given its head. The more it is subject to control from above, the less can it be praised or blamed for success or failure. The appropriate Minister usually has power to give directions on certain matters of general policy, but it is only fair that he should take responsibility for their effects.
No Power of Enforcement
A standing committee of interested M.P.s may from time to time find points for consideration that would not otherwise come to light if Parliament depended solely upon the published reports and accounts. In the light of their discoveries the committee might go further and make some practical suggestions, but there would for the most part be little point in doing so unless authority existed for putting the suggestions into force. The setting up of the necessary authority would inevitably impose the bureaucratic control that most people arc anxious to avoid.
In his evidence before the select committee, Lord Hurcomb expressed the view that a separate committee should be appointed for each nationalized industry. By this means "a large number of M.P.s would have an opportunity of satisfying themselves and conveying, not by way of attack and of public speech, but by way of suggestion to the organization, the points where they thought something might be going wrong, or at any rate would be worth looking into."
Apart from whether M,P,s of this temper could be found to serve on the committee, the problem of accountability remains. There is not much to be said in favour of desultory discussions with a committee that have no real power. In practice, the State corporations can do very much at they please, and the public, fatalists to a man, have swiftly recognized the fact. They show their opinion plainly by ignoring the impotent consumer councils, consultative committees and so on. The proposed select committee or committees would probably fare no better.
Nationalization, socialization, or whatever name is given to it, has its own nature and its own laws. It can hardly begin to function unless it is freed from most, if not all, control over its operations, and the well-meant attempts to regulate the policy of nationalized industries are almost bound to fail. When the inland transport committee of the Economic Commission for Europe last met, they passed a resolution that "users should enjoy freedom to choose the mode of transport within the limits of the facilities provided by a sound general transport system devoid of any monopoly or conditions tantamount to monopoly." The representatives who were-present from countries with a "planned economy" added the comment, however, that the question of users' freedom of choice did not arise in their countries.
Wall Against Curiosity This seems a clear enough warning of what would happen to freedom of choice if the whole of British transport were nationali4ed. It is equally futile to try to impose accountability by an Act of Parliatnent. A State corporation must be allowed to work out its own salvation. It makes known to the public only what it wants made known, and not even the most‘pertinacious committee are likely to extract anything further.
There is a false note in the assumption that somewhere the truth about a nationalized industry exists, and that once the truth is discovered and proclaimed by a neutral and benevolent committee, it will be instantly and universally accepted, so that no compulsion will be needed to translate it into practice. It seems a vain, although harmless, endeavour to find a body that can examine facts, figures and opinions without bias, and present occasional reports in the form of tentative suggestions, with no power to put them into effect.
Nobody would deny that there is bias, political or otherwise, in most of the statements about the work of the British Transport Commission. Many people dislike British Road Services and are glad to report anything to their discredit. It is fair to add that B.R.S. have , many supporters, and are capable of speaking up for themselves.
Maj.-Gen. G. N. Russell recently, and with some justification, spoke of economies made by B.R.S. in their operations. The number of loaded miles per vehicle had increased by nearly 20 per cent, in the past two years, Maintenance costs in terms of pence per mile were lower in 1953 than in 1952. Tyre and other costs per mile had similarly "improved."
A standing committee might wonder why E.R.S. should claim credit for a reduction in the cost of tyres; whether economies in maintenance were altogether a good thing; and how the position in 1953, whatever the improvement might be over the previous year, compared with the performance of operators under free enterprise. But what purpose would. an investigation into these points serve? Gen. Russell is expected to praise his own organization, just as he is entitled to counter-attack his critics. His task is to run B.R.S. as a commercial undertaking, and it is hard to see how he can be helped by a select committee of M.P.s who would have neither power nor responsibility.