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25th November 1966
Page 61
Page 61, 25th November 1966 — THINK OF A NUMBER
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Which of the following most accurately describes the problem?

HERETICS brought before the Inquisition were not informed of the charges against them. They were subjected to a verbal questionnaire in general terms and soon found out that a nil return was unacceptable. They had to plead guilty to specific crimes without being prompted. In most cases the procedure was effective. Sooner or later the victim started a long string of confessions, thus building up the case against himself.

The Ministry of Transport appears to have adopted the techniques of the Inquisition in asking representative organizations for their opinion on drivers' hours without giving a lead of any kind. On paper the present system based on a maximum working day of 11 hours is clearly behind the times. It will be difficult for any of the organizations to say at the end of the month that they believe no change is needed in the present law.

Equally difficult

It is equally difficult to suggest changes without some qualification. The task would have been made easier if the Ministry had put forward its own proposals. Failure to do so is all the more strange when it is known that at the top level there are some strong and definite ideas about what should be done. The Minister of Transport has made no secret of her own opinion that, in the interests of road safety if for no other reason, a working day of 1! hours is too long as well as being out of step with the situation in many ,other countries.

A reduction frOm II hours to 10 would bring operators into line with the recommendation of the Prices and Incomes Board and with the practice of British Road Services. If such a suggestion had come from the Ministry the associations would have been unable and probably unwilling to reject it completely. They would have felt obliged, as did the Prices and Incomes Board, to say that there should be no reduction in the work done and therefore in the wages paid. This would in turn raise the problem of the many drivers who through no fault of their own were unable to get through their present work more quickly.

At least the debate could then begin on a common foundation. Without a lead from the Ministry the associations and the unions may find themselves bidding against each other. As it is the suspicions are already beginning to accumulate. One of the union officials has even been quoted as saying that the Ministry's approach is part of a conspiracy to transfer traffic from road to rail.

The request for observations on a single issue, it might be suggested, goes against the whole spirit of this summer's White Paper on transport policy. The emphasis . all through that document is on the danger of looking at each different transport problem in isolation. There must be a national plan in which the solution to ach problem will find its place.

Some sympathy may be expressed for the Minister and her advisers. What they may have in mind are the dismal circumstances surrounding the increase in the speed limit for heavy goods vehicles nearly 10 years ago. The proposal that the new limit should be -.70 m.p.h. was never in question but this did not prevent almost interminable arguments about schedules and safeguards. The original intention was not to make the change until the disputes had been settled. They continue even after this lapse of time.

With the proposal for a reduction in working hours the battle is in danger of being renem.ed. Having liaised the question at the national and official level the Ministry cannot hope to remain on the sidelines and wait for the parties concerned to fight it out. Nor can the Ministry expect that agreement on a lucky number will bring the controversy to a triumphant conclusion.

Easier for operators

Some idea of what the Ministry has in mind would, however, be useful. It might in the end be found indispensable. Goods vehicle operators could then focus their attention more clearly on the likely effects of the proposal and on the additional steps which would have to be taken. It would be easier for operators to accept a figure and specify their conditions of acceptance—or even to give an alternative figure with similar reservations—than to make their own proposal which they must then proceed to qualify and which might in the end prove unacceptable to the Ministry.

Possibly the associations and the unions will be no more specific than the Ministry. They will content themselves with setting out the conditions and leave the figure blank. rven on this assumption there is plenty to he said. The effect of any alteration in drivers' hours will be felt throughout trade and industry and not merely by road transport operators and workers.

Manufacturers, drivers and even operators have been prodigal of vehicle time. Only recently has the need for quicker turn round received some glimmer of recognition and the devices used by some drivers to spin out their apparent working day are notorious and often tolerated by their employers. These shortcomings drew from the Prices and Incomes Board a number of recommendations familiar to operators even if they were new to the Board.

Additional proposals

Hauliers, their customers and local authorities, said the Board in its interim report on rates, should co-operate in improving terminal and handling facilities and extending the times during which they can be used. The recommendation by the Road Haulage Association on demurrage charges was strongly supported. In its final report the Board had some additional proposals. It included the use of recording devices "for the better planning of operations", working round the clock and working round the week; and the adoption of schedules based on the 40 m.p.h. speed limit.

From the consequential difficulties the Board disentangled itself. Where the same work is accomplished in shorter hours, said the Board. -earnings should be maintained-. Where changes in working practice increase efficiency, earnings might even go up and hours down, provided that the customer is also allowed some of the benefits. On the problem of ironing out the inequalities of earnings which these changes would accentuate the Board was prudently silent.

A final recommendation was that the points raised by the Board should be given urgent consideration by the National Negotiating Committee on which the associations and unions are represented. It might have been a good idea for the Ministry to have made its own request for enlightenment to that body. If an agreement could be reached there—and admittedly there are doubts about the possibility of this —it would form a sound basis on which legislation could be drafted with less danger than otherwise Of industrial unrest.

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