§ 10 pm
§ The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Nicholas Ridley)
I beg to move,That this House takes note of European Community Documents Nos. 4088/79, 9292/81 and 9508/84 and the unnumbered Draft Directive submitted by the Department of Transport on 13th December 1984; and notes with satisfaction the position adopted in relation to the Draft Council Directive on the weights, dimensions and certain other technical characteristics of certain road vehicles.I apologise to the House for the short notice given in arranging this debate. The Scrutiny Committee recommended debates on weights and dimensions in 1979 and 1981 when the first two documents mentioned in the motion were deposited. During the intervening period, the Government have stuck firmly in the negotiations in Brussels to the undertaking on lorry weights given in the House when the regulations were presented just over two years ago by my right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell). He stated:We do not accept the higher limits proposed by either the European Commission or any other European body. We also reject the higher limits on axle weights, because they would not be acceptable on our roads."—[Official Report, 25 November 1982; Vol. 32, c. 1022.]The draft directive has been on the agenda of every Council of Ministers meeting since then, but, despite provisional agreements earlier this year on some parts of the directive, it was only last week on 11 December that an agreement was reached on a modified package. The urgent need to settle the matter now arises not because of anything in the weights and dimensions package but because of the linkage between the package and agreements to increase the Community quota for road haulage and to allocate moneys under the infrastructure fund for 1983–84. This goes to support some of our most important road schemes. This money will cease to be available if it is not paid by the end of this year, and hence there is the need for the debate tonight.
We are not seeking to overturn the commitment given in 1982 by my right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford. We are not asking the House to agree to increase the maximum lorry weights for any type of lorry. I would not recommend the directive if it contained proposals to allow heavier lorries on our roads. The directive does not do so, because we have successfully obtained a derogation in respect of weights for ourselves and the Irish which is of indefinite duration. Moreover, there is now no prospect of increased maximum weights being imposed on us by majority decision of the Council without approval by Parliament. The directive makes it clear that any future decision on this subject can only be taken by unanimous vote; thus our position in Europe on lorry weights is actually strengthened.
The terms embodied in the draft directive were obtained as a result of hard bargaining in Brussels last week. They represent a deal which I recommend the House should endorse. The position is as follows. The United Kingdom is not yet committed to this directive. Last week, nine member countries indicated that they were ready to accept the directive, together with the derogation to which I have referred. Knowing the great interest that the House has taken in the subject in the past, I said that I would have 251 to submit the terms to Parliament, and our European colleagues accepted this. So the position of this House has been fully preserved.
The directive sets only lower limits on the maximum weights or dimensions that a member state may permit. It does not, therefore, require a member state to reduce any limits to conform to the Community values. The directive applies only to vehicles when used in international traffic; thus member states can continue with their national rules governing the registration and type approval of vehicles. All they are required legally to do is to admit vehicles in international traffic if they conform with the weights and dimensions set out in the annex.
I come now to the weights proposals themselves. First, the detailed weights limits, apart from those on which we have secure derogation—of which more in a moment—either agree entirely with the limits in current United Kingdom regulations or are in fact lower than our own limits. This is an excellent result for us. It means for example that many of the trailer axle weights and spacings with which our operators are accustomed and to which our manufacturers build are to become the common European standard.
There is only one significant change that we will have to make to our regulations before July 1986 when the directive comes into force. This concerns not weight but the maximum length of rigid, non-articulated, motor vehicles, now specified as 12m, compared with 11m in our regulations. In fact, the vast majority of rigid vehicles — generally the lighter two-axle lorries — are built substantially shorter than 11m anyway, so the maximum length limit for this type of vehicle has little effect. It is possible that some specialised vehicles, such as furniture vans, will become up to a metre longer if the industry finds it worthwhile to exploit the opportunity provided by the change in our regulations. The change will bring the length limit on these vans into line with the existing 12m length limit on coaches. Such rigid vehicles will remain much shorter than the heavier articulated vehicles already in use on our roads. There is thus no increase in the maximum size of lorries, and none of the proposals for increased weights, other than those which are the subject of our derogation, would differ from weight maxima currently allowed.
The crucial article for us is article 8. This provides the United Kingdom — Irish derogation. This is the new feature in the directive that did not exist in the Commission's earlier proposals. It results from our insistence over the past two years, following Parliament's decision in favour of a weight limit of 38 tonnes for the United Kingdom that we were bound by our pledges to Parliament. The ninth "Whereas" clause and article 8 set out the terms of the derogation. I can assure the House that these leave the United Kingdom Government and Parliament fully entitled to maintain our current limit for the heaviest lorries, for as long as we see the need to do so.
Our Community partners have now accepted, after a good deal of persuasion, that we indeed have a genuine problem with our older bridges. The fact is that the 40 tonne lorry in its commonest form—the two-axle tractor and three-axle semi-trailer—inevitably has axle weights which are significantly higher than those for which our bridges have been assessed. We cannot permit such lorries 252 to use our roads in their present state. A lengthy programme of work would be needed before we could even consider accepting these heavier axle loads on our roads and bridges.
The first paragraph of article 8 sets out the scope of the derogation. The first subparagraph means that 40 tonne limits for articulated vehicles and road trains and the 24 tonne limit on the most widely spaced tri-axle, do not apply in the United Kingdom and Ireland. The second subparagraph means that we must none the less accept articulated vehicles of 38 tonnes with a tri-axle of up to 22.5 tonnes. Those are in fact our present limits, so this causes no problem for us.
The second paragraph makes it clear that the derogation applies without limitation to "Road Trains", that is, drawbar trailer combinations also. This means that the United Kingdom can maintain its existing limit of 32.5 tonnes on drawbar trailer combinations. Thus we continue to honour the commitment in its entirety.
Maintenance of a lower limit on these large drawbar trailer lorries was a provision upon which Parliament insisted in 1982, and despite the fact that this was the hardest of all for our Community partners to swallow, the Government have insisted, successfully, that it be covered by the derogation.
In terms of bridge loading and road damage there is no sound justification for maintaining a lower limit on road trains than on articulated vehicles—indeed, the reverse. The effect of this provision in practice is to discriminate against foreign operators who make greater use of these vehicles than British hauliers. Maintenance of a lower limit on road trains was nevertheless a provision upon which Parliament insisted in 1982, and therefore the Government have insisted that it be covered by the derogation.
The second paragraph of article 8 requires the Council to lay down a procedure for the periodic review of the derogation. A proposal must be made by the Commission within the next 18 months, and the Council has to make a decision by 28 February 1987,According to the provisions of the Treaty.But the preamble—that is the 9th "Whereas" clause—makes it clear that our Community partners have accepted that the part of the treaty of Rome relevant to this decision is article 75, paragraph 3, which provides for unanimous decision. So the United Kingdom retains complete control over these arrangements. We cannot have higher limits forced upon us by majority decisions. If the Council fails to agree upon the terms of the review procedure by 1987, the derogation remains in force.
Therefore, there is nothing in the directive which is harmful to our interests. It has to be said that the benefits are not dramatic either, but they are worth having. The degree of standardisation helps our exporters, although only a minority of goods vehicles is covered. It is also valuable to agree common standards on certain weights and dimensions, such as the weight upon unpowered axles, the trailer weights and the dimensions of the biggest vehicles, which will discourage any upward drift in national legislation elsewhere in the Community.
Those are limited benefits. The main benefit we seek is to have a common market in road haulage. We believe that it is profoundly unsatisfactory that the largely free market in goods that exists in the EC does not extend to the services sector—especially to transport. It is quite intolerable that, 27 years from the start of the Community 253 and 12 years after our own accession, lorries such as ours, which meet all the national standards of other Community countries, should nevertheless be subject to strict quota restrictions and be unable to make journeys in the EC without a permit. We have not succeeded in getting a firm timetable for the abolition of quotas as yet. But we shall keep trying.
Meanwhile, at last week's Council, we got agreement to more than double the Community lorry quota over a five-year period from 1985 to 1989. That is a major step forward, which will offer considerable opportunities to our road haulage operators. The increase is linked by other EC Governments to our adopting the weights and dimensions directive. It stands ready for adoption tomorrow, but only if the weights and dimensions directive is also ready for adoption then.
There are other worthwhile measures that are also dependent on the directive as part of the same package. The regulation on the 1983–84 Community infrastructure programme includes support for the construction of the M25, the Sidcup bypass, and rail electrification in Essex. It means a total financial net benefit for the United Kingdom of about £1 million. There is also a resolution on road safety which provides for 1986 to be European Road Safety Year, and there is a minor recommendation on co-operation between the Community's railway undertakings. All these measures will go through as a package with weights and dimensions, or not at all.
There is much more to play for in the longer term. The European Council has already agreed, at summit level, that the Common Market in services must become a reality and that road haulage must be liberalised. It will take a great deal of pressure and hard negotiation to secure progress against the instincts of most member states. The United Kingdom economy stands to reap substantial benefits if this is brought about. There will be absolutely no prospect of achieving this aim if we were not to agree to the weights and dimensions directive tonight.
I commend the directive, therefore, to the House as representing a modest but significant success in our negotiations towards a Community transport policy. We remain totally committed to the undertaking given in 1982 that there should be no increase in the maximum weight of heavy lorries until our roads are suitable and Parliament agrees. We are achieving the beginnings of a movement towards liberalisation of road haulage throughout the Community, and those elements of harmonisation which we can agree to will be of value to our exporting manufacturers. I hope that the House will approve the directive.
§ Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)
It is reprehensible for the Secretary of State to present such a major change to the House so late in the Session and so late at night. My reasons for saying that are simple. There are various ways in which the Government can make changes following European legislation. One way is to consider not the political implications, but technical specifications that can be harmonised, knowing that they will have a knock-on effect on road safety and road haulage measures in Britain. I am extremely unhappy that we are talking tonight about something which the Secretary of State has represented as a modified package, and as something that we must accept or we will not get the linkage which he says exists between the infrastructure 254 fund and the other Community measures. The implication is that if we oppose the measure we shall be holding up the money that the Secretary of State has obtained from the budget for other transport measures.
If that is the case, we should consider carefully what the directive says. We should understand the background to it. In 1971, before Britain joined the Community, the EC sought an agreed lorry dimension scheme. In 1972, the Six agreed on some aspects, such as a 40-tonne limit, but the entry of the three new nations delayed complete agreement. In 1975, the idea re-emerged and proposals were put forward in 1976.
The Secretary of State said that the Government have given undertakings and that no one need worry because the Government will do nothing to damage British interests. That is extremely difficult to believe. The Commission is being taken to the European Court of Justice by those who believe that it is not implementing quickly enough a hamonised transport policy. The case will be heard before long. Therefore, when we talk about Britain having obtained a derogation from some basic aspects of transport policy, we must understand precisely what is meant by a derogation.
In January 1979, the main new proposals appeared for agreed lorry dimensions. The report wanted a 44-tonne limit, but that was cut to 40 tonnes in September 1981. The Government agreed to that, but the House forced them to back down to a limit of 38 tonnes. As I said, one method of moving towards agreement has been to obtain agreement on technical details. That is a useful ploy, because it reduces the number of options on lorry weights so that we impose uniformity in a different way.
On 17 and 18 September 1984, the European Parliament took the Council of Ministers to court because the latter was not implementing the treaty obligations. The Advocate General will give his opinion on 8 or 10 January 1985. That is one reason why the House is being asked to move too quickly.
Britain has some of the smallest lorries in the EC, and until 1982 the weight limit, which was set in 1964, was 32.5 tonnes. The Netherlands had 50-tonne trucks at that time. Britain also had shorter lorries than did most EC countries. Today, only the United Kingdom does not have the 18m long lorry. It is clear that United Kingdom drive axle weights are at the low end of the scale; they are 10.5 tonnes in Britain compared with 13 tonnes in France, Belgium, Germany and Luxembourg. The Commission's proposal is for an 11-tonne axle, and that was the suggestion put forward in 1972 by the Six. Traction ratios are higher by 20 per cent. in the Netherlands and 27.6 per cent. in the United Kingdom, but when there are icy conditions even the 34.2 per cent. of France is not considered adequate by the Commission.
The Government have tried, in a number of ways, to increase lorry sizes. Their White Paper in December 1981 made a lot of claims about protecting the environment but they are unfulfilled. We were told that bypasses and motorways would be the Government's high priority and local authorities' powers to control lorry movements were meant to be a major safeguard. If that is so, I ask the Secretary of State why he has been so exceedingly vocal about the GLC's attempt to impose a lorry ban, a ban that many people in London not only desire but need if they are to be able to lead a civilised life. This Secretary of State has been a party, with his colleagues, to the abolition 255 of many of the local authority aspects of transport, but he is nevertheless demanding a full inquiry into the GLC's proposed lorry ban. If that is not illogical, what is?
§ Sir John Wells (Maidstone)
Is the hon. Lady aware that, if the GLC lorry ban were to be imposed, wholesale markets in London would grind to a halt? Heavy lorries come from the fish ports and the meat and horticultural areas night after night and go directly by main road to the market areas, where virtually nobody lives. No Londoners are disturbed by those markets and the freshness and the cheapness of food in London depends on those lorries. The plan is crazy.
§ Mrs. Dunwoody
I have the greatest respect for the hon. Gentleman, but he cannot be talking about the same capital city about which I am talking and he is not talking about the reality of the movement of lorries in London.
§ Mrs. Dunwoody
My point is vital. The Secretary of State says, on the one hand, that what concerns him is protecting the environment but, on the other as soon as any suggestion is made that a properly elected council should seek to do that, he demands a public inquiry.
This is rather more complicated than simply saying that the EEC understands that we have problems with lorry weights because of our roads. The Secretary of State says that it would not be right to go as far as the Armitage report suggests and that the Government have rejected the 44-tonne maximum, but the regulations will create an environment that will allow that change. The EEC accepts only that where there are bad roads there should be a small increase in pavement thicknesses, and that bypasses and a great deal of money spent on new roads are not required. These are not my views, but those of the EEC.
Therefore, the Government should tell us how they will avoid problems in 1987. We have already gone above the weight at which lorries cause a great deal of damage to our roads, which is 35 tonnes. These proposals will make it hard to avoid increasing the problem.
§ Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Bristol, East)
I take it that the hon. Lady believes that the axle loading and the weight on pavements and roads are the really important things for the protection of the environment. What does she believe will be the axle loading under these proposals?
§ Mrs. Dunwoody
If the hon. Gentleman does me the minor courtesy of waiting until I develop my argument, he will find out what concerns me. The Secretary of State seems to find this amusing. Let me spell out to him what the proposals will mean for our people, because he appears to be concerned only with the views of the operators and not with the views of those who will have to live with the changes which are brought about, or those who will not find themselves new bypasses or new roads to protect their villages or towns.
The regulations do nothing to deal with overloading. Many drivers coping with container loads have difficulties, not only with weight but with the way in which vehicles are packed. The Council of Ministers does not consider the variety of roads and conditions here. Accidents happen, not only because of the speed of 256 vehicles, but because they are badly loaded. The slow roll, arising from a change in direction, can result in a lorry shedding its load. There is a safety problem in the change.
Momentum can have an effect in a bad road traffic accident. Extra weight has a direct effect. If I remember any science at all, it is that the momentum of a body is affected by the force with which it moves. An increase from 38 tonnes to 40 tonnes will mean that if there is a road traffic crash—
§ Mrs. Dunwoody
I look forward to the Secretary of State's interventions with what I can only call wild delight.
The Government are wrong to claim that extra weight does not affect accidents. Believe me, I know what I am talking about. An increase in weight directly increases momentum. The increase from 38 tonnes to 40 tonnes means that a crash happens with 5 per cent. more force. In the M25 crash last week, nine of the 22 vehicles involved were heavy lorries.
§ Mr. Ridley
Did not the hon. Lady hear me say that the directive does not involve an increase from 38 tonnes to 40 tonnes? After the directive is adopted there cannot be such an increase against our will. There is no point in arguing about 40-tonne lorries, because they are not dealt with in the directive.
§ Mrs. Dunwoody
The Secretary of State knows that there will be an increase in length. He knows that we are talking about 18m being the maximum. That is like taking three mini cars piled on top of each other, and sticking them on the back of the biggest lorry in Britain.
§ Mr. Ridley
We have had 18m lorries in Britain since 1941. No changes are proposed in the maximum length of lorries. Again, the hon. Lady is falsely interpreting the directive.
§ Mrs. Dunwoody
The Secretary of State insists that no basic changes are to take place, but his argument depends upon the Commission continuing to accept that Britain's roads are so bad that they cannot accommodate increased lorry weights. My point is simple. If we want to harmonise legislation throughout the Community, the easiest way is to introduce technical specifications which will have an effect upon the lorries and the movement of transport. That is what will happen under the directive. We cannot get away from that.
Drivers are worried that road safety has not been sufficiently considered. They are convinced that loading problems will be considerable. They are certain that the basic problem is that the Community intends to push ahead with the harmonisation of road transport. That has been its attitude ever since Britain entered the Community, and everything that it does has that aim in mind.
We are in danger of being told that these are small, technical changes and that we have obtained—the Secretary of State boasted of this — a derogation that is indefinite in length. He did not say that the Commission has managed to write in various limitations, which I believe that it will impose at the end of 18 months. It is talking about a move towards complete harmonisation of road transport. That is not in the interests of our environment or of our road traffic industry. There are many in our towns who will have considerable worries about the proposals before us.