Consequential and Other Amendments

ROAD TRAFFIC (DRIVERS' AGES AND HOURS OF WORK) BILL [Lords] – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 8th March 1976.

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11.6 p.m.

Photo of Mr John Hannam Mr John Hannam , Exeter

I beg to move Amendment No. 1, in page 8, line 22, leave out "9" and insert "16".

Photo of Sir Arthur Irvine Sir Arthur Irvine , Liverpool Edge Hill

With this we may discuss the following Amendments:

No. 2, in page 10, line 11, leave out "9" and insert "16".

No. 3, in page 10, line 16, leave out "9" and insert "16".

Photo of Mr John Hannam Mr John Hannam , Exeter

These amendments which are in my name and those of other members of the all-party Disablement Group, seek to embody the principle that minibuses should be regarded as normal motor cars when operated by private operators.

Last summer the Disablement Group became extremely concerned at certain restrictions which were being applied to local authority social service departments, especially in the West Country, and to various voluntary organisations when they came to use their minibuses, which had often been donated through various fund-raising activites and by various charitable bodies. The problem which arose in Devon was related to charges being levied for trips which were then regarded as having rendered those journeys as being for hire or reward. I shall not go further into those details, because the problem was largely resolved and the banning of the use of minibuses by Devon County Council and other local authorities was rescinded.

However, a great deal of uncertainty remains and it is in the light of the need for minibuses to be regarded, for driving purposes, as normal motor cars, that my hon. Friends and I seek to amend any such traffic laws as we are discussing tonight so as to allow vehicles carrying up to 16 passengers to be regarded as small passenger-carrying vehicles and therefore within the requirements of normal driving licences. Amendment No. 3 deals specifically with the definition of a small passenger vehicle, but as the other definitions of "small goods vehicle" and "medium-sized goods vehicle" also refer to passenger-carrying adaptations, I have included them in the other two amendments.

In the Adjournment debate on 19th January this year, when my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery) raised the whole subject of the hire and reward anomaly which had cropped up in his own area of Devon, the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment made the following remarks, which are very important in this context: I turn to the effect of the EEC regulation. This regulation requires, in the absence of professional experience, that any driver of a vehicle carrying more than nine persons should hold a certificate of professional competence. This has been interpreted by some to mean that drivers must have a public service vehicle driver's licence. My hon. Friend the Minister for Transport is seeking exemption for private minibuses from all the provisions of the regulation. In the meantime, he proposes to recognise an ordinary driving licence for a motor car as proof of competence to drive a minibus.—[Official Report, 19th January 1976; Vol. 903, c. 1104.] This matter affects many disablement organisations, many schools for the handicapped, local authorities and voluntary agencies. These bodies have raised funds and purchased minibuses in order to transport handicapped and elderly people—and young handicapped people to schools—on journeys for which normal transport is not necessarily available.

Following our representations through the all-party group to the Minister with special responsibility for the disabled, the hon. Member for Manchester, Wythen-shawe (Mr. Morris), the hon. Gentleman wrote on our behalf to the Minister for Transport on 6th February. I shall quote one paragraph from his letter, which he has made available to us all, because it is relevant to these amendments: But the Road Traffic Act can nevertheless sometimes impede arrangements for transport which would be valuable in providing greater mobility for disabled people. I should be most grateful for an assurance which I could pass on to the Group"— that is, the all-party Disablement Group— that this factor is being given the fullest possible weight in your examination of the whole position. I fully recognise that you have to consider the implications of any change for public transport generally, but mobility for the disabled is, I am sure, a special element of the problem: as you and I are both reminded fairly frequently, there are hazards to other ways in which disabled people may seek mobility on the roads. That quotation from the letter sent by the Minister with special responsibility for the disabled and my earlier quotation from the speech of the Under-Secretary in the Adjournment debate accept, in effect, the principle which I propose in the amendment, that the minibus should be regarded as a motor car for the purposes of the driving regulations, and we wish to ensure that that principle is embodied in the Bill.

Photo of Mr Hector Monro Mr Hector Monro , Dumfries

I support my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam) in this series of amendments, for the many reasons which he has advanced. It affects the handicapped and the school minibus, and perhaps other vehicles carrying more than nine passengers, in respect of which one would gladly give a driver with an ordinary licence and with proper experience a chance to drive people about on their lawful business.

This matter is all the more important today because of the general uncertainty surrounding public transport. In this context, one is concerned about the amount of subsidy which local authorities can afford in times of great stringency to give to the bus companies to provide services for the general public. It is fairly clear from a general survey of local authorities in Scotland, in particular, that they are certainly not able to spend more money on public transport, with the result that services have to be reduced to keep within their overall spending limits. Inevitably, this means that the services provided by the major bus companies are having to be withdrawn, with the twin unhappy consequences of lack of public transport provision and loss of jobs for the bus crews.

In this situation, the only alternative may be some form of privately operated minibus. Where there may well be no provision at all, we should allow vehicles which will carry between nine and 16 passengers a chance to be operated by a person who does not have a PSV licence. Of course, one would rather feel that any form of public transport was operated by a highly qualified driver who held a PSV licence, but we do not all have that opportunity today in the present financial climate, and I would radier have a minibus driven by an experienced driver without a PSV licence than have no transport at all.

That is the crux of my hon. Friend's argument. Vast areas of the countryside now have no public transport. Motor cars are becoming more expensive to run—perhaps even more so by the middle of next month—and getting about our rural areas is becoming a major headache, especially for elderly people who cannot go by bicycle or cannot walk and who certainly have no public transport.

I hope that the Minister will give a sympathetic reply. This is the type of issue which we should be pressing very firmly on our colleagues in Europe which is against our interests. If the present Government can set out to renegotiate with our colleagues in Europe the whole matter of our entry into the Common Market, surely they can do something about negotiating the matter of who is able to drive minibuses and who is not. They are making very heavy weather of this issue.

Photo of Mr Hector Monro Mr Hector Monro , Dumfries

I am not allowing the Minister to intervene because he has plenty of time in which to reply, and I have in any case come to the end of what I want to say.

11.15 p.m.

Photo of Mr Peter Fry Mr Peter Fry , Wellingborough

Those who followed the Second Reading debate will remember that the subject of this group of amendments was briefly discussed. We are grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam) and his hon. Friends for raising this topic.

Those of us who have organisations in our constituencies which operate their own transport have been made aware of the wide concern because of the uncertainty about the regulations. Despite reassuring noises from the Minister, I believe it is true to say that the uncertainty still exists and is far from being resolved.

This is a pity, because if the provisions of the Road Traffic Bill, introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton), had come into force, it is clear that many of the anomalies would have been removed and it is highly likely that we should have a far better level of services, particularly in the rural areas, than we have today. It is a great pity that the Government have so far neglected to consider this matter in great detail, or, if they have, that they have failed to bring forward any proposals.

Having said that, I would be the first to admit that there are one or two matters which should be borne in mind before we readily accept this group of amendments. First, there is the figure of 16, which gives rise to problems. Most insurance companies would prefer the figure of 12. This is a crucial figure and it is very relevant. When a youth club or a disablement group decides to purchase one of these vehicles, very often the only way in which the vehicle can be operated is by some form of sharing the cost of a journey. Then, if care is not taken, the club runs foul of the complicated insurance regulations. That is a pity.

Then there is the matter of drivers. At the moment the driver of a private car merely has to have a normal driving licence. This means that if the amendments were accepted, from the age of 17 such a driver would be qualified to drive a vehicle containing up to 16 people, regardless of his experience. There is some anxiety that some of these vehicles would be driven by people with very little driving experience.

Furthermore there is the question of the vehicle itself. Some voluntary organisations have purchased vehicles which have become somewhat old in the tooth, and there is the danger that such vehicles are subject only to the existing MOT regulations. It is feared that the MOT regulations are not sufficiently stringent, and that therefore there is a potential public danger.

In addition, in areas of the country where it is essential that the private operator should continue to run a public service, he may feel that the kind of competition that he will get from voluntary organisations could well undermine his own business. If this were to come about and the public bus service disappeared, people who did not belong to the voluntary organisation would be without any transport. I am not attacking the amendments, but I am pointing out that a considerable number of problems arise from them.

We are still waiting for the Government to come forward with their conclusions. We have already had a number of interesting experiments and the one in Norfolk was mentioned on Second Reading. It is clear that the Government's proposals are insufficient to deal with the problem in the country at large. The amendments clearly indicate that people in many parts of the country are becoming impatient with the Government about this issue. I hope that the Minister will tell us that this is one of the subjects we shall hear about when the tablets come down from on high—when the Government produce their consultative document on the future of public transport. We feel that a decision should be reached.

I reiterate what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. Monro) about the uncertainty and the fact that sometimes these vehicles cannot be used as they might, which often makes the difference between there being a service and not. In rural areas services and the number of miles travelled are being reduced weekly. The question cannot be deferred for two years or so. It is rapidly becoming urgent.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Marks Mr Kenneth Marks , Manchester, Gorton

As one who has seized every opportunity for raising matters about which I feel strongly, for instance, those of injustice and the need for legislation, I admire the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam) for tabling the amendment. Its effect would be to reduce the age for driving certain vehicles from 21 to 17.

But even if the House accepted the amendment, it would not be possible for us to carry it out, because EEC Regulation 543/69 overrides our own Road Traffic Act. As I said on Second Reading, the Bill is short, technical and un-controversial. The amendment would not allow vehicles with more than nine seats, inclusive of the driver's, to be driven by persons under 21 unless they already held licences.

I appreciate the anxiety about the minibus controversy. I have dealt with it at length in previous debates. If a vehicle is used for hire or reward, the driver must have a public service vehicle licence, but if it is not, my right hon. Friend the Minister accepts the ordinary driving licence as a certificate of professional competence to drive a minibus.

The Bill, concerned as it is with drivers' ages, cannot deal with all the matters suggested. EEC Regulation 543/69 is being reconsidered by the Community and there are signs that some of our views are being taken into consideration. Perhaps I should remind hon. Members that parts of Regulation 543/69 came into effect in 1973 as a result of our joining the European Community. The Bill is largely designed to cover up the gaps and to make certain clarifications to the regulation.

Photo of Mr John Hannam Mr John Hannam , Exeter

My hon. Friends have pointed out some of the problems we face over rural transportation, insurance and the age of drivers. I accept the need for much greater clarification by Government of these areas of concern. The Minister has correctly pointed out that the Bill directly affects the ages of drivers rather than the use of minibuses. I accept that. In consequence of his remarks, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

11.26 p.m.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Marks Mr Kenneth Marks , Manchester, Gorton

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I had hoped that this last stage of the Bill in this House would be purely formal. The Bill had general support on Second Reading and in Committee. At both stages, it was generally recognised that the sooner it reached the statute book the better. I hope that the House will not take literally the Opposition motion on the Order Paper.

The change in the threshold of the licensing scheme for heavy goods vehicle drivers provided for in the Bill has been anticipated by manufacturers and operators who, respectively, have made and bought vehicles which, following regulations after enactment, will cease to be heavy goods vehicles. Some at least of these vehicles—we are told—are standing idle until they can be driven by drivers who do not hold vocational drivers' licenses. Labour Members have expressed concern at this situation during both of the earlier stages of consideration. I have explained that the matter can only be resolved by early enactment.

I was, therefore, surprised to learn that hon. Members wanted to avail themselves of this further opportunity for debate. They may want to draw attention again to the practical difficulties inherent in the drivers' hours provisions of EEC Regulation 543/69—in particular those associated with the 450 kilometre limit and the daily driving limit. I have already acknowledged the problems and referred to my hon. Friend's efforts to secure changes but I shall be glad to hear what further points hon. Members may wish to raise. If they speak on these matters, however, I would ask them to bear in mind that this Bill—in so far as it relates to drivers' hours—merely provides enabling powers to allow us to harmonise our domestic law on drivers' hours with that in the EEC regulation when, eventu ally, the drivers' hours provisions of the regulations come into force. The Bill will have no effect on when that will be or on the provisions of the Regulation at that time.

11.29 p.m.

Photo of Mr Norman Fowler Mr Norman Fowler , Sutton Coldfield

Essentially this Bill does two things: it makes changes in minimum driving age and it gives the Secretary of State powers to make regulations about drivers' hours. It is about the second issue that most of the discussion has taken place in Committee, paticularly about the effect of EEC Regulation 543/69. It is because of that regulation that this Bill is needed. This regulation has serious effects on both the road haulage and the passenger transport industries.

There is particularly concern over two of the Common Market rules—namely, that hours of driving should be restricted to eight per day rather than our 10, and that journeys should be restricted to 450 kilometres a day instead of distance being unlimited, in Committee we pressed the Government to seek amendments to these rules and not to be content with deferment. We said that they should get better rules. The Under-Secretary assured us on both points. He said: We have a great many other ideas and there is a great deal of negotiation on this. He also said: We shall continue to negotiate very strongly in Brussels. We have been accused sometimes of being too tough."—[Official Report, Standing Committee H, 24th Feb. 1976; c. 26–7.] He did not say who had accused the Government of being too tough—and wisely so. At the end of last week, the Commission published its revised proposals. I find it strange that we are considering such an important development since the end of the Committee but there is no reference to be found to it in the Under-Secretary's speech. The fact is that the revised rules do not meet the British case in any way.

Over the past 24 hours I have been gathering the views of the road haulage and passenger transport industries. Their view is that the proposed regulations, even after the changes now proposed by the Commission, are a disaster. They say that costs will be pushed up for the public and that many bus passenger services will be put in jeopardy.

Only a few hours ago, I received a telegram from Mr. Skyrme, the President of the Confederation of the British Road Passenger Transport and the Chief Executive of the National Bus Company. He writes that the regulations bear no relationship to public need or economic reality. It must ask you support in gaining vital flexibility. In the present form the regulations would be incapable of being observed. What are the effects of the regulations? First, let us consider the road haulage industry. The original proposal was that no driver should work for more than eight hours. The Commission now says that twice a week he may work for nine hours. But that is virtually a meaningless concession. It still put many trunk routes out of range, especially those from Scotland. The net effect of that change is negligible.

The Commission says that it has made an important concession on distance limits. It has come up with a proposal under which the 450 kilometre limit remains unless the vehicle has a tachograph. If it has one the distance is unlimited, but a driver could still run foul of the eight-hour rule.

The British operator might be able to get some advantage if he installs a tachograph, but if he does so he will come up against the opposition of the drivers and the Transport and General Workers Union. That is some concession! By installing a tachograph the operator adds considerably to his costs. That is a point that we must get across to the public.

The implementation of the regulations will cost big money. The Freight Transport Association has estimated that the restrictions on drivers' hours will cost about £350 million. If the industry is to have to take on the tachograph as well, we are talking of a total cost of over £500 million. The Freight Transport Association puts it higher than that, but I rest on a conservative estimate.

We are talking on the same scale as the money now going to British Rail about which the Government are so concerned. The money will come directly from the public. Costs will have to be passed on. The only effect of the rules must be higher prices for the public.

It must be stressed that no area will be worse affected than Scotland. Great anxiety has been shown by my Scottish colleagues. It is notable that my hon. Friends from Scotland are the only Members on the Opposition Benches who are present to discuss this vital matter from a Scottish point of view.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Sproat) has passed to me a letter from one of his constituents who is a haulage contractor. He writes: In common with many operators of longdistance transport in the North of Scotland, we are deeply concerned by the effect which this regulation will have on our entire operation. In our particular case, we operate a daily trunk fish service from Aberdeen to the Humber ports and we estimate that the reduction in driving hours and mileages could well necessitate an increase in the labour aspect of our operations in the order of 50 per cent. The Scottish Freight Transport Association has pointed out that Scotland is in a particularly vulnerable position. It has confirmed Scotland's greater dependence on road transport by showing that currently, compared with the rest of the United Kingdom, vehicle journeys are 20 per cent. longer and that overall transport costs are 10 to 12 per cent. higher. It says that the regulations will drastically reduce daily driving hours, limit daily mileage, require the fitting of tachographs, and create a 20 per cent. reduction in productivity, additional administration costs and a relative increase in hourly wage rates of over 30 per cent.

If anything, the position of the passenger transport industry is even worse. It is most concerned about the rules about rest periods. The new Community requirements on daily rest periods will mean either having fewer services or more drivers, and thus more costs. The result will almost certainly be reduced services, particularly in the rural areas, as well as higher fares, while the requirement of the weekly rest period regulations looks like killing off many weekend services.

The weekly rest period under the revised rules now proposed is a 39-hour minimum consecutive period. But weekend bus services in this country depend crucially upon voluntary overtime. Under these proposals, such voluntary overtime will simply be prevented, leading to financial loss for drivers and the loss of these services to the public.

Another service which will suffer is the long-day excursion trip, where the driver is unable to meet the eight-hour time restriction. A trip like one from London to Stratford-on-Avon, or from the country into a city like London or Glasgow, is precisely the sort of excursion which is the area of transport now growing most, but which will be knocked out if these regulations come into force in the way the Commission proposes.

We face an extremely serious situation. The next stage will be one of negotiation and consultation, culminating in the meeting of the Ministers later this year. We again say to the Government that their aim should be not to get deferment of these regulations, but to negotiate an appreciably better deal.

It should not be thought that we alone want changes. Other European countries want them. M. Leblanc, President of the International Road Transport Union, representing companies in all European countries, has stated: The regulations lack both simplicity and flexibility to be adapted to the many aspects of road transport. He added: We do not oppose social progress but we want flexible and realistic regulations with which we can collaborate. That is surely the point. What is needed is more flexibility to meet the needs of Britain, of British transport, both freight and passenger. That so far we have not achieved, or anything like it. In passing this Bill, the Government are, I hope, under no illusion about the deep concern about the eventual regulations and rules which will appear. We urge them to try again on this vital matter.

11.40 p.m.

Photo of Mr Iain Sproat Mr Iain Sproat , Aberdeen South

I am grateful for the opportunity to support briefly but forcefully the eloquent plea of my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfleld (Mr. Fowler), particularly on Regulation 543/69, which vitally affects the interests of Scotland. I am astonished that the Bench on which the Members of the Scottish National Party normally sit is completely deserted.

Photo of Mr Iain Sproat Mr Iain Sproat , Aberdeen South

And the Liberal Bench. I hope that for once the Scottish Press will note who does the work in the House on behalf of Scotland.

The Minister said that he had taken on board the worries of the industry about the regulation, and no doubt he has, but it was noticeable that tonight he barely mentioned the pronouncement of the EEC Commission last week. In common with most other hon. Members and with almost everybody in the road transport industry, I regard Regulation 543/69 as being totally impracticable. I oppose a daily distance limitation on driving of 450 kilometres. Although all operators in the North and North-East of Scotland are concerned about the matter, I should like to mention a particular example which puts into perspective what we are fighting.

Every day the trunk fishing service runs from Aberdeen to Hull, carrying the highest quality fish. The run is not 281 miles but 363 miles. If it were stopped, there would be serious repercussions for the fishing trade. Although the Minister does not have responsibility for the fishing industry—and he may thank his lucky stars for that—I am sure that he is aware that the fishing industry is going through the worst crisis it has had probably this century. It would be an intolerable body blow if the fish service between Aberdeen and Hull were to be disrupted. The view of many of my constituents in the transport business is that if Regulation 543/69 came into force it would make their business totally uneconomic, thus adding to the problems of unemployment.

I am opposed to the proposed daily driving period of eight hours as against the present maximum of 10 hours under United Kingdom regulations. I am also opposed to the total lack of flexibility in the regulations. Different countries have different problems, and the EEC regulations must recognise this. It should be the right of national Governments to introduce exemptions from the EEC regulations after proper consultation with the industry and the unions, and they should then be able to inform the Commission of their intentions.

The Minister did not make much mention of the Commission's pronouncement last week. He owes it to the House to give a little more information on it. I do not say that in a partisan way: I really want information, and I know that the industry does. The reaction of people in the industry is extremely unfavourable. Basically they say "We might as, well have got nothing because the changes proposed by the EEC are useless". To change from eight hours a day to eight hours with an option of nine hours a day twice a week is ludicrous. What are we in Aberdeen to do with our fish on the other five days? Is it to rot on the quayside, or be less fresh when it reaches Hull? This proposal is totally unacceptable.

It is suggested that a driver may travel more than 281 miles in a day if he has a tachograph fitted to the lorry. I am sure that the Minister knows the drivers' objections to what they call "the spy in the cab". We should still be up against the hours' barrier anyway.

I understand that it is open to us to apply for exemptions provided that we do so by the end of 1977. Perhaps the Minister could confirm this and indicate for what exemptions the Government feel we ought to apply. Unless he can give us much fuller guarantees, particularly about the way this proposal will affect Scotland, I cannot guarantee that I shall not divide the House.

11.47 p.m.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor , Glasgow Cathcart

The Minister should by now have realised how serious this Bill is to Scotland. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Sproat) for pointing out the damage the Common Market is doing to Scotland and to Great Britain as a whole.

In the past week, we have seen three examples of what is being done to Britain. First, there was the White Paper on Public Expenditure, which made clear that in the next five years we shall pay into the Common Market £1,200 million more than we shall receive in net payments. Secondly, we heard earlier today of the devastating effect on living standards in Great Britain of the EEC food price agreement. Now, thirdly, we are discussing this Bill.

I am particularly concerned about Clause 2, which deals with drivers' hours. Am I right in thinking that if we give the Bill a Third Reading we could discuss any future changes in drivers' hours—which could have a devastating effect in Scotland—only in a one and a half hour debate at the end of a parliamentary day, or in one of those dreadful morning Committees which are so inconvenient for hon. Members who are serving on Standing Committees?

What will be the position if the Common Market decides to revise the regulations? If the Commission agrees that regulations should be applied in a particular way in Great Britain and this Parliament disagrees, is Community law or our decision superior?

What estimate have the Government made of the effect of the Bill on Scottish industry? I sometimes holiday in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bute and North Ayrshire (Mr. Corrie) and I know the problems the islanders on Arran have in getting their goods to market. The Bill will have a devastating effect on the island's agriculture, especially in view of the difficulties over the steamer service. Lorries have to carry goods from farms to the steamer which, because of the problems with the service, often goes to the wrong port on the mainland and arrives considerably later than expected. The Bill seems to involve considerable extra costs. Has any estimate been made of the effect of the proposed changes on the Scottish economy?

Perhaps the Minister could also say a little about the changes advanced by the EEC Commission last week. I understand that they are to be discussed by the Common Market Transport Ministers in June. June is an important time for us, because the regulations should have been applied in Britain on 1st January, but a six-month stay of execution was given by a recent order, and that takes us to June. We shall be in a state of uncertainty about which regulations apply until the Transport Ministers meet in June.

Will the Minister tell us what is meant by the proposal that the exemptions should be only until the end of 1977? Does that mean that if the Commission's amendments are accepted, all these changes will have to be made in 1977?

I am appalled and shocked to see that no Member of the Scottish National Party or of the Liberal Party is present, particularly as some of those hon. Members represent areas furthest away from the market where the problem is worst.

Have the hon. Members for Moray and Nairn (Mrs. Ewing) and Dunbartonshire East (Mrs. Bain) any idea of the devastating damage that will be done to employment in their constituencies? Does the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel) know what damage will be done? This is a matter which affects areas in the far North of Scotland, the North-East and the Islands, and it is shameful that, representing a Glasgow constituency, I should be talking about these problems because the SNP and Liberal Members who represent those areas and are supposed to represent their constituents are not here.

We are talking about a driver's working day being eight hours as opposed to 10 hours. It seems that the SNP Members and the Liberals are imposing their own Common Market regulations on their hours of attendance in the House. I hope that the Scottish people will note that. At 9 o'clock or 10 o'clock at night, no matter how important the business, the National Members—and sometimes the Liberal Members—disappear like snow off a dyke.

I mention this not to criticise my Scottish colleagues, but to ask the Minister not to think because he faces only Conservatives that this is not a matter of great concern throughout Scotland. This is a matter of serious concern to every person in Scotland, and something must be done.

11.54 p.m.

Photo of Mr Hector Monro Mr Hector Monro , Dumfries

I support my hon. Friends the Members for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler), Aberdeen, South (Mr. Sproat) and Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor) in their criticism of the Bill. Like them, I am astonished and critical that no member of the Scottish National Party or the Liberal Party is here tonight.

I wish to protest about the lack of information on certain aspects of the Bill. I know that it has been largely redrafted in Committee—

Photo of Mr Hector Monro Mr Hector Monro , Dumfries

I have looked at the proceedings and the amendments in Committee, and the Bill has been largely redrafted. I criticise the Minister for the shallowness of his reply to the Second Reading debate. There was no time limit on that debate, yet the part of the Minister's speech concerned with problems of the livestock haulage industry occupied only seven lines of print. This point cannot be shrugged off. There was no reason why he could not have taken half an hour more to deal with it.

I want to examine the problems that the Bill will create for the agricultural haulage industry and the road haulage industry generally. I want the Minister to deal in much greater depth with the effect of the Bill in view of the announcement of proposals last Thursday. In The Scotsman of 5th March there is a report by Mr. Michael Hornsby from Brussels which says, New proposals for the harmonisation of working conditions in the EEC's road haulage industry, which were announced here today by the European Commission, offer an important let-out clause to Britain and other member states which have pleaded inability to meet their treaty obligations. Later it says, The proposals also provide, however, for any member state to apply up until the end of 1977 for exemption from particular aspects of the new regulations provided that she can satisfy the Commission that implementing them would present real difficulties. As I shall show, there are immense difficulties. Before we contemplate approving this measure I shall want to know—[Interruption.] The Minister may laugh, but this is a very serious matter.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Marks Mr Kenneth Marks , Manchester, Gorton

This Bill deals merely with drivers' hours and ages. It is a technical Bill. The regulation to which the hon. Member refers—No. 543/69—was wholeheartedly accepted by the hon. Member's Government. The whole point of the European Communities Act was that it gave blanket effect to all the previous Community legislation, including regulations, and the hon. Member supported that Act.

Photo of Mr Hector Monro Mr Hector Monro , Dumfries

The Minister takes great pleasure in getting that point off his chest whenever he can. The Bill, however, deals with drivers' hours and will affect the 450-kilometre limit. It does not deal only with drivers' ages and hours. The road haulage industry is not daft. It knows what is in the Bill and it is critical of it.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Marks Mr Kenneth Marks , Manchester, Gorton

If the hon. Member is claiming that the road haulage industry is critical of the Bill, I hope that he will quote what it says. The Bill has been brought in after consultation with the industry, and as far as I know has been approved by the industry without further comment. The hon. Gentleman is talking about proposals issued by the EEC Commissioners in the last few days. They are not decisions of the Government and they have not yet been approved by the Council of Ministers.

Photo of Mr Hector Monro Mr Hector Monro , Dumfries

The proposals announced last week will have an effect on the working of this Bill if the Minister is prepared to fight for that. My main criticism of the Government is that they do not appear to have done anything about improving the situation. The Minister seems to think that the road haulage industry is represented only by its governing body. A large number of road hauliers have telephoned me to say that the Bill will ruin them. I intend to explain why.

We want to know what the Minister will do about deferring this legislation and the very important point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart. This is enabling legislation which will give rise to regulations, on which we shall have a debate of at best an hour and a half, with no possibility of amendment. That is quite unsatisfactory on such an important issue.

I will not go over the argument about ages, because that has been touched on. I am concerned about the hours of work and the distance limit of 450 kilometres or 280 miles. Will the limit on hours refer to eight hours behind the wheel or to an eight-hour working day? As my hon. Friend said, coach trips will be curtailed or become very expensive if a driver can be on duty for only eight hours in any day. Even if he drives for only four hours and spends the next four with his feet up on the pier at Blackpool, he will not be allowed to drive home.

This applies not only to coach trips for the elderly or for tourists but also to trips to various sporting events. If the round trip exceeds eight hours, including two hours at a stadium, two drivers will be needed, which will add enormously to the expense.

But my main criticism relates to agriculture. I want some practical answers from a Minister who so far has given none. Time as well as distance is important here. There are only 108 miles of motorway in Scotland, mainly running from east to west, including 40 miles be- tween Edinburgh and Glasgow which are not generally used for the transport of livestock. That, and the fish trade from Aberdeen, is mainly on a north-south axis. On very few agricultural runs will the vehicles be able to exceed their speed limit of 40 mph and will thus have much lower average speeds than vehicles which can use the motorways. So the combined formula of hours against mileage will be much more important in Scotland than in areas with an extensive motorway network.

What does the Minister expect will happen to the haulage of livestock? Countless hundreds of loads of sheep and lambs travel from the far North and the Borders to the South of England. What will happen to his lorryload of livestock when the driver reaches the 280-mile limit at Birmingham? He cannot park in a lay-by or at a service station for a prolonged rest period. The stock has to be watered. Are the Government prepared to set up lairages and staff to look after livestock in transit?

This applies particularly to the movement of dairy stock. As I am sure the Minister is aware, most heifers and dairy cows are sold within a day or two of calving. They are milked before they leave the market of an evening and it is vital that they are milked as soon as possible the next day, which is normally when they reach the farm to which they have been sold. However, that farm may be more than 280 miles away or more than an eight-hour drive away. What is the transport driver to do with a load of cows desperately in need of milking with nowhere to go and do the job? The Minister has not taken on board just what a problem this will cause to the livestock haulier.

There is also the problem of movement to the market. The country livestock haulier, with perhaps four or five vehicles at the most and a driver for each lorry, has to bring stock to the market from the crack of dawn. Those same drivers have to distribute the lambs or cows to their new owners later that night. That will involve a much longer day than the eight-hour day.

The Minister must tell his colleagues in Europe that sufficient thought has not been given to this measure, that he accepts criticism for not realising the problems earlier but that he cannot allow this to continue now that the full facts have been brought to light.

I accept that the Scottish Freight Transport Association is in favour of the Bill, but it says specifically that there must be more flexibility than is apparent at present and that special industries should have the right to special consideration. That covers the livestock haulage industry. The Scottish Freight Transport Association is also concerned that costs are likely to increase by £300 million, of which £70 million will be increased costs in Scotland. In a country where transport means so much that will be a severe penalty.

Mr. Patrick Hunter Gordon of the Scottish Council for the Development of Industry has been in touch with me from Inverness. That Council is an important body in Scotland. Mr. Patrick Hunter Gordon is concerned about the formula, to which I referred, of distance in relation to a driver's hours, how far a driver can travel over the difficult Scottish roads and the possibility that the driving period should be lengthened.

All those issues need a practical answer tonight, not just the theoretical one of having further discussions with the industry. Before the Bill is passed I want to know what the poor lorry driver will do on the M6 when he reaches Spaghetti Junction and has to let about 300 lambs out of his truck. The Minister is heading into practical problems left, right and centre. Will the Minister return to Europe to seek greater flexibility, greater deferment and a greater practical knowledge of what this is all about?

12.9 a.m.

Photo of Mr Peter Fry Mr Peter Fry , Wellingborough

In commenting on the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler), the Minister seemed to ask why we were having a debate on the Third Reading of the Bill. He described this as a purely technical Bill which the former Conservative Government had accepted.

But the regulations which the Bill empowers the Minister to introduce are being changed and we greatly hope that they are capable of being changed much more before being applied to the United Kingdom. One reason for the debate is the Press coverage of what appeared to be the changes in the regulations which were recently discussed in Brussels. For example, The Times of 4th March has the headline Compomise suggested on EEC lorry regulations. The Financial Times of 5th March said: Driving hours rules eased. Those of us who had made a considerable study of the question were aware that, far from making the matter easier, in certain respects the suggested regulations will make it much worse. Surely it is our responsibility to see that the implications of these regulations are fully debated in the House so that the powers that be in Brussels may be fully aware of the strong feeling shown tonight, particularly by Conservative Members from Scotland. We have a duty to impress upon the Minister that there is strong feeling on the question and that we are far from satisfied with what has been proposed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield rightly pointed out the main disadvantage of the new regulations. I will make two points which he did not make. The first concerns the proposed rest days under the latest proposals from Brussels. As I understand it, these would amount to no less than a 39-hour gap, particularly at weekends. This would cause considerable difficulties in the operation of a turn-round in shift, whether it be for haulage or for bus services.

Secondly, there is the proposal that there should be 28 working days' holiday. This will add considerably to the bill of both the haulage industry and the bus industry. The Government must bear this in mind in negotiations they undertake.

One point which has hardly been touched on is the fact that technically speaking we in this country are supposed to have tachographs. There was no special dispensation on the issue of tachographs. It was quietly left on one side while we awaited the outcome of the deliberations over the question of drivers' hours.

As researches in the United States have shown—where in some States tachographs are essential and in other States they are not—there does not appear to be any indication of any great advantage either on grounds of road safety or of efficiency in the road transport industry.

In Committee my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Mudd) made an eloquent plea to the effect that there were considerable difficulties in the West country, particularly in Cornwall, about distance and the mileage limit. Difficulties exist not just over the problem of distance. As my hon. Friend said, there are real difficulties concerned with the longdistance coach operations, particularly excusions. The type of people that use excursions are those who usually cannot afford to run their own car or buy a ticket on British Rail at the present level of fares. Therefore, probably the worst-off section of the Community will suffer if this fact is not taken on board.

Most of the dispute that appears to be taking place at Brussels arises because these regulations are being put forward as social regulations rather than as transport regulations. What is needed is a look at the whole matter from a transport point of view, because this is where the main difficulties are arising. I hope that the Minister will inform his hon. Friend who is conducting the negotiations at Brussels that this is what the Conservative Opposition want him to do.

There have been three excellent interventions by my hon. Friends, and especially by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor) whose love for the EEC is well known. Indeed, he expressed his feelings in his usual eloquent way tonight. Certain questions were asked by my hon. Friends and I hope that the Minister will give some answers tonight. I think that the Minister has been—as he was in Committee—somewhat chary of giving answers. When I asked him questions similar to those asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. Monro) about the period of delay, he said to me: I am sure he"— that is me— would not want me to go into the whole of the negotiating position of the Government in the negotiations which are taking place on whether there should be exemption for certain parts of the industry and whether we should apply for exemption from the regulations."—[Official Report, Standing Committee H, 24th February, 1976, c. 30.] We are asking for some assurances on these points because unless we ask for them now we shall have very little opportunity to ask for them in the future. Probably the next opportunity will be when the regulations are brought back to the House for us to decide in an hour-and-a-half whether we accept them. I remind the Minister that but for Conservative Members in the other place we would not have had the affirmative method of adopting these regulations. They would have been subject to the negative procedure.

We believe that the Government must do more to come clean. They must indicate that they fully have the interests of the British transport industry at heart. If the Minister can show that, he will have the complete support of the Opposition. However, if he goes to Brussels and it is suspected that he will meekly submit to the latest version of the regulations, we assure him of an unfriendly welcome when he brings those regulations back.

12.18 a.m.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Marks Mr Kenneth Marks , Manchester, Gorton

I am grateful to hon. Members for the useful service they have performed in drawing attention to practical difficulties inherent in EEC Regulation 543/69 and in particular those associated with the 450-kilometre limit and the daily driving limit. Their message in effect is that the Regulation must be made more flexible, that there must be more provision for national derogations to take account of local or regional difficulties, and that the United Kingdom needs a further deferment as well as amendment of the regulation.

My hon. Friend will be glad to have this support for the representations he has already made to the Commission and to our partners in the Community. These representations, made by this Government and not by any previous Government, have already resulted in the Commission granting six months' deferment to the end of June. No doubt our friends in the Community will take due note of what has been said here tonight, as indeed will my hon. Friend and I. We shall make further representations after consultation with both sides of the industry, and with the House.

The Commission has just announced proposals for amendment of the regulation. However, I point out that the Commission did it in the form of a Press release and the Government have not yet received the full details.

The hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Monro), who has suddenly begun to take an interest in the Bill, will, I am sure, be only too glad to hear that we shall recognise all the possibilities for debate, including the Third Reading debate and the way in which the House deals with Community business. We must consider the regulations as they go before the Scrutiny Committee. This will certainly be done in this case.

The Government are not responsible for the Commission's proposals. The Bill cannot affect the Commission's proposals. I notice that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor) is nodding, and understandably so. He resigned from the previous Conservative Government because the Government of the day accepted and brought in a European Communities Act which accepted all these regulations. Certain hon. Members who have not spoken tonight supported the then Government in that action. I accept that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart took a strong line in that respect. That is the fact about these regulations. They are not something which we should bring before the House. They are already the law for this country. There is no question, therefore, of statutory instruments and amendments. It is the law.

If the Community as a whole decides to make changes in those regulations, we can then come before the House with the regulations to discuss. But it must be done under the European Communities Act, by a decision of the Community as a whole, and I remind the House again that that Act was passed by the previous Conservative Government.

Photo of Mr James Craigen Mr James Craigen , Glasgow Maryhill

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Government are bringing pressure on the other member countries of the EEC so to do?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Marks Mr Kenneth Marks , Manchester, Gorton

I have said that we have not waited for this Bill to be introduced, or for the Third Reading debate, before doing that. It has been going on for some months. We have got some reconsideration. We have secured one deferment, and possibly another one, and we shall now examine the proposals which the Commission has made. They are proposals. They are not the law. They are not a new regulation. The regulation is already in existence.

The Government have been pressing for the renegotiation of this Regulation, and I am sure that, after very considerable discussion in the House—this debate today will certainly be noted, as will all the others—the sensible course is to press for the amendments that we need. In the meantime, we need to ensure that when agreement has been reached, we have the power to honour the obligations put on us by the Government of the day in 1972, and confirmed by the people of this country three years later.

Photo of Mr Norman Fowler Mr Norman Fowler , Sutton Coldfield

The Minister is giving the impression that he does not know what the new proposals of the Commission are. He told us that he had not received the Press release about them. Are we to understand that the Department of the Environment is waiting to receive the Press release and that, unlike any other organisation in this country, it has not made its own inquiries? Are we take it that the hon. Gentleman will not tell us anything or attempt to answer any of the questions and issues which have been raised tonight?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Marks Mr Kenneth Marks , Manchester, Gorton

I am not in a position to do that. I think that that should be done after very careful examination of the Commission's proposals and after discussion with both sides of the industry and discussion in the House. We take this matter very seriously. We have been agitating for amendments to the regulations. Now that a proposal has come from the Commission, we should examine it carefully before making our pronouncements and going into discussions. We have been making efforts to persuade other Governments. It is not the Commission which will make the decision. I have heard threats that the Bill will not be approved until I have made a long statement. Let me assure the House that both sides of the industry want the Bill and want it quickly. I ask the House to give it a Third Reading.

Photo of Mr Norman Fowler Mr Norman Fowler , Sutton Coldfield

Cannot the Minister say whether the Government consider that the proposals put forward by the Commission are satisfactory? As far as I know, there is a unanimous view in the road haulage industry and the passenger transport industry that they in no sense meet the British industry's case. Given that strong reaction, and given the reaction also of Mr. Skyrme, whom the Minister must know, is not the hon. Gentleman prepared to tell us whether he considers it satisfactory? Is he not prepared to say that this is not a satisfactory deal for the British industry? Will he not stand up and say that?

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed, with amendments.