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.
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.