I beg to move:
That this House takes note of European Community Document No. 6511/88 on the weight limit for two axle rigid vehicles and the un-numbered explanatory memorandum dated 24th May 1988, submitted by the Department of Transport, describing a draft Directive amending Directive 85/3/EEC on the weights, dimensions and certain other technical characteristics of certain road vehicles; and endorses the Government's objective of securing Community arrangements which would make it possible to keep axle spacings and axle weights within current United Kingdom limits in order to safeguard bridges in the United Kingdom.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have lost a bit of steam now. I wanted to raise a fair point of order. Before he leaves the Chamber, that thing there—[interruption.] Oh, he has not left; he has sat down. I am talking about the Chief Whip. I was the only one who was standing to contribute. Because it was me, he went up to the Chair and suggested that you should accept the closure. He put pressure on you——
I do. I wanted the opportunity to make a few remarks about what Conservative Members had said, but that thing there came up to you and suggested a closure—[Interruption.] Oh, shut up. I think that that lot has been to Ascot and had too much to drink, by the sound of them. I have the Floor, not that lot. It is time that you kept control of these public schoolboy louts, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
My point of order is that I was stopped from making a short contribution from the Tribune Bench next to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). I do not reckon to sit there; I reckon to sit here, near where I am. You saw me, Sir. I would have been called but for the fact that the Chief Whip went up to you and stopped me. I have always given co-operation to the Chair and always will, but that thing there will get no co-operation from me.
The Chair deprecates that style of addressing or referring to another hon. Member. It is very regrettable and most discourteous.
The acceptance or otherwise of the motion, That the Question be now put, is a matter for the discretion of the Chair. Responsibility was mine, and mine alone, and it remains mine. I accepted the motion and put it to the House. Mr. Peter Bottomley.
Further to the point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have not finished yet. It is all right for Conservative Members; they can do just as they like and get away with it. I want the opportunity to express my views. The Government Chief Whip usually sits in his place on the Front Bench, but he was not sitting there when I rose. He came to see you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. What am I to believe other than that I have been denied the right to speak?
I repeat that the acceptance of a motion that is put to the House is within the discretion of the Chair. I exercised my discretion and the responsibility is mine. By implication, the hon. Gentleman is uncharacteristically criticising me. I very much hope that he will not persist with that line. Mr. Peter Bottomley.
The draft directives concern the weights of two, three and four-axled vehicles used in international transport. These are due to be discussed in the European Council meeting on 20 and 21 June. The discussions do not concern the United Kingdom derogation for 38-tonne articulated vehicles—by far the most important vehicles used in international transport to and from the United Kingdom. They do not affect national standards applicable to United Kingdom operation. In total, the directives apply to some 0·3 per cent.—one in 1,000—of goods vehicles on our roads.
Some time ago, proposals were put forward by the Commission. In December 1984, the Council agreed a draft directive on lorry weights and dimensions, which was debated on 18 December 1984. The directive was published as 85/3/EEC. It set gross vehicle weight limits for five and six-axled vehicle combinations—articulated lorries and drawbar combinations. In June 1986 the Council agreed the maximum drive axle weight for such vehicles, which we debated on 1 July. The Council's decision was incorporated in directive 86/360/EEC.
Both the directives that I have mentioned—85/3 and 86/360—contain derogations that allow the United Kingdom to maintain lower limits for certain weights than are permitted in the directives. This was intended to give us time to strengthen some of our bridges for the increased weights. Our limit for articulated lorries is 38 tonnes.
Is the Minister's remark that the derogations give time for the United Kingdom to strengthen bridges a statement of Government policy? Is that the only reason why we have not increased total weight to 40 tonnes and why we have not increased from 10·5 to 11·5 tonnes the maximum weight on the drive axle?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that to get the derogation we had to argue reasonable cause. As he knows, the reasonable cause is the condition of our roads and bridges. We recently announced a bridge strengthening and survey programme, which will last for 15 years or more. That should help to answer the question that the hon. Gentleman rightly asked, and my words and the words that the Government have used before will be well known in Europe. I hope that that shows that there is no change in the situation. We spelt out the matter plainly.
Why does the Minister say that the derogation was of a limited period —perhaps 15 years—given that when the issue was debated in Parliament on 18 December 1984, the then Secretary of State for Transport, now the Secretary of State for the Environment, said that it was of indefinite duration. How can the Government say that it is of indefinite duration at one moment, to get the proposal through, and then say suddenly that things have changed and that it is not indefinite at all?
It was to be open-ended. I am not sure whether my right hon. Friend said "indefinite" or "open-ended", but we can take it—[Interruption.] Perhaps my hon. Friend will allow me to speak for a moment, and I shall try to answer him. I take the two words to mean the same——
I do not wish in any way to change the words used by my right hon. Friend in that debate, nor the sense of them. I was about to explain that the only thing that has changed is that we have announced the bridge survey programme, which is not likely to be completed in the near future.
Our limit for articulated lorries is 38 tonnes, and our drive axle weight limit is 10·5 tonnes. The Commission has proposed no change to those arrangements. It is important that the logic of the derogation prevails for all the other vehicles now subject to discussion.
It has always been the intention to harmonise the weights and dimensions of all heavy vehicles used throughout the Community. Five and six-axled vehicle combinations are the main type of vehicle used in international transport. However, the Council has now considered two, three and four-axled vehicles, which were the subject of earlier proposals in 1971 and 1979–81.
For two-axled lorries the weight proposed is 18 tonnes; that compares with a United Kingdom limit of 17 tonnes. The weight proposed for three-axled lorries is 25 tonnes, compared with 24·4 tonnes in the United Kingdom, and that for four-axled lorries is 32 tonnes, compared with 30·5 tonnes in the United Kingdom. The weight proposed for all four-axled combinations is 36 tonnes, while here it is 32·5 tonnes. The drive axle weight for all those vehicles is proposed to be 11·5 tonnes, whereas in the United Kingdom it is 10·5 tonnes.
Directive 86/360 already sets a limit of 11·5 tonnes for the drive axle of five-axled combinations but contains a derogation allowing us to maintain our existing limit of 10·5 tonnes for this axle. The draft directives present the opportunity for member states to question the United Kingdom's need for a similar derogation for two, three and four-axled vehicles. It is important that the derogation is maintained for all those vehicles. If any attempt is made to remove our right to a derogation at the forthcoming Council meeting, we shall resist it with the utmost vigour.
With the derogation of 10·5 tonnes on five and six-axled combination articulated vehicles, it is self-evidently ludicrous—whether in English, French, German, Greek or any other language—to go for more than 10·5 tonnes in respect of any other vehicle. If the limiting factor is the maximum weight per axle, it would be crazy to ask for a higher weight for some vehicles and not for others. That is why the 10·5 tonne axle limit is important, and the House should give its full backing to the Government's desire to preserve it. It is a matter of common sense, but it will also help my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on Monday if he has the full backing of the House.
Will my hon. Friend accept the gratitude of my constituents for his courageous stand, and will he continue to show such strength and fortitude in the years ahead?
I said exactly the opposite. The more the hon. Gentleman says that, the more he is likely to mislead the people who will be in negotiation with us. If the hon. Gentleman had his heart and mind in the right place, he would say that the Government are getting it right. There is no prospect of losing that derogation for a very long time. Sometimes I wonder whether Opposition Members and some of my hon. Friends are acting for those on the other side of the Channel who want to have heavier weights or heavier drive axles on our roads. I offer those remarks in parenthesis, as I wish their remarks had been made behind Mr. Speaker's Chair, not in front of it.
With a 10·5 tonne drive axle, it would not be practical for a two-axled lorry to weigh more than our present limit of 17 tonnes, and 6·5 tonnes is the practical limit for the front steering axle. The proposed 25 tonnes for the three-axled lorry is only half a tonne more than our present limit and presents no problems for bridges or roads.
However, the four-axled lorry is slightly more difficult because there is a potential problem with bridges. Our current four-axled vehicle is already the critical determinant of bridge loading. It would be technically feasible to permit the proposed increased weight of 32 tonnes provided that there was sufficient distance between the front and rear axles. The formula in the draft directive of 5 tonnes per metre is acceptable to us and we would deem it essential for it to remain unchanged. There would be some increase in road wear with the four-axled vehicles, but very few rigid vehicles are used in international transport to and from the United Kingdom, so there would be almost no practical effect. Some member states favour a formula for weight against wheelbase which, if agreed, could cause significant bridge overload and so is totally unacceptable to the United Kingdom. We shall resist that in favour of the Commission's proposal.
Emphasis is laid, both in the explanatory memorandum and in the Minister's speech, on the suggestion that the measure will be restricted to international traffic. Where in the draft directive does it state that the measure is restricted to international traffic? How will the directive restrict itself solely to international traffic, and how will the Government or the Community prevent people from taking advantage of the changes from a domestic point of view?
I shall answer the hon. Gentleman in detail later. In many other areas, the directive covers international trade and not the national regimes. The draft directive covers international traffic, but does not cover national regulations for national traffic. The same applies to drivers' hours. In practical terms, we are talking about one vehicle in a thousand. We are talking not about the popular five and six-axle units, but about units that make up 0·3 per cent. of our heavy goods vehicles. The majority of vehicles used in international transport have five or six axles and are unaffected by the proposals. I was talking about four-axle vehicles and said that we would resist the idea of adopting a weight against wheelbase formula in favour of the Commission's proposal.
Let me now turn to the question of the four-axle combinations which are articulated lorries or drawbar trailer combinations. The weight limit proposed by the Commission is 36 tonnes, whereas our present limit in this country is 32·5 tonnes. Some member states would wish even higher weights for axle articulated vehicles. Although the directive applies only to vehicles used in international traffic, which answers the hon. Gentleman's point, and would not force us to increase our domestic limits, we will argue most strongly against European colleagues for any increase in weight from 32·5 tonnes.
An increase in weight to the Commission's proposals may not cause undue bridge damage, provided we gained drive axle weight derogations, but it would cause extra road wear and tear and make the use of four-axle articulated and drawbar units more popular for international freight. We know the feelings that have been expressed in this House on previous occasions when the issue of weight increases for these vehicle types has been raised. The majority of vehicles used in international transport have five or six axles and are unaffected by the present proposals.
The existing directives—85/3 and 86/360—apply only to goods vehicles. The new proposed directives would apply also to passenger vehicles—buses and coaches. The maximum weight of a two-axled coach could therefore be 18 tonnes with 11·5 tonnes on its rear axle. In this country, we already allow a total weight of 17 tonnes on these vehicles, with a 10·5 tonne rear axle. With a derogation on drive axle weight, we could maintain the 10·5 tonne limit on the rear axle and effectively keep the total weight unchanged at 17 tonnes. When our bridges have been strengthened and we no longer need the derogation, the extra tonne of total weight will allow more passenger luggage to be carried, a move that would be welcomed by the operators and their clients.
I do not see how it could be less than 15 years, and it could be significantly more than that.
The main benefit that we are seeking is to have a common market in road haulage. Our operators should be able to make journeys in the EC without a permit. Although these are separate issues, they are related and we must enter the Council of Ministers meeting on 20–21 June prepared and able to fight our corner. If we are not given leave to do so by the House, then all we can do is to enter a scrutiny reserve and risk being outvoted. It is majority voting in the Council now, on key weight issues, and unless we are careful lorry weights could be pushed up still further. In the next few years we stand to reap substantial benefits in negotiations on road haulage and market access. This amending directive on lorry weights must not stand in the way of Britain's position on these issues, and that is why we should agree to it.
We still remain committed to the undertaking given in 1982 that there should be no increase in the maximum weight of the heaviest lorries until our bridges are suitably prepared and Parliament agrees. I again assure the House that I am making no such proposals now. We are achieving the beginning of a movement towards liberalisation of road haulage throughout the Community, and those elements of harmonisation to which we can agree will be of value to our exporting manufacturers. I hope that the House will approve the motion.
I found very unusual the Minister's charge that I am doing the work of his friends in Brussels. I have not had such a charge laid at my door before.
By facing both ways over the issue of maximum lorry weights, the Minister has caused confusion. The House should be aware that the task of strengthening bridges has been neglected over the past nine years by the Government and there is now a considerable backlog of repair, and that is causing concern about the condition of our bridges. I assure lion. Members that it will be some time before the Government can make any changes. However, it was important that the Minister added the rider "when Parliament allows" when he addressed the matter the second time. He did not say that the first time around. It was important that he made that correction.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I use the parliamentary condition as often as we can. If I left it out the first time, I apologise to the hon. Gentleman and to Parliament. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not going to suggest to our European partners that a Labour Government, if we had one, would get the bridges mended so rapidly that the derogation would fall and Parliament might have to face the issues sooner.
On that basis, I draw comfort from the fact that the derogation is indefinite. A Labour Government would have no truck with increasing the weight to 38 tonnes.
As there are very important issues in the draft directive that must be addressed, I shall consider those rather than the maximum axle weight, which is slightly off the track tonight. The Public Accounts Committee, in its report earlier this year on heavy goods vehicles, provided a considerable amount of statistics which had not been placed on the record before. For example, it showed that the cost of the maintenance of our road system because of the damage caused by heavy goods vehicles is about £600 million a year. The Committee was critical of the Department of Transport and called, among other things, for better information about all the adverse effects of heavy goods vehicles on our roads.
The Committee explained something that hon. Members may not have realised. It said that there are classes of heavy goods vehicles. I know the Minister will say that steps are being taken to amend that, but the track costs of some of those vehicles exceed by a considerable amount the amount raised in taxation. There is a clear subsidy from the public to road hauliers.
The most important issue that the House should consider is overloading. According to the Public Accounts Committee, overloading already costs the nation about £50 million a year. That money could go a considerable way towards the cost of strengthening bridges. It would not allow an increase to 40 tonnes, but it would provide an adequate bridge network. It would do away with those signs that we see in so many parts of the country saying that the bridge is unfit to take loads above a certain weight.
The House should realise that overloading is endemic in the road haulage industry. Department of Transport surveys show that between 7 and 22 per cent. of vehicles tested were found to be overloaded. The Public Accounts Committee felt that those figures were an underestimate. It felt that more than 22 per cent. of vehicles were overloaded, and it went on to say that overloading among foreign lorries was worse than among domestic lorries. However, only about 3 per cent. of foreign lorries are checked during their time in this country. The probability of being caught is very low.
A five or six-axle, 38-tonne lorry overloaded by a factor of up to 10 per cent. can provide a significant increase in its operator's annual profits, and the risk of detection—particularly with a foreign lorry—is so small as to be insignificant. The temptation to overload is very strong, and the Public Accounts Committee's conclusion was that the practice was one that the House should take closely to its heart.
The Minister spoke of increasing the weight limits of four-axle lorries with drawbars or articulated lorries from 32·5 tonnes to 36 tonnes. A 10 per cent. increase in that higher limit would take the weight to 39·6 tonnes—virtually the same as the 40-tonne limit that the road haulage industry and the EC are trying to impose. Also significant is the lack of weighbridges, which the Government will not provide at the ports even in the light of the debate on ferry safety. With that inability to weigh lorries entering the country, the problem falls on to the shoulders of the police. The Association of Chief Police Officers recommended that there should be no prosecution unless a lorry is laden to a factor of 10 per cent. above its permitted weight, so the directive is already moving towards the 40-tonne lorry on British roads.
Over many years the problem has been that both the domestic and international haulage industry have pressed for higher axle weights at every possible opportunity. Over the years the industry has adopted salami tactics, whereby the weight limits have been systematically increased, little by little.
The Commission's 1979 proposals have been upgraded and are now in this draft directive. For example, in 1979 the Commission proposed a 17-tonne limit for a two-axle rigid vehicle or tractor unit, but it is now 18 tonnes. The Commission's proposal for a 24-tonne limit on three-axle units—lower than that of the United Kingdom—has now been upgraded to exceed the United Kingdom limit, at 25 tonnes. In 1979, the Commission proposed a limit of 30 tonnes for a four-axle rigid vehicle, but it is now 32 tonnes. The Minister has already made the point that in 1979 the Commission proposed a limit of 35 tonnes for an articulated or drawbar trailer combination, but it has now been increased to 36 tonnes.
The hon. Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) has already quoted the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, when the right hon. Lady was at the Department of Transport. On 25 November 1982 she said:
I shall now deal with weights, as many right hon. and hon. Members have dealt with them. There is no increase for the four-axle lorries, which would have increased road damage.
The Minister should take on board the fact that his predecessor was clear that raising the limit would increase road damage. The right hon. Lady continued:
In addition to the fact that there is no increase in the four-axle lorry weight, there is no increase in the drawbar trailer combinations. They are unusual on our roads, but they might have become more popular if the weight limit had been raised.
I refer again to the weight salami. The Minister has given assurances about international limits, but what will happen if the Community produces a draft directive next year suggesting that domestic limits throughout the EC should be increased? Is the Minister able to give a guarantee as to derogation, or will the majority voting system mean that Britain must accept what the Community says is good for us? As 1992 approaches, and as pressure increases for standardisation of both domestic and international trade, can the Minister guarantee that we will not be confronted with having to adopt the international limit on our roads? On a previous occasion the Freight Transport Association stated in Freight, its house magazine, that the 1984 directive, which came into effect on 1 July 1986, applied directly to international traffic. It added that it had quickly become the domestic minimum. That worries the FTA and many other organisations, especially in the light of the draft directive.
The Minister said that the present 32·5 tonne four-axle articulated vehicle or drawbar trailer combinations are relatively infrequent on British roads, and that is true. I think he said that three out of every thousand heavy goods vehicles on British roads came within those categories, but they represent 16·5 per cent. of heavy vehicle traffic on international routes. I believe that that figure has been quoted in Community documents.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding me that that figure was quoted by the Select Committee.
The capital cost of operating a lorry increases with the number of axles that are available. A four-axle lorry can be operated up to 36 tonnes, and the advantage of moving up to five or six axles for an extra 2 tonnes is not particularly great. However, 16·5 per cent. of heavy vehicle traffic on international routes comes within that category, and I suggest that we shall see a rapid increase in the number of these lorries on our roads, whether they are international traffic or, if my worst fears are realised, domestic traffic. What the Minister describes as a relatively minor problem may become a increasingly serious one as time passes.
The weight on the drive axle of a lorry is of great importance, but so is the average weight per axle. On 25
November 1982, the then Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the right hon. Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker), said:
I shall come to the issue of enforcement in a moment. It is the average axle loading that counts. On a 38 tonne five-axle lorry, it is 7·6 tonnes, compared with the 8·125 tonnes on the present 32·5 tonne four-axle lorry. It is 6·5 per cent. less and those are the internationally agreed figures.—[Official Report, 25 November 1982; Vol. 32, c. 1093–94.]
We are moving now to an average axle weight of 9 tonnes, which is a significant increase on the 1982 position. We are having forced upon us something that the Minister's predecessor said was unacceptable. Some six years on, the Minister tells us that the increase is a mere bagatelle and of no significance.
With the increased traffic on our roads, and with the threat of more and heavier lorries appearing on them, there is all the more reason to apply the logic that the right hon. Member for Wallasey set before us in 1982. It will be unacceptable in any circumstances to see the proposed four-axle articulated or drawbar trailer combinations on our roads that are laden to 36 tonnes, or up to the 39·6 tonnes that would keep them within the ACPO limit. Even worse will be the lorries that are significantly overloaded to 40 tonnes or more. The Minister must deal with that point if he is to carry with him even those of his hon. Friends who are sympathetic to his views.
The Minister asked—I go along with him on this—that the House should support the Government on derogation relating to the drive axle. It would be the height of irresponsibility in any circumstances to move from 10·5 to 11·5 tonnes, and it would be unacceptable for the Secretary of State to propose anything other than leaving the present system intact. If the Minister wants an assurance that the Opposition will support the Government on that one issue, he can have it.
Our position is simple. There is no case for any of the increases proposed by the Commission. They are an unwarranted interference in the United Kingdom's traffic conditions, and they will be of no advantage to Britain. The Minister talks about the potential for cabotage and the advantages that he expects to accrue to the British haulage industry, and I know from previous exchanges that that is the view that the Government wish to put forward. The Minister will be aware, however, that many people take a rather more pessimistic view of the future of road haulage, for all kinds of reasons, but among others the degree of subsidy accruing to foreign operators. Domestic operators will face very unequal competition once cabotage comes into force.
It is of no advantage to this country for us to fall meekly into line with Community proposals. That applies not only to the drive axle but—this is important—to the maximum weights permissible on the different axled lorries that will come on to the roads.
For some time now an important debate has been taking place on the environmental consequences of heavy vehicles on our roads. I note that the Freight Transport Association, in its submission to selected Members of Parliament, expressed the view that implementation of the Community's proposals would have no adverse effects on the environment, and would have only a marginal effect on roads and bridges. The Minister knows that that is not the case. The proposals could have quite a serious impact, particularly on bridges. He has already explained the necessity to guarantee that the present axle weights are maintained in order to protect our bridges, many of which would be very vulnerable if the proposals were adopted. Because of the paucity of information, which was mentioned by the Public Accounts Committee, it would be an extremely foolish Minister—or an extremely foolish Eurocrat—who would predict that our bridges would he able to take the increased weights of overloaded 36-tonne vehicles.
The Freight Transport Association has an interest to uphold—the interest of those who would benefit from the increased haulage capacities—but for it to say that there would be no adverse effects on the environment is nonsensical. Everyone recognises—even the Community, although it draws a different analysis from mine—the environmental impact of an increase in maximum weights. That is inevitable. It is also inevitable that the damage to roads and bridges will be increased, and the effect is not likely to be marginal, unless the Minister can tell us what new steps he intends to take to guarantee, not only that lorries will be checked, but that there will he powers to ensure that overloaded vehicles become a thing of the past.
The Minister knows that he is not in a position to do that. We do not have the weighbridges, the Department of Transport staff or the necessary will power from the present Government. They have often been asked in the past few years to institute checks, and more recently they have been asked to do that in connection with the overloading of ferries. It is only with reluctance that steps are being taken now, and we are told that it is impossible to check foreign lorries on that basis. Checking foreign lorries as they arrived in Britain would be a way of preventing their being overloaded when they reached other destinations. The mechanisms exist, if the Government are prepared to put them into practice, but without weighbridges, Department of Transport inspectors and the political will, nothing will change.
It is important for the House to take on board one simple fact. The draft directive has almost no relevance to safety or to traffic conditions on the roads of Great Britain. The Eurocrats' proposals may make sense in other countries, but that is for them to decide. There is an overwhelming case that Britain's needs are special, and the Minister's case was that our needs are special. We need derogation.
It would also be better if the Commission were to say that the directive has nothing to do with Britain and that it would be preposterous for the Commission to interfere with weight limits on British roads, where the conditions that apply elsewhere do not apply. The draft directive ought to be buried. That would make sense in terms of the Minister's position and that which I have outlined to the House.
My hon. Friend the Minister has a tremendous track record in seeking to promote safety on our roads. The hour is late, but it would be quite wrong if I did not take this opportunity again to place on record the concern of my constituents over conditions on the roads in Kent and ask my hon. Friend to ensure that the weights and sizes of lorries on our roads do not increase.
My hon. Friend will know that I am particularly grateful to his hon. Friend the Minister of State for the improvements that are being effected, particularly on the Thanet way. It will make a tremendous difference to my constituents. I hope that I shall not offend my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken), in whose constituency the port of Ramsgate is located, when I say that we are looking forward to the announcement of a relief road for Ramsgate harbour.
The condition of the roads in the gateway county of Kent is unsatisfactory. Lorries use roads that were not constructed for the sizes of vehicles that they are now compelled to carry. The villages of north Thanet suffer daily from the pounding of juggernauts that often use minor roads as rat runs instead of the major roads. The damage done by heavy lorries to the roads of Kent is costly and considerable. The ports of Dover, Folkestone and Ramsgate benefit considerably from the traffic that is generated by the freight haulage industry. We do not suggest that it is unwelcome, but there is a limit to what our roads can take. We have to balance the cost benefit of the freight that the ferries carry against the negative cost of the damage done to our roads and to buildings in our villages.
I know that my hon. Friend is particularly concerned about safety—a subject that has not been mentioned tonight. He knows that in the past two weeks there have been no fewer than three major accidents involving lorries on the roads of Kent. In my constituency, sadly, only a couple of weeks ago three people were killed when a foreign lorry driver veered off the road. I have to be careful about what I say because the case is sub judice, but there is reason to believe that the driver may have been asleep. The road in question was unsuitable for that size of vehicle, with the result that three people are now dead.
Anybody who has driven down the A20, particularly along the Canterbury bypass towards the ports of Dover and Ramsgate, knows only too well of the horror, particularly in wet weather, of being overtaken—very often on the inside—by a foreign juggernaut. The people of Kent have had enough. We do not wish to deter business. We are concerned that, even when the tunnel is built, drivers who would normally rest on the ferries will not do so. Therefore, far from an improvement, we may find that some of our roads will become still more dangerous.
I do not wish to take up any more of the House's time. I have made my point. In conclusion, on behalf of my constituents—and, I fondly believe, on behalf of all the people in the county of Kent—I urge my hon. Friend the Minister, with every ounce of strength at his disposal, to resist any further increase in the sizes and weights of the lorries on our roads.
First, I agree with some of the things that the Minister has said this morning, but at the same time I disagree with him. If he is going to fight on behalf of the people of this country about the heavy vehicles on our roads, I will support him. In fact, I will go with him. Never mind supporting him over here, I will go with him and carry his briefcase for him.
I have to let the House into a little secret. A few months ago I went to New York, and the Minister's wife was with the group. She is an hon. Member and she told me some nice things about him. She said she thought what a good Minister he was and what a good job he was doing. I listened to her and took it all in. If she is to be believed, and after some of his remarks tonight, I am prepared to support him in the things that he is fighting for across the water.
I do not want to fight his wife. I want to fight for the people in my constituency.
Before my hon. Friend interrupted me, I was going to say that I have had regular representations from the Nottinghamshire county council about its roads. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), I have had representations from the Derbyshire county council, because many of the vehicles that come through Derbyshire come into Nottinghamshire. I have had representations from the chairman of the highways committee of Nottinghamshire county council, Councillor Keith Williams—a wonderful worker on behalf of the people in Nottinghamshire in regard to roads and transport.
I am concerned about the state of the roads in Nottinghamshire, and, if my hon. Friend will forgive me, in Derbyshire, too.
It is very important that the House should understand that my hon. Friend is talking about a coalmining area. One of the problems that we face in Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and similar areas in the coalfields is not only the very heavy vehicles, which have been increased in weight as a result of our being in the Common Market, but subsidence. Will my hon. Friend draw to the attention of the Minister the fact that special attention should be paid to those areas afflicted by subsidence, because the many beautiful bridges in that area will suffer even more than those in Kent which have been mentioned already?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making the point about mining subsidence. I am not wandering into mining subsidence; I am just making a point. It is a major issue, and it goes with the problems that are being created by massive vehicles moving along our roads when they come off the motorway.
I have noticed the sort of vehicles that British Coal now buys. They are not always British Leyland; they are foreign vehicles from across the water—from Europe. The amount of damage that those massive vehicles are causing is amazing. I should have thought that the Minister would keep a close eye on them. They are doing a lot of damage in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd) mentioned overloading. I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply to this serious matter. My hon. Friend made it clear that the Government are not doing enough about the problem. I have had representations about work not being done to ease the problem in my county. However, I have a suggestion about how to overcome it. The Minister must first persuade the Treasury to provide the money.
There are intersections on the M1. I travel up and down that motorway every week.
My hon. Friend is correct: he has travelled with me on many occasions. He would agree that I am a safe driver. The heavy lorries, with their maniac drivers, are frightening. They travel very fast, often dragging trailers behind them——
I got into trouble when I brought up Rowntree a few weeks ago.
These damn lorries travel like hell up the motorway. Some of them are overloaded, because they are not being weighed to see whether they are. They travel so fast that they frighten drivers like me to death. They sway when they switch lanes. I disagree with the Minister about buses and coaches. He is agreeing to extra weight for them. When the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, was in the Department of Transport, she said that she would take action against speeding bus drivers because of the huge numbers of accidents that had occurred. But the problem continues. If we add weight to fast-travelling buses, we can imagine the results. There will be messy accidents. Even though the Minister is tired—he is yawning—I hope that he is listening, because this is a serious problem.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that the number of speeding coaches has halved since I have been the Under-Secretary of State for Transport.
I do not believe the Minister. I travel on the M1 every week-150 miles up and 150 miles down. Those heavy vehicles are passing me when I am doing 70 mph. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover will confirm that I stick to the speed limit, because he has travelled with me many times. Heavy lorries, buses and coaches are still a danger on our roads. It is about time that the Minister woke up and did something about it. The Minister said that the figure had halved, but I do not think that he travels on the M1 enough to know.
Since the Minister started his job there have been cones up and down the motorways. My guess is that, as a result, the traffic has been slowed down so much that it is possible that there has been a reduction.
My hon. Friend must remember—if he does not, I shall remind him—that police accident reports state that vehicles have ploughed through the cones and hit vehicles coming in the other direction. The Minister says that the problem has halved, but I still do not believe him. Accidents are still taking place. He should do a bit more travelling on the M1. I cannot speak for the other motorways because only the M1 goes through my county.
I am speaking about the weights of lorries. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover is trying to direct me away from them, but I am not having it. I said that I would not wander on to social security, although it is tempting.
The Minister is responsible for transport. I should have thought that he would have had many talks with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about opening more rail lines so that we can overcome this problem. All the goods carried by heavy lorries should be carried by rail. I know that Beeching did an axing job, but we are in a different ball game now because we shall have the Channel tunnel. There is a need for a proper rail service from Mansfield to Nottingham. The Minister should take some action on this, because it would take heavy loads from lorries and put them on the railways.
We are talking about increasing the axle weights of heavy lorries from 32·5 tonnes in 1983 to 38 tonnes. If we spent more money on railways, we would not be talking about 38-tonne lorries. If we electrified the midland line in accordance with the early-day motion standing in my name and the names of my hon. Friends, we would make some progress. The Minister has responsibility for railways as well as roads.
That fits in with the motion that we are discussing. We are talking about taking heavy loads off the roads and putting them on the railways, where they should be. I hope the Minister is taking note of my remarks and is not sitting on the Government Front Bench taking no notice and looking gormless. [Interruption.] I seek your protection, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I distinctly heard the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) comment on what I am saying, but I am unable to reply because he is outside the Chamber, beyond the Bar.
I come to the question of the bridges which must be repaired because of the strain being placed on them. They are being smashed to smithereens. I recall my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) bringing before Parliament the difficulties that occured with spaghetti junction. The Government denied there was anything wrong, but in the end they had to spend millions of pounds putting things right.
Yes. A right old fiddle had been going on because it had been done in a cheap way without using the proper materials. Likewise, our bridges are being destroyed. We will not see Whitehall officials or the Minister mixing concrete and doing the repairs. The lads in the counties and the local transport departments will have to do it.
Yes; somebody will have to accept responsibility for repairing the sewers, too. What Government grant will be available for repairing the sewers and the bridges? The Government have cut drastically the money that should be spent on repairing the roads. The roads in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire are getting smashed to hell and the counties do not have enough money to carry out the proper maintenance work. The roads near my home are full of potholes. We never had such problems under Labour rule.
Order. The hon. Gentleman is straying a long way from the subject matter of the document that is before the House. We are talking about the weights and dimensions of commercial vehicles.
Exactly, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I am referring to the commercial vehicles that are damaging our roads because they are too large and overweight. It is happening in Doncaster as well—in your constituency, Mr. Deputy Speaker—so you have some responsibility in the matter. I am speaking on your behalf as well as on behalf of my constituents and those of all hon. Members. I am a little surprised, therefore, that you accuse me of drifting from the subject. I am drifting, but I am drifting through Derbyshire into Yorkshire and beyond to Jarrow —all the way up the M1.
The hon. Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) spoke about the problems of Kent.
Yes; and Kent has not suffered the sort of financial cuts that have occurred in my area and elsewhere. There is plenty of money in Kent, yet the roads there are bad. When I was towing a caravan in Kent I had an axle broken. So it is not just in Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and your county of Yorkshire, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but in Kent as well that the roads are affected. It is happening all over the damn place and it is high time the Minister put his foot down and did something about it. He should challenge the Treasury to give him extra money to put things right. We owe a debt to the people in the community and we should give them proper and safe roads. At the same time the Department of Transport should do something about the lorries that are too large and are carrying too much weight. It is the Minister's responsibility to do something about it.
My hon. Friend has dealt with subsidence and with the effect on bridges and sewers of these 38-tonners with heavy axles. He has also dealt with the speed of the lorries. There is one point that he has not mentioned. Like me, my hon. Friend rides a bike. These long articulated lorries come sailing past. They are frightening, because we never know when they will finish. At one time we knew when the back end of an ordinary British lorry would pass us. Now, with the 38-tonner, we are waiting for the end of it to pass us and, with the draught, it feels as though we are in a vacuum. That is another reason why we should vote against the motion.
I thank my hon. Friend for that point. I have watched the Minister on television and listened to him on the radio. He is always bragging about what. the Department of Transport is doing for the roads. I wish he would come and look at our roads to see what they are like because of the damage done by these damn great, overweight vehicles. Yet we are being pressurised to take more and more heavy vehicles. That is why I said at the beginning that I am prepared to support the Minister in opposing what the people on the other side of the water in Europe want us to accept.
My hon. Friend understands the Common Market and knows what the game is about. The Minister, in answer to a question, said that they have got majority voting on these issues in the Common Market. With majority voting we have not got a cat in hell's chance. If they want to increase axle weight and go from 38 tonnes upwards, they will do it, because West Germany is the top dog in the Common Market. It has got about 540 billion surplus in its balance of payments. We have a massive deficit. The West Germans will call the tune.
My hon. Friend has made a good point. He was right to drag in Doncaster. Two of my hon. Friends are from Doncaster and they complain about the roads and the heavy lorries. It is high time that the Minister pulled the stoppers out and got something done about them. He spends too much time in front of the television cameras instead of being out on the job. It would be a good idea if I went with him to give some assistance and to keep him on the job, but he would not want me with him in front of the cameras.
I do not think that the hon. Gentleman's wife would be pleased if I appeared on television with him. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will seriously consider his statement. I did not mean what I said about carrying the Minister's briefcase. I was joking.
I hope that he will take note of everything that has been said, especially by the Public Accounts Committee. The PAC's recommendations on roads and transport are sensible. The Minister appears not to be listening to the Committee. There are a number of Labour Members on the Committee. I hope that the Minister will listen seriously to the PAC's views on roads and transport generally. If the Minister did that, he would press the Treasury to make additional funds available, and I am sure that the PAC would back him. The PAC overlooks departmental spending——
The PAC has had a go at the Minister about the roads damaged by vehicles. I support the Committee, but the hon. Gentleman takes no notice of it. If he did, he would make representations to the Treasury for additional finance to overcome the problems. I said that I support what the Minister is trying to do with respect to European legislation—telling the European Council what to do. The European Council has no right to tell us what to do.
I remember the right hon. Gentleman who sat at the end of one of the Back Benches——
Yes. He said that the European Council would take away our rights and sovereignty, and it has done just that. There is more coming. It is high time that the Minister said, "Stop. We will decide here, in the United Kingdom. We do not need you, in Europe, to tell us what to do. We will decide for ourselves." This is the mother of Parliaments. Members of Parliament collectively will decide the kind of transport that should be on our roads.
The Minister should work hard to improve rail services. The heavy lorries should be taken off the roads and the passengers and goods should go by rail. We should take off the road the buses that the Government have encouraged. The roads are overloaded with the damn things.
The hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) has made such a comprehensive speech that there is not a great deal left to say, but I want to put a few points on the record. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister appreciates that the opposition to the order comes not just from a few nuts who might be thinking about the interests of those across the Channel.
Just in case people read the report of the debate later, will my hon. Friend make it clear that he is talking about opposition to the draft directive rather than to the motion? I suspect that Members on both sides of the House would want to support the motion.
The motion makes a minor proposal about the directive. We are concerned with the directive. The basic point in the directive is on increased weight. The Association of Metropolitan Authorties, a substantial organisation representing the major conurbations in the London boroughs, issued a statement today in which it said:
The association believes there can be no justification for accepting the proposed increases in lorry weights now being proposed by the Commission, having regard to the information provided to Parliament in 1982 and the numerous subsequent undertakings given to Parliament by the Transport Secretaries of State and Ministers in the intervening six years. The Association believes that the provisions of the draft directive to amend directive 85 of the EEC are not appropriate.
We are discussing, albeit at a very late hour, a matter of significance.
We have had assurances in the past, and we are now being given further assurances, but the sad fact is that the assurances that we have had in the past have tended to fade away. Every time we give more power and authority to the EEC and allow lorries of greater weight, we find that previous assurances disappear. I remind the Minister of our debate on 18 December 1984, when we were given splendid assurances. We were told that there was no question of allowing heavier lorries on our roads. Now the proposal is that we should. The directive also said that the derogation was of indefinite duration. Now we are told
that it is not of indefinite duration, but had something to do with accommodating changes in our bridges and roads. Finally we were told:
The directive makes it clear that any future decision on this subject"—
on lorry weights—
can only be taken by a unanimous vote; thus our position in Europe on lorry weights is actually strengthened."— [Official Report, 18 December 1984; Vol. 70, c. 250.]
The proposed directive, on the other hand, is to be decided by majority vote.
I am also worried because the Minister said that the number of lorries of the weights that are being increased quite substantially—by several tonnes—on our roads is limited. I ask him to consider what the Government said last time round. Speaking for the Department of Transport was that delightful lady who is now the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office. She explained her opposition to increasing the 32·5 tonne limit by saying that such a move would make the lorries more popular on our roads. She said that they were unusual on our roads but might become more popular if the weight limit had increased.
We had assurances on all those issues. Frankly, it seems that we are wasting our time in trying to get more assurances. It is now proposed to throw aside all the assurances, to increase the weight and to go ahead from 32·5 to 36 tonnes.
Nevertheless, I hope that the Minister will give us assurance on one point. Even if we increase the weights of lorries further, which will cause much concern to the community,] hope that we can at least do something about the terrible problem of overloading. The Minister must know that checks done in Kent in 1987 showed that 12·5 per cent. of foreign vehicles stopped in random batches were overloaded. That is substantial percentage. Current fines seem to have little impact on overloading, and resources for checking are unbelievably limited. The Minister will he aware that pre-weighing facilities are not available at a number of ports. If we are obliged by majority vote—or perhaps the Government will agree with the directive—to go ahead with increased lorry size, the very least that we want to know is that when a lorry comes to this country in a boat it will be weighed to establish that it is not overloaded. We are talking not just about convenience on the roads or about the problems of cars that are pushed out because there are too many lorries; we are talking about people's lives and about safety. We are talking about the dangers involved. We are discussing very serious issues.
I have no personal animosity against the Minister, but he must know that we get repeated assurances late at night —at 2 am or 3 am—on Common Market issues but we may as well forget it the next time they come round. We were told that we would get control of the budget if only we agreed to extra cash at the time of Fontainebleau. Now, to get round that, they have told us that it was a 10-month year last year. We have been told time and again that the CAP will be reformed if only we give a bit more money and a bit more power. We know exactly what is happening: spending is at an all-time high and reform is just a joke.
The hon. Gentleman takes a keen interest in matters affecting the Common Market. Has he noted that one of the ways in which the Common Market is to try to find the necessary money—now that it has gone bankrupt for about the third time in the past five years —to pay for the bureaucracy that spews out documents such as the one before us is with a £5,000 million loan, £900 million of which is to come from British taxpayers? As the hon. Gentleman knows, it sticks in the gullet for us to be pouring out much-needed money that should be going to the recipients of social security, the National Health Service and pensioners in Britain.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's point about the intergovernmental agreement to provide an extra £5 billion. I could give him four quotations from Ministers assuring me that intergovernmental agreements would never happen again.
No one is listening to the debate at this late hour, and, sad to say, no one will bother. I hope that the Minister will agree that all the assurances that have been given in the past—"If only we give a bit more"—have fallen apart. He should be aware of the serious danger posed by heavy lorries on our roads and by consistent overloading. I appeal to him at least to say—this is a minor demand—that he will oppose increases in lorry size.
In the past, the Government could have stopped such proposals simply by saying no. But now, with majority voting, the British voice does not matter much because it will be overturned. I hope that the Minister will at least make the point about the dangers of increased lorry size and that he will vote against it, even though Parliament and the Government cannot control it. Let him at least make a stand to show that something important is al stake. He must stand firm and oppose the ridiculous increase from 32·5 to 36 tonnes. especially in view of what previous Transport Ministers have repeatedly said on the issue.
I hope that the Minister will assure me that weighing facilities will be provided at ports which do not have them at present. There is little point in our passing laws if they can be disregarded because of overloading. There is a serious danger here, and we have a duty to the travelling public to do something about it.
Although the hour is late, this matter is of great importance and must be considered carefully by the House.
The Minister can give as many assurances to the House as he likes, but they are meaningless because they can be overruled in Europe. The document that we are discussing is another example of the EEC overruling the sovereignty of the House. Many of us saw it coming. As a Member of the European Parliament, I witness such occurrences daily. There is a tendency now to forget the solemn assurances that were given to the British people. When we held a referendum on joining the Common Market, the pro-Marketeers' argument was that there would always have to be a unanimous vote in the Council of Ministers. That was a con trick to get the people of these islands to vote yes. After they had voted, the position was clanged; and we do not know what other changes will take place.
We are privileged to have on the Front Bench the Minister responsible for roads in Northern Ireland. I take this opportunity to emphasise the awful condition of the roads in Northern Ireland, as my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, East (Mr. Beggs) can testify. The roads to the ferry ports in Northern Ireland carry large vehicles from the Irish Republic. Most of them are overloaded, but they are not tested or weighed.
The Minister should consider that point. At Lame harbour, in my constituency, there are occasional spot checks on Sundays to detect overloaded vehicles. But, because of the ease with which drivers communicate, they can direct their colleagues to stay clear of Lame harbour for an hour or two or to use another harbour. When the boys move on, it becomes a free road. There must be proper weighing facilities at every port in Northern Ireland.
It is interesting to note the deterioration in the road structure in Northern Ireland as a result of those heavy vehicles. At present, the roads in Northern Ireland are disgraceful. There are not only potholes, but large crevices in the roads of Northern Ireland and they are deteriorating even more.
It is all very well for the Minister to say that he does not like the directive, just as we do not like it, but, as the hon. Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) said, the Minister must make known his opposition by voting against the directive. Even if he cannot change it, he must at least put a marker against that deterioration and the forces of the Common Market overruling the wishes of the people of this country. The tragedy is that the battle on this issue is lost simply because of the voting system whereby the strongest possible representations made in good faith by the Minister can be wiped out. Those matters must concern everyone.
The Minister responsible for such matters in Northern Ireland can confirm that the number of deaths on the roads of Northern Ireland is far greater than the number of deaths from terrorism. Those heavy vehicles are adding to the number of victims killed on our roads. The Minister is not responsible for the roads in Northern Ireland—I am sure that he thanks God that he is not—so we shall have to leave it to the hon. Irish earl at the end of the Front Bench to take responsibility for them. I am sure that the Minister is interested in the fact that vehicles from the Irish Republic help to damage our roads. Perhaps he will undertake to ensure that those vehicles will be weighed to check that they are not overloaded.
I think that the House has noticed that, especially when the hon. Gentleman speaks quietly.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) talked about the importance of getting the weight right. I draw the House's attention to the motion, especially the second part of it. The Government are asking the House to support them in obtaining arrangements that allow us to keep axle spacings and weights within the current United Kingdom limits to safeguard bridges in this country. In my opening remarks, I spelt out how, for those two, three and four-axle rigid vehicles, if we keep the 10·5-tonne drive axle, we shall just about keep the weights that we want. That is the point upon which the House should focus tonight. That is why we are considering this matter before the meeting of the Council of Ministers on 20–21 June.
This House does matter. A united voice from the House helps. I sometimes wish that those who have different views about the Common Market would realise that, if we use the House to back our corner of the Common Market, so that we can send in Ministers with united support rather than saying that the battle is lost, we can do as well in our negotiations in Europe as we have done during the past seven years in our trade and economy improvements which have made it possible for us to increase our spending on roads.
The hon. Member for Ashfield raised the question of county council and highway authority spending. There was £700 million available last year which was not spent on road maintenance. If it had been spent on road maintenance, that would have helped.
Safety was also mentioned. It is worth remembering that there have been fewer vehicles since the change announced during the previous major debate. Although each time a heavier vehicle is involved in a crash the consequences are greater, because of the reduced number of vehicles there are fewer casualties. The casualty rate dropped by 10 per cent. last year. That kind of drop is greatly to be welcomed. I pay tribute to the many members of my union, the Transport and General Workers' Union, who drive coaches and lorries and congratulate them on their improved performance.
Like the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd), I believe in using the railways as often as possible, but it is not kind to say that all the people who earn their living by driving our citizens around in coaches and buses should lose their jobs. Consumers need a proper choice.
They must have a choice if twice as many people use the coaches now that we have deregulated them. The use of trains is also increasing.
The Minister is talking about people losing jobs if the lorry and axle weights are lower. According to the Public Accounts Committee report, published in February this year, in the period since the heavy lorries were introduced the number of lorries on the road has dropped from about 600,000 to 435,000. If there are smaller lorries there must be more people in work.
The hon. gentleman is trying to have it both ways, and because of the time he will probably succeed.
The lorry-checking programme is growing. The numbers and use of weighbridges are increasing. We need to have greater help from the magistrates. If we calculate the value of overloading by about 10 per cent. throughout the year and compare that with the fines that the magistrates courts impose, they are not necessarily the greatest deterrents in the world——
That this House takes note of European Community Document No. 6511/88 on the weight limit for two axle rigid vehicles and the un-numbered explanatory memorandum dated 24th May 1988, submitted by the Department of Transport, describing a draft Directive amending Directive 85/3/EEC on the weights, dimensions and certain other technical characteristics of certain road vehicles; and endorses the Government's objective of securing Community arrangements which would make it possible to keep axle spacings and axle weights within current United Kingdom limits in order to safeguard bridges in the United Kingdom.