Transport Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:30 pm on 9th November 2000.

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Photo of Lord Berkeley Lord Berkeley Labour 7:30 pm, 9th November 2000

My Lords, this amendment stands also in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, and the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw.

I have altered the amendment since I brought it forward on Report, to make it even more flexible: to permit under subsection (3) regulations to provide exemptions for places where heavy lorries are weighed. The purpose of the scheme is to reduce accidents and damage to roads and bridges from overweight lorries. In the context of some 3,500 road deaths a year, the best estimate is that about one in five involves a heavy lorry--so we are talking about 700 deaths a year, plus all the serious injuries that are caused. It is clear that overweight lorries cause a disproportionate number of accidents, because they are not capable of stopping and manoeuvring in the same way as those that are not overweight.

It is worth pointing out that road damage goes up to the fourth power of the weight of a vehicle: so, if my maths is correct, a 50-tonne lorry causes 2½ times the amount of damage that a 40-tonne lorry causes. It is significant. In addition, it is unfair on those who obey the law that those who do not can carry extra weight and therefore receive more payload and revenue.

The purpose of the scheme would be to ensure that, where premises have more than 25,000 lorries a year through the gate, all lorries leaving would have to be weighed and the drivers given a print-out of the weight. If the driver chose to continue driving and was stopped by a member of the inspectorate or the police, he could be charged with knowingly driving an over-weight vehicle.

I suspect that, given modern equipment (a dynamic bridge) the weighing can probably be done in much less than a minute. How much would such a system cost? As the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, said on Report, it would cost about £20,000 to install. So, spread over 20,000 lorries a year, at £1 per lorry, it would almost be paid for in the first year. It is very cheap.

How many weighbridges would be needed to cover the sites? I have done a check on the major ports, and about 15 ports or port areas would be covered. The best estimate that I can obtain from the industry is that there would be a further 150 to 300 other sites in the UK. Of that number, some, like quarries, already have weighbridges, because they sell their material by weight, as do oil companies. They have a means of measuring the weight because, obviously, they do not want to supply more than they sell. I suspect that such places as supermarket distribution centres would not need them at all and would be given an exclusion, because virtually all their lorries would bulk out before they weighed out. So, I think that in the end quite a small number of weighbridges would be needed. Some of those who operate common user facilities could probably make some money by providing facilities for those whose lorries were found to be over-weight to unload some of their goods and store them for future collection.

So such a scheme is practical. The question is: is it necessary? In 1997, there were about 15,000 convictions nationwide relating to light and heavy vehicles that were overweight. If we take as an example the biggest port, Dover, about 1½ million trucks go through it. I recently heard that, about five years ago, Kent County Council set up a weighbridge in Dover for quite a short time. Over the period of those checks, 40 per cent of lorries that came through the port were found to be overweight. On 20 per cent of those, the county council took action. Even taking a figure of 20 per cent, if it is multiplied by 1½ million, that makes 300,000 convictions a year, had the scheme continued for a year. That is roughly 20 times the number of convictions for the whole of the UK in 1997. The reason the council did not continue the scheme for very long was that, when the Treasury heard about it, I am told that it said, "Ha, ha, we'll have all the fines. We're not even going to allow you to offset the cost of the operation", which was quite significant. So, after a few weeks, the county council thought that it was on a hiding to nothing and that there was no point in continuing.

Dover and other ports are special cases. But according to a Written Answer that I have received, at least 5 per cent of lorries at other sites would be found to be overweight. If we take away those that do not overweigh, it leaves a higher figure.

In response to my amendment on Report, my noble friend Lord McIntosh basically said that such a provision was not necessary and that the Government were doing this anyway. He told us about the design weight compared with the legal limits and about bulking out and weighing out. It is true that 70 per cent of lorries bulk out--which leaves 30 per cent which do not; they weigh out. My noble friend talked about reputable operators, of which there are a great many--though not always, I suggest, through Dover! But there are certainly a large number of reputable operators overall.

I agree with my noble friend that a balance has to be struck. This amendment provides an effective way of doing so. It is cost-effective. If we are looking at a site in Dover, and if one machine were enough, if my calculation is right, it would cost less than 10p per conviction. That is good value for money.

What my noble friend did not say last time--this is my reason for tabling the amendment again--was what, if the Government did not like my amendment, they intended to do instead, apart from continuing to talk to the industry. There has to be an alternative. Whatever the commitments in the Government's excellent White Paper, they are being diverted. The commitment to reducing damage to roads and road accidents is being overtaken by the need to placate the truckers. It is ironic that the truckers will probably see very little of the 8p that the Chancellor is alleged to have offered them yesterday. I suspect that it will end up with the major customers; it will probably also end up with the oil companies, which will put up their prices to compensate.

I hope that the Government will at least consider this proposal. If they will not accept my amendment, perhaps they will offer proposals or a timetable for bringing forward some other provision which will enable the large number of overweight lorries to be put in check and brought to justice. I beg to move.