Transport Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:45 pm on 9th November 2000.

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Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Conservative 7:45 pm, 9th November 2000

My Lords, although I have much sympathy for this amendment--indeed, I was involved in its gestation--I sometimes wish that the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, would locate his lorry-bashing mode switch and turn it to the "off" position. However, there is a real problem in this area. An effective targeting of enforcement effort is the objective of the noble Lord's amendment.

Ports are large generators of lorry traffic operating at or near maximum gross weight. In particular, the ISO shipping container transport business is extremely competitive. The necessary skeletal trailers are in abundant supply, second-hand and are very cheap, simple and robust. A high standard of livery is not required in this industry, which contrasts strongly with other sectors of the industry such as the parcels business. To put it simply, it is a cut-throat business with many operators ready to step into the market and sail very close to the wind.

In that market situation, what is an operator to do if he is invited to move a container that he suspects is overloaded? Unless there is a reasonable prospect of being detected or stopped, many would just cross their fingers rather than lose a customer. A similar argument can be applied to the unaccompanied ro-ro trailer business. However, if this amendment were agreed to, it would be impractical to move an overloaded vehicle out of the port area, or, for that matter, any other freight facility covered. But perhaps more importantly, those consigning goods to the UK would be rather more careful about sending an overloaded vehicle or a container which could not legally be moved by industry standard equipment.

There will naturally be concerns that this amendment could result in a considerable amount of unnecessary and time-consuming weighing. I do not believe that that will happen. If I did, I would be opposing the amendment on the grounds that it would be unnecessarily burdensome on industry. The usual type of weighbridge now in use is of the dynamic axle type, described by the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw. There is, of course, the question of the cost of the equipment. But I believe that that would be negligible compared to the total cost of a major freight facility of the type that your Lordships are discussing.

Further, the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, has responded to the suggestion that I made on Report; namely, to allow the Secretary of State to exempt certain facilities. He would have to be careful not to end up with only the ports being affected. Noble Lords also need to be aware that it is fairly standard practice for facilities such as supermarket distribution centres, parcel company hubs, steelworks, large factories and quarries all to have their own weighbridge facilities. I should like to take issue with the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, about supermarket distribution centres because they generally have a dynamic axle weighbridge to ensure that none of the vehicles leave the centre overloaded. They have such facilities, first, to ensure that they do not fall foul of the law; and, secondly, in order to maximise payload.

There is a problem with smaller goods vehicles being overloaded. But this amendment is targeted at larger and heavier vehicles. Noble Lords will be aware that there is a considerable traffic of heavy vehicles that have been loaded to capacity by volume rather than by weight. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, mentioned that fact. However, it would be possible for the Secretary of State's regulations to provide that weighing is unnecessary if no axle on the vehicle weighs more than, say, seven tonnes. That could be very easily determined by a "Go or No-Go" weighbridge. As that weighbridge would not be used for enforcement purposes, it would not need to be of evidential accuracy and, therefore, it would not need to be very expensive. I shall not weary the House at this hour by describing how that could be done. However, I can assure noble Lords that it would not be difficult.

Finally, we may be forgetting about the driver. An experienced driver should be able to detect if his vehicle is seriously overloaded. But if he was just running near, or possibly slightly over, the maximum weight, he would spend the whole journey worrying about the situation. That would not be good for his health, nor would it be good for road safety. He would inevitably tire faster and might lack concentration. However, if he had a clean weighbridge ticket, he could relax in the knowledge that he was operating within the law, because most of the other things that can go wrong are within his control.