HC Deb 14 July 1964 vol 698 cc1155-60

10.8 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. T. G. D. Galbraith)

I beg to move, That the Goods Vehicles (Keeping of Records) Order 1964, dated 25th June, 1964, a copy of which was laid before this House on 1st July, be approved. This draft Order continues in force permanently the provision of Section 21 of the Road Traffic Act, 1962. The history of the matter is that Section 21 of that Act removed from the users of certain small goods vehicles the obligation to keep records of drivers' hours and other related matters which otherwise would fall upon them under Section 186 of the Road Traffic Act 1960.

The vehicles affected are C licence vehicles weighing no more than 16 cwt. unladen when on journeys within five miles of their base, that is to say, in general terms small vans on local delivery work. As the House will realise, the danger that drivers of small local delivery vans will exceed the limit is in practice very slight, so in the 1962 Act they were exempted from the general requirements that apply to other types of vehicles. However, as in the 1962 Act we were breaking new ground in this exemption and we could not be absolutely certain of what would happen, we decided in that legislation to limit the exemption to an experimental period of two years.

This period of two years lapses on 31st October, and so it is necessary to decide what to do next. We have taken some advice about this. We have asked the licensing authorities for carriers licences, whose staff enforced the hours rules, to let us have reports on the effects of the exemption. They have told us that there is no evidence of any abuse. The exemption has also clearly given a useful though perhaps small relief from unnecessary paper work to local small van drivers.

Another interesting point is that both sides of the industry agree that the exemption should be continued. In view of the success of this exemption for small local vans and its general popularity, therefore, my right hon. Friend considered whether this exemption might be enlarged to cover other classes and longer distances. It was suggested to him by one of the bodies consulted before he drafted the Order that these limits should be raised to 1½ tons and 15 miles, respectively, and by another body that they should be raised to 3 tons and 25 miles. My right hon. Friend decided against any widening at this stage, for the following reasons.

In the first place, the reports from licensing authorities showed that the incidence of hours offences among vehicles just over the 16 cwt. line, although small, was not entirely negligible. Some hours offences have been found among drivers of even the smallest goods vehicles working beyond the five mile radius. Secondly, either of the extensions proposed would materially increase the number of the vehicles affected. Over half the goods vehicle fleet is under 1½ tons, and over two-thirds is under 3 tons.

An extension on this scale, therefore, would produce the risk that some of the exempted drivers would offend without any possibility of detection, because there would be so many more vehicles. There would also be an indirect risk to enforcement, because the task of distinguishing over such wide classes of vehicle between those operating inside and outside their permitted distances would add greatly to the task of the enforcement officers.

The third reason why my right hon. Friend felt that it would not be right to extend this provision is that he is concerned at the extent to which it has recently been reported that the hours rules are being broken by some drivers. As the House knows, my right hon. Friend's Department is studying ways of intensifying enforcement in this field. Therefore, he did not think that this would be the right moment to have any relaxation.

What it comes to is that although my right hon. Friend is willing to continue the existing exemption which has been shown to cause no danger, he does not think it right at the present time to take the risk of adding in any way to the difficulties of enforcement staff. All the evidence points to maintaining the status quo which has worked well for the last two years. I accordingly ask the House to approve the draft Order.

10.13 p.m.

Mr. R. J. Mellish (Bermondsey)

When the 1962 Act was going through the House, and was upstairs in Committee—I was a member of that Committee—my hon. Friends and I readily agreed to help the Minister in one or two experiments that he was making. We were very co-operative in the matter of road safety, and we also decided that the matter with which the Order now deals was a worthwhile experiment. If the Minister takes the trouble to read the OFFICIAL REPORT of the Committee's proceedings on that Measure he will find that we let the provision go through unopposed, with practically no debate.

But it so happens that this Order is introduced at a time when many of us have grievous doubts—and there are no party politics in this—about the abuses which are going on at the moment, especially about the keeping of records, not only by A and B licence holders, but, in many cases, by C licence holders. The Parliamentary Secretary has conceded that this was one reason why the Minister was loath to extend the permission over 16 cwt. He feared that abuse might follow.

If I understood him aright the Parliamentary Secretary said that this had been an experiment for two years and advice had been taken from licensing authorities which had no evidence that there had been any abuse. I do not see how those authorities could secure any evidence, because there are so few inspectors employed by the Ministry of Transport to check these vehicles. It is obvious that the situation has been hopeless for the last 18 months or two years and that there would not be sufficient evidence obtained to make a case.

What the hon. Gentleman is really saying is that there have been no prosecutions and that does not prove anything. It does not follow that because there have been no prosecutions there have been no abuses. Recently, the Minister started a "purge" among the heavy vehicles and he has been startled by what he has found. Reports about the conditions of vehicles and the way in which records are kept reveal that there is a serious state of affairs; at least, that is our opinion.

We should like to know how many C licences have been issued during the last two years. Last week, the Minister gave a figure of about 650,000 C licence holders, well over half a million. I do not know how many of these relate to 16 cwt. vehicles. The Minister did give some indication but I do not understand what he meant. Is it one-third which are 16 cwt. vehicles? Can the Minister tell us what owners are to be exempt from keeping records? If my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) were present he would have been surprised that the Minister is not continuing this as an experiment.

I am raising this matter in no carping spirit. My only concern is with safety and that the necessary records should be kept. There are many genuine C licence holders who ought not to be bothered about keeping records. We have reached a stage when the whole of the licensing system may well have to be changed in order to cater for the genuine C licence holder, the man with his own van who travels in a radius of 5 miles carrying goods from door to door. We are not referring to such people when we discuss the future of the transport industry. The Ministry has not a sufficient number of inspectors to carry out a proper inspection. It is an overworked Department and there should be more inspectors.

We do not intend to oppose this Order, but I have grievous doubts about the situation. I had hoped that the Minister would continue the present practice as an experiment. When we on this side of the House come to power, which, I think, will be in about two months' time, we shall look at this matter carefully, and, in consultation with the experts, we shall consider whether we can deal with the situation differently.

Mr. Galbraith

I thought that I should be able to agree entirely with all that was said by the hon. Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish), but I cannot agree with his last remarks. He asked, very sensibly, why this should not continue as an experiment. The answer is that, unfortunately, the Statute does not allow us to do that. In the light of the evidence given by the licensing authorities, I think that a distinction could be brought.

When I was shaking my head in disagreement with the hon. Gentleman I was not referring to these vehicles. I think that the hon. Member thought that I was thinking that we were surprised that these vehicles drivers were exceeding the permitted hours and not properly maintaining their vehicles. I meant that this did not come as a surprise to us. We have had evidence. Obviously, we have not been able to catch all the offenders. The traffic examiners who are in close contact with what is going on in their areas may not be able to bowl out all the offenders, but they know that offences are being committed. The whole country is divided up into 12 areas. There is absolutely no evidence that the small vans under 16 cwt. working on a delivery basis doing rounds with milk, vegetables and so on are abusing this provision.

The hon. Member said that no doubt was expressed in the debate, but I understood that doubt was expressed as to the wisdom of this provision, I believe the unions questioned at that time whether these relaxations should be made.

Mr. Mellish

The unions were consulted, were they?

Mr. Galbraith

Yes, they were.

The hon. Member asked how many vehicles there were in this small class. In round figures, the number is about half a million. I hope that these further remarks may have settled any doubts the hon. Member may have and that the House will feel disposed to allow us to have the Order.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Goods Vehicles (Keeping of Records) Order 1964, dated 25th June 1964, a copy of which was laid before this House on 1st July, be approved.