HC Deb 29 November 1972 vol 847 cc511-60
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Miss Harvie Anderson)

I have to tell the House that there are many more hon. Members seeking to speak in the debate than it will be possible to call. At the outset, therefore, I make an appeal for short speeches so that as many as possible may take part.

7.38 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Crosland (Grimsby)

I beg to move, That this House, mindful of the environment, is against bigger and heavier lorries. I shall, of course, try to accede to your request, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I hope that the Motion is as clear as the English language can make it. It is not an anti-European Motion. It is a Motion against a particular EEC regulation, and it is a Motion against bigger and heavier lorries in general, from whatever source the pressure for them comes. It is a Motion which, like Early Day Motion No. 55 on "Heavy Lorries", in the name of the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maude), is supported by people with extremely varying opinions on the Common Market, and it is a Motion the sentiments of which are supported also by many bodies in no way connected with the Common Market argument—for example by the four local authority associations, and by the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries in its First Report of last Session, dated 15th June 1972, in which it recommended: Whatever limits of weight for road vehicles are under consideration in the EEC, existing restrictions which are at present applied to British vehicles should be retained and applied fully to all lorries under the terms of the Road Traffic (Foreign Vehicles') Act 1972. Support for the Motion obviously goes very wide indeed.

My second preliminary point is that I am not moving the Motion as some crazy Doomwatch character wholly indifferent to all questions of economic growth and efficiency. The Minister for Transport Industries is fond of saying that the heavy commercial vehicle plays a large part in the economy of the country and therefore in the lives of ordinary people. I fully accept that and, indeed, have constantly fallen into trouble with the environmental lobby because I am un- willing and refuse to sacrifice the goal of economic growth. It is a question of balancing the economic against the environmental factors. In this instance the balance, in my view and that of many hon. Members, is in danger of tilting too far against the environment.

I start by outlining briefly the facts of the present situation. British limits are 32 tons overall weight, 10 tons axle weight and 15 metres length for articulated vehicles. The EEC Commission, after 10 years of study, finally proposed in May a new regulation setting limits to operate from 1980 of 40 tonnes overall weight—these are metric tonnes, but the difference between the metric and the British imperial ton is not of great significance—11 tonnes axle weight and 15.5 metres length. This draft regulation was referred to the Council of Ministers and they, after postponing a decision once, are now due to meet on 18th December with the three applicant countries present.

Why are so many hon. Members on both sides of the House bitterly opposed to any increase in the size and weight of British lorries? The first reason obviously is the financial cost. The Minister has told us that, on his best estimate, it would cost £200 million over the next 10 or 15 years to strengthen roads and bridges to allow these heavier lorries to travel in Britain. I suppose that on some comparisons this is not a vast sum. Yet the annual cost is 10 times as much, for example, as the yield of museum charges—a mean measure that was pushed through the House of Commons with a three-line Whip to save public expenditure. I should think that hon. Members could find many better ways of spending £200 million than strengthening British bridges to cope with even bigger juggernauts.

But, in my view and probably that of many hon. Members, far more serious than the financial cost is the environmental cost. Today we are all in favour of the environment we are all in favour of the quality of life. The White Paper "Development and Compensation—Putting People First", which we debated on Monday with the corresponding Bill, starts in its first sentence with the words: The Government are committed to enhancing the quality of everyday life in Britain. That is a ringing declaration indeed.

What effect would heavier lorries have on the quality of everyday life? We all know perfectly well that they would mean more noise, more discomfort for pedestrians, more deeply damaging vibration—we are still waiting for a detailed report on vibration from the Road Research Laboratory—more parking nuisance, more accidents, because heavy lorries are more accident-prone than lighter lorries, more damage to buildings and more pressure for road widening in historic towns and villages. In other words, it would mean not an improvement but a worsening of the quality of everyday life in Britain.

We do not want this creeping menace to our environment. This is the time to call a halt, and this is what the Motion intends.

Mr. Arthur Lewis (West Ham, North)

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Crosland

I am very near the beginning of my speech.

Mr. Lewis

Loss of railway revenue is important.

Mr. Crosland

It is very important indeed.

Mr. Lewis

Put them back on the railways.

Mr. Crosland

I shall come to British Rail in a moment. The trouble with early interventions is that they always allude to points which come later in one's speech.

Much of this argument has been conceded by the Minister because, when he was under heavy pressure in December 1970 to increase the maximum weight of vehicles, he refused to do so, largely on environmental grounds. In a Written Answer on 16th December, 1970 the Minister said: I have decided not to allow the maximum weight of goods vehicles to be raised above 32 tons. I am primarily concerned that greater efforts should be made to reduce the noise, congestion and pollution which lorries cause, and to improve their ability to operate within the physical limitations of our road system." —[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th December, 1970; Vol. 808, c. 350.] What was right then is right now. Nothing has changed in the interval to alter that decision.

In passing, I want to draw attention to a significant aspect of the Minister's Statement—namely, that it was couched in terms of gross overall weight. The Government have put up a very successful smokescreen in recent months which has largely deceived the Press—which is only too easily deceived in matters like this—and have repeatedly said that what mattered was axle weight, not gross weight.

This is a new doctrine. The Minister's 1970 statement, which I have just quoted, made no reference to axle weight; it was framed entirely in terms of gross weight. It is not only a new doctrine, but also a false one. It is true that the financial cost of improving roads and strengthening bridges is largely dependent on axle weight; but the environmental damage—the noise, the congestion, the blocking of narrow streets, the accidents and the damage to buildings—is a function of gross weight and size.

The proposed increase in gross weight in the relevant EEC regulation is enormous. The increase in weight proposed is equivalent to the weight of a traditional double-decker bus. This is what the road hauliers want. They made their position clear in a letter to the Minister on 25th August 1972 in which they said: We realise, however, that the Department … has consistently taken the view that it cannot accept an axle weight in excess of 10 imperial tons. If this view prevails we would nevertheless urge that it be taken in conjunction with the highest possible gross weight. They want the highest possible gross weight. But that is not what the Motion says. The Motion is against bigger and heavier lorries, and that covers both gross weights and axle weights. We are told that that is what the Government are accepting tonight.

The Minister will, of course, reply very sympathetically. Indeed, to be realistic, he has no choice in the matter. He will tell us that he is grateful for the Motion, that he is deeply conscious of the threat that these heavier lorries pose to the environment, and that he is trying desperately to tame the monster —with a special advisory road network for heavy lorries, a national network of lorry parks, a whole stream of circulars going out to local authorities, and so on. I support all these endeavours on the part of the Minister. But how long will it be, to take a frequently quoted example, before the village of Bridge, in Kent, is bypassed? How long will it be before all the other towns and villages in Britain are effectively bypassed? The answer is years and years. We are not prepared to wait for so long.

The trouble is that the Minister, like his previous boss, the present Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, is a great deal better at talking about the environment than actually improving it. [HON. MEMBERS: "Unfair."] It is not unfair at all, and most hon. Members know it as well as I do. They remind me of a cartoon in the New York Herald-Tribune some time ago of a company secretary reporting to the chairman: "So far we have spent 5,000 dollars curing pollution and 270,000 dollars bragging about it."

The Minister's overall transport policy is profoundly inimical to the environment. It is a policy of laissez-faire, decontrol and barely suppressed hostility to British Rail.

Let us make a comparison with some of the European countries. On this occasion it is the Common Market countries which are cast in the rôle of villains. But if we consider overall transport policies, we find that most of those countires have far more enlightened policies than we have. They support their railways better and they control their lorries better. As a result, the share of freight carried by road is much higher and the share of freight carried by rail is much lower in this country than in almost any other European country. According to the latest European figures, the road share of freight in Britain is 75 per cent. while in France it is 33 per cent., in the Netherlands 25 per cent. and in Germany 23 per cent. Britain is the only European country in which rail freight traffic has been declining since 1950.

It was that dangerous and damaging trend which persuaded the Labour Government, in the Transport Act 1968, to introduce the concept of quantity licensing, in an effort to reverse the trend away from rail. But the present Minister has refused to implement the provisions of the 1968 Act because he believes passionately in laissez-faire and decontrol. I quote something that he said in an interview with The Times on 25th October 1972 which accurately expresses his philosophy: We want the maximum freedom for road transport, while Europe flirts with systems of regulation partly to divert traffic to rail … We are against quotas as practised by France, Germany and Italy. I personally regard these as an abomination; a great restriction of freedom of movement, and denial of what transport is all about. Evidently the Department of the Environment's document on the rail cuts, recently leaked and published in The Sunday Times, was an accurate expression of the Minister's philosophy.

The fact is that in this year of grace 1972 we cannot accept that philosophy. Transport cannot be left to the forces of unregulated laissez-faire, to purely private commercial choice or to what the Financial Times yesterday called "liberalism". It cannot because it involves far too many social and environmental costs which lie altogether outside the commercial balance sheet, and these are costs which more and more threaten the quality of everyday life which the Government purport to wish to enhance.

It is not a question of hostility to the road haulage industry, either to employers or to employees. I have many of both in my constituency, as other hon. Members do. Very tough and independent-minded citizens they are, and they are fully entitled to do everything that is permissible within the law. It is a question of saying that the balance of argument must now be tilted deliberately towards the environmental benefit, even at some economic cost, in the same way as we impose additional costs on other industries in the interests of preventing pollution. There is no question of singling out this industry.

We are informed by the Press, and the view is supported by the rapid exodus of hon. Gentlemen after the last Division, that the Government are proposing to accept the Motion—a prudent decision, if I may say so, though one dictated less by tender concern for the environment than by the hard-headed arithmetic of the Government Whips.

Assuming that the Motion is accepted, what obligations will be imposed on the Minister for Transport Industries? First, on 18th December at the ministerial meeting he will be obliged to say that this regulation, on which it has taken 10 years to secure agreement, can wait for another two weeks. If it cannot wait for another two weeks Britain, shortly to join the Common Market, will not be bound by it.

Assuming that no final decision is taken on 18th December—and it would be incredible if it were—after 1st January, when Britain is a full member of the Community, the matter will again come up before the Council of Ministers and the decision there will have to be unanimous.

What attitude will the Minister take then, assuming that he attends the Council of Ministers? The answer is that all he has to do is to consult his right hon. and learned Friend the new Secretary of State for the Environment who is sitting 2 ft. to his left, because the Secretary of State made the whole position clear when introducing the Second Reading of the European Communities Bill. He said on that occasion: A United Kingdom Minister will sit on the Council"— that is the Council of Ministers— where it is recognised that decisions are not taken which may conflict with the vital national interests of a member State. … No Government would proceed on a matter of major policy in the Council unless they knew that they had the approval of the House."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th February, 1972; Vol. 831, c. 274] On this issue the Government know that they do not have the approval of the House and, therefore, they cannot proceed. But if, in defiance of the Motion, they tried to proceed, they would be defeated in the attempt, because to implement the regulation they would have to introduce an order under the Road Traffic Act 1972, and that order would certainly be rejected by the House. I hope that the Government Chief Whip is listening to this with close attention, because it may become a matter of some concern to him later.

All this is quite as it should be, and I speak as a moderate supporter of the Communities. I do not share the obsession of some people about national sovereignty. I think that we must, and should, and already do, surrender sovereignty when international considerations are involved—for example in mat- ters of defence, foreign policy, international trade and international pollution. But the size of heavy lorries in Britain is not such an issue. It is wholly a matter for us to decide. It affects nobody but ourselves. There is no call for surrender here of British interests in the interests of some wider need or wider harmonisation. It is a decision for us and us alone, and what we say now in this House—and I believe that we echo opinion in the country—is that enough is enough. We say this in no anti-internationalist spirit.

We are determined not to agree, and, incidentally, not to agree only a few short weeks before the European Architectural Heritage Year opens under the auspices of the Council of Europe—which is ironic enough—that at some future date even bigger and heavier lorries shall rumble along the roads of Lincolnshire, through the villages of Kent, through historic towns up and down the country and through the metropolitan centre of our own capital city in Parliament Square. That, I believe, is the strong, unambiguous and unanimous will of the House of Commons.

7.58 p.m.

The Minister for Transport Industries (Mr. John Peyton)

I should like to start by assuring the right hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland) that I am not going to waste the time of the House with a long procession of oily thanks to him for his speech or for the Motion. There are very few comments that I should like to make on his speech, save that I agree with the first things that he said, with his acknowledgement that this debate is not directed against the Community, and with his tremendous acknowledgement of the importance of economic growth and the part in it played by the lorry. I suppose those are all things to be mildly welcomed, but beyond that I leave the right hon. Gentleman's speech because I shall deal with many of the points that he made in the course of making my own. Listening to the right hon. Gentleman, anybody would have thought that he or his right hon. and hon. Friends had never had any responsibility for the affairs of this country. I profoundly wish that they had not.

I should prefer that lorries should not get either bigger or heavier, and even more am I concerned that axle loads, to which the right hon. Gentleman referred as a smokescreen—which was a pity—should not increase. I have expressed these views for the last two years not only in the European Conference of Ministers of Transport but also to individual Ministers from the Six and to the Commission and, latterly, to the Council of Ministers.

I have pressed in particular three arguments: first, the unrewarding and higher expenditure on maintaining and strengthening roads and bridges; secondly, the intrusion upon the environment in terms not only of physical damage but also of congestion, noise and fumes; and lastly, I have even used the argument, old-fashioned though it may seem to some, that people find these larger vehicles offensive and do not want them—a view which is, I am sure, widely shared in Europe.

I have explained to the Ministers of the Six and to the Commission how totally unacceptable it would be to public opinion here if a policy which was not intended to be effective before 1980 were to be pushed through a few weeks, and now only a few days, before our entry and against the strongly declared wishes of all three acceding countries. I could not, without denying all the arguments which I have used in Europe, do other than accept the Motion on behalf of the Government.

In doing so, I would make only one reservation. None of us can see the future or assess the pressures which may arise, but I assure the House that, having heard this debate and being conscious of the views expressed. I shall have them very much in mind.

It is right that we should remind ourselves, as the right hon. Gentleman did, of the immense part played by the heavy lorry in our commercial and economic life. Nor should we ignore the benefits to be obtained, both for manufacturers and for importers, of a degree of harmonisation, a development which would particularly benefit our export trade.

Among the Six, as elsewhere, there are differences of opinion. Only with difficulty and after many years of debate did they reach agreement. It is hardly surprising now that, even though that com- promise may be somewhat unsatisfactory, they are reluctant to see the results of their labours put in jeopardy. It is fair that I should acknowledge that they have been every bit as good as their word in giving to the acceding countries a full opportunity to express their views—an opportunity which will be renewed on 18th December.

Lorries have been getting steadily bigger for many years. I called a halt to the process in this country, because there was on the stocks when I took office a proposal that the overall weight of vehicles should go up to 44 tons.

Mr. Frederick Mulley (Sheffield, Park)

Would the Minister make it absolutely clear that the proposal was from the industry and was nothing to do with the Government, and that I had set up an environmental committee whose report he kindly recommended when he made his announcement?

Mr. Peyton

I am sorry—certainly no innuendo against the right hon. Gentleman was intended in my remarks—but there was on the stocks a proposal when I took office. It did not come from the previous Government. [HON. MEMBERS: "Then say so."] I am certainly prepared to say so. The right hon. Gentleman has an easy conscience; it is his hon. Friends who seem so disturbed about it.

I remain concerned, if vehicles do grow at all in weight or size, that this should be only for the most powerful reasons and subject to strict limitation as to routes. The rule that a vehicle should be free to go almost literally wherever it can burst a passage is both brutal and archaic and should be discarded.

Opinions still vary, of course, as to how the conflicting claims of transport economics and the environment should be reconciled where overall weights are concerned. We in this country restrict them to 32 tons. At the other end of the scale, the Dutch allow them to g3 up to 50 tons. The proposal now before the Council of Ministers is for 40 tons.

Greater unanimity and, I think, greater importance attach to axle loadings. I would stress that it is these that are responsible for the weight of the impact upon the track and for the vibration which damages buildings and bridges. Three Common Market countries have a 10-ton limit at present. They, like the other three, of course, have been ready to negotiate on this point. The three acceding countries, including ourselves, have the same limit, 10 tons—as, incidentally, do almost all States in the United Sates of America. At a recent meeting of the Economic Commission for Europe in Geneva, Sweden, Switzerland and Russia joined Austria, Poland and Yugoslavia in accepting the same figure.

I am sure that we all welcomed the expressions of high concern for the quality of life which were contained in the recent Summit communiqué. It is the willingness of Europe now to allow those sentiments to be translated into practical policies that is under test.

It would be wrong—I think that the righ hon. Gentleman acknowledged this—if this debate were conducted as if the problem of the heavy lorry were one which emanated solely from Europe and had no native significance. I will therefore devote the second part of my speech to summing up what we have done since we have been in office to restrain the lorry.

As I said, I rejected a proposal to raise the overall weight to 44 tons. We have taken powers to stop at the ports all foreign vehicles which, either by reason of their size or by reason of their loading, do not comply with our laws. Previously, our own laws were virtually unenforceable. I am intensifying the enforcement effort generally. We are now engaged in constructing adequate road links between the docks and the motorway network—a process which will be completed by about the mid-70s Towns and villages are being bypassed, a process which I intend should be further stepped up.

We have embarked upon a substantial research programme aimed at the radical reduction, if not elimination, of the atrocious noise made by heavy vehicles. To deal with the nuisance of diesel smoke and fumes, I have just brought into force new manufacturing standards and substantially increased spot checks on vehicles in use. I recently published a manual giving guidance on special loading. A £10 million programme to build up a national network of lorry parks is now under way.

I have initiated discussions with both local authorities and industry in order to achieve a system of restricting vehicles to roads capable of accommodating them.

Advisory signs to guide heavy vehicles on special routes will start to appear in the ports next spring. I have also started a programme of detailed research into the problem of distribution in towns. I am very grateful for the co-operation of the road haulage industry and other users of transport in this matter. I do not believe that that total of activity adds up to the right hon. Gentleman's charge of laissez-faire.

It would be hard, I think, to overstate the need for industry generally and local authorities to comply with the growing and not unreasonable demand that the lorry should be civilised. While I do not seek for a moment to put on one side the strong feelings of the public, properly reflected here, I am confident that the House will have in mind, so far as Europe is concerned, that we are currently engaged in negotiations.

As to the general issue of lorries, I am equally sure that the House will not wish to ignore the immense contributions made by these so-called "juggernauts" to industry and commerce in an island abundantly furnished with factories, warehouses and shops to which their services are indispensable. The House will also be aware, I am sure, that the blow to employment if the lorry were senselessly fettered would be incalculable.

8.10 p.m.

Mr. John Morris (Aberavon)

The Minister was less than frank with the House when he indicated that proposals were on the stocks to increase weights up to 44 tons when he took office.

Mr. Peyton

I want to get this absolutely straight. There was a proposal. I am very sorry if anyone took it that I meant that it had emanated from the previous Government. It did not.

Mr. Morris

The matter is on the record of the House. If my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Park (Mr. Mulley) had not intervened, I wonder whether the typescript of the Minister's speech, which he was reading, would have made it abundantly clear and exonerated the previous Government. Had it not been for the intervention of my right hon. Friend, no such explanation would have been given, and it would have been left to the judgment of the House and the country.

Mr. Peyton

The right hon. Gentleman can have access to that piece of typescript, but he will find no reference to that project.

Mr. Morris

In that case, one wonders why the Minister had no intention of telling the House the whole story, which necessitated my right hon. Friend's intervention.

It is the view of many that, whatever the outcome of the EEC negotiations on this subject, the size, length and weight of lorries has already gone too far on our roads today. Anyone who drives on the roads of London or those of our great urban areas knows the difficulties of motorists and lorry drivers. They know the difficulties of lorry drivers seeking to cope with the immense cargoes they try to propel, and of motorists trying to cope with the problems which face them.

Secondly, I am confident that this must be a moment of truth for the Europeans among us because generally there is a realisation that we are bound by the past. Up to 1st January all that we can do is to face a book that is closed. We can wriggle, and euphemistically we are told that we can be consulted. But we are prisoners of the past, in which we had no hand. Against that background, why is there a hurry now to convene these meetings on 18th/ 19th December, when 1st January is so close? All these matters have been negotiated over the last 10 years, and the Commission is loth to begin once again.

I was intrigued by the Minister's statement reported in the Financial Times on 7th November that he thought and hoped that the Council would leave the matter open until early next year. If it does not do that, we shall be faced with a fait accompli and we shall be able to do nothing about it.

That is what some of the European Ministers want. We were told again on the 7th November by the Financial Times of a comment by the Luxembourg Minister of Transport, that a decision must be taken this year. But why before 1st January, as these regulations will not come into effect until 1980 for international traffic and 1985 for domestic traffic? Why the hurry now?

After 1st January, in the words of the new Secretary of State for the Environment which have been quoted to us, we are told that we shall have a great influence in negotiations. But it will be the same kind of negotiations, and if the Minister fails on 18th/19th December, are there any expectations of greater success in any other negotiations after 1st January? If the matter slips over to 1st January, if this hurry is not continued and the matter is delayed, then we shall have, as we have been told from time to time, the great power of the veto.

May we have an assurance tonight that if the matter is deferred until 1st January and comes up again, as undoubtedly it will, the Government will then exercise their veto, as we have been told time and again by the Secretary of State, and that this will be the great power that we shall have to protect our essential national interests?

What is the battle really about? Is it only about axle weights? We should be quite clear that more than one issue is involved. There are axle weights, gross weights and, following and consequent upon those, the length of vehicles as a whole. It would be at the Minister's peril if in whatever battles he wages about axle weights he ignored or attached insufficient importance to gross weights and total length. The history of the matter is that the size of vehicles has grown. We should stop to consider where the start line was. In 1947 all lorries had a 22-ton gross weight limitation. Over the years that has grown. From 1947 onwards, the weights for rigid lorries rose in 1955, 1966 and 1972. Articulated lorry weights crept up in the same manner. Now we face an increase from 32 tons to 40 gross tons. That is an increase of 25 per cent. on the present limitation and almost double what it was in 1947.

When people mouth expressions about the qualify of life, it is against this spectrum that we have to consider present-day developments. Regarding axle loads and the increase from 10 tons to 11 tons, I am sure the Minister has done his best in the circumstances to put the case of the immense expenditure that would be involved on British roads if the limitation on axle loads rose. Only a few years ago a great deal of money had to be expended in Britain in order to increase and improve railway bridges and to ensure that they were made safe. Having regard to one's experience at that time £200 million may not be sufficient.

I accept that road traffic has risen and will continue to rise, but it is against that background that I fear that some of the Government's expressions sound fairly hollow when one remembers the agitation from the Government side of the House when we who were sponsoring the Transport Bill in 1967 tried to introduce quantity licensing; for purely doctrinaire reasons that was not implemented by the present Government. Perhaps that is the key to part of this matter; not to the whole of it, I concede, but it would shift some of the burden.

In conclusion, it is odd that The Times should have said on 20th May this year that the overall weight rising to 40 gross tons is not regarded as so serious in Britain.

The Sunday Times said something to similar effect: Yet the British Government seems prepared to accept some gross weight increase up to less than 40 tons. What is more, the Government apparently has no objections to increasing the length from the present 15 metres to 15½. The present Minister has a similar view. As recently as 7th November this year he said that he and the Government would be more flexible on gross weight than on some of the other matters.

Therefore, the Government should be quite clear tonight and should come clean with us. Are they battling on the three points, axle weights, gross weights and total length? Is the Minister more flexible about gross weight? Are the Government likely to concede, to allow the increase from 32 tons to 40 tons, or something much in excess of 32 tons? Will they allow these increases to continue as they have over the years? If they intend that, this should be made quite clear. If that is the intention, to fight the battle solely on axle weights and to concede it on the other two grounds, then the words in the debate we had on Monday about the importance of the quality of life, which the Government mentioned in their White Paper, sound very hollow indeed to anyone who wants to drive on Britain's roads.

8.20 p.m.

Mr. Angus Maude (Stratford-on-Avon)

It is my first happy task to thank the Opposition for providing the time to debate what is to all intents and purposes an all-party Motion which I initiated on the Order Paper the week before last. I agree entirely with the sentiments expressed by the right hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland). I also thank the Government for accepting the Motion. A backbencher can seldom act as a catalyst for uniting the House of Commons on a matter as important as this, and I am proud to have had that happy experience.

I have undertaken to speak briefly, and I do not consider it necessary to rehearse in detail all the arguments for restricting the size, weight and axle load of heavy lorries. When, as the right hon. Member for Grimsby said, all four local authority associations which are the planning authorities, the authorities responsible for conservation, and which will have to meet the bill for damage and deal with the widening of streets in towns and villages, are against the increase, when the Royal Institute of British Architects is expressing extreme concern on architectural grounds about the threat to buildings, to the environment and to the towns and cities, and when the Minister expresses himself in such terms it is obvious that the situation is serious and must not be allowed to get worse.

I agree with the right hon. Member for Aberavon (Mr. John Morris) that size, length and gross weight are as important as axle load. It is essential that they should not increase. The scale of our landscape and the scale of our historic towns and villages simply will not accept vehicles larger than are permitted at the moment. The Government, the House and the Europeans must recognise that we are here faced with a vicious circle in three ways. It is easy enough to talk about it being legitimate or reasonable to increase the size and axle load of lorries provided that better roads are built for them. But the moment that bigger and better roads are constructed for heavy lorries the number of heavy lorries increases to take advantage of them. That in its turn produces indirect effects on the unloading points, on the feeder routes of the new motorways and so forth, and the process is almost never-ending.

There is also a second vicious effect. Any increase in the size of these heavy lorries reduces the operating costs of distribution. It follows that competition with the railways becomes greater and that there is a further diversion from rail to road when everyone knows that this diversion should, if anything, be halted. I hope that my right hon. Friend will give careful attention to the evidence that the restriction of the British Railways' capital development programme is resulting in them moving from their freight lines a significant amount of rolling-stock which they are not able to replace, in particular, for example, on the trunk route from Southampton. That is already resulting in freight that was carried by rail being diverted to the roads simply because British Rail cannot now cope with it. The Government should give urgent attention to that aspect of the problem.

The third vicious circle is that if the size of heavy lorries is increased further and the costs of distribution are reduced, that reduction is achieved not just out of the blue. It is not a total reduction in costs; it is simply a case of the operators transferring the costs from themselves to others—namely, the public. The heavy lorry makes a substantial contribution to the cost of roads through its licence fees and its fuel tax. But the heavy lorry operator does not bear the social cost of the dislocation of traffic in towns, the long-term damage to historic buildings and the making of the main streets of villages intolerable to the people who live there.

Those are the costs which are passed on by the heavy lorry operator to the public, to the pedestrian, to the motorist, the shopper and the owner of residential property on the routes frequented by the juggernauts. These facts must always be taken into account in consideration of the crude economics of the argument. In the Industrial Revolution we blighted in the name of private enter- prise, laissez-faire, free enterprise and profit, a very substantial part of the environment of this country, some of it permanently. The people of this country are in no mood to allow this to be repeated by modern technology. The Government must recognise the strength of public feeling, which is virtually unanimous. The manufacturers of heavy lorries do not feel strongly about this question. They are prepared to work to a double standard for this country and for export sales. They object, however, to being restricted here and to having to compete with vehicles of a greater size which are allowed into this country. The Government have taken steps to deal with that to some extent.

The strength of public feeling on the issue is so great—that feeling is almost unanimous among the public and among all the recognised authorities who have to cope with the effects of the problem—that if tonight we have a unanimous resolution opposing any increase in the size or axle loads of heavy lorries it will not only strengthen the Minister's negotiating position but should weigh very heavily with those who have to make a decision in Brussels. I say not just to the Government but, if it is permissible here to talk over the Government's head, to the Commission in Brussels that the people of this country not only feel desperately strongly about this but that they have at their disposal innumerable methods, most of them within the law but some without it, to make it impossible for heavier lorrries to operate in this country.

8.28 p.m.

Mr. Russell Johnston (Inverness)

The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maude) deserves the congratulations of the House on the motion that he and several other hon. Members tabled, as do the Opposition for their valuable motion on a matter of broad public concern.

Although we all abominate the juggernauts, the fact is that they are already with us. Despite what the Minister for Transport Industries said in opening, our capacity to control them is not very well developed. It is very difficult to argue the statement that many heavy vehicles are already breaking the existing regulations. We have no adequate way to check or prevent that. That is the present situation, rather than one that might develop if the Communities were unwise enough to adopt the proposal to increase the total weight limits from 32 tons to 40 tons and the axle loading from 10 tons to 11 tons.

I understand that in Kent, the main thoroughfare through which continental vehicles pass, the inspectorate for checking the weight of vehicles is well under strength. About 300 lorries a day pour through Dover, yet there is no weighbridge near enough to the docks. There is no effective way to introduce systematic checks. Therefore, it is small wonder that so many regard overloading as an acceptable risk. There is no effective way to check overloading despite what the Minister says.

I entirely accept the right hon. Gentleman's good intentions in referring to the Road Traffic (Foreign Vehicles) Act, the attempt to control and the increase in the powers and penalties, but at the end of the day it is not only in regard to expenditure on roads that the Government must demonstrate their political will. They must also do so in regard to the capacity to police overloading effectively, if we are to do anything about it.

I agree that we cannot put back the clock and ban the large juggernauts altogether. They have a major rôle in long-distance transport—but on roads which can carry them, and in the context of a national transportation policy which exploits to the full our existing rail network.

The right hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland) said that Britain more than any other EEC country with the possible exception of France—I think I heard an interruption to that effect from behind me—carries more of its freight on the roads. He gave the figure of 75 per cent. That in itself is an exceptionally strong argument for the United Kingdom to make to the Community in discussing the regulations on 18th December.

On a European level, the plan must in the end be dropped. Any argument that. Britain should be an exception would not make sense to me, because it would be a dangerous precedent. It would mean that a text with general significance in the Community would not be applicable in all aspects to all member States, and that would be wrong. But the Govern- ment have a duty to apply every possible pressure to the Governments of the Six.

As a convinced European who has many times argued for entry into the EEC, I cannot believe that any member of the Six would wish the enlargement of the Communities to be heralded by a political and legal disagreement of the nature which would ensue if the regulations were introduced. As the Minister said, it is not only on our own behalf that we can advance an argument. We can do so also in conjunction with the Irish and the Danes, who have the same regulations as we already have and who take the same standpoint. Just a few days away from the accession of the new member States, the Six will surely never decently—and I emphasise the word—approve a directive which would go so much against the wishes of its new members.

8.33 p.m.

Sir Robert Cary (Manchester, Withington)

The hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Russell Johnston) is right. The weight of the giant lorry is falling mainly in South-East Kent. As I live on the slopes of the North Downs, overlooking Wrotham and Ightham, I see many of their journeys. Much more so does my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch), who, perhaps more than anyone else, is directly concerned with the need for the rapid building of a motorway between Canterbury and Dover.

Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

Hear, hear.

Sir R. Cary

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport Industries will make that one of his first priorities. Even if he does, I gather that it will take three to four years to build the motorway.

Mr. Crouch


Sir R. Cary

Dear, oh dear. Life is getting worse.

I very much agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maude) that public feeling on the matter in south-East Kent is becoming very intense. That is the main impact of the moment, and I will not waste the time of the House by speculating about what it will mean to some other parts of the country if it is not checked or stopped.

The right hon. Member for Aberavon (Mr. John Morris) was a little unfair to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport Industries when he used the expression "On the stocks". I accepted it as a general expression which I have heard used frequently in transport conferences in the industry over the last five or six years. The phrase was used in that context and was not a party matter.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the vigorous and energetic way in which he has defended British interests in the last 12 months in his negotiations with the members of the Six.

Mr. Stanley Orme (Salford, West)

With his hands tied behind his back.

Sir R. Cary

I know the immense trouble which my right hon. Friend has taken to make himself as well informed as anybody could be in two years about a complicated matter like the transport industries of our country and those which exist abroad. He has brought credit to the House and to the Government by the vigorous way in which he has defended in all quarters, at Brussels and elsewhere, the British interests that we are now trying to sustain.

I have two short points, and I must accept that this is an occasion for brevity. The Common Market cannot have one blanket law for axle weight and size of vehicles covering nine countries whose topography, distances and road conditions are as full of contrasts as our own. When a flat country like Holland is compared to the undulating topography of this country, it is ludicrous to put forward a blanket limit for both axle weight and size of load.

We must make the Government more determined to provide a system of road construction to carry the greater loads which must come in the years ahead. I agree with the right hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland) that this occasion is not a means of destroying for all time the bigger lorry. There is a case for the bigger lorry. But my right hon. Friend must plead at Brussels for this country to be given sufficient time, perhaps a number of years, to prepare our country for greater vehicles. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] If the House is to say "No" at any time to bigger lorries—

Mr. Neil Marten (Banbury)

Until further evidence.

Sir R. Cary

I have heard that expression before. It would be inflexible and unthinking of the Six to try to force a decision on this matter on the three new members on 18th December. When I listened to the threatening tone in the news this morning regarding this matter, I was rather depressed. If the Six do act against our national interests, I shall not be sending any Christmas cards to Brussels. Neither shall I be blowing my tin trumpet in the fanfare on 1st January for people who behave in such an inflexible and unthinking way to an extremely good member joining their club.

I hope that the Six will not press my right hon. Friend too hard. I hope that if any new decision is to be taken the House will be allowed to consider it in its own time when we are a member of the Community.

8.40 p.m.

Mr. James White (Glasgow, Pollok)

It is fair to say that at least I am one of the few Members of this House to hold a heavy goods licence. For the major part of my working life outside the House I was a long-distance lorry driver, so I speak with some authority in seeing things from the cab. It rather amuses me that when we start to talk about bigger vehicles everything is mentioned except the stress on the driver. The voice of the lorry driver is overdue for a hearing.

The Minister said that from next spring selected routes will be operated from various docks. What selected routes are we to have in Scotland? Scotland has 82 miles of motorway, but not continuous. Thus, lorry drivers coming 300 miles from London in motorway conditions find themselves suddenly on a dual carriageway, often with sheep crossing the road or a tractor towing a trailer on to the road. This is one of the reasons why so many people are killed and injured on these roads in Scotland.

The lorries from Europe operate the bunk-bed system, which we abolished in 1933 or 1934. According to the European regulations, a driver is allowed to work only eight hours a day; a British driver can drive for 10 hours. There is no limit, however, on how many hours the European drivers can work. It appears to me that we are taking backward steps in our transport policy. The Scottish Daily Express, in a very good article recently, said that the real shame of Scotland was the condition of our roads and that it was ludicrous to talk in 1972 about having 82 miles of motorway. It pointed out that we are not equipped to take the type of vehicles that we have already.

It is fair to point out just how efficient and economic British Rail is becoming. It must surely be our ambition not just not to have bigger lorries on our roads but to get more traffic as a whole off the roads and on to the railways.

8.42 p.m.

Mr. Peter Rees (Dover)

I do not speak with the specialised knowledge of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. James White) but I think I may claim a special interest—a special interest recognised by both the hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Russell Johnston) and my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Sir R. Cary). The brunt of this heavy traffic is borne by Dover in particular and East Kent in general. My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) will concede that probably the problem is more acute in Dover than it is in his constituency.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

You both suffer very much.

Mr. Rees

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for recognising that fact. The number of TIR vehicles leaving and arriving at our shores through Dover last year totalled 85,000, plus 25,000 trailers. Add nearly 1 million passenger cars and try to imagine how that traffic can be squeezed through Dover between the Castle and the Western Heights; hon. Members will appreciate the sensitivity of my constituents on the problem.

We talk about the environment and our concern for it, and we must all recognise that there is nearly always an economic price to be paid for our concern. In this case, possibly the economic price will be increased transport costs, but it is a price which East Kent will be prepared to pay not only in the dog days of July, when passenger cars stretch four miles back from the docks, but all the year round when huge lorries come through, because these vehicles are destructive not only to the fabric of houses but of sleep and civilised existence and even of life itself and the narrow streets of our towns and villages which were not designed for them.

We are all agreed in the debate on the general principles and therefore I want to make a few constructive suggestions, some of them already touched on by my right hon. Friend the Minister, who has shown considerable sensitivity towards this problem. First, I hope that he will spur on local authorities and encourage the private development of lorry parks with customs facilities near our docks. There is no point in siting lorry parks deep in the countryside. We need them as close to the docks as they can be conveniently sited. This is partly a matter of private development and partly a matter for the local authorities.

Secondly, I hope that the Minister will press on with the installation of permanent weighbridges, or encourage those responsible to do so. At Dover we have only what is called a mobile weighbridge and it is barely sufficient for the purpose. We shall need a permanent one next year.

It was recognised in the debate on the Road Traffic (Foreign Vehicles) Act—I am surprised that Opposition Members have not drawn attention to that Act, because it has been the single most constructive contribution of the present Administration to solving this problem—that the place to check these lorries is not on the highways but at the point of entry.

Finally, will the Minister develop further the plans—and I know that the prime responsibility lies with the local authorities—to keep these massive lorries off narrow country lanes, except for access purposes? This problem must be studied in much greater depth, for we suffer acutely from it in East Kent.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

Another suggestion, which I am sure the hon. and learned Member will accept, is that if the Minister insisted that the goods came into Harwich and were loaded straight on to container trains and carried by rail to their destinations, Dover, Canterbury and other country areas would be greatly assisted.

Mr. Rees

I am not over-concerned above the port of Harwich. Provided that we have the right facilities, I welcome the traffic at Dover. After all, it is our staple industry. If there were more time I could develop the theme of the impact of the Channel Tunnel on East Kent, but that would enlarge the debate beyond its present ambit and it would certainly prevent other hon. Members from intervening.

How far could freight rail services be improved and tailored to take traffic off the roads? This is not a matter of imposing quantity limits which could not, I think, be justified on this side of the House as a matter of principle. The railways must be tailored to lure traffic back to them. This must be a matter of commercial choice and judgment and not of Government diktat.

I do not want to send my right hon. Friend into the negotiating chamber in Brussels on 18th December bound hand and foot, but I want to leave him in no doubt about the strength of feeling in my constituency. I conclude by following a recent Royal precedent and saying "Bigger and heavier vehicles on British roads—I am against them".

8.49 p.m.

Mr. David Clark (Colne Valley)

I shall not try to compete with Conservative Members and say which constituency in the South-East of England is most congested by heavy lorries, but I remind them that this is a problem throughout the country, no less a problem in the hill districts of the Pennines and rural Wales than it is in South-East England. The feeling is as rife in those other parts of the country.

Although succinctly centred around the lorries, the debate is wider than that in the sense that we are discussing the good will of the Community, whether it will force through this decision on 18th December or have the good will to wait until we are full members on 1st January. It is even wider than that, because we are discussing whether we are to allow social and environmental costs to be overridden by purely commercial values. That is the nub of the debate.

All hon. Members agree that we have come far enough along this road and that we are not prepared to allow lorry sizes to be increased by one iota. I do not share the point of view of the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Sir R. Cary) that this is only a stalling operation. If we are to say "No", we should say it now and not try to put off the decision until next year or the year after.

I want to outline some of the reasons why I think we should not have these lorries. Basically there are the environmental reasons. We are different from Continental countries because we have more vehicles per kilometre and therefore we are far more congested than most other countries. This puts a completely different complexion on the situation. Not only is damage being caused to historic churches, which are vitally important, but it is also being caused to the terraced houses in the North, alongside the main trunk roads. They are persistently suffering from cracked roofs and walls. If we get these heavy lorries, matters will be worsened. I need not mention the noise problem because it is obvious to us all.

The other main objection is that of cost. On the Minister's own figures it will cost about £200 million to strengthen the roads and bridges. This is probably an under-estimate. If we work out the cost of strengthening gas mains and service mains, such as water, it will probably be considerably higher. We are already seeing evidence, even with newly-laid natural gas lines, of the lorries causing fractures in the pipes. In my constituency last week 150 people had to be evacuated because of this happening. Heavy lorries would make the position much worse.

The other principal reason why we should oppose these lorries is simply to do with safety. I am not for a moment arguing that heavy lorries will be any less safe than other vehicles when they come out of the factories. I am sure that with modern technological innovations they would be safer. However, human nature being what it is and our system of checking and inspection being what it is, it will be difficult to impose the necessary standards of safety. I was horrified to receive an answer from the Minister for Transport Industries last week saying that 20 per cent. of the foreign lorries examined at Dover were found to be overweight and that two of those lorries were 80 per cent. overweight. When we bear in mind the fact that if a lorry is 20 per cent. overweight its braking is 5 per cent. less efficient, according to the brake manufacturers, we can immediately see the dangers involved. In the hilly terrain of this country we are almost daily hearing of runaway lorries and almost weekly we are confronted with fatalities.

What are the Government to do about it? We have had Mr. Coppé, the Commissioner for Transport of the Community, saying that this is a "necessary sacrifice". It may be for him but certainly the British people, while they see it as a sacrifice, do not regard it as a necessary one. That is the point which the Secretary of State should make. I want to be quite blunt and ask him whether, if the decision is deferred until we are full members of the Community, he regards the subject of heavy lorries as being one of vital national interest and whether he is prepared to use his veto if necessary. We should have an answer to that.

Mr. Marten

I can give the hon. Gentleman the answer to that; he may not get it in the wind-up speech. My right hon. and learned Friend the present Secretary of State for the Environment said on 15th February, 1972, in the Second Reading debate on the European Communities Bill: assuming that a question arose on which there had been strong feelings in this House"— which there are tonight— prima facie it would be a matter in the national interests and a British Minister would have power to insist in the Council of Ministers that it was a matter of major national importance which required a unanimous decision and that he could not be part of that unanimous decision."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th February, 1972; Vol. 831, c. 277–8.] That was the then Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who is now the responsible Minister and he will keep his word, of course. I challenge anyone who doubts that to a duel outside.

Mr. Clark

I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he has said in defence of the Minister. I only hope that it is correct.

I have been worried by the Minister's phrase about not being "shoe-horned" into accepting 40-ton lorries. I believe that the Minister has at times been less than frank with the House when discussing the implications of entry to the Common Market. I hope he has not spoken in this respect as a toothless tiger and that when he goes to the Commission he will insist on adherence to the feelings of the British people.

8.55 p.m.

Mr. Charles Simeons (Luton)

The matters which we are discussing will not be implemented in Europe until 1980. A lot can happen between now and then and many opinions can alter. I suspect that by 1980 the motorway from Dover to Canterbury will have been built.

We are talking not about all the fleet of lorries but about only a percentage of it—I guess 20 per cent. [HON. MEMBERS: "Or 25 per cent."] Perhaps 25 per cent. But the lorries do not drive around like minis or weave in and out like taxis. Just as much havoc is caused as a result of lamp posts having been knocked over by minis as is caused by lorries. [HON. MEMBERS: "Rubbish."] Hon. Members are entitled to their opinion. However, as I say, we are not talking about all lorries; we are talking about a limited number. There are means of diverting a limited number of vehicles so that the environment is protected.

We should make distinctions between three things: size, weight, and the pressure on the roads or axle weights. First, heavier lorries do not mean bigger lorries because a 32-tonner and a 40-tonner can be identical in size, as the Department of Trade and Industry confirmed today. There may a difference of only 20 inches betwen a 32-tonner and a 44-tonner, and that is hardly noticeable.

The main point is that the difference in the payload or carrying capacity of a 32-tonner compared with a 44-tonner is 10 tons. The choice is between a number of lorries which are no bigger than at present but which are able to carry much bigger weights, or very many more lorries. I suspect that in two or three years' time we shall all unite one evening in saying that there should be fewer lorries. What is proposed is the way to achieve that.

Our immediate choice is lorries of acceptable weight and identical length. We must decide what they should be. The greatest influence on choice is the international standards which are accepted by rail and sea within Europe and in this country of containers with a maximum length of 40 ft. and a maximum weight of 30 tons. Some hon. Members say that goods should be picked up from the docks and put on the railways. But they cannot be taken off the railways and put on lorries without re-packing them. The chaos and industrial strife which would result from that is too enormous to contemplate. Therefore, we must decide what we shall have. If we are to put goods on the railways, we must have lorries which can take the containers. If we are concerned about the effect on some of our villages of 40-footers weighing 30 tons, we must have two 20-footer containers which go to certain points on lorries and are then split on to smaller lorries to be taken into no-go areas.

Looking towards Europe, there can be little doubt that we shall be governed by our present rolling and container stock. I predict without too much fear of contradiction that by the time 1980 arrives we shall have lorries of identical length but capable of carrying a greater weight.

I live at the end of the runway at Luton Airport. The aircraft industry is overcoming the noise problem by having bigger aeroplanes with much more modern engines. The industry says that it will soon be able to produce quieter engines. The fact that a lorry is bigger does not mean that it is noisier. Two important factors to consider are road surfaces and types of tyre.

Mr. Maude

I do not know whether my hon. Friend is aware that one of the greatest sources of noise from heavy lorries is empty lorries returning after they have dumped their loads. It is when they bounce over uneven road surfaces that they wake everybody up in the middle of the night.

Mr. Simeons

People who run empty lorries are inefficient and should go out of business. If my hon. Friend's constituents do this they should go out of business and my hon. Friend would not worry any more.

Mr. Maude

They are not my constituents. The lorries just pass through my constituency.

Mr. Simeons

The owners of those lorries will go out of business.

The fact that smaller lorries necessarily means more lorries might be an incentive to manufacturers. They know that British users are already importing large continental lorries, although they are not using them to capacity. They can see that this is the direction in which things are going.

We must ensure that we are guided tonight not by emotion but by what we believe will happen in 1980 when the regulations are implemented. Above all, manufacturers want to have standardised lorries. They want to have a good home base, and from this they can sell to the continent. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maude) that manufacturers will accept making a type for the home market and a type for abroad, but there is great merit in making only one type if this is what continentals will do.

If we have smaller lorries we shall have a greater number, they will be more expensive, and more money will be invested. I believe that by 1980 the thoughts that are being expressed tonight will be out-dated and that lorries greater in capacity but not greater in measurement will be replacing the present ones just as the TriStar does the BAC-111.

9.3 p.m.

Mr. Leslie Huckfield (Nuneaton)

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Luton (Mr. Simeons), because he has gone some way at least towards putting the matter in its true perspective. We are talking tonight of less than 2 per cent. of the commercial vehicle population. There are about 1.6 million commercial vehicles, of which only 55,000 weigh over 8 tons gross. Less than 2 per cent. of those would be 32 tons gross. Far fewer would be likely to want to go up to 40 tons gross even if permission were granted in future.

I cannot help feeling that tonight we are undergoing some kind of cruel deception, because the passage of this Motion will not do anything to alleviate the situation which applies in the constituency of the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maude) and in some very hazardous villages on the way to Harwich and Dover. Instead of talking in generalised terms about forbidding weight increases, we would do better to get down to tackling the serious problems which apply in many constituencies, for which I have tremendous sympathy.

It is right to say that there is hardly any size difference between lorries of 32 and 40 tons gross. In fact, we are talking about the same 40-ton standard international containers, the same 15-metre trailers, and, indeed, exactly the same kind of lorries—except that, if this Motion is accepted tonight, they will be only half loaded. Therefore, we are talking about not what one can see on the roads but what one cannot see—and that is what is inside the containers and trailers. I wish that this evening many speeches had dealt with the question of how we are to enforce the regulations. The difficulty is that it is not what the police can see on the roads; it is what will be inside the same kind of containers and carried by the same 15-metre trailers.

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East) rose—

Mr. Huckfield

I hope I may be allowed to finish this point before giving way. The House should be concentrating on the question of how to enforce the standards, bearing in mind that we cannot even enforce the present ones. The consequences of the Motion, which no doubt will be accepted on both sides of the House, is that we shall have many half-empty containers and trailers. As a result we shall seriously disadvantage ourselves in competition with Rotterdam, and will lose the economies of scale which will be available to other countries.

Mr. Dykes

Would the hon. Gentleman not agree that when the new parking restrictions were introduced, with yellow lines and traffic meters in city centres, precisely the same arguments were used about enforcement in terms of traffic wardens?

Mr. Huckfield

The hon. Gentleman knows that I am in favour of more lorry parking restrictions. However, I cannot help feeling that we are again making the wrong assessment about axle loads. It is not axle loads which we should be considering but axle spacings. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Environment has been briefed by his civil servants that it is the distance between the two axles on the tandem of the trailer which determines the weight the wheels put on the road. I should like some further elucidation by the Secretary of State about how we arrive at a figure of £200 million. I am sure that neither the Transport and Road Research Laboratory nor the universities which carry out research into this matter know that nobody appears to know where that figure comes from.

Mention has also been made of pay-load. It is a fact that the payload of a 40-tonner—which is 39 tons Imperial weight—is 27 tons, and that the payload of a 32-tonner is only 22 tons. Consequently, some 40 lorries of 22-ton carrying capacity means only 32 lorries of 27-ton carrying capacity. If the weight were to go even higher—I do not advocate such a step—the number of lorries could be reduced even further. Because of the increase in the lorry sizes since 1966 there has been almost 1 per cent. decrease in the number of commercial vehicles on the roads.

I should like to put a point of view from the drivers' angle because I, too, have been a driver, though I cannot claim the same length of service in that capacity as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. James White). I should like to point out that lorry drivers do not like driving large vehicles through small villages. They, too, are concerned about the environment and concerned lest this country introduces vehicles which are too large.

The other point which must be made is that a lorry driver today is a very skilled man and has to possess a heavy goods vehicle driver's licence. The House might be interested to learn that at present there is a 40 per cent. failure rate in respect of such licences. The point of view of my union, the Transport and General Workers Union, is that, though we are most concerned about the increase in gross weights and the proposed axle loads, we would stress that the lorry driver is a skilled man.

I should like in conclusion to mention the points on which I feel this debate should concentrate. I feel that if we want to deal with these problems it is no good going about it in a sloganising fashion by saying that the railway is the only answer, because that just will not do. Putting the traffic on the railways would only increase urban congestion, because we should have to get the traffic to the railhead and take it from the railhead. If we wish to put the traffic on the railways without increasing urban congestion, we must think in terms of increasing the amount of private siding space, which will probably mean even calling on the Government to give subsidies for the construction of private sidings.

Next, we must think seriously about building bypasses round such places as the constituency of the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch). This should have the utmost priority. We must do it before the regulations come in in 1980.

Apart from that, we must talk seriously about night delivery schemes. Perhaps the Secretary of State can say something about how these would be enforced. We must develop shop-service schemes on the lines of the Watford model.

More than that, we must think in terms of designated routes, not just advisory routes, and we must improve such routes as well.

The paramount need is to improve the standards of lorries themselves, to improve braking systems, cut down pollution levels, and improve their efficiency throughout.

The Secretary of State's Department should conduct its own inquiry into why the railways have lost so much traffic. It is not a matter of the share of freight going on the roads being 75 per cent. The railways' freight share at the moment is only 12 per cent. of the total freight in this country. The railways' share of freight receipts is only 5 per cent. In other words, 95 per cent. of the freight receipts are going to road haulage. The Secretary of State could make his biggest contribution to the debate if he announced that his Department would forthwith examine why some just cannot be put on the railways.

9.12 p.m.

Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

Almost every hon. Member who has spoken in the debate has endeared himself to me by either pointing at me or referring to my constituency and emphasising in some way the need for a bypass round Canterbury. I am grateful for that, but I do not wish to spend much of my time on that question, because I agree with the hon. Member for Nun-eaton (Mr. Leslie Huckfield) when he says that probably the most immediate and urgent need is more quickly to produce the roads to carry our freight traffic, to carry our existing 22-tonners and 32-tonners.

We have a programme, and I acknowledge what Ministers and the Department have been doing under this Government in the last two-and-a-half years to accelerate it. But they must accelerate the programme still more. There must, I suggest, be papers from the Department on the subject on the Cabinet table showing which roads require further development or improvement, and specifying the places. This must be done as part of a crash programme, because in that way, I believe, we shall overcome a great deal of the difficulty which is making life an unbearable hell for so many of our constituents.

I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport Industries agrees with that sentiment, but one must remember that, up to yesterday, he has been responsible only for the vehicles which go on our roads. He has declared, either here or outside the House, that he feels that the heavy vehicles about which we are complaining already should be directed to roads designated for them. But the fact remains that there are many areas on the approaches to our ports—the Canterbury-Dover route has been mentioned many times, and I shall not labour it—where the roads are utterly inadequate. Vehicles are travelling to and from our ports on roads simply not designed for such heavy—and important—traffic and trade.

There is great public anxiety. My hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maude) caught the attention of the House when he stressed the serious concern which people feel about this problem. As he said, people are so concerned that they will even consider breaking the law. They are already doing it in my constituency. A protest group called the A2 Protest Group has recently been sitting down on the A2, barring all traffic from Dover to Canterbury and on to London. They have done it against the law and have been investigated by the police because of it. They did it on Trafalgar Day. I turned a blind eye to what they were doing, and I took part in the meeting afterwards. This is not violent protest, but it is a necessary protest to register in the country and in this place as well that there is great public concern that something should be done. People generally—I do not mean only my constituents—are determined to get Government action on this matter.

As a great lover of our Westminster Parliament, I believe that it is still possible to get Government action through Parliament via the Member of Parliament. As a European, I also believe that we must make it possible for Parliament, the Member of Parliament and certainly the Government to get action in Brussels on a matter which so affects the lives of our people. We must protect the British environment notwithstanding our acceptance of the European idea.

Mr. Marten

How can my hon. Friend say what he has just said when he voted for Clause 2 and consistently voted for the European Communities Act? It does not make sense to say that.

Mr. Crouch

I refuse to be drawn into an argument now, because we have debated this matter at such length. I am prepared to declare my adherence to and belief in the European idea, my belief in the future of this country united with the European Communities and my belief in the institutions of the EEC which we as a Parliament, people and Government must strengthen so that they properly represent the views of each nation, and certainly of this nation.

If the 40-ton lorry were permitted, it would be an unacceptable standard of vehicle weight in this country. Of course there is the economic plea for this vehicle from the road transport industry. I have listened with interest to the plea which was made, and it is right that it should have been made. The road transport industry is concerned at the impact which the 40-ton lorry would make on the environment. However, it is for this place to limit that impact and to legislate for it, not to leave it to the good will and good intention of the road haulage contracting industry.

The 40-ton lorry will mean not only heavier vehicles on our roads, breaking them up as we have heard, damaging our bridges, shaking our old and historic buildings and keeping us awake at night, but much bigger engines, which will mean higher speeds, greater difficulty for other motorists in overtaking such lorries, and greater danger of those lorries being unable to stop in a safe distance.

Because of the need for bigger engines there will be greater pollution on our roads from black diesel smoke. I have not time tonight to go into exact detail of how, because of the requirement in brake horsepower combined with the new requirement in British standards to limit exhaust emissions from diesel engines, there will have to be a considerable up-rating of engines to pull the heavier lorries. This will mean a considerable increase in the black diesel smoke which we find so insufferable today.

If we were forced to adopt the 40-ton lorry—there may be an ulterior motive from the other side of the Channel—there is no British diesel engine available to pull such a juggernaut.

Sir R. Cary

Gardeners have one.

Mr. Crouch

I checked this morning with the diesel engineer at the research department and I understand that neither British Leyland nor Gardeners has a vehicle engine of sufficient brake horsepower to pull a 40-ton lorry. Therefore, we shall be forced to turn to America for such an engine.

Mr. Simeons

Is my hon. Friend suggesting that the ingenuity of British engine manufacturers is such that they cannot produce such an engine?

Mr. Crouch

Given time it is possible for the engineering and motor car industries to produce the necessary engine, but it will take eight to 10 years. In the meantime we may find the road haulage industry looking to Germany or to America.

This is not a question of jeopardising our competitive position among the European countries on the question of the vehicles that we use and the engines we buy. This is a European environmental problem, and there is no reason why this country and this House should not give a lead to Brussels in the matter.

9.20 p.m.

Mr. R. C. Mitchell (Southampton, Itchen)

The Motion says that the House is against bigger and heavier lorries". Many of my constituents are against the big and heavy lorries that already exist. Representing, as I do, one of the major ports of this country, I see the problem every day, and I receive masses of complaints about it from my constituents.

The hon. Member for Luton (Mr. Simeons) implied that the argument was about whether we had heavier lorries or more lorries. I suggest that in the long term that is not the argument. What we should be debating is the method by which freight is to be moved in future—by road, by rail or by some other form of transport.

Mr. Simeons

How does the hon. Gentleman propose to get goods from the railhead to factories without using lorries?

Mr. Mitchell

I realise that short-distance hauls from the railhead to factories will have to be by road. What I am saying is that far more long-haul traffic should go by rail. That is why I found the Minister's speech so staggering. A study of HANSARD tomorrow will show that not once in his speech did he use the word "railways". The right hon. Gentleman knows that even as we are debating this issue—the point was made by the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maude)—British Railways are closing their freight service to Southampton Docks and forcing all that freight on the roads. When I write to the Minister about this I receive the usual reply that this is a matter for the commercial judgment of British Railways.

What I want the Department to do—it seems that the environment side of the Department does not talk very much to the transport industries' side—is to compare the loss that British Railways are making—and some of us think that it could be reduced anyway—with the extra environmental and social costs of putting that freight on the roads. My guess is that if the Minister were to carry out that survey in Southampton he would find that the cost of putting this traffic on the roads is far greater than the loss being made by British Railways on that part of the track. I am sure that a strong case could be made for subsidising rail freight in order to avoid a loss.

We should be discussing future transport policy in this country. We should be considering where heavy goods traffic will go. In my opinion the future requires that much more should go by rail. If that were to happen it would relieve the pressure on our roads.

9.24 p.m.

Mr. Neil Marten (Banbury)

Enough has been said about heavy lorries, and I do not wish to pursue that matter. None of us, with one, or possibly one-and-a-half, honourable exceptions, wants the size of these lorries increased. I want to refer to the constitutional issue arising out of the Government's decision to accept the Motion.

Tonight, this Parliament is sovereign, and Government, Opposition and Parliament together are saying that we will not have these lorries. Parliament is instructing Ministers in the Department of the Environment to agree with what Parliament has said. When they go forward to Brussels, at whatever level the meeting, they and their officials will have no power to go further than what we have said tonight.

The right hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland) rightly quoted what my right hon. and learned Friend said, when Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, on Second Reading of the European Communities Bill: No Government would proceed in a matter of major policy in the Council unless they knew that they had the approval of the House. Tonight, the Government are being told that they do not have the approval of the House to agree to any further extension in the size or weight of lorries.

In an intervention, I quoted a further undertaking by my right hon. and learned Friend: … assuming that a question arose on which there had been strong feelings in this House, prima facie it would be a matter in the national interest."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th February, 1972; Vol. 831, c. 274, 277.] Of course, strong feelings have been expressed, and, therefore it makes this a matter "in the national interest".

If the Minister for Transport Industries would do me the honour of listening to this, he would see that it will affect him when he goes to the meeting on 18th December. He is being told by the House of Commons that this is a matter in the national interest and that British Ministers will have the power to insist that it is such a matter in the Council of Ministers. That power is permissive; we want an assurance tonight that the Minister or any of his colleagues will insist that this is a matter of major national importance requiring a unanimous decision and that we will not be part of that unanimous decision.

It was on that undertaking by the Secretary of State on which the vote on the Second Reading was taken—a very clear undertaking on the use of the veto, or, more accurately, the unanimous decision procedure.

I am not sure that the Government realised what they were doing, but by accepting this Motion they have given an honourable pledge that this is a matter of national importance and that they will not be part of the unanimous decision. I hope that the two Ministers now on the Front Bench have taken that point.

When I asked the Minister for Transport Industries the other day whether this would be treated by the Government as a matter in the national interest, requiring unanimous decision, I was surprised that he should reply: At present this is a matter for the Council of Ministers of the Six but in the consultations which are taking place. I have emphasised the importance that the Government attach to an agreed solution which will take full account of our views."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th November, 1972; Vol. 846, c. 300.] If my right hon. Friend were standing here and I was sitting down there, I can just hear him criticising that answer, or non-answer. He would look over his "Sir Alec Douglas-Home" spectacles, and, in that well-known vinegary voice that he reserves for Ministers who have not answered questions, he would wade into me.

But I do not worry about that any more, because we now have the admission, by the very fact that the Government have accepted this Motion, that they will block it when it comes to the next meeting in January, when we shall be a member of that Council of Ministers. If it happens on 18th December that the Community passes a regulation which will be directly applicable as the law of this country on 1st January, then I would say to all those who voted for the European Communities Bill that it is they—perhaps in their ignorance; I would be generous about that—who will be responsible for heavier lorries coming into this country, because they accepted that a regulation of the Community automatically becomes part of our law when we join. So they will carry the responsibility, those who voted for it—

Mr. Arthur Lewis

On both sides of the House.

Mr. Marten

—on both sides of the House. Then I hope the country will recognise who it has to blame when these lorries comes thundering through Britain.

9.30 p.m.

Mr. Stanley Orme (Salford, West)

I underline the point made so powerfully by the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten) that this will be the first of many issues arising from EEC regulations that we shall have to face. Hon. Members from both sides of the House will be making the constituency case and deploring what is happening, but they have voted for this and will have to stand and be counted.

This issue of lorries goes exceedingly deep. It concerns not just the countryside of Kent or the rural areas. The Manchester Docks are situated in my constituency, where there are thousands of terraced houses past which lorries bang day by day and night after night into one of our main ports in the middle of an urban area. My constituents find that these lorries are already far too big and that it is unbelievable that a Government could allow an increase of the measure proposed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nun-eaton (Mr. Leslie Huckfield) said that it was only 2 per cent. and that the axle weight equates with the length and size of the vehicle. To my eyes these vehicles keep getting bigger. If it is only 2 per cent. and it does not matter, why is the pressure on at present to increase the size of these lorries and introduce these Continental juggernauts?

Mr. Arthur Lewis

They are already breaking the law.

Mr. Orme

When it comes to the cost of our roads, we say that only another £200 million will make the roads satisfactory and that we can build bypasses. Although we want more motorways, over the last 10 or 12 years we have spent too much of our national resources on motorways. The Minister did not face that issue. I believe that he is anti-railway in his outlook. He never mentioned the railways and the possibility of transferring much of this weight from the roads to the railways in a properly integrated transport system.

One of the countries pressing this motion in the Six is France, which is destroying some of her major cities by sacrificing them to the car and the lorry. The Sunday Times produced an excellent article in its supplement last Sunday dealing with what is happening at present in Paris. Apparently not only is it the House of Commons that is digging up the middle of London to make new car parks; the same thing is happening outside Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. But the French are also building roads along the Seine to take heavy lorries, and that is destroying the river's banks.

We are told that this is happening in the interests of economic development and savings on costs. As my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. R. C. Mitchell) said, however, one has to equate exactly what is the cost in terms of the environment, of wastage and the manner in which it affects people, and not just in terms of pure, economic costs of the movement of goods from A to B. Some assessment ought to be made of the present amount of traffic and whether it is all as essential as is sometimes claimed. We know of the great necessity for most of it, but often there is not enough planning, particularly in the development of industries and the planning of railways, which could remove much of the trouble.

In our country it would be absolutely criminal to extend what is already far in excess of the traffic it can take. To see this we do not have to go to villages or to crowded cities, such as that which I represent. We have only to stand outside the House of Commons and watch lorries crossing Westminster Bridge and negotiating the roundabout outside the House to see the problems. I can see these lorries and I know the problems they create in our society.

The Minister must go back on 18th December and say that the British people will not have it. He must tell the Commission that it cannot take a decision in our name, because if it does the House of Commons will not implement the order when it comes forward. We still have the last say. It is a question of sovereignty, but our sovereignty has been eroded. We were told during the Common Market debates that the issue of sovereignty was an airy-fairy argument, but that has come home to roost in a big way.

The British people will not tolerate this and they will take steps, as the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maude) said, to prevent it happening. We do not want to see it, but if it comes there will be a reaction in this country. Will the Minister say how many lorries are being turned back at the ports because they are overweight? If tonight we say that we will not accept such an increase in weight, our Ministers must insist in Brussels that Britain will not accept it. They will have an excellent case because the House of Commons will have spelled it out, and it is up to the Minister to say that we shall not carry it out.

9.37 p.m.

Mr. Roger White (Gravesend)

The opening speeches of the debate were overwhelmed by the excellent contribution by my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maude). He expressed the tone and feeling of the House in the way in which he advanced his argument. The problem of the heavy vehicle is by no means a new one. It has been with us since the end of the last war and, like Topsey, it has grown. Much has been said about Kent and in my part of that county between the Medway towns and Dartford we have seen the effects of heavy vehicles thundering through our villages and towns and upsetting our environment.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Peter Rees) referred to the TIR lorries now appearing on our motorways. We meet them on the A2, and with the greatest respect to the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Leslie Huck-field) I too can see the size of these vehicles and I believe that they are growing in size and in number. They are causing great concern and worry not only to those who live in and around my constituency but also to the local authorities and the police.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport Industries gave a short list of the Government's achievements in matters such as off-street parking. Such measures are all to be welcomed because they are positive. But clearly the worry this evening is about the position in which we shall find ourselves on 18th December. No one doubts the feelings of the House and the Minister has already made clear on his visits to Brussels the way the Government feel on the subject. With another hon. Member, I visited Brussels three weeks ago and we made it abundantly clear to those gentlemen on the Commission who are responsible for transport about the way we felt on this issue.

I agree with the hon. Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme) that the object of the debate is for a message to go from the House across the Channel to tell those in Europe that we certainly agree with the other three countries of the Six which now enjoy the same axle weight limits as we do. We believe also that our friends in Ireland and Denmark should be considered. Heaven knows why, after 10 years, this matter should be rushed through. That approach should be challenged with the utmost vigour. I wish my right hon. Friend every possible success in his mission on 18th December.

Mr. Speaker

Order. In the past hour and a half we have had 14 back-bench speeches. I compliment those backbench speakers.

9.40 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Mulley (Sheffield, Park)

Hon. Members on both sides will wish to thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland) for having initiated this debate, and for the simple, clear motion he moved. It has led to a good debate, with many excellent short speeches. I hope that hon. Members will have noted that it is the intention of the Front Benches to follow their example. We have allowed ourselves only 10 minutes each, so hon. Members will understand if we cannot deal with all the many points raised.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend meant the motion to be taken just as it reads in plain English. It does not deal with axle weights or this or that, but says that we are against bigger and heavier lorries.

While the debate is important for the content of the motion, it goes much wider. It is significant for three reasons: first, because it concerns our relations in Europe after we join the EEC on 1st January; secondly, because it underlines the need in all such transactions and policies to take account of social as well as economic costs; thirdly, because tonight the House is sending a message to the Government about the rôle of the House and the Executive.

I believe that all those propositions have the assent of the great majority of the people outside as well. We know that opinion on both sides of the House towards our entry varies between euphoric enthusiasm and total abhorrence.

Mr. Marten

Hear, hear.

Mr. Mulley

But the issue we are debating is not essentially or mainly about our attitude towards Britain's admission to the EEC. My right hon. Friend made that very clear. In my experience, many Members who are among the most enthusiastic supporters of cur entry are the most critical of the damage that heavy lorries do to the environment.

It may be a matter of regret to the Government that the issue should have arisen now, on the eve of our entry, but it is probably a good thing, because it provides a test of how they intend to conduct themselves within the Community. We must make it clear from the beginning that we as well as the other members can look after our vital national interests. If we do not—I say this as one who has been on record for over 20 years as believing in Europe—we shall be the only one of the nine Governments around the Common Market table so to behave. Therefore, there is a clear message here about Europe.

Secondly, there is a very clear message to the Government about the importance of the environment, of social costs and the rest, and the willingness of the public at large to pay to preserve the things they hold dear.

The economic arguments were set out fairly in the Financial Times yesterday by Colin Jones. Those arguments, not only for the industry but indirectly for us all as consumers, obviously point to larger and larger lorries. But I thought Mr. Jones stretched a point, and I am sure he would have difficulty in persuading people of it, in saying that there was also an environmental argument, in that one large lorry could carry the load of two small lorries. I do not think that he would carry conviction in the House tonight.

However, there is an economic case for larger lorries. When I was Minister of Transport and the industry made its proposals for larger lorries, the argument was that it would be much better if the lorries could carry two 20-ton containers instead of one with a large amount of wasted capacity. But nobody ever explained to me why those concerned with the shipping trade had decided, without, as far as I can gather, any consultation, to standardise 20 tons for a container and so, willy-nilly, the whole of the environment and the whole of the vehicle policy had to be changed to fit.

If it is the case—I hope it is not—that the compromise reported in the Financial Times of 8th November is true and that the Minister is flexible about the proposal for 40 tons, that still will not permit such lorries to carry two 20-ton containers, because there is the weight of the vehicle as well.

It is necessary for us to understand that we probably will have to pay. But the British people are willing to do so to keep the sizes of lorries—that is, the gross weight, the axle weight and the dimensions—at their present level and not beyond.

When I was Minister of Transport I was immensely impressed by the representations which I had from all quarters, particularly from that very responsible body, the RIBA, to which the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maude) referred in an extremely eloquent and forceful speech. Consequently, I caused a full examination to be initiated. I was not in office when the reports came back, but I like to think that they had some part in persuading the Minister for Transport Industries to take what everybody conceded at the time was the right decision on that recommendation.

However, it is not sufficient, although we are sure that the Minister is trying to keep down the size of lorries, to try to get special rates and so on. He must also, as hon. Members said, consider the rôle of the railways.

In looking back, it was a mistake that we made no provision in the Transport Act, 1968 for subsidies to be paid for freight. I think that it is a scandal, for example, which the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. R. C. Mitchell) has raised many times, that we are closing down railway services to ports. Europe would regard as chickenfeed the support which we give to our railways compared with the massive support which the Germans give to their railways.

The Minister should look again at quantity licensing, which is still the law of the land. He could introduce it tomorrow by making an order to do so. If it is thought that for administrative reasons it is not a good scheme, let him or somebdy else come up with another one. I accept that it would make only a marginal difference to the total traffic on the roads, although it would make a difference to our social and environmental policies. But we should not get any traffic back on the railways unless something is done. I hope that the Government will do something positive about the railways and not something on the lines of the leak which appeared in the Sunday Times.

The Motion contains plain English words, and it will not be enough—I accept that the Minister is advising the House out of conviction to accept the Motion, and I hope that that goes for the rest of the Government and that it is not a matter of expediency—to say that all these matters will be kept in mind. We are giving a clear message to the Government, and they will be judged by their achievement and not by their words. They will ignore this message at their peril.

9.50 p.m.

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Geoffrey Rippon)

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Park (Mr. Mulley) for the way in which he wound up the debate for the Opposition. Like the right hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland), he has put the matter fairly in saying that this is not an issue which divides those who are pro- or anti-European or pro- or anti-Common Market. The debate has shown that there is very deep feeling on this matter on both sides of the House, and I have no doubt that that will be duly noted in the proper quarter. It has been a valuable and—I agree again with the right hon. Gentleman—a helpful debate which reinforces the views which the Government have repeatedly expressed about the need to preserve, as the right hon. Member for Grimsby said, a balance of economic and environmental factors on this issue.

In a reasonable speech—he is always reasonable—the right hon. Member for Grimsby expressed his view that on this issue the balance was perhaps tipping against protection of the environment. I entirely agree with him. But I take issue with his suggestion that the question of axle weights is a new factor in the situation. We discussed this and many other matters when the European Communities Act was before the House and on 28th June my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport Industries said: On dimensions and weights, the Council reached the point of wanting a 40-ton maximum overall weight and an 11-ton maximum axle loading. The discernible difference between a vehicle of an overall weight of 32 tons, as we have at the moment, and 40 tons is very small. What is important is the axle loading. The French have had the high figure of 13 tons for axle loading, as have some other European countries, whereas we have had 10 tons. The Community orientation has come down to 11 tons."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th June, 1972; Vol. 839, c. 1480.] One must recognise that there has been a process of consultation about these things for a very long time. But not everyone appreciates that the proposals which are now being considered involve already a general agreement about a reduction of axle weights and gross weights in the case of many countries. The right hon. Member for Grimsby said that no one was really affected but ourselves. I do not think that is really true. We all have an interest in the harmonisation of international practices in these matters—harmonisation by the target date of 1980—which will benefit not only the manufacturers but the users, including lorry drivers and public alike. There has to be, as the debate has shown, proper consultation—and the Community thinks this also—on environmental damage on a wider front.

In the light of the decisions taken at the meeting of Heads of Government at the summit in Paris, it would be wrong if the Ministers of Transport in all the countries did not take note of what the Heads of Government have said on these matters. But there has been already in Europe a welcome movement towards harmonisation, for example, of noise limits. The noise limits on new lorries are now the same in the United Kingdom and in the Community. The Community's standards of smoke emission are similar to and largely based on ours. There are many considerations about safety standards. So I do not think that we can say that these are not matters that do not affect us all generally and that there would not be great advantage if we could get harmonisation.

Of course, we are right to insist that harmonisation should be on a proper basis. No one in this House needs persuading about the damage which the lorry out of its proper place does to the environment and thus to the quality of our everyday life. The Government fully accept that we cannot just go on as we are and that the price in terms of noise, fumes and congestion is quite unacceptable.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport Industries has explained on many occasions the measures that the Government are taking—to use the phrase which is sometimes used nowadays—to "civilise" the lorry itself and restrict the roads on which it may travel. Here we have to take largely our own action. We have taken already a number of measures to which reference has been made in the debate.

Mr. John Morris

Are the Government more flexible with regard to gross weight as opposed to the question of axle weight?

Mr. Rippon

Gross weight is not as much at issue as axle weight. We want to come up with the right answer to this complex problem. We allow lorries of much greater weight than this on our roads. They carry abnormal indivisible loads up to 150 tons. We have to be concerned about this and about where we let them go. We have to keep the matter in perspective. As the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Leslie Huckfield) said, we are talking about 2 per cent. of commercial traffic and these are technical matters on which it is not possible to be quite absolute. What we have to do is to return to the subject of what we do about these lorries whether under the European proposals or under our own existing laws, for the European proposals do not come into operation until 1980.

With my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maude), I believe that the scale of our landscape and of our towns and villages is such that we cannot indefinitely allow these lorries, of whatever weight or size, to chunter through villages and along country roads. It is a matter of getting ahead with a road system on which these lorries can go. The important thing is that we should not discriminate—non-discrimination is the principle—so that neither our own nor foreign lorries are allowed to chunter through our towns and villages along roads totally unsuited to them.

The House will acknowledge that it was the present Government which first took any action to prevent foreign lorries of any weight whatever from coming into this country. As the House has heard, the French already have axle weights of 13 tons, which they are now willing to reduce, and negotiations about that are going on. We freely allowed them into this country until the Road Traffic (Foreign Vehicles) Act 1972 put on some control.

I was asked how many lorries had been stopped and turned back. In the first two months in which the Act was in operation the figure was 90, but it is interesting to note that the number is falling off as the message gets home that we will not have in this country foreign lorries that do not comply with our regulations.

It is clear to all that something has to be done in Europe as a whole to bring this matter under sensible regulation, especially as we are now engaged in preparations for the European Agricultural Heritage Year—[Laughter.] I am sorry; I should have said European Architectural Heritage Year. I am glad that the House is in a merry mood on this occasion, for we have reached general agreement on the substance of the matter before us.

A number of hon. Members have suggested that there is Government hostility towards British Rail. That is not true. As the right hon. Member for Grimsby, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon, the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. James White) and others have said, it is important to consider the need to co-ordinate road and rail. This is another aspect of the situation within our command. The House may have noted that in re-organising the duties of my Department I have asked my right hon. Friend to take responsibility not simply for the transport industries, including buses, but for transport policy generally, including roads and traffic management.

Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea, North)

Will the Secretary of State settle this matter by giving a clear undertaking that, if necessary, the British representative will use his veto in the Council of Ministers?

Mr. Rippon

My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten) accurately quoted the position, as he accurately quoted what my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport Industries said and how between us we set out the position, the position after 1st January, 1973 and the interim position until then. [HON. MEMBERS: "What about the veto?"] What is wrong is to try in negotiations of this kind to lay down in advance answers to hypothetical questions that arise only in the absence of the agreement that we expect to reach.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House, mindful of the environment, is against bigger and heavier lorries.

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