§ 8.55 p.m.
§ Mr. John Ellis (Brigg and Scunthorpe)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The next motion relates to EEC draft Directive R/1435/68 on Adjustment of National Taxation Systems for commercial road vehicles. Earlier in the evening, I raised a point of order about the availability of documents, and, in respect of this matter, I wish to draw your attention to the 22nd Report of the Select Committee on European Legislation, ordered by the House to be printed on 25th May 1977 and available to hon. Members only today.
One of the reasons why the Select Committee referred this legislation to the House was that it felt it necessary for right hon. and hon. Members to consider certain documents. The Select Committee said in its report:This written evidence has been deposited in the Library of the House and is available to Members on requestEarlier in the day, I duly requested it. I hasten to say that I intend no criticism of the Government or of the Ministers involved. But, trying to be as kind as possible, I have to inform the House that that information became available only about 10 minutes ago.
§ Mr. John Ellis
There are three documents involved, and I have attempted in that brief interval to peruse them. Your predecessor in the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, undertook to look into the situation.
I believe that this House, whatever the business that it is doing, should go about its business in a workmanlike way. We have this procedure late at night, and we have had these disputes before about the availability of documents. I am aware that it is a new procedure for documents to be deposited in the Library. Nevertheless, it is unsatisfactory that we should land ourselves in this position where right hon. and hon. Members cannot have made a full study of the depositions which were supposed to be available in the Library.
674 I hope, therefore, that you can report to the House on the result of your earlier investigations and assure us that this difficulty will not occur again. I say that without castigating or blaming any of the officials of the House who, I know, do their best to serve us and who have put in considerable efforts to get these documents to us.
§ Mr. Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The House is put at considerable inconvenience when evidence of this kind is not made available to right hon. and hon. Members. In fact, the three documents to which the hon. Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis) rightly referred were handed to me, as the Clerk of the House knows, at 8.52 p.m., precisely six minutes ago.
The three documents are not technical or side issues. They are the observations of three bodies—the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, the Road Haulage Association and the Freight Transport Association—upon the exact nature of the business which is before the House.
You will recall, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that on the last occasion that we attempted to debate this draft directive, the Government did not provide the documents. On this occasion, the documents which are necessary for us to be able to assess the strength of the three expert professional bodies to which any hon. Member would turn have not been available. The matter goes a little further than the hon. Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe said. We might also consider what action can be taken now because, quite clearly, five or six minutes is no time for a proper consideration of the points made in these fairly extensive and detailed observations.
§ Mr. Hal Miller (Bromsgrove and Redditch)
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As one who is perhaps known to you as having an interest in the motor industry, I tried to obtain these documents. It was at 8.51 p.m. precisely that I was able to obtain them from the Library, having earlier been refused them. I find myself at some disadvantage. I have had a previous acquaintance with the evidence of the Freight Transport Association but I have been unable to obtain the evidence of the other two bodies to 675 which my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) referred. I find myself at a considerable disadvantage in trying to take part in these deliberations, which have a considerable constituency interest, without having had the time to study the documents.
I should be grateful if you would give me your guidance as to how the House can best proceed. I find myself at a considerable disadvantage with regard to a very important matter for the industries and constituents that I try to represent in this House.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)
I am much obliged to the hon. Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis) for raising his point of order. As the hon. Member knows, I was not in the Chair when he first raised the question of the absence of essential documents. I first heard about it when I took over the Chair. Hon Members have been talking in terms of minutes. I have been in the Chair longer than that, and I believe that the documents have since become available.
As far as I can judge, there has been some mishap in the provision of the documents, but they are now available. If we allow the Minister to proceed to move the motion he will no doubt do it in a quiet fashion so that hon. Members can at the same time study the documents that have been made available to them. I am sure that they will then feel able to take part in the debate. I agree that the situation is unfortunate, but it is not a matter which concerns the Chair except, naturally, that we shall try to find out exactly where the lack of communication occurred and as far as possible try to avoid it in future.
§ Mr. Norman Fowler
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. One, of course, fully appreciates the position in which you yourself are placed. I think that you would concede that what you have said is not satisfactory to anyone wishing to take a serious interest both in what the Under-Secretary will doubtless try to say and what is contained in these three documents. In all conscience, it is impossible to read through the detailed recommendations in three documents from three separate organisations while at the same time listening to what the Under-Secretary is 676 saying, and, as it were, putting a fourth point of view. Even given the multifarious skills represented in this House, that is putting it a little too high.
We are not blaming the Government on this occasion because it is not their responsibility that these documents have not been provided. I suggest through you that the Minister should agree to do what he did on the last occasion and not move the motion, therefore allowing a debate to take place at a later stage.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. John Horam)
Further to the points of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I think the House understands the problem that has arisen here. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis) kindly said, considering the enormously difficult job which the Library does one can understand that an odd mistake does occur. Undoubtedly these documents were deposited by the Select Committee to which they were presented by the three organisations concerned, but in the welter of documents it is occasionally the case that some do not come to light as quickly they they might have done.
That has happened here. I well understand the difficulty in which hon. Members have been placed. On the other hand, I would point out that these three documents came to the Committee of the House in 1975 in answer to requests made by the Select Committee. But for this slight mishap they would have been deposited—indeed, they were deposited—to enable hon. Members to have a closer look at them.
Given that they were deposited in 1975, it is my understanding that the general negotiations that have gone on there have largely taken account of the problems which were raised by the three organisations. If I were to be allowed to move the motion, I could perhaps explain the present state of the negotiations and say how they have been able to take account of the reports that were made by the three organisations. In the meantime, perhaps if I made a reasonably lengthy contribution hon. Member would be able to read what are basically two or three-page documents.
§ Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I 677 understand that we are considering the draft directive on the recommendation of the Select Committee on European Secondary Legislation. It has recommended that the directive is worth considering and it has come to that conclusion for a number of reasons which may have been advanced in the evidence submitted to it by the three organisations about which we have heard. Without having that evidence before us and without having the opportunity to study it, we can hardly judge why the Select Committee considered the matter worthy of full detail before the House. We can hardly be carrying out the intentions of the Select Committee if we do not have before us the evidence that it had to consider.
While certain of my hon. Friends have managed to secure these documents through their own efforts. I have not yet managed to see them and I therefore feel at something of a loss. I have had a moment to scrutinise those belonging to another hon. Member but that is hardly a satisfactory basis for discussion of a fairly involved and technical document. It is all very well for the Minister to say that he will give a helpful and full statement, but that is not the same as hon. Members having the opportunity to assimilate the information for themselves and to evaluate what the Minister says against the information given before.
This is not fundamentally a straightforward matter but one which requires careful consideration. The Minister would be doing a service to the House if he agreed to defer the debate until hon. Members have had the opportunity to study the information. This matter has been hanging around since 1968 and I do not think that there is any degree of urgency. In the interests of informed and sensible debate, it would be helpful for this matter to be put back, and I hope, therefore, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you will accept such a motion from the Minister.
§ Mr. John Ellis
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I raised this matter in the first instance and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has given an explanation and so have you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It has been established that an error has been made, but not by 678 the Government, and that these matters will be corrected in future. It is fortunate that we have reached this debate at an early stage in the evening. Presumably, we could get over this difficulty if the Minister read out the three documents in full, but I am sure that that is not necessary. I have been able to get hold of the documents. Since it was I who first raised the matter—and perhaps if I had not mentioned it no one else would have noticed—may I say that I am satisfied with the explanations that have been given.
§ Mr. Hal Miller
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. While hon. Members have been making quiet interjections I have been trying to study one of the documents. So far I have reached page three and I have already come across the starting date, the question whether these duties are the only duties to be charged, the question of exemptions, the question of the cut-off point, the question of the tax basis, the question whether four-axle vehicles are to be included, and whether trailers or semi-trailers are to be included, the weight bands which are to apply to the excise procedure—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. Before the hon. Gentleman has finished he will have read the three documents to the Chair. I can appreciate the import of the documents. In fact, we are not taking note of the Select Committee's Report. The House is being asked to take note of the EEC draft directive. The hon. Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis), who first raised the matter, has said that he is quite satisfied with the explanation that has been provided. The hon. Gentleman is willing to proceed. Let us see how the matter progresses. A dilatory motion cannot be moved until the Minister has moved his motion and the occupant of the Chair has proposed the Question. Until that stage has been reached, nothing can happen.
§ Mr. Hal Miller
On a further point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have not been addressing my remarks to the report of the Select Committee. I have been addressing my mind to the evidence submitted by one of the associations to the EEC document, which is what we are to consider this evening. I appreciate that we shall not be discussing the Select 679 Committee's Report. These subjects relate to the substantive draft directive of the EEC Council of Ministers. You rightly interrupted me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, before I had completed the list of headings, but I think you will agree that the documents are of sufficient weight, importance and difficulty to enable me to say that in the 20 minutes that I have been trying to study them it is not unreasonable that I have not been able to arrive at a conclusion. I had not been able to obtain them earlier.
§ Several Hon. Members rose—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
The evidence to which the hon. Gentleman refers was submitted to the Select Committee. I do not see how I can help matters until the Minister has moved his motion and I have proposed the Question. When that has been done we can then discuss how we shall proceed.
§ Mr. Norman Fowler
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. First, I made it clear that my remarks are in no sense meant to be a criticism of the Library. I think that hon. Members on both sides of the House would pay tribute to the service that we get from the Library. The basic point that is being made is that in coming to a decision whether we should take note of the draft directive that the Under-Secretary of State is about to move, we should like to have time to study the views of the three organisations most closely involved. That is why it is so crucial—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The question whether the Minister is prepared to withdraw his motion is a matter for him alone. If he sees fit to move his motion, it would be open to an hon. Member to move a dilatory motion.
That would be a matter for the Chair. That cannot take place until the Minister has moved his motion.
§ 9.14 p.m.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. John Horam)
I beg to move;That this House takes note of the draft Directive R/1435/68 on Adjustment of National Taxation Systems for commercial road vehicles, and of the revised explanatory memorandum submitted by the Secretary of State for Transport on 19th May 1977, which includes a text of the draft Directive currently under discussion.680 This draft directive was part of our inheritance when we joined the European Community. It first saw the light of day as a proposal from the Commission in 1968. After more than eight years of negotiations, we now seem to be reasonably near agreement, and approval by the Council of Ministers later this year is quite likely. But as I shall explain in a minute, the draft embodies policies on vehicle taxation that are very much in line with the Government's views of the course that we should pursue.
It will therefore make comparatively little difference to operators in this country whether or not the directive is finally approved. On the other hand, approval should in due course lead to a better coordinated approach to taxation of lorries throughout the Community. This in turn should help manufacturers who are faced at present with different tax regimes in neighbouring markets.
Not surprisingly, many changes have been made during the past eight years. The Commission has published only the original version of the draft directive and there is therefore no up-to-date Commission document to lay before the House. So that this debate may take place sensibly, my right hon. Friend has provided for the House an extended memorandum explaining the proposals as they now stand. In accordance with the undertaking given by the Leader of the House on 30th March, a text of the draft directive showing the form in which it is currently under consideration in the Transport Questions Working Group of the Council is annexed to the explanatory memorandum.
Accordingly, I shall base my remarks on the revised memorandum and the text of the draft directive attached to it. This is the important thing to look at. The three documents that we have been discussing during points of order were documents requested by the Select Committee on European Secondary Legislation in order to decide whether this particular directive should be debated. The Government did not receive them at all, but we requested them as a matter of interest to see what the three organisations said to the Select Committee. Naturally, there was a direct request from the Select Committee to the organisations concerned to enable the Committee to make up its mind whether there should be a debate. 681 It was of no direct interest to the Government, and we were in no way a party to the decision. The wishes of the Select Committee were finally made known, and in the course of that we learned a few lessons about the sort of documents that should be available to the House. That has been valuable to all concerned.
I wish to base my remarks on the revised memorandum that the Government have provided and the new procedure that we have adopted. The central idea in the Commission's proposals in that taxation should reflect the costs that are caused by commercial vehicles using the road network. The expectation is that this will encourage the use of vehicles that incur lower costs, ensure fair competition with other transport modes, especially the railways, and will help align conditions of competition between road hauliers within the community.
When the directive is in force, all member States will tax their vehicles on a similar basis. Each category of vehicle will have to meet, through fuel taxation and vehicle excise duty, the marginal road costs which that category causes. However, individual Governments will remain free to decide how much extra tax they require over and above the marginal costs as a contribution to the general revenue.
Any extra tax of this kind will, however, have to be distributed fairly among different categories of vehicles. A supplement will be added to the tax required from each category. This will be related to the average mileage travelled by vehicles in the category. Vehicle operators may be alarmed that this is a complex matter to calculate, but I assure the vehicle operator that he will not need to go into all these details. As at present, he will be able to look up the tax liability of each of his vehicles in a published table.
At present we tax vehicles according to their unladen weight, and this can produce striking differences in tax between vehicles which have the same gross weight but different unladen weights. We intend to switch as soon as possible to taxation based on gross vehicle weight. I understand that this move will be welcomed by both manufacturers and operators.
682 This reflects the fact that since the document to which my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis) referred was issued, there have been continuing negotiations, and while there were once reservations about the new system, operators are now basically content with it provided that we can have a reasonable transition period before the switch.
At the same time, the new system will take account of the number of axles a vehicle has and of the axle loading. The main effect of restructuring vehicle excise duty in this way will be to redistribute taxation so that rates of tax will be in proportion to the costs occasioned by each group of vehicles. The directive will not itself be responsible for anything more than the redistribution of the total existing goods vehicle excise duty.
For some vehicles—the heaviest lorries with few axles—this will lead to an increase in taxation. The recent Budget increases in excise duties on goods vehicles and on derv have gone some way to meet the increases expected to result from the directive even for these classes of vehicle. Where any considerable change from existing tax rates is required the directive provides that the changes can be staged over a maximum of five years. This is a point that we have discussed with the various organisations that gave evidence to the Select Committee on European Secondary Legislation, and is a point about which they were concerned.
The directive now applies only to vehicles weighing more than 12 tonnes. For vehicles below this weight, application of its principles will be optional. However, when the vehicle excise system is restructured, we expect to apply the principles of the directive, with some modification, to all goods vehicles. That remains the expectation and, as I have said, it remains optional. For the time being articulated vehicles will continue to be taxed as entities but we expect to tax drawbar trailers separately.
Originally, the Commission proposed that the directive should cover commercial passenger vehicles such as buses and coaches, as well as lorries. These are now excluded. As hon. Members will know, buses in this country enjoy a rebate of fuel tax and their exclusion from the 683 directive will enable this concession to be continued. This is an extremely important point in the operation and conduct of a sensible transport policy.
§ Sir David Renton (Huntingdonshire)
It would appear that the allowance of a special rebate of fuel tax for passenger vehicles is a matter of principle rather than of quantum. Will the Minister assure the House that we shall be allowed to continue to apply that principle if the contents of this directive become unenforceable?
§ Mr. Horam
Yes, that will be the case. Since the directive does not cover buses or coaches, that principle will be maintained in our taxation system.
Under the current vehicle excise law certain vehicles—for example, ambulances and fire engines—are exempt from tax and these exemptions are likely to remain. Certain other categories of vehicle—for example, farmers' and showmen's goods vehicles—are now taxed at a lower rate than are general goods vehicles. These concessions will not be automatically carried over into the new system. Therefore, there may be a change in that direction, although not in respect of buses and coaches and of the other exempt items, such as ambulances and fire engines.
§ Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes)
If I understood the Minister correctly, he included drawbar vehicles among those attracting heavier tax. That, together with the statement he has just made, would indicate that farmers will have to bear a considerably heavier tax if this directive is carried through. Will he clarify that point?
§ Mr. Horam
I have said specifically— perhaps the hon. Gentleman misheard me —that farmers' goods vehicles will remain exempt under the new directive and that the taxation will be no greater than it is today. Each concession in future will have to satisfy strict criteria and also secure the agreement of the Commission. Discussions have already taken place with the National Farmers Union and the Showmen's Guild. I am talking in that respect about goods vehicles and showmen's vehicles.
I cannot say with absolute certainty when the changeover in systems will be but it is likely to be within the next two or three years. The goods vehicle records at 684 the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Centre at Swansea are based on the unladen weight of vehicles, so that it will be necessary first to obtain information on gross vehicle weight and number of axles for each goods vehicle. Powers to do this were given in the Finance Act 1976. Because the centralisation of the vehicle records at Swansea will not be completed until March 1978 it will be possible to begin the assembly of information and the transformation of records only some time later. This does not, of course, mean that there can be no changes in vehicle excise duty for goods vehicles during the interim period—the last Budget proved that—but only that any such changes will continue to be based on the present system of the unladen weight of vehicles.
These proposals, if approved, will direct us along a path that we should intend to tread in any case. The switch to taxing on laden rather than on unladen weight will produce a fairer taxation system and level of taxes will reflect much more the costs in terms of the wear and tear on the road that the vehicles actually incur. As I have explained, the Government are in no doubt that this is the right policy for the future and we shall in any case implement it as soon as we can acquire the necessary information about individual vehicles.
§ Mr. John Ellis
With regard to the timing as well as the amount of tax, will the Minister confirm that the timing of the implementation is solely a matter for this country and that the total amount of tax, at this stage, is also a matter for this country?
§ Mr. Horam
This directive is concerned fundamentally with the structure of the taxation and not with the amount of tax. We intend to proceed with this anyway and therefore the directive is not necessarily of great consequence in this country alone.
Before I wind up, let me say I am afraid that I may have misled the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) in reply to his earlier intervention. I should like to take up his point more clearly, because my information is that the concessions for farmers' goods vehicles and showmen's goods vehicles—although I believe the hon. Gentleman was thinking only of farmers' vehicles, by which I mean vehicles owned or leased by 685 farmers—would not necessarily continue under the directive. I think that I was a little too categorical in reply to his intervention. I shall write to him if I cannot satisfy him on that point during the debate. There is now some element of doubt about that.
§ Mr. Rathbone
This is one of the difficulties of not having the papers. The question that I raised was whether farmers would have taxes on their vehicles, particularly their draw-bar vehicles, to which the Minister referred in his statement, and agricultural vehicles. I asked whether the two would be put together and whether that would lead to increased costs to farmers. The Minister led me to believe that there was no such threat. Is he now withdrawing that?
§ Mr. Horam
I was a little too categorical in what I said to the hon. Member. It appears to be the case that goods vehicles owner or leased by farmers would not necessarily retain the concessions that they now have. As for draw-bar trailers, on reflection I should not have been so categorical about the concessions. I should like to refer to the matter again and to take some advice. If the hon. Member for Lewes does not intervene in the debate again I shall write to him to clear up that point, precisely because I do not want him to be under any misapprehension.
§ Mr. Rathbone
I apologise to the rest of the House for these constant interventions, but I am afraid that we are faced with not only insufficient papers and insufficient time but with a Minister who has insufficient understanding of what he is talking about. I am most grateful for the Minister's promise to investigate this but it is incredibly difficult for hon. Members to debate the subject if the Minister cannot tell me what the effects of these regulations will be on agricultural drawbar vehicles.
§ Mr. Horam
Let me be as explicit as I can. If a drawbar vehicle is owned or leased by a farmer, the existing concessions may not continue. There may be an increase in taxation. I was telling the hon. Gentleman that negotiations have taken place with the NFU on farmers' vehicles and with the Showmen's Guild 686 on goods vehicles used by travelling circuses and fairs.
I was too categorical in what I said in reply to the hon. Gentleman's first intervention. I am now retracting that and saying that there is a threat to farmers' vehicles in this respect. I should not like the hon. Gentleman to get the wrong impression of the negotiations and perhaps I may write to him to explain the matter more fully when I have had an opportunity to assemble the information.
§ Mr. John Ellis
Cannot the matter best be summed up by reference to Article 12 of the directive, a paper on which is available in the Vote Office? That article states thatMember States may exempt the following commercial vehicles from payment of the road infrastructure tax:
- (a) agricultural tractors, including motor vehicles fitted with tyres or tracks and having at least one axle, whose main function lies in their tractive power and which are specially designed to draw, push, carry or operate certain tools, machines or trailers designed for use in agriculture or forestry;
- (b) agricultural self-propelled and trailed vehicles and trailed equipment; these include agricultural trailers, semi-trailers, machinery and implements."
§ Mr. Horam
That is so. I was anxious to make sure that the hon. Member for Lewes was not under a misapprehension. I hope that he is not now. If there are further details on which I can satisfy him, I shall attempt to do so.
The Government have no doubt that this is the right course to pursue and we shall in any case implement the proposals domestically as soon as we can when we have the necessary information about individuals. I hope that the directive will be approved, because it will ensure similar taxation systems throughout the Community, and that should help our manufacturers in planning their production and export programmes. It is one of the essential purposes of the Common Market that this sort of uniformity of approach should be adopted, and this is a sensible way to do it. It also happens to fit in with our general approach to the taxation of heavy lorries and other such vehicles. In those terms, I recommend the draft directive to the House.
§ 9.33 p.m.
§ Mr. Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)
I return immediately to the first point 687 that we raised. The Minister has demonstrated in his exchanges with my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Rath-bone) exactly what we are complaining about. There is a section that I have not had time to go through—and it would be unreasonable to expect that any hon. Member would have had the time— on the taxation of trailers and the views of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders on the subject. There are three documents referred to the Select Committee's Report for 1976–77 that contain written evidence from the Road Haulage Association, the SMMT and the Freight Transport Association.
§ Mr. Rathbone
My hon. Friend is concentrating so much on his important arguments that he may not have noticed that Mr. Deputy Speaker is explaining to Mr. Speaker the difficulties that we have been facing. Would my hon. Friend care to make short conversation until their conversation is finished so that Mr. Speaker will be able to understand what my hon. Friend is saying?
§ Mr. Fowler
I think that making short conversation to myself is quite difficult at the Dispatch Box, but perhaps I may put the point simply. The written evidence was given to the Select Committee dealing with European legislation, and it is printed in the report to which I have referred. Evidence was given to the Select Committee from the Road Haulage Association, from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, and from the Freight Transport Association. On page 7 of the report it is said that this written evidence has been deposited in the Library of the House and is available to hon. Members on request.
My point—for those who have just heard the intervention and the exchanges between the Under-Secretary and my hon. Friend—is that indeed one of the matters which came up related to a point in the SMMT document. The three organisations which gave their evidence—the Freight Transport Association, the Road Haulage Association and the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders—are clearly and indisputably the three leading organisations in this field.
The point at issue is that it is impossible, without the three documents, which should have been in the Library—I am 688 casting no blame, but the fact is that they were not in the Library and were made available only a minute or two before the debate—for hon. Members to come to a proper understanding of the case in the time available. The Undersecretary made no mention in his speech of the three documents, or at any rate no substantive mention of them. Indeed, he conceded that he also had not seen the three documents to which we are referring. It seems to me that in those circumstances this is no way in which proper consideration can be given to the three documents and the points which have been made. I beg to move, That the debate be now adjourned.
§ Mr. Speaker
I am afraid that I cannot accept a dilatory motion at this stage. The debate must proceed.
§ Mr. Fowler
The hon. Gentleman, intervening from a sedentary position, shows his total ignorance of the procedure of this House in shouting "Too late", because it should be within his knowledge that that was the only stage at which the motion could be moved. I doubt very much whether the hon. Gentleman will lend very much to the debate by his presence. He lends very little to any other debate which takes place in this House.
Let me return, Mr. Speaker, to the brief and in many ways sorry history of this debate. The House is being asked to take note of this EEC draft directive. The Under-Secretary, on the last occasion on which he spoke on this matter in the House, moved one of my hon. Friends to say that he would be most grateful if he could be given some guidance on what the House was supposed to be discussing, and on what document the debate was taking place, as he was considerably puzzled. One of his hon. Friends said that, having listened to the statement which the Under-Secretary had made, his mind was still boggling over what exactly the House was supposed to be discussing. Another hon. Gentleman said that the only thing for the Minister to do was to withdraw the document with good grace and to return to the House with a proper one. That is the unhappy history that has accompanied this draft directive.
689 Perhaps I may first offer some congratulations to the Under-Secretary on producing a far more relevant and up-to-date account than he was able to produce on the last occasion. On that occasion the House was placed in an impossible position. But better information has now been provided. We believe that better information is essential for these debates. I think that the Under-Secretary will at least concede that by not moving the motion on the first occasion, he was being of assistance to hon. Members of both sides of the House.
As the hon. Gentleman said, there are a number of differences between the proposed European system and our own. The draft directive would require vehicle taxation to be based on the maximum permissible laden weight of the vehicle as opposed to the United Kingdom system of unladen weight. It would tax vehicles of the same maximum weight differently if they had a different number of axles. The cost of wear and tear would be calculated by a formula set out in the annex to the directive.
In making a judgment on these proposals, the Under-Secretary has given some international background to the negotiations. I should like to set out some essentially national background which, strangely, the hon. Gentleman did not mention.
I think that the most essential part of the national background is that the road haulage costs of British hauliers have vastly increased over the last two or three years. Operators—particularly small hauliers—are finding it difficult to provide money out of profits to buy new vehicles. The road haulage industry today undoubtedly faces an extremely difficult time which will affect the prospects not only of the proprietors of businesses but of drivers working within the industry.
It should be emphasised that, although there are big companies in road haulage, there are also many small companies seeking to make a living out of a very competitive industry. There are about 130,000 operators who each have five or fewer vehicles and of whom 80,000 are one-man businesses. They are another example of small business men who have been hit so hard during the last three 690 years. They were hit hard in the last Budget. Indeed, the Chancellor insists upon writing them off as an anti-social and undesirable industry. I do not believe that anything has done the Government more harm within the road haulage industry than the television broadcast made by the Chancellor after the Budget. I believe that such views as those expressed by the Chancellor are mistaken.
The draft directive is of fundamental importance, because the taxation levels on commercial vehicles crucially affect not only the industry, but the public. The vast majority of goods in this country go by road. As the Government will soon confirm in their White Paper, 85 per cent. of the total tonnage of goods will continue to go by road. Therefore, taxation on transport is important, because it crucially affects every housewife and business man in this country.
Against that background, and given that, through no fault of our own, nor through the fault of the Government, this is an intrinsically unsatisfactory debate, I should like to put three points to the Under-Secretary.
The first concerns wear and tear costs. Clearly, commercial vehicles should pay for the wear and tear that they cause on our road system. I do not think that aynone would seriously dispute that view.
When it comes to competition between road and rail, I think that the Government's function is not to direct traffic to use one mode or another but to work out the fair track costs of each different mode and then to allow free competition. The consultation document gave some figures of track costs. It showed that, whereas cars and vans were paying more than their full track cost, some of the heavier vehicles were not. However, these figures were based on the period 1965–75 when there was a heavy, if not record, road investment. Since then two things have happened. First, road investment and maintenance has been heavily reduced. Secondly, thanks to this Government, taxation has been substantially increased.
What is the current position? The Freight Transport Association, in one of the documents which is available to hon. Members, says that there is ample evidence to show that before the Budget goods vehicles were covering their track 691 costs at the rate of 1.5 to 1. Within this lorries were covering their track costs by the ratio of 1.2 to 1. The FTA dispute that there is any shortfall on the part of even the heaviest vehicles and that if there is, it is being made up by the light and medium vehicles in its fleets. The taxpayer is not subsidising road transport.
After the 1977 Budget, the Association made further comments about road track costs which again show that light goods vans and other vehicles are now paying their track costs. It is important to know —when assessing this draft directive and the changes proposed in it—how the Government regard the question of track costs.
My second point concerns the supplement mentioned in the draft directive. Each State must charge the costs of wear and tear on the road system. In addition, Governments can change the sum involved. Thus it appears that in the United Kingdom the Chancellor of the Exchequer retains total discretion and freedom over how he taxes commercial vehicles. Indeed, he raises in tax exactly what he wants to raise. To a large extent this draft directive seems to be somewhat redundant because many of its proposals are already operated here.
Under the same heading of the supplement I must ask the Under-Secretary of State whether it means that the Government can charge any new costs? Can they charge the so-called social and environmental costs referred to in the document. If they can, will he explain the Government's latest thinking on the proposal, which is opposed by the industry and by the Transport and General Workers' Union. Is this proposal still a runner or have the Government put it on one side?
My last point concerns a further document that I have received from the FTA In that document the Association says that the kind of legislation cannot be taken as a single package. The Association says,Proposals to harmonise the basis of taxation have always been regarded as an interim step towards the establishment of a common basis for the treatment of infrastructure costs. This in turn is part of the overall plan to harmonise conditions of competition, leading, it is hoped, to a liberal transport policy.They are words used by the FTA.
692 It is, therefore, relevant to ask how far the Government can assure the FTA that acceptance of the draft directive on taxation, with the consequential loss of United Kingdom control, will have any compensating benefits in the establishment of a more liberal policy in other areas of transport. The point being made is this: what is the quid pro quo in this kind of situation? Do the Government see any quid pro quo?
One of the points that has been urgently raised with hon. Members on both sides of the House, but particularly on the Opposition side—
§ Mr. John Ellis
Does not the hon. Member realise that to discriminate against one's own country with regard to the Common Market is illegal and that, therefore, concerning this matter, the Government cannot give a quid pro quo as long as they stick to the general line of the directive that is issued?
§ Mr. Fowler
I was about to mention precisely one area in which the negotiations between Common Market countries could allow for this. That is in the area of trade and the area of the permit situation inside Europe, which is not the subject of EEC legislation but which is essentially the subject of negotiations that arc taking place between Governments. However, perhaps I may ask the Undersecretary to deal with that point when he winds up the debate, rather than dealing with it now and preventing some of my hon. Friends from taking part.
§ Mr. Fowler
I think that the point of concern that the FTA is making is that a great deal of harmonisation that is taking place seems to be coming one way. Therefore, what it is asking, from its own point of view, is what the Government have to offer it in terms of further and better negotiations to make its own trading position better on this crucial question of international permits, which, as the hon. Gentleman knows, is causing 693 a great deal of concern, as I am sure the hon. Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe also knows.
I want to be brief, because some of my hon. Friends want to speak in this debate. On the last occasion that we almost debated this draft directive, we were asked to welcome these proposalsas a step forward in liberalising the movement of goods by road within the Community.I think that that was overstating the case very considerably. Whatever else it did, it certainly did not achieve that kind of advance. We are now being asked to take note of the draft directive, which is a very different thing. I think that probably, in the end, it is something of which we shall take note.
§ Mr. Speaker
Perhaps I may say that hon. Members are aware that this debate will have to finish at 11.30 p.m. I hope that all hon. Members who want to participate will be able to do so.
§ 9.54 p.m.
§ Mr. John Ellis (Brigg and Scunthorpe)
I shall try to do your bidding, Mr. Speaker, although this is a big subject.
First, let me say that the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) prefaced his remarks with some quite offensive remarks about my hon. Friend the Minister. It may be that when the hon. Gentleman reads his contribution in Hansard he will think again, as he may also think again about his remarks to my hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Madden). I am referring to the outburst about the document. I put it to the hon. Member kindly, because none of us is perfect.
These matters concerning the Common Market are difficult and intricate. However, it is no good Opposition Members talking about a dilatory motion, and so forth. The hon. Member has particular responsibility, sitting as he does on the Front Bench, to make sure that he does his homework first. I hesitate to suggest, with due modesty, that the House may not have got on to that particular tack had I not done my homework tonight.
§ Mr. Ellis
I am grateful to the hon. Member, who at least does me the courtesy to indicate that that is so.
As always in these debates, when we get on to the subject the hon. Gentleman waxes lyrical about the difficulties of the legislation, and so on. Some of us on both sides of the House have a right to say such things, but some have less right, because if matters are difficult and bureaucratic, and if documents are not available, some of us would say that those were among the difficulties about which we warned the House and our constituents when we continued to adhere to the Common Market. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman had better be careful, when he attacks my hon. Friend, not to waxe lyrical about the difficulties and complexities of any particular measure, or, as is happening now, he will be attacked by Back Benchers on both sides of the House—by those of us who always said that this was inevitable.
I asked my hon. Friend during this debate whether the amount of the tax and the timing of its introduction were solely within this country's discretion. He said that they were, but the explanatory memorandum says, of Article 6:The draft Directive allows the addition of a supplement to the wear and tear costs. This ensures that the total tax to be raised would remain in the discretion of Member States and the actual amount of tax on any vehicle would depend largely on the contribution to general revenue required. For United Kingdom the effect is to retain the Chancellor's present freedom in matters of vehicle taxation.That seems to bear it out, but there are other items in the explanatory memorandum which give the lie to that. For example, it says earlier:The draft Directive is seen by the Commission as a first move towards a comprehensive scheme of charging the full cost of transport infrastructures to any respective users. The adoption of this Directive would, however, not prejudge the form of any future system of infrastructure charging.There is no doubt that this is to move taxation generally on to the principle of being based on the weight of the vehicles and the wear and tear on roads.
Although the Minister has freedom at this stage, will there not be a cry for harmonisation once the tax becomes established? We shall then be in the position of making the taxes payable not as we think but according to the general 695 directives that can be argued in Europe. This has important ramifications. For example, the Germans, who have lengths of autobahn, see people picking up goods elsewhere, perhaps across the Iron Curtain, and transferring them to France and other countries across their entire stretch of autobahn without paying a penny. The Germans also have railways which are suffering the same problems as ours. Therefore, it may well serve the Germans to change the whole system. But will that automatically help this country? We have freedom now, but I believe that we shall willy-nilly go down the road of harmonisation and again have our destiny decided elsewhere.
The hon. Gentleman said that all that is as maybe. He is bound to say that, because he believes in the Common Market and is stuck with it. He asked what the Minister could do, outside this legislation, to claw back something to this country. The hon. Gentleman is right to mention permits. It is disgraceful that we cannot obtain the permits to operate in France and Germany, because it does not suit the internal policy of those countries, while the Germans and French can obtain permits to come here.
This happens frequently. Those who believe in the Common Market presumably believe that all its members trust and love one another and that any country which can contribute to the common weal will do so. The attitude on permits belies that. When the hon. Member askes what leverage the Government can use to get fairer treatment, the nature of the beast becomes apparent. That may be how negotiations in the Common Market have to be carried on, but it is far from the dream that was described to the British people when they took that momentous decision on what I believe was the wrong information.
We must be careful. If we impose a new tax at a low level and implement it late, because any citizen of a member country can operate in any other EEC country while paying tax in his own, our vehicles will have an advantage in France and Germany. French companies might even set up British holding companies to get that advantage. However, if we applied a higher tax earlier than the French and the Germans, our vehicles 696 would be placed at a disadvantage. So this is not simple.
The general proposition is to change the taxation of road vehicles without any of the details being fixed. One of the documents submitted to the Select Committee waxed lyrical about the proposal but another said, realistically, that we could not judge it until we saw the amounts. The Select Committee said:The Committee understand that this is not a Commission document and that it is submitted by the Department on the authority of the Government alone.So what we are considering is not the definitive work. What we want to know is how the Government are working towards this end. Our approval depends on the details.
I am grateful that we have seen the document so early, but when the Minister has finished his work in the Common Market and we know the form and content, he should come back to the House, perhaps with more information about the level of taxation which will be applied in France. That will have the greatest impact on us. We can then see where we are going. I hope that my hon. Friend will deal with that matter as well.
This freedom of the Government to implement the amount and the timing is a transitional phase, and at a later stage we shall go over to the harmonised tax, where we shall not have this freedom.
There is a draft Annex to the first Council Directive on the adjustment of national taxation systems which talks about the way in which the various formulae will be arrived at. This is typical of documents of this kind, as any Back Bencher who tries to do his homework knows only too well. The Annex goes on to deal with the way in which the economic and general aspects shall be calculated.
I take only one aspect of it as an example. Under the heading,Methods of determining marginal costs.we read thatOne of three methods may be used to determine the marginal proportion of costswhen fixing this taxation. I chose the second method.The second method relates traffic police costs or maintenance and renewal costs, to traffic levels for the whole network or, failing 697 this, for a representative sample of such network. In the case of maintenance and renewal, this relationship is to be established for each cost category defined in point IV. 1 below. Generally, such a relationship takes the form d=a+bT derived from a statistical regression analysis where d=police or maintenance and renewal costs for the network or sample during a given period: a=constant cost element, independent of traffic volume"—I was with it so far—b=marginal police or marginal maintenance and renewal costs, per traffic unit"—I was still doing pretty well—T=traffic expressed in appropriate units (vehicle-km, vehicle-km equivalents, reference axle-km and axle-km equivalents) during the given period.It goes on:The marginal cost rate is then bT over d. To determine the amount of marginal costs, this rate is applied to the amount D of police costs or of maintenance and renewal costs of the category concerned, for each year of the reference period.So it goes on in this kind of gobblede-gook. This is the kind of thing in which the Common Market excels.
Here we are tonight changing the whole basis of our taxation of commercial vehicles. All that we can say is that we shall do it on the basis of weight transported over road. At this stage, we do not know what those figures will be. We do not know what the impact will be. We have to rest assured that we have been given some indicators of how the Common Market arrives at this. Its statisticians and its bureaucrats and their spewing out of words will go on and on, as these debates always point out.
Allied to the remarks of the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield about how we should try to get some of our own back by twisting the arm of the Common Market for an agreement, it must be said that it really will not work.
My hon. Friend has my sympathy in all these matters. I forecast tonight that we shall see that the unlimited amount of freedom which my hon. Friend has at this stage to fix the rates will disappear at the next stage, and we shall have a bureaucratic formula. Right hon. and hon. Members of this House profess to be the custodians of the freedom of our people. Individual initiative is fast disappearing out of the door. It is not disappearing because Socialists and Red people like me wish it to do so. It goes 698 hand in hand with the slavish affectation that all aspects of the Common Market are good. How anyone can come to that conclusion, having looked at the legislation, I fail to understand.
I wish my hon. Friend good luck. I look to him—God help him—for the advance that I have asked for so that when he knows the detail he may come back to us and we can go through the formula together. I shall be very surprised if we can make sense of it.
§ 10.10 p.m.
§ Sir David Renton (Huntingdonshire)
Unlike the hon. Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis), I think it is a good thing that this country entered the Common Market. I hope that we shall stay in. I believe that the directive brings a bit of sense to our transport law which has been nonsensical for years.
I started practising in transport law at the Bar as long ago as 1933. It always seemed to me to be quite ridiculous that we should base our vehicle taxation system, our safety arrangements and our categorisation of vehicles upon unladen weight instead of upon gross weights and axle weights. If the directive is ever implemented it will bring about a necessary improvement not only in our vehicles taxation law but in our general approach to the categorisation of goods vehicles.
Having said that, I have a great deal of sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman said about the way in which these matters are presented to us. I have on other occasions gone to the Vote Office and asked for the documents relevant to the debate on an EEC regulation or directive that we are expected to discuss and have had a mass of documents handed to me They were generally not obtainable until fairly near the debate. But tonight they were not obtainable until the debate was just starting.
Tonight I was handed four documents altogether totalling 25 sheets of foolscap. I am not blaming the man in the Vote Office. Someone has been too lazy to work out what we really need and to make sure that we get just that. Public money and paper have been wasted by people not giving enough thought to what is really needed to help us do our work properly. If we are to do the job 699 expected of us as members of the Community—and we have got a job to do in scrutinising this European legislation— we need rather more careful assistance than we have had on this and other occasions. I am not necessarily blaming the Minister, although I think that he has a duty to ensure that the House does get the proper documents. I was surprised that the Minister does not have a Parliamentary Private Secretary sitting behind him tonight for immediate communication between him and his advisers in order to take up the points immediately raised in the debate like the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone).
§ Sir D. Renton
Plenty of sitters-in are always available. Indeed, when I used to call for a sitter-in I thought it was rather a privilege to invite a friend to come and sit behind me. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman finds himself in such a deprived situation. I am very surprised to hear of it.
I would in a constructive way criticise the way in which the documents have been presented to us in the hope that on future occasions a bit more sense can be brought to bear and that we can avoid waste. I hope that we can have more efficient help in our strenuous lives so that our task in reading and construing these rather complicated documents can be simplified. Speaking for myself, I have had to read these documents while the debate has been proceeding. I should like to tell the House the result of what I find.
§ Mr. Horam
I am sorry to intervene again in the right hon. and learned Gentleman's speech, because I know the care that he takes over these things. But in all honesty, what he is saying is totally contradictory to what was said the last time we attempted to have this debate. The whole point of the negotiations since then, and the statement by the Leader of the House about how we should conduct these matters, was that the last time the Government presented a clear, short memorandum explaining in simple terms 700 precisely what the directive meant we were accused of not presenting the full EEC text. That is what we have now done. The right hon. and learned Gentleman cannot have it both ways. Either we are short and simple and summarise or we present the thing in full.
§ Sir D. Renton
The Minister could have saved the time of the House had he waited and listened to what I have to say. I wish to show that there is endless repetition in these documents.
Let me describe the documents. They are all in English. The first is entitledfirst Council Directive on the adjustment of national taxation systems relating to commercial vehicles (Presented by the Commission to the Council on 17 July 1968)".That was nine years ago. There are five sheets of foolscap and they set out the terms of what was considered to be right as the draft directive.
The next document has at the front of it a note saying thatThe attached English version of a proposal for a Council Directive … has been prepared in Whitehall.It says that the original text was in Dutch, French, German and Italian and was first submitted to the Council on 17th July 1968. On the other side of that note is an explanatory memorandum dated 6th May 1974, which has been out of date for quite some time. It states that the Secretary of State for the Environment is responsible for the policy in the directive. Yet for some time we have had— I am glad that we have had them— the Secretary of State for Transport and the Under-Secretary. This memorandum has been superseded by the next document but the duplication does not consist merely of that. This translation, prepared in 1974, is a mirror repetition of the document dated 17th July 1968, which was itself in English.
I have read furiously through the documents, and the only changes that I can detect between the two are the word "Considering", used five times in the 1968 document, has been replaced by the words "Having regard to". Apart from that unnecessary change of phraseology the two directives are the same. It was therefore quite unnecessary to burden us with those nine pages, on five sheets of foolscap. That is complete duplication and waste.
701 I come to the next document, which seems to me to be the only relevant one. It is the one referred to on the Order Paper and it consists of seven sheets of foolscap. It has an explanatory memorandum described as a revised memorandum by the Department of Transport and is dated 19th May 1977. That shows that the earlier memorandum was superseded and unnecessary to be put before us.
One welcomes the new memorandum, which is fuller and more informative than the previous one. We have what appears to be an up-to-date text of the proposed draft directive. It is shorter than the original text, but it is just as meaningful and it gives us the essentials. It seems to me that we could have done our work tonight simply with that one document of seven pages, but I cannot complain that we were given one other document, namely the draft annex to the directive, which is on six sheets and which goes into much greater detail. I must confess that it is somewhat above my head. In the time available I find it difficult to understand.
With a view to savings in future I hope that I have pointed out constructively that it should be decided what documents are really necessary to prepare and put before us so as to eliminate those that are duplicated and unnecessary.
As I have said, I believe that there is some advantage on the merits. There is the further advantage, which should appeal to the hon. Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe, that, although we are trying to harmonise this branch of tax law with our European partners in respect of principle, there is no question of their imposing amounts of taxation upon us. It will still be for our Chancellor of the Exchequer, acting within the principles, to decide what the taxes should be and the rebates that should apply.
Having a large rural constituency and having been interested in transport matters for many years, I came to the debate, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes, wondering how these changes in taxation would affect the farming community, which in turn affects the cost of food produced in this country. In that context it is hard to generalise about farm 702 vehicles. Some goods vehicles are used by farmers merely for the carriage of goods. Within the transport licensing law there is special type of licence that farmers may obtain. There are farmers who have such vehicles for carrying only their own goods, and there is another type of licence for those who carry their neighbours' goods as well as their own. For many of us who have farming constituencies it was necessary to know from the Government what the effect of the directive would be in respect of such vehicles if it were ever brought into force.
That is not all. Farmers have tractors, which are taxed, trailers, harvesters and a wide variety of fanning vehicles, which are taxed if they go on the roads, and many of them have to go on the roads. Some of them may be exempt from tax even if they go on the roads. That is why I must say in all candour that I was surprised that the Minister did not appear to be ready to enlighten us about these matters, which so deeply concern our farming constituencies. I hope that with or without a sitter-in he has managed to get advice. Perhaps he has obtained advice even while I have been talking, or in the course of the debate, so that when he replies, as he will have the right to do, he will be able to assure us that there will be no substantial increases in taxation as a result of what I find to be a sensible change in our tax law as borrowed from our European partners.
I refer finally to the brief intervention that I made when the Minister was speaking. I wish to ensure that he understood my point. That is because it concerns rural passenger transport, which those of us who represent rural constituencies know is a great problem. As a result of increased costs the buses find it difficult to keep going. We rejoice in the fact that there has been a great increase in private car ownership. Many families now have cars who could not have afforded them before. However, that ownership has hit the bus services hard. It has meant that bus services have had to have a fuel tax rebate. If that had not been made available, they would have had to close down altogether. Some of them still lose despite the rebate.
I was not convinced by the reply that I received from the Minister when I asked for an assurance that the tax rebates for 703 fuel use of public service passenger vehicles would be continued. I was not sure that the Minister understood my question. I hope that when he replies 704 he will reassure me that even if the directive is brought into force, such rebates will be allowed to continue.
§ 10.25 p.m.
§ Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham)
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) made a proper complaint about the amount of paper with which we are presented when we consider many of these EEC matters. I suspect that the complaint should not be against our own proceedings in Westminster, but should be directed to the fundamental cause—the flood of paper emanating from Brussels.
If there are any relevant documents— the original drafts or the redrafts of the directive—we must have them before us. This one tonight is only a modest example. On other occasions the documentation has run into hundreds of pages. This is a disease that afflicts Brussels—the churning out of vast quantities of paper.
§ Sir David Renton
My hon. Friend must be fair. Nobody in Brussels said that we must be presented with two almost precisely similar copies of the same document.
§ Mr. Moate
I think that we need to have the original draft and the latest draft. There would be legitimate complaints if those documents were missing. I desire that they should be shorter or non-existent. That gets to the heart of the matter.
Nevertheless I agree with a great deal of what my right hon. and learned Friend said, and I find not unwelcome the principle of taxing the gross laden weight of vehicles. Having said that, I question, in certain respects, the value of the draft directive. It is not enough simply to consider the directive on its own. It does not make any sort of sense to do so.
For the purpose of achieving fair competition there is little point in having a harmonised structure of taxation. If we are seeking equal conditions of competition between different transporters in different countries, ultimately we must be concerned with the harmonisation of tax rates. It does not make any sense unless the ultimate objective is to secure harmonised tax levels as well as a harmonised basis for tax.
The explanatory memorandum tells us that the directive is seen as a first step towards harmonising tax levels, and that 706 is the context in which we must consider this matter. The memorandum is somewhat misleading because it says:For the United Kingdom the effect is to retain the Chancellor's present freedom in matters of vehicle taxation.I suggest that that is an untrue statement. Once this directive is adopted, the Chancellor will not have the same freedom on matters of vehicle tax as he has at present. Certainly he will retain the freedom to fix the level of tax, but he will not have the freedom to do anything about its structure or basis. That is what this is about. One must be more precise in the wording of documents of this kind.
The document concerns the adjustment of national taxation systems, and the memorandum says:This is usually abbreviated in the United Kingdom to ANTS.That is a most appropriate description. This is another example of the tax powers of this House being nibbled away by the termites emanating from Brussels.
Of itself this is not a major inroad into our taxation powers, but it has to be added to the hundreds of other regulations which we are adopting progressively. It adds up to a powerful exercise by a lot of termites which ultimately will make a considerable impact on the taxation powers of this House.
This document in itself can be seen only as paving the way towards a harmonised taxation structure. Those of us who believe in free and fair competition would not necessarily object to a fairly standard basis of taxation, but I object to the proposition that it should be imposed on us and that this House and the Chancellor of the Exchequer should have less power to decide what is and what is not the right way to tax the motor vehicle.
In broad principle, I think that it makes sense to tax the gross laden weight of vehicles. I can also see the case for taking into account axle weights, because that is a relevant factor, but I wonder whether the change is worth all the trouble. That sentiment was expressed by the Freight Transport Association in views to the Select Committee—a document which most of us have only just seen. Complaint has been made about too much paper, but the irony is that a 707 paper that is valuable, since it contains sensible, down-to-earth comments, was not available until the debate began and most of us have had no time to assimilate its contents.
The FTA cast considerable doubts on the value of the whole exercise. That information is contained in a document of the FTA's views dated 15th January 1975. It is a very sceptical document. The explanatory memorandum gave the impression that the organisations representing manufacturers and haulage operators are now generally content with the changes which have been negotiated in the draft directive.
That is contrary to the expression of views by the FTA given some two years ago. It would be helpful if the Minister could say whether it has changed its views, or whether we can assume that the 1975 document is a fair indication of what it now thinks. If the association thinks the same as it did then, it is misleading to say in the explanatory memorandum that everybody is content with the situation.
By way of evidence, I wish to quote some extracts from the FTA's memorandum. The association says in the concluding paragraph:In view of this and the lack of information regarding detailed effects of the directive, we have serious reservations regarding acceptance of the directive at the present time.Earlier, in paragraph 7, it said:In other words, we consider that the draft directive should be left on the table until the detailed system which it would introduce has been designed.Even earlier, in paragraph 5, it said:We consider that deep thought should be given to whether the objectives of this directive are realistically achievable and whether the very substantial input of resources necessary to devise a satisfactory system will be worth the effort.I share that scepticism, particularly when we are told by the Minister in this debate that a great deal more information will be required from every lorry operator to assess the new tax rates.
At the moment I understand that we have no information about the gross laden weights of these vehicles or about the number of axles. I understand from the Minister that all that information is still to be secured and that we must re-rate all the vehicles on different bases. There 708 is considerable work involved to get the new basis of value. Is it worth it— because at this stage in regard to this directive we are not talking necessarily about increasing levels of taxation? I wonder whether it is worth the effort.
I want the Minister to explain precisely how the system will work, because it is not clear to me how the average mileage factor will be introduced into the taxation system. If there were two lorries, each of 32 tons, and one did 20,000 miles a year and the other 100,000 miles because they were engaged in different sorts of operations, would they be assessed on the same basis of average mileage? If one incorporates average mileage it becomes a nonsense factor because it would apply equally to all vehicles of the same weight. Perhaps the Minister could tell us how it will be done fairly between one vehicle and another.
I am also greatly concerned because I have a suspicion that the directive will pave the way towards heavier lorries. That suspicion is founded on the emphasis in this document on axle loadings. I accept that axle loading is a fair way of assessing the damage inflicted upon roads to a certain extent, but the argument about axle loadings leads many people to favour heavier lorries. It is said that if there are enough axles the average gross weight of the vehicle does not matter. I hope that the Minister will give a categorical assurance that in no way does our taking note of this directive imply that the Government or the House accept that there should now be any increase from 32 tons to 40 tons or whatever may be put forward.
If one has a tax system that emphasises axle weights, people will thereafter say that if there are five axles on a vehicle —and that will be encouraged by this system—there can be less argument against going up to 40-ton vehicles. The whole philosophy is an emphasis on axle loadings, and that will encourage manufacturers and others to argue for heavier lorries. Particularly now, it would be a fundamental mistake to accept any such commitment to heavier lorries. I emphasise now because the maintenance of our roads is now falling a long way behind because of the economic crisis of the last few years. Road conditions are worse, and the damage that is caused to roads in poor condition by heavy lorries is worse than 709 the damage that such lorries cause to roads in good condition. This would be a foolish time to increase lorry weights.
I question whether we are always right to attach such importance to axle loadings and not to gross weight. The Minister knows that there is great lack of knowledge about vibration damage. That damage can be directly related to the overall size of a vehicle and not simply to the axle loading. Before we go too far along the road of axle loadings alone, we should know much more about the extent of vibration damage caused by large lorries to road and building foundations. I hope that we shall go easy on this acceptance of the idea that axle loading is everything. It is not. I accept that the directive balances that by taking the gross laden weight factor as part of the basis for taxation. To that extent there might be a degree of balance that I should find acceptable.
I conclude by saying that I am sceptical about the whole value of the operation. I doubt whether it will be of any particular benefit to the road haulage industry. I share the Freight Transport Association's scepticism about whether it is a significant factor with regard to competition between ourselves and our European competitors. We should probably be as well off without it. It is just yet another additional burden of unnecessary legislation upon the country.
§ 10.40 p.m.
§ Mr. Hal Miller(Bromsgrove and Red-ditch)
I begin by apologising if I addressed the Chair incorrectly in my submission earlier about the amount of time available for consideration of these documents.
I am unable to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) —as he may have suspected—about the value of this legislation and about lorry weights. I also have to apologise to the House that my remarks may not be as considered as I should have liked, but I have had the documents only since 8.51 p.m. and, as I have been trying to follow the course of the debate, I have not been able to apply the polish or train of thought that I normally attempt to apply.
I should like to direct the Minister's attention to some serious points that I hope he will answer if he replies to the 710 debate. I am concerned that manufacturers of commercial vehicles need to have a clear indication, sufficiently in advance, of the course of taxation for them to plan and design the production of their vehicles. I understand that the draft directive applies only to vehicles whose tractive power is provided by diesel engines. Am I correct in supposing that petrol-engined vehicles are to be treated differently or are to be excluded from the scope of the harmonisation of taxation? This is a significant point for manufacturers and the time period envisaged is not lengthy when one considers the need to design a range of vehicles, conduct a marketing campaign and lay down the ensuing lines of production.
I hope that the Minister will take this not as a niggling point but as a genuine inquiry, because there is, also on this subject, the significant point about how the proposed taxation system will affect fuel used by vehicles, not only through their design but through the computation for taxation. I understand that average annual distances are to be included in the calculations under the directive and the financial terms must be affected by the fuel used. I understand that account will also be taken of vehicle excise duty and perhaps other duties. We must remember that fuel is differentially taxed in this country. I should be grateful if the Minister could clarify some of the Government's intentions in these matters.
Having drawn the Minister into it, I should be wrong not to pay tribute to him and his Secretary of State for presenting us with a copy of the actual EEC draft directive. This is a welcome departure, and I believe that it is the first time that we have had the draft directive as well as the Government memorandum which has had to serve in the past.
I turn to consideration of fuel economy. There is a danger that moves towards limiting the weight of vehicles may take us in the opposite direction from the aims of fuel economy. This is where I part company with my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham.
While I accept what was said about the need to pay very careful attention to the causes of vibration and the damage to buildings, I believe that we have not had sufficient evidence presented to us as to the cause of that vibration, in particular 711 on the question of the ratio to the fourth power on the axle weight. I think the Minister would agree that this is still quite controversial. It is by no means established whether that ratio is to the fourth power or, beyond that, whether it is indeed the correct ratio.
The Minister may have heard from designers who would tell him that it is rather more a question of the tyre size and the amount of rubber on the road, to put it colloquially, rather than necessarily the mere axle loading. I should be grateful if the Minister would tell us whether he has accepted this axle weight to the fourth power as a correct ratio, and whether, even accepting that, it is the correct ratio to apply to the degree of wear and tear.
Whereas I am in agreement with the principle that commercial vehicles should be taxed on the basis of the wear and tear caused, if that can be established, I am by no means satisfied that it has been established that the ratio selected is correctly calculated or applicable to wear and tear. Those are two separate questions. I think that the Minister has followed me.
I turn to the question of whether the tax proposals in this document will, in the Minister's estimation, result in an increase or a decrease in taxation. We have so far had, under the recent vehicle excise duties, a very substantial increase, which has gone largely unnoticed by the public, in the taxation of commercial vehicles. I should be grateful if the Minister would give us, on the present levels of taxation, his estimate of whether the adoption of this new basis would result in an increase or a decrease. The House has a right to know this. He would, I think, confirm my reaction to the question of his hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis) that he would indeed have to come to the House, because the change would require new legislation. I think that is made plain in the draft memorandum. Perhaps he would like to confirm that in order to change the United Kingdom basis of taxation fresh legislation would be required.
I wish now to go into another rather detailed point—the basis of taxation of tractors and trailers of articulated vehicles. The Minister will be aware that it is a quite common practice to 712 drive a trailer down to a Channel port and then to ship the trailer over "dead", as it were, on the roll-on/roll-off ferry, and then for a new tractor to pick it up on the other side. This is for reasons of lorry drivers' hours—another subject on which my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham might have some objection. But there is a limit on drivers' hours, and many fleet haulage firms, therefore, find it convenient to drive a trailer down to a Channel port and for the tractor driver then to have his rest and pick up another incoming trailer off a ferry, while the outgoing trailer goes over "dead" and is taken off by a light vehicle and hitched up to a tractor on the other side.
If there are different rates of taxation in the different countries, that is already one problem, but how is the trailer to be taxed together with the tractor if it is for most of its life attached to different tractors? I realise that this may sound amusing but it is a very real practical problem and we need to have an answer about it.
I turn now to the question that there should be some trade-off. I would not have put it in those terms. Is the Minister able to give us any indication about the number of permits that our operators are to receive for operating on the Continent? This is a relevant matter to raise in the context of this approximation of vehicle taxation. It may also arise in the context of the approximation of drivers' hours. I should be grateful for any indication that can be given of the progress that has been made in negotiations on that matter, which was also raised by the hon. Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe.
Finally, I regret the shortage of time to debate this matter in view of the highly technical nature of the questions that we have had to consider. If the Minister is unable to answer my questions tonight, I should be grateful if he would reply in correspondence. I realise that it is unfair to expect him to reply to all the questions without assistance, but these are serious matters which cause concern. Therefore, they deserve to be answered.
§ 10.52 p.m.
§ Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)
This directive comes before the House for 713 debate tonight because the Select Committee on European Community Secondary Legislation recommended that the House should consider it as it raised matters of political importance.
The directive has quite a long history before the Select Committee. In January and February 1975 the Committee considered the draft directive as it stood at that time and took written evidence on it. Unfortunately, that written evidence is missing. However, I recollect that at that time the evidence showed objection by the bodies which were consulted and which gave that written evidence that the proposals might remove the present tax advantage of diesel-propelled vehicles, that it might switch taxation from unladen to gross laden weight and, therefore, that it might operate to the disadvantage of the larger and more efficient vehicles. It was for that reason that the Select Committee considered that the House should debate this directive. Of course, the directive was then in a quite different form from that which has come before us tonight.
The Department submitted a revised explanatory memorandum in November 1976. That was considered by the Select Committee in December, and again it came to the conclusion that it had political importance and that it should be debated by the House.
Finally, what I may call the revised revised memorandum of 19th May 1977, which we have before us tonight, was submitted to the Committee. That was submitted with a draft directive which was very different from the first directive. It showed that the directive would now only apply to diesel-propelled goods vehicles, that the tonnage threshold for its application would be raised from 3 tons, as it was originally, to 12 tons for rigid lorries and tractor vehicles, to 16 tons for articulated vehicles or a combination of lorry and trailer, and to 4 tons for trailers, and that the taxation would depend partly on the average annual distance travelled.
The directive has progressed through several meetings of the Select Committee to the stage at which it now comes before the House. The hon. Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis) complained that we were dealing only with a draft directive and that, before this became 714 effective as a directive, there might be further alterations. Indeed, we have seen substantial alterations as it has progressed.
§ Mr. John Ellis
I have not got the paper with me, but I think the Select Committee pointed out that we had not got a memorandum at all but had an explanation of what the working party was doing.
§ Mr. Page
I am certain that before this becomes a firm directive there will be further alterations.
If there are substantial changes in a draft directive which has been before the Select Committee, and certainly if it has been before the House, there is an obligation on the Department to report those changes to the Committee. The Committee is charged with the duty of considering those changes and whether it should recommend that the directive should again be debated in the House.
There is great value in debating these directives when they are in draft form. We can tell the Secretary of State that he shall or shall not agree to proposals. The House expresses its opinion by accepting or rejecting the draft, and by that opinion the Secretary of State knows whether he should try to amend the draft before it becomes a firm directive. I am sure that the Minister has had some good advice from the House about which proposals in the draft should be considered further.
This is an important directive. It deals with the taxation of commercial vehicles. The tax will be reflected in the price of goods carried. It will affect the price of a whole range of goods, particularly food.
We are told in the first paragraph of the memorandum of 19th May 1977 that the purpose of the introduction of a common taxation structure for commercial goods vehicles is that the tax should in future reflect the variations between vehicles in the damage they cause to road infrastructure. That is a good principle because it reflects the cost of vehicles to the public. But I wonder who will benefit. Local authority revenue has to pay for the damage to road infrastructure. I cannot imagine that tax raised from commercial vehicles will go straight to the local authorities. The proposal might be good in principle, but who will benefit from it? Will the revenue go to local 715 authorities which suffer the damage to road infrastructure?
§ Mr. Hal Miller
Would my right hon. Friend go as far as to argue that all road revenue should go to a road fund dedicated to road construction and repair?
§ Mr. Page
I shall not be enticed along that avenue. I am saying that some of the revenue from this taxation should go to the authorities that suffer the damage.
The draft directive has been reported to the House by the Committee on the basis that it is of political importance. The Committee is charged with reporting to the House if it considers that a directive is of either political or legal importance. Although this directive was reported as being of only political importance, it is also of legal importance. Some substantial alterations will have to be made to our vehicle taxation law and how it is calculated.
I have said that the directive applies only to diesel-propelled vehicles and only to those of the certain rather substantial weights mentioned in the directive—at least, as the directive stands at present —and that it depends on the axle loading. I do not pretend to understand how one calculates the formulas on axle loading, but when it comes to average mileage I am a little puzzled. I may not have heard the Minister correctly, but I thought he said that when it came to the supplementary taxation—indeed, there is a paragraph in the memorandum on this very point, headed "The supplement"—this would depend on mileage.
I do not read that as stated in the memorandum. I thought that this was just the supplement which any member State might put on in the rate of tax. Am I to understand that this is some special supplement, not in a change of rates but in the actual structure of the taxation itself? Is it really a supplement or is it merely a change in the rates?
Also, if I heard the Minister correctly, he said that the operator need not bother about the average mileage and that it would all be worked out on some public scale. If that is so, we ought to be told a little more about that. That certainly does not come out in the memorandum.
716 I think that my hon. Friends have raised all the other points that I wanted to call to the attention of the House, except perhaps the timetable. In the memorandum, we are told:It is now unlikely that a decision on the Directive will be possible until late 1977 and the operational date will have to be deferred to 1st January 1980.By "the operational date", does that mean that we shall have to have the new tax structure in this country by 1st January 1980? It is true that the memorandum saysThis would provide a transitional period until at the latest 31st December 1984.I am puzzled about what is to happen during the transitional period. Are we to have two rates of tax, optional forms of tax, or what is to happen in that transitional period? I should have thought that if one were introducing a new tax structure it would be introduced in one measure and not by a matter of transition over a period.
Perhaps the Minister could give us a little clearer indication of the timetable and when we may expect to be obliged to consider in the House the details of this new tax structure for commercial goods vehicles. If we are to consider in the House some appendix, such as the one put before us tonight, in calculating the result of, as the Minister said, the heavier and fewer axles the higher the tax—which sounds to me a most extraordinary formula, but I suppose that the Minister is right—I shudder to think of the sort of amendments that will go down on the Order Paper and the time we shall spend in Committee working out that formula.
However, I return to the first principle of this. I think that the principle of the tax being related to the damage caused to the road infrastructure is a good principle provided that the proceeds from it go to the right quarter.
§ 11.4 p.m.
§ Mr. Horam
I am glad that the right hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) approves of the principle, but I am sorry that he asked me so many detailed questions at such short notice, as I cannot give him adequate replies.
I should like first to answer the right hon. Gentleman's question about the 717 transitional period. If one is introducing such a measure, which is a fundamental change in the structure of a tax, one will do it all at once. I cannot imagine any Government trying to do it bit by bit. The right hon. Gentleman is right about that.
As for the timing, I have already pointed out that the problems of obtaining information on the number of vehicles of different types in the country prevented any action earlier than late next year. In all probability 1979 is the earliest practicable date for legislation to move over to the new system.
I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman any more details than I have already given about a publicly-available scale of charges, a ready reckoner, because it will depend on the level of the tax, and the amounts of the tax are not yet decided because its structure is not yet dicided. It is not sensible to go into further details when we know so little at this stage about what taxation will emerge for any particular vehicle.
§ Mr. Hal Miller
Does the Minister realise that this has serious implications for manufacturers and users of vehicles? Will he try to produce a system as early as possible? The longer the matter goes on, the shorter the period of transition will remain, with serious consequences for everybody involved, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman understands.
§ Mr. Horam
There is the problem of exactness in producing the details for a ready reckoner. That is one reason why we cannot say what the exact figures will be until we know more. But that is a matter of small changes on the present levels of taxation. That need present no real problem, because they will not be large changes if this new formula is adopted.
However, there may be large changes in the general level of taxation, and the hon. Gentleman cannot reasonably expect me to anticipate what any Chancellor may decide to do in that regard. That is a separate matter that we cannot go into now. There is no uncertainty, because we are talking about the sort of measures that were taken in this year's Budget and will be taken in next year's.
§ Mr. John Ellis
The question of har-monisation must raise its head, because 718 it is a fundamental concept of the Common Market that one country's commercial infrastructure and taxation cannot work to the exclusion of another country. Therefore, everything must fall into line, following the Common Market dream of everybody competing fairly.
§ Mr. Horam
No. The supplement that we have talked about remains entirely a matter for individual Finance Ministers. There is no intention in the directive that that shall be harmonised. If I tried to reply to the question of the hon. Member for Bromsgrove and Redditch (Mr. Miller) in the way that I think he wants, I should be trying to anticipate what future Chancellors may do about vehicle taxation, and it would be foolish to do so.
The right hon. Member for Crosby made the ingenious suggestion that some of the money should go to local authorities because, he said, they repaired the roads. It is not only local authorities that repair roads. The Department of Transport undertakes repairs and maintenance for trunk roads, roads which carry a high proportion of heavy vehicle traffic. That is one reason why local authorities will not necessarily receive some of the money. Secondly, even the money that local authorities spend on the maintenance of their own roads comes principally from Government sources. To hypothecate a part of that sum to local authorities would be to carry local authority expansionism to unwanted lengths.
As for who will benefit from this system of taxation, the sensible answer is that it will be the consumer. After all, the point is that there should be a fair system which reflects in the taxation of particular vehicles the resources represented by the funds for road building maintenance, policing and so on. The result is a true allocation of costs among different types of road vehicles and between road vehicles and rail freight. This obviously results in the best use of resources and the lowest prices. That is why the real beneficiary will be the consumer.
§ Mr. Hal Miller
Is the Minister really saying that his Department has not run some calculations through on the formula for negotiation in the annex to see whether it works and what figure it produces? I find that hard to believe. If we are trying to estimate the taxation of commercial 719 vehicles through the EEC, he must be able to give us some idea on the present basis of taxation, without committing the Chancellor. On the present basis, would the result be an increase or a decrease in taxation?
§ Mr. Horam
The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) raised the same question in a different way. He asked whether we thought that the current levels of taxation, taking account of the Budget, covered the costs of lorries as a whole—as the Freight Transport Association maintains they do. It is our view that, while lorries as a whole cover their costs, the heaviest lorries do not. The FTA does not agree, but the reason for the difference, as I explained in Committee on the Transport (Financial Provisions) Bill of long-lived memory, is that we believe that the FTA has made a simple and honest arithmetical error in not taking account of inflation. I could readily demonstrate that if I had more time.
We believe that our calculations are correct and that heavy lorries do not cover their costs. Therefore, to answer the hon. Member for Bromsgrove and Redditch, this structure, if imposed at the present level of taxation in this country, would redistribute taxation towards heavy lorries and away from lighter lorries but would not substantially increase the total.
The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield said that what we are debating here are wear and tear costs, which are basically road building, maintenance, policing, traffic lights, other lighting and other direct costs. The directive does not deal with social and environmental costs, and it is not the intention of the directive that they should be included. It is simply wear and tear costs of a direct kind. The hon. Gentleman went on to ask me what was the Government's present position on charging for social and environmental costs. The Government's present position will be revealed in the White Paper.
The hon. Gentleman also asked me what was the situation on permits, as did the hon. Member for Bromsgrove and Redditch. I take the point very seriously. I have a lot of correspondence on this matter, and I know how strongly our own road hauliers feel about the limitation of 720 permits. I have myself argued in the ECMT as well as in the Common Market for an increase in permits. This is a matter about which we have not so far got the agreement of our European partners. None the less, we continue to push at every possible opportunity for an increase in the number of permits.
The position is that whereas, for example, it is France which gives us most of our permits, most of the French permits which we use are not used for vehicles which necessarily are delivering to France. They will be simply crossing France. There is a slight difference of view about how permits should be used. It can look unfair to our people when it is not necessarily as unfair as all that. None the less, we feel that it is right for us to press as far as we can.
§ Mr. Norman Fowler
I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that there is no regulation or directive which affects those negotiations and that our membership of the Common Market should be beneficial from the point of view of negotiations. I agree that it is not at the moment.
§ Mr. Horam
I hope that in the long run we shall gain some benefit from being members of the Common Market, though at the moment progress is very slow. There has been no change in the quotas for some time now. There are some quotas which are decided directly by the Common Market. There are also international quotas which are decided by the ECMT. That is a separate matter.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis) made a point about the freedom of Finance Ministers to set the levels of tax as they wish. The freedom still remains absolute with regard to this half of the tax—the amount which does not cover wear and tear costs. But it is necessary to qualify that freedom in respect of wear and tear costs, because it is the intention of the directive that, ultimately, the new system of taxation will operate, as it does, fairly between categories, and also that each category will cover its marginal wear and tear costs. To that extent, therefore, there is a minimum aim in absolute levels of taxation. It is only above that that Finance Ministers will retain total freedom, though it is a very large freedom.
§ Mr. Graham Page
The hon. Gentleman has not dealt with the point about the fuel tax. This applies only to diesel-propelled vehicles. Will it not be discriminatory if we alter the rate on diesel oil?
§ Mr. Horam
The United Kingdom intend to treat vehicles which use petrol on a par with vehicles which use diesel fuel. That is not in the directive, because the directive relates only to vehicles which use diesel fuel. But, as a matter of United Kingdom Government policy, we intend to treat petrol engines on a par with diesel-fuelled engines. That is a separate matter within our control, and that would be a reasonable and sensible way to approach that problem.
On the other aspect of freedom, I make the point that this approach to the taxation of lorries is one that the Government want to adopt anyway. It is true, in a sense, that our freedom might be limited by an EEC directive in this way if we were against it. But we are in favour of it. We are moving down this path anyway. Therefore, there is no limitation of this freedom as a consequence of this directive.
§ Mr. Rathbone
Do I understand the Under-Secretary to be saying that it is therefore the Government's intention and wish to increase the taxation of heavy agricultural vehicles?
§ Mr. Horam
Perhaps I can deal with the point about agricultural vehicles. I ask the hon. Gentleman to differentiate between tractors and implements which they pull, which are not affected by this directive, which are used on or off the farm. But farmers' goods vehicles are subject to this directive. It is a matter of negotiation as to how far their present concessionary rates on vehicle excise duty are maintained in the future. As I have said, we have had negotiations, and shall continue to do so, with the National Farmers' Union. That was why I could not be more precise in my earlier reply. This is still a matter for survey by the NFU and also for continuing negotiation.
The hon. Gentleman also made a point about drawbar trailers. These will be taxed separately. If there is a case for different levels of tax for farmers' drawbar trailers, this will emerge from our discussions with the NFU.
§ Mr. Graham Page
The draft directive applies all the way through to rigid lorry, tractor, trailer or semi-trailer. It seems to me that it applies to the sort of vehicles that the hon. Gentleman is referring to. I cannot see how the Minister is excluding them from the effect of the directive.
§ Mr. Horam
It is my information that tractors and the implements they pull are not affected by the directive. That is what I am telling the House.
With regard to the other point of my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe about whether we may debate this matter again, I think he was put off by the remarks of the right hon. Member for Crosby. If there were any major changes in this directive, which I do not expect there to be, it would, of course, again go to the Select Committee on European Legislation. No doubt it would have a view on whether we could debate this matter again. Equally, as the hon. Member for Bromsgrove and Redditch pointed out, there would have to be primary United Kingdom legislation if we were to implement this particular directive. We intend to do that, and that will be an opportunity to debate it.
In addition, when the fuel duty or the vehicle excise duty is changed in a Budget, that is also a matter for debate. I do not think that my hon. Friend can complain about the lack of opportunity to air particular points that he may wish to on these issues.
The right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) made three points. I think that I have dealt with the one on farm vehicles.
§ Mr. Horam
The other point concerned passenger vehicles. I can confirm that rebates will continue. There will be no hindrance to rebates.
723 The right hon. and learned Gentleman's third general point was that we should not necessarily present every particular document. He suggested that we should present only the documents that are necessary for debate. Unfortunately, it has been the case that the House and the Government have taken a different view from time to time on what documents are necessary for debate. Indeed, the hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) appeared to take a different view from the right hon. and learned Gentleman about what documents were necessary. In particular, we have from time to time been accused of not presenting the original documents in all their glorious mistranslation, or wrong translation, or whatever else, so that hon. Members can have the original text. The Government are in some difficulty. They are trying to meet the situation as best they can.
§ Sir David Renton
The point is that the second translation was completely unnecessary because the only change that it made was to substitute the word "considering" in five places for the three words "having regard to". The second translation was totally unnecessary, and pages and pages have been wasted.
§ Mr. Horam
The right hon. and learned Gentleman had open to him the simple remedy of not bothering to look at the duplication. He said that he had read the documents furiously. It took only a 10-second glance for anyone to see that the two were the same, and I am surprised that anyone should spend any longer than that on the matter. This is a matter of the Government trying to present the original text, which is what the Leader of the House committed the Government to on 30th March. The Government are trying to meet that commitment, and it is strange that they should then be accused of going too far in that direction.
The hon. Member for Faversham asked whether the Freight Transport Association was content, and I can confirm that to my knowledge it is content with the safeguards of the transitional period and all the other items that we have managed to change or renegotiate.
The hon. Member asked also how we obtained the information on average mileage. It is thrown up by the employers' own surveys. They have weekly 724 reports on a survey of 500 vehicles which shows how far each vehicle travels each week. The vehicles can be divided into categories, one category, for example, covering the band of 18 to 20 tonnes, and the mileage covered by that category can be calculated. No extra work is therefore involved.
I can give the hon. Member the assurance that the directive has nothing to do with the heavier vehicles. That is a completely separate matter which will be dealt with by the Government in due course and ultimately by the House of Commons.
The debate may have gone on for longer than some had hoped, but it has been a constructive debate on an interesting topic.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ That this House takes note of EEC draft Directive R/1435/68 on Adjustment of National Taxation Systems for commercial road vehicles, and of the revised explanatory memorandum submitted by the Secretary of State for Transport on 19th May 1977, which includes a text of the draft Directive currently under discussion.