HC Deb 27 January 1981 vol 997 cc827-82

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Brooke.]

7.5 pm

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Norman Fowler)

The purpose of this debate is to discuss the document entitled "Report of the Inquiry into Lorries, People and the Environment" which was presented to me by Sir Arthur Armitage at the beginning of last month. As time for the debate is limited, and as many hon. Members wish to speak, I shall be brief.

Quite rightly, there has been pressure for a debate on this report ever since it was published. The Government shared the desire that the House should be given the opportunity to debate it, and it seemed right to us that once the opportunity for a debate arose, that opportunity should be taken. Of course, I recognise that the shortness of notice may have been inconvenient to some hon. Members and I apologise for that. However, I hope that the House will agree that it is right that this report should be debated before the Government make any decisions upon the recommendations in it. I should like to say a word or two about the consultation in a moment, but before I come to that perhaps I could say a word about the history of the inquiry.

In April 1979 the Labour Government announced that there would be an independent inquiry into the whole question of lorries and the environment. The reasons for such an inquiry are clear. There is deep public concern about the effect on the environment of the lorry, while at the same time there is a strong feeling in industry that economic benefits could be gained by allowing heavier lorries. The essential question is whether we can get the economic benefits of the lorry without paying an environmental price that the public would regard as too high. In other words, where does the public interest lie?

My predecessor, the right hon. Member for Stockton (Mr. Rodgers) took the view that we should best proceed here by way of an independent inquiry—an inquiry that examined all the issues concerned.

In Opposition I accepted that proposal, and in Government we took it forward. In July 1979 I appointed Sir Arthur Armitage, the vice-chancellor of Manchester university, and professor of common law, to carry out this inquiry. He was helped by an equally distinguished team of assessors. As I said at the time, it was not intended to be a long, drawn-out inquiry, and the work was completed in 15 months. I should like to pay tribute to the work that this committee has done, and the way in which it has dealt with the vast amount of evidence that it has been given—evidence from 130 national organisations, 219 local authorities, 369 local amenity groups, 146 commercial and industrial firms and 963 members of the public. It has carried out a massive job with great distinction.

I should add that while Sir Arthur makes it clear that he takes full responsibility for the conclusions and recommendations, the report is jointly agreed by all four assessors. What I have also made clear from the time that this inquiry was set up is that we would consult in the House of Commons on how Members saw the issues that are involved in the report. So let me repeat that the issues in this report have not been considered by Ministers: no decisions have been taken; and this debate is one part of the process of fulfilling our promise to consult the House. I obviously appreciate that the debate has been arranged at short notice, and I should like to make it clear that I do not regard it as an end of the process. I am still very willing to listen to or receive any representation about the report following this debate. I hope that I have made the Government's position absolutely clear.

Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea, North)

This debate has come as a surprise in its timing, not merely to Members of the House but to some outside organisations which would like to put to the right hon. Gentleman their views on the report before he reaches a final decision. Is he now assuring us that he will listen to them, as well as to hon. Members, before he makes up his mind?

Mr. Fowler

Yes, I should like to give that assurance to the right hon. Gentleman. Obviously the period of consultation cannot go on for ever but, given a reasonable time limit, I would in no way wish to shorten that period of consultation. That is for the very good reason that we want to ascertain the views of the House and the views of the other organisations that the right hon. Gentleman has mentioned.

Mr. Ted Leadbitter (Hartlepool)

The right hon. Gentleman has done a great deal to satisfy the House. We were genuinely worried. Will he give an assurance that, following the discussions that he has suggested, the House will once again have an opportunity to debate the issue?

Mr. Fowler

I do not think that I can give the undertaking of a further general debate. However, it follows that any proposals that come forward from the process that I have outlined will have to be debated in the House. As I said to the right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay), I am prepared to receive representations from hon. Members and from outside organisations. I shall do everything in my power to take as much note of the representations as I can.

Mr. Geoffrey Johnson Smith (East Grinstead)

I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for the assurance that he has given. Many of us feel that the debate has been bounced on us and that at such short notice it cannot possibly be regarded as a debate that reflects fully the feeling of my right hon. and hon. Friends. Many of us have had no time to prepare for the debate.

Mr. Fowler

I appreciate the time factor. I say in defence of the timing of the debate that when the report was published I said that we hoped to have a debate within two months. I think that we are within the seventh week following publication. There was notice that a debate would follow. I fully understand what my hon. Friend is saying about timing and short notice.

Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham)

In view of the full and helpful assurances that my right hon. Friend has given the House, will he help the House by explaining why we are likely to be voting at 11 o'clock when the debate concludes? Are we likely to vote, and if so, on what?

Mr. Fowler

I am not in a position to answer my hon. Friend. If there was misunderstanding previously, I hope that that misunderstanding has been cleared up and that we may now proceed with the general debate on the report. The Government want to hear what hon. Members have to say on this important issue.

Mr. Sydney Bidwell (Ealing, Southall)

Is it a fact that consideration of the Transport Bill in Committee was adjourned this morning to facilitate the right hon. Gentleman's briefing for this debate? I am not moaning about it if that happened, as I welcome the opportunity to have the debate.

Mr. Fowler

As I understand it, the adjournment of the Committee took place at the request of the Opposition. I cannot take responsibility for that. I am trying to be as helpful as possible. I know that some hon. Members may find that difficult to believe. That is the Government's position in considering and debating the report.

I shall seek to review the position. The lorry now has the predominant share of freight transport in this country. In terms of tonne-mileage it now carries about two-thirds of all the goods transported in Britain. That compares with the position in 1953, when road freight accounted for only just over one-third of all goods. It is important not only at home but overseas, and in recent years there has been rapid growth in the lorry traffic with other countries. It is an important employer—employing an estimated 190,000 in the hire and reward section of road haulage and a further 125,000 in own-account road transport. In addition, it should not be forgotten that there is an important lorry and trailer manufaturing industry.

It is not difficult to see why the lorry has become the predominant method of freight transport. As the Armitage report says, it is not Governments or road hauliers who have decided that; it is customers. The lorry offers a door-to-door service for the simple reason that all suppliers and customers are connected to the road system. The Armitage committee points out that we are now economically dependent on the lorry, that the lorry has brought economic benefits, and that in some form it is here to stay. It has also pointed out that a price has been paid in the effect of lorries both on the public and on the environment.

I in no way wish to understate that problem. No one who has done my job for any length of time can but be aware of the great and genuine public feeling that there is about the intrusion of lorry traffic. Frequently the complaints are about lorries travelling on roads which are inadequate for them—roads which were never designed to take lorry traffic. There are frequent complaints of lorries parked in the wrong place—for example, in residential roads as opposed to lorry parks. There are complaints of noise, of fumes, of vibration. These are real and urgent problems, and I believe that they must be tackled. They must be tackled both for the sake of the quality of people's lives and because unless they are tackled hostility towards the lorry will increase and will put at risk the economic advantages it brings.

How do we achieve that? We can first ensure that by taxation there is no unjustified incentive for lorry traffic—in other words, that the lorry pays its full track cost. Unless it does, it will be at an advantage compared with, for example, rail competition.

At present, the very heaviest lorries do not pay their full track cost. This is dealt with in the Transport Bill now in Committee and it is, I think, a matter of common agreement between both sides of the House that action to rectify this anomaly should be taken.

As for rail, the Government will want to consider carefully what the Armitage report says on section 8 grants and their extension. I have a great deal of sympathy with that part of the report.

Armitage argues that the proper way of tackling this question is essentially by regulation. One of the most important ways forward here is construction and use regulations. In other words, we should build into the lorry the improvements that we want to see. For example, we all of us want to see quieter lorries. A great deal of work has been done on this. Hon. Members will perhaps have had an opportunity of seeing the Foden quiet lorry.

However, it is not enough that the quiet lorry should be some kind of exceptional showpiece. It should become standard throughout the country. To achieve that, Armitage proposes radical reductions in noise levels. The report also proposes that to make lorries safer and better they should be fitted with under-run guards at both front and rear, and lightweight sideguards. This has been done with the Leyland Roadtrain and Leyland's safe lorry was exhibited for the first time at the end of last year.

The Armitage committee wants more enforcement and tougher penalties. Enforcement of the overloading regulations is an important aspect. In October last year the Ministry of Transport instituted a blitz campaign on the South and East Coast ports. As a result, 27 per cent. of the vehicles that were stopped and checked were immediately prohibited. We shall want to have further checks over the coming weeks. There will be a further check shortly. These are some of the ways that the impact of the lorry can be reduced. I believe that many in the House will welcome the clear statement in the report by Sir Arthur Armitage of what is needed in this country.

Another part of the proposals concerns efforts to take heavy traffic away from residential areas. In this respect, Armitage backs the emphasis in the roads White Paper of last year that we have sought to give to bypasses and relief roads. Some examples of the importance of bypasses are given in the report. The Bridge bypass on the A2 in Kent has reduced the number of lorries in the town from 760 a day to 14. The Tring bypass on the A41 reduced the number of lorries in that town from 960 to 285 a day. The proposed motorway from Oxford to Birmingham—the M40—could relieve roads through at least 10 communities. Part of the effect of the M25 is to take traffic away from villages and towns.

As I said in the roads White Paper, there are still too many towns and villages choked by heavy traffic. It remains one of the Government's priorities to seek to improve this situation by the construction of bypasses and relief roads. Obviously, I have to make it clear that funds are limited but we shall do everything that we can to achieve a road building programme which brings environmental benefit particularly by removing lorry traffic from towns and villages. Whatever decisions are taken, they will not achieve immediate results on the ground because, inevitably, the mounting of a programme of road schemes takes time to complete.

Mr. Terence Higgins (Worthing)

Would my right hon. Friend agree that road improvement schemes that still go through towns are not the answer? It is essential that bypasses should be genuine bypasses that avoid town areas completely.

Mr. Fowler

As a generalisation, I would agree with that point. Many bypasses in the programme seek to achieve that object.

Mr. Leadbitter

I should like to raise the matter of the time scale. The Secretary of State seeks to be helpful. When he poses the problems of road provision, bypasses and taking lorries away from urban areas, he must take account of the need of the House and the country to be satisfied that there has to be a time scale. What are the intentions in terms of priorities to meet the Armitage recommendations on roads and lorries? Do we have the roads first and then the lorries? Will they be together? What is the plan?

Mr. Fowler

The hon. Gentleman will have read the roads White Paper which I published last year. This set out the Government's proposals on road building. I am now saying that as a result of the Armitage inquiry and its report we have to look at the programme in that light. As no decisions have been taken in the main, clearly no decisions have been taken in this respect.

Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

Is not my right hon. Friend aware that at this moment his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment is busily cutting a lot of bypass schemes out of the 10-year county structure plans? This is not compatible with what the Minister is telling the House.

Mr. Fowler

The policy on roads, set out in the roads White Paper, which I am sure my right hon. Friend has read, is the policy that we are pursuing there. As I hope I have sought to say to the House, this is clearly a matter that must be considered in connection with the Armitage inquiry. Clearly, we have not come to decisions about this, just as we have not come to decisions on the Armitage inquiry. That it is a factor is a matter which I hope would be common ground between both sides of the House.

I turn now to the other group of recommendations, on weights and dimensions. Of course, it is lorry weights which have given rise to most comment on the Armitage proposals. They will be one of the central subjects of the debate this evening.

On damage to roads and bridges, the report focuses attention on the key importance of axle weights—that is, the weight of the individual wheels of a lorry on the ground. Axle weights will be affected not only by the weight of the load on the lorry but by the number of axles it has and the way the load is spread across them.

It is important, when considering the Armitage report, to remember that it rejects the types of lorry proposed in the EEC draft directive, specifically because of the high axle weights, which would impose unacceptable loadings on our older bridges, which would be very costly indeed to strengthen. The report explains this point clearly. It makes alternative proposals for lower-than-EEC axle weights which, if they were implemented, would involve no further expenditure on our bridges. That is worth emphasising. Armitage does not involve vast new spending on bridges. Indeed, it envisages no extra spending on bridges.

The lower axle weights proposed by the report have other advantages. The report draws on work by the Transport and Road Research Laboratory to estimate that because of the larger number of axles, the heavier vehicles proposed eventually reduce road damage. I know that many people are concerned about this aspect, and, obviously, the Government would not accept proposals for heavier vehicles if we were advised that this would worsen the state of our roads.

The report also deals with lorry size and Armitage rightly identifies this as one of the main areas of public concern. It rejects the idea of even bigger lorries, and I am quite sure that this will be welcomed. Indeed, the report proposes additional new controls on length and height to ensure that lorries cannot get any bigger than they are already. These would properly be the subject of detailed consultation with vehicle manufacturers and others directly affected. I should like to say a word about the proposed additional half metre on articulated lorries to bring the maximum legal length from 15 to 15.5 metres.

It is clear that Armitage does not see his proposal as resulting in articulated lorries becoming more intrusive. He recommends that the intrusive part of the lorry—that is the trailer—should be restricted to its present dimensions. The additional half metre would recognise the fact that slightly larger cabs, often fitted with a "sleeper" bunk for the driver, are coming into more and more frequent use. The new length limit would accommodate this development, and the report also makes the point that the additional space could in future be used for other new features, such as noise insulation.

Sir Arthur is quite definite that the heavier lorries that he proposes should be subject to precisely the same environmental standards as the existing heaviest lorries. He proposes the same safeguards on noise, braking and axle weight distribution to ensure that this would be so. Concentrating on the environmental aspects of heavier lorries as I have, I do not believe that we should overlook the important economic and industrial aspect, and the report goes into this in some detail. At this stage, I make only one or two rapid points.

Armitage believes that by allowing increased loads, fewer vehicles could be used to meet transport requirements. There would be substantial savings on transport costs as a result. More particularly, the increased weight limits proposed would allow the 40 ft containers, which are standard world-wide, to be fully loaded.

At present, these containers can be loaded only to about 70 per cent. of their full weight capacity if they are to be carried by road in this country, which puts a cost penalty on our exporters and importers. This also applies in the case of containers carried by rail, because the vast majority of them have to begin or end their journey by road.

Finally, our own vehicle and trailer manufacturers have indicated a need for a strong home market for heavy vehicles to provide a base in retaining and developing their position in export markets. The uncertainty necessarily created by the Armitage proposals for new weight limits has had the effect of depressing the demand for new vehicles, and particularly trailers, in this country. The issue is really this. Does the Armitage committee chart a way forward that this country can take? It is a package of proposals. I accept that. But I hope that in our debate we can seek as much common ground as possible.

Armitage resulted from agreement between parties. It was the Labour Government who announced the setting up of an independent committee. It was this Government who made the appointments to it. We were both agreed that that was a sensible way of proceeding. What I am now seeking to do is to ask the House for its views on that question, for the good reason that Members of Parliament are in an exceptionally good position to judge both the environmental consequences and the economic benefits in their own areas.

The House often complains that it is given no opportunity to express its views before proposals are made. It is argued that unless it does it is too late, because Governments will be committed. As I have said, in this case no decisions have yet been taken. I hope that the Opposition Front Bench understand that that is the position. I hope that the House will welcome this opportunity to give its views before that stage is reached.

7.30 pm
Mr. Albert Booth (Barrow-in-Furness)

We strongly object to the Government's decision to hold a debate on the Armitage report at only 24 hours' notice and in a framework that makes it impossible for us to vote properly on a major contentious issue. In such a debate it is necessary not only to give our individual views but to reflect the considerations of organisations seriously concerned with the proposals raised in the report.

We have had a series of consultations with outside bodies in the belief that we should know their views before the debate. It has been impossible to complete the consultations. Some of the organisations that we were able to notify of the debate today must have worked through the night. I have a communication from one responsible body of employers with a 4.15 am stamp from the House of Commons post office. That illustrates the importance attached to the issue. The Association of Metropolitan Authorities told me today that it had put the issues to its members and had considered a paper but could not give us a reply in time for the debate.

Over the past 33 years there has been a continuing trend towards heavier lorries. In 1960 we had 10 times as many lorries over 8 tons in weight on our roads as we had in 1946. In 1979, there were 100 times as many. That is a rough guide to the accelerating trend that has come about with each successive decision of Government to increase maximum permitted lorry weights.

One significant decision was that taken in 1955, to permit a gross axle weight for vehicles of 24 tons. More significant was the raising of the four-axle articulated weight to 32 tons in 1964. Then there have been decisions to increase the permitted width and length of lorries. Each decision has been followed by an increase in the number of heavy lorries on our roads.

We are concerned not only by the number of heavy vehicles but by the mileage done by the largest vehicles on our roads. The heaviest vehicles account for about 80 per cent. of the mileage on United Kingdom roads by articulated vehicles. There has been a much faster increase in the use of heavy lorries on United Kingdom roads than in other EEC countries, most of which have far more of their heavy freight conveyed by rail. In this country there has been a massive switch of freight from rail to road.

I do not argue that tonnage is the best guide, but between 1953 and 1979 the ratio of freight carried by road to freight carried by rail increased from 3:1 to 9:1. A better guide is probably tonne-mileage. In 1953 our railways were carrying slightly more tonne-mileage than our roads, but by 1979 we had five times as much tonne-mileage on our roads as on our railways. It is therefore clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that heavy road freight vehicles play a dominant part in the road-rail freight equation.

The post-Beeching length of our rail network is 12,000 miles compared with 200,000 miles of road, so it is almost inevitable that a large number of heavy goods vehicles will be needed for the freight requirements of our industry and services. We must decide whether we want the trend towards greater use of heavy lorries to continue, to stop at the stage that it has reached or to be reversed. We must form a clear view based on a realistic appraisal.

Mr. Tony Durant (Reading, North)

Does the right hon. Gentleman consider that there will be a natural inclination to send more freight by rail over longer distances and to curtail the distances covered by road freight as a result of the limitation on drivers' hours?

Mr. Booth

The drivers' hours regulation have not halted the trend towards road freight. If there were a much greater reduction of hours worked per driver, the trend might change. However, I do not believe that that is likely. I believe that the effect of further regulations concerning hours will be marginal compared with the effect of decisions taken on raising heavy lorry weights.

If we decide that we wish to halt or reverse the trend towards heavier lorries, we have to decide how far the proposals in the report will enable us to achieve that end and what time scale we should aim for. Part of the trend towards heavier lorries is the result of lack of capital investment in our railway system. I do not wish to raise a party point, but I agree with the part in the Armitage report that states that better investment in railways would have had some effect.

Mr. Peter Fry (Wellingborough)

May I refer the right hon. Gentleman to paragraph 49 of the Armitage report? It states: in strictly economic terms it seems likely that the failure to invest more in the railways…has been the result of their inability to produce a sufficient rate of return on their investment. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that? What are his views?

Mr. Booth

I do not accept the overall view of the Armitage report that the market should prevail in the freight system. Other countries have not had a free market transport system. Their Governments have had a considerable bearing in the size of the mode of transport. We could justify adopting that view. Therefore, I do not fully accept what Armitage has to say on that point.

Mr. Moate

Surely the point that the right hon. Gentleman has been making about investment is disproved by another even more important quotation from the Armitage report. Page 17 states: excluding this international traffic"— which applies for geographical reasons— British Rail have the same share of all freight traffic in terms of tonnage as the railways do in France and West Germany and a greater share than on other European railways. Does that not contradict what the right hon. Gentleman was saying?

Mr. Booth

No. It shows that it is unrealistic to suggest that international traffic can be disregarded when comparing one country's rail system with that of another. If the French or German railway systems have a greater degree of electrification than the British system—because they can invest for international traffic purposes—they have the advantage of a highly electrified system for internal rail freight. Therefore, I disagree with the report on that point.

If the railways are to achieve the share of freight that they should have, and if there is to be a more balanced use of the differing modes of transport, there must be more door-to-door conveyance by the railway system. That is a major point. It should be possible to shift freight from mines to power stations and from factories to warehouses. It is essential that if railways are to be in the market of freight transport more private sidings should be opened.

There are only 1,700 sidings in Britain. In Germany there are 13,000. That is one reason why Germany has more rail freight. If goods have to be loaded on to a lorry and taken to the railhead or station, and if they are then shipped by rail and offloaded once again on to a lorry in order to get the goods to their destination, it must cost more than siding-to-siding traffic. That is why we welcome the proposals to extend the scope of the grants made under section 8 of the Railway Act, as proposed in the Armitage report. Armitage says that the standard grant should be increased to 60 per cent. Where it can be shown to be of environmental advantage to put in a siding, there should be a grant of 80 per cent.

We are particularly anxious that freightliners, which convey many of the large containers that are so objectionable when carried by road, should be included within the scope of the grants. Therefore, I welcomed what I thought the Secretary of State was about to say when he indicated some sympathy with the argument. However, before a decision is reached we should be told whether the Government intend to make available to the railway system money that is clearly needed if it is to carry its proper share of freight.

Paragraph 182 of the report contains a poor piece of reasoning. It purports to show that if measures were taken to transfer 40 million tonnes of existing long-distance freight to rail it would result in a reduction of 8 per cent. in road ton-miles. That figure is so low because it includes all goods vehicles, including milk floats that deliver pint bottles to doorsteps. If the calculations had been made on the basis of transfer from road to rail that had been measured in terms of heavy lorry mileage, the correct figure would have been at least 20 per cent. That is a significant reduction.

At the very least, competition between road and rail should be based on particular modes meeting their full track costs. The Secretary of State touched on that point, and its relevance to the Transport Bill. I shall not pursue it as it may be touched on by us later. The Freight Transport Association, which represents a considerable body of employers, accepts the principle of lorries meeting full road track costs. The Armitage report states that not only should the maintenance of the way be taken into account but also the cost of accidents. Even on the basis of the Armitage proposals, there would be a considerable increase in the vehicle excise duty on lorries. The figure of £1,188 would have to increase by about £800. If one included the cost of accidents and other damage the present duty would have to be raised by £1,465, Therefore, we are discussing making massive changes in the duty levied on the heaviest of vehicles.

Although it is important to get our road-rail equation right and to use our differing modes effectively, it is probably more important to the majority of citizens whom we represent to remove large numbers of heavy lorries from the centres of our towns and villages. That point crops up time and again, in constituency after constituency. Many more bypasses are required to deal with the amount of traffic. People and lorries just do not mix on the roads in most of our towns and cities. When attempts are made to mix them, people are killed and maimed. Therefore, it is a major issue.

The effectiveness of bypasses cannot be disputed. I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State quoted from paragraph 199 of the report. The right hon. Gentleman and I agree that Armitage picked two particularly apposite examples of bypasses which produce a desirable result. However, I now part company completely with him because the White Paper on roads fails to match promises and achievements as regards bypasses. The White Paper says that the present Government castigate their Labour predecessors for being unrealistic. Paragraph 6 of the report states: it would be wrong to promise what cannot be achieved. It also states that the road programme set out in the White Paper should be within the country's means. Until March 1984, £1,100 million of schemes are scheduled, yet less than £900 million will be available to pay for them.

I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East (Mr. Conlan) tabled a question on this subject. It became clear that at least six of the schemes scheduled for 1981 would not start. It is interesting to note that the Government now propose to promote none of the 1980–81 reserve list schemes. That calls into question the purpose of reserve lists. The schemes on the reserve list include some of the most important bypass proposals. The A6 Elstow bypass, the A17 Heckington bypass, in Lincolnshire, the A45 Ipswich bypass, the A49 Brimfield pypass, the Troutbeck diversion in Cumbria, and the Greenodd diversion—which would greatly help my road journey to my constituency—are all on the reserve list. None of them has been brought forward.

The Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Kenneth Clarke)

I thought that we were agreed on the need for bypasses and the need to maintain the road programme. The six schemes upon which work is not likely to start this year are held up because of problems with public inquiries and legal proceedings, and not because of a lack of resources. I am glad to be able to tell the right hon. Member, as some of my hon. Friend's whose decisions are affected also know, that many of the schemes now on the reserve list will be built in the near future. They are not vanishing from the programme. It is not right to say that we have cut the programme, because cuts were made in the road programme in 1976 by the Labour Government.

Mr. Booth

I can give the Under-Secretary a number of examples. I picked only those referred to in the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East. There are many more.

The White Paper said that the Government had decided to fit as many bypasses as possible into the programme. Thirty-seven bypasses are in the suspended list; only 36 are in the 1984 onward reserve list and 39 others will not start until 1984 onwards. I have a list of the 39 bypasses that will not start until 1984, a list of another 36 which are on the 1984 reserve list and another 31 which are on the suspended list. There are massive numbers—over 100 bypasses—supposedly from a programme which will result in a major improvement in this area, but they are not in prospect, including the Dalton bypass.

During the Christmas Recess I went to Dalton to talk to the mothers who pushed prams down the side of the A590. They showed me that it was impossible to do so in places without going out into the road. There are therefore accidents on that road. That is one of the schemes that is being pushed into the last list to which I referred—the 31 bypasses in the suspended list.

A massive number of bypasses need to be built before we can cope with lorries at their present weight and in their present number, and before we can turn our attention to the question whether we should have heavier lorries.

The Government road programme includes 400 schemes to take traffic out of towns and villages. The British Road Federation tells me that 550 trunk and local road schemes are cast as bypasses. The County Surveyors Society, which has some expertise in this matter, says that there may be 600 or more by passes which can be justified in economic terms. Even if we accept the most conservative—with a large and a small "C"—estimate, namely, the Government's one of 400 schemes, the bypass programme could not be completed at the present rate of expenditure until about the mid-1990s. In about 15 years, they may be built.

I put it to the House in all seriousness that there is no justification for proceeding tonight as if it were right to sanction the Government to go ahead and take decisions about heavier lorries when in 15 years we might have the sort of bypass programme that is necessary to deal with the present lorry weights. We must have a further opportunity to deal with this issue.

Mr. Fowler

The right hon. Gentleman has not answered the question. The major cut in road building took place between 1975 and 1978. That appears from page 69 of the Armitage report. How does the right hon. Gentleman justify the policy of the Labour Government? This Government have slightly increased the expenditure on road building.

Mr. Booth

I am talking not about the policy of the Labour Government but about the claims that the right hon. Gentleman and the Government have made about the bypass programme in their White Paper and how it fails to measure up to their own claims and to the requirements of the issue with which we are dealing.

The Armitage report is weak in two key areas. One is the estimation of the environmental effect of heavy lorries; the second is the consideration of the major energy implications of transport planning.

The environmental effect concerns harm to people and to buildings. We support without question the proposals to get the lorries out of towns and villages. The proposals to reduce noise and vibration should be proceeded with irrespective of current arguments about raising lorry weights. However, overall, I am dissatisfied with the treatment that Armitage gives to environmental issues.

Armitage recognises that lorries are held to be ugly, noisy and smelly and that people object to heavy lorries in their towns. However, the report goes on to devalue the impact of its environmental proposals by saying: No common unit exists with which to measure one environmental effect against another, still less to set them against economic costs. That is not a good enough approach to the problem. The bad environmental effects are here for everyone to see, feel and smell. The difficulty of constructing a yardstick to measure them cannot be accepted as a justification for tolerating with any complacency the increase in the use of lorries.

Mr. Anthony Nelson (Chichester)

Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will refer to one matter of importance which, with respect, was not referred to sufficiently by my right hon. Friend. Regardless of the question of axle weights, the total weight of these lorries is of considerable importance. Many of us who represent ancient cities and towns with subterranean structures of drainage and cellars would be devastated by any increase in weight. My right hon. Friend referred to bridges. Surely, if the lorry is shorter than the bridge and the total weight of the lorry is increased, regardless of how many axles it has there will be an increase in pressure, and damage to the bridge will result. That is the central point to which the right hon. Gentleman should refer.

Mr. Booth

I take that point fully. I entirely agree that one cannot judge merely by considering axle weights, particularly static axle weights. Dynamic weights are more important in damage to buildings than are static weights. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, we have to consider the total weight of lorries on bridges or any span structure greater than the weight of the lorry. To try to reduce it to a simple equation of a limited increase in axle weight avoids many of the real issues.

I shall quote two other examples of the inadequacy of the Armitage conclusions. The first quotation is on damage to underground services, such as water pipes, and sewers. In its evidence, the National Water Council said: The impact of road traffic on underground services causes considerable damage and is responsible for a large proportion of the sewer and water mains maintenance repair bill, amounting to £50 million per annum. That was its assessment.

However, in the context of the Armitage proposal, it is necessary to measure the additional damage to underground services by the proposed change in weight. That is very difficult, but any common-sense approach to this problem suggests that increased weight must be more detrimental to underground sewers and pipes than the existing weight. Surely that alone would have justified a clear-cut proposal from Armitage on that point.

The other example is the payment of double glazing grants in the lorry action areas. The recommendation of Armitage is a pale reflection of the actual needs of those who have the misfortune to live in these areas. The Noise Advisory Council, which has made a considerable study of the subject, estimated that it would cost £1,600 million to insulate against noise from all traffic at the levels which the Government themselves adopt for insulation of noise from new roads. Yet Armitage talks in terms of £6 million a year for this purpose. In other words, people can expect to wait for a few centuries in some of the lorry action areas before they have double glazing capable of giving that sort of protection. So there are areas in which Armitage does not measure up to the seriousness of the problem. Nevertheless, it contains some important recommendations.

It must be clear to all hon. Members who have taken part in energy debates—I read with great interest the speech by the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) in a recent debate—that our energy equation has a significant bearing on the long-term planning of the use of different transport modes. That is a factor which Armitage considered far too little, because he relied very much on the market mechanisms to put right modal use in accordance with fuel costs. I do not think that we can rely on that.

It is important to note that areas in which railway freight is developing are such that a comparison of fuel energy efficiency favours rail over the heavy lorry by a factor of three to one. We cannot sweep that aside. With electrification of rail and longer trains, there will be even greater advantages in rail use for some of the long-run freight traffic.

I wish now to say something about the way in which we shall handle this issue in the House. In 1972 the House expressed its view clearly on this issue, when the late Anthony Crosland, then the right hon. Member for Grimsby, moved, That this House, mindful of the environment, is against bigger and heavier lorries."—[Official Report, 29 November 1972; Vol. 847, c. 511.] That was a simple and straightforward proposition, which was accepted completely by the House. Thus, the House is on record as being mindful of the environment and against bigger and heavier lorries.

That decision was taken by the House following two increases in the legal limit on lorry weights—both taken by Conservative Ministers of Transport, the late Ernest Marples in 1964 and the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) in June 1972. Both of those changes were introduced under the statutory instrument procedure by the Construction and Use (Amendment) Regulations, and, so far as I can discover, neither was debated.

That must never happen again on an issue so important to the House. No decision on this issue should be made except after a full debate on a clear proposal. The only way in which we can make that crystal clear tonight to the right hon. Gentleman and the Government is to vote against the only motion which is before us and to continue to press until we have an absolute guarantee that we shall not have a repetition of the previous method of determining the issue of lorry weights.

8.3 pm

Mr. Chris Patten (Bath)

I shall try to be brief, because I realise that many other hon. Members wish to speak. I am grateful for the opportunity to do so, although the debate is much too short, because I represent a lorry-battered constituency, where the prospect of heavier lorries will be greeted with about as much enthusiasm as would the announcement in a rural constituency of a fresh outbreak of Dutch elm disease.

I do not want to criticise the management of the business of the House. Having been unable to do so for some time, it would be indelicate of me to start doing so at this moment. However, it seems already to be the feeling of the House that no irrevocable decision should be taken until we have been able to debate this issue again.

Lorries, of course, are never very popular. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, we get economic benefits from them, but those benefits must be paid for by a small number of long-suffering people, who face a real deterioration in the quality of their lives.

Paragraph 133 of the Armitage report talks about those areas where the quality of life will be hit even harder over the next few years. I imagine that the authors may have in mind, among others, those of my constituents who have to live on the London Road in Bath or the Lower Bristol Road, and who have an intolerable time.

The story of Bath's attempts to deal with its traffic problems is like one of those nineteenth-century Russian novels—very long and very gloomy. It was made even longer and gloomier when we heard last year that once again the Batheaston bypass would not be constructed in the next four or five years. [HON. MEMBERS: "That is another one."] Labour Governments were not exactly enthusiastic about turning the first sod on that bypass.

The report talks of the importance of bypasses. We have heard that in Bath a great deal over the years. Governments come and go, but the Batheaston bypass and the associated road improvements around it never actually happen. As a result, one of the most beautiful cities in England—in Europe, for that matter—continues to be pounded and battered by heavy lorries and a great deal of other traffic.

That is why I welcome, as I think does everyone in Bath, a number of the proposals in the report for improving the environment, or curbing the effect of heavy lorries on the environment. I welcome the proposal that heavy lorries should pay more for the use of our roads. I welcome the recommendations, although I am not sure that they go quite far enough, on noise level, limitations on size, and the long-overdue extension of section 8 grants.

I am also pleased about the suggestion on lorry action areas, although I agree with the right hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Booth) that the report might have gone a little further. I hope that my right hon. Friend will himself go further when he sets them up and that one of his earliest decisions will be to designate Bath as a lorry action area. I am sure that it will be.

I was also pleased by the proposals in paragraph 283 that we should seek to obtain, through the EEC, more stringent braking standards. I have written to my right hon. Friend on this subject at least a couple of times. There have been two or three very serious accidents involving lorries and brake failure on the hills in and around Bath. I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to take action on this matter before there is a major tragedy.

The heart of the report is the proposal that we should accept heavier lorries, though not to the draft EEC specification. In that way, we are told, we shall reduce environmental wear and tear by cutting the number of lorries on our roads. I find the arguments adduced for that proposition less than wholly convincing. In the past, "heavier" has not usually meant "fewer". I looked in particular at paragraph 361, which fails to deal adequately with the suggestion that heavier lorries might attract more freight on to our roads, as has happened in the past.

If we accept the arguments put forward by Armitage for heavier lorries, I hope that my right hon. Friend will think about the psychological effect on people in those areas mentioned in paragraph 133, especially if he takes a decision on heavier weights for lorries in isolation from the whole package of environmental measures set out in the report.

In paragraph 414 the report says: Some people ask: 'Where will it all end?' Indeed, they do. 'What is to stop there being subsequent increases in weights until eventually we have 100 ton lorries on our roads?' The answer is simple: it will end right here. The reason is: bridges. One reason why we might end it right here is equally simple, but rather more important: people. I do not think that we can expect our constituents who live in those areas mentioned in such terms in paragraph 133 to accept an increase in lorry weights without implementing the other environmental measures set out in the report, at the least the lorry action areas, the limitations on size and noise, and so on. I should have great difficulty in supporting any proposals to increase lorry weights without the whole environmental package.

The day on which my right hon. Friend or one of his successors cuts the tape on the Batheaston bypass and the associated road schemes around Bath will be the day on which I shall look with greater equanimity at the major proposal in the report.

8.13 pm
Mr. Ted Leadbitter (Hartlepool)

It must be stressed once again that the Secretary of State would be wise to understand the significance of the caution that right hon. and hon. Members are voicing. We have not had much time to prepare or to consult, and, regrettably, we feel that this method of introducing business into the House—no matter what the excuses—cannot be in the best interests of dealing with a subject of such magnitude and importance. We have not had a chance to investigate in depth all the significant consequences of the major proposal, which will be in the minds of powerful lobbies, to have larger lorries on our roads.

The Armitage report is a combined package that has significance and meaning only if, as a package, it is co-ordinated, harmonised and implemented, with increasing resources to make it possible. One of the most alarming papers that we have received, albeit hurriedly, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Booth) mentioned, was postmarked in the House of Commons at 4.15 this morning. However, we have another from the Association of County Councils, a body that represents 30 million people, 47 non-metropolitan counties and about 96 per cent. of the highway network. Everyone will understand the association's concern. It has no experience of increased resources.

Sir Arthur Armitage and his committee, in paragraph 208 of the report, understandably question resource applications. They say that the effect of keeping expenditure on road construction at low levels is to continue to condemn many people to the avoidable effects of large numbers of lorries passing through unsuitable places. It is not for us to comment on the Government's decisions about total public expenditure but the considerations which we have described suggest that the continuous process in recent years of reducing both actual expenditure on road building and the share which it takes of total public expenditure has been shortsighted and should be reversed. This should be a consideration for central Government not only in deciding expenditure on its own roads but also in allocating money for local roads. It follows from that that an important recommendation of Armitage is quite succinct and precise and cannot be ignored. It is that the absolute decline in road building and in the share of total public expenditure allocated to it should be reversed. The evidence there is clear. I should understand it if the Secretary of State jumped to his feet, as he did a little earlier, and compared the position today with the road building record of, say, the 1970s and made a political point about it. That would be legitimate, and I do not deny it. However, we are dealing here with a completely new set of circumstances. We are discussing whether we should commit ourselves to the 44-tonne lorry. In that context, it must be said that all the evidence shows that we have no policy to commit resources sufficient to meet the combined package of recommendations of the Armitage committee.

That being the case, we have to accept the need to probe the Government's thinking a little further. If we look at Armitage, we see some little clues here and there of a possibly preconceived notion of the desirability to fall in line with the Common Market and to meet the great, influential lorry lobby. A Labour Government did it on one occasion and botched up a package in such a way that the House was not able, as we are not in this case, to attack any part of it without a response from the Government saying "If you do that the rest cannot be considered".

If that is the position, the package in its entirety must be a decision of the Government after the House of Commons, consequential to the discussions that have been promised, has decided to support the Government. It cannot be contemplated for a moment that the Government can get away with introducing legislation for the large lorry without making decisions about resource applications for the protection of the environment, for the road construction requirements, for the bypass needs and for the protection of buildings and of our urban areas.

It follows from that that we must bear in mind the Transport Bill that is going through its Committee stage. It is no secret, because the Secretary of State referred to it, that it contains taxation proposals. I notice that Armitage recommeds that the taxation burden in terms of road costs should be lessened on the lighter lorry, with an increased burden being put on the heavier lorry.

It is always a temptation for any Government to say in a case such as this "We need the revenue, and we cannot make a commitment about the 44-tonne lorry unless at some point we can say that we have made provision for the revenue". Does that mean that with the Bill upstairs in Committee and so near to the immediate follow-on from the Budget the Government are thinking of a taxation requirement so that the 44-tonne lorry shall become a matter of policy before the House has been able to deal with the problem?

Those are not original thoughts from a partially informed Back Bencher. I have the honour to be chairman of the transport group of the Parliamentary Labour Party, but I am a recipient of information rather than an originator of new ideas. However, I am proud that the Association of County Councils has confirmed the sense in what I have said. The ACC has said that if the Government are not prepared to make available the necessary additional resources for the identified environmental safeguards the net effect may simply be to legitimise the 44-ton lorry.

It is important that the combined package should be treated as a whole and that at some point the Secretary of State should tell us the Government's policy on resource applications for research, environmental protection, administration and roads. If that is the sort of proposal that the Government have in mind, we shall be able to look at the matter objectively.

We have to ask whether, in all the circumstances, it is desirable to have 44-ton lorries. That question must be argued within the package, because we shall lose the logic and effectiveness of the argument if we isolate it from the package. We shall be charged with giving the topic prejudicial consideration.

The Secretary of State would be wise to accept my suggestions, which have been confirmed by the Armitage committee and the ACC. The right hon. Gentleman is an energetic Secretary of State, who wishes to do the best that he can for transport. We shall have disagreements about the ends, as well as the means, but having attributed to him the qualities of energy and vigour—after all, what previous Secretary of State has had two Transport Bills in less than a year?—I should like him to undertake to meet the recommendation of the Armitage committee on another matter.

It is vital to understand that an efficient road network, co-ordinated with rail and port requirements and with the distribution of goods and people, is as important as the industrial sector as a wealth-producing consideration. Our industrial regeneration, economic growth and prosperity depend upon a recognition by the Government, first, that we can no longer have fewer resources devoted to roads and, secondly, a commitment by them to meet the recommendations of the Armitage committee and the needs of industry.

I hope that the Secretary of State will plead that case with the Treasury. More resources are needed, and unless the right hon. Gentleman gets them he will not get the support of the House for the recommendation for 44-ton lorries.

8.25 pm
Mr. Peter Fry (Wellingborough)

There is one matter on which I find myself in agreement with the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Leadbitter). I, too, regret the short notice of this debate. Not only is it important that the House should know what individual Members think; it is important that organisations should be able to tell Members what they think. Allowing for the Christmas Recess, the time scale has been short. Unfortunately, this may well give the impression that tonight's debate is a rushed job to suit the parliamentary timetable rather than to have an informed discussion, which is what we are here for.

It is doubly unfortunate in that there are people who regard this debate and the report as a charade—a way of bringing in the heavier lorry weights dressed up so as to be acceptable to the public at large. I do not believe that. I am sure that the Secretary of State does not believe it either. Nevertheless, there are bodies of opinion in this country that feel that way, and I am afraid that the way in which the debate has been organised will add to their concern.

I wish to deal with the anxieties that exist on both sides of the argument. There are those whom one may loosely describe as being in the environmental lobby. They are very concerned about the Armitage report and the proposals for increased axle weight. On the other hand, there are those in the haulage lobby who are concerned because they foresee greatly increased costs being imposed upon their industry if all of the Armitage proposals are put into effect. The two groups have a common fear. Both believe that what they want may be delayed, whereas what they do not want may be put into effect.

The main purpose of today's debate should therefore be to put a number of legitimate questions to the Secretary of State. I have a great deal of regard for my right hon. Friend, but I was a little disappointed in his speech tonight, because he gave very little indication of the Government's thinking. Surely, before long, we must have some clear ideas from him on the order and precedence that he envisages for events.

It is not only the haulage industry that is affected. It is not only the people of Bath who are concerned. Great areas of the country will be affected by a decision on this matter. The whole of the commercial vehicle building industry, which is in dire straits, needs an early decision. If we are to revive that industry we must give it the opportunity to build on equal terms with its Continental rivals. It can do that only if it can build lorries of equal size.

In addition, with the gradual imposition of the legislation on drivers' hours, it is important that a decision should be taken on speed limits. The Armitage report recommends that the speed limit should be raised to 50 mph on the all-purpose trunk roads. That could be crucial in terms of timing and costing in the haulage industry.

As my right hon. Friend said, many of the changes proposed have to be carried out through the construction and use regulations. Ample notice must be given of changes in those regulations. We cannot expect anything to happen overnight.

Nowhere is the need for a decision and for questions to be answered more apparent than on the provision of proper roads and surfaces for the new vehicles—if we are to have them—to run upon. One could make a party political football of the question of which Government have done—or which party has done—more to provide better roads or bypasses. All that we know, however—and this has come from both sides—is that there are far too many towns and villages in all of our constituencies that need road improvements and bypasses, quite apart from the appalling damage and the interminable repairs that we see on motorways such as the M6 and the M1.

I put it to my right hon. Friend that if we are to achieve a proper programme of building bypasses there will have to be a speed-up in the enormous amount of time that it takes from the beginning of an idea to the time when the road is actually opened. We are talking in terms of at least 10 years from the beginning of an idea to its fulfilment, and if we have to wait for that time we shall be debating the Armitage report and heavier lorry weights for many years.

There is one aspect of the report that I find very interesting. In paragraph 340, it suggests special help in lorry action areas recouped by taxation on lorries. That suggests a hypothecated taxation, and I shall be interested to know whether my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will try to persuade my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to accept a degree of hypothecated taxation. If it is accepted it will open up a very interesting vista, because, despite all the harsh words said about lorries and covering their track costs, the latest figures show that in 1980–81 goods vehicles paid about £840 million in taxation, whereas their track costs amounted to about £797 million. That leaves a surplus of £43 million. If we are to start thinking in terms of hypothecated taxation, we might use some of that £43 million to build some of the bypasses that have had to be put back in the programme.

There is one further question that my right hon. Friend should try to answer as soon as possible. He rightly pointed out that the Armitage report suggests limits that are slightly better, in terms of being lower, than the EEC proposal. I should like him to tell us that he is prepared to accept the Armitage report in this matter, rather than the EEC directive. It is the fear of something worse that causes considerable worry. I am delighted to see my right hon. Friend nodding in agreement.

Unlike some hon. Members, I welcome the Armitage report, not only because in my view, inevitably, there will have to be an increase in the gross weight but because it brings into one report all the various factors that concern people. It brings out the need for a better and bigger road programme, and it brings out also the fact that we have to reconcile what people want in their own areas with what we need to regenerate our industry and economy.

The main problem, as I see it, is that if we are not careful the debate will develop into a somewhat knockabout one, pro- and anti- the lorry. To those hon. Members who are tempted to criticise road haulage, I point out that the Armitage report contains only four recommendations that could be considered pro-lorry rather than those that are concerned with making the lorry more acceptable, namely, better roads, bypasses counted in environmental advantages, slightly higher speed limits, and slightly longer vehicles and increased weight. Virtually every other proposal in the report—and there are a great many—is specifically attuned to answering the environmental objections.

That is why I believe that the Freight Transport Association is speaking the truth when it says that the report provides a basis for developing an acceptable package that will benefit everyone. This debate is important, but I believe that we must look to the Secretary of State to make clear his answers to the questions that have been put to him in it, because we cannot delay for too long. We must know whether the Government are prepared to devote the resources that are necessary to make the environmental improvements that are needed, and also to give the answers to our haulage and commercial vehicle industries so that they can plan for the next 10 years.

8.35 pm
Mr. Clement Freud (Isle of Ely)

I am grateful for the manifestation of political solidarity shown in calling me, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Despite the courteous explanation given by the Secretary of State about the amazing haste with which this debate was brought before the House, I join almost everyone who has spoken in saying what a disservice it is to parliamentary democracy to debate a technical report with so little notice. It is a disservice, not only to our constituents, but to the pressure groups. For such an issue to be debated in a House when the Gallery is more than half empty—less than half full, if that is preferred—speaks for itself. Despite the forewarning that the debate might be held within two months, I believe that the customary five days' notice that the parliamentary timetable requires should have been given.

I did not quite understand the history of the report. It appears that the right hon. Member for Stockton (Mr. Rodgers) decided in April 1979, and I quote the Secretary of State, to set up this committee". I remember April 1979 well. The Government had been overthrown. We were in our constituencies preparing for an election. It is amazing, though obviously commendable, that, while the rest of us were electioneering for 3 May, the right hon. Gentleman was convening the Armitage committee to look into this matter.

However, I was glad that the Secretary of State announced that this debate was not the end. I assume that he meant that in the temporal rather than the qualitative sense. I do not like the Armitage report; my right hon. and hon. Friends do not like it, and neither do my constituents. I have yet to meet anyone, with the possible exception of the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry), who has much good to say about it.

When the Secretary of State expressed his usual courteous appreciation of the hard work that went into the report, I noticed that there was not even the customary murmur of approval from anyone. I shall give an instance of where we and Armitage fundamentally disagree. Paragraph 330 says: The limitations of the available information made it very difficult to calculate the costs of overloading. The Foster Committee suggested that 5 per cent. and 20 per cent. of damage was caused by overloading, and that the cost of this damage might be between £10 million and £50 million. Whatever the true figure, these costs represent a penalty on law abiding hauliers as compared with the operators of overweight lorries, who are paying less than they should in the light of the damage being done by their lorries. The penalty is on the people of this country. It is high time that we stopped saying that this is harsh or tough or unfair on hauliers. It is the people of this country who are being inconvenienced and caused considerable anguish by the proposals.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke

With respect, that is a gross misstatement of the context, and an injustice to the report. In paragraph 328 Sir Arthur Armitage gives the reasons for wanting more effective enforcement of maximum lorry weights. He lists damage to roads, damage to bridges and the danger to road safety. The hon. Gentleman is quoting completely out of context when he says that the Armitage report is concerned only about overweight lorries because of the effect on road hauliers. What he read out was merely a footnote to the main points that Sir Arthur was making.

Mr. Freud

I am grateful to the Under-Secretary. In all fairness, each of these paragraphs has to be taken on its own. My feeling was not that paragraph 330 had not been led up to with some care but that the concern seemed to be for the things, and not for the people. This is something that my party has always cared about deeply.

The hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Leadbitter), in an intervention in the opening speech, asked which was to come first—better roads or heavier vehicles—or were these to come about concurrently? I maintain that this must not be a question; it must be a statement. We must have decent roads. When we have those let us decide how quickly we are to wreck them, and then what sort of weight of vehicle we shall have to do this.

I have the honour to represent one of the great railway towns of this country—March—which had the largest shunting yard in Europe after Hamm was bombed in the 1940s. The whole of March and the prosperity of the town grew up with the railway. I make a plea for the railways—and, indeed the canals—to be used more. This would come about if road hauliers paid their proper share. We have always believed that competition must be fair. At the moment there seems to be very unfair competition between the rail and the road hauliers, who are not abiding by the law, and who are getting it all too cheaply, which is the main reason for the decline in rail freight.

If it is to be accepted at all, the Armitage report must be accepted as a package. It is no good the Government being permissive if they also avoid anything expensive. If there are economic benefits from heavier lorries, the money should not be used to benefit road hauliers. It should be spent on proper lorry parks, and that includes parking facilities at transport cafés.

Recently I have had more and more letters from constituents who have come to London, have gone to a transport café, had their lorries towed away, and had to pay £35 to get them back. If that is to happen, at least let there be a notice somewhere warning them of it, because a lot of people from the country, who make only the occasional trip to London, have a miserable time wondering where the nearest police pound is from which they can recover their vehicle.

The money raised should be spent on the incorporation of better safety precautions into lorry design, and to finance lorry action areas, to suppress lorry noise, and so on. The suggested benefits of £150 million per year might sound a lot. My hon. Friend the Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon)—who did so much to highlight the damage that lorries caused to roads—has a very good way of quantifying sums of money. He divides them by 635 and says "That is what each constituency would get out of the total sum." Although £150 million sounds like a lot of money, divided by 635 it works out at about £230,000 per constituency, and that is not very much.

Armitage calls for a massively increased bypass programme. My constituents in the cathedral city of Ely would agree with Armitage, because their bypass has been on the books for a very long time and they are still waiting for it. The Government cuts make more bypasses very unlikely. The current Ministry of Transport costings attribute only 15 per cent. of bypass costs to lorries. That is ludicrous. There is no doubt that heavy lorries, with their danger and vibration, are by far the most important reason for the public clamour for bypasses.

The report seems to understate the damage done to roads by lorries. Is there not an illogicality about paragraphs 58 and 59, one of which says that lorries account for 15 per cent. of expenditure on new road construction while the other says that lorries account for 90 per cent. of the damage done? Perhaps the junior Minister—who was so quick on his feet when he thought that I took one paragraph out of context—would like to look at paragraphs 58 and 59 and try to find some sense in them.

The report airily talks about many European countries having experience of heavy lorries but it does not seem to have investigated what they have done to tackle the programme. That is just sloppy. A great deal of the report is shoddy. What about the United States of America, the home of everything big? The United States has just imposed limits of 9 tonnes per axle for inter-State trucks. We have gone about 20 per cent. over that in our recommendations.

There is already massive avoidance of current regulations. For example, the Greater London Council estimated a 40 per cent. avoidance rate for lorries ignoring the ban in London. That is covered in paragraph 235 of the report. The report admits, in paragraph 339, that there is an even more serious overloading problem. More than 10 per cent. of lorries are overloaded. When we talk about the fourth power ration for road damage, any overloading is very serious. Overloaded 44-tonne trucks would not only be very serious; they would be catastrophic. There are dishonest double standards over road safety in the report. Armitage looks only at fatal accident costs. The morbid truth is that the accident that does not kill but maims and injures is far more expensive to the country than a fatal accident.

The costs of safety measures, as set out in paragraph 293 of the report, are difficult to understand. I heard the Secretary of State talk about—paragraph 293 mentions it—the annual cost of fitting guards. Surely a guard is a one-off item of expenditure. Perhaps the Secretary of State will explain the annual cost of fitting guards, because it defeats me. Much is made of the fact that 200 lives might be saved by spending 20 million a year. I should like to remind the Secretary of State that British Rail had to spend £5 million after the sleeping-car fire in 1978, in which 11 people died. Those were the first fire death in a sleeping-car for 90 years. On that standard, the expenditure is not particularly generous.

In his speech the Secretary of State rightly said that only limited finance was available. I suggest that a proper "small investment" would be to improve the signposting in this country. It would be a small investment, but a very effective one. A substantial percentage of the heavy lorries that drive down roads where they have no right to be are lost. They found a diversion sign somewhere, which left them nowhere that they could tell.

There is no European country that excels in signposting although Germany is probably the best. We lead the league table in confusing road signs. There is no statutory distance between a left or right turn off a major road. One sees a sign and there might be an infinite number of little roads before one reaches the one to which the sign refers.

I accept that there are a goodly number of other vehicles that are on roads where they should not be because the drivers know the roads and the district too well and are taking short cuts where they should have no right to be. If the Secretary of State is worried about that sort of thing, he must provide finance for better policing.

The Government must face this whole problem properly by encouraging rail and canal transport. They should make efforts to keep lorries out of residential ares, and they must resist any temptation to increase lorry weights. This Department of Government, which pioneered the U-turn of this monolithic Administration when it scrapped the tax on possession, must go away and come up with something better than the Armitage report.

8.50 pm
Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham)

I have some sympathy with those who complain about the shortness of notice of this debate and the shortness of time to prepare for it. However, I lose sympathy totally with the hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Booth) when he says that he will divide the House. I can think of nothing more foolish, ill advised or politically inept on an occasion such as this. On an issue such as this the right hon. Gentleman knows, or should know, that there is a great deal of cross-party feeling. When we take a final decision, I suspect that it will not be a vote taken on party lines. If the right hon. Gentleman insists on dividing the House on the Adjournment, on the first debate that we have had on the subject for many years, he will succeed only in alienating many of those who instinctively might share some of the views that he expressed.

The speech of my hon. Friend the member for Bath (Mr. Patten) demonstrated that clearly. What he and the right hon. Gentleman said was much in tune in many respects. I shall say much the same. However, the right hon. Gentleman insists upon dividing the House. Even at this stage I urge him not to do so. There will be more opportunities for us to come together to consider the problem that is now before us, which is perhaps one of the most important problems that millions of people will want to think about. This issue will have an effect on millions of people's lives for many years to come. A vote on party lines will be irrelevant and possibly quite damaging.

I am rather disappointed with the report. I hoped genuinely that it would present a package to Parliament and to the country that would allow us to resolve one of the most difficult and painful debates that we have had for many years. I am sorry to say that it has not done so. I represent a constituency which has as many rural roads, narrow lanes, ancient towns, residential areas and industrial areas as any other constituency. The problem of heavy lorries is as acute for me as it is for others. The right hon. Gentleman referred to an earlier debate, when the House defeated a proposal for heavier lorries. I voted against the introduction of heavier lorries on that occasion.

If we had been able to produce a modest compromise that could have minimised the environmental damage and maximised the commercial benefit, and if the Armitage report had been able to produce such a deal, I should have considered it with considerable sympathy. I regret that the Armitage report has not done that. By bringing forward a 44-tonne package, an opportunityy has been lost. The report has presented my right hon. Friend with a substantial 44-tonne headache. I do not know how he is to resolve it.

On this issue most of us have a degree of schizophrenia. Most of us want maximum commercial efficiency and most of us want to protect our historic towns and villages and the way of life of our people. I recall an instance when a road haulier at a certain meeting was arguing for heavier lorries and rather shamefacedly admitted that a day or two before he had signed a petition in his own village against heavier lorries going through the village. That is the feeling of most of us. However, we want to resolve this dilemma.

It is important to understand the context in which this decision will have to be taken. Many of us had assumed—I certainly had—that the real pressure upon the United Kingdom for the introduction of heavier lorries had to be seen in a European context. This may sound strange, coming from me, but I can see a strong argument for a European decision. There is an argument for the harmonisation of lorry weights across Europe, whether we are in or out of the Common Market. It is common sense to wish our lorries to be able to travel across the frontiers in the best interests of commerce and industry.

There is another argument for harmonisation, namely, that we should be competing on equal terms with our competitors, that we should all be subject to the same limitations, and that and we should be able to use the same sized lorries. However, we must understand clearly that the decision that we are talking about is not a European one. It is essentially a British decision. It is a decision about our lorry weights within the United Kingdom. It is a decision that has to be taken by the British Cabinet on that criterion alone.

In going for a 10½-tonne axle weight, the Armitage report is a long way from the European proposal, which talks about 11 tonnes plus a 5 per cent. tolerance, which brings the axle weight up to 11.55 tonnes—a whole tonne difference. The report makes it clear that the 11½-tonne European proposal would be too expensive, and would be unacceptable for the United Kingdom. The Armitage proposal distances us from a European decision.

I can see some logic in not taking a decision now but endeavouring to try to come to some European agreement. If looking for a European agreement, I would have different figures. It surprises me that Armitage has opted for the figures that he gives. The figures of some other nations of Europe are more comparable to those that we now have. For example, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Germany, Denmark and Holland all have 10 tonnes approximate axle loading at present. Yet we are going up to 10½ tonnes. The 38-tonne limit—the sort of compromise that I was half expecting from Armitage—or less, is the maximum in the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg. Would it not, therefore, have been more logical to go for those sorts of figures—for 10-tonne axle loading and a 38-tonne limit?

If it is right to say, as I believe it is, that we are talking essentially of a British decision alone, my right hon. Friend is still free to produce that sort of compromise, to reject Armitage and to choose whatever figure he wishes. I still say, reluctant as I am to see any increase in lorry weights, that he stands more chance of securing agreement from this House and from the many interested parties throughout the country if he produces a compromise figure of that kind.

I have referred to what I call true harmonisation. If we are eventually to secure harmonisation with our European partners so that we are competing on level terms, it is important that we have true harmonisation. I cannot believe that if we settled on a 10½-tonne axle limit in this country or 11½-tonnes as a European limit, the French would suddenly reduce their axle limit from 12 tonnes or the Dutch their maximum limit from 50 tonnes. There is no way in which that will happen. We should not pretend that we are going for true harmonisation, as is often advocated. We shall still be labouring at a disadvantage even if we accept these figures.

I stress again that this is a British decision. There is no great pressure upon us except that which comes, quite properly, from the commercial interests—the Road Haulage Association, the Freight Transport Association and the manufacturers of trailers. I understand pressure. It is not new. It has existed for a long time. Those interests are entitled to certainty. It is unfair not to allow them to know what figures will be adopted in years to come. There is, however, no sudden and new pressure on us to have heavier lorries.

I should like to look at what the Armitage report says about the commercial need for these heavier lorries. The hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) referred to the benefit of £150 million. That is the figure put by Armitage upon the economic benefit. It is a very small figure. My right hon. Friend should comment on it when he responds. The report also shows that the user of road transport spends £13,500 million every year. The sum of £150 million has to be put into that context. It is so small and so far within the margin of errors as to be insignificant and useless. There must be some other economic benefit. I am prepared to believe that these exist. But they have not been spelt out clearly in Armitage.

It is a matter of disappointment that Armitage did not go into other options—for example, the option of staying where we are, and the option of 38 tonnes. I do not think that proper consideration was given to those matters.

The immense benefit that is supposed to flow from heavier lorries and, therefore, we hope, fewer lorries is very speculative. I am dubious about whether there would be fewer lorries as a result of heavier lorries. I would guess that the extra efficiency and extra profitability would probably generate even more lorries.

The figures are crude and misleading, but when in 1964 the maximum lorry weight was increased to 32 tons an explosion occurred in the number of heavy lorries. I am prepared to accept that there are 101 other commercial reasons for that. However, that increase took place in 1964. In 1960 there were 11,000 vehicles of more than 8 tons. By 1979, the figure was 121,000. I believe that we could again see an increase in the number of heavy lorries. The case has not been made out by the Armitage report. My right hon. Friend does not have sufficient evidence or ground swell of opinion behind him to put forward a definite proposition to Parliament based on Armitage.

I have two final points. The first concerns vibration damage, which is an issue close to my heart and one which I have raised on previous occasions. This is perhaps the first time that we have seen a report that clearly states that groundborne and airborne vibration damage by heavy lorries, as well as damage to underground pipes and sewers, should be costed. The report regards such damage as sufficiently serious to be taken into account in calculating user costs of heavy vehicles. That is an important development.

Finally, I believe that my right hon. Friend stressed that we had to see Armitage as a package. If that is so, I see little prospect of the recommendations being carried into practice for many years to come. We have only to look, for example, at the road construction proposals, which state that we must reverse the absolute decline in road building and must continue to give greater priority to bypasses, and so on. I endorse those views, but is it realistic to imagine that within the next decade we shall see a major reversal in road building? Give us the bypasses and give us quieter and cleaner lorries, and then let us consider heavier lorries. However, until we can get that package, the Armitage report should be put on the shelf.

9.2 pm

Mr. Sydney Bidwell (Ealing, Southall)

Tempting though it is, I hope that the hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) will forgive me if I do not take up his arguments in detail, although I shall at the end of my speech refer to one point that he raised.

I have been asked by the Transport and General Workers Union group in the House to put forward its view. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State, in the Committee on the Transport Bill and in the Select Committee, will pay attention to the attitude of transport road workers, whose voice is not heard sufficiently in our debates or in the Armitage report. Apart from Sir Arthur Armitage, on the committee there was an engineer, someone with a medical degree, an architect and an economist of some repute. They all have strings of letters after their names. I do not suggest that they are not people of considerable repute. The Secretary of State said that they were chosen by the Government.

This debate is not the end of the road. We are not dealing with a Green Paper or a White Paper. It is a red paper. I hope that a future Labour Government will ensure that there are representatives of the trade union movement on such a wide-ranging inquiry. It is imperative to give sufficient weight to trade union views. I do not want to debunk the report. I found it wide-ranging and educational. One can join issue with many of the recommendations that it contains.

I turn to one or two aspects of the evidence given by the Transport and General Workers Union. They are important, given the size of the union. It looked for a report that would not be limited to one aspect of transport. However, that was not in the inquiry's terms of reference. As a former transport worker, I agree that one cannot consider one aspect of transport alone. I hope that one day it will be possible for people with the talent of those who produced the report to provide a wider report covering the full range of British transport.

Transport can be dealt with only on the basis of an overall system. Individual modes of transport can be contained within that overall system. Both national and international transport should be examined. Indeed, they should have been referred to in greater depth in the report. At a national level there is wasteful competition in the industry, and too many vehicles are involved. Lack of co-ordination allows parasitic clearing houses to operate to the detriment of the industry, undercutting reputable hauliers in competition, and offering back loads at low rates. They rely on the need of most hauliers for a return load to avoid a loss on the journey. Those are the realities of road transport.

There should be a central clearing house in each main area, jointly controlled by employers and representatives of the workers—the trade unions—to ensure fair competition and fair rates to the users. It would stabilise rates for customers and carriers. The immediate effects would be savings in energy costs, tyres and maintenance. There cannot be a full or effective inquiry unless those matters are taken into consideration.

It is not sufficiently well known that the Transport and General Workers Union disagrees with the argument for larger vehicles. The current carrying capacity of vehicles is not fully utilised, due to inefficient operation. Simply increasing carrying capacity adds to the cost of operation. When vehicles in the industry are utilised efficiently the question of examining larger-capacity vehicles will arise. Therefore, there is a general deficiency in the report.

The fragmented ownership of the industry, in which the majority operate five or fewer vehicles, must be inefficient and wasteful in terms of men, vehicles and fuel. The Government should exercise their responsibilities and encourage new attitudes and ideas in order to increase our export efficiency.

Freight transport costs in our external trading justify a high priority in industrial and Government thinking. Distribution costs and facilities should be a major factor in deciding geographical market objectives. Road haulage in European trade is highly individualistic. It is from that quarter that the pressures come to increase lorry weights. The issue requires detailed examination and analysis. It is a growth area that should not develop along the traditional lines of road haulage.

The Government should take positive steps to further this section of the industry. It is in direct competition with our foreign competitors. Unless they exercise some licensing control on forwarding agents, exporters will experience delivery delays, because each agent will handle insufficient freight and will be unable to fill containers on his own.

All that is a matter for detailed examination. This is not the end of the road or the end of the debate. The manner in which the debate has been conducted in the House necessarily renders it deficient. Conservative Members have voiced that opinion as vigorously as have Labour Members. Therefore, I hope that the Government will not think that the debate in Parliament is at an end because of tonight's experience.

Post-report, this is the view of those of us who maintain close contact with the road workers. The report contains 58 recommendations and should be taken as a whole in reaching conclusions, and not picked at. Otherwise, its value will be minimised.

The Transport and General Workers Union remains opposed to the introduction of vehicles with a larger carrying capacity because they will not contribute to an improved road transport distribution system, or to an improvement in the working environment, or to an improvement in the terms and conditions of employment of road haulage workers. The previous increase in the carrying capacity of vehicles, in addition to the wider use of articulated vehicles, did not improve either the working environment or the terms and conditions of employment. There is no provision in the report to achieve any such improvements. The basic contention of the report and alleged benefits to be achieved result from hypothetical arguments which mainly involve lengthy calculations, the result of which remain largely theoretical.

We recognise and understand the arguments put forward by environmentalists about heavier vehicles and environmental damage. We are mindful of public reaction to the report in this regard. It is necessary to say that, because there are sometimes allegations that the road transport workers and the TGWU have no outlook other than their own narrow, selfish interests. Those of us who are on the road a great deal, as motorists, and so on, know that that is not usually the case. Therefore, I am pleased to impart that to the House tonight.

There is a possibility that local authorities, in support of environmental arguments, or to preserve historic buildings or the social environment, will introduce bans on heavy goods vehicles travelling through their locality and not limit such an embargo to vehicles of more than 30 tonnes gross weight. That should not be ignored. It has had the full support of organised workers when they have expressed themselves from time to time at conferences and so on.

Environmentalists represents a wide sector of public opinion, and many are members of both local and regional authorities. Authoritative forecasts by the Cambridge group project a continuing weak demand for road freight services, expected not to recover significantly until 1983. The record demand for freight in 1979 is not expected to be repeated until 1989. Therefore, there is no great urgency in the forecasts of the economists.

Investment in new commercial vehicles is expected to fall by about 9 per cent. in 1981 compared with 1980. That premise is supported by the Society of Motor Manufacturers, which estimates that sales of commercial vehicles could fall by 8 per cent. this year to about 240,000 vehicles. In 1980 sales declined, compared with 1979.

The proposals on larger carrying-capacity vehicles would allow the immediate penetration of foreign-owned vehicles of the maximum weight. That is what people in Britain are seriously worried about. Economic reasons would limit United Kingdom operators, except where financially viable, to uplift the plated weight of existing units to 38 tonnes.

The practice of committees of inquiry in producing reports that pay no regard to improving either the working environment or the terms and conditions of employment of road transport employees is to be deplored.

The report concentrates on allegations either to improve economic operation or to impose further restrictions on the industry, and particularly on its workers. The Armitage committee, unlike previous committees, had wide-ranging terms of reference, and the union deplores the lack of recognition given to transport workers, in particular to their working environment, both physical and social.

Despite some of its partly ominous aspects, the approach of the report will be adopted by the Government, which means that they are leaning towards allowing heavier goods vehicles to take to our inadequate roads. At the same time, they are attacking the Road Transport Industry Training Board, which has done such great work, and are looking to the industry itself to provide those resources.

That is ludicrous. The training and educational facilities of the RTITB are second to none in Europe. What will happen to its top-class establishments?

The Government can advance no argument to justify their plans. We shall do all that we can to prevent their being implemented.

What I have said might be considered extraneous to the Armitage report but it is pertinent to the operation of the British transport industry and is something that seriously worries the workers. Neither of the Whiz kid Ministers in the Department of Transport can ignore those facts.

The Secretary of State has just been promoted to the Cabinet. He may recall that in the Select Committee report I told him that we in the Labour Party believed in the rate for the job and that the proper place for a Transport Minister was in the Cabinet. I hope that he is exercising his influence to the extent implied by his promotion and that he is in the Cabinet because he is an arid Tory and not a wet. We hope that he will pay particular regard to what has been said about selling everything off, and listen to the collective, well-researched and well-intentioned views of a great section of the industry and of its workers, whose anti—social hours I have experienced in another part of the industry. Ministers will not bring half their intentions to fruition without the co-operation of the workers.

We have had an incomplete debate, at short notice. It is because of those feelings that I think that my right hon. Friend is right in proposing to divide the House tonight.

9.18 pm
Mr. Gary Waller (Brighouse and Spenborough)

Although the Armitage committee considered many issues concerned with lorries as a whole, attention has naturally been fixed, both before and during this debate, on the heavier lorry, and particularly its weight. The issues with which Sir Arthur Armitage and his committee dealt so competently are complex, so we should not be entirely surprised to know that many of those who have interested themselves in these questions have made incorrect assessments because they have failed to see much of the evidence.

It is unfortunate that some of those who have sought to guide public opinion, both in the press and—dare one say it?—even in the House tonight, are either unaware of some of the facts or else have deliberately ignored those that do not suit the case to which they are committed.

For example, the hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) suggested that Armitage was more concerned with haulage companies than with people. But two of the longest chapters in the report are entitled Getting Lorries away from People and The Effect of the Lorry on People and the Environment". Indeed, the title of the report indicates, to all who care to read it carefully, that Sir Arthur Armitage and his colleagues were concerned about the effect on people. What is more, they considered the effect in terms of accidents, both serious and less serious, and not merely those involving the deaths of road users.

Mr. Freud

What I said was that the report made much more of the fatal accidents when the country was disadvantaged to a much greater degree by accidents causing injury and maiming. That was my objection.

Mr. Waller

I do not think that it can be said that the report was concerned more with fatal accidents. Tables 17 and 18, for example, carefully detail the changes in accident involvement rates over a decade by severity in terms of "fatal", "serious", "slight" and "all accidents". That is clear throughout the report. The report states that many of the factors that people dislike about lorries are not readily quantifiable. One may list visual intrusion, smell, vibration—which one of my hon. Friends mentioned—and the difficulties involved in crossing a road. All those factors come readily to mind. Where it is difficult to quantify factors of that kind and where the degree of intrusion and inconvenience varies so much in the perception of individuals it is easier to play upon personal prejudices.

Armitage documents many of the changes that have taken place, particularly the swing to larger lorries, which has reduced considerably the overall number of lorries, despite what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Patten). That is shown clearly in table 1, which shows that the number of medium-sized lorries has fallen considerably in recent years.

Few people like heavy lorries. All of us accept that. I do not see many small boys rushing up and down roads taking the registration numbers of lorries as they do train numbers. It might be dangerous for them to do so. But we have come to rely on lorries.

If one were presented with a petition opposing moves towards heavier lorries, one would be likely to sign it. I am sure that a majority of people presented with such a petition would sign it. But surely such petitions are not very valuable. Perhaps more valuable is the work carried out by the Transport and Road Research Laboratory. A survey was carried out by the laboratory four years ago asking whether people would prefer a larger number of small lorries or a smaller number of large lorries. One might say that even that survey was slightly simplistic. Such indications of opinion do not have much value if they take no account of the costs of denying to our manufacturers vehicles which put them on a fair basis with their overseas competitors. In the end it is the consumer who has to pay the bill.

Armitage pointed out that a lorry of 40 tonnes maximum weight can carry a load more than 23 per cent. higher than that which a 32½-tonne lorry can carry.

Whatever Sir Arthur Armitage may have said at the press conference to launch his report—he is reported to have said that his recommendations did not have to be seen all together as a package—I see it as a package. To implement some recommendations while at the same time failing to carry out certain others, though not necessarily all others, could produce an unfair situation.

I am delighted that the Secretary of State has anticipated the report's recommendations relating to taxation. The Transport Bill at present in Committee will enable the Chancellor of the Exchequer to tax heavier lorries at a rate which corresponds with the environmental damage that they do. It is fair to say that until now smaller lorries have tended to subsidise larger ones, and this is manifestly unfair.

I am especially glad that the Government are committed to taking into account in taxation the social and environmental costs of lorries, including the cost of accidents and the time lost by congestion. Few will deny that the social and environmental cost which lorries impose on the community in congested urban areas is much greater than that which they impose when they use purpose-built motorways and dual carriageways. Thus, just as smaller lorries at present subsidise larger ones in terms of the taxation which is paid, so lorries which predominantly avoid congested areas subsidise those which fail to do so. An ideal taxation system is one which would take account of this fact, imposing a heavier tax on those vehicles which impose a heavier cost and allowing the market to control the level of nuisance.

I suppose that it is possible that at some time, perhaps in the far distant future, technological development will enable some kind of road pricing to come into effect, and this situation could be brought about. In the meantime, we need to rely on the kind of controls described in chapter 6.

No one is more committed than I am to the preservation of historic and architecturally important buildings, and it is vital that we do everything possible to keep lorries away from towns and particularly away from people. I hope that the Government will pay due regard to the report of the Select Committee on Transport on the roads White Paper, which urges that the momentum of road building, particularly with regard to bypasses, must not be lost.

Having said that I broadly support the package of regulations and controls recommended by Armitage, I should say that I also support his recommendation that six-axle lorries with three axles on the traction unit should be permitted up to a weight of 44 tonnes. Heavier lorries do not in this instance need to mean longer or larger lorries, although I do not regard the proposed permitted increase in length of half a metre as unacceptable.

As paragraph 129 of the report points out, It is size which seems to determine people's fear and apprehension about lorries and their feelings that lorries are out of scale with their surroundings. When people are asked what their feelings are about heavier lorries, I suggest that they tend to think of larger lorries. The distinction is crucial, but it is rarely appreciated, any more than the fact that heavier lorries will mean fewer lorries.

I have read the critique of Armitage produced by Transport 2000 and although I have very much respect for some of the work done by that organisation I do not think that it has been able to argue successfully with the basic points that Armitage makes.

I venture to suggest that this is an issue on which we should not merely respond to our constituents's fears but one on which we as Members of Parliament should give a firm lead. When and if the change comes, I do not believe that a great deal of difference will be apparent to the great majority of people. I believe that most people will probably wonder what all the fuss was about.

9.29 pm
Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras, South)

I do not want to go on at length about the disgraceful lack of notice that we have had for this debate. However, it is worth pointing out that Sir Arthur Armitage and his colleagues started studying this matter in July 1979 and presented the Minister with a report in December 1980. It took them quite a long time, and they had various people working for them. We have a report of 159 pages. More than 1,000 organisations or individuals gave evidence to the committee. We have been expected to try to cobble together our comments on the report and its ramifications, in effect, in about six hours. It is quite unsatisfactory, and I am sure that the Minister feels equally deprived, in that he, too, has had to do it all rather quickly. However, unlike Back Benchers, the right hon. Gentleman has 13,000 civil servants working for him, even if only eight or nine are here tonight to help him.

We have had no opportunity to consult all sorts of organisations that have serious reservations about the report and would be disturbed if the Government proceeded to decisions on the basis of the report. If we were to allow the Government to go ahead with proposals on the basis of the report and this rather shabby little debate we should bring the House into disrepute. I am not being disrespectful about the contribution of any hon. Member, but we are all aware of the inadequacy of the opportunity that we have had to brief ourselves.

All the technical, trade and environmental press has stated that the report is shot through with inconsistencies and contradictions, and contains questionable assumptions. Consequently, it has produced questionable conclusions and it is, therefore, all the more important from the Government's point of view that we should not have a questionable debate and consideration of the report by the House.

There is a questionable background to the establishment of the inquiry. I remind the House of the famous Peeler letter and memorandum. When the Labour Government were in office that internal memorandum in the Ministry of Transport stated that the inquiry: should provide a focus for the various road haulage interests to get together, marshall their forces, and act cohesively to produce a really good case which should not merely establish the main point at issue but should do good to their now sadly tarnished public image. There are some who believe that the Armitage report is precisely that sort of effort. I do not go that far—though some of my hon. Friends would—because I do not question Sir Arthur Armitage's integrity. However, if the questioning of the integrity of the report and its basis is not to be continued, everyone must be given an opportunity to look carefully at what it says and to get expert outside advice on many aspects. There is, therefore, all the more reason why we should be given time to question people and consult about the report.

I do not join the Secretary of State in praising the quality of the report. I must draw attention to some of the more glaring inconsistencies, especially in paragraphs 58 to 60. Paragraph 58 states: additional costs imposed by lorries are estimated to be about 15 per cent. of expenditure on new road construction and improvements. Paragraph 59 states: Lorries account for over 90 per cent. of the damage done". Paragraph 60 states: there is no evidence that they"— that is lorries— are the main cause of damage or even a main contributor" to damage to pipes and installations under or adjacent to roads. That is not true. The evidence submitted by the National Water Council to the Armitage inquiry stated: Impact of road traffic on underground services causes considerable damage and is responsible for a large proportion of the sewer and water mains maintenance and repair bill which is one of the order of £50 million p.a. It follows fairly clearly, even to the ignorant layman—of whom I claim to be a supreme example—that if lorries do 90 per cent. of the damage to the surface of roads it is probable that, because of their greater vibration and general impact, they are the source of all the damage to the services under the road.

Paragraph 151 of the report argues that bigger lorries will mean fewer lorries, but no evidence is adduced anywhere in the report for that argument. Indeed, there is every possibility that that claim is simply not true. A large number of lorries at the moment are not fully laden. If one increases their capacity it does not follow at all that they will be more full than they have been in the past. Indeed, with the pressure on firms to reduce the amount of stock that they carry, they are, generally speaking, taking smaller loads in order to save money. With the increased use of microchip technology there is likely to be far more sophisticated and careful ordering and less bulk ordering in the future. There are, therefore, many trends to suggest that the increase in size of lorries will not in any way reduce their numbers.

In paragraph 166 of the report a complicated comparison is made between freight railway track costs and lorry road costs. That is factually quite wrong. I shall not read out the paragraph, but it is factually wrong. It maintains that there is a straight comparison, but whereas roads are designed at their maximum to meet the demands of a lorry, railway tracks are not designed to meet the demand of freight traffic, their ultimate parameter being the design needs of the passenger traffic. The complicated comparison that is drawn out in paragraph 166 is therefore based upon a misunderstanding of the situation.

Paragraph 201 makes a claim for the economic benefits of new roads, and makes a general suggestion—an assertion, indeed—for which no evidence is given in the report, that it stimulates economic growth close to new road construction. That matter was virtually outside the terms of reference of the Armitage committee. It was certainly not looked into in any depth, and no evidence was adduced to suggest that the assertion was true. It is worth pointing out that the Leitch report of 1977, a considerably more thorough document, which went into these matters in much greater depth and which has not been subject to any substantial professional challenge, said in appendix G: We conclude, therefore, that trunk road construction does not yield significant economic development gains over and above the direct benefits to road users". That shows another clear shortcoming in the Armitage report. It seems to me that the report is shot through with all kinds of inconsistencies of this nature, and it needs to be looked at much more carefully than the House is being given the opportunity to do tonight.

There are calls for more enforcement of existing regulations, but there is no suggestion that there should be any stepping up in the number of staff available. Under the present Government's policies it is extremely unlikely that there will be. The report does not give sufficient emphasis or draw sufficient attention to the massive time lag that would be involved even if we were to demand that new lorries should meet high environmental standards. Unless those standards are imposed upon the existing fleet, we are unlikely to see any benefit until the late 1990s. That is an absurd time scale.

What we need from the Secretary of State is an undertaking that he is not prepared to go ahead with an increase in lorry weights—certainly not without that being part of a general package which will ensure that if there is an overall increase in lorry weights the whole of the British public will get, in return, the imposition of severe environmental controls on the existing fleets. To make sure that life is worth living for anyone living anywhere near a major road we must have all these restraints.

The big problem is that there is every prospect that the Government will say in the next Budget, or as a consequence of it, "We are going to impose a substantial increase in taxation on lorries, and in exchange for that increase, which is being done basically for revenue purposes, we shall allow the increase in lorry weights." That will not be good enough. We want a lot more in return than just a benefit to the Treasury and we must press for it.

There is great danger that the Government will snatch at this opportunity of increased revenue and make a shabby swap of an increase in lorry weight for that increased revenue. I hope that the whole House will resist that move and that we shall have an opportunity, properly briefed, both to debate the Armitage report and to make absolutely sure that the clear-cut decision whether to increase lorry weights is put to the House so that we can vote on it—and it should be preferably on a free vote.

9.41 pm
Mr. Iain Mills (Meriden)

I could not let the occasion go by without saying to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that there has been much comment about the debate and that I, perhaps, among the few Members here, understand truly that it was probably the result of his great passion and desire to bring transport matters swiftly in front of us that led to the debate being introduced tonight. I would only urge him on future occasions when slots appear to press my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to ensure that yet other transport matters are brought in front of us with the same rapidity.

I should like to follow that, if my right hon. Friend will accept it, by saying that there are a number of paradoxes in life and in society, and this is one of the most difficult to resolve. Hon. Members on both sides of the House share the problems that I have in the heart of England constituency of Meriden, where the M6, the M42 and the nearby M1, plus a mass of through-route roads, make one's countryside, one's villages and therefore one's constituents extremely vulnerable to what is in the end a benefit on their breakfast plate, but the very product that ends up on their plate has to travel in lorries.

A series of compromises has been achieved over the years, some satisfactory, some unsatisfactory. There is no doubt that we have in the Armitage report an opportunity to resolve some of the problems which have been plaguing the country and our constituencies for many years. I think that we have to ensure that the system that is created by any decisions which eventually result from the report offer to the community benefits that more than overcome the problems that the implementation of some aspects of the report might create. I want to give two separate shopping lists which I believe will in the end balance and offer our society—our community—a net benefit.

If one compares the lorry with one's car or even motor cycle, one accepts that the degree of sophistication in the design of present vehicles of the two-wheel and four-wheel car variety is very much ahead of that of the truck. The truck design is archaic and has been needing refinement for years, as is clear when one considers that it still has heavy axles, sprung by basically semi-elliptic springs, and that this in itself, in a dynamic reaction to the road, is really going back to the horse and cart.

I agree very much with the policies outlined in the excellent speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) in saying that this opportunity to strike a deal, to seek changes to the design of the vehicle, is vital and must be taken in the context of an ultimate weight which will be acceptable. One of my shopping lists specifies that there must be, well before any changes are permitted by legislation to the weight and operating condition of the lorry, improvements in road safety.

I must add that as a member of an all-party group I have heard chief executives or top development men in a number of lorry manufacturing firms state the very reasonable policy—from their point of view—that they react to market demands, and that they are unlikely to give the customer great bonuses in terms of innovation and development unless there is a good practical commercial reason for doing so.

It is therefore vital that these changes in safety and other aspects should be legislated. We cannot expect a deal to be struck in bargaining terms. We cannot expect the industry to take these steps speculatively. We cannot expect our industry to build in benefits which are cost penalties and which are not happening in other countries where vehicles are built that will compete against us.

The initiative has to come from us. If the shopping list is to be agreed, the benefit shopping list will have to be included in type approval, perhaps in construction and use regulations or in some mechanism which ensures not that we say in these regulations "You shall have the following items" but that we specify the minimum standards of performance in such areas as braking in the wet, with lorries equipped to ensure that there is maximum protection from impact with side and rear impacts from other road users.

Although there is some debate on the subject, the really damaging effect on the roads is not just in relation to the fourth power of the axle rate but in relation to its dynamic effect. If roads were billiard table smooth there would not be a dynamic effect.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

And inflexible.

Mr. Mills

If my hon. Friend wishes to intervene, I shall be happy for him to do so. If there are bumps on the road, axles react, and unsprung weight—of which there is a great deal in lorry axles—tends to react.

We need a specification to ensure that the dynamic properties of the behaviour of the suspension and the road gear of vehicles is drastically improved. This will mean improvements to wheels, to brakes, to tyres, and to anti-skid systems of all sorts, as well as to anti-jack-knifing systems.

It will also mean adopting many of the specifications that have been included in the excellent Motor Industry Research Association experimental truck project, and in the Foden quiet lorry and the Roadtrain safe lorry project. These are not innovations which have not yet been dreamt of; they are realities.

We are also talking of such things as are available from Monsanto and elsewhere for the restriction of spray from lorries, yet this product, although commercially available, will in my view suffer the same fate as have many other innovations in the motor vehicle industry. If it costs more, unless it offers a realisable benefit in economic terms or in some other terms that can be seen, it will not be used. Where there are economic benefits in reducing spray there are also safety benefits, and we have a responsibility, if we accept change in the specification of the lorry and its weight, to ensure that embodied in the law of all these points on road safety.

I feel very strongly that we should not be stampeded, in bargaining terms, with our European colleagues into the maximum permitted axle weights. Armitage has recommended an axle weight of 10.5 tonnes, and I agree with previous speakers who have said that we should do all we can to ensure that the present 10.17 tonnes is not exceeded. Whether static or dynamic, if it is increased to 11 tonnes—the Commission or the European Parliament will be pressing for this—it will increase damage to Britain's roads, to an extent that we cannot afford.

It has been useful to many of us—although the time has been short—to see the excellent way in which many organisations have responded in welcoming these points. One might have thought that the FTA and the CBI would say "Ignore everything. Give us the benefits. We are in haulage". But they have taken a responsible attitude in outlining what they consider to be the compelling case for the acceptance of Armitage in total. They also agree with us that the civilising of the lorry is important to them not only in moral but in practical terms. The whole question of the civilising of the lorry, in terms of its safety performance, braking, spray, and, in particular, segregating it from people, is vital. Organisations such as Friends of the Earth and Transport 2000 share these views to an uncommon degree, and I was grateful to them for the briefing that they gave us.

This sort of protection is really needed, because there are some diverse views on people's expectations and reactions to alternative lorries. A TRRL report has shown that people would prefer two 8-tonne lorries to one 16-tonne lorry or four 4-tonne lorries.

This is a difficult area. A Marplan survey was commissioned by FTA, RHA and other bodies. There has been some accusation that it was somewhat biased, but I quote it to the House. It said: only 26 per cent. of the sample in this report felt that the heavy lorry was a very serious problem. It had ranked the problem with drug addiction and vandalism, so it may be a somewhat biased sample, but it indicates that if we can ensure that the public experience real benefits in terms of a more civilised truck or lorry perhaps the attitudes of resistance to some change will not be entirely against it.

I ask my hon. Friend to consider specifying in his reply, as has been suggested elsewhere, that 30 per cent. of the weight of the vehicle should be over the driving wheels. As an ex-tyre designer, it is my experience that that is important. The Europeans may press my hon. Friend to go for 25 per cent. and others may tell him not to specify anything, but it is important that we ensure that the distribution of weight across the axles of a vehicle allows 30 per cent. on the driving wheels. On articulated tractors, we should try to ensure that there is pressure for innovation towards load sharing between the two axles. That would help to reduce damage to the roads.

The next item on my shopping list is greater enforcement. A number of organisations have contacted hon. Members to complain about the present abuse. During the Committee stage of the Transport Bill I shall press my right hon. and hon. Friends on the downplating scheme which relates to vehicle excise duty, but I am equally aware that whatever schemes exist at present or might exist in the future, unless they ensure that there is a system that will prevent overloading, either deliberate or because a vehicle with a greater weight has entered this country from abroad, we shall not see justice done for those on the roads.

The next item on my shopping list—I promise my colleagues that this will be brief—is the need to recognise that roads must be improved before we accept any significant change to vehicle weights. I was disappointed in the abrasive way in which the right hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Booth) tackled the Government's White Paper. Perhaps his hon. Friend will say, when he replies, whether he can commit a future Labour Government, if one should ever come to power, to revitalising suddenly a more dramatic and more expensive road building programme. My right hon. Friend is most realistic in his approach and has certainly done more than the Labour Government did. I urge him to realise—as we all realise from our constituencies and nationally—that there is much to be done about bypasses before this change that I have suggested may be beneficial and can take place.

The British Road Federation poses the argument that in 1980–81 goods vehicles will pay £840 million in tax and that track costs will amount to £797 millon, leaving a surplus of £43 million. It is logical for the federation to suggest that that could be used to help build more bypasses. Lorry routeing, strategic areas where lorries could be controlled, and parks are among the excellent suggestions in the Armitage report. I reiterate to my right hon. Friend that, for the sake of the peace of mind of our constituents and of hon. Members, we must find a system which will guarantee that the changes that we agree in terms of lorry weights are dependent on achieving all these other factors.

There is a great suspicion by constituents and others that they will end up with juggernauts, no better roads, vibration, spray, and all the other problems. I have tried to reassure them, and I am sure that with a responsible attitude that will not happen. But the world is practical, and they need more than that. They need some sort of inbuilt control in the legislation to ensure that when the final solution is achieved there will be direct benefits, and that we shall have tight legislation and a timetable upon which changes are dependent. I hope that we shall achieve better road safety—shorter stopping distances in the wet, and better and more realistic control of vibration. It is not good enough to wait until 1990 to achieve 80 decibels. We should reinstate the European requirement that that should be achieved by 1985 at the latest.

We should ensure that roads, bypasses and all the other measures that are mentioned in the Armitage report are built into legislation so that changes for the lorry are retrospective but definitely will occur.

We accept that many lorries on the roads of Britain are already 38-tonnes vehicles. However, under the present law, they are restricted to 32 tonnes or 33 tonnes. Those lorries may not change. An axle may be added, but the size of the lorries, the paintwork and the chips on the paintwork will not change. As I have said, the Armitage report recommends 44 tonnes. That represents only a small change. If we restrict changes to 38 tonnes or 40 tonnes—I would favour 38 tonnes—we shall give the road haulage industry definite benefits, while ensuring that our constituents have, along with the changes in truck specifications and the road programmes that have been outlined, a definite, fair and just deal.

9.55 pm
Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

I shall be as brief as I can, since I know that other hon. Members want to contribute to the debate.

An interesting phrase was used by the hon. Member for Meridan (Mr. Mills), namely, "civilising the lorry." The Armitage report gives the impression of being a package to be presented with a glittering aura, showing how good larger lorries would be if only certain aspects were fulfilled. Reference has been made to the Peeler memorandum. The report underlines the suspicion that is held by many that the report is part of a manoeuvre to modify and mould public opinion so that the idea of heavier lorries becomes acceptable and inevitable. Part of the manoeuvre is the claim that there are economic advantages. It is claimed that about £150 million would be saved.

However, the Armitage report states that if we are to increase our lorry weights to the EEC level the cost of strengthening our bridges would be £1.2 billion. The report refers to "Operation Bridgeguard", which was an exercise in restricting or strengthening bridges in the 1960s and 1970s. As paragraph 393 states, "Bridgeguard" assumed that bridges would be regularly inspected and maintained. That may not be the case. The cost of £1.2 billion almost certainly underestimates the work that is needed on our bridges throughout the country.

Paragraph 403 of the report states clearly that the increased axle loads would bring our limits closer to those proposed by the EEC. Does any hon. Member know of any move towards EEC standards that has been halted at any stage? Our experience in the House is that if there is any move towards the EEC it is rarely interrupted. There is a sort of gravitational pull towards EEC standards. Although the report purports to say that standards can stop here, with the recommendations of the report, that simply is not true. I think that there would be a momentum towards EEC standards. It would be far better to stop not at the Armitage report but at our existing weight limits, which have already been increased on at least three occasions.

As for the economic arguments, the report makes it clear that there would have to be a massive increase in the taxation of heavy lorries to pay for what are described as the track costs. There is already a problem of enforcement of existing lorry weights. The Government have no intention of adding to the strength of the Civil Service to ensure that existing enforcement is adequate. Indeed, they will cut it down, so more and more breaches of existing lorry weight restrictions will be broken.

There has already been a massive switch to heavier lorries with increases in 1964, 1966 and 1972. Armitage blurs the issue. Although there has been damage to the surface of the roads, Armitage skirts round the issue of the damage done underneath the roads. An article in the magazine "Building" was drawn to my attention by a civil engineering contractor in Bradford, who was amazed, frightened and concerned to discover, when he started work on a contract, that the road surface of a minor road consisted solely of two or three layers of tarmacadam because a sewer had collapsed—

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Ordered, That, at this day's sitting, the motion in the name of the Prime Minister for the Adjournment of the House may be proceeded with, though opposed, until Eleven o'clock.—[Mr. Thompson.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Thompson.]

Mr. Cryer

The building contractor was concerned to find that only a few layers of tarmacadam prevented serious accident. A leader in the magazine "Building", beneath a heading "Crisis under the ground" stated: In a sense it is unfortunate that sewers have to be built below ground, for out of sight is out of mind and that is how they remain for most of the time. But the state of the country's sewers is a cause for serious concern … water authority planners and engineers are becoming increasingly worried about the ability of sewers built over 100 years ago to continue to serve city centres which have experienced massive increase in population and traffic volume. It concluded by saying The only solution to the problems posed by deterioration of the sewers is money in vast quantities—perhaps £5,000 million every decade. Sooner or later this will have to be faced. In avoiding it, the issue can only grow more serious. Armitage does not face that serious issue. It is the first priority for any expenditure.

The social problems caused by the lorry—problems of intrusion, damage to buildings and damage to people—already felt widely in most constituencies, including mine. There has to be a political will to ensure that goods are shifted from road to rail, an increase in section 8 grants and an increase in private sidings. It has already been stated that West Germany has 13,000 private sidings as opposed to 1,700 in this country. On both sides of the House, there is a determination to oppose Armitage. I hope that it will be sustained in the Lobby.

10.2 pm

Mr. Nicholas Scott (Chelsea)

In my constituency the problem of the impact of heavy lorries on people's lives is second only to housing. That is why I put down an amendment to early-day motion 80 insisting that, as a precondition for any increase envisaged under the Armitage report, measures should be introduced to lift the burden of the juggernaut menace from residential areas of London and other major cities. One of the problems about the debate and about the Armitage report has been an assumption in some quarters that the existing situation is tolerable and that we can therefore consider increases in lorry weight. The situation is not tolerable for millions of our fellow countrymen. It is intolerable. For thousands of my constituents, the position is unacceptable.

I want to use my few minutes this evening to make an unashamed plea on behalf of those constituents. Many hon. Members will have come into London by the one-way system that runs through Earls Court. They will have seen the juggernauts moving along those streets, nose to tail, shuddering and vibrating their way towards the Embankment through Earls Court and Redcliffe, along narrow, unsuitable, residential streets, turning unsafely from the outside lane across traffic coming through on the inside, mounting pavements, crushing the bollards erected on the pavement to keep them off and make life safe for pedestrians, causing danger, inconvenience and, frankly, terror to people walking on the pavements. The juggernauts then move from the one-way system on to one of the most beautiful streets in London, one that can be compared with the Inns of Court and Queen Anne's Gate for architectural merit. I refer to Cheyne Walk. It is a place where Whistler, Turner, Rossetti and Brunel went to live because of its beauty and because of the river. It has been turned into a channel for juggernauts.

I agree about the disappointment with Armitage over postponing the chance of getting to the EEC levels of noise restriction in 1990 rather than 1985. Filth also accumulates on the houses along Cheyne Walk. I should like to see a study undertaken of the canyon effect in Earls Court, with its tall buildings on either side, building up lead in the atmosphere. The residents are extremely concerned. The vibrations also cause immense damage to water mains and sewers, bringing very much closer the expenditure mentioned by the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) on the sewer systems of our major cities. When the day comes, billions, and not millions, of pounds will need to be spent.

My constituents petitioned the House last year about the impact of lorries on their lives. We received a rather dusty answer from my right hon. Friend, hiding behind the answer about the night lorry ban, as previous Governments have done. The ban is more honoured in the breach than in the observance in my constituency. The Armitage report argues for physical barriers across roads to prevent lorries from using certain routes, but the authorities, including the police, are against that because of potential complications when accidents or other incidents occur. My constituents face the prospect of the nightmare continuing. They certainly do not want increased lorry weights. They want the present system to be remedied and made tolerable before considering any increase.

There should be an immediate strategic night and weekend ban on all heavy lorries in big cities, as a minimum requirement. Armitage states that those are decisions that have to be taken locally, but the lorries will then evade and ignore the bans and our constituents will continue to suffer. In London we must look to the completion of the M25. When we have that, in central London we should look for a total ban on very heavy lorries.

Transshipment into smaller lorries was rather too carelessly dismissed by the Armitage report. Great advantages can be gained from transshipment. In its experiment, Marks and Spencer found that by breaking up loads brought into central London it could replace six loads with one, although admittedly it was still using large lorries. Many juggernauts charging around central London deliver only small loads of up to 5 tons and are half empty, yet they take up an immense amount of road space. I should like a survey to be undertaken of the economic benefits of transshipment, which could be substantial. The social and environmental advantages would be tremendous.

I looked up the definition of "juggernaut" in the Oxford English Dictionary. Leaving aside its historical definition, it states that it is: an institution or notion to which persons blindly sacrifice themselves or others. Too many of our fellow citizens are having the quality of their lives blindly sacrificed to the notion of heavy lorries.

10.9 pm

Mr. Kenneth Marks (Manchester, Gorton)

Recommendation No. 3 of the Armitage report states: Lorries in general, and each class of lorry, should pay in taxation at least the road track costs which they impose. On 19 December I asked the Secretary of State for Transport, who was then the Minister for Transport, for his estimate of the relative damage done to roads and roadside structures by a 44-tonne lorry and a saloon car. The Under-Secretary of State replied: The damage to the road pavements would depend on actual axle loadings. The damage caused by a 44 tonne lorry as recommended in the Armitage report is estimated to be about 12,800 times that of a saloon car."—[Official Report, 19 December 1980; Vol. 996, c. 434–35.] Many motorists will look at the Budget to see whether their contribution to the vehicle excise duty bears any relation to that paid on behalf of heavy lorries. From my question, I gather that the 32-tonne lorry is even more damaging. Therefore, I hope that the next budget will proportionately increase taxation.

I am the sponsor of an early-day motion: That this House believes that no increase should be permitted in maximum lorry weights before all the environmental and fiscal proposals of the Armitage Report have been put into effect, that no increases in axle weights be permitted in any circumstances. I hope that I heard the Secretary of State correctly. In his opening speech he said that the Government would not carry out the EEC directive on axle weights. I hope that that is kept to and that the present level is maintained.

It is the whole weight of the vehicle on an area of road—not on a particular spot—that causes the damage to sewers, and the same applies to bridges. My early-day motion also says that the increased profitability of heavier lorries shall not be allowed to produce an increase in the total number of lorries on roads in the United Kingdom to the detriment of the environment and to the further impoverishment of the safer and less energy-consuming service of British Railways. Much has been said about the importance of private sidings. Compared with Britain, there are a vast number of sidings on the Continent. The previous Government cut the amount of money to be spent on roads, but, at the same time, voted a great deal of money to increase the number of sidings. I welcome the amendment tabled to my early-day motion by the hon. Member for Chelsea (Mr. Scott). If my early-day motion and the amendment were put to the vote tonight they would receive an overwhelming majority. I hope that the Secretary of State will take note of that.

Paragraph 67 of the Armitage report states that the environmental effects of lorries cannot be accurately estimated. At present there is no means of measuring those effects. The report urges the Secretary of State for Transport and the Secretary of State for the Environment—it is a pity that there is no Minister from the Department of the Environment in the Chamber—to work out a system of measuring those environmental problems. It urges that we should not take any action to alter lorry sizes until such measurements have taken place.

Lorries have a detrimental effect on health. Vehicles 50 ft long and—even more intimidating to the public—13 ft high are a disaster for the environment. As the hon. Member for Chelsea pointed out, not only are villages and towns involved, but also inner city areas, which have many other problems to face.

Lorry parking has not been tackled properly. The Armitage report says that vehicles tend to park in residential areas and on council estates. I support the remarks about the transshipment of goods from heavy lorries to smaller lorries to facilitate movement in cities. If goods are taken by train into a city, they do not go on a 32-tonne lorry from the station to the delivery point. The same should apply to heavy lorries. It might be argued that they are all right on motorways. Nevertheless, they are frightening. If the proper transshipment of goods from 32 tonne—and eventually 44 tonne lorries—does not take place, the environmental disasters that face our inner city areas will be added to over and over again.

10.15 pm
Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)

All hon. Members who have spoken have described their concern about the rushed nature of this debate. I feel ill-prepared to make a proper judgment on this matter. I do not think that any one can easily make a judgment about such a detailed and cogently argued report on some controversial matters. Nevertheless, the report has made a useful contribution to a controversial debate. It contains a wealth of data and cogent arguments. I believe that the rason for the circumstances of this debate might have more to do with tax considerations in the Budget, in which the increased taxation recommended by Armitage might be implemented.

This important industry is responsible for 83 per cent. of freight mileage, 65 per cent. of tonne-mileage and has an expenditure equivalent to 8 per cent. of the gross national product. The report shows that over the last 12 years the amount of freight tonnage carried has been falling. Although tonne-mileage has risen by 40 per cent. and the average distances travelled by the larger lorries have doubled—from 23 miles to 44 miles—it seems that the same amount of freight is carried in the bigger lorries.

I agree with the report that the road haulage industry is and will remain an important sinew of our economy and that there is not one simple solution to the problems that it presents. The report addresses itself to the question of the proper mix of economic, public and environmental advantages. The public interest lies at the heart of the debate, but Armitage's justification for larger lorries is increasingly being questioned, not only here but elsewhere. Therefore, it is a matter for regret that the House apparently will not be able to express its view on a free vote. There is precedent for a free vote on the increase of lorry weights. That affects our attitude to a vote tonight.

The Armitage report bases its recommendation for the 44-tonne lorries on the fact that they cause relatively less damage and pollution and less polution, that the lorries will look no bigger, that they will be quieter and that they will not be faster. The justification for the recommendation that the speed limit for these lorries should be increased to 50 mph—the Minister apparently has not yet accepted that—is that they already travel at that speed and we might as well recognise it.

Mr. Higgins

We on this side are genuinely uncertain why the hon. Gentleman proposes to vote tonight. We agree with many of the things that he and his right hon. Friend the Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Booth) have said. It would be helpful if he told us what he is voting for and what he is voting against—and in particular whether he will be voting for or against Armitage.

Mr. Prescott

I shall be addressing myself to that, of course. It was my intention to do so later in my remarks. But I want first to deal with some of the arguments for dividing the House.

The Secretary of State said that Armitage was concerned to know how to make the report more acceptable. Therefore, the approach to this issue seemed to depend on whether one approached freight transportation from a market-oriented point of view or from that of intervention for more integration. The Secretary of State knows from earlier debates in this House and in Committee that I am more in favour of active intervention for an integration policy. However, it is clear from the approach of Armitage that the committee took the view that market forces were the best way to determine the issue of freight distribution. I disagree with that basic approach, but it is clear from the Armitage recommendations that the committee was actively involving itself in intervention.

There is no leaving it to the free market system as opposed to a kind of integration and intervention. Both systems involve a considerable amount of intervention, and many hon. Members have put considerable emphasis on certain areas to show why the Government should intervene. We are all aware especially of safety considerations, hour regulations, the level of taxation for lorries, environmental pollution and noise. They are all matters to which the Secretary of State addressed himself, and he indicated why he felt that they should be dealt with before we considered introducing heavier lorries on to British roads. Nevertheless, it shows a kind of "organised market" and one which appears to serve private gain from public expenditure.

It will be known to the Secretary of State that the Opposition have always believed in a considerable amount of freight integration. During our consideration of the last Transport Bill we were against the proposed abolition of the Freight Integration Council, which gave some merriment to the Secretary of State who felt that we were wasting our time in attempting to support a body which had not acted very effectively whilst it had been in being. It had met four times, and it represented the four chairmen of the nationalised industries. The Government argued that its reports never dealt with any specific matter and in fact had no contribution to make. As we were not able to get published copies of any report, we were almost bound to accept that judgment. In fact, I served on a Select Committee which tried to investigate what conclusions the council had arrived at, and we were singularly unsuccessful. However, in the last few weeks, evidence has been supplied to me showing that that was not the case and that a report was produced by that council, but not published, which addressed itself to one major area of freight integration, namely, that of parcels. It was felt that there could not be agreement between the nationalised industries and, therefore, the council failed to get any kind of integration.

I have that report before me. It makes it clear that the chairmen of the nationalised industries were able to produce a joint report and an agreement in the Freight Integration Council about how the parcels section should be brought together. That report was given to the Minister on 4 July 1972, and discussions continued on it in 1973. However, it is clear that the Minister at that time was not prepared to intervene in order to impose a solution along the lines generally agreed between the chairmen of the nationalised industries.

The argument put forward constantly in this House about integration suggesting that the chairmen of the nationalised industries failed to agree is not necessarily borne out by the unpublished evidence. If agreement had been imposed at that time on parcels by the Minister it may be that the problem of losses on parcels could have been solved.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

That is untrue.

Mr. Prescott

I leave others to judge whether it is untrue or not. I am merely quoting a report made to the Minister at the time. It shows that there was no lack of agreement among the chairmen of the nationalised industries. I do not challenge the Minister's right to decide that he should not intervene. However, we believe in intervention in the market, and the Freight Integration Council undoubtedly contributed to a solution in that area but was ignored.

It is interesting to note that the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, in a report published a month ago, called for integration at the local authority level. The Armitage committee rejected the concept of intervention by local authorities, but the authorities see a need for such action and are beginning to advocate that there should be a more rational way of dealing with road and rail integration in their areas.

Another matter to which the Armitage committee turned its attention was quantity licensing. The power for such licensing was contained in the Transport Act 1968. It was removed in last year's Act. A number of my hon. Friends and I defended the concept of quantity licensing, which is that traffic may be directed according to criteria other than price. We believe that other criteria should be taken into account.

Mr. Fry

If quantity licensing is such a good idea, why was there so little progress made between 1974 and 1979 when the Labour Party was in office?

Mr. Prescott

That is a fair point. We had to address ourselves in Committee to why the Labour Government did not use quantity licensing. There are controversies among my right hon. and hon. Friends concerning the usefulness of quantity licensing. The Foster committee did not agree with the idea, and though it did not totally reject it, nor does the Armitage committee. It is a matter of dispute between individuals.

I spoke to Sir Richard Marsh when he was chairman of British Rail. He did not believe in quantity licensing when he was the chairman and he did not support it when he succeeded Barbara Castle as Minister of Transport. The idea died the death, but that does not mean that it does not have a contribution to make to integration in transport. It is used in Europe and has been used in Britain. We envisaged using it after the 1968 Act, though anyone reading the reports of the debates on that measure will see that it was envisaged that quantity licensing would be used after Freightliners Limited was established. As envisaged, that took two or three years, but the concept of quantity licensing was not acceptable to the then Government and it did not become the force that it had been expected to become after the 1968 Act.

The Armitage committee said that it did not feel that quantity licensing would contribute to solving the problem of the introduction of large lorries. It suggests that we will not be able to put off larger lorries and solve the problem by directing more traffic on to the railways.

One vital part of the argument on quantity licensing is that it was never envisaged that all road transport licensing should be subjected to freight quantity licensing, However, there is an argument that some direction of traffic, even in a marginal area, could make a considerable difference.

For example, when one compares the share of traffic between road and rail in Europe and Britain it is claimed that the differences can be explained by the different geographical distances. However, if one considers the shares of tonnes of traffic, the difference is not so marked. It can be 1 per cent. or two per cent., but that could be considerable contribution to rail freight.

As Armitage pointed out, a 2 per cent. difference in tonnage is equivalent to 40 million tonnes, and that represents about 22 per cent. of BR freight or 2½ per cent. of the total market. If British Rail were to get that sort of freight allocation, even though it is only a small part of total freight demand, it would make a considerable difference to BR's finances and would not lead to the closure of 54 terminals, as is being envisaged, with redundancies for railwaymen. It would certainly be welcome to British Rail and would lead to a greater utilisation of important public assets.

Like other hon. Members, I welcome what the Armitage report says about section 8, which has led to the diversion of traffic to rail totalling about 16 million tonnes. I welcome the Armitage recommendation that there should be wider criteria and greater incentives for the introduction of section 8 grants, particularly for Freightliners Ltd. and Sealink. That has made quite a difference in Germany, as a number of hon. Members have pointed out, and it is something that we should take into account.

I believe that Armitage made a number of mistakes in assessing the consequences of market forces. As a number of hon. Members have said, the reality of the market force at present is that rate wars are going on and a considerable number of bankruptcies are taking place in the industry. The National Freight Corporation, in its evidence to Armitage, pointed out that full loads are only about 35 per cent. of a full movement, and that if one reaches about 90 per cent. of a full load diseconomies begin to occur. Insufficient attention was paid to this when Armitage was assessing the economic savings of larger lorries. Indeed, I and others dispute that larger lorries will bring about the kind of savings that Armitage envisaged in this respect.

I certainly do not accept that larger lorries will necessarily mean fewer lorries, as the Secretary of State suggested. Nor do I accept that they are less likely to go into urban areas. Armitage seems to assume that larger lorries spend most of their time on the motorway. I am sure that that is true. But, at the end of the day, the lads do not live on the motorway. They live in urban areas, and that is where the lorries go. That is the reason for the growing problem of parking areas, which is of great environmental consequence.

The proposals for larger lorries will certainly lead to greater competition between rail and road—to the detriment of rail.

The Secretary of State said that he was open-minded on this matter and that he had made no decision. Yet he did not indicate to the House whether he fancied the weights of 38 tonnes, 40 tonnes or 44 tonnes that were mentioned in the debate. I understand that he may not have arrived at any conclusion about the tonnage. Nevertheless, it is usual in debates of this kind to give some indication of the Government's thinking. It would have been useful to hear the Minister's thinking on that point.

The Secretary of State says that he has an open mind, but his whole approach to the debate showed that he was very sympathetic to the views put forward by Armitage in his package deal to justify the 44-tonners. He said that there was a desire for more enforcement. He had found, for example, that many lorries were overloaded. The Foster committee had shown that there were problems of enforcement. I am bound to say that I should have been a little more convinced if he had adopted many more of the 91 recommendations of the Foster report, instead of recommendations that seem to be highly influenced by how much they cost and what manpower is available. That is clear to anyone who looks at the Foster recommendations.

The Secretary of State also said that he wished to improve the road programme and bypasses. I do not wish to claim that our road programme expenditure was ideal. Labour Governments have used cutbacks in road expenditure as one of the easy options in public expenditure cuts, and the Conservatives are continuing along the same road. It is the same with bypasses. We can see from the White Paper on roads that there are delays with bypasses. We know that even in the present circumstances the road programme would not be concluded until the mid-1990s. The Minister says that he is now considering reviewing that in the light of the Armitage report. But Armitage makes it absolutely clear that the problems of pollution and safety and all the other problems associated with juggernauts exist now with the 32-ton lorries. He does not need to review what will happen with the 44-tonners. If he has any doubts about that, he has only to ask his own Back Benchers. Those problems exist now, and I have some doubt whether he will be successful even in that review in achieving the increase in the roads programme and bypasses called for by Armitage.

On one aspect of pollution, namely, noise, it was suggested, as a number of hon. Members have pointed out, that to provide double glazing to the levels presently applied to new building programmes would cost about £1,600 million. Armitage recommends £6 million per year. That is scarcely a major contribution to solving that aspect of the problem of pollution.

The Secretary of State also made clear that in relation to damage to roads he rather accepted that the £1,400 million for bridges was not now needed because it had been found that, due to the theory of the concept of the fourth power and the effects of axle weights, there would not be the effects on bridges that he had envisaged. That is being contested. We were awaiting some evidence from a civil engineer who was looking into that theory, but we have not been able to get it in time for the debate. That was one of the reasons why we thought the debate should not have taken place at the moment.

The right hon. Gentleman claims that there should be a payment of full track costs. Armitage, while rejecting the idea of environmental track costs, said that a tax of £800 per heavy lorry would be a proper track cost. But we have to bear in mind that the overall surplus on road taxation is £43 million. The heavier tax is on the lighter lorries. The Secretary of State did not say whether he was considering the possibility of lightening the tax on the lighter lorries. If that were to be done, he would not get any extra revenue from the tax. It would be balancing out between the heavy and the lighter areas. My money is on putting the tax on the heavier lorries and leaving it on the lighter ones.

The more serious point is that £800 is considered by some not to be a sufficient track cost. For example, it is argued that we should add to that sum £450 for increased public road costs, £125 for road accident costs, £100 for underground costs—the damage to pipes and so on—and end up with the more realistic cost of £1,465. If one multiplies that by the 85,400 lorries, the amount of subsidy is equivalent to £125 million.

I am not in a position to make a judgment between the £800 recommendation and the suggestion that the true cost would be £1,465. But I should like to have heard from the Secretary of State where the Government's thinking lies in this matter, and what consideration they are giving to the two arguments—perhaps the two extreme views—concerning what the real track costs are.

Once the right hon. Gentleman gets into making these judgments, these are purely the arguments of a market policy, somehow trying to treat each traffic mode the same. It is extremely difficult to do, as we have seen in the past with the various formulas that have been used in the railway industry and in the road haulage industry. It is not an easy process, but it is the one that seeks to direct itself to the market incentive approach.

I do not think that the Armitage committee looked at the social costs regarding the employees. We have heard from the representative of the Transport and General Workers Union, my hon. Friend the Member for Southall (Mr. Bidwell), that the union is against the development because it fears that fewer lorries will mean more redundancies. Experience shows that longer lorries have not led to improvement. Armitage rejected the idea of freight centres and transshipment centres, but all these are important parts of any transport policy.

Armitage seemed to be convinced that the best way was to leave it to the market. He did not take into account the social consequences. But probably the most classic example in regard to the employee aspect is the argument for park security areas. They were recommended by the Berry committee over 10 years ago, but the industry has refused to finance them, and because of that the Armitage report seems to suggest bigger and better beds for lorry drivers in their cabs—giving the reason why the lorry should be longer, apparently, according to the report, but doing very little about getting a man away from his place of work, where he is putting in many hours, driving a heavy lorry, and giving him recreation and rest time. That aspect was not addressed by Armitage and he has done nothing about it.

The Opposition consider that Armitage has refused to grasp what we believe to be an essential part of the transport problem—developing more intervention and integrated techniques. That is essential for freight transportation development in this country. We feel that the proper track costs have not been itemised and that the figure of £800 per lorry is certainly not sufficient for the package cost.

We certainly welcome, if one is to accept such lorries, the idea of package aspects. But, as the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry) pointed out, among all the recommendations made by Armitage only four could really be called pro-road. What is more crucial is that Armitage himself has said that it is not a package, and in fact the likelihood is, in view of what the Secretary of State said, that because of limited resources, already evident in the road programmes, there will be further delays in bypass construction and in implementation of the tax.

We are all aware of the temptation to say that we should tax now, introduce the larger lorries and then all these other benefits will follow. That would be the worst possible thing to do, and if the right hon. Gentleman loses the argument with the Chancellor of the Exchequer and we get the tax and the larger lorries without any of the benefits mentioned in the packages proposed in Armitage we shall have the worst result. That is one reason why we shall be voting against this motion.

The hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) said that there would be other opportunities to debate and vote on this matter. The reality is that there will not be any other opportunity—except when the Government bring forward their own proposals. In 1972 the House had a free vote on the principle of the introduction of heavier lorries. Then, the House unanimously said that it did not want them. We believe that the House now should have such an opportunity, and if the Minister points out that this is only an Adjournment motion, I remind him that he could have used the early-day motion on the issue tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Marks). Then we would have had a proper motion to debate and vote, giving the Government a true indication of the House's view on larger lorries. But since the Government have taken every action to avoid a vote, we believe it is essential that we vote against the motion to show that we do not accept the conclusions of the report.

10.40 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Kenneth Clarke)

I should like to begin by saying something about the timing of the debate and the status of it, particularly because of the apparent confusion over what we shall be voting on at the end.

The purpose of the debate is to consult the House before the Government move to the stage of considering decisions on this very difficult and controversial report. When the report was first published my right hon. Friend and I made it clear that before we moved to decision-taking we would like the opportunity to consult the House and have a debate. We expressly specified a time limit of two months within which we hoped to have this kind of debate. Seven weeks have since gone by. The business of the House was rearranged in the middle of the week and an opportunity occurred for four hours of debate, which has expressly been allowed to take place on the Adjournment so that the House should not in any way be rushed to take a decision, and because the Government themselves have not started to contemplate a decision.

I should like briefly to take off my ministerial hat and speak for a moment as a Member of Parliament. The House should not be so churlish about a rare opportunity to have a debate before the Government start making decisions. This is a difficult matter. My right hon. Friend has not yet approached his colleagues with it. We realise that there are strong feelings in all parts of the House, and we thought it right to give the House a say, as well as to consult outside bodies.

We have had complaints that there has not been time to talk to all the outside bodies, and we have been asked whether my right hon. Friend would see this or that outside body. All the outside bodies are, of course, important, but they do not tell us what to say, and they do not tell the Government what to say. The House of Commons is just as important as any of the outside bodies. This is an exceptional occasion for it to be involved at this early stage so that it can give a reaction to the report.

Mr. Booth

Will the hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clarke

I shall in a moment, but as the right hon. Gentleman wishes to intervene, let me say that I take the criticism least of all from him, because there was a discussion through the usual channels about the timing of the debate, when the opportunity arose yesterday. We have the response of his right hon. Friend the Opposition Chief Whip, the right hon. Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Cocks) who, when the change of business was announced, said: I thank the Leader of the House for his statement and for the way in which he has responded to the Opposition's representations. I am most obliged to him."—[Official Report, 26 January 1981; Vol. 997, c. 728.] That was the reaction of the Opposition yesterday. This morning we suspended any discussion on the Transport Bill in Committee to allow more time for preparation for this debate. We have had a debate, in which many of my hon. Friends and Opposition Members have taken advantage of the opportunity to put their strong feelings. Now the right hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Booth) comes forward with a typically daft suggestion that we should wind up with a vote on the Adjournment, the purpose of which only he and his hon. Friend can understand.

Mr. Booth

Before the hon. and learned Gentleman starts talking about typically daft suggestions, he might consider whether he is obtaining a reputation for making typically misleading statements. He said that the House was consulted before the Government proceeded to act on the recommendations. If he cares to consider the matter for a moment longer he will realise that the Government have placed recommendation 3 of the Armitage report in a Bill that is in Committee. Secondly, if he wanted to find a transport subject to debate at short notice, he might care to recall that the Opposition Front Bench asked for a debate on BR finance, and that I wrote a letter on the subject. Lastly, if he wishes to speak of the usual channels, he might tell the House, why neither he nor his right hon. Friend contacted me on this matter, and why the first that I heard of it was through the usual channels at 8.30 pm yesterday.

Mr. Clarke

With regard to the changes that we are making to increase the taxation on the heaviest lorries, we had, of course, announced our intention to do that before Armitage reported. It was in the Bill that was published before Armitage reported, and it is a happy coincidence that that action has already been taken by the Government. As far as I can gather from the debate it has received universal acclaim in the discussions that we have had. I shall not go into the question of a debate on British Rail. We shall obviously have to give the right hon. Gentleman a great deal of time to prepare for that, but we shall try to have one in due course.

I am sorry that I did not personally speak to the right hon. Gentleman, but it is usual in these matters to rely in part on the Opposition Chief Whip, the right hon. Member for Bristol, South, as we rely on our usual channels. I can rely only on what was put on the record by the Opposition Chief Whip—I believe on the right hon. Gentleman's behalf—during the discussions yesterday.

The Opposition must leave me some time to reply to the debate on the Armitage report, the main purpose of which has been to listen to and appreciate the reaction of the House to the many recommendations in the report, including the most controversial—that on the nature and weight of lorries.

Because we are all elected politicians, we begin from the basis that no one likes lorries. Perhaps some of the 300,000 people who work in the road haulage industry do, but on the whole most of us do not. My constituents do not, nor do other Members' constituents, and nor does my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington (Mr. Wheeler), who is one of the most passionate speakers on this subject because he has one of the most damaged constituencies.

It is because we wish to try to accommodate the lorry within our overriding aim to preserve the environment and the pleasantness and attractiveness of life in most parts of this country that the Armitage committee was invited to consider all those problems, and in particular the impact of the lorry on the environment. Armitage has produced a large number of recommendations, all of which merit detailed attention. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brighouse and Spenborough (Mr. Waller) pointed out, most call for further restraints and improvements in controls on the safety and pollution-causing aspects of lorries, and one or two go in the other direction and appear to be attractive to the road haulage industry.

We must look at all the recommendations and react to them in time as we gauge the true public interest and the reaction of the House. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Fry) that we must try to strike a balance between the need to preserve the quality of life in this country and our desire to have an efficient industrial economy and be in the forefront of prosperous economies.

It is no good going through the report and simply taking out those few recommendations that happen to be attractive to the road haulage industry and automatically reacting hostily to them. But nothing should be done that is attractive to the road haulage industry unless the public and this House are satisfied that what is being done is not causing environmental damage. As my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mr. Mills) said, the whole matter must be looked at as a way of civilising the lorry, given the extent to which whatever one does one has to live with the lorry in a modern industrial economy such as ours.

Because no one likes lorries, and because no one is seriously advocating putting juggernauts into residential areas on any greater scale than at present, we begin by looking at the arguments that are put forward about the possibility of diverting traffic from the roads on to rail or waterways. I do not believe that any hon. Member would not be happy if more traffic could go by rail or by waterway, so long as it did not cause unacceptable economic costs or other incidental environmental damage. Armitage contemplates some improvements in that direction, but the report points out some of the limitations of that approach. We must all accept that there are practical limitations on how far we can go.

Let us begin by evidencing the willingness of the Government to divert traffic to railways wherever suitable opportunities occur. Section 8 grants are available to customers who need grant-aid to invest in facilities to move to the railways traffic that otherwise would go by road. We have been giving section 8 grants. We have not cut the amount of money available for section 8 grants. We have turned down requests for them only when customers have failed to demonstrate that any significant traffic would transfer if the money were forthcoming. I had talks with waterways interests about the possibility of extending section 8 to waterways before the Armitage committee reported. I listened sympathetically to their case and the Government are doing likewise.

The Government are interested in the Armitage recommendations; for example, that section 8 should be extended to Freightliners Ltd. and Sealink, and that perhaps the percentage grant should be increased. We shall consider those recommendations as part of our deliberations on the report.

We must not run away from every decision that has to be taken about the lorry by saying that the answer is to put all the traffic on to the railways. In the real world there are practical limitations on how far that can be done. Many of our industries are far away from the railways. The railways are suitable and attractive only for bulk goods that have to travel long distances. Using the railways is an inefficient and costly way of handling food distribution. In any event, there is a limit to how much traffic can be moved on to the railways.

The right hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness compared tonne-mileage on the railways in Britain with that in Western Europe. There are factors that he did not include in his comparison. One factor is geography. It is difficult to get the long rail haul in Britain that is possible on the Continent, which improves the attractiveness of the Continental railways. There is more international traffic on the Continent because there are land barriers over which the railways can travel while we have a sea barrier that inhibits the development of international rail traffic. We have a smaller loading gauge. In the nineteenth century our ancestors made a mistake with their smaller loading gauge, so that we cannot have piggy-back lorries on the backs of railway waggons, of the sort that are used in Western Europe.

Despite those inhibitions, when we compare the tonnage carried by British railways with that carried by Western European railways, it is evident that we carry roughly the same proportion. Their tonne-mileage is higher because they operate over longer distances. Our record compares favourably with Italy's, where less is carried on the railways. We are not too far away from the performances of Western Germany and France.

Insofar as it is possible, every sensible hon. Member would like to take steps to divert traffic from the roads to the railways, so long as the cost is not unacceptable. The Government will pursue that aim. However, in the real world we are left with a situation in which most of our freight will be carried by road on lorries. If our economy grows—I assume that the majority of us intend that our economy and the level of our economic activity should grow—more freight will be carried by lorry. That will determine the number of lorries on our roads, rather more than the Armitage report or anything else.

Some of the traffic is vital. Lorries carry goods to the ports for our export trade and distribute to the shops on which we all depend. We have to face the issue of deciding the type of lorries that we shall have and the controls and restraints that we shall impose on them to minimise the damage to our villages, countryside, rural peace and the traffic-filled suburbs of our larger cities. We must take a decision. It is as much a decision to determine that what we have by way of weight and size constraints is satisfactory as it is to move to the Armitage recommendations, to the EEC proposals, which are different again, or to any other proposals that might come forward that are a compromise in their character, such as the one advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) and by others.

We need a decision in the not-too-distant future. I include in that process a decision to say that what we have is the best of all possible worlds. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brighouse and Spenborough said, there are those with serious industrial interests who need a resolution of the problem. There are trailer and vehicle manufacturers that will go out of business if the House wishes to indulge in such a process of consultation and repeated debate that years roll by before we even decide that we shall not change anything. There is a need to face the choices.

The choices must be affected, above all else, by the views of our constituents on what they Consider to be the quality of their lives. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Brighouse and Spenborough that the greatest hostility that we now encounter to large lorries arises from their volume. There are more complaints from the villages that I represent about the size of the lorries on our roads than about their weight. There is obviously some relationship between the two factors. Fortunately, we are not facing anyone who is advocating an increase in the size of our lorries.

In fact, the Armitage proposals are somewhat constrained. One proposal bears on the problem that we have no limitation on the height of lorries in this country. They are of course, constrained by bridges, but, as the regulations stand it would be possible, near ports, for some of the higher American-type containers to start appearing on our roads. Armitage is against that—a view, I imagine, that is generally acceptable, to judge from the debate.

The size of lorries is confined, as Armitage recommends and as is the practice at the moment, by the standard type container that we use to indulge in international trade. The International Standards Organisation has various sizes of container, including the biggest, which cause all the problems. These are 40 ft long, are on our roads at the moment and, given that the debate has gone into history, were authorised by the Labour Government in 1968. Twenty per cent. of our containers now go through the ports on these big ISO 40 ft long containers. They are the same size when they rumble from the British side on to the ship as they are when they emerge at the other side and rumble across Germany.

The present situation, which the House has to decide whether it wishes to maintain, is that if one has heavier goods, one can only fill our lorries with up to 70 per cent. of the possible weight. Similarly, given our present dimension limitations, our tankers cannot get up to the maximum permitted weights that are allowed in other countries. With fixed flows, like the transport of milk from Wincanton to London, the present restrictions mean that more tankers have to make the journey. Nothing in Armitage suggests bigger dimensions except a possible small extension to the cab to contain bunks and to turn more into sleeper cabs.

The Government have not taken any decisions. The issue is whether the obvious benefits to efficiency of bigger weights will be acceptable and the damage to the environment reduced by going for the axle weight proposals in the Armitage report. The Armitage case, which all hon. Members will have to consider, and which cannot possibly be decided tonight, is that what matters is axle weights and whether the footprint of the lorry matters more than the overall weight of it. I have no time to go into technical details. I have no technical expertise. The argument appears to turn on the more familiar equation that a thin lady in high heeled shoes can do more damage to a floor than a fat lady wearing carpet slippers.

That is the issue that has to be faced. We have to come to a decision eventually that will determine the type of lorries that we have over the next decade or so. We are asked to consider that problem as part of a package. Of course, we look at it in terms of a package. All the proposals dealt with by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden, including safety protection, the bars at the rear and the side, lower noise levels, the quieter lorry and all the restraints proposed by Armitage can be looked at as a package. All our policies should be consistent and in one direction.

The only warning that I give is that it is no good putting off all the decisions until we have made more progress on bypasses. I have not even time to point out that the previous Government cut the road programme in 1976. Our road programme reflects that. Fortunately, our road programme is based on greater priority for bypasses. We are building in Wimborne, Bere Regis and Bowes. We fixed the line for the Batheaston bypass about a month ago. I promise my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Patten) that we shall look at the possibility of resuming work on it as soon as possible.

We must look at all these matters as a package. The House eventually, although not tonight, will judge them as a package. The Government will come to their conclusions when they have had time to evaluate the opinions of hon. Members and to consult outside bodies.

If we decide that any change is required—and such a change might be, for instance, merely to introduce a height limitation, which we do not have at present—it would involve our producing draft regulations, having statutory consultations, printing them and coming back to the House for a debate and a vote on the merits of the proposal. We shall move to a vote on the merits if anybody ever decides to do anything. Tonight we are consulting, we have consulted, and I am left as my hon. Friends are about what on earth the Opposition believe they are about to vote on.

Question put, That this House do now adjourm:—

The House divided: Ayes 231, Noes 282.

Division No.54] [11.00 pm
Abse, Leo Ellis, R. (NED'bysh're)
Adams, Allen English, Michael
Allaun, Frank Ennals, Rt Hon David
Alton, David Evans, Ioan (Aberdare)
Archer, Rt Hon Peter Evans, John (Newton)
Armstrong, Rt Hon Ernest Ewing, Harry
Ashley, Rt Hon Jack Faulds, Andrew
Ashton, Joe Field, Frank
Atkinson, N. (H'gey,) Flannery, Martin
Bagier, Gordon A. T. Fletcher, Ted (Darlington)
Barnett, Guy (Greenwich) Foot, Rt Hon Michael
Barnett, Rt Hon Joel (H'wd) Ford, Ben
Benn, Rt Hon A. Wedgwood Forrester, John
Bennett, Andrew (St'kp't N) Foster, Derek
Bidwell, Sydney Fraser, J. (Lamb'th, N'w'd)
Booth, Rt Hon Albert Freeson, Rt Hon Reginald
Boothroyd, Miss Betty Freud, Clement
Bradley, Tom Garrett, John (Norwich S)
Bray, Dr Jeremy George, Bruce
Brown, Hugh D. (Provan) Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John
Brown, R. C. (N'castle W) Ginsburg, David
Brown, Ron (E'burgh, Leith) Golding, John
Buchan, Norman Gourlay, Harry
Callaghan, Jim (Midd't'n & P) Graham, Ted
Campbell, Ian Grant, George (Morpeth)
Campbell-Savours, Dale Grant, John (Islington C)
Canavan, Dennis Hamilton, W. W. (C'tral Fife)
Cant, R. B. Harrison, Rt Hon Walter
Carmichael, Neil Hart, Rt Hon Dame Judith
Carter-Jones, Lewis Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy
Cartwright, John Haynes, Frank
Cocks, Rt Hon M. (B'stol S) Healey, Rt Hon Denis
Cohen, Stanley Heffer, Eric S.
Coleman, Donald Holland, S. (L'b'th, Vauxh'll)
Concannon, Rt Hon J. D. Home Robertson, John
Conlan, Bernard Homewood, William
Cook, Robin F. Hooley, Frank
Cowans, Harry Horam, John
Craigen, J. M. Howell, Rt Hon D.
Crowther, J. S. Howells, Geraint
Cryer, Bob Hudson Davies, Gwilym E.
Cunliffe, Lawrence Hughes, Mark (Durham)
Cunningham, G. (Islington S) Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Cunningham, Dr J. (W'h'n) Hughes, Roy (Newport)
Dalyell, Tam Janner, Hon Greville
Davidson, Arthur Jay, Rt Hon Douglas
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (L'lli) John, Brynmor
Davies, Ifor (Gower) Johnson, James (Hull West)
Davis, Clinton (Hackney C) Johnson, Walter (Derby S)
Davis, T. (B'ham, Stechf'd) Johnston, Russell (Inverness)
Deakins, Eric Jones, Rt Hon Alec (Rh'dda)
Dewar, Donald Jones, Barry (East Flint)
Dixon, Donald Jones, Dan (Burnley)
Dobson, Frank Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Dormand, Jack Kerr, Russell
Douglas, Dick Kilfedder, James A.
Douglas-Mann, Bruce Kilroy-Silk, Robert
Dubs, Alfred Kinnock, Neil
Dunn, James A. Lamborn, Harry
Dunnett, Jack Leadbitter, Ted
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs G. Leighton, Ronald
Eastham, Ken Lestor, Miss Joan
Lewis, Arthur (N'ham NW) Roberts, Allan (Bootle)
Litherland, Robert Roberts, Ernest (Hackney N)
Lofthouse, Geoffrey Roberts, Gwilym (Cannock)
Lyon, Alexander (York) Robertson, George
Lyons, Edward (Bradf'd W) Robinson, G. (Coventry NW)
McCartney, Hugh Rooker, J. W.
McDonald, Dr Oonagh Ross, Ernest (Dundee West)
McElhone, Frank Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)
McKay, Allen (Penistone) Ryman, John
McKelvey, William Sever, John
MacKenzie, Rt Hon Gregor Sheldon, Rt Hon R.
Maclennan, Robert Shore, Rt Hon Peter
McMahon, Andrew Short, Mrs Renée
McNally, Thomas Silkin, Rt Hon J. (Deptford)
McNamara, Kevin Silkin, Rt Hon S. C. (Dulwich)
McTaggart, Robert Silverman, Julius
McWilliam, John Skinner, Dennis
Magee, Bryan Smith, Cyril (Rochdale)
Marshall, D (G'gow S'ton) Smith, Rt Hon J. (N Lanark)
Marshall, Dr Edmund (Goole) Spearing, Nigel
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S) Spriggs, Leslie
Martin, M (G'gow S'burn) Stallard, A. W.
Mason, Rt Hon Roy Steel, Rt Hon David
Maxton, John Stott, Roger
Maynard, Miss Joan Strang, Gavin
Meacher, Michael Straw, Jack
Mellish, Rt Hon Robert Summerskill, Hon Dr Shirley
Mikardo, Ian Taylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton W)
Millan, Rt Hon Bruce Thomas, Jeffrey (Abertillery)
Mitchell, Austin (Grimsby) Thomas, Dr R. (Carmarthen)
Mitchell, R. C. (Soton Itchen) Thorne, Stan (Preston South)
Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe) Tilley, John
Morris, Rt Hon C. (O'shaw) Tinn, James
Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon) Torney, Tom
Morton, George Varley, Rt Hon Eric G.
Moyle, Rt Hon Roland Wainwright, E. (Dearne V)
Newens, Stanley Walker, Rt Hon H. (D'caster)
Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon Watkins, David
O'Halloran, Michael Weetch, Ken
O'Neill, Martin Welsh, Michael
Orme, Rt Hon Stanley Whitehead, Phillip
Palmer, Arthur Willey, Rt Hon Frederick
Park, George Williams, Rt Hon A. (S'sea W)
Parker, John Wilson, Rt Hon Sir H. (H'ton)
Parry, Robert Wilson, William (C'try S E)
Pendry, Tom Winnick David
Penhaligon, David Woodall, Alec
Powell, Raymond (Ogmore) Woolmer, Kenneth
Prescott, John Wrigglesworth, Ian
Price, C. (Lewisham W) Young, David (Bolton E)
Race, Reg
Radice, Giles Tellers for the Ayes:
Rees, Rt Hon M (Leeds S) Mr. Joseph Dean and
Richardson, Jo Mr. Frank R. White.
Roberts, Albert (Normanton)
Adley, Robert Bowden, Andrew
Aitken, Jonathan Boyson, Dr Rhodes
Alexander, Richard Bradford, Rev R.
Ancram, Michael Braine, Sir Bernard
Arnold, Tom Bright, Graham
Atkins, Robert (Preston N) Brinton, Tim
Baker, Kenneth (St. M'bone) Brittan, Leon
Baker, Nicholas (N Dorset) Brocklebank-Fowler, C.
Beaumont-Dark, Anthony Brooke, Hon Peter
Bendall, Vivian Brotherton, Michael
Benyon, Thomas (A'don) Brown, M. (Brigg and Scun)
Benyon, W. (Buckingham) Browne, John (Winchester)
Berry, Hon Anthony Bruce-Gardyne, John
Best, Keith Bryan, Sir Paul
Bevan, David Gilroy Budgen, Nick
Biffen, Rt Hon John Bulmer, Esmond
Biggs-Davison, John Butcher, John
Blackburn, John Butler, Hon Adam
Blaker, Peter Carlisle, John (Luton West)
Body, Richard Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas Carlisle, Rt Hon M. (R'c'n)
Boscawen, Hon Robert Chalker, Mrs. Lynda
Bottomley, Peter (W'wich W) Channon, Rt. Hon. Paul
Chapman, Sydney Hannam, John
Churchill, W. S. Haselhurst, Alan
Clark, Hon A. (Plym'th, S'n) Hastings, Stephen
Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S) Hawksley, Warren
Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe) Hayhoe, Barney
Clegg, Sir Walter Heddle, John
Cockeram, Eric Henderson, Barry
Colvin, Michael Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael
Cope, John Hicks, Robert
Cormack, Patrick Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.
Corrie, John Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)
Costain, Sir Albert Holland, Philip (Carlton)
Cranborne, Viscount Hooson, Tom
Crouch, David Hordern, Peter
Dean, Paul (North Somerset) Howell, Rt Hon D. (G'Idf'd)
Dickens, Geoffrey Howell, Ralph (N Norfolk)
Dorrell, Stephen Hunt, David (Wirral)
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J. Hunt, John (Ravensbourne)
Dover, Denshore Hurd, Hon Douglas
du Cann, Rt Hon Edward Irving, Charles (Cheltenham)
Dunn, Robert (Dartford) Jenkin, Rt Hon Patrick
Durant, Tony Johnson Smith, Geoffrey
Dykes, Hugh Jopling, Rt Hon Michael
Eden, Rt Hon Sir John Kaberry, Sir Donald
Edwards, Rt Hon N. (P'broke) Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine
Eggar, Tim Kimball, Marcus
Elliott, Sir William King, Rt Hon Tom
Emery, Peter Knox, David
Eyre, Reginald Lamont, Norman
Fairgrieve, Russell Lang, Ian
Faith, Mrs Sheila Langford-Holt, Sir John
Farr, John Latham, Michael
Fell, Anthony Lawrence, Ivan
Fenner, Mrs Peggy Lawson, Nigel
Finsberg, Geoffrey Lee, John
Fisher, Sir Nigel LeMarchant, Spencer
Fletcher, A. (Ed 'nb'gh N) Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark
Fookes, Miss Janet Lester Jim (Beeston)
Fowler, Rt Hon Norman Lewis, Kenneth (Rutland)
Fox, Marcus Lloyd, Ian (Havant & W'loo)
Fraser, Rt Hon Sir Hugh Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)
Fraser, Peter (South Angus) Loveridge, John
Fry, Peter Luce, Richard
Gardiner, George (Reigate) Lyell, Nicholas
Gardner, Edward (S Fylde) McCrindle, Robert
Garel-Jones, Tristan Macfarlane, Neil
Gilmour, Rt Hon Sir Ian MacKay, John (Argyll)
Glyn, Dr Alan Macmillan, Rt Hon M.
Goodlad, Alastair McNair-Wilson, M. (N'bury)
Gorst, John McNair-Wilson, P. (New F'st)
Gow, Ian McQuarrie, Albert
Gower, Sir Raymond Madel, David
Gray, Hamish Major, John
Greenway, Harry Marland, Paul
Griffiths, E. (B'y St. Edm'ds) Marlow, Tony
Griffiths, Peter Portsm'th N) Marshall Michael (Arundel)
Grist, Ian Marten, Neil (Banbury)
Grylls, Michael Mates, Michael
Hamilton, Hon A. Mather, Carol
Hamilton, Michael (Salisbury) Maude, Rt Hon Angus
Hampson, Dr Keith Mawby, Ray

Question accordingly negatived.

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