HC Deb 13 April 1999 vol 329 cc7-10
5. Mr. Alan W. Williams (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr)

If he will make a statement on the level of freight costs in (a) the UK and (b) other EU member states. [78820]

13. Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire)

If he will make a statement on road freight costs in (a) the United Kingdom and (b) other EU member states. [78828]

The Minister of Transport (Dr. John Reid)

For a typical haulage operator with 50 articulated trucks, if we include social costs, national insurance, corporation tax, labour costs, fuel and excise duty, the additional cost in France. as compared with the UK, is about £425,000 a year; in the Netherlands about £600,000; and in Belgium about £800,000. These issues will be discussed in more detail by the road haulage forum.

Mr. Williams

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that comprehensive reply. Does he agree, bearing in mind yesterday's truckers' protest, that the general public are presented with only one part of the picture? Will he go in considerable detail through the various factors with the road haulage forum and perhaps prepare and present an agreed report eventually so that there is transparency and so that the general public can understand that road haulage costs in Britain are about a third less than those in France, Germany and Italy?

Dr. Reid

Yes, I certainly will. The general public are coming to recognise that when all costs are considered, the UK haulage industry is more competitive than the majority of its European competitors. There is overcapacity in the industry, and I take that seriously. That is why I am involved in discussions with the road haulage and freight associations on that and other matters.

It is a matter of deep regret that a militant section of the hauliers have rejected the path of dialogue and have opted instead to disrupt, inconvenience and punish millions of ordinary members of the public while discussions are taking place. I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House would wish to condemn such destructive action.

Mr. Todd

I certainly thank the Minister for the last part of his reply. I share his view entirely, as I think would my constituents. However, may I ask him three questions on this issue—[HoN. MEMBERS: "No."] I shall do so very quickly. First, my right hon. Friend referred to a 50-truck company. I would be interested—I am sure that the road haulage forum would find it helpful—to explore the position of a smaller company, including its cash flow, as a result of the change in tax status. Secondly, what is the impact on market share over the period in which the increased taxes will be introduced? Thirdly, are there means of measuring the impact on the environment of these taxes so that we can ensure that the outcomes are those that we are seeking?

Dr. Reid

Yes. At great risk of going on at tremendous length, I think that it would be helpful if we considered some of these issues. I can tell my hon. Friend, for instance, that labour costs are higher for our continental neighbours by more than 55 per cent. in France, 95 per cent. in Belgium and 75 per cent. in the Netherlands. Corporation tax for individual firms—my hon. Friend asked specifically about smaller firms—is higher for our continental neighbours. It is 50.65 per cent. higher in France, 40.17 per cent. higher in Belgium and 35 per cent. higher in the Netherlands. I could go on indefinitely, but I undertake to write to my hon. Friend in answer to those three questions as well as any others he wishes to ask.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

If what the Minister says is correct, hauliers would be flagging out from France, Germany and the Netherlands and joining the United Kingdom truck industry, but quite the opposite is happening. UK hauliers are flagging out and registering elsewhere because, in the marketplace, the costs are cheaper. He cannot be unaware that independent research, supported by organisations such as the Confederation of British Industry, has shown that about 50,000 jobs will be at risk if the Government maintain these policies. The extra costs will be felt not only in the haulage industry, but throughout the whole of UK plc. Will he work out why UK hauliers are moving away rather than companies from elsewhere in Europe coming to this country?

Dr. Reid

May I correct the hon. Gentleman? The independent research to which he refers was commissioned by the Road Haulage Association; although it may be an honourable organisation, it is hardly independent in the present context. He and his party must be experts on flagging out—they cut their eye teeth on flagging out almost the whole of the British merchant shipping industry. He will be aware, as I am, that the leading exponent of flagging out—to Belize, I think—is the current treasurer of the Tory party.

On interchange of registration, in an increasingly integrated Europe, some British companies will flag out abroad as some companies from abroad will flag out in Britain. The fact is that all the independent assessments, including the most recent one by KPMG, show that, next to Austria, our road haulage industry is the most competitive in Europe.

Finally, as millions of people have again been condemned, punished, inconvenienced and disrupted by the militant action this week, it would be useful if, just for once, a Tory spokesman stood up to back the public and said how much the Tories condemn and regret the action.

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

The House and the country will no doubt be very interested in the figures given by the Minister, but will he go further and publish in the Official Report all the figures for all the European states, so that we can see what the facts are? Will he understand that those of us from Northern Ireland are particularly interested in the costs vis-à-vis Northern Ireland and the Republic, not least the cost of fuel?

Dr. Reid

I shall continue to publish as many facts as I can on this matter, because the one way to put the case in perspective is to put as many facts as possible before the public. I have to say that the way to solve problems such as this is through dialogue—not through disruption. We are concerned about the overcapacity in the industry and we want to help the hauliers, which is why I am having discussions with the Road Haulage Association and the Freight Transport Association, but we will not be held to ransom. I only wish that we had some of the courage shown by Conservative Members in standing up for the general public.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Will my right hon. Friend ask his officials, or Treasury officials, to dig out the figures that really matter in this whole argument—the transport cost per tonne per kilometre, by road and by rail, in each European country, including the United Kingdom? I believe that those statistics will reveal the truth. Can we have those statistics published? If we cannot, can we have published some indicators that we all understand and which we can use in explanations to the road haulage industry?

Dr. Reid

My hon. Friend makes a good point. As he knows, there are any number of potential indicators and statistics can be used, on either side of an argument, to illustrate the case. I will certainly look at that particular method or at any other simplified way of putting the truth of this matter across to the public.

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk)

If the right hon. Gentleman would agree this afternoon to commission a new report on the facts and figures surrounding the haulage industry, the Opposition would welcome that. But what the right hon. Gentleman said this afternoon will have been listened to with incredulity by the industry. If the British road haulage industry is in such a favourable and competitive position, why are his policies driving large British haulage companies out of the country and small British haulage companies out of business?

Dr. Reid

I take it that one of the companies to which the right hon. Lady refers is Eddie Stobart, a great British success story. Eddie Stobart operates a quarter of his lorries on the continent and he is registering them there. However, the right hon. Lady may not know that Eddie Stobart benefits from the DETR rail freight grants. I shall write to her about how many millions of pounds are involved.

We shall continue to discuss all these issues in the road haulage forum, but I notice that the right hon. Lady had not one word of sympathy for the public yesterday. Is it not a shameful hypocrisy that the party which, when in government, introduced, maintained and increased the fuel duty escalator, now attempts to abandon it? Is it not a shameful hypocrisy that the party which says that it is against European tax harmonisation now wants our taxes to be dictated by France and Luxembourg? Is it not a shameful hypocrisy that the party which, for 20 years, has condemned every militant action by every section of British workers, has now become the militants friend because it is too frit to stand up against the militant hauliers?