HL Deb 01 December 1971 vol 326 cc272-85

2.55 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. In the last Session we were debating, and later in this Session we shall again bit debating, our entry into Europe.

This afternoon I should like to invite your Lordships to consider for a moment, by way of a change, Europe's already existing entry into Britain in the form of foreign lorries, or "foreign juggernauts" as they are sometimes called. I mean the heavy foreign vehicles that arrive here overweight, unsafe, without proper documents, and being driven by one driver for far longer than our laws permit. These offences, shortcomings and abuses are serious and widespread. Recent checks at our ports of entry have revealed that almost half of these incoming foreign vehicles are without proper documents, and 60 per cent. are overweight. One particular vehicle was found to weigh 49 tons as compared to our maximum permissible weight of 32 tons. I am sure that your Lordships will readily agree that this kind of thing has got to stop. The overloading damages and hazards our roads and bridges. Many of such vehicles thus driven are both a menace to road safety and a threat to the environment of our smaller villages, towns and historic cities. Furthermore, such a state of affairs is grossly unjust and irritating in the extreme to the British road haulage industry which, of course, has to abide strictly by our laws all the time.

Your Lordships will be surprised, as I was, to know that at present there are no workable procedures for dealing effectively with these foreign juggernauts. It is because this Bill will provide effective measures for dealing with them that I commend it with confidence to your Lordships. Although there is little evidence at present that foreign public service vehicles have offended in the same way as foreign incoming lorries, the Bill is designed to cover them also. The European Conference of Ministers of Transport has resolved that a "control document" will have to be carried by public service vehicles on all international journeys.

My Lords, turning to the Bill, Clause 1 provides powers for one of the Department of the Environment's examiners to prohibit a vehicle from proceeding on to a public road if that vehicle or its driver does not comply with certain requirements in respect of operators' licensing, drivers' hours, permitted dimensions and weights of vehicles, their mechanical and operational performance, and their mechanical fitness. Authorised (that is to say, specially trained) police constables and weights and measures inspectors will also have this power in relation to overweight vehicles. The foreign vehicle will normally be prohibited by a special prohibition notice from proceeding until appropriate remedial action has been taken; that is to say, until some of the weight has been off-loaded. In order to avoid congestion at the point of entry, the offending vehicle may be directed by another notice to a suitable place, and in order that the vehicle may proceed, for example, to a repair garage, so as to have the defect remedied, an exemption from the prohibition notice may also be granted for the purpose of that particular journey. That is incorporated in Clause 2. If the driver of the foreign vehicle concerned deliberately defies the prohibition or the direction notice, Clause 3 of the Bill provides that any constable in uniform will be able to detain that vehicle on having reasonable cause to suspect committal of an offence, and to arrest its driver without warrant. This power is essential because otherwise foreign drivers could defy the prohibition notice with impunity, as they do flout the law at present, knowing that the normal procedure of issuing a summons would not be effective.

The power to issue the prohibition notices is designedly discretionary. This is to avoid problems which might otherwise arise from prohibiting the use of particular vehicles in circumstances which could give rise to difficulty; that is to say, loads containing perishable goods, livestock, or vehicles carrying passengers. Clause 4 gives powers to demand from the driver the documents he should be carrying. If he cannot produce these, the prohibition procedure is available and can be used.

The aim of the Bill is simply to ensure that Great Britain can enforce effectively the important laws relating to road transport which Parliament has already passed, and which apply already to foreign as well as to British commercial vehicles, but which cannot at present be effectively enforced against foreign vehicles. There are bilateral road haulage agreements which, indeed, specifically require vehicles of one country to comply with the laws of another country while in the territory of that country. If the legal user of the vehicle is resident in this country, no matter what the nationality of the driver, the normal enforcement and summons procedures will apply and will he effective. If he is not so resident, the special procedure in this Bill will operate. It is because the present enforcement procedures are inapt for foreign lorries that the Bill extends these powers to cover visiting commercial vehicles which arc deficient in documentation, or whose drivers have offended against the drivers' hours and the records requirements.

Since the means of enforcement procedure is ineffective as a deterrent against refusal to obey the prohibition notice, the power of detaining the vehicle and, if necessary, of arresting the driver is also provided in the Bill. Differences in the enforcement procedure are necessitated solely by the different circumstances that apply to foreign-registered vehicles and to drivers domiciled abroad. The enforcement powers will, I should add, be exercised mainly at the ports of entry. There will be no discrimination on the ground of nationality and of course no attempt to afford special protection to our own domestic industries, both of which are specifically prohibited by the Treaty of Rome. There is, indeed, no conflict with any forthcoming obligations resulting from our joining the European Economic Community.

First of all, the transport laws and regulations applying to British and foreign vehicles are, and will be, identical; secondly, while the Bill relates to the enforcement of our traffic laws and regulations against foreign vehicles only, it must not be considered on its own, but must be compared with other existing provisions which provide for effective, albeit different, enforcement procedures against British vehicles; and, thirdly, while the enforcement provisions incorporated in the Bill are in some respects different from the enforcement provisions of our own legislation, these differences are no more than is necessitated by the different circumstances in which foreign-registered vehicles and their drivers find themselves when in this country. The European Economic Community has, at present, not yet evolved a coherent transport policy and there is nothing in the Bill which would prevent it from being consistent with our Treaty obligations by the end of the relevant transitional periods. The bilateral road haulage agreements and the quota and permit arrangements are independent of the E.E.C., and will not be directly affected when the United Kingdom enters the Community.

Before making use of the powers now being sought, foreign Governments will of course be notified of their existence and warned in advance of our intention to use them. The E.E.C. has already been informed of our proposals. Ports authorities, ferry operators and the agents of foreign hauliers in this country will also be notified. There will be a period of one month's grace, provided by Clause 7(2), during which offenders would, in general, only be warned. I anticipate that after this period and as a result of this advance notice and, maybe, following a few exemplary cases of enforcement, foreign commercial vehicles will soon come to comply, as they do not now, with British laws. I trust that only a very limited number of prohibition notices, and the most sparing use of the powers of detention and arrest, will be needed.

Foreign countries do not hesitate to exercise their powers to exclude from their territories, or to detain in their ports, any of our commercial vehicles which are in breach of their national regulations. This is perfectly right and is to be expected. But it is only right, and not before time, that we also should equip ourselves with equally effective sanctions to use against any foreign commercial vehicle operators who seek to flout British requirements. It is the knowledge that they will be prohibited from proceeding which makes British hauliers carry the correct documentation, and makes them comply with foreign requirements, when travelling abroad. This Bill is designed merely to produce the same compliance with our laws by all foreign hauliers coming into this country. I hope that with that explanation I have been able to commend this Bill to your Lordships. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2ª.—(Lord Sandford.)

3.6 p.m.


My Lords, this is a Bill which should occasion the Government no difficulty, and which should not detain the House for very long before we get on to the next extremely important debate. This is a sensible measure, which I think will become increasingly important as we enter more and more into the Common Market, with the reciprocal flow of trade which we expect to stem from it. I wonder how we have gone so long without such a measure. It certainly surprised me to learn that we were so bereft of powers of enforcement as, apparently, we have been up to now. There are just a few questions which I should like to ask the noble Lord.

First, what standard of knowledge of our Highway Code do we expect from foreign drivers, and are any tests applied to the drivers of these foreign vehicles to ensure that they know it and understand that they are expected to adhere to it? Is there any way of ascertaining whether foreign drivers have passed a test equivalent to our test of competence to drive heavy goods vehicles? Will the documents, which Clause 4 states that the examiner may require a driver to produce, have to show that the vehicle has passed a test of a standard equal to ours before the examiner allows the vehicle to proceed? What steps will be taken in future to test a vehicle to ensure that it is completely up to our standard, before it leaves the port and embarks upon our roads? The noble Lord has mentioned that there are, or will be, reciprocal arrangements made with foreign countries relating to British vehicles and drivers going to the Continent. How are these conditions enforced against our drivers in Continental countries? I take it that if such conditions are enforced against our drivers, we shall ensure that similar conditions are enforced here.

The next point that I should like to inquire into is this. Will any steps be taken to acquaint foreign operators with the change in our law, when this Bill becomes an Act? I think that is an important point. In this connection, I also wonder whether something can be done to ensure that, before this Road Traffic (Foreign Vehicles) Bill becomes an Act, it will be amended to ensure that the references in it to road traffic legislation of the past will be brought up to date, in line with the consolidation Bill which is now going through the House. In that way, all the references will be to a consolidated measure, and not to Road Traffic Acts that have been passed over the years. This would make it very much easier for foreign lawyers advising operators to see exactly what is involved in our proposed changes in the law. My Lords, I think these points are important, but I am sure that this is a measure to which the House can readily agree.

3.10 p.m.


My Lords, I rise to support the points of view which have been expressed by my noble friend Lord Champion, but I am at a loss to understand the reasons why the Government should come along at this particular juncture and seek to introduce a Bill of this nature. Could this not have been done in the ordinary way, by a Statutory Instrument being introduced to cover the particular points that have been outlined by the Minister in his presentation of this Bill? Or, seeing that we spent such a long time in dealing with the Road Traffic Bill, could not a form of addendum, to be attached to that Act, have been introduced and considered by both Houses of Parliament? Would that not have been just as effective as the Bill which the noble Lord has sought to introduce to the House on this occasion?


My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Slater, should introduce a slightly discordant note into the Second Reading debate on what is really and truly an excellent Bill. I would not presume to answer him, nor indeed the noble Lord, Lord Champion, but I would suggest to both noble Lords that at the present moment the lion's share of the cross-Channel traffic is on the side of our haulier and haulage industry, and I do not know anybody in this industry who is in any way against this particular Bill. If the traffic does increase then it will become increasingly important that visiting hauliers should comply with our steadily rising standards; and it is in this respect, I would suggest, that this Bill plays some part.

However, my Lords, in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, for answering so many unasked questions in explaining the purpose of the Bill, I would perhaps suggest to him one or two points, although in view of the importance of this afternoon's proceedings I do not ask for an answer from him this afternoon. Clause 2 deals with prohibition orders. If the prohibition order principles which apply to English hauliers in their domestic affairs are going to apply to foreign vehicles and foreign vehicle owners, how in fact are these orders going to have any teeth? Because the prohibition order that applies to a domestic haulier in this country not only stops an overweight or under-maintained vehicle from continuing on its journey at that particular time: such an order operates on a principle akin to the driving licence principle of "totting up", whereby if a vehicle operator has too many prohibition orders against him he is precluded from operating at all. Is this going to apply to the foreign haulier? How in fact can it apply to such haulier?

I turn now, my Lords, to Clause 3, which deals with the enforcement provisions against "Any person who drives" or "Any person who permits a vehicle to be driven". I find it very difficult to understand how one is going to enforce the regulations against a cauliflower marketeer from Marseilles or a bulb-grower from Holland who has merely sent a driver. It is quite easy to go to Lincolnshire and take proceedings against a haulier who has given instructions to a driver from Lincolnshire to drive a defective lorry to London Docks, but how in fact are you going to do it in the case of somebody somewhere in the middle of Europe?

The other question I raise also concerns enforcement. Our European friends normally have one officer at each frontier who deals with the documentation, the vehicle and the vehicle's condition, the driver's hours and so on, as well as the Customs aspect of the load. In this country a multiplicity of people are involved, and I am not aware that we have them all at the many docks or ports to which these foreign vehicles come, where we normally have only Customs and Excise. We certainly do not normally have Department of the Environment inspectors or ordinary uniformed police officers, though quite often we have our dock police or private police forces. I do not see how there can be a full enforcement of these regulations, which are set out so clearly and precisely in the Bill, without a very large increase in the number of people involved. In this country no vehicle may be stopped without there being a uniformed constable in attendance, thus allowing the Ministry of Transport inspector, or indeed the Customs and Excise officer, to make his examination; and it seems to me that there must be a duplication of, or indeed an increase in, the services rendered by these different forces.

Notwithstanding that, my Lords, I have no doubt at all that the Bill goes a long way towards giving some parity of opportunity as between the foreign haulier in this country and our own haulier, and I hope that when our questions have been satisfactorily answered, as I have no doubt that they will be, your Lordships will give full support to the Bill as it stands.


My Lords, I do not want to detain the House but there is one question I should like answered. I understand that these foreign vehicles will be very long. I was held up in Trafalgar Square on Tuesday for five minutes by a vehicle 60 feet long. If one is held up in Trafalgar Square, which it is quite easy to get round, what is to happen on the smaller roads? Ought we not to introduce a clause into this Bill to the effect that foreign vehicles should be allowed to use only major trunk roads, and that for the by-roads their goods should be unloaded on to smaller vehicles?

3.19 p.m.


My Lords, as I raised this matter in the debate on the Queen's Speech, I hope I may be allowed two minutes in which to thank my noble friend Lord Sandford for the speed and the efficiency with which the Government have answered my request for such a Bill. I can promise the House that I had no idea it was in their mind. My Lords, this is an excellent Bill, but I only wish we could take it a little further, because our entry into the Common Market shows how important this problem is daily becoming. I also think the disastrous pile-up "on the M.1 two or three days ago shows us what we may have to face in the future. The Bill is excellent so far as it goes, but I realise of course that there are difficulties in widening it.

I should like to reiterate, if I may—and this point has just been made by the noble Lord opposite—the plea I put forward in the debate on the gracious Speech for the well-being of the small towns of our country, which are being shaken to pieces by these enormous vehicles thundering through. I happened, in my own market town of Malmesbury, to test out last week-end whether I had been telling. your Lordships the truth on this point in my speech some three weeks ago. I found an enormous 40 ft. juggernaut trying to climb up the 15th century market cross at the end of the High Street. I went forward to remonstrate with the driver but restrained myself—and as your Lordships will know, that is a difficult operation at the best of times—when I found written down the side of the vehicle the one word "Cunard". This situation—and the noble Lord opposite has highlighted it—emphasises the need for us to press on with the by-passing of our small towns on the main trade routes throughout this country. Vehicles cannot all go by the motorways; they must go through some small towns. I beg the noble Lord—I will not ask him for an answer to-day because I know we are pressed for time on more important matters—to consider reassessment of the urgency for by-passing the small towns through which these increasingly large vehicles must go.

I should like also to follow up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Champion, about knowledge of our rules by foreign drivers. Two mornings ago I took the opportunity of having a conversation with the driver of a juggernaut parked, as they always seem to be, in Belgrave Square. He was a Belgian, Flemish-speaking, so our conversation was not an easy one because his French was about the same as mine, which is not saying much. He had had 17 years' experience and an unblemished record; he was obviously a thoroughly decent and responsible man now making his fifth visit to this country. He told me that when he came for the first time he had never heard of the Highway Code, he did not know about the routing rules of this country and which towns he could and should bypass; he did not know of bridges and roads not permissible to his vehicle, nor did he know the size and weight of his vehicle in English dimensions. Indeed, he knew no English. Yet this was a thoroughly experienced and reliable driver. So there is here obviously a gap, my Lords.

I do not think, however, that we can reciprocate too closely. I doubt, for instance, if many members of the Transport and General Workers' Union are fluent in Flemish. There is cause for further investigation, and I hope the noble Lord will encourage us in this respect. There is one further point he made on which I am afraid I shall receive a cold answer. My Belgian friend told me that on many of the roads on the Continent juggernauts are not permitted to drive on Sundays. Would that we could have that restriction in this country! But I am afraid I shall have to wait until the next Queen's speech to see whether I have as much luck as I did with the last one. Meantime, my Lords, I congratulate the Government warmly in introducing a Bill which is excellent so far as it goes, and I hope we shall see its efficient results in the near future.


My Lords, before the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, sits down, would he accept my invitation to withdraw the expression he used three times in his speech, the expression "juggernaut"? To my understanding "juggernaut" means some massive piece of material, man-made or otherwise, that steamrollers its way through, and I do not consider that a 40 ft. long vehicle is in any way a juggernaut.


My Lords, if I withdraw the word juggernaut, may I substitute the word "leviathan"?

3.23 p.m.


My Lords, I very much welcome the reception this Bill has received from your Lordships' House. We are always anxious to please noble Lords, and particularly to please my noble friend, Lord Mancroft, and to please him quickly. It is indeed surprising, as the noble Lord, Lord Champion, stressed in his speech, that we have gone on for as long as we have without laws which could be effectively used to control these lorries, foreign vehicles, public service vehicles, "juggernauts" and "leviathans". I very much agree with my noble friends Lord Mancroft and Lord Lucas of Chilworth when they stress that we particularly need to do this now because we are setting increasingly high environmental standards and applying them to all sectors of our life, not least in the haulage industry. I will respond just briefly to the request that I have from my noble friend Lord Mancroft by confirming that we are driving ahead with our proposals for by-passing historic towns; and our plans at present are such that by the end of the decade, by 1980, 84 of the 105 historic towns that lie on trunk roads will have been by-passed. I think that that is a satisfactory programme, and we have every intention of seeing it through. If this is to be done, it is only reasonable to insist that foreign lorries, particularly large foreign lorries, are made to comply with our legislation.

There are a number of other questions which noble Lords asked me. There were several questions relating to the extent to which we require foreign drivers and foreign vehicles to comply with our laws. There are reciprocal arrangements, bilateral arrangements with other countries, the effect of which is that the vehicles of the one should comply with the legislation of the other when they are in those countries. They exist between us and France, Western Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, Roumania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Austria and Yugoslavia. It is our inability to enforce any of these in this country that has led to most of the trouble. Once enforcement procedures are there, I feel confident, as I said in my original speech, that all the necessary requirements will come to be met.

This country has always maintained a liberal and progressive outlook in transport matters and we intend to bring this attitude to bear on the development of the Common European transport policy. Nothing in this Bill, which is strictly concerned with enforcement procedures, is contrary to this approach. But at present the British road haulage industry is discriminated against because it has to comply with effective enforcement of foreign laws and the effective enforcement of our own laws, whereas foreign vehicles and drivers visiting this country are not subject to this effective enforcement. The Bill merely aims to secure that visiting vehicles and their drivers should be made to comply with our laws which already apply to them and which their Governments have already agreed are to be respected and obeyed. Once it is known that we have the powers of enforcement there will be a marked improvement right across the board.

One noble Lord asked me about driving licences. Here it would not be right for us to go beyond the rules and regulations which apply to our own drivers and which give everybody five days' grace in which to produce a licence. In these circumstances it would be difficult to justify immediately imposing a prohibition notice on a foreign vehicle for apparent lack of a driving licence. That power does not exist in relation to a British driver, and in the subsequent five days it could transpire that the foreign driver did possess a valid driving licence: it he had a prohibition notice imposed upon him he would have reasonable grounds for complaint.

I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Champion, and another noble Lord, who raised the question of consolidation. There is reference in the Bill to the consolidating Bill. References are also required to the existing Road Transport Act, in case this Bill, which is now somewhat urgent, becomes law before the Consolidation Bill itself. The Bill we are considering now is urgent, in the sense that we want to go through the procedure of giving advance warning to foreign countries, to get through the period of grace and to get through any enforcement cases that are needed before the ports become congested with the foreign passenger traffic which builds up in the holiday season. That is why we are keen to get this Bill through with some despatch and why it is possible that it may have to go on the Statute Book before the consolidating measure.

In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Slater, I have to say that it would not be possible in the process of consolidation to inaugurate new legislation. There is new legislation here; we are taking power to enforce existing legislation, but the powers of enforcement themselves constitute new legislation. That would require, and does require, a separate Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, drew our attention to the fact that in certain countries one officer suffices to do all that is being done by several different officers in this country. That is a point that we ought to note, and in the process of harmonising our various codes of legislation there may be something to be said for considering it. We have, for instance, considered carefully the possibility of the Customs and Excise officers being involved in this enforcement, but there is no provision under Customs law at the moment under which Customs and Excise officers could simply refuse entry to a foreign vehicle. The only relevant powers that they have are in the Customs and Excise Act 1952, under which goods that are imported, landed or unloaded contrary to a prohibition or a restriction in force or by virtue of any enactment, are liable to forfeiture. The procedures under that legislation are lengthy and cumbersome and quite inappropriate to the purpose of stopping foreign vehicles from coming into the country. I think noble Lords will agree that although these enforcement procedures are necessary it is the essence of the Bill that they should be capable of being applied reasonably and with discretion. The powers of the Customs and Excise simply do not permit the exercise of that kind of discretion.

I was asked about the effect of the Bill on manpower. The fact is that by the exercise of spot checks rather than by any sort of blanket arrangements it is not expected that there will be any increase in staff as a result of the Bill; there will be merely a redeployment of existing enforcement officers. There are at present 190 traffic examiners who inspect documents and weigh vehicles. Recent port checks have shown that spot checks could be conducted with an average of three traffic examiners per port. I do not think that noble Lords need feel any great anxiety on that score. I was asked about consultation in the preparation of this legislation. I can confirm that an explanatory letter was sent to the British Delegation in Brussels on November 3 and copies of the Bill were sent on November 17. Our delegation has informed the Commission of the Government's proposals and no comments have so far been received. There is no reason to expect any adverse comments, since the Bill is purely an enforcement measure and strengthens existing legislation procedure only. There is already agreement under the reciprocal arrangements that every country has a right to see that foreign vehicles which enter it respects the current legislative codes. It is clear to other countries that the enforcement procedure and the powers we are taking under the Bill are only those necessary to the extent that we need special enforcement procedures for dealing with foreign vehicles which are different from those required to deal with our own vehicles.

My Lords, I hope that I have dealt with most of the points that have been raised. All I need do is to assure my noble friend, Lord Mancroft, that the point that he raised about Sundays is one that will be considered in due course. It does not arise under the Bill.

On Question, Bill read 2ª, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.