§ 3.50 p.m.
§ Lord CHAMPION
My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. It is a fairly simple Bill made necessary by an abuse of the permit system under which road hauliers are allowed to operate in foreign countries. 1177 Perhaps I ought to explain that there are three sets of circumstances in which lorries may enter foreign countries. The first is the preferable one of the three, and that is the one in which there are bilateral agreements which put no obstacle to British lorries entering the countries concerned. This is, of course, the desirable situation, and one towards which the Community countries must work if we are to eliminate barriers to trade. Indeed, I hope that the Community will eventually eliminate the permit system altogether, retaining only an internationally accepted common operators' authorisation and standard of vehicle maintenance.
The second circumstance is one under which some countries insist on British lorries carrying permits issued within an annual quota. The number of permits issued under these bilateral arrangements is a matter for agreement between the British Government and the countries concerned. At the present time these countries are three, France, West Germany and Italy. Despite the efforts of our Minister of Transport, the number of such permits is well below the requirements of the United Kingdom hauliers.
The third circumstance relates to multi-lateral journeys, and these are permitted under Regulations of the Community and a Resolution of the Council of Transport Ministers. Under these Regulations and arrangements, the number of multilateral permits is also limited and may well be below the requirements of the British hauliers.
The fact that there is a limit on the number of permits available to British hauliers has led to a widespread use of forged permits, and this has been the cause of at least one foreign country taking action to check the entry of British vehicles. This causes delays to vehicles entering a country on genuine permits, resulting in honest road hauliers suffering for the activities of those who use the forged permits. It is well known that a traffic in forged permits has developed and it continues to grow. Foreign Governments are also aware of this, and it is important that we should stamp, and stamp hard, on the practice. Any failure by us to do just that would be used by restrictive countries as an argument for resisting quota increases. The haulage associations are also concerned that these 1178 malpractices should be properly dealt with, since honest hauliers are losing trade to those who are prepared to indulge in dishonest practices.
The Bill is necessitated by the fact that there are loopholes in the existing law through which forgers of permits and others are able to escape. The situation is that successful prosecutions have been brought under the Forgery Act 1913 against several persons for printing, uttering and conspiracy in connection with forged permits, but it was suggested that they might appeal on the grounds that, to be convicted of forging, uttering or conspiracy under the Act of 1913, it must be shown that there was intent to defraud, and that can be established in this context only if the intention was to deceive an official within the United King dom who had the right to require production of the permits. Although international agreements normally cover production of permits on demand to duly authorised officials, in the absence of specific provisions in United Kingdom law as to who these officials are and the extent of their powers, this part of the agreement could, in practice, apply only in the foreign countries concerned. There was also the related difficulty of establishing whether permits had been forged in the absence of a power to require production by the driver. The Bill is designed to strengthen and extend existing legislation, so as to enable effective action to be taken against any persons involved in the use of forged permits.
The Bill is a comparatively short one. It has one main clause and two consequential clauses relating to the necessary changes in the transport legislation of Great Britain and of Northern Ireland. Clause 1(1) gives power to the Secretary of State to make regulations by statutory instrument, specifying the conditions in which a United Kingdom goods vehicle, including an unaccompanied trailer, must not be used unless a permit of a type specified is carried on the vehicle or, in the case of a trailer, by the person in charge of it.
Subsection (2) empowers examiners— as defined in subsection (9)—to require production of the permit, if it appears to them that one is necessary by virtue of regulations made under subsection (1). Examiners are also given power to detain 1179 the vehicle concerned long enough to inspect and copy the permit, and power to enter premises in which they believe that either there is a vehicle which is being used on a journey to which these regulations apply or permits of a type specified in the regulations are to be found. Subsection (3) provides for a maximum penalty of £200 in the case of any person convicted of using a vehicle in contravention of regulations made under subsection (1). Subsection (4) provides for a maximum penalty of £100 in the case of conviction of the driver or other person in charge of a vehicle or trailer for failing to comply with a requirement under subsection (2) to produce a necessary permit or for obstructing an examiner in the exercise of his powers under that subsection. Sub-section (5) prescribes the penalty for wilfully obstructing an examiner.
Subsection (6) provides that a motor vehicle shall be presumed to be registered in the United Kingdom if it has exhibited on it a licence or trade plates issued under the Vehicles (Excise) Act 1971 or the Vehicles (Excise) Act (Northern Ireland) 1972 or preceding enactments. Subsection (7) requires the Secretary of State to consult representative organisations before making regulations under subsection (1) and makes such regulations subject to the Negative Resolution procedure in both Houses of Parliament. Subsection (8), in effect, applies to this section the interpretation of the person "using" a vehicle which is given in Section 92(2) of the Transport Act 1968 and Section 46(b) of the Transport Act (Northern Ireland) 1967. Subsection (9) defines certain terms used throughout the Bill.
Clauses 2 and 3 make provision for the consequential Amendments to the Transport Act 1968, the Road Traffic Act 1972 and the Transport Act (Northern Ireland) 1967. My Lords, this is, I think, a useful little Bill which the Department and I certainly hope will block a loop-hole, and I hope that your Lordships will accept it and give it a Second Reading. I beg to move.
§ Moved, that the Bill be now read 2a. —(Lord Champion.)
§ 4.0 p.m.
§ Lord MOWBRAY and STOURTON
My Lords, I think that I can speak not 1180 only for this side of the House but probably for the whole House in saying how grateful we are to the noble Lord, Lord Champion, for the explanation he has given to this, as he says, simple but worthy little Bill. I was glad to hear the noble Lord express the hope that, in the ideal world, permits would not be needed to convey transport around the world, but we are not in an ideal world. In the circumstances of the Minister in the Department of the Environment concerned having to try to fight for more permits for our haulage associations—the Road Haulage Association, the Freight Transport Association, not to mention the National Freight Corporation—it is stupid that we do not do something to try to stop these permits being forged, because it is in the interests of the legal operators (who are the legitimate operators, and are the carriers of the best trade) to be protected.
I query only whether the fines are heavy enough at £100, £200. A heavy lorry can carry a lot of goods worth a great deal of money. There is nothing in this Bill about confiscation of such a load. The chances are that you either keep the load in Britain and the money is yours, and you pay £100 or £200, or you get through and the world is your oyster when you get to the other side of the Channel. I would query whether we are happy about that. As we know, magistrates do not even always impose the highest fines. Quite often, smaller fines are imposed. I am glad that the Under-Secretary of State in the other place was able to accept that, in the matter of vehicles going out of ports, the examiners would be sufficient to deal with these vehicles and the police need not be involved. This was a wise measure, and we are all grateful to the Government for having agreed to this point.
Because I thought that this Bill would be coming on later, I had to refuse an invitation from the Freight Transport Association to be their guest at their annual dinner tonight. Little did I think that this was going to whiz through so quickly after our earlier business and I could have told them how happily the affair had gone. Having said that we want as many permits as possible, I think that the strengthening of our laws will help. I do not think that there is need for me to say any more, except to thank 1181 the noble Lord, Lord Champion, again and give the Bill a welcome from these Benches.
§ 4.3 p.m.
§ Lord MELCHETT
My Lords, may I first add my thanks to my noble friend Lord Champion for introducing this Bill in your Lordships' House. I am sure that both he and I are desolate that it should have caused the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, to have missed a dinner tonight. No doubt other terrible things have happened to him, but I am sure that this small Bill is entirely innocent of causing such a desperate state of affairs. My noble friend has enormous experience in the transport field and I, like the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, do not think that I can add a great deal to what he has said about it. The Government have been concerned at the development of the practice among some British road hauliers of using forged permits. We have evidence that this practice has spread fairly widely in recent months. This is damaging to the good reputation of the haulage industry and harmful to the interests of honest operators, and it causes serious problems in our negotiations with foreign countries for larger quotas. It is argued that it is vital that all possible steps should be taken to stamp out these abuses. We therefore welcome this Bill, which will provide a very useful weapon in the Government's armoury.
As has already been indicated in another place, the Government feel that the Bill needs strengthening to deal with cases in which, despite the provisions in Clause 1 relating to fines, vehicles might still be taken overseas under cover of forged permits. Discussions with haulage associations are currently in progress, and arising from these the Government intend to put down suitable Amendments in Committee. With this minor qualification, I also give this Bill my support and commend it to your Lordships.
§ Lord CHAMPION
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, for the welcome that he has given to this Bill. So far as my noble friend is concerned, I would have been shocked if he had not welcomed it, considering that his Department had something to do with it. The noble Lord, Lord Mowbray, addressed some 1182 questions to me about the penalty, and I must admit that I have some little sympathy with him on this score. However, the fact is that the level of penalty conforms with that provided for in Section 65 of the Transport Act 1968 in relation to the use of a vehicle without an operator's licence. It was thought that this penalty should also apply here, but agree with him that in many cases the value of the goods being transported and so on, and the value to the road haulier of the traffic in which he is engaged, may be such that the penalty is inadequate. But it will not be for me to introduce an Amendment to increase that amount of £200, because clearly it would also necessitate an amendment to the Transport Act 1968.
The second point was on the £100 penalty, which is less than the £200 for the obvious reason that this will apply to the driver of the vehicle—not the operator himself. This, too, is based on previous legislation, and I fear will not be altered or amended by this Bill going though this House. The noble Lord. Lord Melchett, said that despite the provisions of Clause 1 there is still a weakness in the Bill, and unless it is strengthened it might still be possible to take vehicles overseas under the cover of forged permits. If that is so, the Bill as at present drafted has very little value and I am sure that the House will welcome the promised Amendments. We have not taken very much time over this small Bill, but I believe that it is an important one and I hope that its further progress in this House will be facilitated in Committee and further stages.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.