HL Deb 01 August 1978 vol 395 cc1224-34

7 Schedule 3, page 22, line 6, at end insert— ("Provided that the goods vehicle examiner or the constable in uniform before requiring any person in charge of a goods vehicle to proceed to a place more than one mile from where the requirement is made, shall first be satisfied that there are good reasons to believe that the vehicle is not in a fit and serviceable condition.")

The Commons disagreed to the above Amendment for the following Reason:

8 Because the Amendment would prejudice the public advantage in respect of road safety which is to be expected from increasing to five miles the one mile limit now imposed by section 56(4) of the 1972 Act.

4.7 p.m.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I beg to move that this House doth not insist on their Amendment numbered 7 to which the Commons have disagreed for the Reason numbered 8. This Amendment is designed to limit the circumstances in which an examiner or constable may divert a lorry more than a mile for inspection at a testing station. It requires the official concerned to satisfy himself before diverting the vehicle that there are good reasons for believing that the vehicle is not fit for service. On the face of it, this seems, I accept, an entirely reasonable requirement for your Lordships to have imposed. Longer diversions will inevitably involve hauliers in extra costs and inconvenience. Why, then, should not some constraint be placed on officials to ensure they cannot use the power indiscriminately? Why rely on administrative guidance notes when so simple and reasonable an Amendment could be written into the Statute? Those are fair questions and they merit a proper answer.

As I said at Second Reading, as far ahead as we can see, lorries will provide the main means of moving freight about the country. All the more reason therefore why we must be prepared to deal with the very real problems they can create; and, as recent tragic events have brought home to us, these problems include the need to have adequate pecautions governing the use of vehicles carrying dangerous loads. The terrible consequences that can ensue when a lorry carrying dangerous goods crashes make it vital that we have an effective system for ensuring that goods vehicles are properly maintained. The basis of that system are the arrangements for the annual tests of their mechanical condition. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, found comfort in the fact that only 21 per cent. of them fail to pass the tests, but I cannot share his satisfaction. What is required in the tests is known in advance and the fact that one in five of the vehicles presented still fail to pass them after so many years' experience is surely a matter of concern. It demonstrates all too vividly how far there is to go in improving standards and how important it is that the annual tests are backed by arrangements for effective on-the-spot examinations. The vast majority of these spot examinations are carried out at operators' premises and at the roadside. In all, there are about 150,000 or so of these examinations each year. However, in addition, a small minority—in 1976–77 it was only 7,327—are carried out at testing stations following the diversion of vehicles; and it is this small minority of vehicles with which we are concerned today.

The power to divert vehicles to testing stations was given to examiners and constables because it was recognised that there are many circumstances where a proper roadside inspection simply cannot be carried out. Their powers are not unqualified. Under the law as it stands, a vehicle cannot be diverted for inspection at a testing station by more than a mile. As a result the number of places on the highways where check points can be set up is very restricted. The effect is that some routes remain unpoliced, and the sites of check points on other routes become very well known. Drivers of potentially dangerous vehicles can exploit this weakness, and the proper enforcement of the law against it is circumvented.

The Government's purpose is an entirely proper one. It is to fill this gap in enforcement. The extension of the limit to five miles will widen the choice of sites for check points. It will improve the enforcement of the law. At an earlier stage in the proceedings the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, frightened me out of my wits by making the point that an increase from one mile to five miles in the maximum distance for diversions entailed an increase in catchment areas from about three to 80 square miles. I am happy to say that, having laboured day and night on the matter, the higher mathematicians of the Department of Transport have confirmed his calculations. But this is not a measure of the actual likely increases in the distance of diversions or of the numbers of vehicles which may be diverted. It is not proposed to increase the resources available for examination but merely to deploy them to better advantage.

Of course, the Government's proposal entails very occasional expense and difficulty for particular hauliers. This is inherent in the existing statutory provisions, and their extension will add only marginally to those costs and problems. But by no stretch of the imagination can the Bill's provisions be seriously considered onerous for the individual operator; still less for the industry as a whole. There can be no doubt that a more effective power is needed to divert vehicles to testing stations for examination. It is needed when wet, cold, foggy or icy conditions prevent a proper roadside examination. It is needed when the examination requires the use of technical equipment that cannot be used at the roadside. It is needed, in short, to complete the gaps in the system, so that an all-the-year round enforcement programme can be run.

The Amendment that in my absence your Lordships passed—I am not sure whether you would have acted differently had I been here—undermines the effectiveness of the remedy which we propose for this situation. By placing a requirement on an examiner or a constable to satisfy himself that there are "good reasons" for believing that a vehicle is not fit for service, the Amendment introduces a fatal vagueness, and opens up endless scope for argument on whether or not adequate reasons exist—or existed—for ordering the diversion of a particular vehicle. Moreover, it in effect obliges him to carry out in advance at the roadside the kind of inspection which a diversion is designed to facilitate. By definition, a diversion to a testing station is necessary only when a proper roadside inspection is not feasible. If it were feasible, the examiner could determine the issue there and then, and either allow the vehicle to proceed, or issue either an immediate or a delayed prohibition.

Your Lordships' Amendment is not a wise one. What it gives with one hand, it takes away with the other. It so narrows the circumstances in which a division beyond a mile can be carried out that the new power will be of only limited effectiveness and the Government's attempt in this Bill to promote the road safety of lorries will have been frustrated.

I have taken some time and I have already indicated to your Lordships the guiding principle that will determine the use of the power; extended diversions will be required only when they are necessary because of conditions of weather or visibility, or because of the nature of the examination thought necessary. Like my honourable friend in another place, I have undertaken that Parliament will be the first to be told if ever it were proposed to depart from the principle. I have made available a draft of the detailed guidance to be given to our examiners. I have promised that the views of road haulage interests on the draft will be carefully considered, together with those of your Lordships. These are hardly empty gestures. To dismiss them, and to insist on an Amendment with which the Commons have disagreed—an Amendment that vitiates the new powers and frustrates the Government's attempt to improve road safety—is surely not the stamp which your Lordships would wish to leave as your mark on this Part of the Bill.

4.15 p.m.


My Lords, I have a feeling that the noble Baroness has directed her remarks almost entirely, and personally, in this direction, but in attempting to respond to them I wish to return to the earlier remarks of my noble friends and the noble Lord opposite. I feel that we have been badly treated in the management of the Bill through both Houses of Parliament. At 10.35 p.m. last night, when I read that the Amendment was not to be agreed to, I had in fact a substitute Amendment. The other place said that the balance to the public advantage would be upset if it accepted my Amendment and the subsequent Amendment which I may have moved would possibly have redressed the balance. However, there is not time to do that; and it has been indicated to me that any attempt on my part to move an alternative Amendment would not find favour here or down the corridor. This is not a fair way to do business. Perhaps I am naive enough to believe that fairness should prevail in political matters.

Nevertheless, as has been pointed out, these matters, which we have been discussing for some weeks now, are very important. I should like to remind your Lordships of the very earliest remarks made by my noble friend Lord O'Hagan at Second Reading when he described the Bill as something of a hotch-potch or rag-bag. The noble Baroness replied that that was not so; that it was all part and parcel of the whole plan for transport and for road safety. As I said at the time, if this was the sum total, it was rather poor. She said that it was not the sum total; it was a measure towards it. I believe that if it were that important your Lordships should have been given a far better opportunity to deal with the matter in its entirety.

I do not propose again to bandy about all the figures. We have been through that exercise, and certainly the noble Baroness and I fully understand each other, and the way at which we arrived at our arithmetic. I am delighted that she got her Department to check some of my elementary arithmetic and found it to be correct. No doubt she will accept that the other arithmetic that I advanced was equally correct.

The assurances which have been given, and repeated on more than one occasion, are welcome. However, I think it fair to point out that at about nine o'clock at night when we were talking about the notes of guidance to be issued, the noble Baroness said that she had made them available—and indeed they were—and that the industry had discussed them. The noble Baroness may recall that there was a short pause in our debate, and then she was able to confirm that the discussions had taken place. I rose a short while afterwards and said that to my knowledge, certainly up to a few hours previously the discussions had not taken place. Last night in another place the noble Baroness's honourable friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, in replying to my honourable friend the Member for Wellingborough, spoke as follows—and I quote not from Hansard, which has not yet been printed, but from a transcript made available to me by the staff of the House of Commons Library: The hon. Gentleman spoke about consultation and made some fair remarks about emitted smoke and portable weighbridges. We shall take into account what he said during the debate. There will be full consultation with the industry. That has not yet taken place. The industry has not seen the notes that the hon. Gentleman has seen.". My Lords, I imagine that these are the notes to which the noble Baroness referred; those which were made available to noble Lords in this House. I know of no other notes.

It seems to me just a little devious, if my interpretation is correct, that your Lordships should be invited to agree to a House of Commons Amendment to one of our own which was moved because we felt that the notes of guidance were imprecise. It is wrong that the House of Commons should say, "All this is taken care of in the notes of guidance which have been discussed with the industry, of which the industry have full knowledge", when the Minister himself said last night that the consultations have yet to take place. I do not want to delay the House too long on this, but let me say quite categorically that I am not satisfied. Time will tell whether that which I think may occur will occur. In about twelve months' time, we shall see the number of vehicles diverted, the reasons for such diversions and the results of the further inspections. Frankly, that will be the test; and no exchange of words between us is likely to bring our respective positions any closer together.

However, my Lords, I am going to ask the noble Baroness to be slightly more explicit on two points. Earlier in that same speech her honourable friend said, again in respense to the speech of the honourable Member for Wellingborough, in which Mr. Fry had sought a specific assurance on the guidance to be put in the notes: I shall make a more thorough check with the police. I understand that on an informal basis the police will be happy with the arrangements that arc being made. Until I obtain a formal agreement from them, I cannot give the honourable Gentleman the exact assurance that he seeks. I undertake to obtain a formal agreement as soon as possible.". Not only are we talking of arrangements that the constable in uniform may be required to make: we are also concerned with the goods vehicle examiner and the instructions that are going to go to him. I therefore trust that the noble Baroness will be able to give some further assurance on exactly what the industry may expect from the examiners. As I have said on previous occasions, there has been a good deal of good will on both sides, but the industry are concerned about this. The industry believe that it will put them in a more onerous position. We shall have to see.

It is on that point that I seek an assurance; and I would seek the further assurance on the dichotomy of opinion that seems to have occurred as to whether the industry have or have not been consulted about the notes of guidance. Because it is with the industry's knowledge that the arrangements can be made with regard, for example, to the equipment which I claim is portable and which the noble Baroness, and the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, at Third Reading, said was not necessary. I believe there is very little that cannot be done on a visual inspection to satisfy an examiner. I am not impressed with the wet, the cold and the icy weather conditions. Many men and many women have to work in such conditions and I would think that anybody worth his salt (and that is not meant to be a pun on the icy conditions) would be able to do their job equally as well. I completely refute the suggestion that there are some tests which can be carried out only in a testing station. A testing station is just a large covered tunnel with open ends through which the wind blows, cold and icy, and in which people are sheltered from the rain. There are very few tests that are carried out there which cannot be carried out by the roadside. Having said that, and in the hope that the noble Baroness will give me the further assurances for which I have asked, I feel I can do no more.


My Lords, I should like to add a word to what my noble friend has said. When the noble Baroness mentioned that she had had the full resources of the Civil Service apply themselves to his figures and that he had been passed Alpha-plus, I felt we really were going to reach agreement on something important; but there still seem to be some areas of disagreement. I do not think there is any dispute between the two sides of the House about the importance of road safety. I am sure we are both aiming at the same objectives. It is the manner by which they should be reached that causes so much difficulty; and I would certainly be the first to acquit the noble Baroness of deviousness. What I think is going on is that her Department is in a muddle, and I think that is because of the overwork caused by this Bill—and this we have seen before, in the delay in letters which we were promised.

This muddle has had its most unfortunate consequences for us in both Houses of Parliament when we have been examining this question, because the guidelines that we have been promised, which have no statutory authority and are not subject to Parliamentary approval, did not come into our orbit until very late in the day. I am not going to repeat what I said about this previously, but I want to underline it at a slightly earlier hour in the day for the benefit of the Department of Transport and other civil servants in order to remind the noble Baroness, in the unlikely event of her continuing on the opposite Bench, that this sort of behaviour is intolerable. If it is not part of the Bill and if the draft code has nothing to do with the draft legislation, we cannot pass Amendments to it; and when we do not see it until very late in the day we are forced to consider something on which our Parliamentary teeth cannot bite without adequate time. Therefore, quite naturally, the head of steam behind an Amendment of the type inserted in the Bill by my noble friend builds up far more strongly, and, if the Department wants a quiet life, it should drop this sort of behaviour at once.

I am not making accusations; I am saying that I dislike, and I think every Member of Parliament in both Houses dislikes, having to discuss draft guidelines which have no authority and which are not part of the Bill. It is the wrong way to discuss the future of road safety and the needs and interests of the haulage industry. I think that in view of the way things have developed we should leave this Amendment out of the Bill; it would hardly be appropriate to reinsert it. Nevertheless, I feel that the manner in which we have had to consider this particular aspect, especially as it was in a Schedule and therefore always came at the end of business, was not satisfactory, and I hope it will not be repeated.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, may I first of all apologise for any mistake that may have been made in the earlier stages of this Bill when I was wrongly advised that the haulage industry had been interviewed and had been discussing the guidelines with my Department. I learned later on in the course of the Bill that this was not so; but it is our intention to do this.

Many points have been raised about these draft notes of guidance. Much of Parliamentary business goes on with guidance to local authorities, to various other people and, now, to the examiners and the inspectors on this particular point; and I promised noble Lords, and sent to them, the draft of our notes of guidance which we are proposing to send out. Indeed, we have received some helpful suggestions from at least one noble Lord as to a way in which they might be amended or strengthened. I hope that other noble Lords who feel strongly will also let us know where they think we can strengthen the guidelines and improve them. We are proposing to have discussions with the road hauliers on the guidelines when they are more firmed-up. We intend to put actual proposals to them so that they can talk to us about them.

On the question of police acceptance of delays, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas said, was raised last night, by the honourable Member for Wellingborough, when deciding whether there has been an infringement of the rules on drivers' hours, the police and the other enforcement agencies already take into account delays which are beyond the control of the driver and which arise out of circumstances which he could not reasonably have foreseen. Clearly, there will be a need to check this evidence of delays and annotations in drivers' log books about diversions for testing or weighing that have been made before and will no doubt continue to be made. There is no reason why the present practice of the enforcement authorities should change when the new rules on the permissible distances for diversions come in. I think the noble Lord is unduly worried about this and that it will be administered in a fair and reasonable way.

In view of the significance for drivers' hours of the times spend on the diversions, our examiners are already treating, and will continue to be asked to treat sympathetically requests for endorsement in log books to show the time of diversion and the time when the actual diversion was ended and the inspection had been completed. I hope noble Lords will accept that the guidelines will meet the fears that were raised with us. We shall keep them under review and have in mind the points raised at various stages of this Bill on the question of our guidelines and what they should contain when we have consultations with the road haulage industry.

On Question, Amendment agreed to.