HL Deb 26 July 1978 vol 395 cc890-903

4.19 p.m.

Baroness STEDMAN rose to move, That the draft Community Road Transport Rules (Exemptions) Regulations 1978, laid before the House on 3rd July, be approved. The noble Baroness said: My Lords, with the approval of the House I should like to speak to both the Community Road Transport Rules (Exemptions) Regulations 1978 and The Drivers' Hours (Harmonisation with Community Rules) Regulations 1978. As your Lordships will be aware from the regulations themselves, the issues which we are about to debate are highly complex in detail. Nevertheless, I shall endeavour to explain, as briefly as possible, both the background to the making of these regulations, and their objectives.

Both sets of regulations derive directly from the coming into force of EEC rules on drivers' hours, for internal traffic in the United Kingdom at the beginning of the year. The concept of controls on drivers' hours is not new. They have been regulated in this country since before the war—the most recent domestic Code being set out in the Transport Act 1968. The controls under the 1968 Act regulate daily driving time, as well as putting limits on a driver's duty time, that is to say the time he spends on all work, including driving and on "spreadover" which is the total period from the time he first signs on for duty on any day, to the time when he finally finishes work. I should add, my Lords, that for passenger operations, the original restrictions in the 1968 Act were in practice found to he too onerous, and had to be relaxed considerably by order, in 1971. Thus, there are effectively two quite different régimes under the 1968 Act, covering goods and passenger vehicle drivers respectively.

The EEC Regulation on drivers' hours—the so-called Social Regulation EEC 543/69—came into effect in the original Member States in 1969. The Regulation was accepted by the United Kingdom during the Treaty negotiations, subject to some delay in implementation. Under the terms of the Treaty of Accession, it has applied to British vehicles on international journeys since April 1973. However, for purely internal traffic, the Treaty provided that it should not become effective until 1st January 1976. Moreover, power was given to the European Commission to defer this date still further, but not beyond 1st January 1978, if it could be proved that implementation would have serious adverse effects. The Government managed to persuade the Commission to use this power on three occasions, the final deferment stretching to the ultimate date. During this time, after very long and difficult negotiations culminating in the Transport Council last October, the Government secured agreement to a new provision which would enable the more restrictive provision of the Regulation to he phased-in in this country over a three-year transitional period.

During the negotiations last October, agreement was also reached on a number of powers of exemption—or derogation—from the Regulation. Some authorise Member States to apply a limited number of exemptions, after consultation with the Commission. Others authorise the Commission to allow exemptions, on application from Member States. We have now completed our consultations and discussions with the Commission about these derogations, and the exemption regulations are now required to implement the agreements reached.

From the point of view of the road transport industry as a whole, it would be wrong to exaggerate the significance of these exemptions. The powers of derogation in the EEC Regulation are still fairly confined. Nevertheless, they do offer considerable help to specific sectors of the industry.

These exemptions cover three main areas. First, there is an exemption from the need to keep full EEC-type records for local goods traffic so long as the use of tachographs is not mandatory. The fact that it would be inappropriate for drivers in this area to be required to keep records was already recognised under the 1968 Transport Act. This exemption therefore effectively restores an important concession which was previously enjoyed under British law. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport is currently consulting the industry about a simplified record sheet to be used by such drivers. This is to fulfill a requirement in the EEC regulation that Member States must take steps to check on compliance with the rules so as to ensure that standards of employee protection and road safety rare not impaired. The aim of the simplified record is, therefore, to ensure that the derogation is not abused.

The other two main areas cover complete exemption from the EEC rules, putting the traffic affected outside the scope of the regulation completely, and back under the controls of the Transport Act. The important exemptions here are for passenger vehicles not equipped to carry more than 15 people overall, and for a specific list of freight operations. This final category includes the transport of live animals between farms and markets, and the general transport of milk. So far as the transport of milk is concerned, there are certain provisos, and the exemption ceases on 31st December 1980. But the Government will be returing to the Commission in an attempt to negotiate a permanent exemption in due course.

The derogation regulations also cover associated exemptions from EEC tachograph requirements. These are purely technical exemptions at present since, as the House will know, the Government are currently in dispute with the Commission about tachographs. I need only add that these regulations are to be made under Section 2 of the European Communities Act 1974. They are laid subject to Affirmative Resolution in order to take account of the views of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, bearing in mind that, on this occasion—unlike the order which was made about the phasing of implementation—the Government had a real measure of discretion about what to include in the regulations.

I now turn to the much more detailed subject of the harmonisation regulations. I have said that there has been a domestic code on drivers' hours, and working time, for very many years, and that this was up-dated in 1968. The key point is that, whereas the EEC code, like the 1968 Act, limits driving time—though the limit is different—and makes more extensive provision for daily and weekly breaks, it imposes no specific control on duty time and spreadover. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State believes that such controls provide an important protection for drivers and that to give up such protection would be socially regressive. He has therefore decided to make it clear that these provisions still apply.

There are then the added complications, first, that the EEC regulation is to be implemented by stages in this country and, secondly, that it has applied in full since 1973 to all our international traffic. Finally, there is an amount of traffic outside the scope of the EEC rules, which remains subject to the Transport Act.

The regulations are needed, therefore, to make the necessary amendments to the detailed provisions of Section 96—which deals with drivers' hours—when they apply to drivers subject to the EEC rules and drivers engaged on mixed EEC and non-EEC driving, in order to make them compatible with the EEC code, where the two interact.

What my right honourable friend has tried to do is to keep the status quo so far as possible, to clarify the law, and to ensure that we keep the present controls on duty time and spreadover. This latter point is one to which the unions attach maximum importance in view of the protection it offers to drivers, though I admit that the employers are against it because they believe that it means extra rigidity. On the other hand, the Secretary of State has sought to introduce into our own domestic code the somewhat greater flexibility of the EEC code as regards the length and the timing of breaks for rest and refreshment.

We all recognise that the total result is extremely complicated. Nevertheless, from the point of view of the individual driver or operator, the effect of the regulations will be relatively straightforward and, as in the past, the Department of Transport will be issuing comprehensive guidance—I am assured in layman's language—when the regulations are made. In the meantime, the details have been explained, in words which I cannot better, in the supplementary guidance notes which were made available to your Lordships.

Before I complete my remarks, I should like to say that. in the relatively short time since the beginning of the year, the industry has been asked to give its views on the contents of both sets of regulations against very tight deadlines. I should like to take this opportunity to place on record the Government's appreciation of the speed and consideration with which the industry has reacted under circumstances which have been very difficult for it. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft Community Road Transport Rules (Exemptions) Regulations 1978, laid before the House on 3rd July, be approved.—(Baroness Stedman.)

4.29 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, has given us a very comprehensive and clear explanation of the two Statutory Instruments that are on today's Order Paper. The fact that she was able to do so when the subject matter is so intricate and complex is real evidence of a full return to health, which we all welcome.

Far be it from me to complain about difficulties and entanglements that follow from our membership of the European Economic Community. This afternoon we are looking at part of the inevitable process that throws up the odd clash and the odd discrepancy as the two systems for looking at drivers' hours and Community road transport rules meet and then mix. As I understand it, in these Instruments we are seeing the outcome of the mingling of the two systems, which are now being incorporated into our domestic law through the medium of these Statutory Instruments.

It is not easy to follow, and these regulations are not the only ones. Certainly I have never seen a Statutory Instrument which required a supplementary note to explain what it meant which went on for several pages. I am not complaining about it because I find it most helpful, but even at the back of that supplementary note there is a list of the extant legislation on drivers' hours and records, and that list contains no fewer than 21 different items of legislation. This is a real barbed-wire entanglement.

The first question I should like to put to the noble Baroness, while recognising all the difficulties following the end of the period during which we were only transitional members of the EEC, is this: Will the Government please start at once, if they have not already started, to work out a more comprehensive system for incorporating all these road transport rules in one document which, let us say, came out annually and was annually revised. People would know that in the period running up to that instrument being issued things might be going to change, but they would at least be aware that there were not as many as 21 bits of paper that they had to look at, and that there was perhaps somewhere a handbook to which they could easily refer. That is a plea for codification and consolidation and not a criticism of a Party political nature, because these complexities flow inevitably from our membership of the Community.

I hope your Lordships will forgive me for taking a moment or two, because these Instruments are rather more important than many Statutory Instruments that we discuss. The first one contains on page 2 an interesting statement in which the Government say: (c) until the compulsory installation of the recording equipment provided for in Article 1 … What does that mean? Does that mean that the Government have changed their view on tachographs, or is it still the situation that they will get away with not obeying the law of the Community for as long as they can? Perhaps this is a welcome sign that they are going to be prepared to acquiesce in what the court in Luxembourg finally tells them to do. Perhaps the noble Baroness could clear up that point.

Then looking through the other provisions of this Statutory Instrument I was particularly concerned by paragraph 5 where the Instrument talks about operations for the transport of milk. I gave the noble Baroness notification of this point. I am not criticising what Her Majesty's Government have negotiated on our behalf, that is not the purpose of my inquiry. I realise that these Instruments put in statutory form the result of negotiations, and so therefore they are something that has been agreed, and it would not do an enormous amount of good to chuck them out or defer them for the consideration of another place, or whatever else we may feel like doing. However, what I am concerned about is that the Commission say that the Milk Marketing Board is not against the Treaty. It did not need the present Minister of Agriculture to convince them of that, but that is the case. They are not against the way we collect our milk, process it. distribute it, and sell it. We know that is a fact. Why is there this temporary permission to have these exemptions for the transport of milk until only 31st December 1980? The only other point I would make is that as you get bulk tank deliveries and bulk milk collections spreading throughout the country, there will be more transport of milk in refrigerated vehicles rather than less, so these exemptions become of increasing importance.

There is one point from the Transport Bill which I still fail to understand. Here, in a Community context, we have detailed systems laid down, detailed rules, and fully elaborated ways for the industry to operate, and Parliament has a look at it. I wish that that example could have been followed in the guidelines we were talking about for the diversion of lorries, because if we can do it in the EEC as a result of a Treaty obligation it is a pity that we cannot do it in our own domestic legislation.

I pass briefly to the second of the Instruments. May I ask the noble Baroness why she and her Department had to withdraw the first draft? I know that this illustrates the difficulties of the whole subject and I am not surprised that she found it necessary to have a second bite, but could we be told what it was that led to the first part affecting Section 96 being struck out of the first draft Instrument? I think that these two Instruments together form an integral part of Community transport policy as it applies in this country. They give us a useful indication of what it is that the rules now boil down to.

Nevertheless, while accepting and welcoming broadly what it is that they try to achieve, I make a point that perhaps is more suitably made in this House than the other place, that there is a new situation since we joined the Community, Some of our old law is superseded; some of it remains in force. Some of it is overtaken by what is negotiated in Brussels; some stays on the Statute Book. When a large number of individuals depend for their safety and livelihood on the implementation, and the understanding, of this intricate new system, it is the duty of the Government to say, "How can we make it clear? How can we make it open for all to apply themselves to, if they want to?" I hope that the noble Baroness will be able to answer that point. I thank her for the way that she has explained these Instruments to us, and I hope that they will soon he made clearer for everyone to understand. Meanwhile, I welcome them.

4.38 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to proffer a purely personal opinion on the Drivers' Hours Order regarding passengers. Alas we have no alternative but to approve this order, and it is unfortunate that we did not ask for exemptions when we entered the Community, which was the time to do it. I must express my regret for these stringent regulations, which will have far-reaching effects and result in massive cuts in many existing bus services—which have been seriously depleted over the years—because they will become impractical to run, as there are very few drivers to run them already.

One of the reasons why we have a depleted stage bus service is that people have cars, but it is also because there are fewer drivers because the work is now considered to be unpopular. The noble Baroness has gone into great detail—for which, like my noble friend, I am most grateful—about these regulations passed in 1968, which were then modelled on the existing draft EEC regulations. The Government later on did indeed have to relax these for precisely the same reasons which I have put forward. The position regarding the availability of drivers and the general situation has not changed, and therefore I am afraid the outlook is very dismal for the future of the public passenger services.

4.40 p.m.


My Lords, I join my noble friend Lord O'Hagan in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, for her explanation, though I fear I do not have the same comprehension as my noble friend because I could not follow it as well as he obviously did.


I did not claim to have been so clever as to follow it, my Lords; I tried.


In that case, my Lords, if I try I may also achieve some success. I was encouraged by the Minister's assurance that at some later time an explanation will be given in layman's language. Most of the people affected by these two Instruments are not serviced by large office staffs; we are probably dealing with an owner driver who must make his own interpretation, and in a busy working day he can make mistakes. The Minister's right honourable friend the Secretary of State and the officials deserve a measure of congratulation for having achieved the exemptions. I suspect that a good deal of hard work went into the negotiations. Regrettably, however, some of the exemptions are based on the 1968 Act, and Section 96 of that Act gives rise to great difficulty in the industry. I am wondering whether the time has come for the provisions of that Act, as they relate to our domestic transportation problems, to be reviewed and perhaps in due course amended.

As for the harmonisation regulations, I note a certain disharmony in that the Minister has set alongside the domestic law the EEC law and has taken, so far as he is concerned, the best of both worlds. However, he has retained the worst of that which the industry has complained. A number of noble Lords may be tempted to accuse me of looking at only one side, and perhaps I do, but on this occasion I suggest it is not the haulage industry with which one should always be concerned. There is a unique situation in this country, probably because we are an island and 85 per cent. of our goods travel by road rather than by any other mode, and one has difficulty in repect of certain trades. Think, for example, of the farming, horticultural, fruit and vegetable industries which are put to great difficulty in that much of the produce is delivered straight from the point of harvest to market. The regulations which now apply bear heavily on an industry which must service another industry, and unless we are careful I fear that many of these goods, which most people would agree reach the market fresh, in many instances within hours of harvest, will arrive in a deteriorated condition and a considerably greater expense because of that.

Here there are difficulties in interpreting the regulations—whether one should opt for the exemption covered under the 30-day rule or for the 50 kilometre rule—and I wonder whether it would be possible in future, as we look at these regulations (and of course we will be looking at them from time to time) to expand the 50 kilometre rule to take care of our very particular domestic situation. I thank Lady Stedman for the courtesy and helpfulness with which she attended to my inquiries of the Department, I fear, as usual, at very short notice.

4.46 p.m.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I am grateful for the way in which the House has received these complicated and difficult regulations. To answer the first question asked by the noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan—we discussed this a little last night and I had some indication of the matters he would take up with me today—so far as all the different Acts are concerned and the difficulty of the layman in finding his way through them, we are proposing to produce a handbook and we will be giving an assurance to keep that handbook as up to date as possible. Our problem is that we will not be able to consolidate our law because part of it is EEC law, which we cannot touch anyway, some of it is in three Acts and some in regulations. However, we shall be establishing the handbook; it is in preparation now and we are trying to put it in readable layman's language so that operators and drivers are able to understand and find their way about it.


My Lords, I was wondering whether it would be possible, in view of the large number of Statutory Instruments on the same subject, either to group them together or incorporate them in a larger one so that people would know at a particular time of the year that everything would be updated. Is that technically impossible? Is there some good reason for not doing it? A large number of Statutory Instruments about transport come at different times.

Baroness STEDMAN

No, my Lords, and I understand that we are hoping to group the different Statutory Instruments to make it as easy as possible for everyone to follow them and to put them in language which the ordinary person can understand far better than the Parliamentary language which we use now.

On the question of tachographs, the text of the regulations must reflect the terms of the EEC regulation. It does not affect the main tachograph issue, which is still before the European Court; and as I have said on previous questions on this point, when we have the result of the hearing by the European Court my Secretary of State will have to make up his mind and consult with both Houses about his action on that

The point was made about the withdrawal of an earlier regulation. I understand that was purely because we in the Department had been very co-operative—doing all those things we are advised to do by the Joint Commtitee on Statutory Instruments, consulting with the officers concerned as to the technicality or otherwise of them and so on—and we were advised that one of the paragraphs was completely unnecessary and should be taken out. Thus, the original Instrument was withdrawn, that paragraph was taken out and we have the one before the House this afternoon. We were simply doing all those things we had been advised to do by the Joint Committee.

On the question of milk, I know there are problems and much concern. My officials and Secretary of State have been working very hard to try to do something about this matter. The point of course is that we did not come into the EEC at the beginning and therefore we must accept these regulations for the period for which they are running. The time we have been given is till 1980, and I understand that discussions are going on continuously about it. The Commission have not ruled against us, but they want an opportunity for us and for them to look again, towards the end of the three-year period, at the question of the phased implementation. We will in due course be asking for an extension and we want to give an assurance to the milk producers and transporters that we are aware of their problems and are negotiating, and will continue to negotiate.

The noble Lord then asked about the EEC regulations and our own laws. As I explained, we have the EEC regulations for international traffic and our own Acts for our domestic traffic which limit the duty time as well as the driving time and the relaxed passenger restrictions from 1971. I accept what the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, says, that some people have reservations about the Transport Bill, about the drivers' hours for passenger vehicles, and so on. I do not share his views—as he will have gathered from our previous discussions across the Floor of the House—but I note his comments and I will make sure that my Secretary of State is aware that there is some concern and he will no doubt keep this under control and in review.

The noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, expressed appreciation of the exemptions that we have been able to obtain so far. He congratulated the noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan, on the way he had followed the regulations and said that he could not follow them. I am not sure that he will follow what I am going to tell him in answer to his question about fruit and potato merchants. In the official language, and for the record, it is that Regulation 2 sets out very limited exemptions to the EEC drivers' hours rules which are made possible under Article 14(a)(i) of those rules. In each case the exemptions apply only to traffic operating within a radius of 50 kilometres from base. Regulation 2(a) allows the "continuous driving" limitation (at present 5 hours and eventually 4 hours on 1st January, 1981) to be disregarded, provided the required number of breaks are taken throughout the day. That is of very limited use since very few drivers are likely to drive for 5 hours continuously and yet remain within the 50 kilometres.

Regulation 2(b) allows the daily rest requirement (normally 11 hours) to be reduced to 10 hours for drivers engaged in harvest produce, for a period of 30 days only in any year, and provided the difference is added to the weekly rest period. That, I accept, is of little use to the fruit and potato merchants because of the limit of 50 kilometres and because it covers only 30 days in one year. Regulation 2(c) relaxes the requirement to keep the EEC individual control book for traffic within 50 kilometres of base but only until tachographs become mandatory and moreover the keeping of a simplified daily record sheet will be required. We are consulting the industry about this matter. I understand that put in fairly simple language, it means that they can drive within the limits that are laid down anywhere they like, round and round and up and down within their 50 kilometres and they can do it for 30 days in one year I am quite sure that that does not satisfy the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, but that is the official answer to the question that he gave notice he would ask.

In a lighter tone I had an indication from the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, who is not with us, that he was concerned that in this House when we are discussing EEC matters we talk about "harmonisation". He wanted to lodge an objection, had he been here, that we were using musical connotations for EEC legislation. Perhaps I might close by saying that I am advised that the translation of the French word "harmonisation", besides its usual musical connotation, also means the attuning of ideas, which we hope we have achieved this afternoon.

On Question, Motion agreed to.