HL Deb 23 November 1978 vol 396 cc1083-7

3.13 p.m.

The Earl of KINNOULL

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the second Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether recent Press reports indicating Government approval for heavier lorries on our roads are accurate; whether any committee is studying this policy at present; and what procedure would be followed before any ministerial decision or order was published.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, my right honourable friend has repeatedly explained in another place and elsewhere that Her Majesty's Government will not agree to any increase in the maximum laden weight of lorries unless satisfied that such an increase would be consistent with the needs of safety and the protection of the environment. My right honourable friend is considering whether to set up a committee of inquiry into this matter. If a change in the present rules were at any time contemplated, full opportunity for public and Parliamentary debate would of course be given.

The Earl of KINNOULL

My Lords, while thanking the noble Baroness for her reply, may I ask whether she accepts that it would be widely recognised that if a public inquiry could take place before a decision was made—however satisfied the Minister was—this would be very welcome? May I also ask the noble Baroness for an assurance that this issue will remain a British decision and will not fall into the trap of becoming an EEC Directive?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, taking the latter part of the noble Earl's question first, this is something which is under discussion by the EEC and the Transport Ministers. Perhaps as a result of some of the EEC discussions, preliminary feelers were put out in the Department as to what the findings should be. If there is to be a decision, it will be a British decision. If there is to be an inquiry, it will be a very wide inquiry. We shall ask for evidence from all those bodies and organisations which are interested in the subject and there will be an opportunity for Parliamentary debate afterwards.


My Lords, while the Secretary of State and the noble Baroness have made it perfectly clear that the Secretary of State has an open mind on the matter, may I ask whether it is not a cause for grave public concern that the advice being given to the Secretary of State by a particular official is so blatantly partisan? How can this official's views about the manipulation of public opinion in favour of the road lobby be balanced by contrary advice from within the Department?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I do not think that the noble Lord is being quite fair about the way in which the information is presented. When a Secretary of State is considering any course of action, he calls on his advisers in all parts and all divisions of his Department to give him advice. They do not necessarily always agree on the same kind of advice. The official concerned was giving the advice from his particular division of the Department. That advice has to be considered by my right honourable friend in conjunction with the advice which he has received from other divisions, which may be completely contrary to that which was published unwittingly in the Guardian.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that most of us are probably grateful to the noble Earl for raising this issue? We are grateful that my noble friend has pointed out that there will be a committee. If local authorities are approached, will they not be able to give a national account of the damage to water mains, drainage, et cetera, which form a hidden subsidy to the juggernauts which are now rampaging and causing atrocities and death from one end of Britain to the other and ruining the quality of modern life?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, first may I correct a misapprehension. I did not say that there would be a committee of inquiry. I said that my Secretary of State was considering whether there should be an inquiry. If an inquiry were to take place, it would be a wide one and there would be an opportunity for public and Parliamentary debate. Turning to my noble friend's question regarding damage to the environment and to the ultimate cost borne by local authorities, these are points which will have to be taken into account and which will be raised if there is a committee of inquiry. They are problems about which my right honourable friend is very much aware. They are problems about which the road freight transport industry is also aware. There is damage to the roads and there is damage to the environment also, but there is another side to the coin. I am not arguing for any increase in maximum weights, but the other side to the coin is that, if lorries were allowed to carry larger weights, the maximum size of lorries would not necessarily increase but there might be fewer lorries on our roads. The operation would then be more economic and the industry could perhaps then more readily bear than it can now the costs of the other changes that the Department would like to see regarding the reduction of noise and the reduction of fumes. There is more than one angle to this question.


My Lords, would the noble Baroness accept that there is very widespread concern about the increase in axle weight or in any other dimension of lorries and that this is not a concern which is restricted to any one sector of opinion, political or otherwise? There is, therefore, an urgent need to introduce as much certainty and clarity into this field as is possible. Therefore, will the noble Baroness say now—or, if not now, later by Written Answer—when the Government will decide about this inquiry, and whether it will be the kind of inquiry that issues a report or whether it will be merely a discussion body? And in the context of the activities of the EEC, would the Government not now consider issuing a straightforward and simple document that explains those areas of responsibility which have now been agreed to be shared with our colleagues in the Community and which makes quite plain those areas that remain a solely British concern? Would not some certainty about this division make for a little more confidence in the nature of the decisions which are likely to be taken?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, my right honourable friend is considering whether to have this inquiry. I anticipate that we shall know whether or not we are to have an inquiry within a matter of a few weeks. If we are to have an inquiry, my right honourable friend has already decided that it will be a very full, public one, and there will be an opportunity for everyone to make known their views. There will also be an opportunity for Parliamentary debate following the inquiry. So far as our commitments to the EEC are concerned, this is a very valid and interesting point which the noble Lord has raised. If the noble Lord is happy that I should do so, I will certainly raise it with my Secretary of State.


My Lords, is not this controversy a demonstration—of which we have had several examples, and which is exemplified by the supplementary question just put to the noble Baroness by the noble Lord on the Front Bench opposite—that our accession to the EEC, instead of solving problems, is creating new problems for us and that inquiries, local authority or national, will not solve these problems?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, that is rather a different question and it is widening the subject. Certainly there are problems from time to time with the EEC legislation, but we are concerned with safety on our own roads and with the economic and proper running of our freight transport industry, and those are the things which will be uppermost in the mind of my right honourable friend when he holds this inquiry.

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