HL Deb 06 July 1999 vol 603 cc719-22

2.52 p.m.

Lord Berkeley asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the Highways Agency is responsible for authorising the timing, route and lane occupancy of wide loads on motorways and whether compensation is payable by the operator to other drivers for any delay such movements may cause.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, the Highways Agency plays no part in the authorisation of abnormal loads, The movement of most such loads is authorised by the police, who can vary the date, time and route of the load. The movement of certain extremely large loads must be authorised by the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions. An operator who is lawfully using a vehicle to carry an abnormally wide load on a motorway will, in the absence of negligence on the part of the driver, not normally be liable to pay compensation to other users of the motorway.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend the Minister for that reply. My Question arose after mine was one of probably about 5.000 cars which were delayed for an estimated two hours on the M.25 one Saturday morning. Can my noble friend tell me why the police do not require these vehicles to travel at night when the motorways are much less congested? Although the operator may not be paying compensation, I should point out that that is not the case with the railways. If you are delayed for two hours when travelling on the railways, you might even get some compensation. I suggest that that should, perhaps, be looked at.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I realise the apparent attraction of moving all abnormal loads at night. However, that would mean the concentration of a scarce police resource within the eight to 10 night-time hours. Very often routine and major motorway programmes, in terms of repair and rebuilding, are planned during night-time hours. Essentially, this has to be something within the discretion of the local chief constable.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, is my noble friend the Minister aware that over 1.5 million movements of wide loads in England and Wales are noted by the police each year, and that 10 per cent of these require police escorts? Moreover, I gather that the cost involved must be borne by the police. Surely that cannot be right. What is the view of the Home Office on the matter?

Further, before my noble friend jumps up to the Dispatch Box to reply, can he tell us what are the Transport Association's views on night movements only? Has the association made representations to the Home Office? Similarly, has the Police Community Liaison Committee done likewise?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, there is a vast number of abnormal load movements using the motorway network. Of course, these movements are necessary to enable manufacturing industry and other industrial sectors to carry out their work and thereby provide employment and produce profit. In response to my noble friend's specific question, I can tell him that we have put out a consultation document relating to proposals to introduce private escorts for abnormal loads on motorways. That document was produced in the latter part of last year. The report has been circulated for consultation and we expect preliminary conclusions to be going to Ministers in the autumn of this year. I can also tell my noble friend that we consulted 258 organisations and consultees, and many of the road haulage associations and related bodies have replied.

Lord McNair

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House whether in France, or other countries, the company whose load is being accompanied by the police pays for the cost of that escort?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, my understanding is that on certain motorways in France the person requiring the escort does indeed have to pay the charge that the noble Lord indicated.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, bearing in mind the unfortunate episode experienced by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, is the Minister aware that the M.25 and the M.23 are essential for many travellers to Heathrow and Gatwick airports who have to take flights and travel some distances? Is he further aware that the kind of delay that his noble friend mentioned could have meant that a great many people missed their flights?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I sympathise with people in those circumstances. Indeed, speaking from recent, bitter personal experience, I am well aware of the delays on the M.25. Obviously, these are matters which chief constables must take into account. By and large, bearing in mind the general picture painted by my noble friend Lord Mason, I think that they do this remarkably well.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, can the Minister tell us whether these rules apply to combine harvesters, which very often travel many miles along a road with, perhaps, a 10-mile queue behind them? Are they subject to the same rules?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, it depends on their size and dimensions. If a load is wider than 4.3 metres and/or longer than 18.3 metres and/or weighs more than 41,000 kilograms in total, then it falls within the abnormal load categories which have to be notified. If the noble Lord has been following a small combine harvester, that information will not be of help to him; but if he has been following a very big one it should be of enormous assistance. However, one is frequently delayed by other road users. Quite often, for example, a man with a donkey may be travelling along a road. That is not an abnormal load and one just has to put up with it.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, before putting my questions, I should first declare an interest as I am president of the Heavy Transport Association. Is the Minister aware that, in trying to overcome the difficulties of long delays, operators are being hit with a double whammy of the working time directive that limits how long crews can afford to wait for a police escort and the minimum wage which affects imaginative pay schemes? Further, can the Minister confirm that private escorts have already been successfully put on trial by the police?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, it is not a double whammy at all. Working time directives are an essential part of public safety protection. It is foolish to think that a driver of a large vehicle ought to be allowed to drive without any limitation. Moreover, when one looks at the level of the minimum wage, it is clear that it is no more than a decent gesture to those who work for other people's profit. The private escorts are part of the scheme that I mentioned. Consultation documents have been put out and the Heavy Transport Association mentioned by the noble Earl—indeed, he was courteous enough to indicate to me other interests that he has—is one of the consultees which has responded.