HL Deb 26 July 2000 vol 616 cc542-8

(" .—(1) The Secretary of State may make an order to provide that all major road freight facilities, ports and premises with an estimated throughput of more than 10,000 goods vehicles per year exceeding 7500 kilograms gross vehicle weight shall have a compulsory goods vehicle weighing scheme.

(2) Any order made under subsection (1) above shall provide—

  1. (a) for the weighing of every goods vehicle leaving the facility;
  2. (b) for the provision of the driver with two copies of a weight report;
  3. (c) that the driver must sign and return one copy of the weight report to the facility operator;
  4. (d) that the weight report shall show—
    1. (i) the registration number of the vehicle,
    2. (ii) the gross vehicle weight,
    3. (iii) the number of axles,
    4. (iv) the weight on each individual axle,
    5. (v) whether the vehicle would be illegal in terms of axle or gross weights even if it had the most favourable axle spacings and tyre equipment, and
    6. (vi) the details with broadly the same layout as the plating certificate, provided for under section 49 of the Road Traffic Act 1988;
  5. (e) that the facility operator shall keep a copy of all weight reports for a period of 12 months and shall make originals available to enforcement agencies.

(3) Production of a weight report together with relevant tachograph records may be used as evidence of the weight of the lorry in any court proceedings involving overloading.

(4) In this section a "major road freight facility" or "facility" means a location—

  1. (a) of one or more premises under common management, control or ownership,
  2. (b) having one or more common exits onto the highway; and
  3. (c) having a throughput of more than 10,000 goods vehicles with a gross vehicle weight exceeding 7500 kilograms per annum.

(5) If a driver is convicted under section 42 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 of an offence relating to overloading, the court must disqualify the driver for a period of at least one month if his vehicle was weighed in accordance with subsection (1) above unless—

  1. (a) the driver can show that an additional significant load was taken on after weighing in accordance with subsection (1) above and—
    1. (i) it was not practical to re-weigh the vehicle,
    2. (ii) the overload was caused by the additional load,
    3. (iii) there was no reason to suspect that the vehicle would be overloaded by the additional load, and
    4. (iv) the tachograph records show that it would have been possible for an additional load to have been taken on in accordance with the driver's evidence in defence, or
  2. (b) there are exceptional circumstances why the driver should not be disqualified.

(6) In this subsection, "exceptional circumstances" means circumstances relating to the overload.").

The noble Lord said: This amendment arises out of one major cause, the agreement that was formed in the Commission for Integrated Transport on the introduction of 44-tonne lorries. That was not a popular agreement among all members, but a bargain was struck. The package included the introduction of heavier—44-tonne—lorries but it also included much better enforcement of the existing laws relating to the road transport industry.

We are delighted that progress has been made on the matter of impounding and tonight we are also delighted that the second part of the Bill moved in the last Session of Parliament by the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, relating to drivers who have exceeded their driving hours being stopped is now on its way.

The third element was that something effective would be done about overloaded lorries. First, overloaded lorries are dangerous. If a lorry is loaded above its plated capacity, its braking is impaired, making it unable to stop effectively. Therefore, it is much more likely to be involved in an accident. If such a lorry is involved in an accident the sheer weight of the lorry means that the accident may be more serious than it would be otherwise.

Secondly, an overloaded lorry does huge damage to the roads. The damage created by a lorry, or any vehicle, to the roads is related to the fourth power of the axle weight. A lorry that is, for example, one or two tonnes overloaded on its drive axle can do immense damage to the road, which has to be repaired at public expense.

Thirdly, overloaded lorries trade at a competitive advantage to those who comply with the law. There is clear evidence that many overloaded lorries emanate from the ports. In discussion with officials in the department, in which I took part, there was some procrastination about whether it was possible to weigh vehicles at ports of entry. We were told that if weighing was exclusively confined to ports we may be discriminating illegally against vehicles coming in from European countries.

In trying to draw up this new clause we were careful also to include inland places from which large numbers of lorries enter the highways. At many of those places, such as quarries, lorries are weighed, in any event, because there is a need for a weight ticket to effect a sale of hulk goods like grain or aggregates. However, it appears to us to be absolutely essential from the point of view of safety, fair trade and the proper maintenance of the highway that proper measures are taken to ensure that before lorries enter the highway they comply with weight regulations.

I am the first to admit that this amendment may not be drafted in the most elegant way possible. In moving the amendment we seek a commitment on the part of the Government to do something about overweight lorries. That was an implicit part of the bargain that was struck within the Commission on Integrated Transport on the introduction of 44-tonne lorries which, I believe, we have been told will be next April.

I hope the Minister, in his reply to this debate, will be able to give some comfort to those of us who are looking for fairness, proper trading procedures, greater safety and proper regard for roads. I beg to move.

Earl Attlee

Amendment No. 410 stands in my name and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, and the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, who moved it. The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, was heavily involved in discussions on it, but unfortunately, due to an administrative error (perhaps on my part) his name was not put to it.

Amendment No. 410 may be defective. But behind it lies the view that certain locations handle a large number of heavily loaded vehicles; notably ports. The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, described lucidly why we need to include inland facilities; a potential problem may arise in that regard as well.

During discussions outside the Chamber, Members of the Committee were discussing consignor liability. The amendment does not provide for consignor liability, though I may come hack to that at a later stage with an amendment that does. The amendment recognises that ports should not have to police the road haulage industry. On the other hand, the amendment ensures that no driver could leave such a facility without knowing for certain that he was overloaded. The penalty is a short period of disqualification. I accept that that may be a little fierce. There is an "exceptional circumstances" escape; but that relates to the load and not to the personal circumstances of the driver.

What is the Minister's view on the amendment? What would his reaction be to a consignor liability amendment at a later stage? Unfortunately, the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, and I will be parting company on his Amendment No. 412. We have had endless studies on the maximum weight of goods vehicles. We had the Armitage report in the 1980s. It recommended 44 tonnes and the last administration went for 38. We had the Select Committee report of your Lordships' House in 1994; it recommended 44 tonnes and the Minister went for 41 tonnes. That is unique to the UK; so much for a standardised Europe.

According to the Esso company's letter to the Select Committee, moving from 38 to 44 tonnes would save it 35,000 vehicle movements and 2.44 million vehicle miles. That is what stimulated me to table Amendment No. 416C, to introduce 44 tonnes for liquid fuel deliveries to retail outlets immediately.

Lord Berkeley

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, and the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, for moving Amendment No. 410. I would have added my name to it and I support it. I shall speak to that amendment first and then move on to Amendment No. 412.

The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, summed up the reasons behind Amendment No. 410. One point he did not make was that if a lorry is overloaded not only wall its brakes not work so well but also its steering can be impaired, which can be just as dangerous as can be seen from the many letters that I and other noble Lords have received in recent weeks.

However, I want to inquire into whether or not it is practical to introduce this mechanism. There is no point in saying that all premises with a throughput of more than 10,000 goods vehicles a year should be brought within this provision if the equipment is not available to make it work. It is good that there is at least one system which can be moved around easily and which provides an accurate, automatic weighing of individual axle weight, which is the problem, the weight of axle groups and the overall weight of a heavy lorry. It was demonstrated to the Vehicle Inspectorate earlier this year. It will give the driver a printout, as required by the amendment, giving the information in a record form, a copy of which can be kept by the facility and another copy given to the police.

It is a mechanism that I believe would make this amendment work; and, indeed, it would not cost too much money to install. I do not know whether my noble friend the Minister is aware of this portable weighbridge. It has been developed by Captels and is called an LS WIM system. It does seem to work, as do many other systems. However, the important thing to bear in mind is that such a system exists which would enable such a weighing scheme to be operated. I support the amendment.

I shall not say much on Amendment No. 412, which I tabled some time ago. It was meant to be a probing amendment and arose as a result of the report of the Commission for Integrated Transport issued in March, or late February, and the Government's subsequent decision on 44 tonnes. In view of the announcement on the 10-year transport plan, the statements by Ministers tonight about the enforcement of regulations and the other matters mentioned in the report, I shall not pursue this amendment. I should like to take this opportunity to say how grateful I am for the announcement last week as regards the transport plan for the railways.

10.30 p.m.

Viscount Simon

I had not intended to speak to this amendment, but I felt that some practical experience of mine might be relevant to the debate. Until fairly recently when the broader changes took place regarding the M25, it was well known that junction 7 on the M11 was to be avoided at all costs. In fact, the whole of the M11 was to be avoided because the Essex constabulary used to haul over lorries on to junction 7 where they would be inspected. I have been on traffic patrol when this has happened. I have crawled over and under lorries and have seen the faults that have been found. On average, one in three lorries has defects. That is certainly a matter worthy of consideration. If that aspect could be extended, all well and good!

Earl Attlee

The noble Viscount, Lord Simon, mentioned one in three lorries being either defective or overloaded and suggested that that does not really matter; it is a sorry tale. However, we need to remember that the vehicle inspectorate has that eagle eye for any vehicle that is defective. It is not surprising that it has a fairly high hit rate.

Viscount Simon

I should point out that it is the police officers who pull over the vehicles in the first place.

Lord Whitty

I am afraid that I shall have to disappoint noble Lords in this respect. We recognise that overloading can be a problem, but the solution suggested in this amendment seems disproportionate. The number of permanent sites in the country that would be covered by the proposed definition is estimated at 100,000, not including temporary sites such as building sites. Although the cost involved may come down a little if the machine mentioned by my noble friend Lord Berkeley were used, the estimated cost for having fixed-point weighing machines would be about £2 billion. I believe that to be somewhat excessive.

We believe that the problem would be better tackled by enforcement improving its sophistication and by ensuring that defects such as overloading, as well as other vehicle defects and drivers' hours defects, are better dealt with by the targeting of the vehicle inspectorate's operations. Indeed, there have been substantial improvements over recent years both in terms of resources and the way in which lorries are pulled over.

As far as concerns overloading, this is becoming less of a problem. The proportion of overloading offences has fallen by about 30 per cent since we introduced the regulations in line with EU limits on 1st January 1999. We are faced primarily with a damage to the road problem. Indeed, although there are safety implications, they are statistically not large in number. Nevertheless, overloading is a problem that would be best addressed by improving the enforcement by the vehicle inspectorate, and so on, and not by providing weighing gear at 100,000 sites and at that cost.

My noble friend Lord Berkeley indicated that he did not expect a detailed reply to his amendment. I appreciate what he said about the 10-year plan, which certainly addresses the need to support the rail freight industry.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

Before my noble friend decides what to do with the amendment, perhaps the noble Lord can tell us whether he is satisfied that police forces and others involved in this kind of enforcement are as keen as they should be to pull heavy lorries off the roads on to sites where they can be inspected. It is an unsafe occupation.

In my local authority, which has some of the most crowded roads in England, the police are reluctant to endanger themselves trying to persuade drivers to move to the side of the road. I do not know whether the Minister has encountered that difficulty.

Lord Whitty

I have not encountered police reluctance on this matter. There needs to be close cooperation between the Vehicle Inspectorate—or, in some instances, the local authority—and the police in terms of checking vehicles. In general that relationship is satisfactory. But, there are other major pressures on police time which occasionally cut across the arrangements which the Vehicle Inspectorate has agreed with the police. That can constitute a problem. However, that is not a lack of willingness or an objection to the task itself on the part of the police.

Lord Berkeley

Before my noble friend sits down, will he discuss further the 100,000 permanent sites that he mentioned? When the amendment was being drawn up, there was discussion about whether the relevant figure should be 10,000 lorries a year, 100,000 or a million. If the figure were much higher, that would reduce the number of sites where the measure would apply. Mobile facilities could also be provided. Would that make the principle any more acceptable to my noble friend?

Lord Whitty

There comes a point where the cost and the benefit may cross over. However, in terms of comprehensive coverage, it is likely that any resources which were ploughed into better enforcement on the part of the Vehicle Inspectorate, for example, would yield a greater return than if they were ploughed into providing permanent weighing facilities at a large number of sites. Nevertheless there needs to be a greater number of weighing facilities and therefore there needs to be some increased expenditure in that area. However, we do not accept the prescriptive nature of the amendment.

Earl Attlee

Officials must have enjoyed advising the Minister on his response to the amendment.

Lord Whitty

The figures were calculated on the basis of discussions with the Freight Transport Association.

Earl Attlee

I am well aware that the Freight Transport Association does not much like the amendment. It does not like the idea of consignable liability either.

As I said, I anticipated that the amendment would he defective but not in what way it would be defective. We thought of beginning the amendment with the words, No person may operate a container port without the weighing facilities". However, the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, explained the difficulty with that. I was interested in the Minister's reply. We may return with a similar measure. I await to hear what the noble Lord intends to do with the amendment.

Lord Bradshaw

I am disappointed with the nature of the Minister's response. I fully understand that the figures may be wrong. Perhaps we should have set the weight level per lorry and the number of lorries much higher. However, in the discussions on the 44-tonne lorries where officials were present, it was stated that something would be done. The Minister has mentioned better targeting on the part of the Vehicle Inspectorate. However, it is a question of better targeting using the existing resources. There is little in the way of extra resources being allocated to the Vehicle Inspectorate.

Further, the state would benefit from the measure in that road maintenance costs would reduce if overweight lorries were taken off the roads. Officials have an obligation to suggest some proposals for weighing schemes. I thought that was part of the bargain to which I was a party. Officials should not take part in discussions, talk about a package and then almost make fun of the proposals put forward rather than coming forward with their own proposals.

The Freight Transport Association is parti pris— but it was represented at the same discussions and it agreed that there should be better enforcement. Having got the 44-tonne lorries, it is of course now very willing to walk away from its side of the bargain. I believe that we are owed something here. While I accept that the amendment may be defective and withdraw it, this is a matter to which we shall return. I hope that in the meantime we shall have discussions with officials in an attempt to frame an amendment which is fit for purpose.

One last point: very little enforcement takes place at night because, as my noble friend Lady Thomas said, it is too dangerous to go out onto the roads at night to stop lorries. The amount of overloading and other offences at night is very high indeed. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 411 to 414 not moved.]

Earl Attlee moved Amendment No. 415:

After Clause 256, insert the following new clause—