HL Deb 26 July 2000 vol 616 cc519-22

It shall be incumbent on the driver of a goods vehicle using a weight restricted route to provide evidence on demand to any police officer or member of the Vehicle Inspectorate or Trading Standards Office that he is using the route lawfully.").

The noble Lord said: This is an amendment that was raised in Standing Committee E in another place. I hope that I shall have more luck with this one! Since the debate in the House of Commons I have pursued this matter with the police and with others. There is considerable doubt as to whether a police officer can, as the law presently stands, demand from a driver of a heavy goods vehicle, driving along a weight-restricted route, evidential proof that he is there for a legitimate purpose.

We have had a long debate on the adequacy of signing routes and about the words "access for loading" or "the route is restricted except for access". It appears that "loading" is the best word to use, although many routes have been signed using other words that were laid down in the law at the time and they may not be the best ones to use now. However, to re-sign is extremely expensive.

Most weight restricted routes are in rural areas but there are some in towns which lorries use to take short cuts through housing estates. If a goods vehicle takes a route that is restricted by law, the driver of that vehicle should be able, when challenged by a police officer, to produce some evidence as to why he is on that route. In most cases he will have some form of collection order or delivery note. In other cases he will be driving to premises, the reason for which he can explain to the police officer. There will also be other cases such as lorries collecting rubbish, when the reason will be perfectly obvious.

In many towns and villages people's lives are being made absolutely miserable because heavy lorries are persistently driven through narrow streets, taking short cuts for their own business interests and where something needs to be done. The police tell me that as the law stands they cannot demand evidence that would incriminate a person or would not incriminate a person if they were able to produce satisfactory evidence. They have to fall back on the measure of following a vehicle through a restricted route. That is extremely expensive in terms of police manpower. I am sure that most police forces find it quite impossible to police such restrictions.

It seems that it should be possible to word a simple amendment that would place some responsibility on the driver who takes such a short route to justify his presence. I do not pretend that the words that I have used in this amendment are the ideal but if one can be drafted that would give many people in housing estates and in the country routes some protection, I am sure it would be welcomed. I hope that the Minister may be able to reply favourably in this case. I beg to move.

Earl Attlee

I have listened with interest to the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw. I am surprised that such an amendment is necessary at all. I look forward to hearing the Minister say why it is not necessary.

Lord Whitty

I understand the problem to which the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, refers but I believe his amendment hits the wrong target. In relation to police powers, it is not necessary. We have consulted the police and the Crown Prosecution Service about this proposal and their view is that it is not necessary.

The present position is not quite as the noble Lord describes. If a lorry is stopped by the police, having passed a sign indicating that there is a weight restriction, the onus is already on the driver to show that he is complying with the qualifying plate on the sign that allows access to the area covered by the prohibition. If he is unable to give a satisfactory explanation—a delivery note or whatever—he will face prosecution. So the burden is already on the driver and the police can demand that proof. It is therefore in the interests of the driver to make sure that he is not committing an offence.

In discussion with the police, it appeared that the problem was not so much the police powers, but the signing. This is particularly important and I ask local authorities to ensure that their restrictions and alternative routes are, first, clearly signed and, secondly, for the most part, they provide in the order for an exemption for loading but not for access. The use of a loading exemption (for delivering or collecting) instead of an access exemption., which could include stopping off at a newsagents, for instance, makes the restrictions far easier for lorry drivers to understand and for the police to enforce.

The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, was concerned that the police often have to follow a lorry through a weight-restricted area before they can take enforcement action. That would only be necessary in cases where the restriction was for access and not for loading. Access does not necessarily mean loading or unloading and the absence of a delivery note in those circumstances is not necessarily proof that the driver is committing an offence. It is therefore a question, first, of signing and, secondly, of what the exemptions relate to.

Amendment No. 393 also envisages giving powers to the vehicle inspectorate. The inspectorate already has substantial powers but the inspectors cannot stop vehicles; they cannot take any action against moving vehicles without the police being present. It is therefore questionable whether giving them powers to demand evidence for a traffic regulation offence is appropriate.

Therefore, although I accept what has prompted these amendments and agree that we need to improve compliance with weight restrictions, the problem lies more with local authorities and the way they sign and provide exemption orders rather than with the powers of the police. I hope that the noble Lord accepts that.

Earl Attlee

Perhaps the Minister can say what will happen if the police stop a vehicle on a restricted route and the driver just keeps quiet. It looks as though he is simply going to plead guilty on prosecution, but he then provides a form of delivery note as a defence.

Lord Whitty

As my noble friend Lord McIntosh says, he would be wasting police time. But in those circumstances he would have a defence. The existence of a delivery note on the appropriate date at the appropriate time would clearly be a defence, whether or not he offered it to the police in the first instance. I am not sure that either the solution of the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, or what I have said in relation to signing resolves that problem.

Lord Bradshaw

I thank the Minister for that helpful reply. Hearing that we have now got advice from the Crown Prosecution Service to back up what was previously the advice from the ACPO may well give the police courage to go ahead.

However, I ask that the Department of Transport ensures that circulars and instructions to local authorities about signing restricted routes make it absolutely clear that the words "restricted for access" are not used and that the word "loading" is used. That simple difference in wording appears to result in huge confusion. No police officer wishes to embark on prosecutions when he believes he will be undermined or overruled because of some technicality in the signing restrictions which, in many instances, are wide area restrictions involving large numbers of signs.

With that proviso and expressing the hope that the circulars can be made clear, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Earl Attlee moved Amendment No. 394:

After Clause 256, insert the following new clause—