HL Deb 26 July 2000 vol 616 cc555-7

(" . In section 41(2)(d) of the Road Traffic Act 1988 after "trailers" insert "and recovery vehicles".").

The noble Earl said: In moving this amendment and the other amendments in the grouping, I should declare an interest. I own a heavy recovery vehicle, but it is unlikely to be used commercially in the UK again.

The Minister will be aware that the secondary legislation regarding recovery vehicles is out of date and I am sure that he will agree that it needs to be improved. However, the hour is late—still late rather than early—so I shall not explain those difficulties tonight. However, I shall return to the detailed points at a later stage.

Turning to Amendment No. 416F, this deals with the status of concrete pumping machines. The very first accident or emergency involving heavy equipment that I witnessed was at school when a mobile crane nearly turned over. The crane was being used for lifting large buckets of concrete in order to build a swimming pool. Nowadays concrete pumping machines are used for the same task because they are more efficient and safer. They generally consist of an articulated or folding boom which supports a large diameter pipe. The machine also mounts a pump to move the concrete from ground level at the edge of the site to where it is required.

Both mobile cranes and concrete pumping machines spend relatively little time on the road. Their depots are usually within a short drive of the site. Sometimes they spend weeks on one site. The advice from the DVLA used to be that they should be taxed as special vehicles. As a result of a recent court case, that advice is no longer valid. Concrete pumping machines now have to be taxed as goods vehicles. The situation now is that mobile cranes are taxed at about £165 but some large concrete pumping machines attract over £4,000 of vehicle excise duty.

This situation creates problems. First, it causes severe financial problems for operators. One major concrete pumping company will have to find £100,000 for vehicle excise duty now. Its operating costs will be up by about £200,000 per annum and that will come off the company's bottom line. I remind the Committee that there is very little difference between a concrete pumping machine and a mobile crane.

Secondly, using a crane with a bucket the old-fashioned way is less safe but better from a taxation point of view. It cannot be right to promote an unsafe working method.

In a Written Answer, the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, said that the Finance Act would not be amended to correct the position, and I believe that that is the case. How does the Minister intend to correct this situation—or will he leave it to market forces? I beg to move.

Lord Berkeley

Is not the answer to the problem of mobile cranes with arms and booms for them to have a small hook built in which can be lowered, so that the vehicle is then an ordinary crane as well as a concrete pump? In that way, all the manufacturers would save tens of thousands of pounds in licence fees.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

I do not think that the Treasury would approve of that suggestion!

As I understood it, this group of amendments included Amendments Nos. 416E to 416G and 426D. The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, has spoken only briefly to Amendment No. 416E, and we are grateful for that. I shall therefore reply briefly.

A recovery vehicle is covered by the broader category of, in this case, locomotive contained in the Act. The noble Earl's amendment does not in any case provide a definition of what is to be considered a recovery vehicle. Therefore, it is much better to rely on secondary legislation for this purpose. Officials in the department are considering a suitable definition for a recovery vehicle which can be introduced into secondary legislation.

So far as concerns Amendment No. 416F, the noble Earl is right in saying that a court case has been going on, R v. Reilly Concrete Pumping, and the Appeal Court ruled in the terms that he described. However, I understand that it will be taken to the House of Lords; therefore, I do not think that I ought to comment in any way on that individual case.

Any change that would have to take place would not be, as proposed in the amendment, under the Road Traffic Act; it would have to be under the Vehicle Excise and Registration Act 1994. So that would rule out this amendment. Secondary legislation is the most appropriate place for such detailed vehicle definitions.

Can I tempt the noble Earl not to move Amendments Nos. 416G and 426D in this group by replying to them now? That might save time. Amendment No. 416G allows the Secretary of State to make different regulations in regard to axle and gross weight of recovery vehicles which are locomotives. As I said, there is a reference within the Act to a locomotive, including a recovery vehicle; and on the specific point about vehicle weights, there is a provision to set axle and gross weight limits for these vehicles. Officials are working with the operators of recovery vehicles and highway authorities to develop suitable weight limits that are practical for recovery operations and these can be set within the scope of the existing legislation. They would not need this amendment.

Amendment No. 426D relates to the definition of railways and tramways. It proposes that the definition should be based on whether it goes mainly in the street rather than partly in the street. We agree that the state of definition as between railways and tramways is imperfect but we do not think that it is important. The Railway Inspectorate assures us that despite any problems with definition the current system does not appear to cause light rail promoters serious difficulty and in practice the process of assessment, inspection and giving permission for systems which fall within the existing definition of "tramways" is not substantially different from that applicable to railways. On that basis, I hope that the noble Earl does not feel it necessary to move that amendment.

Earl Attlee

I did not speak in detail to the problems of recovery vehicles, but I am grateful to the Minister for his response on that subject. The tax rate that is applicable to concrete-pumping vehicles will cause enormous damage to the construction industry. I was not aware that an appeal was due to be heard by this House. Obviously, that matter is sub judice and we must await the outcome. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 416E to 416G not moved.]

Clause 257 agreed to.

[Amendment No. 417 not moved.]

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood moved Amendment No. 418:

After Clause 257, insert the following new clause—