HL Deb 02 November 2000 vol 618 cc1156-63

(" . In the Road Traffic Act 1988, after section 41 insert—

"Compulsory goods vehicle weighing scheme.

41ZA.—(1) The Secretary of State may make regulations requiring the weighing of any goods vehicle using a major road freight facility, port or premises and the provision of a weight report to the driver of the vehicle.

(2) In particular regulations made under subsection (1) may make provision with respect to—

  1. (a) the method of weighing such goods vehicles;
  2. (b) the form and contents of the weight report;
  3. (c) the number of such reports that must be provided to the driver;
  4. (d) the driver signing and returning a prescribed number of such reports to the operator of the facility;
  5. (e) the keeping of copies of such reports by the operator of the facility; and
  6. (f) the production of such copies by the operator on the request of prescribed public authorities.

(3) A weight report provided in accordance with regulations made under this section may be produced in evidence in any proceedings for an offence under this Part relating to the weight of a goods vehicle.

(4) In this section "major road freight facility, port or premises" means any such facility, port or premises—

  1. (a) having facilities for the carriage of goods by road, and
  2. (b) having an annual throughput of more than 25,000 goods vehicles each exceeding 30,000 kilograms gross vehicle weight,
or more than one such facility, port or premises where they are under common management, control or ownership, share a common access to the highway and together have that annual throughput.".").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise to move Amendment No. 304 standing in my name and in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, and the noble Earl, Lord Attlee.

In Committee the same group of noble Lords proposed this scheme for the compulsory weighing of HGVs leaving premises where the number was 10,000 lorries a year. It did not find great favour with the Minister. One of the main reasons was that there were too many sites and it would therefore be too much of an imposition on the industry.

We have consulted further. We have returned with an amendment that allows the Secretary of State to make regulations which require the compulsory weighing of HGVs. The Minister does not have to, but we hope that he will accept the amendment. I see this as part of a package of measures which are aimed at making the drivers of road freight vehicles obey the law better. Many noble Lords have tabled amendments. I am grateful to the Minister for accepting so many of them, whether they were proposed from this side of the House or by the Liberal Democrats or the Conservatives. This is yet another one.

Is there a problem with overweight lorries? I have had the benefit of reading the latest government transport statistics for 2000. There is a good deal of good information in them. I find that 400,000 goods vehicles are registered in the country. They average 100 miles per trip. In a Written Answer of 20th August I was told that 64,000 HGVs were weighed by the vehicle inspectorate last year and that 5 per cent were found to be overloaded by more than 5 per cent. Five per cent of 400,000 lorries is 20,000 lorries. If they operate for 300 days a year, there could be 6 million offences a year. I am sure that better statistics are available, but that shows the scale of the problem. I calculate that a lorry is at risk of being checked every six years. A Written Answer of 4th August showed that the average line for the offence is £300. So a driver has a good chance of getting away with it for six years; and when he is caught, he is fined £300.

As we know, over-weight lorries cause more road damage and more accidents. Transport 2000 has recently published a leaflet which states that 17 per cent of fatal accidents are caused by HGVs; and, of course, the heavier the lorry, the worse the problem. How can the law be better enforced? In Committee I mentioned a portable weighbridge, which my noble friend the Minister thought was quite a good idea.

We then come to the question of how many sites. We have taken on board what my noble friend said and we think that sites with an annual throughput of more than 25,000 goods vehicles is probably about right. We do not have the statistics on how many lorries go into distribution centres. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, has been trying to get the figures, but they are not available. If we use, as an example, the ports, Aberdeen, Tyne and Ipswich would be below the threshold but Hull, Portsmouth, Dover, Ramsgate, Felixstowe and London would be above it. The bigger ports would have to weigh the lorries but the smaller ones would not. The regulations we propose would require the facility operator to give the driver a printout of the lorry weight. If he then chose to go out and break the law, he would face prosecution.

I conclude by asking: why not? Why allow 6 million offences a year to be committed, with the risk of being caught once in six years and being fined £300? I am sure that the drafting of the amendment could be improved. I hope that my noble friend will at least consider the matter and perhaps do us the honour of accepting the principle of the amendment and coming back at Third Reading with better drafting. I beg to move.

5.30 p.m.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, I should like briefly to add my voice to that of the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, on this matter. It is clear that overloaded or wrongly loaded lorries are a danger to the safety of other drivers. They cause far more damage to the road surface than correctly loaded lorries and they give the whole road haulage trade a bad image, a matter to which the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, has referred on a number of occasions. What is proposed in the amendment is an extremely important move. I hope that the Minister will look sympathetically on it. The proper weighing of heavy goods vehicles, so that they are soundly and correctly loaded, would contribute to better road safety, a point close to the hearts of noble Lords on all sides of the House.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I have put my name to the amendment. In Committee, some amusing defects of the original amendment were identified by the Minister. There is a view that overloading is not the problem that it once was and that the advent of 44-tonne vehicles will mean that more vehicles will tend to "bulk out" rather than "gross out". In addition, much of the traffic running at or near maximum gross weight is under the control of reputable and scrupulous operators. Good examples are supermarkets, parcel companies and tanker operators. Statistics show only a small percentage of vehicles to be overloaded. However, if operators who are not prone to overloading are extracted from the calculations, the picture might become rather different. I am sure that the Minister is aware of that and that a large proportion of over-weight traffic emanates from ports. For a variety of reasons, ports cannot be targeted on their own, so the net has to be cast wider. I differ from the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, on the level of fines for overloading offences. From what I have read, the fines are often well over £1,000.

I do not know what the noble Lord plans to do with the amendment, but if he returns with it at a later stage, it may benefit from a specific provision allowing the Secretary of State to exempt certain locations or facilities.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, before the noble Earl sits down, perhaps I may refer him to a Written Answer of Friday 4th August, which states that the average fine for the offence last year was £303.

Earl Attlee

Yes, my Lords, but that might apply to a very small vehicle.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I appreciate that the amendment has been drafted with the word "may" rather than the word "shall" so that the powers would be permissive, but I have to say that it is a good, sound rule of legislation that one does not take powers which one does not intend to use. So I shall explain why the Government do not believe that the proposed scheme would be a good use of resources.

I agree with my noble friend Lord Berkeley that it is important that hauliers should obey the law. We should look at the different reasons why they should obey the law. I suggest that there are three reasons: first, safety; secondly, the damage to roads and bridges; and, thirdly, the issue of unfair competition.

It is certainly true that vehicles which are run over their design weight have the potential for being more dangerous than vehicles which are run within their design weight. But the design weight is not the same as the legal limit. Many lorries have a design weight that is higher than their legal limit. It may well be that they are running over the legal limit without running over their design weight and are not therefore, in themselves, more dangerous than lorries which are running within their legal limit. Furthermore, as the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, pointed out, many vehicles "bulk out" before they "gross out". In other words, if a lorry is carrying cornflakes it cannot be filled so that it is heavier than its legal weight. I understand that that applies to about two-thirds of the lorries on the roads.

The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, referred to reputable operators. There is not a great deal of point in weighing lorries used by reputable operators. In a computer-controlled logistics system, the computer knows what each component of a load weighs and will not permit a lorry to be overloaded. Even with less sophisticated systems, there is physical weighing, which ensures that lorries are not over-weight. Safety is, and must be, the first issue but I suggest that there are limits on the safety risks of vehicles which are over their legal limit.

The issue of road and bridge damage is enormously important. In all the discussions that have taken place about the increase from 40 tonnes to 44 tonnes, we have had a great deal of debate on gross vehicle weight and axle weight. I shall not go over that issue. However, I do not want to underestimate the importance of that or of ensuring that those who obey the law are not discriminated against by the neglect of law enforcement. We have to strike a balance. Does the proposal provide an effective way of dealing with the fairly small proportion of dodgy operators carrying the heavier loads?

The scheme would affect many sites. I appreciate that the amendment refers to major facilities and suggests that only those with an annual throughput of more than 25,000 goods vehicles, each exceeding 30,000 kilograms gvw, should be included. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, has admitted and the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, has discovered, there is no way of telling how many would be affected.

Owners of such sites would have to have specific means of weighing installed. All lorries over the specified weight would have to be weighed and a record kept of that weighing. A lorry visiting several sites on a round trip, picking up or dropping off a load at each, would have to be weighed at each stop. Lorries with identical loads on each journey would have to be weighed each time. Furthermore, the system would apply indiscriminately to all lorries, whatever load they carried.

As I have said, most of the vehicles that would be affected by the amendment belong to larger operators; namely, those who run 25,000 lorries of over 30 tonnes each in a year. Generally it is those operators who are the most reputable and who already have in place the best systems for ensuring that lorries are not overweight. The ones that are in danger of being overweight would have less chance of being caught by the amendment.

It is also difficult to tell how much such a scheme would cost. The capital cost of typical weighing equipment and associated structures is £20,000— although I have read what was said in Committee about mobile platforms. We can only guess at how many sites would be affected, but clearly the capital costs would be high. Furthermore, the costs of operation, congestion, pollution, delay and enforcement could also be significant.

I do not deny that overloading is a problem, but it is a problem more of road damage and unfair competition than of safety. Safety is and must remain the chief focus of our enforcement activity. That activity must be developed so that it becomes as effective as possible in improving safety. The Government, with the help and support of the industry, is developing an enforcement strategy based on targeting and concentrating on the most serious problems. I am afraid that this amendment, although it varies substantially from the one which was moved in Committee, is too untargeted to help us in that approach.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, I have listened carefully to what my noble friend has said. Frankly, some of his comments have surprised me. My noble friend said that this is not a problem of safety. If a lorry is above its design weight, it stands to reason that it will be less safe than if it is below its design weight. Of course, I do not deny that many lorries are operated safely—and, indeed, many lorries are piled up with cornflakes. However, a great many other lorries operate above their design weight, whether their limit is 41 tonnes or 44 tonnes. That can damage roads and bridges.

My noble friend did not have anything to say about unfair competition and the fact that, while only a small proportion of the total fleet operates illegally, those who do undercut those who obey the law. Indeed, I suggest this may be in part one of the causes of the fuel crisis because a minority of the smaller operators do break the law and thus undercut other small operators. That may be why the industry is facing so many financial problems. I accept that there are reputable operators, but there are also those who are not reputable. I do not accept that the dodgy operators form only a small proportion of the total fleet. Perhaps my noble friend would write to me and tell me what is the proportion of illegal operators and how that proportion is derived from the available statistics.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, that is an unknowable statistic. If we knew that a dodgy operator was breaking the law, we would prosecute him.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, in that case, I am not sure that my noble friend can assert that only a small proportion of operators are dodgy. Indeed, 5 per cent of a very big number of operators are caught. Evidence has shown that the vehicle inspectors, who are good at their job, can target those who are likely to be dodgy. I believe that that figure demonstrates that quite a high proportion operate against the law.

I understand that my noble friend does not wish to accept the amendment. I shall read carefully what he has said, but for the moment I shall withdraw the amendment and reserve the right to return to the matter at a later stage.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 304A not moved.]

Clause 256 [Vehicles subject to regulation as private hire vehicles]:

5.45 p.m.

Earl Attlee moved Amendment No. 305: Leave out Clause 256.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I beg to move Amendment No. 305. I have concerns regarding Clause 256 which I hope the Minister can allay.

Clause 256 was inserted by another place as an amendment and is designed to stop companies from operating small PSVs—those with under nine seats—under the Public Service Vehicles Act 1981. The PSV licensing regime is different from the private hire vehicle licensing regime but no less rigorous. Can the Minister tell the House what is the thinking that lies behind the clause?

Is the Minister aware that some local authorities will approve a Ford Galaxy for private hire vehicle work, while others will not? Is there any risk of local authorities straying into making decisions that more properly should be made by officials from his department; namely, are they straying into the area of construction and use regulations? I beg to move.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am a little surprised by this amendment, although I understand that a certain degree of agitation has accompanied it. The amendment would delete Clause 256. If we were to accept it, it would leave behind a legal loophole and an anomaly in the law on private hire licensing, one which has caused considerable concern. Perhaps I should explain the background to the matter.

The arrangements for licensing small buses on the one hand and private hire vehicles on the other are different. Bus licensing is a matter for the traffic commissioners, while private hire licensing is a matter for local authorities. As the law currently stands, a small bus licensed by the traffic commissioners can legally be operated as a private hire vehicle outside the particular safeguards and requirements of the private hire licensing system. Recently it has become evident that there has been a growing number of cases where operators are doing just that. We have received strong representations that it is anomalous that private hire licensing can be got round in this way. It was put to us that private hire vehicles should be licensed as such and not as buses and that, in particular, there were safety implications if they were not. This clause has been widely welcomed by local government, the traffic commissioners, the trades unions and others who were concerned at what they saw as a loophole in the existing law.

Essentially, the clause ensures that if a small vehicle is used as a private hire vehicle it must be licensed as such. One small exception is provided to that principle. We recognise that there are cases where well-established conventional bus operators have a few small vehicles which may be used as buses to provide feeder services and so forth. But these vehicles may also be used for private hire work. For example, they may be hired out for outings at the weekend. It would have been wrong to put up a barrier to a bus operator offering that kind of service. That exception is therefore provided for in the clause. In general, we think that private hire vehicles should be licensed as such and not as buses.

The noble Earl stated that local authorities have different licensing policies. Indeed, some different decisions may be taken between different local authorities. However, they are based on broad requirements. Of course there is a right of appeal against a local authority decision tinder the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976. That appeal can be made to the magistrates. Those who feel disgruntled by a decision reached by a local authority—say, because that decision is incompatible with one made by a neighbouring local authority—can take the matter to appeal.

I am aware of the concerns which have been expressed by the PSV Operators' Association. However, I am not convinced by the points made by the association. It points out that services run by small vehicles can meet a need which is not catered for either by bus operators or by the taxi trade. That may well be so, but the new clause does not prevent a small operator from performing that role. The clause merely provides that if a service of this kind is being operated, it is a private hire service and it must be licensed as such, with all the associated safety and other checks.

As I have said, I am not convinced by the case that has been put and I believe that our earlier amendment, which is now Clause 256, covers what would otherwise be a lacuna in the regulatory framework.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, the Minister should not be surprised that I moved the amendment. Can the Minister explain why the then Minister, Glenda Jackson, wrote to Miss Angela Smith MP in October 1997, stating that the Government believed that the PSV licensing regime provided an adequate alternative in other respects to the PHV licensing regime and that there were no plans to remove the option?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I thought I had just explained that. A number of representations have been made to us that in the past two years there has been a growing number of cases. The letter to which the noble Earl referred was written more than three years ago. The situation has clearly changed since then. A number of cases which require some further action have been drawn to our attention and to the attention of local authorities.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I shall study carefully what the Minister said. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 306 to 310 not moved.]

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood moved Amendment No. 311: After Clause 256, insert the following new clause—