HL Deb 07 November 2000 vol 618 cc1360-4

2.47 p.m.

Lord Hoyle asked Her Majesty's Government:

When they are going to reach conclusions on whether it is necessary to involve highly trained police officers and their equipment when transporting abnormal loads.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the day-to-day task of escorting abnormal loads is an operational matter for chief officers of police, but both we and they wish to reduce the police service's involvement in this area— provided, of course, that it can be done in a way which does not endanger or compromise road safety. The Association of Chief Police Officers has recently revised its guidance to police forces on the criteria for escorts of abnormal loads. The alteration reduces the occasions on which a police escort is considered to be necessary. I am glad to say that it has been estimated that it could reduce police involvement in this work by as much as 35 per cent. The Government will, of course, continue to work closely with ACPO to seek further reductions by the introduction of private escorts.

Lord Hoyle

My Lords, does my noble friend recall that I asked a similar Question on the 28th March of this year? On that occasion, he said that the report had been completed, that it was out for discussion and that an announcement would shortly be made. We both also agreed that this matter had been outstanding since before 1994. Can my noble friend tell us what we are waiting for in relation to the announcement?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the noble Lord is to be congratulated on his persistence. I think that the noble Lord's persistence has actually been rewarded this afternoon. I am sure that when he reads Hansard he will realise that it is a very significant fact that guidance has been changed—the criteria have been changed—so that the police will be much less involved in this by some 35 per cent, which is a big leap forward. Of course, discussions continue, subject to safety considerations, to see what further progress can be made to introduce private escorts to reduce further the burden on already over-worked and over-burdened police forces.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, the noble Lord referred to 35 per cent, but can he tell us to what that figure applies?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, 1.5 million escort exercises annually.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that that is not good enough? First, those of us who travel regularly on the motorways wish to see the transport of abnormal loads switched from daytime to night-time. Secondly, we would hope that the transporters would pay the cost and not the police. Incidentally, how much is it costing the police each year?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, it is obviously very difficult to provide precise figures, but I shall endeavour to do my best. We think that it costs somewhere in the region of £7 million a year to police abnormal loads travelling on the motorway and dual carriageway network. I entirely take the point that my noble friend has made. He has had long experience of this. Of course we shall be seeking further moves to reduce the burden on police forces and to encourage the use of private escorts which would, of course, transfer in part some of the costs to those road hauliers involved in abnormal load movements.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I declare an interest as president of the Heavy Transport Association. The Minister talked of safety. Is it correct that there is no direct radio link between a police car and an abnormal load?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I would be extremely surprised if that were the case.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I too declare an interest, as president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. I press my noble friend further on this matter of seeking to keep abnormal loads off our busy roads in daytime. Only a month ago a load blocked two lanes of the northbound carriageway of the M1 at three o'clock in the afternoon. That is enormously frustrating for all other traffic.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, this is a more complex matter than one might at first think. Moving loads during the evening and at night would have the benefit of the roads being less busy, but that is, of course, the time when, traditionally, motorway maintenance has been carried out. Very often it is the case that a whole lane or perhaps even two lanes of a motorway will be taken out. That is precisely the sort of width that abnormal loads, particularly the larger ones, might require. So the police have a very difficult operational choice to make about when such loads should be moved. They also have to negotiate these with the points of reception and departure for those abnormal loads.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I used to have a government driver who at Christmas gave me a very nice silver flask neatly inscribed with the words, "To my abnormal load"?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, there is just no answer to that.

Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate

My Lords, it is difficult to follow that. Will the Minister join me in congratulating the Metropolitan Police who this morning arrested many criminals for trying to remove an abnormal load from the Dome?

Viscount Simon

My Lords, in response to the question of the noble Earl, Lord Attlee—which is somewhat bypassing the system—when I escorted an abnormal load earlier this year there was no communication between the police vehicle and the driver of the abnormal load. Not only that, although the police vehicle had on its blue lights, people were trying to pass it, which would be a problem if the load was being followed or escorted by non-police vehicles. Will my noble friend consider the fact that there are problems regarding non-police escorts? For example, how does one overcome the fact that they currently have no powers to contravene traffic regulations or to direct vehicles to avoid abnormal loads?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I thought that I had made it plainly clear earlier that the question of safety is very important in the movement of abnormal loads: safety for the driver, safety for other drivers, and public safety generally. All of those matters bear very careful consideration. No doubt where private escorts are provided there will be very careful negotiations with the local police forces involved and, of course, with those who ultimately are responsible for the abnormal load. We take very great care in addressing this issue and I suspect that it is for that reason that there has been some slow progress towards the objective, which I know many of your Lordships equally share, of reducing the burden on the police in moving abnormal loads.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, the Minister said that discussions which have been going on a long time, as the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, pointed out, continue. How much longer will they continue?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I have no doubt that those discussions will continue for a very long time because there will always be a need to keep this very sensitive matter under review.

The Earl of Listowel

My Lords, does not the noble Lord agree that there is an important point to this Question inasmuch as the police must be allowed to concentrate on their most important job, preventing crime? Does not he agree that the police should be encouraged—as we heard last night at the DIVERT trust's annual general meeting—to work with communities and spend their time on that important aspect of their work?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, those officers that are involved in moving abnormal loads are, of course, traffic officers whose primary responsibility is to keep the arteries of the nation, as it were, free, accessible and moving. Of course it remains an objective of the police at all times to reduce crime and whatever this Government can do, they will do to ensure that the police can concentrate on their primary core task of reducing crime across the country. We have been very successful in that undertaking over the past two to three years.

Lord McNally

My Lords, will the Minister indicate whether it is the philosophy of the Government to privatise or outsource more police duties?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, obviously how police forces run and maintain their business is very much a matter for each chief constable. There may well be operations that the police undertake that can be privatised, to use the noble Lord's expression, and I have no doubt that some back-office work has been externalised in that way, perhaps enhancing police efficiency, and enabling extra resources to be put into front-line policing—something which I know the noble Lord shares as an objective with Her Majesty's Government.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, when the Minister told the House just now that discussions on this matter would go on ad infinitum, did he mean to refer to the precise Question that was asked, which is when we shall have a decision about whether private sector bodies can accompany these loads instead of the police? That is the key question.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I think in principle there is little disagreement that the use of private escorts is appropriate. No doubt those discussions to resolve issues relating to safety will have to continue. The point I was making generally is that discussions will always continue on this subject because there are always new problems; and no doubt the form and management of such services changes over time.