HL Deb 09 November 2000 vol 618 cc1746-53

(" . 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) Regulations made under subsection (1) may provide for exemptions from the requirement under subsection (1) for—

  1. (a) specified classes of goods vehicles;
  2. (b) specified classes of major road freight facility, port or premises; and
  3. (c) specified circumstances.

(4) 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.

(5) 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, this amendment stands also in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, and the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw.

I have altered the amendment since I brought it forward on Report, to make it even more flexible: to permit under subsection (3) regulations to provide exemptions for places where heavy lorries are weighed. The purpose of the scheme is to reduce accidents and damage to roads and bridges from overweight lorries. In the context of some 3,500 road deaths a year, the best estimate is that about one in five involves a heavy lorry—so we are talking about 700 deaths a year, plus all the serious injuries that are caused. It is clear that overweight lorries cause a disproportionate number of accidents, because they are not capable of stopping and manoeuvring in the same way as those that are not overweight.

It is worth pointing out that road damage goes up to the fourth power of the weight of a vehicle: so, if my maths is correct, a 50-tonne lorry causes 2½ times the amount of damage that a 40-tonne lorry causes. It is significant. In addition, it is unfair on those who obey the law that those who do not can carry extra weight and therefore receive more payload and revenue.

The purpose of the scheme would be to ensure that, where premises have more than 25,000 lorries a year through the gate, all lorries leaving would have to be weighed and the drivers given a print-out of the weight. If the driver chose to continue driving and was stopped by a member of the inspectorate or the police, he could be charged with knowingly driving an over-weight vehicle.

I suspect that, given modern equipment (a dynamic bridge) the weighing can probably be done in much less than a minute. How much would such a system cost? As the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, said on Report, it would cost about £20,000 to install. So, spread over 20,000 lorries a year, at £1 per lorry, it would almost be paid for in the first year. It is very cheap.

How many weighbridges would be needed to cover the sites? I have done a check on the major ports, and about 15 ports or port areas would be covered. The best estimate that I can obtain from the industry is that there would be a further 150 to 300 other sites in the UK. Of that number, some, like quarries, already have weighbridges, because they sell their material by weight, as do oil companies. They have a means of measuring the weight because, obviously, they do not want to supply more than they sell. I suspect that such places as supermarket distribution centres would not need them at all and would be given an exclusion, because virtually all their lorries would bulk out before they weighed out. So, I think that in the end quite a small number of weighbridges would be needed. Some of those who operate common user facilities could probably make some money by providing facilities for those whose lorries were found to be over-weight to unload some of their goods and store them for future collection.

So such a scheme is practical. The question is: is it necessary? In 1997, there were about 15,000 convictions nationwide relating to light and heavy vehicles that were overweight. If we take as an example the biggest port, Dover, about 1½, million trucks go through it. I recently heard that, about five years ago, Kent County Council set up a weighbridge in Dover for quite a short time. Over the period of those checks, 40 per cent of lorries that came through the port were found to be overweight. On 20 per cent of those, the county council took action. Even taking a figure of 20 per cent, if it is multiplied by 1½million, that makes 300,000 convictions a year, had the scheme continued for a year. That is roughly 20 times the number of convictions for the whole of the UK in 1997. The reason the council did not continue the scheme for very long was that, when the Treasury heard about it, I am told that it said, "Ha, ha, we'll have all the fines. We're not even going to allow you to offset the cost of the operation", which was quite significant. So, after a few weeks, the county council thought that it was on a hiding to nothing and that there was no point in continuing.

Dover and other ports are special cases. But according to a Written Answer that I have received, at least 5 per cent of lorries at other sites would be found to be overweight. If we take away those that do not overweigh, it leaves a higher figure.

In response to my amendment on Report, my noble friend Lord McIntosh basically said that such a provision was not necessary and that the Government were doing this anyway. He told us about the design weight compared with the legal limits and about bulking out and weighing out. It is true that 70 per cent of lorries bulk out—which leaves 30 per cent which do not; they weigh out. My noble friend talked about reputable operators, of which there are a great many—though not always, I suggest, through Dover! But there are certainly a large number of reputable operators overall.

I agree with my noble friend that a balance has to be struck. This amendment provides an effective way of doing so. It is cost-effective. If we are looking at a site in Dover, and if one machine were enough, if my calculation is right, it would cost less than 10p per conviction. That is good value for money.

What my noble friend did not say last time—this is my reason for tabling the amendment again—was what, if the Government did not like my amendment, they intended to do instead, apart from continuing to talk to the industry. There has to be an alternative. Whatever the commitments in the Government's excellent White Paper, they are being diverted. The commitment to reducing damage to roads and road accidents is being overtaken by the need to placate the truckers. It is ironic that the truckers will probably see very little of the 8p that the Chancellor is alleged to have offered them yesterday. I suspect that it will end up with the major customers; it will probably also end up with the oil companies, which will put up their prices to compensate.

I hope that the Government will at least consider this proposal. If they will not accept my amendment, perhaps they will offer proposals or a timetable for bringing forward some other provision which will enable the large number of overweight lorries to be put in check and brought to justice. I beg to move.

Lord Bradshaw

My Lords, I support the amendment. It seeks to bring some much-needed discipline to road haulage, particularly international road haulage. I have read the effectiveness report of the Vehicle Inspectorate. It is a long and detailed document. It indicates that, of vehicles stopped—which, I accept, are a selected proportion of vehicles, because many that are thought to be compliant are not stopped—up to 20 per cent are overloaded. When that is set against the fact that, of the defects found by the Vehicle Inspectorate when heavy lorries are inspected, the top three categories, which far outweigh the rest are brake defects. So we have lorries that are overloaded, with faulty brakes. That is completely unacceptable. I find it rather strange that society and government, which seek to impose onerous standards on rail and air operators, are so reluctant to act in this area where it is known that there is gross abuse of the law.

In designing the amendment, we sought to deal with the places where it is known that abuse is greatest; namely, at ports. However, we were advised that to single out ports, even if we weighed British and foreign lorries equally, would still be regarded as discriminatory under European law. Therefore, in order to comply with European law, we had to add some inland depots. We chose some of the larger depots that do not automatically weigh vehicles. Some places, like quarries, weigh in any event. They have to do so because that is part of the bill of sale relating to the contents of a lorry.

Weighing lorries is not a very onerous business. The lorry is driven over a weighbridge and the weight of each axle is clocked up on a clock that everyone can see—like a big digital clock that you might find at a railway station. It would only be necessary to detain any lorry that was found to be overweight. Therefore, most lorries would pass automatically.

A study of the vehicle inspectorate's reports shows that lorries that prove to be overweight almost always have other faults. Lorries whose drivers have worked over the hours' limit, which are badly maintained and otherwise in breach of regulations, almost always come from among the population that weigh heavy. Those concerned disregard all the regulations. They are not selective. They do not just overweigh; they do everything that is wrong.

In the interests of fair competition, road safety and the protection of our road network—which is in a pretty poor state—I believe that the Government ought to take the matter in hand. The Government have gone to a great deal of trouble on the question of vehicle excise duty for lorries. The consultation document on reform of vehicle excise duty was published today, with a questionnaire for everyone to fill in about VED. I am sure that many people would like a consultation on road safety for vehicles, especially as regards the weight of vehicles. I urge the Government to consider this amendment most carefully. This proposal has widespread support among reputable haulage companies, as well as among the population at large who suffer from the effects of overweight lorries and the damage that they cause to the environment and to health.

7.45 p.m.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, although I have much sympathy for this amendment—indeed, I was involved in its gestation—I sometimes wish that the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, would locate his lorry-bashing mode switch and turn it to the "off" position. However, there is a real problem in this area. An effective targeting of enforcement effort is the objective of the noble Lord's amendment.

Ports are large generators of lorry traffic operating at or near maximum gross weight. In particular, the ISO shipping container transport business is extremely competitive. The necessary skeletal trailers are in abundant supply, second-hand and are very cheap, simple and robust. A high standard of livery is not required in this industry, which contrasts strongly with other sectors of the industry such as the parcels business. To put it simply, it is a cut-throat business with many operators ready to step into the market and sail very close to the wind.

In that market situation, what is an operator to do if he is invited to move a container that he suspects is overloaded? Unless there is a reasonable prospect of being detected or stopped, many would just cross their fingers rather than lose a customer. A similar argument can be applied to the unaccompanied ro-ro trailer business. However, if this amendment were agreed to, it would be impractical to move an overloaded vehicle out of the port area, or, for that matter, any other freight facility covered. But perhaps more importantly, those consigning goods to the UK would be rather more careful about sending an overloaded vehicle or a container which could not legally be moved by industry standard equipment.

There will naturally be concerns that this amendment could result in a considerable amount of unnecessary and time-consuming weighing. I do not believe that that will happen. If I did, I would be opposing the amendment on the grounds that it would be unnecessarily burdensome on industry. The usual type of weighbridge now in use is of the dynamic axle type, described by the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw. There is, of course, the question of the cost of the equipment. But I believe that that would be negligible compared to the total cost of a major freight facility of the type that your Lordships are discussing.

Further, the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, has responded to the suggestion that I made on Report; namely, to allow the Secretary of State to exempt certain facilities. He would have to be careful not to end up with only the ports being affected. Noble Lords also need to be aware that it is fairly standard practice for facilities such as supermarket distribution centres, parcel company hubs, steelworks, large factories and quarries all to have their own weighbridge facilities. I should like to take issue with the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, about supermarket distribution centres because they generally have a dynamic axle weighbridge to ensure that none of the vehicles leave the centre overloaded. They have such facilities, first, to ensure that they do not fall foul of the law; and, secondly, in order to maximise payload.

There is a problem with smaller goods vehicles being overloaded. But this amendment is targeted at larger and heavier vehicles. Noble Lords will be aware that there is a considerable traffic of heavy vehicles that have been loaded to capacity by volume rather than by weight. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, mentioned that fact. However, it would be possible for the Secretary of State's regulations to provide that weighing is unnecessary if no axle on the vehicle weighs more than, say, seven tonnes. That could be very easily determined by a "Go or No-Go" weighbridge. As that weighbridge would not be used for enforcement purposes, it would not need to be of evidential accuracy and, therefore, it would not need to be very expensive. I shall not weary the House at this hour by describing how that could be done. However, I can assure noble Lords that it would not be difficult.

Finally, we may be forgetting about the driver. An experienced driver should be able to detect if his vehicle is seriously overloaded. But if he was just running near, or possibly slightly over, the maximum weight, he would spend the whole journey worrying about the situation. That would not be good for his health, nor would it be good for road safety. He would inevitably tire faster and might lack concentration. However, if he had a clean weighbridge ticket, he could relax in the knowledge that he was operating within the law, because most of the other things that can go wrong are within his control.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I shall start by recognising that the scheme set out in this amendment is very different from that which we considered earlier. I am grateful for the consideration that has gone into its framing. It is much less all-embracing and, of course, it is permissive. I do not believe that it goes as far as the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, would wish us to believe. I do not think that it would be possible for the Secretary of State to make exceptions and say that one major facility should be covered by the scheme and that another should not. That would be going too far. Indeed, if that were to be done, it would almost certainly be challenged in the courts. Similarly, for reasons that are self-evident, it is not possible to have a scheme that covers only the ports, as recognised by my noble friend Lord Berkeley.

My noble friend has repeated the points that I made in response to the earlier amendment and I do not feel disposed to rehearse them again. However, I should emphasise that road safety is enormously important to this Government. We are proud that we have the best record on road safety, but we are not complacent about it. We are always looking for better ways of improving safety. When we are looking at ways to improve safety, it is important for us to consider the best use of resources. Clearly we are concerned with road safety, with issues of road damage and with issues of unfair competition—especially between good operators and less-good operators.

Perhaps I may summarise the fundamental trouble with this amendment without repeating what I said previously. The very locations that would be covered by the scheme are those where it is least likely that there will be overloading. The locations with over 25,000 movements a year are fundamentally those locations used by the larger operators. We said last time, and I think it was generally agreed, that the larger operators are much less likely to be guilty of overloading than the smaller and more dodgy operators, who will simply not appear on the weighbridges to be set up under this amendment.

My fundamental objection to this amendment is that it is an indiscriminate approach to weighing all lorries of a certain kind. Those lorries of a certain kind are the least likely to be guilty of overloading. In that case, targeted enforcement of the law is much more appropriate.

The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, asked a legitimate question: what would we do instead of the amendment? I think I said last time that we are working with the Road Haulage Forum and we are looking at the possibilities of mobile weighpads. We do not have a timetable on it yet but we hope to move quickly and we want to follow the excellent advice of the Commission for Integrated Transport and establish a modern, intelligence-based enforcement system, involving better targeting of inspections and additional tools. This makes efficient use of resources and will minimise disruption to responsible hauliers. The amendment would affect all lorries indiscriminately and particularly those of responsible hauliers, which would make things difficult.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend for that explanation. I do not accept some of his comments. It certainly is not targeting the good and responsible hauliers or the experienced drivers. I suspect that those who are overweight will at some stage have to go into one of these big facilities, because that is the way life goes. It does not actually stop anybody doing spot checks on the motorway but the problem is: will they get done?

I was a little hurt by the comment of the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, about "lorry bashing". If I am bashing lorries, they are illegal lorries. I wanted to make it clear that they are unfair on the competition and this also has a serious road safety implication, as the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, said. I have no problem with that: I am pleased to continue to do it. However, regarding the large number of responsible lorries and experienced drivers, we have all encouraged them and must continue to do it. That was something mentioned yesterday by my right honourable friend the Chancellor as something which should contribute significantly to that aspect.

I think we have debated this quite enough. It is tempting to talk about dividing the House, but it will not do any good. I shall read with great interest what my noble friend has said, because this is something we should take forward and keep pressing the Road Haulage Forum and the Government to achieve the end result that more lorries will be checked, particularly those suspected of being overweight, so that they may be brought to justice. One good way of doing that would be for those who do the checking to have hypothecation of the charges and not to suffer from Treasury-imposed cutbacks. In the light of these remarks I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 26 not moved.]

Earl Attlee moved Amendment No. 27: After Clause 264, insert the following new clause—