HL Deb 13 February 2001 vol 622 cc136-7

2.45 p.m.

Earl Attlee asked Her Majesty's Government:

How the working time directive will affect road transport operations in the United Kingdom and Europe.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, at last December's Transport Council, European Transport Ministers agreed that mobile workers would be subject to a separate directive on working time. The impact on the UK's road transport sector will depend on the final text which is still subject to negotiation with the European Parliament. As currently drafted, we would have three years to implement these proposals into UK legislation.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I am grateful for that reply. I remind the House that I have an interest. The Minister will have discussed these matters in detail with the Road Haulage Forum. However, bearing in mind that the average age of a lorry driver is 53 and there is already a shortage, what is the Minister doing to avoid an even more severe shortage in the future?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the noble Earl is correct. We are discussing this and other measures with representatives of the industry, unions and the Road Haulage Forum to modernise the road haulage industry. We believe that there is substantial efficiency to be gained. We believe also that the prospect of, and the run-in time for, the implementation of this working time directive will lead to some changes in shift patterns which will be advantageous to efficiency and the well-being of the drivers. The whole point of the working time directive is that drivers—whether or not 53-plus—should not be subject to excessive time at work.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, with this excellent proposed directive to limit the hours of driving, why did the Government abstain on the vote of the Council of Ministers rather than support it?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, we supported the bulk of the proposition. As is normal in European negotiations, there were a number of moves that we could not support and we were unhappy with parts of the deal. We very much welcome the improved proposal in relation to night work. It gives greater flexibility than the original proposition.

However, the maximum hours—there is an average of 48 hours—are set in this proposition at 60 hours. We were looking for at least an interim derogation from that to 65 hours. That would have allowed for greater flexibility in shift patterns. Part of the road haulage industry indicates that that works. As I indicated, the bulk of the agreement is acceptable to the UK Government. We are now in a period where the final text will have to be produced. The European Parliament's assessment of it will also have to be taken into account. We are some way off the transposition of this proposal. It will be a three year run-in once the directive is in force. Therefore, there is substantial time for the industry to adapt.

Baroness, Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, who is responsible for checking the tachometers? Is it the employer or a separate inspectorate? How does one assess whether drivers have worked the hours which match the directive?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the directive is concerned with total hours, not simply driving hours. EU directives which are in force for most of the road transport sector relate to driving hours—that is, hours at the wheel—which are governed by the tachograph. The responsibility for the tachograph is primarily that of the driver, subject to the employer's responsibility. Enforcement is by the Vehicle Inspectorate checking at the roadside or elsewhere.

Lord Lea of Crondall

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that many of us strongly support the outcome of the December Council? It dealt with a sector that had been excluded from the working time directive. The provisions have been a long time coming and the compromise reached meets the essential needs of both sides of the industry. We should all support its early implementation.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I welcome my noble friend's remarks. I recognise that the provisions are in line with much of what he and his colleagues in the trade union movement have campaigned for. However, on his call for rapid implementation, we need time to adapt the shift patterns worked in the industry, as occurred in manufacturing and other industries with the general working time directive.

Lord Willoughby de Broke

My Lords, does the Minister believe that the introduction of the working time directive has made the British economy more competitive internationally or less?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, as the main competition is with countries in the European Union, the point of the working time directive and other related legislation is to create a level playing field.