HL Deb 02 May 2001 vol 625 cc791-806

8.47 p.m.

Lord Hoyle

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what is their policy regarding the employment of persons other than police officers to escort abnormal loads on motorways.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, my Unstarred Question relates to the issue of replacing police escorts with civilian ones. Anyone who has ever driven on a motorway will have experienced the delays that take place when abnormal loads are being moved. They are often moved at peak traffic times and so queues build up, often more than a mile in length. In addition, escorting abnormal loads takes up police officers' time—time that could be used for other purposes. Apart from the frustration that is caused to users of the motorway, there is also the cost to those who are transporting the goods. There is delay and frustration all round.

Is there not a better solution to the problem? Should we not consider replacing the police with properly trained and equipped civilian escorts who have gone through a rigorous training scheme so that safety is not put at risk in any way? Such escorts would be equipped with vehicles that were in contact with the load being driven, so improving safety. That would free up the time of police officers who are currently engaged in these duties and would mean that the movement of loads was quicker and more efficient. It would reduce the inconvenience to which I referred earlier and would lead to a reduction in hauliers' costs.

Delays are caused as a load goes through each area. It has to wait for a new police escort to be made available to it. If civilian escorts were used, the loads could probably travel more often at night when there is little congestion on the motorway. Certainly civilian escorts could avoid the peak-time movements that lead to the frustration and inconvenience that I mentioned earlier.

This is not a new idea. In fact, this was first mooted as long ago as 1994. It was then proposed that consideration should be given to the proposal to use civilian escorts rather than police escorts. Four years later, in November 1998, a consultation paper was produced and sent to all the interested organisations. Replies to that paper were due back on 14th January 1999. One wonders what happened to that consultation paper. Were replies to it received and, if so, what did those replies say? What general feeling did they reflect? If the response was positive, again I ask: why are we still waiting for this proposal to be implemented?

Of course I have raised this matter on several occasions since I came to your Lordships' House. I have done so because I think that it ought to be given attention. It is an issue which has been held up for far too long. Indeed, I last raised it—I do not think that it has been raised since—in the form of an Oral Question on 7th November 2000. At that time my noble friend seemed to be quite pleased—almost excited—to be able to say to me that there had been a relaxation. A paper had been sent out by the Association of Chief Police Officers which, if implemented, would bring about a 35 per cent reduction in police escorts. That suggested some movement, but it came seven years after the original proposal and even then only just over one-third of the police escorts would be removed. That was no great success in itself. However, I looked at the paper and I found that it was not quite as simple as that. On the matter of implementation, the paper states that the changes to the guidance require both Home Office and DETR approval and that consultations are likely to take three months. It then goes on to state that the legislative requirements may be capable of resolution through secondary legislation— good, in that respect—but that that is "some way away". What is meant by that? The paper states that the reductions could be implemented locally without the need for legislation, but that is not quite the same thing. I wish to make the point to my noble friend that that was not the good news that my noble friend intended to deliver.

Once more I return to my earlier point: how long will it be before even the revised regulations are put into operation if legislation is required? When I asked that Question, several supplementary queries were also put forward. My noble friend was asked exactly what would be reduced by 35 per cent. My noble friend said that it meant a reduction of 1.5 million movements. That in itself could not be correct because even the notification of abnormal loads in one year does not amount to anything like that figure. Furthermore, the number of notified loads that are then escorted is fairly small. Again, I should like an explanation of the figure of 35 per cent—35 per cent of what?

Another interesting exchange took place during that particular Question Time. The noble Earl who is due to contribute from the Opposition Benches suggested that there is no direct radio link between a police car and an abnormal load. Again, my noble friend will probably remember expressing extreme surprise that that might be the case, despite the fact that my noble friend Lord Simon had travelled with a police escort for an abnormal load. He confirmed that that certainly was the case when he travelled with the police.

I have read with interest the Written Questions and exchanges that have taken place since then between the noble Earl and my noble friend. I must say that I am still perplexed as regards whether there is a direct link, whether there is no direct link, whether there is a direct link between the driver's mate for the abnormal load leading not directly to the police escort car, but back to the police control room and, from there, to the escort car. If that is so, I am quite sure that safety could be improved in that respect.

Finally, I should like to ask my noble friend several questions. First, what has happened to the consultation paper issued in 1998? What were the replies received to it? Secondly—I ask this question in relation to his last response to me in November—when will the revised guidance issued by ACPO in October 2000 and leading to a possible 35 per cent reduction be implemented? Again, can be give the House a more accurate explanation of the 35 per cent reduction in relation to vehicle movements? What number of police escorts will be affected?

We have been looking at this since 1994. Again I must ask: why are we waiting and when will a decision be implemented? Lastly, because not much has happened since 1994, I ask my noble friend to tell me what this exercise has cost.

I look forward to my noble friend's positive replies. I hope to hear that soon we shall be able to say goodbye to frustration, inconvenience and the waste of police officers' time when finally we bring in civilian escorts.

8.58 p.m.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, I know that the House will be obliged to my noble friend Lord Hoyle for giving us the opportunity to question and debate the issue of abnormal loads on motorways and whether the police or some other proficient organisation should be involved in shepherding these loads on the roads.

My noble friend asked specifically what is the policy as regards employing persons other than police officers to do this work. But it would appear from previous Answers to Parliamentary Questions that as a result of long consultations—they have been very long—between the Home Office and the Association of Chief Police Officers revised guidance would be issued to police officers on the criteria for escorts. The guidance would state that they will reduce the occasions when a police escort is thought to be necessary.

On the occasion to which my noble friend has already referred, the Minister was glad to say that it has been estimated that that could reduce police involvement by as much as 35 per cent. No doubt the Minister will be able to tell us how that is to come about. It may well be a good start, but it does not provide the answer to the other question. The motorway travelling public may willingly accept that, but they are still concerned about daylight movements. Indeed, as the Minister said on 7th November last year, we have also, 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".—[Official Report, 7/11/00; col. 1361.] True—but it is only part of the solution.

When one looks at the size of the problem, one can see that it certainly requires more urgency. My noble friend Lord Hoyle and I know very well that the consultations designed to make progress on this subject have been going on for far too long. There should be an urgent look at ways of proceeding towards our goal of cutting out daylight movements, introducing night-time movements, ensuring that the police numbers required are reduced and that some other proficient organisation does the job.

When I raised this issue in my debate of 29th January 1996, there were 1.5 million movements in one year, of which 150,000 were escorted by police officers at a cost of £7 million from police resources. According to the Minister's latest figures in Parliamentary Questions, police-escorted movements rose last year to 200,000. Obviously, so has the cost.

Five years ago—in one year—some 1,781 abnormal loads were escorted by the police in South Yorkshire alone. A survey at that time by 16 forces over a nine-year period revealed that notifications of abnormal load movements had increased by 12 per cent. That was the national trend. It must have increased in recent times because the roads are much busier now. The burden on the police is increasing, and so is the frustration of road users.

The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, extracted some useful information from the Minister in Written Answer 119 on 5th June last year. It was revealed that the Cambridgeshire Constabulary had estimated that approximately 540 abnormal loads require a police escort in one year, and that about 134 police car hours are spent escorting these loads each quarter a t an estimated cost to the Police Service of about £5,700.

If these figures are available for South Yorkshire, for Cambridgeshire and for each county, why does not the Minister inform the House of the real national picture? Every time a Question is tabled on this issue we get the reply, "We do not keep central records". It would be no problem to get the figures from each county. We should like to know the annual number of notifications; how many are escorted; the police man-hours involved; and the cost to the police.

We recognise that in moving towards a satisfactory solution to this problem we must consider safety as paramount. That means that there is no simple solution. That is evident from the final report of the EDMC Management Consultants of 7th January 1998. Like my noble friend, I ask what has happened since that report.

Bearing safety in mind, why cannot midday movements of abnormal loads on motorways be phased out and replaced by night-time movements only, which is a safer period in which to travel? Why cannot we ensure that hauliers start paying the police? After all, it is our money.

As motorway travellers—and I am one; I travel on motorways every week and have done so for many, many years—we are aware of some of the problems. Abnormal loads under police supervision reduce three-lane motorways to two lanes. The result is miles of tailbacks, frustration, impatience, bumper accidents, road rage and the ruination of schedules. We could be relieved of much of that by night-time movements, which would make motorway travelling safer.

9.4 p.m.

Viscount Simon

My Lords, while the question is directed at escorting abnormal loads on motorways, ACPO has been considering escorts on motorways and link dual carriageways for some time. The subject was mentioned in paragraph 5.2.18 of the Home Office document, Review of Police Services and Ancillary Tasks, in 1994, where the proposal was to introduce private escorts of abnormal loads on motorways.

Perhaps at this juncture it may be worth addressing certain of the facts regarding abnormal loads and their movements. The law does not place a direct responsibility on police to escort any load. What is required is that, in order to move any load that exceeds 2.9 metres width, 18.65 metres rigid length, 25.9 metres total length, load overhang in excess of 3.05 metres or 100 metric tonnes in weight, the haulier must notify the police, giving two working days' notice of the movement. The chief officer must either accept the details of the route given or may give directions varying the date, time and part or whole of the route. It is at this point that, by implication, police should be involved in order to enforce or control traffic management, to mitigate traffic congestion and to promote road safety.

ACPO set up a working group on the matter and considerable discussion has taken place between ACPO and the Home Office. ACPO has been supportive of the moves towards privatisation but has been concerned about the quality of a privatised company and would require some form of quality assurance to be carried out. There has also been concern about control and regulation of the traffic powers of a privatised company and, therefore, ACPO would wish to see regulation of the companies carrying out this work in what is a quasi-policing function. The challenge of progressing this function has proved particularly difficult and has not been finalised.

The problem therefore lies in how to provide suitable regulation to enable private companies to perform the duty of accompanying abnormal loads. Powers to control traffic are restricted by statute. Section 35 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 requires the driver of a vehicle to comply with the directions of a constable who is, for the time being engaged in the regulation of traffic". Section 37 makes a similar provision for pedestrians. Section 67 of the Road Traffic Regulations Act 1984 permits a constable or a person acting under the instruction of the chief officer to place signs to, prevent or mitigate congestion or obstruction of traffic, or danger to or from traffic, in consequence of extraordinary circumstances". There is no authority in law for any other individual to control traffic, and it is my contention that that is where the difficulty lies. The police would be supportive of privatisation if the issues of regulation, training and the quality of organisations could be dealt with and if the safety of the public could be assured.

Perhaps your Lordships will allow me to make a personal observation about what can happen. I have only once accompanied an abnormal load on a motorway. That was in a marked police vehicle with the appropriate lights flashing. There were only two lanes on one section of the motorway. Notwithstanding the police vehicle being correctly positioned in respect of following traffic, there were still drivers who tried to force their way past us and the abnormal load. If I were not speaking in your Lordships' House, I might even consider calling them "absolute prats". It is for the silly or inconsiderate driver that a police presence is needed. As I have mentioned, a civilian has no power to stop or direct any traffic.

It is accepted that abnormal loads move every day without causing any form of conflict. However, where conflict does occur, it demands timely intervention—which can only be by a police constable. Surely, therefore, good practice dictates that, if police are on the scene, the likelihood of conflict is reduced and that where it does occur, it is correctly managed.

Finally, I am led to believe that there are some chief officers who, because they are not prepared to recognise the dangers involved, abrogate their responsibility and the wish of Parliament. Many hauliers would be willing to add in what might be termed "special services of police" to the cost of any load movement if they knew that the payment would not compromise road safety. However, should a formal contract be struck between two parties—one to carry and one to escort—for gain, I suggest that road safety would immediately be jeopardised.

The challenge of overcoming technical and operational matters to the satisfaction of all interested parties remains.

9.10 p.m.

Viscount Falkland

My Lords, this is a fascinating debate. I feel that I have intruded into a private club, as a number of noble Lords have spent some time discussing this matter on various occasions. My noble friend Lady Thomas, who usually speaks on transport matters, is not here and she has handed over the task to me. I am delighted to be able to talk without a great deal of authority. I have listened with absolute attention to every contribution so far. Many of the questions that I would have asked the Minister have been answered in those contributions.

I had assumed that underlying the Question was the fundamental matter of cost—cost to the police and, as the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, said, the cost of taking police officers away from other duties where there is a possibility that civilian escorts could be provided. I understood from the noble Lord's remarks that there was also some concern about the existing practices of police escorts. I, too, am fascinated as regards the revised guidance of ACPO and the strange "35 per cent" mentioned by the noble Lord. I dare say that we shall receive an answer ere long from the Minister on that point. It would be interesting to know what a reduction of 35 per cent means.

Looking at the matter superficially, one can see all kinds of reasons why we should seek to replace a police escort with a civilian one if it were possible. But all kinds of matters come to mind. As the noble Lord, Lord Mason of Barnsley, said, the underlying principle that must be borne in mind is safety. As the noble Lord said, safety is paramount. If safety is in any way threatened or reduced by the changes proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, we should be very concerned. I, too, should be fascinated to read the consultation paper.

In my experience, as a motorist who has followed cautiously these kinds of loads both in this country and abroad, a far higher proportion of loads move by night in France and Spain than they do here. I am puzzled as to why so many abnormal loads should move in the middle of the day, causing hold-ups, congestion and frustration.

One point concerns me about the idea of even a highly trained civilian operation with motorcycles—I must mention motorcycles because they are a particular interest of mine. Motorcycles are ideal for use by outriders in this kind of operation, together with four-wheeled vehicles before and aft. But the problem arises—

Lord Hoyle

My Lords, perhaps I may interrupt the noble Viscount. I believe that the Metropolitan Police do use motorcycles.

Viscount Falkland

My Lords, I have indeed seen them used—not by the Metropolitan Police but in Hampshire, with whose police authority I am familiar and friendly, having advised its members over the years. It uses Japanese motorcycles these days, if that is of any interest. It is a pity that we cannot produce a British motorcycle to do the job. However, the Japanese models are most suitable for all kinds of police work, including the work under discussion, because they have the ability to carry equipment and are reliable.

In theory, I believe that you could train people to undertake the work required to ensure that the rules and regulations regarding the secure loading of whatever commodity it is—whether it be a large pipe or a combine harvester—are correctly observed. That seems to me to be absolutely essential. Presumably the permissions for such movements come not only from the police but also from the local authority concerned. It seems to be quite a complicated process. If you are crossing various county or police authority lines, surely you need separate notifications and communications with each of those authorities and police forces.

I am surprised to hear from other noble Lords that they have experience of loads being carried where there is no telephonic communication between the police escort and the driver, or drivers, of such equipment. In this technological age, that seems to me to be almost improbable. Surely such communication is absolutely essential.

I believe that cost may well be added to the exercise if you have a well-trained and approved civilian body that can replace the police and the use of such powers. I would not use the language used by the noble Viscount, Lord Simon, to describe drivers these days, although I absolutely agree with him. Indeed, outside the Chamber, I might even express it in stronger terms. That applies particularly when the weather is bad. As we all know, when the weather is bad in this country the traffic is heavy and people become frustrated. The presence of a police escort, together with the flashing blue lamp, will inhibit rash behaviour caused by frustration.

I see that the noble Viscount is shaking his head in disagreement. I find that very strange. Perhaps I belong to a generation that is frightened of police officers. I am told by some police officers that they have more trouble nowadays with members of the public then was the case even 10 or 15 years ago. However, that usually applies to young men. If young men will overtake in bad weather and ignore police outriders, what will they do with civilian outriders who do not have such powers? That seems to me to be a fundamental consideration.

If there is to be a reduction in cost, and a reduction in the number of police officers used for this type of work, that is all well and good. But surely those who contract to do this work—the haulage companies, and so on—need to pay currently for the amount of police and local authority time that is spent in such operations. Therefore, they would certainly have to pay a civilian operator to carry out the work. Presumably that aspect is covered by the consultation paper. Disregarding the difficulties that I have outlined as regards powers and all the other matters concerning security of the load, and so on, can the Minister say whether we know if that would be more or less expensive on an average load?

I have nothing further to add. I am absolutely in sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, who has obviously carried out a great deal of work on the matter. This may be a surprise to noble Lords, but I have to tell the House that motorcyclists are now used in a professional capacity, especially in courier services. Indeed, many former police riders are now engaged in that kind of work. In this ageist society, there are plenty of older riders, like myself. They are probably better trained than me, but, as noble Lords know, my record is exemplary. If my term here as an hereditary Peer should end, there will perhaps be a few years for me as an escort for one of loads described by the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle. There are expert and safe riders out there who could do much of this work. I should be interested to know whether that is a possibility. We shall look to the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, to tell us whether or not that is so.

9.18 p.m.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, and other noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. I remind the House that I have an interest as I am president of the Heavy Transport Association. I also have my own personal abnormal load vehicle: it is a tank transporter at the REME museum at Bordon. Just to give your Lordships an idea of its size, I should point out that it is about 105 tonnes gross, up to 13 feet wide and 90 feet long.

I agreed with nearly every word spoken by the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, with one exception. He implied that there was a need for very detailed training. I am not convinced about that, and shall explain my reasons later. The noble Lord also referred to the relaxation in escorting criteria. I, too, share his anxiety on that point. The vehicles carrying heavy abnormal loads may weigh 100 tonnes but have only a 400 horsepower engine. That means a power to weight ratio of four horsepower per tonne. One can imagine that if one's car, which weighs about a tonne, had a four horsepower engine it would not go fast uphill. Abnormal loads may not necessarily be wide but when they crawl uphill they travel extremely slowly. There is a danger that other vehicles may run into the back of them.

The noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, has destroyed half my prepared speech by speaking in detail on the issue of mobile phones. However, I am undeterred. The noble Lord, Lord Mason of Barnsley, mentioned the increase in abnormal load traffic. That is a symptom of a welcome increase in the size of the economy. However, I cannot agree with the noble Lord's comments on exclusive night running. I agree that it is desirable for abnormal loads to travel at night and at other unsocial hours. But it is for the police to decide the optimum time for abnormal loads to travel. Of course, different constabularies will adopt different rules in that regard. We should remember that night running of abnormal loads, especially on dual carriageways, is a relatively new phenomenon. About 15 years ago, with the exception of the Metropolitan Police, most constabularies did not allow such night running.

The noble Viscount, Lord Simon, referred to the difficulty of implementation of the measure. He also said—and he is right—that there is no legal requirement for the police to escort such loads. However, we need to emphasise the fact that we are talking about escorts on motorways and linked dual carriageways. The principal role of an escort vehicle on a motorway or dual carriageway is to ensure that the lanes being used are completely blocked off. If an abnormal load travelling in lane one overhangs both the hard shoulder and lane two, the escort vehicle will sit in the middle of lane two to prevent any motorist from trying to squeeze between the load and the high-speed traffic in lane three. If that is done in a dangerous manner it can cause an unnecessary obstruction. However, if it is necessary to obstruct a lane for reasons of road safety, I do not see that a difficulty arises.

I admire the skill of the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, who spoke high-quality waffle! He referred to the security of loads. It is interesting to note that traffic police do not have much experience as regards how to secure an abnormal load. One requires specialised knowledge to secure a load that may weigh 100 tonnes. A load may weigh only five tonnes but be delicate and be six metres wide. I believe that the police would hesitate to interfere unless a load was obviously insecure.

Several speakers have rightly praised the performance of the police. However, it is worth recalling that an experiment was carried out in which two civilian vehicles carrying abnormal loads were escorted as they travelled from one end of the country to the other. One was escorted using experimental methods and the control vehicle was escorted in the normal way. The control vehicle took five days longer than the other vehicle to reach its destination because of the need to wait for police escorts. Obviously the police have to adopt priorities in their work.

I regret that this is another example of the Government's failure to deliver and to make a decision. Other examples of that are the Bowman Army radio system, Terminal Five, nuclear waste and the Dome. As many noble Lords have said, this issue is not new. It was proposed by the previous administration, who did not succeed in implementing it. It is not a controversial issue. There is broad agreement that this is the way we should move forward. The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, will probably say that it is a sensitive issue, as he did on the previous occasion we discussed it. However, I do not think that it is a sensitive issue.

Some constabularies have required abnormal load operators to use a premium rate fax number. They are statutory safety notifications. Is that morally or legally right? Are there legal powers for them to do so? Would it be in order for a motoring organisation such as the AA to use a premium telephone number so that it costs the police money to phone the AA or the RAC to notify it of an accident or a broken down vehicle? It is a peripheral point.

We are talking only about motorways and linked dual carriageways. We are not talking about private escorting on single carriageways. That is a different situation. There are many arguments against that: issues of security; cash in transit vans; and so on. If we go for private escorting, the police will be released from the task and able to undertake more important duties. It is important to remember that escorting an abnormal load is an extremely boring job but, worse than that, it is also very demanding.

As the noble Lord, Lord Mason, said, if we go for private escorting, those loads can be moved at unsocial hours. An abnormal load could be moved between five o'clock and ten o'clock on a Sunday morning—but not late on a Sunday because we know that the traffic builds up.

The job could also be better carried out. A vehicle could be specially equipped for the job. It could carry a range of specialist equipment. It could have traffic cones in case something went wrong. The vehicle would have appropriate signing and high visibility markings. But, most importantly, it could have communication equipment.

Although ruining half my speech, the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, referred to my supplementary question last year. I shall let the Minister into a secret. I knew that his answer should have been either that he would write to me or, yes, there is not normally a direct radio link. I believe that that is the point the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, raised. The Minister indicated that he would be extremely surprised if there were no direct radio link. I was surprised by his answer, as was the noble Viscount, Lord Simon. However, I agree entirely with the Minister's sentiments. One of the advantages of going for private escorting is that we should have extremely good communications between the escort vehicle and the crew of the abnormal load. In addition, the escort vehicle would have a cellphone link to the police. If the police wanted the load diverted, they would have only to ring the escort vehicle.

The noble Lord's position about mobile phones is at variance with my experience and that of my contacts in the industry. If the noble Lord still insists that we use mobile phones in the way indicated in his answers, is it a direct link between the crew of the abnormal load, patched through the police control room? There would be a genuine two-way communication. Alternatively, is it a message relayed through? We need to be clear about the Minister's position. Are mobile phones used to organise the escort? That may be what the Minister was thinking about when he answered me. Alternatively, are mobile phones used when the load is trundling down the motorway and the driver of the abnormal load wants to pass some information to the police car? He may be losing power; perhaps he needs to pull up unexpectedly; there may be an obstruction. We need help from the Minister on that point.

There are two ways forward on this issue. First, we could "contractorise" the police functions in escorting abnormal loads. I believe that to be quite dangerous. We would have a shedful of complex regulations. There would be criminal and civil safety and liability issues if something went wrong.

We have touched on training considerations. We have had reference to the EDMC report. I think that that report was somewhat over the top. If we are not careful, we will end up with the escort driver being far more qualified than the driver of the abnormal load. As I have said, the duty of the escort vehicle is simply to sit behind the load, fully blocking off a lane. Escort vehicles are not required to perform complicated operations such as going the wrong way round a roundabout or a "Keep Left" sign; they just trundle down the motorway.

The driver of the abnormal load needs only a C&E licence. The escort driver should be a "competent person". That is a well understood legal term. Crane inspectors are referred to as "competent persons". No special qualifications are required, but I would not set myself up as one, because I would not be a "competent person". Does the Minister think that anyone could be better qualified than an experienced low-loader driver to be an escort driver?

The better alternative is for the police to authorise the move for a certain time and to tell the haulage operator to organise the escort, in accordance with the ACPO guidelines on the necessary communications equipment and the size and type of vehicle.

A big, regular heavy haulier would provide his own escort, but a small or occasional haulier would select a contractor, rather than relying on the police nominating one. He should be responsible for it, not the police. If something went wrong, the police would have no problem investigating it, because they would have no conflict of interest. They would be dealing with a commercial operator who had made a mistake. It would be a problem for the haulier, not the police.

The ACPO guidelines are non-statutory, but if the operator did not adhere to such custom and practice, he would be vulnerable to an accusation of driving without due care and consideration, and possibly even of recklessness if, say, he did not have a direct radio link.

Some people believe that new legislation is required now. Does the Minister believe that primary legislation is required, and if so, what sort of primary legislation? I agree that there may be a requirement for small changes to the lighting regulations. The Minister might have a chat with his noble friend Lord Whitty on that to allow escort vehicles to operate amber flashing beacon lights, but that is a very small point.

Some noble Lords have referred to the cost. The cost of providing the police service is insignificant compared with the cost of the delays to industry caused by expensive equipment being held up for days in a lay-by waiting for a police escort.

Will the Minister introduce private escorting—yes or no? If not, will be say so now? If he will, he should stop dithering and just do it.

9.33 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton)

My Lords, I am grateful, as ever, to the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, for stimulating a debate on this evidently very important issue. I have been quizzed on it at least twice at Question Time. No doubt I shall continue to be quizzed on it. I enjoy quizzing others on the subject as well. If ever I was to be persuaded that this was the very complex matter that it evidently is, the learned exposition of the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, over the past 15 minutes or so—

Earl Attlee


Lord Bassam of Brighton

Fourteen. The noble Earl has utterly convinced me that the issue is far more complicated than I even began to imagine before we embarked on this short debate.

Before I address the specific issue, I shall take a few minutes to explain the Government's policy and thinking on the escorting of abnormal loads on motorways. As has been said, driving in today's traffic calls for patience. The patience of any motorist, on two or four wheels, can be greatly tested when they are held up by a slow-moving abnormal load. However, it is important to appreciate that the movement of such loads on our roads, whether the load be a power generator or a cement factory chimney, is both unavoidable and absolutely essential for the functioning of our economy, commerce and industry, and, more importantly I suspect, for the future of the competitive export of goods from our heavy industries and manufacturing sector.

There is no ideal time at which to move such loads on motorways. Having listened to the debate and having read the briefing, I have long since concluded that no simple solution exists to the problem of delays caused to other drivers.

I turn to the matter of police involvement in escorting. Traditionally, the police have provided escorts for abnormal loads. They are not required to do so by statute, but rather, for reasons of road safety, public safety and traffic management, in many cases choose to do so for loads which are above a certain size and weight.

For some time the Association of Chief Police Officers has been concerned that escorting is an unnecessary and costly burden on the police. Its view, which is sensible and is certainly one that I share, is that it should be possible for some other agency or body to discharge the function in the same way as private escorts are provided on the Continent. Having listened to the contributions this evening, I believe that there is a fair consensus towards that overall objective.

That view is further supported by work undertaken by the Association of Chief Police Officers which shows that the use of police powers is not normally necessary during load movements on motorways and dual carriageways linked to them. Private escorts, possibly provided by the haulier companies—a solution that has certainly been aired this evening—would allow loads on those roads to move more quickly where they pass through a number of police force areas by removing the need to stop at each police force boundary and pick up a new escort.

The introduction of private escorts would, of course, reduce the police resources committed to that work by allowing other, properly qualified escorts to take on the responsibility, albeit with overall control of the arrangements remaining with the Chief Officer of Police. The police are satisfied that road safety would not be compromised. Such an arrangement would also benefit the hauliers by providing a predictable escorting service. It would also be easier and quicker to move the loads to their intended destinations.

As my noble friends Lord Hoyle and Lord Mason pointed out, in 1998 we undertook public consultation on our proposals to transfer some of the responsibilities for escorting abnormal loads from the police to private escorts. It is no great mystery. Consultation took place previously in the early 1990s when members of the party opposite were in government. Indeed, at the time I was an official on the other side of the debate and pushed to see abnormal loads guided by means other than using valuable police traffic expertise and time.

We are now looking carefully at the responses to the consultation. As we develop our thinking and proposals in this area, we remain in close contact with the police service. I made that point on the previous occasion that this subject arose at Question Time.

I shall be making further concluding comments and I also have some important information to relay to your Lordships. However, I believe that it is only right that I work through one or two of the points that arose by way of questions during the debate, because obviously they inform our views on these matters.

My noble friend Lord Hoyle asked a number of questions. I shall try to answer as best I can the points that he raised. He asked the question: 35 per cent of what? The number of abnormal loads moved on the road system is estimated to be approximately 1.5 million. The number of escorted loads is thought to comprise some 2 per cent of that figure. They are round figures but they suggest roughly 30,000 to 40,000 loads per year.

My noble friend also asked whether direct links by radio exist. That point was also raised by the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, and it also arose at Question Time some time ago. ACPO has confirmed to me that there is usually no direct radio link between the police and abnormal load crews. That is no great mystery; it is information that we have shared previously. Communication is normally available via mobile phones from the abnormal load's second man and/or through the police control room to the police escort. That appears to be the normal method of working.

My noble friend Lord Hoyle asked about the replies to the 1998 consultation paper. The proposals were sent out to 258 consultees and we had responses from 57 of them. They included letters from the Road Haulage Association, the Heavy Transport Association, the Freight Transport Association and ACPO. All those organisations were involved in the preparation of the proposals before they were issued for consultation. Responses have also been received—rightly and understandably, in view of the important role that these bodies play—from the Highways Agency, the Association of Police Authorities, the Police Federation, the AA and the RAC. We received a broad range of responses from about 20 per cent of consultees to whom we distributed the consultation paper.

My noble friend also asked when revised guidance would be implemented. The revised guidance has in fact been implemented. I said in Question Time on the last occasion that this matter was raised that a reduction of some 35 per cent was anticipated as a result of issuing the revised guidance. The guidance has been implemented as of 1st April this year. I shall later report on its impact.

My noble friend also understandably asked about why we had been waiting for the exercise for so long. The consultation took longer than all of us had expected. That was due to a number of factors, including the wide range of responses that we received and the number of bodies that expressed reservations about the viability of the proposals contained in the consultation document. Several very technical points emerged from the exercise, which obviously need to be addressed. I believe that it is fair to say that we are trying to achieve consensus. One can draw from that the implication that there was not absolute consensus on the way forward. I understand and fully share some of the frustrations that have been expressed.

My noble friend Lord Mason made understandably trenchant comments about shifting increasing numbers of abnormal loads to night-time movements. That would have huge resource implications for traffic policing because the majority of forces need to have their manpower resources available during peak demand daytime periods to keep traffic flowing and to respond to unexpected new operational priorities. With traffic, one can easily imagine what they might be. My noble friend's case is based on the assumption that all, or perhaps the majority, of abnormal loads could be moved with private escorts. That may not be the case—that goes to the heart of the debate in ACPO. The question of resources is very important and that is a matter for local chief constables.

To sum up, I confirm that the introduction of private escorts is still very much on our agenda. I should emphasise that that is a longer-term objective. We are in close contact with the police service and we are developing proposals. In the mean time, ACPO has, as I said, issued new guidance that took effect from 1st April. The guidance reduces the occasions on which it is considered that a police escort is required. I have already given a figure for the estimated reduction.

Most police forces have now adopted the new guidance from 1st April. The early indications—only one month on—are that police involvement in escorting has so far reduced by around 29 per cent. I take that as being very encouraging in the first month of the impact of the guidance. I willingly confess that that is based on a trawl of a sample of police forces to enable us to obtain a view on the early impact.

Comparing the March and April figures for Warwickshire showed a reduction of 23 occasions when a police escort was required, down from 44, which equates to a 52 per cent reduction. By comparison, in Thames Valley the figures showed a decrease from 102 to only 95—a 7 per cent reduction. But in the West Midlands the drop was from 169 to 114, a 32 per cent reduction. There are large and impressive reductions in Gloucestershire—44 per cent—Essex and Derbyshire.

So it is an improving picture and the 35 per cent figure to which I referred at Question Time in November is readily attainable if progress can be maintained in the way in which it clearly has been over the first month of the operation of the new guidance. We shall have to see whether or not those early results are replicated across all police forces over a longer time span as the new guidance properly beds in. I asked my officials to do a more thorough check of all police forces so that we can obtain a fuller picture.

I hope that your Lordships will agree that that is a significant improvement and step forward in reducing the burdens of this time-consuming task on our police forces. It will help to facilitate the easier and quicker movement of the loads and, as has been eloquently argued in your Lordships' House, benefit both the haulier companies and the ordinary motorist by reducing delays.

I accept that there is more to do. The Government will continue to work with the police on the introduction of private escorts to reduce the burdens of this work on the police still further. I shall shortly be meeting the chief constable of Nottinghamshire police, who takes the lead for the Police Service on this issue, to review progress on the introduction of private escorts. I hope to be in a better position to provide a fuller picture of those improvements following that meeting—improvements which clearly resulted from the coming into effect of the new guidance.

I believe that we have now made real progress, perhaps for the first time, towards our longer-term objective. I am extraordinarily grateful to those noble Lords who helped us towards that important end by being so persistent—rightly so—in bearing down on this issue over a number of years. The cost benefit to the Police Service may only be £7 million, but that is a real benefit. If we can achieve it, we shall have achieved beneficial cost savings which can perhaps be usefully deployed to other areas of Police Service work, in particular areas of traffic policing, and of course it will bring greater efficiency benefits in the longer term.

I am grateful to all those who participated in this short debate, which I am sure has been most illuminating.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, there are safety implications in relaxing the criteria. Will be talk to ACPO and make sure steps are taken to record all accidents involving abnormal loads? They will not show up in convictions because in a rear-end shunt accident it will not be the fault of the abnormal load driver. Also, does the Minister recognise that, even if we go to private escorting, it will always be possible for the chief constable to decide to have the load escorted by the police?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, as I explained, I am shortly to meet the chair of the relevant ACPO committee, the chief constable of Nottinghamshire. I shall raise both of those issues with him and hope to advise the noble Earl of the outcome of that advice.