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Highway Charges

Volume 476: debated on Tuesday 3 June 2008

10. If she will bring forward a proposal for a scheme under which foreign registered lorries pay to use the highway network. (207980)

As announced in Budget 2008, following the freight data feasibility study the Government will not progress a vignette scheme at this stage. Our view is that enforcement is a better option to protect road users in the UK.

That is a disappointing response. The UK taxpayer will continue to have to pay for wear and tear on our infrastructure caused by foreign hauliers. Is it not a fact that a recent European Union regulation will allow unlimited access to UK markets by 2014? Whereas European hauliers have the benefit of cheaper fuel and unregulated, and therefore cheaper, labour, British hauliers will face yet further unfair competition. Many may go out of business. There is no enforcement to ensure that our good road safety standards can be maintained in future under those conditions.

As I said, the Government are determined to deal with the issue through enforcement. In the past two years, we have more than doubled enforcement targeted at heavy goods vehicles on international journeys. Alongside publication of the feasibility study conclusions, we announced a £24 million package that will fund two new enforcement sites at locations with a high volume of heavy goods vehicles traffic, a 50 per cent. increase in the number of checks carried out, a near doubling of prohibitions, 97 additional staff and a move to 24/7 enforcement checking. We believe that enforcement will protect the road haulage industry. The matter to which the hon. Lady refers will come under discussion in Europe in due course; it has not been decided so far.

I wonder whether the House is aware that 1.7 million heavy goods vehicles have come into Britain over the past 10 years. They were all full of dirty fuel—full of sulphur that they are belching out into our countryside. How does that square with the Government’s policy on CO2 emissions and green fuel, with which all our heavy goods vehicles have to fill up their tanks? It makes a nonsense of the Government’s policy.

The hon. Gentleman makes a very fair point. We do not want UK hauliers disadvantaged by those coming from outside, whether the issue is dirty or cheaper fuel, hauliers not observing the regulations on tiredness or overloading their vehicles, or any other regulation being abused. We have reinforced the amount of money available to the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency, the enforcement agency, to make sure that it can police vehicles far more effectively than they have ever been policed before. I assure him that it is determined to do that, and is doing that.

The Minister says that he does not want the UK haulage industry disadvantaged, but it is being disadvantaged. Faced with intense competition from foreign hauliers who pay no British taxes, the UK haulage industry is on its knees. Some 87 per cent. of lorries travelling through British ports to the continent are now foreign-owned. Family-run haulage businesses are going out of business every day because of rocketing fuel prices, and now they face more fuel tax hikes because the Prime Minister needs to fill a gap in his public finances. The Government’s complacency on the issue is astounding.

Order. The hon. Lady must not make a speech; she is asking a supplementary question. She should put the question, and she may also ask a second question, but she should not make a speech.

I am grateful. I apologise, Mr. Speaker. Does the Secretary of State really want her political legacy to comprise presiding over the death of the British haulage industry?

No, we certainly do not want to see the British road haulage industry damaged, which is why we have put in place measures that we believe will protect it. In respect of the accusation that rising fuel costs in Britain are harming our industry, rising fuel costs are affecting the whole of Europe. Every industry is being affected, as we have seen on our television screens over the past few weeks.

But more than seven years ago the Government promised to introduce measures to ensure that foreign hauliers pay towards the cost of the damage that they cause to Britain’s roads. When will they keep the promise that they made, or will they just continue to dither while hard-working UK haulage firms go to the wall?

As I explained to the hon. Lady only a moment ago, the Government carried out the freight data feasibility study to try to identify the best way of protecting the British road haulage industry. It was determined through that study, in which, as I understand it, the Road Haulage Association co-operated and participated, that a vignette scheme of the order that would be allowed would not be appropriate, and that the best way to protect the RHA and British industry was to beef up enforcement on our roads to make sure that foreign hauliers would not be able to take any further advantage. That is what we said we would do. That is what we have done with the extra £24 million that we have allocated to the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency, and that extra enforcement will have an impact.