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Haulage Industry

Volume 478: debated on Tuesday 8 July 2008

1. What recent discussions she has had with her EU counterparts on competition in the haulage industry; and if she will make a statement. (216854)

I represented the UK at the June EU Transport Council where the Commission’s access to the road transport market proposal achieved political agreement. As a result of the agreement, the rules on cabotage will be simpler and easier to enforce and will limit cabotage to three operations within a seven-day period following an international journey.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that reply. I have just come from chairing the all-party group on freight transport, and the Freight Transport Association had some complimentary things to say about the Minister. UK hauliers are concerned about unfair foreign competition. Does the Minister agree that rigorous enforcement of cabotage rules and safety laws is essential? Our hauliers need reassurance that enforcement is the top priority for her Department.

I thank my hon. Friend and the association for their kind remarks. I want to pay tribute to both Roger King and Theo de Pencier, who were very helpful during the negotiations. I kept in regular touch with them about the situation. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that enforcement is a key issue—not just on cabotage but on other road safety issues. That is why an important part of the agreement was to get a commitment from the Commission to look at the exchange of national databases, which would make enforcement much easier for us to carry out.

Has the Minister had any discussions with Her Majesty’s Treasury about the differential in price and duty levels on petrol and diesel, which is placing British hauliers, including those in Kettering, at a distinct disadvantage?

The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), had discussions with some of the key industry representatives last week. He listened carefully to their concerns and undertook to pass them on to the Chancellor.

I am sure my right hon. Friend is a heroine to the whole of the road haulage industry. She appears to have driven a hole through the treaty of Rome and free trade with the concessions that she has managed to get. Can she explain why, when there is unfair competition from foreign lorries that do not comply with our regulations, the graduated penalty and deposit scheme has been delayed?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks—at least I think they were kind. He is right to say that it will make a big difference in enforcement when the Commission can consider the exchange of national databases. On the other issue, I understand that statutory instruments are being drawn up to deal with the graduated penalty and deposit scheme.

According to research by National Economic Research Associates, foreign lorries operating on UK roads are imposing wear and tear costs of about £195 million a year. Do the Government still accept the principle that foreign hauliers should contribute to the cost of maintaining the UK road network?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will know that the feasibility study that was commissioned to consider the issue was rejected by the Treasury, as it would almost cost more to administer than would have come in in revenue. However, he might not be aware that another proposal has come forward from the Commission, and we will consider it.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be aware of meetings that Members have had over the past week with those in road haulage societies. One problem that was identified involved lorries coming from the continent that were not roadworthy. Will she have a word with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary so that there are more exercises, as we suggested in the Select Committee on Transport some time ago, whereby the police and all agencies check foreign lorries? Most of them are not fit to be on our roads.

My hon. Friend is quite right to point out some of the problems that can occur. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town, recently announced some £24 million of extra investment to improve enforcement. As I have said, one of the key proposals to come out of the Council last week was to do with ensuring that the Commission would give a firm commitment to consider the exchange of databases, which is incredibly important in enforcement terms.

The biggest threat to our indigenous road haulage industry is not new cabotage rules but the difference in the price of diesel on each side of the channel. Eight years ago, when he was the leader of the Conservative party, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) suggested a vignette or Britdisc scheme, which was deemed not to be compliant with EU rules. Since then, however, Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic have introduced their own schemes. Has the Department examined schemes that could be introduced in this country and that do comply with EU regulations?

That is the question that I have just answered. As I explained, the previous feasibility study was rejected because the limit that could be charged was something like £7 a day, and the cost of administering the scheme would have been greater than the money charged. However, as I said to the hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett), the Commission has made new proposals, and we will of course examine them to see whether they would improve the situation.