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Trailers (EU Proposals)

Volume 521: debated on Tuesday 18 January 2011

Thank you, Mr Hollobone. It is an honour to speak under your chairmanship.

Although talking about the height of trailers does not sound too exciting, the new proposal from the European Commission to limit the height of trailers to 4 metres will have a detrimental effect on the British haulage sector, on our environment and on every person who uses our already crowded roads. One of my constituents, Robin Allen, contacted me towards the end of last year to ask me to raise the issue in this House, hopefully to stir up some support for our country’s hauliers.

Like many people, at first I did not realise the potential impact of the proposed legislation. Of the EU member states, 20 out of 25 have a 4-metre height restriction on trailers for safety reasons. The proposal from the European Commission aims to bring the UK and four other member states into line with the majority. It is my personal view that this proposal demonstrates the unnecessary work of the European Commission, which makes regulations for regulation’s sake.

The UK’s road infrastructure can accommodate trailers that are up to 4.9 metres high and there is currently no limit in Britain on the height that a trailer can be; the only restriction is whether a trailer can pass under bridges here. People might think that a reduction of 90 cm will not make much difference, but, as the excellent report by Professor Alan McKinnon, “Britain without Double-deck Lorries”, demonstrates, this proposal will have a massive impact on Britain’s haulage industry.

Professor McKinnon suggests that, if the height of lorries is restricted, haulage companies will have to increase their fleet size just to accommodate the same load capacity, and it will cost an extra £387 million to distribute the same amount of goods. Double-deck lorries, or lorries over 4 metres in height, cost roughly 10% more money to operate than other lorries, due to their size. Nevertheless, it would cost a haulage company more money to have fewer double-deck lorries and to increase the size of its fleet. Any extra cost would inevitably have a huge impact on the ability of smaller firms to remain competitive, thus resulting in cuts in employment in the sector. As there are several haulage firms in my constituency, I am particularly concerned for their viability, given all the other challenges that they face, such as rising fuel prices and the rise in VAT.

Professor McKinnon’s research suggests that the proposed legislation would result in a 5.5% increase in the number of lorries on Britain’s roads. That would mean more wear and tear on our roads—the previous Government’s economic record already makes it difficult to keep on top of that issue. The increase in the number of lorries using our roads and the resulting damage to our roads would lead to more traffic and more traffic jams. In turn, that would mean higher transport costs and higher costs for goods in the shops, along with increased stress and inconvenience for drivers.

Finally, there is the issue of the impact on our environment; it is probably not the main concern of Britain’s haulage firms, but in my view it is equally important. If in 2008 we had replaced all double-deck vehicles with single-deck ones, the total amount of fuel consumed since 2008 would have increased from 190 million litres of fuel to 342 million litres, which is an 80% increase in fuel consumption. With carbon dioxide directly linked to fuel consumption, it has been predicted that that increase in fuel consumption would increase CO2 emissions from 0.5 million tonnes to 0.9 million tonnes a year, which relates to a 5.3% increase in the amount of CO2 emitted by articulated lorries on British roads.

Although the concerns that I have expressed are paramount, I am also concerned by the way in which the European Commission has conducted itself on this issue. The proposal on page 49 of version two of the working paper of the “Fl JPD PE Masses and Dimensions” document is registered for “restricted circulation”, and it is not at all easy to track down. In fact, it took a lot of lateral thinking and persuasion by my staff to finally see a copy. It concerns me that, given the impact this proposal will have on British haulage, this document is being hidden away, despite its being well known within the haulage industry.

Perhaps my lack of trust in the openness of Europe is getting the better of me, but I believe that the European Commission would be better able to defend itself if it were completely open with the industry that it is attempting to regulate. An e-mail from the European Commission received by my office states that the document is not ready to be seen outside the working group on the policy. As I have said, the proposal is already well known within the haulage industry, so I ask the European Union to open the discussion to everyone who will be affected by the proposal, to ensure that anything that is developed is in the interests of British companies.

The European Commission’s proposal has caused concern among those in the haulage industry, from my constituent, Robin Allen, to the chief executive officer of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, Mr Paul Everitt, who has stated:

“The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders’ view on trailer heights is that limiting them to 4 metres would be detrimental to the vehicle industry, UK infrastructure, environment and economy.”

I come to this debate as the chairman of the all-party group on freight transport, and we discussed this issue at our last meeting. At that meeting, there were organisations around the table from across the spectrum, not only from the haulage industry but from the haulage rescue industry, which would undoubtedly see its work load rise under this proposal.

The hon. Lady has made some excellent points. Does she agree that Britain should be at the forefront of fighting against this proposal, saying, “No, 4.2 metres, 4 metres or whatever the European suggestion is for is just ridiculous. It doesn’t work for British hauliers and should be opposed at every stage.”?

I agree that we should be at the forefront of the fight against this proposal, because it would impact so greatly on our haulage industry, which, as I have said, faces so many challenges at the moment. It would also impact on the people of this country, who would pay more for their goods. We are already in a difficult, cash-strapped situation, so we do not want to increase the difficulties not only for the haulage industry but for every single one of us. I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point and hope that the Minister will take it on board.

Time is short, so I will use what time I have left to ask three things of the Minister—for the sake of the British economy, we need to get this proposal right. Before doing so, however, I thank him for his letter of 22 December 2010. First, I hope that the Minister will use his time today to outline his Department’s position in relation to the European Commission’s proposal. I understand from his letter to me and his comments to the trade press that he and the Department share many of the views of the haulage industry, but perhaps he will put that position on record. Secondly, will he ask the European Commission to make the proposal document available, so that those within the industry who will be affected can give their views? Thirdly and finally, I ask him to write to Government MEPs to ask them to raise the concerns of the British haulage industry in Europe.

I have certainly learned a lot from what the hon. Lady has just said, and I am very much looking forward to hearing the response from the Minister.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. We entered the House together; clearly I have gone one way and you have gone another.

This is a really important debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) on securing it, so that I can do exactly what she has asked me to do and set out the Government’s position. Also, I say to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) that I would love to speak to the all-party group on freight transport and set out the Government’s position there, too; I know the all-party group well, just as the haulage industry in general knows me very well.

In the short time that I have been a Minister, I have been trying to set out as quickly as possible the new Government’s position on this issue, particularly to hauliers, given the problems that they face. I would love to think that, when the Prime Minister appointed me to my post, he knew that I hold a heavy goods vehicle licence and have done so since I was 17—I was in the military at the time, so I could hold a HGV licence at that age, unlike in civvy street, where someone has to be 21. Sadly, I have never driven an articulated vehicle, although the Stobart Group has encouraged me to do so on its private land; indeed, I will do so in the very near future.

I want to set out right from the start that the Government have absolutely no intention of introducing the 4-metre regulation here; we are fighting it tooth and nail. Yesterday, my officials within this group in Europe attended a meeting, and said exactly that. This is majority vote territory, so we have to ensure that we are not alone, and I am pleased that the information coming back is that other countries with substantial vote clout are indicating that they are not happy either.

It is important that I set out why I am turning around and saying no to my European friends. It is not just that I am a little Eurosceptic, but that the measure would have a fundamental effect on the British haulage industry. Other countries in Europe already have a 4-metre limit—Austria, for example. No vehicle entering that country can have a height of more than 4 metres, which is absolutely fine. The people of Austria have every right to decide that, but they do not have any right to tell us, in this country, what the height of our vehicles should be.

There are a number of key points. We have a system that works perfectly well—it’s not broken, so don’t fix it. We should not put our hauliers in a disproportionately difficult fiscal position. Environmentally, what are we doing talking about limiting the height and thereby increasing the number of vehicles on our roads? I have absolutely no intention of increasing the weight limit on vehicles, so this measure would immediately cause a problem. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that it would place a disproportionate burden on our industry.

I am carefully considering proposals to extend the length of vehicles by adding more crates to the back of certain vehicles. The issue has split the industry almost 50:50, and I can see the benefits but also the problems for some of the smaller hauliers, whose trailer stock would have to be changed. The industry should not fear that proposal though, because it is common sense to move more products around our congested roads in just one vehicle, which will take more vehicles off the roads altogether.

I have not only set out the position to the industry here in Parliament, but written articles, provided interviews and strongly set out my views, because I want this market-driven industry, which has very tight profit margins, to know not only what is happening on this issue, but how the Government will protect it in the future. Hauliers come over to this country from other European countries with belly tanks on, drive around our roads, pay no taxation and buy no fuel. It is difficult for our industry to compete with that, so we are looking at lorry road-user charges to create a more level playing field. We are committed to bringing in such a charge for trucks, because it will create a better balance.

I am also trying to limit the amount of regulation, so that the industry does not feel that the Government are on its back all the time. If there are bad hauliers out there with vehicles that are not fit for purpose, it is quite right that our police should bring regulation down on them like a ton of bricks. The vast majority of those in the industry, however, play by the rules and do the very best they can, but at the same time they feel that more regulation and more of a burden is placed on them.

As well as being the roads Minister, responsible for the UK freight industry and haulage, I am the deregulation Minister, and I am looking carefully at the regulations that are out there, some of which we have inherited and some of which have come from Europe. We are talking about just one of the measures that Europe has decided to look at, but about four fifths of all regulations that come through the Department for Transport are either EU or internationally led. It is difficult, therefore, to start to deregulate when these things have already been decided. The key is to get in early, to put our foot down absolutely rigorously right at the start and say, “This is the position we’re in.” To be fair to the Commission, I think that it realises that the measure is not popular and will certainly not get unanimity, and it is starting to learn that not only this country but others will start to kick and push back.

The earlier we push back on regulations from Europe, the better. As I have said, there were meetings yesterday, and there will be more as we go forward, and there is no doubt that the Commission knows this Government’s views—it certainly knows mine. My officials have been told in no uncertain terms to ensure that those views are put forward as strongly as possible. The European Parliament also knows my views, and I certainly will be working with it, and hon. Members, and I can spread the good word about where we are through the all-party groups. I hope to write an article on this matter in the next few weeks, to elaborate exactly where we are, not only on this matter but on the enormously important issue of trailer length.

To move forward on this subject, in which I am sure you are very interested, Mr Hollobone, it is important that not only do I do my bit and my hon. Friend does hers but, as constituency MPs, we all do our bit. It is important that I get as much written support as possible, to show that we have, in our armoury, cross-party support in the House. The matter is not new—it has been around since 2005—and I am sure that the shadow teams, even though they quite rightly cannot contribute to the debate today, understand the problems that have been coming through. It is important that the hauliers in my constituency, my hon. Friend’s constituency and the constituency of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South know that we will do everything we can to support them in this and other areas related to the regulatory burden.

I welcome what the Minister has said today, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) on securing the debate.

Taking up the comment that the Minister made at the beginning, I invite him to address the next meeting of the all-party group on freight transport, to set at rest the minds of all the different organisations represented there, and perhaps to discuss issues of great concern and relevance to various organisations out there in the haulage industry, such as the motor insurance database.

I am more than grateful to accept that offer. I am sure that my officials have heard what has been said and will contact the hon. Gentleman in the near future, so that I can discuss these and the many other issues of concern to the haulage industry. On his point about insurance—something that he is perhaps looking into—there should be no fears around that. The idea is to remove the at least 1.5 million people who drive on the highways and byways of this country when uninsured, and I am sure that the haulage industry wholeheartedly supports me on the importance of addressing that.

The haulage industry needs to supply us with evidence, because it is all well and good my standing up here and our having a debate, but we are not experts in this field. The people in the industry are the experts on these problems, which affect their jobs, and their capacity to do them, every single day. As well as us and the Government saying, “Right, we’re going to push back on this,” the evidence has to come from the industry itself, so that when other countries in the European Union say that they are pro this—some are—we can have an evidence-based argument, which is absolutely crucial.

The evidence needs to be not only on the costs and the increased distance travelled—there are different figures around, but there would be an increase of about 4.5% in road use, particularly by articulated lorries—but on the effects on CO2 emissions. One thing that we all want to do is to protect the planet for our young people and for the future, but at the same time we need growth. The last thing in the world that I want, therefore, if I am sweating the assets on the highways, and particularly the motorways, of this country—something we try to do as much as possible—is to see an increase in the number of lorries without an increase in growth. There would be an increase in cost, but not in profitability. We estimate that this would equate to about 151,000 new cars on the road, which, for those who do not know the industry, would cost road haulage about £305 million a year. Figures such as those—our Department produced them in consultation with the industry—are desperately needed. We need to quantify matters and ensure that we have a proper evidence base.

Impact assessments must be done not only for fiscal problems and emissions but for congestion. One thing that I have learned since I took over this portfolio eight months ago is that congestion involves not only pollution but money for the haulage industry. That is why we have announced, as I am sure my hon. Friend knows, that we will remove barrier tolls from the Dartford river crossing by the end of 2012 to allow free flow, so that hauliers do not sit in traffic for 10, 11 or 12 miles. Often, no accident has occurred; it is just that someone is trying to find their money or credit card to pay, while the barriers bob up and down and traffic moves forward. That will open up opportunities enormously for the industry in that part of the world.

I have said to the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs that we will consider whether we can negotiate with the contract holder of the Severn bridge crossing to do the same. I was also on the M6 toll road the other day to discuss whether barriers could be removed there and replaced by number plate recognition. Sadly, legislation would need to be introduced—I hope to introduce it with reference to the Dartford river crossing—to allow us to pursue and find people who refuse to pay the tolls that everybody else pays.

The next step is that the Department for Transport will again meet the relevant heads of responsibilities in the European Commission—as I have said, we met yesterday— and make it perfectly clear that we are more than happy with the status quo and do not want to reduce the limit to 4 metres. We have told the other member states supporting us that we are happy with the status quo. They feel that issues might arise involving cross-border enforcement. That operates perfectly well today; as I said earlier, Austria already has a 4-metre limit and enforces it. That is fine for Austria. We do not need to enforce anything, because there is no limit and we are perfectly happy. We have weight restrictions.

I have alluded to allowing free-flow tolling at the Dartford river crossing. Interestingly, the left-hand bore going north is the smaller of the two tunnels, and when we move to free-flow tolling, there will be issues involving how to move oversize vehicles into the right-hand bore. Free-flow tolling going south will cost money, but it is much simpler coming off the bridge.

[Mr Christopher Chope in the Chair]

Because of the size of the regional tunnel—some of us remember when it was the only tunnel available for crossing at that part of the dock—it is absolutely imperative that we consider traffic going north, as there are safety implications. However, we have managed to do it. There are plenty of bridges, tunnels and crossings in this country with height restrictions, and we have pushed hard to ensure that we protect them.

As I said earlier, Mr Hollobone—[Interruption.] It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I mentioned earlier that if we made the change, there would undoubtedly be pressure on me as a Minister to increase the weight limits in line with other parts of Europe. It is a natural argument to make. If I argue that we do not want more vehicles as a result of the height limitation, the pressure will say, “We have dropped to 4 metres. If you want fewer vehicles, it would be better—wouldn’t it, Minister?—to increase weight limits so we can move the same amount of freight around the country on the same number of vehicles.” I am not minded to do so. As it is, our roads are struggling to cope with the size of some lorries. Some lorries, often unintentionally, end up on wrong and completely unsuitable roads—we have all seen it; I have seen it especially in the rural part of my constituency—often sent by some satellite navigation device.

There are some interesting ideas about how trailers can adapt for the 21st century without the need to drop the height. For instance, one interesting idea submitted to me is that the payload might be dropped between the two axles in order to get more volume into the trailer on lighter loads. I am considering the extension of trailers, and, as I have said, I will make an announcement pretty soon.

It all falls into place. Margins are tight for hauliers. They are worried, for instance, about the cost of fuel, wages and insurance. This is the last thing that any Government want. I am surprised that Europe is considering such a measure. I do not actually think that that was what was originally intended; I think that it was drifted into. The matter falls into the area of subsidiarity. Europe should not be touching it; it is a sovereign area. However, it is a matter for qualified majority voting, so as much as I would like to stand alone and say that England can defend our shores, unless we carry the support of a significant number of other European Union countries, we will struggle. However, all the evidence that we are receiving at the moment says that we have support, including, interestingly, from France, our closest neighbour, which is also not interested in imposing the 4-metre limit. It looks as though common sense will come forward.

I think that I have exhausted this interesting and important subject and set out the Government’s position strongly. I hope that hon. Members here today are listening, as are the industry and the European Commission, and that we can move forward and protect our freight industry and hauliers. I am passionate about the issue.

To declare an interest, I drove HGVs young in life—I was a fireman and, like all firemen, had a part-time job, so I drove HGVs during my time off. We must protect hauliers and ensure that we have a robust British industry of which we can be proud. As the Minister, I am determined to defend it.