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Road Vehicle Wheel Safety

Volume 526: debated on Tuesday 29 March 2011

It is good to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Miss McIntosh, and I am very grateful to have this opportunity to highlight the growing concerns about wheel safety, in particular in relation to commercial vehicles. I do so having been alerted to the lack of an adequate system for checking and inspecting heavy goods vehicle wheels by a company based on the Sharston industrial estate in my constituency. Motor Wheel Service is the largest distributor of HGV wheels in the UK and across Europe.

I am also grateful to the Minister for how he has responded thus far to my concerns. We have corresponded, and have met industry representatives to discuss the issue. Although I have yet to convince him of the need to take further action, I know that he is still listening and that he takes road safety extremely seriously.

I had always assumed that wheels and tyres were regulated in the same way, since the safety of one clearly has a direct impact on the other. Tyres are closely regulated; they all have an E-mark, which is a number printed on the tyre wall confirming that it is approved and meets certain standards. When it comes to wheels, however, there is no registration or marking, no regulated standards, and no testing or checking. It is an offence to fit and supply defective or unsuitable parts, but the problem is that people do not know whether a wheel is defective because the monitoring system is so weak.

As it stands, a wheel could be damaged in a serious accident and yet be back out on the road the very next day fitted to a different vehicle, without any inspection or accountability. The Vehicle and Operator Services Agency has never been tasked with routinely inspecting wheels when checking HGVs and, although I have no doubt that it would view the loss of a wheel in an accident very seriously, in other incidents it rarely looks to see if wheel failure has caused the problem. I accept that in the past there might have been less to worry about because of the very limited number of manufacturers and suppliers in the field, but the situation is changing, and wheel suppliers suspect that over the past three years there has been an annual increase of approximately 10,000 substandard and potentially hazardous second-hand HGV vehicles entering the UK market. The fear is that in difficult times companies will be tempted to cut costs and use wheels that are not fit for purpose, which would not only undercut legitimate business but put public safety at risk. There has also been a rise in the number of commercial vehicle wheels sourced from the far east entering the UK without any requirement to meet minimum standards of design, safety or maintenance. These wheels have no history or traceability but can be sold by anyone in the UK, with no requirement for technical procedures to assess their history.

An HGV wheel can be damaged in a number of ways. Dents and cracks can be caused by over-tightening the wheel nuts, and wheels can be involved in collisions or constantly pounded on kerbs and in the potholes with which we are all too familiar. They can also rust and suffer wear and tear as a result of age, weather or road surface conditions. The implications of purchasing a faulty wheel are enormous. A 45-tonne lorry travelling at 55 miles an hour can cause serious damage if a tyre fails, and numerous measures are in place to prevent that. It simply cannot be right that similar measures are not in place to prevent wheel failure from causing exactly the same type of damage.

Burton Copeland, a leading criminal practice in the north-west of England, has warned that the absence of regulation and testing would be no defence if HGV wheel failure caused a death and if an investigation by the Health and Safety Executive found that the company concerned had not carried out its own risk assessments or, perhaps as a cost-cutting measure, had fitted faulty second-hand wheels to the vehicle. In Burton Copeland’s view, if there was evidence of negligence, the company director responsible could face a police investigation, and even a charge of corporate manslaughter.

People in the industry should take their responsibilities seriously, and I know that wheel suppliers are playing their part in educating their customers about the risks of failing to adopt high standards. Nevertheless, the Government’s own monitoring and testing system should do more to hold companies to account and to prevent accidents from happening in the first place.

In our meeting last November, the Minister promised to review the available evidence. I was very grateful that he commissioned a review, and in a subsequent letter he confirmed that over a 15-year period there had been 23 accidents and a total of 103 cases involving heavy commercial vehicles with recorded wheel defects. It would be helpful if the Minister gave more details of the kind of problems that were identified in the search that his officials carried out. The Minister also told me in that letter that VOSA had identified 60 incidents of defective or fractured wheels. That was in a sample of 197,000 inspections, but the fact that the numbers are small is no reason for complacency. One catastrophic wheel failure could be enough to cause a very serious incident and loss of life.

VOSA’s findings are not really a surprise, as it is hardly likely to identify many wheel failures when it does not set out to look for them in its inspections. A hairline crack in a wheel could have disastrous consequences, but would not be picked up in a routine VOSA roadside check. Therefore, although the Department for Transport does not currently believe that wheel failure is a significant factor in accidents involving HGVs, the truth is that no one really knows, because the checks are inadequate. It is not possible for the Minister or his officials to be absolutely confident when the checks are not carried out as thoroughly as they should be.

I pay tribute to my colleague Brian Simpson MEP, who has been raising this issue in the European Parliament, where a draft report on European road safety up to 2020 is currently being considered. As I understand it, paragraph 33 calls on member states to monitor imported accessories and spare parts more closely, to ensure that they meet European consumer protection standards. In the absence of adequate standards and checks, it would be interesting to know what the UK’s response would be to such a call, and perhaps the Minister can tell us what the current thinking is. It certainly would not present a problem to his counterpart in the German Government, because there they have adopted a system known as TÜV approval, which includes a comprehensive system of wheel certification—the kind of system that we should seek to develop in the UK.

In order to make progress, I want to put to the Minister two practical suggestions, to at least make a start down the road to better safety. First, he should identify a senior official in the Department for Transport to act as a point of contact for the wheel supply industry, so that the industry can forward directly to that named individual any evidence of defective wheels. I have learnt from briefings by industry representatives that there are those on the front line of the HGV wheel supply industry who hear stories and come across evidence of faulty second-hand wheels being used irresponsibly. It would be a positive and inexpensive move in the right direction if those concerns could be reported officially and investigated properly, rather than remaining as mere anecdotes. We all know that when tales get told in that way and there is no point of reference for their investigation, confidence can be undermined unnecessarily. We need to have those reports made and proper investigations carried out.

Secondly, I would like the Minister to consider commissioning a year-long trial in one area of the country, in which VOSA would operate an enhanced testing programme, including greater scrutiny of wheel safety. He will argue—perhaps reasonably, based on his evidence—that moving to a full-blown system of enhanced inspection throughout the country is not warranted, especially at a time of difficult decisions about public expenditure, which neither his nor any Department can escape. However, a limited trial of one year in one part of the country could be justified, and would test his assertion that the problem is not widespread.

I do not argue completely against the Minister, as I do not have the evidence, but neither does he. If he were to commission the trial, we could begin to gather evidence to test his assertion. If he is right, I am happy to accept and abide by that, but if a trial such as the one I have suggested produced evidence to the contrary, it would argue for a more developed and widespread scheme across the country. I hope that the Minister is prepared to put his current view to the test. If a trial confirms that there is no major problem, I will be happy to accept the findings. Better that than waiting for a catastrophe before taking action.

When we are elected to this place, we come with our own experience and background, and we have the opportunity to raise issues that have become important to us in debates and questions. We meet constituents who reveal issues and problems that we can then bring to Parliament on their behalf. We also learn lessons from companies in our constituencies. I had never even considered wheel safety until a year ago. As I said, I assumed that wheel safety and tyre safety were bound up together, but I have discovered differently. When we find out such information, we are duty bound to bring it before Ministers and ask them to respond. Even when a conscientious Minister such as this one does not want to take action immediately, we do not give up easily. We persist and continue to look for evidence. If, in the end, the evidence does not exist, we accept that, but at least we know that a proper search has been carried out.

The company is based in my constituency on the Sharston industrial estate, close to the M56 and M60, and five miles from the M6. Every day, HGV vehicles pass in front of my house. I am only too aware of what could occur in all those scenarios if something went wrong. I now have nagging doubts about wheel safety, and I believe that it is important that the Minister follows up the matter. As I said, he is a conscientious Minister who has responded constructively and positively to the questions that I have raised. I look forward to hearing what he has to say and hope that we can take the issue forward in a more thorough way, so that the public can be satisfied that everything is being done to make the vehicles on our road as safe as possible.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs McIntosh, for the first time as either a Back Bencher or a Minister of the Crown. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins) on securing this debate. I am not surprised that he put his name into the ballot for a debate after our meetings. It is natural for a Back Bencher to follow up meetings and correspondence with Ministers in that way. I gave him some assurances, which I followed up in correspondence, and I have more evidence today regarding what I promised when I met him and industry representatives.

It is a pleasure to set out the Government’s position on wheel safety. Having held an HGV licence for the past 34 years, I have been conscious of the issue for a long time. However, in all the time that I was driving, I never experienced or saw a wheel give way in normal service, except in a road traffic accident. In my 11 years of attending road traffic accidents with the fire service, I never saw a wheel buckle, unless—I will discuss this later—it was due to an ill-fitting tyre or to the vehicle’s being overweight. I have seen overweight vehicles on which a wheel could not take the pressure.

Road safety is crucial, and I am pleased that the right hon. Gentleman has raised it. It is one of my passions in life, given my background, and it is a priority for the Government. We have the safest roads in the world, but according to the most recent figures, 2,222 people were killed on them last year. Our roads are not safe enough yet. We intend to build on our history and safety programme. We are developing a new safety strategy, which will be published in the next few months. The overall approach of the framework is to focus on localism and targeted education, particularly remedial education, wherever possible. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned how we educate the industry. The industry has a role to play as well as the Government. We will be publishing on many other road safety issues at the same time, not least the problem of drink and drug driving. I know that the industry is looking particularly at drug driving, and I recently met the representative bodies of the haulage industry to discuss it.

On the specific points, I agreed when we met that I would consider carefully what existing data had been published and what had not. We considered the data for the past 15 years, as the right hon. Gentleman said, and they were fascinating. Of 197,000 roadside inspections, 60 found defective wheels. Admittedly, we do not know at present exactly what those defects were. They may well have been due to over-tightening of nuts or to incidents in which the vehicle was not involved; the wheels could have been transferred. It happens all the time. In salvage yards around the country, one can see it on cars as well as HGVs.

When I met the industry and the right hon. Gentleman, I said that I had considered the risk. That is crucial. We cannot wrap everybody in cotton wool; we must consider the risk. Out of 197,000 roadside inspections, 60 found defective wheels, which represents a failure rate of 0.006%. I am not saying that any risk is acceptable, but that is a pretty low rate. At the same time, we considered an analysis of more than 4,000 heavy commercial vehicle MOTs—in my time, it was called plating, but we have moved on, and everybody understands MOT terminology—in which no wheel was found to be defective. In considering the evidence, it is important that we consider the risk. I have kept an open mind throughout. In 2009-10, the last year for which figures are available, there were 198,000 inspections. We expect the figure for the first eight months of this year to be about the same, and we have found only 33 problems involving wheels. There were a similar number the previous year, and it looks as though the figure this year will be lower, unless we have a surge in evidence, but it does not look as if that will happen.

The reason is, I think, the rigour of annual testing on HGVs. Unlike MOTs, an HGV must have a test every year, no matter how old or young the vehicle is. A brand-new vehicle must have an MOT after 12 months. Anybody in the industry who says that the test is easy or that it is not taken with due rigour has not attended one. If the right hon. Gentleman likes, I will arrange for him to do so, either at VOSA or elsewhere—we are now outsourcing tests to the industry—to see for himself how rigorous they are. Defects are found on a regular basis. I remember vividly how, when I used to come home on leave and do part-time work, I would be asked to take one of the lorries down to the testing centre. It was one of the most frightening experiences that I had ever had. The lorry had been jet-sprayed and sandblasted, everything was spotless and still they found something wrong. That is why, as the junior guy, I used to be sent; the others were frightened of going down there. It is right and proper that the test should be rigorous.

The Minister makes a generous offer, and I would be happy to take him up on it, because I would like to test precisely what questions are asked and what examinations take place. I contend that the close scrutiny applied to tyres is not applied to wheels. That is the problem. Will he comment further? It is not surprising that the numbers are so small considering that those questions are not asked and those issues not investigated in the same depth as for other aspects of the vehicle.

I understand where the right hon. Gentleman is coming from, but there is a difference between a tyre and a wheel—in manufacturing and in actual product. The key to knowing what is going on is not what questions are asked, but visual inspection. Anyone can say whatever they like about where the vehicle has come from, what sort of work it has been doing, and whether it has been off-road or on-road. By the time a vehicle arrives for its plating or MOT, it has been jet-blasted, cleaned and painted, and everything looks immaculate, but if the inspectors get deep into the vehicle, they will find any defects.

The failure rates are also an issue. We are not picking up defects at MOT stage. As I have said, 4,000 had no defects. I accept, as the right hon. Gentleman has said, that they might not be looking closely enough, but one would still expect more failures for vehicles that are in use on the roads. A failure rate of 0.0004% does not seem to be huge. I promise the right hon. Gentleman, however, that I will keep an open mind.

On priorities in relation to funding and to where we need to put our assets, the right hon. Gentleman asked me to go to the next stage and announce a year-long inquiry into or validation of the issue, but it is difficult for me to do that, because I do not have the evidence that that amount of failure is occurring. If I did, I assure him that I would do not only a localised inquiry, but a national one. However, it has to be evidence based and, at the moment, the evidence is not there.

I have made sure that a senior official at VOSA, which is part of my Department, will be responsible for dealing with complaints, and he will probably be inundated with them. Anecdotal complaints are always difficult. The gossip machine and tribal drums go on and people talk about things, but we will try to identify genuine complaints and concerns. Local authorities also have powers under the Road Traffic Act 1988, and I am more than happy for the Department and my office to be contacted directly. If anybody feels that they have a problem that is not being dealt with or that they think should be taken straight to the top, they can bring it to my Department or office and I assure them that it will be investigated. As the right hon. Gentleman has said, a lot of complaints are anecdotal, but I have to base everything that I do in the Department, especially on road safety, on my evidence base. We have three separate pieces of research. The first mentions 4,000, the second notes 1,900, and it looks as though this year’s figure might show that failure rates are lower than they were last year. It is, therefore, difficult for me to respond to the right hon. Gentleman’s request.

Trading standards have a role to play, particularly in relation to the concerns about foreign imports. There is a concern about the quality and standards of Chinese imports. We will continue to look at that. I am aware of what the German Federal Government are doing. Their form of Government is different from ours, and I will leave it to others to decide whether theirs or ours is right. We have safer roads than Germany and I am sure that that will continue to be the case. It is entirely up to the German Government if they wish to operate under their own legislation. The general product safety regulations fit in with this. If there is evidence that the products coming in from abroad are defective or sub-standard, we should be made aware of that and we, along with other Departments, will investigate it fully.

It is difficult for me to accept the suggestion that minimum standards like those for tyres be set. If we stand back from the issue, we will realise that tyres are a completely different product. Wheels are solid steel in most cases, particularly on lorries and public service vehicles, while there are myriad different types of manufactured wheel-product for cars. They are a different product. I do not want to ban products that are still serviceable from being transferred from one vehicle to another because of the sheer expense that would cause the industry as a whole. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the product must be safe. Salvage is a form of recycling. We have all done it over the years. I certainly have—I have been in many a scrap yard over the years to get products that I could not afford directly from the manufacturer.

I mentioned in my speech the “E” number system that operates for tyres. Does the Minister think that a similar system would help in relation to wheel safety? If that stamp was on a wheel that was transferred from one vehicle to another, it would at least show that it had met the industry standards.

That is something that I am more than happy to look at. However, if we compare the failure rates of tyres with those of wheels, we will see that they are a very different product.

The right hon. Gentleman has asked me to look at two specific points, but I am sure that he will come up with more at a later stage. I do not say that in a derogatory manner, because that is the nature of a campaign. I cannot agree to do a specific year-long report, because the evidence from the three reports—this year’s report is about eight months in, so we will get its figure pretty soon, in about four months—do not show the failure rate to be as significant as the industry feels so passionately that it is. As I have said, I am more than happy for a senior official in VOSA to be the point of contact. If anybody thinks they have a defective product, not only do I encourage them to go to their local authority, but I am more than happy for them to report it to my own office and Department.

To reiterate, if there is a concern, we have to carefully look at the risk and make sure that it is evidence based. I know that this will be a disappointment to the right hon. Gentleman’s constituent and his business, and to the right hon. Gentleman himself, but I do not see the evidence to support Government expenditure on a further plan. I will, however, keep a close eye on the evidence that my Department receives. The way in which the right hon. Gentleman has raised the issue today, in correspondence and in meetings means that it certainly will not leave my eye for a considerable time. VOSA knows full well—my officials are present—that this is something on which I intend to keep a close eye, but the situation will not change unless the evidence changes to show that the failure rate is more significant. I apologise for citing the figure 0.0004% a few moments ago. The actual figure is 0.0006%.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman understands my and the Government’s position. I congratulate him on his campaign and on bringing it to the Chamber’s attention today. I will work closely with him, based on evidence, but at the moment, I think the industry is doing fine.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.