It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Scott. I am not sure whether I have served under your chairmanship before, but I look forward to it.
I regret having had to apply for this debate, and believe that the exchange that will take place over the next half hour could just as easily have taken place in the Minister’s office. Indeed, such an exchange might have benefited from a more informal setting, and we could have heard from industry experts who would have had much to offer.
I applied for this debate because I received a letter from the Minister on 11 November. The letter, which was dated 9 November, stated:
“Unfortunately, I am sorry to say that due to pressures on my diary I will not be available in the near future to meet with you.”
I was surprised to receive such a letter from the Minister, because I have always found him approachable and responsive, particularly on the important issue of HGV wheel safety. I know that he takes his responsibilities seriously, so I was extremely disappointed.
I was also shocked to receive such a letter because it was written on 9 November, less than a week after the tragic crash on the M5 in which seven people lost their lives and in which I know the Minister took a close personal interest. That the Minister should send such a letter at a time when the issue of road safety was so high in his mind and in that of the public and Parliament, and refuse to meet me and those expressing concern about the issue, was disappointing and shocking. We are, however, having our meeting in the Chamber this morning, and Hansard will write the report rather than someone from the Minister’s private office.
I first raised the issue of HGV wheel safety in June 2010 in a letter to the then Secretary of State. It followed my visit to Motor Wheel Service, a company based in my constituency that is the largest distributor of HGV wheels in the United Kingdom and across Europe. I remain grateful to the managing director of MWS, John Ellis, and to Matthew Wells who kept me briefed on issues that have concerned them for a considerable time. He also ensured that I was briefed for today’s debate, and both he and John Ellis remain vigilant and active across the industry on issues of wheel safety.
On 9 November last year—just over a year ago—we had a constructive meeting with the Minister in his office at which he willingly agreed to review the data available in his Department concerning accidents, failures and defects involving HGV wheels. We parted company after that meeting on agreeable and friendly terms, and we returned to the issue on 29 March this year in the first Westminster Hall debate on HGV wheel safety at which I made two suggestions to the Minister. My first suggestion was that he should consider holding a year-long trial in one region of the country, so that enhanced testing of HGVs could take place with particular emphasis on wheel safety. The Minister listened carefully, attentively and thoughtfully to my comments, but the answer was no at the end of the debate.
The Minister was slightly more encouraging about my second suggestion, which was that he should identify a senior official in his Department to be a point of contact between the Department and the wheel supply industry. If people in the industry had specific concerns or evidence about faulty wheels, they could report it to that named individual, who could then investigate and produce any necessary report. That would be an inexpensive way of dealing with any concerns raised, and it would help the Minister to separate speculation from facts—I accept that there may be speculation in this area, and it is important to establish the facts precisely. If only a few faults were discovered through such a reporting mechanism, confidence would be maintained and that would be good. If, however, faults were discovered, the Minister and representatives from the industry could sit down together and work out an appropriate way to ensure proper checks and reports on wheel safety.
Following that debate, there was a bit of a delay before the Minister got back to me, although he did reply in a letter dated 3 June. He thanked me for my e-mails of 15 April, 10 May and 27 May, in which I asked for further information, and crucially he confirmed that the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency has a specific team, the vehicle safety branch, that is responsible for HGV wheel safety. He also gave me the name and contact details of the head of the vehicle safety branch, who was clearly the senior official I hoped would be nominated. So far, so good. However, the Minister went on:
“The vehicle safety branch looks at issues of design or construction…and will request the manufacturer, producer or supplier to start an inquiry if there is evidence that a design and construction defect exists.”
That rather limited approach adopted by the Minister caused me some concern, so I sought clarification. The Minister wrote back to confirm that the vehicle safety branch
“will not investigate faults that have arisen due to the use of the product, for example poor maintenance or accident damage.”
The quality of wheel design and construction was never a problem for me or those in the industry who raised the issue. The United Kingdom has a high standard of HGV wheel manufacturing, and it is no surprise that few faults have been reported. My concern, which I raised in the earlier debate and raise again today, is the 10,000 second-hand HGV wheels that enter the UK market every year. The Minister has never disputed that figure, and the industry certainly believes it to be true. Some of those second-hand wheels may be damaged as a result of various incidents, and I will come on to that point in a moment. My principal concern, however, is the 10,000 second-hand wheels that enter circulation every year in the UK.
An HGV wheel can be damaged in several ways. Dents and cracks can be caused by over-tightening the wheel nuts or by any collisions in which the vehicle has been involved—road traffic accidents are an obvious example, but vehicles can also hit kerbs or potholes, which is sadly becoming more frequent given the condition of some of our roads. Damage can also be caused by rust, general wear and tear due to the weather, road surface conditions or age, or if the wrong tyre is fitted to a wheel. There are, therefore, various ways in which wheels can be damaged, and 10,000 second-hand wheels are in circulation and not being properly checked. That is my central concern.
Clearly, there is a lack of confidence across the wheel-supply industry concerning the checks carried out by VOSA. The VOSA inspection manual, which covers inspections carried out as part of an MOT and more random roadside checks, indicates that an inspector should look for missing wheel nuts and ensure that the wheel is appropriate for the load being carried. It is, however, of concern to me and the industry that insufficient emphasis and detail has been placed on the search for cracks and other damage.
You and I, Mr Scott, can only imagine the damage that would be caused by a 45-tonne truck travelling at 55 mph should there be a major tyre blow-out. It could cause a catastrophe, which is why we have a stringent system for checking and monitoring the tyres on all vehicles—cars as well as HGVs. Catastrophic wheel failure would produce exactly the same impact as a tyre blow-out, yet the Government seem unmoved by the concerns being raised by me and the industry.
Where is the evidence? As I have made clear, part of the problem is that the evidence is not being gathered as systematically as it should be. That is why I suggested in the first Westminster Hall debate both a year-long pilot project in one region of the country where more stringent tests could be carried out and a named official to be the point of contact between the Department for Transport and the industry.
Today, I shall give the Minister three recent examples that should concern him. The first is the evidence that I saw with my own eyes on a recent visit to MWS in my constituency. I do not pretend to be an expert on wheel safety, but it seemed to me, as I examined with my own eyes the wheel that was shown to me, that there was clearly a crack in the wheel. As an amateur—a non-professional—I would certainly want and expect a wheel damaged in that way to be thoroughly checked and examined. I sent a photograph of that wheel to the Minister. In the rather short reply in which he refused to meet me, he did not refer to that evidence, although he might want to comment on it today. I hope that he will recognise that if a wheel is damaged and is in the hands of people who are less reputable than the company in my constituency, it could be attached to a lorry in a hazardous way that could cause a catastrophe.
The second piece of evidence is an October 2011 press report in Truckstop News. It raises concerns that the Minister must respond to this morning. The headline was “Killer Wheels”. The article stated that
“wheel manufacturer Alcoa has warned there are fake wheels on the market that are failing early. Cracked wheels were sent to Alcoa’s distribution network by end users trying to have them replaced under the Alcoa wheel five-year warranty agreement. Alcoa says the imitation wheels are a good copy, making it difficult to see the difference between these and the genuine article. The manufacturer wants to ensure customers are not fooled and end up with worthless and potentially dangerous forgeries.”
Counterfeit items across the whole of society can cause great damage. That is the case whether it is counterfeit cigarettes damaging people’s health or counterfeit wheels. If counterfeit wheels were fitted to a lorry, they could have catastrophic results if they failed, and they almost certainly would fail if they were not built to stringent design and manufacture standards. I would like to know what the Minister makes of the report to which I have referred. If he has not had a chance to see it yet, he should check it and come back to me and others with his observations.
My third piece of evidence is an ITV news report from last Friday, which the Minister may have seen. The report was on the impact of potholes and said that there is an average of 15 potholes in every neighbourhood. I do not know about your constituency, Mr Scott, but that figure seems on the low side to me. Anyway, that is what the report said. The camera crew went to a tyre fitter in Gateshead, who showed them the impact on a wheel of a major tyre blow-out that had resulted from a collision. As viewers saw the picture of the wheel and compared it with how a wheel should be, coming from the manufacturer, they could certainly see the difference. They could see very clearly the damage that had been done. Again, I refer the Minister to that evidence, if he has not yet had the chance to see it.
The Minister has a choice this morning. He can tell me once again that the failure rate is 0.0006% and that if anyone supplies defective or faulty items to be fitted to a vehicle, they can be prosecuted; or he can take a rather more engaging approach—as I hope he will, even at this stage—and meet me and representatives of the industry to consider the need for more rigorous checks. The Minister may have gathered from the fact that he is here this morning—I am grateful to him for being here—that I am certainly not going away on this issue. There have recently been a number of presentations on the issue to important industry bodies. ATS Euromaster has had a presentation, as have the National Tyre Distributors Association, the Northwest Automotive Alliance and the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. I can tell the Minister that further discussions are planned with those bodies about these concerns, which I can attest are growing concerns in the industry.
Indeed, such is the level of anxiety in the industry that when the Minister wrote to me to say that he was not prepared to go beyond the very limited offer that he had made, the industry was prepared to put in place its own reporting mechanism, so that it could say to companies throughout the wheel supply industry that if they had evidence of any wheel failure, they could report it through a specially designed industry reporting system and it could be passed on to the Department for Transport. That was the request that I made of the Minister: given that the industry was prepared to put in place its own self-reporting system, could we have a meeting to discuss how best to make the arrangements for that industry reporting structure to link to his Department? He has made it clear up to now that he is not engaging with the industry in relation to that question, but I urge him to reconsider that position and to be prepared to have a meeting or at the very least to be prepared to talk to the industry about its own ideas for self-reporting and how that could be linked to and engage properly with officials in his Department. As I have said, I hope that the Minister will reconsider. I am pleased to see him in his place today and I look forward very much to listening to what he has to say.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship on this important day, Mr Scott. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins) on securing the debate, although I am slightly disappointed by his saying that I have not engaged. We had the previous debate in this Chamber, but before the debate we had meetings in my office; I think that that is engagement. I have said throughout that as the Minister—the right hon. Gentleman used to be a Minister himself—I have to have an evidence base to go forward. In the letter to him, I was trying to be as honest as possible: I did not have a slot in my diary between now and Christmas, and that is why I said that at this stage I cannot see him; I could have given him a date after Christmas, but I thought that such a long delay would have been an insult to him. However, like any other colleague, he can stop me at any time and I will engage at any time. My officials are also engaging.
It is important to talk about who is representing whom in the very important UK logistics industry. The Freight Transport Association and the Road Haulage Association, whose representatives I meet very regularly and with whom I have a very good rapport, have not raised this issue with me once. I was at a major haulier’s yesterday—in fact, I was going along the A13 in Essex in a 38-tonne articulated truck. I make those visits so that I can engage with the industry. I was feeling slightly jealous yesterday because I have only a class 2 licence, not a class 1. I have been very close to this issue for most of my career, especially when I had a licence in operation myself.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I am going to quote the 0.0006% figure. I will answer the specific points he raised, but if anything has changed the position since the previous Adjournment debate—if more evidence has emerged—of course we will look at it and at the specific details to which we have alluded.
The right hon. Gentleman sent me a photograph of a damaged wheel. One of the facts I wanted to ascertain was when that vehicle was last tested, because the crack should and would have been brought up in the test. It is illegal to have that sort of damage on a vehicle, as he knows, and it is illegal to run the vehicle with it. The operator’s licence would be affected should they run a damaged vehicle; it is an offence under the Road Traffic Act 1988 as well as under the operator’s licence. However, the crack would have been picked up at the annual check. Unlike cars—we are to review the situation of cars in relation to MOTs—lorries are checked annually from when they are new.
I would like to know, and I would have hoped that the right hon. Gentleman might have told me because he was using this as evidence today, what vehicle the wheel came off and when the vehicle last had a check. It could have been the case that the damaged wheel on that vehicle was picked up and then removed, as we would all expect—so that it was not on the road at all.
Killer wheels are an interesting topic. The question of copies or snides has been around for a long time, particularly regarding aluminium wheels on cars. The failure rate for aluminium wheels, if they are not constructed right, has worried me for many years. The focus is often on design rather than function—people want them to look flash. That is something that we are looking at robustly, but legislation already exists to make sure that that sort of thing does not happen again. If the manufacturers are picking up copies being brought into the country, I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we will work with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills on that.
The ITV report on potholes was interesting, because there are myriad reasons why a wheel could fail. Those who follow Formula 1 will know that during the race before last, a wheel failed on the first corner; there was an instantaneous puncture. Central Government have invested a huge amount of money in repairing potholes, which is why the number of potholes is as low as the report suggested. The right hon. Gentleman will have to wait until later today for further announcements on road infrastructure. It is absolutely right to say that failures take place when vehicles hit potholes or hit the kerb. I had a failure in an aluminium wheel when I attempted a U-turn, misjudged it and caught the wheel wrongly on the kerb. Not only did the tyre give way but the aluminium wheel broke.
During the first five minutes of the Minister’s speech he has not even glanced at his folder, which demonstrates both his enthusiasm for road safety and the fact that he is completely on top of his brief. He has responded to the three pieces of evidence that I gave him without looking at a note, so he clearly has the information at his fingertips.
If the hon. Gentleman had written to me on 9 November to say that he was dealing with a lot of pressing matters and would not be able to meet me until the new year, I would have understood and accepted that. I would have done so reluctantly, because before Christmas would have been better, but if he makes that offer again this morning I will be happy to accept.
I apologise for the fact that I am not reading the speech that was written for me—I rarely do—but I hope that I am on top of my brief. Road safety is paramount for me, especially as I come from a fire service background. While I was in the fire service, I attended road traffic collisions regularly as the driver of a rescue vehicle. I never once encountered an incident in which the wheel had failed, although there were lots of other problems, particularly on some older cars where the hub structure had failed. In the evidence that we have looked at, which I will not read out, there were 23 failures over a 15-year period, but such problems were often due partly to accidents where wheels had been struck and damaged.
I will write to the right hon. Gentleman in the very near future and offer him a slot after Christmas. I think that something positive has come out not only of today’s debate but of my saying no the last time we met in this Chamber, because the trade associations have stepped up to the plate. Rather than Ministers telling people what to do, the right approach is often for the industry to realise that it has a responsibility as well and that reform is needed.
There might be a certain amount of semantics on the part of both myself and the right hon. Gentleman about the wording of the letter and who the official responsible for these issues is, but the simple answer is that the buck stops with me. If the trade associations want to present evidence to me, rather than an official within VOSA, they can do so and I will be more than happy to provide that point of contact. This is not only about the manufacturer; if the failure rates are increasing, and that is what this is all about—I am not disputing that one way or the other because, frankly, we do not know, and there is no point disputing something that is not disputable—do I still want there to be a second-hand market? I do, because that is important for people who cannot afford to buy brand-new wheels every time, but those wheels must be safe. The operators have a responsibility to make sure that that happens, and I do not want to take that responsibility away from them.
When I was in that truck yesterday, I felt comfortable not because it was brand spanking new—it was not; it was about 18 months old—but because of the robustness of the legislation governing VOSA and its testing regimes. I have been at the side of many a road with the new VOSA testing and enforcement officers, and I know how remarkable the current equipment is. We can estimate the weight on an axle while the vehicle is travelling at 56 mph down the motorway; we can pull it over and put it on a weighbridge, and we know accurately what the result will be. When inspections take place, on overseas vehicles as well as our own, checks on wheels and brakes are carried out, there and then, to the best of the officers’ ability. Obviously, most of the weigh stations do not have a pit facility.
If the right hon. Gentleman—let me call him my right hon. Friend—has called this debate as a direct reaction to my letter, he should have pulled me over in the Tea Room, where I would have addressed the matter straight away and we would have had a meeting after Christmas. He will understand, because he was a Minister himself, why I do not like making appointments way into the future. Events take over and I might not even be at the Department any more; someone else may be doing this job if we go too far past Christmas, or even before Christmas.
I sincerely hope that the Minister is still in his position in the new year, not only because he has now promised me a meeting, but because he is clearly on top of his brief and doing a good job. I commend him for that. He has mentioned twice that I was a Minister, which I was for seven years, and I never, ever refused a meeting with a Member of Parliament. The message that I am sending to the Minister and the Government is that when Members of Parliament are pursuing issues that concern them and their constituents and they want to meet Ministers, it should be an absolute given that those meetings take place. Of course Ministers are always busy, but their busy diaries must not get in the way of their fundamental accountability to MPs and to Parliament.
I have a reputation in the House for being approachable, and this is the first time that I have ever been reprimanded by a senior Member. My letter was written in the best possible faith; a series of events to do with lots of things, which I will not go into now, meant that I could not guarantee a slot that I would be able to hold on to. The worst thing in the world is to make an appointment and cancel it, but that is what tends to happen. When I was in opposition, promises were made to me and they were not kept. If I make a promise, wherever possible and subject to business, I keep it, so the right hon. Gentleman and I will meet. I hope that the trade associations will do what they said they will do—that they will get the submissions together and come as a united body to present their evidence. That will allow me to go away and ask why we have certain failure rates coming from all the different expert bodies mentioned in the speech that I have not used, and to compare that with what is happening on the front line.
Whatever happens, I will not increase the burden on businesses. I think that the haulage industry, with the margins that it works on, is already heavily burdened, and I am trying to take some of that burden away. Road safety is paramount for me, but operators have responsibilities, which they must never forget.