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Westminster Hall

Volume 734: debated on Thursday 22 June 2023

Westminster Hall

Thursday 22 June 2023

[Mrs Pauline Latham in the Chair]

Backbench Business

Mariana Dam Disaster

Before I call the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) to open the debate, I wish to make a short statement about the sub judice resolution. I have been informed that there is a group action in the High Court relating to the Mariana dam incident, so I remind hon. Members that they must not refer to any specific cases currently before the courts and that they should exercise caution with respect to any specific cases that might subsequently come before the courts in order not to prejudice these proceedings.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Mariana dam disaster.

I spoke to the Clerks beforehand and I understand the issue very well. I will not refer to specific cases and I am sure that others will not either.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting today’s debate and say that it is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Latham. I am grateful to have the opportunity to lead this debate and to raise my concerns about the ongoing situation in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. It is deeply concerning and requires urgent attention by the United Kingdom Government and the wider international community.

The debate is about how British companies conduct themselves around the world and whether they should implement the high environmental and safety standards overseas that we expect of them at home. It is also about how we hold companies headquartered in London to account when they do not live up to the standards that they claim to uphold, as well as accountability and the process in relation to a disaster that happened many years ago, and how we can help the people who are still seeking justice.

I am pleased to see the Minister in his place. I understand that today’s matter is not in his portfolio and that he is filling in because the relevant Minister is overseas, but it is always a pleasure to see him. I know that he, his Department and the officials who are here will carry back the questions that we ask. I am sure that all those who participate will have their questions answered directly by the relevant Minister on his return. Even though this issue is not in this Minister’s portfolio, I know that he shares my passion for doing the right thing by our neighbours and using resources in the best way.

I want to bring to the House’s attention the 2015 collapse of the Fundão tailings dam at the Samarco Mariana mine complex in the state of Minas Gerais, which killed 19 people and released 40 million cubic metres of tailings that polluted waterways, spanning an area the length of Portugal—more than 600 km. That puts it into perspective when we think of the distance of the impact and the people affected. It is more than the distance between where we are sitting in Westminster Hall and my Strangford constituency, and my journey from Belfast City airport to Heathrow on Monday and returning tonight. I travel on that plane at massive speed and the flight takes an hour, from Northern Ireland across the south-east of England.

The Mariana dam disaster was the biggest environmental disaster ever inflicted on the people of Brazil. One company, BHP, was headquartered in London at the time and played a key role in the dam disaster.

I thank the Library for its information—I realise that it is not always easy to prepare for these debates—and I wish to quantify the serious ecological damage that the disaster produced. There were mass die-offs among fish: once the mud reached the open ocean, a total of some 29,000 fish carcases were collected and recorded by the federal police. The death of the fish also resulted in hundreds of birds dying from starvation, and probably also from eating infected fish. A Wilson Centre article explains that, in addition to the loss of native fauna,

“80 percent of the native vegetation located near the tributaries and main channel of the Doce River was destroyed, leaving the river with only 13 percent of the Atlantic forest’s original vegetation.”

Reuters reported in November 2021 that a study undertaken by a company contacted by the Brazilian prosecutor to measure the cost of the disaster estimated the “socio-environmental” damage to be between US$6.73 billion—or 37.6 billion reais—and US$10.85 billion. That gives some idea of the impact and shows that it affected not only people’s lives and jobs, but the environment.

The disaster severely affected the indigenous communities, including the Krenak, by irreparably damaging their river source—the communities’ lifeblood—the Rio Doce. Like others, I had the privilege of meeting victims from the Krenak indigenous community earlier this year in Parliament. With the help of global law firm Pogust Goodhead, they are bringing a case against BHP in London, alongside more than 700,000 victims affected by the Mariana dam disaster. The claimants include individuals, Brazilian municipalities and local churches, all of whom suffered loss as a result. Those human beings lost all they own, their schools, their education, where they worship and their normal lives. The disaster has changed their lives forever.

Right hon. and hon. Members may ask why this disaster should be debated in this House. It is for a simple reason: this is an important step in bringing real justice for the victims of the Mariana dam disaster, and it will create a precedent for victims abroad to initiate claims against UK-based parent companies for environmental damage and human rights abuses before English courts. That would make the companies accountable and responsible, and that is the way it should be.

The tailings dam that collapsed was owned and operated by Samarco, a Brazilian company jointly owned by Vale and the Anglo-Australian mining company, BHP. At the time of the accident, BHP was dual-listed in London and Sydney—a fact that allowed the victims the necessary legal standing to begin proceedings here in London. After all those years, it is only right that the matter should be spoken about.

Moreover, as representatives of the Krenak community told me, this case is not just about BHP and the disaster; it is a more general story. For too long, some multinational corporations based in the UK, the EU and the US have damaged the environment and communities in other parts of the world without providing full compensation. I cannot help but feel that if British or Australian communities had been impacted by such a disaster, they would not have been treated in the same way. Indeed, it would have been sorted a long time ago.

Order. We have to be very careful about taking about specific cases. They are going to the courts, or are in the courts, and therefore we must not talk about them.

I believe it is important not just to highlight the legal case but to fully recognise the victims. Nineteen people lost their lives, and as I said to the officials before the debate, I want to read out their names to honour the victims of the Mariana dam disaster. You will have to forgive me, Mrs Latham, because my Ulster Scots accent means that the pronunciation may be a challenge for me, but it is only right to do this. I will just mention their first and last names; the names in between are a challenge, and I want to be respectful. I hope hon. Members see past my stumbling and hear what is meant to be heard. These are people whose families are grieving at this very moment in Brazil.

The names are: Cláudio Fiúza, 40 years old; Sileno de Lima, 47 years old; Waldemir Leandro, 48 years old; Emanuely Vitória, five years old; Thiago Santos, seven years old; Marcos Xavier, 32 years old; Marcos Moura, 34 years old; Samuel Albino, 34 years old; Mateus Fernandes, 29 years old; Edinaldo de Assis; Daniel Carvalho, 53 years old; Maria Lucas, 60 years old; Maria Celestino, 64 years old; Claudemir Santos, 40 years old; Pedro Lopes, 56 years old; Antônio de Souza, 73 years old; Vando dos Santos, 37 years old; Ailton dos Santos, 55 years old; and Edmirson Pessoa, 48 years old.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate and for speaking to those who petitioned us earlier this year. I thank Members for listening and recognising those names for the record. For the people of Brazil and around the world, such disasters must never be forgotten, lest we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.

The people of Brazil believe that the disaster could have been avoided. The London Mining Network’s 2017 report, “The River is Dead”, states:

“Since the beginning of the operation, in 2008, the Fundão Dam had presented several anomalies related to drainage defects, upwelling, mud and water management errors and saturation of sandy material. In some cases, emergency measures had been required.”

But the project continued and production levels were kept high until the disaster.

This lawsuit is one of the largest of its kind in terms of the damages to the victims in Brazil, but so far, only £2.8 billion has been ringfenced to cover the liability for the disaster. In the past three years, there have been a further 12 incidents at mining sites around the world involving the collapse of tailings or waste facilities. Progress has been made in setting a global industry standard for tailings management, but only a third of companies with tailings dams have committed to implementing it. This is while the industry continues to make ambitious sustainability commitments and claims over environmental, social and governance credentials.

A report by the Local Authority Pension Fund Forum, after some of its members visited Brazil, registered concern about appropriate levels of “accountability and responsibility” and “affected communities” and how the companies deal with local people, including those affected by tailings dams. The report also said:

“Nearly seven years after the dam collapse, the end of these reparations and compensation is nowhere in sight.”

I know the Minister cannot answer this directly, but I am hopeful that he will be able to help the victims and ensure that, after seven years, the issue of cost, reparations and compensation can be addressed. I am also pleased to see both shadow Ministers—the hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) and the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton)—here and I look forward to their contributions.

Companies running large operations worldwide need to be accountable, including through subsidiaries. My first question to the Minister is this: does he agree that the handling of the Mariana dam disaster is a model for company crisis management? If the Minister cannot answer that, I am happy for him to write to me. Many of the companies refer to social value as bringing people and resources together to build a better world. The continued reluctance of some companies to provide compensation for this disaster and for other disasters across the world must be rectified. We are asking for that through this debate. This has a clear impact on the lives of those people and on the environment of the country. As I said, the impacts of the disaster travelled an area equivalent to the length of Portugal.

I believe that the UK has an important role here. It can lead the way by including stronger accountability mechanisms for UK corporations operating both domestically and internationally to help protect against human rights abuses and protect our fragile environment. We all love our environment and wish to see it retained. It is also imperative that, as the host country to large companies, investors and markets relevant to mining and metals, the United Kingdom enshrines in law the global industry standard for tailings management.

It is vital that changes are enforced to prevent such terrible disasters from happening again and causing such devastation to the world’s natural environment. The after-effects will remain for a long time; indeed, some are changed forever. Will the Government recognise that the UK has a vital role in stopping such disasters ever happening again? Will my Government and my Minister take action to crack down on British companies that fail to live up to their social and environmental credentials at home and abroad?

I thank the Backbench Business Committee, right hon. and hon. Members from across the House who have been involved, and my friend, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for securing this emotive and hard-hitting debate. It is about how British companies conduct themselves around the world and whether they implement the highest safety standards, which we rightly expect of them. It is also about how we hold companies headquartered in London or elsewhere in the UK to account when they do not live up to the standards that they claim to uphold.

The House’s sub judice rule—as you rightly pointed out, Mrs Latham—prevents me from commenting on any ongoing court action relating to the hundreds of thousands of claimants seeking compensation for damage caused by this horrific incident. However, as the hon. Member stated, the Mariana dam disaster has been called

“the worst environmental disaster in Brazil’s history.”

The disaster severely impacted indigenous communities including the Krenak people by irreparably damaging the river source and the community’s lifeblood, the Rio Doce. It is important that we recognise the victims and their grieving families, with 19 lives lost because of the disaster. For the people of Brazil and other fair-minded, good people around the world, such disasters must not be forgotten, or we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.

The people of Brazil believe that the disaster could and should have been avoided. Indeed, the 2017 report “The River is Dead” by the London Mining Network states:

“Since the beginning of the operation, in 2008, the Fundão Dam had presented several anomalies related to drainage defects, upwelling, mud and water management errors and saturation of sandy material. In some cases, emergency measures had been required.”

However, the project continued, and production was kept at high levels until the disaster.

A recent report published by the Local Authority Pension Fund Forum, after some of its members visited Brazil, found:

“Nearly seven years after the dam collapse, the end of these reparations and compensation is nowhere in sight. Consequently, affected community members have suffered for over seven years, and the companies and investors continue to accrue costs associated with the delayed provision of reparations and compensation”.

Companies running large operations worldwide cannot be allowed to hide behind their subsidiaries when things go wrong or when there is an ecological and environmental disaster. The UK has an important global role. It can and should lead the way by exploring ways to introduce stronger accountability mechanisms for UK corporations operationally, both domestically and internationally, to help to protect against human rights abuses and protect our fragile environment.

I apologise to my hon. Friend and to you, Mrs Latham. It is one of those days when there is a lot going on in the other Chamber that we take an interest in, so I will need to go, but I want to raise one point first.

I completely understand why the Chair is twitchy about sub judice issues, but the whole point of having this debate is so that maybe some good can arise from this tragedy. There is potential for our Government to lead on legislative reforms, which can then be developed internationally to ensure the accountability of companies, prevention of human rights abuses and environmental protections. It is about directors’ responsibilities as well. There is an agenda that the Government could seize to turn this tragedy into something beneficial globally.

My right hon. Friend speaks with a great deal of authority. He has eloquently explained the importance of today’s debate and why many of us are hoping that the Minister and the Government will take corrective action to ensure that we learn from the mistakes of the past and put legislation in place so that there cannot be future environmental disasters without the necessary repercussions.

In conclusion, the only question is: will the Government now recognise that the UK has an important role in preventing similar disasters from ever happening again?

As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Latham. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this hugely important debate. Not only is it timely because of the ongoing challenges facing those affected by the disaster, but it relates to the wider topic of how we ensure that UK-based companies uphold the social and environmental standards that we expect of them at home and abroad.

As we have heard, the Mariana dam disaster was a devastating event, killing 19 people and destroying homes, towns and countless livelihoods. The collapse has affected around 700,000 people. I am particularly concerned to hear about the impact on indigenous communities such as the Krenak people, and about the long-standing pollution of the River Doce. For many, including the Krenak people, the river was a source of fishing and livelihoods, as well as a sacred resource. Reading the testimonies of the victims of the disaster, I was astounded by the sheer scale of the devastation it has caused. For example, Cristiane Fachetti, a farmer from Colatina, wrote:

“There are days when you sit down in the afternoon and you don’t have one Real, knowing that you have water, electricity, energy, everything to pay and you couldn’t pay it...Today when someone says, ‘it’s raining up there’ everyone says ‘there’s more mud coming’.”

What is perhaps even more distressing than the disaster itself, as other Members have mentioned, is the lack of accountability, the lack of justice and the lack of adequate compensation for victims from the mining giant BHP. It is clear in the aftermath of the disaster that these huge companies are simply shrinking from their responsibilities and passing on the blame to one another. Not only is the lack of responsibility morally wrong and reprehensible, but it undermines the trust that society places in these companies to act in the best interests of the communities in which they operate. An impartial observer would say that they simply cannot be trusted to do the right thing.

As others have said, the recent study by the Local Authority Pension Fund Forum detailed ongoing concerns about

“the slow pace and inadequate nature of reparations”.

It noted that

“only a fraction of the houses had been built in the resettlements and the communities were awaiting a range of other compensatory and reparations measures so that they can start to rebuild their lives.”

The report also said that there is

“a general concern that Anglo American, BHP, Vale, Samarco, and Renova Foundation have not accepted an appropriate level of accountability and responsibility for the impacts of their business practices on a range of stakeholders, including affected communities.”

As other Members have said, the reparations and compensation are nowhere in sight.

British-listed companies should not be able to hide behind their subsidiaries when things go wrong. It is shocking that almost eight years after the disaster we still need to have this conversation. While we learn about the truly terrible conditions that many in Mariana still face to this day, BHP continues to wax lyrical about its social value targets and stewardship of the environment, local cultures and economic development. It appears to me that they are hooded crows masquerading as peacocks.

I have three questions for the Minister. First, what assessment have the Government made of the recent Local Authority Pension Fund Forum report on BHP’s failure to help victims of the disaster? Secondly, what assessment has the Minister made of BHP’s strong environmental and social value claims in the light of that report? Thirdly, will the Government take steps to ensure that all British listed companies operating at home and abroad are bound to the high standards that we expect of them?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mrs Latham. I want to start by thanking the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), because he has raised an issue that I have been grappling with since I took on the brief for Latin America in our shadow Foreign Office team. I have found it distressing, fascinating, shocking and appalling. I was privileged to host the Krenak people when they came to London, but I will say a little more about that in a minute.

The scale of the disaster that the hon. Member for Strangford rightly points out is shocking and appalling: 600 km of pollution. He mentioned the birds and fish affected by the pollution in the Doce river, which literally means sweet river. It is not a sweet river any more, sadly. It is in south-east Brazil and stretches over 530 miles, which in the UK would be a huge distance, but is minuscule in the massive country of Brazil, which is 33 times bigger than the United Kingdom.

My hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) said something very important: he said that this is a debate about how British companies live up to the high standards that we expect of them. That is at the heart of our debate this afternoon, so I thank the hon. Member for Strangford for securing it.

The Mariana dam disaster occurred on 5 November 2015. As hon. Members have said, it was the worst environmental disaster in Brazilian history. We need to be clear that the situation and the ongoing legal case must not be allowed to set a precedent for the future that pits multinational corporations against the will and needs of indigenous populations and environmental activists. I was shocked to learn that 60 million cubic metres of iron waste poured into the Doce river when the Mariana tailings dam collapsed. It is in nobody’s interest for something like that ever to happen again. We must highlight the shocking injustices wherever and whenever they occur, as we have done in this debate.

At the beginning of this year, I met victims of the disaster from the indigenous Krenak community when they came to London to have their testimonies heard at the Court of Appeal. I hosted them in Parliament to give Members the opportunity to hear their harrowing experiences of how over 60 million cubic metres of toxic mining waste had wrecked their homes, livelihoods and communities, and about those who lost their lives, as the hon. Member for Strangford has said, as a result of the disaster. One thing that struck me was how humanity is so diverse that there are people in the House of Commons with whom we have very little in common apart from our shared humanity.

The Krenak people looked so extraordinarily different, yet they had wonderful names such as Maria and Umberto and they spoke beautiful Portuguese—a language I am not privileged to speak, unfortunately, but they had a very good interpreter. They told their human stories of a land far away, a lifestyle we have no real familiarity with, and yet they touched our hearts. Everybody there was moved by the testimonies that were given of their first-hand experience. I will not reiterate here today the experiences and first-hand testimonies that we heard—obviously I cannot, anyway—but it is important to recognise that this disaster did not affect just Brazilians. There was even a Yorkshireman in that area. He lived a modest life, which he adored, but he was forced to leave his home after the disaster. The truly global impact, which is the point that has been made this afternoon, of this appalling event can never be fully understood, or overstated. It has ruined the lives of many Brazilians as well as those from abroad wanting to make a life for themselves in that beautiful, stunning country and landscape.

I believe that the company in question, Anglo-Australian mining firm BHP, has behaved appallingly since the disaster struck. It has failed properly to engage and work with the victims. As was mentioned by the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally), the Renova Foundation—

Order. Could we not stray into giving too many names and being too specific, because of the impending court case?

Of course, Mrs Latham. I sourced this information from publicly available sources, which are on the websites, but if you would rather I did not mention any specific names, I will not.

Okay. That is fine.

The organisation set up to remediate and compensate for the damage caused by the failure of the dam has come under increasing criticism for its lack of transparency in the way it was spending financial resources, as well as the way it excluded affected community representatives from decision making related to the resettlement. Again, we must not let that behaviour set a precedent whereby companies are able to treat indigenous populations like cattle. I would be interested to hear from the Minister whether he believes that that kind of behaviour points to a worrying and wider targeting of indigenous populations, and environmental activists, by multinational companies. It is the same attitude that led to the murder of Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira in Brazil a year ago; and farmers from the El Bajío community in Mexico had their livelihoods destroyed through illegal mining by a FTSE 100 company.

We must note that there has been a radical change in Government in Brazil since the disaster occurred. I would like the Minister to tell us what discussions he has had with his Brazilian counterpart regarding this case and how he is working with the Brazilian Government under President Lula, as well as Governments across Latin America, to prevent man-made disasters like this from destroying communities. I recognise that the Minister here today is not the Minister generally responsible for the region, but perhaps he has some answers to these questions on behalf of his colleague.

My hon. Friend the shadow Minister has referred to environmental activists and the damage being done environmentally in Brazil, as well as across the globe. When we look at the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, and given that we have just passed the one-year anniversary of the brutal murders of Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira, it is important that while we protect our environment and the people, we also prevent those excellent environmental activists, journalists and indigenous activists who are fighting the good fight— not just on their own behalf, but on behalf of all of us—from coming to harm. It is important that our Government work with the Brazilian Government to ensure that the perpetrators of those brutal murders are brought to justice.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. In a way, it is precisely what I wanted to ask the Minister today about how we can work more collaboratively and co-operatively with the Brazilian Government to lend our expertise, to show our support, to do what we can, along with other nations across the world, to preserve the Amazon rainforest and, of course, to protect environmental activists and indigenous people in those countries. It would also be helpful to hear whether the Brazilian Government’s attitude towards these disasters, and the prevention of them in future, has changed since President Lula took office. Obviously, our Government would know that and notice that.

We must of course champion those many excellent British companies that do good work abroad—there are many—but it is also right that we hold them to account for any wrongdoing. Given the tragic stories and experiences we have heard about today, does the Minister agree that British companies should be held to account in British courts for their actions across the world? No company should be able to greenwash its image by painting itself as a net zero leader while at the same time mining the minerals needed for the energy transition in the way that some have done. They simply cannot give with one hand and take away with the other.

I was appalled to learn that this disaster and the actions that followed it disproportionately hurt indigenous peoples and many people of colour. A community in the municipality of Marinara that is closest to the dam and was most affected by the disaster has a population that is 84.3% comprised of black Brazilians.

Will the British Government collaborate on an international law on ecocide to make damage to our ecology, our planet and our environment an internationally recognised criminal offence? The Opposition certainly support that, and it would be good to collaborate with the British Government.

Finally, I pay tribute to Pogust Goodhead, the firm assisting the victims with their case—but mainly to the over 700,000 victims, a few of whom have shown outstanding courage by travelling to the United Kingdom to let English courts know the true extent of the disaster. For the sake of Bento Rodrigues, the town destroyed by the disaster, the Doce river, which was severely polluted, and the 39 municipalities that felt the environmental catastrophe on their doorstep, this injustice must be put right.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this debate. I am grateful for his contribution and for those of the hon. Members for Slough (Mr Dhesi), for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) and for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton), and I will address their question. I am standing in for the Minister with responsibility for South America, my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley), who is in North America as I speak, but I am pleased to be here on his behalf.

This November marks the eighth anniversary of the worst environmental disaster in Brazilian history, the bursting of the Mariana dam. We have heard a moving evocation of the human impact and the scale of it in the state of Minas Gerais. The dam failure released some 60 million cubic metres of toxic waste, which claimed 19 lives, wrecked towns, villages and livelihoods and deeply affected indigenous communities, as has been discussed at length. The flow of waste travelled 600 km to the Atlantic ocean, destroying water supplies, natural habitats and livestock, with effects that are still being felt today. I add my condolences to those that have been expressed in the Chamber today to all those affected, particularly the families and friends of those who died.

There is, understandably, much interest in the compensation made available to those affected by the catastrophe. As has been mentioned, there is an ongoing legal case against the mining company BHP—it operates in Brazil through a company called Samarco, which managed the dam. It is not appropriate for me to comment on matters pertaining to those legal proceedings, but I can share with the Chamber how the UK has been working to promote the safe management of tailings dams in Brazil since that calamitous disaster.

In 2016, the trade and investment team at the British consulate general in Belo Horizonte, the state capital of Minas Gerais, took responsibility for the mining sector. From day one, it prioritised the promotion of improved technology, governance and safety standards for tailings dams. The consulate has held annual public events to showcase UK innovation and expertise in this field to Brazilian stakeholders, including from private companies, the Government, academia and civil society organisations. Those efforts have raised awareness of the critical need to improve safety standards, and they generated discussion among key players about how best to do so.

A further calamity took place in Minas Gerais state in 2019, when the collapse of the Brumadinho dam killed 270 people. In the aftermath, the Department for International Trade supported an initiative led by the Church of England Pensions Board to publish the world’s first global industry standard on tailings management to improve safety worldwide. The initiative was a collaboration with Sweden, the International Council on Mining and Metals and the United Nations. It included input from communities affected by the Brumadinho disaster, plus leading international experts and Government and mining company representatives. In 2021, the British consulate general in Belo Horizonte held workshops in partnership with the Brazilian Government and the United Nations environment programme to promote this new global standard in Brazil. More than 1,000 participants joined the online workshops, convening leading figures from the Brazilian mining sector, academia and civil society.

Also in 2021, the British embassy in Brasilia signed a memorandum of understanding with the prosecutor’s office in the state of Minas Gerais to collaborate on technology and transparency standards for the management of tailings dams. That led to the launch in May 2022 of the world’s first independent tailings dam monitoring centre in Brazil, in collaboration with the UK Government, using British satellite monitoring systems. That was an important moment with potentially global implications. The centre applies British satellite monitoring systems, in partnership with the UK’s satellite applications catapult, to monitor a growing number of tailing dams in Brazil, thereby improving safety and transparency in their management. The learnings and best practice developed at the centre are playing, we hope, a trailblazing role in raising global safety standards and reducing the risk of similar disasters.

The Mariana dam and Brumadinho catastrophes must not be forgotten. They should serve as stark and tragic reminders of how critical it is that we work together to improve safety standards across the globe. I was interested in the question posed by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Leeds North East, on ecocide law. I will not pre-empt any judgment of my colleague the Minister for the Americas, but I will ask that he write to the hon. Gentleman with an update on his judgments about the utility or otherwise of such ecocide law. We are reassured by the work that has already begun, with the UK at the forefront in collaboration with Brazil and working alongside the Brazilian Government to increase safety in these sorts of environments together with international partners.

I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have made contributions. If we were to put together all our thoughts, they would be that regulation is needed across the world, not just for companies here in the United Kingdom but globally. Hon. Members referred to the need to speak up for those who have no voice, and it is important to ensure that that happens; the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) outlined that very well. The right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), in an intervention, said that the UK can lead; we could and we should, and we look for that to be the case. The hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) reiterated the important issue of how we can work better together on behalf of people who have been maligned and affected by this. As always, the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) encapsulated the issue very simply but directly. We must stand up for the indigenous people. The world must also get together, and we must work in tandem.

I thank the Minister, who was standing in but has understood what we are requesting. I have written down what we are looking for. He reminded us that this was one of the worst disasters in the world, but that others have taken place as well. He told us about the effect on livestock, animals, people, houses and the environment. He referred to how safe management must be the conclusion we wish to have, and said that there must be a new global standard across the world. He referred to a satellite system as well, which is another way of monitoring what is going on and keeping better track of it. He also reminded us, at the end, that it must never be forgotten. The reason we are here today is simply that it will not be forgotten. We have asked our Government and the Minister to take forward the issue where they can to help and assist those people—we met them in January or February this year—who sometimes think that nobody knows about them. Well, today in this House we have ensured that the world knows about them and their quest, and the role that our Government can perhaps play in that.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the Mariana dam disaster.

Sitting suspended.

Volumetric Concrete Mobile Plants

[Clive Efford in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered volumetric concrete mobile plants.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Efford. I place on record my appreciation of the Backbench Business Committee for allowing us time to debate an important, if hopefully not the most contentious, area of political regulation.

We are doubtless all familiar with the sight of large conventional drum mixers carrying concrete around our streets and roads. Those drum mixers operate at 32 tonnes and carry loads of 8 cubic metres to building sites. They carry concrete that has been prepared in a fixed location and then loaded on to the mixers. Drum mixers are the dominant force in the market, and there are something in the region of 20,000 of them.

Volumetric concrete mixers are a much smaller part of the concrete sector but can operate in circumstances in which the conventional drum mixers do not, most notably in rural areas or where smaller batches are required. They can legally weigh up to 44 tonnes on five axles and 38.4 tonnes on four axles. That is at the heart of the matter that I wish to discuss. They deliver concrete to individuals and smaller businesses and mix concrete on site. They are particularly useful for reaching remote areas and tight urban sites, and compared with larger traditional concrete carriers they have a range of other benefits, notably their lower carbon usage.

There is a large element of time-sensitivity at play here. Once mixed, concrete has a shelf life of only two hours, which means that drum mixers must get to their construction site and pour the concrete within that two-hour period or it goes to waste and to landfill. The need for VCMs in rural areas—where there are fewer plants mixing concrete at scale, if indeed there are any at all, and hence longer road journeys to sites—is obvious, but the place of VCMs in the sector goes beyond that. They are particularly useful for emergency road and rail repairs, where the mixer may have to wait around. For a drum mixer, an expensive batching plant must be set up to avoid concrete becoming unusable at the two-hour mark, but VCMs have no such issues, which shows their benefits in such situations.

There is a very real danger that, if the Government’s regulation of the sector gets the balance wrong, the whole volumetric concrete sector could be placed at risk and a small but very important part of the construction industry could be lost, for little discernible benefit.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for securing today’s debate on volumetric concrete mobile plants and for allowing me to intervene. Having worked in the construction industry for about two decades, and having gained a dumper driver ticket to take ready-mixed concrete on a dumper to various parts of the construction site, I could not resist taking part in today’s debate. More to the point, my constituency is home to Mixamate, which is a ready-mixed concrete business. Mixamate highlights to me not only the impact on livelihoods but the environmental and economic damage that policy could create. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is incumbent on the Government to undertake a full impact assessment of current legislation?

Had I known that the hon. Gentleman had that level of expertise, I would have had him on the all-party parliamentary group for lower carbon construction vehicles a long time ago. I agree with him. I do not want to reheat old debates, but we are where we are today because there was not a proper economic and environmental impact assessment at the time. I hope the Minister will indicate that the Government are willing to revisit the issue. If we go through the process properly, we will find that there is a better way of dealing with the issue, but I will let the Minister speak for himself.

VCMs operate right across the United Kingdom. Their manufacture and use are estimated to contribute £380 million to the economy and employ more than 15,000 skilled workers. They operate the length and breadth of the country, and in communities such as those that I represent they are of prime importance to the local construction sector. Businesses such as Andrew Sinclair Ltd in Orkney and Tulloch Developments in Shetland tell me regularly about the desperately detrimental impact that the proposed changes will have on them.

Companies with VCMs operate in at least 134 constituencies and are a truly integral part of the country’s construction industry. For almost 50 years, they have operated within a proportionate regulatory environment. Until 2018, VCMs on four axles could run at the manufacturer’s design weight, which is often about 41 tonnes. However, in 2018, the Department for Transport decided to impose a 32 tonne limit for all VCMs, enacted through the Goods Vehicles (Plating and Testing) (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2017. The limit forces VCM operators to phase out their current VCMs by 2028, replacing them with the 32 tonne model, which is equally expensive but less effective. Lighter vehicles mean more journeys on the road and more carbon emissions as a consequence.

That is despite the fact that Highways England’s 2017 report endorsed the operation of VCMs at about 44 tonnes on five axles and 38.4 tonnes on four axles. That proposal had the support of the then Transport Minister, the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes). To be less than generous, this is a classic example of an obscure regulation changed by civil servants that causes a massive headache for businesses in the real world.

The right hon. Gentleman said that, if the proposal goes through, there will be more journeys by lighter vehicles. Has his APPG looked into how many additional drivers will be needed to drive those additional vehicles? Is there a surplus of such drivers in the construction industry? The advice I am getting is that very few parts of the construction industry have too many workers just now.

Yes, indeed. I think the hon. Gentleman knows the answer to that question. The truth of the matter is that heavy goods vehicle and lorry drivers are in scarce supply, and that is being felt not just in the construction industry but throughout the supply chain for just about every possible sector. That is another of the operations of the law of unintended consequences.

The frustration that brings us to the debate is that there has been strong opposition to the plans, led by organisations such as the Batched on Site Association, which feel that, until today, they have not been able to get a hearing. I very much hope that, after the Minister’s response, they will feel that they are at last being heard.

The change has no support among the operators, will yield no benefits to the construction industry overall and threatens the very future of VCMs in this country and the benefits that come with them. The most direct consequence of the Government’s plan is that VCMs will be limited in the amount of concrete they can carry. Operators continuing after 2028 will have to carry less weight, which is inefficient for them, their customers and the overall economy.

Traditional drum mixers and VCMs can produce something in the region of 8 cubic metres of concrete. However, because VCMs carry all the extra equipment that turns them into mobile plants, including conveyor belts to mix the sand, mixing equipment, cement, water and aggregates, they weigh notably more. Forcing VCM weights down to 32 tonnes cuts their capacity to between 6.5 cubic metres and 7 cubic metres of any mix of concrete on one trip. That has a significant impact on their efficiency, with knock-on effects on cost-effectiveness and the viability of the industry to continue at its current capacity.

The industry predicts that the changes coming in 2028 will have a dire impact on the sector. The Minister will have heard dire predictions from sectors affected by change before—we all have—and scepticism when such interests bring forward their concerns is healthy and necessary in Government. There is, however, significant and objective evidence that points to the industry’s predictions being well founded, and possibly even understated. After the Department announced the weight limit reduction, sales of VCMs fell from 55 million in 2017 to 9 million in 2020—still some eight years ahead of the deadline. Operators have already started voting with their feet—or, more accurately, their wheels—to the detriment of the sector and the construction industry as a whole. If the industry suffers and shrinks because of the regulations, many of its benefits will be lost.

Furthermore, traditional drum mixers can carry only one strength of concrete at a time, whereas VCMs have the benefit of carrying multiple if required. Take this simple example: if a customer needs only 4 cubic metres of strong concrete and 3 cubic metres of medium-strength concrete, they will have to pay for two concrete mixers if heavier VCMs are banned. VCMs mix concrete on site and can do so at whatever strengths are required and, crucially, all on one lorry. Without VCMs, such situations would be much more difficult to manage. That is why VCMs are such an important, if small and perhaps slightly niche, part of the concrete sector and the construction industry.

I have had representations from right across the country since securing this debate a mere eight days ago. The message from every corner—from those who are charged with representing the sector as a whole, to individual companies—remains the same. Sonny Sangha, founder of iMix Concrete, who operates a 32 tonne VCM as well as his current fleet of four traditional 38.4 tonne VCMs, talked to me about the estimated impact of the Government changes. He said:

“We estimate an annual loss of turnover of around £100,000 per VCM at 32 tonnes. The loss of capacity also means the need for purchasing more vehicles to accommodate the workload now that we have VCMs on both weight limits...We can see a huge difference in output and economic performance between the vehicles. The new 32T vehicle is only able to carry around 6/7m3 of concrete (depending on mix type), whereas with the other vehicles we can carry a comfortable 8m3 of concrete.”

The root cause of the problem is that there has not been an adequate economic or environmental impact assessment. The consultancy group Regeneris was brought in by the Batched on Site Association to calculate the impact of cutting the weight of VCMs to 32 tonnes. It found that a 27% cut on a 44 tonne VCM and a 16.6% cut on a 38.4 tonne VCM is likely to add 14 million more lorry miles to UK roads and 598,000 more lorry journeys each year. There will be 200 more VCMs on the roads to make up for the carrying of smaller loads, pumping 120,000 additional tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. There will be a 20% increase in CO2, nitrogen oxide and particulates, generating extra carbon costs in excess of £7 million per annum. That will also require an additional 200 HGV drivers at a time of shortages. On top of that, because drum mixers have a two-hour production life for concrete, much of the concrete going to landfill comes from drum mixers.

Is the two-hour issue not absolutely critical? Some communities, particularly in remote constituencies across Scotland and rural parts of England, are simply outwith the two-hour distance, and therefore the concrete will end up hardened and generating more waste in landfill.

It is absolutely critical, and it adds massively to the already significant extra costs for construction projects in those remote communities. Indeed, as the MP for Orkney and Shetland, I probably know that better than most.

I am not going to steal the Minister’s thunder; he has kindly been in touch with me.

Before the right hon. Gentleman concludes, I want to congratulate him on securing this debate. We have a presence of VCM operators in Knowsley, which is important to our local economy. I endorse the powerful he has made, and I hope that when the Minister responds, he acknowledges the force of that case.

I very much hope so, too. The Minister’s office has been in touch with me to very kindly give me notice of some of what he intends to say. This may be a new way of introducing disappointment into my life after 22 years as an MP, but for once I approach this debate with a smidge more confidence and optimism than usual. The Minister has given me notice of some of what he intends to say in his speech, but I suggest that there is substantial evidence out there that would support a different approach if the Department were minded to harvest it in a systematic way.

There is also important context involving other HGV regulation. In February, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) announced the abolition of the 32 tonne limit for electric HGVs, allowing them to run up to 34 tonnes. On 23 April, the Minister announced that the 4 tonne increase in weight for HGVs—taking the limit from 44 tonnes to 48 tonnes—was being trialled to cut lorry numbers and to save carbon. On 10 May, the Minister announced that the Government are allowing haulage lorries an additional 2-plus metres in length, with the aim of cutting the numbers of such HGVs on the road by 8%, and reducing 70,000 tonnes of carbon emissions. All that suggests to me that the thinking of the Department may have been different in 2018, and that there is now a need for the approach to VCMs to catch up with that new thinking and to benefit from the same approach.

As I have said, I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for giving me this debate at such short notice. I am grateful also that a good number of colleagues from around the House are present on a Thursday afternoon. I place on record that I have received a lot of apologies and representations from Members right around the country, including the hon. Members for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) and for South Derbyshire (Mrs Wheeler), the right hon. Members for Ashford (Damian Green), for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) and for Warley (John Spellar), and the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford). They would all have been here had they had a bit more notice, but we all know that when a Member gets an offer of time to debate something like this, they do not quibble; they take it. That is what we have done. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

It is a great pleasure to take part in this debate under your chairship, Mr Efford, and it is a privilege to follow the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), although I hope someone has noticed that the annunciator has been displaying the hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami) as speaking in this debate for the last 10 minutes. When Hansard is produced, I trust that the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland will get the credit for his contribution and that it will not be inadvertently attributed to a Member who is not present.

I will speak very briefly because the case has been made so powerfully, and I cannot wait to hear the Minister, given the spoiler alert in the previous speech. I will speak on behalf of Mixamate, which operates in my constituency in south Leeds. I have looked at all the documentation that it has produced, and it seems to me that it has made a really powerful case. This is an innovative product. Anyone who, for their sins, has tried to mix extremely small amounts of concrete with a spade and shovel will know what a boon it is to have machinery that can do that. It has the flexibility to deliver for longer than the two hours to which drum mixers are confined. It has different strengths and can produce different quantities for different places. It is a great innovation, so I say well done on that.

A factory in Sheffield has been responsible for production, but, as we have heard, orders have decreased. I am perplexed as to why we are in this situation. Like the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, I have looked at the Department for Transport news release that announced the weight increases, including, interestingly, for the longer semi-trailers—known in the trade as LSTs—which will be subject to a 44 tonne weight limit. At the same time, the Government are saying that the weight limit for VCMs has to come down. All of the arguments in the briefing material that the VCM sector, including Mixamate, has given to assist us in today’s debate are also made in the Department for Transport’s press release. That includes arguments about fewer journeys and carbon reductions if the vehicle weighs more. Let us not forget, either, that if a VCM does multiple drop-offs, its weight will go down once it has delivered the first part of concrete. I note with interest that Denmark had proposed to do the same, but it has now reversed its approach.

Is this about weight? As I understand it, National Highways said that 44 tonnes on five axles, and 38.4 tonnes on four axles was not a problem. If the issue is weight and the impact on road surfaces, bridges and so on, why on earth has the Department for Transport made three recent announcements on increasing the weight limits, as mentioned by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland in his powerful speech? I can only echo everything he said, and, like others, I look forward to what the Minister has to say.

I apologise for being late, Mr Efford; I was in the debate on contaminated blood. I speak on behalf of Ve-Tech Concrete Ltd, a company in my constituency that operate VCMs. As has already been covered by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), there are lots of different reasons why there are advantages to VCMs. He highlighted the fact that they can deliver concrete over distances in rural areas that are more than two hours away from a concrete mixing plant. That is an absolute; if someone is further away, a drum concrete mixer cannot serve them. VCMs can cover parts of the UK that others cannot.

VCMs can also wait until the concrete is required. When utilities need to make repairs, even in the middle of the night, or when a repair takes longer, the VCM can wait until the concrete is required. They can deliver multiple small loads of different strengths of concrete to different consumers. Those often include farmers who need a small amount of concrete to make an adjustment around the farm. In rural communities such as mine—farming covers most of my constituency—VCMs are vital.

I agree with the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) that it is hard to understand what the 2018 decision was about. If it was about damage to roads, there are other, heavier vehicles allowed on the road. If it is about what VCMs carry, and the suggestion that they should not carry more goods than a goods vehicle, then there is a failure to understand that they are actually plant. They mix the concrete, and therefore have all the equipment required in mixing the concrete. They also have pumping equipment, so that a separate lorry is not needed to turn up and work with a drum mixer to pump the concrete where it is required. I read in the briefing that, because of access issues, it is a VCM that Westminster is using for some of the repairs to the estate. It is about time that we heard a slightly updated approach to VCMs.

Why was the decision made? It is hard to understand if it was on the basis of road damage when there are heavier vehicles. It is certainly hard to understand if it is about climate, when it is clear that VCMs reduce journeys, increase flexibility and keep other trucks off the road. I too hope that maybe there is a change of mind in the Department for Transport, and that the Minister will give hope to the companies in our constituencies, or serving our constituencies, across the UK.

Before I start my summing up, Mr Efford, with your permission I will briefly mention the passing of Winnie Ewing—probably the greatest politician that we have ever sent down here. I hope that in due course the House will have the opportunity to pay a fitting tribute to a giant on whose shoulders many of us are proud to stand.

The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) has set out the arguments very powerfully indeed. If there were powerful arguments against his case, he is the kind of person who would have introduced them to his speech. The reason that he has not given us those arguments and explained why they do not carry any weight is that there does not seem to be any argument now. There might have been an argument in 2017-18—I do not know what it was, but there might have been. I cannot see what the argument is now, and I do not think the Government can, which is why they are going in the opposite direction in relation to the weight limits on a lot of other kinds of HGVs.

I can understand that there will sometimes be an assumption in the eyes of the public that anything that reduces the weight of a lorry on our roads is a good thing, but the public often forgets, as do politicians, that reducing the maximum weight of a vehicle does not necessarily reduce the total amount of stuff that it can carry on our roads. As has been pointed out in this case, if we reduce the maximum weight of a cement-mixing lorry that is allowed on the roads, only two things can happen: either there are many more journeys or far fewer things getting built and repaired.

The construction industry in Scotland generates about £17 billion for the Scottish economy and, in 2021, employed 158,000 people. It is also one of the biggest producers of carbon emissions in Scotland, as I have no doubt it is in the rest of the United Kingdom, so there is clearly a huge necessity for Governments and industry to work together. We will not get to net zero unless we work with the construction industry towards a net zero future for that industry. But I do not think that a change in the weight that we are talking about here is a part of that. As we have heard, if anything, it might make the problem even worse.

It would be reasonable to ask the Government to not necessarily announce immediately that they are going to drop the decision, but to ask them to at the very least come up with a more up-to-date and more relevant impact assessment on the economic and environmental impact, based on how the world is today, not how it was in 2017 or 2018, because the world has changed in a lot of ways since then.

As I indicated in my question to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland earlier, it is all very well saying that businesses will just have to buy more slightly less heavy vehicles, operate them in a different way and lose more money, but who will drive these things? We do not have enough HGV drivers in the United Kingdom as it is—thank you very much, Brexit. That is one of the benefits we were not told about before 2016. Where do we think all these other drivers will come from? What impact will that have on the construction industry’s costs if it gets caught up in a wage war with other users of heavy-goods vehicles?

What account are we taking of today’s interest rates increase—the highest we have had since the end of the banking crash in 2008? That makes investment in new homes, for example, a lot less attractive than it was. We need the impact of that to be built in to any further assessment.

We will need the construction industry for the changes in our infrastructure. Not all infrastructure development is good by any stretch of the imagination. There is a need, for example, for a massive hospital and school rebuilding programme. That is already happening apace, but there is still a lot more to be done. We still need to build more homes for people to live in. We have far too many homes for people to use as holiday homes once in a while, but not enough homes that are suitable for people to live in in the places they want to live—for example, close to their work.

There will be a significant amount of new-build construction as well as rebuild, repair and maintenance construction needed for as long as any of us will be here, and probably for several lifetimes after. We need to help the industry to address the issues that it has just now with its impact on the environment. I think the industry is ready for that discussion and is willing to change.

But I think the change that is being discussed here is one that the industry is resisting, not just because industry tends to resist anything that it does not like, but because it can see that that will significantly threaten the viability of a lot of small businesses across the United Kingdom, and because it can see that the problem that the change is supposed to address is likely to make it even worse. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Efford. I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for securing this debate and for explaining quite a complicated subject in a way that most of us, including me, could understand—almost.

Volumetric concrete mixers have been in operation in this country for nearly 50 years. At the time of their arrival, they were a groundbreaking concept: they allowed all the ingredients for concrete to be stored separately, with operators then mixing the concrete on-site. It must have seemed quite magical, back in those times, to have that scientific breakthrough. It enabled manufacturers to circumnavigate the shelf-life issue faced by drum mixers, which need to deliver and pour their concrete in two hours—as we have heard from many speakers today—or the entire batch is wasted, and deposited in landfill.

Over the years, there have been major innovations in the VCM industry, culminating in the invention of the combined VCM plus pump, which eliminates the need for two lorries, helping to reduce congestion and emissions. VCMs may also provide benefits to the consumer. For example, if a customer underestimates or overestimates the amount of concrete needed, a VCM can adapt and increase the quantities, without relying on a second delivery, or produce a smaller batch, preventing the dumping of wasted concrete in landfill.

The ability to batch on site may also be beneficial to those who live in rural communities. We have already heard the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) talk about that, particularly in the context of her own constituency. We all know how many rural areas have difficulties in all sorts of ways whenever there are delivery issues. This seems to be something that it is quite important to take on board.

However, I am aware that by 2028 the VCM industry will be subject to the same weight limits as drum mixers and other heavy goods vehicles. I have met operators of these vehicles multiple times to discuss their concerns about what they see as an existential threat to their industry. Due to the extra equipment that VCMs carry in order to batch the concrete on site, being subject to that weight limit could cut their capacity and impact on their business models. That may result in operators having to send out multiple VCMs for a job, whereas before it could be managed by one vehicle. I am concerned about the impact that it could have on British VCM operators, as well as on air pollution and congestion.

There are already weight exemptions and allowances for certain vehicle types. Indeed, VCMs currently have such an allowance, albeit on a temporary basis. Surely the simplest thing to do is to extend the exemption and make it permanent. I really sympathise with the points raised by all right hon. and hon. Members today that VCM operators require certainty if they are to continue to operate.

I encourage the Minister to engage meaningfully with the concerns of the VCM industry and consider the points raised in this debate. There seem to be many issues there that the Government have pledged to sort out—for instance, climate change, the carbon footprint, and support for small and medium-sized enterprises, which we know are the backbone of this country. That would seem only right. I know that the Minister has already spoken to the operators about their concerns. I hope that those discussions, and the contributions that he has heard today, will lead to a long-term solution that will protect jobs and encourage British innovation.

It is a delight to serve under you in the Chair, Mr Efford. I apologise to the Chamber that the roads Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden), is unavoidably detained, but I was involved with this issue when I was roads Minister, so I hope that I can bring some degree of understanding.

I very much associate myself with the remarks made by the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) in relation to the just announced death of Winnie Ewing, who was by any standards a great politician and a great spokesman for her party and her views.

I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for this motion and for the work he has done on this issue. Let me start by making a fundamental point. In 2017 and 2018, legal changes were made in relation to volumetric concrete mixers in two areas, as he highlighted. One change was to include volumetric concrete mixers in the operator licensing system, which ensures that VCMs are in the same regulatory regime as most large goods vehicles. As far as I understand it, there is no request to revisit that change. The second change concerned the inclusion of volumetric concrete mixers in the annual heavy vehicle roadworthiness testing regime. They were previously exempted, in part because of the difficulty of accommodating large vehicles in testing stations. However, as VCMs are based on a standard HGV chassis, it became clear over time that they could be accommodated on that basis.

It is important to say, however, that no changes were made to the maximum permitted weights for volumetric concrete mixers by regulation. It is also important to see that in context. The right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) asked whether some of these recent announcements really should be ignored because, as he read it, they were about higher weights. The answer is that no increase to axle weights was announced, and we are principally concerned with axle weights.

Inclusion in the annual heavy vehicle test requires a plate displaying the maximum on-road weight of the vehicle. This displays beyond doubt what is the legally accepted maximum weight on roads of a heavy goods vehicle. That is often different from the maximum weight a vehicle is permitted off-road, or on private land, and which the vehicle chassis can bear.

The Department recognised that there had been a significant period previously of operations on public roads by some volumetric concrete mixers at higher weights than these unchanged maximum on-road weights, a situation that it and others regard as illegal. Therefore, the Department sought views and checked the feasibility of a limited temporary period of operation at higher maximum permitted weights for volumetric concrete mixers. Of course, this is not an uncontested issue. There are other parties—whether they be local authorities, mayoralties, or other players in the relevant market—who have views that may not directly accord with all the views held and discussed in this debate.

Following engagement with parts of the industry and a written consultation, Ministers decided to allow an exceptional temporary weight allowance for volumetric concrete mixers for up to 10 years. Other possibilities were considered, and discussions were held at that time with parts of the industry, but no other exceptions were ever approved by Ministers.

The exceptional temporary weight allowance is a significant adaptation for VCMs, which comes despite the extra wear and tear that they impose on road surfaces. Load modelling done by the Department in collaboration with National Highways—which, at that time, was Highways England—highlighted a particular risk to bridge structures, which affects the durability of this exceptional arrangement. It is therefore not true, as I think was implied in one contribution to the debate, that in some sense National Highways has signed off higher weights. On the contrary, it found in its report that those weights sit outside the bridge load model and therefore are likely to increase wear on bridges.

The Minister mentions the particular issue of bridges that might not be able to sustain a higher weight. Why is a weight limit not placed on individual bridges, so that the heavier vehicles can be allowed on the parts of the road network that can sustain such loads?

That is a separate question, and, of course, local authorities may or may not choose to do such things. This is about what the view of National Highways was, and as I have said, its view was that there was a particular risk to bridge structures and that that was one of the constraints on the durability and longevity of this arrangement.

An initial assessment into road wear by the Department suggested that increasing the weight limit for four-axle volumetric concrete mixers from 32 tonnes to 38.4 tonnes could increase average road wear by between 110% and 220% per vehicle. The exact impact is heavily dependent on the vehicle’s loading.

The Department recently announced the introduction of longer semi-trailers into general use because many operators run out of trailer space before reaching the permitted maximum gross vehicle weight. These longer semi-trailers are up to 2.05 metres longer than a standard trailer, but are designed to carry the same weight as standard trailers. Therefore, there is no increase in the normal maximum weight or axle weights for vehicles using the longer semi-trailers.

The Department recently announced regulations to implement an increase in weight limits for certain alternatively fuelled or zero-emission vehicles. The weight limit increase is up to a maximum of 1 tonne for an alternatively fuelled vehicle and a flat 2 tonnes for a zero-emission vehicle. In all cases, the maximum weight limit for individual axles—again, the key measure—remains unchanged. The vehicle types that are having their weight limits changed by this regulation include articulated lorries and road train combinations with five or six axles normally limited to 40 tonnes and four-axle combinations normally limited to 36 or 38 tonnes. No additional weight allowance will apply to the heaviest articulated lorry and road train combinations of 44 tonnes or four-axle rigid motor vehicles of 32 tonnes.

I am genuinely grateful to the Minister because a number of people in the debate have said, “We do not understand how the decision was reached”, and he has given us an insightful account of how that happened. Those of us who have served in Government know how it often works: the focus is on the process rather than the outcome. That is exactly what has happened here. If he were to compare the outcome—the consequences of the changes that were made—with the consequences of the previous regulations, on any cost-benefit analysis, would it not look like a slightly unusual move to make?

It is not true to say there has been a focus on process rather than outcome. On the contrary, it is specifically the concern that there may be an adverse outcome on road wear and tear and safety that sits behind the concern to maintain the position as it is, or has been, on vehicle axle loadings.

Let me come to the wider point that the right hon. Member touched on. I note the points about the value of the industry and that the use of VCMs has important commercial advantages over alternatives, such as allowing an exact quantity of concrete to be produced. That has influenced the implementation of the temporary weight arrangement. However, the 32-tonne maximum weight for four or more axle goods vehicles used in normal service is important in the context of maintaining the roads. It is not possible to allow the general circulation of large numbers of overweight rigid goods vehicles freely on the roads. That would risk substantial structural damage and failure.

For heavy loads, some other construction-related vehicles, such as tippers, are available as six-axle articulated combinations. They can carry higher loads legally. For VCMs, there has been some design development. Part of the earlier reason for the exemption was to allow a period in which there could be design development, but I appreciate that the unladen weight cannot be reduced by the difference between the temporary arrangement and the standard weight limit.

The Department recognises the high level of concern expressed in the debate about the businesses of those operating VCMs. I do not think it is true to say that those businesses have not received a good hearing. They have been extremely effective in making their case over the years, in my experience. The number of colleagues referenced by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland testifies to the effectiveness of the APPG and the sector in mobilising political opinion. Those concerns rightly include the viability of what are, in many cases, small businesses, and we understand that. It is important to recognise, as many Members have today, the contribution made by the industry more widely in the construction sector.

The Department proposes—the right hon. Member alerted us to this key point—to seek evidence about whether the current temporary arrangements for special maximum weights for VCMs should be amended. That comes just over halfway through a temporary 10-year period. The intention is to review the temporary weights and the criteria for them, including how long they will last. The volumetric concrete mixer arrangement is, after all, unique.

In conducting that call for evidence, it will be important to consider whether there are other situations that are in any way similar to the one we have discussed today. National Highways will be commissioned to properly re-examine the bridge load assessments, which have been raised in the discussion, as they relate to VCMs. It is important that all potentially interested parties are able to comment and are reached. We therefore intend that a public call for evidence should be launched during the autumn, and I expect a wide range of parties to be interested and potentially to make submissions.

Will the Minister reassure us that the call for evidence will be wide-ranging and not just focused on weight on roads? We have highlighted that ending up sending two lorries—a pumping lorry and a concrete lorry—doubles the weight carried by roads, but we have also highlighted the issues of environmental pollution, congestion and reducing carbon, which are even more important these days.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that those are important issues, and it is very important that a call for evidence does not become a general trawl through the literature but retains its focus, and its focus will be on whether the current temporary arrangements for maximum weights should be amended. I suspect, although I cannot predict—we will leave this for the Minister and officials who are doing the final work to decide—that any proper consideration or evidence that bears on that question will be potentially submissible.

It is important to say that running at higher than usual weight is not without risk. It increases road wear, and some of that road wear increases very rapidly—indeed, up to the power of four—with axle load. Of course, there are also risks associated with braking and tyre wear. Volumetric concrete mixers are used heavily in some urban areas, including central London, alongside cyclists. As I have said, before 2018, and despite the law, some had operated at higher weights for many years. There is a concern that overloaded or heavy volumetric concrete mixers may be liable to have a higher centre of gravity, which could create safety risks. In some recent examples, VCMs have been stopped and found to have severe defects, including being loaded to a weight exceeding that of even the higher temporary arrangements.

All those issues and evidence will have to be taken into account as part of this proper process of consideration, but I hope that hon. Members present will regard it a useful step forward that the Department has decided to hold a call for evidence. I am grateful for the opportunity to debate these issues today.

First, I very much echo the comments of the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) about the sad passing of Winnie Ewing. Winnie Ewing was the first elected parliamentarian I ever saw in the flesh, probably in 1981. She turned up—I was never quite clear whether it was at her invitation or the invitation of the school; either was possible with Winnie—and addressed the assembled school. Even as a 12, 13 or 14-year-old—however old I was—her passion and commitment for standing up for the communities across the highlands and islands that she represented was obvious, almost palpable. Her passing is a sad loss to all of us in Scottish politics and, indeed, politics across the whole of the United Kingdom.

All those who have contributed to the debate have made powerful and compelling cases. I am grateful that the Front-Bench spokespeople acknowledged that and for the call for evidence that the Minister announced. That is the way that Government should work, and I am delighted that we now have the opportunity to make this case. I have no doubt that the companies whose effective lobbying has led to the setting up of the APPG—Nigel Griffiths is spearheading that in his professional capacity—will continue to do their work. I see this as an opportunity and not as a conclusion, and I hope that what we have taken here is the first step along the road. If it is, we have done something that will benefit all our constituencies and the wider construction industry.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered volumetric concrete mobile plants.

Sitting adjourned.