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Heavy Commercial Vehicles in Kent (No. 2) (Amendment) (No. 2) Order 2021

Volume 816: debated on Tuesday 7 December 2021

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Heavy Commercial Vehicles in Kent (No. 2) (Amendment) (No. 2) Order 2021.

My Lords, the order before the Committee today was considered previously in an earlier form and I must start with an unreserved apology for having to bring this legislation back to your Lordships’ House.

On 19 October the Grand Committee considered three statutory instruments on heavy commercial vehicles—HCVs—which underpin Operation Brock, the multiagency response to cross-channel travel disruption at the Port of Dover and Eurotunnel. I regret to have to tell the Committee that there was an error in the legislation as passed. This resulted from an error in the drafting of a technical definition and requires correction. Therefore, I am asking noble Lords to consider the regulations, amended slightly to take account of the error, once again.

As I explained back in October, three pieces of legislation underpin Operation Brock. This legislation was first put in place in 2019 in preparation for a potential no-deal departure from the EU and has been amended on several occasions since. Operation Brock replaced Operation Stack. When there is serious disruption at Dover or Eurotunnel, Operation Brock allows trucks on cross-channel journeys to be queued on the coastbound carriageway between junctions 8 and 9 of the M20.

The error which has occurred is in the second of those three orders: the Heavy Commercial Vehicles in Kent (No. 2) (Amendment) Order 2021. This amended the Heavy Commercial Vehicles in Kent (No. 2) Order 2019. When Operation Brock is active, the 2019 order restricts cross-channel heavy commercial vehicles from using local roads in Kent other than those on the approved Operation Brock routes.

The error which was introduced by the subsequent order is in the definition of the roads from which heavy commercial vehicles are excluded when Brock is active. While the error does not prevent the Kent Resilience Forum initiating Operation Brock, it would affect the extent of the enforcement powers that would be available against HCVs using specific roads to avoid any Brock queue. The new instrument before the Committee corrects the error so that the legislation works as intended.

Once again, I apologise most sincerely for the mistake in the earlier legislation and that noble Lords are being asked to consider this order again. We had a good and thorough debate in October and I hope noble Lords will have seen my subsequent letter, dated 1 November, providing further information. I commend this order to the Committee and I beg to move.

My Lords, it is a pleasure once again to address your Lordships’ Committee following a long absence. I have, however, kept fairly well abreast of what has been going on here while I have been away.

What I would like to know is this: because many drivers of HCVs come from Europe, how many have registered for the visas which allow them to work in this country? This is not strictly relevant to this SI but it is important in the context of the amount of traffic which is likely to need regulation under this order. If drivers from the continent are not coming here, it is unlikely that many of these provisions will be needed anyway.

I would also like to know what the effect has been on the volume of traffic passing through the channel ports which would in fact amount to pressure on the roads in Kent. The information available to us suggests that there are a lot fewer drivers from the continent coming here, so that should manifest in there being less flow through Kent.

I should also like to know whether, in light of the pressure on HCVs generally, anything has happened with extra traffic coming by rail through the Channel Tunnel. This is not strictly relevant to this order. None the less, it affects the amount of traffic on the roads—sadly, I am unaware of anything having been done.

Lastly, although this is again not relevant to this order, I want to raise the appalling state of the working conditions of many drivers of heavy commercial vehicles. They contrast most unfavourably with those on the continent. The Government announced that they were going to look at improving the lot of the HCV driver. Unless they make the conditions of work for these drivers better, they are going to score no points at all for what they are doing. This is particularly so for women drivers, whom they are hoping to attract to the profession.

I have no objection to these proposals, but I think the Minister should address these issues if we are to get our traffic with the continent on to a firm footing. I will take the opportunity of raising this in other communications.

My Lords, I take this opportunity to say how nice it is to see the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, back in action again. As usual, he made some interesting and relevant comments, even though he often sought to say that they were not strictly relevant to the order. Indeed, some of my questions are geared to the extent to which we need this order, though we certainly do not oppose it.

I think I have understood the reason why we are here today. I thank the Minister for her explanation. If I have understood it correctly, this order corrects an error in a previous order, since the words in the order we are now discussing between “means all” and “other than” at the top of page 2 were left out from the definition of,

“the relevant class of road.”

That meant that the police did not have the powers to impose a fine of, I think, £300 on drivers who were not using the roads specified in the order. When Operation Brock is in force, the 2019 order restricts cross-channel heavy commercial vehicles from using local roads in Kent, apart from those on the approved Operation Brock routes.

How often have the provisions of the order had to be brought into effect since it was first put in place, because of bad weather and industrial action causing serious delays at the cross-channel ports? I think these were the two specific instances which the Government previously gave to justify the order. I say that bearing in mind that the Operation Brock arrangements—which replaced Operation Stack—are now permanent rather than temporary. If the answer is that the provisions of the order have never, or very rarely, been used, do the Government expect the Operation Brock arrangements to be brought into operation more or less frequently in future? For what reasons might this happen—over and above bad weather and industrial action, to which the Government have previously made reference?

If these arrangements have never been brought into operation, how close have we ever been to that happening? Do the Government think it would ever be necessary to bring the Operation Brock arrangements into effect because of disruption at the ports, following a breakdown in our new trading arrangements with the EU, or could such a breakdown never result in a level of disruption that would reach the threshold for bringing the Operation Brock arrangements into effect?

What is the definition of “serious delays or disruption” at the cross-channel ports that might lead to the Operation Brock arrangements being brought into effect, and who makes the decision on whether the serious delay or disruption threshold has been reached? For example, have the arrangements had to be brought into operation recently because of any blockading of French ports by fishing vessels?

Finally, is there a cost to making the Operation Brock arrangements permanent? If so, what is that cost, including how much per day and per week on each occasion that the Operation Brock arrangements are brought into effect? How much does it cost per day and per week to have the Operation Brock arrangements on standby, ready to be brought into effect as and when required?

I do not think the Minister will be wondering why I am asking these questions, but they are similar to those raised by the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw. How often, frankly, will these provisions be needed? Are we justified in having them on a permanent basis? I am sure she will respond on that issue.

I thank both noble Lords for their contributions to this short debate. I hope to answer as many questions as possible, although I admit that some of the topics are slightly beyond what I had prepared for today. I will write an additional letter. I note that I have already written one which, I believe, covers some of the points raised, but I will read them out from the letter none the less.

I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw—I too welcome him back to his place at transport SIs—that traffic with the continent is on a firm footing already. The visa issue he raised will not make any difference at all to the traffic going to and from the continent, but I can tell him that details of the number of temporary work visas granted for HCV drivers in food distribution —that is the narrow band allowed to take up these visas—will be published in the usual way via the Home Office’s quarterly immigration statistics.

In general, the issue here is not necessarily what the business-as-usual traffic in Kent is but whether the scale of disruption happening at the short straits is necessary to protect the people of Kent from extreme congestion as people suddenly decide to rat run through the villages, create havoc and basically stop its economy and social life. That is what we are trying to do with Operation Brock. It is critical to have it on standby so that we can deploy it when needed.

Before I turn to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, I might as well mention HCV parking, an incredibly important point that the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, raised. The Government are well aware of the issues around drivers’ working conditions. I was in Kent only last Friday, at Ashford International Truckstop, which I had the honour of unveiling a plaque to open. I think it was my second plaque, and I was very pleased with it. It is a very high-quality facility; it has space for 650 vehicles and is located very close to the M20, so will really help people using the short straits. If I can replicate that standard in all the hot spots across the country for HCV parking, I will be happy, but first we have to find where those hot spots are. There is much work to be done; we have a pot of £32.5 million, which we will use to work with the private sector to ensure that our truckers have safe, secure, warm, comfy places to stop.

I turn to the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, who described the minor change to the order very well. It occurred because of circumstances that conspired against us; nevertheless, the system should have made sure that the right SI went to the final place. It did not, and we are reviewing our procedures yet again to make sure that that cannot happen again in future. It is a very minor change.

The usage of Brock is a decision for the Kent Resilience Forum, because it understands its local community best; it understands traffic flows and how disruption would spill over into local communities. The Kent Resilience Forum is made up of all sorts of stakeholders, including the police, the council, National Highways and people who have the interests of Kent at heart and are able to get Brock on to the M20 as quickly as possible to ensure that we coral the HCVs and manage the flow carefully.

Some of what the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, mentioned is already in the letter that I sent on 1 November. There is a lengthy section about costs, which I hope will reassure him. I am happy to answer any further questions he has on that, but the letter sets out the costs to Kent County Council and National Highways of the barrier either being in place or sitting around waiting to be put in the place, in the event of disruption.

Of course, it is for the Kent Resilience Forum to decide what serious disruption looks like and the circumstances in which it might occur. We can probably think of all sorts of cases. We do not know what future weather conditions will be like. Storms in the English Channel may be more frequent; who knows? If I were to stand here three years ago and say that we would need it in the event of a massive global pandemic, you would have laughed at me, so I am not now going to think of a list of situations that would lead to serious disruption. It suffices to say that this decision is not taken lightly; it is resource-intensive and creates disruption. Nobody wants a queue of truckers on the M20, but it is necessary to protect the people of Kent. That is the balance that needs to be struck in the deployment of Brock.

We deployed the QMB at the start of 2021, when we were not sure what the arrangements at the French border would be and whether they would cause delays. It was stood down in April and then deployed again in July. Noble Lords will recall that there was some uncertainty back then as to what would happen at the French border over testing and how long it would take people to get through at the French side. Certainly our numbers were not looking great, even for very small levels of traffic going to France. It was deployed on a precautionary basis for a further two weeks in July, but was subsequently removed when the disruption was not as significant as we thought it would be.

I will write with any further insights I have on that but, in the meantime, I commend these regulations to the Committee.

Motion agreed.

Committee adjourned at 4.43 pm.