Previous Section Home Page

Column 298

I should like to think that my hon. Friend the Minister will at least be able to say, even if he cannot approve any solution and even if he does not know the answer off the top of his head, that nevertheless there is a problem. If we establish that, we shall be halfway to solving it.

1.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Further and Higher Education (Mr. Tim Boswell): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) on his success in obtaining this Adjournment debate, and for using it to bring the important issue of education for mature advanced level students to the attention of the House. He has done that clearly and eloquently. He has, as he has said himself, done it on the back of a continuing correspondence, and having expressed concern to me repeatedly. I hope that, in turn, he will understand that I cannot give him any instant solutions today, but I have listened carefully, especially to the specific arguments that he has articulated as part of a more general picture. I shall return to those later.

I emphasise that the general system of adult student support that we have stands comparison with that in any other major comparable industrialised country. On the mandatory award side, when student loans were introduced five years ago, the total resources available to students in grants and loans were increased by 25 per cent., and they have increased each year since then, in line with forecast inflation. Those current arrangements in higher education are most generous, and, unlike the situation in many of our competitor countries, the great majority of our students pay nothing towards their fees.

I shall return to the subject of discretionary award provision later, but first I should like to say something about the increasing importance of learning throughout life, which my hon. Friend mentioned, and what the Government are doing to encourage it. We are committed to encouraging all types of adult learning to increase participation in education by adults, and to improve levels of attainment. The evidence is that increasing numbers of people are returning to education. In the past 10 years, there has been an increase of about a quarter in further education enrolments by adults in England and Wales.

More recently, the rapid expansion of the further education sector, since its establishment in 1993, has enabled more adults to undertake the type of formal qualification-bearing courses for which the further education funding councils are now responsible. Indeed, adults now make up the majority of those in the further education sector, and we have witnessed a rapid increase in the number of mature entrants in higher education.

The national targets for education and training provide a commitment and a focus for all of us--employers, unions, educationists, trainers and Government--by highlighting what we need to do to compete with our international rivals. The targets envisage our becoming a skilled nation, and that requires raising the levels of attainment of young people and adults alike.

The lifetime learning targets set challenging goals for individuals and employers to improve skill levels to world class standards. That requires fostering a culture of lifetime learning, and that is reflected in those national

Column 299

targets. We all need to work together to achieve the better educated, more highly skilled, nation that we all require in future. The Government will continue to play their proper part, principally by funding the further education sector. The plans announced in the most recent Budget will support a 25 per cent. increase in FE student numbers in the period 1993-94 to 1996-97. A further 3 per cent. increase in student numbers is planned for 1997-98.

The increase in funding in 1995-96 will be 4 per cent, and adult students will be among those to benefit. The system that we have established, with colleges having control over their own affairs, enables colleges to respond to the needs of their own local communities in the best way possible. The funding council has assisted that process by introducing a funding system that looks at the guidance students get and the outcomes they achieve, not just at student enrolments. Colleges have the incentive to give students the qualifications that suit them best.

My hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge referred to the difficulties that students in Devon and in his constituency are experiencing in obtaining discretionary awards to finance their studies. As my hon. Friend is aware, discretionary awards are, by definition, an area where individual local education authorities may exercise their discretion. It is for them to decide how many awards to make, to which students and at what rates, depending on their view of local needs and priorities. Under the present arrangements, the Secretary of State has no power to intervene unless there is evidence that an authority is acting unlawfully--for example, by operating a policy of "no awards, come what may".

The evidence suggests that, overall, the number of awards made to further education students is holding up. In 1992-93--the latest year for which figures are available--there was an increase of 12 per cent. in the number of FE awards made by local authorities in England and Wales. In the same year, those authorities spent almost £170 million on such awards.

Enrolments in further education sector colleges rose by 5 per cent. between 1992-93 and 1993-94. The strategic plans of colleges indicate that the number of full-time enrolments are expected to rise by 23 per cent. between 1993-94 and 1996-97; and part-time enrolments are expected to rise by 20 per cent in that period.

I am aware, however, that there are wide differences between LEA policies and practices in this area. Where the differences reflect more than the normal variations resulting from decisions about local needs and priorities, and where they amount to some authorities effectively throwing in the towel on discretionary awards, that is of course a matter for concern, locally and nationally. I know that the local authority associations--I met them again last week--are drawing up some voluntary guidelines which should help to address the situation as to both process and substance. That is a very welcome development. The Government are also keeping the situation under review.

My hon. Friend suggested that Devon county was spending only £3 million a year on discretionary awards, against an "expected" total of £7 million. We need to be clear that Devon county council, like every other local authority, is responsible for setting its own budget and

Column 300

deciding its priorities between and within services. The council has the final say on how much it spends on education and how much is spent on other services.

The role of central Government is to set the overall framework for the funding of local authority services nationally and to determine the way in which national "standard spending" totals are distributed between local authorities through the standard spending assessment system, with which my hon. Friend will be familiar.

The 1995-96 local authority grant settlement is a tough one, but it allows LEAs in England to spend £17.204 billion on education--an increase of 1.1 per cent. over the comparable figure for 1994-95, which reflects the priority that we have given to education, among other local services, in the settlement.

Having received its individual education SSA, it is for Devon to set its own budget and to decide what to spend on particular areas of the service, including discretionary awards. The SSAs are not prescriptive, and decisions about how much to spend on education and where to spend it are matters of local discretion. The county council is responsible to its electors. It will assess its own priorities in the light of local circumstances, and take the appropriate action. After adjustment for recoupment--which covers the net costs of `imported' or `exported' pupils-- Devon's SSA for 1995-96 was almost £7 million greater than that for 1994-95. That represents an increase of 2.1 per cent. However, it is entirely for the authority to decide what level of budget to set, and how to spend it.

My hon. Friend also suggested a possible general solution to the problems that he identified: that discretionary award funding should be transferred to the FEFC and then passed to colleges which would make their own awards. That is an interesting suggestion, and I certainly do not wish to discourage a debate of its merits, but I should perhaps point out that it would not be as straightforward as my hon. Friend suggests.

For example, how would one deal with those colleges which are not supported by the funding council--including many of the dance and drama colleges which my hon. Friend mentioned and to which I shall return in a moment? Would it make sense for local authorities to retain responsibility for higher education but not for further education awards? On what basis would the funding council decide how to distribute the available money between colleges? Are all colleges well placed to take on the role of making grants to students, and would they wish to do so?

Of course, a transfer of funds of that sort would not of itself increase the overall amount of money available, and there would be losers as well as winners if funds were reallocated. I should also point out that primary legislation would be needed if we were not to leave local authorities with a legal obligation to consider all applications for awards, but no provision with which actually to make them.

Returning briefly to the subject of dance and drama students which my hon. Friend mentioned, I am aware that in many areas of the country that group faces particular difficulties in obtaining discretionary awards. Their courses, which are largely provided in the private sector, are relatively expensive to support and many LEAs are becoming increasingly unwilling to do that. My hon. Friend is correct to say that. I assure my hon. Friend that

Column 301

the Government are concerned about the implications of that situation, both for individual students and for the future of the dance and drama industries.

My right hon. Friend had a very useful meeting with the chairman of the Arts Council of Great Britain last autumn to discuss the matter. Since then, our officials have been discussing the issues with officials of the Department of National Heritage and the Arts Council. However, I make it clear that, in the current public expenditure climate, there is no prospect of any significant extension of eligibility for mandatory awards to cover students on those courses.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the so-called 21-hour rule. The Government wish to continue to encourage people of all ages to improve their qualifications for productive employment. They have given intensive consideration to how that aim may be supported in setting out the new arrangements under the job seeker's allowance. Our aim was to establish clear and objective new rules which could be easily administered and understood.

From April 1996, the new arrangements will allow people to study for up to 16 guided learning hours. They do not cut eligibility to study from 21 hours; the basis for calculation is different. The new threshold will maintain broadly the same numbers of people who are able to study at present while in receipt of benefit, and it broadly equates to part-time study under the present rules. Individuals can--and should--study privately in addition for as long as they like and still remain eligible for benefit so long as they are available for work. I think that the new arrangements will be clearer, more consistent and more certain for student applicants.

The benefit of Adjournment debates is that it enables hon. Members to offer local perspectives on issues, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for doing that today. There are many educational opportunities in the south Devon area. I know that many people who are involved in education and training in Devon will want to play their part in increasing participation and attainment in adult education. I am grateful for the figures that my hon. Friend supplied about the number of applicants.

There are a number of excellent colleges in south Devon, and if their growth rates are anything to go by--I know that anything up to 14 per cent. a year has been planned--they serve the local population well. I know that the achievement of one of the colleges in a nearby constituency has been recognised by the award of a charter mark. I take this opportunity to congratulate South Devon college and Dr. Keen on that award. It serves as an example of what can be, and is being, achieved.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for expressing his concerns so eloquently. I share his hope that, in the years to come, as a result of our provisions, the educational institutions in Devon--schools, colleges and universities-- will continue to go from strength to strength, and to merit many more accolades.

Column 302

Heavy Goods Vehicles (Safety)

1.29 pm

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): The loss of a dear one in the family or a very good friend is a trauma from which people seldom recover. When that real sense of grief is overlain with deep anger at the feeling that the death may have been avoidable, the pressure is so great that it needs to be expressed, and in this case it is being expressed in the House of Commons.

In the past several years, there has been clear evidence that, because of defects in the way in which they are run, HGVs and large vehicles are increasingly contributing to terrible deaths and even worse injuries. In the frightful case at Sowerby Bridge, where six people lost their lives, not only did it take a considerable time for the case to be considered by the relevant authorities but the maximum fine for the death of six people was £5,000. The effect was to bring together a small group of relatives who have suffered that frightful trauma to alert the House of Commons to a serious and current problem.

The Government rely heavily on the fact that accident statistics are decreasing, but within those numbers it is clear that the problems involving HGVs are not only real but need to be addressed urgently. The Government have behaved with enormous and frightening complacency, despite various campaigns. I make an honourable mention of the one run by the Yorkshire Post , which highlighted some of the terrible things that have happened. The present Minister has told us that we should put pressure on the Home Office and the other agencies concerned to understand the problems.

Let us examine what the Government have done. They have announced a 20 per cent. cut across the board in the Vehicle Inspectorate. It has already been reduced by 15 per cent. since 1991. There has been pressure on the traffic police, who have responsibility for multi-agency stops and are directly responsible for many of the statistics that are of such great importance. For example, the West Mercia police gave me statistics for the total number of checks that they have carried out in a six-month period. There were 473 checks and 365 document requests, but the average mean defect rate was 91.18 per cent.

The police say, sensibly, that those statistics can vary in the type of defect that they reveal. However, vehicles that are capable of inflicting death and injury are travelling our roads. Hauliers are not just cutting costs; some are cutting corners. As one of the relatives told the Minister this week, when he was good enough to see a delegation, we should put life before livelihood.

In 1994, the Vehicle Inspectorate had 1,780 staff; by 1996 that number will be down to 1,268. The front-line enforcement staff will be reduced from 419 to 370. Therefore, we need the Government to produce a policy which is both urgent and immediate.

We must give the traffic commissioners stronger powers. They must have the right to deal with those unlicensed operators who are not part of the licensing system and who are not, therefore, subject to periodical checks. There is already a review of the traffic commissioners' work. I hope that, far from looking at a cost-cutting programme, they will be given increased powers and the ability to initiate work.

Column 303

The Minister said, however, that he is satisfied that the Government do not necessarily seek undemanding roles in these matters. A recent memo to all traffic examiners highlighted the problem:

"As you are aware we are falling behind on some key targets in our activity budgets at this time, with your co-operation we should be able to meet them by changing our methods . . . Due partly to unrealistic targets using present methods partly to unreliable weighbridges, lack of police support and road works we are well behind on both weighing and vehicle inspections . . . It will be helpful if . . . you could approach private weighbridge operators such as those at Quarries, Factories Stock Holders and Agricultural Product Stores, and ask if you may observe weighing in and out. It is realised that no prosecutions will be generated . . . but prevention is supposed to be better than cure."

That is absolutely right, and it is time that the Government started to put that idea into operation with some vigour and commitment.

We must have more, not fewer, roadside checks; we must ask the police not to do away with their traffic divisions, but if necessary to increase the number of those who are capable of carrying out that detailed and highly specialised work. We must not use the report of KPMG Peat Marwick, which apparently will recommend that there should not be long and costly investigations, with major tachograph inquiries, without pointing out that, as a result of some of those inquiries, the directors of two companies have been gaoled and the transport manager of a third company has been given a suspended prison sentence. Those exemplary damages are not handed out without evidence that there is a need for them.

The Government should be seeking a way of developing corporate manslaughter charges. Where there is evidence of consistent neglect or the abuse of drivers' hours, we should know that someone will be prosecuted for that irresponsibility. The Government should introduce consigner liability so that companies that use transport firms have to take responsibility for ensuring that they are employing only reputable contractors.

The fines must be increased. It is bizarre that a £5,000 fine was considered adequate for Sowerby Bridge, yet a company director who was involved in hygiene problems in the catering industry could face a larger fine. The fine for illegal operation is £450, whereas an overload could attract a fine of £750. It is worth while to some cowboys to take a risk that leads to death and injury.

We must seriously consider abandoning the deregulation of the goods vehicle licensing system. Licences are renewed at five-yearly intervals, and I do not believe that the public will continue to accept a system of renewing licences which means that, unless there is a real body of evidence, neither local authorities nor individuals have the opportunity to object to a road haulier having his licence renewed. We must do something to increase enforcement at every level.

We should stop artificial targets for the Vehicle Inspectorate and ensure there is far better training. We should certainly ensure that computer links exist between the courts and the enforcement agencies. There is no reason why those who contravene the law of the land should be able to escape. Some cases avoid proper detection for many months because the statistics have been lost between the courts and traffic enforcement agencies, even if they eventually arrive on the right desk at the right time.

Column 304

Company directors who know that they are running sub-standard vehicles and pushing their drivers well beyond the hours they should work should be punished. They will not be punished adequately by the courts unless the Government make clear their anger and their commitment to changing the way in which they are operating. The Magistrates Association will respond only if it is made clear that the House of Commons does not accept what is happening.

On several occasions, the Minister has asked my little voluntary organisation--consisting only of relatives of those who have been killed or injured in accidents involving heavy goods vehicles--to put enormous pressure on the Home Office. On Monday, he said that he would act when he saw evidence of illegal operations. Let me remind the Minister that, two years ago, his own Department set up an illegal operation working party under the traffic area co-ordinating division, which recommended the introduction of power to impound vehicles. The Government should be considering that now.

I feel so indignant about the matter that I could easily speak for longer than my allotted time. We are talking about people's lives, and the destruction of families and homes. The Minister will not be able to wave that aside with bland assurances; we want him to paint a clear picture of the measures that he personally intends to introduce.

Several hon. Members rose --

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse): Order. Do I understand it that those who wish to speak have the agreement of both the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) and the Minister?

Mrs. Dunwoody: Certainly.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Have they the agreement of the Minister?

The Minister for Transport in London (Mr. Steve Norris): Yes.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: In that case, I call Mr. Tyler.

1.40 pm

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I did not expect to be able to speak. No doubt the Minister will be glad to learn that I shall do so very briefly.

Let me emphasise two aspects of the speech of the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). First, she expressed an all-party concern. She generously allowed me to join a deputation to the Minister earlier this week; we are grateful to him for meeting members of the campaign for safer lorries, also known by the shorter name of Brake.

Secondly, there is a feeling throughout the House that we should emphasise prevention rather than penalty. As the hon. Lady pointed out, effective penalties are an important deterrent, but prevention is more important. It is in that context that hon. Members on both sides of the House have expressed anxiety about the apparent reduction in the manpower strength of those who are responsible for inspecting, monitoring and policing the current regulations.

Column 305

When our deputation met the Minister on Monday, he ruled out the possibility of corporate manslaughter charges. That stance has never been explained to my satisfaction--or, I believe, to the satisfaction of other hon. Members--given that it was considered appropriate to bring such a charge against the owners and operators of the Herald of Free Enterprise. The two instances are exactly comparable: both involve loss of life, disaster and damage on a very large scale, as will be clear to those who add together all the human tragedies that have occurred as a result of heavy lorry operators' going well outside the law.

I am delighted to have been able to speak, albeit briefly. I am also delighted that the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich was able to raise the issue, and I hope for a positive and forward-looking response from the Minister.

1.42 pm

Sir Donald Thompson (Calder Valley): I thank the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) and my hon. Friend the Minister for allowing me to speak briefly. Without this opportunity, my comments would have been made in an intervention--for I know that, with their usual courtesy, the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend would have given way.

Sowerby Bridge is not in my constituency, but I represented Sowerby for a long time. It is a stone's throw from my present

constituency--just a step over the border. The shock generated by the tragedy to which the hon. Lady referred cannot be exaggerated; I join her in congratulating the Yorkshire Post and the local paper, the Courier , on their restrained and sensible campaign. Long-established haulage firms in my constituency, such as Joe Dean, have asked me to convey their belief that safer lorries create better rather than worse business.

The hon. Lady made her points in her own way. I have only one point to add, which was not covered adequately earlier; I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will pick up further points in his reply. I believe that there should be more mobility in regard to traffic inspection points. Cowboys tend to divert their lorries from the fixed points that are often provided because they know where they are likely to be inspected, and that cannot be good. I have written in the past about this matter to the Minister, but I feel that I should mention it again.

1.44 pm

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): I shall speak briefly to allow my hon. Friend the Minister to respond in detail, but I wish to highlight issues raised by the hon. Members for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) and for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler).

Growing concern about lorries that do not meet the safety requirements that we rightly demand is bad news for those who operate within the law. Protection should be provided not only for lorry drivers but for the innocent travelling public who are sometimes involved in horrendous accidents. I have written to my hon. Friend the Minister about the accident that took place on Cromford hill in my constituency last year; another bad accident involving the mother of my constituent Mrs. Williams, also in my constituency, probably led to the formation of the Brake campaign. I pay tribute to the way in which Mrs. Williams has put so much work into bringing the issue to the fore.

Column 306

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will reassure us about the number of inspections that will be carried out. It is vital for the whole road haulage industry to understand that the Government are serious about enforcement. Although we must look for efficiency gains in management costs, we must not be diverted from the need to enforce the law as it stands.

1.45 pm

The Minister for Transport in London (Mr. Steve Norris): I congratulate the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). I am grateful for the opportunity to assure the House that the Government remain fully committed to raising the safety standards of vehicles.

I acknowledge immediately that what the hon. Lady said is supported by hon. Members on both sides of the House. I am delighted that my hon. Friends the Members for Calder Valley (Sir D. Thompson) and for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) were able to speak; I am well aware of their interests in the matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley has taken a particular interest in it since the tragedy in Sowerby, and my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire--a former Transport Minister--has long been concerned about it. Earlier this week, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) came to see me with the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich. We held a useful meeting with the organisers of the lorry safety campaign Brake. The hon. Lady chose to quote what was said then; she has her recollections of the occasion and I have mine, and no doubt any significant differences in our recollections will become clear. Suffice it to say that I believe we should spell out the measures that we ought to take, how they should be developed, what is practical and what is not, the reaction that is, no doubt, understandable on occasions but may be less practicable when implemented on the ground, and how we intend to build on our good record.

We have a good record. We are introducing measures to achieve further improvements, with the objective of making our roads safer. I pay tribute to staff at all levels in the Vehicle Inspectorate--a highly trained body of men and women who are fully committed to keeping our roads safe and working closely with the police and trading standards departments of local authorities throughout the country.

The Government certainly share the objectives of the Brake campaigners. One of those many objectives is to ensure that lorries are properly controlled and adequately maintained. Enforcement measures should be in place to ensure that, and transgressors should be suitably dealt with.

Contrary to what the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich said, we are satisfied that an enforcement regime is in place and that it ensures that the vast majority of lorry operators are operating legally, within the requirements of the operator licensing system. That system sets very high standards: many believe that they are the highest in Europe. Despite that, we are constantly seeking improved ways of targeting enforcement against operators who run outside the system.

We must remember that operators are responsible for maintaining their vehicles in a safe and roadworthy condition. No Government can ever stand over all operators all the time. My hon. Friend the Member for

Column 307

West Derbyshire was quite right to say that the majority of lorry operators try to operate legally and that they deeply resent those who do not. Enforcement is being directed effectively to ensure that transgressors are suitably dealt with.

The enforcement system underpins the individual responsibilities of vehicle operators, with three complementary forms of control. It is important that we recognise each of those components in our control system. The operator licensing system is administered by the licensing authorities. They are independent traffic commissioners, appointed by the Secretary of State and supported by the staff of the eight traffic area offices.

With very few exceptions, hauliers wishing to operate in road haulage must apply to enter the operating licensing system; entry is conditional on having adequate maintenance arrangements, not just when a licence is sought but throughout its life, to ensure that vehicles are maintained and kept mechanically sound. We have produced, in partnership with the industry trade associations, the "Guide for Maintaining Roadworthiness", which sets down the standards that operators are expected to reach in operating their vehicles. The guide has the strong support of the traffic commissioners. An operator's performance in running his or her fleet is kept under review and can be called into question by the licensing review boards of the traffic area offices, which monitor operators' performance and bring together all the relevant data. Those licensing review boards can consider whether to recommend disciplinary action against those who fail to match the formal declaration that they made to the traffic commissioner when they applied for a licence to operate in road haulage. A computerised database has been developed to support those licensing review boards, and the number of cases considered increased from 2,175 in 1991-92 to 3,291 in 1993-94, as the system became more effective.

The Vehicle Inspectorate directly supports the operator licensing system and the traffic commissioners through its work on enforcement and in carrying out maintenance investigations and appraisals. This year, the Vehicle Inspectorate plans to carry out 15,109 in-depth investigations, which are usually directed at new operators, with around 32,000 appraisals.

The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich was quite wrong when she asserted that, under the arrangements now in statute under the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994, there would be any relaxation of the supervision of operators. She is factually wrong. The reality, of course, as she would know had she listened to the debate, is that operators' licences, in every case, will be examined every five years, as now.

On deregulation related to the advertising arrangements for operators, no one has complained on any basis whatever. There are, in fact, better arrangements for representations from members of the public on operators' licences. As the hon. Lady should know, there is an advertisement that offers interested parties a narrow window during which they must post their concerns about the operator's licence. Late representations are routinely ruled out, much to the irritation of those who wish to have them taken into account. It is quite right that we should have the arrangement, which we have developed, to allow

Column 308

people to make representations at any time during the five years and still have those representations taken into account.

Almost all heavy goods vehicles are subject to annual roadworthiness tests by the Vehicle Inspectorate. A certificate is issued if a vehicle is shown to meet safety and emissions standards required to pass that test. In 1993- 94, the Vehicle Inspectorate carried out annual tests of about 448,000 heavy goods vehicles, of which about 127,000 had to be retested, and about 224,000 trailers, of which 43,000 had to be retested.

As well as roadworthiness tests and the operator licensing arrangements, checks are made at the roadside to ensure that UK lorries are operated safely and within the law. Checks are also made on foreign vehicles using our roads. This year, the Vehicle Inspectorate plans to carry out about 120,000 roadworthiness checks on lorries and trailers, including more than 5,000 foreign vehicles. I must tell my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley that those spot checks are a powerful deterrent, as an immediate prohibition is issued for vehicles found to have significant defects, and that ban is not lifted until the inspectorate is satisfied that the defect has been remedied.

Prohibitions were issued on 16 per cent. of vehicles checked in that way in 1993-94. My hon. Friend is quite right to say that there should be an element of surprise in the way in which the checks are carried out, so that operators do not simply seek to avoid the areas where they think that the checks will take place.

In addition to roadworthiness checks on lorries, the Vehicle Inspectorate also checks that other requirements are being met, including correct documentation, overloading, drivers' hours, tachographs, vehicle lighting, tyres and placarding of hazardous loads, all of which can have a direct effect on the safe operation of lorries. The Vehicle Inspectorate aims to carry out those checks on some 306,000 lorries in 1994-95. In 1993-94, checks of that nature resulted in some 15,000 prosecutions. It is the Government's intention that lorry standards should be maintained and that enforcement should be directed against those who operate outside the law, or fail to maintain their vehicles and meet the requirements of the operator licensing system.

Much has been made--indeed, the hon. Lady referred to it--of the Department's 20 per cent. efficiency gains initiative. I want to assure the House, not for the first time, that we are quite clear that the level of enforcement by the Vehicle Inspectorate is being maintained. The efficiency gains that the Vehicle Inspectorate is achieving arise from a variety of measures, including reductions in middle management, rationalisation of the organisation, reduced accommodation costs, an increased use of information technology and improved productivity of inspectorate staff at all levels. The Vehicle Inspectorate expects to achieve the targets set without any reduction in its effectiveness as a road safety agency or in the level of enforcement that it provides. The effectiveness of that work and the position on resources and staffing for enforcement are kept constantly under review. Each year, the Department agrees with the inspectorate a balance of enforcement work to match the enforcement requirements of the Department and the traffic commissioners.

Column 309

Enforcement is directed against a broad range of requirements and the mix of enforcement activity is kept under review, and redirected where considered necessary, to address any new priorities. For example, more enforcement effort has been directed to drivers' hours, and tachograph investigations have been carried out by a Vehicle Inspectorate task force to address the particular concerns of the traffic commissioners, because, of course, tiredness among drivers is a lethal cause of accidents. It is entirely right that, if one is looking to operate a safe regime, one should direct substantial effort at tachograph investigations. Interestingly, we carry out about twice as many such investigations as other European countries. Our record on that is second to none.

We are also looking at the problem of illegal operators. A small minority chooses to operate illegally outside the system and enforcement is being targeted against them. It is true that the scale of illegal operations is difficult to estimate, and we are currently examining how a more precise quantification of the size of the problem can be obtained.

Contrary to what the hon. Lady asserts, I have not asked Brake to produce that evidence, or in any sense challenged it or relied on it to do that. I merely suggested that, if it had any information on that score, I would be more than happy to receive it, because it is important that the organisation should not feel that it is being told that it must rely solely on the statistics gathered by the Department. When one is in the area of illegal operations, by definition one must be prepared to take a fairly wide view on where the information comes from.

We want to take action against illegal operators on two broad fronts: first, by building up information to identify who they are; and, secondly, by targeting the locations where we know they may be. We recognise our own responsibilities as a major contractor of civil engineering work in that respect. Discussions are still taking place on the detail, and I am grateful to the Federation of Civil Engineers and Contractors, which responded positively to the introduction of checks by main contractors on the licence status of vehicles delivering to and from the Department's own construction sites, for providing

Column 310

facilities for checks and displaying signs warning drivers that checks will be carried out. I know that the Welsh Office and the Scottish Office have taken similar initiatives.

The objective, of course, is to prosecute the illegal operator in court, where, I hope, a suitably heavy fine will be awarded. Another objective is to persuade the illegal operator to apply for a licence and enter the licensing system. Once in the system, the performance and subsequent transgressions that result in prosecutions can be taken into account by the traffic commissioner when considering disciplinary action against a licence holder or a driver. I am satisfied that the traffic commissioners are mindful of the need to perform their statutory duties for operator and driver discipline with due regard to ensure that the procedures are properly followed and that appropriate disciplinary action is taken where justified. Enforcement needs to be supported by data sharing. Some computer systems are already in place and others are being developed to support the enforcement and roadworthiness work of the Vehicle Inspectorate and the operator licensing function of the traffic area offices.

I want to say a few words to the hon. Member for North Cornwall about the concept of corporate manslaughter. I must make it clear to him that it is not directly my policy area in terms of constructing the criminal law. As he rightly said, I told the campaigners that there are already a whole range of remedies, including legislation on manslaughter, for such cases. I entirely take his point about the existence of the concept of corporate manslaughter and its applicability in other circumstances.

Although I do not want to rule out the prospect of other offences being created on the statute book, I reiterate that there is already a panoply of offences. From his experience, the hon. Gentleman will understand that the diffidence of the courts is often at issue. They are diffident about bringing charges in such difficult areas. I am satisfied that our effective and valuable enforcement system plays a vital part--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris): Order. Time is up.

Column 311

Next Section

  Home Page