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9 Oct 2006 : Column 101

The hon. Member for Stroud plaintively says, “It’s a no-brainer. Where is the opposition coming from?” It is clear that it is coming not from the industry but from Brussels or whoever it is within the bowels of the United Nations who decides what sort of reflective tape should go round a lorry. That is a decision that should be made in a sovereign nation. If we have signed up to legislation saying that somebody else should be making that decision, I say that we should unsign it and say that this is a matter that should be devolved. We are perfectly capable of deciding for ourselves in this country what sort of reflective illuminated tape should go round our HGVs.

Frankly, it was even more astounding that the Minister then went on to say that he had been responsible for taking action against states that have pressed ahead with the legislation before the UN or the EU has got around to it, because it is anti-competitive. I speak as somebody who knows a bit about the hardships faced by people in the haulage industry. If the Minister is worried about anti-competitive measures, why is he not looking at the fact that vehicle fines and tachograph procedures are not properly enforced on the drivers of foreign vehicles that come here? Why is he not looking at fuel duty? Every British haulier could tell him that we are paying far more in fuel duty than anywhere else in Europe, and that we have to pay to use roads on the continent, yet when continental drivers come over here, they do not have to pay for any of that. That is why so many of the very large operators are now registering their companies in the Netherlands and elsewhere—to get out of paying some of the taxes. As a result, British hauliers are going out of business.

I particularly want to speak to new clause 21. This, too, is a bit of a no-brainer. I do not know whether the LGV test has changed significantly since I took it back in the early 1990s. At the time, it involved a minimum of two weeks’ training and at least 40 minutes was spent taking the test itself. We got those licences and took that training in a flat-bed vehicle with a tractor fitted with a rear window and a rear-view mirror, so it was relatively easy. As soon as one gets out on to the roads, one is normally driving either a box-type vehicle or a curtain-sider. Even if one is driving a flat-bed, obviously for much of the time it is fully loaded. I have driven many kinds of articulated vehicles both here and abroad, and my recollection is that very few of the cabs are fitted with a rear-view mirror. Even if there is a rear window it is quite distracting for drivers to look in a rear-view mirror because, most of the time, they will be driving a fully loaded vehicle and will be unable to see anything out of it.

It is obvious that if the driver of a 40ft, 40 tonne vehicle has only the driver-side mirror to look into when trying to move back across from the fast lane or, on a motorway that forks, to go into a left-hand lane, they are driving a death-trap. Driving on the continent, the danger is greatly magnified. So once again, we have a new clause that is a complete and utter no-brainer. In fact, it was news to me that someone could drive an articulated or goods vehicle without a mirror on the passenger side. I find that quite extraordinary. No responsible haulier would send a vehicle out like that, although I do know from experience that there are plenty of irresponsible ones around, so it would not surprise me if one or two do.

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I can add to the debate only by pointing out that a 3.5 tonne vehicle is still a dangerous one to be driving without a passenger-side mirror. Most people would think of such a vehicle as being a Ford transit, but there are larger vehicles that have a slightly lower payload but nevertheless can travel at 80 mph. I would not know that from experience of course, but many of them will be able to do that. Those vehicles will often be in the middle lane if not the fast lane of the motorway, and the idea that they could be changing lanes without a passenger mirror is absolutely frightening.

We must bear it in mind that any sort of goods vehicle will often be loaded, and any loaded vehicle, whether it is a flat-bed or some sort of a box, will not allow a proper view out of the rear-view mirror. We should therefore not only be pushing for HGVs—anything over 3.5 tonnes—to have a passenger mirror as quickly as possible, but extending that to any kind of goods vehicle.

I am totally anti-regulation, as a rule. I am completely against piling further unnecessary regulation on to the haulage industry because I have seen so many of my friends going bankrupt as a result of unnecessary regulation, but this is one bit of regulation that no responsible operator would want to avoid. It is one thing that we ought to do to increase safety on the roads and ensure that responsible hauliers are not operating at a disadvantage because the irresponsible cowboys are driving vehicles that should not be let loose on the road.

Dr. Ladyman: I do not know how many different ways I can say it: the United Kingdom is a law-abiding nation that signs treaties and then tries to live by them. We believe in the rule of law, and when we agree to follow certain rules and laws, we do not break them and we do our best to make sure that everybody else complies with them. That is the way we live our lives, because once we break that rule as a Parliament—once we say that there are some laws that we as a nation can ignore—we are saying that everybody can ignore any law that they do not particularly like.

We signed a treaty that stated that because there are competitive issues involved in the type approval of vehicles, we would abide by rules laid down at the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. Why did we choose UNECE to lay down those rules? I cannot tell the House that. I was not involved at the time that we made those agreements. I suspect that that occurred under the previous Government. The reason is that not every state in Europe is a member of the European Union, and we needed a set of type approval rules that would cover not just the European Union but Switzerland, Norway and any other country whose vehicles might be driving through Europe, so we agreed to follow UNECE regulations.

European law—the European Community regulations —requires us to go along with UNECE regulations on type approval. Those regulations provide for retro-reflective tape to be made mandatory. In the discussions we are pressing for that to happen as soon as possible, but that is unlikely to be before January 2010. We will press harder to try and get it done faster. I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) will accept that assurance from me, but the date is likely to be 2010.

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The measure may involve only a small amount of money on the price of a new vehicle, but it is a point of principle that we must have the type approval. The hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) accuses me from the Opposition Front Bench of being pusillanimous for not agreeing to break the law, which, as I have explained, is the position he is trying to put me in. He calls that pusillanimous. I call it the reason why we have a Parliament in this country.

The hon. Gentleman then argues that we should obey the same rule in respect of close proximity mirrors and the fitting of mirrors on the side of vehicles. He spoke to the new clause calling for the fitting of close proximity mirrors. The same rules that he says we should break when it suits us are the rules that will require those to be fitted to new vehicles in Europe from the beginning of next year. If we decide not to obey the rules, will we accept that people elsewhere in Europe can decide not to bother with close proximity mirrors and drive into our country in future? Is it only when we agree with a set of rules under the treaty that we will obey them?

8.30 pm

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend is in danger of rolling two things into one. Those of us who do not take a xenophobic attitude towards Europe, as some Opposition Members obviously do, would argue that we want to abide by the rules, but when my hon. Friend tells us that something as simple as putting reflective tape on heavy goods vehicles cannot become law until 2010, there is something seriously wrong. Our Government should go in with hobnail boots on and deal with the matter. It is not a little matter if someone dies on our roads. It is a big matter if one person dies because of the lack of reflective tape. I hope my hon. Friend will give the House an assurance—the House usually agrees with him on transport safety matters—that he will go in with hobnail boots and do something about the implementation date.

Dr. Ladyman: I can certainly give my hon. Friend the assurance that we will press for as early an implementation as possible. If it can be done earlier than 2010, we will press for that, but I have a duty to give the House a realistic assessment of how long such matters usually take. Our assessment is that it will probably take until 2010. If we can get agreement to implement the measure more quickly, we will do so. There is nothing to stop the voluntary fitting of the tape by anyone who is buying a new vehicle. What we are not allowed to do is require the mandatory fitting of it by everybody who brings a new lorry into Europe in the intervening time, but I can assure my hon. Friend that I will be pressing as hard as possible to try to get the issue resolved as early as we can.

David T.C. Davies rose—

Dr. Ladyman: I come now to some of the hon. Gentleman’s comments. I shall give him an opportunity to intervene in a moment. I shall be very rude about
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him and I expect he will want to intervene. When he spoke about passenger-side mirrors, he claimed an expertise which I am not convinced he has. We are not talking about passenger-side mirrors. Of course lorries must have passenger-side mirrors. We are talking about an additional close proximity mirror, which will be required by law—the same laws and rules to which the Opposition object—to be fitted in new vehicles from January next year.

The new clause would require us to make that mandatory now. By the time we have Royal Assent and we have done all the paperwork and got the lawyers involved, it will be quicker to wait for the new European requirement to be introduced in January. The hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) kept speaking about passenger mirrors. We are not dealing with passenger-side mirrors. Neither he nor the hon. Member for North Shropshire correctly referred to them as close proximity mirrors. They and other speakers implied that the problem that we face with the side-swiping of vehicles would disappear once close proximity mirrors were fitted.

I challenge that, although I think close proximity mirrors will have a role to play in reducing the incidence of side-swiping. The hon. Member for North Shropshire gave the statistics for the number of accidents caused by side-swiping as vehicles change lane. What he did not tell the House was that 80 per cent. of vehicles involved in such accidents already had close proximity mirrors fitted. So close proximity mirrors are not the solution—or at least they are not the only solution—to this problem.

That is why the Department for Transport has been showing real leadership across the European Union in exploring the question of what is the genuine blind spot that causes these accidents. We are about to start a trial with a Fresnel lens, which we will distribute to a number of lorry drivers coming into some of the channel ports, because we believe that such lenses allow the driver to see not the blind spot that close proximity mirrors reveal, but a blind spot that appears to exist to the side and just to the front of heavy goods vehicles. If that experiment is successful, we will have gone a long way toward preventing side-swiping.

Close proximity mirrors will reduce some of the problem and they will be fitted from the start of the new year, but we should not kid ourselves or anybody else that they will be the solution to the problem, because, as the statistics show, 80 per cent. of side-swiping incidents are caused by vehicles that already have close proximity mirrors. I should also point out to the House that none of the four fatalities caused by this sort of accident involved a foreign-registered vehicle; they were all British vehicles.

Mr. Paterson: I have not mentioned close proximity mirrors. Our new clause 21 is written in very simple language. It states:

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That would prevent the traumatising of innocent young Hungarian truck drivers who come here without mirrors on their passenger side, and it would also have an effect on UK drivers.

Dr. Ladyman: The hon. Gentleman has phrased a new clause in a way that requires a mirror to display all parts of the road. What I am saying is that my officials believe that the mirrors currently available, and which it is proposed should be fitted to the vehicle fleet—whether by Europe or by anybody else—leave a blind spot to the front and the side of the vehicle, and that nobody has yet devised a solution to that problem. We are going to test Fresnel lenses to see whether they are a solution to the problem. We will distribute them free in a pilot, along with educational material, to discover whether they help people to see the particular blind spot that we think is causing the side-swiping incidents. For that reason, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree to withdraw his new clause, and that he will accept my reassurance that we are taking this matter extremely seriously, are pushing ahead and will attempt to solve the problem as quickly as possible.

As was rightly pointed out, as I represent a Kent constituency, this matter is of considerable importance to me and I am not going to let it sit on the back burner. I am going to push as hard as I can, but I want a solution that works and that is supported by the evidence—not one that is just a reaction to the knee-jerk xenophobia that says that this must be something to do with foreign lorry drivers with a blind spot on the passenger side.

David T.C. Davies: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way and I can assure him that he need not spare my feelings: many people in the Chamber both here and in Wales have been a lot ruder to me than he was just then. We have phrased the new clause in simple language, and perhaps the language that I used was a little simple, as well. Perhaps I reverted to a past profession, when I should have remembered that when one enters politics, one should try to use loquacious language. Nevertheless, the Minister knew exactly what we meant.

It is important that we solve this problem. The Minister must travel to the continent quite a lot, so he must know that when we go to France, we have to change the lights on the front of our cars in order to fit in with French regulations. Therefore, for him to say that we cannot do something different in Britain, either with cars or heavy goods vehicles, from what is being done on the continent surely cannot be correct, because different countries on the continent already apply different rules and expect drivers—whether of heavy goods vehicles or not—to obey them.

Dr. Ladyman: French drivers and other continental drivers when they come to this country have to fit lenses to their cars so that the lights dip on the other side. The rule is the same for all of us. When we drive on the right the lights have to dip in one direction and when we drive on the left they dip in the opposite direction, so that is not a good analogy. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman does not think that I was being particularly rude to him. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron), said that I need to try harder.

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Rob Marris: May I suggest that when my hon. Friend is considering mirrors with blind spots he should do what we did when I drove buses in the ’70s in Canada. On the passenger side we had an arm sticking out on the front on the passenger side, somewhat like a proboscis, with a convex mirror on it. A convex mirror, properly positioned, will get rid of almost every blind spot, and the solution has been around for 30 or more years.

Dr. Ladyman: I will certainly ensure that my hon. Friend’s suggestion is considered, but I hope that he will accept the general principle from me that resolving the issue of side-swiping is not the simple matter that some people, and some newspapers in particular, have portrayed it to be. However, we are determined to get to the bottom of it.

I come now to audible warning devices. The hon. Member for North Shropshire said that I had made certain promises in Committee, and I have honoured those promises. My officials raised the matter at the meeting in September of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe on brakes and running gear. We asked for information from international sources on the incidence of runaway trucks and trailers and the level of the problem that he has identified, and member states represented there have shown considerable interest in the fact that we have raised this issue. We are waiting for responses from them and we intend to pursue the matter through the UNECE and hopefully therefore obtain buy-in from all continental member states in order to resolve the issue in due course. On that basis, I hope that he will not push the new clause to a vote.

With regard to daytime running lights there is the new clause with its literal meaning proposed by the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), and then there is his real concern, which I share, that changes in the EU might lead to mandatory fitting of daytime running lights and even their mandatory use on all vehicles on all the roads of Europe. I have strongly opposed that in all forums that I have been represented at. In particular, I made strong representations at the Transport Council that that is not in the interests of road safety—for exactly the reasons that the right hon. Gentleman gave. In this country, because motorcycles use day-time running lights, they have greater visibility than they would do if everyone used such lights.

Given that one of the most serious problems that we face in this country is to bring down sharply the stubborn rate of motorcyclist fatalities, we cannot afford to compromise an important safety concern for motorcyclists. Therefore, I have made strong representations at all the meetings at which I have been represented and I intend to do so again at the ministerial road safety conference in Verona in two or three weeks’ time. I am making a presentation about motorcycle safety in general and what we need to do to try to reduce motorcycle casualties, but one of my key points will be the need to maintain the existing state control on the issue, because opinion on whether to compel the use of day-time running lights will vary in different states. In this country, I firmly believe that we should not do so.

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However, I am increasingly pessimistic. The tide is running against me. A number of powerful states believe that it is a good idea. I believe that they think that it is a panacea and an easy solution to which their public will not object and which will help to reduce their casualty statistics. I do not think that it will reduce their casualty statistics, but it will affect our casualty statistics. I will continue to fight the good fight, but I cannot promise that I will win.

Mr. Greg Knight: I am encouraged by the Minister’s reply and think that all hon. Members back his position. If it appears that that change is about to be made, will he bear in mind the special case of historic vehicles, in which case perhaps he would make a plea for such vehicles to be exempted?

8.45 pm

Dr. Ladyman: The right hon. Gentleman is right to identify the fact that heritage vehicles often require special treatment, and I shall do my best to make that case, if the issue arises.

I have covered all the amendments, but I shall briefly return to retro-reflective tape. I hope that the assurance that I have given my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud encourages him to withdraw new clause 12, because I will do my best to push the issue as urgently as I can.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): Unilateral action by this country linked to action by other countries that have expressed an interest is one way to bring the matter to a head. It would force the other treaty signatories to address the issue as a matter of urgency rather than waiting for another four years.

Dr. Ladyman: The problem with unilateral action is that it would encourage infraction proceedings against us and that it would weaken our argument on other matters such as close proximity mirrors, blind-spot mirrors and, perhaps one day, Fresnel lenses. My hon. Friend is a firm supporter of the United Nations and understands the need to obey its rules.

John McDonnell rose—

Dr. Ladyman: I have encouraged my hon. Friend down an avenue that I did not want to encourage him down. We should use the existing structures and work as hard as we can to try to reach an agreement as quickly as possible, but we should not break the laws and treaties to which we have signed up.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud is at least partially reassured. He should know that I am good-hearted in these matters, and I hope that he will withdraw new clause 12.

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