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Earl Attlee: My Lords, has the noble Baroness ever actually applied to a local authority to move an abnormal load?

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, no, I have not. That is why I asked the noble Earl to respond in that way. I am interested to know what people's experience has been. If there are any statistics on that, I hope that they are in the noble Earl's department because I do not have such statistics at my beck and call.

If, as I understand it, the suggestion has been made that at some future date abnormal loads might be accompanied by non-police personnel, I think that that raises extremely important considerations, some of which were referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Mason. It is a question of whether it is desirable to have such accident-prone operations always accompanied by a police presence. I believe that it is. However, if the police are not conducting such loads along the motorway but are still responsible, as I understand might be the case, for conducting them on non-motorway and

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non-dual carriageway roads, a particular difficulty ensues. There will have to be a changeover of escort, but where will it take place? Will we have to provide a space at the junctions of motorways with non-motorway roads so that those huge loads can stop for half an hour while one escort goes off and the other escort checks on? That does not seem an intelligent way of conducting highways business. After all, this is a highways matter that will impact greatly on congestion.

I understand that the cost of escorting heavy loads is about £7 million per year. However, I must point out that escorted loads are the exception rather than the rule. Like other noble Lords, I have been in contact today with the Freight Transport Association and the Road Haulage Association, both of which are on the record as saying that, if payment has to be made, they would rather pay the police to do the job properly than pay a non-police escort to do the job less effectively. Obviously, they would prefer not to have to pay. We would all prefer not to have to pay for the demands that we make on society, but that is just human nature. Nevertheless, those associations recognise that there is a problem for the police who are overloaded with other duties, and they value the fact that the "flashing blue light", as they put it, exercises a great deal more discipline on the roadway than the flashing orange light. People will stop for the police in a way that they would not stop for others. If a heavy load has to go round a roundabout the wrong way, all the streams of traffic approaching that roundabout have to be stopped while the heavy load is manoeuvred. Like those associations, I do not believe that any group of people, except the police, is competent enough or powerful enough to be able to stop four or five streams of traffic while a heavy load negotiates a roundabout. That is why, if they have to pay, those organisations would rather pay the police to do the job.

Perhaps I may pick up a point that was made by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. I think that it would be an excellent idea if the police could retain that charge in their own budgets without having an equivalent amount subtracted from their budgets by the Home Office. That brings me to a much wider point. It is perhaps a little unfair to inflict this on the noble Earl because it is not exactly his cup of tea or departmental responsibility. I refer to the fact that all the emergency services, particularly the fire brigade and the police, are now being asked to do things which are outside their compulsory statutory duties or which are on the borderline of those duties. Although the services can charge for carrying out such duties, the moral context in which they operate says that they cannot make a charge. It is time that we all grew up a little bit and recognised that if someone performs an exceptional service for us, it is reasonable to make a small payment in recompense for that assistance.

Finally, I should like to ask whether this approach to privatising--I do not want to use that word, so perhaps I should say "de-professionalising"--the service--

The Earl of Courtown: My Lords, it is not that.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, I think that it is. We are talking about removing certain duties

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from the police force. Is that part of a whole process whereby a series of activities will be removed from the purlieu of the police? If so, it is an extremely dangerous process.

7.5 p.m.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Mason of Barnsley for initiating this important debate. Many interesting points have been made. I differ from the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, when he suggested that motorists are not inconvenienced or delayed because of abnormal loads. That view is not consistent with the experience of many of us.

A number of fascinating points have been raised in the debate. I refer not least to the comment of the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, who, as the noble Baroness said, asked the interesting question: why should trains go on roads when as a general principle, they should travel on rails? That is a new development and may be another aspect of the privatisation of the railways that we have not encountered previously. Perhaps we shall see more and more trains on the road network of this country. It is an interesting point. I do not think that John Betjeman ever referred to that, although it might have led to some interesting poetry.

My noble friend presented his case with customary skill and raised a number of important issues. He touched on the question of crime. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, could not have been listening at that point. A related element is the question of accidents, which was raised by the noble Baroness. We are now dealing with an issue which is essentially within the domain of the Home Office rather than the Department of Transport; but since the issue has been raised, we must deal with it. I believe that abnormal loads, particularly the mega-abnormal loads to which I shall refer in a moment, are very vulnerable to crime and accidents. As has been said, we need to have the emergency services available to deal with such matters. The presence of the police can be a deterrent to crime--and that is not unimportant.

I have mentioned "mega-abnormal" loads because it is hopelessly inadequate to talk merely of "abnormal" loads and long vehicles with wide loads. There has been a relatively new development during the past 12 or even six months. A number of mega-abnormal loads have been arriving, and will doubtless continue to arrive, on our road networks. Last November we had the first of 20 massive cargoes of 300-ft. convoys, with two units pulling and one steering from the rear. They used--perhaps I should say "engulfed"--two lanes of motorway and crawled to their destination at 10 miles per hour which went down to three miles per hour when they proceeded uphill. That was only the first of those mega-abnormal loads which travelled from Avonmouth to Didcot carrying parts for a new gas power station. With loads of that size it is self-evident that havoc could ensue if anything went wrong. Consequently to avoid any such chaos, one is heavily dependent on the skill and expertise of the escorting service which, in my submission, should most certainly be the police.

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The cost of policing has also been mentioned. Who is responsible for the cost of policing abnormal loads? There seems to be a sort of voluntary arrangement. Should not there be some national policy, as my noble friend asked, because inconsistency of this kind is profoundly unsatisfactory. What is the cost of policing such loads? I believe that the noble Baroness said £7 million, but that is not a satisfactory figure, for the reason I have just given. What is the cost of advertising campaigns warning of such loads? Does not some special recorded telephone service have to be provided in these circumstances which can take 2,000 telephone calls separately? Who pays for all that? What is wrong with transferring the cost to the road haulier?

That suggestion was something that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, effectively went along with. He said that if there were a method of doing that, it is self evidently right that it should be done. I agree entirely with what was said about costing and hypothecation. It makes eminent sense. After all, it is not totally unusual. Football clubs have to pay for the cost of policing inside the football ground, and rightly so. There are other similar areas. I do not wish to go into them now. So it is not an unprecedented way of dealing with the situation.

I am satisfied that efforts are made to minimise inconvenience, but the questions about future policy raised by my noble friend need answering. A number of comments were made about the Home Office review and the question of deregulation. Clearly the Government seem to be stopping short of outright privatisation so far as concerns police forces; but the handling of abnormal loads seems to be a matter that is ripe for a form of privatisation, according to the Government. For reasons I have already given, I believe that it is wrong. It is not the way to deter crime. It may show that the Government are, after all, on the side of the villains. I thought that was what Mr. Heseltine said in one of his more deranged moments over the weekend, but he was not referring to the Government at the time. He does have deranged moments for those of us who remember his waving of the Mace. It is not altogether consistent with sanity. I seem to have upset the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington. I am unhappy about that, because I welcome her back. I like her very much.

The duty to tackle not just accidents and crime but pollution is important. It may well be that these are loads which give rise to pollution. The fact that the police are on the spot is important. The Police Federation is somewhat ambivalent over the matter, but I suspect that it is ambivalent because of the question of cost, with some justification. If we could get rid of that problem, the Government would be off the hook of their obsession with regulation. In fact, they can find a way through the cost difficulties.

Is it right that the Government are talking about escorting drivers within the private sector merely being in possession of full licences for three years? I want to know what criteria will govern the fitness of those whom they might have in mind in terms of recruitment from the private sector. That in my judgment--I have seen it reported in the press--would be hopelessly inadequate. When dealing with abnormal loads and, in particular, mega-abnormal loads, it is surely necessary

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to recruit qualified people who can deal with any emergency. Those matters require training and equipment. I believe that the police, and only the police, are capable of doing that.

Is the Minister aware that, as my noble friend said, in North Wales, hauliers have estimated that it would need three men to take a 12-ft. wide load--a lorry driver, a statutory second man, who would be required on a journey through other police areas, and a private escort--on its journey? Is he aware that it has been submitted that that could add 25 per cent. to delivery costs? Does he agree with that or not? Do the Government appreciate that there are profound concerns about wide loads being carried in areas other than on motorways, as the noble Baroness has just said? That gives rise to deep concerns on the part of people who live in such areas.

Perhaps I may return--I had forgotten this point--to private security firms, which seem to be the candidates for selection by the Government. Private security firms are burgeoning. Apparently about 162,000 people are employed by private security firms. That is roughly the present size of the police force. But there is no statutory mandatory requirement on private security firms to comply with certain criteria as to their fitness. That is vital if one is thinking in terms of recruiting private security firms in this regard. What sort of tests will be applied? Are the Government thinking now of a compulsory register? I believe that to be quintessential if this idea is to be entertained at all.

In relation to this matter, it must be remembered of course that private security firms have only a citizen's right of arrest; that is to say, they can arrest if they can show that an offence has been committed, but they cannot stop and question. That is another corollary of importance in relation to this whole issue.

As I said at the outset, it has been an interesting debate. The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, raised a number of significant points of which I was frankly unaware previously. He did not want a monopoly to be created in terms of the selection of any private force to deal with escort duties. Again, that is a sensible point. He said that the haulier should have an option to call an escort. I do not believe that that is right. I believe that it contradicts the earlier points that he made. He said that it was important to allow the police to be able to stop traffic. They cannot have the right to exercise an option and yet require the police to stop traffic and do the other things about which he was talking.

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