(HANSARD) in the second session of the fifty-second parliament of the united kingdom of great britain and northern ireland commencing on the seventh day of may in the forty-sixth year of the reign of





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House of Lords

Monday, 11th October 1999.

Reassembling after the Summer Recess, the House met at half-past two of the clock: The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Chichester.

Baroness Barker

Elizabeth Jean Barker, having been created Baroness Barker, of Anagach in Highland, for life--Was, in her robes, introduced between the Baroness Hamwee and the Lord Wallace of Saltaire.

Baroness Wilkins

Rosalie Catherine Wilkins, having been created Baroness Wilkins, of Chesham Bois in the County of Buckinghamshire, for life--Was, in her robes, introduced between the Lord Carter and the Lord Ashley of Stoke.

Lord Seaford --Sat first in Parliament after the death of his kinsman.

Coaches: Roadworthiness Checks

2.48 p.m.

Lord Dunleath asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether the roadworthiness of coaches in Britain is satisfactory, and whether in recent months one in 10 have failed roadside safety checks carried out by the police and by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, the Vehicle

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Inspectorate operates a systematic programme of roadworthiness checks, both at the roadside and at operators' premises. Selected checks focused on vehicles with potential defects showed problems with one in 10 vehicles inspected, although these were not all sufficiently serious to prohibit the vehicle from continuing its journey. A more accurate indicator of fleet compliance emerges from the recent random survey at operators' premises which showed that fewer than one in 15 vehicles had one or more defects.

Lord Dunleath: My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for his comprehensive reply--all the more so because I know that both he and his department have so much to deal with at present. Obviously, when I tabled this Question, no one could have foretold that two public transport tragedies would occur. In view of the fact that a Statement is to be made later this afternoon, it would be inappropriate for me to say more in that respect. However, is the Minister aware of the increasing number of mainland British coach operators who are re-registering their vehicles with Northern Ireland licence plates? These are not cherished or personalised numbers. Your Lordships will be aware that Northern Ireland plates do not carry an age-related prefix or suffix letter. It would therefore seem a blatant attempt by these operators to hide the age of their coaches. Does the Minister agree that coach passengers, and indeed road users in general, would be better served if this practice were to cease?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, as the noble Lord will be aware, the figures to which I have referred relate to Great Britain and the checks which have been reported on in Great Britain. The Vehicle Inspectorate is in close contact with the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland because we are aware of some of these problems. Of course if the Vehicle Inspectorate and the police suspect that coaches, wherever registered, have a defect, they can be checked. Checks involving pulling coaches off the road are not related

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to the age of coaches. Nevertheless we are aware that there is a problem here. Discussions are proceeding with the Northern Ireland authorities.

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, does the Minister agree that one bus in 15 found to be defective in a random check is a pretty poor statistic? As a regular bus user I am sometimes glad that I do not travel far in them. Does the Minister agree that the answer is to give the Vehicle Inspectorate a much larger budget with which to undertake its work and to hypothecate some of the fines arising from convictions for defects in order to reduce greatly the figure of one bus in 15 being defective?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, in this area it is far more important to make sure that a dangerous vehicle does not continue its journey or, in the case of a lesser fault, to ensure that it is put right within a limited period of days than it is to impose fines. While there may be concern about resources, the issue of fines is not the most relevant one here. In conjunction with the police, the Vehicle Inspectorate has stepped up its activities substantially in this area, particularly with regard to Operation Tourist and Operation Coachman. That has resulted in publicity being given to these figures.

Viscount Simon: My Lords, is the Minister aware of the anomaly whereby the driver of a UK coach can exceed his hours considerably and not be prohibited from proceeding whereas, under the Road Traffic (Foreign Vehicles) Act 1972, a foreign coach driver can be stopped immediately and prohibited from proceeding? Is that not a road safety anomaly which should be addressed?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, my noble friend is correct to say that there are certain anomalies as regards coach drivers, foreign vehicles and lorry drivers. Last year we indicated in the transport White Paper that we would consider rationalising the regulations which apply to lorries and to public service vehicles in this area where there is some inconsistency as between UK and EU rules. We have deferred doing so until the European directive extending the working time directive to the road haulage sector is completed. As noble Lords may be aware, those negotiations are still proceeding. In the light of that, we shall consult on rationalising the rules about which my noble friend is concerned.

Earl Attlee: My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the Vehicle Inspectorate undertakes its duties without fear or favour, that a vehicle is either safe on the road or it is not, and that age is immaterial? Does the Minister agree that the real problem lies with goods vehicles because the consignor is less concerned with safety than people who hire buses or coaches?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I can certainly assure the noble Earl that the Vehicle Inspectorate and the police who assist in these inspections carry out their duties without fear or favour and that age is not the key

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concern. Safety is always the key concern. It is difficult to “read across" as regards prohibitions and the assessment of lorries because clearly most lorries are stopped, checked and prohibited on grounds of being overloaded or exceeding drivers' hours. Those grounds do not apply in the same way as regards coach and bus drivers. Nevertheless, there is a problem with regard to lorries. The Vehicle Inspectorate is determined that the general safety of lorries on our roads--as I know the noble Earl will be well aware--is also the concern of respectable operators within the road haulage industry. We hope to take action on that front.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: My Lords, does the Minister feel that in view of the fact that the proprietors of these vehicles are ultimately responsible in this matter, his dismissal of fines may endanger the public?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I did not dismiss fines. I said that the immediate issue is to stop public service vehicles carrying passengers if the former pose a danger on the road. Fines are a secondary matter. I take the noble Lord's point that fines can be an effective deterrent but the main issue is whether we allow unsafe buses to continue to use our roads. The Vehicle Inspectorate has a clear policy that an immediate prohibition is appropriate in those circumstances.

Road Haulage Vehicles: Taxation

2.55 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they are taking any steps to compensate for the widening differential between taxation applied to British road haulage vehicles, including fuel, and the taxation of similar vehicles registered in continental Europe.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the Government believe that the best way of helping the UK haulage industry is to create a climate of sustainable economic growth and long-term investment in business. When considering issues of competitiveness, we must look at both the total tax burden and other social and business costs. Taking all those factors into account, the Government believe that the position of UK hauliers compares favourably with the position of hauliers in many other EU member states.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his reply which brings in the question of social taxation and insurance. However, is he aware that besides the road haulage industry other businesses are also affected, such as those which have to own their own lorries because of their trading

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requirements? Would the Minister be surprised if British operators were to apply for registration abroad?

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