Select Committee on European Communities Seventeenth Report


Letter from Lord Whitty, Minister for Roads, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, to Lord Tordoff, Chairman of the Committee

  The report of the House of Commons Select Committee on European Legislation (Report 38 Session 1997-98) on the Explanatory Memorandum 10435/98 which I submitted on 14 September, asked several questions. These are answered in the annex to this letter (not printed).

  The Austrian Presidency are pushing ahead fast with this draft directive, and it is possible that they will succeed in their aim of reaching a deal at the Transport Council on 30 November. Agreement, which is still not certain, will depend on a number of compromises, and the chances of our getting a text we can live with inevitably depends to some extent on whether we can lift all our reserves as part of a package. I therefore very much hope that you will be able to agree that John Reid should be able to lift the Parliamentary scrutiny reserve.

  Following the meeting of Coreper last Thursday the majority view is as follows:

    —  The definition of combined transport would be changed so that Island Member States (in practice, the UK and Ireland) need not regard road/sea as "combined transport". That means that we can continue our policy of favouring road/rail combined transport and that 44 tonne lorries need only be allowed for the latter purpose.

    —  The lorry weights requirements would be changed so that island states may require lorries over 40 tonnes to have three axle tractors (the front part of an articulated vehicle or road train). Because of the distribution of load between axles, this will eliminate the worst problems we foresaw in terms of road damage.

    —  The requirements on lorry bans will make it clear that driving bans in urban areas would not be affected provided that certain through routes are exempted (in other words, to ensure that the London and similar lorry bans will not be affected).

  The outstanding issue is the provision for tax rebates. Although this has now been amended so that the tax rebates are permissive, where they had previously been obligatory, we remain of the view that proposals containing tax measures should be based upon Article 99 of the Treaty, which requires unanimity, rather than Article 75 which is QMV.

  If there is sufficient support to stop the Directive we will do so. But if the UK looks like being left in a non-blocking minority over an unsatisfactory text, it is vitally important that we do all we can to secure the position set out above—otherwise we risk being outvoted and losing the concessions anyway. That would have potentially serious consequences in terms of the loss of rail freight to road and increases in the types of heavy lorries on our roads.

  This means that we may have to signal that we will be prepared to lift all our reserves. In these circumstances, and assuming that Jimmy Hood is content that we should do so, we propose to lift all reserves if we can agree a text which meets the concerns of the Committee in the way set out above. It is unfortunate that we have been unable to complete the Parliamentary scrutiny process but if we cannot sign up to any of this at the Council because of the Parliamentary scrutiny reserve, we again risk being outvoted and losing the concessions anyway.

24 November 1998

Letter from Lord Tordoff, Chairman of the Committee, to Lord Whitty, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

  The scrutiny of this proposal began with your submission of your Explanatory Memorandum (EM) of 14 September 1998. Sub-Committee B revisited the matter at its meeting this morning.

  The Committee notes that the expectation in your letter of 24 November 1998 of a Decision at the end-November Council was, notwithstanding various changes in the proposal, not realised. Moreover, we understand that prospects for progress have diminished substantially.

  We remain of the view that this is an important subject, and should therefore be grateful if you would bring us up to date with the picture as you now see it, including an updated EM.

  At the same time, we understand that the proposal remains under scrutiny reserve by the House of Common's European Scrutiny Committee pending clarification of the Government's reasons for arguing for Article 99 as the legal basis for the tax measure in the proposal. This Committee would also welcome clarification on that point.

  In the meantime, the scrutiny reserve is retained

29 April 1999

Letter from Lord Whitty, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Region, to Lord Tordoff, Chairman of the Committee

  Thank you for your letter of 29 April seeking an update and a revised EM on this proposal.

  You are correct in your assumption that no agreement was reached on the proposal at the November Transport Council. A discussion on the principles took place at the March Transport Council but, again, no clear conclusions were reached. It seems unlikely that there will be any further discussion in this Presidency but there is a possibility that the Finns will revive it.

  I entirely agree with you on the importance of combined transport as a means of getting freight away from roads onto more environmentally friendly means of transport but, in the Government's view, the proposal would not achieve this, at least in the UK. Our main concern has been to remove the side effects which would have been counterproductive in the UK—for example, removing freight from rail and compelling us to allow unacceptable heavy lorries. More importantly, we have argued in Brussels that the key to encouraging combined transport lies not in marginal measures aimed at the road legs of such movements but in getting the railways to provide high quality and reliable services which are responsive to customer needs.

  Since the proposal contains an article that attaches conditions to the granting of tax rebates, and this would have implications for our ability to set VED rates or rebates, the Government's view is that it should not be agreed other than by unanimity, which in this context means having Article 93 (formerly Article 99) of the post-Amsterdam Treaty in the legal base.

  I am enclosing a revised EM based on the last version of the proposal we have seen, a copy of which is also attached. This document is made available on the Government's authority only and is not an authorative Community document.

18 May 1999

Letter from Lord Tordoff, Chairman of the Committee, to Lord Whitty, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

  Thank you for your letter of 18 May and the supplementary Explanatory Memorandum (EM) on this proposal. These were considered by Sub-Committee B at its meeting this morning.

  The Committee found it useful to be brought up to date in this way. However, we note that the proposal has evolved since the original EM. Not least in the light of the Government's continuing concerns, it seems likely that further changes will be made before the matter requires formal decision—though the prospects for progress are uncertain at present.

  While noting the present position, the Committee will want to consider this important topic in the light of an authoritative text and further EM in the normal way. The scrutiny reserve is therefore maintained.

  In the meantime, the Committee would be grateful for your comments on the report in Railwatch for July 1999 (page 4) about Railtrack's seeking to persuade the Government to opt for a limited extension of the loading gauge, which would seem to inhibit the greater transfer of freight from road to rail which your letter of 18 May attached importance.

1 July 1999

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