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European Standing Committee A Debates

European Transport Policy

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European Standing Committee A

Wednesday 13 March 2002

[Mr. Alan Hurst in the Chair]

European Transport Policy

[Relevant documents:

European Union document No. 12934/01, draft Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on the harmonisation of certain social legislation relating to road transport.

European Union document No. 15111/01, draft Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council amending Council Regulation No. 2236/95/EC laying down general rules for the granting of Community financial aid in the field of the trans-European networks.]

10.30 am

The Minister for Transport (Mr. John Spellar): I am glad to have the opportunity to take part in today's debate. Initially, the sole focus was to have been the Commission's European transport policy White Paper. The Scrutiny Committee recommended, however, that we also consider recent Commission proposals to amend three pieces of European Union legislation: the 1996 transport trans-European network guidelines, the 1995 trans-European network financing regulation and the 1985 European drivers' hours regulation.

Considering the provisions together makes good sense. A key element of the White Paper is the elimination of bottlenecks on the main international routes in Europe. The Commission believes that its proposals to revise the trans-European network guidelines and financing regulation are an important part of the solution to such problems. The White Paper also stresses the need to improve quality in the road sector, and the Commission feels that the changes proposed to the drivers' hours rules are an important part of that process.

It would be helpful if I set the scene by saying a few words about the four documents and our approach to them. I realise that that will take a little longer than the normal introduction to such debates, but I crave the Committee's indulgence.

The White Paper identifies the main problems that we must tackle, including increasing congestion on main road and rail routes, in towns and at airports; the harmful effects of transport on the environment and public health; and the heavy toll of road accidents. I am sure that we all agree with that focus. Indeed, the Government's 10-year plan promised to cut congestion and pollution and significantly cut road casualties. We welcome the Commission's fresh look at those challengeseven as we study the implications for the United Kingdom with a cautious eye, as we must.

The White Paper sets the key target of ensuring that the share of the market held by each mode is returned to the 1998 level by 2010, which is undoubtedly challenging. For example, without major new

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measures, heavy goods vehicle traffic in the EU is forecast to increase by nearly 50 per cent. over its 1998 level by 2010. We doubt, however, that so much attention should be focused on delivering the White Paper's arbitrary target. We feel that modal shift should be but one component of an overall strategy to achieve sustainable transport. It is a means to an end, and it can be a means of achieving other objectives and of indicating how well they are being met. Modal shift on its own cannot, however, tackle the problems that Europe faces.

The Commission proposes a package of 60 Community measures, some of which have already been submitted to the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament and are being considered by them. Others are still being worked out in detail, and we shall respond to them and give our views to the Scrutiny Committee once they have been introduced as formal proposals. In the limited time available I cannot, of course, tell hon. Members what the Government think about all the proposals in the White Paper. Indeed, we have still to decide our position on some of them in the light of comments from the 100 or so respondents to our consultation exercise. I want, however, to touch on a few key issues.

We firmly support some of the Commission's proposals, such as the further opening up of international and national railfreight and of rail passenger services to competitive tendering. We also support the proposal to introduce a ''single sky'' in the management of European airspace by 2004.

We are, however, concerned about other proposals. For example, we shall need to examine any Commission proposals on infrastructure charging very carefully. As regards roads, we agree that the current legislative framework is perverse and must be reformed. Member states cannot, for instance, implement the ''polluter pays'' principle by making lorries pay the full social and environmental costs that they impose. We do not, however, believe that the legislation should contain prescriptive rules that require member states to charge in a certain way; nor should it require member states to charge at all if they do not wish to. Furthermore, member states must be free to allocate the revenue raised to their national priorities, and not be required to spend it on specific transport or environment-related projects. We are unclear what the Commission wants to achieve by proposing a common infrastructure charging methodology across all transport modes. We await formal proposals with significant interest.

In considering the proposals in the White Paper, we need to ensure that the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality are upheld, and that competence is not extended unnecessarily to the Commission. We see no need to harmonise tax rates across the EU for specific users such as the haulage industry. Effective minimum rates are the best tool to support environmental objectives. As always, we will insist on unanimity for any tax harmonisation measures.

We also have doubts about some of the road safety harmonisation proposals, such as motorway signing, where we already have a good safety recordas does Sweden, the best in Europe. We would want to be sure

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that harmonisation produced benefits. Employment measures might go too far in the desire for harmonisationas did the recent over-prescriptive proposals for legislation on training courses for professional drivers. The costs and benefits of further rail technical harmonisation measures need to be carefully examined.

I shall now move on to the two trans-European network proposals from the Commission that were trailed in the White Paper. On the guideline revisions, we support the Commission's assessment that measures are needed to address bottlenecks on the TEN; to promote short sea shipping; to promote integration between rail and air; and to facilitate links between the TEN and the transport network in the countries seeking accession to the EU.

However, we have serious difficulties with the Commission's proposal to add six new priority projects to the 14 agreed at Essen in 1994. First, there is no proper evidence that those projects are indeed Europe's top priorities. Secondly, it seems inappropriate to add new projects when 11 of the existing 14 priorities have still to be completed. We believe that consideration of new priority projects should be postponed until the major review that the Commission is planning in 2004. I am reassured that most respondents to our consultation exercise agree.

We also have problems with the proposal to increase the maximum TEN grant to 20 per cent. of project costs. Current EU funding for the TEN is not sufficient to provide support of even 10 per cent. for major projects. If a 20 per cent. grant were agreed, the Commission would almost certainly demand a significant increase in the TEN budget. Additionally, it is difficult to see how the UK would gain access to 20 per cent. grants because of the limited criteria proposed for such awards.

Finally, I should like to touch on the proposal to amend the rules on drivers' hours. We welcome the fact that no major changes are proposed to the driving limits and rest requirements, because they are the basis on which the infrastructure of the haulage industry has been established. We support the updating of exemptions, the removal of ambiguities and internal inconsistencies and the abandonment of the complex compensation arrangements, which are impossible to enforce. However, we are not content with everything in the proposal and we shall be seeking some changes. Our negotiating position will be informed by responses to the consultation exercise, the closing date for which was yesterday.

I hope that I have provided enough information to stimulate discussion. I shall now endeavour to answer questions that hon. Members may have on the four documents that are under consideration.

The Chairman: We now have until 11.30 am for questions to the Minister. I remind hon. Members that questions should be brief and that they should be asked one at a time. There is likely to be ample opportunity for every hon. Member to ask a question.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): I thank the Minister for his clear explanation; I agree with much of what he said. On drivers' hours, the statement

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about sticking to the bottom line of 10 hours was the most robust of public statements. Does that remain the Government's position?

Mr. Spellar: Yes, it does. Two issues are involved. One is the drivers' hours regulations; the other is the working time directive. The hon. Gentleman will know from discussions with the Road Haulage Association that we have conducted some robust negotiations in Europe alongside its industry lobby. In terms of maintaining the 10 hours as opposed to the eight hours, and in terms of definitions of working time, especially non-working time, we have successfully obtained a regime that will be consistent with the great majority of road haulage operations in this country.

Industry and politics in this country have combined to achieve a satisfactory outcome. However, we are still mindful that we must keep a firm eye on the details and work with industry on unforeseen difficulties in the proposed regimes.


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