Wanted — a modern Masefield
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A BLEAK START heralded the hauliers' year. Press, radio and TV reports in wintry weather always concentrate on motorists being stuck in snow drifts. If lorries are mentioned at all it is usually as further complicating motorists. problems by jack-knifing, or breaking down through frozen diesel.
Little sympathy is spent on the hapless lorry drivers who suffer in this way. Even less goes to the operator whose wafer-thin profit margin is eroded by the unbudgeted costs of the rescue operations, not to mention the loss of use of his vehicle. When milk tankers are unable to collect from farms sympathy is extended to the farmers for their loss, but not to the unfortunate hauliers for his.
Britain's international hauliers have all these worries, plus a few more of their own. The new Swiss tax seems set to continue as a permanent feature, like its seven-year-old Austrian predecessor. And the Austrians have now introduced new measures designed to exert even more pressure on foreign lorries in transit to use piggyback services which, however efficient, are more expensive and less flexible that "pure" road.
So it is timely that the Road Haulage Association should be launching a new image building exercise for the British international haulier. Foreign operators have been winning an increasing share of traffic with the United Kingdom. And in the RHA's view this is not because their foreign competitors are more efficient. The association contends that its members are forced to compete on unequal terms.
The RHA attracted a lot of criticism a couple of years ago when it suddenly reversed its traditional liberal line — no permits, no quotas — in favour of a more restrictive policy. This coincided with an investigation by the House of Lords European Economic Community Committee, and their Lordships were definitely not impressed by the RHA's new hard line. Yet the RHA had a point — indeed, a number of points. And events since then have added a few more.
The basic RHA complaint is that, in practice, so-called bilateral quotas are unilateral — they only bite on the British. Enforcement of permit requirements on foreign lorries at British ports is almost nonexistent, DTp examiners do not have the necessary staff; Customs officers do not have the necessary powers. This has been known for years, yet absolutely nothing has been done about it.
Worse, official complacency seems to be growing. Last month Lynda Chalker listed what looks at first glance like a major success story of quota increases and other liberalisation measures negotiated in 1984.
The EEC quota is to double over the next four years. Even the moribund ECMT has managed an increase in its miniscule quota. Bilateral increases have been winkled out of West Germany, France, Jugoslavia, Hungary, Spain and Portugal. Only Italy and Austria are missing from the roll-call of traditionally "difficult" countries.
So what's wrong? In Parliament Mrs Chalker represents a Merseyside constituency. So she is probably familiar with an expressive if inelegant North Country put-down "Fur coat and no knickers". This indicates a superficial gloss concealing an unsatisfactory state of affairs. She would be hurt to see it applied to her remarks about the permit situation. Nevertheless it is very apt.
For she doesn't seem to have asked herself why countries manifestly unconverted to liberal transport policies should have been so apparently generous. The answer is that international haulage traffic has grown and is still growing. And most of the increase is carried in foreign lorries. So they can afford to be "generous".
Moreover they will all enforce the quotas rigorously. A British lorry arriving at their frontiers will be expected to produce a valid permit. And if it does not it will not get in — it's as simple as that.
Meanwhile foreign lorries will continue to sail through Britain's ro-ro ports using the same permit over and over again. And no doubt their operators will wonder, as they bank their profits, why Britain cuts its hauliers' throats.
There has been no sign so far that the RHA's new campaign will include revived pressure for legislation giving Customs officers the necessary powers. There comes a time when banging one's head against a brick wall loses its attractiveness. But at least the RHA should let the public know of the Department's indifference. It should point out that this results in the unpopular combination of fewer British jobs and more foreign "juggernauts".
Still more worrying is the gap between public Ministerial statement on EEC transport policy and the reality. Even a convinced Euro-sceptic like myself cannot deny that a new spirit of freedom seems to be blowing through the EEC.
The new President of the Commission, Jacques Delors, made the removal of remaining barriers to trade the main theme of his inaugural address to the European Parliament. He is a powerful French combination of politician and bureaucrat of a type sadly unfamiliar in Britain — one who is accustomed to getting things done.
The new Commissioner responsible for transport, Stanley Clinton Davies, has yet to make his mark. However, he takes over the transport portfolio with several advantages. One is that he must be better than his Greek predecessor, whose ineptitude was legendary.
More positive is the new Commissioner's actual experience of EEC transport matters as a junior Minister responsible for shipping and aviation in the last Labour Government.
So the British Government ought to grasp the opportunity with both hands. Instead we find ourselves still out of step with EEC policy on lorry weights. I explained recently (CM, January 19) why Mr Ridley had no option but to stall pro tern. In the circumstances he did very well to get the EEC quota increased. But he cannot expect to continue to preach the virtues of the removal of barriers if the British Government continues to man its own, in the form of a 38-tonne limit.
Meanwhile British hauliers are not only deprived of the chance to operate at 40 tonnes here. They may find the 38tonne limit enforced against them in other EEC countries, on the respectable rounds of reprocity. Even the complacent Mr Ridley would surely admit that such a "step towards European unity" lacks a certain consistency.
He ought to make it clear that it can only be temporary.
Every schoolchild knows John Masefield's poem Cargoes, which praises the "dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack" for its part in carrying Britain's exports. It is perhaps too much to expect the RHA to commission a modern version praising the "British 40-tonner with the vital exports", But that now plays the coaster's role, and it is time that the public recognised this. The Government would no doubt claim that it already recognises the lorry's importance. But its actions, and even more its inactivity, do not bear this claim out.