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F TBrOuff)2 2 [7( by Keith Vincent

2nd March 1985, Page 59
2nd March 1985
Page 59
Page 59, 2nd March 1985 — F TBrOuff)2 2 [7( by Keith Vincent
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Which of the following most accurately describes the problem?

Why weight?

THE ROW about lorry weights, in Westminster and Brussels, has been running longer even than the miners' strike. Only the most devoted MacGregor and Scargill watchers will have kept up to date with all the twists and turns of the talks aabout talks (or was it talks about talks about talks?). Most practising hauliers must feel much the same way about legislation on lorry weights.

The circumstances in which the latest European Ecoonomic Community limits had to be agreed did not help clarification. Ministers met on December 11 and 12 and agreed a package deal. Besides weights the deal included bigger quotas, and financial help for some British transport infrastructure Projects.

The weights element had to De ratified by the House of Commons in time for the Nhole package to be formally adopted by the last meeting in 1984 of the Council of Ministers Dn December 19. So there was 3 late night Commons debate Nhich finished only 12 hours before the Council met.

Christmas alterations to publication schedules of CM and lie rest of the trade press meant that they reported only the December 11-12 meeting in Full. The Commons debate was 'stale" when publication resumed in January. But there is a lot of interesting material in [hat debate. In particular Mr 3idley's explanation of his actions in Brussels is mildly en:ouraging to those who want lo see Britain fall into line with he rest of the EEC.

The Directive lays down some maximum weights and iimensions for lorries engaged n international traffic within :he EEC. Member States may lot prohibit, on what we would :all C and U grounds, vehicles Nhich comply with these limits From entering their territory. This applies even though their iational legislation specifies different limits, whether higher or lower. But a country which has higher limits can restrict those to its own lorries if it wishes to.

This Directive is now EEC law, and not simply a proposal. It does not have to be implemented until July 1 1986, though Member States are free to do so earlier if they wish.

The Directive lays down 40 tonnes as the maximum for a five or six-axle articulated lorry or road train. In the absence of special measures, Britain would have had to admit these from the middle of next year even if our own and C and U limits of 38 and 32.5 tonnes respectively remained unchanged. So Mr Ridley pressed for and obtained some special measures. And the precise nature of these does not seem to be fully understood.

It is well known that for the time being Britain does not have to apply the 40-tonne limit. The confusion arises over the reasons for this, and the circumstances in which the exemption might be withdrawn. Let us look at these in turn.

The substance of each piece of EEC legislation is preceded by a preamble explaining the purpose of each section. This is important because it is examined by the Court if there is any legal dispute about its interpretation. Preambles are known colloquially as the "whereases" since the clauses begin with that word so beloved of lawyers. The weights Directive's "whereases" include the following references to the British and Irish derogation: "Whereas the state of certain portions of the road network in Ireland and the United Kingdom does not make it possible at the present stage to apply all the provisions of this Directive; whereas in view of the requirements for substantial improvements to the relevant portions of the road networks which will take a certain number of years to complete."

The first "whereas" makes it clear that the legal basis for the derogation is the admittedly poor state of roads in the British Isles. But the second makes it equally clear that this deficiency is supposed to be remedied in "a certain number of years". The misunderstandings centre on this latter point.

The Commission is required to prepare "a report on the circumstances which have justified this derogation", and to send it to the Council of Ministers by mid-1986. It has to be accompanied by a proposal about the length of the derogation and "the procedure for periodic reviews of the circumstances justifying its continuation." And the Council of Ministers is required to decide on this by the end of February 1987.

As Mr Ridley told the Commons "The Commission will review our roads and report by February 1987. It will then be up to the Council to decide whether to set a target date for deciding whether our roads are adequate. We shall have the right to decide to accept it or not."

That is true — so far as it goes. Mr Ridley was stressing the fact that he got a specific provision written into the Directive which requires the decision on continuing or ending the derogation to be unanimous. In other words he has a veto.

But if it appears that Britain is not undertaking the substantial road improvements necessary to enable it to come into line it could be argued that we were breaching EEC law. The Directive clearly does not envisage an indefinite derogation.

The Opposition's transport shadow, Mrs Gwyneth Dunwoody, picked up this point, though she did not get a very clear answer. She asked whether the European Court could rule that none of the derogations was acceptable under the Treaty of Rome and, if so, whether Britain would have to comply with the Directive.

Mr Ridley told her, again correctly, that the Court cannot order the Council of Ministers to do anything. But that is not the point. The Court could rule that Britain was abusing what the Council had already done. If this happened Britain would have to accept the ruling.

Despite evading Mrs Dunwoody's question, Mr Ridley knows this. So there is reason to hope that this will spur him on to getting an expanded roads programme. It certainly ought to help Britain's case for getting more money out of the EEC for financing the necessary improvements.

Mr Ridley's position on the "dry" (some would say "arid") wing of the Government might make him look an improbable advocate of greater public spending on roads, even if some of it were financed by the EEC. But reading between the lines of his speech in the debate on December 18 makes it clear that he accepts both the merits of heavier lorries and the desirability of Britain coming into line with the rest of the EEC.

His main theme was that he could not go back on David Howell's 1982 undertaking that the Government would not go beyond 38 tonnes. He conspicuously failed to defend the merits of that undertaking.

Even more striking were his remarks about the retention of the 32.5-tonne limit for road trains. "There is no sound justification for maintaining a lower limit on road trains than on articulated vehicles — indeed, the reverse," he said.

So there are sound reasons for hoping that Britain will come into line before too many years.

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