10th November 2011
Mike Penning answers back bench MPs' questions on Dartford Crossing charges, foreign HGV drivers, HGVs and the dualling of the A11 in Suffolk.
Dartford Crossing Charges
Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) (Con): If she will make it her policy not to increase Dartford crossing charges and to introduce automatic number plate recognition technology to reduce congestion at the crossing. 
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mike Penning): At the time of the 2010 spending review, the Department for Transport set out its policy for increasing charges at the Dartford crossing, as part of a package of improvements for short, medium and long-term improvements. That included the introduction of free-flow tolling. My answer is that the Government do not intend to change their policy.
Mr Baron: May I, therefore, suggest that the Department has got it wrong? Given that the existing crossing makes around £30 million to £40 million profit a year, surely it would be better to introduce automatic number plate recognition technology at the existing crossing first to see whether that solves the congestion problem before raising tariffs to fund a second crossing? With the new Secretary of State in place, could we please have some fresh thinking on this?
Mike Penning: I know my hon. Friend’s views on the matter very well and that he lobbies very hard on that particular point. However, even with free-flow tolling at Dartford, the northern approach to the tunnels will still be congested, even according to the predictions we have now. The small bore tunnel has a huge restriction. We need to look at having another Thames crossing for this piece of national—I repeat, national—infrastructure.
Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks) (Con): Will my hon. Friend accept that there is a persistently serious problem of peak-hour congestion, both northbound and southbound, which is costing everybody an awful lot of time and money? Why cannot we have earlier and clearer signage and much better traffic management at the point of the toll booths themselves?
Mike Penning: We are aware of the congestion at the toll, but most of that is caused by the barriers. An archaic method of collecting tolls is in place. We will introduce free-flow tolling as soon as we can. A lot of construction work needs to be done but, at the end of the day, the biggest problem is that the M25 is such a success we need to have another crossing over the Thames.
Foreign HGV Drivers
Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): What steps her Department is taking to monitor use of the road network by foreign HGV drivers. 
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mike Penning): The Vehicle and Operator Services Agency, for which I am responsible, carried out 67,000 checks last year on foreign-registered heavy goods vehicles for compliance with roadworthiness, overloading and drivers’ hours rules. The Department regularly publishes statistics on the amount of goods transported to and from the United Kingdom by foreign-registered HGVs.
Fiona Bruce: I was recently advised by a constituent of an accident that she had on the busy stretch of the M6 between Sandbach and Knutsford, in which she was hit by a foreign lorry driver in a left-hand drive vehicle who did not see her in his mirrors as he moved into the middle lane. In virtually the same place, a family of six were tragically killed in an accident caused by a foreign lorry driver in 2008. What steps can the Government take to prevent such accidents from occurring again?
Mike Penning: I am aware of the problems that occur around the country, particularly as a former HGV driver myself, including the problems that foreign drivers have with their mirrors. That is something that we are considering with our European counterparts. However, we must realise that only 3.5% of the HGVs on British roads and 5.2% of those on our motorways are foreign. Although it is a big issue, the biggest issue is with HGV driving and the quality of driving as a whole, not just with overseas drivers.
Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab): There would be the possibility of taking up to 5 million lorry journeys off our roads every year, provided that there was the rail capacity to take those journeys. There is a scheme to promote a dedicated freight railway line from the channel tunnel to Glasgow, linking all the main conurbations throughout Britain. Under that scheme, full-scale lorries, double stack containers and so on would go on trains. I am happy to explain the scheme to the Minister if he would be interested.
Mike Penning: My door is always open to the hon. Gentleman, as he knows. The biggest issue with rail freight is capacity. The west coast main line in particular, which runs through his part of the world and my part of the world, is at capacity levels. That is why High Speed 2 is so important.
Mr Speaker: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman feels an Adjournment debate coming on. We shall no doubt discover whether that is the case.
Heavy Goods Vehicles
Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): What assessment she has made of the effect on road safety of the decision to permit longer heavy goods vehicles. 
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mike Penning): The Government’s response to the consultation on the use of longer semi-trailers includes a revised impact assessment. It indicates that the forthcoming trial of 1,800 trailers should result in a marginal reduction in accidents and fatalities and their associated costs.
Sheila Gilmore: Given that the original consultation document admitted that longer lorries are less safe, and in the light of the tragic circumstances of last week, which were admittedly different, do the Government not now have cause to reconsider taking any risk with safety by introducing such lorries?
Mike Penning: What happened on the M5 was a tragic incident, and our thoughts and sympathies are with the families who have lost their loved ones and the people who are still very seriously ill in hospital. No assumptions should be made until after the police inquiry is completed.
The research was undertaken by the Transport Research Laboratory, a world-leading independent body. It indicates that there will be a 1.6% reduction in road casualties.
Matthew Hancock (West Suffolk) (Con): In Mildenhall, Brandon, Elveden and across Suffolk and East Anglia, people are thrilled that the Government are finally completing the dualling of the A11, but the questions they are now asking are when will it be finished, and when can they finally drive at an appropriate pace all the way up to Norfolk? [Official Report, 14 November 2011, Vol. 535, c. 3MC.]
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mike Penning): I hope those people will drive not only at an appropriate pace but at a safe pace within the law. As my hon. Friend knows, we started the project early and promised that we would be as fast as we possible could. We hope that it will be done in early 2014, but if it can be done earlier, we certainly will do it.