Page last updated at 16:49 GMT, Monday, 17 November 2008

Pledge Watch: Britdiscs

By Justin Parkinson
Political reporter, BBC News

Politicians love announcing new initiatives. In this series we pluck a pledge from the archives. And see what happened next...

Britdisc supporters say increased traffic could make it more viable

Gordon Brown has often faced the fury of the UK's lorry drivers.

The "fuel crisis" of September 2000, when hauliers blockaded refineries in protest at rapidly rising fuel prices, was a low point.

Mr Brown, then chancellor, was vilified for presiding over higher duties than elsewhere in Europe, squeezing operators' profits and sending many out of business.

There was also anger that overseas hauliers, who could buy fuel at a cheaper rate than in the UK, were able to use the country's roads for free.

British lorry drivers had to pay to use roads in other EU countries, via tolls and other charges.

This was not fair, the transport industry shouted.

So, it was something of an olive branch-offering exercise when, in November of that year, Mr Brown proposed the Britdisc.

All hauliers, including foreigners, operating on the UK's roads were to pay some road tax - and present a disc in their windscreens.

We will stand up for our plans because they're the right plans
Gordon Brown, November 2000

British firms would be compensated for the cost through parallel cuts in vehicle excise duty.

Mr Brown was on bullish form when questioned on BBC One's Breakfast with Frost, saying it had "been a problem for some time that foreign lorries using British roads neither pay tolls on the roads, as our lorries do in France, nor do they pay the disc that they have to do in Germany and Netherlands and other countries like Italy.

"So to introduce this Britdisc, which is a payment the foreign lorries would have to make to use British roads, is not only fair but it's long overdue."

'Fair system'

He added: "We will stand up for our plans because they're the right plans.

"And, of course there is a European vignette, which is the equivalent of the Britdisc, in other countries and I'm not going to have the [European] Commission telling us in Britain that when we want to have a fair system of paying for licence fees for foreign hauliers using British roads that we cannot do."

Eight years later the Britdisc has not been introduced.

The Freight Transport Association argues the situation is even more unfair than in 2000, as the number of overseas trucks on UK roads has increased.

Fuel protest
Mr Brown incurred the wrath of truck drivers in 2000

A spokeswoman said: "This all seems to have been consigned to the 'too difficult' basket for the government. But it should realise that transport is the backbone of the UK economy.

"Fuel duties in France are half what they are here, so people are filling up there, losing the UK government revenue.

"Lorries from abroad, such as eastern Europe, are coming here and paying no road tax.

"The government is losing money on two fronts - road tax and fuel duty - and is disadvantaging UK companies at the same time. Who gains from that?"

Charges capped

In 1999 the European Union had issued the Eurovignette Directive, allowing "for greater differentiation of tolls and charges".

But EU-wide maximum charges for road users from other countries were also set.

For any driver, of whatever vehicle, the maximum cost per day is still eight euros (6.70).

The government eventually decided that the expense of setting up and running the Britdisc - especially with a charging cap - made it unviable.

A Department for Transport study published last October concluded that such a scheme "would go only a small way to equalising the burden of UK taxes and charges between UK and foreign operators".

Ministers have to start showing some of the vision the Victorians had
Paul Carter, Kent County Council

It did acknowledge that the Britdisc "would serve to redress the perceived inequality", but said it might also "dissuade" overseas hauliers from remaining in the UK.

Overall, the study found "the effect on the domestic freight industry would be positive but limited" because of the EU directive limiting charges at less than 7 a day.

The words were lukewarm at best - far from Mr Brown's 2000 fighting talk. But the idea behind the Britdisc, it seems, is not dead.

The Treasury is committed to carrying out a Foreign Vehicle Data Survey, looking at the level and nature of road use by overseas drivers.

Part of this involves deciding whether an increased level of traffic from abroad could make the Britdisc - renamed the Eurovignette and payable online rather than needing a disc in the windscreen - more profitable.

'Needs challenging'

The survey report is expected next spring and, according to a government source, another "large government announcement" could follow within a couple of years.

In Kent, whose roads are used by a large number of overseas lorries, the county council is pushing for the government to introduce the Eurovignette.

It argues that this could make 40m a year to help pay for vast transport projects, such as an extra Thames road crossing.

The council's Conservative leader, Paul Carter, said: "The civil servants' case that it wouldn't make any money needs challenging.

"We don't need loads of new technology. Why not just charge for lorries rolling off ferries at ports?

"There is a massive growth in lorries using our already clogged-up roads, about 10% a year. We have to start charging and I'm optimistic we can get our case across.

"Ministers have to start showing some of the vision the Victorians had when they set up our current structures in the first place."

The wheels of government move slowly but, like a heavy goods vehicle, it seems the Britdisc saga is set to rumble on and on.

Here is a selection of your views:

Would it not be much simpler and fairer to abolish road tax altogether and instead place an additional levy on fuel? That way, all road users would pay an amount directly commensurate with the amount of road usage - those doing 2,000 miles a year would pay in proportion to their mileage, as would those doing 50,000+ miles a year! Too simple??
Jackie Hallam, Northants

As the roads get busier and seem to jam to a halt wherever you drive these days, why don't the government introduce a lower tax rate on fuel for HGV drivers during the night only. After the daily evening rush hour, HGV UK drivers can get onto the road and pay for lower-cost fuel. The roads will be clearer through the night for HGV trucks and hence more fuel economic. Come the morning, HGV fuel returns to a higher cost - thereby encouraging HGV users to stay off the road during the day making it easier for car drivers.
Carl Webb, London

Just get on with it, Mr Brown. Money seems no object when its to with ID cards and security. Surely the lorry drivers could be made to pay as they leave the ferry ports, or if regular large firms, their lorries logged as they come in and they could be billed monthly. It's not rocket science, just a lack of will as usual.
Chris Fountain, Leeds

At the moment we allow lorries to come into the UK with up to 1,500 litres of fuel. Just reducing this to 50 litres and charging tax for anything over this would mean that we would get the unsafe eastern European lorries off British roads. It would also reduce the use of unclean (full of sulphur) fuel used in some European countries
Tim Gould, Penarth

Having seen the number of stories about the poor state of lorries coming into this country, I think that permanent test stations should be set up at the various entry ports into the UK and every lorry entering this country should be stopped and inspected. Along with this they should also build accommodation and repair facilities, then any lorry found to be unroadworthy should be repaired and the driver billed, with the lorry being impounded until the bill is paid. Similarly any driver exceeding their daily driving allowance could be forced to take rest, and only allowed to drive on once the necessary rest time has been met (plus payment for the rest facilities). At the same time could issue a temporary road permit, (week/month duration) to foreign lorries, with this being backed by the assurance that the lorry is roadworthy.
Alan Pengelly, Basingstoke, UK

Why not collect it the same way as airline passenger duty and add to the cost of a ferry ticket for the non UK registered vehicles, or like the man from KCC said, have a toll booth at the border. Charge 7 if pre-booked or a higher amount if paid at the border to cover admin etc. It is viable for the Dartford Tunnel to collect 1 off cars passing through that, so why is it not viable to collect 7 at a ferry terminal?
Steven Ball, UK

Whilst the financial advantages enjoyed by foreign hauliers need to be addressed, there are far more serious concerns to be addressed. We are still awaiting overdue legislation to allow VOSA [Vehicle and Operator Services Agency] to immobilise illegally operated vehicles and impose FPN's. Also, there is a serious lack of secure HGV parking facilities. Let's get these sorted first
K Brown, Bristol, England

As I live near the M20 and see the huge volume of foreign lorries that not only clog up that road, but also the roads surrounding the lorry facilities near Junction 10, the menace of the foreign lorry driver is plan to see. Added to that nuisance, there is also the clear evidence that a large number of minor scrapes that are caused by these lorries, which go unreported because the lorries never stop. More serious accidents are also commonplace. I understand that lorries are the backbone of industry, but we are being swamped by poorly regulated haulage firms, who add nothing to the economy of this country, but put huge strain on the limited roads and other services. A scheme like this would hopefully deter some of them from coming, and maybe gain some revenue from them.
Jon.R, Ashford, Kent

Similar systems operate in Germany. You buy a ticket from the machine if you have a truck. No toll booths. Could integrate into the ANPR [utomatic number plate recognition] systems
Derek, Dorset

Eighteen years ago I had an English relative who was a truck driver. He worked for a Dutch company and lived in England. His job was delivering to food shops in England in his Dutch-registered lorry. He went to Holland twice per week to pick up a new full trailer. All his fuel was supplied in Holland and his basic wage paid into his English bank account with Dutch taxes paid so he did not have to pay any English taxes.He was also paid overtime and bonuses in cash so they were tax free. So overall no British tax was paid but all profit was Dutch.
Leith, Welshpool, UK

Why just lorries? Why not introduce a vignette system for all vehicles using motorways UK and EU - the money ring-fenced for motorway development and maintenance as done in Czech Republic, Slovakia, Switzerland and Austria?
Derek Ford, Cardiff

I am reading a lot of people complaining about foreign HGVs but I think the same people would also complain if prices of goods went up due to us implementing some of there schemes. I do agree, though, that the UK's HGV drivers are getting a bad deal and something needs to be done.
John Hopkinson, Leeds


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