He laid the groundwork for the HGV Road User Levy and and started the longer semi-trailer trial while transport minister. Now he’s back supporting recovery operators and hauliers as the chair of two parliamentary groups, MT finds out more.

The former squaddie and the only transport minister to have held an HGV licence, is enjoying fighting the corner off those he believes need a voice in parliament. He has thrown his support behind various campaigns including most recently the End our Pain movement, which called for the medicinal use of cannabis to treat a rare form of epilepsy.

Mike Penning MP resized

Mike Penning MP

It is no surprise therefore to hear that Sir Mike Penning, MP for Hemel Hempstead, is backing the Campaign for Safer Roadside Rescue & Recovery, launched by FairFuelUK co-founder Peter Carroll earlier this year.

“When the evidence was put in front of me that roadside rescue operators, who are working to get our roads running again, are being killed or seriously injured, I agreed to help,” said Penning.

As a former firefighter, he often worked hand-in-hand with roadside rescue operators when attending road traffic incidents.

“The professionalism of those recovery operators was as great as some of the work we were doing at the roadside as firefighters,” he said. “They would often be first on site when there had been an accident, and some of the things they will have witnessed and had to deal with will be shocking.

“They play an essential role in getting the roads clear and moving, yet they aren’t thought of as an emergency service.”

As part of his backing of the campaign, Penning has set up and become chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for the Roadside Rescue & Recovery Industry.

The aims of the APPG mirror those of the campaign, and Penning has wasted no time raising the key concerns with transport secretary Chris Grayling.

“I’ve written to Chris to request a meeting, outlining our key concerns and highlighting what could be done straight away [by the department],” said Penning.

The short-term aims of the APPG are to lobby government to allow roadside rescue operators to have red hazard lights on their vehicles – currently they are only permitted to have amber – and to legally be allowed to use the hard shoulder to travel to the scene of a breakdown or road traffic incident.

“Both of these are regulatory issues and the minister could do that by statutory instrument tomorrow if he wanted to,” said Penning.

He plans to take Sam Cockerill (pictured below, centre), widow of former roadside recovery operator Steve Godbold, who was killed on the motorway in September 2017, with him to the meeting with Grayling.

“Sam is an amazing advocate for the campaign. She has got an ability to articulate and explain her grief, and to say to MPs very clearly that she does not want this to happen to anybody else,” explained Penning.

On 22 September 2017, Steve Godbold was killed after an HGV strayed, hitting and killing him as he recovered the vehicle of someone who had broken down. He is one of several other roadside recovery operators killed while doing their job.

Penning Westminster resized

“People in the recovery sector are dying on our roads and we need to get to the bottom of why so that we can address it. If it was people in one of our emergency services dying at the roadside while doing their job, there would be a national uproar,” Penning stressed.

His other short-term goal is to push the DfT to provide official statistics on the number of incidents involving roadside rescue and recovery operators.

According to Penning, such statistics did exist when he was roads minister. “The government is full of statistics. I believe they exist and I will be calling for them to be made available to us,” he told MT.

Longer-term, Penning plans to hold an oral evidence session, along the lines of a select committee session. “We’ll invite the DfT and the industry to give evidence, then we’ll draw up a report. I hope to issue the report before summer recess next year. This will give us the ‘why’,” he said.

Second group

Penning has also formed an APPG for Road Haulage and Logistics. The former APPG for Freight Transport ceased when chairman Rob Flello MP lost his seat in the last general election, but Penning is keen for the new APPG to have a broader remit.

“I want this APPG to encompass the full logistics spectrum – not just road freight – and to be not just a voice for industry but a constructive friend so we can get better communication between shipping, rail and roads,” he said.

Although the new APPG is in its infancy, Penning shared some of the key areas he believes the group should tackle, but stressed: “I would like to hear from the industry too about their key concerns.

“I know we have a massive hole to plug in terms of ageing drivers, and I understand that 20% of armed forces personnel leave the services with an HGV qualification – so what can we do to utilise that better?”

Another issue, and one close to his heart, is that of the longer semi-trailer pilot due to end in 2027.

“If we have a clean Brexit then it won’t be a problem and people will be able to carry on running longer semi-trailers, but if we are still imposed by some of the EU restrictions when the trial officially ends in 2027, then we will need to find a work-around,” he said.

As a Brexiteer, Penning believes the industry will be better off when the UK leaves the EU.

“I’ve always pushed for a level playing field for the UK road haulage industry. I want us to leave and trade more with the rest of the world. I believe the London Gateway Port would get busier if we had a relationship with countries around the world without a tariff, which of course opens up more opportunities for the UK haulage and logistics industry.”

He also wants to get the members of the APPG out of their “Westminster bubble” and behind the wheel of a truck. “I want to make it a little bit more fun for the parliamentarians, to give them a better understanding of the industry.

"I want them to know what it’s like to drive a 44-tonne articulated lorry and try and reverse it into a tight space; so we’ll take them to some airfields and stick them behind the wheel.

The road haulage industry needs a voice in parliament, but one that will address the public perception of them and ensure they get a level playing field. Because what would we do without them? They are a vital part of the economy,” said Penning.

By Laura Hailstone