HC Deb 07 April 1976 vol 909 cc601-10

10.30 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Kenneth Marks)

I beg to move,

That the Chairman do now report to the House that the Committee recommend that the International Carriage of Perishable Foodstuffs Bill [Lords] ought to be read a Second time.

The purpose of this Bill is to enable the United Kingdom to accede to an international agreement known by the initials of its French title ATP. The agreement was made by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe for the purpose of establishing common standards of efficiency for refrigerated and heat-insulated transport equipment used in the international carriage of perishable foodstuffs.

Up to the present, ATP has been signed and ratified by five countries—France, Spain, West Germany, the Soviet Union, and Yugoslavia. It will come into force as between those countries on 21st November of this year. Most other countries in Europe, including all the other members of the Common Market, are taking steps to become contracting parties, so we can expect that before long few countries in Europe will be left out.

The obligations which countries accept when they join the ATP are briefly these. First, they undertake to ensure that the perishable foods specified in the agreement shall not be carried in international transport, except in equipment—that means lorries, containers, and railway wagons—which has been tested and certified in accordance with the technical provisions laid down. The foodstuffs include all frozen foods, meat, meat products and red offal, game, poultry and rabbits, and milk, butter and other dairy products.

Secondly, the parties undertake to recognise one another's certificates, and thirdly they must see that the transport equipment is so selected and used that the temperature conditions prescribed for the various foodstuffs can be complied with throughout the journey.

There have been widely varying standards of efficiency in the refrigerated transport equipment used by different countries throughout Europe. The enforcement of these measures is expected to raise the standard of the lowest to the level of the best and so to ensure at the same time fair competition in this international haulage market and a high degree of safety in protecting perishable foods from deterioration in long-distance transport.

This country will not get much practical benefit from the adoption of European standards because our manufacturers and operators are already in the van of progress in this field. But the agreement concerns us closely because of our interests in the export of meat and frozen produce to the Continent, and as manufacturers of commercial vehicles and containers. Both these interests will suffer if we do not join ATP because we should then be unable to ensure that vehicles leaving these shores will carry the necessary documents to get them past the port and frontier controls of foreign countries.

The vital document concerned is called an ATP certificate. It can be issued only by the competent authorities of member countries, when they are satisfied after tests that the equipment concerned complies with the standards appropriate for its class. There are several classes according to the degree of refrigeration that the equipment is capable of maintaining. Some foods have to be kept at lower temperatures than others, so the ATP certificate can help the exporter to select the right equipment for his load.

This Bill will enable us to undertake the obligations of ATP membership. It will enable us to set up a statutory scheme for the testing and certification of vehicles, and to require all persons engaged in the international transport of perishable foods to use only approved equipment for that purpose. If this legislation were not passed, United Kingdom operators would have to get their vehicles tested and certified at ATP testing stations on the Continent, which would be costly to them in time and expense, and result in an un- necessary loss of foreign exchange for the country.

The Bill affects only international transport. In France, regulations were brought in some years ago requiring all refrigerated transport equipment, whether used for domestic or international carriage, to be tested and certified at a Government station. The cost of a full test there is about £400. Under a temporary bilateral arrangement which we have made with the French, British operators can have their vehicles examined and certified at a testing station in Cambridge, and the certificates are accepted by the French Customs. This arrangement will automatically come to an end when the agreement comes into force internationally in November. There is, therefore, some urgency about this Bill because there is a good deal of work to be done, in the making of regulations and the setting up of a statutory testing scheme, before we are in a position to deposit our Instrument of Accession to the ATP agreement with the Secretary-General of the United Nations.

10.35 a.m.

Mr. Peter Fry (Wellingborough)

I do not think that we need detain the Committee long this morning. In a week which has seen a new Prime Minister emerge, and in the aftermath of the Budget, the measure that we are here to discuss is not one that will attract widespread attention. Nor will it be regarded as the most significant event of this parliamentary session. But it seems to have the great advantage, too often lacking in deliberations in this House, that it has been almost universally approved, even by the transport users and hauliers on whom it will place greater responsibilities and a further increase in costs if they wish to undertake the international transport of perishable foodstuffs.

It is appreciated that the intention behind this measure is to enable the United Kingdom to accede to the ATP agreement which, in turn, has the motive of trying to ensure a high level of safety in the movement of perishable foodstuffs and, now that such movements are on the increase, high standards are very much in the interests of the consuming public. I do not think that we have much to learn in our internal movements. Our own haulage and transport industry already has very high standards. We should welcome the agreement because we hope that it will bring other countries up to the high levels maintained in this country. There will be a welcome for the Bill from this side of the Committee, but that does not mean that we do not think that there are one or two points that will require some clarification before the measure is given a Second Reading.

I turn first to Clause 1(2)(b) which states that the regulations may prescribe temperature limits for the international carriage of perishable foodstuffs. This particular phrase follows Annexes 2 and 3 of the ATP itself, but I am sure that the Minister will agree that regulations for controlling the temperature limits in respect of the contents of vehicles actually during transit are not easy to enforce. I understand that, as yet, there is no international agreement on how this problem is to be overcome. Until there is such an agreement this kind of regulation cannot sensibly be made.

I hope that this morning we may receive from the Minister some indication of how negotiations are proceeding on this point. Obviously, to enable the ATP to achieve its full objectives a decision on this matter is essential.

My second point concerns Clause 2(3)(a) which allows the Secretary of State to provide as well as maintain testing stations. At the moment there is no intention to embark on Government-built stations. But I should like an assurance that the Government agree that the existing facilities of manufacturers' and body builders' depots are, or can easily be made, satisfactory for the purpose of these regulations and that there will be no need to set up Government-only testing points the cost of which would have to be borne by the transport industry and their customers.

If all the testing can be done within the arrangements that already exist, or which can be amended satisfactorily, there will be the minimum cost to the industry. Obviously, the most convenient place for the type of body or container to be approved is where it is being manufactured. There can then be no suspicion of any attempt to enlarge the already extensive empire of the Department of the Environment.

On this point, there appears to be a need to reassure the industry that Govern- ment centres are not to be created which would be partly subsidised by the fees from the plating and testing scheme for goods vehicles. I hope we can have that assurance this morning.

Although the existing facilities can easily be made satisfactory as regards road vehicles and containers, a query has been raised on the question of railway wagons. I wonder whether the Minister can give us some information on when, where and how these will be tested to satisfy the regulations.

Clause 6 relates to enforcement, and states that certain examiners are to be appointed. Can the Committee be given an idea today of how many examiners are likely to be appointed? Will this incur much extra expense, or can their duties be included in those presently being undertaken by the Department's staff?

I turn to offences under the Bill. Clause 7 provides that anyone responsible for the international carriage of perishable foodstuffs may be fined up to £100 for not having a certificate of compliance or for not exhibiting the designated mark. I believe that this is a somewhat unnecessary penalty. For example, if a haulage contractor sends a consignment of goods all the way to Spain or the USSR, who are both signatories to this agreement, and it is then turned back at the frontier, because of non-compliance of these conditions, he will inevitably incur a heavier penalty than £100. In fact, he will suffer considerable loss. I go further and say that if a vehicle is turned back, in almost any international transit, the operator will incur loss in excess of £100. Therefore, I question the need for this offence or penalty, especially as the clause goes on to create a statutory defence which, to my emphatically non-legal mind, could well lead to legal wrangles about conditions of carriage.

If the penalties under Clause 7 appear somewhat superfluous, I find the penalties suggested in Clauses 8 and 9 incongruous. We are concerned here with a Bill which is intended as an aid to a better standard of public health, and any attempt deliberately to get round the regulations undermines the whole purpose of the international agreement. If, under Clause 9, the forging of a certificate is considered to be so serious as to lead to imprisonment of up to two years and a fine of £200, why, under Clause 8, is the fine only up to £100 for intent to deceive by applying a mark resembling the designated mark? The intention in both offences is the same—that is, intent to deceive and to get round the regulations.

I hope that the Minister can explain the apparent discrepancy between the penalties in Clauses 8 and 9, particularly as the penalty in Clause 8 is the same as that in Clause 7 where, as I previously indicated, considerable financial loss is an inevitable consequence of noncompliance.

I have one final point to raise on the Bill. Clause 11 refers to foreign goods vehicles. I take it that when the Bill comes into force all foreign vehicles will have to comply, but will this be immediate, or will it immediately apply only to signatories of the ATP agreement? If all vehicles are to be included, presumably we shall have to extend to countries, which are not yet signatories or have not yet reached the same stage in legislation as ourselves, a period of temporary entitlement to access similar to that which we have in France at present and will have to enjoy until we are full members of the agreement. If so, how long does the Minister imagine it will be before the agreement can be fully operated? What assurances are to be sought from other countries in the interim period? Surely, the intention behind this Bill must be to move towards a situation where all European countries have the same regulations.

I make this last point because just as we are moving steadily towards the common regulation of international transport movements—the Bill is a small example of this—so is it clear that a certain amount of give and take and inter-nation agreement has to come about to achieve the long-term objectives. There is every sign that the transport industry in this country—be it haulage, our own transport operators or British Rail—has taken a most responsible attitude towards the Bill, and I think that that responsibility should be commended here this morning.

May I impress upon the Government the need to recognise this and to try to see that other countries transport opera- tors show a similar sense of responsibility. Whether it be over current negotiations taking place about drivers' hours, maximum axle weights or the number of permits issued to British operators in EEC countries, the Government have the opportunity to make progress not only towards a greater international agreement but also to secure for our own industry a fair share of the ever-increasing number of transport movements on the continent of Europe.

Finally, may I make it clear that we endorse the Bill because it is not only in the interests of public health, but it is also another step towards a deeper and greater co-operation in transport matters which can only follow from smaller agreements such as the ATP.

10.46 a.m.

Mr. Marks

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support of the Bill and his clear series of questions, which I hope to be able to answer.

On the question of control of temperatures en route, the provision of ATP Article 6 is somewhat ambiguous. But it is generally taken to mean that the contents of vehicles carrying perishables in international transport must be kept throughout the journey within the temperature limits specified in Annexes 2 and 3—for example, frozen meat below minus 10 degrees centigrade and butter below plus 6 degrees centigrade. This raises technical problems of importance which are recognised by all countries and are currently being studied by a working party in Vienna. Until international agreement is reached on a solution, we would propose not to attempt to make regulations on this subject under Clause 1 of the Bill.

I turn now to the question of the use of existing facilities. Existing facilities will be used in this particular sphere.

The situation in relation to railway wagons is rather different from that in respect of road transport. All refrigerated transport by rail between the United Kingdom and the Continent is effected in wagons which belong to Interfrigo and Transfesa—two international rolling stock companies whose headquarters are in Switzerland and Spain respectively. ATP certification of all these wagons is done on the Continent. British Rail, therefore, has little interest in the ATP.

Regarding the cost for examiners there will be no increase in the existing staff for examination.

I do not think that I can give the hon. Gentleman a detailed answer to his question relating to fines. Penalties were decided by the Home Office to be in line with penalties under similar Acts, and perhaps it is a point that can be examined in Committee.

Clause 11 will apply to all foreign goods vehicles. We shall negotiate with France and other countries which make

Fookes, Miss Janet (Chairman) Kelley, Mr.
Edwards, Mr. Robert Lewis, Mr. Ron
Fry, Mr. Marks, Mr.
Huckfield, Mr. Les Snape, Mr.
Hughes, Mr. Roy Stradling Thomas, Mr. John

regulations in the interim period to continue their recognition of the Cambridge certificates.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Chairman do now report to the House that the Committee recommend that the International Carriage of Perishable Foodstuffs Bill [Lords] ought to be read a Second time.

Committee rose at eleven minutes to Eleven o'clock.