HL Deb 01 May 1972 vol 330 cc576-81

3.12 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. This Bill passed through the other place without any discussion at all. It is a Bill that is welcomed by the British Railways Board and by the Government, and has an important bearing upon travel by peoples throughout the 30 countries that are signatories to the Convention. Mr. Ogden proposed the Bill, and, as I say, it went through the House of Commons without discussion. For that reason, it is perhaps advisable that I should take a little longer in outlining the principles involved than I would otherwise have done.

The first object of the Bill is to enable the United Kingdom to accede to an International Railway Convention. The Convention deals with the liabilities of railways in cases where passengers holding international tickets are killed or injured while in, boarding or alighting from trains. It is called the Additional Convention because it extends or supplements an earlier Convention on the International Carriage of Passengers and Luggage by Rail, referred to in this Bill as the Railway Passenger Convention, to which we are already parties. This Passenger Convention enables anyone to book a through ticket from, say, Victoria Station to Istanbul or elsewhere and travel throughout on uniform conditions of carriage, without having to re-book at each national frontier. But the Railway Passenger Convention did not regulate this matter of liability for death or injury. It left any resulting claims to be dealt with by the national law of the country in which the accident happened Some 30 countries are parties to the Passenger Convention, and it is not surprising that their national laws about the rights of victims of railway accidents, or of their dependants, to compensation vary considerably in substance and procedure. The contracting States recognised that this was an unsatisfactory situation and, after several years' discussion, the Additional Convention was signed in 1966. Sufficient countries have since ratified it and it will come into operation between the contracting States on January 1, 1973

We, the United Kingdom, did not sign this Convention in 1966 for a variety of reasons, but more thought has been given to it since then and it is clear that there would be a decided advantage to our nationals in our becoming a party to the Convention. The main reason is that British claimants' chances of obtaining adequate compensation in case of death or injury on a railway abroad will be better if they can proceed under the international Convention rather than under the national law of the country concerned. A particular factor here is that the national law of a number of countries limits the total amount of liability of a railway, and in several of them that limit is less than the minimum of 200,000 gold francs—about £27,500—which by Article 6 of the Convention is the lowest permissible limit. Some countries' national laws now have a lower limit. Travel by rail between the United Kingdom and the Continent is, as we all know, substantial and growing considerably, so the better position of claimants is something of great importance to our nationals. In addition to this point of self-interest, it has for long been the policy of this country, under successive Governments, to co-operate in international arrangements about transport, including railway transport. This cooperation is generally welcomed by other contracting countries, and the United Kingdom's views carry some weight. If we stand aloof from this Convention when it is finally ratified by other States we cannot expect to exercise any influence.

There are three specific obstacles in our present law which, failing amendment, would preclude us from acceding, and these are important. They are very technical and their effect is not too far-reaching. First, it is necessary to make clear that the Convention prevails over Section 43(7) of the Transport Act 1962. That section, in effect, forbids the British Railways Board to carry passengers on terms which exclude or limit their liability for death or injury, or which prescribe the time or the manner in which that liability may be enforced. The first prohibition presents no problem, for the Convention also forbids any contracting out of the railways' liability and nothing in the Convention obliges us to adopt the 200,000 gold francs limit. The second part does make for some difficulty, because the Convention lays down procedure and time limits in Articles 16 and 17. These must he made part of the conditions of car riage if we are to apply the Convention, so that part of the Transport Act must be set aside. May I stress that this and other amendments affect only persons whose claims arise out of accidents involving holders of international tickets. The thousands of millions of passengers travelling at home here on British Railways holding ordinary or domestic tickets are completely unaffected.

The second point is rather more involved, and amendment of our law is even more technical. It concerns claims by or on behalf of the dependants of victims of fatal accidents. The Convention lays it down that persons who had a legally enforceable right to be maintained by the deceased must be compensated. The rights of persons who were being maintained without any such legal obligation on the victim's part are left to be governed by the national law of the country where the accident occurs. In the United Kingdom claims of that kind, except in Scotland, are usually governed by the Fatal Accidents Acts, and the rights of claimants do not depend upon a legal obligation to be maintained but upon facts of kinship and actual support, or the reasonable expectation of it. In order to give effect to the Convention, therefore, we have to create a right of action for the benefit of a class of claimants who are not necessarily entitled to claim by the Fatal Accidents Acts. This is an important change. In doing so, we have also to take care that the rights of dependants maintained otherwise than by reason of an enforceable obligation—those, that is, whose claims are left by the Convention to national law—are preserved; and that is also provided for.

The second object of the Bill concerns two other international railway Conventions, the Railway Passenger Convention and a companion Convention on the international carriage of goods by rail. The United Kingdom has been a party to those Conventions since 1966. They were not given the force of law by Statute, but effect has been given to them by their incorporation in British Railways' conditions of carriage. This has worked quite satisfactorily in the main, but there are certain points concerning which it is at least doubtful whether our existing law would always allow us to give full effect to the Conventions. There are points concerning the party against whom actions may be brought; the railways' right to impose surcharges for overloading wagons or mis-description of goods in international consignment notes; penalties against railways for exceeding certain delivery periods; and the attachment of foreign-owned rolling stock. This Bill ensures that the Convention provisions will prevail.

Finally, the Bill must naturally look in some degree to the future. The international railway Conventions are not immutable; they are periodically revised by the contracting States, meeting in Berne. Past revisions have changed technicalities and points of detail, not fundamental issues, but even if the text of a new Convention differs only slightly from its predecessor, it is still a new Convention. The Additional Convention could be revised in this way and Parliament would be rightly critical if on each occasion when some minor textual variation was made new legislation had to be introduced to secure consequential amendments in the Schedule. To avoid this, it is proposed that such amendments shall be made by Orders in Council, subject to approval of both Houses, provided the new Convention is substantially to the same effect as the present one and does not make any major changes. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a. (Lord Popplewell.)

3.26 p.m.


My Lords, when I was told by my Leader to keep an eye on this Bill I looked to the debates in the other place to give me some guidance as to what the Bill was all about. I got a copy of Hansard and found that the only words which could have been spoken on all the stages of this Bill were "I beg to move", which did not help me very much. So I am grateful to my noble friend for having to-day placed on record an explanation of the Bill to which we can turn in the future. He certainly made it clear to me that this is a Convention to which we ought to accede and give effect. The fact is that this country has, so far as I can remember, always done the right thing in connection with international conventions of this sort which are designed to secure that the law is international where it should in fact be international.

I am not going to speak at any length on the Second Reading. I should hate to upset the Members of the other place by making them think that we were spending a lot of time on something on which they spent very little or no time. So I will merely say that there is no opposition, as far as I can tell, from these Benches to this Bill. When I turned to the back of the Bill, I saw that the Convention was written in French, and I congratulate my noble friend on having translated it for our benefit. It now appears in English within the Bill itself. I think that the House can accept this as a worth while addition to international law, and give the Bill a Second Reading.

3.28 p.m.


My Lords, it is probably appropriate at this point that I, speaking on behalf of Her Majesty's Government and in particular my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, whose responsibilities of course include railways, should indicate what the noble Lord, Lord Champion, will not be surprised to hear is our welcome for the introduction of this Bill and our thanks to Lord Popplewell, and to make our support for it clear. The noble Lord has explained its purpose and outlined its main provisions. There is, therefore, no need for me to go over that ground again. Yet there are certain broad considerations to which your Lordships' attention may usefully be drawn.

In commending this Bill to your Lordships I would stress one or two points.

The Additional Convention is the youngest of a family of international railway conventions, of which the Railway Freight Convention—that is, the Convention dealing with merchandise—and the Railway Passenger Convention, commonly known as C.I.V., the Convention dealing with voyageurs, are the other two and elder members. The United Kingdom has been a party to both of those since 1956—I think the noble Lord, Lord Popplewell, inadvertently said 1966. The noble Lord has outlined to your Lordships the specific grounds for adhering to the Additional Convention. Over and above those grounds there is the more general one that it has been the consistent policy of the United Kingdom to play our full part in international co-operation in the transport field. We have, for instance, enacted legislation to give effect to international conventions on the carriage of goods by sea, on carriage by air, and on carriage of goods by road. We have given effect to the Railway Freight Convention and the Railway Passenger Convention, and the Bill now contains provisions for reinforcing that effect, It is entirely consistent with that policy that we should now also adhere to the Additional Convention, which we can do only if we make the very limited modifications to our domestic law which the Bill sets out.

Those of us who, from time to time, travel by railway between the United Kingdom and the Continent probably take it for granted that one can go to a travel agent and buy a through ticket for, say, Vienna or Istanbul. It would be extremely inconvenient if one could not. And, of course, in the case of goods carried across a number of countries by rail, it would be not only tedious, but very costly, if traders had to arrange for re-consignment at every frontier, as the goods passed from one national system to another. These railway Conventions, with the facilitation of movement which they provide, underlie and support a large and growing volume of international movement by rail, and our participation enables us to share in these advantages. Other contracting countries have left us in no doubt that our participation is welcome, and their railway administrations welcome the co-operation of the British Railways Board. Co-operation enables us to obtain a hearing for our views. Standing aloof does not. Both for the reasons already advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Popplewell, and because of the more general consideration to which I have referred, I strongly commend this measure to your Lordships.