HL Deb 04 March 1976 vol 368 cc1169-79

4.24 p.m.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time. The purpose of this Bill is to enable the United Kingdom to accede to an agreement made by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, known as the ATP agreement. Those initials are the abbreviation of the French title of the agreement. It is appropriate that the agreement should be universally known by that description because the French Government was responsible, more than any other, for its initiation and successful completion.

ATP was opened for signature in Geneva in 1970 and has now been signed and ratified by five countries; namely, France, Spain, West Germany, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. It will come into force as between those countries on 21st November, 1976. The fact that the agreement is supported by countries so widely separated both geographically and politically as Spain and Russia testifies to its technical and non-controversial character. Many other European countries, including all the remaining countries of the European Economic Community have initiated the constitutional procedures necessary to enable them to accede to it. It is to be expected that in due course ATP will be applied throughout the Continent.

The purpose of ATP is to establish common standards of efficiency for refrigerated and heat-insulated transport equipment used in the international carriage of perishable foodstuffs. Our adherence will not make a great deal of difference to the standards practised by British transport operators because those standards are already, in general, as high as or higher than those prescribed by ATP. Nor will it make any appreciable difference to the quality of food sold in the shops in this country, because the authorities responsible for food controls already have sufficient powers under existing statutes. It might seem at first sight, therefore, that this country has nothing to gain by appending its signature to this agreement.

But I should now like to put before your Lordships three good economic reasons, and one political reason, why it is important that this country should become a contracting party to ATP. The first reason is that there is a growing amount of trade in frozen and other foodstuffs covered by the agreement which involves British refrigerated vehicles in transport operations to many European countries. Unless we become a contracting party to ATP we shall not be able to ensure that those vehicles can travel freely to their destinations without being delayed or turned back by frontier controls. British operators might therefore be faced with the necessity of having to send their vehicles abroad to have them tested in order to obtain internationally recognised "ATP certificates ".

The second reason is that for some products, such as meat exported from Northern Ireland, the condition of the load when it arrives at its destination is, to a large extent, dependent upon the temperature conditions under which it has been transported. An ATP certificate not only certifies that a vehicle or container has passed a stringent test for thermal efficiency, but it also gives it a classification according to its refrigeration potential, that is to say whether it can maintain temperatures of minus 20 degrees centigrade, minus 10 degrees centigrade or 0 degrees centigrade and for how long. Classification of transport equipment into these categories will assist exporters to make sure that the vehicles to which they entrust the carriage of their produce have been officially certified as able to carry out the job required of them.

Thirdly, this country is interested from the point of view of the manufacture of road vehicles, railway wagons and containers, and the refrigeration units which are installed in them. When ATP comes fully into force throughout Europe, users of transport equipment will expect to purchase from manufacturers who can deliver complete with certificates which are assured of recognition by all signatories to the agreement. If the United Kingdom were to remain outside, our vehicle manufacturers would be at a disadvantage compared with their competitors in, say, France or Germany.

Over and above these economic reasons, there is the poltical aspect to be weighed. ATP is not a Common Market instrument, but all the other EEC countries support it and are taking steps to become contracting parties. If we were to stand outside, we would not only lose the political goodwill which can be gained by joining but we should also deny ourselves an effective voice in future deliberations of the Geneva Working Party which drew up the agreement and which will be responsible for keeping it up to date. In the last few years we have played a useful part in proposing amendments which will improve the efficiency of the test procedures laid down in the Annexes and reduce their cost. Our continued ability to make useful contributions to development in this technical field would depend on our accepting the full responsibilty of becoming a member, so to speak, of the "ATP club ".

What are the responsibilities that membership entails? They can be broadly summed up as follows. Contracting parties undertake, first, to ensure that the perishable foods specified in the ATP annexes shall not be carried in international transport except in equipment that has been tested and certified in accordance with the technical provisions laid down. The foodstuffs concerned 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 to it that transport equipment is so selected and used that the temperature conditions prescribed for the various foodstuffs can be complied with throughout carriage.

One provision of ATP is especially important for the United Kingdom. By Article 3, where an international journey involves a sea crossing of more than 150 km. the conditions of the agreement do not apply to that crossing. And by Article 5, containers arriving at European ports after sea crossings of more than 150 km. are exempted from the certification requirements. For this reason, Clause 1 limits the application of this Bill to international journeys which either do not involve sea crossings or which include sea crossings of less than 150 km. in practice this means that the only traffic that will be subject to the provisions of the Bill will be that carried by road vehicles, railway wagons and containers on the following routes: cross-Channel routes from Newhaven-Dieppe to Harwich-Zeebrugge inclusive; the shorter crossings of the Irish Sea to the Republic of Ireland; and cross border traffic between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Those shipping companies which carry cargoes of frozen foods on transoceanic routes have their own systems for testing and certifying the efficiency of their refrigerated containers.

The Bill will enable effect to be given to these undertakings through the medium of regulations. There will, as in any vehicle testing scheme, be regulations to establish ATP technical standards for the various categories of equipment, methods of testing, forms of certificate, and so on. Provision will be made for the appointment of personnel and the setting up of authorised testing stations. All this is provided for in Clauses 1, 2 and 3. Testing stations may be either Government-owned or privately-owned and designated for that purpose. Under Clause 4 powers are given for the type approval of equipment produced in quantity, in order to avoid the necessity of carrying out full tests on all units of a standard type individually.

A survey of the existing facilities that are available for testing, mostly at manufacturers' premises, has been made and sufficient capacity has been found to be available, provided certain additions are made to the test equipment. Clause 5 gives power to make loans to designated stations for this purpose. If, as we expect, agreement can be reached with the firms concerned it will not be necessary to set up any Government stations. Testing will be done at designated stations by personnel individually approved by the Government, and test reports will be sent to the DOE certifying officer who will be personally responsible for the issue of the certificate.

So much for our positive obligations. On the other side, Clause 7 of the Bill makes it an offence to engage in the international carriage of perishable foodstuffs using transport equipment otherwise than in accordance with the regulations. However, in any proceedings under this clause a defence is offered to a carrier for hire and reward—which includes BritishRail—whereby he can contract out of the obligation to secure compliance with any particular regulation and so offload that responsibility on to the consignor of the goods.

To facilitate enforcement, powers are given in Clause 6 whereby examiners may inspect transport equipment and in some cases enter premises for that purpose, and may require the production of certificates by drivers of road vehicles. A special problem arises here, as in the enforcement of other regulations, in regard to foreign road vehicles because their owners are usually outside the jurisdiction of the courts and the drivers are seldom here long enough to be brought to account by prosecution in the normal way. The Bill, therefore, follows the precedent set in the Road Traffic (Foreign Vehicles) Act 1972 in giving power to an examiner to prohibit a foreign road vehicle believed to be in contravention of the regulations from being driven on a road. An attempt by the driver to evade the prohibition may lead to his arrest.

The remainder of the Bill is concerned with the matters of procedure, interpretation, and ancillary matters. I should like to draw your Lordships' attention to Clause 16 which provides for the possibility that the Act may need to be amended to enable effect to be given to amendments that may be made to ATP. Such amendments will undoubtedly have to be made from time to time in order to take account of technical developments in the fields of transport and refrigeration. Some, indeed, have already been agreed to in Geneva. Most of such amendments will be taken care of by amending the regulations but it is possible that, for some of them to be adopted, the regulation-making powers themselves may need to be modified. Clause 16 specifies the sections of the Act which might be affected and provides that they may be modified by Order in Council after a draft has been approved by both Houses of Parliament—in other words by Affirmative Resolution procedure.

Some of your Lordships may be wondering how much all this is going to cost. There are two ways of looking at this question. First, how much will it cost an operator of refrigerated transport to have his vehicles regularly tested and certified in accordance with the provisions of the Bill when enacted? Secondly, what would be his costs if the Bill is not enacted? We must remember that, whatever we do here, ATP is coming into force on the Continent and British vehicles carrying perishable foods will not be allowed to land unless they can produce recognised ATP certificates. If they cannot get such certificates here, they will either have to operate with foreign certificated vehicles or take their own vehicles to foreign testing stations to get certificates.

The French Government have already introduced regulations requiring the production of certificates which, to all intents and purposes, are ATP certificates although the agreement is not yet in force. By a temporary arrangement with the French authorities, British vehicles are able to enter France on production of a certificate issued by the Ship owners Refrigerated Cargo Research Association at Cambridge which has been designated for this purpose by the Secretary of State.

This arrangement will come to an end when ATP comes into force. The present cost of these certificates amounts to about £100 after a full test in their test chamber and £40 for one issued after an examination under the so-called "transitional provisions "of ATP, which do not require a full test but which are available for a limited period only. The former certificate is valid for six years, the latter for three. Both these figures will have to be raised to meet current costs.

It is impossible to say now what the eventual cost of a full-scale ATP test at a designated station may he when the scheme comes fully into force here, but there can be no doubt that it will be in excess of those figures. In France, the charge for a full test is about £400. A lot will depend on the use made of the type approval provisions which will enable the cost of testing one vehicle to be spread over the whole batch. On the other hand, the cost of some new test equipment will have to be met out of fees paid by the vehicle owner or manufacturer. Here, also, there is an element of uncertainty. One of the most expensive pieces of equipment—namely, a fan to keep air flowing at a specified speed over the equipment while it is being tested —may not be necessary if proposals made by the United Kingdom at Geneva are accepted and embodied in amendments made to the Agreement.

There will also be administrative costs to be added in. These will be kept as low as possible by the use of firms' staff at the testing stations, and of the Department of the Environment's existing staff of examiners to carry out such enforcement action as may be necessary. The total number of Government personnel expected to be needed exclusively for work arising out of the Bill is estimated at three. All of them will be on the testing scheme itself; one certifying officer, one examiner to supervise testing at designated stations (of which there will probably be not more than six) and one clerk.

What will be the position if this Bill is not enacted? The first thing that will have to happen is that, in order to save exporters the cost of having to get their equipment certificated abroad, we shall have to try to organise a voluntary testing scheme on the lines of the present arrangement, using the Cambridge test station as a base, and to make bilateral arrangements with foreign countries individually as and when they become contracting parties to ATP. This would be expensive in administrative time and travel. Our bargaining position would not be good, and there could be no guarantee that we would be successful in persuading all countries to recognise British certificates, whose authority they would know was not backed by any legal sanctions. As the law stands, it is no offence to have in one's possession a forged ATP certificate which is intended for use exclusively abroad. Even if we were successful in making agreements with ail countries, there would still be no saving in the cost of testing and certification here, because the full ATP tests would have to be applied, and the saving in Government administrative costs resulting from the testing scheme being voluntary, instead of statutory, would be minimal.

If we were unsuccessful even with a few countries like, say, Czechoslovakia, Austria or Hungary, owners of vehicles wishing to enter those countries to deliver consignments of perishable foods, or to transit their territories to make deliveries beyond, would be unable to do so, unless they had had their transport equipment certified at test stations in Continental countries belonging to ATP. The probable result is that the big companies, whose international operations are Continent-wide, would take the precaution of having all their vehicles tested and certified in ATP countries whose certificates were guaranteed recognition everywhere. Add to this the gratuitous political cost that we would incur from being the odd man out in an exercise designed to promote people's health, and the conclusion is that if this Bill is not enacted there will be both economic and political costs which will greatly outweigh any possible savings.

To sum up, my Lords, this Bill is a piece of legislation which is designed to serve a useful purpose in promoting safety to health in the international transport of perishable foods. It will not at all affect domestic transport in this country. Left to ourselves, we should not have thought the extra burden it will necessarily impose on the food and transport industries was justified by the negligible advantage it might bring to the domestic consumer. But we are not alone. We are part of an international community which has decided it wants this measure. We have nothing to lose by conforming with the line taken by our European neighbours, and our international trade and good will will benefit. My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Baroness Stedman.)

4.45 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that the whole House would like me to thank the noble Baroness very much for her extremely thorough explanation of this Bill. I am equally sure that the House would not want me to comment on every point in this Bill, most of which is technical, and which is intended to implement the ATP Agreement made by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. It is totally non-contentious and non-political. I think it would cause the utmost boredom to your Lordships if I tried to be clever by picking out points in an endeavour to make an interesting speech. So I hope that your Lordships will acquit me of ally rudeness to the noble Baroness if I keep my speech extremely brief and just thank her for introducing the Bill and make a few comments on one or two points.

I was particularly glad to hear the noble Baroness say that the Bill will not make very much difference to our refrigerated and cool transport. After my discussions with various carriers and transport associations, I know that that is a view which is fully shared by the industry itself. Only this morning. I was trying to pin somebody down and was asking what will be the difference to an almost new vehicle which has been equipped with our method and is now to go over to the European method. The answer is probably a cost of £300 on a £10,000 vehicle. So, although it may be a little annoying, looked at in terms of capital, it is not large, especially bearing in mind that such a vehicle might be used in Britain only, and that it would not cost much extra to adapt a new vehicle to conform to this standard. I fully agree that we must take this step, because we have to help our carriers to get into Europe and to have the full benefit of our membership.

I know that it is not totally germane to this Bill but, with the indulgence of the House, I should like to say that I hope that Her Majesty's Government will follow up measures like this, which are all to the good, with strong further support for our carriers in getting more licences in Europe. Up till now, the industry has not been as well pleased as it might be with the quantity of licences given to it by our partners in Europe. This is something for which successive Ministers of Transport have been fighting, and I hope that the present Minister is still fighting.

As regards Clause 7, some of my noble friends have pointed out to me that they wonder whether it is really necessary to have fines of up to £100 on conviction, when the most expensive penalty for not complying would be having a lorry turned back when it had reached, say, the borders of Russia. That would be a much more severe penalty than being fined a mere £100. I should have thought that the Clause 7 offences were not really necessary.

The other point which must be made—and which always appears when we debate consumer matters—is that, at the end of the day, however much perfection we achieve in the various forms of transport, whether it be railways or long-distance lorries, what counts is the quality of goods put into the refrigerated plant. If you put in shoddy goods, you get shoddy goods out, and the industry must always think about this.

I should explain to the House that the noble Baroness was kind enough to ask her office to send to me a copy of the ATP Agreement. This was far too complicated and technical a document for me to appreciate, but there is one point of English that I do not understand. It seems that "quick frozen "has become synonymous with "deep frozen ". To my layman's mind, "quick frozen "is what I thought one put in the ordinary part of the 'fridge, whereas "deep frozen "is rather different. However, in European "lingo "I gather that it is the other way round. I do not suppose that the noble Baroness will know the answer to that question now, but I should be grateful for a reply later. With those few words, I should again like to say, "Thank you "and point out that, had we been in power, this is a measure that we should have introduced. I am most grateful to the noble Baroness.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend on the Front Bench what happens to me if I, as an old-fashioned European curmudgeon of a farmer, decide to send my produce by rail? I can see nothing in the Bill which would prevent me from evading the law if I decided to send it by rail. There are farmers who still send their produce by rail. After 1981, for instance, only viscerated poultry will be sold anywhere in Britain, except at the farm gate. Under the Bill, I think I could get away with that. I could send it by rail, for there are still railway wagons in Europe which carry meat, and get it into England. Can I or can I not do that?

4.52 p.m.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord opposite for his reception of the Bill. I had a feeling that I was making rather heavy weather of something which was not contentious, but I hoped that it would explain the general outlines of the Bill. To deal with the question which the noble Lord was good enough to give me notice that he was going to ask, I have taken advice and understand that the Department are following up very strongly the question of making sure that we get our fair share of all the licences. In fact, I understand that even today some of my officials are negotiating on some of these points in Europe and we shall continue to do so. I take the noble Lord's point that if the consignment cannot be delivered, this is perhaps a greater deterrent than the fines. I will look at that point and perhaps will be able to go into it in more detail at Committee stage.

I was equally puzzled about the "quick frozen "and the "deep frozen ". However, I understand that "quick frozen "is the American term that was inserted into the agreement at the request of the U.S.A. Perhaps, therefore, we have become Americanised in one more sense.

I must say to my noble friend Lord Davies of Leek that I am not too sure of the answer to his question. Refrigerated vans are used by rail and certainly it would be an offence, once we have signed the ATP Agreement, for anybody to try to evade it by any means, even the noble Lord's old curmudgeon of a farmer in Europe. However, I will go into that point in more detail and write to the noble Lord about it. I am grateful to the House for the way they have received the Bill.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.