HL Deb 17 June 1980 vol 410 cc1057-70

7.18 p.m.

Lord KINGS NORTON rose to move, that this House takes note of the Report of the European Communities Committee on powered industrial trucks. The noble Lord said: My Lords, the report deals with the draft directive published last May, which is part of the Commission's programme under Article 100 of the EEC Treaty for the removal of technical barriers to trade in industrial products. Your Lordships will learn, if you have not already done so, that it singularly fails to achieve this objective.

The majority of the vehicles embraced by the title "powered industrial trucks" are what we call "fork lift trucks", which are widely used in industry, and it is essential that they are so designed as to minimise the possibility and ill consequence of accidents.

The directive particularly examined in the report before your Lordships is the first of a series arising from a draft framework directive, by which is meant a general directive, related to the harmonisation of the design of lifting and mechanical handling devices. Although published in 1975, those of your Lordships who are familiar with the speed at which decisions are reached in the Community will not be surprised to learn that the framework directive has not yet been adopted. It has been the subject of a reserve, or estoppel, by the French. None of the subsidiary directives can be adopted until this reserve is removed and, as our report says, there is no indication when this is likely to be".

Even if that great event occurred tomorrow we should still be far from the end of the road, because there are serious objections to the particular directive we are considering, which your Select Committee urge the Government not to agree to in its present form. The report states that, Agreement on the technical content of the directive may be reached only with difficulty".

Your Lordships will see from a study of the report that Sub-Committee F of the Select Committee have gone deeply into the directive, examining witnesses from the Health and Safety Executive, the British Industrial Truck Association and the Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs of the European Parliament. They consulted the Select Committee on European Legislation of another place, and received and considered submissions from the CBI, the Independent Engineering Insurers Committee and the Associated Offices Technical Committee.

As a result of this investigation, your Committee draw attention in emphatic terms to two issues of principle raised by the draft directive. The first, and more important, is the inclusion of two requirements which appear to be unnecessary and which raise a serious political question. The second concerns the degree of harmonisation required—total or optional.

On the first point of principle, your Lordships will be interested to remark that the preparation of the draft directive took several years. During 1979, however, France imposed new national manufacturing standards and certification procedures, with which manufacturers from other member states had to comply in order to sell their products in the French market. Following the last meeting of the Commission Working Group, when the draft directive was finalised, two clauses taken from the recent French regulations were added by the Commission, even though they had previously been rejected by the experts. The two clauses concerned called for automotive-type pedal arrangements on trucks and for removable fuel tanks. Their declared purpose is to achieve greater safety.

Evidence to Sub-Committee "F" emphasised that the clauses had no value in relation to safety and amounted to a technical barrier to trade. There has therefore been surprise and disappointment at the last minute inclusion of these two provisions by the Commission. In the explanatory memorandum which accompanies the directive, the Commistion said that they, did not wish to preclude from the outset the technical measures recently taken by a Member State",

and this certainly suggests that the Commission were not persuaded by the French arguments in favour of the clauses, but that they foresaw that the French would insist on retaining them. The inclusion of the clauses has provoked a considerable and adverse reaction in the United Kingdom. The CBI claim that they have jeopardised the acceptability of what is otherwise a highly desirable directive, that, the French action is a violation of the fundamental aims of creating a Common Market and that member states should firmly resist such an abuse of Community rules".

At the time of publication of the Report before your Lordships, neither the European Parliament nor the Economic and Social Committee of the EEC—called ECOSoc, for short—had expressed opinions on the directive, but it is clear from the information supplied to your committee by the rapporteur of the Economic and Monetary Committee of the European Parliament, that the ECOSoc section concerned had developed the view that the provisions on fuel tanks and controls are unacceptable, because they do nothing for the safety, health or comfort of the operators or users; they add to the great and increasing diversity of national regulations; they constitute a design restriction which will hamper development, and they damage the export capability of EEC manufacturers to the rest of the world. Furthermore, the Parliament's committee, to which I referred, believe that the matter raises a political issue requiring debate on the floor of the European Parliament.

That is where this piece of European history stood when your committee's report went to press. But since then things have got worse. The ECOSoc section, with the sound views that I mentioned, recommended to the ECOSoc plenary session on 26th March that the two French clauses were unacceptable. But, through French intervention, ECOSoc did not accept the recommendation, so the draft directive now goes forward to the EEC Council with the two offending clauses still included. From the points of view of all interested parties who are not French, it is essential that the Council do not accept the draft without deleting them. However, there is one item of news on the credit side. I have just heard that the European Parliament have decided to hold a debate on the matter on 26th June.

May I now tell your Lordships about the second issue of principle. First, you must understand the difference between "total" and "optional" harmonisation. Total harmonisation means that member states are obliged to prohibit the marketing of all products covered by a directive which are not in conformity with its provisions. Optional harmonisation, which your Lordships may be forgiven for thinking is unlikely to be harmonious, means that while products conforming to a directive may be marketed and used within the Community without restriction, products not conforming may still be marketed and used with in a member state if it so permits.

Although Government witnesses emphasised that they had not yet taken a decision on which form of harmonisation they would press for in negotiations, optional harmonisation would be the more usual form and has definite administrative advantages. Whereas optional harmonisation would require only the minimum amendment of United Kingdom law by regulations under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, total harmonisation would require detailed government implementation and the application of appropriate enforcement measures. There is the danger that under total harmonisation it may be more difficult to adjust or amend the standards to meet innovative developments as they arise. The framework directive makes provision for technical progress committees to achieve this end, but such a procedure would in practice, be easier to operate within an optional scheme.

But the United Kingdom manufacturers favour total harmonisation. While under an optional scheme they would be entitled to market their products in other member states, it might in practice prove difficult to do this if member states continue to allow the marketing and use of products which do not conform. Similarly, since current United Kingdom requirements for industrial trucks are not stringent, there would be little to stop the import into the United Kingdom of inferior products which do not conform to the requirements specified in the draft.

As between optional and total harmonisation in this particular case, your committee express no definite opinion. They appreciate the advantages which a total scheme may bring to United Kingdom manufacturers but, if this cannot be negotiated, then optional harmonisation would be better, they think, than none. The ECOSoc plenary session on 26th March, however, appears to have agreed on total harmonisation.

On the objectionable clauses so unconstitutionally included by the Commission, your committee expresses itself categorically. They see no justification for the inclusion of the two clauses on pedal arrangements and removable fuel tanks. They urge the United Kingdom not to agree to the adoption of the directive without their deletion, and I hope that the Minister who is to reply will be able to assure us that this will be done. Your committee remarks that there seems little point in conducting exhaustive and time-consuming preparatory discussions if, at the last moment, the Commission include requirements which were rejected by expert opinion and were designed primarily to meet the demands of one member state.

The Commission should, in the first instance, the committee considers, have sought to persuade France to do away with its unnecessary standards. If such persuasion had failed, the Commission should have proceeded on the basis of expert advice and published the directive without the offending clauses. It would then have been open to France to argue for their inclusion during negotiations but, as the position now stands, one member state has a quite unfair bargaining position.

If barriers to trade arising from mandatory Government regulations cannot be satisfactorily removed by Community legislation, then it is preferable, the report states, that the problems of standardisation should be left to the international standards bodies who will overcome them slowly but by consensus.

Indeed, it is inconceivable that the Commission should try to harmonise standards across the whole field of industrial appliances. The difficulties arc reflected by the fact that in the current draft directive there are 50 pages of technical detail—50 pages just for fork lift trucks—and five years have passed and there are years of argument still to come. We have yet to start on the rest of the series under the framework directive; we have yet to start on turbines, caravans, cooking stoves, railways, nutcrackers, mousetraps—and goodness knows what else. The path ahead, through an undergrowth of frustration, is lost in the mists of the 21st century. Expressing a personal opinion, for the Commission the task is an impossible one.

Another point, my Lords. The draft directive which is the subject of the report which I am presenting to your Lordships, in my view represents an attempt to standardise design. I doubt whether in principle we should ever try to do this. Again expressing a personal view, what is needed in some areas, powered industrial trucks among them, is a set of safety requirements similar in philosophy to those so well devised for aircraft, European agreement for which is achieved by sensible international action without any help from the EEC Commission. I think that the Commission might well be put into a position to decide in what areas such requirements are needed. Then it should, I suggest, call upon the standards institutions, the relevant regulatory bodies and the industries concerned to collaborate to produce them. This has worked splendidly in aviation, and in my opinion it could work equally expeditiously in other areas of technology. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That this House takes note of the Report of the European Communities Committee on powered industrial trucks (42nd Report, H.L. 205).—(Lord Kings Norton.)

7.33 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to express my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Kings Norton, for the crisp and trenchant manner in which he has explained this draft directive and, in a few words, to give my support to the general line which he has taken. At first sight, it may appear strange that this House should be troubled with what on the face of it is a technical matter affecting a limited class of product, but it is a link in the chain of harmonisation measures being forged by the Community, and experience already shows that technical harmonisation proposals may cover matters of more general import.

For this draft directive does not stand alone. The House may remember that a few days ago a Starred Question was asked by the noble Lord, Lord Plowden, arising from another Select Committee Report on an EEC draft directive dealing with scissions—a word hard to enunciate even before dinner! This is a rather obscure corner of company law relating to the winding up of companies. At first sight, there would appear to be no connection between fork lift trucks and scissions but in fact they are almost exact analogues. Both are examples of technical harmonisation in their respective fields. Both have been tailored to suit the interest of one member only of the EEC—in fact the same member in both cases. And in the scissions case an attempt has been made to by-pass the European Parliament and the Economic and Social Committee altogether rather than, as the noble Lord, Lord Kings Norton, has explained, to bulldoze the proposal through the Economic and Social Committee. However, as the noble Lord has also said, the European Parliament has proved to be made of sterner stuff.

Different departments of Her Majesty's Government are responsible for dealing with these two directives which are, of course, two of many. I hope the Minister can confirm that somewhere in Whitehall there is a department which watches the whole field of the harmonisation policies of the EEC; brings all the disparate directives together; and co-ordinates the responses of the departments concerned to those recondite but potentially significant attempts at harmonisation. This is important because, as in those two cases which I have mentioned, they can either involve the interposition of additional non-tariff barriers to trade or give rise to a great waste of time and effort both internationally and, later, nationally if legislation is required, as it usually is.

I should now like to probe a little further into a matter mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Kings Norton; namely, the relationship of the harmonisation policies of the European Economic Community and the work of the standardisation bodies. I do not know the reasons for which the Community embarked on harmonisation in the industrial field, which is really standardisation under another name. It is obviously a Herculean task, with huge staff requirements, to cover the whole field of industry, and it is difficult to see how overlapping and confusion can be avoided.

As a former President of the British Standards Institute, I know something of the complexities of the work in the national field as well as the dedicated efforts of thousands of individual members of technical committees. And of course it all becomes infinitely more complicated when the national effort has to be integrated into the work of the two European standards institutions and, at the highest level, with that of the two international organisations, the ISO and the IEC at Geneva.

Moreover, one of the sub-committees of the select committee which is preparing a report on yet another harmonisation proposal has discovered that the Economic Commission for Europe is also busy in some areas of the harmonisation process, and to this extent a third variable is added.

Standardisation work is extremely slow and cumbrous but, as the noble Lord, Lord Kings Norton, has pointed out, so are the harmonisation procedures of the European Economic Community. It would probably have been more satisfactory for all concerned if the Commission had kept out of industrial harmonisation and left it to the standards institutions, but we are presumably now stuck with a dual and, in some cases, a triple system and it would be interesting to know what, if any, attempts are made to harmonise in turn the work of the Community in this field with that of the standardisation bodies. Perhaps the Minister might be able to say something on this point.

This apparently unimportant directive is merely the ears of the rabbit, for under- neath lies the whole body of non-tariff barriers to trade. The manipulation of standards is one of the most effective ways of erecting these non-tariff barriers and, as the present report shows, harmonisation can also be manipulated for the same purpose. An earlier example was the notorious noise level requirement for lawn-mowers.

This harmonisation process takes place in a jungle where predators abound, and those who operate in it need to be constantly on the alert. I hope that the departments of Her Majesty's Government who have to negotiate on these matters are well prepared, well co-ordinnated and resolute. If this report helps to make them more so it will have been worth the effort.

7.40 p.m.


My Lords, I will not take up much of the time of the House. I have read the report and I have decided, as somebody who is not on any of the European Committees, that it was my duty to listen to this debate because I have given examples before, and so have other Members of this noble House, of pettifogging meddling about with standards. I remember even an effort to standardise mustard throughout the European system. Consequently, what I am afraid of is that we shall get something like Japanese resistance to pharmaceuticals and to engineering; unless the number of an engine is stamped in a certain place on the engine itself in a car it will not be accepted.

All I want to say is that common sense insists that there shall not be a great overlapping of different bodies dealing with standardisation. We have just heard an authoritative statement from somebody who knows what he is talking about on this, and I hope that the Common Market will take it a little more slowly rather than interfere in this realm, and will allow the appropriate bodies which have been in existence for generations to deal with those things which they can deal with better than a heterogenous group in the Common Market itself.

Originally I was against the Common Market, and although I still am against it I have to bow before the wave of the referendum. Nevertheless, it hurts me to see the sovereignty of this House—of Parliament itself—being lost to pettifogging ideas such as this. Consequently, I hope that the Government in their wisdom will try to do something to rectify this continuous—yes, it is continuous; it is not continual—this continuous interference with the legislation of various Governments that goes on inside the Common Market.

7.42 p.m.


My Lords, I have listened to the debate with great interest. The Government are grateful to your Lordships' Select Committee for their very thorough examination of the European Commistion's proposal for a directive on the approximation of laws relating to powered industrial trucks, and we are also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kings Norton, for initiating the debate about it tonight. As the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, told us, although this draft may appear to be of a technical character—indeed to take up the phrase of the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek, to be also of a pettifogging character—it does raise some really grave political issues and the noble Lord, Lord Kings Norton, spelt these out clearly to us. It raises the question of how the institutions of the European Community should or could respond when one member state—in this case, and indeed in another case that was cited, France—introduces some new technically-seeming barrier to trade which it seeks to justify on health and safety grounds. It is because the Department of Employment (my Ministry) is the sponsoring Ministry of the Health and Safety Executive that I am in fact answering this Motion.

In my view, this kind of activity is extremely dangerous not only to the free trading system on which Western prosperity since World War Two has largely been based but also to the political survival of the European Community as a coherent and dynamic entity. On the one hand, people can be alienated from the kind of pettifogging restriction to which the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek, drew our attention and, on the other hand, they become sharply aware that this bureaucracy is simply the jungle within which real predators are lurking, as the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, told us.

Under the rules of the Community it is for the Commission to make proposals for removing such barriers between member states and they accordingly produced this proposal for a directive, which was delivered to the Council of Ministers on 11th May 1979 and in due course was also published in the official journal of the Community. It then went to the Economic and Social Committee, which after detailed consideration eventually delivered its opinion on 26th March of this year. Since then it has been going through the European Parliament whose opinion is now awaited and I was glad to hear that that will be coming fairly shortly. All this while the Commission have been working towards producing additional technical material which will be essential to make the proposal complete.

Meanwhile here in this country the Commission's proposal has been considered by a Select Committee of your Lordships' House and also by the Select Committee on European legislation in another place, which has published its own report. The two Select Committees took evidence from the responsible Government departments and agencies and, in particular, the Health and Safety Executive and also from the Confederation of British Industry, the British Industrial Trucks Association and other interested bodies. The responsible Government departments and agencies have been undertaking their own consultations with the CBI, the BITA and other bodies with a view to establishing our negotiating position—the Government's negotiating position—in good time for the Council of Ministers' stage, which I understand is not likely to come before the autumn and possibly later than that.

That is the process of consultation, which is not yet quite complete. We are preparing our armoury, so to speak. Before determining our negotiating position the Government will of course take into account the views expressed in the debate tonight as well as any further debate in another place and also the debate which the noble Lord has told us will shortly be coming in the European Parliament.

I should like now to comment briefly on what has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Kings Norton, in introducing tonight's debate. First, the draft framework directive on lifting and mechanical handling appliances, upon which this particular draft directive on powered industrial trucks depends (fork lift trucks for short) has indeed been with the Council of Ministers since 1975. It is virtually complete but the problem of how to deal with imports from outside the Community has not yet been fully resolved. I think perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Kings Norton, was a little unfair in blaming the Commission for this delay, for which member Governments should really take responsibility.


My Lords, if I may interrupt the noble Earl, I said "the Community".

The Earl of GOWRIE

My Lords, I beg the noble Lord's pardon. It is, as I said, the member Governments that have been a bit lax here.

Next the inclusion by the Commission in their draft directive and the endorsement by the Economic and Social Committee of the current French requirements that fuel tanks should be removable and that pedal controls should be of the automotive type and layout. I can confirm that the French authorities have not yet produced any accident information whatsoever which could justify these two requirements. Accident information from the Health and Safety Executive in this country does not indicate that removable fuel tanks would make any significant contribution to safety, and does not indicate, either, that automotive pedal controls are any safer than non-automotive. This is a try-on, my Lords, and we all know it. In support of British manufacturers we will argue strongly to resist the inclusion of these requirements in the directive.

I wish now to turn to the question of total or optional harmonisation, which the Select Committee and the noble Lord, as well as the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, have already explained to the House. It is clear that British manufacturers want total harmonisation, as they feel this would effectively protect them from competition from sub-standard trucks. But we must not—if this is the right image in this contest—get hoist with our own petard. We also have to take into account the interests of purchasers and users. These have also been consulted, and while many prefer total harmonisation, as this ensures a standard product, some want to be able to retain the freedom to purchase any truck which they consider would meet their particular requirements.

The manufacturers allege that this freedom could be abused, in that cheaper and less safe trucks might be ordered, perhaps from overseas. But the Health and Safety Executive tell me that they already have adequate legal powers under Section 6 of the 1974 Act to stop this happening, and that total harmonisation would require the making, administration and indeed enforcement of detailed technical regulations, while optional harmonisation would in this country require little or no legislation. I am, therefore, not yet persuaded that there is need for total harmonisation solely on safety grounds, but we will be taking into account the views of the manufacturers as well as the users in establishing our final negotiating position.

Finally, let me turn to what the Select Committee and the noble Lord said about the European Communities' harmonisation programme as a whole. It certainly is a burdensome programme for the Commission and for member Governments. I wish it were true that we could leave all this work to the international standards bodies to achieve by consensus. To answer Lord Sherfield, the European Commission are encouraging the two Pan-European standards-making bodies, the CEN and the CENELEC, to organise their programmes so as to produce the harmonised standards the European Community requires. So they are trying to achieve what the noble Lord wants in that direction. But the trouble, of course, is that they cannot always achieve consensus; and even when they do, it is not necessarily binding on member Governments, some of which seem intent upon maintaining and even developing their own national requirements which have the effect, if not always the intention, of being technical barriers to trade. The Government therefore see no alternative in the present circumstances to persevering with the programme in so far as it is necessary in order to remove such barriers where they already exist, and prevent their erection elsewhere.

The noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, asked whether there is a central co-ordinating department looking at all EEC harmonisation directives. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the Department of Trade play the central co-ordinating role here. I am, as I say, most interested in this debate. We are preparing our negotiating position on this and it will be a very strong one. Our case will be strengthened by the remarks made in your Lordships' House this evening.


My Lords, may I put to the noble Earl this presumption? When they think something needs the attention of the Government it is their duty to inform the Government of the position, and the Government make use of that information?

The Earl of GOWRIE

My Lords, they are the Government, so to speak, at present, and so that difficulty would not be there. But I might give further reassurance to the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek, and to the House by saying that Ministers are also discussing, inter-ministerially if you like, about the whole issue of non-tariff barriers which cause such a lot of concern.


I thank the noble Earl.


My Lords, I do not think I have anything more to say. I am very satisfied with the reply.

[The sitting was suspended from 7.54 to 8.15 p.m.]