I beg to move, That this House
insists on Commons amendment No. 5, to which the Lords have disagreed, and disagrees to amendments Nos. 5A and 5B proposed by the Lords.
Perhaps this debate will be a little less good-natured than the last one. Use of retro-reflective tape is already permitted, and many heavy-vehicle operators have already voluntarily opted to fit it. We in this country are committed to making it mandatory, and we believe that the best mechanism for achieving that is to amend both European Commission and United Nations Economic Commission for Europe legislation. This route has been agreed internationally, and proceedings are now under way that will mandate it in both European and international law.
We do not believe that it would make good sense to try to introduce regulations covering only UK-registered vehicles in the run-up to the more universal requirement to fit the tape. In addition, the legal basis for making such UK-specific regulations before tape fitment is mandated by EC and UNECE law is, at best, uncertain. If we were to introduce regulations by the end of 2007, I cannot be sure we would not be open to challenge, and possibly to infraction proceedings.
Unilateral Italian requirements on this subject have been mentioned in previous debates.
Let me make some progress, and than I shall give way.
I have also received correspondence in the past day or two from my hon. Friend Mr. Drew, who is in his place today, questioning statements that I have made previously about UK and other objections to the Italian regulations. Judging by the copy letters enclosed with that correspondence, there does appear to be some confusion over that. However, I can confirm that I have a copy of a letter from the secretary-general of the Commission to the Italians, advising them, among other things, of their obligation to include a mutual recognition clause relating to other member states or European Free Trade Association countries signatory to the European economic area agreement and suggesting that they reconsider their legislation. That seemed to me to be a likely precursor to infraction proceedings, although I gather that no action has, as yet, been taken.
In addition, I can confirm that the Directorate General for Enterprise and Industry website lists the Commission, Germany, France and the UK as all having commented on the draft Italian ministerial decree on retro-reflective materials for heavy vehicles and trailers. The UK view is that, because UNECE regulation 48 specifically mentions regulation 104 tape as "optional", that reference establishes competence on this subject, taking it away from individual member states. I am not sure how any confusion has arisen: that might be something to do with the comments having been made on the legislation when it was in draft form, rather than after it had come into force.
Does my hon. Friend John McDonnell still want me to give way?
It would be nice to have clarity on this point. During the last discussion, the House was quaking in its boots at the risk of UN action and of EC infraction proceedings, and we were told that the Italians were going into the ring with the EU. We now know that in fact, all that they have received is a letter, so no infraction proceedings are taking place and there is no encumberance on the Government's proceeding with the measure.
Well, infraction proceedings may have yet to start, but that does mean that they are not going to, and perhaps the United Kingdom takes these obligations slightly more seriously than even the Italians do. But I agree with my hon. Friend that the scenario of Hans Blix coming in and inspecting the retro-reflective tape on vehicles on UK roads is probably not entirely likely.
This is most helpful and we are obviously making progress. So just to tape it up finally, does my hon. Friend honestly think that if we pass this measure tonight and put the tape on the trucks, any action whatsoever will be taken against us, or anybody else? Would we not be applauded for our foresight in making the roads of Europe safer?
First, we should ask ourselves what it is we would be able to do tonight. I take it that the Italians are applying their regulations only to Italian-registered vehicles that do not have regulation 48 approval; otherwise, I feel sure that aggrieved owners would have appealed on the ground that the law is being breached. Therein lies the answer to my hon. Friend's question: even if infraction proceedings were not started, any lorry owner who did not want to fit the tape would have legal grounds for objecting to our forcing them to do so. So the sensible thing to do is to use the mechanisms that we agreed to a long time ago in an international treaty for mandating use of this tape. I am prepared to assure the House that I will do everything that I can to ensure that the process is as rapid as possible, that the tape is fitted as quickly as possible, and that people purchasing new trucks fit it voluntarily to as short a time scale as possible. That way, we will achieve the same objectives without having to break the terms of our treaty. My hon. Friends might think that that is not an important matter as it affects this subject. Perhaps so, but there will be times when issues arise that affect this country's economy and competitiveness, and we will want to stand by such international treaties. We would be in a very weak position in doing so if it could be shown that we ignore such treaties when we think that they relate to trivial matters.
There is a difference between a treaty being broken and regulations in this country that merely require UK-registered vehicles to have reflective tape fitted to them in the interest of road safety. Surely we can make some progress here.
As I said, we will make that progress by mandating the tape's use through the existing mechanisms and by applying, wherever we possibly can, voluntary pressure to establish its use. I know that there is the notion in the House that this tape will provide a major road safety benefit almost overnight, but that is not what the evidence suggests. Vehicles in countries where the tape has had a dramatic effect, such as America, did not have conspicuity aids fitted in the first place, so the comparison was being made between the conspicuity of vehicles fitted with retro-reflective tape and the conspicuity of vehicles with no conspicuity aids. However, in this country we have already mandated the use of a whole series of conspicuity aids on our existing vehicles. Bodies that have researched this issue, such as Loughborough university, have said that it is far from proven that the tape will have the great benefit that people are suggesting.
Nevertheless, I do accept that we want all vehicles coming into this country, and our own vehicles, to be fitted with retro-reflective tape. However, I believe that the correct way of achieving this is not to infringe the international treaties that we have already agreed to, but to use them and to work as effectively as we can to ensure that this is done to as short a time scale as possible. Because this is such an important Bill, and because we are now in the last-chance saloon and run the risk of losing the entire Bill, I hope that my hon. Friends, at least—and perhaps even Opposition Members—will agree that it is better to accept my assurance that I will do everything that I can to shorten the time scale for the introduction of this material, and to press the international mechanisms as hard as I can to achieve that introduction as quickly as possible. However, I must insist that we resist the Lords amendments and that we proceed as the Government propose.
We are making glacial progress on this extraordinary issue. We are talking about £100-worth of sticky tape going on to trucks, which would have a dramatic impact. There is complete unanimity on the benefit of this measure and the urgency of the need for it. The most recent Department for Transport statistics show that fatalities from road accidents involving heavy goods vehicles increased by 8 per cent. in 2005 to 486—15 per cent. of the total number of fatalities from road accidents.
Research shows that this measure does work. Research by the university of Darmstadt found that 37 per cent. of all side collisions with trucks at night occurred because they were seen too late. The same study also found that adding retro-reflective contour markings reduced the number of accidents involving trucks and passenger cars in poor visibility conditions by 95 per cent. According to the European Commission road safety action programme for 2003 to 2010, one of the main causes of road accidents is poor visibility. The Minister has already cited the US statistics, but why is the European Commission determined to bring this measure in eventually? He contradicts himself. US statistics show that rear-impact and side collisions can be reduced by 41 per cent. The Loughborough report, which the Minister also cited, showed that ECE 104 markings would prevent 385 collisions each year, so if the Government hang around until 2010 to introduce this measure, 1,155 preventable collisions could occur.
There is pretty fair unanimity on this issue. The Minister said that this is a good idea and the other Opposition parties are also in complete agreement. We have strong support, moreover, from Labour Members, including the hon. Members for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), who offered strong support in Committee.
This is a phenomenon that I had never heard of before until I dug it out this weekend—one that the EU Parliament described as an
"international quasi-legislation/comitology mechanism".
Let me explain it in simple terms. The UNECE agreement goes back to
The then transport Minister, Mr. Jamieson, said that the UK became a signatory to UNECE regulation 104 on
The installation of such markings is, however, optional—that is, at the manufacturer's discretion—and the form of the markings is not specified in detail. [ Interruption. ] The Minister did not go into the detail that I did; I can assure the House of that. The latest development is that Germany has submitted a proposal to the UNECE working party on lighting and signalling to amend regulation 48 to make it mandatory according to the R104 specification.
In summary on this extraordinarily complex legislative morass, the UN makes it optional and, because the UN has made it optional, the EU cannot make it mandatory. If the EU has not made it mandatory, we cannot make it mandatory as we will be in breach of EU law, so Germany is now looking to the EU to amend UN regulation 48 to make it mandatory rather than optional.
I am delighted that the Minister is still with us, because he has just contradicted himself. In Committee, at column 148 on
"a likely precursor to infraction proceedings" but, sadly, he did not include the EC letter. However, he included an absolutely standard report back from the European Commission that is standard procedure when a member state puts forward proposals for implementing legislation in its own country in an area where the EU already has competence. This is not the infraction letter that the Minister hinted it was; it is just a standard letter under what is known as the standstill period.
What is incriminating for the Minister, however, is the last document that he included with the letter to the hon. Member for Stroud, which, to put it bluntly, is a big let-down. The Minister said:
"The UK does not believe that Italy can mandate the vehicles registered in their national territory are fitted with retro-reflective tape."
He showed no support to the Commission for what he has just said in the Chamber. What he could have done was enthusiastically support the measure, which many Labour Members, we and the other Opposition parties do, and he could have gone into the technical details of how its implementation could be speeded up. At the moment, we are heading towards 2010 with a measure that all sides agree to be sensible and one that will potentially save lives. However, in the Government's formal response to the European Commission, the Minister is not being helpful at all. He is actually undermining the Italians.
There has been a lot of talk about the Italians being subject to infraction proceedings, but there is no evidence in the Minister's letter to the hon. Member for Stroud that the Commission has taken any action at all against the Italians and nor have the United Nations authorities. I have an e-mail from Juris Dzintars, who is the secretary to the GRB, GRE and GRSG transport division—technology section—at the United Nations in Geneva. It is very simple. It says:
"In this particular case, the secretariat has not been informed about complaints on the Italian national legislation"
The last word I leave to Anna Borràs of the European Commission DG Enterprise and Industry, Unit F/1, automotive industry, who says quite clearly that
"in our view the Italian measures would not infringe the directive."
This issue is a real tangle; it is absolutely not clear. We have gone into the issue in some detail and it is obvious that the Minister is not clear—he has changed his tune through the Committee stage and modified it very much this evening. We propose sticking to our guns so that he "reflects"—I do not want to make a pun—on the issue overnight. He has little time left and we would like this tiny, common-sense measure dealing with £100-worth of sticky tape that can save lives to appear in the Bill. The UN intends that this material should be applied to trucks and it is absolutely intended by the EU that it should apply to all trucks by 2010. The Italians have taken unilateral action despite the Minister waving flags and raising alarums and scarums.
Even if the European Commission decided to take action against the United Kingdom, is it not the case that, by the time that the action got to the court, the EU would have moved anyway and changed the rules?
That is probably a very pertinent point, and my hon. Friend speaks with more knowledge than I do, having sat in the European Parliament.
My point is simple. The measure is intended by UN legislation that goes back several years, it is intended by European legislation, a member state has gone ahead and another member state is pushing the Commission very hard to make the provision mandatory. It is regrettable that we see from the Minister's letter to the hon. Member for Stroud that he is not pushing as hard as he says he is tonight. I would like to vote against the Government so that he really thinks overnight and comes up with something better in the Lords in the morning.
I apologise for the fact that the issue is back before us once again, but I thank the Minister for sending me the letter that was mentioned by Mr. Paterson on several occasions. I agree with the Minister when he says at the start of the letter's second paragraph that
"there is clearly some confusion."
Let us hope that we can overcome that confusion.
To back up what the hon. Member for North Shropshire said, I quote the third paragraph, which is the most pertinent. In it, the Minister says:
"Our stance is that since the old UN-ECE Regulation 48 mentions Regulation 104 tape as 'optional', this reference takes competence on this subject away from individual Member States. Unlike reflective plates on the back of vehicles, which are not mentioned in Regulation 48 and on which we are therefore free to have (and indeed do have) national prescriptions."
I am interested in what the word "optional" means there.
I shall not speak for long, because people know where I am coming from, but I hope that the Minister will go further. What are the UK Government saying about the Italian legislation? If the UK Government are saying, "We're all behind you chaps. We think that what you're doing is exactly what we want to do", my case rests and the Government are exactly in the right and morally perfect. However, if the UK is questioning what the Italian Government are doing given that everybody—and I mean everybody—seems to think that the provision is, as the hon. Member for North Shropshire said, a jolly good idea, we are hardly on the side of the angels. I do not see why we should not be on the side of the angels. Everyone agrees it is a jolly good thing.
I shall do my best to give my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks. We are saying that we think that what the Italians have done is understandable. We do not believe that it will have dramatic safety benefits, but it will have some safety benefits and it is something that we want to do. However, we believe that what they have done is not legal or enforceable and they can try to enforce it only on their own vehicles and not on everybody else's. If any of their hauliers object, the Italians cannot force them to act. We do not want to be in that position because we want this stuff to be fixed on all vehicles—not just our own vehicles, but all foreign vehicles coming into this country. Therefore we believe that the correct way of mandating it is to use the existing legal mechanisms so that we know that it is a legal mechanism that will be enforceable and apply to everyone.
And I hear the question from the Opposition. That is my question, too: when? The notion of 2010, when we are potentially taking an action against the Italians for introducing the measure already, does not really give a great deal of confidence that somebody else could not try to derail things. The private sector might say, "Hang on a minute. These people aren't really serious about this. Why should we put this tape on?". We are talking about new vehicles, but we should go much further and do things retrospectively. For £100, we may save lives.
I am sure that this is not the most important measure in the Bill, and I am the last person to want to try to threaten the Bill. It is vital that we get the Bill through as soon as possible, if not tonight. The sad thing is that a minor measure, which everybody is in favour of, is threatening the Bill for the simple reason that we are questioning not what the Government are doing, but what the EU Commission might do subsequently. Is the Commission likely to take infraction proceedings? As the hon. Member for North Shropshire said, it will take a great deal of time before the matter gets to court. More importantly, if the UK were to come in behind the Italians, one would hope that that would drive the measure forward even more quickly rather than our causing the Italians problems. That is my dilemma. I cannot see any reason why we should not be four-square behind trying to push this measure forwards as quickly as possible, rather than timidly saying that it is up to the EU Commission to get things in place by 2010, which after all is likely to be only three years after the measure comes into some form of negotiated stance. I am willing to be led forward in the hope that we can get this measure put in the appropriate place and get clarity, but at the moment I am still somewhat confused.
Listening to the Minister, one would think that it was wholly without precedent for the United Kingdom to implement a treaty obligation in advance of the treaty requirement to do so. In fact, as he and probably all Members of the House will realise, that is not the case. A few years ago concerns were expressed about the practice of tethering sows in pig farms. The Conservative Government were eventually persuaded that we should put our pig industry at a significant disadvantage in the interests of animal welfare—well in advance of other pig industries in other parts of the United Kingdom. They were right to do so. They were certainly supported and pressed to do so by the then Labour Opposition. Exactly the same principle applies in this case. All that we want the Government to do in respect of retro-reflective markings is to enforce something that they are going to do in any event.
The Minister told us that he thought that it was sensible to use the mechanisms that were agreed in treaties. In fact, the sensible thing is to take action on this matter now. As others have pointed out, the Loughborough report indicates that the measure could prevent some 385 collisions each year. That means that between now and 2010 we could prevent 1,155 collisions if we took this step.
The Loughborough report also said that those figures are based on the experience when vehicles with retro-reflective tape were compared with those without any conspicuity aids at all. It made the point that it was likely that the benefits would not be the same in this country, where vehicles already have conspicuity aids.
I am grateful to the Minister for that intervention. However, it does not detract from the fact that there would be some quantifiable benefit. I do not think that he has ever sought to row away from that. Let me remind the House that his Department commissioned the Loughborough university report. He should take a short pause before he undermines that research.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, as the Minister has admitted that there is uncertainty in this matter and that it is somewhat opaque, the best way forward is to try to make the situation certain by enacting this measure? We shall soon see one of two things. The Commission will either bring infraction proceedings—I do not believe that it will—or some ludicrous lorry manufacturer will sue the Government and refuse to comply. I can imagine how much business the manufacturer will gain by doing that. I think that we ought to suck it and see.
The right hon. Gentleman asked whether I agree, and, yes, I do. That seems an entirely sensible approach. I cannot for one second think that some lorry manufacturer, for such an infinitesimally small amount of the overall cost of a new heavy goods vehicle, would take action against the Government. I do not even think that the Minister believes that. However, if a manufacturer did take action, what would be the commercial cost to that lorry company in terms of lost business and its standing in the industry and the wider community?
Mr. Paterson said that the Government's position was moving and that it was glacial progress. I fear that he is absolutely right. If this is glacial progress, perhaps for once I could see global warming as a positive process instead of a negative one. But, my goodness, if we think that the Government's progress on this matter is glacial, I have to say that they would be a model of alacrity compared with the EU Commission when it comes to taking infraction proceedings. I cannot for a second believe that we would see anything that would bring us before the European Court of Justice this side of 2010. It would be some substantial time later. If the EU Commission is going to take the measure in any event, why would it take infraction proceedings against us?
Tonight the Minister will have to answer the question that was posed to him by Mr. Drew: what is the UK position in relation to dealings with the Commission on this matter? Can the Minister assure the House that the Government are not encouraging the EU Commission—or seeking to bring pressure to bear on it—to bring infraction proceedings against Italy? That would be a better mark of the Government's good faith in relation to this issue.
The Minister said that we risk losing the Bill for this issue. I do not want the Bill to be lost and I do not believe that the Minister does, but I cannot believe for one second that he is going to see the Bill lost because of an amendment in relation to something that we are eventually going to do anyway. That is sheer brinksmanship and frankly it is unworthy of the Minister and the manner in which he has conducted proceedings on the Bill so far.
I am afraid that I do not really accept the point about having to get the Bill through this evening and the concern about losing the Bill. We have lost the Bill once already. It was lost in the last Parliament. It was one of the measures that fell when the general election was called. I am quite happy for us to go through the whole process again and, at the end of the day, have a Bill that is good law. We should not acquiesce in bad or defective law, or law that does not cover every aspect of our concerns about what we think should apply to the road user.
I would like to probe that point a little further. The Minister said that he did not want clause 16, or the two Lords amendments to it, in the Bill. His words were that he preferred to rely on the existing legal mechanisms. Is he saying that if we agree to remove clause 16 from the Bill and do not include Lords amendments Nos. 5A and 5B, and, at a point in the future, the European Union determines that reflective markings should be affixed to vehicles, he will not have to come back to the House to seek permission to implement that? If that is not what the Minister is saying, why does he not accept that clause 16 should remain in the Bill and resist merely Lords amendments Nos. 5A and 5B, which would impose a time limit?
With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
I am struggling to find new ways of saying what I think I have said at least 40 times before. I believe that the legal position is quite clear. An amendment to UNECE regulation 48 to mandate fitting the tape to trucks seeking regulation 48 certification has been adopted and is expected to come into effect. People have bandied about the date of 2010 because that was our estimate of when the process might be completed, although we think that it might well happen a little earlier. I make a commitment to my hon. Friends and others that I will do everything in my power to bring the date forward—certainly to 2009 and, if possible, earlier. However, until that amendment is in force, we in the UK must continue to register trucks that are approved under the existing regulation 48, whether or not they are fitted with retro-reflective tape.
If we were to agree with their lordships, we would be in a position in which we might be making a law that people could just ignore. Even if infraction proceedings were not taken against us and even if someone did not choose to sue us somewhere down the line, people could just ignore the law and we would be in no position to enforce it.
Is not the Minister a victim of better-not-Minister syndrome? Has not some civil servant said to him, "Better not do this, Minister. Better leave it as it is"? Is it not time that the Minister said, "Let's do it," because, in the end, the measure would not do any harm, but it might do a great deal of good.
I did indeed say that. My officials have gone away to reconsider the matter. They have talked to all their lawyers and all the lawyers in other Government Departments. Every time that they have come back to me, they have said that such a provision would be illegal. When the Lords amendments were passed last Thursday, my officials contacted me, even though I was in a ministerial meeting in Hong Kong. They said that their first instinct was that we would have to concede because we did not want to threaten the Bill. However, the lawyers have been through the matter again and again. We have to resist because the Lords proposal would be illegal.
I explained the confusion about that, so the hon. Gentleman will be able to read my comments. However, I shall embellish that and give Mr. Carmichael the assurance that he was seeking. The British Government are not trying to make things difficult for the Italian Government. We have stated that we think that what the Italian Government have done is illegal and unenforceable, but we are not trying to hold them up or to force anyone to begin infraction proceedings against them. We want the Commission to get up a head of steam to make legal what the Italian Government have done because we, like everyone else, want the tape to be mandated, although we do not think that it will have the dramatic safety benefits that others have claimed. The Government's good will was shown by the fact that we commissioned the Loughborough research to find out whether we should support the tape. The answer was that we should, although the tape's effects could not be quantified because the easy experiments were those that could be carried out in circumstances in which there were no other conspicuity aids on vehicles. However, as a consequence of the research, we have tried to get the measure through the European Commission. It will be in place by 2009 or 2010, and I am giving the House an assurance that I will do everything that I can to shorten that time scale.
Before the Minister finishes his speech, will he deal specifically with my point? If clause 16 were deleted from the Bill, would he need any further authority from the House if the European Commission decided to implement the measure in future? If he would require further authority, why does he not leave clause 16, which relates only to making regulations, in the Bill? There would be no time limit if he were simply to resist Lords amendments Nos. 5A and 5B.
As I understand it, we have to reach agreement on the European Commission directive on lighting installation. When that has been achieved, I imagine that secondary legislation will be required. I do not know whether that will be subject to the affirmative or negative procedure, although I suspect that it will be the negative procedure. However, I certainly would not need a provision in primary legislation—this Bill—to enact such secondary legislation. Since there is wide-ranging agreement on the matter, I suspect that that would not even be prayed against, if it were subject to the negative procedure.
Given that we know where the Italians stand and where we stand, it would be helpful to know the intention of other European countries. Are they all in favour of the measure, or will they try to delay it?
I do not think that those countries intend to try to delay the measure. I am not sure that many of them are seized of the need to accelerate the process, either, but I assure my hon. Friend that I will do what I can with my Transport colleagues throughout Europe to make the case for picking up the pace.
We have another matter to consider today, so it would be a shame if we wasted time on a Division, although that is in the hands of the Opposition. I hope that I have given the House the assurance that, according to all the lawyers I have consulted, the legal position is absolutely clear. I have done my best to ensure that there are no mistakes in that. The best way forward is to use the existing legal process, and I assure the House that I will do everything in my power to get retro-reflective tape mandated as soon as possible. I hope that the House will support the Government's position.
Question accordingly agreed to.
Lords amendments Nos. 5A and 5B disagreed to.
It being more than one hour after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, Mr. Deputy Speaker proceeded to put forthwith the Question necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that hour, pursuant to Order [this day].
Motion made, and Question put, That this House insists on Commons amendment No. 6, to which the Lords have disagreed.— [Dr. Ladyman.]
The House divided: Ayes 299, Noes 179.
Question accordingly agreed to.
Committee appointed to draw up Reasons to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing to certain of their amendments to the Bill; Mr. Henry Bellingham, Mr. Alistair Carmichael, Dr. Stephen Ladyman, Mr. Frank Roy and Mr. Andrew Slaughter; Dr. Stephen Ladyman be the Chairman of the Committee; Three to be the quorum of the Committee.— [Mr. Cawsey.]
To withdraw immediately.
Reasons for disagreeing to certain Lords amendments reported, and agreed to; to be communicated to the Lords.