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Standing Committee D
Thursday 6 March 2003
[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]
Mr. Don Foster (Bath): On a point of order, Mr. Benton. I welcome you to the Chair. We are all looking forward to serving on Committee under your chairmanship. However, confusion has arisen because some members of the Committee believe that I attributed to the hon. Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) the phrase ''a police strippogram'', and that she had said it from a sedentary position. That was my interpretation of what she said. I should hate the Official Report to imply that she had said such words.
Convention on International Carriage by Rail
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): Good afternoon, Mr. Benton. I warmly welcome you to what is becoming a jolly Committee.
Several years ago, the subject of the clause was dangerously familiar to me but, owing to the lapse of time, it is not so now. I am sure that the Minister will deal most eloquently with the background to the clause but I have several points to make about its wide-ranging powers. It is a matter of debate whether the Commission has exclusive competence in such issues. It is always of concern to the official Opposition when competence is classed in an exclusive sense, whether in rail transport or others matters.
The United Kingdom is a signatory to the protocol of Vilnius, which was agreed in 1999. It modifies the convention on international carriage by rail, which is known by its French acronym COTIF; I shall refrain from referring to the French version this afternoon. That was agreed in 1980.
The protocol of Vilnius will need to be ratified by the United Kingdom—and presumably other member states—before it applies to the United Kingdom. We must therefore have the necessary legislation in place to give effect to the new convention when it comes into force. I am sure that the Committee agrees with me and prefers the term ''convention'' to ''COTIF'', because it will make it easier to read our proceedings in the Official Report. The Bill makes the necessary provision for giving effect to the convention.
Like the existing 1980 version, the new convention provides a uniform system of laws that will apply to the carriage of passengers, luggage and freight in international through traffic by rail, and will facilitate the development of that traffic. I understand that there are 41 signatories to the 1980 convention, and that a uniform system of law has been in operation for many
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years. The first international convention concerning the carriage of goods was signed in 1893.
Although the United Kingdom will ratify the protocol by means of the royal prerogative, when the new convention comes into force under international law, it will not have force of law in the UK until the relevant provisions of the Bill are brought into force and the corresponding domestic regulations are made. [Interruption.] We welcome back the Minister of State. I hope that he is making a speedy recovery from his illness and will be well for the remainder of Committee stage. I had the same thing and did not take any time off; I find the Bill so interesting that I would have been disappointed if I could not have contributed to each clause.
What will be the status of the convention before the United Kingdom ratifies it? Also, what will be the status of the several other members states that have not ratified the convention? Does that mean that the 1980 convention will remain in place until the new convention is introduced? I have a genuine interest in international law that dates back to my university days. Modesty—that is not the word, as it was a number of years ago—prevents me from saying how long ago that was.
The International Transport Conventions Act 1983, which gives effect to the 1980 convention, is not sufficiently flexible to deal with the new convention. The Bill, combined with the domestic implementing regulations, is designed to provide the flexibility necessary to give effect to the new convention. We hope that the Minister will confirm that not too much leeway will be given to the Secretary of State to make regulations under subsection (1). We hope that that power will be limited to ratifying the provisions of the Bill.
For many Committee members, alarm bells will ring when I say that the new convention brings within its scope certain matters in the competence of the European Community. It is incumbent on the Minister to say whether that is an exclusive competence, or whether it will be shared between member states and the Commission in respect of the implementation of the part of the convention under subsection (1).
Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk): The matter of whether the competence is exclusive or shared will be of academic interest, as under draft articles 1 to 16 of the new European constitution, which have been published, even the shared competences only allow member states to act if the European Union decides that it does not wish to. If articles 1 to 16 went through as drafted, it would mean that we could all pack up and go home. Although that might be a sensible idea in the case of certain legislation, it would generally be a retrograde step for Parliament.
Miss McIntosh: I think that the Committee would agree with my hon. Friend. We prefer laws to be made by this institution rather than by another one, but I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees that, if there is an argument, international transport provides a good example of an area where competency passing to the European Union works in the interests of our industry, of those employed in it and of those
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seeking to transport passengers and goods internationally by rail. That industry provides an argument that might make it marginally more favourable than we would otherwise think it to be. My hon. Friend made that point well.
In the explanatory notes, there is some discussion about appendices that have apparently been agreed under the convention, and in particular the European Union directives on interoperability of the European rail network. We wish to be told how those appendices will fit in with existing UK law on railways and the new convention. We would be particularly interested to hear how the channel tunnel will fit into the convention in that regard. The services through the channel tunnel are a remarkable example of interoperability of railway infrastructure. I should remind the Committee yet again that I have an interest in Eurotunnel, which is one of the providers of those services, as is Eurostar.
I understand that until the new convention, and in particular article 38, is enforced, there is no mechanism for the European Community—or the European Union as we now call it—to join. I think that the Minister will confirm that until that has happened the EU will have no competence and will not be in a position to join the convention on international rail transport.
I am sure that the Minister will wish to state to the Committee that the Government consider that the provisions of this part of part 6 are compatible with the European convention on human rights.
The Chairman: Order. The background noise is getting too high; too many people are speaking at the same time. The hon. Lady deserves to be heard.
Miss McIntosh: I am grateful to you, Mr. Benton.
We have a particular regard for human rights. We are deeply concerned that, by writing the European convention on human rights into UK law, the Human Rights Act 1998 will have a devastating effect on how this part of the Bill will be implemented and interpreted.
We were told that one effect of the convention provisions of this Bill and the regulations that clause 100(1) gives the Secretary of State the power to make will be to ensure that certain dangerous goods may not be carried by rail. Does that mean that under the present convention certain dangerous goods may be carried by rail on an international journey and that that will no longer be the case because of the convention on human rights? I am reminded of the devastating accident in, I think, the Mont Blanc tunnel in Switzerland. Chemicals exploded and there were several fatalities and serious injuries. There may be some cunning reasons why such dangerous goods should be carried in future, but we seek guidance from the Minister on that.
If the consequences are that the dangerous goods may not be carried by rail, how will the dangerous goods be carried? Will dangerous goods be allowed to be carried by rail through the channel tunnel, or will
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that be deemed carriage by rail under the terms of the convention? Will such goods be allowed to be transported by sea? That could cause enormous distress to my right hon. and hon. Friends who represent coastal and shipping constituencies. Indeed, the Under-Secretary of State could fall into that category—Plymouth is a large port. I am always mindful of the interests of the Under-Secretary of State and I wish to be helpful in this regard.
If dangerous goods will not be allowed to be transported by rail under the convention and, if they are not allowed to be transported by sea, I cannot imagine for one moment that they will be allowed to be transported by air. Does the provision refer to some, but not all, chemicals? How will oil, gas and other hazardous products that are produced in the UK be exported in future?
The explanatory notes tell us that dangerous goods will not be allowed to be transported by rail under the new convention, once that is ratified in the UK and applies throughout the EU. The notes say:
''It is considered that where this interferes with a person's economic interests in running a business''—
Mr. Bacon: Will my hon. Friend make it clear which convention she is talking about?
Miss McIntosh: The new convention. I am seeking clarification from either the Minister of State or the Under-Secretary. My understanding is that the current convention allows for dangerous goods to be transported. Is this provision a new development? Are the Government saying that dangerous goods can, or cannot, be carried by international rail?