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The then transport Minister, Mr. Jamieson, said that the UK became a signatory to UNECE regulation 104 on 15 January 1998, but that the European Commission was investigating the costs and benefits of a mandatory requirement and might make proposals when its research was complete, and that the Department for Transport would await the results of the research before taking a view on whether any such proposal should be supported. As I understand it, that remains the Governments position. We are obliged to allow on to our roads any vehicle that holds an EU type approval certificate, and since the EU has not adopted regulation 104, there is no requirement for the holder of a type certificate to fit retro-reflective marking. The problem seems to arise from UN
regulation 48, which concerns implementation, and the fact that the type approvals are not obligatory. With regard to the installation of lighting and light-signalling devices, there is a further complication from supplement 7 to the 02 series to regulation 48, which actually introduces retro-reflective markings as a specific device for installation on certain categories of vehicles. I am glad to see that the Minister is still nodding slightly.
The installation of such markings is, however, optionalthat is, at the manufacturers discretionand 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 23 March 2006, he said that our amendment, which had come from the Lords requiring markings to be mandatory, would make the clause redundant and perhaps illegal. However, today he said that it was at best uncertain and he kindly sent me a copy of a letter that he sent to the hon. Member for Stroud. Here we are making glacial progress and, in that letter, the Minister said that the EC letter was
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.
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 Governments 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 Ministers 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 divisiontechnology sectionat 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
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 clearhe has changed his tune through the Committee stage and modified it very much this evening. We propose sticking to our guns so that he reflectsI do not want to make a punon 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.
Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): 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?
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 Ministers 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.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): 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 the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) on several occasions. I agree with the Minister when he says at the start of the letters second paragraph that
there is clearly some confusion.
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 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, Were all behind you chaps. We think that what youre 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 everybodyand I mean everybodyseems 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.
Dr. Ladyman: 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 elses. 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 vehiclesnot 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.
Mr. Drew: 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 arent 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.
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): 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 welfarewell 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.
Dr. Ladyman: 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.
Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): 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 proceedingsI do not believe that it willor 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.
Mr. Carmichael: 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?
The hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) said that the Governments 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 Governments 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 the hon. Member for Stroud (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 Commissionor seeking to bring pressure to bear on itto bring infraction proceedings against Italy? That would be a better mark of the Governments 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.
Mr. Greg Knight:
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.
Dr. Ladyman: That is exactly what the Opposition are asking me to doto acquiesce in bad law. I am telling the right hon. Gentleman what the law requires us to do. We have to work as fast as we can within that law. The Lords amendment would be illegal.
Mr. Knight: 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?
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 forwardcertainly 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.
Mr. Gummer: 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, Lets 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.
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