HC Deb 01 August 1957 vol 574 cc1649-58

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Hughes-Young.]

9.58 p.m.

Major Patrick Wall (Hull, Haltemprice)

I should like to explain to the House that St. Andrew's Dock is the main fishing dock of the Port of Hull. This dock was in my constituency until the time of the last General Election. After the Election, owing to the redistribution of boundaries, the dock passed to the constituency of the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Hull (Captain Hewitson), who has told me that he wished to take part in the debate. However, many of those who work in the dock come from my constituency.

St. Andrew's Dock is the base of the fishing fleet operating from the Port of Hull. It is probably the largest fishing port in this country or, indeed, in the world. Every seaman knows that the efficiency of a fleet, naval or mercantile or fishing, depends on the efficiency of its base or port. It is my contention that St. Andrew's Dock does not come up to the state of efficiency that Should be expected in the great Port of Hull.

The particular point in question is that of the slipways. St. Andrew's Dock was operated by the L.N.E.R. before the war and there were discussions just pre-war about the rebuilding of the slipways. In 1947, after the war, these discussions were reopened. Up to date, nothing has been done. In 1957, we have the position that, out of 137 trawlers operating from Hull—these are all large long distance boats going to Greenland and the North Cape, and only 56 can be slipped in St. Andrew's Dock. The position is getting worse as the older and smaller boats are being scrapped, and are being replaced by new and larger ones——

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Hughes-Young.]

Major Wall

We have the position now that not only is the whole of the industry at Hull confronted by delays, as ships cannot have their bottoms scraped, and cannot be repainted and surveyed, but increased costs are incurred because ships have to be sent to the commercial docks and to the other Humber ports, where they are causing congestion amongst the other merchant shipping. This is unpopular in merchant shipping circles. I might add that this problem also affects the other great fishing port, Grimsby, though to a lesser degree.

I should like to point out to my hon. Friend the length of time that has been taken over discussions of the problems of reconstructing these slipways in St. Andrew's Dock, Hull. These discussions opened in 1947. In 1951, the Hull trawler owners said that they considered it essential to have a full reconstruction of three slipways and one side berth. The British Transport Commission—or the Docks, Inland Waterways and Harbours Executive as it then was—appeared to accept this position and made investigations into estimated costs. In 1952, there arose the question of who was to pay the large capital sum involved in this reconstruction. The owners were told that they must make a case that the reconstruction was both essential and urgent and that, meanwhile, the Docks, Inland Waterways and Harbours Executive would continue to examine the detailed costs and the problem as to how the capital was to be provided.

Later in 1952 the suggestion was made to the owners that they should pay for the reconstruction by floating a special company and building the slipways themselves. This suggestion was pressed on the owners in 1953 and again in 1954. It was finally rejected in 1954, the trawler owners contending that the British Transport Commission, who owned and managed the port, was responsible for seeing that it was modernised and brought up to the condition necessary to operate an efficient fishing fleet. The owners admitted that this would mean increased dock and shipping charges, but they felt that they should not bear the responsibility for providing the large capital sums necessary.

At a meeting later in that year the owners made it clear that they would not consider reconstructing these slipways themselves, as they felt that it was the responsibility of the Transport Commission. It was again accepted—and I emphasise this—that it would obviously be necessary to raise the charges. That is accepted by the owners.

A quick decision was asked for. In point of fact, it was not until nearly a year later, in November, 1955, that the Transport Commission replied to the owners' request and, for the first time for three years, brought up the question as to whether it was really necessary and essential to reconstruct these slipways. In other words, we went back to the 1951 position. In 1956, there was a further meeting, and the Transport Commission said that if it was to reconstruct the slipways itself—and I put this very briefly, and without going into details—it would require the owners to produce a scheme showing how they could raise £50,000 a year for the next fifty years in order to recompense the Commission for reconstructing and operating the slipways.

The financial side of this suggestion was investigated for some months, and, finally, the owners said that they could not possibly consider mortgaging prosperity to such a great extent as it would virtually mean guaranteeing so large a sum for as long a period as fifty years.

We then come to 1957. This year, the port was presented with a scheme for increased charges, both for slipping and docking. This was to be expected and, indeed, the owners have said all along that if the slipways are to be reconstructed they must expect to pay higher charges. But the dock charges have risen by a very great amount under the new proposals. There is up to a 400 per cent. increase on the dock charges operating in 1939. The new fishing dues, which are a quite new financial imposition, are estimated to be going to cost trawler owners as much as £100 per trawler per trip. Ice, which is a matter of importance to the fishing fleet, has gone up in cost by 700 per cent., compared with 1939, and meal offal by 357 per cent.

It can therefore be seen that the Commission has had its pound of flesh in its increased charges. There is one other item in respect of which the increase seems to be a rather high one. Cod liver oil has increased from 3½d. a ton to 12s. 6d. a ton.

Mr. William Shepherd (Cheadle)

My hon. and gallant Friend has referred to these increased charges for meal and cod liver oil. He says that these are very important to the trawler owners. Can he explain how these charges come in?

Major Wall

These are charges for landing and dealing with these commodities on the docks. Quite rightly, the people operating the docks want to take some money in respect of these items for the use of the docks. That is fair enough. I am not arguing the merits or demerits of the case; I am merely seeking to show that the Commission has increased its charges and intends to increase them further in order to recoup itself for the losses it has suffered for some time in connection with the fish docks at St. Andrews. At the same time, it is arguing that because the dock is losing so much money it cannot afford to build new slipways. It seems to me that it is trying to have it both ways.

My charge against the Commission is one of bad stewardship, as owners of this vitally important dock in Hull. Obviously it intends to try to make it pay. Obviously, as the owner, it has responsibilities to the community, and to the whole fishing industry, to see that this major port is equipped and fitted out in such a way as to be able to allow a modern fleet to operate from it satisfactorily. No one can pretend that this dock is satisfactory when it is incapable of slipping more than 50 per cent. of the present number of trawlers operating from it.

I had intended to cut my remarks short, as I understood that the hon. and gallant Member for Hull, West wished to join in the debate. Unfortunately, he does not seem to be in the Chamber at the moment, so I shall merely conclude by saying that the gravamen of my charge is the question of slipways.

But I should also mention that the dock was damaged during the war—bomb damage to No. 1 quay—and that nothing whatever was done about it until 1955. In 1945, the war ended and ten years elapsed before any reconstruction took place—and in the following year, 1956, the adjacent part collapsed and fell into the dock. It is probable that nobody could be blamed for that, but it is a fact that this vitally important dock was not repaired quickly. Ten years elapsed before repair work was begun, and the following year another section, which must have been weakened in the original bomb damage ten years before, collapsed into the dock, putting two leading berths out of action for some considerable time.

All these facts seem to me to support the contention that St. Andrew's Dock has been neglected by the Commission. This is not only a constituency matter, or one which affects only the port of Hull. It affects the whole fishing industry, because trawlers operating from the port are all long-distance trawlers which, accompanied by those from Grimsby and Fleetwood which are both distant and middle-water ports, form practically 100 per cent. of the distant-water fleet.

Therefore, it is fair to say that the majority of our large trawlers, which are vitally important for the catching of cod and which play an important part in time of war, operate from this port. It would follow that the port should have special consideration by the Commission to see that it can stand up to the important task which it has to perform not only for the benefit of Hull and the East Riding, but for the distant-water fishing industry and the provision of this vitally important food for the British housewife.

I repeat that my charge is that the Transport Commission has been shown to be very laggard in its handling of this problem. In this matter it has not been a good steward in the discharge of its responsibilities.

10.11 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation (Mr. Airey Neave)

In raising this matter my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Hull, Haltemprice (Major Wall)has made some very serious charges against the British Transport Commission. The Commission has at all times been ready and willing to improve the facilities at St. Andrew's Dock which, I quite agree, is the most important of its kind. Not only has he accused the Commission of bad stewardship, but of neglect, and I wish immediately to deny that anything of that kind has occurred.

It is true that over a quarter of the total fish supplies for this country pass through St. Andrew's Dock. In fact, the port handles a greater tonnage of fish than is handled anywhere else in the country. It amounts to about 5,000 tons of fish a week. Every day ten train loads of fish leave Hull for all parts of the country, and possibly even a greater quantity goes by road. The problem raised by my hon. and gallant Friend is a very important one, but I think the charges he has made are exaggerated. I wish to say something about the attitude of the Commission to this matter.

Some of the trawlers based on Hull are too large for the slipways at St. Andrew's Dock though it is a fact that they can be berthed elsewhere in Hull. For some time past, Hull trawler owners have asked that these slipways should be reconstructed to cater for the larger classes of trawlers. As my hon. and gallant Friend knows, because he has attended various meetings on the subject, a scheme involving the enlargement of three of these slipways and the provision of a side berth has been discussed by the trawler owners with the Commission. The total cost of the scheme would be about £700,000 and, as my hon. and gallant Friend knows and will probably agree, the financial arrangements are the difficulty.

Not only has the Commission been for some time, in effect, subsidising the fishing industry of Hull, as is admitted by my hon. and gallant Friend, but it has been losing money on the operation and I think the trawler owners accept that position. The charges and rates referred to by my hon. and gallant Friend, even with the increase of 5 per cent. recently approved by my right hon. Friend, are still too low to run the dock efficiently. It is true that a draft dock charges scheme has been prepared by the Commission and there will be a public inquiry into that matter. The trawler owners may make their objections which they must lodge before 31st December of this year. The final form of the dock charges scheme is a matter for the Transport Tribunal.

As my hon. and gallant Friend quite rightly says, the slipways are the important thing, and the question of finance. I gather that the trawler owners appreciate that the slipways would be for their benefit and would have to be paid for by them in one form or another, that is to say, the trawler owners would have to make some reasonable contribution towards the cost of these slipways.

The meetings to which my hon. Friend refers have been taking place since 1954 with Sir Robert Letch who is general manager of the British Transport Commission Docks. My hon. and gallant Friend is aware of this, because he has attended these meetings. The British Transport Commission is anxious to find a solution, as are all those who have the interests of the Port of Hull at heart. One solution is that since practically all the trawler repairs are done by one firm which is a subsidiary of the trawler owners, that firm should take the lease of the land necessary for the reconstruction of the slipways. The lessees should construct the slipways at their own cost and should maintain them. The trawler owners were not prepared to commit themselves to that plan.

A counter-proposal was that the Commission should reconstruct two of the slipways, C and D, and that a special new charges scale should be brought about to recover the costs. It would include a side berth and the cost would be not £700,000, which was the cost of the main scheme but £600,000. One of the objections of the British Transport Commission was, and I submit rightly, that this special scheme would remove the charges scheme from Parliamentary control to that of the Transport Tribunal. Discussions have continued, and I hope that further discussions will soon take place.

The capital expenditure involved would be justified only if a real need for additional slipways were established. I am advised that, taken as a whole, the present accommodation is adequate, although the British Transport Commission is open to be convinced to the contrary. It is prepared to discuss the matter further.

The second point is that the conditions in which the slipways would be used would have to be very carefully considered for larger vessels. The most important thing, to which my hon. and gallant Friend quite rightly drew attention, is that the financial scheme will have to be settled on the basis that the trawler owners must make their contribution. They would have, for instance, to guarantee the interest, sinking-fund charges, maintenance and operating costs, and the cost to them would be about £50,000 a year. I draw my hon. and gallant Friend's attention to these points because the British Transport Commission consider that these are important matters in this case.

My hon. and gallant Friend referred in a way which I did not accept, to neglect on the part of the British Transport Commission. He may have been thinking, when he referred to part of the docks, of the fact that part of the fish market collapsed. That was due not to the neglect of the British Transport Commission but to war damage by a land-mine. The reconstruction of the market by the British Transport Commission is in hand at a cost of £470,000.

Major Wall

The damage occurred, as my hon. Friend has said, because of a landmine in 1945, but reconstruction was not started until 1956. Is not that rather a long time to wait to reconstruct this rather important fish market?

Mr. Neave

It may be that time was taken to do this, but my hon. and gallant Friend must admit that there has been a considerable subsidy to the fishing industry at considerable cost to the nation. 'The Commission cannot continue to subsidise the fishing industry without contribution from the trawler owners, who have made it clear from their discussions with the Commission that the slipways would be solely for their benefit. The British Transport Commission is ready to meet them further to find a basis for agreement. I believe that Sir Robert Letch has already written to them.

Mr. W. R. A. Hudson (Hull, North)

I should like my hon. Friend to clear up one point. He has said that the slipways are adequate. The burden of the argument of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Haltemprice (Major Wall)surely is that not only do they want repairing or renewing, but that they are not adequate to take the bigger trawlers. The distant water fleet, as has been said, is the most modern in the world and the trawler owners have been at great pains to maintain it, renew it and bring it to its present condition. In Hull we are without slipways which are adequate for those larger trawlers. My hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary also said that the industry——

Mr. Speaker

This is a rather long intervention. If time remains, perhaps the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. W. R. A. Hudson)may have an opportunity to put these points later.

Mr. Neave

I was in fact coming to the end of my remarks and no doubt my hon. Friend will be able to pursue this matter. I did say that these slipways appeared to be adequate and the Commission would have to be satisfied on that point. At present there are sufficient berths, I understand, for the larger trawlers in other parts of Hull, but perhaps my hon. Friend is prepared to pursue the matter and I would be glad to consider the point. The British Transport Commission is open to be convinced to the contrary about this matter. Perhaps my hon. Friend will try to do that, but in respect of what has been said I do not wish it to be understood for a moment that the Commission is not very keen to give every assistance in improving facilities in the Port of Hull.

Mr. W. R. A. Hudson

All I can repeat is that my hon. and gallant Friend has pointed out that the slipways are quite inadequate for the bigger trawlers. Therefore, I cannot see how it can be argued that the slipways are at present adequate for that fleet.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes past Ten o'clock.