HC Deb 06 March 1963 vol 673 cc394-402

3.30 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Vice-Admiral John Hughes Hallett)

Mr. Speaker, with your permission and that of the House, I wish to make a statement.

The Government have now reached their conclusions on the major recommendations of the Rochdale Committee. Once again we should like to thank Lord Rochdale and his colleagues for their work. We are also grateful to the various organisations which have let us have their views.

The Government accept the central thesis of the Report, namely, that in future the development of individual ports should be consistent with a national plan. We also accept the recommendation to set up a central body, which will be termed the National Ports Council, whose primary function will be to formulate the national plan and supervise its execution.

Implementation of the national plan will be achieved through control by the Government of capital investment. In this connection we accept that there is a need to concentrate development, and for a higher level of investment, and for better access to ports.

Additional functions of the National Ports Council will include: Preparing plans for the grouping of ports by geographical areas, wherever it appears that this would make for greater efficiency. The control and regulation of port charges, subject to appeal to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport. The standardisation of statistics. The co-ordination of research. Advising on port organisation and management. Recruitment, training, and education of non-industrial staff.

No port will be wholly outside the Council's terms of reference. There are, however, certain ports in which my right hon. Friends the Ministers of Transport, of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and of Power, and the Secretary of State for Scotland, already have specific responsibilities under statute. These ports include the transport piers in the Highlands and Islands, fishery docks and harbours, certain iron ore ports, and the ports in national ownership. The relationship of the National Ports Council to these parts calls for special consideration, and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport will pursue this matter with his right hon. Friends.

The Committee concluded that capital investment in ports should normally be regarded as an ordinary commercial undertaking, although it recognised that there might be cases where Government loans or even grants in exceptional circumstances might be justified. The Government strongly endorse the Committee's view that our ports must pay their way. Nevertheless, if port development is to go forward as part of a national plan, approved by my right hon. Friend on the advice of the National Ports Council, it seems right that a port should be treated for the purpose of financing its approved investment broadly on the same basis as a local or other public authority.

I indicated earlier that one of the functions of the National Ports Council will be to prepare plans for estuarial groupings where these appear desirable The object of such groupings would be to promote efficiency, and we do not consider that this necessarily involves a common pattern of ownership or organisation. In particular, the Government regard it as premature to come to any conclusion now about the future status of the ports at present operated by the British Transport Docks Board.

The Government accept the Committee's conclusions that insufficient resources are at present devoted to research and development. We are not yet satisfied, however, that the establishment of a separate research organisation for the industry would be the best solution. This will be examined further and discussed with the National Ports Council after it has been set up.

Legislation will be required before the Council can exercise all the functions which I have described. Meanwhile there is much preparatory work to be done. My right hon. Friend therefore intends to establish an advisory panel as soon as possible, which can form the nucleus of the future Council. This will enable an early start to be made with the preparation of the national plan. I am glad to inform the House that Lord Rochdale has accepted an invitation by my right hon. Friend to be the first chairman of the new body.

Mr. Strauss

Everyone who has read this Report will endorse the comments of the Minister that the House owes a deep debt of gratitude to those who worked on the Committee and produced this Report, which is one of the most comprehensive and valuable which has come to the House for many years.

While we are all probably delighted to learn that the Government accept nearly all the recommendations of the Report, nevertheless the principles involved are so important and affect so many people that the House would probably like to debate the matter before the Government bring forward their legislation. Would the hon. and gallant Gentleman be good enough, therefore, to convey the view, which I think will be shared by hon. Members on both sides of the House, to the Leader of the House that a debate on this matter would be very welcome?

Further, may I ask when the legislation he contemplates is likely to come forward? Will it be in this Session?

Lastly, on one subject which was not mentioned by him, for the very good reason that it is not the responsibility of the Ministry of Transport, may I ask him if he can give us any information on an extremely important feature of the Rochdale recommendations, namely, the need for much further and more rapid decasualisation? This is not the responsibility of his Ministry, but the Rochdale Committee thought that this was one of its most important recommendations.

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

With regard to the last question asked by the right hon. Gentleman, we strongly endorse the recommendations in favour of decasualisation. We wholeheartedly support the Committee's views. We believe that this is a matter for the two sides of the industry, and we very much hope, and we are encouraged by recent indications, that progress is being made along these lines.

With regard to a debate, I am authorised by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to say that he foresees opportunities for a debate before legislation is introduced.

Regarding legislation, there is a good deal of work to be done in preparing for it, but it will be introduced at the first appropriate moment.

Mr. Webster

Is my hon. and gallant Friend aware that constitutional processes for implementing the change of structure of the Docks Board should not be allowed to get in the way of the urgent need for constructing deep-water berths, particularly in view of the competitive position being built up in the Common Market by Rotterdam and other ports? It is most urgent that this structural work should be proceeded with and not delayed unnecessarily.

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

I agree with my hon. Friend, and I glady give an assurance that we have no intention of allowing the gradual changes of organisation coming about to delay schemes which are considered worthwhile.

Mr. McInnes

When the hon. and gallant Gentleman says that he accepts the recommendations of the Rochdale Report, does he mean that he accepts also the closure of certain ports, or does he intend to leave that to be determined by the National Ports Council?

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

We have not yet made up our minds about any of the individual detailed recommendations. My statement really concerned the major recommendations on points of principle. One of the advantages that we shall have in setting up the advisory panel now is that it will work in the knowledge that in due course it will be the body responsible for implementing its recommendations. In the meanwhile, I assure the hon. Gentleman that there will be no question of closing individual ports without the fullest consultation with the various authorities and interests concerned.

Mr. J. Howard

Can my hon. and gallant Friend be more specific about the proposal affecting Southampton which, after all, features prominently in the Report owing to its unique advantages? In particular, may I ask him to direct the attention of the panel, whose preparatory work will soon begin, to the fact that it is important that Southampton should know as soon as possible what the intentions are in view of the developments that are possible in the new docks? May I also ask my hon. and gallant Friend to request the panel to take evidence from Southampton pilots who did not have the opportunity of giving evidence to the Rochdale Committee as they operate a rather different type of work from that applying elsewhere? May I also ask my hon. and gallant Friend to draw the attention of the panel to the need to improve road communications particularly with Southampton if the port is to be expanded on the lines of the Report?

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

All these points will be borne in mind. I actually referred to access to ports in my statement. I am sure that my hon. Friend would not expect me to give an ex cathedra pronouncement on the future development plans for Southampton. This is the sort of matter which will have to be discussed with the panel when it is set up.

Mr. Owen

Will the recommendations concerning the North-East be accepted by the Ministry? Secondly, with what speed will they be implemented, in view of the urgent need to make some contribution to solving the unemployment problem in the area?

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

This matter is very much in our minds. I think that a start will shortly be made on the Lackenby scheme for the Tees. I hope that the hon. Member will not be disappointed.

Mr. Gower

Can my hon. and gallant Friend say something to relieve my anxiety and the anxieties of many of my constituents set out in a Motion on the Order Paper?

[That this House calls attention to the excellent docks and facilities for shipping and for import and export trade at the Port of Barry; notes how these facilities have been unproved during recent years by considerable expenditure provided out of public funds; emphasises that the Port of Barry does not depend upon the tides like other neighbouring Bristol Channel ports; notes that no considerable expenditure on dredging is required to keep the docks at Barry in operation; calls attention to post-war rating assessments which showed that the port has not been a financial burden for the British Transport Commission, notes with approval several demonstrations of the British Transport Commission's confidence in the future of the port, and their desire to sustain its operation; notes with like approval the success of the port in attracting new traffic and cargoes in the past few years, culminating in a 20 per cent. increase in total trade during 1962; stresses the importance of the new installations at Barry docks of firms like Geest Industries Ltd., Cory Bros. Ltd., Mobil Oil Ltd., and Isherwoods Ltd., and the trade resulting therefrom; notes the value of Barry docks to older-established industries like Ranks Mills Ltd., Midland Silicones Ltd., and Distillers Ltd.; emphasises the importance attached to the future maintenance of the docks by the owners of Bailey's Dry-Docks; recalls the invaluable services of Barry docks to the country at large in time of war and of peace-time emergency; welcomes the recent statement of Lord Robens, Chairman of the National Coal Board, that the port of Barry will have an important rôle to play in increased coal shipments which he envisages; stresses the comparative proximity of Barry to the industrial Midlands, and its proximity to the developing industries of South Wales; notes that some 2,000 or more persons owe their employment directly or indirectly to the docks at Barry; recalls the long record of good labour-relations at the port, and its freedom from strikes and disputes; deems all these considerations at variance with the recommendation of the Rochdale Committee that a new docks' authority should contemplate the possible closure of Barry docks in due course; calls attention to development plans projected by several of the firms now established at Barry docks; and calls upon Her Majesty's Government to make an early decision which will permit the continued expansion of the trade of the Port of Barry, and which may enable industrialists there to proceed with their development plans.]

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

I expected a question about Barry. I do not think that the problems of the Port of Barry can be considered in isolation. We shall ask the advisory panel to make an urgent study of South Wales ports, in consultation with the local authorities concerned, the British Transport Docks Board, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Local Government and Minister for Welsh Affairs.

Mr. Awbery

Since the recommendations of the Rochdale Committee Report will have a detrimental effect on a number of ports in this country, especially those in South Wales—the merging of Bristol and Newport, and the closing of Barry Dock are life and death matters for these ports—can the Minister assure us that we shall have a general discussion on the Report? Some of us would like to have an opportunity of expressing our opinions on the matter.

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

I appreciate that. As I said in my first reply to the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss), my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House foresees that there will be an opportunity of arranging for a debate before legislation is tabled.

Mr. R. W. Elliott

Will my hon. and gallant Friend draw the attention of the proposed interim committee to one of the conclusions of the Rochdale Report, namely, that apart from the specialised needs of ore and oil traffic, and subject to there being no completely unexpected change in the nature of trade, the foreseeable national needs can be met by our existing ports? Will my hon. and gallant Friend, in drawing the attention of this recommendation to the interim committee, emphasise the need for an interim development of the ports on the North-East Coast, as an aid to combating unemployment in the area?

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

The latter point will certainly be borne in mind. On the more general question which my hon. Friend raises, we can rely or Lord Rochdale, as chairman of the new advisory panel, to take due note of the recommendations of the Rochdale Committee.

Mr. Lubbock

Can the Minister tell us when we shall have these detailed proposals about ports in unemployment areas, not only in the North-East but in other parts of the country where the unemployment rate is high? Secondly, can he expand a little on what he said in his statement about capital works? Under the proposals, will the ports obtain money directly from the Government, through the Public Works Loan Board, or from some other source? Thirdly, can he say why the Government have not yet made up their mind about the establishment of central research facilities for this industry? Is he aware that it has been clearly established in other industries that this is a good thing?

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

On the last point, it is a little more complicated in this industry because it is made up of so many parts that it does not follow that a seperate research organisation for the industry would be possible It might be better to lend rather more support to existing organisations. With regard to the question of the time when these proposals will come forward, I cannot commit myself. There is a lot of work to be done. I can assure my hon. Friend that we shall proceed with them as quickly as we can. As for the important question of finance, at present any major port development normally requires a Private Act of Parliament. Therefore, it depends on the support of the Government of the day. Thereafter, all finance has to be raised on the market. Under the proposals that we are now making the development schemes which fall within the framework of the national plan will be capable of being approved by the Minister of Transport, and thereafter the finance will, if necessary, be raised with Government support.

Mr. Speaker

I fully realise the interest there is in this matter, but we cannot debate it without Question before the House.