HC Deb 11 May 1964 vol 695 cc111-7

Lords Amendment: In page 28, line 46, at end insert new Clause "B": B.—(1) In place of any limitation imposed, by a statutory provision made with respect to them in particular, on the discretion of a harbour authority as to charges (of any kind other than excepted charges) that may be made by them at a harbour which, in the exercise and performance of statutory powers and duties, they are engaged in improving, maintaining or managing (not being a limitation by way of expressly providing for freedom from charges or in any other manner prohibiting the making of a charge or by way of providing, by what form of words soever, that the charges shall be such as may be reasonable), there shall, by virtue of this subsection, be imposed the limitation that the charges shall be such as may be reasonable. (2) For the purposes of the foregoing subsection the following shall be excepted charges, namely,—

  1. (a) ship, passenger and goods dues;
  2. (b) charges ascribable to the running of a ferry service in or from a harbour;
  3. (c) contributions which, by virtue of a provision included in an order under Part IV of the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Act 1923 by virtue of section 38(1)(d) of that Act, fall to be assessed on several fisheries or the owners or occupiers thereof;
  4. (d) duties on licences granted under section 61 of the said Act of 1923 to fish;
  5. (e) charges in respect of licences under the Water Resources Act 1963 to abstract water or in respect of water authorised by such licences to be abstracted.
(3) In this section 'harbour authority' has the same meaning as in the last foregoing section.

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment.

This, again, is consequential to the same undertaking. The new Clause introduces the requirement that the charges of harbour authorities to which the Clause relates should be reasonable. It gives effect to the decision that charges other than ship, passenger and goods dues should be subject to this requirement. The Clause applies broadly to non-nationalised harbours, nationalised harbours being dealt with by a later Amendment.

The Clause provides that authorities at present subject to some limitation, such as being subject to Ministerial approval, shall in future be subject only to the requirement that they are to be reasonable. Those which must at present be reasonable will so continue and those which are at present wholly at the discretion of the authority will so remain.

Subsection (2) provides that ship, passenger and goods dues are excepted from the provisions of the Clause because they are covered by Clause 25. Certain charges which were excepted from the charging provisions of the Bill by Clause 35 have now been placed in this subsection so that their exception will flow from the new Clause instead of from Clause 35 which a later Amendment proposes to delete.

7.15 p.m.

Mr. A. J. Irvine

This is an important matter. What the Bill does is to remove existing ceilings, so to speak, which have been imposed by various Statutes, some public and others private, upon the charges which may be imposed by harbour authorities. This very sweeping and remarkable change in the law attracted a good deal of attention at an earlier stage of our consideration of the Bill.

On this side of the House we took the view that it was too drastic a change and that at the very least there should be introduced into the Bill a requirement that new charges should be reasonable charges. We felt that this was not merely playing with words, but that if that provision occurred in the Bill it would be open for a member of the public to commence proceedings, perhaps for an injunction, in the event that he regarded any particular charge as unreasonable and the court was satisfied that it was unreasonable.

I readily acknowledge that some concession has been made to us and we are grateful for the thought and consideration which have been given to our arguments, but we are disappointed that this concession is of such limited application. I would have thought that it was appropriate that this requirement of reasonableness should be of universal application and not, as it is, wholly confined to two cases, the case where there is already a requirement of reasonableness and the case where a statutory limit is imposed by an existing Statute, a limit which is now removed, reasonableness taking its place.

This is a very limited ambit for the application of what ought to be a universal concept of reasonableness in all charges. When one considers that and, in addition, the lavish exemptions in subsection (2), one is aware that one is dealing with a concession far less substantial than we had hoped and far less substantial than is appropriate in the public interest.

I do not want to make too much of this, but it is just possible that the harmful effects might not be all entirely negative in character. It could reasonably be argued that if charges in this comparatively small section are to be reasonable and must, by Statute, be reasonable, by implication, harbour authorities and others concerned, all kinds of boards and authorities concerned with the determination of tariffs and charges for goods and harbour services, might be tempted to think that they were in a freer position to impose unreasonable charges than were the persons affected by the narrow ambit of the wording of the new Clause. There might be not merely what we regard as the disappointingly negative effect of what is proposed, but a positively harmful effect.

Although we are at a late stage in our consideration of the Bill, this is an extremely important matter and what is being done should be fully understood. A whole series of significant and important restraints upon authorities are being swept away, some of them restraints imposed by Parliament very recently in public Acts, as recently as 1962.

Mr. Geoffrey Wilson (Truro)

And old ones as well.

Mr. Irvine

There was to have been no limit but as a result of considerable pressure from this side of the House the concept of reasonableness, was admitted. But when we find that that concept is introduced over such a very limited field, and subject to such considerable exceptions, we feel that it is a disappointing outcome. The result is of great importance to transport and commerce in the country, and we believe that the outcome is unsatisfactory.

We wish it to be clearly understood that, it having been decided that the concept of reasonableness should be introduced to take the place of an elaborate pattern of statutory restraints, we regret that it should have such a limited effect as it has here, and be subject to so many important exemptions.

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

For once, I find myself in disagreement with the hon. and learned Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. A. J. Irvine). I hope that he has misread this portion of the Bill, because I claim that in view of the various Amendments which were introduced in another place the undertaking which I gave on Report has been fulfilled precisely. I did not say that we would restore reasonableness in all cases. I said that we would restore as it were the status quo and that, as far as is possible, is what we have done.

There have always been a few charges—a very small percentage of the total—which have been exempt from any requirement at all. Under the Amendment it is those charges, and those only, which remain exempt from any requirement of reasonableness or any control whatever. There is nothing new in that.

I think that I should interpose in my remarks a reminder to the House that we are not dealing with the dues charged for ships, passengers or goods. In this "reasonable" requirement we are discussing only charges which harbour authorities make for various facilities and services. It is true that in certain cases those charges, instead of being subject to the requirement of being reasonable, were laid down within certain limits in the local harbour legislation. In all cases where that was so before, they are now subject to the requirement of being reasonable.

As regards ship, passenger and goods dues, I am sure that I do not have to remind the hon. and learned Gentleman that although harbour authorities are free to impose their own charges, there is the safeguard of an appeal to the National Ports Council under Clause 29. But that has nothing directly to do with this group of Amendments, which are concerned not with dues but with the charges for services, and it was there that we promised to write in "reasonable", where reasonable had been the requirement before. I assure the House that that is what the Amendment does.

Mr. A. J. Irvine

I am not suggesting that this does not live up to the undertaking given by the hon. and learned Gentleman. Our complaint is that he did not undertake enough.

Mr. Michael Coulson (Kingston upon Hull, North)

I thank my hon. and gallant Friend for keeping the promise which he made on 16th March to see whether an Amendment could be intro- duced in another place to enshrine in the Bill the principle of reasonableness.

I do not think that the new provision in the new Clause is quite so simple as it looks on paper, or that it will prove quite so simple in operation. Indeed, I share some of the misgivings expressed by the hon. and learned Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. A. J. Irvine) about the actual scope of this Amendment. I share his view that perhaps there is a need for a much more extensive review of the whole system of charges.

I do not wish to repeat what I said to the House during the Report stage of the Bill. I merely wish to say how important I consider the criterion of reasonableness to be. During recent months there has been considerable disquiet in Hull over the question of dock haulage charges for timber. At least part of the disquiet has been due to the fact that no such criterion of reasonableness was inserted for that sort of charge in the 1962 Transport Act, so that however high the charges were fixed by the British Railways Board and by the British Transport Docks Board, there was no way in which users could find out whether any charges which were imposed were justified, or indeed by what standards those charges were arrived at. In other words, there was no way of testing whether the charges were reasonable.

Fortunately, I understand that agreement has been reached between the port users, the timber importers, and the Docks Board to have conversations, and, in fact I gather that there may well be an inquiry into the whole question of timber handling and charges, and the general economic set up of timber handling at British transport docks. This is extremely desirable. It has taken a long time to reach this sort of agreement, and it has involved a lot of doggedness, perhaps even stubbornness on the part of the timber importers, but it has produced the right result to the satisfaction of everybody concerned. If the principle of reasonableness had been inserted in the 1962 Act, perhaps all this heartburn would have been saved. I support the Amendment.

Mr. Geoffrey Wilson (Truro)

My view is slightly different from that of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. Coulson) and opposed to that of the hon. and learned Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. A. J. Irvine). I think that the Amendment has the right tone. We do not want to go too far in restricting the flexibility of charges.

One of the great difficulties of the old Harbour Acts was that they were much too rigid, and that they restricted development of the ports. Many of the ills from which we have suffered in the ports arose from this lack of flexibility, and I think that we have obtained about the right measure here. I am glad that there is not any further restriction on that flexibility.

Question put and agreed to.