HC Deb 18 December 1967 vol 756 cc936-71

4.8 p.m.

Mr. Alan Lee Williams (Hornchurch)

I beg to move, That this House deplores the decline of the Thames lighterage industry, regrets the under-utilisation of the commercial potentialities of the River Thames, and calls upon the Government to establish an inquiry into the Thames lighterage industry to ascertain the future organisation and contribution of the industry in a co-ordinated transport policy for the River Thames within the projected port authority. I should first, make it clear to the House that I am a Freeman of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen, but have no financial interest in the industry.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Will hon. Members leave the Chamber quietly.

Mr. Williams

As every hon. Member knows, the greatest river highway in the country and, in my view, the principal highway, is the River Thames. The growth of the British economy can be traced by the growth of tonnage handled upon the River Thames. Historically, as early as Roman times, and certainly as far back as the 13th Century, the country's principal highway was the River Thames. Previous Parliaments have been concerned about the position of the watermen and lightermen. Respective Governments have been forced to take legislative action. The Acts if 1514 and 1555 and the foundation of the Watermen's Company in 1556 give testimony to this fact.

As early as the 16th Century the watermen, as opposed to the lightermen, were already feeling the competition of the coaches—in other words, the roads. The watermen were quite undaunted by a failure of their Bill in 1600 to resist the use of coaches. John Taylor, commonly known as the "Water Poet", and himself an active waterman, put it rather well in 1622. He was, incidentally, a prolific writer of the time and he described accurately the conditions of watermen during that period. He wrote in 1622: Carroaches, coaches, jades and flander's manes, Doe rob us of our shares, our wares, our fares, Against the ground we stand and knocke our heeles, Whilest all our profit runnes away on wheeles ". For some years after the introduction of coaches by the Dutchman Booned they were used by only a relatively small number of people, but the year 1634 saw the growth of hackney carriages which plied for hire in the streets. The water-men at that time petitioned the King in Council by pointing out that their existence was threatened by this rival means of transport and that the King's Majesty would thereby be deprived of many useful and able subjects who always proved helpful to man the Navy in times of war. The Privy Council became completely beguiled by those specious arguments and issued a proclamation prohibiting hackney carriages in London except for journeys for at least three miles outside London.

Right up to the 18th Century, the watermen fought every proposal for a bridge. It was not until the 18th Century that the first bridge was built, and subsequently they fought against every bridge which was built It is certainly not in that spirit that I wish to introduce my Motion this afternoon, because the rôle of watermen has been greatly reduced by progress over the years and they are now mainly responsible for the mooring and unmooring of ships. It is the lighterage industry about which I wish to speak, but one has to mention watermen when speaking of the lightermen because they arc all part of the same Company.

The golden age for lightermen was reached in 1795. Shipping was dependent on lighters and barges, but it is significant that even in 1795 the coasting trade of the port was greater than the foreign trade. This is certainly not true today and is one of the main reasons why the industry has found itself in difficulties.

Even before the challenge of the railways and modern roads, there were signs of what could only be, in terms of years, a decline in the industry. At one time, the Thames enjoyed the Services of 85,000 barges. Today, in 1967, the figure is 4,650 barges. These figures do not include the punts, sloops and cutters that have long gone out of existence.

In addition, the advent of the various docks—the West India Docks, Surrey Commercial Docks and the Royal Group of Docks, for example—has dealt successive blows to the lighterage industry. The growth of the docks was supported by the merchants and the shipowners. All these actions threatened the lighterage industry fax before modern times.

The lightermen fought fiercely. At one time they forced the Houses of Parliament to set up a Select Committee to resist the establishment of the docks. Subsequently, however, they lost, and rightly so, because they were fighting on the wrong side of progress. Eventually, all the main docks were established.

The lightermen obtained, however, an exceedingly important concession which has subsequently become known as the free water clause. I certainly ask my hon. Friend the Minister of State to ensure that his right hon. Friend makes sure that in any alteration in the authority of the Port of London, the free water clause will be maintained. To get it altered would, in fact, require the permission of Parliament.

Easily the most important part of the Thames lighterage business consists in conveying goods from ships in the docks or lower reaches of the river to public wharves and warehouses situated near the heart of London. This again raises the problem acutely, because there is no doubt that the wharves and public warehouses in the Lower and Upper Pool are gradually handling less tonnage, and some of them are closing.

The emphasis is now on the lower reaches of the Thames. Perhaps this was brought forcibly home to the industry by the closure of Brentford Dock, to which I should like presently to refer, as well as by the closure of various railway docks at Battersea, Blackfriars, Poplar, Victoria Dock, Canning Town, Charlton, Chelsea, Nine Elms and Deptford. All those decisions have had an effect on the volume of the lighterage industry. No doubt, the case for closing many of those depots can be justified on economic grounds, but the sad fact is that the traffic previously carried by lighter or barge is now being carried by road transport.

The most tragic example that one can find is in respect of the closure of Brentford Dock, because that dock had all the potentialities of a terminal exit point at the westward end of the Thames which would allow cargoes to go all the way through London by water without going on to the congested roads and eventually feeding through to the South-West and the Midlands.

I should like to give some practical examples of what that means in terms of social cost. About 350 tons of coal a day used to go by river from Chelsea Basin to a factory at Battersea. It is now transported by road, and many trucks and many journeys are required to get it to its destination. Covent Garden, as everyone knows, is being moved to a new site at Nine Elms, and yet to date there is no proper Provision for waterside activity, either for small coasting ships or for lighters. This is something which, I hope, even at this stage, my hon. Friend will examine closely.

Paradoxically, it is the Corporation of the City of London, steeped in ancient history, which has shown the way by the building of a modern refuse exit point at Cannon Street. So attractively is it built that people do not know that it is a refuse depot. From there, how-ever, rubbish from the Corporation of London area finds its way out to the lower reaches by a barge which carries 300 tons at one go. It would take 20 trucks—and 15-tonners at that—to take it by road through the congested streets of the City of London.

Another example is the rundown and the eventual selling-off of the stock owned by River Lighterage Limited. This concern used to be a partial subsidiary of the North Thames Gas Board, which held 50 per cent. of the shares. The Company was allowed to run down and was eventually sold. Today, over 200 tons of coal, which used to be transported by barge, is taken by road from Becton to Bromley gas works, causing congestion and havoc in that area. Seventy thousand tons of coal from Honnerton Tip to Hackney power Station now also go by road, taking 30 lorries per day on 60 trips to get through London's crowded streets.

The lighterage industry is particularly fitted to handle in large quantities meat and provisions such as butter and eggs from the Commonwealth and South American trade. In fact, in the pre-war years it handled the majority of these imports. I regret to have to report again that a considerable amount of this side of the industry's work has been lost to the roads. I must say in all honesty that the trade has in many respects been rather slow to react to change.

For example, it is only recently that it has introduced refrigerated barges as opposed to insulated barges, although these now are appearing on the Thames in greater numbers. Refrigerated barges could so easily tie up with the refrigerated railway freight terminals. Barges also excel in the transport of bulk commodities, such as grain, sulphur, groundnuts, ballast, coal, oil and petroleum, and dangerous commodities such as acid and explosives.

I believe that, with the growth of containerisation, as it is called, the lighterage industry, if it wishes to adapt and change to modern conditions, could build lighters and barges which could take full advantage of Containers. Containers could be loaded directly into a barge. This requires considerable sums of money and a lot of investment.

In this respect, I should like to refer to a letter written by the Association of Master Lightermen and Barge Owners to the Transport and General Workers' Union and to the Watermen's Union in respect of investment grants. The background to this is that investment grants were recently withdrawn from this industry. The letter from the Association reads thus: As you will appreciate the Ministry of Transport's distinction is highly arbitrary and appears designed specifically to exclude normal lighterage Operations which must of course involve travelling from the Enclosed Docks to riverside destinations. It quite ignores the geography of the Port of London with its five docks and chain of river wharves. It seems incredible that we are regarded as an essential part of port Operations for the purposes of the Dock Labour Scheme but merely a competitive method of transport when Government grants are involved. The effect of the withdrawal of investment grants will undoubtedly be to make the lighterage industry slow to respond to change, because, in my view, with the possible development in the next 20 to 50 years of the techniques of the hovercraft and hydrofoil, considerable sums of money will be needed for the lighterage industry to respond to modern needs. It could be said that, if it is intended to run down the lighterage industry, if it is intended to develop the lower reaches of the Thames and ignore the potentialities of some of the things which I have been mentioning, clearly the withdrawl of investment grants makes sense; but, if not, it is nonsense.

Reference must be made also to the possibility of Thames barrier. There are differences in the industry as to how such a barrier would affect the commercial potentialities in the upper part of the stream. I think that a Thames barrier would help and not hinder the lighterage industry. I believe that the majority of people who reflect on this will come to the same conclusion. In fact, it would bring the waterman back into his own, because it would mean that, with hydro-foil and other forms of quick river transport, it would be possible, perhaps, to go quicker by river than by train or by road, so the waterman himself, apart from the lighterman, would come back into his own.

Even with a permanent Thames barrier, there are grounds for optimism in believing that the river could still be used by lighters carrying goods to various existing points at various parts of the Thames. In fact, in spite of the closure of the Brentford Dock, to which I have already referred, it is possible to build an exit point at the western end of the Thames.

The real and immediate problems of the Thames lighterage industry are those to which I shall now refer. The employers, if asked what they consider to be their immediate problems, will immediately answer that they are being asked to carry too many lightermen, that decasualisation has now brought a heavy responsibility upon every firm to employ an allocated number of men, and that already a number of small firms have been forced out of business or are on the verge of going out of business as a result of the heavy labour costs.

The trade union side mentions no figure of a possible reduction, but every-where in trade union documents and in the speeches of the General Secretary of the Watermen's Union and of officials of the Transport and General Workers' Union there is an awareness on this question of an overall figure satisfactory to the industry's needs. A figure of 1,500 has been mentioned by the Association of Master Lightermen as being an optimum figure in the 1970s. It is exceedingly difficult for somebody outside the industry to come to any valid conclusion about the appropriate figure at which the industry could run with appropriate safeguards and while also being competitive. That is why I think that the responsibilities arising from decasualisation have shown up very sharply the decline of the industry.

However, it has not at the same time, in my view, shown up the potentialities of the industry. I am firmly of the opinion that there are too many lighterage firms and that, if it were possible to have bigger, and therefore fewer, Units, the units of production would be cheaper and they would be able to modernise and take advantage of the technical change which is, in any case, being forced upon the industry. In other words, I am saying that there are too many firms and that they must slim themselves down. There has already been a reduction to about 60 firms. The signs are that this trend will continue.

Left to themselves, the change will be too slow. If we really want to take effective action to stop further cargoes from going on to the roads, action must be taken now. That is why I should like to see the setting up of an inquiry— not a departmental inquiry, but an independent one; not an inquiry composed of both sides of industry—that produces too many compromises—but an independent inquiry to establish the rôle of the lighterage industry in terms of the next 70 years.

Such an inquiry could, at the same time, examine the present working arrangements and look at the question of labour allocation as well. In this latter category, it would to a certain extent duplicate some of the work of the Devlin Report, but that Report was concerned only with the labour side, and the inquiry for which I ask would be comprehensive. Eventually, the inquiry should make its recommendations to the Minister of Transport, who could then pass the recommendations to the projected port authority, whatever form that ultimately takes.

Speed is of the essence of the matter, because there is a great deal of uncertainty in the industry. On the one hand, there is talk of nationalisation. This term has come up several times in the discussions I have had with the master lightermen and with the unions concerned. From my own knowledge of the industry, however, I think that the term "nationalisation" is misleading, because it implies a board with a chairman and a separate independent existence such as the established nationalised boards have. Nevertheless, the question of public ownership is clearly one which could fall within the terms of the inquiry. I am not a dogmatist in these matters. In my view, the criterion should be efficiency, and whether this particular industry is serving the port authority. Only an independent inquiry could establish the facts. It would be up to the port authority to decide how best to act on the report.

It could be that the port authority will in any case be given powers by the Minister to go into the lighterage industry, either in competition with the private sector or being given authority to assume a rôle as the lighterage operator in the Port of London. In my opinion, all these matters should be left to the independent inquiry to assess for the future.

The rundown of the lighterage industry is symptomatic of the rundown of the commercial use of the Thames and its under-utilisation as a whole. I have spoken of only one aspect, an aspect which I am particularly concerned, but it is only part of the picture. I hope that my hon. Friend, having heard my speech and my expression of the anxieties felt by both sides of the industry, will concede the establishment of an inquiry so that the industry may in the future make a contribution as unique and as important as it has done in the last 400 years.

4.33 p.m.

Mr. R. Gresham Cooke (Twickenham)

I am glad that the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Alan Lee Williams) has raised this subject. Many of us who have been interested in the River Thames have for some years felt that it was rather sad to see the lighterage trade declining year by year. We have heard of the coke and coal of the North Thames Gas Board going by road instead of by water, and so on, and many of us have felt that this was a decline which we could do little to arrest, but to which more thought ought to be given. I am interested to see the Minister of State at the Ministry of Transport present today, and I hope that he will have something enlightening to tell us.

As we stand on the Terrace and watch the lighters and barges going by, we probably give no more thought to them than we do to the buses passing over Westminster Bridge. Nevertheless, all the traffic going up and down the river every day, thousands of tons of it, is of great importance to the life of London as a whole, and I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has drawn attention to it. As he said, much of the traffic which used to go by river now goes by road because of the greater speed involved.

I was a director of a small Company in Middlesex on the Grand Union Canal which used timber supplies. More than once, we tried to bring our timber from the Port of London up to West Drayton by canal. There was not very much difference in the cost, but the difference in speed—by road only a few hours, and 24 hours, or a couple of days, by water—meant that the works people always said that they wanted it more rapidly and it was necessary to bring the timber by road. I am sure that the same must have happened in very many cases.

Thought is being given to these matters now. The hon. Gentleman was modest enough not to say that he has just been appointed Secretary of the all-party River Thames Parliamentary Group which has recently been formed, of which I have the honour to be Chairman and of which my hon. Friend the Member for the Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. John Smith) is a member.

The amount of passenger and goods traffic going by water a Century ago was phenomenal. One has only to look at the House of Commons Christmas card this year to see the craft which were on the Thames in those days—ferries, sailing craft, barges, rowing boats, skiffs and boats of all kinds. It is said that about 20 million people a year used the Thames in those days. There has been a long tradition in river traffic carried on by the Company of Watermen and Lightermen, the tradition of rowing races, Doggett's Coat and Badge, and so on. But this tradition is now dying, with the closing of Brentford Dock, and less traffic is being carried.

I have given much thought to the matter, and I can see no good Solution being brought about unless we look at the problem radically. What is the Thames? It is really a tidal creek, a very large and important tidal creek on which the docks of London were built many years ago. But what is happening now is that the important Port of London is moving downstream from the old St. Catharine's and Royal Docks area. The heavy traffic is moving to Tilbury. If one goes there now one can see, for example, a ship of 20,000 tons bringing timber from Canada, and one can appreciate the enormous size of modern tramp ships.

This movement of the Port of London downstream may give us an opportunity, not this year or next, but in due course, as the hon. Member hinted, to build a permanent barrage with locks below Woolwich, perhaps somewhere near Purfleet. I am not now referring to the movable flood barrier which we all hope that the Minister of Housing and Local Government and the Greater London Council will bring in as a temporary measure to prevent the flooding of London. I am referring to permanent looks and a barrage somewhere down below the built-up area of London. This would stop the Thames being a tidal creek and make it what I would call a 24-hour river.

At present, lighters and barges can use the Thames outside Westminster for only about two hours either side of high title, that is, for about four hours of every tide of eight hours a day. Thus, the Thames is being used for only one-third of its capacity. If we had a permanent barrage with locks somewhere near Purfleet, we should have 30 miles of deep-water frontage, and we should have use of the River Thames for 24 hours a day, with deep water all the time. In those conditions, we could bring into use fast craft, sidewall hovercroft, and so on, running rapidly up and down the river and competing with road transport for both passengers and goods. There are markets on either side, Covent Garden Market, and so on, which could have access to the river.

It is always said that this sort of thing cannot be done, but I have seen two examples in the last year or two. In the United States, in Boston, I was Struck by the beauty of the Charles River, where there is a barrage separating the docks of Boston from the city itself. One realises at once why Harvard University is so good at rowing—it has water to row on 24 hours a day, because there is no tide. The barrage has turned the Charles River into a very beautiful river for use at all times.

In France, there is the Rance barrage above St. Malo near Dinan, which is mainly an electricity barrage but which still keeps the water above the barrage permanently at a fairly high level. One possible Solution to the problem in the Thames would be a permanent barrage, and that is a matter which I would like an inquiry to consider.

Another possible but temporary Solution has been put to me recently. I put it forward only tentatively and the Ministry of Transport may be able to examine it. At Richmond, just below my constituency, there is a half lock on the River Thames by Richmond Bridge. When the tide is half down this half lock is brought into Operation and holds back the tide, preventing the River at Twickenham and Teddington from degenerating into a muddy stream. The river is made much more boatable, as it were, for sailing and boating craft on that part of the river.

The disadvantage of a half lock is that at a low State of the water it is a hindrance to navigation and the passenger craft from Westminster might not be able to get down to Greenwich for some part of the tide, but a half lock at London Bridge, for instance, would give a much greater height of water between Teddington and London Bridge than we now have at low tide, which is at least half of the day.

I do not want this lighterage traffic to be driven away altogether, but at its present rate of decline it looks as though that could happen. If it does, the streets will get even more congested with even more lorries carrying coal and oil, and so on, which is now carried on the river. It is a serious problem affecting what should be one of our chief communication arteries, 30 or 40 miles of river flowing through London.

I therefore add my voice to the demand for an inquiry into the short-term measures mentioned by the hon. Member for Hornchurch and the long-term measures which I have mentioned, quite apart from the mobile barrage to deal with the possible flooding of London which should be separately inquired into.

4.43 p.m.

Mr. John Smith (Cities of London and Westminster)

The hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Alan Lee Williams), who is a Freeman of the City of London, as I am, has done the House a service by raising this matter and doing so in such a temperate and scholarly manner. It may be thought that the Thames lighterage industry is rather a narrow subject for the House to debate, especially coming immediately after our exchanges about South Africa; but, in fact, the industry illustrates in itself all this country's present ills, and can indeed even shed light on what we ought to do about our trade with South Africa.

It is an old industry with all the disadvantages of that. Many of our industries suffer from having been developed much earlier in this country than those of our modern competitors abroad, some of whom have the extra advantage over us that the arthritis and adhesions of the past, which we retain, have been cured for them by the surgery of war and defeat.

It is also a surprisingly large industry. There are perhaps 6,000 barges and similar craft engaged in the trade, carrying more than 10 million tons of cargo a year.

Those who wish to study this trade, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may do so very conveniently from the balcony of the Angel Inn, at Rotherhithe, from which, at high tide on a summer's evening, one of the noblest of all prospects of London can be gained; or from the Grapes Public House, at the corner of Ropemakers Fields between Wapping Old Stairs and Limehouse Pier. From either of those places at high tide you may observe the commerce of the world moving on the flood. Nearly half the tonnage of the Port of London is handled in barges and before the war it was very much more than that, nearly three-quarters. One would imagine that one was looking at the busiest port in the world, and that was so until after this recent war; but now, to our shame, and for reasons which we all know, it is the fifth port of the world.

The lighterage industry has suffered even more than the port. Being an old industry, it has suffered from technical progress in other directions—from bulk cargo ships, from palletised cargo ships, from new quays, from the development of Containers, which the Minister of Technology tells us he is pushing forward. Also, because it is old, it is divided into many firms, perhaps 50 or 60.

The hon. Member for Hornchurch mentioned the need for an inquiry, which I endorse, but I would like to see the Industrial Reorganisation Corporation, since we are, at any rate for the time being, saddled with that body, looking into the number of different firms, because it might be able to help the industry more quickly in that direction than could an inquiry.

The industry also suffers from the general conditions in the Port of London. It has lost much of its trans-shipment trade. The slowness, stoppages and consequent unreliability of the Port of London have driven many thousands of tons of this trade to Rotterdam; and many of those who have not been driven away are yet determined to warehouse their goods away from the river, inland out of the reach of the Dock Labour Scheme, which means that the goods have to go by lorry and not by barge. I hope that the Minister of State will take account of that.

The industry also suffers from its own wage structure and arrangements. Under the decasualisation scheme the industry has to employ 400 men, which is one in seven in the industry, for whom there is no work at all. These are good men who start as apprentices and who are members of a "blue" union, a colour which has no political connotation in the Port of London—it is a term of praise to be a member of a "blue" union—and these men are completely lost to the country. Is it sensible to keep them marking time like this when there is so much else which needs to be done? Moreover, keeping those men idle costs the industry £500,000 a year in their basic pay, stamps, and percentage paid to the Dock Labour Board, etc. It also costs the country that sum and more in trade lost as a result.

Mr. Deputy Speaker, there are not many of us here this afternoon, but great issues are at stake. We debate here whether it is right or wrong to sell arms to South Africa; whether sanctions against Rhodesia are good or bad; whether prescription charges are desirable or undesirable. But we are like men arguing on a raft which is being swept out to sea. We are committing all over again, in a different context, the fatal errors of the 1930s. Then, hon. Members here argued—for example, on the Air Estimates—whether we should have four more squadrons or no more; while all the time unimaginable forces were being built up against us abroad.

In just the same way now, unimaginable commercial forces are being built up against us abroad; and we sit here, very often sniping or sneering at commerce, when what is most desperately wanted is commercial rearmament, just as much as we needed military rearmament in the 1930s. We do not now particularly admire those pipe-smoking Governments of the 1930s. Equally, our successors will not forgive us if we dally here complaining about being insulted abroad, discussing new ways of spending more money on ourselves, and generally treating industry as the Fat Boy of Britain, greedy and stupid and good for a little bullying.

We succeeded in the past because we were not ashamed of commerce, as were some other countries, such as Spain. The Thames lighterage industry is a good example of this. Now we are making tie same mistakes as those other countries made. We shall suffer the same eclipse, unless we encourage, respect and emulate those who create wealth. We can start now—and the hon. Member for Hornchurch has produced a splendid example of how we can do so in this debate—in the centre of the commercial capital of our country, by resolving to liberate the Thames lighterage industry from the burden of £500,000 a year which drives our trade away—the Industrial Reorganisation Corporation is the body to consider that—and also by sorting out the absurd, and humiliating, over-manning in the industry, which should be referred to the inquiry suggested by the hon. Gentleman.

4.54 p.m.

Sir Douglas Glover (Ormskirk)

We are all grateful to the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Alan Lee Williams) for initiating the debate. Hon. Members on this side of the House seem to outnumber hon. Members opposite by about three to one in showing their interest in Old Father Thames and the problem of the watermen and lightermen. The hon. Gentleman's historical references were very interesting. All of us have great pride in the way the River Thames used to be the great artery running through all our major affairs. I suppose that if the watermen still held their pride of place this side of the House would be moving a Motion that the Prime Minister be taken to Traitors' Gate at the Tower of London by water tonight, because so many great events have taken place on that Stretch of water.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. John Smith) was right to say that our pride in our nation and our history could have an enormous boost from the debate. All of us want the Thames to be a flourishing waterway and the Port of London to be the first port in the world once again. I think that we could make it so. But I am not certain that the hon. Gentleman was right to say that we need an inquiry into the lighterage industry. Perhaps it would be a good thing, but I wonder if he would be prepared for the inquiry to say, for example, that the free water clause should go.

That would be only too likely if there were an inquiry into this ancient and honourable industry, for how can one find the commercial value of an activity when a great many of the things involved in it are free? For example, I understand that all the locks must be opened for the lightermen at no charge, and that they have free entry to the docks at any time. I accept the problem of a tidal river, but those factors, whilst perhaps increasing the lightermen's ability to carry out their job, mean that costs are incurred which are not paid for by the lighterage Community. If that is so, an inquiry might find that there should be an increase in the lightermen's charges to cover those costs incurred by the Port of London Authority.

Similarly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster said, an inquiry would have to go into the question of over-manning. The hon. Gentleman said that he did not want an inquiry composed of the owners and the workers, which I thought showed great courage on his part, connected as he is with the industry. That appears to mean that he wants the inquiry to produce the right answer on the industry's future working. After decasualisation, any inquiry is bound to say that without the casual dement the industry should work with a smaller number on its payroll. I am not sufficient of an expert to know whether the reduction would be 300, 400 or 500, but such a drop would do a great deal to make the industry more efficient, while still carrying out the same Jobs, and would make a substantial difference to the on-cost of transporting goods.

It would make us that much more competitive, and if we were, the transhipment of goods might begin to drift back to the Thames from Rotterdam. I understand that Rotterdam is beginning to encounter problems, as all new developments are bound to do, which are taking a bit of the cream off the top of the milk there. There is a to-ing and fro-ing in tidal industries connected with the sea, and it may be that the Port of London, with the experience gained by Rotterdam, could now so modernise its labour force that we could regain a good deal of the traffic we have lost.

I think that the lighterage industry on the River Thames carries 10 million tons of merchandise every year. I do not speak as one involved in the industry, but my impression is that the river's traffic-carrying capacity could be doubled or trebled as a result of the suggestions put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke).

When I go to Venice, and see the vaporetti carrying passengers, it astonishes me that far more people are not carried in London by water. People in Venice are whisked about by the vaporetti. Many of these motorboats go very fast and they could on the Thames provide an equally rapid Service from Governmental palaces in Whitehall to the city temples of iniquity. There is an enormous amount of to-ing and fro-ing between the City and Whitehall and the speed with which people would be able to get from Whitehall to the City by a modern system of motor launches would be much better than by motor traction, despite all the improvements brought about by successive Ministers of Transport and the City of London.

The hon. Gentleman began by talking about the watermen going on strike or creating a hullaballoo because of the advent of hackney carriages. Everything in this world goes full circle. If the hon. Gentleman studies the Order Paper, he will see that part of our business for later today is the London Cab Bill. That Bill is about the London hackney carriage driver trying to get some protection against a new form of competition and I suppose that this inevitably is how life goes on.

The watermen, rightly, lost their battle against the advent of the hackney carriage; the hackney carriage today is having to come to an accommodation with the hire car. What we are trying to do, as did our predecessors 300 years ago, is, as it were, to soften the blow and give justice to both sides. But inevitably, when society changes, the answer is often that something has to go.

Most of the watermen in passenger transport went out of business. Now, I think, there is an opportunity for some of that business to come back. I am sure that there is room now for a great deal more water traffic to ease the congestion in our river. A really good motor launch service could be provided as though the Thames were a trunk route.

I would like an inquiry, but I think that the hon. Gentleman must realise that, out of it, might come a lot of answers which both sides of the lighterage industry would find unpalatable. But if they did accept genuine modernisation of the trade, then they could do a great deal to tackle, in one small sector, the problems which confront this country.

5.3 p.m.

Mr. Patrick Jenkiu (Wanstead and Woodford)

I am sure that the whole House is grateful to the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Alan Lee Williams) for having chosen this subject for the debate, and I add my congratulations to those of my hon. Friends to him for having opened the debate in the manner he did. I am sure that he will forgive me if I use the occasion more as a vehicle for airing some of the problems with which the industry is undoubtedly confronted rather than perhaps for endorsing too wholeheartedly his specific proposal for an inquiry.

I see the case which the hon. Member made but, on the whole, I believe that the existing machinery, such as the Industrial Reorganisation Corporation, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for the Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. John Smith), ought to be sufficient for dealing with the problems. However, there is an essential proviso— that the Government should be prepared for their part to approach the problems with sympathy and imagination.

No one who has given attention to this industry or studied it in detail can fail to be impressed by the enormously important role which the Thames lighterage industry has fulfilled over the centuries, as the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out, in the Operations of the Port of London and by the great contribution it has made to the development and growth of this mighty port.

The use of lighters is vastly greater in London than in almost any other port in Britain. It arises directly out of the geographical features of the Thames. The Port of London Jurisdiction runs for 69 miles of the Thames from Teddington to the Nore, and much of the river is lined on both sides with wharves operated by wharfingers, warehousemen and industries of all sorts. These wharves cannot for the most part be served by ocean-going ships. Their only link with the world outside is via the lighterage trade.

These riverside wharves, although I accept entirely what the hon. Gentleman said about the decline in their use, still play a very important part in the trade of the Port of London and will continue to do so for many years. This will undoubtedly create a need for a lighterage Service in the port for as long ahead as can be Seen. Many of the industries on the Thames are served and will be served, many cargoes will continue to be handled and many factories will have access to the Port of London only via these riverside wharves. That fact is not, I believe, disputed by anyone.

The lighters also have another very important function in the overside trade within the enclosed docks. The ability to load and unload a ship from both sides instead of merely the side on which she is tied up allows the loading and unload- ing to be carried out much more rapidly and thus saves on demurrage charges.

Lighters also give access to the waters further inland and I listened with interest to what the hon. Gentleman had to say about the closure of Brentford Docks. The River Lea navigation via Barking Creek, somewhat nearer to my constituency, is still important and one hopes to see this developed over the next few years so that it can play a major part in bringing the hinterland into contact with the Port of London.

But all this depends on the existence of an efficient, economic, flexible and versatile lighterage industry which performs a Service for the other users of the docks. This was a point made by Mr. Henman —as he then was—Chairman of the Transport Development Group, in a lecture to the Institute of Transport more than ten years ago. He said: Lighterage in London is a ' tailor-made ' Service to meet a variety of conditions rather than a standardised organisation where uniformity is the order of the day. The hon. Member has drawn attention to the decline in the use of lighters and perhaps I may be forgiven for mentioning one or two more figures. In 1957 there were some 6,600 dumb lighters— lighters which are not self-propelled—in use in London. By this year, the number had fallen to about 4,500, a decline of over 30 per cent. in only ten years. The traffic figures—goods handled by lighters —show that the bulk of the decline has occurred in recent years.

Figures which are provided by a firm of chartered accountants for the Association of Master Lightermen and Barge Owners show that whereas in 1963 the Association members, who account for the great bulk of the traffic handled by the lighterage industry, accounted for about 13 million tons, by 1966 this figure had fallen to 9| million tons, a decline of 27 per cent. in only three years. Therefore we are talking, as one of my hon. Friends has pointed out, about a very familiar subject, a declining industry.

It is not difficult to look for reasons for this. New techniques in the handling of goods have made great advances, and rightly so, in recent years. One can instance the new bulk sugar handling berth at Woolwich operated by Messrs. Tate and Lyle. That put out of business a substantial part of the lighterage trade. The Port of London Authority's Annual Report this year contains a picture of the new Tilbury Dock, No. 34, for handling timber in packages—again, a major development, which is bound to reduce the dependence of the timber trade on lighterage.

It is interesting in this context to compare what was being said only five years ago by the Rochdale Committee when it reported in September, 1962, because it referred to the problems of the timber trade, in particular in relation to the Surrey timber docks. It had this to say in paragraph 510: It is clear, therefore, that adequate Provision of lighters is one of the chief Problems. We understand that at peak periods congestion in the Docks can be seriously aggravated by a shortage of lighters, one result of which is that ships wishing to discharge overside into barge cannot do so. I doubt whether the Committee would write the same paragraph today. There may indeed be an occasional problem of congestion in the Surrey Docks, but the developments at Tilbury and elsewhere make it clear that technical progress is in fact rapidly overtaking the proposition to which the Rochdale Committee there committed itself.

Then, of course, there is the Container traffic, which is now having what one can only describe as an explosive boom. This is being assisted, rightly, by the development of Tilbury as a Container port in conjunction with the inland Container facilities, the freight liner trains, and so on. All these represent a significant advance in handling, significant improvements in productivity, and are, therefore, to be welcomed, but they inevitably displace, where it was relevant, the lighterage trade, which, whatever its advantages, whatever benefits it conferred, undoubtedly always involved a measure of double handling.

In spite of these, my studies lead me to the conclusion that there will be a place for lighterage as far ahead as can be foreseen. We shall never see it in London as it is in the north-west Continental ports. Rotterdam, Antwerp, and other ports of north-west Europe stand at the opening of a vast System of internal navigable waterways, rivers and canals, which a country of this size can never hope to match simply because it is not endowed with natural resources of that sort. But still the London lighterage trade will be very substantial, and it will continue for many years to offer employment to many hundreds of water-men and it will, undoubtedly, handle millions of tons of goods. Therefore, I maintain, and I repeat, that it is essential that the trade should be as efficient and economical as it is possible to make it.

I should like to raise two specific points, and we should be grateful to the Minister of State if he would deal with them in his reply. The hon. Member for Hornchurch has already drawn attention to the decline in manpower in the industry, and we are facing here many of the familiar problems of redeployment, but the problem—my hon. Friend the Member for the Cities of London and Westminster brought this out very clearly— is that manpower has not declined in parallel with the decline in traffic. I mentioned a few moments ago that tonnage had declined in three years by 27 per cent. During that period, in December, 1963, the number of men on the live lighterage register was 3,327; in December, 1966, it was 2,915, which is a decline of only 12 per cent., less than half the rate of decline in tonnage.

The number which the Lighterage Association now needs is probably below 2,500 men, which means that there are between 350 and 400 men too many on the lighterage register. This is a serious matter because it is imposing additional costs on the lighterage firms and, therefore, adding to the problems of the industry in its efforts to try to retain traffic in competition with other firms.

Decasualisation has undoubtedly brought this matter to a head. I think it is right to point out—what the hon. Member for Hornchurch, perhaps due to pressure of time, did not entirely make clear—that there has always been in the lighterage trade a vastly higher Proportion of men who have been on regular employment, who have been weekly employees of the firms, or alternatively more or less permanently attached to the individual firms, than has been the case with employment in the docks industry as a whole.

It is very clearly brought out in the Devlin Report in paragraph 160: The organisation of labour in the lighterage industry is very different from that in the port generally. 807 men, including all the tug crews, are weekly employees. The great majority of the remainder, although theoretically on a daily basis, are ' attached' to particular employers. There are only about 200 unattached men. Thus about 90 per Cent, of the labour force is regularly employed. This means that the effects of decasualisation were substantially different from those which applied to other port employees.

However, as the lighterage trade has declined so has the need for manpower, and on decasualisation there was a considerable surplus which, of course, under the decasualisation rules had to be absorbed, and it has represented a substantial and immediate additional cost which the firms themselves must now meet. The figure which my hon. Friend put on this, of £500,000 does not seem to me to be in any way an exaggeration.

I think it is right to point out that the leaders of the two unions involved do not seriously dispute this question. They may have other solutions to put forward, but this is generally agreed in the industry. But there is as yet no agreement as to how it should be resolved. The Minister of State will know that last month the deputation which waited on his right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour put these problems before him very fairly and fully, but the Association is still waiting for some indication of how the Ministry feels it can help.

For myself, I believe that the problem here is probably one of earlier retirement. This is hard, heavy work. The retirement age has only recently been brought to 65, and indeed, there are many men who have not exercised the Option to retire at 65, and it would seem in these circumstances that there would be room for streamlining, by giving inducements —and there must, of course, be inducements—to the older men to retire and so make it easier to provide continued employment for those who still have work in this industry for many years to come.

May I mention under this head of man power problems one special problem. The Government chose for decasualisation day—D-day one might describe it—18th September. This was opposed by the port employers' association because it had not finalised its agreements with the unions on many of the ancillary problems which decasualisation was undoubtedly going to involve. There was no agreement yet as to what was to happen in the event of severance, or redundancy, and, in particular, no agreement about what was to happen to men who became allocated to particular employers and might find themselves with no work due to strikes in other parts of the port industry. A provisional agreement, which has not yet been signed, and has not been agreed by both sides, would allow for Suspension of men in this case after one week. In the first week they would be paid by their employer, but after a week they would be regarded as falling within the National Insurance Scheme.

A difficulty which arises is that for some reason, registered port workers are not entitled to the normal unemployment benefit under the National Insurance scheme. Therefore, one well understands why the trade unions have regarded that as a thoroughly unacceptable clause in the agreement. Nevertheless, this is something which must be dealt with.

During the recent dock strike, for example, by the end of the strike on 27th November, nearly one-half of the employees in the lighterage industry—about 1,300—were without work due to the strike. Under the decasualisation scheme, they were having to be paid the basic pay attributable to such workers—about £19 a week. It is quite impossible to expect firms which already have difficulty in keeping themselves afloat to face that additional cost due to factors entirely outside their control, namely, the unofficial strike in the docks. This was a cost which was crippling the industry. Reluctantly, one must face the possibility that that might happen again. The Government have a direct responsibility to act in this matter. It must be dealt with as one of urgency.

Over the years, there has been a deteriorating trend in the profits of the lighterage business and a number of firms, as, I believe, the Government accept, are making losses on this part of their trade. The Government have introduced decasualisation, which was welcomed on all sides of the industry, and certainly on both sides of the House, but the industry is entitled to the Government's help in trying to solve some of the consequential Problems of which this is certainly one.

The second topic which I should like to air is what I can only describe as the shabby treatment meted out to the industry under the Industrial Development Act, because it is not now entitled to Investment grants although it was entitled to investment allowances under the preceding legislation.

Again, Mr. Henman in his paper drew attention to one of the problems of the industry: namely, that the barges have a very long life, but, at the same time, their capital cost has increased substantially. In the period which he was considering, it was an increase of over five times.

Mr. Alan Lee Williams

If I may emphasise the important point which the hon. Member is making, it is estimated that the present capital cost of the fleet afloat, barges and lighters, costed on prewar prices, would be about £7 million. the same fleet today would cost £35 million.

Mr. Jenkin

I am grateful to the hon. Member for his intervention. It accords closely with the figure which Mr. Henman mentioned of approximately a five-fold increase. That is certainly true. It is a problem of management accounting to make sure that the rates charged for the use of lighters reflect in some measure their replacement costs.

When writing in 1957, however, Mr. Henman went on to point out that the problem had been recognised by the Government. He wrote: The depth of the problem has been recognised by the Government in so far as a lighter is treated as a ship and an investment allowance of 40 per cent. is given by the Inland Revenue authorities in respect of purchases of new craft. Since then, there has been additional help in the form of free depreciation. On 16th January, investment allowances were abolished and we subsequently learned that there were to be no grants for vessels of that sort. The grants were limited under the Act to self-propelled vessels or vessels of over 100 tons.

In Committee on the Industrial Development Bill, my right hon. Friend the Member for Argyll (Mr. Noble; moved two Amendments, one of which was to reduce the tonnage figure from 100 to 20 tons. That was opposed by the right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay), then President of the Board of Trade, in Standing Committee on 21sl June, 1966, when the right hon. Gentleman said—I quote the passage because it is relevant in this matter: When we come to shipping we are in the difficulty that the overseas shipping industry, the foreign-going ships, are clearly making, as we all know, an exceedingly valuable contribution to the balance of payments, whereas on the other hand purely internal transport, coastal transport, although valuable in many ways, is preponderantly in competition with other forms of internal transport which are not getting the grant. Therefore, we are bound to draw a distinction somewhere between those ships preponderantly in use in coastal, or in effect internal, transport, and ocean-going ships. That argument entirely misses the point of the lighterage industry in a port such as London. For the most part, it is not in competition with internal transport. It is an inevitable and necessary extension of the ocean-going freight business, which, the Government clearly recognised, should continue to qualify for grant. In many cases, the goods simply cannot reach the shore without the use of the lighterage industry.

The second Amendment was to omit "self-propelled", as a result of which dumb barges would qualify for grants. Again, the right hon. Member for Battersea, North rejected the Amendment. He said: The issue is the same as on the previous Amendment. As we are going to exclude internal transport entirely whether by road, rail or other method from the payment of these grants, it would be extremely difficult to include barges which are almost wholly used for what is in effect internal transport, and not for the carriage of goods overseas. It may well be that those responsible for supplying barge Services or lighterage Services may feel they ought to have a claim to be classed as ships. I would only comment that they do indeed. On the other hand, if we exclude road and rail transport, and then give grants to barges which might in many cases be in direct competition, there would be a justifiable grievance which could be put forward by the other means of internal transport."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee D, 21st June, 1966; c. 284–5, 287–8.] That, again, entirely misses the point. The barges are not in this context in competition with road and rail. They are in a special and unique category, an essential adjunct of the ocean-going function which the Port of London exists to serve.

I entirely concede that grants for this purpose are outside the terms of the Act, but I would like the Minister of State to consult his right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade to see whether this is a matter which could be referred to the Board of Trade's Advisory Committee set up under the Industrial Development Act to see whether it would not be appropriate that that matter should be looked at again. It could be dealt with simply. A short Clause in next year's Finance Bill could deal with the matter shortly and simply and bring these barges, which perform this important function in the Port of London, within the investment grant System. They used to get the investment allowances. They no longer get the grant. This is a special problem of a rather narrow and specific nature, but it is one in which the responsibility rests firmly on the Government.

Finally, may I mention a special point under this head?

When the White Paper "Investment Incentives", Cmnd. 2874, was published, it contained a reference to ships and it was indicated in paragraph 18(6) that certain types of asset including ships and Computer? will receive special treatment on the lines indicated in paragraphs 29–35. Paragraph 29 stated: Ships. Special arrangements were made in the Finance Act 1965 in order to made the needs of the shipping industry "— that included these barges; in addition to the 40 per cent. rate of investment allowance already in force, free depreciation was also made available. Free depreciation will continue and new ships will also he eligible for grants at the national rate of 20 per cent. in place of investment allowances. The dismay can be imagined with which, four months later, when the Bill was issued on 4th May, the industry discovered that a wholly new definition of ships was introduced for the first time and that the definition which the industry had thought would continue to apply, as had been applied by the Inland Revenue over the years, was no longer applicable and that barges such as we are discussing this afternoon would not be eligible for grants.

This was taken up with the Treasury, and the Chief Secretary, in a letter dated 29th September, 1967, dealt with the argument in these words: The Inland Revenue tell me that as a general rule they do not regard barges and lighters as ships unless they are self-propelled, but, in the case of such vessels used on the Thames and registered under the Merchant Shipping Acts, these have been regarded by a generous Interpretation of the statutory language as ships. The White Paper contained, as you will appreciate, only a general outline of the new grant scheme, but it made it clear that the scope of the new System would be, quite deliberately, less wide than that of investment allowances, and in view of this it was perhaps unfortunate that your members did not consider it prudent to defer their investment decisions until the full details of the scheme were published in the Bill. I suggest that that is an outrageous letter from the Chief Secretary to have sent. There was nothing in the White Paper to indicate that the definition of "ships" was to be different under the new scheme from that under the old. It is a fact that some firms continued to order new barges since 16th January, 1966, and before the Bill was published, and their legitimate expectations were defeated.

The Government have power to do justice, not under the Industrial Development Act, but under the Harbours Act, 1964, and the Docks and Harbours Act, 1966. The Minister knows that his right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport has power to make grants towards the expense of carrying out harbour Operations, and, by Section 57 of the 1964 Act, "harbour Operations" include lighterage. The power is there. The limitations which the hon. Member for Hornchurch detailed to the House in his opening speech on the Operation of those powers to make grants, which are not powers of the Board of Trade but the Ministry of Transport, are entirely self-imposed. There are no restrictions in the Acts such as the hon. Member read out. We have here a case of substantial hard-ship. These firms were misled by the Government. While I accept that there is no power to make grants under the Industrial Development Act, 1966, as drafted, there is power under the Docks and Harbours Act, and it is my contention that it ought to be used.

In conclusion, this is a traditional craft with a long and proud history, and lightermen are rightly jealous of their skills and reputation. Conditions on the river are changing fast. New techniques and a new era in labour relations are bringing their consequences. Yet all agree that the lighterage industry will continue to play a vital part in the Operation of the Port of London for many years to come. But, to succeed, it must have guidance and encouragement and sympathetic understanding from the Government. While men and managers are rightly imbued with the spirit of drama and romance even which has always surrounded Operations on this great tideway, there is widespread acknowledgment of what has to be done to modernise this industry. Indeed, there is a recognition that the industry must do more than react to change. It must foster and promote it. This is a three-way partnership: the Government, the firms and the unions. I hope that the Minister in reply will demonstrate clearly and equivocally, by actions as well as by words, that the Government are now ready and willing to play their part in the future development of what is, by any Standards, a crucially important link with the nation's lifeline.

5.34 p.m.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Transport (Mr. Stephen Swingler)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Alan Lee Williams) on taking the initiative in selecting the under-utilisation of the River Thames as a subject for debate today. I wish more power to the elbows of those who foregather here on an all-party basis to stimulate greater and wider interest in the use of the Thames. I hope that makes plain my sympathy with the Motion and some of the issues to which my hon. Friend has drawn attention.

The Government are seriously concerned about the problems of the lighterage industry and its prospects for the future. Our attention was drawn to them very vividly by the inspector, Mr. Gilbert Williams, who held the inquiry into licensing appeals in London, and also in discussions which were held subsequently by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour with all parties concerned.

Many facts have been given. My hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch sketched, in a romantic way, some of the past history of the lighters on the Thames, and other hon. Members have added facts and figures about recent times.

The hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Patrick Jenkin) drew attention to the serious fact that in the last three or four years the tonnage carried by lighters in London has declined by about 27 per cent. from a figure of some 13 million tons to 9½ million tons. There has, of course, been an additional Sharp setback during the temporary disruption of the London Docks by unofficial action. As he and other hon. Members mentioned, the decline in the number of lightermen in that same period has been comparatively small. It has not marched in step with the decline in trade. Therefore, as hon. Members have said, there could well be a surplus of men in the industry even when trade recovers fully from the recent stoppage. This is a matter which is being considered urgently by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour.

The hon. Member for the Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. John Smith) drew attention to the problem of overmanning. We all knew that this was a matter that had to be gone into on the morrow of decasualisation and had to be discussed chiefly between the Government, the employers, the Port of London Authority and the unions concerned. That was why my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour immediately invited both sides of industry to put forward their proposals for the future on the basis that the decasualisation scheme was being carried through. That is why serious discussions on these matters are continuing under my right hon. Friend's authority.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and others were rightly concerned about the nature and causes of the decline in the lighterage trade. The root cause is that major changes, which have been mentioned, are taking place in cargo handling, in shipping and in the economics of transport which make it uneconomic to use lighters for some of their traditional trades. Sugar was mentioned. Sugar used to be a substantial trade, but, since the opening of the new bulk handling at Silvertown, much of this trade has disappeared.

Similarly, the hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford mentioned timber. The timber carried in lighters is now decreasing rapidly because of the development of packaged timber, handled direct over the new specialised quays at Tilbury, in place of the traditional loose timber handled largely in the Surrey Docks overside to barges. Less oil, coal and grain are carried in dumb barges as a result of modern technological developments, and on the inland waterways, as we have known for some time, traffic has been declining.

These are some of the technical changes. In other respects economics have been the determining feature. The plain fact is that there are many respects, and we had better face it, in which lighterage no longer fits the requirements of transport in modern times. But this does not mean that the river need lose its importance. There have been a number of developments in favour of the use of the river: the larger self-propelled oil barges, which are increasingly coming into use, is one instance, and the development for the Port of London Authority of a new "pusher" tug, which will push instead of pulling their 1,000 ton spoil barges for disposal of dredged material, is another example. I understand that if this experiment is successful, the idea that well catch on. A pushed barge is locked to its tug, and is more easily manœuvred in a narrow space than a pulled barge.

Looking further ahead, another development is in sight which could have considerable implications for River Thames traffic. I am referring to the so-called "Lighter Aboard Ship" System, known as LASH. Lighters are lifted bodily out of the water into a ship which carries them across the ocean. This System is already in an advanced State of development by American shipping companies, but I cannot yet say whether so-called LASH ships are likely to prove economic in British waters.

Meanwhile, the Port of London Authority is alive to the need for improvements in facilities where these will clearly show an economic return. Indeed, ii has recently reconditioned the barge entrance to the Royal Docks at a cost of about £1.9 million. This enables lighters to avoid 3½ miles of river navigation, and is now used by nearly 500 barges per week. Measures such as this are some-times overlooked when criticism is levelled from some quarters that the Port Authority is not being helpful to the future of the lighterage trade.

The Freight Group of the Transport Co-ordinating Council for London is currency devoting much of its attention to ways in which better use can be made of the river for transport purposes, and I am sure that its studies, made in Cooperation with the P.L.A. and the local authorities concerned, including the G.L.C., will ensure that no practical and economic proposals are overlooked.

My hon. Friend recalled the story of the Brentford Dock. I do not propose to go into the history of that. It was something in which the Government had no Standing. It was a matter between British Railways management, the G.L.C., and the local Council. I hope that all those who are concerned in stimulating use of the river in this way will not forget the other Brentford dock, that of the British Waterways Board. Though the width of its lock precludes the acceptance of the biggest craft on the river, it can, nevertheless, take barges of up to 175 tons and provide them with an excellent cargo handling service.

I would like to take this opportunity of especially welcoming the development by the British Waterways Board of its new export barge trans-shipment service, which enables goods brought to West London by lorry to be taken direct to the docks by barge from Brentford. I hope that all those who are concerned with stimulating this development will draw attention to the fact that there is spare capacity and potential for development there.

I would like, now, to come to that part of my hon. Friend's speech in which he dealt with the future reorganisation of the lighterage industry in the context of the proposals for the ports put forward by the Government. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar (Mr. Mikardo) is now in the Chamber. I was about to mention that the Mikardo Report on the port transport industry drew attention to the present inefficient Organisation of lighterage and gave a graphic description of the failure of the management side to co-operate in giving the service required.

For instance, it is possible for empty barges belonging to various companies to be waiting at the side of a ship for the chance to unload cargo which is stowed low in the hold, while the Company which is supposed to be loading the upper layer of cargo is unable to supply the barges to start the work. Meanwhile, the ship, the gangs of dockers, and the road and rail connections have to wait. Here is a prime example of inefficiency resulting from the fragmentation of management in the ports, the sort of thing with which we have to grapple.

The Watermen, Lightermen, Tugmen and Bargemen's Union has also drawn attention to this kind of inefficiency, and this kind of problem. The union wishes to see a flourishing lighterage industry on the Thames, and it advocates the extension of public ownership, not in a doctrinaire spirit, but because it feels that in the interests of its members it must have a stronger and more cohesive management capable of giving lighters a fair share of the trade on the river.

Mr. John Smith

Does it also say that decasualisation was supposed to be accompanied by the removal of restrictive practices, that is to say Category A and B practices, and how much progress has been made with this?

Mr. Swingler

I referred to that earlier. We know that arising out of the achievement of decasualisation negotiations have to take place between the managers and the organised workers throughout the London docks, under the authority of the Government, to achieve the removal of restrictive practices, and to achieve proper manning scales. These are the discussions which I said are going forward under the authority of my right hon Friend the Minister of Labour. We accept that the case for reorganisation is a strong one. Nevertheless, I must point out that there are certain complications which make it necessary for a thorough review to be carried out before reorganisation can take place. This is the sort of review which we believe must be undertaken by the port management.

The problems arise from the fact that lighterage is not merely a port service but merges on the one side into the in- land waterway System and on the other into the maritime transport System. It is not our intention that under public ownership the port authorities should run either of these two Systems. Even within the Port of London we find some lighterage using the river as a highway, but not using the port—for example, barges which collect ash from power stations and dump it. There are, too, examples of "single-user" lighterage integrated into the processes of, let us say, an oil Company, or some other concern. The functions and ownership of lighterage on the Thames are complex in their pattern. Certain lighterage firms are connected with shipping, and, in particular, with towage of various sorts—sea-going tugs as well as the craft tugs which are used for moving lighters.

I know that some of my hon. Friends have expressed concern that we did not propose at the outset that lighterage should be taken over in the scheme for public ownership of the ports. I have quoted those examples in reply to my hon. Friend to explain why, in the Government's working document on the reorganisation of the ports—our provisional proposals issued in July as a basis for discussion—envisaged that lighterage and towage would not, at the outset, be taken over, but that a duty would be put on the port authority to review the position of the lighterage and towage industries, and to put forward schemes where they see these as necessary to integrate their Operations for the purpose of raising the efficiency of the ports.

My hon. Friend and other hon. Members know that consultations on this document are still proceeding, and that it will be impossible for the Government to reach a decision on this and other points until all the interested parties have had their say. From my experience of the consultations, I believe that on all sides there is a genuine desire to find a Solution to these problems, and one that will bring into being more cohesive management and public responsibility for port management in the interests of the future economic well-being of the country.

Because of these consultations, and because we believe that the port authorities themselves ought to exercise initiative in this matter, I cannot here and now undertake that an independent inquiry of the kind suggested by my hon. Friend will be established to go into the future of the lighterage industry. But I should like to assure hon. Members who have supported the case put forward in the Motion for such an independent inquiry that we are prepared to consider this matter in conjunction with my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour, because we recognise the strength of my hon. Friend's case.

The hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford raised the question of grants. I know that he will agree that in any scheme of grants put forward where definitions are required—whether concerning the functions and use of a certain grant, or based on a certain cut-off point in relation to weight—there may be what some people regard as anomalies and special cases which ought to be considered.

In relation to the hon. Member's question about port modernisation grants, for which my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport is responsible, it was with reluctance that we came to the conclusion that the primary function of the sort of craft that we have been discussing this evening is to transport goods to and from ships; these craft are not a part of what we should define as a port handling Operation, and therefore we should not make port modernisation grants available.

The wider question raised by the hon. member—whether transport within the United Kingdom should qualify for Investment incentives—was considered by Her Majesty's Government before the White Paper on investment incentives was published in January of last year. The Government, for reasons that were not only fully set out but thoroughly debated —as the hon. Member showed from his speech—decided not to give incentive grants to the service industries. This is still the position, though I shall naturally draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade to the grievances which the hon. Member expressed about the way in which this grant System is working.

Mr. Patrick Jenkin

Adverting to the powers of the Minister of Transport to make grants under the Harbours Act, 1964, did I understand the Minister of State to say that, albeit reluctantly, the Ministry had come to the conclusion that there could be no grants under that Act for lighterage? If so, what was the purpose of including in the 1964 Act—and picking it up without amendment in the 1966 Act as one of the subjects which would qualify for grant—lighterage, or the handling of goods in harbour?

Mr. Swingler

I am not saying that under no circumstances can it be considered; I am speaking now of the administrative application of the provisions included in those Statutes and saying that up to now, in relation to the position of the lighterage industry and the sort of schemes being talked of, we had reluctantly come to the conclusion that they do not come under the heading of port modernisation or port handling Operations, as they should be defined, because of the nature of the craft being used and the function which they are fulfilling. Nevertheless, arising from the point made by the hon. Member, I am prepared to consider the matter again in regard to our interpretation of our obligations and responsibilities, and to discuss it with those specifically concerned in the trade, as well as to draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade to the matters that concern him under the scheme of investment grants.

We are therefore sympathetic to my hon. Friend's desire and the desire expressed by other hon. Members to see the maximum use made of the River Thames, and to grapple with the serious Problems that undoubtedly confront the lighterage trade on account of technical and economic developments. But in considering them it is no good burying our heads in the sand.

As we are on the eve of the Second Reading debate on the Transport Bill, I should mention that we are bringing forward certain proposals for a further taxing of heavy lorries, because we consider that the economic weightings between the various modes of transport may not be as efficient or as just as they should be. Bearing in mind that heavy lorries will have to pay extra because of their wear and tear on the roads, those who consider that road transport has so far been having an unfair advantage may agree that we have done something in the Bill to redress the balance, in the interests of those who are advocating a greater use of the river.

Nevertheless, I agree that it would be wrong for us merely to set out to prop up a form of transport in circumstances where its continued use would be inimical to the full development of modern means of goods handling, on which the ultimate prosperity and efficiency of our ports depend. We must all see that developments in lighterage are in line with efficient cargo handling developments which are now expanding throughout our ports. I believe that the proposals for ports reorganisation, which we are now discussing with all concerned, will contribute towards this end. We shall consider carefully any other proposals put forward in the course of this interesting debate.

Mr. Alan Lee Williams

Owing to the reasonably satisfactory reply of my hon. Friend, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.