HC Deb 27 January 1971 vol 810 cc530-3
13. Mr. Barnett

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what further discussions he has had with the new directors of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Peyton

I have had a number of discussions with Mr. Cuckney and Sir Matthew Stevenson, the new Chairman and Deputy Chairman. As the House will know, the Board have withdrawn the Private Bill deposited by them on 27th November; as they will be making clear in a circular letter to their security holders on Friday, they are seeking permission to introduce a new Bill this Session.

Arrangements are being made for copies of the Board's circular letter to be placed in the Library when it is issued.

Mr. Barnett

Does the right hon. Gentleman now recognise that, with Government finance and Government appointed directors involved, not unnaturally thousands of small savers assumed that their capital was safe? Will he see that sufficient funds are made available to ensure that it is safe? Will he at least make it clear that this will be done to safeguard the future of small savings, both in the country as a whole and in the North-West in particular, where investment in the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board was considered to be as safe as any investment in local government stock?

Mr. Peyton

I am as sorry as anyone else for the losses suffered by those least able to bear them. However, that does not mean that I or the Government can underwrite every undertaking into which those savings find their way.

Mr. Tilney

Bearing in mind that there have been Government-nominated directors on the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board for some time, does not my right hon. Friend agree that the main object must be to make the port as profitable as possible as speedily as possible? What action is being taken to quicken the turn-round of ships so that shipping lines do not move elsewhere? Can he say something about the likely profitability of Seaforth and any action being taken to empower local authorities, if they so wish, to help the port?

Mr. Peyton

I warmly agree with what my hon. Friend said about the need for a quick turn-round in order to encourage users of the port. However, that is not so much a matter for me as for the management and all those engaged in the Port of Liverpool. Perhaps it would not be inappropriate to comment that labour disputes do not help at this juncture. On my hon. Friend's point about Seaforth, I would add that this is a matter of the highest importance. But its profitability depends, again, on the management and all those engaged in the port itself.

Mr. Dell

What estimate has the right hon. Gentleman made of the capital requirements of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board over and above what the Government are committed to supply? In view of the fact that the right hon. Gentleman's policy has virtually destroyed the credit-worthiness of the Board, from where does he expect that additional capital to be obtained?

Mr. Peyton

It was not I who destroyed the credit-worthiness of the Board.

Mr. Dykes

Is not my right hon. Friend aware that his reference to the second thoughts both of the Government and of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board in respect of the original Private Bill will be greatly welcomed both in the House and outside it, not only by hon. Members representing Merseyside constituencies but by others concerned with the wider principles involved in the original Bill? As regards any obligations which the Government will place on the Board in its reorganisation scheme in the future, how will those obligations be borne? Will the Government undertake to support them, apart from the Board getting on with the task of making Merseyside a viable commercial proposition?

Mr. Peyton

My hon. Friend has given me an opportunity to remind the House that the two Bills, the one which has been withdrawn and the one which the Board proposes, are not Government Bills. They have been drafted and produced by the Board itself.

Mr. Barnett


Mr. Peyton

The hon. Gentleman should know by now what a Private Bill is. These Bills, in essence, are Private Bills. I believe that the Board was right in withdrawing the previous one, which had at least the merit of being deposited within the parliamentary timetable by the old Board. The new one has been designed by the Board to meet many of the objections made by lenders, by right hon. and hon. Gentlemen in this House and by the City itself. I hope that the Bill will commend itself to the House when it is produced.

Mr. Mulley

Does not the right hon. Gentleman recollect that, when he explained his policy on the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, it was based on a reconstruction in the Private Bill which has now been withdrawn? What is his policy now that there is no Private Bill and no reconstruction? Will he make it clear that, if he has no responsibility for such a Private Bill, no Government Whip will be put on to get that Bill through the House, and that no Private Bill will be brought forward by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, for which he has responsibility, having appointed the chairman and vice-chairman, which involves the confiscation of debenture holders' capital?

Mr. Peyton

It is difficult to get round the basic problem of Mersey, which is that, with a capital debt of about £95 million, the port is unable to earn a surplus. That simple sentence covers the whole problem. As for the new Bill, it is a Bill produced by the Board. I think that it would be improper for me to anticipate its contents.

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