HC Deb 04 December 1973 vol 865 cc1225-34

10.15 p.m.

Mr. Harry Ewing (Stirling and Falkirk Burghs)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the question of the recent appointments made to the board of the Forth Ports Authority and to raise very forcibly the events leading to those appointments.

May I say at the outset that I am deeply disappointed that the Minister for Transport Industries is not here this evening to answer the serious charges that I shall lay against him and have laid in writing to the Prime Minister, who in turn has passed them on to the Secretary of State for the Environment.

The appointments took place against the background of the board of the Forth Ports Authority being restructured and reduced in number from 14 to nine members.

First, I will deal with the Minister's decision not to reappoint the retiring chairman, Sir John McWilliam. It is astonishing that the Minister should choose to issue a Press release praising the work of Sir John McWilliam in the following terms : The retiring chairman is Sir John McWilliam, who has been chairman since 1969. His four eventful years of office have been a continued year-by-year rise in traffic and the progress of the Authority to a considerably improved financial situation through robust measures to cut costs and improve revenues ; the construction of the new £10 million entrance lock at Grangemouth, now well on the way to completion ; the emergence of the Forth Ports, and Leith in particular, as important centres of activities related to offshore oil and the successful negotiation of the Authority's undertaking in mid-April to construct Hound Point Terminal on behalf of British Petroleum at a capital cost of £9 million ; and the reconstitution of the Authority on their own initiative following Public Inquiry before Parliamentary Commissioners on April 2. One could almost add and hear the Minister say, "But, despite all that, I have decided not to reappoint Sir John McWilliam as chairman".

It is astonishing that a man with such an outstanding record, who turned the Forth Ports Authority from a difficult situation—I put it no higher—into a prosperous organisation, should at the end of the day be thanked in that way by the Minister and yet be dismissed or certainly not be reappointed as chairman of the new authority. Absolutely no consistency has been shown by the Minister, first in acknowledging the worth of the chairman and secondly in taking the action that he eventually took.

I am well aware that this appointment, like the others to which I shall refer later, was made after consultation with the National Ports Council, but surely consideration should have been given to the fact—I emphasise that it is a fact—that all who were involved in the ports on the River Forth—the businesses that have used and still use them, the men and women who work in the ports and the trade unions representing those workers—were unanimous in their confidence in Sir John McWilliam and expressed the view that he should have been reappointed.

I should make it clear that in all I am saying in the House and in all I have said or written outside the House I have been most careful not to criticise the new chairman. I emphasise that I am in no way criticising the new chairman, because I recognise Mr. Elliot's business ability, his interest in shipping and all the other attributes that are required of someone who is appointed to the board of the Forth Ports Authority. I want to make that perfectly clear.

I want to give the Under-Secretary time to reply to the allegations which I am making and to the questions which I shall ask. Therefore, I turn rather quickly to the appointments to the new board. The Under-Secretary will be aware that I wrote to the Prime Minister on 7th September this year asking him to make the fullest possible inquiry into the actions of the Minister responsible for the appointments and the events leading up to the appointments to the new board. I asked the Prime Minister in particular to call in evidence minutes of a special meeting of the Forth Ports Authority which had taken place on 6th July. I maintained in my letter that those minutes should be examined.

I have a copy of those minutes. I have a very difficult task this evening, because by nature I am not a person who gets involved in witch hunts. I am certainly not involved in a witch hunt now. Those minutes reveal, however, that at that special meeting the future of the general manager of the Forth Ports Authority was under discussion. It must also be said that at the end of a two-and-a-half-hour debate, by six votes to five, it was decided that no action should be taken in respect of the general manager and the charge laid against him. There were subsequent events, to which I shall refer shortly. But the significant thing arising from those minutes is that, with one exception—it was very difficult, if not impossible, for the Minister to avoid appointing the one exception—those appointed to the new board were, by and large, those who voted in favour of retaining the services of the general manager.

This is a very serious matter of public concern. Was the Minister in possession of knowledge of what went on at the board meeting on 6th July? I have a letter from the Secretary of State for the Environment which contains an indication that the Minister was aware of it. If the Minister was aware of what occurred, I contend that his decision must have been influenced by a desire on his part to preserve the future of the general manager. The Under-Secretary will have a chance to answer that allegation.

There were subsequent incidents, however, which eventually led, on 23rd July, to the suspension of the general manager until 16th August. Here again, it grieves me to say that the whole issue is clouded in deep suspicion. The general manager was given an opportunity to prosecute his case and to present his defence to a special panel which had been set up by the board in order to examine the matters on which the manager had been suspended. I am sorry to say that the general manager declined that invitation. It seems astonishing, but subsequent events would appear to point to some contact being made.

I ask the Under-Secretary whether there was any direct contact with the Minister responsible for making those appointments, either by the general manager or by someone acting on his behalf, which gave the impression, rightly or wrongly, that there was no need for the general manager to defend himself against the accusations which had been made against him. I am not taking sides as to whether the accusations were well-founded or ill-founded. I am talking strictly about the events surrounding the appointments to the new board of the Forth Ports Authority.

There was also a rather thorny request from the Minister for Transport Industries that the old board, under the chairmanship of Sir John McWilliam should take no action whatsoever—I emphasise those words—in respect of the future of the general manager and that this matter should be left to the new board after it had been appointed. I regret to say that it is from here that the suspicion arises, because three of those appointed to the new board had voted on 6th July in support of the general manager. It is not unreasonable to assume that, from that stage onwards, the die was cast.

We now have a situation that there is knowledge that those three members fully supported a man in a very difficult position, and because of the new structure of the board, which also includes the general manager himself and two other senior officials, the secretary of the board and the chief engineer—no one in his right senses would pretend that those two individuals would dare to vote against the general manager—six out of a board of nine are committed to support the general manager.

I have not enjoyed the task which I have set myself this evening, but in the two and a half years that I have been a Member of this House I have regarded myself as a parliamentarian with a duty to protect the public interest, and in this matter the public interest—I weigh my words carefully—has been betrayed.

I pose these questions to the Under-Secretary and hope that he will answer them. First, did the Minister know how individuals on the board voted at the special meeting on 6th July? Secondly, did the Minister know how individuals on the board voted when the decision was taken on 23rd July to suspend the general manager until 16th August? Thirdly, was any direct approach made to the Minister, either by the general manager himself or by someone acting on his behalf, to represent the defence of the general manager to the charges made against him? Fourthly—this is a very serious question—was the Minister influenced in his decision by his knowledge of the events to which I have referred?

The Minister might well argue that all he was seeking to say was that it was time for a change. I do not think that that defence can be sustained because, if it was time for a change, it is surely passing strange that the only change that was made was in the chairmanship and that all the other appointments to the new board were made from members who had served on the old board.

To conclude on a broad general note, I am a relatively young politician but I am not naïve and I am very much aware of the problem of political patronage. I believe that it has played a great part in the appointments to the board of the Forth Ports Authority. I know that my own party has something to answer for in this respect, but in this Adjournment debate I hope to sow the seeds of a future solution to the very thorny problem of political patronage.

I respectfully suggest to the Under-Secretary that he should convey to his right hon. and hon. Friends and to all who hold positions in which they can make appointments that they should look closely at the new regional and district local government set-up under which the new local authorities are to be elected and use them to the greatest possible extent in drawing upon their membership to make appointments to boards of this nature. We would then have people who were at least answerable to the electorate every four years, and there would be much more democracy in those appointments than has hitherto been the case.

I am not so naïve as to believe that this Adjournment debate will reverse what has happened. I do not believe that it will. But I must face my responsibility to my constituents, particularly in Grangemouth, to raise and ventilate this issue and bring it out into the open so that it may be held up to public examination. In that way all the innuendoes being expressed behind the scenes may at least be looked at and, if there is justification and a reply to them, the Minister will have an opportunity to justify what has happened and to make that reply.

10.31 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Keith Speed)

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Stirling and Falkirk Burghs (Mr. Ewing) is disappointed that it is I and not my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport Industries who is to reply. In this case I think that the hon. Member is very much on the wrong track.

I very much welcome this opportunity of explaining something of the philosophy underlying the current programme of re-constitution of the major public trust ports. As the hon. Member knows, the board of the Forth Ports Authority is the first to be reconstituted under this programme.

Most of the major British ports, with the exception of Mersey, Bristol, Manchester and the British Transport Docks Board ports, are run by independent public trusts. Typical examples are London, the Forth, the Clyde, the Tyne and the Tees. The constitution of these ports was one of the subjects considered by the Rochdale Committee, and following its report in 1962 a number of reorganisation schemes were carried out in the 1960s. As a result of these schemes, the boards of the major public trust ports have usually numbered about 15 or so. Though nominally appointed by the Secretary of State, the members of the boards are mostly nominated by such specified bodies as local authorities, trade unions, associations of shipowners or traders and so on.

In recent years there has been an increasing element of competition between individual British ports and between ports in this country and on the Continent. In my Department we regard this as a healthy sign and recognise that trust ports, through quasi-public bodies, are responsible for operating important commercial undertakings. The Government believe, therefore, that the boards of the trust ports should be structured on commercial lines.

In 1971 my right hon. Friend invited the National Ports Council to draw up a programme of action which should include changes in the boards of the major public trust ports in the direction of smaller boards with more executive members. The National Ports Council accordingly circulated a discussion document to the ports industry which was published in February this year entitled "Reconstitution of major port trusts—proposals for discussion." No doubt the hon. Member read it. The main features of these proposals were that boards should be smaller with eight to 10 members compared with 15 or so at present, that the specific right to representation of particular bodies and interests should be abolished while non-executive members continued to be drawn from an appropriate range of expertise, and that more full-time executive members should be appointed.

The Government accepted the National Ports Council's proposals as a general guide to reconstitution, though they recognised that some variations would be needed to fit the circumstances of individual ports. A number of proposals for reconstitution are in progress—for example, for London, the Clyde, the Tyne, the Medway, Aberdeen and Ipswich—and some other ports have the matter under consideration.

Normally individual port authorities initiate harbour revision orders after consultation with the National Ports Council. In the case of the Forth, the order was promoted under the Harbours Act 1964 by the authority in the usual way. It was advertised and objections were lodged by local authorities on the north side of the Firth of Forth. An inquiry was held in April 1973 before Parliamentary Commissioners under the special Scottish parliamentary procedure. They endorsed the general principle of the reconstitution but amended the order to require the Minister to take account of the circumstances of the areas north and south of the Firth of Forth when making appointments.

The new board, which came into being on 1st September last, consisted of nine members compared with 14 on the old board. These included the chairman plus five other non-executive members, appointed by my right hon. Friend after consultation with the National Ports Council, the general manager and two other full-time officers appointed by the authority.

It is important to bear in mind—and I am glad we can put the record straight at least on this—that appointments made under the old constitution would have run to the end of 1975, but that the members were informed when appointed that the terms of their appointment would automatically expire if and when a new constitution came into being. That happened on 1st September, and there is therefore no question of resignation or dismissals. I am glad that that has been acknowledged by the hon. Gentleman tonight.

My right hon. Friend gave much thought to the question of a chairman for the new authority and eventually decided that the time had come for a change. The hon. Gentleman made a number of allegations about what did and did not happen at various meetings. It is a matter for debate how much one should meddle in the internal affairs of the authority. It was known that relations between the chairman and general manager were not the best, to put it mildly.

My right hon. Friend met the then chairman of the authority at least twice in July, but what they discussed must be a matter for them and remain confidential. One of the meetings was fairly early in July and the other was later. I cannot go further, because I was not present at the meeting, and in any event it would not be right to break the confidentiality of those discussions.

In making his decision to appoint a new chairman, my right hon. Friend was fully supported by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and the National Ports Council.

Mr. Alex Eadie (Midlothian)

As part of the hon. Gentleman's case relies upon the question of consultation and meetings, will he say whether the general manager was met?

Mr. Speed

That is not part of my case. It is not a question of consultation. The hon. Gentleman is referring to various matters that took place within the authority at that time. I am telling him that my right hon. Friend met the chairman of the authority twice in July. It is not a question of consultation as such. As far as I am aware, he did not then meet the general manager. I also said that there were difficulties between the chairman and the general manager. No one could deny that. But I cannot comment, and the hon. Gentleman would not expect me to comment, on the merits of the personalities involved. I must stress that the day-to-day business of the port and the relations between the board and its full-time officers are and must be matter for the authority, not my right hon. Friend, whose powers are limited to those laid down under statute.

One of those powers is the appointment of the chairman and the non-executive members of he board. The appointment of the executive members is a matter for the authority. I must also make it clear that the choice of the new chairman, Mr. Elliot—I am glad that the hon. Gentleman paid him the tribute he did—was in no way influenced by political motives or considerations. It is true that, when Ministers of any political party make appointments, charges and countercharges are often made.

Mr. Ewing

I did not bring politics into my reference to the new chairman, but now that the Minister himself has done so it should be placed on record that the new chairman is a senior Conservative in Scotland. He is chairman of the Leith Conservative Association and has many political connections.

Mr. Speed

I am making the point not only of the chairman of the authority but of all the appointments made by my right hon. Friend under statute that political considerations do not enter into the matter. After all, my right hon. Friend has made appointments of other people—

Mr. Ewing

Dear me!

Mr. Speed

It is all very well for the hon. Gentleman to say that from a supine position. I give him that firm undertaking. Whether or not he accepts it is a matter for him.

My right hon. Friend has the fullest confidence in the new chairman—I am glad that the hon. Member has not criticised him tonight—and in his board, and he hopes that they can now be left to get on with the job of running this important port.

Any hon. Members who have seen the November issue of "Forthlink" will have no doubt about the spirit of optimism and confidence which pervades the whole undertaking. I would have thought that it was in the interests of hon. Members, of Scotland and of those who work in the ports that this should continue. In the past the hon. Member has criticised appointments because a particular interest or area was no longer directly represented on the board. As he knows, this criticism overlooks the basic character of the new constitution which is that it is non-representative.

In selecting the non-executive members of the board, my right hon. Friend has had no political considerations in mind but has been mindful of the requirements laid down by the Harbour Revision Order. The management of a modern port calls for part-time members, chosen for their ability and experience, and for senior full-time executives familiar with the needs of the industry. Board members should not be in a position in which they concern themselves about whether important decisions are acceptable to the institutions they represent.

The whole question of the general principle of representation in the case of the Forth was fully ventilated at the inquiry before Parliamentary Commissioners last April. I must tell the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends that their criticisms of the way in which appointments are made by my right hon. Friend, which stem from personalities mentioned by the hon. Gentleman and what might be termed political considerations, are completely without foundation. It is certainly my view and the view of my right hon. Friend that the time has come to let the board get on with its job. I for one am confident that the results it will have to show will be heartening to us all.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.