HC Deb 16 January 1974 vol 867 cc642-55

8.48 p.m.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

In the first place let me express my pleasure at seeing the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward Taylor) back again on the Government front Bench as a Minister. I wish him well in taking up the responsibilities which he laid down some time ago.

My remarks will be addressed in the main to shipping services affecting my constituency, the Western Isles, but I am not unmindful that the Inner Hebrides, Arran, the Shetlands and other islands have suffered from problems similar to those from which we in the Western Isles have suffered over a long period, indeed over generations, because of the shipping services. The shipping services to these islands have been notoriously costly and deficient and thus an impediment to progress.

The islands have been plagued by exorbitant freight charges, by too infrequent sailings and schedules arranged in a vacuum. After sea crossings the shipping company has disregarded the ability of passengers to find their way home from the port of discharge. The whole service has been and still is in a state of shambles. Some have said that it would have taken a computer to make such a mess as exists today in the islands shipping services.

Recently there has been some improvement. The roll-on, roll-off ferries are excellent in principle. They have been welcomed and there has been an increase in traffic. On the Stornaway-Ullapool run, however, the "Clansman" has been a source of trouble and anger on numerous occasions.

We understand that in the Western Isles weather conditions prohibit the sailing of vessels on many occasions. We realise that better than most people. But all the sailings which the "Clansman" failed to make were not due to the prevailing weather conditions. Making every allowance for the weather, we have had tremendous inconveniences and costs arising from trouble with this vessel. What is so alarming is that the shipping company which operates so many services on the West Coast does not have a standby vessel to throw into the breach.

However, we welcome the decision of the Secretary of State for Scotland to place an order for a new custom-built vessel. There are some points about the new ship to which I wish to draw the Minister's attention. I wish that he and his colleagues would give serious thought to these points and make the appropriate decisions.

First, the speed of the proposed vessel has been announced as 15.8 knots. I agree that that speed is an improvement on that of the existing vessel, but it is insufficient for the amount of traffic on the route. Ships have been sailing to the Channel Isles for decades with speeds greatly in excess of that proposed for the new ship. I wish to impress on the Minister at this stage the necessity for seeing that the engines of the vessel will produce a speed in excess of that proposed.

Secondly, it has been stated that the vessel will not have stabilisers. In view of the nature of the seas on that crossing—much of the seas being taken on the beam of the vessel—local authorities and seamen in the area regard it as essential for the comfort and safety of travellers that the vessel should be fitted with stabilisers. I hope that the Scottish Office will ensure that this equipment is provided. Thirdly, I wish to serve notice on the Minister that the greater carrying capacity of the ship will not be accepted by us as justifying any restriction on the present two trips across the Minch.

I turn to the Lochmaddy—Uig route. People in that area have been complaining—their complaint is fully justified—that they want more frequent and direct services from Lochmaddy to Skye. I hope that the representation made by the district council in the area will receive the attention it deserves.

The whole of Barra has suffered severely recently from the lack of a cargo vessel to make the scheduled trips. When the service was restricted by MacBrayne's, they promised that the cargo vessel would visit the islands, including the port of Castlebay every 10 days. They have fallen sadly behind in this promise. This has seriously inconvenienced the islanders, causing lack of foodstuffs, fuel and so on. Foodstuffs have certainly been taken from Oban, but they have been carried by the passenger vessel, which has resulted in greately increased costs, which will be passed on to the islanders.

MacBrayne's have now chartered a vessel to make up the backlog, but they did this only after the situation had been given considerable publicity on the radio and in the newspapers. As an example of what this interruption to the service means, I can quote a man who ordered 25 tons of hay for his cattle as far back as last October. By about 8th January, only eight tons had been delivered, which means that the cost of every ton after that will be increased by £15.50. These people have problems in plenty without the shipping company adding to them.

Another problem faces the people of Vatersay, a small island south of Barra. The population is less than 100, but it is a thriving island, in spite of the lack of facilities to connect it with the neighbouring island of Barra. For 40 years the people have been pressing for an additional 40 feet to be added to the landing stage and they have been unable to impress on the Inverness County Council and the Scottish Office the necessity for this development.

They have failed to get any sympathy or any action in connection with their problem. It is a responsibility of the county council and the Scottish Office combined. Writers are very fanciful about the background noise of the Hebrides, but the greatest background noise in that area is the sound of Inverness County Council dragging its feet. I hope that the Scottish Office will give full support for these jetties in Vatersay and Barra and for the facilities which are needed for the sea truck which is necessary if these people are to have communication with their next-door neighbours.

There are islands on the west coast of Norway with communications as bad as and problems more intractable than the Scottish islands, and the Norwegian Government deal with the problem far more effectively than any British Government have ever dealt with ours. We should accept that these routes are highways, something for which the Highlands and Islands Development Board, the local authorities, MPs and individuals have pressed for a long time. The Government should accept this principle for these islands. They pick up the debts of London Transport regularly and we have as much right to have our economy assured by proper transport services as has any other part of the country.

The Scottish Transport Group should pay more attention to ensuring the good will of the people in the area. We have heard of monopolies, but most monopolies pay some attention to securing public good will. One would think that the response of the Scottish Transport group was to run up a signal, "Stand by to repel boarders" whenever it saw any passengers or an improvement in traffic in the offing. The principle that the sea routes are part of the highways system should be accepted and the group should be told by the Scottish Office to have some regard for the needs of the people in the area.

We in the Outer Isles are making a reasonable contribution to the economy of the country. The British Government must regard every area of the United Kingdom as a part of the country that should have a fair chance of making its contribution. I hope that the Minister will bear in mind these points and see that the Scottish Office makes the necessary decisions.

9.0 p.m.

Mr. J. Grimond (Orkney and Shetland)

I wish to deal with four main topics concerned with the shipping services to Shetland and Orkney. Before doing so I stress that for islanders the shipping routes are the main roads and they should be treated as such. Shipping routes are as much entitled to a share of public funds as are roads. Today we from the north and west of Scotland no longer alone beg subsidies from parts of the country which are compelled to provide them. On the contrary, London is heavily subsidised—particularly London Transport—and we are making a contribution in foodstuffs, fishing, agriculture, tweed and knitwear. Now we are making a contribution in oil which is of growing—and will ultimately be of decisive—importance to the British economy.

My first main topic concerns freight charges and passenger fares. These have always been the most severe handicap under which the islands suffer. They are today high. Under the impact of inflation they are only too likely to get higher. The Government need to look again at the whole system by which a very small amount of assistance has been given to holding down these charges. In Orkney and Shetland we have suffered year after year a 10 per cent. or larger increase—a greater increase than has been allowed under the various prices and incomes policies and a greater increase than other people have had to bear. Against this we have had endless trouble to get such assistance as has been available. The whole subject of freight charges and passenger fares will have to be reexamined.

Secondly, I want to mention the situation of certain islands in my constituency which until recently have been served by the "Earl of Zetland". The "Earl of Zetland" is being replaced by a series of overland ferries as far as Unst, Yell and, eventually, Whalsey and Fetlar. It is important that islands such as Skerries should have adequate transport services and that as the take-over proceeds freight charges and fares should not be raised. The two should be dovetailed together ; otherwise communities will be left without adequate transport.

My third topic relates to Orkney. We are in the process of starting a roll-on/ roll-off service between Scrabster and Stromness, but there is a danger that this will be held up by lack of steel. There is also a danger that certain services essential to the oil industry will be held up by lack of steel. The Government should give urgent consideration to this matter. If we have to import steel, which may be the solution, it will be extremely expensive. I agree that the Norwegians not only appear to be able to deal more effectively with their transport problems but have been able to obtain steel to build up the services to oil rigs at a rate and at prices which this country is in danger of not being able to match. The point I want to stress is the need for steel for the harbour facilities, including cranes, particularly in Stromness, if the roll-on, roll-off service is to come into service on time.

My last point has to do with the extremely valuable service which has been started between John o' Groats and South Ronaldsay. This enables day tourists and others who have business to cross from Caithness to Orkney and return the same evening if they wish. It is enormously popular and carries a tremendous weight of passengers.

Unfortunately, the floating wooden jetty from which it operates at John o' Groats was sunk in slightly regrettable circumstances. I understand that the trouble arose from the high spirits of a Caithness darts club. There must be something about darts which brings out that streak of wildness in the Caithness men with which we are all familiar. Apparently, they danced up and down upon the thing and sank it. In any case it was only a temporary jetty. It is obviously of importance to the harbour of John o' Groats that permanent improvements should be carried out.

The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) has raised this matter several times and so have I. At present the Scottish Development Department has felt that there is some difficulty, but the Highlands and Islands Development Board is favourably disposed towards it. It has been suggested by Mr. George Thomson that if the British Government will support it, it is the type of project for which the EEC might make some funds available. The Government ought to recognise this extremely valuable service, and if a request is put up to them, as I believe it will be by the appropriate authorities, should support it in Brussels. I also hope that the Scottish Development Department will look at it again and that the efforts of the HIDB will be encouraged.

There is no more important part of the economic life of the islands than the transport services. I will not tonight go into the need for speed, which is as great in Orkney and Shetland as it is in the Hebrides. I will not go into the question of what type of vessel there should be and the frequency of service, both of which have from time to time caused concern, and still cause great concern, particularly in Shetland.

These four points—freight, the absolute necessity of keeping the services to all islands, the supply of steel and the service across the Pentland Firth—I draw to the attention of the Government in the hope that if they are spared, which is by no means certain, they will give them their earnest consideration.

9.7 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Development, Scottish Office (Mr. Edward Taylor)

I am grateful to hon. Members for what they have said in this debate. I can assure them that, although I probably have a great deal to learn in a job which I have been allocated for only about a week, by raising this matter and forcing me to study it at this early stage they will ensure that it is something I shall not forget. Every Scottish Member is fully aware that the shipping services in the islands are crucial to the development of these islands.

We sometimes forget the services which the islands provide for their industries and the service which they give to the rest of the country. I can assure the hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Donald Stewart) and the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) that in future discussions I shall bear in mind what they said and take careful note of the points made.

There are a number of detailed points which have been raised. I was glad that the hon. Member for Western Isles gave a general welcome to the announcement by my right hon. Friend in the House on 18th April—which happens to be my birthday—dealing with the policy for improving and modernising the shipping services in all the Scottish islands. The policy introduced new arrangements to provide for the improvement of services and, under these arrangements, shipping companies, harbour and local authorities, with Government financial help where appropriate, are developing and improving their services. The hon. Member appreciated that carrying capacity has been greatly increased. Further increases are on the way.

On 11th December we debated the new financial arrangements to assist services to those islands which in general are too small or too remote or too sparsely populated to enable a service to pay its own way. It is fair to say that these new arrangements received a favourable reception. I am referring to David MacBrayne Ltd. The arrangements to support these services were welcomed.

In general the policy of encouraging the roll-on, roll-off vehicle ferries was welcomed, and it is worth recording how the passenger and traffic carried by the services operated by the shipping subsidiaries of the Scottish Transport Group have increased since being taken over in 1969. Last year they carried 700,000 cars, which represented an increase of about 100 per cent. over 1969. Last year they also carried 85,000 commercial vehicles, which represented a 60 per cent. increase over 1969 and a good deal more than that in terms of carrying capacity because the vehicles themselves tended to be larger.

The hon. Gentleman referred to passenger services about which he is concerned. In 1973 the number of passengers carried on all the sea services to the Western Isles was 1.8 million, which was a 35 per cent. increase on 1969. There has also been a substantial increase in the figures in other respects. But there has been quite a large increase in the passengers carried.

Those are the increases in traffic since 1969. It may also interest hon. Members to know the scale of expenditure on terminal facilities since the statement of April 1972. The hon. Member for Western Isles rightly referred to their importance. Already expenditure of £1.2 million has been incurred, with almost £900.000 met from Government grants and loans. The hon. Gentleman referred to the importance of grants and loans, and it is fair to point out that of the spending of more than £1 million the Government have contributed £900,000 directly in cash.

Mr. Neil Carmichael (Glasgow, Wood-side)

May I first congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his return to the Treasury Bench? Before he leaves the capacity of the vessels, will he bear in mind that although the capacity of each vessel has been increased it is to be hoped that the frequency of services will not be reduced as a result. Frequency is just as important as capacity.

Mr. Taylor

I accept that entirely. I accept that the scheduling has not been altogether ideal. I shall say a little more about that later.

I was saying that out of £1.2 million spent, £900,000 has come from the Government. Commitments already entered into amount to almost £2.7 million of Government assistance for projects which will cost about £3 million in total. The terminals concerned include those for the Ullapool-Stornoway service, the Scrabster-Stromness service and those at Craignure and Lochboisdale.

The hon. Gentleman made a number of points about the Ullapool-Stornoway service. He will recall that the Stornoway service was operated formerly by another vessel, the "Loch Seaforth", which served the islands well in its day but which was limited to one trip per day and had a cargo capacity of only 56 tons. In addition there was the weekly cargo ship with a capacity of 600 tons.

Now we have the "Clansman". I was sorry that the hon. Gentleman referred to the "Clansman" as being a source of great trouble. She has a capacity of 250 tons, and she is scheduled to cross twice per day. I say that advisedly because, as the hon. Gentleman said, under adverse weather conditions the "Clansman" has missed a number of crossings. I have checked on this because I knew that the hon. Gentleman was concerned about it and had written to my Department about it a number of times. I find that since she began sailing on 2nd July the total number of crossings that she has missed has been about 40, of which 20 were in the week beginning 30th July when the vessel was out of action because of generator trouble. Since then stress of weather has been the cause of virtually all the missed crossings, and there is no doubt that the weather has been exceptionally severe, especially recently.

The increase in carrying capacity in terms of both cargo and vehicles has been enormous, from 950 tons per week to between 2,500 and 3,000 tons per week. There has also been a great gain in convenience with a twice-daily service in place of the once-daily plus the once-weekly service.

Mr. Donald Stewart

Regarding the missed crossings, while I agree that the weather has been deplorable recently, does the hon. Gentleman realise that people in the area compare the missed crossings with the missed crossings of the "Seaforth", which, over 22 years, could be counted on the fingers of one hand?

Mr. Taylor

Yes. That is a fair point. However, with the introduction of the improved new vessel, which was giving splendid service to the islands, we should compare the 40 missed crossings with the total of 670, which were far more than would have been done by the previous vessel. I have already mentioned that half this total of missed crossings related to a mechanical breakdown and the others to exceptionally severe weather. However, I take the hon. Gentleman's point. I think that he will accept that it is our hope that these failures will not recur in future. I am sure that there will be a great improvement. I shall be watching the position carefully in view of what the hon. Gentleman said.

The traffic that has been attracted by the new service has been so great that my right hon. Friend announced on 12th December that we would now be justified in replacing the "Clansman" by a faster and larger ship of 400 tons capacity and with a higher expected speed.

The hon. Gentleman said that he was not happy about the speed. I understand that the "Clansman" works to a speed of 14.5 knots. The new vessel will work to a speed of 15.8 knots, which is certainly an improvement and should make the schedules easier to work to. I understand that 15.8 knots is considered by the operators as an adequate speed for the service. I will take careful note of what the hon. Gentleman said on this matter and about stabilisers. Although I spent five years working in the shipyards on the Clyde before entering the House, I know little about stabilisers. I am not sure about the position of this vessel, but I will follow up that point and see whether anything requires to be done.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the Skye-Lochmaddy service. This was a daily service, except Sunday, sailing from Uig to Lochmaddy and the ship took about two hours to make the crossing. I appreciate that there have been complaints. I have been assured that the service will be kept under review. The Scottish Transport Group has not yet reached a decision about the best pattern here, but I am sure that it will carefully consider what the hon. Gentleman said on this matter.

I fully accept what the hon. Gentleman said about Barra, which has been having a rough time recently. There have been serious difficulties in maintaining the service to Barra with a number of sailings missed in recent months. The main reason has been the stress of weather. In addition, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, there have been problems with the docks at Glasgow during the last two months. Obviously, we will keep this situation under review, and we hope that it will improve.

Arising from these problems—the failure of certain services to keep to schedules and the situation at Barra—the hon. Gentleman raised the important question of standby vessels. I accept that if we had an adequate supply of standby vessels many of these problems would be easier to cope with. During the summer, mainly because of shipyard delays, of which the hon. Gentleman is aware, and large increases in traffic, the STG suffered from a shortage of suitable vessels of the proper capacity for the services operated. This situation was worsened a great deal by the unfortunate loss of the "Loch Seaforth" and various mishaps and breakdowns throughout the fleet which were beyond the control of the group.

The STG has now ordered one general purpose vehicle ferry and two car ferries for the Clyde which will release much needed tonnage for other areas of operation. The first of these Clyde ferries was launched on 27th November and should be in operation early next year.

The second is expected to enter service at Easter, releasing for use elsewhere a large roll-on, roll-off vehicle ferry, the "Glen Sannox", on which I have sailed on a number of occasions. The general purpose vessel is expected to go into service quite shortly on the Islay route. These are in addition to the new vessel for Stornoway. I accept that because of an increase in business there was a serious shortage of vessels, when problems arose, but the situation should be easier in future, and additional vessels should be available. I hope that that will be of some assistance.

The hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) also raised the principle of regarding sea lanes as roads. This is the Norwegian principle, and we have heard a great deal about it. The matter was raised and enunciated by the Highlands and Islands Development Board, and I think we all looked with a great deal of interest at what was said when Professor Gaskin of Aberdeen was invited to examine the effects of freight costs on the islands. I think it is within the general knowledge of hon. Members that Professor Gaskin found that freight costs on the main routes were not the real problem, and that there was a separate way of looking at this. It is an interesting concept, but Professor Gaskin said that in his view freight costs themselves were not the problem. It is always interesting to hear the point raised but, in fairness, it is right to say that the matter was considered seriously by Professor Gaskin following the invitation to do so from the Highlands and Islands Development Board.

The hon. Gentleman also raised a question about Vatersay. I do not have the full answer, but I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is aware that parties other than the Scottish Transport Group and the Scottish Office are involved in such matters and are concerned about the development of these services. I shall consider what the hon. Gentleman said, and I again apologise for not having the full information on the matter.

The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland raised the important question of freight charges. We are all aware that these charges are of great significance and that a substantial increase in them can have a severe impact on the islands. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have been' faced with inflation for a considerable time. An examination of the way in which the charges have moved would show that they have not gone up every year, as was alleged, or at a pace faster than charges for other goods and services. Obviously, whenever increases in freight charges are proposed we look at them carefully, but it is fair to say that they have not moved at a faster rate than charges for other services.

The right hon. Gentleman also raised the question of a service between John o' Groat's and St. Margaret's Hope and the need for pier facilities at the former. The Government's policy is to concentrate their support so as to ensure adequate all-the-year-round services to all the islands and island groups. Large sums are being invested to provide a modern roll-through service between Scrabster and Stromness across the Pentland Firth. The "Pentalina" is a summer tourist service, and a good one in that limited context. It is on these grounds, and in relation to use for fishing boats, that the John o' Groat's scheme has a claim for support. I cannot accept that it should be supported from funds available for the major services, but it is something that I should like to consider further, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this matter.

The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland also raised the question of services to the Outer Islands. The Government's policy is to support the local authorities in controlling and supporting the services between the central island of the island groups and the outlying islands, so that these services are determined locally with appropriate central financial support. I take careful note of what the right hon. Gentleman said. I have stated the Government's general policy, and we shall continue with it.

I should not like to give the impression—and I am sure this will be clear from what I have said—that I have mastered this subject. I am just beginning to learn some of the problems. I assure both the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Gentleman that I shall look carefully at the matter, because I appreciate from what they said, and from my own experience as a Scottish Member, that this service is vital to the Scottish islands. On the other hand, I could not accept entirely the view of the hon. Member for the Western Isles that the service is a shambles. There have been major problems in the past, but I hope that what I have said tonight will at least give the impression—and I believe the true impression—that we are making progress in this service.

There are new vessels coming into operation, new facilities and better services. We have a long way to go, but I believe that we are going in the right direction. I assure both hon. Members that in planning our future policy the Secretary of State and I will bear very much in mind all that they said tonight.