HC Deb 30 March 1979 vol 965 cc770-6

'Any person holding a waterman's and lighterman's licence issued under the Port of London Watermen and Lightermen By-Laws 1965 or any amendment thereof should not lose any existing right.'.—[Mr. Alan Lee Williams.]

Brought up, and read the First Time.

11.9 a.m.

Mr. Alan Lee Williams (Hornchurch)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Speaker

With this we may discuss amendment No. 55, in schedule 2, at end insert except where the ship is under the navigation of a person holding a waterman's licence issued under the Port of London Watermen and Lightermen By-Laws 1965 or any amendment thereof'.

Mr. Williams

I should like to declare my interest. I am a freeman of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen. I am both a licensed waterman and a lighterman, though I have never worked as a waterman and I have no financial interest in this matter.

As the Minister knows, in Committee there was considerable discussion on the rights of watermen. An amendment was moved, and subsequently withdrawn. Because of the speed of events in the last few days we have to move amendments at short notice. I understand the pressures of the moment, and I shall be brief. Nevertheless, I am raising a point on which I want solid assurance. My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) is of the same view.

Watermen have certain pilotage rights which go back almost to Roman times. Those rights are enshrined in many statutes. In the nineteenth century there were more statutes and discussions in Parliament about the rights of watermen and lightermen than about any other group. I wish to maintain these ancient rights. It is not just a matter of sentiment, tradition or history; it is question of working watermen.

As my hon. Friend the Minister will appreciate, at present about 700 men, freemen of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen, are working in one form or another as watermen. Some are dock pilots—sometimes nicknamed "mud pilots"—and some are simply men who are mooring or unmooring ships. In addition, a number of lightermen work in both roles—sometimes they are watermen and sometimes they work as lightermen.

Traditionally the lightermen have manned the pleasure craft on the River Thames. A few years ago Trinity House, which is responsible for pilotage on the Thames, tried to assert its right to put pilots aboard pleasure boats on the Thames. Admittedly, that was back in the 1950s and that attempt was successfully resisted. Trinity House has not attempted to reassert its alleged rights in that direction.

I wish to protect the right of watermen and lightermen without reservation. The Port of London Authority is responsible for licensing watermen and lightermen under a special arrangement with the Company of Watermen and Lightermen. The Authority is, therefore, responsible for the licensing of watermen who handle the ships going in and out of the enclosed docks in the Port of London.

These men are highly qualified. There has always been a traditional argument about the competence of the master mariners who are employed by Trinity House and the competence of the watermen. No serious doubt about the competence of watermen and lightermen has been raised by any shipowner. Many of the lightermen and watermen have served seven years, as I did. During that time one works exclusively on the Thames, and acquires a knowledge of the river from its landward limits to Teddington. One gets to know the river better than anyone else who uses the waterway.

Until recently a number of ships went through the bridges delivering coal to the power stations. These were the so-called "flat irons". Watermen pilots navigated them through the trickiest parts of the Thames, through the bridges. They were highly qualified men. That is also true of the watermen who moor and unmoor ships. The training for those jobs used to take seven years. It now takes five years, because the school leaving age has been raised.

One cannot argue about competence. The lightermen and watermen are as competent as the master mariners. I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Trade appreciates that, because he has held a number of important meetings with the interested parties. I understand that he is sympathetic to the watermen and lightermen. That sympathy is recognised by the watermen and lightermen, who are not suspicious of him.

Nevertheless, we are dealing with legislation, and the rights of watermen and lightermen should be enshrined in legislation so that they are totally protected. I understand that in the last few weeks there has been discussion between all the interested groups in the London Pilotage Committee. The watermen are not members of that committee, but I understand that the possibility of their inclusion is being discussed. The London Pilotage Committee is responsible for licensing pilots. It is connected to Trinity House.

If certification is left to the London Pilotage Committee there may be an unfair weighting against the watermen. May we have an assurance that this deficiency will be removed?

I move the new clause in a spirit which I hope will enable my hon. Friend to give a total assurance. There is no room for compromise. The rights of watermen and lightermen must be completely protected under the Bill, so that the disputes that have gone on for too long between them and the Trinity House men are settled for ever.

11.15 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Trade (Mr. Clinton Davis)

The House is indebted to my hon. Friend for speaking with a personal authority, which is most useful. He speaks with passion and conviction about the role of his colleagues, the London watermen. I understand why he does not want the watermen to lose any existing rights as a result of the Bill. However, his new clause is unnecessary. There is nothing in the Bill that will cause the watermen to lose any existing rights.

We have had many debates on this topic. My hon. Friend is worried about the way in which the Bill impinges upon the operation of passenger launches on the River Thames. Theoretically, the Bill could allow the local pilotage authority to bring passenger launches under compulsory pilotage. I have given extensive assurances that we shall not make an order or confirm byelaws which have that effect unless there is abundant evidence that the launches are being navigated unsafely. There is not a scintilla of evidence to suggest that.

We have taken power to repeal section 32(2) of the Pilotage Act, which makes dock pilotage non-compulsory, but we have no intention of exercising that in London unless there is agreement between all the parties. I have said that to the parties concerned. Even if section 32(2) were repealed there would have to be a pilotage order to include the docks, and that would have to be agreed with the watermen. I stress the necessity for that consensus.

I turn to the question of shifting work. The watermen can shift ships from berth to berth on the river under byelaws which are protected by section 32(1) of the Act. This is unchanged by the Bill.

Not only is the new clause unnecessary; it is undesirable. It would entrench the right of watermen at the time when we are hoping that real progress can be made towards integration of the dock and river pilots on the Thames. That would be beneficial. It would be a major step towards solving the centuries-old conflict between the two groups. I do not want to disrupt that progress.

I held a meeting this week with all the pilotage interests on the Thames. There was some difficulty before the meeting. That was why I held the meeting under my chairmanship. We agreed to set up a liaison committee under the chairmanship of an official in my Department to examine how progress can be made towards ultimate integration. That is the right way to proceed. The inclusion of watermen on the London Pilotage Committee is on the agenda.

I fully understand my hon. Friend's plea. Although I would not dream of saying this in many other respects, I think that I speak on behalf of all interests in the House when I say that nobody is prepared to allow the interests of the watermen to be set aside or to be unreason, ably prejudiced.

Mr. David Hunt (Wirral) indicated assent.

Mr. Davis

I believe that the progress that we have made in the formation of the liaison committee represents a desirable move towards ensuring those objectives. I hope that in those circumstances my hon. Friend will not press the matter.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

The House will be obliged to my hon. Friend the Minister for the way in which he has responded to the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Horn-church (Mr. Williams). Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch I do not have a professional background in this matter, but my constituency includes the Royal group of docks and the headquarters of an organisation called Transport on the Water, which champions the cause of water transport.

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said, but will he reply to two further points? I do not think that he referred to amendment No. 55, which is being discussed with the clause, which adds the words 'except where the ship is under the navigation of a person holding a waterman's licence issued under the Port of London Watermen and Lightermen By-Laws 1965 or any amendment thereof'. My hon. Friend said that the new clause was unnecessary. What is his view of the amendment?

I wholeheartedly agree with him that the establishment of the liaison committee may well go a long way to resolving the difficulties. It would be wrong for the House to be under illusions as to the difficulties that now arise, however. With fewer and bigger ships coming into ports, and with the reduction in the number of up-river vessels, there is perhaps less scope now for pilotage. In these circumstances, as is always the case with a reduction of employment opportunity, the pressures are greater than they would otherwise be.

In giving his verbal assurances my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said that the agreement of the watermen would be required, or would be obtained before any change was made. He has not, however, given any assurance about their representation on the London Pilotage Committee. It was set up about a year ago and is the local pilotage authority under the 1913 Act. It consists of three elder brethren from Trinity House, one representative from the Port of London Authority, one from the Medway Port Authority, one from Harwich, five ship owners and five pilots.

If my hon. Friend is so optimistic—I should like to share his optimism—that the interests of watermen will be safeguarded, would it not be useful, if he cannot give an absolute assurance, to say that it would be right and proper for the watermen to have at least one representative on that committee? This is particularly important since its functions will be entrenched and perhaps made more important by the enactment of the Bill.

I hope that my words will not only reinforce the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch but will impress upon the Under-Secretary that there needs to be some deed as well as some word if the full and ancient rights of the watermen and lightermen of the River Thames are to be protected.

Mr. Clinton Davis

It would be wrong for me to pre-empt the considerations of the liaison committee on the future position of the watermen. However, it has been agreed in the memorandum of understanding, which was reached some months ago, that once concrete progress was made towards the integration of these services, the watermen should be represented on the London Pilotage Commit- tee. That is spelt out in the memorandum.

I have been considering in detail the other matter to which my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) referred. I do not think the amendment is necessary to safeguard the watermen's position, for the reasons that I have adduced. Section 32 (2), in effect, says that pilotage is not compulsory within an enclosed dock, but in addition to that the docks and other closed works are excluded entirely from the London pilotage district by the terms of the pilotage order for London. So before the docks could be brought into the pilotage system a new pilotage order would have to be promoted. The Department is already committed in the memorandum of understanding—a tripartite memorandum involving the London Pilotage Committee, the watermen's representatives and the Department—not to make an order which has the effect of integrating the watermen and the pilot services unless that has been agreed in advance by the parties.

I think that that should satisfy my hon. Friend's requirement in this regard.

Mr. Alan Lee Williams

With the leave of the House I shall reply to the debate. In view of the assurances given by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, which confirm my understanding of the memorandum of understanding, I am satisfied that the watermen will receive the necessary protection required. I wish to remind my hon. Friend that this matter has considerable support on the Opposition Benches, and in that respect I congratulate the hon. Member for Wirral (Mr. Hunt) for speaking about it in Committee. My hon. Friend should therefore bear in mind that this issue is broadly accepted on both sides of the House. I am grateful that he has accepted the spirit of the clause, and in view of that I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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