HC Deb 11 June 1982 vol 25 cc549-53
Mr. Sproat

I beg to move amendment No. 8, in page 9, leave out lines 19 to 25 and insert—

  1. '(2) The following shall be subject to affirmative resolution—
  2. (a) regulations under section 2(1) made before the expiry of the period of three months beginning with the date on which this Act comes into force;
  3. (b) any Order in Council under section 11.
(3) The following shall be subject to negative resolution—
  1. (a) regulations under section 2(1) made after the expiry of the period mentioned in subsection (2)(a);
  2. (b) any regulations under section 4.
(4) In subsection (2) "subject to affirmative resolution" means that the instrument in question shall not be made unless a draft of it has been laid before and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament; and in subsection (3) "subject to negative resolution" means that the instrument in question shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this we shall discuss amendment (a) to the proposed amendment, in line 1, at end insert— '(a) any regulation, whenever made defining a national shipping line'.

Mr. Sproat

The amendment seeks to meet some of the concerns properly and understandably expressed by hon. Members in Committee to the effect that clause 12 provides insufficient opportunity for the House to scrutinise regulations. As I explained then, I have sympathy with those views, but I made it clear that a balance had to be struck between scrutinising important issues and avoiding affirmative procedures for issues of lesser significance and, in some cases, of minor significance. The amendment seeks to strike a balance between those two factors. The change introduced by the amendment is that regulations made under section 2(1) within three months of the Act coming into force shall be subject to affirmative resolution. That is an important change, as previously the regulations were not so subject.

11 am

Three important factors have led to the amendment. First, as provided by clause 14(2) the Bill will be enacted on a day to be appointed by the Secretary of State. Secondly, clause 2(1) empowers the Secretary of State to make regulations that will give effect in the United Kingdom to the key provisions of the code. Thirdly, the Secretary of State is required by clause 12(1) to consult such persons as he considers will be affected before making any regulation under clause 2(1). We shall ensure that the programme of consultations is carried through in good time so that the main regulations that we intend to make under clause 2(1) are laid within three months of the Bill being enacted, and are subject to affirmative resolution. I hope that represents a satisfactory assurance that the issues of major importance to be covered by the regulations will be subject to adequate scrutiny by the House.

Mr. Higgins

We have said some fairly harsh things about the Government's position on the Bill and I am glad to have the opportunity to welcome the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State.

We felt that it would have been better if some of the important points to be covered by regulation had been dealt with in the Bill. One of the points that has given rise to considerable controversy was the definition of a national line. We were worried that, despite all the consultations that have taken place, it was possible that the definition of a national line eventually arrived at might not be satisfactory to some of the other interests involved.

If the matter were to proceed by negative resolution we might find that the House had no opportunity to debate it. Many regulations subject to negative resolution never come forward for debate, whereas those subject to affirmative resolution necessarily do so, albeit for only one and a half hours, and can be voted upon.

The Minister seems to have met our point. I understand why the qualificaticn is made of a three-month time limit. I was unfortunately distracted for a moment during the Minister's speech, so can he confirm that the point covered by my amendment (a) is covered by his amendment? If the controversy taking place about a national line were not resolved within three months of the Bill being enacted, would the definition of a national line be subject to the negative resolution rather than an affirmative resolution? I do not suggest that there is any Machiavellian intention on the Minister's part, but if the definition arrived at was not liked by outside bodies there might be a case for making it subject to negative rather than affirmative resolution. Is my amendment necessary to cover the possibility that the national line will not be defined within three months?

Mr. Sproat

It is technically possible that we would not have reached agreement about national shipping lines before we put forward the regulations. It is my firm intention that we shall come to such an agreement before we make any regulations and that that would be included in the first batch of regulations and would therefore be subject to the three-months procedure that is mentioned in my amendment. That is 99.9 per cent. certain. I assure my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins) that if by any fluke the matter were not to come within the three-months procedure I should certainly ensure that it was debated in the House under other procedures.

Mr. Higgins

I am grateful for that undertaking. We all look forward to the Minister's promotion at some stage. He will not be in his present position for ever. It is not entirely clear that what he has said will wholly bind the Government. I am not clear why he cannot accept my amendment, which seems to be impeccably drafted and makes the position clear beyond peradventure.

Mr. Shersby

The purpose of Government amendment No. 8 is to provide that any regulation made under clause 2(1) shall be subject to affirmative resolution within three months of the enactment of the Bill. It may take some time to obtain a satisfactory definition of a shipping line. That is an important issue and the purpose of the amendment of my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins) is clear. It would ensure that the definition of a shipping line in secondary legislation was always subject to affirmative resolution. The Minister said that he clearly understood the feelings of the Committee on that point. I hope that he will accept my right hon. Friend's amendment. It would be a valuable addition to the clause.

Mr. Woolmer

The amendment deals with procedures in the House. I welcome the Minister's willingness to respond to the Committee's feeling. It would be wrong not to thank him for that response. However, there is always a "but", and I must agree with his right hon. and hon. Friends who drew attention to national shipping lines.

In Committee I drew the Minister's attention to the importance of the meaning of United Kingdom flight registration and national shipping lines to the trade unions. I asked him whether they were participating in the present consultations. We were surprised, pleasantly or otherwise, on the day of the last sitting to read a letter in the Financial Times from an outside source that assured us that there was virtual agreement on everything except the issue of national shipping lines. We were encouraged to feel that the Minister was almost at the end of a long tunnel. When the Minister responded to me, he stated: The unions are also being consulted about this, and they will also be consulted about the regulations."—[Official Report, Standing Committee E, 13 May 1982; c. 68.] Hon. Members may remember that, as it turned out, the regulations were virtually already agreed. My understanding is—I may be doing an injustice to someone—that the unions have not been consulted at all about the matter. They were certainly not party to the current consultations. The Minister cannot know in detail everything that is happening, but will he see whether the consultations on the national shipping line issue are going ahead with the trade unions?

Let me explain why I give particular attention to the national shipping line issue. People tend to think that a United Kingdom ship is a United Kingdom ship. In the code it is sensibly envisaged that a United Kingdom ship may be built outside the United Kingdom, the shipping line effectively owned outside the United Kingdom and the ship simply registered in the United Kingdom for convenience. Alternatively, a ship could be registered in Liberia but owned and controlled by the United Kingdom interests. The connections between where a ship is registered, who owns it and effectively derives the benefit from the line, who is employed on the line and who manages it may differ.

The latest estimates that I have show that between 40 and 50 per cent. of all United Kingdom registered shipping tonnage is beneficially owned by non-United Kingdom companies. A member of the public may not realise what is actually meant by a United Kingdom shipping line. He may not realise that that can happen. We should consider whether our national shipping lines are deriving benefit on our behalf under the code.

Over half of the United Kingdom beneficially owned shipping tonnage is owned by only six companies. I am sure that that fact is not generally appreciated either.

On the back page of The Guardian yesterday reference was made to two container ships flying under the British flag that found it convenient to continue trading with Argentina by transferring to a Liberian flag only days after the Falkland Islands hostilities had begun.

Let me explain why, among his many other arduous duties, the Minister faces the problem of defining a national shipping line and why I support the amendment of the right hon. Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins) to ensure that not only the initial definition of a national shipping line, but subsequent changes, should be specifically subject to affirmative resolution.

11.15 am

The "Pacific Charger" was stranded on its maiden voyage in May last .year. It was built in Japan. Its registered owners were Ocean Chargers Co. Ltd. of Monrovia, Liberia which was a wholly owned subsidiary of Kansai Steamship Co. Ltd. of Japan, which apparently had been incorporated in Liberia solely for the purpose of owning the ship. The ship was chartered by Ocean Chargers to Kansai for five years. Ocean Chargers was to place her at the disposal of the charterer with a full crew and to meet full crew costs. Operation of the ship was entrusted by Kansai to an offshoot of OCL, Crusader Swire Container Service Ltd. of London, with the documents being signed by agents from Japan.

There was a further agreement under which Ocean Chargers appointed another company to be the ship's manager—Harmony Maritime Co. Inc., which had the responsibility of carrying out the function of Ocean Chargers and being obliged to perform under the time charter. Harmony Maritime apparently sublet the job of recruiting the officers and crew. The officers were engaged by Union Maritime Company Inc. and the ratings were engaged by Ocean Services Corporation Ltd. of Hong Kong. Harmony also used a totally different Japanese company as its general agent in Japan.

When the matter came before the New Zealand court, it noted that Harmony Maritime's registered office was in Panama, that its main office was elsewhere and that it had yet another office in Tokyo. The second office was shared with one of the web of companies that I have mentioned.

People expert in the shipping world will not be surprised by the complicated web of different national interests, national registrations and different people doing different things subject to different countries' laws. People who work in the industry—certainly the trade unions—are anxious about the way in which the web works not in their interests.

I hope that when the Minister brings forward his definition of a national shipping line he will have reappraised the way in which flags of convenience are working. They cannot be wished away. Nor do I believe that some degree of internationalisation of shipping ownership and management and shipbuilding will not occur. But the web—often of deceit and frequently to the detriment of safety and other conditions of people working on ships—partly explains why I support the amendment that provides that the definition of national shipping line should be specifically brought forward for affirmative resolution.

I hope that the Minister will ensure that the trade unions are carefully and fully consulted in working out a definition of a national shipping line. That has not happened so far.

Mr. Sproat

I shall look into the allegation—if that is not too strong a word—that the hon. Member for Batley and Morley (Mr. Woolmer) makes about consultations with the trade unions on definitions of national shipping lines. I understood that they were consulted. It is my intention that they should be. It would be improper if they were not given a full opportunity, equal with every other interested party, to make their views known. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman, with copies to anyone else who may be interested.

The hon. Gentleman quoted an interesting and intricate web, to use his word, to show how international and national companies, however defined, get mixed up in the business of international shipping. It illustrated the complexity of the matter.

Mr. Woolmer

It was the intention.

Mr. Sproat

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving an excellent example of the problems that make these consultations so lengthy. He underlined both the difficulty and importance of having a satisfactory definition of a national shipping line.

Perhaps I can go even further than I did earlier. With my well-known interest in being as accurate and as fair as possible, I said that it was 99.9 per cent. certain that a definition of a national shipping line would be decided before we came to the House again. I now give a 100 per cent. guarantee that we shall get that definition before we bring any other regulations to the House. I give an unequivocal guarantee that we shall discuss the matter and that it will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. Assuming that I shall be a few more weeks in my present job, I hope that my right hon. Friend will accept my assurance and accordingly withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

There is no need to withdraw the amendment if the right hon. Gentleman is not pressing it.

Mr. Higgins

It is my amendment, so I think that I am entitled to say a word about it.

The late lain Macleod had an expression for how one should respond to the kind of assurance that I have just been given. He said that one ought not to shoot Santa Claus by then voting. That is a rather unseasonable way of putting it. My hon. Friend's assurance has been absolute and complete, and I am therefore happy not to press the amendment to the amendment.

Amendment agreed to.

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