HC Deb 30 November 1983 vol 49 cc934-52

Order for consideration, as amended, read.

7 pm

Mr. Patrick McNair-Wilson (New Forest)

I beg to move, That the Bill, as amended, be considered.

This general powers Bill was given an unopposed Second Reading on 15 March and has been considered by a Select Committee. The Bill covers a wide range of topics, including land acquisition.

The issue this evening involves part V of the Bill, as a result of which my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths) has tabled the normal blocking motion. Part V deals with the power of Sealink UK Limited to charge for the use of the landing stage at Portsea.

I shall remind the House of the genesis of the landing stage. It came into being as a result of the building in 1870 of the railway to the Portsmouth dockyard. That meant that access to the normal hard was made impossible for those who nomally used it. It was, therefore, decided to provide an alternative access. The problem is that the landing stage is in a state of increasing disrepair. The whole landing stage will have to be replaced in the next four or four and a half years. The cost of replacement will be considerable. The estimated cost is about £475,000, not the £250,000 suggested in the statement circulated to hon. Members. Currently costs are met by Sealink UK Limited, but that company has been losing money on repairs. It is now necessary to take a serious look at the future of that facility.

The cost of £475,000 is broadly accepted by the Portsmouth city council engineer, but it may be helpful to the House to know the scale of maintenance costs during the recent past. Between 1970 and 1982, £95.645 was spent. The budget for 1983 is £42,000, made up of a general maintenance charge of £6,000, a charge to repair the concrete ramp of £12,000 and the replacement of the piles to the south of the mooring frame at a cost of £24,000.

Up to this year, the only moneys received have been on a contractual basis from the ferry company, which has been paying £1,500 per annum. It has done its best to help with the cost and has made ex gratia payments of £24,825. Hon. Members will immediately realise that the gap between the moneys provided and the costs faced by Sealink are continually growing. Although the new agreement with the ferry company provides for a payment of £10,000 a year, that is only starting now.

All the parties in the area—the Portsmouth city council, the Hampshire county council and those who use the facility—recognise the importance of the landing stage. But, as is so often the case, no one wants to put his hand in his pocket to maintain the facility. There is a belief that if nothing is done the facility will still continue. I regret that that will not be the case. About 3 million journeys by ferry are made each year, and the alternative to the ferry service is a journey by road of more than 30 miles. It is, therefore, important that the facility should be properly maintained and that proper arrangements are made for its future.

The Portsmouth Harbour Ferry Company has agreed to promote a Bill through its subsidiary so that it can take over the facility. I am assured that the Bill will be introduced this Session. When it finally passes through all its stages, it will remove responsibility for the landing stage from Sealink—and no one will be more delighted than the board of Sealink when that happy day arrives, but it has not arrived yet, and the board believes that it must make contingency arrangements in case the Bill does not reach the statute book.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

Could not British Rail have delayed the progress of its Bill pending progress on the Portsea Harbour Company Bill? We could then have dealt more neatly with the problem.

Mr. McNair-Wilson

That is an attractive idea, but British Rail does not determine the passage of legislation. We must deal with the position as it is, which is why clause 30 is included in the Bill.

On Second Reading my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) quite properly expressed his desire for a searching examination of the proposed charges for the use of the landing stage. I am indebted to him for his persistence. However, the successful passage of the Portsea Harbour Company Bill cannot be guaranteed, and the day of replacement of the landing stage comes ever nearer. We must also consider the Government's desire for more private capital to be injected into Sealink. It is for those reasons that we believe that the clause is essential.

We have taken into account the important points made by my hon. Friends the Members for Gosport and for Portsmouth, North and we are prepared to go as far as possible to meet their objections. Because charging for the facility represents a new departure, and to give the Portsea Harbour Company Bill time to go through Parliament, we have decided not to start charging until 10 July 1985. That should be long enough for the new authority to make its own arrangements.

The Portsea Harbour Company Bill, which is now published, provides for the new authority to make charges. I have been disturbed by the reluctance, indeed, the resistance, of local authorities to any form of charges. They have adopted an almost ostrich-like attitude towards that essential facility, which is becoming more and more decrepit. It is strange that local authorities and others are quite happy to support the new Bill, which also includes a provision for levying charges, but strongly resist clause 30 of this Bill.

We want to be sure that every possible opportunity is provided for consultation with those concerned about the new charges. To reassure my hon. Friends the Members for Gosport and for Portsmouth, North, and to be sure that the public who use the facility do not feel cheated by Sealink, I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will give the House an assurance that any charges levied under clause 30 will be subject to the right of appeal embodied in the Harbours Act 1964.

I hope that the House will accept the assurance that nothing will happen until July 1985. If in the unhappy event of the Portsea Harbour Company Bill not reaching the statute book charges become necessary, the existing machinery of the Harbours Act 1964 can deal with the problems.

I hope that all who live in the affected area share the belief that an end must be put to the present unhappy position. I hope that the House will allow the Bill to pass on to its next stage.

7.18 pm
Mr. Peter Griffiths (Portsmouth, North)

I intend to criticise the Bill tonight, as I did on Second Reading on 15 March. It is not becoming for anyone to say, "I told you so", but on occasions even politicians are right and their suspicions are proved to have been well founded.

On Second Reading I made it clear that I had no intention of attempting to stop British Rail from enjoying what has become almost an annual event—the British Railways Bill. It is wrong to rely on the goodwill of British Rail and its assurances that it would negotiate a satisfactory arrangement with the local authorities. I justified my previous blocking motion by saying: In placing the motion on the Order Paper my motives and intentions were to do exactly as the motion said, and to give time between when the Bill was published and its Second Reading for British Rail to give evidence of its good intentions".—[Official Report, 15 March 1983; Vol. 39, c. 200.] Despite this, at the end of the debate on Second Reading neither I nor any of my hon. Friends divided the House, because we assumed that having drawn attention to our strong reservations about the proposal to charge—there is nothing in the Bill about how much is to be charged—some notice would be taken.

We also object to the fact that the Bill has been pushed along by British Rail on the assumption that the number of people who are opposed to any part of it is relatively small. The Bill has separate clauses that deal with the separate parts of the country, and small groups of Members will draw attention to particular failings. The assumption that they will not be sufficient in number to stop the Bill passing appears to have given British Rail the attitude that if it simply waited long enough the opposition would go away. It is an affront to Parliament to take this attitude.

I take personal exception to the fact that we have heard that various discussions have taken place between British Rail and the Portsmouth Harbour Ferry Company, which have led to certain agreements and understandings. I should have thought that it would have been courteous for British Rail to ensure that such discussions and agreements were made known to any hon. Member who had gone to the trouble of placing a motion on the Order Paper asking that the consideration of the Bill be delayed. British Rail did not consider that that was worthwhile because there was not enough opposition. No attempt was made to communicate any of these assurances.

It is not good enough simply to rely on the good intention of British Rail in this matter. In particular, it is wrong, and probably constitutionally improper, to ask the House to pass one Bill on the assumption that another Bill which has not begun its passage through the House will become law, and will do so within a limited period, thus absolving British Rail of its responsibility.

British Rail has inherited the pontoon in Portsmouth harbour. I accept the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson) that British Rail is heartily sick of it and would be glad to be rid of it. Many of us would like to be rid of that which we have incurred. Many of us who have taken advantage of privileges given to us in the past would like to renege on paying for them.

The original pontoon was built because the building of the pier and the establishment of a railway station in Portsmouth harbour extinguished the historic rights of individuals to enjoy and use their own harbour. It extinguished the rights of watermen, who depend on access to the harbour for their livelihood and impinged on people's privileges. Because the railway company sought to do justice when it took away the rights of ordinary people, it was given the obligation that as part of the harbour was taken away, a part at which ferry boats and fishing boats had tied up in the past, it would provide and maintain a pontoon at the side of the pier. It was taking away something that had historically belonged to the people of Portsmouth for their pleasure or duties and work, and therefore the company had to provide a facility, which was not subject to a fixed time.

It may be that over the years the costs of the repair of the pontoon have increased. However, so has the use that the successors to the original railway company, British Rail, have been able to make of the pier, and of the advantage of having a busy railway station and a deep water point at which large ferry boats can come in, and those advantages have not been gradually whittled away. Over the years, the advantage of having the pier and a pontoon has grown, but the cost and obligations have grown.

There is no doubt that it was intended by Parliament that there should be an obligation upon the successors of the railway company to maintain the pontoon. In practice, if they had done that on a regular, systematic basis, we should not be told today that British Rail is faced with the expenditure of £475,000. That suggests poor housekeeping.

Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)

Perhaps British Rail has been starved of sufficient money to be able to meet such capital requirements.

Mr. Griffiths

It is true that British Rail has, like anyone else, to decide its priorities. I am suggesting that if greater priority had been given to maintenance in the past it would not be faced with the capital costs about which we have been talking.

There is some hesitation about the figure. The notes that British Rail produced for every hon. Member refer to £250,000, but tonight we have been told of a figure of £475,000. It seems that the seriousness with which British Rail has approached the Bill, and the House, is not all that one might have expected from a nationalised industry, which one might have hoped would set an example to others in showing a proper and due respect to Parliament. It is approaching Parliament for the provision of new powers and privileges, which it cannot obtain elsewhere.

My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest has spoken of the broad general support for the Portsea Harbour Company Bill. He may be right in saying that, but I understand that there will be opposition to the Bill. That may mean that its passage will be delayed, or perhaps never come about. In that case, the assurance that we have been given tonight—an assurance that I am sure is given by my hon. Friend as an absolute promise from the sponsors of the Bill and British Rail to make no increase in charges until 1985—will not be particularly valuable. All that will happen is that in July 1985 British Rail will be able to say that it has not been able to make charges for two years, and has been deprived of income and will therefore have to make charges all the higher.

Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East)

If British Rail were to act in the way that the hon. Gentleman is outlining, I should have thought that it would meet with widespread approval from the Conservative party. I have heard the argument about the Bill for the first time in this debate, but that seems to me to be fairly sound commercial practice. Is the hon. Gentleman in favour of British Rail acting as some sort of charity?

Mr. Griffiths

No, I should take the strongest exception to the idea that a nationalised industry should be a charity. Nationalised industries should accept their obligations, freely accepted until this time, and should not try to wriggle out of them. It is important for a body such as a nationalised industry to set an example, and I am sure that the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) feels that nationalised industries are fit to do so. However, that is something for another debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest rightly drew attention to the importance of the ferry between Portsmouth and Gosport. It is an essential link between those two important towns and forms part of a natural association between them. Portsmouth and Gosport have separate local authorities and separate civic identities, but the harbour does not divide them. It has linked them ever since the ferry was rowed.

My hon. Friend's point helped to demolish the suggestion that we should allow British Rail to make charges. He said that the alternative to the short journey across the harbour is a 30-mile drive. Indeed, it is lengthy and involves busy and difficult roads. It is not a practical alternative for the many thousands of people who cross the harbour each day. Such people are not just business men. Many of them are schoolchildren who are sent from Gosport to independent schools in Portsmouth. Moreover, a large number of people who work in the naval dockyard or Royal Naval establishments in Portsmouth or Gosport cross the harbour to get to work.

It is important for such people that the Portsmouth Harbour Ferry Company has kept its fares down. We should remember that we are talking about just a few pence. I noted that my hon. Friend did not put a figure on the fare that British Rail might try to impose. I understand that such figures have been leaked elsewhere, but they have not been leaked to me. Even if the sums involved are small, they will represent a high percentage of the fare and be a real burden on the parents who must pay it twice each day. Such fare increases would also be a burden on working people who have to make the ferry crossing. A fare increase would be a gross imposition on people who have chosen jobs, schools or homes on the assumption that British Rail would not be able to influence fares charged by the Portsmouth Harbour Ferry Company.

I should point out to the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) that the Portsmouth Harbour Ferry Company has done a grand job keeping its fares down, although it has a virtual monopoly. I pay tribute to it for that.

I take exception to the reference made by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest to local authorities. The local authorities in the area are unanimous in their dislike of the way in which this provision has been inserted into the Bill. The relevant authorities—Gosport, Portsmouth and Hampshire—are all opposed to it. It might be argued that they are being ostrich-like. They do not always agree on everything. It is hard to agree that those authorities are being ostrich-like when they have come together on behalf of the people who live in their areas because they do not believe that the Bill is reasonable. Nor is it ostrich-like for local authorities to say that it is not their responsibility to pay.

British Rail has suggested that Portsmouth city council or Hampshire county council or even a consortium might like to take over the pontoon. Such a suggestion is quite contrary to the thinking of the local authorities. Their view is that a nationalised industry with immutable obligations is trying to shuffle off its responsibility and make someone else pay. It would appear that British Rail does not mind who pays so long as it is not British Rail. It is not reasonable to criticise local authorities that have been consistent and were prepared to discuss the issue with British Rail at every stage. They have always been willing to participate in a satisfactory arrangement.

If we were told tonight that any charge on people entering the pontoon would be subject to the agreement of Portsmouth city council, I should make a much briefer speech. That council is happy to take on the duty of approving the fare. I do not doubt that the other local authorities would be prepared to do likewise.

The local authorities' role has been to represent a large number of people in the area who use the ferry daily. It should not be forgotten, however, that many people use it in the summer for recreation. It is unacceptable that we should be expected to rely on the good will of British Rail with the longstop of an appeal to the Secretary of State. We all know how cumbersome such a procedure can be. That is no reflection on my right hon. Friend. It is a cumbersome procedure just to charge a few extra pennies. Effectively, British Rail does not want negotiations with bodies that are able to pin it down—the local authorities.

Mr. Viggers

I was hoping that it would be possible to obtain three agreements from the sponsors of the Bill. The first was that there should be no charge before 10 July 1985. That matter has been settled and the request granted. I understand that correspondence on the second is under way. It constitutes a contractual agreement whereby British Rail and Sealink UK Ltd. confirmed support for the Portsmouth Harbour Ferry Company in promoting the Portsea Harbour Company Bill which enables the latter company to take over the pontoon. I understand that that also causes no difficulty.

The third was that I sought confirmation that Sealink would not make any charge except that necessary to provide funds for its reimbursement for the net cost of repairing, renewing or replacing the pontoon. That would place Sealink's responsibility on all fours, as I understand that it would give Sealink powers similar to those held by the Portsea Harbour Company. It would ensure that Sealink would not benefit by profiteering—I use an emotive word—on the use of the pontoon. I understand that we are being offered not that commitment, but a different one under the Harbours Act 1964. I am worried that the Bill's promoters are not prepared to give us the stricter and tighter requirements for which I hoped.

Mr. Griffiths

It would not have been difficult to avoid the need for this part of the debate—I do not know what the Opposition wish to debate tonight—if we had been given some fairly simple assurances at an early stage. British Rail might have taken the trouble to involve specifically those hon. Members who are known to have a personal and direct interest in this matter.

In case it should be thought that my lack of confidence in British Rail is and has been because of some personal feeling, I refer to the debate on the British Railways Bill on 15 March. The former hon. Member for Keighley, Mr. Cryer, when speaking to clause 28—it is clause 30 in the new Bill—said: Clause 28 gives absolute powers, which are not unusual, to Secretaries of State. I am not happy for Secretaries of State to be given such powers, although they are accountable to the House. Hon. Members would like to think it is full accountability, but that is debatable. To hand over that power to a subsidiary of the British Railways Board and, moreover, a subsidiary that might be sold is highly unsatisfactory."—[Official Report, 15 March 1983; Vol. 39, c. 205.] I accept the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport. The suggestion that there can be an appeal under the Harbours Act is not the type of assurance that we are seeking, and no one will satisfy me about that tonight.

It is not impossible that British Rail will sooner or later divest itself of its Sealink operations. I do not want to get into an argument about whether that is good, but I make it clear that my criticisms of British Rail would apply even more so if the Sealink subsidiary were sold and we were faced with a suggestion that, as part of the total commercial operation, the charges to use the ferry at Portsmouth were to be increased.

Mr. Snape

I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman again. It is a question not of British Rail divesting itself of Sealink, but of British Rail being instructed to do so by the Government in a policy which, I presume, the hon. Gentleman supports.

Mr. Griffiths

If the hon. Gentleman prefers me to say "being divested" as opposed to "divesting itself", I accept that correction because I do not wish to be controversial on this occasion, or at least not on that point.

The proceedings are not as smooth and easy as my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest suggests. The way ahead is shrouded in mists. We do not know whether the Portsea Harbour Company Bill will be successful, nor do we know whether or when Sealink will pass into other hands. This is not the time for British Rail to try to divest itself of a particular responsibility. It should be making it clear that it has that responsibility, and that obligation could be included in the negotiations with any successor company. There is no reason why there should ever be a charge to use that pontoon or why an ordinary citizen of Portsmouth, who over the years has given up a facility to the railway companies, should have to pay for the privilege of walking on a pontoon which was placed there simply to recompense that citizen for the loss.

My objection is to the concept of payment, and not especially about whether British Rail suggested that payment should be made. I want the pontoon to be maintained and repaired, and this should be part of the normal financial expenditure of British Rail. Expenditure of £475,000 is a large sum—but not to British Rail, as it is only a small part of its capital programme. This expenditure will not make or break British Rail in any one year, but it is an item with which British Rail could deal by making simple economies in other areas. This large sum of money might influence the views of a successor company. I am alarmed that a successor faced with that obligation might be deterred, unless he inherits the power to make a charge—as was given to British Rail—and he can reimburse himself for his capital expenditure. I believe that this is unacceptable to the people in the area, and it is not reasonable to suggest that they should bear this cost.

It is clear from what has been said tonight that clause 30 is not necessary if British Rail believes, as my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest said, that with its active and positive support the Portsea Harbour Company Bill will be enacted. However, British Rail is not as confident as my hon. Friend. It is therefore pressing this matter. In paragraph 4 of British Rail's statement to the House—I shall not read the whole paragraph, as other hon. Members wish to speak—British Rail says: Discussions over many years failed to provide a satisfactory solution". That is a reflection more on those whose task was to seek the satisfactory solution—British Rail—than on anyone else. The statement continues: proposals have recently been formulated". We are all aware of that, because most hon. Members will have seen the Bill that is promoted by the Portsmouth Harbour Ferry Company. The statement says that Sealink considers it both prudent and expedient to have the power to make a reasonable charge for its use; clause 33 seeks no more than that. I object to the idea that the people of Portsmouth should have to pay to use something which was provided for them as a lesser privilege than that which they relinquished. The statement continues: Should the landing stage be taken into other ownership, the power would lapse but, should Sealink's obligation remain unaltered, it would strenuously submit to your Honourable House that such a power should be made available by means of the enactment of clause 30 of the Bill. With respect to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, that is quite different from the scenario which he painted. We all know that many problems can arise between the printing of a Bill and its enactment.

I suggest in all seriousness that British Rail has not treated the House with the respect that it deserves. It has not treated individual Members with the courtesy that they would expect. British Rail should closely examine the tactics that it has used over the Bill to ascertain whether it can satisfy itself that an attempt to disregard local objections is a satisfactory way in which to proceed. Surely it is necessary to take account of local objections, especially when they concern a matter of vital importance to the local people but which is of only marginal significance to British Rail.

If it is thought proper for further assurances to be given on the way in which British Rail intends to operate, that may mean that the Bill can proceed through the House without being the subject of a Division. Unless there can be clear assurances given that British Rail will try to meet the reasonable requests of the people of Portsmouth and the surrounding districts, I shall have to reserve my position and consider carefully whether it is possible for me to allow the Bill to proceed unopposed.

7.53 pm
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

I welcome the oppportunity to intervene briefly in the debate. On Second Reading I used the opportunity to raise one or two Greater Manchester issues, and I shall return to them. I wish to press the promoters to provide further assurances but I wish especially to press the Minister to provide them when he intervenes.

Everyone in Greater Manchester welcomed the fact that British Rail was introducing a Bill which sought powers to introduce a rail link to Manchester airport. I understand that there is the possibility of funds being available for a feasibility study, but that there is no guarantee that money will be available to build the short and modest piece of railway track that will provide a link with the airport. I hope that British Rail and the Government can quickly reach the stage at which they can announce that the feasibility study has been carried out, that the money is available and that contracts have been entered into for building the rail link.

Areas in the north of England generally, and especially airports, have had an unfair deal from the Government and from previous Governments. Manchester airport is almost entirely an example of municipal enterprise. It is a great credit to the old city of Manchester, and now to Manchester and the Greater Manchester council, that such an important international airport has been established in the area. When one considers the amount of Government assistance that has been given to extending the tube line to Heathrow and the money that is now being spent to extend that line even further to provide the extra terminal at Heathrow with a link to the tube one wonders why it is so difficult to find the modest sums that would be necessary to build the rail link.

The Government have spent a considerable amount of money on a public inquiry into the development of Stansted as a further airport for London. If that sum had been allocated to the rail link, Manchester international airport could have served in almost every respect as the alternative to Stansted. Without the addition to the rail network, it is still an extremely convenient airport for many travellers in the north of England and down into the Midlands. Once one is north of Watford, it is almost as easy to get to Manchester as it is to any other airport in the country.

When the Minister intervenes, I hope that he will give firm assurances that the money will be made available to enable the rail link to be built. I hope we shall have an assurance that the link will be provided and that it will be no longer necessary to argue on behalf of the project. I ask the Government to give a firm commitment that the money will go to the north of England.

One factor that has done more for industry in the Greater Manchester area than anything else is the development of the Manchester international airport. The position could be improved even further by the provision of a rail link. A great deal of freight comes into Manchester international airport and it would be a great help if some of it could be directed straight to a rail link rather than having to be transported by road. I hope that the Minister will tell us that the money will be made available, so that British Rail can proceed from its feasibility study to building the link.

Mr. Tony Favell (Stockport)

I heartily endorse what the hon. Gentleman has said about the rail link to Manchester airport. It is vital to the north-west that the link is built as soon as possible.

Mr. Bennett

I am sure that all Members who represent constituencies in Greater Manchester will want to emphasise the need for the link.

A small link line is proposed at Hazelgrove. When the issue was first discussed I asked for an assurance! that if mainline traffic from Sheffield passing through to Manchester and Liverpool was to be diverted from the New Mills, Romiley and Gorton line there would be no harmful effects on the local railways. I understand that the assurance has more or less been given to Greater Manchester council, but I hope that further assurances can be given this evening.

If the link is built, I hope that it will be available for some of the freight traffic which now has to pass along a circuitous route from New Mills, on to the Denton and South Reddish line, back through the centre of Stockport and down through Cheadle Heath. I hope that that traffic will be able to benefit from the additional track, that the route will be shortened and that some of the nuisance that is caused by trains passing along that line will be reduced.

There is a great deal of evidence in Greater Manchester of the decline of the railways because of lack of finances. When the Minister intervenes, I hope he will make it clear that he believes that British Rail should have the money to invest in new equipment and new rolling stock. There are many examples of necessary modernisation. The Longsight repair sheds are antiquated and require considerable investment. A great deal of the rolling stock in the area is 20 years old or more, and much of the track needs a great deal of attention. We are giving British Rail the right to build short stretches of extra track and we must ensure that we provide the equipment and finance so that Greater Manchester can have a rail network of which it can be proud in the same way that it is proud of the international airport. An improved network will be extremely helpful to development within the area that will return it to prosperity.

7.58 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Mitchell)

It may be helpful if I intervene now to restate the Government's view on the Bill. As indicated on Second Reading, the Government have considered the content of the Bill and have no objection to the powers sought by the British Railways Board. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has been reassured about the effect of the proposed construction works for the Manchester airport loop, following discussions with the board.

My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths) has expressed concern about the effects of clause 30 on the use of the landing stage in Portsmouth harbour, which is owned by Sealink Harbours Ltd. The clause has given rise to a good deal of debate both on Second Reading and again today. This is not a matter on which the Government would wish to express a strong view as the issues are essentially local ones. I understand that the Portsmouth Harbour Ferry company has agreed that the responsibility for the landing stage should be transferred to it and that it is seeking the necessary powers in a separate private Bill, which was deposited on 25 November. Provided local agreement can be secured that would seem to be an ideal solution. In the meantime, Sealink is safeguarding its position by seeking in this Bill the power to levy charges in the event of the Portsmouth Harbour Ferry company not taking over responsibility for the landing stage.

It may be helpful if I add that it is my understanding that the right of objection to the Secretary of State under the Harbours Act 1964 would automatically apply to any charges levied by Sealink under clause 30. That may reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North or at least meet his point. In considering any objection to a charge levied by Sealink—I know that my hon. Friends the Members for Portsmouth, North and for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) are concerned about this—the Secretary of State would have to apply the normal criteria in deciding whether a proposed charge was reasonable and he would certainly take into account, after the public inquiry, the costs being incurred in maintaining the landing stage. I hope that that will go a long way towards reassuring my hon. Friends.

I should like now to deal with the points raised by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Mr. Favell). The primary purpose of British Rail in seeking powers in relation to Manchester is to safeguard the necessary land. The initiative in making investment proposals rests with British Rail; but I am not aware of any proposal to be put forward in the near future. Ministers would consider any investment proposals carefully and would want to be convinced that they represented good value for money.

With regard to Hazelgrove, I understand that there are discussions between the Greater Manchester passenger transport executive and British Rail over future train services, but they do not envisage that the new connecting line will lead to stations such as Brinnington and north Reddish losing their train services.

Reference was made to British Rail's ability to find the necessary resources for investment. For the past two years British Rail has not come up against any Government-imposed limitation on investment in its own identification of investment proposals which it wished to take forward. I hope that that will be helpful to the House in considering the Bill.

8.2 pm

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

While I have no general objections to the terms of the Bill, I must speak to clause 30, which has significant local implications.

The problem for the Gosport-Portsmouth ferry is that the ferry company decided some time ago that it would levy a single charge in Gosport for the journey between Gosport and Portsmouth, but no charge at all in Portsmouth. Someone making a round trip between Gosport and Portsmouth, making the two journeys, would pay only once in Gosport. Were Sealink to have the power to make a charge, it would by definition make the charge on its own territory, on its own land and on its own approaches in Portsmouth, and therefore would be faced with the inefficiency of having two charges, which the ferry company sought to avoid by introducing the concept of the single charge. The idea of Sealink being able to make a charge is nonsense and one seeks to avoid it. That apprehension was well expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths) on Second Reading on 15 March.

We were prepared to allow the Bill an unopposed passage on the basis that discussions would take place and that progress would be sought on a more satisfactory longterm solution for the ownership and operation of the Portsmouth pontoon. That has happened and some progress has been made—progress which, in Committee, I am flattered to say, was described as "vigorous". The Portsea Harbour Company Bill, which has now been laid before Parliament, embodies most of the agreement that has been reached and most of the agreement that we seek. It provides for the company to operate the landing stage as a public harbour undertaking and it contains comprehensive regulations under which the public harbour authority must operate.

Schedule 3 to the proposed Portsea Harbour Company Bill repeals clause 30 of the British Railways Bill, which will solve the problem that we are currently facing. But there is a gap to which we are now addressing ourselves and we need to ensure that there are proper transitional provisions if we are prepared to allow the Bill to proceed.

It would be reasonably satisfactory—not completely satisfactory—to allow the Bill to go through, provided that we have undertakings on the three points that I mentioned in an intervention to give my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson), who is sponsoring the Bill in the House, an opportunity to take some guidance and instruction from the sponsors outside.

First, there should be no charge before 10 July 1985. That should give a full year between the time when the Portsea Harbour Company Bill, given a fair passage, becomes an Act and a charge might be levied. I understand that that point is conceded and accepted by the sponsors.

Secondly, there should be no charge except any necessary to reimburse Sealink for the net cost of repairing, renewing or replacing the landing stage and its approach. That wording is much more closely drafted than the wording of the Harbours Act 1964, which says that the operator of the landing stage must make only "reasonable charges". I am trying to maintain and retain some of the residual obligations on British Rail which it first assumed in the 19th century when it arranged for the provision of a landing stage as part of its obligation in blocking the common hard. British Rail should accept that there remains a statutory obligation to maintain a landing stage, and it cannot wash its hands completely of that obligation.

I differ slightly from my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North on my next point. It is not unreasonable that British Rail, through Sealink, should be entitled to make some charge if it is now put to the heavy expense of renewing and replacing the landing stage. My proposed wording is a via media, a compromise, between the obligations under the Harbours Act and British Rail's total obligation.

Thirdly, British Rail, Sealink, the Portsmouth Harbour Ferry Company and the local authorities should confirm that it is their intention to support and assist in the promotion of the Portsea Harbour Company Bill and the takeover of the landing stage and approach by that company. I understand that that is included in correspondence between the parties. I also understand that there are several letters dated April and May 1983, the terms of which are confidential between the parties because they contain commercial information. I understand that that point is duly covered.

I have kept in touch with representatives of Gosport borough council and the Portsmouth Harbour Ferry Company, although I claim no authority to speak on their behalf. I think that there is indeed support for the concept of the landing stage being taken over by the Portsea Harbour Company and for that company to provide proper facilities in due course. I am assured that the Bill has widespread local support, but there might be objections and we need to cover that by enacting the transitional provisions that we are now seeking. I expect that Bill to proceed through Parliament.

I regret that the British Railways Bill is before us today. In a perfect world the Bill would come back later, when we have tied a bow on the Portsea Harbour Company Bill and ensured that that has gone through, so that there is no gap between the two Bills. But that would mean delaying the British Railways Bill by about a year, and we have to face the fact that we have taken all reasonable precautions to ensure the continuity and reasonable operation of the Portsea landing stage. Therefore, subject to the points that I put to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, and while I shall continue to watch the Bill like an eagle, I should not wish to divide the House tonight.

My attitude differs front that of my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North. I represent Gosport, which already has a very good pontoon facility provided by Gosport borough council, with the assistance of Hampshire county council. We are proud of our pontoon facilities and look with less than equal admiration at the facilities on the Portsmouth side. The fail-safe factor in the present operation is that Portsmouth corporation may have to assume more responsibility for the landing stage if it all ends in tears and we fail to get our Portsea Harbour Company Bill. We might then end up with a better facility which would be an improvement for all those whose land abuts Portsmouth harbour.

There must be a local authority responsibility to ensure the existence of pontoon facilities of a high quality. The residual obligation on British Rail should be quietly buried as neatly as possible. The undertakings that I have requested would help that to happen, and I hope that the Minister can give a positive response to my request.

8.22 pm
Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East)

I have no wish to inject a controversial note into our deliberations at such an early stage. I shall therefore begin by complimenting the hon. Member for New Forest (Mr McNair-Wilson) on the style with which he set sail from harbour, expecting to find calm water, to explain the contents of the Bill and of clause 30 in particular. The hon. Gentleman was not far out of harbour when he was torpedoed——

Mr. Prescott


Mr. Snape

Or scuppered, as my hon. Friend says, by another ship in his own fleet. It was alarming to hear the expressions used by the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths) about clause 30. Clearly both sides of the House have a duty to look carefully at what is being imposed on the people of Porstmouth when one of their elected representatives has had to express in such strong language his reservations about the proposals.

I entirely agree with one comment by the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North. British Rail is indeed extremely remiss in its lack of communication with Members of Parliament, particularly about constituency matters. It tends to feel that it can leave such matters to its parliamentary agents. That is not good enough. It is especially incumbent on British Rail, as a nationalised industry, to advise hon. Members on both sides of the House when such matters are to come before the House, because any constituency Member worth his salt would wish to participate in the debate, or to know exactly what British Rail intends to do in his constituency. It is a recurring and justifiable complaint made by hon. Members on both sides of the House that British Rail often fails to carry out such elementary courtesies, and hon. Members are forced to telephone the various departments of British Rail in an effort to ascertain the board's intentions. It is time that British Rail put that aspect of its public relations in order.

That is the only comfort that I can offer to Conservative Members. I must now criticise some of their remarks and say that I do not find myself in sympathy with the speech of the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North, whose main bone of contention appears to be that British Rail remains responsible for the upkeep of this jetty and pontoon. In the hon. Gentleman's opinion there are no foreseeable circumstances in which the original agreement with British Rail could or should be changed.

Let us delve into history and consider when and how that agreement came about. The pontoon and gangway with which clause 30 is concerned are maintained by Sealink—if I may quote the legalese of an internal board letter: pursuant to section 10 of the Joint Portsmouth Railway Extension Act 1873. It is difficult, 110 years later, to justify Sealink incurring any further cost from a facility from which it receives no direct or indirect benefit. In 1873, when the agreement was made, Britain was in the grip of railway mania. It is as inconsistent to demand that Sealink should continue to bear these costs because of an agreement made 110 years ago as it would be to insist that British Rail should maintain railway stations built at that time, from which, since then, the railway services have been withdrawn. The hon. Member for Portsmouth, North would not expect British Rail to staff and maintain the station at Blandford Forum 15 years after the railway line serving that station was closed. That is not a logical or tenable point of view, but that example is as fair as what which we are debating in clause 30.

I understand that the railway extension was closed and dismantled in 1949. It seems peculiar and inconsistent to burden Sealink with these costs—we finally arrived at the figure of £475,000 per year—35 years after the railway facilities were completely withdrawn.

I never cease to be fascinated by speeches such as that by the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North. On the one hand he would presumably cheer the flinty-hearted attitude of Ministers who say, time and time again, that public owned industries must pay their way. That is what they say when they put up the gas and electricity prices. They say that the railway industry—which they believe to be inherently inefficient—must pay its way. In particular, they say, the freight operations must pay their way, and there is no justifiable claim for subsidy. Presumably the hon. Member approves of those sentiments, but now he is saying that £475,000 is a drop in the ocean to British Rail, which should continue to maintain a structure from which it derives no financial benefit. His attitude is not unique among Conservative Members. He is saying, "Give me capitalism and plenty of it, but not, oh Lord, in my own constituency." The hon. Member is expecting a publicly owned company to provide a subsidy, although the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) said in his more thoughtful speech on the same clause that it has an excellent jetty and pontoon in Gosport which is maintained by two local authorities.

Again, I never cease to be surprised at the common sense that one hears during these debates from Conservative Back Benchers. The hon. Member for Gosport advanced a fine defence of municipal Socialism. I commend his sentiments to his hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North and hope against hope that the appropriate county council and Portsmouth city council can get together to emulate the fine example set by their counterparts across the harbour in Gosport.

Mr. Peter Griffiths

I hesitate to cross swords with the hon. Gentleman, to whose speech I am listening with care. However, legal opinion is that the Portsmouth city council does not have the authority to divert funds towards the maintenance of the pontoon, and that doing so would be ultra vires.

Mr. Snape

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that information. I am in no position to challenge what he said, nor have I any wish to do so. It seems strange that across the harbour in Gosport it is not ultra vires to make such expenditure, whereas in Portsmouth it is. I do not know the reasons behind that seeming inconsistency. I do not know whether it is forbidden for the county council to chip in something towards the great costs of this facility. As we heard from the hon. Member for New Forest, no such contribution has ever been made or even favourably considered by either the county or city councils. To suggest that Sealink should continue to pay for this facility in perpetuity is not only economic nonsense but directly contrary to the views that Conservative Members normally expound on nationalised industries.

The hon. Member for Portsmouth, North looked into the future by suggesting—somewhat inaccurately—that when responsibility for this jetty and pontoon is removed from Sealink it will then fall on the successor company. The hon. Gentleman should carefully consider what he said. Presumably a private company will wish to take over the assets of Sealink. Privatisation is the name of the game, and the Conservative party professes to be greatly in favour of it. Given his knowledge of business, if the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North were the director of such a private company, I wonder whether he would willingly take over this aspect of Sealink's responsibilities. Would he commend to his shareholders that such a company should pay a not inconsiderable sum—£475,000 is not a drop in the ocean—to maintain a facility from which they would gain no benefit whatever?

What severe imposition is the wicked, publicly owned Sealink seeking to place on the shoulders of the hon. Gentleman's constituents? What sum is it seeking to extort from the hard-up community in Portsmouth? The internal correspondence sent to me by the Railways Board speaks of not more than 5p per person.

Many people, including many of the constituents of the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North, benefit directly from this facility. I may sound like a Tory, but I would have thought that the Conservative party would be in favour of people paying for benefits that they receive. Indeed, week after week in the House we hear lectures from Conservative Members praising that principle. It appears that the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North would dutifully trip through the Division Lobby to privatise Sealink, to give away public assets and to put Toryism into practice in modern day Britain, but would seek to melt our hearts with stories of how Toryism in modern day Britain would affect his constituents. I leave clause 30 with some sympathy for the hon. Gentleman's point of view but with no great admiration for his political consistency.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), I am disappointed that the clauses relating to the railway works in the Manchester area are merely designed to resolve the ownership of land. There is no real intention of going ahead with this project in the short term. Like my hon. Friend, I am fascinated and depressed by the fact that it is always easy to provide public money for public inquiries into airports in the south of England. There is seemingly a bottomless pit of public money to set up inquiries into such things as the expansion of Stansted and whether the third London airport should be at Maplin, Foulness or some other God-forsaken place on the south coast. But when it comes to public transport links in the Greater Manchester area, which I know fairly well, money is never available and the best that we can expect is a feasibility study.

How many feasibility studies will the Minister need to be convinced that an international airport such as Manchester ought to be rail-served? How many such studies will he need before he decides to give the go-ahead, or provide the finance to give British Rail the go-ahead, to link Manchester airport with the adjacent railway line? It has been apparent for many years that such a link is needed.

Having served, a decade or so ago, on a passenger transport authority based in Manchester, I am struck by the fact that money is always available for extensions to the London underground system. I do not disagree with that principle. The London underground is a splendid system. At Heathrow airport, not only has there been necessary, desirable, but admittedly expensive railway extension into the existing airport terminal area, but there is to be a further expansion of that railway quite properly, if expensively, to serve the new terminal 4.

Turning to railway developments in the Manchester area, I remember the discussion, debates, arguments and pleas of about a decade ago for money towards the Pic-Vic tunnel, as it was then called. No money was available at the time, and no money is available now for Manchester railways links. This is a shameful way to treat the north-west.

I hope that even at this late stage the Minister and British Rail can get together to find what the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North would doubtless call the piffling sum needed to provide a much needed rail link to Manchester airport.

Mr. David Mitchell

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the initiative for instigating any such investment proposals rests with British Rail. If I receive such a proposition I shall give it the most careful consideration.

Mr. Snape

I am grateful to the Minister. However, that is a very old refrain. He knows full well, given the present political climate and the amount of public support that is made available for British Rail, that British Rail is very reluctant, to say the least, to put forward any such schemes. The Minister knows full well the reasons behind that reluctance.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

I invite the Minister to look at the problems on the ground to see what a good job has been done at the airport and how close the railway is to it. For that half-mile or so of track an extremely good return would flow from any investment.

Mr. Snape

I trust that the Minister heard that invitation. Perhaps my hon. Friend would care to extend it to the hon. Gentleman's parliamentary private secretary, as they seem to be involved in such deep and earnest conversation. The hon. Gentlemen can visit Manchester and see for themselves the comparatively short distance that needs to be covered between the existing railway line and Manchester international airport.

If I were invited to visit Manchester as well, I could bore them with the tales of my time on the railway—I promise not to turn this into "All my yesterdays"—in an undistinguished career which began very close to the point at Heald Green on the Manchester-Wilmslow line where it is proposed the existing main line should connect with the airport. I hope that the Minister has heard my hon. Friend's invitation and will accept it.

I refer to the clauses in the Bill relating to level crossings and the resulting problems. The Bill omits any reference to the future of the railway line between Doncaster and Hull, a part of the world that will be not unknown to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The existing procedure provides for invocation of the existing law and an approach to the transport users' consultative committee with a view to withdrawing the service.

I mention the railway crossings and in particular those in the Humberside area. If the proposal to close the line, because of problems with a bridge which has a 60 mph speed limit, is carried through and the service is diverted via Selby over a bridge with a speed limit of 25 mph, very few railway lines will be left in Humberside for there to be any point in discussing the provision of railway level crossings.

When the House debates comparisons between various modes of transport Ministers continually pooh-pooh the idea of further investment in our railway system or say that such proposals by the British Railways Board will be considered.

I noticed in a newspaper report only this week that there was talk of men being stationed every few yards along the Severn bridge to check the number of heavy goods vehicles going past to ensure that too great a strain was not being placed on that structure. The Minister might not think very much of the railways, but I can tell him that we abolished policemen—"bobbies" as their successors are still known—standing by the side of the track 130 years ago. Perhaps when we discuss such Bills as this, Ministers—flinty-hearted and tough types though they may be in the present Government, with their Right-wing political virility to prove on every occasion—will pause and reflect that that old-fashioned railway system could provide many of our people with the sort of service that they require if some money was spent on it.

I do not know whether the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North indends to divide the House after hearing the Minister. I have no doubt that all will become clear in due course. Those of my hon. Friends who can be persuaded to accompany me into the Lobby opposite the one that the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North will be in will be more than welcome.

Mr. Patrick McNair-Wilson


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Order. Does the hon. Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson) seek the leave of the House to speak again?

Mr. McNair-Wilson

With the leave of the House, I shall try to respond to some of the matters raised in the debate.

I begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Minister for his supportive remarks. I am grateful to the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape), who also supports the Bill.

I shall restrict my comments to those matters which were amended in Committee rather than stray into the perhaps more interesting world of the future of British Rail. Matters have been raised in the debate which require answers.

Listening to my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths) made me feel how wise the promoters were to include clause 30 in the Bill. I had hoped, as I said in my opening remarks, that the new Portsea Harbour Company Bill would get a fair wind. I am advised that it is supported by all the parties concerned. My hon. Friend's statement that objections would be likely and that the timetable for this legislation could be badly delayed makes me realise that were it not for clause 30 we could easily see the deterioration of the landing stage continuing and no contingency fund of any sort established.

I find my hon. Friend's arguments about how we are to finance the landing stage extremely confusing. Someone has to pay for it. I pointed out that more than 3 million journeys a year pass over this facility. Although £475,000 is a great deal of money for British Rail, despite what my hon. Friend said, if that is divided amongst the number to which I referred just now it is clear that the charges need not be all that high.

I am therefore extremely concerned that we realise that these charges are not being levied for any other reason than ensuring the continuation of a facility which every one admits to be of importance to those living in that part of the country.

My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North also referred to the communications that he had not had and perhaps justifiably felt that he should have had with the promoters. I am again advised that he was approached at an early stage of the Bill and asked whether he would like a discussion and that he suggested he would leave that to Portsmouth city council. However, I make a clear offer to him and to my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) that if, after this stage is completed, they would like discussions with the promoters about any of the matters which concern them or which have been raised in the debate, the promoters will be delighted to have such a meeting as soon as possible. No one wants anyone who has taken part in the debate to feel that he is being denied access to information.

Mr. Peter Griffiths

I thank my hon. Friend for his latter comments. However, he has been entirely misinformed. No such invitation was given to me at any time. If my hon. Friend has been led to believe that by the promoters, it only adds to what I said earlier.

Mr. McNair-Wilson

I take careful note of what my hon. Friend said.

The hon. Member for West Bromwich, East mentioned his lack of communication with the British Railways Board. This matter was raised on Second Reading. I gave an assurance that it would be drawn to the attention of the chairman and other people concerned. I understand that that was done. If I have misled anyone, I did so on the advice that I was given. Whatever the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North, I hope that he will consider accepting the invitation to which I have referred. We do not want to have any misunderstandings on this serious matter.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport referred to the three conditions that he believed should be met if the Bill is to go forward. I am happy to tell him that they can be met. I said in my opening remarks that no charges would be levied before 10 July 1985 and that the Portsea Harbour Company Bill was to be supported by all concerned.

I am happy to give my hon. Friend the third assurance. Detailed costings of what is required can be made available. I caution my hon. Friend about wishing to see the sense of clause 6 of the Portsea Harbour Company Bill incorporated into this Bill. The provisions in clause 6 are a good deal wider than anything for which we seek approval. They would move away from my hon. Friend's desire for a tight definition of what the money is needed for.

The Minister was helpful in ensuring that hon. Members understood his role in the application of the Harbours Act 1964. I am advised that the Act states that any decision taken by the Minister would have to take into account the costs incurred in maintaining the landing stage after the public inquiry.

I hope that that information reinforces what I have said. There will be no open chequebook for Sealink UK Limited. Our desire is to ensure that we do not pass on to the taxpayers the cost of maintaining a service which is essential to some individuals.

Mr. Viggers

I am anxious to avoid any misunderstanding. My hon. Friend will realise that for the Minister to take into account the expenses incurred is a different formula from that which I suggested, which is that no charge would be made other than that necessary to reimburse the net cost of carrying out the work. To avoid any misunderstanding, can my hon. Friend confirm that my wording is acceptable to the sponsors of the Bill?

Mr. McNair-Wilson

It is acceptable. What I said about the Minister's role under the Harbours Act 1964 was a separate and reinforcing point.

We have had a long and interesting debate. I understand the anxiety of hon. Members about the changes that will follow when the Bill is enacted. I am convinced that an unsatisfactory state of affairs has existed since 1949 when the railway line was taken up. The British Railways Board has been saddled with a loss-making operation and that state of affairs must be corrected. If it is not, the facility may well disappear. If that happens, we would have much more hardship than would be caused by a modest charge to keep the landing stage properly maintained.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill to be read the Third time.