HC Deb 15 February 1985 vol 73 cc704-10

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Archie Hamilton.]

2.52 pm
Mr. Eddie Loyden (Liverpool, Garston)

I would have preferred not to come to the House once again to initiate an Adjournment debate about Liverpool. I have asked for this debate because Liverpool's position has been deteriorating since the mid-1970s and there is no sign that the downward spiral of industry and jobs in the area is bottoming out.

I want to deal with the problems of the port of Liverpool. The House will be aware of how that port has declined. It has been reorganised so that it no longer holds its former important position in the economy of Merseyside and its hinterland.

I worked on the docks for about 28 years. Therefore, I consider that I have sufficient knowledge and understanding to comment on the effects of the changes on those employed directly not only in the docks industry and the port transport industry, but elsewhere.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mr. Parry) knows about the impact that the changes have had on all Liverpool constituencies. Firms such as Tate and Lyle, based upon the shipping industry in the port, J. Bibby and Co. Ltd., the oil, fat, cattle feed and other industries have been severely affected by the decline of the port of Liverpool.

When I first started working for the then Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, there were 15,000 or 16,000 registered dock workers and 9,000 ancillary workers in the ports of Liverpool and Birkenhead. Cammell Laird, Grayson Rollo Clover and Harland and Wolff employed another 20,000 people. Today, the port of Liverpool employs only 2,000 registered dock workers, and demands are still being made for that number to be reduced.

Cammell Laird, which used to be a thriving shipyard, has been in decline —I accept that there has been a general decline in shipbuilding in the United Kingdom—and there was a sorry lack of investment in that yard at the time when Third-world countries and others were emerging as shipbuilding nations.

The port and the related industries have been in decline, and that has had direct effects on the local economy. A once thriving port is now almost exclusively located in the north end of the city. Virtually all the seven miles of docks have been closed. All that is left is a small container port with some bulk cargo handling berths.

It will be argued that many of the changes that have taken place were necessary. No one suggests that all seven miles of docks could have been retained, but the introduction of new technology and changes in work practices have been painful processes. Thousands of jobs have been lost and those still working in the port are determined that it should remain as a port offering employment in Liverpool.

The port has gone through a stable period—probably its most stable period for a long time. When dramatic changes occur in the lives of working people, we expect resistance. That is justified, particularly when no alternative to the dole queue is offered to those who are spewed out of the industry.

When the Government amended the Harbours Act 1964, they dealt a further blow to the port of Liverpool. Other ports have been allowed to expand their facilities, and that is bound to have an effect because there is a limit to the amount of trade handled by United Kingdom ports. Liverpool may not be affected immediately, but Ipswich certainly will be affected and other areas will suffer when some ports are extended.

At one time, Liverpool was second in the league table of imports and exports at major ports. Liverpool is now sixth in that league table, with imports of 5 million tonnes.

The decline of the port is central to the decline of the whole Merseyside area. There have been dramatic effects on the port, on associated industries and beyond that. In my constituency alone, 10,000 jobs were wiped out at a stroke when Dunlop and British Leyland went. That is the situation in every constituency in the city of Liverpool.

The House should be aware that people in that part of the country feel that enough is enough. A Government who claim that these matters should be left to the free market economy should be looking at the consequences that that policy is having in places such as Liverpool. Liverpool is not an isolated case. The northern region and parts of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales have the same problems, but the Government show no urgency to intervene.

The latest blow to Liverpool, which is one of the reasons for this Adjournment debate, is the recent decision by the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company to leave Liverpool and go to Heysham. While this may not destroy countless jobs, the psychological blow to the port of Liverpool will he serious. What is startling about that decision is that there appears to be no economic or other reason for it. Yesterday, at a meeting of shareholders of the Isle of Man, the dissenters to this decision formed themselves into a committee to join the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company in opposing the move. That group of shareholders is showing a sensible attitude to the situation because there is no reason why this facility should be taken away from Merseyside.

If there were the infrastructure on the route to Heysham, the decision might be justified, although it would leave unused the infrastructure and communications that already exist in Merseyside. In a letter that I have had from the Library, which I asked to look into the effects of this move, I was told: I contacted the Department of Transport about the possibility of extending the M6". A demand had been made by Lancaster before the decision. It says that the proposal for the extension would almost certainly have been rejected but for the coming of the new ferry traffic which makes it a possibility. The matter is now under consideration and some submission will be made to the Minister in the near future. In other circumstances I would welcome more infrastructure, for which the Labour party is always asking, and public expenditure in areas such as Lancaster and the north, but it is clear that the Department of Transport is now considering the question on the basis of the traffic that will be generated by the movement of this facility from Liverpool to Heysham.

There is no economic sense in duplicating this service, in particular as the Government have set their face against public expenditure and have said in so many ways that they are opposed to public expenditure. They constantly argue that there should be further limitations on public expenditure, but they will have to provide the infrastructure to facilitate the traffic that will be generated by the move to Heysham.

The same applies to the railways, which were discontinued long ago. We should like, for purely social reasons, to see the railways being reinstated. Although the British Railways Board has not yet said that it will be reinstating the railway to Heysham, that will be considered. All those things do not add up, when the facilities on Merseyside exist and have existed for the past 154 years. The ferry has served the Isle of Man through two wars in this century in every kind of weather, and the service has been maintained for the betterment of the people of the Isle of Man. I am glad to hear voices being raised among the public in the Isle of Man in opposition to this move.

Although the Minister will make it clear that he has no direct responsibility for the Isle of Man company's decision, I claim that he has a responsibility and so do other Departments of this Government for the terrible state of affairs on Merseyside. That being so, the Government ought to weigh up the situation carefully and consider what they will do about the future of the port if they allow companies to make decisions of this kind without taking into account the additional costs of providing at Heysham the infrastructure that exists in Liverpool.

This is supposed to be the Government of small business. I can tell the Minister that many small businesses on Merseyside will be affected by this decision, right down to the individual cab driver who, having been made redundant on two or three occasions, decided to go it alone, which is what the Government wanted. He, too, will find himself in difficulty when this trade goes.

It has been argued for several years, and certainly since the garden festival, that the city should be encouraging tourism. That, too, will be affected by this decision, and the 150,000 people who travel through Liverpool using the railways, buses and other services will no longer do that.

Far more important, however, is that the people of Merseyside are sick to death of reading in their local press of closures day by day. When I left Liverpool this morning, the Daily Post was telling us that a further 1,500 jobs were to go. Some are going in my constituency because Guinness is moving away. In the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Riverside another Guinness facility is moving away. Cammell Laird has declared another 450 redundancies.

That is happening in the city day after day, and no one can be surprised if in the end the existing conflict there goes on to the streets of Merseyside and especially of Liverpool.

I ask the Minister to give careful consideration to the matters that I have raised. I know that my hon. Friend wants to intervene, because he has a direct involvement in those companies which have been affected by this decision. I hope that the Minister will not read glibly from his brief and say that nothing can be done. The Government wring their hands and shed tears for Merseyside. We have had buckets full of tears. We have had tankers full of sympathy. We want action. We want the Government to intervene and to spell out the logic of this move. If it happens, it will be a further blow to Merseyside and one that we shall resist as long as we can.

3.9 pm

Mr. Robert Parry (Liverpool, Riverside)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden) on initiating this very important debate. As he said, he has spent most of his working life as a seaman or as a dock worker in the port of Liverpool, and he knows more about the situation there than anyone in the House. Like me, my hon. Friend was born in the dockland area, so we know personally the effect which various closures over recent years have had on the port of Liverpool.

My hon. Friend pointed out that we met the Minister at very short notice only last Tuesday to discuss the serious problem of the withdrawal of the Isle of Man crossing from Liverpool. Since then—on Tuesday of this week—we have learnt that we are to lose several hundred other jobs in the Liverpool and Merseyside area. Guinness is to lose 300 jobs. This is the second Guinness plant in my Liverpool constituency that is to close. And more than 400 jobs are to go at Cammell Laird. Since the Government came to power 100,000 jobs have disappeared from the Merseyside special development area. Therefore, the Minister will not be surprised to hear that both I and those of my hon. Friends who represent Liverpool constituencies will fight tooth and nail to prevent further job losses.

The headquarters of the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company are based in my constituency. Sailings from the Liverpool pierhead at Riverside have gone on for 154 years. Surely to God the Government do not intend the great port of Liverpool and the Merseyside region to become an industrial wasteland. A year or two ago I raised a similar point with the Minister when he was at the Northen Ireland Office. I tried then to save the Liverpool to Belfast ferry. Although we did not save the crossing from Liverpool to Belfast by the P and O line, we managed to find another operator. Therefore, I beg the Minister seriously to consider what he can do. We cannot afford any more kicks in the teeth and these savage psychological blows.

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

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden) has raised an issue of national as well as local interest. I am sure that the whole nation shares the concern of Ministers over the difficulties faced by Liverpool and the recent difficulties to which the hon. Member has referred. They are certainly not of its making.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about the future of the port of Liverpool. In reply, perhaps I should first comment on the port's recent history. The port of Liverpool, like all ports over the past two decades, has needed to make major changes in its working practices as well as its facilities because of changing technology and patterns of trade. The hon. Gentleman is only too well aware of the change in the pattern of our trade from across the Atlantic to across the Channel and the North sea to the European ports. Inevitably that has meant a growth of trade though the east coast ports of this country and a loss of trade through the west coast ports. That is not something for which the Government are responsible. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be the first to recognise that it is one of those events over which no party has any control.

The growth of containerisation has meant a change from the old labour-intensive methods of cargo handling to which the hon. Gentleman referred, to more rapid mechanised systems. So the port has had to make a massive reduction in its work force: from over 13,000 in 1966 to about one tenth of that at present—1,350. The hon. Gentleman spoke of that with feeling and with personal knowledge. However, in 1966 the port handled over 30 million tonnes, whereas by 1983 that volume had fallen to some 11 million tonnes. Nonetheless, Liverpool is still one of the larger ports in the country. The hon. Gentleman said that it was the sixth largest. It is a going concern and is run by a commercial company which is seeking to attract new customers by offering a fast, reliable service in both container and other traffic.

The hon. Gentleman referred to section 9 of the Harbours Act 1964. May I assure him that there are wider considerations. Those considerations have been discussed in this House on another occasion. However, since 1981 the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company's performance has shown steady improvement by achieving, with Government support, the reduction in manpower that it deemed necessary, and having £30 million of debt to the Government written off.

In 1983 the company returned a profit of £6.5 million. The company's chairman has said that this recovery was fragile and that the company would need to take further measures to make its future position more secure. So, although the six-month statement for the first half of 1984 showed the company to be still making profitable progress, two dock strikes in the second half of that year wiped that profit out. However, the underlying trend for the company's performance is firmly towards recovery. By proving that the port can provide the rapid, efficient service that modern shipowners such as the Atlantic Container Line require, the company — both management and dockers, have made the port as attractive as possible to potential customers.

There can be no denying the damage which industrial disputes do to the image of any port. Southampton is one which stands glaringly in one's mind, but there have been unfortunate lapses, to which I have already referred, in the case of Liverpool, which inevitably make a port less attractive to customers and it is on customers that the prosperity of the port of Liverpool rests.

The company has been successful in attracting new customers who are willing not only to use the port's existing facilities but also to invest their own funds to the tune of over £40 million in 1985 and onwards in new facilities on the dock estates. I know that the hon. Member for Garston welcomes that particular development.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State opened one such facility last November when he visited the port—the new bulk feedstuffs terminal built by Continental Grain. As my right hon. Friend said then, such support by the privae sector companies is essential to the future success of the harbour company and is dependent above all on the stability and continuity of services supplied by the port. It is unfortunate that within one week this year two companies the South African European Container Services and the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company, announced that they intended to transfer their operations to other ports. But SAECS management in particular has stressed that it has been very impressed by the service that it has received at the port of Liverpool which has been efficiently and competitively priced. It is because of other criteria, such as geographical position, that the company judged the move to be necessary.

The hon. Members for Garston and for Liverpool, Riverside (Mr. Parry) have referred to the proposed merger of the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company and the Manx Line. I saw them earlier in the week and we discussed what we could do and the role that they thought that I might be able helpfully to play. The two lines have decided to transfer their principal ferry services to Heysham. The hon. Gentlemens' concern about the effect of those proposals on the port and city of Liverpool are well understood. I have already written to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry with responsibility for corporate and consumer affairs to ensure that the aspects of the merger that were raised with me when we met only a couple of days ago are brought to the attention of the Director General of Fair Trading.

I have also written to the chairman of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company to obtain an assessment of the effect that the loss of the business might have on the company's plans for the future. I have been informed that the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company has already made representations to the Manx Government and is still in negotiation with the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company.

Hon. Members have referred to the undoubted advantages in Liverpool of good rail and road connections with the rest of the country and have raised the question of additional infrastructure costs in Heysham. The rail connections to Heysham harbour are still in place. The re-establishment of passenger services to the harbour station is a commercial matter between the British Rail Board and Sealink UK Limited.

Mr. Loyden

How was the decision to go to Heysham taken without the knowledge that the motorway and the rail services would be there? Have the Government made any promises on that? For a company to make a decision to move without having such assurances about rail and road services would create a lot of doubt in mind about the confidence that one should have in such a company.

Mr. Mitchell

The hon. Gentleman will know that I do not have any control over the company's commercial decision as to the best way in which it can serve its customers who go to the Isle of Man. It is only right for the management of that company to make that decision in the light of how it judges it can best serve its customers.

I have been asked whether any assurances have been given to the company to the effect that there will be rail connections made, or new Government investment in roads to Heysham. The rail connections are a commercial matter for British Rail and the company. I do not know precisely what stage those discussions have reached and whether the company wishes to make a financial contribution on the scale that British Rail would require to make it worth while. No undertaking has been given by the Government with respect to the building of roads, and the company's decision is thus not based on assurances that further extensions will be provided to the road network. Indeed, the existing road appears to be of an adequate standard for present traffic flows and has spare capacity.

The Isle of Man Steam Packet company has purchased a through Ro/Ro vessel and intends to charter another from Sealink. That is its commercial judgment of what is needed. These vessels have a freight capacity requiring a Ro/Ro berth. The present facilities on the landing stage at Liverpool allow only cars and light vehicles to be loaded. As hon. Members know, a Ro/Ro ramp is available in Liverpool, but it is within the enclosed dock. It is a matter of the geography, water depth and so on, which imply certain constraints on timing—something that may be a material factor in the company's decision. Heysham has the advantage of being nearer. It is of course true that Heysham has full Ro/Ro facilities in an open harbour, and claims to have superior terminal facilities for passengers. But it is for the company to decide on the best way in which to serve its customers and the Isle of Man.

I must emphasise that if the Director General of Fair Trading and others are satisfied with the proposals for this merger, the decision to transfer the principal Isle of Man ferry services to Heysham is a commercial decision that has ultimately to be taken by the Isle of Man Steam Packet company. I very much sympathise with the point that has been made, but I think that hon. Members will realise that there is a limit on how far it is right and proper to intervene in an important service to the Isle of Man. I am sure that representations have already been made to the Isle of Man Government as to their view about the decision as to which Great Britain mainland port these services should arrive at.

I come to the future of the port of Liverpool. The Mersey Docks and Harbour Company is bent on attracting new custom, a large part of which will come through the new free port. The free ports were designated in August last year. The site——

The Question having been proposed after half-past Two o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-two minutes past Three o' clock.