§ Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)
(by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the continuing difficulties of British Ferries Ltd. to negotiate access to the Belgian port of Zeebrugge and what reciprocal action he intends to take under sections 14 and 15 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1974.
§ The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Nicholas Ridley)
British Ferries Sealink has been in close touch with my Department about its wish to serve Zeebrugge, and I am therefore well aware of these problems. My noble Friend the Minister for shipping and I have discussed the problem with the Belgian Minister of Communications, and my officials have been in frequent and urgent contact with their Belgian counterparts. I cannot understand why the port of Zeebrugge has not responded to British Ferries' request for access. Depending on future events, I remain ready to act in support of British interests. At present, I have not ruled out any course of action.
§ Mr. Hughes
Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that British Ferries was banned from Ostend? Does he agree that the lack of faith appears to be on the side of the Belgian port authorities rather than Sealink? Why has the right hon. Gentleman apparently agreed to European Ferries marketing the operations of British Ferries in Britain—the Regie des Transports Maritime operations —given that that is part of the move to freeze Sealink out of Belgium?
Is it not absolutely clear that we are dealing with restraints on trade imposed by the Belgians? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the only way in which we can deal with this problem is by taking action under sections 14 and 15 of the Merchant Shipping Act and banning Belgian ferries from Britain? Will he confirm that he can do that immediately without parliamentary approval? Does he agree that this action could last for 28 days by which time the matter would surely be resolved? Will he act to save the jobs of the 250 seafarers that are clearly at risk because of this dispute?
§ Mr. Ridley
I confirm that, when European Ferries and RMT came together, it resulted in the exclusion of British Ferries from Ostend. I have made every conceivable effort to help British Ferries gain access to the port of Zeebrugge. I am convinced from my conversations with the Belgian Minister of Communications that the Belgian Government are not frustrating its efforts. European Ferries is entitled to market its service in any way it wishes. What is offensive is the action to deny another competitor—British Ferries—the right to serve a Belgian port. That is the point on which I have concentrated throughout.
I confirm that I remain able to use section 14, if necessary. I understand that British Ferries may be modifying its proposed operation into Zeebrugge, which could change the situation. That is why it is difficult to take decisions before the position has been clarified.
§ Mr. Peter Rees (Dover)
My right hon. Friend knows about my continuing interest and concern in this matter. Does he regard the exclusion of a British ferry company from a Belgian port, such as Zeebrugge or Ostend, to be in breach of the fundamental principles and rules of the European Community?
§ Mr. Ridley
Yes, subject to the fact that it is operationally possible. There are operational difficulties which we have done our best to help the Belgians to solve. If British Ferries were to change its operational requirement, that would set up a new position, making matters more difficult. I remain determined to ensure that Belgian ports should be open to us if our ports are open to Belgian ferries.
§ Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)
Have the Government made representations via the European Commission and, if not, have they any intention of doing so?
§ Sir Julian Ridsdale (Harwich)
For how long has the Secretary of State been in contact with the Belgian Government over this matter? Seamen's jobs are at stake and we are most anxious to see a speedy resolution. If necessary, we expect strong action from the Government.
§ Mr. Ridley
The matter has been going on since before Christmas. We have been frequently in touch with the Belgians at ministerial and official level. If necessary, I shall make contact again with my opposite number as soon as it is clear what the problem is. British Ferries submitted details of its operational plans a fortnight ago to Zeebrugge harbour. It has not yet received an acknowledgement, let alone a reply. I regard that as thoroughly unsatisfactory and discourteous. In view of the fact that British jobs are involved as well as ferry services to the Continent, I am taking the closest personal interest in the matter.
§ Mr. Ken Eastham (Manchester, Blackley)
Is it not time that the Ministry took sterner action in view of the actions of the Belgian ports? They are not acting in the spirit and intent of agreements. I reinforce the point made by the Secretary of State that there has been more than one letter of communication between Sealink and the Belgian authorities. Every communication seems to be ignored.
§ Mr. Ridley
I welcome the interest of the House in this matter. Hon. Members' expressions of impatience at this treatment will strengthen my hand in achieving an early settlement.
§ Mr. Robin Squire (Hornchurch)
Does my right hon. Friend accept that there is now a monopoly operating on any route between Belgium and Britain? Of its very nature, that must be unacceptable.
§ Mr. Ridley
That is another reason why I remain determined to find a solution to ensure that competition will continue between the English coast and the Belgian coast.
§ Mr. Bill Michie (Sheffield, Heeley)
As the Secretary of State has been aware of the problem since before Christmas and still has not been able to discover how to solve it, surely he should make a statement about when he is likely to implement the powers vested in him.
§ Mr. Ridley
It is a moving position and it is not one that has not changed. I would be happier to give an affirmative date for taking action if I were clear that British Ferries was not going to change its operational plans, thus changing the position.