HC Deb 30 March 1987 vol 113 cc825-51

Order for Second Reading read.

7.54 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Michael Spicer)

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

The objective of the Bill is to reform the organisation of marine pilotage, to simplify its administration by doing away with much of the complex legislation that regulates it at present, and to make it possible for changes to be made in pilotage services to meet modern requirements and to reflect changes in the patterns of shipping and trade.

The Bill does not reflect on the skill and professionalism of the pilots and others involved in the pilotage services. However, almost everyone concerned with pilotage has acknowledged for at least the past 15 years that the way in which pilotage is organised needs to be reformed. The increasingly competitive environment in which our ports and shipping industries are now placed means that we can no longer readily accept the costs of a service which is not as efficiently organised as it should be.

Despite a few recent legislative changes consolidated into the Pilotage Act 1983, the basic structure of the pilotage organisation remains as laid down in the Pilotage Act 1913. The provisions that were added in the Merchant Shipping Act 1979 to provide a means of reforming the organisation of pilotage proved to be unworkable in practice once the consensus that had existed in the 1970s about the reforms that were necessary had broken down.

At present, responsibility for pilotage services rests with the authorities for 93 pilotage districts. Those authorities, or the committees through which they operate, consist chiefly of representatives of the main parties with interests in pilotage, particularly the pilots, shipowners and port authorities. That structure has made it difficult to achieve agreement on the changes that need to be made in many cases. Perhaps understandably, each party has concentrated on pursuing its own interests, with the result that the best has often been the enemy of the good.

Even when pilotage authorities have managed to agree on sensible measures of reform they have generally been frustrated because under existing legislation all the main interested parties can object to the draft byelaws and orders needed to implement the reform. Such objections made to the Pilotage Commission and the Secretary of State often go beyond purely local interests. The fear that precedents may be set for other areas has been a major factor in inhibiting agreement on reforms.

I appreciate, of course, the efforts that have been made to achieve reform by means of that unsatisfactory system and I recognise the frustration that many must feel that so much work, discussion and negotiation has been put into reforming pilotage with so little positive result. All that effort has demonstrated that it is essential that someone should be in a position to take clear decisions and to implement them.

The result of the present impasse is that the organisation of pilotage has changed little in recent years, even though the ports and shipping industries have been experiencing almost revolutionary changes. In particular, the number of pilots and where they are located have not changed in line with changes in trade, with the result that in several places there are many more pilots than are needed.

Working practices are often archaic and pilots' time is not used to the best advantage. Productivity levels are low in a number of cases and in some ports pilots take, on average, little more than one ship in or out each week. Costs are, therefore, higher than they need be and the system needs to be changed so that productivity can be increased and costs reduced while safety standards are maintained. Under present legislation, pilots cannot be required to surrender their licences except on grounds of misconduct or incompetence.

Although the great majority of pilots are classed by the Inland Revenue as self-employed, it has been accepted for some time that reforms which would reduce their numbers would have to be accompanied by a scheme to compensate those who would leave the profession. Attempts have been made to obtain agreement between the various parties on such a compensation scheme. They have not, however, been acceptable to those who would have to foot the bill, the shipowners. The Government concluded that attempts at reform under the existing legislation were unlikely to produce the required results.

Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Cleethorpes)

I believe that my hon. Friend just said that the average number of journeys or pilotage acts made by each pilot in the United Kingdom was one per week. Will he confirm that the number of pilotage acts by each pilot on the Humber is about 250 per year?

Mr. Spicer

I am sure that, as my hon. Friend knows his area extremely well, that figure will be confirmed. I did not say that one pilotage act per week was the average; I said that the figure was as low as that, on average. However, I have full confidence in my hon. Friend's knowledge of the Humber, and I am sure that his statistics are impeccable.

The proposal in the Bill is in essence a simple one—that responsibility for pilotage should be transferred to the harbour authorities. Pilotage has historically been organised separately from the ports within which pilots operate. In the majority of cases, it is run by separate pilotage authorities, of which the most important is Trinity House, which has responsibility for 40 of the 93 districts. In a number of other cases, it is true, the pilotage authority and the harbour authority are one and the same, but even there the detailed and complex legislative requirements mean that the conflicting interests have been able in practice to block reform. The movement of ships within ports now needs to be managed properly as a whole, particularly where large vessels or vessels carrying dangerous cargoes are involved. Pilotage is one of the services that a harbour authority needs to be able to offer and deploy to ensure the safe and effective conduct of its operations.

Harbour authorities will wish to ensure that the necessary pilotage service is provided for their ports as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible. The present arrangements make that very difficult for them to achieve.

There is no reason whatever to believe that harbour authorities will act without a proper regard for safety in taking their decisions on pilotage, any more than they do in exercising their existing responsibilities for safety within the port. If there are any lingering doubts about that, the duties that the Bill will place on the authorities should dispel them. The Bill will place upon harbour authorities a clear duty to consider, and to keep under consideration, what pilotage services are needed to secure the safety of ships, and whether, in the interests of safety, pilotage should be made compulsory. They will also be given a duty to provide the pilotage services that they consider necessary to secure the safety of shipping. They will be obliged under the Bill to ensure that pilot boats are safe for their purpose.

Mr. Peter Rees (Dover)

My hon. Friend has rightly stressed the issue of safety in the consideration of this complex and important problem. As he must know, the English channel, between Dover and Folkestone, is one of the busiest waterways in the world. Will he consider an extension of the inshore zone which at present stops short of the Goodwin Sands? I leave it to him to say whether the area is in my constituency, but is there not a case for a further extension, in the interests of safety?

Mr. Spicer

My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right, as he always is on safety matters—particularly in relation to the port that he represents. I can reassure him on the general safety objective. As to the extension of the area over which the harbour will have authority, particularly in so far as that applies to compulsory piloting, special procedures within the House will be needed. Within the area over which it has competence, the harbour has discretion on where it can apply compulsory piloting.

Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham)

I suspect that my hon. Friend and I are concerned with the same areas. Will he confirm that we are reducing the present pilotage districts, and will he give further consideration to the point made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Rees) before we reach the Committee stage? We are not talking about possible extensions, but we are restricting the present limitations.

Mr. Spicer

I can confirm that the area over which the harbour authorities will have competence may in some cases be less than those in which pilotage districts had original competence. There are reasons for that. Some of the districts were originally established at the turn of the century. Clearly, the competence for navigation, navigation aids and the general technology with which shipping is conducted has changed since then. However, if the competent authorities wish to increase the area over which they have compulsory pilotage powers, they will be able to do so under special procedures. We have tried to streamline those procedures as much as possible, but if there are any objections to the extensions they will be subject to the special procedures of the House.

Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)

Grave concern has been expressed by those who inhabit the regions around the north Kent coast about possible contraction of the Thames pilotage area. It has been said that crossing the English channel on the approaches to the Thames is like trying to run across a three-lane motorway. Will the Minister give us an assurance that, before any of the proposals are introduced, safety will be of paramount importance?

Mr. Spicer

I can certainly give that assurance. We are merely saying that we think that the competence for safety should rest with the harbour authorities, which will certainly have the power, if they wish to do so, to extend it. No doubt they will note carefully what is said in our debate, and the views of Parliament, because if there were any objections to their intention to extend their powers of competence Parliament would have the final say on the matter. But safety will certainly be paramount in the Government's mind.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

There are important and stringent regulations for the passage of tankers up the Clyde and the carrying of pilots on those vessels particularly when they pass close to Holy Loch and the nuclear submarine base. Will the Minister assure us that those stringent regulations will be adhered to vis-a-vis the devolution of pilotage authorities?

Mr. Spicer

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I reflect on such a detailed question so that I can give him a proper answer rather than an answer off the top of my head. I shall consider the point carefully and give my answer in writing at the end of the debate, or when the Bill is in Committee.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Bristol, East)

If compulsory pilotage is required by an authority outside its area, a shipowner has the right to object to the Secretary of State. But will my hon. Friend explain why the Bill will not permit a shipowner to object to compulsory pilotage inside the area of the authority's competence?

Mr. Spicer

We have taken the view that somebody must be in charge. The modernisation that is implicit in the Bill has been inhibited because so many people have got in on the management act. Port authorities have been given the responsibility to take decisions of that kind.

One advantage of placing pilotage responsibility on the harbour authorities is that decisions can be taken where they should be taken, at local level, taking into the account the nature of the traffic in the port and the local hazards that have to be encountered. I hope that to some extent that meets the point of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Mr. Sayeed).

It has rightly been said that the approaches to no two ports are the same. The involvement of bodies at national level, including the Department of Transport, would only serve, as it has served under the present system, to encourage local arguements to be referred upwards when they can and should be matters for local decision.

I shall not trouble the House by going through the Bill clause by clause, but I draw the attention of right hon. and hon. Members to a few points that I know have been troubling some of them. Clause 4 deals with the arrangements to be made between authorities and pilots for the provision of pilots' services. A number of types of arrangement will be possible, involving either employment by the authority or an agent or agreements with self-employed pilots.

A harbour authority will be able to employ pilots directly, if it wishes. If pilots insist on direct employment, the harbour authority will be obliged to provide it, whether or not that is what the harbour authority wants. If, however, a majority of local pilots agree that the obligation to employ them directly need not apply, the harbour authority will itself be able to choose either direct employment or some other arrangement.

Harbour authorities will have several means of controlling pilotage costs through their control over charges and over the terms of contract for the provision of pilotage services where they are not employing pilots directly. We do not, therefore, consider that it will be necessary for the harbour authorities to have the power to withdraw pilot authorisation on the ground that the number of pilots is greater than is required where pilotage is being provided under a service contract and the pilots may be self-employed. I shall therefore be introducing an amendment in Committee that will limit the powers of harbour authorities in this respect.

Clause 7 deals with compulsory pilotage and empowers competent harbour authorities to issue pilotage directions specifying the ships, areas and circumstances in which it is to apply.

In another place my noble Friend the Minister with responsibility for shipping resisted an amendment to the Bill that was intended to exempt pleasure craft from compulsory pilotage. My noble Friend took the view that it was very unlikely in practice that competent harbour authorities would wish to make pilotage compulsory for pleasure craft—except, possibly, the very largest of them. My noble Friend felt, however, that, in line with the underlying principle of the Bill, it was right to leave it to the local harbour authorities to make this decision about pleasure craft in the light of local circumstances. However, concern has continued to be expressed by hon. Members on behalf of yachtsmen, in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin). Since it is of little practical consequence, my noble Friend and I have decided that in Committee I should introduce an amendment to exempt all but the very largest sailing yachts from compulsory pilotage.

Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)

I very much welcome this change of heart by the Government. I thank them for considering the well argued representations of the Royal Yachting Association that have been clearly put to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport through the House of Commons yacht club, of which I have the honour to be secretary.

Mr. Spicer

I think that my hon. Friend does himself an injustice. He put forward extremely cogently the association's arguments on its behalf.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

On the first amendment that the Minister said that he will introduce in Committee, I think he will agree that clause 4 is very difficult to comprehend. Did he say that the effect of his amendment would be that if there were self-employed pilots in a given area they rather than the harbour authority would determine the number of pilots?

Mr. Spicer

That will be the effect. The pilots would determine the number, irrespective of and without prejudice to the budget for the self-employed agency.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)

What is the significance of that concession? I understood that the effect of the Bill would be to spread the cost between a larger number of people. Now it will be borne by a smaller number of people. What difference will that make to those who have to pay the charges? Furthermore, how many jobs will be lost from British ports to European ports?

Mr. Spicer

There should be no effect on the self-employed. A budget will be established for the agency of self-employed pilots. Under the amendment, it would be up to the agent of the self-employed pilots to determine how many pilots he employed. It should make no difference to the cost, but it would give flexibility and discretion to the self-employed pilots.

Mr. Sayeed

I regret my hon. Friend's statement that he is to introduce an amendment to clause 4. One of the benefits of reducing the number of pilots is that all pilots will be kept up to date by constantly practising pilotage. His suggestion means that in some areas self-employed pilots will not undertake many acts of pilotage and that they will not be so up to date with the changing patterns in the estuary, or wherever they are piloting.

Mr. Spicer

I do not understand why that should be so. The budget will be determined by the port authority and the agency. It is unlikely that the pilots will overman their agency; I do not think that my hon. Friend needs to be concerned about that. The ports will not lose control either over charging or over the budgets, but we are saying—quite properly and fairly, I believe—that the self-employing agencies should be able to decide how many people work for them. They would not be in business for very long if they were overmanned and exceeded their budgets. So long as we leave control over charging and budgeting to the ports, as we have, my hon. Friend's fears are not well founded.

Dr. Godman

I have one final question that relates to the explanatory memorandum. Is there not a typographical error in the explanation of clause 6? Should it not read competent harbour authorities to approve and license pilot boats"? The explanation refers to harbour authorities approving or licensing pilot boats. Is there not an error there?

Mr. Spicer

Probably. I shall look at that point later and come back on it to the hon. Gentleman. It is a point of detail, and I do not think he would expect me to go into it during a Second Reading speech.

The good sense of the general principle that harbour authorities should be responsible for pilotage has been widely recognised since the publication of the Green Paper in 1984. The Select Committee on Transport reached that conclusion when it examined pilotage in 1985. I believe that it is also increasingly accepted that the detail of our proposals provides fair treatment for those affected.

The Bill provides a statutory compensation scheme for those for whom there will no longer be work as pilots. That is an unusual benefit to provide for people classed as self-employed. The ability of pilots who continue to insist on harbour authorities offering them direct employment, if that is what they want locally, together with the temporary arbitration procedure, will give an assurance of fair treatment as they enter the new arrangements. The Bill also deals fairly with employees of pilotage authorities.

I share the general feeling that it would be most regrettable if the experience of pilotage which Trinity House has gained over so many years were lost. I am glad to know that Trinity House has formed a new subsidiary company—Trinity House Agency Services Ltd—which will be able to offer services on an agency basis to harbour authorities, not merely in those districts already served by Trinity House. We have tried in the Bill—for example, in our treatment of pension liabilities—to give Trinity House Agency Services a fair start. I am sure that many competent harbour authorities will look seriously at the option of using that service.

It is fair to say that many initial misgivings about the Bill have been overcome and that all parties want to ensure that the new arrangements are as workable and as effective as possible. I warmly welcome the discussions between representatives of the British Ports Association and the United Kingdom Pilots Association (Marine). They have led to improvements in a number of the Bill's provisions as well as covering a number of matters which go beyond it.

The Bill's proposals will allow this service essential to the safety of shipping to meet current needs better than at present. At the same time it will free pilotage from the cumbersome statutory procedures which have made it difficult to adapt to changing circumstances. The reduction in unnecessary costs must be of benefit to the future prosperity of our ports. The future well-being of the pilotage professions, as well as the economy, are intimately linked to the prosperity of our ports. I commend the Bill to the House.

8.22 pm
Mr. Roger Stott (Wigan)

In House of Commons terms this is a small but important measure. Its importance is demonstrated by the number of hon. Members present on both sides of the House.

Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

We are surrounded by water.

Mr. Stott

That will be a theme of my contribution.

The Bill is contentious in some respects but it is not politically contentious, so the Opposition do not intend to divide the House.

Mr. Frank Field

That is an extraordinary comment. Many of us represent ports' interests and are fearful of further job losses to Europe. That is a political issue of the first importance. It might not be a party issue, and perhaps there will be agreement across the Chamber, but perhaps some of us will divide the House. Surely it is a political issue.

Mr. Stott

My hon. Friend represents Birkenhead on the Mersey and has a definite constituency interest. I am saying, with the authority of speaking from the Front Bench, that the main thrust of the Bill is not politically contentious. I disagree with many provisions in the Bill, but I have no doubt that they will be dealt with in Committee. The Bill does not create a major political divide between the two main parties.

The House of Lords spent much time scrutinising the Bill. Those hon. Members who read Hansard will see that the House of Lords dealt with the Bill in detail.

I, with others, have had the opportunity of discussing the Bill with those whom it will affect. We have discussed it with the General Council of British Shipping, the British Ports Association, Trinity House and the pilots. Naturally, there are substantial differences of opinion. Our job in Committee will be to attempt to reconcile some of the differences and to ensure that the Bill makes practical common sense.

Britain has a long and proud maritime history. Our Royal Navy is still the finest in the world. Our merchant fleet once used to dominate world shipping. It is a great tragedy that our merchant fleet has declined. Britain exports 80 per cent. of its goods by sea. Ever since the time of Henry VIII there has been pilotage in and out of our ports. We should do nothing in this legislation which will diminish or undermine the skill of pilots in their difficult job. We must ensure that we do nothing to undermine the safety of ships entering or leaving the United Kingdom.

I do not quarrel with the Bill's principles, provided that the pilot's authority, when in charge of a ship, remains supreme, as it is, and as is provided in section 74(2) of the Merchant Shipping Act 1984. Pilotage should he the responsibility of the ports. The pilots themselves have given the reform qualified support. Their principal qualification is that the Bill must ensure a pilotage system which makes the safety of navigation the first priority. The Bill must do that. It must make the safety of navigation the first priority above commercial values or benefits to the ports. The Bill must also ensure fair and equitable treatment for pilots during transfer to and in the new system.

Clauses 2 and 7 give powers to port authorities to determine which vessel, if any, should be subject to compulsory pilotage. The stated objective of reform is to reduce costs. Behind that is the general philosophy that ports, being in competition with each other, will fine tune the pilotage system as much as possible. In so doing, is there not a considerable risk that they will fine tune to such an extent that it might be acceptable in commercial terms but totally unacceptable in environmental risk terms?

Clause 2, as amended in the House of Lords, places a duty on competent harbour authorities to have regard in particular to vessels carrying dangerous and obnoxious cargoes. Whether that is sufficient is questionable because an incident involving a tanker carrying heavy oil could have tremendous environmental consequences, whereas an incident involving a vessel carrying light oil, chemicals or, especially, gas could have catastrophic consequences for life and property if the vessel passes close to urban centres. What about ships that carry nuclear waste? In all the cases mentioned I believe that public interest overrides the narrower commercial case. Rather than face a duty to pay regard to the hazards involved, legislation should impose firm directives on all port authorities. I believe that that is exemplified by the intention to ban certain types of vessels from using the Minches, which can he considered open waters in comparison with the Channel and our other leading ports.

Mr. Ian Wrigglesworth (Stockton, South)

Before the hon. Gentleman goes off to the Minches, I should like to draw attention to the question of safety, which is causing deep anxiety in areas such as Teesside. The position that he has described appertains in that region. There is a. nuclear power station there and hazardous substances are used by the petrochemical and steel industries. Therefore. many hazardous substances are going up and down the. river. Before the debate ends, I look forward to an assurance by the Minister that those anxieties can be allayed.

Mr. Stott

The hon. Gentleman speaks with the authority of representing that region, which has a large petrochemical plant. The country that exemplifies the theory and the practice of free market forces, the United States, imposes rigid criteria on the movement of vessels, especially those carrying petrochemicals. Therefore, I believe that it is absolutely essential that we should do the same. When the Bill is in Committee I trust that we shall have a debate about that issue.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

I wish to confirm the reference to the Minches, with which my constituency is conterminous. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that for many years the Scottish Guild of Pilots has been pressing for compulsory pilotage in that area? Vessels laden with oil from Sullom Voe may go down the Minches for shelter. If there was an accident, there would be enormous pollution and that would result in many fish hatcheries and so on being killed off within the area.

Mr. Stott

The right hon. Gentleman draws attention to an especially important question. From my days in the Merchant Navy I remember on one particular occasion we sailed through the Minches without a pilot. Admittedly, we were in a fairly small ship—not a tanker, but a Bowater ship carrying paper pulp. The distances between which a ship has to navigate are quite small. A foreign flag skipper in a large tanker could find those waters extremely difficult to navigate. The right hon. Gentleman has made a sound point.

An important clause within the Bill concerns pilot boats. Clause 6 gives total control to competent harbour authorities to determine standards in relation to the provision and standards of pilot boats. Those boats operate in all weather conditions, even when the commercial ships that they serve are seeking shelter. Pilots' lives depend upon them. Pilotage is a dangerous occupation. In recent years on average at least one pilot has been seriously injured or killed annually as a result of boarding or landing incidents. That represents 0.1 per cent. of pilots. If we exclude those who work in the North sea, that represents a higher accident rate than any other group of professional worker.

Is it right that there should be no statutory regulations in the future? Draft guidelines were generally agreed in 1983, but I believe that they have never been implemented. The House should pay regard to the Select Committee on Transport and its report of 1985, especially paragraphs 125 and 126. They dealt with licensing and manning standards. The Committee strongly recommended that the responsibility for pilot boats, manning standards, the level of operation and efficiency should lie with the Department of Transport. It recommended that manning standards should be agreed between the local pilots and the Department's surveyors and that the Secretary of State should make regulations for such boats under section 2 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1979.

I now wish to turn to what I, and no doubt other hon. Members, consider the most contentious issue in the Bill—the pilotage exemption certificate. The Bill imposes an obligation on competent harbour authorities to issue a pilotage exemption certificate to the master of any ship provided that he can demonstrate that he has sufficient skill, experience and local knowledge to pilot the vessel into their harbour. The harbour authority will be unable to exclude those classes of vessels to which reference has already been made and to which competent harbour authorities must pay particular regard under clause 2(2). In my view, a belt and braces attitude is required. The harbour authority will be unable to pay regard to the sometimes suspect insular regimes operated on ships. For example, the authority will be unable to pay regard to physical conditions on board such ships—whether the ships are over-manned or under-manned or whether the crew is tired. The authorities will be able to provide the exemption certificates on the basis of flimsy evidence. I believe that the exemptions from pilotage certificates will accelerate the decline of our already declining merchant fleet. It will encourage aliens to dominate to a greater extent not only in our deep sea trades but also in our home trades.

I have discussed this matter with members of the National Union of Marine, Aviation and Shipping Transport Officers which organises the officers on board our merchant ships. Many NUMAST ship-masters already hold pilotage exemption certificates. NUMAST is anxious to ensure that its members are treated fairly when it comes to the granting or renewal of such certificates. Nevertheless, NUMAST is astounded at the limited power given to competent harbour authorities to grant exemption certificates without any restrictions as to the flag of the ship, the standard of the ship, the nationality of the master or first mate of that ship, their command of the English language or, indeed, the trading patterns of that ship. I notice that the Minister gibed slightly when I mentioned the question of the English language. I accept an amendment relating to the English language has been introduced in the other place, but, even so, it is not explicit enough.

There would be a safeguard if we could at least restrict such certificates of exemption to the masters and first mates of EEC flag ships. It should also be specified that such masters and first mates should be required to be regular traders within the particular port.

Given the present state of the United Kingdom's shipping industry, I believe that there is no justification for allowing ships of any flag to enter our ports on the basis of pilotage exemption certificates. Such a policy would allow and encourage third flag carriers of dubious standards, in some cases receiving direct or indirect subsidies, to compete with our industry that is neither subsidised nor supported.

Mr. Moate


Mr. Stott

I shall give way in a moment.

The House will be aware that the United Kingdom does not operate the principle of cabotage. Our coasts are open to any foreign flag. However, there is precious little in terms of reciprocal agreements with any of our European partners. To institute a system of pilotage exemption certificates, especially for coastal vessels, will spell the end of our coastal trade as we know it. Moreover, it will encourage some British operators and shipowners to flag out as they flag out their deep sea vessels. It will be one more encouragement for British operators to leave the British flag. That will happen if we have a system of pilotage exemption certificates as envisaged in the Bill.

Mr. Moate

There will be considerable cost involved in gaining such a certificate and it is unlikely that that cost will incurred unless a master is visiting port at fairly frequent intervals. In doing so he would gain familiarity with the port and earn his exemption certificate.

Mr. Stott

There is no limitation on exemption certificates. A certificate could be given to any master of any ship because the Minister and the draftsmen have not provided specific detail. Any master of any ship can gain a certificate. Masters will have to satisfy certain conditions in respect of their knowledge of a port, including the regularity of their entries into and departures from it. But is it right that a competent harbour authority—it will be only the authority, not the Secretary of State, Trinity House or the Pilotage Commission—should have sole responsibility for the granting of a certificate?

Mr. Crouch

I do not follow the hon. Gentleman's great concern about the possible harm to coastal trade and traffic. The small port of Whitstable in my constituency will be a competent harbour authority. Coastal traffic from Cornwall to Whitstable brings granite to be broken in quarry or sand and gravel operations at Whitstable. It is dependent on two vessels of 400 to 500 tonnes coming from Cornwall each week to deliver the granite. They do not need a pilot to enable them safely to enter the small port of Whitstable, and that has been argued to me by the operators of the port. The masters make the journey twice a week; they know the port better than any pilot who might be called upon to bring in the vessels once every six weeks. I do not understand how the exemption certificate arrangements could harm that traffic, which admittedly is all under the British flag.

Mr. Stott

The hon. Gentleman answers his own question in his last sentence. As he has said, the traffic is all under the British flag. I am not opposed to the granting of exemption certificates to masters who are currently operating in and out of United Kingdom harbours. I am saying that the Bill, if it is not amended, will open up the granting of exemption certificates in a way that will severely damage our coastal and deep-sea fleets.

Mr. Sayeed

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Stott

I shall complete my argument, and if the hon. Gentleman contains himself he will have the opportunity to intervene.

For many years I acted as a quartermaster while pilots were performing their acts of pilotage on the ships in which I served. It is with that authority of experience that I believe that the granting of exemption certificates in the way that the Bill proposes will be dangerous and foolhardy and will do nothing to help existing pilots.

Mr. Sayeed

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that he would be happy for the competent harbour authority to grant exemption certificates to British flag ships but not necessarily to those of other countries?

Mr. Stott

If the hon. Gentleman wants me to be absolutely bold and truthful, that is right. I should be prepared to say that masters of British flag ships that currently have exemption certificates should have the right to reapply for them. I am not in the business of writing legislation—I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not— that enables any country's flag ship, irrespective of the standard of manning levels, the level of safety and the degree of experience, to be given an exemption certificate.

I listened with interest when the Minister said that in Committee he would move an amendment to clause 4, which deals with the employment of pilots by the harbour authorities. As the Minister has said that an amendment will be introduced by the Government, I shall not delay the House by putting before it what I had to say on that issue.

Many Members on both sides of the House have continually drawn to the Government's attention the decline of our maritime fleet, and the right hon. Member for Taunton (Sir E. du Cann) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Callaghan) are only two of them. So far the Government have criminally ignored the siren voices that have been raised on this issue. The decline is now entering its terminal stage and we must ask ourselves an important question: where in this island nation are the pilots of the future to come from? The majority of pilots have been seagoing masters or first mates, and there is no provision in the Bill for the training of pilots. I recognise that there is provision for extending the period of four years in which pilots can be replaced within their own ranks, but what happens after the four years have expired?

If we have a declining merchant fleet and pilots leave the service, for whatever reason, how is our great trading nation to find the pilots of the future? I do not know whether the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Thornton) was a master mariner, but I know that he is a qualified pilot who piloted ships in and out of the Mersey. I suspect that he was trained as a pilot on that river. But where is such training to be gained in future? From where shall we obtain pilots in future if our merchant fleet continues on its present decline? The nation will be facing a serious problem.

These are serious issues that will have to be addressed when the Bill is considered in Committee. I can say from the Opposition Dispatch Box that what the Government are trying to do in the general reorganisation of the pilotage service is to be welcomed, but there are differences of opinion on how the reorganisation should he carried out.

8.48 pm
Sir Paul Bryan (Boothferry)

I am glad to be called to take up the remarks of the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott), who had great experience in the merchant navy. I must declare my interest as deputy chairman of Furness Withy Ltd., but I have nothing like the practical experience that the hon. Gentleman has enjoyed. My speech will not be on the shipping side of the problem, which is in the competent hands of the General Council of British Shipping. It will be addressed more to the problems of pilots, especially of the Humber estuary and of Goole, which is in my constituency.

Pilots are small in number but extremely vigorous and persistent in defending their interests. This is hardly surprising for, almost by definition, they are rugged individuals who spend their lives imposing their will on ships and on foreign captains. In addition to the meetings with pilots of Humberside over the past years, I spent a day, together with my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley (Sir P. Wall), on the pilot's boat going up from Spurn to Selby. It was not a particularly choppy day but at Spurn point we could get an inkling of what life must be like on a stormy winter's night.

The fact that the Bill has been through another place and has been thoroughly discussed there has disposed of a number of important issues. For a start, it is at last accepted by all interested parties, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, that pilotage should become a harbour authority function. As the Bill is the result of seven years', or more, argument and violent disagreement between the various vested interests, the problems it seeks to solve are clearly deep-seated and still far from settled, despite the long debates in another place.

I shall deal with the situation on the Humber. I was glad to hear that over the weekend the Associated British Ports authority met some 150 pilots to discuss the amalgamation of the pilotage service on the estuary and the self-employed system it hopes will follow. I understand that by an overwhelming majority of those who voted the pilots decided to proceed with the discussions. If the talks could be successful and reach an amicable conclusion, it would be a wonderful start for the new system in the area.

The present three-part division of the Humber has meant that ships going upstream from Hull require two pilots, a Humber pilot to Hull roads and a Goole or Trent pilot for the rest of the journey. To a layman, I am bound to say that that has never looked sensible but one could see perfectly well why some pilots resisted amalgamation. It would mean significant and often highly inconvenient changes in their working practices.

One obvious difficulty of Humberside pilotage is the intense competition, not to say antagonism, between the ABP ports and the private wharves. With the switch of trade to Europe after the war, Hull, like Southampton, had a heaven-sent opportunity to develop into one of the country's leading ports. That opportunity was thrown away and Hull, far from developing, is now a shadow of its former self as a port. However, that has not killed the traffic in the estuary. The tonnage entering the Humber is actually greater than it has ever been. It has switched to the other ports in the estuary, not least to the private wharves, such as Howdendyke, Gunness and Keadby. The private wharves probably deal with more ships, if less tonnage, than the ABP ports. Those wharves are run for the benefit of the customers and not, like Hull, for the benefit of the dockers, and that is why the small docks have succeeded. I am glad to say that the port of Goole, which is an ABP port in my constituency, has excellent labour relations and is well able to compete.

That competitive background leads to the owners of the non-ABP ports questioning whether, in the matter of charges and general treatment, they will receive a service on a par with that given to the ABP ports which will, after all, be running the pilotage service.

A number of provisions in the Bill are designed to protect all users of the service, but these are matters which can best be solved by consultation between the parties concerned. I am glad that representatives of the ABP recently met the Humber district wharf owners association to explain in detail their proposals for the pilotage service. More important still, it has been agreed that, following reorganisation, there should be regular consultations between the users of the service and the operators of non-ABP port installations.

Humber pilots have expressed their concern on the future of compulsory pilotage. The fear is that as one of the main objects of reform is to reduce costs and put ports in competition with each other, in the words of the hon. Member for Wigan, the ports will "fine tune the pilotage system as much as possible." They ask for legislation which should, again in the words of the hon. Member for Wigan, "impose firm directions on all port authorities." I cannot agree with that. It would surely lead to a mass of detailed regulations of the sort we are trying to leave behind us.

I should have thought that it would be in the interests of the ABP port authority on the Humber to get a reputation for safety. The lower Humber is used by a wide variety of vessels, not only cargo vessels, but tankers carrying gas or oil products, and passenger ferries. The variety of traffic and the presence of large petrochemical installations to which ships pass very close make a strictly controlled system essential on grounds of safety. The port authority does not have to be virtuous to provide that safety; it is simply in its best interests. ABP assures me that all but the smallest vessels will either be piloted or be under the control of masters of known competence. The overriding commitment to safety, which we all share, can be discharged only if pilotage remains compulsory.

The employment of pilots is the most sensitive area of all. It is quite understandable that the amendments proposed in another place took the form of a succession of attemps by spokesmen for the pilots to get the general assurances given by the Government for their future wellbeing, translated into statutory form. To some extent they were successful. Amendment No. 36 on arbitration is a real advance and meets some, but not by any means all, of their worries.

However, at the end of the day, the contentment of the pilots will not depend on a parliamentary Act. As in any other industry, it will depend on the confidence built up between employer and employee, in this case the port authorities and the pilots. Problems such as compensation for pilots in years after the changeover cannot be written into a Bill. They must be a matter for negotiation and I believe the port authorities have already acknowledged that.

In an industry where earnings vary so widely from area to area, anything in the nature of a statutory guarantee that no single pilot will, after reconstruction, earn less than he does now is clearly out of the question. But, of course, it is in everybody's interest, including the port authorities', that pilots in general will not be worse off than they are now.

Proposals that consultation with pilots on such questions as pilotage orders should be written into the Bill illustrate an understandable—I stress "understandable"—lack of confidence in the future management. That is the sort of consultation I would expect naturally to take place and I hope the very large meeting that took place at the weekend between the ABP and the Humber estuary pilots will be the start of the build-up of confidence which will lead to a harmonious and effective system of pilotage so necessary to an estuary of that importance.

8.58 pm
Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

As has already been said, this is a somewhat complex piece of legislation. Indeed, the word "complex" appears in almost all the letters that I have received about this Bill. Reading the reports of the debates in another place, I noted that the former Law Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, challenged the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport responsible for shipping, Lord Brabazon, to explain some of the clauses without reference to his briefing notes or the explanatory notes. That is what the public will have to do. It is important, although this is a complex piece of legislation, that we realise that it is our duty in our deliberations and in Committee to express clearly the objectives of the Bill and the means of achieving them.

At the outset, I must stress that my right hon. and hon. Friends support the Government in the objectives set out in the Bill. There has been wide recognition that the existing scheme for providing pilotage services has produced many inefficiencies—in some ports insufficient pilots to meet the demands, and, in others, a considerable surplus. As the Minister said when moving the Second Reading, the means of trying to rationalise the provision of pilots throughout the country have not been easy and many of the attempts to do that have been frustrated. There is a conflict of interest to which the Minister referred. I understand that the Letch agreement which was set up in the hope of effectively regulating to some extent the number of pilots and their proper distribution has by all accounts broken down and has not achieved its objective.

Being fair, the imbalance has been accepted by many pilots. In a letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) the honorary secretary of the Southampton and Isle of Wight Pilot Service said: There appears to be little doubt that the numbers of Pilots licensed nationally is too high, and Pilots locally welcome the scheme to provide for early retirement. According to Mr. Sparkes, the honorary secretary, that is an area in which there is a shortage of pilots. He was particularly anxious that the early retirement funds should be available to pilots in areas and authorities that are currently undermanned. I hope that the Minister will clarify that point when he replies and tell us whether the Bill allows for pilots in those areas to take early retirement with the same fairly generous provisions made in the Bill. I hope that he will also say what steps exist in the Bill to facilitate the transfer of pilots from areas where there is a surplus of pilots to areas where there will obviously be a need for the harbour authorities to engage more pilots. If the Bill is to work effectively when it becomes an Act there must be that degree of flexibility and I look forward to hearing from the Minister what steps he proposes to take to ensure that that exists.

We hope that by such rationalisation many of our ports will be able to reduce their costs and, hopefully, that will make them more competitive as between themselves and, as is the case particularly on the east and south coasts, more competitive with many European ports. Although this may not be the moment to debate light dues—I am sure that we shall have a debate on that soon—it is ironic that while we have one set of measures from the Government designed to increase competition, another set is due to be debated which alliance Members would maintain will remove the competitive edge from many of our ports.

Mr. Wrigglesworth

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point because it affects ports such as the Tees which are in direct competition with ports on the mainland of Europe. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure my hon. Friend that there will be no knock-on effects from the implications of the Bill which will increase costs in ports such as the Tees and make them less competitive with Rotterdam and other places on the other side of the North sea.

Mr. Wallace

I share my hon. Friend's hope that the Minister will give us an assurance about the effects of this Bill. I rather suspect that some of the pension provisions will initially at least increase the financial burden on some of the ports concerned. However, I am certain that the long-term aim is that costs should be reduced and I hope that the Minister will reassure us on that point.

The proposals were substantially endorsed by the Select Committee on Transport. From experience in my constituency of the two islands councils which are harbour authorities for Sullom Voe and Scapa Flow I am aware that the system whereby harbour authorities have employed pilots is one which, from many years' experience, has worked with considerable success.

I want to dwell to some extent on the points which the Minister announced about the amendments that he proposes to bring forward. There is some fear that we are approaching the stage where the Bill has been watered down to the extent that it might not achieve some of its objectives. Can the Minister confirm that if pilots opt for self-employment there will not be any control over the numbers employed?

The general manager of Aberdeen harbour board raised the matter with me, saying that his concern was shared by many other Scottish ports. He believes that it will be difficult, if not impossible, for the harbour hoard to employ the pilots and to remunerate them at the level which they have reasonably come to expect in recent years. The Minister said that the harbour authority would continue to set the pilotage dues and that the amount set would dictate the number of pilots taken on by the self employing agency. I shall be pleased to stand corrected if' I am wrong, but there is bound to be a contract between the agency and the harbour board and if the harbour board rightly has a duty to provide the service but cannot afford to employ the pilots directly a major bargaining counter will be placed in the hands of the agency. I wonder to what extent the harbour board would then haw the flexibility to determine the pilotage charges as it wishes.

The scheme is set out in clause 4(2). The Minister has said that the pilots can insist on direct employment by the harbour authority, but the two authorities in my constituency are concerned about whether the inverse is true and the authority can insist on direct employment That is clearly a matter of concern when arrangements have been in operation for many years. Despite numerous assurances from Ministers, including Lord Brabazon, I am not sure that clause 4(2) actually achieves that, but perhaps we can go into that aspect in more detail in Committee.

Mr. Michael Spicer

The hon. Gentleman raises two points. In a way, the one answers the other, but I shall try to deal with them briefly. The Bill makes it clear that the harbour authority makes the ultimate decision as to whether to employ people directly. That gives the authority the leverage in determining the costs of an agency relationship if that is what it wants. The authority will also be able to determine how many people to employ if it decides to employ directly. The idea that there is no leverage—I believe that some of my hon. Friends are also concerned about this—in determining the budget for the agency relationship is thus not correct because the authority has the alternative of employing people directly in the numbers that it wishes.

Mr. Wallace

I follow what the Minister says, but there is a practical problem. Aberdeen harbour board feels that it could not employ sufficient pilots and pay them as much as they now receive, and if there were a substantial reduction in earnings pilots might not wish to be employed there. To employ them at the present remuneration, however, would skew salary and wage arrangements with all other employees. Therefore, although I accept the Minister's point in theory, I believe that it will be very difficult for harbour authorities to work this out in practice. We shall certainly wish to scrutinise this aspect carefully when the Minister brings forward his amendment in Committee.

I think that the whole House agrees that there should be no cost-cutting in relation to safety. Over many years our pilots have shown themselves to have great expertise and professional skill. As those qualities will in no way be diminished by the Bill, we can expect the high safety standards to be maintained.

The issue of compulsory pilotage has already been raised. It was stated that there should be no encouragement or incentive to cut costs by trying to limit the areas of compulsory pilotage. There should be some scope for an overview. Clause 7(4) provides for some consultation with users. It is equally important that there should be some provision for consultation to take account of public interests. The other side of the coin has been of concern to the General Council of British Shipping. If there is any proposal to extend the pilotage limits, that will have consequences for the shipowners in cost terms and it will wish to see some right of appeal. This issue should not be determined solely by the harbour authority without any further recourse for appeal.

The hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott) raised the issue of exemption certificates. I was grateful to the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Mr. Sayeed) for pinning down the hon. Member for Wigan because it transpired that he was seeking a ban on all exemption certificates for foreign vessels, which is blatantly protectionism by the back door—[Interruption.] If that is not the correct interpretion of what the hon. Gentleman was asking for, I shall certainly give way.

Mr. Stott

If the hon. Gentleman was listening, I said that I believe, as do many people, that the way in which the Bill is drafted at the moment will allow exemption certificates to be given to foreign nationals who, in my view, should not have them. That is not to say that if a ship, especially an EEC flag ship—I did use the words an EEC flag ship—had a regular run between this country and, for example, Germany, there could clearly be a case for the master or the first mate of that ship being given an exemption certificate, as is the case with a British master. However, the drafting of the Bill will allow a coach and horses to be driven through the legislation and exemption certificates will proliferate like confetti unless we tidy it up.

Mr. Wallace

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that clarification. I note that in those provisions it is important that local knowledge be taken into account before the exemption certificate is granted. That will not give scope to open up the legislation so that the coach and horses suggested by the hon. Gentleman could be driven through it. The points that have been raised about manning levels and the quality of other vessels should be dealt with, but are not perhaps appropriate in this legislation.

Exemption certificates should not apply if the cargoes are deemed to be hazardous. Clause 2 refers to dangerous goods and harmful substances. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Wrigglesworth) has already drawn attention to the many hazardous substances which come in and out of the Tees. In my constituency is Scapa Flow and Sullom Voe, and we have problems with such hazardous substances. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) has reminded me that Merseyside also has that problem. Public interest would look for the control of exemption certificates if the substances carried were especially hazardous.

On a point of administrative detail, clause 10(3) provides for charging the masters of ships even where there are exemption certificates. As the service has not necessarily been given, perhaps the Minister could explain the basis of that charge.

Finally, I should like to refer briefly to several constituency points to which I do not necessarily expect the Minister to give me detailed replies tonight, but perhaps he could advise me that replies will be forthcoming shortly because that would obviate the need for unnecessary amendments. As I have already stated, the system whereby harbour authorities employ pilots has existed for many years in Orkney and Shetland. We now face some difficulties with this legislation which will impose a statutory framework on a situation which has already settled down and is working smoothly. Inevitably, there are areas of discrepancy that we wish to see resolved. The Bill provides, for example, an arbitration procedure. However, the pilots who are employed by the local authorities already have their own contracts with built-in arbitration procedures. I doubt whether it is intended that there should be provision for double arbitration. Under existing legislation there is a consolidation charge in respect of vessels going into the Flotta oil terminal. Orkney Islands council sought the repetition of previous legislation so that the consolidated charge agreed between the local authorities and the operators of the terminals might continue.

The composition of the examination committee in cases of a breach of discipline is important. At present local government legislation does not allow a member of staff to sit on what is effectively a council committee. While some steps have been taken in regard to that in clause 3(8), the provision does not cover the case where the person concerned is not a licensed pilot. Often, because of his seniority and the fact that he has not been engaged in pilot activities, the harbour master has lost his pilot's licence. Nevertheless, he is an important person who should be involved in determining discipline cases.

My final constituency point relates to the areas of Shetland outwith Sullom Voe but within the remit of the Shetland Islands council, particularly Scalloway. At present, it has an informal structure, but the local harbour authority wishes to extend pilotage. There are difficulties fitting that into the Bill.

That experience of the local authorities leads me to believe that the system can work and retain the high safety levels to which we have become accustomed and which are paramount. Therefore, my right hon. and hon. Friends will support the Government on Second Reading.

9.16 pm
Mr. David Mudd (Falmouth and Camborne)

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) rightly said that the Bill was remarkably complex. Some idea of its complexity will be gained from the fact that I found myself warming more to the reservations of the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott) than to the wider issues raised in the scenario painted by my hon. Friend the Minister.

My feeling about the Bill is that it does nothing to resolve three critical problems. First, it does not follow from the Bill that pilotage will become a safer occupation for pilots. Secondly, it does not follow that the new shape of pilotage will be any more cost-effective for the owners of the ships using the service. Thirdly, it does not follow that it makes sense to tack pilotage on as a further and ancillary service to the many other and often conflicting services provided by port authorities.

The question of the safety of pilot boats has already been touched on by my hon. Friend the Minister, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Rees) and the hon. Member for Wigan. There is little reassurance in what I have heard so far to take back to the pilots of Falmouth to contradict the reported views of certain local harbour commissioners regarding the all-important question of the suitability and safety of cutters.

One harbour commissioner has suggested that a pilot cutter and its crew are not necessary since pilots could as easily board vessels from a tug or a quay punt. Another commissioner has complained that the local pilot cutter is worth more than a third of a million pounds. The cutter in question underlines the fundamental anxiety of pilots for safety because the Falmouth pilot cutter, the L K Mitchell, is named after a local pilot who was killed only a few years ago, putting the safety of the cutter's crew ahead of his safety and his life. The cutter that admittedly has cost a third of a million pounds is the result of a century of evolution away from using tugs and quay punts. Indeed, the design of the vessel has been endorsed by the General Council of British Shipping and the sub-commissioners of pilotage as being the most cost-effective cutter for the port while still embracing economic, safety and environmental factors.

Since the L K Mitchell came into service, on occasion she has been the only vessel in the port of Falmouth able to put out on a deep-sea mission. She has repeatedly played her part in rescues and in the conveyance of sick and injured seamen. Therefore, to suggest that the pilots of the port of Falmouth should use quay punts or tugs horrifies those who risk their lives in the interests of others. On a personal note, it horrifies me, as my father was one of many Falmouth pilots who, in the course of their duties, were crushed between the cutter and the ship when adapted and modified quay punts were used as pilot cutters.

It has been suggested by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport that the Bill will prove to be more cost-effective for the industry. Again, I suggest that in the case of Falmouth it may well turn out to be exactly the opposite.

I was amazed by the statistics showing one pilot somewhere doing one mission per week. We know that it is not the Humber—we have been told that. We have been told all the places that it is not—we have not been told where it is, but it certainly is not in Falmouth. At present, the six Falmouth pilots give three-pilot cover 24 hours a day, resulting in 84 hours duty availability per pilot per week. The boatmen operate to the same roster. A 24-hour VHF service, a telephone service, as well as secretarial and office services, are freely available to those who wish to avail themselves of them.

Mr. Moate

In view of what my hon. Friend says about the level of activities which will presumably be shared by the new harbour authority, why should he be concerned? Obviously all the pilots will remain in employment.

Mr. Mudd

As my hon. Friend will note, if he contains himself, my question refers more to the competence of the harbour authority than to the ability of pilots to do their jobs effectively.

If the pilotage service moves to the 39-hour week, on the General Council of British Shipping formula, Falmouth's six pilots would either have to multiply to become 15.9 pilots or obtain massive overtime payments, at the cost of the ship operator. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State also suggested that pilotage should become another service provided by the ports. I would not argue against that, but I would argue against the likelihood of pilotage becoming an ancillary port service in which the independent advice and independent services now often voluntarily provided by a pilot might be directed by the port authority and charged to shipowners. Harbour authorities have a great deal more financially to gain if a ship is brought into port rather than left safely at anchor outside the limits, while equipment, charts and men are carried out to it.

Pilots must not be forced to act as salesmen for other port services. Additionally, a pilot's skill is recognised and respected by a ship master because he accepts that the pilot is there for one task alone—safe navigation. If pilots are to become some sort of floating Kleen-Ezee salesmen, as they could under the Bill, and pilot cutters are to become bumboats, trading other services, that trust, respect and bond will be in peril.

I refer now to the much-vaunted phrase "competent harbour authorities". It will reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate). It is true that harbour authorities may be competent in business management, but it does not always follow that they are competent in the ways, traditions, knowledge and skills of pilotage. One Falmouth harbour commissioner has accused local pilots of acting like vultures in overmanning and overcharging. He said that the commissioners will make the pilots tighten their belts.

My hon. Friend the Member for Boothferry (Sir P. Bryan) spoke about the importance of confidence in pilots and the competence of those who employ them. That is a crucial point in the Bill. Should harbour commissioners, with no experience of the stress, strain, dangers and experience of the problems of pilotage, be responsible for introducing policies that will direct pilotage operations?

With reference to the port of Falmouth, the argument is firmly weighted against the commissioners becoming the pilotage authority as we already have a highly efficient estuarial service covering the needs of Falmouth harbour commissioners, the reawakening of the sector covered by the Truro harbour commissioners, the potential regeneration of the port of Penryn, the needs of Falmouth docks, the interests of Carrick district council and of Kerrier district council and, to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch), the interests of Dean quarry and the Lizard ports which send the granite into the Kent ports.

It would be a nightmare and nonsense to entrust thus responsibility to anything other than an estuarial authority in terms of the port of Falmouth. A Secretary of State for Transport recognised this very point a few years ago when he refused the Falmouth harbour commissioners permission to run their limits conterminous with those of the pilotage district. Harbour authorities must not be allowed in any circumstances to become pilotage authorities until they have proved that they can run a safe and cost-effective service enjoying the good will of the industry and, above all, the absolute confidence and respect of the pilots themselves.

My hon. Friend the Minister spoke at the beginning of the debate about his great expectations for this Bill. My mind went back to that great Charles Dickens novel of the same name and to its dramatic climax in which the escaping convict Magwitch meets a horrifying death in the Thames when he is in a pilot gig. The great expectations of the ports, of the General Council of British Shipping and of the Department must not be allowed to endanger pilotage practice and the great tradition of pilotage in the United Kingdom.

9.26 pm
Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)

The fact that this Bill is not politically controversial does not mean that it should not be very closely examined, as it was to some extent in another place. The organisation of pilotage has remained substantially unchanged since the Pilotage Act 1913. The Pilotage Act 1983 was merely a consolidating measure. I understand that the Bill has the support of the General Council of British Shipping and of Trinity House, and, although not all of its recommendations are being carried out, even the Select Committee on Transport is in favour of it.

Nevertheless, I cannot resist the suspicion that this legislation comes about now as much because of the decline in our merchant fleet — a decline that is aided and abetted by the Government's policies — as of anything else. It seems to me not a coincidence that, although there has been a continuing decline over a long time in the port of Liverpool, it has accelerated since 1979, since when, as we know, there has been a cutting in half of the number of ships in our merchant marine and in the number of our mariners who sail in them.

The Bill asks us to cut our coats according to our much diminished cloth. There are about 1,300 marine pilots, and this is perceived as being too many, given the lower levels of traffic entering British ports. I should like to pose a number of questions which require positive answers if the Bill is to progress through further stages towards the statute book. I do not think that the answers to all of these questions were given when the Bill went through the other place.

In a joint memorandum by the British Ports Association and the General Council of British Shipping, one of the deficiencies of the present pilotage system was said to be that the organisations of the pilotage system are composed of representatives who often have conflicting interests. It is not clear to me how this conflict in interest is to be avoided merely by transferring the functions to harbour authorities, even though the Labour party is not in principle against the idea in the Bill.

The Pilotage Commission and Trinity House give much valuable advice to the Secretary of State. They provide expertise which we should nurture. The Pilotage Commission is to be wound up. We are entitled to know at what point that will occur and who will then advise the Secretary of State. We have heard from the Secretary of State that Trinity House has floated a subsidiary company which will assist in the implementation of the Bill, but the guidance which Trinity House has given has been invaluable in maintaining the present high standards. What is to be the future role of Trinity House in the pilotage system?

In a letter of 23 March the British Ports Association said: Direct employment has to be offered to the pilots but they and the CHA"— the competent harbour authorities— may agree an alternative arrangement. This may involve an agency agreement using a body like Trinity House, or a separate company being set up which the pilots may jointly operate under contract to the competent harbour authority which may involve self employment. I hope that, to protect their interests, the pilots will be assisted in evolving co-operatives of pilots so that they will be not only still self-employed but more able collectively to protect their vital interests.

What of the pilots? For example, we should address ourselves to their qualifications. If the qualifications of pilots are to be the responsibility of competent harbour authorities, will these not be purely local decisions, perhaps threatening the present high standards? Will this lead to a complete lack of uniformity? Will the qualifications for a pilot's certificate in Liverpool differ from those for a pilot's certificate in Falmouth, on the Clyde or on the Humber? We need some guidelines. Will there be guidelines or statutory instruments to ensure that there are sufficiently high uniform standards?

My hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott) has rightly drawn attention to exemption certificates. Again, here is decentralisation to a fault. If every competent harbour authority is to be responsible for deciding how many exemption certificates and under what conditions they will be issued, will there not be a great temptation for harbour authorities to go in for cost cutting and to give exemption certificates with great abandon? What statutory hold will the Government have over the activities of ports authorities to ensure that exemption certificates will not be given unless, of course, stringent guidelines are followed?

The Select Committee on Transport recommended that responsibility for licensing and manning standards should be a Department of Transport responsibility. Why has that recommendation not been accepted? Until the ship owners withdrew in 1984, the earnings of pilots were subject to the Letch agreement between themselves and the pilots. With the Bill, will pilots have any machinery through which to appeal if local negotiations break down?

The Minister touched only briefly on the subject of compensation. Can the statutory compensation package that was agreed between the pilots and the British Ports Association be sustained? Will existing benefits, including those for early retirement, be protected?

In a statement issued on 21 November last year, Trinity House warned: it will also be financially impossible to create a commercial company able to offer advantageous rates if that company has to assume the financial burden of superannuation and/or redundancy payments to its staff". How is fair and equitable treatment of pilots to be guaranteed? What machinery is being set up to help pilots who are made redundant to move to other parts of our coastline?

My constituents were told by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, in his capacity as chairman of the Conservative party, to get on their bikes. Will the Tory party chairman now tell the pilots to take to their bikes without making proper provision for them? That question needs careful examination. It is all right to say that there should be mobility of labour and that pilots should be prepared to move around, but all too often, when we ask our people to move, we do not examine the social consequences in the areas that they leave, the difficulties of housing, the education of children and all the problems of looking after dependants. What assistance will the Government provide to ensure that pilots who are surplus in one area can supply the needs of another, without the dire consequences of which we should all be aware?

The pilots are a loyal body of men on whose bravery and ability mainly unseen and unheralded—the vital trade of these islands has, to a considerable extent, depended. They are entitled to genuine consideration by the House, and I hope that, in Committee, not only the amendment to clause 4, to which the Minister referred, but new clauses will be added to give more protection to pilots who are made redundant, and to ensure that safety, not commercial profit, remains supreme — including the necessary provision for control over exemption certificates.

9.38 pm
Mr. Malcolm Thornton (Crosby)

The House will know of my special and, I think, peculiar interest in this subject. Once, many years ago, I was told that a Member of the House had been a member of the pilotage profession. That has not actually been proved, and, as far as I know, in this century I am the only member of that proud profession to be a Member of the House.

Liverpool is one of the ports that is most affected by the Bill. I have been asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker), to whom I was talking only today, to apologise to the House for her absence this evening, which is due to a ministerial commitment. Many of her constituents who are former colleagues of mine went to see her as recently as yesterday to express their grave concern about the future of pilots who would be affected by the Bill. I heartily endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Mudd), but he was arguing against the principle of the Bill and that battle has been fought and lost.

As many hon. Members have said, the issue is complex and its history goes back over many years. Since I was elected to the House in 1979 I have dealt with five Ministers on this subject. My hon. Friend who opened the debate is Minister No. 6—or perhaps he is No. five and a half, because he is acting for our noble Friend Lord Brabazon of Tara. I have has considerable co-operation from Ministers and I am sure that my pilotage colleagues appreciate the efforts that have been made, particularly during the Bill's passage through another place, to meet the fundamental points that they put.

There is no disagreement about the need for reform, and there have been a number of attempts to find a solution. The Pilotage Commission was established by the Merchant Shipping Act 1979 which was cobbled together hastily as an agreed deal in the run-up to the general election. Many of us felt that the 1979 measure provided an opportunity to tackle some of the inherent problems that had grown up over many years because of changing patterns of trade and so on. They should have been dealt with in a comprehensive, comprehensible and sensible way, but the Pilotage Commission was not given the teeth that it needed to tackle the problems, to make decisions and to knock together the heads of some of the parties.

There has been a failure of communication and in many ways this is a sad Bill. It is sad that it has had to come before the House. I have experience of the profession. Indeed, I was a pilots' representative and had to negotiate with the Pilotage Commission and I talked to representatives from other ports, so I do not have a narrow, insular view.

Many of us were worried that no agreement was reached. We were drifting and we knew that if changes were not organised from within they would be imposed from outside. However, it is odd that, while many other countries are talking about increasing the protection of their coastal waters and extending pilotage cover, we may be going in the opposite direction.

The steering committee on pilotage made some clear recommendations in 1974 about the need for protection in our coastal waters. Memories of the Torrey Canyon and other such disasters fade from many people's memories, but some of the cargoes being carried throughout the world, the size of some ships and the competence of some crews militate strongly against cutting pilotage cover.

A famous report in Canada said that a pilot was the equivalent of an environmental protection officer. I talk from personal experience, because I have been on some ships carrying very strange cargoes. If anything had gone wrong, the potential for damage would have been almost limitless. The prospects for the environment and for the safety of life and limb and of the other users of the port were unimaginable. These are not idle words. As a former pilot, I have often said that if a pilot performs only one act of pilotage a year in which he prevents something like that from happening he has earned his salary and that of his colleagues 50 times over. That is what pilotage is about.

We have also seen changed patterns of trade. I refer again to Liverpool, because it is a classic example of a need for change that has been long delayed. We have seen the collapse of far east and north Atlantic trade and, following our accession to Europe, we have ended up—as it were —facing the wrong way. We have seen a service which, when I was a member, boasted some 175 pilots reduced to about 130 pilots. They work hard, but it is recognised that their numbers can and should come down. The new legislation has massive implications for those men and for their attitudes in the future. Few if any hon. Members understand that, because to understand it is necessary to be part of it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne spoke of the independence of pilots. Our greatest strength, and the pilot's greatest strength, is that he is independent and known to be independent. It is recognised that he has a primary responsibility to the master and crew of the ship where he is performing his act of pilotage, and to other users of the waterways in which he is piloting. That independence is vitally important, but there is a serious danger that it could be eroded if pressures other than safety considerations are imposed.

The hardest job for a pilot is to say no. He knows that if he does not dock a ship, there is demurrage; tugs and shore gangs have been ordered; and he is incurring considerable losses for that ship. He knows that, if such losses are incurred, the competitiveness of his port and, ultimately, his own livelihood will be harmed. Therefore, he does not take such decisions lightly; but, because he is independent, he takes them, and his advice is respected as that of an independent person.

If we take that away — if we reduce pilots to a position in which they are under someone else's authority —we shall break what my hon. Friend described as a trust which has been built up over many years, and which I value very highly. The master pays a great compliment when he says to a pilot, "Right, it's all yours," and leaves him to it. That will change if the master knows that, in future, pressures will be imposed that may affect the pilot's judgment. I do not believe that any of my colleagues will allow the new regime to affect their judgment, but the chances are that some people may think otherwise.

Mr. Wallace

I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman is saying. However, I am sure that he will accept that, for 10 years or more, pilots have operated in Sullom Voe — which is a very difficult channel in which to manoeuvre —with the greatest safety, and with safety considerations still paramount. The pressures to which the hon. Gentleman rightly referred have not detracted from their high safety standards.

Mr. Thornton

I do not suggest for a moment that the pilots who are employed will suddently cease to be competent, experienced, dedicated professionals, as they are today, or that they will cease to exercise as far as possible their judgment and independence. If, however, somebody says to them, "You will", or, "You must", that is a change of status that hon. Members must accept. The sea around our coasts is an ever-present danger. The recent ferry disaster reminded us of that. We must do nothing to reduce the safety measures that apply to our ships and the effectiveness with which they are piloted through our coastal waters. Pilots recognise the need for change. In broad terms, they have fought against some of the Bill's provisions, but they concede that this is the way the Government wish to go. Therefore, they do not oppose the basic principles of the Bill.

Nevertheless, the House has a duty to ensure two objectives to which the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott) referred. I was interested to hear about his experience as a quartermaster. I hope that he did not listen too often to the siren voices to which he referred. Who knows? At some stage we might have been colleagues on a ship's bridge. He referred to two important objectives that must be ensured by this legislation. First, it must provide a long-term legislative framework for pilotage that will ensure safe navigation in our coastal waters. Secondly, there must be fair and equitable treatment for all pilots.

As for the first objective, I have already mentioned the commercial pressures on the employee. But commercial pressure does not apply only to pilots. According to the Bill, commercial pressures will be applied to the masters of ships, whose owners may wish them to obtain exemption certificates. Hon. Members have referred to the open-ended nature of pilotage exemption certificates. I sat on a committee that examined masters and mates who sought exemption certificates. The vast majority of those who came before the committee were granted exemption certificates. My colleagues and I were there to ensure that they were competent to handle their ships and that they were also competent to be let loose on the river, with all the other users.

I am seeking not a semantic but a material change to clause 8, which says: a competent harbour authority … shall … grant a certificate to any person who applies for such a certificate, provided that he meets certain qualifications. I welcome the amendment that was included in the other place regarding the use of the English language. Stories of pilots trying to communicate on foreign ships where English is neither spoken nor understood are legion. I shall not detain or try to amuse the House with those stories. It was an important amendment. However, in clause 8 the word "shall" must be altered to "may". If the competent harbour authorities are to exercise their responsibilities, they must be able to say no. As drafted, the Bill says that they shall grant a certificate. They are left with no room for manouevre.

Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

Before my hon. Friend leaves that very important point, how does this mandatory provision affect a port that has sand banks at its entrance which change after every major storm? If it is mandatory to grant an exemption certificate, how is a master who has not been in an area for nine months to know the present configuration of the entrance to a harbour such as Teignmouth in Devon?

Mr. Thornton

We look at charts before we do a job. It is as simple as that. That is what being a pilot is about. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) makes a valid point because provided that a master makes a certain number of passages into a port and is deemed to have the overall knowledge about buoys and markers under the terms of the proposed legislation the harbour authority "shall" grant permission. If the word used were "may" the point made by my hon. Friend could be taken into account. There are peculiarities. Pilotage is about local conditions. That is why we have pilots. They are experienced in local conditions. They are not general mariners but local consultants. As any consultant worth his salt knows, he keeps up with matters which affect his trade or profession.

I turn to the effect upon pilots and the need to ensure that some recognition is made of the effects that the Bill will have on men whose livelihood is being legislated away. The Government have a responsibility.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Sir J. Ridsdale) is not able to be here tonight, but he received a letter from the Prime Minister in answer to queries raised with him by pilots. The Prime Minister told him: in drawing up the new proposals the Government's aim will be to deal equitably with all those involved including in particular both the pilots who will be retiring and those who will be continuing. We must ensure that that occurs in the legislation.

When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State published the Bill he said that the reorganisation would provide a lasting basis for the future of pilotage as well as equitable treatment for the pilots themselves. The proposed compensation scheme has been agreed and accepted by the pilots. For those who volunteer to go the scheme will be fine, but it will create tremendous problems for many who are under 50 years of age.

The opportunities for transfer to other ports have been mentioned. Negotiations are continuing. However, there is no compulsion on ports to accept transferees. The competent harbour authority can decide on its own regime. It does not have to accept pilots who are surplus to requirements in Liverpool or anywhere else.

The arbitration clause introduced in the House of Lords is welcome, but, in my view and that of many of my former colleagues, it is not adequate to deliver the Prime Minister's assurance.

There is a misunderstanding about earnings. We are talking not about the protection of the present level of earnings but about the entitlements. We are talking about two distinct issues. Hon. Members will have seen the lists illustrating the discrepancies between ports. At some, earnings arc very high indeed because those ports are undermanned. At other ports earnings are lower than the nationally agreed figure because of overmanning. We are talking about entitlements, not current earnings levels. I welcome the assurance that has been offered but I must tell my hon. Friend the Minister — I say this with the greatest respect — that ministerial assurances are not worth a great deal.

After the Bill has been debated and enacted it will be interpreted by the courts. It is those courts that will determine whether or not a competent harbour authority is entitled to do things. A ministerial assurance given on the day, even if given in good faith, will not be worth the Hansard paper on which it was written.

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.