HC Deb 13 March 1989 vol 149 cc6-7
6. Mr. Barry Field

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what progress he is making in the European Council of Ministers to liberalise freight movements by ships within European countries.

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Paul Channon)

I have continued to press strongly for the liberalisation of cabotage, and substantive discussions are now scheduled for the June Transport Council.

Mr. Field

Will my right hon. Friend list the EEC countries that continue to use cabotage to restrict trade, and tell us when he expects to take up the powers vested in him under the Merchant Shipping Act 1988, which will enable the red ensign to sail into all the ports of EEC member countries without let or hindrance?

Mr. Channon

My hon. Friend probably knows that the Federal Republic of Germany, Greece, France, Italy, Portugal and Spain restrict cabotage, but we have an agreement with the German Government allowing access to the German cabotage trades. My hon. Friend is right that I have powers under the Merchant Shipping Act, but my primary objective remains liberalisation through a binding Community regulation. That would be very much better than using the powers, although I should certainly do so in the last resort.

Mr. Benn

Will the Secretary of State comment on the judgment by the court last Friday—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The Secretary of State cannot comment on a judgment that is still before a court.

Mr. Benn

Has the right hon. Gentleman's attention been drawn to the judgment by the court last Friday overturning the Merchant Shipping Act to which he has just referred and issuing him, as Secretary of State, with an order not to proceed with regulations made under that Act? That means that for the first time in our history the courts of this country have actually ruled that a law passed by both Houses of Parliament is invalid.

Mr. Channon

The right hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not deal with the point that he raised. The matter is in the Court of Appeal, where the Government have launched an appeal.

Mr. Cash

My right hon. Friend will recall that, when the legislation was being introduced, its legality was challenged. The Government put forward their case, and won it on a preliminary hearing, with costs awarded in their favour. Therefore, is it not extraordinary that, after the Act has been passed, we should now be faced with a similar situation which is causing considerable doubt and confusion about where our powers really lie?

Mr. Channon

I have great sympathy with what my hon. Friend says. As I told the House a moment ago, the entitlement of foreign beneficially-owned fishing vessels to remain United Kingdom-registered is now before the Court of Appeal so, I am not in a position to comment today.

Mr. Salmond

If the liberalisation of freight were to increase maritime traffic, how confident is the Secretary of State that the coastguard service could cope, given that the coastguard union has already argued that existing rationalisation is compromising public safety at sea?

Mr. Channon

I am confident that the coastguard service could cope. It is receiving a great deal of support from the Government. I am determined to improve it to provide an even higher standard, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will see that in practice. An event today has proved the point.