HC Deb 04 November 1999 vol 337 cc575-8

Lords amendment: No. 30, in page 20, line 14, after ("Thames") insert ("safely")

Mr. Hill

I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 31 and 47.

Mr. Hill

It is good to be back at the Dispatch Box, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Amendment No. 30 responds to an Opposition amendment in another place. Its effect is to introduce the concept of safety as a factor that the mayor must consider in exercising his or her duty to promote and encourage use of the Thames.

Safety on the river is a matter that must be taken very seriously by all concerned. The inquiry currently being carried out by Lord Justice Clark will review the current arrangements for ensuring safety on the Thames, and consider this and other issues arising from the Marchioness disaster. The amendment does not seek in any way to prejudge the conclusions that the inquiry may reach but, in advance of those conclusions, it will flag specifically the need for the mayor to take safety matters into account in exercising his or her functions.

Lords amendment Nos. 31 and 47 deliver the Government's commitment to require the mayor to set targets on each of his or her strategies so that their progress can be measured and reviewed. Our intention that the mayor should do so was set out in the White Paper. Lords amendment No. 31 provides for the mayor to set such targets as he or she considers appropriate. Lords amendment No. 47 requires the mayor to set out the targets, and report on progress in achieving them in the GLA's annual report.

The targets for which the Lords amendments provide will enable Londoners to assess the strategies: ultimate aims, to track the progress in implementing each strategy, and to press the mayor to improve performance if they are not being met.

The mayor will be able to exercise his or her discretion in deciding the number and nature of targets for each strategy, but we do not intend him or her to set them in isolation. In setting targets, he or she must have regard to relevant national targets or objectives, and should not set targets that are less demanding. The mayor must also have regard to performance indicators that are set by the Secretary of State that impact on the authorities implementing the strategies.

Such a framework will enable Londoners to track the progress on implementing each mayoral strategy.

6.45 pm
Mr. Simon Hughes

I apologise for detaining the House for a moment or two, but the Lords amendments relate to the Marchioness incident and its consequences, which, as the Minister rightly said, is a matter of importance.

Since the House last considered these matters, the Deputy Prime Minister has made an extremely welcome announcement that there is to be an inquiry into river safety on the Thames. Lord Justice Clark was asked to report initially on the general matter—ideally by the end of the year—and to consider whether to open a public inquiry into what happened on that terrible night when the Marchioness sank. As the House will know, many of us have been pushing for that inquiry, and welcomed it without qualification. We welcome too the Deputy Prime Minister's honouring of his commitment and Lord Justice Clark's work to date.

As the Minister rightly said, we must not prejudge the inquiry's recommendations. Therefore, for the moment, Lords amendment No. 30, which flags up the fact that the mayor should consider the desirability of promoting and encouraging the use of the River Thames safely", is a useful signal.

The Minister, and his colleague the Minister for Housing and Planning, will know that there has been a long debate about the appropriate way of including a strategy for the river in the Bill. There is still a large body of opinion, which has been reflected in representations to Ministers in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, and in amendments in the other place as well as here, in favour of such consideration.

I agreed entirely with the Deputy Prime Minister that the right way to proceed would be to flag up the issue, but to keep open the possibility that the Greater London Authority Act may need amendment before the Authority comes into operation in July. I shall explain why in a sentence or so. If Lord Justice Clark recommends that the GLA should be responsible for river safety and should co-ordinate search and rescue and other functions, it would be nonsense for it to begin operation without such legislative provision.

I imagine that the Government will have no difficulty in achieving agreement among Liberal Democrats and other London Members in order that any amending legislation may proceed quickly but properly through both Houses in the time between publication of the inquiry report on river safety generally and the date on which the GLA comes into being in July.

The current position, in which no one is coherently responsible for safety on the river, cannot continue. The police do a good job but say that it is not all their responsibility and the port of London says the same. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond) and others, not least the former hon. Member for Newham, South, Nigel Spearing, have tried for years to ensure that we have a coherent response on river safety. To achieve that may need amendment of this legislation. It would be a dereliction of duty if we did not do that.

I urge the Minister to reflect on the need for a wider Thames strategy. I know that the Government have rejected that so far, but I heard the most convincing arguments for it in a docklands forum meeting upstairs, from someone working for the London Planning Advisory Committee. Such a strategy would include not only the water but planning and other issues along the banks. I ask Ministers to take note of the wide body of opinion, represented to all of us who have riverside constituencies, that considers that to be an appropriate way forward.

I have been asked both by my constituents who operate commercial passenger transport on the river—not least those, such as the City Cruises company, who run the new Thames millennial services inaugurated by the Deputy Prime Minister—and by the wider corporate and private sector in London to make representations that they should be included in the consultation process. My hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. Fearn), our tourism spokesman, and others have received representations from people who operate tourism and leisure services and feel that they should be part of the process of ensuring that the river is as safe as possible.

I hope that Ministers will take those points on board. We may well need to return to the matter in the next Session, and I am sure that the Government will want to facilitate a window of legislative opportunity if we need to pass quick legislation to ensure that the Thames is safe in the future in a way that, tragically, it was not 10 years ago.

Mr. Hill

I am aware of the distinguished role that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) has played in connection with the Marchioness disaster. He and I have made representations on the matter in the past and I pay tribute to him.

The Government recognise the importance and urgency of river safety. That is the very reason for the establishment of the Clark inquiry. The hon. Gentleman will know that we have made a commitment to embrace on an interim basis whatever recommendations the inquiry produces for precautions required for the millennium event on the Thames, but I cannot make any commitment to early legislation arising from that.

We shall have the opportunity to return to the subject of commercial and tourist services on the river at a later stage in our deliberations, when I hope to be able to offer some reassuring words.

The issue of a river strategy has been debated at five different stages of the Bill. We made it clear that the Government fully endorse the strategic importance of the Thames and recognise its value as a resource for London. We have in place our own strategic planning guidance for the river. Several policies, such as the Thames 2000 initiative, demonstrate our active efforts to bring life back to the river and restore it as the capital's focal point. We have also made it clear that we expect the mayor to press ahead with the Government's policies in this area. We have made a commitment to produce guidance to that effect in relation to the mayor's planning powers.

However, we have also pointed out that there are clear advantages in enshrining the mayor's policies for the Thames in the other strategy documents rather than compartmentalising them in a free-standing strategy for the river. That will ensure that the importance of the Thames is recognised across the whole spectrum of mayoral policies, and benefits from the specific powers and mechanisms that those strategies will carry with them for ensuring that the mayor's Thames policies are implemented.

Of course it will be open to the mayor to take a different view. If he or she considers that there are advantages in collating all policies relating to the Thames in a single document over and above the strategic planning guidance for the Thames that we expect to be contained in the spatial development strategy, and if the mayor wishes to call that document a Thames strategy, there is nothing to stop him or her doing so. That decision should be left for the mayor to take.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendment No. 31 agreed to.

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