HL Deb 29 January 1969 vol 298 cc1193-8

3.58 p.m.


My Lords, with the permission of the right reverend Prelate and your Lordships' House, I should like to repeat a Statement which my right honourable friend the Minister of Transport has made in another place on the Reorganisation of the Ports.

The conclusions the Government have reached and the policy they propose to pursue are set out in a White Paper being published this afternoon; copies are available in the Printed Paper Office. This White Paper follows extensive consultations, based on a working document issued in July, 1967.

The rapid rate of technological and economic change which has affected the ports industry in recent years has greatly increased the urgency of the long recognised need, emphasised in particular by the Rochdale Committee in 1962, for a properly planned programme of port development and for the concentration of ownership and operation of port and related undertakings. The increased scope and rate of change demand an even greater degree of concentration of central control of policy than visualised by the Rochdale Committee.

The Government have decided that a radical reorganisation is essential: a National Ports Authority must be established to carry through the necessary changes and reshape the British ports industry. The new Authority will have a complex task of fundamental importance to the nation's economy. Its first remit will be to take over the harbours now handling more than 5 million tons of goods a year. It is thus expected to take over London, the Mersey, Milford Haven, the Medway, Manchester, the Clyde, the Tees and Hartlepools, Bristol, the Tyne, and the Forth. It will also take over the British Transport Docks Board harbours, of which the main ones are Hull, Southampton and the South Wales ports. These harbours together handle over 90 per cent. of our overseas trade and over 75 per cent. of our coastal trade, and the vast majority—over 95 per cent.—of our registered dock workers are employed in them. They include those harbours on the main estuaries at which, as the Rochdale Report said, development (except that to serve certain bulk cargoes) should be concentrated.

The Authority will be required to manage the harbours through subsidiary authorities, set up in accordance with a scheme of organisation which will require my right honourable friend's approval. These authorities are expected to be based, in the main, on the principal estuaries, and they will be encouraged to plan the developments called for by the needs of the regions, working in close consultation with the Regional Economic Planning Councils. The provisions proposed for the transfer of assets and for compensation, which is not expected to exceed £25 million, are set out in detail in the White Paper.

The new Authority will have a duty to see that efficient and economical port facilities and services are provided at the harbours for which it is responsible. For this purpose the operation of the main common-user port services (such as stevedoring) is to be concentrated in the hands of the nationalised authorities. The compulsory take-over of these businesses will follow from schemes which the Authority must put forward as a first priority for my right honourable friend's approval within one year of the vesting day. It will be able to put forward supplementary schemes subsequently if necessary. In the interim my right honourable friend hopes that existing authorities, and the new Authority when it is formed, will acquire businesses voluntarily.

The new Authority will be required to establish effective machinery for negotiation and consultation with its employees on the lines of Section 137 of the Transport Act 1968. But, more than this, it will when putting forward its scheme of organisation be required to pay particular attention to the means of ensuring that workers' interests are adequately presented to it in its deliberations.

Furthermore, from the outset the nationalised port authorities will be given a dominant voice on the employers' side of the machinery on employment matters affecting the industry as a whole; and the private port employers will be required to observe terms and conditions not less favourable than those observed by the nationalised authorities for similar work in the same area. In this way the Authority will make the running for the whole port industry in the improvement of productivity and of conditions of employment.

Under the proposals in this White Paper the National Ports Authority will, as the first necessity, concentrate its resources on the management and development of the major harbours where the great bulk of our trade is handled. It will be armed with powers and duties enabling it to bring into its own hands, speedily and in an orderly and manageable way, the main port operations. And it will be able to extend its control to other harbours if this is shown to be desirable in the interests of the efficient and economical movement of our imports and exports.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for repeating that important Statement which I am sure noble Lords will wish to debate, together with the accompanying White Paper, at an early date. But I cannot hide my dismay at these proposals. We on these Benches recognise the need for a national programme of port development and for greater concentration, but these objectives can perfectly well be achieved without further wholesale nationalisation. In any event, all of our larger ports, save one, are already in public ownership, and to re-shuffle the whole port pack now, with all the upheaval that it must cause, can only do damage to our export trade and to our economy as a whole. Moreover, the uncertainty involved for the smaller ports—which have shown commendable enterprise in recent years—by this Sword of Marsh which will now be suspended over them can also only do damage to the public interest.

May I put three questions to the noble Lord? First, in view of the obvious weakness of the existing nationalised industries, do the Government really believe that this further large slice of nationalisation will help to get our economy out of the red? Secondly, can be tell us what the compensation terms are designed to cover? I realise that this may be in the White Paper, but at first blush the sum of £25 million for these vast enterprises appears somewhat derisory. Thirdly, can the noble Lord inform us when and how this ageing Administration propose to carry out these proposals? What, in fact, is their programme?


My Lords. I should like to join in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, for repeating the Statement. In the course of the Statement he referred to the "urgency of the long-recognised need". I am sure many people would agree with those words so far as the improvement of port facilities is concerned. But would the noble Lord agree that two of the priorities are capital expenditure on redevelopment of the ports, and improvement in industrial relations between employers and em-employees? And what certainty is there that nationalisation will lead to a solution of either of these problems? Of course we must study the White Paper before commenting in detail, but is there not a very real danger that the creation of this new nationalised Authority will lead to an unnecessarily large bureaucracy, without achieving the ends desired?


My Lords, I think I rightly anticipated the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, and the noble Lord, Lord Wade. As long as I have been in your Lordships' House, there has been a series of debates on the question of policy. But this scheme is not being put forward in any doctrinaire way. I do not think there is any doubt that our docks do not compare well with the major docks in Europe and in many other parts of the world, although we, as a country that lives by imports and exports, perhaps need efficient ports more than other countries. Clearly, we have not had them in the past and the Government do not believe that under the present system, which I understand the noble Earl still supports, we shall get the type of ports that are needed. But we shall no doubt debate this whole subject at some date, which can be arranged through the usual channels.

The National Ports Council have done a good deal of work, but we are not able at this present moment to see through them the proper concentration of resources in the ports that is undoubtedly necessary. This is the real reason why we feel that we should take this major step to-day. In regard to compensation, the £25 million refers to the harbours and not to the businesses and facilities that will be taken over in due course after vesting day. The £25 million refers merely to the privately owned ports, and I am thinking here of Manchester.

As regards legislation, one does not of course wish to prejudice the position, but it is our intention to introduce legislation in the next Session; and perhaps I may say to the noble Earl that this is being issued as a White Paper, and that between now and the presentation of a Bill there will he opportunities to discuss these matters not only in Parliament but also with the interested parties—although, of course, many detailed consultations have already taken place. In reply to the noble Lord, Lord Wade, I would say that I do not anticipate any increase in bureaucracy because of this piece of legislation.


My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the Minister for repeating this very important Statement. Obviously, we shall have to debate all this when the White Paper has been seen. I should like to ask one question. Nearly all the port authorities concerned are already public authorities subject to national planning, and it is not clear, in that context, just what nationalisation will mean. But I should like to ask whether the Government appreciate the disastrous effect of the long period of uncertainty that has already existed for some years among the privately owned stevedoring and wharf-operating businesses with very widespread ramifications, who do not know where they are or what part of their businesses will be taken over, and so on. The present uncertainty inhibits modernisation of their cargo-handling and other operations. Can the noble Lord give us any indication on this, and will he draw to the attention of his right honourable friend the importance of taking specific decisions on these particular questions as a matter of urgency?


My Lords, I can give the noble Lord that assurance. Clearly we should not wish to see any slowing down of modernisation in the ports; and, in the case of private companies, when the compensation they are to receive is considered all new developments will be taken into account. I will certainly see that the point which the noble Lord has made is drawn specially to the attention of my right honourable friend.