HL Deb 21 July 1970 vol 311 cc937-48

8.20 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. On the last occasion when we discussed ports legislation in this Chamber, our proceedings were brought to a sudden end by the announcement of the Dissolution of Parliament. I am glad to be able to reassure the House that no such dramatic intervention is likely to come our way to-day. But it is perhaps worth pointing out that the reasons for our being here now, discussing this particular Bill, arise—in more than one sense—from that intervention. For the last Administration's Ports Bill (whose sudden death was, of course, not regretted by those now on this side of the House) would have involved the disappearance of the limit on loans and grants to harbours under Section 13 of the Harbours Act 1964 which we are considering in this Bill. I think, however, that the purpose of the present Bill is of a kind to commend itself to all sides of the House. That purpose—a strictly limited one—is to ensure (hat the Government will be able to go on making financial assistance available for harbour developments under Sections 11 and 12 of the Harbours Act 1964.

The urgency arises because my right honourable friend needs to honour commitments to provide grants and loans for schemes already approved by his predecessor, payment of which would take us over the £100 million limit fixed under Section 13 of the 1964 Act. I think that I should therefore make it clear, as my right honourable friend the Minister of Transport did in another place, that we do not feel able to discuss the broader problems of the ports until we have been able to review the situation comprehensively. But on one crucial point we are quite clear: that the solution to the problems does not lie in nationalisation. The industry can rest assured that the uncertainty of the past five or six years has now gone. It may well be that changes will be needed to deal with changed circumstances: ports, like other forms of transport services and facilities, must be adapted to the changing needs of those who use them. Sometimes these changes can be handled within the industry, and the oftener the better. Sometimes it is helpful to the industry to have the backing of legislation. But there will be no major unheaval. The 1964 Act is still a firm framework for the industry. The National Ports Council is doing a very good job. And in matters of industrial relations—leaving aside the unhappy, and I hope very temporary, situation with which we are to-day faced, and on which it would not be appropriate for me to enter into discussion—I think there is agreement on all sides that we should try to advance by way of the principles of the Devlin Report.

I feel that it may be helpful to the House if I now explain briefly the provisions of the Bill. Although it refers directly to Section 13 of the Harbours Act 1964, it is also closely bound up with two other sections—11 and 12. Section 11, which was later amended by Section 40 of the Docks and Harbours Act 1966, allows the Minister, after consulting the National Ports Council and with Treasury approval, to make loans to statutory harbour authorities for certain expenses of a capital nature. Section 12 allows him to make grants to statutory harbour authorities, and to other persons engaged in harbour operations. These grants are paid at the standard rate of 20 per cent. on harbour works which make a substantial and desirable contribution to international trade, and for specialised mechanical equipment used in cargo handling.

Under Section 13 of the Act, a limit is placed on the total amount of loans and grants which may be paid. This limit, set for the first stage at £50 million, was increased to £100 million—the maximum permitted under the Act—by Affirmative Resolution in another place in June, 1968. Up to the end of June, 1970, a total of about £81 million of loans and grants had been issued. We still have outstanding however, other loans approved but not yet issued. And grant payments will be falling due either on schemes already approved or on schemes which are eligible for grant but which are too small to require specific authorisation by the Minister. Taking account of these, the limit of £100 million will be reached within the next few months. And we are already committed beyond that. For against the background of changes which he had expected to result from the Ports Bill, the former Minister of Transport continued to enter into commitments for development schemes which he thought justified and which would have been held up if approval in principle could not be given at the time. It is, as I mentioned earlier, to meet these commitments that the present Bill is needed urgently, though of course arrangements for increasing the limit would have been necessary very soon in any case.

As noble Lords will have seen, the Bill is short and uncomplicated. Clause 1 repeals Section 13(1) of the 1964 Act and fixes a new limit of £75 million (or, if so provided by a Resolution of another place, £125 million) on loans. This limit would apply to all loans made by the Minister under Section 11 of the Act after the passing of the Bill: in other words, payments in respect of schemes approved earlier but not yet paid would come within the new limit; the old one would be entirely superseded. Clause 2 is formal. Noble Lords will have noticed, however, that there is now no reference in the limit to grants. Unlike loans under Section 11, which are made out of the National Loans Fund, grants under Section 12 of the 1964 Act are made from a Ministry of Transport Vote, and therefore come under Parliamentary scrutiny through the Estimates. We do not consider it necessary to include them in the limit.

The House may like now to have some fuller explanation of the figures contained in the Bill. I should perhaps make it clear at this point that Section 11 loans are made only to statutory harbour authorities and are for specific types of capital expenditure, not for the general capital expenditure of an authority. They are available only for the non-nationalised parts of the port industry, since loans for the ports of the British Transport Docks Board, British Railways or the British Waterways Board are made under the 1962 Transport Act. So it would be quite wrong to suppose that the figures give an indication of what overall capital expenditure is likely to be put into the ports in the coming years.

The amounts allowed for in the Bill provide first for sums which still have to be issued in respect of loans approved by the former Minister of Transport. These come to some £19 million. A further £12 million of loan applications are at present outstanding, already approved in principle under the previous Administration. My right honourable friend explained in another place that he cannot proceed with the port authorities concerned on the subject of loans and grant for these two schemes without the powers the Bill contains. These committed or outstanding schemes come to some £31 million. But from knowledge in my right honourable friend's Department of the broad development plans of the ports industry, which include major continuations of works in hand as well as new works, we consider that a total of £75 million is necessary to allow for schemes on the general scale that are likely to come forward in the fairly near future. This figure does not, however, cover possible requirements that might arise in, say, the next two years or more for harbour developments that have not yet been foreseen at all. As in the 1964 Act, therefore, we are asking for flexibility by means of a two-tier limit: a further £50 million could be sought by means of Affirmative Resolution of another place.

There is one further point that I would make. The House will have realised that the whole question of Government assistance to industry is under review. In the course of that review, the problems of the ports will clearly come under examination, since help given to them is one form of assistance to industry. I cannot of course say at present whether there will be any changes in the arrangements for ports, but I think it fair that I should say that the proposals in this Bill are not intended to prejudge the issue one way or the other. My honourable friend made it very clear, however, on the Second Reading of this Bill in another place, that he had no intention of delaying valuable developments, or Government assistance for them, while the wider problems were under review. I am sure that your Lordships will be in sympathy with the broad aims of the Bill as I have described them, and will realise that it is in fact an essential measure if important developments of our harbours are to go ahead as we all wish. I hope, therefore, that I can rely on support from all parts of the House in moving its Second Reading. I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Mowbray and Stourton.)

8.30 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord is new to the Front Bench opposite, and if I may give him one word of advice I suggest that if his wish is for a smooth passage of an urgent Bill, he should not use provocative phrases in his introductory speech. I certainly came here this evening to give this Bill a nod, and to say that we would support it. I was ever intending to go so far as to suggest to the noble Earl, Lord Lauderdale, that we on this side of the House would give him full opportunity to speak on what is a most important subject.

I must say that I regard this Bill as an interim Bill. It may well be that a Labour Government might have had to introduce such a Bill, even though, had we been re-elected in June, we intended to proceed with the Ports Bill. That is a Bill which we might not have been able to get, and an interim measure would have been necessary in order that these large sums of money should be made available to this important industry.

I am quite certain that the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray, will be one of the first to agree that it is on record that during the period of the last Administration very large sums of money were put into the ports—much larger sums than any previous Administration thought necessary. However, one has only to look at the Report of the National Ports Council—I do not know whether the noble Lord has done so—to see that they themselves have indicated serious restructuring being necessary within the ports. There is the question of labour, which is much in our minds to-day with the national docks strike. There are far too many employers of labour. This the Ports Bill would have dealt with. However, as the noble Lord has said, the Ports Bill is not to be proceeded with. He reassures the industry that they need not worry. I think the noble Lord will be the first to agree that until they know the Government's policy they are bound, to a degree, to live in vacuum.

I have read most carefully what the noble Lord's right honourable friend said when introducing this Bill into another place—that there is to be a wide-ranging review. I am bound to say that I am surprised that we could not get any greater indication of what the Government have in mind. I gather that this is a matter that they have been considering for some time, particularly during the period of the passage of the Ports Bill in another place. They damned our Bill, but of course they produce no counter proposals. It seems that there are still no counter proposals available.

I would not expect the noble Lord, in his position, to come forward to-night and to be able to answer the questions regarding the ports that I raised on the humble Address in reply to the gracious Speech. I say to the noble Lord that we shall be expecting a reply in November, because this is one of the most vital industries in this country. Unless the ports are efficient, unless there are proper labour relations (which in my view can only come about, as the National Ports Council have themselves said, when there is one employer within the docks) this particular industry will always be prone to dispute and difficulties. Certainly until there is a co-ordinated and cohesive investment policy, which can only be arrived at by one national authority, we are not going to have the proper ports and harbours that this nation and the industry require.

This evening I am going to forgive the noble Lord. I do not expect a reply tonight. Certainly his right honourable friend could not give a reply in another place. I do not imagine that the noble Lord will be in any different position to-night. But I must make it quite clear that we shall need to know when we resume. We shall ask many penetrating questions. I do not think we shall be the only ones asking those questions—the unions and the industry throughout the country will be seeking answers. For too long we have delayed action after the Rochdale Report of 1962. I am not accusing the noble Lord opposite of complacency. There were one or two moments when it appeared that he thought that all things were all right Later on, he will find out that things are not all right. Thugs have got to be put right. Those things are very difficult. I should not in any way wish to minimise the difficulties, but sound, strong and sensible action within the docks has to be taken.

I am prepared to accept this Bill as an interim measure, but only as an interim measure. We shall come back on this grave problem when we return after the Summer Recess.

8.37 p.m.


My Lords, in rising to support and wish well this manifestly interim Bill, may I first congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray, on his new eminence? I thought that the mantle of his new dignity sat easily and well upon his shoulders. He has had quite a testing innings to-day, and has shown himself adept and gracious throughout. My reason for wishing to say a word now is that the ports policy is under review (we have all listened to the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, and we are very well aware of the points that he has in mind) and there are two major aspects to which I would, with the greatest respect, invite the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray, to draw the attention of his right honourable friends.

First of all, when we are talking about provision for the changing needs of changing users of the ports we must, I submit, give our minds to this whole question of properly providing for what are called maritime industrial development areas. We are aware that at the changeover of Government it was proposed that a careful cost/benefit study of this idea should be undertaken by Professor Peston of Queen Mary College, Time has gone by without that work being set in hand. The proposal that the study should be undertaken has come after years of delay, for which I believe there should be a proper explanation. What is now of vital importance is that this study should be hastened.

I would ask my noble friend whether he will be good enough to pass on to the Government the suggestion that Professor Peston's study, originally intended to take two and a half years, should be telescoped into a year, or less, by three means: first of all, by allocating to it greater resources, presumably of manpower but to some extent also of money; and secondly, by drawing on the experience in this field of others who have done similar work in the Netherlands— and here, I refer to the work of Professor Klaassen, of the Netherlands Economic Institute—much of which would be helpful to the Peston Study, not least in suggesting a suitable methodology and therefore, in that regard, saving time. Finally, the Peston Study could give its mind to a maritime industrial development area which already exists in this country, on the reclaimed Seal Sands of Tees-side, where port exports have risen from 11 million to 21 million tons in three years coincidentally with this development. Here is an example of what can be done, and by applying the findings of the Peston Study to this actual situation near at hand, much time could be saved.

Then, further to the same general aspect of our policy with regard to these maritime industrial development areas, I would urge the noble Lord to press on the Government the wisdom of making available to the public at large—which really means in this case to the investing public—the essential data assembled by the Halcrow Consultants about the various deep water sites and other data that has been collected more recently by the Highlands and Islands Development Board.

Another aspect of our port policy must surely be the future shape of the National Ports Council, now that the creation of a National Ports Authority has been dropped with the dropping of the Nationalisation Bill. It has been said over and over again from our Benches that the National Ports Council could and should be strengthened. In thinking out the new policy, may I urge the Government to consider two particular ways in which the National Ports Council could be strengthened? It could first of all be allocated an annual budget which it, in turn, would split up among the ports according to the merit of the investment proposals that they themselves brought forward. This could act as an incentive to modernisation; and to give the National Ports Council such powers to provide an incentive would, I believe, be a critical factor in developing their power. Secondly, the National Ports Council could have power to act in a kind of umpire capacity in port labour disputes.

Those are the only two points I wish to make at this stage, but I urge the noble Lord most seriously to bring these points to the attention of those who are going to frame our ports policy in the future. Having said that, and having said also that I would not dream of expecting a reply of any substance tonight, may I wish the noble Lord all success in his new office, and a fair wind to this Bill.

8.43 p.m.


My Lords, it was not my intention to take part in to-night's debate, but this seems rather a continuation of the one chat we had last week. I want to say to the noble Earl who has just spoken that if in fact the National Ports Council are going to have the right to take action, then they must have the powers to do so. I think he would agree with me that at the present moment they have not these powers—indeed, that was my whole complaint last week. If we are not going to have a National Ports Authority, then the Government have to provide an alternative to it. If it be the National Ports Council, then it is not an alternative unless we have a National Ports Council with powers to act. There is no use 10 be served in simply conferring some name on them, unless we are giving them a job to do.

One of the problems which face this country to-day is that of the ports, as everyone knows. We have some difficulty in the ports at the present time. When I was speaking last week I might have added that the extraordinary thing was that not only had I twice made my maiden speech from this Bench, but that on the first occasion when I had the opportunity of addressing another place, when it was meeting here, the subject was in fact dealing with dock labour—and that is 25 years ago. I made the suggestion then that if the ports of this country were to be organised properly, those who were engaged in them, the workers, ought to have a more constructive part to play inside dock management itself. So if we are going to deal with ports in this way, we must face up to some substantial changes if we are going to get them to work.

We have paid tribute in this country to docks and harbours that have been organised overseas. We talk of Euro-port and others, but in this country we have tremendous deep water facilities that are not available to any other country in Europe. In Scotland we have tremendous deep water facilities that we have not yet exploited for the benefit of the economic situation of our country. Therefore, if I intervene in this debate for a few minutes it is to say to the noble Lord who is to reply that if we are to have ports which are going to compete with our competitors on the Continent of Europe, then we must have greater—not Government interference, but at least Government direction and credit, because there is no use in thinking that we can have a ports policy unless we have a centralised authority which is directing it.

The one point that disturbs me a little is the Government's proposal which says that every port will have the right to do as it likes. Now everybody cannot do as he likes. What we must do is to plan the ports of our country for the benefit of our country, and, as I said last week, that will not always bring a great deal of pleasure to people in certain areas. Your Lordships know that if we are to make any impression on ports in this country, and if they are to make an economic contribution to the country itself, then we must have a centralised organisation. We must have a perfectly planned direction as to what ports are to do, and we simply cannot allow everyone to be competing and doing as they like in this respect.

While this Bill may be a small one, I would point out to the noble Lord who is to reply that I support my noble friend who said at the beginning that while we may allow this particular measure to go forward to-night, when we come back we shall certainly expect an alternative policy from the Government, who have turned down a National Ports Authority. We shall expect them to give to this House their proposals as an alternative to the proposals we made. I am not arguing for a moment that everything we suggested was right, but, whatever might have been wrong about it, at the very least we are entitled to have from the Government of the day an alternative to the proposals that we made.

8.47 p.m.


My Lords, we have had a very interesting debate on this matter, albeit short. I must thank the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, for his welcome to the Bill and apologise to him if he thought my remarks were provocative. They were not intended to be particularly provocative; they were merely, perhaps, the background feeling of some of our Party.


My Lords, if they were not provocative they were certainly trailing the noble Lord's coat, and that is very unwise if he wishes the speedy passage of a Bill.


My Lords, perhaps on this occasion I was trading on the noble Lord's well-known kindness. The smooth continuation of what the ports and harbours have been doing is basically the purpose of this Bill. We want to continue that; we do not want to see any disruption. I think the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, would agree that we are not trying to throw anything into the deep end; we merely want to continue. I also pay full tribute to what has been done in the last four or five years. It was a very good effort indeed, and I hope he will agree that we are continuing that effort and that what we are proposing will be at least as useful in this respect. When this programme of thought (calculating, cool, collected, as we know it is going to be) is over I am hoping that we shall be able to answer, clearly, concisely and to everybody's satisfaction, all the many penetrating questions which the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, is going to put to us.

The noble Earl, Lord Lauderdale, and the noble Lord, Lord Hoy, both referred to the deep ocean shipping ports and MIDAS.Professor Peston has not yet started his studies on the MIDAS conception, including the cost/benefit analysis, because negotiations have been going on with Queen Mary College. But I am happy to tell your Lordships that those negotiations are now well advanced. However, when a man of such eminence is appointed it would be unwise to dictate how he should do his work. He will know full well of the great experience of Professor Klaassen, and if he wants to use that experience I am sure he will do so. The development at Tees-side and Seal Sands will obviously be another plan of which Professor Peston must take note, and I am sure he will also take note of any relevant experience which may have a bearing on his eventual decision about the MIDAS development.

The noble Earl also asked about the publication of the report by Sir William Halcrow and Partners. I do not think either the last Government had, or this Government have, any intention of publishing that report in detail. It would seem premature to publish details about particular sites, the names of which are of course known to all of us, as they have been published, until the viability of the MIDAS concept has been established.

I come to the point which the noble Lord, Lord Hoy, and the noble Earl, Lord Lauderdale, raised about more powers for the National Ports Council. Obviously, these ideas are possibilities, and they are very interesting, but I think my right honourable friend the Minister said in another place that he would not wish to anticipate the outcome of the wider review which is being made of the needs of the ports industry. Therefore any major changes in the functions of existing Boards will not be looked at until after the Government have examined all the problems comprehensively. I think I have said enough, and I again commend this Bill to your Lordships.

On Question, Bill read 2a: Committee negatived.