HL Deb 02 July 1981 vol 422 cc340-3

6.48 p.m.

Report stage resumed.

Lord Mottistone moved Amendment No. 5: After Clause 3, insert the following new clause:

("Maintenance of services to Islands

. If ever Sealink consider it commercially advisable to reduce the sea transport services which it provides to any island off the mainland of England, it shall consult with the Secretary of State before putting such a reduction of services into effect and the Secretary of State shall further consult with such public bodies or persons as he may deem to be concerned.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this amendment is designed to provide a long-term safeguard for islands which will be dependent upon Sealink. It in no way suggests that Sealink is not providing an excellent service at this moment in time, and it looks perhaps 10 or even 15 years ahead when circumstances may not be quite so good for Sealink.

I should perhaps remind your Lordships that most of Sealink's operations are well-buttressed with alternative means of sea transport; that is, the routes that it runs to Ireland and the routes that it runs to the Continent. As regards the routes that it runs to all the islands, in the case of the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, they are supplemented by air routes, and in the case of the Isle of Wight, they are it is true supplemented by a measure of private enterprise. But in the case of the Isle of Wight—and your Lordships will be aware that that is where I live—we find that two-thirds of the routes providing transport for motor vehicles are owned by Sealink and three-quarters of those providing transport for passengers are owned by Sealink. Therefore, a large proportion of the amount of the sea transport is in the hands of Sealink. Whereas the routes across the Channel and to Ireland are not of themselves vital to the ordinary, orderly everyday life of the places that they go to, in regard to the islands to a large extent they are.

In the case of the Isle of Wight, where we have no supplementary transport in the way of the air and just a small amount of hydrofoil and hovercraft transport ability, the vast preponderance of the position occupied by Sealink is important. Sealink at the moment is providing an excellent service, and indeed it is prospering. It is planning all sorts of development, which is much to be encouraged and admired, but one cannot be sure that in the more distant future things will always go so well for this company. It might indeed have a setback in—shall we say—the early 1990s because some unwise person has driven a tunnel under the Channel. That would take away a lot of its routes in that direction and it might say that it had to pull its horns in. Then perhaps it would say, "We have to make economies in all places, and this w ill mean reducing the services to the Isle of Wight".

As I have endeavoured to show, the services to an island are much more vital to its everyday life than the services on the main routes which provide chiefly for tourists going back and forth. They are not vital for the everyday living as they are to an island. It would apply particularly to the Isle of Wight, but probably also to the Channel Islands, and I should like this to be thought of in that context as well. The regularity of service is important and has a bearing quite different from the other functions which Sealink performs. It is to safeguard that position in the future, and in circumstances that at present cannot be foreseen, that I propose this amendment.

My noble friend the Minister said in favour of Clause 3, which we have just debated, "These are really reserve powers which we would never use in an ordinary sort of circumstance, and we cannot foresee its happening in the immediate future". I am really saying the same sort of thing to him. What I seek by my amendment is reserve powers for at the moment an unforeseen situation which might arise 5, 10, 15 or even 20 years ahead. It would be a safeguard to have something of this sort in the Bill. I beg to move.

6.53 p.m.

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, I see that my noble friend, who is always so assiduous and ever watchful on all matters concerning the Isle of Wight—they are fortunate indeed to have someone who takes such a regular and on-going interest in their affairs—has tabled this further amendment because he is properly concerned regarding local interests. However, I wonder whether the scope of his present amendment may be wider than he thinks, since it may apply not only to the Isle of Wight and to the Channel Islands, but also perhaps to Ireland as well—since that might, I suppose, be called an island off the mainland of England! I am sure the inhabitants of these islands should be grateful to my noble friend Lord Mottistone for his attention to their interests.

My noble friend is evidently worried that when in the private sector, no longer bound by the present requirements for advance notification of closure of shipping services, Sealink might decide abruptly to end one of its three services to the Isle of Wight. I have to say—and I am sure he will not be surprised to hear—that I do not share his fears. Sealink are a responsible shipping company, well aware of the importance the inhabitants of the Isle of Wight attach to their services. They are not likely to take lightly any decision to change the present pattern of their services. I am confident that any proposals of the sort my noble friend has in mind would be heralded by reasonable consultation—in particular with the local transport authority, the county council, with whom Sealink hold regular meetings so that precisely issues of this sort can be aired.

But in fact Sealink's intentions for the Isle of Wight routes are more for expansion than for closure. The House has recently given its approval to a Sealink proposal to carry out works at Fishbourne, so that bigger ships can be used on the Portsmouth-Fishbourne route. As my noble friend knows, similar works are planned by the harbour authority, with Sealink's support, at Yarmouth. These proposals clearly show Sealink's confidence in the potential of their Isle of Wight services. I know of no proposal for the closure or severe curtailment of any of Sealink's services to the island.

It really is for this reason that I do not think that my noble friend's amendment is necessary. Moreover, it raises an issue of principle for the Government. It is our intention that when in the private section Sealink should be treated like any other private sector shipping and harbour operator. This is the main thrust of our policy, to give the board's subsidiaries a chance to compete on equal footing with other businesses. To single out Sealink and its services to offshore islands from among all the shipping services provided by other commercial operators for special restrictions would not be in keeping with this policy.

I take the last point that my noble friend made about reserve powers. I think he would agree with me—he will say if he does not; he usually says what he thinks—that when he speaks of having reserve powers in case the unforeseeable happens he does so in not quite the same way that I was making the point on the last matter. Of course, in the case of a trading company, which this is, one cannot foresee what in 15 years or so may be the position; but then I did say that anybody who was faced with a situation of that kind would have reasonable consultation. I am satisfied for myself—and I have thought carefully about this—that in fact there is no need for the concern which my noble friend expresses. I hope that he will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, may I briefly intervene with a warning. There is no reason why Sealink should not perhaps become a monopoly in the foreseeable future, and once there is a monopoly in transport then the people who run that monopoly business can withdraw their service, whether it be on the land or on the sea. As I know very well, in parts of Scotland a firm, having taken everything over, has withdrawn its bus monopoly, with consequent great deprivation to people living in that part of Scotland. This is only a warning. Agreeing entirely with my noble friend Lord Mottistone's reasons underlying this amendment, I should have thought it helpful if reserve powers even for an independent company were put into this Bill.

Lord Mottistone

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her support, and I trust that my noble friend the Minister will take note of what can happen. We are talking over a period of 25 years or so, if not more. These things do happen. I fully accept the fact that my amendment is not perfectly drafted and that we might be doing more favour to Ireland than perhaps I was intending, but, with all that, there is an underlying problem here which perhaps in the event is going to be so far ahead that most of us in the Chamber at the moment will cease to have worried about it because we shall not want to travel any more. There is this problem—I know it has happened in parts of Canada, for example—and it is the sort of thing that must be watched. People can fall on hard times and withdraw what are thought to be essential services by those who are provided with them. Having aired the point fully, I shall read in Hansard carefully what my noble friend said and perhaps even make it all available to the people of the Isle of Wight, so that in due course, if this problem ever arises, they can throw it back at the Minister of the day and perhaps even at Sealink. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Sandys

My Lords, I think it would be for the convenience of the House if at this stage we adjourned the consideration of the Report stage until 7.45 and meanwhile took further business. I beg to move that further consideration on Report be now adjourned until 7.45.

Moved accordingly and, on Question, Motion agreed to.