HL Deb 18 December 1984 vol 458 cc630-3

9.26 p.m.

Lord Walston

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

Those of your Lordships who have had the stamina to survive until this late hour may remember that this Bill passed through your Lordships' House in all its stages during the summer. Unfortunately, it failed to complete its passage through another place in time. That is the reason why it has to be reintroduced to your Lordships now. I can assure your Lordships that it is identical in every respect to the Bill to which you gave your agreement during the summer.

I was therefore tempted to do no more than move the second Reading in a purely formal manner. While I suspect that that might have been welcome to many of your Lordships, I felt it would be discourteous to the House as a whole if I were to do so. It may be some consolation if I make it quite clear at this stage that Clause 8(3) makes it perfectly plain that this Bill does not apply to Northern Ireland.

The object of the Bill is to bring up to date certain practices and certain legislation which has been in existence for some time. May I remind your Lordships that virtually all harbour authorities have powers, which they use as necessary, to control the movement of shipping within the confines of their own authority; for instance, the berthing of ships and their movements within the port. But the courts have held that the power to regulate ships does not include the power to prohibit a ship from entering a port. Also, although there is no legal case on this point, it is probable that the power to regulate does not include power to require a ship to be removed entirely from a port. In principle, of course, nobody can disagree with this. It is absolutely right that this should be so. But circumstances have changed and are changing rapidly.

This has led to a situation where it appears desirable that harbour masters should have somewhat extended rights which would modify the general principle of free movement of navigation and the right of free entry to allcomers into ports. The modification hitherto has been that the power to exclude only exists in cases where there is grave danger to human life, to property, or to navigation. This is what this Bill sets out to do. It would certainly not give harbour authorities an absolute discretion as to whether a particular ship should be permitted to enter a port.

Many harbour authorities already have power to prohibit dangerous cargoes from coming into the harbour. It is proposed that new and uniform powers for this purpose will be conferred by regulation made by the Secretary of State under the Health and Safety at Work Act. Whether or not this has actually taken place I do not know, but in any case it has nothing to do with this Bill. The powers that exist already and the proposed regulations will not enable a harbour authority, or a harbour master acting on its behalf, to prohibit a ship itself, as distinct from a ship carrying a dangerous cargo, from entering the port. This may seem to your Lordships a very minor matter, but even where a ship is not carrying a dangerous cargo there is always the risk of serious damage being done where such a ship is run into or where a collision occurs because of, for instance, defective steering on the part of a second ship that is carrying a dangerous cargo.

In recent years a few harbour authorities have taken powers by means of private legislation to give directions to prohibit the entry into port of a vessel which, for any reason, was likely to be, or was likely to become, a danger to other vessels in the port. But this is only a very minor power and applies only to certain harbour authorities. The penalties for infringing it are very small. For instance, the maximum fine in the Port of London is £1,000; in many cases it is only £200. Clearly, in these days such fines are no very serious deterrent. This Bill sets out to overcome these difficulties.

Clause 1 would enable a harbour master to give directions, prohibiting the entry into, or requiring the removal from", a port of any vessel the presence of which in the port may in his opinion, by reason of the condition of that vessel or of anything contained in it, involve the risk of grave and imminent danger to human life or property, or where the vessel may, by sinking or foundering in the harbour, prevent or seriously prejudice the use of the harbour by other vessels". Clause 5 proposes that the maximum penalties for failing to comply with a harbour master's direction are sufficiently high to constitute a real deterrent. It proposes a fine of £25,000 on summary conviction, and on conviction on indictment an unlimited fine. This surely is a wise provision in these times of continuing inflation and the continuing rise in the value both of ships and of cargo.

Clause 3 contains a power enabling the Secretary of State for Transport to override a direction given by a harbour master under Clause 1, thus enabling a vessel to enter the port. I would suggest to your Lordships that this is a very wise provision because it is right that there should be an overriding power which can be exercised for the purpose of securing the safety of any person or vessel. It enables wider considerations to be taken into account by the Secretary of State than would be taken into account by the harbour master acting solely in the interests of his own port. It would, of course, overcome any risk of a vessel being denied access to any port and being unable ever to gain entry into one.

Those are the main provisions of the Bill. I have dealt with them, I hope your Lordships will consider, briefly and, I hope it will also be considered, adequately, in order to give those of your Lordships who may not remember the original Bill an idea of what the Bill sets out to do and why, in my opinion, it is necessary. I therefore beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Walston.)

9.33 p.m.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, I want first to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Walston, on bringing forward this Bill once again and on bringing it forward sufficiently early, I hope, to avoid what happened when it reached the other place on the last occasion.

It may be recalled that when we last had the Bill before us I raised a number of questions on enforcement, I am pleased to say that, although I was not satisfied with the actual reply given by the Minister on that occasion, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, wrote to me and satisfied me on all the questions of enforcement. I have had brief consultations with the two unions concerned—the National Union of Seamen and the National Union of Railwaymen—which lead me to say that we wish to do nothing whatsoever to impede the passage of the Bill; in fact we wish to give it every possible encouragement.

It may be that we have some doubts on the exemptions under Clause 6 but I am prepared to accept the explanations given for those exemptions. The noble Lord, Lord Walston, stressed in particular the authority given under Clause 3 to the Secretary of State to override a direction of a harbour master to refuse access to a particular vessel. I wonder whether the noble Lord the Minister, if not the noble Lord, Lord Walston, can provide me with some assurance on this point. I can appreciate the explanation and reasons for this reserve power being given to the Secretary of State, but may we have an assurance that any such action will be carefully monitored?

For instance, the example was quoted of the Royal Navy picking up a merchant vessel which might have on board explosives or some other dangerous cargo. Would action be taken to ensure that there was a rapid response in such a case and that the whole operation was monitored? That is an assurance that I am sure the Minister can give. With those few remarks, I wish this Bill well in its progress.

9.36 p.m.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Walston, has said in his very lucid speech, this is the second time this year that he has introduced this Bill. The first time it was welcomed on behalf of the Government by my noble friend Lord Lucas of Chilworth, and this task has now fallen to me. In fact, I cannot improve on the noble Lord's statement of the case for this Bill. It is a small but useful measure which will clarify a rather uncertain area of the law and, in circumstances which we hope will occur very rarely, if at all, it could be instrumental in preventing a disaster.

As the noble Lord has said, when the Bill was introduced in the previous Session a number of amendments were put down by my noble friend that simplified and improved the drafting of the Bill while preserving the essence. The current Bill includes those amendments, and though one cannot guarantee, of course, that no further amendment at all will be required, the Bill as it stands is a fairly polished piece of work.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, kindly gave me notice that he was going to raise the question of the Secretary of State's monitoring of events in relation to his overriding power contained in Clause 3, and how he would react. A ship, or its owners or agents, would normally get in touch with the marine office to ask for a Clause 3 direction to be given. The office's local resource is in the coastguards, the marine salvage organisation, the pollution organisations and local ship surveyors. A report should be obtained by my right honourable friend through one or other of these, and he would then give his decision. Procedures can be worked out in more detail if the Bill is passed.

My Lords, I do not think there is anything further for me to do but to commend this Bill to your Lordships' House.

Lord Walston

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Underhill and Lord Brabazon of Tara, for their approval of this Bill and their good wishes, and for the brevity with which they have expressed that. I therefore beg to move that the Bill be read a second time.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

House adjourned at twenty-two minutes before ten o'clock.