§ 7.56 p.m.
§ Read a third time.
§ Clause 5 [Control by appropriate Minister over exercise of authority's functions under Sections 3 and 4]:
Lord Clinton-Davis moved Amendment No. 1:
Page 4, line 13, leave out ("a substantial part") and insert ("at least 10 per cent").
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 1 I wish to speak also to Amendments Nos. 7 and 8. This is a matter that I pursued with the Minister by way of a quick-fire exchange. That exchange is recorded at col. 1533 of Hansard of 11th July at the Report stage of the Bill.
§ I asked the Minister at that stage to define the words "a substantial part". I did not do that idly. I asked that question because the courts have to define and interpret legislation. I should not have thought the response the Minister gave to the figure of 10 per cent. I mentioned would necessarily be interpreted by the courts as a substantial part. I am trying to be helpful to the Minister by defining the issue in his terms. I beg to move.
The Earl of Stockton
My Lords, I must confess that I cannot appreciate the magic of the figure of 10 per cent. as proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis. To my mind 10 per cent. is not a substantial part of anything. If I were to lose 10 per cent. of my not inconsiderable bulk, I would still be a fairly substantial person and that which had been lost would not be considered a substantial part of me.
I hope that in the event more than 10 per cent. of the new companies would be owned by the staff of the companies. When I spoke on Second Reading, I mentioned my association with the Tees and Hartlepool port authority. That port authority is responsible for what is now the second largest port in the country. After consultation with that port authority, I was happy to be able to support the Ports Bill.
345 The proceedings of the Bill through your Lordships' House have caused moments of anxiety to a number of port authorities and their managements. However, I am happy to inform the House that Tees and Hartlepool port authority is content with the position as it now is. That authority has consulted its workforce, its unions and its customers at each stage of the Bill's progress. That port authority now stands ready to enter the private sector. It is particularly important that the local element is maintained especially as the Government have already highlighted during the passage of the Bill the objective of encouraging the disposal of the whole or a substantial part of the companies' equity to the managers and employees. The Bill as drafted supports that objective.
Such a route opens up a great many opportunities within the area, not only for the managers of the concerns but also for the workforce, and is in line with the continuation of the tradition of wider share ownership. I am certain that these measures will allow employees to purchase or to be awarded shares in the companies. I hope, therefore, that the words "a substantial part" rather than a figure will remain on the face of the Bill.
§ Lord Clinton-Davis
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I do not know whether his attention was drawn to the exchange which took place. The difficulty is that to leave the words "a substantial part" for the courts to interpret is extraordinarily vague. I was simply taking up what the Minister himself said in defining the words.
§ 8 p.m.
§ The Minister of State, Department of Transport (Lord Brabazon of Tara)
My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, said, the figure of 10 per cent. goes back to remarks which I made during Report stage when the noble Lord pressed me hard to say what was meant by a "substantial part of the equity". On the basis of the somewhat hurried advice which was available to me at the time, I said that a substantial part would be at least 10 per cent. That means that in the cases in which the courts have been asked to rule on what figures could be attached to the term "substantial" where it appears in legislation, as it does frequently, they have in some cases accepted figures as low as 10 per cent. The interpretation of the courts has depended on the particular context in which the term has been used in each case and on the particular circumstances before the court at the time.
In dealing with the issue in a case which went to this House in 1948, Lord Simon said:The questions involved are to be answered by common sense considerations rather than by any formula which can be laid down by this House".He also said:'Substantial' in this connection is not the same as 'not insubstantial' i.e. just enough to avoid the de minimis principle. One of the primary meanings of the word is equivalent to considerable, solid or big. It is in this sense that we speak of a substantial fortune, a substantial meal, a substantial man"—I turn to my noble friend— 346a substantial argument or ground of defence. Applying the word in this sense, it must be left to the discretion of the judge of fact to decide as best he can according to the circumstances in each case".I hope that what I have said is sufficient to demonstrate that a full answer to the questions which the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, put to me at Report stage would have required something in the nature of a learned treatise. The real questions are' whether the Bill should incorporate something more precise than the term "substantial" and, if it did, whether the figure should be 10 per cent.
Amendments Nos. I and 7 relate to the obligation placed on Ministers in Clause 5 and in Clause 26 of the Bill to have particular regard to the desirability of encouraging the disposal of equity share capital of the successor company to managers and employees of the company. I believe that it would be unrealistic to try to specify in the Bill in any precise way what proportion of the equity share capital that should be. Circumstances will differ from port to port and in some ports employees will be more interested in acquiring a stake in the port than in others. I believe that the wording already in the Bill adequately expresses what Parliament intends and I believe that any attempt at further precision would in this case be damaging. In particular, I do not believe that it would be right to accept amendments which would lead to the belief that anything over 10 per cent. is all right and anything below 10 per cent. does not meet the case.
Amendment No. 8 deals with a rather different situation. It is concerned with a company which a management and employee buy-out team might set up to acquire share capital in a port. Management and employee buy-out is a familiar term, but it can take a number of forms. The balance between capital contributed by the management and employees and that contributed by their financial backers can vary a very great deal. It has been said that, like the elephant, a management buy-out is easy to recognise but impossible to define. So here again I believe that it would be a mistake to try to define how much of the equity share capital in the company should be owned by managers and employees. Certainly, there is no particular reason for adopting the figure of 10 per cent. which the amendment proposes.
I recognise the entirely laudable desire of the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, to see the provisions in this Bill defined as precisely as possible. However, I believe that in these cases it would be a mistake to try to express what is intended in numerical form. I hope, therefore, that with that explanation the noble Lord will agree to withdraw the amendment.
§ Lord Clinton-Davis
My Lords, I was somewhat misled by the Minister's response to the cross-examination which took place. However, I understand his position. In seeking to withdraw the amendment I merely say that by no means can this Bill be defined as a substantial one. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Clause 11 [The annual turnover requirement for the purposes of section 10]:347
Lord Underhill moved Amendment No. 2:
Page 8, line 35, leave out ("£5") and insert ("£10").
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 2, with the leave of the House I shall speak also to Amendment No. 3. The amendments relate to the proposed provision that a trust port with an annual turnover of at least £5 million shall come within the compulsory provision for privatisation. Similar amendments brought forward in Committee proposed that the turnover criterion be changed to £20 million instead of £5 million as in the Bill. In proposing those amendments I pointed out that some major trust ports were near the £5 million turnover threshold and had emphasised that the figure was far too low. I welcomed the support of the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, who suggested that a £5 million annual turnover represented a relatively small enterprise.
In rejecting the amendments, the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, said, at col. 666 of the Official Report of 26th June:
If a threshold of £20 million were adopted, only four ports out of 100 covered by Part I would fall within it. The present threshold of £5 million brings in some 14 ports … The opportunity to consider seriously the arguments for and against privatisation for each of the larger trust ports would be lost under the amendment, and an important element would be removed from the Government's longer-term strategy for progressively exposing the ports industry to market forces".
§ The Minister added that it would be wrong to exclude ports with a turnover of between £5 million and £20 million from the list of ports which the Secretary of State might decide to direct to enter the private sector.
§ Those statements by the Minister reflect clearly a doctrinaire attitude towards the proposal rather than a concern for the progressive interest of the ports. There is a desire to include the maximum number of ports in the privatisation provisions.
§ It may be recalled that at Second Reading I referred to the fact that a number of the 14 major ports are very unhappy at the compulsory provision. A group of seven of those 14 ports—half of the 14 major ports to which the Minister referred—and one other near the threshold, making eight in all, expressed their anxiety. It is not necessarily a question of opposition to privatisation but a concern that any such change of status should be at the discretion of the port concerned. That is also the view of the British Ports Federation. I have mentioned the point before but for some reason the Minister has not commented upon the Federation's statement.
The Minister, to his credit, has not attempted to criticise the operation of those 14 major ports, which are generally regarded as being well run, efficient and profitable. The British Ports Federation stated in a briefing:
All the 14 ports above the £5 million threshold are successful and profitable".
The federation has pointed out that the 14 ports differ in many characteristics.
§ As the Minister rejected the previous proposal to raise the turnover to £20 million the present amendments suggest that the threshold be raised to £10 million from the £5 million proposed in the Bill. We believe that that will be in the best interests of the major trust ports. It will not in any way affect the 348 Government's intention to move towards privatisation, but it will give the ports' administrations full time to consider their intentions—I believe that that is what the Government want to do—and not leave it to ministerial diktat. I beg to move.
§ Lord Brabazon of Tara
My Lords, since the Bill was introduced in another place, Members both of this House and the other place have been inventive in their proposals for setting the turnover limit at different levels; the highest in another place being £50 million and the lowest £1 million. As the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, said, noble Lords opposite proposed £20 million in Committee; but now, on reflection, have evidently decided that a more modest figure might be more popular, so they have cut the figure in half to £10 million.
The Government have consistently taken the view that the privatisation of the larger trust ports is an important element of the long-term strategy of opening up the ports industry to market forces. The question then, of course, becomes: what constitutes a larger port? The figure of £5 million was not chosen at random and the House may find it helpful if I go briefly into the details. As the noble Lord said, a table of trust port turnover figures shows that, below the largest ports with annual turnovers in excess of £25 million, there is a group of 10 ports whose turnovers range from about £16 million down to just over £5 million. Below that, however, the pattern changes: only two ports—Great Yarmouth and Shoreham—come anywhere close to £5 million. No other port, on the most recent figures available, has a turnover of even as much as £2 million.
It therefore seemed that there was a significant dividing line just below the £5 million mark and that that effectively constituted the divide between the larger ports —comprising about 15 per cent. of the total number of trust ports—and the rest. The turnover limit was therefore set at £5 million and that figure was index-linked to avoid gradually bringing in numbers of smaller ports over time.
I hope that that explanation of the Government's thinking has been helpful—it is certainly not doctrinaire—and that it will be accepted that a level of £5 million is appropriate for defining the larger trust ports. On that basis, I do not believe that it would be right to exclude those ports of between £5 million and £10 million turnover from the list of ports which my right honourable friend the Secretary of State might decide to direct to enter the private sector. However, as I said on a number of occasions in debates on the Bill in this House, we appreciate that the circumstances of individual trust ports vary considerably. We shall not on 31st July 1993 go along to each of the ports above the £5 million line, or even those above the £10 million line, which have not already sought privatisation, and tell them that they are to be privatised. Before we decide to apply the power of compulsion to a port we must first consult the port and consider whatever arguments it puts forward as to why it should not be privatised. However, I do not believe that we should take ports with a turnover of 349 over £5 million, which are an important part of our ports industry, out of the field of consideration for compulsory privatisation.
§ Lord Clinton-Davis
My Lords, I should be obliged if the Minister would explain to the House why it was that in 1988 the then Secretary of State, Mr. Channon, had fixed on a figure of £10 million which at current prices would be about £13 million? Why has there been a change of heart as from that date? The Government now seek to adopt a completely different criterion from that of the Minister who was in office at that time.
§ Lord Brabazon of Tara
My Lords, there is nothing sinister about that. My right honourable friend the then Secretary of State, Mr. Channon, was offering what he termed "a working definition", a long time before the Bill was introduced or even drafted in order to give the ports industry an idea of the general order of magnitude that the Government would have in mind if they chose to include a reserve power in such a Bill. He did not make any kind of promise about what would be in the Bill, if and when it was eventually introduced. In the event, it was decided that £5 million provided a more sensible division between larger and smaller ports. I hope that, with that explanation, the noble Lord will agree to withdraw the amendment.
§ Lord Underhill
My Lords, the Minister said that in bringing forward this new amendment we have been inventive, but that is not the case. We are considering the interests of no fewer than seven of the 14 major ports to which the Minister referred in Committee and again today. No fewer than half of the major ports would support the amendment. As I made clear, they are not necessarily opposed to privatisation, but they want to be able to take the decision in their own time and at their own discretion. The Bill seeks to state that, after a period of two years, the Minister might approach any port over the £5 million threshold and persuade it to be privatised. Half the 14 major ports do not want that procedure, nor does the British Ports Federation. We are working in the interests of the major ports.
I do not intend to divide the House but, on the other hand, this is such an important matter that neither do I intend to withdraw the amendment.
§ On Question, amendment negatived.
§ [Amendment No. 3 not moved.]
§ Clause 15 [Information for purposes of levy]:
§ 8.15 p.m.
Lord Clinton-Davis moved Amendment No. 4:
Page 12, line 21, leave out ("£300") and insert ("£3.000").
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I move this amendment in order to enable the Minister to announce the results of his trip to the Treasury, but it does more than that because there is a serious point behind it. Although I shall certainly not press the matter to a Division—much to the Minister's surprise —I should like to have an assurance from him that it is important to draw a distinction between fraud and 350 negligence and that this matter will not simply be pigeon-holed but will be considered in the future because, as it stands, it is nonsensical. The penalties are derisory. The noble Lord, Lord Geddes, took that view too; though, in fairness to him, he also took the view that it would have been wrong to use this piece of legislation as a vehicle for the change. However, I seek to secure from the Minister an assurance that his department will not drop the matter and that the absurdity of those provisions as regards the scope of the penalties and drawing a distinction between fraud and negligence will be reviewed, perhaps not now, but in the future. I beg to move.
§ Lord Brabazon of Tara
My Lords, as the noble Lord said, this is the third time that we have debated these, or similar, amendments. The House is by now quite familiar with the fact that those penalties derive ultimately from the Taxes Management Act 1970, as amended by the Finance Act 1989, which lays down standard penalties for failure to supply accurate information in respect of liability to taxation, and that those Acts also provide for similar penalties in respect of both negligence and fraud.
The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, has criticised those precedents, but I hope I have in previous debates convinced the House, first, that they are indeed correct precedents to follow for offences which involve a failure to provide accurate information where a person's liability to taxation or, as in this case, to a Government levy is involved and, secondly, that it would be inappropriate, as well as unjustified, if, in this particular case, those persons contravening the provisions of the Bill should be required to pay 10 times as much as other persons who incur penalties in respect of, for example, corporation tax returns.
The noble Lord, however, together with my noble friend Lord Geddes, asked me to consult my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer about the possibility of the penalties being raised in respect of the Taxes Management Act and of a distinction being made between penalties for negligence and for fraud. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, seemed to suggest that the prospect of a confrontation between myself and my right honourable friend would be for him one of the highlights of the Bill's passage. Therefore I am sorry to disappoint the noble Lord in that respect.
It has been a matter of amicable correspondence and not confrontation. I have drawn the attention of my right honourable friend to the points made by noble Lords in the earlier debates on this subject. I do not as yet have his reply. I understand that he has this week been engaged in discussions on matters of almost equal importance to those which I raised with him. But I have no doubt that he will give full consideration to the points which have bothered noble Lords and to which I have drawn his attention. I shall let the noble Lord know the result of our deliberations.
That is as far as I can go this evening on this amendment. Therefore I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw it.
§ Lord Clinton-Davis
My Lords, I am much obliged to the Minister for writing to the Treasury. I had 351 expected that he would make a trip to the Treasury, but he has been a little tardy about it. However, correspondence has clearly replaced that necessity.
I have a message from President Gorbachev that he feels that I am right on this point; but then, he has not emerged from the Summit with very much either. Having regard to the Minister's reply and as this is a matter which we can perhaps pursue elsewhere, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendments Nos. 5 and 6 not moved.]
§ Clause 26 [Powers of disposal in relation to the company]:
§ [Amendment No. 7 not moved.]
§ Clause 40 [General interpretation]:
§ [Amendment No. 8 not moved.]
§ Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Lord Brabazon of Tara.)
§ Lord Mackie of Benshie
My Lords, I should like to take the opportunity of raising what appears to be a very small matter which has been brought to my attention regarding the Port of Inverness. The Minister has already been kind enough to write to the noble Lord, Lord Gray of Contin, and copied the letter to me. Perhaps it would ease the mind of the Inverness Harbour Authority if he could give some further assurances as to what is likely to happen. It did not spot the fact that the lights might be transferred to it at a cost of some £30,000, which is a great deal of money for the Inverness Harbour Authority. Although for others it may be insignificant, it is a large sum to that authority.
In his letter, the Minister states that some ports have their lights paid for by the General Lighthouse Authority out of funds collected by it and that other ports pay for them themselves. He writes:This creates a competitive distortion between harbour undertakings which we think should be corrected".I ask the Minister why it is not corrected the other way by getting the General Lighthouse Authority to pay for all the port lights. I understand that it has plenty of money. The Minister continues—it is rather comforting—that:The Inverness Harbour Trust will have a full opportunity to comment on any proposals which the Northern Lighthouse Board may draw up".Can the Minister give me his assurance that the Secretary of State will take account of these representations, and that he will be able to modify any proposals put by the General Lighthouse Authority which might be far too onerous for a small harbour authority such as Inverness? The position is a little complicated by the fact that the Caledonian Canal runs through it as well.
I know that these are small points, but I should be grateful if the Minister would give me some reassurance on them.
§ Lord Murton of Lindisfarne
My Lords, before we leave his Bill, perhaps my noble friend will bear with me once more while I mention something about the Port of Poole. We have heard much about the port of 352 Poole during the proceedings of this Bill. I make no apology for that, and I thank the noble Lords who were kind enough to support me.
As I said before, the Bill does not bring me too much joy. On the other hand, I do not object to the privatisation of those ports which wish to be privatised. However, I feel some distress about those ports which are reluctant, at least at this stage, to accept the reserve powers of the Secretary of State. I should say that the commissioners in Poole made a careful study of the potential benefits vis-a-vis the disadvantages of the Ports Bill, but they were unable to reconcile any real advantages to the harbour or to its users if the port were to be privatised. On studying the Bill, it will be generally realised that any benefits which would accrue to the purchaser of any port, in course of time, possibly in view of the fact that land is mentioned so often, would come from asset-stripping it or obtaining a change of use in planning terms for port land which would achieve a greater personal return for the company or an individual if he were prepared to buy it.
In the case of Poole, the total port area—or perhaps one could call it the income generating area—responsible for maintaining a harbour of 10,000 acres is only 55 acres. The port area is ecologically restricted in any event. As I said before, it is a site of special scientific interest; a RAMSAR wetland (to use that technical expression); a heritage coast; and it has various other designations. In the case of Poole it is not necessary nor is it desirable to obtain cheap investment money to expand or develop it further. In fact, local people are united in wanting to exercise restraint on the commercial activities in the harbour to what they are at present. If the port were to be privatised, the conservation restrictions on the cargo and passenger handling business would dictate that, in order to satisfy shareholders, the new owner would significantly have to increase the harbour, leisure and fishing dues in the hope of achieving a reasonable rate of return for the shareholders.
In fact, less than 10 per cent. of the total revenue received by the harbour commissioners for maintaining the harbour in all its forms comes from those leisure and fishing dues. A trust port can live on a relatively low rate of' return of 7 per cent. or 8 per cent. on capital employed. But if a company were to be involved rather than the commissioners, those dues would have to be considerably increased. I am afraid that that would cause a storm of protest in Poole because the burden would have to be borne by the shipping interests, the yachting interests and those who have moorings. All in all, it has been said that Poole is a textbook trusteeship. I hope that it will be left alone. I have a feeling that perhaps we may be fortunate in that respect.
In closing, perhaps I may quote from The Ancient Mariner:Instead of the cross the albatross About my neck was hung".With due respect to him, perhaps if the Secretary of State were to exercise the reserve powers at least in the case of Poole, he would find them to be a frightful albatross because there would be a great storm of 353 protest not only in the harbour itself but from the surrounding population which depends very much on the profitability of the port as it is now.
§ Lord Clinton-Davis
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Murton, encapsulated some of the anxieties that we sought to express about the powers of coercion which are held in reserve and which threaten Poole and ports like it. They are proud of their record and have done a great deal to establish very successful attitudes and policies in respect of environmental matters. In our judgment, it is quite wrong that ports of that kind should be held in any doubt at all. The Minister should declare that he will not consider Poole. I join with the noble Lord in his declarations which I know he makes on behalf of people who were formerly his constituents and with whom he still retains close contact.
It will not surprise the Minister to hear that the Opposition believe that the Bill—in respect of which in this House the Minister has made few concessions —is miserably irrelevant to the transport needs of this country. It ignores the central problems which face British ports. It ignores the need for a national strategy in which port development plays a significant part alongside inland waterways and other modes of transport consistent with the overall economic policies and objectives of this country. The Bill reflects a totally incoherent approach to transport planning and policies which is characteristic of this Government.
The Bill, whatever emollient words may have been used by the Minister today, threatens to undermine the role of the trust ports. No one on the Government side has declared that the trust ports have failed to prepare themselves successfully for 1992. They have managed to combine such preparation with the needs of the localities with which they have been integrally connected for a long time. The Bill is all about the man in Whitehall knowing best. I said so on Second Reading. I have heard nothing from the Minister to cause me to depart from the view.
The Minister's case is based upon assertions and conjecture. The trouble is that the Government are not best placed to put forward evidence that is credible. Asked to make assessments about hard economic facts, in particular the consequences of the abolition of the dock labour scheme, they have significantly failed to do so. Government estimates of the cost of the abolition of the dock labour scheme were in the region of £24 million. The true cost is £141 million. I know that the Minister says that it is all worthwhile. But what a way to calculate costs! There were to be about 1,500 to 2,000 redundancies. The truth is that there are nearly 5,000, and more to come. Therefore, the Government's predictions, calculations and track record cannot be taken seriously.
Over and again in the course of debates, the Minister rejected anxieties that we sought to express about environmental damage. Another point was made today by the noble Lord, Lord Murton of Lindisfarne. The Minister has used the words that the Bill is "environmentally neutral" whatever that may mean. It is an extraordinary phrase that he has conjured up and used over and again.
354 We are told that the Government are dedicated to the improvement of the environment. One would have thought that in their document. Transport and the Environment, they would have found some meaningful words to express that anxiety. I have searched hard in that document and in the White Paper for anything worthwhile that they have to say about the environment and the ports.
The Government have had little to say about maintaining and improving standards for workers in the ports. They say that the Bill is simply about the change of ownership and that those matters are not of concern. Reputable environmental organisations such as English Heritage, the National Trust and the RSPB have continued to express anxieties and have been singularly unimpressed with what the Minister said. Similarly, many workers feel that it would have been appropriate for the Minister to have expressed the Government's anxiety about safety in what is still an industry with a high record of injury and even death. The Minister said nothing about the rights of the workforce to training, medical welfare or influencing policies which affect their day to day life. Those are matters of major concern to the workers, and they are entitled to express that point of view.
The position on compulsory powers is far from satisfactory, as the noble Lord, Lord Murton of Lindisfarne, said. However, the Government are proceeding on their way. Unfortunately considerable doubt therefore overhangs the position of a number of the trust ports.
It is significant that the subject of management employee buy-outs was omitted from the Bill as originally drafted—an extraordinary omission because it has now become the Government's flagship. Why was it omitted? Never for one moment has the Minister been able to explain that to the House. Was it an oversight, a mistake or a matter of disinterest? Eventually the concession was wrung from the Government by an alliance of the Opposition and the Government's own Back Benchers in Committee. The Government then took the issue on board. But even now, despite the language of the Bill, and despite the assertions made by the Minister, I believe that the dice is still heavily loaded in practice against successful employee buy-outs. We have tried to introduce additional incentives and additional protections. They have been dismissed by the Government. Time will tell. We hope that employees who wish to go down that route will be able to do so. But the Government have to show in practice, not simply in legislation, that the employees will be given every encouragement, help and information to do so, and every incentive with regard to legal assistance.
In making complaints about a Bill which the Opposition believe to be essentially irrelevant, I nevertheless thank the Minister for his courtesy throughout all stages of the Bill. That is characteristic of the Minister, to whom in some respects I could easily refer as my noble friend. I have known him for a long time. I have always felt that the facility for courtesy and pleasant debate was characteristic of him.
355 I wish also to thank those who have helped the Opposition. It is important that all oppositions are given assistance in these difficult matters. We are very busy. We have many duties to undertake and it is not easy 10 extend one's time to the difficulties of drafting complicated amendments without such help. I thank those people very much indeed.
Perhaps I may also say—as I have done regularly throughout the Session—that I have had the privilege of conducting transport matters with the great support and experience of my noble friend Lord Underhill to assist me. He is widely respected in this House, not only on these Benches but on all Benches on all sides of the Chamber. I thank him enormously.
The Viscount of Falkland
My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Ezra, who unfortunately is unable to be present today, I too thank the Minister for the customary courtesy and good humour with which he has handled the Bill. My noble friend Lord Ezra has two principal regrets about the Bill. The first is that noble Lords were unable to persuade the Government to introduce environmental safeguards into the management of ports. My noble friend feels very strongly that that is a flaw in the Bill. He also feels strongly that the power that the Secretary of State retains to compel ports such as Poole—which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Murton —to pass into private hands is another flaw in the Bill. In the case of Poole, the local outcry would be considerable. There is great satisfaction locally with the way that that trust port is run.
The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, apologises to the House that he is unable to be present. He wishes to thank the Minister for all that he has done, bearing in mind the reservations that he still holds.
§ Lord Brabazon of Tara
My Lords, I wish to extend my thanks to all noble Lords who have contributed to the constructive and well-informed debates that we have heard. From these Benches I wish to thank in particular my noble friend Lord Howe for his assistance from the Front Bench. I also thank my noble friends Lord Wade, Lord Geddes and Lord Oxfuird who made helpful and supportive contributions on various matters. I wish to thank my noble friend Lord Stockton who made a helpful contribution to the debates on this Bill. I hope that he will feel that its successful passage through this House is in some measure recompense for the very substantial efforts he had already made on behalf of the Tees and Hartlepool Port Authority in sponsoring its Private Bill in this House. My noble friend Lord Murton, had special interests to put before us, which he did most eloquently and which he repeated tonight.
I wish to make two points which are worth repeating. If we believed that after two years we should privatise all ports above the £5 million threshold, we should not have introduced the five-year moratorium into the Bill. Secondly, if we had intended to privatise? all ports with a turnover of more than £5 million, we should have introduced a Bill which did exactly that.
I should also like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Green way, who has apologised to me for his absence 356 tonight, and the noble Lord, Lord Napier, for the valuable and knowledgeable interventions which they made on a number of occasions. I thank noble Lords opposite, in particular the noble Lords, Lord Clinton-Davis and Lord Underhill. It was too much to hope that they would accept the basic objectives of a Bill such as this whose fundamental purpose reflects principles on which there is bound to be disagreement between Members on the Government Benches and Members opposite. The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, referred to the Bill as a Bill about the man in Whitehall knowing best. He then went on to talk about a planned transport strategy and central planning of the ports industry. I am afraid that we shall differ in our views about that.
Nevertheless, noble Lords opposite have made important contributions to the debates on the detailed provisions of the Bill. The views put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra—who I am sorry is not present this evening—have naturally commanded respect, even though we on these Benches were not able to accept the reservations which he expressed on some features of the Bill.
I wish to respond to the points made this evening by the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie. During the passage of the Bill through this House this is the first time that any issues on the clauses in question have been raised. Certain points were raised by my noble friend Lord Gray and I have written to him about the matter. The proposals in the Bill about lights, buoys and beacons relate only to those navigational aids which are at present provided by the general lighthouse authorities and which are required chiefly for the purposes of local rather than general navigation or, as Clause 32 of the Bill expresses it, those which are of benefit solely or mainly to ships within, or entering or leaving, the harbour authority's area. The provisions in the Bill are intended to correct an anomaly under which some ports at present provide and pay for all their local navigational aids while others have these provided by the relevant general lighthouse authority. Therefore, they are paid for through light dues paid by commercial shipping and the fishing industry in general and not merely by shipping using the port in question. This creates a competitive distortion between ports which we believe should be removed. The noble Lord said that the general lighthouse authorities had plenty of money. They will be delighted to know that that is the noble Lord's view, but they may well disagree.
In the case of the Inverness Harbour Trust the relevant general lighthouse authority is the Northern Lighthouse Board. The harbour trust will have a full opportunity to comment on any proposals which the Northern Lighthouse Board may draw up for transferring navigational aids to the port. If the Secretary of State wishes to make any changes in the proposals put to him by the Northern Lighthouse Board, he will first be obliged under the Bill to consult the harbour authority. In putting forward any proposals to transfer navigational aids to the Inverness Harbour Trust the Northern Lighthouse Board will need to demonstrate that any aids which it 357 proposes to transfer are used solely or mainly for local navigation in the terms set out in the Bill. If this cannot be established a transfer will not be possible.
I hope that that explanation of the purpose of these provisions and of the opportunities which the Inverness Harbour Trust will have for putting its own view on any proposals put forward by the Northern Lighthouse Board will be of some reassurance to the harbour trust and to the noble Lord, Lord Mackie.
This House has made a number of amendments to the Bill which have undoubtedly improved it. Most of them have been of a technical nature but we have also introduced into Clause 10 a five-year moratorium during which my right honourable friend the Secretary of State will be unable to compel a port to privatise itself after he had taken an earlier decision not to do so. That measure was welcomed by all sides of the House.
Our debates have covered many important aspects of the Bill, and I am certain that they have greatly contributed to a fuller understanding of it on all sides of the House. We now have before us a Bill which I am sure will prove to be of substantial and lasting benefit to all those trust ports which take advantage of it and ultimately to our ports industry as a whole. I beg to move.
On Question, Bill passed, and returned to the Commons with amendments.