HL Deb 16 January 1996 vol 568 cc460-2

2.58 p.m.

Lord Carver asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking to ensure that the Employment Agency Standards Office's interpretation of the application of the Employment Agencies Act 1973 to deep sea and coastal pilots does not deprive the latter of their livelihood.

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Fraser of Carmyllie)

My Lords, the activities of Deep Sea and Coastal Pilots Limited are those of an employment business subject to the Employment Agencies Act 1973. The fees it charges pilots for its services are prohibited by Section 6 of that Act. The Employment Agency Standards Office has explained that to the company and has asked it to comply with the law.

Lord Carver

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that unhelpful reply. Is he aware that the service which the pilots provide is of great importance to the safety of shipping in the waters adjacent to our shores? A European Commission study has recommended that the service is made mandatory for ships of 10,000 tonnes and over and those carrying hazardous cargoes. If the Employment Agency Standards Office's interpretation of the Act is upheld, our pilots would have to increase their charges, discouraging shipowners from making use of their services or persuading them to turn to pilots of other nations.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, no one underestimates the value of the pilots and the work that they undertake. I cannot, however, agree that it necessarily follows that, were the interpretation of the law that the Employment Agency Standards Office is adopting to be followed through by this company, as we believe it should, it would mean that the fees charged have to be increased.

What I wish to emphasise to the noble Lord at this stage is that detailed correspondence has passed between the legal advisers to the company and the office. We await a reply from the company. I wish to make it clear that no precipitated action will be taken, although action could be taken under the criminal law or before an industrial tribunal.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, will my noble friend agree that the pilot is a specialist adviser to the masters of many ships, and not a temporary employee of one, and that a central administration is needed because pilots arc widely distributed and work abnormal hours? Is he aware that after World War II this organisation provided pilots to guide ships past mines laid by both sides, but that they now find that the minefields lurking in the opaque waters of job classification are more hazardous?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, no one is attacking the quality or value of the work undertaken by pilots. At issue is whether or not this particular company is entitled under the law in place since 1973 to charge fees in respect of that employment. The advice given to the Employment Agency Standards Office is that that is not in compliance with the law and the company should comply. As I said, this is in no sense an attack on the value of the work undertaken.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, will the Minister agree that the Employment Agencies Act protects pilots and does not seek to undermine their rights, and that these state agencies should not be allowed to charge individuals for finding them work? Is he aware that it has been suggested to the pilots that, rather than seeking to exempt themselves from the law which protects them, it would be a better idea for them to form themselves into a company in order to deal with this issue themselves?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, I am certainly aware that an exemption is one of the proposals that they have put forward. My understanding of the position is that originally this company came into being as a co-operative, when the pilots drew together, but is now a wholly commercial company. What is at issue here is essentially whether fees can be charged to the pilots for the employment found for them or whether the cost might be shifted, as happens all over the country in a wide multiplicity of agencies whose fees are charged to those seeking the services of the pilot. It is not for me to indicate how that might be worked out in detail, but there is a relatively straightforward way in which this matter might be resolved.

Baroness Platt of Writtle

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that it is the free choice of the pilots to operate through an agency, which they control absolutely through a code of practice and which frees them from the burden of necessary administrative work so that they can concentrate on the highly skilled and vital work of pilotage—their chosen profession?

Is my noble friend also aware that the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act seems to be operating against its own aims in adding to the bureaucracy of the work of these pilots?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, to deal with the second point first. I think there is some confusion. There was some belief that the pilots were originally subjected to the seamen's agencies, which were covered by the Merchant Shipping Act 1894. That has never been the position; they have always been covered by provisions under the 1973 Act.

I really do not think it can be maintained that enforcement of the law and compliance with it in this context puts the work of the pilots at risk. What we need to establish now is whether or not the company is in breach of the law. We await a reply from its legal advisers.

Lord Donaldson of Lymington

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is a problem as to whether this Act applies, at any rate in the form in which the agency is putting forward the argument? However, leaving that point aside, am I right in thinking that there has been no complaint from shipowners, no request from pilots for protection, and no suggestion by the company that their work would be any better performed if they were subject to regulation? Against that background, would it not be more sensible to make an exemption order under Section 6 as being more in the spirit of deregulation and also in conformity with the old adage, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it"?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, I am certainly not aware of any complaints from shipowners, although I am aware that complaints have been made by pilots on the allegation of a breach.

As regards the noble and learned Lord's main point, I accept, and I cling to the quaint notion, that if there is an authority asserting a particular construction of the law and there are others who disagree with that, it might he appropriate for the courts to resolve the matter. Only when that matter has been settled might the issue of an exemption be addressed. There are two sets of exemptions; in principle, however, we do not favour the extension of further exemptions.

Viscount Caldecote

My Lords, is it not a fact that the Employment Agency Standards Office bases it case on the assumption that pilots are employed by the shipowner, whereas anybody who has anything to do with the sea knows perfectly well that they are advisers to the captain; and any sensible captain would he very unwise to reject the advice he receives? The pilots are in no way employees of the company that employs the captain.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, that is the very point. Certainly the pilots arc not employees of the shipowners, the owners of the tankers or whatever it may be. The contention of the office is that they are indeed employees of the company and are hired out to work under the control of others.