HL Deb 13 June 2003 vol 649 cc499-500

12.36 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 14th May be approved [20th report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the regulations to amend Section 9 of the Race Relations Act 1976 forms part of the Government's wider amendments to the Act implementing the race directive under Article 13 of the EC treaty.

The race directive makes it unlawful to discriminate in the areas of employment-related matters, social protection, social advantage, healthcare, education and goods and services—but only on the grounds of racial or ethnic origin. However, our proposals go beyond the requirements of the directive. The proposed amendment to Section 9 of the Act will outlaw discrimination on the basis of colour and national origins as well as on the basis of racial and ethnic origins as required by the directive.

This means that nationality will be the only grounds on which to justify treating people differently. This will apply to seafarers recruited abroad to work on ships registered in Great Britain, but only in terms of pay, including retirement and death benefits. Parallel legislation will be laid for ships registered in Northern Ireland.

Over the last few years, there has been a substantial revival in the United Kingdom merchant fleet, with an increase of around 90 per cent in UK registered shipping since 1997. The introduction of tonnage tax in 2000, and the registration reforms of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency have helped to produce a highly favourable environment for shipping. We are determined that this should continue.

That is the background against which we are laying the regulations to amend Section 9 of the Race Relations Act 1976. For most of the period that the Act has been in force, there has been a sharp decline in the number of UK-registered ships, and therefore in the number of ships that can be subject to UK legislation. However, as I indicated, there has been a huge increase in UK registered shipping since 1997.

During the public consultation on the implementation of the EC Article 13 race directive, our social partners' views were invited on a proposal to repeal Section 9 in its entirety. After careful consideration, the Government concluded that total abolition of Section 9 of the Act would seriously jeopardise the success we have achieved in reviving UK merchant shipping. This was not a course we were prepared to follow.

Crewing costs are a substantial proportion of overall shipping costs, and shipping companies are operating in a highly competitive sector. We estimate that the additional costs to shipowners, which could be up to £40 million, incurred by the total repeal of Section 9 would drive many shipping companies to register their ships abroad. Up to 400 ships, possibly more, could leave the UK register, thus removing them from the jurisdiction of the UK with the risk that they could move to less safety-conscious registers.

All other EU member states are retaining the ability to pay foreign seafarers at different rates. Not to proceed with our proposals could put UK registered ships at a significant commercial disadvantage in a highly competitive market.

I recognise that there are concerns about paying foreign seafarers at local rates, but I firmly reject the argument that it amounts to employing cheap labour. The local rates may compare favourably with rates for other jobs in the countries concerned. Furthermore, the UK fully supports the current exercise of the International Labour Organisation to consolidate its maritime conventions. That will achieve a workable and enforceable international system of maritime standards for seafarers' living and working conditions.

The Government are firmly committed to removing discrimination wherever possible. We are also firmly committed to the continued success of the United Kingdom register and of our shipping policy in general. We are convinced that to achieve those objectives the continuing payment of local wage rates to seafarers recruited abroad on United Kingdom ships is absolutely necessary. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 14th May be approved [20th report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord McIntosh of Haringey.)

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I support the regulations. The Government have a sensible balance in terms of employment of people from abroad on British ships. As the Minister said, if the situation changed, it would have a dramatic effect on the amount of tonnage registered in this country. At the same time, we fully support the notion that the Race Relations Act should cover people employed in this way.

Lord Newby

My Lords, the Minister referred to a number of concerns expressed about the regulations, which we understand. On balance, we agree that the Government's course is a wise one.

On Question, Motion agreed to.