HC Deb 06 May 2004 vol 420 cc509-52WH

[Relevant documents: Ninth Report from the Transport Committee, Session 2002–03, 783-I, and the Government's response thereto, Cm 6076.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Heppell.]

2.30 pm
Mr. Deputy Speaker

I call the distinguished hon. Lady who chairs the Select Committee on Transport to open the debate.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I frequently feel extinguished.

Shipping is the main transport method for international trade. The United Kingdom's ports are gateways that carry 388 million tonnes of international trade, 95 per cent. of the country's international freight by tonnage and 75 per cent. by value As we highlighted in our report, 177 million tonnes of domestic freight also move through our ports system. In 1999, 32 million international passengers and 38 million domestic passengers used United Kingdom ports. We highlighted those figures because, as sadly seems the case with so many major transport facilities in the United Kingdom, it seemed to the Committee that the port system has for far too long been neglected by many Governments.

It is worrying that the United Kingdom is now completely out of step with its European counterparts. Our ports system has undergone a considerable change. It is now almost entirely privately owned, yet the people with whom we compete in continental ports still remain largely in the hands of their state systems. That is not a difficulty in usual circumstances because our system is a ports industry that is perfectly capable of competing with almost any system. It means, however, that when we debate the influence of European institutions and the changes that are brought about by European law, we see a considerable difference.

I come to the matters that are of particular concern to the Select Committee. We said that it was essential that we received a clear statement of the Government's policy on ports. Investment decisions would be made more comprehensive and easier if there were confidence that the Government recognised the importance of the sector. We said that ports were vital to the United Kingdom's economy and that the Government's policy must ensure that the ports industry remains healthy and internationally competitive. Unless we receive a clear statement of the Government's support, it will increasingly become clear that the forward planning that is absolutely essential will not be carried out in an informed and sensible manner.

We need a regulatory framework that ensures that ports are operated in a safe and environmentally responsible manner. However, the Select Committee was worried by the fact that the sort of information—its statistical basis—that enables one to plan the development of the ports industry was still not available. The Department for Transport acknowledged that, but unfortunately does not seem to have a sense of urgency in respect of accurate statistics. We said that it was a disgrace that there was so little statistical information about such a vital industry.

We also said that it was becoming increasingly clear that because our economy is growing and we have an affluent society, more and more goods are being imported into the United Kingdom. Unless we have the capacity to handle such traffic, we shall rapidly run into real problems.

The difficulty is already becoming apparent, but it has become even more urgent with the recent decision by the Government to reject the Dibden bay application on grounds that carry some considerable problems for deciding the future of our ports industry. Given the growth of sea container traffic, why do the Government not appear to have addressed the chronic shortfall in container capacity in UK ports? That will become clear by 2006, because the size of container ships is changing—they are getting larger—and containers are getting bigger and heavier.

We are faced with a problem of British ports being unable to handle such traffic in sufficient capacity in the way that one would have expected. In the light of a national container port capacity problem, how do the Government intend to look at planning applications in future? They inform us that they are going to consider applications individually, yet on considering the decision that was taken on Dibden bay, we see that one of the phrases used was that the decision was being looked at in relation to possible alternatives. The rather frightening thing was that that interpretation appeared to include continental ports. Are we now to consider planning applications for UK ports in relation to container ports elsewhere on the continent? If that is so, it explains why P&O announced, on the day after the Dibden bay decision, that it would put an enormous amount of investment into Flanders.

We all know what an efficient port system is to be found in Rotterdam and Antwerp. However, I do not regard myself, as a British Member of Parliament, as having any responsibility for encouraging development in both those highly successful areas. That is a matter for their own nationals, and I suspect that they carry out such matters with considerable efficiency.

We need a clear statement from the Government on how they are going to consider further planning applications. At what point do the Government consider that it is likely that they can justify support for a new deep-sea container port being built in the United Kingdom, when such a proposal impacts on internationally designated nature conservation sites? Would it be when the last proposal is submitted and there are no alternatives in the UK, or would that still not be a sufficient reason to meet the overriding public interest test? I hope that the Minister will make that very clear this afternoon.

The Government do not appear to have carried out any analysis of the social and economic consequences of capacity constraints, either at a regional or national economic level. Given that they consider ports to be in the national interest, how can such decisions be taken without any such information?

We said that we not only needed to know how much additional capacity was required but, in order to operate ports efficiently, we needed to know what links they were going to have with other forms of transport. What clear evidence was there that the railway system was to be planned to provide efficient links? What clear planning was there going to be in the funding and development of road, as well as rail, infrastructure? Where would these important physical links be made, and how soon? What was the timetable?

We said that we valued the work that was being done on health and safety in the ports system. However, we thought that the Government should have an identifiable set of national targets on health and safety, and that they should publish a timetable for the implementation of such targets. There is a current review of the Dock Regulations 1988, but it has not yet been made available. Those revised codes must give clear, practical guidance.

There is, whichever way we look at it, a shortage of dedicated port inspectors. There is no point having efficient health and safety rules if they cannot be monitored and enforced. That must be a Government responsibility and we expect them to fulfil it with some urgency. Lest it should be thought that I am being unduly unkind, I must pay tribute to the fact that the Government have understood that transport cannot manage unless practical planning is put into the way that it operates in future.

We understand that we are party to European environmental legislation, but we would also like to point out that the rules have been interpreted, not for the first time in European institutions, in different ways in different countries. Some member states seem to be interpreting their environmental rules in one way and the United Kingdom appears to be disadvantaged by our interpretation of them. It is essential that we know not only how we are going to control the various directives, but that they are plainly interpreted on the same basis. The habitats directive should not prevent port development or the expansion that we desperately need, because we have not had the opportunity to agree a general process.

We should also remember that we are in competition with continental ports. It is all very well talking about the need for us to work in friendship and to co-operate with continental ports, but they are in commercial competition with British ports. Therefore, decisions that are taken in the UK that appear to be directed or, at least controlled, by European planning can have an inordinately damaging effect on employment, economic regeneration and the future of various regions and of various cities.

I do not want to talk for too long today because Select Committee Chairmen have a privileged position and should not exploit it. However, I will say one thing before I end. The Government need to plan urgently for the future of our ports system. Without that, our economy will begin to lag and we will have problems to confront not only in the ports, but throughout the United Kingdom.

We face difficulties in the south. The decision has been taken about Dibden bay and there are those who believe that the three other ports applications that are coming up will be advantaged by that decision and will be able to look forward to a better situation. My fear is a simpler one; the grounds on which that decision was taken will impact on all of those other planning applications and may stop any coherent and properly planned development in the immediate future.

We know that we do not have sufficient capacity; that is not a guess. We also know that as an island we import and export practically every kind of good it is possible to create and to buy. Yet we seem content to allow ports to develop in a piecemeal process and to allow planning applications, which are vital, to be decided on a basis that at its best is doubtful in its environmental advantages and at its worst will have a direct impact upon the commerce and the economy of this island.

The report is a good one, and I am glad to see so many people this afternoon who want to debate it because they understand how vital the industry is. The report leaves us with many questions still to pose. It also records the urgent need for Her Majesty's Government not only to accept that UK ports are essential, but to give them the support that they need, and to ensure that many of our major decisions are not in any way impacted by those that are taken elsewhere without taking account of the British people's interests.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The Chamber thanks the hon. Lady for the brevity of her contribution to this important debate. I seek to help hon. Members. It is possible that there will be Divisions during this debate. If so, I shall suspend the sitting for 15 minutes for each Division. In total, including the Government spokesman who will wind up and the two Opposition spokesmen, 11 Members have indicated their desire to speak. There may be one other; he has not yet indicated whether he wishes to participate. I ask the Members who are to speak to bear that fact in mind.

2.45 pm
Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), as the House should be, for her Committee's work and for the excellent report that it produced. There was so much common sense in that report about the need for a ports strategy that those of us who represent Southampton felt that it would colour the way in which subsequent events would turn out. That was not the case.

I shall be brief, and make only a few points, the first with some regret. The decision on Dibden bay will have a huge long-term impact on the port of Southampton's future growth. The transport world in general, and container traffic in particular, is changing. It is not a world in which anyone can stand still or say, "We will not do that; we will leave things as they are."

There is no doubt that the port cannot go forward in the way in which it wanted; it will face real challenges in the long term. The impact will not be immediate as the port is currently packed, and capacity is very tight nationally. However, the ability to win the longer-term growth for which many of us had hoped is now severely constrained.

I do not want to rehearse the arguments that were rehearsed at great length during a long public inquiry. However, I will make a few points The Government have rejected the idea of a coherent ports strategy, as my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich has said. In their response to the Select Committee report, the Government said clearly that they favoured a market-based approach to the development of ports.

If ever there were a port or a port proposal that was prepared to stand and fall on whether the market would support it, it was the Southampton proposal for Dibden bay. There would have been £600 million of investment; not determined or at all dependent on public subsidy or public investment, but determined purely by the market. Had the scheme got the go-ahead, it would have succeeded or fallen purely on whether the business interests had felt that they could make money out of the proposal.

What that illustrates about the wider process—here I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich said—is that the Government do not favour a market-based process. If they had, Southampton would have had the chance to be tested in the market place. As soon as other factors are brought in, as can be done quite reasonably—environmental issues, strategic planning issues—the proposal is not purely market-based.

The problem of Southampton, of the inquiry and of the way in which the decision had to be reached once the inspector's report came out was that strategic and environmental issues were critical in the Southampton case. The crux of the issue was the extent to which Southampton was critically important to the UK, particularly in terms of whether some of the environmental issues from the internationally recognised site of special scientific interest could be seen in the context of the wider needs of UK plc, rather than as a series of local planning issues.

The inspector found himself having to come to a conclusion about the future of Dibden bay without the benefit of any Government strategic ports policy against which he could reach conclusions. The inspector had to reach a decision about whether Southampton was critically important to UK plc not only without a Government ports strategy, but without any official Government projections on the need for port capacity in the UK.

In retrospect, it is not surprising that the inspector decided that although there was a demand for more container capacity in the United Kingdom, because that could theoretically be provided at a number of other sites he could not reach the conclusion that it had to take place in Southampton. Therefore, he could not say to Ministers. "You should deal with the environmental issues in that wider UK context," and he recommended that the application be turned down. As my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich said, this is unsatisfactory. One is bound to reach the conclusion that a lot depended on the order in which the cases went before the public inquiry; on who first rehearsed the issues of strategic importance.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con)

There is an obvious comparison with the Government's White Paper on aviation where—regrettably for those of us who live near Heathrow—there was guidance and a strategy, something that is clearly lacking for the ports.

Mr. Denham

That is an interesting point. I live about a mile from the end of the runway in Southampton and I can see the planes going over the top of my house. The number of flights has increased dramatically in the past year.

It was enormously helpful to have those Government projections as a basis on which to debate with Ministers, the operators and the public matters such as what might happen and how the undoubted business benefits could be balanced with the environmental impact. I do not think that the inspector in the Dibden bay inquiry had the benefit of anything like that amount of background of Government policy. I respect the Minister enormously for the work that he does, but his system is neither fish nor fowl; it is neither a market-based approach nor one based on strategic planning. We have to find a better way forward.

I do not want to rehearse every possible argument, but I wish to say a couple of other things. As the Minister and many of my constituents know, I have always recognised the importance of the environmental issues that are at stake in Southampton water. It was the hope and belief of many who followed the inquiry, including me, that Associated British Ports had done enough to satisfy the environmental concerns. I acknowledge that the inspector did not make a recommendation in favour of the scheme largely for environmental reasons, so I understand why Ministers came to the conclusion that they could not simply overturn that recommendation.

However, I hope that they recognise that, in this process involving the port of Southampton, it was not possible to examine properly strategic needs. There was the possibility—reflected in the exchange of letters between ABP and English Nature that explored what sort of compensatory package might be put in place if the scheme went ahead▀×for Ministers to have said, "We should examine the environmental issues in more detail." In essence, everything stands or falls on the particular case that ABP made. It put a lot of effort into making that case, but this issue needed to be decided in the national interest, and I do not think that we had the opportunity to do that.

At the time of the announcement, I was disappointed that Ministers said so little in recognition of the current and future importance of the port of Southampton, notwithstanding the decision that has just been taken. I hope that the Minister will say three things in this debate. First, I want him to put it clearly on the record that, albeit without a port strategy to back him up, he recognises the importance of the port of Southampton to the local, regional and national economy. Secondly, I want him to say that he will leave no stone unturned in looking at ways to assist the port of Southampton to make the best use of its current constrained capacity. The Minister knows that it is possible and desirable to upgrade the rail links from Southampton to the midlands to allow a larger flow of containers—and a flow of larger containers—by rail, and I hope that he will be able to say positive things about the way in which he will approach that, and about the crucial investment decisions that have to be taken.

Finally, and I speak only for myself on this point, I hope that the Minister will confirm that if it were possible to revisit the idea of port expansion or development in Southampton—perhaps using a scheme with less environmental impact, or one designed differently in light of the experience of the inquiry—the scheme would be given proper and honest consideration, and would not be treated as part of a decision that had already been taken.

I shall end my remarks, because I see that the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) is waiting on the Opposition Front Bench; he was, of course, my predecessor in Southampton, Itchen. He and I are well aware that there are more votes to be won by opposing proposals on environmental grounds than by supporting proposals that might have an environmental impact, as was shown when I beat him by 500 votes shortly after he supported, and I opposed, the destruction of Twyford down for the M3 motorway. However, in this case, I believe that the needs of the port of Southampton should be considered

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that he now very much supports the decision taken in respect of the M3? Without it, the port of Southampton would not be viable at all.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The right hon. Gentleman may, of course, reply, but I hope that if he does, he will be brief, as the issue does not have a direct connection to the report.

Mr. Denham

But it does have a direct connection to the port of Southampton. Also, less destructive alternatives were available. In future, the issue of Dibden bay may well have to do with whether alternatives can be found that allow expansion to take place and do not have the undesirable impact on the environment that caused concern at the inquiry. However, I will leave my remarks at that.

2.57 pm
Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con)

I rise with some trepidation, because I commence by criticising the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). In saying that the report was good, she seriously undersold it; it is excellent. I thank her and the Committee for their wonderful work. The Transport Committee is an excellent exemplar of the Committee system. I attended, and spoke in, the last debate held on one its reports on overcrowding on trains. I congratulate the Committee on this important report, presented by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich in a balanced, measured and helpful way. Her mild criticism of the Government response was quite justified.

I have a local issue to raise. Hon. Members will be delighted to hear that I will not repeat the 25 pages of evidence that I gave to the public inquiry on Shell Haven port, which is adjacent to my constituency. I simply make the point that there are four schemes under consideration for so-called superport status: Shell Haven, Southampton, Felixstowe and Harwich. Each appears to be being considered in isolation. That was a point that I made strongly at the public inquiry for Shell Haven. Such decisions cannot be taken piecemeal. It does not smack of joined-up Government or of any reasonable, coherent national strategy to make those decisions in isolation from each other. There is a possibility of allowing over-capacity and sub-optimal decisions on existing and necessary infrastructure.

There are obviously nationally important strategic decisions to be made on superports, and so there must be a coherent approach; however, that is not yet forthcoming from the Government. That, at least, is my perception; no doubt the Minister will correct me. We need a framework in which such nationally important decisions can be taken. In saying that, I echo what has been said by the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) and the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich—I nearly called her right honourable; she should be.

Shell Haven is just to the west of my constituency, and adjoins it. The development would have a dramatic and adverse impact on my constituency, as it would on the whole of south-east Essex. First, there would be green belt loss, which would be substantial for the area. Secondly, as the excellent Minister, who is listening carefully to my words, will confirm, the infrastructure in south-east Essex is inadequate. I have regularly asked questions on that subject; indeed the Minister answered one today. That part of Essex is already overcrowded and congested, and it needs substantial investment to get it right. Even if the Shell Haven port development were to happen, as I suspect it might, the job creation that would flow from it would not balance out the other difficulties to which I shall refer.

There is the problem of over-development in southeast Essex, which, in itself, will lead to a loss of green belt land, which would be against the wishes of the local community. A substantial number of extra houses—probably tens of thousands—would be built if the Shell Haven port development were to happen. There would also be the serious issue of dredging the Thames of 32 million cum of spoil to deepen and widen the channel, which the ships would need to access Shell Haven port.

Some 80 per cent. of that dredging would come from my constituency, which goes up to half way across the Thames and includes that channel. That would put great pressure on Canvey island's sea defences. All hon. Members will know that the island has a population of about 44,000 people, many of whom live some 6 or 8 ft below sea level and rely on the sea defences. To dig a huge channel a quarter of a mile wide, removing the spoil from in front of those sea defences, might well result in the sea defences slipping into the Thames, which would not be of any help to my constituents—[Interruption.] Hon. Members may remember that 53 people from my constituency drowned in the 1953 flood, so this is not a laughing matter for them. I know that everyone in the House takes this seriously.

There is also the impact on the local fishing industry. It is a small but very important industry, as it is part of our community and part of the soul of south Essex. The dredging would seriously damage the sole spawning grounds in the Thames, and virtually destroy the whole of the local inshore fishing industry, which is a serious matter.

The ships going up and down the channel day in, day out would cause a wake. Canvey point, which is to the east of Canvey island, is already eroding by several feet every time it has been measured over the years. That erosion would be dramatically accelerated by the wake of the ships passing to Shell Haven port.

There are also the environmental and wildlife issues, which have been raised by several NG0s, including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Friends of the Earth, under the excellent ports watch initiative. They believe that developments such as Shell Haven could blight not only wildlife, but people and communities. We want a joined-up government approach to this matter, because we do not want the decisions on superports to be taken in isolation. There is much work for the Government to do on that policy.

3.4 pm

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Cunninghame, South) (Lab)

I welcome this debate because it gives us the opportunity of getting some answers that we were unable to get from the Minister and the Department in the Government response, which was rather less than satisfactory. I shall highlight some of the areas of concern.

The ports industry makes a vital contribution to the UK and worldwide, and it is essential that in the UK we have real competition in the marketplace. However, the industry is under increasing pressure. There are deteriorating infrastructures in and around our existing ports. There is a poor safety record that must be examined and is referred to in the document; ports are more dangerous than mines were. Future investments must improve the safety record. There is also the question of interference through European legislation, and national legislation also puts pressure on the development of ports.

It must be understood that shipping is the main transport method for international trade. We rely heavily on international trade for our well-being. We depend on ports for moving freight and passengers. As we are an island, it is absolutely essential and fundamental that we increase and improve our port facilities. After all, the key function of ports is to transfer passenger or freight traffic between transport modes.

In a Scottish context—the Chamber would expect nothing less from me—we must consider the up-to-date position because there has been a complete change in the politics. When the inquiry was up and running, I asked the Minister, as well as other members of the Department, about the devolved aspects of ports and in particular the development of ports. We were told that some areas were devolved but others were not. That confusion could be detrimental to any expansion in ports north of the border.

I seek assurances from the Minister that those issues will be addressed so that if a policy is created, it will cover the whole of the UK and not just England. The report concentrates on England and more particularly on developments in the south-east, because that is where most big ports are located. However, we must take account of the whole UK. National policy rather than isolated projects is essential for progress.

The UK is faced with national as well as international competition in terms of where and if new ports are to be developed. In the modern world of transportation, most freight moves in containers. In the UK, a link between Halifax and Hunterston would not be considered wrong. In real terms, competition in the industry is between Halifax and Rotterdam rather than anywhere in the UK. Competition must be considered internationally as well as nationally.

The idea that all ports be based in the south-east is analogous to a football stadium having all its exits at one end, with 50,000 or 60,000 people leaving a stadium out of one exit. One could understand the confusion and complication in that scenario, and I argue that the same applies with ports. We must bring into the equation of expansion the question of social progress and growth in all areas of the UK.

Something that must be considered, perhaps more than anything else, is the question of rail connections. As it stands, the Strategic Rail Authority could decide to concentrate all of its investment in areas around the southern ports, to the detriment of expansion or investment elsewhere. In that sense, we must ensure that the Government's intervention allows the SRA to consider infrastructure developments throughout the UK and not, as I suspect could happen, only in the south of the country.

There are other matters to consider, including the integration of freight. Currently, half of all airport freight each day flies over Scotland. Given the locations that we could identify, it would make a lot more sense to have freight integration tied to airports and rail. I see that my right hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) is present, and I have no doubt that he will speak with great expertise about Hunterston, so I will not dwell on it. However, Hunterston, which is just north of my constituency, would be in a very good position to be involved in such integrated development. That is important in the question of inland transportation of freight.

Southern ports will compete for access, but we can see that they are becoming congested in terms of both road and rail. I argue that we should be considering the question in a different light.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I cannot separate the Cunninghames. I therefore call Mr. Brian Wilson.

3.12 pm
Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North) (Lab)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me at this early stage to pursue the Cunninghame theme.

I would not wish to be outbid by anyone in my respect for my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), and I congratulate her on the content of much of the report. However, I want to extend her comments about the impossibility of separating UK ports policy from what is happening on the continent in light of the Dibden bay ruling. I am sure that she would recognise that we cannot compartmentalise our small island of Great Britain. As such, it puzzles me that a United Kingdom Parliament Select Committee report on ports policy, a regional document, does not once mention Hunterston, the deepest water port in not only Scotland or Britain, but western Europe.

How we are to have a wide-ranging review of port strategy without mentioning the port that is most relevant to future developments in shipping—that is, ever-larger container vessels—is a curiosity. That is water under the bridge; I wrote to my hon. Friend on that point after the report was published. I have no wish for recriminations on that point and want only to reinforce it.

In parallel with air transport, the subject must be considered not against a local canvas, but with a UK, European and global perspective. We cannot draw lines between Scotland and England in producing such a report and strategy. There is no physical or trade division between Scotland and England. The road and rail networks join up, so the movement of freight into, out of and within our small island must surely be considered as a single entity.

My alarm about the restricted scope of the Select Committee report has been compounded by the significance that has obviously been attached to planning inquiries going on in the south of England. Although Hunterston has been mentioned tangentially at some of those inquiries, there has been no opportunity at any of them to promote the case for Hunterston within the wider canvass of UK ports strategy. Today's debate is an important opportunity for me to say "Hunterston, Hunterston, Hunterston". It must become part of a national debate about port strategy. The policy cannot be determined by stealth or incomplete analysis through planning inquiries in the south of England—or Select Committee reports that de facto restrict themselves to the south of England—without acknowledging the much wider context.

I would contend that, given the pattern of freight movements in the UK, it is impossible to have a rational consideration of any proposal in the south that does not also consider the currently under-utilised options to the north. The football turnstile analogy has been used, but the football pitch analogy is more common; you cannot have both sets of goalposts at the same end.

The message is a simple one, although I shall not go into the detail of every port's merits today. It would be perverse to continue port development in the crowded south of England while neglecting what Hunterston has to offer to the whole UK. I am not against anyone here today, and do not want to interfere in any constituency interests that will arise. Hunterston is not the whole answer—it is not directly opposed to anyone—but we cannot have a debate about UK port strategy without recognising that that port is seriously under-utilised. It is the deepest water facility in the UK, from which a credible proposal has now emanated for a container port and a container hub.

As I have said, the future is about ever-larger container vessels, requiring deeper water than exists anywhere in the south of England. Whatever does not go to Hunterston is not going to go to any of the ports in the south of England that are being discussed in public inquiries. Inevitably, it will go to the continent. That returns to the opening point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich.

Hunterston, with a channel depth of 40 m without dredging, could take even the largest vessels that are currently envisaged, making it unique among British ports. I want to say something about the acceptability of this proposal in my own area. Some MPs from the south of England have occasionally spoken to me about public inquiries, and have wanted information about Hunterston to use against proposals that are relevant to their own constituencies. Clearly, there are huge environmental arguments about all the proposals that have been put forward. Dibden bay has now been ruled out, but the position is different at Hunterston.

It has been recognised for decades that Hunterston is one of the deepest water ports in the world and the deepest in western Europe. It should be the key to economic growth, not only in north Ayrshire but to the west of Scotland. It should be a major new factor in the economy of Scotland and the northern half of Britain; that is Hunterston s potential importance, and I do not overstate it. There is a crisis in port capacity in the UK and if we do not make our own arrangements, there will be an inevitable to loss of port business to the continent of Europe. Hunterston's day has finally come, and that opportunity must not be allowed to pass.

Let us look at it in a UK context. More than 60 per cent. of the freight that comes in to the southern ports ends up north of Birmingham. Why should this Government, with all their other environmental and transport priorities, encourage or even allow further port development that can lead only to further road congestion and environmental damage? It is not a case of Hunterston seeking to serve the south-east of England. A tiny proportion of what came through Hunterston would end up in the south-east of England.

Why should the northern half of Britain not be served from a port that is located within the northern part of Britain? The logical answer is to approach the challenge from another direction and to establish Hunterston as the deep-water container port for northern Britain and a hub port for onward transmission to appropriate parts of the continent. There are already pretty good road links that could easily be improved. There is also a direct rail link because Hunterston already exists as a significant coal port, but the road and rail links could be put in place to link it up to the main UK transport arteries.

Clydeport, which owns Hunterston, is part of the same company that owns the Manchester ship canal. There are clear synergies in linkage between Hunterston and the Manchester ship canal where significant proposals are coming forward for parallel developments. Clydeport, with the full support of all relevant agencies, has researched and prepared an extremely credible and exciting plan for the container port of Hunterston as a major contribution to Britain's and Europe's ports infrastructure. I hope that the Minister will indicate today that the significance of this proposal is recognised by Government and that port strategy is being formulated across the UK. It does not make any sense to fragment the United Kingdom in this context.

3.22 pm
Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Coop)

The Select Committee's report on ports, admirably guided by my hon Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), has drawn attention to the importance of ports in the national economy as well as in regional economies and has pointed specifically to environment, transport and planning issues. The Government's reply indicates a general support for our ideas, but is not very clear on what specific actions the Government are prepared to take I should like to concentrate my comments on current issues concerning the port of Liverpool, which are a good example of the major points drawn out in the Committee's report on ports nationally.

Liverpool's successful bid to be European capital of culture in 2008 was won on the theme, "The World in One City". It drew attention to the importance of the port and maritime issues in Liverpool's past and for Liverpool's future. Indeed, the port of Liverpool, which is owned by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company, is increasingly important in developing the economy of Liverpool, Merseyside and the north-west as a whole and in promoting employment. More than 30 million tonnes of cargo a year go through the port of Liverpool. That figure is growing. The company has invested more than £100 million over the past five years. It employs more than 800 people. Some 5,000 people are employed in the port area or in business directly as a result of port activities.

According to a university of Liverpool economic impact study, around 30,000 people in the Liverpool and Merseyside area are employed in businesses associated with the growth of the port. The excellent Mersey maritime initiative is working with 500 port-related businesses and helping them to grow and prosper. That is all based on the success of the port of Liverpool. The port's growing business is worldwide. The growing trade with Ireland is extremely important, as is the trade with the far east, the Indian subcontinent, Australia, South America, the North Atlantic trade group, the Mediterranean and elsewhere. Cruise liners are ready to make a major return to Liverpool, again marking the growing success of Liverpool as a city and the importance of its maritime connections.

I should like to focus attention on two issues relating to Liverpool that are referred to in more general terms in the national report on ports. The first is the importance of Liverpool having a new deep sea terminal. Reference has been made to the importance of a strategy for ports, and the Government have been asked to consider a national strategy for ports. What is clear to us in Liverpool and the north-west as a whole is that the application that the port of Liverpool is making for a deep sea terminal at Gladstone dock is extremely important for the port's future. With a deep sea terminal, larger cargo ships will be able to enter the port and trade can be developed with the far east, linking with hub ports in the Mediterranean. An environmental impact assessment is under way. If successful, the port will make an application for a harbour revision order, which I understand will go to the Department for Transport.

Will my hon. Friend the Minister consider the section of the Select Committee's report that talks about the difficulties that some areas have encountered with planning decisions? The difficulties are not only with decisions, but with the complexity of the process and the time taken to reach decisions. I ask him to ensure that he comes to a favourable decision on the application by the port of Liverpool for a deep sea terminal. He can do that by considering the situation in Liverpool, Merseyside and the north-west and by realising that if the application is not approved, we will again lose business to the continent and reduce the impact of our shipping and maritime sector, not only in the north-west, but in the country as a whole.

The second, more general issue is transport links to ports. The Committee's report talks about the importance of rail and road links to ports to aid access to and from ports and terminals in order to encourage business. The 10-year plan speaks about the hope for an 80 per cent. growth in freight carried by train over the 10 years. Some of that relates to ports, as the Minister's reply to the Committee's report acknowledges. However, it is not yet clear how the objective will be achieved. There is certainly great disappointment that the proposal from Central Railway for a dedicated freight route has been turned down. I hope that that can be revisited. It is not clear how increased freight will be carried on the west coast main line to meet the targets. How does the Minister see the proposed developments in freight on that line being linked with growing business, specifically at the port of Liverpool?

Mr. Chope

Will the hon. Lady address the threat to the port of Liverpool posed by the proposal for a 70 square mile wind farm on the main sea lane into Liverpool?

Mrs. Ellman

That is certainly a pressing issue. It is of great concern to the Committee that there appears to have been no consultation with the port of Liverpool before the proposal was put forward. I hope, therefore, that the Department concerned will change how it goes about its assessment of the suitability of locations for wind farms. I anticipate that the Committee will have more to say about the issue on a future occasion, perhaps in a debate in this very Hall.

In relation to the development of freight on trains, associated with the development of the port of Liverpool, I again draw attention to the importance of integrated transport and of inter-modal links of different types of transport with ports. In the Government's reply to the Committee's report, they state: The Government take ultimate responsibility for the provision of these inter-modal links. I ask the Minister when he replies to say how the Government are exercising their responsibility in relation to inter-modal links connected with the port of Liverpool. There are several issues to consider, including, for example, the height of rail bridges between Crewe and Liverpool, congestion between Switch island and the port of Liverpool and the still outstanding decision about progress on the second Mersey crossing at Halton. What progress is being made on developing NETA to link the north-west, the northeast and Yorkshire and facilitate trade through the port of Liverpool to central and northern Europe, which are increasingly important trading areas?

Some of the transport issues that I have raised are national issues, requiring national decisions; investment in major freight lines, the west coast main line and bottlenecks on roads and motorways, for example. However, regional action can make a difference in some issues. In the Minister's reply to the report, he places great stress on the importance of the regional planning process and on regional transport strategies. I add to that the importance of regional economic strategies. The regional development agencies, including the northwest development agency, have a major role to play in developing those issues, and the north-west development agency is fulfilling that role.

More powers are required to be able to move more quickly and urgently from regional economic strategy to action. I hope that the Minister can assure us that when the draft Bill on the proposed regional assemblies for the north-west, the north-east, Yorkshire and Humberside is placed before the House, it will contain strengthened powers in relation to transport so that action can be taken on such issues, including the matters I have raised, at a regional level.

My remarks attempt to connect the major principles set out in the Select Committee report on ports with key issues facing the increasingly successful port of Liverpool. I hope that the Minister will acknowledge the progress that can be made on those issues. To ensure that the ports of the country and the region fulfil their potential in developing employment and regional prosperity, regional and national action is required. I hope the Minister's comments will take us further along both those roads.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

We now move from the northwest to the south-west.

3.34 pm
Ms Candy Atherton (Falmouth and Camborne) (Lab)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) and her Committee on their excellent report. I am pleased to be taking part in the debate, which comes at an apposite time for the port of Falmouth and its docks. I found some difficulty in listening to parliamentary colleagues discussing much larger docks and ports that they represent. Falmouth is much smaller, but it is important in our neck of the woods.

Mr. Wilson

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You will have heard that the Division bell is sounding.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman.

3.35 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3.50 pm

On resuming

Ms Atherton

Having said how pleased I was about the debate and congratulated my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich, I was about to say that Falmouth is the third deepest natural harbour in the world. Whether someone is in command of an international cruise ship, a ro-ro ferry or a dinghy, it has offered a safe have from the storms of the Atlantic for hundreds of years. The original packet ships, which took money and mail to the former British colonies, sailed from Falmouth. Today, the town and the port host one of the world's for most builders of so-called super-yachts, Pendennis shipyard, and one of this country's most successful ship repair companies, A&P. Recent reports for the South West of England Regional Development Agency have described Falmouth as having the most important and best-equipped ship repair yard in south-west England and as having the only port in the area with brownfield land available and ready for development. We have plans for the Falmouth docks and port.

About five years ago, I was approached by Cornwall Enterprise, the county council's economic development company, and asked to approach the Royal Bank of Scotland, which is the parent company of A&P, the ship repair company based in Falmouth. I wanted to talk to the bank about the problems facing the whole port and the opportunities that were presented in Falmouth. Those opportunities emanate from the problems that Cornwall faces.

It might be helpful for hon. and right hon. Members if I provide a little bit of background. Cornwall currently receives objective 1 funding from Europe, as a result of the Prime Minister, proposing that it should be separated from Devon for statistical purposes. That happened after representations from myself and hon. Friends. Since 2000, we have been able to invest in our economy to assist in catching up with the rest of the UK and northern Europe. Sadly, our economy was so small in comparison with that of the rest of the UK that even with that extra support, our GDP has continued to slip further back from its level at the time when we first received objective 1 funding. We now stand at just 59 per cent. of the EU average—on a par with the Greek islands—which is dramatic, as I am sure hon. Members will agree. Other parts of the south-west have double the GDP of Cornwall. Nowhere else in our country do we have such huge regional disparities.

When I was first elected by Falmouth and Camborne, I dreaded hearing from my staff that A&P was on the phone, because I feared that it might pull out of the port and the town. The wharfage was often empty, particularly in summer months. In winter, both then and today, a steady stream of P&O ferries arrive for refit. I am pleased to say that A&P successfully tenders for Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service refits, which come into the port. Seven years ago, however, the number of employees in the docks was declining dramatically.

I do not have to tell the House that ship repair is a difficult business and is not hugely profitable. The famous port of Falmouth was and is in need of major infrastructure investment. One of the biggest challenges facing the town is that the main channel is in need of serious dredging, and modern buildings need to be created. Currently, there are Victorian buildings throughout most of the docks.

As I said, we have a dream for Falmouth. On one side we would have the super-yachts built and repaired by Pendennis shipyard, which, incidentally, built the Lord's media centre. If people look carefully at the centre, they will see that it is a boat tipped at 90 degrees.

We in Cornwall are very proud of it. With regional development agency help, the company has recently invested in new dock facilities and become a regional training centre. It is raising skills through apprenticeships and other training schemes. That part of the dream has been realised, but there are other areas to complete.

Next door will be A&P, which has been working with the RDA for several years—too many years—on developing a marine business park. A&P operations would be relocated within the docks and there would be new opportunities across this large brownfield site. Falmouth marine school and other training facilities might relocate or locate anew there, and the Royal Yachting Association's centre of excellence for sailing might operate from within the port. Smaller and even larger ship repair companies might be brought together; we estimate that they might provide work for 2,500 skilled employees. Falmouth docks would be a major centre for Cornwall and the whole UK.

Between 600 and 700 people currently work for A&P, which is the highest number for many years. The docks are probably the biggest private sector employer in Cornwall, and they pay workers more than the national minimum wage; the minimum wage is often paid in Cornwall because the tourism sector is dominant there.

Visits by cruise ships are a new development, and 50-plus cruise ships visit Falmouth each year. Indeed, some of them depart from Falmouth, So we get the added bonus of holidaymakers staying in local hotels before and after they cruise. It is important to some of them that they do not need to fly in these times of heightened international tension. I want a cruse terminal to be set up in Falmouth and the channel into Falmouth to be dredged. The RDA has not co-operated as I would have liked. It has been discussing with A&P how to take things forward for almost five years. That is a long time.

There are serious issues about contamination in the channel. English Nature believes that it is the most contaminated channel in the United Kingdom. We do not have a facility for dealing with contamination from dredging. Germany and Holland have heat treatment processes. Perhaps the Minister will examine whether we can have them in our country.

I am passionate about these docks; they are important to me. I believe that some heads need to be knocked together. The RDA needs to work with the objective 1 funding people, A&P and everyone else to resolve this situation because the people of Cornwall demand it and need it to happen.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

On this occasion, we move from the south-west to the south-east.

3.57 pm
Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover) (Lab)

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friends the Members for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) and for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman). I sailed from both their ports many times in my seafaring career during the heady and glorious days of the Glen line and the Blue Funnel line, and it is good that they have visions and dreams for the future of their ports. I hope that the Minister can make those dreams come true.

The distinguished Chairman of the Select Committee on Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), opened our debate by reminding us that 95 per cent. of all our trade—all our imports and exports—is carried by sea and arrives and departs through UK ports. She and others spelled out the huge national strategic importance of our ports industry, but people would not think that it had that importance if they were to compare the amount of Government initiatives, policy, funding help and so forth for road, rail and air transportation with that for ports and the shipping industry. That is a common theme for Governments over the past 20 or 30 years.

If shipping is the poor relation of the transportation industry, the ports industry is the poor relation of the maritime industry. With the majority of the industry now in private hands or enjoying trust status, there has been a tendency for all Governments to allow everything to be controlled by the market. However, as the Transport Committee report concludes, that philosophy is badly flawed, because there are distortions that are caused by regulation, Government rules and the influence of European Union directives, and they all serve to skew the normal workings of the market.

In common with all hon. Members who are present, I have the greatest respect for the Chairman of the Transport Committee, but I will risk incurring her wrath by venturing to say that the report itself, despite all its attributes and its excellence, is also skewed to some extent. It is skewed in favour of container traffic and the large container ports at the expense of small ports, our great port industry activities, such as general cargo transport and cruise liner traffic, and the important ro-ro ports such as Dover, about which I will say more later.

Matching the container capacity of the country to growing demand and competing with our European partners is, of course, very important, and it is very topical. However, I shall confine my contribution to what the report refers to as landside road and rail links to the ports. The report draws attention to the fact that ports already provide half the total rail freight traffic in the country, and it recognises the potential for additional volumes. However, Government initiatives to promote or encourage any meaningful growth in rail freight connections are, quite frankly, meagre and faltering, especially in relation to the links to the ports.

The Government accept and everyone else agrees about the huge benefits that flow from maximising rail freight: reduced congestion and pollution and increased UK competitiveness. However, on current trends, few if any of the ambitious targets set by the Government and spelled out by Members this afternoon seem likely to be met. Many ports are already connected by rail, and their volume of use could be increased quite easily. Other ports, such as the port of Dover, could be easily reconnected to the rail network with very little help from the Government. That is the sort of help that ports in mainland Europe have always enjoyed and continue to enjoy today.

Dover is drawing some benefit from EU funding. The FINESSE—freight intermodality and exchange on seas and straits in Europe—project is providing some £50,000 to fund a study into the feasibility of enhancing intermodal links at Dover. However, if we proceed with such ambitious plans, all the costs will be likely to fall on the Dover Harbour Board.

Freight traffic across the channel is forecast to double in the next few years. Shifting a proportion of freight from road to rail and reopening the Dover rail ferry, for instance, would help to ease the pressures on our road connections to the channel ports, which are already failing to cope with today's traffic volumes. Against that background, it was disappointing to witness the suspension of the freight facilities grants and the freezing of any new projects. We look to the Minister to bring us better news on that front today.

I am the first to acknowledge the record amounts of funding pledged for transport by the Government in the 10-year plan and other ventures. However, from the perspective of the east Kent ports and most of the ports around the UK, the money does not seem to be reaching the parts that it should.

The vision of an integrated transport system is still some way off. Vital to such integration is the extension of the channel tunnel rail link to Dover. That would meet the growing demands of our two new cruise liner terminals and provide a tremendous boost to the east Kent economy. We eagerly await the publication of the report from the Strategic Rail Authority.

The Select Committee draws attention to the shortcomings of the current system to ensure that ports are adequately served by appropriate road links and other land-based infrastructure connections. My hon. Friend the Minister will be aware of the 25-year campaign to convert the last seven miles of the A2, the traditional road route into the port of Dover, into a dual carriageway. That is hardly a revolutionary innovation or a bank-busting project, but we are still waiting. He will also be well informed about the impact of Operation Stack, which regularly closes down the M20 approaches to Dover docks and converts the whole motorway into a giant lorry parking lot. He knows all about the awful local congestion that occurs regularly—it happens at least twice a week—in the last few miles of the port approach road at the end of the A2 along Town Wall street.

Resolution of the first two problems lies largely in the hands of Conservative-controlled Kent county council, which is the strategic planning authority. However, encouragement from the Government to complete this important unfinished business would be most welcome.

To help resolve the local congestion that I have just mentioned, the port needs reconfigured access to the ferry berths at the eastern docks. Feasibility assessments have been made and plans have been drawn up; all that remains is the small matter of funding. The harbour board has invested massively in the trust ports over the years and it is currently bringing in line new berths and planning for future expansion. The harbour board and everyone else accept that ports need to fund their own portside development, but that the funding of road and rail access is something different.

Dover port was greatly encouraged by the assurances given in the Government document, "Modern Ports: A UK Policy", which said that the 10-year plan focuses on land transport in England, including improvements in surface access to ports and airports. The document stated that the plan would not look at private investment in the ports industry. It continues: It does, however, take account of likely future trends in the use of ports when considering surface access issues. It was clear at that time that the Government were committed to providing necessary access for the landside of ports.

The Select Committee's recommendation No. 99 was also welcomed. It said: The operation of a port is dependent on intermodal links, which must form part of any United Kingdom ports policy. Whilst the Government is keen to allow market forces to determine port investment and operation, landside links cannot be funded on a commercial basis. The Government must therefore be directly involved in planning, funding and development of road and rail infrastructure to UK ports and set a timescale for such development. Even the Government's response in January held out the prospect of help and funding. After mentioning the work on impact and intermodal studies, regional plans and so on, it went on to say: Government decisions is on the funding of schemes to improve port access will be taken in the light of this work and of other transport investment priorities within the resources available. Developers will also be expected to contribute to the costs of surface access improvements required to service new developments … the Highways Agency continues to work in partnership with port operators, planning authorities and regional development agencies to identify and meet the needs of the ports industry. That all sounded encouraging, but unfortunately, the Highways Agency—at least the branch in the southeast—disputed the clear intention of the Government's "Modern Ports" document and the minutes of the Transport Committee meeting, and it sought legal advice to back its view. On 26 February this year, Jim Boud, divisional director of network strategy in the south-east, wrote to Dover Harbour Board: The question of whether or not the Port of Dover should be treated as a developer with respect to the provisions of Circular 4/ 2001 has been the subject of correspondence". He went on to say: The purpose of this letter is to summarise the current position in the light of legal advice on this topic which has recently become available. I shall not quote the letter at length because of time, but Mr. Boud goes on to say that the port of Dover must be considered as a developer and that, as a developer, any of its projects to increase or improve access must fall back to the port. The letter continues: In this context it is clear that the funding of localised proposals aimed at serving individual ports, such as your suggested improvement to the Eastern Dock Access should not be Government responsibility and must therefore be funded from other resources available to Dover Harbour Board. That sets the tone for the funding of vital access links around the coast at all our ports.

The Government have produced the first ever 10-year plan for transport, Ministers have committed themselves to an integrated transport system and Labour has committed itself to the biggest ever package of public spending on transport, but there are no plans or proposals to ensure that our port capacity meets present or future demands. Funding for rail freight connections to the ports seems to be diminishing, not increasing, and improved access roads to the ports to reduce congestion and meet increasing volumes of trade do not attract any funding help.

Trust ports such as Dover are essentially private enterprises, so perhaps they should not receive help or funding. However, we should compare that lack of encouragement for Britain's ports with the abundance of subsidy and support meted out to another private enterprise—the channel tunnel, which was in direct competition with the channel ferries. Apparently, no one is able to see the direct contrast between the billions of pounds that supported the tunnel and the situation with the ferries. That private project was provided with a direct link to a six-lane motorway and the construction of a seven-mile extension to the M20-A20. The site was engineered directly into the national rail network, all at great expense to the taxpayer. That has not done Eurotunnel a great deal of good, and by any real test of commercial business, the company should be bankrupt, which is what Dover predicted all those years ago.

The points that I have tried to put across this afternoon demonstrate why shipping and ports in particular, despite all their success stories, have always been looked upon by Parliament and the Government as the poor relations of other transport areas, but I live in hope that the Minister can persuade, me otherwise.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

We now go back to Southampton.

4.11 pm
Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab)

I hope that after my speech there will be no further attempts to outbid my expressions of effusive congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) on the production of the report. [Interruption.] The Minister seems to suggest that it might be otherwise.

The report is excellent and timely. It encapsulates a large number of the problems and the possible ways forward that relate to the strategic dimension of ports around our island. Depending on one's definition, there are about 300 serious working ports in the United Kingdom and they have many different problems.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser) has mentioned several matters, such as ro-ro ports, passenger ports, short sea shipping ports and various other ports. It was right that the Select Committee report spent time on the strategic ports—hub ports—in the United Kingdom and their relationship with the container trade. As we know, the container trade will increase substantially in years to come and the report reflected on several suggestions, all of which pointed in the same direction and dealt with issues such as what capacity would be needed and what growth is likely to occur in the next few years. The report concluded that this country has a severe problem of matching the ability of our ports on both the waterside and the landside, and of ensuring that container traffic can be dealt with by major hub ports in future years.

Whatever we may say about the capacity of the 300-odd ports in the British Isles, the majority of containers come from deep-sea sources and up the English channel, and their choice is to turn either left or right. They land in the United Kingdom, Rotterdam, Antwerp or Le Havre. If they land in the UK, by and large they will land either to the east of London or to the west of London. That is probably not a bad thing because it means that one way or another the containers can go out from those hub ports to the east and north of England. Moreover, a good proportion of the containers that land in Southampton go to the midlands without going through London on the landside.

As for the bulk of the deep-sea container traffic, we must seriously worry about two hub ports and their future capacity, although with respect to my hon. Friends who represent constituencies in the Felixstowe area, I recognise that several ports constitute the hub area on the eastern side of the country.

The Government have said that the market should decide how future capacity should be determined. As we have heard from hon. Members today, the Government do not have a port strategy that would determine where a port should be developed. I do not think that the majority of my hon. Friends whom I have heard discussing the subject in recent years have said that a port strategy should determine where a port should be. However, it should surely determine how we as a nation can ensure that we have the ability to deal in a looser way, from a port point of view, with the various traffic that comes into the UK. That was a central part of the conclusion of the Select Committee report.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) said, the Government are stating that they wish to see progress on the future of container ports more or less determined by the market, but they are actually not determining the future of those ports exactly by what the market wants. That is the case because of the inquiries that are taking place; indeed, he mentioned the recent outcome of the one concerning Dibden bay.

Until recently, we had three inquiries that were either under way or about to be under way, which between them could largely determine how that hub-port strategy might proceed. In the context of those inquiries, I am reminded of the lecturer who told his students that, as far as their education was concerned, they were getting a bit lazy in their ways. He was going to set them a surprise exam and he told them on the Monday that it was going to take place during the week. He said, "I will give you a day's notice, but not more than that. I will not tell you which day it is going to be on, because it is going to be a surprise. You will have to be on your toes."

The students went away and thought to themselves that if there was no announcement by Thursday, one was bound to be made on Friday, which meant that the exam could not take place on Friday and would have to happen on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. They also thought that it could not take place on Tuesday, because the lecturer said that they would have a day's notice. Therefore, they decided that it would have to occur on Wednesday or Thursday, and that if they had not had an announcement by Tuesday, it would take place on Thursday, which would mean that it would not be a surprise. That meant that it must be on Wednesday, although that would not be a surprise either. Therefore, there is no such thing as a surprise examination.

That will all be in Hansard. What I conclude from it is that there is the possibility that all the inquiries could result in a no and we would then have no strategy. We go through sequential tests where each case has to be decided on its own merits within its own area. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen said, the inspector in the case of the Dibden bay report was dealing with nothing against something. What was the national strategic consideration for Dibden bay? We are not sure. On the other hand, what were the environmental considerations? We had quite a few of those.

Like my right hon. Friend, I have always said that the Dibden bay inquiry should have been balanced in terms of those two considerations and the future of the port of Southampton into the bargain. We could get to a situation where the second inquiry is turned down. We will then know that, come what may, the third inquiry will have to be agreed whether or not it has any merit, because we will not otherwise have a national ports strategy. That would be like the surprise examination to which I referred.

That does not seem the right way to deal with the strategic issue of our future ports, because if we had a hub ports strategy—a strategic vision of what we need for our future ports—Southampton would undoubtedly be in it, as I have said; it is inconceivable that it would not be. Yet we appear to have made the decision, on the basis of an inspector's report and in the planning inquiry, that Southampton cannot expand its capacity to deal with an issue that we know needs to be dealt with from a national point of view because of particular considerations that do not relate to an overall strategy. If we are to move towards a more strategic view of hub ports, would it not be a good idea to ensure that ports such as Southampton can continue to play their role in terms of how containers and ships load and unload their cargoes in the UK? A number of issues would be important in that context.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Dover said, the only railway line leading to a major port that is currently being uprated in terms of freight is that leading to Felixstowe. There are no advanced plans for other ports; proposals and suggestions have been made, but nothing has happened. That has taken place against a background of rapid change in the nature of containers coming into hub ports.

We know that the industry standard will be the high box container. Already, 20 per cent. of container traffic coming into Southampton is made up of such containers. Southampton has one of the best records in the country for sending containers out of its port by rail to other parts of the country—recently, the figure went up to 35 per cent.—and that capacity will be eroded because it simply cannot get those high box containers on to the rails.

The alternative may be to distribute the containers by road—an alternative that seems diametrically opposed to some of the objectives for freight in the Government's 10-year transport plan. Otherwise, those boxes may be transhipped. Indeed, last Christmas, a number of boxes that came into Southampton were transhipped to other ports, because that was the only way that they could be transported. Of course, another alternative is that those boxes will not come to Southampton at all, but will instead go to Rotterdam, Antwerp or Le Havre. They will then be transhipped across the channel to the UK at a cost of £100 a box. The UK will then become a nation of feeder ports, and a port strategy will have been determined by default. That would not be a good way forward for this country's ports.

A number of hon. Members have mentioned issues and cases relating to their key ports. We should make sure that our key ports can play their part in making sure that UK plc functions properly and can bring its goods in and out of the country by port. As my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich reminded us, 95 per cent. of our traffic comes in and out of ports. We undervalue them at our peril. The future of our ports is the future of our country in that respect. If we discard a strategy in favour of piecemeal approach, we will get an outcome, but not one that any of us would want.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson)

I will not try to respond to my hon. Friend on the conundrum about the students and the lecture. However, I listened carefully to what he had to say about having a national ports plan. Is he suggesting that, under such a plan, there would be no need for a public inquiry such as that which has just taken place in Southampton?

Dr. Whitehead

My hon. Friend raises an important question. If one had an over-rigid plan, which said "You must put your quays here, and not there," one would come to his conclusion. However, I have suggested that we should have a national port strategy that says that we must face up to the question of the capacity that our ports need. We must make sure that, one way or another, we determine how to deal with that issue in the round. That would suggest to the inspector who was carrying out an inquiry that there was an underlying issue to deal with before the inquiry had started, and that any of the other considerations that arose in that inquiry should be set against that underlying issue.

It is certainly the case, as far as Dibden bay is concerned, that a large number of issues were quite properly discussed by the inquiry. There were issues of environmental mitigation and they should properly have been inquired into and decided on. However, in the absence of an underlying rationale for the expansion schemes at Dibden bay, Bathside or Shell Haven other than the desire to expand, there was not the balance of consideration in those inquiries that allowed the decisions to be made in the context of a loose strategy that addressed the situation.

The thrust of my remarks is that without that approach, we run the risk of having either a negative strategy that determines the UK's future as a nation of feeder ports or a strategy that effectively ends up with our having to decide where to place ports because we have eliminated all other alternatives by a process of accretion.

4.26 pm
Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries) (Lab)

I noticed, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that in calling me you did not mention any port in my constituency, which was correct, as there is none.

Mrs. Dunwoody

There are not many in Crewe.

Mr. Brown

May I say to my hon. Friend, however, that it is a wonderful port of call.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) and the other members of the Select Committee on Transport on producing such an excellent report. I shall speak briefly about port development, because that has been mentioned already by most contributors, and also about ports passports.

The case has been made clearly this afternoon that ports are an important economic driver for the UK economy; the figure of 95 per cent. of imports and exports by tonnage going through our ports has been mentioned on several occasions. Without an efficient ports network it will not be possible for the UK, or UK plc, to achieve its full economic potential.

In 2003, the Health and Safety Executive started to develop its civil contingencies capacity to address the heightened national security situation, including port security. The Government's publication, "Modern Ports: A UK Policy" recognises that ports are a dangerous place to work.

In the docks industry, the majority of accidents to workers are caused by falls from heights, slips and trips and workplace transport, while musculoskeletal disorders are a significant occupational health problem. Those four causes of accidents and ill-health form between half and two thirds of the incidents in docks reported to the Health and Safety Executive in any one of the past four years.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich mentioned the Dock Regulations 1988. From the trade union point of view, there is concern about the delay in the review of those regulations. which has centred on how the associated approved code of practice should be updated to address the modern circumstances in which UK ports operate. However, I accept that the delay is partly due to the Health and Safety Executive developing its civil contingencies capacity for security reasons.

A mandatory ports passport scheme should be introduced for health, safety, welfare and security reasons. Such a scheme would be similar to the successful construction skills certification scheme that operates in our construction industry. Construction is one of the most dangerous industries in which people work, but steps have been taken through the construction skills certification scheme to bring issues of health, safety and welfare to the fore. The introduction of a successful and well-thought-out scheme would require anybody working in the area of a port to receive a minimum level of safety training before entering that area. They could be provided with an identification badge on which their picture is displayed, and we could list the individual's core competencies. Without such a scheme, it will not be possible to make ports a safer working environment in terms of health, safety, welfare and security.

The UK is not the only country that suffers in terms of port security. All too often, commercial pressures cause problems that need not exist. According to a website report, there was an incident in America at a port in Los Angeles at 2.30 pm on 28 April, which is last week. As a result of that incident, the dock workers closed the port down to protect themselves, their colleagues and the security of the Wilmington community. That incident involved an explosion—the top, sides and back of a container that was being hauled across the dock were torn off. It was only as a result of the dock workers' actions that further loading was stopped; the company wanted loading to continue even after such an incident had occurred. Commercial pressures can put security and safety at risk.

Briefly, on port development—other hon. Members have put these things more eloquently than I could—it is important to have a strategic overview of the next 30 years that is similar to that in the aviation industry. I regret that I reject this statement by the Government in their response to the Committee's report: The Government believes that the present market-led approach to the provision of port capacity is meeting the key challenges in port development, as effectively as could be expected from a national plan. The development of ports is too important to be left to the vagaries of the free market. The Government response also states: The construction of berths to meet increased demand for direct services will, however, only take place if port developers anticipate that revenues will cover the operating and capital costs. If that is the case, why did the recent inspector's report on the Dibden bay development identify serious capacity shortages starting in 2006? That point has also been highlighted by many colleagues this afternoon. Even if planning permission had been given, there is no way that the Dibden bay port would have been on stream in 2006. That demonstrates and underpins the need for strategic and planned growth for UK ports. I am also concerned that other ports proposed in the south-east may not obtain planning permission for environmental reasons similar to those used for Dibden bay. If those fears are realised, the UK will have serious port capacity problems in both the short and medium term.

Again, I say that hon. Members have put the case better than I ever could. As I said at the beginning of my speech, I do not have a port in my constituency. The boundary commission has changed the constituencies in Scotland for the next general election, and I hope that after that election, I can take part in such a debate and say that I represent the ferry port of Cairnryan. Only time will tell on that.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

We now go to East Anglia, the east coast and the important port of Harwich.

4.36 pm
Mr. Ivan Henderson (Harwich) (Lab)

I apologise for not being present at the start of the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), because I am sure that her opening remarks were, as usual, an excellent input to the debate. I also welcome the report.

I stand as a Member who worked as a docker on a port for 20 years. That port, Bathside bay, has now applied for planning permission for a major development. The unusual thing about the Bathside bay port development is that, unlike other developments, an Act of Parliament—the Harwich Parkeston Quay Act 1988—was passed to allow land reclamation to go ahead. However, we have had to wait until now for that to happen. That legislation was introduced because, like many other ports, including that of my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser), our port was an old British Rail Sealink port that was sold off cheaply under the previous Government. Someone got a very good deal, and that someone was Sea Containers Ltd.

My constituents and I have waited many years to see the development take place. Even before the 1988 Act was passed, we were hoping that the port development would go ahead, because we needed it. We were losing a vast number of seafaring jobs, because of the previous Government's policy not to protect those jobs. This Government have introduced the tonnage tax. We were also losing dock jobs because of new technology and cargoes moving around different parts of the country. My hon. Friend the Member for Dover mentioned the train ferries, which we lost when they moved to Dover.

As I said, we have hoped and wished for the development to go ahead for a long time. Like other hon. Members, I believe that the planning processes for the docks are long-winded. I accept that we have to take into account environmental issues, but the processes could be shortened. The inquiry for Bathside bay has started and will continue until the end of September.

Mention was made earlier of the Strategic Rail Authority investing in different parts of the country. Even without major investment in ports, the authority would have to do that in my area because of the higher gauge containers—the 9 ft 6 in boxes. We need investment now, rather than waiting on the outcome of a decision on Bathside bay. Work has already started on heightening the Ipswich tunnel so that we can start using freight across the country. Felixstowe will need it, as will my port. We had containers at my port, but the ones that we have had more recently are for roll-on, roll-off cargoes. Container trains have not gone through it for several years, so it is underused. The Bathside hay project would increase rail usage.

As I said, I worked on the docks for many years, and some Members have mentioned health and safety on docks. The point about dock working is that when there is an accident, one can guarantee that it will be a serious accident, although tripping hazards will always exist. I was also the union health and safety representative in that dock for a number of years, and we must ensure that dock workers are continually trained about safe working practices. However, there is complacency. It is not an excuse, but a lot of dock work involves doing the same job every day, so we need procedures to monitor safety and ensure that safe practices are continued.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. Brown) mentioned the security of docks, and we often consider shore-side security. I hope that the Minister will take on board the fact that, because of the current situation with terrorism in the country, we should consider security on the sea side as well as the shore side. There could be terrorist incidents on the river, and I do not know what response there would be. because we have no response vessels in the docks to cope with an incident. The Government should consider that matter seriously.

As my port is one of the old railway docks, a single-lane road, the Al20, runs into it, which hampers the encouragement of extra work because there is no proper access. There is the argument that the road is not getting the necessary usage to make it a dual carriageway. That is a chicken-and-egg argument: if the road were dualled, it would encourage work, but it currently keeps people away.

Other hon. Members have mentioned that they have the deepest ports in the UK, but the Secretary of State for Transport opened the deepest channel leading into the Bathside bay project. and we are already handling some of the largest container ships and cruise ships. Access is very important.

Mr. Wilson

None of us wants to get into an argument about which is the deepest port, and my hon. Friend obviously knows the industry very well, but just for the record and to clarify that nobody is misrepresenting their port, can he give an indication of what size of ships the port can take?

Mr. Henderson

The port can take the largest container ships that currently exist. The channel at Bathside bay already handles the largest container ships. We are looking forward, because even larger ones will be built, so the channels will have to be deepened even further. Other hon. Members mentioned the location of ports, but shipping companies often decide for themselves where they want to put their ships. I do not think that we alone can plan where we would want a major port development; the issue also depends on where a shipper wants to go.

Something that will have a bearing on the haulage companies and whose effects we have noticed in my port already is the working time directive. Traffic has moved back to our area, because of the locations nearer to the port areas that the haulage companies have to use because of the working time directive.

I was not even going to speak today, but as there was time for me to do so, I thought that I would. I did not want to get into a competition on the deepest channel, and I hope that the Minister listens before he makes his decision. It is long overdue for the Bathside bay issue, and the channel is already deep enough. Some 30 per cent. of that land has already been reclaimed. The area has lost many jobs in the shipping and docks industry in the past. A poll of 500 people was conducted either earlier this year or last year, and 84 per cent. of them wanted the port to go ahead. All the statutory authorities support its going ahead, and I believe that English Nature also supports such a development. I therefore hope that when the proposal arrives on the Minister's desk and he makes a decision, he will give both the proposal and the remarks that I have made today due consideration.

4.46 pm
John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD)

I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) and her Committee on producing the report and securing the debate. It is an extremely good report on an important subject. Well written and very readable, it succinctly highlights the key problems facing the British ports industry.

After listening to all of today's contributions, no one could be in any doubt as to the importance of ports both in the transport mix and to the economy of the country. It is perhaps more interesting that many people, even those who live quite close to ports, underrate them. They are simply not aware of the volume of economic activity that goes on at ports. I have some first-hand knowledge of that. It is a very small port—probably the smallest mentioned today—but I was chairman of Scrabster harbour trust for some years before being elected to this place. When the building of a new quay was proposed for the ro-ro ferry, the lifeline link, that goes to the Orkney Islands, we commissioned an economic impact assessment. As trustees, we were surprised by how much local business depended on our activity. When one took into account the future activity of extra cruise ships and so on—which is beginning to take place now that the facility has been built—one realised that it was quite an important driver for our community. It is no surprise that even in the bigger port areas, people are unaware of just how important ports are.

A number of hon. Members have mentioned that more than 90 per cent. of UK imports and exports go through our ports, and that the volume is rising. Ports are therefore vital to the UK economy. They are also vital to the economy in another way. which several hon. Members mentioned. We are a transhipment hub. There are a number of ports where containers are loaded, offloaded and reloaded for onward shipment to other ports in the UK and, importantly, in Europe. The point has been well made about how much we are in competition with Europe. There is, therefore, a clear requirement to meet the growing and pressing need for some way of providing the capacity that will be required both in years to come and in the near future. Our ability to provide that capacity will be a key factor in British competitiveness. We have heard that it will put £100 on every container if the containers go to Europe and come back into this country, which simply adds to costs in Britain.

One section in the report that I found of particular interest related to ownership of ports and the fact that 70 per cent. of major ports are privately owned—14 out of 20 by tonnage. It is clear that the lack of capacity in the major ports is the problem. It has been mentioned that the Government's position is largely to leave things to the market, but having listened to today's debate, I think that there is a pretty clear consensus that that is not acceptable.

I want to concentrate my remarks on the larger ports, but I cannot move on without at least mentioning the smaller ports. I hesitate to say whether Falmouth is a smaller port. It is smaller than some of the ones that we have been discussing, but I suspect that it is much larger than what I have in mind as a small port. Small ports have a very valuable contribution to make to their local economies. I mentioned Scrabster, Invergordon, in my constituency, has a major role to play in oil rigs. It is also now, with the slowdown in the oil rig refurbishment business, moving into cruise ships. That is becoming an important part of the business and something that we have in common with Falmouth. There is also Wick, although sadly Wick is now much in decay from its great days of the herring industry. Interestingly, all those ports suffer from or are threatened by similar problems to those of the major ports. One problem is light dues, which those who know about the cruise ship industry tell me are quite a barrier for cruise ships in particular.

The other point that I should like to make in passing about small ports is that there is a growing need to move freight in the UK. We have a clear problem of congestion on our roads. We do not want to see increased congestion. We have not yet perhaps provided sufficiently for the railways. Could we not see some return to coastal shipping as a sensible and environmentally friendly way of moving freight for at least part of its journey? Given that the Scottish Executive have their rail freight grant—I am not sure whether there is a variant of that in England—if Governments north and south of the border wish to encourage the movement of freight it would be sensible to have a similar arrangement on offer to ports.

As I said, our problem really lies with the large ports. The critical problem is their lack of capacity, which is allied to the growth in the container trade. There has been a 50 per cent. increase over a decade in twenty foot equivalent units. I have always wanted to know what a TEU was, and if for nothing else I am very grateful to the report for supplying me with the answer. Ships are also getting much larger, and the ultra-large ships will need deep water. I certainly will not enter into the debate about whose channel is deeper; we will just take it as read that we need a lot of deep water. Particularly if we want to create transhipment hubs, we ideally need deep water, land, skills, not too much environmental impact and a reasonably willing local population. Not many places fulfil those criteria.

I was interested to hear what the right hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) and the hon. Member for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Donohoe) said about Hunterston. There is another port in Scotland that potentially fulfils all the criteria of extremely deep water, an existing facility that could be adapted, a very small amount of environment impact and a local population who are extremely keen to see the development. That is in the Orkney Islands, at Scarpa Flow.

During the Division I spoke to my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael), who told me that the Scottish Executive have said that they could see a development of both Hunterston and Orkney and that they would not compete; there would be room for both. Therefore we should not rule out such developments. That information merely underlines and underscores the point that the right hon. Member for Cunninghame, North made—that it is sheer folly to consider our port policy simply in the light of what happens to be south of the Scottish border. Clearly this is a UK matter. We need to look at our port strategy for the whole of the UK and consider how best to use our resources.

I do not want to get into an argument about what would be right for Dibden bay or any other port, but clearly when the whole of the United Kingdom is so often seen as draining to the south-east corner in economic terms, if there are opportunities for spreading wealth to the regions, be they west, north or east, it must make sense to frame our policy in terms of the UK as a whole. I hope that the Government will look seriously at that.

Mr. Wilson

On the point of comparative depth, it is important to clarify that it is not a domestic competition about which is deeper; the precise point is that arguably all the other ports that have been mentioned in the debate are incapable of taking the extra-large vessels that will be developed in the future. The competition to which I refer is not among British ports, but between the limited number of British ports and continental ports. The ships I am talking about cannot go to other British ports; if they do not go to Hunterston they will go to the continent.

John Thurso

The right hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point, which I was trying to make. He has done so far more eloquently than I could have done so I shall let his words stand.

In light of the comments made by many right hon. and hon. Members, it is incredible that the Government have not proposed a strategy. However, I compliment them on what they have done with regard to air transport. In the White Paper "The Future of Air Transport", the Government recognised that planning must have a long time scale. Virtually all the airports are privately owned and privately operated and BAA, a company well loved by many hon. Members, is a private company, which seems to accord with the private status of ports, but the Government decided that the issues were of such importance for the future of our transport that they should have a strategy, put options out to consultation and take that into account. The result is an ongoing process. Whether one agrees with the conclusion on Stansted, Heathrow or any other airport, a process is being undertaken; the Government are giving leadership, which is their job on such an issue.

Having listened to the arguments advanced in the debate, I hope that the Government will reconsider the matter. They accepted the need for a strategy on air transport, and I suspect that they are in the process of accepting it in respect of rail transport, because the rail review will recognise the need to plan over the long term.

Mr. Jamieson

We had an air strategy because we had to address the rapidly increasing shortfall in airport capacity. Is the hon. Gentleman aware of a similar shortfall in port capacity?

John Thurso

I was accused in a debate recently of using the phrase "with respect" too often, which meant that I did not believe a word that the person I was addressing had said. That is clearly not so in this case but, with respect, if one point has shone through crystal clear it is that by 2006 there will be a serious shortfall in capacity. Furthermore, I understand that the Government do not keep any figures of their own; they neither make forecasts nor endorse them, which is a great lack.

Table 5 on page 26 gives three estimates of capacity shortfall, all of which are clear-cut. Paragraph 86, on the same page, states: We note the predictions of forecast growth in demand are consistent and all the studies conclude that significant capacity increases are needed. Paragraph 92 states that the Government broadly accept that. On that basis, my case is made. I hope that the Minister will accept it and think about proposing a strategy. It is the most critical issue in the report.

I want to raise two further points. The first is health and safety, to which several hon. Members have drawn attention. It is a short part of the report, but it is absolutely crucial. It will come as a severe shock to many people who are not part of the ports industry, or knowledgeable about it, that it is far more dangerous to work in than mining or the construction industry—and construction is widely regarded as one of the most dangerous industries. It is important that the Government do everything and anything they can to ameliorate things.

I want to give the Government credit where they are due it. I remember from my time in Scrabster that there was a paper—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

If the hon. Gentleman is not about to come to the end of his remarks, I will suspend the sitting because there is a Division in the House.

John Thurso

May I speak for one minute after the Division?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Indeed; the hon. Gentleman has the floor and is speaking legitimately and to the report. I suspend the sitting for 15 minutes.

5 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

5.15 pm

On resuming—

John Thurso

I was about to give credit where it is due to the Government on safety. I recall that at Scrabster a document came out as part of the trust ports review, which we implemented, that tremendously improved safety in the port. That process needs to continue, as is highlighted in the report. Above all, we need the extra inspectors for the Health and Safety Executive that are mentioned in the report.

Finally, the current system of light dues is inequitable. It is based on the assumption that the user should pay, whereas the ships that pay—the major cargo ships and cruise ships, and so on—do not need the navigational aids because they have their own on-board aids. The people who make most use of the navigational aids are those in leisure craft, but they pay nothing. In addition, we give around £4 trillion to £6 million a year to the Irish to fund their navigational aids, and that is increasing next year to —7 million. It seems to be a rather curious system. There is a good argument for getting rid of it. I hope that the Government will consider that seriously, will conduct an economic impact study and will get rid of it.

The key point that has come out of today's debate is that there is a clear need for a strategy. The Government must give leadership. I hope that the Minister will listen to the entreaties and consensus from all parties.

5.17 pm
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), the Chairman of the Select Committee, on an excellent report. I also congratulate the Committee members. The report is typically incisive, with few punches pulled and a lot of common sense. It is clear from the report that the Select Committee's view is that the Government give port policy too low a priority.

In the past few days the Department for Transport published its annual report 2004, which extends to 100 pages without appendices but contains only eight lines on ports. That illustrates the low priority of port policy in the Minister's Department. I hope that if nothing else happens, this debate and what follows from it will make him change his mind about the priorities to be accorded to ports, port development and the future of UK competitiveness, which is at the heart of this debate.

The fact that the Department says little about ports in its annual report is all the more surprising when one considers that it has direct responsibility for the trust ports, which have been defined as public corporations. On several occasions I have asked the Minister to explain the anomalies and inconsistencies of policy that arise from that definition, including a requirement that there should be a rate of return for those public corporations imposed by his Department, in the same way that it imposes rates of return on other public corporations.

On 18 March, the Minister assured me that he would write to me with details of how the trust ports compare with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency trading fund. He said: If it will be helpful, I will give a full explanation."—[Official Report. Third Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation, 18 March 2004; c. 12.] That will be helpful, particularly when we receive his full explanation, which I hope will be forthcoming and which he probably accepts is now somewhat overdue.

The issue of trust ports is particularly relevant to the comments of the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser). He said that Dover port is essentially a private enterprise, but the fact is that, under present rules, it is defined as a public corporation. That means that, if the port wishes to borrow substantial sums for its own investment, it could count as public expenditure; that is not just an academic point, but one of real significance, and it also affects the port of Poole, not far from my constituency. When the Minister spoke at the ports lunch recently, there was an air of expectancy in the room; people thought that he would clarify the issue of the status of trust ports.

I must respond to the points made by the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) and the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), because, as the former said, I had the privilege of representing the city and the port of Southampton for some nine years. During that time, two major events—with which I was proud to be associated—contributed significantly to the improvement and competitiveness of the port. The first was the abolition of the dock labour scheme, and the second was the completion of the M3 motorway. Both those policies were to the benefit of the port of Southampton and those who work in it. I hope that the Minister will respond to the cogent points made by the right hon. Member for Southampton. Itchen and the hon. Member for Southampton, Test, because the port of Southampton is far too important to the national interest to be allowed to stagnate.

The immediate response of Associated British Ports to the outcome of the Dibden bay inquiry seemed to be one of utter despair, and it more or less said, "We're going to take our toys away." I hope that it did not really mean that, and that it will continue to find ways in which it can expand the port in order to meet the needs of the area. One cannot have an enterprise that cannot grow; it must be able to grow in order to thrive—indeed, to survive.

An interesting news report in this week's Financial Times said that Southampton's loss could end up being Liverpool's gain. It was therefore interesting to hear the comments of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman). I asked her whether she had taken on board the big threat posed to the port of Liverpool by the Government's ludicrous wind farm policy, and she referred to the Select Committee's report published on 6 May on navigation aids and the Energy Bill. She suggested that we could debate that report in some months' time, perhaps in Westminster Hall; but this is a subject of immediate and critical importance, because next Monday is the Second Reading of the Energy Bill.

Mrs. Dunwoody

I think that the hon. Gentleman mildly misunderstood what my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) was saying. We have specifically tagged that report to Monday's debate. The problem was probably that I was muttering in her ear; I may have slightly dismayed her, and so the hon. Gentleman got an answer that he misinterpreted.

Mr. Chope

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for clarifying that. My concern is that Monday's debate will not be answered by a Transport Minister. However, today we have the opportunity to get reassurance from such a Minister—I hope that he will give it—that the Government will accept new clauses 100 and 101, which were inserted into the Energy Bill on Report in the House of Lords. That seems to be a basic minimum in order to ensure that the viability of three estuarial ports is not severely and unnecessarily jeopardised by the Bill. I hope that the Minister can give us that unequivocal commitment in his response, and that there will be plenty of time for him to respond to that and other points made in this important debate.

The Select Committee report makes some important points about light dues and the cost of paying for navigation aids. I hope the Government will respond positively and say that they will conduct more research into the issue. However, I would suggest to hon. Members that a far more important threat is the Government's plan deliberately to create additional navigational hazards, which is what their current offshore wind farm policy represents.

I spent many of my later student days in the constituency of the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton), so I know the area well. She emphasised the importance of development to the economy in Falmouth and quoted the amazing figure that Cornwall's GDP is 59 per cent. of the European Union average. I presume that she is up to speed on the outcome of the regional assembly held in Trowbridge on Friday, which I was lucky enough to be able to attend. That assembly considered an issue of great importance for the economy of Cornwall, namely whether there should be a second trunk road connection to it. That is obviously important for the port of Falmouth, so I am sure that, like the Minister, she will have been pleased that the regional assembly's verdict was that the A303/A30 should be dualled through the Blackdown hills in preference to the alternative. Like many other people, I believed that work on both roads should be completed.

Ms Atherton

I am aware of the regional assembly that took place on Friday. However, there was some dismay in Cornwall that the vote went through by only one vote.

Mr. Chope

I agree with the hon. Lady that it was disappointing that more people did not recognise that we need two routes to the west country and the peninsula. However, as we know in politics, one vote is enough, and I hope that it will be sufficient to persuade the Minister to delay no longer in announcing that the Government will go ahead with the A303/A30 dualling. If he could announce that in his response to today's debate, it would be an additional bonus.

Many hon. Members mentioned infrastructure and the need to consider ports not in isolation but in the context of the rail and road links, which are an essential part of a proper port transport system. I hope that the Minister will try to develop a coherent, integrated and joined-up strategy. It is clear from many hon. Members' comments that that has not yet been developed.

I should like briefly to refer to the situation in my locality, where we have the expanding and increasingly significant trust port of Poole. The port of Poole needs good road links, and the road links between it and the A31 have been due for improvement for a long time. The Government cancelled the scheme, and it is now proposed that it should be reinstated at the behest of the local highways authority. If it is going to be viable, it will need some Government funding and support in the widest sense.

At the moment, the Government's policy is that the A350, running north from Poole towards the Bath and Bristol conurbation, should be downgraded from trunk road status and that the traffic from the port of Poole to Bristol should travel along the A31, up the M3 to the A34 and then back down on the M4, thereby adding 20 or 30 miles to each journey. The Government have argued that that is a perfectly reasonable proposition, but it is not reasonable unless the logjams and bottlenecks on that route are removed or ameliorated. For example, the junction of the A34 and M3 frequently causes congestion fur miles. Similarly, there is the problem of the bottleneck at Ringwood, on the A31 as it approaches the A338. All those examples involve issues of infrastructure, and the infrastructure needs to be improved if we are to have a coherent port policy.

There were examples of lack of progress in Dover even when I was the Minister with responsibility for roads. I was keen to promote schemes to ensure that there was a proper route into the port of Dover, but to this day, as the hon. Member for Dover said, that has not been achieved. I hope that the Minister will be able to make some unequivocal pledges on that.

Is the whole of the Government's policy on spending on transport infrastructure as chaotic as most people seem to think? The evidence seems to point that way. I hope that the Minister will respond to the serious issues raised in the Select Committee report, and I hope that the Committee Chairman will keep at it on the issue of ports and port policy. The need for a ports strategy is paramount.

5.31 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson)

It is a pleasure to reply to such a full and comprehensive debate—one of the fullest and most comprehensive that we have had on any subject for a long time. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) on bringing this issue before the Chamber, and I warmly congratulate her Committee on the work that it has done on this extremely important issue. For once, I agree with the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink). The report was not just good; it was excellent. I am delighted to have the opportunity this afternoon to make some comments on behalf of the Government in response to the debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich quoted many statistics on ports, and I will allude to some of those in a moment. We have had an interesting tour of the ports of the United Kingdom: we went to Southampton twice we were in Essex briefly and then we heard a lot about Hunterston. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Donohoe) and my right hon Friend the Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) on making their point so robustly on behalf of Hunterston and Scotland.

We then went to Liverpool, Falmouth, Dover and Harwich; we even found ourselves in Scrabster at one stage. I am not sure where the port is in Dumfries; I am sure that there is no port at Crewe, and I do not think that there is one at Christchurch either, although that is fairly near the sea.

Mr. Chope

Poole.

Mr. Jamieson

Poole is fairly near.

I do not want to enter an argument about which port is the deepest. However, now we come to Plymouth, and my port is a very deep port. The amount of cargo that comes into Plymouth is somewhat limited, although we have an extremely large ferry coming in and out. However, my port, the Devon port, has some extremely large ships. They tend to be grey, have large guns on them and serve a different, but no less important purpose—national security.

I will cover a couple of the points raised by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope). If there is a letter outstanding, I apologise to hire. I will ensure that he receives a response and will be happy to write to him. The hon. Gentleman started by chiding the Government for not having a policy on ports. yet he said almost nothing about ports. We heard about his past and about roads. If he thinks that he will get a decision today on the A358, the A30 and the A303, I am afraid that he will be sorely disappointed. If I started talking about those, you would rightly draw that to in attention and bring me to order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Notwithstanding the fact that the hon. Gentleman was a representative of a constituency that had one of the largest ports in the country—the important port of Southampton—he said precious little about it today.

Mr. Chope

I am sure that the Minister appreciates the difference between being in government, when one has to make decisions on a day-to-day basis, and a party that is preparing for government. We will announce our manifesto in due course.

Mr. Jamieson

If the hon. Gentleman is serious about preparing for government, he will find, as time goes on, that he will have to have some notional policy on one or two things and be able to tell us what it is.

When the hon. Gentleman's party was in government, it showed precious little interest in shipping and ports. I am one of the longest serving Shipping Ministers since the war, and the second longest serving in Europe—which probably says more about how briefly others have occupied this job than it does about how long I have been doing it. People from all parties—from across the board in terms of their political perspective, and from throughout Europe—recognise that this Government have taken shipping issues seriously. We are the first Government in many years to have done so. I welcome today's debate focusing on ports, which sit at the very heart of our integrated transport system for freight. This is an opportunity to debate with hon. Members Government policy for an important sector.

The United Kingdom is one of the most open economies in the world. As an island nation with more coast than any other country in the European Union bar Greece, we take a great interest in the quality of our coast, environmental protection, and the use of shipping and ports. I do not want to repeat the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich about statistics, but it is not just the scale of the port sector that strikes me—in Europe it is by far the, largest in terms of tonnage—but the fact that our ports handle about 95 per cent. of the volume, and about 75 per cent. of the value, of all our trade. The maritime industry makes a significant contribution to our economy. It has a turnover approaching £40 billion per year, and accounts for about 250,000 jobs.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) said that there are about 300 ports in this country. There are, in fact, 1,040 commercially active ports, wharves and terminals around our 10,500 miles of coastline. I agree with him that some of them are not large, but there are nevertheless many ports around our coast.

I want to address the important issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich. Throughput does not necessarily equate to efficiency, but I am pleased that UK ports are some of the most efficient in Europe in the way in which they handle goods and the volume handled per metre of quay and per hectare of container storage. We can expect that efficiency to increase steadily.

My hon. Friends the Members for Crewe and Nantwich and for Dover (Mr. Prosser) emphasised the importance of ports to the United Kingdom economy. I assure my hon. Friends that that is of great importance to the Government. We recognise the importance of the sector to the health of the UK economy and local economies—especially larger ports and sometimes smaller ports such as Falmouth.

Ms Atherton

Can we get this size and depth issue resolved? Falmouth port might be smaller than some, but it is larger than many.

Mr. Jamieson

I think that my hon. Friend is saying that hers is a medium-sized port. The port of Falmouth is extremely important, be it small or otherwise, and ports smaller than Falmouth are important to their local communities. We do all in our power to ensure that the sector remains healthy and competitive, and we must help to ensure that all our ports continue to respond to the growing needs of our very successful economy, which is importing and exporting more goods than ever before.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) asked about the importance of Southampton. I entirely understand his disappointment. I shall not go into the reasons why the decision was made—it is not the right place to rehearse those arguments. I have visited the port; I was invited by my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test. We examined some of the more general issues about transport in Southampton, Portsmouth and Hampshire. We focused on the port and the importance to Southampton of the configuration of transport. I can give an assurance that we want to make the best use of the capacity at Southampton docks and that we will address many of the important points that have been raised about them.

The continued development of ports cannot happen at any cost. We want a ports industry where new infrastructure is environmentally sound and sustainable. Success must go hand in hand with safety and sustainability. We want an industry that trains its staff and provides them with modern and safe working conditions.

Despite the obvious importance of the ports sector to the United Kingdom economy, I have to say to the hon. Member for Christchurch that it is notable that the Administration prior to 1997 put no coherent ports policy in place following the privatisations. "Modern Ports: A UK policy" was the first serious attempt in well over a decade to provide a policy framework for the ports sector. We now have a stable framework for development that supports the industry in maintaining and improving its performance, in addressing the challenges it faces and in seizing opportunities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich rightly referred to the issue of statistics in her remarks today and in the Transport Committee report. The Committee criticised the Government on the extent of the available data about the ports sector. We are well aware of the importance of good statistics on a sector that matters a lot for the continuing success of the UK economy.

The Government were already addressing many of the points that have been raised in the Transport Committee report. Our efforts have concentrated on delivering good quality information on port traffic. We are now looking at how we might collect better statistics in areas such as port manpower and safety. Those areas were a major concern for the Transport Committee.

Mr. Wilson

I just wanted to try out a statistic on my hon. Friend. I am sure that he is aware that 30 per cent. of vessels currently under construction are over 8,000 TEU. Where in the United Kingdom does he think they are going to land?

Mr. Jamieson

That is a good point. It highlights why we need to collect the information that we are collecting in the way that we are.

Our efforts have concentrated on delivering good quality information on port traffic. We are now looking at how we can collect better statistics. However, our first priority has been to introduce a comprehensive maritime traffic data collection system to underpin this work. That is now in place, under the aegis of the maritime statistics directive. We have worked hard to ensure that it produces robust results and we can now devote more time to developing the other key data that the Select Committee rightly identified.

We have set up a Government-led working group to deliver comprehensive information on employment at UK ports and a cast-iron methodology for producing data on ports sector accident rates. We hope that all of that will be in place and delivering results by early 2005. The UK standard industrial classification is being devised and the Government are actively involved in the process of ensuring that ports can be separately identified in the new classification. However, securing the alignment of these changes internationally takes time. We expect the new classification to be implemented by 2007.

My hon. Friends the Members for Cunninghame, South and for Dumfries (Mr. Brown) rightly raised the issue of safety in ports. It has been said both in this debate and by the Committee that our ports must provide a safe working environment, and we fully agree. We are well aware that both the dry and wet sides of dock work can be extremely dangerous. As has been pointed out, nowadays more people are injured and killed in the docks than in the mines.

The accident rate is still unacceptably high. The Government, the Health and Safety Commission, the Health and Safety Executive and the industry share the common goal of making ports a safer place to work in. The key issue is how to best achieve that. The Health and Safety Commission's new strategy for occupational health and safety to 2010 and beyond recognises that health and safety works best when industry embraces its responsibility and commits itself to a leading role in partnership with the Health and Safety Executive. I am pleased to say that much progress has been made in recent years in engaging senior management in the docks industry, and it is now well placed to take advantage of that approach. The launch of the port safety initiative, in response to the Government's revitalising health and safety strategy, demonstrates our commitment to tackling the problems of health and safety.

There are some encouraging signs of improvements in safety in our docks, and the latest accident statistics show that from 2001–02 to 2002–03 there was a 15 per cent. decrease in the overall accident rate in dock work. Those statistics are only provisional but seem nevertheless to indicate a reduction in casualties in ports. The incident investigation skills of the marine accident investigation branch are also contributing significantly to the identification of the cause of accidents in harbour waters, and with that information the industry can achieve an ongoing improvement in that important area.

Mrs. Dunwoody

Had my hon. Friend thought of making a glancing reference to the fact that there are not enough inspectors to carry out the job?

Mr. Jamieson

Yes; that too is an important issue and in response to the report, we are addressing it with the Health and Safety Executive, the marine accident investigation branch and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which his responsibilities for safety and security issues at sea.

The issue of future planning took some of our time here today, and there was a suggestion that there could be no expansion of port capacity because of environmental and other reasons. One example is the application in 2002 for expansion of Felixstowe, which received approval, notwithstanding the habitats directive. Having struck a balance, we made a decision in favour of that development.

Mr. Henderson

Did not that expansion go to an inquiry because of me objection?

Mr. Jamieson

Yes; that is sadly the case with many inquiries. If there is an outstanding objection, particularly if it is from certain legitimate bodies such as a local authority, the matter will go to a public inquiry. That is a feature of our democratic planning system, and sometimes it causes great frustration. I fully appreciate the thrust of what my hon. Friend is saying. However, it is only right that if the industry is to pursue its activities responsibly, it must ensure that it is not put at a disadvantage to our European competitors. The Government will he alert to any proposals for new legislation, and will actively seek to ensure that it is applied fairly across the European Union.

Looking ahead, hon. Members may not be surprised to hear me say that there are more challenges heading our way from the European ports, and the main gateway to the UK clearly cannot be left unguarded. We are working hard with the ports sector to implement a new, rigorous maritime security regime, to which some of my hon. Friends alluded—not least my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Henderson)—to meet international and Community regulations. I accept his point that it is import ant to address security matters not just in ports. but in areas around ports and out to sea. He will know that there is a regime in place for security for ports, but also one for ships at sea. Perhaps we could explore that in more detail at another time.

The UK ports and maritime policy is market-led. We do not determine the commercial strategy, nor do we fund operations. The continuing success of that approach is clearly demonstrated by the growth of the United Kingdom flag and fleet since 1997 and by the number of proposals coming forward, not just for the expansion of major container facilities, as has been mentioned, but for port developments, large and small, around the country.

I was interested that the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso), asserted in an intervention that the Liberal Democrats accept that there may be a shortfall of port capacity in the future. I mention that because in a previous debate—long before his time—his party may not have fully accepted that, so I am pleased to hear his assurances today.

We must continue to build on the existing solid base, so that, in conjunction with the devolved Administrations, we can continue to ensure that the Government's policy effectively promotes a successful, sustainable and competitive ports industry throughout the United Kingdom, with high safety standards and good environmental practice.

Dr. Whitehead

Does my hon. Friend accept that the increase in ships coming on to out flag in the UK arose from Government intervention? Setting a tonnage tax and providing other forms of non market-based assistance to shipowners has ensured that flags have come back to the UK. Government intervention caused the change, not the market.

Mr. Jamieson

Yes, indeed. We did not oblige ships to come on to our flag. My hon. Friend is quite right: we intervened to introduce the tonnage tax, which is one of the most successful tonnage taxes and is now being emulated by other countries. The difference, however, is that we introduced a training regime with our tonnage tax as well. We also took ships only of the very highest quality. I am delighted that the ships that have come on to the UK flag are the very best in the world. Our flag is rated as the top in the world and I am proud to stand here. on behalf of the Government and the United Kingdom, and say that. That outcome was due to some intervention and tweaking. Also, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency has been much more consumer-oriented than it was previously and has had a role in effecting the change.

My hon. Friends the Members for Southampton, Test, for Dover, for Cunninghame, South and for Dumfries all talked about port development planning and the need for a national strategy. However, in developing such a strategy we must of course give due regard to meeting environmental standards. We fully understand that there are pressures on existing port capacity and that further facilities will be needed to handle the growth in both container traffic and the size of ships. The UK port sector has risen to that challenge in the past. As a result, several proposals have been made in the last few years for major new facilities across the United Kingdom. In conjunction with the devolved Administrations, we will continue to make decisions on each proposal in a consistent manner, after weighing all the relevant factors in the balance.

Mr. Donohoe

But will my hon. Friend give us an assurance on what I identified as a possible problem relating to the Strategic Rail Authority?

Mr. Jamieson

Yes indeed—I hope that I will be able to get to that. Rail and road links to the ports are extremely important.

I reinforce something that we said in our response to the Committee's report.

Mr. Denham

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Jamieson

I will in a moment—let me finish this point. We said in our response that the market-led approach was meeting capacity and was likely to continue to do so. However, we also said: The Government will continue to monitor the situation, but would only be prepared to intervene in this way if it were clear that the market-led approach were failing. Should we see that the market-led approach was failing, that would be the opportune moment at which to intervene further.

Mr. Denham

My hon. Friend says that he wants to take individual decisions in a consistent way. When Southampton was considered, the inspector had to bear in mind that there were three other proposals in the south-east and the rest of Europe. There are now, for the Bathside inquiry, only two other proposals in the UK. If Bathside gets the go-ahead, the other two places will know that somewhere else has gone ahead and will thereby be disadvantaged. How can he possibly say that the four schemes are being considered on an equitable basis? It depends on a scheme's position in the queue and on the decisions taken ahead in that queue.

Mr. Jamieson

rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker

A Division has been called. I believe that you will be more than two minutes, Mr. Jamieson.

Mr. Jamieson

I am prepared to be guided by hon. Members.

Mrs. Dunwoody

We might get an answer if the Minister goes on for another 10 minutes!

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I think that the Minister still has a certain amount to say. It is an important report, which merits the Chamber reconvening after another 15 minutes.

5.55 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

6.10 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Jamieson

Unfortunately, the debate has been broken up by three Divisions. I appreciate that some hon. Members have had to leave the House for their constituencies so, if I have not been able to cover certain issues, I undertake to correspond with them.

I wish to complete my point about the market-led approach. I was saying that, for all the work and time that it requires, a national plan would add little to what has been achieved by the planning and approval system that we have now, with its thorough and effective scrutiny at public inquiries, which is most important especially when strong environmental issues are involved.

A national plan would also cut across the core responsibility of port operators and those who invest in the sector. There are real dangers in the Government's attempting to pick winners through a national plan. We must be careful about interfering with the commercial imperatives that have given the United Kingdom our port system and logistics industry. As I said before the break, as long as it continues to deliver, we will support such an approach, but if it does not deliver, there will clearly be a role for the Government's intervention.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) asked about the application in her constituency. As she would expect, the harbour order will be considered when it is received by the Department. She and other hon. Members also referred to the important matter of the appraisal framework for port projects and the time that it takes. We have now published an appraisal framework for ports that is derived from the guidance for the multi-modal studies and have taken account of the specific effect of port developments. We believe that it will make project development and the consenting process much better. We have in place a template for such applications and it will help developers to anticipate the questions likely to arise in the consenting process. It will also help those who wish to object to a development. We want better quality decisions and we want them to be made more speedily. My hon. Friend also referred to rail links, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, South. The work to improve the gauge for freight traffic is already under way in the midlands as part of the west coast main line upgrade, and that includes the gauge clearances of the routes from Stafford to Manchester Trafford Park via Crewe and Macclesfield.

I assure my rig ht hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen that the Strategic Rail Authority is working closely with Network Rail, the freight operators, the regional authorities and the development agencies in planning: and funding the development of the rail network between the United Kingdom ports and the inland locations. Specific work is currently under way to clear a route between the haven ports and the west coast main line to carry the larger 9 ft 6 in containers on standard wagons. It is expected that that work will be completed by the end of this year.

It is the Government's policy to adopt an integrated, sustainable approach to freight distribution throughout the United Kingdom. It must bring benefits to the economy and to the environment. The long-term goal is to enable more freight to move by rail instead of road. We are making a particular effort to move some heavy freight not by road or rail, but by water. We clearly recognise the vital importance of the continued economic well-being of the ports industry to the United Kingdom. Ports are our essential link to our logistics and supply chain and whatever their size or traffic, their effective operation clearly helps to underpin the successful economic performance of the United Kingdom. We therefore welcome the opportunity for the House to debate the Government's policy on such an important area. I am aware that so many good quality points were raised today and that they need dealing with. I hope that we have an opportunity in the future to return to such issues and debate them further.

It being fifteen minutes past Six o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.

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