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Heysham-Belfast Ferry Service

Volume 887: debated on Thursday 6 March 1975

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It is a sobering thought that today as we debate the proposed closure of the Heysham to Belfast ferry service more than 60 people have received notice terminating their employment on it, and in three weeks time another 120 will receive the same. The issuing of these notices need not have happened and, even at this late stage, the closure of the service need not take place.

I support that statement with three arguments. First, there has been a calculated commitment to the removal of this sea link over a number of years. In other words, a hole has deliberately been made in the base of a bucket and that bucket has been discarded because it cannot hold water. The express parcels service ceased using the Heysham-Belfast service, and its custom was transferred to the Stranraer-Larne service in October 1973. In that year, however, the Belfast-Heysham service was noted for its excellent handling of that parcels service. Why then was the custom transferred?

Most troop movements use the private enterprise P & O Line to the exclusion of British Rail Sealink. Why cannot British Rail at least share in this traffic? From 1967 sundry traffic was given away. Livestock traffic ceased to be carried on the Heysham route. The lift-on, lift-off service was largely conceded to private enterprise. The proper roll-on, roll-off vessels for container traffic were denied to the Heysham link. A properly-designed vessel has been available for this route since the spring of 1974. The union and the staff involved in the Heysham link requested the use of that vessel, but the request was denied.

These examples are surely concrete evidence that there has been a deliberate run down of the service over a considerable period.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the transport users' consultative committee for the Western Region laid evidence before the inquiry that the brochure printed by British Rail had already omitted the Belfast-Heysham link, so that tourists wanting to use the route this year cannot even know that it exists?

My hon. Friend is quite right and I shall return to that point.

A considerable amount was spent recently on providing ramps at Fleetwood, and millions of pounds have been invested in the initiation of the new service between Larne and Fleetwood. The nationalised dock at Heysham is capable of receiving that container traffic, and manpower is available to run the service, but the operation is being transferred to a completely new route. That is strange action for a Government who claim to encourage nationalisation. If these submissions are inaccurate, I invite the Government to disprove them. It is ludicrous to argue that the Belfast-Heysham route is not a viable proposition. It is a question of proper management.

There is need for an informed, committed British Rail shipping division management. British Rail closed the service which used to operate from Southampton, and that service is now being worked successfully by private enterprise. At one time British Rail considered axing the Larne-Stranraer route, which has been viable for many years and even now is holding its own. Is it possible that British Rail is arbitrarily initiating a closure on the basis of misinformation? That would be another grave mistake.

It is true that the vessels remain in the dock for about 14 hours, but that is because the wrong type of vessels are in use. I have been assured by the unions and workers that they could turn round vessels within about three hours, so that they could make twice as many journeys and carry a great deal of container traffic, thus making the route viable. Yet management makes no effort to provide the proper vessels to run this important roll-on, roll-off service.

At no time has the shipping division of British Rail consulted the staff or their representatives about the difficulties involved in maintaining the service. That is staggering. As early as 1972 there was notice of closure of the route, but unions and workers were not informed until July 1974. That is not evidence of a committed and concerned management. The lack of communication leaves one with many unhappy thoughts and suspicions. The findings of the transport users' consultative committee to which my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim North (Rev. Ian Paisley) referred have not to this day been published. Yet men have been placed on notice. There are fears that high-ranking members of that committee may have vested interests in a Liverpool stevedoring company. It is also feared that the deputy general manager of the Shipping and International Services Division of British Rail may have interests in a competing service. That is sad and, if true, it is insidious. There is need for an informed, committed management of the British Rail shipping division.

This is the psychologically wrong moment to remove a link between Northern Ireland and England—indeed, the only link. Not only will many people lose their jobs, but there is no way of absorbing those who will become unemployed in Northern Ireland, where unemployment is double the national average.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the level of unemployment in Lancaster and Morecambe is nearly double the national average at 5·8 per cent., and that the loss of 300 jobs would be a total disaster to our part of the world?

Yes, I am aware of that, and I agree that it spells an ominous future for those who work on both sides of the channel. If stability in Northern Ireland is not too far away, as we all sincerely hope, Northern Ireland needs all the encouragement it can get to bring back the tourist industry and to assist us to increase our exports and to make those export services realistic and attractive. However, the vehicle through which this is possible is now being removed by British Rail—or is being left to somebody else who may want to take the chance of taking on this so-called non-viable route.

Apart from creating a monopolistic situation, this is not the reaction expected of a Government who are well aware of the heroic struggle by the people of Northern Ireland to rise above the destruction of the economy wages in that part of the realm.

The unions and staff assure me that in two years, with the proper vessels, they could make this route into a very viable proposition indeed. It is interesting to note that today British Rail stated its intention to provide the Dun Laoghaire route with three new vessels. It has about £60 million now available because the Channel Tunnel project has been scrapped. We understand that that money is to be used for expansion in other directions. Why cannot two of the three vessels be placed at the disposal of the Belfast-Heysham route—vessels of the kind that will facilitate this modern roll-on, roll-off service?

Therefore we ask the Government to look seriously at this matter. It is now time to take the initiative; to look at the findings of the consultative committee; to declare the findings of that committee; to consult with workers and management; to look at the facts as they are; and to save this route not only for the people of Northern Ireland but for the kingdom as a whole.

12.14 p.m.

I shall try to confine my remarks to only two minutes.

I wish to refer the Minister to Early Day Motion No. 321 "Financial Assistance for Industry (Heysham-Belfast) Ferry Service" which reads:
"That this House calls upon Her Majesty's Government to assist by way of financial assistance under Section 8 of the Industry Act 1972 in respect of the Heysham-Belfast Ferry Service."
At the moment the motion contains only one signature, but I understand that by next week quite a number of signatures will have been added to it.

There is no doubt that the Minister has his brief already made out; he will have his instructions what to do tonight. But this is not the end of the road. As a member of the Labour Party and with an interest in railways, harbours and shipping, I believe that one thing we require more than anything is to provide the nation with a comprehensive transport policy. From there we can then do something about harbours, shipping, roads, railways and waterways in general.

This country has a great potential for the building of a really first-class transport system and unless we take proper action the only alternative as has happened under successive Governments, will be to close down any service that fails financially.

When they read parliamentary reports business men must shiver down their spines. I deplore the fact that a first-class service has been allowed to decline. Thirty-five years ago I visited Heysham harbour, and saw that it was working as busily as any beehive. It was a first-class, successful industry, with hundreds of men working there, dealing with cattle, parcel traffic, cars and passengers. Today there are only two out-of-date vessels which have been converted to carry passengers and two or three vehicles. A business of this kind cannot compete with out-of-date equipment. I believe in the statement which was made during the war—"Give us the tools and we will finish the job." That still applies.

I regret the fact that Adjournment debates are so short. I appeal to my hon. Friend not just to pass over this matter and treat it as something to be buried, nor to send the ships to a place where no one can see them and then to the scrap-yards. Let us do something about this, using the provisions of the Industry Bill if necessary.

I appeal to the House to give the fullest support to the matter and to make sure that every Member of Parliament knows about the Early-Day Motion to which I have referred so that the Government can again be approached.

12.16 a.m.

I thank the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Bradford) for having raised this important subject on the Adjournment, and the hon. Member for St. Helens (Mr. Spriggs) for his comments. I see that other hon. Members would have liked to speak, and I too am sorry that Adjournment debates do not last long.

It should be understood that the Chair does not share the regret at the short duration of the Adjournment debate. I think that there is ample time for it if one hon. Member takes part and the Minister replies.

Will the Minister show appreciation and gratitude by keeping this route open?

Hon. Members will know that a large number of Adjournment debates are taken by my Department. However, from the number of hon. Members who have stayed behind at this late hour, if for no other reason, I am compelled to realise that this is a very important debate.

A great deal of consideration has been given to this difficult and complex problem, which has not been treated lightly by my hon. and right hon. Friends. However, I wish to try to set out the problems faced by the Government in dealing with the proposal to withdraw this ser vice, the background against which we took the decisions, and the reasons for the decisions which were taken.

During the 1960s, tourist traffic to Northern Ireland grew very quickly. As we all know, this growth of people going to new places for their holidays was accompanied by an equal growth in the number of families with cars. Not surprisingly, the market for car ferry services from Britain to holiday areas also increased rapidly. Thus in 1968 the British Railways Board, with the approval of the Government, took the decision to adapt its existing passenger-only ships on the Heysham-Belfast service, so as to enable them also to carry cars. The physical construction of the ships made it impossible for them also to carry more than one or two lorries on each trip.

Tonight, criticisms have been laid against the board for this original decision, and there was criticism when the decision was taken. It has been said that it should have invested in new, multi-purpose vessels, capable of carrying goods vehicles in much higher numbers as well as cars and passengers. I do not intend now to go into this question. It is sufficient to say that the decision was taken as a matter of commercial judgment in the light of the best information and advice available and in accordance with the guidelines the Government had then laid down.

The two ships which were adapted, the "Duke of Argyle" and the "Duke of Lancaster", came into service in 1970. The House does not need me to remind it of the sad events which have taken place between the decision to make innovations in this service and the introduction of the service. Those events completely changed the tourist market for Northern Ireland, with a result that the financial situation of the service has never been anywhere near the original forecasts. This is not surprising when one looks at the estimates of the numbers of visitors to Northern Ireland prepared by the Northern Ireland Tourist Board. In 1968, the year when the decision was taken, there were about one million visitors. Last year, there were, sadly, about 300,000. This means that the whole basis of the market for which the service had been planned had disappeared. As one might expect, this has led to very large and growing losses on the service.

I can appreciate that in 1968 there may have been financial reasons for this decision. There may not have been the money available to produce the right craft. But surely the hon. Gentleman does not defend the decision to convert vessels to hold only two roll-on, roll-off container systems as a proper business and commercial judgment. The tourist traffic could have generated business only for, at the most, three months of the year.

The usage of the shipping services is a matter about which I could go on at length. Even the English Channel ferries are working at anything like capacity for only two or three months a year. Full capacity comes only in a remarkably few weekends in the year.

When I said that the decision was taken not to go for specially built ships, I referred to a commercial judgment. I was not talking about the shortage of money. It was a matter of the Railways Board's commercial judgment of how much traffic the service was likely to carry, taking into account the other services. I hope to be able to explain a little more fully the obligations of the Railways Board's shipping services and the difference between them, and the way that the economics and bookkeeping of the services operate against the railway itself as we know it.

Here, we ought to consider the way in which Parliament has decided that British Railways Board should operate its shipping services. Unlike the railway services—and indeed unlike most other nationalised industries—the Railways Board does not have any monopoly in its shipping services. It is in open and unregulated competition with not merely British shipping companies but also with any other shipping services which wish to join in the business. For this reason, Parliament decided in the 1962 and 1968 Transport Acts that the Government should be given very few controls over the way in which British Rail operates its shipping services, and that these services should be operated within the general commercial remit of the board to cover its costs taking one year with another. In fact, the only powers which the Act gives the Minister over shipping services is to direct in what form notices of withdrawal should be given. In addi tion, there is a general power to give directions to the board about any of their services if the Central Transport Consultative Committee so recommends.

In view of the fact that the management of the Railways Board on the shipping side has failed, should not we have a special shipping board with powers to operate and develop the ports which are facing a crisis at the present time?

I would not agree that by normal commercial judgments the management of the shipping services of the British Railways Board had generally failed. I was trying to point out some marketing facts as regards this service. For instance, there was the large drop in the expected traffic. British Railways were clearly reluctant—

The hon. Gentleman has said that this route is not flourishing because of the unfortunate episodes in Northern Ireland. As it is only for a short time that those episodes are likely to continue, would it not be the simplest matter to bring in a brief Bill to enable money to be put into the route—for example, for two years—until the crisis is over?

The hon. Lady should realise the extent of the losses. I know that she has had correspondence on this subject with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. The losses are estimated at approximately £800,000 a year. That is a considerable sum in these times. Last night on an Adjournment debate a Member was asking for £400,000 for another purpose. On many Adjournment debates Members make suggestions for spending a great deal less than £800,000. There is always the problem of deciding priorities. What happens when the difficult situation in Northern Ireland has changed is a matter that British Railways Board and the shipping section of the board will consider with great care.

I shall not deal with the allegations of corruption that have been raised by the hon. Member for Belfast, South, save to say that if that is the case I should like to know the source of his information. If the hon. Gentleman cares to get in touch with me I shall be delighted to discuss the matter further. I am very keen on railways and I cannot believe that railwaymen of whatever level deliberately tried to close down—[Interruption.] That is not my experience of the railway people that I have met at all levels.

I am coming to that.

British Railways were clearly reluctant to conclude that the Heysham—Belfast car and passenger ferry service should be withdrawn. Nevertheless, the time came when the losses which were being incurred were so significant that the future of the service clearly had to be re-examined. Here again, the board looked at a wide range of options. First, it considered operating the service with one ship. The estimates showed that because of the commercial unattractiveness of such a service, which would operate only on alternate days, the loss of revenue would be greater than the saving achieved. Secondly, it looked at various combinations of reductions of service level in summer and winter. Here again, estimates showed that the loss of revenue would be greater than the savings. It looked at the possibility of rationalising the Heysham—Belfast and the Stranraer—Larne services so that the two routes could be covered by three multi-purpose ships. While this plan showed substantial economies by the elimination of one ship, these would have been more than offset by losses of revenue because of the unattractive timings of services which would have been offered and the loss of lorry traffic on the Stranraer—Larne route.

Finally, the board considered building two new multi-purpose ships capable of carrying lorries on the Heysham-Belfast route. Not only did the board judge that this plan would fail to meet the financial criteria which the Government have to set for nationalised industries investment, but it would still have left a serious loss-making situation. Having exhausted all the possibilities of alternative types of service, British Railways were forced to the conclusion that heavy losses were unavoidable without a substantial recovery in traffic, and they arrived at the broad estimate that an overall increase in current traffic of approximately 80 per cent. would be necessary to eliminate the current loss. They concluded that in the circumstances which they could reasonably foresee there was not any likelihood of such an increase being achieved. They therefore had no alternative—

Heysham lies in my constituency. The Minister is saying that if traffic returns to what could be expected with normal conditions in Northern Ireland the service would be viable. That is the point that we are trying to make.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Thursday evening, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Twelve o'clock.