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Pilotage Bill Lords

Volume 113: debated on Monday 30 March 1987

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Question again proposed, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

As I said at the beginning of my speech, I am a former member of a proud profession that has a long and honourable tradition. Indeed, pilotage is referred to as the second oldest profession in the world. I do not want to see that profession disappear. I do not want its professional standards eroded by actions taken by this House. I do not believe that, ultimately, this House should hand over the responsibilities for safe navigation around our waters to anyone, however well-intentioned they may be.

Reference has always been made to the appeals procedure. Who will check the ports? If a port wants to extend its limits, the General Council for British Shipping can appeal. If a port wishes to contract its limits, who can appeal against that? I do not believe that this House should allow any competent harbour authority to reduce the pilotage districts of any port in this country unless it can satisfy the House that the proposed arrangements are proper, sensible and protect the safety of our coasts.

We shall not be opposing the principles of this Bill, but I am bound to say that we have grave reservations. We shall be pressing the Minister hard in Committee for certain amendments which we believe will improve the Bill and will do those things which the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State said are necessary to provide a long-term framework.

10.2 pm

I follow the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Thornton) with mixed feelings, because I acknowledge his expertise and experience. I know that he will be a severe critic of any mistakes that I make in my few remarks.

I believe that the protection of sea-going vessels should not be subject to commercial pressure. I think that is the main aim of the Bill. The need for independent pilotage is greater than ever. The reduction in the merchant fleet has already been referred to, and that means that our ports are now visited by ships carrying other flags. Many ships have gone to other flags because of the desire to cut corners on safety with reduced crews and so on. That is exemplified by reference to two vessels that have been discussed recently. When the Derbyshire sank, she was manned by British officers and 44 British crew. When the Kowloon Bridge was lost, only a few weeks ago, there was a total of only 28 Indian and Turkish nationals on board.

The hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott) made reference to exemption certificates. I agree that that is not the way to proceed with regard to pilotage of our ports. The competence of foreign vessels is being questioned, and it seems that the need for independent pilotage is becoming more necessary. Vessels are under pressure to achieve a quick turn round. Many cargoes are carried in containerships, but it was not so long ago when vessels would be alongside for a few days while general cargo was winched out. There would be time for the crew to have a rest from sea-going. Things have changed. A senior captain told me quite recently that he had been obliged to be in France, Belgium and Holland within 24 hours. That is a sign of the pressures that ships are under.

There are dangers that might arise from the granting of exemption certificates. A pilot has said that on the Firth of Forth the ports are opposed to compulsory pilotage and that it is the Royal Navy that insists that pilotage on the main channel should be made compulsory. The pilotage in the area includes the main channel to Leith, and the ports and shipping agents have refused in the past to concede to the requests of pilots. That gives us some idea of what may occur in future if the Bill remains as it is.

I question what has been said about competition. I have the figures for a vessel which was in the Firth of Forth recently. The cost of pilotage is a small percentage of the total costs that were incurred. Harbour dues amounted to over 35 per cent. Of all costs, light dues were 26 per cent. and pilotage costs amounted to 4·5 per cent. Whatever corners are cut and whatever economies are made, the effect on the costs of ships coming in and out of our ports will be only slight.

I have been surprised by the broad agreement between the parties on the Bill. Following its introduction by the Under-Secretary of State, it was welcomed by the hon. Member for Wigan, who spoke from the Opposition Dispatch Box, and by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace), who spoke on behalf of the Liberal party. Reservations have been expressed, questions have been asked and caveats have been entered. But there seems to be general agreement. I cannot share in that agreement and I intend to keep a watching brief on the Bill. I hope that those who consider it in Committee will ensure that it emerges from that stage of its consideration a far better Bill than it is now.

10.8 pm

My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Thornton) referred, understandably, to his membership of a proud profession. It is because the House, Parliament and the country regard pilots with such respect that it has taken so long for the Bill to reach this stage in its consideration. Decades of debate have taken place on pilotage and it is respect for pilots, shipowners, and port operators that has resulted in a remarkably extended discussion of an incredibly complex and difficult problem.

I begin by extending praise to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, because it is remarkable that we have progressed so far. Many of us can think back over decades of discussion and debate, and there has been immense difficulty in finding a solution to a problem that did not appear to have an obvious solution. There had to be change, and my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby was good enough to say that pilots recognised that there had to be reform. He recognised that there was overmanning— that there were too many pilots—and that change had to come. However, it has been remarkably difficult to make progress, and I am sincere when I say to my hon. Friend the Minister and his colleagues who have brought the Bill this far that theirs is a quite considerable achievement.

The solution whereby the independence and self-employment status of pilots operating within a statutory framework of protection will become employment by a "competent harbour authority" is a fundamental change. It is not one that necessarily commands the support or enthusiasm of everybody, but it now commands the acceptance, albeit sometimes reluctant, of all the parties involved. That is a remarkable achievement, and I wish to put it on record that my hon. Friends have grasped the nettle and I am delighted that they have. I believe it to be a solution that will work. I believe it to be a principle upon which we can go forward and compete in this highly competitive world of port management.

There should be two principles involved. First, our harbour authorities must be as free as we can possibly make them and they should be given as much flexibility as we can allow them to compete against other ports throughout the world. Secondly, we should introduce into the transitional arrangements some flexibility to allow the changes to take place as helpfully as we can with the ultimate goal of total competitiveness.

The fundamental point is the revolution that has taken place in our harbour and ports operations in the past 20 years. Many of us have seen dramatic changes taking place. We would not have believed it possible that so much could have happened in that time. Many of us saw the dying days of the London enclosed docks and the old stevedoring practices. We have seen new ports emerge, new containerisation and new roll-on/roll-off ferries. We have seen a revolution in the ports.

We have seen a revolution, not always for the good, in the merchant fleets of the world. However, the reform of pilotage has eluded us so far.

The other thing that has eluded us is the reform of light dues. We are trying to improve our competitive position, to reduce the financial burden on our ports and on shipowners and to compete with the Europeans and other ports. The pilots are now making a sacrifice, as are the ports, which will carry much of the burden of the cost of this reform. The Government should look much more radically at the question of light dues, just as they are asking the pilots to look radically at their own services.

Even with the current rise, light dues are 18 per cent. lower in real terms than they were five years ago. That is exactly the opposite of pilotage charges.

My hon. Friend will recall that I used the word "radically". I was talking not about minor or even major increases or reductions in charges but about the need to compete with the rest of the world. It is because of that need that we have the Bill today and why we have to tackle the question of the large number of pilots—too many for the needs of the industry. We must look at the whole scene. That scene includes the anomaly of British ports and shipping into British ports incurring unacceptable charges.

I welcome the Bill. I believe that fundamentally we have got it right. If we can pass to harbour authorities the direct management responsibility for deciding where and when pilotage should be utilised, I believe that we shall have cut across a confused scene and produced a workable solution. As I have said, it is remarkable that we have reached this position at all. We must do the best job that we can even allowing for the fact that many parties do not support wholeheartedly what we are doing.

As the hour is getting late and as the principle has been generally accepted if not enthusiastically endorsed by all concerned, I want to consider a few of the transitional arrangements that I believe are necessary. First, I deeply regret the point made by my hon. Friend the Minister about his proposal on numbers and the fact that if a port opts for self-employment the pilots will, in effect, be able to determine the number of pilots who will ultimately be engaged. As I understand it, when the port opts for a self-employed agency, the port can determine with that new agency the number of pilots. However, I believe that my hon. Friend is saying that thereafter the harbour authority will not be able to reduce the number of authorised pilots. I can understand why my hon. Friend has given in to this pressure, but I think that he was wrong to do so. He is perpetuating an overmanning arrangement and that ultimately will be to the detriment of ports and the pilots.

In effect, my hon. Friend the Minister is stating that under the self-employment option the pilots can determine how many pilots there will be. Of course, if trade diminishes and there is a set contract price for that agency, presumably the pilots will dilute their own earnings. However, that is not necessarily for the good of the industry. In fact, some pilots might accept a dilution of their earnings and we might see an increase in the number of part-time pilots to the detriment of full-time pilots. My hon. Friend the Minister has gone against the principle and spirit of the legislation. However, the proposal may have no effect whatsover. I suspect that most harbour authorities will decide that, in view of this new condition, they will not choose the self-employment option. That is their decision. The new Competent Harbour authorities—I use that as a title, not an adjective—will be able to choose whether they opt for employed pilots or a self-employment position. In future, if pilots can determine their own numbers, I suspect that most harbour authorities will be persuaded to choose the employment option and I believe that on balance, that would probably be a good thing.

I hope that there will be time between now and the Committee stage for the Minister to amend that proposal slightly and allow for a review in a certain number of years or at the end of each contract. My hon. Friend has not got it right at the moment.

I want to consider estuarial pilotage. My hon. Friend the Minister courteously dealt with a number of points made to him during his speech. I hope that he will reconsider estuarial pilotage before the Committee stage. Is it right that he should now reduce the pilotage area because that does not come within the harbour limits? I am referring in this context to the Thames, the Port of London and the Medway. My hon. Friend the Minister says that, if a harbour authority chooses to extend the area, it may apply to do so. It should he the other way round. We should assume that present pilotage limits which include hazardous areas outside existing harbour authorities could apply to reduce them thereafter. I hope that my hon. Friend will consider that point and tell us in Committee why he believes that that is not the right way to proceed.

My next point concerns earnings, entitlements and security of employment of pilots. During the initial three-year period, pilots are entitled to help and to protection. Thereafter there should be a free market position. I understand that my hon. Friend has introduced arbitration procedures. I believe that they should be limited in time and universal in character. They should apply to all ports in exactly the same form and there should be no exceptions, but they should be limited in duration. I hope that the transfer arrangements will allow pilots who are surplus at one port to move to another, but that those arrangements will he voluntary and of limited duration. It is important that all these things should be of an interim nature.

There is one area in which no provision has been made for any appeal or arbitration procedure. I refer to compulsory pilotage. I believe that an aggrieved shipower who feels that compulsory pilotage is being extended beyond where it applied before should have the right to appeal to the Minister and to say that he regards that as wrong. My hon. Friend the Minister assumes that all ports will operate commercially and will not unreasonably extend compulsory pilotage; but all port authorities will not necessarily be reasonable. Some may be politically motivated, some may be over-persuaded on grounds of safety, and others may be under undue influence from a majority of pilots seeking employment. I hope that before the Committee stage my hon. Friend will consider the possibility of building in interim provisions for a three-year period whereby any extension of compulsory pilotage beyond that which prevailed before this legislation should be subject to some form of recourse or appeal to the Government.

I do not want the Government to be perpetually involved in these matters. I want them out after an initial period. I think that that is the fundamental message of the legislation. At long last we have grasped the nettle and reached a solution which allows surplus pilots to go out with dignity and with fair compensation. We have also achieved a much clearer system of management so that decisions in future will be competitive and commercial. That is very much to the good. But in the interim period of adjustment to the new situation we must have transitional arrangements which are fair to the shipowners, the pilots and the ports. We are forcing pilots to move from self-employment to compulsory employment. If necessary, we should provide help with Inland Revenue arrangements. We should provide help in all these areas. If we can get the legislation through, the Government's achievement will be great and it is worth making some concessions to all who are adversely affected to achieve that far greater goal.

I conclude as I began by congratulating the Government on their achievement in bringing the legislation thus far. I believe that it can be improved in Committee. Indeed, many of the points raised in this debate have been almost Committee points. My hon. Friend the Minister should not be surprised at that. It is a tribute to him. It shows that, broadly speaking, the House has accepted the principle of the legislation and is merely seeking to improve oil an otherwise very good proposition.

10.13 pm

I have sat through the whole debate and heard some very interesting speeches, the most informative being that of the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Thornton). I should make it clear that I am a layman anxious to voice my concern about these matters but that I am in no way an expert. I had great sympathy with the comments of the hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) about the additional burdens. He mentioned, in passing, the additional burden of light dues. I am concerned about that burden being extended by the Government to quite small fishing vessels with a lower limit of 10 m. That is a matter of considerable concern to many Scottish fishermen, especially in the more remote maritime communities.

Talking of remoteness, when the Bill was on report in the other place, in response to an intervention from Lord Kirkhill, Lord Brabazon said that the Clyde and the Forth are pretty remote from London. I shall focus my remarks on those remote waterways. The historic and dramatic changes in sea trade have damaged the Clyde more than any other waterway in the United Kingdom, with the possible and sole exception of the Mersey. Only this morning Scottish newspapers announced the lay-offs of 1,000 men in the Govan shipyard, which has just built a superb vessel for North Sea Ferries. In my constituency, the Greenock container terminal faces severe problems. I hope that the Secretary of State for Transport will grant me an interview to discuss that container terminal.

I was pleased to hear of the sensible and constructive response to the Bill from Trinity House. On first reading of the Bill, my immediate concern was that the men concerned, the pilots, deserve no less than fair and reasonable treatment during the changes and when they take up employment with those competent harbour authorities.

I ask the Secretary of State whether this is a cost-effective measure because I am worried that the Clyde ports authority could be saddled with additional financial burdens. Unlike the Mersey and the Port of London authority, the Clyde ports authority received no financial help whatever from the state, except for the assistance that is provided for the severance scheme for registered dock workers. That is the only help that we receive on the Clyde. Help is given to the English authorities that I have mentioned but denied to the Clyde. That is disgraceful and scandalous, especially in the light of the threadbare circumstances of the Greenock container terminal.

I support the observation made by the right hon. Member for the Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) about the Minches. I was told that those waters were too navigationally difficult for stern trawlers to fish for mackerll. I do not mind seeing Russian, East German and Bulgarian ships klondyking there, but they are too big for those waters. That is evidently the case with the tankers that sail through the Minches. Such tankers should be directed out of those navigationally difficult waters to the west of the islands.

I welcome clause 5 but wonder why it specifies a temporary procedure. Pilots and harbour authorities may hold conflicting views from time to time on, for example, safety matters. Where such conflicting perceptions occur, might not some form of arbitration be necessary?

I have a minor quibble about the wording of clause 6 to which I referred when I intervened in the Minister's opening remarks. I suggested that there was a typographical error in the explanatory memorandum to clause 6. I thought that it should refer to licensing approval and to the licensing of vessels. My minor quibble about clause 6 relates to the fact that two words are used, "ships" and "boats". Why not use the generic term "vessel" which might avoid some difficulties with clause 6?

My chief anxiety relates to the provision for granting exemption certificates. Will the competence of an applicant for such a certificate be judged by national criteria as well as his or her grasp of local knowledge? Will there be written examinations? How will the command of English of a foreign national be tested? Will such an applicant face both written and oral examinations? Is the Minister satisfied with the proposed surveillance of those licence holders?

There is a widespread belief among British fishermen that fishing licences granted to Spanish skippers to fish in United Kingdom waters are hawked around Vigo and used illegally by other skippers. Indeed, the skippers and donors in that Spanish port have a fairly substantial kitty, which pays the fines for Spanish skippers caught fishing illegally without a licence. Hon. Members may argue that there is a world of difference between fishing licences granted under European Economic Community regulations and these exemption certificates, but we need to know about the examination of applicants and the surveillance and monitoring of the holders of such certificates.

Naturally I am most worried about the safety of vessels going into and out of Scottish ports, especially those on the Clyde and the Forth. Both the Clyde and the Forth enjoy fine reputations for safety. That is not to say that we never witness strandings.

My hon. Friend is probably aware that last winter a gas tanker went aground in the Forth off my constituency. Does he agree that in a busy waterway like that, where many hazardous cargoes are being carried to Mossmorran, Grangemouth or Rosyth, and where other activities include fishing and oil exploration, both mariners and people living ashore must be worried about any prospect of widespread exemptions from pilotage?

My initial reaction is that no exemption certificates should be awarded to foreign nationals for the Forth or the Clyde. I shall be accused of excessive chauvinism, but in these waterways we not only have vessels carrying liquid nitrogen gas and chemicals to and from Mossmorran, but nuclear submarines. They are a familiar sight to my constituents. That is why I intervened earlier about the present stringent pilotage regulations for tankers which sail to and from a petro-chemical complex on the north shore of the Clyde. They must pass close to Holy Loch, hence the stringent regulation that no vessel over 500 tonnes can pass along that channel without a pilot.

My initial reaction is that the competent harbour authority, which for the Forth must be the Forth ports authority, must be severely critical in defining who is sufficiently competent to earn a certificate of exemption. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) said, there are potential dangers in the two waterways.

The management of safe pilotage measures must be of the highest order. Management skills exist. We have the finest pilots in Europe. Where will new entrants be found during the next decade? It is with those criticisms that I respond to the Bill.