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Pilotage Exemption Certificates

Volume 114: debated on Thursday 9 April 1987

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

I beg to move amendment No. 38, in page 8, line 11, leave out 'shall' and insert 'may'.

With this it will be convenient to take Government amendment No. 39 and amendment No. 40, in page 8, line 42, at end insert—

'(4A) A competent harbour authority may, on granting a pilotage exemption certificate, restrict the use of that certificate, having regard to the carriage by ship or specific goods or substances which are reasonably believed to be dangerous or harmful.'.

This amendment refers to exemption certificates. I should say at the outset that the proposed change—the word "shall" to "may"—is anything but a semantic change. It is a change of considerable importance. It is a change which is in the interests of the competent harbour authorities.

As the clause is written, the competent harbour authority will not be able to refuse the issue of a pilotage exemption certificate, for whatever reason, provided it is satisfied as to an applicant's skill, experience and local knowledge and, where it appears necessary that the applicant's knowledge of English is sufficient. It will not be able to exercise any discretion, no matter what the circumstances are.

One of the effects of the amendment will be to expose our coastal and short-sea ships to some of the influences that have already decimated our deep-sea merchant fleet and put British officers' jobs at risk on, for example, ferries which operate around our shores. It will result in an undoubted reduction in efficiency and safety standards. As far as we are aware, British ships are not afforded similar benefits on the Continent, America or elsewhere in the world. Indeed, they are not in the accepted sense allowed to trade on the coast elsewhere.

In response to this amendment in the other place the Minister, among other things, said:
"As to allowing CHAs to have discretion in issuing certificates to vessels carrying dangerous cargoes, I do not agree that a CHA should be allowed to restrict the issue of certificates for such vessels since the cargo has little bearing on the competence of the master to navigate his vessel … To allow them to be witheld on any grounds other than the competence of the master or mate involved means that unnecessary costs have to be borne by shipping … The CHA may apply a direction to all ships or to all ships of a certain description and this will allow a CHA to take into account considerations such as whether a vessel is carrying passengers or hazardous cargoes." — [Official Report, House of Lords, 12 February 1987; Vol 484, c.838.]
I shall deal with those three points in reverse order. First, it is misleading to state, in the context of the issuance of pilotage certificates, that a CHA will be able to take into account considerations such as whether a vessel is carrying passengers or hazardous cargoes. It will not. The use of the word "shall" removes any discretion in the matter.

Secondly, there are many grounds to be considered other than the competence of the master. For example, in an economic sense, in the smallish ports where there is an ongoing but quite irregular demand for pilotage services, it may be that a certain volume of work is required for pilotage so that it is not prohibitively expensive for the few ships requiring it.

On practical grounds, there are many ports where the mix of ships is very large, varying from fishing vessels to very large crude carriers, and where the channels are narrow. For a port to operate efficiently, ideally ships must not be delayed. Large vessels need so much room to manouevre and are so slow to respond to initiated actions that it is frequently beyond the comprehension of small ship masters. To have to issue pilotage exemption certificates under such circumstances may marginally reduce the cost for the small ships, but will reduce the overall efficiency of the port and possibly increase the costs for the large ship. That is so because in this case there would he no alternative for the harbourmaster but to use his negative powers and to stop either the large ship from moving or several smaller ones. That is already happening in some ports where ships are exempted through size, or whatever, from the requirement to take pilots.

Thirdly, it may very well be that the cargo has little bearing on the competence of the master to handle his vessel. However, because handling one's vessel competently and efficiently in the confines of a port requires full knowledge of the handling characteristics of all the vessels as they interact with each other, when the consequences of an incident on life in the urban areas and the environment are high, the modest cost of a belt and braces attitude is a must. Recent tragedies have demonstrated how familiarity in the marine environment can end in disaster.

Mr. Roderick Macleod, the chairman of Lloyd's Register of Shipping, said recently:
"Even if absolute safety were achievable it could not be assumed that the commercial world would be able or willing to accept the cost of achieving it."
On some ships, masters may serve continuously for six months or even a year without enough officers. They may work 12 hours to 16 hours a day. That leads to tiredness, and competent harbour authorities should have the ability to exercise discretion to take into consideration the manning levels on the bridges of ships. The clause as drafted will prevent that.

Ship regimes can and do become very insular and are rarely if ever the subject of checks. That can quickly lead to bad practices. It is in the interests of the shippers and of the harbour authorities that they should have this authority and discretion, which is denied to them under the Bill. I believe that it is in the interests of everyone connected with pilotage that the amendment be accepted.

10.15 pm

The amendment should commend itself to the Committee. The applicants for an exemption certificate should be subjected to a tough examination. Such applicants must have what has been called a "reasonable grasp" of English, and must possess local knowledge. How are they to acquire that local knowledge?

The clause contains other worrying features. The honorary secretary of the Scottish Guild of Pilots wrote to me to express his concern, and that of his colleagues, about the clause. He said:
"Ship manning continues to be reduced in both numbers and, in some instances, standards, and yet new proposed legislation makes it incumbent upon CHAS to grant exemption certificates to bona fide masters and first mates of any nationality of any ship of any flag provided such persons comply with standards which must not be unduly onerous."
I believe that those standards should be tough and onerous before a certificate is granted to an applicant. Mr. Harrigan continues:
"Many masters and first mates have, on arrival in pilotage areas, been on duty for many hours often in adverse weather and are tired and stressed and should not be required to undertake pilotage duties."
That underlines what was said by the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Thornton).

When there is a dangerous cargo and a competent harbour authority has no real control over the working conditions of masters and mates of vessels—foreign or domestic — the authority should have the discretion to introduce tough standards by which to assess applicants, and the discretion to refuse applicants a certificate when they do not come up to those — rightly tough — standards.

I wish to speak to amendment No. 40, which stands in my name. It echoes the words of the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman), to the extent that it seeks to substitute the word "may" for "shall", which will allow the competent harbour authorities to take account of some of the dangerous substances that may come into their harbours. That would be welcome, and amendment No. 40 was designed specifically with that purpose in mind. It is clear that in many areas in which exemptions might be allowed there are hazardous substances, such as nuclear waste, oil products and gaseous products, all of which, if something goes wrong, are hazardous to the surrounding community. It is only right that, if a harbour authority is granting an exemption certificate, it should be able to exclude its use in circumstances where the master or mate is in control of a ship which is carrying such substances. It is an important consideration and I hope, somewhat forlornly, that the Minister might be able to respond to it positively.

Government amendment No. 39 is designed to meet the circumstances which were put to the Minister by the Orkney Islands council. Under subsection (3) it should be possible, when a direction is made, for an exemption certificate to be issed to particular ships in particular areas. Having anticipated the nature of the amendment, I wish to express my appreciation of it.

I said on Second Reading that clause 8 and the exemption certificates caused my right hon. and hon. Friends and I some difficulty. As the clause is constructed, it is unacceptable. I listened with great interest to the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Thornton) and I agree with every word that he uttered about the certificates.

In the form in which the Bill was first drafted, before it went to another place, some or the exemption provisions were even more slackly drawn than they are now. It is perhaps a reflection of my inability to get a grip on the Bill in the short time that I have had available to me that I have been unable to table amendments to the exemption provisions.

Those of us who have been in this place for a reasonable period will recognise readily that "may" and "shall" amendments often produce filibustering, or at least prolonged debate, but I shall not use that tactic this evening. In this instance I believe that we are right in what we are doing.

If the hon. Gentleman had listened to the hon. Member for Crosby, he would know exactly what we are doing. He has only recently entered the Chamber and now he asks what we are doing. Some of us have been in the Chamber since 6.15 pm discussing many important issues. I think that the hon. Gentleman should be a little less forthright in his sedentary interjections.

We are discussing whether a competent harbour authority may, on the flimsiest of excuses, grant pilotage exemption certificates. Do we know what we are talking about when we talk about the granting of pilotage exemption certificates? The reality is that masters or mates will be able to bring ships into any harbour or port in the United Kingdom, provided that they satisfy some spurious exemption provisions that are encapsulated in the Bill. I do not consider that to be a sound principle.

In case the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Sir J. Biggs-Davison) does not know, I happen to have had some experience of these matters. For many years I was a quartermaster to pilots as the ships on which I served entered and left the United Kingdom. I was also a quartermaster on ships as they entered and left foreign ports. For a fairly long period I served on a ship that sailed from Liverpool to Montreal. The St. Lawrence river is certainly longer than any river in Britain. There are four pilots on the St. Lawrence river going from the top all the way down to Montreal, and there are pilots who go further down the St. Lawrence seaway and into the great lakes.

When I kept watch on that river—no matter how many times I went down the same stretch—the pilotage, the directions and the orders from the pilots were different on every occasion, because different activities were taking place on the river; dredging, silting, and so on. The circumstances are constantly changing. Nothing is ever the same on any two occasions. No matter how many times —as a master, a mate or a helmsman—a sailor enters or leaves the harbour, weather and other conditions are always different. It is therefore essential that someone aboard the ship is conversant with the differences obtaining at any given time, and I believe that person should be a qualified pilot.

As I said on Second Reading, I do not wish to put any obstruction in the way of those who already have exemption certificates. Of course, some people, such as ferry operators who go in and out of harbours every day of the week, should not be inhibited. That regime would continue under the amendment. However, it seems to me — and a qualified pilot would agree — that the Committee should avoid opening it up to any flag and any person.

If there is no pilot, the shipowners or the port operators may save some money. I assure the hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) that I am concerned about shipping costs and about the deterioration of the British merchant fleet. But if we really want to save money, we need not do it by introducing this measure. We could save port authorities and shipowners some money by persuading the Government to do away with light dues, which cost the ports and shipping the massive levy of £48 million. Light dues could be paid for through the central Exchequer. It is clear that the Exchequer has a considerable amount to spend, because the Chancellor gave away £3 million in the Budget a couple of weeks ago.

This is a serious matter. As I have said this evening and on Second Reading, responsible masters and first mates could easily be given exemption certificates to bring ships into United Kingdom ports. Others, however, should not have the exemption as the Bill describes it.

The tragedy of the Herald of Free Enterprise is on all our minds. In my capacity as the official Opposition spokesman for maritime affairs, I received an unsolicited letter from the wife of the serving master of one of those ferries—not the Herald of Free Enterprise. The letter set out in detail the number of hours that that lady's husband worked when he was on duty. The hours are long and arduous, and in some circumstances could prove dangerous. We may return to that subject if we debate another merchant shipping Bill. If that is happening to a British master operating one of our ferries on the Continent, the same conditions could apply to others on ro-ro ships operating between the United Kingdom and the Continent or the Mediterranean.

I know about the hours, because I worked them. Seamen, masters and mates performing their duties between one port and another can go for literally 24 hours without sleep. Are we going to give exemption certificates to masters who are working under such strenuous conditions when entering and leaving United Kingdom ports? We should not do that. The word "may" should be changed to "shall", because that would strengthen the Bill.

10.30 pm

I agree with the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott) that much of the Second Reading debate focused on pilotage exemption certificates. Therefore, the Committee knows that the Government do not accept that the proposal involves any risk to safety.

A competent harbour authority has to satisfy itself that the master's skill, experience and, above all, local knowledge are sufficient to enable him to pilot the ship within the authority's harbour. The master must be capable of bringing in the ship as safely as a local pilot. If the competent harbour authority is not satisfied that he can safely do so, it will not issue a certificate. I emphasise that local knowledge is one of the points about which a competent harbour authority is required to satisfy itself. A master will therefore have to visit a port sufficiently regularly to obtain that knowledge before he will be given a certificate.

Clause 8(5) provides:
"A pilotage exemption certificate shall not remain in force for more than one year".
Therefore, a master has to meet those stringent requirements at least every year.

It has been suggested that foreign masters should be required to take on pilots as a substitute for reserving cabotage. The hon. Member for Wigan stressed that point on Second Reading. However, that would be an ineffective way of discriminating to protect cabotage. One certain consequence is that it would raise the cost of trading in and out of our ports.

The hon. Gentleman says that that is nonsense, but he did not deny on Second Reading that certain costs would be involved. It is a question whether he thinks that the costs connected with that part of the argument would help to reserve cabotage.

Amendment No. 40 proposes that the use of certificates should be restricted if a ship is carrying dangerous goods. We believe that only in very exceptional circumstances can it be argued that a ship needs both a master who is totally familiar with the port and a local pilot. Cases of that kind are covered by subsection (3), which gives the Secretary of State power to relieve a competent harbour authority of the normal obligation to issue a certificate in exceptional circumstances. Apart from those circumstances, we believe that, if unnecessary port costs are to be avoided, there must be a general obligation on the competent harbour authorities to issue pilotage exemption certificates to masters who meet the requirements that they set for their ports.

Subsection (1)(b) refers to a sufficient knowledge of English. Would applicants be given both an oral and a written examination?

That would he up to the competent harbour authorities. Their views about testing differ, but in order to meet the statutory requirements they have to satisfy themselves that knowledge of the English language is adequate. How they should test is left to their discretion. I visited Harwich recently, and my impression was that the criteria will be much more strictly examined than they have been in the past.

Rather than accept amendment No. 40, the Minister said that clause 8(3) allowed the Secretary of State to give directions that excluded the use of exemption certificates. However, my understanding of clause 8(3) is that it relates to unusual navigational hazards rather than to substances carried by vessels. Is that an unreasonable distinction to make?

Clause 8(33) also deals with dangerous substances. No doubt we shall discuss clause 8(3) in detail shortly. However, I stress that matters are covered both in terms of hazards and dangerous substances.

Government amendment No. 39 makes it clear that, where the Secretary of State issues a direction to cover unusual hazards in the harbour, the competent harbour authority will still be able to issue certificates if it is satisfied about the master's capability. However, it will not be obliged to do so.

I ask the Committee to reject amendments Nos. 38 and 40 and to approve Government amendment No. 39.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 12, Noes 79.

Division No. 145]

[10.35 pm


Carlile, Alexander (Montg'y)Skinner, Dennis
Golding, Mrs LlinSteel, Rt Hon David
Haynes, FrankStott, Roger
Howells, GeraintWallace, James
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Kirkwood, ArchyTellers for the Ayes:
Nellist, DavidMr. Malcolm Thornton and Dr. Norman A. Godman.
Powell, Raymond (Ogmore)


Amess, DavidEyre, Sir Reginald
Ancram, MichaelFallon, Michael
Arnold, TomFavell, Anthony
Ashby, DavidFenner, Dame Peggy
Atkins, Rt Hon Sir H.Forth, Eric
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)Freeman, Roger
Baldry, TonyGoodhart, Sir Philip
Batiste, SpencerGregory, Conal
Biggs-Davison, Sir JohnGriffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N)
Boscawen, Hon RobertGround, Patrick
Bottomley, PeterHamilton, Hon A. (Epsom)
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)Hargreaves, Kenneth
Brinton, TimHarris, David
Bryan, Sir PaulHawkins, Sir Paul (N'folk SW)
Burt, AlistairHeseltine, Rt Hon Michael
Butterfill, JohnHind, Kenneth
Cash, WilliamHowarth, Gerald (Cannock)
Colvin, MichaelHunter, Andrew
Cope, JohnJackson, Robert
Couchman, JamesJessel, Toby
Dorrell, StephenJones, Robert (Herts W)
Durant, TonyKershaw, Sir Anthony

Lawrence, IvanSpicer, Michael (S Worcs)
Lennox-Boyd, Hon MarkStanbrook, Ivor
Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)Stern, Michael
Malone, GeraldStevens, Lewis (Nuneaton)
Marlow, AntonyTaylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Maude, Hon FrancisThompson, Donald (Calder V)
Mitchell, David (Hants NW)Thompson, Patrick (N'ich N)
Moate, RogerTracey, Richard
Moynihan, Hon C.Twinn, Dr Ian
Neubert, MichaelWaddington, Rt Hon David
Norris, StevenWakeham, Rt Hon John
Percival, Rt Hon Sir IanWheeler, John
Proctor, K. HarveyWiggin, Jerry
Rathbone, TimWolfson, Mark
Rhys Williams, Sir BrandonYeo, Tim
Ridsdale, Sir Julian
Ryder, RichardTellers for the Noes:
Sainsbury, Hon TimothyMr. David Lightbown and Mr. Michael Portillo.
Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Spencer, Derek

Question accordingly negatived.

Amendment made: No. 39, in page 8, line 34, leave out subsection (3) and insert—

'(3) If the Secretary of State is satisfied, on application by a competent harbour authority, that it is appropriate to do so by reason of the unusual hazards involved in shipping movements within its harbour, he may direct that during such period (not exceeding three years) as he may specify, not withstanding that the authority is satisfied as mentioned in subsection (1) above, it may refuse to grant pilotage exemption certificates under that subsection.'. — [Mr. Michael Spicer.]

Clause 8, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 9 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

10.45 pm