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Marine Training and Employment (River Thames)

Volume 516: debated on Friday 22 October 2010

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Jeremy Wright.)

I am grateful to Mr Speaker for giving me this opportunity to have my first Adjournment debate in this new Parliament. I am also pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr Davey) is going to respond. I am smiling to myself a little, because I can remember the days when he first came to the House to work for our party as one of its key researchers. Clearly, the mentoring that some of us gave him has worked to good effect, and we welcome him to this responsibility and his important job in the Department.

During the election campaign, I decided, for the first time in the eight campaigns that I have fought, to set out the top 12 issues that I wanted to flag up as commitments to my constituents. One of those—No. 5 on my list—was entitled “Jobs and the river”, and in it I pledged to negotiate with the Greater London authority, the Port of London Authority and local councils

“to provide a local site for boat building and repair, giving jobs and apprenticeships to Southwark residents.”

The reason that I am starting that campaign here and now is that the riverside constituencies in London that have a tradition of providing work, and workplaces, for people in the river industries need to have that interest rekindled. The Thames should not simply pass Southwark’s northern shores; we need activity to take young people and others into training and apprenticeships, and then into work, in river-based industries.

There are some places in which people can start to acquire those skills. The London Nautical school, just over the border in the constituency of the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), serves her constituency and mine. It is a state school, a community school, with a very fine tradition, and it takes boys from the age of 11 who have an interest in marine and maritime matters, on which its curriculum places a special emphasis. It produces people who go off to work in the Royal Navy and the merchant navy, as well as into all other walks of life. South Bank university, Southwark college and the other further education colleges also provide some of the necessary engineering skills. There is no sense, however, that we are producing people with the skills to work on the river or that we are trying to recruit from the local work force to do the jobs on the river.

You may think, Mr Deputy Speaker, that the days of glory of trade and work on the Thames have gone because there is not as much bustle outside the windows of the Palace of Westminster as the pictures and prints portray, but the reality is that the port of London is hugely successful and the tidal Thames is getting busier, not less busy. There is not only more tourist traffic, but more commercial traffic. It is interesting to note that there is much more commercial traffic doing things that are environmentally good, such as taking waste from one part of London to another, which used to be carried on the roads but was not well received when it was transported in that way.

There are likely to be major pieces of work ahead related to the river. First, there are the plans of Thames Water to have a new mains sewage plant installed across London, which will involve a lot of digging, some of it controversial when it comes to my constituency, but I shall not go into any more detail on that for now. The work for the 2012 Olympics is also producing a lot of construction traffic, much of it using the river. Boats come up and down with materials and products and then take waste and other things out of the way.

The port of London handles 50 million metric tonnes a year; it is the largest port in southern England. About 2 million tonnes move within the Thames area, moving from one part of the river to another. There are links to business on the river—in the City as well as local firms—involving 46,000 full-time jobs; and there are 70 working port facilities on the river, 25 of which are west of the Thames barrier. There are 4 million passenger journeys made on the river every year, and nearly half all the traffic on inland waterways in the UK is on the Thames. That shows that this debate is not relevant only to me and my parliamentary neighbours—or to those of us who, like my hon. Friend the Minister, have the privilege of representing riverside constituencies—as the issues are of national as well as regional and local relevance.

The Thames will get busier in the future. The building of the Thames tunnel from 2013 will mean an extra 100 boats. Then there is the building of Crossrail, bringing the need to transport all the soil dug out of the ground. Further developments are planned in Charlton, for example, and Sainsbury’s has a large distribution centre on the river and it is thinking about opening up the wharves nearby to allow for the distribution of goods to shops along the river. Then there is the possibility of a dedicated cruise terminal near Greenwich. If we are to service all that, we will need new boatyards and repair facilities on the Thames.

I want to deal with two reports, which I commend to the Minister. I hope that he will take what they say away with him—not just for his own Department, but for other Departments with an interest. The issues straddle the Departments. My hon. Friend is good enough to reply to my debate on behalf of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, but the Department for Transport and the Department for Communities and Local Government are also interested.

I would like to share with the Minister some of the conclusions from a report entitled “Assessment of Boatyard Facilities on the River Thames”, which was produced in 2007. It points out that there has been an

“increase of 20% in the number of vessels registered”

for commercial use between 1999 and 2006, but:

“The availability of boatyards in Greater London has remained largely unchanged since 2000”.

The London plan seeks to protect boatyards against development for housing and other uses, but there has often been a struggle about that—for obvious reasons, as these are valuable bits of real estate on the river, where property developers have an interest in building luxury flats.

The report also informs us:

“Only two boatyards regularly build boats”,

but a larger range and number of boatyard facilities are available for private boat owners than for commercial operators—and there are 16 boatyards working for the private owners.

What we need, and what the report recommended just three years ago, is, first, a

“site for a new boatyard to maintain passenger boats, support vessels and river piers”.

Secondly, we need action taken

“to improve the availability of facilities for emergency repair”—

an issue to which I shall return in a few seconds. Thirdly, the report stresses the importance of having repair facilities here, because otherwise boat building and boat repair have to go from the Thames and round to the east coast. By definition, that takes a while—it is a journey of several days—and has the risk that some vessels are not licensed for that sort of North sea journey, although they are licensed and equipped to work on the Thames.

Another recommendation three years ago was that there should be an

“opportunity to link the provision of new boatyard facilities with training in marine industry skills”.

The report also stated:

“The opportunity for the public sector activities and facilities in maintaining boats and passenger vessels should be explored”,

with some of the private developments that may come on stream. It also recommended:

“Opportunities should be taken to provide additional facilities for private boat owners in the redevelopment of Thames side sites”.

I know the pressures that exist. When I was first elected—more than a quarter of a century ago—I used to be able to walk along the river and see boatyards, boatbuilding and boat repair in my constituency around the Surrey docks. Yes, we have marinas, at Greenland dock and South dock, but we do not have the repair and maintenance facilities. There is nowhere that a 16-year-old can go to learn the skills, which the Thames and Britain need, of working on boats on the river. Strangely, no facilities exist locally to carry out emergency repairs on the river to rudders and propellers. People therefore use the traditional method of beaching the boat at low tide and doing the repair there. Self-evidently, that is not nearly as satisfactory.

The Thames has three working boatyards, but the biggest boats cannot use them. The largest passenger boats must go to East Anglia—to places such as Lowestoft. There are dry docks in use, small boatyards in my hon. Friend the Minister’s area of, Kingston and Richmond, some Thames repair facilities in Gravesend and the Port of London authority facility in Denton, and a dry docking facility that has been retained. However, that is not enough by a long way, given the big businesses that still exist, such as Tate and Lyle at Silvertown, which was the largest sugar refinery in the world. There is an eminent firm based in my constituency called City Cruises, run by two of the great protagonists in redevelopment along the river, Gary and Rita Beckwith, to whom I pay tribute for their work generally and for pressing me and others to do something about producing a new facility. There is Thames Clippers based in Trinity Buoy wharf, and Thames Luxury Charters based on HMS Belfast in my constituency. An integrated approach is needed from central Government and local government.

If I can delay the hon. Lady a moment, I will make another point.

We need to make sure that the price of development land does not price out such activities. Therefore, there is a planning issue for central Government and local Government. When the localism Bill is introduced later in the Session, we need to ensure that central Government and the London government have the necessary powers. We need to ensure that the PLA has the powers to retain yards, if it needs them, and that we do not lose any more sites.

Another point—I think this is the matter on which the hon. Lady wants to intervene—is that we do not have enough qualified people with local navigational knowledge as boatmen on the river. Therefore, during times of peak tourist demand, not enough people are available to run all the boats on the river. In this age, we must not introduce regulations that make it impossible for those who have traditionally worked on the river to retain their qualifications. We must not lose their skills.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman, my friend and constituency neighbour, on his chairmanship of the successful Mayor’s Thames festival. I agree with all his comments, and I am particularly concerned about the seemingly unnecessary extra regulation, which is being interpreted by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. Skilled, experienced boat masters, whose standards of safety should make us proud, are being asked to go and take examinations again. For many of them, that is quite insulting. Will he join me in urging the Minister to ask the MCA to engage constructively with Thames boat masters to reach a solution that preserves their existing skills and experience and does not subject them to something that is not legally necessary and does not happen in other inland waterways?

I will not repeat the hon. Lady’s point: I hope that the Minister will take up the matter with colleagues across Government. I am not arguing for a deskilled or less skilled work force—I was my constituency’s MP at the time the Marchioness sank, and the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), whom I also much respect on these matters, also remembers those days. We need a highly skilled work force, but we also need to use the skills that are historically acquired, because the Thames is a dangerous river to work on.

People sometimes underestimate the strength of the tides and currents, which are extremely dangerous and can be fatal, as was seen at the time of the Marchioness and has been seen on occasions since. It is vital that we retain our current work force, but also build a new generation to take the jobs.

I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests with regard to the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers. The RMT has learned that some boat masters are being tested on parts of the river on which they never sail. It seems that this is being used almost as an income earner for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, rather than a genuine new regime for ensuring safety.

I should be happy to talk to the Government about that, along with the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Vauxhall. No one is saying that there should not be an assurance that people have the skills that will enable them to continue to do the job. The Port of London authority tells me that the tests are not full-blown examinations, but oral checks and so forth. We are not asking for a draconian change in the rules or any lessening of safety provision, but we need to ensure that we do not lose the skills that are required. My grandfather was a sailor—he had sailed since he was 16—and I know that as much can be learned from experience as from books, manuals and maps.

I commend to the Minister—I will ask his Department to look at it, and to respond to me—a proposal for a London marine hub, which builds on the Government’s policy of using our ports to develop new industries. One of the potential sites is Deptford. City Cruises says that the hub would give us

“strategic infrastructure… a cluster of marine skills and expertise which can develop into a centre of excellence”,

along with

“employment creation in an area of London”

—an area that has traditionally suffered from high unemployment—

“where there are… few new businesses offering skilled and semi-skilled manual work”.

That would allow the experience of the old generation to be retained and shared with the new generation. I hope that the Government will respond positively by examining the proposal with the Greater London authority, the Port of London authority and others.

The Government are very committed—as I am—to ensuring that we give much better skills to people who do not aspire to be academics or acquire doctorates, but have manual skills and can use their hands along with their brains in the interests of the economy and the city. We, in boroughs such as mine, are certainly willing to support such initiatives, using our universities and further education colleges.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will see this as the beginning of a dialogue that will, sooner rather than later, provide opportunities on the river for people to be given training and work, while also helping the river business by providing the facilities that we have lost, or are in danger of losing, from the Thames, so that it can become not just a great river to look at and a great symbol of London, but a great working river once more, bringing jobs, skills and success to the London and British economies.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) on securing the debate. It is typical of him that, having made a promise to his constituents at the time of the general election, he is already mounting a very effective campaign. I hope that, working with the Mayor of London and others, he will be able to achieve his aims.

It has always been a privilege to work with my hon. Friend. I have campaigned with him in his constituency, and it is quite humbling to knock on doors and find that, apparently, everyone knows Simon and has been helped by him. He is held in huge regard by his constituents, and, of course, by many in the House. When I worked as an adviser to the Liberal Democrat party before being elected to Parliament, I worked with him on issues such as the environment and employment. It therefore comes as no surprise to me that he is currently campaigning for employment on the River Thames for his constituents.

I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me if I cannot answer every point that he has raised, not least because some were directed at the Department for Transport—although I shall try to assist to a small extent—but also because I am standing in for the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes). However, I hope that I can reassure him about some of the issues that he mentioned, and, indeed, encourage him in his campaign. As he said, I represent a London constituency that borders the Thames. Indeed, I live five minutes from the Thames, where there is a small boatyard, Harts Boatyard, as well as a firm called Turk Launches and many pleasure and leisure activities.

My hon. Friend’s point about the river’s potential for improving our economy was extremely well made. I share his interest in how we can harness the river's considerable potential to fuel economic growth and provide jobs, especially for our young people, in the marine industries. As he said, the Thames already plays a significant role in the economy of London and the south-east. The port of London, for example, is estimated to contribute £3.7 billion a year to the economy. As he said, the port handles over 50 million tonnes of cargo, from fuel to food, cars to containers. It sustains people in a diverse range of employment—manufacturing workers, cargo handlers, drivers, warehouse staff and ships' agents, to name but a few.

In addition, the Thames is growing in importance as a means of transporting commuters and indeed tourists around London. According to Transport for London, the number of passenger journeys has risen substantially in just two years—from 2.75 million in 2006-07 to 3.9 million in 2008-09. That confirms the need for investment in skills, so that that growing activity can be serviced in the way my hon. Friend talked about.

I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that there are ambitious plans to increase the Thames area's already substantial economic contribution. The London Gateway scheme, headed by DP World, is delivering £1.5 billion of inward investment to build a new deep-sea container port and Europe's largest logistics park. The development, at Stanford-le-Hope in Essex, is the most significant port development in the UK in the past 20 years. London Gateway is the single largest job-creation project in the UK today. It is expected to deliver 36,000 direct and indirect jobs, and contribute around £3.2 billion to the UK economy. Those are developments that I am sure my hon. Friend will welcome.

It is essential that we equip people, particularly our young people, with the skills that they will need to take advantage of those and other job opportunities in the marine industries along the Thames. World-class skills are the bedrock of sustainable economic growth. That was why I was pleased that in the comprehensive spending review this week the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced increased funding for apprenticeships. The Government will boost spending on adult apprenticeships by up to £250 million by the end of the CSR period to create an additional 75,000 apprenticeship places. I hope and believe that the creation of new jobs and apprenticeships in marine industries in the River Thames basin can benefit from that investment.

The Maritime Skills Alliance, a sector body that works to increase training opportunities within the sector, has recently developed a level 2 maritime apprenticeship. Many of the MSA's members operate along the Thames and it will be encouraging them to offer the apprenticeship to new recruits.

Port Skills and Safety, the industry body that includes the Port of London Authority among its members, is developing a level 2 stevedoring apprenticeship, which it hopes to implement soon. North West Kent college, based at Gravesend, will be a major provider of these new maritime apprenticeships, as well as offering bespoke courses to meet the needs of specific companies. Of course we should not forget the 2012 Olympics and the opportunities that the games will create. Transport for London expects that river transport will play an important role in taking spectators to and from venues. All those opportunities and developments within the apprenticeship sector will speak to my hon. Friend’s desire to provide those skills to his constituents, so that they can have jobs along the Thames.

I am encouraged and it is helpful to get these things on the record. I hope that colleagues in Government will be positive about promoting and boosting those things. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister might reflect on the fact that one of the things that we still need to do is to provide sites for shipbuilding and boatbuilding. Most of the vessels—the Queen Elizabeth was launched by the Queen the other day—are built abroad now, rather than in this country. If we have the skills and traditions, with the space available, we should seek to build more of our own river-based and other ships here, rather than having to buy them abroad and only maintaining them here.

Although I cannot promise my hon. Friend that we will have a rebirth of the shipbuilding industry on the Thames to the extent and capacity that he has talked about, I share his view that we must support companies that are connected with those issues—repair stations, boatbuilders and manufacturers—so that we can develop that skilled work force. As my hon. Friend is probably aware, the Greater London Authority is working with the Port of London Authority to identify sites for new boatyards, and although they may not be of sufficient size and capacity to accommodate international ocean-going liners, we certainly hope and expect they will be successful in delivering new sites.

The National Apprenticeship Service has identified manufacturing and engineering as two of its target sectors. It will be working with employers and training providers to make additional apprenticeship places available where there is local demand both in the Thames area and nationally. These various initiatives are a good start, but more can be done, which is what my hon. Friend is striving to achieve. I therefore welcome the news that next week NAS London, the GLA and the Sector Skills Council for Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies are meeting to discuss exactly this issue. My hon. Friend’s debate is therefore timely.

Local authorities also have an important role to play in working with local businesses to generate new economic opportunities for their areas. That is why we are introducing local enterprise partnerships, putting in place a structure that will support this vital collaboration and enable boroughs such as Southwark to work with their businesses to focus on economic priorities, including unlocking the untapped economic potential of the Thames.

My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) talked about boatmen’s licences, and I know from discussions I have had with my own constituents who work on the Thames that there has been concern about the changes to the regulations in recent years. My hon. Friend and the hon. Lady will know that these changes arose in part from a need to react to changes in a European Union directive, and this has not been without its challenges. It would be wrong for me to go into too much detail because I am not the Minister with responsibility, but I will ask colleagues at the Department for Transport to respond in detail to the concerns raised. I am not sure whether there is an easy or quick solution, but the fundamental point that has been made is that we must not allow regulations to get in the way of our making sure our young people can have careers on the river, and navigate its dangerous waters safely in the service of Londoners and the many people who visit our capital city. Everyone knows that we have to put health and safety right at the heart of our strategy for using the Thames—my hon. Friend better than anybody given the work he did after the tragedy of the sinking of the Marchioness. We must work with trade unions and local authorities to try to ensure that we have a sufficient supply of boatmen who can provide that critical service. Without their skills we will not be able to make the most of the economic potential of the river; they are central to our strategy for unlocking that. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to focus on the skills element, therefore.

It is of relevance that the Government are taking bold steps on apprenticeships. We have made it a central part of a very difficult spending review to ensure that apprenticeships, further education and adult education remain as strong as possible despite the difficult financial situation. That speaks to a number of agendas including social justice as well as the one my hon. Friend talked about. He has always strongly argued that the FE sector often provides training and education opportunities that other parts of our education system do not, in that, along with adult education, it gives people a second chance. He is right to highlight that.

I hope that I have given my hon. Friend at least some cause for hope. I and my colleagues across the coalition will be very happy to work with him to try to make sure that his campaign is successful. The coalition is committed to building the economy and spreading economic opportunity both on the Thames and across London and the country.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.