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Port of Southampton

Volume 538: debated on Wednesday 18 January 2012

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mike Penning.)

I am grateful to Mr Speaker for granting this debate quickly, which, as will become clear, is appropriate. There are pressing issues facing the future of the port of Southampton that have to be resolved literally in the next few months if the full future of the port is to be secured. I am grateful for the strong and cross-party support here today from hon. Members from across Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.

May I say briefly that there is another issue about the future of the port of Southampton, which relates to investment in the cruise terminal and an application by Liverpool for a cruise terminal? That is not the subject of my remarks today. The arguments are well rehearsed, we believe in fair competition and the Minister is due to make an announcement on this in the fairly near future.

I want to concentrate on a different issue that is of equal importance to the future of Southampton and, in this case, critical to the future of the container terminal there. The debate has huge local, but also national, significance. Frankly, it presents a rare opportunity in the current economic climate, because a private sector company, Associated British Ports, is offering—indeed, is desperate—to invest £150 million of purely private money in infrastructure in the coming year. That investment is not just important for Southampton; it is vital for the infrastructure of UK plc. A study for Marine South East estimated that the contribution of the port of Southampton to the UK’s economy was £1.75 billion a year. Southampton is the fourth largest port in the UK, and the container terminal, operated by DP World, employs approximately 1,000 people. It is estimated that four jobs in the wider local economy are dependent on each of those jobs in the terminal.

Currently, most investment in UK infrastructure depends on public money for pump-priming, partnership and initial investment. However, ABP’s planned investment in Southampton is entirely private—it does not depend at all on matching investment. That is such good news that one might wonder why we need to have a debate in Westminster Hall. The problem is that over several years the project has suffered from entirely avoidable delay—mainly, it has to be said, at the hands of Government agencies, and partly due to the action of rival port operators who have exploited mistakes made by the Government machine to mount a legal challenge that is not in the public interest, but is purely to pursue their own commercial, competitive advantage.

Hon. Members from Hampshire and the Isle of Wight have come together today to urge the Minister to do everything he can, with his colleagues across Government, to ensure that there are no further delays. I am grateful for the briefing I have received from ABP, DP World and Unite, the union. All have exactly the same position on what needs to be done. Even in the days since requesting the debate, there has been some progress, but the project is so time-critical that any further slips, delays or mishaps—anyone taking their eye off the ball—could do immense damage.

Let me set the scene and the history. As I have said, the port is immensely successful. Productivity is high and Southampton is in the right geographical location for China and other south and east Asian trade, but the container business is changing. Some 13 years ago, the typical vessel was 4,000 TEUs—twenty-foot equivalent unit, which is the standard measure. Recently commissioned ships already in service are typically 9,000 to 10,000 TEUs, but in the next two years, ships as large as 16,000 TEUs will come into service. This is happening right across the industry with all the major carriers, and it certainly applies to Southampton’s major customers: the CMA CGM organisation and the G6, an alliance of Hapag Lloyd, OOCL, NYK, APL, MOL and Hyundai Merchant Marine. They have come together precisely to optimise the deployment of new and larger vessels.

Southampton can accommodate the larger, super-sized container ships if—but only if—it can reconstruct its existing container berths, known as 201 and 202, and carry out more extensive dredging both nearer the berth and the wider channel. That is what gives rise to the £150 million investment at the heart of the debate. Those ships are coming into service now and in the next two years, so the investment is time-critical. The risk is obvious—if there is any further delay and Southampton cannot offer its customers the capacity they want, business will be lost.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing the debate, which is as important to my constituents as it is to his and to those of other hon. Members here today. He rightly says that any further delay could be fatal. Will he confirm that the September 2012 to March 2013 “piling window”, as it is known, is the critical date window that we are tied to here? Any further delay would result in an additional 12-month delay in doing the work that is needed out in the channel.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I will explain the reason why that September to March period is so critical. For entirely legitimate environmental reasons, that activity cannot take place all year round, so we could miss that deadline. As I will say in a moment, contracts need to be let ahead of September if work is going to be started in September—that is critical. If it is not done by next year, the port clearly will be unable to offer the capacity it would like to for the latter part of 2012 and, in particular, 2013.

This debate should not be necessary. The need for investment was identified in a scoping study submitted by ABP to the Marine and Fisheries Agency, the predecessor of today’s Marine Management Organisation, in 2007—in what most people regard as perfectly good time to get the necessary approvals and to get the work under way. In January 2008, following consultation with various bodies, the MMO issued a formal scoping opinion that advised ABP of the scope and content of the required environmental impact assessment. That point is crucial, because not for the last time in this process, ABP was advised and directed to take a particular course of action, and it complied fully. ABP submitted its application on 15 December 2008. The applications were advertised using a form of words directed by the MMO. In February 2009, issues were raised in consultation by Natural England, the Environment Agency and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and, I understand, successfully resolved. However, in December 2009, nearly two years after the MMO’s original scoping opinion, the MMO then decided that the public notice it had supplied was incorrectly worded. ABP was asked to place further public notices, using replacement wording supplied by the MMO. That mistake delayed the process by a full 10 months. It is worth noting that Hutchison Ports, the operators of Felixstowe, did not raise any objections during the original consultation. However, following the re-advertisement and during the second consultation, it then did, arguing that the original environmental impact assessment, which was drawn up to the MMO’s specification, had not considered operational impact issues.

Will the right hon. Gentleman explain why Network Rail and the Highways Agency were not included in the original consultation?

The point about this procedure is twofold. Throughout this process, ABP took guidance from the MMO as to what requirements it needed to fulfil. It was reasonable for ABP to do that. It is because it was not well advised—indeed, it was advised to do other things—that we have ended up in this position.

In April 2010, following the re-advertisement and the intervention from Hutchison, which has no local interest at all in this matter—it is purely a commercial rival issue—and having raised those issues, the chief executive of the MMO wrote to ABP, stating:

“Please be assured that the MMO is working pro-actively with ABP to resolve these cases swiftly.”

However, it was not until February 2011, more than three years after the original application, that the MMO finally issued consent, in good time to get this work under way.

Obviously, hon. Members from Merseyside oppose the proposed blocking of the cruise terminal at Liverpool. However, on this issue we fully support my right hon. Friend. Does he agree that this scheme demonstrates how out of date our planning process is? Is not the economy suffering because we cannot make quick decisions? I hope the Minister will consider speeding the whole process up, so that we can get such schemes introduced much more quickly.

I want to concentrate on getting this scheme approved. However, when the dust has settled it will be clear that the scope for getting things wrong and for commercial challenges by people who have no interest in environmental issues in the Southampton area is so great that it can lead to huge delays. If our collective attempts to get investment in the UK infrastructure are bogged down in legal challenges between rival commercial companies, enormous damage will be done to the chances of getting infrastructure investment under way and rebuilding the economy. There has to be a point where every major company is prepared to consider what is in the UK national interest, not a narrow view of what is in their own local commercial interest.

May I thank my right hon. Friend for the reasonable way he has dealt with the conflict between Southampton and Liverpool? He is aware, though, that there are still problems between Liverpool city council and the local authority in Southampton. Liverpool city council has asked for talks with Southampton to see whether common ground can be found. That is a good idea. Does he agree that those local authorities should get together and find common ground, so that it is not either/or, but possibly both?

We are perfectly clear that Liverpool is utterly entitled to have a cruise terminal. The question is whether, given that the one operating successfully in Southampton has been developed entirely with private sector finance, the one in Liverpool should not operate according to the same principles of fair competition. We are more than happy to have that discussion, but I do not want to spend my time this morning getting too far into that issue, because we are in the last critical weeks that will determine whether this investment in Southampton takes place in the autumn. I want to focus on that.

I declare an interest. As deputy general secretary of Unite, I worked with ABP, the local authority and the work force, who are members of Unite, in seeking to drive this project forward. The common ground is the need to rebalance and grow our economy, although we may disagree on how to do that.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that infrastructure is key if we are to grow the economy? This development is in the national interest and the interests of growing the economy. Any further delay will damage not only the interests of Southampton but the prospects of economic recovery.

My hon. Friend is right. The involvement of Felixstowe’s owners in this matter gives a UK angle to the competition, but the blunt truth is that there is no reason to believe that the container work lost from Southampton will end up anywhere in the UK. If the effect is that ships go to Rotterdam and their cargo is broken down for trans-shipment, there is a huge loss to the entire UK economy. That is why a view of what is in the interests of the whole UK is crucial. We can have local fights, but we will look pretty ridiculous if we end up damaging the whole UK economy and sending the business elsewhere.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on obtaining this debate. I support the burden of his remarks. The planning system has become obstructive, although it is understandable that Hutchison Ports, for example, should insist that rules that are being made to apply to it and stifling its investment programme should be applied evenly throughout the industry. That was the burden of its complaint.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree—and support the Government on this point—that we need to renegotiate the habitats directive, because that is being used, as much as anything, to stymie and bog down important infrastructure projects for bogus, spurious technical and legal reasons, rather than genuine environmental reasons?

I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s final point. If the objections were coming from Natural England, the Environment Agency, the RSPB and local environment organisations in Hampshire—even if they were using the habitats directive—I would understand their legitimacy. What people in Southampton cannot understand is that, essentially, technical and legal mistakes are being exploited to damage investment.

The hon. Gentleman properly represents his part of the country and his constituents. I hope that he will take back the message that Hutchinson’s may feel that it has made its point, but to continue to pursue this matter now would do enormous damage to the UK economy and to the port of Southampton.

Planning rules may be a problem, but they do not always necessarily need to be exploited to damage an investment.

In 2011, three years after the original application, the MMO issued consent. Two months later, Hutchison commenced judicial review proceedings in the High Court, alleging that the environmental impact assessment was defective. In June 2011, without discussion with ABP, the MMO, having listened to that objection, withdrew its consent. The critical issue is, as I understand it, that the judicial review application by Hutchison did not raise any issues that had not previously been raised in 2010 and that the MMO had every opportunity to consider. What actually happened is that the MMO had the chance to consider those objections and decided not to act on them, or decided that they did not have a substantial basis in fact, and issued the consent, but then, faced with a High Court challenge, changed its mind. It is another case where the MMO’s handing of the matter has badly let down everybody involved in the port of Southampton.

Since then, there has been further delay. ABP responded to further requests for analysis that it said it would deliver by 30 September 2011. Just three days before that date, the MMO asked ABP to produce additional information, which caused a further delay. Then—without going through all the twists and turns—there was a further lengthy delay before the MMO finally commenced the consultation on 11 January 2012.

I have gone over the history not to rake up old issues but to stress, for the benefit of the Minister with responsibility for shipping and ports, that the port of Southampton has been on the receiving end of particularly poor treatment by Government agencies, not just under this Government, but in the past. As a result, this major investment has yet to start. I will not hold the Minister or his predecessor, who will be contributing from the Opposition Front Bench, personally responsible for these errors. We know that these things happen deep in the depths of agencies far away, in normal circumstances, from ministerial decisions, but there are times when Ministers need to act.

I wrote to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about this matter in August and again in September. I have to say that, although I am sure that the letters that I received were legally correct, there was no sense of urgency coming from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on how the MMO would handle this matter. I was told that, since June, the MMO had maintained a single point of contact with ABP in Southampton and that, in July, it assigned a case team to the application. However, as I have said, that did not prevent further and later requests from the MMO to ABP for additional analysis and information that further delayed the project.

I wrote to the Prime Minister on 24 November. I hope that I am not unduly pompous as an ex-Minister, but there was a time when former Secretaries of State and Privy Counsellors who wrote to Prime Ministers would get a reply a from the Prime Minister or a Secretary of State. I am afraid that it took two months for the Prime Minister to get a junior Minister in DEFRA to send me back pretty much the same letter that I had got from the Secretary of State. There is no sense that the Downing street machine has grasped that it could play a role in making sure that this happens.

We are now at a critical point. The consultation is under way again—that is important—but the consultation period is six weeks. Objections must then be properly considered, because that is the legal process. The MMO must therefore consider objectively any issue raised so that, should it give approval, its decision cannot be challenged. The potential for delay is significant, and it is essential for the MMO to have sufficient resources and access to sufficient expertise to give the decision proper consideration. That is what I am asking the Minister to take away today and to take to his colleagues in DEFRA. We cannot have a situation in which either the MMO does not have the resources or expertise to consider the consultation responses properly or mistakes are made, thus laying the process open to further legal challenge.

I ask the Minister to consider one other factor. It is not for him or the House to constrain the courts, but in truth the move for judicial review came not from a statutory or voluntary environmental organisation, nor from any group that might be affected by the environmental impact of the port, but from a commercial operator, and it seems pretty clear that the motives were to inflict commercial damage on a rival. That raises a massive challenge to the Government’s plans to encourage infrastructure investment in the UK.

Before my right hon. Friend concludes, I absolutely support the aim expressed in his earlier comments that we should work in the greater interest of the whole UK economy. Will he therefore agree to broker a meeting between the Southampton and Liverpool authorities, so that we can put to bed the animosity between the two and move forward on what is in the interest of both Liverpool and the UK, to grow the economy in Merseyside?

Our two great port cities have a lot in common, in history and in the future, and I hope that Southampton and Liverpool will work together in the future. The Minister’s decision on the issue is imminent, and we will all want to consider it carefully. We are very consistent in Southampton: we are not saying that Liverpool should not have a cruise terminal; we are merely saying that competition should be fair and on the same basis of cruise terminal capacity development. We are not out to say, “You have no right to have cruise ships. You have no right to have this industry,” but the competition must be fair, so if meetings will improve understanding, they would be helpful.

The vast majority of ports in this country are privately operated, but they all depend on either the actions of Government agencies or, sometimes, public investment. The Government’s infrastructure plan, for example, included proposals to improve roads that would help, among other things, to support the port of Felixstowe. We will get into a terrible position, however, if urgent investment in the UK economy routinely becomes the matter of legal challenge by different commercial companies picking up technicalities and details of arguments rather than pursuing the UK national interest. I do not expect the Minister to say much or, probably, if he is prudent, anything at all on that point—I am sure that he will be measured—but Ministers need to have that serious discussion with major companies in this country, to ensure that the interests of UK plc always come first, particularly in such difficult times.

Many islanders from my constituency take great pride in being physically separate from the mainland UK, but most recognise the value of its proximity. An acknowledgement of that fact is that so many of my constituents, especially in the north of the island, rely on the mainland for work and it explains why I am taking an interest in the debate.

I offer my support to the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham) to get the Southampton port project moving. As already explained, the aggressive legal action by another port authority has slowed the port expansion proposal to a halt, instead requiring a further review of environmental issues, and that is simply not acceptable. How can a project that requires no public funding, while providing growth, education in the form of apprenticeships, and employment, be held up? That is exactly the sort of behaviour that the Government abhor, yet it is happening.

The sustainable growth of the port of Southampton is incredibly important for the city of Southampton and its hinterland, and the Isle of Wight falls within that remit. Indeed, the success of Southampton is due in no small part to the fact that the island is where it is, protecting the Solent. The island also provides a 360° catchment area, whereas most ports normally have a 180° area because of the very fact of being on the coast. Also, on the island, we rely heavily on the connection to Southampton, which I am told is the third largest port in the country, while East Cowes is the seventh busiest port in the UK. Given the proximity of one port to the other, with the ferry link provided by Red Funnel, East Cowes’s success is very much reliant on that of Southampton.

Tourism is also crucial to the success of the whole region. Hampshire and the Isle of Wight have such a fabulous coastline that it draws huge numbers of people every year. The proposed redevelopment of Mayflower park would play a key role in improving the attraction for tourism. The importance of tourism is reflected by Southampton being the leading destination in the UK for cruise ships, and that business is critical to the local and indeed the wider economy. As the home of famous British shipping companies such as P&O, Cunard and Carnival, Southampton is also part of the heritage of our seafaring nation.

The financial argument for the development proceeding, however, is the most important one. With our country in the doldrums economically for the moment, infrastructure improvements such as the Southampton one have gained increasing importance. What makes it even more surprising that the plan has not moved forward is that no public money is involved in the expansion. The Government have been keen on such infrastructure developments, and we only have to cite High Speed 2 to see that, the difference being that one will cost public money and Southampton port will cost nothing.

What of the island? More than 2,000 people commute from Cowes to Southampton every day of the week, so it is perfectly clear that jobs in Southampton lead to more jobs for islanders. In that respect, as I said at the start, I am fully behind the proposals, and I find it incredible that the process has taken so long to date. Once completed, the development will provide employment to countless families, improve the regional economy, reaffirm Southampton as a world-class port with facilities for the largest ships on the ocean and take the port and city of Southampton further into this century with the capacity that they need. I ask the Government to do everything that they can to ensure that the process is expedited with the appropriate permissions as soon as possible. The delay has been too long.

It is appropriate that we are discussing Southampton port this morning, one day before the House discusses the national ports infrastructure planning document. That document looks, among other things, at the whole question of the strategic role of ports in the UK and at the requirements for ensuring that our ports continue to play such a strategic role in the best way that we can arrange. That is vital.

UK ports provide 95% of our capacity for importing and exporting goods; 95% of imports and exports go through UK ports. So the best possible deployment of UK ports is essential. Historically, Southampton, with Felixstowe and many other UK ports, has always played a major role in providing that national infrastructure, which, as hon. Members have said, is being maintained and improved predominantly on the basis of investment by the companies that run the ports.

Southampton and Felixstowe are particularly important in terms of national strategic planning inasmuch as they are two of the country’s leading container ports with a large throughput of containers. They are either side of London, in close proximity to major international shipping routes, and are vitally placed for receipt of containers, which then go to the rest of the UK. Indeed, the Government have recognised the importance of those strategic ports in terms of what has happened with assistance not to the ports, but to the infrastructure in the recent upgrade of the rail line from Southampton to the midlands, and the proposed upgrade in road access to Felixstowe port.

The Government have recognised the infrastructure considerations for the same reason that ports recognise what they need to do to maintain their competitiveness, not with one another, but as part of the national ports infrastructure. The Southampton rail upgrade is a good example. The international standard now is high-box containers with a height of 9 feet. They cannot be transported efficiently on traditional rail-based container transport, not least because they tend to collide with bridges. To upgrade to international standards and to maintain competitiveness, it is necessary to prevent containers from colliding with bridges on the way north, which is an upgrade to stay in the same place.

It is interesting to reflect on a debate that I obtained 11 or 12 years ago on the future of Southampton port. I speculated about the level of container traffic that would be required in future for UK ports, and the size of container vessels that would come to the port. I talked then about the prospect of vessels of perhaps 8,000 to 10,000 containers coming into the port, and the necessity of considering how we would deal with larger vessels coming in. Now, Southampton’s main customers are talking about shortly bringing in not 8,000-container vessels, not 4,000-container vessels, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham) mentioned and which was the standard a few years ago, but 13,000-container vessels. If our ports in general cannot take those vessels, that will be detrimental to Britain’s national strategic port planning, not just to Southampton or any other specific port.

As my right hon. Friend said, the issue is not just that container-vessel traffic is distributed around the UK; ports across the channel are able and waiting to take traffic that comes up through the channel to container ports. If those vessels turn right because they cannot turn left to the UK because of their size, containers will be trans-shipped from the continent to the UK at a cost of £100 per container over and above what happens at present when they arrive in the UK. Yes, we would receive our containers, and yes, business might proceed as usual, but at a considerable cost to the UK economy and considerable detriment to our strategic port planning.

It is essential that ports such as Southampton address the issues, and Southampton has done precisely that in its proposed £150 million investment in its container terminal, not a new container terminal, but an upgraded one. Ships already come into the port, and the £150 million is for dredging and upgrading the facilities to ensure that new, larger vessels can come into Southampton and be dealt with.

As my right hon. Friend said, not only has Southampton addressed the issue, but it thought that it had introduced its proposals in good time a few years ago. It is a sad record that the Marine Management Organisation has been less than fully adequate in dealing with the challenge of that proposal. It had to re-issue the consultation; it apparently retreated in the face of judicial review when permission had been given; and more recently it has cast around to see whether it has the power to resist further judicial review and challenge of its inherited powers from the Board of Trade in terms of permissions. Southampton made its proposals not just in good time, but in very good time. However, it is faced with the prospect that, if matters do not now go absolutely right—among other things, the salmon run up the River Test is an issue—it will lose its very last window to put that vital upgrade in place to cope with future business at the port.

Why has that judicial review come forward, and why has the Marine Management Organisation, apparently petrified about the possibility of further judicial review, reviewed its powers accordingly? Is it because local amenity groups in Southampton are up in arms? Is it because the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is worried about the effect on birds? Is it because English Heritage is worried about the effect on the Solent? Is it because Natural England is worried about the natural environment around Southampton? No. None of those organisations has ever objected to the proposal, and none has ever tried to stop it. All agree that the arrangements are satisfactory. Indeed, I understand that no one in the Southampton area has ever objected to the proposal. Nor should they, because the proposal is to upgrade an existing container terminal to bring it up to date with what is required for the port. That is all.

It is astonishing to hear that an organisation from its vantage point 200 miles away has introduced judicial review of the upgrade’s details into the proceedings. It might be said that that organisation wants a level playing field. That appears to be more of a cover than an up-front argument, and it does not require an enormous amount of brainpower to consider what might happen if the port of Southampton were made to go backwards rather than forwards. That is what happens with port management; ports either lose trade or they gain it.

UK trade can be obtained for everyone; it is not a zero-sum game. It is not, however, difficult to conclude that Hutchison Ports believes that delaying or scuppering Southampton’s plans to upgrade its facilities, thereby making it unable to accept larger ships, would directly benefit Felixstowe. A judicial review is a fairly small investment—perhaps £100,000—for what is potentially a large gain. I caution, however, that such a move does not necessarily mean that more traffic will go to Felixstowe. It may not end up in the UK at all, and even if some of it did, in terms of UK plc it is equivalent to one car manufacturer seeking to sabotage another’s production line in the hope that the public will buy its cars, even if some members of the public then buy imported cars. That is the sort of action we are contemplating, and if that is the motivation behind the judicial review, I deplore the fact that it has been requested.

I have reflected on the importance of the port of Southampton to UK plc, and feel that any attempt to obtain such a review should be resisted. We need the ports of Southampton, Felixstowe, Liverpool, Hull, Portishead, Thamesport and others because, as we will discuss tomorrow, they will play a vital role in planning the UK’s future port capacity. The development of the port of Southampton is not only about Southampton but about UK plc making its way and dealing with imports and exports from and to the world. If Southampton fails to get its upgrade as a result of backstairs dealing and, quite frankly, poor service by the body that is required to decide on such applications, that will be of detriment not only to Southampton but to the UK as a whole.

The hon. Gentleman makes the case proudly for Southampton port, as did his right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham). It is a bit of a shame, however, to start impugning commercial decisions. We as parliamentarians want companies to be treated consistently by Government agencies, and in the example we are discussing consistency was not applied. The MMO has ended up paying the costs of the judicial review because it failed to apply the law as it should have done.

There is some force in what hon. Lady says. It is a shame, however, that we have to think about the possible motivations behind those who apply for a judicial review. From my vantage point, the conclusion that the prime motivation behind this judicial review did not involve a concern for level playing fields is almost inescapable. Level playing fields should exist for everybody, but someone feeling that they were not applied in their particular circumstances does not warrant an attempt to upset the playing fields for everybody in the country. I hope that we will hear no more about the judicial review, and that mature consideration of what is best for all, including the ports of Felixstowe, Southampton and the others that I mentioned, will prevail.

I hope that this debate, and the efforts made by many of my colleagues from across the south to assist Southampton’s progress with its application, will mean that at this final stage, the MMO ensures that the process proceeds as quickly as possible, and that those involved with UK ports consider what is best for all our ports, rather than individual interests. If that is a result of today’s debate, which I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen on obtaining, it will have been a prize worth fighting for.

Order. I intend to call the first Front-Bench speaker at 10.40 am. According to my amateur arithmetic, that leaves about five minutes per speaker. Perhaps as a courtesy to one another, hon. Members will try and curtail their remarks as much as possible.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham) on securing this debate at such a critical juncture. The strong attendance by MPs from across political parties and the south of England is testimony to the urgency with which we must address the future of Southampton port. It is an issue of great consequence, not only to Southampton, but to the economic future of the region and the success of UK plc.

I do not intend to repeat the difficulties that have plagued attempts by the port of Southampton to develop container capacity since 2007—the right hon. Gentleman has already eloquently outlined the tortuous tale of mishaps and deliberate obstructions. I wish only to underline the immense frustration that it has taken more than four years to reach this unsatisfactory juncture. After more than four years of mistakes by the relevant authorities and meddling by a commercial rival, Associated British Ports still does not have permission to develop capacity at the port. It is right to look to the future, but we must be mindful of past delays that must seem utterly baffling to most people. ABP’s commitment to developing the port of Southampton should be a shining example of private investment fuelling economic growth, trade and jobs.

The port of Southampton is one of the region’s economic powerhouses, and as the MP for Gosport, which is just down the road, I know how vital it is for my constituents not only because of the employment that it provides, but because one job at the port generates four or five further jobs. The proposed development of capacity for container ships should by now have cemented the port’s position in European-Asian trade, secured jobs and bolstered the economic might of the UK. It is vital to stress that all those things can be achieved by private investment of well over £100 million, and there is no need for Government support.

If the MMO fails to act decisively, or if commercial rival Hutchison Ports again seeks legal obstructions, there is a real possibility that the international success of Southampton port will be undermined and up to 2,000 jobs put at risk. I have spoken in the Chamber previously about the pockets of deprivation that are found on the south coast, and we cannot afford to put those jobs at risk.

As the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) pointed out, a new generation of container ships is on the horizon. If Southampton is not allowed to act within the coming months, those ships might well pass it by. I therefore wish to reiterate calls for the MMO to act with speed and precision at the end of the consultation and for Minsters to ensure that it has the resources and expertise to do so. The Government are committed to securing growth and jobs through private investment and we must not—I hate to use this pun—miss the boat in Southampton.

I congratulate my neighbour, the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham), on securing this important debate, and on his determination to make this a cross-party initiative to highlight the issues currently faced by the port of Southampton. As we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) and the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead), the port is a significant driver of economic prosperity in the wider region and the country and provides employment both directly and indirectly. The port of Southampton is the main access and departure point in the UK for a wide variety of products. To give one example from my constituency, Ford makes the much-loved Transit vans at Swaythling, 50% of which leave the country via Southampton port. In addition, given that Southampton is the fourth largest port for the import of cars, it is no surprise that many of the Fords that we see on the roads today have accessed the country via that city.

I welcome the “National Policy Statement for Ports”, which has a clear focus on integrated transport networks. We have heard about the importance of altering the rail network, so that larger containers can get through the tunnel underneath Southampton. The rail lines have been lowered and the height of the tunnel raised. However, that £60 million investment might not reach its full potential if those containers cannot access the port of Southampton and end up being transported from the continent. Work is ongoing in my constituency to ensure that the diversionary line is also improved—to raise the road bridges—so that the port can achieve its aim of getting 40% of the freight from the port travelling by rail, which is a far more environmentally sustainable route.

The investment might not achieve its maximum potential, however, if the port of Southampton is not allowed to develop and thrive in a very competitive climate. It is the second busiest deep-water port in the UK and cannot afford to stand still if it is to retain that position, yet as we have heard time and again, it has been forced to tread water because of the inefficiency of the Marine Management Organisation, what I regard as unacceptable objections from rival commercial operators and a delayed process that has seen the likely timetable pushed back and back.

I will not rehearse all the reasons behind the delay, but, as the Member for Romsey and Southampton North, I should like to focus on something that is of particular interest and concern in my constituency. I am also a member of the Select Committee on Environmental Audit. People might therefore expect me to be conscious of the potential environmental impact of the port’s proposal to deepen berths and introduce a new piled quay. Concerns have been raised, including about the migratory salmon that pass through Southampton water. However, the environmental impact assessments have been done and redone. They have been enhanced and more information provided. Despite that, there has been stunningly little progress, and there is a very limited time window for the piling of the new quay. Given the potential impact on migratory salmon, that can be done only between mid-September and March, so a scheme first mooted back in 2008 has missed that window time and again. If it does not get the go-ahead very soon, the next window, between September 2012 and March 2013, will also be missed.

I do not dismiss the importance of the salmon—far from it. Two of the pre-eminent chalk rivers in the country—indeed, the world—run through my constituency at various points. There is, I concede, a very small stretch of the River Itchen, but much of the River Test runs the length of my constituency. One of my constituents proudly boasts of having caught a salmon on the Test every year for the past 50 years. Those salmon are few and far between, and I am most anxious that their migration should not be disturbed, but there is no reason why the development should be held up by them. It is notable that the environmental objections have come not from the fishermen on the River Test, but from a rival port operator.

As I said, I will not rehearse all the reasons for the delay. The right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen took us through a comprehensive timetable. Suffice it to say that the hold-up is putting expansion plans at risk and, in so doing, threatening local jobs, regional economic prosperity and, importantly, private investment in a vital facility. I will not dwell on private investment and the questions about the Liverpool cruise terminal, but it is worth mentioning that in the dealings with the MMO and waiting for permission to be granted, as with the Liverpool cruise terminal, all that Southampton is asking for is a level playing field—I could not work out whether there was an analogy involving water, but I do not think so.

This is a very difficult week for the cruise industry, and our thoughts should be with the victims of the dreadful accident off the coast of Italy. It is important that we get behind that industry. We sincerely hope that it recovers, because it is very important to the port of Southampton. Above all else, we urge the Minister to ensure that, at a time when the cruise industry needs some help and support, we have some clear answers on the question whether public money should be used to subsidise the industry.

This is the first time I have had the pleasure of participating in a Westminster Hall debate under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate you on that, just as I congratulate the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham) on securing this important debate.

So far, we have seen an interesting division of labour. The right hon. Gentleman concentrated in great detail, as he had to do, on the process of the application. My hon. Friends the Members for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) and for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) concentrated to a considerable extent on the importance of the port of Southampton to the wider region. The hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) and my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) emphasised the magnitude of the task of accommodating container ships that can carry as many as 13,000 units and of transporting those units, when offloaded, to the hinterland within our country.

My role, therefore, towards the end of the debate is to try to show why this issue—or, not to overstate the case, this dispute—is different from other disputes that have taken place in the past and particularly the dispute over the plans that Associated British Ports had for many years, and has not entirely abandoned, to build a huge container port at Dibden bay in my constituency, on the opposite side of Southampton water to the existing container terminal. Hon. Members from that part of the country will be well aware that there was a six-year campaign to resist the Dibden bay port development, culminating in a year-long planning inquiry, which finally decided to recommend—the Government of the day, to their credit, accepted this—that that development should not go ahead.

There is a complete difference between the situation in which we were fighting against the Dibden bay development, and the obstructiveness that has confronted ABP over the current development, which entirely conforms to what we said at the time. That is that the container terminal in Southampton, run by ABP, had the potential to be expanded, to have its capacity increased and to grow as the size and volume of container traffic continues to grow.

At the time of the earlier dispute, ranged against ABP were not just the MP for New Forest East, which is entirely to be expected, given an MP’s responsibility to his constituents, but all sorts of national, environmentally concerned bodies: Natural England or whatever it was called at the time, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds—you name it; they were against it. Where is that cacophony of objection to the development of berths 101 and 102? Is it being suggested that great harm will be done to the natural environment or the habitat? As my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North emphasised, the main concern is about migratory salmon. That is not to do with the development having a destructive effect: it is simply a question of timing the development so that the salmon can migrate in the normal way, and the piling and the preparation of the quay wall can go ahead.

There is nothing like the same level, quality, type or scale of objection on environmental grounds to what is proposed. On the contrary, the port is doing what the port, with the greatest respect—I say that to the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen—should have done at the time when the extremely destructive proposal to build at Dibden bay was originally made. The port proposes to take its existing footprint, to modernise it, to do a modest dredge and to enable the larger generation of ships to dock there safely and securely. That is precisely the way in which an important port should be able to increase its capacity—without doing any harm whatever to the natural environment and without causing much concern, if any, to the people who live in the area.

The difference is, therefore, fuelled not by environmental objections but by commercial ones. ABP could similarly be accused of applying double standards regarding its commercial objections to cruises being allowed to start and end at the cruise terminal in Liverpool. However, there is no real comparison, because the objections from the city of Southampton and ABP to the proposals for Liverpool—to their credit, Liverpool MPs have been present in force today to defend the interests of their city—have been based on the fact not that there would be competition between Liverpool and Southampton for the cruise liner trade, but that Liverpool received £20 million of public money to develop a cruise terminal as a port of call, not a port at which cruises should start and end. That money was given specifically on the condition that the cruise terminal would be restricted to that purpose, and within a year of the cruise terminal’s being finished, the request was being made to tear up the condition without repaying all the money. I will not dwell on that, because we know that the argument is about to be settled one way or another, although we do not know which way.

Was there not a great deal of public investment in Southampton before denationalisation? The port has enjoyed a lot of public investment over many years, so is it not a bit ironic that Members are complaining about public investment when Southampton has had so much?

That is a neat argument, but it would have a little more force if the port of Liverpool were not owned privately by Peel Ports. One should not compare what happened to Southampton before it was privately owned with what is happening to Liverpool when it is privately owned. It was a nice try, however, and I give the hon. Gentleman full credit for it.

In the spirit of consensus we have in the debate, I must acknowledge—I think ABP acknowledges this as well—that Hutchison Ports has had a bad deal. More than one local Member has ably made the point that Hutchison Ports feels that it was treated unfairly in comparison with other ports, so it has been making a point of saying that if it does not get fair treatment, it will put a spanner in the works so that other people do not get fair treatment either. I had some friendly and helpful interactions with Hutchison Ports at the time of the Dibden bay dispute, and I say to the company that it has made its point effectively, but it would be carrying things too far to try to make it again.

Time is of the essence, not only in this debate but in terms of the need to make a decision. I conclude by saying that if the debate has focused Ministers’ attention—and, through Ministers, the attention of the Marine Management Organisation—on the need to conclude this over-long process as soon as possible, it will have achieved its objective.

Order. Before I call the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), whom I know represents the port of Felixstowe, I remind her that the debate is about the future of the port of Southampton, to which she must confine her remarks.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I intend to refer to many of the comments that have been made about the actions of Hutchison Ports, rather than to proselytise about the benefits of Felixstowe, which are already well known in the House.

Associated British Ports is an investor in the Suffolk ports of Ipswich and Lowestoft, as well as in Southampton. I want to reinforce the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) made about consistency and a level playing field. I commend the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham) on his advocacy of the port of Southampton. As I mentioned in my intervention, companies that we represent are entitled to expect that Government agencies act within the law, and when they do not, it is reasonable to challenge them. The MMO suffers from the sins of its predecessor, but that happens with Governments, agencies and companies, which have to deal with the hand they are given. The MMO fell down initially in accepting the decision and subsequently admitted that it had acted unlawfully, so the order was granted.

The hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) pointed out some of the challenges of onshore distribution using the rail and road networks, which have received a lot of investment, as my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) alluded to. The right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen was not able to answer for the fact that ABP did not consult organisations such as Network Rail, the Department for Transport rail department or the Highways Agency when considering the land-side environmental impact assessment of its application. I am sympathetic to ABP’s point that it relied on the advice of the Marine and Fisheries Agency at the time, and hindsight is a great teacher. I am surprised that ABP relied on a fisheries agency to provide full planning advice and did not use its own advice to ensure that it had covered every aspect of the planning application, because it is experienced in doing such things.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) mentioned meddling by a commercial rival. Let me provide a parallel example of what might happen if the law on regulation was not applied consistently. If the Football League brought in transfer conditions that Southampton football club had to apply, but Portsmouth was allowed not to follow the regulations, I can imagine the rows between Southampton and Portsmouth supporters. Members of Parliament would be equally frustrated about the lack of even-handedness. Although I appreciate that the emotions involved in football do not stretch to the technicalities of a planning application, the same issues are involved. Commercially, we want a consistent response from Government agencies.

I am in favour of any positive discrimination that involves Portsmouth football club. We are talking about the economic benefit to the whole of the UK. Leaving aside any commercial rivalries or geographical disputes, we have to look at jobs, economic prosperity and income, which are important for the future of UK plc.

I understand that perspective entirely, and I will address it briefly.

My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) has been inconsistent in his argument. He was very generous to Hutchison, especially regarding its advice on Dibden bay, which I remember well because I lived in Hampshire at the time. Again, the argument is about consistency, and ABP and Hutchison are united in saying that nobody objects to Liverpool’s having a cruise terminal, but it should be on equal terms. Both port operators share that position. I do not, therefore, accept that we are talking about different things, although the joy of being a politician is that our greatest competence has to be dealing with paradox.

I realise that time is short, but the point about the legal challenge is that no one is suggesting that Hutchison has suffered massive commercial damage because the MMO got its procedures wrong. If the port of Felixstowe faced closure because of bungling by the MMO, I would understand the hon. Lady’s point. However, she is justifying doing enormous commercial damage to the port of Southampton and the United Kingdom because something has been found not to have been done properly, and the action is totally out of proportion to any damage that Felixstowe has suffered. That is really the objection of Members from Hampshire on both sides of the Chamber.

I understand that perspective entirely. I am not suggesting that I would encourage Hutchison to continue to apply for judicial review after judicial review.

I have no objection to Southampton being able to accommodate the largest boats, just as Felixstowe can now, but it is critical to encourage the MMO to act swiftly and properly. At the end of the day, it is about ensuring that our civil service agencies can tackle things, and as was said earlier there is the question of making sure that there are resources. It is about focusing on what matters for the UK economy. If the agency had pulled its finger out and made sure that ABP had done its assessment properly in the first place, we might not be in this mess. I would encourage the agency to devote its resources to the issue in question, rather than devoting any further resources to marine conservation zones; that would have an impact on ports around the country, including Southampton and Felixstowe. It should make sure it is business-friendly, pull its finger out and ensure that the law is applied consistently.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this morning, Mr Gray. I am delighted to be here for the debate, and congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham) on securing it, ably supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) and colleagues on the other side of the House. Both my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend are former distinguished Ministers—indeed my right hon. Friend was a Secretary of State—and they both have considerable experience in the matters under debate. The speeches of the hon. Members for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner), for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage), for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) and for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) supported the case being put to the Minister, and the only dissenting voice—and even then, only slightly dissenting—was that of the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), who used a football analogy to outline her slight difficulty. As a West Ham supporter, in a debate on Southampton, I was not sure how I would get into the debate the fact that those teams are joint top of the championship, but the hon. Lady has provided me with the opportunity.

The role of a shadow Minister is sometimes puzzling, especially for someone who has been a Minister—not making the decisions and not having the intensity of programme or the diary pressures that the Minister experiences. As Her Majesty’s Opposition, our job is to challenge, which does not, of course, always mean opposing, especially when some of the things that the Government will eventually decide to do were left to them by us. I know that the Minister will refer to that fact in due course. I think that he was ably assisted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen, who put me somewhat in the frame for this situation. In debates such as this, the local knowledge of my right hon. Friend and other colleagues is so comprehensive that there is little for me to add. I will therefore be brief, and I am sure that the Minister will use the time to respond to specific points that have been raised in this important debate.

I am sure that we will all agree on one point: shipping and the ports industry are great assets to our country, doing sterling work efficiently, well and almost invisibly. It is only when there is a tragedy, such as the one this week in Italy, that shipping ever makes the national headlines. However, we know how important shipping is to the UK economy in all its aspects, and many hon. Members have made the case for that view this morning.

I should be grateful if the Minister reassured us about the general working of the MMO overall, about issues of implementation, and, in passing, about the impact on other ports besides Southampton—especially London. However, we are here to deal with specific questions raised by right hon. and hon. Members during the debate. My right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen raised with us serious questions about the procedures adopted by the MMO—the errors, failures and delays, compounded by legal challenges from commercial competitors. My hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Mr Watts) raised the broader question of the planning process for major developments, and in passing I would say that it was a mistake by the Government that the coalition decided to abolish the Infrastructure Planning Commission, which was specifically designed to deal with the problems of unnecessary delays to national infrastructure projects.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen outlined in some detail why time is so critical in the present instance, and what he said was reinforced by hon. Members across the Chamber. Time will tell whether it will be possible for private sector finance to be invested, as many hon. Members discussed. We have heard that the issue is about ABP versus Hutchison and Southampton versus Felixtowe; we have also heard that it is about Southampton versus Liverpool. My right hon. Friend said that Southampton wants a level playing field on the cruise terminal question, and the Opposition support that view. I know from my hon. Friends that Liverpool is offering to pay back grant that it received. We welcome that. That issue is secondary to today’s debate, but none the less it is with the Minister and perhaps he will tell us when and how it will be resolved.

As an aside, I will mention that, like many other colleagues, I have used the port of Southampton on several occasions. Most recently I was on the Cunard liner the Queen Mary 2, coming back from New York, and I will be sailing with Fred Olson from Southampton to Liverpool and Belfast on a Titanic mini-cruise in April.

As has been mentioned, the conclusion of the important ports policy statement debate will be tomorrow, in the Chamber. The Minister is held in high regard by the shipping industry and he knows that the Government need to get behind British shipping rather than in its way, and to try to remove obstacles placed in its way by others. I know that he wants to be helpful, so I look forward to his response, in the hope that he will offer clear reassurance to hon. Members and to the port of Southampton, about bringing the issue of timing and the MMO to a speedy conclusion.

I am honoured to be serving under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Gray. It has been an interesting debate, but perhaps I may seek your indulgence, as this is the first opportunity that I have had to address the House following the disaster in Italy. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families who have lost loved ones or been injured over the weekend. I asked Sir Alan Massey, the chief executive of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, to contact his counterparts in Italy and offer any assistance that they would need with the rescue, investigation or contamination. Perhaps they may need some skimmers from us. I have also written to my counterpart in Italy with similar remarks. On that point, I shall be on a cruise liner as soon as I can—not crossing the Atlantic, like the shadow Minister, but to stand steadfastly by the cruise industry and show that the disaster, although significant, should not reflect on the industry as a whole. I expect that nearly 2 million British people will go on a cruise by 2014-15, and I hope that that figure will be exceeded. I wish every success to all ports involved in the cruise industry.

Interesting comments have been made about the link between the position of Southampton and that of Liverpool. I am the decision-making Minister and will be considering the matter carefully and making a decision soon. If Liverpool had offered to pay back all the grant, as the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) said, we would not be discussing anything here today. The decision would have been made by the previous Administration, and that would have been enough. Liverpool has not made the offer that the hon. Gentleman described, but it has made an offer, which I am considering. However, even if I make a decision, there is an issue to do with the funding that came from Europe, and state aid clearance will be required by the European Commission. However, I will look at the matter. I want a level playing field and growth in the cruise liner industry. I want Liverpool to be a success. I have been to Liverpool—twice now—and have worked with the city council and with Peel Ports. One of the most exciting things that Peel has done is to start to use the capacity of the Manchester ship canal in a way that has not happened for nearly 100 years. There is a desperate need for that, and I congratulate Peel.

The port that I have visited more than any other in the 18 months when I have had the honour and privilege to be the shipping and ports Minister is Southampton. There are many reasons for that, but not the least of those is its significance within the ports industry. That cannot be looked at in isolation. The issue has to do with a commitment of £150 million of private funding for increased capacity of 201 and 202 berths. Anyone who has heard me speak as shipping Minister in the past 18 months will have heard me go on and on about the importance of ports to an island nation. Frankly, successive Governments have not taken ports seriously enough. With the dramatic change that the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham) alluded to in the size of bulk ships, which we could not have envisaged a few years ago, we need to make sure that our nation is not left behind, and that we have the necessary capacity in the UK. The investment by Hutchison at Felixtowe, which as hon. Members can imagine I have also visited, was significant in that context. I pay tribute also to DP World for sticking with it and going ahead with a £1.5 billion investment—36,000 jobs—in London Gateway. That will create competition for Felixstowe, which is good because competition within the ports industry is important. As I have said many times before, it is about not just those very big ports, but the provision of myriad services through the ports.

What is proposed in Southampton is not the largest deepwater port. Some of the bigger ships that are now being built will not be able to get in there. We are talking about a 16-metre depth when a 17-metre-plus at Gateway is under discussion and Felixstowe already has 17 metres. None the less, what this will do is allow the capacity to be spread around the country. Anyone listening to me will probably think that I am not supportive of Southampton having this port facility; well, categorically, I am. I want others to have it as well. Planning permission for deepwater ports already exists in Tees, Bristol and Liverpool. They will not be the largest ports, but they will take deepwater capacity ships—certainly to the size of 13,000 or 14,000 20-foot equivalent units.

As we look at this matter, we must ensure that the environment is protected. My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), who is no longer in his seat, referred to the habitats directive. That directive has become a real issue; it was designed to do one thing and has become a hindrance in other areas. A review is currently under way, which will report in March. It will try to address the balance between protecting the environment and allowing this country to grow and businesses, especially ports, to carry out their work.

Members will hear the frustration in my voice when I say that much has been said about the MMO. The shadow Minister will not like what I am going to say, but the MMO was a creation of the previous Government. It did not come into force until April 2010. All the earlier action was carried out by the Marine and Fisheries Agency. Let me say—I will not beat about the bush here—there was a big cock-up, which is why the judicial review said that maladministration had taken place and that the agency had not done what it should have done.

Can I criticise Southampton for looking at what was given to it as a requirement and saying, “The legal body is telling us to do this, this and this”, and then doing it? I have always been involved in small businesses, and issues relating to the highways and to rail would have been addressed within their own business plans. If they had been asked to do something, I am sure that it would have happened. There is no doubt about that. In this case though, that did not apply. One of the things that Hutchison is concerned about is that it was certainly asked to do such things when it was expanding the port at Felixstowe which I visited at the start of my tenure as Minister. One of the delays to do with Gateway’s decision was with DP World. It was asked to do significant things relating to rail and road infrastructure. Negotiations, particularly over junction 30, went on right up to the last minute. Something that Hutchison has raised with me is whether the subsidies are there or not.

As we go forward, we can look at what the problems have been over the past few months. As I have said before with a degree of frustration in my voice, I do not have control over the MMO. I have control over the national ports policy, which we will debate tomorrow. Members will hear me talk about the renaissance in coastal shipping and in ports, both small and large. I can take so much freight off our roads. So many road miles can be taken away if we utilised our ports.

I understand the political banter and why the Minister has talked about things happening on the previous Government’s watch and not his own. I think that that is a valid point. What action has been taken to deal with the officials who made that “cock-up”? This is what I find all the time. When one Government leaves office, the other one blames them. On this occasion, the problem is down to civil servants and individuals. Are they still working? Has action been taken to ensure that they do not make the same mistakes again?

I do not know how Hansard is going to get the word “cock-up” in, but there it is again.

The MMO is a quango with almost no ministerial control whatever. Many of the civil servants in the previous incarnation did not transfer to the new organisation because it was reincarnated in Newcastle. Much of the personal knowledge about this particular case was not transferred. Once we have got through this—I must ensure that I do not interfere with any judicial process—we will be looking very closely at the matter. Remember this is a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Department for Transport issue. Do not get me wrong, the Minister would never have seen this; it would never have got to him. This was below the radar level. None the less, it is quite simple to say, “You looked at these ports and you asked for this, this and this. When you came to this port, you didn’t ask for something that you have asked for at nearly every other port that I have looked at.” We will address this matter.

I want to look at how the MMO works. As the Minister standing before the Chamber, listening to colleagues and going on visits, it is enormously frustrating having very little control over things such as the harbour revision order. Even if the whole local community and the MP is against that order, all I can do is advise the MMO; I cannot actually instruct it.

I am sure that there are many bigger issues to do with the MMO that need to be dealt with; the Minister is right. None the less, in five weeks’ time, the consultation will end. The MMO has to deal properly with that consultation so that it is free of legal challenge, but it must do it in an extremely timely manner. One of the reasons for having the debate with this Minister and this Department is that it is this Department that understands how important the issue is. I am not convinced that DEFRA Ministers do, and I am not sure that the MMO does. What we are asking the Minister today is for him and his Secretary of State to say to DEFRA, “In five weeks’ time, if you don’t have the right people in place with the right expertise, you will not be able to handle this in a satisfactory and timely manner.”

I thank the right hon. Gentleman and he has probably taken the first point that I was going to make. I can do three things today. First, I can speak to my counterparts in DEFRA and tell them how seriously we consider this matter. If the MMO does not have the expertise, capacity and confidence to make a watertight decision, we will offer it the officials to help it to do that. It is independent of the Department for Transport, but I am sure that we can provide secondments if we need to.

The second thing we can do, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), is to say to Hutchison, “You have made your point.” There is no benefit in delaying this matter with a further challenge. As long as Associated British Ports does what it is asked to do with regards to the MMO and it supports the MMO decision, then that should be it. I cannot make it do that, but I am a constructive friend. I am sure that there are people who will be listening carefully to what the Minister has said about this delay. I am a friend of all the ports. I want competition, but this is not looking particularly good any more with regard to Hutchison. I fully understand its position. The law was not adhered to and maladministration took place, which is why the judicial review was minded to go down such an avenue. For lots of reasons, not least those relating to UK plc, jobs, infrastructure and the people of the Southampton area, we need to move on. Capacity ports need to be available. When outside investment considers UK plc, they may say, “We would like to invest there”. However, their Google alert or some other agency may then say, “Hold up a second, if you try to get consent down there, these are the sorts of problems you will get.”

I want Bristol to go ahead with its decisions. I want Liverpool, separate from the cruise business, to be able to go ahead with the deepwater port. I want Tees to go ahead as well. The Tyne is another one that should go ahead despite the issues relating to contamination. I was there only the other day. If all those ports go ahead, it will create the capacity that we need to get freight off the roads. As our economy grows, and it will grow, we need to ensure that we can be in the marketplace. We need to be a hub for these huge containers. Let us not underestimate the sheer size of the task that we are talking about. I stood at Felixstowe on the deck of one of the larger Maersk ships and looked down on the cranes that were trying to load her. Those cranes have now been replaced by even larger ones, which the Secretary of State must have seen when she was there the other day.

We need to be in-step with a market that is world led. We have been world leaders in this field for years and years. We stepped back when previous Governments did not take ports and shipping seriously. I do take them seriously and I hope that this plan goes ahead for Southampton.