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Cruise Market (Competition)

Volume 547: debated on Wednesday 4 July 2012

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke.

At the outset, I pay tribute to all the right hon. and hon. Members who called for this important debate. I draw the Minister’s attention to the cross-party nature and geographical spread represented by those present. This is not simply Southampton versus Liverpool; it is about the principles of fair application of competition rules wherever they are applied. The issue relates to all parts of the country. I am particularly pleased to see the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon) and the right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband). There are very few things that can bring together the south coast ports of Southampton and Portsmouth, so I regret that my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) cannot be here, but she has expressed sympathy on the matter before.

I direct the attention of right hon. and hon. Members much further north to the Scottish satirical writer, Thomas Carlyle, who said:

“Our life is not really a mutual helpfulness; but rather, it’s fair competition cloaked under due laws of war”.

That is why so many hon. Members here today are flummoxed or angry, or both, at the different application of due laws of war to different parts of the country, to different ports and to different port operators. Those due laws of war are not simply set down by a very British sense of fair play and a desire to see a level playing field—or whatever the equivalent nautical term is—but are clearly set out in European competition rules designed to ensure that state aid is not available to give an unfair advantage.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate, which is also of significant concern to the people of Dover and its very successful cruise turnaround business. When it comes to state aid, should not the entire £19 million be repaid?

I thank my hon. Friend for making that point, and for standing up for the cruise business in Dover. He makes an interesting point, which I will move on to later.

I have an unashamed loyalty to my home port of Southampton, the second-largest cruise port in Europe and the embarkation point of a cruise voyage for 720,000 passengers a year. Southampton is not a port that is afraid of competition. It is not afraid to invest private money to provide the facilities required for a thriving and expanding cruise business. As port director Doug Morrison, who has taken the time to be here today, has said on more than one occasion:

“We believe in fair competition. We do not fear Liverpool and competition, but it is simply not right.”

Of course, that is what our debate is about: ensuring that competition in the cruise industry is on an equal footing, and that a leg-up to one port is not an iceberg to another.

European competition rules on state aid are clear. The European Commission website devotes a considerable number of words to explaining them. Why does that come as no surprise? The Commission seems to be very good at devoting a considerable number of words to many things, but perhaps less good at applying those ideals when it comes to the crunch. I will quote those words to the Minister:

“Sometimes Government authorities spend public money supporting local industries or individual companies. This gives them an unfair advantage over similar sectors in other EU countries. In other words, it damages competition and distorts trade...It is the Commission’s job to prevent this,”

which seems a fairly unequivocal statement to me. It does not say that the Commission’s job is to sit back and allow market distortion. No—it is the Commission’s specific job to prevent it. However, first it must apparently ask some questions. That is fair enough, and I would like to take hon. Members and the Minister through those questions and ask whether they have been rigorously asked and responded to in relation to the UK cruise market.

Have state authorities given support, for example, in the form of grants, interest and tax relief, guarantees, holdings in companies, or goods and services provided on preferential terms? The answer strikes me as a big yes in the case of the port of Liverpool, which has received £19 million in grant and been asked to pay back only somewhere between £8.8 million and £12.6 million. Has such aid been available to other port operators in the UK, or has investment and expansion in their cruise facilities been without such support and advantage?

Is the support likely to affect trade between EU countries? Arguably, yes again. Barcelona and Venice are two of the leading ports in southern Europe, and a significant proportion of the UK cruise market heads directly to the Mediterranean. Clearly, therefore, there is potential for an impact. Of course, it is not only ports on the Mediterranean, but other European ports, too. For the past two years, the port of Copenhagen, primarily hosting departures to the Norwegian fjords and the Baltic, has been rated as Europe’s leading cruise port at the world travel awards. In Southampton, we might have a view on that, but it would come as no surprise to learn that cruises from Liverpool might reasonably be expected to head in that direction as well.

Southampton has been shortlisted at the world travel awards for the past four years, and I am pleased to see that it is nominated again for 2012. I have no doubt that the other ports shortlisted this year, which range from Las Palmas in Gran Canaria to Stockholm in Sweden, are all extremely concerned about the state aid to the Liverpool cruise terminal, which could have a very detrimental effect on the business they have worked so hard to attract. It is a market that continues to expand, as one in every eight British package holidays sold is a cruise.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. She has made a compelling case about the importance of EU rules in this case. I am sure that she will be aware of the recent statement by Commissioner Almunia, who said that he has reminded the British Government

“of their obligation to comply with EU state aid rules.”

Does the hon. Lady agree that this is not a matter where the Minister can simply say that it is down to the European Commission in Brussels? He has a personal responsibility to ensure compliance with the rules, which means taking action to prevent Liverpool from breaking them.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that comment. When I conclude, I will ask the Minister to work with his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government on that very subject.

Is the support selective? Does it confer an advantage on specific companies, parts of industries, or on companies in specific regions? Yes, again. No other port operator, whether ABP, Hutchison or the port of Tyne, has received that sort of assistance for their cruise facilities. They have had to invest in their facilities themselves using private capital, just as they should in a free and fair market.

Has competition been distorted or might it be in future? We can fairly safely respond to that one. In requiring Liverpool city council to get state aid clearance from the European Commission prior to commencing turnaround cruises, the Government appear to endorse that view. However, what has happened in Liverpool? It has started anyway. The European Commission states that if that has happened, the Commission must disallow the support unless it is shown to be compatible with the common market.

Would the hon. Lady care to comment on what appear to be further proposals by Liverpool for a permanent terminal by investing £23 million, including a further £10 million of possible public subsidy? I understand that that was not discussed with the Department for Transport when competition was first raised. Does she consider that it indicates a possible permanent arrangement as far as distortion of trade is concerned?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We are not just talking about £21 million of public money, but future moneys, including the £10 million he mentioned, for a permanent turnaround facility that, in my view and that of several other hon. Members across the country, will have a permanent distortion on the cruise market.

To relate some of the history, as the Minister is well aware, the city of Liverpool cruise terminal was built using £19 million of public money on the explicit condition that it would not compete with other ports that had invested their own money to build similar facilities.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this matter to the Chamber. We all have constituencies where cruise ships bring benefits. People come to Belfast and then go by bus to enjoy the scenery and history of the Strangford area. Does the hon. Lady feel that we need—perhaps the Minister will drive it—a UK or Great Britain strategy that involves all regions to ensure that competition is fair and that we all gain advantage from cruise ships?

Of course, the existing port strategy makes a very clear point about the need for fair competition and a level playing field.

When talking about ports that have invested their own money, I could mention Southampton again, but there are many other examples, such as the port of Tyne, where investment worth £100 million has been put in over the past 10 years, and Harwich, where there has been significant investment since 1998, when it joined the Hutchison Port Holdings Group. Throughout the country, as evidenced by hon. Members today, large private investment has been put into both freight and passenger-focused ports.

Like my colleagues, I congratulate the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North on securing this important debate. Surely, fairness is an important consideration when talking about private investment. State aid clearance is crucial. We hope that the Minister will assure us that fairness will be the key in this matter.

The hon. Lady is correct. I commend her on the extensive work that she has done on the subject. She hits the nail on the head: state aid and fairness are what matter.

Before my hon. Friend gets back into her stride, does she agree that good faith, as well as fairness, should come into account? It was revealed, as a result of a freedom of information request, that Liverpool city council resisted pressing for a turnaround facility at the outset

“due to advice that there could be state aid complications which could prevent the terminal being built at all.”

The key words are:

“Their approach was to build as a port of call facility and address turnaround later.”

It seems that it was using a Trojan horse tactic and acting in very bad faith.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. It is partly about good faith and trusting that the port of Liverpool and Liverpool city council will abide by conditions and rules that are set for them.

By 2008, Liverpool city council had launched its first attempt to lift the conditions, and the conclusion, after a detailed assessment by the Department for Transport, was that the change of use to turnaround cruises would have an

“unfair and adverse effect on competition between Liverpool and other cruise ports. It would be unfair to allow one port to benefit when competitors have found, or would have to find, private money to achieve the same objective.”

And so to today. The Government have decided, “based on independent advice”—even though that advice is from First Economics, a consultancy that freely admits it is not expert in either competition or the cruise industry—that they will withdraw their objection to removing the funding condition and Liverpool being used for turnaround calls, provided Liverpool repays either £8.8 million upfront or £12.6 million over 15 years. None of the European regional development fund money would have to be paid back, but—this is crucial and goes back to the good faith argument—state aid clearance from the European Commission would have to be secured.

Does my hon. Friend agree that what is happening is astonishingly high-handed? The project has gone ahead regardless, without state aid clearance having been obtained. I note that no Member of Parliament representing Liverpool is in the Chamber.

I thank my hon. Friend for mentioning that. I was about to move on to that point.

Within one week of the Government’s making their announcement and prior to having even sought, let alone secured, European clearance under state aid rules, the port of Liverpool accepted its first turnaround cruise, which visited France, Guernsey and the Scilly Isles. A quick inspection of the cruises scheduled for the coming year reveals a number of cruises to the Canaries, a focus on the Baltic and various other destinations. Whatever else that was, it certainly was not playing by the rules of war so eloquently described by Thomas Carlyle; it was more like a massive two-fingered salute to the Government and to anyone’s idea of fair play.

I cannot resist intervening in a debate that brackets South Shields and Venice in the same speech. I congratulate the hon. Lady on that. The addition of Trojan horses raises extraordinary prospects. I congratulate her on securing the debate.

Does the hon. Lady agree that the uncertainty of the current situation will blight a lot of the business development that is taking place around the country? The port that is of interest to me is the port of Tyne, which has a ferry terminal in North Shields and its headquarters in South Shields. It has doubled the number of cruise ships docking in the past year and there is concern that an elongated, uncertain process will damage the business investment planning that it is trying to do. Does the hon. Lady agree that we need some clarity from the Government to get the sequencing of decisions clear and right?

The right hon. Gentleman is spot on. We want certainty and we want a level playing field for private investors, who might otherwise feel nervous and anxious about investing in a number of ports throughout the country. It is important that they have that certainty from the Government.

It is the Government’s responsibility to ensure that there is fair competition. The Minister will have heard that hon. Members wish to hear that state aid rules are not flouted and that original conditions and amended agreements are adhered to. As I said, within a week Liverpool had started turnaround calls without having made any effort to ensure that it had clearance to do so.

The European Commission is in contact with the United Kingdom authorities and has reminded them of their obligations to comply with EU rules. The Commission has written to the United Kingdom requesting information to assess the change in use of European regional development funding. Should the conditions of the original grant offer no longer be complied with, recovery of that grant may be necessary.

A letter dated 8 June 2012, from the head of the ERDF closure team at the Department for Communities and Local Government, states:

“DCLG recognises that the commencement of turnaround operations in advance of State Aid clearance from the Commission may result in financial penalties if the Commission concludes that there is unlawful State Aid.”

The most pertinent statement in the letter is that any penalties that are subsequently levied would fall upon Liverpool city council and will not be recovered from the Government.

As Andrew Carnegie once said:

“And while the law of competition may be sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the race”.

Are any hon. Members suggesting that Liverpool would not survive if obliged to refund all the public moneys it has received? Not a bit of it. If the business model is good and if the figures stack up, the operators of the port of Liverpool should be prepared to do what every other port operator in the country has done and put their money where their mouth is. However, we are where we are. As free marketeers, we have to deal in the marketplace where we find ourselves—a marketplace that has become or has the potential to become distorted.

I call on the Minister to respond to three points. First, I should like him to justify the current inaction on the flouting of the conditions laid down for Liverpool with regard to the commencement of turnaround calls before state aid clearance was sought or received, and to use a suspension injunction to prevent further turnaround cruises until such time as the outstanding issues are resolved. Secondly, I should like him to support the calls by Members of the European Parliament throughout the country to the European Commission for Liverpool city council to repay the European regional development funding, and to work with his colleagues in the DCLG to ensure that that goal is achieved. Thirdly, I should like him to ensure that the apparent “anything goes” attitude to the use of taxpayers’ money is halted forthwith and that, in these difficult times, the private companies that we wish to see lead the economic recovery are not disadvantaged by unfair competition from a state-subsidised operation that appears to have no respect for the rules of competition that I mentioned at the start of the debate.

It is a pleasure to be here, Mrs Brooke. I should like to get some facts on the record, not only for my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), but to give the Government’s side.

Like my hon. Friend, I am keen on competition, because I am a free marketeer as well. I am also keen, as a Minister, to consider in detail a request made by anybody anywhere in the United Kingdom. That is not what happened in 2008. The right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband) knows full well that when a request was submitted in 2008, it was dismissed quickly. I have not seen any legal advice instructing the Government that it would be illegal for them to look at the matter. Certainly, my legal advice, when Liverpool city council said that it would like to start turnaround, was not that I could not look at that. As a free marketeer, the Minister for the whole United Kingdom, and a Tory MP, here I am defending Liverpool. That is an interesting anomaly. Lord Heseltine would be proud of me.

It is clear that we were open and transparent all the way through; I will come back to how we achieved that. I met the operators of Southampton port—and Members from across the House—on more than one occasion to explain things exactly. In a democratic society that believes in a free market, any request should be looked at fairly by a Minister of the Crown. I looked at the request made by Liverpool city council, and I asked my officials what the procedures would be, what powers I had, and what powers were not in my hands. It was obvious that I had the power to look at the request, so we consulted widely, and got submissions from all parts of the House and across the country on what should happen. The key thing that I got back from the submissions was the point about fairness; that needs to be in whatever we do.

I looked at what I could do about the two separate payments made to Liverpool when it got the grants. First, I asked whether I or anyone in the UK had the power to ask for the regional development grant to be repaid. The answer was no; it is a Commission issue, for the Commission alone to deal with.

I will continue for the moment, because I am conscious of the time, and I want to cover many of the points made. If I have time at the end, I shall come back to my hon. Friend.

The issue is being looked at by the Commission, and it is for it to decide. What was in my power was the ability look at whether Liverpool had to pay back the full UK part of the grant, whether there was any depreciation because of the length of time, and whether interest would be added. My Department made an evaluation, and Liverpool asked to pay £5.3 million as a lump sum, which I rejected. The assumptions of my officials were that the amount should be about £8 million —we ended up with a figure of £8.8 million. To ensure that I was seen to be impartial, I asked for some independent advice on how much money should be repaid. My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North came up with the right amount, which was £8.8 million, or £12.6 million if phased. That is almost identical to the figures that the modelling came up with, after consideration of how other repayments were made.

I made that decision, and put it to Liverpool that it would have to pay those moneys back. As yet, Liverpool has not indicated how it will pay that—in stages, or in one lump sum. The assumption—that is all it is—is that it will be a one-stage payment. As yet, Liverpool has not indicated to the Department for Communities and Local Government how it will pay the money, or when it intends to do so. My officials have been in touch with DCLG officials, who have been in touch with the city council to push it on the need for a decision.

It is absolutely the case that state aid has not been cleared yet, but I do not have any power to stop Liverpool while we wait for the Commission to act. The key to the situation is that my officials and I as the Minister, independently and with no vested interests, have looked at what can be done. I believe that competition is good, and that competition around the country will drive up the excellent cruise market. I was at the European Cruise Council conference in Brussels only last week, and even after the terrible Costa Concordia disaster, the market has picked itself up and is moving forward again.

If the right hon. Gentleman could bear with me, I will give way in a moment.

Looking at the situation from my point of view, have we been open and completely honest about what we did and the process? I believe we have. Is Liverpool doing what I asked it to do? No, because it has not paid the money back and we do not yet have state aid clearance. Do I have the power to stop Liverpool? The answer is no. Would I really want to? If the European Commission declares the payment to be incorrectly done state aid—my legal advice is that it is not—Liverpool would have to pay the moneys back. Liverpool, however, has indicated that it will pay the money back. The words of the then leader of Liverpool city council, now the mayor, were, in effect: “We will pay back what you ask us to pay back.”

Will the hon. Lady bear with me for a second, because two other colleagues have tried to intervene as well? I have been given only 10 minutes to sum up the debate and, with so many people present, we could have done with a little longer.

The key for me is whether the effect on other ports and other incomes around the country will be dramatic. I have seen no evidence for that yet. At the European cruise conference, I spoke to the representative of a cruise operator that does not operate here at the moment, but will put 22 cruises in next year. I asked, “Would you be doing this at any other port in the UK?” The answer was no. I had to take that at face value. Will there be such a dramatic effect? I do not honestly think so. The Government have been genuine and honest about how much pain there should be, and Liverpool city council will have to step up to that and be as honest and open with us, and with its own electorate, as we were with it on what will have to be paid back and when. Also, should it have gone ahead without state aid approval? No, it should not have done.

With regard to the European money, are the Government in a position to make representations to the European Commission on the matter? If the Government think that the Commission is unlikely to ask for the money back, does that not suggest that the Commission acted in a distorting and anti-competitive way when making the money available in the first place?

My hon. Friend is leading me down a path that I am probably quite happy to be led down. I understand from my legal advice that the Commission has never asked for any such funding back in other, similar cases. Looking around Europe at subsidies, the Commission would probably rather not open such a Pandora’s box.

The Minister says that he has no power to act, but infraction proceedings would be taken against the British Government in the first instance, not Liverpool. Ministers have always had the ability to prevent the misuse of European regional development fund money, if they thought the misuse would leave the Government liable to action by the Commission. There must be legal powers for him to take to guard against the risk of infraction proceedings by the European Commission.

The right hon. Gentleman would be absolutely right if my legal advice was that I would be in breach, but my legal advice is that I will not be. He has had far more senior positions in government than me, so he knows that Ministers look at their legal advice and sometimes ignore it and sometimes accept it. In this case, I decided to accept the legal advice, as it came from those more qualified than me.

I thank the Minister for giving way. In 2009, the Department for Transport specifically said that the port of Tyne would be adversely affected by the lifting of the restrictive conditions, and that remains the case, because as a port, we are in direct competition with Liverpool for some of the cruise destinations. Furthermore, if the Government do not enforce a suspension injunction, they could be failing to comply with their EU treaty obligations.

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I have visited the great port of Tyne, and there are great plans for it. I was not a Minister in the Department for Transport in 2009, so she will have to speak to her colleagues about not paying back the subsidy. The key is that there is a formula for how much should be paid back, because there is a discount for the period of time, and interest must be added. That formula produced the figure. The issue is difficult for hon. Members, especially those who represent other ports, and I would probably feel exactly the same if I represented a port. The issue is all about fairness and what is legal.

I have sought advice. Any former Minister in this Chamber knows that we would never have said how much must be paid back without obtaining legal advice on whether it would be in breach of anything. Based on the legal advice that I have received, we are not in breach, and that is why I gave Liverpool the option of paying back the £8-plus million, or £12 million over a period. That is what Liverpool must make up its mind about. It should have paid back earlier, and it should not have gone ahead as it did.

I need to come to my conclusion. It is useful that people understand that the process has been open. I have tried throughout to ensure that competition is fair. I know that some colleagues will not like the result, and that people in other ports think that there will be a huge adverse effect. As a Conservative, I passionately believe in competition, and that is what this is all about. If the legal advice is that under the formula £8.8 million should be paid back, subject to the Commission’s permission, that is only fair. If I had acted in any other way, I would have had a load of Liverpool MPs in this Chamber arguing the matter the other way around.

Instead of ignoring the situation, I looked at it carefully, and instead of dismissing it straight away, which is what happened in 2008, we considered whether we could increase capacity, create jobs and create more turnaround. That is what I hope we have done. This debate has been useful, but I do not think everyone will agree.

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).