Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 25 February).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will be suspensions between debates. I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive at the start of the debate in Westminster Hall, and Members are expected to remain for the entire debate. I remind Members participating virtually that they are visible at all times, both to one another and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and before they leave the room. I call Andrew Rosindell to move the motion—and happy birthday.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of passenger boats and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.
Thank you very much, Dame Angela, and it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship on this St Patrick’s day. What a great day to have this debate. It is also Montserrat day. Mr Speaker is flying the flag of Montserrat from New Palace Yard, which is the first time ever that the flag of an overseas territory has been flown from the Palace of Westminster. Happy Montserrat day and happy St Patrick’s day to one and all.
I have served in the House now for 20 years. Also, I have served as the MP for my home constituency of Romford, which is and always has been a proud part of the county of Essex, while of course bordering on and with very close links to the capital city of London. As an MP within the authority area of the London Borough of Havering, located on the Thames estuary, I am all too conscious of the role that our great River Thames has played in our nation’s history, and the role that it will undoubtedly play in our future. To the east of London, the River Thames has once again become crucial for our trade, and in central and west London it continues to play a hugely important role for tourism and the London leisure economy.
I enthusiastically welcome the new Thames freeport, where thousands of new jobs will be created close to my Romford constituency, serving Romford, Havering, east London and the whole of the south-west Essex area. That is a piece of great news that we can celebrate today.
The River Thames is our river. It belongs to us in this region of the United Kingdom, whether we are from London, Essex, Kent, Surrey, Middlesex, Berkshire or beyond, and it must always be a river that the people of this region of our country are able to use for business, travel and pleasure. [Interruption.] Yes, I should perhaps have mentioned Oxfordshire as well, although today’s debate is more about the use of the River Thames in the more central part of London. But I assure the Minister that I had not forgotten Oxfordshire.
Many of my constituents rely on the Thames for their livelihoods and careers. They are highly skilled, and keen that a fair, competitive and safe working environment is maintained on the river, both for them and for future generations. As we go further upriver into central London and beyond Westminster, there is—as Members will know, because in normal times we see it alongside Parliament every day—a vibrant river-based tourism industry, whereby visitors to London and tourists can enjoy a unique boat trip along the Thames.
That is one of the issues I want to address today. I will explain why proposals from the Government’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency for London’s older passenger boats threaten to put this all at risk. As they stand, the plans are, I believe, disproportionate, inflexible and unfair. They risk forcing up to 25 popular and safe older passenger boats off the River Thames. I am grateful for the Minister’s letter on Monday that set out a determination to proceed with the plans, but I will now set out my very real concerns, which are shared by many Members on both sides of the House.
The MCA first proposed changes to the rules that govern passenger boats operating in category C tidal waters, such as the tidal Thames, three years ago. They are known as grandfather rights. The Thames, uniquely, is home to a large variety of safe, older passenger boats that operate in different parts of the river, based on their target tourist market and suitability. Each year, in normal times, they safely carry hundreds of thousands of passengers both on scheduled services such as the hugely popular and historic Westminster to Kew Gardens and Hampton Court summer service, or on private charter work such as evening parties and functions. As well as the many direct skilled jobs that those services retain, they also indirectly support the Thames boatyards and key tourist attractions, such as Kew Gardens, Hampton Court and London’s night-time economy, all of which have suffered terribly because of a year of lockdowns. They are essential in helping to deliver recovery.
In recent years, because of the growth of the fast and large Uber Thames Clipper fleet of boats, many of the older passenger boats on the Thames have chosen to operate in the less congested upriver areas of the tidal Thames, in the area west of Westminster pier. That will become more attractive as the large, river-reliant infrastructure projects, such as the Northern line extension at Battersea and the Tideway tunnel, are finished and the large tug and barge flows connected with those projects come to an end.
In the Minister’s letter to me on Monday, he said that the determination to proceed with plans was based on “evidence of ship numbers, movements and incidents upriver of Westminster, particularly in Lambeth Reach.” May I ask the Minister to please write to me and detail each incident that the Department has considered and the criteria against which they have judged it appropriate to take those plans forward? That surely is crucial information to judge whether it has been the right decision.
The MCA plans contain some proposals that can be met and delivered by operators, despite their having no work since the pandemic struck last March, but the specific proposal for vessels on the tidal Thames to have to subdivide their hulls, fit new bulkheads and effectively totally rebuild their boats at the waterline is both economic suicide and effectively vessel ending. Known as the damage stability rule, it would slash the passenger-carrying capacity on vessels that were built on the Thames to operate on the Thames and would cost hundreds of thousands of pounds per boat.
Consequently, owners will not be borrowing money to make their boats unfit for purpose—of course not. These boats are owned and operated by family businesses whose ancestors have worked on the river for centuries. They are long-standing stakeholders in the river, and the MCA proposals will put them out of business and their boats and jobs will be lost—the last thing we want at this stage. We should be revitalising the industry, not crushing it. I therefore sincerely hope that the Minister will see the need for at least some flexibility, pragmatism and risk-led common sense, both to improve river safety and to keep the sector afloat.
I want to place on the record the significant cross-party opposition to the MCA’s subdivision plans for older Thames passenger boats. Excellent work has also been done on the matter by Lord West of Spithead, in the other place, as the Minister will know. There have been letters to Secretaries of State for Transport from more than 60 Members of Parliament—cross-party—including the hon. Members for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) and for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney), my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Gareth Bacon), who used to lead the Conservative group on the Greater London Authority, my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken), and the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Ed Davey), the leader of the Liberal Democrats. The Minister will also know that many members of the London Assembly support the opposition to the proposals, and have raised objections and written to the Transport Secretary and his predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling). I understand that the Prime Minister has been made aware of the issue by his concerned west London constituents.
Importantly, the organiser of the 2012 Thames diamond jubilee pageant, Lord Salisbury, has also written in protest. One of the boats under threat from the MCA is the Connaught, which led the pageant and carried the Queen’s heralds, alongside Her Majesty’s own vessel. It was a special day for the River Thames, the Queen, the royal family and the whole country. Yet that boat is under threat from the proposal. Surely that cannot be right and there must be a reconsideration of the whole proposal. I hope that the Minister is starting to understand my horror at the implications. I ask him please to intervene and urgently review the Government’s position.
There is a key word that the MCA continues to use in promoting, and seeking to justify, its proposals. It says that the boats must be subdivided in the hull to make them safer. Safety is of course critical and must be proportionate across all modes of transport, particularly heritage transport. The Marchioness incident of 1989, which I am sure we all remember with great sadness, is sometimes cited by the MCA and the Minister in justifying the bans. However, that is not fair or valid. The Marchioness was the victim of a total and unforgivable lapse in navigational rules and standards, which caused it to strike and be sunk by a much larger vessel.
Importantly, in a letter on the subdivision issue to a Thames boatyard owner in September 2019, the chief executive officer of the Port of London Authority wrote: “I fully accept that such a change would in all probability have had minimal impact on the tragic outcome of the Marchioness collision.” That point is an important contribution. River skills, route knowledge, quieter and lower-risk waters, and the best possible training are key for the future of the Thames, alongside a viable and credible compromise that I want to set out for the benefit of the Minister and his Department.
I note that the MCA has told the Thames boat operators that it wants to update them on its plans on 14 April. I hope that the debate can help us to make some progress on that. The Minister is aware of the careful thought and consideration that have gone into the compromise proposal for the older Thames passenger boats, which is that they should be restricted to the Thames west of Westminster pier, with the use of the pier itself, without the need for the subdivision. In our virtual call with the Minister on November 2, Lord West explained how operators were prepared to limit their operations from this point, and concentrate their navigation in the less congested areas of lower operational risk along the river. Indeed, many of the boats were built to operate in the upper tidal reaches of the Thames, with their shallow draft and low deck profiles.
This solution would achieve four important goals. First, river authorities would know where older passenger boats were operating at any one time, given their new zonal restrictions alongside already being on the automatic identification system. Secondly, no older passenger boat would be forced off the Thames and would be able to play its part in bringing tourists and visitors back to the river after the covid restrictions, and help meet the Transport for London, Port of London Authority and Greater London Authority ambitions to significantly grow river passengers over the next 15 years, particularly upriver. Thirdly, the boats would continue to support the important Thames boatyards and skills supply chain, which means jobs would not be lost and yards closed. Fourthly, we would avoid the MCA’s earlier plans to issue exemptions only if individual boats can successfully clear their future risk assessment test, the criteria for which have never been published or released.
I foresee a real risk of bureaucratic and legal quagmire here. As the Minister knows, the upper tidal Thames has full and fast Royal National Lifeboat Institution cover as well. There are many issues that I do not believe have been fully addressed in the current proposals. That is why the Minister simply has to take this seriously and change the current projection and policy. It is crucial that we strike a pragmatic and proportionate balance for operators and safety. This lower operational risk solution will deliver this, without forcing anyone out of business or losing any of these key and safe assets from the river.
If the Minister will not change direction, will he discuss with the operators what compensation they will be offered for the forced loss of their income and their businesses, as well as the considerable devaluation of their assets? He needs to address this directly. If he pushes ahead, he has to consider what he is doing to the livelihoods and the businesses that will be affected. The Government will have to pay huge sums of money to compensate for the damage this policy will do. That could all be avoided if he reviews this policy today.
The Thames has changed considerably in the last 20 years, and it is great to see so many people using it for leisure and commuter travel. As it has grown in importance and popularity, the need for services to be carefully regulated and monitored is all too clear, as is the importance of preventing any anti-competitive practices or unfair situations, which I fear have been allowed to develop. That is a further angle to this.
As the Minister knows, I am increasingly concerned by reports from my constituents that the company tasked with delivering the river’s commuter boats, Uber Thames Clippers, has been abusing its dominant market position and enjoying unfair advantages, which in turn unfairly undermines other operators on the river. I wrote to him about this last year and he replied, asking to be kept informed.
Since 1999, Transport for London has made provision for a dedicated scheduled river boat commuter service, now called Uber Thames Clippers, which is regulated by TfL, under the responsibility of the Mayor of London. Clippers run services between Putney and east London in normal times, in the morning and evening commuter peaks and throughout the day. Consequently, in normal times they carry hundreds of thousands of tourists and visitors. It seeks to attract them with prominent marketing. Uber Thames Clippers is therefore not only a commuter service; it is also a tourist service.
For this daytime tourist offering, Uber Thames Clippers enjoys many commercial advantages as a result of arrangements with TfL that are not enjoyed by competing scheduled Thames tourist boat operators. That simply is not fair. It is this point that I wish to explain. I have written to the Deputy Mayor for Transport in London twice, and my colleague in the Greater London Assembly, the Assembly Member for my own borough of Havering, Keith Prince, is also taking these matters up in the GLA and asking probing questions of the Mayor of London, but no answers have been given; this matter is unresolved. A future investigation by the Competition and Markets Authority may now be necessary, and I ask the Minister to address this point.
The key issue is that Uber Thames Clippers does not have to pay landing fees at busy central TfL-owned peers such as Westminster, Tower of London, Greenwich and Bankside, when its boats disembark and pick up tourist passengers during the day, but its scheduled competitors do. These costs run into hundreds of thousands of pounds every year, which Uber Thames Clippers avoids but its rivals—the traditional operators—still have to pay. That cannot be fair, it cannot be right and it is uncompetitive, and the Minister must intervene to end this unfairness.
TfL has explained how and why it justifies and maintains having one rule for one tourist operator and one for another. I have constituents who work on the Thames and have to endure the unfair competition and unacceptable distortion. I want to know how it is justified by the Mayor and what Transport Ministers might be minded to do, in line with the Competition Act 1998, given the unfair practices being maintained by a body, in TfL, that has received billions of pounds in public support.
All the operators ask for is a level playing field, so that when they compete with Uber Thames Clippers for tourist passengers outside of commuter times, they all pay the same pier fees. At the moment, Uber Thames Clippers enjoys an unfair market advantage, which is being maintained and defended by the Mayor and TfL. Will the Minister tell the House what the Government can now do to bring more scrutiny and attention to this disturbing issue, especially when the Mayor and TfL have been given billions in taxpayer support over the last year alone? Does he think a CMA inquiry might be an option for consideration?
The future of London is intrinsically tied up with the future of the River Thames. It is the liquid highway, and it has again become key to how we enjoy this great city and to creating jobs, growing the city and showcasing it to the world as part of our new global Britain. Everything must be done to prevent and remove any bad policy, plan or failing situation that threatens to disproportionately undermine those who rely on it for their business or the public’s ability to enjoy it, especially as we come out of the pandemic and look again to the river for some peace, fulfilment and enjoyment. I therefore hope that the Minister will answer my points and provide real assurances to those who want to help ensure that our wonderful River Thames recovers after this bleak period in our history and resumes its historic role of helping Londoners to work, with key services provided on the river in a fair, pragmatic and safe environment.
I conclude on this St Patrick’s day by paying tribute to the vital part that our Irish friends have played in the history of the River Thames over many centuries. I draw the House’s attention to the important contribution of Irish workers, particularly the vital part they played in building the Thames tunnel between 1825 and 1843, which has a special place in British history as the first tunnel built under a navigable river anywhere in the world. The workers spent long shifts digging the 700-foot tunnel in treacherous conditions that would lead to the death of six during the course of its construction. These workers were predominantly Irish migrants who moved to London in the 19th century to find work, and who created a significant piece of London’s history. It is important that their work and achievement should be remembered, and I can think of no better day on which to do that than this St Patrick’s day.
Dame Angela, Minister, colleagues, let us celebrate the central part our River Thames has played in the lives of our people, our capital and our nation, and seek to ensure that it may go on doing so for many centuries to come.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dame Angela. I congratulate the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) on his presentation and on doing it so well. I wish all hon. Members here in this Westminster Hall sitting and elsewhere a very happy St Patrick’s day. It is a pleasure to come and speak today.
It is good to remind ourselves, as the hon. Gentleman did, that those who built the Thames tunnel were Irish migrants. We should thank them—many from Northern Ireland, and many from the Republic of Ireland—for their contribution to this great nation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
As you probably know, Dame Angela, and as others will know as well, they say that if St Patrick turns the stone the right way up on St Patrick’s day—in other words, if it is dry and sunny, as it is outside—that probably means that we will have good weather between now and the summertime. I hope that is the case.
I wish the hon. Member for Romford many happy returns. He is an Aries, I think—
Sorry. I am an Aries—I am not that far away. Again, I wish the hon. Gentleman many happy returns.
The title of this debate is very clear and specific, and I will come to it specifically, but I would like to make some general comments to start with, and I would also like to talk about river ferries at the end. I have to take this opportunity to discuss a massive issue for my constituency. Some of the context in my constituency will tie in with some of the things the hon. Gentleman has referred to.
As we are all aware, Northern Ireland is a landlocked nation in the UK, and, as the Northern Ireland protocol has shown very clearly, landlocking brings its own problems. I am not going to talk about the Northern Ireland protocol—that is not appropriate, Dame Angela, and I know you would bring me into line and correct me if I did—but I just wanted to make that point and then say how it features within this debate.
The onus on hauliers and shipping is massive, and any issue or problem with this route affects the supply of basic goods to Northern Ireland. The passenger ferries from Larne to Cairnryan, where some of the problems we have seen have occurred, or the other ferry services, do not simply ensure free movement of people—they carry our necessities. The issue for ferries, for water travel, is so specific, and it ties in well with this debate about the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and the future of passenger boats.
Coronavirus has seen a massive impact on our connectivity, and understandably so. However, what must be understood is that this has wider connotations for GB-NI trade, which must be protected at all costs. The waterways are not simply a way for tourists to travel, although having travelled on the Thames on a few occasions with my wife, with other family members and individually, I can understand its attraction and that of maritime boats—it is similar in my constituency, which many people visit to experience the landscape and the warmest welcome—but the waterways are also a way of feeding people.
Over the last four Sunday evenings, Strangford has featured in “Bloodlands”—a drama programme that has given James Nesbitt fairly great prominence. When my wife and I were watching it on television, we were not as intrigued by the drama and the story as we were by trying to work out which part of Strangford lough it was set in and whose farm we were seeing. I can identify with that.
Let me turn to the main thrust of the debate, which is the replacement of boats that are older and that may need attention. The hon. Member for Romford referred to how important that is, and I want to give another example from my constituency. Old is not always not good, and it is important we recognise that. The hon. Gentleman referred to providing grants and help for small boats. We have done that in Northern Ireland; it was in a different sector, but the same principle applies, and that is what I want to refer to.
The fishing fleet in Portavogie is between 45 and 48 years old. It was decided that massive rebuilds had to take place to bring it up to safety standards. Any seaman or fishing person in Portavogie would say that they would take their sturdy, old, seaworthy boat over the new and improved one any day, any time. The Government and, most of all, the Northern Irish Assembly, through the fisheries Department, have made sure that grant in aid is available for that. I know that we are in a difficult time with covid, and that resources are minute, so that is not always a possibility, but the Minister might want to look at the issue.
While it is undoubted that any passenger ferry must be to a high standard and safe, that is not to say that we must discard the older boats. As one who is feeling this more and more, let me say that sometimes the old things can be the best things, and it is important to put that on record as well.
I share the concerns of many about the impact on services, should the requirements be implemented to the full. I will certainly be asking the Minister to listen carefully to those whose livelihoods and trade depends on these boats—the hon. Member for Romford has referred to them, and I am here to support him in his request to the Minister and in what he wants to bring about.
Safety can go hand in hand with this lively and wonderful internationally recognised service. Without a doubt, when people come to London for a few days, as I do every week, or for a break, one of the things they have to do is travel on a boat—one of those leisure cruises—and enjoy the scenery and the water.
In my constituency, there are thriving private fishing and leisure boat business. We have excellent fishing in Strangford lough and the Irish Sea. Those businesses thrive because the opportunity to catch fish is there, but also because there is something really exciting about doing that. I am not sure whether we have the same ability to do that in the Thames, or whether there is a thriving fishing sector—or angling sector, I should say—but, if there is, it would certainly be another thing to look at.
Again, while safety is paramount—it has to be, and it must be upheld—we also have to look at how we can improve some of the older boats. I have spoken to people regarding this debate and comments by the hon. Gentleman about the Thames and the area. I find myself agreeing with a number of MPs, and especially the hon. Member for Romford, who introduced the debate, as well as with others who are looking at this debate from afar—I have spoken to some of them as well, and although they are not here today, they have a similar opinion to the hon. Gentleman.
I will just quote from the Evening Standard:
“The operators are SMEs and family-run businesses which have worked on the river for generations. The double whammy of covid and these unnecessary MCA proposals will do potentially terminal damage to London’s maritime heritage, river jobs and tourism. They should be changed so that no boats are forced off the river and the sector can recover.”
I know that the Conservative party—and, in fairness, the Labour party as well—is committed to ensuring that small and medium-sized enterprises can be protected, and that the self-employed have opportunities. If ever there was a time to do that, it is now. Perhaps in his response the Minister can give us some assurance that SMEs will be protected in legislation. I know that the Minister and the Government have done that and continue to do that, but we need that assurance today.
I support the Evening Standard in its call. I truly believe that we can see these boats being safely used and upgraded in a methodical and financial manner that does not close businesses down, but that, as with the changes to fishing vessels in my constituency, where this happened, subsidises them with grants, guides them and enhances them. This is not the time to be putting unbearable financial pressure on any aspect of tourism. In my constituency, tourism is vital—it is the key theme of Ards and North Down Borough Council and Strangford as well. I ask the Minister to review the mechanism and timing of these proposals.
In conclusion, these boats are a wonderfully visual aspect of tourism and must be safe and protected. We can do these things differently, and the hon. Member for Romford referred to that. I ask the Minister to review this issue once more, with a post-covid view and perhaps with a slightly different perspective.
It is pleasure to see you in the Chair, Dame Angela, for today’s debate on the future of passenger boats and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. I wish the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) a happy birthday, and I thank him and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for their contributions. I wish all hon. Members a happy St Patrick’s day.
Although small in number, the contributions to the debate have been wide-ranging, covering many aspects of marine passenger travel, from the future of travel and the use of the Thames, to the Larne and Cairnryan sea link, to which farm is owned by whom on the banks of Strangford lough.
As the Member of Parliament for Argyll and Bute, which boasts 26 islands and probably has more passenger ferries than any other UK constituency, I could not speak in this debate. The passenger ferries, whether they are operated by CalMac, Argyll and Bute Council or Western Ferries, are a critical lifeline to our rural communities. I want to highlight some of the enormous contribution made by all of those who work on the boats every day of the year, providing an essential, sometimes lifeline, service to thousands of people and hundreds of small communities on dozens of remote islands. I would like to put on record my sincere thanks to every single one of them.
By far the biggest ferry operator in the west of Scotland is CalMac, the legendary Caledonian MacBrayne, which sails to more than 30 destinations across the west of Scotland. For more than a century, the distinctive black and white boats, topped by a fiery red funnel, have connected Scotland’s islands to the mainland, ensuring that, despite the worst weather that could be thrown at them, the remote communities are served and regularly supplied, and that islanders are able to come and go freely.
In my constituency, CalMac operates 18 different routes, connecting the islands of Mull, Iona, Islay, Bute, Tiree, Coll, Colonsay, Lismore, Gair and Kerrera to the Scottish mainland. It is not just island communities that are served in that way. CalMac plays a hugely important role in linking remote mainland towns and villages to the centre of Scotland, including Dunoon, Creagan, Campbeltown and Tarbert.
For so many of my constituents, ferries are not just something they take to go on holiday; they are the lifeline that brings food, drink, parcels, the post, the daily newspapers, building materials and vital medical supplies. Although CalMac is undoubtedly the largest ferry company, I also recognise and pay tribute to the year-round contribution made by those working on Argyll and Bute Council-operated ferries between Port Appin and Lismore, Cuan and Luing, Ellenabeich and Easdale, and Port Askaig and the Isle of Jura.
A huge and important contribution is also made by Western Ferries, which operates the car ferry that ploughs the Firth of Clyde between Hunters Quay and Gourock. If I look out of my window right now I can see Western Ferries boats crossing the Firth of Clyde on one of their multiple daily journeys.
Not only do these operators serve local communities; they are also part of the communities they serve. They do so much good to improve the area and the general wellbeing of so many communities. I would like to make special mention of four CalMac employees in Oban who last month raised thousands of pounds to support one their colleagues, Megan, who had experienced a particularly difficult time in her life. Nicky MacKechnie, Alan MacInnes, Ian Rodgers and Keith MacMillan launched a charity exercise regime called Megan’s Miles. It had an initial target of raising £500 for the Scottish Association for Mental Health, but by last night they and their colleagues at the CalMac terminal at Oban had raised more than £8,000. I am sure colleagues from across the House will want to congratulate them on that magnificent effort in support of one of their colleagues; it is a very worthwhile cause. Although Nicky, Alan, Ian and Keith may not be unique, they serve as a good example of the people who keep these essential services running. Those services belong to, and are an integral part of, the communities they serve.
There is no doubt in my mind that without CalMac and the other services, those communities would struggle to survive. Despite the challenging circumstances in which we find ourselves, the Scottish Government are, and have been, absolutely committed to supporting and improving the ferry network by implementing a long-term, positive, sustainable series of policies to connect our rural communities to the mainland, thereby boosting local economies and creating employment opportunities.
The SNP Scottish Government recognise the essential role that passenger ferries play in supporting our island communities. That is why, since coming to power in 2007, they have invested £2.2 billion in the Clyde and Hebrides ferry service, the Northern Isles ferry services and general infrastructure, as part of our commitment to promoting Scotland’s islands and remote communities. The Scottish Government recognise the important role played by CalMac and others in connecting those communities to the centre, and they have put in place measures to make it easier and cheaper for islanders to travel to the mainland and for visitors to go to the islands.
In 2008, the Scottish Government introduced a pilot scheme called the road equivalent tariff. The principle of RET was essentially that ferry fares should be set on the basis of travelling the equivalent distance by road, and that island communities should face no financial disadvantage. At the same time, it promoted Scotland’s beautiful Western Isles as a great place to live, work, stay, raise a family, invest, conduct business and, of course, visit and spend a fortnight’s holiday.
It is absolutely right that any scheme that is funded, as RET is, to the tune of £25 million a year be rigorously and robustly scrutinised, so I was pleased that, earlier this week, with almost precision timing for today’s debate, Transport Scotland delivered its official evaluation of RET on the Clyde and Hebrides network. It is a large and interesting read—it runs to more than 80 pages. It examines in detail the roll-out and impact of RET on local communities, island infrastructure, the local economy, the environment and the all-important tourism sector.
The report took as its measure the original objectives that the Scottish Government set out to achieve when RET was introduced. They are increased demand, increased tourism and enhancing local economies. The Transport Scotland report shows that the demand for ferries has increased. Almost all routes have shown an increase, with a significantly higher number of residents and visitors using the Clyde and Hebrides service than before RET was introduced. Across the network as a whole, it is estimated that the average fare paid by passengers and car users has dropped by between 34% and 40%. That, in return, has made an overall positive contribution to local economies.
Of course, the report makes it clear that the scheme is not perfect. Nothing ever could be when dealing with a large transport network that connects hundreds of communities in the often windswept north Atlantic. There are problems—some predictable, others not—that have arisen since the introduction of the scheme. Among them, the popularity of RET has put added pressure on the already fragile road infrastructure in many of the islands. A lack of public toilets, camping facilities and chemical waste disposal has been highlighted, and increased visitor traffic has made travel for islanders wishing to leave far more challenging, as spaces on the car deck are booked up well in advance of sailing.
The long-term signs are that the upward trend in people visiting the islands will continue, and that will require significant new investment in boats, services and port infrastructure. That said, there is a broad consensus that the introduction and roll-out of the road equivalent tariff has been a very good thing for the islands, and I commend the Scottish Government for it.
Looking to the future, there can be no doubt that improved physical connectivity, coupled to advancements in digital connectivity, has a vital role in reversing the depopulation trend that we are unfortunately seeing across our island communities. Allowing people to live safely and securely in remote island communities must form a major part of any Government’s strategic thinking, and of course, better, more reliable, environmentally friendly ferries have a role to play. However, in and of themselves, they are not the answer.
I urge the Scottish Government and others to consider the bold, innovative approach taken by our neighbours in the Faroes, whose Government have combined a ferry network with a system of subsea tunnels. I was fortunate to visit the Faroes in 2019, to visit the Ministry that overseas these large infrastructure projects, and to stand on the Eysturoy tunnel during its construction—11 km long, connecting three islands by means of the world’s first subsea roundabout. It is a remarkable feeling to stand 5 km offshore, 190 metres below the Atlantic, watching them cutting and blasting their way through the basalt rock. Of course, I understand that the Faroes are much smaller than Scotland, but the scale of their ambition to connect people to the centre and reverse what people believed was an irreversible population decline is something to behold, and something we should all learn from.
Finally, I pay tribute again to the hon. Member for Romford for having secured this debate, and for the passionate and forensic way in which he laid out his case; I am sure the Minister will look forward to answering that. I also thank the hon. Member for Strangford for his, as always, telling and informative contribution, and I thank you, Dame Angela, for allowing me to put on record my appreciation for those who work so hard in Argyll and Bute and, indeed, across Scotland to provide that vital service that keeps our remote, rural and island communities connected to the Scottish mainland.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Dame Angela. I congratulate the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) and wish him a happy birthday on this St Patrick’s day, which he was very eloquent about. For those who cannot see the hon. Members for Romford and for Strangford (Jim Shannon), they have beautiful green ties on today, but the hon. Member for Romford has excelled by having matching coloured socks as well. I think the British public need to know that. I also thank him for his chairmanship of the Chagos islands (British Indian Ocean Territory) all-party parliamentary group, as I do on a regular basis, and the work he has put in over the years for that community. The small community that I represent in Wythenshawe and Sale East are very grateful for the work of that group.
Like Henry V before Harfleur, I was not angry before I came to this meeting, but when I heard about the Connaught, I became quite agitated. My parents emigrated from the great province of Connacht, from Leitrim and Roscommon, in the mid-1950s. They did not know each other in 1955; they met at a dance in Manchester, and married and moved out to the green pastures of Wythenshawe, where I came along a few years later. On this St Patrick’s day, I pay a particular tribute to my parents and my father, who was an Irish navvy and built the roads and the sewers of the north-west of England in his working life. As you well know, Dame Angela, I also play in the Fianna Phadraig pipe band—the warriors of Patrick—which celebrates its 73rd year this year in Wythenshawe, and I play in another musical ensemble called Lorica. A lorica is a poem that was used by warriors in the time of St Patrick—a poem on their breastplate to go into battle—and one of the lines in the lorica on St Patrick’s breastplate is
“God’s strength to pilot me”.
Listening to the hon. Member for Romford’s speech today, I thought that was an apt part that we should think about; a pearl of St Patrick’s wisdom that he gave us.
Today’s debate has focused on the Maritime and Coastguard Agency’s proposed changes to grandfather rights for all passenger boats. It has particularly highlighted the thriving and—at least pre-covid—successful passenger boat businesses on the Thames. The Tony Robinson TV series, “The Thames” was particularly excellent at showing what a vital artery the Thames is for our whole nation—and in Oxfordshire, as well, for the record; I say that for the Minister. Members will have admired boat trips along this section. Just before lockdown, I had the pleasure of going to Kew Gardens on one of those boats. These historic boats, including 19th century ships and even some veterans of the Dunkirk evacuation, continue to provide safe and enjoyable experiences for tourists, all year round, year after year. I pay tribute to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency for the work it does and the exemplary safety standards on our rivers and coastal waters. It is of great importance to maintain that record, so I welcome the principle of upgrading the standards of vessels operating on rivers such as the Thames.
I join the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) in paying tribute to all ferry workers who have worked so hard during the pandemic. I am sure that view is shared by all Members. They have kept our vital supply lines open, externally to the United Kingdom, and internally. Life is tough at sea and on our waterways and they have done exemplary work. However, I think the sleep is beginning to fall from some voters’ eyes in Scotland; things are not quite as rosy with CalMac as the hon. Gentleman makes out. I am a huge user of CalMac ferries in my biannual holidays to either the Orkney Islands or the Western Isles. I see what is going on in Papa Westray and Westray, and on the ferries to Barra and other places. We know that there are huge problems with Scottish Ministers curtailing ferries to the Western Isles. There are huge rows about that. We know the CalMac fleet is ageing, because the Scottish Government have not invested in it over the last few years. There have been some terrible procurement problems with the SNP Government sourcing new ferries out of Port Glasgow. In particular, there are the contracts that doubled in value for two ferries; then they had to nationalise the shipbuilding yard. Governance of CalMac by the Scottish Government could be better and I hope we see that going forward.
I lend my support to the DFT’s review of Lord West of Spithead’s recommendations for the River Thames west of Westminster. I understand the Minister is currently exploring the review with officials. By allowing those businesses operating boats to continue to work upriver of Westminster pier, where traffic is much lower, Lord West’s plans may mitigate the risks, allowing these businesses and boats to continue working. While I am no expert on boat safety, I would like to note that the Port of London Authority support that plan as being within an acceptable level of risk. The proposed revisions to safety standards, especially affecting boat businesses on the Thames, have been a long time coming. The Minister will be aware that before our time covering this portfolio, there was considerable opposition to the implementation of these new regulations. The Mayor of London, MPs, Lords, GLA Members and businesses have also raised concerns about them. If enforced in their current form, they could wipe out an important part of London’s heritage.
Covid-19, having ravaged much of our economy and taken so much of our bandwidth, has not spared this sector. I ask the Minister to take away the feedback from today’s debate and show some urgency in concluding his deliberations. I hope that the Department and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency can find a proportionate response that allows these historic boats and vibrant businesses to continue to sail safely.
The hon. Member for Romford finished with a tribute, echoed by the hon. Member for Strangford, to Irish navvies, who built the Thames tunnel. On this St Patrick’s day, I think it apt that I finish with a lorica:
“Navigator, Navigator, rise up and be strong,
The morning is here and there’s work to be done,
With your pickaxe and your shovel and your old dynamite,
To shift a few tons of this earth by tonight.”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela. I very much enjoyed the speech made by the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane). I am not entirely sure I can follow it; it was a very good speech that I listened to intently. I thank all hon. Members who have spoken today. I wish everyone a happy St Patrick’s Day and Montserrat Day, and wish my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) a happy birthday. We have paid tribute to everyone in those diverse communities across the UK today, from Romford to Strangford, and it is an honour to be a part of that celebration.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Romford on securing this important debate about passenger ship operations, particularly on the tidal River Thames. He is quite right to refer to it as a “liquid highway” connecting the country together. I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East for having rightly pointed out to the House that it connects Oxfordshire. In fact, it forms the southern border of my constituency and is an artery through the entirety of southern England.
I join my hon. Friend the Member for Romford in supporting the announcement of the Thames freeport. Given its location, it has the potential to become a national hub for international trade and commerce, and to attract business and jobs to the region. It reconnects us with our vibrant maritime history and reinforces our position as an outward looking trading nation.
My hon. Friend mentioned the competitiveness points that fall within the responsibility of the Mayor of London. Those matters are for the Mayor and Transport for London to address. I know he will continue to engage with the Mayor and he may question his management of London’s transport system, which has left a lot to be desired. My hon. Friend asked about scrutiny; he is doing a good job in providing that scrutiny himself, but I am happy to join him and write to the Mayor to raise those concerns as well.
I turn to the subject of passenger boats. I associate myself with the comments made by all hon. Members, particularly the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara), who paid tribute to maritime workers across our wonderful United Kingdom and everything they have been doing to connect communities, particularly in the difficult circumstances of the pandemic.
I am sure the House will agree that safety must be a top priority for the Government when it comes to ship operations. Operators must ensure that ships are not only built but maintained and operated to maintain the safety of their passengers, their crews and other ships. There is a balance to be struck between safety and the right to trade and remain operationally viable. Ultimately, this is a matter of judgment of risk, and it comes down to having proportionate and appropriate safety measures. I suspect that my hon. Friend the Member for Romford and I would entirely agree on that statement of principle. It is just a matter of where the balance falls.
It may be appropriate to spend a moment looking at the origins of the legislation that is proposed, which, as my hon. Friend points out, was the Marchioness incident. I hope the House will pardon me if I reflect on the tragic events of 20 August 1989, as the background may be helpful. Hon. Members will remember the deeply harrowing scenes of the Marchioness party boat after its collision with the Bowbelle dredger on the Thames around Southwark bridge. Tragically, 51 young people lost their lives that night. That tragic event prompted 30 years of debate about the general safety of passenger ships on our inland waterways, particularly those on the tidal River Thames. The proposals that we are considering spring from that tragic incident, rather than seeking to address an incident that had already taken place. That is an important distinction to make.
There were a number of drivers of change. There was a Marine Accident Investigation Branch recommendation. After Lord Justice Clarke’s Thames safety inquiry in 2000, he conducted an exercise and enhanced security arrangements were proposed. A number of improvements have taken place since 1989 to the emergency response and the operation of small passenger ships. For example, Her Majesty’s Coastguard now has a presence on the river, with the Port of London Authority, at the Thames barrier, the RNLI now has a presence on the river, and additional rescue equipment and safety aids are placed along the banks of the Thames to support people who may find themselves in the water.
Ship movements are closely monitored by the Port of London Authority, which is responsible for safe navigation using modern tracking systems. Ships have adopted better look out arrangements to reduce the risk of collision and training is better, as is the certification of crews. Additionally, ships built after 1992 must meet modern ship damage survivability standards. That is to keep them afloat in the event of an accident, either to get them back to shore under their own steam or to give time for passengers and crew to be rescued.
However, those modern standards have not thus far been applied to the older ships, which retain what are called grandfather rights, and that of course is the subject of today’s debate. But as waterways have become busier, so the concern about the safety of these ships has also grown. Some of the ships are very old and are heritage boats. My hon. Friend the Member for Romford is right to say that they should be treasured. The hon. Member for Strangford has paid tribute to them as well. I think his phrase was that the old can sometimes be the best. I think we would all agree with that sentiment. I totally understand the special place that these ships have in the hearts of many Members of this House and of the other place. I feel a lot of that sentiment myself.
Significantly, I also appreciate the concerns and representations from operators, who are concerned about being unable to continue in business if they are compelled to modify their ships to bring them into line with modern safety standards, particularly the damage stability requirements, which I will come to in a little more detail in a moment. Of course, that is all amplified by the pandemic. Therefore, we come to looking at the point of balance, which is perhaps the real issue in the debate today. There is an argument for saying that the safety record of the old passenger ships on the River Thames is good and therefore there is no need to introduce the new requirements. It is true that we have not seen an incident with loss of life similar to the Marchioness tragedy since that dreadful night in August 1989, but the difficult question is whether that is by design or whether it is simply a matter of good fortune, and it is that difficult question that we must ask ourselves when we are considering this matter.
Safety experts at the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and the Port of London Authority are of the clear view that there has been too much reliance on continuing good fortune, and I would like to spend a moment or two explaining why that is. It is of note as background that, as I understand it, to this day the sister ship of the Marchioness continues to operate on the tidal River Thames. Evidence is inconclusive as to whether the measures proposed in the legislation would prevent an identical incident. My hon. Friend the Member for Romford may well be right; I think he made the point that perhaps they would not prevent an identical incident. But what I ask the House to consider is that that is not the right question, the question that we should be asking, because the relevant comparator is how quickly a vessel would sink were something—not necessarily that type of accident—to happen to it.
The Port of London Authority says that between 2010 and 2018 there were 1,192 accidents or incidents of varying severity along the Thames. I would like to give one example of what may have been just such a near miss. It is very appropriate: in 2008, the Millennium City hit Westminster bridge, literally outside this window here. It was pushed, as I understand it, by the tide and sustained an 8-foot gash to its side, below the waterline. We can never know what would have happened if a different vessel had been involved in that incident, but the expert opinion of the MCA is that, had it been one of the older passenger ships that did not meet the modern standards, it might well have sunk rapidly, with a considerable risk to life. Similarly, with regard to the Millennium Time collision in 2014 with the tug Redoubt, there would have been significant risk of an older vessel, covered by the grandfather rights, foundering.
The tidal Thames, the stretch of the river from Teddington Lock to the east, is complex in nature. It has varying depths and varying width. Other issues are its density, the make-up of the traffic on it, navigational hazards and environmental conditions. It is a tricky bit of river. The significant amount of large commercial traffic that operates on the Thames makes the risk of a collision unacceptably high, particularly in terms of a catastrophic collision between vastly different size ships, where the impact of the larger one overwhelms the smaller one. That mixture of heavy and light vessels also leads to congestion around bridges on the Thames. There is a mixture of tugs and barges with passenger ships and smaller craft. There is competition for berths at piers. That combination of risk factors necessitates the highest safety standards in ship construction, because if one of those older, unmodified ships were involved in an accident, it is likely that it would sink and lives would be lost.
It is against that background that the MCA legislation has been developed over several years. It has been the subject of a number of consultations and intense scrutiny, and there have also been a number of industry workshops. I accept that there is controversy surrounding it, and I totally accept that there is cross-party objection to it. That is why I met my hon. Friend the Member for Romford, as he kindly said, and others, so I have a first-hand understanding of it. The intention behind the legislation is to update the standards so that they are closer to those expected of modern ships. Passengers have a right to expect safety standards that appertain to the 21st century. That is probably what they expect, without a second thought, when they step on to a ship. My hon. Friend has asked for flexibility. I will come to that in a moment, but it is right to note that even under these revised proposals, older ships will have flexibility in how they comply.
It is important to note that, in addition to survivability in the event of damage, the proposals also cover safety improvements to life-saving equipment, firefighting and detection, bilge pumps and associated alarms. The most challenging part is the damage stability requirement and flexibility—better referred to as “damage survivability”, because that it is really means—and even there we have introduced a facility for an exemption. Owners will need to demonstrate, through a risk assessment, that their ships are operating in an area that presents a lower risk profile. That risk assessment will need to be agreed by the MCA and must not be opposed by the relevant navigation authority. My hon. Friend quite rightly mentioned the details. Some consultation has already taken place, but there will be time, between the laying of the legislation and its coming into force, to make clear the steps that those operators that wish to apply for an exemption will have to take.
I totally recognise that it may not be possible to modify some of the older ships to comply with modern stability standards. As I have said, we will undertake a risk-balancing exercise, whereby risk to life will be assessed alongside the safety standards—it is all a balance of risk, as hon. Members well understand. It seems to me that that is in the right place. Operators can either comply with the standards by modifying their ships, or apply for the exemption. I would suggest that that represents the flexibility referred to my hon. Members, and it is a compromise of sorts.
There has, of course, been a request for further compromise. I am hugely grateful to all hon. Members and Members of the other place for their constructive and expert engagement. I recognise the strength of feeling and thank them for that engagement. It is precisely because of that engagement that the MCA and the Department have considered in great detail whether there is a case for further compromise.
The MCA has carefully evaluated the option of not applying the damage stability requirements to ships that keep their operations to the west of Westminster Bridge, which it judges as being not acceptable from a safety perspective. That decision is based on ship numbers, movements and incidents upriver of Westminster, particularly in Lambeth Reach. My hon. Friend asked me to write to him with details, and I will of course enter into correspondence with him on the basis for that decision.
Although the level of maritime traffic may be less, the balance of risk means that it remains unacceptable to rely on a blanket exemption for small passenger ships. And it is, of course, the blanket exemption that my hon. Friend is asking for today. It is important to stress that that does not mean that exemptions are not possible, because operators can apply for an exemption, using the risk-assessment process to demonstrate that the arrangements for individual ships are safe and will protect the ship, its passengers and crew in the event of an accident. Proposals will allow operators an exemption from the new damage stability requirements if they demonstrate that they operate in an area of category C waters, which pose a lower operational risk. That risk assessment must be agreed by the MCA and not opposed by the relevant harbour authority.
I would not want to prejudge any risk assessment outcomes, but it may be that operators will struggle to show evidence that there is a lower operational risk in the vicinity of Westminster, for the reason I have outlined. There may be more scope to demonstrate a lower risk upriver of Chelsea, although of course everything will be considered on a case-by-case basis.
To sum up, the level of maritime traffic may be less in this part of the river, but the balance of risk means that it remains unacceptable to have a blanket exemption for small passenger ships. However, I believe that the flexibility and proportionality that my hon. Friend asks for is there, because it does not mean that no exemptions are possible; they just have to be approached in the right way in order to protect safety in the way that I have outlined.
I thank all hon. Members who have made representations about the safety of older passenger ships. My hon. Friend made a powerful speech. He spoke hugely compellingly on behalf of his constituents, those who use the river, and all the people who have raised the issue with him. They could ask for no better advocate. He has made powerful points, and I have great sympathy for many of them. However, as I have said, the question ultimately comes down to a matter of judgment on the basis of risk.
The Government’s position is that, when we look at the risk-assessed exemption present in the proposed legislation, we believe that it is no longer sufficient to rely on good fortune when dealing with the safety of life on the river. The MCA has made efforts to take account of as many as possible of the matters raised in the consultation and elsewhere. As I say, there are routes to exemption from those damage stability requirements, subject to developing that risk assessment.
The MCA will consider all cases on their own merits, and will be as pragmatic and flexible as possible, provided of course that safety is not compromised. Although I have sympathy for many of the points that my hon. Friend makes, I feel it is right that we continue with the legislation simply because of the risk to life, which is, as I say, unacceptably high without the new legislation. I thank all hon. Members for their support for, and interest in, today’s critical debate. I am very grateful to everyone for their time.
I thank the Minister for his response, and the hon. Members for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) and for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane), and of course my good friend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for their contributions. I thank the Minister for his responses to many of the points that I made, but I fear that it will be met with disappointment. I am sure that he instinctively understands my points and why I am making them in this way. I hope that he will not simply follow what he is being told, but that he will be genuinely convinced that this is not a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
I hope that the Minister will go back to his Ministry, talk to the MCA, fight for my constituents and the boat operators that have served London for so long and so well, and not be part of a decision that will wreck people’s jobs and wreck an industry that has done so much for London and played such a central part on our wonderful River Thames. I ask him to please think about those points: please go back to the Ministry, speak to the people who work in the industry, and look for flexibility and compromise. Do not take what we are told—look at the real situation.
Finally, I was a little concerned by the phrase “design or good fortune”. My goodness—imagine if we applied that principle to everything we do in Government and everything we do in our lives: “It is only by good fortune that bad things have not happened.” We might as well have a permanent lockdown and have everyone stay indoors and never do anything in their lives, just in case we do not have good fortune. We cannot live like that. We have to allow flexibility. We are a Conservative Government and this is in unconservative way of approaching the problem. Yes, we need safety and a sensible way of dealing with such things, and we need people to upgrade their standards where possible, but for goodness’ sake, let us have a light-touch Government, not interfering with everything and taking measures to an extreme whereby people lose their jobs and livelihoods.
I know that the Minister must, deep down in his heart, agree with much of what I am saying. I know, given the Minister that he is—strong and determined—that he will not go back to the Ministry and allow civil servants and others to dictate, but that he will make the decision himself. He will, of course, be responsible for those decisions, so I know that, in the end, he will make the right decisions for the River Thames and for all those people who work in this cherished industry in our capital.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the future of passenger boats and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.