[Mr. Edward O'Hara in the Chair] — Pleasure Craft (Thames)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Huw Irranca-Davies.]

9:30 am
Photo of Angela Watkinson

Angela Watkinson (Whip, Whips; Upminster, Conservative)

I am grateful to have the opportunity to raise this extremely important matter. It arises from significant changes that have been made to the level of competence and the experience required to obtain a boatmaster's licence in order to operate on British waters. Those changes, effective from 1 January, will mean an inevitable lowering of safety standards. That will have a particular impact on the tidal Thames, where conditions and the potential for accidents are almost unique.

The purpose of the debate is to make the strongest possible case for special status for the tidal Thames requiring a licence that maintains our traditional high standards. However, those standards were swept away—I hope that the House will forgive the nautical term—on 1 January at the behest of the European Council.

I shall describe the changes that have been imposed on us. To comply with European Council directive 96/50/EC, the boatmasters directive, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency has introduced a new licence for passenger and non-passenger craft of more than 24 m on all inland waterways, and it allows European boatmasters to operate in British waters.

Until 1 January, a licence granted by the Worshipful Company of Watermen and Lightermen and the Port of London Authority demanded five years' experience on the Thames and four exams—practical, oral and written. To qualify, applicants had to be certified by five separate masters as being able to manage their craft. The old licence therefore created a maritime elite, reflecting the ability to handle craft of different types, speeds and sizes over a wide range of tidal, visibility and weather conditions—and with detailed local knowledge.

That licence is now defunct. However, the new licence has not yet been issued. All that a waterman can produce at the moment is proof of posting of his application for the new boatmaster's licence—a Post Office receipt. Therefore, the Post Office is currently—I hope that hon. Members will forgive me another pun—in charge of administering Thames licences.

The new licence demands only two years' experience and one practical examination. That demonstrates the ability to manage one craft on one occasion under one set of river conditions. The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers and Transport and General Workers Union are right to be concerned that those requirements are not sufficient to qualify a master to navigate safely on the tidal Thames.

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Susan Kramer (Shadow Secretary of State for Trade & Industry, Trade & Industry; Richmond Park, Liberal Democrat)

Is the hon. Lady aware that relatives of those who died in the Marchioness disaster live in my constituency, and that they are distraught that it took 10 years to get the public inquiry that led to the safety improvements on the Thames that they now see being seized with this opportunity to roll back that safety and protection? After such a loss of life, would she not say that the Minister should understand the high risk of using the Thames waterway?

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Angela Watkinson (Whip, Whips; Upminster, Conservative)

I was not aware of the hon. Lady's personal connection to those involved in the accident between the Marchioness and the Bowbelle. I shall refer to it later, but she is right in what she says.

The river carries a wide variety of craft in dense traffic conditions, with a huge tonnage of goods. Large and small passenger craft, dredgers, Thames barges, tugs, small private motor boats, small hired boats, passenger ferries, fireboats, sailing dinghies, rowing boats and canoes, speed boats and water skiers, river buses and houseboats—I apologise for any omission—all share the same busy water from Teddington down to the estuary, and all those involved must know and understand its bridges, moorings, currents and tides.

I understand that the pride and joy of the Royal Navy, the newly refitted aircraft carrier Ark Royal, will be visiting London this spring. That will be an auspicious occasion. Under the old licence standards, we could be confident of the qualifications and experience of other vessels sharing the river with her. We need that assurance still.

I have some limited personal experience in bringing small motor yachts of 30 ft and 40 ft down from the upper Thames to St. Katharine's dock. It taught me great respect for the river, especially the importance of local knowledge—for example, how to negotiate the half-tide lock at Richmond, or how to follow the line of the river bed at low water at places such as Syon reach, where it would be easy to go aground with a draft of more than 3 ft—and most importantly the rules of precedence on the water.

It is common in summer to see small hired boats in the hands of people who are probably competent car drivers but who have found to their dismay after some brief, rudimentary instruction that boats do not have brakes and that stopping them requires some forward planning. Even when her engines are stopped, a boat does not stand still; she moves with the tide and current unless she is tied up. Sailing and rowing boats have precedence over boats with engines, but their crew often have unrealistic expectations of their ability to stop and of the manoeuvrability of vessels under power. The conflict of uses between the different types of craft frequently compromises safety.

The high standards that prevailed until 1 January were set in the wake of the accident in 1989 between the Marchioness and the Bowbelle, which claimed 51 young lives. It is the responsibility of all of us to ensure that every precaution possible is taken to prevent another accident of that magnitude—or, indeed, any accident.

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Gerald Howarth (Shadow Minister, Defence; Aldershot, Conservative)

My hon. Friend refers to the Marchioness. I pay tribute to my constituent Margaret Lockwood Croft, director of the Marchioness action group. She has been fighting a fantastic, sterling battle over the past 17 years, and is hugely concerned that all that has been achieved during those years is being frittered away by the Government.

I draw my hon. Friend's attention to some figures given to me by the Minister, which show the number of incidents involving non-qualified and qualified personnel. During the past three years, unqualified personnel were 50 per cent. more likely to have been involved in an incident than qualified watermen and lightermen. Does that not speak for itself? Given that unqualified lightermen are involved in many more incidents than qualified lightermen, there is evidence that, if the Government go down that route, the prospects are for a much unsafer Thames.

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Angela Watkinson (Whip, Whips; Upminster, Conservative)

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. None of us would underestimate the long-term effect of the Marchioness disaster on the bereaved families involved.

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Martin Linton (PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC, Minister of State), Department for Constitutional Affairs; Battersea, Labour)

Does the hon. Lady accept that, although the focus of this debate is on the Marchioness accident and accidents that involve other pleasure craft, many more accidents happen on the Thames? For instance, a barge driver recently collided with Battersea bridge, causing it to be closed for three or four months. Although those accidents do not have such tragic results, they cause huge disruption to river traffic and to road traffic crossing the Thames. Although that accident is sub judice, it is one of a string of accidents, with barge drivers causing huge disruption to London by driving into Thames bridges.

Photo of Angela Watkinson

Angela Watkinson (Whip, Whips; Upminster, Conservative)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. We seem to be quite consensual thus far in our common desire for the highest possible safety standards on the Thames and the highest degree of professionalism that can be achieved.

Traffic on the river has increased significantly since 1989, and it is likely to increase even more with construction traffic in the preparations for the 2012 Olympics and the tourist traffic during the games, when large numbers of visitors will be in the capital. Local knowledge is essential to ensure the safe use of the entire length of the tidal Thames from Teddington to Lower Hope point, and not only the Woolwich to Putney part of the most dangerous stretch, to which the new examination applies.

The Port of London Authority's application for local knowledge area for the entire length of the Thames was made as recently as October 2005, but it now supports the shorter section. What has brought about that change of mind? The area above Putney is characterised by restricted tidal navigation where the river is shallower and narrower. That area is often congested by vulnerable leisure users with no professional training, and it is also used by passenger boats at least as far as Hampton Court—some even go as far as Henley and Oxford on the upper Thames. The area below Woolwich is where approximately 90 per cent. of the 50 million tonnes of the port of London's annual cargo is handled. Add to that the sailing clubs and private motor yachts that use the estuary to cross the channel and, considering the estuary's sandbanks and the sunken wreck of the Montgomery, the potential for an accident is enormous.

The new boatmaster's licence will enable captains to qualify for an even more limited zone in the local knowledge area. Passenger-carrying vessels may, for example, be restricted to the stretch between Westminster and Tower piers, but if another accident or emergency that required evacuation similar to that of 7 July 2005 occurred outside that restricted zone, such vessels would not be able to respond. On 7 July 2005, approximately 100,000 people were evacuated from central London and Canary Wharf by river in a well organised operation that involved several passenger-vessel operators.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency and the Port of London Authority are apparently confident that safety standards will not be undermined by the new boatmaster's licence on the grounds that the shorter qualifying times will be more intensive. I am at a loss to understand how the daily activities of each candidate could be monitored in such detail. The suggestion that much of the former five-year qualification period was spent sweeping the decks simply cannot be substantiated.

Shore-based training has been reduced from a mandatory 10 weeks, plus other optional courses and two examinations for underpinning knowledge, to one week of safety training and only one examination for underpinning knowledge—a reduction of 90 per cent. Qualifying service has been reduced from five years to 30 months, which is a reduction of 50 per cent., while the number of days that candidates are required to work has been reduced from 750 to 360—a reduction of 55 per cent.

The number of days per year required for the revalidation service has been reduced from 50 to 24, which is a reduction of 52 per cent., and the number of examinations to be taken is down from four to one or two—a 50 or 75 per cent. reduction. The minimum level of local experience is down from two years to six months—a reduction of 75 per cent.—and examiners will not, in future, necessarily be locally experienced watermen. What consistency in the standard of examiners can be demonstrated to ensure consistency of qualifying performance in applicants? Can all examiners match the knowledge of a waterman?

Practitioner testimonies are down from six to one, which is an 83 per cent. reduction. In September 2002, the Baxter-Eadie study of the competencies and skills required by operators on the River Thames identified that about 500 skills are required. It would be impractical, if not impossible, to test all those skills in one practical test. Competence could only be guaranteed in the conditions prevailing on that day. A test taken on a nice sunny day in June under calm conditions would not qualify someone to work at night, in a storm, in fog or any other of the multitude of conditions that prevail on skippers who regularly use the river.

Practical examination has been a welcome addition for a large passenger vessel endorsement to the waterman's licence. It was introduced without a reduction in the length of qualifying service and is currently held by approximately 50 per cent. of watermen. Continuous assessment is a reliable and proven means of assuring extensive practical competence. The testimonial system is one form of continuous assessment, but signatories should be made more accountable to achieve transparency, and the addition of practical testing should not come at the expense of reductions in other elements of the qualifying process. The candidate logbook does not offer true assessment, as it testifies only to a candidate having assisted in tasks. The fact that the merchant navy model has discounted the use of practical testing stresses that that form of assessment can prove unworkable.

An additional requirement has been introduced for all licence holders to hold valid certificates in firefighting, first aid, personal survival and, in the case of passenger vessels, passenger management. That is very welcome, and I am rather surprised that it was not put in place after the 1989 accident.

The generic licence, plus the passenger operations endorsement, is very similar to the provisional waterman's licence followed by the full waterman's licence. There is no difference in the application of the qualification, as both licence holders will need to be qualified to command a passenger carrying vessel. However, the new modular route to qualifying can now be completed in half the time that was previously required.

Currently, other freight and towing operations are covered by the PLA craft registration policy and management guidelines on competencies—byelaw 12 of January 2002. The recommended qualifying service defined in those guidelines for towing vessels is nine years, now reduced to 30 months, and the guideline levels of experience for motor barge skippers is five years, now also reduced to 30 months.

The new legislation covers all passenger operations including ferries, but its application to other freight vessels is limited to those over 24 m. That will leave many vessels, including craft-towing tugs and workboats, unregulated within the boatmaster's licence regulations. That issue exposes grey areas that require urgent clarification. The use of a tier 2 boatmaster's licence on the tidal Thames in London for passenger operations has not been ruled out by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, yet only the tier 1 boatmaster's licence offers the standard outlined in the quantitative summary comparison.

The boatmaster's licence established in 1993 ensured that local knowledge assessment was guaranteed for all category A, B, C and D inland waters. That requirement has been removed and therefore standards have been lowered, except for those with local knowledge assessment.

It is madness to lower our standards in this way to accommodate visiting European craft. They are very welcome to visit—indeed, they are encouraged to do so—but they must use standards born of the experience of professional users of the Thames. How could an employer ensure that an applicant is fully competent on a different vessel from the one used for the one single practical examination? Under the old waterman's licence an employer was guaranteed that the applicant had appropriate experience in vessels of a variety of characteristics and propulsion systems, gained during five years of training.

The new licence has been designed as a national system. The density of traffic and variety of craft on the tidal Thames, with its tides, currents and bridges, are incomparable with other waterways and make it deserving of special status. There may well be other UK waters for which the new generic licence is not appropriate.

Old London bridge supported bustling houses and businesses and had so many columns, or starlings—14 from memory—that the flow of water was slowed down to such an extent that the Thames would freeze in sustained periods of cold weather. Hence, there were frost fairs when oxen were roasted on the ice. Watermen in those days, who were also the taxi drivers of their time, had no option but to raise their oars and pray as they went through the narrow arches under the bridge. It was so dangerous that, in the 16th century when King Henry VIII was rowed down from Hampton Court, he would not risk going through by boat. He was set down at the steps before the bridge and rejoined the boat after it had safely emerged downwater. Those currents still prevail, as was demonstrated to me yesterday, when I was on the river and saw tugs towing heavily laden barges. The boatmasters knew exactly which course to steer to navigate the bridges safely and each bridge has its own characteristics.

I am unclear whether the MCA and the PLA is the final authority on the tidal Thames and whether it is possible under the law to obtain an opt-out from the new boatmaster's licence and reinstate the former qualifying standards.

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Simon Hughes (Shadow Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs & Shadow Attorney General, Constitutional Affairs; North Southwark and Bermondsey, Liberal Democrat)

This is fairly complicated legislation, regulation, directive and the rest of it, but does the hon. Lady agree—I hope that the Minister will deal with this later—that it appears, from reading the documents, as though it is possible to comply with the European requirement but to have a two-tier system in the UK, which allows a general provision across general coastal and tidal waters and inland waterways, and a separate specific arrangement for specific waterways?

Photo of Angela Watkinson

Angela Watkinson (Whip, Whips; Upminster, Conservative)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I hope that what he describes is possible and that the opportunity will be taken to ensure that the appropriate standards on the tidal Thames are imposed, so that there is safety for all.

Fifty million tonnes of goods and 5 million passengers are carried annually on the Thames, and it is our responsibility to set the standards that have been shown through experience to be necessary to maintain safety on the water for all users. The watermen and lightermen and many regular users of the tidal Thames believe that the new licence lowers safety standards and increases the potential for accidents. The Minister must not put his head in the sand and dismiss the watermen as a cosy club or a closed shop. That simply does not hold water—there is another pun.

Currently, there are two 16-year-old trainees who are the sons of taxi drivers. They have no previous connection with watermen's families. The onerous rules were not intended to keep people out of employment, but to ensure the highest possible standards of professionalism. The Government must listen and act now before it is too late.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Edward O'Hara

Edward O'Hara (Knowsley South, Labour)

Order. Clearly, many hon. Members wish to contribute to the debate. I ask them to bear it in mind that the Front-Bench contributions should commence no later than 10.30 am.

9:51 am
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Howard Stoate (Dartford, Labour)

Thank you, Mr. O'Hara, for giving me the opportunity to take part in this very important debate. I represent a constituency that borders the River Thames and is notable for its very high tidal set. The tide can rise and fall by up to 8 m in a single day, so it is a significant tidal area. I am an amateur boatman; I am a keen sailor. I was brought up on the River Thames, but on the non-tidal section, and one thing that someone notices when they move to the tidal section is that there are significant difficult waters and treacherous currents in the tidal section that simply do not apply to the non-tidal section of the Thames.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to go aboard the boat Mercia and I had a very interesting briefing from Alex Hickman about the tidal section of the Thames. We spent some time going up and down the Thames, looking at other craft and seeing how they handled. What was brought to our attention was the size and make-up of some of the barges and tugs that navigate the tidal section of the Thames. A single tug can tow three barges. Those barges can each carry up to 600 tonnes of freight, so the total towing capacity is up to 2,000 tonnes. A 2,000-tonne vessel trying to negotiate a 5-knot tide in difficult waters under serial bridges involves quite a feat of boatmanship. Anything that is done to reduce the skill of those boatmen would be very detrimental to safety on the river.

The historical methods of becoming a lighterman or boatman have not been arrived at lightly. Let me give some background. Watermen have enjoyed the exclusive right to carry passengers on the tidal Thames since 1510. They provided the first form of licensed public transport on the Thames. Acts of Parliament dating from 1514 and 1555 were passed to ensure that the profession was regularised and standardised fares were introduced to protect the public from unscrupulous dealing and to introduce safety measures. The 1555 Act also established the Company of Watermen, one of the City of London's ancient trade guilds, to ensure that the profession was regulated.

The world's oldest continuously run sporting event—the rowing race for Doggett's coat and badge—is conducted each year over 4 miles and 5 furlongs from Swan pier at London bridge to Cadogan pier in Chelsea to test the skill of Thames watermen. That race is run even now, and the winner receives the traditional waterman's coat and a silver badge representing liberty. Many years ago, one Thomas Doggett fell into the river and was rescued from a watery grave by watermen. To mark his thanks to them, he set up the race, so it goes back a long way and represents an important mark in ensuring continuing standards and safety on the River Thames.

The watermen's business has gradually reduced over many years because of changing freight methods on the Thames and changing passenger numbers, but now there seems to be a revitalisation of Thames traffic. Far more freight is being carried. There has been a significant tonnage increase in freight moved on the Thames and a significant extra number of passengers carried on the Thames over the past few years, which makes it even more important that we maintain standards and ensure that all those involved in navigating and mastering those vessels are of the highest possible standard.

We have heard a great deal from Angela Watkinson about the changes in regulations, so I need not rehearse those issues, but they are of great concern to hon. Members on both sides of the House. I want to touch on some issues that particularly affect me. As I have said, the tidal Thames is one of the more difficult areas to navigate in the country. It has many treacherous water channels, cross-currents and hidden underwater obstacles. As I have also pointed out, 8 m, which is about the height of this Chamber, is the tidal change in one day on the Thames. That can cause significant changes in the channels, the markings and the height of bridges above water level, all of which will have a significant impact on people using the Thames.

We have heard about the Bowbelle disaster and the difficulties that that has caused. Some of the rules that we are discussing were introduced following that terrible tragedy, but it is not the only collision that has taken place on the Thames over the years. The collision between the pleasure steamer the Princess Alice and the Bywell Castle off Woolwich resulted in the loss of 700 lives. That was one of the worst disasters ever to take place in British river or coastal waters. It took place on a stretch of the Thames that, if the legislation that we are discussing proceeds, will be outside the local boat knowledge area for boatmasters. In other words, that type of event could happen again with a master who is not as qualified as current boatmasters. In more recent times, the tugboat Hawkstone was thrown into the wash of a ship on the River Blythe, which resulted in the loss of six lightermen and the tug crew. At Tilburyness, the Rora Head ran down the tugboat General 7, with the loss of four lightermen and the tug crew.

As well as being one of the most treacherous rivers in the UK, the Thames constitutes one of the busiest commercial ports in the country. In fact, the number of watermen and lightermen operating on the Thames is greater than the total number of skippers on the rest of the UK's inland waterways put together. We are talking currently about 600 people. In the past few years, there has been significant growth in the level of traffic and the number of passengers carried on the Thames. Each year now, 2.3 million passengers use the Thames, which represents an increase of 44 per cent. since 1999.

The increase in the number of commuters has been even more marked, with a leap of 80 per cent. in the past year alone. The amount of freight transported is also growing. It has risen from 50 million tonnes in 2000 to 56 million tonnes in 2005—an 11 per cent. increase. More importantly, 95 per cent. of that freight is handled on the stretch of Thames below Woolwich—the part that will in future no longer be covered by the local knowledge certificate. That is of great concern to me, and many of my constituents who work on the river have brought it to my attention and wish to make their views known. Much more investment is being put into updating and improving passenger piers and craft on the Thames. Companies are purchasing new boats every year because of anticipated growth in traffic.

All that makes it even more important that we do nothing to water down—to use another pun—the qualifying requirements for Thames skippers. We must ensure that we do not open up the river to people with skills and training that do not meet the difficult and demanding requirements of the river.

I do not wish to speak for too long, because many other hon. Members want to speak, but I have received a briefing from the European Transport Workers Federation on whether we are able to have a change of regulation compared with the rest of Europe. It states that

"the requirements of directive 96/50/EC state...'national navigable waterways not linked to the navigable network of another Member State are not subject to international competition and it is therefore not necessary to make compulsory on those waterways the common provisions for the granting of boatmasters' certificates laid down in this Directive'."

That organisation has interpreted the rules as saying that it is perfectly acceptable for Britain to have a separate local knowledge certificate not covered by the rest of Europe.

That is what has happened on the Rhine. The ETF goes on to say that the Rhine boatmaster's licence is significantly more difficult to obtain than the licence that currently obtains in this country. To paraphrase the document again, in order to get a patent to navigate the Rhine, a person has to be at least 21, with four years as a crew member, at least two of which were as a boatman, and acquisition of local knowledge must be significant. Overall, it means that, to obtain a boatmaster's certificate on the Rhine, a person has to have a minimum of six years' training and work experience. The ETF believes that that would also be an appropriate level at which to operate on the Thames. All we are saying is that having the same level of safety and qualifications in Britain as on the Rhine would meet most of the unions' objections and make perfect sense in terms of safety and public confidence. It should be well within the scope of the regulations to allow that to happen.

I ask the Minister to revisit the issue to see whether there is any way in which we could follow the example of the Rhine boatman's certificate and apply the same regulations to the tidal part of the Thames. We must ensure that what we understand by the tidal part of the Thames still goes as far as it currently does and does not stop at the Thames barrier, as under the current proposals.

10:00 am
Photo of Mark Field

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster, Conservative)

I am glad to be able to make some brief comments, because I appreciate that other hon. Members want to contribute to this important debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend Angela Watkinson on her excellent speech, which brought all the issues out into the open.

I obviously represent a central London seat, which is at the heart of the Thames and the City. Tragically, it was in my constituency that the horrendous events involving the Bowbelle and Marchioness took place 18 years ago. All London Members on both sides of the House have a great passion for our city, and the Thames is at the heart of the city. That is particularly true of hon. Members in the centre, although the same applies, of course, to Susan Kramer, whose constituency is not quite in the centre, but which is, none the less, a Thameside constituency.

We recognise the importance of the Thames, which has been at the heart of London's economic and recreational growth. As Dr. Stoate rightly said, however, it has also become increasingly busy in recent years. Five million passengers and 50 million tonnes of goods are carried on the Thames every year. The hon. Gentleman also referred to the Rhine, and I hope that the Minister will give clear consideration to that issue. The same point also applies to the Danube, which is an important part of Romania, one of the new EU nations. Special rules apply on those two rivers, so it would seem sensible that such rules should also apply on the Thames.

There has been a long struggle over this issue. In considering the 10-year struggle of those who lost loved ones and near ones on the Marchioness, we recognise our impotence and powerlessness as Members of Parliament. At times, those people must have thought that they were having to break down the walls of bureaucracy—to some extent, that is one thing that I hope all of us, as Members of Parliament, can do on behalf of our constituents—to bring in new rules and regulations.

All Opposition Members look with a certain scepticism at any new regulations, and there is always a sense in which business should not be over-regulated. Above all, however, there is an issue of public safety. Of course, we do not want such stringent rules on any of our rivers—or, indeed, on any form of transport—that it is impossible for people to go about their everyday business. Inevitably, any form of transport will always involve an element of risk, and the idea that we can entirely eliminate risk is unrealistic. Equally, however, we need to ensure that, as far as possible, we strike the right balance between ensuring that the Thames is a great place for pleasure and commerce and a safe place.

I therefore entirely endorse the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster. She was right to say that we need to consider the Thames alongside the Rhine and the Danube, and I hope that the Government will make strong representations on the issue in Europe. We do not expect special treatment, and it is quite sensible to apply the proposed rules to many of our other rivers, but the Thames will be increasingly important.

Another important issue will be some of the river's tributaries, most importantly those around the Lea valley. I spent last Sunday walking around the Olympic site, although, rather depressingly, little work seems to have been done in the 17 or so months since we won the Olympic bid. However, significant work has been done on the towpaths in the upper Lea valley to make them safe and to ensure that the site is attractive for the many millions of people who will visit the Olympics, as well as for those who will live and work in the area in the years ahead, when the site ceases to be an amalgam of former industrial sites. That shows the important role that water will play for London's economic growth in the future, and we need to have an eye to the safety aspects.

I have just one other comment at this juncture. It has been suggested that the watermen and lightermen's company is some sort of trade union that is looking after its own interests. It is probably fair to say that that was its underlying raison d'être when it started up in the 16th century. However, it now plays an important part not only in London's history, but in ensuring that the Thames is safe and that those working on it can go about their business. I praise the watermen and lightermen's livery company for playing an important social role, as do many of our livery companies in London. Indeed, if one walks down Penge high street, one will see almshouses going back to the 17th century, which were run by the watermen and lightermen's company. The company is now working with the London borough of Bromley to ensure that many dozens of people can live happy lives in one of our London suburbs.

When it began its life, the watermen and lightermen's company, like many livery companies, may have focused on acting as a guild for its members, but it now plays a much more important social role. Part and parcel of that role are the representations that the company has made to Members of Parliament in London and beyond, and I hope that the Government will give clear consideration to what it has to say. It is the expert in this field, and I sincerely hope that the recommendations of my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster will see the light of day in the Minister's comments and, more importantly, in what is done in the months and years ahead.

10:06 am
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John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington, Labour)

I speak as chair of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers parliamentary group, and I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests in that regard. I congratulate Angela Watkinson on securing the debate. She set out our views in a detailed way. As interventions have shown, there is consensus across the Chamber, and I think that that will remain the case.

It is important for the RMT that we place on record its concerns expressed over the past 18 months as part of the consultation. When a Government intervene on safety regulations, the most important thing is that people have confidence in that intervention and that the Government take everybody with them. My concern about the process so far is that despite the long consultation period, the Government do not seem to have listened to the representations made by various parties on a number of issues, and it is important that the Minister listens this morning.

I share the anxieties expressed about statements made to the Evening Standard yesterday, and I would welcome the Minister clarifying the position and amending some of them. The primary objective of everybody who has been engaged in the consultation process and other discussions has been to improve and maintain safety on the Thames. There have been no attempts to protect individual interests, and the issue for those involved has been the interests of the people who work and sail on the river, as well as those of passengers. It is unacceptable to describe those who take that attitude as being part of a cosy club, and I hope that the Minister will resile from that view.

The debate is not simply about European standards either. During the consultation process, we accepted, as I think the Government did, that EU standards could apply but that we should have the right to apply higher standards in this country if specific issues have to be addressed. One thing that has come out of all the debates and consultations is that we are dealing with a river that has complications in its navigational system. That requires higher standards, and that is what we should aim for. Indeed, all the inquiries into the various disasters on the Thames have increased standards at each stage, and the one thing that we do not want to do is to step back from those.

On that basis, I urge the Government, even at this late stage, to start listening to those on the front line who deliver the service—the professionals who have operated the service over the years on such a difficult stretch of the river. The RMT's concerns replicate those set out by the hon. Lady. The union is anxious about the significant cut in mandatory college-based training. That training was one of the key elements that the professionals whom we brought to discuss the issue with the Minister said should be maintained. As the hon. Lady said, apart from the weak safety training, it looks as though there will be a cut of up to 90 per cent. The replacement of four examinations with one is not acceptable to the union as it does not encompass the full range of testing that is required. Many professionals view the 75 per cent. reduction as a retrograde step.

The reduction of time in which to gain local knowledge is baffling to most people who operate on the Thames. The change is based on a limited risk assessment undertaken by the PLA which was contested by many parties involved in subsequent discussions. The Minister should re-examine that urgent matter. Having only six months instead of two years in which to gain local knowledge represents a 75 per cent. reduction, and people do not understand why we are stepping back from the very issue that has been highlighted in report after report: the need for detailed local knowledge of the Thames. This is not an attempt to exclude Europeans who want to sail or undertake work on the Thames, but a recognition of the difficulties with this piece of water. The change from five years to two regarding qualifying services does not replicate what is happening elsewhere in Europe, and significantly reduces the potential for people to become used to the river and to become professionals.

Will the Minister clarify the situation as regards to being in command of a vessel on the Thames? The current PLA Watermen and Lightermen Byelaws 1992, as amended, provide that a passenger vessel on the Thames must not only be under the command of a licensed waterman but be navigated by a fully qualified licensed waterman. Under the new proposals, inland waterways vessels carrying cargo or passengers will be under the command of a licensed boat master, but any person whom the boat master believes is competent to do so will be allowed to navigate the vessel. If that is the case, it is a significant worry for many who work on the Thames because it means that a passenger vessel may be navigated by someone who is not fully qualified or who does not fulfil the age or medical conditions, such as those on eyesight and colour blindness.

People were explicit in the consultation. Following a detailed consultation with its members who work on the river, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers concluded that the new system will have potentially disastrous consequences for tidal river safety. The RMT and others have discussed the matter with people who tragically experienced what happened with the Marchioness and the Bowbelle.

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Julian Brazier (Shadow Minister, Transport; Canterbury, Conservative)

The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful case. Does he accept that it simply is not good enough for the Government and the PLA to keep saying that there was a long and extensive consultation process—which there was—given that at every stage the consultees were ignored?

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John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington, Labour)

It behoves the Government, particularly in matters such as this in which safety is the issue, not only to consult but to listen. When there is a difference of views, they should be explicit about why they have failed to take them into account, especially those expressed by front-line practitioners. I remember bringing experts—people who are responsible for vessels on the Thames—to our meetings with Ministers. To a person, they opposed the Government's regulations, and they did so politely and with professional explanations. It behoves the Government to respond to those concerns in detail if they are to vary their judgment.

I wish to place on record the RMT's opposition to the proposals. It consulted Margaret Lockwood Croft, to whom we have all paid tribute. She told us:

"There is absolutely no logic, rhyme or reason for a Labour government to renege on the improvements in safety on the Thames...The minimum standards in the EU directive would be welcome on other waterways where there are currently no or lower standards, but not on the Thames and those other tidal rivers where the standards are already considerably higher. With river traffic increasing we need higher standards, not lower...It took our campaign 17 years to get a multi-agency emergency exercise to take place on the Thames, but if these changes are not stopped we could be seeing the real thing all too soon."

The RMT, many colleagues on both sides of the House and I fully concur with that view. We urge the Government to step back, consult again and re-examine how we can maintain the high standards that are so needed on the Thames.

10:15 am
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Simon Hughes (Shadow Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs & Shadow Attorney General, Constitutional Affairs; North Southwark and Bermondsey, Liberal Democrat)

First, I pay tribute to Angela Watkinson. She excellently set out the practical reasons why, at this last stage of the proceedings, this debate has commanded so much support from parliamentarians across the House who know about these issues because they have been involved with the Thames and the people who work on it. We represent those people and are therefore telling the Minister that we want him not only to hear what we are saying, but to implement the request that comes both from this debate and the prayer in the Order Paper that the regulations dated 4 December and laid before the House on 7 December, for which the statutory period in which the House can make a decision has not yet ended, should be annulled.

We are in the ridiculous legal position, which you will know well, Mr. O'Hara, that the Government can lay a statutory instrument that can come into force before the end of the time in which the Houses of Parliament can decide whether they agree with it. Although the new regulations technically came into force on 1 January, at this moment the House can say no to them. We ask the Minister to tell the business managers that we want a debate on the regulations in Government time at the earliest opportunity. At that stage, we would like the Government to say that they will take back the proposal and listen to the advice that they have heard from hon. Members on both sides of the House. If he is not persuaded by the advice and views that he has heard today, I assure him that there is plenty of supporting evidence and advice available elsewhere.

My constituency name reflects that it is a riverside constituency. The Southwark borough has sent MPs here since the 13th century to represent the riverside community. Bermondsey has sent MPs here for over 100 years to represent an archetypal riverside community—the docks community—and it was hugely populated by people with a docks and Transport and General Workers Union background. When I was first selected, I came to this House from my constituency by boat to represent that importance.

This is not about self-interest and protection but a matter of public interest and the safety of the people who use the Thames. I was the MP for North Southwark and Bermondsey on 20 August 1989 when the Marchioness sank at 2 am. I received a call about three quarters of an hour later and I was on the riverside that night. I worked with colleagues such as the former Member for Newham, South, and Lord Brooke, who was then the Member for Cities of London and Westminster and with families and survivors, including the Dallaglio and Perks families, for 10 years. Eventually, the Deputy Prime Minister, to his great credit, agreed that there should be a public inquiry. That is one thing for which I shall always be grateful to him because it was his decision and the public inquiry was held.

At the inquiry, which I attended, Lord Justice Clarke was very clear. He made 74 recommendations in his two reports. There were two follow-up reports in November 2001 and February 2003. The reports made absolutely clear the danger of the Thames. I have been on the Thames often enough in good weather and bad. I have been on the tidal and non-tidal Thames and I have even fallen in it once—actually, I was thrown in, but that is another story—so I know from my good and bad experiences that it is a dangerous river.

We are trying to bring tourism to this capital city. If we think that it is in Britain's interest in the run-up to the Olympic games to risk a reduction in safety in the Thames, we are sadly misguided. My friend, Kate Hoey, and I are trustees of the Mayor of London's Thames Festival Trust—I am the chair. Over 10 years, the festival has brought hundreds of thousands of people to celebrate the river. It is partly a celebration of the fact that the river is now a much safer place for people to use for travel. What do we want of the river? We want it to be an even safer place. We want it to have more business, not less. We want more freight on it, not less. We want it to be more busy, not less busy.

So, what should we do? We should listen to the expertise of people who know what they are talking about. The problem in this debate is that the Company of Watermen and Lightermen is a name that sounds medieval, so people think that its views must be medieval. That medieval background comes from the fact that it has hundreds of years of experience. I shall cite one example of that from a letter that I received on this subject from a licensed waterman and lighterman, who lives in Deptford but was born in Rotherhithe, in my constituency. It stated:

"I have had the pleasure of conveying you on the vessel I was captain of at the time, the Mayflower Garden. Like all watermen we have all had a legal apprenticeship...I am from a Rotherhithe family and have worked the River for 61 years...My grandfather was drowned at work and I have lost three of my personal friends through drowning at work. I am therefore not unfamiliar with the danger"

of the Thames. This is the sort of experience that we are talking about.

This is not a closed shop, because there are about 600 licensed watermen and lightermen, and about 60 new people join every year. That is the rate of application from young people and there is no barrier to people coming—people who were born in Orkney, Shetland, Scilly or abroad can join. I was at a local fire station the other day, and I know that firefighters who were born in America work in the London fire service. There is no barrier or discrimination on this matter, but there is one requirement—that people are well prepared and are willing to come to do the particular apprenticeship that is required to ensure that they do the job properly.

The directive was published in 2006. I have read the good briefing notes and the explanatory memorandum on the regulations being proposed and the directive. They make it clear that the UK can derogate, as the Minister knows. The explanatory memorandum states:

"The Department has taken advantage of the derogation in article 3(2) of the Directive, which permits Member States to exempt boatmasters from the requirement to hold an EU-model boatmaster's certificate where they operate exclusively on waterways not linked to a waterway of another Member State."

That situation applies, and therefore the Government have said, "Yes, we will do our own thing." Having decided that we will do our own thing, it is clear to me that we are allowed to decide in law that we can have a particular regime for a particular place. In a way, this is not the same as the situation in respect of the Rhine, because that river crosses different countries, whereas the Thames runs through just one country. Therefore, we are allowed to have a requirement.

All the notes make it clear that the Government can impose higher standards than the minimum standards required under the EU legislation. I understand the case for EU legislation, and I do not oppose such legislation, but there is a particular situation involved. People can apply from anywhere in the world to get the standard, but they must have the required training and qualification.

In July, some of us took a petition to Downing street with watermen and lightermen. We talked to both them and the unions before, during and after that event, up to today. Thus we are clear that this matter is about ensuring that, if it is humanly possible, there is never another terrible tragedy like the sinking of the Marchioness. They want there to be jobs for people of this great city on the river, as that is a valid concern, but their first concern is that the experience of centuries should not be lost.

I ask the Minister respectfully and sincerely to say that it would be the greatest foolishness to go down the road that the Government propose. They might have all the professional advice from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency that they need, but if they do not listen to the experience of the people who work the river and their representatives, they are taking incomplete and insufficient advice.

There is a chance to change this proposal. I hope that in the next few days we shall have the opportunity to debate it and that the Government will announce that they will re-examine it. I hope that they will come up with the requirement to sustain the higher level of qualification for work on the Thames than is required elsewhere. It needs to be higher because this is the most dangerous river in this country and there is a requirement to ensure that people who travel on it are safe.

10:24 am
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Kate Hoey (Vauxhall, Labour)

I, too, congratulate Angela Watkinson on securing the debate. I think that all hon. Members agree with every word she said. I have no disagreement with any comments made, so I shall not go over any of the ground already covered.

I represent a riverside constituency, as does Simon Hughes, and I live by the river. In my many years as a Member of Parliament, I have seen the increased use of the River Thames. If the Government get away with what they are trying to do, it will leave the people who use and work on the river at risk. It will also bring this great city into disrepute.

From the beginning of the process, and in our meetings with the Minister, I always thought that common sense would prevail. Anyone who knows anything about the River Thames, particularly the non-central part of it, knows just what a dangerous river it is. Given that the Government seem to have gold-plated every other European Union directive, it is amazing that they want to downgrade this one and that they do not want to use the power that we have to maintain those extra, higher standards on the Thames. I do not understand it. I do not know whether the Minister will be able to explain why we are even thinking of taking this course of action. So far he has not been able to do so; he has merely referred, in that rather glib way, to a cosy club.

I am not an expert on the Thames, but if I had to choose between the advice and guidance of the Minister, his civil servants and even people from the Port of London Authority, and the advice and practical experience of those members of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers who work on the river and the members of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen, who have worked on the river for many years, I know which side I would come down on. The public would also come down on that side.

Along with many of my colleagues, I have prayed against the proposal. The Minister has had an opportunity to listen to the united views expressed today and to all the views expressed during the consultation. If he does not do so, we will have to find a way of voting on the issue somewhere in the Palace. As a riverside MP, I am not prepared to allow my Government to put through something that without doubt will put people's lives at risk without having had a chance to show that I totally oppose it.

I ask the Minister to re-examine the issue and come back to us with some common-sense proposals. We must ask why we are adopting this proposal, because it does not make sense given that we have a standard that has been fought for and achieved. I hope that he has listened to the strong views expressed by hon. Members from all parties.

10:28 am
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Alistair Carmichael (Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Transport; Orkney and Shetland, Liberal Democrat)

I almost feel like an interloper because I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a Member who represents a Thames-side constituency. However, I do represent an island constituency that has a number of treacherous stretches of tidal water. My constituents' experiences, and their views about respecting the potential danger of tidal waters and the need for and importance of local knowledge, would find a ready resonance with the debate.

I congratulate Angela Watkinson on the way in which she opened the debate. The reasoned and measured way in which she put her powerful and cogent case is to be commended. The debate has been exceptionally good. I hope that the Minister will take on board the fact that we have heard views from a wide range of people, many of whom are not what would be referred to as the usual suspects. The contribution by Dr. Stoate was particularly powerful and useful, because I would normally regard him as being something of a Government loyalist. His position was well reasoned and powerful, and I have no doubt that opposing his Government was not easy. I commend him for that and hope that it will be recognised by the Minister.

The debate's tone stands in marked contrast with the tenor of the Minister's remarks yesterday as reported in the Evening Standard. I shall read a couple of them for the record. It reported that the Minister said:

"What the boatmen and some of their supporters seem to be saying is that it takes as long to train a boatman as it does to train a hospital doctor. Is that reasonable?"

There is more than the merest whiff of academic snobbery in that comment and I hope that the Minister will dissociate himself from it. He was asked if he referred to a cosy club and said:

"Oh yes—I don't think there's any doubt about it."

I find the tone of those remarks completely reprehensible. From my contact with watermen and lightermen on this issue it seems that they are a body of very well-qualified men who take an exceptional pride in the experience and standard of service that they can offer to the community.

Hon. Members referred to the Marchioness disaster. Let us not forget the role that the watermen played in the weeks following the disaster when many of them were finding bodies after the official authorities had given up the search. That is the sort of experience that they have endured and it makes them understand and value the nature of their profession. For such reasons, they are determined to defend the practice that they have enjoyed to date. That should not be denigrated in the way that the Minister chose to do.

Hon. Members referred to the reinvigoration of the Thames, and that should be welcomed for many reasons. The Minister is on the record as having said on several occasions that he is a fan of short sea shipping as an effective and environmentally friendly way of moving goods around. With the advent of the construction of the Olympic site for 2012, that will increase. For that reason alone, surely we should maintain the highest possible standards on a difficult stretch of water. To replace a five-year apprenticeship relating specifically to the Thames with a two-year apprenticeship applying to all inland waterways is asking for trouble. Why is it that every time the Government seek to level standards there is always a levelling down from the gold standard? The practice and history of the watermen and lightermen should be celebrated and protected rather than denigrated and downgraded, as the Government seek to do.

The great frustration of Westminster Hall debates is that the Minister is left with just 10 minutes at the end during which he can do little other than read a speech that has been prepared for him. We have had an excellent debate, but we have not heard much from him and there is no opportunity for cross-questioning, so I shall conclude my remarks and hope that during his response he will allow a wide range of interventions from hon. Members who feel strongly about the issue.

10:34 am
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Julian Brazier (Shadow Minister, Transport; Canterbury, Conservative)

I congratulate my hon. Friend Angela Watkinson on securing this debate and on her remarkable speech when introducing it. I also congratulate all the other hon. Members who have spoken. There really is a consensus that the proposal is simply not good enough.

The Minister has the power, in theory through Parliament, to set the standards of training and safety on the Thames. Those who travel and work on the Thames expect him to put safety first. He has chosen to dismantle the system that was put in place on the river as a result of the tragic sinking of the Marchioness in 1989. I, too, pay tribute to Margaret Lockwood Croft and her campaigners who have done so much to highlight the implications of the tragedy—the things that needed doing—in their campaign for a public inquiry. I pay tribute to her for her role in fighting the changes and the regulations.

I shall give one example of what is wrong. The new regulations allow a boatmaster from the continent, who may never have operated in tidal waters, to come to London for six months, take one test—perhaps in ideal conditions—and then skipper a boat with 500 passengers on one of the world's busiest waterways. Incredibly, the same regulations will require someone who has worked the Thames all his life to be retested every five years.

No doubt the Minister will tell us about the European directive. The Select Committee on Transport, whose distinguished Chairman is with us here today, described the Government's handling of the directive as an example of gold-plating at its worst. The problem is compounded, as several hon. Members said, by the way in which the licence is being implemented. The statutory instrument was laid before the House on 7 December, leaving barely a week and a half for hon. Members to object before the new regulations came into force. They have already come into force and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster told the House, the computer has crashed and people are operating boats technically illegally, and their licences are effectively proof of posting their applications.

We have seen the depth of concern among hon. Members on both sides of the House. The matter should be subjected to a proper, full debate upstairs with Government proposals that are acceptable to the House as a whole and the community that works on the Thames.

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Simon Hughes (Shadow Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs & Shadow Attorney General, Constitutional Affairs; North Southwark and Bermondsey, Liberal Democrat)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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Julian Brazier (Shadow Minister, Transport; Canterbury, Conservative)

Briefly. Like the Liberal Democrat spokesman, I want to leave time for the Minister to respond.

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Simon Hughes (Shadow Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs & Shadow Attorney General, Constitutional Affairs; North Southwark and Bermondsey, Liberal Democrat)

The hon. Gentleman said that he wanted a full debate upstairs. Given the breadth of concern, will he reconsider and suggest that the debate should be, as is permissible, on the Floor of the House so that we can expose the issues more broadly? That is what some of us would like.

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Julian Brazier (Shadow Minister, Transport; Canterbury, Conservative)

I am so sorry. I had a slip of the tongue. What I meant from down here in Westminster Hall was on the Floor of the House. I thank the hon. Gentleman for correcting me.

The River Thames is unique in Europe with 50 million tonnes of goods and 5 million passengers carried each year. It has waters that rise and fall by as much as 25 ft twice a day. Boatmen must navigate 27 bridges and negotiate the waters with as many as 12,000 vessel movements a month. It is little wonder that from time to time things go wrong. The consequences can be massive, final and tragic.

A great deal has rightly been said about the tragedy of the Marchioness. When 52 innocent people were killed in the London underground the year before last, the Government promised measures to help to prevent a repeat of the tragedy. We have had new legislation, and billions of pounds have been committed to try to prevent another such outrage. Yet in 1989, 51 people—only one fewer—died needlessly and nastily in the waters of the Thames. The inquiry called it a

"catastrophe which should never have happened".

There were many causes of that terrible waste of life and Lord Justice Clarke's investigation was detailed. He made 44 recommendations, which were formally accepted by the Deputy Prime Minister in 2000. In his report, Lord Justice Clarke praised the watermen and lightermen licence for requiring

"a two-year apprenticeship followed by three years as a professional waterman"

before anyone can captain a passenger vessel on the Thames. Evidently, he did not regard that as a cosy closed shop.

I shall summarise a few of the differences between the old watermen and lightermen licence and the new boatmaster's licence. To master a boat requires only 30 months' qualifying service, not the five years formerly demanded. When one considers that the minimum age demanded has fallen from 21 to 18, there will be boatmasters with much less experience of both the river and life trying to negotiate one of the world's busiest rivers. It is a lethal cocktail of goods, passengers, youth and inexperience. It is a recipe for carnage, especially in the run-up to the Olympics, as another hon. Member pointed out. One week of safety training will replace the mandatory 10 weeks; one shore-based examination will replace the two of old; 750 days on the river will be scaled down to 360; four exams will be cut to one or two; and the number of current practitioners vouching for the applicant will be reduced from six to one. The most dangerous aspect of the new regime is the amount of local knowledge demanded. A captain will need only six months' experience of the river, where before a minimum of two years' local knowledge was expected.

I, too, was on the Thames yesterday, and I endorse everything that colleagues who were there have said. The most striking factor was the emptiness of the water compared with the water in the height of summer, when I was also privileged to be there. It suddenly struck me: if somebody had been taking a test yesterday, would that really have shown whether they were ready to take it during peak conditions in July, when there are perhaps three or four times as many vessels on the water in the busiest areas? The section of the Thames to which the provisions apply simply stops at the Thames barrier; there is no local knowledge requirement beyond that. Is it right that somebody who has never worked in tidal waters should be able to take charge of a vessel after just six months and one test? Surely, it is not, and like others, I urge the Minister to reconsider the legislation.

I welcome aspects of the new scheme, some of which have already been mentioned. The need for certificates in fire control, passenger management, first aid and personal survival is a good advance, although all new applicants must pass those four tests anyway. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster, I welcome the fact that for the first time, tugmasters and captains of freight vessels will have statutory licences, although, as she pointed out, the proposals are incomplete.

I urge the Minister to reconsider the workings of the scheme. A unique alliance has been formed against the new licence. The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers and other unions have united, as John McDonnell pointed out, with one of the City's oldest livery companies, the Worshipful Company of Watermen and Lightermen, which is a great institution that proved its worth yet again through its reaction to the bombings on 7 July 2005.

I must also congratulate one of the company's members, Alex Hickman, who has done a wonderful job leading the campaign with Margaret Lockwood Croft to bring to Parliament and to the public an understanding of just what is being proposed. Together, the group collected thousands of signatures in a petition against the measures, which we presented to the Prime Minister in September together with a cross-party delegation of MPs.

I shall quote two other sources. First, from the unions, Nick Bramley, the president of the European Transport Workers Federation, which is based in Switzerland, said that

"the ETF has a very real concern that the levels being proposed in Britain are below these standards",

and he questioned the usefulness of the proposals. He continued:

"The ETF would sooner welcome UK National licensing provisions based on former arrangements through the provisions for certificating Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames or a system based on the current Rhine Patent."

Secondly, Scott Newton, captain of the Woolwich ferry, on which I have travelled many times, wrote to a number of hon. Members, wanting to

"highlight concerns arising from the imminent reduction of safety standards on the River Thames".

The Rhine and Danube rivers present us with a good model. I have been privileged on a couple of occasions to travel down the Rhine on a yacht; it was a very frightening experience. As I am sure the Minister will tell us, the sheer volume of commercial traffic on the Rhine is much higher than on the Thames, but the difference between the Rhine and the Thames is that vast numbers of pleasure boats do not mix with commercial traffic on the Rhine. We hardly saw another boat that was not a barge as we travelled down the river.

The Rhine patent was negotiated by the practitioners on the rivers and the relevant countries. It allows only those people who have six years' experience and who have been thoroughly examined to become master of a boat on either the Rhine or the Danube, and the Rhine has far fewer pleasure boats on it and far fewer passengers exposed to risk. The German and Austrian Governments in particular fought hard for that exemption, and they have successfully and rigorously maintained safety standards on the two rivers. That is all the more reason why the Thames should be granted similar exemption. We should by all means accept the continental standards, but we should add some local extras to maintain our standards.

Many hon. Members from all parties have made it clear that they want nothing to do with the new licences. I urge the Minister at this last moment to think again. I have the highest respect for the Minister—my constituency neighbour—as an MP and as a human being. He is just as anxious as every other Member who has spoken to ensure that there is no ghastly tragedy on the Thames. He must reconsider the provision. I urge him to return with better proposals that are designed to meet the challenges of safe navigation on the Thames.

10:46 am
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Stephen Ladyman (Minister of State, Department for Transport; South Thanet, Labour)

I congratulate Angela Watkinson on securing this debate, and on her interest in this important matter. I congratulate, too, all Members who have contributed to or attended the debate on their interest.

Let me begin by making something crystal clear: if I thought for one second that the proposals would reduce safety standards on the Thames, I would not introduce them. I have the greatest respect for the qualifications and professionalism of those people—not only in the House today, but outside the House—who have raised concerns about the matter. I accept entirely that the Thames watermen are motivated by an interest in maintaining the standards of safety on the river. I shall address the comments about the cosy club, because I have been specifically asked to clarify them, and I shall do so in a moment.

I want to put on record that I have the highest respect for the people who have campaigned on the issue. Mrs. Lockwood Croft has been mentioned on several occasions, and I have the highest respect for her and for the other people whose relatives suffered in the Marchioness catastrophe. They have been campaigning for safety on the Thames over the years, and I have had the pleasure of working with them during the 18 months that I have done my job. I have the highest respect for them. I simply believe, however, that they are wrong on the issue before us.

Members ask me whether we can have another debate and why the statutory instrument was not laid until December, and one reason why was my delaying it to add further gold-plating to the recommendations that I had been given by the experts who advise me. I wanted to be absolutely sure that I was erring on the side of caution, not expediency.

I accept that the simplest thing for me politically would be to say, "Let's stick with the current arrangement," because nobody would argue with it. I simply happen to believe that the new arrangements will be better. They improve on the old arrangements in several areas. We have mentioned the Marchioness catastrophe. The hon. Lady and most hon. Members who have contributed to the debate mentioned it. However, I thought it a bit rich of my parliamentary neighbour, Mr. Brazier, to raise the matter as he did, given that his Government refused to undertake a Thames safety inquiry or a public inquiry into the Marchioness disaster.

It was actually the Deputy Prime Minister who ordered the inquiry under this Government, and we have implemented all its recommendations; and Lord Justice Clarke said that, in so far as training standards on the Thames were concerned, he was content with them. But equally, he said that there were two anomalies: first, that we did not have a national licence or an equivalent waterways regime outside the Thames, which we needed to do something about; and secondly, that certain categories of user, such as operators of commercial vessels that do not go to sea, do not need licensing on the Thames. He required us to look at the way in which we license boatmasters in order to produce a national scheme. So we are fulfilling one of his recommendations.

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Kate Hoey (Vauxhall, Labour)

Of course, nobody disagrees with a national minimum standards scheme. We are talking about specific extra safety standards for the tidal Thames.

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Stephen Ladyman (Minister of State, Department for Transport; South Thanet, Labour)

The recommendations include those. I shall provide some details because Members seem to have formed the view that I have plucked the recommendations out of the air, when they resulted from consultations held over a long period. The initial proposals were formed as a result of two working parties set up in February 2003—the freight standards steering group and the boatmaster's licence working group. We conducted a non-statutory consultation on the first proposals between December 2003 and February 2004, and a second one in 2005. We conducted a statutory consultation between April 2006 and July 2006, and in 2006, we held ministerial meetings that involved myself and other Members of Parliament, the RMT and other representatives of boatmen.

As a consequence, we improved significantly the original proposals. We have said that a person will not gain their local knowledge of the Thames during the two years in which they obtain their generic licence, but during six months of training afterwards. So we have already gold-plated the original recommendations precisely as a result of listening to representations from people who complained to me about the original proposals.

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John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington, Labour)

Despite those discussions, the RMT and everybody else have made it clear that the Minister's final proposals, no matter how much they have been amended—I think that the amendments are minor—are still unacceptable.

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Stephen Ladyman (Minister of State, Department for Transport; South Thanet, Labour)

I accept that the RMT and some practising watermen do not think that we have gone far enough, but nevertheless, the consultation took a great deal of time. I have been advised by experts, such as port authorities, Associated British Ports, the British Ports Association, the Port of London Authority and the United Kingdom Major Ports Group, and they all support the recommendations.

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Stephen Ladyman (Minister of State, Department for Transport; South Thanet, Labour)

Let me make some progress, please.

Navigation authorities, including the Association of Inland Navigation Authorities, and unions and operators were involved in the consultations as well. Afterwards, the resulting reports were subject to a very thorough consultation, which resulted in significant strengthening of the rules. In recent months, we have done that by making the acquisition of local knowledge consecutive with the generic licence and by introducing the principle of revalidating local knowledge every five years.

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Stephen Ladyman (Minister of State, Department for Transport; South Thanet, Labour)

Let me make some progress. I have very little time and some key points to make. After that, I shall give way happily.

From the comments made by some Members, I think that there is some misunderstanding about the way in which the new regime will work. It is true that, under the old regime, people worked for five years to obtain licences, but having got them, they were qualified to work in a whole raft of areas on the Thames and to fulfil a range of different functions. Under the new arrangements, that will not apply. We now have a modular licensing system in which a person first gets a generic licence that will require two years of experience, to include 240 days of service. If that person wants to operate on the Thames, they will have to do their six months' local endorsement.

In addition, a person will require a range of other endorsements. For example, a general passenger endorsement will require another 120 days of service, with another endorsement of 60 days' service for larger numbers of passengers. Sixty days of extra service will be required for general cargo; 60 days for carrying oil; 60 days for towing and pushing; 120 days for dredging; and 120 days for going to sea. In other words, if a person is going to get a licence qualifying them to do what the existing licence allows them to do, 720 days of service will be required. The existing regime requires 750 days of service, so the systems are almost equivalent. If a person is going to get a licence equivalent to the current regime, they will need to do almost exactly the same service.

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Julian Brazier (Shadow Minister, Transport; Canterbury, Conservative)

Will the Minister tell us why no local knowledge will be required below the Thames barrier?

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Stephen Ladyman (Minister of State, Department for Transport; South Thanet, Labour)

The Port of London Authority, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and other experts told me that such a requirement is not necessary. Beyond the barrier, the issues to be addressed are the same as anywhere else.

The regime is strengthened by the fact that, when a person acquires their local knowledge, having trained for six months, they will be qualified for a restricted route on the Thames. If they want to change their route in the local knowledge area—perhaps because they change operator or employer—they will need to repeat their local knowledge training. From that point of view, the system is being strengthened considerably. Furthermore, they will need to revalidate their local knowledge every five years—a further strengthening of the current regime.

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Simon Hughes (Shadow Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs & Shadow Attorney General, Constitutional Affairs; North Southwark and Bermondsey, Liberal Democrat)

Nobody is arguing that there cannot be changes or improvements—the Minister has set out many of them—but the European norm will be four years of training. Does the Minister not understand that the central objection to the proposal is that the minimum training barrier in one of the most difficult rivers in Europe will be half of what it is across Europe? If he is willing to change that and one or two of the other matters raised, we could agree on a package that is an all-round improvement, not one that improves some areas, but leaves a great hole in the middle.

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Stephen Ladyman (Minister of State, Department for Transport; South Thanet, Labour)

The European norm will not be four years. The directive makes it clear that, if a person's training is entirely practical, it will be four years, but that period can be reduced to one year by taking exams. We have gold-plated that requirement significantly, as we have done in a number of areas. For example, we have introduced far more stringent medical testing requirements and retesting of those who will operate under the new regime. We might well be challenged on that and will have to defend it to some of our colleagues in Europe, because it will look to them as though we are gold-plating the proposals to restrict them. The five year revalidation is a gold-plating of the directive and we will have to work very hard to convince our European colleagues otherwise—and Simon Hughes says that we have reduced the requirements. My officials and experts have conducted a stringent analysis of standards across the rest of Europe and they assure me that standards will not be higher anywhere else in Europe.

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Alistair Carmichael (Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Transport; Orkney and Shetland, Liberal Democrat)

The Minister said at the start of his speech that he would address his comments in the Evening Standard. He has one minute left in which to do that.

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Stephen Ladyman (Minister of State, Department for Transport; South Thanet, Labour)

The standard attained under the new regime—

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Alistair Carmichael (Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Transport; Orkney and Shetland, Liberal Democrat)

I asked about your comments in the Evening Standard.

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Stephen Ladyman (Minister of State, Department for Transport; South Thanet, Labour)

Oh sorry. Whether it has happened deliberately or by accident—I accept that it happened by accident—the regime excludes people from different backgrounds and places from becoming watermen.