Ports (Deep-Water Berths)

Railway Superannuitants – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 25th March 1965.

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8.13 a.m.

Photo of Mr Stephen Swingler Mr Stephen Swingler , Newcastle-under-Lyme

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I am in this difficulty. Two of my hon. Friends have raised subjects that are widely separated, except that they both concern my Department and both concern the expenditure of considerable funds. Otherwise they are unlike. But I will make separate replies to them, because both are important issues. To my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford, I can only say that he will recall what was said—a short time ago—by my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Board of Trade. My hon. Friend the Minister of State said that he would take note of any further speeches made on the subject of consumer protection after he had spoken, and I have no doubt that he will give immediate attention to the very serious facts produced by my hon. Friend, and let him have a reply in correspondence.

I wish to turn, first of all, Mr. Speaker, to the subject raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Accrington (Mr. H. Hynd). It was no surprise that he raised this subject; as is well known, he is the President of the British Railways Superannuitants Federation. He has been a persistent campaigner on behalf of railway pensioners, and has put the case in his usual cogent way for many thousands of members of his Federation.

I am sure that my hon. Friend knows—indeed he started by saying so—that these questions of railway superannuation are the responsibility in the first instance—and I do not wish to evade in any way the responsibilities of the Ministry of Transport—of the British Railways Board. Such responsibility has since nationalisation always belonged to the Board or its predecessor. We still maintain the view that it would be inappropriate for the Minister of Transport to interfere in what is, in the first place, a matter for the Railways Board.

My hon. Friend granted that the Board has from time to time considered the position of railway superannuitants and, as he said, five schemes of supplementation have been introduced on the initiative of the Board itself. This shows evidence that the Board is conscious of the need to do something for superannuitants and is sympathetic towards their problems in face of the persistently rising cost of living. But, as we all know, the Board has been faced with the problem of limited resources and, in particular, has had to have regard to the very heavy deficit of recent years when considering the question of paying higher pensions or of meeting any other call upon its resources.

I turn now to the question of comparability which my hon. Friend raised. He referred to the comparison with, for example, pensioners of the gas and electricity boards. It is true that these pensioners have had the same increases as have been granted to public service pensioners, on the ground that many of them were formerly employees of local government bodies and, therefore, had a claim under the Pensions Increase Acts. Here, we come to the question of who are public servants. Again, I do not want to split hairs with my hon. Friend about it. The distinction is the distinction between those who are in any way Government servants and those who may be public servants of some other kind, which railwaymen certainly have been and are, though they are not Government employees.

The Pensions (Increase) Acts applied to the employees of central and local government, but not beyond that, although others may well be rightly called servants of the community. Because the employees of the gas and electricity boards were, in many cases, previously government employees in the sense of being local government employees, the Pensions (Increase) Acts were applied to them. The same consideration does not apply to railway pensioners.

Photo of Miss Irene Ward Miss Irene Ward , Tynemouth

The hon. Gentleman will agree that many of the gas employees were employees of private gas companies, yet they have benefited from the Pensions (Increase) Acts. Are not railway superannuitants in an exactly similar position? I have no doubt that the same comparison can be made with reference to pensioners of the old electricity companies. When the Labour Government nationalised the railways, did not they think of the position they were creating for these old railway company superannuitants?

Photo of Mr Stephen Swingler Mr Stephen Swingler , Newcastle-under-Lyme

That was quite a good speech. I reply to it in this way. I was not stating what I thought was proper in justice. I was stating only what had historically arisen. The hon. Lady is quite right in saying that many of these workers were previously employed by companies in private ownership, but some of them were employed by undertakings in municipal ownership and, therefore, they have had the benefit of the application of the Pensions (Increase) Acts. That is how comparability between their position with respect to superannuation after nationalisation and the position of State or local government servants arose.

It did not arise in the case of railway superannuitants for the historical reason that they had not actually been State servants or local government servants. As I say, I am not arguing the case that it is not fair to bring them for- ward or that there ought not to be comparability. All I am doing at the moment is showing how the question has arisen and how the employees of the gas and electricity industries have been regarded differently, for the historical reason that they were at one time local government servants.

Photo of Mr Henry Hynd Mr Henry Hynd , Accrington

Is it not merely a convenient administrative fiction that the employees of the nationalised railways are not public servants? If the Government, when they nationalised the railways, had treated railwaymen in the same way as, for instance, the employees of the Post Office are treated, they would have come under the Pension Increase Acts, but because the railways were called a public corporation the railwaymen are assumed not to be directly public servants. I suggest that this is a mere convenience from the point of view of the Government and that they are, in fact, just as much public servants as those in the gas and electricity industries, the Post Office and elsewhere.

Photo of Mr Stephen Swingler Mr Stephen Swingler , Newcastle-under-Lyme

Again, we could no doubt argue this for a considerable time but that it not the position. There is a clear difference between those who are State employed or local authority employed and those who are employed by the corporations, which are publicly owned but nevertheless independent of the State or of the local authorities.

Of course, the difference is that the schemes under which these employees live and work, whether they be in active work or whether they be pensioners, are administered by the management of the corporation. They are not directly the responsibility of the State. In the case of the railway superannuitants, their position is primarily a matter for the Board and, in particular, it is a financial question for the Board because it is responsible for the funds it took over.

I now pass to the question of the financial position of the Board. Its liability for the pensions of salaried staff is a very great one. The cost of the pension increases currently being paid to superannuitants amounts to £1,300,000 per annum. The Board has responsibility for meeting the cost of the deficiency arising in connection with various railway superannuation funds. These accrued deficiencies total about £112 million, which the Board is liquidating at the rate of £6½ million per annum.

In addition, it has a liability of £6 million a year in respect of interest payable on funds deposited with the undertaking and nearly £4½ million for the employer's matching contributions to the superannuation funds. The Board, therefore, has a heavy financial liability in relation to pensions and, in addition to superannuation schemes already entered into, subvents the basic pensions of superannuitants through a deficiency payment amounting to £6½ million a year.

The point, therefore—and my hon. Friend was right to emphasise it—is that, because we are faced with a situation where the Board is seriously in deficit, a proposal for further increases to be granted to superannuitants would automatically increase the amount of the railway deficit and must increase the amount of Exchequer grant that has to be met and borne by the taxpayer as a subsidy to the Board.

That is the position with which we are faced, and my hon. Friend pressed the point that the Government should agree to increase the Exchequer grant to the Board in order to enable it to give further pension increases. Our position is that, first of all, this must be a matter for the Board itself to consider in relation to other payments that are being made but, of course, we are open to representations from the Board on the matter at any time.

I should in fairness make the point that there is a respect in which railway superannuitants are more fortunate than a good many other retired people because the great majority of them receive their National Insurance pensions in addition to their occupational pensions. That is true. I am sure that my hon. Friend would therefore agree that most railway superannuitants will benefit from the very substantial State pension increases which the Government are introducing next week.

Photo of Mr Henry Hynd Mr Henry Hynd , Accrington

There is some misunderstanding here. These supplements are not paid to any railway superannuitant who also gets the State pension. Until recent years railway salaried staff were excluded from National Insurance and many of them did not qualify for retirement benefits.

Photo of Mr Stephen Swingler Mr Stephen Swingler , Newcastle-under-Lyme

My information is that the great majority of railway superannuitants get the retirement pension which the Government have substantially increased. I am prepared to investigate this further, but I am advised that the majority will benefit from the substantial increase in the State pension, which the Government will introduce next week. Therefore, it cannot be said that we are doing nothing as a Government for these people with whom we have the utmost sympathy; they will benefit in that respect. If there are criticisms I shall be most ready to consider further representations from my hon. Friend, and if there are anomalies I will look into the position.

May I sum up? In the first place, I must repeat that in our view this is primarily a responsibility for the Railways Board and not for the Government. It would not, therefore, in our view be proper at present for the Government to interfere in the affairs of the Railways Board by applying future Pensions (Increase) Acts to railway superannuitants, but we are open to any proposal or representation which the Board cares to make to us.

We fully understand that the railway superannuitant would like to get the same increases as have been granted to public service pensioners and the pensioners of some other nationalised industries, but in considering their claim the Railways Board have to take into account the fact that they are at present heavily in debt. It has to be remembered that many superannuitants benefit from the increases in State pensions. The Board have shown by the five supplementary schemes which they have introduced so far that they understand the difficulties and problems which are facing railway superannuitants, and no doubt, therefore, the Board will pay attention to the points which my hon. Friend has made tonight. I am sure that they will be studied by the members of the Railways Board who are concerned with these matters. They will be considered by them in relation to the review of public service pensions which, as my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has already announced, is now in progress. I assure my hon. Friend that the matter will receive further consideration and that if proposals are made to us by the Railways Board, we shall give them the most urgent and sympathetic consideration.

Photo of Miss Irene Ward Miss Irene Ward , Tynemouth

Is the hon. Member aware that quite recently I wrote on behalf of a railway superannuitant and asked Dr. Beeching whether he was considering bringing in a new Pensions (Increase) Act for the railway superannuitants, and that the answer was in the negative? All that the hon. Member said in his final remarks is, therefore, said out of the blue with no basis of background.

Photo of Mr Stephen Swingler Mr Stephen Swingler , Newcastle-under-Lyme

I am afraid that that is not so. Dr. Beeching cannot bring in a Pensions (Increase) Bill. It is for Dr. Beeching and the members of the Railways Board in considering representations made to them to consider this criticism in relation to their own financial position and the Government's financial policy towards the nationalised industries, and then to inform us if they wish to make proposals. If they make proposals to us they will receive sympathetic consideration. But I am saying emphatically, that it is not for us as a Government, or the Ministry of Transport, to take the initiative in the matter. It is the responsibility of the Railways Board, managerially and administratively, to consider the position in relation to its finances, and, if it so wishes, to make proposals, and no doubt in due course it will do so.

Photo of Mr Henry Hynd Mr Henry Hynd , Accrington

May I say, in justice to Dr. Beeching, that in a letter only last month he said that the matter would be kept under sympathetic review. But I must insist on this point, that these old superannuitants do not qualify for retirement pension. None of these supplements was given to any superannuitant. That must be borne in mind.

Photo of Mr Stephen Swingler Mr Stephen Swingler , Newcastle-under-Lyme

I am very glad that my hon. Friend has made that point clear. The Chairman of the Railways Board has assured us that he will give sympathetic consideration to these representations, and I am quite sure that he will consider the speech of my hon. Friend in relation to discussions which the Board is having about the matter. I will myself study the points that my hon. Friend has made, and if there are any further discussions which we should have with the Railways Board we shall certainly undertake them.

I hope the House will forgive me, if it feels that there is a suitable pause at this moment, if I turn to the proposals raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreditch and Finsbury (Mr. R. W. Brown). I was not able to squeeze in between my hon. Friends. My hon. Friend raised a matter which urgently concerns my Department, and it is one to which I should like to reply. This is a problem which was due to be raised by an Opposition Member, who gave notice some days ago that he intended to raise the question of the provision of deep water berths. A considerable amount of work was done in my Department, in order to prepare a full reply—

Photo of Mr Robin Chichester-Clark Mr Robin Chichester-Clark , County Londonderry

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is there not some question of a second speech taking place here?

Photo of Sir Harry Hylton-Foster Sir Harry Hylton-Foster , Cities of London and Westminster

Not so far as I know. What happens is that we discuss the Question, "That the Bill be now read a Third time", and I think the hon. Gentleman has only spoken once to that. There was a paragraph in it, as it were, but it remains the same speech.

Photo of Mr William Wilkins Mr William Wilkins , Bristol South

May I ask for your guidance, Mr. Speaker? If the Minister now replies to what I understand is a speech made by one of my hon. Friends on this matter of deep-water berths, will this then conclude the debate on this subject, because others of us are interested?

Photo of Sir Harry Hylton-Foster Sir Harry Hylton-Foster , Cities of London and Westminster

This debate is not on one subject, and it just depends who catches my eye. I confess that at the present state of affairs I should be tempted to move on.

Photo of Mr Stephen Swingler Mr Stephen Swingler , Newcastle-under-Lyme

My problem, Mr. Speaker, as you realise, is that if I had not moved up to this Box there was the possibility that several more subjects would have been raised. I might then have been accused of evading the responsibility of replying to the criticisms. Therefore, as you have noticed the paragraphing in my speech, Mr. Speaker, and I thank you for it, I am continuing to turn to the other serious matter raised.

I was saying that an absent Member had given notice to raise this matter, and a considerable amount of time and labour was spent in my Department to prepare the facts on this extremely important national issue. But it appears that, without giving notice to me, this Member contracted out of our proceedings in the course of the night. Nevertheless, I am very pleased that my hon. Friend has drawn attention to the question, because I think it is very important.

Photo of Mr Robert Cooke Mr Robert Cooke , Bristol West

The hon. Member from this side of the House, who did not rise in his place to mention this subject, having given notice, was loth to take part in an exercise in which both Government and back benchers are taking part, in order to prolong this sitting and to lose the next day's business.

Photo of Mr Stephen Swingler Mr Stephen Swingler , Newcastle-under-Lyme

I do not remember how long the hon. Gentleman has been in the House. But it has been quite common, Mr. Speaker, in the period of nearly 20 years that I have been in the House, to have all-night sittings on the Consolidated Fund Bill, because it is a great occasion for back benchers. If the hon. Gentleman does not realise that this is one of the great opportunities for freedom for back bench Members of this House to raise a variety of problems, he has not even begun to understand Parliament.

If the hon. Member who several days ago asked my Department to inquire into this very important issue of deep water berths did not understand that this subject could not be raised until late, but several hours before midnight said it was not convenient and he had to go home, then he has a great deal to learn about the ways of Parliament and our procedure. I say no more than that. [Interruption.] I have been here all night.

Photo of Mr Stephen Swingler Mr Stephen Swingler , Newcastle-under-Lyme

I have been here all night waiting for hon. Members to raise this subject.

Photo of Sir Harry Hylton-Foster Sir Harry Hylton-Foster , Cities of London and Westminster

Order. We cannot have two hon. Members on their feet at one and the same time. I suggest we get back to deep-water berths.

Photo of Mr Stephen Swingler Mr Stephen Swingler , Newcastle-under-Lyme

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. May I draw the hon. Member's attention—oh, all right.

Photo of Mr Tom Iremonger Mr Tom Iremonger , Ilford North

I am most obliged to the hon. Gentleman. I only wanted to say, with great respect, that I thought that what he said was entirely right—that it is indeed the privilege and the duty of this House to exercise its opportunities on this occasion, and, if necessary, to debate right up to the hour of the sitting of the next day, because this is indeed the occasion when back benchers are able to exercise their right to discuss any subject they like. Similarly, Friday's business is an opportunity for back benchers to discuss what they like, and so the House will be glad to hear from the hon. Gentleman, who has this regard for back benchers' rights to raise their own business, how he views back benchers looking forward to being able to proceed to discussion of a very important Bill which comes on at 11 o'clock in Friday's business.

Photo of Mr Stephen Swingler Mr Stephen Swingler , Newcastle-under-Lyme

I do not know what on earth the hon. Gentleman is talking about. There is, I think, Mr. Speaker, you will agree, nothing in my record which in any way points to my curbing the rights of back benchers. This is, as I said, one of the great occasions of freedom for back benchers. It is for Tory Members as well as Labour Members—if Tory Members care to be here. What is the point of hon. Members giving notice of matters they want to raise and then departing because the clock has passed midnight so that they are not here to discuss those subjects? That is all I have to say on that. I exempt the hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward) who, I know, has been here all night, and who also knows and cares for the rights of back benchers.

My hon. Friend drew attention to the great importance of the work of the National Ports Council. The Rochdale Report revealed some years ago the inadequacy of investment in ports and negligence in the development of plans for port facilities, and did something to arouse even the previous Government out of their inertia. At any rate, two things emerged from that, first of all the establishment of the National Ports Council, and secondly, the passing of the Harbours Act. It is as a result of those two things that now we are able to make some progress in regard to the provision of better port facilities for the future.

It is quite true, as my hon. Friend pointed out, that the Rochdale Report emphasised that this country is very badly off for deep-water cargo berths over 35 ft. deep compared with so many countries which are neighbours of ours and compete with us. The port of Antwerp alone has more than twice as many deep-water berths as all the ports of this country put together. Indeed, only five major British ports had any at all until quite recently. So it was not surprising that the Rochdale Report strongly emphasised the need for construction of more deep-water berths.

We are now in the position, at the beginning of 1965, that the interim development proposals of the National Ports Council are being discussed with port authorities up and down the country. We have not received these yet, but we understand that they include the construction of between 30 and 40 new deep-water berths as well as the renovation of 30 to 40 other berths.

As many hon. Members—many who are more expert and I am on this—will know, it is not satisfactory just to generalise about the matter. One needs to get down to the cases of particular trades. In respect of oil, for example, the Rochdale Report concluded that the provision of adequate berths for oil tankers should present no great difficulty in the future. At the moment all British oil refineries except one can be served by tankers of at least 65,000 tons, and the one exception to this will very soon be brought up to this standard.

At the moment a great amount of work is being done on the improvement of oil handling facilities. I will quote a few examples. At Milford Haven three new berths with 52 ft. depth were provided for Regent last year. A terminal is now being planned for the proposed Gulf Refinery. At Hull, in which some of my hon. Friends are interested, two jetties have been provided at Salt End for bulk handling of oil, chemicals and molasses. At the Isle of Grain in the Medway a new terminal is being constructed to handle 65,000 tonners. On the River Tees there is to be deepening and widening in order to take 65,000-ton tankers for the two new refineries there. To turn back again to the Humber, tests are at the moment being carried out to determine whether the river can be dredged to enable 65,000 tonners to serve the three new refineries planned in the Immingham area, while a Bill is now before the House to establish an off-shore oil terminal at the mouth of the Humber for tankers of as much as 100,000 tons. So it will be seen that a great deal of work is going on to improve facilities for oil.

I turn to iron ore, which is extremely important. We shall have 65,000-ton ships operating in the United Kingdom trade soon. Our deepest berth now, on the River Tyne, can handle ships up to about 35,000 tons. But this may be improved as a consequence of the dredging going on there in order to take larger oil tankers. We know, of course, that the steel companies in South Wales are very concerned about this problem and are giving very special attention to it. That is why the Rochdale Report suggested that users should take the initiative in the promotion of new facilities. In the Ministry of Transport at this moment we are examining the Report of the National Ports Council on how to improve ore handling facilities for South Wales.

As many hon. Members know, it is an extremely complex issue and has aroused a great deal of controversy, but we hope to be able in a very short time to make a statement on the recommendations of the National Ports Council which will be followed, as we have promised, by a debate in the House in which all opinions can be expressed before any Government decision is implemented. But there is no doubt in our minds whatsoever that whatever facilities are provided must be capable of eventual development to take ore carriers of up to 100,000 tons.

I turn to grain. Here again is a trade where deepwater facilities are not adequate at the moment. The National Ports Council will be giving attention to this in its interim proposals. But I can say that, although the Rochdale Report, on advice from the trade, thought that provision for 22,000-ton ships would be adequate, it already seems prudent to us to provide for larger vessels at the main ports. Leith in Scotland is at the moment being developed and deepened, with the aid of a Government loan, to take ships of well over 20,000 tons at the main grain facilities. A study is going on at Liverpool which will show what facilities are needed there for a new grain berth.

There are other bulk trades, of course, like coal. Discussions are now going on between the National Coal Board and the port authorities to ensure that modern coal handling appliances at berths of adequate depths will be provided as soon as possible, and plans for new appliances at Swansea and Immingham are already far advanced.

It is not clear that other bulk trades are handicapped generally by the lack of deep water berths, but it is possible that some users would like larger ships to use a port than can now be accommodated. At present, berths with 30–32 ft. of water are generally adequate for the larger types of cargo liner and any increase in size is likely to be gradual, but where new berths are being constructed, these should be of at least 35 ft. depth, provided that the port can accept ships of the appropriate size.

Photo of Mr William Wilkins Mr William Wilkins , Bristol South

May I remind my hon. Friend—because this is a matter on which I wanted to speak, could I have done so—that the proposal for the deep-water berths at Portbury, Avonmouth, is that they should be not less than 45 ft.?

Photo of Mr Stephen Swingler Mr Stephen Swingler , Newcastle-under-Lyme

I hope that nothing will inhibit my hon. Friend from speaking on this matter, because we shall benefit by hearing all views on the subject. We have this matter under constant consideration and we appreciate what might be done to assist in Bristol.

I was going on to say that cargo liners are normally built for the ports here and abroad which they are likely to serve, and depth limitations, therefore, are taken into account in construction. Obvious examples of this are liners constructed to navigate the Manchester Ship Canal and the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Since the Rochdale Report appeared, five new liner berths have been completed at Lackenby Dock on the Tees, with the aid of a Government loan, seven at Liverpool as part of the Langton-Canada entrance scheme and later this year two will become available in the first stage of the Tilbury extension scheme, as well as two roll-on roll-off berths.

It is, therefore, fairly clear that although we are in the position of waiting for new proposals for further development of these terminal facilities, a great deal of work is now proceeding and we are now beginning belatedly to make an investment in the deep water berths which ought to have been provided years ago to give us the modern port facilities which we need.

Photo of Mr Terence Boston Mr Terence Boston , Faversham

Will my hon. Friend accept that many of us, especially on this side of the House, are very pleased to hear that the Government are pressing ahead urgently? Would he also confirm that besides the examples he gave, many others are being considered, such as those at Sheerness, a port recommended by the Rochdale Committee for major expansion? Is he aware that there is already under way a proposal which will provide for ships up to 35,000 tons and a draft of 35 ft. and eventually providing for ships of a draft of up to 40 ft., facilities which would undoubtedly help to overcome some of the congestion in the London Docks?

Photo of Mr Stephen Swingler Mr Stephen Swingler , Newcastle-under-Lyme

That is certainly a possibility. I should like to emphasise that what I have said is only an interim progress report on what we are doing. The National Ports Council is at present engaged in discussing proposals with port authorities all over the country; nobody need be counted out, because the need to extend facilities is so great. We shall shortly be receiving from the N.P.C. their proposals and recommendations for investment; no doubt my hon. Friend's suggestion will be drawn to the Council's attention.

I want finally to refer to new port investment and especially to the provision of these deep water berths which have been so much needed to overcome the inadequacy which the Rochdale Report showed has existed for so long.

In 1963–64 investment was £14·7 million. In 1964–65 investment will provisionally be £23·6 million. In 1965–66 we are planning for an investment of £33·7 million. I emphasise that these figures must be related to discussions in the Department headed by my right hon. Friend the First Secretary, because they must be fitted into the national economic plane. The achievement of them depends on a constantly acelerating rate of growth. We are setting our sights high. We are determined to make up for the time lag revealed by the Rochdale Committee, and revealed also by the proposals under discussion by the N.P.C. We have a lot of leeway to make up to catch up with little Belgium, and to catch up with the things which ought to have been done in the last decade. We are determined to remedy the situation as rapidly as possible by a much higher rate of capital investment particularly in deep water berths which can do so much for our export trade.