Businesses Liable to Vesting

Part of Clause 34 – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 29th April 1970.

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Photo of Mr John Osborn Mr John Osborn , Sheffield, Hallam 12:00 am, 29th April 1970

This is a well-thought-out Amendment. I support what my hon. Friend the Member for Southgate (Mr. Berry) said in moving it. We have debated how much the port boards should undertake and how best they should handle the work. We acknowledge that they should undertake the running of ports and harbours. The Clause, which relates to businesses liable to vesting, deals with port businesses and from line 7 onwards the harbour operations relevant under the term " port business " are listed.

Each port, particularly the larger ports, has a complexity of activities which it undertakes. I can speak only as an observer. I think there is no doubt that the port businesses have to adapt themselves to flexibility which is essential in many different circumstances. Ships do not come in regularly and certain products need handling in a special way. Port businesses provide the answer to special problems which arise at short notice.

I acknowledge that there are good and bad port businesses, but the concept of putting everything under a port board cannot be justified. Manchester Ship Canal Company has devised a way of handling everything as part of its activities, but in other areas goods have to be handled in a way which needs greater flexibility. We may look on these activities in the same way as the activities of a large company which is not in the public sector. It has to look at its costs and efficiency of handling. In my experience elsewhere representatives of a company sometimes say that they should carry out their own maintenance work or do their own painting. Each business has to decide for itself what is most economical in the circumstances.

It may be that in one phase of a company's development it is well advised to have its own maintenance crew. It may be that at other times a sub-contractor who specialises in the type of equipment concerned takes on that work. In private business expenses and costs have to be matched by sales. A private business invariably has the flexibility to take the best line of action. What will happen if in the early flush of success the port boards decide to take on too many activities which could well be left to businesses outside the activities of those harbours?

This Amendment should commend itself to the Government. Certain activities could be excluded from those to be vested in the port boards. The Clause says that the harbour operations relevant for this purpose are—

  1. (i) the loading or unloading of cargo in or from trading or fishing vessels which are in the harbour or the approaches thereto; "
The Amendment would exclude such activities as warehousing, sorting, weighing and movement. One of the difficulties which a future Government will face is that if too many of these port businesses are taken over into the complexity of monolithic management costs could escalate out of all proportion.

The cost of taking goods off ships and conveying them to the centre and to the consumer, and the cost of taking goods off for export could escalate. There would be no way of overcoming that difficulty. One of the main difficulties we shall have is that dockers have had one of the largest increases in wages of any section of the community. Provided that this is accompanied by flexibility there is no need for concern, but the costs of port handling and of running the port to a greater extent will include those activities which could well be done with efficiency outside the ports.

Not only should these sub-paragraphs be deleted, but we should insert the words in the Amendment. I very much hope that the Amendment will be carefully considered and replied to by the Government. It could well be that in the first flush of nationalisation port boards will take on a lot too much, with the result that everyone in the country will have to pay more for services which they may have taken for granted.