MERSEY DOCKS AND HARBOUR BOARD BILL (By Order)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 21st June 1971.

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Photo of Mr Eric Heffer Mr Eric Heffer , Liverpool, Walton 12:00 am, 21st June 1971

Yes. My hon. Friend has given the figure which I was about to give and I am grateful to him.

Under one-third of the income from the Liverpool Docks now comes from the South End Docks, but certainly a few years ago one-third came from South End. The closure of those docks will cause enormous problems. At present it is estimated that 1¼ million tons of cargo goes through the South End Docks. This was brought out in the evidence before the Committee. When those docks are closed that cargo will have to go elsewhere. But if it cannot go elsewhere in Liverpool, where will it go? That is a point we have to consider seriously, because the flooding of the Seaforth docks will begin in July of this year but the first berth will not be open until January or February, 1972. The entire complex of the Seaforth docks will not be available, and that means that we shall be faced with the problem of where to put 1¼ million tons of cargo, and how it is to go through the port of Liverpool.

Yet everybody knows that today Liverpool is primarily a cargo port. We have lost most of the passenger trade, through circumstances beyond our control; in any case, it was almost inevitable that we would lose it. One-third of the docks, catering for 1¼ million tons of cargo, will be lost because we shall not have the replacement by next year. There is an old but true saying that if the port of Liverpool is prosperous the whole of Merseyside is prosperous, but if it is not prosperous and is in a difficult position the whole of Merseyside is affected.

9.0 p.m.

I put it to all hon. Members who are interested, and particularly to the Minister: what will happen during that interim period? I do not think that anyone knows. It could mean a permanent loss of trade to the Port of Liverpool unless the problem is overcome.

I agree that Seaforth offers immense opportunities for development and for the future of the Port of Liverpool. As I said, over the years, many of us have pressed for that development to take place. But what I fear is that the very fact that we have a receiver of rates in the Port of Liverpool has done untold harm both to the present situation and to the future prospects for Liverpool. Traders who would have come to Liverpool are now not so certain that they will come. Again, I quote from Mr. Cuckney's evidence—page 30, Day 1Since September it has been publicly known at home and abroad that the port faces a financial crisis. This is a great discouragement to foreign exporters or shippers to use the port. In order to make the best use of Seaforth we need to turn a number of expressions and letters of intent into firm contracts, firm commitments, to invest in the port and to build facilities there. That statement by Mr. Cuckney is absolutely right. I blame the Government primarily for the state of affairs which has existed in the port over the past nine or ten months.

I am not against the Board being reorganised. In my view, the old Board, in some respects, left much to be desired. On the other hand, people should not be attacked unless they have an opportunity to defend themselves. I take the point which has been made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Dell) and by others. I know many members of the old Board, some in my party and some not, whom I regard as reliable, good people who have done a first-class job, as they have seen it, in the port of Liverpool over the years. I think it regrettable that that statement was made by the Committee in its Special Report.

I am in favour of better management. Past management was too heavily weighted in favour of the ship owners and the traders. But the Government could have laid down that the bridging loan was conditional upon the reorganisation of the Board and the replacement of some parts, if not the whole, of the management by a more efficient management system. That is what the right hon. Gentleman could have done, and it is what I think a Labour Government, if we were not to nationalise the port, would have done. If they had not done it, I should certainly have run into criticism myself.

Because my hon. Friends and I do not want the uncertainty to continue, we shall not oppose the Bill. We believe, however, that the workpeople are getting a raw deal. We are not in favour of the redundancies which are being proposed. Equally, we consider that smaller investors, in particular, are getting a raw deal under the Bill. It was a public trust and not a private enterprise company. Those people who loaned their money to it believed, like anyone lending to a local authority, that it was pretty well copper-bottomed. Then they found out that it was not. They must have had a somewhat traumatic experience, particularly the small investors.