MERCHANT SHIPPING BILL [Lords]

Orders of the Day — RENT BILL [Lords] – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 8th July 1974.

Alert me about debates like this

Order for Second Reading read.

10.10 p.m.

Photo of Mr Peter Shore Mr Peter Shore , Tower Hamlets Stepney and Poplar

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

This Bill is the successor to the Bill which failed to complete its passage last Session. It was the measure introduced by the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) on 29th November 1973 in his then capacity as Minister for Aerospace and Shipping. It had substantial support from all sides of the House and Parts I to III, which remain substantially unchanged, were fully examined in Committee. The contents of the new Bill are accepted by the industry. It was welcomed in another place on 20th May and made a speedy passage there with only minor Government amendments.

This time we have omitted the earlier provision in relation to the delegation of certain statutory marine survey work. Anxiety was expressed in certain quarters about those items which are concerned with the safety of ships and those in them being passed over to a non-Government agency. The dropping of these items should not be taken as a reflection on the capability or integrity of Lloyd's Register which is deservedly held in high esteem both in this country and throughout the world.

I propose to go ahead, subject to proper consultation, with the delegation of certain other items, principally tonnage measurement, less vital to safety than the provisions we have dropped.

The Bill contains provisions to enable the safety regulation of submersibles. It amends certain of the provisions of the 1970 Merchant Shipping Act relating to offences by seamen. I shall have more to say about this later.

Part I arises indirectly from the "Torrey Canyon" incident in 1967. This made it clear that the then existing limits for oil pollution compensation were totally inadequate for the new era of super-tankers. The Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organisation con- vened a conference in 1969 which adopted the International Convention of Civil Liability for Oil Pollution Damage. This improved upon the earlier compensation limits, but not sufficiently.

A second conference was therefore convened by IMCO in 1971 which adopted a further convention setting up an international fund for compensation for oil pollution damage. This was open only to parties of the 1969 convention. Part I of the Bill is to enable the United Kingdom to ratify the fund convention. We hope to be among the first to do so. The fund is to be financed by receivers, in contracting countries to the 1971 convention, of 150,000 tons or more per annum of crude and fuel oil by sea. Most of this will be imported but coastal transport of oil will also be taken into account. The fund will compensate victims in contracting countries of oil pollution damage caused by identified ships where the shipowner is not fully liable or fails to pay.

The fund will also relieve shipowners of part of their liability under the 1969 convention. Compensation will be payable under the fund up to £15·7 million for any one incident and this will be capable of being raised by the fund assembly to almost £31·4 million. Within these limits there will be no charge to the public purse. The 1969 and 1971 conventions will together provide an interlocking system of compensation fund, shipowners' liability and compulsory insurance. Their coming into force will depend on their ratification by a sufficient number of States receiving a prescribed amount of oil in the preceding calendar year and which have a stated minimum of tanker tonnage. We understand that a number of countries have already introduced legislation for this purpose.

Part II of the Bill will enable us to ratify certain amendments to the 1954 Oil Pollution Convention. This relates to the arrangement and size of individual tanks in oil tankers. These amendments also have their origins in the "Torrey Canyon" incident. The United Kingdom can claim credit for initiating the long and detailed IMCO discussions which produced them. The hon. Member for Henley has certainly played a part in those talks. They are highly technical and lay down broadly that side and centre cargo tanks must not exceed certain maximum sizes and that the hypothetical spillage of oil in the assumed worst case of damage shall not exceed 30,000 cubic metres or, for the mammoth tankers, 40,000 cubic metres. These arrangements have since been confirmed by the Marine Pollution Conference held at Church House last autumn.

The urgency of introducing these measures was recognised in IMCO and the amendments require them to be incorporated in all ships for which building contracts were signed after 1st January 1972 or, in the absence of a building contract, whose construction was started after 30th June 1972, and for all ships delivered after 1st January 1977.

Shipping and shipbuilding industries were immediately warned of our intention to legislate at the first opportunity, and the Bill therefore provides for retrospective application as necessary. We shall be consulting other Governments before putting various provisions of Part II into effect so as not to penalise our own tanker fleet and so that the measures against offending tankers will have the maximum effect.

Part III provides powers to protect United Kingdom shipping and trading interests. In recent years certain Governments have taken measures to favour their own shipping. The best known is probably flag discrimination where a country's own ships are given preference in the carriage of exports. Another example is the regulation of freight rates to enhance exports at the expense of imports. We have long upheld the principle of competition in seaborne trade as the best means of providing fair and efficient services. Therefore, we deplore those practices. Such action is regrettably on the increase to the detriment of our shipping lines and trading interests. While we have no wish to follow suit, we believe that it is essential to protect these interests from interference by other Governments. The United Kingdom Chamber of Shipping and the British Shippers Council support the taking of contingency powers, a course which a number of other maritime countries have seen fit to follow. We have had discussions with our opposite numbers in Western Europe.

We expect the exercise of the powers to be extremely rare. Moreover, we should not use them without first trying commercial and diplomatic negotiations. But they would be there and would be used in the last resort. They would be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure and the House would have to approve our intention at the time.

Subsection (7) of Clause 14 provides for consultation with shipping and trading interests and such other interests as may be appropriate". The identity of those "other interests" will obviously depend on the nature of the damage threatened and the proposed action. In appropriate cases they could well include, for example, trade unions and harbour authorities.

Hon. Members may be aware of the recent United Nations conference in Geneva which concluded a Convenion on a Code of Conduct for Liner Conferences. We are very much in favour of the idea of such a code provided it is universally acceptable and based on fully commercial and competitive relationships. Regrettably the convention in this instance has as one of its central provisions the concept of cargo reservation, which is contradictory to the principle of freedom of choice, and the United Kingdom was forced to oppose it.

We have a great deal of sympathy and support for those countries, particularly developing countries, which are trying to build up their own merchant fleets and we shall obviously consider, as we reassess our shipping policies in the light of the United Nations conference, what practical steps we can take. I should make it clear that those who pursue legitimate aims by reasonable means have nothing to fear from the powers in the Bill.

I come to Part IV. When the earlier Bill was being debated, the then Minister announced his intention to introduce legislation to enable the making of regulations to ensure the safe operation of submersibles. Hon. Members will recall the accident to "Pisces III" and the prolonged rescue operation connected with it. We have been able to incorporate such provisions in Part IV. They are entirely enabling provisions and depend on the making of regulations. The Department hopes to begin consultations at the earliest opportunity.

We are dealing with a rapidly developing technology, and the powers have been drafted to enable the Department to react quickly to developments. I am happy to acknowledge the responsibility of the industry and the high standards applied by it. We have no intention to lay down rigid controls at the outset. We shall start with a system of registration so as to gain the information we require and we shall then keep pace with the development of the industry itself.

The definition of "submersible apparatus" is drawn deliberately widely and will extend even to diving operations from United Kingdom registered ships anywhere in the world. This will remove a weakness in the present legislation on diving.

There will inevitably be areas in which the powers in Part IV will overlap with those of my right hon. Friends responsible for energy and employment who are concerned respectively with operations on the Continental Shelf and in territorial waters. There is already, and will continue to be, close consultation and cooperation between the three Departments concerned so as to ensure that common standards are maintained and that the maximum expertise is concentrated on whatever problems arise.

I refer next to Part V of the Bill. Clause 18 contains detailed provisions aimed at broadening the constitution of the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses to include a member from the Isle of Man—the commissioners are responsible for lighthouses there—and would make available a broader range of experience to the commissioners than they have at present.

The most significant provision in Part V, however, is Clause 19, a new feature of the Bill which amends Sections of the Merchant Shipping Act 1970 relating to offences by seamen. Those 1970 provisions which followed closely the recommendations of Lord Pearson's court of inquiry set up following the seamen's dispute in 1966, helped to modernise earlier provisions dating from the last century. The time has now come to make a further advance consistent with the general approach of the Government to industrial relations—an approach which places emphasis on conciliation rather than reliance on legal sanctions.

Misconduct at sea is at present dealt with under the provsions of the general criminal law, the offences in Sections 27 to 31 of the 1970 Act and the disciplinary offences regulations made under Section 34 of that Act. Representatives of the seamen have consistently taken the view that Sections 28 to 31 are unnecesary having regard to other sanctions available, and an undertaking was given both by the previous Labour Government and by the previous administration to review those sections. That review was begun last year, and we have now reached the position of being able to propose certain changes which can be implemented in the Bill. These changes are set out in Clause 19 and I will deal with each of them in turn.

There is no difference of opinion among seafaring interests that Section 27, which creates an offence in relation to misconduct endangering a ship or persons on board, is an important provision which must be retained, and it is indeed proposed to update the maximum fine on summary conviction under that section from £200 to £400.

Section 29 deals with disobedience of a single lawful command and Section 31 deals with absence without leave at the time of sailing. It should be noted that continued or concerted disobedience or neglect of duty is covered by Section 30 of the 1970 Act and serious misconduct by Section 27. In addition, absence without leave would occur on shore and could be adequately dealt with as a normal industrial matter or by use of the civil remedies. I have therefore decided that both Sections 29 and 31 should be repealed.

Section 30 deals with continued or concerted disobedience or neglect of duty. It is proposed to amend this section so that combinations which are treated as criminal offences apply only when a ship is at sea.

Lastly, the upper limit of the fine which may be imposed on seamen for a disciplinary offence by regulations made under Section 34 of the 1970 Act is to be increased from £10 to £20. That is solely for the purpose of dealing with the serious offence of smoking in prohibited places on tankers which might in certain circumstances be dealt with under other provisions of the Act.

Photo of Mr Kevin McNamara Mr Kevin McNamara , Kingston upon Hull Central

I have read carefully the speeches that were made in another place. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that specific case of smoking on tankers and that any other case of endangering a ship would be dealt with by other legislation than by the 1970 Act?

Photo of Mr Peter Shore Mr Peter Shore , Tower Hamlets Stepney and Poplar

I confirm the second point. I will ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State to deal with the first point when he replies.

It should be noted that Section 28 of the Act, which deals with drink and drugs, remains.

I emphasise that I have brought forward these changes after consultation with both sides of the fishing and shipping industries and we are satisfied that they may be made without risk to safety.

Sections 27, 28, 30 and 34 will remain in force and give ample statutory provisions to deal with misconduct at sea, particularly as the criminal law is available to deal with more serious misconduct.

The safety of the ship and crew is a matter of the utmost importance. All interested parties recognise the need for a special framework of authority on board ship and we note the importance attached by those responsible for the conduct of ships to the sections of the 1970 Act which I have mentioned remaining in force. Some believe, however, that good management and industrial relations between employer and employee would adequately deal with the situation without use of the criminal law.

Accordingly, as has been announced, we are establishing two working parties—one for the fishing industry and one for the Merchant Navy—with the following terms of reference which have just been agreed with both industries: To review the disciplinary reequirements on board merchant ships"— and in the other case fishing vessels— with particular reference to the framework of authority required in modern conditions in the interests of safety, good shipboard relations and effective operations, and to make recommendations. All the relevant interests have agreed to serve on these groups which will begin work shortly and will undertake a round of visits to ports to canvass opinion and study conditions on the spot.

The Government believe that all concerned will approach these studies without prejudice and with a constructive attitude. I believe that they will produce a modern code of relationships which will keep this country in the forefront of the development of labour relations, with the necessary legal backing, relating to employment at sea.

I commend the Bill to the House as a valuable and important measure. In so far as much of it is unchanged from the substance of the earlier Bill, I trust that those parts will find ready acceptance by hon. Members. The new Parts IV and V are largely uncontroversial and serve to make the Bill a still more valuable and necessary piece of legislation than was its predecessors.

It is right for me in conclusion to pay the customary and deserved tribute to the shipping industry and all those who work in it and all those who are contributing to the prosperity of this country, with particular reference to the contribution made by the Merchant Navy.

10.28 p.m.

Photo of Mr Michael Heseltine Mr Michael Heseltine Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Industry

I assure the Secretary of State for Trade that we welcome the Bill. He will not expect me to say differently since he well knows that it is largely a Conservative Bill. As he said, the Bill takes a great step forward and seeks to deal with the prevention of pollution and to take all intelligent and preventive steps to deal with the situation.

I am only sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) is not present this evening to hear me pay a tribute to his work, since he took so much trouble in steering this measure through its Committee proceedings in the previous Parliament. I wish to pay tribute to his devoted work and to the civil servants in preparing the original Bill. The only other personal observations I wish to make is to refer to the appalling tragedy that befell three of the officials in the Department where I served. I refer to Mr. Brigstoke, Mr. Meekin and Mr. Davies who were killed in the DC10 accident.

The Bill contains a number of differing matters and I have only a few observations to make on them. The provisions of Part II are particularly important. It will be difficult for us to implement Part II to prevent ships entering British ports if we are not to run the risk that other countries may not move as fast as we have done in taking retaliatory action. There will be need for caution in this situation.

Part III of the Bill is one of the areas in which we were reluctant to take power. We would rather have seen a climate of world shipping in which these powers were held in reserve and where they would not have been necessary as part of the statute law. In view, however, of the way in which events in the world have moved, it seems appropriate that we should put ourselves in a position of readiness, however reluctant we might be to move further along this road.

Part IV deals with the delegation of surveys, and here there is a difference in that the Bill does not go quite as far as we envisaged. I was never persuaded that there was any danger in going as far as the previous Bill intended, and certainly it was our intention to continue along the lines set out in that Bill. During its consideration, I do not think that the suggestions that were made were based upon substance.

I am delighted that regulations to deal with submersibles are now part of the legislation. I was deeply involved in ensuring that those powers were included in the original Bill. I thought that it was necessary to empower the Government to act in the way that the Bill provides.

As the right hon. Gentleman has said, this is a non-controversial Bill. I am glad to think that it will soon be on the statute book. I know that the House will welcome it.

10.31 p.m.

Photo of Rear-Admiral Morgan Morgan-Giles Rear-Admiral Morgan Morgan-Giles , Winchester

We are sailing through well-charted waters, certainly for those of us who sat for many hours in Committee considering the previous Bill which, unfortunately, came to nothing. However, I wish to ask one or two questions about the Bill as it is now drafted.

My first question relates to Clause 11. Will the Minister confirm that he has taken on board the point that we must not develop the regulations in such a way that there is any disadvantage to British shipping in terms of making existing ships obsolete or of insisting on standards which involve over-complicated or expensive designs? We all want to avoid pollution by oil spills, but we must not get matters out of perspective. After all, the "Torrey Canyon" disaster was a navigational disaster, and vast pollution would have resulted even if the ship had been constructed to any foreseeable standards under the Bill. This measure would not have prevented the pollution in that case.

As regards Part III, obviously we want to see everything possible done on behalf of the British Merchant Navy to avoid the unfortunate effects of flag discrimination. I am always unhappy to see a British-built, British-owned and British-manned ship flying the Monrovian ensign for no other reason than the tax advantages which result from it. I want to see a good, well-manned British Merchant Marine which is British and proud of it.

I do not want to be cantankerous or controversial, but as regards Clause 14 I hope that the power to refuse the admittance of ships to United Kingdom ports will not be used for political purposes. I hope that it will make no difference if, for example, after this measure has become law, a ship comes up Southampton Water which is South African, Chilean or any other nationality like that.

Clause 19 makes amendments in the provisions relating to offences committed by seamen. As a general point, it may be that this House would be wise in these days of inflation not simply to make a monetary increase in fines only to find that the legislation is not amended for many years, by which time the fines have become derisory. I should prefer to see fines stipulated as a proportion of a day's pay rather than have a specific fixed sum.

The Minister told us that he was setting up inquiries into disciplinary matters. Does he agree that, whatever is done and whatever experiments are made, we must not detract from the authority of the master? Life at sea is very different from life ashore. A happy ship is one where the master is a firm and fair man known by everyone to be in charge.

In these days masters have the minimum of regulations to support them. Those who understand shipping will know that masters have little to support them except their own personalities. We detract from the authority of the master only to the great disadvantage of seamen of all ranks in our Merchant Navy.

10.35 p.m.

Photo of Mr Kevin McNamara Mr Kevin McNamara , Kingston upon Hull Central

I do not intend to detain the House long.

I should like to put a number of points to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State who will be replying. The first concerns submersible apparatus. Clause 17(1)(a) provides that The Secretary of State may make regulations—(a) for the safety of submersible and supporting apparatus". When we had the possible tragedy of the "Pisces" a point that was brought to our notice was the close proximity of vessels and aircraft carrying members of the media in the area where, in difficult circumstances, rescue vessels were attempting to transmit messages to men many fathoms below the sea.

I appreciate that as regards our own waters it will be possible for the Secretary of State to make regulations, but what will happen concerning the open sea? What powers are we to seek with other countries to prevent vessels, which are quite properly present to serve the public interest, interfering with the safety of rescue operations which are taking place?

I am in general agreement with and welcome the remainder of the Bill. It was in fact mainly the work of the previous Government.

I welcome particularly those parts of the Bill which deal with the alleviation of certain of the penal clauses relating to the National Union of Seamen. I spent may hours debating this matter both in Committee and on Report in 1970. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who had to suffer a lot of the argument in other rooms outside this Chamber, has now found it possible to make certain alterations in anticipation of what we hope will be the outcome of the findings of the two working parties.

I am struck by what the national fisheries officer of the Transport and General Workers Union said about the work of port disciplinary committees representing owners and unions in the ports. In many ways a port committee has a more dreadful sanction over people working in the industry than has any legislation which we may put through this House. It has the power not only of suspending a fisherman for one, two or three voyages, thereby incurring a greater fine than he would have suffered under the provisions of the 1970 Act, but the ultimate sanction of suspending him sine die, which means that he loses his opportunity to fish.

It is far better that there should be voluntary agreement and disciplinary methods within the fishing industry and, one hopes, within the merchant marine than a system of fines which can be so encrusted with legislation that with the passage of time a situation may develop, as in the past, in which a man has appeared before a magistrates' court for a disciplinary offence, his fine has been paid by the ship's runner and he has been shipped aboard the same vessel to go out on the following tide all within the space of 48 hours.

Indeed, I commend to the House the words of Viscount Runciman of Doxford who, when talking about Clause 19 and the working parties, said: We all know that a happy ship is a good ship; we know even more, to our cost (literally at times) that an unhappy ship is not and never can be. So it follows that if the disciplinary provisions are to be effective and a source, as they should be, of harmony and not discord, it is essential that they be acceptable, both to those responsible for maintaining discipline (which is, I think inevitably, in the first place the master of the vessel at any one time) and those who are subject to it. This calls for the careful consultation which the Minister has assured us is going to be given. I hope therefore that before they become the law of the land, whatever disciplinary provisions are suggested for incorporation in a future Act of Parliament will, so far as ever possible, be the result of general agreement and will be regarded by all the interested parties as just and necessary."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords, 20th May, 1974; Vol. 351, c. 1271–2.] I hope that as a result of the setting up of the working parties all sections of our seagoing industry which may on occasions have common experiences will come together for joint consultations. I hope too that we shall get away from the antiquated procedure of fines and harsh discipline and replace it by a healthy system of industrial relations based upon mutual respect and sanctions that are recognised and approved by the industry as a whole. I particularly welcome the terms of reference of the working parties, and I hope that the Bill will be given a speedy passage through the House.

10.42 p.m.

Photo of Mr Clinton Davis Mr Clinton Davis , Hackney Central

I need detain the House for only a short time.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) was able to welcome substantially his own measure. I think that we have improved upon it and I am glad that he spoke of it in the terms that he did. I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's cautionary words that certain areas covered by Parts II and III of the Bill are exploratory, and we shall have to see how we go.

As regards Part III which relates to the protection of our shipping and trading interests, I must tell the House that we have no desire to engage in any sort of confrontation with anybody. We want an orderly system to prevail, and we are at the same time anxious that the developing world should have the opportunity to develop its own merchant fleets. We wish to give every possible encouragement to this, consistent with the principles that we have spelled out in the Bill. I was pleased that the hon. Gentleman welcomed the introduction of the provisions relating to submersible apparatus.

The hon. and gallant Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles) posed one or two questions. He asked whether the construction of British ships would be disadvantaged by these provisions. I assure him that there is no fear of that. Shipping interests have been aware of this situation since 1971 and they have made ample provision for it. I believe that only one vessel could be adversely affected, and we have not had any representations about the retrospective nature of the provisions.

With regard to Clause 14, I assure the hon. and gallant Gentleman that it is not our intention to engage in any sort of flag discrimination. I hope he will accept this assurance.

I now come to the point made by the hon. and gallant Gentleman on Clause 19. I do not think I could accept his proposition that fines should be a proportion of wages rather than a fixed sum. It would be a tremendous innovation in the criminal law if that were done. I do not know where that precedent would lead to, but it seems to me that it would not be acceptable and therefore I must say that we shall have to reject that concept.

The new clauses that we have introduced and the working parties that will examine afresh the whole area of discipline on board ship are very important, and I am delighted that we have the good will of both sides of industry for these working parties. Even those who indicated displeasure—namely, the trawler owners—about certain aspects of the new provisions which we were introducing have indicated their willingness to serve on the working party.

Indeed, we have already had a meeting to establish the terms of reference of the working party, and it has got off to a very good start indeed. The terms of reference are To review the disciplinary requirements on board merchant ships and fishing vessels with particular reference to the framework of authority required in modern conditions in the interests of safety, good shipboard relations and effective operation, and to make recommendations. They are wide terms of reference, but it is quite remarkable, having regard to some of the mythology which has arisen in this industry, that the people concerned have got round a table and have made such an effective start. My right hon. Friend and I are very pleased indeed about that. The great advantage is that they are able to discuss these differences around a table rather than engage in lengthy documentation, which as far as we can see would simply entrench the differences and we would get absolutely nowhere.

I hope—I cannot promise—that they will be able to resolve some of the difficulties about which I know my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara) feels very strongly, as indeed does the union of which he is a member. However, I do not think it would be helpful for me to comment at this stage upon the points he raised in his speech because all this is to be covered by the working party's deliberations and it would not be right for me to anticipate the work that it will do. I want the working party to arrive at conclusions which are acceptable to all sides of the industry.

I have to face the fact that if there is a possibility—I hope it is no more than that—that the working party will not be able to do that, the Government will have to make a political judgment as to what is to happen. I am hopeful, however, that having regard to the start that has been made we shall be able to achieve a substantial breakthrough in this hitherto very contentious area.

My hon. Friend also asked what was to happen in relation to submersibles in the open sea. We can legislate only for British vessels or British submersibles. We cannot apply the Bill to foreign submersibles operating from foreign ships, much as we would like that to happen But, as in so many areas which are covered by the Bill, we would hope to see a much more international approach to these matters, I hope that it will apply equally to this area affecting submersibles.

Photo of Mr Kevin McNamara Mr Kevin McNamara , Kingston upon Hull Central

I was trying to keep my remarks short and my hon. Friend might in consequence have misunderstood me. It was not a question of only British submersibles working from British ships. It was a question of other vessels and aircraft buzzing an area while rescue operations were going on, and relationships with foreign Powers with a view to arranging an international convention or agreement on this matter.

Photo of Mr Clinton Davis Mr Clinton Davis , Hackney Central

We can only hope that people will exercise sympathy and compassion in such situations and that they do not interfere in what might become a very dangerous situation. We can only rely on the co-operation of other parties. We can do no more than that. We cannot legislate for this.

The purpose of our introducing higher financial penalties under Section 34(2) of the 1970 Act is simply to cover smoking on board tankers.

I hope that the Bill will run into few difficulties in Committee. It is important that it should be enacted soon because we wish to ratify the conventions which my right hon. Friend mentioned. It was unfortunate in one way that the last election prevented progress in this direction, although it was fortunate in another way because, as most hon. Members have recognised, we have improved upon the Bill, particularly Clause 19. I therefore have pleasure in commending it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).