No. 59, in page 92, line 38, at end insert—
'9A. In section 667(3) of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894 (under which a person who fails to comply with a notice to extinguish or screen a light which may be mistaken for a lighthouse is guilty of a common nuisance and is also liable to a fine not exceeding £100) for the words from "a common nuisance" onwards there shall be substituted the words "an offence and liable to a fine not exceeding one thousand pounds".'.
No. 60, in page 93, line 3, at end insert—
'10A. Subsection (4) of section 724 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894 (which provides
that a surveyor of ships who receives unauthorised remuneration in respect of the duties he performs under that Act shall be liable to a fine not exceeding £50) shall be omitted.'.
No. 61, in page 93, line 21, at end insert—
'12A. In Schedule 1 to the Merchant Shipping (Load Lines) Act 1967 (under which any of the following offences, namely, an offence under section 284 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894 of carrying passengers in excess, an offence under section 21 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1906 of not complying with provisions requiring a passenger steamer to be surveyed and to have a passenger steamer's certificate and an offence under section 12(3)(a) of the Merchant Shipping (Safety Convention) Act 1949 of going to sea without appropriate certificates, is punishable on summary conviction with a fine of up to £1,000 in some cases and £400 in others)—
No. 62, in page 93, line 42, at end insert—
'15A. In subsection (9) of section 14 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1974 (under paragraph (a) of which a person who fails to provide information as required by that section is liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding £400 and under paragraph (b) of which a person who provides false information is so liable), for the word "£400" there shall be substituted the words "£500 in the case of an offence under paragraph (a) of this subsection and not exceeding £1,000 in the case of an offence under paragraph (b) of this subsection ".'.
No. 64, in page 94, line 47, at end insert
'in the case of an infringement of Rule 10(b)(i) of the regulations set out in Schedule 1 to the Collision Regulations and Distress Signals Order 1977 (duty to proceed with traffic flow in lanes of separation scheme); and (b) to a fine not exceeding £1,000 in any other case ".'.
I think that it would be fair to describe progress this morning, certainly in the last 15 minutes, as breathtaking. However, I do not apologise to the House for wanting to take a few minutes to discuss on Third Reading, as briefly as I can, a number of the matters that were discussed in Standing Committee, particularly with reference to the new clause dealing with pollution.
The Minister rightly said that he himself and his Whip were the only two members of the Committee who, at its last sitting, actually voted against the insertion of what was new clause 13 and which was until very recently clause 42.
Perhaps the Minister will not mind if I quote the words of his Whip. The hon. Member for Newton (Mr. Evans) said:
May I make it clear that my hon. Friends do not have a free vote, but I suspect that they are going to exercise one."—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 15 March 1979; c. 748].
The fact is that those of us who were members of the Standing Committee which considered the Bill were, I think, representing the views of very many hon. Members in wanting to insert into the Bill a clause on pollution, putting the responsibility for causing the pollution on the oil companies. We wanted to do that in Committee, because we wanted the opportunity to debate this matter in relation to the Bill.
Unfortunately, the recording in Hansard of the votes cast is not quite accurate but, as I have said, there was a vote of 10 to 2 in favour of the new clause.
I should like to record that my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, South-West (Mr. Dodsworth), the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Gould), the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson), my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne-mouth (Mr. Trotter), the hon. Member for Gravesend (Mr. Ovenden), my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Price), the right hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart), the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Weetch) and the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden)—representing all parts of the United Kingdom and both of the main parties in the House, and including the Leader of the Scottish National Party—felt sufficiently strongly to bring this situation about.
However, as the Minister has said, today the House is confronted with a very unusual situation. Really, we have a pistol at our heads concerning the Bill. I make no complaint about that, but for those of us who supported the new clause the choice is to accept its removal or to face the possibility of losing the entire Bill. I do not believe that any of us who served on the Committee could contemplate taking such a chance. The fact that both the Government and the Opposition Front Benches are now, I believe, opposed to the spirit of the new clause—or, if not to the spirit, to the letter—does not one whit deter me from believing that what we were trying to do is right and that at some future stage the House will have to return to this matter and place on the statute book, if necessary, something which is more effective than present legislation in ensuring that the oil companies are forced to bear more of the the responsibility for pollution than they do at present.
I know that the Minister has received very substantial representations in the last couple of weeks from the oil industry about the new clause. I am also equally aware that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has received strong representations against the new clause. The fact is that that new clause ruffled the feathers of some fairly big birds.
The Minister suggested that my hon. Friend the Member for Havant and Waterloo (Mr. Lloyd) had used some hyperbole. I hope that the Minister will not take it amiss when I say that most of the big birds to which I have referred have been used, in relation to oil pollution, to dropping their droppings where they have chosen in the past. That is a situation, I think, up with which the people of this country are not prepared to put indefinitely.
I do not want to make a long speech about this matter later. It would not be possible, anyway, with the pressure that I have on my side from the Whip. However, let me say that the representations were not exclusively those of the oil companies. We had representations from the British Shippers Council, which was very concerned indeed about the ramifications and repercussions of the new clause on its interests worldwide. We had representations from the Institute of London Underwriters, on behalf of the London marine insurance market, and so on. Therefore, the pressure was not exclusively from the oil companies.
I am perfectly well aware that there has been a substantial effort by a large number of—perhaps I may use the term—vested interests, of one sort or another, to have the new clause removed from the Bill. I am not suggesting that it is only the oil companies. I suspect that quite a lot of it has to do with the drafting of the new clause.
I am well aware—it was quite clear all the way along—that that new clause would never have survived in the form in which it left the Committee. But, in view of what the Minister has just said, I think that I am entitled to remind him and the House of one or two of the comments, not of myself—that would be immodest; everyone knows that I am a very modest fellow—but of a few other hon. Members.
The hon. Member for Ipswich said:
I should like to have a brief word about the new clause, as my name is down in support of it. I strongly support the principle behind it, and I associate myself with the spirit in which it was moved by the hon. Member for Christchurch and Lymington (Mr. Adley).
The right hon. Member for Western Isles said:
The Government's acceptance of the new clause would concentrate the minds of the oil companies—BP and others—on the necessity to see that their cargoes were carried in vessels that were as safe as possible through having properly certificated officers and being property maintained.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, South-West, in supporting the new clause, said:
There are important insurance relationships and obligations between them, but there should be a clear responsibility upon each. In that area my hon. Friend has done great service concerning the effects of pollution for which we are all grateful.
The hon. Member for West Derby, offering his support, said:
The ultimate responsibility has to be with the oil companies."—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 15 March 1979; c. 736–9.]
My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Ridsdale) spoke succinctly and briefly in favour of the new clause.
I do not believe that I would be doing my duty to those hon. Members on both sides of the Standing Committee who supported me there if I did not put on record, as a marker for a future date, our strong feelings that what we were trying to do with that new clause was to enshrine the principle that the polluter pays.
I accept what the Minister has said—that had the wording of the new clause reached the light of legislative day, it would have caused not only consternation but a good deal of confusion. However, as I said in Committee, I regard it as an opportunity to discuss the matter on Report—although I am now doing so on Third Reading, and I make no apology for it.
I also make no apology for warning the Minister and the House that the House will have to return time and again in the future to the question of liability for coping with the effects of pollution. The action taken by the parents living near the Westway, to which I referred in Committee, who have succeeded in obtaining the right to take to a higher court their case against the oil companies as the causers of lead fume pollution, is an important milestone in the way in which these events will have to be looked at by both the courts and the House of Commons.
We hear today about a serious escape from a nuclear power station in the United States. I do not think that anyone will seriously blame the manufacturer of the chimney as the vehicle by which that pollution reached the atmosphere. The case I deployed in Committee was that we should not be satisfied merely to consider the carrier of the oil as the main person at whom we should point the finger of blame when the pollution reaches, our shores, our coastline, or even our sea.
The Minister and hon. Members referred at great length in Committee to the role of IMCO. We have paid tribute to IMCO. I repeat the view I expressed in Committee that the European Community represents a useful forum through which the member countries of the EEC can see that IMCO legislation is implemented. It is possible that the future accession of Greece and Spain to the EEC will have a singularly beneficial effect on legislating to ensure that those two countries play their part, as we are doing, in ensuring that ships are up to standard and that crews behave in a way that will, as far as possible, prevent pollution. Greece has a particularly bad record in these matters.
It is a pity perhaps that Liberia is not a candidate for EEC membership. I would like to lay before the House some research that I did not mention in Committee. It deals with six of the most recent appalling tanker disasters that have occurred in Europe, starting with the "Torrey Canyon". This was a ship owned by the Barracuda Tanker Corporation on charter to BP and registered in Liberia. The"Amoco Cadiz"was owned by Amoco Transport Company on charter to Shell and registered in Liberia. The "Eleni V" was owned by M.J. Vardinoyannis and registered in Greece, on charter to Chevron Oil. The"Christos Bitas", owned by Zephyr Shipping Company, was on charter to BP and registered in Greece, and the "Urquiola" was owned by Navira Santa Catalina with a cargo, I believe, in the ownership of BP, and registered in Spain. Most recenly, last month, there was the "Andrios Patria", which has again brought misery to the little Spanish community of La Coruna. It was owned by Seas Transportation Corporation of Piraeus and registered in Greece.
All six vessels were on charter, each to a well-known international oil company, which more than justifies the proposition we have put forward in the new clause that the owner of the oil should be firmly identified as someone who should be made to pay his full and fair share of any of the cost of dealing with pollution.
Flags of convenience are called flags of convenience because they are flags of convenience. I do not propose to spend more time on that argument.
I turn briefly to two other aspects of the Bill on which I have received representations from my constituents and others. One of these matters which, I know, concerns my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dover and Deal (Mr. Rees) is the question of penalties on masters. These have been increased for certain offences. It is not a matter of increasing the penalties as such but of making powers available to magistrates' courts, rather than to Crown courts, for the simple reason that some of the people appearing on these charges may be foreign citizens. As the Minister cogently told the Committee, those foreign citizens could easily skip bail if they were awaiting a hearing before a higher court. It would be improper for this House to legislate in a different way for British citizens and for non-British citizens. Powers have been taken in the Bill to detain in this country and deal summarily with those who stand charged with serious pollution offences.
I strongly support what the Government are doing. But the proposal needs to be explained on the Floor of the House so that British masters will not suddenly become fearful that they will find themselves faced with a threat from the courts that has not previously existed.
I am sorry that the Committee failed to accept another amendment, which I moved in Committee, to align the penalties for pollution on both sides of the English Channel. The amendment would have aligned our legislation with that of the French. The Minister expressed concern that we might lay ourselves open to retaliation. I was totally unconvinced by what he said then, and I have since consulted with EEC officials. I understand that what the French have done is not considered to be contrary to the Treaty of Rome. I strongly support what the French Government have done. I hope that I am wrong in expressing my fear that rogue masters will choose to sail up the British side of the Channel rather than the French side because the penalties may be less on this side. I am sure that that is a practice that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dover and Deal would not wish to contemplate.
This is a long-awaited Bill. A great deal of work has gone into it. My hon. Friend the Member for Havant and Waterloo expressed reservations about the pilotage aspect of the Bill. Having served on the Committee and also having a number of pilots living in my constituency, it is not my impression that they are as fearful or as hostile to the proposition in the Bill as my hon. Friend intimated. He did a service by making his speech today, but I am happy with the pilotage aspects of the Bill. I am sorry that we have lost clause 42. I understand why it has happened. I think we are doing the right thing today by ensuring that the Bill is given a Third Reading at the earliest opportunity.
I intervene only briefly in this debate. This is almost certainly the last speech that I will make in the House, as I am leaving—of my own volition, I may say. There should be no misunderstanding.
There is no measure of more consequence to large numbers of my constituents than this Bill. I pay a sincere tribute to the Minister for the enormous amount of work he has done, not only in relation to this Bill but in preparation for it over long and, I am sure, wearying negotiations and discussions with the large number of interests involved. It was pleasant in Committee to see the inter-party argument that it was possible to develop, leading, from time to time, to a certain amount of cross-voting as well.
The pilotage provisions are important, not only for my constituents who are pilots but in the longer term for establishing better safety conditions. Although differences of view have been expressed to me by pilots and others, there is no doubt about their general welcome for the broad principles and outline that has been laid down in the Bill. They are anxious to start operating its measures.
I do not want to lose sight of that important section of the Bill, which has been of much concern to the Minister—the provisions with regard to seamen, discipline and safety at sea. This section of the Bill takes those in the dangerous occupation of working at sea nearer to the protection provisions that exist for jobs on land.
This has been our long-term objective. To have made a considerable step forward—I will not say that we have solved all the problems—is of enormous significance to large numbers of my constituents who work at sea. I doubt whether there is a family in my constituency that does not have someone involved with the sea in one way or another.
It is particularly pleasing, as I said on Second Reading, that at this moment one of the few major seafaring teaching and training institutions in the country—the marine and technical college of South Shields—is at last getting some of the extra equipment for which we have fought and have wanted so badly. The simulating machinery is now being provided at considerable cost to the local authority, which shows the authority's concern. I am happy that that should have coincided with the passage of the Bill.
There are major provisions in the Bill to enable us to play our proper part in a full international examination of these problems. Whatever we do will be limited unless we can secure the active operation of many of these proposals on as wide and international basis as possible.
On all these grounds, I welcome the Bill. Both the Minister and hon. Members opposite—I would hate their contribution to go unrecognised—have done an enormous amount of hard work. I am delighted that the Bill will reach the statute book before this Parliament ends.
Most of the points that I wanted to raise have already been covered in the debates on the amendments and new clauses. However, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and Lymington (Mr. Adley) for the new clause that he tabled in Committee. Although he has withdrawn it now, it was an important marker for safety. Although the big guns have been out, I congratulate him on having brought forward that safeguard which may be valuable in the future.
I pay tribute to both Front Bench spokesmen, who have assiduously and tenaciously worked for the Bill's success, and particularly on the way in which they have looked after the pilots' interests. The Bill affects the livelihood particularly of pilots—self-employed, independently-minded and tenacious people. If the pensions position can be underlined, I shall certainly support the motion for Third Reading.
The Minister need not be concerned: my sense of hyperbole has been completely overwhelmed by the scintilla of consensus which emerges so clearly from the Front Bench speeches. One can understand in some ways why that should be so.
I was very pleased with the assurance by my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral (Mr. Hunt) that the pilotage provisions to which I took some exception and on which I commented earlier would be the subject of early review in the next Parliament. When that happens, we can of course consider them carefully again.
I very much regret that the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Blenkinsop) is leaving our deliberations. He and I have sat through many debates together, in Committee and in the Chamber. His contributions have always been sane, civilised and courteous. We have always enjoyed them and we shall miss him when he leaves.
My hon. Friend the Member for Christ-church and Lymington (Mr. Adley) expressed his proper concern about maritime safety and drew our attention to ghastly and conspicuous tanker disasters. They are so visible: when they occur, they are national and international news, and the consequences are known to everyone. We must recognise, in legislation of this kind and probably other legislation which will follow it in the next decade, that total safety is not attainable. One is always following what the statisticians call an asymptote—one approaches 100 per cent, but never ultimately reaches it.
There is a grave danger that we shall say that we must have 100 per cent, safety in all conditions and circumstances, whether with great tankers on the high seas or with methane carriers or whatever. I fear that if we impose too stringent conditions, we ourselves shall then have to face and present to those whom we represent a clear equation composed of the availability of energy and the risks and consequences which society must be prepared to accept, given the best technology of safety which is available, if that energy is to be delivered. I see no way of escaping that dilemma.
There is a challenge to the human race in dealing with its problems of energy supply. Whether we are talking of safety in the coal mines, on tankers on the high seas or in nuclear power plants, there is a clear obligation to use the best technology we have and, if it is inadequate, to develop a better. That in itself is costly and the application of that technology, whether through legislation or through common sense or through the natural self-interest of intelligent and well-run commercial organisations, will always result in considerable cost. It is a cost that we must accept and which we must offset either by insurance on a national scale or by insurance through some other device.
My hon. Friend is right—one cannot legislate against human error—but will he accept it from me that there is clear evidence that the standards which we impose upon our ships registered in Britain are very high, while the standards which appear to be imposed by the Liberians, the Greeks and the Panamanians are not so high? In seeking to ensure that their standards are as high as ours, we should put the onus on them and should not be inhibited, because present evidence—I cited a little this morning—is that it is not British masters in British ships who are having the most accidents.
I am obliged. I would find no difficulty in accepting my hon. Friend's prima facie case. My reading on these matters tends to support him. I have made no specific study of the comparable performance of British or other ships but I know from having read the British shipping press in the last week that the British flag is now beginning to be regarded as a flag of convenience because our wage costs are substantially lower than those of Liberia.
Therefore, we have to be careful. On the other hand, my hon. Friend's general principle is obviously desirable—that we should maintain the best possible standards and try to ensure that all ships trading to and from our shores, of whatever flag, should so far as possible conform to those standards in our, as well as their, interests.
That brings me to a comparatively minor but not insignificant point—the fines. It is disturbing that we are about to pass a Bill which in several places provides for fines on individuals, as opposed to organisations, of £50,000. British courts may or may not impose such fines where serious and obvious neglect is associated with the case concerned.
I have no doubt that a fine of £50,000 would completely destroy or cripple financially 99·9 per cent, of those who might be involved in judicial proceedings of this kind. That is a considerable new factor which we face in this legislation. I am not sure that there are any other measures on the statute book in which fines of this magnitude have been considered and passed by the House of Commons.
I should like to quote a comment which was made to me about a week ago:
Temperley's Merchant Shipping Acts, Vol. 11, lists 95 offences, carrying fines totalling more than £220,000 on summary conviction with additional fines on indictment and prison sentences of up to two years, to which a shipmaster is exposed under existing merchant shipping legislation. The Merchant Shipping Bill in its present form already seeks to increase that level of fines.
There is a serious problem here. We may see these consequences emerging as the legislation is applied. However, I express the hope that the courts, in interpreting the Bill and in considering fines of this magnitude, will be careful before using the powers which Parliament has now conferred on them utterly to destroy individuals financially.
Last, but perhaps not least, I was a little astonished to see that the financial measurement of using gold francs has been rendered obsolete and that in its place we shall have that strange and extraordinary creature known as SDU, which is an international measure of a basket of currencies. I am not sure that that will confer greater stability on the measurement of value which is intended. One can only make a final judgment on that over the years.
I am grateful for the opportunity of taking part in this debate, particularly as I was not privileged to serve on the Standing Committee which gave the Bill such thorough consideration.
The Bill is of considerable significance to my constituency, as it is to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Folke- stone and Hythe (Mr. Costain), not only because it faces the Channel and is therefore exposed to the full brunt of any accident which may take place but because many of my constituents, like those of my hon. Friend, are intimately concerned with and dependent on the operation of ferries to and from the ports of Dover and Folkestone. I need hardly remind the House, with a certain amount of pride, that Dover is the premier passenger port of the United Kingdom.
I am sorry that the last stages of the Bill have to be completed in such a hurry. That is not intended as any reflection on hon. Members who served on the Standing Committee. I know that they gave the Bill thorough consideration. Indeed, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral (Mr. Hunt), who has always been open to the representations made to him from many quarters and has dealt with them thoroughly and with great courtesy. My constituents owe him a debt of gratitude for what he has so far achieved on their behalf. Indeed, he has been ably supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and Lymington (Mr. Adley), who has voiced his concern on many issues of equal concern to Dover and Deal. Last, but by no means least, I know that the Minister has done his best to respond to the legitimate worries which have been put to him. The Bill, in its final form, has reflected his anxiety to achieve a reasonable compromise in many areas.
In the time available I do not propose to canvass all the issues that have been drawn together and distilled into one Bill. I should have liked to touch on the question of pilotage, because Trinity House is well and ably represented in my constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral has been in touch with Trinity House throughout the passage of the Bill. Like all compromises, what has been worked out is not entirely satisfactory, but it is broadly acceptable and provides a basis on which to proceed for the future.
I should like to touch on the question of penalties about which my hon. Friend the Member for Havant and Waterloo (Mr. Lloyd) has expressed concern. I echo the representations which have been made to me on that matter. The Minister has responded to a degree and has dredged out of schedule 6 a range of penalties which he was first minded to impose. I appreciate that a balance has to be struck between those who, in the words of the psalmist, go down to the sea in ships and those who contemplate the ruin which can be caused by bad seamanship and faulty equipment. I am not suggesting those are necessarily two separate classes of people. Many members of the MMSA and the MNAOA who live on the coast in my constituency are concerned in both capacities.
When I first read the Bill I was concerned about its range and scale of penalties. As a lawyer, I know that these are maximum penalties and that it lies in the discretion of the courts to mitigate those penalties. They do not have to impose a fine of £50,000 for every single infraction of these provisions. None the less, these are difficult and delicate areas.
I pay tribute to magistrates in my constituency who have to grapple with these matters. I think that we should consider whether they should be assisted by assessors. I do not feel that it is right at this stage to hold up the Bill in order to introduce an amendment of this technicality. Whichever party comes to power after the election will have to monitor the implementation of the Bill and see how it works out in practice. I leave for consideration of the House the possibility that in years to come a subsequent Parliament may wish to equip magistrates who are called upon to consider these highly technical offences, which demand great knowledge of the rules of the sea and of seamanship, with the assistance of assessors, such as are to be found in the Admiralty courts in civil cases. That perhaps is for the future.
There are two areas in which I hope the Minister, even at this late stage, will be able to offer some reassurance. I understand that he is still likely to meet representatives of the MMSA and the MNAOA. All the same, it is important that these matters should be on record. He should state the position publicly.
The first comment that I wish to make arises on schedule 6, paragraph 5, which refers to prosecution for an infringement of collision regulations under section 48 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894. I understand that in almost every case a possible prosecution is referred to the Department. Therefore, the principles that guide the Department in these matters are of great importance. They will largely, as it were, be the framework within which people operate. It would be to the advantage of the House and of those who are listening to our debate if the Minister would indicate the broad principles which will be applied by the Department in considering whether a prosecution should be brought. For example, in Dover—perhaps I may say this in the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe, who presided over the Committee with such distinction—the traffic separation schemes and their enforcement are important. As the Minister and the House will appreciate, the ferries operating from Dover and Folkestone have to cut across the lanes.
Indeed, hovercraft. No doubt my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral will mention hovercraft when he comes to wind up for the Opposition.
Many delicate questions of seamanship are involved. It would serve to allay the concern which has been generated by the increase in the penalties if the Minister would say something publicly about the way that his Department proposes to proceed under that provision.
Those whom I have consulted are not over-concerned about paragraph 6, but they would like to know whether it would be an adequate defence to a charge under that provision if a ship were in peril and likely to sink. Would that be an adequate defence for a master who was likely to be charged under that provision?
Paragraph 11 is accepted as a useful improvement. Presumably in most cases there will be an Admiralty marshal on board any ship which is sought to be detained.
Finally, I come to paragraph 20. This is of extreme concern to the Channel ports. As I venture to suggest with a modest measure of pride—not that I have noticeably contributed to it—Dover is the premier passenger port in the United Kingdom. The flow of passengers is unremitting throughout the year, and it will be an offence if, unwittingly, a master carries more than the prescribed number of passengers. There is a nagging problem. I understand that any child over the age of one is to be treated as a passenger. I also understand that some benevolent companies in East Kent give free passage to children under the age of four.
I therefore ask the Minister how this provision is to be enforced. Are we to have someone at Dover checking people on and off the ferries? This demonstrates a problem even when intentions are of the best, though we on the Channel coast want the highest standards of seamanship and equipment. If one raises one's sights too high and tries to impose standards which are unenforceable, one brings the law into disrepute and the edifice crumbles. Will the Minister tell us how that provision will be enforced? These may be points of detail and I apologise for taking up time over them, but they are of direct concern to many of my constituents. They were, to a degree, ventilated in Committee, but even at this late stage it would be helpful if we could have an explicit statement from the Minister.
Subject to that and because I know that the House wants to proceed with other business, I give the Bill a cautious welcome. Much will depend on how it is implemented, though that implementation, dare I say it, will probably be in the hands of someone other than the Minister.
I apologise for not being present at the beginning of the debate. When I left last night for the last meeting of one of my European committees, I did not know that this Bill would be debated. I thought that the debate would be on Monday. I heard about it this morning, and after doing my committee work in Brussels I have managed to make the tail end.
I am sad that I missed the Committee' itself but I have read the debates, which are interesting. Since I have been here I have sat on Committees dealing with, all the Merchant Shipping Acts. As an ex-seaman these issues are of interest to me. This Bill, with others passed during the lifetime of this Government, has made major advances in the interests of the seafaring community. We are extremely grateful for them.
As a legislator from 1970 and as a trade union official prior to that, I have noticed that this Government have undertaken a considerable amount of consultation. I know, as a result of working with the Minister, that there was, perhaps, a feeling that there was too much consultation. I am glad that the Government persevered with the principle that consultation was vital if we were to get agreement in an area where the conflict of interests is so sharp.
There seems to have been something of a hiccup concerning the officers in relation to fines. At the end of the day, however, one can see that compromise has been reached and we have arrived at a principle which seafarers have always held concerning discipline that officers should be on a par with seamen. I am on record in this House and outside it as being against the general philosophy that greater discipline means greater safety. To that end, a barrage of laws and fines and penalties were imposed upon seamen. Those laws and penalties were far greater than those applying on other vessels.
This Bill will take away one element of the paraphernalia of discipline formerly in the hands of skippers. It will enable the industry, in a calmer atmosphere ashore, to determine the disciplinary measures in relation to safety. I agree with the compromise that has been reached, which means that the same treatment will be accorded to officers and sea-seamen alike. For those criminal offences which constitute a threat to the safety of the vessel or the crew, the same fines will be imposed.
That is a principle that I accept, though I am sorry that the officers did not support us in the past. Certainly the captains have never joined us in our campaigns against the excessive use of penalties and fines, though I excuse the Merchant Navy and Airline Officers' Association from this stricture. They have recently had a more liberal attitude to these matters.
I think that my hon. Friend is doing less than justice to Captain Lucas, who has led the Master Mariners' Association with great skill and liberalism. I think that there has been a change.
I accept what the Minister says. I implied no criticism of Captain Lucas. Nevertheless, when I was a seaman and during legislation aimed at reforming the penal clauses in the Merchant Shipping Act, we were sorely short of allies. The organisation to which I have referred was not an ally in that fight. However, I withdraw any unintended imputation concerning Captain Lucas.
The Secretary of State has done more than any other Minister in this Parliament to reform seafaring legislation. Governments can be committed to action, but where substantial reform is involved that action depends on the Minister and whether he is persuaded by argument. My right hon. Friend has always been open to argument, even though he has not always agreed with me. He has been prepared to battle when a just case has been made. We saw that in Committee when he was left on his own to carry on the fight on clause 31. I welcome the Bill, which constitutes a major reform.
However, the fishermen cannot accept the arguments about drinking and excessive fines, though the Government have heralded another advance by their insistence on the ending of decasualisation in the fishing industry. I hope that the fishing industry will learn from the shipping industry that problems can be solved round the table, ashore, rather than by reliance on the courts.
With these powers in the Bill there will be no need always to use the courts. I hope that the good sense which has, in the main, prevailed in the shipping industry in the last few years will come in the fishing industry. The fishing industry might look to the shipping industry to see how to solve problems by other than recourse to the courts.
I welcome the advances made by the provisions for safety. The Bill makes it clear that the Department now has the power to deal with safety. Let us be frank. The safety record among seafarers both in shipping and in fishing could be considerably improved. Now that the Department has the powers, there is no excuse for poor safety precautions. I shall be pressing, whether in Government or in Opposition, to ensure that safety provisions are improved.
I regret that we have not carried clause 31. I understand the reasons for it. It was requested by the industry, which, in a panic, then asked for it to be removed. The argument about, and the definition of, national interest is one which Parliament should reserve to itself. It should not be left to the industry to decide because the industry's definition of the national interest, as I said this week in a controversial speech to a group of bankers, is not necessarily the same as ours. It was identifiable but I think that it is no longer.
I hope that the Lords do not oppose the Bill. Both sides of the House are now agreed about it. It represents a major reform for our seamen. I am grateful to the Government and my hon. Friend the tinder-Secretary of State for the Bill.
This is a vital Bill for one of our greatest free enterprise industries and one of our largest contributors to invisible earnings.
When the Bill was introduced we said that it was five Bills in one. That has been at the heart of some of the problems. I pay tribute to the contribution of the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Blenkinsop). I praise him for his constant vigilance, not only on behalf of his constituents but in the interests of the shipping industry in its widest context. The industry will be sad that today was his last contribution. I share that sadness.
The Bill is now four Bills in one. It was not a Freudian slip on the part of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) to say that the Minister was on his own on clause 31. That has been our argument. Clause 31 is a piece of Bennery-pokery which was included at the last moment because of the Lib-Lab pact. That clause was totally out of place in a Bill which otherwise represents the good health of the shipping industry. It has met with overwhelming opposition. If it had remained in the Bill, it would have caused serious damage to our international position in the shipping world. At best it would have been unworkable and at worst positively damaging. That clause has now gone. We say "Good riddance" and the shipping industry breathes a sigh of relief.
I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Havant and Waterloo (Mr. Lloyd) that the provisions of the Bill will be kept under constant review. Under clause 54(2) the provisions of this measure will come into force on such a day as the Secretary of State decides. Different days may be appointed for different provisions. It would be helpful for the Minister to indicate whether he proposes to introduce any provisions immediately. I understand that he does not propose to do that.
There are still some problems that have been mentioned today. The problems of the watermen and harbour craft pose a particular difficulty, but they can be dealt with when the measure has been implemented in ways that do not require amendment to the Bill.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Ridsdale). Pilots are self-employed. We praise them for their work and we shall ensure that they are maintained in that capacity. I pay tribute to them for the difficult task that they perform in often dangerous conditions.
I also pay tribute to the unions which have made representations about different aspects of the Bill. We have kept in touch with them. I am talking of the NUS, the TGWU marine officers' section and Harry Frith in particular, who sat through our Committee and who gave us much help, as did the United Kingdom Pilots' Association, the Merchant Navy and Airline Officers' Association and many other groups.
I turn to a matter which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and which concerns my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain), who presided with expertise and knowledge of maritime matters over our Committee. He has listened throughout the debate. Both of my hon. Friends are anxious about how tax legislation will affect the pensions of pilots after 1980. The Secretary of State announced a solution on 30 November during Second Reading. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Nott) welcomed that statement. I cannot possibly bind the next Conservative Chancellor, but I can assure my hon. Friends that we support the solution suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives on Second Reading.
I turn to the pollution and safety aspects of the Bill. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and Lymington (Mr. Adley), who has established a reputation in this sphere. We should look back to his now famous Adjournment debate on 14 July last year when he put forward his eight-point plan. Clause 42 is a marker and my hon. Friend has been public spirited in the acceptance of the situation.
I can assure my hon. Friend that that is not an end to the matter. We shall consider his solutions carefully. They have been accepted by no less a person than the President of the European Commission. We shall require extensive consultations on the pollution aspect.
We were worried about clause 42 as it was. The ship owner should carry substantial liability for oil pollution because he is in the best position to exercise responsibility for safety. The owner of the cargo could be anywhere in the world. The owner of the cargo can change several times during a voyage. It could be like passing the parcel to find and trace the owner of the cargo as defined in the clause. It might also be difficult to exercise jurisdiction over that owner.
My hon. Friend is saying that people who are clever and ill-intentioned can always get round the law. That is true, but our job is to ensure that they cannot. We must stick to the principle that the polluter pays. If we do that, we shall be right.
My hon. Friend's clause abrogated two international conventions. The oil companies have shown a degree of responsibility. Perhaps my hon. Friend can take credit for that. We now say goodbye to clause 42.
I turn to the question of fines for pollution. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dover and Deal (Mr. Rees) has made constant representations to me and my hon. Friends on the Committee on behalf of his constituents. We have also criticised the Minister for lack of consultation.
The masters were presented with a list of 18 offences for which there would be a maximum fine of £50,000. We do not like the concept of a magistrates' court being able, without an assessor, to impose such a maximum fine on a master without knowing whether there is insurance. Any magistrates' court can do that, not only the one in the constituency involved.
We still have reservations. There is still a need for consultation. I join in the tributes that have been paid to Captain Lucas of the Mercantile Marine Services Association, who has organised one of the best campaigns that I have known. About 112 of my hon. Friends have written to me or contacted me on this subject, including my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker), in whose constituency the association's office is. I also pay tribute to the Merchant Navy and Airline Officers' Association for its part.
I wait with interest to hear the Minister's response to the point about children under the age of four and what is planned about counting the number of passengers who go on board. Consultation must continue.
I turn to the question of discipline. The Bill gives statutory backing to an agreement which has been hammered out between all the parties and which came into force on 1 January 1979. It is vital that we pass the Bill, if only for that reason.
The next part of the Bill concerns a number of international conventions. Again I pay tribute to the work of IMCO. I say all strength to it. It must continue its work, and I hope that other countries will respond with the sense of urgency that we in this country have shown over implementation of those conventions. My right hon. and hon. Friends and I particularly welcome the advance power that is being taken to ratify important conventions in this Bill.
This is a vital Bill, and that is why we have given the Government the greatest possible encouragement in ensuring that it goes through. I pay tribute to the Select Committee on Expenditure. It published its second report on measures to prevent collisions and strandings of noxious cargo carriers in waters around the United Kingdom. The Committee tabled a number of amendments on matters that it had recommended in its report. I believe that to have been a good step forward on behalf of Select Committees. That is how they should operate, and I am only sorry that lack of time has prevented us from considering their proposals in sufficient detail. I pressed the Under-Secretary in Committee to publish some form of response to the Select Committee report, and he may wish to say something about that.
I pay tribute to all of my hon. Friends who have done a considerable amount of work both in consultation and in addressing themselves to a line-by-line examination of the Bill. I pay tribute to the Minister for all the consultation he has held. Although we have criticised him from time to time, it has been in terms of a counsel of perfection. I pay tribute to him for the way he has always shown a willingness to listen and for having ensured that the Committee and the House have been kept fully informed and to his Department, which has also listened.
This is a major Bill of considerable significance and we wish it a speedy passage through Parliament.
I wish to repeat my expression of gratitude to the Opposition for facilitating the passage of this Bill. They have taken into account a wide-ranging interest. I thank all hon. Members who over the last five years have taken such a profound interest in a matter which is of great significance to this country.
It is an important industry, for the reasons attributed to it by the hon. Member for Wirral (Mr. Hunt). It contains people who make a contribution to the life and well-being of this country which is, regrettably, all too often taken for granted. We are now making a significant effort to assist them to attain a better standard and better conditions on board the ships that they have to operate.
I turn now to the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Blenkinsop). The hon. Member for Wirral rightly paid tribute to my, hon. Friend, who is widely admired on all sides of the House. He has spoken fearlessly on any number of subjects and served in Government with great distinction under Nye Bevan. He has served the Parliamentary Labour Party with particular distinction in shipping matters as chairman of the shipping group for a number of years, and I have had bonds of friendship with him over the last five years.
I thank my hon. Friend for what he said about me. The House will be a poorer place without him. I said in July that I thought then that we had seen positively his last appearance. That turned out to be wrong, and I have a sneaking suspicion that, even though it may not be in this place—and I am not conferring a peerage on my hon. Friend—he will continue to make a powerful contribution to public life.
The hon. Member for Christchurch and Lymington (Mr. Adley) expressed his strong feeling about clause 42, and he made a big concession on that which I appreciate. Of course, I had to make a concession on clause 31. I regret that I shall have to say something about that—I was not proposing to, but I have been provoked a little. I think that I am entitled at this juncture to say one or two words that may not be completely acceptable in all parts of the House.
The hon. Member for Christchurch and Lymington must recognise, as I believe he does, that his clause did not deal with a simple matter. The oil companies already carry considerable liability under the International Fund Convention of 1971. The International Compensation Fund has been established recently here in London. It provides £19·5 million as compensation for oil pollution damage in any single incident. The overwhelming cost of funding that money is borne by the owners of the oil.
We are pressing for that amount to be doubled. It ought to be at least £39 million, but so far we have been unsuccessful. I hope, whichever party is in power after the next election, that we shall redouble our efforts internationally to ensure that the fund is increased as I have indicated.
I have been pressing the oil companies to ensure that they step up their inspection procedures for the ships that they charter. I believe that they have taken that on board, and it is most important that that should be done.
We have had our little local difficulties on the question of penalties, but I join warmly with those who have paid tribute to the Mercantile Marine Service Association, the Merchant Navy and Airline Officers' Association, and the General Council of British Shipping for the way in which they dealt with the difficult task of trying to secure a generally acceptable compromise on this issue. I think that we have succeeded. I was worried throughout at the inability to bring certain interests, particularly foreign masters and owners, before the Crown courts. It was most important, I thought, not to empower the magistrates' courts to impose only derisory penalties for highly significant offences.
Let me spell out where the maximum penalty of £50,000 on summary conviction will apply. It will apply to carrying an excess number of passengers. That question will turn on the evidence. It may not be possible in certain instances to establish that fact, but my Department would obviously have to look at the evidence before it embarked upon a prosecution. It will apply to a negligent breach of the rules under the collision regulations—that is, going down a traffic separation scheme in the wrong direction. I should have thought that the hon. Member for Wirral would say that that was not a minimal or unimportant offence. It will apply to failure to go to the assistance of a vessel in the case of a collision. It will apply to the breaching of a detention order. Where a detention order has been made asserting that a ship is unsafe to go to sea, what folly it would be if we were capable of imposing a derisory penalty for contravention of that order. It would also apply to the offence under clause 46 in respect of a dangerously unsafe ship.
These are important offences, but, if British masters or owners were concerned, so serious would those offences be that I doubt whether we should be content to try them in courts of summary jurisdiction. The provision is, therefore, aimed at those to whom the threat of a trial on indictment might mean nothing since they could easily escape from facing it.
The hon. and learned Member for Dover and Deal (Mr. Rees) raised the question of the ability of masters to pay such penalties. I remind him, however, that under section 31 of the Magistrates' Courts Act 1952 a court must have regard to the means of a master when it imposes a financial penalty.
Will the Minister be good enough to direct his mind back to two points which I made but with which, I think, he has not dealt? The point that I made about traffic separation lanes is that the ferries operate across the Channel. I do not know whether the Minister quite hoisted that point aboard, although I know that he has been down to St. Margaret's Bay. As for the other point—the question of the number of passengers—the Minister may brush it aside and say that it can be taken on the evidence, but does he propose to station someone at Dover to see the people going on and off the ferries? What kind of evidence does he have in mind?
It is difficult to regulate these matters, and I feel that the Minister could direct his mind a little more closely to such problems. He may say that they are matters of technicality, but they are of great concern in my constituency.
Of course, I shall not establish a bureaucracy in order to satisfy a particular point that I have made, but where it is possible within fairly simple terms to ensure that people are not taken on board in excess of the numbers permitted, we must, surely, take strong account of that. There is a defence, anyway. One has to have regard to all the prevailing circumstances at the time. For example, if a master takes refugees on board a vessel in excess of the permitted numbers, that, of course, has to be permitted. There is a new defence provided in clause 46, which I need not burden the House with now.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) has, as I have said before, made a significant contribution to my knowledge about shipping matters, and I am certainly grateful for that. He directed his attention to clause 31. I regret the absence of the clause. I know that the hon. Member for Wirral takes a different view, but it seems to me that he went to extraordinary lengths to defeat it. He did not succeed in Committee. He sent an emissary to Brussels to seek succour and support through the Commission. It is somewhat significant that the Conservative Party, when it comes to deal with Brussels, tends to lie on its back to have its tummy tickled rather than to fight for British interests. But that is something which, no doubt, we shall be talking about in the next few days or so.
No, I have not spoilt the atmosphere. I am just having a little bit of fun. The hon. Gentleman spoke about "Bennery-pokery"—a bit from a cutting which he had got into Lloyd's List. It was rather a tired cutting. But, as I said in Committee, it is a bit much to charge the master mariners with Bennery-pokery, or the Merchant Navy and airline officers with Bennery-pokery or, for that matter, the General Council of British Shipping with Bennery-pokery. I am not sure that I altogether understand the hon. Member, but it seems that any mention of the word"Benn"is supposed to be some sort of significant pointer for the electorate.
The hon. Gentleman knows very well that it was the General Council of British Shipping which urged us to take this action, which said that it was in the interests of the British industry and which said that it was necessary to obtain protection at the time and that the available protections were not sufficient. So I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall come back to that in the course of the next few weeks.
I come now to the Bill itself. It enables significant advances to be made in safety and in the reform of working conditions, including an overdue reform in the disciplinary regime which affects seafarers. It puts seafarers, at long last, on a similar basis in so many regards to that of land-based workers, and it removes a number of anomalies which ought to have been removed many years ago. I refer, for example, to the quite unreasonable limitation which was imposed on the amount of damages that could be awarded to someone who was severely injured while carrying out his duties. That has gone and gone for ever, and I am glad to have played some part in its going.
The Bill enables this country to ratify conventions and protocols on safety and pollution more rapidly than ever before and to bring into force agreements which are reached in IMCO—to which the hon. Member for Wirral paid a thoroughly justified tribute—and, where we have ratified such conventions but there has been undue delay in securing the necessary conditions, to give effect to those conventions.
While on the subject of IMCO, I should say that it must continue to be the cornerstone of the international shipping policy of this country. That has certainly been our policy over the past five years, and it will continue to be so.
In many of these advances, we are beginning to find that, when we extend them to Northern Ireland, difficulty arises as to the definition of what is the United Kingdom and what is Great Britain, and some of the benefits are denied to seamen sailing from Northern Ireland in British-registered ships.
I have in mind two cases now, and I am prepared to write to my hon. Friend about them. The latest one is about an unfair dismissal case, and I hope that the Minister, in his last few days—[HON. MEMBERS:" Hear, hear"]—certainly, in this Government, or whoever is returned. If it is not the present Government, I shall certainly be on to the next one to insist that they address themselves to this anomaly, which is denying benefits to a minority of seamen.
I am not sure that I welcome the obituary. My hon. Friend may feel that I have been in this office for a very long time—some, I know, have said "too long"—but I have enjoyed it and I have had help from my hon. Friend, among others. I now understand that I am to get a bit more help in the next few days. But if there is an anomaly which needs to be cured, I feel that obituaries need not be written so swiftly, and I shall deal with the matter certainly in the course of the next three or four months.
I turn now to the question of pilotage. We have had an interesting debate today, but I believe that overall the Bill will promote important and valuable reforms. Enhanced safety is the key.
Perhaps I may seize this opportunity to say a word about pilots' pensions, a matter raised by the hon. Members for Harwich (Mr. Ridsdale) and for Wirral. I know that, although the pilots are prepared to accept the Bill, they are concerned that it will now not be possible, as we had planned, to make provision for the safeguarding of their pensions in the Finance Bill this Session, but I give a commitment on behalf of this Government that we shall introduce the relevant provisions if we are returned, and I believe that the hon. Member for Wirral would be prepared to give a similar undertaking.
As we near the end of this Parliament, I wish to say that I have had the benefit of enormous help from the industry. I have had that help from the seafaring trade unions, which have for the first time been brought into international shipping policy, moulding that policy and helping us to do it, and I hope that that will long continue.
I pay my tribute also to the General Council of British Shipping, which was a little suspicious of me at the beginning, I suspect, but with which I have enjoyed a friendly relationship. I welcome the assistance of both bodies—I have always done so—but, of course, I have had to make the decisions and sometimes they do not please both sides.
I welcome the support that the Select Committee has given to consideration of so many vital matters. It is now virtually certain that we shall be able to publish our response to the Select Committee on Wednesday. I think that that will be of assistance to the next Parliament.
I thank all those who have been involved on behalf of the pilotage interests for the care with which they have approached the Standing Committee and the advisory committee. I thank Trinity House, the United Kingdom Pilots' Association and the watermen, with whom, in particular, I have recently had some very useful discussions.
I had had five years of unstinting help and encouragement. Above all, I have tried to bring together all the interests to enable their individual and joint experience to be fielded on behalf of the Government in being able to speak internationally for a united industry. That has been a valuable contribution. Perhaps it is only a contribution—I know not and it is for others to judge—that I have made as a Minister. However, I am glad if I have done that.
I thank the House once again for facilitating the passage of what I believe is a momentously important Bill.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I am grateful to all those who have made it possible for the House to consider the Bill before Dissolution. I am especially grateful to my right hon. Friend the Lord President and to the hon. and learned Member for Southport (Mr. Percival). In the near future we shall all be deploying our respective cases on the hustings. I shall try to restrain myself from beginning this afternoon.
The Bill will be welcomed by all those concerned with the administration of justice. After making such progress without controversy, it would be tragic if the Bill were now delayed until time could be found for it in the next Parliament.
We have all known for many years that a number of aspects of our legal aid system are less than satisfactory. The system is no longer wide enough in scope to include many of those whom it was designed to assist in asserting and defending their rights. And there are many who are entitled to be included who may be discouraged from availing themselves of it by reason of the large financial contributions that they are required to make. It is a serious criticism of our law that some of our citizens might be denied justice because they do not have access to advice or to representation in the courts. It is not a question of principle. I know of no one who argues that others should be denied justice. It is merely a matter of resources.
It is true that for the past few years we have been keeping abreast of inflation in relation to the limits of eligibility for legal advice, assistance and entitlement without contribution. That was running to stay in the same place. It did not improve our position, which had already fallen behind when that practice began. However, it would be misleading to say that expenditure on legal aid has not risen. It has been rising alarmingly year by year. That has not represented vast increases in fees to the legal profession; it has represented an increase in the amount of litigation, especially so if we include criminal cases.
When two years ago my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor extended the special procedure to all undefended divorces and thus dispensed with a hearing on the granting of a decree nisi, we knew that as a result there would be some savings to the legal aid fund. My right hon. and noble Friend said at that time—I repeated it in the House—that it was hoped that there would be some release of resources for other purposes. We said that those resources would not become available at once because there would be a period when money would continue to be paid out of the fund in respect of work done in the past while there would be no inflow of new contributions. But the time has arrived when some savings have been effected and some resources are available. My right hon. and noble Friend has decided that the first priority is to effect certain improvements to the legal aid system.
The package that is proposed falls into two parts. On 20 March my hon. and learned Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Law Officers' Department introduced to the House the appropriate regulations, which increased the eligibility Financial Conditions 1979, which increased the upper income limit for eligibility to legal aid and increased the lower disposable income limit, the limit of entitlement to free legal aid. At the same time he introduced the Legal Aid and Assistance Financial Conditions (No. 2) regulations, which increased the eligibility limits for what has come to be called the green form scheme. The effect of those regulations was to bring about a substantial increase in the number of those entitled to legal aid within the scheme.
The Bill is the second part of the package. It seeks to improve the scheme principally in three ways. First, it seeks to extend the advice and assistance scheme to include assistance by way of representation in certain cases. At present, broadly, there are two schemes. There is one scheme for the provision of advice and assistance and a second scheme for legal representation. That has meant that when a client receives advice and assistance from a solicitor in bringing a matter to court and the question of representation arises in the proceedings, he must make an application for a legal aid certificate under the other scheme with all the consequent delay.
The proposal in the Bill would mean that the solicitor would continue the service he was offering to the client without interruption. It would have a further effect. At present when an application is made for a certificate for representation, the applicant's means are assessed by the Supplementary Benefits Commission. That is a process which itself costs money. It may be worth that expenditure when the proceedings are likely to cost many hundreds of pounds, but when the cost of representation is quite modest it does not make sense to embark on a process of assessment the cost of which may equal the contribution that is being assessed. For advice and assistance a client's means are assessed by the solicitor. That works satisfactorily, especially when small sums are involved.
It is proposed to include representation in that system where costs are likely to be limited. The Bill would empower the Lord Chancellor—I use the term"Lord Chancellor" in the impersonal sense as I am determined not to be provocative—to make appropriate regulations. If it were to fall to my right hon. and noble Friend to consider what regulations should be made, he would propose to begin by making representation available for matrimonial proceedings at magistrates' courts. But that would obviously be a matter for whoever was in office.
The effect of the Bill would be that that sort of representation would require only the approval of the appropriate authority in the same way as expenditure on advice and assistance in excess of £25 or £45, as the case may be. For civil proceedings the appropriate authority is now the area legal aid committee or, for magistrates' courts and county courts, the court itself. But there are proposals to make available to the Lord Chancellor the power to vary this by regulations. That is the first proposal. It is to be found in clause 1 for England and in clause 6 for Scotland.
The second improvement that the Bill seeks to make is to empower the Lord Chancellor to vary the maximum contribution payable by a recipient of legal aid. One of the present shortcomings of the scheme is that those who may be entitled to legal aid are discouraged from litigating by the size of the contribution required of them. The formula is set out in section 9 of the 1974 Act. A calculation is made of the assisted person's disposable income. Broadly, that means his income after deducting tax, rent, mortgage payments, cost of travel to work and other such expenses.
I know that there are those who fully understand the rules for calculating disposable income but, speaking personally, I have never yet met anyone who admits to understanding them.
When the disposable income is calculated, from that figure is deducted the amount of the free limit. The maximum contribution is one-third of the difference. It is one-third of the amount by which the disposable income exceeds the free limit. The Lord Chancellor would be given power in clause 4 for England and clause 9 for Scotland to make regulations to prescribe what the fraction should be which is at present one-third. My right hon. and noble Friend would propose, if it fell to him to make the regulations, to reduce the fraction from one-third to one-quarter. This is in general accordance with the recommendations of the 27th annual report of the advisory committee on legal aid, 1976–77. The recommendation is contained in paragraph 42.
Thirdly, the Bill proposes to confer power on the Lord Chancellor to prescribe different maximum contributions for different classes of cases. That power is contained in clause 4 in respect of England and in clause 6 in respect of Scotland. My noble friend has in mind proceedings such as personal injury cases. In 90 per cent, of personal injury cases, since either there is an order for costs against the other party or there are damages from which the costs may be found, the contribution is ultimately returned to the assisted person. It seems to be a waste of time and money solemnly to collect the contribution and ultimately return it.
I am interested in that point. One of my constituents was awarded £70,000 damages. However, it was found that the legal aid system had first claim on the money as the person whom the damages were found against could not afford to pay anything towards the damages. I wonder whether there is any possibility of assisting such unfortunate cases who have damages properly found by the courts but who find that the legal aid system has first claim on the limited income available to pay for such damages.
I am aware of the tragic case that my hon. Friend has in mind. We are paying attention to see whether something may be done to help the assisted person in that class of case. Such provision is not included in this Bill. It if were sought to include it, there might be some difficulties at this late stage in the life of Parliament. However, I shall bear the matter in mind in the next Parliament. If it falls to me to have any powers in the matter, it will not be overlooked. The charge to which my hon. Friend referred is retained within the framework of the scheme as amended by the Bill, although there are amendments to it under clause 5.
At present the prospect of making a substantial contribution may deter people from bringing proceedings. My noble Friend envisages that the power may be used to vary the contributions in personal injury cases, in the categories to which I referred.
I have referred to clauses 1, 4 and 6. I do not propose to delay the House by referring seriatim to each clause. But, I shall refer to clause 2, which empowers the Lord Chancellor to prescribe limits on the value of work that may be carried out under the green form scheme without obtaining the specific approval of the legal aid committee. For most purposes the present limit is £25. For undefended divorces the limit is £45. It is sometimes desirable to have a limit for certain categories of cases so that the work does not have to be interrupted while an application is made to the committee for special consent in a particular case. Clause 2 is intended to simplify that procedure.
Clause 3 enables the Lord Chancellor to prescribe the maximum contribution payable by those receiving advice and assistance in the same way as clause 4 confers powers, to which I have referred, in respect of those receiving legal aid. That enables the Lord Chancellor to substitute a different formula for the some- what cumbersome table that is at present found in section 4 of the Legal Aid Act 1974.
The House may wish to know the cost to public funds of these improvements. In the debate last week in the Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments my hon. and learned Friend told the Committee that the total annual estimated cost of the package was £6 million. Of that figure about £1 million is attributable to the improvements suggested in the Bill. The only measure that is likely seriously to cost money is the variation of the formula for calculating the maximum contribution. The Bill gives the Lord Chancellor power to make regulations. The cost will depend upon what regulations are made. But, the assumption that he did, as my noble Friend had in mind, alter the formula to reduce the fraction from one-third to one-quarter, the anticipated cost would be about £1 million per year.
There was full consultation with the Law Society in drawing up the Bill. I go so far as to say that the Law Society approves the Bill. It is very much in mind that in any regulations made under the Bill there will also be the fullest consultation with the interests involved.
This is a modest cost for a measure that will alleviate hardship and help to increase confidence in the ability of our legal system to provide a redress for grievances. The importance of maximising public confidence in the legal system is not an issue that divides the House. I commend the Bill to the House.
The Bill will add to the amount of money that we must find to finance the scheme. There are some aspects of costs about which we are not entirely happy. It is difficult to obtain accurate estimates. Even so, this is a burden that we shall not object to inheriting from the Government in the early future. We wish the Bill well and want to see it pass all its stages now. We shall do everything we can to facilitate that.
When the Legal Advice and Assistance Act was passed, it was described by the then Attorney-General as the charter of the little man to the British courts of
justice. We have all been proud of that. The parliamentary relations sub-committee of the Law Society expressed the desire to have such a charter in these words:
Just as it was unthinkable that an accident victim's injuries should be untreated through inability to pay his doctor, so he should not be prevented through lack of funds from pursuing his just remedies at law.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House will wholeheartedly subscribe to the principles that are defined in those words.
It is sometimes suggested that people cannot obtain access to the courts as lawyers make too much profit. I thought it was interesting that the parliamentary relations sub-committee referred to experiments carried out to see whether legal aid work was reasonably remunerative and found in two cases that it was being done at a loss. I mention that not out of feeling for the lawyers involved, but for this reason. If we allow that situation to continue, people will be deprived of the opportunity to obtain legal assistance, because if services must be operated at a loss there will be a time limit to the period in which they will be provided.
When the scheme was introduced we were proud of it. At that stage it was estimated that 80 per cent, of the population would be eligible for legal aid. That does not mean free legal aid. Rather, it means legal aid with some contribution.
Will the Solicitor-General tell us in a little more detail how far we shall have caught up by the time we have the package represented by the Bill and the financial regulations that were approved last week? I give that specification as I realise that there will be room under the Act for taking further steps forward by regulation. Will the Solicitor-General indicate where we shall have got to when the Bill is passed into law? I do not say that to denigrate or minimise my welcome to the Bill. I welcome this measure, as do many others. However, we must be careful not to give too optimistic a view of the outcome of a piece of legislation. We must not build up people's hopes unduly. We should always be very careful not to do that.
Secondly, one of the few ways in which we can judge what the cost is likely to be is by having some sort of estimate of how many more people will come in. I do not underestimate the difficulty of getting comparative figures, but at the moment we are not considering like with like. I take the figure of 80 per cent, as being the one that was generally accepted at the time as being the percentage of the whole population which would be entitled to legal aid at the time when the legal scheme was first introduced. Now the best estimate we have is that 70 per cent, of two-parent/two-children families would be eligible for legal aid.
I would think that that is a different basis of calculation and would produce the result not only that we would have a shortfall between the 70 per cent, and the 80 per cent, but that, if we are talking about two-parent/two-children families, that is a smaller section of the community than taking the community as a whole. If I am right about that, I think that the conclusion is that we still have quite a way to go in order to catch up with where we started, and it is as well that we should have the clearest possible indication on that.
Thirdly, perhaps the Solicitor-General could help us on the question of the disregards in relation to capital. The parliamentary relations sub-committee of the Law Society referred to the small nest-eggs that many people have. They have built them up over a long period of time. I am not talking of wealthy people with large capital resources but of the little nest-egg that everyone likes to have, the little something to fall back on, whether it is to pay for a decent burial or to leave to children, or to a husband or wife. For far too long, sums that were far too small have been brought into account in arriving at the contribution.
For a long time, under the legal aid system the amount of capital disregards has been smaller when considering legal aid than when considering supplementary benefit. Perhaps the Solicitor-General will tell us how far we shall have gone with this package towards catching up with those deficiencies. I am also told that there are still cases in which persons with families on supplementary benefit find themselves having to make not only some contribution but a substantial one. Have we caught up with the position where those who are in receipt of supplementary benefit will be entitled to free legal aid? Can we say as a general proposition that we have now reached that position? If so, so much the better.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) is not here. On one occasion I had the pleasure of having him as my opponent in Southport. He so often makes a very useful and practical contribution to our debates in this House. I just want to say that on the Conservative Benches also we are very conscious that there are many situations of the kind that he mentioned. On whichever side of the House we may be, it will always be our wish to endeavour to remove anomalies.
On behalf of the—for the time being—Opposition, I welcome the Bill.
Perhaps I may be permitted, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to add just a few words, as my swan song in this House, in support of the Bill. Everybody recognises the need to assist a litigant as much as possible, and we all know how very necessary it was that the provisions of legal aid should be increased as much as possible in order to achieve that object. I am extremely pleased that the Government have been able to introduce the Bill, improving those provisions and giving us the opportunity of allowing the litigant to have his remedy in a proper manner.
I am delighted to have seen my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General introducing the Bill today, at a time when the Government's demise is about to become a fact. I hope that he will have very many future opportunities to act in this way in a Labour Government.
With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it would be very remiss of me if I did not thank my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Mr. Weitzman) for his very kind words. On behalf of the whole House, I wish him well in his forthcoming retirement. His contributions to our discussions in this House over a long period of years are on record, and they will not easily be forgotten. I hope that we shall still see him and his contributions in other connections in the years to come.
I am grateful to the hon. and learned Member for Southport (Mr. Percival) for the welcome that he gave to the Bill. He asked three pertinent questions. He asked, first, how far the total package of the Bill, plus the regulations introduced last week, has brought the position back to what it was originally intended to be and to what it was assessed as being in 1950. The best comparative figures that we have relate to individuals. I understand that that is not necessarily the most clear indication. It would probably be better to have families, for if we compare individuals, something turns on the proportion at any given time of the very young and the very old in society, and the number of married couples, and so forth. If we are to have the comparative figures, they are probably best derived from individuals, if only because at different times the other figures do not always seem to be available.
In 1950, as the hon. and learned Gentleman said, it was estimated that about 80 per cent, of the population was eligible for inclusion within the legal aid scheme, irrespective of what a person's contribution might be. It seems that by 1973 that proportion had fallen to about 40 per cent, of individuals. It will be recollected that in 1973 the practice began of keeping the limits abreast of inflation, so that after that time the fall was to a great extent arrested. As far as we know, the proportion now is about 40 per cent. It is estimated that the package will raise that again to something over 70 per cent., and it could be as high as 80 per cent. But if we are to be accurate and not raise expectations too high, it would be fairer to say something over 70 per cent.
The hon. and learned Gentleman's second question was whether the capital limits for legal aid are now broadly in line with the capital limits for supplementary benefit. I understand that the answer is that they are, and that the two are about on a level.
Thirdly, the hon. and learned Gentleman asked whether all those who are eligible for supplementary benefit are, broadly speaking, eligible for legal aid. I understand that the answer to that question is "Yes". Certainly it would be very disturbing if the answer were in any doubt. I understand that the answer after this package would be "Yes". We all start off if not with a clean sheet at least with a fresh start and, to whomever it falls to implement the intentions in this package, there is a great deal of hope for the future of those who have to avail themselves of the legal system in order to assert or defend their rights. They will have the opportunity of legal advice and, where necessary, legal representation, and they will not be precluded on financial grounds.