Amendments of the Harbours Act 1964

Orders of the Day — Transport Bill – in the House of Commons at 9:45 pm on 28th July 1981.

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Lords amendment: No. 27, in page 55, line 16. leave out an order which is opposed

and insert—

  1. (a) a harbour revision order relating to a harbour in England or Wales; or
  2. (b) a harbour empowerment order relating to a harbour or 10 works to be carried out in England or Wales,
and, in either case, the order is opposed.

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

With this we may take Lords amendments Nos. 28 to 38.

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport

The amendments cover a wide area of orders under the Harbours Act 1964. I shall begin with a summary of their provisions and announce the detailed arrangements. If I were to wade into a full description of amendments Nos. 27 to 38, I should read a great deal of complicated and technical matter into the record.

Amendments Nos. 27, 29 to 31, 33 and 34 are aimed at excluding the Scottish harbour revision and harbour empowerment orders from the effects of paragraph 4 of schedule 6. Paragraph 4 of schedule 6 amends the 1964 Act to provide that in England and Wales the harbour revision or empowerment order is not to be subject to special parliamentary procedure unless an objection which is outstanding when the order is made is renewed by the objector. It was our original intention to extend those arrangements to Scotland as well. However, when we looked at the complexities of doing that and the amendments that would be required we decided to leave the existing law on Scottish harbour revision unchanged. In Scotland a special parliamentary procedure is applied to Scottish orders before they are made, and as that appears to meet the requirements of Scottish harbours adequately the Government have decided to leave well alone.

Amendments Nos. 28 and 32 clarify the provisions governing the coming into operation and the publication of notices of orders relating to England and Wales. They make it clear that if an objection is made to an order at draft stage, but is not maintained when the order is made—after the Secretary of State has given those who gave notice of objection at draft stage 28 days' notice to maintain their objection—the order will not be subject to special parliamentary procedure.

Amendments Nos. 35 and 36 amend two technical defects in section 27A of the Harbours Act 1964. That section was introduced on Report in the House to meet one of the major complaints about the ports' charging policies. We had considerable debates about the matter at an earlier stage in our proceedings in the House. The first error which gives rise to amendment No. 35 may come about when a person objects to paying a combined charge for both dues and cargo handling charges, as our new section 27A allows a port user to object to paying a combined charge. However, the harbour authority may not have an appropriate due included in its published list of ship passenger and goods dues. In those circumstances, if an authority had not already published a due, the user would not have to pay for the use that he had already made of the harbour. Amendment No. 35 seeks to ensure that the user cannot object to paying a combined charge made in respect of use of a harbour or the provision of services that he has already enjoyed.

Amendment No. 36 concerns the definition of those harbour authorities to be subject to the new section 27A. The authorities subject to the new combined charge provisions were the same as those subject to section 26 of the Harbours Act 1964. Section 26 does not apply to the British Transport Docks Board, the British Railways Board or the British Waterways Board. Those bodies would therefore be excluded from the requirements of the new provision on combined charges. That was never anyone's intention during the debates in Committee. Therefore, amendment No. 36 makes it clear they will be covered.

Amendments Nos. 37 and 38 enable regulations to be made to exempt certain classes of statutory harbour undertakers from the new version of section 42 of the Harbours Act 1964. These are the Bill's accounts provisions. Under this new provision, the accounts provisions of the Companies Act will apply to statutory harbours, subject to such modification or addition as my right hon. Friend may prescribe by regulations.

The intention of the two amendments is to limit the application of the new version of section 42 to harbour undertakers from whom the Secretary of State needs to have information, because at present the power that we have taken is too wide. We propose to use the exemption power that we seek mainly to exclude from the section what are called "own account undertakers"—that is, undertakers who operate a harbour ancillary to their main business which is used wholly or mainly for handling raw materials of goods that they may manufacture for the purpose of their own business. That will include the oil companies, the British Steel Corporation and others with their own harbour facilities. There is no point in my right hon. Friend requiring Companies Act accounts from such harbours.

With that attempt at a potted version of these Harbour Act amendments, I hope that I have given an adequate explanation and that the House will agree with the Lords amendments.

Photo of John Prescott John Prescott , Kingston upon Hull East

I do not wish to go through the pieces of legislation relating to these amendments, particularly those relating to the harbour reorganisation schemes. I tried to wade through it today, and I do not want to be reminded of that research.

In the sense that we distinguish between Scotland, England and Wales, the situation is now improved by the fact that the harbour revision orders will not automatically be put through the statutory parliamentary procedures if there are no objections. I understand that the difficulty for Scotland was that two or three pages of amendments had to be considered. The Scottish legal procedures have a further addition, which seems to make their regulations somewhat better than ours. We therefore accept amendments Nos. 27, 28, and 30.

Amendments Nos. 35 and 36 relate to appeals against dues and differentiate between charges and dues. We spent some time on this controversial matter in Committee. It can be seen from the new section 27A relating to appeals on port charges that the Minister has discovered that there are certain difficulties, as is ever the case with this complex industry. The Port of London Authority was cited by the Minister as an example of how the charges are combined, and his explanation was satisfactory.

I turn to the statutory boards to which these appeal functions would not apply. The Minister mentioned the British Transport Docks Board, the British Waterways Board and the British Railways Board. I presume that the British Steel Corporation is also affected, as it owns certain wharves, certainly in my area. But this will not apply when they are privatised. Presumably, if they are privatised, the argument about the British Railways Board's responsibility for harbours, as embodied in Sealink, will not be as relevant. I take it that the same will apply to the British Transport Docks Board and the British Waterways Board. However, I am not sure how the British Steel Corporation will be affected, as it is not a statutory board.

It improves the Bill to bring these harbours into the appeals system. Labour Members were concerned to ensure that there was provision for appeals, albeit relating to the limited area of dues and not to charges.

As the Minister knows, my own area is at present appealing against the dues. I am not sure whether the Minister's Department or the National Ports Council is dealing with it. The fishing industry hopes that a conclusion will not be reached during the Summer Recess and that we shall not have to knock on his door to prevent Sir Humphrey Browne from again going on the rampage to reduce the size of the port of Hull.

There is a substantial point of difference about the third set of amendments which deals with accounts. The Minister explained why this information should not be made available by all port authorities, but that strikes at the heart of the information that should be made available now that it is assessed for port authority development. This was a major difference between the two sides of the Committee.

We think that access to information is vital. The Minister's view is that, if we do not have a central body, he will have to deal with the matter, and he does not want to be bogged down with all sorts of information from the port authorities. He argues that what he calls own-account bodies—a timber merchant who simply brings in timber, or the miller who brings in only flour—are not developing into other businesses.

Other own-account bodies include British Steel and the British Waterways Board. They may have wharves that the Minister considers to be own-account, but they are developing into other businesses. They are small enough, but they are becoming an increasing threat. It seems logical to ask why one should bother with information from own-account bodies, as they are not port authorities, but I refer the Minister to the study carried out as recently as 1972 by the National Ports Council, which tried to understand the full implications of single users compared with third-party users. Single users, which the council called own-account users, were responsible for traffic amounting to 52 million tonnes in 1972, 74 per cent. of all non-scheme traffic—a considerable amount. In the non-fuel trade it was responsible for 3·3 million tonnes, compared with 15 million tonnes in third-party account ports.

My point is that own-account bodies cannot be assumed to be operating solely for the one business—the steel board bringing in steel and the waterways board bringing in products relevant to that industry. They are a source of extra business activity, and they are causing considerable concern.

With that we may couple the fact that section 8 grants may mean an advance in small wharf developments. That could be a very sensitive and difficult area. I welcome the Secretary of State's saying earlier that he was prepared to examine section 8 and that he had no desire to see a repeat of the early 1970s.

I wish to correct the Minister's approach to own-accounts in the docks. He cannot ignore what is happening in own-account areas, which can make up an important part of port activity. He will have to address himself to it in the future. Denying the provision of information for the Minister by statutory right is not a step in the right direction, but we shall accept it for the present, in view of the circumstances.

I recognise that, although the National Ports Council had a statutory right to receive information from all ports, many ports did not provide the information, but the power existed to demand it. The Secretary of State is saying "You have no statutory obligation to give me that information." I think that that is wrong. We must accept it, but I warn the Minister of the consequences.

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport

With the leave of the House, I should like to reply to the debate.

I may not have made myself clear about the application of the procedure for appeals against harbour dues, which we conceded in Committee. The amendment's purpose is to bring the British Transport Docks Board, the British Waterways Board and the British Railways Board within the definition that was subject to the appeals procedure. They were left out inadvertently by our choosing a definition taken from section 26 of the Harbours Act 1964. The new appeals procedure will apply to the British Transport Docks Board when it is transferred to the private sector; Associated British Ports will definitely be subject to the procedure.

As for the exemption of own-account ports, the amendment merely gives my right hon. Friend a power to exempt a particular class of harbour undertaking from the regulations that would statutorily require it to submit accounts and reports to him. The class that we have in mind consists of the own-account operators, because most of them are running a harbour undertaking that is subordinate to their main business—exporting their own goods or importing more materials for their own business—and they are not engaged in general trade.

I shall bear in mind the points made by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) about the wider interests of one CT two of his own-account operators. We still have to draft the regulations that would exempt a particular class, and the precise definition of groups to be exempted will be considered when we draw them up. The only purpose is not to deny ourselves essential information but to stop burdening authorities and ourselves with the preparation and submission of accounts when there is no general Government interest in various subordinate activities.

Question put and agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 28 to 38 agreed to.