Seafarers’ Wages Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:03 pm on 20th July 2022.

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Photo of Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness Vere of Norbiton Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 4:03 pm, 20th July 2022

My Lords, earlier this year, P&O Ferries shamefully sacked almost 800 members of its workforce, without notice and without consultation. At that time, the Transport Secretary responded with a nine-point plan, aiming to prevent companies from benefiting further from such underhand and unacceptable moves. This legislation is part of our response. It is important to stress that this is but one part of the plan, which covers much wider aspects of seafarer welfare that do not require legislation.

This Bill delivers on the Secretary of State’s commitment to deliver on the first point of the nine-point plan: changing the law so that seafarers with close ties to the UK are paid at least an equivalent to the UK national minimum wage while they are in UK waters. Quite simply, it is unacceptable for companies such as P&O Ferries to lay off hard-working employees, with no notice and no consultation, only to replace them with less costly workers. This legislation will remove the incentive for other operators to follow suit and ensure that all seafarers will receive the equivalent of the national minimum wage in UK waters, preventing a race to the bottom that would damage this vital industry.

Under the existing national minimum wage legislation, not all seafarers who regularly call at UK ports are currently entitled to the UK national minimum wage. It cannot be right that seafarers who frequently work in the UK are not entitled to the same remuneration as other workers simply because they work on an international, rather than a domestic, service. In every practical sense, the seafarers who work on routes such as Dover to Calais are working in the UK, and they should not face exploitation by unscrupulous employers who seek to use this gap in the law to avoid paying fair wages.

The purpose of the Bill is to right this wrong. It will do this by making access to UK ports conditional on operators of frequent services providing evidence that the seafarers on board are paid a rate equivalent to the UK national minimum wage for time spent in UK waters. This will bring hundreds of millions of pounds of extra pay to thousands of seafarers over the next 10 years.

It is important to note that this legislation does not amend the National Minimum Wage Act. It instead refers to “national minimum wage equivalence”. I should point out that the Bill has been the subject of a public consultation, where we invited views on both its scope and the proposed compliance process. We have taken enormous care to consider the consultees’ views and have taken these into account in designing the new legislation.

The legislation will apply to services calling at UK ports at least once every 72 hours, on average, throughout the year. This equates to 120 times a year. The operators of such services will be required to provide a declaration to the relevant harbour authority that they are paying their seafarers no less than a rate equivalent to the national minimum wage. This rate will be calculated according to regulations made using powers in the Bill.

This scope definition has been carefully designed to ensure that it includes those seafarers who have close ties to the UK. We listened to those in the industry who told us that inclusions or exclusions based on service type would create market distortion and ambiguity. Fishing and leisure or recreation vessels are therefore the only specific exclusions retained on the face of the Bill. Our analysis shows that this definition captures, for example, the vast majority of ferries on the short straits, without including services such as deep sea container services or cruises. These less frequent services remain out of scope as those seafarers cannot be said to have as close a link to the UK. This definition has been formulated to account for the complexity of categorising vessel and service types, and to ensure that those seafarers with the closest ties to the UK are captured. We will continue to engage with industry throughout the passage of the Bill, and through consultation on the subsequent secondary legislation and guidance.

Ports are our main contact point with these vessels. In order to keep focused on this domestic link, the legislation will make access to ports ultimately conditional on compliance with its requirements. Harbour authorities will be empowered to request declarations from operators within scope that confirm they will pay their seafarers a rate equivalent to the national minimum wage. If they do not comply with the requirement, harbour authorities will be empowered to levy a surcharge against those operators, or they may be directed to do so by the Secretary of State. The purpose of the surcharge is to ensure that not paying the national minimum wage equivalent is not a financially viable option for the operator.

We intend to consult on regulations and guidance on the framework within which the level of the surcharge will be calculated and the exercise of the harbour authorities’ powers in due course. The harbour authority may retain such money as may be raised in this way for the discharge of its functions or for the provision of shore-based seafarer welfare facilities. We are clear that this will not be a profit-making exercise.

On non-payment of a surcharge, the harbour authority will be empowered to deny access to the port, either of its own volition or by direction from the Secretary of State. We intend these powers to provide sufficient deterrent to ensure compliance by operators. We have engaged extensively with the ports industry on this role, and while we accept that this will be an extra administrative burden on ports, we are satisfied that it is proportionate and effective, particularly taking into account the resources and capabilities of the ports and their existing transactional relationship with visiting vessels.

I am clear that this is not an enforcement role for the harbour authority. Beyond accepting declarations, they will not be responsible for checking that operators are complying with the requirement to pay national minimum wage equivalence. This enforcement role will be fulfilled by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, or MCA, which will undertake inspections and investigations. It will also be empowered to prosecute operators who are found to be operating inconsistently with a declaration or who do not comply with investigations. Those found guilty of an offence will be liable to a fine on summary conviction.

As I stated earlier, this Bill is only one part of the Government’s nine-point plan to improve seafarer welfare. We are clear that this legislation will not solve all the issues brought to light by P&O Ferries’ actions, but it is an important step, and it is the right one to take given the parliamentary time available. The Bill is inevitably of limited application as we cannot legislate outside UK jurisdiction and therefore cannot make provision for time spent outside UK waters. This is why we are discussing bilateral minimum wage corridors with other countries to encourage the payment of fair wages on the entire route. As part of the plan, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will bring forward a new statutory code on so-called fire and rehire when parliamentary time allows. The Department for Transport is also taking steps to encourage more ships to operate under the UK flag, and to improve the long-term working conditions of seafarers beyond pay protection. So, although this legislation is concerned only with wages, the Government remain focused on the whole gamut of seafarer welfare and taking non-legislative steps to make much-needed improvements. This legislation is vital as part of our efforts to ensure that hard-working seafarers, who play a critical role in our economy, can no longer be mistreated or exploited by unscrupulous employers.

In closing, I also recognise that some noble Lords may have a slightly more nuanced reason for participating in today’s proceedings: a hugely experienced and deeply committed parliamentarian and public servant will be making his valedictory speech. I know that this House, and so many people beyond it, hold my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern in the highest esteem, and we are incredibly grateful for his many years of service to our country. I am looking forward to contributions from noble Lords on the retirement of my noble and learned friend and, of course, to their wise words on the Bill before your Lordships’ House today. I beg to move.