Seafarers’ Wages Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:59 pm on 20th July 2022.

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Photo of Lord Mountevans Lord Mountevans Crossbench 4:59 pm, 20th July 2022

My Lords, sadly, I am not someone who can really do justice to the important matter being discussed, the departure of our greatly esteemed colleague the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay. However, the noble Lord, Lord Howard, was talking about his very important and on-the-money comments and perceptions, which I have savoured and witnessed; so often they have absolutely gone to the heart of what we have been discussing. I join in regret and, at the same time, massive appreciation of all that the noble and learned Lord contributed.

I turn to the Bill. At the outset, I should say that in the past when I have spoken on maritime matters, I have very often had to declare an interest. I do not have a relevant interest at all now from trade associations and so on—only approaching 50 years of working in the industry.

I thank the Minister very much because, when she offered Members of the House a briefing a few days ago, I was unable to attend. She very kindly came straight back to me and offered to arrange a briefing with officials, which morphed into a briefing with her colleague the Shipping Minister. I am deeply grateful to her and to her colleague. Both of them have constantly exhibited a great concern for the industry, and a desire to get it right. My discussion with the Shipping Minister yesterday was extremely helpful, and I very much share his direction of travel on the Bill.

The whole industry—I think that I can speak for it, notwithstanding what I have just said—absolutely understands the need to do something about this issue. We will not accept again behaviour of the type that we saw, and we are very much on board with the suggestion that seafarers be paid at minimum the national minimum wage. However, I have some concerns about the Bill, which could have unintended consequences and could damage the industry, consumers and our international standing.

First, the Bill proposes a national regime for seafarers that would duplicate and contradict the obligations for seafarers set out in long-established international conventions. This represents a departure from the established international order, where the flag state holds primacy and, with this, full observance and compliance with international rules and systems. There is a concern that this could attract international condemnation from the IMO and other flag states. We should be very careful before doing anything that would antagonise the IMO, given that we are extremely lucky to have it based here in the UK. It is the only United Nations agency based here, and is of great value in terms of our maritime presence and offer.

Secondly, we should be very careful to avoid damaging brand Britain in maritime affairs. The shipping world uses services provided from London and the UK market; the leading shipbrokers in the world are largely British; marine insurance and associated services are massive from London; our brilliant law firms often handle a wide range of disputes from around the world; and so on. There is deep trust in Britain’s maritime offer and performance, and we must not damage the prospects of growing the UK flag. I am talking about a position whereby we could upset the international order by moving from these conventions, which work very well. What about our neighbours? How do they see this? The Netherlands, France, Germany, Spain and Norway will work with the existing conventions; they do not feel the need to bring something new in.

As drafted, the scope of the Bill is very wide, covering not only the ferry sector but all other services, if any vessel makes more than 120 port calls in a year—on average one call every three days. The precise impact is not yet known of this, but I suggest that it risks embracing more than just ferries; this is a Bill very much intended for ferries and the short-haul business. It risks that, which could damage consumers.

Thirdly—this has been mentioned, and the Minister knows it—the ports are unhappy with the prospect of an onerous burden being placed on them. They feel that they are not in possession of all the information; when a ship owner comes and presents an explanation of how they operate things, they do not feel well placed to evaluate that. Concern about this is very widespread in that sector.

Fourthly, it is debatable whether the Bill as drafted will have a meaningful positive effect on the terms and conditions of our seafarers. From my research, almost none of the seafarers employed on ferry routes is paid below the UK national minimum wage. I was unable to identify any, and I have tried very hard. There could be some cleaners and things like that, and I understand that we want to be super-vigilant on this—but with the seafarers I do not think that it is a problem. Indeed, the narrative in the immediate aftermath of the extraordinary action taken by P&O Ferries was about rostering manning levels and wider terms and conditions, rather than the national minimum wage.

This is a highly nuanced issue and I understand that with the Bill the Government are working on a framework agreement with owners. I also understand that the owning community is far advanced in its work on the framework. A suitably agreed framework could address all the Government’s concerns without statutory intervention, with all the attendant risks that I have listed and I hope we will hear about from others too. Such a light-touch solution would be very much in line with how we in the UK have dealt with many issues down the years. I am greatly reassured by the Minister’s opening remarks again and the assurances that she has given us that she will work in close co-operation with the industry and will listen very carefully. I am absolutely convinced and do not doubt for a minute that that is the intention of the department and Ministers on this.