Seafarers’ Wages Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:06 pm on 20th July 2022.

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Photo of Lord Fairfax of Cameron Lord Fairfax of Cameron Conservative 5:06 pm, 20th July 2022

My Lords, I first declare an interest: apart from working in shipping for 40 years and being a director of one of the ship owners’ P&I clubs, I am currently a non-executive director at a green tech fuel additives company which has relevance to shipping.

Today, of course, as many of the earlier speakers have said, is first about the valedictory speech in this House of my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay. I think I was one of those very few who were here—I think it was said—43 years ago on my first-iteration outing in this place. It was my pleasure and honour to have my hand shaken him as Lord Chancellor when I took the oath all those years ago. As noble Lords have heard today, there are very many greatly deserved plaudits from all sides of this House for his incredible long record of service with distinction.

I turn to the Bill itself. Following the P&O Ferries incident in March this year involving its peremptory sacking of—I think—786 staff, of course it is right that the Government should address the issues coming out of that. As noble Lords have heard, one of the main strange things about this is that, despite its name, P&O Ferries does not have its vessels flagged in the UK. If you were a member of the British public reading about this incident, as I was, and someone in fact who, as I say, worked for a long time in shipping, I immediately assumed that not only were the relevant staff British nationals but the vessels were probably flagged under the UK register. As noble Lords have heard, that is not the case: it is Cyprus, the Bahamas and Bermuda—so-called flags of convenience. There is nothing wrong with that. This is a totally widespread practice in international shipping, but it is perhaps not what was first thought.

Against that background, the Government have brought forward the Bill and, in general, I support what it is trying to do. But I would like to highlight three issues that come out of it. First—I think the previous speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Mountevans, touched on this—there is the extraterritorial nature of the Bill’s provisions. In particular, there is a suggestion that they may conflict with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and I believe there is a similar submission by the UK Chamber of Shipping.

This leads on to my second question, which I asked the Minister about during the briefing last week. What do other countries involved in some of these frequent ferry services think about what we are doing? I think of France, for example. I live on the Isle of Wight, where we see Brittany Ferries coming in just about every day, as well as Condor and others. What does France think? And what do Germany, Holland and Ireland think? What are they doing to address this type of concern? I note that there is a reference in the briefing to the idea of “minimum wage corridors”, which may be the solution.

Finally, this is really repetition of a point that I have made already, but this Bill will in fact catch not UK flag vessels but foreign flag vessels. The nationality of the seafarers involved is irrelevant. I originally thought that the nexus would be that they were British, but that is not the case; this will catch foreign flag vessels. To take the case of Brittany Ferries, they are presumably French citizens. I am not sure, but I have a feeling that this is not what the British public first thought when they heard of the P&O Ferries case.