Seafarers’ Wages Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:25 pm on 20th July 2022.

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Photo of Baroness Scott of Needham Market Baroness Scott of Needham Market Liberal Democrat 5:25 pm, 20th July 2022

My Lords, I have no current interests to declare, but for context I will tell the House that I served for six years as a non-exec on the Harwich Haven Authority, which serves the port of Felixstowe. Before that, I was the first woman to serve on the board of Lloyd’s Register—so I take a great interest in these issues.

It often strikes me that in this island nation, which is totally dependent on goods coming in by sea and has a first-class maritime sector, we very rarely debate maritime issues in this House and in Parliament generally, and we even more rarely have associated legislation. I think it is probably because things work pretty well on the whole. But it is also because there is complex, well-established governance emanating from international organisations and agreements—the noble Lord, Lord Mountevans, mentioned the IMO just across the river. It is a reminder that sharing sovereignty is sometimes a necessary and positive thing, and that we need to exercise some caution.

It is welcome to have legislation and a debate this evening, particularly because it has occasioned the valedictory speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, who is retiring. In a House noted for its long service, being an active Member in your mid-90s is quite some achievement, but to still be making incisive legal contributions and wise judgments above all in a way that is entirely unconfrontational is a real lesson to those who think that shouting and being unpleasant is how to get what you want. I am sure everyone who has ever listened to the noble and learned Lord has learned from him, so I thank him very much and we on these Benches wish him well.

From these Benches we fully support offering seafarers all the protection we can reasonably give. Many of them work in very trying conditions and are often exploited. The situation at the start of the pandemic, and for quite some time, was horrendous. Many were trapped at sea for months, unable to get home after their contracts had ended, and their replacements were unable to get out to relieve them. The Government’s nine-point plan is extremely welcome, and we look forward to hearing how the Government are progressing with it, and in particular with those elements that require the sorts of bilateral agreements to which the noble Lord, Lord Fairfax of Cameron, referred, such as the minimum wage corridors. I wonder whether the Minister can say whether there are plans to keep Parliament updated routinely, or whether perhaps we need to table some debates. I think the Bill is the only part of the plan that requires primary legislation.

It has come about because of the egregious behaviour of P&O Ferries, which shone a spotlight on the condition of the industry and provided the impetus for some new thinking. But it is worth reminding ourselves that the company was breaking existing law; that is clear. The law was already there, so the idea that new law is of itself a panacea is something we should resist.

I am slightly suspicious about legislation brought in to address one particular set of circumstances. I can hear the Yorkshire tones of my late noble friend Lord Shutt of Greetland saying, “You don’t make porridge for one”, and I am a bit nervous that here we are making porridge for one, because it is one set of circumstances. For me, the starting point is always, “Is there some way of doing this other than legislation?” I think these international agreements and corridors might end up being more fruitful, but Governments of all colours reach for the statute book first, I think because if you have a hammer, all problems look like a nail.

The Bill is actually quite limited in scope. In practical terms, it will cover mainly ferry companies on short strait crossings, although the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, brought up some other interesting examples. We will need other measures to protect everyone else, and that will mostly be a matter for the international maritime organisations.

I know that at the start of this process the Government’s thinking was very much about putting the burden of enforcement on to the port authorities, and I am glad that they have listened to the strong objections from the sector about taking on a new, onerous regulatory role. There is already minimum wage expertise in government in the form of HMRC. The legislation puts more of the burden on to the Secretary of State, which in operational terms means the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which will now take on most of the responsibility for compliance, the setting of surcharges and so on. Can the Minister say a little about the resources available to the MCA, particularly in the context of all government departments being asked to reduce staffing numbers by somewhere between 20% and 40%? It might be quite difficult to take on new responsibilities with fewer people.

I know that the Government believe that this a modest extra burden on ports, and I think it is possible to overstate it, but it will largely depend on the systems that we set up for running the system. I hope that great care is taken to ensure that for operators, ports and the MCA alike the systems are streamlined and as efficient as possible. I fully agree with my noble friend Lord Shipley that we need sight of the guidance first, because there are some new responsibilities. In Clause 7, for example, a process is set out which could be quite time-consuming for a port authority. Noble Lords need to have a little sympathy with a sector which has spent millions of pounds preparing for post-Brexit checks that will now never take place.

The surcharges will be established by secondary legislation, imposed by the MCA and levied by port authorities, so we need full consultation with all parts of the sector. In particular, we need clarity and transparency. Those principles are always a good idea, but given that some port operators also own the ferries, they are particularly important here.

I have a couple of questions for the noble Baroness. First, if the MCA finds a breach which results in a levy, does the port authority have to collect it? What happens if it chooses not to? Secondly, some aspects of the legislation can result in summary conviction and fine—for example, in Clause 5. Can the Minister say against whom these criminal charges would be brought? Would it be the master, the owner or the board of the company? Finally, we come to what for me is the most important question of all. The intention is that, where a surcharge is not paid, the Secretary of State can direct a port to refuse entry. On the face of it, this could be a direct contravention of the open port duty as defined in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which the UK is a signatory. Can the noble Baroness set out what legal advice has been sought and from whom, and whether it can be published, to establish that barring a vessel from a port does not in any way conflict with our international obligations under UNCLOS?