Seafarers’ Wages Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:42 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) 5:42 pm, 20th July 2022

My Lords, the Bill is clearly not the star of the show today. We have heard so many wonderfully warm words, and I was touched by so many of them, not only from my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay but from all noble Lords who paid him tribute. But I must at least try to get the House back to focus on the Bill, and that is what I intend to do.

I am very grateful to all noble Lords for their contributions and, as ever, I feel a letter coming on. We will try to get it out as soon as we can. I do not know that it will be before recess, but perhaps by the end of next week. I will try valiantly to answer as many of the questions raised as possible. I know that we will be heading into Committee on the Bill on, I think, 5 September, so it will be upon us before we know it. Thinking about it over the recess might be a very wise idea.

I cannot agree with the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, that the Bill is too narrow. We must balance that with the statement of the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, who said, “Oh, the Government are always reaching for legislation”. That is what we are trying not to do in this case; we are reaching for this legislation because it is necessary and fills a gap, but many of the other things we will be delivering in our nine-point plan do not need legislation, so we will not put them in legislation. Noble Lords know that we are overwhelmed with legislation; do not even get me on to secondary legislation, which we must also make sure is completely fit for purpose so that we do not end up overregulating and having too many debates on things that, frankly, do not need legislating. I am content with the scope of the Bill and the extent to which it applies.

There is always that very interesting balance in maritime between the Government being very focused on domestic priorities, for the protection of domestic workers operating with very close ties to the UK, and what is an extremely international market for maritime but which is governed by international laws, conventions, agreements, all sorts of things that make up the maritime ecosystem. We are very clear that we do not want to be upsetting that ecosystem and we are content that this Bill does not do that. We are also very clear when it comes to, for example, access to ports in an emergency or for the welfare of the people on board, a vessel would never be barred from entering a port in such circumstances. Therefore, I am content that this reaches that appropriate balance between the domestic priorities and the broader maritime framework, which is set mostly internationally.

The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, asked why there was no longer a harbours Bill. There was a name change. It is nothing more significant than that. I was expecting something called a “harbours something-or-other”, but there was a name change and, lo and behold, we are calling it something which much better reflects the intention, since our target is the seafarers, not the harbours. We are all after the people, and therefore it was quite right that we changed the name.

I think that I have covered the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Mountevans, as well. I take his point, and he is hugely experienced regarding our international reputation. As we have set out in our nine-point plan, we will be working with international partners. We will not be putting this in the Bill because it is not within our gift to deliver it. That does not mean that we will not work extremely hard; at the moment we are engaging with eight European countries on seafarers protections and welfare more generally, and to explore the creation of the minimum wage equivalent corridors. I do not say that this will necessarily be easy, but there are many like-minded seafaring nations which would want to see certain agreements being reached. Discussions are currently at an early stage, but we are pursuing them as a matter of priority.

A number of noble Lords mentioned the conflict that might exist between ports’ commercial interests and their statutory duties. We are clear that we must be cognizant of that but also, because the Secretary of State has the power to issue directions, it is the case that in the event of any doubt that those two things were not being performed correctly, I am afraid that the MCA and probably the Secretary of State would have things to say. However, I must reiterate that when it comes to the ports, we do not really want them to do very much at all. By the time that we have passed the secondary legislation for the declarations, the declarations will be standard, they will have been consulted on, and we will have discussed them with the various stakeholders, so it will be a very transactional relationship. They have a transactional relationship with visiting vessels already, so it is just one more cog in that particular transactional relationship.

Therefore, the ports will not be performing any sort of enforcement function at all. I note the comments from my noble friend Lord Balfe but, as I said, we are quite clear on what we want the ports to do. I look forward to talking through the secondary legislation when we discuss the process in more detail. If we get the secondary legislation right, if the process is really effective, then the role of ports will be minimised.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, asked about the term “non-qualifying seafarers”. This is going to get a little complicated, because we are trying to capture non-qualifying seafarers; they do not qualify for the national minimum wage and we want to make them qualify for the equivalent, which we are setting up. We want all workers on vessels with close links to the UK to be covered. I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, that we are focused on improving the rights of seafarers, both in the UK and by working with international structures.

The noble Lord, Lord Mann, mentioned some quite broad elements around workers’ rights and pay and conditions. The Bill seeks to amend the law in a limited and specific way. I will come back to this again and again in Committee: it is about workers with close ties to the UK, in UK waters. That is our focus in getting the Bill through Parliament. He mentioned a Bermuda judgment on pensions, but he is testing my knowledge so I will have to write on that matter.

I sense that we may have some discussions in Committee on the question of services as well. We considered all sorts of different frequency definitions, various types of vessel and the sorts of services they offer. It all got bogged down very quickly and could have ended up causing significant distortions to the market, as people try to change what their vessel does to fit into a different category. We do not want that; we are after simplicity here. We really are.

We decided on 120 days, which is equivalent to once every 72 hours, because we felt it was the right balance between workers on board having a close tie to the UK—I will come back to that a lot—and capturing as many of the vessels that we want to capture. We have analysed past data, which suggest that a large majority of ferry services would be captured in this scope. DfT statistics suggest that, had the policy been in effect in 2019, approximately 98% of passenger ferry voyages would have been captured and 70% of non-passenger ferry voyages carrying freight would have been in scope. Very few bulk, container and other such services would have fallen in scope—for example, for 1999, 7% of fully cellular container voyages to and from UK ports and a tiny proportion of the dry/liquid bulk services would have been in scope. I think we have the right balance.

The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, mentioned cruises. If it is a UK cruise that stays in UK waters, it will be paying the minimum wage, because that is already in the regulations. However, if the cruise ship is going far away, it will not be covered, because it does not have close ties to the UK, is not back and forth or visiting our shores very frequently. That is the distinction we have made.