Harbours Bill: Second Stage

– in the Northern Ireland Assembly at on 30 September 2002.

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Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

I beg to move

That the Second Stage of the Harbours Bill (NIA 5/02) be agreed.

The need for this legislation arises from the growing interest of the general public and elected representatives in the activities and future development of the individual harbour authorities. In May 2001, the Department announced a series of measures aimed at improving the public accountability of trust ports in Northern Ireland and ensuring that the public interest can be fully safeguarded in relation to their operations. Many of the measures reflected the recommendations contained in the Committee for Regional Development’s report on its inquiry into the Titanic Quarter lease arrangements. Since then, my Department has advanced and set in place many of those measures.

The Department for Regional Development has developed and put in place memoranda of understanding in relation to each trust port. They provide for consultation with the Department prior to any disposal of harbour lands. Earlier this year, the Assembly debated and approved harbour Orders for Belfast, Londonderry and Warrenpoint. Among other things, the Orders provided for an increase in the number of elected representatives on each board. The various additional appointments have since been made, and the Department routinely receives copies of board papers and minutes. The Harbours Bill is the final element of the package of measures intended to improve the accountability of the trust ports. It is a short Bill, containing only seven clauses.

Clause 1 designates the Belfast Harbour Commissioners, the Coleraine Harbour Commissioners, the Harbour of Carlingford Lough Improvement Commissioners, the Londonderry Port and Harbour Commissioners and the Warrenpoint Harbour Authority. Thus, all the commercial public trust ports in Northern Ireland are covered by the legislation.

The provisions in clause 2 empower the Department to give directions of a general or specific character in relation to the functions of the harbour authorities. That will empower the Department to act, if necessary, to safeguard the public interest in relation to the activities of the trust ports. However, the Department envisages that such power would be used only after consultation with the harbour authorities. The provision will also be useful in further underpinning the memoranda of understanding between the respective harbour authorities and the Department. Naturally, the Bill also envisages that a duty would be imposed on a designated harbour authority to comply with any directions given by the Department.

Clause 3 enables the Department to require a trust port to provide it with such information as may be necessary, such as details of a specific lease or contract or information about preferential user arrangements. That will apply only to information coming into the possession of the harbour authority after the legislation comes into effect.

The Bill also contains provisions for the imposition of fines and penalties, either for failure to comply with a notice requesting information or for knowingly, or recklessly, making a false statement or producing a false document. Although the Harbours Act (Northern Ireland) 1970 already contains provisions to enable the Department to obtain information, it is of a more specific character and relates to forecasts to allow it to regulate harbours, the compilation of statistics or information in relation to grants or loans made under the Act.

Clause 4 provides for the introduction by the Department of a code of practice for all Northern Ireland trust ports, following on from a similar initiative in Great Britain. The proposed legislation requires the Department to consult with such persons as it thinks fit in relation to its proposals before the issue or amendment of a code of practice. It is envisaged that such a code would address key aspects of conduct, accountability and openness by identifying the appropriate corporate and individual responsibilities expected from the trust ports. The Department is consulting the harbour authorities and the Committee for Regional Development on the detailed proposals for inclusion in such a code.

In developing the legislative proposals, the Department consulted extensively with the harbour authorities, port users in the regions, the Committee for Regional Development, district councils and other bodies. The views expressed during the consultation process have been considered and, where appropriate, taken on board. The Committee for Regional Development has made a considerable contribution to the development of the legislation, and will, with the Assembly’s support, have the opportunity to consider the detailed drafting of the Bill and report to the Assembly on it. I welcome the opportunity to hear Members’ views, and I encourage them to support this short, but useful, Bill.

Photo of Alan McFarland Alan McFarland UUP

The Chairperson of the Committee for Regional Development has asked me to extend his apologies for being unable to attend today.

The Bill is, undoubtedly, important, and the Committee has campaigned for it for some time. I thank the Minister for introducing it.

The Committee’s interest in, and support for, the Bill results from a public inquiry that took place over a year ago into the circumstances surrounding the signing of the Titanic Quarter development agreement between Harland & Wolff and the Belfast Harbour Commissioners. During that investigation, the Committee identified several areas in which the public accountability of trust ports could be improved. In particular, the Committee recognised that legislation was needed to give the Department for Regional Development the power of direction over trust ports and to introduce a code of practice similar to that in Great Britain.

When the Committee published its findings in September 2001, it recommended several steps. In brief, those were: that legislation be introduced to give the Department power of direction over the key business activities of the Port of Belfast and other trust ports; that the Department for Regional Development enter into a memorandum of understanding with each of the trust ports, pending the introduction of that legislation; that the number of locally elected representatives on each of the trust ports’ boards be increased; that a representative from the Department for Regional Development attend the board meetings of the trust ports; and that the Department consider drawing up a code of practice for all trust ports.

I am pleased to note that the Harbours Bill will ensure that all the Committee’s recommendations will be put in place, which demonstrates the professional and constructive manner in which the Committee and the Department can work together. It highlights the positive role that all Committees can play in helping to improve the governance of the country.

Some improvements to the public accountability of trust ports have already been made. The recently approved harbour Orders have provided for the number of locally elected representatives on the boards of trust ports to be increased, and several memoranda of understanding have been established. With the introduction of the Harbours Bill, the jigsaw is complete. A code of practice will be introduced, and the Department will be given the power of direction over trust ports.

The Committee for Regional Development is also pleased to note that the code of practice will require trust ports to brief the Committee formally at least once a year. That provision is welcome, and the Committee can play a positive role in helping to improve the public accountability of trust ports as a means of safeguarding the public interest. I welcome the introduction of the legislation on behalf of the Committee, which looks forward to conducting a careful scrutiny of the Bill during Committee Stage.

Photo of Joe Byrne Joe Byrne Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Harbours Bill contains the main elements that the Committee for Regional Development considers to be important to safeguard and clarify the status and remit of the functions that trust ports enjoy. The Committee held a public inquiry last year into the issues surrounding the signing of the Titanic Quarter development agreement between Harland & Wolff and the Belfast Harbour Commissioners.

The main issues concerning the Committee were the Department having the power of direction over trust ports, and a future code of practice for such ports. The Committee has been concerned for some time that trust ports have been operating under legislation which does not always seem foolproof. The clauses in the Bill address the Committee’s main concerns, and I welcome that. As a member of that Committee, I look forward to detailed scrutiny of the Bill.

Photo of William Hay William Hay DUP 12:15, 30 September 2002

I welcome the Bill. It has its origin in a major review that was conducted in 1998 by the then Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland, when a similar review was going on in Great Britain. There is no doubt that the review raised a number of issues concerning trust ports here. Three of those issues were: examining extended powers for trust ports; easing financial controls to allow them to operate more commercially; and — one of the main issues — improved accountability for harbour authorities. We have certainly taken the route of moving public accountability on with more public representatives on the bodies running the trust ports. I see it as another piece in the jigsaw that is our work on trust ports in Northern Ireland.

We should all agree that, over the years, our trust ports have been very successful. I should even go as far as to say that trust ports have often been the engines which have driven economic development in their areas and across Northern Ireland. The Bill gives the Department power to ask for information and documents and to examine issues pertaining to trust ports.

The memorandum of understanding that all port authorities have now signed governs any disposal of land around trust ports. We in the Committee were all concerned about the disposal of land at Belfast harbour. It is to be hoped that, through this short Bill, the accountability of trust ports has moved on. I am sure that we all agree that trust ports are run for the benefit of all their stakeholders in Northern Ireland.

Will the Minister and his Department examine the question of introducing further regulations for trust ports? With regard to clause 3 of the Bill, which covers the procedures for obtaining papers and dealing with false documentation provided to the Minister and the Department, does the Minister or his Department have any view on the types of financial reimbursement, such as fines, that the harbour authorities should examine?

I welcome this short Bill and hope that it increases the accountability of Northern Ireland’s trust ports.

Photo of P J Bradley P J Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the Harbours Bill and, in particular, the additional powers that will be granted to the trust port authorities permitting them to purchase land for the betterment of their overall business. In Warrenpoint one can see the problems that arise from the non-availability of land. I hope that the Bill will allow the harbour to purchase or lease land which it might identify on the County Louth side of the port. It is only a few hundred yards across the harbour. I say that in the knowledge of the pressure for a new bridge at Narrow Water, near Warrenpoint. If the purchase of such land across from the harbour were permitted, and if the powers allowed, the harbour could get involved in a scheme to facilitate the crossing of vehicular traffic, possibly by means of a toll. I look forward to further debate on that. I come from Warrenpoint and know its geography. The only available land that could be purchased is on the County Louth side of the border, and I hope that such a purchase will be allowed.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

I thank Members for their contributions, which make it clear that the legislation is not contentious. As the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Regional Development, Mr McFarland, said, the Committee played an important role in the production of the draft legislation. It has had consistent interest in the issue, and the legislation is an example of the Committee’s influence with the Department and demonstrates the positive role that it has played. That also underlines Mr Byrne’s remarks. The Committee will be studying the Bill thoroughly, and I look forward to its response. However, members of the Committee will not find any surprises in the legislation, given their background knowledge of the subject.

Both Mr Bradley and Mr Hay raised issues about where the Department will be moving with regard to further regulations or legislation. Mr Bradley mentioned the ability of ports to become more competitive and the need to look at what can be done to improve their position. In bringing the Bill forward, the Department is looking primarily at public accountability — a matter that Mr Hay addressed in detail.

The legislation does not in any way reflect a lack of trust in the board members of any of the trust ports in Northern Ireland. In recent years in all spheres of public life, there has been a move towards improved public accountability, and so it should be; that has also happened in the private sector. The legislation is a means of clarifying the respective roles of trust ports and the Department, and that will be beneficial to the relationship between the ports and the Department.

It is necessary to recognise that elected representatives and a devolved Assembly are better placed than the harbour commissioners to assess the public interest that may attach to any development proposals, and the legislation takes that into account. That leaves the harbour commissioners free to focus on the needs of the ports, and on their fiduciary responsibilities.

The Harbours Bill deals primarily with public accountability. The Department remains committed to further extending the commercial powers of trust ports to enable them to compete better with their counterparts in the Republic of Ireland, and to amending and updating our harbours legislation generally. For example, further legislation might make provision for the harbour authorities to promote a company or enter into a joint venture in relation to business activity beyond the scope of the port undertaking. Indeed, it might make provision for the harbour authorities to promote leisure activities and tourism, or to carry out the activities of shipping agents, for example, to promote new routes. It might make provision to empower the harbour authorities to acquire a business or undertaking not directly related to the management or maintenance of the harbours, but which would be of benefit to the port. The Department is looking at all of those issues, but the policy basis for such a Bill is not yet in place. Given the lengthy consultation process necessary, it is likely to be some time before the Department will be in a position to present the next harbours Bill to the Assembly.

Mr Hay mentioned the issue of fines, which is dealt with in clause 3 of the Bill. The clause refers to a fine on summary conviction that does not exceed level 4 on the standard scale. Over the weekend, I may have had cause to examine what the potential fines might be. I have been told that level 4 brings the fine up to around £2,000. In that instance, the Office of the Legislative Counsel has given new advice to the Department. During the Committee Stage of the Bill, the Department will discuss with the Committee making a change to that and, perhaps, bringing forward an amendment that will allow the Department more flexibility.

As I said at the start of the debate, the need for the legislation arises from the growing interest of the general public and elected representatives in the activities and future development plans of the individual harbour authorities. The passage of the legislation will better equip the Department to safeguard the public interest with regard to such matters in future. I am grateful to the Committee for Regional Development for the support that it has given to the Department, to date, in the development of the legislation. I commend the Bill to the Assembly.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That the Second Stage of the Harbours Bill (NIA Bill 5/02) be agreed.