I welcome the opportunity to debate the future of trust ports. I am grateful for the interest shown by my hon. Friends the Members for Harwich (Mr. Henderson), for Dover (Mr. Prosser) and for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell) and by those who represent other port constituencies. Unfortunately, others cannot be here, including my hon. Friend Mr. Ainger and Mrs. Brooke. Many hon. Members who noted the subject of today's debate but who were not too well versed on trust ports wondered what was of such great interest. I shall therefore start by sketching out briefly what the debate is about.
Five years ago, in 2000, the Office for National Statistics ruled that trust ports with a turnover above a threshold of £6.6 million, or those with a majority of members appointed by the Government, should be regarded as public bodies and subject to public sector borrowing requirements. Uncertainty over borrowing created various problems for those ports, as a result of which harbour revision orders were issued last year.
Those orders would have resolved the matter but for objections, made most notably by Mr. Chope—I am pleased to see him in his place—and the Major Ports Group. Those objections were raised in order to leave open the option to privatise those ports. Worries about privatisation were reinforced last week by the official Opposition's announcement that they would certainly want to privatise Dover in order to release money for road schemes.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the years 2000 and 2004 and spoke of uncertainty. Can he tell us what was done between those two years to try to remove that uncertainty? He has rather condensed that.
I would like to go back beyond 2000, as I sketch out how we arrived at the present situation under the Ports Act 1991, the governing legislation in respect of trust ports.
The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is that the ruling of the Office for National Statistics was initially resisted by the Department for Transport; there was some negotiation as to whether the ruling was correct, but it has been accepted. It took a little time, but the harbour revision orders of 2004 were the outcome of those negotiations; the aim was to resolve the situation and provide some certainty. The uncertainty over the future of ports has certainly resulted in some difficulties. Most recently, the delay of a £6.6 million investment caused problems for the port of Poole, but I gather through conversations this morning that that difficulty might be resolved for now.
It is worth saying what a trust port is. It is a convenient shorthand term used to describe ports that are not owned and run by a company, a local authority or a nationalised industry. Many have operated for a long time. Poole's trust port was formed in 1895—this is pertinent to our debate—when port users rebelled against the neglect and profiteering of the private owners of the port; care of the port was entrusted to commissioners who were charged under an Act of Parliament to conserve, regulate and improve the port and harbour of Poole.
That status quo continued happily until the 1980s, when the then Conservative Government were pursuing their dogmatic desire to privatise. In 1988, the Secretary of State of the day, Paul Channon, expressed his disappointment that ports had not yet been privatised and declared all ports as candidates for privatisation. His frustration that ports did not want to privatise led to the Ports Act, which gave him the power to force privatisation on ports and allowed the Exchequer to take 50 per cent. of the proceeds. That love—that dogmatic desire—for privatisation is alive and well in the Opposition today.
Happily, the general election in 1997 ended that particular episode, but the decision of the Office for National Statistics in 2000 decreed that trust ports should be classified as public sector corporations, reopening the debate. The way in which such ports are classified means that London, Dover, Shoreham, Tyne, Harwich, Milford Haven and Poole all have their borrowings set against the public sector borrowing requirement, which, in turn, restricts their freedom. They all want to return to the status quo that they enjoyed before the debate on this issue began.
Others would like the ports to be privatised, but the chairmen and chief executives, including those at Dover, oppose privatisation. Unfortunately, the power to impose it on them still remains, although the harbour revision orders sought to remove it. This is only a guess, and it will be interesting to hear the comments of Mr. Chope, but the Conservative party appears to be pursuing this issue to plug the £35 billion hole in its public finance plans. I put it to Conservative Members that if they cannot persuade authorities to privatise, they should not impose privatisation.
I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would make it clear whether he agrees with or opposes privatisation. I say that particularly in respect of Poole, because I represent 75 per cent. of the harbour area. If he wants to state his intent clearly, it would be helpful if he withdrew his formal objection to the Poole harbour revision order. On
"The effect of the Harbour Revision Order would be to deprive the taxpayer of resources and will undermine the will of Parliament clearly expressed in the Ports Act 1991."
I do not deny that the will of Parliament, as expressed in 1991, was clearly in favour of privatisation; happily, the composition of Parliament has changed since then, and the will of this Parliament would be somewhat different. However, the key phrase in the letter is
"to deprive the taxpayer of resources".
The letter, which is specifically about the proposed Poole harbour revision No. 2 order, is the clearest indication that we have of the official Opposition's desire to privatise Poole harbour.
That would be a disaster for Poole. The harbour area extends across 10,000 acres of an exceptional environment. I am pleased to see Mr. Syms in his place, and I am sure that he would vouch for the fact that it is one of the south coast's jewels. Poole is one of the world's largest natural harbours, and its extensive waters provide what the website calls
"a magnificent haven for recreational sailing and water sports".
It is home to all manner of leisure craft and to a fishing fleet of about 100 vessels. Walkers, bird-watchers, sailors and fishermen all enjoy the wonders of Poole harbour, an area that I am privileged to represent so much of.
For more than 100 years, the Poole harbour commissioners have been entrusted with conserving, regulating and improving that environment. They bring together stakeholders such as Poole borough council, Purbeck district council and Dorset county council. In addition to those statutory bodies, English Nature, the Southern Sea Fisheries Committee, the Environment Agency, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the harbour yacht clubs all have a strong and close working relationship with the commissioners.
This morning, I met the chairman of the Poole harbour commissioners, Captain Malcolm Shakesby, who also happens to be a Conservative county councillor. I asked him whether he opposed privatisation, and he was very clear that he does not allow party labels to get in the way of his good judgment. His judgment is that privatisation would be bad for Poole because stakeholders would not have the same voice or the surpluses currently generated by the commercial port, which takes up just 60 acres of the 10,000 acres of the harbour area. Those surpluses are reinvested in looking after the interests of all the stakeholders who sit round the table when the commissioners meet. In Poole people's real fear of privatisation is that the surpluses will go to shareholders and that we will return to the days when a few rich traders and the corporation of Poole owned the port in the 19th century and before, and there was profiteering and neglect of the harbour. It is in order to preserve the harbour and its environment and to protect the interests of all its users that I strongly oppose its privatisation.
The commissioners' objective is
"to maintain the balance in the harbour between commercial, recreational and environmental interests, at the same time maintaining a sustainable and commercially viable medium-sized trust port."
That is a commendable objective for the commissioners to pursue. Realistically, a private company cannot balance those interests in the same way.
Several Members want to speak, and although I secured the debate, I want to hear voices from all over the country who are concerned about the issue. As I said, I am strongly opposed to imposing privatisation on trust ports. It is good to see Members from all parties in the Chamber, and I invite them to make a clear statement of their intent. Are they for or against the port's privatisation? For the sake of my constituents who are concerned about the port and the harbour of Poole, I ask the hon. Member for Christchurch to be very clear about whether he is in favour of, or against, its privatisation.
First, I congratulate Jim Knight on securing the debate. The House does not discuss enough such issues as our ports in general and trust ports in particular. It is to the great credit of the hon. Gentleman that he has raised such an important issue.
The issue of trust ports affects several Members of Parliament and their constituencies, including, as the hon. Gentleman said, Poole. Poole is a good example of a trust port. It is well managed and successful, and the quality of the people who run it is very good. It is generally popular because all its stakeholders in the greater area of Poole have their say. It is a traditional British compromise in that it brings together various interests, so it works.
The hon. Gentleman became upset when he talked about privatisation, but I do not see that on the agenda for Poole, simply because there is no local demand for it. Since 1895, which is about 110 years ago, the Conservative party has been in office for two thirds of that time, and was in office with a substantial majority for 18 years—a very long time—under Mrs. T. If we had been dedicated to privatising the port, and if there was any time when the port was, to use the hon. Gentleman's phrase, at risk of privatisation, it would have happened then.
My predecessor, John Ward, talked to most of the local stakeholders in the port and took the view that trust status was an appropriate solution for Poole, which is why the trust has remained and has kept being successful.
The issue is whether I support the trust status of the port, and I do. If, in 20 years, the commissioners believed that a different relationship or organisation was necessary, one would have to consider that. At the moment, however, and for the foreseeable future—and, I suspect, for the next 110 years—Poole will remain a trust port because it works well. We are the second largest port in the south-west and are very successful.
As the hon. Member for South Dorset pointed out, there is a good balance between the commercial activities of the port, which is profitable, although it is always a struggle to keep ferry companies interested in coming in—a vital component of the port's success—and its recreational and environmental activities. Indeed, the port's profitability is used to manage the harbour, to ensure that it is properly dredged and that the sites of special scientific interest are protected. Poole is well known for its leisure activities, such as sailing and yachting. They depend on the success of the port.
I am listening to the hon. Gentleman's arguments with great interest. He is painting a rosy picture of the future of Poole as a trust port. That could be extended to all the other trust ports. On that basis, would he support moves to remove Poole from the 1991 orders that provide the Secretary of State with redress to privatise it?
That is a different issue. As the hon. Member for South Dorset said, the Office for National Statistics has changed the way in which these ports are considered. The Government have some form in the way in which they finance some of their public corporations. Network Rail is a perfect example. It has about £10 billion of debt, which the Government have kept off the public balance sheet. With my hon. Friend Mr. Chope, I think that it is legitimate to consider how we determine and count the amount of money that is used by various public corporations. That is a legitimate area for some political argument and no doubt that will be resolved in due course.
Returning to trust ports, Poole is certainly a successful port. The Government have not done us any great favours over the years. The road network into Poole is not particularly good. In the roads programme under the Conservative Government, there were proposals to build a bridge over Holes bay to the A350 and to build a link road to the A31, which were cancelled. Fortunately, through the hard work of the harbour commissioners and the borough, we managed to persuade the Government to put a scheme back into the local transport plan, with the support of our neighbours in Bournemouth and Dorset county council. It has been a little delayed because the Government were pushing for a private finance initiative, which was not appropriate. However, the prospects for Poole are pretty good and getting the second bridge in place should help the port.
If I were to make a plea, the greatest difference to be made to the port of Poole would be by focusing on improving the road network so that people could easily get out of the port. When I run into friends and individuals who have used the ferry port, it is noticeable that quite a lot of them have got lost coming out of Poole. I therefore think that, if we are to maintain Poole as a successful port, when we are in Government we will have to consider very seriously how to improve transport links.
As I have said, Poole is a successful port. There is a legitimate area of disagreement over the harbour revision orders and the question of money and finance. I know that that will irritate some local people in Poole, who are getting caught up in a political argument, but I hope that that can be resolved. On trust ports, we have to consider each example and decide whether it is fit for purpose. In the previous Parliament, the Government made reforms to corporate governance. Poole has always done extremely well in terms of how it has run its affairs. It has been open and transparent. I know that some trust ports were run in rather bizarre and undemocratic ways and that there were necessary reforms. However, we must all examine the trust ports in our constituencies to assess appropriateness and fitness for purpose in terms of what is being provided.
I am happy with how Poole is run. I understand that we are a few months from a general election, and it is easy to make various allegations across the Chamber. I am sure that my party is as capable of doing that as your party—
My apologies, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
I understand that the forthcoming election has added a little fizz. However, since the article in the Daily Echo the other week, which contained allegations made by the hon. Member for South Dorset and which quoted my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, I have not had a single phone call or letter one way or the other. I think that that is because people support the status quo and would be surprised if that changed.
To clarify, in respect of any speculation that this issue might be related to the election, I would be delighted if, as a result of today's debate, there were clarification from all parties in the Chamber that we all agree that the current status of the trust port of Poole should continue, and that the objection from the official Opposition should be withdrawn. Then we can carry on with any campaigning that we want to pursue on the subjects that we choose, such as the successful economy, the health service and schools, and leave this issue to one side.
"Objecting to this order is holding up £6 million of investment"?
Today, just a few days later, he admitted that that is not the impact of the order. Has my hon. Friend taken note of that disparity?
I always listen carefully to what the hon. Member for South Dorset says, as he is my parliamentary neighbour.
I would like to return to the general view that Poole trust port is a successful port; long may it remain so. It has broad support and I am sure that my party will support its current status. There is a knotty issue in relation to the harbour revision orders and money. If what the hon. Gentleman has said is true, I hope that it will not hold up any investment plans.
Clearly, there have been changes to ferry traffic across the channel. There are concerns that other ports may poach our business and one always has to think of the future, which is why we need a deeper channel to enable a wider range of ships to come into the harbour. Ferry traffic, or any sort of traffic in the harbour, is the basic seed corn that provides money for the port, from which all other things flow. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has initiated the debate. I am happy that other hon. Members should be able to talk, glowingly or otherwise, about ports in their constituencies.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate, and I begin by commending my hon. Friend Jim Knight for raising this important subject.
I intend to speak glowingly about my local port. I shall spend my time commenting on the port of Tyne, the future of which is of great concern to my constituents, some of whom are employed by the Port of Tyne authority, river users in general and the whole region, whether we are talking about commercial interests, leisure interests or environmental interests.
The port of Tyne is one of more than 100 trust ports, and one of the largest. It was affected by the decision of the Office for National Statistics to reclassify ports as corporations, and therefore applied for a harbour revision order to keep its trust port status. That order was not challenged by anyone locally, but was challenged by the official Opposition and by the Major Ports Group, and that may yet lead to a public inquiry, which in turn may lead to the sort of uncertainty that my hon. Friend spoke about earlier.
The debate has been moved on to some extent by the announcement last week by the Conservative party that—in the unlikely event that it returns to office—it plans to privatise the port of Dover, and that it will consider other ports. We await the comments of Mr. Chope to learn whether it has missed Poole off that list, or whether that has come as a surprise to Mr. Syms.
Indeed. None of that surprises me, and it helps me to make my next point. In 1995, the then Conservative Secretary of State for Transport planned to privatise three ports: Ipswich, which was privatised, Dover and Tyne. Dover and Tyne were saved only because of the 1997 general election and, as my hon. Friend has clearly indicated, that not only puts his port in the picture, but the port of Tyne as well. That is a cause of deep concern to port users and stakeholders.
In Transport questions last week, the hon. Member for Christchurch described privatised ports as "thriving". That is interesting, because it is exactly the same word that has been used again and again to describe the port of Tyne. It is thriving because profits increased by 49 per cent. last year. Turnover is £27 million and rising. That allows investment on an unprecedented scale—£72 million in the last decade and £10 million in the past year. The Port of Tyne authority now employs 430 people directly, of whom 80 have been employed in the past 12 months. It plans to employ more people.
One NorthEast, the regional development agency, has assessed that as many as 10,000 jobs depend on activity in the area covered by the Port of Tyne authority. The port deals with 3 million tonnes of cargo. The number of cruise ships entering the Tyne is doubling year on year. The number of passengers, most of whom are going to northern Europe and Scandinavia, has grown to almost 1 million.
One of the most significant developments of the port is as a car terminal. The port allows the export of about 400,000 Nissan vehicles from the nearby factory in Washington and the import of 60,000 Volkswagen into the country. That makes the port of Tyne the ninth largest car terminal in the world. Having made that happen is a great commendation of the Port of Tyne authority. As a throwaway point, it is interesting that a port that made its name on the export of coal is—sad to say—importing coal. That is a sign of the times. It means that income is generated that allows investment in new and upgraded deep-river berths and in the transport infrastructure.
So, the port is a success story. That is a credit to its management. It is a credit also to the work force and a credit to the decision not to go down the route of privatisation that the Government made when they came into office in 1997. I therefore ask my hon. Friend the Minister for two assurances. The first is that the uncertainty that resulted from the ONS reclassification will not be used as an excuse to introduce privatisation by the back door and that the Government's position on privatisation has not changed. The second is that, if the objections remain in place and we go to a potentially lengthy public inquiry, the Government and, in particular, the Treasury will make it absolutely clear that none of the investment plans will be held back during the period of uncertainty.
It will be useful for me to clarify the inconsistency between what was reported in the Daily Echo and what I said today. My understanding is that, as a result of representations that have been made by Labour Members, the Treasury has—at least in the case of Poole—given an assurance that will allow the borrowing necessary for its £6 million dredging programme to go ahead.
I am delighted to hear that, because we need reassurance, particularly if we are entering a new period of uncertainty for trust ports, including the port of Tyne. There is a strong sense that the port of Tyne is improving, that it is, to use the phrase of the hon. Member for Poole, "fit for purpose" and that, therefore, privatisation, particularly if imposed by a future Government, would be a retrograde step. I am certain that it would be regarded as a retrograde step by fishermen in my constituency, who struggle to make a living, if light dues suddenly increased. It would be a retrograde step for shipbuilders and ship repairers if they had to pay more for dredging. It would be a retrograde step also if ferries, cargo ships and cruise ships had to pay more for pilotage.
So, we are left with the question of whether that concern is justified or is simply a result of the imminence of a general election. I think that it is justified, because the objection put forward by the UK Major Ports Group and by the official Opposition—that trust status gives an advantage over privatised ports—sends out a clear message about what would happen to charges and to the assets of those ports should they fall into entirely private hands. The concern is also justified, considering that shareholders would expect a return on their investment. The short-term thinking that could come into play would be intensely damaging to an industry that relies on long-term investment and judgments about the future. The concern is further justified, considering what could well happen not only to levels of employment, which I am pleased to say are increasing at the port of Tyne, but pay and conditions.
I am not making the point that privatised ports may not be successful; the point that I am trying to make to the hon. Gentleman is that the port of Tyne is successful. We should judge the port on its growing success. If one considers it in terms of income, employment and investment, it is a success. The phrase that has been used by people employed by the port is, "If it is not broke, why fix it?" A policy that may well be imposed for ideological reasons, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset has alluded, will not do anything other than damage the long-term future of the port of Tyne.
The Port of Tyne authority owns 580 acres, and along the banks of the river Tyne we have seen not only impressive new housing developments, but the loss of land that ought to be retained for industrial and commercial use. It has been turned over to housing, and in many ways that restricts what adjoining commercial land can be used for. In a rush to privatisation, I would not want to see a land sale of large proportions that jeopardised the long-term future of the port and the people who depend upon it. Long-term investment is important—not the short-termism that could well come in through the back door with privatisation.
My constituents will be listening with great interest to what my hon. Friend the Minister says when he replies to this important debate, but they will be listening with even greater interest to the reply from the official Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Christchurch.
The port of Tyne was set up in 1850—two years before the borough of Tynemouth was set up. I do not want to make a party political point, but for most of the time the borough was under the control of the Conservative party, because it seemed that the major parties had an agreement about the need for politics to be pragmatic. They did not have a problem with local governance, nor public provision sitting alongside private provision. Unfortunately, if we have a proposal that means privatisation for ideological reasons, it tells us something about how the Conservative party has arrived at its current position.
The port of Tyne had to survive the push for privatisation in the 1990s. When this Government came to power, they subjected trust ports to a root-and-branch review, and ensured the highest standards of government and accountability. The port not only met those standards, but it is now held up as a model for other ports. It would therefore be beyond comprehension to myself and many of my constituents if the port and the jobs connected to it were to be put at risk by privatisation for its own purpose.
At the outset I should declare some interests. As well as being a former merchant navy officer, I spent the last 12 years of my sea-going career sailing in and out of the grand port of Dover under the white cliffs. It is the busiest ferry port in the world, and certainly the busiest premier port in the UK. It is an area for which I have great affection and to which I have a great connection, having lived in it for more than 25 years.
I know a little bit about Dover harbour board, including its successes and some of its weaknesses. I know about the people who use the port to run the ships, sail on the ferries, cross as passengers or run the port. The port is our largest employer bar none, and the port-related industries stretch far and wide. We rehearsed all those arguments during the long and exhaustive channel tunnel debates that took place in this very Room when it was the Grand Committee Room.
Let us come back to the present. My hon. Friend Jim Knight accurately set the scene in respect of harbour revision orders. The matter is not being discussed in the back room of the Dog and Duck, people have not been knocking on our surgery doors about it, and it takes quite some time to explain it. My hon. Friend's explanation was succinct.
My summary is that the harbour revision orders are seen as a method that has been agreed between the Government and the trust ports sector of avoiding the negative impacts of reclassification on trust ports and of minimising the damage that reclassification would have on their present good governance, which emerged mainly from work done by the Labour Government between 1997 and 2001 and the publication, "Modernising Trust Ports—a Guide to Good Governance". To put the matter into context, one of the main conclusions of the review was that trust port status was a highly effective system of port management that successfully combined commercial and statutory objectives, and that trust status offered an accountable and open system of port management whose financial and strategic independence should be protected. We are here today to protect that good governance and not to look for solutions to a problem that clearly does not exist.
The report went on to state that reclassification would result in the need for financial reporting to the Department, that it would bring trust ports into the scope of Government public borrowing limits, that it would require scrutiny and approval of port borrowing requirements and that it would possibly even require the return of an annual dividend to the Government. It would be interesting to explore that possibility, especially as the would-be Conservative Government would cut £35 billion out of the general public spending budget and take £2 billion or £3 billion out of transport, which is what we are discussing today.
Frankly, no one would have been particularly surprised—I would not have been—if the harbour revision orders had gone through without any objection, debate or rebellion in the streets. The only reason that that did not happen was because politics raised its ugly head. The objections about the port in my constituency—I believe that this is common to all the other trust ports—came from Mr. Chope and also, in my neck of the woods, from the Conservative leader of Dover district council and the Conservative regeneration spokesman at Kent county council, although those two people have allowed wiser counsel to prevail and have withdrawn their objections to the orders.
The objections were lodged so close to a possible general election that I thought and suggested to colleagues that they offered an ideal campaigning opportunity for the Labour party to link them with the spectre of an incoming Conservative Government—moreover, a Government who would privatise and sell off all the trust ports to the highest bidder. I recoiled from that, because I questioned whether my wise and worldly constituents would swallow such a mouthful. They saw what happened in 1995, 1996 and 1997, when the Tories tried to sell the port of Dover.
While I was still pondering whether we could make that link and take on board that great campaign, events intervened and the Conservative shadow Secretary of State—God bless him—came to my constituency and announced to us all that the port of Dover would be privatised and that all the money would be ploughed back into the local community. The Conservatives would build new railways, roads and huge car parks in the middle of Kent, and all the transport problems would dissolve because of changes at the port. He also said that a dividend would be paid to the port to give it some capital growth. How they would do all that is another question, but perhaps one for another debate.
We do not have to consult the crystal ball, however, to discover whether the Conservatives would put money back into the local community after selling a public asset. All we have to do is read the record. Their very first privatisation was of Sealink. I declare another interest: I was a chief engineer with Sealink when it was sold, as though from beneath our feet, almost a pilot scheme. Sealink was a Dover-based company, although we had vessels all around the coast. Not a penny piece of the proceeds from that privatisation came down to Dover or to any of the ferry ports. Sealink was sold for a song to an American gentleman who cut conditions and crews, and sacked half the work force. That is the nature of privatisations under the Tories, including any future privatisations.
That was the first privatisation, so let us consider the last privatisation, of British Rail—at least I think that it was the last. We have rehearsed time and time again what a huge botch-up that was. Indeed, we are still struggling and paying taxpayers' money to correct the difficulties and injustices caused by that privatisation. In east Kent, where I live, Connex has been taken back into Network Rail, which is a publicly-owned company, to redress the balance and get things, shall we say, back on the rails again. Again, what did we see in that privatisation? We saw loss of jobs and futures for many people. That is the reality of privatisation.
My hon. Friends the Members for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell) and for South Dorset talked about the 1997 election intervening on the Conservatives' plans to sell trust ports. However, it was not only the 1997 election that intervened, but the good people of Dover and the trade unions. I should like to remind people of the marvellous campaign that was fought then. I anticipate that a similar campaign will be fought this time, although we shall have to concentrate it all into the next eight or nine weeks, or between now and whenever the general election comes.
At that time, we enjoyed the support of the Dover Harbour Board. The chairman and the directors of the board said what they say now: that privatisation of the port of Dover would not be in the interest of the port—or, they added then, the community. The Dover Harbour Board has always worked well in parallel with the local community, although the two, of course, argue—it is almost second nature for people to complain about the council, the Government or, in this case, the harbour board. However, in the background the community knows that Dover Harbour Board is the biggest employer in Dover bar none and wants it to stay that way. Although the new management has launched efficiency drives, it is trusted to manage the port not only commercially, but fairly and equitably.
In 1995, we enjoyed the support of the local community, with petitions in the street. I cannot remember how many thousands of people queued to oppose the privatisation—after all, they had not been consulted one iota. The change was being imposed on them and delivered from on high, which was just not the way to do things. Our objections enjoyed the support of Dover district council, Kent county council and the town council. Notably, we had the support of the mayor, Councillor Jimmy Hood, my good friend and comrade, who was also then the Speaker of the Cinque Ports. The Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports was the late Queen Mother, and even she thought it appropriate to write to us with words of encouragement in our struggle against privatisation. That is how high the campaign went.
Not to put people in any order or category, Dame Vera Lynn turned out for us in Parliament square, to sing "The White Cliffs Of Dover".
The issue is not something that will be discussed between, perhaps, an incoming Conservative Government, a few transport officials and the port of Dover; rather, it is a massive community concern, which people feel strongly about. People are resistant to change, but it is not just that; as well as feeling that, at the very least, it is better the devil they know, at another level they know that the port of Dover has worked alongside the community since the 1600s and they do not want that situation upset.
Who would buy the port of Dover? Who showed an interest back in 1995? First, the ferry companies, which had initially resisted the sale, started to ask what it would cost and what they would get out of it—what would be the advantages? As soon as the private ferry companies showed an interest, the port of Dover smelled a rat. Did it want one private operator to run the busiest ferry port in the world, one that Calais totally relied upon? Of course it did not. Therefore, the port of Calais became the main interested party. In the port of Dover, there is already a French company, SITA, collecting the refuse and sweeping the streets. It is one thing for the French—some of my best friends come from the other side of the channel—to sweep the streets of Dover; it is another for them to own and run the busiest ferry port in the world. That is why local people were so concerned and why the campaign reached such great heights. That is what happened in 1995 and it could well happen again.
In our local newspapers, people are recalling those dark days, remembering the great campaign that was fought and taking a stand against any movement towards privatisation.
Lastly, I look back again at 1995 and at the vested interests. Given their experience of mergers, reconstructions and privatisations, the trade unions in Dover, not unexpectedly, lined up in opposition, along with the local Labour party and my local campaign. They included what is now the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, the GMB, the Public and Commercial Services Union and every union that had any connection with the disparate activities that go on in a busy port such as Dover. I have not sounded them all out, but in the past 24 hours I have spoken to all the trade unions at local and regional level, and they are looking forward to the campaign. At last we have what amounts to a recruitment sergeant for the Labour party in Dover. It will be interesting to hear what the hon. Member for Christchurch has to say. If the speeches that we have heard so far in this small gathering are anything to go by, the word isolation enters one's consciousness.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, let me remind hon. Members that I allow a great deal of discretion in debates such as this. However, we are discussing the future of the trust ports. I accept that history has a bearing, but I hope that emphasis will be placed upon the future.
I shall talk about my trust port, Harwich Haven Authority. I have worked with it for a number of years, not only as an MP but as a parish councillor, and I know what an excellent job that port authority does for the shipping industry, for the protection of the environment, and for the regulation and safety of the area. We should all be aware that UK ports are responsible for 95 per cent. of the UK trade that goes through them—that is a big contributor to the economy of the United Kingdom. Any proposal that might destabilise the economy, or the shipping industry, should be closely scrutinised.
We in Harwich are a bit puzzled by the objection made by Mr. Chope. Harwich Haven Authority is responsible solely for pilotage and conservancy and it gets its charges from that. It does not own the port, or any port; it is responsible only for the harbour and for stakeholders within its area. It provides services for shipping using the commercial ports of Felixstowe, Ipswich, Harwich International, Harwich Navyard and Mistley, and boarding and landing services for the rivers Thames, Medway, Blackwater, Colne and Crouch. It does not own any parts of any port, but is purely there for the safety of pilotage and use of the area.
We cannot understand why the Conservatives would want to privatise this trust port. The Opposition are the only people who object to the harbour revision order for the Harwich Haven Authority trust port. The UK major ports industry has not objected to the port's applying for that order. We find it interesting that the Tories have an interest in Harwich Haven.
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. The hon. Member for Christchurch is the only objector to the harbour revision order for Harwich. All the others have received an objection from the UK Major Ports Group, including Milford Haven, which the hon. Member for Christchurch has inexplicably not objected to. It almost looks as if he has made a mistake and objected to the wrong one.
I agree with my hon. Friend. The puzzle goes even further, because the trust port takes no money from the public purse. It raises all its charges on pilotage, conservancy and commercial shipping, so it is not a burden on the public finances of this country. Every penny of the money raised from commercial shipping goes back into enabling the trust port to fulfil its responsibilities, including environmental protection.
The authority is also responsible to its stakeholders. The chief executive's team is represented on all the major stakeholder groups—liaison groups, leisure users' committees, the Stour and Orwell estuary management group and the Haven ports and pilotage committee. Its big interest is supporting its stakeholders. We saw the rush to find funding from the Tories over the years when they privatised the infrastructure of the railways, and we saw the decay of that infrastructure because the money went purely to shareholders and not where it should have been going—into safety. My fear is that we will go down the same road—or shipping lane—if ports such as Harwich Haven Authority are privatised. The shareholders would be more interested in what they might get in their pockets than in port emergency plans or environmental aspects of the running of the harbour.
Harwich Haven Authority owns only pilots, some piers, oil spill vessels and various other things such as offices. It does not gain any commercial benefits that could possibly go to a privatised company, but only the rights to the estuaries that it serves. It makes sure that those estuaries are served safely and are environmentally protected for the future. The fishermen and leisure craft that use the port work closely with the Harwich Haven Authority. I do not believe that a private commercial operator would want even to discuss the benefits to those users rather than the interests of its shareholders.
I ask the hon. Member for Christchurch to consider his objection to the Harwich Haven Authority trust port and to withdraw it. Harwich Haven Authority can then get on with doing the job that it has done so well over many years and provide a good service not only for commercial shipping but for the fishermen and leisure craft in my area, so that they can get on with the job that they are good at. There is no other objection, and no public borrowing requirement. Harwich Haven Authority is a non-profit making organisation and any profits that it does make go back into the infrastructure. I ask him to withdraw his objection so that it can apply for the harbour revision order and get on with the job.
I shall keep my comments fairly brief. I congratulate Jim Knight on securing the debate. He has today represented the best interests of his constituents—as he always does—in bringing this matter forward. He has highlighted concerns that many of us have about the future of the trust ports—and certainly about their future should the Conservative party ever return to power—not, thankfully, that that is very likely at the moment.
Mr. Prosser referred to the Cinque ports. We all, of course, remember from our school history that those were at one time important for the future of England. However, the Cinque ports are still important to Britain. They are important to our imports and it is important to ensure that they are well managed and properly run.
I mention those ports because I think that Mr. Chope sees himself, given all the objections that he raised, as the hon. Member for the Cinque ports. The only trouble is that he does not spell the term as we would; he spells it "sink", because, clearly, his policies would entail the sinking of the trust ports, which are important to the future of shipping in this country.
I have the honour to represent a port, the port of Teignmouth—not Tynemouth, although the two are often confused and mispronounced. We will not go into the pronunciation of Devon terms. The port has just had two harbour revision orders. One was made at the request of the Government. It was necessary to re-establish the management of the harbour commission to make it more accountable to the local public.
The Government moves have been much appreciated, because south Devon now has a consultative body for Teignmouth, on which all the other people who have an interest are represented, so that they can put their views to the harbour commissioners. That is a way forward and shows the trust ports that it is not necessary to go down the privatisation route to get the best out of something. It can be done by involving local people.
That does not mean that everyone in Teignmouth, Shaldon and the surrounding villages is 100 per cent. ecstatic with everything that the harbour commission wants to do. I wish that it were so. Having listened to other hon. Members I am glad that everyone is so happy with their harbour commissioners and what they do. That is not necessarily so in Teignmouth.
At least the advantage of harbour commissioners is that they are local people with an interest in the local area, not shareholders in London or, as was alluded to earlier, a foreign company. We can disagree with them and what they say and do. I am the honorary president of the Teignmouth fisherman and waterman association and there are times when that body has arguments with the harbour commissioners.
Even amid those arguments—and I speak to those on both sides—there is an understanding that all involved are seeking the best for the town. I seriously question the future of ports if they are to be privatised. I do not see the need to seek private ownership for Dover or other trust ports. The debate is important in providing an opportunity to set that out clearly in the run-up to a general election.
I hope, given what has been said, that what would happen under Labour representation would be similar to what would happen under Liberal Democrat representation, although in the past the Labour party has sought to privatise some sectors, wrongly, in my party's view. I hope that the Minister will, in the 15 minutes that he will have for his response, state clearly that the future of the ports is safe and that the Labour party will not allow, but will resist and campaign against, the privatisation proposed by the Conservative party.
I, too, congratulate Jim Knight on securing the debate. Indeed, I am delighted that he has done so, because it allows us to demonstrate the growing interest in the policies of the Conservative party as we prepare for government. There have been desperate sideswipes against fictional Conservative policies on public expenditure, but I remind everybody that we are not only committed to matching the spending plans of the Government on transport, but want to go further and encourage the recycling of under-utilised public sector assets into transport infrastructure replacement and regeneration. That lies behind the imaginative policy proposals that my hon. Friend Mr. Yeo announced last week in Dover.
I will not at the moment, because I want to develop my argument, but if the hon. Gentleman wants me to respond to his concerns about his constituency, he should know that I am in correspondence with Mr. Bracewell, who I think is the chief executive of the port, and am considering issues relating to the value of the port and of borrowings. I have had a reply to a question suggesting that the borrowing requirements last year were £35 million; there is also a suggestion that the port is worth £30-odd million. As with all the trust ports in the public sector, there is an issue as to whether it should be properly publicly accountable. That is what the debate is about.
I will not give way at the moment, but I think that I have answered that point to begin with.
Lloyd's List, which is a highly respected journal dealing with ports and shipping said in an editorial on
"Dover, it will be recalled, was one of the few large ports left unprivatised by the last Conservative government, which has been able to point to the undoubted success of many of the trust ports it moved into the private sector during the years before 1997."
The words "undoubted success" are used. That is what we are interested in: developing successful ports in the UK, and that includes the port of Dover.
The information that I have is that most people in Dover think that the port could do rather better than it has been. I understand from a recent survey on the Dover forum website that well over 50 per cent. of the people in Dover and thereabouts are enthusiastic supporters of our proposals, and that just over 20 per cent. are hotly opposed to them; that was the information last night. That probably reflects the balance of political power in that area—
Not at the moment.
That is why the leader of Dover district council, who expects to be the next Member of Parliament for Dover—as I expect him to be—has so much support for our proposals on the port of Dover. That is because we propose that the money raised from the enormous number of assets that would be released if the port were sold could be used to improve transport infrastructure in and around the port. Even Mr. Prosser would recognise that that is vital. Indeed, I understand that it has been recognised, because the hon. Gentleman has tried to seek assurances from Ministers that they will do that work, which has not been started in eight years of Labour Government, without the need to offer the port the chance of a sale.
As for the future of the A20 and the desperate need to improve that road, the hon. Gentleman has been given some assurance by the transport Minister that he could put in a bid to the regional assembly to try to get it prioritised. If I may say so, that is a recipe for further delay and uncertainty. The people of Dover need quick decisions in order to make dramatic improvements to the infrastructure in and around the port of Dover. That is why so much support is being given to the proposals announced by my hon. Friend last week under the heading "A Better Future for Dover and Deal".
I will not give way again at the moment. I have only a limited amount of time—[Interruption.] I will not give way again, as I have to deal with a large number of issues. Almost every Labour Member who has spoken said that they were eager to hear what I had to say.
I find it perplexing that at a meeting in Dover on 28 February of the Port Users Group—incidentally, that was the first meeting of that group since the previous March; it is another cause for concern that there is almost one year between meetings, and port users feel that they are not being consulted or involved by the Dover Harbour Board in the port's affairs—a statement was made to the effect that a public inquiry would be held into the harbour revision orders. In the sixth item of business in the minutes of the meeting, it was said that a national public inquiry in June would address the objections made by the UK Major Ports Group and myself to the harbour revision orders for all the major trust ports.
That is the only firm indication that I have received that the Government wish to proceed to a public inquiry. I would welcome an inquiry, but the letter that I received from the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Mr. Jamieson, dated
"The applications for the orders have now all been advertised, and objections have been made in respect of all the ports. Where there is an objection to an application for an order which is not withdrawn there must by law be a public inquiry. Unless these could be combined, this might lead to seven inquiries given that there are objections lodged against each Order.
Even if the inquiries might be combined the issues raised by yourself and the UK Major Ports Group are fundamentally points of principle of the type not normally the subject of such inquiries. There must be some doubt on how an inquiry would help resolve matters and thereby justify the costs of setting up and participating in it."
That statement is totally inconsistent, one might think, with what was announced at the meeting of the Dover Harbour Board users' group on
One of the grounds for objecting to the Government's fiddling with the definition of trust ports is that it is a means of trying to circumvent section 10 of the Ports Act 1991. Our view is that if the Government wish to amend or repeal section 10, they should do so by means of primary legislation. They have chosen not to do that in their eight years in office, and if they want to change their policy, they should not try to do so by encouraging the ports in an underhand way to submit harbour revision orders, which could result in a fraud being committed against the national taxpayer. Whether the ports like it or not, the Office for National Statistics defines them as public corporations. In that respect, they are like the Post Office, which must make a return on capital. The Government's policy, however, is that these bodies should not make a return on capital, despite their being public corporations.
I ask the hon. Gentleman to reflect on his use of the word "fraud". Changing the composition of the board, and the decision to privatise, are by agreement with the ONS. It is certainly not fraud, and I seriously ask him to reflect on his comment and to withdraw it.
I am talking about what I would describe as the potential for fraud. At the moment, the national taxpayer has a possible interest in the value of the ports if they are sold voluntarily. I have sought assurance in parliamentary questions that it would be the Government's policy to revert half the proceeds to the national taxpayer in the event of the harbour revision orders being put into effect and the ports making a voluntary privatisational sale. I have not yet had a clear and unequivocal statement from the Minister. Perhaps he will give such a statement today.
The Minister should also understand, which I am sure he does, that for as long as these ports are public corporations, they should be making a return on capital to the Department for Transport, which is strapped for cash under this Government. That would give the Department more income. I do not understand why the Department does not expect the ports to provide a return on capital.
I will not give way again because time is very limited. When the Conservative party is in Government, we will continue our policy and keep existing legislation. We will invite proposals and allow ports to become private sector ports if they so wish. I cite the example of Dover, where the local people, to whom the port should be accountable, clearly believe that the port is not performing to its full potential.
I hope so too, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it customary for a Front-Bench spokesman to focus his speech so closely on another Member's constituency and to talk so intimately about the issues that affect that Member and his constituency, and not have the courtesy and good grace to give way after he said that he would do so?
That last spurious point of order reflects the concerns of the UK Major Ports Group about a level playing field and fair competition, in that a public sector body, such as a trust port, that is not required to make a return on capital and is given privileges without corresponding responsibilities, can compete unfairly against ports already in the private sector. That is the major issue raised by the UK Major Ports Group. It has not yet been answered by the Government, but it may be dealt with in the public inquiries.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Jim Knight on securing this debate on the important topic of the future of trust ports, the specifics of future investment plans and the various harbour revision orders. He and our hon. Friends have set out eloquently the benefits that their ports bring to their constituents and the importance of maintaining those activities. We have heard about how the investment programmes, including the infrastructure investment at the port of Tyne, to which my hon. Friend Mr. Campbell referred, and the important channel dredging at Poole, to quote but two examples, are potentially at risk if we do not progress the harbour orders.
It is clear that others see trust ports not as assets for the community, but as potential assets for their friends to plunder. Mr. Syms said—entirely uncharacteristically—that the Government had form on fiddling figures, and by implication he deprecated the role and independence of the Office for National Statistics. I am sure that he will reflect on that and write to the ONS accordingly. Mr. Chope of course has form on traducing every public body under the sun, so we expect it from him, but we cannot have grown-up and mature Members calling into question the integrity of independent bodies simply to pray in aid rather convoluted political positions.
To be fair to the hon. Member for Poole, I have no idea about where he stands in substance on the particular issues, because his was a confused contribution. I think he said that he would like to see Poole remain a trust port for 110 years if the commissioners want it to. That is fine; I understand that much. When I asked for his opinion on the position of his hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch on the order, as the order will disapply privatisation so that he can obtain the future he wants, he waffled and offered no equivocal point either way. I am sure that that will be reflected on back at the ranch.
I am grateful in part for the element of clarity offered by Richard Younger-Ross, because it goes slightly further than an inquiry from a member of the merchant fleet who simply sought in all honesty from another Liberal Democrat Member their position on a range of merchant navy issues. The response that he received from the Member was that he had discussed with the party's policy department—it has a policy department—the various merchant navy issues, but that since there was a lack of up-to-date policy, there was no real detailed information to send to him. The hon. Member for Teignbridge has at least added substance to that. According to the letter, his party needs to debate that area, but it is dependent on local parties putting forward relevant motions. On merchant navy issues, the Member concerned suspects that some people involved with the merchant navy should raise them.
My hon. Friend Mr. Prosser must exhort some of his colleagues in the merchant fleet to pop along to a Liberal Democrat conference, because that is the only way that they will ever hear Liberal Democrat policy on merchant navy ports or any other issue to do with the merchant fleet. The hon. Member for Teignbridge went further than that, and I am enormously grateful.
These are the issues of substance. In 2001—rather than 2000, to correct gently my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset—the ONS in its wisdom decided that trust ports are public sector corporations. There has been ongoing discussion about that, because we do not agree with it. The essential point made by the ONS is that the ports are public sector corporations, because through my Department or local governance we control appointments to the board, and through the application of the compulsory privatisation order we control their destiny and future. In discussion with ONS, we have arrived at a position where, if the public sector membership of a board is in the minority and the application of compulsory privatisation is disapplied, it will no longer be a public sector corporation. Everyone knows that we have sought to do that through harbour revision orders, which are an entirely appropriate legislative form, by the way. The notion of those bypassing Parliament is not a sustainable charge; they are not irrevocable orders. Harbour revision orders and the future of the ports can be considered by any Government subsequently. They simply show what is in front of us at the moment.
If the harbour revision orders were to go through, would they prevent what I understood the hon. Member for Christchurch to mean—although it is difficult, because he would not take an intervention—when he said that if trust ports were to continue, a Conservative Government would raid them for cash for the Exchequer because they want to even things out with private operators and get a return on capital?
Essentially, subsequent to the ONS definition, we revert to the status quo, which, overwhelmingly, is what is desired by those who have spoken. There has to be a statutory public inquiry if the objections prevail. The letter the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend Mr. Jamieson, sent to the hon. Member for Christchurch does not contradict that in any way. My hon. Friend made his points precisely to exhort the hon. Gentleman and others to withdraw their objections.
We have heard how farcical it is that there is even an objection in the context of Harwich. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman will offer Milford Haven as the way forward. Perhaps he just missed that port and made a minor mistake, or perhaps there is something magical about Milford Haven that means it has not attracted the hon. Gentleman's attention. If the objections prevail, there will have to a public inquiry. That, of course, leads to a degree of uncertainty and time, when we would far rather the ports got on with what they want to get on with.
It is not a question of fiddling or the Government having form in the readjustment of figures, but simply a clash between the ONS defining things in one way, and our disagreement with that. The other point that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State made was this: we feel that these are points of substantial principle that are not normally dealt with at a public inquiry, given that ONS told us what would happen if we go one way in terms of composition and disapplying the privatisation element. A public inquiry usually concerns the detail and substance of the way forward in relation to a trust board.
In truth, my hon. Friend Mr. Campbell started to move in the right direction in revealing what really lies behind the position of the hon. Member for Christchurch on Dover. I do not doubt that that will be the position on all trust ports. It must be. Why else would the hon. Gentleman object to the disapplication of privatisation compulsion in the cases of the other ports we are considering in relation to harbour revision orders?
The other point that the hon. Member for Christchurch made concerned ensuring that more money was available for the Department for Transport from the port authorities. I say to him that the only way it could do that is by cutting back on investment. If it cut back on investment, the ports would not be deepening channels in order to take the largest ships, which would drive those ships to other European ports. If they did not do that they would have to increase the commercial charges on that shipping. The hon. Gentleman should be straight about his party's policy in what he says today.
The hon. Member for Christchurch got more and more confused and he sounded more and more—if this is offensive, it is meant to be—like a Liberal Democrat, spending the proverbial penny of taxation last time round. Listening to the hon. Gentleman, proceeds from Dover were going to do everything but build a bridge between Dover and Calais, while at the same time they would keep investment going into the port. We have heard time after time from assorted Opposition Members how any surplus should be reinvested. The dredging at Poole happened only because of that investment and because of what borrowing can accrue subsequent to that reinvestment and that record of reinvestment. Unless we hear otherwise—I am not encouraging anyone to go to Dorset to annoy my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset—every port is up for grabs.
As I suggested, my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth got to the heart of the issue. The trust port on the port of Tyne has some nice waterfront land, in addition to the 10,000 acres surrounding the trust port in Poole of my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset. Surely that is where Conservative Members will come looking for privatisation. They will not do that to improve the trust ports, or substantially to improve the contribution that the ports make to the assorted communities, which we heard about at length, but to take away the ports and not reinvest the money. If it were otherwise, why are they considering that? Why are assorted Conservative policies being developed in that way?
No, I will not.
Substantial areas of the James report have not yet been seen publicly. Perhaps it says that the Conservatives will privatise all of the trust ports. I do not know. However, let us talk about the harbour revision orders and the wider context of transport finance.
Will my hon. Friend the Minister clarify that he remains committed to opposing the privatisation of Poole? The hon. Member for Christchurch failed to do that.
We have said clearly that, with the harbour revision orders, we are trying to get back to the status quo where the Government and the trust ports can work together and be confident about the future. We seek to work with trust ports to disapply compulsory privatisations, and seek to recalibrate the balance of public sector figures on the board, so that we can return to the status quo that prevailed before. I say that with certainty. We have no intention of inhibiting investment plans should things go to public inquiries. It is not our role or intention to interfere with or inhibit those investment plans.
What I cannot do is give the House an assurance that those investment plans are safe or secure in the event—God help us—of a Conservative Government. Given what the hon. Member for Christchurch said about Dover and his actions in putting up objections to the disapplying of compulsory privatisation, I cannot give any such assurance. It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman did not either.
The Conservatives are supposedly going to match our transport plans. They cannot, by their own lights, do that. They are planning at least £2 billion worth of cuts à la famous James report. Of that, £800 million or £900 million is already being dealt with through efficiencies, so there is a hole of £900 million straight away. The hon. Member for Christchurch and his colleagues are travelling throughout the country. Every time they are in a hole on transport, they promise something. We have clocked them at about £3.5 billion worth of promises beyond what the transport party is doing. Throw in the £900 million hole and, before the hon. Gentleman has done anything, there is a black hole of nearly £5 billion in transport commitments, let alone anything else.
It is fifty-eight minutes past the hour, so of course I will not. In transport and every other area, nothing that a Conservative spokesperson says on finance can be trusted one iota unless the party comes clean on every aspect of every area of transport spend. Conservative promises are worthless on paper, but if one wants a promise on a road, a bridge or anything else in the coming weeks, ask a Tory spokesman to come. They will promise the earth, the moon and the stars, but they will do absolutely nothing for the future of the trust ports. Trust ports have worked so well. Under a continuing Labour Government, trust ports will continue to work and to contribute to their communities well into the future.