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Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North) : This debate will be short and sharp. I need hardly say that we regret that the amendments before the House are so few and so lacking in content. It is worth noting that they are the only amendments that have been made to the Bill during its entire progress through both Houses of Parliament. They do not add up to very much in terms of altering the substance of the legislation.
Column 485It would be appropriate to ask the Minister if he could spell out, in some detail, the timetable that he now envisages in relation to the amendment dealing with the winding up of the STG. When will the bus company sales take place and when will CalMac be handed over to its new auspices, however they turn out to be defined?
I seek clarification of the amendment dealing with harbour powers. We all know that, in recent months, in the Western Isles the question of who controls harbours has given rise to some controversy. Clearly it is a matter of interest to the House. Is the STG's control over harbours purely a nominal matter or does it maintain the effective operation of some of the harbours in the ports that it serves? If so, are those to be handed over to the new Caledonian MacBrayne board or will they reside with the various local authorities and other bodies that own the piers in the areas served by Caledonian MacBrayne? The Minister's assistance in clearing up those points tonight would be appreciated.
As we conclude the parliamentary consideration of the Bill, I suggest that its main thrust, the dividing up and selling off of the Scottish Bus Group, is a matter of Scottish Office honour. It has told us that it wants management-worker buy-outs to succeed, but it has written nothing into the Bill that makes it likely that they will succeed. It has insisted that it is opposed to asset-stripping of the huge property wealth which goes with the sales, but it has adamantly refused to include anything in the Bill which would prevent it. It has deplored the prospect of predatory takeover bids within a short time of the sell-offs, but it has declined to legislate for safeguards against them occurring.
The Opposition will keep close tabs on the course of events following the sell-off of the companies which are at present part of the Scottish Bus Group. If this ends up as a bonanza for private bus companies and property speculators, we shall ensure that the Government are made to pay a political price for double-dealing. If genuine buy-outs succeed, we shall wish them well.
The city centre bus stations in our major Scottish towns and cities would represent particularly attractive targets for speculators. If they are valued and sold as bus stations and then put on the market for quite different purposes, as happened in many parts of England, the Scottish Office will bear a heavy responsibility.
Some good could come of the legislation if the buy-outs succeed and if the Scottish Office turns into deeds some of the words spoken by the Minister at various stages of the legislation's progress. In that spirit, we shall not divide the House, but I would be grateful for the Minister's clarification on the points that I have raised.
Mrs. Ray Michie (Argyll and Bute) : Lords amendment No. 3 provides for the order to be made by statutory instrument. Like the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson), I hope that the Minister will say when that can be brought forward. What is the timetable for the dissolution of the Scottish Transport Group, to which the amendment refers? There is a great deal of uncertainty and anxiety about the future, not least among the bus companies in rural areas which believe, following a report by the National Audit Office, that the Government are considering the withdrawal or the reallocation of fuel duty rebate. That rebate enables some otherwise uneconomic services to be run on a commercial basis. Its withdrawal or
Column 486reduction could mean such routes becoming deregistered, leading to an added burden on regional councils to subsidise them and a probable cut in services.
The uncertainty about the future is most obvious with Caledonian MacBrayne on the Wemyss Bay-Rothesay ferry service, which faces considerable problems because of the inability to provide a proper service during the peak summer season. Often passengers and cars are left on the piers. Any decision on a much-needed larger or second vessel now faces a long delay until the new board is functioning and can deliberate on the situation. Meanwhile, the business community particularly suffers increasing disruption. I hope that the Minister can say when the board will be able to deliberate on that matter. Amendment No. 4 refers to the transfer of powers from the Scottish Transport Group as a harbour authority to Caledonian MacBrayne. As the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North said, there may be problems about the ownership of piers. I am doubtful about this transfer of the harbour authority to Caledonian MacBrayne.
No doubt the Minister is aware that my party has always been in favour of road equivalent tariffs. Of course, that would make the piers part of the road network and they would be under the jurisdiction of the local regional authority. The piers in my constituency belong either to Strathclyde or Caledonian MacBrayne. That company recently acquired the pier at Colonsay and could have a monopoly on usage. Presumably it would be able to charge pier dues, and they might be unacceptably high. It would be able to deny berthing to fishermen, especially inshore fishermen, and perhaps to cargo boats and yachts.
The toilet facilities at Colonsay pier are of extreme importance to the people of Colonsay and especially to visitors. Facilities are available only when the ship is in harbour. At Port Ellen on Islay the local community council wants to build a marina, but instead of having to apply to the local authority, it has to go through Caledonian MacBrayne. I am worried about the restrictions that Caledonian MacBrayne may put on other users of the piers. I hope that the Minister can give some direction about that.
We have reached the final stage of the Transport (Scotland) Bill. I hate to see Scotland in brackets. It is unfortunate but inevitable that once again we are debating Scottish business early in the morning. I hope that the Minister will be able to answer the questions that I have posed.
Mr. Home Robertson --are returning to community politics with a vengeance by bringing to the House a debate on the lavatory at Colonsay harbour. I appreciate the genuine importance of that, but I am filled with alarm because in a few weeks I am taking my family on holiday to the hon. Lady's constituency and we shall visit some of the islands about which she spoke. I sincerely hope that the hon. Lady was exaggerating.
I agree with the hon. Lady that it is completely inappropriate for legislation that relates exclusively to
Column 487Scotland to be dealt with in this Chamber, let alone at this hour. Legislation affecting Scotland should be dealt with in a Scottish Parliament, as it will be.
Amendment No. 3 provides for an order to be made by statutory instrument to wind up the Scottish Transport Group. That is of considerable importance because winding up would follow immediately the privatisation of the Scottish bus companies, including the Lowland Scottish and the Eastern Scottish bus companies which serve my constituency. That is of great concern to the management and employees of those companies who between them are hoping to buy out at least one of those companies. It is also of concern to the passengers and the local authorities that have to subsidise them. These are matters which should be given further consideration by the representatives of the people who are affected. Will these statutory instruments be made by the affirmative or the negative procedure? It is important that hon. Members who represent Scottish constituencies should have an opportunity to debate these affairs further before the Scottish Transport Group can be wound down.
Mr. John McAllion (Dundee, East) : Will the Minister comment on the changed circumstances in Tayside? He will be aware that, since we last debated this matter, the Tayside public transport company has expressed its intention to seek a management-employee buy-out from Tayside regional council. It could succeed before Strathtay has a chance to succeed with its management-employee buy-out as part of the disposal programme that has been organised by the Secretary of State for Scotland.
I hope that the Minister will take this opportunity to give an assurance that, whatever decision is arrived at between Tayside regional council and the transport company, it will in no way prejudice the application by Strathtay's management and employees for a buy-out of their company. It should not make any difference whether the public transport company's application is made before or after Strathtay's. Equal consideration should be given to the merits of each. Strathtay's application should not be prejudiced in any way by the fact that the public transport company is to go into the private sector.
As the main objective of the disposal programme is to sustain fair competition, the Minister will know that the public transport company in Tayside, Strathtay and Stagecoach carry 80 per cent. of traffic in the region. Will he give an assurance that, when they are all in the private sector, no one of them will be able to take over or merge with either of the other two, and that the Government will ensure that all three will remain separate and independent and provide real choice for consumers in Tayside?
I congratulate the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson), but he was not correct when he said that we did not accept any Opposition amendments. We accepted a significant amendment on page 2 of the Bill. The word "may" was changed to "shall". The significance of that is that the disposal programme will be published--the preferences to be given to management-employee buy-outs will be spelt out.
The hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. McAllion) asked about Tayside transport. It is likely that Tayside
Column 488regional council will shortly seek the Secretary of State's approval, and my right hon. and learned Friend will consider the case on the same basis on which approval was given to the Grampian regional transport buy-out earlier this year--that the price paid should reflect the market value of the assets.
Mr. McAllion : I understand that the Secretary of State will give the same consideration to Tayside as he gave to Grampian. The assurance that I am seeking is that, if that decision favours the Tayside management- employee buy-out, that will in no way prejudice the Seccretary of State's consideration of Strathtay's bid to have a management-employee buy-out. Tayside's winning a successful management-employee buy-out should not in any way tell against the workers in Strathtay who are seeking the same type of solution.
I was asked about the timetable. The earliest possible start to the sales, assuming that the Bill completes its parliamentary stages before the summer recess, will be later this year. The legislation will come into force two months after it is passed. Although some work has begun, further work will be needed to prepare and publish the disposal programme. The earliest that companies could be advertised for sale is about November or December, the first sale being completed in early 1990. It is expected that a series of sales will take place over a period of time and that the programme will take about one year to complete.
In due course, information, including memorandums and financial and other information about companies, will be made available to prospective purchasers when the companies are being offered for sale.
I was asked, in regard to CalMac, when the Scottish Transport Group would be dissolved, and about the setting up of the CalMac board. The time-scale for this cannot be determined precisely at this stage, but the board will be appointed in due course, perhaps before very long. The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) was particularly interested in the CalMac harbour powers. These are exercised by the STG and they relate to the piers owned by the STG and operated by CalMac. It is appropriate that these powers should be transferred to Caledonian MacBrayne and they relate to the ferry terminals of Castlebay in Barra, Scalasaig in Colonsay, east Loch Tarbert in Harris, Oban, Port Ellen in Islay, Gourock, Wemyss bay and Largs. I was asked about the monopoly on the usage of piers, and this is an important point. Competition law provides safeguards against monopoly and anti-competitive practices, and it is open to anyone concerned about a potential anti-competitive practice to make a complaint to the Office of Fair Trading.
I was also asked about the Wemyss bay and Rothesay services. There is no doubt that the present situation on the Gourock-Dunoon crossing is anomalous. There is an unsubsidised private sector crossing competing with a subsidised public sector crossing on similar routes. The vessels which provide this crossing are shared with the Wemyss bay-Rothesay crossing and are interchangeable. There, therefore, seems a good case for the private sector to take on these crossings. These are operated by Western Ferries in Gourock and Dunoon. We shall be asking the
Column 489new board to investigate with the private sector the possibility of transferring these routes to that sector. Obviously these discussions would have to cover the basis on which the routes would continue to be provided, and the Government's commitment to island services must be fulfilled.
Mrs. Ray Michie : The Minister may have misunderstood what I was saying. I was talking not about the transfer of the route to the private sector but about how, because of the delay, no decision will be made on the need for a second ship or a larger vessel. That has been discussed for a number of years as a requirement for that route.
Mr. Wilson : I want to be clear about the transfer of the harbour powers. Will exactly the same powers relating to exactly the same harbours be transferred from the STG to the new board of Caledonian MacBrayne?
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : There is nothing more complex than that. The hon. Gentleman raised the significant matter of asset stripping. I shall not spell out in great detail all the points that I made in Committee about the four options, but I shall say this. We shall consider all those options carefully so as to avoid asset stripping, in the light of the advice from the Scottish Transport Group, which it will also be getting from its property advisers. We shall be taking that seriously into account.
The hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) spoke about the procedure for making a dissolution order under clause 14. Clause 14 as amended by Lords amendment No. 3 provides that the order dissolving the STG shall be made by statutory instrument. The clause does not specify any parliamentary procedure for the order. This means that it is not subject to the parliamentary control, but it will be published and brought to the attention of Parliament. It is not considered necessary to lay down a parliamentary procedure for the order as it will essentially be a consequential measure needed to dissolve the STG once its operating subsidiaries have been disposed of.
Question put and agreed to.
Lords amendments Nos. 2 to 4 agreed to.
Statutory Instruments, &c.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 101(5) (Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments, &c.).
That the Customs duties (ECSC) (Amendment No. 4) Order 1989 (S.I., 1989, No. 1088), dated 29th June 1989, a copy of which was laid before this House on 30th June, be approved.-- [Mr. Heathcoat-Amory.]
Question agreed to.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 101(5) (Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments, &c.).
That the London Docklands Development Corporation (Vesting of Land) (Port of London Authority and London Borough of Newham) Order 1989, dated 7th June 1989, a copy of which was laid before this House on 14th June, be approved.
That the Black Country Development Corporation (Vesting of Land) (Borough of Walsall) Order 1989, dated 7th June 1989, a copy of which was laid before this House on 14th June, be approved.
That the Black Country Development Corporation (Vesting of Land) (General) Order 1989, dated 7th June 1989, a copy of which was laid before this House on 14th June, be approved.
That the London Docklands Development Corporation (Vesting of Land) (Thames Water Authority) Order 1989, dated 7th June 1989, a copy of which was laid before this House on 14th June, be approved. That the Merseyside Development Corporation (Vesting of Land) (General) Order 1989, dated 7th June 1989, a copy of which was laid before this House on 14th June, be approved.
That the Merseyside Development Corporation (Vesting of Land) (Transport Land) Order 1989, dated 7th June 1989, a copy of which was laid before this House on 14th June, be approved.
That the Sheffield Development Corporation (Vesting of Land) (British Railways Board) Order 1989, dated 7th June 1989, a copy of which was laid before this House on 14th June, be approved. That the Black Country Developmnt Corporation (Vesting of Land) (British Railways Board) Order 1989, dated 7th June 1989, a copy of which was laid before this House on 14th June, be approved. That the Black Country Development Corporation (Vesting of Land) (Central Electricity Generating Board) Order 1989, dated 21st June 1989, a copy of which was laid before this House on 22nd June, be approved.-- [Mr. Heathcoat-Amory.]
Question agreed to.
Concessionary Television Licences
Mr. Elliot Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe) : With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to present a petition which was organised by Mrs. Joan Davies of 25, Stow road, Scunthorpe on concessionary television licences. Mrs. Davies has attracted considerable support in Scunthorpe and the surrounding area for her idea of extending concessionary television licences to all pensioners irrespective of whether they live in sheltered accommodation.
The present position, of which you may be aware, Mr. Speaker, is that pensioners who live in certain forms of sheltered accommodation have concessionary licences. When they leave that accommodation, the new tenants do not enjoy those licences. This has led to unfairness. For example, one sheltered housing tenant, who lived in an upstairs flat, moved to a downstairs flat when she became increasingly frail. She was told that she no longer qualified for a concessionary television licence and she lost it.
Column 491It is argued by Mrs. Davies--I wholeheartedly agree with her--that many pensioners receive benefits such as concessionary travel as of right when they reach pensionable age. There seems no reason why the right to a concessionary licence should not be extended to all pensioners. After all, all pensioners have contributed throughout their lives, whether working or not, to the good of our country. The least that we can give them is a concessionary licence.
With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall read the petition : To the Honourable the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled.
The Humble Petition of the people of Scunthorpe showeth that there is a need to change the rules concerning concessionary TV licences. Wherefore your petitioners pray that your honourable House will agree to grant a concessionary TV licence to all people of pensionable age as of right.
And your Petitioners, as in duty bound, will ever pray.
To lie upon the Table.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Heathcoat-Amory.]
Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East) : The Ministry of Defence has decided to make the port of Swansea a Z-base for berthing and servicing nuclear submarines--or has it? It has never officially admitted this. It has never officially told any of the local councils--the county council or Swansea city council--although we understand that a committee of experts has given the green light to the scheme. The members of the committee are faceless people with no interest in or commitment to the port of Swansea. Local people have no confidence in the decision of the committee of experts. I suspect that the Ministry of Defence is saying that this is a tiresome debate raised by local Members on the basis of "not in my back yard". There is an element of that approach. My right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) and I represent the strongly held views of the people of Swansea in this respect, but I believe that there are strong objective factors for rejecting the Ministry's proposal, if it be a proposal. I shall try to smoke out the truth from the Minister with a series of questions and set out why the designation should not take place.
In my judgment, there is a real danger of blighting Swansea at a time when it is seeking to shed the vestiges of pollution and industrialisation. With vision and imagination, it is seeking to upgrade the city. It is appropriate that the debate takes place in a week when yet again there has been an accident in a submarine, albeit a Soviet one. It has happened several times in the past couple of years.
I shall invite the Minister to visit the port of Swansea to see the position for himself. My constituency is to the east of the docks entrance and my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West, who represents the constituency on the other side of the river, has an equal interest in the possibility of a nuclear base being established. St. Thomas is a highly populated and self-contained community, and the port is on the doorstep of the proposed development. I was there on Friday and I heard the anger and frustration of local people. My family has close links with the docks and with St. Thomas. My great-grandfather worked in the docks, my grandfather worked on the railways in the docks and my father worked as a fitter on the Graigola wharf--the very wharf where the berth is likely to be established.
If the Minister came to Swansea he would see on the west bank of the Tawe, in my right hon. Friend's constituency, the imaginative development of the marina, where derelict port and railway areas have been transformed into a leisure, recreation and residential complex. A similar scheme was proposed by Associated British Ports for the east bank, which is on my side of the river, but the proposed Ministry of Defence designation can have only a negative effect on that proposal.
There are great fears about safety if the designation goes ahead. The relevant Navy personnel in Wales have given bland assurances, but they would, wouldn't they? If there was an accident there would be a substantial risk to local people. Whatever may be in such a designation for the Ministry, there is nothing in it for the port of Swansea. It is negative-- there is no new employment or investment. All that faces the port of Swansea is a possible blight.
Column 493There has been no consultation with the local authority. It is all very undemocratic. Did the experts who made this informed decision--I understand that they are mostly people linked with the Ministry--visit the port of Swansea? Were they there with the group on 11 July? Are there any Welsh people on that committee? Have any members of the committee ever been elected to anything? To my knowledge, there has been no contact with the county council since November last year. Can the Minister confirm that? The local Associated British Ports management has not been party to any decision.
Is it right that the Ministry of Defence has decided to relocate from Cardiff on the basis that the Cardiff bay development makes the designation there inappropriate? Has it considered the fact that there are similar, imaginative developments in Swansea? Swansea will not be a soft touch for the defence bureaucrats. What is the proposed timetable for the development and the safety plan that will be linked with it? Has the Ministry considered as relevant the fact that because of shallow water the submarines cannot submerge until they are several miles out in the channel?
The Ministry's only argument in favour of designating the port of Swansea as a Z-berth is that it wants more civilian ports for the nuclear submarines to visit. We understand that they might visit Swansea only once or twice a year--and at what cost? Potentially the cost is great, with no compensating factors for the citizens of Swansea. Public opinion is mightily against the proposal, as I witnessed when I visited St. Thomas.
An editorial in the local paper said :
"Only an unusual sort of person would welcome nuclear submarines to Swansea But history shows that accidents do happen and it is difficult to feel any happier about this development than we would if it was decided to build a small nuclear power station here. Why Swansea has been nominated to replace Cardiff as a Z-Berth is not entirely clear. Perhaps it is simply that Swansea is also in South Wales.
If that is so, there would be more sense in selecting Milford Haven, which is a far less densely populated area and which, unlike tidal Swansea, has a deep water harbour. It also has the merit of being closer to the open sea."
There is total opposition within the port of Swansea.
Swansea has always given a traditional, warm welcome to visiting naval ships and personnel--but there will be no welcome for those nuclear submarines. If the Ministry of Defence has any regard for its own public relations, it will go elsewhere, away from the centres of population, where the risk, and the blight, will be less.
Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West) : I support my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) in everything that he said. We are perturbed by the difficulty that we have encountered in obtaining information--particularly about the committee that apparently made the decision. I tabled a question to the Minister on whether the local council has been officially informed of the decision--and if so, when. I thought that it would be the simplest of questions to answer, but I received from the Minister only a holding reply.
The argument goes beyond nuclear submarines, to questions of accountability, answerability and whether local democracy is to be recognised. The Ministry's decision can only be described as arbitrary. It was taken by an anonymous quango. The Minister himself refuses even
Column 494to name the committee's members. The committee is unaccountable, faceless and, I suggest, rigged--as I hope to prove.
The district and county councils and the two local Members of Parliament are all bitterly opposed to the proposal. Theirs is not just a quirkish attitude, because they are all equally opposed to the development of the Hinkley point nuclear power station further along the Bristol channel. In the midst of fighting that campaign, we discover that the Ministry of Defence is, without any consultation, imposing a mobile nuclear reactor at the centre of our community. Despite the existence of the nuclear warships safety committee, there is no debate, discussion or explanation. The committee owes no one an argument. No attempt is made to explain in detail the factors that led to the committee's decision to pick on Swansea for the berth. Nor has there been any voting on the matter. I repeat that the decision was made arbitrarily--yet the Minister states that the committee is independent.
The committee enjoys a very strange form of independence. The Ministry of Defence pays its costs which, at the very least, places in some doubt the degree of its independence. We know also that of the committee's 23 permanent members, five are serving Ministry of Defence officials and another five are former Ministry officials. Almost half the committee's membership is accounted for by former or serving members of the Ministry's own staff, who can hardly be expected to be open-minded about such an issue.
In addition, the Ministry has the power to appoint an additional seven members when issues relevant to the Ministry are discussed. Therefore, the Minister can pack the committee with officials to ensure the result that he wants.
I trust that the Minister accepts that I mean in no way to impugn his honour, because he is a fair-minded man. Nevertheless, we have not been given the explanations that we want locally. In a parliamentary answer, the Minister states that the Ministry of Defence
"has always followed its"--
"advice."--[ Official Report , 3 July 1989 ; Vol. 156, c. 29 .] That is not surprising : it is the Ministry of Defence advising the Ministry of Defence. It would be astonishing if it did not accept the findings and recommendations.
Are there any representatives of environmental interests? Is the Welsh Office the Department involved, or the Scottish Office, or the Northern Ireland Office? What we know is that of the 23 permanent members who are not ex-officials, eight--as the Minister has said in another answer--are full-time employees of public bodies. I assume that they are organisations such as the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority. They are hardly free- minded individuals. The Minister may tell me that completely different organisations are involved ; up to now, we have been given no information.
We would also like to know whether the council has any power to refuse, on behalf of residents, the establishment of this berth. None of us wants to scaremonger, but this is an unnecessary risk. As my hon. Friend said, in the space of about six weeks three Soviet submarines have been involved in fires. I am glad to learn of the good record that the Minister claims for British submarines in the detailed reply that he provided--I am grateful for that detail. But we must bear it in mind that Chernobyl and Three Mile
Column 495Island "could never happen", and that the soldiers exposed to radiation in Australia were so exposed on the best scientific advice of that time, because it was believed that they would be safe. The assessment of safety is mobile and flexible.
The Minister says that submarines want to visit civil ports, and that such ports are very important to good relations between the Royal Navy and the community. In fact, they are counterproductive in that respect : far from creating good relations, they are creating animosity.
We would like some clarification on the 550-metre safety area, which seems ludicrously inadequate. When Welsh sheep have been irradiated by the Chernobyl incident, it is very difficult for us to convince our constituents that the military radiation risk is limited to 550 metres. If anything went wrong, who would meet the cost? Would it be the Ministry of Defence? Would our constituents have any rights? Would they be entitled to any compensation and, if so, from whom? What are the procedures? None of that is clear to us at present, and we want the answers for our constituents.