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Column 754It should be pointed out that the trade war- -if such it may be called--between the ports of the Republic and those of Northern Ireland is being won by Northern Ireland. Between a quarter and one third of the imports and exports currently passing through Belfast port are for the Republic of Ireland, which shows that a significant slice of the Republic's trade passes in and out through Belfast. Privatisation will not sharpen up a failing industry ; the industry is already successful. I therefore ask : is it in the interests of the commerce of Northern Ireland that we lose the additional funding that would be available from Europe ? Of course it is not. Is it in the interests of jobs ? Everybody knows that the outcome of such privatisation processes is that jobs are lost, so there will be no advantage to Northern Ireland in the privatisation of its ports. Only the Government's short-term interest is served by the order. It is a triumph of their ideology over the best interests of the community. The question must be asked, and answered : morally, if not legally, are the Government entitled to sell the Belfast port ? I noticed that the explanatory document issued by the Department said :
"Trust ports are independent statutory authorities established under local legislation. They are not owned by anyone."
They may not be owned by anyone, but the Government will sell them anyway. That puts them in the position of receivers of stolen goods. Anywhere else that would be seen as a criminal act. The ports in Northern Ireland, such as Belfast port, are the property of the people of Belfast and of the people of Northern Ireland. They are not the property of a Tory Government to sell so that they can make the public sector borrowing requirement look a little better at the end of the year.
As I have already said, I am concerned that there will be a reduction not only in the grant, and therefore the investment, that will go into the Belfast port, but that it will become less competitive. A significant investment has been made in the past, and a considerable amount of European grant has been received. Over the past five years the port of Belfast has invested about £100 million in a ports development programme. Of that, £40 million came from its own funds and the remaining money from EC grants. That has helped the port to modernise its facilities, and it has added new facilities such as a roll on/roll off terminal. There are also new cranes, and the port has a vastly improved infrastructure.
We wonder whether, in the present circumstances, the EC could claw back the funds that it has already given to what was a public company. The House deserves a response from the Minister on that issue. Could European funds already granted be clawed back if the port becomes a private concern ? The Minister says that the present available grant for the port is up to 75 per cent., but many people in the House will doubt whether a privatised port would get anything like the maximum of 50 per cent. of an EC grant. Indeed, some will consider it questionable whether it would get anything at all. We must deal with the issue of the assets of the port as they currently stand. The bill may be, say, £50 million a year. The Minister has not offered us any better guidance on what he expects to net for his 50 per cent. of the income from the sale of the port. If he wanted to give us further guidance, it might be useful to the House. Can he give us a figure that he feels might be achieved by the sale of Belfast port ?
Anyone who examines the assets connected with the considerable land site can see immediately that there are
Column 755significant assets that could be sold off to pay for the purchase that the company will already have made. It seems a remarkable bargain. First, the purchasers have to pay only half the price ; then they can probably sell about a quarter of the goods to pay for it, and end up with the rest for nothing. That is the bargain that the Minister is offering as an inducement to privatise the port. As I understand it, the House should give considerable approval to the position of the harbour commissioners. They have effectively said that their interest is not personal, because commissioners might do very well out of a programme such as that offered under the order. But the commissioners recognise that the interests of the Northern Ireland economy as a whole would not be advantaged by the reduction of European funding.
The considerable land assets can be sold off, with a fairly meagre pay-back to the Government should that occur. So far as I can recall off the top of my head, about 25 per cent. is payable if pieces are sold within the first five years, stepping down to about 10 per cent. for years nine and 10. After 10 years the purchasers are on their own ; they can sell anything, and do not have to pay back any of the money at all. That seems a remarkable sell-off of a public asset that should not be the private possession of any company.
A further issue is the virtual monopoly that will be created by such a sale. So far, at least, the Government have not publicly addressed that problem. At present, the harbour commissioners use a high degree of judgment to ensure equality of treatment and fair charging at the port. However, if the purchaser should happen to be someone with a private interest within the port, the charging might be varied to the advantage of that private interest. So fair charging and equality of treatment may be changed, depending on who the purchaser is.
Considerable concern has been expressed by the Belfast Shipping Agents Association, which is worried that privatisation would create a monopoly. The association says :
"Our members are concerned, for themselves and for the other providers of services in the Port of Belfast, for importers and exporters of goods and for Northern Ireland consumers generally, that in this monopoly situation any excessive increase in port charges made by a Privatised Port Authority could have serious and detrimental effects on the Northern Ireland economy."
The association asks :
"Will there be a safeguard, such as a Regulatory Authority, built in",
so that any new privatised port arrangement will be monitored ? The Minister should answer that question.
There is another question concerning the assets to which I want the Minister to respond. The Minister seems to be shaking his head. Just because he made a two-minute speech, it does not mean that everyone else in the House has to do the same. I want to point the Minister in the direction of some important aspects of the possessions of the harbour commission.
I am thinking in particular of buildings with significant historical interest, and also paintings, sculptures and maritime artefacts which belong to the people of Belfast and Northern Ireland. Will the Minister make provision to ensure that those will form part of a maritime museum, rather than becoming the possessions of a new privatised company ? The port of Belfast trade union side has argued that point strongly and I think that it is a strong case.
Column 756In conclusion, it can be seen that Belfast port is substantially different from other ports in the United Kingdom, especially in view of the competition from ports in the Republic of Ireland. Privatisation would do considerable damage to the whole of the Northern Ireland economy. The Government should be repudiated for their attempt to benefit their own financial interests rather than the interests of the people of Northern Ireland. I urge the Government to take the sale off the counter. Indeed, I argue that the port is not theirs to sell. We are told that the Government's policy is to attempt to get Northern Ireland parties to agree. Here the Northern Ireland parties are in agreement about what we want, so what do the Government do ? They form the obstacle to having those wishes fulfilled.
Mr. A. Cecil Walker (Belfast, North) : I support the remarks made by the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson). The Government know that the overwhelming response from the general public, community organisations, the trade unions, Belfast city council and the political parties was direct opposition to the proposals. What confidence can we have that the interests of Northern Ireland will be taken into account during any future consultation process ? That question is especially pertinent given that we have not yet had a response to the points raised in the submission.
The Government say that they have no economic or selfish interests in Northern Ireland. That statement rings hollow when we see the way in which they are systematically stripping Northern Ireland of its assets, leaving the Province weak, vulnerable and open to exploitation by monetary interests whose sole purpose is to prey on our people's work ethic and thereby amass vast personal wealth. The port of Belfast, as our principal sea port, is the latest to suffer from this macabre and irresponsible attitude. Belfast is not in competition with any British port. Its main competition comes from the southern Irish ports and, at present, it compares very favourably with them. As a result of the order, that competitiveness will be lost.
As has already been said, the Dublin Government have already decided that their ports will remain in public hands, thereby maintaining their eligibility, as public concerns, for up to 85 per cent. European grant money, whereas private businesses are eligible for only 50 per cent. That is not a calm fishing reach and it tips the equation the wrong way, at our expense. I am also informed that the Dublin Government extend favourable tax treatment to their ports and that new harbour legislation is under way further to extend those advantages.
We all know that the port of Belfast has benefited substantially from the European regional development fund to help it restructure and modernise in a down-river relocation. I am, therefore, concerned about the precise changes in ERDF status that the privatisation process may bring about. It is conceivable that the European Community could, rightly, demand a return of a proportion of the grants if it believed that, under privatisation, the general public might not have the benefits and uses that they enjoy under the present status.
I am apprehensive about the effects that privatisation would have on the site of special scientific interest, which is essential to the welfare of many forms of wildlife that are
Column 757found in the location. It is widely recognised that the area is vital in the migratory pattern of water fowl. Although the private sector may not exploit an SSSI, it is most unlikely to invest in it and manage it to the same degree.
I am also concerned about safeguards against predatory ownership, especially by companies based in member states. Do the Government intend to follow the example of the sale of Belfast international airport and retain a golden share in the ports ? Will there be a change of ownership structure ? If there is, it will be essential that any purchaser can demonstrate a long-term commitment to the continuing success of the port so that customers and employees can be confident of a stable future under the new regime.
Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Cleethorpes) : I bring to this debate the experience of having represented, for the past 10 years, the port of Immingham. I recall that in my first Session of Parliament I had the privilege of serving on the Standing Committee that considered the Transport Bill which brought into being Associated British Ports, the private company that runs many of the ports in the United Kingdom, including the port in Hull and the one in my constituency. I reassure Ulster Members that my intervention in the debate will be brief. I intend to make two main points about the orders, which I very much welcome. If any Ulster Member has any concerns about the benefits that privatisation may or may not bring, I invite him to come to Immingham in my constituency.
Opposition Members who served on the Transport Bill Committee threatened that all the ports on the east coast of England would close. They said that Immingham and Grimsby would go into a decline and that Hull would go into even more of a decline. Now we have Associated British Ports, which is not answerable to the old British Transport Docks Board and the Treasury. There is competition not only among the ports within the group but with other ports.
Felixstowe used to be difficult to compete against. The arguments put by the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) today were put when Associated British Ports was set up. People said, "How will it be possible for the newly privatised ports of Immingham, Grimsby and Hull to compete against Rotterdam and Felixstowe ?" Rotterdam had European money pouring into the Europort. People asked how it would be possible for the little ports out in the cold in the private sector, which had no access to capital and no access to the Treasury, to compete. The truth is that they compete on their own terms with Rotterdam and Felixstowe. I am sure that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) would testify to that. The blunt truth is that there is a renaissance in the docks industry on the east coast as a result of privatisation.
Mr. Trimble : The hon. Gentleman is right about the renaissance of docks on the east coast of Britain. That may not be due solely to competition, although I concede that competition is important. What does he say to the point made by Unionist Members here this evening--that under the new arrangements, Belfast will be handicapped in competition with Dublin ? That is the essential point. We are not opposed to competition. We appreciate that competition has been successful in other areas and we know that our ports can compete successfully. However,
Column 758the orders will handicap our ports in competition with their only and chief competitor. Will the hon. Gentleman address that issue ?
Mr. Brown : I simply say that that is exactly the argument--I recall it well--used by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), who also served on the Standing Committee in 1980-81. He made precisely that point about the relationship between Immingham, Grimsby, Hull and Rotterdam.
Mr. Robinson : The hon. Gentleman cannot be allowed to get away with that. The fact is that the Belfast port and the Dublin port are on the same island. Therefore, they are in competition with each other. Rotterdam is not on the mainland of the United Kingdom. It is not in competition. Those ports are in competition with each other, not with Rotterdam.
Mr. Brown : I am afraid that that is simply not true. It is the case that the success of Immingham docks in securing for itself trade that once upon a time used to come from all the world, including South Africa and South America, and go to Rotterdam, which served Europe, now comes to Immingham and to Hull. I have to tell the hon. Gentlemen that it is precisely because of privatisation in the early 1980s that we succeeded in bringing to the east coast of Britain, rather than to the mainland of Europe, much of the international docks traffic that is now available to the United Kingdom. I say to hon. Members from Northern Ireland that docks traffic is international. It does not know boundaries in the way that they have suggested.
I now want to get on to the main
Rev. Ian Paisley : I put to the hon. Gentleman the following case. Dublin is to receive money from the European Community. Remember, the south of Ireland is getting £6 million, when Northern Ireland has got nothing out of the European Community, and instead is paying up per head of its people--I have received those answers from the Treasury. If Dublin is to receive a £6 million kitty to build up the port and the new ports scheme, being a private scheme, is not to have the 85 per cent. grant-- perhaps not even a 50 per cent. or a 30 per cent. grant--surely that would be unfair competition. The hon. Gentleman is talking about England in fair competition with others. I am talking of a situation that would be totally unfair.
Mr. Brown : I understand entirely the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. It is rather like the unfairness which Immingham, Grimsby and Hull had to put up with after they were privatised, to the extent that they were also handicapped by a thing on the mainland of the United Kingdom called the dock labour scheme. We had unfair practices, we had handicaps, we had unfairness against Felixstowe. Indeed, it was not until 1989 that my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler)
Column 759finally abolished the scheme, after much pressure and lobbying from my hon. Friends, and we were able to get rid of an unfair handicap. So I understand entirely what the hon. Gentleman is talking about. He is talking of a relative unfairness on the island of Ireland. We also had a relative unfairness, yet never for one moment did I suggest that we should not go down the road of privatisation simply on the grounds of that unfair handicap.
Two years ago, the Government took a further step towards liberalising the ports industry by enabling trust ports to become privatised. To date, that process has proved a success and it is to be hoped that the remaining trust ports will follow the example of their colleagues. Of course, all of those ports have followed in the wake of the outstanding privatisation of ABP in 1983, which I have just described. I very much hope that the Belfast harbour commissioners and the trustees of other ports in Northern Ireland will give serious consideration to the advantages which privatisation may offer them.
Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) rose
Mr. Brown : I will not give way. I have been generous in giving way and I am acutely aware that we have less than two hours left. I hope that the remarks which I am about to make may find favour with the hon. Member for Belfast, East and a number of his hon. Friends. On the following point, I urge my hon. Friend the Minister not to reconsider, but to listen carefully to the points on the constitutional aspects of the order.
I have had the privilege of serving as the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland for one year. I was secretary of the Conservative parliamentary Northern Ireland committee for over six years, vice-chairman of that committee for two years and for one year the Government Whip with responsibility for Northern Ireland. I have always been acutely conscious of the arguments consistently advanced by hon. Members from all political parties in Northern Ireland about the manner in which our debates are conducted. On that, I agree that there may well be some merit in what they have to say.
My second point concerns the constitutional position on Northern Ireland ports should the Government, at some stage, decide to exercise their compulsory powers. I have no argument at all against the Government using those powers if they decide to do so. While I am absolutely in favour of the concept of privatisation and, perhaps one day, compulsory privatisation, it is a fact that, that under the terms of the order, Northern Ireland ports are put at a constitutional disadvantage. As the hon. Member for Belfast, East has already said, the statutory instrument would pass through Parliament under the negative resolution procedure, with no opportunity for parliamentary debate, whereas, for mainland British ports that are compelled to privatise--Aberdeen, Ipswich and Poole may fall into that category--a debate on the Floor of the House is automatically guaranteed.
I do not wish to be disrespectful to the Select Committee on Statutory Instruments, but it is only right and proper for Northern Ireland ports to be treated in exactly the same way as their mainland counterparts. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister has received a number of representations on that issue and has already
Column 760given some assurances about considering permitting a full debate. There is some merit in what hon. Members have said about getting the procedures for Northern Ireland on exactly the same basis as we have for the rest of the United Kingdom.
I hope that if hon. Members from Northern Ireland are not able accept my views and arguments in favour of privatisation, they will at least understand that I accept the case that they have put on the constitutional manner in which this order and consequent orders should be put to the House.
Mr. Nick Harvey (North Devon) : I am grateful for an opportunity to make a few brief remarks on the orders, which I want to oppose on the same grounds as those on which my party opposed the Ports Act 1991. We have heard from the Minister that the order is an enabling measure. Were that so, we would have no difficulty with it, because the enabling characteristics of it are not ones with which we would wish to take issue, but lurking behind the enabling characteristics is the threat of coercion. That is where we would part company with the Government.
There has been mention of the need for competition between ports and we very much support that. We recognise that, in the past, some trust ports may have viewed the private Bill procedure in the House as so complicated that they would get bogged down in it, so we have no problem with the principle of freeing up that procedure. However, if some port trustees--the Belfast harbour commissioners or whoever--see that process simplified and serve out the two-year time period, which is already contained in the mainland legislation and is envisaged in the orders, and then decide not to proceed voluntarily with privatisation, there seems little justification for the Government stepping in over their heads and trying to do it on a compulsory basis.
The Government do not seem to have listened to, or learnt from, their earlier legislation. Few, if any, of the candidates on the mainland involved in that earlier legislation who have failed to come up with proposals in the two-year period want, at this stage, to change their status. That is why we shall again oppose the Government over the orders. We believe now, as before, that the Government should not ride over the heads of the commissioners who deal on a day-to-day basis with those matters and who have arrived at a considered decision that takes into account local factors. Different ports have different characteristics. In the case of Northern Ireland--as hon. Members have already said, Belfast is the only port which is threatened because it is the only port which falls into the criteria--the economic difficulties that it faces simply cannot be overlooked. One must ask whether the area would be better off as a result of compulsory privatisation of the Belfast port. Many hon. Members who have already spoken in the debate have persuasively put forward the argument that it would not.
The Government believe that privatisation is an attractive option because it will give access to capital for development, it will in some way make it easier to develop surplus land and there will be more diversification of development. They have even suggested that it will become more profitable. Some of those arguments may be true, but will they all be true ?
Column 761The record of Belfast port shows that it has already enjoyed success by reinvesting the surpluses that it has made by raising money on its own account. It has shown resourcefulness and imagination. It has an impressive growth rate--an increase of more than 40 per cent. in the past five years. There has been modernisation, and much land has already been leased to relevant commercial interests. Belfast port is a vital and integral part of the Northern Ireland economy.
Reference has been made to the disadvantage in the European grant regime that would follow any privatisation. What the hon. Members for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) and for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown) said earlier about competitiveness is right. The argument that Belfast would be at a sharp disadvantage, especially in terms of competing with Dublin, if it were on a completely different grant regime has not been satisfactorily answered by the Government. Another point is accountability. The Belfast harbour commissioners draw on representation from various elements of the community in Northern Ireland. In the event of a compulsory sell-off, they would be replaced by an unaccountable--in any public sense--private body. That body could conceivably have directors who know little of the interests of Northern Ireland and, indeed, the port itself. Many of them may be anonymous and have little interest in it.
I hope that the Minister will give an unambiguous answer to the question put by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara). Would the Government use any golden share that they might retain to block a foreign interest coming in and taking over ? Would the community be better off as a result of a private sale ? Would a company whose sole motive was to make a profit serve the community better than the current Belfast harbour commissioners ? Surely, employment is the most important thing to the community at large. The Minister has suggested that the economic opportunities arising from privatisation will assist in that regard, but I believe that we should be concerned about the threats that have been identified by hon. Members in this debate.
Finally, on the constitutional point, it seems wrong that the procedures for Northern Ireland should be different from those for the rest of the United Kingdom. The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) said that the Minister referred to "considering" any request to have the matter debated on the Floor of the House. In a letter to Lord Holme, who speaks for us on these matters in another place, he went one step further and said that the Government would give "careful consideration" to any such request. That is not good enough. We must have an unequivocal commitment from the Government that any such move will be debated on the Floor of the House as a matter of course.
The bulk of the United Kingdom's trade still uses ports. The role of the ports in our economy is crucial. It is okay to set up enabling measures so that those who wish to privatise can take advantage of that. However, there can be no excuse whatever for forcing, over the heads of the commissioners, ports to privatise when they do not wish to do so, especially in the light of the unfair competition, in terms of European grant, that would result from privatisation.
Column 7628.43 pm
Mr. Clifford Forsythe (Antrim, South) : While I, as the spokesman for my party on this subject, will be raising a number of concerns relating to these orders, it would be useful for me to give the House a little history lesson to highlight the changes that have taken place in electing or appointing harbour commissioners since the Origins of Port 1613.
In 1785, the corporation for preserving and improving the port and harbour of Belfast was set up by an Act of Parliament. That body was later to become known as the ballast board. The success of that board in expanding the ports operations led, in 1847, to a successor board--the Belfast harbour commissioners--being given authority and trust status further to develop the harbour under the Harbour, Docks and Piers Clauses Act 1847. The new board set about creating three main channels for ships and earned Belfast the name of the trident port.
The Belfast Harbour Commissioners Board still runs the port and its nine members are appointed by the Minister. That came about because the Belfast Harbour Acts Amendment (Northern Ireland) Order 1979 was passed by the House, giving the power of appointment to the Department of Commerce--a power which subsequently passed to the Department of Environment and the Minister.
Under the 1847 Act, one third of the commissioners stood down every year and an election was held to replace or re-elect them. That election was held on the first Thursday in February under the control of the secretary of the Belfast harbour commissioners. It is interesting to know that the candidates and electors had to reside in Belfast or within seven miles of it. That was measured from the town's commercial buildings. For at least six months prior to the election, they had to own a vessel of more than 100 tonnes registered in the port of Belfast, and they had to own property with an annual value of £500, or £300 if it was a holding or a freehold estate. They were also required to pay a police tax of £6 to Belfast town council.
Basically, we can assume that the commercial interests associated with the harbour elected those running the harbour--the Belfast harbour commissioners. Perhaps, these days, the narrowness of that electorate could be criticised but it was wider than the appointments made and the orders raised by one person--the Minister--who is unelected by anyone in Belfast harbour, Belfast city or even Northern Ireland. If we place on top of that the proposal under article 12 to introduce privatisation by negative resolution, we can truly say that democracy in Northern Ireland does not exist.
My views on quangos are well known. As it is presently appointed, the Belfast Harbour Commissioners Board is a quango.
Rev. Martin Smyth : My hon. Friend is referring to quangos and how they are appointed. Is he prepared to acknowledge that, according to the Anglo-Irish Agreement, there must be consultation with the Maryfield secretariat ?
Mr. Forsythe : I understand that that is the case. Consultations can take place between the two Governments on the matter. The quango is similar to 150 other bodies in Northern Ireland. My friends among the
Column 763Belfast harbour commissioners will not like me saying that. I object to the creation of that quango and will continue to object to it until we achieve some change.
I am fully aware of the excellent work carried out by the present board and other boards through the years. Their work has been on a par with that of commissioners in the past, who were elected under a different system. I am also aware of what the port means and of the high regard in which the commissioners are held by the citizens of Belfast and the rest of Northern Ireland.
Leaving aside my views about the intentions of the order, I must put on record clearly, as other hon. Members have done, my strong objections to the method that is being used to pave the way to the removal of the port of Belfast from local control. It completely ignores the original intention of the Acts of Parliament, which were properly debated and amended or accepted by this mother of Parliaments. It represents a tremendous change for Belfast harbour in terms of democracy and so on.
Perhaps we should consider, for the benefit of those who do not have a Belfast background, what will be lost to local people if the control of the port is taken outside Northern Ireland under article 12 of the order. There is a 3,000 acre estate with 8,000 m of quayage. There are 70 berths, which include four roll on/roll off docks, six container docks, four dry docks and one shipbuilding dock. There are 58,000 sq m of transit storage sheds, and four grain silos which hold about 150,000 tonnes of grain.
As has already been mentioned, within that estate we have Shorts Bombardier, Harland and Wolff, the city airport and many other smaller firms, including Belfast West power station. I shall ask the Minister some questions at a later stage. Perhaps he will explain about the cross-harbour road and railway line which is being constructed. What will be the position of the road and rail network under the new arrangements for privatisation, if, indeed, privatisation takes place ? I understand what the Minister said earlier about the order being a paving operation, but let us be honest : a paving operation is there to be used.
As others have said, the port accounts for 55 per cent. of all Northern Ireland's imports and exports. It has public user facilities for fuel oil, petroleum products, petroleum gas and aviation fuel. It has heavy lifting and general cranage. It has deep berths. All of those facilities are unavailable, at least to the same extent, in the rest of Northern Ireland.
As other hon. Members have said, the harbour commissioners' building contains many items of historical significance, many of which were gifts. The building is part of the history and culture of Northern Ireland. It is used for receptions. It plays a civic role. It hosts concerts and tours. As my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Walker) said, many experts regard the estate as an area of scientific interest and are greatly worried about how they would deal with a commercial firm which had a profit motive.
Why is the successful port of Belfast being upset by a plan for privatisation ? Belfast city council opposes it. The trade unions oppose it. Politicians have spoken against it. The people of Northern Ireland do not wish privatisation to happen. They would like the port to remain under local control. Perhaps the Minister will say that the port could
Column 764remain under local control if a proposal were made. But that cannot be guaranteed if the port is privatised. Unfortunately, I have to consider what the Minister seems to have ignored-- the views of most of those who responded to the consultation process. Unfortunately, it seems to me that the port is being privatised for ideological reasons and because it is the policy of the Conservative party.
I shall now ask the Minister some questions, having given a history lesson. The Minister may already have been aware of the history, but I thought that it was worth putting it on the record. What precisely will be the position of the Belfast harbour police ? I know that one of my Labour colleagues will probably raise a similar point if he manages to catch your eye later, Madam Deputy Speaker. No mention has been made of that force. The same applied to the airport privatisation order.
We all have great admiration for the fine Belfast harbour police force. It has given stalwart service to the harbour over many years. It has done so in Northern Ireland and Belfast terms in the most difficult circumstances. It is important that the Minister should put on record the exact position on future policing of this substantial area within the city of Belfast.
There are several questions which the Minister was probably aware that I might ask. I do not wish to take up a lot of time. If the port is privatised, will he produce ideas and proposals for the Belfast harbour police before the privatisation plan is fully implemented ? It has been said by others, and is worth repeating, that the privatisation of the port would lose Belfast its trust status. Under the present status, the harbour commissioners enjoy a healthy level of profitability and they pay full corporation tax, which is very useful to the Exchequer. They receive no assistance from the Government for port development expenditure, and their ability to keep profits has allowed port development to be carried out with the assistance only of grants from the European regional development fund. That has resulted in the harbour benefiting substantially from those funds.
Will the Minister put on record what changes he sees taking place in the European grant regime ? Could he share with us the impact of such changes ? For instance, when Belfast port is privatised, would there be any requirement--as others have asked--for the Government to reimburse the grants received in the past by the Belfast harbour commissioners ?
In that context, does not the Minister think that it is ironic--I am sorry that the hon. Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown) is no longer here, as I would have liked him to have heard this--that the Government are laying an order to pave the way for the privatisation of Belfast harbour at a time when the cohesion fund status and aid through Intereg 2 is being applied to ports in the Republic of Ireland ? Those ports are being offered grants of up to 85 per cent. because the Government of the Republic are reinforcing the trust status of the ports.
I need not repeat, but I reinforce, what been said about Belfast being treated differently under the order from ports in the rest of the United Kingdom with regard to article 10 of the Ports Act 1991. Will the Minister put on record how he intends to protect the port users, because a monopoly would be created if it were privatised ? The port has public user facilities which other ports in Northern Ireland do not have. The only facilities for such products as aviation fuel, petroleum and low-pressure gas are in Belfast port and are
Column 765not available anywhere else. A monopoly in Belfast port could be crucial to the charges of those products and to Northern Ireland. Will the Minister consider setting up a regulatory authority to monitor port changes and to prevent excessive profits ? I agree with what has been said about the risk to firms of long standing which have given great service to the port--such as stevedores and ship's agents--and they in no circumstances should be squeezed out by a monopoly. That would be very unfortunate.
Will the Minister tell the House, if we get to the stage where the port is privatised, what will be the position of the port's pension fund ? Perhaps he could tell us the position of the pension fund now, but he cannot tell us what it will be like in two years' time, because he is not a prophet. I am interested in this matter, because there will be a lot to think about if the fund is either in surplus or in deficit. In the past we have had to ask the Minister to put on record his views on the pensions position of the workers and the staff of the port.
If the port is privatised, will the Minister give me a proper undertaking-- not a superficial undertaking--about the position of the members employed in the port, the pensioners who are already receiving their pensions and deferred pensioners who no longer work in the port, or are working there but are deferred pensioners ? Will a condition of sale for any new owner be to continue the fund in its present form to ensure that all members, pensioners and deferred pensioners do not lose out in the future ?
The Minister will be aware that a new company could take over a facility such as the port of Belfast and close the pension fund. Will he assure me that, if the port is privatised, the position for members of the pension scheme would not change because they would receive any amount due to them up to a given time ? Would that pension fund be allowed to continue under the same conditions and providing the same benefits, and would that be written into any contract or arrangement between the Government and a new company, if the port is privatised ? In that context, will the Minister assure us that all the recommendations contained in the document on the future of pensions presented to the House last week will be closely followed in any negotiations concerning the pension fund ?
The democracy that now exists in the election of Belfast harbour commissioners will disappear and a Minister will appoint the commissioners. Instead of being allowed to debate future privatisation matters in the House, the matter will be introduced by negative resolution. For those reasons and because the port is so important to Belfast, we are not happy with the prospect of it being privatised. My hon. Friends and I have no ideological views one way or the other on privatisation except on the merits of the case. The merits of this case do not take us into the same Lobby as Her Majesty's Government and we shall vote against the order.
Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) : I am here tonight and have an interest in opposing the order not merely because I am a Labour Member of Parliament--although that is a good enough reason for being here--but because my constituents are angry about how badly my community in Tilbury was treated over the sale of its port and are concerned that similar circumstances should not befall the people of Belfast, who are also proud of their port.
Column 766It is worth trying to remind Tory Members that they are hearing me in the Chamber tonight partly because my predecessor, who lost the election, was a passionate advocate of the privatision of the port of Tilbury.
Mr. Mackinlay : The Minister says that my predecessor is a great man, but the good people of Thurrock did not think so. While I hope that I brought other qualities to the campaign, the fact remains that I am here partly because the people of Thurrock deeply resented the sale of their port, of which they were proud, and the fact that their Member of Parliament advocated that sale. Arguably, that is what cost Mr. Tim Janman the election and provided an extra seat for the Labour party.
Those facts give me a mandate not only to raise that matter but to say that I am proud to associate myself with the views expressed by Northern Ireland Members who on their constituents' behalf, strongly oppose Belfast's privatisation. The Government should reflect on this before making any attempt to trigger the sale of the port of Belfast : they have no mandate whatever for such a sale. The political parties in Northern Ireland demonstrably oppose such privatisation. The trade unions definitely oppose it, not only for employment reasons--although they are rightly worried about employment--but because the people of Belfast are proud of their history and of the harbour, which, to them, is a symbol of that history. That should not be minimised or dismissed : it is an important factor that the Government should take into account in considering the matter further.
I share the view of other hon. Members that this is a crazy and unacceptable way in which to treat Northern Ireland legislation. I do not care what happens or what is said elsewhere : as a Member of the House of Commons, I want the capacity and opportunity to scrutinise and probe the intentions of the Government and to examine all legislation in detail.
This order is equivalent to a major Act of Parliament, and in any normal and sensible circumstances would justify the full scrutiny of a parliamentary Committee. Why ? Because we should be able to examine the Government's intentions. In the course of that legislative process, the Government would, almost as surely as night turns into day, discover that their measure was in some respects flawed. Even if they could not be persuaded by hon. Members that the provisions should be tempered, they would find that the draftsmen and their offices had overlooked some important factors. This legislative process and this order in particular are therefore bad from the point of view of scrutiny of our law-making process.
If we had had the opportunity to consider the legislation in Committee, many of the questions that have been posed by hon. Members tonight would have been answered. I suspect that many of those questions will not be answered when the Minister replies, but we shall see. Perhaps he will be understanding when some of us ask him to give way later : it would be reprehensible if he tried to plead shortage of time or to claim that he had not fully taken note of the point. He has a moral obligation to answer our questions tonight because the matter may well not come before the House of Commons again, in which case there will be no further scrutiny.
As the Minister would expect, and as the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe) rightly said, let us use the
Column 767future of the police at Belfast harbour as an example of a matter that we wish to probe. This important point would not only have a debate to itself : if we considered the legislation in Committee, it would probably be the subject of new clauses and amendments. It is important that people who hold the office of constable should be protected from commercial considerations, which might well trespass on their work if the port were privatised. We do not know who the prospective purchasers might be. Some very undesirable outfits might purchase the port. For those purchasers to have access to and stewardship and ownership of a police force seems to me to be unacceptable.
In any event, I must declare that it is repugnant to me, as a matter of policy, that any police force should be in private ownership and control. I have said that many times. I may sound like a long-playing gramophone record but I say it once more. The Government are privatising police forces in Northern Ireland and in the port of Tilbury in my constituency. It is the thin end of the wedge. It is unacceptable. It is unfair to police officers, who are proud of their office, and it is unacceptable to other police forces that remain in the public sector.