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Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford) : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Minister owes not only him but the people of Northern Ireland an explanation as to why he intends to proceed by means of an Order in Council rather than by means of a Bill, which would allow the hon. Gentleman and right hon. and hon. Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies the right to speak on the subject and amend the proposed legislation ? The Minister owes the House an explanation as to why he has selected a procedure that gives the people of Northern Ireland, through their elected Members of Parliament and through friends such as the hon. Gentleman, no opportunity to amend the legislation.
Mr. Mackinlay : I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman. We shall see whether the Minister takes up that point when he replies. I share a common interest with those who are protecting and promoting the interests of Belfast harbour and its people tonight. Unlike the rest of the trust ports that were subject to the Ports Act 1991, my port of Tilbury was privatised without further scrutiny being given to the proposals in the House. The matter was subject to examination during the Committee stage of the Ports Bill, so it received more scrutiny than the possible privatisation of Belfast port. Once the Ports Bill was enacted, the port of Tilbury was treated extraordinarily and as distinct from the other trust ports. It was sold without any further reference, order or debate in this place. That is what will happen to the port of Belfast unless the Government can be persuaded to turn from their present course ; there will be no further discussions in this place. We shall read in the financial pages one day that the port of Belfast has been disposed of. That is unacceptable and discriminates against Northern Ireland. While provision exists for the compulsory sale of Aberdeen, Poole or Ipswich to be examined and voted on in the House, Belfast will not have that privilege. That is unacceptable. Let us ask the Minister for the true reason behind it. Is it not a fact that the Government know that
Column 768there will be considerable resistance if they try to push through an order relating to Aberdeen, Poole or Ipswich because they will have to allow the order to be scrutinised ? By a quirk, they can push through the order relating to Belfast without further scrutiny, which suits their purposes because they need to try to start promoting legislation and getting greenbacks for the Treasury--the order is, to a large extent, Treasury driven.
If we had a proper legislative process, we could pursue the reasonable point made by many hon. Members about the buildings and artefacts of the harbour commissioners. When we were debating the Railways Bill, we had discussions about the artefacts of the railways, and how they would be preserved, kept in public ownership and made available to the public. I attended the sittings of the Committee that considered the Ports Bill, although unfortunately I was not then a Member of the House, and there was then a general debate about the artefacts of the railways after privatisation.
The harbour commissioners at Belfast have great artefacts and antiquities of which they are proud and which, it is felt, belong to the people of Belfast. I recall an enjoyable and interesting day when the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Walker) took me to visit the harbour commissioners. I saw their buildings and learnt about the history mentioned by the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe). I am grateful that he related that history to the House as it should be placed on record. That history is inextricably bound up with the pride that the people of Belfast have in their harbour and the historic nature of the commissioners' office.
At some stage during our deliberations, the Minister tried to taunt the hon. Member for Antrim, East (Mr. Beggs) by implying that, unless the order was passed, the port of Larne would be disadvantaged. The hon. Member for Antrim, East, whose constituency includes the port of Larne, will no doubt speak on his own behalf. However, let me say that, while there is competition between Larne and Belfast, they also complement one another. There is a balance--one is in public ownership and one is in private ownership, and long may that situation flourish. But if the port of Belfast is disposed of, it will raise the question of whether there will still be two ports. The future would then be uncertain, which would obviously be damaging to employment and the communities that are largely served by the two ports. Far from these orders being an attractive proposition for Larne, their prospect raises great dangers. I look forward with interest to what the hon. Member for Antrim, East has to say.
Mr. John D. Taylor : There are more than two ports in Northern Ireland ; we also have Londonderry and Warren Point. The Government are giving their full support and enthusiasm to expenditure, through the cohesion fund of the European Community, to advance the ports in the Republic of Ireland, and that will eventually lead to the closure of Warren Point harbour.
Mr. Mackinlay : The point made by the right hon. Gentleman is manifestly an important one. When I visited Warren Point, I saw for myself that the Republic opposite would benefit from the cohesion fund--and that is its entitlement--whereas Warren Point would not. After all the bravado and macho politics displayed by the Prime Minister in his approach to Europe--and I shall not trespass too far down that road this evening--it
Column 769occurred to me to ask why, some months ago, the Government did not argue that the cohesion fund should extend to the whole of the island of Ireland. That would have been logical and would not have trespassed on other sensitive issues involving Northern Ireland and the Republic, but--so far as I am aware--it never crossed their mind. The matter arose in European Standing Committee B and I tried to probe the Minister about it. Clearly, it had never occurred to him to go to Brussels and bang on the table and explain the extraordinary circumstances involving the interface between Northern Ireland and the Republic and that there is a strong case for the cohesion fund to extend to the island of Ireland. All the parties concerned would have understood that, but the Government did not even contemplate exploring the issue. That is absolutely wretched and jeopardises the port and interests at Warren Point and probably elsewhere. The hon. Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown) gave us the benefit of his attention earlier. I regret that he is not here now as I thought he was talking through a hole in his hat when he suggested that there was a comparable situation as between Rotterdam and Cleethorpes. Has anyone heard anything so absurd ? Certainly not today. If the port of Belfast loses grant from the European Community because it is sold off and if the port of Dublin and the Irish Government legitimately seek to exploit the cohesion fund there will demonstrably be disadvantages to the port of Belfast ; for the hon. Gentleman to suggest otherwise is nonsense.
The hon. Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes told us what a great advantage privatisation was and how the Ports Act 1991 was so attractive. It is significant that, so far as I am aware, none of the trust ports that were subject to the 1991 Act have voluntary put up their hands and asked to be privatised. We are still waiting with bated breath to find out whether the Government will move in relation to Ipswich, Aberdeen or Poole. I hope that they will not. It is interesting to note that the equivalent of the harbour commissioners there have not volunteered their ports for privatisation, despite the attraction that we are told exists.
The Government cannot get their way there, so they decide to pick on a part of the country, a particular port, where there is not so much political clout or opposition as would occur were they to tackle Aberdeen with the political considerations there, Poole, which is a Tory area, or Ipswich, which is a marginal parliamentary seat. I am also concerned about the implications for the dock workers. One of the experiences in the port of Tilbury is that people who were proud to be employed in the docks industry are now facing casualisation. There have been major redundancies and people are not employed on a full-time basis with the pay and conditions of service to which they are entitled.
On the other side of the Thames, it is important that people in Belfast are aware of what has happened to the port of Medway, where a tantalising carrot was put before the dock workers in the form of an invitation to join what I believe to be a wholly bogus and cosmetic management-employee buy- out. It was suggested that they could have a share in their enterprises. We have heard that commercial before--how it was all part of the Thatcher revolution ; people could have a stake in their firms.
The good dock workers of Medway were invited to take shares in their port. Many did so. Not long after that port was sold to a so-called management- employee buy-out,
Column 770dock worker after dock worker was sacked. They then found that, under the small print, they were obligated to sell back their shares at £2.50 per share. Some of the purchasers of their shares were the port owners/managers. They got hold of those cheap shares and after a few months sold them again at a price of £37.50 per share. That was a rip-off. In my view, it was a form of stealing. It was a gross deceit perpetrated upon the workers.
Suppose that this measure had a Committee stage. If, on reflection, the Government felt that what happened at Medway was unfair, they could amend the order to ensure that even if someone lost his job he could hold on to his shares. [Interruption.] If I could just attract the Minister's attention for a moment, I should like to ask him a specific question. Will he ensure that if there is a management-employee buy-out, the shares purchased and owned by the dock workers will be sacrosanct ? If dock workers lose their jobs through no fault of their own, will they be able to retain their shares ? That is an important point that needs to be clarified this evening because that was not the experience at Medway and elsewhere.
Mr. John D. Taylor : The hon. Gentleman is understandably concerned about the security of share ownership. Does he agree that it is important that the shares in the privatised company should not be owned by foreign interests ?
Mr. Mackinlay : Absolutely ; it is something that exercised us at the time of the sale of Tilbury. Indeed, it still does. Even if a port is sold initially to a management-employee buy-out--with a considerable amount of involvement from banks and other financial institutions--we do not know what will happen in the future. There will be compelling commercial considerations. Ownership and control could pass to the stewardship of people who do not have any loyalty to the locality, to the country or even to the ports industry. There is a great danger of asset stripping.
Mr. Mackinlay : That is absolutely correct. I am with the right hon. Gentleman all the way. The experience in England is that people will purchase ports with a view to running them down so that they can promote the other port or ports in their ownership.
Quite apart from the selfish interest that could emerge, it is a crazy way to run a ports industry. We are talking about strategic ports, vital to the economy of England in my case, and of Northern Ireland in the case of Belfast--and, indeed, of a large part of the northern part of the Republic of Ireland. The ports' development needs to be planned. Currently there is a delicate, complementary role between Belfast, Larne, Warren Point and the ports on the Foyle. With the absence of planning, England has too many ports, and at some stage some of them will lose out.
I have referred to the port of Dublin, but there are other ports in Ireland. The port of Cork is rightly exploiting the opportunities provided by European grants, to its legitimate advantage. I do not complain about that, but I think it is wrong for us to refer only to Dublin. The fact is that, given the major ports around the island of Ireland, Belfast will be the odd one out.
Column 771The port is strongly identified with Northern Ireland. It is an historic port--one of the great ports of the old empire. The Government should not dismiss its deep association with the city. Clearly they will not reverse their current course tonight, but I hope that in the not too distant future the Minister will state from the Dispatch Box that the Government, on reflection, have decided not to privatise the port but to leave it to the sensible stewardship of the harbour commissioners, with whose membership they will not tamper.
Opposition Members fear that, after the order is passed, there will be a period of uncertainty and disquiet. The harbour commissioners will be in limbo, and there will be anxiety among the work force and the trade unions. The Government should heed the popular view expressed by all Northern Ireland politicians, and the fact that a number of us have experienced the problems associated with port privatisation in other parts of the United Kingdom. A Minister should state from the Dispatch Box, in a matter of weeks, that after due reflection the Government have decided to leave the Belfast port and harbour commissioners to flourish in their enterprise, as they are currently trying to do.
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South) : I welcome the opportunity to follow the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), who has taken an informed interest in Northern Ireland and shared the concerns of its people.
Last night, winding up the debate, the Minister of State chided Northern Ireland Members for not talking the Province up. We are here tonight to talk the port of Belfast up, because we fear that a port with a proud history may be shunted down a siding--as it were--that would not benefit either the port or the citizens of Belfast. I should declare an interest, for several reasons. My son-in-law works in the harbour ; my great-uncle was first secretary of the Belfast dockers union ; I was a minister for 19 years, and part of my parish was the harbour estate ; I represent Belfast, South, members of whose city council and corporation--previously--have been commissioners. For all those reasons, I feel that I have a right to speak tonight and to challenge some of the assertions that have been made.
I understand the point that the hon. Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown) was trying to make, but, knowing the kipper trade and the herrings to be found along that coast, I thought that he was bringing a red herring into the debate when he spoke of the wonderful developments on the east coast. In fact, there has been a lamentable decline in Britain's west coast ports. The thrust of the European transport system relates to Dublin, Holyhead and further down--and, on the other side, the main link that will cause congestion around the channel tunnel. Some of us have been arguing for the build-up of the west coast ports, including the ports of Larne and Belfast. In case anyone thinks that there is a problem between Larne and Belfast, I can tell hon. Members that my paternal ancestors came from east Antrim and my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, East (Mr. Beggs) will realise that I am not trying to encroach on his domain. Belfast has a proud tradition, but we are now in a period of uncertainty. In a sense we have an elected dictatorship.
Column 772For years we have been lectured in the House about looking after minority rights. When the minority of the nation represented by its Members in this House combines with trade union officials and business interests to tell the House that this is not the right way to go, we would like to think that there might be second thoughts. Emphasis has already been placed on the concept of consultation. I have had to challenge the use of English in this place on more than one occasion when we have been told that co-operation was excellent. I always thought that when I received an excellent report, which was very rarely, it could not be much better. Tonight there has been another wonderful use of English. We have been told that two fundamental points came from the discussion period. Those points have not been addressed and the draft order is unamended. If they were fundamental points, surely the Government should have addressed them. I am delighted that on both sides of the House voices have been raised arguing for a proper form of democracy and for proper scrutiny of measures in this place. Some 22 years after the abolition of Stormont, there is no excuse for making a mess of Northern Ireland legislation.
Mr. John D. Taylor : The hon. Member speaks for almost everyone in Northern Ireland when he talks about consultation. Just this weekend, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said and wrote that nothing would happen without the consent of the people of Northern Ireland. We are talking not just about consultation but about consent. Yet here we have an Order in Council for which consent is not forthcoming from the elected representatives of Northern Ireland. Does the hon. Gentleman not find that the procedure that the Minister is pushing through the House is in total contradiction and rejection of the philosophy expounded by the Secretary of State when he said that consent should be applied ?
Rev. Martin Smyth : I share my right hon. Friend's concern about the use of English. Yesterday we talked about the concept of consultation and we discovered that consultation meant very little. It is obvious that consent has the same import in certain branches of English scholarship. I do not know whether it is something to do with American English, but it is not Ulster English or Scots English, where we like to call a spade a spade. We would like to think that the consent of the people of Northern Ireland was being looked for rather than something being imposed on us.
We have praised the development of the harbour estate and the landfill site and reclamation work, but now it is possible that, even allowing for clawbacks, some persons could come in later and profit off the backs of the forebears of the harbour commissioners who over the years have been expanding and developing the port. We believe that that is wrong.
Our neighbours in the Republic of Ireland have done marvellously well in pushing their cause within Europe. That is their responsibility and I do not criticise them, but I indict Her Majesty's Government for not pushing the case of Northern Ireland and its ports.
I asked the Minister a question at the beginning of his speech and I was amazed that he did not have the answer on the tip of his tongue. We have heard that Aberdeen, Ipswich and Poole ports have trust status but have not asked to be privatised. As far as we know, the Government have not pushed for them to be privatised. Why has the order been introduced when other legislation that is more
Column 773important to Northern Ireland and affects the everyday life of its citizens is waiting to be considered ? The Minister knows that I have been waiting for legislation to deal with road traffic problems in Belfast, but I have been told that there is insufficient time in the legislative programme. We are not getting our priorities right. I do not want tediously to repeat the points that have been made, but I endorse my colleagues' arguments and I am delighted that they have been reflected on the Government Benches.
Mr. Roy Beggs (Antrim, East) : Article 12 refers to schemes initiated by the Department. In Northern Ireland we believe strongly that "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." That should be adhered to and borne in mind at all times.
Regrettably, recent bureaucratic meddling in port affairs in my constituency has been perceived as damaging in the borough of Carrickfergus. A decision has been made to cease commercial operations at the port of Carrickfergus. Was there collusion in Northern Ireland Departments to bring about the decline of Carrickfergus harbour, perhaps to make Belfast harbour even more attractive in the Government's privatisation programme ?
The Minister should be aware of the decision taken some time ago in respect of commercial operations at Carrickfergus harbour, which is only 10 miles from Larne. At two public inquiries, it has been suggested that Departments and the council may have misled the commissioners into believing that an alternative port would be developed at Kilroot, but that has not happened. Will finance be made available to Carrickfergus borough council in the event of a decision to rescind the earlier decision to cease commercial operations so that Carrickfergus harbour can be regenerated and redeveloped as a commercial harbour and regain its former principal port status, which it achieved when record tonnages were recorded through the port ? Did Northern Ireland Departments promote the scheme to cease commercial activities, and did they encourage the council to believe that it would get a replacement port at Kilroot, for which it would receive private and public funding ?
Belfast port has become the principal sea port on the island of Ireland, handling more than 11 million tonnes of trade per annum. The private port of Larne in my constituency has the distinction of being the second busiest ferry port. I have no axe to grind today. I support the retention of the present status of Belfast harbour. Its success was largely attributable to the successful management of the harbour commissioners, who include representatives of the city council and the trade union movement, all motivated by a desire to improve the Northern Ireland economy.
There has been major modernisation and port development. I accept the right of the Government compulsorily to privatise Belfast port, but do they not recognise the potential of that successful port and the disadvantages that would result from a change in its status ? Because of the advantages that are about to flow, the ports in the Irish Republic, such as Dublin, will have available grants of up to 85 per cent. for port development. As Belfast is a trust port, its harbour commissioners receive no grants or subsidies from Her Majesty's Government.
Column 774Retained profits, with assistance from European regional development funds, have financed port redevelopment and modernisation.
The economy of Northern Ireland as a whole benefits from the competitive pricing made possible by good management of all the facilities and assets managed by the Belfast harbour commissioners. Common sense dictates that when all is well there should be no interference. If the Government are determined to interfere, however, the bottom line is that the asset should be secured within the control of the people of Northern Ireland. Is the Treasury so hard up for cash that it has to recoup funds now rather than accept the ongoing annual benefits ? I understand that £1 million was paid this year in corporation tax.
All Northern Ireland ports provide competition within Northern Ireland, which has made them attractive to Northern Ireland industry and, indeed, to industry in the Irish Republic, which makes use of our facilities. Millions of pounds every year are being relocated from the profitable private port of Larne and transferred out of the Province. If under privatisation Belfast harbour is lost to Northern Ireland control, its profits, too, will be lost for reinvestment in Northern Ireland. Surely the Minister can accept that the reinvestment of profits generated in Belfast harbour and the ongoing payment of corporation tax make a valuable contribution to the Northern Ireland economy and provide a worthwhile return to the Exchequer for its past investment. I therefore hope that he will accept that variety of management in harbour control has been beneficial and an asset to Northern Ireland, and that he will not proceed with a compulsory privatisation of Belfast harbour. As I have said, I am conscious of the past advantages of private ownership, which helped to bring about the success and the development of Larne harbour, but I regret that in the present climate, with the greater advantage of EC funding going to the ports of the Irish Republic, the privatisation of Belfast harbour would bring with it serious disadvantages to the Northern Ireland economy as a whole. That would result in higher costs to importers and exporters alike, which could ultimately threaten jobs and employment opportunities beyond Belfast harbour.
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster) : I confess to a little puzzlement. Why, in theory or in practice, should one get less money from the EC for the ports in Northern Ireland if they are privatised than if they were in public ownership ?
Mr. Beggs : I thank the hon. Lady for that specific question. What she describes is one of the anomalies of European regional development funding ; regrettably, therefore, successive Northern Ireland Ministers have not managed to secure equal benefits for private and public ports in the Province. I hope that the Minister will specifically address that question further in his response. I agree entirely with my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe) that as a party we judge each case on its merits. We see no merit in the proposed privatisation of Belfast harbour through this enabling legislation and we trust that there will be no future decision compulsorily to require the Belfast harbour commissioners to privatise that harbour.
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Mr. William O'Brien (Normanton) : We have had an interesting debate tonight. It is significant that the only support that the Minister has obtained in this debate has been from the hon. Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown), who represents a constituency on the east coast of England, which does not even face Belfast.
No Northern Ireland Member supports the order and no Labour Member supports the order. I doubt whether, if the Minister or any other Tory went to Belfast, they would find one person who supported the order. That is the extent of the issue. There is no support in the House from Northern Ireland representatives or from the Labour party, and there is no support among the people of Belfast. The Minister should take note of that.
Mr. Beggs : The hon. Gentleman speaks about the absence of support for the policy among the Northern Ireland parties. I remind the hon. Gentleman that only about 5,000 people out of the whole voting population of Northern Ireland supported the Conservative party in the recent elections.
Mr. O'Brien : The hon. Gentleman explains the depth of feeling. I bet that, if we approached Tories in Northern Ireland, they would not support the order, because the port of Belfast is key to the economy of greater Belfast and to the Northern Ireland economy in total. The port accounts for 55 per cent. of all imports and exports to and from Northern Ireland. The order can only mean poorer services and increased port charges, which will have a greater effect on the region than on Great Britain, because Northern Ireland relies on ports for trade and tourism links with the rest of the United Kingdom and the European Community.
The hon. Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) asked the hon. Member for Antrim, East (Mr. Beggs) why a privatised port should receive less grant than a port in public ownership. The Minister explained why in his opening remarks. Here we have a person who will go through the Lobby tonight to condemn the port of Belfast, yet who does not know what the consequences will be. The people of Belfast will suffer because of this legislation.
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : From what I know of the European regional fund regulations, I do not believe that what Opposition Members describe will occur. I see no technical reason why the port should not get just as much, one way or another.
Mr. O'Brien : That shows once again that the hon. Lady is not aware of the circumstances or of the problems that she will create for the people of Northern Ireland in general, but in Belfast especially, by the way in which she votes tonight in favour of the order. Therefore, if the hon. Lady has any merit, the least that she could do would be to abstain or to vote against the order, because she is totally confused over the way in which the European Community grants will apply.
When the Minister was questioned, he explained in his opening remarks that the amount of grant received now, while the harbour is in public ownership, is 75 per cent., yet, under privatisation, it drops to 50 per cent.. That point was also made by the hon. Member for Antrim, East and other hon. Members. It will have an effect on the economy of the harbour and the economy of Belfast.
The Government have wanted to claim that the order
Column 776will improve the effectiveness and the efficiency of the port. Obviously, they are saying that privatisation will be a lesser burden on the taxpayer.
Mr. Peter Robinson : I think that the hon. Gentleman is within a hair's breadth of convincing the hon. Lady that it would be wiser to abstain or to vote against the order. It should be pointed out that the Minister made it clear to the House in his opening remarks that, while a grant of up to 75 per cent. would be available if the port was in public ownership, a maximum grant of 50 per cent. would be available if it was a private company, and some of us doubt that it would even get that.
Mr. O'Brien : The hon. Gentleman's point is significant and relevant. However, may I also tell the hon. Member for Lancaster that we were told tonight that, if the port realises £50 million in capital for its sale, 50 per cent. of that capital will go back to the company ? In other words, only 50 per cent. of the value of the port and the real estate which goes with it will go to the Exchequer. Therefore, one has to ask why Conservative Members want to privatise a port which is highly efficient and highly profitable, and which helps the people of Belfast and the Province of Northern Ireland. One has to ask why we are in such a position tonight.
Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham) : If we take an analogy from Great Britain, from the hon. Gentleman's experience, would he say whether a private port such as Felixstowe had more or less capital investment than some of the publicly owned ports ? If he cannot acknowledge that Felixstowe did rather better than most of the publicly owned ports, should he not draw this part of his speech to a speedy conclusion ?
Mr. O'Brien : That is another example of a Conservative Member trying to find some solution to justify going through the Lobby to support the order, because, again, the hon. Gentleman is not comparing like with like. Belfast is a trust port. All the resources which are generated from that port go back into the business, or it reduces the charges. It is a trust port ; it is not a port where there will be--or where there are at present--any benefits to individuals or to companies.
Mr. Nicholas Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West) : Will the hon. Gentleman explain to the House why the Opposition parties have acquiesced in the disgraceful procedure of putting the matter through by Order in Council, to which he has important, specific detailed objections, when they ought to have been debated by the Opposition through the usual channels in the House ?
Mr. O'Brien : If the hon. Gentleman feels that the business that we are discussing tonight should not have been before the House under the Order in Council procedure, we agree with him. The Minister should withdraw the orders and let us discuss the matter in the manner which has been requested by hon. Members. We should discuss the matter in Committee in the proper way, as legislation should be discussed.
Mr. Budgen indicated assent .
Mr. O'Brien : The hon. Gentleman nods his head in agreement. If he holds that view, the least that he can do is abstain from voting tonight. He accepts that the orders have been presented to the House in a disgraceful way. I
Column 777feel that more Tory Members share that view. I appeal to them : if that is their view, the least that they can do is abstain from voting tonight.
Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) : Is it not the case that the orders should be withdrawn so that we can have a proper debate about the Government's transport policy and see how ports and trust ports fit into the whole issue of transport ?
The orders will create complications and problems. I appeal to Tory Members to listen carefully to what is said, especially by Northern Ireland Members, so that we can put the orders in the proper perspective.
Mr. Budgen : Can the hon. Gentleman explain the official Opposition's position on the matter, because this disgraceful procedure has been supported by both Front Benches for a long time ? Is it Labour's position that they will no longer support the use of the Order-in-Council procedure to impose legislation on Northern Ireland without proper discussion ?
Tonight, we are debating compulsory orders or enabling legislation relating to privatisation of the port of Belfast. In any language, and in any approach to the matter, one can rightly see that hon. Members who support the Government have not fully realised the consequences of the orders. In that context, the least that the Minister can do is withdraw them and allow us to have a full debate on the issue, allow greater consultation and allow Members of Parliament and the people of Belfast to judge the Government's intentions more openly and freely.
With privatisation, the European grant support which has been so beneficial to the port of Belfast will decrease, if not disappear, as was pointed out earlier. There is also the question whether some of the grant that has been paid should be clawed back. Reference has been made to that in the past, and EC Ministers have said, as has Commissioner Bruce Millan, that there is a possibility of clawing back EC funding. Commissioner Millan also made that clear when we discussed the privatisation of Aldergrove airport. The way in which we judge the orders tonight will only be to the detriment of Belfast, the people of Belfast and the people of Northern Ireland. As I said, the port of Belfast is a trust port, and the trust port arrangement already ensures that there is fair charging and equal treatment in the allocation of berths and other port facilities. There is a real threat that the ownership of privatised ports will be transferred out of Northern Ireland. The Minister was asked earlier to give an assurance that the ownership of the port of Belfast would not be transferred out of Northern Ireland. Hon. Members ask for that assurance because there is fear that, if foreign investors are allowed to take over the port of Belfast, they will engage in asset-stripping, which will be detrimental to the port and to the Northern Ireland community.
We are also aware that a handsome amount of real estate is attached to the port. That matter must have some bearing on the way in which the port will be disposed of. The
Column 778regulations under which trust ports operate place a responsibility of care on the various statutory bodies which control ports on behalf and in the interests of people in the hinterland served by the port--the people of Belfast. The port of Belfast operates in the interests of both the citizens of Belfast and the whole Province of Northern Ireland.
The board of the harbour commissioners is representative of port users, the business community, Belfast city council and employees, through their statutory joint negotiating committee, and representatives of the trade unions in Northern Ireland. In other words, the board is entirely accountable for the operation of the port of Belfast. That accountability will go under privatisation. There will be a lack of democracy and accountability to the people of Northern Ireland. Under privatisation, the only people to whom the board will be responsible are the shareholders.
When one considers the backcloth to the order, one cannot but object to the way in which it has been presented tonight. Hon. Members have expressed anxieties about the staff pension fund. We have seen some examples of what has happened to pension funds in other privatisation schemes. Northern Ireland Members have expressed fears that redundancies and unemployment could result from the asset-stripping that might take place.
We must also consider security. At present, the harbour commissioners organise security at the port. It has been suggested that the security force at the port could be part of a privatised police force. That again would be detrimental to the work of the port.
The people of Northern Ireland and a great proportion of people in other parts of Great Britain are opposed to this arrogant attempt to impose the ideology of the Tory party. They are opposed to this privatisation enabling Bill. I urge the Minister to consider the consequences and think about what has been said by hon. Members who represent constituencies in Belfast and throughout Northern Ireland. He should withdraw the order tonight. If the order is not withdrawn, we will divide the House and vote against it.
The Labour party has opposed every privatisation measure which has come before this House since 1979, yet it has no proposals to renationalise any of those industries which have been privatised, apart from having some debate about the future of the water industry.
The Government's privatisation programme has been outstandingly successful. Consumers have benefited, employees have benefited and shareholders have benefited. Even the socialist Government of Greece now proposes to privatise part of its telephone industry. Perhaps one day the Labour party will learn that there are advantages to be gained from privatisation.
Mr. Budgen : Can my hon. Friend confirm that, when analogous legislation was put through this House in respect of the United Kingdom, it was done through the Bill procedure ? Will he please explain, if I am right in saying that, how the people of Northern Ireland can have any proper confidence in the Westminster Parliament if the squalid procedure of Order in Council is used, which is used particularly to deprive them of their proper rights of discussion ?
Mr. Smith : I have some sympathy with my hon. Friend, and I certainly would not claim that this was a perfect arrangement for the discussion of legislation. I think you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that time simply will not allow for every measure to be included in primary legislation. [Interruption.]
Mr. Smith : My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) may not be aware that, when we debated the privatisation of Belfast international airport under similar procedure and allowed three hours for the debate, the whole time was not taken up. That is an interesting indication of the level of interest. We do not rule out primary legislation for Northern Ireland business, but we must make a judgment in each case.
Several hon. Members rose
Mr. Clifford Forsythe : May I ask the Minister whether the legislation to which he refers was amendable ? Was there any chance--no matter how long we talked on it--that we could have made any difference, or added even a single full stop, to that order ?
Mr. Smith : That is my very point. The legislation is not amendable, and I have said that I am sympathetic to the point that has been made. But there we are--that is the situation we are faced with. [Interruption.] I must move on, or I shall not be able to reply to any points raised during the debate.
Mr. Smith rose