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Mr. Chope: Can the hon. Lady guarantee that the £20 per pensioner household not on income support will be with those households before the winter is over?

Angela Eagle: My Department is not directly responsible for administering that payment, but it is the Chancellor's intention that that money should be provided and I am sure that the Government will do their best to do so.

As many hon. Members have already suggested, the utilities and regulators have a key role to play. Part of the legacy of the previous Government is that those companies and individuals essentially act alone as a result of statutory independence. That makes it very difficult for us to integrate policy across different sectors. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North asked about gas and electricity supply standing charges paid by people on low incomes. We are in the middle of a review of utility regulation that is considering whether such regulation

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should have an explicit dimension based on fairness and social considerations. We plan to publish its findings in a Green Paper in the spring.

Mr. Matthew Taylor: The block on the levy for the Energy Saving Trust is key to undermining financial investment in energy saving. Will the Minister consider that problem?

Angela Eagle: It is being studied carefully, but a legacy of the system of regulation that we inherited from the previous Government is the gas regulator's power simply to say no. That is what she did and no amount of ministerial urging can make her change her mind.

The home energy efficiency scheme is the largest specific energy efficiency programme in the current portfolio designed to tackle fuel poverty. The scheme aims to help the most vulnerable by paying for energy efficiency measures in their homes. In that way, we will achieve two objectives: we will improve their home environment and contribute to our need to reduce C0 2 emissions to meet our international obligations. This year and next, the annual allocation is more than £75 million, and I have set a target for this year of 400,000 grants, each achieving, on average, an improvement of five points in the energy rating of the claimant's home.

The reduction in the cost of the materials for that work, which the Chancellor announced in the Budget in November, is welcome because it will enable us to help an extra 40,000 homes. Given that that scheme is targeted at the poorest households, that opportunity is especially pleasing.

My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Gilroy) was wrong when she said that the home energy efficiency scheme does not reach to the private rented sector. It does, but, unfortunately, a review of the scheme that I initiated on my appointment has made it clear that the scheme as it currently operates does not reach the private rented sector as often as we would like it to. I do not want to pre-empt the outcome of that review, but there are indications that the scheme is not as well targeted on the fuel poor as it might be: it essentially offers a first aid service to a potentially large customer group and sometimes misses its targets.

I welcome today's debate. We need a continuing debate about these serious subjects and the House has made an extremely good start. I assume that we shall continue to make progress through private Members' Bills and Adjournment debates and I look forward to the debate continuing in a constructive way.

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Ships (Passenger Registration)

12.29 pm

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise on the Floor of the House the European Commission's proposal for a Council directive on the registration of persons sailing on board passenger ships. The matter is of considerable importance to my constituents, to the people of Kent and to the travelling public throughout the European Union.

When I first applied for a debate, my main concern was for those of my constituents who work on the passenger ferries and those using the ferries sailing from Ramsgate. In the interim, the Holyman passenger service has been transferred from Ramsgate to Dover, but it would wrong to think that the matters I wish to address do not also affect the freight shipping services still sailing from Ramsgate--they do and they will.

I should make it plain that, although I regard the issue as being of considerable importance to Kent and as a national issue, I shall inevitably refer frequently to the port of Dover. As a courtesy, I wish to put on record the convention that short Adjournment debates such as this involve the participation of one Member of Parliament and one Minister. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser) shares my views, but I would not wish his constituents to think that the fact that he is not speaking in the debate means that he does not have an interest.

The proposal for a directive on the registration of passengers sailing on board ferries requires that all passengers be registered on an inventory by name, age, sex and, if relevant, disability. The proposed directive will apply to all passenger vessels on journeys of more than 20 miles; that figure was originally 30 miles, but the proposals have been amended to ensure that they catch all cross-channel short sea crossings. Curiously, the directive excludes one of the busier European passenger ferry routes--that between Denmark and Sweden--and the channel tunnel; I shall return to the significance of that fact later.

The proposed directive appears to be a European Commission knee-jerk reaction to the Estonia disaster, based on the "We'd better be seen to be doing something" principle. The preamble explains:

Great reliance is placed on the safety of life at sea convention, which introduces the principle of passenger registration in a specific regulation. The SOLAS regulation was intended to apply to

    "all passenger ships on international voyages".

I repeat, international voyages, not short sea crossing ferries within the European Union.

To be fair to the Commission--I must be fair--it has acted on a request from the Council of Ministers to present a proposal for the mandatory requirement on the registration of passengers aboard roll-on/roll-off ferries. That request was indeed made in the light of the aftermath of the Estonia disaster, when considerable difficulty was experienced with the identification of passengers and the consequent settlement of insurance claims.

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In a letter dated 7 May 1997, Commissioner Kinnock tells me that

Yet the head of the Commission's maritime safety unit, Roberto Salvarani, is reported to have told port officials recently that

    "there is no significant safety reason"

for the directive. It would seem that Mr. Salvarani's appraisal of the situation is more realistic than that of Commissioner Kinnock. Michael Krayenbrink, Dover harbour board's general manager, ferries, says that

    "the registration of passenger names will not help prevent accidents (nor save lives in any search and rescue), but only deal with their aftermath".

Let us think logically. Anyone who has any dealings with search and rescue--as one who has worked in the Ministry of Defence and represents a constituency which played host to a search and rescue base, I have such experience--knows that helicopter and lifeboat services need numbers, not names, ages and genders, to facilitate a rescue. In the cold and the dark and the wind and the water, one does not shout, "Are you Smith, Miss, aged 18?" One yanks the body out of the water and moves on to the next one. Rescuers save everyone they can find and keep going until the total head count is reached. Ferries already carry such a count: that figure is kept on shore and also given to each captain before departure.

Names, ages and gender may be of interest to an insurance company after a disaster, but even here there is a difficulty. In copious correspondence with Commissioner Kinnock, I have endeavoured to establish how the personal information will be verified, because people are occasionally reluctant to give their real name when they are not compelled to do so. I am not suggesting that hundreds of Michael Mice will necessarily head for EuroDisney, but it would be naive to believe that a considerable number of Mr. and Mrs. Smiths do not and will not continue to head off for weekends in Paris. Mr. Kinnock's response to my inquiries, in a letter dated 3 October 1997, states:

In other words, under European open frontiers there is no way of checking the details. The inventory may not only not help to save life, but confuse and hinder the settlement of insurance claims through inaccuracy.

I shall now address to the manner in which the directive appears to have been devised and its likely effects. The entire concept was generated in the emotional aftermath of the Estonia and the Herald of Free Enterprise disasters. Some constituents of mine who were on board the Herald of Free Enterprise lost husbands and others lost relatives. I do not know whether Commissioner Kinnock has had to deal with the grieving families of those bereaved in a ferry disaster, but I have, and I yield to nobody in my personal concern--if only in memory of those who died on the night the Herald went down--for the continual improvement in standards of safety at sea.

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However, the directive appears to have been produced in a rush, without any serious attention being given to the problems it would create. It is tokenism of the worst sort.

Commissioner Kinnock is on record as saying on 20 November 1997 that:

Whom did his services consult before the proposals for the directive were drafted? Apparently, they did not consult the Calais chamber of commerce, which plays such a vital role in the running of that port; nor did they consult the cross-channel ferry operators Sea France or P and O European Ferries; and they did not consult Dover harbour board. Had they done their homework properly, they might have discovered the impracticalities of the bureaucratic nightmare that I fear they are about to create.

The ferry companies and the port authorities have done their homework and have concluded that the proposed scheme is unworkable if significant delays are not to be caused for both passenger and freight traffic. Indeed, the effect on the nation's freight could be disastrous. Freight lorries could not load even on to freight-only ferries if the approaches to the port were choked with cars and coaches. More than 50 per cent. of Britain's exports by volume cross the straits of Dover. Any damage done to that traffic will be damage felt by us all.

The ferries are essential to enable British industry to compete with our international rivals. The Road Haulage Association has told me this morning that it is

I believe that that view is shared by officials from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions who have also taken the trouble to make a thorough study of the subject.

In a letter sent to me yesterday, Michael Krayenbrink of the Dover harbour board reminded me of the following figures:

he rightly adds--

    "goes against the Commission's twin aims of facilitating transport within the Union and encouraging intermodal transport".

The inevitable increased costs will be passed on to passengers and freight hauliers, thus pushing up ticket prices and adding to the burden faced by ferry companies, already bracing themselves for the loss of traffic and revenue that is likely to result from the abolition of the duty-free trade. Mr. Krayenbrink's observations are as applicable, on a smaller scale, to Ramsgate and the other Kent channel ports as they are to Dover.

I have viewed the facilities available at both Dover and Calais. There is no doubt in my mind that at any peak time neither port is designed to collect the sort of information that will be required by the proposed directive without causing inordinate delay and car and lorry jams stretching back to the A2 or the Paris motorway.

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Currently, the final check-in time is 20 minutes before the departure for each ferry. That allows time to load ships and for the completion of document formalities, freight and tourist manifests and loading lists. At present, the time taken to check tickets and passports is 45 seconds for a car and three passengers, five minutes for a coach and 40 passengers, three minutes for a freight lorry and its driver and 30 seconds for a foot passenger. The projected additional time for registration under the proposed directive is three minutes and 45 seconds for a car and three passengers instead of 45 seconds, 40 minutes for a bus and 40 passengers instead of five minutes, four minutes for a freight lorry and its driver instead of three minutes, and one minute and 30 seconds for each foot passenger instead of just 30 seconds.

How much earlier before departure will travellers have to arrive to enable the ports to comply with the terms of the proposed directive? Where will the additional traffic that is generated park?

Jonathan Sloggett of the Dover harbour board has said that there is no more shore space available for ferry companies at that port, and Guy Flamengt of the Calais chamber of commerce has stressed that the expensive new port of Calais approach road system, which was built with the help of European funding, was created to cut queues and to speed the boarding process. It was specifically designed not to have to handle large volumes of queuing traffic.

The thrust of the single market is to speed communications and end border delays within the Community, but the proposed directive introduces a new set of complex border delays. Commissioner Kinnock and his team appear to have conducted no proper research into the practicalities, but prefer to shelter behind the alleged availability of telematics to solve the problems. What telematics? I invite Commissioner Kinnock to stand in a check-in booth at Calais and try to record, by any means, the names, genders and ages of a Eurolines' coachful of visitors picked up from Poland and across Europe at various stops en route to Calais. It is not just Polish names that British and French officials find difficult to read and spell.

As someone who, for about a dozen years, has been pressing for fully machine-readable identity cards and passports, I am aware that there is no uniform system operating in the European Union, never mind the countries of the former Soviet Union and beyond. Even the different departements of France use differing systems. The idea that a machine-readable swipe card will make everything swift, accurate and easy is unreal. Even if the telematics did exist, even if every passenger carried a swipe card, even if all the cars were harmonised, even if every passenger was fit and well and could jump out of a coach quickly and even if it took each passenger only 10 seconds to use a swipe card, the cumulative effect would add hours to boarding times, with a consequent knock-on effect on turnround times and on passenger and freight costs.

The reliance on the use of telematics is jargon. I do not believe that it is at present practicable and I believe that the Commission also knows that, but declines to admit it. The process will interfere dreadfully, possibly terminally, with the turn-up-and-go system that is essential to the ferries' survival in competition with the channel tunnel shuttle.

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That brings me to the issue of competition. Let me assume for a brief and incredible moment that the Commission's entire thesis is correct and the provisions of the directive will save life. Why do not the same provisions apply to the channel tunnel in which there was a near-fatal and certainly horrific fire not long ago? Why should ferry passengers be subjected to inordinate bureaucracy and delay while those using the potentially just as hazardous tunnel are allowed to travel on the shuttle without even a head count being taken?

The Commission claims that the directive ensures harmonisation in the interests of fair competition, but that is nonsense. It will have just the opposite effect. The directive's effect on the short sea crossings of the channel from Dover and Ramsgate, which is seeking to attract new operators following the loss of Holyman, will be disastrous to fair competition.

The direct competitor of the ferries is the shuttle. Unlike the ferries, the shuttle does not at present even count passengers. The Commission should at the very least have dealt with the ferries and the shuttle simultaneously. Unless the measure is applied equally and simultaneously to ferry and tunnel traffic, the Commission will have placed the channel ferries at such a grave disadvantage that they may become no longer commercially viable.

To date, the Commission has only, in the words of the director general of DG7, Robert Coleman,

In a letter to me dated 19 November 1997, Mr. Coleman said:

    "While I understand your arguments that a level playing field is needed for competition between cross-channel ferries and 'le Shuttle' I do not believe that it necessarily follows that users of the tunnel should, therefore, also have to comply with registration procedures as those only apply to ferries".

It is all right to fry and to be unidentified and unnumbered in a future tunnel fire, but it is not all right to be simply recorded, as at present, on the manifest of a ferry. If there is any logic in the proposal, of course it "necessarily follows" that the same regulations should apply to all cross-channel traffic.

The total traffic on the short sea routes in now more than the tunnel can handle on its own; loss of the ferries would pose a considerable threat to British exporters. Another closure of the tunnel, for any reason, would, under those circumstances, bring cross-channel freight and passenger traffic to a halt.

If I believed that the directive--which is promoted by Commissioner Kinnock and, astonishingly, has the support of East Kent's Member of the European Parliament, Mark Watts, as rapporteur of the Transport Committee--would contribute to the saving of even one life, I would support it. But I do not. I believe that it is ill-researched, unworkable, unnecessarily bureaucratic and fails every European test of a proportionate response to a perceived need.

I emphatically do not regard this as a party-political issue. I believe that the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions' own officials have serious reservations about the directive. I have good reason to believe that their colleagues in France share those growing doubts.

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The Minister for Transport in London has a reputation for being fair minded and, without wishing to embarrass her, for being a thinking Minister. I urge her to take another long, hard look at the proposals. If she shares any of my concerns about the future viability of the ferries, about their importance to our transport infrastructure and about the need for fair competition between the sea routes and the tunnel, will she please seek to ensure that the United Kingdom's presidency is used to secure, at the very least, parity of treatment between the ferries and the tunnel?

Will the Minister demand that parity is achieved before the commencement date of any such directive--even if it means pushing the current year 2000 start date back by however long it takes? Will she please insist that a proper study of the likely effects of the proposed directive is conducted by the Commission and that all interested parties are, even at this late stage, properly consulted? Will she explore the possibilities, within the present proposals, for a derogation to exempt entirely the short sea crossings of the channel from the proposed directive under the terms of new paragraph 4 of article 9? If at all possible, will she endeavour to have this ill-conceived proposal for a directive consigned to oblivion?

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