Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 360 - 376)



  360. Was last year exceptional with seven or was that about the level that we were running at before?
  (Mr Burr) The pattern is rather uneven. Last year, it was by anybody's reckoning a bad year. One of the things that Port Skills and Safety are gearing up to do which they are going to launch in September is that the industry plans to launch a safer ports initiative with clear targets for reducing the number of deaths and serious injuries in ports and also to reduce the number of off time or off work accidents as well by substantial numbers that exceed the targets in the government's Revitalising Health and Safety.

  361. You have told us that this year so far we have not had any fatalities. Are the serious accidents also down or are they not so good?
  (Mr Burr) I do not think we collect statistics sufficiently. It is too soon to say.
  (Mr Jamieson) The statistics we have are that from 1999-2000 to 2000-01 major injuries in the first of those two years were 135. In 2000-01 they were down to 72 so there was a 46% decrease in the number of major injuries. There was a slight increase and two more people were fatally injured in that period of time. It looks as if there is a trend for serious injuries to decline and we hope that that trend is being followed through in fatalities as well.
  (Mr Burr) The government Health and Safety Executive and the industry agree that this needs a big push and we welcome the lead that the industry is giving in the safer ports initiative. The government will be very firmly behind that, not only from the point of view of encouragement but with a vigorous approach to inspections and prosecutions and the development of guidance on management responsibility, support by the government for the industry's passport scheme to regulate non-permanent employees' training standards and also a review of the dock regulations, not just to bring them in line with all the latest directives and so on, but to see if there are not some tweaks that could be made in there that would make the ports safer.


  362. Have you had any complaints about the new Humber pilot set-up?
  (Mr Burr) Enough to write a 40 page paper on.

  363. What conclusions did you reach?
  (Mr Burr) The conclusion we reached was that in general the standard of the new pilotage service on the Humber was acceptable and equivalent to the safety standard maintained by the previous service.

  364. We will welcome a note from you on that. Minister, you have already emphasised the fact that the government does not submit to the ports industry EU rules but competition to lead not only developments but also the future planning of the industry. How much success have you had with the Commission in pointing out the difference between what happens on the continent in terms of state aid and what happens here?
  (Mr Jamieson) This has been largely in the discussions we have had over the Ports Directive. We have been very clear in making the difference between the way our ports are run and those that are run in other parts of the continent of Europe. That is how we have secured many of the changes to this Directive that we have. I think our ports are considerably advanced in many respects in terms of liberalisation and the way they operate to many of those in other parts of Europe. For example, they are far more responsive generally to the demands of the industry. There is more weekend working. We have made a very good case in supporting our ports in this respect.

  365. How much support do you get from the Commission? Do they accept that some of the state aids constitute a distortion of competition?
  (Mr Reeves) The state aid issue is a pretty complex business. Under Article 87 of the Treaty, state aid is that aid which distorts or threatens to distort competition by favouring certain undertakings. There is an argument which has been run in the past that a lot of the state funding that goes into the ports industry on the continent is not state aid in those terms because it is not favouring certain undertakings. It is open to general use. This is just one of the issues. There is uncertainty about what is and what is not state aid in the port sector and therefore we have continued to press the Commission—and I think they are quite sympathetic to our concerns—with one or two other Member States, that they really do need to take a fresh look at this area. We were pleased that the Commissioner herself at the Council on 17 June undertook to address the issue of competition between ports by producing a paper on public funding and state aid and by amending the Transparency Directive to cover all the ports covered by the Directive on Port Services, not just above the 40 million euro threshold.

  366. Did she set a timetable for this?
  (Mr Reeves) We understand that the Commission officials have already been working on a draft paper on public funding of state aid and we hope to see something issued by them by the autumn of this year, but there is an opportunity over the next few weeks for the ports industry and others to get their concerns across direct to the Commission. We are encouraging them to do that.

  367. Did you discuss light dues with anybody?
  (Mr Reeves) I cannot say we have discussed light dues specifically with the Commission. However, we have as the Committee may know recently issued a consultation paper on light dues and I have some copies with me in case the Committee would like some. We have held down the rates over some years now through—

  368. We are not talking about the rates; we are talking about the fact that this happens in this country and, as you know, it does not happen elsewhere. That is a disadvantage.
  (Mr Reeves) I agree. In most other European countries, aids to navigation are state funded in one way or another.

  369. Is there a suggestion that we are going to take responsibility for it?
  (Mr Reeves) The current policy is that users in the UK should pay the costs of aids to navigation and that is broadly the policy in Ireland, Greece and Sweden. We have however asked specifically, in our consultation paper, for any evidence that UK ports are financially disadvantaged in comparison with European ports by the imposition of light dues. We need to remember it is only one factor in the cost of port calls. We have not seen evidence yet that there is a significant distortion of trading patterns as a result of it, but we are encouraging everyone that we are consulting to come forward with some evidence if they have it. What we would like to see more generally is some evidence on the overall totality of port costs so that we can see from the shipping companies, for example, how the relative costs of their port calls in the UK compare with costs on the continent.

  370. Can I ask you about annex 17 of the UK Maritime Coastguard Agency declaration: "AIS is a new and untried system with the potential to make a significant contribution to safety. It is particularly important therefore during the early years of implementation that its potential is fully assessed by mariners. This is causing considerable dismay. We are talking about the imminent accession to revised SOLAS, Chapter 5."
  (Mr Reeves) I am unsighted on that particular point. It is not part of my responsibilities but we can come back to you with a note.

  371. This is something we have raised before and it is causing considerable worries. It is going to affect, as far as we can see, UK competition in relation to a great many continental ports.
  (Mr Reeves) In principle, one of the advantages of proceeding through IMO is that you have a level degree of regulation in particular areas on the maritime side. That is one reason why it is very much an internationally regulated industry.

  372. One understands that but what is concerning people in the industry is that this new system could be used in some waters to select ships as suitable targets to be attacked. Is the Department looking at this very closely because if it goes through by statutory instrument without people talking about the implications—
  (Mr Reeves) There is a whole raft of work going on, on the security issues on the maritime side, as you can imagine. A lot of it is linked to the IMO agenda.

  373. Could you give us a note on that?
  (Mr Jamieson) We will undertake to do that.

  374. Finally, you have been very good and very clear about collecting the information particularly about containers. What we would like to know is that the Department is thinking ahead in terms of a strategy that would enable it to deal with a situation where competition was created by continental ports being able to tranship goods. We do not want in this country to go through the same situation again where we lose our trade because so much of it is going into continental ports and then being transhipped. Do we have your word that the Department is not only aware of the implications for the United Kingdom economy from that but is considering in very considerable detail the impact, where we are going to go, how soon we need to worry about it, what effect the deep water ports are going to have? Is all of that work going to come before the Department?
  (Mr Jamieson) It is. This is why we are looking so very carefully at developments in the European Union because we have to make sure that any developments that take place do not disadvantage our own ports. A very good example is the one we have been looking at today, the Ports Directive. It is a very good example where this country has fought its corner very hard and very successfully. Although we have not absolutely everything we want, the work that we have done has generally been approved of by virtually everybody involved with the operation of the ports.

  375. The difficulty is that as an industry it is a reactive industry in this country. It seems to be quite prepared to rest on the laurels that we have competition between one port and another and frankly that is not the case in relation to many of the ports elsewhere in Europe. Unless there is some imagination, we are suddenly going to find ourselves in exactly the same situation in 10 years' time that we found, for example, in relation to aviation. That would be not only damaging but extremely expensive.
  (Mr Jamieson) That is a very poignant observation.

  376. Can we be quite clear that the timetable that you are working to will enable us to get some of the information that you are gathering and that you will now put quite a lot of pressure on the industry to come up with statistics that make some sense?
  (Mr Burr) They want the decisions on the cases. Ministers have a duty to make informed decisions using the best available information.

  Chairman: Minister, you have been very tactful and very helpful. Thank you.

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