Fourth Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation
Wednesday 4 December 2002
[Mr. John McWilliam in the Chair]
(Northern Ireland) Order 2002
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Angela Smith): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Harbours (Northern Ireland) Order 2002.
I welcome you to the Chair once again, Mr. McWilliam. I know that you will Chair the Committee with your usual good humour and diligence. It is worth repeating again in Committee that my appointment as a Northern Ireland Minister is on a temporary basis while the Assembly is suspended. I am sure that all hon. Members would wish to see the Assembly up and running again as soon as it is possible. [Hon. Members: ''Hear, hear.''] A draft of the order was laid before the House on 21 November 2002. The order is the final element of a package of measures designed to improve the public accountability of the Northern Ireland trust ports and to ensure that the public interest is fully safeguarded in relation to their commercial activities. The need for that arises from the growing interest of the general public and locally elected representatives in the activities and future development plans of the harbour authorities. Indeed, the Regional Development Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly originally advocated the legislation.
The order is short and contains just seven articles. It designates the Belfast Harbour Commissioners, the Coleraine Harbour Commissioners, the Harbour of Carlingford Lough Improvement Commissioners, the Londonderry Port and Harbour Commissioners and the Warrenpoint Harbour Authority. All the commercial public trust ports in Northern Ireland are therefore covered.
Article 4 will empower the Department for Regional Development to give directions of a general or specific character in relation to the functions of the harbour authorities. That would enable the Department to act to safeguard the public interest in relation to the commercial activities of the trust ports in, for example, a situation in which a trust port might be inclined to put commercial advantage in a land deal over the greater public good. However, we envisage that that power would be used only after consultation with the harbour authorities.
That particular provision would also be useful in further underpinning memorandums of understanding between the respective harbour authorities and the Department, which requires trust ports to consult with the Government before disposing of any harbour lands or any change in land use. The order also envisages that a duty be imposed on a designated harbour authority to comply with any directions given by the Department.
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Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): At one stage, I was the Minister with responsibility for the environment in the Northern Ireland Office, but I have forgotten the answer to the question that I am going to ask-even if I ever knew what the answer was. Is there also a power for someone to call in a change of planning allowed by the harbour owner, the district council or one of the Departments? Is the order duplicating powers that are otherwise held by people beyond the harbour?
Angela Smith: I was not aware that the order duplicated any powers. If that is incorrect, I shall come back to the hon. Gentleman.
Article 5 will enable the Department to require a trust port to provide it with such information as may be required-for example, details of a specific lease or contract, or information about preferential user arrangements. That would apply to information coming into the possession of a harbour authority only after the order is made.
The order contains provision for the imposition of fines and penalties, either for failure to comply with a notice requesting information, or for knowingly or recklessly making a statement or producing a document that is false. Although the Harbours Act (Northern Ireland) 1970 already contains provisions to enable the Department to obtain information, the legislation contains more specific details relating to forecasts to allow it to regulate harbours, and to the compilation of statistics or information relating to grants or loans under the Act.
Articles 6 and 7 provide for the introduction by the Department of a code of practice for all Northern Ireland trust ports. That follows a similar initiative in Great Britain. The proposed legislation requires the Department to consult such persons as it thinks fit about proposals, or amendments to the code of practice. It is envisaged that such a code will address key aspects of conduct, accountability and openness by identifying the appropriate corporate and individual responsibilities expected from the trust ports.
Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): On a couple of occasions the Minister has referred to consultation. At the beginning, she said that the order was made necessary by growing interest from the public and organisations. Now she mentions further consultation. However, if we are to believe the paperwork that she has kindly supplied, of the 21 organisations that were consulted, eight said, ''no comment''. If that is growing interest, what was the situation like before it started to grow?
Angela Smith: I think that ''no comment'' means that the organisation saw no problems. The duty on the Department is to ensure that as many people as possible are consulted, and the responses that we have received have been generally supportive and have shown interest. There has certainly been a great deal of public interest.
Mr. John Taylor (Solihull): Will the Minister give way on that point?
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Angela Smith: I shall say something about consultation now, but will come back to the hon. Gentleman before I conclude.
At present, the Department is working with the harbour authorities towards the implementation on a voluntary basis of the proposed code, pending the enactment of legislation. On consultation, in developing legislative proposals the Department has consulted extensively the harbour authorities, the port users and their agents, the Regional Development Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly, district councils and various other bodies. The views expressed during consultation have been considered and, where appropriate, have been taken on board.
Members will be pleased to learn that locally there was widespread cross-party support for the proposals. Prior to the suspension of the devolved institutions, the Harbours Bill had been through its second stage and had been referred to the Assembly's Regional Development Committee. As that Committee had already endorsed the legislation, it was confidently expected to emerge quickly to complete the Assembly's legislation process.
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): On the subject of consultation, the Minister has kindly provided the Committee with a summary of responses to the Harbours Bill consultation. The Port of Larne, the Crown Estate, the Belfast Shipping Agents Association, the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, and the Institute of Directors have all indicated a wish to see a draft Bill. I presume, given the stage that we have reached, that they have seen that, so I should like to know whether there have been any subsequent comments from those bodies.
Angela Smith: I shall return to the hon. Gentleman's final point in my winding-up speech, but yes, they have all seen the Bill. A comment was made to me that never has a piece of legislation been so consulted upon, debated and discussed. Anyone who will be affected by it would not suggest for a minute that they had not been adequately consulted or had an opportunity to air their views.
Mr. John Taylor: My question may be on a point where I have missed something-it does happen occasionally. The explanatory memorandum, under the heading ''consultation'', states:
''A total of 21 responses were received, mainly from the harbour authorities.''
I wonder whether the Minister can tell the Committee in general terms whether the harbour authorities referred to in the Bill welcome the measure. Are they being dragged kicking and screaming, or was it to some extent their idea anyway?
Angela Smith: I would not describe it as being dragged kicking and screaming, because many of the proposals in the memorandums of understanding have already been implemented on a voluntary basis. I shall give the hon. Gentleman further information on responses, although they are summarised in the consultation document.
Peter Bottomley: Will the Minister give way?
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Angela Smith: I shall be extremely generous and give way.
Peter Bottomley: Will the Minister accept the thanks of members of the Committee, and of all hon. Members, for paragraph 10 of the explanatory memorandum, which explicitly refers to discussions between the Treasury and the Department for Transport on the possible effects of the order? That is a welcome manifestation of open government. Will the Minister pass on my thanks to those at the Treasury and the Department for Transport who have allowed some of their potential disagreements to be aired in public?
Angela Smith: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments.
Now that members of the Committee have considered the order and taken note of the consultation process and the cross-party support in the Assembly that encouraged us to see it through, I hope that they will approve it to ensure that improved public accountability is given to the Northern Ireland trust ports.
Mr. John Taylor: What I shall say now I have said before in similar Committees. It would be presumptuous of me, not being a Minister and as an Englishman from an English constituency, to take a very strong stance on the right arrangements for Northern Ireland, which has a somewhat different culture from that of my area and a particular set of problems that we all know about and sympathise with. Therefore, I shall not assert any opinion of mine or of my party. I shall be most interested to hear what the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) has to say.
On a lighter note, Mr. McWilliam, when I first read the order I thought that I should get up and ask your leave to adjourn the Committee so that we could go to visit all the harbours so as to be the better informed.