Draft Harbours (Northern Ireland) Order 2002

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Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes): And get in some golf at the same time.

Mr. Taylor: And get in some golf at the same time.

The Chairman: Order. I was about to tell the hon. Gentleman that making such a visit would be superfluous in my case, because I have already done so.

Mr. Taylor: You are a well-travelled man, Mr. McWilliam, among your many virtues.

What do the harbour trusts think about the order? I should like to feel that they were entering into the new arrangements willingly, anxious to co-operate, and not in any way reluctantly. I should like to feel that when the central Department asks for information, the harbour trusts will give it gladly and willingly, knowing that the inquiry serves a good purpose and that they have an important duty to give full and proper answers. To summarise my question, are the harbour boards willing partners in the new arrangement?

My next point may be slightly more zany. It concerns the penalties clause in article 5, which is

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entitled, ''Power of Department to obtain information''. Paragraph (2)(a) states that a person who is guilty of an offence is liable

    ''on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum''.

Why are those words necessary? How could a fine exceed the statutory maximum? It appears to be not so much a flaw in the order as a superfluous statement, but perhaps I have missed the point. If so, the Minister can easily put me right. I like to see good, tight legislation that means what it says and says what it means, in the best English and in the shortest form. Although it is a long time since I practised as a lawyer, I am puzzled as to how a fine could exceed the statutory maximum. I should have thought that that was impossible.

However, I shall not detain the Committee. My final point concerns the greater deployment of councillors to the managing boards of harbour trusts. I was a councillor for 15 years on two different authorities, one of which was a borough council, the other a metropolitan county council. I am pleased to have been a councillor, but even I am not always sure that the appointment and service of councillors enhances outside bodies. On the other hand, I appreciate that the appointment of councillors at one stage removed introduces an element of accountability.

I understand the Minister's point that one of the virtues of the scheme is that it enjoys cross-party support. Clearly that is important and it is especially important in Northern Ireland. I am bound to say subjectively that it would not be as important in Solihull, which is why I often defer to Northern Ireland Members in such matters. I can see that putting councillors of different political persuasions on to a body, particularly in Northern Ireland, gives it an enhanced legitimacy and an eclectic nature. I shall not press the Minister on the matter of councillors and my point may be regarded merely as a concluding observation.

I hope that the order works. My only reservation relates to whether the bodies go willingly into the new scheme of arrangements. I need to know that before I can assure the Committee that I will not divide it.

4.46 pm

Mr. Carmichael: The Liberal Democrats also broadly support the measure, although I have a few points that I wish the Minister to address. I concur with the Minister's opening remarks about the inadequacy of the current procedure in comparison with that of the legislative Assembly. The people in the usual channels who consider the composition of Committees have perhaps missed a trick because the Minister responsible for this legislation in the Northern Ireland Assembly is the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) in this House. With a little bit of imagination and flexibility, it must have been possible to include him in the Committee. I urge the Minister to consider that. I do not know whether

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the hon. Gentleman even requested to be on the Committee.

The Chairman: Order. The point that the hon. Gentleman raises is not a matter for the Minister, but for me in another guise.

Mr. Carmichael: I stand corrected, Mr. McWilliam, and I leave my comments on the question of flexibility, which probably would not find favour at this stage.

The hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) made a point about article 5(2)(a) and the question of the statutory maximum. With respect, I take a different view. In any offence-creating provision it is obviously necessary that the level of fine should be specified, whether it is to be on the standard scale-which, if my memory serves me correctly, goes to level 6-or whether it is to be the statutory maximum, which is currently the same as level 6. Something has to be specified and on this occasion it is the statutory maximum. It is possible to have fines in respect of summary proceedings that are in excess of the statutory maximum. I recall that offences under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 can attract a summary conviction and maximum fine in the region of 20,000, so it is necessary to specify the fine.

When the legislation was before the Assembly on Second Reading, the fine was specified as being at level 4 on the standard scale, but the order specifies the statutory maximum. The hon. Member for Belfast, East, in a different guise, gave some indication that that would be considered in Committee. I should be interested to know what consideration the Minister and her Department have made of that, and what other representations have been received in the meantime.

I broadly accept that the code of practice brings the Northern Ireland provisions into line with those in the rest of the United Kingdom, and for that reason they are to be welcomed. I should be interested to know a little more of the Government's thinking on the need for the element of compulsion in article 5. Is the Minister aware of a particular history of difficulty in obtaining the sort of information envisaged from port authorities? As the Member for Orkney and Shetland, I probably deal with more port authorities on a more regular basis than do most hon. Members. I have never been aware of such an issue. Given that there is the possibility of criminal penalties, which is a fairly draconian step, I should be interested to know on what basis the Minister considers that necessary.

Broadly, it is clear that the order will bring a degree of transparency and accountability to port authorities, which, as Members representing coastal communities will be aware, can often perform vital roles. Would that the Minister were similarly minded to bring transparency and accountability to one of the organisations consulted. As far as I am aware, the Crown Estate is one of the least transparent-to the point of being opaque-and most unaccountable organisations in existence. It obviously has a vested interest in the consultation because, as owner of the sea bed, it is in a position to take rents from the port authorities, and does so without exception. That is a particular local hobby horse of mine. I see the Minister

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looking slightly panicked. I do not expect her to address that point, but it is something that she may wish to consider in the course of her tenure in ministerial office, which I hope will continue elsewhere in government, if not in Northern Ireland.

4.52 pm

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley): The Ulster Unionist party welcomes the order. We were involved in the process that led to the initiation of the legislation. I welcome the Minister's comments. There had been some degree of scrutiny of this legislation in the Assembly prior to suspension. As I indicated on another occasion, I think it regrettable that I am the only Member of Parliament in this Committee who represents Northern Ireland. I understand why that is the case, but it does mean that the degree of parliamentary scrutiny from Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies is limited under the arrangements that flow from direct rule and the suspension of the Assembly.

The Chairman: Order. May I assist the Committee by saying that any Member of this House can attend this Committee and speak? Only those selected can vote, but there is no restriction on who could have been here.

Mr. Donaldson: I thank you for that clarification, Mr. McWilliam, and I will communicate that to my colleagues, who I am sure have an interest in such matters, so that they might look at the possibility of attending. Another such Committee is sitting next week, and there might be some other of my colleagues from Northern Ireland attending. I hasten to add that I was not criticising the system here, but it would have been better if the Assembly had had the opportunity to fully consider the legislation. That is not the case, and I hope that circumstances will prevail in the near future, through the acts of completion that are required, that will allow the Assembly to consider once again legislation of this nature.

My party's interest in the matter came about as a result of the public inquiry that took place over a year ago into the leasing arrangement between the shipbuilding company Harland and Wolff, and the Belfast Harbour Commissioners to develop the Titanic quarter, which is a project being pursued on the site of the shipyard in Belfast. It offers considerable potential in terms of commercial development, and also the possibility of the shipyard's developing into a tourist attraction, with its links to the infamous Titanic.

At that time, the Regional Development Committee of the Assembly identified several areas in which public accountability of trust ports in Northern Ireland could be improved. We are pleased that all the recommendations made by that Committee are included in the order.

I do not believe that the advent of the order is necessarily a criticism of the trust port authorities in Northern Ireland. Those authorities act very efficiently. The ports in Northern Ireland have done quite well and continue to be competitive. The order aims to improve the public accountability of the trust port authorities in the Province, and we welcome it.

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The order covers the ports of Belfast, Londonderry, Larne and Warrenpoint-the main trust ports in the Province. A harbour order for the ports of Belfast, Warrenpoint and Londonderry was approved in May this year, so this order should provide the final pieces of the jigsaw in improving the public accountability of the trust ports.

I want to ask the Minister a question about article 3(4)(a), which clarifies the definition of a harbour authority in the legislation. Excluded from that definition are district councils, companies with share capital, or harbour authorities for fishery harbours. Will the Minister clarify whether the order will have an impact on the fishing ports of Kilkeel, Ardglass and Portavogie? Those ports are not specified in the order, and are not trust ports.

We welcome the provision in article 4 for the Department for Regional Development to issue directions to the harbour authorities. We are pleased that the current memorandums of understanding, which have been operating successfully on a voluntary basis, will be formally introduced to safeguard the public interest. That addresses the issue raised by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael). The order takes our current good working arrangements and adds those public interest safeguards.

We are pleased that article 5, relating to the power of the Department, makes provision for obtaining information from the harbour authorities. That will increase openness and accountability, and will go some way to prevent ports from seeking to protect large areas of their commercial activity from outside influence. In the past, there has not been a particular problem in that area, but the Committee in the Assembly identified that such a problem could arise in future. It therefore sought to build in safeguards to improve accountability to the Department.

We also welcome the requirement on the Department to issue a code of practice for the guidance of members of designated authorities. That will ensure that the Department can play a positive role in helping to improve the public accountability of trust ports as a means of safeguarding the public interest.

The hon. Member for Solihull referred to the involvement of district councillors in the port authorities. One of the problems that we have experienced in Northern Ireland is that our 26 district councils have lacked power. Our party has argued for the district councils to have a greater role. We therefore welcome the prospect of greater involvement of district councillors in the port authorities. Generally, our district councillors in Northern Ireland do quite a good job with the limited powers that they have. The scope to widen their influence, if not their power, is a positive development in building and underpinning the political process in Northern Ireland.

I note that the order is intended to provide the primary legislation thought to be necessary to safeguard the public interest, but it will also allow trust ports to compete commercially in an

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international market. That was important for us. We do not want unnecessary bureaucratic constraints to be placed on the ports, because they have to compete not only with the other ports in the Republic of Ireland, but with ports across the Irish sea. They have done quite well to date, and we are relieved that the order appears not to impose any unnecessary bureaucratic constraints on them. Indeed, it will put Northern Ireland legislation ahead of the legislation of Great Britain and, if fully implemented, it could give the trust ports in Northern Ireland an early commercial advantage, which we would welcome.

In conclusion, the order, which arises from an initiative taken by the Northern Ireland Committee for Regional Development, should commend itself to the Committee.

5 pm

 
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