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Session 2006 - 07
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Public Bill Committee Debates

Merchant Shipping (Inland Waterwayand Limited Coastal Operations) (Boatmasters’ Qualifications and Hoursof Work) Regulations 2006



The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Dr. William McCrea
Atkins, Charlotte (Staffordshire, Moorlands) (Lab)
Brazier, Mr. Julian (Canterbury) (Con)
Carmichael, Mr. Alistair (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
Clarke, Mr. Charles (Norwich, South) (Lab)
Curtis-Thomas, Mrs. Claire (Crosby) (Lab)
Hughes, Simon (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD)
Ladyman, Dr. Stephen (Minister of State, Department for Transport)
Lucas, Ian (Wrexham) (Lab)
Moran, Margaret (Luton, South) (Lab)
Rosindell, Andrew (Romford) (Con)
Roy, Mr. Frank (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Scott, Mr. Lee (Ilford, North) (Con)
Singh, Mr. Marsha (Bradford, West) (Lab)
Slaughter, Mr. Andrew (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab)
Smith, Mr. Andrew (Oxford, East) (Lab)
Spink, Bob (Castle Point) (Con)
Watkinson, Angela (Upminster) (Con)
Celia Blacklock, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(2):
Hoey, Kate (Vauxhall) (Lab)
McDonnell, John (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab)
Randall, Mr. John (Uxbridge) (Con)
Stoate, Dr. Howard (Dartford) (Lab)

Sixth Delegated Legislation Committee

Wednesday 24 January 2007

[Dr. William McCrea in the Chair]

Merchant Shipping (Inland Waterwayand Limited Coastal Operations) (Boatmasters’ Qualifications and Hoursof Work) Regulations 2006

2.30 pm
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the MerchantShipping (Inland Waterway and Limited Coastal Operations) (Boatmasters’ Qualifications and Hours of Work) Regulations 2006 (S.I., 2006, No. 3223).
These Committee proceedings are the last in a long line of meetings, debates and exchanges of letters in which the Minister, I and a growing band of Members of Parliament have engaged because of the huge worry about the topic outside the House. I shall be brief because I want to give those many members of the Committee the opportunity to participate in whatis an extremely short debate for a subject of such importance. I must confess to disappointment that, despite more than a year now of to-ing and fro-ing and the pleas from across the political spectrum within the House and all the various groups of people who really know the River Thames, we have received few concessions indeed.
Last summer, a delegation of Thames watermen and lightermen, Marchioness campaigners and MPs from across the parties presented a petition of almost 5,000 signatures to No. 10. Only a fortnight ago, we debated the topic downstairs in Westminster Hall. The Minister knows the hostility towards the proposal that was expressed at the time: all the speakers opposed it. I am glad to see that several of those who voice the most concern have exercised their right to speak in the debate, although they were not, of course, selected by the Government Whips Office to be members of the Committee.
Before I return to the substance of the new licence, certain issues should be clarified. I must put on the record my worry about the Minister’s description of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames, one of the oldest companies in London, as a closed shop and a cosy club. The implication is that they have been deliberately excluding others by use of their rigorous examinations. The Minister knows that the company has always merely acted on behalf of the Port of London authority, the actual licensing authority. There was no closed shop. The barrier to entry was whether a person was willing to undergo the demanding process by which boatmasters qualified.
The Minister of State, Department for Transport(Dr. Stephen Ladyman): A person faces a rigorous process, plus having to be apprenticed to an existing waterman, plus having to get the names of six other watermen who had to be either a close friend or a relative. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should be alittle more comprehensive when he sets out the requirements.
Mr. Brazier: I have the highest regard for the Minister, who is my constituency neighbour, but he should think carefully about what he has just said. Six experienced skippers were required to sign up to someone being experienced enough to do the work. People also took demanding verbal examinations. A case was reported to me when I was on the water of the nephew of a lighterman who failed three times in a row because he did not come up to the mark.
I return to the substance of the issue. The company that has operated the licences for the River Thames and has fought to defend the river’s safety standards has legitimate concerns about such matters and those concerns should be seen as such. The Minister made a curious statement during the Westminster Hall debate, when he said that
“if a person is going to get a licence qualifying them to do what the existing licence allows them to do, 720 days of service would be required. The existing regime requires 750 days of service, so the systems are almost equivalent. If a person is going to get a licence equivalent to the current regime, they will need to do almost exactly the same service.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 10 January 2007; Vol. 455, c. 98WH.]
With all respect to the Minister, I fear that he has been wrongly advised on the outgoing arrangements. A waterman’s licence alone entitles a person only to captain a passenger boat, but to qualify that person would need 750 days of service. To qualify for the same under the new system, a person needs only the generic licence and the endorsement for passenger operation, for which service of 240 and 120 days respectively is required—360 days in total.
Dr. Ladyman: I am happy to clarify the position. Most watermen also study for their lightermen’s licence at the same time. For a person to receive the equivalent qualification of a waterman and a lighterman will take 720 days under the new arrangements.
Mr. Brazier: Let me continue. As the Minister concedes, not all go on to study to be lightermen.
If somebody wants to work in the central stretch of the Thames, we add a paltry 60 days and the total becomes 420. As the Minister acknowledges, his claim of 720 days’ service being required can be reached only by adding all the different endorsements available.
I shall give two examples of the old arrangement. To command the Woolwich ferry carrying both freight and passengers required three years’ experience over and above that 750 days experience as a waterman. To command a tug pulling more than 2,000 tonnes, as the Minister reminded us repeatedly, carried no such legal requirement, but nine years’ total experience was recommended—a recommendation upheld in practice by all the owners and four years more than the requirement for a waterman’s licence. Such posts will suffer a considerable reduction in standards. Insteadof eight years’ training, such a captain will need only 600 days total. It seems to be a signal to employers that their old standard was too high.
There seems also to be confusion about how the licence stands in relation to licences issued in other European Union countries. The Minister said:
“My officials and experts have conducted a stringent analysis of standards across the rest of Europe and they assure me that standards will not be higher anywhere else in Europe.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 10 January 2007; Vol. 455, c. 99WH.]
Except for the Rhine, that is. The Rhine and the Danube have fought for and kept their unique standards: there, a person needs six years’ training and faces two solid days of examinations. The last time we debated the issue, I produced a lot of quotes from the European Transport Federation showing how much it opposes the measures, but I shall give a new one:
“It is regrettable that the UK Government seem to have embarked on this project without adequately examining the European experience.”
As for the rest of Europe, the Minister himself claimed:
“The directive makes it clear that, if a person’s training is entirely practical, it will be four years, but that period can be reduced to one year by taking exams. We have gold-plated that requirement significantly, as we have done in a number of areas. For example, we have introduced far more stringent medical testing requirements and retesting of those who will operate under the new regime.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall,10 January 2007; Vol. 455, c. 99WH.]
We support the medical testing, but we are not clear why people who work on the river all the time need to be retested every five years.
Dr. Ladyman: First, I must correct something that the hon. Gentleman said earlier. He mentioned the Woolwich ferry. Under current PLA bylaws, a waterman’s licence is not required to operate the Woolwich ferry, but it will be required under the new regime. That is one of the holes that we are plugging.
I would like to challenge the hon. Gentleman on the issue of revalidation every five years. Why do the people advising him seem to advise him only about things that they believe are loosening the arrangements inappropriately? Why do they not think it necessary to tighten up the arrangements?
Mr. Brazier: The Minister asks a very general question, but he specifically mentioned retesting. It is perfectly reasonable to block a loophole if somebody has been working away from the river for a long time, but it is difficult to see why somebody should be retested if he has been working on the river for most of the time. On the Minister’s claim of gold-plating, he is effectively admitting that elsewhere in the EU, there are less—
John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): On a point of clarification with regard to the Woolwich ferry, the master is qualified. We have met him. He has gone through the processes.
Mr. Brazier: I am most indebted to the hon. Gentleman, because I had forgotten the Minister’s first point. The master of the Woolwich ferry is one of the most vehement opponents of the regulations, despite representations by the Port of London authority in an earlier meeting. We had a letter from him saying how strongly opposed he is.
Dr. Ladyman: The hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend are quite right. The current master is licensed and is one of the most vehement opponents of the changes. The point is that he does not have to be licensed, and if we do not change the rules, the next person to come along when he retires will not have to be licensed either.
Mr. Brazier: The fact is that the system is working very well at the moment.
Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the case that he, I and others are putting is not that there should not be improvements—many of the people who work on the river agree with many of the improvements—but that one of the fundamental changes, as the Minister fails to understand, will reduce the period of qualification, training and experience? If the Minister compromised on that and there was, for example, a four-year qualification, there would be some opportunity for agreement. The opposition is not blanket opposition. There are many good proposals and no one has ever said otherwise.
Mr. Brazier: The hon. Gentleman is quite right and anticipates a point that I am coming to.
When asked about the local knowledge endorsement and why it has been stopped at the Thames barrier as opposed to the former requirement to know the whole of the tidal Thames, the Minister claimed that
“The Port of London authority, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and other experts told me that such a requirement is not necessary.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 10 January 2007; Vol. 455, c. 98WH.]
Although the Port of London authority might now support the Government, it was only in October 2005, just a year and a half ago, that it said:
“Our application for the whole of the area—
in fact, that extends beyond the old requirement togo as far as Gravesend and extends as far down as Reculver—
“made some two years ago and based on the results of the Baxter Eadie Study still remains our formal position."
The geographical breadth of the endorsement is simply not sufficient. The pitifully small period of time required by a candidate to master that stretch of river also does not inspire confidence.
I suspect, as the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey does, that much of the hostility towards the regulations would evaporate were the Government to concede on a few simple points such as extending the limits of the local knowledge area, which have been much reduced, increasing the experience requirement to obtain that knowledge without exception, and giving some role in the examination process to the current examiners, who are drawn from among the working watermen and know the river.
The Minister knows that more than 50 Labour Back Benchers have signed early-day motions calling on the Government to reconsider the regulations. Some of them are here today. The official Opposition wants the Government to reconsider. The Liberal Democrats have added their voice to that request. The people who work on the river and those who lost relatives in the Marchioness disaster are all asking the Governmentto reconsider. I strongly urge the Minister to think carefully before forcing the measure through.
During the debate on the issue, the Minister commented to The London Evening Standard:
“it takes as long to train a boatman as it does to train a hospital doctor. Is that reasonable?”
But he has also argued that
“If a person is going to get a licence equivalent to thecurrent regime, they will need to do almost exactly the same service.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 10 January 2007; Vol. 455, c. 98WH.]
He cannot sustain both arguments at the same time. Either he stands by the assertion that the standards so far demanded of the river men have been excessive and led to the creation of a closed shop, or he must claim that the new standards are equal to the old. It is almost self-evident that the new licence does not make the same stringent demands as the old one. The only argument the Minister has left is to claim that it is worth while to water down the standards. If, however the worst were to happen, the Government as a whole, and the Minister in particular, would have no excuse. They have been told—warned explicitly—by almost everyone involved in working on the river not to carry on as they plan.
I ask the Minister to consider one picture that is in all our minds. Let us imagine a boat master, newly arrived with a licence from somewhere else in Europe—someone who had never even worked in tidal water—climbing straight off an airplane and on to the bridge to take a pleasure boat with several hundred people on a section of the Thames beyond the Thames barrier, with no local knowledge requirement whatsoever. How would the Minister feel if that man were to cause an accident? At this final hour, I ask the Minister, for whom I have the greatest respect, to reconsider.
2.44 pm
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): I welcome you to the Chair, Dr. McCrea. I think this is the first occasion on which I have had the opportunity of appearing before you. No doubt you will conduct the Committee proceedings with the customary fairness for which you are well known.
It is with a small measure of regret that I associate myself with the prayer that has been outlined in detail by the hon. Member for Canterbury today, because I think that this whole process has been unnecessary.As the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey have mentioned, the matter ought to have been capable of resolution before it got to this stage.
In the course of my remarks I will make a proposal that might yet allow for reconsideration on the part of the Government. I regret opposing the regulations because, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey mentioned, I am not opposed to everything they contain. There is a lot that is good in the regulations and I feel almost as if I am in danger of engaging in an exercise of throwing the baby out with the bath water. However, if the bath water is putrid, it has to be thrown out, and we will not hesitate to do so.
It is open to the Government to come back to the Committee with regulations that cover the bulk of the category of water that they are intended to cover, which we would welcome, but any new regulations would have to deal differently with the Thames. That is alsothe submission of a great number of people with considerable experience and expertise. It would be possible for the Government to return with measures that recognise that the Thames, as a busy tidal river, is a stretch of water that requires the application of different standards and regulations. There is a great deal of benefit in the regulations for the remaining categories of water, and I very much regret that because of the attitude of the Government, and the Minister in particular, we are not able to support them.
As other hon. Members have said, this is not the first occasion on which we have debated these measures. We had a lively debate in Westminster Hall on 10 January, to which a good number of hon. Members of all parties contributed. I am delighted that such is the interest generated by the vigorous contributions of the hon. Members for Vauxhall, for Hayes and Harlington and for Dartford and others that a whole new range of Labour Members—including some right hon. Gentlemen—have engaged in the debate to the extent that they have been made members of the Committee, to the regrettable exclusion of the hon. Members I mentioned. Perhaps that is an indication of the way in which the debate caught the imagination not only of the Department for Transport, but of the Labour Whips Office.
It is important to note that during the 10 January debate in Westminster Hall, the Minister said:
“The European norm will not be four years. The directive makes it clear that, if a person’s training is entirely practical, it will be four years, but that period can be reduced to one year by taking exams.”
He added—this is the significant part—
“We have gold-plated that requirement significantly, as we have done in a number of areas. For example, we have introduced far more stringent medical testing requirements and retesting of those who will operate under the new regime.”
He went on to state:
“The five year revalidation is a gold-plating of the directive”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 10 January 2007; Vol. 455, c. 99WH.]
I want to explore the nature of that gold-plating, and what reassurance both we in the House and those who rely on the watermen and lightermen on the Thames for their living and safety can take from it.
If there is gold-plating in the regulations, it will only cover those who are accredited under them. As the hon. Member for Canterbury eloquently explained, it will remain the case that people coming in from other parts of the European Union will, because of the general nature of the application of the rules, still be able to take to the tidal waters on the Thames and be subject to none of the gold-plating or protections that the Minister says that he has put in. That is, I think, the fundamental weakness of treating the Thames on a par with every other piece of categorised water. That is something that the Government could have avoided if they had been prepared to introduce regulations that dealt with the Thames specifically, as the Rhine has been dealt with in Germany, as opposed to including it in rules with general application. I do not need to remind the Committee that different standards will be applied on the Rhine, with a minimum of six years’ training and work experience required before somebody is licensed to operate on that river. Those are regulations made under the same EU regulation that we are told that we have to implement in the regulations before the Committee.
I said at the outset that I hoped that some compromise could be sought even at this stage, if not today then between now and the vote on the regulations should they return to the Floor of the House after consideration in Committee. A press notice arrived in my e-mail inbox today from the Select Committee on Transport. The Minister is no doubt aware—in fact, he is probably preparing for it already—that the Committee has today issued a call for evidence in their inquiry on the new national boatmasters’ licence. The Committee is obviously dealing with that as a matter of despatch and urgency and is seeking written memorandums by no later than Monday 12 February. It will have an oral evidence session on Monday 7 March and, knowing the efficient and vigorous way in which that Committee conducts its business, we might expect a report to be published fairly early in the course of events.
I challenge the Minister to take the opportunity afforded to us by the Select Committee’s investigation to put a brake on the regulations for a few weeks. We are probably not talking in practical terms about a break of longer than eight to 10 weeks. If his confidence in the regulations is justified, they should stand up to scrutiny as robust and independent as we would expect from the Transport Committee. If the Committee considers the regulations, says that they are perfectly acceptable and has no problem with them, I shall accept that and shall withdraw my opposition. The Minister should be prepared, if he is acting in good faith, to do exactly the same.
2.53 pm
Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford) (Lab): Thank you,Dr. McCrea, for giving me the opportunity to take part in the debate despite the fact that I am not a member of the Committee.
I have two interests in the debate. First, I am a keen amateur sailor and I know at first hand the difficulties that can be faced when handling a boat in treacherous and sometimes unknown waters and the difficulties that people can get in to. Secondly, my constituency of Dartford borders the Thames and has a significant Thames frontage; it covers one of Britain’s busier waterways and contains one of Britain’s larger container ports.
Last week, I had the chance to spend a considerable amount of time with the PLA. I went aboard one of its vessels and had considerable training and expertise imparted to me by the expert boatmen, who showed me at first hand some of the difficulties that the river can throw up. I appreciate that the Minister is trying to aim for the highest possible safety standards on Britain’s waterways. No one in this room could argue with that. Many of the speakers throughout the debate have said that most of the regulations will tighten up the loopholes and in many cases maintain higher standards. Most of them are to be welcomed.
I have one particular concern that relates to my constituency that I want to raise so that the Minister can respond. The stretch of water outside Dartford is covered by a certificate of local knowledge, whichgoes right down to Gravesham, which is just pastmy constituency. Under the new regulations, that certificate will no longer be required. Last week, when I was on one of the PLA boats, the weather was far from nice. It was a difficult day with choppy waters and what they call wind over tide, which can throw up difficult boat handling conditions. We had to pass the port of Tilbury, which is one of the largest ports in the country. I saw for myself that there can be difficult boat movements and tides, and unpredictable winds.
As I was watching the radar screen, one of the boatmen said to me, “Watch that blip”. I was struck by the fact that there appeared to be a large blip heading straight for the boat. He said, “Watch that on the screen. You’ll see that object coming straight for us.” If someone is in a boat in fog or difficult conditions and they see something on their radar heading straight for them, they are entitled to be worried about it. “Just watch the screen,” the boatman said. As I watched the screen, the blip got closer and closer—it was like something out of “Star Trek”. Just as it would have hit the boat, the blip disappeared. The boatman said that the blip is an artefact from the extremely high voltage power cable that crosses the Thames, which we had just gone under. However, someone travelling in fog or in water of which they did not have local knowledge would not have known that. They would have seen an unidentified object on their radar screen coming towards them at some speed, on a collision course.
That is one small example, but will the Minister consider again the removal of the requirement for a local knowledge certificate for that stretch of the river, from the Thames barrier, past my constituency and down to Gravesham? I saw for myself how difficult the boat handling can be and how that stretch of water can be hazardous without local knowledge, particularly of the ports of Dartford and Tilbury. I can well envisage a master of a vessel who did not know the waters or understand the tides, the wind changes or the windage that can be generated across that open stretch of the Thames, being presented with a non-existent object in his path, particularly if he was watching his radar screen too closely. I hope that the Minister will reconsider and say how he proposes to deal with that issue.
Dr. Ladyman: I hope that I can give my hon. Friend some assurance. The phenomenon that he described is well known and is covered in the radar syllabus of the new licence that people will receive.
Under the new arrangements, people will be expected to be trained to a generic level to deal with certain conditions. If that level of training is sufficient for a particular waterway, only the generic licence will be necessary. However, if a stretch of water does not require local knowledge under the new arrangements but the local navigation authority—the Port of London authority in the case of my hon. Friend’s constituency—believes that it should do, that authority can make an application to a committee chaired bythe Maritime and Coastguard Agency for a local knowledge requirement to be introduced for the area, under a procedure that will be built into the new arrangements. That will be laid down as part of the new procedures. Anybody who thinks that local knowledge should be introduced somewhere will have a mechanism for making that case and having the area extended.
Dr. Stoate: I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful reply, which answers many of my concerns, although I still have some concerns, which other hon. Members have raised.
Mr. Brazier: There are two additional points that we need to consider. First, the generic training does not have to be done in tidal conditions. A boatmaster from a European river where there is no tide at all can receive such a certificate. Secondly, the PLA appears to have reversed its view on the hon. Gentleman’s section of the river in the past 18 months, as the quotations that I gave earlier showed.
Dr. Stoate: I thank the hon. Gentleman for those comments. I am sure that the Minister heard them and will want to intervene again.
Dr. Ladyman: I do not want the hon. Member for Canterbury to undermine the assurance that I have given my hon. Friend. Under the new arrangements, people will have to be trained to a very high standard to deal with a range of water conditions. Those same standards must apply to any licence for anybody who comes into our waters from abroad. If such people are going to work in the Thames local knowledge area, they will also need the Thames local knowledge endorsement. However, I assure my hon. Friend that the decision to exclude his part of the river from the local knowledge requirement was taken after an independent consultation. The early recommendation to which the hon. Gentleman referred was an initial recommendation from the Port of London authority, which it abandoned once it had received an independent risk assessment of the part of the river concerned.
Dr. Stoate: Again, I thank my hon. Friend for his comprehensive answer to my concerns. I shall ensure that I work closely with the PLA. I shall still voice my concerns about the fact that a local knowledge certificate will no longer be required for my part of the river. Having sailed on it, I still believe that such a certificate would be helpful.
Mr. Brazier: The Minister knows perfectly wellthat the PLA’s first recommendation, which it made18 months ago, was also made on the basis of an independent study—it was called the Baxter-Eadie study, and he has a copy of it.
Dr. Stoate: I have to say that I feel like a negotiating agent interceding between the two Front-Bench spokesmen. The Minister has certainly addressed my concerns very well this afternoon, although I still have some, and I shall be watching the situation carefully. I shall be speaking to local boatmen and watermen on my stretch of the river and I shall continue to discuss the issue with the PLA, which I hope to persuadeto apply for a restoration of the local knowledge certificate.
3.1 pm
Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): I am grateful that we have an opportunity to revisit this important manner, although given the number of hon. Members who are interested in the issue, I shall not revisit all the arguments that I advanced in the Westminster Hall debate.
We should acknowledge straight away that, whatever their viewpoint, everybody in the Room has the safety standards on the River Thames at heart. I am therefore grateful to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland for announcing that the Transport Committee will investigate the issue, and that may be the ideal way to come up with the answer. We must tease out the real differences between the old waterman’s licence and the new boatmaster’s licence, because there seem to be a lot of differences of opinion and even misunderstandings about that. I do not think that there is any misunderstanding on my part, although I am willing to have the issue explained to me if there is. However, I hope to be able to show that the misunderstanding is on the part of the Minister.
For the sake of clarity, let me quote some of the Minister’s closing remarks from the Westminster Hall debate. Talking about what he believed that the new boatmaster’s licence would mean, he said:
“It is true that, under the old regime, people worked for five years to obtain licences, but having got them, they were qualified to work in a whole raft of areas on the Thames and to fulfil a range of different functions. Under the new arrangements, that will not apply. We now have a modular licensing system in which a person first gets a generic licence that will require two years of experience, to include 240 days of service”—
hon. Members should hold that figure in their minds. He continued:
“If that person wants to operate on the Thames, they will have to do their six months’ local endorsement”—
we call that 133 days. He went on:
“In addition, a person will require a range of other endorsements. For example, a general passenger endorsement will require another 120 days of service, with another endorsement of 60 days’ service for larger numbers of passengers. Sixty days of extra service will be required for general cargo; 60 days for carrying oil; 60 days for towing and pushing; 120 days for dredging; and 120 days for going to sea. In other words, if a person is going to get a licence qualifying them to do what the existing licence allows them to do, 720 days of service will be required. The existing regime requires 750 days of service, so the systems are almost equivalent. If a person is going to get a licence equivalent to the current regime, they will need to do almost exactly the same service.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 10 January 2007; Vol. 455, c. 98WH.]
The Minister clearly believes that the qualifying requirements of the old and new licences are roughly similar.
However, the waterman’s licence qualifies individuals to command passenger boats alone, which means that equivalent qualification can be obtained with just a generic licence, a passenger endorsement and the Thames local knowledge endorsement. The equivalent licence therefore takes much less time to obtain. My sums tell me that it takes 750 days’ service to get the waterman’s licence under the existing regime. The new regime requires 240 days for the generic licence, 133 for the Thames local endorsement and 120 for the passenger endorsement, which adds up to 493, not 720.
Furthermore, the passenger endorsement is obtained at the same time as the general licence, not following successful acquisition of the licence—in other words, the endorsement is obtained concurrently. If the qualifying periods were non-concurrent, and candidate captains were allowed to take only one qualification or endorsement at a time, the minimum required service would increase by a year.
The regime is strengthened by the fact that when a person acquires their local knowledge, having trained for six months, they will be qualified for a restricted route on the tidal Thames. If they want to change their route in the area of local knowledge, perhaps because they are changing operator or employer, they will need to repeat their local knowledge. From that point of view, the system is being strengthened considerably. The Minister is clearly convinced that the new arrangements are satisfactory. If an individual wants a Thames local knowledge endorsement for the full area for all operations for which they hold endorsements and for all employers, what total service will they have to undertake? I calculate it to be six months under the new regulations.
The other issue is the local knowledge area. As I said in Westminster Hall last week, my very modest personal experience of boating on the Thames with a professional operator—the boats that I brought down from the non-tidal Thames into St. Katharine’s dock on a number of occasions were only 30 or 40 feet long—has taught me that the Thames can be treacherous. Individual circumstances apply to every one of its bridges, and knowing how the tides and currents operate around one bridge does not qualify one to go under the next one. Particularly if they are towing, commercial operators on the river do not steer a straight course, because they are familiar with the river and know at exactly which angle to steer their boat to negotiate the bridges and other vessels.
We are courting disaster in limiting local knowledge to the area from Putney to Woolwich, because most of the enormous tonnage of freight is dealt with below Woolwich. I know that the river is a bit wider there, but huge, heavy commercial vehicles are sharing that water with a wide range of other types of craft. There are sailing and rowing clubs as well as private motor yachts coming down from London toward the channel, and it is a fatal mix for a very large boat without a master at the helm with absolute local knowledge of those waters.
Similarly, there are rowing and sailing clubs above Putney, and the passenger pleasure boats go right up to the non-tidal Thames as far as Henley and, in some cases, Oxford. Again, it is a toxic mix of different types of boat, particularly on the upper Thames. People hire boats for holidays with minimal instruction from the company and find to their horror that a boat is much more difficult to handle than a car. Inexperienced handlers can create dangerous situations and get into all sorts of trouble, and if they are faced with a very large boat, the opportunities for accident are obvious.
Mr. Brazier: I should like to illustrate that point about the toxic mix, as my hon. Friend calls it, involving very large quantities of goods—50 million tonnes—and 5 million passengers a year. The Rhine, which has a special exemption for a stronger regime than the old outgoing regime on the Thames—it is six years—has even more goods than the Thames, but it does not have that mixture. There are relatively few pleasure craft on the Rhine, so the Thames is in fact the most hazardous river for passengers in Europe.
Angela Watkinson: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, because it illustrated the point aptly. What I would like to come out of this debate, and hopefully the Select Committee investigation to follow, is an opportunity for the nature of the licence and qualifying requirements to be examined and a review of the local knowledge area, so that we can ensure that the highest possible safety standards are maintained on the Thames. It does not matter what standards apply on other rivers. The Thames is our river, it has special circumstances and we should set the requirements for people to use it safely. We have the opportunity to do so. I therefore ask the Minister to consider that seriously.
3.10 pm
John McDonnell: I am grateful for permission to speak, even though I am not a member of the Committee. It is not betraying a parliamentary confidence to say that Statutory Instrument Committees generally last for a limited amount of time. Often, the only hon. Members who are fully conversant with the statutory instrument in question are the Front-Benchers. However, the reason there is such interest in this debate and the reason hon. Members with London constituents who are not members of the Committee have turned up, is that the regulations are of such significance to us.
The background to the issue is that in 1989 we endured the tragic Marchioness disaster on the Thames. A number of relatives of victims are here, who campaigned after the disaster to ensure that we established a process for the licensing of boatmasters on the Thames that would achieve the highest standards of safety possible. That was right, and the House supported the development of those regulations.
When the European directive came along, a concern was expressed that it should not be used in any way to suppress standards of safety on the Thames. The directive was generally welcomed, because it ensured that a regime was placed on other rivers and waterways throughout the country, but it was important to us that it should also allow us to maintain the higher standards. In our dialogue with the Government, we clarified that the European directive indeed allowed the setting of higher standards—we have used the example of the Rhine in that connection.
The Government have the opportunity of ensuring that there is a higher standard on the Thames. However, our concern is that the attempt at uniformity is suppressing the standards on the Thames. A range of concerns have been raised in various Adjournment debates and in representations to Ministers, which relate to such issues as the cut in the provision of shore-based training, the curtailing of the areas where local knowledge is required and the reduction of the time in which that knowledge is obtained. All those concerns have been expressed to Ministers, in debate after debate and in representation after representation.
The one thing that we were concerned to ensure was that whatever standards were adopted should be set by an objective study. The Baxter Eadie study set out objective standards that were supported throughout the industry. We regret that that study does not seem to have informed the proposals. On that basis, the regulations have excited concerns and interest among the front-line providers of the service.
I represent the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers parliamentary group, and I refer to my entry in the register on that matter. Consultations took place with the people on the front line who deliver the service. The vast majority, if not all those providing the service expressed the concerns that hon. Members have heard today. I am anxious about the fact that the Government then proceeded without heeding that professional advice. On such a significant issue, on which, as a result of the tragic Marchioness disaster, we came to a consensual view about how to move forward, it is important that we should not break that consensus. For that reason, I wholeheartedly support the proposal to await the Transport Committee’s investigation and its recommendations.
The Minister can do two things today. The first is to withdraw the proposals, so that they do not receive parliamentary approval until the Select Committee meets and reports. I would welcome that approach, which would reassure everyone who has been involved in the consultations that the Government are listening. If the Minister cannot go as far as that, he should at least make a statement that there should be no implementation of the proposals until the Select Committee has held its inquiry and made its recommendations. I would prefer the former rather than the latter. Above all else, it behoves members of the Committee to listen in detail to the representations that were made as a result of the consultations. Organisations responding to the consultation have urged caution, and ask the Minister not to proceed until there is a further review.
Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the extent of hazard on the Thames will increase dramatically around Canvey island and Shell Haven creek with the opening of the new Thames Gateway port, which will become one of the largest container ports in Europe, if not the largest? That will have the knock-on effect of pushing the trawler fishermen upstream in the Thames, causing more conflict. Those complicating factors indicate that referring the matter to a Select Committee is a sensible idea.
3.17 pm
Simon Hughes: May I too welcome the fact thatwe are here? I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Upminster for leading the previous debate in Westminster Hall, but this is the fundamental debate, because we are deciding what the law is going to be. So much concern has been expressed today that I hope that the message of the Committee will be conveyed to other hon. Members when the regulations are debated in the Chamber, if the Minister is determined to proceed.
I will deal later with what the Minister said in his reasonable response to the Westminster Hall debate. However, he is proceeding more firmly and faster than is necessary, and he is not carrying the community with him. Of course, he has allies. He has talked to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and the PLA, and they are now on board and comfortable with the measures. Bluntly, however, those agencies are the management, not the workers. I remind Labour Members in particular that if one wants to know what experience is, one talks to the workers and not to the management. The total number of years of experience of the workers is greater than that of the management.
I will not repeat what I said in Westminster Hall, but I shall put my remarks in context. My father was born in London. Both of my grandfathers went to sea. One of them started at the age of 14—he took slates all over the world from north Wales. My other grandfather sailed on trawlers off Grimsby. I was brought up to realise that the sea is dangerous.
When I first came to live in London, I was brought to understand that the Thames is dangerous. Nothing has changed my view of that. The fact that more people are sailing pleasure journeys does not make the Thames a less dangerous place. If I did not know that already, the August morning in 1989 when I was alerted that the Marchioness had sunk provided the most salutary reminder. I have lived through the experience of that event with many people. I have been with the families. One family who later became friends of mine lost a son. I have been through that trauma, and through the trauma of survivors, and the experience was the most dramatic reminder of the danger of the Thames.
To be party political, and as the Minister said, it is a valid criticism of the then Government that, in spiteof the many requests made in the House, they didnot hold an independent public inquiry into the Marchioness disaster. I am absolutely clear about the fact that they should have held a public inquiry. Michael Portillo was a Minister in the Department for Transport at the time, and I remember talking to him down on the riverbank; Cecil Parkinson was also a Minister. However, the Government did not order an inquiry. That was unacceptable, so the pressure for an inquiry went on.
I pay tribute to the Deputy Prime Minister, who made the decision to hold an inquiry when the case was put to him after the Labour Government came to office. For that I will always be grateful to him, and he knows it because I have told him personally. It was one of the great things that he did for London and the river community.
Lord Justice Clarke then held his inquiry. It was an entirely reputable, thorough inquiry. As the Minister rightly said, Lord Justice Clarke said that it was no good legislating just for the Thames and putting that right, and then discovering that the Humber or the Mersey produced a catastrophe. The proposals therefore cover the entire country. That is good. Lord Justice Clarke’s proposals were the basis of the reforms.
The European Union then considered the fact, for perfectly good reasons, that nowadays people have vessels and sail from one port to another. The hon. Member for Upminster referred to passenger pleasure boats. People sail regularly across the channel. There are also people who sail as commercial captains. A couple of summers ago, while watching an outdoor performance at King’s stairs just by the entrance to Rotherhithe tunnel, the most huge cruise liner came up the Thames. I do not know its height, but it completely blocked the rear view. It was a new phenomenon. In all probability, the liner was probably registered in another country. The proposal for a cruise terminal at Deptford has been on the stocks for a long time.
We now have an international market. That is fine. We understand the need for European minimum standards, so in its wisdom the Commission consulted and the result was a proposal for minimum experience of four years, although it could be less than that. The Department then rightly went into battle and said that it would accept the minimum standards, but that it would require people to have additional experience of the Thames. Given the danger of the river, that is as it should be. As the hon. Lady said, the danger of the Thames is not only up stream from the Woolwich barrier, but down stream.
Extra training and education will be required. There will be specific training for certain activities in respect of commercial vessels or passenger vessels. However, is the basic requirement the right one? I wish to put on the record why I think that the Government have got it wrong. I bat for three purposes: safety on the river, experience on the river and, yes, I bat for jobs. That is perfectly reputable.
Many people are coming on to the river because of the growth in its business. If a person wants to start as an apprentice, that person will have to do five years. That requirement is unchanged and is a good thing. Therefore, a person cannot become a captain until they are 21. If they start their apprenticeship at 16, when they leave school, they will have to continue for five years. That is as it should be. I have talked to many of those who run vessels on the river and they are fine about that.
However, what about those who are covered not by the apprenticeship rule, but the general requirement for experience rule? I want to add weight to the argument about moving from the regime under which there was a generic qualification of five years, to one under which, potentially, a person has only to have a generic qualification of two years and nothing else. I accept that a person has to have six months’ Thames special qualification, which means an apprenticeship of two-and-a-half years. However, that is half the qualification period. A foreign captain who had not sailed the Thames could arrive on the lower Thames with literally no experience at all. He could have been up and down the Rhine, but without experience of the Thames.
Dr. Ladyman: I think the hon. Gentleman is referring to tidal waters, to which the hon. Member for Canterbury referred. There would be two types of licence under the EU directive. The one in respect of tidal waters would be necessary for someone from abroad to work on those parts of the river. The individual would have to have a licence and have undergone training that qualified him to work in such waters.
Simon Hughes: Those people would have a general Europe-wide licence. They would not have to have Thames-specific experience; they would come up past Canvey island and new Thamesmead developments without qualification.
Dr. Ladyman: But if the authorities responsible for that stretch of waterway believe that, in addition to that, there is a case to be made for local knowledge of that part of the river, the arrangements will allow them to achieve that. They can make the case, take it to the equivalence committee chaired by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and require local knowledgeof that area. The arrangements will not preclude extending the local knowledge area at some point if a case is made in favour of it.
Simon Hughes: I know that. We are saying two specific things to the Minister. First, we think that the Government should start with that as a requirement—not five years as a captain with experience of sailing around the world, but a requirement of that experience or qualification, perhaps after six months. We should not see if we need it later, after something has happened. The precautionary experience seems a sensible one.
Secondly, the person who has not had five years’ apprenticeship but who comes to the profession later in life should be required to do a longer period of general training, plus extra specialist training, so that they are guaranteed the range of skills that will allow them the sort of flexible career that comes, in my judgment, from a four-year training. I would sign off a four-year,not five-year, proposal for people who were not apprenticed at 16. I accept that it is inappropriate to be a captain before the age of 21, but if the Minister wants to command the confidence not only of the people who use the Thames regularly—I go out there often myself, as he probably does too—but of those who run and crew the vessels, that is the gold-plated minimum requirement.
I shall just add two other points, as I am conscious that others want to speak. I have been on the Rhine. In my youth I used to be a tour guide, among other things, taking American students from London to Rome via everywhere in between, including up and down the Rhine. The Rhine is a different sort of river, not least because although it is busy for most of its extent, it is not exposed, as the Thames is. I never sensed when I was on the Rhine that it was dangerous—I did not float around all the time on the estuary, but it was very busy—yet it has special requirements. We are given the right to special requirements, and we should take them.
Mr. Brazier: As somebody who has taken a couple of yachts up the Rhine, I know that the key difference is that it does not have the same huge number of pleasure vessels mixed in with heavy traffic. It is a pretty frightening experience to be in the only pleasure vessel that is visible. Surely that is the key reason why the Rhine requires six years.
Simon Hughes: I have also talked to my constituents, one of whom phoned me up after trying to get hold of me for a couple of days. He owns one of the companies running boats on the river and wanted to talk about piers. He said to me, “We are getting bigger boats, faster boats and more boats, and there are more piers and more usage.” Thank God there are, because we want the river to be busy. We want more waste to go on the river and not the roads, and there is pressure to do that. We want more spoil to be taken down. When Thamesmead was built, we wanted much of the material to be brought by river, as it is environmentally better, and we want more tourists to use the river and not the road.
It is getting busy. As I know from my constituency, more commuters are using the river. There are more piers and a demand for more piers. More people are living by the river and want to use it. The river is becoming a more complex place to navigate, and we need people with more experience and the skills todo so.
Angela Watkinson: I tabled a written question yesterday asking for any documentary professional opinion stating that local knowledge was not needed below the tidal Thames at Woolwich to be placed in the Library. We can wait with interest to see who might have given advice that it was not necessary on that part of the tidal Thames.
Simon Hughes: I come to my final point. The Minister was accused in Westminster Hall, although he did not have time to respond to the accusation, of criticising the lightermen and watermen and theregime on the river as a cosy club. I am not going to stand here and defend a closed shop, but I will defend the right of people whose families have worked on the river to think that it might be quite good for their sons or daughters—it is normally sons, but it could be daughters—to become apprentices and go on theriver too.
The hon. Members for Vauxhall and for Hayes and Harlington, my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland and I—and any London MP—are always trying to ensure that in an open and competitive world, we none the less secure jobs for the local community. We do not have a dock here any more, as it has gone to Tilbury, so there is not the local pride in being a docker that, mercifully, people still have in Belfast. It gives pride to the people who work there and in Rosyth, including my friend, because they do a good and important job.
There is nothing wrong in trying to do what your dad or grandfather did. It is not disreputable. If Members want an example of experience and motivation, there is Shaun Collins, the guy who runs Thames Clippers. His father worked on the river and he has inherited the skills to do that. It is not a cosy club. If anyone thinks five years on the river as an apprentice is a cosy experience, I have to tell them that working in the City as a broker earning £100,000 with £20,000 Christmas bonuses is a much more cosy experience than working on the Thames in all the weather God sends.
Dr. Ladyman: I want to deal with the matter now and not in my substantive speech because it is a peripheral matter. There is nothing wrong with doing what your dad did. There is something wrong in having a system that precludes someone else doing what your dad did. A system in which a person has to be apprenticed to someone who is an existing member of the club and get six other members of that club to sign before they can become a member is bound to exclude people who are not like them. I am not suggesting that that is being done deliberately, but the fact remains that that group of people no longer represents the wider community of London in terms of race, religion or even sex. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would be the first to object to that.
Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman knows that that is a regular debate. In any street market in London, there is always tension between the people and their families who have always run the stalls and the new people coming in. We know that. That is tradition and of course it should be open. There should be no practices that prevent people coming in.
Say I have a friend from Lithuania whose father has been sailing for many years, and he has settled here with his wife. The reality is that he should be as entitled to work on the river as someone who was born in Bermondsey or Rotherhithe. However, the argument is not about excluding people but about how, in a modern, mobile world, a person acquires the skills to take on the Thames and not put others at risk. I join with those others who do not want the river to be a place where the only apprentices are white kids who went to Bacon’s college. However, I want the kids from that college—boys and girls, white, black and Asian—to be able to go on the river.
Mr. Carmichael: My hon. Friend hits on the crux of the matter and the Government’s attitude to it. I think I am correct in saying that he was a barrister before he entered this place. I was a solicitor. We were all apprenticed and required to satisfy those who were already qualified. It was accepted that that was a fit and proper thing to do because of the nature of the work that we did. It is always accepted that, with a difficult and skilled profession or occupation, an element of apprenticeship is necessary. Is not the root of the problem the fact the Government do not properly appreciate or understand the skill, expertise and difficulty involved in the work of the watermen and lightermen?
Simon Hughes: That is the point. I want to end as other colleagues want to speak. If this were a Bill, under the new procedure that we have agreed, we would be entitled to call for evidence before we finalised our deliberations in Committee. It is a good new procedure that we have introduced since the beginning of January. This is not a Bill, so we cannot insist on that. However, my hon. Friend and others have asked the Minister to do something that effectively allows that. It is not a contrivance. As the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington and others have said, we are just saying “The people who spend all their time thinking about transport issues are willing to hear the case and give advice.” It would be madness not to use the process of Parliament to scrutinise the regulations.
Whatever the outcome of today’s debate, becausethe matter might be pressed to a Division, I ask the Minister to wait for the deliberations of the Select Committee, as my hon. Friend suggested. By about Easter, we could make an informed judgment based on the experience, knowledge and interest of not only hon. Members who took part in those proceedings, but others who will have fresh ideas having heard the evidence. That must be the sensible way in which to proceed.
The Chairman: For the guidance of the Committee, I wish to call the Minister to speak at 3.45 pm to give him time to respond to some of the issues that have been raised. However, I want other hon. Members to come in.
3.36 pm
Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): I am pleased to be able to say a few words, even though I am not a member of the Committee. I have been put on other Committees that discuss statutory instruments, but I was kept well away from this one. I concur with everything that hon. Members on both sides of the Committee have said. Despite the good Westminster Hall debate and the years of being lobbied on such matters, I regret that the Minister has still decided to go ahead. I do not think that any member of the public generally or those who love or work on the river will see the rationale behind the proposal.
We can all agree with parts of the proposal. We have made our position clear on such matters, which is why it is so disappointing that the Minister is not willing to come forward with a compromise to which everyone would sign up. I agree strongly with the request that we wait for the report of the Transport Committee. Given its huge expertise and its formidable Chairman, who sat through the whole debate and who clearly understands the issue, I do not understand how we cannot go ahead with such a sensible request. Many senior hon. Members are present today, including former Secretaries of State, and I accept that they might not have had the time to really understand the issue. That is not to say that they have not taken in a lot today, but if we push through the regulations it will bring the whole way in which we run our parliamentary procedures into disrepute.
The regulations are being bulldozed through. Why? Who is pushing them? What is the problem with waiting for two or three months? The Minister got himself into the whole idea of a closed shop. The father of my former Chief Whip was a Member of the House of Commons. How many grandfathers, brothers, sisters and twins of current Members of Parliament were also hon. Members? Yet we somehow think that there is something wrong with people who have traditionally been involved with the river wanting to stay in it. That does not make it a closed shop. Nine of the 20 licensed Thames watermen apprentices who were admitted recently were unconnected with the river.
I find it strange that the Minister was so bold as to say that it would
“take as long to train a boatman as it does to train a hospital doctor”,
as if there is something wrong with that. Both people are skilled professionals who are responsible for the lives of hundreds of people—passengers, on the one hand, and patients on the other. That sort of inverted snobbery about how long a professional should take to train just does not add up.
As I said in the debate at Westminster Hall, I would not want to be the Minister responsible for the regulations. I hope that there will be a Division inthe main Chamber on the issue. I would oppose the measure. It was not in our manifesto. We must think about it in the long term. When the first tragedy happens, I hope that anyone who votes for the regulations today can live with it.
3.39 pm
Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): I am unique in that I am the only member of the Committee who serves on the Transport Committee. I endorse what has been said by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland and others. I make a plea: can we please wait a few weeks for the results of the investigation of the Transport Committee? When the report is produced, we can examine all the concerns that everyone has raised. I have my own, but it is not right and proper for me to raise them now because they will come out at the inquiry.
If the public and those who work on the Thames are to have faith in anything that we do, we must put this off for a few weeks and wait for the results of the inquiry. I have no idea what it will say, but it is great to serve on the Committee and I am honoured to be on it under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). I am sure that the report will contain good ideas, so my plea is that the regulations be not decided upon today. Let us wait until the Select Committee report has been produced, after which the Government should do whatever they feel appropriate. Let us wait for that informed decision.
I say this as a relatively new Member: nobody trusts us. Let us try to get some trust back for once.
3.40 pm
Dr. Ladyman: Most people who know me will know that I usually extemporise extensively on statutory instruments. I hope that the Committee will forgive me if I stick closely to my notes for the first part of my contribution. So much has been said and exaggerated that I want to ensure that certain things are put on the record and that I do not forget anything. I shall then deal with the specific concerns raised and perhaps take some interventions towards the end.
I absolutely agree that safety is the key issue. I said in the Westminster Hall debate, and I repeat today, that I would not for one second contemplate anything thatI believed would reduce the level of safety on the Thames or anywhere else. I believe that the new arrangements at least maintain the current safety levels, and at best improve them significantly. Away from the Thames they will improve them very significantly indeed.
We are considering the safety of passengers and operators, and we should not lose sight of the fact that there has been hardly any national control over the skills and knowledge needed for an individual to master a boat on the UK’s inland waters. Even on the Thames, a waterway which I accept has some of the most strict local legislation, there have been gaping holes allowing a large and worrying number of operators to work unregulated. That represented an unacceptable risk, which had to be resolved beyond the Thames. The risk was identified by Lord Justice Clarke in his Thames safety inquiry, which the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey mentioned. That was implemented by the Government and identified the gaps in provision that we are trying to fill.
Lord Justice Clarke was surprised to learn that there was no requirement for those operating freightvessels in the UK to be qualified and one of his recommendations was that that regulatory gap be plugged.
Angela Watkinson: Will the Minister give way?
Dr. Ladyman: Let me just complete what I am saying, then I certainly will.
In addition, a body known as the freightstudy group, which was sponsored by Government Departments, produced its own report on the state of the inland water freight industry in 2002. One of the main concerns that it highlighted was the lack of national regulation for the masters of freight-carrying vessels. Finally, there is European directive 96/50/EC, aimed at harmonising the qualifications needed by those operating vessels on inland waterways. There are significant benefits to be gained by complying with the directive, not least of which is that those qualified under the UK’s national regime will, with some additional examination, be able to work on the linked waterways of other EU member states.
I repeat an offer that I believe I made in Westminster Hall—if I did not, I intended to. If I find that any waterman who takes the British licence that we are introducing is excluded from any waterway in Europe, the Government will take proceedings against the country in question through the Commission to secure the right of British workers to work abroad.
On the subject of Europe, much has been made of the special status of the Rhine and parts of the Danube under the directive. The reason for that status is nothing more sinister than that those rivers are partly governed by states that are not subject to EU law. Therefore, it would not be possible for the UK to nominate its own waterways for similar exemptions.
There were, therefore, compelling reasons for implementing a national regime, and they have on the whole been accepted by industry—by port and navigation authorities, representatives of practitioners: the list is long. I accept that resistance has been met from the Company of Watermen and Lightermen, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers and the Transport and General Workers Union. Those organisations claim that the new regime, which will replace the old system of waterman and lighterman licences, is a step backwards from the safety standards implemented after the Marchioness tragedy in 1989. Nothing could be further from the truth.
That claim is made for three main reasons—they have been repeated here today. First, under the new regime, a candidate must have a minimum of two and a half years’ experience before they are awarded a licence to operate a vessel carrying up to 250 passengers on the Thames, as opposed to five years under the old system. Secondly, the minimum age to obtain the licence is now 18, and thirdly, the area deemed as requiring local knowledge, training and examination has been redefined.
I will take those three points one at a time. Contrary to the point of view that more years in a job makes one more qualified, I believe that it is the quality of training, not the quantity of time, that matters. In 2002, the independent marine consultancy firm, Baxter Eadie, was commissioned to produce a report on the suitability of the various training regimes available to those operating on the Thames. Frankly, the findings were eye-opening. Of all the bodies offering qualification, the Port of London Authority was shown to be the most thorough, yet its syllabus covered only half the skills required to work on the river.
Mr. Brazier: Will the Minister confirm that the Baxter Eadie study suggested that local knowledge area should stretch beyond the outgoing one—beyond Gravesend to Reculver?
Dr. Ladyman: I was going to return to the local knowledge training. My understanding is that Baxter Eadie was requested to review the local knowledge area a second time, and that that second study recommended the procedures that led to the narrowing of the area. In its initial study it might well have presumed that the area would be maintained, but subsequently it redefined it recommendations.
Simon Hughes: Will the Minister give way?
Dr. Ladyman: Let me make some progress.
Under the new regulations, a candidate might well be able to work on the Thames after two and a half years. However, what has been ignored, in Westminster Hall and here today, is that they will have undergone rigorous training and examination with detailed validation at every stage and in every area of skill and knowledge. That is absolutely unmatched by any existing training programme.
It is true that under the old arrangement the training for a waterman’s licence took five years. However, in the same period, most apprentices would acquire a lighterman’s licence, which provided experience in a much wider range of activities than just passenger vessel operation, including towing and the handling of cargo. The same range of operations now requires specialist endorsement. For example, the candidate now needs to have a total of 720 days of relevant service time, which compares favourably, I believe, with the 750 quoted by the watermen for their licence.
Those opposed to the new training requirements often quote a part of the EU directive that states that, in order to be awarded a general boatmaster’s certificate, a candidate will need at least four years’ experience. Opponents neglect to mention, however, that the directive provides for a reduction in that period to—potentially—one year, assuming that sufficient competency can be demonstrated through practical examination.
The Rhine licence, I have to say, takes four years to obtain, not six, as has been suggested in the debate, and is a general licence, allowing someone to carry out a wide range of functions. It is not a modular licence like the licence we are proposing. To get the same level of competencies using the new modular system would take a similar length of time.
Mr. Brazier: Will the Minister give way?
Dr. Ladyman: I want to make progress because we do not have a great deal of time, but I will give way if there is time at the end.
Another argument often made against the new boatmaster’s licence is that the minimum age at which the licence can be issued is 18. It is true to say that under the new regime, an 18-year-old can operate a vessel with up to 12 passengers, the same as a holder of a provisional waterman’s licence. In order to command a vessel that carries up to 250 passengers, the minimum age remains 21.
The final area of contention—the reduction of the stretch of river for which an operator will need local knowledge endorsement—has implications beyondthe Thames. As part of the development of the boatmaster’s licence, criteria were drawn up to determine what types of conditions qualified a waterway to require a local knowledge endorsement. Incidentally, the Company of Watermen and Lightermen, the TGWU and the RMT were some of the many organisations consulted on those criteria. When the PLA came to apply for a local knowledge area on the Thames, assessment under the new criteria showed that much of what was covered under the old local knowledge definition was not sufficiently difficult or hazardous to navigate to warrant an endorsement.
The much more stringent generic requirements of the boatmaster’s licence, compared to the old training regimes, are enough to prepare masters for waters beyond the new local knowledge limits.
Mr. Brazier: The Minister is talking about a rapidly changing situation. On Monday, I am going to the newly planned Thames Gateway port, which will be an enormous operation. The Minister is saying that people from other parts of Europe who may have just climbed off an aeroplane can operate a vessel in the area, not just those who have been through the modular structure.
Dr. Ladyman: The fact of the matter is that a person operating a vessel outside the local knowledge area will have to have a sufficiently rigorous licence.
Angela Watkinson: Will the Minister give way?
Dr. Ladyman: Let me just complete this point. That person will have to have come across the same issues that they are likely to experience in the new area. If a person wishes to operate in tidal waters, they will need to be qualified in tidal waters, and so will be aware of those conditions.
In the event of changes in that part of London—the London Gateway port may get the go-ahead, or there may be some other change—there is a procedure under the new arrangements whereby the PLA will be able to go to the equivalence committee, saying that it needs to extend its local knowledge area, because it has become more difficult to navigate. That option is built into the new system, so people will be able to react to future changes.
The Baxter Eadie report examined competencies assuming the old local knowledge area. That was why the old local knowledge area was covered in the first report. The risk assessment for the local knowledge area was not related to the Baxter Eadie report. The risk assessment narrowed the area down.
Mr. Brazier: I must correct the Minister because he has inadvertently misled the Committee. The reportdid not recommend staying with the old area; it recommended an extension of it.
Dr. Ladyman: It looked at those competenciesthat a person would need to navigate in the oldlocal knowledge area. The report said that those competencies were not covered by existing syllabuses. It pointed out that the necessary knowledge and subjects were only half covered by the PLA syllabus, and only a quarter by the watermen’s syllabus. The report wasa clear indictment of the current arrangements. We should not pretend that the current arrangements—the arrangements that the Opposition are tryingto defend—were supported by the Baxter Eadie recommendations; far from it.
Several hon. Members rose—
Dr. Ladyman: I have to make a few more points and then I will give way.
The position that I am adopting is supported by the fact that authorities around the country that govern waterways with similar environments and traffic levels to the Thames either did not apply for a local knowledge requirement, or had their applications refused by the equivalence committee.
As I said, the new system takes account of the possibility of change. Through a body known asthe equivalence committee, authorities can submit applications to revise the extent of the local knowledge needed within their remit.
All that replaces the PLA and Company of Watermen and Lightermen byelaws, which I have to say were riddled with holes. Unbelievably it used to be the case that those who operated ferries were exempt from the requirement to hold a waterman’s licence, which was the point that I was making earlier. The master of the Woolwich ferry is indeed a waterman and an opponent of the new proposals, but he does not need to have a waterman’s licence to operate the Woolwich ferry. If he were to retire or resign tomorrow, the person who replaced him would not need any sort of licence.
John McDonnell: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Dr. Ladyman: Let me just make a little more progress—because I have only got four minutes—and then I will give way.
Anyone could master a powered freight vessel on the Thames, or any inland waterway for that matter, without any qualification whatsoever. I will repeat that because the defenders of the current system need to recognise it. A powered freight vessel could be mastered without any special knowledge at all.
Angela Watkinson: Is it not right that, under the new licence, freight vessels under 24 m, which is about 75 ft in old money, will not be subject to the licence? Therefore, there will be lots of freight vessels and work boats operating without any licence at all.
Dr. Ladyman: Everybody will have to have a generic licence. While endorsements may be unnecessary for carrying out certain functions, everyone will have their generic licence.
Mr. Carmichael: Will the Minister give way?
Dr. Ladyman: No. Let me just make a few more points.
Perhaps the most damning indictment of the arrangements that hon. Members are trying to defend is that those who operated a voyage beginning or ending outside the Thames local knowledge area did not need to hold a waterman’s knowledge licence, even if passengers embarked or disembarked inside the area. Under the new regime, a boatmaster’s local knowledge for that part of the Thames for which he is licensed will be revalidated at five-yearly intervals. Of course, a person will only get their local knowledge from that part of the river on which they are working, so they will not acquire generic local knowledge that covers the whole area.
John McDonnell: Will my hon. Friend give way?
Dr. Ladyman: Let me just complete this point and then I will certainly give way. That had no equivalent under the old system, in which an individual could operate in the same small area for many years, yet was still licensed to operate from Teddington to Lower Hope point.
In summary, I believe that the new regulations are, without doubt, a huge step towards ensuring the safety of UK waters. They plug gaping holes and, unlike many of the local regimes they replace, they are transparent and open to revision to suit those who are constantly changing their minds.
Various people have talked to me about consultation. Let me remind the Committee that there was a non-statutory consultation from December 2003 to February 2004 and a second one from July 2005 to October 2005. There was a statutory consultation in 2006. There have been meetings involving myself, union representatives and many of the members of the Department. Various Government Departments were consulted as well as port authorities, the British Ports Association, the Port of London Authority and the United Kingdom Major Ports Group. Navigation authorities and their representatives were also consulted. Many of the private operators supportthis regime.
The consultation has been thorough. As a result of that and the representations made by the watermen themselves, there have been substantial extensions to the proposal. As a consequence—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey is saying that he agrees, yet has accused me of not being prepared to compromise.
The fact of the matter is that the original proposal that the industry agreed on was for a two years’ generic licence but local knowledge incorporated in that. We have taken on board the recommendation that there needs to be a longer period of service. We have made them consecutive periods of service. That is where the two-and-a-half years come from. The revalidation of licences substantially strengthens the arrangement, as does the new medical test. There have been significant concessions as a result of people’s representations.
Mr. Carmichael: If the Minister’s case is so strong, why will he not wait until the Select Committee have looked at the matter as an honest broker?
Dr. Ladyman: Because sooner or later, we have to make a decision. We have been making this decision for five years. People have had plenty of opportunities to be consulted and it is now time to decide.
Question put:
The Committee divided: Ayes 9, Noes 8.
Division No. 1 ]
AYES
Atkins, Charlotte
Clarke, rh Mr. Charles
Curtis-Thomas, Mrs. Claire
Ladyman, Dr. Stephen
Lucas, Ian
Moran, Margaret
Roy, Mr. Frank
Slaughter, Mr. Andrew
Smith, rh Mr. Andrew
NOES
Brazier, Mr. Julian
Carmichael, Mr. Alistair
Hughes, Simon
Rosindell, Andrew
Scott, Mr. Lee
Singh, Mr. Marsha
Spink, Bob
Watkinson, Angela
Question accordingly agreed to.
Resolved,
That the Committee has considered the MerchantShipping (Inland Waterway and Limited Coastal Operations) (Boatmasters’ Qualifications and Hours of Work) Regulations 2006 (S.I., 2006, No. 3223).
Committee rose at three minutes past Four o’clock.
 
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