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While discussing the difficulties in persuading companies to flag to the UK, there are two matters obliquely touched on in the documents that the Government ought to be taking more seriously with the Commission. The first is the threat to the UK fleet of proposals to force UK-registered vessels to pay equal salaries to all its EU-national sailors, regardless of the salary the sailor could expect in his or her home
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state. This will not result in a fairer deal for poorer EU nationals, as the Commission hopes, nor will it result in more UK seafarers being hired, as the unions might hope—all that it will do is put further pressure on companies to flag out instead of paying higher wages. In that way, they will not even have to pay for the training of UK cadets, as the tonnage tax, rightly in our view, demands.

That brings me to the tonnage tax, which my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) has already mentioned. I was partly comforted by the Minister’s answer. None the less, it is well known that the European Commission is casting its eyes over the UK tonnage tax, coming on top of the Government’s own restrictions. As I have acknowledged publicly several times, the tonnage tax is an achievement by this Government that we welcome and believe in. However, the changes that were made to lease arrangements were not seen as helpful at a time when owners can see that other countries have introduced their own equivalents to the tonnage tax. More recently, the proposed amendments to the Finance Bill, which have fortunately now been dropped, sent out a worrying signal to the market that the tonnage tax regime may not be stable. Members will have seen stories in the media that Evergreen is considering re-flagging to Singapore, with the future of the tonnage tax at the top of its list of concerns. I was glad to hear the Minister’s answer on this, but if he can strengthen it a little in his final response, that will be welcomed by the industry. We need to make it clear that this is not an area where the European Commission should be interfering.

There is much in the documents about maritime clusters and how the EU should support them. As we all know, the world’s leading maritime cluster is right here in London, and it is, to some extent, threatened by the EU. The Minister must impress upon his colleagues in the Treasury and in the Commission that this, particularly where the tonnage tax is concerned, could be the unwrapping of what has been a considerable success.

The last of the Commission plans that has wisely been dropped is the directive on access for ports. The line-up against that directive has been very interesting. The European Transport Workers Federation has stood side by side with the port of London, Dutch socialists and Conservative MEPs. I was delighted to see that the proposal had gone. One thing that came up again and again in the debates on that issue was the flexible approach that our continental cousins take when it comes to interpreting European regulations—not a situation unique to shipping. I endorse the Minister’s comments about the suggestion that an added duty for the Commission to ensure that all EU ports operate in the same environmental framework and use similar regimes of interpretation and enforcement is important.

There are things in the document to support and a few remaining things that need fairly vigorous opposition. On this occasion, the Government seem, on the whole, to support that which needs supporting and to oppose that which needs opposition. There are areas where we feel that their opposition should be more vigorous but, on balance, it would be churlish to oppose the Government’s motion.

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8.25 pm

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome this important debate, and I would like to thank the European Scrutiny Committee for its work in enabling the debate to go ahead in such a well-informed way.

The maritime sector is vital to the economy of the United Kingdom, with 95 per cent. by volume and 75 per cent. by value of the UK’s international trade transported by sea. In 2004, £330 billion of the UK’s international trade moved through our seaports. Short-sea traffic trade with Europe and the Mediterranean accounted for 39 per cent. of all container traffic in 2004. The industry is important to our economy, and that importance justifies paying attention to the holistic approach to maritime policy we are asked to consider in the development of European integrated maritime policy. In terms of the UK, the issue is national, regional and European. Other perspectives involved in maritime policy include issues such as economic development and regeneration, the environment and security.

The proposals in the documents deal with integration and the setting up of a European maritime policy. In the Government’s comments on what are ongoing discussions rather than firm proposals, it is right that they have drawn attention to the importance of subsidiarity and of having added benefit when considering any widening of competences. I am pleased to see that, in the action plan, developing a European policy is not simply an issue of competence but one of considering decision-making on policy, setting up networks, sharing information and enabling expertise in one area to be used for the benefit of all. That is an important part of developing a European policy.

I welcome the parts of the documents that refer to clusters. Clusters of maritime excellence are important and I have seen their benefit in the work done by Mersey Maritime, which has brought together different sectors in the industry. It has enabled tens of thousands of new jobs to be developed in the sector. It has supported training in the nautical sector and developed courses with local colleges, encouraging young people to become involved in nautical matters. Developing a cluster of maritime industries matters and it is important that that process is led effectively. I would like to see more work done, however, on its implications for Europe as a whole.

I would like to point out three areas where there are significant concerns, and where, looking at the documents, it does not appear that the Government have given sufficient consideration to the policy as a whole. The first concern is about the competitiveness of United Kingdom ports in comparison with the rest of Europe, and in particular whether the privately owned United Kingdom ports compete on a level playing field with the subsidised, nationally owned European ports. Evidence given recently to the Select Committee on Transport showed that the capital costs for a terminal operator of opening a facility in the United Kingdom were three times as much as opening one in other parts of Europe. The question must be asked: why?

The Government’s ports consultation document states that United Kingdom applications for funding from the European regional development fund, the
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trans-European transport networks or the Marco Polo initiative for short-sea shipping must satisfy the Government as to their compatibility with fair competition between ports. We would not quarrel with that objective, but the question must be asked: is that criterion applied equally stringently in ports throughout Europe or does it concentrate simply on what is happening in the United Kingdom?

My second concern is about the security of ports. The proposals in the documents for increased surveillance of ports are welcome. If that were done properly, it would be effective. However, there is also a proposal in the documentation for a European maritime transport space without barriers. More questions need to be asked about what that exactly means. The proposal talks about simplifying administrative and customs barriers, but what does that mean for growing security needs in cargo and loading in ports?

Legislation enacted in the United States means that from 2010, ships sailing to the USA from foreign ports must be investigated and receive security clearance at their ports of origin. How will that relate to the European maritime transport space without barriers? I understand that some concern has been expressed in Europe about the American proposal, but it is not quite clear what that means. What does the proposal mean for the security of shipping entering our ports? That is an increasingly important question.

My third concern is about freight policy. Attention has already been drawn to the importance of the United Kingdom’s developing a more effective national freight policy. Infrastructure is particularly significant to the development of ports policy in the United Kingdom, and that means having better co-ordinated and integrated freight policy. However, there is a question mark over what is happening with freight from European operators. I understand that there is a proposal to allow European hauliers to operate wholly within the United Kingdom. What does that mean for maritime freight and United Kingdom hauliers? We do not have the answers to those questions, but there is growing public concern about the impact of freight operators from other parts of Europe on the United Kingdom’s already hard-pressed haulage business.

I should like the Government to go beyond the comments that they have already made and consider the specific issues that I have raised, so that as the debate continues and a much-needed European policy develops, we can ensure that the United Kingdom’s interests are protected, although in the context of the also important European dimension.

8.34 pm

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): I congratulate the Minister on his fine précis of the documents before us. Without much effort at all, he could have taken up the entire debate.

Although it is a privilege to debate such an important subject on the Floor of the House, if this debate were taking place in Committee, we would have an extra hour in which to probe the Government and ask the Minister some more definitive questions. The documents are full of high hopes and fine words, but have little substance. The test will be whether the policy
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can be turned into practical deeds and plans that will deliver for this country and for Europe. My hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) asked an incisive question about how much value added will result from the policy and what performance indicators will be used to test whether it has succeeded. I wonder whether the Minister will return to that question when he sums up. I think that he used the terms “integrated”, “cross-cutting” and “synergetic” several times, all of which are hallmarks of a good European paper, but the Government must be clearer about how the policy will be delivered and what benefits will flow from it.

The marine environment and maritime areas are not only important to Europe; they are very important to Britain. Europe has 70,000 km of coastline along two oceans and four seas, and the geographical nature of Britain means that it will have a greater proportion of coast than Europe. As the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) said, some European countries have no coastline and will not have such a great interest in this issue.

Sir Robert Smith: My hon. Friend makes the important point that several European nations will not have a direct interest. When it comes to the fishing aspect of marine policy, is it not important to have regional management so that only countries with a coastal interest in a particular fishery are involved in its management?

Mr. Williams: My hon. Friend makes an important point, which our party has emphasised in trying to bring some reform to the single fisheries policy and make it more localised.

Mr. MacNeil: Surely, the reform of the common fisheries policy that is required is its outright abolition.

Mr. Williams: That might be the policy of the hon. Gentleman’s party, but the Liberal Democrats realise that it would be very difficult to have a fisheries policy that did not take into account the fact that fish move from one part of a sea to another and that we must therefore have some control over the fisheries of other nations as well as our own.

Bob Spink: The documents mention the objective of

The hon. Gentleman talks about warm words from Europe, but are not those yet more warm words from Europe? How does that objective sit with a common fisheries policy that sees us throwing back more fish dead than are landed legally across the whole of Europe every year?

Mr. Williams: I take on board the hon. Gentleman’s point, but I do not think that there is a nation in the European Union that does not believe that there could be some improvement to the fisheries policy.

Mr. MacNeil: The hon. Gentleman says that fish swim in the ocean between certain nations, but is not the reality that fish swim from European Union waters
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to Norwegian waters? Tiny Norway is the most powerful fishing nation in the whole of Europe, but it is outside the common fisheries policy. It has more say and greater control over fishing than any country in the EU.

Mr. Williams: I thought that Norway might come up at some stage. I am sure that intelligent fish will also recognise the hon. Gentleman’s point. It might be that the European Union has negotiations with Norway about fisheries, and perhaps that can be built on.

It is not only fisheries that contribute to the economic importance of the coast and the maritime environment; trade is also important, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) pointed out. Populations also tend to cluster or accumulate in greater densities around coastal areas because of the economic activity that goes on there, and because better climates are often associated with those areas. There is therefore greater population and greater economic activity in those areas, and they are important to the economy of the nations concerned. The tourism industry is important to Britain, and various aspects of this policy reflect that importance. I hope that more people in this country will change their holiday habits and support our coastal towns a little more, and perhaps spend less of their money abroad. Holidays in this country are certainly worth while.

A real problem in the marine environment is that, for too long, it has been regarded as a place in which to dispose of the detritus and waste produced by human activities. It is only in relatively recent years that we have understood that, however great the seas are and however accommodating their chemistry might be, we cannot keep on putting waste into the sea. That applies in physical terms, in regard to plastics, for example, and in regard to chemical and industrial effluent.

Mr. Brazier: The hon. Gentleman started by saying that it was important for the EU to bring all these different strands together. He also talked about warm words. Surely, however, he is giving us a really good example of why the EU is the wrong body to bring these strands together. Chemicals move around the sea just as much as fish do, and the right way to tackle this issue is through the United Nations and the International Maritime Organisation.

Mr. Williams: I would not disagree. The point has been made that it is important for Britain to maintain its membership of the IMO, and to involve itself in the discussions on the pollution in all our oceans. It is interesting that this debate is taking place on the same day as the first consideration of the draft Marine Bill by the Joint Committee of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. One of the points that was made when we considered it this morning was that the marine management organisation, which is the focal point of the Bill, should be the champion of the oceans. We asked whether the MMO would have enough capacity, manning and resources to be such a champion and to represent Britain on these matters.

The documents state that there could be three ways of achieving the policy objectives. One would be to abandon any EU maritime policy altogether and to achieve the objectives through sectoral approaches
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instead, sector by sector. Decisions made in that way might be easier, but not necessarily consistent or co-ordinated, and I believe that it was right to reject that option. Another approach that was rejected was the structural or centralised approach, which would have brought together all aspects of maritime affairs in one organisation, integrating all legislation and budgets for maritime policy. That would have involved substantial internal reorganisation, with potential political and cost risks. All maritime policies are part of a wider policy area, and the integration of those policies could fragment other policies. There is, however, agreement to go ahead with a procedural approach that will involve co-ordinating existing methods.

Briefly, on some of the subjects mentioned in the documents, we welcome the emphasis on an eco-system-based approach to fishing and fisheries. We welcome the emphasis on subsidiarity and on decisions being taken as locally as possible, and believe that EU guidance is useful, but we would not be in favour of any over-centralising, top-down approach to policy. Coastal communities vary greatly within countries, particularly across the EU, so a top-down approach would be unlikely to work. However, we welcome the recognition of coastal and maritime importance, as well as the establishment of marine protected areas and the introduction of the draft Marine Bill, which will give powers to do that in England and in the devolved nations.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): Does my hon. Friend share my regret that during consideration of the Energy Bill, the Government resisted our attempts to give the MMO authority over some of the offshore installations provided for in that Bill, therefore cutting back the powers of that organisation before it has even been established?

Mr. Williams: I welcome the idea that my hon. Friend is putting forward, which will perhaps be reconsidered in debates on the Marine Bill. Certainly, comments that have already been made are cautious about how well the MMO will be able to fulfil its functions.

We welcome the potential to reduce pollution from ships, which will lead to cleaner ports, better fuel efficiency and increased use of renewables. We also welcome the emphasis on improved safety for fishermen while at sea, as the accident rate is too high. We should ensure that regulations do not move too far ahead of the international organisations and non-EU countries, disadvantaging the competitiveness of member states. We need to improve public awareness of the economic and environmental importance of maritime and coastal areas.

Mr. Brazier: Again, the hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. He says that he welcomes measures on pollution, but then says he welcomes recognition that we must not disadvantage our own industries. Does he or does he not accept that the right body to drive up standards on pollution is the IMO, so that we keep a level playing field and people stay within the law?

Mr. Williams: I do not quite understand the last point. We have made our position clear: we wish the UK to retain IMO membership but believe that things can be achieved working together in the EU. Perhaps
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the word “synergy”, which the Minister used, might be employed to some advantage.

Lastly, we welcome the fact that it has been decided not to proceed with a European register of shipping and not to have a European coastguard. All in all, there is nothing in the documents that we cannot support, but we would wish to see more substantial ideas coming from the EU, and from the Government in particular, on how the proposals might benefit the coastal areas of the UK.

8.48 pm

Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): The documents were in fact considered by the Select Committee on European Scrutiny on 16 January 2008. It is in the eighth report of the Session 2007-08. The time scale is not for proposals by 2009. The extract from the European Council, which is on page 21 of our report, says that the Commission is invited

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