HC Deb 16 March 1964 vol 691 cc1087-107
Mr. David James

I beg to move, in page 27, line 28, to leave out from the beginning to the end of line 18 on page 30, and to insert: (2) An application may be made to the Minister—

  1. (a) by the Council, or
  2. (b) by any person, or any body representative of persons, appearing to the Minister to have a substantial interest,
for the revision of all or any of the charges to which this section applies imposed by a harbour authority at a harbour which, in the exercise and performance of statutory powers and duties, they are engaged in improving, maintaining and managing. (3) If, on any such application, the Minister is satisfied that under the circumstances then existing it is proper so to do, he may, subject to the provisions of this section and where the Council is not the applicant, subject to consultation with the Council, make an order revising in such manner as he may think fit, with effect from such date as may be specified in the order, all or any of the charges referred to in subsection (2) (above), whether or not the subject matter of the application, including any classification by reference to which the amount of any of those charges is to be determined: Provided that—
  1. (a) the Minister shall not vary any charge other than those to which the application relates except after consultation with the harbour authority, the Council and such other persons, or such bodies representative of such other persons, appearing to him to have a substantial interest as may appear to him appropriate;
  2. (b) where on an application under this section for an increase or a decrease in any charge the Minister has made an order, the Minister shall not entertain an application for a further increase or, as the case may be, a further decrease in that charge, or for a further revision of any other charge revised by the order, if any, so made, if that application is made before the expiration of the period specified in the order as the period during which the harbour authority, by virtue of subsection (7) (below) is required not to take in respect of a matter or thing in respect of which a charge is imposed by the order, a charge other than that so imposed.
(4) In making any order on an application under this section, the Minister shall have regard to the financial position and future prospects of the harbour authority concerned and shall not make any revision of charges which in his opinion would be likely to result in the authority receiving an annual revenue either substantially less or substantially more than adequate to meet such expenditure on the working, maintenance and management of harbour and such other costs, charges and expenses of the harbour authority as are properly chargeable to revenue, including reasonable contributions to any reserve contingency or other fund and, where appropriate, a reasonable return upon the paid up share capital of the authority: Provided that where the Minister is satisfied that, in view of the financial position of the harbour authority during such period immediately preceding the application as may appear to him appropriate there are special circumstances affecting the authority, the Minister may make such revision of charges as he may consider just and reasonable in the light of those special circumstances, notwithstanding that it is in his opinion likely to result in the harbour authority receiving an annual revenue substantially less than adequate for the purpose aforesaid. (5) When an application is made under this section, the applicant and the harbour authority concerned shall furnish the Minister and, where the Council is not the applicant, the Council, with such information and particulars, certified in such manner as the Minister may require, and the applicant shall publish in such newspapers as the Minister may require a notice stating—
  1. (a) the general effect of the application: and
  2. (b) that within a period of forty-two days from the date of the first publication of the notice any person having a substantial interest or body representative of persons who have such an interest may object to the application by giving notice to the Minister 1090 accompanied by the grounds of his or their objection with a copy to the applicant and to the Council, if the Council is not the applicant.
(6) Before making an order or an application under this section, the Minister shall, if required by he applicant, or by the Council, if the Council is not the applicant, or by any person who has objected to the applicant and has not withdrawn his objection or, where the order would vary any charge other than those to which the application relates, by any person or body wit! whom he has consulted in pursuance of paragraph (a) of the proviso to subsection (3) (above), and in any other case may if he thinks fit cause an inquiry to be held by such person as he may appoint for the purpose. (7) Any charges imposed by an order made shall—this section in the case of a harbour shall—
  1. (a) except in a case where the harbour is one specified in Schedule 9 to the Transport Act 1962, be deemed to have been imposed under section 22 of this Act;
  2. (b) in the said excepted case, be deemed to have been imposed under section 43 of the said Act of 1962;
and, during such period (which shall not exceed twelve months from the date of the making of the order) as may be specified in the order, the harbour authority engaged in improving, maintaining or managing the harbour shall not demand or take thereat in respect of a matter or thing in respect of which a charge is imposed by the order, a charge other than that so imposed.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

This Amendment can be discussed with Amendments 150, 90, 91, 92, 151, 155 and 154 which all deal with the same point.

Mr. Mellish

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. You will understand that Amendments Nos. 90, 91 and 92 are Opposition Amendments. They were on the Order Paper a considerable time ago, since when these other Amendments have been put down. I recognise, of course, that they relate to an earlier part of the Bill. We do not object to all these Amendments being discussed together, but can we not claim the right, if we desire, to vote on our own Amendments which we put down some time ago?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

It will not be possible to do that. Assuming that the House does not accept Amendment 152 which the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. David James) is about to move, the words beyond the point at which the hon. Member wishes to make an Amendment will have been put into the Bill. It will not be possible to do anything about it then.

Mr. Mellish

May I make this reservation, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that in order to register our point of view and to do it in the only democratic way available to us, in the Division Lobbies, we might find ourselves supporting the Amendment moved from the benches opposite, although not supporting it in principle. I should like to give notice of that fact.

Dr. King

Mr. Deputy-Speaker, when you called out the numbers of the Amendments I understood you to call out No. 155.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker


Dr. King

That Amendment seeks to delete Clause 28.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

That is so.

Dr. King

I am obliged.

Mr. James

This series of Amendments deals with the subject of dues as opposed to charges. In handling charges, which can be evaluated when dealing with pilotage, buoyage and so on, one has an overhead which has got to be spread as fairly and evenly as possible. Our objection arises from the fact that when dealing with a harbour one is dealing essentially with a monopoly.

My complaint about this Clause is that subsection (2) only gives an aggrieved person the right of going to the Ports Council and this means that the Ports Council is both counsel and judge in its own cause. It is not a sufficiently remote body to be able to give real justice, or at least to do so in such a manner that justice can be seen to be done. People who use the ports favour the existing system which means that ultimately the Minister has the right of determining, subject naturally to the interpolation of the National Ports Council which is the new body created by this Bill.

I should like to know why it is necessary abruptly to reverse more than 100 years of statutory practice. The existing position has been well set out by Rochdale on page 66, except that possibly the Rochdale Report did not give sufficient weight to Section 6(3) of the 1954 Act which was based on a model Clause negotiated after the war between the parties concerned, which produced criteria for the revision of these charges.

Once again we are dealing with a long-established statutory position. Our complaint is that under the Bill as it now stands, there are no criteria for the revision of dues. It is objected that the old procedure was cumbrous and time-wasting, but I submit that the principal existence of Section 6(3) of the 1954 Act in itself meant that every knotty case was settled out of court, that this is a single tier procedure, that there is only one person to go to—namely the court—whereas under the Bill as now proposed there will be two stages—one to the Council and one to the Minister—and this manifestly puts the port user in an unfavourable position compared with the position which he enjoyed before.

Therefore, while I recognise that my Amendments in themselves are probably useless because a large number of consequential Amendments would be involved, I none the less wanted to give an airing to the principle that the three provisions in this Bill are not the right way to do it and that the 1954 Act was the right way to do it.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The Question is, in page 27, line 28, leave out from the beginning to the word "thereto" in page 29, line 37.

Mr. Mellish

On a point of order. With great respect, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, I think that you called the wrong Amendment. I understand the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. David James) moved Amendment No. 152. Is that right?

Mr. David James


Mr. Deputy-Speaker

That is the Amendment on which I put the Question.

Mr. Mellish

Was it? I did not understand that to be so.

Mr. Eric Lubbock (Orpington)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. On my Notice Paper under Amendment No. 152 the words are: Page 27, line 28, leave out from beginning to end of line 18 on page 30… Those were not the words that you called out.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

There has to be a saving for a Government Amendment.

8.30 p.m.

Mr. A. J. Irvine

I desire to draw to the attention of the House what we regard as the merits of the three Amendments, Nos. 90, 91 and 92, which we have put tabled. We are dealing here with the Clause which gives the right of objection to the National Ports Council in regard to ship, passenger and goods dues. As I understand, the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. David James) is concerned mainly with the position of the Minister in this matter relative to the position of the National Ports Council. We are more concerned about the position of the Council itself and what it will be at liberty to do when objections against charges are put to it.

As I understand, the National Ports Council is under an obligation, by virtue of Clause 27, to hear representations, and I take it that, usually, the Council will cause an inquiry to be held. When it has heard the representations and considered the results of the inquiry, the Council may then do one of two things, either approve the charge against which objection has been raised or issue a direction in the manner prescribed by the Clause.

We feel that the Bill as drafted gives the Council very little flexibility in the treatment of objections. All it can do, if it decides to meet an objection, is to give a direction with respect to "the charge" which has been the subject of the objection. This may have a very restrictive effect. We want the Council, on what we regard as rational grounds, to have more room for manoeuvre and, in effect, a wider jurisdiction in the matter than the Bill provides.

Our object is to ensure that, when objection to a charge has been made, the Council may, if it is satisfied that, in the circumstances, it is the right thing to do, at the same time as considering the charge which is the subject of the objection consider any other charges imposed by the Authority, that is, related charges or charges of the same kind and type as the one to which objection has been made. We provide in our Amendment No. 90 that, if the Council does this, persons must be given the opportunity to make known their objections or opinions regarding any wider adjustment of charges proposed to be directed by the National Ports Council.

Amendment No. 91 would give the Council the jurisdiction, to use that word, when it turns down an objection to set a limit to the period during which the approval which it gives to the proposed charge would take effect. All these proposals are designed to ensure that the Council has a somewhat wider jurisdiction and, in practical terms, a more useful responsibility than it has under the Bill as drafted.

We think that in an extreme case the wording of the Bill may have an almost ludicrous effect. Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary will indicate whether there is al answer to this point. If there is, we will be the first to accept it. An objection may be raised against a particular item in a tariff of charges. Let us say that the tariff of charges is settled relative to the weights of freight. There might be an objection to a charge in the tariff relative to the 20 ton weight of goods or consignment of goods. The National Parts Council might, on a fair hypothesis, adjudicate on that and accept the objection and give a direction which would have the effect of reducing the price applicable to that particular weight of freight, that particular weight of consignment.

However—and this is what I suggest is absurd—it would be ludicrous if as a consequence of that direction there was not a pro rata adjustment of all the other charges in the tariff, as there will not be unless the Bill is amended. Of course, anyone is entitled to say that the docks or harbour authority, on receiving a direction requiring, in effect, a diminution of charge on a certain weight of freight and implementing that requirement will surely, in the nature of things, inevitably make the pro rata reduction for other weights and consignments. I cannot see that there is any guarantee that it will do that.

I do not think it far fetched to say that the context of this situation is a dock authority which probably is not content or pleased with a situation in which objection to its charges has been taken to the Council. It is not entirely an impossible or even an unlikely event that it might in certain circumstances show a reluctance to make the appropriate pro rata adjustments of the tariff which common sense and reason would dictate follow from the Council's direction.

This seems to me to be a fairly manifest defect in the Bill. What we seek to do in our Amendment is the commonsense thing, namely, to empower the National Ports Council to consider not merely the specific charge which is the subject matter of the objection but the tariff of which it forms a part. If it comes to the conclusion that the specific charge in a pro rata tariff is unreasonable, presumably it is bound to take the same view about all the other charges in that tariff, more or less. If our Amendment were accepted, the consequence would be that the Council would have jurisdiction to consider the charge not in isolation but, in appropriate cases, with the tariff of which it forms a part and to give a direction, which would be a commonsense direction, requiring a pro rata deduction throughout the tariff.

I have dealt particularly with the first of the three Opposition Amendments, but the Parliamentary Secretary will appreciate that the reasoning, to the extent that it has merit, as I submit it has, is applicable to all three Amendments. This, we understood, was desired by the harbours and docks authorities. I have no reason to think that it is still not their desire. This illustrates the point that I was making on an earlier Amendment, that we are attentive to their propositions and when we think there is merit in them we support them. Their wish to have the matter developed in the fashion that is contained in our Amendments may, for all I know, be less intensive than their wish to have the matter dealt with in some other way which is incorporated perhaps in some other Amendment on the Notice Paper, but they did, I understand, originally regard what we are proposing as better than the provisions in the Bill, and I think that they had in mind the considerations that I have brought forward.

I have explained our grounds for supporting these Amendments and wishing to see them carried. We think that this is an important point. We want to see the National Ports Council operating in a businesslike and effective fashion and not subject to any artificial and irrational limitations and bonds. I would go the length of suggesting authority is obliged to post notices say- it is considering objections to a particular item of charge in a tariff it is not free to consider all the rest and give a direction in respect of them. I would hope that, even at this late stage in our consideration of the provisions of the Bill, the merits of these Amendments will attract the support of the Parliamentary Secretary.

Mr. Humphrey Atkins (Merton and Morden)

There are on the Notice Paper two Amendments in my name which raise slightly different points from those mentioned by the hon. and learned Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. A. J. Irvine). Their purpose is to secure that before any alteration is made in the charges in respect of ship, passengers or goods dues by a harbour authority the proposals for alteration should be published in a newspaper and an opportunity given for objection by the people upon whom the charges will be levied.

The Bill alters the existing procedure which is laid down by the Transport Charges &c. (Miscellaneous) Provisions Act, 1954, Section 6. That is precisely the procedure that I seek to reintroduce There those upon whom the new charges are to be levied are given an opportunity of seeing what they are and objecting to them, if they wish, before the charges are made. Under the Bill as it stands, this procedure is done away with. Under Clause 26 a harbour authority is obliged to post notices saying what the new charges are to be, but the first that any user might know of the charge is when he arrives in the harbour and is confronted with them.

It might be said that in many cases the users of harbours will be the employees of large organisations which maintain agents in the various harbours concerned, who will take care to keep an eye on the alterations. But I suggest that there may be many other small users who do not have this service and, therefore, will not know in advance what the charges are, nor will they necessarily have an opportunity of objecting to them until they have been in force for some time. However, if my Amendment were accepted, those concerned would have a much better opportunity of seeing what changes are proposed to be made and getting their own associations to make representations on their behalf.

In support of my Amendment, I point out that Parliament has supported the principle for a very long time, for more than 100 years, because it is implicit in Section 30 of the Harbours, Docks and Piers Clauses Act, 1847, which provided for charges for harbours to be made by Private Acts of Parliament which gave ample opportunity for interested parties to object before the charges came into force.

8.45 p.m.

As I have already mentioned, this was laid down in Section 6 of the 1954 Act and it was reaffirmed in Section 51 of the Transport Act, 1962, in relation to harbours owned by nationalised transport undertakings. In what I admit is a slightly different context it was reaffirmed as recently as last year by the Water Resources Act—in Section 59 and the Seventh Schedule—which gave similar prior rights of objection to certain charges laid under that Act.

I do not seek to restrict harbour authorities in any way in suggesting such charges as they may think fit. My Amendment seeks only to protect the rights of the user, rights which have been upheld by Parliament for over one hundred years, and which I think should be continued to be upheld. I am prepared for my hon. and gallant Friend to say that my Amendment does not exactly meet the case. If he says that, I shall, naturally, accept it. I am also prepared for him to say that it is a little late to expect an Amendment like this to be made in this House, but I urge him to consider preserving the existing procedure, which has stood the test of time, and, if necessary, to have a better Amendment made in another place.

Dr. King

This is a wide ranging debate in which the hon. Member for Merton and Morden (Mr. Atkins) has discussed an Amendment of his which contains an important detail, and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. A. J. Irvine) has made again the point we made in Committee, on which the Dock and Harbour Authorities' Association has changed its mind, where we have maintained our objection.

I want to address myself to the question of leaving out Clause 28. I do not think that we need linger very long over the Amendment which the hon. Gentleman the Member for Brighton, Kemp-town (Mr. David James) has moved. Unfortunately he is not here at the moment, but he made a speech one-fifth as long as the Amendment which itself is the size of a modest-size Bill. I am so glad he has come back. I do not like to speak about an hon. Member who is not present.

I repeat for the hon. Gentleman's sake what I war, saying, that I do not think that we need linger over his Amendment which he moved in a speech about one-fifth as long as the Amendment and which he said was an heirloom of an idea which he thought it would be impossible for the Government to accept at this stage without seriously altering the Bill. I hope that I am not being unfair to the hon. Gentleman when I say that possibly the Amendment which he had more in mind was that to delete Clause 28, an Amendment on which he is supported by all his hon. Friends who are supporting the Amendment he has moved, with the addition of the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. E. Johnson).

My purpose is to beg the Minister to stand by Clause 28. When Clause 25 was under discussion in Committee upstairs he took up an attitude which might be described as that of one prepared to die in the last ditch. There was no ambiguity about his position. He nailed his colours to the mast. I hope that 'here will be no inconsistency about this. The Government, the Opposition, indeed everybody in the country, are deeply concerned about how far we can let free competition be free. This is the heart-searching question about that other Measure which is causing great perturbation, not only in one political party but up and down the country: how far can we allow competition to be unchecked?

The Dock and Harbour Authorities' Association does not want Clause 28 but it does not want this Amendment, either. It wants and has said right through that it wants free competition, leaving the problem of competition to the good sense of the harbour authorities, and, if that should be deficient at any moment, to the good sense of the National Ports Council and the harbour authorities put together.

I think that up to a point they have a good case. All of us in this House want the ports to compete. The gas and electricity nationalised industries compete with each other. On the whole, the docks and harbour authorities will not charge prices which cut their own throats. Even if the docks are not private profit makers in the ordinary sense of the word, they want their industry to be efficient, sound and private, so they will not charge too little—I will come back to this charging too little later—and they will not charge too much.

We supported the retention of Clause 28 in Committee and we did so despite the powerful argument of the Dock and Harbour Authorities Association, which no one has put to the House this afternoon. I intervene to take the last chance of paying a tribute to that Association for the painstaking care with which it presented arguments to both sides of the Committee on all issues, but I think that the Parliamentary Secretary's case against any interference with Clause 28 in Committee was unanswerable. He said that this was a matter of basic principle.

I want to examine his argument again with the House. We shall be making loans to the docks and harbour authorities. We want to be sure that those loans are lent to sound companies and that some day we shall get the loans back. If we believe in no taxation without representation, we also believe in no public money going to a body without, in the last resort, public control.

Indeed, Rochdale expresses the fear that the rates charged by the docks and harbours may be too low; not that they are profiteering, but that they are not charging enough for the services they are lending, and that a long-term policy of low rates may weaken the financial position of a harbour or a port authority and so lose the public money which has been sunk into it by the taxpayer.

If there is any doubt about this I would commend to the House, even at this late stage, Chapters 12, 13 and 14 of Rochdale, in which he points out that we are asking the ports to review their whole financial structure. The Rochdale Committee is worried because some docks and harbours do not charge enough to meet their long-term financial needs. They are living on their assets. Those assets will have to be replaced at a time when those things which have to be replaced cost five, six or seven times the cost of the original assets. So we must, I think, preserve Clause 28, which gives the Minister, as a last resort, the right to step in and interfere even on prices and charges. It will not be the Ports Council that interferes; it will be the Minister, speaking for Paliament and subject to the control of Parliament.

The picture that we have, and which we have had right through the Bill, is that on this issue the reserve power which Clause 28 seeks to preserve in the Bill is one which will hardly ever be used. I must confess that I have some sympathy with the skilled administrator of a port—a man who has given his life to it—who says that if we have Ministerial interference, it is like teaching one's grandmother to suck eggs. These people have financial probity and common sense and they will not do anything foolish. Against that, we have to weigh the very grave criticism made by Rochdale on the financial structure of our ports.

It is a truism to say that we are facing a new age and a new chapter, and that behind the whole of the Bill is the need for a master plan and behind the master plan is the need ultimately that in the last resort control should be in the hands of the Minister. I will not read to the House the passage in the Rochdale Report which states exactly what Clause 28 is seeking to enact, what both sides said in Committee was essential to the Bill, that here in Clause 28 is a power which probably will never be used. But it is a power that we dare not take out of the Bill. I hope that the Minister will resist any attempt to tamper with Clause 28.

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

I can set at rest the mind of the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Dr. King). The Government have no intention, unless they are out-voted, of doing away with Clause 28.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. David James) moved the Amendment in a very moderate speech and indicated, although he did not use these actual words, that it was by nature a probing Amendment. My hon. Friend made one observation, however, on which I must take him up. He said that in the case of an appeal against a due, the Ports Council would be judge in its own cause. I emphatically deny that.

As the House knows, great care has been taken to make sure that the Council does not represent the special interests from the docks. It will be within the recollection of hon. Members that the Opposition took exception to the fact that there were not specific representatives from the docks on the Council. Hon. Members opposite also pointed out that the shipowners—the users of the ports—were very well represented on the Council. It cannot, therefore, fairly be said or even suggested that the Council will be judge in its own cause. I hope and am confident that it will be entirely neutral in its approach to these matters.

This is a lengthy Amendment. If accepted, it would have the effect of radically changing the arrangements which exist in the Bill for the fixing of harbour dues. I remind the House that when we debated this matter in Committee, the Clauses concerned with charging were broadly accepted. It is true that Opposition Members ventilated the possibility of widening the procedure under Clause 27.

The hon. and learned Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. Irvine) has repeated the reasons for that and in due course I hope to reply to the points that he has made. It is also true that my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. E. Johnson) wished to delete Clause 28. Nevertheless, the broad method provided in the Clauses for regulating the dues was generally acceptable in principle to the Committee.

I turn briefly to some of the specific provisions in the Amendment. I want the House to understand why the Government are not able to accept it and the other Amendments relating to it. Together with the proposal to delete Clause 28, the Amendment is designed to substitute a totally new procedure for revising the dues in place of those embodied in Clauses 27 and 28. Under the existing statutory control of port dues, the ordinary port authorities, or, indeed, persons representing a substantial interest in a port, may apply to my right hon. Friend under Section 6 of the Transport Charges, &c. (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 1954, for a revision of the port dues which a port authority is authorised to levy. A similar provision in Section 51 of the Transport Act, 1962, covers the nationalised docks.

9.0 p.m.

The Rochdale Committee recommended that the present system of control of charges should be abandoned and that the existing control was inconsistent, incomplete, and no longer serving any useful purpose. In its place the Committee recommended that port authorities should have freedom of charging, subject to the right of objection by interested persons to the National Ports Council. The Bill as drafted gives effect to these recommendations. The Amendment, which is modelled on Section 6 of the 1954 Act, would provide that the National Ports Council, or any person with a substantial interest, could apply to my right hon. Friend for revision of all, or any, of the dues. This would be a major change, and would remove fro m the Council its sole independent executive function.

That is not of itself a conclusive argument, especially if it could be shown that my right hon. Friend could do the job better than the National Ports Council. In modesty though, I must say that this is highly arguable. What is more important, it would prevent the Council from acquiring the detailed knowledge of charging practices which it must acquire in order to perform its major advisory rôle. The Amendment would also change the scope and nature of the appeals and objections which could be made, and would also introduce a financial formula to guide the Minister. None of these changes commends itself to Government.

I now turn to the Amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Merton and Morden (Mr. Atkins), that is, the Amendment to replace subsections (2), (3), (4), (5) and (6). I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me for saying that its effect goes far beyond what he suggested. Harbour authorities would be required to go through a lengthy procedure before increasing any charges or proposing a new charge. They would have to give public notice of their intention, then wait for 28 days, and then, if there were objections, submit to an inquiry or hearing by the National Ports Council, and thereafter be bound by whatever decision the Council reached on the charges in question. This would be a fundamental change in the Bill and would tie the hands of harbour authorities and, in effect, undo the reform made by Clause 22 which the House has accepted. It would mean a reversion to the old system condemned by the Rochdale Committee. I have already given the Government's objections to that system and they apply to this as to the last Amendment.

I turn now to the three Opposition Amendments, in page 28, line 46, in page 29, line 3, and in page 29, line 15. When they were discussed in Standing Committee, I said that they were superfically attractive, and so, at first sight, they are. However, I also undertook to look into the matter more closely before Report. This has now been done, and I must say at once that we have concluded that it is best to leave Clauses 27 and 28 in their present form. I will try to explain why this is, but, in passing, perhaps I shall say that the matter has been discussed with Lord Rochdale and also, he informs us, within the Council. He authorises me to say that the Council, which, like us, was rather attracted to these Amendments when it first saw them, has none the less reached the same conclusion as the Government.

My reasons for not feeling able to accept these Amendments are that Clause 27 gives port users, or their representative organisations, the right of objection to the National Ports Council against, to give them their full name, ship, passenger and goods dues. As the Clause is at present drafted, the objection has to be lodged against a particular due and a decision made thereon. There is nothing to prevent the Council from having regard to other dues if it so wishes.

These Amendments would go further and give a specific power not only to consider other dues, but also to come to a decision on them in addition to deciding on the due objected to. No doubt it is likely that cases will arise when it will be advisable for the National Ports Council, when dealing with an objection to a due, to consider other dues levied by the authority.

But the effect of these Amendments, taken together, would be to allow the National Ports Council, without the agreement either of the port authority or the Minister, to introduce any changes it wished—upwards or downwards—in any dues imposed by a harbour authority, once an object had been lodged under Clause 27 against any one due charged by that authority. That is true, and I am sure that the hon. and learned Member for Edge Hill will admit that that is the effect of these Amendments. I hope that I have not misrepresented him.

We feel that this is inconsistent with the intention to give harbour authorities a fair measure of freedom in fixing their dues. It would, moreover, completely cut across the provisions of Clause 28, to which the hon. Member for lichen is so much attached. It should also be borne in mind that decisions on dues by the Council have the effect of "freezing" them at a particular level for a period of up to one year. So that in making, what might be quite a sweeping change it would remove from the authority in question any power of modifying charges for 12 months.

Dr. King

What does the Parliamentary Secretary mean when he says that the Ports Council, when considering a protest against one due, might consider a whole series of dues if it can do nothing about that? Our fear is that a protest against one due may be followed by a whole series.

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman that the Council could do nothing about it, and I will try to explain. But may I say, first, that if a revision of a due is considered desirable by the National Ports Council on any scale—this, to some extent, is the answer to the hon. Gentleman—and if it is resisted by the authority concerned, we feel that the change should be made only in accordance with the provisions of Clause 28 and subject to the safeguards written into that Clause which include approval by my right hon. Friend.

We do not think that wholesale changes should be made, so to speak, as a by-product to deal with objections to a single due under Clause 27. If a decision by the Council on an individual objection under Clause 27 were to make consequential amendments in other dues desirable, any likelihood of a danger of excessive further objections to such other dues need not arise, if the Council and harbour authority act in a reasonable and commonsense manner. That is my answer to the question put by the hon. Member for Itchen, and also to the question specifically asked by the hon. and learned Member for Edge Hill.

We feel that there would be consultation first with the port user if, as the hon. and learned Gentleman said, there were a whole—I think the expression he used was a whole "tariff of charges". There is nothing to prevent a port user or the organisation representing him from lodging an objection to a number of dues. That would be permissible under Clause 27. What I feel is more likely—one can only speculate—is that the user who has taken the initiative in the first place, having consulted his friends, would probably say to the port authority, "We intend to lodge an objection to such and such a charge as a test case".

Mr. A. J. Irvine

Surely the Parliamentary Secretary would agree that a compendious objection of the kind about which he speaks, and which I agree is practicable under the Bill, would be a very heavy-handed and cumbersome kind of reaction to a direction by the National Ports Council in respect of a particular charge in a tariff of which these other charges form a part.

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

What I imagine would happen, and what I meant when I said that they would act in a reasonable manner, is that the users would lodge an objection against a particular due, having first made clear to the authority that they regarded this as a test case. If the authority was reasonable I think it would agree that it was a test case. They would know that if they established the case against that particular charge the others would be adjusted in proportion.

The hon. and learned Member said he thought the Dock and Harbour Authorities' Association was strongly in favour of these Amendments.

Mr. A. J. Irvine

At one time.

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

I think "at one time" are the operative words. I think that now the Association is fairly neutral and it wants to see Clause 28 disappear.

If I may speak for a few moments collectively about all these Amendments, I should say that we have always known that the charges Clauses are disliked by some of the big interests involved. The Dock and Harbour Authorities' Association would have preferred not to have Clause 28. The shipowners would have preferred appeals on charges to be heard by the Minister rather than by the Council. The system we have adopted in the Bill is, therefore, in the nature of a compromise between the two bodies, the port operators and the port users As is often the way, the compromise is not completely acceptable to either party.

I would remind the House, however, of the title of the Bill. It is a Harbours Bill whose object is to improve the harbours of the country, an object which must be of enormous benefit to shipowners and I shippers alike in the first place, am in consequence of great benefit to the whole national economy. With few exceptions, the harbour authorities are public authorities. They are not profit-making and they are required by Statute to provide adequate services for their users. I ask, what motive could a public authority have in treating its users unjustly?

There is only one credible threat to the shipowners—and shipowners inspired my hon. Friend's Amendment—and even that threat is hardly credible. Nevertheless, I concede that it is just conceivable that a harbour board might take advantage of a near-monopolistic position t) over-charge in order to accumulate reserves with which it could expand its empire. Such a policy might be more in the interests of that particular harbour board than of the country at large. But the prime purpose of this Bill is to set up a National Ports Council charged with the duty of framing a national parts plan. This is precisely the body which would check the type of empire building which might inspire over-charging. I therefore say that the port users should look to the council for protection against any abuse of powers by the harbour authorities.

Leaving aside the details of the particular provisions of the Clauses concerning charges and taking a broad view of the purpose of the Bill as a whole, we find it difficult to believe that the users of our ports could derive anything but benefit from the provisions of the charges Clauses as they stand. That is why we are reluctant to accept any change in them.

The hon. and learned Member for Edge Hill rightly pointed out that the Opposition Amendments are of a very different nature—much narrower in a way, although we think them too broad For the reasons I have given. They affect the Council and the port authorities, rather than the users. The hon. and learned Member might have added that they involve a much less sweeping change than my hon. Friend's Amendment involves. It is unfortunate that under the rules of order the Opposition cannot vote on that Amendment, although perhaps they would not vote because I have convinced them. I very much hope so.

I hope that the Opposition will not support my hon. Friend's Amendment because, judging from the figures of the last Division, they might carry it, and I feel that if they did so they would dislike the Bill in the form in which it emerged every bit as much as the Government would dislike it.

Mr. David James

If I may reply with the leave of the House, I make no apology to the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Dr. King) for moving what was frankly a probing Amendment or for being brief. I wish more of us were brief. I was slightly disturbed when my hon. and gallant Friend said that I had moved it in a moderate speech, because I was not sure what he meant by that. But in view of his moderate reply, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

9.15 p.m.

Amendment made: In page 29, line 37, leave out "thereto" and insert "to that charge".—[Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett.]