§ 6.47 p.m.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 21st November be approved.
§ The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, the order will confer functions on the Department for Regional Development in Northern Ireland in relation to the regulation of certain harbour authorities and for connected purposes. It is the final element in a package of measures to improve the accountability of the Northern Ireland trust ports and safeguard the public interest with regard to their commercial activities.
§ It is a short order with only seven articles. There are three main provisions. The first is a power to enable the department, if necessary, to issue directions to designated harbour authorities to safeguard the public interest. The second relates to the power of the department to obtain information. Thirdly, it will empower the department to issue codes of practice.
§ The order is short and seems entirely suitable. On that basis, I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 21st November be approved.—(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)
§ Lord Glentoran
My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for bringing the order before us. I suppose that I ought to confess to some form of interest. I am the first of four generations not to have been on the board of the Belfast Harbour Commissioners.
That having been said, it is an important order, even if it may not seem so tonight. The trust ports—and, indeed, Lame, which is a privately owned port, not a trust port—are the lifeblood of Northern Ireland and have been for many years, starting with Belfast and its shipbuilding industry in Victorian days. Without going into history, I must say that the port of Belfast was set up many years ago by the Victorians for the benefit of the people of Belfast. There have been hiccups, but, when we look back, we see that, over the years, the harbour commissioners and the port have played a huge role in Northern Ireland's economic welfare and growth. That is not to belittle the leisure ports of Coleraine, Warrenpoint and, indeed, Londonderry. They are all historical but, for anyone who visits them, they are seriously busy, hard-working ports. They are particularly vital to industry in those areas.
The part of the order that I welcome is the provision which allows the department to ease the financial controls and certain constraints under which the ports have operated and opens up further these areas for public scrutiny. Overall, I welcome the order.
§ Lord Shutt of Greetland
My Lords, I want to be more quizzical about the order. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, is correct in that there 515 has been good stewardship by the commissioners. How possible is it for that to continue? I am particularly struck by paragraph 4, which states:The department may give to a designated harbour authority directions of a general or specific nature as to the exercise by that authority of its functions".That seems to suggest that the department can say what the authority does or does not do. In the explanatory memorandum there is a suggestion that:It is not considered the proposed Bill will have any direct cost implications for any government department or other public or private body or individual".It occurs to me that those who run harbours in Northern Ireland will want vessels to come to those harbours—no doubt, from England, Scotland and Wales. I t has been my experience that vessels get bigger and bigger and they often have wagons, goods and so forth on them. It strikes me that a smaller harbour commissioner could take the view that the authority would like to progress, do well and make plans. Yet, the department may say that it does do not have the environment to cope with the wagons on new vessels coming into the ports. I wonder how that will marry together in terms of concerns that the Department of the Environment may have with the wishes of the harbour commissioners to do well and prosper. Indeed, one may reach a point where the harbour commissioners have planned for expansion and put forward facilities and so forth but that comes to a stop because there are no facilities for onward transmission of goods.
I should like to know how that will fit together. It seems that one could even reach a point where vessels are of such a size that if they are not able to enter a particular port, that may have some impact on the finances of many people, including employees. I should like to understand how this is meant to fit together.
§ Lord Laird
My Lords, I support the order which seeks to improve the public accountability of the trust port authorities in Northern Ireland. I particularly welcome the greater involvement of district councillors in the running of port authorities. In view of the fact that the Assembly is in suspension, the scope to widen the influence of local councillors is a positive development.
I am also pleased that the order will allow trust ports to compete on a commercial basis in the global market. Indeed, the order puts Northern Ireland ahead of Great Britain in that area and potentially gives the Province a rare commercial advantage. I commend the order to your Lordships.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, I am grateful for that support. I endorse the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Laird, regarding local involvement. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Shutt of Greetland, perhaps I can make it plain. The department does not envisage involving itself in port operational matters. I am happy to put on the record that it is intended as a reserve power which would be used, if necessary, to safeguard the public interest—perhaps, for instance. in 516 relation to a land transaction relating to land which was under the control and management of the harbour authority. That is the only intention.
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.