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a two-year apprenticeship followed by three years as a professional waterman
I shall summarise a few of the differences between the old watermen and lightermen licence and the new boatmaster's licence. To master a boat requires only 30 months qualifying service, not the five years formerly demanded. When one considers that the minimum age demanded has fallen from 21 to 18, there will be boatmasters with much less experience of both the river and life trying to negotiate one of the world's busiest rivers. It is a lethal cocktail of goods, passengers, youth and inexperience. It is a recipe for carnage, especially in the run-up to the Olympics, as another hon. Member pointed out. One week of safety training will replace the mandatory 10 weeks; one shore-based examination will replace the two of old; 750 days on the river will be scaled down to 360; four exams will be cut to one or two; and the number of current practitioners vouching for the applicant will be reduced from six to one. The most dangerous aspect of the new regime is the amount of local knowledge demanded. A captain will need only six months experience of the river, where before a minimum of two years local knowledge was expected.
I, too, was on the Thames yesterday, and I endorse everything that colleagues who were there have said. The most striking factor was the emptiness of the water compared with the water in the height of summer, when I was also privileged to be there. It suddenly struck me: if somebody had been taking a test yesterday, would that really have shown whether they were ready to take it during peak conditions in July, when there are perhaps three or four times as many vessels on the water in the busiest areas? The section of the Thames to which the provisions apply simply stops at the Thames barrier; there is no local knowledge requirement beyond that. Is it right that somebody who has never worked in tidal waters should be able to take charge of a vessel after just six months and one test? Surely, it is not, and like others, I urge the Minister to reconsider the legislation.
I welcome aspects of the new scheme, some of which have already been mentioned. The need for certificates in fire control, passenger management, first aid and personal survival is a good advance, although all new applicants must pass those four tests anyway. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster, I welcome the fact that for the first time, tugmasters and captains of freight vessels will have statutory licences, although, as she pointed out, the proposals are incomplete.
I urge the Minister to reconsider the workings of the scheme. A unique alliance has been formed against the new licence. The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers and other unions have united, as the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) pointed out, with one of the Citys oldest livery companies, the Worshipful Company of Watermen and Lightermen, which is a great institution that proved its worth yet again through its reaction to the bombings on 7 July 2005.
I must also congratulate one of the companys members, Alex Hickman, who has done a wonderful job leading the campaign with Margaret Lockwood Croft to bring to Parliament and to the public an understanding of just what is being proposed. Together, the group collected thousands of signatures in a petition against the measures, which we presented to the Prime Minister in September together with a cross-party delegation of MPs.
the ETF has a very real concern that the levels being proposed in Britain are below these standards,
The ETF would sooner welcome UK National licensing provisions based on former arrangements through the provisions for certificating Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames or a system based on the current Rhine Patent.
highlight concerns arising from the imminent reduction of safety standards on the River Thames.
The Rhine and Danube rivers present us with a good model. I have been privileged on a couple of occasions to travel down the Rhine on a yacht; it was a very frightening experience. As I am sure the Minister will tell us, the sheer volume of commercial traffic on the Rhine is much higher than on the Thames, but the difference between the Rhine and the Thames is that vast numbers of pleasure boats do not mix with commercial traffic on the Rhine. We hardly saw another boat that was not a barge as we travelled down the river.
The Rhine patent was negotiated by the practitioners on the rivers and the relevant countries. It allows only those people who have six years experience and who have been thoroughly examined to become master of a boat on either the Rhine or the Danube, and the Rhine has far fewer pleasure boats on it and far fewer passengers exposed to risk. The German and Austrian Governments in particular fought hard for that exemption, and they have successfully and rigorously maintained safety standards on the two rivers. That is all the more reason why the Thames should be granted similar exemption. We should by all means accept the continental standards, but we should add some local extras to maintain our standards.
Many hon. Members from all parties have made it clear that they want nothing to do with the new licences. I urge the Minister at this last moment to think again. I have the highest respect for the
Ministermy constituency neighbouras an MP and as a human being. He is just as anxious as every other Member who has spoken to ensure that there is no ghastly tragedy on the Thames. He must reconsider the provision. I urge him to return with better proposals that are designed to meet the challenges of safe navigation on the Thames.
The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Dr. Stephen Ladyman): I congratulate the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) on securing this debate, and on her interest in this important matter. I congratulate, too, all Members who have contributed to or attended the debate on their interest.
Let me begin by making something crystal clear: if I thought for one second that the proposals would reduce safety standards on the Thames, I would not introduce them. I have the greatest respect for the qualifications and professionalism of those peoplenot only in the House today, but outside the Housewho have raised concerns about the matter. I accept entirely that the Thames watermen are motivated by an interest in maintaining the standards of safety on the river. I shall address the comments about the cosy club, because I have been specifically asked to clarify them, and I shall do so in a moment.
I want to put on record that I have the highest respect for the people who have campaigned on the issue. Mrs. Lockwood Croft has been mentioned on several occasions, and I have the highest respect for her and for the other people whose relatives suffered in the Marchioness catastrophe. They have been campaigning for safety on the Thames over the years, and I have had the pleasure of working with them during the 18 months that I have done my job. I have the highest respect for them. I simply believe, however, that they are wrong on the issue before us.
Members ask me whether we can have another debate and why the statutory instrument was not laid until December, and one reason why was my delaying it to add further gold-plating to the recommendations that I had been given by the experts who advise me. I wanted to be absolutely sure that I was erring on the side of caution, not expediency.
I accept that the simplest thing for me politically would be to say, Lets stick with the current arrangement, because nobody would argue with it. I simply happen to believe that the new arrangements will be better. They improve on the old arrangements in several areas. We have mentioned the Marchioness catastrophe. The hon. Lady and most hon. Members who have contributed to the debate mentioned it. However, I thought it a bit rich of my parliamentary neighbour, the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), to raise the matter as he did, given that his Government refused to undertake a Thames safety inquiry or a public inquiry into the Marchioness disaster.
It was actually the Deputy Prime Minister who ordered the inquiry under this Government, and we have implemented all its recommendations; and Lord Justice Clarke said that, in so far as training standards on the Thames were concerned, he was content with
them. But equally, he said that there were two anomalies: first, that we did not have a national licence or an equivalent waterways regime outside the Thames, which we needed to do something about; and secondly, that certain categories of user, such as operators of commercial vessels that do not go to sea, do not need licensing on the Thames. He required us to look at the way in which we license boatmasters in order to produce a national scheme. So we are fulfilling one of his recommendations.
Dr. Ladyman: The recommendations include those. I shall provide some details because Members seem to have formed the view that I have plucked the recommendations out of the air, when they resulted from consultations held over a long period. The initial proposals were formed as a result of two working parties set up in February 2003the freight standards steering group and the boatmasters licence working group. We conducted a non-statutory consultation on the first proposals between December 2003 and February 2004, and a second one in 2005. We conducted a statutory consultation between April 2006 and July 2006, and in 2006, we held ministerial meetings that involved myself and other Members of Parliament, the RMT and other representatives of boatmen.
As a consequence, we improved significantly the original proposals. We have said that a person will not gain their local knowledge of the Thames during the two years in which they obtain their generic licence, but during six months of training afterwards. So we have already gold-plated the original recommendations precisely as a result of listening to representations from people who complained to me about the original proposals.
John McDonnell: Despite those discussions, the RMT and everybody else have made it clear that the Ministers final proposals, no matter how much they have been amendedI think that the amendments are minorare still unacceptable.
Dr. Ladyman: I accept that the RMT and some practising watermen do not think that we have gone far enough, but nevertheless, the consultation took a great deal of time. I have been advised by experts, such as port authorities, Associated British Ports, the British Ports Association, the Port of London Authority and the United Kingdom Major Ports Group, and they all support the recommendations.
Navigation authorities, including the Association of Inland Navigation Authorities, and unions and operators were involved in the consultations as well. Afterwards, the resulting reports were subject to a very thorough
consultation, which resulted in significant strengthening of the rules. In recent months, we have done that by making the acquisition of local knowledge consecutive with the generic licence and by introducing the principle of revalidating local knowledge every five years.
From the comments made by some Members, I think that there is some misunderstanding about the way in which the new regime will work. 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. If that person wants to operate on the Thames, they will have to do their six months local endorsement.
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.
Dr. Ladyman: The Port of London Authority, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and other experts told me that such a requirement is not necessary. Beyond the barrier, the issues to be addressed are the same as anywhere else.
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 Thames. If they want to change their route in the local knowledge areaperhaps because they change operator or employerthey will need to repeat their local knowledge training. From that point of view, the system is being strengthened considerably. Furthermore, they will need to revalidate their local knowledge every five yearsa further strengthening of the current regime.
Nobody is arguing that there cannot be changes or improvementsthe Minister has set out many of thembut the European norm will be four years of training. Does the Minister not understand that the central objection to the proposal is that the minimum training barrier in one of the most difficult
rivers in Europe will be half of what it is across Europe? If he is willing to change that and one or two of the other matters raised, we could agree on a package that is an all-round improvement, not one that improves some areas, but leaves a great hole in the middle.
Dr. Ladyman: The European norm will not be four years. The directive makes it clear that, if a persons 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. We might well be challenged on that and will have to defend it to some of our colleagues in Europe, because it will look to them as though we are gold-plating the proposals to restrict them. The five year revalidation is a gold-plating of the directive and we will have to work very hard to convince our European colleagues otherwiseand the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) says that we have reduced the requirements. 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.
Dr. Ladyman: Oh sorry. Whether it has happened deliberately or by accidentI accept that it happened by accidentthe regime excludes people from different backgrounds and places from becoming watermen.
Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): This debate concerns the sorry story of Ford open prison. It is located in my constituency, two miles south-west of Arundel, and was established on the site of a former fleet air arms station in 1960. Ford is a category D open establishment, with an emphasis on resettlement, and has an operational capacity of about 500 or more offenders.
The chronology of recent events at Ford has been well listed and categorised in the local press and the national media. For me, they started on Friday 19 May 2006, in the midst of the foreign national prisoners scandal, which saw the Government admit that more than 1,000 foreign national prisoners had been released without being considered for deportation. When I visited the prison, I asked the governor, in terms, whether abscondments among foreign national prisoners were a problem and I was told, in terms, that there was no problem. I then raised the issue of foreign national prisoners being at the prison at all, bearing in mind that they would have little incentive to stay in an open prison if they were due for deportation. I was told, incredibly I felt, that many such prisoners actually wanted to be deported.
The following Wednesday, I was informed by a source at the prison and by the local press that a significant number of prisoners had absconded from the prison over the previous few days. I rang the governor to ask the same question again: was there a problem with prisoners absconding from Ford? Again I was told, in terms, that there was no problem; but we now know, from figures that I eventually dragged out of the Home Office, that 34 prisoners escaped between March and May, two of whom were murderers who were sentenced to life. Just one week before my visit, four prisoners absconded in one day alone. My contention is that the governor must have known about that when she answered my direct question about whether there had been people escaping from Ford in recent days. If she did not know, that was a disgrace.
Immediately afterwards, I tabled some parliamentary questions, and the following daynot, I suggest, coincidentallythe Prison Service mounted a dramatic early morning raid to remove 141 foreign national prisoners from Ford prison and transfer them to closed institutions. That raid made the local and national news. Only after a point of order that I raised on the Floor of the House about the Home Offices failure to provide answers did the Home Office reluctantly admit, in a written answer on 8 June 2006, that 61 prisoners had absconded from Ford since the beginning of the year, that 33 of those were foreign nationals and that 19 had been considered for enforcement proceedings by the immigration and nationality directorate, with one due to be deported.
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