John McDonnell MP
have been working for 20 years for this legislation and I cannot tell the House how crushingly disappointed I am. I just did a Hansard search of my statements over the years. Way back in May 2003 I had a Westminster Hall debate on the application of the Race Relations Act 1976 to seafarers, and I said then that
“the disparity is that non-UK seafarers will be paid less than half the wage of the others. On some ships, they are paid less than the minimum wage. We have also seen the behaviour of some companies, such as P&O Ferries, where UK seafarers have been dismissed and replaced by Filipinos to reduce wage rates.”—[Official Report, 14 May 2003; Vol. 405, c. 132WH.]
I said, too, that the “moral case” for legislation was “overwhelming” and that we needed to act now because we had the opportunity to act, but we failed. I raised it again in 2004, when I cited the practice with regard to Irish crews who were replaced by seafarers from eastern Europe on exploitative pay and conditions. I raised it in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008; I raised it later in 2010 and 2012, urging the Government to implement regulations to outlaw pay discrimination against all seafarers working in UK territorial waters. It just went on: I can quote this on an annual basis.
As has been said, the proposed legislation has been prompted by what happened, so predictably, at P&O last year. It has been said that the litmus test of this legislation is whether it prevents another P&O. It will not. We may be able to do something on the margins of wages with regard to this, but, just as P&O has done, companies will exploit people on rosters, or the number of hours they work, or how much time they have to spend on ship; they will undermine their pensions, introduce accommodation charges, as other employers have done as well, and reduce crew numbers, which, as has been said, puts lives at risk. That is the behaviour of the worst employers in the shipping sector, and we need to legislate to tackle the worst. The only thing that will prevent another P&O is firm legislation against fire and rehire. A consultation is currently taking place, but we should bring forward measures as rapidly as possible.
I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, in that I am also a member of the RMT parliamentary group—in fact, I helped to found it all those years ago. The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill will undermine trade unions’ ability to negotiate better conditions for their workers. I also worry about where we are going with the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill on employment protections.
We have heard about the seafarers welfare charter. To be frank, it is like waiting for Godot: we wait for it, but no one has seen it, not even the general secretary of the main union representing the seafarers affected by P&O. We understand that it is voluntary, but although it covers a range of aspects—as the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir JohnHayes) said, it has to cover not just wages but the whole range of activities—unless it has statutory force, the worst employers will continue their exploitation with impunity.
I have heard the reference to criminal sanctions and the fines that will be imposed on companies, but directors of those companies will flip from one company to another. In fact, they will most probably create a new company and have no personal liability whatsoever. That is why the criminal sanctions should apply to named directors; otherwise, we will see further scandals.
I supported the figure in the Government’s consultation of 52 visits to an individual port. Raising it to 120 will mean that large numbers of workers are not covered. That will be another get-out, not for the good employers but for the worst employers. I know what has happened, and it is the same thing that has happened for the last 20 years. The Chamber of Shipping will have used its direct access to Government, Ministers and civil servants to sabre-rattle and the Government have rolled over again. The response to the Chamber of Shipping should be that it has had over £2 billion-worth of tax reliefs on the tonnage tax and not delivered on any of the commitments that it was supposed to under that legislation, so these are hardly people to be looked to or listened to when it comes to the fair treatment of seafarers.
I also welcome the fact that the tariffs will now be set nationally, and I welcome the amendments that the Government have accepted on that. But again, unless there is firmer action through the detention of ships, shipowners will be able to get round that as well. I also welcome the powers being given to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, but would like to know what resources it will be given to enable it to exercise them, given the cuts we have seen over recent years.
I welcome the agreements that we are envisioning with the French and others, but I would like to see the legal basis of those agreements, because time and time again, whenever we have campaigned on fairness and the treatment of seafarers, the international law of the sea has been cited. We seem to interpret it so much more tightly than others, and as a result we are prevented from taking effective action.
Finally, I look forward to seeing the seafarers charter. However, I believe that we will be back here, after more disgraceful behaviour by a company or another example of British seafarers and others being exploited, arguing that the seafarers charter—when we see it, if it is comprehensive enough—should have statutory force. I just hope that it is not another 20 years, but if it is, it might be worth me staying on in Parliament, just to make sure it goes through.