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The allegation in London by the union is that management have gone beyond the agreement reached in 2007. Management contests that and says that all that London is being expected to implement are the changes that have already been accepted and implemented throughout the country. It is precisely that
point about which the two sides are meeting as we speak, to talk it through and try to avoid industrial action later this week.
Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Earlier, the Minister skilfully dodged one of the questions asked by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). Will he make it clear whether he thinks that the 30,000 temporary staff being hired by Royal Mail are a good thing or a bad thing?
Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): The Minister must know that parts of the statement that he has made today, and the one that has been made in the House of Lords, will be contested by the union. How does he think that that is helpful in this situation, and can Ministers not move beyond providing questionable commentary in the House and get the union and the company into the same room at the same time, with the Government?
Mr. McFadden: As I said, we have remained in constant touch with both sides and we have urged them to focus on the public-the people who depend on Royal Mail-and avoid strike action. Of course we stand ready to help in any way we can, but we cannot impose good industrial relations on a company that has a history of going on strike whenever an attempt is made to implement change.
Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): Morale among postal workers is at a very low ebb; that is why there was such a strong vote in favour of strike action by people who know that a strike would be disastrous. In that context, is it not right and proper for us to insist on mediation that brings union and management into the same room, to work and work until there are some common grounds for agreement? They will not do that on their own, because there is no trust between the management and the union.
Mr. McFadden: There has been a history of third party involvement in Royal Mail. Some years ago, Lord Sawyer carried out an inquiry into industrial relations in the Royal Mail, and George Bain and others have also examined the company in the past. There has been no shortage of third party involvement. ACAS stands ready to play a role if both parties think that that would be helpful. I am sure that ACAS would be able to play a productive role, but that would have a far better chance of working if the threat of industrial action were lifted.
Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Is it not fair to say that businesses are being put at risk if the strike continues? Families of postal workers are also losing income in this desperate situation. Has not the time come for the Minister, who is the custodian of the shares in Royal Mail, to use his influence and shareholder power to ensure that the two parties sit round the table with ACAS and do not come out until this has been resolved amicably?
They are round the table. There has been nothing lacking in the volume of meetings between Royal Mail management and the unions. I have heard talk of 70 to 80 meetings. ACAS is ready to assist and,
as I have said on more than one occasion today, it would be easier for ACAS to play a productive role if the threat of industrial action were lifted.
Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): It is not clear to me, from what the Minister has said, whether Royal Mail is prepared to go to ACAS. We know that the trade unions are prepared to do so. The situation is pretty serious. I have been involved in a few disputes in my time, and it is not easy for anybody to go on strike as a result of intransigent management. Small businesses and the families of those involved are suffering because of what is happening. There have been a lot of uncertainties-for 12 years, somebody said-and the Minister should now intervene directly.
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision to oblige shipping companies, port operators and other bodies to comply with recommendations made in reports of the Chief Inspector of Marine Accidents and of the Marine Accident Investigation Branch; and for connected purposes.
On 19 December 2007, the Greenock-based tug, the Flying Phantom, sank in thick fog in the River Clyde with the loss of three of her crew. The dead men were Eric Blackely, aged 57, from Gourock; Robert Cameron, aged 65, from Houston in Renfrewshire; and the skipper, Stephen Humphreys, from Greenock, who was just 33 years old. There was one survivor: Brian Aitchison, from the borders.
In the aftermath, an investigation was carried out by the marine accident investigation branch. The investigation was thorough and exhaustive, and finally reported in September 2008, some nine months after the accident. The report runs to 55 pages and contains key safety-related recommendations addressed to all the protagonists: Svitzer Marine Ltd, which owned the tug and employed the crew; the port operator, Clydeport; the British Tugowners Association; and Lloyds Register. Yet, despite the fact that the MAIB is a statutory body, created by the Merchant Shipping Act 1995, and reports directly to the Secretary of State for Transport, its recommendations have no force of law. They are not legally binding and can be ignored with impunity.
That exposes a fundamental flaw in the structure of the MAIB. My Bill would make its recommendations legally binding, within a proper framework for implementation and appeal. To understand the need for the Bill, hon. Members need to consider how the MAIB has been constituted. Its website states:
"As far as the MAIB is concerned, the sole objective of investigating an accident is to determine its circumstances...with the aim of improving the safety of life at sea and the avoidance of accidents in the future. It is not the purpose to apportion liability, nor, except so far as is necessary to achieve the fundamental purpose, to apportion blame. We do not enforce laws or carry out prosecutions."
That is all well and good, but it raises a question: if, after an exhaustive inquiry, the MAIB makes recommendations that it believes will improve the safety of life at sea and help to avoid accidents in the future, and if such recommendations are then ignored, what is the point of it? I raised that point in a meeting with the Minister then responsible for transport and his officials. I ventured to suggest that MAIB recommendations could be ignored with impunity. "That's not the case," said an official. I was told that if a company or an organisation does not comply, 12 months later the MAIB can put a note on its website to that effect. That is not good enough. It should not be left to the discretion of companies or organisations whether or not to comply with key safety recommendations made by the very body whose job it is to determine the cause of accidents and to prevent them in future.
In the case of the Flying Phantom, there is an ongoing dispute about whether the recommendations have in fact been complied with, especially on the critical issue of assessing the risks caused by fog. Clydeport says that it has complied and that the issue of fog warning systems has been addressed. The trade union Unite, led by its Scottish regional secretary John Quigley, which represents the crew, says that Clydeport has not complied. More importantly for me, the widows of the men who died continue to believe that the river is not as safe as it could be, and that other families might have to face the terrible ordeal that they and their families have gone through.
The issue is far too important to be left to that "He says/she says" approach. Recommendations have been made and should be enforced or properly appealed against. The grey area that we currently occupy serves no one at all, least of all the companies and organisations involved. I do not want my Bill or this speech to be seen as an exercise in bashing Clydeport. It is an extremely important company in my constituency and I seek to enjoy good relations with it. I also know that the harbourmaster, Captain Ron Bailey, is a decent and conscientious man who is dedicated to the safety of those who sail the waters of the Clyde.
I understand that Clydeport has reservations about the way in which the MAIB went about the investigation, and it is quite entitled to have and to express those reservations. However, the dubiety about how recommendations have been implemented-or about whether they have been implemented at all-leaves us all in the worst of all possible worlds. That is why calls have been made for a further judicial inquiry. However, the facts of the case have already been established. Such an inquiry would be likely to replicate the findings of
the MAIB, at considerable public expense. However, in the absence of a satisfactory outcome, no wonder such calls have been made: at least the recommendations of a judicial inquiry would have to be complied with.
I fully understand that there are complex legal issues at stake and a fear that if companies thought that liabilities would flow from an MAIB report, they would not co-operate as fully as they do now, but that is just too bad. The current situation is absurd and should be changed by means of a simple amendment to the Merchant Shipping Act 1995.
Two years ago, just one week before Christmas, three families lost their husbands, sons, brothers and fathers. For those families, the festive season has taken on a tragic quality. It is impossible to meet the widows of those men-Mrs. Helen Humphreys, Mrs. Linda Cameron and Mrs. Eileen Blackely-and not be impressed by the great dignity and composure with which they have endured their terrible ordeal. They are not after untold riches in compensation. They are not looking for heads to roll. They know that nothing can bring their husbands back to them. All that they have asked me to do is ensure that recommendations in MAIB reports are implemented, so that other families are not put through the appalling misery that they continue to suffer. For their sake, and in memory of the men who died, that is what we should do.
That David Cairns, Jim Sheridan, Mr. Alan Reid, John Robertson, Miss Anne Begg, Mr. Russell Brown, Mr. Brian H. Donohoe, Mr. Ian Davidson, Mark Lazarowicz, Mr. Frank Doran and Ms Katy Clark present the Bill.
[Relevant Documents: The Tenth Report from the Public Administration Select Committee, Session 2007-08, on Constitutional Renewal: Draft Bill and White Paper, HC 499, and the Government response, Cm 7688; and the Eleventh Report from the Justice Committee, Session 2008-09, on Constitutional Reform and Renewal, HC 923, and the Government response, HC 1017.]
The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Bill, has consented to place her prerogative and interest, so far as they are affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.
In 1997, the Government embarked on an unprecedented programme of constitutional reform. Power was devolved away from Westminster to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, fundamental rights were enshrined in the Human Rights Act, freedom of information legislation was introduced, national statistics were placed on an entirely independent basis, the Bank of England was made independent, and the first step was taken towards a reformed House of Lords.
"look at the last 12 years. Labour's dispersal of power, had it been set out as a blueprint, would have appeared revolutionary."
Actually, it was set out as a blueprint, although each step has always appeared rather prosaic. There has rarely been intense excitement in the House, apart from over the devolution Bills, as each step has been taken. I recall another exception, involving my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), one memorable evening during an untimed Report stage debate-which I hope to see back-of the Freedom of Information Bill, when what was described as a mutual seminar was engaged in. I offered to alter the Bill for the better, although some colleagues perhaps think differently. Anyway, I offered to alter it to make it more workable as a result of the intense debate that took place. Generally, however, these proposals have been widely accepted.
This Bill is similar, because, while each of its proposals could be dismissed as prosaic, when added to all the other changes that have been introduced in the past dozen years, they will add up to a major shift in power away from Whitehall to Parliament and to the British people. In other words, the Bill builds on our achievements and has been designed to bring about the right relationship between Parliament, the Government and the citizen.
The provenance of the Bill is the announcement by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr. Brown), just after he became Prime Minister in June 2007. Indeed, his announcement to the House on 3 July was his first major announcement on any issue as Prime Minister. Alongside that announcement, I published the Green Paper "The Governance of Britain", which set out further proposals for reforming our constitutional arrangements.
Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): Nobody can doubt that the Government have pursued a huge agenda on constitutional reform, but may I press my right hon. Friend on the way our judges have been appointed? Does he feel that we perhaps went a little too quickly as far as judicial appointments were concerned-hence the concerns that have been expressed about some of the constitutional changes? I am not talking about the grand vision of what the Government have done-which has been amazing, in my view-but about some of the detail, which really needs to be scrutinised very carefully.
Mr. Straw: I agree with the gravamen of what my right hon. Friend says. Surprisingly-or amazingly, to pick up the adverb used my right hon. Friend-not everything that the Government have done over the last 12 years has been absolutely perfect. [Interruption.] Much has been but, with the benefit of hindsight, the changes to judicial appointments, although very well intentioned and aimed at ensuring that Ministers-in practice, only one Minister, the Lord Chancellor-were removed from the process, have had some odd and perverse consequences. The process has become longer and it is also a matter of great regret that the progress gradually being made to improve the diversity of the judiciary, particularly at senior level, with more women and more black and Asian people has been stemmed. My right hon. Friend, along with the whole House, is concerned about that, and I view it as significant.
A further matter was aired by Lord Phillips in a major lecture he gave in Kenya when he was Lord Chief Justice. There is a role, although it has to be a careful role, for the Executive in the appointment of the most senior members of the judiciary. That is true in all Administrations and it has to be very carefully exercised. Some of that was accepted in the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, but it remains to be seen whether that, and a more sensitive overall arrangement for judicial appointments, should be introduced in future.
Keith Vaz: It is my understanding, however, that the Bill will do the opposite of what my right hon. Friend intends. Is it not the case that the Bill will remove the Prime Minister from the process of the appointment of the president, the deputy president and members of the Supreme Court?
Mr. Straw: It removes the Prime Minister's role, but it does not remove that of the Lord Chancellor. Successive Prime Ministers would probably accept that, in practice, the acceptability of appointments has simply been in the hands of the Lord Chancellor of the day. I may be wrong, but I have never heard of any Prime Minister turning back a recommendation for a senior appointment made by the Lord Chancellor of the day. The Prime Minister today is very happy about that; so, may I say, am I.
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