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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 26 Nov 1947

Vol. 34 No. 14

Harbours Bill, 1947—Second Stage.

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The purpose of this Bill is to make a number of changes in the provisions of the Harbours Act that we passed last year. These changes have resulted from experience of the operation of certain provisions of that Act, or from representations made concerning these provisions by certain harbour authorities. As each section deals with a separate point I shall have to refer to them singly. It will be recollected that when introducing the Bill last year I informed the Houses of the Oireachtas that the Government proposed to give financial assistance, where necessary, for the development and restoration of harbour works.

Arising out of Government policy in that regard, an application was made by Tralee and Fenit Harbour Authority for a grant to cover the full cost of works which involved the construction of a new viaduct, and the widening of the pier, at an estimated expenditure of £100,000. The Government agreed to give a grant covering the full cost of the work, if the county council remitted entirely an old debt due by the harbour authority to the county council. The latter body agreed to do so but, on examination of the position, found that it had no legal power to remit it. One of the provisions of this Bill is to give the county council power to remit that debt, and to allow the agreement regarding Tralee and Fenit Harbours to be implemented.

The second point concerns a difficulty that arose in connection with the election of harbour boards last year. As Senators are aware at these elections owners of ships are entitled to vote. We thought we had covered all possible combinations which might own ships, in providing for individuals, partnerships and companies, but it appears that at the Arklow Harbour elections, votes were claimed on behalf of certain schooners owned by individuals in partnership with a limited company. The secretary of the harbour authority as returning officer decided that there was no provision in the Act by which votes might be allowed in respect of these schooners. This is to put that matter right, and to provide for that rather unusual type of ownership in future harbour elections.

The third point concerns the tender service at Cork Harbour. Before the war that service was provided by a private firm. That firm went out of business and Cork Harbour Commissioners decided to restore the tender service when the Atlantic liners began to use the harbour again. They were fully empowered to do so under the Harbours Act, but they found that the operation of the tender service was involving them in certain losses. The private company which provided a tender service helped to balance their budget by the process of running excursions down the river from Cork to Cobh on Sundays and holidays during the summer months. The harbour authorities wish to provide the same facilities and power is given by the provisions of this Bill, enabling them to carry passengers for reward in vessels provided by them.

Section 9 of the Bill deals with travelling and subsistence allowances of members of harbour authorities and is designed to bring provisions in this regard into line with corresponding provisions in local government legislation. Senators will remember that in all those matters of detail we tried to keep the provisions of the Harbours Act in line with local government legislation but the local government practice in this regard was changed since this Act was passed. Under a section of the Principal Act all officers of harbour authorities are appointed on the recommendations of the Local Appointments Commissioners. There are, however, a number of small harbours where secretaries and technical officers are part-time persons paid very small salaries, and it is considered impracticable to apply the provisions of the Local Appointments Act to these posts. It is proposed, therefore, that in the case of certain designated minor harbours the Local Appointments Commission's machinery will not apply, unless the Minister for Industry and Commerce so decides. When the Harbours Act of 1946 was before the Seanad the question arose as to the possibility of making the service of an individual with a local authority count for pension purposes in harbour authorities' superannuation schemes in the event of that person being transferred from the services of a local authority to a harbour authority. I undertook to discuss this matter with the Minister for Local Government and, as a result, appropriate provision is made here. Under the Local Government Superannuation Bill now before the Oireachtas the Minister for Local Government is making a corresponding provision in the other direction, that is, to make harbour authority service count for pension purposes in the case of a person transferred to a local authority.

Under the Cork Harbour Act of 1826 the Cork Harbour Commissioners made an annual payment of £369 4s. 8d. to the Cork Corporation under an agreement in which the Cork Corporation abandoned certain rights that they had to levy dues on certain types of vessels entering the harbour. There has been some disputation in Cork as to whether this payment should cease. The two bodies have not yet reached agreement but a proposal in this Bill is that the payment shall cease subject to the payment of compensation by the commissioners to the corporation to be fixed, in the absence of agreement, by arbitration. I am informed that the congestion that is at present noticeable in some of the large ports is attributable, in some degree, to the failure of importing agents to remove goods from the quays and transit sheds within a reasonable time after their importation. Harbour authorities have power to charge rents for the space occupied by such goods for an excessive period of time which is specified in their bylaws but experience has shown that, in present conditions at all events, some importers prefer to pay the rent than to remove the goods. To deal with this position the Bill proposes to give harbour authorities power to move goods left on the quays or in the transit sheds, after a reasonable time, and to store them at the expense of the owner after giving him seven days' notice and if they are not removed after a further period to sell the goods after giving 14 days' notice. These are the only changes in the Harbours Act which have appeared to be necessary following its operation during the past year. Having regard to the length and complex nature of the Act and to its many novel features I think that it can be regarded as satisfactory that the bringing of it into operation, in the varied circumstances of the different ports, did not involve any larger number of changes than this Bill provides for. None of them are of any great importance and all of them are regarded as desirable and necessary by the harbour authorities concerned.

As one of the harbours affected by this Bill is in my area, Kilrush Harbour, I would like the Minister to give me some idea as how Kilrush will be affected by the Bill.

The only consequence the enactment of this Bill will have on the Kilrush Harbour Authority is that the secretary or technical officer of the harbour authority may be appointed by the authority rather than on the recommendation of the Civil Service Commissioners, unless the Minister for Industry and Commerce directs otherwise.

May I ask the Minister if there has been any change? In my experience of congestion at the North Wall in the old days, the Port and Docks Board could transport the goods to their own warehouses and to the Custom House docks, at the expense of the owners.

The Dublin Port and Docks Board had more powers than other harbour authorities and, in fact, while they are getting some new powers here, the main consequence of that section is in relation to other harbours, particularly, I think, Cork Harbour.

I have heard great complaints about congestion at North Wall and I was wondering if the Port and Docks Board here were ignoring the regulation whereby they can transport the goods to their own warehouses and the Custom House docks. We know there is a big private warehousing company doing very good and profitable business and I would like to be sure that the Dublin Port and Docks Board are using the powers they have already. In the old days I have seen great quantities of goods carted from the transit sheds at North Wall to the Custom House docks. I want to ensure that the Port and Docks authorities are using that power and not allowing congestion to continue there. For that matter, they could certainly limit the congestion down there.

While I am on that, I would like to ask the Minister, although it has no direct relationship to this Bill, is he satisfied about the grain handling at present at North Wall, Dublin? The facilities and machinery there are in the hands of a private company, while all other facilities in the port are maintained by the Port and Docks Board—I may say the less profitable ones. While the most profitable machinery in the port for discharging grain is still in the hands of a private company, the Port and Docks Board are not doing anything about it, so far as I know, and there is no provision in the Bill in regard to it. This private company have practically a monopoly of handling the grain coming in to the Port of Dublin, which is a very profitable trade and it gives them the right to discriminate as to when and how they will discharge ships. I do not think that is a position that ought to be allowed to continue much longer when we could, on a Port and Docks Bill, take over the grain-handling machinery and facilitate the port and the people of the country generally.

I take it the House generally will welcome this Bill. As the Minister has pointed out, it deals with a large number of points on which there will be general agreement, and I do not propose to take any part in the debate, except, as Senator Foran has raised it, I would like to emphasise that there is very great dissatisfaction with regard to the position at the Dublin Port. I am not quite clear from reading the Bill as to exactly how it will operate with regard to the right to remove goods. At the present moment a charge can be made. According to my information, that charge is less than what would normally be paid for storing the goods almost anywhere else, with the result that certain people have taken advantage of their having an old right to leave the goods there, very much to the detriment of the majority of traders who want to get their goods away. I may be wrong in this, but I strongly suspect that this is a contributory cause of the very large amount of pilferage which appears to take place, at any rate in transit, or somewhere, at the present moment, and which is an unpleasant feature of trying to carry on business.

I took it from the Minister—it was not perfectly clear in the Bill—that after a time the goods could be transferred to somewhere else but I am not sure that that is going to be very much good because I do not know where else they are going to be transferred to and I do not know where else the port authority is going to find for them, unless they leave them in the open and that, I presume, they would have no particular power to do. I would not object, after adequate notice, that they should have the power to sell them but I do not think a fortnight would be quite sufficient. I have no sympathy at all with the people who are not collecting their goods but I have a great deal of sympathy with the people who have been trying to clear their goods and who just cannot manage to do it because of the other people who leave them for a long time, with the result that there is a chaotic position. A fortnight is not quite sufficient and there would have to be safeguards. I imagine that the port authority would not do anything that was unreasonable and I imagine they would make these safeguards but I am not sure, in the case of Dublin, whether it would not be much better to say that if goods were left for a period over two months they could be sold unless the owner could show that he had made reasonable effort to take them away and showed willingness by sending down to take them away but I do not think a fortnight would be satisfactory. I take it that the Bill does not intend it to be a fortnight. It is intended that there will be a period of time after which they may be moved to somewhere else and after that to give a certain amount of notice that the goods will be sold. The question is, is there somewhere else to move them to? To be frank, I do not think there is.

Would there be any chance of remedying the congestion in the Dublin port by having the ships sent to other ports? There is a general idea in the country that the country harbours are neglected and that Dublin has all the advantages.

I happen to be a member of the Dublin Port and Docks Board and I would like to assure the House, and particularly Senator Foran, since he raised the point, that this matter of congestion is dealt with at practically every meeting of the board but, as Senator Douglas has stated, no matter what powers the board has to move goods to other sheds, the fact is that we are dealing with an abnormal volume of traffic and have been for some time past and people are trying to criticise the board for being unable to deal with an abnormal degree of traffic in a normal fashion. The board has recently had before it the scale of charges which, when they come to operate them, are almost penal charges on that type of trader who is consciously misusing the port storage facilities. When that scale comes in, the manager of the port will have a certain amount of discretionary power but to the ordinary person misusing the port the penalty for his doing so will be so great that he will move them somewhere, if he has to go miles.

That is a new charge.

It is a new charge but, since the point has been raised by Senator Foran, it is well to know that the Dublin Port and Docks Board is very much alive to this very pressing problem, because it is actually affecting the trade of the city and country generally.

On the question raised by Senator O'Dea, I should remind him that most of the ships coming to this country are ships of deeper draught than normally and, in fact, they have to come to Dubline because they have not got berthage depths in other ports to take them. These are some of the things I would like to point out. I do not wish to anticipate the Minister, who is fully conversant with all the facts and difficulties but as a member of the board, I wanted to let the House know that there is nothing that the board itself can do that is not being done to alleviate a condition of affairs which the board itself is very sorry to see but which it cannot do more than it is doing at present to alleviate.

The Dublin Port and Docks Board have, as Senator Foran said, the power to remove goods to the Custom House Docks. They have, I believe, exercised that power but the extent to which they can deal with the present problem through that power is limited owing to the limited space at the Custom House Docks. The proposal in the Bill is that the harbour authority may remove goods which have been left unduly long on the quays or in the transit sheds, after seven days notice to the owner, to any place where the goods can be removed to and subject to the cost of removal and the cost of storage being recoverable from the owners of the goods. If there is a further delay in removing the goods then, after 14 days' notice, the harbour authority may sell the goods and recover its outgoings from the proceeds. These powers may not be completely effective in solving this problem of congestion, which is acute at the present time, but they are the best that have been suggested.

I could not comment on the matter of the grain plant at the North Wall. I have received no representations from anybody, either the harbour authority or the importers of grain, concerning the arrangement there, so on a general principle I assume it is working satisfactorily and prefer to leave it alone.

The congestion at the Port of Dublin is due to a number of causes and it could not be relieved by the exercise of any powers which I have to direct traffic to other ports. I have no power to direct shipping anywhere. Where a ship unloads goods is solely a matter for the owner of the goods and follows on the arrangements he makes with shippers. I do not know whether there would be any desire that I should take power to direct the port of importation of goods. I think it would be an undesirable power to have and would involve a degree of interference with commerce which would be quite considerable. I am aware that many harbour authorities are dissatisfied with the fact that trade which formerly came to them in smaller ships is now going to larger ports in larger ships. Apparently, they have the impression that I have something to do with it. I want to make it as clear as I can that I have nothing to do with it, that I have no power to interfere in these matters.

Part of the congestion at Dublin— not the congestion on the quays or in transit sheds—is due to the fact that the bulk of the American coal which has been imported came through Dublin. It all came through Dublin and Cork. That is also a matter of grievance with the harbour authorities at Waterford, Limerick and several smaller ports. The explanation is that the American authorities licensed that coal for export in circumstances which make it possible to ship it only in vessels of 10,000 tons. I investigated fully the possibility of getting the parcels of coal, separately licensed by the United States authorities, divided up so that half of each consignment would be carried in smaller ships that could enter the ports of Waterford, Limerick and so on; and I found that to attempt it would not merely involve friction with the American authorities and difficulty at the American port of shipment but also considerable risk that part of the cargo of coal would not be obtained at all. That problem will ease next year. The expectation that the importation of coal from Great Britain will develop on a much larger scale than this year means that all these smaller ports of the country, for which the coal trade was their main bread and butter line, can now hope for a revival of that trade.

The coal coming from Great Britain will, of course, come in smaller ships which could be discharged at the smaller ports. Up to the present, the bulk of our coal was American coal and, because of arrangements made with the American authorities, could not be shipped in smaller boats than the large vessels which could unload only in Dublin and Cork. In fact, even to get them unloaded in Cork, they had to be lightened down the river. The other causes of congestion are the fact that a larger proportion of our total imports is coming direct from countries of origin and not through British merchant houses as previously and that there is, of course, a general tendency towards larger ships which have been found more economical of operation.

The Government is particularly anxious to develop the secondary harbours of the country. It is proposing to spend a great deal of money in assisting those harbour authorities to develop their harbours and equip them with modern machinery for rapid unloading and enable them to handle larger vessels and turn them round with greater speed. Unfortunately, a lot of the work that we were prepared to finance cannot be expeditiously done because of difficulty about procuring material and equipment and also because of a scarcity of marine engineers, engineers who are specially skilled in harbour works. Those who are in the service of the Board of Works are so fully employed that they cannot take on any further duties for a considerable time ahead and we are at present considering the possibility of obtaining the services of private consulting engineers, so as to enable the harbour development projects to go ahead with greater speed than at present seems possible.

However, my sole purpose in referring to these matters is to endeavour again to make it clear that the Minister for Industry and Commerce has no power to direct traffic in ships to any port and thinks it, on the whole, undesirable that he should have that power.

Question put and agreed to.
Committee Stage ordered for Wednesday, 3rd December.