Page last updated at 10:14 GMT, Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Union offers to suspend Milford Haven port action

Ship in port at Milford Haven
Ships above a certain size must be guided in and out of by pilots

A union facing a possible High Court injunction over industrial action by a port's pilots and launch crews says it has offered to suspend the strike.

Unite balloted 50 staff at Milford Haven, Pembrokeshire, over a walkout on Thursday and Friday in a pensions row.

Managers at the port, which is Wales' largest, plan to challenge the legality of the action in the High Court later.

Allan Card of Unite said the union believed the notice served on the port authority was perfectly lawful.

He said: "We've actually offered the port authority that we would suspend that action for up to 28 days to enable further discussions hopefully so that we can resolve this matter.

"We've worked very hard over the last couple of weeks with the involvement of [independent conciliation service] Acas to try to resolve it, but we've made considerable progress but we're still not in a position where we can actually say that this matter is resolved."

Talks continue between the parties but the port authority said it believed there were "some inconsistencies" when Unite members were balloted.

Port authority chief executive Ted Sangster said: "Our lawyers will be arguing in the High Court that way in which the formal notice was framed was not correct and had some flaws. They will be pursuing that.

"On the other hand, we recognise, as indeed does Unite, that the only real resolution to this is to continue to talk and seek and agreement and, as Allan Card has been saying, we have been undertaking talks with Unite, with him and with Acas."

'Significant deficit'

Mr Sangster said about 70 of 200 marine staff at the port authority were on the non-contributory final salary defined benefits pension scheme at the heart of the dispute.

He said a deficit in the scheme grew from £2.5m to more than £9m within less than three years and the port authority was paying into the scheme at an "unsustainable" rate to maintain it.

He said: "I can fully understand the concern that they have about the effect it is going to have on them in terms of pension provision going forward than they originally expected but, on the other hand, both we and they are facing the reality of a significant deficit in a scheme that is increasing.

"They haven't been paying it, the employer has been paying in on their behalf and we just can't afford to continue paying in at the increasing uncontrollable rate I've already mentioned.

"For the future of the port, for the future of their employment, for the future of others employed in the port by the customers that we serve in the port, this situation needs to be tackled."

Milford Haven is the UK's sixth largest port and home two terminals that supply natural gas to the UK network after it has been shipped from abroad.

Diverted ship

It is compulsory for ships of a certain size to be guided in and out of the estuary by the port authority's pilots, who board the ships out at sea, aided by the launch crews.

Without them, no commercial ships can come in or out of port.

Mr Sangster said the threat of the strike had already led owners of one vessel destined for the port to divert it elsewhere, losing the port a revenue of £50,000.

He said the proposed strike meant a complete withdrawal of labour for the two days, but emergency cover would be provided.

He said if industrial action did occur, a number of shipping movements on the haven would not be affected, including the twice daily Irish Ferries service between Pembroke Port and Rosslare.

One of the companies operating a gas terminal at the port said it was not expecting any tankers this week.

The other said the dispute was a matter for the port authority.

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