HC Deb 23 October 1989 vol 158 cc643-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Kenneth Carlisle.]

11.26 pm
Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North)

There is, quite properly, wide public concern about environmental issues, and the subject of this debate is a potentially serious matter that requires Government action.

One case highlights starkly the need for the law relating to the transport of cargoes to be tightened. In September last year, the ship Ardlough sank in the Irish sea, and much of its deadly cargo—a cocktail of dangerous substances and low-level radioactive waste carried in unlabelled containers—landed at various locations on the north-west coast. The authorities and emergency services had great difficulty dealing with the consequences of this incident for one crucial reason—they did not have sufficient information to work from.

As a result, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities conducted a detailed review of the procedures involved and, in August, recommended changes to the legal framework in six key areas. The first concerned blanket cover—the system which allows ships to move from one port to another without notifying the authorities other than at six-monthly intervals. The AMA suggests that cover should be limited to single cargoes such as oil tankers.

Secondly, the requirement for transport operators to give only 24 hours' notice of their intention to bring dangerous goods into ports should possibly be increased, but most certainly the time that applies at the moment should be properly enforced, because port authorities are frequently not given that type of notice.

Thirdly, harbour masters should be required by clear regulation to give higher priority to safety rather than, as we often suspect is the case at the moment, to economic factors.

Fourthly, pilots should be required to accompany ships with dangerous cargoes into and out of ports. Such a deficiency, if I may so call it, may have been a factor in the recent Humber tanker collision. That cannot be proved as yet, but one can hope that the facts will be discovered.

Fifthly, all faces of containers that carry this kind of material should be clearly labelled with a durable label that could withstand up to three months in the sea.

Finally, the emergency planning authorities and local authorities should be given enough financial support to enable them to carry out proper planning and to make resources available to deal with such problems as and when they arise. The legislation covering that urgently needs to be reviewed and revised.

I should add in passing that this raises questions about the powers of emergency planning officers, which are too restricted for the demands placed on them. I hope that the Home Secretary—I recognise that this is a transport matter—will build on the comments in his speech of 5 September of this year to the Fire International conference. I am aware that the Department of Transport responded to the AMA's report in a letter dated 12 September 1989, but that response was inadequate and unhelpful. Time prevents me from commenting in too much detail on that response, but having read it I am at a loss to see how, for example, the incident I mentioned earlier could have been eased by the response envisaged by the Department. Clearly, more needs to be done and a more intelligent response is needed.

The Government's general attitude to environmental matters is worrying. It is instanced by the late signing of the Basle convention on toxic waste—the Government were one of the last Governments to sign it. Our present methods and procedures are wholly inadequate when set against acceptable modern safety standards. The Government's complacency stands in stark contrast with their political posture as the guardians of our green and pleasant land.

If the letter I referred to earlier is indicative, the Government's rhetoric is hollow, their proposals are thin or non-existent and their intentions are nothing more than a tendency to tawdry window-dressing. In many of these issues, particularly that of the transport of these goods by sea, the Government try to lock the stable door after the horse has bolted. Too many disasters are waiting to happen for this approach to be acceptable. More needs to be done. The AMA has good ideas and I hope that the Government will respond to them more positively than they have done do far.

11.32 pm
The Minister for Aviation and Shipping (Mr. Patrick McLoughlin)

I thank the hon. Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Howarth) for giving me the opportunity of appearing at the Dispatch Box for the first time before a number of changes take place in the Chamber. I also thank him for giving me the chance to speak about this subject, which has been of some topical interest in recent years but which has not had the attention of the House for some time.

As one with both a background and constituency in Merseyside, the hon. Member is naturally concerned with ports and with the welfare of those that go down to the sea in ships. It is refreshing to be asked to respond on a topic that, while close to the hearts of many of us, stands a better chance of being treated in a dispassionate and non-partisan spirit, and on which, even in the short time afforded by an Adjournment debate, it is possible to get some meeting of minds.

I shall be responding to individual points in a few moments, but first I should like to say a few words about the current framework for dealing with maritime carriage of dangerous goods and associated emergency planning, dealing with the emergency planning aspect first.

Contingency plans exist to deal with a spillage or loss of dangerous goods from a ship at sea. The Department's marine pollution control unit, which was set up in 1979 with specific responsibilities for contingency planning and for taking charge of operations to deal with pollution at sea, has access to expert advice on chemical and radioactive hazards and has under contract both a strike team of personnel experienced in handling dangerous cargoes and cargo transfer equipment.

When an accident happens to a vessel the unit would first try to ascertain the intentions of the owners or the salvors to contain pollution or the threat thereof. If necessary, the Secretary of State would exercise his powers of intervention if it became apparent that the owners or salvors were not taking all reasonable steps to avoid or combat pollution, or if they were not in a position to do so. These powers are statutory ones and derive from the Prevention of Oil Pollution Act 1971 supplemented by the Merchant Shipping (Prevention of Pollution) (Intervention) Order 1980, which was passed by this Government. These powers are very wide. Where an accident has happened in or to a ship and pollution will or may be caused on a large scale in the United Kingdom or in United Kingdom territorial waters, the Secretary of State may give directions to owners, masters or salvors of ships requiring them to take, or refrain from taking, any action of any sort whatever. Moreover, if he feels that the powers to give directions are inadequate, the Secretary of State may himself take any action of any kind whatever, which can include taking control of the ship or even destroying it.

In an incident threatening grave or imminent pollution we shall not hesitate to use those powers if need be. This was demonstrated in March of this year when a small Panamanian-registered, Indonesian-owned ship, the Perintis, capsized and sank in international waters in the middle of the English channel, about 35 miles south-east of Brixham. The vessel had a quantity of toxic pesticides on board and the expert advice to the marine pollution control unit was that the chemicals posed a major pollution threat to the marine environment and to United Kingdom fishery interests in particular. The owner of the vessel was not intending to do anything about the chemicals, and accordingly the Secretary of State authorised the MPCU to take direct action to recover the drums of pesticide which were scattered over the sea bed when the vessel capsized. Later, 28 of the 32 drums of toxic chemicals were successfully recovered. Tests showed that they had a much lower rate of solubility in sea water than first feared and scientific advice was that a continued search for the remaining drums was not therefore justified.

The Government's response on that occasion shows that we are conscious of the environmental hazards posed by the loss of dangerous goods being transported by sea, and we are ready to take action where it is practicable to do so.

Turning briefly to the general question of transport of dangerous goods by sea, I am well aware of the increasing concern for the protection of the marine environment, which can be undertaken only with international co-operation. The promotion of safety of life at sea was a major factor in the setting up 30 years ago of the International Maritime Organisation as a United Nations specialised agency based in London, and very soon afterwards work was begun, based on the United Kingdom's own Blue Book, on codifying internationally accepted provisions on classification, packing, marking, labelling, stowage and segregation of packaged dangerous goods—work which took shape in the form of the international maritime dangerous goods code, or the IMDG code as it is more familiarly known. There has been similar activity in dealing with bulk carriage of chemicals, gases and solid bulk materials. In all this, successive United Kingdom Governments have played an active role. The IMO's 30th anniversary year, as it happens, coincides with the issue of a new edition of the IMDG code, which for the first time contains detailed provisions controlling the marking, identification, packing and stowage of cargoes known to be marine pollutants and reporting of incidents involving them. These amended provisions will enable international adoption of annex III to the marine pollution convention, and the Department is preparing new regulations to implement the changed requirements nationally.

Although our plans for dealing with emergencies are tried and tested, I am keen to deal with potential problems by preventive action rather than by measures to handle the consequences of an accident.

Mr. George Howarth

May I welcome the Minister to the Dispatch Box for the first time? I am familiar with the authority that he has mentioned. Is he aware of the European Commission directive 89/C147/03 of 24 May? It places a requirement on member states to observe articles 5, 6, 7 and 8 of the directive which covers the ground that I spoke about and about which the Minister has also spoken.

Mr. McLoughlin

I am aware of that directive. There will be a chance to discuss that in the House at a later date and I look forward to that.

As I was saying, there are detailed and complex internationally agreed rules governing the transport of dangerous goods by sea. One way to do that is to ensure that ships carrying dangerous goods meet the international standards applicable to them. Tankers carrying chemicals in bulk and gas carriers are already singled out by surveyors in the port state control inspections.

Ministers meeting next March for the third international conference on the protection of the North sea will be considering how the present arrangements for ship inspection can be extended to cover all equipment and the operational requirements required by current international conventions in respect of pollution prevention and safety. Under these measures, ships carrying certain dangerous goods in packaged form will be given special consideration under port state control procedures.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in congratulating the marine pollution control unit on its effective and fast response in averting what could have been a nasty and serious environmental accident following the recent collision in the Humber. The quick response of the unit and the Department averted such a disaster. Oil spillage is covered under international liability and international insurance. The quick and effective way in which we responded to the incident in the Humber demonstrated at first hand the way in which the Department and the Government are set up to meet the challenges presented by such accidents.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about emergency planning by local authorities. Of course, that is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department. I understand that there is a framework in existence which allows expenditure on civil emergency planning in a variety of ways. Apart from these provisions, my right hon. Friend has announced that he intends to appoint a civil emergencies adviser who will have oversight of civil emergency planning in peacetime.

The regulations about dangerous substances in harbour areas require the harbour authorities to prepare an effective emergency plan for dealing with emergencies that affect or could affect dangerous substances in their areas. In terms of the identification of which goods on board are dangerous and where they are stowed, the master is obliged to prepare a dangerous goods manifest or stowage plan from the information provided on the various dangerous goods declarations that he is given. That list or plan must indicate the name of each of the dangerous goods carried and show where each is stowed in the ship.

When I was in Southampton a few weeks ago I was able to see the way in which a ship's master carefully monitors and clearly identifies where dangerous or suspect cargo is loaded, as he is required to do by the various regulations. That enables easy access to the goods and such goods are not allowed to be placed in the main hold of the ship. In addition, packages, vehicles and freight containers are required to have hazard labels or placards so that they can easily be picked out by an inspector.

I am sure that we shall return to this topic. I have already spoken about the EC order. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution and for the stimulating and educational debate. The hon. Member has done us all a service by his choice of subject. I know that this is not the last time that we shall hear about maritime safety. This debate has been a useful and constructive start.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes to Twelve o'clock.