HC Deb 15 April 1994 vol 241 cc574-82

Amendments made No. 2, in page 16, line 38, at end insert—

'1971 c. 59. Merchant Shipping (Oil Pollution) Act 1971. Section 15(1).'

No. 8, in page 16, line 41, at end insert

'1974 c. 43. Merchant Shipping Act 1974. Section 8(3).'

No. 3, in page 16, line 42, column 3, at beginning insert—

'In Schedule 4, paragraph 12.'

No. 9, in page 16, line 42, column 3, at beginning insert—

'In Schedule 4, paragraph 21(b).'

Order for Third Reading read.

12.1 pm

Mr. Harris

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I have a deep vested interest in the Bill and maritime matters. Reference has already been made today to two disasters off my constituency—the Torrey Canyon and the Penlee disaster. Any constituency that has experienced such incidents will realise their impact. Many other disasters have been mentioned during these proceedings—that involving the Braer is uppermost in our minds. I am grateful to Lord Donaldson, who is conducting the inquiry on the Braer environmental tragedy, for taking on the task of sponsoring the Bill in another place, which illustrates the Bill's importance in dealing with maritime issues.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) chided me earlier, saying that I have not been entirely responsible for the Bill's wording. As my cover has been blown, I readily acknowledge that. In doing so, I extend my thanks to the officials who have put in an enormous amount of time in preparing the Bill. My hon. Friend also said, from his landlocked position, that the Bill was worthy but dull. I leave him to draw his own conclusions about the Bill's nature, but may I say in all modesty that the Bill is of great importance to the coastline of this country, as the accidents and tragedies that I have mentioned reveal.

Although we all know about the Braer, Torrey Canyon and Penlee disasters, many smaller accidents that cause enormous problems to the localities affected may not hit the headlines in the same way. I was struck by the figure that the Minister gave in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Swindon (Mr. Coombs). He said that there are some 20 incidents a year when oil from boats affected by new clause 1 causes tremendous environmental damage all around the coastline.

I have an interest in this matter, first, because of the constituency that I have the honour to represent, but, secondly, because I am the president of the Sea Safety Group United Kingdom, which was formed because of the number of accidents involving fishing boats in collision with merchant vessels. The group now has branches all around our coastline and connections with organisations that have sprung up as a result of it in other countries. My involvement with the group and the fishing industry has brought home to me the enormous dangers of all sorts around our coastline and in our waters.

As we have heard, our approach must, to an extent, be piecemeal because the introduction of new technology means that we are dealing with a fast developing scene and we cannot lay down, here and now, a plan that will solve all the problems in the future. We shall return constantly to the theme of sea safety and the dangers of environmental pollution.

If I had to describe the Bill, I would say that it will, we hope, do two things: make our seas safer; and make them cleaner. If it achieves those objectives, albeit in a limited and legalistic way, it will have served this country and other maritime countries. May I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the International Maritime Organisation? Because shipping is so international and a disaster in one country can affect the coastline of a neighbouring country, the IMO must take the lead in settling a number of those issues. But that does not mean that we can sit back, either as Members of Parliament or as a Government. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for the interest that he has taken in this matter, but our Government must continue to take a leading role, as they try to do, in the IMO. With great respect to the officials, I hope that Ministers will take a more prominent role in the workings of the IMO. The day-to-day work must be left to the officials, as they are the experts. We have relied on them heavily during the passage of the Bill.

There is, however, a political role, which is where politicians come in. Our task is to focus attention on concerns and problems such as the dangers to seafarers, the improvement that must be made to the standards of manning of vessels, the training of crews, the standards that we expect, particularly of flags of convenience vessels passing through the waters off our coastline, or the effects of environmental disasters and the need to plan for them. Our role is to focus attention on those and demand action from our Government and the IMO.

I thank all my colleagues, on both sides of the House, who have taken a keen interest in the Bill. I have been impressed by the interest of the "landlubbers", as my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) described them. I am grateful to everyone who has participated in the proceedings. I hope that the Bill will go through the House of Lords speedily and reach the statute book before long. I hope that it will play its part in making our seas safer and cleaner.

12.10 pm
Mr. Dykes

A Bill such as this, which has received such massive support and been so ably presented, does not, I imagine—with your permission and approval, Madam Deputy Speaker—need a long Third Reading. Lest I cause you alarm by rising at this stage, let me explain that I do so merely to make a brief intervention to add words of support and thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) for the Bill that he has introduced and to correct an impression to which I think he referred in a jocular fashion—I take it as such—that I was critical or chiding; far from it; it is quite the reverse.

First, I must quickly mention that when my hon. Friend referred to his specific interest in sea safety, and safety especially along the coastlines of our great island nation, he was following in the illustrious footsteps of many people. I think especially of no less a person than Winston Churchill, when he was Navy Minister after the first world war and attended the Versailles conference with the leaders of the other victorious allied powers, including Clemenceau. As Winston was a supporter of Trinity House, the national association of lifeboatmen, he was wearing the splendid blue uniform with gold buttons of Trinity House. Clemenceau asked him—if I may use a foreign language quickly, Madam Deputy Speaker, without incurring your disapprobation— Qu'est ce que c'est que cette uniformelà? Winston did not manage very competent French, so he replied in his usual very bad French, also getting the genders wrong: Je suis la frère de la Trinity. Clemenceau could not understand the textual nature of that reply, and threw his hands up in admiration and said: Mon Dieu, quel influence! Therefore, my hon. Friend is following in a very illustrious tradition of supporting not only Trinity House, but the concept of sea safety around the coast.

That is only one reason, but one of many reasons, why, contrary to his suggestion—we were both speaking the same English language at the time—that I was critical, far from it. Quite the reverse applies. I was just referring to the galvanic explosion of talent that can occur when a Department felicitously, with all the bright and brainy civil servants, comes together with the brains and talent of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives in deciding that they are working together to bring a Bill forward. That is, with the able assistance of the Minister, the best example of Parliament working in a combined sense to produce a measure that is long overdue.

Therefore, many people will be very glad about the Bill's passage today. I certainly did not say on the record either that the Bill was worthy but dull. That may have been part of a light-hearted banter that is sotto voce on such occasions between friends and is simply the way of reducing the tension of jealousy and admiration that one feels for such an important measure. No other words are necessary from me except to welcome the Third Reading.

Mr. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South)

As yet another landlubber here, I have to say that not only is the Bill worthy, but it deals with circumstances that are dramatic. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris), who modestly said that he had little knowledge of the technical side of the matter, has shown great knowledge and expertise in the technical aspects of the Bill, possibly because, with the exception of the aptly-named skeleton coast of west Africa, his constituency has probably seen more wrecks than anywhere else in the world.

One of the best ways of preventing pollution of our coastline is to ensure that an accident does not happen and, if an accident is imminent, that a salvage operation can prevent pollution. The focus this morning has been, rightly, on the anti-pollution aspects of the Bill, but I shall focus briefly on clause 1, which introduces a complete new code of the law of salvage, which is to be widely welcomed.

The fundamental principle of salvage is "No cure, no pay." That provides remuneration on the basis of performance, but its great weakness has been that without any pay there is no cure. As my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant) pointed out earlier, it was the Amoco Cadiz which highlighted the weaknesses of present salvage law in that, first, one had to have an agreement to carry out an act of salvage and, in the absence of an agreement, there was no incentive to prevent pollution. The Bill remedies both situations.

In the case of the Amoco Cadiz, the ship was drifting on to the rocks and the master hesitated, to the cost of us all. There have been many attempts at reform of salvage law after the Amoco Cadiz. In 1980, Britain led the way and got the argument going. Britain was able to lead the way in the reform of salvage law because it is rightly recognised as the world centre for the resolution of commercial and marine disputes. By the by, the services provided by the City in that respect are a useful contribution to our balance of payments.

The resolving of salvage disputes focused, as early as the 19th century, around Lloyd's form, which won worldwide recognition and sets out the relationship between the salvor and the distressed property. However, it was not until after the Amoco Cadiz incident in 1980 that we broke the fundamental rule of "no cure, no pay" when the Lloyd's form, which is the commonly accepted way of resolving a salvage dispute, introduced the concept whereby the salvor of a laden tanker, even if there was no cure, would be given his expenses back in his effort to prevent pollution plus 15 per cent. If that had been in place in 1978, it probably would have provided the incentive to the salvors to save the Amoco Cadiz.

As usual, the world lagged behind Britain and it was not until 1989 that the IMO introduced the international convention on salvage, which, in effect, codifies the existing law of salvage, but with two important extra features. Those were examined in detail in Committee. Articles 13 and 14 provide that in the event that there is no satisfactory prevention of an accident, the skill and expertise of the salvor in trying to prevent pollution will be remunerated and, in the event that there is no cure, the feature that was in the original Lloyd's form of 1980 of expenses plus a percentage has now been enshrined into law, except that it is expenses plus 100 per cent.

The important feature, which I am sure will be welcomed by the Department of Transport and especially by the Minister who has taken the Bill through on behalf of the Government, with some skill and knowledge himself, is that that imposes no extra cost on the Government in rewarding salvors because the shipowners' own P and I insurance clubs—protection and indemnity—have undertaken to pay that extra expense, which is a classic example of the way in which the private sector can come up with creative solutions where the whole nation is affected.

There has been, among Admiralty lawyers, a fair amount of concern about the interaction between articles 13 and 14. There is an element of ambiguity which is probably due to the different diplomatic arguments put forward during the drafting of the convention in the International Maritime Organisation. However, my friends in the City tell me that there have been 15 cases since that concept was introduced in the Lloyd's form in 1990, none of which has caused any great problems, so that ambiguity will probably cause no difficulties.

I have, however, one fundamental complaint about the wording of the convention. One of the proudest slogans in marine law and marine history is "No cure, no pay", and this law downgrades "No cure, no pay" to the expression "a useful result", which sounds to me the sort of thing that a football manager would say on a wet Saturday afternoon after his team had lurched into a draw.

Having expressed that complaint, I know that it is a convention and that the Bill has been welcomed by everyone in the City who is concerned with the marine sector—bankers, engineers, surveyors and, last but not least, lawyers. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives on introducing it.

Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am sorry to interrupt the debate, but can you help me? You will be aware that there were points of order earlier this morning in relation to my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd). I am sure that the House will be pleased to know that, as a result of Madam Speaker's intervention, my hon. Friend is now being provided with refreshment by British Coal. We are grateful to Madam Speaker for ensuring that that happened.

I have just spoken to my hon. Friend's secretary, Mrs. Jean Fitzgerald, and have had a message faxed through to me. Mrs. Fitzgerald has been trying to speak to my hon. Friend on the telephone—you, Madam Deputy Speaker, will know that there are telephones linked to the bottom of the pit—so that the hon. Lady can carry out her parliamentary duties in relation to constituency matters. You will be aware, Madam Deputy Speaker, that even prisoners are allowed to see Members of Parliament so that they can deal with constituency matters. I should like a ruling on this. Surely it is not permissible for a publicly owned industry to frustrate a Member of Parliament in the exercise of his or her constitutional duties.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Madam Speaker dealt with the matter exhaustively at the beginning of the sitting and said that the hon. Lady had gone down the pit of her own volition. I do not think that anything can be added to that now.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. When the former Member of Parliament for Liverpool, Broadgreen, Terry Fields, was in Walton prison, he was able to make telephone calls and receive delegations of Members of Parliament to discuss parliamentary business in private. Is British Coal taking on itself powers of imprisonment over people and denying access to parliamentary colleagues?

Madam Deputy Speaker

I cannot deal further with the matter. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the points made by Madam Speaker earlier today. I have nothing to add to that.

Mr. Harris

Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is not the solution simple? Cannot the hon. Lady come up to the surface and take the phone calls herself?

Mr. Sedgemore

She is trying to save jobs—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I will take no further points of order on the subject.

12.22 pm
Ms Walley

As a preface to my brief remarks on Third Reading I should say that I was recently involved with a group of women who went down Trentham colliery. They were concerned to try to stop the Government closing the coal mines—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. That has nothing to do with the Third Reading of the Bill, to which the hon. Lady should refer.

Ms Walley

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I wish to follow your instructions and ensure that I am in order, so I shall return to the Bill.

I add my congratulations to the work of the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris). I hope that the Bill will reach the statute book quickly. The Bill still contains some slight imperfections and I hope that, before it completes its passage through the House, we can make even more improvements to it with respect to the speedy response to disasters provided by charitable organisations—a subject which we have spent much time considering.

I also wish to mention briefly the subject of salvage tugs. I can see that the hon. Member for St. Ives nods his head. It is important that, having gone to so much trouble, salvage tugs should be available as and when needed. They must be able to make a quick response to prevent further pollution, as the Bill seeks to do.

Conservative Members, who may not have coastal constituencies—they refer to themselves as landlubbers —have said how important it is that the subject should be appreciated and understood by everybody. I endorse that view, but we must put it in a wider context and be aware of the wider issues relating to British and international shipping.

Many of the incidents that have arisen around our coasts have not arisen because British-flagged ships have been involved in disasters. British shipping has one of the best records of any country. But there has been a huge increase in the number of ships flagging out to flags of convenience which do not have the same safety provisions, whose crews are not as competent and which do not meet the same safety standards. They are meant to meet the same safety standards, but there are various question marks over whether, through port state control inspections, we can ensure that those ships are going about their business off United Kingdom shores in a proper way.

There is a huge agenda that the Government could adopt in relation to their work in the European Union and the International Maritime Organisation. The fact that ships are flagged out contributes, more than anything else, to the pollution that the Bill seeks to reduce.

Mr. Ottaway

I fully support what the hon. Lady is saying. I, too, should like many vessels to return from flags of convenience to British flags. Does the hon. Lady support the proposal of the British open register, which would probably quadruple the size of the British fleet and bring many vessels under flags of convenience within the scope of the health and safety regulations to which she referred?

Ms Walley

I am delighted to have the opportunity to respond to that question. The hon. Member has raised an issue which, more than anything else, disturbs people who are involved in British shipping. There is a difference of opinion on the subject. The Opposition have tabled an early-day motion clearly setting out their view on the proposals that, I understand, have come from the Baltic Exchange and have some support from the Department of Trade and Industry. I am not clear how much support they have from the Department of Transport. Perhaps the Minister can provide clarification when he replies to the debate.

We need to have a strong British merchant fleet, with minimum safeguards in respect of crewing, design and every other aspect of the ship's operation. There has been a huge decrease in the amount of tonnage currently under the British flag. Why? It is because our Government, unlike other Governments, are not prepared to give the support to British shipping that other Governments give to theirs. The hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) suggested that the way to solve the problem is to go ahead with the proposal for the British open register. The maritime group of Members debated that at great length only a fortnight ago. I think that the hon. Gentleman was present. All those connected with British shipping held the strong view that to do away with the British merchant fleet and the red ensign, and introduce a flag of convenience for British merchant shipping, would undermine our international role.

We must take account of what has happened to British shipping and the Government's refusal to support our shipping in the same way as other Governments have supported theirs. But the open register proposal is not the answer. Those who proposed the British open register as a solution to the problems that we face in relation to our merchant fleet were people who accept that the British merchant fleet has already had its day. The only thing that they are worried about is what will happen to the City of London and to ensure that it does not face further difficulties.

Mr. Ottaway

I cannot allow the hon. Lady to get away with such gross misrepresentation. She has reached an inaccurate conclusion based on false assumptions. The parliamentary maritime group was packed out with members of the trade union movement and was totally unrepresentative of British shipping.

Ms Walley

The trade union movement has done as much as anybody to fight for the British merchant fleet. It has united with the British Chamber of Shipping for the past three years in calling on the Government to take some action through the Finance Bill. I might be ruled out of order for saying to Conservative Members who support the Bill and who have coastal or land-locked constituencies or represent constituencies such as mine, that if they are concerned about British shipping they should, in addition to supporting the Bill, support the amendment that will be tabled to the Finance Bill next week. That would enable their constituents to measure the extent of their support for British shipping.

I shall return to the debate on Third Reading before I am interrupted by Conservative Members. As I have briefly sought to explain, ships that fly flags of convenience cause all sorts of difficulties for marine safety. About 6,500 foreign ships visited British ports in 1992. About 30 per cent. of those vessels were checked by Government surveyors and defects were found on 70 per cent. of them. The number of ships that had to be detained in British ports because their defects were so serious has quadrupled in the past five years.

Checks in European ports have shown that the number of ships with defects threatening their seaworthiness rose by 12 per cent. in 1992. Nearly 10 per cent. of all oil tankers inspected in 1992 had to be detained in European ports because of defects threatening their seaworthiness. In 1988, port state control inspectors found that 81 per cent. of major faults uncovered in routine safety inspections were on ships flying flags of convenience.

When all that is added to chronic oil pollution and the fact that ships are still discharging illegally, it underlines the importance of doing all that we can to improve every aspect of ship design, crewing and safety. The Bill, which will put on our statute book important international conventions, must be passed at the earliest opportunity. I look forward to that.

12.31 pm
Mr. Norris

It is sad that the last contribution by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) was irrelevant. I cannot follow her down the general tour d'horizon. I say that to get my French on the record along with that of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) whose effort was magnifique, mais ce n'etait pas la guerre.

The hon. Lady is entirely wrong. Her lunatic propositions are advanced exclusively by Labour party members. They say that we need a great and vibrant British merchant fleet and should encourage many ships to register in Britain, but they also say that, to protect their trade union interests, the conditions imposed on those vessels should be the most onerous in the world. It is about time the hon. Lady woke up, came down from Stoke-on-Trent and looked more closely at the reality of the world. If she did, that she might understand some of what all this is about. I am disappointed by the silliness of the hon. Lady's contribution. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) said that it was inaccurate and misleading. He was being generous. The Bill is about salvage and pollution.

Mr. Corbyn

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Norris

No. We have had a long debate. The hon. Gentleman is here to talk about Antarctica and he and other hon. Members should shortly have an opportunity to do that.

Until the rather silly final speech by the hon. Lady, who co-operated in presenting the Bill, we were having a sensible debate. The progress that has been made since the Torrey Canyon, Amoco Cadiz, the Braer and other incidents in controlling and coming to terms with the new world of salvage and pollution has been impressive. The role of the International Maritime Organisation has been useful and constructive. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) made that clear in his closing remarks which I thoroughly endorse. As my hon. Friend knows, the Government are fully involved in the work of the IMO and are honoured to host its headquarters which are across the river on the Albert embankment.

I am grateful for the spirit in which the Bill has been considered by all hon. Members and, as has been said often in the debate, I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives for piloting—to use an appropriate maritime expression—the Bill so far.

I am not the slightest bit grateful for the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East, although it was characteristically witty and illuminating. The last thing that the Bill can be called is dull. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South pertinently observed that although the proceedings may not have been lively, the issues are such that when the next incident sadly occurs, it will occupy many more front pages than subjects that we routinely debate with a great deal more passion. This has been a thoroughly good morning's work and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives and to other hon. Members who have participated. I commend the Bill to the House.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.