HC Deb 09 May 1994 vol 243 cc61-4

6.8 pm

The Minister for Transport in London (Mr. Steve Norris)

I beg to move, That the draft Merchant Shipping (Ro-Ro Passenger Ship Survivability) (No. 2) Regulations 1994, which were laid before this House on 28 March, be approved. The regulations extend the requirement of higher survivability standards to all existing ro-ro passenger ships when operating to or from ports in the United Kingdom. Similar provisions are already in force for new ships—those built after 29 April 1990, by virtue of the Merchant Shipping (Passenger Ship Construction and Survey) (Amendment) Regulations 1990.

The draft regulations are required to be made by affirmative procedure by the terms of section 21(1)(c) of the Merchant Shipping Act 1979, the enabling power, and by section 49 of that Act which sets out the parliamentary procedure for section 21 orders; both sections were modified by section 11 of the Safety at Sea Act 1986. In summary, the requirements of the enabling legislation are that orders applying to foreign ships must be made by affirmative procedure unless the requirement is the subject of international agreement.

Conclusions of an extensive research programme, sponsored by the Department of Transport following the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster have confirmed that the standard of survivability introduced for new ships provides adequate protection against rapid capsize, after sustaining collision damage, while operating in moderate seas.

A steering committee set up to monitor the ro-ro ferry safety research programme, and made up of representatives from all sides of the shipping industry, recommended that the higher standard of damage stability imposed for new ships should be applied to all existing ro-ro ships. To that end, the committee recommended that agreement be sought in the International Maritime Organisation; if that proved unsuccessful, European maritime administrations should be approached with a view to a regional solution. The committee suggested that if both approaches failed, the United Kingdom should consider unilateral action.

Accepting the committee's recommendations, the Department proposed that the higher standard to be applied to existing ships should be the standard introduced internationally for new ships. The recognised procedure for introducing international safety measures is to submit proposals to the IMO; it is fully supported by the United Kingdom. Despite lengthy discussions in the IMO, however, the application of that higher standard to existing ro-ro ships was not accepted.

Having exhausted all the avenues for international agreement, my Department—with officials from the European Commission and member states of the European Union, together with Norway and Sweden—opened discussions that have led to a regional agreement. The introduction of the regulations upholds the United Kingdom's obligation to comply with that agreement, and will ensure that ro-ro passenger ships travelling to and from United Kingdom ports comply with the standard of survivability that was previously restricted to new ships. The regulations also provide for the imposition of penalties for contravention.

6.10 pm
Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

I will be brief: time is limited, and an important debate follows.

The Opposition welcome the new regulations, and the fact that they are to be applied retrospectively. None the less, they may well not apply to ships until 14, or even 17, years after their introduction. That is particularly important in the context of ferry safety. Let me ask the Minister a question: as Minister for shipping, does he intend to require ferry operators to state which ferries will operate on which crossings, so that people can choose whether to travel on ships that meet the safety standards? We feel that that choice is important, and that travellers have a right to know and to make a considered decision.

6.12 pm
Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight)

I am sorry to take issue with my hon. Friend the Minister, but he confirmed an anxiety that I expressed when I met his officials some time ago. I told them then that they were trying to impose higher standards on British ships and the routes to and from our shores than were acceptable to the IMO.

As far as we can see from the map of the area covered by the regulations, the line is drawn off Ushant, which means that ferries sailing from the United Kingdom to the bay of Biscay might not be covered at the bay of Biscay end; moreover, if we look at the top right-hand corner of the map, we see that Norway is practically excepted.

We all recall the tragedy of the Herald of Free Enterprise, and I know that a price can never be placed on safety. I fear, however—especially as one who represents the Isle of Wight—that we are straining to approve regulations that may go a little too far. The compliance cost assessment submitted by the Department of Transport along with the regulations estimates the running costs for ships on domestic routes at some £2 million per annum. Paragraph 4, which deals with typical costs, actually mentions the Isle of Wight; it estimates that the capital cost of modification of existing ships will be between £10,000 and £2 million, with additional running costs of approximately £100,000 a year. Those costs are not analysed in the context of routes, however, and the comparison made is with the Isle of Wight and/or Scottish islands.

As far as I am aware, Wightlink, with its Portsmouth-Fishbourne ferries, already complies with the regulations. The Southampton-Cowes route, operated by Red Funnel, has a brand new ferry, the Red Falcon: I assume that it also complies, given that it was launched only recently. The second ship to replace existing vessels on the route has now been launched, and will come into service in October; we hope that it, too, will comply. That leaves the ships that serve the Lymington-Yarmouth route, which—once the new ship is introduced on the Southampton-Cowes route—will be the oldest ferries serving the Isle of Wight.

When people hear the term "roll on, roll off vessel"—or, as we used to say in the Transport Regiment, "roll on, roll off and roll about"—they have a vision of a ship rather like the Herald of Free Enterprise. The Isle of Wight vessels, however, are really just platforms quite close to sea level, not enclosed, with a small amount of passenger accommodation over the vehicle deck. Compartmentalisation is quite alien to ferries serving the Isle of Wight—although that does not apply to ferries serving the Scottish islands, which have enclosed ro-ro vessels in the conventional sense.

Will my hon. Friend give me a breakdown of the compliance cost assessment relating to the Isle of Wight, as his officials see it? If he cannot do that now, will he undertake to write to me? My constituents will be concerned to learn that the cost may add to that of travelling to and from the Isle of Wight, and we do not wish to impose an undue burden on our economy.

Anyone listening to the debate, however, should be reassured: it is our proud boast that, throughout the long history of ferry services to and from the Isle of Wight, there has never been a major accident causing considerable loss of life at sea. I am sure that that will continue, but my constituents would want me to cast an eagle eye on any proposal that would add to the expense of travel to and from the Isle of Wight. I must look to my hon. Friend for reassurance.

6.17 pm
Mr. James Hill (Southampton, Test)

My hon. Friend the Minister would not expect a Southampton Member to miss a debate about cross-channel ferries. It does not matter whether I have just walked in or just rowed in; that does not affect my enthusiasm for the regulations.

The cross-channel ferries are ahead of the game. In Southampton, we have had several new ferries, which are doing excellent trade. They are also going through the bay of Biscay: no one can hazard a guess at the difficulties that they encounter there, but the fact remains that they are coming through some of the worst storms.

There is a tendency to over-correct in terms of safety. We all remember the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster. That happened because the crew were asleep—it had nothing to do with the quality of the ship or of its management. The problem has been straightened out, and nowadays there is a great deal of internal discipline. I have crossed the channel many times since and have observed that the crews are assiduous about safety—they all seem to be on the car decks, which is where the dangers can arise.

We need not take a large sledgehammer to this problem; there is a great deal of good will in the ferry companies. I do not think that they would resist any measure that the Government might want to introduce, and I hope that the Minister will consult them extensively so that there is no unnecessary expenditure on safety which, in turn, could mean a loss of profit, and redundancy for some of the ships and their crews.

6.20 pm
Mr. Norris

My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Hill) has summed it up: there is a price to be paid for safety; it is important that it should be reasonable and that we should set the risks in perspective.

Of course I understand that no one wants to impose additional costs on the Isle of Wight to the detriment of those who live there and who generally transport goods there by sea. Still, my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field) himself referred to the Herald disaster, and we are bound to seek the right trade-off between increasing the safety of vessels and reasonable expenditure on them. I think it unlikely that the conversion costs for Isle of Wight vessels will be at the top end of the scale.

As for the point made by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley), we have to some extent traded the time scale for a standard that was higher than the IMO was prepared to accept, and have sought a regional agreement. I agree that it is regrettable that the time scale is so long, but it is still a reasonable one. All we are doing is declaring that the standards that we set for ferries as from 1990 shall be applicable to older vessels, too. Recently built vessels serving the Isle of Wight post-1990 will already be of safety-of-life-at-sea—SOLAS—1990 standards and will not require any upgrading; they are already safe enough.

I will ensure that my officials discuss any difficulties to do with costs that may be faced by operators to the island, to see whether it is possible to mitigate them. I stress, however, that the regulations will have statutory force. There is no great opposition to them in the industry.

I have no great difficulty with the right to know. I hope that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North believes in the need to support British industry and enterprise, and in particular the British shipping industry. I am sure that she, like me, wants to ensure that information of this sort is obtainable from all vessels that ply to and from the United Kingdom, including those carrying the 50 per cent. of passengers not carried by British vessels. If we can arrange for this information to be available throughout Europe and from all the nation states whose vessels are likely to serve these islands, I will have no great difficulty urging the British shipping community to comply.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Merchant Shipping (Ro-Ro Passenger Ship Survivability) (No. 2) Regulations 1994, which were laid before this House on 28th March, be approved.

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