HC Deb 28 June 1995 vol 262 cc807-27

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

10.4 am

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

First, I express my gratitude to you, Madam Speaker, for the granting of an Adjournment debate on the important subject of the Government's response to Lord Donaldson's inquiry and his detailed report, "Safer Ships, Cleaner Seas".

My gratitude is tinged with some disappointment, because the debate is being held in private Members' time. On the day of the publication of Lord Donaldson's report, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) challenged the then Secretary of State for Transport, the right hon. Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. MacGregor) on when it would be possible to have a debate on it. He replied: I should be happy to have a debate when everyone has had a chance to digest the voluminous report"—[Official Report, 17 May 1994; Vol.243, c.686.] That was 13 months ago, and today is the first opportunity that the House has had to debate that report. It is regrettable that the debate is not being held in Government time, but I hope that it will whet the appetite and persuade business managers that there is a need for a lengthy and more in-depth study of the important issues involved.

I shall briefly run through the background to the publication of Lord Donaldson's report. Right hon. and hon. Members will recall that, on 5 January 1993, the oil tanker Braer went aground in the south part of Shetland in my constituency. With commendable promptness, the Secretary of State for Transport announced, when the House first met on 11 January 1993, after the Christmas-New Year recess, that an inquiry would to be set up under Lord Donaldson's chairmanship.

That inquiry worked diligently. It took a considerable amount of evidence, and received volumes of it, which it then distilled to produce its report. At the time of its publication, it was widely acclaimed by industry and environmental groups, because it was considered to have done a thorough job on an important issue. It was also seen as a long overdue investigation into shipping safety. Although everyone had reservations about certain recommendations or were disappointed that other recommendations were not included, it is fair to say that the report found widespread acceptance.

The Government published their response to that report on 28 February this year, in a ministerial statement coupled with a detailed, blow-by-blow account of their response to the 103 recommendations that Lord Donaldson and the assessors who sat with him put forward.

Although the report was occasioned by the grounding of the Braer, it considered wider issues to do with shipping safety. It is important that we deal with those general issues, although I hope that the House will understand that, when I deal with some of the specifics, I will consider points of particular concern to my constituents in Shetland and Orkney.

I shall, however, try to avoid offering a checklist of recommendations and responses, as that would be somewhat tedious. In fact, it would be impossible to do that, because the more I discovered in preparing for the debate, the more obvious it was how one could go on indefinitely raising issues connected with the report.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House appreciate that a safer maritime regime has important consequences for the environment. The debate will provide us with an opportunity to consider our continuing concerns, and also to see how the Government are measuring up to the stated goals and aspirations set out in their response to the Donaldson report.

Let me turn to the Government's response, published in February 1995. I shall dwell at length on the importance of a timetable for implementation. I am sure that, when the Minister replies, he will tell the House that the Government's response accepted 86 of the 103 recommendations made by Lord Donaldson. The Government have 13 others under active consideration, so, by quick arithmetical process, one discovers that they rejected only four. By any yardstick, that is not a bad record.

However, we wish to examine the Government's record, not on their principled acceptance of many of the recommendations, but on the extent to which those have been implemented.

If one goes through the recommendations and the Government responses, one finds many references to the need for discussions, the need to submit papers and the need to urge the International Maritime Organisation. It is rarely that a clear commitment is made and something is actually being done.

It starts at the very beginning—a very good place to start—with recommendation 1 on the need to tighten flag state implementation. Everyone would agree that, if that could be done, it would be a key way of improving shipping safety, yet there are numerous countries, signatories to the IMO, whose capacity and willingness to implement rigid safety standards fall far below what one would expect of them.

The recommendation that we find there relating to flag state enforcement recommends the Government to encourage the improvement of Flag State performance generally by giving IMO's Sub-Committee on Flag State Implementation its full support. It then recommends many specific issues. In their response, the Government accept recommendations 1(a) and (b) and say: The UK has also submitted a paper for consideration at the next meeting of IMO's Flag State Implementation Sub-Committee pushing for action against Flag States with poor records. That may well be all that they can do, but we want to know what happens to those papers once they have been submitted. What progress is made afterwards? I cite that as an example.

Recommendation 53(b), which is not necessarily one of the key recommendations of Lord Donaldson's report, says: The UK Government should seek the agreement of the relevant international organisations to co-operative reassessment of the requirements for emergency electrical systems. That is one of the recommendations that the Government accepted. They said: It is clearly vital that emergency electrical systems are reliable and the UK will work through IMO to achieve any necessary improvements in design". What does "working through" mean? What is the time scale for achieving it?

Recommendation 57 says that the Government should press IMO to ensure that all vessels with a large bunker capacity are subject to the same routeing and reporting requirements and recommendations as laden tankers. That recommendation is accepted in principle. The Government accept that the pollution threat posed to the environment by bunker fuel is such that we need to protect the environment, and we are told: The Department of Transport will take forward discussions, both nationally and internationally, involving the shipping industry and environmental groups, in 1995. There is therefore plenty of commitment to discussion and submission of papers.

Recommendation 89 completes my random series of examples. It says: The UK Government should seek powers for the Coastguard Agency to establish sea exclusion zones. The response is: The Government agrees that COASTGUARD ought to have the power to establish sea exclusion zones in emergency situations but it will require legislation and we are … considering how best this might be achieved. There are a great many good intentions—I am aware of the arguments that the Minister can use to draw attention to the good intentions that exist, so justifying the position—but not much concrete action. We shall be told—as we are regularly told—that action is far more effective when we international agreement is achieved. I accept, as a principle, that that must be right. If we can persuade the whole international community to agree those things, self-evidently the safety regime for shipping worldwide would improve.

However, many of us fear that the International Maritime Organisation sometimes goes at the pace of its most reluctant member. We want a sense of urgency.

I hope that the Government are willing—perhaps the Minister will say so when he replies—to identify occasions when it might be appropriate for the European Union, or the United Kingdom unilaterally, to take action if it feels that the international shipping community is not proceeding with a sense of urgency on matters that are considered important.

An example of what has already been done is the EU directive on the recognition of classification societies. That aspect has been identified by many people as one of the weaknessness in the current position in classification societies; vessels may have been classified too easily. The EU directive will require far more stringent compliance requirements than those required by the IMO. That is a helpful sign that we are prepared to go beyond the minimum international standards. If we can do that in a European context, it is much more effective than doing it purely nationally.

I hope that the Minister will give some sign of what the Government's opinion is about when it would be appropriate for us to go it alone, or go it in partnership with our fellow EU members.

No doubt I shall also be told that all the current discussion and consultation is perfectly reasonable, and that I and my colleagues would be the first to complain if the Government steamed ahead without consultation. Of course consultation has its place, but I want to inject into the debate—not only this morning's debate on the Floor of the House, but the debate generally—a sense of impatience and the need for urgency. We cannot simply sit and wait.

It is now about two and a half years since the Braer went aground. There are important lessons to be learned, many of which Lord Donaldson identified. It is important that we maintain the pressure to ensure that that issue does not go—I was about to say underground—under water until there is another maritime casualty around our shores.

Mr. Mark Robinson (Somerton and Frome)

I should not like to think that the impression was being given that nothing is being done, yet that is the impression that I am starting to gain from the hon. Gentleman's speech. If one considers the business plans of the Marine Safety Agency and HM Coastguard, one sees the pillars for many of the actions that are needed to implement those recommendations. Indeed, as I understand it, work is already going on in certain key aspects.

Mr. Wallace

I am grateful for that intervention. I would not wish to give the impression that nothing is being done; some important steps have been taken.

For example, every month we now publish the names of defaulters from the surveys that are done by the Marine Safety Agency at several ports, when it finds ships that do not come up to the mark. That is a helpful, positive development and one hopes that it has some effect. Perhaps the Minister will be able to say whether there is any evidence yet that it is having an effect as a result of the embarrassment factor—and perhaps some commercial downside effect—of those names being published, together with the flag, country and classification society involved.

I would not wish to give the impression that nothing has been done. If one reads the recommendations, one sees many good intentions. However, we should have published a timetable showing when the Government would want those proposals to be translated into action—when the talking must stop and the action must start.

The Government publish a report annually on the state of the environment, in which they set out the progress that has been made on the targets that they set themselves the previous year. It might be helpful if, annually or, better still, six-monthly, the Government were to set out the progress that has been made in trying to meet some of the objectives and to follow up some of the arguments that were made in their response to the Donaldson report.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the evidence shows that fewer than half the ships that transit the straits of Dover or Scottish waters near his constituency stop at a United Kingdom port? Does that not emphasise the importance of international action, which he appears to denigrate as only a talking shop?

Mr. Wallace

I fully accept that argument, and I recognise that there are international constraints. For example, if there are areas to be avoided, that does not interfere with free passage. I have not been among those who have called for the total closure of the Fair Isle straits, in my constituency. If one cannot navigate a vessel through the Fair Isle straits, I am not sure where one can.

There are areas which should be avoided, but that will not stop the free passage of shipping. I would like to see it put on a mandatory rather than a voluntary basis. If that cannot be done internationally, why not do it unilaterally? As to the straits of Dover, there is perhaps more scope for action if we act as a European union rather than as a nation. I pay tribute to the European Union for bringing forward a series of proposals that are designed to improve shipping safety.

I now turn to some of the specifics.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Will my hon. Friend extend his analysis of the difference between work that is being undertaken by United Kingdom institutions alone and in conjunction with our European Union partners and the work of international organisations—particularly the International Maritime Organisation—which is much more difficult to see out in the open? It is very easy to see what is being done in the first two contexts, but it is difficult to see what is taking place in international discussions within the IMO, which is an extraordinarily secretive body.

As to my hon. Friend's excellent proposal for a timetable, would it not be appropriate to timetable specifically those recommendations upon which we seek IMO implementation? It would be of enormous benefit to everyone concerned if we could then receive some guidance from the Government about the state of the negotiations.

Mr. Wallace

That is a very helpful suggestion, and it is what I envisaged when I asked for a report which would show what stage certain proposals had reached within the various committees of the IMO. It is important to know the status of the various proposals, and what sort of reception they are receiving from other IMO members. We would then know what was happening, and we would be reassured that proposals were not simply banished to the place on the Albert embankment where they disappear without trace.

After receiving its initial remit, the Donaldson inquiry was asked to examine the question of factory ships. That followed the grounding of the Lunohods and the Borodinskoye Polye in Lerwick harbour in November 1993. They were klondykers engaged in the transshipment of pelagic fish. Lord Donaldson made a series of recommendations calling for action, including legislation, to amend the Sea Fish (Conservation) Act 1967.

Paragraph 17.33 of Lord Donaldson's report states: We believe that a revised system must be in place before the winter of 1994–95 … The Fisheries Departments should declare straight away that from a specified date, well before next winter"— that is the winter just past— they will not consider any application for a transshipment licence unless the Master concerned produces evidence that his vessel is adequately insured and reaches minimum safety standards". A positive move has been the introduction of regular vessel inspections. Vessels are detained—some have been detained in my constituency—when they do not meet certain safety standards. Another klondyker, the Pionersk, ran aground at the end of October last year.

The Scottish Office Agriculture and Fisheries Department has released a consultation document which seeks to limit the number of klondykers and requires notice of applications for transshipment licences. That move is intended to improve the management of the transshipment arrangement without interrupting the operation of legitimate fishing interests. However, I understand that there are some potential practical difficulties in requiring advance notice when vessels often do not make decisions to come and fish until the last minute.

The Government's response also says that the Department of Transport, the Scottish Office and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will prepare a consultation paper on options for future action, including a possible linkage between compliance with safety standards and the issuing of licences. The Minister will have the opportunity today to inform the House about the time scale for that consultation paper, and when we can expect to see legislation that might flow from it.

When presenting the Donaldson report to the House, the former Secretary of State said: We shall be considering those recommendations urgently so that we can have appropriate measures in place before the klondyker fleet returns".—[Official Report, 17 May 1994; Vol. 243, c. 677.] We are about to see the second return of the klondyker fleet, and there is still no indication that the necessary legislation will be brought before the House. The issue generates considerable concern in my constituency. That concern is not so obvious during the summer months, but we do not want to approach another winter and the return of the klondyker fleet with no idea what legislation will link safety standards to the issue of licences.

Another related matter is the problem of insurance. When the Pionersk ran aground, there were questions about its insurance. I have advised some of my constituents to take the matter up with the solicitors acting for the agents of the Pionersk, because, although it was clear where the liability lay, it was not clear whether my constituents could receive any compensation because there was no insurance. The Lerwick harbour trust and the Shetland islands council have expressed similar concerns.

I welcome the fact that the Government say in their response that they will accept, in principle, Lord Donaldson's recommendation for compulsory liability insurance. We are told that the IMO's legal committee will begin formal consideration of that matter in 1996. Perhaps the Minister will tell us what time scale he anticipates for that consideration.

At the North sea conference earlier this month, we received considerable support from our North sea partners about the idea of compulsory insurance. In the meantime, is it possible to have separate arrangements for uninsured fish factory ships, given that they require a licence, are in our waters and anchor at United Kingdom ports? Is it possible to introduce more stringent insurance requirements for them now, rather than waiting until 1996, when the formal consideration of compulsory insurance begins?

On surveillance, Lord Donaldson's recommendation that there should be worldwide use of automatic transponders to enable vessels to be tracked and interrogated received support from all sides. For the most part, that would allow the early identification of trouble when vehicles stall or are clearly not making adequate progress, and the coastguard and other safety agencies could be alerted at a much earlier stage.

Last July, some Shetland Islands councillors and I met the former Shipping Minister, the noble Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, to discuss a number of issues rising out of the Donaldson report. I was very impressed by Lord Mackay's commitment to the various issues, not least that of transponders. He said that, during the summer recess, he planned to visit a number of European capitals to press the case for transponders. However, before the sun set that day, he was a Social Security Minister.

The Government have tried to pursue the issue, and the report suggests that it is gaining some momentum. However, I have read press reports in the last two or three months which suggest that the proposal has been knocked back in the relevant committee of the IMO. Will the Minister explain the present situation with regard to the requirement to fit automatic transponders to vessels?

There is considerable strength of feeling in the Shetlands—and I suspect in other places, such as the Minches and the western approaches—that there should be some kind of radar surveillance pending the proper implementation of transponders. The Government have said that they will operate mobile radar, and they are already doing so on a basis similar to a police speed trap, as Lord Donaldson suggested. A radar was placed in the Fair Isle channel at the turn of the year, and I should be interested to learn what the results have been.

In the absence of transponders, there is a strong view that there should be some form of surveillance in order to spot vehicles quickly when they get into difficulty. That could be achieved at modest cost, not only by radar but also by aerial surveillance. The Government have extended aerial surveillance hours from 500 to 625 per annum on a trial basis. The Shetland Islands council has surveillance spotter planes which fly for up to 400 hours per annum checking on vessels coming in and out of Sullom Voe. I think that we can do more to monitor the activities of vessels while we await the introduction of an automatic and highly scientific means of tracking them.

The surveillance issue raises the fundamental question of what to spot when tracking vessels. There is widespread concern about illegal discharges from vessels. As Lord Donaldson observed, although incidents such as the Braer, Torrey Canyon or Amoco Cadiz attract headlines, day in, day out, week in, week out and year in, year out, routine and often illegal discharges put much more oil into the seas than some headline-grabbing casualties.

The difficulties for enforcement authorities in trying to bring an offending vessel to book are immense. I would be interested to know whether there has ever been a successful prosecution in recent times. My understanding of the MARPOL rules is that, since July 1993, permitted discharges of oil and oily waste have been limited to 30 litres of oil per nautical mile travelled. It would challenge any procurator fiscal or the Crown Prosecution Service to prove in court that that limit had been exceeded.

Mr. Waterson

Will the hon. Gentleman join me in congratulating the Government and all parties in ensuring the swift passage of the Merchant Shipping (Salvage and Pollution) Act 1994, which for the first time applies the same rules to vessels other than tankers, which are often just as guilty—if not more so—of making small but persistent and damaging discharges as they travel around our coasts?

Mr. Wallace

I certainly give credit to the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris), whose private Member's Bill enjoyed all-party support and made considerable improvements in that and other respects. Whether the discharge comes from a tanker or any other vessel, the problem is that it cannot be measured. That is why many people agree that we should be looking for a regime of zero discharges of oily wastes in the long term. The North sea ministerial conference earlier this month made a commitment only to research, rather than to action. It would be helpful if the Minister will show a greater sense of urgency in tackling illegal discharges.

Once there are in place more means of spotting vessels that get into trouble, one must have the means of doing something about it. The Government responded to the Donaldson recommendation to use salvage tugs on an experimental basis, which were positioned in Dover and Stornoway. The trial period is about to end, so it might be premature to ask the Minister for conclusions—although it would be interesting to know whether there have been any preliminary findings.

I regret that it has not been possible to place a salvage tug in northern waters. It is a long way from Stornoway to even where the Braer went aground. Although there is tug capacity at both oil terminals in my constituency, neither has tugs capable of the kind of salvage operation of which the tugs at Dover and Stornoway are capable. The North sea conference made a commitment to greater international co-operation in the provision of salvage capacity. I hope that the northern North sea will be identified as qualifying, given the volume of oil tanker traffic there.

The vessels used in the trial were themselves the subject of some controversy, given that they fly under the flag of some obscure state.

Mr. Calum Macdonald (Western Isles)

St. Vincent.

Mr. Wallace

That does not strike one as a contender for the most efficient flag state. Given the emergency nature of the work done by those tugs, one cannot help wondering whether language problems—identified time and time again in incidents—would be wholly overcome in an emergency. That matter is of some concern in the shipping industry. I would be interested to know also whether the language problem will be addressed when assessing such arrangements.

There is so much to say. I have not dealt at length with crewing standards, but human error is responsible for around 80 per cent. of accidents at sea. However, all worthwhile measures cost money. Effective port state control costs money, and the Marine Safety Agency must have the resources to undertake important survey work. The Coastguard Agency must be lifted from the demoralised state indicated by the comments of a number of its employees.

Writing in Petroleum Review last October, Mr. C. J. Parker, secretary of the Nautical Institute, concluded his review of the Donaldson report: Certainly, commercial operations demand a level of risk and whilst this is inevitable in any competitive industry the aim of regulation, enforcement and inspection must be to eradicate the sub-standard and ensure that dangerous shortcuts do not pay. There is continuing concern that, if the shipping industry could get away with dangerous short cuts, it would. It is incumbent on the House to make sure that short cuts are not possible, address the issues with a sense of urgency, and remember that the pollution of our sea and marine environment can have damaging effects on employment onshore as well as on people who make their living plying the seas.

It is important to acknowledge the potential cost of not taking some of the measures that Lord Donaldson proposed. I hope that this debate will be one of several to take stock of measures being put in place to ensure that our seas our cleaner and our ships are safer.

10.36 am
Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to take part in this debate, and congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) on securing it and on making a manful effort to do justice to Lord Donaldson's 103 recommendations.

I ought to declare a sort of interest, in that I have for a number of years practised as a shipping lawyer, and have done more than my fair share of investigating why ships ended up on the rocks, ablaze or whatever. I have an even more direct interest, in that I represent a coastal constituency—as do many hon. Members present. It is terrifying to consider the number of ships that pass through the Dover straits every day. In 1993, 150 vessel breakdowns were reported to Dover coastguard, and I suspect that the 1994 figure will not be lower.

The Donaldson report is a magisterial work of enormous scope and importance. I pay tribute also to Lord Donaldson and to his colleagues, John Rendle, CBE and Professor Alasdair McIntyre, who interviewed 250 individuals and organisations. Some 86 of their recommendations have been accepted, and 14 are being actively considered. I pay tribute to the report of the marine accident investigation branch on the more narrow issue of the Braer, which was also a painstaking effort.

As a number of hon. Members want to contribute to the debate, I will touch on only four aspects. As to pollution—an issue on which I intervened on the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland—we are apt to be mesmerised by enormous casualties such as the Torrey Canyon or the Braer, but it is important to remember that pollution is an everyday event on the coast around Eastbourne and elsewhere. Ships passing back and forth—often not tankers but elderly tramp steamers and other vessels—discharge oil into our waters.

That kind of drip, drip effect of everyday pollution is every bit as damaging as, or perhaps more damaging than, the headline cases. That is why it was important that the private Member's Bill that was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) with all-party and especially Government support became law last year.

It allowed us to ratify the international convention on salvage, of which more in a moment, to deal with increased compensation for oil pollution and to cover precisely persistent spills from ships other than oil tankers. That legislation has been welcomed by many environmental groups in and near my constituency.

One of the issues that emerges from the Braer report is the whole question of waste reception facilities. As a matter of course, such ships have oily-water contaminated waste that must be received somewhere rather than being dumped straight into the sea.

I shall now discuss the protection of our coasts by the stationing of tugs, a matter that was touched on by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland. I pay tribute to the work of the salvage working group for putting together ideas on which the Donaldson report drew heavily.

Since the Amoco Cadiz disaster off the French coast, the French Government have seen to it that tugs are stationed at Brest and Cherbourg for just such emergencies. The same policy has been followed for a number of years in South Africa. Donaldson recommendation No. 85 touches on how that can be carried out in this country. I am sure that there is an interesting debate in the Department about the combination of public and private sector contributions to deal with that question and the whole issue of franchising, and how it might work in practice.

We have heard about the pilot scheme which, with commendable speed, was put into effect for last winter, with one tug in Dover and the Dover straits and one in Scotland. I have spoken about the number of incidents that are reported in Dover every year. In February, when I last taxed my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport on that issue, the tug at Dover alone had been involved in dealing with some 22 incidents. I do not know whether the Minister has an up-to-date figure. At that time, my right hon. Friend said that the coastguard agency would be presenting its own recommendations to him in June, this month, about what could be done around our coasts in future winters.

The commercial salvage industry has had a difficult decade or so, and cannot necessarily be relied upon to have large expensive tugs stationed around our coasts. Tugs with the right power—the right bollard pull to use the technical expression—are needed in the right place at the right time. There is no point in having the right tug positioned where it cannot get to an incident in time to keep a large tanker off the rocks.

I congratulate the Government on the fact that the 1989 salvage convention has been incorporated into United Kingdom law. That is important in various ways, but it is most important in the context of this debate, because, for the first time, it envisages a salvage tug being rewarded for its contribution to protecting the environment, as well as simply the protection of property or lives. I hope that that will be an extra incentive to commercial salvors to step in and assist on such occasions.

I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us—if not today, in the fairly near future—how the Government see the stationing of tugs during the coming winter and in winters thereafter.

Finally, I should like to deal with the inspection of ships. In the ordinary way, ships are subject to many different types of inspection by authorities in this or other countries, by classification societies, by their own flag authorities and by their P+I clubs, which may insist on a condition survey. There will also be SOLAS checks for safety at sea. For tankers, perhaps the most important inspections are those carried out by prospective charterers. One of the most alarming features of those inspections is that a high percentage of tankers is rejected by big companies such as BP and Shell simply because they are not up to scratch.

One can carry out all the actions that I have mentioned and inspect a ship such as the Braer, which was well-found and run by a reputable company as far as I can see, but in that case the master was very much to blame, because his failure to do certain things contributed directly to the tragedy. I was disturbed to see in a newspaper a few days ago that that master is still plying his trade on tankers around the world.

I said in an intervention that it is important to remember that fewer than half the ships transiting the Dover straits or passing through Scottish waters stop at a UK port. That was true not only of the Braer but of the Torrey Canyon. That is why action should be Europe-wide or through the International Maritime Organisation and other international organisations.

I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has been publishing lists of ships that are not up to standard—the so-called ships of shame. That should continue, but it is only part of the answer.

I again congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland on precipitating the debate. I also congratulate the Government on, first, their prompt establishment of the Donaldson inquiry; secondly, on the variety of actions that they have already taken, and thirdly, on their continuing determination, through the IMO and other bodies and by unilateral action if necessary, to make our seas genuinely safer.

10.46 am
Mr. Edward O'Hara (Knowsley, South)

I join in the congratulations to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) on achieving a debate on such an important subject. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) for his expertise in the subject. He made a telling remark towards the end of his speech, when he referred to the master of the Braer. As the hon. Member for Eastbourne said, that was a well found ship, whose master must bear a heavy responsibility for the enormous disaster. Despite that, as the hon. Gentleman also said, that master is still plying his trade around the world.

I should like to speak particularly about the quality of ships' crews. The Donaldson report was instigated following the Braer disaster. The Braer was registered in an offshore tax haven and crewed by low-paid, under-qualified foreign seafarers. Its fate was a tragic demonstration of the threat to the marine environment posed by the substandard crewing of ships that ply our waters.

The British fleet has an enviable record of maritime safety and I hope that that proud record will continue. However, the British merchant fleet is increasingly crewed not by British seafarers, but by low-paid foreign-recruited seafarers. There has been a decline of more than 70 per cent. in the British seafaring population since 1979.

It is easy for a Labour party member to blame shipowners for the policy of recruitment of cheap labour abroad, but I do not entirely blame them. Surely, no business is more openly exposed to foreign competition than the British maritime business. British shipowners are exposed to that foreign competition. They are assisted by section 9 of the Race Relations Act 1976, which discriminates against foreign seafarers on United Kingdom ships, in that it enables shipowners to pay local rates of pay to foreigners who are recruited abroad.

That has an inevitable consequence for the quality of crews on our ships. It happens not only in the deep-sea trade, but in the coastal and ferry trades in UK waters, and in the trade between Britain and Ireland, which especially affects my constituency. I have an interest, in that some of my constituents work or have lost their jobs in that trade.

Low-paid foreign crews are also employed in trade between the UK and the European Community. It is about time that the Government faced up to their responsibility for that position, and gave assistance to British shipowners to enable them to employ the people I know they would wish to employ: good, well-trained British seafarers. That could be done by giving British shipowners relief from national insurance contributions and income tax payments on the British seafarers they employ.

In my remarks so far, I am presuming that British crews are of better quality than some of the crews that are recruited at low cost abroad. That issue relates to the quality of training given to British seafarers. That is another matter in which the Government need to face up to their responsibilities. We have the grants scheme for assistance in the training of seafarers, but the message that I get from seafarers' unions and the Chamber of Shipping is that the amount of money put into that scheme is woefully inadequate. It would certainly be inadequate if the Government faced up to the responsibility to assist British shipowners to recruit more British seafarers.

The number of colleges for training seafarers has declined drastically, from 12 to, I think, four. A maritime nation such as the UK cannot allow the continuation of a grossly inadequate supply of training places for young people wishing to go into maritime trades.

In connection with that, one is considering not only the quality and training of crews on board ships, but the fact that a maritime nation such as Britain needs a goodly supply of people who serve their time at sea with good training, and who then come ashore to pursue maritime-related trades and businesses, many of them concerned with safety at sea. The Government could do a lot more to improve the quality of that supply.

Mr. Waterson

Will the hon. Gentleman join me and the Chamber of Shipping in welcoming both the granting and the extension of roll-over relief for capital gains tax purposes, which was announced by the Treasury earlier this year to encourage more ships to come back to the British flag?

Mr. O'Hara

I noted and approved of that, but it is just a small step down the road that the Government need to tread if they are to redress the drastic decline, not only in the British merchant fleet but in the quality of crews that man that fleet.

The subject of ship work conditions is related to the quality of crews and safety on board ships. Here again, an aspect of Government policy militates against safe working on British ships. I understand that the Government are the only European Union Government who have not yet implemented the International Labour Organisation convention 147 of 1976 on minimum standards in merchant ships, which relates to work conditions on board, to rest periods, and, obviously, to safety at sea.

The Government may well respond to the Donaldson report, but they lack a coherent strategy for the maritime industry. Various aspects of that industry have been mentioned—the offshore and deep-sea trades, and coastal and ferry ships. If the Government had a coherent strategy, which dealt with various aspects of their policy on safety at sea, we would be far more liable to avoid the spectacle of such disasters as the Braer.

10.56 am
Mr. Mark Robinson (Somerton and Frome)

I am delighted to follow the knowledgeable speech of the hon. Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. O'Hara), although I do not quite agree with him that the Government lack a strategy. I hope that the Minister, in his winding-up speech, will tell us the details of that strategy.

I join in the congratulations to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) on securing this debate. It has given us the opportunity to consider the excellent report of Lord Donaldson and—we must not forget—his assessors John Rendle and Professor McIntyre, and to give full recognition of its detail and extent. They have collectively done an excellent job, and made what I hope will be an important contribution to securing a high environmental standard for the seas around our coasts.

After all, the British Isles coastline is one of our most valuable assets. We live by some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, and the Braer disaster, which has been widely investigated in other parallel inquiries, has highlighted the vulnerability of our shores if we do not take steps to improve the chances of their protection, given that we must recognise that no answer is going to be without fallibility.

I represent a landlocked constituency, but, like those in so many places in the United Kingdom, my constituents can reach the coast—in my case, two coasts—within an hour, and frequently do so. As Lord Donaldson so aptly reminds us, we are not alone in our vulnerability to ecological maritime disaster—the Aegean Sea was wrecked off La Coruna in northern Spain just one month before the Braer disaster.

A strong community of interest therefore exists among nations to try to ensure that we have proper regulation and proper safety standards. Action is required not just by ourselves but internationally, through both the European Commission and wider international agreements that are watched over by the International Maritime Organisation here in London, as has already been pointed out.

The work undertaken by Lord Donaldson and his colleagues deserves to be treated with the utmost seriousness, which is why the Government's response to the inquiry and their 103 numbered recommendations are so welcome. The text is punctuated by the words "accepted" and, to a lesser extent, "accepted in principle" or "under consideration". It is reassuring to know that the text of the response is referred to as a "snapshot" of Government progress and is not meant to be the end of the story". I hope that that lays to rest the fears—they always arise when a report the size of this excellent document is published—that it will sit on Government shelves gathering dust. I believe and hope that the Government's excellent response shows that that is not true. In essence, where no definitive view has been reached, the likelihood is that something more will be forthcoming.

We all know that to produce a report of this complexity and with such detailed recommendations is one thing, but implementation is another. The response is right to point out that shipping is an international business, and for the recommendations to be fully effective, international endorsement and application are required.

I was pleased to see that action is not awaiting the outcome of this report, and I join my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) in applauding the decision to place emergency tugs in difficult areas, including the volatile waters of the Minch, where, to declare a sort of interest, I very nearly lost my life several years ago on MacBrayne's Loch Seaforth, when we had an extremely hair-raising and difficult crossing. I am well aware of the volatility of those waters.

It is essential that Britain sets an example by ratifying international agreements, and I should be interested in the Minister's comments about progress in that regard.

It may seem obvious that safety and the prevention of pollution must go hand in hand, which is why the recommendations on flag state control are so important. It is good to see the wide degree of acceptance in the Government's response to the recommendations in that section. To focus on a safety culture goes to the heart of the matter, and I regard the recommendations on pages 368 and 369 of the report as an important part of that.

I am also pleased to see on page 11 of the Government's response that all six recommendations in that area have been accepted. I would have liked to go into greater detail, but I realise that time is short, so I shall just re-emphasise the importance of moving forward on those recommendations.

The work that is now moving towards implementation will obviously place onerous duties on the Marine Safety Agency and the coastguard. Those are important bodies and, as the business plan of the Marine Safety Agency states: it is responsible for the implementation of the Government's strategy for marine safety and prevention of pollution from ships. Similarly, in its plan, the coastguard, in its key targets for 1995–96, states that it sees one of those targets as the maintenance of a national contingency plan. Those building blocks are essential. It is refreshing to see those key targets spelled out so clearly in the documents, rather than being lost in a mass of verbiage.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland referred, quite rightly, to the need to encourage the International Maritime Organisation to fulfil its responsibilities and not necessarily to bow to the lowest common denominator. That is a little unfair to that United Nations organisation, but I am sure that we would all like to encourage not just progress but urgency in its response.

The International Maritime Organisation is the only specialist UN agency that has its headquarters in the United Kingdom, and, as the host country, we have considerable influence. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will give us some assurance that we will play a positive role in trying to push forward the international aspects of the report and its forward-looking recommendations.

Pollution watch is extremely important. it can be carried out by the coastguard or from the air.

Mr. Piers Merchant (Beckenham)

I apologise to the House for missing the first part of what was obviously a comprehensive and thorough speech from the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace).

My hon. Friend just mentioned earth observation by satellite. Will he join me in pressing for the maximum use of that means of observation? It is a very fast-advancing technology and the Donaldson report is a little pessimistic about its use. It has a great role to play, not just in observation and tracking but in enforcement and deterrence, which are important in prevention.

Mr. Robinson

I fully endorse my hon. Friend's comments. I welcome the recommendation in paragraph 16:51 on page 254 of the report, which covers that point and which urges the Department of Transport to liaise with the Ministry of Defence to keep track of modern technological developments. I agree with my hon. Friend that the recommendation is a wee bit lightly phrased, and I would have liked it to be a little bit more hard-edged and hard-nosed. However, I am sure that the point has not escaped my hon. Friend the Minister, and that he will ensure that the necessary follow-up action is undertaken.

I warmly welcome the report and welcome the decisions, actions and recommendations of the Government. I urge the Minister to pursue those recommendations with great expedition.

11.6 am

Mr. Calum Macdonald (Western Isles)

I also congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) on securing the debate, and on covering all the issues in such a detailed and comprehensive way. I agree with every point he made, which makes it easier for me to make some quick points, to which I hope that the Minister will refer.

First, I refer to the concept of marine environmental high-risk areas which was put forward by Lord Donaldson in his report. The Government said that they were contemplating further consideration of that concept, and I should be grateful if the Minister could give us an update on the Government's thinking, particularly in terms of negotiations within the EU in order to try to make further progress on that concept. In the Western Isles, we hope that the concept of a high-risk area would be applied not just to small, discrete areas but to larger areas, such as the whole of the Minches, which would be appropriate for an environmental high-risk area.

Secondly, mention should be made of the concept of the recommended deep-water route for tanker traffic west of the Hebrides. It has been a long-standing worry among my constituents that that route is still too close to the shore on the west side of the Western Isles, and that it should be extended further seaward. I reiterate that point.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland referred to radar surveillance. There is monitoring of traffic through the Minches, and the majority of ships' masters who have been questioned by coastguards say that they are following the recommended routes. However, without radar surveillance or transponders, it is impossible to verify that, and the Government must look at introducing that system urgently.

Finally, there has been much concern because the tugs that are now stationed in Dover and Stornoway—or rather, that were stationed there until April—were not British-owned or British-crewed. They were registered in St. Vincent, and Croatian-owned and manned. The Government might have been able to get away with that as part of a trial period, but it is not a long-term sustainable position.

Quite apart from the political considerations, I believe that it transgresses immigration rules to have a Croatian crew manning a tug permanently based within British waters. The Government will have to be mindful of that, and I should be grateful if the Minister would tell us whether they have come to any conclusions about the permanent stationing of tugs.

11.10 am
Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

In this debate, as in last week's debate on cycling, there is not enough time—certainly not enough time to deal with all the issues connected with the safety of life at sea and the aftermath of the Donaldson report. I shall try to be brief, because I know the Minister has many points to respond to, but I must join everybody who has congratulated the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) on the way in which he and the Shetland Islands council have unrelentingly ensured that we take up time and time again the question of what is to happen after the Donaldson report.

Just as the Shetland Islands council wants to set the highest standards for the oil operations off Shetland and at Sullom Voe, so it is crucial that the Government set and enforce similarly high standards.

The real underlying problem is that the Government's policy of doctrinaire dogmatic deregulation is undermining much of our ability to achieve the objectives set by the Donaldson report,, because so many of its 103 recommendations depend on and take for granted a safety culture within our shipping policy. The absence of that, and the way in which deregulation is starting to erode everything, means that the debate is about more than simply how to implement the shopping list of recommendations. It is also about how we must go back to basics on shipping and examine the important issues behind the recommendations.

Let us remind ourselves, as my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. O'Hara) did, that we are talking not only about what happens in Shetland, Orkney and the Western isles but about ship safety throughout United Kingdom waters, all round our coastline—from Dover to Folkestone, from Felixstowe to Humberside, round Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and from Liverpool to Bristol. The report should make sure that we address all the issues connected with ship safety in each of those areas.

Welcome though the report is, we must go back to basics. Yes, I agree with the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland that we need a timetable, and there is now some sense of urgency about that. But no, at the moment we have no mechanism for dealing with the report. We do not even have an annual shipping debate in the House, and there has been delay after delay in responding to Lord Donaldson's recommendations.

There are major concerns. Indeed, in the past week or so, we have seen how the Government are privatising part of what was the work of the surveyor general's organisation but is now the Marine Safety Agency. If that privatisation goes ahead, where shall we find the expertise and resources that were once within the Department of Transport, with the amalgamation of different agencies within the Department? Where will we find the expertise to make the recommendations to the International Maritime Organisation so that the Donaldson recommendations can be taken up?

I understand that there have been cuts of 14.8 per cent. in the Marine Safety Agency—7.4 per cent. in the marine accident investigation branch and 6.4 per cent. in the coastguard. How then shall we be able to deal with the basics of ship safety and the emergency work that the report called for? How shall we be able to ensure that, on 1 July, the coastguard will have the resources to handle the 2182 kHz frequency distress signals that have now been transferred to it? That might not have been a key recommendation of the report, but it is all part and parcel of the basic safety regime we need, on which all the other recommendations depend.

There are other aspects of the safety work, such as what is happening in Dover. We have already heard how the Dover strait is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. It is here off our south coast—but what have the Government done? They have made the extraordinary decision to close RAF Manston and reduce the search and rescue capability in the channel off Dover. How is that compatible with ship safety?

I repeat that all the Donaldson recommendations depend on the safety regime and safety culture that is being undermined. It has been further undermined by the commencement order that the Department of Transport is about to introduce to end the British officer nationality requirement on board British-registered ships. A whole culture is being eroded because of deregulation, and we must take those issues seriously.

There were many paragraphs in the report about the klondykers and the fish battery ships. We were told that the Government would take action to deal with them. In the winter, my colleagues and I went on delegations to the Bulgarian embassy to try to deal with the serious problems that, although they are an understandable result of the massive changes in eastern Europe, are undermining the United Kingdom's ability to uphold standards of shipping safety. Why is there still only a consultation paper? Why have the urgent steps that Donaldson recommended not been taken?

We are concerned not only about accidental spillages but about the wider pollution threat. Lord Donaldson's report dealt with more than accidental spills from shipping; his recommendations covered pollution by chemicals and garbage as well as by oil.

Like the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which is most concerned, I want the Minister to tell us when he intends to publish the results of the Government's questionnaire survey of reception facilities in our 350 ports and harbours, which was initiated at the same time as the report by the marine accident investigation branch.

We would also like to know what further action the Government propose to take to encourage greater use of port waste disposal facilities. Do they support the idea that fees for the use of reception facilities in the United Kingdom should be incorporated into standard port dues, as recommended in the report? In view of the responses that the Government have received to their consultation document on port reception facilities, what new statutory duties do they plan to place on port authorities?

As I have said, serious doubts remain. They certainly remain in Shetland Islands council, which says: Having studied HMG's response, the overall reaction is one of even greater disappointment because HMG has chosen to ignore most of the pressing matters and intends to take action which is largely symbolic and ineffective at least in the short to medium term on others. Will the Minister tell us that we shall have the opportunity of an annual debate on shipping to set out the basic objectives, to monitor progress and to take on board all the points raised in this all too short debate, including crew competence, which was so admirably discussed by my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, South?

In the past few weeks, we have seen enormous public concern about whether Shell would be allowed to dump the Brent Spar oil rig in the sea. Unless the Government start to take the issue of oil spills seriously as an aspect of shipping policy as a whole, it is not only Opposition Members who will comment on the prevarication and delay that has prevented real action. Our feelings are shared by people the length and breadth of the country.

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

I agree with the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) that we do not have enough time for this debate. There is certainly not enough time for me to follow her down the magical paths that she traces. In my experience, she has a wonderful, almost magical, ability to witter on and manage completely to miss the point, unlike the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) who is consistently assiduous on behalf of his constituents, and considerate, concerned and fair in the way in which he approaches these issues. He showed those qualities again today.

I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) and for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Robinson), and to the hon. Members for Knowsley, South (Mr. O'Hara) and for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) for their contributions. I hope that all hon. Members will forgive me if I am not able to respond to all the points that have been made. I shall endeavour to write to hon. Members about any points that I do not cover.

I turn first to the most important assertion made by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland—his concern about the lack of a timetable for the implementation of Lord Donaldson's recommendations in his excellent report. I make clear our commitment to the whole process. Putting to one side the many initiatives that we have already undertaken—they are laid out for all to see in our response—we have undertaken to consult on a number of key issues.

I think that the hon. Gentleman understands that the complexities of these matters and the recognition by Lord Donaldson of the need to develop some of his recommendations mean that we are obliged to consult widely. It is clear that we have to cover the full range of interests concerned and that, as the hon. Gentleman knows, we have to proceed, generally speaking, via the International Maritime Organisation or through other international organisations.

Almost all our initiatives will have been started by the end of this year; most have already begun. I say to the hon. Gentleman, who is experienced in these matters, that, although we have control over when we submit proposals to organisations such as the IMO, we do not have control over the time they take to deliberate and then to reach a decision.

It is a mark of the quality of Lord Donaldson's recommendations that we have invariably secured the support of other states when we have suggested international action. However, his recommendations cover a wide area, and we have had to establish priorities in taking initiatives forward.

Hon. Members have referred to the role of the Marine Safety Agency and the coastguard in taking forward the Donaldson recommendations. As my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome noted, targets have been set for both agencies. In both their business plans for this year, there are references to the Donaldson recommendations that are of direct interest to each agency.

Time does not allow me to narrate them. Suffice it to say that copies of the business plans for both agencies are in the Library of the House. Sixteen of the key tasks against which the MSA's performance will be measured relate to taking forward Donaldson's initiatives, and they are spelled out in the business plan.

We have set firm time scales for the actions that are within our control. This month marks the first anniversary of the publication of the detained ships list. My noble friend the Minister for Aviation and Shipping will comment shortly on our first year's experience. There is a consensus that other states have followed our example because they can see that there is real merit in publishing port state detention lists to deter substandard operating.

Our central strategy lies in the four consultation exercises that we promised when the response was published. The consultation exercises cover four areas: the provision of waste reception facilities in UK ports, tackling the problem of substandard and uninsured vessels, the response to pollution incidents, and the funding of port state control and emergency response capabilities.

The first consultation paper, on waste reception facilities, has already been issued. We shall do all that we can to ensure that port waste facilities are adequate and easy to use, and that they are used. We have consulted widely on a number of specific proposals designed to improve the facilities and to encourage their use. We entirely agree that more needs to be done.

There has been a good response to our specific proposals, and a number of positive suggestions have been made which we need to consider carefully during the summer. We expect to reach conclusions on the way forward with waste reception facilities over the next few months, and we shall announce the measures we propose to take as soon as possible.

I say, in parenthesis, that I understand the gentle sense of frustration felt by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland about the absence of regular progress reporting on the almost impenetrable international negotiation over such a wide arena. I shall carefully consider that point and discuss it with my noble Friend, because I think that there is merit in the hon. Gentleman's suggestion of a regular six-month round-up and report to the House on where we are. That is in everyone's interests, and I understand how important it will be to the hon. Gentleman and to the House generally.

On substandard and uninsured ships, Lord Donaldson's proposals on port state control are, as he said, the cornerstone of his report. These ideas will be most effective if they are agreed at regional level. The United Kingdom presented proposals on this matter to the Paris MOU on port state control, and the proposals were referred to the working group on harmonisation where they were recently examined in detail.

There was general agreement in principle to many of the proposals, and they are now being developed. We suggested significant improvements to the European Union directive on port state control, which was adopted by the Transport Council last week, so that it could easily be amended to take account of future Donaldson-inspired proposals. Lord Donaldson himself was concerned that the directive might fossilise current Paris MOU practices; we believe that our efforts have avoided this.

The problem of the klondykers and other substandard and uninsured fish factory ships operating in our waters has been a great concern to the House generally, and especially to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland. We have addressed the problem in a number of ways. Since last July, the MSA has been carrying out a programme of inspections on klondykers. Those found to be substandard are detained if they are in port or instructed to remedy deficiencies if they are inspected at anchor outside port. That inspection programme will continue.

The Scottish Office is now implementing a new fisheries management regime. The number of fish transshipment licences issued will be limited henceforth, and an advance notice period for applying for them is now required. We hope that that will go some way to limiting the number of substandard klondykers operating in our waters this year, but we know that we also need to deal with the standard of ships that do come. In addition to continuing our inspection programme, we are at the final stage of drafting the consultation paper on ways in which to overcome the problems that klondykers and similar ships pose.

It has been suggested that we are dilatory in seeking action on compulsory insurance, but I do not think that that charge holds water. We were in the lead in establishing the principle of compulsory insurance for oil spills. The diplomatic conference next year should establish compulsory insurance for damage caused by ships carrying hazardous and noxious substances.

We have also pressed the IMO for international action on compulsory insurance for other types of damage, and our proposal has been put on the legal committee's work programme. We are now formulating proposals to require compulsory third-party insurance for ships using our ports or operating within our waters. If we proceed with these proposals, following the consultation exercise, we shall need to press for early international action on compulsory insurance, because a number of vessels pass through our waters on innocent or transit passage, and we must ensure that they are adequately insured. We can achieve that only by international agreement.

I now turn to radar, and to marine environmental high-risk areas. Lord Donaldson saw a limited role for radar monitoring. Although the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland may not agree, that is what Lord Donaldson concluded.

We have, however, undertaken two radar monitoring exercises at the Fair isle strait, using a mobile radar located at Fitful head, and we have also conducted similar monitoring in the Scilly isles and in the Smalls off the Pembroke coast. All these exercises showed a high level of compliance with established routing restrictions. We shall read the results in conjunction with Lord Donaldson's recommendations on the establishment of marine environmental high-risk areas, and we shall undertake further mobile radar monitoring in the Minches.

Lord Donaldson also recommended the use of salvage tugs to offer assistance to vessels around the United Kingdom coast. As an interim measure, we funded an emergency towing trial involving two tugs covering the Dover strait and the Minch. That trial, as the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland said, has now finished. It has given us some valuable practical experience of tug operation. The results will be included in the report of the study team which is is to be submitted to Ministers this month. I hope that that is helpful to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland.

On transponders, it is right that we do not want ships to be able to continue to operate anonymously off our coast. We have therefore pursued vigorously an agreement on mandatory transponders, and we will maintain our pressure on the IMO. Pending agreement on transponders, we have acted on Lord Donaldson's recommendation that ships should have clearly visible recognition marks, and we presented proposals on that to last month's meeing of the IMO maritime safety committee. Those proposals are new being considered by the appropriate subcommittee.

I want to get across the point that the Government participate fully in international agreements to secure effective compensation. Through the the United Kingdom's membership of the international oil pollution compensation fund, over £41 million has been paid to inhabitants of the Shetland Islands for damage caused by the Braer. My noble Friend—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

Order. We now move to the next debate.

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