HC Deb 28 October 1996 vol 284 cc317-8
8. Mr. Ainger

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what response he has received to consultation on the draft Merchant Shipping and Maritime Security Bill. [583]

Sir George Young

Fifty-four replies were received to the consultation on the draft Merchant Shipping and Maritime Security Bill.

Mr. Ainger

Is not the United Kingdom coastline the most vulnerable in Europe to oil pollution? Are not urgent measures needed to deal with that? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the intervention measures included in the draft Bill are welcome, but unless they are backed up with the necessary expertise—the expert individuals who can provide advice to the Secretary of State and give him the powers of command and control of operations such as the Sea Empress—they will be useless?

Does the right hon. Gentleman further accept that we need those command and control measures in the national interest, so that we are not dependent on private salvors which, at the end of the day, have only their commercial interests at heart? Is it not about time that experts were put in place to take command and control of operations such as the Sea Empress?

Sir George Young

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he said at the beginning of his question. The Bill was widely welcomed when it was introduced in another place last week. Its measures are aimed at improving safety at sea and minimising marine pollution. I hope that they will consolidate the considerable progress that we have already made.

On the point about intervention, the hon. Gentleman will know that there is a parallel consultation exercise on the powers needed by local and harbour authorities, on which the Government have not yet reached a conclusion.

I will consider the hon. Gentleman's point about expert advice. However, it is my view that I and my Department have access to the best advice available to enable me to discharge the responsibilities that fall on my shoulders.

Ms Glenda Jackson

I welcome the fact that the Government have finally decided to implement the majority of the recommendations in Lord Donaldson's report. However, it is deeply disappointing that they have not used the opportunities provided by the draft Merchant Shipping and Maritime Security Bill to address some of the more fundamental problems—such as the fact that over the past 15 years the British merchant fleet has been reduced to a quarter of its former size; that 50,000 seafaring jobs have been lost; that maritime overseas earnings have been halved; and that there has been an increase in flagging out and the use of cheap, unskilled labour forces. Is it not the case that two thirds of accidents involve vessels sailing under a flag of convenience? We hope that the Government will expand the possibilities under the draft Bill to begin to redress the downturn in the British merchant fleet.

Sir George Young

We have accepted 91 of the 103 recommendations in the Donaldson report and we have already implemented half of those accepted. The maritime Bill, which is now before the other place, will implement even more.

On the broader question, I should be interested to hear exactly what proposals the hon. Lady is making from the Opposition Front Bench and exactly how much they will cost if she intends to put money behind the suggestions that she has just made.

The Government have helped our Merchant Navy. In two successive Finance Bills, we have given the roll-over relief much wanted by the shipping industry. We have given specific help with the training of officers. The industry also has a national insurance regime that is preferential to that enjoyed by many other industries. If the hon. Lady has any concrete proposals, she should put them forward, cost them and tell the House exactly how she proposes to pay for them.