HC Deb 10 February 1997 vol 290 cc31-71

Order for Second Reading read.

4.7 pm

The Secretary of State for Transport (Sir George Young)

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

The Merchant Shipping and Maritime Security Bill will make a major new contribution to the Government's highest priorities for shipping policy—improving safety and minimising pollution at sea.

There has been widespread consultation on the measures in the Bill in all quarters. In line with the Government's policy, the Bill itself was published in draft before its introduction. The consultation revealed a high degree of support as well as some useful suggestions for improvement. The Bill has benefited from extensive consideration in another place, where it received all-party support.

The Bill adds new measures to the existing framework of policies and is wholly consistent with the Government's fourfold approach to safety and pollution policy—first, seeking to prevent incidents from happening in the first place; secondly, mitigating the consequences once an incident has occurred; thirdly, ensuring that timely and appropriate compensation is paid following an incident; and finally, ensuring that the lessons will be learnt to help prevent future occurrences.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

On the second issue, does the Secretary of State intend to introduce mandatory provision for port waste reception facilities, with mandatory port waste management plans?

Sir George Young

I shall reach that section of my speech in a moment. The answer is yes—we are planning to impose an obligation to have waste management plans on the port authorities. We propose to proceed by voluntary methods if we can, and when I reach the relevant section, I hope to say something further on that.

After the loss of the Braer tanker in 1993, the Government decided that the time was right to commission a wide-ranging investigation into the prevention of pollution at sea. Lord Donaldson was appointed to head an inquiry whose remit was to advise on whether any further measures are appropriate and feasible to protect the United Kingdom coastline from pollution from merchant shipping. Due consideration should be given to the international and economic implications of new measures". The report of Lord Donaldson's team, "Safer Ships, Cleaner Seas", was welcomed by Government and has since also been recognised internationally as an outstanding contribution to maritime policy on safety and pollution.

The Government have accepted 91 of the 103 recommendations in the report. More than half of them have already been implemented. In some cases, the Government were able to act without new legislation or international agreement. For example, the United Kingdom continues to exercise a rigorous port state control regime and has taken the world lead in publishing lists of detained ships. It has become increasingly successful in detecting substandard ships. Flags with poor safety records, as well as certain types of ships—including oil tankers—are targeted for inspection. Expanded inspections on certain types of ship such as passenger ships, bulk carriers and tankers, began from the start of last year. We have also announced our intention to publish a list of ships found polluting in UK waters or committing offences likely to lead to pollution.

My Department is continuing to press hard for early implementation of those of Lord Donaldson's recommendations for which international agreement is needed, through the International Maritime Organisation and other international forums. The Bill will enable us to implement the recommendations that we have accepted, which require primary legislation.

The Bill contains a number of measures that will contribute to our primary objective of incident prevention. Standards are a key weapon of safety policy and a wide range of standards, covering the design, construction, maintenance and operation of ships, are already in place.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

The reality, however, is that another incident has been reported today, with yet more sea birds dying of pollution. Is the Secretary of State satisfied that the House will have sufficient time to examine this most complex and technical legislation, by jamming it between a statement lasting until 4 o'clock and a decision at 7 o'clock? Is that an adequate and sensible way of considering legislation?

Sir George Young

As I said, the Bill was published in draft, there was extensive consultation and many helpful comments were made. It was also debated at length in another place. Of course, there will be a Committee stage and the Committee will have an opportunity of going through the Bill clause by clause. I know that the House will want to give the Bill the serious attention that it deserves.

Flags with poor safety records, as well as certain types of ships, including oil tankers, are targeted for inspection. Expanded inspections on certain types of ship, such as passenger ships, bulk carriers and tankers, began from the start of last year. We have announced our intention to publish a list of ships found polluting in UK waters.

The Bill contains a number of measures that will contribute to our primary objective of incident prevention.

Mr. Dalyell

My constituency on the Forth is deeply affected—our beaches are filthy because of dumping. Is the lack of prosecutions for the illegal disposal of plastics at sea primarily because the Marine Safety Agency has insufficient evidence to take legal action? Could that matter be dealt with at some point during the Secretary of State's speech or during the debate?

Sir George Young

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will deal with that when he replies or in Committee. One of the clauses clarifies the powers for dealing with pollution other than by oil. Perhaps action is not taken simply because there is not enough evidence to secure a conviction.

The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) referred to the incident this morning. The marine pollution control unit has arranged for samples of oil from the birds to be sent for analysis, to find out more details. If it can be shown that the oil came from an oil tanker, as it is attributable to the slick, it should be possible to make a claim through the International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund.

Standards are constantly kept under review and updated by the Marine Safety Agency, often in the context of international agreements. For the majority of vessels in UK waters, the legal powers to update those standards are already in place.

In his report, Lord Donaldson identified fish factory ships, also known as klondykers, as a particular problem. Some klondykers fall through a loophole and are not at present covered by national or international standards. Clause 11 would allow requirements relating to safety to be prescribed for such ships. To ensure that those standards can be enforced, the clause provides for a notice to be served prohibiting the ships from carrying on with fish processing if the requirements are not met.

With marine pollution, public attention and headlines often focus on the high-profile single incidents, such as large spills from oil tankers. The Government are no less committed to doing all that is reasonably possible to prevent the equally important problem of illegal discharges of ships' wastes. To that end, my Department announced in January last year a package of 18 measures to combat illegal discharges.

The measures make use of the carrot-and-stick approach. Clause 5 is the carrot. It increases the incentives to ship operators to make proper use of port waste reception facilities. The stick is more effective enforcement measures and the threat of tougher penalties, strengthened by the higher maximum fines in clause 7.

Mr. Nick Ainger (Pembroke)

Why is the maximum fine increased to £250,000 for oil tankers, but to only £25,000 for chemical carriers? The Secretary of State will be aware that there have been several illegal discharges of chemicals that have caused as much damage as an oil discharge to the marine environment. What is the reason for the glaring discrepancy between oil and chemical tankers?

Sir George Young

When he winds up the debate, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will deal with that specific point on clause 7, which, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, increases the penalty for causing pollution to £250,000—if it is indeed the case that the higher fine applies only to oil.

I said that the measures took the carrot-and-stick approach, and I touched on the stick, which is the threat of tougher penalties, strengthened by the higher maximum fines in clause 7.

Mr. Dalyell

Before we leave the subject of the stick, there is the crucial question of evidence, which has to be obtained to bring a case to court. There has to be proof that a vessel does not have the appropriate amount of waste on board for its size and the length of time that it has spent at sea, but in the North sea, it is extremely difficult to identify the culprits. Often, incidentally, we suspect that they are not tankers but other ships discharging waste. Is there any way in which an assessment can be made of how much garbage should be on board for the length of time that has been spent at sea?

Sir George Young

Again, I hope that we shall be able to say something helpful to the hon. Gentleman later. It is certainly the case that the marine pollution control unit is doing more work to identify more accurately which waste is dumped by which ship. The question of evidence is crucial. As I said a moment ago, when it can be proved that the oil has come from an oil tanker, there is the prospect of compensation. We are doing more work to identify those who are polluting our seas.

Lord Donaldson's inquiry recognised the importance of port waste reception facilities to the fight against pollution. In order to improve their provision and use, the inquiry recommended dialogue between the ports and the shipping and waste industries. We consulted those industries and other interested parties and they agreed that the best way of guaranteeing an effective dialogue was through the development of port waste management plans. Such plans should ensure that port waste reception facilities are adequate for the types and amounts of wastes generated; easy to use; easy to find; and not disproportionately expensive.

We are very encouraged by the fact that many ports have already begun the planning process on a voluntary basis. However, if necessary, clause 5 would enable us to make plans mandatory for all ports, from the largest commercial port to small fishing or yachting harbours.

Clause 5 would allow us to alter charging practices if they were acting as a disincentive to the use of reception facilities. It would also allow us to make the discharge of wastes mandatory, for specific types of waste or ships if, in spite of adequate and fairly priced provision, the facilities at ports were not being used.

Clause 10 allows us to reduce the risk of incidents at sea by preventing dangerous situations from arising.

Mr. Dalyell

I am sorry to interrupt again, but it would be helpful if the Secretary of State said something about his attitude to the inclusive fee arrangements.

Sir George Young

In some ports, there is no charge for using the waste facilities—it is included in the overall port fee. In others, there is a separate charge at the point of use. The Government's view is that when an arrangement works adequately, there is no point in our intervening, but there are reserve powers to make the discharge of wastes mandatory for specific sorts of waste or ships if, in spite of adequate and fairly priced provision, the facilities at ports are not being used. Clause 5 contains powers to alter charging practices if they act as a disincentive to the use of reception facilities. In other words, if the reception facilities are so expensive that no one uses them, we have powers to alter the way in which they are charged for. I hope that the Bill contains powers to deal with the hon. Gentleman's important point.

Clause 10 gives the Government the power to require ships to move on, provided that they are not on legitimate business or exercising a right of innocent passage. For example, the power could be used on a ship anchored in the middle of a busy sea lane or a ship deliberately obstructing others in contravention of the collision regulations.

The Government are committed to ensuring that steps are taken to reduce the scale, and mitigate the impact, of an incident that has already occurred. Clause 2 would widen our powers to intervene in a salvage operation following a pollution incident at sea. The powers exist so that action can be taken if, for example, a shipowner is taking insufficient action or a salvage operation is not being conducted in an appropriate manner.

The current test for intervention stipulates that the power to act is exercisable when an accident has occurred to, or in, a ship and oil from the ship will, or may, cause pollution on a large scale". Clause 2 changes the wording to "significant" and so ensures that the powers can be used where appropriate, regardless of the size of the incident. It also extends the range of persons to whom directions can be given for the purposes of intervention, by providing that directions can be given to harbour masters, harbour authorities and pilots, in addition to the owner, any person in possession of the ship, the master or the salvor.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

When a pilot is guiding a ship through straits or into a harbour, does he have charge of the ship, or is his role that of an adviser to the captain of the vessel?

Sir George Young

There are some questions that one can answer without hesitation at the Dispatch Box, and others in respect of which one would do well to pause and take professional advice before even thinking about answering. The hon. Gentleman's question falls into the latter category. I shall ensure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has the answer when he winds up.

The geographical limit of the powers has been extended to include UK-controlled waters up to the 200 nautical mile limit. Clause 1 introduces powers for the establishment of temporary exclusion zones at sea. Such zones would be set up for life saving, prevention of pollution and prevention of damage in UK waters, or part of the sea that includes designated areas lying within the 200 nautical mile limit. Details of the size and position of the zones would be regularly broadcast by Her Majesty's Coastguard and notified by the International Maritime Organisation. The innovation is similar to air exclusion zones, which can already be defined, and was among Lord Donaldson's recommendations.

A swift response and co-operation among several parties are vital during emergency counter-pollution operations. Clause 6 simplifies the procedures for the Government to grant indemnities to those who assist with counter-pollution operations at our request. It is important to ensure that mechanisms are in place to provide adequate and timely compensation to those who have suffered loss following a pollution incident at sea. The UK has played an active part in negotiations to secure agreement where international co-operation is necessary. In the past, that led to the setting up of an international fund for compensation for damage arising from oil pollution.

Mr. Dalyell

Does the Secretary of State think that what he is doing in relation to compensation will prevent people who have to make quick decisions from having compensation at the forefront of their minds, to the possible detriment of the speed at which the decision is made?

Sir George Young

One of the objects of the Bill is for the Government to give indemnities, to prevent those who have to respond at the Government's request from hesitating to do so because of fears of litigation. I hope that that deals with the hon. Gentleman's point.

The Bill contains provision in clause 15 for the United Kingdom to implement and ratify a protocol to amend the 1976 convention on limitation of liability for maritime claims. The protocol would increase the amount of compensation available to meet maritime claims other than for oil pollution. More important, the protocol would increase the amount of compensation available to passengers and their dependants.

Mr. Cynog Dafis (Ceredigion and Pembroke, North)

Eligibility for compensation certainly remains a sore point and a live issue in Pembrokeshire at the moment. At the beginning of his speech, the Secretary of State gave an undertaking that full compensation would be paid to people affected, but some people who can clearly show that they were affected find that they are not eligible on the ground that they were affected once or twice removed from the original incident.

The right hon. Gentleman may recall the case of one of my constituents, Mr. Barrie Foster, who is an adviser and consultant on tourism activities. He found that courses that he had prepared for commercial purposes had to be cancelled because the market had gone. Mr. Foster has been told, however, that he cannot be compensated because the link between the Sea Empress disaster and his work is some distance removed. Will the Bill address that issue?

Sir George Young

I am not sure that it will. As with every insurance claim, one has to establish that one has suffered a financial loss. That is true as a result of the Sea Empress, as with any other accident. I understand that compensation is paid for financial hardship when people find themselves in real difficulty. At the moment, there is a 75 per cent. cap on the claims that are being paid, but there will be an opportunity to review that in the next few days, when the relevant committee meets.

The IMO is considering the development of an international regime, to require all ships to carry documentary evidence of the owner's ability to meet third party liabilities. No such requirement currently exists, except for oil tankers. An irresponsible minority of shipowners operate without insurance. We believe that it is unacceptable for them to gain a commercial advantage over responsible shipowners. Clause 16 contains an enabling power for the UK to introduce a requirement for shipowners to have insurance, or another form of financial security, to cover their liabilities. Failure to comply with those requirements could result in tough penalties, including detention and fines of up to £50,000 in the magistrates courts. Our preference would be to exercise those powers in the context of international agreement.

Mr. Eric Clarke (Midlothian)

The Braer disaster was caused by a ship in transit from Norway to Canada. Does the Secretary of State intend to re-route ships to keep them out of territorial waters, because how can he justify boarding a ship to find out whether it is covered for insurance, when it is sailing through the Minch and the Moray firth? How would we achieve that? Would we use gunboats and insist on boarding such vessels? Or would we ban all those coffin ships from our waters, as the United States has done?

Sir George Young

As I understand the powers, they apply to ships that come to United Kingdom ports, not to ships of passage through international waters. As I have already said, the IMO is considering an international regime, which would cover all ships. It would require all ships to carry documentary evidence of the owner's ability to meet third party liabilities. We are taking powers in the legislation to deal with the United Kingdom, and on an international dimension, we are pursuing powers to deal with ships outside UK waters.

When the Government invited Lord Donaldson to make his report, he was asked to consider the international and economic implications of any new measures. He endorsed the "user pays" and "polluter pays" principles, in accordance with which the shipping sector should bear the costs that it imposes.

Clause 13 contains enabling powers to recover the costs of maritime services. That could include the standing costs of emergency response and emergency towing, the costs of inspection where not already recovered, and the costs of standard setting activity. If necessary under the terms of an international agreement, light dues, which are already charged for, could be included in a wider charging scheme for maritime services.

We recognise that new charges for maritime services could have adverse implications for the competitiveness of UK ports, shipowners based in UK ports and exporters and importers using UK ports. We take those issues very seriously and have therefore stated that the preferred approach would be to implement those provisions in the context of international agreement.

Dr. Godman

On the question of charges, what of charges relating to Coastguard duties? Why are the Secretary of State and his officials so—I nearly said hostile—so reluctant to address the concerns felt by many about vessels steaming through the Minch? In a recent two-month period, 450 ships passed through the Minch, of which 25 per cent. passed through improperly, that is, they failed to report in to the Coastguard. Why do we not have a compulsory Coastguard reporting scheme for the Minch?

Sir George Young

I shall look at the hon. Gentleman's suggestion and see whether we can respond positively to it. We do not propose to include charges for search and rescue under these facilities.

Mr. Eric Clarke

I thank the Secretary of State for giving way—I know that we may be trying his patience, but it is important that we know whether the ocean-going tugs that are stationed at strategic points around the United Kingdom will be covered by the insurance. There has been talk of some of them being withdrawn because no one can subsidise their provision. Will that be covered in the plan?

Sir George Young

The position is that, for the past three winters, there have been emergency tugs stationed by the Government in certain key places—on the Dover straits and up at Stornoway and, recently, one was introduced on the south-west approach. Those are broadly the priorities that Donaldson recommends. When I spoke a moment ago about what the powers might cover, I said that they could include the standing costs of emergency response and emergency towing, so those could, indeed, be included in the charging regime that I have just touched on.

There are some other measures in the Bill. The opportunity is being taken to introduce a number of minor changes to merchant shipping legislation. For example, clause 23 provides for the Government to enter into international agreements concerning the protection of wrecks. Recent years have seen dramatic progress in underwater diving techniques and virtually all wrecks are now accessible to commercial salvors if they believe that there is an opportunity for commercial gain. We believe that we should take a reserve power to enable us to control those activities. We would use the power when necessary, to ensure that proper respect is paid to the final resting place of those who perished on a wreck. That would fill a gap left by the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 and the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Would it not be helpful if, in the miscellaneous areas that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned in respect of amending earlier merchant shipping Acts, there be added the contents of a private Member's Bill that was moved in the 1975 Session, which provided that where a Secretary of State does not order a public inquiry when lives have been lost, those affected can apply to the High Court, to ensure that the Secretary of State calls such an inquiry? Without that power, should such important matters be left only to a single brain?

Sir George Young

I have every sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's point, which refers back to the Marchioness tragedy. In that case, there was a marine accident investigation branch inquiry and the jury accepted its findings. Despite the hon. Gentleman's powerful case, I am not persuaded that it would be right to have an additional power for a member of the victim's family to ask for a public inquiry in those cases.

Clause 19 excludes the Royal National Lifeboat Institution from the Coastguard's power to summon vessels to assist other ships that are wrecked, stranded or in distress. That has been done at the RNLI's request, to ensure that it retains control of its vessels at a local level. In addition, RNLI vessels are provided to save lives rather than property, but the existing legislation would allow them to be used for both. The Coastguard does not and would not use those powers in practice and we are happy to rule out the legal possibility. The RNLI and Her Majesty's Coastguard work together closely and the two organisations enjoy excellent relations between officers at all levels. I welcome this opportunity to pay tribute to the invaluable contribution that the RNLI makes to safety at sea.

The Bill contains a package of carefully designed measures, many of which originated from Lord Donaldson's thorough report and which have been the subject of extensive consultation with a wide range of interested parties. I am sure that the House will join me in wishing to see those measures implemented as quickly as possible, and I commend the Bill to the House.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have waited until this juncture to raise it, so that I did not interfere with the flow of the debate, as it does not relate to the Bill before us.

I tabled a parliamentary question to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, asking him to supply information in the Library about electoral registration in each constituency, because the new registers come into operation on 16 February. That question was transferred to the chief executive of the Office for National Statistics, and the reply came from the ONS. The reply is that the ONS is preparing a monitor, detailing electors on the 1997 electoral register, by the new parliamentary constituencies. It will be published by early April 1997, and will be placed in the Library on publication date.

It is highly unacceptable that, although we can readily discover the numbers in our own constituency, we must wait until April—possibly after the general election—to see the national pattern, so that we may find out how many people are in each constituency and compare the number of people who may be missing from local electoral registers with the national figures.

I seek your assistance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, regarding ways in which the House may have placed before it essential information that will be in the hands of the Office for National Statistics by 16 February, so that it can be published early—for instance, in duplicated form. Thus we would not have to wait until it was printed in the monitor.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

The hon. Gentleman has been in the House for many years. As he points out, the official date is next week. It seems to me that that leaves several days for him to use his considerable ingenuity to ensure that that point, having been raised on the Floor of the House, is dealt with adequately.

4.36 pm
Mr. Andrew Smith (Oxford, East)

This is a vital Bill, and it is no less important for being in many respects uncontentious.

Lives at sea and the security of our marine environment need better protection. I hope that there is general agreement on that. Further to the remark that my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) made about the time available for the debate, perhaps we have the answer in the disgraceful sparsity of Conservative Back Benchers. It is a great pity that more Conservative Members are not taking an interest in the debate.

Labour Members welcome the Bill in principle and in its implementation of many of the recommendations of Lord Donaldson's report. We join the Secretary of State in praising the work of Lord Donaldson and his colleagues. Their report is a work of tremendous authority, which has received international acclaim.

We know that there is no room for complacency on the action needed to improve both the prevention of shipping accidents and pollution and the procedures for tackling them effectively when they occur. But for extraordinary good fortune, the Braer disaster, which gave rise to the Donaldson inquiry, would have been many times worse. This coming Saturday, 15 February, will be the first anniversary of the Sea Empress disaster, in which 72,000 tonnes of crude oil and 360 tonnes of heavy fuel oil were spilt, affecting much marine life, 7,000 birds and miles of the most beautiful coastline in Britain.

Only three weeks ago, there was a collision in the channel; 9,000 tonnes of unleaded petrol leaked, which caused airborne pollution to rain down on large parts of England. Today, we have had disturbing reports of an illegal discharge from a vessel in the English channel; already, nearly 200 oiled birds have been found near Portsmouth.

Those disasters are but a part of the wider problem of smaller maritime accidents and spillages. In 1985, there were 366 reported oil spills in United Kingdom waters; by 1995 that figure had increased by one third to 585, with 142 incidents requiring partial or total clean-up operations. The Library brief points out that members of Lord Donaldson's inquiry were kept informed of the more significant maritime incidents, and were moved to remark that they were shocked to discover just how many potentially serious incidents there were. With 8,000 miles of coastline, heavily trafficked sea lanes and often hazardous weather conditions, Britain is particularly vulnerable to the dangers that substandard vessels and human error present in an industry in which ferocious international competition is not matched by sufficiently rigorous international enforcement of standards. It is profoundly disturbing that port state control inspections show that 60 per cent. of vessels are deficient in some respect, with 6 per cent. bad enough to warrant detention.

As both unions and shipowners have repeatedly warned, the high quality provided by the British merchant fleet and its seafarers is undermined by the growth of flagging out and competition from lower-quality carriers. The decline in the British merchant fleet is such that the number of UK-owned vessels registered in the United Kingdom and dependencies has fallen to a quarter of its 1979 level. Then, we were fourth in the world in gross tonnage, with 7 per cent. of the market; now, we are 29th with barely 1 per cent. Jobs and skills have been haemorrhaging from the industry. It is clear that we need not only action on Donaldson, but action to halt and reverse the decline in the British merchant fleet.

The wider considerations—the importance of the international context and the competitiveness of the British shipping industry—have an important bearing on our consideration of the Bill. They must be reasons for taking the right action, not excuses for inaction. I am confident that the public will overwhelmingly support the measures required to improve prevention and emergency action on shipping accidents and pollution.

We welcome the main provisions of the Bill. On prevention, we welcome, subject to questions of detail, the proposals on safety standards, inspection and detention of unseaworthy vessels in UK waters, the power to move vessels on, the application of safety standards to fish transhipment ships—the so-called klondykers—and measures to improve port waste facilities. We also welcome the inclusion in the Bill of enabling powers whereby the Government can require compulsory insurance or other security for liabilities.

We do well to keep in mind the two points that Lord Donaldson made in the other place. First, he said that some form of approved contract of insurance is needed if the requirement is not to be worthless in practice. Secondly, he said that, through international agreement if necessary, there should be a means whereby those with claims against a ship can directly enforce them against the insurer, so that a shipowner cannot simply waltz off with the money.

On the provisions for dealing with emergencies, we support the establishment of exclusion zones on grounds of safety or pollution threat, the proposed stronger powers of intervention where significant pollution may arise, and their extension to the 200-mile limit. However, we have questions on a number of areas, which we will pursue in Committee.

Clause 13 and schedule 2 provide for charges for maritime functions, including the standing costs of tackling pollution and standard setting. We understand the fears voiced by the shipping industry that unilateral application of such charges could damage the competitiveness of British ports, and we note that Lord Donaldson recommended that the Government should consult their European Union partners and others to establish a common basis for them.

The principle that the polluter and the potential polluter should pay undoubtedly makes sense, and I understand that the Government support it, but how are we to implement that principle without causing unfair disadvantage to the UK shipping industry, which is already at a fiscal disadvantage compared with many of its competitors? It would be helpful if the Minister would tell us what progress the Government have made in international discussions on this matter. It would also be useful to know whether the Government have agreed that the income from such charges should be dedicated to the maritime services for which they were levied, and by what mechanism. That was another point that Lord Donaldson pressed in the other place.

Recommendation 59 of the Donaldson report called for the identification of a limited number of marine environmental high risk areas, or MEHRAs, that ships should routinely avoid because of their particular environmental sensitivity. Unless I missed it, I was surprised that the Secretary of State did not refer to that. When the issue was raised in the other place, the Government argued that amendments to the Bill were unnecessary as identification of MEHRAs was in progress and such a measure could be implemented without further legislation. It has been almost three years since the publication of the Donaldson report, and the Government have not yet produced specific proposals. The fact that it has been suggested that Skomer, which is off the Pembrokeshire coast and near the location of the grounding of the Sea Empress, should be identified as a MEHRA clearly shows the relevance of action on this issue.

The Secretary of State may be aware of the widespread support for the proposals that has been expressed by the general public and by a range of environmental organisations. I was disappointed to read the comments of the Minister in the other place, who said in Committee that agreement on the environmental criteria was still some way off. I should like to press the Minister to confirm whether the Government are committed to the establishment of MEHRAs, and what time scale is envisaged before they are in place.

Why cannot the identification of MEHRAs complement other, wider, international developments? The International Maritime Organisation's "particularly sensitive sea areas" and the European Union's "marine environmentally sensitive areas" would complement the establishment of MEHRAs. Indeed, the latter could be candidates for the former. I urge the Government to take the lead in the designation and protection of such sites by pressing for faster progress through the IMO and the EC.

Notwithstanding the reported success of the existing voluntary routing measures, I am sure that, more than four years after the Braer disaster, none of us would want to have to confront, at some time in the future, an environmental catastrophe that could have been averted by quicker and more effective action now.

I want to press the Minister on emergency towing vessels. As Lord Donaldson said, they are an important part of the precautions that can be taken to rescue and protect vessels in difficulty. It is a cruel irony that a tug was not placed in the western approaches until eight months after the Sea Empress disaster. What is more, Donaldson proposed year-round tug provision in three key areas, and winter-only provision as a purely interim measure. The current winter-only provision is on a trial basis. When does the Minister expect the review of that cover to be complete, and what provision has been made in the public expenditure forecast for cover in future years? Although the weather plays a large part in incidents of ships in difficulty, the problems do not arise solely because of the weather, and hazardous weather is not confined to the winter.

On the control of emergency salvage operations, we welcome clause 2, which strengthens the Secretary of State's power. The Donaldson report made it clear that the buck stops with the Secretary of State: a point that he stressed in the recent debates in the other place. We note that powers of intervention were not exercised in the case of the Sea Empress. My hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke (Mr. Ainger), whose expertise in these matters is a service to the House as well as to his constituents, has previously pointed out how crucial it is for the right level of expertise to be available to the Secretary of State, to enable him to step in effectively and early enough to safeguard the interests of the public, seafarers and the environment.

Will the Minister tell us, in response, what the contingency arrangements are, and what specialist advice and command structure stands ready at short notice to ensure the effective exercise of the powers in the Bill? It will be no good having the powers in clause 2 if they cannot be used properly.

On port waste reception facilities, we welcome the work that has already been done, and to which the Secretary of State referred, to address the problems of waste facilities and discharge requirements. I understand that about a third of the 350 UK ports and harbours have already forwarded their plans to the Marine Safety Agency.

Regulations as provided for in the Bill, and based on good practice and further consultation, seem the sensible way to proceed. Will the Minister tell us what steps the Government have taken through the EU, and otherwise internationally, to ensure that this sensible measure is not a source of competitive disadvantage to our ports, especially bearing in mind the effect on port dues?

Mrs. Dunwoody

I am interested in what my hon. Friend says about consultations within the EU. Does he agree that it would not be sensible for the UK to rely for the provision of tugs or air-sea rescue helicopters on the good will of other countries, irrespective of the organisation to which they belong?

Mr. Smith

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comments. It would not be sensible to rely on others, but that should not preclude sensible co-operation, which Donaldson specifically recommended.

The relative level of costs of using port reception facilities involves not just the EU, but the Baltic states and others. I ask the Minister to let us know what progress the Government have made in their international discussions.

On the provisions in clause 11 for local authority contingency plans for clean-up operations, what timetable does the Minister envisage for consultation with local authorities, and how does he believe compliance with a statutory duty to clean up oil spills is to be paid for? Will he examine, in conjunction with insurers, possible ways in which councils can get better and quicker reimbursement for insurance?

We should take this opportunity to praise the many coastal authorities throughout Great Britain that are currently carrying out such work on a non-statutory basis. If the Government are to impose the ends, they must say how they intend to provide the means.

We shall also press the Minister for assurances on the impact of the Bill's enabling powers of charging in clause 13 and schedule 2 on the general lighthouse fund, to which the Secretary of State referred. From the notes on clauses and ministerial responses in another place, it seems that the Government are at best anticipating European legislation, which by all accounts is some way off. As the Minister is aware, fears about the possible wider implications have been expressed in the industry and by Trinity House. He would do well to make the situation clear in his reply.

We want to examine the effect of the relative level of fines on shipowners and masters, for which clause 7 provides. It raises the magistrates fine that can be levied on each to £250,000. No one would question the need for swingeing penalties for those responsible for the illegal discharge of oil. It is right that the court should take into account the fact that a master holds an extremely responsible position on a ship and has ultimate responsibility for its day-to-day operations, but we should not forget that the master is responsible to the owner, who is his employer and who can bring considerable pressure to bear. If the fine is intended to impose on each an equal measure of responsibility, it is questionable whether the same sum is applicable, as hardly any master could pay the maximum set down in the clause, whereas some owners could. We shall pursue the matter in Committee.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. John Bowis)

Will the hon. Gentleman explore his thinking a little further? The amount of the fine takes into account ability to pay. If the fines were equal, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, that would enable owners to hide behind masters. Presumably, he would not want to encourage that.

Mr. Smith

We do not seek to encourage that. The question is whether it is right that the maximum should be the same in each case, or whether there should be a higher maximum for shipowners, taking account of the ability to pay. The matter is probably best pursued in Committee.

There is much to welcome in the Bill, as well as questions to be answered and issues that we want to press further. The Bill will be a step forward in maritime environmental protection, and we want it to be on the statute book before the general election. Legislation, however, is only a start. Implementation and effective enforcement will make the difference.

The British people want better protection from the hazards of marine pollution and the threat to health and the environment that it presents. Through our deliberations on the Bill, and the action that the next Government will take, we are determined to see that the British people get just that.

4.55 pm
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

When the Secretary of State for Defence came to tell the House about the provision of a new royal yacht, he made a great speech, saying what a maritime nation we were. His ringing words were supported by the previous Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Hurd). We were told what a noble history of maritime involvement we had and how proud we were of it, and that the new royal yacht would demonstrate our tradition and our commitment.

That is an astonishingly hollow statement from a Government who have presided consistently over the loss of tonnage and the loss of jobs in the maritime industries, which amount to a haemorrhage. It is important to understand that, although the Bill covers many complex areas of legislation, it does not begin to replace those losses.

Many of my hon. Friends will speak about environmental protection and about aspects such as port state facilities, charging and the development of action at an international level, which is essential if we are to police the seas. Before I deal with the Coastguard, a matter of grave concern to me, I want to make a wider point.

It is embarrassing for Ministers to say at the Dispatch Box that it is important for us to have cover from tugs and air-sea rescue facilities from air-sea rescue services, without making it clear that because of specific Government policies, we are becoming increasingly dependent on the good will of other nations.

One must be careful how one phrases one's views in the House of Commons. We are told, "Little Englander—you do not approve of support from any other European nation." In reality, however, the nationality of the helicopter coming to the assistance of someone in the Irish sea off the coast of west Wales may not be of material interest to him, but the time that the helicopter takes to get there and the place where it begins its journey are of enormous importance. It will not do if Belgian helicopters are the only ones available to cover many of our vital sea lanes or to have only Irish helicopters on standby when many individuals desperately need assistance. That has happened consistently throughout the past year and is becoming more common.

More and more people are taking to the seas. As we get rid of our commercial involvement and cease to be a maritime nation—if we have not already done so to all intents and purposes—more and more people turn towards the sea for their leisure activities. They are at risk, and many of them will need assistance. It is therefore bizarre that in areas like west Wales, where RAF Brawdy was closed, the Government found themselves dependent on facilities provided not from Cornwall, as they originally said, but from Ireland and Belgium. I am happy for my grandchildren to be taught English and Welsh at school, but I did not expect them to need to be taught English, Welsh and Flemish. The Government have a direct responsibility and should make their intentions clear.

In terms of providing both tugs and air-sea rescue, the Government seem to be falling down badly on the job. One reason for that failure is that we are losing coastguards—we are losing nearly one third of the Coastguard service. Under the guise of reorganisation, coastguards are being asked to consider radical changes in the way that they work. Anyone else planning rescue services would not assume that at a time when people were using more maritime facilities, the safeguards offered to them should be cut. But that is what is happening every day.

The Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis)—who is sitting on the Front Bench and who is a most courteous and gentle gentleman—told me that the Government thought it sensible to spend £1,101,768 on accountants who were being used to privatise the six trust ports. I do not know how accountants support the Coastguard service or those who need assistance at sea, or how they help the training of officers or improve facilities for our seamen, but they are being paid more than £1 million. Lawyers are cheap: they cost only £8,817 and other professions cost only £38,295. Yet we are told that there is not enough money to train, expand, or even maintain at its existing level the Coastguard service. In those circumstances, ordinary families and the ordinary constituents of every one of us will pay the price. Only when the facilities are found wanting shall we be told, "We are terribly sorry but unfortunately, owing to reorganisation, it has not been possible to provide the same level of care or cover."

If the House thinks that I am exaggerating, I should make it clear that what is being proposed will lead to a 30 per cent. change in what are called sector posts, which will downgrade maritime rescue sub-centres. It would not normally be important to talk about nomenclatures, but this is a material change. We are being asked to consider a two-tier system in the Coastguard service.

Will the Minister tell us exactly how response times will be calculated? It is clear that in the Coastguard service, unlike the ambulance service, response times are calculated in an unusual way—only from when the rescuer receives the information, not from when the call is received. We are being told that there will be a two-tier service that will consist of an initial assessment—a response to an accident—and a second provision: a rescue team. Clear evidence has already been provided from a case in Cornwall. The rescuers arrived on the scene; rescue equipment was not available to them—they had been sent to give an assessment of the situation—and a tragic accident occurred in which people lost their lives. That may have happened anyway, but one worries about policy decisions that can put people at risk.

A Coastguard instant response team may not be supplied with rescue equipment and can only report back to a rescue centre. Is that how the Minister intends to provide care in the future? What happens to response times and the care provided at incidents if a second back-up response team is required? Is the Coastguard method of calculating 999 calls unique to that service? If so, why? How many rescue vehicles are there around the countryside? Is it the Government's intention to downgrade at least four rescue stations at vital points of the United Kingdom that already have a considerable amount of work placed on them and that may be essential to the safety of human life?

This is a complicated Bill and it is horrifying that no Conservative Member is prepared to speak about it. I have strong views on the provision of insurance and various other aspects of the Bill, particularly the protection of the environment. What is important is that the Government consider the Bill to be so purely technical that it can be dealt with almost as though it were a statutory instrument—a minor matter—instead of legislation to protect every one of our constituents. That demonstrates the Government's despicable set of priorities. I am surprised that the Government are apparently going to get away with it because of the imminent general election.

The Government's approach to the Bill demonstrates only too clearly that whatever they say, their priority is not the United Kingdom's maritime history and tradition; it is not even the provision of adequate rescue services across our nation. Their priority is something much worse: an interest in how all services that have to be paid for by the taxpayer can be downgraded and how all other facilities take second place to those that can be sold off. It is a sad day and I hope that the House of Commons will take note.

5.7 pm

Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro)

As the people in Cornwall are all too well aware, oil tanker accidents such as the Braer and the Sea Empress can have a devastating impact on marine wildlife and local economies, whose welfare is intrinsically linked. It is not just accidents: there is clear evidence that much oil enters the sea from deliberate legal and illegal discharges. Harsh experience has taught us that prevention is better than cure. For that reason, the Liberal Democrats broadly welcome the introduction of the Merchant Shipping and Maritime Security Bill.

One of my earliest memories is arriving at the beach at Godrevy, near where my parents live in Cornwall. Instead of holidaymakers and fishermen, the fire brigade and Army were there, clearing thousands of tonnes of oil from the sand and rocks, and dead birds littered the area. The scene was due to the loss of the Torrey Canyon, and I remember the horror of it even now: it was like a depiction of a third world war. I never wanted to see it again. Yet it has recurred around the world, most recently with the Braer and Sea Empress disasters.

That is why I welcome the Bill as an opportunity further to protect our marine environment and to introduce new safeguards aimed at reducing the risk of shipping-related pollution. It promotes the sustainable development of our coastal communities while seeking to enhance the protection of the environment on which they rely. In the light of that, we wish to see the Bill on the statute book this side of an election. However, we also want the Bill's provisions to be tightened in some respects, for the benefit of the environment.

I should first like to draw the Minister's attention to one of the recommendations in Lord Donaldson's excellent report, "Safer Ships, Cleaner Seas", and subsequently mentioned in the other place both by Lord Beaumont—the Liberal Democrats' spokesperson on environmental matters—and by Lord Clinton-Davis. The recommendation is for the designation of marine environmental high risk areas—or MEHRAs, which have already been mentioned in this debate—which are comparatively limited and highly sensitive areas that are also at risk from shipping. The purpose of designating such areas would be to inform owners, masters, insurers and charterers of key significant areas, and it is expected that simply highlighting the areas could lead to changes in behaviour—for example, by vessels taking a wider berth.

The designation concept has received widespread support among environmental organisations. Sadly, the need for such action has been reinforced by the Sea Empress incident. Although the Donaldson report stated that the European Community and the International Maritime Organisation should be encouraged to act, it considered that individual states were best placed to designate MEHRAs. Therefore, the Donaldson report gives no reason for the UK not to act unilaterally to designate such areas.

The Government have argued that restrictions on the movement of vessels can be made only through the IMO. That is of course true of action in the pollution zone—out to 200 nautical miles—but it is possible for the United Kingdom to introduce restrictions in its own territorial waters without agreement from the organisation. Such routing measures are only one of several different types of ship management measures that could be implemented within such areas to reduce pollution risks. Use of tugs as escorts, contingency planning and navigation aids are other measures that could be deployed.

The Government have, moreover, said that they are not waiting for EU proposals on the designation of marine environmentally sensitive areas to come to fruition, which indicates that Ministers accept that the UK could act unilaterally. Would the identification of MEHRAs by the Government not complement rather than conflict with wider international developments? There is no reason why such areas should not subsequently be proposed as particularly sensitive sea areas—PSSAs—to the IMO.

Rather than succumbing to fears that those areas designated by the UK for environmental protection will be quickly overtaken by international action, as the Government suggest might happen, MEHRAs should be regarded as an opportunity for the UK to take the lead in the designation and protection of such sites and in promoting that concept at the international and European levels.

The Government's Transport Minister in the other place argued that powers already exist for measures to be taken to protect such areas. However, as we have not yet heard from the Department of Transport about measures that might be under consideration or of the sites that might be identified, the House's reservations on the matter are understandable.

As we are all too well aware, ship routing continues to be reactive rather than proactive. The designation of a MEHRA provides an opportunity for the Government to be one step ahead in protecting our marine wildlife and in safeguarding the livelihoods of our coastal communities. I urge the Minister to consider the Government's position, because he would find it very hard to defend a lack of action if there were an accident in one of those potential designated areas because no action had been taken.

The second matter I should like to mention is the power to intervene in oil pollution incidents. During the Bill's passage, the Government have implemented an interim recommendation made by the marine accident investigation branch in its investigation into the Sea Empress, and I welcome that action. However, I am still concerned that the Secretary of State's power to intervene in such incidents is limited by the definition of an accident; and I refer particularly to the use of the word "imminent" as a condition of intervention. I contend that when damage is "imminent", it may well be too late to intervene.

The Government have defended their wording on the basis that removal of the word "imminent" is outside the definition that has been internationally approved. However, as I understand it, we are not obliged in domestic legislation to follow in precisely the same terms the form used in a convention. It seems pointless to implement an international convention designed to protect the marine environment if by so doing we increase the risk of damage to that environment. Let us ensure the effectiveness of any intervention by the removal of the hurdle presented by the current wording.

The third key issue that I should like to mention is that addressed by clause 5: the planning, provision and use of port waste reception facilities. I feel particularly strongly about that issue because I have seen all too clearly, as I have walked the coast around Cornwall, the problem caused by the lack of sufficient legislation. Although I welcome the Bill's provisions, there is still room to develop further the regulations on the preparation of waste management plans.

Currently, the Government of each party to the international convention for the prevention of pollution from ships of 1973 and its 1978 protocol must undertake themselves to provide, or to require ports to provide, adequate reception facilities for garbage from ships using their ports and terminals. As matters currently stand, it is voluntary for ports to provide waste facilities. I welcome the concept of waste management plans, which, if properly prepared, should lead to facilities that are both adequate and easy to use, and hence cut down on deliberate discharges into the sea—which then go on to litter our coastline. However, I am disappointed that the Bill provides only an enabling power.

I strongly believe that waste management plans must be mandatory to ensure that those ports and harbours that do not voluntarily draw up plans are required to do so. The Department of Transport itself has acknowledged that the provision of"— port reception— facilities is haphazard", and that researchh by the Marine Safety Agency (MSA) has shown that 'where they exist, they can be hard to find and poorly publicised'. The Department also stated that the problems would be addressed by the strict application of a waste management planning process". Subsequently, some ports and harbours have been voluntarily producing waste management plans, and the MSA has so far received between 100 and 140 such plans; but that is out of a total of 350 ports and harbours in the UK. Another cause for concern is that the MSA does not propose to assess the adequacy of those plans. It is all too easy to implement wholly inadequate plans, and thus undermine the effectiveness of the initiative. Lord Donaldson himself recognised that concern in his report by recommending the establishment of a certification system to ensure the adequacy of waste reception facilities.

Although some scrutiny—which is a first, welcome step—is provided by a sub-group of the marine pollution action group, it is not an adequate assessment procedure. The Government argue that current developments in the EC and the IMO might require the alteration of any regulations that might be made, but they are again using potential international action as an excuse not to take any action now. Potential international action does not prevent the UK taking a lead and encouraging good practice.

The same principle applies to charging for waste reception facilities. Although recognising the need for some flexibility, Liberal Democrats support Lord Donaldson's recommendation that charges should be subsumed into standard port duties in the form of an inclusive fee. I do not believe that any other option can work effectively. Would it not be advantageous for the Secretary of State to have the power to require ports to use the inclusive fee system, if deemed appropriate, as one measure to reduce the deliberate discharge of waste? We should at least reserve the power to take action if it is shown—as I believe it will be—that other options simply are not working.

Similarly—although not advocating a universal requirement for mandatory discharge of waste from ships—I believe that it could be beneficial to enable MSA inspectors to use such a power in exceptional circumstances, such as when a vessel that is known to have illegally dumped waste before proposes to leave port with full waste tanks. The effectiveness of such a deterrent was acknowledged by Viscount Goschen in a recent letter to Lord Beaumont, which stated: As regards a failure to comply with a requirement to discharge waste, the best deterrent for ship operators is the threat that the ship could be detained in port, and therefore prevented from trading, until the waste has been discharged". As both the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Marine Conservation Society have argued, such a measure would not deter responsible ship operators from entering UK ports, and I think that they are right. Rather, such a measure is targeted at those whose operations threaten the UK coastline and our waters and add to the costs of those, such as local authorities, who are responsible for cleaning up.

Those costs can be considerable. In Cornwall, the county council quotes its expenditure on cleaning non-attributable ship-sourced waste on beaches as at least £20,000 per annum. Moreover, that figure is in addition to expenditure by the six district councils, which spend no less than £30,000 per annum. Even with that level of expenditure, however, many bays are left badly polluted, and an eyesore for both visitors and locals. In practice, unless a beach is regularly used for swimming, it is unlikely that it will receive any attention. However, anyone who enjoys or walks the coastline will see the results of pollution, and, if they come close to it, they will smell the results. We are at present spending literally hundreds of millions of pounds cleaning up the discharges from people who live in Cornwall. They are paying their water bills with considerable discontent, so why should they have to put up with shipowners saving small amounts of money by discharging their waste at sea rather than at port?

While on the issue of illegal discharges, I shall touch briefly on the proposed penalties. The Bill will allow for higher maximum penalties to be imposed by magistrates for illegal discharges of garbage, oily waste and chemical waste. As I understand it, although the Bill allows the maximum fine for illegal discharges of chemicals or oil to be set at £250,000, it is Government policy to use this maximum for oil while restricting the maximum fine for chemicals to only £25,000. In a letter to my colleague Lord Beaumont, the Minister justified this position on the basis that illegal discharges from chemical tankers are rarer than those from oil tankers and that chemical tankers have lower operating costs than oil tankers. However, the pollution consequences can be at least as bad.

In view of the potential for a discharge of chemicals seriously to damage the environment, would not it be appropriate for the Government to consider setting the same maximum fine for chemicals—it is only a maximum and does not necessarily have to be employed—at £250,000? I know of no other criminal activity of which it is believed that its rarity means that the punishment should be less. Surely it is a question of how bad the activity is. After all, we would not argue that burglary should be punished more severely than murder simply because burglary is more common.

Furthermore, I have been advised by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds that aerial surveillance, as currently carried out by the marine pollution control unit, has a poor record in bringing offenders to justice. This is a key issue if we are to curtail irresponsible and environmentally detrimental behaviour. Is not it therefore appropriate that aerial surveillance be supplemented by waste auditing? This could take the form of checks of ship record books and the issuing of receipts for waste discharged in port. I suggest that the approach to waste auditing proposed by the Department of Transport should be more rigorous and that the Government should promote waste auditing in other North sea states.

Overall, the Bill could be a big step forward in ensuring safety and protecting the environment around our coastline. The Donaldson report has provided a clear way forward, but the Government have left some serious weaknesses in the legislation. I hope that the Government will feel able to reflect our spirit of co-operation by giving careful consideration to my suggested improvements. If so, the Bill can achieve full cross-party support, which will be good news for everyone.

5.22 pm
Mr. Nick Ainger (Pembroke)

I, too, welcome the Bill. Twelve months ago next Saturday, I discovered on my doorstep one of the 20 worst oil pollution incidents to occur since we began using hydrocarbons and transporting them across our oceans. I pay tribute to all the people involved in the initial attempts to salvage the Sea Empress and to those who have been and are still working to clean up the Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire coastline. On Saturday I was in Tenby, where work is still continuing in the harbour to remove the oil that was buried about 6 ft below the sand, to ensure that when the tourists return shortly they will find the wonderful pristine environment that they used to enjoy before the Sea Empress ran aground on 15 February 1996.

It is worth recording what happened to our marine environment which, as has already been said, is one of the most sensitive and important on the United Kingdom coastline. Seventy thousand tonnes of oil were spilt from the Sea Empress over a period of only three days, although she was in serious difficulty for about six or seven days. The incident halted the inshore fishing industry for six months and cost the Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire tourist industry millions of pounds and possibly as many as 1,400 jobs in the tourist season. It radically affected or killed 7,000 sea birds and devastated particular marine habitats. A rare starfish called asterina phylactica was virtually wiped out. It is found in only seven places in the world, one of which is West Angle bay, where it was first discovered and identified. The starfish's habitat was wrecked, although it is believed that two or three surviving examples have been found.

In other words, the impact of the Sea Empress incident was devastating. It has cost millions of pounds to clean up—the process continues—and compensation claims for the fishing and tourist industries are still being made. I therefore welcome anything that will prevent such an incident from happening again, not just in my constituency but around the UK coastline or anywhere in the world.

I welcome the Bill, although I have certain criticisms of it. It does not go far enough in some respects and I shall say why later, but it is worth examining some key aspects that could be tightened in Committee.

From what we now know, it is clear that there were serious command and control problems during the salvage operation of the Sea Empress. The initial grounding was caused by human error but, from then on, there were serious problems with the salvage operation. Those issues are dealt with in clause 2. I shall quickly go through the events immediately following the vessel grounding to make it clear why we need to look carefully at command and control issues.

On the night of 15 February, the Sea Empress ran aground with 135,000 tonnes of North sea crude on board. She was refloated within three hours, and then the salvage operation began. She was held in deep water at the entrance to Milford Haven and a strategy was developed by the salvors and representatives of the Department of Transport, Coastguard, the marine pollution control unit and the Admiralty.

The salvors decided not to accept the offer of tugs, including the Department of Transport's own contracted tug based at Stornoway. Instead, they assembled a collection of tugs almost exclusively from their own fleets. The tug fleet assembled that first weekend by the salvors had a maximum bollard pull of only some 250 tonnes. It now emerges that the vessel itself, in strong tides and currents and with a very deep draught because of the initial grounding, was exercising a bollard pull of some 800 tonnes. As one pilot said to me after the incident, the tugs were not pulling the ship; the ship was pulling the tugs. I am sure that the marine accident investigation branch inquiry is considering that serious point.

That inability to control the vessel in very difficult circumstances meant that the Sea Empress finally grounded on the evening of 19 February. She had spilt only approximately 2,000 tonnes in the previous four days, but the final grounding on the night of 19 February began the massive pollution. That first night, she lost more than 30,000 tonnes of oil.

Although I welcome the fact that clause 2 gives the Secretary of State powers to intervene in an accident that could cause significant pollution, I am concerned about how the Secretary of State will exercise them. Under existing legislation, the Secretary of State has enormous powers to intervene anyway. In the case of the Sea Empress, he chose not to take that course of action.

I had a meeting with the Secretary of State on 20 February after the vessel had run aground for the final time and spilt 30,000 tonnes of oil that night. I asked him, as any constituency Member of Parliament would, why he had not used his powers to intervene. He was very frank, saying that he had been told that the salvor, Smit Tak, was world-class—indeed it is—and that he did not have the expertise to overrule its decisions. I understand that, but if we tell our constituents that we are giving the Secretary of State important powers of intervention, we must ensure that he can exercise the powers sensibly and rationally. Unfortunately, the necessary expertise is not available to the Secretary of State to enable him to take control of a salvage operation, such as that of the Sea Empress, which so tragically went wrong.

It is clear from what the Secretary of State told me that morning that he did not know where to find the expertise. If clause 2 is to have a meaningful effect, the Government must either employ salvage experts directly or contract that expertise. When there is a significant possibility of pollution, the expertise should be immediately available to the Secretary of State to enable him to make a judgment on whether the salvors are the right people. A deal could be signed with the owners of a passing tug, who might not be suitable for a major salvage operation. Alternatively, the salvors may be world-class but, because of financial or commercial pressures, they may make decisions that do not benefit the environment, which everyone wants protected.

Clause 12 and schedule 2 refer to the possibility of the Secretary of State introducing a levy on the shipping industry to fund preventive measures. That should include not only the work of the marine pollution control unit but, most important, the cost of emergency towing vessels. We already have a levy on oil movements in 68 nations—the International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund levy—which operates well. However, it seems illogical that that system works only when pollution has occurred. It is a case of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. We do not have a levy to fund the stationing of powerful emergency towing vessels around the coast of the United Kingdom and elsewhere. That is clearly what Donaldson advocates in recommendation 96. I appreciate that the best way forward would be a European or worldwide levy, but I have a feeling that we shall have to wait a long time for that. Lord Donaldson clearly considered the issue a priority. The Government should consider a unilateral levy.

Lord Donaldson's view was that, with the emergency towing vessels that would be required in key areas and the extra equipment for the marine pollution control unit, the total annual cost would be £10 million. Considering the amount that this country has received from North sea assets alone and the profits that have been made by the producers—much of the produce does not even touch the United Kingdom coastline, passing on to north America, to Baltic countries that are not part of the European Union, or to other European ports—the cost, even if £10 million is an underestimate, is very small. The Government should not be too concerned that an industry the size of the oil industry might not be able to afford that estimated £10 million. If we can have a fund or levy to ensure adequate clean-up, surely we can have one to ensure adequate prevention.

Lord Donaldson also made recommendations about emergency towing vessels. In chapter 20, at paragraph 127, he said clearly that he saw three main areas of concern where there should be emergency towing vessels: the Dover straits, for the obvious reason that it is the busiest marine traffic route in the world; north-west Scotland, where the Braer got into difficulty and where there is a great deal of large tanker traffic moving from the North sea down the west coast of Britain to more southern European ports or across the Atlantic to north American ports; and the western approaches. He asked for year-round cover and said that in the interim—from the winter of 1994–95—emergency towing vessels should be based in Dover, Falmouth and Stornoway. That did not happen. Winter-only cover was provided for Dover and north-west Scotland.

One of the tragedies of the Sea Empress incident is that there was clearly a serious shortage of tug power, as I explained earlier, and there was no emergency towing vessel in the western approaches, as Lord Donaldson had recommended. Such a vessel could have had a significant impact on the outcome of the salvage operation. It is ironic that last week, the vessel that has now been positioned in the western approaches, again for the winter only, paid a courtesy visit to Milford Haven. The vessel arrived on station eight months after the Sea Empress ran aground.

Having taken on board so many of the Donaldson recommendations, we should address the key issue of year-round emergency towing cover in strategic positions around the coast. It is naive of the Government to believe that, outside the winter period from 1 October to 31 March, vessels do not lose their engines, have problems with steering, suffer from human error, have an explosion or fire on board or get into other difficulties.

The Rosebay incident in Lyme bay is an example. A large crude carrier was run into by a relatively small fishing vessel and 1,500 tonnes of fuel oil caused serious pollution along the south coast. That happened during the summer months. Incidents happen all year round' so it is nonsense to be prepared to provide cover only during the winter months.

Following Lord Donaldson's recommendations, Coastguard commissioned Captain Belton to look specifically at the issue of emergency towing vessels. His report, published in May 1995, stated clearly that we should definitely have year-round cover in Dover, the western approaches and north-west Scotland. Yet again the Government did not heed the recommendation, and we ended up with winter-only arrangements—and no arrangements in the western approaches, where the Sea Empress ran aground. Many professionals believe that if the tug had been there, as recommended by both Captain Belton and Lord Donaldson, the outcome in that instance might well have been different.

Clause 12 gives local authorities a duty to maintain contingency plans. That was important at the time when I was on Dyfed county council's public protection committee, given that Dyfed contained one of the busiest ports not only in the United Kingdom, but in Europe and, indeed, the world. The emergency planning department carried out its voluntary responsibilities in relation to contingency plans very well, and a series of exercises took place regularly to test them. I believe that the undoubted success of that clean-up operation resulted from good contingency planning. The department knew what equipment was required, and which contractors were available to provide that specialist equipment; it had carried out practice exercises, and had call-out facilities, rotas and a large body of staff to carry out the work that was required. I can only commend, as I did at the beginning of my speech, the actions taken by local councils, especially as they were on the cusp of reorganisation which made their task rather difficult at times.

What worries me is that, in giving local authorities a statutory duty to produce contingency plans, we are not giving them the wherewithal with which to implement them. The Government should think seriously about a way of ensuring that authorities are given enough money to carry out preparatory exercises, and also that money is available for emergencies.

It is four years since the Braer ran aground in January 1993, but Shetland council has received back hardly a penny of the £1.5 million or so that it spent at the time. I believe that nearly £1 million has been paid, through the International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund, to local authorities that were involved in the Sea Empress clean-up operation, but a considerable sum is still outstanding. I understand that the cost of the operation to date has been well over £5 million, and the cost is on-going. It is worrying, when local authorities are under huge financial pressures, that they do not have the resources to deal with sudden emergencies. Is there not some way of ensuring that, at such times, funds are made available to them directly?

Let me say something about illegal—and legal—oil discharges. As other speakers have pointed out, it is often not the major incident that causes many of the problems. Recent incidents in the channel—or off Flamborough head, for example—have had a catastrophic impact, especially on sea birds. Because such incidents have a cumulative effect, however—I am talking about relatively small incidents that are happening week after week—they may not hit the headlines in the same way as major disasters. I welcome the moves proposed in the Bill to ensure that ports produce proper plans to tackle the problem of waste reception facilities; I hope that that will radically reduce the number of illegal discharges. I also hope that the carrot-and-stick approach suggested in the Bill will work.

As the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) suggested—as did I, in an intervention on the Secretary of State—we need to deal with one strange anomaly. Apparently, chemical spillages are for some reason 10 times less serious, or less deserving of severe penalties, than oil spillages. That issue must be clarified in Committee. We also need to ensure that no real financial penalty is imposed on owners of vessels who wish to use port reception facilities, as opposed to those who may wish to start cutting corners. I approve of the idea of including the charge in port dues: if there is an overall charge, people will feel that, as they must pay for the facilities anyway, they may as well use them.

In my experience, very few of the vessels that use Milford Haven—in fact, none of the oil tankers—call at facilities owned and operated by the port authority; they use private refinery jetties. When we are assessing waste reception facilities, we must not simply expect the competent harbour authority to say, "We have a contingency fund." We must ensure that private owners—mostly jetty owners, throughout the United Kingdom—also provide reception facilities, and that shipping owners are not charged twice, first by the oil refinery and secondly in the form of port dues.

Much has been said today about the marine environmental highrisk areas. As my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) mentioned, one of the MEHRAs that was identified after the Donaldson inquiry was immediately outside Milford Haven, around the Pembrokeshire islands of Skomer, Skokholm and Grassholm. I think that the Government must now start moving much more quickly in designating MEHRAs and ensuring that they are properly protected.

At the time of the Sea Empress disaster—and the running aground of the Borga a few months earlier, on 29 October—the radar that was supposed to cover the entrance to Milford Haven was not working, and had not been working for some months. It is still not working properly. The point is, however, that, whether it was working or not, the radar cover did not include that MEHRA. Proper protection of high-risk areas does not just mean drawing a line on a chart; it means ensuring that someone is monitoring those areas. The only way of doing that is through radar cover that is linked with either a port or a Coastguard station—and, if that is to be done properly, there will be cost implications.

I welcome the Bill, and will be pleased to serve on the Committee, for a specific reason: I do not want what happened to my constituency to happen anywhere else.

5.48 pm
Sir James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)

The Bill goes a long way towards attaining the objectives of the Donaldson report. It was considerably amended, and improved, in another place, where debate on it was greatly helped by the expert knowledge of many who participated. Indeed, the same is true of today's debate. success will be achieved only when a much higher percentage of ships entering British waters are British-owned and, to a great extent, British-manned.

The Secretary of State's Department at all levels is only too well aware of the difficulties, for example, in communicating with foreign ships that do not have on the bridge one officer who is capable of understanding English. I concede that the Department is to a great extent denied the power to change that position in regard both to ownership and to manning, but power does lie elsewhere.

The Capital Allowances Act 1990 contains provisions concerning what is called "first year allowance". All that is now required is a new provision establishing a 100 per cent. first year allowance for expenditure in regard to investment in ships. That modest change would begin to reverse the current position, in which more than 80 per cent. of ships entering British waters are foreign-owned. Their owners not only disregard the rule book, but do not even bother to read it. There is widespread support for such an amendment to the Finance Bill, giving effect to that modest concession in the present Parliament, and then we can get on with it.

While such a change is taking effect, safety at sea could be enhanced by the compulsory provision of transponders on all ships entering British waters. Something of that nature was suggested in the Donaldson report. It is reflected in the Department's thinking.

There is reference in Donaldson, I think, to large identification signs. I cannot believe that they were seriously meant to give 24-hour coverage, given the hours of darkness and inclement weather, with which my honourable colleague, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), was so concerned, particularly in relation to preserving what is left of the Coastguard organisation. The transponders would be much more effective and much more in line, when we think about it, with aircraft tracking systems, which are accepted nowadays as absolutely essential.

The provision in clause 1 for placing an exclusion zone around a shipping casualty is to be welcomed. I hope that the exclusion will apply also to the news industry, because the intrusion in a crisis of aircraft, helicopters and non-authorised vessels can and does hamper rescue operations, and, in those circumstances, greatly increases the risk of fire. After all, such exclusion need be only brief, because the news industry usually becomes bored in a short time with any sensation, even one of its own manufacture.

The hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) touched on another Donaldson recommendation—which is included, I think, in clause 12—laying on local authorities certain responsibilities. It is a vague phrase, and I think that the hon. Gentleman and I would like to be clear whether it also involves financial responsibilities. If so, it would seem unfair that a local authority covering a very vulnerable part of our coastline should be saddled with financial responsibility when, for example, another local authority in the midlands would get off scot free; so there is surely a strong case for financial liability to be a national responsibility.

Clause 10 is an essential element. The Department's powers should not be in doubt. Mention of that gives me an opportunity to pay tribute to the Secretary of State for Transport, his Ministers, his Department, the Marine Safety Agency and the Coastguard for the very effective co-operation on the Sea Empress after the two spillages. I also pay tribute to the Department for its sound decisions in regard to the subsequent removal of the seriously damaged vessel—and seriously damaged it undoubtedly was.

I had the horrifying experience of standing in the dry dock underneath the Sea Empress when she was completely pumped out. It was like looking up into a vast cathedral with nothing obstructing one's view in the way of a hull. The wonder of it is that the ship was able to be moved at all. It is a tribute to the sound judgment—there is more to this than the general public would know—of the Secretary of State and his Ministers, who ensured that there was not a third disaster in connection with the vessel.

I did not consider it necessary to declare an interest earlier, as mine is a landlocked constituency. That is not mitigated by the constituency taking its name from the River Lagan, which admittedly makes its way to the sea at the point where there are modern docks on one side of the channel and the Harland and Wolff shipyard on the other. The shipyard is still open to do business, and is in a strong position to construct new ships, the demand for which will, I hope, be generated by the Bill.

5.55 pm
Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir J. Molyneaux) did not feel it necessary to declare a constituency interest, but I feel it necessary to do just that, for three reasons.

First, my constituency is almost completely surrounded by sea, sticking out, as it does, into the western approaches. Secondly, I happen to be the president—a paid job, I hasten to add—of the Sea Safety Group. Thirdly, I was also the sponsor of predecessor legislation, the Merchant Shipping (Salvage and Pollution) Act 1994. But perhaps the biggest interest I have to declare is the first one, as my constituency is by the sea and is the site of perhaps the first of the great environmental disasters, the Torrey Canyon, which foundered off the Isles of Scilly in my constituency in 1967.

I suppose that we have learnt many lessons since then, but, as the experience of the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Ainger) has shown, perhaps we have not learnt all the lessons from the years between the Torrey Canyon disaster and the foundering of the Sea Empress. During the passage of the Act that I sponsored, Opposition Members somehow had the idea that we could construct measures that would cure the problem for all time, and remove all risk. Of course, sadly, it is not like that.

We learn from each succeeding disaster, and try to prevent others. We will never, however, achieve a perfect state of legislation. Even if we did, many disasters are the result of human failing, so we can never legislate with compete satisfaction to remove the risk of such disasters. We must, however, continue to do our best, so I welcome the Bill as another attempt to do that, which helps to implement some of the recommendations of Lord Donaldson's weighty report, "Safer Ships, Cleaner Seas".

The Donaldson report describes the geographical position of the Isles of Scilly: The Isles of Scilly are another group of beautiful and ecologically sensitive islands located at a shipping crossroads. He referred to the weight of shipping that passes the islands. He went on to say that his committee was not convinced that the TSSs"— traffic separation schemes— and ITZs inshore traffic zones— between them provide enough protection for the Isles of Scilly". He said that the islands were "an obvious candidate" for marine environmental highrisk area status, and added: The Department of Transport should consider the options. It is a matter of great disappointment to me and the islanders, my constituents, that no action has been taken to follow up that recommendation.

As Lord Donaldson said, the Isles of Scilly need added protection. The council of the isles has for some time urged that there should be some exclusion zone around the islands, to prevent another Torrey Canyon. While the Donaldson committee was deliberating, there was something of a near-miss involving a tanker. Fortunately, it did not result in disaster, but the risk is always there.

Some hon. Members will know that, ever since I became a Member of Parliament, I have deplored the way in which Coastguard stations have been removed—in fact, I made my maiden speech on the issue. I can claim that I managed to hold on to the last of the visual watch Coastguard stations in the country, which were in my constituency. Alas, they were also removed a few years ago. I was a founder trustee of National Coastwatch, which was set up to put in place on a voluntary basis a number of visual watches around the coastline. Those volunteers are doing excellent work.

As the hon. Member for Pembroke said, if we are to implement the measures outlined by Lord Donaldson, it is necessary in the areas concerned to have a very close watch by radar, and, I suggest, a visual watch. We cannot afford to allow these accidents to happen, and sometimes they can be prevented when coastguards or volunteers see a vessel literally heading for the rocks. That has happened in the past, and warnings have been given. One of my fears about the removal of visual watches is that we will deny ourselves the opportunity of preventing accidents in that way.

I also warmly endorse the plea of the hon. Member for Pembroke on the stationing of a deep-water tug in the western approaches all year round. I believe that that is absolutely essential, for the reasons given by Lord Donaldson, and following our experiences with the Sea Empress.

I welcome the Bill, although I do not think that it is the end of the story. I am sure that our successors in this place will return to the issue over the years—partly, I suspect, because there will be further disasters such as the Braer. I see that the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace), who suffered that disaster, is in the Chamber. The House must do more to close the loopholes which undoubtedly exist. I return to my plea: perhaps we should put the clock back and return to visual watches in those parts of the coastline which are most at risk.

6.3 pm

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

May I point out to the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) that many Opposition Members welcomed the Merchant Shipping (Salvage and Pollution) Act 1994? We have sufficient experience of the fishing industry to know that, occasionally, vessels are overwhelmed in utterly natural circumstances, and we are well aware of the dangers facing our merchant seamen and fishermen.

I am pleased to see the Bill's emphasis on accident prevention measures, but it is important that, in designating exclusion zones, we do not lose local fishing sites. Damage would be caused if fishermen were to be excluded from traditional fishing grounds, but I am sure that officials will take account of the concerns of fishermen. The Secretary of State is not here, but I readily acknowledge his concern about enhanced safety regulations.

Will the crews of emergency vessels be equipped with immersion suits—sometimes called survival suits? If they are involved in such work, they should be provided with every piece of safety equipment available, and I think that a survival suit is essential. I have long campaigned for the crews of our fishing vessels to be equipped with survival suits. Sometimes, officials and Ministers think that I am talking about suits for fishermen to wear while they are working on deck, but that is not the case. The kind of survival suit to which I am referring is one which a crew member dons when the ship is foundering.

Let me give an example. A few years ago, a French stern trawler with a crew of 27 foundered off the coast of St. Kilda. She went down quite quickly, and the men on watch had time to put on their survival suits. Out of a crew of 27, 14 men were on watch and had time to slip on their survival suits. Every one of them survived—despite being in heavy seas off St. Kilda in February—and the men were rescued as a result of the remarkable efficiency and bravery of a helicopter crew from Lossiemouth. The poor crew members who were down in their bunks did not have a chance to put on their survival suits, and they quickly died—as one would expect in northern waters at that time of the year. That is a stark example of what happens when a man goes into the water without a survival suit.

I make no apology for continuing my campaign, because I do not believe that any UK-registered fishing vessel should be allowed to leave port without a survival suit on board for each member of the crew. I have been criticised by fishermen's associations for that campaign, but the father of a young fisherman who drowned not so long ago after going overboard from a Scottish fishing vessel now says that he wishes his son had been able to don one of those suits.

I am pleased that, at long last, we will have regulations governing the klondykers—the floating fish-processing plants which play an important role in the Scottish fishing industry. Fishermen anchored in Loch Broom ship their mackerel on to these ships. This work is done mainly at Ullapool, but also takes place in Shetland. As someone who comes from a fishing family and who made his first trip to the Arctic at the age of 11, I must say that I would not sale across the Clyde in some of the vessels seen at Loch Broom. They are a disgrace to the nation under whose flag they fly. I am pleased to note that the Bill will introduce tougher regulations on maritime hygiene and safety.

On the issue of criminal proceedings against the owners and captains of vessels who infringe the rules, can the Minister confirm that, in the Scottish courts, the local procurator fiscal would refer such cases to the sheriff court? I am sure that the Minister will be keen to answer that question.

On the question of the Minister and his officials taking note of the concerns of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, the Government's measures are welcome. Some would say that the Government's relationship with the Coastguard and the RNLI is somewhat theoretical, but they have made an important gesture to the RNLI. Together with the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers), I represent the House on the executive committee of the RNLI, so I welcome those measures.

I have asked the Secretary of State—I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm the point later—whether the pilot of a ship acts as an adviser and guide to the master of the vessel. When a pilot is taken on board a ship—for example, when a ship enters the firth of Clyde—I understand that the ship is not under his control, and the master remains in command of his vessel at all times, even when the pilot is on board.

Lord Donaldson dealt at length with the subject of the Minch in his report. Incidentally, Lord Donaldson, as he himself pointed out recently, is not the sole author of his brilliant report. I have long argued that very large vessels—such as very large crude carriers and ultra large crude carriers—should stand to the west of the Western Isles. Lord Donaldson recommends that, in exceptional weather, such ships should be allowed into the Minch.

I disagree; that is the one criticism I have made of the Donaldson report. Big ships, especially in bad weather, should stand in deep water and not in relatively shallow water, especially waters that are so important to our fishing communities on the west coast of Scotland. There is a deep-water route to the west of the Western Isles—as the Minister knows, because he has heard me complain about the subject before—and that is the way that the largest vessels should take. The route lies to the west of North Uist, Hams and Lewis. It might add three or four hours' steaming time, but that is the vessels' problem and not that of the communities in the beautiful area around the Minch.

In their report, Lord Donaldson and his colleagues said the deep-water route was the only one in UK waters established for environmental reasons. My concerns about the Minch are shared by many people in Scotland. For example, a letter to Members of Parliament from Councillors Michael Foxley, William Fulton and John Munro states: The Highland Council and the Western Isles Islands Council have serious concerns over the current arrangements for managing the movement of tanker traffic transiting the north west of Scotland". The letter continues: A recent survey of shipping through the Minch over a two month period saw 456 vessels pass through the Minch, 25 per cent. of which did so improperly. By "improperly", the councillors mean that those vessels failed to report their positions to the Coastguard and some of them failed to stick to the designated channels. Such failures might lead to a serious accident in those important fishing areas.

The councillors continue: Taking into account that less than 20 per cent. of the total number of vessels using the Minch were UK registered and therefore less familiar with the specific dangers of local waters, there are very real concerns that an accident is waiting to happen. Those douce highlanders make a good point, and I hope to address it further, if I am fortunate enough to serve on the Committee. I might get the thumbs down from the Whips Office, but I hope not.

I know a skipper who put a big stern trawler ashore in the Minch, because he thought its turning circle was smaller than it was. It was only 750 gross registered tonnes. What will happen to the tankers and other big ships that carry hazardous materials through that narrow channel? I suggest to the Minister that he pays close attention to some of the proposals made by the two councils. For example, they suggest the introduction of a compulsory Coastguard reporting scheme for all shipping moving through the Minch. It is obvious that the voluntary scheme is ineffective. The letter also contains proposals to sustain the current practice of directing all laden vessels over 10,000 gross tonnage to the deep water route to the west of the Western Isles". The councillors also suggest that, if vessels over 10,000 gross tonnage pass through the Minch at times of severe weather, they should do so only under the authority of a qualified pilot. That is a reasonable suggestion. They say that vessels under 10,000 gross tonnage with hazardous cargo should be treated as if they were over 10,000 gross tonnage. We also need, as suggested by the councillors, measures to secure the permanent provision of an emergency towing vessel of sufficient capacity based in Stornoway. One is stationed there in the winter, but, as we know, ships founder in other seasons.

Clause 18 deals with general lighthouse authorities. It provides that a general lighthouse authority may use any of its assets that have spare capacity, after discharging its functions to manage and maintain all navigational aids, and enter into an agreement, with the consent of the Secretary of State, to exploit that spare capacity. I presume that that means the Secretary of State for Transport, but the Secretary of State of Scotland also has an important role to play.

For example, the Pharos—the northern lighthouse vessel which was launched from Ferguson's in Port Glasgow and entered service in early 1993—is presumably one of the assets that can be used elsewhere. I suggest that it could be used, as it has been in the past, as a reserve vessel for the Britannia, especially when the royal family visit parts of Scotland, including the Western Isles, in the performance of their duties. Written answers on 31 January 1997 show that the Queen used the royal yacht for a total of 46 days in 1995 and 1996. When the Queen visits the Western Isles and other points of the compass, the Pharos might be used. It is a very fine ship, and I speak as an ex-shipwright. It was built in my constituency to the highest of standards. It is a first-class ship and it could be used by the royal family instead of spending £60 million on a replacement vessel.

I welcome the Bill. I hope that some amendments will be introduced that will, in my humble view—I am as modest as the hon. Member for St. Ives—improve it. I can think of some at this moment. In terms of enhanced safety and accident prevention measures the Bill ought, however, to he welcomed by everyone present.

6.19 pm
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

I also ought to declare a constituency interest as I live in and represent an area on the south bank of the Forth, in closed waters. When I listened to the powerful and detailed speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke (Mr. Ainger) and his description of the Sea Empress, I could not help but feel that there but for the grace of God might we have gone. There was a near accident at Aberdour and, in closed waters, the results would have been catastrophic.

When I listened to the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris), it occurred to me to ask why, in the past 30 years since the Torrey Canyon, we seem to have made so little progress. It is not as if British Governments have been run by people who were uninterested in the matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) will recollect that the Prime Minister of the time had his holiday house in the Scilly Isles. Indeed, so much did he love those islands that he is buried there. Harold Wilson cared enormously about this issue. His Conservative successor, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), is not exactly uninterested in things maritime. Nevertheless, successive Governments—not only those under the leadership of those two Prime Ministers—have not made the progress that one might have expected.

The Bill—indeed, any Bill on the subject—is particularly welcome, therefore. I must point out to the Minister, without antagonism, however, that in such a debate Ministers should listen to their parliamentary colleagues when they are saying more or less the same thing. We are saying—the Opposition Front Bench, my colleagues and the hon. Member for St. Ives—that there should be mandatory provisions for port waste reception facilities, with mandatory port waste management plans.

I should like to hear in the reply to the debate, or in Committee—preferably in the reply—what on earth is the objection to mandatory provisions. When I intervened on the Secretary of State—he will forgive me if I have got him wrong—he said that he was against mandatory legislation. Equally, he seemed to be against mandatory discharge of waste by visiting ships coupled with charging for reception facilities by an inclusive fee system.

Such mandatory provisions are the considered view of a number of those who know a lot about such things, not least the Marine Conservation Society, of which I am a member. Indeed, I took part in its "Beachwatch 1996" survey and cleaned up a great many plastics and other things under the Forth bridge on that rather cold and windy autumn day.

Can the Minister tell us what the objection is and why the Government are unwilling to accept mandatory provisions? There must be some objection, but we cannot divine it. Have they been given some legal advice? What is it?

On 28 January, I asked the Secretary of State what assessment he has made of the impact of the Merchant Shipping Regulations 1988 in reducing marine debris. His answer was: Surveys by and on behalf of the Marine Safety Agency have shown that the waste reception facilities provided by harbour authorities pursuant to the Merchant Shipping (Reception Facilities for Garbage) Regulations 1988 are generally adequate. Frankly, they are not adequate and they never have been. They were not adequate 30 years ago, when I was a member of the Mikardo committee. My best advice, in preparing for the debate, was that they are still not adequate. The Minister should not have continued: It is therefore difficult to make a specific assessment of the effect of the Merchant Shipping (Prevention of Pollution by Garbage) Regulations 1988 in isolation from other legislation relating to pollution of the marine environment from both shipping and land-based sources. I also asked whether the Secretary of State would set up a public register of legal notices, offences and fines relating to pollution of the marine environment from shipping. The departmental reply was: The Government already publish details of vessels prosecuted for marine pollution offences and vessels which have been reported to their flag states for suspected pollution offences. We do not intend to introduce a public register. That course of action has not been effective and it is not sufficient to say: We do not intend to introduce a public register."—[Official Report, 28 January 1997; Vol. 289, c. 128.] There is a good case for such a register. Legal notices and details of offences and fines relating to pollution of the marine environment by shipping should be kept on a public register and so be subject to legitimate public scrutiny. The combination of requiring records to be kept, and the prospect of public scrutiny, would secure greater use of port reception facilities for oil and rubbish by visiting ships. The pollution regulation of the shipping industry would also be brought into line with terrestrial industry in terms of access to environmental information.

For the register to act as a reliable and effective pollution deterrent, it should be comprehensive, regularly and routinely updated and available for public scrutiny at all reasonable times and at reasonable cost. That is a pretty reasonable proposition. I hope that the Government will reconsider a public register before the Bill goes to the Standing Committee.

I also hope that the Government will reconsider having garbage record books. There is a lack of prosecutions for the illegal disposal of plastics at sea primarily because the Marine Safety Agency has insufficient evidence to take legal action. Evidence to bring a case to court could be obtained if there was proof that a vessel did not have the appropriate amount of waste on board for its size and the length of time spent at sea. It is for that purpose that the use of garbage record books should be implemented as soon as possible.

Garbage record books would record each day the volume, description and type of garbage arising from the normal operation of the ship. They would record the date and time, and the volume, description and type of garbage placed into reception facilities at named UK ports. They would also record the date, volume and the method of disposal of any garbage from the ship, by whatever means. Every garbage record book would be made available to the relevant authorities in subsequent ports visited. The books could be inspected and copied on to a public register. Easy access to that register would allow public scrutiny of the environmental practices of ships and ship operators going through UK and other ports. In turn, that would act as a deterrent to bad environmental practice, while allowing ships that operated in an environmentally sensitive way the opportunity to profit from the good publicity provided by good environmental practices.

That is the view of the Marine Conservation Society and others, but it is also my deep, personal conviction. Unlike almost all other hon. Members, I spent two years at sea as a seconded employee of P and 0. Going into ports, and at sea, one sees exactly what happens: crews are casual and take the easy way out; blind eyes are turned; skippers are not all that fussy; and even the most rigorous captains cannot be on top of the situation all the time.

Something must be done if we are to be at all effective. As my hon. Friends have said, it costs a great deal less to nip the problem in the bud than to clean up the beaches afterwards. I emphasise the importance of easy-to-use reception facilities. Waste management plans should be introduced as primary legislation in the Bill and not in the form of its current enabling powers, to ensure that all ports prepare adequate plans without further delay.

The Department has stated that the problems would be addressed by the strict application of a waste management planning process. In Committee, we should like to hear more details of precisely what the Department has in mind for that process. The initiative is a welcome first step, but the Bill does not deliver the system of certification of all waste reception facilities that was called for in recommendation 27 of the Donaldson report. People in the Marine Conservation Society who have considered the matter would be keen for the Environment Agency to be given the responsibility for reviewing and deeming adequate those waste management plans.

I mentioned the inclusive fee during the Secretary of State's speech; he was most courteous about giving way. While the inclusive fee system is probably most appropriate for garbage and non-cargo oily waste, such as bilge water, oily waste from cargo tanks is likely to be more voluminous and specialised and therefore to cost more than an inclusive fee system could easily cope with. However, the need for an inclusive fee system is highlighted by Lord Donaldson in recommendation 27(e), and it is clear that a shipowner or master is more likely to use the facilities for which a fee has already been paid. That is human nature.

I hope that something will be said in Committee about the impact on wildlife. The full impact of marine debris on marine species is difficult to assess because of the limited research and the fact that sampling is largely confined to land-based observations. Research so far has primarily measured frequency of interaction rather than assessing the proportion of a species that is affected.

Marine debris can directly harm wildlife as a result of entanglement and ingestion. It is estimated that more than 1 million birds and 100,000 marine mammals and sea turtles die each year from entanglement in, or ingestion of, plastics. Of the 115 species of marine mammal, 47 are known to become entangled in or to ingest marine debris. In Committee, we can discuss the various hazards presented to marine life by such debris.

I hope that, whatever else the Minister leaves to be dealt with in Committee, he will explain to the House what on earth the objection is to introducing mandatory provisions for the crucial reception facilities at our ports. He owes us that explanation this evening.

6.34 pm
Ms Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

As my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) said, the Bill is vital and welcome, and the Labour party supports its measures.

We regret the fact that it has taken not one but two serious marine pollution disasters finally to convince the Government of the need for the legislation; a need underlined yet again today by the incident in the English channel that was referred to by my hon. Friends the Members for Oxford, East and for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody).

We also regret the fact that it has taken the Government almost three years to bring before the House Lord Donaldson's highly praised and respected inquiry into the first of those disasters. We accept that, despite the apparent complacency and the delays that have preceded its publication, the Bill will go at least part of the way towards creating the safer ships and cleaner seas that were the aim of Lord Donaldson's recommendations.

However, many aspects of the Bill still require further explanation from Ministers, who will also have to justify a number of omissions. Many of those aspects and omissions were highlighted not only by my hon. Friends the Members for Crewe and Nantwich, for Pembroke (Mr. Ainger), for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) and for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), but by the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) and by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir J. Molyneaux).

In addition, many informed and probing interventions from my hon. Friends were courteously allowed by the Secretary of State, in the most marked contrast with the fact that, with the exception of those on the Front Bench and the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris), no Conservative Member has been present to hear, let alone contribute to, this evening's important debate.

The Bill was a golden opportunity for the Government at least to begin to address the appalling decline in Britain's merchant fleet that has characterised their 18 years in office. The figures have been well rehearsed, but they are none the less staggering.

Since 1979, the United Kingdom merchant fleet has declined by 24 million tonnes, or approximately 65 per cent. of its former size. According to Lloyd's, Britain now ranks 22nd in the table of world trading fleets, behind nations such as Malta, Turkey, Italy and St. Vincent. Under the present Government, more merchant tonnage has been lost from the British fleet than was lost by all the allied forces in all theatres in the second world war.

The figures are damning in themselves, but they are also directly related to the issues that we have been debating today, because the dramatic decline in the United Kingdom register has been matched by an equally dramatic increase in the use of flags of convenience.

Opposition Members are proud to acknowledge that British shipping has one of the best safety records in the world, but as more and more of our vessels are forced to flag out and more and more of our goods are transported by vessels over which we have only limited jurisdiction, that safety record is undermined and the threat to our coastline increases.

The decline of our merchant fleet also has serious economic implications. According to the Chamber of Shipping, since 1979, the gross earnings of the British merchant fleet have declined from £9.8 billion to £4.7 billion per annum. In 1975, the sea transport account of the UK balance of payments was in surplus. Under the present Government, that surplus has been allowed to slip into deficit. That decline in earnings represents lost investment not only to the nation but to the maritime industry, which could have a serious knock-on effect in terms of pollution and safety.

It has been well documented that the majority of maritime casualties involve vessels of 14 years or older, with more than 90 per cent. of vessels lost at sea being 15 years or older. Similarly, poor maintenance of vessels is widely agreed to be a major contributory factor to shipping accidents. The 1995 European port state control report states: Most of the defects discovered could have been avoided if proper maintenance had been carried out. The decline under the Government of Britain's merchant fleet and the ascendancy of flags of convenience that has accompanied it cannot be divorced from maritime safety and pollution. Those issues constitute an omission from the Bill that we intend to address both in Committee and on Report. Equally worrying is the Government's reluctance to confront crewing and crew training. The Donaldson report concluded that human factors are responsible for almost 80 per cent. of maritime casualties. Similarly, the 1992 National Audit Office study concluded: Operational failure and human error are the main cause of the majority of accidents to ships". Despite the importance of highly trained seafarers to securing high standards of maritime safety, British shipping faces a manpower crisis. The number of British officers employed by British shipping companies has declined by 75 per cent. since 1979. According to the Chamber of Shipping, it is set to decline by a further 30 per cent. over the next decade. Despite warnings about the disastrous impact of falling numbers of seafarers and seafarer cadets, the Government spend less on support for seafarer training than on their ministerial car fleet. We believe that it is impossible to confront the issue of maritime safety without examining crewing. Again, we shall press the Government on that in Committee and on Report.

The Bill's measures to protect the environment and tackle pollution are welcome, but we have several concerns about pollution prevention matters. It is disappointing that there appears to be nothing in the Bill to address the problems surrounding the detection of vessels responsible for pollution. According to the latest figures that I have been able to obtain, which relate to a survey conducted by the National Union of Marine, Aviation and Shipping Transport Officers between June and September 1995, in the 139 oil pollution incidents reported around the UK, only three of the offending ships were detected. Similarly in 1995, only 37 vessels were detained in UK ports on suspicion of involvement in illegal discharges of oil and hazardous chemicals; of those, only 11 cases were referred to the Treasury Solicitor for possible prosecution, while 19 were reported to their flag state.

While we accept that unilateral action on the inspection and detention of foreign-flagged vessels is difficult because of the impact on competitiveness and on British seafarers forced by the decline of the British fleet to serve on such vessels, what action is being taken at European and international level to agree tighter regulations for the frequency and thoroughness of port state control inspections?

Equally, we believe that the Government should take a strong stance to protect Britain's fishing grounds from the problems of fish transhipment in the form of the so-called klondykers. We welcome the Government's proposed measures to tackle the problem and the Secretary of State's reference to it. However, we are not yet convinced that those measures go far enough and we shall explore the matter in Committee and on Report.

As I said, many of the Bill's measures respond to Lord Donaldson's report, which was itself a response to the Braer grounding of January 1993. Since then, the Government have been somewhat overtaken by events. We welcome the fact that Ministers have been flexible enough to insert several measures that clearly respond to the Sea Empress disaster. The details of that, and the continuing concerns, were graphically described by my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke. We welcome the measures as far as they go, but we seek further assurances from Ministers. In particular, we want an assurance that the process of salvage by committee which allowed an accident to turn into farce and then disaster will never be repeated. We shall certainly seek assurances that Ministers will never again place responsibility for the co-ordination of a major maritime rescue operation in the hands of a chef from a local Chinese takeaway restaurant.

I reiterate the request of my hon. Friends the Members for Oxford, East, for Pembroke, for Greenock and Port Glasgow and for Crewe and Nantwich that the Minister here and now confirm or deny reports that the Government are considering the removal of winter tug cover from our coastline. He could also explain how they can afford to spend £60 million of taxpayers' money on a royal yacht to safeguard the leadership ambitions of the Secretary of State for Defence, but cannot afford the £3 million a year that it costs to protect Britain's coastline.

We welcome the Bill as far as it goes, but there are many issues that must still be addressed and many questions to which Ministers must find satisfactory answers. We intend to tackle those issues both in Committee and on Report and to ensure that this legislation goes as far as it can to secure Lord Donaldson's ambition of ensuring safer ships and cleaner seas.

6.45 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. John Bowis)

To continue where the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson) left off, we can join hands across the Chamber in seeking to build on the work of Lord Donaldson. I think she said that she thought this a good Bill. The hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) said the same, as did all hon. Members who spoke. That was also the view of all parties in the other place. Lord Clinton-Davis wished the Bill well and described it as good. I am happy to accept that accolade as we take it into this House.

Several hon. Members mentioned personal experiences. As the Member of Parliament for the landlocked constituency of Battersea, my memories reflect the Marchioness tragedy, after which I introduced a Bill to improve river safety. Many ideas have been flagged up for the Committee and we shall no doubt enjoy discussing them in detail.

I pay special tribute to the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Ainger) who, from the days when he had to cope with the impact of the Sea Empress incident on his constituents, drew a vivid picture of why the Bill is important. His picture was endorsed and reinforced by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir J. Molyneaux), who described standing beneath the Sea Empress in dry dock and seeing a gaping hole. I must be careful not to prejudge the marine accident investigation branch investigation and inquiry, but the interim recommendation to extend the power to issue a direction to harbour authorities, harbour masters and pilots has been accepted, as has the statutory basis for the national contingency plan. Both are dealt with by the Bill.

The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley was kind enough to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his Ministers. I pass that accolade swiftly to my noble Friend the Minister for Aviation and Shipping. He and my right hon. Friend are grateful for that tribute. It is in tribute, above all, to the work of Lord Donaldson that we introduce the Bill.

Many of the matters that have been discussed will come up in Committee, for which we have had many volunteers. I shall canter through some of the points. The hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) asked about pilots. He is right that the captain retains charge of the vessel, even when the pilot may have conduct of it. I hope that that is a helpful clarification.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the Minches. We have undertaken a radar survey of the traffic there. In bad weather there may be circumstances in which it would be better for vessels to use sheltered waters, otherwise vessels should be in the deep water to the west of the Hebrides. He also referred to survival equipment and survival suits. Our tugs carry the equipment necessary for the conditions in which they operate and we encourage fishermen to make similar provision on board their vessels. I can confirm the Scottish legal process in terms of the procurator fiscal and the sheriff courts. I hope that that, too, puts his mind at ease.

The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate referred to the problem of klondykers. We are aware of it, and I am grateful to them for their support for the relevant measures in the Bill. No doubt we can examine the issue in some detail in Committee.

My hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) asked particularly about the Scilly Isles. Lord Donaldson mentioned them, as well as Skomer, as possible marine environmental high risk areas—MEHRAs. We have undertaken radar surveys of both locations, the results of which will be published shortly. They are part of our examination of MEHRAs and I want to reassure my hon. Friend that the Scillies are very much in our mind as we consider that issue.

The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley referred to the importance of a knowledge of English. It may be of some comfort to him to know that we are about to introduce regulations—the minimum standards of safe communication—on which we have already consulted. They require a person on a United Kingdom ship or any foreign ship in territorial waters to have on board a person capable of communicating with the shore. That implements in part an EC directive on the training of seamen. The right hon. Gentleman also referred to the reasonable costs of the clean-up following an oil incident. They will be met by the intergovernmental oil pollution liability and compensation system. The costs of planning and preparation will be considered as part of the review of the national contingency plan that my noble Friend the Minister for Aviation and Shipping has announced, and before any regulations are made under clause 12.

If I may, I shall leave the issue of charging for further discussion in Committee.

The hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) raised a number of points, including some that suggested a degree of gunboat diplomacy in Liberal policy. I must tell him that the United Nations convention on the law of the sea prohibits measures that hamper innocent passage in the territorial sea or other measures on the regulation of maritime traffic that do not conform to international law. We cannot take unilateral action, which he urged, that is mandatory on ships. We can take advisory measures, but mandatory action needs prior approval by the IMO.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Pembroke will understand that I cannot comment on some of his remarks relating to the Sea Empress because they are a matter for the investigation. I have already mentioned the review of the national contingency plan to which he referred. The powers of the Secretary of State to intervene will be discussed in Committee.

The example of the Sea Empress occupies our mind, and the hon. Gentleman referred to compensation claims being dealt with too slowly. We are conscious that we need to look carefully at that matter. At the moment, we have no evidence to suggest that there have been any significant delays in the payments of claims, although that may not be the impression of the person who is waiting. The International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund is required by its establishing convention and rules of procedure to seek documentary evidence of the validity of claims. In some cases, payment can be delayed if that evidence is not provided by the claimant. There is no evidence to suggest that many are suffering financial hardship. There are procedures for claiming hardship payments but, as I understand it, so far, just five people have applied for them.

Various issues were raised about the Marchioness and public inquiries. I believe that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State responded to those queries during his speech, but perhaps we will discuss the matter again in Committee. In broad terms, the Secretary of State has discretion to hold public inquiries that are known as formal investigations. We need to judge the circumstances of each incident when deciding how to proceed.

The issue of MEHRAs is a matter of considerable interest to hon. Members on both sides of the House. Some concern was expressed that progress has not been made on them, but I can assure the House that we are currently developing the criteria for environmentally sensitive areas in conjunction with the joint nature conservancy councils, which are the Government's statutory advisers on conservation issues. When the areas are identified, we will look in detail at the shipping patterns in them. I hope that, before too long, we shall be able to consult other interested bodies—certainly later this year.

The European Commission's proposal for marine environmentally sensitive areas—MESAs—was also raised. We need to be clear that we are not duplicating ideas, or proposing conflicting ones. We undertake to consider that matter carefully.

Mr. Dalyell

Does the Minister recall that, in Committee on what became the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, we inserted into the Bill, with the agreement of hon. Members on both sides of the Committee, the concept of marine nature reserves? Progress has been abysmally slow. Eventually, a decision was made on Lundy and Scilly, but little progress has been made on Skomer—my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke (Mr. Ainger) will correct me if I am wrong. Nothing has been done about some places in the Outer Hebrides and Loch Sween. Why is it so difficult to make progress?

Mr. Bowis

The best thing would be to discuss that further at a later stage. We are hastening to try to reach agreement with the statutory advisers so that we can bring forward proposals for regulation.

Tugs have been mentioned. It was decided that emergency towing vessels should be stationed on a trial basis at the three locations highlighted by the Donaldson report and the Belton report as having a significantly higher risk factor than other areas—the Dover straits, the Minches and the south-west approaches. The problem of the seasons has been referred to. Weather conditions in the winter can, of course, generally be expected to be the worst. When the trial ends at the end of March, we will consider carefully the long-term future of those vessels.

I hope that I can put the mind of the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) at rest when I say that it is the Government's intention to introduce the mandatory aspects of the waste management plans. Following the passage of the Bill we will bring forward regulations for consultation to achieve just that. There may be some confusion, because we are also seeking to lead internationally and to encourage wider agreement within the IMO. The European Commission is also interested in supporting such measures.

Mr. Dalyell

If I have understood it right, it would be churlish not to thank the Minister for doing that. Can we take it that Government amendments will be tabled to introduce mandatory provisions on port waste facilities?

Mr. Bowis

I think that that is not necessary, because the Bill enables regulations to be laid. The intention is to consult following the passage of the Bill on the regulations that would achieve that aim. We can pursue that point further in Committee.

The detection of polluters at sea, which was mentioned by several hon. Members, and the issue of plastics, which was raised by the hon. Member for Linlithgow, are important matters. The maximum fine was also mentioned: £25,000 in respect of non-oil pollution—chemicals, gases and so on—is, of course, relevant only to magistrates courts. Spillages of that nature, given their rarity, might be referred to the Crown court which has no limitation on the fines it can impose.

Some of the measures in the Bill are sufficiently up to date to be relevant to the most recent spillage, which was of oil. We are taking the lead internationally in developing a workable system of automatic ship identification transponders, which would remove ships' anonymity and allow a polluting ship to be identified even at night or in fog. We have some interesting times ahead in Committee and, for the time being, I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 61 (Committal of Bills).