HC Deb 14 January 1998 vol 304 cc308-16 12.29 pm
Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise on the Floor of the House the European Commission's proposal for a Council directive on the registration of persons sailing on board passenger ships. The matter is of considerable importance to my constituents, to the people of Kent and to the travelling public throughout the European Union.

When I first applied for a debate, my main concern was for those of my constituents who work on the passenger ferries and those using the ferries sailing from Ramsgate. In the interim, the Holyman passenger service has been transferred from Ramsgate to Dover, but it would wrong to think that the matters I wish to address do not also affect the freight shipping services still sailing from Ramsgate—they do and they will.

I should make it plain that, although I regard the issue as being of considerable importance to Kent and as a national issue, I shall inevitably refer frequently to the port of Dover. As a courtesy, I wish to put on record the convention that short Adjournment debates such as this involve the participation of one Member of Parliament and one Minister. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser) shares my views, but I would not wish his constituents to think that the fact that he is not speaking in the debate means that he does not have an interest.

The proposal for a directive on the registration of passengers sailing on board ferries requires that all passengers be registered on an inventory by name, age, sex and, if relevant, disability. The proposed directive will apply to all passenger vessels on journeys of more than 20 miles; that figure was originally 30 miles, but the proposals have been amended to ensure that they catch all cross-channel short sea crossings. Curiously, the directive excludes one of the busier European passenger ferry routes—that between Denmark and Sweden—and the channel tunnel; I shall return to the significance of that fact later.

The proposed directive appears to be a European Commission knee-jerk reaction to the Estonia disaster, based on the "We'd better be seen to be doing something" principle. The preamble explains: The obligations of the Community in this context are the improvement of safety in maritime transport as foreseen in article 84(2) of the Treaty. Great reliance is placed on the safety of life at sea convention, which introduces the principle of passenger registration in a specific regulation. The SOLAS regulation was intended to apply to all passenger ships on international voyages". I repeat, international voyages, not short sea crossing ferries within the European Union.

To be fair to the Commission—I must be fair—it has acted on a request from the Council of Ministers to present a proposal for the mandatory requirement on the registration of passengers aboard roll-on/roll-off ferries. That request was indeed made in the light of the aftermath of the Estonia disaster, when considerable difficulty was experienced with the identification of passengers and the consequent settlement of insurance claims.

In a letter dated 7 May 1997, Commissioner Kinnock tells me that the purposes of the Directive are the enhancement of safety and of the possibilities of rescue of passengers and crew, and the improvement of procedures to deal with the aftermath of an accident. Yet the head of the Commission's maritime safety unit, Roberto Salvarani, is reported to have told port officials recently that there is no significant safety reason for the directive. It would seem that Mr. Salvarani's appraisal of the situation is more realistic than that of Commissioner Kinnock. Michael Krayenbrink, Dover harbour board's general manager, ferries, says that

the registration of passenger names will not help prevent accidents (nor save lives in any search and rescue), but only deal with their aftermath". Let us think logically. Anyone who has any dealings with search and rescue—as one who has worked in the Ministry of Defence and represents a constituency which played host to a search and rescue base, I have such experience—knows that helicopter and lifeboat services need numbers, not names, ages and genders, to facilitate a rescue. In the cold and the dark and the wind and the water, one does not shout, "Are you Smith, Miss, aged 18?" One yanks the body out of the water and moves on to the next one. Rescuers save everyone they can find and keep going until the total head count is reached. Ferries already carry such a count: that figure is kept on shore and also given to each captain before departure.

Names, ages and gender may be of interest to an insurance company after a disaster, but even here there is a difficulty. In copious correspondence with Commissioner Kinnock, I have endeavoured to establish how the personal information will be verified, because people are occasionally reluctant to give their real name when they are not compelled to do so. I am not suggesting that hundreds of Michael Mice will necessarily head for EuroDisney, but it would be naive to believe that a considerable number of Mr. and Mrs. Smiths do not and will not continue to head off for weekends in Paris. Mr. Kinnock's response to my inquiries, in a letter dated 3 October 1997, states: On the issue of a possible re-introduction of border controls, I can only repeat that the responsibility of checking the information requested in the Directive has been left to the Member States. In other words, under European open frontiers there is no way of checking the details. The inventory may not only not help to save life, but confuse and hinder the settlement of insurance claims through inaccuracy.

I shall now address to the manner in which the directive appears to have been devised and its likely effects. The entire concept was generated in the emotional aftermath of the Estonia and the Herald of Free Enterprise disasters. Some constituents of mine who were on board the Herald of Free Enterprise lost husbands and others lost relatives. I do not know whether Commissioner Kinnock has had to deal with the grieving families of those bereaved in a ferry disaster, but I have, and I yield to nobody in my personal concern—if only in memory of those who died on the night the Herald went down—for the continual improvement in standards of safety at sea.

However, the directive appears to have been produced in a rush, without any serious attention being given to the problems it would create. It is tokenism of the worst sort.

Commissioner Kinnock is on record as saying on 20 November 1997 that: I consider that sufficient positive opinions have already been gathered by my services from governments and ferry operators on the practicability of registering passengers on the Dover-Calais route. The advanced state of available telematics systems makes it possible to comply with such a requirement at reasonable costs". Whom did his services consult before the proposals for the directive were drafted? Apparently, they did not consult the Calais chamber of commerce, which plays such a vital role in the running of that port; nor did they consult the cross-channel ferry operators Sea France or P and 0 European Ferries; and they did not consult Dover harbour board. Had they done their homework properly, they might have discovered the impracticalities of the bureaucratic nightmare that I fear they are about to create.

The ferry companies and the port authorities have done their homework and have concluded that the proposed scheme is unworkable if significant delays are not to be caused for both passenger and freight traffic. Indeed, the effect on the nation's freight could be disastrous. Freight lorries could not load even on to freight-only ferries if the approaches to the port were choked with cars and coaches. More than 50 per cent. of Britain's exports by volume cross the straits of Dover. Any damage done to that traffic will be damage felt by us all.

The ferries are essential to enable British industry to compete with our international rivals. The Road Haulage Association has told me this morning that it is very concerned about the very considerable commercial damage that will be done to the road haulage industry by the directive, particularly in the light of the merger of P and 0 and Stena. I believe that that view is shared by officials from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions who have also taken the trouble to make a thorough study of the subject.

In a letter sent to me yesterday, Michael Krayenbrink of the Dover harbour board reminded me of the following figures: In 1997 over 21 million passengers used the port of Dover with, at peak periods, vehicles checking in at the rate of 750 per hour. Any requirement to collect data on these will impose delays on the Port's operations, with knock-on effects on ferry companies using our facilities. This"— he rightly adds—

goes against the Commission's twin aims of facilitating transport within the Union and encouraging intermodal transport". The inevitable increased costs will be passed on to passengers and freight hauliers, thus pushing up ticket prices and adding to the burden faced by ferry companies, already bracing themselves for the loss of traffic and revenue that is likely to result from the abolition of the duty-free trade. Mr. Krayenbrink's observations are as applicable, on a smaller scale, to Ramsgate and the other Kent channel ports as they are to Dover.

I have viewed the facilities available at both Dover and Calais. There is no doubt in my mind that at any peak time neither port is designed to collect the sort of information that will be required by the proposed directive without causing inordinate delay and car and lorry jams stretching back to the A2 or the Paris motorway.

Currently, the final check-in time is 20 minutes before the departure for each ferry. That allows time to load ships and for the completion of document formalities, freight and tourist manifests and loading lists. At present, the time taken to check tickets and passports is 45 seconds for a car and three passengers, five minutes for a coach and 40 passengers, three minutes for a freight lorry and its driver and 30 seconds for a foot passenger. The projected additional time for registration under the proposed directive is three minutes and 45 seconds for a car and three passengers instead of 45 seconds, 40 minutes for a bus and 40 passengers instead of five minutes, four minutes for a freight lorry and its driver instead of three minutes, and one minute and 30 seconds for each foot passenger instead of just 30 seconds.

How much earlier before departure will travellers have to arrive to enable the ports to comply with the terms of the proposed directive? Where will the additional traffic that is generated park?

Jonathan Sloggett of the Dover harbour board has said that there is no more shore space available for ferry companies at that port, and Guy Flamengt of the Calais chamber of commerce has stressed that the expensive new port of Calais approach road system, which was built with the help of European funding, was created to cut queues and to speed the boarding process. It was specifically designed not to have to handle large volumes of queuing traffic.

The thrust of the single market is to speed communications and end border delays within the Community, but the proposed directive introduces a new set of complex border delays. Commissioner Kinnock and his team appear to have conducted no proper research into the practicalities, but prefer to shelter behind the alleged availability of telematics to solve the problems. What telematics? I invite Commissioner Kinnock to stand in a check-in booth at Calais and try to record, by any means, the names, genders and ages of a Eurolines' coachful of visitors picked up from Poland and across Europe at various stops en route to Calais. It is not just Polish names that British and French officials find difficult to read and spell.

As someone who, for about a dozen years, has been pressing for fully machine-readable identity cards and passports, I am aware that there is no uniform system operating in the European Union, never mind the countries of the former Soviet Union and beyond. Even the different departements of France use differing systems. The idea that a machine-readable swipe card will make everything swift, accurate and easy is unreal. Even if the telematics did exist, even if every passenger carried a swipe card, even if all the cars were harmonised, even if every passenger was fit and well and could jump out of a coach quickly and even if it took each passenger only 10 seconds to use a swipe card, the cumulative effect would add hours to boarding times, with a consequent knock-on effect on turnround times and on passenger and freight costs.

The reliance on the use of telematics is jargon. I do not believe that it is at present practicable and I believe that the Commission also knows that, but declines to admit it. The process will interfere dreadfully, possibly terminally, with the turn-up-and-go system that is essential to the ferries' survival in competition with the channel tunnel shuttle.

That brings me to the issue of competition. Let me assume for a brief and incredible moment that the Commission's entire thesis is correct and the provisions of the directive will save life. Why do not the same provisions apply to the channel tunnel in which there was a near-fatal and certainly horrific fire not long ago? Why should ferry passengers be subjected to inordinate bureaucracy and delay while those using the potentially just as hazardous tunnel are allowed to travel on the shuttle without even a head count being taken?

The Commission claims that the directive ensures harmonisation in the interests of fair competition, but that is nonsense. It will have just the opposite effect. The directive's effect on the short sea crossings of the channel from Dover and Ramsgate, which is seeking to attract new operators following the loss of Holyman, will be disastrous to fair competition.

The direct competitor of the ferries is the shuttle. Unlike the ferries, the shuttle does not at present even count passengers. The Commission should at the very least have dealt with the ferries and the shuttle simultaneously. Unless the measure is applied equally and simultaneously to ferry and tunnel traffic, the Commission will have placed the channel ferries at such a grave disadvantage that they may become no longer commercially viable.

To date, the Commission has only, in the words of the director general of DG7, Robert Coleman, given a commitment to the European Parliament that the case for `undersea' rail tunnels would be looked at further. In a letter to me dated 19 November 1997, Mr. Coleman said:

While I understand your arguments that a level playing field is needed for competition between cross-channel ferries and `le Shuttle' I do not believe that it necessarily follows that users of the tunnel should, therefore, also have to comply with registration procedures as those only apply to ferries". It is all right to fry and to be unidentified and unnumbered in a future tunnel fire, but it is not all right to be simply recorded, as at present, on the manifest of a ferry. If there is any logic in the proposal, of course it "necessarily follows" that the same regulations should apply to all cross-channel traffic.

The total traffic on the short sea routes in now more than the tunnel can handle on its own; loss of the ferries would pose a considerable threat to British exporters. Another closure of the tunnel, for any reason, would, under those circumstances, bring cross-channel freight and passenger traffic to a halt.

If I believed that the directive—which is promoted by Commissioner Kinnock and, astonishingly, has the support of East Kent's Member of the European Parliament, Mark Watts, as rapporteur of the Transport Committee—would contribute to the saving of even one life, I would support it. But I do not. I believe that it is ill-researched, unworkable, unnecessarily bureaucratic and fails every European test of a proportionate response to a perceived need.

I emphatically do not regard this as a party-political issue. I believe that the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions' own officials have serious reservations about the directive. I have good reason to believe that their colleagues in France share those growing doubts.

The Minister for Transport in London has a reputation for being fair minded and, without wishing to embarrass her, for being a thinking Minister. I urge her to take another long, hard look at the proposals. If she shares any of my concerns about the future viability of the ferries, about their importance to our transport infrastructure and about the need for fair competition between the sea routes and the tunnel, will she please seek to ensure that the United Kingdom's presidency is used to secure, at the very least, parity of treatment between the ferries and the tunnel?

Will the Minister demand that parity is achieved before the commencement date of any such directive—even if it means pushing the current year 2000 start date back by however long it takes? Will she please insist that a proper study of the likely effects of the proposed directive is conducted by the Commission and that all interested parties are, even at this late stage, properly consulted? Will she explore the possibilities, within the present proposals, for a derogation to exempt entirely the short sea crossings of the channel from the proposed directive under the terms of new paragraph 4 of article 9? If at all possible, will she endeavour to have this ill-conceived proposal for a directive consigned to oblivion?

12.49 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Glenda Jackson)

I congratulate the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) on obtaining this debate on an issue of great importance. It is regrettable that so few hon. Members have been in the Chamber to hear the arguments that he advanced.

The hon. Member made it abundantly clear that, in his thinking, the appropriate directive has no virtue as regards safety. He is right when he says that the proposed directive originated in a unanimous resolution of the European Transport Council on 22 December 1994, on the safety of roll on/roll off passenger ferries. Member states, in agreeing the resolution, invited the European Commission—in the light of the tragic loss of the ro-ro passenger ferry Estonia—to submit a proposal for recording accurately the number and names of passengers and crew on board certain vessels. The then United Kingdom Government signed up to the resolution, so obviously the principle of registration was acceptable.

The proposed directive contains several requirements for passenger shipping in the European Union. On every passenger ship voyage of more than 20 miles from the point of departure, the shipping company must, as the hon. Member said, record the name of every person on board—including the crew—their gender and an indication of age category: adult, child or infant. The proposed directive also requires the recording of information, when volunteered by a passenger, concerning the need for special care or assistance in emergency situations; and that information must be passed to a shore-based representative of the company within 30 minutes after the passenger ship's departure.

The proposed directive requires all persons—including the crew—on board any passenger ship departing from a European port to be counted before the ship departs, and requires that number of persons on board to be communicated to both the master of the ship and a shore-based representative of the company. The master is specifically responsible under the directive for ensuring that the number of persons on board does not exceed the number that the ship is permitted to carry.

The proposed directive also requires the ferry company to ensure that the information required by the directive is readily available at all times for transmission to the designated authority—in the United Kingdom's case, that is the Coastguard agency—for search and rescue purposes in the event of an emergency or accident.

Although I well understood—because the hon. Member presented it so cogently—his argument regarding the effect and some of the implications of the measure, I believe that it is not the case that the package that it represents lacks justification in terms of safety improvements. Reinforcing traditional duties to keep passenger totals within certificate limits benefits safety; formalising arrangements for information sought from people with disabilities benefits safety; requiring those data in respect of each voyage to be recorded ashore as well as on board ship benefits safety.

During working group discussions in Brussels, my Department questioned—as the hon. Gentleman did today—the practicality of some of the requirements. The concern was to probe the rationale for detailed requirements and procedures because of their effect on British shipping routes and ports, and their relationship to the original resolution. As a result of those suggestions, the proposed directive was materially simplified.

At the European Transport Council in June 1997, the Government judged that the safety aspects of the directive as a whole outweighed reservations. We were able to gain a later implementation date for the recording of passenger details than had been originally proposed. Like many of the concerns that the hon. Gentleman expressed, our concerns were essentially practical and did not relate to the principle of the measure, which the Transport Council had already accepted in 1994.

I shall now deal with the extent to which passenger registration will apply to services affecting the United Kingdom. It is important to remember that no journey of less than 20 miles is affected by the requirement to record passenger information. However, the requirement applies to both domestic and international voyages within the European Union of more than 20 miles so, as the hon. Gentleman said, it would apply to voyages between Dover and Calais or between Ramsgate and the continent. That was of particular concern to the hon. Gentleman.

There is, however, scope in the proposed directive for member states to issue exemptions from the requirements to record passenger information, but not from the duty to count. There is also scope to request the European Commission to derogate certain services from the requirement to record passenger information. However, the scope for exemptions or derogations is limited in each case to services that meet clearly defined criteria set out in the measure. For example, exemptions by member states may be granted only to services operating exclusively in protected sea areas. The definition of a protected sea area within the directive is:

a sea area sheltered from open sea effects, where a ship is at no time more than 6 miles from a place of refuge, where shipwrecked persons can land, and in which the proximity of search and rescue facilities is ensured. Having set out the background and contents of the measure, I turn to implementation issues. We have held several informal discussions with representatives of the shipping and ports industry affected by the directive. One important subject examined with them has been the extent of possible exemption or derogation for both domestic and international journeys. Cases for derogation of international voyages between member states must be made—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will would accept that this is reasonable—jointly by the member states concerned, and they will be decided by the European Community collectively.

Exemptions may be given by member states, but they need to inform the European Commission. If the Commission considers that a service should not have been granted an exemption, it can require the member state to amend or withdraw its decision. The overall aim of these provisions is consistency throughout the Union. I point out to the hon. Gentleman that British citizens often travel on ferries of other than British origin; we believe that this is a means of increasing safety throughout the European Union for all its citizens.

We have not yet completed our analysis, but are well advanced with it, so it may be helpful if I set out our provisional conclusions. As I said, many domestic services will not be affected by the requirement to record passenger details because their voyages are of less than 20 miles. We believe that others will meet the criteria for being granted an exemption by the United Kingdom.

When the directive has been formally adopted, thereby bringing into force the exemption procedure, we shall ask ferry companies to apply to us for formal exemption. In principle, passenger services in protected sea areas can be expected to be exempted. We are also considering whether there is a case for seeking derogation for further domestic services and hence for making a submission to the European Commission for those services that we believe meet the criteria laid down in the directive.

One relevant criterion is the state of the sea to be expected on the service. The directive allows member states to apply for derogations only for services in an area where the annual probability of the significant wave heights exceeding 2m is less than 10 per cent. As for international journeys, our provisional view is that virtually all of them will be affected by the requirement to record passenger details, and that operators should plan on that basis.

There are no cases that might be exempted by the United Kingdom alone, because the member state for the other terminal of the service also must agree.

From the outset, the European Commission was particularly anxious to ensure that voyages across the English channel, and especially the Dover strait, should be included in the requirement to record passenger information. The Commission argued that precisely that sort of service should be subject to the requirement because of its relative frequency, in the Commission's yiew, across a particularly busy shipping route. The hon. Gentleman, in his well-reasoned argument, made clear his concerns on that issue, so I shall deal separately with the question of seeking a derogation for services across the Dover strait.

Any such case must be supported jointly by the United Kingdom and France. France has supported and continues to support the Commission's desire for the requirement to be applied to companies on the Dover strait. If we did receive a proposal from the French Government, we would of course consider with them the strength of the argument; and if we considered the case strong enough we would support its submission to the European Commission—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)


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