HC Deb 03 November 2003 vol 412 cc535-42 3.30 pm
Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Urgent Question)

To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs if she will make a statement on the role of the Environment Agency in approving the decommissioning of American ships by Able UK, Hartlepool.

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Elliot Morley)

Hon. Members will be aware that Able UK, a company based on Teesside, won a contract for the dismantling of 13 redundant naval auxiliary vessels from the James river fleet. The contract was awarded by the US Maritime Administration—MARAD—the statutory body in the US responsible for the decommissioning of the James river fleet.

As the decommissioned vessels are classed as waste, their export from the US to the UK would be subject to controls on the trans-frontier movement of waste. In this case, as the waste is moving for recovery between two Organisation for Economic Development and Cooperation countries, the movement is subject to the controls under an OECD decision, which is implemented in the European Union through the EC waste shipments regulation.

Under the rules, the notifier of the waste, in this case MARAD, is required to inform the UK competent authority, in this case the Environment Agency, of the intention to export the vessels from the US and import them to the UK. The agency may raise reasoned objections to such notifications—for example, if the process is not actually going to recover the waste, but instead simply dispose of it. The Environment Agency consented to the proposed shipment on 22 July.

The agency was satisfied that the facility had the technical and physical ability to deal with the ships in an environmentally sound manner. The company concerned has in recent years dismantled several oil rig platforms, including ones containing hazardous waste. The proposal was that the ships would be dismantled in dry dock conditions.

Hon. Members will be aware that, since the consent for the trans-frontier movement was issued, the operator of the site applied for a modification to the waste management licence regulating the site, to increase the annual quantity of waste, including ships, able to be treated there. The agency assessed this modification on the basis that the dismantling would take place under dry dock conditions. Included in that process was an assessment of the impact of the modification on the local special protection area as required under the habitats directive. However, it has since been announced by the local authority that the operator of the site does not have the required planning permission for a dry dock at the site, though I understand that the company disputes this.

The agency's legal advice is that the waste management licence modification is invalid and the site reverts to the existing waste management licence. It is the agency's view that a new waste management licence would be required to increase the allowed throughput of waste at the site. Given the situation with the waste management licence and the planning permission for the site, the agency's legal advice is that this calls into question the approval for the trans-frontier shipment of the waste.

The Environment Agency met the company concerned on 30 October to inform it of the situation as regards the approvals for the site, and it has also informed the notifier for the waste shipment, the US Maritime Administration. The Environment Agency continues to work closely with both these contractors—MARAD and Able UK—urgently to identify a way forward. The Government and other relevant authorities—for example, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency—are being regularly updated on developments.

Hon. Members will wish to note that the EC waste shipment regulation—article 25 of 259/93—provides that, in cases where the shipment of waste to which the competent authorities have consented cannot be completed in accordance with the terms of the consignment note or contract, either the waste must return to country of export, or the waste can be dealt with in an alternative and environmentally sound manner. In the meantime, four of the vessels continue to be towed towards the UK while the agency and the contractors urgently seek a sensible solution.

I should emphasise that the vessels have been professionally verified as seaworthy and that they contain only relatively small quantities of hazardous substances, which are common to all ships of that age. They are not carrying any form of cargo—toxic or otherwise. The remaining nine ships in the contract will remain in the United States.

Mr. Lidington

I thank the Minister for his answer and start by agreeing that there will be near unanimity in the House that a way needs to be found to dispose of the vessels safely without damage to the environment. However, will he explain how the Government and their various agencies have got themselves into this almighty muddle? Does he acknowledge that there is a complete contradiction between the Environment Agency's decision last Friday to revoke the licences previously given and repeated assurances from the agency and Ministers during previous weeks that everything was in order and the regulations had been followed?

Does the Minister recall that on 1 October, the Environment Agency said that the recovery facility at Teesside had been subjected to stringent scrutiny and judged to have the capacity of carrying out the work and that, on 6 October, it stated: We are absolutely satisfied that we have complied with all the necessary legislation and … have made the right decision"? Surely both the Environment Agency and relevant Government Departments should have checked the small print before they issued licences rather than getting round to doing so afterwards.

Does the Minister understand my sense of amazement at finding out that two of the licences now discovered to be outstanding are ones for which Able UK applied to his own Department? Do the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Environment Agency talk to each other from time to time, especially about controversial applications such as this? Does the Minister recognise that such muddle and confusion at the heart of government utterly undermine public trust that his Department is able to protect our environment against pollution?

Does the Minister agree that we face a situation of real environmental hazard? What will happen to the four ships that are currently mid-Atlantic? Am I correct in my understanding that four vessels are at sea and two are due to arrive this week but are reported to be running short of fuel? Are today's media reports correct in saying that the Environment Agency is urging those ships to turn back to the United States, that the American authorities are instructing them to sail on to the United Kingdom and that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency in this country says that they may have to be admitted to a UK port as the least bad option because they have come too far to turn back and will need to refuel here? What assessment have the Government made of the environmental risk caused by the approach of winter storms and tides? Does the Minister share my concern about the risk of the ships either breaking up mid-ocean or having to be moored off the coast of north-east England while different Government agencies wrangle with each other over what should be done next?

May I suggest to the Minister three actions that the Government could take? First, will he set up an urgent inquiry to establish what has gone wrong in this case and ensure that we get some joined-up government on environmental matters in future?

Secondly, will he secure agreement within the Government, if necessary by invoking powers in respect of maritime emergencies, to ensure that one Minister takes responsibility for tackling the immediate crisis of the ships that are now at sea?

Thirdly, in view of what has happened and the undermining of confidence in the Environment Agency, which is inevitable after recent events, will the Minister say politely but firmly to the United States Government that we will gladly share with them our skilled workers and technology, but that the rest of the fleet of so-called ghost ships should be decommissioned in the US?

Mr. Morley

Let me deal with the points in the order in which the hon. Gentleman raised them. The Environment Agency has 30 days to raise issues of substance or concern in respect of an application for a transhipment licence. In its evaluation, it also had to examine whether it was appropriate to issue a licence in the circumstances. It concluded that it was. It also concluded that the company had the necessary consents in place or that consents could be arranged in the time available.

DEFRA's role is limited to granting a licence for dredging under the Food and Environmental Protection Act 1985. Such consents have been given. Let me set out the root of disagreement between the company and the planning authority. It applied for planning permission for the dry dock, and got the licence from DEFRA for the work and consent from English Nature with regard to the possible impact on a special protection area. The argument is whether the company proceeded with the planning permission within the statutory time limit for doing the work. I understand that those issues are being discussed today with the planning committee.

When it became clear that all the consents were not necessarily in place and the disputes came to light, the Environment Agency contacted the American authorities on 3 October, before the ships sailed. Its advice to MARAD was that the ships should not leave the United States, but the ships sailed on 6 October. The Environment Agency did act on the emerging doubts and advised that the ships should not leave until all those matters were resolved.

I understand that the first two ships are north-west of the Azores and have been refuelled at sea. The other two are about a quarter of the way across the Atlantic. I am not aware of any information that the US has instructed the ships to continue. That is news to me. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has evidence of that, but I do not. However, if it was thought necessary to refuel the ships and, perhaps, to provide the crews and tugs with more provisions, that could be done within UK territorial waters. Measures are in place to deal with an emergency or concerns about the weather or the condition of the ships, and we have reciprocal arrangements with other European countries on that.

I agree that the problem throws up complex issues in relation to the nature of such licences. We will require a full evaluation of the situation to set out why the problems have arisen and what lessons we can learn. That will be done as part of the normal process with the Environment Agency. The procedures are clear on who has the lead responsibility: the agency is the competent authority in this case. There is no argument about that and it has carried out its duties properly.

In relation to the US role, MARAD sought tenders for the scrapping of the ships. Some of the fleet is going to US yards, but there is a capacity problem, not least because MARAD would only approve yards that met the environmental standards required, and we support it in that. Able UK was involved in the tendering process, which was part of the international trade to deal with recycling and re-use. In that respect, MARAD is entitled to take up that facility as part of international agreements.

Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central)

Is the Minister aware that people in Northumberland and Durham and along the Tyne, the Wear and the Tees are very concerned about this situation because the chosen route for the ships is north round Britain and down the coast of north-east England? Will he make a clear statement that for those ships to continue on their course would be a clear breach of international law and obligations? I seek an assurance from him that, come what may, there will be no question of the ships arriving off the coast of north-east England, being incapable of being admitted to their destination and being parked there, posing a risk to the public in Northumberland and Durham.

Mr. Morley

The ships' route is the most direct; it takes them through the English channel. That has been arranged, and the ships will not go round the west side of the UK. Perhaps I misunderstood what my hon. Friend was saying.

Mr. Cousins

The Minister is misinformed.

Mr. Morley

Well, the ships are taking the most direct route. The advice given by the Environment Agency to the US authorities is that the ships should return to the US or that another environmentally sound solution should be found. That might, for the sake of argument, be a yard in another country that meets the standards, if one exists and there is one available. At this stage, we do not know whether that is the case. We have to take into account safety and the weather, but those considerations do not overrule the very clear advice that the ships should return.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

People in north-east England will wonder why in this day and age, and given the environmental accidents at sea that we have seen in Europe in recent years, it is necessary to bring ships from the US to Britain to be decommissioned in this way. The Minister said in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) that the agency told the US on 3 October that the ships should not sail, and the first two sailed on 6 October. Why, then, did the Department for Transport approve sailings on 4 October for the first two ships and 10 October for the second?

Mr. Morley

The only concern for the Department for Transport is whether the ships are seaworthy; it would not be involved in the consent process. The ships were inspected by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency to ensure that they were seaworthy before they left, and that is a responsible thing to do.

I touched on the reason for the ships coming from the US and on what they are carrying. There has long been an international trade in the re-use of ships, and we are sending fishing boats to Denmark because of a capacity problem in our yards. What is important is that we are signatories to the OECD agreement that if ships are going for dismantling, they should go to yards that have the proper facilities for waste handling, among other things, and uphold health and safety standards.

On pollution incidents, I say to the House that these are scrapped ships, and they are no better or worse than any other scrapped ship. They are not, in themselves, full of toxic materials, although they do of course contain toxic materials, as all ships do.

Norman Baker (Lewes)

I welcome the agency's decision to take action to protect the environment, albeit belatedly. On 29 October an answer from the Minister indicated that the agency was happy with the arrangements, but clearly that is not the case. The main question is how it can be that rusting hulks were allowed to set sail from the US when there was no extant planning permission. Why was that not checked in the first place?

Does the Minister accept that, as a general policy, developed countries should deal with their own waste, both for reasons of producer responsibility and in the interests of minimising the transportation of hazardous waste, particularly when it is in the form of clapped-out 50-year-old ships?

I understand that the Department for Transport is today meeting with Able UK. Will the Minister assure me that the message from the Department, particularly in light of the agency's advice, to which the Minister referred in his initial answer, is that these rusting hulks will not be allowed to enter UK waters or travel through the busiest shipping channel in the world, the English channel, and that if they need to refuel, they should do so at sea, as apparently they already have?

Does the Minister agree that the Government should state clearly that, except in an emergency where there is risk to life and limb and the situation is obviously different, the ships should be turned round and sent back to the US for disposal, or does he think that it is appropriate to perpetuate the image of rubbish-dump Britain?

Mr. Morley

I do not know whether it is Liberal Democrat policy to send out the gunboats on this issue, but we must keep things in perspective. I do not think the hon. Gentleman was listening when I said that the ships have been inspected and classed as seaworthy. If they had not been, they would never have been allowed to sail. They would certainly not be allowed to enter UK waters if they were considered unseaworthy. Let us be clear about that. I also want to make it clear that the decision on the ships' return is based not on an immediate environmental risk but on the fact that the consents are not in order. If the ships go back and the consents are met, the contract can be fulfilled, but, at present, the consents are not in order and, until they are, the Environment Agency's legal advice is that the ships should return. On the hon. Gentleman's last point, ships can be refuelled and reprovisioned in coastal waters and estuaries without coming into port.

Mr. Peter Mandelson (Hartlepool)

As the constituency Member of Parliament most directly concerned, I am satisfied that my hon. Friend's Department and the Environment Agency have dealt with the matter responsibly and conscientiously throughout—it has not been easy. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the original reason for choosing Able UK's facility in my constituency for the work is its high standards of environmental and employee safety protection? Is it not the case that the world would be an environmentally cleaner and less hazardous place if such ships had a safe disposal in which they were expertly and professionally dealt with, as Greenpeace itself has observed.

It is obviously important for all the necessary permissions and licences to be granted before the work starts, but will my hon. Friend confirm that there is no reason in principle why that work should not be carried out in future by Able UK? Finally, will he give my constituents a clear reassurance that in the meantime, while all these permissions and requirements are being put in place, the safekeeping of the ships, should they be unable to return to the United States quickly, will not pose any threat to our home coastline or their own safety and interests?

Mr. Morley

Yes, I certainly agree with my right hon. Friend that, whatever the arguments about the licence and consents, not one group or person has cast any doubt on the quality and ability of Able UK to deal with such work or, indeed, the skills or expertise of his constituents involved in that work. We need high-quality facilities of this type. This country has rightly pressed the EU to speed up the phase-out of single-hull tankers, which appears to be going ahead, and is likely to lead to 2,000 redundant tankers in the not too distant future. They will have to be dealt with by yards with the proper facilities, and we believe that we have that expertise in the UK. As for my right hon. Friend's final point, I can certainly say that there is no reason in principle why that contract should not go ahead, as long as it fulfils all the terms of the various licence conditions. We also want to ensure the safety of our coastline and other shipping, so the environment and risks to it will be paramount in guiding our decisions on the issue.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey)

It is not the reputation of Able UK that is on the line, but that of the Environment Agency. How is it conceivable that the ships were under way and that Friends of the Earth was threatening judicial review before the Environment Agency's announcement of its discovery that planning permission has not even been granted? That seems an extraordinary state of affairs. Can the Minister explain how that came to pass? Will he also tell the House what powers he has to enforce the return of those ships under EU law?

Mr. Morley

On the latter point, a range of treaties and legislation deals with the return of waste in such circumstances. The hon. Gentleman will know that it is open to different parties to contest decisions in the courts if they feel that those decisions are incorrect. That facility applies to anybody dealing with such matters, and it is not unique to this situation.

On the Environment Agency, I repeat that in the time it had to comment on the consent, its principal duty was to decide whether the application for a licence to be issued was valid. At that time, crucial issues such as planning permission—of course, there are other matters in that regard—were thought to have been resolved, but it now turns out that they were not.

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus)

The Minister said in his statement that planning permission had not been granted for the dry dock. In his reply to the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), however, he also said that the ships would not be turned back. Will he accept that the closer the ships get to UK waters, the more difficult it will become to resolve the matter quickly? The Government's position should be that the ships will be stopped or turned back until the question of the dry dock has been satisfactorily resolved. The matter could take some time to resolve—we all know that it can take some time to sort out planning permission problems.

Mr. Morley

That is exactly the Government's position, and the Environment Agency is the competent authority in this case. The Environment Agency's clear legal advice is that the ships should return to the United States. We may need to take into account circumstances such as weather or emergencies, but those circumstances have not yet arisen, and the advice stands. MARAD, the responsible agency in the United States, should take serious note of that.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)

Will the Minister accept that he has not really answered one of the key points—that there has not been proper liaison between different Departments—in the urgent question, which was well put by my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington)? Does he agree that we should not be taking a nimby view? We should be doing all that we can to help British companies secure lucrative overseas contracts, but public confidence is vital. Because of the incompetence of his and other officials a lot of damage has been done to Able UK, which is a good UK company. Why was a proper environmental impact assessment not implemented at the earliest possible opportunity?

Mr. Morley

I am not sure what the hon. Gentleman's point about the environmental impact assessment refers to. The necessary environmental impact assessment for the dry dock has been carried out, but it was done as part of the original planning application and has not been implemented. That is the root of the current complex dispute.

I do not accept the argument that there has not been proper co-ordination between Departments. The Environment Agency is the competent authority and DEFRA's direct role is limited, although we are aware of what has been going on. We have also liaised with the Department for Transport, particularly in relation to the condition of the vessels before they set out. If the hon. Gentleman wants to go into it, we have also discussed the issues with the EU, various embassies and MARAD. We are well aware of what has been going on in relation to the actual applications. The problem is that there seems to be a question mark over the consents that the company had obtained and thought were in place. The Environment Agency believes, not unreasonably, that while there is a question mark, the terms and conditions of the licence have not been met, which is why it believes that the ships should return to the United States until those matters are sorted out. As I said, if the terms and conditions are met in full, there is no reason in principle why the contract cannot go ahead.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland)

First, may I associate myself with the remarks of the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), inasmuch as this is a matter of such importance that it should be the responsibility of one Government Minister, rather than being split between the Minister for the Environment and the Department for Transport? In the meantime, however, will he speak to his colleagues in the Department for Transport and impress upon them the important point that the current confusion surrounding the transportation of the vessels must not be used as an excuse to change the route that is currently proposed to bring them through the Pentland firth, which, as the Minister will know, is one of the most notoriously difficult tidal races around our coastline?

Mr. Morley

On the last point, the ships are not coming through the Pentland firth, and I am not aware of any proposal to alter the route. On departmental responsibilities, I come back to the point that the competent authority is the Environment Agency. It is not a split responsibility between the Department for Transport and Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, although, of course, there are issues in which we have an interest, but there is a very clear competent authority and it is the Environment Agency.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We must move on.