HL Deb 02 April 1984 vol 450 cc480-4

3.10 p.m.

Lord Walston

My Lords. I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. This is not, I say frankly at the outset, a Bill of profound importance to a great many of your Lordships, although it is of profound importance to a certain aspect of our maritime life. Nor, I am glad to say, is it a long or a complicated Bill. Its purpose is to plug a gap in the powers of harbour authorities to deal with serious emergencies. Because it is a simple Bill, I am not proposing—I hope that your Lordships will not take this amiss—to go through the Bill in the normal way clause by clause.

Virtually all harbour authorities have powers, which are exercised through their harbour masters, to regulate the manner in which ships enter and leave port, the berthing of ships and their movement within port. But the courts have held that the power to regulate ships does not include the power to prohibit a ship from entering port. Also, although there is no legal case on this point, it is probable that the power to regulate does not include power to require a ship to be removed entirely from a port. In principle, of course, this is quite right. It has been a very long established principle of navigation and of movement on the high seas that a port should be free and open for all to come and go. That has been held virtually from time immemorial.

The Bill would undoubtedly modify this principle but only in very exceptional cases—only in those cases where there exists grave danger to human life, to property or to navigation. It would certainly not give harbour authorities an absolute discretion as to whether particular ships should be permitted to enter port. It must be borne in mind that in recent years—in the last decade, one could say—the transport of dangerous cargoes other than those which in the past have been transported in time of war or in preparation for war, or, in other words, the transport of dangerous cargoes for peaceful purposes, has increased enormously. This is particularly true, of course, of such cargoes as liquid gases and various chemicals. It is for this reason above all that an extension of the powers of harbour authorities is essential.

Many harbour authorities already have power to prohibit dangerous cargoes from coming into harbour. It is proposed that new and uniform powers for this purpose will be conferred by regulations made by the Secretary of State under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. They have nothing to do with this Bill. But the powers that exist already and the proposed regulations will not enable a harbour authority or a harbour master acting on its behalf to prohibit a ship itself, as distinct from a ship carrying a dangerous cargo, from entering port. This may seem a very minor matter. But, even where a ship is not carrying a dangerous cargo, there is always a risk of serious damage being done where such a ship is run into and a collision occurs because, for instance, of defective steering on the part of a second ship that is carrying no dangerous cargo.

Such a ship with defective steering may undoubtedly constitute a serious hazard in a port used by chemical carriers. The danger is, of course, made far worse if there are residential or industrial buildings in the vicinity of the port. A collision involving a ship carrying liquid gas could cause, in some ports in this country, a catastrophe of enormous magnitude. As some of your Lordships may recall, fortunately not in this country but in the United States and elsewhere, there have been a certain number of disasters of enormous scale. For instance, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1917. admittedly a long time ago, 2,000 people were killed and 9,000 were injured. In Bombay in 1944, 1,250 people were killed. In Germany, also a long time ago, 1,100 people were killed. It is therefore clear that these things can happen and do happen. We are not simply talking about some theoretical danger.

In recent years, a few harbour authorities have taken powers by means of private legislation to give directions prohibiting the entry into port of a vessel which, for any reason, was likely or was likely to become, a danger to other vessels in the port. The terms of this power, which relate only to danger to other vessels and not to life and property generally, are somewhat to narrow, in my submission, and the penalty for refusing to comply with such a direction undoubtedly far too low. The maximum fine is one of £1,000 in the case of the Port of London, and in other cases only £200. That is hardly a deterrent in these days. In any case, powers of this sort have been obtained by only five or six harbour authorities. The maximum penalties for refusing to comply with directions by harbour authorities or their harbour masters to exclude dangerous vessels from harbours are also relatively low. The maximum fine that could be imposed under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 for breach of the proposed Dangerous Substances in Harbour Areas regulations will be only £1,000. It is in order to overcome these problems that this Bill is being presented to your Lordships.

Clause 1 would enable a harbour master to give directions prohibiting the entry into, or requiring the removal from, a port of any vessel the presence of which in the port may, in his opinion, by reason of the condition of that vessel or of anything contained in it, involve the risk of grave and imminent danger to human life or property; or that the vessel may, by sinking or foundering in the harbour, prevent or seriously prejudice the use of the harbour by other vessels.

Clause 8 proposes that the maximum penalties for failing to comply with a harbour master's direction are sufficiently high to constitute a real deterrent—a fine of £25,000 on summary conviction and, on conviction on indictment, an unlimited fine. That is a very wise provision in these days of continuing inflation. These relatively high maximum penalties emphasis that the purpose of the Bill is to enable action to be taken with the sanction of the law for the avoidance of catastrophic accidents. The Bill requires that a harbour master in considering whether to give a direction prohibiting a vessel from entering port, or requiring her removal, on grounds of danger, must have regard to all the circumstances of the case and in particular to the safety of any person or vessel, whether in or outside the harbour.

If, as I hope, this Bill is enacted, it is probable that the new powers which it will confer on harbour masters would, in practice, seldom, if ever, be exercised. In fact, in the type of case which the Bill is designed to deal with, harbour masters already from time to time refuse entry into port. But sometimes it is done without it being very clear whether they have the powers to do so. These refusals are, in the main, accepted. To some extent, therefore, this Bill will legalise what already happens in practice.

It should also be mentioned that in nearly every other comparable country similar powers are available to prohibit highly dangerous vessels from entering or remaining in port. Clause 4 of the Bill contains a power for the Secretary of State for Transport to override a direction given by a harbour master under Clause 1, thus enabling the vessel to enter the port. This, I suggest, is a wise provision because it is right that there should be an overriding power which can be exercised for the purpose of securing the safety of any person or vessel. It enables wider considerations to be taken into account by the Secretary of State than would be taken into account by the harbour master acting solely in the interests of his own port. It would of course overcome any risk of any vessel becoming in effect a "Flying Dutchman" unable to enter any port in the vicinity.

This is a beneficial Bill, as I hope your Lordships will agree, both to the ports industry and to the public at large, and I commend it to your Lordships' House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Walston.)

3.23 p.m.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, I wish first to congratu-late and thank the noble Lord, Lord Walston. for bringing forward this Bill. I am certain that many noble Lords will be, as I am, surprised that these provisions did not already exist. The Bill is obviously much needed to fill a gap.

There are only three points that I wish to raise. First, perhaps the noble Lord can inform the House about the consultations which took place prior to the Bill being presented. Have the shipping and other associated interests and also some of the relevant trade unions been consulted, and have they generally approved the provisions? I am sorry that I have not had a chance to give the noble Lord notice of the next two matters that I should like to raise. The noble Lord has stressed that under Clause 4 the Secretary of State may give directions which countermand or override those given by the harbour master. There is a time factor involved in all this and I would be interested to know what would appear to be the circumstances under which the Secretary of State may wish to take such action, and upon whose advice he would act, because somebody would need to inform the Secretary of State about overriding the harbour master's directions.

Clause 5 provides that the courts shall determine claims against the directions both of the harbour master under Clause 2, and of the Secretary of State under Clause 4. However, I note that there is at least one difference between the two provisions. Under Clause 2 there is reference to directions given "unreasonably" by the harbour master under Clause 1(1)(b), which refers to the possibility of a vessel sinking or foundering; whereas there is no reference to paragraph (a) of that clause under which the harbour master may consider that the vessel involves a threat to human life or property. However, the courts may determine any claim due to the countermanding directions given by the Secretary of State under both paragraphs (a) and (b) of Clause 1. There is a difference there, and perhaps the noble Lord can explain the position. Otherwise, although this is a Private Member's Bill, I should like to say from this Dispatch Box that I hope that it will be given a Second Reading.

3.25 p.m.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, after hearing the explanation of the noble Lord. Lord Walston, and the acceptance in principle of the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, I am quite sure that the House will agree that this is a useful measure of the type that all too often has to wait far too long before passing into statute. The Government's attitude to the main provision of the Bill—which is to empower harbour masters to exclude or remove very dangerous vessels from their harbours—is straightforward. If harbour authorities who are responsible for harbour safety consider that they need such a power, we accept their judgment and for that reason we are prepared to look favourably upon the Bill. We shall, however, be putting down some amendments—mainly of a drafting nature—but I should make it clear that we have been fully consulted during the preparation of the Bill and the main substance of the Bill takes account of our comments.

The basic idea behind the Bill is simple, as the noble Lord has suggested. Unfortunately it is very seldom that a simple idea can be embodied in a truly simple statute. As the noble Lord explained, certain subsidiary provisions have had to be included. One of these is the power for the Secretary of State to override a harbour exclusion order. This would be exercised where it is essential for a ship to enter a harbour which is not willing to receive it. In such cases the Secretary of State would have power to overrule the harbour master. This overriding power is necessary to enable the Secretary of State to intervene in cases involving a wider public interest, and his advice would come from, among others, the harbour authority.

The provisions about compensation also deserve a brief word. The powers given to the harbour master and to the Secretary of State in this Bill can seriously affect other people's interests. It would be very rarely indeed, if ever, that they would be exercised lightly or unreasonably. Nevertheless, it has been thought proper both by the Bill's sponsors and by the Department of Transport that provision should be made for the protection of anybody who may be damaged by any such unreasonable use, which could have severe financial or other consequences.

In the case of the harbour master's power, the liability for damages could only arise when he used it to avoid the possibility of the harbour being blocked, rather than loss of life or serious damage to property. A similar provision already exists in respect of the Secretary of State's power to give directions to ships in the Prevention of Oil Pollution Act 1971. In cases where the harbour master makes his exclusion order on the grounds of Clause 1(1)(b), the court has power under Clause 2 to award compensation if he has exercised his power unreasonably. In Clause l(1)(a) cases, the court has no power to award such compensation and a distinction is made because the situation envisaged under Clause l(l)(a)—which refers to: "grave and imminent danger to human life or property"— is so serious that it would place an unfair burden on the exercise of the harbour master's powers; whereas Clause 1(1)(b) cases by contrast primarily concern money.

I have mentioned that certain amendments will be required. I am not yet able to say what the full extent of these will be. However, I can say that there will have to be an amendment to remove the reference to Northern Ireland because, as harbours are a transferred matter, it would be for the Assembly to debate a measure of this kind. It may also be necessary to adjust the definition of the exempted vessels. I would respectfully suggest to your Lordships that these and other matters might well await the Committee stage. Meanwhile, I hope that the Bill will be generally welcomed and given a Second Reading.

Lord Walston

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords who have spoken and to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas and his officials for the help that they have given in the preparation of this Bill. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, has gone quite a long way to answer the questions posed by the noble Lord, Lord Underhill. Consultations were carried out by the British Ports Association on a wide basis. I am afraid that at this stage I cannot give the noble Lord. Lord Underhill, an exact list of all the power who have been consulted, but I shall happily do so later if he so wishes.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, raised a different point about the Secretary of State in Clause 4(2)(a) and (b). In order to clarify the situation with regard to the powers exercised by a harbour master under Clause 1(l)(b), I shall give the noble Lord one example. Paragraph (b) says: that the vessel may, by sinking or foundering in the harbour, prevent or seriously prejudice the use of the harbour by other vessels". Your Lordships may recall that fairly recently there was an unfortunate collision in the mouth of Harwich harbour. The mouth of Harwich harbour not only affects Harwich harbour itself, but also Felixstowe and Ipswich, and the smaller port of Manningtree. When the vessel, which had been very seriously damaged, was eventually righted there was a very serious question as to whether that vessel could safely be towed through the narrow channel, which had recently been dredged, or whether there was a reasonable danger that it might sink on the way. in which case it would block a very large harbour complex. In those circumstances the harbour master refused permission for the vessel to enter. It is that type of circumstance which is envisaged in these two clauses.

As I say, I am grateful for the support that has been given to this Bill, and I now ask the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.

On Question, Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.