HL Deb 18 April 1991 vol 527 cc1610-3

7.9 p.m.

Lord Belstead rose to move that the draft order laid before the House on 28th February be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this order would introduce provisions broadly in line with those already in force in Great Britain by the enactment of the Dangerous Vessels Act 1985. I believe that it will be of assistance to the House if I comment briefly on the order and then say a few words about the detailed provisions.

The main purpose of the order is to plug the gap in existing powers by strengthening the powers of harbour authorities, and by empowering harbour masters to give directions prohibiting the entry into, or requiring the removal of a vessel from, a harbour. In this way, harbour authorities would be best equipped to deal with potential, serious emergencies which could occur as a consequence of the increase, in recent years, in the transport of dangerous cargoes by sea.

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 although the matter has not yet been tested in court in Northern Ireland, some doubt has been expressed that such power extends to prohibiting a ship from entering a port or to requiring a ship to be removed entirely from a port.

That may seem a very minor matter but where a ship is not carrying a dangerous cargo there is always a risk of serious damage being done where, for example, it has defective steering and there could be a danger of collision with a ship carrying a dangerous cargo, or with any other ship. The danger could be increased substantially if a vessel in a dangerous condition seeks refuge in a port used by chemical carriers. The danger of course could he made far worse if there are residential or industrial buildings in the vicinity of the port.

Article 3 gives powers to a harbour master to prohibit a vessel from entering the harbour, or to remove a vessel where he considers its conditions or that of its contents to be such that its presence in the harbour might involve grave and imminent danger to the safety of any person 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. Article 4 limits the liability of a harbour authority for loss or damage to any vessel or anything contained in any vessel.

Article 5 empowers the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland to give directions which may countermand or override those given by harbour masters in a situation where there are wider considerations to be taken into account than would be the case of a harbour master acting solely in the interests of his own port.

Article 6 provides that whatever action a harbour master takes in the exercise of his powers under Article 3, such action shall not interfere with similar powers conferred on the Secretary of State by the Prevention of Oil Pollution Act 1971 to give directions to deal with the wider issues of oil pollution affecting the United Kingdom as a whole.

Article 7 proposes that the maximum penalties for failing to comply with a harbour master's directions should not exceed £25,000 on summary conviction, and on conviction on indictment to an unlimited fine.

Article 8 provides for exemptions from the provisions of the order for vessels belonging to Her Majesty, or pleasure craft of up to 24 metres in length.

My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 28th February be approved—(Lord Belstead.)

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, for his explanation of the terms of this order. We welcome this order because there is by now a considerable awareness of the possible hazards associated with the movement of ships and shipment of dangerous cargoes.

I have just two questions for the Minister. First, can he confirm whether or not there is an arrangement in existence to enable the interests of Great Britain and the interests of the Republic to be taken into consideration, where that is appropriate, before the harbour master in Northern Ireland issues instructions to a ship's master under the terms of this order? Further, is there an arrangement to notify the authorities in such countries if instructions have been issued? Secondly, does the Republic of Ireland have legislation which harmonises with the provisions of this order?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, for his response to the order. The noble Lord asked me, first, whether I could confirm that there is an agreement in existence which would enable Great Britain to take the interests of the Republic of Ireland into account if a ship is turned away under this order. The noble Lord of course is rightly taking account of the fact that this is a harmonisation measure and we are talking about legislation that is in existence at the moment in Great Britain and, if this order is agreed to, would come into existence in Northern Ireland.

Perhaps I may answer the question in a slightly different way, and I hope give satisfaction to the noble Lord. It is important to notice that under Article 5 the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland is empowered to give directions which would countermand or override those given by harbour masters in a situation where there are wider considerations to be taken into account than would be the case if the harbour master acted solely in the interests of his own port. It is quite important that those wider considerations are not defined under Article 5, precisely for the reasons that the noble Lord raises.

Secondly, I think this matter goes a little wider than the noble Lord indicated. Yes, if a ship were to be turned away from, for instance, one of the harbours in Northern Ireland, obviously there could be implications regarding safety in the Republic of Ireland. But there could be implications for safety if there was a dangerous cargo on the west coast, for instance, of Great Britain, the Scottish coast, the English coast, and indeed the noble Lord's Welsh coast. There could possibly even be implications for the northern coast of Europe. It is precisely for that reason that the government department in Northern Ireland is empowered by Article 5 to be able to take a decision which could countermand a harbour master's decision to turn away, for instance, a dangerous cargo.

I hope that that will satisfy the noble Lord. I am afraid that I am not aware as to whether there are arrangements in existence, but the telephone is always there and the swiftest of communications are always there. The great point is that there is this power embedded in this order that the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland can take a wider view, and could say in a particular case, "We have to be careful. We are in a particular case going to countermand an order to turn away."

I confess to the noble Lord that he has bowled me out about legislation in the Republic of Ireland. I shall have to write to him as to whether they have similar legislation on their statute book. I apologise to the noble Lord for not being able to answer that question, and I shall endeavour to repair the omission very quickly in correspondence.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Viscount Long

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 10 minutes past 8 o'clock.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.18 until 8.10 p.m.]