HL Deb 28 February 1995 vol 561 cc1420-8

3.50 p.m.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to made a Statement on the Government's response to the report of Lord Donaldson's inquiry into the prevention of pollution from merchant shipping. The response is published today. Copies have been placed in the Library of the House and are available in the Vote Office.

"When Lord Donaldson's report, Safer Ships, Cleaner Seas, was published in May 1994, it was welcomed both within the United Kingdom and internationally. I am pleased to have this opportunity to echo my predecessor in thanking Lord Donaldson and his team for the depth and quality of their report.

The Government have already accepted its broad thrust. I now go further. The Government accept 86 of the 103 recommendations. Most of the others are still being considered. We were unable to accept only four recommendations where we decided that the action proposed was inappropriate. Our response clearly demonstrates that the Government are serious both about ship safety and pollution prevention, and serious about implementing the Donaldson Report.

"It is essential that those operating substandard shipping in United Kingdom waters should be clearly identifiable. I am pleased to say that our initiative in publishing monthly lists of such ships detained in United Kingdom ports has been well received by responsible shipowners. The message is clear: substandard ships will be detained and information about detentions will be published.

"The Government support the report's emphasis on port state control and have acted to ensure that the recommendations on improved targeting of substandard ships are considered by the EC and the Paris Memorandum of Understanding.

"We undertook to consider recommendations on providing emergency towing capability. I expect a final report in June from the Coastguard Agency on the feasibility, costs and benefits of the inquiry's proposals. I also announced last December that we had accepted the Donaldson recommendation that two tugs should be stationed in the Dover Strait and the Minches to provide emergency cover this winter. These tugs are now in place. This trial will also provide operational experience for the agency's final report.

"With all-party support, the merchant Shipping (Salvage and Pollution) Act 1994 is now law. This has allowed us to ratify two international conventions, one on salvage and the other on increased compensation for oil pollution. We are encouraging other states to do likewise.

"At a national level the Act extends the principle of strict liability for oil pollution in United Kingdom waters to cover spills of persistent oil from ships other than oil tankers. The problem now is to ensure that the owners of ships whose bunkers cause damage are able to pay. We are pressing internationally for the extension of compulsory liability insurance and are considering the scope for unilateral action.

"We do not want ships to be able to continue to operate anonymously off our coasts. We have been vigorous, therefore, in seeking international agreement on the mandatory fitting of transponders and we will maintain this pressure at the IMO. Pending agreement on transponders we also intend to act on Lord Donaldson's recommendation that ships should have recognition marks that are clearly visible, by presenting proposals to the next meeting of IMO's Maritime Safety Committee.

"Since last July the Marine Safety Agency has been carrying out a programme of inspections of foreign fish factory ships—Klondikers—working off the UK. Substandard Klondikers found in port have been detained and vessels at anchor have been told that deficiencies must be put right. However, the problems and the risks remain.

"The Scottish Office has brought forward proposals to improve fisheries management by limiting the number of fish transhipment licences issued to Klondikers and by introducing an advance notice period for licence applications from May this year. We are considering a number of options for further action, under merchant shipping powers, such as preventing loading or unloading and requiring vessels to leave our waters. These should help to ensure that Klondikers meet agreed safety standards and carry adequate insurance. We will issue a consultation paper shortly with proposals for possible legislative action, including the extension of our powers of inspection and detention to ships in United Kingdom waters not on innocent or transit passage.

"The report recommended that a statutory obligation should be placed on ports to provide adequate and convenient waste reception facilities which should be free at the point of use. Before deciding on the form of legislation we need to establish the scale of the problem. Those with responsibility for ports should be consulted on specific proposals. Research is already being conducted to address these issues. Results will be available soon and we expect to consult interested parties shortly thereafter. As part of our initiative against pollution from ships we will also bring forward regulations defining our exclusive economic zone which will extend our jurisdiction over pollution from ships up to 200 miles from our shores. We are considering how best to enhance surveillance and enforcement of this extended area.

"The inquiry also made recommendations on responsibility for clean-up operations in harbour areas and on the coast. We will consult interested parties on these recommendations and on possible courses of action.

"We are determined to continue working towards the elimination of poor operational practices on ships. In line with Lord Donaldson's recommendations we are strongly supporting the IMO revision of the Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping Convention which should be completed in June. We also fully endorse the IMO's International Safety Management Code and are encouraging its widespread use on United Kingdom ships in advance of its mandatory introduction in 1998.

"The shipping industry has expressed concern about Lord Donaldson's recommendation that shipowners should pay into two funds for port state control inspections and the United Kingdom's standing counter-pollution capacity. We have long supported the "user pays" and "polluter pays" principles and are keen to explore new options for funding. These need to be consistent with a competitive, as well as a safe fleet. We are clear that there may be problems in seeking to establish United Kingdom funds without first seeking regional agreement. We will work to develop funding proposals and to securing agreement on them with our regional partners. But it would not be right to close the door forever on a unilateral approach if regional agreement cannot be secured. We intend to consult on possible regional and unilateral approaches.

"Madam Speaker, in the time available I have highlighted the key elements of our response to the major issues raised by the Donaldson Report. We have accepted and acted upon many more recommendations, as outlined in our detailed response, and we will continue to take forward initiatives to implement the remaining recommendations. Lord Donaldson's report has set the agenda; we intend to follow it. My department's marine safety and coastguard agencies will play a key role in this process. Like all sensible people, we want a safe and pollution free marine environment".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.58 p.m.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, I thank the Minister on behalf of my colleagues for repeating the Statement in this House. I share his view that the Donaldson Report is a remarkable report of great scholarship. It assimilated a great deal of evidence and all that clearly has major national and international maritime and environmental implications.

We shall clearly need time to absorb the Government's conclusions in this document, which was issued this afternoon. I confess that I have not had time to read it all. It is evident that today's Statement should not be seen as a substitute for a full debate on the Donaldson Report. The conclusions reached by the report and the Government's responses deserve that.

I can only focus this afternoon on what I consider to be the priority areas for action, many of which were underlined by the Government and we support them as far as they go. In particular, I welcome the greater transparency regarding accident information, which is of critical importance. The Donaldson recommendations were effectively split into two areas—those recommendations regarding deterrents and the detection of wrongdoing and those recommendations requiring the dissemination of information to ships' masters concerning the planning of a voyage. Perhaps I can deal first with the role of the port state, which was given some emphasis by the Minister's Statement.

What specific action are the Government taking to include the Donaldson recommendations in the draft European Union directive on port state control, to get them incorporated into the Paris Memorandum of Understanding and to highlight these issues at the North Sea conference in June? How will the Government, through the IMO, seek to enlarge the scope of their own powers under port state control? Have they any plans to increase the number of surveyors required to undertake the necessary investigations in port; and if so, what training provision do they have in mind? Or is it that they propose to continue with the delegation of powers to classification societies which they intimated in the recent debate on shipping and also in their deregulation proposals? How does that stand alongside the view, as expressed in the final paragraph of the Statement, that the department's marine safety and coastguard agencies will pay a key role in these processes? Is it not a fact that the Government have plans to reduce the Marine Safety Agency by 14.8 per cent., the Marine Accident Investigation Branch by 7.4 per cent. and the Coastguard Agency by 6.4 per cent.? Why should that proceed when the Government are now saying that they have it in mind that people who use these facilities and polluters who have to pay for clearing up their pollution will have to pay towards the inspection of their ships?

I welcome what the Minister said about Klondikers, but is he not aware that recommendation 77(f) of the report states that the Government should, declare straight away that from a specified date, well before next Winter [1994–95], the Fisheries Departments will not consider any application for a transhipment licence unless the Master concerned produces evidence that his vessel is adequately insured and reaches minimum safety standards. Any licences issued under existing rules before that date should not run beyond that date". Why have the Government prevaricated on that recommendation? The are now seriously in arrears.

On the question of emergency towing, the Minister said that there are now two tugs in place. Is it not a fact that the tugs are flag of convenience vessels, crewed by non-English speaking Croatians? Is that a satisfactory way of proceeding on a matter where a common language is a rather important issue, as underlined by the report?

I turn from that issue to the marine environment in high risk areas. The report highlights the need for greater willingness on the part of the coastal state to intervene to protect areas especially vulnerable to the risk of exceptional damage through concentration of shipping or marine environmental damage. What initiatives do the Government propose as a matter of urgency to take in the IMO and at EU level in that regard? Is it not desirable, too, to rationalise the burgeoning use of special areas in some way, as not to do so could cause confusion?

I welcome the Government's undertaking in relation to the exclusive economic zone. That is absolutely right. But can the Minister state what options are being considered to enhance surveillance and the enforcement of the extended area? The Statement is very vague on that matter.

Many years ago, in 1977—I raised this point in our recent debate on shipping—the Labour Government introduced into the International Maritime Organisation the idea, which was adopted, of a marine safety corps, the idea being that developed shipping companies would help developing countries to establish more effective flag state control, which goes to the heart of this issue. That idea, which was supported for two or three years by the developed shipping nations, seems to have fallen into desuetude. Do not the Government agree that it would be quite a good idea to return to that concept as a way of effectively dealing with some of the lacunae of flag state control?

Regrettably, too many ship owners involved in the international business of shipping are prepared to cut corners and take chances with safety and damage to the environment. I believe that it would be appropriate if the Government were to respond to those activities by disregarding their own deregulation proposals which place their protestations about safety, which have been made clearly today, in jeopardy.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, I join the noble Viscount, Lord Goschen, and the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, in paying tribute to the Donaldson Report. It is a most thorough and exhaustive but readable report on this subject and needs to be taken very seriously indeed. I am glad that the Government's response has been positive and detailed.

The report gave rise to a debate on 25th January which was initiated by my noble friend Lord Perry of Walton. Many of the points in the report were highlighted then. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, took part in the debate. As the report indicates, the UK merchant shipping fleet now, regrettably, represents only 1.35 per cent. of the world total. That is an appalling figure when one considers our great maritime past. I was shaken when I read that statistic. However, the smallness of the size of our merchant fleet does not mean that we do not have to take this problem seriously as the UK is one of the major port and coastal states in terms of shipping calling at and passing by our ports. It is for that reason that the report has been prepared and the recommendations made.

As the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, said, shipping is now becoming more and more competitive. Ship owners are tending to cut costs in order to maintain margins. Therefore, it is more important than ever that a proper regulatory system for inspection should be introduced. The first responsibility is obviously with the flag state. However, we know how deficient that system is and therefore, quite rightly, the report and the Government in their response have emphasised the need for port state control.

There is a graphic phrase in the report which I shall quote and then I shall ask the noble Viscount whether that is the way in which the Government are proceeding in this connection. The report states in paragraph 10: At present the inspections constitute the maritime equivalent of roadside checks of heavy goods vehicles … The essence of our proposals is that these inspections should take on more the character of the Ministry of Transport (MOT) Test enforced for vehicles registered in the United Kingdom". In the light of that comment, is the noble Viscount satisfied that the steps now being taken will achieve the objective mentioned in the report?

This is not only a national but an international issue. So the question arises, as the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, has properly mentioned, as to what we are doing with our partners in the European Union and at the International Maritime Organisation. They are no doubt fully familiar with the report. Will they also ensure that it is acted upon by the individual countries of the Union and by the other signatories of the Paris Memorandum of Understanding?

The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, referred to marine environmental high risk areas. That is one of the recommendations which the Government said they would have to consider. In view of the importance of the issue I should like to express the hope that that consideration will be quickly completed.

Finally, I come to funding. Quite obviously, these improved methods of inspection have to be paid for. The proposal is that they should be paid for by the shipping industry. But that raises the question of finding a regional solution which the Government are exploring. Can the noble Viscount explain to us how that is going to be undertaken and what hopes he has of achieving a regional solution?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I believe that the report of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, has been widely welcomed. I also believe that the Government's response today will be similarly widely welcomed because it basically accepts the broad thrust of the report. It also accepts the vast majority of the noble and learned Lord's recommendations, only four being rejected. I welcome also the attitude of the parties opposite in congratulating the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, on the work that he has done.

A number of detailed points were raised by the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis. Perhaps I may begin with those points made about the Coastguard Agency and the Marine Safety Agency. These agencies are at the very core of our policies on safety of life at sea around our coasts and also on the prevention of marine pollution.

Efficiency exercises have been carried out, but it is important for me to emphasise to the House today that safety is our paramount concern. It will not be compromised. The Coastguard Agency has been asked to achieve realistic economies without affecting its operational effectiveness or diminishing safety levels. It is important to note that about £3 million has been allocated to the agency to allow implementation of the recommendations following the Donaldson Report. Similarly, the Marine Safety Agency has a reputation for quality. I believe that the two enforce our port state control regime. It is absolutely vital that the agency has the credibility which it has at the moment. Again, reorganisation and efficiency gains have been required from the MSA. Provision has been made for that.

The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, talked about the provision of tugs. The report suggests that interim arrangements should be put in place, and that we have done. We have sought to provide interim cover which will act as a trial exercise. A great deal has been said both in the press and by the noble Lord today about the nationality of the tugs. It is important to give a little background about that situation. The two tugs chartered by the agency are controlled by the United Kingdom-based company, United Towing, which is a leading member of the International Salvage Union.

Although foreign flagged and crewed, the ships meet the necessary safety and operational standards. They provide an emergency towing response capability at reasonable cost to the taxpayer. We were looking for ships that would be able to do the job properly and these vessels had been operating very successfully in the North Sea. In the incidents to which they have responded they have shown that they represent an extremely effective and efficient response capability.

This is a trial and we shall be analysing the data which results. We shall see what action needs to be taken on a more permanent basis.

Port state control was the theme of the questions put to me by noble Lords opposite. Taken together, the noble and learned Lord's recommendations on that subject suggested radical alteration to the way in which port state control is currently undertaken. We indicated that we would present the recommendations to our port state control partners, and that we have done. We have put great emphasis behind the noble and learned Lord's recommendations concerning the targeting of ships. It is absolutely vital that the correct ships are targeted so that limited resources can be concentrated on those ships which we believe present the greatest risk. We are pursuing that with our partners in port state control. I believe that the pressure we shall apply will bring them round to our way of thinking on targeting.

It is also worth re-emphasising the policy of dentention which we have pursued and publication of the names of the ships which we have detained. At the onset of that policy there was some concern that that would not be a fair way of going about the business. However, I believe that the policy has been welcomed. Sub-standard ships need to be publicised so that everybody knows what ships have failed to attain the, required standard.

The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, referred to Klondikers. We all accept that this is an intolerable situation particularly for those who live in the Shetland Islands. The situation there is that there are a great many ships, many of which are unsatisfactory, concentrated in a small area. The accidents and losses which have taken place show the risks that are being posed by these vessels. However, at the moment our powers to take action are limited. One of the Government's papers will consider a significant extension of our current powers as we seek to close the gaps which the Klondikers have demonstrated exist. Our programme of inspection of Klondikers will continue and we shall detain sub-standard ships if they are in port. The Scottish Office has produced a consultation document aimed at limiting the number of Klondiker licences issued on fisheries grounds. The Department of Transport's consultation paper will examine alternative means of ensuring that Klondikers and other ships operating in our waters conform to agreed safety standards.

In looking at the issue of Klondikers it is important to realise that they are very important to the economy of the region. The fishermen welcome them as a market for their catches. But we have to ensure that the right number of Klondikers are there. Some of them have seen no fish over their sides at all during the season. There are crews which have not been paid or there are not insufficient bunkers on board. There is a wide range of problems. It is not the case that we can just snap our fingers and solve the problem. We take it very seriously and that is why we are consulting in two different ways.

As regards funding, we are committed to the principle that the user should pay. It is because of the possible competitive disadvantage to our ports and shipping industry that we are initially seeking a European approach to user charging. Our proposed consultation paper on funding will advance possible regional approaches. The paper will also consider the scope for unilateral action and the possibility of early legislation in order to seek enabling powers to allow charging.

I hope that that response covers the bulk of the questions which were put to me by noble Lords opposite. If I have missed any I shall certainly write to noble Lords.