HL Deb 17 February 1997 vol 578 cc502-11

5.53 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (Viscount Goschen) rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 24th January be approved [10th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, these regulations would revoke the Merchant Shipping (Ro-Ro Passenger Ship Survivability) (No. 2) Regulations 1994 and further enhance the safety of roll on-roll off ferries serving UK ports by implementing an international agreement negotiated last year in Stockholm.

Roll on-roll off ferries provide essential services. They account for around 50 million passenger journeys each year. Businesses and the general public rely on them and rightly expect to travel safely. The Government have long recognised their responsibility in the international community to set the framework to enable this expectation to be met. Our aim has been to seek and secure the highest practicable safety standards for these vessels.

This has been a developing process, the tragic catalyst for which was the "Herald Of Free Enterprise" disaster in March 1987. We must never forget, particularly as we approach the tenth anniversary of Zeebrugge, the 193 lives which were lost. That memory has fuelled the Government's determination over the years to secure further improvements in ferry safety where necessary. The court of inquiry into the "Herald" recommended many safety improvements, both in the short and longer term. We acted quickly to introduce measures such as the installation of closed-circuit television to monitor the car deck; indicator lights on the bridge to show that the bow doors were closed; new requirements for emergency equipment; a new code of practice for vehicle stowage, and many others.

We have also taken steps to improve enforcement of standards. Inspections of ferries have become more rigorous. All ferries serving our ports are subject not only to a thorough annual survey, but also to at least two further inspections a year. Unannounced operational checks are also carried out, whereby inspectors travel incognito, only making themselves known to the master if needing to inspect a restricted area. And further checks on the operation of ferries are now coming into play as the European Community's early implementation of the International Safety Management Code begins to bite on ro-ro ferries. We now inspect not just the ferries themselves, but also the shore-based operation and the operating company's whole system of safety management.

Many of these improvements have focused on operational and safety management aspects. But we have also been determined to address any structural issues, which might affect the likelihood of capsize in the event of a collision. While there is a low statistical chance of such an accident, we have worked over the years to try to ensure that even this small risk is reduced as far as practicable.

Shipping is, of course, an international business and its safety depends on international agreement. In the early 1990s we pressed hard in the International Maritime Organisation for agreement on a higher worldwide survivability standard. The SOLAS 90 standard was a significant improvement, but it applied only to new ships built after April 1990. Despite a vigorous campaign by the UK, other IMO members failed to agree that the SOLAS 90 standard should also be applied to older ships, for which a much lower standard, the SOLAS 92 standard, was agreed.

We found this situation unacceptable. We therefore decided to take the virtually unprecedented step of brokering an agreement with neighbouring states outside the IMO framework. In 1993 we reached agreement with 13 other European maritime administrations to apply the SOLAS 90 standard to all ro-ro ferries operating internationally to ports in north-western Europe. That agreement was implemented in UK law by the 1994 regulations which these regulations will supersede.

Ferry safety issues were subsequently and tragically brought again to the world's attention with the loss of the "Estonia" in September 1994. It is to the credit of the Secretary General of the IMO that he immediately responded to the enormity of that disaster by establishing a panel of experts to review fully and quickly all aspects of ferry safety.

In early 1995, research carried out in the UK and Denmark demonstrated that in those ships where the basic survivability was already high, additional measures, such as transverse bulkheads, could limit the destabilising effect of water entering the car deck and so further enhance the chances of survival. But the key issue was the basic robustness of the ships' design. This research significantly informed the panel of experts' recommendations which were considered at a specially convened SOLAS Diplomatic Conference in November 1995.

The UK gave strong support to the whole package of measures proposed by the panel and particularly to a new survivability standard, which required ships to meet not only the SOLAS 90 standard, but also to resist capsize with up to half a metre of water on the car deck. Given the circumstances, we were very disappointed when the Diplomatic Conference failed to adopt the new survivability standard. It could agree only on the worldwide application of the SOLAS 90 standard which the UK and other parties to the 1993 agreement had already adopted.

But the Diplomatic Conference did allow administrations to enter into regional agreements to apply a higher survivability standard if they wished. The United Kingdom Government took a leading role in the negotiations which resulted in the Stockholm Agreement three months later. This agreement will apply a higher survivability standard, developed from the panel's original proposals using further detailed research, to all ro-ro passenger ferries operating on international journeys in north-western Europe and the Baltic Sea.

The timescale for action, which is set out in Regulation 6, is a demanding one. Those existing ferries which are further from the standard must be modified sooner than those closer to it—all will have to meet it by 2002. New ferries must be built to it. The vast majority of UK ferries are already close to the new standard. Regulation 4 reflects our decision that the Stockholm standard shall apply not only to all ferries operating on international routes but also to those on UK domestic routes where conditions are comparable to international journeys. Regulation 9 requires all ships covered by the regulations to carry a certificate of compliance with the new standard.

I should also explain some of the other key regulations. Regulation 7 allows an established operator, who will therefore generally be bound by the Stockholm standard, some flexibility to provide additional services to deal with seasonal demand. The standard applying to any ferries operating such services will depend upon the prevailing sea conditions during the period of operation. Those conditions must be agreed between the Secretary of State and his counterpart in the country in which the second port is situated. A very limited exemption from the standard is also allowed under Regulation 10 to enable the Secretary of State to agree that a ferry may make a single voyage to or from a UK port. This allows a ship which would otherwise be required to meet the standard to be moved from one port to another for a particular purpose, such as for repair or for sale. Adherence to the regulations is enforced through Regulation 11, which sets out penalties for non-compliance and through Regulation 12 which provides for the detention of a non-compliant ship.

The Stockholm Agreement is a significant achievement to which we are totally committed. We were the first country to sign it—on 1st July 1996, the day it became open for signature. The important point is that now we must implement it rigorously. The Government are grateful to those other nations which have co-operated with us to enable higher standards to be applied to ferries serving our ports. We acknowledge the co-operation of the ferry industry, which we have consulted extensively throughout. Compliance with the higher standard will not be achieved without significant cost. I welcome the industry's positive attitude in recognising the need for further action. We are also grateful for the constructive role played by those representing users of ferry services, and most particularly for the supportive attitude of the Herald Families' Association, which has done so much to increase awareness of these issues since the tragic loss of that vessel, and to which I pay tribute.

The regulations before the House today implement the agreement. They will ensure that ferries serving our ports will enjoy a survivability standard significantly higher than that in force outside north-western Europe and the Baltic. They will enhance further the already very high level of safety which we have striven to achieve. I commend the regulations to the House.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 24th January be approved [10th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Viscount Goschen.)

6.3 p.m.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, I thank the Minister first for recounting some of the history underlying the issues which we are considering and, secondly, for properly paying tribute to the Herald Families' Association. Those families have undergone terrible trauma and have been most constructive in their attitude since that terrible event some years ago. I very much remember it because I was the transport Commissioner in Europe at the time. I shall always remember the appalling situation which afflicted so many people when I visited the walking wounded (both physically and mentally) in the hotel where they were staying outside Bruges, seeking from that tragedy a haven which they could never obtain.

Although I welcome the steps which the Minister outlined, it is sad that in so many instances one sees international regulation only by catastrophe. Both the "Herald of Free Enterprise" and the "Estonia" disasters involved substantial loss of life which triggered this response. Why cannot we deploy more effectively—not simply in the environment but in the field of transport in particular—the precautionary principle which is all too rarely invoked?

Although these are important mitigating measures, and I commend the Government on the action that they, together with other governments, have taken, the Minister spoke of the highest standards for ro-ro vessels. I do not think that we have yet achieved that. I remember vividly at the time of the "Herald" and, more recently, the "Estonia" disasters that serious doubts were expressed about the stability of ro-ro ferries. Those doubts were expressed not only by the press and by politicians, but also by naval architects experienced in these matters. Indeed, such doubts have been expressed over a long period of time. We have to take into account the fact that accidents involving ro-ro vessels occur all over the world and that literally thousands of lives have been lost because of the instability of those vessels. I do not know whether we have yet managed to achieve the right answer. Undoubtedly, these measures and other steps which have been taken have done much to help to solve the problems. But are they sufficient?

There can be no doubt that the international community responds to such problems far too slowly. Perhaps difficult economic factors stand in the way of anything like a rapid and effective response. I am not criticising the International Maritime Organisation. It is not the IMO's fault; it is the fault of member states. However, I think that the Government are entitled to be acquitted of any such blame in this regard. I say at once that I greatly admire the work of the present secretary-general of the IMO who has been outstanding.

I have had the pleasure of working with him and with his predecessor over many years and there is no doubt that he would have liked a far speedier response to these tremendous problems. However, he is inhibited by virtue of the facts to which I have just alluded. When action is demanded in the wake of disasters such as those of the "Estonia" and the "Herald", it is to the credit of the IMO that, although it would certainly prefer to have agreements brokered within the framework of the IMO, it has recognised that public opinion frequently demands much swifter action, at least on a regional basis. I applaud the fact that without doing damage to the integrity of the IMO or to its influence in international shipping councils, certain regional agreements have now been undertaken.

All who participated in the consultations and deliberations leading to the Stockholm Agreement merit the highest commendation. Both sides of industry contributed. Indeed, governments and everyone concerned should be applauded, but there can be no room for complacency, especially if we are to anticipate, rather than to react to, any such disaster in the future—and I believe that there will be further shipping disasters. They will not necessarily occur in this area—one hopes not—but we need a far more proactive attitude on the part of the international shipping community.

The Minister spoke of the British Government's work within the IMO to cause others within the wider shipping community to adopt these regulations. What form does that encouragement take? What success are the Government enjoying in that exercise? Clearly, if I can treat that as something of a rhetorical question, to enjoin in every way possible the support of maritime-interested countries in the IMO and in the European Union is vital. I gather some success in this context has been forthcoming. For example, France and Spain have different problems and, as I understand it, do not want separate levels of regulation in law. To have one level applicable to northern maritime countries and another applicable to those of the Mediterranean they would regard as inappropriate. Nevertheless, I understand that they have given support to this measure. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that; if it is right, I applaud the decision they have made. In addition, I ask the Minister to say what progress is being made in the IMO to secure the wider application of this type of measure in the international shipping community.

I turn to the question of simulated exercises dealing with evacuation. I understand that the exercises carried out by the Stena Line were of great value. Of course, it is impossible to substitute with precision the real conditions that apply at sea in an emergency. Evacuation in a crisis needs constant training and upgrading of techniques so that, as best as possible, lives can be safeguarded. Perhaps the Minister can say something about such exercises and about the improvement and upgrading of techniques. Incidentally, I ask whether in his view ferry design is kept under satisfactory review and, in particular, what is happening in that regard.

The Minister mentioned the fact that some, if not most, UK ferries meet the new standards. That implies that some do not. Perhaps he can indicate the number of UK ferries that are not likely to meet the new standards.

Clearly, improving safety at sea is imperative. The regulations are thoroughly to be welcomed in that context.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, we broadly welcome the new regulations and in particular appreciate the value of the very greatly increased inspection regimes which are now in operation. Before I go any further, perhaps I may say that I am still concerned about the practical implications of Regulation 7 governing seasonal use. Perhaps the noble Viscount can give more information as to how that would operate in practice. After all, the sea is no respecter of the seasons and is not necessarily less stormy just because it is the summertime; nor is it stormy or calm on command. I wonder how the arrangement would actually work in practice.

To go back to the main topic, some may say, as the noble Lord has just said by implication, that the regulations ought to have been introduced sooner following the "Herald of Free Enterprise" disaster, on that March day nearly 10 years ago when 193 lives were lost, and the inquiries and research that followed. It is true that a decision on the part of the Government to move ahead with a European level agreement to apply SOLAS 90 standards to existing ships operating to ports in north west Europe gave our region better safeguards in that respect than those that had existed world-wide, but apparently it needed the "Estonia" disaster in 1995 with the loss of 900 lives to persuade the IMO of the need for a rapid review of regulations and further international compliance.

I particularly welcome the Government's decision again to go further than the IMO was then able to do. In effect the IMO is now carrying out the agreement which we signed with our group of nations in 1994 and is doing so on a world-wide basis. I welcome the Government's decision to promote and co-operate in a second regional agreement at Stockholm last year. This requires structural modifications to prevent the destabilising effect of water in the cargo and car decks of ro-ro ferries for both new and existing vessels.

We still need to be vigilant. I draw the attention of the noble Viscount to four areas of continuing concern. First, in 1996 there were a number of ro-ro ferry accidents world-wide, most of which involved fire. Fortunately, these accidents did not cause loss of life, but fire at sea is a fearsome thing. Has the noble Viscount considered whether any further safety measures need to be taken in connection with that particular danger? We do not want to have to learn again from another disaster involving major loss of life.

Secondly, there is the question of the training of seamen in UK ships and in those flying the flags of other nations. Are the Government satisfied that present training, for example within the new STCW convention, is sufficiently widespread as to its use and sufficiently focused in its detail to ensure the required level of training in the application of regulations and best practice regarding ro-ro ferries?

Thirdly, I am reasonably content that the Department of Transport list of vessels operating in and out of British ports shows that a majority are very nearly within the new standards, but I hope that the authorities will ensure that the few who should conform this year actually do so.

Fourthly, I am concerned at the large number of ferries operating, for example in the Aegean, which may well carry UK citizens and citizens of the other countries which signed the Stockholm agreement last year, but which do not conform to our standards and may be rather elderly. Are the Government confident they will soon conform at least to SOLAS 90? Is there any measure which UK authorities or travel companies could or should take to warn UK citizens of the risks they may be taking?

I appreciate the work the Government have done to make ro-ro ferries operating in north west Europe progressively safer but we should go further and exert the maximum pressure in favour of safety standards implemented world-wide. That would be in the great tradition of British activity to promote maritime safety world-wide.

6.15 p.m.

Viscount Simon

My Lords, I should declare that I spent some years at sea and took a Master's certificate of competency in the late 1960s. Since then technology has advanced, and I would not make any claim to being up to date. I hope I am not being too technical, but we need to get some matters into perspective.

It is worth pointing out that it appears that standards prevailing at the time of the "Herald of Free Enterprise" disaster embraced less than 25 per cent. of those contained in the new regulations. However, having said that, we were still way ahead of most if not all others at that time with regard to safety. It is also worth mentioning that the "Estonia" had exemption from SOLAS regulations due to a local agreement. That horrific accident could not possibly have happened here.

It should be acknowledged that the A/Amax figures cannot show one ship as being safer than another. All that can be deduced is the probability of damage resulting in residual stability. The static stability calculations are probably similar to those which used to be familiar to me, but the "Herald of Free Enterprise" and the "Estonia" tragedies have indicated the way forward towards further intensive research into dynamic stability through model testing of each vessel and then comparing the figures with the static calculations. A comparison could then be made between theoretical and practical results. This development should be encouraged as it would be a big step forward. Nonetheless, the regulations themselves are a big improvement over those previously in force and I thoroughly approve of them.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken. Certainly, there has been a very wide level of support for the new regulations, and I believe that that view is reflected outside your Lordships' House as well. A huge amount of research has gone into the production of these regulations and there is a very strong feeling that this new regulatory approach deals with the structural issues and with water on the car deck; hence the stability issues that have been examined, particularly by the IMO panel of experts.

Again, the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, drew our attention to the history behind this issue. It is important to rehearse that in order to put the regulations into perspective and to provide a historical view as to how we have arrived at this situation. Certainly, regulation is based on examining the risks and investigating and identifying practical solutions. The noble Lord talked about being pro-active, and I certainly endorse what he said. Techniques such as formal safety assessment will be of major use in being increasingly pro-active.

The noble Lord questioned what is going on with regard to ferry design. Clearly operators could see the way that regulators were going and that they would be requiring ferries to meet new tough, stringent requirements. The new designs will of course take into account what is put forward in the regulations. Indeed, they will have to so do. There are further innovations in ferry design, not least the change from large conventional ferries to high speed craft of which we are seeing increasing numbers. They bring forward a whole new set of circumstances. Vessels which are travelling much faster bring different considerations with them. As regulators, we are looking extremely carefully at those new areas.

The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, asked about international action. I described the sequence of events which led up to the brokering of the Stockholm agreement and the links with the IMO there. We were pushing very hard within the IMO for wider international agreement but we were unable to achieve that. We believe that the technical solutions that we have identified are the right way forward and we shall maintain pressure to bring them about.

I was asked about France and Spain. I understand that certainly in the case of France, while it has not signed the agreement to bring in the regulations, it is content to participate in the regulatory approach and we are very pleased about that.

The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, asked about the Stena Invicta evacuation exercise. Making sure that ferries can be evacuated quickly and safely is a major part of the regulator's role. Such exercises are a major contribution to our understanding of how people behave in an emergency—whether the systems work and so on. Although it took some 65 minutes to complete the evacuation, the exercise provided much information about equipment and the way in which passengers and crew behave. We do not believe that it is right that such an exercise should take place in even more realistic circumstances, for example, in the middle of the Channel. Clearly, we wish to conduct those evacuation exercises in conditions of maximum safety. During the exercise, people were taking it slowly and deliberately because we did not want any injuries.

The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, commended the new inspection regime. That is an important part of the Government's powerful regulatory approach. Having covert inspections must be an important part of that. I was asked about Regulation 7, which deals with exemptions. That allows established operators to bring onto a regular route an additional ferry, particularly during the summer season. Such vessels would have to comply with requirements for a restricted period, perhaps for two or three of the summer months. That would be with regard to the significant wave height of the period. Weather considerations and significant wave heights around our coasts and those of other participants are a major factor in determining what level of standard must be complied with. That is a principle concerned with not just the summer months but with the different sea state conditions around the seas of the countries involved.

The noble Baroness is right to say that one can never guarantee on a particular day what the sea state will be. But a great deal of research has gone into sea states in various months and at various geographical locations around the coasts.

Exemption would require the agreement of both the Secretary of State of the United Kingdom and the equivalent authority for the other port. We do not want any exemptions to these powerful regulations which are not entirely appropriate and which do not take fully into account the safety considerations. Therefore, I can give the noble Baroness a very strong reassurance on that point.

The noble Baroness asked me about the STCW convention. I could say a great deal about that but I would be going beyond the scope of our debate. Suffice it to say that I am pleased with the direction of STCW. It will be a very useful tool for training, certification and watch keeping. I certainly endorse the noble Baroness's remarks about the importance of training.

The noble Baroness asked whether we should stick to the timetable that has been agreed. We shall certainly do that. As the noble Baroness said, we have published a list detailing the ferries and when each ferry would have to comply with the regulations. We shall take a very firm approach indeed as regards the timetable. It is a major part of the credibility of the agreement.

The final point about which the noble Baroness asked me was in relation to ferries overseas. Clearly, many United Kingdom citizens travel not just within Europe, and southern Europe where these regulations do not apply, but also further afield. That is why we are determined to keep up the pressure within the IMO for a wider adoption of higher safety standards for ro-ro ferries.

Finally, I welcome the intervention of the noble Viscount, Lord Simon. He is right to point out the shortcomings in the design of the "Estonia" and the fact that it did not meet SOLAS 90. I thank the noble Viscount for his remarks with regard to the new regulations.

The regulations have come about as a result of significant political pressure in the international dimension—the IMO—and within Europe. This is an issue on which we have participated fully with the European Commission. It has supported us and we have supported it in producing the Stockholm agreement. I thank the Commission for its support. We are convinced that this is the right way to go. It deals with the fundamental problem of water on the car deck and we believe that the agreement will lead to major enhancements in the safety of ro-ro ferries. I commend the regulations to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.