HL Deb 12 July 1999 vol 604 cc1-4

Lord Ackner asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether there are adequate powers to regulate the use of jet-skis so that they do not prejudice the safety of other users of United Kingdom waters; and, if so, what are these powers.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, the Government, working with a number of associations, including the Royal Yachting Association, the British Marine Industries Federation and the Royal National Lifeboat Institute, are committed to improving the safety and management of all recreational craft, including jet-skis, through safety education initiatives; a voluntary code of conduct covering best practice; and a voluntary safety and identification scheme. Several local authorities have already addressed the problems caused by jet-skis by better managing their waters through segregation of activities. In the longer term, the Government aim to pursue primary legislation to enable local authorities to have better control through by-laws of their coastal waters.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. I should admit that I developed an invincible repugnance for these machines following the Commonwealth Law Conference in 1986 in Jamaica. I thought no more about it until I read, as no doubt did your Lordships, a report of a fatal accident that occurred last month in Dubai Creek. The report contained a heading, "Menace beyond English law". That is why I thought I should raise the question with your Lordships. Is it not the case that there are no national laws circumscribing the use of these machines which can have engines as large as 1,800 c.c. and reach speeds as fast as 65 miles an hour? They have, I understand, caused considerable trouble on the North Wales coast. Why have we taken so long to start thinking about doing something about these highly dangerous machines?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, regrettably neither my powers nor my duties extend to the coastal waters of either Jamaica or Dubai. However, so far as concerns British waters, the noble and learned Lord is correct. There is no national legislation. The matter has some legal complexities. We established a working party which engaged in consultation. That was completed in October last year. The working party's recommendations have been accepted broadly by Ministers. We shall be looking to national legislation to enable local authorities more easily to introduce by-laws. However, we should see the matter in context. Out of 11,500 total coastal incidents reported, only 1.2 per cent—137—resulted from jet-ski incidents. Although I agree with the noble and learned Lord that there is a problem, it needs to be seen in proportion.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, last year I observed two of these contraptions being used without authority—indeed, probably unlawfully—to drive away swans and other water fowl from a lake, which was created at great public cost. Is it not reasonable to suggest that, in addition to safety, regulations should also ensure that a greater degree of responsibility is exhibited by those who want to practise this sport?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I suspect that regulations relating to the disturbance of wildlife may have been appropriate in those particular circumstances. The working party recommended that we looked at enabling local authorities and other authorities to introduce by-laws to control the use of these contraptions. At present, very few of them are registered.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, will the Minister join his honourable friend, Glenda Jackson, in commending the publication, Managing personal watercraft, produced by, among others, the British Marine Industries Federation, the Royal Yachting Association, Gwynedd County Council and the Poole Harbour Commissioners—in other words, all sides of the industry, as it were? Will the Minister encourage other local authorities to use the powers that they already have, including access to slipways, introducing speed limits within a certain distance of the beach and so on? While new powers may be necessary, does the Minister agree that existing powers can already be used?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the publication to which the noble Lord refers was aimed at bringing together the voluntary bodies and the local authorities concerned. It provides good, clear guidelines as to how and how not to use these machines. Some limited powers are available to local authorities; however, those powers are constrained by being non-specific. Most of the powers relating to waterways refer to "boats" or "vessels". There is legal precedent for saying that jet-skis are not boats. That is an additional complication that would have to be addressed.

Lord Bridges

My Lords, perhaps I may draw one further complication to the Minister's attention of which he may not be aware. There is no specific legal framework to regulate what happens on estuaries, which in our maritime law, as I understand it, are considered a branch of the ocean and are thus, in principle, open to all navigation. Can local authorities be given some power to control what happens on estuaries?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, that is a somewhat wider point—how far the laws of the sea apply in relation to estuaries and how far coastal regulations should apply. It is unlikely that these particular machines would stray very far from coastal waters; therefore, if additional powers were given, they would probably be covered by either inland or coastal waters regulations.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, the noble Lord said that very few of these potentially lethal craft are registered. Does that mean that any laws or by-laws that are either in existence or may be introduced do not apply to them?

Lord Whitty

No, my Lords. The question of registration and the question of use are separate, although enforcement would obviously be easier were there a system of registration. Jet-skis are only part of the problem. There is no mandatory registration of any small craft. There are over 2 million such craft, about 5 per cent of which are registered under a voluntary scheme. Jet-skis are no different in that respect from other small vessels.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House how many jet-ski incidents have been fatal?

Lord Whitty

Yes, my Lords, there have been two fatal accidents, one at sea and one inland.

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