HL Deb 27 November 2002 vol 641 cc749-52

3.8 p.m.

Lord Dubs

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they propose to take to safeguard the marine environment in the light of the recent sinking of the oil tanker "Prestige" off the coast of Spain.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, following the "Braer" and "Sea Empress" oil tanker incidents in the 1990s, the Government have been active in safeguarding the United Kingdom's seas and coasts. For example, we have introduced ship routing and reporting measures. We have cover all the year round from emergency towing vessels and we have the Secretary of State's representative for maritime salvage and intervention to co-ordinate emergency action.

For the future, we are working to implement the recommendations of the National Audit Office's report Dealing with Pollution from Ships; we will soon issue a consultation document on marine environmental high-risk areas; and internationally we are working to ensure that all existing maritime pollution compensation and liability conventions come into force as soon as possible.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his Answer. Does he agree that the sinking of the oil tanker "Prestige" represents an enormous environmental disaster? It is far worse than that caused by the "Exxon Valdez". Could he say a little more about the move by the Government to achieve quick and agreed standards, such as restricting access to European or British waters merely to vessels that have double hulls?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, certainly, the "Prestige" is a serious disaster. The quantity of oil involved—77,000 tonnes—is far greater than in earlier examples we have quoted. It is not necessarily true that all of the oil escapes. We hope that some of the oil from the two parts of the ship which are on the sea floor will not escape. As regards European initiatives, we are talking with the European Commission. As I said in my original Answer, we are keen on international action. Our own national contingency plan is based on the international convention of 1990.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, is it not the case that all such accidents with tankers have involved vessels registered in some remote Caribbean island?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, no; the "Prestige" is registered in the Bahamas, which has in place a good regulatory regime. That is not true of all flags of convenience, but that is not the case for the Bahamas. I neglected to answer the part of the Question regarding single and double-hulled ships. We have been very active in accelerating the phasing out of single-hulled tankers, as agreed by the International Maritime Organization. The deadlines have been significantly speeded up.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth

My Lords, is not the heart of the matter that environmental crime is social crime and not some vague notion in the abstract? Should not that be the basis in international law for shipbuilding and penalties which might ensue from this regrettable incident?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the first emphasis has been on seeking compensation, rather than on seeking penalties. International conventions to which both oil companies and shipowners are signatories provide liability funds. That must be the first priority. It is up to them to seek to recover their costs from the polluters; I am sure they will. This is an exact enactment of the "polluter pays" principle.

Lord Renton

My Lords, was not the disaster caused mainly by the oil tanker being much too long? Should not there be an international law which limits the length of oil tankers?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I do not know whether that is the case. I am reluctant to comment on the case of the "Prestige" when investigations are ongoing.

Baroness Howarth of Breckland

My Lords, does the Minister agree that while there is a real danger from oil spillage, there are even longer-term problems for the environment within our seas and the deterioration that needs to be tackled along our shores? Those were well identified by English Nature in its excellent recent publication on marine life. Can the Minister tell the House what action the Government intend to take on its recommendations?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I would love to do so, but the Question concerns the recent sinking of the oil tanker. We shall have to deal with the wider issue raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, on another occasion.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm reports in the press that this tanker was found to be defective while in other ports? Given the grim reality and near regularity of such disasters, is there not a need for an international obligation to be arranged so that where a tanker is found off any state to be defective, it is not allowed to continue its voyage or to embark upon another until such defect is remedied?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, again I am reluctant to comment on the particular case of the "Prestige". However, the wider issue raised by my noble friend is relevant to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Mackie. If there are defects in the registration regime of some of the flags of convenience, the remedy lies primarily in controls at ports. We have very strong controls in our own ports, as do many other developed countries, to ensure that defective ships which come from inadequate registration regimes are detained where necessary.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, is it not time to consider the question of flags of convenience? We now have a financial action task force which has been successfully considering offshore financial centres. The whole system of flags of convenience appears to be a way of escaping regulation. Cannot the British Government make an initiative to have a multilateral investigation into how we might tighten up that system?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am sympathetic to that suggestion, particularly as I discovered that Cambodia has a flag of convenience but no coastline. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, yes, of course, but he will recognise that that would be a long-term exercise. In the mean time the port controls to which I referred are perhaps the most practical way forward.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, can the Minister comment on the serious doubts which have been expressed about the qualifications of many Merchant Navy officers of various nations, including officers of British flagged ships?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, no, I cannot. I do not know to which particular case the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, refers. If he cares to let me know I shall seek an answer for him.

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