Orders of the Day — Shipping (Dangerous Goods)

– in the House of Commons at 9:35 pm on 25th January 1990.

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Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport 9:35 pm, 25th January 1990

I beg to move, That this House takes note of European Community Document No. 7074/89 relating to requirements for vessels carrying packaged dangerous goods when using Community ports; considers that Community legislation does not represent the most appropriate means of securing the development of effective provisions to enhance environmental safety in this area; and endorses the Government's view that any new measures should be adopted and implemented on a wider international basis through the International Maritime Organisation.

The Commission's proposal is to equip the Community with legislation on the transport of packaged dangerous goods by sea. It is seen as a means of plugging a loophole left by an earlier Council directive, No. 116/79, on the minimum requirements for tankers entering or leaving Community ports carrying oil, liquefied gas or chemicals in bulk. That directive does not cover a large and growing proportion of shipments of dangerous goods—those in packages, containers, tanker wagons, tanker lorries or mobile tankers.

As its title implies, the purpose of the proposed directive is to require vessels entering or leaving Community ports carrying packages of dangerous goods and marine pollutants to observe a number of minimum standards.

Photo of Dr Norman Godman Dr Norman Godman , Greenock and Port Glasgow

The Minister always gives way extremely courteously. Has the Department of Transport a contingency plan to allow tankers that are in difficulty to enter sheltered waters for remedial measures to be taken? It if has, what consultations have taken place with the commercial fishermen who fish those sheltered waters?

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport

I hope to answer the hon. Gentleman's question when I reply to the debate.

The purpose of the proposed directive is to require vessels entering or leaving Community ports carrying packages of dangerous goods and marine pollutants to observe a number of minimum standards. It seeks to do that by imposing a number of rules applied to goods defined by reference to an arbitrary list of substances. The rules would require vessels carrying them to provide to the port state information that is specified in the directive; to keep in contact with coastal radio and radar stations on passage; to use pilot services; and to provide the pilot with detailed information about the ship and its officers and require him to inform the port state of any deficiencies that he encounters. The rules would also require coastal states to inform all vessels in their territorial waters of the presence of other vessels known to be carrying dangerous goods.

The Government's attitude was made clear in the explanatory memorandum. First, there is a risk that the measure, if enacted, would inhibit the free movement of ships by encouraging a trend to create pockets of different regimes of control in different parts of the world. It would create practical problems. Using figures from a 1987 research report from the European Commission, approximately 4,000 ships would be involved at any one time, and there would be considerable difficulty in keeping track of all the information generated. The proposal to require vessels to use pilot services would be contrary to present United Kingdom law and Government policy, which leaves it to harbour authorities when considering their pilotage arrangements to take into account the hazards involved with vessels carrying dangerous goods.

We certainly want to give all possible support to proposals to enhance environmental safety, but an EC directive is not the best way to go about that. The carriage of harmful substances in packaged form by sea is regulated by international conventions on marine safety and pollution prevention. It is far more desirable for any new measures to be implemented through the International Maritime Organisation. The IMO, as hon. Members are aware, is a specialised agency of the United Nations with 134 member countries. It is a body par excellence for dealing with shipping safety and the protection of the marine environment. It has considerable reserves of expertise to call upon, and a long history of achievement.

For instance, there have been recent amendments to the safety and marine pollution conventions to include identification and listing of marine pollutants and development of detailed carriage conditions for them. There has also been agreement about the hardware and operating procedures needed for mounting rapid and co-ordinated search and rescue operations by shore authorities and ships in the immediate vicinity of any ships in distress.

Photo of Dr Norman Godman Dr Norman Godman , Greenock and Port Glasgow

What progress have the Government made in negotiations with other maritime states, on the hazardous and toxic substances convention? May I remind the Minister of the foundering in the English channel not long ago of the multivessel Perintis, which caused considerable concern to commercial fishermen who fish those waters? Does the Minister agree that negotiations undertaken under the umbrella of the IMO, on the carriage of toxic and dangerous substances, are much too slow and cumbersome and that we need directives and action to bring such dangers under control?

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's point. We have considerable powers when dealing with our own territorial waters, under the various controls that the Secretary of State may exercise. The hon. Gentleman referred to the Perintis. I think that I am right in saying that action was taken in that case under our existing powers. I shall check on the exact details, because I should not like to mislead the House.

I agree that dealing through the IMO can sometimes seem to take rather longer than one would wish, but it remains more sensible to try to secure international agreement than to create little pockets in which different things happen and different rules apply. Merchant shipping is by its nature an international activity. I should not want to put British ports and operators at an unfair disadvantage in relation to foreign ports and operators. We are often asked about the size of our merchant fleet, and if we started to impose more restrictions on our fleet, it would not grow as many hon. Members who have criticised its decline would wish it to grow.

It is because of the expertise of the IMO and the acceptance by the international community of the IMO that we believe that it is the right forum for such initiatives.

I must make it clear that the Government accept the principle that ships carrying packaged dangerous goods leaving or entering ports should identify themselves to the port authorities. There are already requirements for the prior notification of goods entering ports and we are sponsoring a proposal at the IMO, in conjunction with the Governments of other North sea nations, to extend them to goods leaving ports.

Hon. Members wish also to consider the Merchant Shipping (Distress Signals and Prevention of Collisions) Regulations 1989, which came into force on 19 November 1989. The 1972 international convention for preventing collisions at sea came into force in 1977. The United Kingdom is a signatory to the convention and brought it into effect in 1977. The IMO has amended the convention on two occasions. The first amendment was agreed in 1981 and was incorporated in new collision regulations in 1983. The second amendment was agreed in November 1987 and to incorporate that amendment, the 1989 regulations were made. The IMO required that they should come into force internationally on 19 November 1989, so they are in operation at the moment.

The regulations clarify certain aspects of the collision rules. They clear up anomalies in the wording of the original text and extend earlier regulations by the provision of some additional definitions. The most important changes relate to the actions of vessels using traffic separation schemes such as exist in that very busy stretch of water, the Dover strait.

I believe that the House also wishes to discuss the Merchant Shipping (Accident Investigation) Regulations. This instrument, which is made under the Merchant Shipping Act 1988, provides a framework for inquiries into all types of shipping accident, except for public inquiries, which are covered by earlier legislation. To some extent, they bring together in a single set of regulations what is already long-existing practice, but many of the provisions are new, and there was much helpful discussion in the course of their formation with representatives of all aspects of shipping operation. I believe that the regulations, in their present form, are recognised in the shipping industry generally as a valuable addition to marine legislation.

At much the same time as the regulations were being developed, the new marine accident investigation branch was coming into being, and this branch is to a large extent responsible for putting the regulations into practice. The task was previously carried out by the Department of Transport's marine directorate, which is responsible for marine safety in general, but it was decided to separate the investigatory function. That will avoid any question of conflict of interests in an inquiry, and means that a dedicated body is available to concentrate on investigations. To an extent, there is a parallel with the long-established air accident investigation branch, and as with that branch, the chief inspector reports directly to the Secretary of State. The marine accident investigation branch, although part of the Department of Transport, is entirely separate from and independent of the marine directorate.

Photo of Dr Norman Godman Dr Norman Godman , Greenock and Port Glasgow

I wish to ask the Minister an important question. When can the people of the lower Clyde expect the report to be published on the loss of the motor fishing vessel Destiny with the deaths of six men? That is an important question, because the foundering of that vessel should be investigated by a fatal accident inquiry. I cannot make that demand to the Lord Advocate's office until an inquiry is completed by the marine accident investigation branch.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport

I hope that I can answer the hon. Gentleman's question. I do not want to be drawn on that accident, which was tragic and moving to any person who remembers the events that weekend. I know that the hon. Gentleman paid tribute to those involved in the rescue operation. I hope that what I am about to say will go some way towards helping him to understand why it may take some time to publish the report that he wants. I shall deal first with the way in which the investigation is progressing into the Marchioness disaster on the Thames last August. For obvious reasons, we shall follow the same procedures, in the investigation that he mentioned.

Already, both the marine accident investigation branch and the regulations are being put to the test. Sadly, hon. Members will be only too well aware of the Marchioness tragedy. The regulations provide for the more serious accidents to be the subject of an inspector's inquiry, and that is considered to be the appropriate investigation in this case. The investigation is now in its final stages, but before publication of the chief inspector's report, which must include the inspector's findings and the chief inspector's recommendations, there are a number of procedures to be complied with.

The regulations require that any party whose reputation might be affected by the report must be shown it in draft form and given the opportunity to comment. If any point at issue cannot be resolved, the aggrieved party can provide an alternative text that must be set out with the report when it is submitted. Those important safeguards require a minimum of two months to allow all those concerned adequate time to respond.

I am sure that hon. Members will realise why that is done. Once the report has been issued, it will normally be made public, so it is important to give anybody who may be criticised or whose judgment may be called into question the right to have his or her say on it.

In addition, there have been several less severe but still serious accidents requiring full investigation.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I am sorry that I was not here at the beginning of the debate, but it began early. On the present assessments, what will the delay be between now and the expected conclusion of the inquiry and the reports on the Marchioness incident, bearing in mind the procedures that the Minister outlined? I know that the railway inspectorate, which is also supervised from the Minister's Department, has a similar parallel in its investigation work. What is the link between the investigation by the inspectorate and any potential prosecution by the Director of Public Prosecutions? I appreciate that the Minister may want to be careful about his answer, but it is important that people know how the work done by the inspectorate and any potential prosecutions interrelate. It would be reassuring if we could have that information by the end of the debate.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport

We hope and expect to be able to publish the report as soon as possible, but I do not want to say too much this evening that might lead people to believe that publication is imminent because there is still some way to go. As I have said, part of what remains to be done is that the inspector's report must go first to the chief inspector and then to the people who may or may not be criticised. Time is obviously a factor in this. Once the report is issued, consideration is given to the criminal charges that might be brought, if any are deemed necessary. I do not wish to say at the moment whether that would or would not be the case, because that is not a decision for me and it is not a decision for the chief inspector, as I understand it. However, if I am wrong I shall clarify the point later.

There have been several serious accidents requiring full investigation as well as a number of other incidents, relatively minor but still significant. The various inspectors are greatly helped in their task by the co-operation given by those concerned in those accidents; but even with that co-operation they are finding it valuable to have the backing and guidance of clearly laid down provisions as given in the regulations.

The provisions cover not only the conduct of investigations but their purpose; they set out the requirement for the reporting of accidents and the preservation of evidence. They cover the investigation of hazardous incidents—"near misses" as they are sometimes called—and they provide for the publication of reports and summaries. The aim of investigations, as set out in the regulations, is to improve safety at sea and to avoid accidents in the future. I am sure that the regulations provide a sound and practical basis for marine inquiry work for many years to come, and I hope that the House will accept them as laid down and support them tonight.

Photo of Joan Ruddock Joan Ruddock , Lewisham, Deptford 9:53 pm, 25th January 1990

The Opposition have sought the opportunity to discuss these two statutory instruments tonight—although, as the Minister said, they have already come into effect—because of the seriousness of the issues. On the night before the last scheduled date for this debate—9 November—there was yet another serious shipping accident. On that occasion, the passenger ferry Hamburg collided with a cargo vessel and two British people lost their lives. Last week on the Thames, another pleasure boat was hit by a barge in an accident that might have been a tragic repeat of last year's Marchionness disaster. Thankfully, it was not, but each accident raises important questions for the Minister.

We welcome the Merchant Shipping (Distress Signals and Prevention of Collisions) Regulations, because 53 per cent, of casualties on merchant vessels are caused by collisions and contacts. Moreover, it is of deep concern to us and to the National Union of Seamen that flags of convenience vessels continue to have a significantly higher accident rate than those of western flagged vessels. In the accident to which I referred earlier, the cargo vessel was the Nordic Stream. It is registered in Panama and I understand that it calls at British ports. Can the Minister tell us whether this ship has been the subject of any Department of Transport investigation in recent times and how often flags of convenience vessels are inspected in United Kingdom ports? It would also be of interest to know when we may expect publication of the Government's research into making roll-on/roll-off ferries safer—work which, I believe, was begun following the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster in 1987.

Communications between vessels is obviously important in the avoidance of collisions, and we are advised that there is a strong case for compulsory radar equipment within our estuaries. The area between Tower bridge and London bridge has witnessed 11 incidents in the past five years; a further six have occurred just along the river at King's Reach, including the fateful Marchioness collision. Just before we were due to debate this subject in the House last time, a river bus was involved in a collision, injuring 10 people. Last week, as I have already said, yet another Thames pleasure boat, this time carrying 150 teachers, was involved in a collision with a river barge in darkness. Thankfully, no one was injured, but the similarity of that incident to the Marchioness disaster raises urgent questions.

Can the Minister tell us whether the Secretary of State's six-point code, which was instigated following the Marchioness disaster, applied to these vessels? If so, was it followed and how was it enforced? If not, what lessons does the Minister expect to learn from these events?

In addition to this incident, we should note an accident in which a sand barge collided with a stationary rubbish barge only hours after the collision to which I am referring. It is no exaggeration to suggest that another fatal accident may be imminent.

As the Minister acknowledged, separation schemes in which lanes and notorious accident spots are closely monitored could play a vital role in keeping traffic flowing safely. Skippers on cargo boats on the Thames frequently complain about pleasure craft moving indiscriminately from one side of the river to the other. Does the Minister think that the time has come for formalised codes of conduct for traffic movement, rather than the present voluntary and recommended codes?

The Marchioness collision also highlighted the inadequate use of lookouts. Members of the National Union of Seamen have urged me to remind the Minister that lookouts play a crucial role in safety and navigation, irrespective of technological advances. We are therefore very disturbed to hear of a Department research project allowing ships under 1,600 gross tonnes to sail at night at sea without a lookout and with only one officer on duty. I understand that this project is currently being undertaken in the Irish sea, and I should be grateful if the Minister could confirm that and give us his comments.

With regard to the statutory instrument on accident investigation, although we support in principle a marine accident investigation branch responsible for the investigation of all types of marine accident, we are concerned, despite what the Minister said, about the composition and independence of that body. Opposition Members believe that the safety of marine transport should be removed to a truly independent safety inspectorate within a reformed Health and Safety Executive.

I take this opportunity to ask the Minister how many public inquiries have resulted from preliminary inquiries. As he knows, and as he said tonight, preliminary inquiries are mandatory; following them up with a full public inquiry is left to the discretion of the Secretary of State. The loss of the Derbyshire in 1980 resulted in the loss of 44 lives, yet it did not come to a public inquiry until seven years later. Perhaps when it is convenient the Minister could give us the figures for preliminary and public inquiries carried out in 1988, so that we can examine the point further.

Photo of Dr Norman Godman Dr Norman Godman , Greenock and Port Glasgow

With regard to the Derbyshire, there was some concern about the loss of the report into that tragic event. I wondered whether my hon. Friend intended to mention the loss of the report.

Photo of Joan Ruddock Joan Ruddock , Lewisham, Deptford

My hon. Friend reminds me of an important point. I had not intended to refer to it, but it has undoubtedly complicated the position and perhaps explains the considerable delay in bringing the issue into the full glare of a public inquiry.

More immediately, I should like to ask about the Government's intentions regarding the Marchioness inquiry. I am grateful for the explanations so far about procedure, but it does not take us to the point in which we are most interested, the holding of a public inquiry. We believe that such loss of life warrrants a full public inquiry.

It is salutary to note the news from Bow street today regarding the corporate manslaughter charge to be pursued against P and O in respect of the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster. Controversial though it may be, the fact is that that action would not be pursued—

Photo of Mr Paul Dean Mr Paul Dean , Woodspring

Order. The hon. Lady is referring to a case which is sub judice. I think she understands the rules of the House. She should not refer to it further.

Photo of Joan Ruddock Joan Ruddock , Lewisham, Deptford

Certainly, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I gave no intention of referring to the issues in the case. I simply want to point out that charges could not have been brought had the issue not been examined at a public inquiry. It set an important precedent that the House should note.

I appeal to the Minister to use his best endeavours to persuade the Secretary of State to set up a full public inquiry into the Marchioness disaster. Nothing less will satisfy the relatives of those who died.

A further problem arises from the involvement of the Department in investigations. I take the opportunity of asking the Minister whether the practice continues whereby shipowners who are asked to co-operate in an investigation are given an assurance by the Department that it will not bring a prosecution. The Health and Safety Executive, by comparison, requires the co-operation of shipowners by law and does not have to provide them with assurances of immunity. Is that not another point in favour of removing the marine accident investigation branch from the auspices of the Department of Transport?

Moving to the European document on shipping and dangerous cargoes, we believe that the directive represents an attempt to improve existing regulations governing the movement of dangerous cargoes in and out of member state ports. Therefore, we regret the Government's decision to disregard the document in favour of relying on what might be implemented by the International Maritime Organisation. Although we recognise the valuable role of the IMO in retaining and improving standards at sea, we believe that the wholesale rejection of the directive will not help to create uniform standards for ships of member states.

The directive responds to the loopholes in previous legislation which laid down only minimum requirements for oil and chemical tankers in Community ports. The new measure would cover widespread shipments of dangerous goods, as the Minister said, in other forms such as packages, containers and mobile tankers. In bearing down on all forms of shipment of dangerous goods, it will play a large role in the prevention and control of pollution in British waters.

Tonight we have heard the Government's three main objections. The first two—the inability to maintain constant contact and the problem of the sheer volume of traffic—are not wholly misplaced. We recognise that, in the English channel, where traffic is constant, the scope for detection and avoidance is ever-present, but the Government's response to those problems is defeatist.

The Government's third objection, involving compulsory pilotage, runs most directly counter to present United Kingdom policy and seems to be at the heart of the disagreement. I understand that United Kingdom pilotage is not compulsory in normal circumstances or to accompany ships with dangerous cargoes. My hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Howarth) argued in the Chamber on 23 October last year that the absence of a pilot could have been a contributory factor in the then recent Humber tanker collision. The use of pilots when carrying dangerous goods is a practice which the Government should encourage. When a ship is in unfamiliar waters, there is every reason to suppose that its well-being would benefit from a pilot's expert knowledge.

The Government have dismissed the compulsory use of pilots, as well as the recommendations applying to pilots. United Kingdom ships could certainly benefit from the directive because, as the tragic accident involving the Herald of Free Enterprise made clear, legislation is not strict enough and dangerous goods are shipped without being declared. In that instance, unnotified cargoes, including cyanide, were discovered when the Herald sank. If we were to follow the European proposals, a pilot on board would have to go through a safety check list which would include the identification of any dangerous cargoes. The Government could and should apply the directive's proposals to ships on which pilots are employed. That is a separate issue from whether pilots should be compulsory.

In discussion of these matters, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that there is considerable traffic in small parcels of dangerous cargoes. The National Union of Seamen has calculated that almost all ships sailing from Dover are likely to have some form of dangerous cargo on board. It believes, as we do, that higher safety standards should be sought.

As well as the objections that I have already mentioned, in the explanatory memorandum the Government made it clear that the financial implications of enforcing some of the measures weigh heavily against their implementation. We are told that the cost of compulsory pilotage and maintaining contact with coastal radio stations would have to be borne by the shipping industry. We regret the imposition of financial burdens, but they should not be allowed to deter the pursuit of greater safety. We are also told that the costs of coastal stations to inform each other of vessel movements would fall on the Department. That looks like another example of the Department shrinking from its responsibility for the maintenance and improvement of transport infrastructure. The spate of recent accidents suggests that we cannot afford to withhold spending on marine safety.

Are the Government taking any independent steps to ensure that dangerous goods are not carried unnotified on ships? Can the Minister inform us of any alternatives to the measures in this directive? It would be useful to know how many unannounced inspections of ships for dangerous cargoes have taken place during the past five years and whether the Government plan to step up staffing levels for the inspectorate.

The Government's response to the directive has been to emphasise the proposals' negative aspect. They have failed to admit that the essence of those proposals is already embodied in United Kingdom legislation in relation to oil and chemical tankers. Therefore, they have a duty to explain why the same kind of regulations should not apply to dry cargo ships carrying dangerous goods in large and small quantities.

The European document exposes a gap in United Kingdom legislation. Although we are not uncritical enthusiasts for the European directive, it contains some useful measures which appear to have been dismissed too lightly.

Photo of Mr Ronnie Fearn Mr Ronnie Fearn , Southport 10:10 pm, 25th January 1990

It would appear that, in this enlightened era, all political parties support, or at least claim to support, proposals that would lead to a safer and cleaner environment. Where we differ is on how, when and at what cost we should implement proposals to achieve that aim.

The problem with the Government's aim is that it is full of fine rhetoric but has little substance and very little action. The record is not good, particularly on implementing European Community directives. The directives on the transfrontier shipment of hazardous waste were not acted on until the threat of legal action made it embarrassing for the Government not to act.

We are asked to believe that there has been a change of heart in relation to environmental issues, but unfortunately, when the Government talk about such issues, there always seems to be a caveat which goes something like, "We shall act to protect the environment, so long as such action does not interfere with the economy of the country or the profits of business." It is time that we realised that saving our environment will cost money. It will be difficult and it may create more work and administration, but it is vital for us to act. We cannot afford not to.

So I challenge the Government: if they are in earnest in their desire to create a safer environment, why not stop the trade in toxic wastes and prohibit their import? The scale of this trade and the problem that it presents should not be under-estimated. The amount of waste arriving at our ports has risen alarmingly in the past few years.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that we should stop all ships with any toxic waste coming into our ports?

Photo of Mr Ronnie Fearn Mr Ronnie Fearn , Southport

Yes. I thought that I was quite positive in the statement that I made.

The amount of waste arriving at our ports has arisen alarmingly in recent years. In 1981–82, 3,786 tonnes of toxic waste was imported into this country; by 1986–87, the amount had grown to 52,981 tonnes, as enormous increase.

This small land of ours, surrounded by seas, cannot afford to continue to allow those seas to be polluted. Southport, a thriving resort on the Irish sea, has problems because of pollution from land-based activites, including those of Sellafield and Springfield. We do not want more pollution on top of that. Marine life vital to our own is threatened. Let us act to reduce the threat.

Let us examine ways to encourage the International Maritime Organisation and the EC to prohibit the transportation by sea of substances such as PCBs and radioactive material. If we cannot get a ban, let us quickly at least have some strict rules that would prevent the fiasco of last year when ships were travelling the high seas with highly dangerous toxic waste but nowhere to berth.

The directive is concerned with vessels carrying packaged dangerous goods, and I know that the feeling in shipping circles is similar to that which has been expressed by the Government. The Freight Transport Association believes that many of the requirements are already covered by existing law, or will be as a result of reforms being introduced by the 1MO. Those reforms are to be welcomed, but they should not preclude further measures being introduced by the EC or, for that matter, by unilateral action.

The EC directive builds on and expands the regulations, particularly in the area of pollutants, and we should welcome such moves. But there are plenty of instances where ships can carry dangerous cargo despite the rules and regulations. We should consider closing some of those loopholes if we are to continue to transport dangerous and harmful cargo either in bulk or packaged.

Relative authorities should be in a position to identify in detail any such cargo in the interest of an immediate response to accidents. The sinking of the Muree last October and the consequent washing up of canisters containing chemicals on south coast beaches may be a case in point.

I was somewhat concerned to learn from the Minister's reply to my question on 22 June 1989 that, if the marine pollution control unit decides that it is not necessary to relocate and recover drums of chemical material after an accident, no permanent record is kept. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that. We are all aware that we do not always know what materials are on board ships. How many substances have, in the past, been pronounced harmless that today are known to have devastating effects on the environment and on individual's health? I hope that the practice of not keeping permanent records will be rectified. I also hope that, under the merchant shipping regulations, any investigation of or inquiry into an accident will be open and that the conclusions of the report will be published.

I must thank the National Union of Seamen for its briefing. Although I already had some of the information to hand, I recognise how helpful the NUS can be for future briefings. It is clear that, no matter how many restrictions we may place on the transport of dangerous goods by sea, the restrictions in themselves will not prevent accidents. We need to consider other means, such as improvement in proficiency of navigation through training of personnel and improvement in equipment and design. Perhaps we need to examine the laws of the sea and the numbers, size and speed of sea craft. Perhaps we should more closely consider the enforcement of present laws with more realistic penalties for non-compliance.

Enforcement of article 5 of the proposed directive is one of the arguments against it. I am not sure that we should so easily accept that, because something is difficult to enforce, we should not bring it into law. If we followed that argument, much that is on the statute book would not be there. On second thoughts, perhaps that might be a good thing. Surely it is good practice, and worth encouraging, that masters of ships carrying potentially dangerous cargo should maintain radio or radar contact with a coastal station. That is worth pursuing and should not be discarded, as the Minister did earlier.

The Government's explanation of their concern about the article covering pilotage is not tenable, because the EC requirements go further than the Pilotage Act 1987. This should not be a cause to rule them out. I hope that the Government's over-zealous opposition to anything that comes from Europe is not clouding their vision. If we are in earnest and wish to reduce the risk to our environment from the potential damage posed by the transportation of hazardous cargo, we should be supporting, investing in and acting on such proposed directives as the one before us today. Let us find a way of incorporating the proposals in the directive with the reforms proposed by the International Maritime Organisation. There is no reason why that should not be investigated and an incorporation brought about.

Photo of Dr Norman Godman Dr Norman Godman , Greenock and Port Glasgow 10:18 pm, 25th January 1990

I have a few questions for the Minister concerning the documents. First, I refer to the proposal for a directive. I think that I am correct in saying that a directive does not carry the power of a regulation. I direct the Minister's attention to article 5 on page 3 of the proposal. It says that there is a need for vessels to communicate to the competent authority in the Member State in which the port of berthing or departure is located". Can the Minister confirm that that is precisely what happens with regard to tankers coming into Sullom Voe for cargoes, and that the Sullom Voe authorities have advance notice of the movement of such large vessels?

Article 5(iv) of the directive refers to the need of masters to avail themselves of the pilot services available. Is it not the case—I am sure that the Minister will give me a prompt answer—that the pilotage authority can demand that a vessel master employ the services of a pilot?

Photo of Dr Norman Godman Dr Norman Godman , Greenock and Port Glasgow

I wondered whether any disputes between the pilotage authorities and masters of ships refusing such services had come to his notice.

Article 7 says: Pilots engaged in the berthing or departure of the vessels concerned shall immediately inform the competent authority if they have any concerns or anxieties. Has the Department of Transport advised the pilotage authorities that, if they have any concern about the competence of crews or about the manoeuvrability of vessels, they should inform the appropriate authorities?

I move now to statutory instrument No. 1172—the Merchant Shipping (Accident Investigation) Regulations 1989. I want to put to the Minister several questions regarding the safety of fishing vessels. There will be no point in the Minister saying that the matter of fishing vessels is tangential to this debate. I remind him that fishing vessels are mentioned several times in the statutory instrument.

Are lessons that have been learnt from investigations into the stranding or foundering of vessels acted upon? I ask that question in the light of the involvement of United Kingdom-registered fishing vessels in what 1 can only describe as extremely dangerous waters. The stern fishing vessel the Gaul was lost in 1972. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) will remember this well because, sad to say, constituents of his were lost with that vessel. What lessons were learnt from that tragic loss?

I am thinking of the allocation of domestic fishing catches to United Kingdom vessels. I have written to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary is aware of my letter—warning of the dangers of inexperienced skippers fishing off the east coast of Greenland in winter.

Fishing off the west coast of Greenland at this time of the year is dangerous enough. I speak from what I might call indirect personal knowledge, as my brother Leslie is the mate of the filleter/freezer the Arctic Corsair, which at this very minute is fishing off the west coast of Greenland. Fishermen with experience of Greenland waters say that, relatively speaking, fishing off the east coast—in the Denmark straits—is much more dangerous than fishing off the west coast.

My letter to the Minister of Agriculture stressed the need to allocate that east coast Greenland cod catch to fishermen who were experienced in those extremely hazardous waters. Hence my question about whether the results of earlier investigations are taken into account in discussions between the Department of Transport and the Ministry of Agriculture, on the safety of fishing vessels. I do not need to remind the Minister that, between 1984 and 1988, 135 United Kingdom-registered fishing vessels were lost as they went about their extremely difficult business.

Following such an investigation, has the Department of Transport ever received a strongly worded recommendation that the carriage of immersion suits in fishing vessels is an important safety measure? The Minister knows that, when his old friend Mr. Albert McQuarrie introduced his Safety at Sea Bill in 1985, I tabled a new clause on the carriage of immersion suits on fishing vessels of 10 m and above in length. That new clause was not supported by Mr. McQuarrie and others on Report, but have any of the recent investigations given rise to such a recommendation?

Some few years ago, in a February gale, rather like the one that we have suffered over the past few hours, a French trawler foundered off the west coast of Scotland. I am sure that the Under-Secretary knows the case in point. There were some 28 men on board that ship, and about 12 or 13 of them had sufficient time to don their immersion suits. The other poor souls went overboard in their underwear, roused from their bunks. The men who went overboard in their immersion suits survived for upwards of three hours before a helicopter arrived to pluck them from the heavy swell. The poor souls who went overboard without immersion suits quickly perished.

I have previously discussed with the Minister the need to carry immersion suits, and he has said that he is willing to listen sympathetically to my plea, for which I am deeply grateful. I hope that he will take my plea on board. I know that fishermen are not too keen on the carriage of immersion suits because they are expensive. I think that they cost £400 plus. French trawlers of a certain size cannot leave port unless they have immersion suits on board; the same should hold for United Kingdom-registered fishing vessels.

Regulation 2(b) of the Merchant Shipping (Accident Investigation) Regulations contains the words a ship is lost or presumed to be lost, or is abandoned or materially damaged". Does a fishing vessel that experiences material damage because it has scooped up in its nets debris from the offshore oil and gas industries come within that definition? If it does, would it be in order for the skipper or the owner of the vessel to ask for an inquiry into the incident?

As for regulation 2(1)(d)—a disabled ship—and regulation 2(1)(e)—any material damage having been caused by a ship—does damage caused by a ship include vessels belonging to the Royal Navy or the United States navy? I refer specifically to nuclear submarines entering and leaving the firth of Clyde. Very small fishing vessels have trawled up huge—compared with fishing vessels—nuclear submarines. It is very dangerous when two such vessels come into contact with each other.

I speak on behalf of the members of the Clyde Fishermen's Association when I ask the Minister whether fishermen have the right under the regulations to ask for an inquiry. Even if the fishing vessel does not sink, such a collision can cause serious damage to its gear.

The regulation on page 5, headed "Reopening of Investigation", says: The Chief Inspector may cause any investigation to be reopened". If there were a collision between a submarine and a fishing vessel's gear, could the skipper ask for the investigation of the incident to be reopened, in the light of fresh evidence concerning the movement of naval vessels?

I have a great deal of respect for the captains and crews of nuclear submarines. I have visited Faslane and the American base at Holy Loch. The previous Secretary of State for Defence and the Minister arranged the visit, for which my colleagues and I were extremely grateful. The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie), within whose constituency the bases are located, accompanied us.

During our visit, and in subsequent correspondence with Ministers at the Ministry of Defence, I sought to establish whether the captains and crews of nuclear vessels are sufficiently familiar with the different types of fishing vessels and fishing gear to be able to take avoiding action when moving below the surface. When they are moving through fishing grounds, they ought, whenever and wherever possible—I accept that we must take account of security—travel on the surface. Their acoustic equipment is sometimes not sufficiently sophisticated, to detect certain types of fishing gear.

I put my questions to the Minister in, I hope, my usual fair-minded way. I am not here to score party political points, but, as someone who is a member of a fishing family and honorary president of the Clyde Fishermen's Association, for me these are very important questions concerning inexperienced fisherman fishing in very dangerous waters and the need to keep nuclear submarines coming in and out of the firth of Clyde away from the vessels of our inshore fisherman.

Finally, I come back to the very sad question of the sinking of the multi-fishing vessel, the Destiny. The skipper of that vessel, Billy Irvine, a man known to me, was drowned, with five other men, on that disastrous Sunday. I regret to say that their bodies have not yet been recovered. 1 know that the sinking of that vessel and the tragic death of those men are the subject of an inquiry by an inspector, but in my view the sinking poses certain questions that can be answered only by what we in Scotland call a fatal accident inquiry.

I know that this is nothing to do with the Minister, but the present investigation has a deal to do with him and his Department. I want to know when that investigation is likely to be concluded and when the report will be presented to his Department. Only then can I approach the Lord Advocate again with a formal request that he institute a fatal accident inquiry into that loss.

I have sought in this brief intervention to put to the Minister certain questions concerning this document. I think it is a useful document in some respects, although I accept the reservations of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms. Ruddock) earlier. But the thorough, comprehensive, tough-minded investigation of the sinking of any vessel is absolutely essential, particularly in the light of the recommendations made by those who conduct those investigations, in order that, i among other things, such founderings can in the future be reduced to the barest minimum.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 10:38 pm, 25th January 1990

I am grateful to those who have enabled us to debate these matters. I do not intend to add to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. Fearn) on the "take note" motion on the European Community document. In other circumstances, I should not have been taking part in this debate. Had it not been for the fact that, coincidentally, on the morning when I was due to go on my holiday last summer, I was phoned at 2 am to be told that a boat had sunk in the Thames and that much of that week and a considerable time thereafter has been occupied in thinking through and trying to assist with the consequences of that accident, I might not have thought that this was a matter that need detain me. An accident of that severity, with the loss of life that occurred, happening literally on one's doorstep, makes one think again about such issues.

I want first to comment on what is paradoxical—although no criticism is implied—in the implementation dates of the two regulations. The Minister will be aware that the implementation date of the Merchant Shipping (Distress Signals and Prevention of Collisions) Regulations was 19 November 1989, after the Marchioness sank in the Thames. The implementation date of the Merchant Shipping (Accident Investigation) Regulations was 7 August 1989—just a matter of days before the Marchioness sank. When the Marchioness sank, the new mechanism for investigating accidents was in force, but the new tightened regulations on the avoidance of collisions were not yet in force.

I should be grateful for a response from the Minister—later, if not tonight—on whether the investigations, which I am not trying to prejudice in any way, will consider whether the new regulations that came into force in November would have made a difference had they been in force in August. I ask that for two reasons. First, as is made clear in the note that accompanies the regulations, they have brought about various changes to the rules. There is now a discretion under rule 1(e) that certain vessels need not comply fully with the general requirements concerning lights and shapes and sound-signalling appliances. There are widened exemption powers. I always worry when an international convention gives wider powers for nation states to exempt vessels from such requirements.

Secondly, the regulations amend rule 8. They add a paragraph which sets out in greater detail the duties of the vessels in so far as they are required not to impede other vessels and the duties of the vessels that are not to be impeded. That tightening of the regulations affects vessels travelling in each direction down a major waterway. Is the inquiry considering whether the amendment to rule 8 would have made any difference, had it been in force and had everyone been aware of it?

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport

The international regulations that we are discussing are intended for the high seas and navigation areas such as the Dover straits. Different regulations and byelaws apply to inland rivers. There was an interim report by the inspectorate, and we accepted the points that it raised, but it is important not to think that the international regulations that came into force on 19 November would have made any difference. I am not trying to preclude any findings by the inspectorate, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the inspectorate is carrying out a most thorough investigation into that incident. Although regulations came into force on 7 August 1989, they were made on 6 July and were brought before the House well before 7 August.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I am grateful to the Minister, but he will understand the concern that we are dealing with navigation on a tidal river such as the Thames and the amount of traffic on it, even these days. All concerned—the skippers, the crew, users of the waterway, the port of London Authority and all the passengers who use passenger, pleasure and commercial vessels—want to know that the highest international standards that apply to tidal waters anywhere, be they inland or offshore, are applied to the Thames. That is why the question whether the regulations would have made any difference is relevant. I hope that the inspectorate is addressing that issue, so that at least we can be given the reassurance that they would have made no difference or the comment that they would have made a difference.

Given that the collision regulations came into force in November, I assume that everyone concerned with navigation is aware of them, that they are being enforced and that the mechanism for doing so is in place. Obviously, people who are responsible for training and retraining will be made aware of them. I am aware of the methods by which crews are trained, but it is important that the Minister assures hon. Members that we are complying with the regulations. I am anxious that Britain does not plead for, and benefit from, exemptions, thereby reducing safety.

I have a question about regulation 3(2) of the accident investigation regulations, which says: The Regulations apply to accidents involving or occurring on board—any United Kingdom ship except that regulation 5 shall not apply to pleasure craft". Regulation 5 provides a duty to report accidents. I should be interested to know why regulation 5 does not apply to pleasure craft—I believe that it should.

I have a further question on regulation 9, which deals with the report that the Minister mentioned. What are the criteria for the Secretary of State to order a formal investigation under the Merchant Shipping Act 1970, which takes any investigation out of the rules set down in the regulations? What is the dividing line between an investigation under the Act, which prevents the regulations from coming into operation, and the rules?

I asked the Minister about the interrelationship between the inspector's report and prosecution. That is partly dealt with by regulation 9, which makes it clear that if, when a report is being compiled, there is any hint of a breach of the law and that prosecution should be considered, the report should not be published until that has been considered.

I have been in touch many times with the Minister of State about an investigation, and possible prosecution, by the railway inspectorate. I am not making any criticism, but I am concerned about the time lapse between accidents and inquiries. The bereaved must be assured that quick progress is being made in an investigation. Sometimes, when a thorough report is published that leads to complicated legal questions about whether there should be a prosecution, there is a long silence and it appears that the authorities are not taking action.

I agree with the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) that it is important that the inspectorate should not be timid about prosecutions. I am not saying that the crew of the Bow Belle or the skipper of the Marchioness were to blame—that is not for me or the House—but there is a provision in English law whereby, if people are criminally negligent, they should be liable to prosecution.

I heard your intervention, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in the speech of the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms. Ruddock), so I do not propose to say any more about the Herald of Free Enterprise case, except to reaffirm that the fact that a legal process is available and that people can be prosecuted should require us to consider whether there has been criminal negligence in any case involving death. It is important to do so, because those in charge must be accountable.

I welcome the change in regulation 9(4), which allows comment by interested parties. I also welcome the fact that the chief inspector can issue information during an investigation. I told the Secretary of State that I welcomed the interim report on the Marchioness. I compliment and thank the Secretary of State and the Minister of State for acting promptly. They acted reassuringly. I understand that they must await the final report before taking any further decisions. I also welcome the fact that summaries of the report can and will be made available to anyone with a legitimate interest.

I am concerned, however, that a spot check investigation of some vessels on the Thames carried out by the Evening Standard a matter of weeks ago apparently revealed—I relate this to the Minister so that he can make departmental inquiries—that some of the requirements made by the Secretary of State after the sinking of the Marchioness were still not being complied with. It is not for me to judge whether that is true, but it is vital that we should have the most stringent safety measures for the prevention of collisions and for the reporting and investigation of accidents and that they should be enforced properly. As Opposition Members often say, if more people should be put in post to enforce safety requirements, we must put more people in post. No price can be too high to pay for employing as many people as necessary to ensure that the highest safety standards are in force.

The lesson that I have learnt from the sinking of the Marchioness is that, in spite of the general good conduct and great experience of many of those involved, we were not doing the absolute maximum that could be done to avoid an accident. I hope that the new regulations and enforcement measures will prevent such accidents in future.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport 10:51 pm, 25th January 1990

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

This has been a useful debate. I shall do my best to answer most of the questions that have been asked, but I may need to write to hon. Members on some. I hope that hon. Members will understand that some of the matters raised were fairly technical and that, rather than give a false impression tonight, I should like to take the time to find out the correct answers.

The hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) referred to the Perintis. In an Adjournment debate initiated by the hon. Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Howarth) on 23 October 1989, I referred to that incident, and as it is important that the House should be aware of our powers to deal with such incidents, I propose to quote what I said on that occasion: In an incident threatening grave or imminent pollution we shall not hesitate to use those powers if need be. This was demonstrated in March of this year when a small Panamanian-registered, Indonesian-owned ship, the Perintis, capsised and sank in international waters in the middle of the English channel, about 35 miles south-east of Brixham. I hope that the hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Fearn) will take note of that important point, because a ban on all ships coming into British ports would not solve the problem of incidents in international waters that may nevertheless threaten our coastline.

I continued: The vessel had a quantity of toxic pesticides on board and the expert advice to the marine pollution control unit was that the chemicals posed a major pollution threat to the marine environment and to United Kingdom fishery interests in particular. The owner of the vessel was not intending to do anything about the chemicals, and accordingly the Secretary of State authorised the MPCU to take direct action to recover the drums of pesticide which were scattered over the sea bed when the vessel capsised. Later, 28 of the 32 drums of toxic chemicals were successfully recovered. Tests showed that they had a much lower rate of solubility in sea water than first feared and scientific advice was that a continued search for the remaining drums was not therefore justified.The Governments response on that occasion shows that we are conscious of the environmental hazards posed by the loss of dangerous goods being transported by sea, and we are ready to take action where it is practicable to do so."—[Official Report, 23 October 1989; Vol. 158, c. 639.] It is important to emphasise that, as some may too easily think that our attitude is rather laid back and lackadaisical. It is not.

Let me deal with what the hon. Member for Southport said. To believe that we could ban or stop all ships carrying dangerous or chemical cargo coming into British ports is to live in cloud cuckoo land. If that were the policy of Liberal Members, I wonder what they would do in the North sea. Oil is a dangerous cargo. If it is spilt, it has immense environmental consequences on a coastline. Would Liberal party stop any oil tankers coming to the North sea because of the possible damage to the environment? Of course they would not.

Photo of Mr Ronnie Fearn Mr Ronnie Fearn , Southport

That applies only to toxic waste.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport

They have refined their policy now. Before, they said dangerous waste, but they have refined it to toxic waste. Perhaps they should consider more carefully what they say before they give categorical assurances.

Among other things, the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms. Ruddock) asked about research into roll-on roll-off ferries. It is due to be published soon. We hope that once it is published we shall have a full discussion with the architects, the industry, the National Union of Seamen and other interested bodies.

The hon. Lady also asked about inspection of vessels. At present, we inspect about 25 per cent., of vessels, which is what we are required to do. We inspect all types of vessels which come into our ports.

No decision has yet been made on a public inquiry into the loss of the Marchioness. The inspector's inquiry by the investigation branch is still in progress, and a decision will be taken when it is completed. I hope that that will be in the near future, but I explained earlier some of the natural delays that will take place. It is not that we are simply waiting for the report. We must give the people who may be criticised in the report time to respond and to include their comments in it.

Photo of John Prescott John Prescott Shadow Secretary of State, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

The inquiry is important. Conservative and Opposition Members wish to impress on the Minister the fact that if the inquiry shows that blame can be apportioned, to several people, as will probably be the case, relatives and many hon. Members want a public inquiry to follow. We cannot impress it too much on the Minister that that should be taken into account when a decision is made by the Secretary of State for Transport.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. I shall not say any more, because I do not want to prejudice the outcome of the inquiry. I am sure that the House will understand that, if I said more, I might be in danger of doing that, I have not seen the report, but it would be dangerous if I gave the impression that I had some idea of what it contained.

Action has already been taken as a result of the Marchioness disaster. Six recommendations in the interim report identified shortcomings. If further shortcomings in the collision regulations are shown up, we shall take them up with the IMO and make further amendments. We can apply for byelaws to cover regulations on the Thames.

The hon. Lady referred to the collision last week between the Mayflower Garden and a barge. That is being investigated by the marine accident investigation branch and the Port of London Authority. However, the scale of that accident is not the same as that of the Marchioness tragedy.

The hon. Lady said that the MAIB should be made a separate body. I cannot help thinking that that is a response to her party's policy in the 1970s when the Department of Transport sponsored the industry. There: is a difference between setting out the regulations and expecting independent owners to abide by and accept them. That is the difference. We do not own any boats or aircraft. However, we will act whenever the investigation branches give us sound advice on safety matters that need to be looked into. Therefore, we do not accept that there is any necessity to split these functions away from the Department.

As I am running a little short of time, I shall be unable to answer as many of the points that have been made as I should have liked. I shall try to deal with as many points as possibly generally, instead of dealing with those raised by each hon. Member in turn.

We do not accept the need for a blanket imposition of compulsory pilotage irrespective of the views of the harbour authorities. In any event, that could be applied only when a vessel was within United Kingdom territorial waters. We have no jurisdiction to support the extension of compulsory pilotage outside such waters, and we therefore believe that to leave the decision to the harbour authorities, which can rightly say whether pilotage is necessary, is the best way to move forward.

In response to the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow, I should say that, if a pilot saw or felt that something was definitely wrong, he should draw that to the attention of the port control authorities and, if it was felt necessary and desirable, an inspection would ensue. One has to rely on the good sense of the pilot, who might not have specific technical qualifications but who would have the knowledge of the waterways.

It has been said that we are not implementing the directive because of the cost. That is certainly not the case because no detailed costing has been carried out. It is doubtful whether any meaningful figure could be arrived at. As I said, even on the European Commission's own research, it is estimated that 4,000 ships might be required. As that relates only to the United Kingdom's coastal waters, we are talking about an incredible and technical job which would be fairly unmanageable. That is one reason why we are not sure about the practicalities of implementing some of the provisions of the directive.

The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) asked why pleasure craft are excluded from the provisions. The regulations extend to fishing vessels and pleasure craft, except that pleasure craft are not required to report accidents. That is because many of them are small yachts and are susceptible to minor incidents, and it would not be practicable to insist that they report all accidents. Obviously, if there is a major accident or if something is drawn to his attention, the inspector can investigate it and report on it if necessary.

I was grateful that one of the Defence Ministers joined me on the Treasury Bench during the debate and was able to put me right on some of the points made by the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow about the problem of fishing vessels sometimes getting their nets caught on Royal Navy equipment. I am advised that any complaints made are investigated fully and that compensation is payable. In the light of what the hon. Gentleman said, I shall of course check how the regulations require those affected to register their case.

This has been a useful debate. There is general agreement about the marine accident investigation branch. We place a high regard on environmental protection in relation to our shipping industry. When something goes wrong, it is at great cost to the shipping industry and, if a captain is involved in a collision, he loses part of his standing. Obviously, nobody on the high seas wants to be involved in any sort of collision. As has rightly been said, fatal accident investigations are matters solely for the . discretion of the Law Officers in Scotland.

I hope that the report does not take too long, but I cannot and would not like to say. I do not want to rush the report. It relates to a completely different kind of accident from that involving the Marchioness, so perhaps we shall not have to wait too long, but I cannot give any assurances about exactly when the report will be available. I hope that it will be as soon as possible.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,That this House takes note of European Community Document No. 7074/89 relating to requirements for vessels carrying packaged dangerous goods when using Community ports; considers that Community legislation does not represent the most appropriate means of securing the development of effective provisions to enhance environmental safety in this area; and endorses the Government's view that any new measures should be adopted and implemented on a wider international basis through the International Maritime Organisation.