Shipping Safety (Donaldson Report)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:04 am on 28th June 1995.

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Photo of Jim Wallace Jim Wallace , Orkney and Shetland 10:04 am, 28th June 1995

First, I express my gratitude to you, Madam Speaker, for the granting of an Adjournment debate on the important subject of the Government's response to Lord Donaldson's inquiry and his detailed report, "Safer Ships, Cleaner Seas".

My gratitude is tinged with some disappointment, because the debate is being held in private Members' time. On the day of the publication of Lord Donaldson's report, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) challenged the then Secretary of State for Transport, the right hon. Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. MacGregor) on when it would be possible to have a debate on it. He replied: I should be happy to have a debate when everyone has had a chance to digest the voluminous report"—[Official Report, 17 May 1994; Vol.243, c.686.] That was 13 months ago, and today is the first opportunity that the House has had to debate that report. It is regrettable that the debate is not being held in Government time, but I hope that it will whet the appetite and persuade business managers that there is a need for a lengthy and more in-depth study of the important issues involved.

I shall briefly run through the background to the publication of Lord Donaldson's report. Right hon. and hon. Members will recall that, on 5 January 1993, the oil tanker Braer went aground in the south part of Shetland in my constituency. With commendable promptness, the Secretary of State for Transport announced, when the House first met on 11 January 1993, after the Christmas-New Year recess, that an inquiry would to be set up under Lord Donaldson's chairmanship.

That inquiry worked diligently. It took a considerable amount of evidence, and received volumes of it, which it then distilled to produce its report. At the time of its publication, it was widely acclaimed by industry and environmental groups, because it was considered to have done a thorough job on an important issue. It was also seen as a long overdue investigation into shipping safety. Although everyone had reservations about certain recommendations or were disappointed that other recommendations were not included, it is fair to say that the report found widespread acceptance.

The Government published their response to that report on 28 February this year, in a ministerial statement coupled with a detailed, blow-by-blow account of their response to the 103 recommendations that Lord Donaldson and the assessors who sat with him put forward.

Although the report was occasioned by the grounding of the Braer, it considered wider issues to do with shipping safety. It is important that we deal with those general issues, although I hope that the House will understand that, when I deal with some of the specifics, I will consider points of particular concern to my constituents in Shetland and Orkney.

I shall, however, try to avoid offering a checklist of recommendations and responses, as that would be somewhat tedious. In fact, it would be impossible to do that, because the more I discovered in preparing for the debate, the more obvious it was how one could go on indefinitely raising issues connected with the report.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House appreciate that a safer maritime regime has important consequences for the environment. The debate will provide us with an opportunity to consider our continuing concerns, and also to see how the Government are measuring up to the stated goals and aspirations set out in their response to the Donaldson report.

Let me turn to the Government's response, published in February 1995. I shall dwell at length on the importance of a timetable for implementation. I am sure that, when the Minister replies, he will tell the House that the Government's response accepted 86 of the 103 recommendations made by Lord Donaldson. The Government have 13 others under active consideration, so, by quick arithmetical process, one discovers that they rejected only four. By any yardstick, that is not a bad record.

However, we wish to examine the Government's record, not on their principled acceptance of many of the recommendations, but on the extent to which those have been implemented.

If one goes through the recommendations and the Government responses, one finds many references to the need for discussions, the need to submit papers and the need to urge the International Maritime Organisation. It is rarely that a clear commitment is made and something is actually being done.

It starts at the very beginning—a very good place to start—with recommendation 1 on the need to tighten flag state implementation. Everyone would agree that, if that could be done, it would be a key way of improving shipping safety, yet there are numerous countries, signatories to the IMO, whose capacity and willingness to implement rigid safety standards fall far below what one would expect of them.

The recommendation that we find there relating to flag state enforcement recommends the Government to encourage the improvement of Flag State performance generally by giving IMO's Sub-Committee on Flag State Implementation its full support. It then recommends many specific issues. In their response, the Government accept recommendations 1(a) and (b) and say: The UK has also submitted a paper for consideration at the next meeting of IMO's Flag State Implementation Sub-Committee pushing for action against Flag States with poor records. That may well be all that they can do, but we want to know what happens to those papers once they have been submitted. What progress is made afterwards? I cite that as an example.

Recommendation 53(b), which is not necessarily one of the key recommendations of Lord Donaldson's report, says: The UK Government should seek the agreement of the relevant international organisations to co-operative reassessment of the requirements for emergency electrical systems. That is one of the recommendations that the Government accepted. They said: It is clearly vital that emergency electrical systems are reliable and the UK will work through IMO to achieve any necessary improvements in design". What does "working through" mean? What is the time scale for achieving it?

Recommendation 57 says that the Government should press IMO to ensure that all vessels with a large bunker capacity are subject to the same routeing and reporting requirements and recommendations as laden tankers. That recommendation is accepted in principle. The Government accept that the pollution threat posed to the environment by bunker fuel is such that we need to protect the environment, and we are told: The Department of Transport will take forward discussions, both nationally and internationally, involving the shipping industry and environmental groups, in 1995. There is therefore plenty of commitment to discussion and submission of papers.

Recommendation 89 completes my random series of examples. It says: The UK Government should seek powers for the Coastguard Agency to establish sea exclusion zones. The response is: The Government agrees that COASTGUARD ought to have the power to establish sea exclusion zones in emergency situations but it will require legislation and we are … considering how best this might be achieved. There are a great many good intentions—I am aware of the arguments that the Minister can use to draw attention to the good intentions that exist, so justifying the position—but not much concrete action. We shall be told—as we are regularly told—that action is far more effective when we international agreement is achieved. I accept, as a principle, that that must be right. If we can persuade the whole international community to agree those things, self-evidently the safety regime for shipping worldwide would improve.

However, many of us fear that the International Maritime Organisation sometimes goes at the pace of its most reluctant member. We want a sense of urgency.

I hope that the Government are willing—perhaps the Minister will say so when he replies—to identify occasions when it might be appropriate for the European Union, or the United Kingdom unilaterally, to take action if it feels that the international shipping community is not proceeding with a sense of urgency on matters that are considered important.

An example of what has already been done is the EU directive on the recognition of classification societies. That aspect has been identified by many people as one of the weaknessness in the current position in classification societies; vessels may have been classified too easily. The EU directive will require far more stringent compliance requirements than those required by the IMO. That is a helpful sign that we are prepared to go beyond the minimum international standards. If we can do that in a European context, it is much more effective than doing it purely nationally.

I hope that the Minister will give some sign of what the Government's opinion is about when it would be appropriate for us to go it alone, or go it in partnership with our fellow EU members.

No doubt I shall also be told that all the current discussion and consultation is perfectly reasonable, and that I and my colleagues would be the first to complain if the Government steamed ahead without consultation. Of course consultation has its place, but I want to inject into the debate—not only this morning's debate on the Floor of the House, but the debate generally—a sense of impatience and the need for urgency. We cannot simply sit and wait.

It is now about two and a half years since the Braer went aground. There are important lessons to be learned, many of which Lord Donaldson identified. It is important that we maintain the pressure to ensure that that issue does not go—I was about to say underground—under water until there is another maritime casualty around our shores.