That is a very helpful suggestion, and it is what I envisaged when I asked for a report which would show what stage certain proposals had reached within the various committees of the IMO. It is important to know the status of the various proposals, and what sort of reception they are receiving from other IMO members. We would then know what was happening, and we would be reassured that proposals were not simply banished to the place on the Albert embankment where they disappear without trace.
After receiving its initial remit, the Donaldson inquiry was asked to examine the question of factory ships. That followed the grounding of the Lunohods and the Borodinskoye Polye in Lerwick harbour in November 1993. They were klondykers engaged in the transshipment of pelagic fish. Lord Donaldson made a series of recommendations calling for action, including legislation, to amend the Sea Fish (Conservation) Act 1967.
Paragraph 17.33 of Lord Donaldson's report states:
We believe that a revised system must be in place before the winter of 1994–95 … The Fisheries Departments should declare straight away that from a specified date, well before next winter"—
that is the winter just past—
they will not consider any application for a transshipment licence unless the Master concerned produces evidence that his vessel is adequately insured and reaches minimum safety standards".
A positive move has been the introduction of regular vessel inspections. Vessels are detained—some have been detained in my constituency—when they do not meet certain safety standards. Another klondyker, the Pionersk, ran aground at the end of October last year.
The Scottish Office Agriculture and Fisheries Department has released a consultation document which seeks to limit the number of klondykers and requires notice of applications for transshipment licences. That move is intended to improve the management of the transshipment arrangement without interrupting the operation of legitimate fishing interests. However, I understand that there are some potential practical difficulties in requiring advance notice when vessels often do not make decisions to come and fish until the last minute.
The Government's response also says that the Department of Transport, the Scottish Office and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will prepare a consultation paper on options for future action, including a possible linkage between compliance with safety standards and the issuing of licences. The Minister will have the opportunity today to inform the House about the time scale for that consultation paper, and when we can expect to see legislation that might flow from it.
When presenting the Donaldson report to the House, the former Secretary of State said:
We shall be considering those recommendations urgently so that we can have appropriate measures in place before the klondyker fleet returns".—[Official Report, 17 May 1994; Vol. 243, c. 677.]
We are about to see the second return of the klondyker fleet, and there is still no indication that the necessary legislation will be brought before the House. The issue generates considerable concern in my constituency. That concern is not so obvious during the summer months, but we do not want to approach another winter and the return of the klondyker fleet with no idea what legislation will link safety standards to the issue of licences.
Another related matter is the problem of insurance. When the Pionersk ran aground, there were questions about its insurance. I have advised some of my constituents to take the matter up with the solicitors acting for the agents of the Pionersk, because, although it was clear where the liability lay, it was not clear whether my constituents could receive any compensation because there was no insurance. The Lerwick harbour trust and the Shetland islands council have expressed similar concerns.
I welcome the fact that the Government say in their response that they will accept, in principle, Lord Donaldson's recommendation for compulsory liability insurance. We are told that the IMO's legal committee will begin formal consideration of that matter in 1996. Perhaps the Minister will tell us what time scale he anticipates for that consideration.
At the North sea conference earlier this month, we received considerable support from our North sea partners about the idea of compulsory insurance. In the meantime, is it possible to have separate arrangements for uninsured fish factory ships, given that they require a licence, are in our waters and anchor at United Kingdom ports? Is it possible to introduce more stringent insurance requirements for them now, rather than waiting until 1996, when the formal consideration of compulsory insurance begins?
On surveillance, Lord Donaldson's recommendation that there should be worldwide use of automatic transponders to enable vessels to be tracked and interrogated received support from all sides. For the most part, that would allow the early identification of trouble when vehicles stall or are clearly not making adequate progress, and the coastguard and other safety agencies could be alerted at a much earlier stage.
Last July, some Shetland Islands councillors and I met the former Shipping Minister, the noble Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, to discuss a number of issues rising out of the Donaldson report. I was very impressed by Lord Mackay's commitment to the various issues, not least that of transponders. He said that, during the summer recess, he planned to visit a number of European capitals to press the case for transponders. However, before the sun set that day, he was a Social Security Minister.
The Government have tried to pursue the issue, and the report suggests that it is gaining some momentum. However, I have read press reports in the last two or three months which suggest that the proposal has been knocked back in the relevant committee of the IMO. Will the Minister explain the present situation with regard to the requirement to fit automatic transponders to vessels?
There is considerable strength of feeling in the Shetlands—and I suspect in other places, such as the Minches and the western approaches—that there should be some kind of radar surveillance pending the proper implementation of transponders. The Government have said that they will operate mobile radar, and they are already doing so on a basis similar to a police speed trap, as Lord Donaldson suggested. A radar was placed in the Fair Isle channel at the turn of the year, and I should be interested to learn what the results have been.
In the absence of transponders, there is a strong view that there should be some form of surveillance in order to spot vehicles quickly when they get into difficulty. That could be achieved at modest cost, not only by radar but also by aerial surveillance. The Government have extended aerial surveillance hours from 500 to 625 per annum on a trial basis. The Shetland Islands council has surveillance spotter planes which fly for up to 400 hours per annum checking on vessels coming in and out of Sullom Voe. I think that we can do more to monitor the activities of vessels while we await the introduction of an automatic and highly scientific means of tracking them.
The surveillance issue raises the fundamental question of what to spot when tracking vessels. There is widespread concern about illegal discharges from vessels. As Lord Donaldson observed, although incidents such as the Braer, Torrey Canyon or Amoco Cadiz attract headlines, day in, day out, week in, week out and year in, year out, routine and often illegal discharges put much more oil into the seas than some headline-grabbing casualties.
The difficulties for enforcement authorities in trying to bring an offending vessel to book are immense. I would be interested to know whether there has ever been a successful prosecution in recent times. My understanding of the MARPOL rules is that, since July 1993, permitted discharges of oil and oily waste have been limited to 30 litres of oil per nautical mile travelled. It would challenge any procurator fiscal or the Crown Prosecution Service to prove in court that that limit had been exceeded.