Shipping Safety (Donaldson Report)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:36 am on 28th June 1995.

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Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson , Eastbourne 10:36 am, 28th June 1995

I am pleased to have the opportunity to take part in this debate, and congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) on securing it and on making a manful effort to do justice to Lord Donaldson's 103 recommendations.

I ought to declare a sort of interest, in that I have for a number of years practised as a shipping lawyer, and have done more than my fair share of investigating why ships ended up on the rocks, ablaze or whatever. I have an even more direct interest, in that I represent a coastal constituency—as do many hon. Members present. It is terrifying to consider the number of ships that pass through the Dover straits every day. In 1993, 150 vessel breakdowns were reported to Dover coastguard, and I suspect that the 1994 figure will not be lower.

The Donaldson report is a magisterial work of enormous scope and importance. I pay tribute also to Lord Donaldson and to his colleagues, John Rendle, CBE and Professor Alasdair McIntyre, who interviewed 250 individuals and organisations. Some 86 of their recommendations have been accepted, and 14 are being actively considered. I pay tribute to the report of the marine accident investigation branch on the more narrow issue of the Braer, which was also a painstaking effort.

As a number of hon. Members want to contribute to the debate, I will touch on only four aspects. As to pollution—an issue on which I intervened on the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland—we are apt to be mesmerised by enormous casualties such as the Torrey Canyon or the Braer, but it is important to remember that pollution is an everyday event on the coast around Eastbourne and elsewhere. Ships passing back and forth—often not tankers but elderly tramp steamers and other vessels—discharge oil into our waters.

That kind of drip, drip effect of everyday pollution is every bit as damaging as, or perhaps more damaging than, the headline cases. That is why it was important that the private Member's Bill that was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) with all-party and especially Government support became law last year.

It allowed us to ratify the international convention on salvage, of which more in a moment, to deal with increased compensation for oil pollution and to cover precisely persistent spills from ships other than oil tankers. That legislation has been welcomed by many environmental groups in and near my constituency.

One of the issues that emerges from the Braer report is the whole question of waste reception facilities. As a matter of course, such ships have oily-water contaminated waste that must be received somewhere rather than being dumped straight into the sea.

I shall now discuss the protection of our coasts by the stationing of tugs, a matter that was touched on by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland. I pay tribute to the work of the salvage working group for putting together ideas on which the Donaldson report drew heavily.

Since the Amoco Cadiz disaster off the French coast, the French Government have seen to it that tugs are stationed at Brest and Cherbourg for just such emergencies. The same policy has been followed for a number of years in South Africa. Donaldson recommendation No. 85 touches on how that can be carried out in this country. I am sure that there is an interesting debate in the Department about the combination of public and private sector contributions to deal with that question and the whole issue of franchising, and how it might work in practice.

We have heard about the pilot scheme which, with commendable speed, was put into effect for last winter, with one tug in Dover and the Dover straits and one in Scotland. I have spoken about the number of incidents that are reported in Dover every year. In February, when I last taxed my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport on that issue, the tug at Dover alone had been involved in dealing with some 22 incidents. I do not know whether the Minister has an up-to-date figure. At that time, my right hon. Friend said that the coastguard agency would be presenting its own recommendations to him in June, this month, about what could be done around our coasts in future winters.

The commercial salvage industry has had a difficult decade or so, and cannot necessarily be relied upon to have large expensive tugs stationed around our coasts. Tugs with the right power—the right bollard pull to use the technical expression—are needed in the right place at the right time. There is no point in having the right tug positioned where it cannot get to an incident in time to keep a large tanker off the rocks.

I congratulate the Government on the fact that the 1989 salvage convention has been incorporated into United Kingdom law. That is important in various ways, but it is most important in the context of this debate, because, for the first time, it envisages a salvage tug being rewarded for its contribution to protecting the environment, as well as simply the protection of property or lives. I hope that that will be an extra incentive to commercial salvors to step in and assist on such occasions.

I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us—if not today, in the fairly near future—how the Government see the stationing of tugs during the coming winter and in winters thereafter.

Finally, I should like to deal with the inspection of ships. In the ordinary way, ships are subject to many different types of inspection by authorities in this or other countries, by classification societies, by their own flag authorities and by their P+I clubs, which may insist on a condition survey. There will also be SOLAS checks for safety at sea. For tankers, perhaps the most important inspections are those carried out by prospective charterers. One of the most alarming features of those inspections is that a high percentage of tankers is rejected by big companies such as BP and Shell simply because they are not up to scratch.

One can carry out all the actions that I have mentioned and inspect a ship such as the Braer, which was well-found and run by a reputable company as far as I can see, but in that case the master was very much to blame, because his failure to do certain things contributed directly to the tragedy. I was disturbed to see in a newspaper a few days ago that that master is still plying his trade on tankers around the world.

I said in an intervention that it is important to remember that fewer than half the ships transiting the Dover straits or passing through Scottish waters stop at a UK port. That was true not only of the Braer but of the Torrey Canyon. That is why action should be Europe-wide or through the International Maritime Organisation and other international organisations.

I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has been publishing lists of ships that are not up to standard—the so-called ships of shame. That should continue, but it is only part of the answer.

I again congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland on precipitating the debate. I also congratulate the Government on, first, their prompt establishment of the Donaldson inquiry; secondly, on the variety of actions that they have already taken, and thirdly, on their continuing determination, through the IMO and other bodies and by unilateral action if necessary, to make our seas genuinely safer.