Shipping Safety (Donaldson Report)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:10 am on 28th June 1995.

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Photo of Joan Walley Joan Walley , Stoke-on-Trent North 11:10 am, 28th June 1995

In this debate, as in last week's debate on cycling, there is not enough time—certainly not enough time to deal with all the issues connected with the safety of life at sea and the aftermath of the Donaldson report. I shall try to be brief, because I know the Minister has many points to respond to, but I must join everybody who has congratulated the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) on the way in which he and the Shetland Islands council have unrelentingly ensured that we take up time and time again the question of what is to happen after the Donaldson report.

Just as the Shetland Islands council wants to set the highest standards for the oil operations off Shetland and at Sullom Voe, so it is crucial that the Government set and enforce similarly high standards.

The real underlying problem is that the Government's policy of doctrinaire dogmatic deregulation is undermining much of our ability to achieve the objectives set by the Donaldson report,, because so many of its 103 recommendations depend on and take for granted a safety culture within our shipping policy. The absence of that, and the way in which deregulation is starting to erode everything, means that the debate is about more than simply how to implement the shopping list of recommendations. It is also about how we must go back to basics on shipping and examine the important issues behind the recommendations.

Let us remind ourselves, as my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. O'Hara) did, that we are talking not only about what happens in Shetland, Orkney and the Western isles but about ship safety throughout United Kingdom waters, all round our coastline—from Dover to Folkestone, from Felixstowe to Humberside, round Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and from Liverpool to Bristol. The report should make sure that we address all the issues connected with ship safety in each of those areas.

Welcome though the report is, we must go back to basics. Yes, I agree with the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland that we need a timetable, and there is now some sense of urgency about that. But no, at the moment we have no mechanism for dealing with the report. We do not even have an annual shipping debate in the House, and there has been delay after delay in responding to Lord Donaldson's recommendations.

There are major concerns. Indeed, in the past week or so, we have seen how the Government are privatising part of what was the work of the surveyor general's organisation but is now the Marine Safety Agency. If that privatisation goes ahead, where shall we find the expertise and resources that were once within the Department of Transport, with the amalgamation of different agencies within the Department? Where will we find the expertise to make the recommendations to the International Maritime Organisation so that the Donaldson recommendations can be taken up?

I understand that there have been cuts of 14.8 per cent. in the Marine Safety Agency—7.4 per cent. in the marine accident investigation branch and 6.4 per cent. in the coastguard. How then shall we be able to deal with the basics of ship safety and the emergency work that the report called for? How shall we be able to ensure that, on 1 July, the coastguard will have the resources to handle the 2182 kHz frequency distress signals that have now been transferred to it? That might not have been a key recommendation of the report, but it is all part and parcel of the basic safety regime we need, on which all the other recommendations depend.

There are other aspects of the safety work, such as what is happening in Dover. We have already heard how the Dover strait is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. It is here off our south coast—but what have the Government done? They have made the extraordinary decision to close RAF Manston and reduce the search and rescue capability in the channel off Dover. How is that compatible with ship safety?

I repeat that all the Donaldson recommendations depend on the safety regime and safety culture that is being undermined. It has been further undermined by the commencement order that the Department of Transport is about to introduce to end the British officer nationality requirement on board British-registered ships. A whole culture is being eroded because of deregulation, and we must take those issues seriously.

There were many paragraphs in the report about the klondykers and the fish battery ships. We were told that the Government would take action to deal with them. In the winter, my colleagues and I went on delegations to the Bulgarian embassy to try to deal with the serious problems that, although they are an understandable result of the massive changes in eastern Europe, are undermining the United Kingdom's ability to uphold standards of shipping safety. Why is there still only a consultation paper? Why have the urgent steps that Donaldson recommended not been taken?

We are concerned not only about accidental spillages but about the wider pollution threat. Lord Donaldson's report dealt with more than accidental spills from shipping; his recommendations covered pollution by chemicals and garbage as well as by oil.

Like the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which is most concerned, I want the Minister to tell us when he intends to publish the results of the Government's questionnaire survey of reception facilities in our 350 ports and harbours, which was initiated at the same time as the report by the marine accident investigation branch.

We would also like to know what further action the Government propose to take to encourage greater use of port waste disposal facilities. Do they support the idea that fees for the use of reception facilities in the United Kingdom should be incorporated into standard port dues, as recommended in the report? In view of the responses that the Government have received to their consultation document on port reception facilities, what new statutory duties do they plan to place on port authorities?

As I have said, serious doubts remain. They certainly remain in Shetland Islands council, which says: Having studied HMG's response, the overall reaction is one of even greater disappointment because HMG has chosen to ignore most of the pressing matters and intends to take action which is largely symbolic and ineffective at least in the short to medium term on others. Will the Minister tell us that we shall have the opportunity of an annual debate on shipping to set out the basic objectives, to monitor progress and to take on board all the points raised in this all too short debate, including crew competence, which was so admirably discussed by my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, South?

In the past few weeks, we have seen enormous public concern about whether Shell would be allowed to dump the Brent Spar oil rig in the sea. Unless the Government start to take the issue of oil spills seriously as an aspect of shipping policy as a whole, it is not only Opposition Members who will comment on the prevarication and delay that has prevented real action. Our feelings are shared by people the length and breadth of the country.