Appointment by Secretary of State of Advisors on Marine Salvage, & C.

Merchant Shipping and Maritime Security Bill [Lords] – in the House of Commons at 6:45 pm on 17th March 1997.

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'.—In section 137 of the 1995 Act (shipping casualties), after subsection (5), there is inserted the following subsection— (5A) The Secretary of State shall appoint such persons as he thinks fit to advise or assist him in connection with marine salvage and other matters relating to the exercise and performance of his duties under this section.".'.—[Mr. Ainger.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Nick Ainger Nick Ainger , Pembroke

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Photo of Mr Michael Morris Mr Michael Morris , Northampton South

With this, it will be convenient to discuss also new clause 5—Duties of the Secretary of State in relation to marine pollution'.—After section 293 of the 1995 Act there is inserted the following section—"Duties of the Secretary of State in relation to marine pollution293A. It shall be the duty of the Secretary of State—

  1. (a) to carry out regular reviews of emergency salvage capacity in United Kingdom waters, including need, availability and potential funding sources; and
  2. (b) to ensure that adequate emergency salvage capacity is provided in United Kingdom waters, as identified in reviews carried out in accordance with paragraph (a), above.".'.

Photo of Nick Ainger Nick Ainger , Pembroke

New clause 4 developed from the clause stand part debate in Committee, in which I said that clause 2 was in the Bill because the marine accidents investigation branch made three separate recommendations in its interim report published on 22 November 1996: to give legal status to the marine pollution control unit's national contingency plan; to give the Secretary of State additional powers to direct harbour authorities, harbourmasters and pilots; and to give the Secretary of State or his officials the right to charter vessels, aircraft and equipment in the commercial sector to carry out an anti-pollution operation.

It is worse than useless to give the Secretary of State those powers if he cannot sensibly exercise them. I am glad that he is here. I remind the House of the meeting that he and I had at 11 o'clock on 20 February, the day after the Sea Empress made her final grounding and spilled about 30,000 tonnes of oil on the falling tide. I asked him why he had not intervened and exercised his considerable powers under the current legislation between 15 February, when the vessel first ran aground, and the day of our meeting.

I am sure that the Secretary of State will confirm my precis of our conversation. He said that he felt that he could not intervene, because the salvors were acknowledged as being world class and he had no expertise with which to countermand their policy and decisions, and that he was afraid that if he exercised his powers the salvors' tugs, equipment and expertise would be removed.

That is the key issue. We all want the risk to be reduced wherever possible, and if an accident occurs we need to be able to handle it as best we can, with all the technology at our disposal, to reduce the impact on the environment, but if, with the best will in the world, we give the Secretary of State those powers, we must also provide him with the independent expertise that could advise him if a salvage or towing operation were going wrong.

In Committee, the Minister tried to reassure us that measures had already been taken. He said that the contracted emergency towing vessels based at Dover, Falmouth and Stornoway had salvage experts attached to them. That assurance does not bear close examination. If we need all-year-round expertise, and its source is on the emergency towing vessels, those vessels would have to be on charter all year round, which they are not: they are chartered for only six months of the year; so for six months of any year there is no contracted salvage expertise available to the Secretary of State.

The three emergency towing vessels cover only the three sectors identified by Lord Donaldson and by Captain Belton, so if a casualty were to occur well up the east coast, in the middle of the North sea, it would be a significant distance from the existing covered sectors and the expertise would not be readily available.

Perhaps the most important point is how independent and objective any salvage expert who is part of a salvage operation will be. The Minister has told us that salvage experts will be on the vessels. The House will be interested to know that, under the current contract between the salvage or towing companies and the Coastguard agency, 60 per cent. of any proceeds from a successful salvage operation will automatically go to the salvor and only 40 per cent. to the Department of Transport. Again, there is a question mark over the independence of the people who are attached to the emergency towing vessels.

How do we give the Secretary of State that day-in, day-out, year-in, year-out, objective and independent expertise so that he can exercise the powers that previous Acts have given him and the Bill would give him? The Sea Empress disaster has clearly shown us that he did not have expertise in which he was confident and could place his trust. That is vital. If one lesson has to be learnt from the Sea Empress, it is that the Secretary of State must have independent and objective advice constantly available to him. That is why I tabled the new clause, which would put into the Bill the requirement for the Secretary of State to have such marine salvage expertise.

The Government were generous on new clause 2. I hope that they will show similar generosity on this important issue.

Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor , Truro

I shall speak to new clause 5, which is in my name and would make it a duty for the Secretary of State to carry out regular assessments of the availability of emergency salvage capacity in United Kingdom waters—an issue that I raised in Committee. It would also place a duty on the Secretary of State to ensure the provision of adequate salvage capacity based on the information obtained through such a review.

It is not a question of who funds the capacity—it is likely to be done through the private sector—but of the role of the Secretary of State in ensuring that such provision is available. I want to put an end to the considerable delays in ensuring that emergency salvage tugs are available in areas that are at risk from shipping. In Committee, the Minister argued that the question concerns the extent to which the Government should provide or ensure such salvage facilities. Lord Donaldson was in no doubt that the duty of ensuring that adequate cover was available lay with the Government. The fact that he also considered that tug ownership should remain primarily a private sector service was not intended to allow the Government to leave areas exposed to an avoidable pollution incident while they considered funding options.

In Committee, the Minister was reminded of the relative costs of salvage provision and of an oil spill, not all of which can be recovered from the ship's insurers or oil pollution compensation funds. Oil spills cost tens of millions of pounds, and it is highly desirable that the polluter should be asked to pay for the cost of pollution prevention, but coastal communities should not be left at risk while the issue is resolved.

When a similar amendment was discussed in Committee, the Minister questioned the meaning of "adequate". The new clause would give the Secretary of State the means of assessing what would constitute adequate emergency salvage tug cover. The Minister may argue that that already happens, but by making it a duty the new clause would ensure that the Secretary of State responded quickly to such assessments—certainly in less time than it has taken to implement some of Lord Donaldson's recommendations.

The Minister might question the meaning of "regular". He might suggest an interval that he would recommend for such a review and which is current practice, so that should not be a concern. Reviews should not be triggered solely in response to accidents. Under the new clause, the Secretary of State would be charged with ensuring that adequate salvage capacity was available in the period between reviews.

In Committee, the Minister also argued, in relation to a similar amendment, that a function of the Secretary of State did not impose an obligation."—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 4 March 1997; c. 116.] The new clause has been redrafted to take that comment into account. The Minister's comment raises some concerns, however, about other provisions in schedule 6, which I had understood would place an obligation on the Minister. If his comment is correct, they would not do that.

7.15 pm

An interim recommendation of the marine accidents investigation branch into the Sea Empress called for the national contingency plan to be given legal status. The Government have implemented the recommendation by seeking to add, through this Bill, the preparation of a national contingency plan to the functions of the Secretary of State under section 293 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995. If the Minister objects to the new clause, perhaps he could clarify, on the basis of his previous comments, whether the preparation of such a plan should be made a duty of the Secretary of State instead of a function. It now seems less than clear whether that is the case.

The tug in the western approaches was not in place when the Sea Empress ran aground in February 1996. Lord Donaldson highlighted the need for a tug to be placed at that location in May 1994. There was a considerable time gap, and if things had been done as suggested there might have been a very different outcome. It is to be hoped that there will not be another case that so clearly illustrates the cost to the marine environment and the coastal communities that rely on it of delaying the provision of adequate emergency salvage capacity around the UK coast. The new clause would place the necessary obligations on the Secretary of State both to find out what is needed and to act on the conclusions.

I have one further question for the Minister. In Committee, when we debated the issue, he said that there might be an announcement on the measures to be taken for the winter of 1997–98.I do not think that one has been made, unless I missed it. Can he confirm whether he will be announcing a continuation of the three winter tugs? To date, they are in place only on a trial basis, and it is important that such cover is continued. I know that the Minister agrees in principle, but it would be helpful if an announcement were made.

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

I have considerable sympathy with both new clauses. I remind the Minister—if he needs a reminder—of what might have happened west of the Western Isles with the Panamanian-registered Soro. Perhaps I may say, in response to a comment my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke (Mr. Ainger) made, that we always have a problem when tankers run into difficulties, because the owners place enormous pressure on their captains. We found that with the Exxon Valdez: the captain was reluctant to send for assistance. The same held true for that terrible foundering off the Shetland coast: there seemed to be some reluctance on the part of the captain to call for assistance. That was not the case with the Soro, as I am pleased to say that Captain Jim McFadden, a constituent of mine, acted promptly—as the Minister will agree in his response, I am sure.

In relation to the measures proposed in the new clauses, I want to know what information the Minister has about the Soro. There could have been a serious incident—that word is not strong enough. That august journal the Greenock Telegraph stated last Wednesday: A Greenock tanker captain has averted what could have been a major maritime oil disaster.The Panamanian-registered Soro ran into difficulties after encountering storm force conditions off the coast of Lewis. That means the west coast of Lewis—the deep-water route—where the vessel should have been. As the Minister knows, I have always argued that such vessels should not use the Minch in heavy weather.

The report continues: The severe weather damaged the ship's steering but Captain Jim McFadden of Greenock managed to bring the vessel and her cargo of 284,000 tonnes of crude oil to safety—preventing what could have been an environmental catastrophe.Tugs rushed to the aid of the Soro and brought her to the Clyde for repairs. This morning she left the river to continue her voyage to Canada. Were Government inspectors involved in inspecting the vessel's seaworthiness before she left the Clyde to continue her voyage to Canada? Captain McFadden acted promptly to avert danger by alerting the emergency tug at Stornoway, but there have been cases where captains, even when their ships were in serious trouble, have been reluctant to send for an emergency tug because of the cost. The new clauses deal with the problem of unscrupulous owners who let their captains and crews know their views about the need to avoid what they regard as unnecessary expense. They tell captains to try to effect running repairs and to get their engineers to deal with the faulty steering or whatever and not to call out a tug because of the cost. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) will know that some owners put that terrible responsibility on captains. In the case of Captain McFadden, there were no problems because he behaved in the honourable tradition of seafarers and sought to protect both his crew and the marine environment by sending for the tug promptly. He is to be complimented for his actions, but I worry about unscrupulous owners putting intolerable pressure on their captains.

Photo of Jim Wallace Jim Wallace , Orkney and Shetland

I welcome the new clauses as an opportunity to raise important issues relating to salvage tug capacity around the United Kingdom. This gap in our marine pollution prevention measures was identified in the Donaldson report. I echo the request for confirmation that, at the very least, the three tugs that have operated in the winter months recently in Dover, Stornoway and Falmouth will continue.

My concern relates to the presence of adequate salvage tug capacity in the waters around Orkney and Shetland. The Minister knows that I have taken the matter up often. On 11 December, I was fortunate in being able to raise the matter in an Adjournment debate in the Scottish Grand Committee. I do not propose to repeat the points that I made, which are still relevant.

In Committee, when my hon. Friend the Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) spoke of the need for salvage capacity around Orkney and Shetland, he received a reply that has become familiar. The Minister said: Both the Donaldson report and the Belton report on tugs referred to the waters there as being of secondary risk—that is their definition, not mine."—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 4 March 1997; c. 116.] I must accept that, but the Department of Transport has not addressed the fact that while Captain Belton's emergency towing study team's report, which was commissioned by the Coastguard, found that in general it was a secondary danger area, it also found that there was a particularly high risk during the winter months. That is self-evident to those of us who live there.

Captain Belton's study team recommended that the area should be provided with emergency towing vessel cover from the beginning of October until the end of March. The debate gives the Minister an opportunity to respond to that and to update the House on what the Minister of State, Scottish Office told me. He said: The Coastguard Agency has been in correspondence with commercial enterprises in Shetland to consider possible joint arrangements in the provision of emergency towing, and how these might be of benefit. The discussion will continue, but without commitment at this stage."—[Official Report, Scottish Grand Committee, 11 December 1996; c. 47.] I would welcome an update on any discussions that have taken place with private commercial enterprises in Shetland. The Minister could also comment on the fact that, in its evidence to the Donaldson inquiry, the harbours department of Orkney Islands council displayed a willingness to discuss partnerships to ensure that adequate salvage capacity—not the capacity already there, with tugs doing harbour jobs in both Scapa Flow and Sullom Voe—would be available as a joint venture in Orkney as well.

Photo of Mr John Bowis Mr John Bowis , Battersea

I am grateful to the four hon. Members who have spoken. The hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Ainger) introduced the debate on new clause 4, and the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) spoke to new clause 5. At the outset, I must say that both new clauses are unnecessary.

New clause 4 seeks to give the Secretary of State powers that he already has, although it does not use, as the hon. Member for Pembroke suggested it should, the words independent or must. The Secretary of State can already seek the advice and assistance of experts in or outside Government, as he thinks appropriate. We do not need new primary legislation for that. The hon. Gentleman nevertheless raised some important issues. I merely suggest gently that he is being premature with some of them. The review of the national contingency plan will, of course, have regard to the lessons learned from the Sea Empress incident and of any relevant recommendations made by the marine accident investigation branch. Clearly, if there is evidence that a particular sort of expertise has not been sufficiently available in the past, it can and will be addressed.

The conduct of salvage operations is one of the many aspects of the Sea Empress incident that are being considered by the MAIB. It would not be appropriate for me to guess its conclusions. The chief inspector expects to present his report to the Secretary of State by the end of the month. It will be published as soon as possible thereafter. New clause 4 is unnecessary and I hope that the hon. Member for Pembroke will seek leave to withdraw it.

The hon. Member for Truro mentioned our debates in Committee, where we debated this issue at some length. In practice, the Secretary of State already does what new clause 5 suggests. To make that a duty seems unnecessarily inflexible. It would impose a duty on the Secretary of State to carry out regular reviews of emergency salvage capacity". It does not specify how often that should be done, as the hon. Gentleman acknowledged.

New clause 5 imposes a further duty to ensure that adequate emergency salvage capacity is provided". It still does not specify what adequate means. While I take the point of the hon. Member for Truro about having a stab at it, it is still vague. It is a useful new clause for debate, but not for legislation.

We had a full and useful debate on provision of emergency towing vessels in Committee in response to an amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Truro. I can assure the hon. Member for Truro and the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) that, since then, we have made the announcement—the hon. Gentleman must have missed it. We have announced that tugs have been retained to provide cover for a further winter in the Minches, the Dover strait and the south-west approaches.

As I said in Committee, we will be undertaking further analysis of the trials to date—we are not waiting for next winter—so that the benefits of the provision of such Government-funded vessels can be fully assessed. It is right that we should carry out a careful evaluation of the costs and benefits of the trials to date; the public expenditure involved, of about £1 million per tug per winter, is not negligible. In the light of the evaluation, which we are now embarked upon as a matter of urgency, we will reach decisions on the longer-term provision of Government-funded tugs, how many there should be, where they should be located and for what period of the year.

7.30 pm

I hope that my comments have answered the queries of the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland. His points, which I have been unable to respond to in detail today, will be taken into account in that review, as will many of the points made by the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman). The hon. Gentleman reminded us of the incident involving the Soro, which was skilfully captained by one of his constituents. In that incident the request was made for support, the tug was available and set out. As the hon. Gentleman will recall, before it reached the ship, the ship was able to get under way on its own and subsequently made its own commercial arrangements for tug support.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the Minches, where it is always a matter of trying to strike the right balance between the protection of the environment and the protection of life—hence the routing in the Minches. I know that the hon. Gentleman feels strongly about that issue. It is a matter of using the deep channel whenever it is sensible, and using the protection of the coastline when necessary.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to cost. We are talking in general terms of the costs being the responsibility of ship owners. The hon. Member for Truro made it clear that he was not looking for wider public funding, but wanted an assurance that we would ensure that adequate provision was made. We shall take account of any comments or recommendations made in the MAIB report into the Sea Empress when it is to hand.

In the light of the work in hand and the announcement that the Government will fund three tugs for a further winter, I hope that the hon. Member for Truro will be reassured and that the hon. Member for Pembroke will feel able to withdraw his new clause.

Photo of Nick Ainger Nick Ainger , Pembroke

We have had a disappointing, but not unexpected, reply from the Minister.

I wish to comment on new clause 5 and the Minister's response to it. It is worth reminding ourselves that chapter 20, paragraph 127 of Lord Donaldson's report clearly recommended that there should be all-year-round emergency towing vessel cover in the Dover strait, the western approaches and north-west Scotland. That report led to Captain Belton's report, which was published one year later, in May 1995. He concluded that the primary danger areas were Dover, the Hebrides and the south-west approaches. Captain Belton's report recommended that emergency towing cover should be provided throughout the year in the Primary Danger Areas of DOVER, HEBRIDES and the SOUTH WEST APPROACHES; and for the winter only"— the point made by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace)— (1 October-31 March) in the Secondary Danger Areas of FAIR ISLE and NORTH CHANNEL. The final report commissioned by the Coastguard agency—the emergency towing vessels trial report—stated, in its conclusions at paragraph 46: The two winter trials have taught us a lot about operating emergency towing vessels. We know what they cost and we have seen their potential benefits. Essentially they are an insurance policy and as such only pay off when an accident happens. The paragraph concludes: The trials support the broad conclusions reached by the Donaldson Inquiry and Captain Belton's study team. I am disappointed. How many more reports shall we have before the recommendations 0made by three objective committees are taken up? They have made it perfectly clear that, in their view, the emergency towing vessels should be in the key areas—the primary danger areas—all year and in the secondary danger areas, which were referred to by hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland, for six months of the winter period. I am worried that, yet again, we shall have a winter-only charter and another report. My great fear is that we shall have a repeat of the Sea Empress disaster, and not necessarily in the winter months.

I shall now comment briefly on the Minister's reply to new clause 4. He says that it is unnecessary because the powers already exist and the Bill contains additional powers. As I 0explained earlier, the powers already existed but could not be exercised because the Department of Transport did not have the confidence to come up with an option different from that put forward by a salvor who undoubtedly had a world-class reputation.

My fear is that we are currently dependent on the review of the national contingency plan including in its recommendations that the Secretary of State should have that expertise available to him. My argument is that if the Secretary of State has to exercise powers in relation to a salvage operation, high-quality salvage expertise should be available to him—I think that most people with an objective view would accept that as a sensible argument—but the Minister is saying that unless the national contingency plan review makes that suggestion, and unless the MAIB makes that suggestion, the Government may not implement it. That is why I have argued that the provision should appear on the face of the Bill so that every Secretary of State, whoever he or she may be, must have that expertise available to him or her.

I am conscious that we should have to await those reviews. I hope that, as they are on-going, the people who are producing them are listening to our debates, or reading the transcripts of them, and taking on board the points that have been made in a purely non-political way. Sensible points are being made by people who have built up a certain amount of experience and expertise. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland and I have done so through direct experience of major pollution incidents in our constituencies.

I hope that those who are producing the reports have listened to what has been said and will seriously consider what is being proposed. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.