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

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

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Photo of Nick Ainger Nick Ainger , Pembroke 6:45 pm, 17th March 1997

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.