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 Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment) 6:45 pm, 17th March 1997

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.