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 Mr John Bowis Mr John Bowis , Battersea 6:45 pm, 17th March 1997

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.