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

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.