Powers of Intervention Where Shipping Accident Threatens Pollution

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 Jim Wallace Jim Wallace , Orkney and Shetland 6:45 pm, 17th March 1997

I beg to move amendment No. 11, in page 4, leave out lines 1 to 5.

The amendment would delete references to harbour master and harbour authority from the list of those to whom the Secretary of State could give directions where there was a risk of significant pollution in United Kingdom waters.

The background to the amendment is that the original Bill—the draft Bill that went out for consultation last year, which exercise probably helped to smooth the passage of the legislation through both Houses—did not include the provision to which the amendment relates. The interim report of the MAIB on the Sea Empress grounding and a powerful intervention from Lord Donaldson on Second Reading in another place led the Department of Transport on 2 December to issue a consultation paper regarding the possible extension of the intervention powers of the Secretary of State. The consultation paper required a response, or at least initial views, by 16 December, so there was little time for consultation. It is therefore important that we examine the reasons for that extension of the Secretary of State's power.

In his response to clause stand part in Committee, the Minister did not adequately explain the scope of the powers or the circumstances in which they would be used. He said: To some extent we must await the MAIB's report and should not prejudge that. He added: The fact that we have announced a review of the national contingency plan is evidence of how seriously the Government take the problem. We are trying to establish whether procedures are adequate and whether the plan needs revision. We are going to make it statutory through this legislation. I hope that that will provide some reassurance for the time being on this important matter.—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 25 February 1997; c.28.] In other words, there was little scrutiny of the need for this power.

In its response to the consultation document, Shetland islands council, which is the harbour authority responsible for Sullom Voe, expressed considerable reservations about the extension of the power. I do not have to hand a copy of the submission from Orkney islands council, which is the harbour authority for Scapa Flow and the oil traffic that goes in and out of the Flotta terminal, but I understand that Orkney council shares those reservations and concerns. In its response, Shetland islands council said: Probably the acid test for Central Government in this matter is whether or not the use of such a power would ever be envisaged or contemplated. It is unlikely to be used, it should not exist and, instead, a more effective approach will be to ensure the existence of a comprehensive legal framework for effective control at a local level. Later in the submission, it states: Directions given, on-the-hoof, in the heat of an incident are no substitute for a rational and properly thought out plan with all lines of communication, authority and accountability clearly established. Again, this Council believes that the Secretary of State already has sufficient powers available to him and these, together with properly developed plans, will secure actions appropriate to the area and the nature of the incident. The amendment seeks an explanation from the Minister of how, and in what circumstances, he envisages the powers being used. I also want an assurance that they really are powers of last resort. They should not, in any way, be seen as a substitute for proper discussions with harbour authorities to ensure that there are well worked-out plans for dealing with emergencies in each harbour authority area. The tone and the considerations that motivated the response by the harbour authorities in my constituency suggested that there is no substitute for dealing with these matters in advance. Of course, some decisions will have to be made in the heat of an emergency, but proper plans will ensure that decisions made under pressure are more likely to be the right ones.

I conclude by noting the comments of the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Ainger) in Committee on clause stand part. He questioned what expertise would be available to the Secretary of State in circumstances where he might have to exercise the power. He said: I am sure that the powers will be delegated to the director or the chief executive of the Coastguard or to someone in the Ministry of Defence, but with the best will in the world, they are not salvage experts. They do not have the professionalism, which comes from many years of experience, to countermand an organisation that also claims to be expert in the field."—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 25 February 1997; c. 26.] Many of those who daily deal with our harbours have built up considerable expertise. I am sure that it is not the intention of the clause to sweep that aside and to enable the Secretary of State to swoop in with such advice as he has available to him. However, the purpose of the amendment is to obtain some information on how the Minister envisages the powers developing and a reassurance that they will not be used as a substitute for adequate local planning.

Photo of Mr John Bowis Mr John Bowis , Battersea

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) for raising this issue and for the terms in which he has done so. I hope that I can give him the reassurances that he seeks.

The amendment would remove the Secretary of State's power to give directions to harbour masters and harbour authorities. That would restrict his ability to monitor and, if necessary, take overall control of counter-pollution operations following a maritime casualty. As the hon. Gentleman correctly said, the widening of the intervention powers to cover harbour masters and harbour authorities was an interim recommendation of the MAIB. That recommendation received widespread support, including that of the noble and learned Lord Donaldson, whose words we listen to with considerable respect, as we do to the MAIB.

7.45 pm

The hon. Gentleman may be reassured to hear that we would not expect to use those powers often. When we did, we would seek to minimise the consequences for the commercial operation of ports, but, as Lord Donaldson said in another place, where a number of people are involved with a casualty, including a harbour authority, the buck must stop with someone, and that person should be the Secretary of State or his representative on the scene.

The hon. Gentleman asked me to spell out what the new powers would do. They will not alter our preference for co-operation rather than coercion. That is set out in the national contingency plan and I can assure him that only in cases of extreme urgency would we give a direction. Our intention is that, in general, we would use the powers simply to require salvage plans to be submitted for agreement by the Secretary of State's senior representative. We would not usually invoke the powers to take overall command of an operation, but, where the situation warrants it, we would have the power to intervene directly.

The United Kingdom's national contingency plan has been developed in conjunction with harbour authorities and others and the hon. Gentleman is right to say that that is the proper way to proceed. Regulations imposing a duty on harbour authorities to have plans are currently being drafted and will shortly be circulated for comment. The plans will deal with the response that a harbour authority might be able to make to an incident. No plan—however good—can cater for all circumstances, which is why a reserve power of direction is needed. That is proposed in the Bill and the amendment would remove that power in respect of harbour authorities.

The House would be unwise to disagree with the MAIB, which originally proposed this measure, or with the overwhelming support that the measure has received, including that of Lord Donaldson. With those reassurances on how the power would be used and when it would not be used, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Jim Wallace Jim Wallace , Orkney and Shetland

I welcome the clear terms in which the Minister has set out the way in which he would expect the power to be used or not used. It is the view of his Department—and, I assume, of the responsible agencies of his Department—that the emphasis should be firmly on forward contingency planning. Every encouragement should be given to the development of those plans, over and above that which already exists. With those words from the Minister on the record, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Frank Field Frank Field Chair, Social Security Committee, Chair, Social Security Committee

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Later this evening, we are to debate a Pensions Measure and the only contribution that I wished to make to that debate was to thank the Second Church Estates Commissioner, the right hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Alison), for the skilful and graceful way in which he has presented the Commissioners' business to this House. As I have to absent myself from the Chamber for a short time to make a satellite link-up with New Zealand, can you advise me as to whether there is any way in which I can get my comments into the Official Report before leaving, just in case the pensions business is completed before I return?

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse , Pontefract and Castleford

Even after five years in the Chair, I am unable to help the hon. Gentleman with that problem.