MSC Napoli

– in the House of Commons at 10:14 pm on 24th March 2009.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —(Ian Lucas.)

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Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire Chair, Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art 10:16 pm, 24th March 2009

It is now just over two years since the MSC Napoli, en route from Antwerp to Portugal, was beached off the east Devon section of the world heritage coast, between Sidmouth and Branscombe, following a storm off Cornwall. What followed was four days of what can only be described as chaos, triggered by the substantial influx into Branscombe of people intent on removing items of cargo washed ashore.

The incident triggered a major inter-agency operation led by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and presented significant challenges both at sea and on land, including public order and traffic management issues. Although those involved in the handling of the clear-up, particularly the work at sea, performed exceptionally well, what will be remembered for years to come will instead be the scenes of looting that took place.

The purpose this evening's debate is not to apportion blame but to learn lessons and suggest changes. What happened in Branscombe was nothing short of a disaster, and although the impact was felt locally, the issues that it raised are certainly of national, if not international, importance. Frankly, it is a disgrace that the events in Branscombe were not given the examination that they deserved in a public inquiry. The Secretary of State refused to hold any type of public inquiry, simply deciding that the marine accident investigation branch report would suffice and that the events both on Branscombe beach and in Branscombe parish were not his concern or, it seems, of national significance.

Instead, Devon county council was forced to take responsibility and had to resort to spending £22,000 of local taxpayers' money on its own inquiry, a fact that is all the more shocking when we consider that it spent £25,000 of local taxpayers' money on an inquiry into foot and mouth in 2001, again due to the Government's refusal to hold one. Although it is fundamentally and irrevocably wrong that it was left to the taxpayers of Devon to foot the bill, if the inquiry report, which is intended to help authorities cope better with such an incident in future, is given the full attention that it deserves, and if recommendations are taken forward and legislative changes implemented, that money will have been well spent.

I trust that by now the Minister has read the inquiry report thoroughly. I congratulate and thank all those involved, particularly Professor Ian Mercer, who also handled Devon's inquiry into foot and mouth. Will the Minister concede that it was wrong for Devon to have to foot the bill for an inquiry into an event that had repercussions far beyond the county borders?

It has generally been recognised that the biggest stumbling block to an effective operation on land was the many centres, groups and units that were involved in the emergency. Although we have a successful system in place for disasters at sea, we simply have no clear understanding of who is in overall control of land operations when a ship comes ashore. That was the central focus of the inquiry.

If someone—perhaps, as the inquiry report suggests, the chief constable of the region where the ship or cargo first comes ashore or off which it grounds—were appointed the Secretary of State's Representative or SOSREP on land, there would be a clear command chain, and the initial confusion need never happen again. If there had been a leader on land from the outset—and I can think of no better person in Devon than our own Chief Constable Stephen Otter—who had been able to direct operations as soon as they were aware of what was about to occur, the scenes of looting and ransacking could have been, if not completely averted, at least controlled and contained.

That brings me to my next point: the urgent need to address the laws of salvage. The looting that took place in the days that followed the beaching of the Napoli caused an astonishing 800 per cent. more damage than the accident caused. The police, who were unsure about the law of salvage, refused to close access to the beach until legal advice had been obtained. Order was restored only when the police were sure that they had the power to cordon off the beach. The uncertainty surrounding the implementation of the current legislation led to delays in the police taking appropriate action. The legislation must now be clarified to prevent similar situations from occurring in future.

The relevant merchant shipping legislation dates from only 1995, yet provisions in part IX of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995, which deal with wreck, are an only slightly altered version of the Maritime Act 1854. We are working with a 19th century statutory framework, devised in the days of considerably smaller trading vessels, that cannot now cope with such an incident. Indeed, the Napoli, which was built in 1991 and carried just over 2,000 containers, is dwarfed by the newer generation of far larger container ships, which have a capacity of more than 11,000 containers.

Both the police and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency have freely acknowledged that the legislation cannot adequately cope with current conditions. Indeed, the multi-agency debrief report states that

"the agencies involved in the Napoli incident have now recommended a review of the adequacy of Part IX of the 1995 Act to determine whether it is 'fit for purpose' in dealing with large scale incidents where property is washed ashore."

Does the Minister agree that, in the light of events, it is time to reconsider the applicable legislation and make changes? If so, what time scale can we expect? Perhaps it is true that salvage, especially in my part of the world, was once part of local coastal behaviour, but theft and criminal damage is simply not appropriate or acceptable conduct in the 21st century.

Although the Napoli incident has done much to highlight weaknesses in our maritime legislation, it has also drawn attention to fundamental flaws in the global shipping industry. The marine accident investigation branch report showed that many containers were considerably above the weight shown in their papers. Indeed, the Napoli had arrived or departed from berths or other ports on several occasions at up to 122 per cent. of her maximum stress levels. That, along with the speed and loading, caused the ship to "break its back".

The discrepancy in weight of many of the containers is not unique to the Napoli; it is a dangerous feature of the industry that shippers deliberately under-declare containers' weights to minimise import taxes calculated on cargo weight. That dangerous practice was a large contributory factor in the actual break-up and demise of the ship and must be stamped out. That clearly demonstrates that it is essential to weigh containers on the dockside before embarkation, and that the practice should now be mandatory. Will the Minister make that a legal requirement? If so, when?

Considering that a previous marine accident investigation branch report, published in September 2007, on the collapse of cargo containers on the Annabella, concluded that

"the safety of ships, crews and the environment is being compromised by the overriding desire to maintain established schedules or optimise port turn-round times", what guarantees can the Minister give that he will ensure that recommendations made to the International Association of Classification Societies and the International Chamber of Shipping will be monitored, followed up and acted upon?

A further recommendation made by the inquiry is that the Government should make a general and permanent commitment to reimburse the extraordinary costs of handling the aftermath of an incident such as that involving the Napoli to the whole range of land-based bodies involved. Insurers have estimated the total bill for the wreck at £120 million, a sum that is second only to the $2.1 billion incurred in the Exxon Valdez case. With claims being met out of a £14.7 million limitation fund, claimants will be lucky to recover more than 20p to 30p in the pound. Instead, it is the taxpayers of East Devon and other affected areas who are being forced to make up the difference for costs such as policing and the use of the fire service, simply because they had the misfortune of having the event happen where they live.

Devon county council spent £44,000 on the clean-up, while Devon and Cornwall police estimate that they spent more than £320,000 on the operation. Those costs cannot even be claimed back from the insurers. For the many others who have put in claims, such as the fishermen and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the sum that they can expect to receive is minimal. That is undoubtedly a case of penalising coastal areas for any unforeseen shipping incidents that may occur.

In an Adjournment debate that I secured two years ago, I raised the issue of insurance. In fact, I specifically asked for a reassurance that the pot would not run dry. I was reassured somewhat that on 29 March 2007 a spokesman for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency stated:

"The Government's mantra is that the polluter pays, and in this instance, a very large metal ship needs to be removed. That won't cost the public purse."

In fact, the cost to the public purse has been estimated at more than £10 million. Indeed, the then Transport Minister, Dr. Ladyman, who is in his place this evening, stated in a parliamentary answer in January 2007 that the Department of Transport would not provide money for councils that incur costs as a result of pollution from ships. That contradiction is strikingly unfair to the taxpayers of the south-west, whose council tax bills are already among the highest in Britain, so will the current Minister now consider establishing a central fund along the lines of the Bellwin fund or, indeed, modifying that fund accordingly to meet such disasters?

Since the Napoli incident in January 2007, the adoption by the International Maritime Organisation of the Nairobi international convention for the removal of wrecks has demonstrated a positive and encouraging step forward on compulsory insurance and improving the prospects of cost recovery. The fact that the Government have not yet seen fit to implement that important legislation and that the various provisions of the draft Marine Navigation Bill, which would include the ratification of the ICRW, have not yet found their way into the legislative timetable demonstrates a woeful lack of commitment on the part of the Government. Can the Minister explain that?

The decision to beach the Napoli in Lyme bay—I am particularly pleased that my neighbour, Mr. Letwin, whose constituency looks over most of Lyme bay, is here this evening—was based on the area's sheltered waters. However, that brings me to the question why Lyme bay was viewed as a suitable place of refuge.

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Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Shadow Minister without Portfolio

As my hon. Friend knows, it was only by the grace of God that the ship ended up in his patch rather than mine, for which we are duly grateful. I am sure that he is as concerned as I am to discover that elements of the wreckage remain, entrapping fishermen's gear in Lyme bay. That points to the sensitivity of the area and to the questionability of having such a wreck end up anywhere in the bay.

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Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire Chair, Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art

My right hon. Friend is entirely right. I have been out with some fishermen and one only has to look at their radar and sonar scanners to see the large amounts of plastic and other debris in Lyme bay. It would be interesting to know whether the Minister thinks that they should be compensated, because a lot of that stuff has still not been recovered. However, my right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I will come to why I think it questionable that a boat in that condition should have been anywhere near either of our coastal areas.

The Lyme bay area is part of a world heritage site and part of the Jurassic coast—I should declare that I am a trustee of the Jurassic coast trust—but it is also the subject of a fisheries exclusion zone, in recognition of its status as

"one of the UK's richest marine wildlife sites".

I would like to quote from a DEFRA document, "A summary of responses to the consultation on measures to protect marine biodiversity interests in Lyme Bay from the impact of fishing with dredges and other towed gear"—I do not know what the acronym for that is, but it would help if there was one—which was published in March 2008. The document states:

"The Bay hosts some of the UK's most important reef habitat and is considered to be both nationally and internationally important in conservation terms."

The Devon coast is an area that depends heavily on tourism and our coastline is very important to the economic and social well-being of our community. A new study, conducted by the non-profit regeneration consultancy Era Ltd, on the Jurassic coast suggests that it has exceeded expectations in bringing economic, social and cultural benefits to the region since it was awarded UNESCO world heritage site status in 2001. Its status has given a boost to the area of Dorset and East Devon in terms of learning and education, business opportunities, facilities and services, especially benefiting the local tourism industry—and we in East Devon are rightly very proud and also very protective of maintaining this special coastline. Does the Minister consider that Lyme bay, given its recognised importance as a marine habitat and its UNESCO world heritage status, is an appropriate site to be used for a shipping emergency?

Lyme bay is also an important wintering site for many bird species and within two days of the beaching more than 900 birds were reported oiled. It is estimated that for every bird found oiled on the shore, between three and 10 times as many will have been oiled at sea. The wreck of the Napoli may also have threatened as many as 28 sites of special scientific interest, including the Exe estuary, Chesil beach and the Fleet SSSIs. Will the Minister therefore ensure that provisions specifically to keep ships away from environmentally sensitive areas, as my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset has just suggested, and legislation covering navigation are built into the Marine and Coastal Access Bill, particularly in the light of the Napoli incident?

The beaching of the Napoli was an event that highlighted serious deficiencies in many aspects of dealing with such an occurrence, which is why action must be taken now. This report must be heeded, the national contingency plan must be strengthened, maritime legislation must be adapted and a single person to take charge on land must be appointed. Only two months ago, police admitted that they were powerless to stop members of the public helping themselves to sawn timber that had washed up on the Kent coast, which had been lost by a Russian ship, the Sinegorsk.

For an island nation with a proud maritime heritage, it is now high time that the Government demonstrated some form of real commitment to the shipping industry and seaside communities and ensured that costly situations such as this are avoided in the future. The channel is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world and although economic times are more constrained at present, with container ships less frequent along our coast than they once were, that is not to say that things will not pick up again.

Figures from Lloyd's Register-Fairplay show that as the world fleet has grown, so has the propensity for accidents to happen. In fact, the number of serious navigational accidents rose from around 30 in 2000 to more than 120 in 2006, and statistics now show that a ship is twice as likely to be involved in a serious grounding, collision or contact accident today compared with only five years ago. The grounding of the Napoli demonstrated the costly dangers to a marine nation such as ours, and while mistakes were made, this need not happen again. Instead, it is time to grasp this opportunity to learn lessons and implement real changes that can prevent these disasters in future. When will the Minister finally listen to what he is being told from all sides and implement effective change? If the Government are not simply paying lip service to marine conservation and planning, they will adopt the recommendations set out in the report.

Finally, I would like to add that without the professionalism and efforts of all those who worked tirelessly on the operation, including Robin Middleton, the SOSREP at the time, the situation could have been far worse. What I and those affected by this and similar incidents would like to see is these actions replicated on future operations on land. The Napoli incident has exposed many problems that must be taken seriously and addressed by the Government as soon as possible. This event could and should be used as a template for future containership casualties and provides an opportunity to frame legislation accordingly.

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Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 10:33 pm, 24th March 2009

I begin by congratulating Mr. Swire on securing this important debate. I am very pleased to see in their places Mr. Letwin and my hon. Friend Dr. Ladyman, the distinguished former Shipping Minister, who is continuing to take an interest in these important matters.

With respect to the hon. Member for East Devon, I would suggest that the successful way in which the MSC Napoli was dealt with demonstrates the effectiveness of the UK's arrangements for handling incidents at sea and the professionalism of all those involved. Mr. Robin Middleton, whom the hon. Gentleman has just mentioned, was then the Secretary of State's Representative for Maritime Salvage and Intervention—commonly known as SOSREP. He came in for a good deal of praise, and rightly so.

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Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Shadow Minister without Portfolio

Let me make it clear, as I did at the time, that I have the greatest respect for the way in which the then Minister handled the situation—he kept us fully informed—and indeed the way in which the SOSREP handled it. The question is whether the ship should have been anywhere near there in the first place, which is a wider issue.

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Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I hope, if I have time, to explain in a few moments the Government's position on where ships go if they run into difficulty.

The United Kingdom's handling of the MSC Napoli incident received widespread approbation domestically and internationally. Ever since establishing the SOSREP function, and whenever the subject of command and control of maritime incidents has come up for discussion in any forum, we have consistently expressed the view that the UK's system for dealing with them is exceptionally good. Nevertheless, there are lessons to be learned from shipping incidents even when they have been handled in an exemplary way, and the MSC Napoli incident is no exception. The Government identified a number of lessons, which were set out in the document entitled "MSC Napoli Incident: The Maritime and Coastguard Agency's Response". As the hon. Gentleman said, that document was issued in November 2008.

One of the most prominent lessons learned is about the communication of the role of SOSREP and the MCA to other bodies involved in incidents of this type. The emphasis in the MCA's counter-pollution and response branch has been on training courses for local authorities. We now realise that the MCA needs to inform other category 1 and 2 responders about the role of SOSREP in salvage and the role of other MCA units in counter-pollution activities, including the command and control procedures that are implemented at the scene of a maritime incident. We believe that briefing local resilience forums and strategic co-ordination groups, and conducting suitable exercises with other responders, may be a more effective way of explaining the procedures that are in place to deal with shipping incidents of this nature.

Communication is at the heart of another of the lessons that we have learned. Communication of the potential level of risk between the salvage control unit, where the most up-to-date information is available, and any land co-ordinated response organisation needs to be improved.

The document entitled "National Contingency Plan for Marine Pollution from Shipping and Offshore Installations" sets out the Government's response procedures. The plan is reviewed periodically to take account of lessons learned from the incidents that have occurred during that period. We consider that the next review of the national contingency plan should consider the scope for dealing with medium-sized incidents through the use of combined response centres. In such a scenario, the marine response centre and the salvage control unit could merge to form a single unit. During the review process, the MCA could also expand on mechanisms for dealing with beached material other than oil and chemicals.

In the next review of the plan, consideration needs to be given to the interface between the at-sea, shore and near-shore protection activities. The review also needs to address the issue of which bodies are best suited to carry out shoreline protection and clean-up, and consideration should be given to the interrelationships between the civil contingency representatives and the MCA.

There are still more lessons to be learned. The co-location of response units should be used whenever possible. A number of MCA officers should be trained specifically for the role of Acting Receiver of Wreck and for liaison with police gold commanders, and suitable procedures should be added to the operational manuals. The use of dispersant on more viscous oils should continue to be considered as a useful tool in future responses to oil spills of this type. That was demonstrated during the MSC Napoli incident with the use of dispersant on IFO 380, a quite viscous oil.

The MCA needs to explore with the other agencies involved how the process of preparing multiple environmental impact assessments for a range of options, and achieving agreement from all the authorities involved, could be expedited in future.

Action is being taken to follow up the marine accident investigation branch's finding that discrepancies in the declared weights of the containers on MSC Napoli were a contributory cause of the accident, a very important point raised by the hon. Gentleman. The International Chamber of Shipping and the World Shipping Council have published "Safe Transport of Containers by Sea, Guidelines on Industry Best Practice". When it met in December 2008, the International Maritime Organisation's maritime safety committee referred those guidelines, and the associated concerns about misdeclared cargo and the false or incomplete declaration of contents, to an IMO sub-committee for detailed consideration.

Let me turn to some other points raised by the hon. Gentleman. I am, of course, aware of the report of the local public inquiry which was conducted by Devon county council. The Government do not necessarily agree with all the conclusions and recommendations of the inquiry, but some of its recommendations are very close to the conclusions that we ourselves reached. We are currently considering the recommendations, and will respond in due course. The most prominent recommendation is, of course, the creation of a new post ashore, with powers of command and control on land which are equivalent to those that SOSREP exercises at sea.

The Government's position is that the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 provides the legislative framework for civil protection in the United Kingdom. That includes a well established generic national framework for managing emergency response, irrespective of the size, nature or cause of the incident. That framework is adapted to the particular needs of the emergency. By using an adaptable, but generic framework, rather than an incident-specific approach, it allows for the integration of emergency plans across agencies and boundaries, and ensures that all involved understand their roles and responsibilities, in a combined response.

Within that framework, the local management of an emergency is undertaken at three ascending levels—bronze, silver and gold commands—responsible, respectively, for operational, tactical and strategic command. I recognise, however, that in the case of the MSC Napoli a local gold command was not established, as the hon. Gentleman has outlined, until it became apparent that events on the beach were descending into disorder. It appears that local commanders, given the unprecedented nature of events, did not anticipate the effect that the beaching of that container ship would have, specifically with regard to the looting of property. I understand, however, that once gold command was established and SOSREP joined that group, control over the scene improved and co-ordination between the land-based and sea-based operations improved dramatically.

All that is not to say, however, that we are complacent. When the Civil Contingencies Act was enacted, there was an explicit intention to review it within three years. That will include recommendations contained in the recent report into the events following the beaching of the MSC Napoli.

The hon. Gentleman went on to recommend that the legislation that relates to salvage and wreck be clarified and updated. However, it would not be true to say that the existing merchant shipping legislation prevented the police from taking the necessary action after the beaching of the MSC Napoli. The law states that anyone finding or taking possession of wreck material, regardless of size or value, must report it to the receiver of wreck. Failure to report recovered wreck is a criminal offence. That was the initial information given, after the beaching of the MSC Napoli, to the media and to finders on the beach.

It was the actions of many of the people who came to Branscombe after the beaching of the MSC Napoli which clearly showed that what they were doing could not be categorised as "salvage". That compelled the Receiver of Wreck, MCA colleagues and the Devon and Cornwall constabulary to reassess the situation and to invoke the receiver's power under section 237 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995 to use force if necessary against anyone who refuses to hand over recovered wreck material or attempts to conceal it or to keep possession of it. Accordingly, we do not envisage that the Government will be seeking to change the legislation on salvage and wreck on this account.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the local public inquiry's recommendation that the Government make a general and permanent commitment to reimburse the extraordinary costs of handling the aftermath of an incident from a central fund along the lines of the Bellwin fund. That is an issue on which further discussion needs to take place within government but, on the face of it, it appears problematic. The Government cannot make a generic commitment because every emergency is different, and incidents are considered on their individual merits.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that coastal areas that have national and international conservation significance should not be used as places of refuge in the event of a maritime incident. However, as the right hon. Member for West Dorset mentioned, this proposal is at variance with the UK's tried and tested policy for protecting our seas and coasts, which is that anywhere around the UK's coastline could be a place of refuge. When a ship in need of assistance requires a place of refuge, SOSREP inevitably takes account of all the factors that relate to that specific incident, such as the weather, the location, the type of threat posed by the vessel and its cargo. This established process allows SOSREP to determine the most appropriate place of refuge, minimising adverse consequences for any incident. It is important to stress that ships are not brought into a place of refuge in order to cause pollution. On the contrary, ships are brought into places of refuge to avert or minimise pollution.

Let me conclude by thanking the hon. Member for East Devon for his continued interest in the issues surrounding the handling of the MSC Napoli. I have tried to answer his concerns, although perhaps I have not done so to his complete satisfaction. We accept that this matter is of great importance, and it is to his credit that he maintains his interest and has secured the opportunity to raise this debate tonight. I assure him that we will follow up the issues he has raised.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.

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