Merchant Shipping (Cargo Ship) (Bilge Alarm) Regulations 2021 - Motion to Regret

– in the House of Lords at 7:17 pm on 13th July 2021.

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Lord Berkeley:

Moved by Lord Berkeley

That this House regrets that the Merchant Shipping (Cargo Ship) (Bilge Alarm) Regulations 2021 (SI 2021/592), introduced as a result of the accident involving the ‘Abigail H’ at the port of Heysham in November 2008, have taken over 11 years to be introduced; further regrets that this delay has put at risk the safety of crews of 425 ships of a similar type on the UK Ship Register; and notes that nine similar incidents to those at Heysham had been reported to the Marine and Coastguard Agency since 1996.

Relevant document: 4th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

Photo of Lord Berkeley Lord Berkeley Labour

My Lords, I declare my interest as honorary president of the UK Maritime Pilots Association. I thank the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee for drawing our attention to these regulations.

In moving this Motion, I want to make it quite clear that, of course, I support the Merchant Shipping (Cargo Ship) (Bilge Alarm) Regulations 2021. I shall explain why, but my concern—my regret—is that it has taken over 11 years to introduce these regulations and that the incident was not just a one-off. I believe it is a question of the safety of over 400 ships of a similar type on the UK Ship Register, and nine similar incidents to that which happened at Heysham—which I shall come on to—were reported to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency in the last 25 years. My concern, which I shall explain, is about the delay.

I am sure that noble Lords will have read the excellent Marine Accident Investigation Branch report into this incident from 2009. They will know that four people were asleep on board this dredger, which was tied up to a quay, and that four of the crewmen were suddenly thrown out of their bunk because water had come in and made the vessel unstable. It was a merciful relief that the vessel heeled and tipped towards the quay, which stopped it going further, rather than heeling out the other side, rolling into the deep water and maybe causing loss of life. This is a really serious issue. As the MAIB report said:

“It is unlikely that the mooring lines would have restrained Abigail H if it had rolled away from the quay, and the crew were extremely fortunate to escape without injury.”

As I said, this was not a one-off: it affects over 400 ships around the coast. I have lived for many years in Cornwall next to a small shipyard that builds and repairs fishing boats and other small boats. I have seen their condition: some of them are very good when they come in and some are not so good; some of them are dredgers and some do other small works. It is quite normal for the crews to sleep on board these ships when they are in the water because it obviously saves on their accommodation costs and they can keep an eye on the ship. It is therefore really important that they feel comfortable. They do not want to have water round their toes or for the ship to tip over. The MAIB recommendation is that vessels of more than 24 metres in length and 500 gross tonnes should be fitted with bilge alarms. I have seen ships sink in the port of Fowey just because stopcocks were not closed properly, which is not a good thing to happen.

Why do people sleep on ships? Apart from the safety reasons, and saving money on accommodation onshore, it is also often because they are in tidal work. They cannot go ashore that easily and it is perfectly reasonable for this to happen. The MAIB report was quite clear that it thought the “Abigail H” was in good condition, but noble Lords may know that it is quite difficult to find the source of a leak in such a small ship. If you have to replace the fittings which you think may be wrong, you probably have to take it to a dry dock. That costs money, and many shipowners probably say that they cannot afford it.

I went on to look at what a bilge alarm is. Going on the web and googling “bilge alarm” shows that they are available for £100. I find it incredible that we have been waiting 13 years for some legislation requiring such ships to fit bilge alarms which will cost only £100, plus the fitting costs if you do not do it yourself.

This could have affected over 400 ships with two, three or four people on board and there have been nine similar incidents in the last 25 years. The industry must have been aware of this but, clearly, some of the owners did not think it a very good idea. It is therefore good to have the regulations to install these alarms. My concern is that it has still taken 13 years, and people who operate these ships often think “It’s not going to happen to me”. I have seen that, and it is the way life is.

The other concern is that many people are beginning to feel that the Department for Transport puts maritime issues low on its list of priorities. It runs the railways in minute detail; it gets very involved in air and airports, rightly; it is getting involved in net-zero carbon for many elements of transport but not so much, I think, for UK- registered vessels. I am not sure it has really given seafarers the support they needed during the Covid pandemic.

The Environment Bill, which is going through your Lordships’ House at the moment, says that it covers inshore and offshore regions, but I am not sure how seriously the Government are taking the needs of ships and ferries when it comes to maritime conservation zones, et cetera. I am worried about the minimal budget that the MCA has to do these essential safety and inspection works. I am sure that if this had been an air incident, it would have happened a lot more quickly than in 13 years.

This is a story of a £100 bilge water alarm not being installed. Ministers may say that the crews of the 425 vessels did not die, so there was no hurry. But this is the basic philosophy of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and the subject of safety regulations, which noble Lords are all familiar with. The whole safety culture is based on what the Act says about compliance, to ensure that this never happens. If it costs only £100 for the piece of equipment, why has it taken 13 years?

I shall be interested to hear what the Minister says. I will not divide the House against this regulation, which is very welcome, but I think it is right to draw the attention of the House to such unacceptable delays in requiring a small but essential piece of safety equipment, in the hope that, if this Motion is accepted, it may incentivise the Government to allow more resources for essential safety issues. Even though they are not as high-profile as air and rail, they still affect people. I shall be interested to hear the Minister’s response, but I may wish to seek the opinion of the House.

Photo of Lord Patten Lord Patten Conservative 7:27 pm, 13th July 2021

My Lords, I have only three points to make. First, I welcome the eventual bringing forward of these regulations, which have been on the shelves of successive Labour, coalition Liberal-Conservative and Conservative Administrations since 2008. It is good that they have come forward and, as the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, just said, it is good that no one suffered in the interim. I do not think that legislation should be left to lurk, even in draft form, in the way these regulations have, so I warmly welcome them.

Secondly, I have one positive suggestion to put to my noble friend the Minister who will be winding up this debate. I am not a marine surveyor, nor a marine engineer, and I am ashamed to say that I have never been down a bilge, but the universal vessel to be fitted under these regulations by warning systems and guards of one sort or another is relatively small. There is a serious suggestion that the equipment should include alarm alerts linked directly to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency at times of potential danger for seafarers—perhaps at night or in challenging weather—who might be on the move and not lucky enough to be moored alongside. I would like this to get proper consideration.

Thirdly, I believe that seafarers feel quite voiceless about these issues. The men and women are not listened to; they are well down the queue behind the ship managers and owners, ship insurers, P&I clubs, legal firms and others. They are often heard only by and through the efforts of voluntary organisations and charities. So it was interesting to see in the impact statement in the Explanatory Memorandum, at paragraph 12.1—let it not be said that no one has read these regulations—that there is no significant impact from the regulations on charities or voluntary bodies.

In practice, it is the other way around. These voluntary bodies make a great impact on behalf of seafarers, including those men and women working inshore, dredging or fishing, who are indeed generally voiceless. If it were not for the voluntary organisations, I do not think their voices would be heard much or at all.

The work of voluntary organisations in the maritime world, whether it be with small boats like these or vessels at the other end of the size scale, such as those lumbering container ships or cruise liners, includes always trying to help keep the crew in touch with their families, which is very welcome. We should be thankful that the voluntary organisations do this, as well as helping the crew if they are in need of medical or dental treatment or a dockside chaplain to come and give them counselling.

We are very lucky to have outfits such as the Sailors’ Society, the excellent Anglican Mission to Seafarers and indeed my lot—the Roman Catholic Apostleship of the Sea; they all play their part in helping people in need of help. By coincidence, it was only this past Sunday, two days ago, that the Apostleship of the Sea held its Sea Sunday. It is part of the largest global seafarers’ charity, known as Stella Maris—I know that noble Lords are all accomplished Latinists and will know that that means “star of the sea”. Stella Maris works globally in nearly 60 countries, with many staff at the dockside in some 335 ports, the last time I looked. Many of those are in the UK and deal with small vessels, which may not always be particularly well maintained. They make a real impact. If it were not for the voluntary organisations and the organisations that I have listed—it is a very long list, and I have pointed out only a few of them—I do not believe that the voice of seafarers would be heard. These charities very often listen to the voiceless.

I ask my noble friend and her department, where she does very important work, to do all that is possible to make sure that the Department for Transport decides to ensure that, challenging though it is sometimes, the voice of the average man and woman seafarer is heard, as well as the normal statutory list of invitees—the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, will remember this from her time in the Welsh Office—who are always wheeled out by civil servants, who say, “We must consult this or that organisation.” We need to consult the people really concerned—the seafarers; I do not think that they have a voice.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 7:33 pm, 13th July 2021

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, for securing this debate, which is, at the level of detail, about a specific and very disturbing case. As the noble Lord outlined, there was a known, clear, evident solution to a dangerous safety risk, one that the crew of the “Abigail H” escaped without serious injury and risk of deaths only through the luck of a vessel rolling one way rather than another. It has taken 11 years to implement. In the meantime, we have subsequently seen nine similar incidents, while 425 similar ships on the UK ship register remain at risk.

I support this regret Motion while noting the conclusion of our Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, but it is a matter of concern that the Department for Transport has failed to follow up promptly Marine Accident Investigation Branch recommendations.

I note also that the subsequent sinking of “Abigail H” led to the release of 100 litres of lubricating and diesel oil into the marine environment—our already pollution-choked, much-damaged marine environment. It is hard to believe that, had this been a safety issue with cargo planes or with HGVs, we would not have seen far faster action, or certainly a greater outcry until action was taken. This raises a far broader issue than bilge alarms, as crucial as they are to hundreds of vessels. It raises the whole issue of safety—human and environmental—in the marine environment.

Last week, I think, the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, asked an Oral Question on human rights at sea. Human rights are supposed to be universal but it is only now that human rights at sea campaigners are seeking effectively to secure those rights because they are not in place. Although there have been some improvements regarding fishing, it is acknowledged as being one of the most dangerous jobs on these islands. The Fishing Industry Safety Group has a commendable vision of zero deaths but given that there have been 71 deaths in the past decade, we are a long way from that.

I note that working on cruise ships in the pre-Covid age—ships that regularly polluted our ports and caused enormous environmental damage—was notoriously exploitative and unsafe for the crew. Covid has only helped to expose the conditions faced by so many of those working on cargo vessels, the crucial foundation of so much of our lives in our import-based society: safety is terrible, pay is low and flags of convenience make it a wild west with no sheriff in sight.

What is going on? Why do we have that lack of knowledge? Certainly now, few people in the UK go to sea, are employed in maritime jobs or know someone who is. According to the latest figures that I have found, there are about 220,000 such jobs in the UK. That is a change from the past when, for good or ill, many Britons went to sea or came into contact with seafarers from all around the world who went to sea in their service.

However, it is hard not to think that this is not a question of “out of sight, out of mind” but deliberate, careful ignorance. We bear a responsibility for what happens in the vessels that sail from or arrive at our shores, whichever flag of convenience they fly—certainly if they fly our own. Their environmental impacts, too, are our responsibility. In your Lordships’ House, when we next debate trade, I invite noble Lords to consider that issue and think about the underpaid, overworked seafarer putting their life in danger to bring us the latest must-have toy or fashion item to be worn casually and discarded. They should think about the climate impact of the fuel that brings them, the damage done when containers fall from vessels, as they regularly do, or when rust-bucket ships break up and sink, spilling their cargos into oceans, to drift and endanger animal life, and sometimes human life, as they do.

We cannot say that that is a cost over the horizon. Overall, it is a real and present danger, which the “Abigail H” highlights our current failure to attend to.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Labour 7:37 pm, 13th July 2021

My Lords, I am very happy to follow the previous three speakers—my noble friend Lord Berkeley, the noble Lord, Lord Patten, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett. In 1974, I made my maiden speech on industrial safety and served on the Standing Committee that introduced the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act, so I appreciate the broad encompassing nature of that legislation. I do not intend to repeat anything that the previous speakers have said, but to ask six questions. I will expect answers probably not from the Minister today but at some point by letter.

First, how many other delayed orders are lying around in the department? What is the list of current issues about which the department says, “Oh, we are waiting for parliamentary time. This is something we need to do”?

Secondly, has the Minister asked any questions about the delay? In some ways, I would expect the answer to that in her wind-up. I am keen to know because there are obviously different Ministers with different responsibilities in the department. Have Ministers asked questions about delayed orders that have been put on the rack over the 11 years of slothfulness?

Thirdly, in relation to these regulations, have there been representations at any time over the years from the Welsh, Scottish or Northern Ireland Governments? These regulations cover the UK and, therefore, the devolved Administrations are involved and affected. Have those Governments raised the issue of the delay with the Westminster Government and the department?

Fourthly, is there any record of trade union representations made over the years regarding why this statutory instrument has been delayed? From what the noble Lord, Lord Patten, and my noble friend Lord Berkeley said, we are dealing with an area that is probably not well unionised. Nevertheless, representatives have a legal responsibility to be asking the questions. Have there been any trade union representations over the years about the 11-year delay?

The fifth question is whether any Select Committee ever raised the delay, over the years, during other inquiries. These things pop up from time to time, as I have found from sitting on the EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee. All kinds of ancillary issues were raised, which we sometimes went off at a tangent on and inquired about ourselves, so it would be interesting to know about that pressure.

My sixth question is whether the issue of this order and its going to Parliament, because that recommendation was there, was covered in any of the new Ministers’ briefs for the 2010, 2015, 2017 and 2019 general elections. In my cellar, I have the first-day briefs for the departments I was moved to in Whitehall—six of them. I have a big one for 1997, when there was an expectation of a change of Government, but that is not the issue. This still happens when the Government do not change. The department has to produce briefs for incoming Ministers—the Government might change, but departments do not know that until election day—of the current workload on the department, the current issues and what requires parliamentary time. I want to know whether this order and the recommendation requiring it to go to Parliament were covered in any of the first-day briefs for new Ministers, after any of those four general elections, because it is the responsibility of the accounting officer in the department to make sure that those briefs are full and comprehensive.

I do not expect the Minister to answer these questions now, but they are quite specific, so I would like detailed answers that the House can see, in due course.

Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

The noble Lord, Lord Bhatia, has withdrawn, so I now call the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson.

Photo of Baroness Randerson Baroness Randerson Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Transport) 7:42 pm, 13th July 2021

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, for ensuring we have this opportunity to press the Department for Transport about the lengthy backlog of maritime safety legislation. I also thank the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee for its work in diligently drawing our attention to the frequent shortfalls in this Government’s attitude to legislative rigour. It usually criticises the Government for taking excess powers for themselves, with too little parliamentary control or scrutiny but, for the backlog in maritime legislation, the problem is the opposite. The committee first drew our attention to this backlog a couple of years ago. I recall a Moses Room debate in which it featured strongly.

When challenged about the backlog, there has been no real explanation from the Government so far. The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, in its report on the Merchant Shipping (Prevention of Air Pollution from Ships) (Amendment) Regulations, draws attention to the Department for Transport’s original aim to deal with the backlog by the end of last year. Since the backlog goes as far as 2008, the problem is obviously nothing to do with either Brexit or Covid. The committee is clear that it wants an explanation of why the Department for Transport has not dedicated more resource to clearing the backlog. Listening to noble Lords this evening, I think we are united in that view.

Let us be clear about the impact this has. We are supposed to pride ourselves on being a seagoing nation. The Government trumpet global Britain as their aim. Later this year, they will host COP 26, no doubt pushing the view that they are tackling climate change head on, yet they are knowingly allowing our maritime industries to work with outdated safety and environmental standards.

In respect of the air pollution regulations that I referred to earlier, it has left the Maritime and Coastguard Agency without adequate enforcement powers for over five years, since 2016. In relation to the bilge alarm regulations that are the subject of this Motion to Regret, the situation is even more grave. First, the rest of the backlog relates to implementing international standards, but the bilge regulations are the product of a domestic maritime accident, and of recommendations made in 2009 by the Maritime Accident Investigation Branch. That was 12 years ago. The Explanatory Memorandum states that this life-saving measure—which the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, points out would cost £100—would apply to 425 ships on the UK register. It also notes that there have been nine similar incidents since 1996, so this is not an overcautious approach.

The response of the Department for Transport is that

“only a relatively small number of vessels are in scope of this proposal so it was initially viewed as disproportionate to advance this regulatory package on its own.”

Since this is a negative instrument, if it had come to us a decade ago, it would have been almost unnoticed and almost certainly not debated. No one here this evening is opposing these regulations. This delay represents an approach which values human life very cheaply. It is unacceptable.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, I finish with some questions for the Minister. Why is there such a backlog? Exactly how many pieces of legislation are we waiting for? Can the Minister please undertake this evening to place a list of all the overdue legislation in the Library, for public record? Why has the Department for Transport not assigned more staff to clearing this backlog, and what is its target date for doing so? What assessment have the Government made of the impact of our outdated maritime safety and environmental legislation on working practices aboard UK-registered vessels, and what has been the impact on our international reputation as a maritime power? Finally, the Minister will be aware of the phrase “flags of convenience”. Do the Government have any evidence of ships seeking to register in the UK specifically because our maritime legislation is out of date and does not adhere to the highest and best standards?

Those engaged in our maritime industries, as the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and other noble Lords, have indicated, feel overlooked and disregarded. The Government need to put that right.

Photo of Lord Rosser Lord Rosser Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport) 7:48 pm, 13th July 2021

My Lords, I too congratulate my noble friend Lord Berkeley on securing this debate. These regulations came into force on 30 June, following the sinking of the vessel “Abigail H” at Heysham in November 2008, introducing new regulations on the installation of bilge water alarms on merchant vessels of a certain size to provide warning when the accumulation of bilge water threatens their buoyancy or safety. As we have heard, there has been a long gap between the 2008 incident and the introduction of these regulations, suggesting that the Government have been slow to act to prevent similar accidents.

The Maritime Accident Investigation Branch, which said that the crew of the “Abigail H”

“were extremely fortunate to escape without injury”,

made recommendations in 2009, including that vessels greater than 24 metres in length but less than 500 gross tonnes be fitted with bilge alarms. In 2020 the Maritime and Coastguard Agency consulted on proposed regulations intended to introduce a requirement in line with the MAIB recommendation. Just two responses were received, one from a marine surveyor and the other from the Law Society of Scotland. Can the Government comment on the significance or otherwise of the low number of responses? Is it a reflection of the length of time—over a decade—between the MAIB recommendations on the specific incident involving the “Abigail H” and the consultation on the subsequent regulations?

The regulations that we are discussing have now followed, largely unchanged, from the consultation exercise. The intended outcome of the regulations, as we know, is that all ships greater than 24 metres and less than 500 gross tonnes will have to be fitted with a bilge-water detection and alarm system that will alert the crew to any ingress of water so that any necessary action can be taken. This requirement will apply to new ships from the date the regulations come into force and to existing ships from a year later. The requirement covers relevant UK ships, wherever located, and applies to all other relevant ships when within UK waters.

Can the Minister confirm the anticipated cost per vessel of implementing the terms of these regulations? Currently, vessels that are under 500 gross tonnes and are 24 or more metres in length fall outside the requirements of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea and existing workboat and fishing vessels codes. The lack of regulations for these vessels has led to accidents, including the sinking of the “Abigail H”. The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee queried why the regulations had taken this length of time to implement, given that the “Abigail H” sank in 2008 and the MAIB recommendations were made a year later, in 2009.

In response, the Department for Transport indicated that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, an executive agency of the DfT, continually reviews the priority of the regulatory changes needed, then added:

“As only a relatively small number of vessels are in scope of this proposal, it was initially viewed as disproportionate to advance this regulatory package on its own.”

I may be interpreting these words harshly but they sound suspiciously like saying, in a more roundabout way, that administrative convenience in bringing forward these regulations took priority over ensuring the safety of vessels affected and their crews as soon as possible. The Explanatory Memorandum talks about exploring “alternatives to mandatory regulation”, but that does not explain away a delay of over 11 years. Can the Minister comment on my interpretation of the meaning of the words used by the Department for Transport?

The SLSC noted that 425 ships of a similar type to the “Abigail H” are listed on the UK Ship Register, and that nine instances of flooding on such ships have been reported to the MAIB since 1996. As a result, the committee said:

“We do not regard 425 as a negligible number of ships and crews and it is a matter of concern that the DfT has failed to follow up promptly the MAIB’s safety recommendations.”

Can the Minister say whether the Department for Transport regards 425 as a negligible number of ships and crews? How many, if any, of the 425 ships now already have the required bilge-water detection and alarm system fitted?

The SLSC referred to

“an acknowledged backlog of international marine legislation” that the DfT has yet to implement, and added:

“As this recommendation in relation to bilge alarms comes from a UK source, it would appear that there is also a separate backlog of domestic legislation yet to be implemented”— an issue raised by my noble friend Lord Rooker and the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson. The SLSC has said it wishes to see a fuller explanation of why the department has not dedicated more resources to resolving this long-standing backlog problem, which it initially aimed to address by 2020, as well as an explanation setting out the extent of the remaining backlog and how long it is estimated that it will take to clear it completely.

Could the Government in their reply respond to all the SLSC’s requests for information and explanation I just mentioned on the legislative backlog? Is the backlog related only to international marine legislation or is there also a backlog of domestic legislation? If so, what is its extent and by when will it be cleared?

Like my noble friend Lord Rooker, I would like answers to the questions I have raised either today or subsequently in writing. We await the Government’s response, but if the background picture to these regulations is broadly as has been set out then we will support my noble friend if he decides to seek a vote on his regret Motion, albeit, like my noble friend, we support the regulations themselves.

Photo of Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness Vere of Norbiton Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 7:55 pm, 13th July 2021

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, for providing the opportunity to debate these regulations—or, more correctly, the timing of the regulations and the circumstances in which they have now been made. I thank all noble Lords for their contributions. I will focus on the regulations and matters relating to them and will write with further details, particularly on the excellent points raised by my noble friend Lord Patten, and the very detailed questions from the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and many other noble Lords.

I turn first to the content of the statutory instrument. The Government are absolutely committed to ensuring the safety and welfare of seafarers, which I believe is reflected in the volume of regulations that the department brings to your Lordships’ House. These are but one of a set of such regulations that came into force on 30 June 2021. We know that they increase safety by introducing a requirement for cargo vessels of 24 metres or more in length and under 500 gross tonnes to fit bilge alarm systems. I will not go into further detail around that, so let us turn to the background to the regulations.

The regulations fulfil the Marine Accident Investigation Branch, or MAIB, recommendation 2009/141. It was raised following the sinking of the grab hopper dredger “Abigail H”, as many noble Lords noted. Many noble Lords also noted that there were no fatalities as a result of this incident, which was, of course, very fortunate. To prevent a less fortunate outcome, these regulations make it mandatory to install the bilge alarm systems that were advised in marine guidance note 425, which was issued in September 2010 in response to the MAIB’s 2009 “Abigail H” incident report.

There was a consultation on these regulations. It was a 10-week public consultation from 2 October to 10 December 2020 via the GOV.UK website. There was a press release announcing the public consultation, which went to marine trade press and industry press. Notice of the consultation was posted on the MCA’s Twitter account. Of course, we cannot force people to respond to a consultation; sometimes they do not for any number of reasons. It may be that the people who run these vessels are very focused on it and therefore do not want to or do not have time to respond to a consultation. But these regulations are not controversial, so it does not surprise me that we did not get a massive response to the consultation.

The regulations improve the safety of seafarers and were long expected. It is worth reinforcing that the guidance to introduce bilge alarms had been in place since 2010. In the pandemic we have done many things to protect public safety by guidance rather than mandating in law, so I do not feel that, given that the guidance was in place for such a long time, getting these regulations in place now was as big an issue as potentially noted by noble Lords today.

But I will comment on the delay, because it is right that I do so. I accept that there has been a delay in implementing this mandatory requirement, but I remind noble Lords that the guidance was out there a very long time ago. The delay in making that guidance mandatory reflects the thorough and complex nature of the process, as well as the wide reach of regulations that the MCA is responsible for, and the need to continually review the priorities of regulatory changes in order to meet our international obligations and domestic safety and environmental obligations. In this case, the potential risk to the 425 vessels and their crews, to which these regulations apply, and the fact that only two similar incidents occurred after this guidance was published, meant that, as priorities changed, including as a result of the UK’s exit from the EU, other regulatory developments took precedence.

Given that the guidance was issued back in 2010, and the industry was advised and consulted on the development of this mandatory guidance, I believe it was reasonable to expect that a good proportion of the 425 vessels referred to would have already had bilge alarm systems fitted prior to the regulations coming into force, although we cannot know that. Although the guidance issued was not mandatory, we expect responsible owners and operators to take guidance from the MCA very seriously, and that they would look to enhance the safety of their vessels even in the absence of a mandatory obligation.

Further, of the nine incidents to which the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, referred, seven occurred prior to the publication of the MAIB report into the “Abigail H”. Of the remaining two incidents, accident investigation data indicates that both were minor and neither needed investigation by the MAIB. There have been no further similar incidents.

The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, said that 425 vessels was a relatively small number. It is a small number in the context of the 63,230 vessels currently listed on the UK Ship Register. Furthermore, many of the cohort of 425 vessels would be of lower risk anyway, since crews do not customarily sleep on board or because they would already have had the required equipment fitted. I also point out that the MCA will not customarily collect information on the number of vessels with this required equipment on board, but it will monitor compliance with this requirement through the survey and the inspection regime it usually carries out.

The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, mentioned how cheap these systems are. I do not know which website he was looking at, because I have slightly different figures. I believe the cost of installing a bilge alarm is roughly £2,500. That is what we assumed in the impact assessment. Given that, I possibly would not buy one for £100, but it will of course vary from vessel to vessel. To verify this cost, the first question of the consultation specifically asked for evidence of the costs associated with the installation of the water level detectors and bilge alarms needed to comply with the regulations. But, as noted previously, we did not receive very much response to that consultation, and I suspect that was because the industry had either already complied with the regulations or knew that they were coming down the track.

I turn to maritime regulations more broadly. The maritime sector is highly regulated and has to take into account international obligations, amendments to previous EU regulations and the development of domestic legislation. Each strand is usually complex and highly technical and requires transposing to domestic law by way of secondary legislation, which is both time- consuming and resource-intensive. The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, assumed you could knock off a negative SI in an afternoon. That is absolutely not the case; it takes many weeks and months of intensive work to ensure that even a negative SI, which will not necessarily receive parliamentary scrutiny, is up to the standards we would expect for our statute book.

Keeping pace with international amendments, often issued annually, is extremely challenging and results in many of the domestic SIs always being in need of updating. So, over the years, priority has been given to the implementation of the EU directives and regulations to avoid EU infraction proceedings, and this has resulted in the backlog of international obligations, with our domestic regulations becoming out of step with the latest requirements.

The MCA has recently provided a progress update to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee on its road map of international maritime legislation that is required to be implemented into the UK domestic regime by SI; it should all be completed by the end of 2023. Significant progress has already been made. We have made 12 SIs in 2020 and early 2021, and a further 10 proposed SIs are well progressed and are either at consultation stage or the final stages prior to making and laying.

I trust that noble Lords agree that the introduction of these regulations is important to ensure the safety of crews on board small cargo vessels—indeed, I will take that as a given, because I believe that they do. I hope they will also appreciate that we have to continually assess our priorities to meet our international and domestic obligations, given the availability of resources within the department, within government and, of course, within Parliament.

The MCA has commenced an ambitious programme of regulatory updating which, in the last two years, has reduced the number of outstanding recommendations by the MAIB by 30%. This leaves 14 recommendations which are actively being worked on at present, eight of which will be completed later this year. I hope I have been able to explain the Government’s position and I therefore ask noble Lords to vote against this regret Motion.

Photo of Lord Berkeley Lord Berkeley Labour 8:06 pm, 13th July 2021

My Lords, I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in this short debate and of course to the Minister for her response. It has been a very interesting debate—I was really surprised and enthused by some of the comments. The noble Lord, Lord Patten, talked about the voiceless seafarer and admitted that he had not been in the bilges; going into the bilges is not a thing you would want to do unless you really had to. Both he and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, talked about the crews and the fact that they need looking after. Many of us thought that they were probably suffering, particularly during Covid.

My noble friend Lord Rooker asked six really excellent questions. I have to say that I do not think the Minister answered many of them, but I am sure she will be writing to him and we will all see copies. However, the delays are still there. The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, also talked about the delays and mentioned the word “disproportionate”. I think there are many, including in the Department for Transport, who think that this is not that serious: they are small regulations and do not matter very much. I hope I am not right.

My noble friend Lord Rosser also asked a number of questions, including another version of whether this is being done just for administrative convenience. The Minister was interesting in her response, because she said that the guidance on these issues had been published in 2010 and I think she liked to believe that most of the ships involved in this category would have already fitted bilge alarms. If that is the case, and she has not presented any evidence for or against it, why have the Government brought these regulations at all? It has taken 10 years, but if the guidance has forced or encouraged all the shipowners involved to install bilge alarms, why do we need regulations?

My gut feeling is that for ships like this—I have seen quite a few of them—for whatever reason the shipowners do not like doing things they do not have to do. One can understand it. I may have got the price of a bilge alarm of £100 wrong, compared with the Government’s estimate of £2,500—you could probably spend £500,000 on one if you wanted to. The noble Lord, Lord Patten, suggested that there should be online alerts to the MCA, which probably would cost about that, but the point is that, in terms of the cost to the operators, it is not great.

I go back to my noble friend Lord Rooker’s comments about when he was involved in creating the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act, and the ALARP principle—as low as reasonably practicable. I would suggest that installing a bilge alarm, whether for £100 or £2,500, it is certainly something that could be done to comply with the ALARP principle, on which on all our safety regulations, as my noble friend said, have been based.

I am afraid we did not really get an answer from the Minister on why there were so many delays to the legislation. There were lots of them—some caused by Brexit, some international and some domestic. I know of one situation, drawn to my attention by a Cornwall council that wanted to create a new harbour authority there to look after all the little harbours that nobody else owns. It is not big job but it is very important. It has been waiting several years for this to go through, so that it can do things with the harbour to help the local economy.

I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have added to the discussion of these regulations. We need to put more pressure on the Department for Transport and the Government to provide resources—to give the MCA resources—so that we have no more of this. It may affect only a few people. Do they matter much? I believe they all matter, but there is a view that they are just tramp steamers going around the coast and nobody sees them much, compared with an airline or anything else. We have to change the attitude. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken, but I would like to test the opinion of the House on this Motion.

Ayes 179, Noes 211.

Division number 4 Merchant Shipping (Cargo Ship) (Bilge Alarm) Regulations 2021 - Motion to Regret

Aye: 179 Members of the House of Lords

No: 211 Members of the House of Lords

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Division conducted remotely on Lord Berkeley’s Motion

Motion disagreed.

House adjourned at 8.24 pm.