Clause 2 - Fire authorities: power to charge

Marine Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:00 pm on 29th April 2003.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Brian Iddon Brian Iddon Labour, Bolton South East

The purpose of clause 2 is to amend section 3 of the Fire Services Act 1947. Section 3 of the 1947 Act is concerned with the supplementary powers of fire authorities, and subsection (2) of the clause removes any doubt that a fire authority may use its brigade for purposes other than firefighting in the area of another fire authority or at sea. Hon. Members might like to know that the jurisdiction normally ends at the county boundaries or the low watermark.

Section 4 of the Fire Services Act 1947 states:

''Save as expressly provided in this Act, a fire authority shall not make any charge for services rendered by the Authority.''

After that, the Bill inserts an exception stating that fire authorities in England, Wales and the Isles of Scilly may make a charge for firefighting at sea and outside the area of every fire authority in Great Britain.

The purpose of the Bill is to increase safety at sea and reduce the threat and damage caused by pollution from ships. Clause 2 amends the Fire Services Act 1947, as I have said, by including a provision giving fire authorities the power to recover costs that they incur in fighting fires at sea outside any fire authority's area. The fire might be on a ship, an oil rig or even another structure, such as a pontoon.

In the 10 years between 1991 and 2001, some 347 fires were recorded on ships in UK territorial waters. Of those, at least 12 could have resulted in significant loss of life were it not for the assistance that the coastal fire teams gave once they had been airlifted to the scene. Two of those incidents are particularly worth recalling. First, in 1999, the container ship the Ever Decent collided with the cruise ship Norwegian Dream some 20 miles from Margate. The cruise ship entered the side of the container ship, causing a major fire, with injuries to 28 of the 2,400 people on the vessels. Experts say that had the container ship entered the side of the cruise ship, and not the other way round, the picture would have been a lot worse, with the cruise ship lying disabled in a toxic cloud of smoke. Major fire service involvement offshore would certainly have been required.

The second incident, to which I also referred on Second Reading, concerned a three-day fire on the ro-ro ferry Kukawa in 1997. The court ruled that the fire service's claim to recover costs was inadmissible. That was a serious setback to firefighting at sea, and some

fire authorities have now revoked their declared facility status because of those funding problems. I understand that about 10 of 40 authorities are still there to fight fires at sea. That number may be reduced even further, and the authorities are extremely worried that we will not have the ability to fight fires around all 10,000 miles of our coastline adequately if coastal fire services decide, one after the other, to pull out because of the difficulty in recovering costs, as at least one has done already.

We need the new provisions in my Bill to encourage the fire authorities to continue to provide that expert and life-saving service. Obviously, special facilities and expertise, over and above that necessary for fighting fires on land, are needed to fight maritime fires, particularly those that occur at sea.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 3:15 pm, 29th April 2003

I raised that issue in relation to fire authorities and clause 1, and I support clause 2, too, but I seek advice. Clause 2 clearly provides for the recovery of firefighting costs at sea and outside the area of the fire authority. Having spoken to the two fire authorities in my constituency—one in Cornwall and one on the Isles of Scilly—I know that that is very welcome. Both fire brigades, especially that in Cornwall, have in recent years been involved in activities funded at their own expense, at least initially. Certainly, there was no clear knowledge on the part of the fire brigades that they could recover the costs if they went to a stricken vessel. Still they have provided that service—but I understand that not all coastal authorities do so.

The Fire Services Act 1947 does not currently allow for that. As a consequence, Cornwall county fire brigade was subject to a legal challenge when it tried to recover the costs of firefighting in the case of the Kukawa in December 1997. I support the provisions, but the reason for my earlier query related to certain cases in which a brigade may go out to attend to a stricken vessel. It may be on fire, or require other services of the fire brigade, and if it is deemed appropriate in the judgment of the incident commander, the brigade may wish to bring it in to the coast.

The amendment to the 1947 Act appears not to allow fire brigades to recover costs incurred in firefighting if, for example, it is decided to bring a vessel into harbour and fight the fire from within the authority's territorial area. The Minister said earlier that that would be fine if the SOSREP were involved in making that decision. However, in the case of the Kukawa, it was the judgment of the incident commander of the time that it was expedient and safer to bring the vessel into Falmouth, which has a number of other facilities. Arguably, if the brigade had continued to fight the fire at sea, the vessel could have been lost in any event, and it would have been more expensive and logistically difficult to manage the incident at sea. That judgment should be made by the incident commander.

If the Bill is passed, the interpretation of a chief fire officer in Cornwall is that incident commanders will face a dilemma. He believes that according to the Bill, the incident commander would have to deal with incident at sea, and not bring the vessel into the local

authority's area. It would be helpful to have that clarified. If the Minister believes that further clarification is required through an amendment, I know that some coastal fire brigades would find that very helpful.

I know that the Minister addressed the issue of the SOSREP's intervention in a fire incident, but it would be helpful if an incident commander of the fire brigade itself had the authority to make that decision, without having to engage in other administrative procedures.

Photo of Gwyn Prosser Gwyn Prosser Labour, Dover

Having spent some 30 years sailing, operating or maintaining ships, I am pleased to give this important clause my unreserved support. I have also had the privilege of representing the chief engineers and merchant navy officers of the National Union of Marine, Aviation and Shipping Transport Officers. Nearly all my career I have campaigned for safer work practices at sea. Although lots of changes have been made in recent years, we have clearly got a long way to go, as was evidenced in the excellent speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East when he catalogued the whole series of marine casualties that we still endure year in, year out.

Clause 2 closes an important loophole, which will ensure that fire services can continue to provide expert assistance to ships on fire without being financially penalised for their life-saving services. During my seagoing career, be it sailing the seven seas or crossing the channel, I have had my share of groundings, floodings and fires. Of all fires, by far the most terrifying is a fire on a ship, because people do not have the luxury of being able to leave through the front door and closing it behind them. Often, people cannot dial 999. Machinery fires and fires in engine rooms, when people are surrounded by fuel oil bunkers and flames licking into the air, are very worrying indeed.

All seafarers, certainly all British seafarers, are trained, retrained and trained again in the most up-to-date modern means of fighting fires, but, when people are in that sort of predicament, there is no substitute for having the back-up of full-time experts on hand with their extra equipment.

My constituency of Dover in the county of Kent is surrounded by the sea on three sides and overlooks one of the busiest seaways in the world, so it is fortuitous that the Kent fire brigade supplies an excellent service, not just for our cross-channel ferries but for any vessel, anywhere around the coast.

Mr. Randall rose—

Photo of Gwyn Prosser Gwyn Prosser Labour, Dover

I shall conclude my remarks in a moment. Providing that important service has become more and more expensive over the years, and clearly it will become unsustainable in the near future without the powers, which we are discussing this afternoon, for Kent fire brigade to charge for its services, plan for the future and re-equip its squad. The clause meets those requirements. I know that it will be welcomed by the fire services and by thousands of seafarers and millions of passengers who ply the seas around the UK and cross the channel every year. It is an important

measure, which will be well received not just in Dover and the rest of Kent, but throughout the UK. I am happy to support it and welcome it.

Photo of John Randall John Randall Conservative, Uxbridge

My question is addressed to the hon. Member for Dover, but the Minister will probably be able to answer it. It is a purely logistical matter. As Dover is an important cross-channel port, among other things, I was just wondering how far the jurisdiction of the Kent fire brigade extends. Is it exactly half way? I do not really know what the territorial waters situation is. How clear would the distinction be if a ship were on fire somewhere in the channel? Do people sit down and work out exactly where the ship is before they respond? I doubt that. Presumably if any emergency service heard that there was a stricken vessel on fire, it would come out. I hope that the Minister can help; I do not expect an immediate answer, but he might know.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

The hon. Gentleman should not be so pessimistic. He might get an answer more rapidly than he thinks.

Fires at sea cause unique problems—my hon. Friend the Member for Dover alluded to his very personal experiences. Although ships' crews are trained in the basics of firefighting, nothing can replace the benefits of the expertise and specialised equipment that specialised and professional firefighters can bring to an emergency. It is worrying that around our coast, coverage for fighting fires at sea is at best patchy. There are currently only 10 firefighting authorities providing any sort of maritime service. For example, the only cover on the North sea coast from Essex to the highlands and islands in the north of Scotland is provided by just two authorities: Lincolnshire and Humberside. Cover in the west and south is not much better, although I note that Cornwall is one of the authorities that cover fighting fires at sea.

It may help the hon. Member for Uxbridge to know that fire authorities have no duty to fight fires at sea. Because of the distances involved, and the specialised training and equipment required, this specialised form of firefighting is expensive. It is therefore increasingly likely that fire authorities will not engage their brigades at sea unless they can recover the costs. The hon. Gentleman asked about jurisdiction, but that consideration does not apply, because the authorities do not have a duty to fight fires at sea. UK territorial waters usually stretch 12 miles from the coast, but where the overall distance involved means that the limit will be closer than that, a line is drawn between the coasts of France and England. Of course the distance is less than 12 miles in the Dover area.

Photo of John Randall John Randall Conservative, Uxbridge

I take the Minister's admonishment. My time on the Railways and Transport Safety Bill means that I should have been prepared for a quick and ready answer. We always got the answers eventually.

Following on from what the Minister said, am I right to think that even if a vessel were in French territorial waters, it could ask for the Kent fire service to deal with it? If a vessel applied for help, would it be

possible for a fire service to go outside our territorial waters?

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport 3:30 pm, 29th April 2003

The ship's crew will be trained in firefighting, but they will generally call in salvors and others to carry out that particular work. In some cases, vessels may be on the cusp of a jurisdiction. Ships do not stand still and a vessel may move from one place to another, but the Bill will allow the fire authority to claim compensation if appropriate. It is unlikely that fire services will act in the general sense of fighting fires at sea; they will mainly look near to the coast of their areas.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Shadow Minister (Defence)

Is it right that the compensation would be claimed from the ship's owners and/or insurers? If so, is there not a danger that, given that ships have a limited facility to engage in their own firefighting, some less scrupulous owners might warn their crews that if they are in the vicinity of the United Kingdom, they should try to contain the fires themselves rather than seek help from land-based firefighting organisations as remuneration will be expected?

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

The hon. Gentleman raises a good point. It is true that shipowners will have to pay compensation to the fire authority for the work that is undertaken. The crew is probably instructed not to seek help unless it is absolutely required because it is expensive. Our system means that if a crew, either unilaterally or through instruction from the vessel's owner, does not take the appropriate action to put itself in a place of safety or not to put the coast of our country at risk, the Secretary of State's representative can override that and instruct the ship to go to a place of safety or put a fire crew aboard to tackle the fire. That is the difference in this country.

The hon. Member for St. Ives mentioned the Kukawa incident, which is the reason for the clause, as it deals with that incident. When a vessel is brought into a harbour, it is under the jurisdiction of the fire authority, so it can already recover the costs. The jurisdiction of the fire authority is generally assumed to be the low water mark. If the ship was outside in the extreme circumstances that we mentioned, it would be up to the SOSREP to instruct it to go into the harbour, if that was the appropriate action to take.

I should also assure the Committee that the SOSREP will always have the best expert advice available to him, which includes salvage advice. The chief fire officer may not have that advice at his disposal and hon. Members will appreciate that it would be unhelpful to have two people in charge of the incident. The role of the SOSREP, when appropriate, would take precedence.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

As I understand it, the Minister is saying that the incident commander in the case of a fire brigade could take the decision without reference to the SOSREP if they felt that it was appropriate to tow or move the vessel into the local authority's area to deal with it more appropriately within that area—in other words, close to the coast. Or, would they need to seek the authority of the SOSREP?

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

If the SOSREP were not involved, it would be a matter of negotiation between the shipowners and the firefighting authority to do what was in their best interests. If there was a disagreement, no proper direction or the ship or shipowners were trying to do things that were not in the best interests of our coastline or even of the people aboard the ship, the SOSREP could intervene under his powers.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Shadow Minister (Defence)

I was much encouraged by the Minister's response earlier. He stated that the SOSREP would definitely have the power to order a ship that was on fire to take on board a land-based fire team if he deemed that necessary and even if the ship's crew had not requested it. For the sake of clarity, from where specifically does that power derive? Is it from existing legislation or from new schedule 3A in schedule 1? Paragraph 1(3) states:

''The direction may require the person to whom it is given to take or refrain from taking any specified action in relation to—

(a) the ship''.

Does the power to force the crew to take on board firefighters reside there?

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

Schedule 1 makes new schedule 3A to the Merchant Shipping Act 1995. Much of it is the same as existing legislation. Perhaps with a little advice, I can find out exactly which part of the provision is relevant.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

Yes, it is in the schedule. It is already in the legislation. The schedule brings together the various elements.

To clarify the matter raised by the hon. Member for St. Ives, the responsibility for a ship lies with the master. Only the SOSREP, not the fire officer, has authority to direct the master to move his vessel, so what I said was correct; things would be done by negotiation. The master would make the decision unless the SOSREP had been brought in to make it—[Interruption.] Inspiration, as always, given a little time, comes along. As I thought, paragraph 1(4) of new schedule 3A states:

''In particular, the direction may require a person to ensure . . .

(f) that a person is put ashore or on board a ship.''

There we are. I do not have to write to the hon. Member for New Forest, East; we have the answer for him now. The clause encourages fire authorities to continue to provide their expert services. The Government very much welcome and support it.

Photo of Brian Iddon Brian Iddon Labour, Bolton South East

I thank hon. Members on both sides of the House for supporting the clause. They may like to know about the sea of change project, which is a Maritime and Coastguard Agency-sponsored research project on firefighting at sea, in co-operation with Her Majesty's fire service inspectorate and the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association. It is a two-year project to review the current response from UK fire brigades in dealing with incidents at sea, and it commenced work in January. I hope that that will add to the powers behind the clause, to make the firefighting facilities of coastal fire authorities more than adequate and the best in the world.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 3 and 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.