Ship-to-Ship Oil Transfer

– in the Scottish Parliament at 9:35 am on 24 May 2007.

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Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party 9:35, 24 May 2007

The next item of business is a statement by Richard Lochhead on ship-to-ship oil transfer. The minister will take questions at the end of his statement, so there should be no interventions.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party 9:39, 24 May 2007

I welcome the Presiding Officer to the chair.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to deliver my first statement to Parliament since my appointment as Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment. It is fitting that my first statement is on the complex and important issue of ship-to-ship oil transfers in the Forth, which demonstrates the very high priority that the Government attaches to our environment and to this issue in particular.

It is only right that I start by paying tribute to my predecessors—or, in this case, my predecessor, as, unlike my colleagues in the new Cabinet, I am following in the footsteps of only one predecessor, Ross Finnie, who held the post of Minister for Environment and Rural Development for eight years during the Parliament's first two sessions. He deserves credit for his role in furthering the causes of Scotland's environment over the past eight years and I look forward to working with him and with colleagues from all parties in the times ahead. I also wish to note the contribution that Sarah Boyack made by initiating a review of the legislation on ship-to-ship oil transfers in the Forth.

I turn to the importance of the Firth of Forth. The areas of eastern central Scotland share a remarkable coastline, which includes the beauty of the Bass Rock, the iconic bridges that can be seen from North Queensferry and the fishing villages of the east neuk of Fife. It is a spectacular area that is steeped in history and which must be safeguarded for the future.

Such is the quality of the environment that the Firth of Forth has three Natura sites, which are areas that are designated under European legislation as requiring special protection. They are the Isle of May special area of conservation, which was designated for the protection of grey seals under the European Council habitats directive; the Firth of Forth special protection area, which was designated under the birds directive for its rich assemblage of wintering seabirds and other protected species; and the Forth islands special protection area, which was also designated under the birds directive for its range of breeding seabirds.

The status of those areas reflects the importance of their habitats and species. They are sites of international importance. However, although the Firth of Forth is a treasured environment, it is also a working environment. Fishermen, ferry operators, oil industry workers, tourism operators, defence contractors and even the local energy workers all rely on the coastal environment for their livelihoods, and that is as it should be. Over time, a balance has been struck on the proper use of the marine environment.

I turn to the proposal for ship-to-ship oil transfer. The proposal by Melbourne Marine Services, which is now SPT Marine Services, to initiate ship-to-ship transfers of oil opens a new chapter in the story of the Firth of Forth. I will set out how I intend to approach the subject, before outlining some of the detailed legislative issues that the Government is considering.

This is a major proposal about which major concerns have been expressed by communities on both sides of the Forth. Local authorities such as Fife Council, East Lothian Council and the City of Edinburgh Council have taken a serious interest in it. During the Parliament's second session, the Public Petitions Committee and the Environment and Rural Development Committee listened to public concerns on the issue. Members of all parties have expressed grave concerns about some aspects of the proposal.

When such concerns exist, it is vital that there is a robust and accountable process to ensure that the range of views can be expressed and the proper analysis undertaken. That is what the people of Scotland look to the Parliament to provide. I will approach the issue by making a firm commitment to ensure that decisions are made through mechanisms that have support both in the Parliament and in the country at large.

I will now outline our concerns. As a starting point, it would appear to me that there is a strong case for ruling out new ship-to-ship oil transfers in areas that are in close proximity to areas that have been designated as environmentally sensitive, such as the Firth of Forth. Moreover, there is certainly a strong case for ensuring that decisions on whether a proposal would damage environmentally sensitive areas are taken by an organisation that is democratically accountable for those decisions and which is subject to independent and impartial scrutiny. Those views do not appear to be controversial and I am sure that they would carry widespread support in the Parliament and throughout the nation. Unfortunately, the current legislative framework does not appear to be fit for purpose and may not be able to deliver the desired objectives.

Therefore, today I announce our firm intention to ensure, through legislation, that Scottish ministers will have the opportunity to consider the merits of proposals such as the one that we are discussing and to ensure that any proposal is compliant with the relevant environmental legislation. My officials are urgently developing the options, which include the proposal for legislative change that the Scottish Green Party made last week. It has provided us with one option that has the potential to meet the objectives that I have set.

This morning, I spoke to Charles Hammond, who is the group chief executive of Forth Ports, to explain to him the terms of this statement and to initiate further discussion with him. We have arranged a meeting in the near future to give him an opportunity to outline the proposals and for me to explain our legislative options to his organisation.

I will be as clear to members as I was with Charles Hammond. I have asked Forth Ports not to take any precipitate action before we have had the opportunity to consider the issue in detail and as a matter of urgency. I strongly encourage Forth Ports to recognise the concerns of the Scottish Parliament, the public and the wide range of interests and commentators who have expressed concern about the proposals. Their concerns must be heeded.

I will ensure that the Parliament can consider the legislative options that are available to it, but I recognise that the issue is also relevant to the United Kingdom Government, so I am seeking an urgent meeting with it to discuss its options for addressing public concerns on the issue within its areas of responsibility. Under merchant shipping legislation, it appears to be open to the UK Government to block ship-to-ship transfers anywhere around the UK, including in the Firth of Forth. I intend to make representations to the UK Government on whether those powers should now be exercised to stop the proposal in the Forth and on how they should thereafter be devolved to this Parliament to allow members to take any action that is deemed necessary to protect our precious marine environment.

At this stage, I would describe the discussions as exploratory talks and not yet firm proposals. However, I believe that we can work in partnership with the UK to provide a package of complementary measures to resolve the issue. I am sure that UK ministers will want to reflect the public interest that has been clearly expressed in Scotland but, irrespective of the response from Westminster, I am determined to consider all the options that are available to the Scottish Parliament.

At present, the decision-making process is a complex mix of devolved and reserved responsibilities, with some steps having already been completed. For instance, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency has already endorsed the Forth Ports oil spill contingency plan. However, as a paramount consideration, any decision-making process needs to address the concerns that are expressed by affected communities.

Communities want to know whether it is possible for the proposal to be safe, reliable and secure and to offer economic benefits while safeguarding our precious environment or whether it carries unacceptable environmental risks. Many members of the public and members across the Parliament consider that even a scintilla of environmental risk is unacceptable.

Those are valid and, indeed, vital questions. Scotland's Parliament should decide but, at present, it does not. To the public's amazement, we are to all intents and purposes excluded from the decision-making process. At present, the responsibility lies with Forth Ports. It is the statutory harbour authority and is responsible for the regulation of any oil transfer operation in its area. It will develop the assessment of environmental impact and make the judgment on whether the proposal might damage the integrity of the environment. In effect, it is both judge and jury of its own assessment. That cannot be right.

I welcome the assurance that Forth Ports has given that it will seek to comply with its responsibilities as the competent authority in relation to the habitats directive. In doing so, it is carrying out the required appropriate assessment to ascertain whether there is likely to be a significant impact on a Natura site.

My understanding is that the work to prepare the required appropriate assessment, which will determine any implications for the Natura sites in the Forth, is nearing completion. Forth Ports has said that it will make the final document available on its website for comment. That is welcome. The company has also given assurances that it will demonstrate that it has followed the requirements of the habitats directive and that no decisions have yet been taken.

All that is welcome, as is the comprehensive and constructive way in which Forth Ports has developed the document with expert input from the Scottish Government's adviser, Scottish Natural Heritage. I understand that SNH has made a number of comments and highlighted further work that is necessary.

I turn now to the options for legislation, because it is clear that the locus for the Scottish ministers to intervene is limited. Even for legislation that they have a duty to implement—for example, the habitats directive—there is no mechanism for them to take a view in the round on the proposal and no scope for them to consider whether the proposal strikes the correct balance between economic benefit and social and environmental risk. It is clear that existing legislation is insufficient for a proposal that has attracted such a degree of public interest and concern throughout the country.

The Scottish Government is committed to ensuring that Scottish legislation gives full effect to the provisions of the EC birds and habitats directives. The current position, which relies essentially on the competent authority—in this case, Forth Ports—making decisions on ship-to-ship oil transfers, gives us in the Government and, no doubt, members across the chamber grave cause for concern.

That is not because we oppose ship-to-ship oil transfer in all circumstances—quite the contrary. It is a legal activity and the Government appreciates that there may be good reasons why it should take place in certain circumstances and in some places. Our cause for concern stems from the fact that, in the case of ship-to-ship oil transfers—particularly in environmentally sensitive areas—the controls that would normally lie with the Scottish ministers under part IV of the Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c) Regulations 1994 are not available, as such transfers are not one of the purposes listed.

We believe that the issue is too important to be left in the hands of Forth Ports alone. My concern is to ensure that elected ministers have an appropriate locus in relation to decisions of such public importance, particularly when Scotland's precious environment is at stake. That will be my department's guiding principle.

The previous Administration recognised the system's weaknesses and initiated its own review of the legislation to consider what improvements could be made. That work, which still continues and which I have asked to be accelerated, includes determining whether legislation that is applicable to ports and harbours is compliant with the environmental obligations; considering the boundaries between reserved and devolved powers in relation to environmental obligations; and determining any necessary improvements to compliance that need to be addressed through changes to legislation or guidance.

That was a good step forward, but we need to go further. We believe that ministers must be satisfied that the current proposal presents no danger to Scotland's environment. That is why we welcome the Scottish Green Party's proposals for legislative change and are giving them close consideration. However, no option is being ruled in—or, indeed, ruled out—at this stage.

There are other possibilities in addition to the Green party's proposal, which would require Forth Ports to obtain a certificate of compliance from ministers. We will give consideration to amending regulation 6 of the habitats regulations, which defines who is to be regarded as a competent authority for the purposes of compliance with the directive. We will also consider possible amendment of part IV of the regulations. As I mentioned, it sets out rules about appropriate assessment of plans and projects but only in relation to a specific list of purposes, which do not include ship-to-ship oil transfer. We will also consider extending ministers' powers in relation to the overriding public interest test. Finally, we will consider nature conservation order powers as well. At present, they apply only to land and not to parts of the sea or internal waters. We will review those powers to determine whether they should be widened.

I emphasise that there is no one solution. In considering the options, I will be the first to recognise that none will be perfect. There will be strengths and weaknesses to each of the options and there will be limits to the current responsibilities of the Scottish ministers under the Scotland Act 1998. I also believe that the way forward will involve a mix of short and long-term changes and, as I said, no option is being ruled in or out at this point.

I hope that all interests in the Parliament will recognise the importance of the issue of ship-to-ship transfers in the Forth and work constructively with the Government to introduce legislation quickly and effectively.

I believe that the Parliament—and, indeed, Scotland—desires to be able to prevent ship-to-ship oil transfers and proposals that could pose a threat to our precious marine and coastal environments in the Firth of Forth or elsewhere. That is what I intend to achieve.

It has been a privilege to make my first statement to the Parliament. I invite members to embrace our proposals and work together to implement the changes quickly once decisions are taken.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

The minister will now take questions on the issues that have been raised in his statement. I intend to allow around 30 minutes for questions, after which we will move on to the next item of business.

Photo of Rhona Brankin Rhona Brankin Labour

First, I congratulate Richard Lochhead on his appointment as Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment and I thank him for an advance copy of his statement.

It seemed from the Scottish National Party's manifesto that there was no place for the environment with rural affairs. Indeed, there was no reference to environment in the agriculture section and, interestingly, there was no reference to the marine environment in the fisheries section. However, we should be pleased that, belatedly, it seems there is concern about the marine environment—or, indeed, is there?

I think that we would all agree that the Firth of Forth is of international importance for conservation, with its wonderful seabirds and its vital ecosystems. It is also an important area of economic activity. The Labour Party believes that ship-to-ship oil transfer in the Firth of Forth is a step too far and that the environmental risks potentially outweigh the economic benefits. That is why when we were in government we gave a commitment to change the habitats regulations.

What we have today in the minister's statement is a wishy-washy approach that basically says that this is all very difficult. There is nothing new in the statement, which is in stark contrast to the briefing that was given last week about changing the habitats regulations. The communities bordering the Firth of Forth know that this is not the time for prevarication and saying that this is all too difficult—it is time to act. Therefore, I ask the minister just when he will take action and how soon the Parliament will have an opportunity to scrutinise the proposals.

Of course, the minister did not mention this, but amending the habitats regulations is only a sticking-plaster approach because ship-to-ship oil transfer is also subject to UK shipping regulations. Indeed, Labour agrees with Scottish Environment LINK that the current management of the coasts and seas around Scotland is fragmented, outdated and unable to take account of local communities.

Will the minister commit today to introduce a marine bill? If so, will he say when it will be introduced? That is what we fundamentally need if we are to make a difference to the sustainable management of our coasts and seas. Will he also commit to draw up a Scottish set of marine ecosystem objectives, with full stakeholder involvement? Will he take forward work on marine spatial planning? Will he implement the recommendations of the advisory group on marine and coastal strategy, which reported earlier this year?

What we have heard today is nothing new. We worked constructively on the issue with stakeholders for years and, indeed, with the UK Government. What we have heard today is a cop-out, with no new commitment. It is simply not good enough.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

I thank Rhona Brankin for her initial good wishes. However, I must pick up on her comment about prevarication because the issue of ship-to-ship oil transfer has been bubbling away and causing major public concern since December 2004. I was sworn in as a minister two days ago and today I have appeared before Parliament promising firm action. When the Labour Party was in power, it had two and a half years in which to act.

I will pick up on a couple of important points that Rhona Brankin made in her questions, starting with her point about the marine and coastal strategy group. The SNP is keen to take forward the group's recommendations, particularly the recommendation that the Parliament should have conservation powers from 12 to 200 miles out to sea. I am delighted to have Labour Party support for that measure.

Rhona Brankin was perhaps distracted during the election campaign in her reading of all the SNP's policy documents, because the SNP is committed to introducing a marine bill for Scotland. More announcements will be made on that subject in due course.

The SNP led the debate in the previous session on the need to change marine legislation and clear up the dog's breakfast that is the current management of Scotland's marine waters, with more than 85 acts of Parliament applying between Europe, Westminster and Scotland. We are conscious of that argument and I guarantee that, unlike the previous Administration, we will take action to address the problem.

Photo of John Scott John Scott Conservative

I, too, congratulate the cabinet secretary on his appointment and I wish him every success in that role for the future. I thank him for the advance copy of his statement.

The Conservative position on ship-to-ship oil transfer is that we largely support what the minister is trying to achieve in protecting the Firth of Forth, as would be expected. We note the concerns about the dual role of Forth Ports and we believe that, as the minister hinted, a conflict of interest exists. As a past member of the Public Petitions Committee, I have noted such concerns and others at first hand.

Can the minister assure Parliament today that the various options that he outlined—there are many—will be within the legal competence of the Scottish Parliament? How long will it be before he comes to a decision? Further, will the proposed new powers also apply to other ship-to-ship oil transfers in, for example, Scapa Flow, Nigg Bay and Sullom Voe in Shetland? Can he assure us that such operations will not be adversely affected by any proposed legislative change?

On Rhona Brankin's point, can the minister tell us when he will introduce marine legislation on these matters?

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

I thank John Scott for his constructive questions and approach to this important issue. I share his concerns about the perception of the role of Forth Ports in the issue, which is of course the source of much of the concern that has been expressed by the communities around the Firth of Forth and by many members across the chamber.

On the options for legislative change, a key purpose of today's statement is to invite members from across the chamber to speak to and negotiate with the Government. We are open to ideas and suggestions from other parties. We already have a good suggestion from the Green party.

We must be careful to ensure that any legislative changes that we propose in this Parliament are within the remit of the Scotland Act 1998. That is one reason why the issue is so complex. There is a grey area—for example, in harbours legislation—about what is reserved to Westminster and what is devolved to this Parliament. That is a tricky issue to get round, but we are determined to do that as soon as possible.

On John Scott's question about timing, I will meet my officials this afternoon to discuss a timetable for taking forward the issue. However, we would like to take it forward in tandem with all parties and, indeed, with the new environment and rural development committee, once it is up and running. We want to take a consensual approach to this important issue, which has widespread and cross-party support throughout the country. We welcome the Conservative party's support for that approach.

Photo of Iain Smith Iain Smith Liberal Democrat

I welcome the Presiding Officer to his first meeting in that role. I also welcome the minister to his new position and I thank him for the advance copy of his statement. I certainly echo the minister's endorsement of the excellent record of his predecessor, Ross Finnie.

I welcome the importance that the minister is giving to the vital issue of ship-to-ship oil transfer in the Firth of Forth. He recognises that there is all-party concern about the issue and that there is significant community opposition, not least in the east neuk of Fife in my constituency. There is great concern there about the potential impact of an oil spill on the excellent beaches along the Fife coast.

I am pleased that the minister recognises the work that was done by the previous Executive on the issue, including the important legislative review. I am sure that there is cross-party support in the chamber for the view that Forth Ports should not be both the commercial operator and the statutory regulator in this issue. However, there must be proper clarity on just what legislative competence the Scottish Parliament has in this area. I would be grateful if the minister could advise us on what information he has received on whether it is possible for the Scottish Parliament to remove the statutory powers of the ports authority, which are given by UK reserved legislation.

Just nine days ago, Robin Harper was quoted in the press as welcoming the SNP's agreement to consider his proposal and saying that he

"understood such regulations could be brought in within days of a new administration being formed."

Alex Salmond endorsed that and told us that it was

"an example of a different style of government."

However, today we are talking only about the Greens' option not being ruled in or ruled out at this stage and about there being other possibilities and no one solution.

There is a great deal of talk about the new politics but, in the old days of the old politics, ministers used to make statements in the chamber when they had something to say and when they were going to do something. Does the new politics that the SNP is introducing mean that ministers will continue to make headline-grabbing announcements that cannot be delivered? Can they not first give full and proper consideration to proposals before making statements and pronouncements that give false hope to communities?

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

Again, I thank the member for his initial good wishes.

I can only reiterate the point that I made to Rhona Brankin. Whereas the issue had been bubbling away for two and a half years, within days of coming into government we have made a commitment to legislate in the very near future and to negotiate with the UK Government. We must bear it in mind that, if the Parliament wishes to adopt a policy of immediately preventing ship-to-ship oil transfers in areas of environmental sensitivity, the issue currently lies with the UK Government. The UK Government could take such a decision today if it so wished. We have agreed to bring forward legislation within the Scotland Act 1998 as soon as possible to address the issue. We have done what no previous Administration has done, by laying out some of the options that are possible at the moment.

We must all ensure that, within days of coming into government, we do not achieve any unintended consequences, so let us get it right. Let us discuss across the parties the best way to do that. Some parties have been constructive and have made proposals; I invite Iain Smith to do the same.

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick Scottish National Party

I welcome the cabinet secretary's statement and his recognition that the current legislative framework is, quite frankly, a boorach. In particular, I welcome the fact that, within two days, we have had a statement on the abolition of tolls in Fife and a statement on ship-to-ship oil transfers. This Administration has done more in two days than the previous one did in eight years.

Does the minister agree that it is simply not credible that a private company that stands to profit from the proposed ship-to-ship transfers is also the competent authority for examining the environmental impact of the proposals? Does he agree that that democratic deficit must be closed quickly?

As the minister is aware, I will visit the European Commission next week. Will he and his officials meet me in advance of that visit to discuss what support I can give him in examining how, in the short term, Europe might be able to help us to deal with the problem of the proposed ship-to-ship oil transfers in the Firth of Forth?

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

I thank Tricia Marwick for her question. As the constituency member for Central Fife, she and her constituents clearly have a close interest in the matter.

The fact that Forth Ports is a private company that can, as I said in my statement, in effect act as judge and jury on the issue is a cause for serious concern. That goes back to the fact that there is an anomaly, because at the privatisation of the port authorities they were left with that power. There is a democratic deficit, which is why we were determined to give an early commitment to the Parliament that we would close that deficit and ensure that elected ministers have the power to influence such issues, which are important for our environment.

I will be delighted to meet Tricia Marwick along with my officials. We can discuss that later today and make the appropriate arrangements.

Photo of Marilyn Livingstone Marilyn Livingstone Labour

I welcome the cabinet secretary to his new post and wish him well, but I am disappointed with his statement. I had high hopes following last week's press coverage, but we have heard nothing new and it seems that there is to be no change.

Is there a possibility of retrospectively applying legislation so that Forth Ports cannot approve any scheme before the Parliament approves any statutory instrument? In a letter, the previous Deputy Minister for Environment and Rural Development, Sarah Boyack, committed to providing an answer on that important issue. Have the civil servants to date provided one?

Secondly, and importantly, as my colleague Rhona Brankin mentioned, if we make a commitment to introduce a marine bill quickly, it will show a strong commitment to joined-up thinking and transparency of decision making, and indicate our commitment to working with the UK Government. I remind the minister that there is strong support for a marine bill among the Greens, the Lib Dems and the Labour Party, but I did not see mention of such a measure in the SNP's programme for Government. What are the timescales for that?

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

I thank the member for her questions.

First, I am disappointed that the member is disappointed, given that a few days into Government we have delivered a ministerial statement, which the previous Administration did not do. We have also given a commitment to take firm action as early as possible. The previous Administration gave a commitment only to a legislative review, but today we have given an update on that review plus more commitments.

On retrospectively applying legislation to Forth Ports, as I said in my statement, I have made it clear to the port authority that the Parliament expects it not to take any precipitate action over the next few months and that it should reflect the will of the Parliament.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green

I have three points to put to the minister, whom I congratulate on his appointment. Minister, I am over here—I have changed places from where I used to sit.

First, maritime disasters have happened in Scottish waters. After the Braer disaster, the Donaldson report made more than 100 recommendations, which were universally welcomed. One recommendation was that Scapa Flow should be one of only three sites in the United Kingdom for ship-to-ship transfers. It would be welcome if the Executive took the position that it supported all the conclusions of the Donaldson report, including the recommendation on Scapa.

Secondly, I congratulate the minister on taking up the issue with the UK Government again, but I would like to know whether, given that that has been tried on at least a couple of occasions already, he is optimistic that he will get anything out of it.

Thirdly, and most important, I welcome the detail in the minister's statement—it would have been nice to have had a reference to a marine bill, but today's discussion is about whether the Scottish Executive and Scottish Parliament can be given the powers to seek certificates of compliance for actions that are likely to harm our marine environment. However, I want to ask the minister whether he intends to go for the quickest route. Will he be able to make up his mind quickly in deciding that, given the urgency of the situation, the Green party's already prepared statutory instrument represents the fastest route for giving the Executive the necessary powers using a parliamentary approach?

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

I thank Robin Harper for his many questions. I will try to answer as many of them as possible without using up all of my remaining 12 minutes.

First, accidents do happen. Having witnessed accidents in Denmark in recent years, we want to take a belt-and-braces approach to ensure that accidents do not happen in Scotland.

On Scapa Flow and other areas of Scotland where ship-to-ship oil transfers already take place, as I explained in my statement, there are many places in Scotland where it is perfectly acceptable for such transfers—which are a necessary function—to take place. Our concern is that environmentally sensitive Scottish waters need extra protection. That is the purpose of today's statement.

On the Donaldson report, many of its recommendations are either reserved or devolved. This Parliament clearly has a role in taking forward those that are devolved, and we should take forward any remaining measures that should be taken forward. I am keen to look into that.

On whether I am optimistic about negotiating with the UK Government, I am always optimistic about that. I am looking forward to one of the first tests of my negotiating skills.

Finally, I have already discussed the marine bill in my response to Rhona Brankin. All that I can say is, yes, Robin Harper is correct that we need emergency legislation. A marine bill will take some time—months or years perhaps—to work up, and it will be a complex piece of legislation. Anyone who was involved in the previous Environment and Rural Development Committee's inquiry into marine legislation a few months ago will know just how complex the issue is. We need emergency legislation, which we are committed to bringing forward. However, we will take into account the Green party's constructive and attractive proposal.

Photo of Ted Brocklebank Ted Brocklebank Conservative

I congratulate Richard Lochhead on his seamless transition from being a fellow member of the awkward squad on the Environment and Rural Development Committee to being a fully-fledged cabinet secretary. As a Fifer, I welcome his good intention to ensure that the wonderful beaches around the Forth estuary in my part of Fife are kept clear of oil pollution.

As Richard Lochhead is well aware, much of the business that is transacted in the Firth of Forth, at Hound Point and Braefoot Bay, is oil business. I have two questions. Yesterday, the First Minister, Alex Salmond, said that the Scottish National Party will place no barriers in the way of business. If the green lobby decides that the exceptional bird life and environment of Orkney and Shetland might be at risk, will the minister consider banning ship-to-ship oil transfers at Sullom Voe and Scapa Flow, where they have been carried out totally safely for 40 years? Secondly, given the limited powers that are available to the Parliament and that a review of the legislative procedure is already under way, was there any real point behind the minister's statement?

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

I know that, as a Fifer, the member is interested in the subject that we are discussing and that he recognises how serious the problem is. I hope that in the months ahead he will move away from being a member of the awkward squad, which I was in, so that we will both have joined the new consensus squad.

We must ensure that any legislation that we propose, even in an emergency context, will not have unintended consequences. That is why the matter is so complex. We want to ensure that the Green party's proposal, for example, would achieve our objectives and would not lead to unintended bureaucratic consequences that could involve ministers in all kinds of decisions that we do not want to hold up. That is an important point. We do not want to frustrate genuine and welcome business activity in the Firth of Forth or in any other Scottish waters. Our legislation will, of course, specifically address ship-to-ship oil transfers, and not other water issues. That is also an important point, which must be taken into account when we put together the draft legislation.

Finally, I emphasise that environmental non-governmental organisations in Scotland play an important role in the environmental debate, but they do not propose laws or decide policies—ministers do that.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat

I welcome Richard Lochhead to his new role and welcome his statement. I also welcome the fact that the Scottish National Party is taking forward the legislative review and the search for a solution that was begun by the previous Administration. My memory is that Sarah Boyack said to the Environment and Rural Development Committee that, following the review, she would bring forward legislative change within our powers, if possible. We are moving in a general direction in which we can work together to find a solution to the problem.

As a local MSP, I agree that there is a strong case for ruling out ship-to-ship oil transfers in the River Forth. The minister's statement showed many things, but it proved what many of us already know—that there is no easy answer to the problem.

How might ministers' powers be extended in relation to the overriding public interest test? Given that alternatives are available at Scapa Flow and Sullom Voe, the people whom I represent in Edinburgh West fail to understand what overriding public interest justifies taking risks with the environment of the River Forth. They and others around the River Forth are looking for a clear timetable of action from the minister, which we have not received. However, I understand the complexities and difficulties that are involved and consequently will not take cheap shots at him. We should work together to achieve a solution to the problem, and I hope that he will be happy to continue with the approach that the previous minister took, which involved meeting all interested local MSPs and discussing the matter on an on-going basis to try to find a solution. I would be happy to participate in those on-going discussions.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

I thank the member for her constructive comments. The City of Edinburgh Council previously expressed serious concerns about the proposal. I am sure that the member is in regular contact with the new council and that it will express its concerns, too.

I addressed the overriding public interest argument in my statement. That is one option that ministers are considering. On the timetable, I reiterate that the problem is a priority for the new Government. I made that clear in my statement. We have made a number of commitments. I will not reiterate what I said in my statement, but our approach contrasts sharply with that of the previous Administration. That said, I want to take a leaf out of that Administration's book and keep a dialogue going with all interested MSPs. Indeed, I will be delighted to meet all interested MSPs in the coming days so that we can work together constructively to progress the matter.

Photo of Christopher Harvie Christopher Harvie Scottish National Party

The Forth is a waterway, a nature reserve, a port and potentially—but not actually—an internal Scottish transport link. What measures does the minister favour, beyond statutory regulation, to comprehensively develop the Forth, in the same way that the Americans developed the Tennessee valley as a pioneer area of regional reconstruction in the 1930s? We should remember that their ideas came from Scotland's Patrick Geddes.

There is a lot of interest in the Forth as a transport link—not as a barrier, but as a connection—because of the prospect of a fast ferry or catamaran running from Kirkcaldy to Portobello initially and possibly to Granton. In discussions with the operator's consultant, it was found that more than 20 authorities had to be separately consulted before any action could be taken. They had their own timetables and their own legislative Hintergrund. Have not we reached the stage at which a comprehensive solution to the regulation, exploitation and further development of such an enormously important natural resource on our doorsteps should be approached? Should not the problem be seen in the context of the region's development over the next 30 or 40 years?

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

I am delighted that Professor Chris Harvie, who is one of our new members, has contributed to the debate, as he has huge expertise, which all ministers will be able to tap into in the months and years ahead. I hope that they do so.

I have a lot of sympathy with many things that he said, but not all the points that he made fall within my remit. I am sure that ministers with responsibility for enterprise and transport will be keen to tap into his expertise.

The marine bill has been mentioned a number of times. It will clearly offer opportunities to tidy up the legislation that applies to Scotland's seas and inland waters. I advise Professor Harvie to contact the other ministers to lend his expertise to their good work.

Photo of Malcolm Chisholm Malcolm Chisholm Labour

On behalf of my constituents who are concerned about stopping ship-to-ship oil transfers in the Firth of Forth, I welcome Richard Lochhead to his new post. Despite his lack of detail, I also welcome his intention to carry forward the commitment that Sarah Boyack made before the election to amend the habitats regulations.

How soon will any new measures be in place? Has the minister received any undertaking from Forth Ports to hold off until any new regulations are in force? If not, is there a possibility of any proposed legislation applying retrospectively? Marilyn Livingstone asked that question, but the minister sidestepped it. Finally, will he demand that Forth Ports fully consults on its proposals when the appropriate assessment on the implications for the Natura sites is available?

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

I thank Malcolm Chisholm for his contribution. I look forward to working with him and members of other parties in the days ahead to find a solution that has cross-party support. I reiterate that I had a constructive—albeit brief—conversation with the chief executive of Forth Ports this morning, prior to the statement, simply to inform him that the statement was taking place. I have undertaken to send him a copy of the statement. My impression is that Forth Ports is willing to take a constructive approach and is listening carefully to the views that are expressed in the Parliament. I also have the impression that it is willing to undertake a full consultation once the appropriate assessment and other steps in the process have been completed. I am keen for that to happen, and I will raise it when I speak to Forth Ports at the meeting that should happen within the next few days.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

I add my congratulations to Richard Lochhead on his appointment. I know from personal experience what a wide-ranging and challenging brief he now holds, and I wish him all the best in it.

The minister talked about not being opposed in principle to ship-to-ship oil transfer, which I welcome. He referred to it as a necessary practice. He will be aware of the successful and incident-free operations in Scapa Flow in Orkney over many years, which is the result of sound environmental management based on local control and local accountability. Will he support his ministerial colleagues in building on that success and working with Orkney Islands Council and others to attract additional business to Scapa Flow?

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

I welcome Liam McArthur to the chamber. I look forward to tapping into his expertise, which has been learned behind the scenes over the past few years. On Scapa Flow, I reiterate my earlier comments: the specific issue that we are discussing today very much derives from the fact that a private company holds the decision-making power, as opposed to a publicly accountable body, which is the case in Scapa Flow. The member made an important distinction on that point.

On Orkney's economic future, I would be delighted to lend any support I can to furthering the economic interests of the Orkney Islands. I hope that I will soon have the opportunity to visit the islands.

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

I thank the cabinet secretary for his statement. My constituents will welcome the seriousness with which he has taken up the issue and will be pleased that he is pursuing the search for legislative solutions that was begun by Sarah Boyack. However, I am in no doubt that they will be concerned that he has not provided a timetable for action. Will he at least commit to indicating to the Parliament prior to the summer recess which of the shorter-term measures that are within his power—rather than the longer-term measures that require negotiation with Westminster—he intends to pursue and how quickly?

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

I recognise fully why Iain Gray's constituents will welcome the Government's statement, because it highlights how seriously we are treating the issue.

On the timetable, I can only reiterate that today's statement demonstrates that this issue is a priority for the Government. Within days of being elected we have made a commitment to legislate. We will present our proposals as soon as possible, once we have had more time to review the various options and have spoken to the other parties involved. I hope that before the summer recess we will be able to take forward the various options that I have outlined today.

Photo of Ian McKee Ian McKee Scottish National Party

I congratulate the minister on his cautious and even-handed approach to a contentious problem. However, is his even-handedness justified in the specific circumstances? This project involves a small but incredibly serious threat to wildlife in a sensitive area of international importance. What are the benefits of ship-to-ship oil transfers in the Forth to the Scottish economy, other than a few million pounds of income to one plc? Is any benefit worth the risk involved?

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

I welcome Dr Ian McKee to the chamber and thank him for his question. Having just moved from Opposition to Government, I have learned quickly that ministers have to be a lot more even-handed than Opposition members on the back benches, or indeed members of the governing parties who are not ministers. We have a duty to be even-handed in our approach to the issue, and we have to be seen to be fair.

On the economic benefit, many arguments have been ventilated in the public domain over the economic benefit or otherwise of the proposal. I reiterate that the Government's policy is that there should not be ship-to-ship oil transfers in environmentally sensitive areas.

Photo of Claire Baker Claire Baker Labour

Will the cabinet secretary give assurances that in investigating solutions that are actually deliverable he will work constructively with authorities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to amend the habitats regulations, including extending part IV of the regulations to cover maritime activities?

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

I welcome Claire Baker, another new member of the Parliament, to the chamber and assure her that ministers will work constructively with the other devolved Administrations and the UK Government on those matters. It is in all our interests to do so. This Government will play a leading role in that to ensure that the rest of the UK and the UK Government recognise the urgency of addressing such situations, which have been neglected for far too long.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

I was interested in the minister's comment in his statement that he thought that, under merchant shipping legislation, it was

"open to the UK Government to block ship-to-ship transfers anywhere around the UK, including in the Firth of Forth."

He indicated that he would be making representations to the UK Government that those powers should be exercised in relation to the present proposal. Did the previous Scottish Executive make any such representations? Is not it the case that, if the minister's analysis of the legal position under the merchant shipping legislation is correct, the answer to this particular problem is for the Labour Government at Westminster to exercise its responsibilities in relation to the protection of the marine environment of the Forth? That would save us all a great deal of time and trouble, and scrambling around the legal undergrowth of the European Union directive, the habitats regulations and the Scotland Act 1998. [Applause.]

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

I nearly joined in the applause, but realised I had better not, to maintain the dignity of being the minister in this debate.

Unfortunately, many of the answers to Scotland's problems lie in London—that is the reality that the member has outlined. The specific issue of ship-to-ship oil transfer is within the remit of the shipping legislation at Westminster. As I understand it, Westminster has the ability to decide the exact definition of any regulations it wishes to make, the kind of ship-to-ship oil transfers that could be banned and the circumstances in which that could happen. Our view is that the practice could be banned in cases where there are environmental sensitivities in waters. The UK Government has the power.

On the actions of the previous ministers, correspondence between those ministers and the UK Government on the matter is in the public domain. I shall leave the previous ministers to account for themselves.

Meeting suspended until 14:15.

On resuming—