The Secretary of State for Transport (Dr. Brian Mawhinney) rose -- [Interruption.]
Dr. Mawhinney: With permission, Madam Speaker, I shall make a statement on the Government's response to the report of Lord Donaldson's inquiry into the prevention of pollution from merchant shipping. The response is published today. Copies have been placed in the Library and are available in the Vote Office. I apologise to you, Madam Speaker, and to the House for the fact that the statement will be slightly longer than is normal, but I am responding to a detailed and significant report.
When Lord Donaldson's report, "Safer Ships, Cleaner Seas", was published in May 1994, it was welcomed both within the United Kingdom and internationally. I am pleased to have this opportunity to echo my predecessor in thanking Lord Donaldson and his team for the depth and quality of their report. The Government have already accepted its broad thrust. I now go further. The Government accept 86 of the 103 recommendations. Most of the others are still being considered. There were only four recommendations that we could not accept because we decided that the action proposed was inappropriate. Our response clearly demonstrates that the Government are serious about ship safety and pollution prevention, and are serious about implementing the Donaldson report.
It is essential that those operating sub-standard ships in United Kingdom waters should be clearly identifiable. I am pleased to say that our initiative in publishing monthly lists of such ships detained in United Kingdom ports has been well received by responsible shipowners. The message is clear: sub-standard ships will be detained and information about detentions will be published. The Government support the report's emphasis on port state control and have acted to ensure that the recommendations on improved targeting of sub-standard ships are considered by the EC and the Paris memorandum of understanding.
We undertook to consider recommendations on providing emergency towing capability. I expect a final report in June from the Coastguard Agency on the feasibility, costs and benefits of the inquiry's proposals. I also announced last December that we had accepted the Donaldson recommendation that two tugs should be stationed in the Dover strait and in the Minches to provide emergency cover this winter. Those tugs are now in place. The trial will also provide operational experience for the agency's final report. With all-party support, the Merchant Shipping (Salvage and Pollution) Act 1994 is now law. That has allowed us to ratify two international conventions, one on salvage and the other on increased compensation for oil pollution. We are encouraging other states to do likewise.
At a national level, the Act extends the principle of strict liability for oil pollution in United Kingdom waters to cover spills of persistent oil from ships other than oil tankers. The problem now is to ensure that the owners of ships whose bunkers cause damage are able to pay. We
Column 842are pressing internationally for the extension of compulsory liability insurance and are considering the scope for unilateral action.
We do not want ships to be able to continue to operate anonymously off our coasts. We have been vigorous, therefore, in seeking international agreement on the mandatory fitting of transponders and we shall maintain that pressure at the International Maritime Organisation. Pending agreement on transponders, we also intend to act on Lord Donaldson's recommendation that ships should have recognition marks that are clearly visible, by presenting proposals to the next meeting of the IMO's Maritime Safety Committee. Since last July, the Marine Safety Agency has been carrying out a programme of inspections of foreign fish factory
ships--klondykers--working off the UK. Sub-standard klondykers found in port have been detained and vessels at anchor have been told that deficiencies must be put right. However, the problems and the risks remain.
The Scottish Office has brought forward proposals to improve fisheries management by limiting the number of fish transhipment licences issued to klondykers and by introducing an advance notice period for licence applications from May this year. We are considering a number of options for further action under merchant shipping powers, such as preventing loading or unloading and requiring vessels to leave our waters. They should help to ensure that klondykers meet agreed safety standards and carry adequate insurance. We shall issue a consultation paper shortly, with proposals for possible legislative action, including the extension of our powers of inspection and detention to ships in UK waters not on innocent or transit passage.
The report recommended that a statutory obligation should be placed on ports to provide adequate and convenient waste reception facilities, which should be free at the point of use. Before deciding on the form of legislation, we need to establish the scale of the problem. Those with responsibility for ports should be consulted on specific proposals. Research is already being conducted to address those issues. Results will be available soon and we expect to consult interested parties shortly thereafter.
As part of our initiative against pollution from ships, we shall also bring forward regulations defining our exclusive economic zone, which will extend our jurisdiction over pollution from ships up to 200 miles from our shores. We are considering how best to enhance surveillance and enforcement of that extended area.
The inquiry also made recommendations on responsibility for clean-up operations in harbour areas and on the coast. We shall consult interested parties on those recommendations and on possible courses of action.
We are determined to continue working towards the elimination of poor operational practices on ships. In line with Lord Donaldson's recommendations, we are strongly supporting the IMO revision of the Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping Convention, which should be completed in June. We also fully endorse the IMO's international safety management code and are encouraging its widespread use on UK ships in advance of its mandatory introduction in 1998.
The shipping industry has expressed concern about Lord Donaldson's recommendation that shipowners should pay into two funds for port state control
Column 843inspections and the UK's standing counter- pollution capacity. We have long supported the "user pays" and "polluter pays" principles, and are keen to explore new options for funding. They need to be consistent with a competitive, as well as a safe fleet. We are clear that there may be problems in seeking to establish UK funds without first seeking regional agreement. We shall work to develop funding proposals and to secure agreement on them with our regional partners, but it would not be right to close the door for ever on a unilateral approach if regional agreement cannot be secured. We intend to consult on possible regional and unilateral approaches.
I have highlighted the key elements of our response to the major issues raised by the Donaldson report. We have accepted and acted upon many more recommendations, as outlined in our detailed response, and we shall continue to take forward initiatives to implement the remaining recommendations. Lord Donaldson's report has set the agenda; we intend to follow it. My Department's Marine Safety and Coastguard Agencies will play a key role in that process. Like all sensible people, we want a safe and pollution-free marine environment.
Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West): I pay tribute to the Donaldson committee for the thorough and detailed manner in which it provides a comprehensive agenda for future action. Since only the essence of the 103 recommendations can be dealt with today, does the Secretary of State accept that today's exchanges are no substitute for a full debate?
I should like to say immediately that we welcome the Government's proposals to press for international extension of compulsory liability insurance; to require the fitting of transponders to ensure identification; to bring forward our exclusive economic zone, to extend our jurisdiction over pollution from ships; and to be ready to consider unilateral action, when regional agreement cannot be reached. What action is the right hon. Gentleman taking, however, to include the Donaldson recommendations in the draft European Union directive on port state control; to get them incorporated in the Paris memorandum of understanding; and to highlight the issues at the North sea conference in June?
On the central issue of enforcement, what action is the Secretary of State taking, via the International Maritime Organisation, to reinforce and extend port state control and, in particular, to increase detentions of unseaworthy ships and ill-trained crews in many more ports, to bring it firmly home to shipowners that it no longer pays to run unsafe ships? Since Donaldson recommends more investigations in port, will the right hon. Gentleman withdraw the 15 per cent. cut in his Department's Marine Safety Agency budget this year, as well as the 7 per cent. cut in the marine accident investigation branch and the 6 per cent. cut in the Coastguard Agency? Are not those cuts wholly incompatible with the right hon. Gentleman's emphasis on safety? In line with Donaldson, should not he be extending the role of the Marine Safety Agency to take over the work of some highly dubious classification societies, whose poor standards the Minister of State severely criticised only two months ago?
Since the certificates of competence issued by some flag states are widely regarded to be spurious, what action is the Secretary of State taking to remove the IMO requirement on port state inspectors to accept without question certificates issued by such flag states? In view of the poor record of flag state control in many cases, will
Column 844he support the idea of a marine safety corps, whereby developed shipping nations would make surveyors available to developing countries that lacked the necessary expertise?
The right hon. Gentleman referred to emergency towing capability, which we support in principle, but is he aware of Donaldson's key recommendation that masters, officers and crews must be able to communicate properly with each other? How is that compatible with his Department's contracting out the provision of the two emergency tugs under the control of the Coastguard Agency to a company that employs non-English-speaking Croatian crews?
The right hon. Gentleman also referred to klondykers. What action is he taking to link the issue of licences to safety and insurance criteria relating to klondykers? Is not that urgent, since Donaldson spoke of the need for a revised system of licensing to be in place this winter and the Government are manifestly behind time? Finally, the right hon. Gentleman did not mention the marine environment in high-risk areas, which Donaldson highlights. Since there is a proliferation of such special areas, how does he propose to identify them, and what will be the means of implementation? The overriding issue of the Donaldson report is safety. Opposition Members continue to worry that the Government's philosophy of deregulation and privatisation, in cutting their own Marine Safety Agency and in delegating major responsibilities to classification societies, which are not truly independent, fails to give the overriding priority to safety that is required.
Dr. Mawhinney: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the welcome that he gave at the beginning of his comments to my announcement about proposals on insurance on transponders and on the exclusive economic zone. He asked about the involvement of the European Union and the IMO in terms of our discussions about port state control, and I can confirm what I said in my statement--that we have already raised those issues in those forums and that we shall pursue them vigorously with our partners in those organisations, because the hon. Gentleman and I recognise that the type of changes that he and I wish to be made need to be implemented internationally, not purely domestically.
On port state control, we shall continue to carry forward the process that we initiated on the detention of ships and the publication of the names of ships that fail to meet our standards, and we shall continue to encourage other countries to follow our lead, so that gradually an understanding will develop that certain ships, and perhaps even certain flags, may give those who operate on the seas, those who wish to transport their goods by sea and those who are asked to insure those goods, pause for thought.
On efficiency savings, we always seek a proper balance between the effective discharge of the paramountcy of safety, to which both the hon. Gentleman and I adhere, and the proper use of taxpayers' money. I should have thought that that was a general principle, a general balance, that he would wish to support. I can assure him that, as we proceed with the implementation of the Donaldson proposals, the Marine Safety Agency and the Coastguard Agency will play a central role.
Column 845The hon. Gentleman asked whether I would consider seeking broader agreement among some flag states to make available to other flag states professionally trained surveyors if they found that helpful. I am willing to consider that suggestion.
I am not sure that I have answered every question that the hon. Gentleman asked. He mentioned klondykers. They cause concern, as I said in my statement, and we shall pursue, not least by a public consultation process, the necessary steps to tackle them as effectively as all Members of the House believe that we should tackle such a threat.
Mr. David Harris (St. Ives): As president of the Sea Safety Group, United Kingdom, as someone who gave evidence to the Donaldson commission and also as the promoter of the Merchant Shipping (Salvage and Pollution) Act 1994, mentioned by the Secretary of State, I warmly welcome the Government's response to the comprehensive report by Lord Donaldson.
I refer to a local issue in part of my constituency: the Isles of Scilly were the scene of a major disaster--the Torrey Canyon. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that there will be no delay in working on Lord Donaldson's proposal that the Isles of Scilly should be given extra protection, by an exclusion zone or some other means, so that there is no repetition of that dreadful accident or the risk of it happening again?
Dr. Mawhinney: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he said. I am sure that the whole House would pay tribute to the role that he played in introducing that important piece of legislation, which, as I said in my statement, enabled us to sign two international conventions. I understand the argument that he makes, legitimately, on behalf of his constituents, and I am happy to give him the assurance that he seeks.
Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and positive response to Lord Donaldson's recommendations, specifically with regard to transponders insurance, and the recognition that, while international action is best, there must be a willingness to take unilateral action if the international community is too slow to react.
With regard to the publication of a monthly list of defaulting vessels, does the right hon. Gentleman concur that many of those vessels have been classified by highly reputable classification societies? How does he respond to Lord Donaldson's recommendation for tighter control of standards of classification societies? The Secretary of State's predecessor, the right hon. Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. MacGregor), said that measures would be in place before this season to resolve the klondykers issue. Will he guarantee that, although there will be consultation, measures will be in place before next season?
Finally, does the Secretary of State accept that 85 per cent. of marine accidents are caused by human error, which puts an even greater onus on the need to promote and enforce standards of crewing: in training, language and communication? Given our country's high reputation for that, what measures is his Department taking to stem the decline in the British merchant marine? Specifically,
Column 846will he withdraw the proposal to remove the present nationality restrictions that apply to masters, chief officers and chief engineers serving on UK vessels?
Dr. Mawhinney: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments, not least because he has particular cause to be distressed on behalf of his constituents as a result of the Braer tragedy, which was part of the prelude to setting up the Donaldson report. In terms of port state controls, I had noticed, as had others, that some of the ships detained were associated with classification societies. Once a pattern is established, that may be an issue to which we shall have to return, at least for discussion. I understand the hon. Gentleman's gently presented frustration about klondykers. We all share that frustration. When we have an opportunity to take action, we do so. Speaking from memory--I hope that it does not fail me--on one occasion, no fewer than five klondykers were detained in port for various reasons. So I do not want the hon. Gentleman to think that there has been an element of paralysis in dealing with that issue. However, we are constrained in the legal sense and, for that reason, I said that we would consult to see what other powers we might legitimately take, to add to the powers readily available to us.
The hon. Gentleman is right to stress the need for training. I would always wish to ensure that those involved in the dispensing of safety at sea were capable of doing the job, which relates to their ability to be trained to do the job.
Sir Malcolm Thornton (Crosby): May I add my congratulations to the Government on their response to the report, and to Lord Donaldson and his commission on the thorough way in which they looked at the problem of safety at sea? As a former river pilot, may I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to one of the most serious deficiencies of the safety at sea issue? Although it is some 16 years since I last piloted in anger, as it were, I can tell my right hon. Friend that standards of training and the competence of many of the ships that came under my control were a matter of the gravest concern then. I regard it as vital that that aspect is at the forefront of maintaining safety, not just around our coast, but internationally. Will my right hon. Friend pursue those matters with the Marine Safety Agency? Will he ensure that neither coastguard nor piloted services--two important elements in ensuring safety--are further eroded?
Dr. Mawhinney: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments, to which I listened carefully, given the experience on which he draws. I offer him my assurance that we treat the matter of training seriously. He may be encouraged to know that my Department has introduced two schemes: Government assistance for training at a cost of £3.5 million this year; and the development of a certified seafarers scheme at a cost of £1.5 million this year. Since the introduction of the former scheme in 1988, some 2,650 cadets have been recruited for training and no eligible candidate has ever been refused assistance. That is a small measure of our commitment to the matter to which my hon. Friend referred.
Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow): Given my belief that tankers should be kept well away from fragile fisheries and from fishing vessels that are going about their traditional activities, I am pleased that the Minister has accepted recommendation
Column 84761, which appears on pages 34 and 35 of the report, concerning the use of the deep water route west of Barra, Uist, Harris and Lewis and the intervening islands of the Western Isles.
However, I point out to the Minister that Lord Donaldson recommended originally that the captains of such vessels should be allowed to use the Minch in exceptional weather conditions. I believe that that is wholly wrong. In heavy weather, such ships should stand well clear of such a channel: they are much safer in the deep water. Will the Minister take on board--if he will forgive the pun--my view that those ships should stick to the deep water route and not enter the Minch, even in heavy weather?
Dr. Mawhinney: I recognise the experience and expertise that the hon. Gentleman brings to these matters. I pay tribute to that and to his long-standing interest in the subject. For that reason, if for no other, I shall take careful note of the point that he made.
Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight): My right hon. Friend will realise that the 200-mile extension that he announced today, which requires legislative backing, will be widely welcomed by the tourist resorts that front beaches in the south and south-west and that are up-wind of the prevailing south-westerlies, which bring polluting muck ashore.
Will my right hon. Friend comment on the fact that more than 60 per cent. of the world's shipping traffic plies its trade up and down the channel, yet, if I understand his statement correctly, it will not be covered by the regulations because it will be "in transit"? I commend to my right hon. Friend's Department the work that Esso has done at its Fawley refinery. For safety reasons, it now makes fast a tug to every oil tanker that enters and leaves the Solent.
Dr. Mawhinney: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments and I certainly note his final point. He is right to point out that the Dover straits are one of the busiest marine thoroughfares in the world. About 600 ships transverse or cross the straits each day and we must ensure that the standards that we have put in place are adhered to rigidly. I give my hon. Friend an undertaking that we will enforce those standards.
Mr. Roy Beggs (Antrim, East): As I represent a coastal constituency and the second busiest ferry port in the United Kingdom, I offer my thanks to Lord Donaldson and I welcome the Secretary of State's response to the report.
Will the international agreement that is being sought on the mandatory fitting of transponders apply to fishing vessels as well as merchant vessels? Could not that be a means of ultimately controlling the likely invasions by our European neighbours into our fishing waters?
Dr. Mawhinney: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not stray into the latter part of his question. He is right to point out the importance of trying to reach international agreement about the fitting of transponders. As I have said, if it proves necessary, we shall look to unilateral action on visual identification. However, it clearly makes more sense to put in place a widespread system that is widely recognised and therefore
Column 848widely policed in countries other than Britain. We shall continue to do all that we can to persuade our partners to adopt that point of view as quickly as possible.
Mr. David Shaw (Dover): Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, in conjunction with today's welcome news, his Department will ensure that the English channel remains one of the safest bodies of water in the world and that it will continue to be monitored carefully by the very good and effective coastguard service that is based in Dover? Will he also comment on the fact that the two tugs that he mentioned, which operate out of Dover port, were part of a contractual specification that was unnecessarily tightly drawn, and in consequence, foreign crews are employed and Dover port and harbour board has not had the opportunity to bid for and get that contract? Will he examine whether that contract could be respecified in future so that Dover harbour board could have every opportunity of bidding for the contract and employing British workers from Dover?
Dr. Mawhinney: I am happy to give my hon. Friend the assurance that he sought at the beginning of his question and to thank him for his appreciation of the work of the tugs. He will know that the contract to which he refers applies to this winter season. I am expecting a report-- probably in June--from the Coastguard Agency on whether the positioning of those tugs should be made a more permanent feature. Presumably, were that process to take place, the Coastguard Agency would have to generate a new contract. I shall ensure that, prior to the drawing up of the contract, my hon. Friend's comments are drawn to the attention of the chief executive of the agency.
Mr. Nick Ainger (Pembroke): Does the Secretary of State accept that, while I welcome the moves that he has taken in recommendation 62 in relation to my constituency, there still remains the serious problem of non -accidental discharges of oil in the English channel, the Irish sea and the North sea? The Secretary of State has not accepted recommendation 22, that those areas should be designated special areas where oily wastes are not legally allowed to be discharged from vessels, which would radically improve the beaches and coastlines around the United Kingdom. Will he reconsider his decision not to accept the recommendation now, but only to consider it at this stage?
Dr. Mawhinney: I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman made. I said at the beginning of my statement that we had accepted 86 of the 103 recommendations, we had rejected only four and we were considering the other 13. In that spirit, I shall reflect on what the hon. Gentleman said.
Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East): Does my hon. Friend accept that his statement will be warmly welcomed by tourist resorts on the south coast, not least Bournemouth, which relies on attracting a great many people to our beaches, producing thousands of jobs? Further to the concerns expressed in the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field), can he be more precise as to how tankers that discharge oil off our shores will be better detected in the light of his
Column 849announcement today, and can he tell us whether Donaldson gave any consideration to the development of satellite surveillance technology in that respect?
Dr. Mawhinney: I thank my hon. Friend for the point that he made. I hope that he will be encouraged to know that the current regulations have had a tightening effect on the discharge of oil over the years, so that it now constitutes only 5 per cent. of the waste that ships actually discharge at sea. He is right to point out that we need adequate surveillance arrangements. While I do not recall whether Lord Donaldson strayed into space technology, I know that we are going to stray into increasing the aerial surveillance of shipping by 25 per cent., precisely to meet the point that my hon. Friend raises.
Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus, East): Will the Minister confirm that he expects the industry to pay for these proposals under the "user pays" "polluter pays" principle? Will he state how consultation will take place and over what time scale?
Dr. Mawhinney: There were a variety of proposals in the Donaldson recommendations. Some of them will fall to Government, some to ship operators and some to port operators. We shall set out consultation documents in the normal way and provide adequate time for people to respond. However, I have not pre-determined the exact timetable. It will in part be determined by the speed and efficacy of our preliminary discussions with the industry, to shape the consultation document in the first place.
Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): Is my right hon. Friend aware that mariners of all nations have welcomed the experimental stationing of tugs around our shores during the winter? Is he in a position to form even a preliminary view of the success of that experiment and of the longer-term possibilities of franchising and other contractual arrangements, as laid out in some of Donaldson's recommendations?
Dr. Mawhinney: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He is right to draw the House's attention to the fact that Lord Donaldson has set not only the national agenda but, in a very real sense, the worldwide agenda. We shall seek to work in that spirit with our partners and to persuade them of the importance of his statements and
The tugs have been welcomed and have already been useful. Speaking from memory, I think that they have been involved in monitoring something like 22 incidents since they were put in place. All that experience will help the Coastguard Agency to draw up its proposals to be submitted to me in June, as to whether we should continue that particular exercise.
Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East): I am concerned that recommendation 54 still allows the masters of vessels to decide when pilotage will be necessary. Representing the port of Grangemouth, where many of the Forth ports pilots are based, and having been in their company on Friday, I know that they are also concerned about what might happen as a result. They believe that they, as the pilots, know the waters better than the masters, but the masters are not often willing to take them on board. As we know, there is one serious accident every year involving a pilot in European waters and several fatalities. They do a stalwart job. Their complaint concerns the problem of
Column 850speaking to the masters. I see that recommendation 20 is accepted only in principle, on the basis that the masters should be able to communicate with their officers and some of the officers may be expected to communicate with the crew--
Mr. Connarty: It is a question. The question is: cannot the Government do more in that respect because it seems to me that, by accepting the recommendation in principle, they leave open the possibility of a Tower of Babel situation on board a ship when it gets into trouble, which seems to concern the pilots greatly? If we do not come down hard and say that there must be a communication system that enables the proper running of a ship, there will never be safety in waters when crisis strikes.
Dr. Mawhinney: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point and am not surprised that the pilots would take that view. I hope that he will accept that, when I pay tribute to the work that they do, I do so sincerely, because they provide a professional and substantial contribution to safety around our shores. Equally, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that the master of the vessel is in a unique and legally important position. We need to be careful, especially in the House, in seeking to adjudicate between two sets of responsibilities. On the whole, practice suggests to me that the situation is not quite as dire as one might have deduced from the hon. Gentleman's question. However, it is an important issue and it is not one from which we shall turn away.
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle): May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his positive response to this full report? Will he place particular emphasis on recommendation 9 to encourage environmentally sensitive tankers, especially double-hull ones, in the calculation of port dues and on recommendation 27 to encourage reception facilities to reduce operational pollution at sea? Will he ensure that the Government continue to uphold international law and the rights of innocent passage?
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): On 17 May last year, at column 682 of the Official Report , I asked whether the proposals of George Livanos, the Greek shipowner, for a worldwide register of every accident were being considered. The Secretary of State's predecessor gave us to understand that they were. What progress has been made on such a register? Will the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), ask whether the Scottish Office is funding for a 10-year period--no less--the ocean floor benthic study of the consequences of what happened to the Braer?
Dr. Mawhinney: On the first question, I shall write to the hon. Gentleman. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will have heard the second question and will no doubt respond, as he has the responsibility.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Does the Minister agree that the Donaldson report is a reflection on a maritime disaster some time ago, and that Ministers must look forward if they can, to try to prevent other possible
Column 851disasters? In that context, does he agree that there is a problem in the English channel, particularly at present with Meridian Ferries, which employs Polish seafarers, undercutting British seamen? In the event of that situation becoming more explosive, as we already witnessed a fortnight ago, will he intervene to ensure that those Polish seafarers are not paid at about half the rate of British seafarers and, if necessary, replace them with people who would like a job in this country, to avert another crisis in which somebody such as Lord Donaldson would have to intervene later?
Dr. Mawhinney: Companies that are entitled under the law to trade should be permitted to do so. When others use illegal and bully-boy tactics to try to stop them, it is part of the responsibility of the Government, with their partners in the EU, to try to put in place regimes, regulations and conditions under which British companies can trade within the law. That, I would have thought, is a proposal that should have commended itself to the hon. Gentleman.
Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen): The Minister will be aware that a serious oil spill in the Solent would have disastrous ecological effects. Will he follow through the spirit of the Donaldson report and look at the dangers of oil pollution in the Solent, particularly from tankers visiting Fawley oil refinery, and give an assurance that he will ensure that the Marine Safety Agency does not allow standards in the tugs operating at that refinery to fall? The recent reletting of the contract led to a cut in manning levels on those tugs and gave rise to widespread local concern. Will he give me an absolute assurance that, in the spirit of the report, safety in the port will not be jeopardised by the commercial pressures coming from the refinery, and that safety levels will be maintained?
Dr. Mawhinney: I am happy to assure the hon. Gentleman that the Marine Safety Agency knows that I place the highest possible emphasis on safety and on taking all foreseeable and appropriate steps to prevent pollution occurring.
Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): May I welcome the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) on the Marine Safety Agency, and the comments of the Secretary of State on the detaining of ships? In that context, I ask him specifically whether he has had any consultations with his hon. Friends in the Home Office about the implications, particularly in the context of incidents such as that on the River Andoni, which is detained in my constituency, in which 50 Nigerian seamen are pawns in a game between the creditors and the owners of the vessel. What steps has the Minister taken to protect the interests of those innocent people?
Dr. Mawhinney: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. He will understand that my responsibility as Secretary of State for Transport relates to the safety of the vessel. It does not relate to industrial disputes that may take place between those who are employed on the vessel and the employers. I can certainly assure the hon. Gentleman that my Department remains in close touch with the Home Office on such matters.
Statutory Instruments, &c.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 101(3) (Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments, &c.), That the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1994 (S.I., 1994, No. 3159) be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.-- [Dr. Liam Fox.]
Question agreed to.
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make new provision for the distribution of seats at parliamentary elections.
Such matters are always of keen interest to hon. Members, and the Bill is timely for several reasons, the first of which is a practical matter. Quite simply, with 651 UK constituencies and seven more planned by the Boundary Commission, there are too many Members of Parliament at the Palace of Westminster for the facilities available. Although it is true that new buildings can be provided, they are ever further away. Although many hon. Members are known to be quick on their feet in debate, only accomplished runners such as my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Coe) are quick enough to get here to the Division Lobbies consistently within eight minutes from offices in the nether regions of Millbank. The time has come to halt and reverse the inexorable growth in the number of Members of Parliament. If the United States Senate can manage with 100 members and the House of Representatives with 435, surely we could manage with fewer than 651.
My Bill is designed to reduce the number of constituencies in the United Kingdom by the application of fair and consistent principles. The opportunity to achieve that now arises, because the Pandora's box of constitutional reform has been opened by the Labour party, with its fear of the Scottish National party. A recent briefing note from the Labour party states, in plain federalist terms, that
"Labour is committed to a Parliament in Scotland within a decentralised and democratic European Union."
I strongly believe that Britain's future in the European Union should be as a unitary nation state, but I think it only fair to those who believe in the Balkanisation of Britain to spell out clearly, in advance, the consequences of Labour's policies in terms of representation at Westminster.
My Bill sets out a formula to do that. It comes in two parts. The first part recognises that the inherent unfairness to England and Northern Ireland of the present arrangements cannot be sustained, irrespective of other constitutional developments. The average constituency in England consists of 69,534 electors; in Northern Ireland the figure is 67,145, but in Wales it is 58,383 and in Scotland it is only 54,741.
That is an arbitrary and outdated judgment, arising from the House of Commons (Redistribution of Seats) Act 1958 rather than from any reasonable reflection of our times. Before the Act, there was a common electoral quota for the whole United Kingdom; so why do we not return to that eminently sensible arrangement? Are the Scots today so much more difficult to represent that they need a 27 per cent. advantage in the size of their constituencies? I suspect that the Member of Parliament's postbag from Dover is every bit as daunting as that from Dundee, that Falmouth's is as full as Falkirk's and Harrogate's as heavy as Hamilton's.
Can it be, then, that Scottish Members of Parliament are inherently less active than their English counterparts? Perish the thought. The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell)--who in an earlier manifestation bequeathed us
Column 854the West Lothian question--is one of the most active Members in the House, and my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) one of the most vocal.
Is it that Scottish constituencies are more geographically challenged than English ones? I feel some sympathy in regard to the travel arrangements of the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace), and the problems of others who represent diverse island communities should also be recognised. That aside, however, the physical size of Skipton and Ripon, and of Richmond in Yorkshire, is the same as that of most rural seats in Scotland- -and how can that argument be stretched to the cities, where the bulk of the population lives?
At the last election Glasgow had a total electorate of 518,716, for which it had 11 constituencies. That is an average per constituency of 47,156. Leeds had a larger electorate, at 529,127, but only eight constituencies, with an average of 66,141 electors. Where is the justice in that? Can it be justified on historic grounds? Should former independent kingdoms be given special consideration? Here I must admit an interest: my constituency, Elmet, is an ancient kingdom. Admittedly it existed for only 60 years in the seventh century, but, as we are constantly hearing, sovereignty is an elusive and enduring concept. On a Scottish model, perhaps we should have two Members of Parliament for Elmet; attractive as the thought may be, however, I do not think that it will commend itself to the House. My Bill therefore restores the standard electoral quota for all parts of the UK, such as we enjoyed before 1958, without any guaranteed minimum number of seats. In doing that, we should not lose the opportunity to reduce the size of Parliament. I would therefore fix the standard electoral quota for the UK at the largest present individual quota: the English figure of just over 69,000. That would have the effect of reducing the overall number of Members of Parliament from 651 to 629. Henceforth, that should be the maximum number of Members. Future increases in population should increase the standard electoral quota rather than the number of Members. Under those proposals, the representation of England and Northern Ireland would remain unchanged. Welsh Members would be reduced from 38 to 32, and Scottish Members from 72 to 56. That removes the unfairness in our present arrangements, while providing for equal representation for equal votes.
It is not, however, the end of the matter. The second part of my proposals is an attempt to answer the West Lothian question. An hon. Member, whose strong and logical opposition to a Scottish Parliament I share, asked how, if areas of policy were devolved, he as a Scottish Member at Westminster could
"be party to collective decision making on education in Accrington but be precluded from such matters in Armadale in Scotland, housing in Blackburn, Lancashire, but not Blackburn, West Lothian." As recently as February 1992, the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) took it further. He said:
"Once we have a Scottish Parliament handling Scottish home affairs in Scotland, it is not possible for me to act as Minister of Health, administering health in England and Wales."
Quite so. The subterfuge of foisting unwanted regional assemblies on England will not make the problem go away.