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Session 2001- 02
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Merchant Shipping (Safety of Navigation) Regulations 2002

Third Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation

Tuesday 22 October 2002

[Mr. Win Griffiths in the Chair]

Merchant Shipping (Safety of Navigation) Regulations 2002

4.30 pm

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the Merchant Shipping (Safety of Navigation) Regulations 2002 (S.I., 2002, No. 1473).

It is a double pleasure, Mr. Griffiths, to appear under your chairmanship twice in one day. Indeed, it is a great pleasure to see the Minister again.

The international convention for the safety of life at sea, particularly chapter V, was agreed some time ago. However, it will come as no surprise to the Minister that the industry is greatly concerned about the system to be implemented under the regulations. As a result, the Opposition are praying against the regulations and exploring that concern.

I do not suggest today something that I often say about statutory instruments—that it is a gold-plating measure, so I can park that idea to one side. However, the proposed system gives rise to a number of questions. I am relatively new to this brief, although I served on the Transport Sub-Committee of the Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions and was a Member of the European Parliament. I used to meet at Trinity house wearing my hat as the MEP for the constituency that included Harwich, which I always found illuminating. Will the Minister explain the precise criteria against which this system was chosen? It would be extremely helpful if he shared that information with the Committee, as it would enable us to decide whether to support the regulations. What representations were received about the two systems that were available at the time?

My first concern—I hope that the Minister can satisfy me on this point—is whether the regulations provide the best system. I understand that in both military and in shipping terms, the criteria on negotiating a contract for tender are value for money, delivery time and quality. All other things being equal, I am sure that the Minister would want a system that best met the needs of the British maritime industry. Is this the best system? Is it the most secure system and the most reliable?

Perhaps the gravest criticism that could be made of the system is mentioned by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which refers to the fact that it is untried and untested. That concerns me greatly. A memorandum entitled ''The Control of Sea Traffic'' states at paragraph 18 that Mr. Maurice Storey, chief executive of the agency, wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) saying:

    ''In his 1994 Report 'Safer Ships, Cleaner Seas' following the loss of the Braer off Shetland in January 1993, Lord Donaldson of Lymington recommended the speedy introduction of automatic ship identification systems—or transponders—to improve the ability of

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    coastal states to monitor and track shipping off their shores. Aircraft have carried similar systems for decades.''

In quoting, I want to reveal some of the confusion about the type of system that has been chosen. The reference about the system being new, untried and untested comes from ''Safety of Navigation: Implementing SOLAS V, 2002''. Annexe 17 relates to automatic identification systems and, under the heading ''General'', refers to the guidance of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and the International Maritime Organisation guidelines:

    ''AIS is a new and untried system, but with the potential to make a significant contribution to safety. It is particularly important therefore that during the early years of implementation its potential is fully assessed by mariners, taking full account of the MCA Guidance and the IMO Guidelines. The MCA will welcome feedback on the use of AIS from ships or companies.''

The issue is a serious one, and the Minister owes the Committee and the House some real facts. There is a potential hazard in the system. It does not always read what it is expected to read. I gather that it involves a more global view than the alternative system, but that its accuracy is questionable.

It has been put to me informally that the radar system is probably technically better than the new system agreed by the IMO. The new system entails a slight risk of misleading someone on the bridge—you or I, Mr. Griffiths, would probably avoid going there in the relevant circumstances—about the speed of the other vessel. I am sure that the Government have been alerted to the safety concerns about the system on more than one occasion. It has been put to me that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency will have to address the danger in its guidance notes. I am uneasy that the Government have left the matter of allaying seafarers' fears on this issue to be dealt with in guidance notes. The Opposition have been alerted to a potential danger.

Vale of York is a landlocked constituency, although we have some waterways of which we are extremely proud, but North Yorkshire has a large coastline, and the Humber region has several important cross-channel and cross-North sea routes so I have a concern with respect to civilian passengers and the military. There is clearly a regrettable loophole in the system.

I think that as such points have been made to me, it is incumbent on the Minister to share with the Committee precisely what consultations he has engaged in with mariners and seafarers about this matter, with its potentially tragic consequences, and what representations he has received. Why have the Government concluded that the system in question is the best one? Is the Minister aware of the damning reference that I mentioned? Why are the Government minded to proceed in spite of that?

I do not suggest that the Minister or the Government have acted with undue haste, but would it not be better to have a moratorium until both systems have been tried and tested to seafarers' satisfaction? Why is there a rush? Could we not apply for a short-term delay until we have satisfied ourselves? It would clearly be on the Minister's and the Government's conscience if the system led to a

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collision at sea. Does he not think that it would be better to wait and introduce the best system for all concerned after the appropriate tests have been carried out?

Aircraft already have a radar system, not a satellite navigation system. Therefore the radar system that has been put to me—I am sure that it has been put to the Minister as well—is the best available tried and tested system. That was confirmed in the earlier correspondence that I mentioned from Maurice Storey.

It is not for Conservative Members to sit in judgment on the best system, as we do not have all the material available. Even from where we sit, however, a body of evidence from the sea safety group, the associate parliamentary maritime group and the parliamentary maritime review sets out some of the concerns in great detail. I gather that the sea safety group was set up by practising mariners, and it has some sympathy with choosing the radar system that has been tried and tested rather than the new system.

The system detailed in the regulations may not be the best system. I am pleased that there is this opportunity for the Minister to allay our fears on it. We want the safest possible system to identify ships at sea. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency obviously has several options to choose from, including radar, light, satellite communications and even voice radio, which might be more difficult to identify.

I have a final question. Will the Minister share with us what pressure was applied by the United States, which insists on bridge-to-bridge communication? That might be more the custom in US waters than in those of this country. Might that pressure have overridden a system that could have been more acceptable in certain British quarters?

The system detailed in the regulations has clearly identified potential technical difficulties. I have detected that some mariners are against it, and I want the Minister to put our minds at rest about that.

4.43 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson): It was a pleasure to appear in Committee this morning for the first time under your chairmanship, Mr. Griffiths, but to appear three times in one day can be described only as a luxury. We have served on many Committees together in this Room in years gone by, and I welcome the opportunity to serve under your chairmanship three times in one day.

I will outline the Government's position on the matter, and what I say will answer some of the points made by the hon. Lady. I will then go into some of the detailed points that she made. I welcome the opportunity to discuss the regulations. To explain the need for them, I want to give some background information.

The United Kingdom is a member of the International Maritime Organisation and a signatory to the international convention for the safety of life at sea, commonly known as SOLAS. Chapter V of

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SOLAS relates to the safety of navigation and establishes the international standards at which commercial ships are equipped to navigate safely throughout most of the world. The chapter is wide-ranging. For example, a ship's master has an obligation to assist ships or persons in distress. There are obligations on Governments, such as broadcasting navigational warnings and weather forecasts, coastal surveillance and the rescue of persons in distress in the sea around their coasts. They must also ensure that their ships have suitable crews on board. Chapter V also defines the navigation equipment to be fitted to merchant ships.

The previous version of chapter V came into force in 1980. In 1992 it was decided that a thorough revision was necessary to incorporate improved technical equipment for navigation. The revisions were to come into force on 1 July 2002. The new chapter has been designed to take better account of the human factors, based on the recognition that most navigational accidents are influenced by human error.

Merchant ships rely on electronic instruments for safe navigation. The revision of chapter V reflects the technological changes of the past decade. Some 30 new and revised performance standards for equipment were prepared. Those will apply to new ships, but three new devices—the electronic positioning fixing system, the automatic identification systems and the voyage data recorders—are to be fitted to some existing ships. The revision also includes the optional use of electronic charts for the first time.

The electronic positioning fixing system is already carried by most ships as part of their global maritime distress and safety systems—another acronym, the GMDSS. The voyage data recorder is a standard item of equipment in aircraft and will assist accident investigators in determining the cause of accidents. The United Kingdom has long pressed for its introduction.

I turn to the automatic identification systems that the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) spoke about. There is an increasing need to be able to identify ships that are beyond visual range. Following early trials with radar transponders, as used by aircraft, radio transponders were introduced for use on tankers in the Prince William sound in the United States in the early 1990s, following the Exxon Valdez grounding. Those early radio-based transponders enabled ships to signal their identity and position. They have now been developed to a performance standard known as the universal automatic identification system, which provides information such as the ship's identity, the type, the position, the course, the speed and the navigational status. That standard has been agreed to by the IMO and can operate in three ways: for ship-to-ship signalling; for shore-based vessel traffic services; and for responding to interrogation for identification from shore stations.

The United Kingdom has keenly supported the introduction of UAIS at the IMO. The new chapter V of SOLAS brings new equipment into ships to reduce bridge workload and provides safer navigation. The automatic identification system gives coastguards the ability to have much more knowledge about the ships

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in United Kingdom waters. The voyage data recorder gives the marine accident investigation branch more information about the events leading up to an accident.

In the main, the United Kingdom regulations replace a number of regulations and associated guidelines, implementing the old chapter V of SOLAS. In general, ships already in service can continue complying with the previous chapter V requirements, except for the three new pieces of equipment that I referred to earlier.

The revisions to chapter V followed a full and lengthy debate at the IMO. UK policy is to keep industry informed of developments through briefing meetings, and committees with representatives from industry and technical organisations—in the case under discussion, a committee specialising in safety of navigation. During the IMO process for chapter V, the UK received no objection from United Kingdom ship owners or from any other party. Similarly, very few adverse comments were received in response to the public consultation on the proposed United Kingdom regulations.

As a contracting Government, the United Kingdom should meet its obligations under the SOLAS convention. We must implement the international requirements in their entirety. I am aware that there are some advocates of an alternative form of automatic identification system based on radar rather than radio, to which the hon. Lady referred. They would question the inclusion of the UAIS as a requirement in our legislation. We have no choice in the matter, however. As a consequence of omitting requirements for certain equipment, or of UK ships adopting an alternative to UAIS, ships flying the ensign could not enter overseas ports or would be detained there following the safety inspection. The Government would be unable to honour its agreement to the recommendation made by Lord Donaldson in his report entitled ''Safer Ships, Cleaner Seas'' that the Government press for a worldwide vessel identification system. Furthermore, there is now a European Union directive requiring ships to carry AIS and non-compliance would lead to infraction proceedings.

Since the disaster in the United States on 11 September last year and recent tragic events in Yemen and Bali, there is a need for improved security, including maritime security. That is of primary importance to a littoral state such as Great Britain. AIS has a major part to play in monitoring traffic passing our shores and entering our ports. The United Kingdom, as a signatory to SOLAS and as a member state of IMO, must meet its obligations, which requires implementing all the provisions of chapter V of SOLAS. The UK regulations are non-controversial and do no more than implement chapter V, as agreed in the IMO.

Full consultation has taken place, both in the development of the international requirements and the UK regulations, and few adverse comments on the regulations have been received. Only one adverse comment related to the choice of AIS adopted by the

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IMO. The use of any alternative forms of AIS by our ships would either prevent them operating internationally, thus harming overseas trade, or cause them the additional expense of fitting both types of system simultaneously. The UAIS will be instrumental in monitoring traffic around our shores and play an essential part in security measures. The purpose of the regulations is the promotion of safety in all aspects of navigation, as the title suggests.

The hon. Lady that her constituency was land-locked. I assure her that Plymouth is actually quite near the sea, as are St. Ives and some other constituencies represented by hon. Members in this Committee. She asked about the development of the UAIS. The discussion went on for 20 years, and there have been a large number of discussions here and internationally. She asked, too, whether we had chosen the best system and whether it was secure and reliable, to which the answer is yes.

The hon. Lady asked about the accuracy of the system. One of its many advantages over the radar-based system is that it is more able to read around headlands, coastlines and across obstacles, so it has a better feel for the environment than the radar automatic identification system. In answer to her question, it has not been tried and tested, but there has been a considerable amount of development in that area. One area in which further development is needed is in ship-to-ship communication.

The hon. Lady asked whether we might consider using both systems but, as I have just explained, the expense of having both systems aboard the ship would cause a problem. Another problem is that the system would be of little use if it were not operated in other parts of the world where our ships were travelling. The hon. Lady said that she was less experienced in these matters than others, but even with limited experience she will know that shipping is an international business and mostly governed by international agreement. Therefore, we have no option but to meet the standards set down internationally. As I said earlier, we would debar our ships from entering foreign ports if the standards were not met. She asked how many objections were made to the system. I believe that only one person abdicated from it and made observations; all the others were silent during the consultation.

The hon. Lady asked what consultation had taken place with the industry and seafarers. The revisions to chapter V were made following a lengthy debate at the IMO. United Kingdom policy has always been to keep the industry informed of developments through committees and briefing meetings with representatives of the industry and technical organisations—in this case, a committee specialising in safety of navigation. During the IMO process for chapter V, the UK received no objections from UK shipowners or any other party, and few adverse comments were received.

I have been asked why we do not wait until alternative systems have been tried and tested. We are required by our treaty obligations to implement the agreed global system, and if we do not, we will be left behind.

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There has been no pressure from the United States on bridge-to-bridge communications. The United States has been most interested in the use of automatic identification systems for coastal surveillance, just as we are.

I hope what I have said has been helpful. If the hon. Lady or others wish to raise other points, I shall be happy to respond in the best way that I can.

4.55 pm


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