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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 8 January 2003

[Mr. Frank Cook in the Chair]

Marine Pollution

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Charlotte Atkins.]

9.30 am

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this subject and I am delighted to see other hon. Members in the Chamber. The timing of the debate was instigated by the Prestige disaster and the problems of oil spills at sea. Today is a poignant anniversary given that, 10 years ago, on 5 January, the Braer ran aground on the Shetland Isles. I am pleased to see that the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) is present, and I hope that he will remind us of what that disaster meant for the local communities.

Unfortunately, there are discharges from vessels all the time as there are from oil and gas rigs. In 2001, 678 polluting discharges were registered by the Advisory Committee on Protection of the Sea. In one way that was encouraging given that there were 743 discharges in the previous year. Of the 678 discharges, 71 per cent. were from offshore oil and gas installations; 11 per cent. from fishing vessels, 5 per cent. from general cargo ships and 4 per cent. from oil and chemical tankers. Such figures put some matters in perspective, but the real problem is that when an oil tanker, in particular, has an accident, runs aground or breaks up, the ecological damage is huge. That sort of disaster comes to everyone's attention.

Ecological disasters and problems have strong safety implications. Each time a ship runs aground, lives are at risk. Marine accidents cost human lives throughout the world. There is an average annual loss of 350 seafarers. Perhaps it is a reflection of today's world that the loss of seafarers' lives does not grab as much attention as pictures of oiled sea birds and devastated fishing communities. While that will be the main thrust of my speech, it is beholden upon us to recognise the safety implications for human life and the fact that some ships should not be at sea. I am talking not only about their effect on our environment, but people's lives are put at risk by what, on land, would be called cowboy operators.

The European Union blacklisted 66 ships that face a port access ban, 26 of which fly the flag of Turkey. Twelve sail under the flag of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, nine fly the flag of Cambodia and three the flag of Algeria. Of those ships, 49 are bulk carriers, eight are chemical tankers and eight oil tankers and there is one passenger vessel. It is a fact of life that the marine environment and the marine industry are international. One reads about such vessels, although relatively few are operating. We would be less than happy if MOTs in our country were issued by a Liberian authority.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): I apologise. Owing to the new timetable and the fact that the parliamentary

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Labour party meets at 10 am, I cannot stay in Westminster Hall. May I record that it is a crying shame that the other place scuppered the hon. Gentleman's Bill on the marine environment? I hope that that measure will be brought back in one form or another during this Session.

Mr. Randall : I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I place on the record my gratitude for the work that has been done by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and for the assurances that it has given. The Department might not be working towards all of the measures that I had hoped would be included. It might, however, even make an improvement because a private Member's Bill, by its nature, is not able to do all the things that primary legislation does. I am looking forward to that, and I shall be happy to give the Government my support.

Recent incidents have illustrated the seriousness of oil spills and the impact that those can have on a marine environment. We have seen the high-profile disaster involving the oil tanker Prestige off the Galician coast. Of course, we know that the impact of that has not only devastated that coastline—it is now finding its way up to the Atlantic coast of France. That underlines that the issue must be tackled internationally, although I hope that we in the United Kingdom will be able to implement some measures on our own.

Ports of refuge could be prepared and made available throughout the EU to mitigate the problems that we saw when the Prestige first got into difficulties, but I understand the problems in respect of ports of refuge. People might say, "That's a jolly good idea, but we don't want one near us." However, we should consider whether some of the ships in trouble could be taken to a particular place, rather than be left at sea because no one wanted to get near them.

The Prestige case had a high profile, but in the past two months there have been some less high-profile pollution problems. For example, significant numbers of oiled sea birds were washed up on the East Anglian coast in late 2002. Such incidents exemplify a more difficult problem and we need more action at both national and international levels to try to tackle it.

Many hon. Members are hoping to catch your eye, Mr. Cook, so I will not dwell for too long on the impacts on the seabird population—the facts are self-evident. We have all seen television news items of poor, wretched creatures: auks, guillemots, razorbills and some of the sea ducks, including long-tailed ducks and scoters. Birds that dive into the water or that swim on the surface are most vulnerable to oil slicks.

There is a human cost, as we have seen in Galicia, Orkney and Shetland, resulting from oil spills on fisheries. The last restrictions on fishing were lifted only a full seven years after the Braer ran aground on Shetland, so it is apparent that the impact is not only on the simple ecology, but on people's lives. As we know, fishing communities are suffering greatly. Even from the inland security of Uxbridge, I am well aware that fishing communities all around our islands are in crisis. A major oil spill may be the final straw.

Some people have suggested there should be environmental incentives such as those in the Merchant Shipping and Fishing Vessels (Port Waste Reception

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Facilities) Regulations 2002 that came into force on 28 December 2002, which promote the polluter pays principle. I hope that the regulations will have an impact.

A satellite monitoring tracking system for identifying oil spills was trialled between August 2000 and August 2001 and considered a success by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. I would be pleased to hear of any new movement by the Government to make more of that trial. If oil spills could be found and tracked more quickly, it might be possible to alleviate problems earlier.

There has been much talk about single-hulled oil tankers and the need for tankers to be double-hulled. It would be great if we could get single-hulled tankers out of European Union waters, but they would only end up going somewhere else and becoming someone else's problem. The international community should seriously examine such vessels, which, from a layman's point of view, perhaps should not be at sea at all.

We must try to ensure that vessels that could cause problems are kept well away from areas of environmental sensitivity. In response to a question about when the second round of consultation on marine environment high-risk areas would take place, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport replied in a written answer that he expected

I am grateful for that positive development, but disappointed that it has taken so long. Lord Donaldson recommended the establishment of a network of high-risk areas in his 1994 inquiry that followed the running aground of the Braer in 1993. Vessels carrying dangerous cargoes would be routed away from the United Kingdom's most sensitive coastal sites and the most hazardous shipping areas. That brings us to another problem that we have seen recently, when a ship has gone down and other vessels, despite being given clear warning from what I have seen in the press, still manage to hit the wreckage. We should look towards getting such vessels away from our most sensitive coastal sites.

There are also questions surrounding the ratification of various international conventions, but we must ensure that these conventions work. It is one thing for them to be written down; it is another to make sure that they are implemented. Although the Government sometimes think that they can do everything and rather like to say that they can, the problem cannot be solved overnight. It must be considered internationally and from an EU position. The issue is important. The marine environment has been a Cinderella for so long that action must be taken because a major disaster on the UK coast is just a stone's throw away.

9.45 am

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): I am pleased to take part in the debate at short notice, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) on securing it at such a relevant time. We have seen the Prestige disaster unfold before our eyes and, more recently, the Tricolor was stranded in the channel, and is likely to stay there for a few weeks yet.

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I have taken an interest in marine safety, and am the promoter of the Marine Safety Bill, a private Member's Bill, which has already been mentioned. I should like to trail that Bill, and hope that the hon. Member for Uxbridge and other hon. Members present will support it. Its Second Reading will be on 28 February, and I hope that thereafter it will be discussed in detail in Committee.

The recent sinking of the Prestige highlighted the importance of the United Kingdom being ready to respond to maritime incidents at very short notice. When a ship gets into difficulties, there is a narrow window of time in which effective action can be taken. Outside that narrow window, action is much more difficult, and terrible disasters can occur, such as those that have happened off the Spanish and French coasts.

My Bill, which I hope to take through all the parliamentary stages, will promote effective emergency action in two main ways. First, it will confer powers on the Secretary of State to give directions to owners and operators of facilities used by ships such as berths, wharfs and jetties to make those facilities available for reducing or preventing pollution and safety hazards to ships. Secondly, it will allow fire-fighting authorities to charge for activities at sea that are outside their usual area of authority.

The Department for Transport told me yesterday that, fortunately, there are now fewer incidents around British coastal waters. We should congratulate those responsible for safety at sea on that fact, which comes despite a significant increase in the volume of shipping entering British ports and harbours. Oil is the main, but not the sole, pollution problem; many ships carry other dangerous cargoes, including dangerous chemicals, and those that are not so dangerous but lead to pollution at sea.

I shall give one example of a ship in difficulty that my Bill would, I hope, have tackled. Not that long ago, a tanker coming into a private wharf had a small engine fire on board. In the opinion of British authorities, the oil cargo of that ship could have been unloaded on the jetty. We should remember that some jetties are quite a way from the coast; they stretch out to sea so that the ship can be attached by snorkel and pipeline to the coastal facility.

The company involved, which I shall not name today—I shall probably name it during our debates on the Marine Safety Bill—insisted that the ship be towed out to sea. It did so for economic reasons, namely that the ship would have tied up the jetty for perhaps several days, if not weeks, if the fire became more serious. As I have said, the fire was in the engine room, so the engine was not completely co-operative. The ship was towed out to sea in worsening weather conditions. It could be argued that that was irresponsible. If it had been towed out in very difficult weather conditions with fire fighting going on, which often involves pumping water on to a ship, the water would not have escaped. That water would have added weight to an already fully laden ship, and there could have been a serious disaster. I am told that fire fighting can often sink a ship due to the amount of water that goes on board.

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The Government do not have the authority to commandeer shore operations such as wharves and jetties—or even coastline, if it is needed—to deal with a disaster in British coastal waters. That is unsatisfactory. If my Bill is enacted, it will enable the Government, through the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and the Secretary of State's representative—who is usually known as SOSREP—to commandeer such private onshore facilities when the coastguards alert them to a ship that is in trouble. Not only the British Government but all Governments should have the authority to do that. Sometimes ships are in difficult positions around our coastline, and they are not always in a harbour or close to a jetty. If we come to debate my Bill in Committee, we shall discuss many more instances of ships in trouble. As we are in London, it might be relevant to point out that all the wharves and jetties in the port of London are privately owned. This city is still a major port, and it is clear that it needs the provisions that are set out in the Bill.

The second part of my Bill addresses fire fighting. County and city brigades only have the authority to fight fires within their jurisdiction. Of course, they cross boundaries onshore, but I am told that their jurisdiction ends at the low water level. Beyond that, their authority is not the same as it is onshore. Difficulties arise from that fact and from other technical reasons for fire-fighting operators. They are less likely to fight fires because of them, and because it is hard for them to recover their costs from shipowners through their insurance companies. My Bill will make it much easier to recover costs, so that fire-fighting authorities with a lot of experience in fighting fires both onshore and offshore will continue to train their staff to a high level and be ready to deal with any ships on fire that are in British coastal waters. With the sort of experience they have, they could even be used to fight fires in the English channel, in co-operation with authorities across the channel.

My interest in ship safety arose as a result of the sinking of the MV Derbyshire in the Pacific ocean many years ago. We have now had a full inquiry into the sinking of that ship: some people believe that the first inquiry was a whitewash, but the Government reopened it and the truth about the sinking of the MV Derbyshire is now out.

The all-party group of which I am an executive member has now converted itself into an all-party group that is interested in safety at sea, and that includes pollution. I encourage Members who are not members of the group to join us. We are campaigning for improved ship safety, and I must praise the Government for doing quite a lot to improve that. In recent weeks, there have been announcements through meetings of the International Maritime Organisation and other authorities; things are beginning to move. International co-operation is needed, and those of us who are involved in politics know how difficult it is to collaborate with other countries, some of which do not share the high standards of the British Government.

I will not refer in detail to the things that would improve ship safety. One of them has been mentioned. Ships carrying dangerous cargoes—especially oil tankers and tankers carrying liquid chemicals—should be double-skinned. That is essential. All warships, of

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course, have double skins. If the first skin is penetrated, the second may not be and it may be possible to preserve the cargo intact.

A "Panorama" programme a few weeks ago dealt with what seems to have sunk the Derbyshire and many other ships: heavy water cascading down on to the ship in storms and smashing the deck facilities, especially the hatch covers. Moves are now afoot to introduce international regulations to strengthen hatch covers; not only the forward hatch covers but all of them, along the length of the ship. The ships in question are extremely long and when the captain is on the bridge in a storm he cannot see what is happening all the way along the ship. The inquiry that considered the Derbyshire disaster recommended that CCTV cameras be fitted. There would still be difficulties in a storm, but fitting cameras down the length of the ship would at least make some observation possible.

Weather forecasting has improved tremendously with the use of satellites. Indeed, swarms of satellites, rather like swarms of bees, can now measure wave heights all around the world and transmit that information to national centres of weather forecasting. Navigational aids have improved, especially on the most modern ships.

Why do we fit black boxes in aircraft but not in ships? When aircraft crash we recover the black boxes and examine the information that they have recorded immediately prior to the disaster. The black box is used in a full inquiry into an air disaster. Unfortunately, that does not yet happen with shipping worldwide. The all-party group is campaigning for the fitting of black boxes, certainly to new ships, and I believe that the Government are interested in the idea. It might be difficult to retrofit black boxes to existing shipping.

I am told by friends in Liverpool who are sailors and have sailed on some of the worst shipping in the world in their time, that after about 15 years some bulk carriers—it is those vessels that we are particularly concerned about—are literally rust buckets. They should not be at sea. They should be scrapped. However, sailors tell me that these rust buckets are still floating around the world. When the decks corrode, it is common practice with some flagged-out authority shipping to put tarpaulin over the deck hull and paint it the same colour as the deck. That is entirely unacceptable. Ships like that—there are more than a few sailing today—should not be given a licence to sail.

Full investigation should take place after every shipping disaster, whether minor or major, and we should learn from disasters. The general public have seen a long list of oil tankers from the Torrey Canyon to the Prestige going down, polluting the coasts of many countries. We do not seem to learn from these disasters. Full shipping inquiries should point all countries towards improving ships' safety.

It is also important for Governments to be given the powers—I am not sure whether the British Government have such powers, but I suspect that they do—to refuse to accept dangerous ships into their waters. If all countries were given, through international agreements, powers not to accept into their ports and harbours or anywhere near their coastlines dangerous shipping of the kind to which I have referred, shipowners would have to scrap it, or at the very least improve its safety.

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I have presented a small trailer to my Bill, and I urge all hon. Members to support it, because it is too important to be a missed opportunity.

9.58 am

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) on securing what he described as a timely debate; it is especially timely as viewed from my constituency. I congratulate him also on what he said. He rightly made the link between marine pollution and the standards practised, all too commonly, by the merchant shipping industry. That point was taken up also by the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), and I shall examine some aspects of that link. I shall be most interested to hear what the Minister has to say in reply to a debate that has been essentially about transport; I am sure that we all await his speech with some interest.

As the hon. Member for Uxbridge said, it is almost 10 years—the anniversary was on Monday—since the Braer ran aground off the south coast of Shetland. The devastation caused was unimaginable, given that it is difficult to gain access to the area where the ship ran aground and that a hurricane had been running for 10 days. As it happened, the hurricane solved many of the problems immediately, because the Gulfaks crude that the Braer was carrying was fairly light oil and easily dispersed in the poor weather.

The great rule that is supposed always to be applied to such cases is that the polluter should pay. Unfortunately, that has a hollow ring for a number of my constituents. A goodly number of people in the south of Shetland had roofs of asbestos tiles, which were damaged and effectively made unserviceable. I have bored this chamber at length on the subject, and I do not intend to dwell on it today, but I wish to place on record again the conduct of the International Oil Pollution Compensation funds in relation to the litigation subsequently entered into by the asbestos roof complainants.

That litigation failed because the IOPC played what I, as a lawyer, would term litigation hard ball; it refused to allow the Braer roof claimants access to the reports that had been compiled on the fund's behalf in the immediate aftermath of the Braer's grounding. Much of the information in those reports had been provided by the roof claimants themselves, but when they needed that information to substantiate their claim, the IOPC refused them access to it, which, in strict legal terms, it was entitled to do. As recently as Monday, Mr. Joe Nicholls of the IOPC was quoted in the Aberdeen Press and Journal as saying that there has been no cover-up. If he is saying to the people of Shetland, "I am from the IOPC: trust me," he will be given a fairly frosty response. Frankly, they do not; they feel that they have been badly done by. If there is no cover-up, I must ask again why the IOPC continues to refuse to put the reports into the public domain.

I should pay tribute to the fact that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson), visited Shetland last year and met the asbestos roof complainants.

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Unfortunately, I am not satisfied that he or his officials fully understand the legal position, inasmuch as they keep citing Lord Gill's judgment; he referred to the author of the reports, who was a witness in the case but who could not be a witness to the contents of the reports. That information remains outwith the public domain.

I intend to visit Galicia later this month, to see some of the damage that has been done and to share with the local communities some of the difficulties that my constituents experienced in coping with the aftermath of an oil spill, in particular in dealing with the IOPC. We have a saying in Scotland that one needs a long-handled spoon to sup with the devil. I think that one needs a long-handled spoon to sup with the IOPC. I shall warn the Galicians to make clear to the IOPC the basis on which any information is provided to them.

Other hon. Members have referred to the sinking of the Prestige. If I had to sum up in one word what I feel about it, that word would have to be "depressing". It is truly scandalous that 10 years after the Braer, virtually the same thing could happen again. The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East spoke about 15-year-old rust buckets. The Prestige was 26 years old. It was a single hulled tanker, owned in Greece through Liberia, registered in the Bahamas, classed in the United States of America, chartered by a Swiss-based Russian company that has offices in London and crewed by Greek and Filipino sailors. The Prestige was a floating indictment of the current state of the merchant shipping industry. The people who are feeling the adverse effects are not Greek, Liberian or Bahamian or from Switzerland, the United States, Russia or the United Kingdom. They are the people of Galicia, and my heart goes out to them when I see what they are suffering.

How do incidents such as the Braer, the Erica, the Prestige and the Torrey Canyon keep happening? They happen because they can. We tolerate on the high seas things that we would never dream of tolerating on dry land. The bottom line is that self-regulation of the maritime industry does not work. An agreed, enforceable system of international standards is needed. Owners and operators cannot be allowed to hide behind reclassifications and reflagging, as they currently do. I commend, in particular, the most recent edition of the NUMAST Telegraph, which includes a 22 or 23-point recipe for radical reform of the shipping industry.

I shall draw attention to a few of those points. The first is that there should be mandatory third-party liability insurance for merchant shipping. Some hon. Members might think it remarkable that that is not already the case. One has to have third-party liability insurance in order to take on to the street a car that might do a few hundred thousand pounds worth of damage at most, but one can take a tanker full of crude oil out on to the high seas without any such insurance.

The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East suggested measures that would improve shipping safety. I shall be more than happy to support his private Member's Bill, and I shall encourage all my Liberal Democrat colleagues to do so, although that might not be as helpful as he might wish.

One further issue is the standard and training of crews in the merchant fleet. Some agreements already exist, including International Labour Organisation convention 147. Last year, I submitted a written

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parliamentary question to the Department for Transport. On 10 June, I received a fairly brief reply, which I will share with hon. Members. I asked the Secretary of State for Transport

When it arrived, the answer was not without information—such answers never are—but no one could accuse the Department of actually answering the question that I asked. I was told:

Well, anyone with access to the convention would know that. I was then told:

Well, that is good news as well. Finally, I was told:

There was absolutely no assessment of the UK's compliance with its obligations, which is what I had asked for. Sadly, that is often the way in which the Department for Transport answers such questions. I do not, in all sincerity, expect the Minister to answer such a specific point, which is more properly the domain of the Department for Transport. However, I would be grateful if he could ensure that my remarks are conveyed to the appropriate quarters within the Government.

We must also have proper regard to the role of flag states, such as Greece and Liberia. To draw again on the NUMAST recipe, the International Maritime Organisation and the International Labour Organisation should be given greater resources and authority to enforce and implement the standards on which their collective memberships agree. At the moment, lip service is paid to agreements, but there is no proper enforcement. That must change.

Dr. Iddon : The hon. Gentleman has referred to the NUMAST Telegraph a couple of times. This year's first edition contained a table of 66 ships that have been blacklisted by the European Union and that face port-access bans. It is significant that Turkey has flagged out 26 of them, and there is a moral in that. If Turkey is to be allowed into the EU, the UK Government and other EU Governments will be able to put an armlock on it as regards the present unsatisfactory situation.

Mr. Carmichael : That is indeed a possibility, and one hopes that the EU would do that. The hon. Gentleman raises the spectre of EU enlargement, and I got into some trouble in that respect over the Christmas recess, so I shall resist the temptation to go down that alley again.

The hon. Gentleman's point about Turkey is well made, but the problem extends even beyond the EU. My concern is that even if we fix the problem in the EU, it will emerge elsewhere. EU measures are welcome, and I was particularly pleased by those taken after the sinking of the Prestige. However, they will not be enough on their own, any more than the actions of a single nation state will be.

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Flag states that fail to discharge their responsibilities under the United Nations convention on the law of the sea, and that fail to ensure effective jurisdiction and control over ships that fly their flag, should surely be identified and penalised. Ultimately—this would be a meaningful sanction—it should be open to the international community to say that it will no longer recognise the certification of ships that are flagged under nation states that do not pay proper regard to their international obligations. Another great difficulty is the attitude taken by flag states that consistently fail to investigate, or to publish the results of investigations into, accidents involving ships that use their registers. The current system of regulation lacks transparency.

The approach taken should not be very different from that taken to everything else in life; quality should be rewarded and poor standards punished. The hon. Member for Uxbridge referred to the difficulties caused by pollution to the fishing industry in Shetland. As he said, it was seven years before the restrictions on inshore fisheries in Shetland were lifted following the damage caused by the Braer. The damage that was caused continues today, because before the grounding of the Braer, Shetland salmon was highly regarded as a clean and environmentally friendly product. Sadly, however, the sinking of the Braer put an end to its reputation and the former position has never been recovered. Coastal communities generally are reliant on the promotion of a clean and healthy environment, to which shipping and marine pollution is a real threat. For that reason, I hope that the Minister will take note of what has been said today and, working with the Dept for Transport, ensure that the necessary changes are put in place.

10.17 am

Norman Baker (Lewes): First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) on securing the debate. His commitment to the marine environment is now well established, and that is especially laudable considering that his constituency is land-locked. He made several sensible points in his contribution, to which I hope that the Minister will respond positively. I also welcome the comments made by the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon). Certainly, I find myself in sympathy with the legislation that he proposes. I was unaware of the incident to which he referred, in which it seems that economics determined whether a potential oil incident would be treated seriously. If a business can decide that its bottom line is more important than the environment, and if the environment can be penalised to save money, that is completely wrong and anathema to most of the Government. I hope that the Minister will respond to that point.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of fire fighting in the channel and elsewhere. As my constituency borders the English channel, I am familiar with that issue. The problem is that fire fighting in the channel is a particularly expensive business and requires specially trained fire fighters. Fire at sea is extremely difficult to deal with because heat rises, so fire fighters tend to have to go in at the seat of the fire. Therefore, fire authorities must invest properly in that service to deal with the problem effectively. I suspect that our capability to deal with fires in the channel and elsewhere around our coast is not as good as it might be because fire authorities are often short of cash. The Government

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should be addressing that issue in their settlements with fire authorities, perhaps by ring-fencing that capability in any settlement.

The hon. Member for Uxbridge referred in his opening comments to the Prestige tanker disaster. That is one of the sad reasons why we are here and, I imagine, one of the reasons why he felt that it was necessary to initiate the debate. It is disappointing—indeed, scandalous, to use the adjective that my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) used—that the position has not changed. There has been a depressing series of spillages into the marine environment in UK waters and elsewhere over many years. The situation appears to be improving only slowly. We need to accelerate that.

One thinks of the Exxon Valdez, which released almost 11million gallons in Alaska, the grounding of the Sea Empress off Wales, with 18 million gallons in 1996, the Greek tanker the Aegean Sea, with 21.5 million gallons off north-west Spain, the Braer, with 26 million gallons, and the oil tanker Erika, which sank off Brittany with 3 million gallons. Such events are monotonously regular in their occurrence. The international community should get its act together to prevent them.

Oil tankers are not the only problem. During the Gulf war, Iraq deliberately released an estimated 460 million gallons of crude oil into the Persian Gulf, showing scant regard for the environment or anybody else in the area. I hope that, when considering the position in Iraq, the Ministry of Defence will give some consideration to the environmental consequences of action by either side, though doubtless that is not top of its list.

The impact of the Prestige is well known. The incident has devastated the Iberian coast—those in Spain and Portugal are suffering, not the owners of the ship, its crew, the people who flagged it, or people sitting in offices in Geneva or anywhere else. For example, a fishing area of more than 180 square miles around the wreck has been declared off limits, and up to 90,000 livelihoods have been affected. People who went about their normal business and led normal lives have had their livelihoods disrupted in a most callous and significant way because of the failure of the international community to regulate shipping properly. We owe it to people throughout the country and around the world to prevent such preventable accidents in future.

The number of incidents in British waters is decreasing. It is worth mentioning that since 1978—I think—there have been 12,746 incidents of oil spillages in British waters, which is a huge number. The hon. Member for Uxbridge was right to say that last year the figure was 678, and it is decreasing. The Government should be given some credit for reducing the number of incidents. However, I also tell the Minister that since 1995, from those many thousands of incidents, there have been only 10 successful prosecutions for discharges, with an average fine of £20,000. It seems that polluting the marine environment is a pretty risk-free business. It is time that we got a grip on that, and ensured that those responsible are properly prosecuted for their actions. The environment should not be a freebie that one can discharge into freely.

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What are the solutions? The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East and my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland suggested a number of solutions, all of which I am in considerable sympathy with. It is absolutely right that we deal with single-hulled tankers. There was an interesting piece in The Guardian, in which David Osler, industrial editor of the shipping newspaper Lloyd's List, pointed out that

He said:

There is a time problem that dates back to the 1970s. If those ships were of a low standard then, they are of a low standard now. However, they are still carrying potentially dangerous cargoes in international waters, and are still unregulated, as far as anyone can tell. They need to be pulled out of service—scrapped, to use the word of the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East.

It is true that all oil tankers built since 1986 must have a double hull, and that is welcome; but there is a residue of single-hulled vessels built before then, and they are not going away very quickly. That issue needs to be grappled with. If we cannot get the International Maritime Organisation to take proper action, we will need to take action at UK-level, or better still at EU-level. We will need to restrict access to our ports and use persuasive methods to encourage countries operating under flags of convenience and other shipping agents to improve their performance and get rid of single-hulled ships. I hope that the EU will show more mettle than it has done so far, but that is not to underestimate its work. However, we need to accelerate the speed of improvement.

We must also consider compartmentalising ships, so that if a ship is hit, its leakage can be limited. That is standard practice in some but not in all cases, and particularly not with older ships. We also need to consider the maximum size of oil tankers allowed in EU waters. That is a matter of dispute with the Government. We cannot go on building ever larger ships. When I asked the Under-Secretary of State for Transport whether he would press for a maximum size for oil tankers, he said:

Mr. Carmichael : My hon. Friend makes a good point. One reason why single-hulled tankers of the vintage to which he refers continue to be used is that a great deal of oil is coming out of Russia. The waters—I have forgotten the name of the stretch, but it is the narrow part between Denmark and the rest of Scandinavia—are such that smaller classes of tankers must be used, or there would be too much traffic to get through safely.

Norman Baker : I am grateful for that information, which demonstrates that my gut feeling is right: it is a sensible proposal to set a maximum limit on the size of oil tankers, not only because that is required in certain

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passages of water but because, obviously, when a huge oil tanker sinks, the damage is greater than it would have been if it were caused by a smaller tanker. It is all very well to say that there would be more ships around, but less damage would be caused by one ship sinking if that ship were smaller. The Government should consider that. It is right to say that self-regulation does not work, as my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland said, and there should be mandatory third party insurance. We should consider refusing to allow dangerous shipping into EU and UK waters.

We have talked a lot about oil. It is worth mentioning that other dangerous cargoes are carried regularly around the world, often, but not always, in substandard ships. A huge number of chemicals have been lost in UK waters over the years. The last time that I raised the matter in a parliamentary question—I do not have the reference, and do not remember exactly when it was—I was told that there was no proper register of what had been lost in UK waters. I hope that the Minister will either respond to that point, or write to me about it. We now log all instances of chemicals and other potentially dangerous materials that are lost at sea in UK waters. Not so long ago a cargo of some 28 barrels of lindane, a dangerous pesticide, was lost in the English channel. That may leak out and damage the marine environment. We need to know what is going on with such incidents, and where such losses occur. I should be grateful if the Minister would address that point.

Let us not forget that a huge amount of radioactive material is being carried around in UK waters as a consequence of activities at Sellafield and elsewhere. The Government should have a policy of minimising the transportation of radioactive material for environmental and security reasons, given the international climate. Instead, the Government's answer is that what is done with that material is a matter for British Nuclear Fuels Ltd., which has contracts with Japan and sends ships half way round the world. The Government say that that is not a problem, and that it is a commercial matter for BNFL. It is not; it is a matter for the Government to regulate in order to protect the environment and to ensure that there are as few terrorist targets as possible. I know that it is an old-fashioned suggestion to make to a Labour Government, but I hope that they will consider intervening to control matters, not simply leave matters to the market.

10.29 am

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire): I echo the words of other hon. Members and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) on securing such a timely debate. It is indicative of the deep and abiding interest in the maritime environment that he has shown since he was elected in 1997, and no one can gainsay the considerable work that he has done for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds throughout the past five years.

I shall start with a plea to the Minister—a plea that my hon. Friend would echo. The south Dorset coast is a world heritage site, but such a designation does not confer protection. The area is absolutely glorious; it deserves and requires protection. One way in which to protect it is to deny international shipping access to such a delicate maritime area, and the way to do that is to designate it a particularly sensitive sea area. I must declare a particular interest in the area, in that I sail

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round it fairly frequently, but if the right hon. Gentleman does that the Government will have the support of the Conservative party.

Ships can constitute a hazard to the marine environment in three ways: through deliberation action, through accidental pollution and through physical damage. Although more than 80 per cent. of marine oil spills occur within a port or harbour area, more damaging than that are the actions of those who clean out the tanks and release waste oil and chemical products at sea, most of whom get away with it.

Of the 14 successful prosecutions for discharges during 2001, 10 were related to oil pollution. However, 1,616 incident reports were received and processed. Of the total discharges in 2001, 95 per cent. were from mineral oils and 72 per cent. were in the open sea. The other cause of marine pollution is accidental, owing either to ship malfunction—thankfully, a rare occurrence—or human error. The fact that the wreck of the car carrier, the Tricolor, in the English channel has been the cause of two collisions and a near miss since it sank on 14 December calls into question the competence of some ship masters.

There are a variety of navigational aids to help work out the answers to the three key questions that we need to know at sea: where we are, what direction we are going in and what is in front of us. In addition, radar, satellite, the global positioning system and visual fixes, dead reckoning and electronic route following can be used. A new hazard in the English channel brings into play an additional set of warnings to mariners. For example, the area around the Tricolor had wreck and raycon buoys, and a guard ship was in position. Both the British and French authorities were broadcasting hourly verbal maritime hazard warnings, the text of which was carried on Navtext as well as being issued as a "Notice to Mariners".

With all those warning signs, it was absolutely incredible that the Turkish master of the Vicky, the second ship to hit the Tricolor in two weeks, was able to tell The Times:

Will he be prosecuted? Will he lose his ticket? Will he go to jail? We certainly need punitive sanctions to deter those who are incompetent or who flout international safety standards. Does the Minister support the European Commission's proposal for severe sanctions for parties who have caused maritime pollution by grossly negligent behaviour?

We have heard from others that the Prestige was a 26-year-old, single-hulled tanker from which it is estimated that oil will leak for the next three years. The Erika was a single-hulled tanker that sank off the coast of Brittany in late 1999 and it lost 30,000 tonnes of oil; the Braer was a single-hulled tanker that caused an 85,000 tonne oil spill off Shetland in 1993; the Aegean Sea, which grounded in almost the same Spanish waters as the Prestige a decade ago, released 74,000 tonnes of crude. Ships of a similar age and with similar problems are still trading in the world today. Last year, nearly two-thirds of the ships that were lost were more than 20 years old. Despite international agreement under the International Maritime Organisation to phase out all

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single-hulled tankers by 2015 at the latest, those still make up the majority—about 60 per cent.—of the total tanker fleet. It is clear that international agreement is the only way to control a force that recognises no sovereign jurisdiction and to regulate a business that is obviously international.

We have heard tell that the Prestige was owned in Greece, registered in the Bahamas, classed in the United States and chartered by a Swiss-based Russian company with offices in London. It was crewed by Greeks and Filipinos and it was sailing from Latvia to Singapore. At the beginning of last December the Commission issued a blacklist of 66 ships that should be banned from European waters and ports and it called for a ban on the transport of heavy fuel in single-hulled vessels. The Commission also instructed states to bring forward the implementation of rules that were drawn up after the Erika disaster in 1999 and were intended to tighten the controls on vessels carrying dangerous cargoes. The Government have confirmed that at a recent Transport Council meeting they agreed

May I ask the Minister what is happening? Will the deadline for the phasing out of single-hulled tankers be accelerated? How far have the Government made good their pledge made in the other place

Another important contribution to maritime safety and, therefore, to reducing marine pollution, would be a reduction in the secrecy surrounding flags of convenience. It is often impossible definitively to establish who controls a ship. That so-called "corporate veil" means that it took several weeks before the owner of the Erika was known. There are similar problems in identifying the Greek ship-owning dynasty that controlled the Prestige and it is reported that al-Qaeda is using legal means to hide its nefarious shipping interests. Where ownership cannot be established, the law cannot be enforced effectively. What discussions has the Minister conducted with the IMO to increase transparency? What steps have the Government taken to implement the recommendations of the National Audit Office's report of June 2002 "Dealing with pollution from ships"? Will the Minister expand the provision of year-round emergency tugging vessels that are currently located at only four points around the UK coast. How far have the discussions progressed with the Irish Government on the joint provision of a fifth tug to cover the Irish sea?

Finally, I welcome the August 2000 contract between Air Atlantique, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and the Department of Trade and Industry, which offers a considerable opportunity. This particular contract allows aircraft typically to survey 32,000 square miles in a five-hour period of surveillance, as opposed to 14,000 square miles previously. Can we anticipate further

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sharing of counter-pollution equipment and more commercial contracts? Will the satellite oil spills sensing trials by the MCA be further developed?

The Government have committed themselves to an ecosystem-based approach and integrated stewardship of our marine environment. As a token of their devotion yet another consultation paper has been launched. It is grandly called "The Seas of Change". According to my records, this is the 83rd consultation undertaken by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs since June 2001. It has consultationitis. Consultation is useful but policy is what is necessary. What is needed is stewardship of our own and foreign vessels entering our waters and ports. Although accidents are often the product of human fallibility and error, measures can be taken to limit the likelihood of their occurrence and to mitigate the environmental consequences, and incompetence and neglect should always be dealt with swiftly and severely. Global thinking, allied to effective national and local implementation, is the recipe for safer seas and the protection of our marine environment. I urge the Government to echo that point in policy.

10.41 am

The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) on securing this important debate and the manner in which he introduced the topic. I should also like to congratulate the other Members who took part in what has been a wide-ranging and constructive debate.

With regard to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), I look forward to seeing his private Member's Bill making progress through the House. It is eminently sensible. I hope that it will receive support from the Opposition as well as the Government, and that it will reach the statute book very quickly. I congratulate him on the work his group has produced on the findings of the Derbyshire inquiry, which are most important. I understand that the work on bulk carrier safety has now, as a consequence, been taken forward by the IMO.

The points made by the hon. Members for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael), for Lewes (Norman Baker) and for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) were constructive contributions to a very important, although not easy, issue.

The hon. Member for Uxbridge has a personal commitment to marine conservation. I share his disappointment and that of other Members, referred to, in particular, by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), that his Marine Wildlife Conservation Bill did not find support in another place.

I was puzzled as to what the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland wanted from this debate. He made the point, quite tellingly, that there are many issues that are matters for the Minister with responsibility for shipping. If the debate had been flagged in a different way, he would be responding to the debate and would have been able to go into more detail on some specific issues. I am very interested in some of the issues on maritime safety that the hon. Gentleman raised at the beginning of his intervention, representing, as I do, Cardiff, a port with maritime traditions. I share his interest in those issues, but they are matters for the Department for Transport.

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It is unfortunate that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), who deals with marine issues, is unavailable today, as is the Minister for the Environment, the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher), who deals with pollution issues. I shall do my best to respond to and follow up any detailed and technical issues in writing, as some Members have asked.

The title of the report goes rather wider than the debate itself. Pollution that finds its way into our seas comes from a number of different sources. Globally, about 80 per cent. is the result of land-based activities, such as industry and farming, and 12 or 13 per cent. comes from maritime transport, including deliberate and accidental oil spills; the remainder is the result of illegal discharges or dumping from land.

In recent years, much has been achieved in tackling marine pollution. During the past 15 years, we have cut the amount of mercury going into the North sea by 70 per cent. We have also stopped dumping radioactive waste, sewage sludge and munitions at sea, and we have improved standards for sewage treatment.

In opening the debate, the hon. Member for Uxbridge focused on oil pollution, and he is right to say that our oceans are still under threat from that. As the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire made clear, international solutions are required if we are to tackle these issues effectively. The sinking of the Prestige last November reminded us of the environmental, social and economic consequences of marine pollution. More needs to be done to better manage and protect our seas and the unique forms of life that they support.

As has been said, the oil from the Prestige is having a considerable effect; it is coming ashore on the western coast of France between La Rochelle and Hendaye. The French authorities were prepared, but they were hampered by bad weather when they tried to deal with the immediate problem. This matter is raising controversy in Spain, and it is worth placing on the record that we offered help of a scientific and environmental nature—including the loan of tugs—either directly or through the European Union.

The positive use of places of refuge when vessels are in difficulty is a major international issue. It is the subject of live debate in the EU, and the UK is fully engaged in that. The UK's experience is that judicious provision of shelter in a place of refuge or sheltered waters can significantly help in averting marine pollution incidents. We believe that it is unwise pre-emptively to rule in or out a particular location as a place of refuge. The need for a place of refuge and its location will be driven by events and specific data: the prevailing weather, the forecasted weather, the whereabouts of the incident, the consequences of not rendering assistance, and the type of threat that is posed by the ship seeking refuge and its cargo will all be key factors in the decision-making process—which will need to be geared up to be speedy.

As part of their contingency planning for pollutions incidents, the Government are asking harbour authorities to give consideration to granting refuge, having regard to the particular conditions pertaining at their ports, such as access to safe moorings, berths and jetties, availability of tugs, counter-pollution equipment

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and offloading and repair facilities, and environmental considerations including local tides, currents and fishing activities. I think that everybody would accept that there is not an instant solution to these issues, but I can assure the hon. Member for Uxbridge—who raised them in a positive and constructive way—that we are seeking to tackle them urgently.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of substandard shipping flying flags of convenience. The main problem with substandard shipping and pollution from ships is not the result of inadequate international standards but of the failure of some owners in flag states to fulfil their responsibilities under agreed conventions. In 1997, the UK played a leading role in launching the quality shipping campaign at the IMO and in the EU. That engages all those involved in shipping ventures—owners, flag states, brokers, charterers and insurers—with a view to rewarding the responsible in the industry and increasingly marginalizing substandard ships, their owners and flags, and that initiative certainly needs to be continued.

It is worth noting that the United Kingdom is a party to the Paris memorandum of understanding on port state control. The UK's port state control regime is one of the most vigorous in the Paris MOU area, and we continue to exceed the target given in the port state control directive for inspecting foreign flagged vessels calling at UK ports. It is clear that all those hon. Members present strongly support continuing with enthusiasm down that road. The hon. Gentleman spoke also about satellite monitoring. The situation is still as he indicated; it is proceeding on a trial basis, but it is obviously something in which we are interested.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East raised the subject of black boxes. The Government support the installation of voyage data recorders in new vessels. That is stipulated in the revised chapter 5 of the international convention for the safety of life at sea. We are interested in work that is proceeding in the IMO with regard to retrofitting black boxes in existing vessels, but I am sure that all hon. Members accept that it is a more contentious and difficult issue to tackle. Nevertheless, my hon. Friend was right to raise it.

A number of hon. Members referred to the Braer incident in 1993, not least the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland. In many ways, that incident marked a defining moment in our efforts to address pollution and its consequences. The Braer still ranks as the world's 12th largest oil spill. A pollution incident of such magnitude will inevitably have caused major hardships for many, and I recognise the impact that the hon. Gentleman outlined. It is a tribute to the resilience of the Shetlanders that they coped so well with the traumatic consequences, which were devastating for such a small community.

Many lessons had to be learned, and some lessons could not be learned nor could the solutions be implemented in a short time, but as a result of the Braer and the Sea Empress disasters, as well as other major spills, a number of steps have been taken. The UK has played a leading role in developing the many measures that have substantially improved the situation internationally, regionally and nationally, and I shall return to some of those in a moment.

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The establishing of marine environment high risk areas was touched on. That is a particularly important development, to which the Government are strongly committed, although I accept that it has taken some time to get where we are now and I agree that we need to move as quickly as possible. That was one of the recommendations of the Donaldson report, and officials have worked very hard on the idea in recent years. However, I am sure that hon. Members would accept that it is important not only to implement the proposal but to get it right. We hope to announce the identified areas shortly; there will be some 30 areas, covering 10 per cent. of our coastline.

The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire asked, in relation to the Dorset coast, whether the UK would seek to designate all or some of its waters as PSSAs once that concept has been put in place. We take the view that all of our coastline merits protection from marine pollution, and once we have established the marine environment high risk areas we will monitor their effectiveness and assess whether further protective measures are required, such as the PSSA designation to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

The hon. Gentleman referred also to the Comptroller and Auditor General's report entitled "Dealing with Pollution from Ships". It was a soundly based, balanced and well-rounded report that recognised the substantial achievements of the Department for Transport and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency in minimising the risk of pollution of the marine environment from ships and, where pollution occurs, in minimising the impact of that pollution on UK waters, coastlines and economic interests. The report has much to say that is positive, while highlighting areas in which it was perceived that more work has to be done. The Department for Transport and the MCA are working to take forward those recommendations. The hon. Gentleman almost seemed to ridicule the amount of consultation that DEFRA has undertaken. That consultation reflects its extremely wide-ranging and complex areas of responsibility, and the partnership approach that it takes to working with interest groups, often groups that have to be reconciled, rather than single interest groups with a clear aim. That is combined with the commitment of Ministers to action and to solving the extensive list of problems covered by our portfolio.

The Government's first marine stewardship report "Safeguarding our Seas" shows the way forward. Published last May, it sets out our strategy for the conservation and sustainable development of our marine environment, and outlines our ecosystem approach to achieving our vision of clean, healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse oceans and seas. Tackling marine pollution is a key element of that strategy.

Mr. Sayeed : The Minister mentioned that the debate is cross-departmental. I understand that he does not have specific knowledge of all the areas under discussion. On that basis, and because some important points have been made, will he confirm that he will bring

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to the attention of other interested Ministers the points that have not been adequately covered, so that they can write to hon. Members?

Alun Michael : I mentioned that at the beginning, because the hon. Member for Uxbridge had the choice of targeting the Department for Transport or DEFRA. Some of the issues are very important, and are lead issues for DEFRA, but many of the matters that have been raised are primarily for the Department for Transport. I said at the start that, for that reason, I would either reply on behalf of the two Departments or seek a response from my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for shipping on matters on which I was unable to respond in detail. I am happy to reinforce that point.

Tackling marine pollution is a key element of our strategy. We are working closely with EU member states, the OSPAR convention for the protection of the marine environment of the north-east Atlantic and other international forums to turn our vision into reality.

A range of OSPAR decisions and recommendations, together with EU directives, not least the integrated pollution preventative control directive and the water framework directive, have sharply reduced discharges of hazardous chemicals into the north-east Atlantic. I am sure that hon. Members from all parties would accept that a lot of those boring-sounding and technical titles reflect an enormous amount of work that is done internationally, making a positive contribution to the future of the environment. That concerns all of us.

Action is also being taken through the EU and OSPAR to tackle eutrophication, which can be a problem in some coastal waters. We reduced direct inputs of nitrogen into marine waters by 30 per cent. during the 1990s and further reductions will be achieved through action plans under the nitrates directive and the urban waste water directive. I refer to those issues because they are complementary to the issues of maritime pollution and oil pollution, which have been mentioned. We need to look at the whole environment as it affects the maritime situation, including the contributions that are made from land within the UK.

Norman Baker (Lewes): Will the Minister comment on the fact that the MCA has managed to prosecute only 10 ships, with an average fine of £20,000 since 1995? For all the Government's good work, there are no prosecutions and no teeth.

Alun Michael : That falls within the areas on which I do not have direct knowledge and on which I have said that I will respond to colleagues after discussing them with the Minister with responsibility for shipping. I return to the point that the debate was focused on DEFRA responsibilities. However, most of the debate has been on the responsibilities of the Department for Transport. We work closely across Departments, but it would be unwise for me to go outside my specific knowledge in debate. A debate should be focused differently if technical responses from the Department for Transport are required. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will approach the matter again from a second angle.

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The debate has certainly shown the need for cross-Department co-operation. There is a high level of such co-operation; I am very pleased with the way in which officials in my Department, and those at the Department for Transport, co-operate.

Mr. Frank Cook (in the Chair): Order. I ask hon. Members not participating in the debate on air quality in market towns to leave quietly and calmly.

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