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Standing Committee E
Tuesday 29 April 2003
[Mr. Alan Hurst in the Chair]
The Chairman: I remind the Committee that a money resolution and a Ways and Means resolution are connected with the Bill, and that copies of them are available in the Room.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): It is a great pleasure to see you at this special sitting of Standing Committee E, Mr. Hurst, as most private Members' business goes to Standing Committee C. I am grateful to the powers that be for allowing me this opportunity in Committee, which has perhaps come earlier than expected.
May I thank Members for agreeing to sit on the Committee and the Bill's sponsors for their support on Second Reading? May I also thank my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport and all his officials, including the Secretary of State's representative, who is with us today, for their work in helping me to prepare for debates on Second Reading and in Committee? My thanks also go to the Whips, my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) and the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) for facilitating the passage of their Bills on Second Reading to allow my Bill, which was third on the list that day in February, to be considered in Committee.
The United Kingdom probably has a better set-up than any other country in the world for dealing with incidents that endanger life at sea and, particularly, that pollute the sea. That is a commendation to successive Ministers in successive Governments and to the officials who have got us into that position. Two very small pieces of the jigsaw would make matters even better and certainly put us top of the league—many other countries are watching what Britain is doing.
We have reached such a position because of three major disasters that occurred around the 10,000 miles of British coastline. Going back 40 years, there was the famous disaster involving the Torrey Canyon, which went aground as it entered the English channel. That ship's name is branded on the mind of everybody in Britain and that disaster made the Government sit up and think about marine pollution, the danger to life at sea and introducing legislation.
A major disaster involving the Braer occurred in the Shetland islands in 1993. It was followed by an important report by Lord Donaldson that led to legislation, although we discovered that that legislation did not go far enough.
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The milestone was the Sea Empress disaster, which occurred in Milford Haven sound in 1996. Lord Donaldson produced another report, ''Command and Control: Report of Lord Donaldson's Review of Salvage and Intervention and their Command and Control'', which was published in 1999. Even before that publication, the Government were taking forward legislation, which has led us to the much safer position that we are in today. Thus, two small pieces of the jigsaw are incomplete, however. One concerns the SOSREP and is addressed by clause 1, and the other concerns firefighting at sea, which is addressed by clause 2. I shall explain both clauses.
May I recommend to members of the Committee a written ministerial statement, which was made on 14 January by the Minister, entitled Transport (Braer Oil Spill)? I found it very useful, because it lists all the measures that successive Governments have taken, which have made Britain top dog in respect of safety at sea.
Under section 137 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995, as amended, the Secretary of State or his representative, known as the SOSREP, may give directions to the owner, master or pilot of a ship, to any salvor in possession of the ship or, if the ship is in waters that are regulated or managed by a harbour authority, even to the harbourmaster or to the harbour authority. The power may be used to prevent or minimise pollution or the threat of pollution following a maritime incident.
Clause 1 refers to schedule 1, which is an integral part of the clause. Paragraph 1 of schedule 1 would extend the Secretary of State's powers to issue directions to prevent or reduce a risk to safety, not just to prevent pollution. However, he cannot at present issue a direction to the riparian owners or managers of facilities such as berths, wharves or jetties to make their facilities available so that action may be taken to help the vessel.
On Second Reading, I referred to a tanker coming in, again to Milford Haven sound, that was almost pushed back out to sea in the eye of a gale. The SOSREP had the power to direct that it be brought into safe water—a place of refuge—but he did not have the power to unload it on the private oil jetty in Milford Haven sound to which it was initially heading. If it had gone out to sea in the eye of a gale with its faulty engine, there may have been a disaster. Fortunately, the SOSREP can give directions irrespective of the Minister. He has the power to bring together all the agencies under his remit and direct them to make a ship safe, and to keep other ships away from the ship in danger.
The Bill would make good the deficiency to which I have just referred. Paragraph 2 of schedule 1 would confer power on the Secretary of State to give directions to those in charge of land or coastal premises to make facilities such as berths, wharves and jetties available to reduce or prevent the risk of pollution or risks to safety. Paragraph 15 of the schedule would make provision for the Secretary of State properly to compensate for loss or damage if a facility stops carrying out its normal day-to-day business due to a direction from the Secretary of
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State or the SOSREP to accept a stricken vessel. That is right and just. Furthermore, the provision is necessary to comply with the requirements of the European convention on human rights.
Fortunately, we anticipate that the occasions on which the power would be exercised would be few and far between—perhaps fewer than a handful in a year. Largely for that reason, it is difficult to predict with any accuracy the compensation involved. That would depend on the type of facility affected, the availability of alternative facilities to the owners and, of course, how long the casualty occupied the facility. Far greater compensation may be involved with a jetty that serves an oil refinery than with a jetty that is used occasionally for leisure purposes.
However, the cost of dealing with oil spills can run into many millions of pounds. At today's values, the 1967 Torrey Canyon disaster and the clean-up of the resulting spillage would probably cost some £76 million. If the measure were used just once to prevent a large spillage, the savings would far outweigh the compensation costs.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): Can the hon. Gentleman tell us what would happen if a tanker were holed near such a facility and the Secretary of State or the SOSREP wanted to direct it to accept the ship, even though it was leaking polluted material?
Dr. Iddon: My Bill would empower the SOSREP to make the owners accept such a ship. The obvious thing to do would be to get as much oil as possible off the ship, were it an oil tanker, before it heavily polluted the harbour or the sea. I should refer at this point to the famous Prestige disaster, which is still ongoing. That ship got into trouble off the Spanish coast a few months ago and requested permission to enter a place of refuge. We cannot say with certainty, but if that ship had entered a place of refuge, the disaster that ultimately occurred would probably not have happened. That ship was not holed, but, to answer the hon. Gentleman, even if it had been it would have been sensible to bring it to a place of refuge rather than have the resulting disaster.
Dr. Lewis: To finish the point, my concern is this: if pollution begins while such a ship is outside the port, the facility's owners may say that if they bring it in it will spread massive pollution in the port, but the Secretary of State might decide that it is nevertheless in the national interest to bring that ship in. Is the hon. Gentleman satisfied that his legislation would deal with such a dilemma?
Dr. Iddon: The current situation, and that which would exist were the Bill enacted, is that the SOSREP views the individual situation and, with all his experience of incidents so far dealt with, makes a decision depending on the weather and other conditions pertaining to that vessel. I cannot say what would happen in any individual case, as I am not a person with marine efficiency, but the information will be available for the SOSREP to make those decisions and deal with the ship.
Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover): Is it not the case that if the port were as well equipped as the port of Dover, the equipment for oil booms, oil containment and oil
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spillage prevention would be in place? That port, working with the Minister and the Secretary of State's authority, would contain the oil by using booms and then bring the ship safely into its refuge.
Dr. Iddon: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that valid point. Yes, that is the case. Dover is one example of a port that operates very efficiently in that respect, but, of course, a disaster might not occur anywhere around the 10,000 miles of British coast, including one involving an oil tanker.
Mr. Ivan Henderson (Harwich): Does my hon. Friend also agree that most port authorities have emergency plans to deal with such incidents? All authorities are involved in that and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser) said, many emergency services, coastguards and even voluntary marine services have the equipment to go out and deal with incidents in the harbour and outside it. We have excellent experience to call on in such events.
Dr. Iddon: That is correct. Indeed, there is a national contingency plan for marine pollution from shipping and offshore installations in which all the agencies to which my hon. Friends have referred participate.