Marine Safety Bill

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Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge): As the hon. Gentleman knows, I support the provision, but in respect of an incident such as that mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), if a stricken vessel were brought into a port that did not have the most up-to-date facilities and pollution was caused, would the Bill have enough power to provide compensation for the whole affected area? Who could assess the environmental damage and cost, rather than simply provide incidental clean-up?

Dr. Iddon: My understanding is that the Bill would give the Secretary of State the power to compensate only the owners of the facilities if a direction is given to bring a ship into a wharf, jetty or other coastal facility. However, I shall defer to my hon. Friend the Minister's greater knowledge and hope that he comments on the hon. Gentleman's question.

The new provisions in the schedule would work as follows. The first would extend the Secretary of State's powers to issue directions to reduce the risk to safety, not just to reduce the risk of pollution. The second would enable the Secretary of State to serve directions on riparian owners. The third would enable riparian owners to claim compensation for the shipowners after the serving of an order. The other provisions would consolidate powers under existing legislation and bring them together in one place. The provisions in the schedule are shorter and crisper, and would be more easily understood by people using the legislation.

2.45 pm

Several hon. Members rose—

The Chairman: Order. For ease of consideration, I will permit references to schedule 1, because of the interconnection.

Andrew George (St. Ives): I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on making such significant progress with the Bill and I wish him the best of success and the necessary

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Government support to see it through. He rightly referred to the Torrey Canyon incident in 1967, which took place in the extreme west of my constituency off the Bishop rock. Many people will remember that. I was very young then, but I recollect the effect of that pollution incident.

Recently, I wrote to the Minister on the grounding of the RMS Mulheim on 22 March at Sennen cove in the west of my constituency. That incident raises many questions on the clause. The hon. Gentleman or the Minister may like to comment about the assumption in the Bill that the skipper of a stricken vessel or a vessel in trouble would seek aid as soon as possible. Although we do not know for certain about the Mulheim—indeed, we require the benefit of further inquiries—it appears that the first mayday in respect of its grounding came extremely late. The question is whether the Secretary of State's powers are sufficient to enable him to get involved when the Maritime and Coastguard Agency or other emergency service is aware of the position, and whether he can intervene before the skipper gives the authority or an indication that the vessel requires assistance.

Most of my points relate to the powers of a fire authority, so I will not deal with them now. However, one relevant aspect is that the powers in the clause enable the Secretary of State to bring a vessel alongside in a safe haven, whether that is a jetty or port. I seek advice from the Minister or the hon. Gentleman. Is the intention that the powers in the clause should also apply to fire authorities under clause 2? In dealing with a fire incident, do fire authorities have the same authority to tow vessels into their area that the Secretary of State appears to have? They may find that that is safer and more appropriate, both from the point of view of salvage and the safety of individuals. I will quote a relevant case later. I apologise if I am straying into a discussion of clause 2 but it struck me that there is a potential contradiction in relation to the powers of the Secretary of State in clause 1. If it is required, I will be happy to expand on that in a stand part debate on clause 2.

I have no further comments to make, other than to congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East and to support the purpose of clause 1.

Mr. Prosser: I welcome these further measures. I doubt whether they will be called upon many times, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East acknowledged in this sitting and on Second Reading. Nevertheless, they are necessary additions to the tools and resources that we have for combating pollution at sea and around our waterways and coastlines.

I have the privilege of representing the constituency of Dover, which houses the busiest ferry port in the world, and I venture to say that if all ports acted in the same mature and responsible way as the port of Dover in giving refuge and support to passing vessels regardless of whether they are storm-damaged, in need of support or leaking oil, there would not be a great need to change the law by introducing these powers. However, not all ports act in that way—certainly not all ports outside the United Kingdom—

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so it is important to close that loophole, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East said.

From my own partisan point of view, at least in future, when my port of Dover gives support to vessels with pollution problems, or where there is a threat that local waterways will be polluted, it will have the satisfaction that there is a guarantee that it will be enable to seek proper compensation and that its action will not be taken for granted. I welcome the clause.

Mr. Randall: I again congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East on getting his private Member's Bill to this stage, and I wish him well throughout the rest of its course. The general mood is that things are going well, but I warn him that sometimes problems are just around the corner.

I hope that the Bill succeeds, not only because it is thoroughly worth while and good and I have a strong interest in trying to stem marine pollution around our coasts, but because the Friday afternoon when the Bill received its Second Reading represented the height of my political career, as I briefly spoke from the Dispatch Box. I am sure that that will go down in the history of Uxbridge as one of the highlights of its Member of Parliament's time in this House.

It is with relief that I now speak from the comfort of the Back Benches on this matter, and with that in mind I will not expand too much. However, I wish to refer to one point that was raised by Opposition Members, and particularly by the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George). From a logistical point of view, I wonder how quickly some of these things may be capable of being put into operation. If a coastguard sees a stricken vessel, there may be some slight problems in trying to rouse from his slumbers, probably not the Secretary of State, but his representative, to ensure that the direction comes into effect quickly. Although I am a land-lubber, with regard to getting a vessel into safe haven, I would have thought that speed is of the essence, particularly if there is a storm.

I wish the Bill every success, with the proviso that normally when hon. Members all agree about something, it is time for us to have another look at it and not to let something slip through that has not been examined properly.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson): May I say what a pleasure it is to sit on a Committee with you in the Chair, Mr. Hurst, keeping a careful eye on us? I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East not only on securing the Bill—I congratulated him on that on Second Reading—but on seeing it through this far. Having seen a piece of private Member's legislation through the House, I know what a precarious passage it travels—more precarious than some of the seas around our coast. I know that it can crash on the rocks very easily—[Hon. Members: ''More.''] I just know how difficult the job can be, and it is my hon. Friend's personal qualities that have ensured that the Bill has got this far.

It is good to see so many hon. Members here from both sides of the House. We all have an interest in the sea and safety at sea, but it is good to see so many hon.

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Members with close constituency interests in the sea. I do not know how near Bolton is to the sea, but nowhere in England is far from it, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East has a long-standing personal interest in the issue.

I shall make a few general remarks, as I should like to set the provisions of this small but important Bill in the wider context of the United Kingdom's law and practice relating to maritime safety and the protection of our seas and coasts. In the United Kingdom, we have 10,000 miles of coastline. We are adjacent to one of the busiest sea lanes in the world, the English channel, and there are 400 vessel movements per day through the Dover straits—I notice that many of the constituencies of Committee members are near that area. Consequently, we have made preventing and deterring pollution one of our highest priorities. During the past 10 years, we have taken many statutory and non-statutory steps to deal with the risks of pollution of our seas, coasts and shipping.

My hon. Friend made it clear that, because of the Braer, the Sea Empress, the Erica and the Torrey Canyon—I was slightly older than my hon. Friend when that ran into difficulties off the Isles of Scilly—we all know too well the huge environmental damage that such accidents can cause. In his review of the salvage and intervention in the wake of the Sea Empress incident, Lord Donaldson recommended that the ultimate control of any salvage operation, where there is a threat of significant pollution to the United Kingdom environment, must be exercised by the Secretary of State's representative on maritime salvage and intervention—the SOSREP—acting in an overriding public interest.

We formally introduced the role of the SOSREP in 1999, and he has the power to oversee, control and intervene in salvage operations in United Kingdom waters involving vessels or fixed platforms where there is a significant risk of pollution. The SOSREP role has proved useful and successful—of course, that is an international first for the United Kingdom. The powers of direction invested in him are called into play when he believes that the public interest is not being adequately protected. Although they are extensive, they are not as wide as they should be, which is why the Bill is so important. The Bill will give the SOSREP those additional powers that he needs.

The hon. Member for New Forest, East referred to the SOSREP. One of the great advantages of his position in this country is that he is separated from direct political control. It is not the Secretary of State or a maritime Minister who makes the decision; it is in the hands of someone who is independent. The SOSREP analyses the situation, then makes a decision. That decision may be difficult or, as the hon. Member for New Forest, East suggested, unpopular along parts of the coast, but he has to make a decision in the greater marine interest. For example, in the case of the Prestige, he must examine how the decision was taken and ask whether that was in the greater interests of the coasts of Spain and France. I will not attempt to answer that question. There would have been some pollution if that ship had been brought to a place of safety and had been put

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somewhere where it did not break up, but that pollution would have been contained within a smaller area. My hon. Friend the Member for Dover referred to his own port, which has excellent facilities for dealing with such a disaster, not that it would wish that upon itself. Nevertheless, a small amount of temporary damage in one area may have the effect of not polluting a much wider area.

3 pm

The hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) asked about compensation. Compensation can be given to the facility owner. The hon. Gentleman also alluded to the environmental damage and the powers in relation to it. The ship's insurers will eventually pay the compensation, unless, of course, the SOSREP had given a direction that could be shown to be unreasonable in law. That provision is contained in the legislation. In that case, it would fall on the Secretary of State.

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