Marine Safety Bill

[back to previous text]

Dr. Lewis: A thought has occurred to me. The facilities may be polluted or at least used in a way in which their owners would not want them to be used, thus causing economic loss. Given that those owners will be able to rely on the Government to compensate them fairly speedily, does the Minister envisage those owners, who under normal circumstances prior to the legislation may have been willing to invite the ships in and take their chance with them because they needed to help them, wanting to ensure that they did not invite any ships to use their facilities until they got clearance from the SOSREP, thus slowing down the process?

Mr. Jamieson: That is an interesting idea, but it will not work that way. It is up to the SOSREP to decide where the ship has to go. He would obviously liaise with the owner of the particular facility, but it would be his decision as to where that ship was placed. The sort of bargaining to which the hon. Gentleman referred would not necessarily be relevant, but it is an interesting idea.

Mr. Randall: Before we move on, there is a point to be made. I presume that if a stricken vessel made representations to a commercial jetty to come in, that jetty would not receive any compensation but would have to negotiate a fee beforehand. If it subsequently found that it had incurred a loss, it would be less inclined to do things commercially, but would have to wait for the SOSREP to make the instruction because the money would be coming from the Government.

Mr. Jamieson: The hon. Gentleman is right in that there will be instances where the SOSREP will not be involved and where the incident will handle itself. I suspect that that will be so in most cases. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dover said, this will be a rarely used but extremely important power. There will be minor incidents in which minor damage has been caused, which will be dealt with in the usual way. The ship owner will make arrangements with whatever facility he enters to pay the requisite amount for repairs and for any damage that the ship causes. The Bill ensures that the SOSREP can give a facility a direction to take a stricken ship that it cannot refuse, and gives the power for the facility to receive compensation for any damage that may be done.

Column Number: 011

Dr. Lewis: May I pursue just one more tack? There may be a fairly large number of incidents in which the port facility owner will say straight away, ''Go ahead and come in.'' I am concerned that once the legislation is passed, the port facility owner will know that he has a much better chance of getting speedy compensation if the SOSREP is involved. The SOSREP will be called in to adjudicate on these issues, thus slowing down many occasions when the port facility owner would have proceeded immediately to give succour to the stricken ship.

Mr. Jamieson: I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but those cases would be extremely rare. Often it is in the interests of the port to take on the vessel because it conducts the repairs. Ships frequently come in to my constituency. They are seldom polluting, but they come in for repairs. They also go to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Syd Rapson) and probably to Liverpool. Where it was clear that a specific incident was not going to be resolved within hours and where hours were important, the SOSREP would come in and make a decision. I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but the risks involved are slim. He may know different and may have some other information that he wishes to impart to the Committee.

Andrew George: On the same subject, but a slightly different tack, would the Minister care to comment on the liability of the SOSREP? There is an assumption in what the Minister is saying that the ship will always be adequately insured. The MV Cita, which ran aground not on his watch but in March 1997, was clearly not adequately insured and created a tremendous amount of pollution around the Isles of Scilly. The case is still going through the courts in Hamburg to pursue the insurers. Is there an assumption on behalf of the SOSREP that the Government are taking on a financial liability if they encourage that ship and the owners of the jetties and quays and the ports to take responsibility if it turns out that the insurance available is not sufficient?

Mr. Jamieson: Well, indeed, part of the intention is that the type of long-protracted wrangling that a court could find itself involved in would no longer be necessary because the initial compensation would be paid for by the Government. The Government would make that claim back through the insurers. That gives reassurance to the ports, which is only right in those circumstances. As the Government are in effect imposing this on the port through the SOSREP, it is incumbent on us to say that we will pay that compensation.

I hope that helps the hon. Gentleman. I know that the coast along his constituency is very sensitive. He has a wreck there at present. It is probably not as serious as those we have heard about, but it is none the less problematic. He also asked what happens when the ship may not have requested any help. It is the duty of the master of the ship to call the coastguard if the ship is in distress. However, if it has been brought to the SOSREP's attention that a ship is in trouble and that it has not contacted the coastguard to say that it is in trouble, and has not requested assistance, he can

Column Number: 012

override that and make decisions based on any information that he has at his disposal. One could look at the case of the Braer and what happened there.

Andrew George: The Minister referred to the RMS Mulheim, which is the vessel that is stricken off the coast at Sennen. Heroic attempts are being made to salvage some of the waste on board, which is polluting the seas in that area. In that case, the Secretary of State, the SOSREP and the Government may find that the skipper of the vessel did not take action soon enough and that intervention was required earlier. I am grateful for the Minister's comments on the matter. He knows that I have written to him, and I hope that we can meet to discuss the issue with the local authorities, which are concerned about the clean-up of the coast in that area.

Mr. Jamieson: I am always pleased to meet the hon. Gentleman and representatives from his part of the world to discuss the matters that he raises. That is a case in which certain circumstances prevailed, but I do not believe it to be appropriate to go into them now because other actions are taking place.

We can examine particular incidents and see how they could have been handled better, but, had it been a ship carrying a large amount of oil—all ships carry bunker oil, even if they do not actually transport oil—that had been stricken out at sea, there would now have been an opportunity for SOSREP to bring that ship into one of the near ports along that coast to reduce the amount of damage that it would cause.

The hon. Member for St. Ives also asked about the firefighting unit. He may wish to raise that in the context of the debate on the next clause. The SOSREP can issue a direction to a salvor to take action of any kind, including boarding a firefighting unit on to a casualty if that is required. It can require that the casualty move to a safer place.

The hon. Member for Uxbridge rightly raised the point about the speed of action. In such instances, speed is of the essence. I assure him that the coastguard service in the UK is not a nine-to-five service: in modern parlance, it operates 24/7. As soon as there is a casualty, the operation is geared to taking action as rapidly as possible. Since the national plan was implemented, I believe that there have been about 280 incidents, and most of them have been dealt with rapidly.

I think that that has probably covered most of the points that were raised. As I said on Second Reading, the Government welcome the proposals, and I am glad that they are also welcomed by all members of the Committee. Thankfully, the occasions when they will be used will be few and far between. However, the proposals are important because incidents of that type can be major, with catastrophic effects on our coastline and on human, bird and plant life, as we saw in the case of the Prestige.

The clause and the schedule to the Bill also consolidate all the existing provisions to issue directions in a single document and that, too, is welcome. I hope that the Committee will give clause 1 of the Bill a favourable hearing.

Column Number: 013

Dr. Iddon: I thank hon. Members of all parties for giving me support on the Bill.

In concluding the debate, I shall clarify the purpose of the clause. It inserts a new section 108A of, and schedule 3A to, the 1995 Act. The clause also provides that a direction given under schedule 3A takes precedence over any other provision in the 1995 Act.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2

Fire authorities: power to charge

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Dr. Iddon: The purpose of clause 2 is to amend section 3 of the Fire Services Act 1947. Section 3 of the 1947 Act is concerned with the supplementary powers of fire authorities, and subsection (2) of the clause removes any doubt that a fire authority may use its brigade for purposes other than firefighting in the area of another fire authority or at sea. Hon. Members might like to know that the jurisdiction normally ends at the county boundaries or the low watermark.

Section 4 of the Fire Services Act 1947 states:

    ''Save as expressly provided in this Act, a fire authority shall not make any charge for services rendered by the Authority.''

After that, the Bill inserts an exception stating that fire authorities in England, Wales and the Isles of Scilly may make a charge for firefighting at sea and outside the area of every fire authority in Great Britain.

3.15 pm

The purpose of the Bill is to increase safety at sea and reduce the threat and damage caused by pollution from ships. Clause 2 amends the Fire Services Act 1947, as I have said, by including a provision giving fire authorities the power to recover costs that they incur in fighting fires at sea outside any fire authority's area. The fire might be on a ship, an oil rig or even another structure, such as a pontoon.

In the 10 years between 1991 and 2001, some 347 fires were recorded on ships in UK territorial waters. Of those, at least 12 could have resulted in significant loss of life were it not for the assistance that the coastal fire teams gave once they had been airlifted to the scene. Two of those incidents are particularly worth recalling. First, in 1999, the container ship the Ever Decent collided with the cruise ship Norwegian Dream some 20 miles from Margate. The cruise ship entered the side of the container ship, causing a major fire, with injuries to 28 of the 2,400 people on the vessels. Experts say that had the container ship entered the side of the cruise ship, and not the other way round, the picture would have been a lot worse, with the cruise ship lying disabled in a toxic cloud of smoke. Major fire service involvement offshore would certainly have been required.

The second incident, to which I also referred on Second Reading, concerned a three-day fire on the ro-ro ferry Kukawa in 1997. The court ruled that the fire service's claim to recover costs was inadmissible. That was a serious setback to firefighting at sea, and some

Column Number: 014

fire authorities have now revoked their declared facility status because of those funding problems. I understand that about 10 of 40 authorities are still there to fight fires at sea. That number may be reduced even further, and the authorities are extremely worried that we will not have the ability to fight fires around all 10,000 miles of our coastline adequately if coastal fire services decide, one after the other, to pull out because of the difficulty in recovering costs, as at least one has done already.

We need the new provisions in my Bill to encourage the fire authorities to continue to provide that expert and life-saving service. Obviously, special facilities and expertise, over and above that necessary for fighting fires on land, are needed to fight maritime fires, particularly those that occur at sea.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2003
Prepared 29 April 2003