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Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): I begin by associating the official Opposition with the tribute that the Minister rightly paid to Lord Donaldson. He will be a great loss to the shipping world and if I may, I shall return to some elements of his report to which the Minister did not refer in his speech.

I am delighted to be leading for the Opposition on the Merchant Shipping (Pollution) Bill. Given that today is my first outing on merchant shipping since taking over this brief, I hope that it is in order briefly to stress just how important this industry is. It has taken over from aviation as the third largest service industry in the country, with a turnover of almost £10 billion a year. It carries 95 per cent. of our visible trade, and the importance of our merchant fleet to an island bordering the second busiest international waterway in the world cannot be overestimated. It is no wonder that Admiral Jervis—here, I am recalling recent celebrations—famously said the following to William Pitt the younger:

Indeed, the merchant navy has given extremely gallant service in two world wars, in the Falklands and, most recently, in the Gulf.

We welcome the Bill. As we discuss pollution today, we should remember that, as the Minister briefly mentioned, shipping is by far the cleanest form of transport in terms of carbon dioxide emissions. On average, per tonne mile, shipping produces about 10 per cent. of the CO 2 produced by road haulage. That is why, despite its brevity, this is a very important Bill. It allows for faster payments of more substantial sums in the aftermath of a major oil spill through the supplementary fund protocol, and it will cut emissions of nitrogen oxides from marine diesel engines.

The Bill enables me to demonstrate two of my party's approaches: the new consensus and the longstanding Conservative commitment to the environment. By far the most important post-war environmental legislation was Harold Macmillan's Clean Air Act 1956.

Mr. Greg Knight: In rightly placing on the record his concern for the environment, does my hon. Friend agree that nothing in the Bill ought to be used to prevent the use of historic vessels for regatta purposes? Any new restrictions imposed on diesel-engine emissions must not, therefore, be retrospective to that extent.

Mr. Brazier: I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend on that point, and I was very glad to hear the Minister promise, following my right hon. Friend's intervention, to come back to that matter. It would be quite wrong for the Bill to interfere in any way with historic celebrations of the gallantry of our sailors in two world wars, for example. The Minister gave him a tentative assurance, which I hope he can firm up at the end of the debate.
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We all know the consequences of major oil spills. We have seen the pictures on television of dead and dying birds and of coastlines ruined, in some cases perhaps for ever. Local economies are often stunted and tourism blighted. We should also remember those who live off the sea. After the Braer disaster off the Shetlands, to which the Minister referred, three quarters of the compensation went to help the fishermen whose livelihoods had been destroyed overnight.

There have been a number of other terrible spillages, such as the Sea Empress at Milford Haven, to which the Minister rightly referred. The cost of the Braer and Milford Haven disasters were $83 million and $62 million respectively—disasters that left tens of thousands of birds dying in the slick, and ruined hundreds of miles of beautiful coastline. The old liability and fund conventions made available up to $300 million to cover such costs. Those British disasters fell well within that fund but, as the Minister rightly said, that is not true of all oil disasters. When the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Prince William Sound, 37,000 tonnes of crude oil were spilled and 270,000 birds were killed. The cost of the clean-up operation was a staggering $2.5 billion.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): It is of course right to establish appropriate regimes to compensate for accidents and incidents such as those that the hon. Gentleman is describing, but is he concerned that almost three quarters of all tanker incidents are either accidents by collision and contact, or are due to machinery problems? A substantial number of foreign-flagged vessels are involved in tanker accidents—I am thinking of the Bahamas, Norway, Gibraltar, Liberia and Malta—so would we not be equally well served by pressing for improvements in the quality of the maintenance and operation of foreign-flagged vessels in British waters, as well as compensating for some of the errors that they have made?

Mr. Brazier: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, with which I have considerable sympathy. I shall raise two points that relate to his intervention in a moment, if I may, rather than doing so now. He makes a very strong point and I hope that the Minister has taken it on board.

It is estimated that when the Prestige sank in 2002 after releasing 64,000 tonnes of crude oil, more than 3,000 km of coastline were ruined. Almost 800,000 birds were killed and the Iberian guillemot became extinct. The financial cost of the spill is expected to top $1 billion. To date, only 15 per cent. of the compensation has been paid, causing untold harm on the coasts of Spain, Portugal and France. That is why the supplementary fund protocol is so important. Not all spills will cost less than $300 million in future, just as they have not in the past. Clean-ups need to begin immediately—not after a long period of ascertaining the final cost of the operation.

The new fund, which we support strongly, will provide $1 billion, which is a big increase, and will rush in aid when it is needed. However, in moving on to the ground covered by the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) in his earlier intervention,
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I want to press the Government to tell the House what progress is being made on preventing disasters from affecting the most environmentally important areas of this country.

The British Chamber of Shipping told me that, worldwide, oil pollution fell by just over 90 per cent. between 1992—a carefully chosen year—and 2004. Nevertheless, what are we doing in terms of prevention? There is a slight danger that the Bill will mean that we focus on locking the porthole after the oil has bolted.

Lord Donaldson's inquiry contained more than 100 recommendations, and the Minister was right to say that some had been adopted. However, nothing has been done yet about one of the main suggestions, although the Government have long promised to act. Lord Donaldson recommended the creation of marine environmental high-risk areas, so that tankers and other vessels carrying dangerous cargoes would be routed away from environmentally sensitive regions. The Minister is my constituency neighbour, and we share a stretch of coast on a very busy shipping lane. It would be difficult to route vessels away from that lane, but that would be practical for other areas where there is a particular concern for environmental factors. Will the Minister say what progress has been made with that proposal?

Dr. Ladyman: I cannot give a date for that announcement today, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that it will be made very shortly.

Mr. Brazier: I am delighted to hear that.

In recent years, huge strides have been made in reducing oil pollution. I said a moment ago that the latest available figures showed that a fall of just over 90 per cent. had been achieved, but I remind the Government that that success is partly due to the support shown by the industry and individual members of the merchant navy. They are the ones who have had to amend many practices to achieve that dramatic fall.

I am worried that a new European directive might criminalise accidental discharges that are due not to reckless disregard, but to accidents involving a small amount of negligence. The directive comes from a section of the European Commission that used to be led by Spain but is now led by France—the two countries in Europe that have suffered most from oil pollution. As so often with measures from Brussels, the intention is good but the consequences may be counter-productive. First, there is a real chance that the directive may contravene international law. That would lead to the absurdity that European law could pull in one direction and international law in the other. Secondly, whatever the legal position, I share the industry's concern that young people could be deterred from joining the merchant marine.

The Government rightly can take some credit for the large expansion in British-registered tonnage as a result of the tonnage tax. I was very pleased that the Minister recently reiterated his determination to defend the Red Duster, now that the Government have acknowledged that it is under threat from Brussels. However, the recovery in tonnage has not been matched by any great increase in the numbers of British crew members. The directive means that merchant navy crew members
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could be sent to prison for a very long time as a result of genuine accidents in which there was no reckless disregard, but merely an element of negligence. That could have a significant effect on the recruitment of talented young people into our merchant navy.

Considerable concern was expressed in another place about vessels flying flags of convenience of countries that have not signed up to the protocol. When I asked the Minister about that earlier, his answer was very much the same as the one given by Baroness Crawley. Both said that there is a compulsory requirement to have insurance, but both must know that that insurance does not cover the really large spills. Ships from Panama, Liberia and other countries that have not signed up to the protocol are the metaphorical stowaways on the great vessel that is the international merchant fleet. They weigh the rest of us down, while using everyone else's resources.

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