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9 Oct 2007 : Column 194

Ports (Regulation)

5.2 pm

Anne Moffat (East Lothian) (Lab): I beg to move,

Colleagues will know that this is certainly a complex issue. I have raised it in the House on many occasions, but it has become increasingly clear that UK regulations that comply with the habitats directive need to be put in place. Under such regulations, the implications—and, if necessary, the public-interest arguments—of the firth of Forth scheme and similar proposals could be fully considered.

The seas around the UK currently have no legal protection. That means that some of Scotland’s most precious wildlife, from sea birds to seahorses, is at risk from human impacts such as shipping, marine developments, fishing and pollution. Currently, 85 different pieces of legislation govern activities in Scotland’s seas. That legislation needs to be consolidated and brought up to date if we are to protect our marine wildlife and our coastal communities.

In my constituency, the biggest threat at present is the proposal to allow ship-to-ship oil transfers in the firth of Forth, and my Bill is designed to address the lack of any appropriate regulation or framework. At present, ship-to-ship oil transfers can be carried out within a harbour authority area if that harbour authority has in place an approved oil spill contingency plan that covers such activities. The underlying principle is that ship-to-ship transfers in harbour authority areas should take place only where there is a fully worked-up oil spill contingency plan, with trained personnel—and the necessary equipment for responding to a spill—close at hand.

Many hon. Members will know that my constituency of East Lothian has one of the finest coastlines in the UK. It attracts 2.5 million visitors every year, with all the obvious advantages for local communities, including the employment of up to 3,500 people in the tourist industry. The coastline stretches from Cockburnspath north to Musselburgh, and its beauty is valued by locals and visitors alike. The coastline also has nine designated bathing waters from Seton Sands down to Thornton loch, and anyone travelling on the east coast main line will see its breathtaking beauty at first hand.

The East Lothian coastline is one of outstanding natural heritage. Ninety per cent. of the coastline is classified as a Forth special protection area. Over the recess, I have collated evidence from across the constituency of the determination of my constituents to oppose the proposal. I have a petition with hundreds of signatures; I have thousands of postcards that constituents have signed and returned confirming that they wish me to oppose the proposal, which would see 7.8 million tonnes of crude oil transferred in the firth of Forth.

My constituents and I do not wish to consider the consequences of an oil spill in our beautiful waters, whether there are contingency plans in place or not. In recent years, public money has delivered major improvements to the coastline and beaches of East
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Lothian, and that investment should never be put at risk. Hon. Members might ask whether there is a genuine risk from the proposal for ship-to-ship transfer of oil. The answer is absolutely yes. The potential hazards include oil spills, vessel collision, fire and explosion, environmental emissions, damage to coastal and sea bed habitats, damage to tourism and damage to fishing. It is an accident waiting to happen. I, for one, do not want to trust and hope that, if such an oil spill were to occur in the firth of Forth, the contingency plans would preserve the integrity of the coastline and nature conservation sites. I am introducing this ten-minute Bill because I remain of the view that the current legislation has the balance right between protecting the environment and allowing the port authorities to facilitate commercial and economic activity.

There is some provision to regulate and, if necessary, prevent ship-to-ship transfers in the Forth. Those functions are vested in Forth Ports, which has power under byelaws enacted under local legislation to regulate whether vessels can anchor to transfer cargo. As a competent port authority under the Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994, Forth Ports must have regard to the requirements of the habitats directive. The amendments to the habitats regulations in Scotland are very good, and adequate to deal with the European wildlife sites dimension of projects in the Forth. They were passed with all-party support in the Scottish Parliament. The detailed process for consent to plans and projects set out by the current regulations does not deal specifically with, or apply to, oil transfers, however. Unlike other types of port development, programmes of ship-to-ship transfers are not subject to environmental impact assessment regulations either in Scotland or in the rest of the UK, regardless of their frequency or volume.

The missing link in the legislative framework is a sensible set of UK regulations controlling ship-to-ship transfers in UK waters. The absence of clear national consenting mechanisms for marine plans or projects and for ship-to-ship cargo transfers in particular has led the firth of Forth to a highly unsatisfactory default position. The consent for a major oil handling project must be determined by the board of directors of a public limited company, the share price of which seems inevitably to be affected by that decision. That seems an invidious position for Forth Ports plc. Meanwhile, UK and Scottish Ministers have no power of veto. Ship-to-ship transfer as an activity slips through the net and the public are denied a voice.

No wonder there exists a widely and strongly held perception of a conflict of interest on the part of statutory harbour authorities when they are also by nature public limited companies with duties to their shareholders. Surely this is at odds with the need for impartial regulation and with the spirit, if not the letter, of the habitats regulations.

In East Lothian, for instance, there is a perception of a reluctance on the part of the harbour authority to address the legitimate concerns of local communities
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and others, and that has resulted in an unfortunate amount of mistrust and ill feeling. The mistrust is exacerbated by the difficulty experienced by members of the public in gaining access to environmental information gathered by the harbour authority. This fuels accusations of secrecy and questions the impartiality of the harbour authority. How can a body that may benefit financially from granting consent be seen to regulate the activity transparently and without prejudice? These issues could be addressed by incorporating into new regulations for ship-to-ship transfers a clear process to be followed by harbour authorities. The authority to consider that falls wholly within Westminster.

The Bill seeks, by regulating the activities that can be undertaken in UK ports, the provision for transfers to be prohibited or consented to only subject to strict conditions. Regulation of the activities that can be undertaken in UK ports under the Bill should avoid the potential conflicts of interest for bodies that currently act both as the competent authorities and the financial beneficiaries of such transfers. The Bill would ensure that harbour authorities are more clearly accountable to the public for their environmental responsibilities and in carrying out their statutory functions. The decision-making process in relation to ports’ development is complex and often less than transparent. There must be scope for simplification and regulation in particular if the habitats directive does not fully meet the requirement to protect our waters from the impact of such proposals.

A common approach from the Government and the devolved Administration to work with the industry and other interested parties to simplify and rationalise the procedures is now required. Successive Governments have sought to separate regulation from those with a commercial interest in consents. For example, the water industry is regulated by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and the forestry industry by the Forestry Commission, and town and country planning proposals in which the local planning authority stands to benefit may be called in by Ministers.

The Bill seeks to ensure that clear habitats directive compliant procedures are followed by harbour authorities in consenting to ship-to-ship proposals and would give call-in power to Ministers to avoid apparent conflicts of interests.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Anne Moffat, Jim Sheridan, Mr. Jim McGovern, Mr. David Hamilton, Mr. John MacDougall, Mr. David Anderson, Mark Lazarowicz, Mr. Jim Devine, Dr. Gavin Strang and Nigel Griffiths.

Ports (regulation)

Anne Moffat accordingly presented a Bill to regulate the activities which can be undertaken in UK ports; to place certain duties on harbour authorities; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 October, and to be printed [Bill 154].

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Defence Procurement

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Michael Foster.]

5.12 pm

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): I am pleased to open this debate—my first as the Minister of State for the Armed Forces. It is a fantastic privilege to be given the opportunity to associate with, and to serve, the men and women who defend our nation. During my now three months in office, I have met many of them both at home and abroad, including in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I have heard first hand their views about their equipment and the way in which it is supported. Everywhere that I have been, I have been immensely impressed and inspired by their dedication and bravery and by the professionalism of our personnel. Although the debate is about procurement, the House need not be told that our equipment is only as good as the people who use it and that those people still make the difference. We are very fortunate to have the people that we have in our armed forces.

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Ainsworth: If the hon. Gentleman will give me just a moment. I have not spoken in the House for four years given the position that I had and I have been speaking for about 40 seconds, but he is trying to intervene already. If he allows me a bit of scope, I will give way to one or two Members in a little while.

The House knows that direct responsibility for defence acquisition lies with my noble Friend the Minister for Defence Equipment and Support and I should like to pay tribute to the tremendous commitment that he has brought to the role. In December 2005, he launched the defence industrial strategy. It has been a success. For the first time, it provides a framework for how the Government and industry together should meet the needs of the front line.

The strategy set a challenge to the Ministry of Defence. It has driven change within the Department, not least through the merger of the Defence Logistics Organisation and the Defence Procurement Agency into Defence Equipment and Support earlier this year. That new organisation provides a unified approach to our procurement and support functions. It will deliver better value and greater effectiveness for the £16 billion that we spend each year. The defence industrial strategy also set industry a challenge to transform itself. A good example of how industry is rising to that challenge is shown in VT and BAE Systems; they are forming a joint venture for future shipbuilding and support.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op): Will the Minister give way on that point?

Mr. Ainsworth: I will give way in a moment, perhaps even to my hon. Friend.

I have seen the effect that the strategy has had further down the supply network. NP Aerospace in my constituency in Coventry puts together the Mastiff-protected vehicle and supplies life-saving body armour for our troops. We
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ask a lot from industry, particularly from small firms such as NP Aerospace. We want them to embrace change, and to be innovative and flexible. In turn, we need to understand the problems that they face, to be as clear as possible about what we need, to provide reassurance and to understand their concerns. When, by taking risks, they deliver on our requirements, we must reward them for taking those risks.

Bill Wiggin: What discussions has the Minister had with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about increasing from just 3 per cent. the amount of British lamb that our forces are allowed to eat? Is he not aware that lamb prices are at rock bottom because of Government policy on foot and mouth and the crisis that it created? Introducing more British lamb through the procurement process would be good for the taxpayer, good for the farmers on whose land our troops train and, most of all, good for our troops, because British lamb is so delicious.

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman raises a fair point. I have not looked into that—there were one or two other things going on over the summer—but I will do so. I will talk about it and see whether we ought to address that point.

Mr. Davidson rose—

Mr. Ainsworth: I give way to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Davidson: I have waited four years and five minutes to intervene on the Minister, and I thank him for giving way. May I say how grateful my constituency and I are for the award of the aircraft carrier some months ago? However, I want him to clarify what exactly he has done for me recently, because it is rumoured that the MARS—military afloat reach and sustainability—contract will be offered for award outside the United Kingdom through the Official Journal of the European Union . That would allow external suppliers to bid, and it would disrupt the relationship that has been agreed with industry on shipbuilding. It would also destroy the relationship with the supply chain that the defence industrial strategy has been so keen to build. In the second intervention that the Minister has taken in four years, will he agree to reverse Government policy on that matter?

Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend knows that he and I have had one or two conversations over the past four years, even if they have not taken place at the Dispatch Box. I have tried to do him many favours, but he has never really appreciated what I have tried to do for him over that period. There is no thanks from him; he gets an aircraft carrier, and within a couple of months he is complaining that he wants something else. The MARS project is still in the development stage. It is too early to make the accusations that he makes. He knows that we are embarking on a huge shipbuilding project in the coming years, and his constituency will be heavily involved in that. MARS acquisition has to fit into that and into the thinking. My noble Friend the Minister for Defence Equipment and Support will look into the matter and will be prepared to talk to people, possibly even to my hon. Friend, about that proposal.

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Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is generous in accepting so many interventions early in his speech. I thank him for his commitment on the two aircraft carriers. We must thank the Government for that commitment, as it involves a huge amount of money, and it protects many yards. However, will he ensure that that is the biggest shipbuilding programme that we have seen, that help and assistance will be available, and that some of the work will go to the Vickers yard at Barrow? It is important that the BAE yard at Barrow receives a share of the work, and does not rely purely on money. Of course, we must touch on our favourite subject—what will operate from those two carriers, and the need to ensure that the North West Aerospace Alliance will benefit.

Mr. Ainsworth: The aim of the defence industrial strategy is to look not only at the needs of our people but at the capability of our industry, and to do so strategically. I do not think that my hon. Friend need have any doubts about our desire to do exactly what he would want us to do, but we must look at how that fits in with the way in which we make progress and maintain capability and the skills base in the UK, as well as—and this is of primary importance—delivering first-class equipment to our people at the front. That is exactly what we are about and it is what we are trying to achieve.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): As the Minister appears to be soliciting thanks from some of us, may I thank him and Lord Drayson, who has ministerial responsibility for procurement, for coming to Yeovil a year ago and signing the first partnering agreement for the Future Lynx helicopter? Will he confirm that Future Lynx and the partnering concept will remain fundamental to his Department’s strategy in future?

Mr. Ainsworth: We are still working on the proposals, as the hon. Gentleman knows, and I hope that we can confirm exactly where we are with Future Lynx and the progress that has been made. I will keep the House informed about that over the coming months.

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Ainsworth: May I make some progress, having giving way a few times?

Effective procurement needs strong front-line input, and I am pleased that military personnel, including those with recent operational experience, have a strong say in decisions on future and in-service equipment at all levels. We must listen to people who are on operations. During my visits, I heard a great deal of praise for the improvements in combat clothing, personal equipment and weapons such as the Javelin anti-armour missile. The new protected personnel vehicles such as Bulldog and Mastiff are particularly welcomed, as is the provision of Apache attack helicopters. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced yesterday in the House, we are going to place an order for an additional 140 Mastiff patrol vehicles. We are getting those improvements right, because we take the views of our people into account in deciding what to buy, using their knowledge to make sure that they get what they need, whether it is
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360° vision for Mastiff, or fitting a machine gun to the side of a Lynx helicopter. While technology is a big help—and we must always exploit it—it does not, and it never will, have all the answers. It takes the brains of our people to give the equipment the extra edge. We must make absolutely certain that we input that knowledge at every stage in the procurement process.

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): The Minister will know that yesterday I welcomed the extra Mastiffs, which are extremely popular vehicles. If someone is on patrol, they would rather go out in one of those than in anything else. Now that that announcement has been made, when will the order be placed, what is the delivery date, and is the Ministry of Defence considering medium protected patrol vehicles as well, which are very much needed, particularly in Afghanistan? Will he give the House some information on that?

Mr. Ainsworth: Later in my speech, I shall talk about the vehicles that we use. The hon. Lady is right to say that Mastiff is held in high regard by the people out in Afghanistan and Iraq, but it is not always the vehicle for the job. I am sure that she appreciates that there must be a range of vehicles suitable for all occasions and available for commanders to use as and when they need to do so. The additional Mastiffs, with those that we are already bringing on board, will help in that regard.

Ann Winterton: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way again?

Mr. Ainsworth: I am coming to the subject of vehicles, and I am sure that the hon. Lady will want to intervene then.

Nowhere is providing equipment for force protection more important than on the front line. Since the start of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have approved more than £1 billion for force protection equipment, from new helmets to better surveillance equipment and electronic counter-measures. Osprey body armour and the heavier Kestrel armour for more exposed tasks have helped to save lives in both Iraq and Afghanistan, but let me make the point that I have just made to the hon. Lady. I know that many in the House understand this, but others do not. Equipment alone can never provide full protection. Tactics and training are every bit as important as protective equipment in keeping our people alive and safe.

A key part of force protection is providing the right battlefield mobility. In March, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence announced that 14 more support helicopters are to be made available for operational theatres—eight Chinook mark 3 and six Merlins. We expect all six Merlins to be operational next year.

Dr. Gibson: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Ainsworth: I shall give way again in a while, but may I make a little more progress?

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