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I should make clear that my Bill does not seek to ban ship-to-ship transfers of oil or other cargoes. Such operations are perfectly acceptable if carried out in the right place and the right conditions, with the right infrastructure and pollution prevention expertise. However, it must be ensured that they can take place
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only in locations where they are safe, with the appropriate protection mechanisms applied in case something goes wrong. The transfer of oil at sea is of course an inherently hazardous activity, and aspects of the regulation of the marine industries of some of the countries from which oil may come in the future might—to put it mildly—cause us some concern. It is therefore important to ensure that we have the right kind of protection for our marine environment.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): Environmentalists in and around Worthing and district will understand the points that the hon. Gentleman is making. Although the greatest threat exists on the northern costs of Great Britain, when a large amount of timber floated ashore in Worthing from the Ice Princess we were well aware of what would have happened had there been 2,000 tonnes of oil floating around the seas and the Solent. Timber does much less damage. The hon. Gentleman will receive considerable support from the south coast as well.

Mark Lazarowicz: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s support. It is true that some of the worst disasters involving pollution have happened off the south coast. Most of us will remember the Torrey Canyon, and there have been other incidents along the south coast in recent years.

In seeking regulation, I do not seek to prohibit or regulate what are known as emergency transfers which take place when it is essential to move oil from one vessel to another. I am talking about general practice and general trading operations.

As the hon. Gentleman reminded us, there is concern about the transfer of oil at sea precisely because many parts of this country are blessed with beautiful coastlines that are of major importance to the communities that live along them. They are important not only for the natural environment in itself, but for the support that the natural environment brings to local communities in terms of tourism, recreation and other economic activities. I mentioned the Torrey Canyon, but there have been other episodes in recent years off the south coast of England. Indeed, as hon. Members are well aware, the oil spill from the Erika off the west coast of France also had consequences for the UK.

As a Member representing a constituency in Scotland, I can point to the beauty of Scotland’s seas that are home to 45 per cent. of the breeding seabirds in the entire European Union. Those seas are of European significance and, in that regard, I should put on record the support that I have received from the staff at the Scottish Seabird Centre in North Berwick who have helped to publicise the issues behind the Bill and the campaign. I strongly recommend to anyone who has not visited the centre that they should do so. It is a good example in showing how important the welfare of the natural environment is for the protection of our most vulnerable marine species. The firth of Forth alone is home to about 300,000 seabirds and the seas around Scotland contain a wide variety of species, from basking sharks to rare coldwater corals. As I have suggested, that wildlife brings great financial benefits to our coastal communities. It is in everyone’s interests
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that the marine environment is managed sustainably to allow us to reap the benefit of healthy, productive and diverse seas and coasts.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): I am sure that I support the sentiments behind the Bill and I am all for protecting our coastlines and our wildlife. However, the shipping industry is an equally important part of our economy, so can the hon. Gentleman tell us what representations, if any, about the Bill he has received from that industry? Does it see any particular reasons why we should not support the Bill?

Mark Lazarowicz: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising an important point. As a Member representing a coastal constituency, I also represent a port, although one that is not as busy as it once was. I am equally interested in ensuring that there is a healthy and vibrant marine industry. Although there has been widespread publicity for my Bill in some of the specialist press and media dealing with the marine industry, it is interesting that, as far as I am aware, no one from the industry, apart from one individual, who is opposed to the Bill, has contacted me.

On the other hand, many organisations—obviously primarily from the environment and community side—have contacted me to support it. I emphasise that I certainly do not want to do anything that would undermine the shipping industry. As I hope to assure the hon. Gentleman later, the Bill would provide for the industry a bit of a—level playing field is an unfortunate analogy for things at sea—level regime that would benefit it in some respects. Part of the concern is that the oil may come from countries whose regimes for marine safety are not as good as ours, and that is why it is in the interests of this country to have a high-quality regime that applies to all. Although I have particular concern for my area, the issues are of concern throughout the entire UK—along the south coast of England, and in Devon, Cornwall, Wales and many other areas.

Ship-to-ship transfers take place in Scapa Flow and there are active proposals for cargo transport operations in at least two other UK harbour locations—the firth of Forth and Falmouth. I believe that the proposal in Falmouth has been quite controversial, but I am not as fully aware of the situation there as that in the firth of Forth.

It should be emphasised that often no independent authorisation or consent is required to set up an oil-handling operation. It depends on local regulations; sometimes local legislation is in place. A wide range of regimes apply in the UK. I see the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), expressing doubt about that, but varied regimes and regulations apply; they are certainly not entirely consistent across the UK. My Bill aims to ensure consistency.

The primary objective of my Bill is to ensure that the standards that currently apply to ship-to-shore transfers, which are carefully regulated, also apply to ship-to-ship cargo transfers. We should not expect lower standards of environmental protection for transfers that take place at sea than for oil transfers
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from ship to shore. The issue is complex, but my understanding is that transfers at sea are regulated in a fairly piecemeal fashion, and that national rules and guidelines apply only in limited ways; however, I will not go into that in great detail. That is the background to my proposal.

The situation is slightly different in Scotland. Last June, as a result of concern about proposals in the firth of Forth, the Scottish Parliament put forward regulations relating to the habitats directive, with all-party support. The regulations give Scottish Ministers power to intervene to ensure that any transfers agreed by a competent authority are consistent with the EU habitats directive. However, as I understand it, the regulations cannot apply to ship-to-ship transfers outside the control of the competent authorities, and of course as they are made under the habitats directive, they apply only to areas that are designated under the birds and habitats directives. If a transfer is proposed in an area that is not yet classified under the directives, or that is of tourist significance but is not considered as falling within the terms of the birds and habitats directives, the regulations agreed in Scotland do not apply, even in Scotland.

To come to the crux of the matter, my Bill would place a requirement on the Government to introduce regulations under the Merchant Shipping Act 1995 to control ship-to-ship transfers. The Government currently have powers to introduce such regulations, and indeed draft regulations were produced in 1999. There has been discussion about such regulations over the years, but they have not appeared. My Bill would replace the power with a requirement on Government to bring forward regulations. I have set out various criteria that have to be borne in mind, but clearly once regulations are brought forward, there will be a consultation on the details. Basically, I am trying to move the Government forward from simply having a power that they have not yet exercised to bringing forward regulations.

My Bill sets out a number of principles that the Secretary of State will be required to take into account when introducing regulations. I shall mention them briefly; I do not want to take up too much of the House’s time, as I know that there are other Bills to be discussed today. My Bill would require the Secretary of State to prohibit cargo transfers of oil and oil products in UK waters, except within statutory harbour authority areas, where the anti-pollution measures should be better than on the open seas. The Secretary of State would be required to consider a transfer, or programme of transfers, to be an “oil handling facility”. He would also be required to ensure that such transfers were considered to be a plan or project under the Conservation (Natural Habitats, &tc.) Regulations 1994.

The Bill would also require the Secretary of State to consider various aspects of the environmental impact assessment regulations, and it would exempt emergency transfers from its provisions.

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): Is the implication that ship-to-ship transfers would have to take place within the harbour area, or would certain areas not be considered environmentally sensitive and are some currently designated for such transfers? I was not clear about that from the drafting.

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Mark Lazarowicz: I should be clear. Although the intention is that such transfers would take place within harbour areas, the drafting indicates that they would be

That means that transfers could take place outside harbour areas when that would be safe. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that the definition of “harbour area” can be broad and cover parts of the sea, rather than only the area within a couple of piers, for example. My suggestion is that transfers would be allowed in areas where they would be safe—normally harbour areas, but other areas as well.

I turn briefly to the issue of environmental impact assessments, an important dimension of the debate. Within the firth of Forth area, Forth ports have required an environmental impact assessment to be drawn up by the relevant shipping company. I welcome that. I do not want to single out Forth ports for criticism; indeed, they have approached the issue with a fair degree of awareness of public concern and there has been open dialogue about the issue with local communities.

Those ports have done more than the minimum required of them. In many circumstances, those port authorities, or any others, are under no requirement to carry out environmental impact assessments. More importantly, there is no independent oversight of the process to ensure that the assessment is sufficient or that any environmental recommendations arising from such an assessment are appropriate. In many cases, a port operator will have a commercial interest in the activities that need to be regulated. The practical consequences of the lack of any general, formal requirement for cargo transfer proposals to be subject to the environmental impact regulations are that there is no independent, publicly accountable scrutiny of the environmental impacts of cargo transfer proposals except those that relate to European wildlife sites in Scotland, as a result of Scottish Parliament legislation.

In sum, the Bill would remove the provisions that empower the Secretary of State for Transport to regulate cargo transfers, and replace them with a requirement that she regulate them. That would go a long way towards reassuring the concerns of many coastal communities. I emphasise again that the Bill does not seek in any sense to hinder the important marine industry—the ports and shipping industry—in our country. It seeks to set a clearer framework for dealing with ship-to-ship transfers throughout the UK. That issue is important to many communities throughout this country.

I know from my discussions with the Minister that the Government are not unsympathetic to my objectives in the Bill and I look forward to his reply. I emphasise again that I am not against shipping or the marine industry, which are vital for our island nation and its industries and imports. They are vital for jobs in many communities, including my own. Nor am I, per se, against ship-to-ship transfers, which in the right place are a perfectly acceptable activity. However, they must take place only in safe locations and in safe conditions and only use safe procedures. We need to ensure that because we have to protect our coastal environment—one of the most precious natural assets of our islands.

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12.29 pm

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): I am delighted to speak on this Bill, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) on securing this slot and introducing it. The Opposition very much appreciate the intentions behind it and the considerable amount of work that has gone into drafting it. The timing is good, as it gives us an opportunity to consider the effects of man on our marine life and the birds that make Britain’s coasts their primary habitat. It also gives us an opportunity to think about the importance of shipping and the fact that it is easily the least carbon-intensive way of moving goods around the world, and to try to think of ways we can make that industry safer for the environment.

The protection of our coastline and the wildlife that lives on it will be a most important concern for the next Conservative Government. We all know the damage that can be wrought when things go wrong at sea. An island, by its very nature, is vulnerable to oil spillages. I remember most acutely the Braer disaster off Shetland and the Sea Empress at Milford Haven, as, I am sure, do other hon. Members. The cost of those has been estimated at $83 million and $62 million respectively, according to figures from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. More importantly, they left tens of thousands of birds dying in the slicks and ruined hundreds of miles of coastline for a very long period. Fortunately, oil spills are now very rare. Nevertheless, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith made it clear why we are likely to see an increase in oil trade around Scotland and the north of our country, with the shift towards Russia as an increasingly important oil producer and supplier to the UK.

The need to preserve areas of outstanding beauty or environmental significance from the threat of oil pollution is very great. Indeed, the last time I debated oil pollution in this Chamber, I led Opposition demands for the Government to introduce, after a 13-year delay, provisions for marine high-risk areas. I am pleased to say that not long after that the Government did at last use the powers to create such no-go areas for ships on some of the most sensitive parts of our coastline. The Bill is not in quite the same league, because it deals only with transfers of oil, not huge potential oil slicks, but it raises an important issue and the hon. Gentleman is right to have put it on to the House’s agenda. As far as I am able to discover, we have never had in the UK a single spillage from a ship-to-ship transfer in our waters, and the level of incidents worldwide is very small. In the past 10 years, the largest single incident of ship-to-ship oil spillage involved only six barrels, although it would not have been nice to be on a nearby section of coastline. Worldwide, the average annual spillage is about eight barrels of oil per annum.

However, even the smallest oil slick can cause significant damage along a sensitive piece of coastline—not only to bird-life but to the coastline itself. It is sensible that, as the Bill proposes, the Secretary of State should have the power to determine where such transfers occur. By limiting these practices to areas where the Secretary of State is certain they will cause limited damage, the Bill would remove much of the concern about such transfers. In calling for ships engaging in transfers of oil to be
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considered “an oil handling facility”, the Bill would in effect demand that shipping companies prepare oil pollution emergency plans. I understand that in practice that usually happens anyway, but when it does not, it should, and it is thoroughly sensible to put that requirement on a statutory footing. Enshrining the circumstances necessary for an environmental impact statement to be required, as laid out in the Marine Works (Environmental Impact Assessment) Regulations 2007, would also provide greater clarity in the law, which should be welcomed in all parts of the House.

However, my hon. Friends and I have serious concerns about one aspect of the Bill. It insists that each ship-to-ship transfer be treated as a “plan or project” under the habitats directive. We believe that that would place a disproportionate burden on the industry. Before explaining why we believe that, I wish to remind the House of the importance of the industry, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned in the context of his constituency. We in this country should be proud of this industry, and the entire House should support it. Measured by weight, 95 per cent. of all goods that come to this country come by sea—from the toy reindeer around the Santa grotto, to the paddling pools in the summer, to the footballs used in the premiership. The industry has an annual turnover of £40 billion if all the ancillary industries are included, and it contributed £11 billion to GDP last year alone.

We should also support the industry because it is by far the greenest form of transport. The figures speak for themselves. Per tonne-kilometre, an articulated lorry emits 130 g of CO2 whereas a medium-sized cargo vessel on a short sea voyage pumps out less than a quarter of that. There are similar such startling differences in respect of other gases. A truck produces more than 0.8 g of NOx per tonne-kilometre, whereas a ship emits barely half a gram. There is no doubt that the more goods are moved by sea—rather than by lorry and then over a channel crossing or, worse still, by air—the better it is for the environment. That does not mean that the shipping industry does not need to clean up parts of its act; it does, especially with regard to sulphur and nitrogen oxide emissions. What it does mean, however, is that we ought to encourage the use of shipping where it does not directly cause damage to the environment, because shipping is by far the greenest form of transport.

That brings me directly back to the problem we have with the one provision I have mentioned. We and the industry believe that the application of the habitats directive in the way the Bill proposes would result in ship-to-ship transfers being ruled out almost altogether. In supporting the Bill, the RSPB made it clear that that was not its intention, and the hon. Gentleman has also made that clear several times in his speech—at the beginning, the middle and the end—but I want to explain why we think that that would be the effect.

The United Kingdom Major Ports Group conducted a study of the impact of the habitats directive on dredging, which it was concerned about. We must bear in mind the fact that dredging is an activity that usually takes place over weeks, rather than being over in an hour or two. Let me quote from that study:

One can immediately see why that could be a problem for dredging, and particularly maintenance dredging, which some ports regularly require in order to be kept open. If that is a problem for applications for each instance of dredging, which takes place over at least days and normally weeks, one can imagine how much of a problem it would be for an activity that happens over a period of a few hours—perhaps over a weekend or during a public holiday. It would virtually prevent it.

We must consider another environmental dimension, which deals with the matter from another angle. Ship-to-ship transfers are sometimes environmentally necessary. The European Union has forbidden the use of so-called dirty oil—oil that has high sulphur emissions—in the English channel and the North sea. Such emissions often also carry particulates, which have genuine implications for public health. Interestingly, that is the case only if the particulates occur within a couple of hundred miles of land; particulates are not a problem out in the middle of our oceans because they do not spread over unlimited distances, unlike greenhouses gases which simply go upwards. Particulates are a problem around coastlines, and the EU has rightly chosen to adopt a higher standard for ships in such areas than the International Maritime Organisation requires of ships on the high seas.

For that reason, many ships need to take on low-sulphur oil when they are approaching UK waters. That requires the use of ship-to-ship oil transfers for solid environmental reasons—I am certain that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith, the Government and all other Members of the House fully support that. In the long run, we all hope that the IMO will raise its game to the level of the European Union. Although some of the problems do not arise on the high seas, they certainly apply to such countries as China, from which these vessels are mostly leaving. That is a matter for the long term. In the meantime, there is an immediate requirement for such ships to carry out these transfers as they approach the UK coastline.

I envisage the hon. Gentleman referring in his summing up to the fact that nothing in the Bill will interfere with emergency transfers, so I should make it clear that the transfers I am discussing are not emergency transfers. They are statutorily required transfers, but they are not emergency transfers. They would be covered by this burdensome provision, so the demand that each ship-to-ship transfer be treated as a “plan or project” raises the prospect of an inquiry in respect of every such transfer. If the hon. Gentleman were willing to have discussions with the industry or to receive a Government briefing—although I should not anticipate what the Minister is going to say—I am sure he would subsequently agree that that one provision in the Bill needs serious redrafting or, perhaps, eliminating.

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