Previous Section Index Home Page

Nevertheless, the Bill as a whole has excellent intentions. It outlines some sensible ideas for tackling a matter that has not yet been a problem, but which, as
25 Jan 2008 : Column 1780
the hon. Gentleman rightly says, could be one in the future, given the growth in trade from an unfamiliar direction of the sort that has been described. He is right to have brought the Bill before the House. Should it go to Committee, the Opposition will seek to amend the offending provision in the way I have mentioned, if the Government do not table amendments. This is a good Bill that contains some excellent ideas. It addresses a genuine area of public concern, and we support its receiving a Second Reading by the House.

12.43 pm

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) on introducing his Bill. I shall indicate, in the same general terms used by the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), that we too support the Bill. We certainly wish it to receive a Second Reading.

Like all Bills, this one contains issues that we will wish to explore in Committee, should it proceed that far. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith for having made it so clear in his speech that it is not his intention to impede or end the practice of ship-to-ship transfers. That was a very important point and I am glad that the hon. Gentleman made it as clearly and frequently as he did. It would be in no one’s interest for this House to pass legislation that was then subject to the law of unintended consequences.

At a very low level, this is not a new debate but one that has carried on for some years now. It has acquired a particular political potency since the issue of oil transfers carried out in the firth of Forth became a live one. I like to think that the lack of political heat in this debate is in a small way a tribute to the way in which my constituents have carried out ship-to-ship transfers at Scapa Flow and, to a lesser extent, at Sullom Voe, over the years. At both places, this matter is regarded as very much routine.

Scapa Flow, if I might take that as a working example, is an excellent place where such transfers can be done, if they are done properly. Within Scapa Flow is the Flotta oil terminal, so there is a substantial body of expertise and a substantial resource relating to pollution control that can be called upon should it be necessary. The question of transfers in the firth of Forth has been quite a different one, and we see a tension between what is the most convenient place for ship-to-ship transfers and what is the most suitable one. I do not detract from the concerns of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith in any way when I say that for us in the Northern Isles the history of ship-to-ship transfer has been a smooth and uncontentious one.

Scapa Flow is a safe, sheltered, deep-water harbour. Nature has blessed us with that; it does not even require any dredging, such is the depth of the water. That in itself is a commercial asset. To say that it is safe and sheltered is not to say that the whole process of ship-to-ship transfers is somehow straightforward. It is safe because in the Northern Isles we have a substantial body of skilled workmen who have been well managed, and who have the expertise to carry out such tasks. We should not underestimate the importance of the
25 Jan 2008 : Column 1781
resources, or the vast range of experience that has been built up for 30 years or more. Even in a place such as Scapa Flow, it is not unknown for there to be strong winds—that might be known even by most Members here—which means that the work force who carry out ship-to-ship transfers are doing so at the very limits of their capability. I pay tribute to the work force in Scapa Flow who operate in such conditions. It may often look routine on a nice summer’s day when there is a flat calm, but when the wind is blowing, and there is a commercial imperative that such work is done—and if it can be done—my constituents go out and do it.

The practice is the subject of some local interest at the moment. The Orkney Islands council owns Orkney Towage, which operates the tugs in Scapa Flow that carry out ship-to-ship transfers, and the council is currently proposing to reduce the number of staff employed on the tugs from 36 to 20. That is a significant reduction, and it will bring an entirely different pattern of shift working that has caused concern among the workmen affected. I met about 40 of the men employed by Orkney Towage and the harbours department—there are implications for piloted boats in the plans—and their union representatives on the Saturday just gone. I was very

impressed by the case that they presented, which was forthright, clear and unambiguous about their concerns. They were reasoned and mannerly, as one would expect Orcadians to be. I felt that what they wanted was eminently reasonable. They sought merely an independent review of the decision taken by Orkney Towage and the harbours department.

I was disappointed that when we put that case to the council it was dismissed more or less out of hand. I see no reason why any review could not have been conducted by a single man of some skill and expertise, in a short compass that covered interviewing all the parties concerned and giving some assessment of the towage plans. Such a review will be necessary if the work force—and, by implication, the community—in Orkney are to have confidence in the decision that has been taken.

I do not know whether the judgment is right or wrong; I am not qualified to make that judgment. There were men at the meeting on Saturday with more than 30 years’ experience of working the tug boats, often in difficult circumstances, and it is apparent that they at least do not have confidence in the decision. If the process has been as robust as Orkney Towage suggests, at the very least it could have been subjected to some external scrutiny. It is a source of considerable disappointment to me that we have not done so. That may yet have further implications for industrial relations in the sector.

I mention that point because it is important to illustrate the way in which commercial concerns can come to bear on operations such as ship-to-ship transfers. It brings into sharp focus the nature of the regulation that will be required. The fashion these days is to speak of light-touch regulation. As a general presumption, that is sensible. However, light-touch regulation still has to be meaningful. Many aspects of shipping and maritime regulation in this country have lost some of their potency and force in recent years. In particular, I am thinking of some of the discussions that I have had with other unions in my constituency
25 Jan 2008 : Column 1782
about the operation of safe manning documentation and so on. In that case, the touch of the regulatory body, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, is so light as to be indiscernible.

The regulations must have a purpose. They must seek to protect the safety of the work force who are most directly concerned and who will often work in unpleasant and difficult conditions. Working at sea is never easy. As the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith mentioned, there is no such thing as a level playing field on the water. Sometimes, the playing field is so unlevel that people wonder whether they will ever get to the sidelines again.

The protection of the coastal environment is of supreme importance to me and my constituents. It is a resource that provides food and employment through the fishing industry and the diving industry, which is a big operator in Scapa Flow. The coastal environment is also an attraction in our ever-growing tourist industry. We consider environmental protection to be very important. It has always been regarded as important by those who have hitherto been responsible for the ship-to-ship transfers in Orkney. That is why we have been able to do it so effectively and safely for so long.

The nature of the regulation must not be so burdensome as to lose the business. That is the balance that the Minister must strike. He must be mindful of the fact that we are dealing not with a UK market but with a northern European market. If we regulate that valuable, important and desirable business out of our waters, it will go elsewhere in northern Europe. That would not benefit anybody. If it were a business that we could not cope with or did not want, we would not want to keep it. However, that is not the case. It is important to my constituents and to other parts of the industry.

Philip Davies: I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s sentiments, which appear to follow on from those of my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier). Will he deal with my hon. Friend’s specific point about paragraph (c) in proposed new subsection (4A) in clause 1(2), and the programme of transfers being considered as a plan or project? Does he agree with my hon. Friend that that aspect of the Bill provides for regulations that are too burdensome for the shipping industry, or does he believe that they are necessary from the environmental perspective, which the promoter mentioned?

Mr. Carmichael: I would like that to be explored in Committee. On the face of it, regulating each individual transfer under the habitats directive would be burdensome to the point of threatening the future of an important part of the industry. That is what I meant when I mentioned the law of unintended consequences. It might be more sensible to require, for example, the conduct of ship-to-ship transfers per se—not every individual transfer in an area—to be subject to the habitats directive. That might satisfy both sides and meet their objectives. I await the comments of the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick) and the subsequent comments of the promoter with interest, because I know that some discussions have taken place. However, if the Bill gets to Committee, we would like to explore the point there.

25 Jan 2008 : Column 1783

Mr. Brazier: I do not believe that there is any difference between the hon. Gentleman and me on the matter. He hinted that a compromise could be reached on the habitats directive, but if it is not to apply to individual transfer, it is difficult to understand what else could constitute the unit. The exercise could be done once for an area, but other aspects of the Bill cover that. If each transfer is not called a plan or project for the purposes of the habitats directive, it is difficult to understand how the directive could be introduced. That is why we have problems with the clause per se.

Mr. Carmichael: I do not wish to pre-empt the Committee discussion. My suggestion was that the Secretary of State would have to consider the operation of the habitats directive before giving his consent in a designated area. All operations in that area would therefore be deemed to be covered. That might be the right compromise, but it might not—if we get to Committee, we will have that discussion. If the Secretary of State introduced regulations under the Merchant Shipping Act 1995—a power that he currently has—it would not be a live issue. Doubtless, that consideration will be in the Under-Secretary’s mind when he replies.

Regulation offers opportunities, but it must not be used as a tool to kill a most important part of our oil and shipping industries. With that caveat, which I believe the promoter accepts, I am more than happy for the Bill to be given a Second Reading today.

12.58 pm

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) on promoting the Bill. I am here because I wish to support it. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) on his excellent speech from the Front Bench. I have learned a great deal more about ship-to-ship transfers than I knew previously.

An important point that I have gleaned from the debate is that there has been no serious accident to date. I was grateful to the promoter for clarifying the points about harbour areas. The Bill covers most eventualities, such as emergency ship-to-ship transfers, but I was worried when I read it that the Secretary of State would be put in a position whereby he determined areas that were closed for ship-to-ship transfer, thus suggesting that there are other areas where a potential accident might be acceptable. Obviously, that is not the case.

Mark Lazarowicz rose—

Bill Wiggin: I would be delighted to give way to the hon. Gentleman, but I wanted to make it clear that I know what I have just outlined is not necessarily the choice.

Mark Lazarowicz: On the hon. Gentleman’s point about there having been no such incidents so far, I am sure that he would agree that if one did occur it would not be like a car accident, which can sometimes be fairly minor; rather, it could be very serious indeed. The point is that there has been a change in the trading patterns that makes the kind of eventuality about which we are so concerned more possible.

25 Jan 2008 : Column 1784

Bill Wiggin: One reason why I wanted to participate in this debate is that I remember as a little boy going fishing off the south coast, and there were no fish and very few crabs because of the clean-up following the Torrey Canyon disaster, and after that we had the Amoco Cadiz. My sympathies are therefore entirely with the hon. Gentleman.

It is not just the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds that wants the Bill on the statute book—I want to take this opportunity to say that it does a tremendous job of drawing people’s attention to the importance of the environment and has done particularly good work on the marine environment and the proposed marine Bill, which I shall come to shortly. I am particularly concerned about the pod of dolphins living in the firth of Forth. Dolphins are highly intelligent, and we have an appalling record in the UK of protecting them. Tragically, the Yangtze river dolphin was last year deemed extinct. We should therefore make considerable efforts to improve our track record on cetaceans.

When people are asked what they most want to do in their life, swimming with dolphins is often a top priority, and we have that opportunity off our coast. I remember thinking when I was smaller that Flipper the dolphin could live only in Florida. Actually, Flipper was a bottlenose dolphin, which are native to our seas, too. We therefore need to do a great deal more to raise our game.

I have some statistics for the House, which I am grateful to DEFRA for supplying in written answers. Of the 1,542 dolphins that were examined by the natural history museum and the Institute of Zoology, seven were killed by boat strike and 338 by pollution. The Department could not identify the number killed by pair trawling, which is a major problem for cetaceans. The bottlenose dolphin, the common dolphin and the harbour porpoise all fall victim to the type of netting used to catch bass, where two powerful trawlers pull a huge net between them. I am pleased that the practice has been stopped for British fishermen within our 12-mile limit, but that does not apply to the rest of our European partners. Again, there is a great deal more that we can do to support and protect our dolphin population.

The other creatures of considerable importance in the firth of Forth are the birds. My understanding is that the firth is already a special protection area under the European bird directive, which is very welcome. Apparently, 90,000 birds go to the firth, including red-throated divers, puffins and gannets. Puffins are particularly important, because they live off sand eels. Sand eels are low down in the food chain, but they are an important indicator of the water quality and the quality of the biodiversity in our seas. Factory fishing has wiped out huge quantities of biomass to make fish meal, which leads to a corresponding drop in the number of puffins, which is a great tragedy. Anything that the Bill does to protect the area from oil spillage will therefore have a positive knock-on effect on the wildlife.

My other worry is about the damage caused to the tourist sector when there is an oil spill. I experienced such an effect in my constituency, although not from an oil spill, when our tourism sector was decimated during the first foot and mouth crisis. Oil spills have the same effect on coastal towns, hotels, boarding houses and the
25 Jan 2008 : Column 1785
various other parts of the industry that depend on tourists. It is therefore crucial that people do not find either that their feet are covered in spatters of oil when they walk along the beach or that the beach is shut while it is cleaned up.

Who could ever forget the horrible images on our television screens of birds that have been caught in oil slicks trying to preen their feathers and eating some of the oil, from which there is really no saving them? It is the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and other animal welfare associations such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals that go to the rescue and do their best to wash the birds. Often, the clearing up of an oil spill causes as much environmental damage as the spill itself. Oil breaks down very slowly over many years through bacterial attack, but the detergents that are used to break it down more quickly can be extremely poisonous, especially to birds and fish. Any protection that we can provide through this small but important piece of legislation will be very welcome.

Measures such as these should already have been covered by the marine Bill that the Government have yet to introduce. They first promised us such a Bill properly in 2004. Another was supposed to be in the Queen’s Speech in 2007, but was not. However, there was one in the Queen’s Speech in 2006, and we all became quite hopeful. My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) started it all with his private Member’s Bill some years ago, and I am pleased to say that the RSPB was very supportive of it. It is incredibly important that we get this legislation right, and I am sad that the marine Bill has been delayed for so long, largely through the problems of devolution.

Mr. Brazier: My hon. Friend is making a most powerful and in parts—dare I say it—moving speech. Does he agree that one of the oddities of devolution is that, while shipping remains an issue for the UK Government and Parliament, ports have been devolved, resulting in a rather curious hiatus in joined-up government?

Bill Wiggin: That is just one of the many anomalies, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw it to the House’s attention. There are many more. However, I do not want to stray from the subject. I am very inclined to do that when the matter of devolution comes up, and I have to be careful not to do so. One of my political Achilles heels is to stray into discussing devolution, but I shall avoid doing so, if my hon. Friend will forgive me. However, I will go as far as to say that the Government have been disappointingly slow to create a joined-up strategy for marine spatial planning and proper marine protection, and to integrate it into European marine policy.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): My hon. Friend has been talking about devolution. May I go the other way and talk about the European Union? I expect that we shall hear plenty more on that subject next week. Although I am sympathetic towards the Bill, I am also keen to ensure that the regulatory costs or burdens on British industry will not disproportionately affect our competitiveness with, for example, our closest European Union neighbours. Are the kinds of regulations that we are considering already in place in the other EU countries?

Next Section Index Home Page