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Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): I assure the Minister, who happens to be my Member of Parliament when I am living in London, that I, too, want to listen
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to what he has to say, but I want to make a short contribution first. I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) on his success in the private Members’ Bills ballot. I have introduced a number of private Members’ Bills in my time. In my 15 years as an MP, I have been very successful in the ballot, but sadly I have not been as lucky with the national lottery. None the less, I am hopeful about that, too. One of my Bills actually had Government support and was put on the statute book. I hope that he finds himself in a similar position: I hope that the Government want to introduce the measure, and that he will therefore be given all the support that he needs to ensure that the Bill becomes an effective Act.

When my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) mentioned not having any coast in his constituency, it reminded me that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I were born, or at least spent a considerable time, in Swansea, which has a beautiful coastline in the Gower area. It is a superb part of the United Kingdom. As has been said, the issue is not just shipping and related business in those parts of the UK of which we have fond memories; there is also tourism. An enormous number of tourists are attracted to coastal towns. Sadly, some of our major coastal towns are not faring as well as we might wish. One can only begin to think of what the impact would be on those areas of a massive ship-to-ship oil spill; there would be enormous consequences for wildlife and the beauty of the coastline. It is important that we do what we can to protect it.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley asked, why should we wait until there is a major disaster before introducing regulations that will help to prevent that disaster? When I write to a county council and say that there ought to be traffic lights or a zebra crossing somewhere, it looks at the statistics and says, “Too few people have been killed on that stretch of the road to warrant us taking those measures.” I am exasperated by that. Why should we wait for a disaster before something is corrected, if we know that there is a blackspot, or a problem waiting to happen? The same principle applies to the Bill. We recognise that an enormous amount of shipping takes place around, in and out of the United Kingdom, and we hope that it is all done according to best practice, but we do not want to allow the possibility of a spillage, which would have an enormous impact, for want of the Bill and its regulations.

I looked through some statistics before I came to make my speech. The enormous amount of freight carried by ship in UK waters surprised me. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), I am delighted that the vast majority of freight is transported that way. We want a healthy and vibrant merchant shipping industry in this country; shipping has stood us in good stead for a considerable number of years. Some 388 million tonnes of international freight moved through UK ports in 1999, the last year for which I have figures; that represents 95 per cent. of the total. Environmentally, shipping is the best way of transporting goods throughout the world.

The sad decline of manufacturing industry in our country means that we are importing more than ever before, from countries in Asia and elsewhere. In China, I have seen docks in which containers have been
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stacked up very high and ships have been in their bays ready to come to the United Kingdom. It is right that we recognise the importance of shipping into the UK and that the right regulations should be in place to ensure that oil transfers are done in the best way.

When accidents happen, I have always believed in the “polluter pays” principle. Using current regulations, we might well be able to ensure that those responsible for environmental damage paid for it. However, irrespective of how much money we were talking about, we could not correct the damage done to wildlife. That is immeasurable. We could take action in some respects, but we want to protect our wildlife from such impacts, for which no money could properly compensate.

I am delighted that the RSPB has supported and got behind the Bill. I have received a briefing from the organisation, which has more than 1 million members—about 1,500 per constituency. If we care about wildlife and the preservation of the bird species in the United Kingdom, we have to do something about those very things. If our constituencies do not have coastlines or ports, that matters little: we have a wider responsibility for UK ports and how shipping uses them.

That brings me to the wider argument that I mentioned to my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin). I do not want British shipping to be subject to burdensome extra costs or costs that are not met by shipping in other countries, but I said that I felt a sort of ownership of the coastline around the UK, even though I represent Ribble Valley, which is inland—and long may that remain the case. I also believe that we have some sort of ownership of the wildlife in the whole world. I want to do what I can to ensure that the environment is properly protected.

When we go to schools, we find that youngsters may not be so interested in party politics and that they scratch their heads in working out how they are relevant to them. But my goodness—when we ask our youngsters about the issues they are interested in, they are keen to say that they want the Government to do what they can to protect wildlife.

Mr. Randall: My hon. Friend makes a valid point about the ownership of wildlife, which is not our own at all. In fact, many bird species directly affected by any form of oil spill are among the most migratory. The Arctic tern, for example, migrates from the Arctic virtually to the Antarctic—there cannot be anything much more global than that in the animal world.

Mr. Evans: Indeed. I suspect that it would take a real expert to know which birds migrate from where to where.

Philip Davies: He is a real expert.

Mr. Evans: I have just found out from my hon. Friend that my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) is an expert on birds and their migratory patterns.

I hope that the Minister can comment on the international discussions that he has had, not only with our neighbours but more widely. We have seen the effect that such discussions can have on whaling—obviously, that activity does not take place on our shores—in that as soon as the Japanese announced that they were
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resuming whaling, although under the guise of scientific research, which we all know to be rubbish, there was an outcry. The Minister and his Government have been very proactive in trying to stop the Japanese from doing that. I therefore assume that they have also been proactive on a wider scale about ship-to-ship transfers of oil throughout the world. My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge made a valid point about birds, which may well come to our shores from other parts of the world. The fact that something happens in a part of the world that is not our legislative responsibility does not mean that the Minister cannot have in-depth talks with his fellow Ministers about what we can do to raise standards throughout the world.

As I said, 388 million tonnes of freight a year comes into the UK. That is a staggering amount. One can only imagine, therefore, the number of ship-to-ship transfers of oil that are taking place worldwide. I am sorry to say that I was not here for the opening speech by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith, but I will read it. He may have said whether his Bill reflects best practice that is already occurring somewhere else or tries to break the mould by introducing legislation that is not in effect in other parts of the world. If it is the latter, I hope that it will be looked at by other countries throughout the world with huge amounts of shipping, such as Asia, particularly Singapore, China, South Africa, South America and the United States.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster that the provisions would have x costs for the industry and that that could make us less competitive with some of our near neighbours. However, we have to put the wildlife first. We must take common-sense measures and then look for the unintended consequences, as my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley said. Having legislated in good faith, we must ensure that we do not put such heavy burdens on our own shipping that it has the unintended consequence of making our merchant shipping uncompetitive with the rest of the EU. France is a near neighbour—we share the channel—and very heavy shipping takes place between the UK and Amsterdam. I hope that the Minister can comment on the discussions that he has had on the costs to industry.

Several Members have mentioned clause 1(2)(c), which could have unintended consequences whereby hardly any transfers can take place at all. The Bill is not intended to stop ship-to-ship transfers of oil but to make them safer. Unintended things may happen in any event, but we must try to make the process safer where we can. Subsection (2)(c) is a problem, whether because of the legalese or because something has not been properly considered. It is important that we get the Bill into Committee so that we can discuss that in detail, sort it out and get the Bill on to the statute book in the most workable shape.

I am delighted to give my support to this necessary Bill and again congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith. We have to be lucky to win in a private Member’s Bill draw, and then be even luckier, and have the good will of the Government, to get such a Bill on the statute book. I have spoken on a number of Fridays over the past 15 years, and I must say that I miss Eric Forth. He was one of the great Conservative Members of Parliament and a great
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parliamentarian. His frostiness and resistance on a Friday to the vast majority of Private Members’ Bills was well known—he was probably singly responsible for stopping most of them—but I hope that even he would have seen the rightness of the measures proposed by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith.

1.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Jim Fitzpatrick): I join the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) on his success in the ballots and on introducing the Bill. I am aware that there is considerable concern among Members about the prospect of large-scale transfers of oil between ships in United Kingdom waters.

I welcome the contributions made in the debate. The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) spoke in support of the Bill and rightly acknowledged the role that shipping plays in our daily lives and in the economy. The industry rarely gets the acknowledgement it deserves, and I fully agree with his tribute to it. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) also spoke in support, but from a position of greater authority and with greater knowledge of the procedures involved, given that Scapa Flow is in his constituency. The hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) spoke in favour of the Bill, too, and raised environmental concerns that we all share. I am not sure that I fully agree with the hon. Member for Ribble Valley that it was a powerful speech, but it was certainly thoughtful—and geographical.

The hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) demonstrated a degree of scepticism—ordinary UK scepticism, not the other variety for which he has a reputation—about the Government’s intentions and only time will tell if he has reason for that. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley, my part-time constituent who hails from the land-locked perch of Ribble Valley, also referred to the significance of shipping but said that we must have due regard for the protection of wildlife as well. I can assure him that we are working internationally on all such issues. We are also very conscious of the impact my hon. Friend’s Bill might have on shipping, and Members would not want to do anything to damage that important industry.

The United Kingdom has a highly successful record in maritime safety and the prevention of pollution, and we appreciate the importance of both issues. In particular, we have a highly developed strategic approach to protecting the UK’s seas and coasts from ship-source pollution, which involves all of the following steps and measures. We have put in place a network of shore-based stations around the UK coastline to monitor vessel traffic, using automatic identification system technology. We achieve agreement in the forum of the International Maritime Organisation on ships’ routing measures which will reduce the risk of groundings or collisions. We ensure that powerful tug boats—commonly referred to as “emergency towing vessels”—are available, so that they can go out and assist ships that lose motive power. We have established arrangements under which a ship that requires assistance, and whose condition needs to be
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stabilised, can be brought into a place of refuge. We have a highly effective structure for command and control of an incident, in which the Secretary of State’s representative for maritime salvage and intervention—SOSREP—plays a major role. We have a fully developed national contingency plan, consistent with the 1990 international convention on oil pollution preparedness, response and co-operation—the OPRC convention. We participate actively in international assistance and co-operation arrangements of a bipartite, multipartite or regional nature—again consistent with the OPRC convention.

Mr. Randall: The Minister mentions the IMO. Have the Government had an opportunity to discuss these matters, and in particular the Bill, with it? If so, what has been the outcome?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I hope to be able to explain to the hon. Gentleman later the extent of the discussions—I shall do so if I have time. They are high on the IMO’s agenda, and we are in discussions with all our European and international partners in respect of these important matters.

In addition, the United Kingdom takes specific actions to give effect to the international convention for the prevention of pollution from ships—the MARPOL convention—notably by the following: ensuring that, in UK ports, reception facilities are available for the types of waste that are generated on board ship, thereby leaving no excuse for ships to resort to discharging their waste illegally at sea; carrying out surveillance, either aerial or satellite, to identify ships carrying out acts of pollution; and having an effective enforcement regime in place, so that ships that have been identified carrying out acts of pollution are prosecuted.

Bill Wiggin: Can the Minister tell the House how many such prosecutions there have been?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I am afraid that I am not able to do that at this point in time, but later in my speech those statistics may very well emerge.

The Bill seeks, first, to place an obligation on the Secretary of State for Transport to introduce regulations to control ship-to-ship transfers by the end of 2008. Secondly, it seeks to impose on the Secretary of State certain obligations, although it calls them “principles”, to be given effect when regulating ship-to-ship transfers. As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith said, those are: to prohibit ship-to-ship transfer operations in United Kingdom waters except in areas designated by the Secretary of State; and, except in the case of emergency, to treat either any programme of ship-to-ship transfers or each individual ship-to-ship transfer as an “oil handling facility” for the purposes of the Merchant Shipping (Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Co-operation Convention) Regulations 1998 and as a “plan or project” for the purposes of the Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994.

Finally, the Bill seeks to allow the Secretary of State to treat either any programme of ship-to-ship transfers or each individual ship-to-ship transfer as a

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project in terms of the Marine Works (Environmental Impact Assessment) Regulations 2007, but not in the case of emergency.

It is clear that the Bill seeks to protect the marine environment from the possible negative effects of ship-to-ship oil transfers, and the Government fully support that objective. However, with the greatest respect to my hon. Friend, I must say that we oppose the Bill on the basis that it goes about that in the wrong way, and the desired control over ship-to-ship oil transfers can be achieved without the need for a Bill.

We have been working for some time on producing regulations under section 130 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995 to control ship-to-ship oil transfers within UK territorial waters and to ensure that any such transfers are subject to appropriate environmental scrutiny. It is our intention to lay such regulations before Parliament this year, so placing an obligation on the Secretary of State to do so would achieve nothing of value. On the contrary, working on this Bill could only delay the introduction of those regulations by diverting the attention of all concerned.

Mr. Brazier: Could the Minister clarify whether he means during the current Session when he says “this year”?

Jim Fitzpatrick: We hope to be able to open a consultation this spring and to lay regulations by the summer. That is our intention. We have every expectation of being able to meet it, but given the matters that have been raised by hon. Members on behalf of the shipping industry, the serious issues involved and the fact that a number of environmental groups are keen to contribute, the process might be slowed up slightly. We are close to completing the regulations, so we hope soon to be able to issue them in draft for consultation.

Mr. Carmichael: The Minister will doubtless have environmental considerations at the forefront of his mind when he is consulting. Will he bear in mind the important personal safety considerations that must also be taken into account? In that regard, will he be having close discussions with the affected unions?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. The matter occurred to me when he was making his remarks about the tug companies’ proposals on staffing levels and so on. They will obviously want to examine the new regulations as part of their review of operations, to ensure that they are not in any way, shape or form being compromised in respect of the proposals that they put to the unions. I expect him to beat a path to our door if either the companies or the unions have strong points of view that they want to put directly, besides putting them through the usual channels of the consultative arrangements.

The Department for Transport and its predecessors have been working with relevant regulations for some time, and they were referred to in Lord Donaldson’s landmark report “Safer Ships, Cleaner Seas”, which was published in 1994. In 1999, a draft set of regulations and an accompanying draft merchant shipping notice were produced, based on the premise
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that ship-to-ship oil transfers would be permitted only in two places outside harbour authority areas, these being Lyme bay and Southwold. However, those 1999 regulations were never made or laid before Parliament because of a potential conflict with another recommendation of “Safer Ships, Cleaner Seas”: the proposed development of marine environmental high risk areas, or MEHRAs, in locations where there is both high environmental sensitivity and risk from shipping.

We were aware that some of the proposed permitted ship-to-ship transfer areas might also score highly enough to become MEHRAs, and that that would have sent mixed messages on environmental protection. It was anticipated that the process of identifying MEHRAs would be concluded swiftly and therefore the ship-to-ship transfer regulations were put on hold. Nevertheless, in the interim, the 1999 draft regulations and merchant shipping notice have served as the basis for non-statutory arrangements and procedures under which ship owners and operators are expected to notify the Maritime and Coastguard Agency of the intention to carry out a ship-to-ship oil transfer, and to carry out such transfers according to best practice.

Mr. Randall: I thank the Minister; he is being very courteous in allowing these interventions. He mentioned the problem of permitted ship-to-ship transfers taking place in environmental areas. Is there a problem because we are talking about two different Departments? How has the problem been tackled by the Department for Transport and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs?

Jim Fitzpatrick: Obviously, any regulations that affect different Departments have to be subject to consultation and joint clearance. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are almost ready to bring forward the regulations for consultation. We have cleared the hurdles up to the last point, and we do not expect any delays as a result of representations from other Departments. We shall proceed as I have outlined, and I hope that that offers him the reassurance he seeks.

Although there have been many delays in the further development of the regulations, they are now very near completion and I expect a revised set of draft regulations to go out to public consultation this spring. As I have said, the Bill would first place a duty on the Secretary of State to lay regulations before Parliament for approval before the end of 2008. This change to the 1995 Act is unnecessary, as we plan to consult on our regulations much earlier this year and so aim to lay them before Parliament in the summer. Working with my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith would only delay this process.

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