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Bill read the Third time and passed.

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Business without Debate

Delegated Legislation

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),


Question agreed to.

Mr. Speaker: With the leave of the House, we shall take motions 4 and 5 together.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

Banks and Banking

Question agreed to.

European Union Documents

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order 119(11)),

Pre-accession Assistance

Question agreed to.

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Regulatory Reform

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 18(2)),

Question agreed to.


Planning and Development (Essex)

10.14 pm

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): I rise to present a petition on what may seem a relatively trivial matter but is of great significance and importance to my community in Castle Point, and particularly to the community of Hadleigh. We are an urban borough, but we have lovely areas and views and a charming, green, tree-lined verge on the A13 entrance to Hadleigh from Southend. We cherish it and want to keep it. Residents are angry that a politically correct band of councillors has dreamed up a scheme to put a bus lane in, which will destroy the verge and the trees. That bus lane will clearly achieve almost nothing for residents but will cost a fortune and destroy our beautiful street scene in that area. Yet again, councillors have totally failed the people. By refusing to consult them, they have shown contempt for residents. I warmly congratulate each and every person who has showed that they care about their community by signing the petition.

The petition states:


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MSC Napoli

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —(Ian Lucas.)

10.16 pm

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): It is now just over two years since the MSC Napoli, en route from Antwerp to Portugal, was beached off the east Devon section of the world heritage coast, between Sidmouth and Branscombe, following a storm off Cornwall. What followed was four days of what can only be described as chaos, triggered by the substantial influx into Branscombe of people intent on removing items of cargo washed ashore.

The incident triggered a major inter-agency operation led by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and presented significant challenges both at sea and on land, including public order and traffic management issues. Although those involved in the handling of the clear-up, particularly the work at sea, performed exceptionally well, what will be remembered for years to come will instead be the scenes of looting that took place.

The purpose this evening’s debate is not to apportion blame but to learn lessons and suggest changes. What happened in Branscombe was nothing short of a disaster, and although the impact was felt locally, the issues that it raised are certainly of national, if not international, importance. Frankly, it is a disgrace that the events in Branscombe were not given the examination that they deserved in a public inquiry. The Secretary of State refused to hold any type of public inquiry, simply deciding that the marine accident investigation branch report would suffice and that the events both on Branscombe beach and in Branscombe parish were not his concern or, it seems, of national significance.

Instead, Devon county council was forced to take responsibility and had to resort to spending £22,000 of local taxpayers’ money on its own inquiry, a fact that is all the more shocking when we consider that it spent £25,000 of local taxpayers’ money on an inquiry into foot and mouth in 2001, again due to the Government’s refusal to hold one. Although it is fundamentally and irrevocably wrong that it was left to the taxpayers of Devon to foot the bill, if the inquiry report, which is intended to help authorities cope better with such an incident in future, is given the full attention that it deserves, and if recommendations are taken forward and legislative changes implemented, that money will have been well spent.

I trust that by now the Minister has read the inquiry report thoroughly. I congratulate and thank all those involved, particularly Professor Ian Mercer, who also handled Devon’s inquiry into foot and mouth. Will the Minister concede that it was wrong for Devon to have to foot the bill for an inquiry into an event that had repercussions far beyond the county borders?

It has generally been recognised that the biggest stumbling block to an effective operation on land was the many centres, groups and units that were involved in the emergency. Although we have a successful system in place for disasters at sea, we simply have no clear understanding of who is in overall control of land operations when a ship comes ashore. That was the central focus of the inquiry.

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If someone—perhaps, as the inquiry report suggests, the chief constable of the region where the ship or cargo first comes ashore or off which it grounds—were appointed the Secretary of State’s Representative or SOSREP on land, there would be a clear command chain, and the initial confusion need never happen again. If there had been a leader on land from the outset—and I can think of no better person in Devon than our own Chief Constable Stephen Otter—who had been able to direct operations as soon as they were aware of what was about to occur, the scenes of looting and ransacking could have been, if not completely averted, at least controlled and contained.

That brings me to my next point: the urgent need to address the laws of salvage. The looting that took place in the days that followed the beaching of the Napoli caused an astonishing 800 per cent. more damage than the accident caused. The police, who were unsure about the law of salvage, refused to close access to the beach until legal advice had been obtained. Order was restored only when the police were sure that they had the power to cordon off the beach. The uncertainty surrounding the implementation of the current legislation led to delays in the police taking appropriate action. The legislation must now be clarified to prevent similar situations from occurring in future.

The relevant merchant shipping legislation dates from only 1995, yet provisions in part IX of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995, which deal with wreck, are an only slightly altered version of the Maritime Act 1854. We are working with a 19th century statutory framework, devised in the days of considerably smaller trading vessels, that cannot now cope with such an incident. Indeed, the Napoli, which was built in 1991 and carried just over 2,000 containers, is dwarfed by the newer generation of far larger container ships, which have a capacity of more than 11,000 containers.

Both the police and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency have freely acknowledged that the legislation cannot adequately cope with current conditions. Indeed, the multi-agency debrief report states that

Does the Minister agree that, in the light of events, it is time to reconsider the applicable legislation and make changes? If so, what time scale can we expect? Perhaps it is true that salvage, especially in my part of the world, was once part of local coastal behaviour, but theft and criminal damage is simply not appropriate or acceptable conduct in the 21st century.

Although the Napoli incident has done much to highlight weaknesses in our maritime legislation, it has also drawn attention to fundamental flaws in the global shipping industry. The marine accident investigation branch report showed that many containers were considerably above the weight shown in their papers. Indeed, the Napoli had arrived or departed from berths or other ports on several occasions at up to 122 per cent. of her maximum stress levels. That, along with the speed and loading, caused the ship to “break its back”.

The discrepancy in weight of many of the containers is not unique to the Napoli; it is a dangerous feature of the industry that shippers deliberately under-declare containers’ weights to minimise import taxes calculated
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on cargo weight. That dangerous practice was a large contributory factor in the actual break-up and demise of the ship and must be stamped out. That clearly demonstrates that it is essential to weigh containers on the dockside before embarkation, and that the practice should now be mandatory. Will the Minister make that a legal requirement? If so, when?

Considering that a previous marine accident investigation branch report, published in September 2007, on the collapse of cargo containers on the Annabella, concluded that

what guarantees can the Minister give that he will ensure that recommendations made to the International Association of Classification Societies and the International Chamber of Shipping will be monitored, followed up and acted upon?

A further recommendation made by the inquiry is that the Government should make a general and permanent commitment to reimburse the extraordinary costs of handling the aftermath of an incident such as that involving the Napoli to the whole range of land-based bodies involved. Insurers have estimated the total bill for the wreck at £120 million, a sum that is second only to the $2.1 billion incurred in the Exxon Valdez case. With claims being met out of a £14.7 million limitation fund, claimants will be lucky to recover more than 20p to 30p in the pound. Instead, it is the taxpayers of East Devon and other affected areas who are being forced to make up the difference for costs such as policing and the use of the fire service, simply because they had the misfortune of having the event happen where they live.

Devon county council spent £44,000 on the clean-up, while Devon and Cornwall police estimate that they spent more than £320,000 on the operation. Those costs cannot even be claimed back from the insurers. For the many others who have put in claims, such as the fishermen and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the sum that they can expect to receive is minimal. That is undoubtedly a case of penalising coastal areas for any unforeseen shipping incidents that may occur.

In an Adjournment debate that I secured two years ago, I raised the issue of insurance. In fact, I specifically asked for a reassurance that the pot would not run dry. I was reassured somewhat that on 29 March 2007 a spokesman for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency stated:

In fact, the cost to the public purse has been estimated at more than £10 million. Indeed, the then Transport Minister, the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), who is in his place this evening, stated in a parliamentary answer in January 2007 that the Department of Transport would not provide money for councils that incur costs as a result of pollution from ships. That contradiction is strikingly unfair to the taxpayers of the south-west, whose council tax bills are already among the highest in Britain, so will the current Minister now consider establishing a central fund along the lines of the Bellwin fund or, indeed, modifying that fund accordingly to meet such disasters?

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Since the Napoli incident in January 2007, the adoption by the International Maritime Organisation of the Nairobi international convention for the removal of wrecks has demonstrated a positive and encouraging step forward on compulsory insurance and improving the prospects of cost recovery. The fact that the Government have not yet seen fit to implement that important legislation and that the various provisions of the draft Marine Navigation Bill, which would include the ratification of the ICRW, have not yet found their way into the legislative timetable demonstrates a woeful lack of commitment on the part of the Government. Can the Minister explain that?

The decision to beach the Napoli in Lyme bay—I am particularly pleased that my neighbour, the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), whose constituency looks over most of Lyme bay, is here this evening—was based on the area’s sheltered waters. However, that brings me to the question why Lyme bay was viewed as a suitable place of refuge.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset) (Con): As my hon. Friend knows, it was only by the grace of God that the ship ended up in his patch rather than mine, for which we are duly grateful. I am sure that he is as concerned as I am to discover that elements of the wreckage remain, entrapping fishermen’s gear in Lyme bay. That points to the sensitivity of the area and to the questionability of having such a wreck end up anywhere in the bay.

Mr. Swire: My right hon. Friend is entirely right. I have been out with some fishermen and one only has to look at their radar and sonar scanners to see the large amounts of plastic and other debris in Lyme bay. It would be interesting to know whether the Minister thinks that they should be compensated, because a lot of that stuff has still not been recovered. However, my right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I will come to why I think it questionable that a boat in that condition should have been anywhere near either of our coastal areas.

The Lyme bay area is part of a world heritage site and part of the Jurassic coast—I should declare that I am a trustee of the Jurassic coast trust—but it is also the subject of a fisheries exclusion zone, in recognition of its status as

I would like to quote from a DEFRA document, “A summary of responses to the consultation on measures to protect marine biodiversity interests in Lyme Bay from the impact of fishing with dredges and other towed gear”—I do not know what the acronym for that is, but it would help if there was one—which was published in March 2008. The document states:

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