The Coastguard, Emergency Towing Vessels and the Maritime Incident Response Group - Transport Committee Contents

4  Emergency towing vessels

48. Emergency Towing Vessels (ETVs) were first introduced into service in 1994 on the recommendation of Lord Donaldson whose report into the prevention of pollution from merchant shipping followed the Braer and Sea Empress tanker disasters. Initially there were two ETVs stationed at Dover and Stornoway for the winter months only, but following a further review in 2000, the fleet was increased to four, providing cover on a 24 hour, year-round basis. All four tugs (stationed in the Dover Straits, the south west approaches, the Minches and the Fair Isle Channel) are owned by J. P. Knight, and have been under contract to the MCA since 2001.[82]

49. The key function of an ETV is to intercept a ship that has become disabled, secure a tow to bring the vessel under control and, if necessary, tow it to a location of safety. ETVs carry out further work in addition to towing, including fire fighting (supporting the delivery of MIRG operations, see chapter 5), pollution clean-up, search and rescue, guard ship duties, escort duties in the Minch, provision of a salvage platform, surveillance, traffic separation schemes (TSS) identification duties and assistance to other Government departments.[83]

50. In 2009-10, ETVs cost the MCA £12.2m.[84] Under the present contract, if an ETV makes a connection (tow line) to another vessel it immediately goes 'off contract', and a commercial contract is negotiated between the ship company/owner/agent and J. P. Knight.[85] The MCA recovers around 15% of the net value of such contracts.[86] In 2009-10, MCA income from ETVs totalled £64,603.[87]

51. Following the recent Spending Review it was decided that the current ETV contract, which the Minister described as "flawed",[88] would not be renewed when it expires in September 2011. The Government believes that emergency towing operations are properly a matter for commercial ship owners and their insurers, using the services of commercial towing vessels, and that the decision to end the MCA contract will save £32.5m over the spending review period.[89]


52. Sir Alan Massey told the Committee that in the last few years ETVs have been called to a real incident very few times.[90] But evidence from J. P. Knight suggested that ETVs responded to as many as 180 taskings in one year, with 54 tows of disabled vessels and 10 salvages of stricken vessels between 2006-2010.[91]A breakdown of the frequency and nature of taskings of the four ETVs is shown in Figure 5.
Figure 5: ETV activity, 2001-2010    
2001 20022003 20042005 20062007 20082009 2010
total taskings by MCA 162 180181 114123
of which:
tanker escorts (Minch) 108 147134 8587
other taskings 5433 4729 36
tows of disabled vessels 26 35 814 712 85
salvages of stricken vessels 11 32 13 31 12
= no data available.

Source: J.P. Knight (Ev 151)

53. In written evidence, the law firm Holman Fenwick Willan LLP, argued that incident statistics are incidental to the primary function of ETVs, which is to provide a 24-hour preventative response to assist vessels in distress, well in advance of a situation becoming potentially dangerous. They argued that the statistics show either that the UK has been lucky in recent years, or that the ETV fleet has proven effective in fulfilling its preventative role.[92]

54. We believe it is the latter. We heard on several occasions that the intervention of an ETV had helped prevent a serious incident from occurring. David Balston, Director of Safety & Environment for the Chamber of Shipping, told us that "there have been numerous occasions in recent years—a large number—which could have gone very badly wrong and perhaps didn't go wrong because there were emergency towing vessels quickly on hand".[93] Carol Collins of the PCS Stornoway Branch described one example of the vital intervention of an ETV:

At the end of last year I had an incident involving a commercial vessel called the Red Duchess, which almost ran aground on the island of Rum. The ETV was tasked and it took a bit of steaming time to get to the scene, so the Mallaig lifeboat managed to hold the ship, which was a small coaster laden with coal bound for Stornoway. For most of that day the lifeboat held that ship off the coastline of Rum. The tug got there literally in the nick of time. Just as it arrived I think the towline between the lifeboat and ship broke. Even when the ETV took that vessel in tow the line parted a couple of times. They got her in tow, and I think she came within half a mile of the coastline of Rum.[94]

55. Giving evidence in Falmouth, Capt. Mark Samson argued that the role for an ETV is not simply a service to industry, but a service to the general public, saying: "This is actually the taxpayers of the UK wanting reassurance that there is a method to stop vessels going ashore on their beaches and causing environmental havoc, rather than the response of industry to actually salvage the property of individual ship owners".[95] Western Isles Council and Shetland Islands Council argued that any savings made from cancelling the contract would be wiped out by a single incident. The cost of cleaning up the Braer oil spill, for instance, was around £100m.[96] Giving evidence in Stornoway, Cllr Foxley offered the analogy of leaving your house uninsured: "Most of us feel that sooner or later there will be a major catastrophic incident. Whether it be salmon farming, coastal tourism, bird life and wildlife on the west coast, for all these factors we will pay a very heavy price for the removal of the ETVs".[97]

56. The MCA commissioned a risk assessment on ETV provision, which concluded that "The United Kingdom appears to have little option but to continue its involvement in the contracting of Emergency Towing Vessels [...] In cost benefit terms, averting one major shipping disaster and environmental incident of the scale of the Prestige would justify a contract price far in excess of that currently being paid until its expiry in 2011 and beyond".[98] The Government's decision is therefore directly at odds with a risk assessment that it commissioned itself.

57. When questioned, the Minister accepted that "in a perfect world" the ETV contract would have been renewed, but he emphasised the need to address the nation's financial situation.[99]

58. The decision to cease the MCA's provision of the Emergency Towing Vessels, which was made without consultation and against the findings of an independent risk assessment, is unwise and short-sighted. It is, quite literally, inviting disaster. We are not convinced that anything has happened since Lord Donaldson's report to lead to the conclusion that ETVs are no longer required. On the contrary, we have heard of several occasions on which the intervention of an ETV has averted a major incident. ETVs represent a prudent, and seemingly cost-effective, insurance policy for the British taxpayer. It would take just one major accident and any savings that had been made by the decision to cease the contract would be wiped out in a stroke. We urge the Government to reverse its decision to terminate the provision of ETVs through the MCA.

Commercial tugs

59. The Government believes that emergency towing operations are properly a matter for commercial ship owners and their insurers, using the services of commercial towing vessels. But we have heard considerable evidence to suggest a commercial alternative is not viable. David Offin, the Managing Director of J. P. Knight, the contractor which provides the current fleet of ETVs claimed that 50% of the incidents to which the ETVs are called would not have been attended by a commercial operator in time.[100] A more disinterested witness, Cllr Foxley of the Highland Council, told us that at three regional meetings of an ETV working group (comprising representatives from shipping and tug interests, salvage interests, insurance interests and local authority interest), "nobody in the room thought there were commercial alternatives available".[101]

60. One alternative put forward was the use of harbour tugs, but this idea was opposed by the majority of our witnesses. Capt. Kevin Richardson, President of the UK Harbour Masters Association, told us that an ETV is "a purpose-built, purpose-crewed, purpose-equipped piece of kit designed for a specific job. There is no way that harbour towage could substitute for that particular specialist tool".[102] An ETV has a 150-tonne bollard pull, much larger than harbour tugs, which range from 20 tonnes to around 100 tonnes.[103] Harbour tugs and their crews, we were told, are not equipped or trained for salvage in bad weather on the open seas.[104] David Balston of the Chamber of Shipping observed that:

In 1996, when the Sea Empress went aground off Milford Haven, the rescue was attempted by local harbour tugs from Milford Haven and not by ETVs. The result was 73,000 tonnes of oil spilt, with a clean-up bill of about £120 million, which in today's money equates to about £200 million.[105]

61. A major concern was that the commercial sector would not provide the same level of cover as the ETVs in their current stations. While commercial salvage operators might post a tug at Lands End for the winter months, because they know there is a reasonable possibility of it being needed, there is no market for private salvage in the waters off the north and west coast of Scotland.[106] Scottish Ministers were unconvinced that there is a suitable commercial solution to the provision of ETVs in the vicinity of the Minch and Fair Isle Channel.[107] The Highland Council added that for Shetland the nearest commercial large towing vessels on the east coast are based at Aberdeen, some 30 hours steaming time away.[108]

62. Our evidence strongly suggests that there is no suitable commercial alternative to the Emergency Towing Vessels. A harbour tug has neither the ocean towage capacity nor the bollard pull that an ETV possesses. Unless the Government can provide a persuasive case that such capacity exists in appropriate form and at appropriate locations, it should recognise that the solution it has proposed is unviable and potentially reckless.

Alternative funding sources

63. In the absence of a commercial alternative, a better solution might be to find other revenue streams to help to pay for the ETVs. Several different sources of funding have been put forward. These include: renegotiating the existing contract so that the salvage payment percentage is greater than that at present (perhaps 50%);[109] charging for escort duties through the Minches; and funding from Light Dues, the Crown Estate or marine insurance companies which provide cover for vessels which operate off the UK coast.[110] There may also be capacity for income generation from activities which are ancillary to the ETVs' principal purposes. Cllr Foxley suggested that there is work on behalf of both the UK Government and the Scottish Government that could be done by these ETVs, including border protection, Ministry of Defence work, hydrographic surveys or work for Marine Scotland.[111]

64. The present ETV contract will be terminated on 30 September 2011. The Minister is clearly using the deadline as a way of driving forward negotiations with stakeholders.[112] An ETV working group has been set up that is focused on looking for alternative funding arrangements for the retention of the current ETV provision.[113] But Capt. Kevin Richardson and Capt. Mark Sansom believed that it would be impossible to find a solution before 30 September.[114] The UK Harbour Masters Association urged the Government to make exceptional provision until a safe and effective alternative is considered.[115] Cllr Foxley asked for an extension of six to nine months.[116]

65. The Government is the guarantor of last resort for the protection of our marine and shoreline environment, and for the lives of those in peril on our seas. That duty, we conclude, would be best discharged by responsibility for the provision of Emergency Towing Vessels resting with the state. However, we recognise that there is a strong case for finding other sources of income to help cover their costs. We note that the Government is brokering discussions with the ETV working group in pursuit of a solution to this problem. But the indications we have received are that these discussions may take some time. It would be unacceptable for the UK shoreline to lie unprotected if no agreement has been reached by 30 September. In such a scenario, the Government should make exceptional provision by extending the ETV contract over the winter, giving the ETV working group a further six months in which to resolve the issue.

82   The Anglian Monarch, based in the Dover Straits, is co-funded by the French Government. Back

83   Ev 148 Back

84   Maritime and Coastguard Agency, Annual Report and Accounts 2009-10, Table 5 Back

85   Ev w61 Back

86   Q136. The cost of a tow is approximately £70,000-100,000 (Q55). Back

87   Ev 120 Back

88   Q 563 Back

89   "Transport Spending Review Press Notice", Department for Transport press release, 20 October 2010 Back

90   Q 135 Back

91   Ev 148 Back

92   Ev w182 Back

93   Q 248 Back

94   Q 422 Back

95   Qq 32, 347 Back

96   Ev 139. A risk assessment of ETV provisions stated that the estimated costs of the Prestige incident, where the sinking was in deep sea many miles from land, and where ETV intervention could have delivered a very different outcome, are in the order of £650 million and rising (Marico Marine Group, ETVs Assessment of requirements, November 2008, p 3). Back

97   Q 447 Back

98   Marico Marine Group, ETVs Assessment of requirements, November 2008, p 1 Back

99   Q 559 Back

100   Q 254 Back

101   Q 442 Back

102   Q 376 Back

103   Q 257 Back

104   Ev 156,170; Q 442 Back

105   Q 264 Back

106   Q 273; Ev w168 Back

107   Ev w72 Back

108   Ev 151 Back

109   Ev w127 Back

110   Ev 151 Back

111   Q 451 Back

112   Q 566 Back

113   Qq 379, 384 Back

114   Ev 140; Q 384 Back

115   Ev 156 Back

116   Q 452 Back

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Prepared 23 June 2011