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The MCA looked in detail at the traffic in the Minch and Pentland firth, which not exclusively but principally consists of ferry traffic. The ferries are good, modern, well maintained vessels which, by and large, tend not to go to sea when the conditions are particularly difficult or challenging. The MCA did not even look at the tanker traffic going through Yell sound into Sullum Voe in Shetland, so the oil tankers going into Shetland that formed the basis of the need for the ETVs in the first place were not part of its risk assessment. It was a seriously deficient piece of work. For all its apparent deficiencies, it still concluded that removing Herakles, the ETV that is currently stationed there, would leave the north and north-western waters of Scotland exposed to unacceptable levels of risk. The MCA then went on to speak about the availability of alternatives. It was pretty well apparent from the discussion that followed on 10 February that it does not see where these alternatives are going to come from.

All this comes a mere seven weeks before the contract is going to end on 31 March. This is all work that, if the MCA was serious about discharging its responsibilities with regard to maritime safety, should have been done before it was prepared to offer up the removal of the ETV in the comprehensive spending review, but it was not done. Frankly, we are left with a mess. It is not the Minister’s fault—the fault clearly lies in Southampton with the MCA—but it is his responsibility. I do not see how it can possibly be fixed between now and 31 March. Apparently we will go back to Edinburgh on 4 March, so we will hear what the MCA has to say at that point. Frankly, however, given the parameters it outlined to us on 10 February, I do not think we will hear anything new.

If nothing else, will the Minister please offer us a little more breathing space so that the work that should have been done thus far can be done? It would be criminally irresponsible for the Government to allow the contract to lapse on 31 March and for there to be no coverage thereafter. Concerns have been raised not just by different industries but by local authorities. If the Minister is prepared to offer us a bit more time, I hope he will agree to meet me, parliamentary colleagues and the local authorities of the Highland region, the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland, which made that direct request of the MCA on 10 February. Perhaps he will tell us whether he is prepared to do that and, even better, to hold that meeting on the isles or in the north of Scotland.

Breathing space would give us the opportunity to look again at how the contract has operated in the past. It is an expensive contract—we know that—but it is worth paying for. Given the volume of work available to tugs with the required bollard pull capacity, there is an opportunity to get a good deal for the Government and the taxpayer. The chair of the tug operators association was present at the session on 10 February, and he openly said that it was possible to secure a price for a contract that could run for five, 10 or even 15 years. That would provide good value for money and give our island and coastal communities the knowledge that we had provision and that we would not just be living from one comprehensive spending review to the next.

The hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber reminded us of the genesis of the tug provision, which came about as a result of the 1995 Donaldson report. The Braer ran aground off Quendale in Shetland in 1992, and I was still dealing with the long tail of resulting cases when I

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was first elected here nine years later in 2001. It is no exaggeration to say that the lives of hundreds, possibly thousands, of people in Shetland were changed forever the night the Braer ran aground. We talk about the impact on the industries and about the economic and environmental impact, and that is absolutely true, but the human impact of such an event is absolutely phenomenal, and I just do not know how we can put a price on that.

I have seen what happens if such things are not taken seriously and are allowed to happen again. That is what happened in Galicia in the north-west corner of Spain. When the Prestige ran aground there, it was the second major oil spill in that area in 10 years. I remember visiting the area as a newly elected MP in 2002 and being absolutely horrified by the post-traumatic effect on communities that had been blighted not just once but twice.

Given the location, geography, history and background of the communities under discussion, they are among the most precious and fragile in our country. That is why, as the hon. Gentleman said, it would be unacceptable to leave them exposed to further risk in the way currently proposed.

9.49 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mr Robert Goodwill): I congratulate the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) on securing this debate on the subject of ETVs. Only the Department for Transport could come up with a three-letter acronym for a three-letter word—tug. Let me be clear from the start that I share the hon. Gentleman’s passion for protecting the Scottish coast. The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) said that I did not care about Scotland. I assure him that Scotland is every bit as much part of my country as is Yorkshire or any other part. I do care for the environment around Scotland and for the welfare of seamen on that part of our seas.

Mr MacNeil: I am grateful to the Minister for mentioning me and for giving way, as is the convention in the House. Will we see his concern and his fine words manifested not only in the retention of the ETV in the Northern Isles, but in the return of the ETV to Stornoway, in the Hebrides?

Mr Goodwill: Let me develop my argument, and I will return to that point. Scotland is not only a stunning landscape but the home of important industries such as agriculture and fishing, which are economically important to Scotland and the whole United Kingdom. Protecting the environment and safety at sea are our top priorities. The hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber mentioned the Cromarty firth oil transfer licence. Marine Scotland was directly consulted on 10 December, and on 8 February, when the consultation ended, it had not responded. When it was asked whether it intended to respond, the answer was no. I hope that that clarifies that point.

Shipping has a good safety record, but we must guard against complacency, because incidents happen. The last major environmental tragedy to befall the Scottish coast was the loss of the oil tanker Braer in the early ’90s. We are very lucky that because of the seascape, much of the oil was dispersed. As a member of the European Parliament Committee on the Environment,

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Public Health and Food Safety, I, like the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), visited the Galicia area and saw some of the devastation caused to the beaches, the marine environment and the marine ecosystem by the heavy oil. The oil clogged up the beaches, and it was heartbreaking to see the seabirds that were affected by it.

That was 23 years ago, and it is to the credit of the shipping industry and the skills of its seafarers that we have not had an incident on the same scale since. As we have heard, the late Lord Donaldson of Lymington conducted an extensive review of safety after the Braer incident. His report, “Safer Ships, Cleaner Seas”, was published in May 1994. It is easy to select quotes from Lord Donaldson’s excellent report. He recommended that the Government should set up a system to ensure that tugs with adequate salvage capacity were available at key points around the UK’s coast. He also said that salvage was, and should remain, a primarily private sector service. That is, of course, what happens around the UK’s coast, with the exception of Scotland. The shipping industry pays directly for towage where it is required, at no cost to the public. Lord Donaldson was equally clear that the costs of pollution prevention should be met by potential polluters rather than by the Government and the public.

Mr MacNeil: The Minister’s arguments are all well and good if there are tug boats available to do that work, but what if there are no tug boats available? Where coastal communities and our coastline are at risk, a responsible Government would make sure that that capacity was there where the market and the private sector were failing. The market and the private sector are failing in that on the north and west coast of Scotland. My hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) has secured the debate because of that failure and the lack of those boats.

Mr Goodwill: If the hon. Gentleman will relax a little, I will come on to some of those points. He might find that he need not be quite as irate as he is, because I share his concerns.

The world has moved on in the more than 20 years since Lord Donaldson wrote his report, and shipping safety has moved on, too. We have seen the introduction of the new global maritime distress and safety system, electronic charts, bridge watch systems, integrated bridge navigation systems, automatic identification systems, better standards of training for seafarers, improved and more reliable ship propulsion and engine systems, and the international safety management quality code. Those have all added to the tools available to support safer navigation practice.

Ian Blackford: I agree with the Minister’s points about the improvements that have taken place, but they would still not prevent things such as the Lysblink Seaways, which ran aground on Ardnamurchan, or indeed the Costa Concordia. That is the point. Even with the improvements that have been made, there is still a risk to our communities from something like that happening —an unexpected happening, such as an oil tanker running aground. This is about how we provide such protection, even with the improvements that have taken place in the shipping industry.

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Mr Goodwill: The hon. Gentleman’s point is absolutely valid. I am talking about some of the other vessels that we have been able to remove from around the coast because of other factors.

There is improved automatic monitoring of ship movements from the shore, both by Her Majesty’s Coastguard and by port authorities. That is why we felt it was right in 2011 to decide to withdraw the Government-funded tugs operating in the Dover strait and in the south-west approaches off Falmouth. The savings were substantial. Withdrawing the ETVs elsewhere in the UK saved the public purse approximately £32.5 million over the last spending review period. The ETV based in Orkney in the Northern Isles is funded until 31 March, at a cost of roughly £2 million to £3 million per year.

The availability of commercial tug and salvage operations in such areas persuaded us that it was no longer appropriate for the UK taxpayer to fund that provision. That decision has been borne out by the fact that commercial tows have provided assistance where that has been necessary. However, we recognised that the picture was different on the Scottish coast, where there is a lack of larger commercial tugs. One Government-funded tug has been retained since then, based at Kirkwall in the Orkneys, and can operate both to the north and to the west.

The positioning of the ETV was carefully considered and was based on the density of shipping across the Northern and Western Isles region, notably of tanker vessels; the availability of shelter during inclement weather; and the ready availability of effective logistics support. On balance, the density of shipping, particularly of tanker vessels, carried the greatest weight and predicated the stationing of the tug in and around the Orkney Islands. That provision costs the taxpayer between £2 million and £3 million annually, as I have mentioned.

Since its retention in 2011, the emergency towing vessel Herakles has been used to offer a tow just four times. The tug has been asked to stand by and ready itself for potential towage on other occasions purely as a precautionary measure. At no time has any ship needing a commercial tow failed to secure one, nor has there been any occurrence of pollution within the marine environment through a lack of a timely and effective towing service. It is therefore right that we consider whether it is appropriate for the UK taxpayer to continue to fund that provision. We have not included the provision in our current spending plans.

Mr MacNeil: In fairness to the Minister he is genuinely allowing us to have an exchange of views. However, I find his argument akin to saying, “My house was built in 1906 and it has not been on fire since, and therefore I do not need fire insurance for my house.” The reality is—this is the point made by the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber in this debate—that we should have an insurance policy. The Minister is telling me that, no matter the age of my house, I do not need insurance for my house—or, in this case, coastal insurance. In that, the UK Government have been found short and very wanting.

Mr Goodwill: The hon. Gentleman is quite correct to raise the issue of risk. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland talked about the MCA looking at all potential risks. Indeed, the risk assessment by the MCA

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looked at all factors, including mechanical failure, collision risk, traffic volumes and the weather, including the very severe weather that can affect that part of the world. The stakeholder meeting on 10 February scrutinised the risk assessment, and all parties agreed with the assessment, including the fact that risk levels increase without ETV provision. The MCA will carry out further refinement of the risk assessment in the light of stakeholder discussions.

Ian Blackford: I am listening very carefully to the hon. Gentleman, who is being very considerate with his time. He is identifying that there is a risk from the removal of the ETV. We already know that a grounding has taken place at Ardnamurchan. We already know that the MCA has referred to the time it took to travel to that vessel. The Orkney vessel cannot provide that degree of protection in a timely manner on the west coast. To give security to our community, we need to retain the insurance cover that many of us have mentioned. We need the vessel in Orkney, but we desperately need the vessel on the west coast. What will the Minister say if we end up with an incident at some point in the future—heaven forbid—if we could have had such an ETV to give us at least a degree of protection. That is the price we are asking the Government to pay tonight.

Mr Goodwill: I have made the point that the one vessel we have is best stationed where it is because of the risk and the type of traffic to which it can respond.

We have not made a final decision on whether this provision should continue. I have asked the MCA to consult all interested parties on two questions. First, what is the shared view on the risk of pollution off the coast of Scotland and how has that changed since 2011?

10 pm

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

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

Mr Goodwill: The second question is what alternative arrangements are available to maintain an appropriate towage capability that could reduce the burden on the UK taxpayer.

As we have heard, the MCA held its first consultative meeting in Edinburgh on 10 February. It was attended by the agency’s chief executive, Sir Alan Massey, which demonstrates the priority the Government give to this matter. I was delighted to hear that the engagement of stakeholders and interested parties was positive and constructive.

In refining the risk assessment, there are many factors to take into account, including the density of shipping, the variety of cargoes, the size of today’s ships, the scenarios in which ships may get into difficulty and, of course, the picture of available tugs and salvage solutions. The MCA’s officials have gathered a great deal of additional information to add to their understanding of the current risk. It is clear, however, that the overall risk picture is similar to how it looked in 2011, when the decision was taken to retain one Government-funded tug.

Roger Mullin (Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath) (SNP): I did not intend to speak in this debate, but I have heard the Government talk about risk on so many occasions

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and it strikes me that they are being very badly briefed, because they do not seem to understand what risk means. At the very simplest, two components are being misunderstood. The first is the probability of an event occurring. To follow what my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) said, even if something might happen only once every 50 years, it could happen next week. It does not mean that we will have to wait 50 years for it to occur.

The second point, on which very little has been said, is that we must take account of the nature of the negative outcome. I would argue, as have many people, that because of the nature of shipping today and the types of cargo that are being moved, such as waste, the catastrophic nature of the negative outcome is greater than it would have been 20 or 30 years—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Natascha Engel): Order. I know that the hon. Gentleman said that he was not going to make a speech, but if he could keep his interventions a bit shorter, we would all be very grateful.

Mr Goodwill: I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that the Government are acutely aware of the risk and the damage that could be caused to the environment or, indeed, the loss of life that could occur if that risk is not correctly assessed and the response correctly put in place.

The meeting on 10 February started to explore whether there might be alternative ways to provide a tug capability. Another meeting with stakeholders is scheduled for Edinburgh on 9 March. We may find that a longer-term solution rests not on one approach, but on a combination of options. I want to give the MCA time and space to work through all reasonable options with the stake- holders to find a longer-term solution. That considered thought and the development of expert advice simply cannot be achieved before the current funding ends on 31 March.

I can therefore announce to the House that I have instructed the MCA to make immediate arrangements to extend the provision of a Government-funded emergency towing vessel to mirror the current arrangement until 30 September this year. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland for making the case for that in such a positive way. The MCA and my Department will find the money for the additional provision from any underspend across our budgets. This is not additional expenditure.

Mr Alistair Carmichael: The Minister is to be congratulated on this announcement. It is clearly not the end of the story, but it is a significant act of good faith. I thank him for taking this step this evening. Will he take away from the House the message that came from the stakeholder engagement meeting on 10 February, which was that this work has to be done again and it has to be done properly? The standard and content of the risk assessment is not good enough. He has given us time. Will that time be used to do the work properly?

Mr Goodwill: I have already made the point that the level of risk has not changed substantially since previous assessments, but we do need to explore other ways in which that risk could be addressed. The point

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was made about the availability of tugs because, sadly, of the demise of the North sea oil industry and other areas where we may be able to come up with something more cost-effective.

Ian Blackford: We welcome the announcement the Government have made this evening. That is the right thing to do. What I would say to the Minister, however, is that we explained what happened in Ardnamurchan. The ETV cannot get from Orkney in a reasonable amount of time. In light of the decision the Minister has made this evening and in light of the risk assessment that must take place, will he revisit the need and desire for a second vessel based in Stornoway to cover the west coast, based on a realistic understanding of risk as outlined by me, my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Roger Mullin) and others? We cannot accept that our communities should be left at risk. This is a small price to pay. We need that insurance policy. I am grateful that the Orkney vessel is being kept on for the next six months, but please let us make sure we get a solution that protects all our communities. That means the re-establishment of a two-vessel solution for the north and the west of Scotland.

Mr Goodwill: I certainly hear what the hon. Gentleman says. The provision of the ETV and the steaming times to get to certain locations where it may be needed is something we need to address. I urge all those with an interest to seize the opportunity this extra time brings to work with the MCA to implement a longer term strategy to meet this need. I hope right hon. and hon. Members will give their encouragement for that.

As I have said in response to questions from hon. Members, the Government recognise the importance of ensuring shipping activities off the coast of Scotland remain safe.

Mr MacNeil: I am very grateful for the Government U-turn, although it is only for six months. We have concentrated a lot on pollution, but two months’ ago the cruise ship Star Pride ran aground at 6.15 am on 22 December near Isla de Coiba, Panama. In such a situation many lives are in peril. Luckily, the climate was better there. There is increased cruise traffic off the west coast of Scotland. Where are the tug boats or the security to ensure that such a situation would not turn into a human catastrophe? We talk about environmental catastrophes, but we have to be aware of human catastrophes. The Government are making a U-turn, but I hope that they carry on steaming further south and think of the Hebrides and the west coast too.

Mr Goodwill: I have already made it very clear that we have two considerations in terms of the marine environment and pollution, particularly from vessels carrying oil, but there is also the potential loss of life from vessels that cannot receive timely assistance.

I will make a final decision about whether it is right for the UK taxpayer to continue funding the emergency towing vessel provision in light of the MCA’s advice before the end of September. We look forward to colleagues giving evidence and giving their views on that consideration. I will, of course, be consulting Scottish Ministers on those options before a final decision is made. As I have said, I am happy to meet island councils to hear their ideas for the future. Indeed, I look forward to travelling north, if the diary allows and now there will be a bit

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more daylight up there, to visit some of the locations and hear at first hand from people on the ground.

Question put and agreed to.

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10.8 pm

House adjourned.