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House of Lords

Monday, 19th November 2001.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Oxford.

Lord Sheppard of Liverpool—Took the Oath.

Humber Estuary: Pilot Services

Lord Berkeley asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will set up a public inquiry into the safety implications of the proposed reorganisation of pilot services in the Humber estuary, to avoid a situation similar to that which contributed to the "Sea Empress" disaster at Milford Haven.

Lord Filkin: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his Question. Changes to pilotage services on the Humber arise from a contractual dispute in which it would be inappropriate for Ministers to intervene. We are of course concerned that the statutory harbour authority should continue to fulfil its legal duty relating to safe navigation of vessels on the Humber. It has given assurances that safety standards will be maintained in accordance with our port marine safety code, which we developed after the "Sea Empress" grounding.

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of the UK Marine Pilots Association. Is my noble friend aware that if the dispute is not settled, all existing pilots will no longer be working on the Humber at the end of January? Can he satisfy the House that safety will be protected under the new arrangements being made by the port authority, bearing in mind that the "Sea Empress" disaster at Milford Haven was caused by inexperienced pilotage? Would it not be appropriate for Ministers at least to attempt to convene a meeting between the parties to try to resolve the dispute before it becomes even more acrimonious?

Lord Filkin: My Lords, the statutory responsibility for harbour safety was clearly placed on harbour authorities by the 1987 Act. This is a contractual dispute between two parties. Humber Pilots Limited, a co-operative of pilots, served notice some nine months ago on the harbour authority that it no longer intended to continue under the current terms of the contract. The parties have not yet reached agreement. As a precautionary device, the harbour authority is in the process of training a large number of replacement pilots. The department has been in touch with the harbour authority and has inspected its safety plans and training proposals. It is watching the situation closely.

Lord Swinfen: My Lords, is the Minister aware that all marine pilots are personally liable for the advice they give to masters of vessels? Is he further aware that one of the pilots in the Humber estuary is facing

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disciplinary action for advising a master not to take his vessel out of harbour because there was insufficient water, and that the master of that vessel concurred with the advice he had been given?

Lord Filkin: My Lords, as the House knows, there has been a complex history of development of the pilotage service since the 1987 Act which has led to a significant change in the responsibility and accountability of pilots. Were there ever to be an accident in a harbour, the ultimate authority to have action taken against it would be the harbour authority. I shall look into the noble Lord's comment about the legal responsibilities of individual pilots and write to him.

Lord Elton: My Lords, the Minister has told us twice that responsibility for the safety of those approaching a harbour is placed firmly on the harbour authority by the Act. He later told us that the Government were looking closely at the situation to ensure that safety was not imperilled. Given that safety is the responsibility of the harbour authority, what is the Government's locus in this dispute?

Lord Filkin: My Lords, the noble Lord has taken my words further than I intended. The Government do not want to confuse the responsibility for safety in these issues. That is why the 1987 Act—which we have no intention of changing—placed the responsibility so clearly on the harbour authorities. However, in the light of the "Sea Empress" accident and the inquiry that took place into it, the Government have recognised that they have a role in promoting the best possible standards of marine safety. That is why the Government, with the support of the industry, published the port marine safety code. All harbour authorities are due in January to publish their clear responses to that safety code and to set out their full plans for risk assessment and for ensuring that risk in harbours is minimised.

Lord Wedderburn of Charlton: My Lords, what steps have the Government taken to encourage the parties to come to an agreement in this dispute? Have they encouraged ACAS to take an interest? What have they done in respect of this very important dispute?

Lord Filkin: My Lords, ACAS cannot get involved in the issue because it is not a trade dispute; it is a contractual dispute. The pilots are not employed by the harbour authority; they carry out labour-only contract work for Humber Pilots Limited, which is itself the contractor to the Humber authority. The Government are aware of the views of both sides in the dispute because, naturally, they seek to keep the department informed. The responsible Minister will be meeting with local MPs to discuss the situation. However, the responsibility is with the harbour authority. The Government strongly hope for, and urge both sides to reach, a satisfactory conclusion in order that good and safe shipping will continue on the Humber, as is our expectation.

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Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, the Minister said that the port authority is having other pilots trained. I assume that someone is training them. Who is that? It cannot be the pilots who know the river and are in dispute.

Lord Filkin: My Lords, I should not like to second-guess the harbour authority. However, as I understand it, the authority has recruited a substantial number of experienced sea-farers who have maritime certificates. They are being trained in groups on a training vessel which is operating on the Humber—so they are receiving live training on that vessel. I am not explicitly aware of who is giving the direct advice. However, I am fairly confident that it is being given by experienced sea-farers with a capacity to give such training. I shall confirm that in writing to the noble Lord.

Lord Burnham: My Lords, surely, irrespective of the advice of the pilot, in all cases responsibility lies with the captain of a vessel. That being the case, are the Government satisfied with the degrees of competence of all captains and watch-keeping officers coming into British ports?

Lord Filkin: My Lords, the IMO is meeting this week. I am sure that the standards of most captains of most flags are of a high standard. I should be surprised if the Government thought that all flags met the high standards met by the British maritime fleet. No doubt these issues will be discussed at the IMO conference.

Foot and Mouth Disease

2.40 p.m.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will publish a list of the outbreaks of foot and mouth disease, giving in each instance the dates and places and the actions taken by the then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food or its successor, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and the number of animals slaughtered.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty): My Lords, throughout the outbreak, details of infected premises have been placed in the Library of the House, in the form of daily reports, and now weekly reports are being submitted. A full list of infected premises with the date on which foot and mouth disease was confirmed, along with the number and type of animals slaughtered, is also available on the department's website. The list has been updated daily.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, website or no, I cannot even claim to be disappointed with that Answer. Is the Minister aware that I understand that it would have been totally unreasonable to expect a modest and short Question of this kind to shift the

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Government from their adopted coyness into something approaching candour? Will the Minister agree, on reflection, that it would be better to let the whole thing come out rather than continue to feed the public belief that MAFF's performance throughout was pathetic?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, it may be that the noble Lord did not hear me. Put more simply, the answer to his Question is that we are already doing it. I should have thought that he would be pleased with that. Throughout the foot and mouth outbreak, we have given the information that he wants. If he wants it in aggregate form, we can produce it. But it has been in the Library throughout. Clearly, as we move, it is to be hoped, to the end of this disease, more detailed evidence will be produced by the department and by others; and the various committees of inquiry that will examine the outbreak will present their conclusions. That is the way to get candour and truth and recommendations as to how better to deal with such outbreaks of disease in the future.

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