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Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, we do not comment on the financial state of other member states. I understand that France is seeking to claim that there are exceptional circumstances. That is not for this country but for ECOFIN as a whole to judge.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency has undertaken surveys and checks, in consultation with neighbouring states and the United States authorities, to ensure that the ships are seaworthy. They would not be permitted into UK waters if they presented a specific risk of environmental pollution. Once here, the Environment Agency will ensure that the residual waste will be handled correctly and consigned to a suitably licensed facility.
Lord Berkeley: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that Answer, but is he aware that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency report states that the 50 year-old supply ships have serious corrosion of rivets and seals and contain carcinogenic PCBs? Is he aware that the EU has classed the ships as toxic waste? Can he confirm that the British Government have
Lord Whitty: My Lords, the ships contain some toxic waste in relation to asbestos and other materials, although less than 1.5 per cent of their total bulk could be so described. Imports of asbestos are normally banned, but the HSE grants exemptions, and it did so in this case. With regard to the noble Lord's last point, the fact that changing rules of maritime safety will require the break-up of a significant number of European ships indicates that we need the ability in this country to deal with break-up and recycling of maritime material.
Lord Peston: My Lords, is it the view of Her Majesty's Government that this is simply the operation of the free market? Is it our Government's view that we are simply very good at breaking up ships and that the Americans are not?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, the ships are government owned, and it was an American government contract for which Able UK, which is based in Hartlepool, bid and won. In order for the ships to come here, the American authorities, in conjunction with our authorities, need to deem the ships seaworthy, so that there is no marine hazard. There are pretty tight regulations on that, and there are pretty tight regulations here and with other countries close to whose coasts the ships may pass on how they may get here. Once they are here, the Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive have very tight regulations on how they are dealt with, broken up and recycled. Therefore, while the matter may relate to free competition and a free market, the market is very heavily regulated.
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, given that the ships are rusty hulks that will be in territorial waters in the stormy time of autumnwhich is in itself regrettablewill the Secretary of State consider using the special post created in 1999 for situations of maritime emergency? Under that measure, all power is vested in one person to take control of the entire question of routing and emergency planning, rather than leaving the matter in the hands of several agencies. After something had gone wrong, it would be too latewe need action now to ensure that nothing goes wrong, and it would be better to have one person in command of the situation.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency is responsible for agreeing the route, which may vary according to weather conditions and temperature. If an emergency arose as a result of this situation or anything else, a centralised command for dealing with it would be put in place. However, this is not an emergency; it is dealing sensibly with some ships that are coming here to be recycled, when British expertisebased, in this case, in
Lord Davies of Coity: My Lords, we may be better at breaking up ships than the Americans, but does my noble friend agree that with the enormous risks that exist in bringing ships 3,000 miles across the Atlantic, the situation is an absolute nonsense? Does he not believe that the Americans should break up their own ships in their own country?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, there is an argument for that, but the American authorities decided to put the contract to international tender and to limit consideration of tender to those countries and firms capable of meeting the environmental and other safety standards necessary. In other cases, with private ship owners, such ships have occasionally been broken up in west Africa or South America, in countries where those standards are not met and where the environmental hazard would be substantially greater.
Lord Whitty: No, my Lords, I do not believe that I can. The technology is of course quite new but the ships are very old and the American Government kept them for 50 years for an emergency situation. They have rarely been used. Therefore, we are dealing with a unique situation. However, it is the case with some ships that are towed around the oceans for destruction or disposaloften in a developing countrythat their materials are not recycled and the conditions in which they are broken up may cause a very serious environmental hazard. We are avoiding that by this arrangement.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, American companies were allowed to bid, but there was no appropriate American bidder. That is a problem for the American authorities, as I do not believe that all the fleet will prove to be seaworthy. In that case, the Americans would have to undertake to deal with some of the ships themselves.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, one reason why there is such a highly skilled and appropriate work force in Hartlepool is clearly the attraction of the place and where it is in this country, bringing skills, jobs and income to the United Kingdom.
Moved, That the Lord President (Baroness Amos) be appointed a member of the following committees, in the place of the Lord Williams of Mostyn, deceased: House, Liaison, Privileges, Procedure and Selection.(The Chairman of Committees).
Lord Jopling: My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Baroness on her appointment. Will she use her influence as Leader of the House and in leading the committees in enforcing the convention that the Questions for Written Answer are replied to within two weeks? I ask her that in view of the fact that this morning, disgracefully, there are 52 Questions that have been sitting there for between three and 12 weeks.
Lord Brabazon of Tara: My Lords, as it is my Motion on the Order Paper, it is for me to answer that question. I am afraid that the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, may be disappointed in my reply. The House will have to put up with me answering for the committees. However, I am assured by the Lord President, beside whom I was sitting just a moment ago, that she will do her best, as her predecessor did, to ensure that Questions are answered in timely fashion.
Baroness Gale: My Lords, I understand that no amendments have been set down to this Bill and that no noble Lord has indicated a wish to move a manuscript amendment or to speak in Committee. Therefore, unless any noble Lord objects, I beg to move that the order of commitment be discharged.