HC Deb 18 May 1977 vol 932 cc620-66

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Coleman.]

11.2 p.m.

Mr. R. E. Bean (Rochester and Chatham)

In the Strategic Plan for the South-East, issued in 1971, the Medway towns were designated an immediate growth area. Because the area has first-class railway services to London and relatively cheap housing, many young families have moved there. Over 30 per cent. of the population is under the age of 15. The Medway Health District has the highest birth rate in the country—4,336 births last year. No other health district in the South-East exceeded 3,000 births.

Future trends are even more alarming. It is forecast that by 1981 the number of children under the age of 4 will decline throughout the South-East, with the sole exception of the Kent area. It is expected that the increase in Kent will be 23,000 and that 45 per cent. of them will be in the Medway Health District.

The hospitals in the Medway area cannot cope with that increasing pressure, and, despite promises, little appears to be happening. The district has a total of 1,027 hospital beds, but that figure is 9,000 short of the last DHSS recommendations. The district has many major deficiencies in the maternity, acute surgery, geriatric and psychiatric services.

I have mentioned the increasing pressure on maternity services, but the immediate problem is the special care baby unit at All Saints Hospital, Chatham. Although the district's requirement in the unit is a provision of 32 cots, the unit is allowed to hold only 16 because of the risk of infection.

The unit is housed in an old building and, because of its style of construction—it has exposed steel beams, with old-fashioned radiators and pipes—it is impossible to keep it clean. There is no artificial ventilation, and, as a result, dirt and pollution come in through the open windows. There are no changing facilities. The 28 staff regularly have to change from their outside clothing in the sterile area of the ward itself. There are no isolation or resuscitation units.

Last year 34 babies had to be taken to other hospitals in the South-East and 19 of them could have been cared for at All Saints if the facilities had been available. They were transferred to hospitals in the London area, at least 30 miles away. I have been told by the staff of All Saints Hospital that two babies lost their lives last year because no London hospital could be found to take them and All Saints did not have the facilities to deal with the crisis.

One doctor told me that he had to hand-resuscitate a baby for six hours while his colleagues were frantically telephoning London hospitals to find accommodation for the child. I am pleased to say that, despite all these difficulties, thanks to the diligence and devotion of the staff of All Saints, Medway has one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the region.

Another area of concern is acute surgery. Medway Hospital, at Gillingham, is the accident centre for the district, serving a population of some 330,000. The hospital, however, has only 50 surgical beds. Because of the pressure on these beds, patients have to be moved to other hospitals for convalescence, perhaps before it is medically prudent. Last year the length of stay by the average patient at Medway Hospital was just over six days compared with the regional average of over nine days.

I think that the most surprising statistic that I have found in investigating this matter is the length of time a bed is unoccupied. In the South-East Region the average time between a patient leaving and another coming into a bed is about 2.7 days, but in the Medway area it is one-tenth of a day. Perhaps one can claim that this is a saving of cost because beds never get cold!

This movement of patients is a matter of some controversy locally. One prominent surgeon has said that patients are at risk as a consequence of moving between hospitals. Medway Hospital is the former Chatham Naval Hospital. It was modernised in the 1960s, although only 213 beds were provided. Administrative facilities and other services were built to cater for a hospital of nearly 800 beds. At present only two operating theatres are in operation, and emergency cases have to wait up to six or seven hours before receiving treatment.

Medway's geriatric problem is no greater than those elsewhere in the region, but we have problems, because in the Medway area we have a large percentage of houses built 60 or more years ago. These older houses have little or no heating in their bedrooms and often have outside sanitation. As a consequence, general practitioners tend to send older patients to hospital whereas normally they would be dealt with in the comfort of their own homes. When I last made inquiries into the subject of psycho-geriatric cases, I found that there were some 15 urgently waiting to be admitted to hospital, and many of these patients were a danger not only to themselves but to the relatives trying to care for them.

The problems of Medway Health District are exacerbated by being in the comparatively rich South-East Thames Region. The lion's share of the resources are given to the three teaching hospitals and the other prestige hospitals in the London area. This is to the detriment of Kent in general and Medway in particular. I have pressed the Minister many times on this subject, and last year, my right hon.. Friend the then Minister of State, now the Foreign Secretary, assured me: The Regional Health Authority are fully aware of the problems facing localities such as Kent, and are taking steps to start correcting the imbalance which has been allowed to build up in the past. That promise has not been kept. This year Medway's capital allocation has been slashed by the region. It has been reduced so that it is only 66 per cent. of the previous year's total, and a mere £50,000 has been granted when it is estimated that Medway needs £1½ million to make up its deficiencies. The Medway district has some £66,000 to spend on small works. If the district were allowed to forgo this sum and roll over the money into future years, this would be one way of accumulating capital, but under the present rules of the Department that is not allowed.

Although I am only a layman in medical affairs, I am convinced that a crisis situation exists in the Medway hospitals and that emergency action must be taken to remedy the neglect of the past. One solution that has been suggested is that at the Medway Hospital itself, where we have a great deal of space, the ward accommodation should be increased by the erection of industrialised buildings. These might not be up to the Department's standards, but they would save a great deal of time in construction. I should like the Minister's observations on that suggestion.

But the real problem in the Medway area is the sheer shortage of money. The region is aware of the situation, but is dogged by the continuing problem of having to serve the ever-increasing designated area of the South London teaching hospitals and the prestige hospitals, particularly in Greenwich. What is needed is not just a mere statement of policy by the Secretary of State but a determination on his part to see that his policies are carried through. I would also welcome an assurance that in the future years policies will be observed and that a monitoring system will be set up to see that areas such as Medway do not lose out.

I notice that the hon. Member for Gillingham (Mr. Burden) is present. If he would like to come in at this juncture, I am willing to give way.

11.11 p.m.

Mr. F. A. Burden (Gillingham)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Rochester and Chatham (Mr. Bean) for allowing me time to speak, because this is a matter going far beyond party politics. We have argued for our constituencies, both of which are affected, on the broad basis that we want to get something done.

The Minister knows from his files that for at least three years I have been pressing for urgency in this case. Indeed, he is also no doubt aware that I sent the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle), then Secretary of State, a series of extremely good articles, well researched and factual, produced by one of the local newspapers after I had formed a small committee, including consultants, doctors and others interested in operating and in the National Health Service generally. They all expressed the utmost anxiety about the situation that was developing.

This was followed by representations to the present Foreign Secretary, then the Minister of State responsible. He was good enough to say that he agreed that the situation in Medway was extremely critical and that he recognised the point that the hon. Member for Rochester and Chatham has made.

One of the most important features of this whole situation was the growth in population and the additional strains that imposed on the Health Service. The then Minister of State said that he hoped that this would be taken into consideration in dealing with the problem. He also insisted—and this was the crux of the matter—that the shortage of money was such that it was extremely difficult, indeed, probably impossible, to go as far as he would like.

I also took the matter up with the chairman of the South-East Region, Mr. Donne. I felt that was necessary since he had the duty of dispensing the moneys made available by the Government to the particular areas that he represents—Kent and, I presume, part of South-East London. It was a very wide area. He has a very difficult task, but I felt it was absolutely essential to point out the problems that existed and that would grow in intensity and become even more critical.

He accepted that view of the situation. Although he implied that the services were inadequate, he said they were only kept at the standard they were at because of the dedication and hard work of the nurses and others involved. Unfortunately, since then there has been a deterioration, not least because of the growth in population, to which the hon. Member for Rochester and Chatham had referred and for which there has been no compensating improvement.

Indeed, a very eminent consultant wrote a letter to Her Majesty drawing attention to the problem in the town. He is a surgeon who is operating in the wards that carry out the whole of the emergency operations and he said that his ward was frequently more like a casualty-clearing station on a battle field than a hospital ward in a civilised country. Those are very strong words for a consultant. It is almost unprecedented for a surgeon to speak in that way. He also made those observations to the Press. Another surgeon in a hospital in the Rochester and Chatham constituency made similar observations.

We are in a position in which these factors cannot be disregarded. I am sure that the Minister will not wish to disregard them. I know that he will say that the finances available make it difficult to provide for any improvement. If a certain sum of money is available for the whole area, I believe, as I told the chairman for the area in 1975, that Medway must be treated as a special case.

The money that goes to areas that do not experience the population growth found in Medway must be siphoned off from those areas and put into Medway. In no other part of the area have there been such complaints as have been made in Medway. That part is unique for the expressions of anxiety and dissatisfaction made about it.

The consultant told me that last Saturday there was only one qualified nurse for the ward that has to deal with all the emergency operations and that has 50 beds. She was the ward sister. On Sunday the only qualified nurse was a staff nurse.

I know the Minister fairly well and I know that he will not attempt to gloss over this problem. I know that he will realise that something has to be done, and I hope that tonight he will tell us just what will be done.

11.19 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. Eric Deakins)

I feel sure that the people of Medway will appreciate the continuing efforts of their Members including my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Chatham (Mr. Bean) and the hon. Member for Gillingham (Mr. Burden), in drawing attention to the state of hospital services in their district, the latest being my hon. Friend's admirable presentation this evening. In fact, those efforts have continued for several years, as the hon. Member for Gillingham said, and involved approaches at local and regional as well as national levels.

I can well understand the serious concern which has been expressed but I know that the relevant health authorities neither deny nor disregard these very real problems. In present circumstances, however, when we must for the next year or two move slowly and deliberately towards a fairer distribution of resources, even long-standing inequalities may take some time to be righted. But the fact that fewer immediate improvements are evident than one would like to see certainly does not mean that the authorities are not already taking the first difficult steps essential for a fairer future.

As hon. Members will well know, my right hon. Friend has reiterated the commitment of this Government to a fairer distribution of the financial resources of the National Health Service in relation to health care needs. He has also stressed that redistributing resources to help deprived neighbourhoods in better provided regions is just as important as helping equally deprived parts of less well-off regions. But the pace at which redistribution should go—whether between or within regions—is constrained by such practical considerations as the historic pattern of hospitals and other capital stock which could not be fundamentaly changed without a programme of investment greater than we are likely to be able to afford in the foreseeable future.

There has, I suspect, been some misunderstanding over the nature of the equalisation "targets" calculated on formulae proposed by the Resource Allocation Working Party, which was set up in May 1975. I should therefore make clear that the task of that working party was—namely, to recommend the criteria on which long-term allocations of money should be based, not the speed at which inequalities emerging from application of these criteria should be corrected. This is a matter for political decision, just as the practical problems of redeploying resources within a region or an area are for local consideration and decision.

In its first interim report the working party interpreted the underlying objective of its terms of reference as being to stress that there should eventually be equal access to health care for people at equal risk. I stress that this was to be the eventual result. In its full report last September the point was expanded. It said in paragraph 1.5: Resources allocation is concerned with the distribution of financial resources which are used for the provision of real resources. In this sense it is concerned with the means rather than the end. We have not regarded our remit as being concerned with how the resources are deployed. This must be a matter for the administering authorities and is essentially part of their policy-making, planning and decision-making functions in response to central guidelines on national policies and priorities. Resource allocation will clearly have an important influence on the discharge of those functions and be the most critical guideline within which they have to be discharged. In pursuit of these objectives, the resource allocations made to the regional health authorities in 1976–77 and 1977–78 have been related to equalisation "targets" broadly based on the RAWP formulae and have taken a modest step towards those targets. My right hon. Friend has on more than one occasion commented on problems faced by the relatively richer regions, including those based on London, which have, for example, particular problems in meeting the needs of an ageing population. We are beginning to get to grips with a major redeployment of hospital resources including the closure of small hospitals that are no longer viable, and, above all, we need some room to manoeuvre to permit redeployment of services to meet the hitherto neglected priorities identified in the consultative document. With these problems in mind, marginal additions in real terms were made to the allocations to the Thames regions so that none should find its resources at an absolute standstill. We have freely acknowledged that keeping within the cash limits set would still not be easy, but this is an essential discipline.

The letters informing regional authorities of their cash allocations for the current year also advised them of the criteria each would be expected to observe in the complex task of breaking down the total figure between their constituent areas. The provisional assessment of resource targets was recommended, at least for areas, but preferably for districts as well, to provide some measure of relative need. Generally, a limited movement towards the "targets" should be possible. Exceptionally, this might be delayed to enable other areas to rationalise services and thus have funds in order to enable more rapid progress to be made elsewhere in future years. A wide range of factors would have to be taken into consideration—including, of course, those which have been instanced at Medway and are already well known to the South-East Thames Regional Health Authority. The Department will monitor closely the national level of progress in implementing RAWP principles and RHAs will be informng us of their intra-regional allocations and the basis on which they were decided.

The South-East Thames Regional Health Authority had already been giving a great deal of thought to this question and had set up an internal resource allocation working party. Broadly speaking, it had accepted the necessity for redeploying resources from the London end of the region to the periphery, particularly to Kent, and had indeed taken a modest step in that direction in 1976–77. However, it felt that in 1977–78 a breathing space was needed to deal with various special commitments, including the expenses of running new facilities resulting from capital expenditure previously agreed and in particular overspending by areas which had not had time to take essential measures of rationalisation. Inner city areas, for example, may appear to have an excess of acute hospital beds, but it is not possible to switch such resources immediately to remedy the gaps in, say, primary care. I accept that my Department has a clear monitoring rôle here. I hope that this will reassure my hon. Friend. To exercise this rôle we shall require proper reports from the authorities. These must, however, await the outcome of further discussions between the RHA and its AHAs on what is now proposed.

Although the very existence of the targets proposed by RAWP marks a significant advance, such targets for use both by the Department and by health authorities are admittedly subject to further refinement. For example, the need for health care is affected by social factors that are the province of other programmes—housing, for example, employment, environmental health, even transport. The NHS cannot remedy deprivation in these fields, but it has to respond to the effect on health services to which such deprivation may give rise.

Mr. Burden:

The point that I wanted to put was simply that we have been struggling for two years with the South-East Thames authority and others. The best monitoring that the Minister could do would be to come to the Medway towns himself. I understand that the hon. Gentleman will possibly do that and I hope that he will now give a categorical assurance that he will come and monitor the position himself.

Mr. Deakins

I shall come to that point in a moment.

Again, the pace of change in the future will be influenced not only by the national availability of resources but by the capacity of health authorities to plan ahead for rationalisation and improvements of services. With all this in mind my right hon. Friend has indicated that authorities should plan their redistribution with the influence of the growth rate on the time scale very much in mind and take account of those factors that cannot be quantified—just as he has done nationally. Thus, while one must expect that inequalities between areas in the South-East Thames authorities and even between districts in the Kent area will persist for some time, those inequalities might not be so marked in reality as might appear from a straightforward comparison of resident populations because of the need to take account of a variety of modifying factors. The RAWP report itself comments on a number of these and I shall not elaborate them here. To take one example, London weighting and the extra cost of medical education are other factors that must be taken into account.

However, I can well imagine that the comparisons that the average patient makes are only indirectly concerned with allocations. He is interested in what facilities are available to him, whether, for example, he has to wait longer than similar patients elsewhere. Here the real problem is in ensuring that like is being compared with like. Different hospitals treat different mixes of conditions, for example. There is no absolute yardstick by which the adequacy or otherwise of a particular level of service can be judged. However, I am not aware that patients in the Medway district, wait longer for treatment than patients in other districts in Kent, although comparison is difficult.

However I agree that the details of acute in-patient services at Medway Hospital on the face of it demonstrate that the hospital is using its facilities to the best advantage. Bed occupancy is high and the turnover interval low. Incidentally the turnover interval for general surgery is in fact 0.9 days. I am certainly not seeking to pretend that services are not under pressure in Medway, but one interpretation of the facts is that at least they are being operated most efficiently and I pay tribute to the staff.

If the Medway Hospital can apparently make such intensive use of its facilities, there must surely be room for improvement in other hospitals. It was this kind of improvement, after all, that the Department was hoping for when it recommended in last year's consultative document on priorities that in future there should be a switch of emphasis from the acute to the geriatric, psychiatric and community services. A recent letter from the district management team shows that it feels bound to attach greater priority to schemes for providing additional geriatric and psychiatric accommodation than for the improvement of baby care and surgical facilities. Also, the last year's report from the community health Council shows a properly wide-ranging concern with all aspects of primary and secondary care.

My hon. Friend has also mentioned capital funding. In due course we shall also be discussing with the South-East Thames Authority its capital cash limit for 1977–8 and assumptions for the two following years. The Department had to calculate these figures in a very complicated manner which owed much to the level of ongoing commitments—such as building schemes in progress—in different parts of the country and relatively little so far to RAWP principles. The RHA has publicly protested about its low level of capital funding compared with others and this has attracted local Press headlines throughout the region.

It must be noted, however, that even if its figure of £12 million capital had been set at, say £15 million—which is about the national average—it would still pale into insignificance beside the region's revenue allocation of £352 million. In fact, it is within the authority's discretion, if desired, to bring about that kind of improvement itself by transferring up to 1 per cent. from revenue to capital purposes.

The requirement to make better use of resources is one of the cardinal features of the new planning system that is just getting under way. It might help if I dropped a line about this to the hon. Member for Gillingham and to my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Chatham. I have been invited to examine the Medway situation for myself and I shall be glad to take up this invitation when the opportunity arises.

In the meantime, I accept that in future years additional resources available must increasingly be directed towards remedying deficiencies in health services in such districts. We shall be carefully monitoring this process year by year and discussing with the authorities the appropriate rate of change.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Eleven o'clock.

Second Reading Committee
Wednesday 18th May 1977
The Committee consisted of the following Members: Sir Stephen McAdden(in the Chair)
Berry, Mr. Anthony (Southgate) Parry, Mr. Robert (Liverpool, Scotland Exchange)
Brotherton, Mr. Michael (Louth)
Davis, Mr. Clinton (Under-Secretary of State for Trade) Prescott, Mr. John (Kingston upon Hull, East)
Dodsworth, Mr. Geoffrey (Hertfordshire, South-West) Ridsdale, Mr. Julian (Harwich)
Steen, Mr. Anthony (Liverpool, Wavertree)
Johnson, Mr. James (Kingston upon Hull, West) Viggers, Mr. Peter (Gosport)
Lloyd, Mr. Ian (Havant and Waterloo) White, Mr. Frank R. (Bury and Radcliffe)
McMillan, Mr. Tom (Glasgow, Central)
McNamara, Mr. Kevin (Kingston upon Hull, Central) Wigley, Mr. Dafydd (Caernarvon)
Woodall, Mr. Alec (Hemsworth)

10.30 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Trade (Mr. Clinton Davis)

I beg to move, That the Chairman do now report to the House that the Committee rcommend that the Merchant Shipping (Safety Convention) Bill [Lords] ought to be read a Second time. The Bill was introduced in another place on 8th March and received its Third Reading there on 28th April. It has now come before this House for consideration, and I trust that we shall give it as smooth a passage it as received in another place.

The purpose of the Bill is to permit the United Kingdom to ratify the 1974 International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea. The convention is the fifth in a line of conventions on safety of life at sea—often known as SOLAS Conventions for short. Indeed, they go back to 1914, when the first convention was adopted under the shadow of the disaster of the "Titanic" two years previously. Unhappily, that came to noth ing, due to the outbreak of the First World War. There were a series of subsequent conventions leading up to the 1974 convention.

The existing SOLAS Convention was drawn up in 1960. We gave effect to it by the Merchant Shipping Act 1964, and the convention came into force a year later. It is adhered to by more than 80 countries, including all the world's leading maritime nations, and is the principal international instrument governing marine safety.

Nevertheless, the 1960 convention, however excellent, cannot stand for all time. Our unflagging resolve is to learn from experience, constantly to improve standards of safety on ships and to equip ourselves with the right machinery to be able to adapt quickly to and, indeed, to anticipate the demands of the new and constantly unfolding technology. The members of IMCO—the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organisation—which is the United Nations specialised agency concerned with maritime affairs and is responsible for SOLAS Conventions, recognised that the 1960 convention stood in need of improvement. Accordingly, an IMCO conference was held in London in 1974, largely at the initiative of the United Kingdom, the purpose of which was to draw up a new convention.

That conference had two main objectives. The first was to incorporate into a new convention all the amendments to the 1960 convention which had yet to come into force. Some of these amendments were up to eight years old and were designed to fill the gaps which had emerged since the convention had been originally framed. The amendments were clearly needed to improve safety, yet under the terms of the convention they could not come into effect until there had been a large number of positive acceptances by individual Governments.

This led to the second objective of the conference. Apart from the need to implement past amendments, it was plain that action was needed to quicken the pace at which future amendments would come into force. The conference therefore agreed to adopt a so-called "simple SOLAS" method of amendment whereby the updating of the convention could be accelerated.

Having laid out the background to the convention, I turn now to the Bill which implements its provisions for this country. The IMCO text of the convention was laid before Parliament last April in what was unquestionably and unavoidably a long and complex technical document. In comparison, the Bill appears to be short and simple. The reason is that existing statutory powers are adequate to implement the vast majority of the requirements imposed by the convention. As I have already said, the existing 1960 convention was implemented by means of the Merchant Shipping Act 1964. The convention before that, of 1948, had been put into effect by the Merchant Shipping (Safety Convention) Act 1949. These two Acts, the 1949 and 1964 Acts, provide powers broad enough to carry out most of the requirements of the 1974 convention. All that is needed is to translate the existing references to the 1960 convention in the two Acts into references to the 1974 convention. Clause 1 of the Bill makes the provision by having these two Acts apply to the 1974 convention. However, there are a number of comparatively minor provisions in the 1974 convention where existing powers are inadequate and, accordingly, the Bill has to make provision for them.

The convention lays down, for the first time, rules on the oil fuel used in machinery on board ship by prohibiting fuel which is liable to ignite at low temperatures. We are not empowered at present to make the regulations needed to meet the terms of the convention in this respect. Subsection (4) of Clause 1 therefore makes minor amendments to the 1949 and 1964 Acts to enable the necessary rules to be made.

Secondly, in that part of the convention dealing with the carriage of grain, which has been substantially revised, there have been two extensions of coverage. On the one hand, processed grain, which can be as hazardous a cargo as natural grain in that it is equally liable to shift and disturb the ship's stability, is made subject to the grain regulations which currently apply only to natural forms. On the other hand, the regulations will bite on all ships carrying grain, regardless of the volume of the cargo in relation to the size of ships, replacing the present position under which only ships whose cargo of grain exceeds one-third of their tonnage are affected. Subsection (5) of Clause 1 provides the powers to make rules in respect of those two developments in the grain regulations.

The third and final area where further powers are needed to implement the convention relates to nuclear ships. Nuclear ships axe not a new matter for SOLAS Conventions. The 1960 convention dealt with that subject. However, at that time the building of nuclear ships was still under debate. The United Kingdom reserved its position on nuclear ships by indicating in its instrument of accession that, while we agreed with the requirements on nuclear ships, we should implement them only as soon as it became necessary to do so. In our view, that time has now come with the construction of a small number of ships meeting the convention's definition of a ship provided with a nuclear power plant. Though there are still very few such ships, and none on the United Kingdom register, there is, because of the special safety hazards that they pose, a need for effective regulation. The convention lays down the terms which this regulation should take, and Clause 2 allows us to make rules in accordance with them.

I shall next deal with the question of future amendments to the convention, which is covered in Clause 3. I have already stressed that the conference which framed the convention was concerned to accelerate the pace at which amendments came into force. The procedure which was eventually adopted is contained in Article VIII of the convention. I shall not go into the complexities of the new amendment procedure, but the aim is clear—to accelerate the introduction of amendments needed to maintain up-to-date safety standards consistent with the fullest possible consultation between contracting Governments. No Government would be bound to accept or implement any amendment to which it objected, so there is no question of a loss of national sovereignty. Furthermore, under Clause 3 we should implement amendments by means of Orders in Council subject to affirmative resolution of both Houses of Parliament. Parliament, therefore, will have a proper opportunity to scrutinise future amendments.

Finally, I underline the urgency with which the Government view this measure. Naturally, we are anxious that all those who go to sea should be protected by the highest possible safety standards. On that score alone, we should now wish to ratify the convention. However, beyond the needs of the moment are longer-term considerations.

The large number of tanker accidents off the United States coast which have occurred recently has precipitated a call in the United States for immediate unilateral action to control all ships trading with that country. Pressure for unilateral action is particularly strong in the Senate and is backed up by a powerful environmental lobby. I well understand the call for higher safety and pollution standards. Indeed, not only I but everybody in the Committee and the House would share this aim. However, to achieve that aim, we believe strongly that the best method is to get uniform standards accepted through international IMCO regulations and not by unco-ordinated action by individual States. While the adoption of unilateral measures may have some short-term attractions, they would rapidly have the effect of undermining the framework of international regulations built up over many years.

We therefore place the utmost importance on ensuring that the urge for higher safety and pollution standards in the United States and elsewhere is channelled through established international machinery. It is most encouraging that President Carter indicated in a recent statement that he wanted to see international agreement reached on improving safety and pollution prevention. It is therefore important that the international route can be shown to be effective.

Already IMCO is beginning to face up to the challenge. Its programme of work over the next 12 months has been stepped up with the aim of holding a special conference next February on tanker safety and pollution, which will enable full consideration to be given to recent United States proposals. This country, as one of the leading members of IMCO, will be playing its full part in these events.

Along with developing new standards, IMCO is applying itself to enforcing those conventions which are already in force, as well as working to bring into force all outstanding conventions. It is important that the United Kingdom can be seen to be in the van in ratifying the latest convention.

First, we hope shortly to seek powers which will enable us to ratify the 1973 Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships. Second, we need to ratify the 1974 SOLAS Convention with the powers this Bill would give us. In order to come into force, SOLAS 1974 needs to be ratified by at least 25 States, whose combined merchant fleets amount to at least 50 per cent. of the world's gross tonnage. The convention takes effect 12 months after the necessary number of ratifications has been received. To date, six countries have ratified and IMCO is urging member Governments to ratify so that a target date for coming into effect by July 1979 can be met.

Our ratification will not in itself bring the convention into effect. I want to make that clear. This will happen only 12 months after at least 25 States with a combined tonnage representing at least 50 per cent. of the world's gross tonnage have ratified the convention. However, because of the size of our merchant fleet —currently third in the world—it is bound to have a powerful effect on other countries to try to meet the target which has been set. I hope that this will be the result of our action in this regard.

I think it would be wrong to allow this opportunity to pass without referring to further legislative proposals which we intend to put to Parliament at the earliest opportunity. I have in mind a far longer Merchant Shipping Bill, which will cover such matters as discipline on board ship, safety standards, pilotage, limitation of liability to seafarers and to passengers. The Bill is in the course of preparation and is a candidate—I hopefully say a strong candidate—for inclusion in next Session's legislative programme. Suffice it to say that, while I should have liked to proceed with a Bill of this character this Session, the disciplinary provisions are much more complex than those concerning the ratification of the convention.

Moreover, parts of the Bill will not be ready until the summer, and I do not think that it would have been susceptible to Second Reading Committee procedure in any event. In these circumstances, it was not considered appropriate to advance the introduction of the Bill into the present Session. When the time comes, I am sure that it will be seen that that was the right decision.

The Bill that we are now considering is supported by our ship owners and seafarers here in the United Kingdom. I submit that it is an extremely important step in the international context. I trust, therefore, that we shall give it full support.

10.46 a.m.

Mr. Ian Lloyd

Perhaps I should begin by declaring what is essentially, in the context of this Bill, an academic interest, in that it is well known that I have connections with the shipping industry. But as I am told, and no doubt the Committee is aware, the shipping industry wholly supports the convention and the Bill, that interest is purely academic.

Next, I declare my support for the Bill as presented, and I thank the Minister for his studiously objective and interesting discussion of its purpose and content. I wish, however, to make a few comments on the procedure involved today and on the contents of the convention, because it seems to me that although what we are doing is, perhaps, unavoidable—one might think of another way to do it—Parliament is being asked to ratify what one might describe as a package deal by international conference.

The Safety of Life at Sea Convention is a substantial document. I have the volume with me. While most of it is not in any sense politically controversial, it contains a number of interesting and important regulations which I should have thought it would be constructive for us to comment on occasionally, if only because such comment could be fed back to future discussions of possible amendments to the convention. Such comment could be made available to our delegations who, apparently, have the sole right, in practice, to modify and change the convention.

I want to look at the convention itself, particularly at the parts which, as the Minister himself said, are new and affect new spheres of shipping. I start with Chapter VII Class 2, dealing with gases. Regulations are put forward to deal with Gases: compressed, liquefied or dissolvd under pressure". What interested me about this was the requirement in Regulation 3 that the packing of dangerous goods shall be capable of withstanding the ordinary risks of handling and carriage by sea". What disturbed me here was the implication of the term "ordinary risk". It was this which led me to delve more deeply into the convention. As I saw it, in this context the phrase "ordinary risk", if ever taken before a court or an international court, would be subject to interpretation as broad as it is long. One group of scientists, one group of mariners, one group of shipping companies, one country or another, could have different concepts and standards of the term "ordinary risk".

Therefore the definition here— capable of withstanding the ordinary risks seems to me hardly worth putting into the language chosen. Who is to judge what is an ordinary risk? Who is to define what is an ordinary risk? Who is to draw the boundary—this is perhaps the most important matter of all—between an ordinary risk and an extraordinary risk?

In this context, the Committee may be interested to hear that at the moment the Burmah Oil Company is building, at the General Dynamic Shipyard in the United States, two vessels—there are two on the stocks but there will be more—of the size of the Queen Elizabeth, each of which will carry five 800-ton tanks each of which will be filled with several thousand tons of liquid natural gas.

The risk at sea represented by a ship of that kind is, to my mind, at least equal to that of a minor nuclear explosion, because the amount of energy contained in five tanks of that size in a vessel nearly 1,000 feet long is enormous, and the risk of a collision at sea with such a ship, particularly in narrow coastal waters, is of almost indefinable magnitude. I use that phrase advisedly because the last experience we had of a major disaster with liquid natural gas was, I believe, in Cleveland, Ohio, when a train carrying probably one-fiftieth or one-hundreth of the natural gas that is likely to be carried in one of these ships blew up. On that occasion about 330 lives were lost. So this is a new area of risk of gigantic proportions which is barely touched on in the convention. I should like to have seen in the Convention a much more serious attempt to get to grips with precisely the character, size and dimension of the risk involved with such ships.

We are told further that the Cylinders…shall be adequately constructed, tested, maintained and correctly filled. Here again, who is to define "adequately"? What does the word mean? What is "correctly filled" in this context? Is there a precise technical definition of either of those phrases? The Convention gives no indication that there is any technical parameter. In the event of, say, a major claim against the operator of such a ship who rested his defence of safety on the fact that his cylinders or receptacles were "adequately constructed" and "correctly filled", it would be up to him to produce his own criteria of adequacy and correctness. As I interpret the convention and the way it is applied, no one would seriously challenge that. There are similar phrases throughout the Convention, not merely in this area, and I find that disturbing.

Mr. Clinton Davis

I concede that the hon. Gentleman is more familiar than I am with these technical matters, but it occurs to me that a court, in construing what is negligence—as courts are constantly required to do—must depend upon precedental experience and its own construction of what is careless or not. So I wonder whether these matters to which the hon. Gentleman quite rightly refers are susceptible to closer definition. Can he indicate whether, in his view, that is possible? Does not the convention have to be drawn in this way, subject of course, to the anomalies that could arise and to which he has referred?

Mr. Lloyd

There is, I believe, no fundamental disagreement between us on this. The contrast that I was about to draw was with those parts of the convention where there is, perhaps for some good and understandable reason, a very precise defintion of the safety parameter. I give as an example Regulation 18, on page 43 of the Annex to the Convention, where the diameter of the bilge main is defined by a very precise mathematical formula.

Perhaps that precise defintion is something on which it was easy to get international agreement. It could be that the definition of the correct form of construction and insulation of the liquid natural gas tank was something for which international agreement would be very difficult. That would be justification for vagueness on the one hand and precision on the other.

This vagueness and lack of precision goes right through the convention. I shall give some other examples, which I have found a little disturbing and which I think it worth putting on record. But, before doing so, I turn to the next area, Attachment 3, in Chapter VIII dealing with nuclear ships, in which there is similar vagueness of language. Recommendation 2(b) states: The reactor installation should be designed to prevent an uncontrolled chain reaction…". One knows that no one in his right mind anywhere in the world would build a reactor which in any sense whatever would incur the risk of an uncontrolled chain reaction. No group of engineers setting out to build such a reactor would be allowed to get very far. That seemed to me, therefore, to be redundant language.

Next, on the question of radiation limits, the convention gives us very little idea; it simply states that the radiation limits shall be acceptable. In naval vessels, we have experience of a large number of marine reactors. We know what radiation limits have been accepted in nuclear submarines. We know what radiation limits have been accepted in the "Otho Hahn" and in the "John F. Kennedy". There are about 300 nuclear naval vessels afloat now, but only three or four merchant nuclear ships. But, surely, out of this vast experience of nuclear reactors in naval vessels some idea could have been given of an acceptable level of radiation so that the convention would not merely have to say that acceptable radiation limits will be agreed. Once again, there is a problem of precision versus non-precision.

Let us turn now to the more conventional areas of the convention. In Regulation 32(c)(i) the provision of fire hydrants is dealt with. These shall be provided to the satisfaction of the Administration". That is all. But about 30 administrations are involved, and each could have a different degree of satisfaction with the provision of fire hydrants.

The same criterion of the satisfaction of the administration is applied to the provision of portable fire extinguishers in Regulation 32(e).

Regulation 21 on page 84 deals with the number and disposition of the means of escape". Here again, the Convention speaks of such numbers as the administration may deem sufficient, and the 30 or more administrations could deem satisfactory entirely different systems.

If the variation is to be so great, if national discretion is to be so wide, and if all we are putting down here is a counsel of perfection in some form, why should we bother to do it at all? An international convention has far more bite and effectiveness when, as it does in the case of the formula for the diameter of a bilge main, it defines very precisely a limit, a minimum or a maximum. After all the discussion and controversy has taken place, the international convention should give one something to go on, telling one precisely what has been said and done and what standard has been set.

Over and over again, one reads that the administration may pemit relaxations. On the design of watertight doors—a fundamental safety requirement at sea—we are told only that this must be to the satisfaction of the Administraton". Each of the 30 different administrations could have a different idea of the right design of a watertight door.

The more I looked into the convention, the happier I was that I had not been involved at a much earlier stage, because I felt that I should have been a robust critic of some of the things which were said and done. I do not in any sense criticise the objective. Safety of life at sea is an internationally agreed objective among all nations and parties. But one sometimes wonders how effective the methods chosen to achieve that objective are, and whether this enormously costly process of international convention is worth while merely to achieve—to use a contradiction in terms—precise vagueness. That is all that some of these regulations provide.

I come now to another point which is worth discussing at this stage. What is the effect of a convention of this kind on maritime operating costs? No one knows. I imagine that the participants at the conference will have had an idea that if they upgraded a particular requirement, if they increased, shall we say, the number of fire extinguishers per deck or per passage, that would give rise to a precisely definable cost. But the overall cost of upgrading maritime safety in relation to the costs of operating all types of ships throughout the world is something upon which no one has endeavoured to put any sort of figure. I refer to it simply because it is another example of a phenomenon that I believe to be of increasing importance and significance in the twentieth century, that is, inflation by legislation.

There is an imposed increase, agreed by international convention, of real costs of an almost indeterminate amount. That is something to which Parliament should pay more attention, as we carry the overall responsibility for the nation meeting the bill through increased costs of shipping and carriage by sea.

There are two imponderables here. On the one hand, there is the degree of acceptable risk—an attempt to quantify the risk to life in money terms, which is always disagreeable and very difficult to do. On the other hand, there is an almost unquantifiable and indefinable increase in real costs that cannot just be swept under the carpet and ignored.

I make one final point about the convention, after which, having made one further qualification, I shall sit down. I was surprised to see in Regulation 16 the requirement for rigid liferafts. I read that with great attention because it is a subject in which I have taken a special interest. I was astonished to read that, among the regulations for rigid liferafts for all forms of merchant ship, one vital requirement is not specified. No liferaft is likely to be effective in Northern waters unless it has a double bottom. That is well known and well understood. It is not specified in Regulation 16. It may be specified in the national regulations for British liferafts. I believe that it applies to merchant ships, if not to smaller craft.

I was astonished, however, to see that the requirement was not accepted internationally. Clearly, a liferaft launched in Northern waters that does not have a double bottom will not preserve the lives of its occupants. I feel that the least I can do is to draw attention to what I believe is an obvious deficiency in the new convention which, in general rightly, we are seeking to ratify.

Finally, I feel that I should be failing in my duty if I did not draw the Minister's attention to an article which was published in New Scientist on 12th May of this year on the problem of safety and prevention of hazards. That, of course, is what the Committee is debating. One of the authors of the article is the professor of safety and hygiene at Aston University. It deals with the problem of safety in a general sense and does not concentrate specifically on maritime safety.

The article considers the philosophical analysis of safety, and whether the concept of acceptability of risk is one on which we should continue to base all forms of safety legislation. I believe the analysis to be of the greatest importance and it deserves the attention of all those concerned with safety. Indeed, I am bound to bring the matter before the Committee, because Professors Atherley and McGinty state: Neither Labour nor Conservative Governments have any declared overall policy to guide decisions on risks taken by their Departments or agencies. That is a serious criticism. It may not be wholly sustained, but it is made of both Governments. I think that the analysis and the philosophy which the authors set out in a serious and carefully considered article deserve the closest attention of our representatives at future conferences on the safety of life at sea.

11.5 a.m.

Mr. Peter Viggers

I wish to make a few random points following the Minister's workmanlike introduction of the Bill. Apparently 67 countries signed the convention but so far only six have ratified it. I note that in the House of Lords debate it was said that at that time only four had ratified. May I ask the Minister why, after two and a half years, so few countries have ratified the convention, and what estimate can he make of the progress in ratification?

I am particularly concerned to note that, of the four countries mentioned in the House of Lords, none is a member of the European Community. I think that we are entitled to ask our colleagues in the Community whether they are with us on this international matter. After all, if the European Economic Community is to be a meaningful body, it should be meaningful on precisely this kind of subject and, in my view, there ought to be European guidelines which should be accepted by all members of the Community. I suggest that we are entitled to ask the Minister the extent to which we may expect our European colleagues to ratify the convention by the target date.

Secondly, following the observation made by my hon. Friend the Member for Havant and Waterloo (Mr. Lloyd), I was impressed by his detailed knowledge of the regulations, which I certainly cannot hope to emulate, but I note that in the debate in the other place the noble Lord Lord Oram, in introducing the Bill, said that there was a risk that if nations were not fast enough to ratify the convention there would be unilateral imposition of regulations. He referred to the fact that the United States was contemplating, and even bringing in, its own regulations to govern safety at sea.

Is the Minister satisfied that SOLAS 1974 is sufficiently tight and meaningful in its application to prevent the development of unilateral regulations? Is the Minister satisfied, for instance, following the important comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Havant and Waterloo, that the regulation of nuclear power sources in the 1974 convention is sufficiently tight for it to be accepted as the appropriate international type of regulation to govern all nuclear ships? Or does he feel, particularly following my hon. Friend's comments, that the convention is not tightly enough drawn and that nations will unilaterally impose their own regulations? We need to know that, because if there is the chance of unilateral regulations developing perhaps the 1974 convention is not sufficiently tight and we should be pressing for tighter regulations now.

Thirdly, can we be sure that British rules are reasonably in step with those of the competition—the competition being shippers of other countries? Can we be sure that the British regulations are sufficiently framed to take account of regulations imposed by other nations? I am fully aware that we must be extremely careful about compromising between the requirements of perfection and the commercial realities. It is not appropriate or sensible for Britain to stick its head in the sand—if that is an appropriate expression to use on shipping matters—and to impose its own regulations which result in the British merchant fleet being the best equipped and safest fleet to serve in if we then price ourselves completely out of the market.

I can give an example of that. In the case of North Sea supply vessels—the case was put to me by a business connection—the Department of Trade laid down requirements for a number of matters which it said would be imposed upon vessels operating in the North Sea. The Department of Trade regulations were so tight that the fleet of vessels built as a result was priced out of the market.

Mr. Clinton Davis

With great respect, either the hon. Gentleman is being selective in examining the information provided for him, or he has not properly studied the matter. Is not the hon. Gentleman aware that there is a disparity between the earning powers of some of our competitors' crews compared with those of our own? They are earning far more. Is the hon. Gentleman not aware that, if he were to examine the situation for himself, he would find that the overwhelming number of crews feel that there is urgent need for a tightening of standards? Furthermore, is he not aware that these are not regulations but merely recommendations?

Mr. Viggers

I am sorry that the Minister has taken that line. I certainly was not seeking to criticise or attack; I was merely asking questions. I was asking the Minister whether he was satisfied that the regulations imposed by Government Departments were reasonably in line with those of our competitors. Clearly we should be in the lead in safety and other matters, but it must follow that if we go too far into the lead, to such an extent that we price ourselves out of the international market, we shall be defeating our own purpose.

Mr. John Prescott

What is the company?

Mr. Viggers

I shall be happy to talk to the hon. Gentleman afterwards. I do not think it appropriate to raise the matter here. I assure the Committee that in one case of which I have knowledge the regulations imposed were so tight that the company in question was priced out of the market. Is the Minister reasonably satisfied that we are not doing that in most cases?

I am not seeking to criticise the convention, which appears to be admirable. Too often the British are reticent and gloomy. We have little cause to be. Anyone who travels abroad gets a better perspective of these matters. I have just returned from the United States. Britain is the insurance centre of the world. It is one of the centres of shipping and banking. It is the medical and educational centre for the Middle East, and a cultural centre for North America. It is right that we should ratify this convention—

The Chairman

Order. I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows he is going outside the strict rules of order. He is making a speech that will, I am sure, be appreciated, but it is outside the rules of order.

Mr. Viggers

The last thing I was about to say was that it is entirely right that we should encourage the British shipping industry to stay in the lead in this sphere and that the Committee should give the Bill a following wind.

11.12 a.m.

Mr. John Prescott

I wish first to state not an academic interest but a positive interest in representing seafarers as a member of the National Union of Seamen.

Safety at sea is a matter of great concern to us, and I put on record our appreciation of the work that the Minister has done on it. He has brought before the House a number of pieces of legislation which have considerably improved safety for seamen and fishermen. This morning he has informed us that he intends to bring forward another piece of legislation, which is keenly awaited by the industry, and we are pleased to hear him confirm it. We wish him well in bringing forward that legislation for us to discuss in the House. That is a considerable advance which we very much welcome.

We welcome the Bill now before us. It is, as was pointed out by the Opposition, a non-contentious Bill in the industry. We all welcome advances in safety. It is also an advance in extending international standards. But one or two hon. Members have pointed out that there is some concern about how much advance can be made internationally in safety matters. Clearly there are a number of pressures working on what would be considered the most acceptable safety standards, and that does not necessarily mean the best safety standards to be imposed. There are a number of conditions internationally which lead to one having to find standards which are not satisfactory, in the main, to traditional maritime countries and are standards that could well be improved upon. But the aim has always been to achieve international agreement on certain minimum standards. Within that concept there have been a number of difficulties with which the House has had to contend.

The SOLAS conventions have been with us for many years. We have witnessed many incidents. The Committee will recall that there have been incidents in the English Channel where, at one stage, there appeared to be tanker after tanker, ship after ship, colliding in the Channel causing tremendous hazards and pollution and, more important, causing the death of many seamen.

I am glad to say that the position has considerably improved, largely due to the initiatives taken by Governments of both parties—I make no party point here—in getting together with our European neighbours and attempting to enforce a standard in the Channel to prevent deaths of seafarers and to prevent pollution, both of which have caused considerable concern.

Our action was almost unilateral, if one can talk in the European unilateral sense. We did not seek, because of the time factor, to achieve a result or solution by the mechanism of international conventions. Time is the problem and that, I believe, is one of the problems we face with all conventions.

All the examples of conventions so far seem to show a considerable lapse of time between signing and coming into force largely because of the conditions laid down in the conventions for a minimum number of nations ratifying or for minimum tonnage represented. If I recall correctly, the Minister spoke of 50 per cent. of world tonnage and 25 nations. If my memory serves me aright, I believe that is an even stiffer requirement than we have had on conventions before. I do not believe that we have taken it so high, although from the nodding heads I see in the Committee I may be wrong. However, it is still a very firm requirement which does lead to delay.

I wish now to give an example of what can occur, and I ask the Minister to confirm whether this is a possibility. The countries that have constantly hung back in ratifying are the flags of convenience countries, about which I have spoken a great deal in the House. I do not intend to embark on the subject again today. It is a matter of historical fact that Liberia, for example, has always hung back from signing such ratifications. As Liberia has 25 per cent. of world tonnage, it can have a substantial effect on whether the convention is ratified and how long it will be before ratification takes place and the obligations are implemented.

Which are the six countries which have so far ratified the convention? I understand that that is two more than were reported to the House of Lords. What is the Minister's estimate of the possibility of considerable delay being forced on the convention by some of the major maritime countries, particularly the non-traditional maritime countries such as the flags of convenience countries, not ratifying and so delaying the implementation of the convention?

The Bill is in many ways an enabling Bill. I do not wish to make any points about grain cargoes or nuclear ships. The latter appear to be well on the way, and I only hope that we do not lose ships as we appear to lose uranium ore, as we have seen in the last couple of months, with people not declaring where they have gone. Nevertheless, nuclear ships will bring us increasing concern, as tankers did, and I have no doubt that our administration and technology will enable us to deal with those problems, difficult though they are. I am pleased, therefore, that we are taking one step towards bringing in the necessary controls and regulations on the development of nuclear vessels.

I turn now to the improvement of procedures by which we implement any decisions that are necessary to observe the sovereignty of the House in determining legislation for our own vessels, and to make the procedures much easier so that the House, by Order in Council, can deal with these matters without having to encounter the problem of the legislative time needed to get complicated Bills before the House.

The piece of legislation which the Minister hopes to bring in next Session is clearly one that may well reflect some of the obligations brought about by the convention, and I wish to ask him one or two questions on that matter.

It is clear from Clause 3 that the Bill enables the Minister to take action to comply with his obligations under the convention. Presumably the Minister is required to enter—I am sure that he is—into consultation with all the parties concerned on the sort of measures he hopes to bring in by this procedure.

Will the Minister give some indication of the areas in which he and his Department are working arising directly out of the obligations under the 1974 SOLAS Convention? In the Bill there is no indication of the safety matters which the Minister thinks arise from these obligations. I shall now refer to one such area where the Minister is concerned with drafting orders or new legislation and with which the SOLAS Convention was concerned.

We are involved in changing the convention to protect the safety of people at sea because we found the old convention inadequate. It was inadequate for one powerful reason, that the standards tended to reflect minimum obligations in international safety legislation, and events since then have clearly shown the convention to be lacking in this important respect.

The 1974 convention makes clear that it is concerned essentially and fundamentally with the safety of life at sea. Indeed, that is the very purpose of the convention. But it still represents an attitude much like that of the insurance companies, to which reference has been made. I shall not embark upon a discussion on the rôle of insurance companies, except to say that their attitude was somehow to impose minimum standards for insurance purposes. Those standards related to the strength of the hull of the vessel. In other words, if the equipment and the hull were correct, the vessel should be safe. But the purpose of legislation was to prevent those old vessels from plying the seas and creating a great risk of accident and danger to life.

Since then, many new ships with good equipment, having all the A1 classifications of the insurance companies, have been lost—they collided or sank—with considerable loss of life and pollution problems. We wondered why that had happened. All the inquiries that were made—some countries did not have them—clearly indicated that the standard of competence of the people on board the vessels was nowhere near as good as the equipment itself. It was farcical to have a vessel which complied with the most modern standards and a crew who completely misunderstood how to run the vessel and could not even keep the equipment up to the necessary safety standard that is embodied in the convention requirements.

The kernel of the argument, therefore, which is embodied in our Merchant Shipping Acts—I have been trying to enforce manning and competence standards—lies in the requirement that each signatory to the convention should ensure that the obligations and standards are observed within its own waters and port areas.

The concept of the port State is very much involved in the Convention idea. Our obligations, therefore, were to see that those standards were observed, and every shipowner and country had an obligation under the convention to see that that was done.

Unfortunately, no one defined the obligation in relation to manning. There were some arguments about certification standards, but these varied from country to country. In Liberia, legislation said that there should be these standards, but the great problem there was that there was no one to enforce them, because most of the ships registered in Liberia never went there; they merely plied the seas without any traditional systems of inspection that would enforce those standards.

Perhaps that problem arose even for British vessels, even with our standards of safety—there are arguments for and against them, but I shall not deploy them now, although I have done so before—because under our present legislation many vessels have minimum standards. I give the example of the owner of the vessel "Festivity", who said that if we force certain standards upon him he will have to go abroad. There were no standards for his ship. One man had been at sea for four weeks, another for six weeks, and no one had any certificates of competence on what was in fact a new ship because it was below the tonnage requirements of our legislation for minimum standards. That was deplorable.

Yet our Merchant Shipping Acts make clear—the same point is made in the SOLAS Convention—that It is an offence to send or attempt to send a British ship to sea in such an unseaworthy state that the life of any person is likely to be endangered. But no one ever defined the minimum standards.

I want the Minister to state the Department's thinking in these matters. If the obligation is to improve standards of safety and prevent loss of life at sea—which is what concerns us now—can the Minister tell us what action the Department is taking to bring in Orders in Council, or new legislation to observe the obligations under the SOLAS Convention? Can he also tell us the Department's views on standards of competence on ships, manning, seamen's hours of work and so on, all of which affect the ability of men and their competence in handling ships in ever more crowded seaways? How will he seek to enforce the standards that he hopes will be adopted with the introduction of the Convention when approximately 15 per cent. of seafarers in this country work outside the federal agreements?

Standards, in the main, are imposed by the shipping industry itself through the federation system, but there are wayward ship owners, as we know, who are prepared to ignore standards which are agreed upon by the ship owners as a body but which are not necessarily enforced by legislation. Will the Minister tell us how he proposes to deal with the large sector of shipping which escapes under the tonnage definition? What happens about ships below 1,600 tons, and all the seamen who ply in them? What happens about the many ships around our coasts at the moment which are ignoring even the minimum standards? Can the Minister give us examples of what is being done in such cases?

The European Community aspect of this matter was mentioned by the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers). Can the Minister say how far matters have advanced with our partners in respect of obtaining common enforcement of standards, using the port State concept, to see that ship owners who are exploiting the situation do not continue to do so and are forced to face certain standards in the port States? If the port State is to be the controlling unit, does the Minister envisage that our inspectors will enforce these standards, as they have a right to do under the SOLAS Convention, on ships not flying our flag?

I want to put on record, as the issue was raised, that in respect of North Sea operations I should prefer to have heard the name of the company about which the hon. Member for Gosport was talking, to have it put on public record so that the issue was made clear. I know of many companies operating in the North Sea which try to avoid any standard and get out of flying the British flag to avoid taxation and the disadvantages of belonging to a country that seeks to enforce the minimum standards. The death and accident rate among North Sea mariners is among the highest in the country.

The Minister is being pressed heavily to enforce standards. Naturally, there are ship owners who will say publicly that, if the Government attempt to force standards on British ships of the size of their vessels—I think again of the "Festivity"—they will leave the flag. I say that such owners should not be allowed to leave the flag and carry on their trade at the risk of accidents to seafarers at sea. That is against the essence of the convention. A good deal of that sort of thing is going on in the North Sea, and the only people tackling the problem are the unions, which are the only bodies the owners recognise.

What we are asking the Minister to do—to his credit, he has been striving to do it since taking office—is to improve the safety standards of ships. I am sure that this morning's work constitutes a contribution towards helping an industry willing to improve safety standards, and I know that the Minister wants to see that the minimum safety standards are maintained both for and by seafarers in what is clearly a dangerous occupation.

11.29 a.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Dodsworth

I endorse what has been said by my hon. Friends in supporting the terms of the Bill, and I shall refer to two matters which I believe to be relevant in this context.

I was interested in the Minister's observation about trying to maintain international amity, the object being that everyone should be in step in making progress towards satisfactory safety conventions. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) remarked that nations may be in step but the result is not yet satisfactory and more progress needs to be made.

President Carter, in his message to the Senate on 17th March, made clear that he was not at all satisfied with the present situation, and he intended to take immediate action. He referred to the fact that there had been 15 incidents over the previous 15 weeks, the last of which, on 27th March, involved the loss of 12 lives. I suggest that that underlines that these happenings are taking place regularly, yet the issue does not seem to surface in the public mind as a problem that requires urgent and speedy attention.

President Carter appears to have grasped that nettle. He said that, in view of the recent series of incidents and the risks attached to the job, urgent steps had to be taken. He decided to take immediate action, and I draw this to the attention of the Minister. The President said: Starting immediately, the Coast Guard will board and examine each foreign flag tanker calling at American ports at least once a year and more often if necessary. This examination will insure that the ship meets all safety and environmental protection regulations. Those ships which fail to do so may be denied access to US ports or, in some cases, denied the right to leave until the deficiencies have been corrected. That action cannot be described as unilateral in any reprehensible sense. The leader of one of the most powerful nations in the world is saying "Action has to be taken now", and he is setting out a programme for that purpose.

I believe that the Bill represents progress and will lead to the sort of advance we all wish for. But I have to ask the Minister whether he is satisfied that we are at present achieving the rate of progress which the situation demands. On 17th March Jimmy Carter made plain that he did not think that international progress was being made at the right rate. He also listed a number of other matters to which he wished to draw attention and upon which action would be taken. He changed the deadweight tonnage classification of ships, which would have certain consequences in the regulations on, for example, segregated ballast tanks and inert gas systems.

I am not competent to go into a technical exposé of the whole subject, but it seems to me that progress in this matter would be of great benefit to the British shipbuilding industry. Here is an activity in the interests of safety which is of interntional benefit and which could bring to British shipyards work which they are well designed and equipped to carry out. We should examine this opportunity very carefully, because we could at one and the same time make progress on safety and in our internal interests on an international basis.

Clause 2 of the Bill refers to the rules covering ships with nuclear power plants, and I wish to ask the Minister a question about this. There was a brief reference in the debate in the other place to the question of ships carrying nuclear waste. I should like to be quite clear in what circumstances regulations will be issued in connection with this traffic in the future, and whether there is any implication in the Bill which would assist the Minister in those circumstances. Over the coming years, it is likely that we shall see developments in this trade and activity. The routes travelled, the type of containers used, and the recovery opportunities in the event of explosion or sinking will become very serious matters. The consequences of pollution at sea could be enormous.

Having drawn the Minister's attention to those two matters, I conclude by congratulating him on the introduction of the Bill, wishing it God-speed and wishing him well for its progress. We look forward to seeing a further legislative programme which will make a positive and constructive contribution in this field.

11.34 a.m.

Mr. Clinton Davis

This has been a wide-ranging, interesting and constructive debate, and for that I am grateful to members of the Committee who have engaged in it. Many of the points that have been made are worthy of further consideration, and I undertake that they will receive it. I am grateful for the reception which the Committee has given to the Bill, and I shall do my best to answer the specific points that have been raised.

The hon. Member for Havant and Waterloo (Mr. Lloyd), whose constituency in its erstwhile condition I once fought without any great success—happily, as it turned out—raised in his opening argument the question of precision of terms used in international conventions. It is well that he did so since he drew attention to a point which needs to be made. But I would say in response that the more precise meanings or definitions which have to be applied subsequently, not only by national Governments but by IMCO sub-committees in the first place, are the subject of consideration. I am informed that an IMCO sub-committee is trying to work out a code to iron out some of the problems to which the hon. Gentleman drew attention.

It seems that a wide number of permutations of interpretation could arise in relation to terms such as "ordinary risks", "adequate construction", "correctly filled cylinders" and so on. The hon. Gentleman is right in saying that some terms are more susceptible of definition than others, and hence, in an international convention, those that are so susceptible are immediately defined and others that are not so susceptible are not. Then it is for a sub-committee to try to work out definitions.

But, in putting the matter into its proper context, it is right to say that it will have to be left open to the courts—maybe courts of individual countries—to define the terms by precedent, which is the way in which our common law of negligence has evolved over many years. Indeed, even where there are stricter legal requirements of definition—in the Napoleonic Code, for instance—matters of interpretation still arise in relation to the courts.

But experience indicates that, while in theory one can envisage a situation in which there is a vast number of different definitions, in practice this has not happened in relation to examinations of previous conventions or the way in which some countries have achieved legislative clothing for them has evolved. So, although we must not be complacent about the possibility, it does not appear to have been a practical risk in the past.

The hon. Member for Havant and Waterloo raised a question affecting nuclear ships and the obviousness of certain assertions that are made in the convention. I should not have thought that praying in aid a precedent and the obviousness of assertions in certain conventions was at all unusual. But, in practice, the problem affecting nuclear ships is interesting, because what has happened in this area is that control over access to ports of nuclear ships gives a large measure of control over the standards of one country by another. Indeed, we were closely involved in the standards that had to be applied to the "Otto Hahn". That was an interesting phenomenon and indicates the way in which this situation, too, can evolve.

The hon. Member for Havant and Waterloo raised a point about the effect of the convention on maritime costs. I cannot give any indication of those. I have no immediate input with which to favour the Committee in relation to our own industry, because I think that it is much too premature to expect the General Council of British Shipping and its individual members to have undertaken much research.

The hon. Gentleman went on to talk about the requirements for rigid liferafts, and I have noted the point. I am not in a position to respond at present, but I shall, of course, investigate the matter and write to the hon. Gentleman. I shall also take careful note of the article in New Scientist of 12th May that he touched upon, and see whether the British Government—the only Government for which I can speak—are guilty of the offences that were mentioned. The hon. Gentleman will have to make his peace with the authors as far as the Conservative Party is concerned.

I turn to the speech of the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers). He raised a number of questions that were basically concerned with the rapidity with which an international régime could be brought about. The hon. Gentleman asked why so few countries have ratified the convention so far, a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) touched upon in his interesting observations. Indeed, I think that it would be appropriate to mention the ratifying countries at this stage. They are Monaco, the Ukraine, India, Norway, Mexico and Tonga.

Mr. Prescott


Mr. Davis

Yes, Tonga. I think that Tonga is to be congratulated. I think that one of the reasons—I do not say that it is the exclusive reason—why other nations, including Britain, have not been able to ratify is that time has to be found for legislation. We are not the only country to suffer from that problem.

I have learned from speaking to my French opposite number that he has a similar problem of time. Indeed, France was unable to introduce any legislation to deal with the traffic separation scheme in the Dover Straits. That is something which will have to evolve as a result of the international convention taking effect. The United Kingdom, of course, was able to do something about the matter much earlier. It is a problem that is not unique to ourselves. I understand that the United States and Greece have said that they intend to ratify the convention shortly. By virtue of our ratification, we shall be able to exert an influence that would not otherwise have been possible. That influence can be brought to bear on our Common Market friends and, I hope, even more widely.

The hon. Member for Gosport then asked whether the SOLAS Convention of 1974 was sufficiently tightly drafted to prevent unilateral action. I think that that remains to be seen; I cannot answer the question. I hope that the answer is "Yes" and that more countries ratifying within the target date set by IMCO will have the effect of preventing countries from applying unilateral standards, which can sometimes also be a cloak for a form of flag discrimination. The situation must be examined with great care.

It is much better to proceed internationally, so that common standards can be applied, and that is the Government's ambition.

Mr. Dodsworth

If I understand correctly President Carter's instructions to his coastguard service, they set a more stringent standard that the SOLAS Convention requires. For example, the convention covers, I believe, tankers of 100,000 tons and combination carriers in excess of 50,000 tons, whereas the President's instructions deal with vessels over 20,000 deadweight tons. That suggests that he has already introduced a new standard. I should have thought that that constituted unilateral action.

Mr. Davis

It may be that in some respects the President has acted unilaterally. All I am arguing at this stage is not the detail of the position but the view, in which I believe fervently, that the right way to proceed is not for individual countries to apply their own standards but, through a method of international consultation, to build up the authority of IMCO so that the more reluctant nations can be brought into line. If we go ahead with applying unilateral standards we shall be weakening the effect of IMCO. That is the danger which I believe the American President recognises—at least I hope that is so.

It is advantageous that the United States said that it shortly intends to ratify this convention. Perhaps we shall be able to work together with the United States in overcoming a very difficult problem that it faces. The United States faces a domestic problem through the environmental lobby, and through its own recent experiences. But we hope to be able to suggest to the United States that the authority is the best way of proceeding.

I was asked by the hon. Member for Gosport—I was a little sad that he raised the matter in the way that he did—about British rules possibly being out of step with the rigours of international competition. I believe that it is necessary for countries—and political parties—sometimes to take a lead when people are perhaps somewhat reluctant to come forward. Sometimes that lead can be unpopular. But we were right in asserting—I am open to challenge, of course, and I was attacked by certain people within the industry—that the first and paramount consideration must be the saving of human lives.

Of course, one must look at the nature of the problem. One must look at the real dangers that are experienced, and at the totality of the situation before arriving at a conclusion. But I am bound to say that in the instance the hon. Gentleman raised, which is a good instance of testing this philosophy, I had before me a great deal of evidence from one side which, on examination, was shown to be unreliable—for example, on the relative pay rates of crews here and abroad and the relative conditions under which they worked. I seized an opportunity, having asserted that I had to make a decision, which I believe was the right one, and I do not believe that we have rendered our ships uncompetitive.

Be that as it may, I also sought to back the judgment that I had formed by a visit to Scotland. I was then brought face to face with the realities by the crews. I am not satisfied that we have yet come to the right conclusions, because there are risks that people must run, but the matter is under very close examination.

Agreements will, of course, arise between myself and the industry. It does not follow that because I am a Minister in the Labour Government I shall always agree with the trade unions. That has not always happened. Nor does it follow that I shall always agree with the owners. I try to form my own judgment, and I accept that I am capable of being wrong. But if I am proved to be wrong I look at the situation again. I say that unashamedly.

This is a matter for ministerial discretion, and a Minister must make up his mind about these matters. It is wrong to shilly-shally and it is wrong, I believe, to say that the argument about competition is necessarily right. I can assure the hon. Member for Gosport that all sorts of evidence is procured to indicate that the Minister ought to act in a particular way. Sometimes that evidence is unreliable, and never has it been more unreliable than it was on the occasion in question. However, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.

Mr. Prescott

The Minister has pointed out the difficulty in one area of the North Sea of attempting to make agreements on international standards because of the problem of complaints of competition and the question of the disadvantage of one company against another.

In those circumstances, would the Minister give consideration to an argument that has been put to him by me and by such people as Harry Bygate in Aberdeen, the union official involved, who have to fight this battle in this area of the North Sea, namely, the possibility of getting Governments, when making contracts with companies, to make it a condition of the contract that they observe the British standards even if they are operating outside the 12-mile limit so that all companies, whatever flag they are using, observe the same standards?

Mr. Davis

I have certainly examined that point, as my hon. Friend knows. Unfortunately, there are considerable difficulties arising from the application of international legal requirements and standards.

I do not want to go further because this is a matter that the Government are currently examining and I do not want to prejudice or prejudge the outcome of their consideration. I believe that if it could be applied my hon. Friend's philosophy is absolutely right, but there are real difficulties, and it would be wrong not to say so.

Mr. Viggers

I am grateful for the opportunity of simply saying that I am obliged to the Minister for his comments. The point I made to him was not quite the one that he put back to me. It seems to me that the Minister should be turning his attention particularly to non-British flag operators and ensuring that there is parity by levelling up rather than by levelling down.

Mr. Davis

I do not dissent from the proposition that one ought to consider the question of non-British flags. It is much more difficult, however, for me to have any influence in that regard.

I do not believe the two matters can be considered in a mutually exclusive way. We have our own standards to maintain and we have at the same time to try to influence others to apply similar standards. That is what I have done. Indeed, I have engaged in a number of bilateral discussions with my opposite numbers in a number of European countries, not only within the EEC, and I do not know what influence I have been able to bring to bear. I only hope that in due course this fact will emerge.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), whose knowledge about these matters is respected on both sides of the House and who has been of considerable help to me in the past three years, has raised a number of interesting points. He asked whether the requirements for the coming into operation of conventions are too stringent, namely, the number of countries that have to sign and the proportion of the world's tonnage that they have to hold.

I am afraid there is no great comfort that I can offer my hon. Friend about that. This convention applies similar criteria in that regard to others. One has to devise some international framework within which one can work. This has been the framework.

As for the flags of convenience, my hon. Friend says that the evidence is that they will hold back, and yet growing importance is attaching to the flags of convenience—something I do not particularly welcome, as I have said on a number of occasions. Our attack in the international for a has been on substandard vessels. But I do not like a situation in which there are opportunities for contracting out if not necessarily from the letter of the law, then from the spirit of the law even where the letter is accepted. As a responsible shipping nation, Britain, by ratifying the convention, is seeking to use its influence in the only way possible.

I do not think that it is right for me to offer further reflections on the question of flags of convenience beyond what I have already said.

My hon. Friend asked me about those who had signed the convention. I have dealt with that, and also with the likelihood of others signing. I hope that we shall see results in that regard.

My hon. Friend asked whether I could indicate the areas where we were considering the implementation of the SOLAS Convention 1974. IMCO is giving further study to bulk cargoes, gas and chemical carriers, nuclear ships, lifesaving equipment, and so on. As a result of the expedited procedure I have already mentioned we hope that it will be possible much more speedily than in the past to enact subordinate legislation covering the recommendations made by the IMCO.

My hon. Friend went on to ask me about standards of competency, manning, and hours of work. All these are matters to be dealt with in the legislation to which I referred to be introduced in the next Session of Parliament. There will be subordinate legislation to deal specifically with many of these areas. Having worked in the Department, my hon. Friend knows that these are matters that necessarily need much discussion. We are now far advanced, but I do not think that I should be wise constitutionally to rehearse specifically what we have in mind. I am always a little concerned about whether I go too far in talking about legislation for the next Session. I do not know much about these proprieties, so I have to plead innocence, if not ignorance.

My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Gosport asked about the influence that might be brought to bear on the EEC. I was asked to what extent there could be common enforcement of standards to ensure compliance by reluctant owners. There is a group of North Sea States, which comprise the Scandinavian nations as well as the EEC nations, which are working out a common code for imposing international standards against sub-standard ships. I believe that that is a useful precedent, and I hope that the group's work will be productive.

I turn to the observations of the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, South-West (Mr. Dodsworth), who spoke about the unsatisfactory rate of development of safety conventions. That may be so. On the other hand, I suggest that it is useful to look at the other side of the coin. I agree that all these international procedures have their blemishes. But I believe that IMCO has a record, in terms of the United Nations, which is second to none in producing effective codes which have become part of the law of its constituent member States.

We need think only in terms of the regulations relating to traffic separation schemes—there are many others—in which this organisation, and it is right to pay tribute to it, has had a major effect in saving lives through the Safety of Life at Sea Conventions and all the others. I do not think that we should simply say "It moves a bit slowly". It does, but it is dealing with a large number of nations.

Those nations have disparate interests but, by and large, to their credit, they do not play at politics in this organisation. Is that not a useful precedent in terms of the United Nations as a whole? It is rare for the activities of IMCO to be taken up to any great extent by political posturing. IMCO gets down to a job of work, and I think that the successive Secretaries General should be complimented upon the way in which

McAdden, Sir Stephen (Chairman) McNamara, Mr.
Berry, Mr. Prescott, Mr.
Davis, Mr. Clinton Ridsdale, Mr.
Dodsworth, Mr. Viggers, Mr.
Johnson, Mr. James White, Mr. Frank R.
Lloyd, Mr. Ian Woodall, Mr.
McMillan, Mr. Tom

they have steered it along these constructive lines.

The hon. Gentleman asked about segregated ballast tanks. I do not know the answer to his question. I shall write to him on that point.

The position on nuclear waste-carrying ships is as follows. Clause 2 relates only to ships provided with nuclear power plants—as does SOLAS 1974. With regard to conventionally-powered ships carrying nuclear waste, these could be covered by the dangerous goods rules under Section 23 of the 1949 Act. If, as a result of work in IMCO in producing an international safety code for nuclear-powered ships and for ships carrying radioactive substances, SOLAS 1974 should be amended, then Clause 3 of the Bill provides power for making any modifications to our law which may be necessary to give effect to such SOLAS 1974 amendments. That illustrates the value of the expedited procedure, which has been commended by both sides of the Committee.

I have done my best to answer the specific points raised in the debate, subject to the two matters upon which I have promised to write to hon. Members. This is a small but significant Bill. It will advance the cause of safety of life at sea. It is right that both sides of the Committee have commended and supported it. I hope that we shall have a speedy Committee stage and will ensure that the Bill is enacted as rapidly as possible.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered, That the Chairman do now report to the House that the Committee recommend that the Merchant Shipping (Safety Convention) Bill [Lords] ought to be read a Second time.

Committee rose at one minute past Twelve o'clock.