HC Deb 17 May 1994 vol 243 cc675-87 3.30 pm
The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. John MacGregor)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the report of Lord Donaldson's inquiry into the prevention of pollution from merchant shipping. The report, "Safer Ships, Cleaner Seas", is published today, and copies have been placed in the Library of the House and are available in the Vote Office.

The marine accident investigation branch has already reported on the loss of the Braer, and we also look forward to receiving very shortly the report of Professor Ritchie's steering group on the assessment of its ecological effects. I asked Lord Donaldson to undertake a wide-ranging inquiry following that incident—not confined to the Braer —including considering what steps could be taken to minimise the risk of any similar incident and to reduce the risk of pollution at sea.

The House will wish to join me in warmly thanking Lord Donaldson, his colleagues Professor Alasdair McIntyre and John Rendle, and all those involved with the inquiry for the diligence, high quality and comprehensive nature of their work. Many of the solutions that the inquiry has recommended can be achieved effectively only by international action. I welcome Lord Donaldson's agreement to present the report to the International Maritime Organisation on Friday.

The Government accept the thrust of Lord Donaldson's recommendations, many of which are in line with the approach and actions that the Government have been pursuing in recent years. I shall now be considering them in detail. To assist in this, the Government will welcome comments from those interested. I shall make further reports to the House in due course on the progress made in implementing individual recommendations.

Lord Donaldson has emphasised the importance of effective port state control. As long as some flag states do not enforce the agreed international standards on their ships, our marine surveyors will ensure effective inspections of foreign-flagged ships visiting our ports; we already inspect one in three. But Lord Donaldson considers that we should improve targeting in order to provide as effective a deterrent as possible to the sub-standard ship. The owner or operator of a sub-standard ship must know that his ship is certain to be inspected and that if it is found to be defective it will be detained.

To be fully effective, port state control has to operate on an international regional basis. That is particularly important for the United Kingdom as many of the ships passing our coasts do not call at our ports. We have already taken action to increase European co-operation on port state control and we shall pursue Lord Donaldson's further recommendations with our partners in Europe. We shall also continue to work in the International Maritime Organisation to improve the performance of flag states.

If we are to eliminate substandard ships, an effective exchange of information is essential, although the inquiry recognises some of the difficulties in obtaining commercially sensitive information. Nevertheless, I have decided that, in future, we will publish monthly the full details of the ships that we detain, their defects, their flags, their owners and those who operate or certify them. Such public exposure will mean that unsafe operators and ineffective flag states will not be able to hide their identities.

The report correctly identifies the importance of crew training and standards; some 80 per cent. of marine accidents result directly from human error. Along with a number of like-minded states, we persuaded the IMO to use an accelerated procedure to enhance the standards and competence of the world's seafarers. The recommendations in the report will act as a further impetus to the necessary amendment next year by the IMO of the convention on standards of training, certification and watchkeeping. Along with our partners in Europe, we are paying particular attention to crew competence during port state control inspections.

There must be adequate and accessible waste reception facilities in port if waste disposal by ships at sea is to be controlled or reduced. We view with concern the report's findings on the adequacy of existing facilities at UK ports. I have asked the Marine Safety Agency to undertake an urgent survey of the facilities that are available and their use. In parallel with that survey, I will discuss with port, shipping and waste disposal authority representatives the inquiry's recommendations on the future provision, funding and certification of waste reception facilities.

Immediately following the loss of the Braer, my Department, with the Chamber of Shipping, prepared proposals for additional voluntary routeing and reporting measures around our coast, including extended "areas to be avoided" around Orkney and Shetland. Those measures were adopted with commendable speed by the IMO. Lord Donaldson has endorsed the measures that we took, and proposes further action. We will take them forward in consultation with local and shipping interests.

Lord Donaldson recommends that marine environmental high-risk areas should be identified around our coasts to protect areas that combine the highest degree of environmental sensitivity and the greatest degree of risk from shipping. Entry by ships could be either restricted or prohibited. However, as the right of a coastal state to interfere with ships on innocent passage is restricted by international law, any prohibitions or restrictions will have to be submitted to the IMO for its endorsement.

We propose that Government Departments, in consultation with the statutory bodies that advise us on environmental and conservation matters, should identify possible marine environmental high-risk areas. Lord Donaldson envisages a limited number of marine environmental high-risk areas, because he believes that excessive numbers of such areas would devalue their effectiveness and put their international acceptance at risk. The Government agree.

Lord Donaldson also makes recommendations about reporting by ships. If the IMO's maritime safety committee decides that coastal states should be authorised to require all ships to report to it, we will propose locations where such mandatory reporting would be appropriate. Mandatory reporting by vessels in transit is also being discussed within the European Union.

Lord Donaldson recommends that the Government should consider the enhancement of salvage capacity around our coast, and in particular the early provision of three salvage tugs covering the Dover strait, the south-western approaches and north-west Scotland. The inquiry considers how those tugs could be provided and funded, and discusses offsetting their costs by using them for other Government or commercial purposes.

I have instructed the Coastguard Agency to consider urgently the report's recommendation on the three tugs and to provide a detailed analysis of their likely costs and benefits. The agency will need to consider how the tugs could be funded in both the short and the long term, the appropriate role of the private sector, the scope for using them for other purposes and the possibility of co-operation with other states.

The inquiry has endorsed aerial spraying of dispersants, in appropriate circumstances, to combat oil pollution. Lord Donaldson's findings and those of the review of the testing, approval and use of oil dispersants by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will be taken into account in my Department's submission to the Public Accounts Committee following its request for a reappraisal of our aerial spraying policy. In the meantime, we will maintain our aerial spraying capability.

Last winter, serious problems were encountered with fish factory ships off the Shetland Islands. Such ships play an important role in providing a market for United Kingdom fish, but it is essential that they do so safely. Lord Donaldson has endorsed the steps that we have already taken to reduce the risk of any recurrence of last winter's problems, and has made recommendations for further action. We shall be considering those recommendations urgently so that we have appropriate measures in place before the klondyker fleet returns.

Lord Donaldson was requested to take into account the economic consequences of his recommendations. We are grateful to him for doing so. He supports the principle that the polluter, or potential polluter, should pay. The Government endorse that approach. He recognises that charges on shipping for port state control and other anti-pollution measures would best be levied on a north-west European basis, thus avoiding the potential distortions of trade that could result from their application in the United Kingdom alone. We shall take those recommendations forward in consultation with our European partners and with commercial interests.

In the time available, I have been able to touch only on the report's key points—particularly port state control, routeing, salvage and future funding. We warmly welcome the report, which will be regarded as a significant milestone, nationally and internationally, in achieving the aim of the report's title—"Safer Ships, Cleaner Seas". I repeat my gratitude to Lord Donaldson and his colleagues for the excellent work that they have done.

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)

We welcome Lord Donaldson's report, which is thorough, comprehensive and heavy on technical evidence. It requires detailed consideration and careful consultation, and, I believe, merits a full debate in due course. What is needed now, however, is new, comprehensive legislation covering the whole field of marine safety and pollution.

Lord Donaldson's report is an almost endless indictment of the failure of the Government and international bodies to prevent the loss of ships and seafarers' lives, and to protect Britain's shores from avoidable damage and pollution. The report shows that, by accident or design, ships discharge oil, chemicals, explosives, garbage and micro-organisms into the seas around our shores. They poison fish, kill birds and foul our beaches.

The report shows that the system is a direct product of unregulated competition between ship owners who cut costs by sending out ships that are unseaworthy, with inadequate and badly trained crews, in the charge of officers of doubtful competence—sometimes incapable of communicating with other ships, the shore or, in some cases, even their own crews. In the crowded waters of the English channel and the North sea, dangerous practices remain lawful, and negligence goes unpunished because it is undetected.

Does the Secretary of State accept Lord Donaldson's view that, with so many irresponsible ship owners and operators, we cannot depend on the necessary action being taken by the states whose flags they fly? Action must be taken by the states whose ports they visit, and it must be taken now.

Britain, and the other states whose shores touch on those crowded waters of the English channel and the North sea, must make it clear to the International Maritime Organisation that we will no longer tolerate their endless delays. We are in a strong position: between us, the North seam states—Britain, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Holland, Belgium and France—are responsible for more than a third of the world's trade. On our narrow seas, all the nations of the earth must come to trade, and they should be allowed to do so only on our terms, with safe ships with well-trained crews and responsible officers.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that what we need are tough new regulations, rigorously enforced by Britain, our European partners and international bodies? No longer must reputable ship owners in well-found ships with well-trained crews be put at a disadvantage and forced into cut-throat competition with ships that are cheap and nasty—ships that are cheap because they are nasty.

We welcome in particular Lord Donaldson's proposals for action to improve waste reception facilities and crew standards, to require ship routeing and reporting, to strengthen checks on vessels and to improve salvage arrangements. Does the Secretary of State accept that that will call for extra work to be done, and will he now therefore cancel the proposed cuts in the staff and budget of the Marine Safety Agency?

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, without tough new regulations and the staff to enforce them, the hopes raised by the establishment of the Donaldson inquiry will not be fulfilled and accidents and pollution will continue? Will the Secretary of State accept my assurance of Labour's support for effective legislation, if he brings it before the House, to put things right?

Mr. MacGregor

Lord Donaldson's report is a good deal more balanced than the hon. Gentleman's observations on it at the beginning of his remarks, as right hon. and hon. Members will see when they read the report. It is not an endless indictment of the United Kingdom's failure to act. In fact, Lord Donaldson commented: We believe that the United Kingdom's performance as a Flag State … compares very favourably with that of most other Flag States but there is no room for complacency". That is precisely my position—I agree that there is no room for complacency. Ever since I have been Secretary of State for Transport, I have sought to take forward action at every level to deal with sub-standard ships and sub-standard crews. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that that is where the real danger lies.

The hon. Gentleman must accept that the matter cannot be tackled by the United Kingdom or by UK legislation alone. As he knows, only a comparatively small number of proposals are for UK legislation—a tiny proportion of the total. The majority of the action must be taken either through the IMO—and there are many recommendations for that—or, since that is sometimes slow-moving and does not completely deal with the issue of sub-standard crews and sub-standard ships, in the European Union and in the Paris memorandum of understanding group. That is precisely what I have been doing for the past two years —urgently pursuing within the European Union that the Transport Council takes steps to deal with all those issues.

Three matters will come before the Transport Council at its meeting in June, and port state control—which, like Lord Donaldson, I regard as a key—will come before it shortly thereafter.

I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that I will take every possible step to follow up the Donaldson report. After all, I asked him to examine the whole issue in the most comprehensive way, taking into account the international aspect. I will do so particularly within the European Union, because that is where we get effective action on port state control—as I showed in my statement. I will make sure that we do everything that we possibly can, but we must recognise that this is an international business and that we need the co-operation of those not only in the European Union but in the IMO.

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

As president of the Sea Safety Group (United Kingdom), and as someone whose constituency unfortunately saw both the Penlee lifeboat disaster and the Torrey Canyon environmental tragedy, I warmly welcome Lord Donaldson's report and my right hon. Friend's reaction to it.

As to the designation of marine environmental high-risk areas, which will be particularly welcome to the Isles of Scilly in my constituency, I urge my right hon. Friend to go one step further and ensure that those areas have statutory backing and do not rely merely on voluntary controls. I also ask my right hon. Friend and other Ministers to take the lead in the International Maritime Organisation. It needs a political impetus to ensure that all those desirable steps are taken as quickly as possible on an international front.

Mr. MacGregor

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I repeat that we are taking the lead, and have done so for some time, in the IMO with others. However, because I recognise that the IMO takes time, it is important to take action earlier within the European Union and the Paris memorandum of understanding group. I repeat, because it is important, that that is where can get effective action to deal through port state control not only with sub-standard ships and sub-standard crews but with the point made by the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), which I have also made frequently. That will also help to deal with unfair competition from such ships and crews, which is every bit as bad as competition through unfair state aids. I assure my hon. Friend that I will certainly do that.

As to MEHRAs, as I believe they will come to be called, they do not require statutory backing at this stage. Lord Donaldson recommends that we identify and promulgate those routes but that if that does not lead to their effective observance we should consider through the IMO—and that is where it must be done—how to get sanctions to ensure compliance with MEHRA requirements.

My hon. Friend will notice that the inquiry recognised that the Isles of Scilly are both ecologically sensitive and at a busy shipping crossroads. The inquiry recommended that the Department of Transport should review the case for areas to be avoided or other means of enhanced protection and should consider the scope for setting up a voluntary system for the reporting of tankers similar to that in the Minch. I shall be following that up very shortly.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

I warmly congratulate Lord Donaldson on producing a very comprehensive report, which, I am sure, will take a lot of digestion in the weeks and months ahead. Many of the points that he makes—he does not pull his punches—were identified by many of us before and it is regrettable that it took an incident such as the Braer to produce such a report. Nevertheless, it is important that we learn the lessons and take action at Government level, at European level and, indeed, at international level.

I endorse what the Secretary of State says about the need for a sense of urgency. For example, on the question of satellite tracking, which Lord Donaldson identifies as being important, between 1988 and 1993 there were only four meetings of the sub-committee. Will the Secretary of State say what more is being done to speed that up? Will there be more Department of Transport surveyors to undertake port state inspections? Is it true that there is to be a 30 per cent. efficiency reduction in staff and expenditure in the coastguard and in the Marine Safety Agency and, if so, how will that impact on the responsibilities which they will have to carry out to give meat and substance to implementing the recommendations?

Mr. MacGregor

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his general approach. He is right in saying that Lord Donaldson has done the job most comprehensively and that there is a great deal to be digested. In particular, Lord Donaldson has brought forward some very interesting ideas on port state control, which I am anxious to pursue in the European Union context because we have a draft Commission proposal coming forward on that. Lord Donaldson has been very imaginative in the way in which he has approached that matter and I am very attracted to it.

On the question of surveillance, Lord Donaldson has made a number of points. As the hon. Gentleman will see, Lord Donaldson has rejected the idea of radar all round our coasts and, in a good analysis, has put forward the reasons for that. He has especially placed emphasis on transponders, which, I believe, must be the only sure-fire way to move ahead—at least as sure-fire as we can make it. I shall therefore be anxious to pursue that as quickly as we can.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

I hope that hon. Members will resist the temptation to make long statements. I have to safeguard the remainder of this day's business. A number of hon. Members hope to be called. They will not all be called unless the Secretary of State is asked direct questions and the House receives direct answers.

Mr. David Shaw (Dover)

Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that one of the ways in which safety can be increased is to employ British officers and crews? Will he also give assurances to my constituents in Dover and Deal that the English channel will be a much safer place for shipping and for people whose homes are in towns alongside it as a result of the Government accepting the recommendations in the report?

Mr. MacGregor

If we can secure the action that I shall be seeking both at European and IMO level, undoubtedly the recommendations in the report, which follow up, as I have said, the approaches that we have already been making, they will greatly assist my hon. Friend's constituents in seeing that the Dover straits are a safer place for shipping. The report also makes specific recommendations about the Dover straits, which we shall be following up as well.

Of course, it is necessary for our ships to be competitive and flexible in their manning arrangements, but some of the policies that I have pursued recently, with assistance for the training of crews and so on, will certainly help to ensure that British crews play a prominent part.

Mr. Calum Macdonald (Western Isles)

On the need to back up the voluntary arrangements with compulsory sanctions, a matter which has already been raised by the question asked by the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris), does the Secretary of State accept that the arrangement in the Minches is not working at present? The deep water route west of the Hebrides is not being followed and ships are going through the Minches. It would take only one of those ships to have an accident for there to be an environmental disaster.

Does the Secretary of State also accept that what was needed from him was not a cost-benefit analysis of the need for a tug on the north-west coast, but a decision to install a tug there to safeguard against a future disaster?

Mr. MacGregor

On the hon. Gentleman's second point, Lord Donaldson, as he does in many of the recommendations, urges that we consider the cost benefits first, and that is what I shall be doing. I have said that I intend to move ahead with that swiftly. I am asking the Coastguard Agency to do that first analysis.

The report acknowledges the strong local objections to the passage of oil tankers through the Minch. It concludes that large merchant ships of all types should use the deep water route to the west of Harris and Lewis as a matter of routine, but that they should retain the option of using the Minch when exceptional weather or other conditions make it safer for them to do so. The Government endorse that view and will pursue the inquiry's recommendations on monitoring traffic in the Minch. The inquiry also proposes that the deep water route should be extended and we will take that proposal forward.

Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight)

Is not Great Britain a giant roundabout for most of the world's shipping? It is not our own house which needs to be put in order, but the traffic that passes our doorstep. After the great debate about traffic separation from Ushant past Cap de le Hague through the Dover strait, which most people now agree has worked well, why can we not have black-box technology on ships, particularly on oil tankers, which want to use the channel and require them to give a sample of their cargo so that we can discover and prosecute the culprits when they pump out and cleanse their tanks at sea?

Mr. MacGregor

My hon. Friend will find that Lord Donaldson makes some comments and recommendations in that area. However, my hon. Friend's first point was important. A great deal of shipping passes our coast—we have one of the longest coastlines in the world—which does not come to our ports. Therefore, there must be action at international level. That is why I place such strong emphasis on tightening port state control throughout our northern European waters.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Do the Government look favourably on the proposals of the Greek shipowner, George Livanos, that there should be a register of all major accidents, the lessons to be drawn from them and the facts about them? Also, will there be an undertaking for at least a 10–year study of the benthic consequences of what happens to the ocean floor after an accident like this and how the fauna are affected?

Mr. MacGregor

If by "an accident like this" the hon. Gentleman means the Braer, he will know that the study into the ecological consequences produced an interim report and we expect the final report next month. That will certainly give us some guidance, and I will bear in mind the hon. Gentleman's point.

On the hon. Gentleman's first point, it is important to collect information from inquiry reports such as that of the marine accident investigation branch and to use that in international action. That is what we do. We have already followed up all the MAIB recommendations on the Braer.

Mr. George Kynoch (Kincardine and Deeside)

I especially welcome my right hon. Friend's proposals with regard to tightening up in-port inspections with particular reference to co-operation and targeted co-operation between European Union states. However, how quickly does my right hon. Friend expect that targeted co-ordination to get under way?

Mr. MacGregor

I wish I could say "immediately", but in international matters it sometimes takes some time. However, the Commission report on port state control will come to the Transport Council in due course. That is the peg that we can use to take forward Lord Donaldson's recommendations. I have today sent a copy of Lord Donaldson's report to the Commissioner and to all my European colleagues. I shall be raising the subject with them—I have given them notice of this—at the Transport Council in June.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

May I remind the Secretary of State that some of the recommendations in the report are as important to seafarers and maritime communities as some of the recommendations in the Cullen report? Can we expect early legislation to implement those recommendations, particularly recommendation 23.111, which relates to fish factory ships and the problems and dangers that they cause? Only an amendment to section 4 of the Fisheries Act 1967 is required to bring those vessels up to standard. Surely a quick Bill is needed.

Mr. MacGregor

The House knows that I cannot commit the Government to legislation. That is a matter for the usual way of working out what the Government's legislative programme should be. On the other hand, if I recollect correctly, the particular recommendation to which the hon. Gentleman referred, while indicating that legislative change is ultimately desired, suggests that we can in the short term achieve the same objective through conditions attached to the licences for the klondykers. I will certainly be pursuing that matter with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle)

The owners of the Braer are members of Intertanko—the International Association of Independent Tanker Owners —to which I am parliamentary consultant. Does my right hon. Friend accept that international organisations such as Intertanko recognise that sub-standard tankers have to be rooted out? While measures such as local traffic schemes can improve matters, increase salvage and so on, what will really count in future is the speedy implementation of the International Maritime Organisation agreements, especially the Marpol agreements on improving tanker safety.

Does my right hon. Friend further accept that, while we all recognise the importance of collisions and other incidents, they must be put in perspective? Some 60 per cent. of world crude oil goes by sea and 98.98 per cent. of it arrives safely. Accidental discharge is less than operational discharge, which has declined by 85 per cent. over the past 20 years. Therefore, tanker owners are doing their best to provide safe, economic and environmentally—

Madam Speaker

Order. I have appealed for short questions. I will have to bring questions on the statement to a close unless hon. Members co-operate. A number of hon. Members have a direct interest in the statement and I want to call them. I can do that only if hon. Members ask one question. From now on, I want only one question and no statements; otherwise, hon. Members will be asked to resume their seats.

Mr. MacGregor

I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of action through the IMO. I also agree that it is important to concentrate on dealing with sub-standard ships and crews, which is what I intend to do.

Mr. Phil Gallie (Ayr)

I welcome the fact that inspection of foreign vessels by UK marine surveyors will be extended, but can my right hon. Friend assure me that the cost of it will be met by the foreign owners?

Mr. MacGregor

The Donaldson report recommends—and this is an important principle—that the polluter pays. Therefore, those who use sub-standard crews and ships should also pay. It should not be a burden on the taxpayer. I shall now pursue with my European colleagues the way in which that approach can be implemented.

Mr. Nick Ainger (Pembroke)

Does the Secretary of State accept that paragraph 14.70 of the Donaldson report specifically states that the area between Grassholm and Skomer, off the coast of my constituency, should be made a marine environmental high-risk area? Will he ensure that that happens as soon as possible? Will he also change, again as soon as possible, the current voluntary code in that area to a compulsory one stating that the area is to be avoided? When will he introduce legislation to that effect?

Mr. MacGregor

I do not think that such action involves legislation, but I shall certainly follow up the Donaldson recommendation.

Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus, East)

Have not the Government undermined the Donaldson report by their cuts in search and rescue and coastguard services? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that, if Donaldson is to be fully implemented, efficiency savings will not be enough and that new resources will be required? Will he provide them?

Mr. MacGregor

I want to be quite clear that I am seeking overall savings of 20 per cent. over two years in my Department. However, I give the assurance that that will not put at risk any approach to safety, including in this area. On the question of funding, I recommend hon. Members to read the interesting chapter 22 in the Donaldson report. It goes into financing and suggests that either charges or levies should be the main way of meeting the costs of his recommendations. I shall follow that up.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the greatest risk of a disaster is still in the English channel? Is he aware that my constituents in Eastbourne and those of other towns along the south coast will, in particular, warmly welcome his support for more systematic inspections, especially in close co-operation with our European partners and other like-minded nations in the IMO?

Mr. MacGregor

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I agree with him.

Mr. Eric Clarke (Midlothian)

I seek an assurance from the Secretary of State. The international salvage convention, to which we were a party five years ago, spelled out many of the aspects that we are discussing. However, the Government did not endorse it. I welcome the Donaldson report, but I am worried that the Government will delay, hiding behind the so-called difficulty about obtaining international agreement. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that other countries endorsed the convention. Is he sincere about moving forward on Donaldson's recommendations as soon as possible?

Mr. MacGregor

If the hon. Gentleman is talking about ratifying conventions, he will know that currently going through Parliament—indeed, it is now in another place—is the Merchant Shipping (Salvage and Pollution) Bill. I pay a warm tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) for providing Parliament with the opportunity to debate a private Member's Bill. The Government were wholly behind the Bill and were anxious to find an opportunity to implement it. I am glad to see that Lord Donaldson is taking it through another place.

Mr. Matthew Banks (Southport)

While welcoming the Donaldson report, and in particular its underlining of the importance of the direction that Government policy has been following for some time in this area, does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the most important suggestions in the report is that the potential polluter should pay rather than a disproportionate and unfair burden falling on the British taxpayer as a whole?

Mr. MacGregor

Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. As I said earlier, the chapter on that subject is extremely well argued—indeed, the argument about the polluter or the potential polluter paying runs through the report in many places. I commend to the House study of what the Donaldson report says on that.

Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North)

Will the Secretary of State finally repudiate the despicable Tebbit doctrine that, If British shipowners find it more profitable to flag out to flags of convenience, then that it is precisely what they should do"? That is at the root of the virtual disappearance of the red ensign from the waterways of the world and the loss of tens of thousands of British seafarer jobs. Will the Secretary of State now repudiate that doctrine? If so, will he do something about the North sea where the encroachment of flags of convenience and cheap foreign labour are having exactly the same effect on the remaining rump of the British merchant navy as the Government have done to the rest of the British merchant navy?

Mr. MacGregor

As always, the hon. Gentleman goes right over the top and gets his analysis completely wrong. That is not what has been happening recently. It is important for United Kingdom shipowners, as for those throughout the European Community and elsewhere, to retain competitiveness. The key here is to ensure that it is not sub-standard crews and sub-standard ships which are providing that competitiveness. That is why, throughout my time as Secretary of State, I have strongly supported that approach. Nor is it just a blanket condemnation of flags of convenience. I commend the hon. Gentleman to read the Donaldson report; he will see that Lord Donaldson makes that very clear, not least with regard to the Braer.

Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South)

On behalf of Teesport, which moves more hazardous cargo than any other port in the country, may I ask my right hon. Friend to take steps at the Council of Ministers in June to ensure that some form of Europe-wide navigation Act is put into force so that all ships trading into the single market are brought up to standard, which makes it pointless for them to be flagged out to a flag of convenience?

Mr. MacGregor

I agree with the objectives behind what my hon. Friend says. I am not sure that a navigation Act as such is necessary. The right approach is to ensure that we get the widespread tightening of port state control to achieve what he wants to see and what I want to see.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Is the Secretary of State alarmed that, even in an area such as the English channel, the report says that it is not possible to guarantee that a tug could reach the scene of an accident within 12 hours, but things are even worse in areas such as the Bristol channel? As it is a matter of enormous importance for the tug to get to the scene—an incident might well turn into a disaster if the tug cannot get there in time—what guarantee can the Secretary of State give that he will improve the present situation and give proper protection to the coastal areas of wildlife in the Bristol channel?

Mr. MacGregor

The report makes a realistic and balanced analysis of the whole question of tugs, their costs and their cost effectiveness. When it comes to the recommendations, they include a salvage tug in the south-west. I have already said that I have asked the Coastguard Agency to do an analysis of that speedily, and we will then decide what action to take on the Donaldson recommendation.

Mr. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South)

My right hon. Friend has already made it clear that the safe routeing of ships is paramount, and obviously that is to be welcomed. With that in mind, does he agree that the proposal for the mandatory reporting of the position of ships, similar to air traffic control, is an excellent idea? Will he do his best to ensure a speedy passage of that proposal through the IMO and the European Union?

Mr. MacGregor

Without going into detail, because there are some complications, I have said that we are prepared to follow that up, and we will be doing so in both the European Union, where we will have recommendations on ships' reporting coming to us fairly soon, and the IMO. The ideal answer which currently can be achieved is the recommendation on transponders, and that is why I am keen to follow that.

Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton)

Does the Secretary of State accept that those affected by the Braer disaster will find little comfort in the recommendation for voluntary routeing? The reason why tankers go through the Minch is to save many hours on their journeys and many thousands of pounds. Without sanctions, that will be no use. Will the right hon. Gentleman give an undertaking to consider a statutory framework for that recommendation?

Mr. MacGregor

I have stated that the right approach is to undertake to follow what Lord Donaldson recommends in that regard.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

Given that the report is such a weighty volume, is the Secretary of State now prepared to go through it line by line and to allow a full debate? That would enable us to see what can be done in United Kingdom legislation and through European operations and the IMO. We need an annual report to see what progress is being made in shipping.

In view of all the work of those people who are absolutely committed to making sure that a disaster such as the Braer never happens again, and in view of what Donaldson says about transponders and the present anonymity of ships, is the Secretary of State prepared to fund a proposal from the Shetland Islands council to have radar—in the short term at least—until the long-term solutions can be considered? Will he also take on board the issue of flags of convenience?

Mr. MacGregor

I should be happy to have a debate when everyone has had a chance to digest the voluminous report. I agree with the hon. Lady on that, but that is not a matter for me. One of the recommendations in the report is for an annual report, and we will now be looking at that.

The hon. Lady mentions giving guidance line by line on where action is required in the United Kingdom, the European Union and the IMO. The report itself gives that guidance, and flags clearly where each lies. Responsibility for the majority of all major actions lies with international action rather than with purely domestic action.

There is an interesting recommendation in the report on the anonymity of ships to which I am attracted, and that would also require international agreement. The Donaldson report rejects radar in the Shetland Islands, and finally—[Interruption.] The report rejects permanent radar for Shetland.

The action I took with regard to the Braer included not only calling for the marine accident investigation branch report, but asking Lord Donaldson—a noted authority on these matters, and that authority shines through the report —to undertake the inquiry. I can assure the House that I will now go through the report, not line by line but recommendation by recommendation, to ensure that we take follow-up action. I hope that we will take that action in the vast majority of the areas in which he recommended us to do so.