HC Deb 02 July 2002 vol 388 cc25-44WH

11 am

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland)

It seems just hours—in fact it is a week—since we were all last gathered here for a debate, which my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) then observed was the first time that we had had an opportunity to discuss merchant shipping since 15 July 1998. It was therefore a particular pleasure for me to find that I had been successful in the ballot and secured this debate. I hope that a weekly debate on shipping matters will now be a feature of Westminster Hall. No doubt such debates will be answered by the Minister with special responsibility for Westminster Hall, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport. I am pleased to see him in his place today.

This week's debate is something of a natural progression from last week's very useful debate. There is a close relationship between issues of safety and of pollution. Safe vessels that are well staffed with well-trained personnel never cause pollution; vessels that cut corners and do not adhere to proper standards tend to be responsible. We cannot ignore the fact that the bulk of such vessels are sailing under flags of convenience, so there is a great deal of overlap between last week's debate and this one.

It is my privilege to represent a constituency that relies greatly upon having, in reality and in perception, a very clean maritime environment. In Shetland in particular, the local economy relies tremendously on fishing and fish farming of all sorts. Increasingly, throughout Orkney and Shetland, there is a reliance on tourism, which includes marine tourism operations such as the excellent Bressaboats, and a number of diving companies in the Scapa Flow in Orkney.

One of the truly remarkable achievements of the oil and gas industry in Shetland and in Orkney is the way in which it has minimised its environmental impact on the region. There have been some significant departures from that in the past, but none of them have been related to the operation of Sullom Voe or Flotta or any related operations. Many of my constituents have a history of working in the merchant navy and some of the older ones worked in the south Atlantic whaling industry. They look with dismay at the state of the merchant fleet today.

Few constituencies know better than mine what can happen when it all goes wrong. It all went wrong for Shetland about nine and a half years ago, on 5 January 1993, when the motor tanker Braer ran aground off the south end of the island. It is a matter of record that the Braer was carrying 84,700 tonnes of Norwegian Gullfax crude oil. The tanker ran aground and all that oil was vented into the sea and blown on to the land. The extent of the devastation was unimaginable. Constituents described it to me as "apocalyptic". From all that I have heard and from the pictures that I have seen, that is no overstatement.

That is one of the most extreme examples of pollution from ships at sea in recent times, and, regrettably, a few issues arising from it still need to be resolved. The first will make the Minister's heart sink, and that is the position with asbestos roof claims in the south end of Shetland, which I last raised in the House on 24 May. The Minister was very kind and prompt in answering by letter the points that I raised during that debate. I shall not repeat all the details. In essence, claimants for damage to asbestos roofs in the south of Shetland took an unsuccessful action against the international oil pollution compensation fund. I have previously asked the Minister whether he will intervene with the IOPC to obtain a copy of a report that my constituents still believe was crucial to their claim, but which was denied to them in the course of litigation. They now feel that, the litigation having been dealt with, the report should be made available both on moral grounds and on those of openness and accountability. The Minister wrote to me on 19 June, stating: I do not think that it would reflect well on the UK if we sought to press the Fund Director, its Executive Committee or other Member States on this issue"— that is, the release of the report. The Minister continued: We would be seeking to set a very poor precedent for the future administration of the Fund. It is not an approach we could support if the same circumstances applied elsewhere.

I find that response disappointing and I hope that the Minister will be prepared to revisit it. The question of compensation and litigation having been resolved, matters have moved on, and we are now considering rather more than asbestos roofs in the south end of Shetland. This is about how the international oil pollution compensation fund is seen to conduct its business, and the confidence that hon. Members can have about how their constituents would be treated if, heaven forbid, anything like this should happen in their constituencies. I would hope that hon. Members could feel that they would be treated fairly and openly, but that is not how my constituents feel that they have been treated. The IOPC might tell the Government that it will not release the report, but I ask the Minister to accept that there is a moral imperative involved. Even if his efforts are ultimately unsuccessful, we should press the IOPC, which is a quasi-public body with much appreciated Government input, to conduct its business in a way that is seen to be fair, open and transparent.

I am delighted that the Minister is to visit Shetland in August in response to a longstanding invitation. I have no doubt that he will enjoy a fine stay and what I have described in the past as notorious Shetland hospitality—with his Shetland roots, he has the genetics to survive it. Despite his busy schedule during that visit, will he consider meeting the asbestos roof claimants, even for half an hour? Such a gesture would be greatly appreciated by all in the islands.

The inquiry into the grounding of the Braer concluded that two factors were involved. The first was bad weather and the second poor seamanship. In the past year, evidence has been produced to suggest that that might not be the whole story. A constituent of mine, Dr. Jonathan Wills, who has not always been remarkable for his support of liberal democracy in the Northern Isles—in the past, he has been more associated with the Minister's party, although I am pleased to say that he has recently been cured of that—found in his boat a package that contained various papers. He refers to it as a whistleblower's package. It contained various pieces of evidence, including the logbook from the Braer. He examined it and concluded that it raised new evidence. He had previously written a definitive book on the Braer and its grounding.

The conclusion of Admiral Lang of the marine accident investigation branch was that the evidence disclosed to Dr. Wills was not new or important. With all due respect to Admiral Lang—I hold great respect for him—I find that difficult to understand. The MAIB inquiry into the loss of the Braer did not see the evidence, which consists of several pages of manuscript shift log at the Mongstad oil terminal in Norway, and Statoil's letter of protest, signed for by the master of the Braer. All that evidence showed that the Braer's main steam line had burst on arrival at Mongstad on new year's eve in 1992.

I do not understand how Admiral Lang can conclude that that evidence is not new. It is clear from the terms of the MAIB inquiry that the MAIB did not consider it. He may not have been aware of it—I do not see how that could have been the case—but as it was not considered it must surely be new.

The evidence is important. It is clear that there were significant problems with the Braer's engines. The bunker report on the Braer's arrival in Norway showed that, during the passage from New York to Mongstad, she used three times as much diesel as usual. It looks as if she had to burn diesel in the auxiliary boiler to make enough steam to heat the fuel oil. There was a leak in the water pipe feeding the boiler three days before arrival in Mongstad. There appears to have been some confusion in the mind of MAIB inspectors between that fault and another that occurred after the Braer docked at jetty one during the last hour of Hogmanay in 1992.

Thereafter, in the early hours of the new year, the Braer tried to use a steam-driven pump to empty her ballast water tanks. The main steam pipe between the boilers and the manifold burst at 16 times atmospheric pressure and at a temperature of 345 deg C. De-ballasting and loading were delayed 19 hours for repairs.

The Braer's owners and managers were in contact with the ship and must have known about that, because Statoil, the Mongstad terminal operators, launched a formal protest about the delays in loading. The repair was under the direction of the owner's shore-based superintendent engineer, who boarded the ship on new year's day with a riding crew of four Polish fitters. He wanted to familiarise himself with the vessel, tackle what was described then as a backlog of repairs and maintenance, and prepare the ship for five days in a repair yard.

Was the Braer in class? Was it unseaworthy, and as a result not covered by the terms of its insurance, when it sailed from Mongstad? That would have been determined by inspectors from Det Norske Veritas, but there is no record of anyone from it boarding the ship to supervise or certify that crucial operation. Significantly, the MAIB said in January 1994 that all the ship's certificates were in order and fully up to date. I understand that there is no record of such an inspection, so we cannot say whether the MAIB knows that Det Norske Veritas approved the repair. DNV's approach has been somewhat unhelpful. It believes that there is a continuing duty of confidentiality to the Braer Corporation of Monrovia, notwithstanding that it was a one-ship company and ceased to exist some eight years ago. It is questionable whether any duty is still owed or could be thought to outweigh the public interest in the case.

It is clear that the Braer steam boilers were badly corroded and that their water supply was dangerously contaminated. As a result, the engineers could not warm up heavy fuel oil to burn in the main engine and the auxiliary boiler as they usually did, and they used diesel. When the diesel became contaminated, the ship stopped and was blown ashore. Even if water had not got into the fuel tank, the Braer risked running out of diesel and steam long before she reached the refinery in Quebec where she was destined.

In the light of my comments this morning, will the Minister reconsider his assessment that the Braer was seaworthy when she left Mongstad and my request for an independent assessment of the evidence presented by Dr. Wills? One could ask whether the case still matters. It is tempting to say, "It happened nine and a half years ago, the bulk of the claims have been settled and most of the damage that was done to the south end of Shetland has been repaired." However, it is still important. The reputation of the master has continued to be impugned, perhaps unjustly, and the owners of the Braer have effectively been allowed to pull a fast one. It matters not only because of the question of right and wrong: if an accident happens and people get away with it, they and others like them sailing under flags of convenience will be tempted to try to get away with it again. That is why it is important. We are no longer dealing with questions of compensation or reputations within the MAIB; we are trying to get to the truth. If we genuinely know what happened, we may be able to prevent it from happening again.

I wanted to cover several other issues today, but time is against me so I will mention only a couple. The first is the green award incentive, which makes a considerable contribution to the standard of shipping. It is an international standard and if shipping can meet it, the ships are classified under the incentive and entitled to benefits such as discounts on harbour fees—a significant sum. Ports in Spain, South Africa, Rotterdam and northern Germany use the incentive, but only one in the United Kingdom—Sella Ness in the north of Shetland, which takes all the tanker traffic in and out of Sullom Voe. Carrot and stick approaches such as that one offer significant benefits to improve shipping standards and get to the root of difficulties such as pollution. They are a sensible means of proceeding. Will the Minister tell us what his Department is doing to encourage the adoption of standards such as the green award incentive?

The other matter that I want to bring to the attention of the House is the excellent report from the National Audit Office dealing with pollution from ships by the Comptroller and Auditor General, which was published on 12 June. I commend it to the House as a thoroughly comprehensive work on the subject that puts forward several proposals and deals carefully with the different issues that have arisen on a case study basis. I open it at random and it refers to the multitanker Ascania, which was a boat that threatened to blow away part of the Caithness coastline and possibly some of the southernmost parts of Orkney just a few years ago. The report makes several recommendations. I wonder if the Minister would tell us what consideration his Department has given to the report and when he might expect to have a response.

The Government have started to tackle several issues in the area of maritime shipping, and I give them credit for trying to improve standards in the shipping industry. However, a great deal more needs to be done. I hope that if the Government can improve the standard of our shipping, along with other countries in the International Maritime Organisation, no other Member of Parliament will ever have to stand here discussing such issues about nine and a half years after an incident like the grounding of the Braer. That surely is something on which all Members can agree.

11.21 am
Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

First, I thank the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) for seeking the debate, and congratulate him on securing it and on the command of the subject that he demonstrated in his speech. I thought that it was an excellent summary of the issues involved and I look forward to the Minister's response to the points raised. I have a constituency interest of my own. I represent the western part of the New forest, which has the western Solent as its seafront: an environmentally sensitive area, which includes the Lymington marshes and Hurst spit. I also go to Pembrokeshire every year for my holidays and the Pembrokeshire national park coastline around Fishguard is close to Milford Haven, so I am concerned about the pollution issues raised by the debate.

I will begin by asking the Minister a question that I hope he will be able to answer. A satellite tracking system for identifying oil spills was trialled between August 2000 and August 2001 by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. It considered the trial to be a success and intended to let a contract for its implementation. Will the Minister tell us what has happened since August of last year concerning that trial?

Satellite tracking systems are one of several measures that could be used in the fight against oil pollution of maritime habitats and the consequent damage to biodiversity. That system has been developed over several years and is used successfully in other parts of the European Union—I understand that it is used by the Danish Admiralty. The Department of Trade and Industry and the MCA are aware of those developments. The company that provided that technology believes that as well as allowing for oil spills to be swiftly tracked and dealt with, there would also be a significant deterrent value, if it were combined with potential prosecution, in the maritime industries if we were prepared to use such technology quickly to punish culprits.

Oil pollution can have a very serious impact on marine biodiversity. After the oil spill from the motor tanker Braer, to which the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland referred, 1,538 corpses of 26 different species of bird were washed up in January alone, including 857 shags, 203 black guillemots arid 96 long-tailed ducks. Similarly, following the spill from the Sea Empress in mid-February 1996, 6,900 oiled birds of 28 species were collected up to 1 June that year, including approximately 3,495 that were dead or that subsequently died. Those included 1,818 dead common scoters and 1,416 dead auks, predominantly guillemots or razorbills.

The implementation of marine environmental high-risk areas would allow controls to be placed on tanker traffic. Routeing tankers and other vessels carrying dangerous cargoes away from those environmentally sensitive areas or treacherous shipping lanes can reduce the risk of chronic pollution from shipping and from major oil incidents. Approved shipping routes would make it less likely for ships to collide with each other, run aground or get into other difficulties. Environmental sensitivity in the classification of those marine environmental high-risk areas would be based on a number of criteria, including wildlife, landscape, geology, fishing and the economy.

It is worth bearing in mind that operational pollution—day-to-day operational incidents or illegal discharges—accounts for more than 73 per cent., almost three quarters, of incidents, compared with the large, headline-hitting oil spills. Most of those day-to-day incidents occur in harbour and estuarine areas, most of which are environmentally very sensitive. That more insidious form of pollution is in effect as damaging as, if not more damaging than, the large incidents that stick in the headlines.

The old Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions commissioned a report on the identification of marine environmental high-risk areas in December 1999. I understand that there was some controversy over the methodology used for identifying such areas and that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds had some reservations about that, but I do not want to get into that controversy. What we need is significant action to expedite the implementation of such marine environmental high-risk areas. It is now eight years since Donaldson recommended the setting-up of those areas. How far along the time scale for their establishment are we? I understand that a new consultation is shortly to begin. Can the Minister say something about that and the methodology to be used in determining the areas concerned?

I conclude by putting in a plea for the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), which has completed its stages in this House but awaits consideration in the other place. The Marine Wildlife Conservation Bill would help to fill the gaps, which mean that nationally important wildlife sites in the marine environment in the territorial waters of England and Wales do not receive the protection that they need. At present, significant areas around the United Kingdom coast are not covered by the Merchant Shipping (Prevention of Oil Pollution) Regulations 1996 because they lie within the baseline of our 12-nautical-mile territorial zone. If the Marine Wildlife Conservation Bill were enacted, it would highlight marine areas of national importance and could help to deal with pollution issues. Perhaps the Minister will state his estimate of the likely progress in the other place of the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend.

11.30 am
Mr. Michael Weir (Angus)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing the debate.

It is certainly no surprise that the debate has revolved around the Braer disaster. Indeed, it would have been more of a surprise if it had not done so given his constituents' feelings about the matter. Spookily, when I came to London last night I switched on my television and watched an old episode of "Drop the Dead Donkey" that was originally shown at the time of the Braer disaster. The characters were debating whether to send a TV crew to Shetland to obtain film of double-headed lambs being born. Obviously, that is over-the-top satire, but it shows the real and potential impact on our environment and traditional industries of disasters around our coastline such as that involving the Braer.

Indeed, the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland made a point about Shetland salmon farmers. They enjoyed a premium for their product until the Braer disaster that they have been unable to reclaim since. That situation worries many in Scotland's traditional industries such as farming, fishing and tourism, which take place in rural areas such as Angus. In promoting those industries we rely heavily on Scotland's reputation for a clean natural environment. Every time that that is brought into doubt, it can impact heavily on those industries. To be fair, that effect is not confined to Scotland. In west Wales, for example, very similar concerns are felt in Ceredigion and other areas. Indeed, Alaska was badly damaged following the Exxon Valdez disaster.

Unfortunately, the potential for disaster is real, and the Braer was not a one-off. The hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) reminded us of the Sea Empress incident at Milford Haven and the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland briefly referred to the multitanker Ascania incident. That incident, which took place in the Pentland Firth, was potentially extremely serious. A chemical tanker caught fire in its engine room, 200 people in Caithness had to be evacuated and a no-fly zone had to be established because of the danger of an explosion. The tanker was eventually towed to Scapa Flow—it is strange how everything ends up in the constituency of the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland. In that case, it was lucky that an environmental disaster did not occur, but it could have been catastrophic.

Given that 90 per cent. of the UK's overseas trade and 7 per cent. of our internal trade is carried by sea, a huge number of ships are plying our waters and it is not surprising that there is potential for a disaster. Add to that our position astride the world trade routes from America to Europe, and it is obvious that a huge amount of shipping passes through Scottish and UK waters.

Pollution in our waters has long been a problem. There was the notorious dumping of munitions at Beaufort's dyke off the south-west coast and the recent example of German nerve agents, which were dumped off the Danish coast after the last war, leaking into the sea. To be fair to the Government, action has been taken after incidents involving tankers such as the introduction of the port marine safety code after the Sea Empress incident. In the United States, the Oil Pollution Act 1990, which specifies that all oil tankers must have a double hull, was introduced following the Exxon Valdez disaster. In the European Union, single-hulled ships will be outlawed by 2015.

There is a problem with pollution once it reaches the coast. A key recommendation of both the Donaldson inquiry into the Braer and the inquiry into the Sea Empress was for local authorities to have a statutory duty to plan for and undertake shoreline clean-ups following marine pollution incidents. That was mentioned in the National Audit Office report to which the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland referred. It states that the Government should consider the case for taking powers to require all coastal local authorities to have up to date oil spill contingency plans consistent with the National Contingency Plans, so that the United Kingdom as a whole is properly prepared to deal with maritime pollution incidents in compliance with international conventions. The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities supported that recommendation. What thought has the Minister's Department given to it? What discussions have been held with the devolved authorities, which will obviously have a say in what happens in Wales and Scotland? A critical question relates to the likely resources that will be forthcoming to allow local authorities to develop contingency plans. It is no good putting an onus on local authorities without providing funding to take plans forward.

The problem is not only that oil is a potential pollutant to seas. Only this morning, there was a story on the radio about a dispute between Greenpeace and the Environment Agency about the categorisation of nuclear waste that is being transported by ship from Japan to Sellafield. Because the agency does not consider rejected MOX plutonium to be waste, fewer controls apply to it, even though it is the first time that such material has been shipped since 11 September.

In addition, there is concern about the state of the ships that transport waste to Sellafield. There are particular worries about corrosion on one of the ships of the Pacific Nuclear Transport Ltd. fleet, which is largely owned by British Nuclear Fuels. That raises yet further concerns about accidents happening on our coastline. On Greenpeace's website, a copy of a letter sent to the Secretary of State for Transport refers to the alleged corrosion on ships: It is apparent that the cause of the corrosion was poor initial design of the refrigeration … and condensation removal systems. In house BNFL studies were subsequently initiated on the remaining Pacific Nuclear Fleet … and the European Shearwater … Surveys in particular of the Pacific Pintail and Pacific Teal, according to the Lloyds Register Classification Survey Dates Supplement, took place in November 2001 after the steel plate corrosion problems in the Pacific Crane were identified. It is understood that initial results of these tests indicate similar corrosion problems on all vessels. Clearly, serious concern exists about the seaworthiness of ships that carry very dangerous cargos around our coast.

Mr. Carmichael

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the compelling evidence, to which he refers, on the state of ships that transport nuclear waste from Japan to Sellafield makes it all the more important that there should be no consideration of a northern passage, which was spoken of some time ago, to take nuclear waste from Japan around the north coast of Russia down the west coast of Norway to the United Kingdom? That would be particularly hazardous.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Nicholas Winterton)

Order. Before the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) replies, I point out that he has not spoken for an hour and eight minutes—the digital clock is in error and I hope that it will be corrected.

Mr. Weir

If Mr. Deputy Speaker insists, I shall try to keep going for an hour and thirty minutes, but the Chamber might get a bit bored.

I totally agree with the point made by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland. A northern route, going through the Arctic, Norway and the scenic parts of northern and western Scotland, would be disastrous. An accident on any part of that route would have catastrophic effects for the whole of the northern hemisphere.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the effects of oil pollution are a disaster for traditional industry, wildlife and the environment. However, what would be the effects of an accident with a ship carrying nuclear waste to Sellafield? They are too horrible to contemplate and would dwarf the effects of the Braer. I ask the Minister, what investigation has been made into the ships that will carry the nuclear waste from Japan to Sellafield? Can he confirm that corrosion has been found on those ships, and does he consider them suitable to carry such material? I urge him seriously to consider stopping those ships sailing into United Kingdom waters.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland referred to the northern route, but these ships would take the southern route and pass the coasts of west Wales and Cornwall, where there are many sites of special scientific interest. A disaster near either of those coasts would be a national and international disaster. The Government of Ireland have already expressed their opposition to the continuing operation of Sellafield. If ships carry nuclear waste up the Irish sea to Sellafield, that problem will get worse. Any disaster would affect Scotland, Ireland, Wales and England, as well as places further afield. I urge the Minister to take immediate action to stop the trade before there is a great disaster.

Will the Minister examine the powers that the authorities in port have if they consider that a ship is dangerous or unseaworthy? Earlier this year, the Public Accounts Committee noted that the number of ships' surveyors had fallen to just 159 from a figure of 194 in 1992, and that puts an extra burden on the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. The Committee also recommended that surveyors should carry out inspections at sea, so will the Minister tell us whether any thought has been given to strengthening the inspection regime either for ships that visits ports in the UK or for those at sea?

Given the prospect of ships carrying nuclear cargos, has the Minister given any thought to the information that should be provided to ports, coastguards and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency in respect of ships carrying dangerous cargos through channels in UK waters? The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland has already called for such information to be made available about the ships travelling through the Pentland Firth and Fair Isles channels, but it is important that information is available about the ships travelling through the channels off the coasts of Wales and between Scotland and Ireland. My main point, however—I stress it again—is that we should not allow ships carrying nuclear cargos to travel through UK waters to Sellafield.

11.42 am
Andrew George (St. Ives)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to take part once again in our now regular Tuesday morning debate on shipping matters. Perhaps it should become as regular as the shipping forecast.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing the debate and on taking the opportunity to raise residual matters regarding the sinking of the Braer nine and a half years ago. I shall listen carefully to the Minister's reply to the important questions that have been asked.

The hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) also raised some important issues. I am glad that he emphasised the importance of encouraging the Government to introduce proposals for marine environmental high-risk areas, MEHRAs. As he rightly said, they were recommended in the Donaldson report in 1994. I know that many of us are anxious for the Government to introduce such proposals.

The hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) rightly emphasised the importance not only of the proper monitoring of the nuclear waste and materials that are taken by sea—we heard this morning of a potential new shipment coming to this country from Japan—but of protecting the coastline. Coastline protection is crucial, because pollution at sea too often washes up on the shore. I come from a part of the world that, arguably—perhaps not even arguably—has the most beautiful coastline in the country and includes the Isles of Scilly and the far west of Cornwall. I know from regular visits to the shoreline that the vast bulk of pollution comes from shipping and not from beach users. Only last year I joined volunteers at Praa Sands in my constituency who were collecting rubbish as part of the "Keep Britain Tidy" campaign beach-clean week. The vast bulk of the rubbish collected on the beach came from the sea and not from beach users, which emphasises the importance of recognising that oil pollution is not the only issue. Many sea users use the sea as a rubbish ground and everything goes over the side. Spillage of oil, whether deliberate or accidental, is not the only hazard to wildlife because many other forms of pollution are a threat.

The hon. Member for Angus referred to one of the recommendations from the research into the foundering of the Erika on the Brittany coast in 1999 and the importance of introducing double-hull oil tankers. Many of us believe that the deadline, which has been put back to 2015, is worryingly far distant. What progress has the Minister and his Department made in ensuring that Britain takes a full and responsible role in meeting that deadline and working in the international sphere to ensure that the timetable is met?

As the hon. Member for New Forest, West rightly said, MEHRAs were recommended in the Donaldson report. The hon. Gentleman also said that the Government set up consultation on that in December 1999 and closed it in April 2000, but the result of that consultation has still not been published. We have been informed that there will be further consultation this summer, if we ever get a summer, and I should be grateful if the Minister would provide information in his reply on the timetable for implementation. Furthermore, in relation to MEHRAs, the hon. Member for New Forest, West gave the impression that he was sure that powers and sanctions would be attached to the designations. Many areas around the United Kingdom want powers and sanctions to go hand in hand with the designations and I would be grateful if the Minister would indicate what sanctions, regulations and powers there are likely to be. Many local authorities are anxious to ensure that MEHRAs are backed up with the sort of sanctions and powers that can ensure that the environment is not simply noted but properly protected.

On compensation, I acknowledge that both internationally and in the United Kingdom, compensation arrangements and safeguards have certainly been improved and increased for oil spillages. That subject has already been adequately covered, but not all noxious or hazardous pollution at sea comes within the orbit of regulations on oil spillage. For instance, on 26 March 1997, when the MV Cita sank on the east coast of St. Mary's on the Isles of Scilly, it was carrying 145 containers; it also had 95 tonnes of fuel oil on board. The ship was German owned, registered in Antigua and insured by a Hamburg company that was not a member of a shipping insurance protection and indemnity club. In fact many of the containers were owned and insured by various people in different countries.

The pollution effect on the Isles of Scilly was such that the Government Departments responsible had to bear a bill of at least £200,000. Five years later, the Isles of Scilly council still has to find in excess of £80,000, which it had to borrow from reserves. Given that the council has a turnover of £2.5 million per annum, that had a significant impact. Although we all support and wish to uphold the principle of the polluter pays, it is too often the case that ships are owned by one nation and registered in another and that responsibility for the cargo is spread among several. As a result of the grounding of the Cita, the Government and the Isles of Scilly council have been chasing compensation in the German courts for the past three years, but without success. Will the Minister say what action can be taken to ensure that such irresponsibility—it is effectively piracy at sea—is brought to book?

I draw the Minister's attention to a point raised last week—the mention in the Queen's Speech of May 2001 of a proposed safety Bill. The Government announced their intention to increase the number of parties who would be liable in the event of a marine pollution incident in order to improve claimants' access to compensation Since then, we have heard no more. Will the Minister say when the Government plan to introduce such legislation?

My hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland drew attention to the National Audit Office report published last month. That report introduced a number of measures—I hope that the Minister will respond to them—including the establishment of appropriate contingency plans. I also raised another matter last week in relation to sea safety. It was the suggestion of sharing resources—in this case, surveillance aircraft—with other regulatory bodies; I am certain that the Ministry of Defence and the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will have the opportunity to share resources in relation to fisheries protection. Another of the Committee's recommendations was to bring protocols on hazardous and noxious substances into UK law.

We should give the Minister ample opportunity to respond to the many matters that have been mentioned, so I shall not say much more except to give the House some good news. In my experience, it is not always necessary for the Government to introduce further regulation to drag a reluctant industry in the direction of taking more responsibility for the marine environment. I commend BRITMEPA, a voluntary organisation known as the British Marine Environment Protection Association, which is a division of the Sea Safety Group. I have been in touch with Captain A. P. Starling Lark, who is largely responsible for establishing that new, voluntary organisation and hopes that similar organisations will be established in other maritime countries. I am sure that the Minister is aware of that. It wants to work with the Government and throughout the industry by establishing the highest possible environmental standards in maritime industries.

11.55 am
Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire)

First, I congratulate you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on your award of a knighthood—once a knight, and at your age.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) is to be congratulated on having secured the debate. It follows very neatly last week's on maritime safety, because those who offend against maritime safety are usually the same people who offend in terms of pollution. Pollution at sea is no respecter of sovereign jurisdiction. It can affect some 950 million people who rely upon the marine environment for their primary source of protein. Half the UK's biodiversity may be found in our seas and the UK economy relies on shipping for 95 per cent. of its visible trade.

Shipping is an international industry requiring international regulation. Accidental or deliberate discharge can damage a local area both environmentally and economically. Therefore, the reconciliation of sustainable marine discipline with the market freedom of global trade is both a national and an international imperative. Ships can constitute an environmental hazard to the marine environment in three ways—through operational pollution, accidental pollution and physical damage.

Operational pollution can occur through oil and oil wastes, chemicals and noxious liquid substances, sewage, garbage, anti-fouling paints, foreign organisms and even engine transmissions and noise. The majority of those discharges are governed by the International Maritime Organisation's international convention for the prevention of pollution from ships, which covers both accidental and operational pollution. It also provides for the designation of special areas where even tighter standards apply. All waters around the United Kingdom, including the North sea and the English channel are designated in that way.

Accidents such as collision and grounding can result in large quantities of pollutant being released into the marine environment. A vessel going aground, anchors and propellers, certain trawling activities and the operation of ships have the potential physically to damage and disturb reefs, banks, coastline, marine habitats and marine life.

The international convention on oil pollution preparedness, response and co-operation of 1990 provides a global framework for international co-operation in combating major incidents or threats of marine pollution. The international safety management code applies to most international shipping companies and trading vessels and obliges shipping companies to establish an environmental protection policy, which must be periodically audited both internally and externally. Both are useful and valuable measures, which must be made to work, but we should also remember that the IMO has no power to make Governments or industry take the necessary action. It operates by way of agreement and consensus, which gives rise to accusations of tardiness, but those accusations are misplaced.

The principal responsibility for enforcing regulations lies with flag states, whose efforts are supplemented by port state control. There are doubts about whether UK port state control inspections of foreign flagged vessels are adequately enforcing compliance with international standards, as well as doubts about whether we are doing enough to reduce operational discharges from ships by detecting and deterring through the prosecution and fining of those who continue to discharge illegally.

The evidence is clear. In 2000 alone, a total of 743 discharges from vessels and offshore installations were identified in the UK pollution control zone and national waters. In 2000, the annual total of 34 oil discharges from oil and chemical tankers was 89 per cent. greater than the 1996–99 mean annual figure of 18 discharges. I recognise that aircraft surveillance plays a significant role in spotting infringements, that we share satellite information with other states that are contracting parties to the Bonn agreement, and that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency is also conducting research into the tagging of oil-contaminated discharges to help identify those responsible. I am sorry to say, however, that the figures clearly show that matters are getting worse, so I welcome the Government's declared commitment to reducing the risk of marine pollution by taking pre-emptive action through international and domestic forums, as well as the emphasis on an ecosystem-based approach and integrated stewardship. Those are grand words, but what, specifically, are the Government going to do?

Two national initiatives are especially positive. They arose from Lord Donaldson's recommendations in 1994, following the inquiry into the Braer oil tanker incident in 1993, about which the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland spoke knowledgably. The first is the computer assisted shipping traffic database, released in March 1996, on ship routeing in UK waters, and the second is identification of marine environmental high-risk areas, based on a dual assessment of shipping pollution risk and environmental sensitivity.

I urge the Government to expand the provision of year-round emergency tugging vessels for UK coasts. Although I acknowledge that things have improved, four emergency tugs for the whole of the UK, where some 300,000 major ship movements occur each year, is still too few. Will the Minister explain why the COAST database has not been expanded to include non-routine traffic, such as naval vessels, fishing vessels and offshore traffic to mobile drilling units?

The UK's national contingency plan, published in 2000, set out how the relevant local, national, harbour and offshore authorities in the UK will respond to marine incidents. I ask the Minister to comment, however, on the criticisms from the National Audit Office on 12th June 2002. The Comptroller and Auditor General highlighted structural flaws in the contingency planning of some coastal local authorities, in particular in Wales. There, local authorities struggled to deal with the aftermath of the release of 72,000 tonnes of oil from the grounded Sea Empress in February 1996. The NAO noted that no statutory duty is placed on local authorities to plan for and undertake shoreline clean-ups following marine incidents. May I suggest, perhaps oversuspiciously, that that may be because the Government would then have to fund an additional responsibility of local authorities?

Is the Minister aware that a gap is likely to ensue between provisions for contingency plans for oil pollution and the ever-increasing danger of chemical pollution? Have the National Audit Office's cost-saving recommendations for the sharing of counter-pollution equipment or the contracting out proposals been considered by Government? If so, what answers have the Government reached?

Turning to the harmonisation of international standards, will the Minister confirm that the anti-foulant organotin will not be used after 1 January 2008? If that is the case, why is it still being marketed as a biocide for ships? Will the convention for the control and management of ships' ballast water and sediment be adopted in 2003? Can the Minister explain why the international convention on civil liability for pollution damage caused by bunker oil, adopted in 2001, is still awaiting implementation? Is he confident that all single-hulled tankers will be eliminated completely by 2015, which is already an extended date?

The Exxon Valdez in Alaska and the devastation of the Galapagos Islands hit the headlines and caused a global environmental shockwave. However, it is the small daily incidents, minor accidents and regular discharges by those who flout the law that we need particularly to address and avoid. That is especially true in the UK, which is on some of the world's busiest waterways, the pollution of which would impact directly upon our biodiversity.

Accidents are a product of human fallibility and error and are not subject to absolute prediction or guaranteed prevention. Yet measures can be taken to limit the likelihood of occurrence and to mitigate the degrading environmental consequences. Preventive action is the only option for a disease that has no cure. It is all very well for a national authority to look outwards beyond its frontiers to international agreements, but such agreements will count for little unless local authorities are able to act effectively. Global thinking and effective local implementation are the key to safer seas and sustainable development.

12.07 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson)

First, I add my congratulations to the former occupant of the Chair, Sir Nicholas Winterton, on his knighthood. I look forward to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, receiving a similar award for the outstanding work that you, too, have done for this House.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) not only on raising the matter but on doing so in his usual well-studied and courteous manner, which always goes down well in the House and will probably guarantee him good, proper and fair answers to his questions. He referred to this being a weekly debate, although unlike the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) he did not propose that it should be as regular as the weather forecast. However, we seem to be covering some ground and I welcome that, because maritime-related issues have received little attention from the House during the past 10 years.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland raised the importance of clean seas, particularly in his constituency. He mentioned fishing and tourism, diving and sea farming and the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) talked about sea birds in some depth and those are all very important matters. He also mentioned the two aspects of maritime pollution—chronic problems and acute problems. The acute problems, such as major sinkings and oil spillages, tend to attract most public attention, but it is perhaps the chronic problems that need the most careful attention. As the hon. Gentleman said, they play a greater role in the scheme of things over the longer term.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland referred in some detail to the Braer, which is important to his part of the country and his constituency. The Government have learned many lessons from that incident and the hon. Gentleman gave us credit for that. Much action is being undertaken and I shall run through some of our measures if I have time.

Some time ago, the hon. Gentleman kindly invited me to the Shetlands. I can now confirm that, all being well, it will be my considerable pleasure to enjoy the customary hospitality of the Shetland Isles in August. I have heard the hon. Gentleman's request for a meeting, and we shall see what we can do on that front.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Braer investigation and said that new evidence had come to light as regards the logbook. The marine accident investigation branch carefully examined the new allegations and drew two conclusions. It said that at least some of the new evidence presented by Dr. Wills was already known to it and that none of his evidence challenged the version of events that was revealed during the investigation.

The basis of Dr. Wills's argument was that he had obtained copies of the logbook that was kept by the loading terminal, not the ship, while the Braer was embarking her cargo of light crude oil. The logbook referred to steam line problems on board, and the marine accident investigation branch examined the issue carefully. It concluded, however, that despite that entry in the logbook ashore, the overwhelming evidence from other sources suggested that the problem lay with the feed water system. The difference between those two findings was crucial.

I shall now run through some of the questions that hon. Members have raised, and if I have time, I shall make some more general points about maritime pollution. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland asked the Government to reconsider pressing the international oil pollution compensation funds to release the Tulloch report, but it would not be wise to do so. We must remember that the UK is not only a claimant, but a contributor to the funds, and a precedent set in this case could have ongoing repercussions for future cases. In other words, I have heard what the hon. Gentleman has said on the matter.

Mr. Carmichael

There is a distinction to be drawn Here. If this case sets a precedent, it might not be a bad one. All the litigation and claims have been dealt with, but there is still a lingering doubt about whether the IOPC acted properly. It is surely in everyone's interests—not least the IOPC's —that doubts about its conduct are removed and that can be done only by releasing the Tulloch report.

Mr. Jamieson

I have heard what the hon. Gentleman says, but we perhaps differ on the issue.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about a further Independent inquiry into the Braer incident. The MAIB is independent of my Department and the chief inspector reports directly to the Secretary of State. The hon. Gentleman holds Admiral John Lang in high regard and I am satisfied that his advice to us is entirely independent, and I accept and very much appreciate it.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the green award and we are interested in any scheme that encourages higher environmental standards. The port waste reception directive, which we are in the process of implementing, enables ports to apply lower charges to ships on the grounds of good environmental management.

I started by talking about the difference between chronic and acute problems, and it as well to put the issue in context. The most up-to-date information that we have was published by the joint group of experts on the scientific aspects of marine environmental protection. That report gives the following figures for maritime pollution: land-based discharges plus atmospheric inputs from land industry sources contribute something like 77 per cent. of all pollution in the sea; dumping from land is responsible for another 10 per cent.; and 12 or 13 per cent. derives from maritime transport.

The hon. Member for St. Ives is pulling a quizzical face, as if he had actually learned something today. When he visited the beaches in his constituency, he may have seen fluttering copies of "Focus" rather than things coming in from the sea. He was talking not about pollution but flotsam; it may be that that flotsam was sea based, but there are more insidious things contained within the sea than on the surface. I hope that those statistics are of assistance.

The hon. Member for New Forest, West referred to the Marine Wildlife Conservation Bill. The question of prosecution for oil pollution landward of the UNCLOS—United Nations convention on the law of the sea—baseline will be addressed through amendment of the legislation. The Bill is not relevant to the issue, as it is not designed to perform such a function—the solution lies with the relevant merchant legislation.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned satellite tracking. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency's trials of satellite monitoring have been successful and it intends to offer a contract for satellite sensing over key areas of the sea, both inside and outside the United Kingdom counter-pollution zone.

The hon. Gentleman made a further point about the areas in which prosecution could take place. There seems to be some misunderstanding of that matter. The Merchant Shipping (Prevention of Oil Pollution) Regulations 1996 apply in areas seaward of the baseline out to the full extent of the United Kingdom pollution control zone, which is 200 miles beyond that baseline. Illegal discharges of oil in the internal waters landward of the baseline, including estuaries, can be prosecuted under section 131 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995. I hope that that clears up the confusion.

Mr. Sayeed

The Minister may remember that last week I asked him a question about the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which he was unable or unwilling to answer. There is not a single master mariner in a senior position in the MCA, which is run by people whose expertise is shore based rather than former practitioners at sea. Does the Minister think that the MCA would be assisted if it employed people who had been master mariners and who know what happens at sea?

Mr. Jamieson

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. In the debate last week, he cast doubt on the competence of the MCA. This House is the place in which to ask such questions and when we make a robust attack on any organisation, we must make an equally robust check of the facts.

The hon. Gentleman said that there was not one master mariner among the MCA senior management, but I am informed that one of the senior managers in that organisation is Captain John Garner, who holds a master mariner certificate. He has commanded container ships and ferries and has considerable experience at sea. In addition, Maurice Storey, the chief executive, has spent a total of 45 years in the industry, both landward and at sea. Alan Cubbin is a qualified naval architect and has been in charge of the safety operation and policy role for more than 20 years. John Astbury has been all the way through the shipping industry, from the very bottom to the very top. That shows that the MCA has within it enormous competence and experience, which is borne out by my day-to-day experience and contact with such an excellent organisation. The hon. Gentleman has clearly not done his homework and I now give him an opportunity to withdraw his comment that no master mariner is involved in the management of the MCA.

Mr. Sayeed

Although I had checked the details about Captain John Garner, I accept what the Minister has said and, on that basis, I withdraw my remarks. Mr Storey, however, worked for Stena for many years, but he was shore based.

Mr. Jamieson

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has withdrawn his comment. He will be interested to know that Maurice Storey spent some time at sea, too I recommend that he visits the MCA, as I have done. I am sure that he will find Maurice Storey most welcoming and helpful. Such a visit would increase the hon. Gentleman's knowledge and experience substantially.

The hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) drew attention to the transport of nuclear material around our coasts. It is most important that all such transportations comply with the International Maritime Organisation's requirements. We are sure that the joint IMO and International Atomic Energy Agency code for irradiated nuclear fuels is happening. It is a matter to which my Department attaches great importance.

The hon. Gentleman referred to local authority clean-ups. We have not had discussions with the devolved Administrations, but we have with local authorities in general, which already have the powers to prepare such plans. We know that, of the 170 coastal local authorities, all but one either have plans or are currently reviewing them.

Mr. Weir

The Minister referred to the transport of nuclear waste, but he did not answer my specific question—whether the Department is looking into the claims regarding the ships that will be travelling to Sellafield next month. Furthermore, has he held discussions with local authorities about the financing of such schemes?

Mr. Jamieson

Individual ships would be involved in any implementation of the regulations. A considerable amount of money goes to local authorities in respect of their civil contingency plans. Such planning matters are the responsibility of what is now another Department and that is probably discussing them as we speak.

The hon. Member for St. Ives has a nice chunk of coastline in his constituency. I have holidayed there regularly and it is a fine coastline—perhaps it compares fairly well with the coastline in Devon. He asked about double hulls. I am sure that he is relieved that the United Kingdom is doing its part in phasing out single hulls in line with the timetable set by the IMO. The hon. Gentleman also asked about the safety Bill. We are seeking parliamentary time in which to introduce it and we are currently bidding for the third Session. We welcomed the report of the National Audit Office. We considered it well founded and soundly thought through and we are now looking carefully at its recommendations.

Pollution from ships is another important matter.

Andrew George

The Minister is moving on from some of my questions. The hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) and I referred to the timetable for MEHRAs and the likely plans for the powers and sanctions to support them, and I should be grateful to the Minister for any information that he could give about that.

Mr. Jamieson

Yes. Perhaps I can deal with that a little later, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we will issue a consultation paper this autumn on that matter to discuss potential protective measures, including the routeing measures that he mentions.

I should say again that the pollution that we suffer in the sea is, in fact, largely land based and not from ships. Nevertheless, when shipping causes pollution, the effects can be acute and absolutely devastating. The hon. Gentleman is probably too young to remember the Torrey Canyon incident. [Interruption.]He says that he does remember it; he is rather older than he looks. I certainly remember what happened in March 1967. As the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland said, the Braer incident occurred in January 1993, and the Sea Empress incident took place in February 1996.

The United Kingdom has about 10,000 miles of coastline and we are adjacent to some of the world's busiest sea lanes, such as the English channel, which adjoins my constituency and that of the hon. Member for St. Ives. It is estimated that there are about 400 vessel movements a day through the Dover straits. Consequently, we have made preventing and deterring pollution one of our highest priorities.

I shall list some of the things that we are doing. First, we are very active internationally. Shipping, by its very nature, is an international industry and international controls are required to regulate it. That is best achieved through the International Maritime Organisation. We ensure that we play an active and influential role in the IMO. We work vigorously in the IMO to achieve tighter rules and standards that apply to discharges from ships under the major international convention controlling marine pollution—the international convention for the prevention of pollution from ships, which is commonly known as MARPOL.

We played a leading role in persuading the IMO to agree to designate the north-western European waters, including the North sea, English channel, the Irish sea and other UK waters, as a special area under the MARPOL annexe that covers the prevention of oil pollution. We also played a leading role in persuading the IMO to designate the North sea as a special area under the MARPOL annexe that covers the prevention of pollution by ship's garbage—an issue raised by several hon. Members. In that way, the disposal into the sea of oil and garbage is governed by much more stringent limits than those for other marine areas under international law. That recognises the fact that our waters deserve greater protection from pollution.

We are also a party to the international oil pollution compensation regime. It is worth remembering that, at the time of the Braer and Sea Empress incidents, the limit under that regime was approximately £51 million, which was increased to its present level of approximately £118 million in 1996. In October 2000, we secured a further rise to approximately £180 million from November 2003 and we are doing more. We are preparing a draft protocol that will provide states with the option to join an additional supplementary fund, with a view to reducing still further the likelihood of claims being deferred in part until it can be shown that the total claim is met in full.

The UK took a high profile during the 1996 IMO diplomatic conference, which successfully adopted the hazardous and noxious substances convention, under which a compensation fund similar to that applying to oil tanker pollution will be introduced.

Mr. Sayeed


Mr. Jamieson

I will not give way again. I have given way to the hon. Gentleman, and I want to make some general remarks.

The hazardous and noxious substances convention will require compulsory insurance and provide a right to take direct action against the insurer, making it much easier for claimants to recover their losses.

On the domestic front, we have taken steps to deal with the risks of shipping polluting our seas and coasts on a statutory and a non-statutory basis. We know only too well from the Braer, Sea Empress and Erika incidents how much damage can be done to the marine environment in a major accident. In his review of salvage intervention held in the wake of the Sea Empress incident, Lord Donaldson recommended that ultimate control of any salvage operation involving a threat to the environment must be exercised by the Secretary of State's representative for maritime salvage and intervention.

This has been a very helpful debate with some excellent contributions. I hope that we will have further opportunities to unpick and unfold some of the very important issues concerned.

Mr. Sayeed

Can the Minister explain—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Edward O'Hara)

Order. The Minister has concluded. We will proceed with the next debate.