§ Mr. Charles Kennedy
To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions what his Department's policy is concerning the proposed establishment of a European Maritime Safety Agency, with specific reference to the issue of tanker traffic in the Minch; and if he will make a statement. 
§ Mr. Hill
We support the stated aims of the EMSA to the extent that it could provide a source of technical expertise to review the operation of existing maritime safety directives and scrutinise the case for any additional regulation. We consider that, to the extent that it improves performance across the Community, it could contribute to enhancing safety and reducing pollution risks. However, we do have concerns about the risk of Commission centralism, and take the view that member states would have to have effective control of the Agency.
The EMSA would not replace met members states' national maritime agencies, which would continue to exercise their existing responsibilities. For the UK the relevant national agency is the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA).
There has been an internationally agreed recommendation on navigation in place for the Minch since November 1993, by which all laden tanks over 10,000 gross tonnage are requested not to pass east of the Outer Hebrides, through the Little Minch and North Minch, except because of stress of weather or any other case of "force majeure". Responsibility for implementing this recommendation rests with the MCA.
The current position in respect of traffic through the Minch is that although there has been apparent increase in the number of vessels, based upon the year-on-year increase in reports received by Stornoway Coastguard 148W Station, Coastguard personnel believe that the actual number of vessels shows no significant change. The apparent increase continues to be attributed to vessels that have previously been unaware of the reporting scheme but are now actively participating.
However, the number of laden tankers over 10,000 gross tonnage using the Minch route remains low and only 18 were recorded during 2000. In the majority of these cases, the reason given by the vessel's master and accepted by the MCA was forecast adverse weather in the deep-water route to the west of the Outer Hebrides. Where there appears to be no justification for using the Minch, MCA contacts the vessel's operators for an explanation.
On occasions where large laden tankers do use the Minch, the Minch Emergency Towing Vessel (ETV) endeavours to escort such laden tankers to minimise any risk involved. At present, the ETV is on station in the Minch during the winter months only (October-March), but, with effect from October 2001, there will be ETV cover all year round.
With the phased introduction of automatic identification systems (AIS) under the revision of Chapter V of the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention, all tankers on international voyages must have such equipment fitted not later than the first annual safety equipment survey after 1 July 2003, unless they are scheduled to be scrapped within two years of the implementation date. This requirement should further enhance the level of reporting in this particular area.