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Pilot Boats

Volume 114: debated on Thursday 9 April 1987

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I beg to move amendment No. 32, in page 7, line 17, leave out

'is satisfied that it is suitable for use as a pilot boat'
and insert
'complies with regulations for such boats made by the Secretary of State under section 21 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1979'.
I can speak with considerable experience when I say that there are few things more vital to the safety of pilots than those small boats that they use to board and leave vessels. On Report in the House of Lords, the Minister stated his view that the suggestion that the Secretary of State should approve and license pilot boats would be unnecessary and it would be sufficient for the competent harbour authorities to have that power.

On Third Reading the Minister stated:
"Our approach encompasses belt and braces—first, the regulations under the Merchant Shipping Act, for which I have promised to bring forward proposals; and secondly, the new statutory obligation on the CHA".—[Official Report, House of Lords,5 March 1987; Vol. 485, c. 798.]
The amendment will not remove responsibility for approving or licensing pilot boats from competent harbour authorities. It will remain with them but it will provide them with clear minimum standards to ensure that they do not approve or license a boat that is not completely suitable, always bearing in mind that, for many competent harbour authorities, that will be a new responsibility outside their previous experience.

Pilot boats operate in weather conditions in which the only other boats of comparable size likely to venture to sea are the lifeboats of the RNLI. I am sure that the House will not overlook the fact that, in terms of serious injury and fatality, pilotage is proportionately about the second-highest risk profession in the country. Two examples within recent memory will be sufficient to support that statement. A Falmouth boat pilot lost his life attempting to board a passenger ferry that was desperately seeking shelter, having been damaged in heavy seas. It was subsequently found that the pilot boat was defective in some respects.

A Blyth pilot lost his life attempting to board a comparatively small ship in bad weather. The pilot boat had not been propertly manned and the Department had to write to the Blyth pilotage authority. The question of manning levels for pilot boats is, I accept, not something that can be applied right across the board. However, I know—again from personal experience—how difficult it is to get a man out of the water if the boat that is attempting to extricate him has insufficient crew on board. In most cases a minimum of two crew members is required. The man in the water is extremely heavy. If he is unconscious or injured he is virtually incapable of helping himself to get out of the water. In the operation of boarding and taking off pilots, it is essential that competent harbour authorities have regard to minimum standards, including the quality and standard of the boat and of manning levels. Safety must be paramount.

I do not believe that the Government subscribe to the view that the safety record has been satisfactory, yet the standards contributing to that record were, in the absence of legislative regulations, set by pilotage authorities, that are independent, non-commercial and non-profit-making organisations. If we assume that in future the same constraints will not apply, I suggest that the record is hardly likely to improve. However, if what the Minister said on Third Reading in another place is correct—he said that it was intended to make regulations under section 21 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1979 for pilot boats to which the competent harbour authorities will need to have regard in the exercise of the statutory obligation imposed upon them by the clause—I would be more than happy and would wish to withdraw the amendment.

The hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Thornton) has explained why he feels that it is necessary that the Minister complies with his wishes on pilot boats. lie has done so from a wealth of personal experience. He is the only Member of this place who is a qualified pilot; he is the only Member who has boarded a ship from a pilot cutter. I suspect that I am one of the very few who have assisted him in boarding a ship.

I spent five years in the merchant service both as a helmsman and an able seaman. In leaving and entering the ports of the United Kingdom, or ports around the world, it can be one of the most difficult tasks to bring the pilot on board. In normal circumstances it is a reasonably easy thing to do, but those of us who have been to sea and have spent some time on it recognise that the sea is not always as kind as it should be. There are conditions when the taking on board of a pilot can be an extremely hazardous operation. I have been involved in such operations and I concur with what the hon. Gentleman has said. It is extremely dangerous.

The Bill will transfer responsibility for pilotage, including pilot cutters, those who work on them and the delivery of a pilot on a ship, to competent harbour authorities, and we must be sure that we have the safety of those men and those on the pilot cutters much in our minds. The amendment will not remove responsibility for approving or licensing pilot cutters from the competent harbour authority. It does not seek to remove that which the Bill intends. The amendment merely provides that the authority should comply with the regulations for such boats that are made by the Secretary of State under section 21 of the 1979 Act. The clause is comprehensive and sets out in detail requirements for safety at sea and on board ships. If the Minister can satisfy us that the competent harbour authorities will have the relevant obligation laid upon them, I, like the hon. Gentleman, will not press the amendment to a Division.

I have no pilotage experience but I have some experience of small fishing boats. I know that a small boat that is not robust can present formidable problems for those on board when they find themselves in choppy water. I was particularly struck by the suggestion of the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Thornton), that there should be at least two crew members on small boats. I agree wholeheartedly. A small boat might be corning alongside a much bigger vessel in choppy weather, for instance—I am talking about the Clyde and the Forth, but even on an estuary such as the Humber we rarely see the sea as calm as the proverbial mill pond. Someone will be needed at the wheel, and another person will be needed to take hold of the rope ladder; a third person may also be needed.

I should also like small boats to carry an immersion suit for each of those on board, with an extra one for the pilot, in case the boat gets into difficulties. I do not know whether regulations will be brought in concerning immersion suits for small vessels — presumably those under 15 m in overall length—but I feel that such suits, and at least two crew members, are necessary for the safety of the pilot and the crew.

On Second Reading, I confirmed the undertaking by my noble Friend Lord Brabazon of Tara in the other place to bring forward proposals in regulations on the survey of pilot boats before the implementation of the Bill. That remains our intention. The Bill at present places an immediate obligation on the harbour authority to satisfy itself as to the safety of pilot boats, but the amendment would remove that obligation. It would mean that pilot boats would not be subject to any regulations at all until the regulations under the Merchant Shipping Act 1979 had been made.

I confirm to my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Thornton) and the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott) that such regulations will be made. However, it will take time for our proposals to be brought forward, for the interested parties to be consulted and for the regulations to go through the appropriate statutory procedures.

The amendment would open up the possibility of a gap after the appointed day, during which boats would not be regulated at all. As has been implied by hon. Members who have spoken, it would be to everyone's benefit for the competent harbour authorities to be placed under a statutory obligation to approve pilot boats regardless of what is done under the Merchant Shipping Act. The specific duty on a CHA to satisy itself as to the suitability of pilot boats is a more stringent requirement than that contained in the existing legislation. I hope that my hon. Friend will feel able to pursue his intention to withdraw the amendment.

I know that it is not the Minister's responsibility, but, under the clause in its present form, would such vessels be subjected to annual inspections by, say, inspectors from the Department of Transport?

Yes. — Sorry. When I answered that question, I was looking at my expert advisers and thought that I saw a nod. However, it was a shaking of the head. I withdraw my answer; in fact, that is why we are bringing forward the regulations.

I was heartened by the Minister's assurance, and I am encouraged by his honesty. However, this is a very serious matter. The owners of small fishing vessels have to submit their craft for inspection. A similar recommendation ought perhaps to be introduced for these small vessels.

That is why the Bill imposes an obligation on the harbour authorities to ensure that they are safe. That is one of the great improvements that will be brought about by the Bill.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's assurance. I merely ask him, as the Merchant Shipping Act 1979 has been on the statute book for some time, to do everything in his power to expedite the procedure for bringing forward the necessary regulations.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.