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River Thames (Transport Safety)

Volume 300: debated on Wednesday 5 November 1997

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12.30 pm

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise a matter that will be of concern to the House and especially to those hon. Members whose constituencies, like mine, border the Thames.

Hon. Members will remember that, last week, a 3,000 lb dredger known as the Sand Kite collided with the Thames barrier and sank. Thankfully, none of the 10 crew on the vessel was seriously hurt and there were no other casualties; nor, it appears, was the barrier seriously damaged, although it was closed as a result of the accident, which was the most serious to have occurred since the barrier became operational 15 years ago. However, the potential impact of the incident was far worse, as the shipping journal Lloyd's List pointed out in its leading article the following day:
"In this case no lives were lost, and the Thames Barrier has demonstrated that it is a good deal stronger than the forepart of a ship. The accident did not coincide with the 100 year North Sea storm surge and a spring tide working against flooding in the Thames Valley. London has survived again. It could have been a good deal worse."
It could indeed.

The vessel involved, although now named the Sand Kite, was previously called the Bow Knight and it is the sister ship of the Bow Belle, which was involved in the tragic 1989 collision with the Marchioness that killed 51 people. In the early 1980s, a third sister ship, the Bow Trader, was involved in a collision with a small passenger craft: and, in 1992, that same ship scored a double hit when it ran into two Thames bridges: the Cannon Street railway bridge and Southwark road bridge. I can understand why the owners wished to drop the Sand Kite's maiden name.

Such incidents provide a vivid warning of the respect with which we should treat the stretch of water that flows only a few feet from where we are debating today. It is powerful and can be both capricious and dangerous. Hon. Members do not need reminding of the incident involving the Sand Kite—it is still fresh in our memories—and we cannot be certain of the causes of the incident until the marine accidents investigation branch has completed its investigation. My reason for bringing the matter to the House's attention today is that it is a timely warning that proposals being promoted by the Port of London Authority could have serious implications for safety and environmental hazard.

I refer to pilotage direction No. 5, which proposes to exempt vessels of less than 80 m in length from the requirement to take on a pilot in the river; currently, only vessels of less than 50 m are exempt. In the Thames estuary, vessels of less than 90 m will be exempt from having to take on a pilot; the current limit is 80 m. It is a little puzzling that the PLA should be proposing a reduction in pilotage at this time. Recent incidents should surely have alerted us to the potential dangers of unpiloted vessels. The Bow Trader was exempt from having a pilot on board when it collided with the Southwark and Cannon Street bridges. The Bow Belle did not have a pilot on board when it sank the Marchioness. The Bow Knight, alias the Sand Kite, did not have a pilot on board when it wedged itself against the Thames barrier and sank last week.

May I add to that list the Thames bubbler, a larger vessel owned by Thames Water and used to aerate the Thames, which collided with Putney rail bridge? There was no underground service from the south-west of London into central London for some days. The incident occurred in 1991, but it is only in the past few months that the service has been restored, at a cost of several million pounds. Will the Minister, separate from the debate, advise me whether the PLA has changed its way of working, taking into account the incidents involving the bubbler and the Sand Kite?

I have no way of knowing whether the vessel that my hon. Friend mentioned had a pilot on board when that incident occurred. Nor do we have any way of knowing whether the other incidents I mentioned would have occurred had the vessels had pilots on board. We can be certain of one thing, however: the likelihood of such an incident would not have been greater with a pilot than without.

I understand that, following the Marchioness tragedy, the marine accidents investigation branch recommended an increase in pilotage standards on the Thames, yet the PLA is proposing to do the opposite. Following the report on the grounding of the Sea Empress at Milford Haven, with disastrous environmental consequences, the Government have ordered a review of the Pilotage Act 1987, yet the PLA is apparently proposing to go it alone and reduce pilotage on the Thames before the outcome of that review is heard.

Is my hon. Friend aware that although the PLA has requested changes to regulations on pilotage, Members of Parliament whose constituencies bank on the Thames have not been made part of the process?

I share that concern. I have had a meeting with the PLA at its headquarters in Gravesend in my constituency, but I am concerned about the extent of the consultation process. I am especially concerned about the importance that the PLA has placed on the views of its pilots and of users of the Thames. Although the PLA has had meetings with pilots, there is no evidence that real consultation has taken place, and that should be of concern to the House.

I was first made aware of the proposals, which will come into effect on 15 January 1998 unless the PLA reconsiders its position, by representatives of the London river pilots and by the Medway pilots, who are major users of the Thames. I raised the matter in oral questions in July and in an early-day motion, also tabled in July and signed by 19 Members of Parliament. The pilots, whom the PLA acknowledges are "the experts", are unanimously opposed to the proposals. In a letter to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the Medway pilots committee warned that the proposals
"would affect the safety and environment of the Thames Estuary and River".
The PLA denies that risk to safety is involved or that there is an increased risk of environmental hazard. Despite repeated warnings from its own pilots and those on the Medway, the PLA apparently intends to press ahead, if allowed to do so, with its plans for increased pilotage exemptions. We need, therefore, to examine the arguments carefully.

The first of the PLA's arguments is that the vessels to be exempted under the proposals are relatively small. It is, nevertheless, a fact that ships the size of Westminster Hall will be able to navigate the Thames without taking on board a pilot. I would not consider them particularly small. Moreover, as the chairman of the London pilots committee reminded the PLA in a letter dated 30 September 1997:
"Pilots do not consider 'modest changes' to be a realistic description of the proposals for changing the limits above Sea Reach No. I"—
that is, in the river itself. The letter goes on:
"It should be considered that raising the limit by 60 per cent. from 50 to 80 metres results in the deadweight of ships affected increasing … from approximately 700 tonnes to 2,500 tonnes, perhaps more".
It points out that manoeuvrability is generally in inverse proportion to size.

Even if the PLA were correct in its assertion that the vessels affected are relatively small, such vessels can still create hazards for other river users should they find themselves in trouble or acting erratically. What would the House say of a proposal to exempt light aircraft and helicopters from air traffic control? Would we not be slightly concerned that such aircraft might collide with jumbo jets that were subject to directions from the control tower?

An experienced pilot recently wrote to me to explain the risks:
"The non-piloted ships being unaware of the constraints of the larger vessels could either hog the deep water, force the tanker to take evasive action, resulting in grounding or a collision, or just generally impede the safe passage … Having spoken to many large ship masters recently about this review, they express alarm and concern with regards to the considerably increased risks."

An additional implication of exempting so-called smaller vessels derives from the fact that it is on these vessels that newly qualified pilots gain their experience—that is part of the training process for pilots on the Thames. With such vessels exempted, pilots will have to practise on the larger vessels.

The second argument of the PLA—it is a legitimate one—is that the proposals introduce new requirements for vessels above a certain draught to take on a pilot even if they are below the proposed length requirement. The PLA argues that draught is more important than length in determining safety.

I have no objection to the PLA's introducing new draught requirements for pilotage; I am sure that other hon. Members will have no objections either—the pilots certainly have none. The difficulty, however, lies in the suggestion that that should go hand in hand with a reduction in the length requirement. While the PLA is correct to maintain that it is the draught of a vessel, not its length, which determines its likelihood of running aground, the authority also acknowledges that length determines manoeuvrability and, hence, the danger of collision.

The reason for today's debate, after all, is that the House is concerned about a number of collisions on the Thames, including those involving the Bow Belle and the Marchioness. What is more, as one experienced river pilot explained to me last night, draught is no indicator of safety and it is very difficult to police.

I do not want to get myself into deep water dealing with the technicalities, if colleagues will forgive the pun, or stray too far beyond my technical expertise, which is not extensive. However, I understand that it is difficult to police the draught of a vessel because much of it is under water at any given time. Nor is draught a fixed measure. The master of a ship can adjust draught as necessary by shifting cargo, fuel or water in the tanks, and he may be encouraged to do so if it avoids the bothersome business of having to take on a pilot.

Thirdly, the PLA points out that vessels carrying marine pollutants in bulk should be compelled to take on a pilot, regardless of size. The PLA argues that that is a further reason why we should not be concerned about the environmental implications of the proposals. I find that puzzling. The PLA tells us that vessels of less than 80 m do not run a significant risk of collision or grounding. Why, then, should we or the PLA be concerned about whether they are carrying marine pollutants? Is this a sign that the PLA is not wholly confident about the implications of exempting certain vessels?

We must also ask: what are marine pollutants in bulk? Would we consider 15,000 litres of fuel oil an environmental hazard if discharged into the Thames? The PLA certainly did last week, when it made the effort to pump that amount of fuel oil off the Sand Kite as an environmental precaution. It was not being carried as cargo; it was being carried as fuel. The Sand Kite is only marginally bigger, at 98 m, than the vessels that the PLA proposes to exempt from pilotage.

All vessels require fuel oil, sometimes very large amounts of it, just to propel them along the river. Unlike large tankers, smaller vessels are likely to have fuel tanks that are single skinned, posing the risk that the fuel will be discharged in the event of an accident.

The full effects of the PLA proposals are difficult to assess. The PLA cannot tell us with any precision how many additional vessel movements will be exempted under the proposals. It suggests that 1,000 additional movements will take place without a pilot each year—although I have this morning seen PLA figures that suggest the number might be as great as 1,800. Even on those figures, that is a great many more opportunities for incidents such as the Sand Kite crash to occur. The pilots suggest that there could be as many as 4,000 additional exempted movements.

The PLA cannot satisfactorily explain why the changes are necessary. The savings, we are told, will be minimal, and there are no plans to cut pilot numbers still further—they have already been significantly reduced in recent years. While the advantages of the proposals are difficult to discern, however, the disadvantages have been all too vividly illustrated by recent incidents on the Thames.

The port of London is one of the busiest in the world and it is becoming busier all the time. Ships entering the Thames often carry foreign crews with little knowledge of the port of London—or often of English. Pressures on costs have resulted in the so-called lean manning of vessels, so that
"it is not uncommon to find excessive fatigue in evidence amongst ships crews".

All this should point to the need for more stringent pilotage on the Thames. Already, the requirements here are more lax than in any other European member state. Foreign crews who can enter the port of London without a pilot will nevertheless be required to take on a pilot when navigating their home ports on their return. The chief harbour master, Rear Admiral Bruce Richardson, tells me that
"the safety performance of the Port of London has been and continues to be excellent."
On PLA figures, there have been only 15 recorded incidents in the past year. We must be slightly sceptical about those figures. Evidence provided by the pilots suggests that the number could be much higher—they recorded 90 incidents between the beginning of June and the beginning of August alone. Of course, those incidents were of varying seriousness, but we know that all of them could have been dangerous. Just one such incident, involving the Sand Kite, should be enough to warn of the dangers.

I understand that the Secretary of State is technically unable to prevent the PLA from pressing ahead with these proposals, but I am grateful to the Library for eliciting the response from a PLA official that
"although the authority has the power in law to implement any changes in its directions, it would be very unlikely to go ahead if the Secretary of State strongly opposed them".
I hope that the Minister will clarify the position for us. I believe that the proposals should be strongly opposed. Last week's incident should at least cause the PLA to draw breath and think again. The investigation into it could provide important lessons for the PLA and for river users. The authority may argue that the new technology in which it plans to invest will provide additional safety for vessel movements, but the technology is not yet operational and is unlikely to become so for a year or 18 months. Moreover, the PLA should be requested, if that is all that the Secretary of State can do, to withhold implementation of its proposals until the results of the review of the Pilotage Act are complete.

Finally, I hope that the Minister who is good enough to respond today will feel able to use her good offices to persuade the PLA to defer its plans, listen carefully to its experienced pilots, and perhaps take the time to draw lessons from the Sand Kite incident.

12.49 pm

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond) on obtaining this timely debate and thank him for his generosity in allowing interventions by my hon. Friends the Members for Putney (Mr. Colman) and for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt). I shall write to my hon. Friend the Member for Putney on the issue that he raised. If, by any chance, I do not manage to touch on all the points that my hon. Friends have made, I shall forward complete copies of my speech.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham said, the Sand Kite, a dredger of 98 m length, collided with the Thames flood barrier at 6.50 am on Monday 27 October. Fortunately, there were neither casualties nor pollution. The Sand Kite was inbound, laden with sand and gravel. Visibility was reduced by fog to 400 yd. A similar-sized dredger had preceded the Sand Kite a few minutes earlier without incident, but the Sand Kite struck the barrier, started to sink and was then grounded.

The marine accidents investigation branch is conducting an inspector's inquiry and the House will agree that it would be wrong to speculate on the cause of the incident until we have that report.

My hon. Friend said that the Sand Kite was previously known as the Bow Kite and averred that she was a sister vessel to the Bow Belle. I understand, however, that the Sand Kite is a very different design, a much larger vessel, and of a different class. The Sand Kite struck the Thames barrier at an angle and no serious damage has yet been found. There is little likelihood of needing to raise the barrier to protect London from flooding between now and 12 November, as tides will be low.

In the light of points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham, may I deal with pilotage and its importance in relation to the general issue of safety on the river? The Sand Kite was subject to a compulsory pilotage direction, issued by the competent harbour authority, the Port of London Authority. The master is a frequent user of the Thames and holder of a pilotage exemption certificate, as is his first mate, who was logged as being the pilot for the passage at the time of the collision.

The current statutory basis for compulsory pilotage is the Pilotage Act 1987. Before the Act, pilotage services were organised by pilotage authorities working out of pilotage districts. The 1987 Act swept those authorities away, and responsibility for the provision of pilotage services was transferred to "competent harbour authorities". The PLA is an example of one such authority. A CHA is any harbour authority with statutory powers over the regulation of shipping movements and the safety of navigation within its harbour, and whose harbour falls wholly or partly within an active former pilotage district.

Under the Act, a CHA may, if it is in the interests of safety, direct pilotage to be compulsory for ships navigating in any area or part of an area in which it has the duty to provide pilotage. Such a direction may apply to all ships, or all ships of a specified description, but may not apply to ships of less than 20 m in length or to fishing boats with a registered length of less than 47.5 m. The 1987 Act also imposes on CHAs, such as the PLA, certain duties in the provision of pilotage services. It requires each CHA to keep under consideration whether any and, if so, what pilotage services need to be provided to secure the safety of ships; whether pilotage should be compulsory and, if so, for which ships and in which circumstances; and what pilotage services need to be provided. The CHA must establish and keep under review a framework of pilotage operations for its area.

Under the Act, the CHA that has given a pilotage direction must, on application by any bona fide master or first mate of any ship, grant a pilotage exemption certificate—a PEC—if it is satisfied that the applicant's skill, experience and local knowledge are sufficient for the applicant to be capable of piloting the ship of which he or she is master or first mate, and any other ships specified in the certificate, within its harbour or such part of its harbour as may be so specified. The conditions imposed on an applicant must not be unduly onerous, having regard to the difficulties and danger of navigation in the harbour in question. They must not be more onerous than those required to be met by a person applying to the authority to be an authorised pilot in its area. The current law allows compulsory pilotage to be imposed by a CHA only in connection with the safety of vessels in its area. The CHA is obliged to grant PECs to suitably qualified masters or mates, and that exemption may be withheld only where unusual hazards are involved in shipping movements within a harbour.

The 1987 Act reserves almost no role on pilotage for my Department. The Department has no oversight of harbour pilotage and no general information about how competent harbour authorities carry out their functions. As the House will no doubt recall, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions has therefore announced a review of the arrangements for harbour pilotage under the Pilotage Act 1987. The review covers the whole of the UK. It is well under way and has involved discussions with the Marine Safety Agency, the three port associations, the UK Harbour Masters' Association, the Chamber of Shipping, the Nautical Institute, the National Union of Marine, Aviation and Shipping Transport Officers, the Transport and General Workers Union and the UK Pilots Association. Visits have also been made to individual ports where local pilots have been consulted. The PLA has offered officials working on the review an opportunity to visit the port on 8 December to talk to the authority's officers, pilots and users.

I am aware of pilots' concerns about proposals put forward by the PLA to alter their pilotage direction. The PLA has been responsible for pilotage on the Thames since the 1987 Act came into force. It has not hitherto undertaken any substantial change to the pilotage directions that it inherited and it has a statutory duty under the Act to review its pilotage requirements. That is the review currently under way, the object of which has been to enhance safety. It has been based on an assessment of risks and seeks to introduce the draught, or depth of a vessel, in addition to the length, as a criterion for pilotage. The PLA believes that the risks of grounding in its area are determined more by draught than by any other vessel characteristic.

The review proposes to replace the single criterion for compulsory pilotage with a combination of length and draught. In that way, the PLA can target pilotage more precisely where risk demands. Certain shallow draught vessels that do not pose a significant risk, which in the past have been compelled to take a pilot on grounds of length alone, would no longer be compelled to do so. Pilotage for vessels carrying hazardous cargoes and passenger vessels will remain compulsory. An added safety feature is the proposal to make the new limits responsive to poor visibility by reducing yet further the allowable draught limitation when visibility is significantly reduced.

I hope that it will be seen that none of the proposed changes to the PLA pilotage regime are relevant to the Sand Kite incident. The Sand Kite and vessels similar to it will remain subject to compulsory pilotage, as will all vessels over 50 m length navigating above Barking creek in the vicinity of the Thames barrier. A system of exemptions from the requirement to have a pilot on board will always be needed. Masters and mates familiar with the harbour should be able to apply for exemption certificates, as now, and be granted them on proof of competence.

At present, ships over 50 m in length navigating the river, and those over 80 m in length navigating the estuary, must be piloted. All PLA PEC holders are required, as a minimum, to make six entries or departures during the previous 12 months, under the guidance of an authorised pilot. For vessels over 100 m, applicants are also required to sit a series of oral examinations. All certificates are subject to annual renewal.

The review of the Act that my Department is undertaking is necessarily at a more general policy level. It is not intended to include case-by-case examination of each CHA's directions. Pilots have asked, and my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham argued, that the PLA's proposals should not be implemented until my Department's more general review has been completed. That is a matter for the PLA. We have no power to insist on it.

I understand that the London pilots are particularly concerned about consultation. The Port of London Authority tells me that it has consulted its own staff, including pilots, and river users and riparian authorities. The consultation process is nearing completion, and I understand that the PLA met its pilots for the fourth time on this subject on 28 October.

Before I conclude—