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MSC Napoli

Volume 457: debated on Wednesday 28 February 2007

It is now just over five weeks since the MSC Napoli was beached in Lyme bay, and the incident gained notoriety when scenes of people descending on to Branscombe beach and carrying off the contents of some of the broken containers like an army of worker ants appeared on television. Since then, many people have raised serious questions, not least about why a ship in the Napoli’s condition was ever allowed into British territorial waters, and particularly those opposite the Jurassic and Triassic coast, which is a UNESCO world heritage site.

Speculation about the reasons for choosing Lyme bay will remain until the Government lay out the sequence of events and the chronology behind the decision-making process. Many of my constituents have asked why the ship could not have been towed to Falmouth or, indeed, France. I have been able to reply only with the information that I have been given, which is that the Secretary of State’s representative for maritime salvage and intervention, Robin Middleton, suggested that the ship might well have broken up had she been towed to Falmouth, France or, indeed, Portland—the chosen destination—rather than beached in Lyme bay. At what point in the rescue operation was it decided to beach the Napoli in Lyme bay? I should be grateful if the Minister would tell me whether any other location was considered at the time.

I am concerned that such an incident should not blight East Devon’s coastline in the future. I am particularly keen, therefore, that the marine accident investigation branch investigation should be thorough and swift. Is the Minister satisfied with the inquiry’s terms of reference?

Will the Minister disclose the level and quality of the environmental advice that the Secretary of State’s representative sought and received before deciding to beach the Napoli at Branscombe? Has he commissioned an environmental impact assessment of the marine environment, and especially Lyme bay’s coral reefs and bird life?

The distressing scenes on the beach, to which I have alluded, would have been avoidable had the police immediately been made the lead response agency. As the Minister knows, only one road leads down to Branscombe beach, and it could have been sealed off straight away. What, therefore, was the quality and level of liaison between Dorset police and the Devon and Cornwall constabulary when it was decided to beach the Napoli at Branscombe? Who did the Minister expect to take the lead on emergency planning—the Maritime and Coastguard Agency or Devon and Cornwall police? Why did the latter take so long to respond to the fears and concerns of Branscombe’s residents?

Will the Minister and the Receiver of Wreck accept that they misunderstood the law relating to property washed up onshore and that that led directly to the disgraceful scenes that we saw on Branscombe beach? What steps are being taken to ensure that the law is clarified, and if necessary updated, to prevent a similar situation in the future? I am not suggesting—heaven forbid—that there should be more laws, because we already suffer from too many regulations, but the existing legislation warrants close examination to ensure that scenes such as those that we witnessed are avoided in future.

Will the Minister clarify when the marine White Paper will be published and debated? It has long been promised—I think that it was mentioned in the Queen’s Speech—but it is difficult to get any information from any Department or other source on what it will be about. I will be most grateful if the Minister could give us some information on that point.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the members of 771 Squadron at RNAS Culdrose demonstrated their professionalism and heroism in extremely difficult circumstances when they evacuated the Napoli after it had foundered off the Lizard in my constituency? And does he also agree that the Government really need to review whether it is appropriate to privatise a search and rescue service that has demonstrated that it is very much fit for purpose?

The behaviour of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents is a credit to that organisation, and the issue was raised in the House when the Minister made a statement about the Napoli. I obviously know and fully support the work that is done at Culdrose, and I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question when he responds to mine.

Will the Minister tell us what impact the marine Bill would have on this incident and what impact marine spatial planning has had on it? Will the Bill specifically address the question of shipping and ship-to-ship transfers in areas such as Lyme bay? In the past, we have had a problem there with ship-to-ship transfers of quite heavy Russian crude, and we have been concerned about the issue for some time. Again, we now need reassurance.

Looking forward and being positive, we need help to get out the message that Branscombe and the surrounding area are open for business—I spend quite a lot of my time there, and I can assure people that they are, as I have said in the House, open for business. Getting that message out would help to restore the day-visitor market and even increase it above normal levels, and we need the press to support and communicate that message. We shall need help in influencing the media if we are to generate income from day visitors in the run-up to Easter.

There is an immediate need for an initial contribution of £30,000 towards the cost of promotions, advertising and marketing to restore the area’s image and to generate renewed and new inquiries and bookings for local businesses and the local economy. That marketing is scheduled to take place in late March. Malcolm Bell, the chief executive of South West Tourism, has written to the ship’s owners or insurers, Zodiac Maritime Agencies Ltd, on behalf of the MSC Napoli incident tourism support and recovery group, which is a coalition of local interests, to request such funding. I hope that many of the lessons that were learned in the aftermath of the devastation caused by foot and mouth to the local economy are now turned into good practice and that the moves that I have described are, indeed, evidence of that. People are coming together to get help, and I am trying to support them. I therefore ask the Minister to support their appeal.

On payments and compensation, will all the costs incurred by Dorset county council and East Devon district council be reimbursed by the Government through the Bellwin scheme or an emergency grant? We need to ensure that an as yet unknown amount is found to compensate specific businesses for their loss of trade as a result of the incident—the value of the losses will be established over the coming weeks and months. The insurers might wish to form a joint claims-handling task force with the group and agree a non-litigated claims-handling and verification process. Help in making the insurers act speedily would be greatly appreciated. What assistance can the Minister give in that regard?

The rumour mills have been working overtime ever since the incident first occurred just over five weeks ago, and I hope that the Minister will use the time offered by this debate to nail some of the rumours, which do nothing to help anyone. There is a rumour and some concern that the ship owners and container owners will be dealt with first by the insurers and that there will be no money left over to meet claims lodged by others. Will the Minister reassure me and my constituents that that will not happen, that all claimants will be dealt with equally, that the pot will not run dry and that all claims will be properly and fully compensated, if that is what is decided?

The real dilemma arises from the fact that that the insurers will, hopefully, settle a claim, at least for the business losses and, it is to be hoped, for the promotional work, but that that may take weeks or even months, which we do not have with Easter coming up and the tourist season upon us. The regional development agency should be able to provide, either directly or through South West Tourism, funding via a refundable grant mechanism to provide cash flow for the promotion work and help individual businesses with cash-flow problems or additional bank and interest charges. Will the Minister contact the South West of England Regional Development Agency and ask it to co-operate in that?

Finally, on my own behalf and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), who has been closely monitoring events from his perspective, I thank the Minister again for keeping us regularly informed. I also thank the Maritime and Coastguard Agency for its useful daily updates. I have no doubt that following his statement yesterday the Minister will want to inform the House of the current situation with respect to the MSC Napoli, but it is clear that all the people involved in the handling of the incident have done an exceptionally fine job—particularly some of the overseas contractors on the beach in Branscombe, who have been working tirelessly round the clock. I pay tribute again to all those involved in what could have been a horrendous incident off our shore. It is clear that the environmental damage could have been much worse and that there are important lessons to be learned. Some serious questions require answers and assistance is needed for those adversely affected by this regrettable incident.

I think that this is my first opportunity to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow, so welcome to the Chair and congratulations on your appointment to the Chairmen’s Panel. I want to begin my remarks by congratulating the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) not only on securing the debate and representing the views of his constituents, but on his constructive approach to what must have been a very uncomfortable incident. I thank his constituents, too, for the understanding that they have shown. That also applies to his parliamentary neighbour, the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), who has also been very understanding, and who, were it not for fate and the winds, might have found the Napoli in his constituency instead. I am grateful, and I shall do my best to answer the questions that have been raised.

First, I will deal with an issue raised in an intervention by the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George). Harmonisation of the helicopter service would have made no difference to the quality of the rescue. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to keep an open mind. He will be involved, as a key stakeholder, in the development of any decisions that are made as we move forward with the process in question. However, whatever happens and whatever is decided, the RAF will still be an integral part of the new service. I assure the hon. Gentleman and his constituents that the same rescue would have been carried out under the new or the old arrangements. If we cannot guarantee that, we shall have to make different decisions, because it is fundamental that we should preserve the quality of the service.

Returning to the questions asked by the hon. Member for East Devon, which I shall answer as thoroughly as I can—I am grateful to him for giving me notice of some of them, so that I can address them in my comments—I share his view that the environmental damage from the incident would have been far worse without the action that was taken. I am confident that the decisions that were made by the Secretary of State’s representative for maritime salvage and intervention, Mr. Robin Middleton, have been of vital importance in limiting the impact.

The hon. Gentleman asked me to outline the decision-making process that led to the beaching of the MSC Napoli. The English channel is an area of joint Anglo-French responsibility, and once it became clear on 18 January that the Napoli was in difficulty, the Anglo-French joint maritime contingency plan, usually called the Mancheplan, came into effect. As a result of that, the initial operation to bring aid to the ship was led by the French authorities in liaison with SOSREP. An on-scene investigation of the condition of the Napoli was carried out, which revealed that the ship was in danger of breaking up. Had the ship broken up and sunk in open water, there would have been a huge release of oil with little hope of containing it, resulting in widespread and long-term damage to the coastline. UK and French authorities therefore carried out a full assessment of all harbours that the ship could potentially be taken into.

The need for a place of refuge and its location are always driven by the circumstances of an incident, including such factors as the weather, the geographical whereabouts of the incident, the size and condition of the vessel and the potential threat posed by the vessel and its cargo. Taking all those factors into account, the French authorities were unable to identify a suitable place of refuge on the French coast within about 200 miles, and it was feared the ship would not survive that long. All the other options were on the UK south coast, from Falmouth to Portland. A full risk assessment was carried out to determine a location providing the best shelter and chance of survival, and for the offloading of oil and hazardous cargo.

None of the main ports had sufficient depth of water. Chart datum depths for the deepest ports, Falmouth and Plymouth, showed about 15 m depth with maximum tidal height at Falmouth of 5 m, getting less further east. The vessel’s stern draught at that time was 17 m and was thought to be increasing. The Falmouth harbourmaster reported that the vessel could have anchored outside the harbour, but that Falmouth did not have the capability to handle and store containers. In any case, transit to Falmouth would have exposed the casualty to severe stress, because of the direction of travel and the state of the sea. The weather was extremely bad, with reports of a 5 m swell and a forecast of severe gales. There was no safe option to enter any south coast port.

A decision was therefore taken to find an anchorage with good shelter from the south-west winds. The most suitable option was Portland, because it would have provided the best shelter combined with good access to port facilities and later the potential opportunity to move the ship into the inner harbour. It also meant that the vessel would be towed in a direction that would minimise the stress on the hull during the passage. Unfortunately, the continuing severe weather resulted in a further deterioration in the ship’s condition and necessitated the decision to beach the ship in Lyme bay. In taking that decision, SOSREP consulted environmental and local groups.

Such a rapidly developing incident requires firm and decisive leadership, which placed limits on the extent of the consultation that was possible. SOSREP has the power to make unilateral decisions in such cases, where they are required. I am satisfied that the decision to beach the ship in Lyme bay was the correct one and that the environmental consequences would have been far worse had SOSREP not acted so decisively. I am also entirely satisfied that SOSREP acted for the best and, given the urgency with which he had to make decisions, I encourage people to stop trying to second-guess him. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, exercised at leisure, and SOSREP had decisions to make in a short space of time during an emergency.

Since my oral statement to the House on 1 February, work has continued on removing oil and containers from the Napoli. Virtually all the heavy fuel oil has now been removed, with only small residual amounts left in hard-to-reach spaces. Removal of diesel oil continues. I am pleased to say that the risk of a major oil pollution incident with the potential to cause widespread environmental damage has therefore passed. Meanwhile, work on removing containers from the ship is continuing as quickly as the prevailing weather conditions will allow. As of Monday evening this week, all 853 deck containers have now been removed and work has commenced on removing containers from the holds. Since the Napoli was grounded, 114 containers have fallen overboard. We do not believe that the contents of any of those present a significant risk to either human health or the environment. It is likely that a small number of additional containers could be lost, depending on future weather conditions, and plans are in place for their recovery should that occur.

Where containers are found on the beach, coastguard rescue teams and contractors go on site with security officers and the police to ensure that the area is completely shut off to the public. The police are warning the public that they will use their powers to arrest anyone attempting to remove articles from beaches. The normal arrangements for the recovery of wreck material through voluntary salvage do not apply in the case of the MSC Napoli, now that comprehensive salvage contracts have been placed by the owners of the ship and the consigners to recover all items from the vessel, including those lost overboard and washed ashore.

On 23 February, we received reports that debris from the cargo of the Napoli had washed ashore along the coastline from Bournemouth to the Isle of Wight. Local authorities are being advised to contact the shipowner’s contractor for shoreline clean-up. Vessels equipped with side-scan sonar continue to search for those containers that were lost overboard and are believed to have sunk. Despite some disruption from severe weather, the work is proceeding well and several containers have already been located.

With regard to the scenes of looting on the beaches in the days following the grounding of the Napoli, the hon. Gentleman raised a number of questions concerning policing, with specific reference to the role of the Devon and Cornwall constabulary and Dorset police. Chief constables are operationally independent, and it is for them to decide how to manage operations and the response to such incidents. The lead role from an emergency planning perspective was undertaken in accordance with the Government’s established and practised procedures for responding to emergencies, which are set out in the Cabinet Office publication “Emergency Response and Recovery”.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency led the offshore response, with the police leading the onshore activity. Those two aspects were co-ordinated from Portland maritime rescue and co-ordination centre and the police headquarters at Exeter respectively, involving a wide range of other agencies as appropriate. Close liaison was maintained throughout between the police and the MCA. In addition, I am led to understand that a multi-agency “silver” command centre was also established by Dorset police at Dorchester in support of the wider operation. The response was in accordance with locally developed plans. As the hon. Gentleman expects, there will be a review of issues that arise to ensure that any lessons are learned for the future.

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s assertion that we misunderstood the law relating to property washed up onshore. The actions of many of the people who came to Branscombe after the beaching of the Napoli showed that what they were doing could not be categorised as salvage and was essentially looting. That compelled the Receiver of Wreck, MCA colleagues and the Devon and Cornwall constabulary to reassess the situation, and to invoke the receiver’s power under section 237 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995 to use force if necessary against anyone who refused to hand over recovered wreck material or attempted to conceal or keep possession of it.

The hon. Gentleman asked a number of questions about the draft marine Bill. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is leading work across Government to finalise the marine Bill White Paper and hopes to publish it in March. There will be a 12-week consultation period following publication, during which anyone with an interest will be invited to comment on the proposals. I am sure that he and his constituents will want to make comments.

As I explained in the House on 1 February, a marine Bill would have made no difference to the incident in question. The UK authorities would still have dealt with it in precisely the same way. Decisions taken by SOSREP are already taken on the basis of detailed information that has been assembled pre-event, which includes a partial inventory of the UK’s coast providing a generic analysis of locations that could become a place of refuge for ships in particular circumstances. That information is assembled and kept up to date by the MCA and can be viewed on its website.

The hon. Gentleman also asked me to provide information about ship-to-ship transfers. It is our intention to put in place secondary legislation to regulate such operations within the limits of the UK’s territorial sea. I note what he has said about our having too many regulations already, but those regulations are in preparation and there will be a consultation on them in due course.

The hon. Gentleman asked about arrangements for compensation, which I understand is of great concern to his constituents. Claims for property and environmental damage caused by the Napoli are governed by the liability provisions set out in the 1995 Act in respect of damage, and the international convention on limitation of liability for maritime claims 1996—commonly known as LLMC—in respect of cost recovery. Section 154 of the 1995 Act provides strict liability on the shipowner for oil pollution damage caused outside the ship by the contamination, for the cost of preventing or minimising the damage, and for any damage caused by the preventive measures taken—for example, the removal of heavy fuel oil from the bunker tanks and preventive measures taken to minimise the threat of pollution. The proper mechanism to recover costs associated with a liability, where one is established, is the LLMC, which entered into force in May 2004. It established a framework of rules and duties on shipowners, including the right of shipowners to limit their liability according to the tonnage of the ship. In the case of the MSC Napoli, the limitation amount will be approximately £14.5 million.

There is no right of direct action against the insurer in the case of the Napoli, so claimants must submit their claims in court. I am led to believe that the owner of the Napoli has agreed to establish a limitation fund in the UK. Claims for damages must be submitted through the courts. Claimants who believe that they have eligible claims may submit such claims for the judgment of the court, but such claims may include those for property damage, as well as for clean-up and cargo. It is for all claimants to determine, after taking appropriate legal advice, whether they have a legitimate claim to pursue, and for the courts to decide whether to accept those claims.

The allocation of money from the limitation fund among the various claimants is a complex legal matter that has occupied the Admiralty court on numerous occasions. As a general rule, claims subject to limitation under article 2 of the international convention on limitation of liability for maritime claims do not preclude claims presented by the property owners. However, all claimants will be treated in proportion to their established claims. If the amount of money claimed from the limitation fund were to exceed the amount in the fund, all claims would be paid on a pro rata basis. Ultimately, that is a matter for the administrator of the limitation fund and the courts to determine.

The House might also be interested to know that the UK has ratified the international convention on civil liability for bunker oil pollution damage 2001. It is expected that the convention will enter into force some time during 2008. It provides a strict liability and compulsory insurance requirement, including the right of direct action against the insurer. That means that claimants need not prove fault and that eligible claims need not go before the courts before settlement. Another developing International Maritime Organisation instrument pertinent to the Napoli case is the wreck removal convention. The Department is actively engaged in the negotiations on that, which will come to fruition at a diplomatic conference in May this year. The instrument will provide similar compulsory insurance and direct action provisions to those contained in the bunkers convention.

The hon. Gentleman raised the Bellwin scheme, which is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. I understand that three of the local authorities involved with the incident have made initial contact to register an interest in making a possible claim under the scheme. Obviously I cannot prejudge the outcome of any claim, but if the local authorities concerned can identify costs that are eligible under the published Bellwin criteria, their application will be dealt with as quickly as possible.

In the wake of such an incident, it is understandable that questions will be asked about the cause from an early stage. There has been much speculation whether the Napoli was seaworthy following her earlier beaching in 2001. Ships are required to undergo periodic surveys of their condition in much the same way as motor cars. Ships are also subject to inspection when calling at UK and other ports. Ships that are found to have major defects can be detained in port until the defects have been rectified. However, it would not be appropriate to speculate on the causes of the Napoli’s structural failure at this time. A full investigation will be carried out by the marine accident investigation branch. That investigation will not take the form of a public inquiry. Lengthy and costly formal public hearings are considered an inappropriate way of conducting modern accident investigation.

I hope that I have answered most of the hon. Gentleman’s questions. If I have not, and if he wants to write to me when he has studied the transcript, I shall be more than happy to try and do better. I again express my gratitude to SOSREP, as well as to all those who were involved in rescue, salvage and recovery operations. It is thanks to their efforts that there was no loss of human life and that the impact upon the environment has been far less severe than it would otherwise have been. I know that the hon. Gentleman’s constituents will be understandably uncomfortable with events, but I hope that they come to accept that everything has been done for the best, and I very much hope that none of them will be left out of pocket. On a personal note, if I ever get a few days off, I look forward to coming to Branscombe again with my family to see them.

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.