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Environmental Protection (Transfers at Sea) Bill

Volume 470: debated on Friday 25 January 2008

Order for Second Reading read.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I thank the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds for its support in the preparation, development and encouragement of the Bill. I declare that support as an interest. I also thank the Scottish Wildlife Trust, the Wildlife Trusts throughout Britain and Surfers Against Sewage for their backing for the Bill. I have received support from many Members on both sides of the House, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Anne Moffat), who introduced a ten-minute rule Bill on the subject last year. Support has come from across the House, across the country and across parties.

The Bill seeks to improve the regulation of ship-to-ship oil transfers around the United Kingdom. As some Members will know, the proposal for such transfers in the firth of Forth is a long-running issue in my constituency. I shall say more about that later. Other Members representing coastal areas all around the country will have similar concerns. By ensuring effective regulation of ship-to-ship transfers, the Bill will have significant benefits for protection of the marine environment, wildlife and coastal communities throughout the United Kingdom.

Ship-to-ship cargo transfers are carried out globally, both for commercial reasons and in emergencies to prevent pollution or risk to human health and safety. They are established and standard practice in many parts of the world, and take place regularly in various parts of the United Kingdom—for example, in harbours in the Northern Isles and a number of designated locations off the coast of England. The busiest United Kingdom locality is Scapa Flow in Orkney, with a maximum of more than 2 million tonnes of oil transferred in one year.

As the distribution patterns arising from the world trade in oil have changed, the shipping industry has been presented with opportunities for new trading activities. In particular—this is the background to the proposals that have caused concern in my locality—the rising trade in oil from offshore fields in northern Russia has led to an increasing flow of traffic through the Baltic and Barents seas, and a resulting increase in tanker-based transportation. What is particularly significant about the new trade is that the offshore fields require specialised vessels that are unsuited to making long journeys with oil cargoes. As a result, the cargoes must be transferred from those vessels to general tankers that can make longer crossings to the United States and the far east, which is an important market for the new oilfields.

I should make clear that my Bill does not seek to ban ship-to-ship transfers of oil or other cargoes. Such operations are perfectly acceptable if carried out in the right place and the right conditions, with the right infrastructure and pollution prevention expertise. However, it must be ensured that they can take place only in locations where they are safe, with the appropriate protection mechanisms applied in case something goes wrong. The transfer of oil at sea is of course an inherently hazardous activity, and aspects of the regulation of the marine industries of some of the countries from which oil may come in the future might—to put it mildly—cause us some concern. It is therefore important to ensure that we have the right kind of protection for our marine environment.

Environmentalists in and around Worthing and district will understand the points that the hon. Gentleman is making. Although the greatest threat exists on the northern costs of Great Britain, when a large amount of timber floated ashore in Worthing from the Ice Princess we were well aware of what would have happened had there been 2,000 tonnes of oil floating around the seas and the Solent. Timber does much less damage. The hon. Gentleman will receive considerable support from the south coast as well.

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s support. It is true that some of the worst disasters involving pollution have happened off the south coast. Most of us will remember the Torrey Canyon, and there have been other incidents along the south coast in recent years.

In seeking regulation, I do not seek to prohibit or regulate what are known as emergency transfers which take place when it is essential to move oil from one vessel to another. I am talking about general practice and general trading operations.

As the hon. Gentleman reminded us, there is concern about the transfer of oil at sea precisely because many parts of this country are blessed with beautiful coastlines that are of major importance to the communities that live along them. They are important not only for the natural environment in itself, but for the support that the natural environment brings to local communities in terms of tourism, recreation and other economic activities. I mentioned the Torrey Canyon, but there have been other episodes in recent years off the south coast of England. Indeed, as hon. Members are well aware, the oil spill from the Erika off the west coast of France also had consequences for the UK.

As a Member representing a constituency in Scotland, I can point to the beauty of Scotland’s seas that are home to 45 per cent. of the breeding seabirds in the entire European Union. Those seas are of European significance and, in that regard, I should put on record the support that I have received from the staff at the Scottish Seabird Centre in North Berwick who have helped to publicise the issues behind the Bill and the campaign. I strongly recommend to anyone who has not visited the centre that they should do so. It is a good example in showing how important the welfare of the natural environment is for the protection of our most vulnerable marine species. The firth of Forth alone is home to about 300,000 seabirds and the seas around Scotland contain a wide variety of species, from basking sharks to rare coldwater corals. As I have suggested, that wildlife brings great financial benefits to our coastal communities. It is in everyone’s interests that the marine environment is managed sustainably to allow us to reap the benefit of healthy, productive and diverse seas and coasts.

I am sure that I support the sentiments behind the Bill and I am all for protecting our coastlines and our wildlife. However, the shipping industry is an equally important part of our economy, so can the hon. Gentleman tell us what representations, if any, about the Bill he has received from that industry? Does it see any particular reasons why we should not support the Bill?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising an important point. As a Member representing a coastal constituency, I also represent a port, although one that is not as busy as it once was. I am equally interested in ensuring that there is a healthy and vibrant marine industry. Although there has been widespread publicity for my Bill in some of the specialist press and media dealing with the marine industry, it is interesting that, as far as I am aware, no one from the industry, apart from one individual, who is opposed to the Bill, has contacted me.

On the other hand, many organisations—obviously primarily from the environment and community side—have contacted me to support it. I emphasise that I certainly do not want to do anything that would undermine the shipping industry. As I hope to assure the hon. Gentleman later, the Bill would provide for the industry a bit of a—level playing field is an unfortunate analogy for things at sea—level regime that would benefit it in some respects. Part of the concern is that the oil may come from countries whose regimes for marine safety are not as good as ours, and that is why it is in the interests of this country to have a high-quality regime that applies to all. Although I have particular concern for my area, the issues are of concern throughout the entire UK—along the south coast of England, and in Devon, Cornwall, Wales and many other areas.

Ship-to-ship transfers take place in Scapa Flow and there are active proposals for cargo transport operations in at least two other UK harbour locations—the firth of Forth and Falmouth. I believe that the proposal in Falmouth has been quite controversial, but I am not as fully aware of the situation there as that in the firth of Forth.

It should be emphasised that often no independent authorisation or consent is required to set up an oil-handling operation. It depends on local regulations; sometimes local legislation is in place. A wide range of regimes apply in the UK. I see the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), expressing doubt about that, but varied regimes and regulations apply; they are certainly not entirely consistent across the UK. My Bill aims to ensure consistency.

The primary objective of my Bill is to ensure that the standards that currently apply to ship-to-shore transfers, which are carefully regulated, also apply to ship-to-ship cargo transfers. We should not expect lower standards of environmental protection for transfers that take place at sea than for oil transfers from ship to shore. The issue is complex, but my understanding is that transfers at sea are regulated in a fairly piecemeal fashion, and that national rules and guidelines apply only in limited ways; however, I will not go into that in great detail. That is the background to my proposal.

The situation is slightly different in Scotland. Last June, as a result of concern about proposals in the firth of Forth, the Scottish Parliament put forward regulations relating to the habitats directive, with all-party support. The regulations give Scottish Ministers power to intervene to ensure that any transfers agreed by a competent authority are consistent with the EU habitats directive. However, as I understand it, the regulations cannot apply to ship-to-ship transfers outside the control of the competent authorities, and of course as they are made under the habitats directive, they apply only to areas that are designated under the birds and habitats directives. If a transfer is proposed in an area that is not yet classified under the directives, or that is of tourist significance but is not considered as falling within the terms of the birds and habitats directives, the regulations agreed in Scotland do not apply, even in Scotland.

To come to the crux of the matter, my Bill would place a requirement on the Government to introduce regulations under the Merchant Shipping Act 1995 to control ship-to-ship transfers. The Government currently have powers to introduce such regulations, and indeed draft regulations were produced in 1999. There has been discussion about such regulations over the years, but they have not appeared. My Bill would replace the power with a requirement on Government to bring forward regulations. I have set out various criteria that have to be borne in mind, but clearly once regulations are brought forward, there will be a consultation on the details. Basically, I am trying to move the Government forward from simply having a power that they have not yet exercised to bringing forward regulations.

My Bill sets out a number of principles that the Secretary of State will be required to take into account when introducing regulations. I shall mention them briefly; I do not want to take up too much of the House’s time, as I know that there are other Bills to be discussed today. My Bill would require the Secretary of State to prohibit cargo transfers of oil and oil products in UK waters, except within statutory harbour authority areas, where the anti-pollution measures should be better than on the open seas. The Secretary of State would be required to consider a transfer, or programme of transfers, to be an “oil handling facility”. He would also be required to ensure that such transfers were considered to be a plan or project under the Conservation (Natural Habitats, &tc.) Regulations 1994.

The Bill would also require the Secretary of State to consider various aspects of the environmental impact assessment regulations, and it would exempt emergency transfers from its provisions.

Is the implication that ship-to-ship transfers would have to take place within the harbour area, or would certain areas not be considered environmentally sensitive and are some currently designated for such transfers? I was not clear about that from the drafting.

I should be clear. Although the intention is that such transfers would take place within harbour areas, the drafting indicates that they would be

“prohibited except within such areas as the Secretary of State shall designate in regulations”.

That means that transfers could take place outside harbour areas when that would be safe. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that the definition of “harbour area” can be broad and cover parts of the sea, rather than only the area within a couple of piers, for example. My suggestion is that transfers would be allowed in areas where they would be safe—normally harbour areas, but other areas as well.

I turn briefly to the issue of environmental impact assessments, an important dimension of the debate. Within the firth of Forth area, Forth ports have required an environmental impact assessment to be drawn up by the relevant shipping company. I welcome that. I do not want to single out Forth ports for criticism; indeed, they have approached the issue with a fair degree of awareness of public concern and there has been open dialogue about the issue with local communities.

Those ports have done more than the minimum required of them. In many circumstances, those port authorities, or any others, are under no requirement to carry out environmental impact assessments. More importantly, there is no independent oversight of the process to ensure that the assessment is sufficient or that any environmental recommendations arising from such an assessment are appropriate. In many cases, a port operator will have a commercial interest in the activities that need to be regulated. The practical consequences of the lack of any general, formal requirement for cargo transfer proposals to be subject to the environmental impact regulations are that there is no independent, publicly accountable scrutiny of the environmental impacts of cargo transfer proposals except those that relate to European wildlife sites in Scotland, as a result of Scottish Parliament legislation.

In sum, the Bill would remove the provisions that empower the Secretary of State for Transport to regulate cargo transfers, and replace them with a requirement that she regulate them. That would go a long way towards reassuring the concerns of many coastal communities. I emphasise again that the Bill does not seek in any sense to hinder the important marine industry—the ports and shipping industry—in our country. It seeks to set a clearer framework for dealing with ship-to-ship transfers throughout the UK. That issue is important to many communities throughout this country.

I know from my discussions with the Minister that the Government are not unsympathetic to my objectives in the Bill and I look forward to his reply. I emphasise again that I am not against shipping or the marine industry, which are vital for our island nation and its industries and imports. They are vital for jobs in many communities, including my own. Nor am I, per se, against ship-to-ship transfers, which in the right place are a perfectly acceptable activity. However, they must take place only in safe locations and in safe conditions and only use safe procedures. We need to ensure that because we have to protect our coastal environment—one of the most precious natural assets of our islands.

I am delighted to speak on this Bill, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) on securing this slot and introducing it. The Opposition very much appreciate the intentions behind it and the considerable amount of work that has gone into drafting it. The timing is good, as it gives us an opportunity to consider the effects of man on our marine life and the birds that make Britain’s coasts their primary habitat. It also gives us an opportunity to think about the importance of shipping and the fact that it is easily the least carbon-intensive way of moving goods around the world, and to try to think of ways we can make that industry safer for the environment.

The protection of our coastline and the wildlife that lives on it will be a most important concern for the next Conservative Government. We all know the damage that can be wrought when things go wrong at sea. An island, by its very nature, is vulnerable to oil spillages. I remember most acutely the Braer disaster off Shetland and the Sea Empress at Milford Haven, as, I am sure, do other hon. Members. The cost of those has been estimated at $83 million and $62 million respectively, according to figures from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. More importantly, they left tens of thousands of birds dying in the slicks and ruined hundreds of miles of coastline for a very long period. Fortunately, oil spills are now very rare. Nevertheless, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith made it clear why we are likely to see an increase in oil trade around Scotland and the north of our country, with the shift towards Russia as an increasingly important oil producer and supplier to the UK.

The need to preserve areas of outstanding beauty or environmental significance from the threat of oil pollution is very great. Indeed, the last time I debated oil pollution in this Chamber, I led Opposition demands for the Government to introduce, after a 13-year delay, provisions for marine high-risk areas. I am pleased to say that not long after that the Government did at last use the powers to create such no-go areas for ships on some of the most sensitive parts of our coastline. The Bill is not in quite the same league, because it deals only with transfers of oil, not huge potential oil slicks, but it raises an important issue and the hon. Gentleman is right to have put it on to the House’s agenda. As far as I am able to discover, we have never had in the UK a single spillage from a ship-to-ship transfer in our waters, and the level of incidents worldwide is very small. In the past 10 years, the largest single incident of ship-to-ship oil spillage involved only six barrels, although it would not have been nice to be on a nearby section of coastline. Worldwide, the average annual spillage is about eight barrels of oil per annum.

However, even the smallest oil slick can cause significant damage along a sensitive piece of coastline—not only to bird-life but to the coastline itself. It is sensible that, as the Bill proposes, the Secretary of State should have the power to determine where such transfers occur. By limiting these practices to areas where the Secretary of State is certain they will cause limited damage, the Bill would remove much of the concern about such transfers. In calling for ships engaging in transfers of oil to be considered “an oil handling facility”, the Bill would in effect demand that shipping companies prepare oil pollution emergency plans. I understand that in practice that usually happens anyway, but when it does not, it should, and it is thoroughly sensible to put that requirement on a statutory footing. Enshrining the circumstances necessary for an environmental impact statement to be required, as laid out in the Marine Works (Environmental Impact Assessment) Regulations 2007, would also provide greater clarity in the law, which should be welcomed in all parts of the House.

However, my hon. Friends and I have serious concerns about one aspect of the Bill. It insists that each ship-to-ship transfer be treated as a “plan or project” under the habitats directive. We believe that that would place a disproportionate burden on the industry. Before explaining why we believe that, I wish to remind the House of the importance of the industry, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned in the context of his constituency. We in this country should be proud of this industry, and the entire House should support it. Measured by weight, 95 per cent. of all goods that come to this country come by sea—from the toy reindeer around the Santa grotto, to the paddling pools in the summer, to the footballs used in the premiership. The industry has an annual turnover of £40 billion if all the ancillary industries are included, and it contributed £11 billion to GDP last year alone.

We should also support the industry because it is by far the greenest form of transport. The figures speak for themselves. Per tonne-kilometre, an articulated lorry emits 130 g of CO2 whereas a medium-sized cargo vessel on a short sea voyage pumps out less than a quarter of that. There are similar such startling differences in respect of other gases. A truck produces more than 0.8 g of NOx per tonne-kilometre, whereas a ship emits barely half a gram. There is no doubt that the more goods are moved by sea—rather than by lorry and then over a channel crossing or, worse still, by air—the better it is for the environment. That does not mean that the shipping industry does not need to clean up parts of its act; it does, especially with regard to sulphur and nitrogen oxide emissions. What it does mean, however, is that we ought to encourage the use of shipping where it does not directly cause damage to the environment, because shipping is by far the greenest form of transport.

That brings me directly back to the problem we have with the one provision I have mentioned. We and the industry believe that the application of the habitats directive in the way the Bill proposes would result in ship-to-ship transfers being ruled out almost altogether. In supporting the Bill, the RSPB made it clear that that was not its intention, and the hon. Gentleman has also made that clear several times in his speech—at the beginning, the middle and the end—but I want to explain why we think that that would be the effect.

The United Kingdom Major Ports Group conducted a study of the impact of the habitats directive on dredging, which it was concerned about. We must bear in mind the fact that dredging is an activity that usually takes place over weeks, rather than being over in an hour or two. Let me quote from that study:

“There is a complex regime of controls governing any proposed ‘plan or project’ which is likely to have a significant effect on the site. There is a requirement for an ‘appropriate assessment’ and if the assessment indicates that the project will adversely affect the integrity of the site, the project may only go ahead if it is considered to be necessary for ‘imperative reasons of overriding public interest’ and if there are no alternatives. In such circumstances compensatory measures are required. (Article 6(3) and (4)).”

One can immediately see why that could be a problem for dredging, and particularly maintenance dredging, which some ports regularly require in order to be kept open. If that is a problem for applications for each instance of dredging, which takes place over at least days and normally weeks, one can imagine how much of a problem it would be for an activity that happens over a period of a few hours—perhaps over a weekend or during a public holiday. It would virtually prevent it.

We must consider another environmental dimension, which deals with the matter from another angle. Ship-to-ship transfers are sometimes environmentally necessary. The European Union has forbidden the use of so-called dirty oil—oil that has high sulphur emissions—in the English channel and the North sea. Such emissions often also carry particulates, which have genuine implications for public health. Interestingly, that is the case only if the particulates occur within a couple of hundred miles of land; particulates are not a problem out in the middle of our oceans because they do not spread over unlimited distances, unlike greenhouses gases which simply go upwards. Particulates are a problem around coastlines, and the EU has rightly chosen to adopt a higher standard for ships in such areas than the International Maritime Organisation requires of ships on the high seas.

For that reason, many ships need to take on low-sulphur oil when they are approaching UK waters. That requires the use of ship-to-ship oil transfers for solid environmental reasons—I am certain that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith, the Government and all other Members of the House fully support that. In the long run, we all hope that the IMO will raise its game to the level of the European Union. Although some of the problems do not arise on the high seas, they certainly apply to such countries as China, from which these vessels are mostly leaving. That is a matter for the long term. In the meantime, there is an immediate requirement for such ships to carry out these transfers as they approach the UK coastline.

I envisage the hon. Gentleman referring in his summing up to the fact that nothing in the Bill will interfere with emergency transfers, so I should make it clear that the transfers I am discussing are not emergency transfers. They are statutorily required transfers, but they are not emergency transfers. They would be covered by this burdensome provision, so the demand that each ship-to-ship transfer be treated as a “plan or project” raises the prospect of an inquiry in respect of every such transfer. If the hon. Gentleman were willing to have discussions with the industry or to receive a Government briefing—although I should not anticipate what the Minister is going to say—I am sure he would subsequently agree that that one provision in the Bill needs serious redrafting or, perhaps, eliminating.

Nevertheless, the Bill as a whole has excellent intentions. It outlines some sensible ideas for tackling a matter that has not yet been a problem, but which, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, could be one in the future, given the growth in trade from an unfamiliar direction of the sort that has been described. He is right to have brought the Bill before the House. Should it go to Committee, the Opposition will seek to amend the offending provision in the way I have mentioned, if the Government do not table amendments. This is a good Bill that contains some excellent ideas. It addresses a genuine area of public concern, and we support its receiving a Second Reading by the House.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) on introducing his Bill. I shall indicate, in the same general terms used by the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), that we too support the Bill. We certainly wish it to receive a Second Reading.

Like all Bills, this one contains issues that we will wish to explore in Committee, should it proceed that far. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith for having made it so clear in his speech that it is not his intention to impede or end the practice of ship-to-ship transfers. That was a very important point and I am glad that the hon. Gentleman made it as clearly and frequently as he did. It would be in no one’s interest for this House to pass legislation that was then subject to the law of unintended consequences.

At a very low level, this is not a new debate but one that has carried on for some years now. It has acquired a particular political potency since the issue of oil transfers carried out in the firth of Forth became a live one. I like to think that the lack of political heat in this debate is in a small way a tribute to the way in which my constituents have carried out ship-to-ship transfers at Scapa Flow and, to a lesser extent, at Sullom Voe, over the years. At both places, this matter is regarded as very much routine.

Scapa Flow, if I might take that as a working example, is an excellent place where such transfers can be done, if they are done properly. Within Scapa Flow is the Flotta oil terminal, so there is a substantial body of expertise and a substantial resource relating to pollution control that can be called upon should it be necessary. The question of transfers in the firth of Forth has been quite a different one, and we see a tension between what is the most convenient place for ship-to-ship transfers and what is the most suitable one. I do not detract from the concerns of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith in any way when I say that for us in the Northern Isles the history of ship-to-ship transfer has been a smooth and uncontentious one.

Scapa Flow is a safe, sheltered, deep-water harbour. Nature has blessed us with that; it does not even require any dredging, such is the depth of the water. That in itself is a commercial asset. To say that it is safe and sheltered is not to say that the whole process of ship-to-ship transfers is somehow straightforward. It is safe because in the Northern Isles we have a substantial body of skilled workmen who have been well managed, and who have the expertise to carry out such tasks. We should not underestimate the importance of the resources, or the vast range of experience that has been built up for 30 years or more. Even in a place such as Scapa Flow, it is not unknown for there to be strong winds—that might be known even by most Members here—which means that the work force who carry out ship-to-ship transfers are doing so at the very limits of their capability. I pay tribute to the work force in Scapa Flow who operate in such conditions. It may often look routine on a nice summer’s day when there is a flat calm, but when the wind is blowing, and there is a commercial imperative that such work is done—and if it can be done—my constituents go out and do it.

The practice is the subject of some local interest at the moment. The Orkney Islands council owns Orkney Towage, which operates the tugs in Scapa Flow that carry out ship-to-ship transfers, and the council is currently proposing to reduce the number of staff employed on the tugs from 36 to 20. That is a significant reduction, and it will bring an entirely different pattern of shift working that has caused concern among the workmen affected. I met about 40 of the men employed by Orkney Towage and the harbours department—there are implications for piloted boats in the plans—and their union representatives on the Saturday just gone. I was very

impressed by the case that they presented, which was forthright, clear and unambiguous about their concerns. They were reasoned and mannerly, as one would expect Orcadians to be. I felt that what they wanted was eminently reasonable. They sought merely an independent review of the decision taken by Orkney Towage and the harbours department.

I was disappointed that when we put that case to the council it was dismissed more or less out of hand. I see no reason why any review could not have been conducted by a single man of some skill and expertise, in a short compass that covered interviewing all the parties concerned and giving some assessment of the towage plans. Such a review will be necessary if the work force—and, by implication, the community—in Orkney are to have confidence in the decision that has been taken.

I do not know whether the judgment is right or wrong; I am not qualified to make that judgment. There were men at the meeting on Saturday with more than 30 years’ experience of working the tug boats, often in difficult circumstances, and it is apparent that they at least do not have confidence in the decision. If the process has been as robust as Orkney Towage suggests, at the very least it could have been subjected to some external scrutiny. It is a source of considerable disappointment to me that we have not done so. That may yet have further implications for industrial relations in the sector.

I mention that point because it is important to illustrate the way in which commercial concerns can come to bear on operations such as ship-to-ship transfers. It brings into sharp focus the nature of the regulation that will be required. The fashion these days is to speak of light-touch regulation. As a general presumption, that is sensible. However, light-touch regulation still has to be meaningful. Many aspects of shipping and maritime regulation in this country have lost some of their potency and force in recent years. In particular, I am thinking of some of the discussions that I have had with other unions in my constituency about the operation of safe manning documentation and so on. In that case, the touch of the regulatory body, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, is so light as to be indiscernible.

The regulations must have a purpose. They must seek to protect the safety of the work force who are most directly concerned and who will often work in unpleasant and difficult conditions. Working at sea is never easy. As the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith mentioned, there is no such thing as a level playing field on the water. Sometimes, the playing field is so unlevel that people wonder whether they will ever get to the sidelines again.

The protection of the coastal environment is of supreme importance to me and my constituents. It is a resource that provides food and employment through the fishing industry and the diving industry, which is a big operator in Scapa Flow. The coastal environment is also an attraction in our ever-growing tourist industry. We consider environmental protection to be very important. It has always been regarded as important by those who have hitherto been responsible for the ship-to-ship transfers in Orkney. That is why we have been able to do it so effectively and safely for so long.

The nature of the regulation must not be so burdensome as to lose the business. That is the balance that the Minister must strike. He must be mindful of the fact that we are dealing not with a UK market but with a northern European market. If we regulate that valuable, important and desirable business out of our waters, it will go elsewhere in northern Europe. That would not benefit anybody. If it were a business that we could not cope with or did not want, we would not want to keep it. However, that is not the case. It is important to my constituents and to other parts of the industry.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s sentiments, which appear to follow on from those of my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier). Will he deal with my hon. Friend’s specific point about paragraph (c) in proposed new subsection (4A) in clause 1(2), and the programme of transfers being considered as a plan or project? Does he agree with my hon. Friend that that aspect of the Bill provides for regulations that are too burdensome for the shipping industry, or does he believe that they are necessary from the environmental perspective, which the promoter mentioned?

I would like that to be explored in Committee. On the face of it, regulating each individual transfer under the habitats directive would be burdensome to the point of threatening the future of an important part of the industry. That is what I meant when I mentioned the law of unintended consequences. It might be more sensible to require, for example, the conduct of ship-to-ship transfers per se—not every individual transfer in an area—to be subject to the habitats directive. That might satisfy both sides and meet their objectives. I await the comments of the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick) and the subsequent comments of the promoter with interest, because I know that some discussions have taken place. However, if the Bill gets to Committee, we would like to explore the point there.

I do not believe that there is any difference between the hon. Gentleman and me on the matter. He hinted that a compromise could be reached on the habitats directive, but if it is not to apply to individual transfer, it is difficult to understand what else could constitute the unit. The exercise could be done once for an area, but other aspects of the Bill cover that. If each transfer is not called a plan or project for the purposes of the habitats directive, it is difficult to understand how the directive could be introduced. That is why we have problems with the clause per se.

I do not wish to pre-empt the Committee discussion. My suggestion was that the Secretary of State would have to consider the operation of the habitats directive before giving his consent in a designated area. All operations in that area would therefore be deemed to be covered. That might be the right compromise, but it might not—if we get to Committee, we will have that discussion. If the Secretary of State introduced regulations under the Merchant Shipping Act 1995—a power that he currently has—it would not be a live issue. Doubtless, that consideration will be in the Under-Secretary’s mind when he replies.

Regulation offers opportunities, but it must not be used as a tool to kill a most important part of our oil and shipping industries. With that caveat, which I believe the promoter accepts, I am more than happy for the Bill to be given a Second Reading today.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) on promoting the Bill. I am here because I wish to support it. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) on his excellent speech from the Front Bench. I have learned a great deal more about ship-to-ship transfers than I knew previously.

An important point that I have gleaned from the debate is that there has been no serious accident to date. I was grateful to the promoter for clarifying the points about harbour areas. The Bill covers most eventualities, such as emergency ship-to-ship transfers, but I was worried when I read it that the Secretary of State would be put in a position whereby he determined areas that were closed for ship-to-ship transfer, thus suggesting that there are other areas where a potential accident might be acceptable. Obviously, that is not the case.

I would be delighted to give way to the hon. Gentleman, but I wanted to make it clear that I know what I have just outlined is not necessarily the choice.

On the hon. Gentleman’s point about there having been no such incidents so far, I am sure that he would agree that if one did occur it would not be like a car accident, which can sometimes be fairly minor; rather, it could be very serious indeed. The point is that there has been a change in the trading patterns that makes the kind of eventuality about which we are so concerned more possible.

One reason why I wanted to participate in this debate is that I remember as a little boy going fishing off the south coast, and there were no fish and very few crabs because of the clean-up following the Torrey Canyon disaster, and after that we had the Amoco Cadiz. My sympathies are therefore entirely with the hon. Gentleman.

It is not just the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds that wants the Bill on the statute book—I want to take this opportunity to say that it does a tremendous job of drawing people’s attention to the importance of the environment and has done particularly good work on the marine environment and the proposed marine Bill, which I shall come to shortly. I am particularly concerned about the pod of dolphins living in the firth of Forth. Dolphins are highly intelligent, and we have an appalling record in the UK of protecting them. Tragically, the Yangtze river dolphin was last year deemed extinct. We should therefore make considerable efforts to improve our track record on cetaceans.

When people are asked what they most want to do in their life, swimming with dolphins is often a top priority, and we have that opportunity off our coast. I remember thinking when I was smaller that Flipper the dolphin could live only in Florida. Actually, Flipper was a bottlenose dolphin, which are native to our seas, too. We therefore need to do a great deal more to raise our game.

I have some statistics for the House, which I am grateful to DEFRA for supplying in written answers. Of the 1,542 dolphins that were examined by the natural history museum and the Institute of Zoology, seven were killed by boat strike and 338 by pollution. The Department could not identify the number killed by pair trawling, which is a major problem for cetaceans. The bottlenose dolphin, the common dolphin and the harbour porpoise all fall victim to the type of netting used to catch bass, where two powerful trawlers pull a huge net between them. I am pleased that the practice has been stopped for British fishermen within our 12-mile limit, but that does not apply to the rest of our European partners. Again, there is a great deal more that we can do to support and protect our dolphin population.

The other creatures of considerable importance in the firth of Forth are the birds. My understanding is that the firth is already a special protection area under the European bird directive, which is very welcome. Apparently, 90,000 birds go to the firth, including red-throated divers, puffins and gannets. Puffins are particularly important, because they live off sand eels. Sand eels are low down in the food chain, but they are an important indicator of the water quality and the quality of the biodiversity in our seas. Factory fishing has wiped out huge quantities of biomass to make fish meal, which leads to a corresponding drop in the number of puffins, which is a great tragedy. Anything that the Bill does to protect the area from oil spillage will therefore have a positive knock-on effect on the wildlife.

My other worry is about the damage caused to the tourist sector when there is an oil spill. I experienced such an effect in my constituency, although not from an oil spill, when our tourism sector was decimated during the first foot and mouth crisis. Oil spills have the same effect on coastal towns, hotels, boarding houses and the various other parts of the industry that depend on tourists. It is therefore crucial that people do not find either that their feet are covered in spatters of oil when they walk along the beach or that the beach is shut while it is cleaned up.

Who could ever forget the horrible images on our television screens of birds that have been caught in oil slicks trying to preen their feathers and eating some of the oil, from which there is really no saving them? It is the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and other animal welfare associations such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals that go to the rescue and do their best to wash the birds. Often, the clearing up of an oil spill causes as much environmental damage as the spill itself. Oil breaks down very slowly over many years through bacterial attack, but the detergents that are used to break it down more quickly can be extremely poisonous, especially to birds and fish. Any protection that we can provide through this small but important piece of legislation will be very welcome.

Measures such as these should already have been covered by the marine Bill that the Government have yet to introduce. They first promised us such a Bill properly in 2004. Another was supposed to be in the Queen’s Speech in 2007, but was not. However, there was one in the Queen’s Speech in 2006, and we all became quite hopeful. My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) started it all with his private Member’s Bill some years ago, and I am pleased to say that the RSPB was very supportive of it. It is incredibly important that we get this legislation right, and I am sad that the marine Bill has been delayed for so long, largely through the problems of devolution.

My hon. Friend is making a most powerful and in parts—dare I say it—moving speech. Does he agree that one of the oddities of devolution is that, while shipping remains an issue for the UK Government and Parliament, ports have been devolved, resulting in a rather curious hiatus in joined-up government?

That is just one of the many anomalies, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw it to the House’s attention. There are many more. However, I do not want to stray from the subject. I am very inclined to do that when the matter of devolution comes up, and I have to be careful not to do so. One of my political Achilles heels is to stray into discussing devolution, but I shall avoid doing so, if my hon. Friend will forgive me. However, I will go as far as to say that the Government have been disappointingly slow to create a joined-up strategy for marine spatial planning and proper marine protection, and to integrate it into European marine policy.

My hon. Friend has been talking about devolution. May I go the other way and talk about the European Union? I expect that we shall hear plenty more on that subject next week. Although I am sympathetic towards the Bill, I am also keen to ensure that the regulatory costs or burdens on British industry will not disproportionately affect our competitiveness with, for example, our closest European Union neighbours. Are the kinds of regulations that we are considering already in place in the other EU countries?

Before I answer my hon. Friend’s question, I want to say that, prior to considering the minutiae of the competitive costs we must look at the wider picture and ask what would happen if there were a spillage. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) made a great case about how well his constituents were already doing the job, and the fact that their track record is pretty good speaks for itself. The key point, however, is that when an oil spillage happens it is no good saying, “Ah well, this is a consequence of being competitive.” We have a much greater responsibility, and it is to the whole of our country, and to its biodiversity, its marine life, its tourist industry and its shipping industry—to the bigger picture. Therefore, I will not be drawn into giving my hon. Friend an answer about being cheaper or better or the same price as our French competitors. What really matters is that we do the right thing for the marine environment.

My hon. Friend should not forget that we share a channel with the French—if we are going to pick on one particular country—and an oil spill there might impinge on our own waters after a while. That would have an impact, and I wonder whether he knows what consultations have taken place between the British Government and other European Union Governments to ensure that the same strict protection that we are proposing to afford our wildlife will also be afforded to the wildlife in those other countries, particularly if their oil spills could impinge on the wildlife in the United Kingdom?

My hon. Friend raises another important point. I recall a recent spillage in Spain where we saw how much devastation can be caused. I cannot say whether the Minister has or has not spoken to his European counterparts, but I am pretty confident that he will have an opportunity to tell us himself in a very short time—as I do not intend to detain the House for much longer. My hon. Friend makes the point that we cannot put our own industry out of business on the basis of high principles alone, but I would return to my point that we must maintain those high standards. We must have our eye firmly on the environmental ball, as well as respond to the commercial considerations of the shipping sector.

That is why the Bill provides a balance: we must allow the procedures to take place, but only in areas where it is safe to do so. That is why I was grateful for the answer that I received when I intervened to ask which were the best areas. I was told that harbours were obviously the best areas, and I remind the House that Scapa Flow already has a great record. That response solved various issues. As I tried to emphasise, however, my concern is that we end up with proper marine planning, marine spatial understanding and marine protection for biodiversity that we all look for and enjoy in our seas. We will also need to integrate those aspects with what proposals emerge from the European Commission.

I fear, however, that that is not as joined up as the Government promised it would be, so I urge the Minister to take note. He should ensure first that the Government deliver their manifesto promise to produce a marine Bill and, secondly, that they do an effective job of it with no watering down. Thus far, we have seen only the White Paper and it is very—

Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not spend too much time straying on the marine Bill. Instead, he should concentrate his remarks on the Bill before the House this afternoon.

I should be delighted to do so, Madam Deputy Speaker. Of course, I do not have a draft Bill; I have only the Government’s White Paper to concentrate on, so I could not go on any longer about the marine Bill, but I am grateful for your guidance.

I close by saying how impressed I was not only with the quality of the briefings produced by the RSPB and other interested parties, but with the quality of today’s debate on this interesting subject. We have to get the balance right between the value we place on marine biodiversity and the value we place on people’s livelihoods and the jobs that they are carrying out effectively at the moment.

Of course, not just the livelihoods of people in the industry—important though they are—are at stake, as 95 per cent. of British goods come to this country by such a route, so it is also important to get the balance right in the interests of the country as a whole.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is not as complicated as having to deal with all shipping, as the Bill deals with a specific procedure.

To conclude, I hope that if the Bill does not receive its Second Reading or fails to get through Committee the value in it—for marine protection—will transfer to however the Government eventually choose to act on this front. I emphasise that this must not be yet another missed opportunity.

We have had a useful and constructive debate, which has also been interesting, if slightly curtailed. First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) on introducing the Bill. As we have all acknowledged, it contains very useful provisions and we should all agree with the sentiments behind it. We should all want to protect the coastline and wildlife of the United Kingdom, which helps to make our country such a special place.

We seem to have got ourselves into a division in that the Bill is perceived as providing a choice between either protecting our environment and wildlife or wrecking the shipping industry. There seems to be a danger of understanding the Bill as if it goes down either that line or the other. What has emerged from our debate, however, and particularly from my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier)—if I may be allowed to sing his praises—is that the Bill is capable of combining the two, so that we can protect our environment and wildlife while also looking after the best interests of our shipping industry. Having heard all the contributions, I believe that we all want to see that.

My former colleague—and political hero—Eric Forth might have started off by saying that, given that we have not had an oil spillage from a ship-to-ship transfer in UK waters, the Bill was a solution looking for a problem, and that we should not regulate when there did not seem to be a problem. Equally it is nice, for a change, for politicians to come forward with proposals to prevent a problem from happening. Far too often in the political process, we wait for some great problem to happen and then rush into a knee-jerk reaction to try to solve it. Usually, that leads to bad law and laws with unintended consequences. It is refreshing that the hon. Gentleman has brought forward a Bill that will address what we can all see is a potential problem before a major problem actually occurs on our coastline.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, but the context for the problem is the new one of large numbers of transfers in the firth of Forth. When I made the point that there had been no spillages, to which he alluded, it was in a context in which there was less prospect of spillages. That has changed, which is the reason for the Bill.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He makes an important point very well.

As we all know, the Bill is supported by the RSPB, which does a tremendous job protecting the interests of our birds and wildlife. We must be aware that any kind of oil spill would have devastating consequences for seabirds and waterfowl along our coast. It is absolutely right that we look at ways of giving those important parts of our bird population the protection that they deserve.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the problem of wildlife, but the issue is much bigger: tourism and the livelihoods of those who live along the coast would also be affected. The RSPB actively supports the Bill, and I support the RSPB, but the Bill is not purely about wildlife.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The consequences of any kind of oil spillage would be far-reaching for our country. He is right that particular coastlines, the people who live along them, and any tourist industry that depends on people visiting those places would be adversely affected. The country has a large interest in dealing with this problem.

I do not wish to pre-empt the Minister’s comments, but I would be very nervous if he were to start urging the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith to trust the Government, not to bother with the Bill, which is all very nice, and to leave it to them to come back with something a little better. We have heard all that before. The Government are for ever saying, “Leave it with us; we will come forward with some even better proposals if you will just give us the benefit of the doubt.” Time after time, we get such warm words and assurances, and yet nothing seems to come from the Government. I hope that the Minister will not take that line, as he might find that many of us are sceptical about such assurances. If he does, I hope that the Government really intend to bring forward proper proposals, rather than just to get over a particular hurdle on a particular day, and to kick something into the long grass. People’s hopes are raised by the promise of some action and then dashed when it does not happen. That damages not just the Government’s reputation but that of all Members.

My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury was right to emphasise the importance of the shipping industry to the UK economy. I was struck by some of the figures that he quoted: about 95 per cent. of the country’s international freight movements by tonnage, and 75 per cent. by value, are moved through our ports each year. That is a considerable part of our economy.

It would be absolute folly to do anything that might damage the industry. As my hon. Friend pointed out forcefully, shipping is very good for the environment. Surely we do not wish to do anything that would make moving goods by ship a less attractive option. Indeed, we should encourage it. I should be very nervous if any aspect of the Bill had the unintended consequence of persuading people to move their goods by plane, for instance, because that would be much worse for the environment.

I have agreed with everything that my hon. Friend has said until now. I did not quite say that shipping was very good for the environment. I said that given that goods are being moved, it was by far the least environmentally damaging method of moving them—much less damaging than, say, bringing them most of the way by lorry and then across the channel, or, much worse, transporting them by air.

I note the distinction that my hon. Friend makes, but given that we all want goods to be moved—all of us, surely, believe in free trade—shipping, in that context, is good for the environment. It is certainly better than the alternatives, unless we adopt a system whereby we do not bother to move goods around at all. I hope my hon. Friend will understand that I was speaking in that context, but if anyone misunderstood the point that I was making, his clarification will have been helpful.

I do not want a Bill that would damage the shipping industry or create perverse incentives. Nor do I want a Bill that would impose additional costs on the industry, thus raising the prices paid by consumers. While I am entirely committed to the spirit of the Bill—protection for the environment, for wildlife and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) pointed out, for the public living on the coast and the tourism industry—we must ensure that it does not have those unintended consequences.

I was struck by what my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury said about clause 1(2)(c), which provides for a transfer at sea to be considered a “plan or project”. He said that it might prove not to be good for the shipping industry, and hence in the long run might not be good for the environment. If, as I hope, the Bill proceeds to a Committee stage, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith may wish to consider allowing it to be removed.

As was pointed out earlier, Bills must be meaningful, and I certainly would not wish to fillet this Bill, allowing the sentiment to remain but preventing it from achieving anything. However, if clause 1(2)(c) were removed, the rest of the Bill would ensure that it was still meaningful. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury about the helpful nature of the subsection providing for the designation of places where ship-to-ship transfers could take place. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith pointed out that it would also help the shipping industry by providing certainty about how and where transfers could best be carried out. I hope that the Committee will consider removing the paragraph, because removing it would improve the Bill rather than rendering it meaningless.

The best aspect of the Bill is that it highlights an issue that rarely gets highlighted here—the importance of wildlife and our coastlines. I know that the hon. Gentleman has a specific constituency interest in introducing the Bill, but he has done a great service to the whole House and the country by highlighting the issue. Although my constituency is very much inland and has no coastline to be affected by the Bill, many of my constituents are equally concerned about protecting wildlife and the beauty of our coastlines. He should be congratulated wholeheartedly on choosing to introduce a private Member’s Bill on this subject.

My hon. Friend has just said that his constituency does not have a coastline. Knowing Shipley relatively well, I can endorse that fact. It will take a lot of global warming before he finds a bit of coastline round Shipley. If he does, I have had it. My constituency is the Ribble Valley just the other side from him.

Does my hon. Friend recognise that our coastline is one of the best things about the United Kingdom? We are an island and we have a fantastic coastline. Irrespective of where our constituents happen to be, they almost have a feeling of ownership of our absolutely beautiful coastline.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The coastline is one of the things that makes our country great and unique. In an earlier intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin), he touched on the subject of how similar legislation might be implemented in other parts of the European Union. Knowing him well, I am sure that his intervention was not calling for more intervention from the EU, but he makes an important point. The United Kingdom is in many respects unique given the coastline and wildlife that we have on this island. Therefore, it is imperative that the protection we have for our coastline and wildlife is greater than might be considered by other European countries if we were to engage in common action. They do not have the same beautiful coastline.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, but there is a problem with such legislation. If we legislate for ships registered in Britain, how can we ensure that ships flying the flags of other countries, including the flags of countries that do not have coastlines, would be as good as our merchant fleet in doing what they should?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and highlights why we should avoid excessive and burdensome regulation. The point that I would like to make about the Bill is that we can secure protection for our coastlines and wildlife without creating excessive burdens that will make us uncompetitive and put us in a less advantageous position than some of our neighbours. It is important that we strike the right balance, which is why I believe that the Bill is a positive one. However, it is important that we take on board the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury and remove the provision in clause 1 that may have unintended consequences.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for his support. Given his comments about the need for us not to get out of step with our European partners, I trust that that will lead him to give his full support to the Bill on the European treaty when it comes before the House in the next few weeks.

I had slightly anticipated your intervention, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I am disappointed by it. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to provide a critique of the European treaty.

Indeed, I am warming up for next week’s debate, but I will resist the temptation to go down that line even though it was offered to me. I can only ask the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith to watch the debate next week; then he will see why I do not support the European treaty. As I do not wish to introduce a discordant note in a debate on a Bill that is, on the whole, very good, I will move on.

To sum up, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on introducing the Bill, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury on making his comments in a constructive way. He supports the spirit and intention of the Bill, but his modest alteration would avoid an unintended consequence. I hope that the Minister will state his support for the principles of the Bill, and I hope that he will not say that he will introduce something better in future, if we will just be patient and bear with him.

Given the number of Conservative Members who are coming into the Chamber to listen to the hon. Gentleman, I get the impression that I might not get the opportunity to express any view on the Bill.

It is always a pleasure to listen to the Minister. I am so keen to find out what he will say about the Bill, and to make sure that any promises that he makes at the Dispatch Box today are honoured, that I will conclude my remarks, so that he has the maximum amount of time in which to tell us exactly what the Government will do.

I assure the Minister, who happens to be my Member of Parliament when I am living in London, that I, too, want to listen to what he has to say, but I want to make a short contribution first. I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) on his success in the private Members’ Bills ballot. I have introduced a number of private Members’ Bills in my time. In my 15 years as an MP, I have been very successful in the ballot, but sadly I have not been as lucky with the national lottery. None the less, I am hopeful about that, too. One of my Bills actually had Government support and was put on the statute book. I hope that he finds himself in a similar position: I hope that the Government want to introduce the measure, and that he will therefore be given all the support that he needs to ensure that the Bill becomes an effective Act.

When my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) mentioned not having any coast in his constituency, it reminded me that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I were born, or at least spent a considerable time, in Swansea, which has a beautiful coastline in the Gower area. It is a superb part of the United Kingdom. As has been said, the issue is not just shipping and related business in those parts of the UK of which we have fond memories; there is also tourism. An enormous number of tourists are attracted to coastal towns. Sadly, some of our major coastal towns are not faring as well as we might wish. One can only begin to think of what the impact would be on those areas of a massive ship-to-ship oil spill; there would be enormous consequences for wildlife and the beauty of the coastline. It is important that we do what we can to protect it.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley asked, why should we wait until there is a major disaster before introducing regulations that will help to prevent that disaster? When I write to a county council and say that there ought to be traffic lights or a zebra crossing somewhere, it looks at the statistics and says, “Too few people have been killed on that stretch of the road to warrant us taking those measures.” I am exasperated by that. Why should we wait for a disaster before something is corrected, if we know that there is a blackspot, or a problem waiting to happen? The same principle applies to the Bill. We recognise that an enormous amount of shipping takes place around, in and out of the United Kingdom, and we hope that it is all done according to best practice, but we do not want to allow the possibility of a spillage, which would have an enormous impact, for want of the Bill and its regulations.

I looked through some statistics before I came to make my speech. The enormous amount of freight carried by ship in UK waters surprised me. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), I am delighted that the vast majority of freight is transported that way. We want a healthy and vibrant merchant shipping industry in this country; shipping has stood us in good stead for a considerable number of years. Some 388 million tonnes of international freight moved through UK ports in 1999, the last year for which I have figures; that represents 95 per cent. of the total. Environmentally, shipping is the best way of transporting goods throughout the world.

The sad decline of manufacturing industry in our country means that we are importing more than ever before, from countries in Asia and elsewhere. In China, I have seen docks in which containers have been stacked up very high and ships have been in their bays ready to come to the United Kingdom. It is right that we recognise the importance of shipping into the UK and that the right regulations should be in place to ensure that oil transfers are done in the best way.

When accidents happen, I have always believed in the “polluter pays” principle. Using current regulations, we might well be able to ensure that those responsible for environmental damage paid for it. However, irrespective of how much money we were talking about, we could not correct the damage done to wildlife. That is immeasurable. We could take action in some respects, but we want to protect our wildlife from such impacts, for which no money could properly compensate.

I am delighted that the RSPB has supported and got behind the Bill. I have received a briefing from the organisation, which has more than 1 million members—about 1,500 per constituency. If we care about wildlife and the preservation of the bird species in the United Kingdom, we have to do something about those very things. If our constituencies do not have coastlines or ports, that matters little: we have a wider responsibility for UK ports and how shipping uses them.

That brings me to the wider argument that I mentioned to my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin). I do not want British shipping to be subject to burdensome extra costs or costs that are not met by shipping in other countries, but I said that I felt a sort of ownership of the coastline around the UK, even though I represent Ribble Valley, which is inland—and long may that remain the case. I also believe that we have some sort of ownership of the wildlife in the whole world. I want to do what I can to ensure that the environment is properly protected.

When we go to schools, we find that youngsters may not be so interested in party politics and that they scratch their heads in working out how they are relevant to them. But my goodness—when we ask our youngsters about the issues they are interested in, they are keen to say that they want the Government to do what they can to protect wildlife.

My hon. Friend makes a valid point about the ownership of wildlife, which is not our own at all. In fact, many bird species directly affected by any form of oil spill are among the most migratory. The Arctic tern, for example, migrates from the Arctic virtually to the Antarctic—there cannot be anything much more global than that in the animal world.

Indeed. I suspect that it would take a real expert to know which birds migrate from where to where.

I have just found out from my hon. Friend that my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) is an expert on birds and their migratory patterns.

I hope that the Minister can comment on the international discussions that he has had, not only with our neighbours but more widely. We have seen the effect that such discussions can have on whaling—obviously, that activity does not take place on our shores—in that as soon as the Japanese announced that they were resuming whaling, although under the guise of scientific research, which we all know to be rubbish, there was an outcry. The Minister and his Government have been very proactive in trying to stop the Japanese from doing that. I therefore assume that they have also been proactive on a wider scale about ship-to-ship transfers of oil throughout the world. My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge made a valid point about birds, which may well come to our shores from other parts of the world. The fact that something happens in a part of the world that is not our legislative responsibility does not mean that the Minister cannot have in-depth talks with his fellow Ministers about what we can do to raise standards throughout the world.

As I said, 388 million tonnes of freight a year comes into the UK. That is a staggering amount. One can only imagine, therefore, the number of ship-to-ship transfers of oil that are taking place worldwide. I am sorry to say that I was not here for the opening speech by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith, but I will read it. He may have said whether his Bill reflects best practice that is already occurring somewhere else or tries to break the mould by introducing legislation that is not in effect in other parts of the world. If it is the latter, I hope that it will be looked at by other countries throughout the world with huge amounts of shipping, such as Asia, particularly Singapore, China, South Africa, South America and the United States.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster that the provisions would have x costs for the industry and that that could make us less competitive with some of our near neighbours. However, we have to put the wildlife first. We must take common-sense measures and then look for the unintended consequences, as my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley said. Having legislated in good faith, we must ensure that we do not put such heavy burdens on our own shipping that it has the unintended consequence of making our merchant shipping uncompetitive with the rest of the EU. France is a near neighbour—we share the channel—and very heavy shipping takes place between the UK and Amsterdam. I hope that the Minister can comment on the discussions that he has had on the costs to industry.

Several Members have mentioned clause 1(2)(c), which could have unintended consequences whereby hardly any transfers can take place at all. The Bill is not intended to stop ship-to-ship transfers of oil but to make them safer. Unintended things may happen in any event, but we must try to make the process safer where we can. Subsection (2)(c) is a problem, whether because of the legalese or because something has not been properly considered. It is important that we get the Bill into Committee so that we can discuss that in detail, sort it out and get the Bill on to the statute book in the most workable shape.

I am delighted to give my support to this necessary Bill and again congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith. We have to be lucky to win in a private Member’s Bill draw, and then be even luckier, and have the good will of the Government, to get such a Bill on the statute book. I have spoken on a number of Fridays over the past 15 years, and I must say that I miss Eric Forth. He was one of the great Conservative Members of Parliament and a great parliamentarian. His frostiness and resistance on a Friday to the vast majority of Private Members’ Bills was well known—he was probably singly responsible for stopping most of them—but I hope that even he would have seen the rightness of the measures proposed by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith.

I join the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) on his success in the ballots and on introducing the Bill. I am aware that there is considerable concern among Members about the prospect of large-scale transfers of oil between ships in United Kingdom waters.

I welcome the contributions made in the debate. The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) spoke in support of the Bill and rightly acknowledged the role that shipping plays in our daily lives and in the economy. The industry rarely gets the acknowledgement it deserves, and I fully agree with his tribute to it. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) also spoke in support, but from a position of greater authority and with greater knowledge of the procedures involved, given that Scapa Flow is in his constituency. The hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) spoke in favour of the Bill, too, and raised environmental concerns that we all share. I am not sure that I fully agree with the hon. Member for Ribble Valley that it was a powerful speech, but it was certainly thoughtful—and geographical.

The hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) demonstrated a degree of scepticism—ordinary UK scepticism, not the other variety for which he has a reputation—about the Government’s intentions and only time will tell if he has reason for that. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley, my part-time constituent who hails from the land-locked perch of Ribble Valley, also referred to the significance of shipping but said that we must have due regard for the protection of wildlife as well. I can assure him that we are working internationally on all such issues. We are also very conscious of the impact my hon. Friend’s Bill might have on shipping, and Members would not want to do anything to damage that important industry.

The United Kingdom has a highly successful record in maritime safety and the prevention of pollution, and we appreciate the importance of both issues. In particular, we have a highly developed strategic approach to protecting the UK’s seas and coasts from ship-source pollution, which involves all of the following steps and measures. We have put in place a network of shore-based stations around the UK coastline to monitor vessel traffic, using automatic identification system technology. We achieve agreement in the forum of the International Maritime Organisation on ships’ routing measures which will reduce the risk of groundings or collisions. We ensure that powerful tug boats—commonly referred to as “emergency towing vessels”—are available, so that they can go out and assist ships that lose motive power. We have established arrangements under which a ship that requires assistance, and whose condition needs to be stabilised, can be brought into a place of refuge. We have a highly effective structure for command and control of an incident, in which the Secretary of State’s representative for maritime salvage and intervention—SOSREP—plays a major role. We have a fully developed national contingency plan, consistent with the 1990 international convention on oil pollution preparedness, response and co-operation—the OPRC convention. We participate actively in international assistance and co-operation arrangements of a bipartite, multipartite or regional nature—again consistent with the OPRC convention.

The Minister mentions the IMO. Have the Government had an opportunity to discuss these matters, and in particular the Bill, with it? If so, what has been the outcome?

I hope to be able to explain to the hon. Gentleman later the extent of the discussions—I shall do so if I have time. They are high on the IMO’s agenda, and we are in discussions with all our European and international partners in respect of these important matters.

In addition, the United Kingdom takes specific actions to give effect to the international convention for the prevention of pollution from ships—the MARPOL convention—notably by the following: ensuring that, in UK ports, reception facilities are available for the types of waste that are generated on board ship, thereby leaving no excuse for ships to resort to discharging their waste illegally at sea; carrying out surveillance, either aerial or satellite, to identify ships carrying out acts of pollution; and having an effective enforcement regime in place, so that ships that have been identified carrying out acts of pollution are prosecuted.

I am afraid that I am not able to do that at this point in time, but later in my speech those statistics may very well emerge.

The Bill seeks, first, to place an obligation on the Secretary of State for Transport to introduce regulations to control ship-to-ship transfers by the end of 2008. Secondly, it seeks to impose on the Secretary of State certain obligations, although it calls them “principles”, to be given effect when regulating ship-to-ship transfers. As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith said, those are: to prohibit ship-to-ship transfer operations in United Kingdom waters except in areas designated by the Secretary of State; and, except in the case of emergency, to treat either any programme of ship-to-ship transfers or each individual ship-to-ship transfer as an “oil handling facility” for the purposes of the Merchant Shipping (Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Co-operation Convention) Regulations 1998 and as a “plan or project” for the purposes of the Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994.

Finally, the Bill seeks to allow the Secretary of State to treat either any programme of ship-to-ship transfers or each individual ship-to-ship transfer as a

“surface storage of fossil fuels”

project in terms of the Marine Works (Environmental Impact Assessment) Regulations 2007, but not in the case of emergency.

It is clear that the Bill seeks to protect the marine environment from the possible negative effects of ship-to-ship oil transfers, and the Government fully support that objective. However, with the greatest respect to my hon. Friend, I must say that we oppose the Bill on the basis that it goes about that in the wrong way, and the desired control over ship-to-ship oil transfers can be achieved without the need for a Bill.

We have been working for some time on producing regulations under section 130 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995 to control ship-to-ship oil transfers within UK territorial waters and to ensure that any such transfers are subject to appropriate environmental scrutiny. It is our intention to lay such regulations before Parliament this year, so placing an obligation on the Secretary of State to do so would achieve nothing of value. On the contrary, working on this Bill could only delay the introduction of those regulations by diverting the attention of all concerned.

Could the Minister clarify whether he means during the current Session when he says “this year”?

We hope to be able to open a consultation this spring and to lay regulations by the summer. That is our intention. We have every expectation of being able to meet it, but given the matters that have been raised by hon. Members on behalf of the shipping industry, the serious issues involved and the fact that a number of environmental groups are keen to contribute, the process might be slowed up slightly. We are close to completing the regulations, so we hope soon to be able to issue them in draft for consultation.

The Minister will doubtless have environmental considerations at the forefront of his mind when he is consulting. Will he bear in mind the important personal safety considerations that must also be taken into account? In that regard, will he be having close discussions with the affected unions?

I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. The matter occurred to me when he was making his remarks about the tug companies’ proposals on staffing levels and so on. They will obviously want to examine the new regulations as part of their review of operations, to ensure that they are not in any way, shape or form being compromised in respect of the proposals that they put to the unions. I expect him to beat a path to our door if either the companies or the unions have strong points of view that they want to put directly, besides putting them through the usual channels of the consultative arrangements.

The Department for Transport and its predecessors have been working with relevant regulations for some time, and they were referred to in Lord Donaldson’s landmark report “Safer Ships, Cleaner Seas”, which was published in 1994. In 1999, a draft set of regulations and an accompanying draft merchant shipping notice were produced, based on the premise that ship-to-ship oil transfers would be permitted only in two places outside harbour authority areas, these being Lyme bay and Southwold. However, those 1999 regulations were never made or laid before Parliament because of a potential conflict with another recommendation of “Safer Ships, Cleaner Seas”: the proposed development of marine environmental high risk areas, or MEHRAs, in locations where there is both high environmental sensitivity and risk from shipping.

We were aware that some of the proposed permitted ship-to-ship transfer areas might also score highly enough to become MEHRAs, and that that would have sent mixed messages on environmental protection. It was anticipated that the process of identifying MEHRAs would be concluded swiftly and therefore the ship-to-ship transfer regulations were put on hold. Nevertheless, in the interim, the 1999 draft regulations and merchant shipping notice have served as the basis for non-statutory arrangements and procedures under which ship owners and operators are expected to notify the Maritime and Coastguard Agency of the intention to carry out a ship-to-ship oil transfer, and to carry out such transfers according to best practice.

I thank the Minister; he is being very courteous in allowing these interventions. He mentioned the problem of permitted ship-to-ship transfers taking place in environmental areas. Is there a problem because we are talking about two different Departments? How has the problem been tackled by the Department for Transport and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs?

Obviously, any regulations that affect different Departments have to be subject to consultation and joint clearance. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are almost ready to bring forward the regulations for consultation. We have cleared the hurdles up to the last point, and we do not expect any delays as a result of representations from other Departments. We shall proceed as I have outlined, and I hope that that offers him the reassurance he seeks.

Although there have been many delays in the further development of the regulations, they are now very near completion and I expect a revised set of draft regulations to go out to public consultation this spring. As I have said, the Bill would first place a duty on the Secretary of State to lay regulations before Parliament for approval before the end of 2008. This change to the 1995 Act is unnecessary, as we plan to consult on our regulations much earlier this year and so aim to lay them before Parliament in the summer. Working with my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith would only delay this process.

As I have already mentioned, the Bill would place a duty on the Secretary of State to “observe” certain “principles” in regulating ship-to-ship oil transfers, although on closer inspection all but one of these “principles” prove to be a duty to regulate in a particular way. Again, we consider this to be unnecessary and inappropriate, as the legislation referred to in the Bill either already applies and achieves what appear to be my hon. Friend’s objectives—as in the case of the habitats regulations—or is not suitable to apply to ship-to-ship transfers, a point raised by several hon. Members. For example, section 130 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995 already gives the Secretary of State the power to make regulations prohibiting ship-to-ship transfers of oil except in designated areas—paragraph (a) of the proposed new subsection 4A—and to take account of emergencies, which is in proposed new subsection 4A(e).

There is no need to define a ship-to-ship oil transfer as an “oil handling facility” with regard to the Merchant Shipping (Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Co-operation Convention) Regulations 1998—as proposed in subsection 4A(b) in my hon. Friend’s Bill—as the application of those regulations to such transfers is clear. An oil pollution emergency plan must be in place for every relevant harbour authority area and must be approved by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency as appropriate for dealing with any oil pollution incident that may occur, whether or not it occurs as a result of a ship-to-ship transfer and even if it occurs in an emergency.

Similarly, the application of the Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994, as amended, to plans or projects that might adversely affect nature conservation sites—even in the event of an emergency—is already clear, and so paragraph (c) is also unnecessary.

Finally, paragraph (d) would allow the Secretary of State to classify a ship-to-ship oil transfer or a programme of such transfers as a surface storage of fossil fuels project for the purposes of the Marine Works (Environmental Impact Assessment) Regulations 2007, except in cases of emergency. I respectfully suggest that that is simply not appropriate. The regulations are not designed or drafted in a way that can be applied to operations such as ship-to-ship oil transfers. The regulations require environmental impact assessments to be carried out before consent is granted for certain regulated activities in UK waters and UK-controlled waters in cases where that is required to comply with Council directive 85/337/EC—the environmental impact assessment, or EIA, directive. The types of regulated activities to which the regulations apply are deposits in the sea, works to ensure navigational safety and harbour works.

Of course, we recognise that the framework under which ship-to-ship oil transfers are regulated needs to include appropriate measures to take account of their possible adverse environmental effects. I can also assure the House and my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith that we are investigating and will incorporate appropriate provisions on that matter in the draft regulations that we will bring before Parliament shortly.

I hope that I .have explained why my hon. Friend’s Bill would not achieve his objectives, as well as the fact that some of his objectives are already covered. I assure him that we intend to consult this spring and hope to introduce the new regulations in summer. I therefore hope that he will seek leave to withdraw his Bill.

I apologise to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) for not being present to hear his opening remarks. I must confess that I was caught out by the speed at which the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) was dispatched. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on getting a place in the ballot. Having just heard the Minister’s rather devastating reply, I hope that I can provide some unexpected comfort to the Government. I am nervous about the philosophy behind the approach. I also want to raise one specific issue. I hope that it will be taken into account when the Minister lays the regulations before Parliament later in the year.

Let me first pick up on the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), who said that Mr. Eric Forth, our much-lamented departed colleague, would have approved of the Bill. I can be reasonably confident that our late colleague would not have approved of the measure in any way, shape or form.

The Minister gave a devastating response, which made it clear that most of the powers proposed by the Bill are already available in one form or another.

May I reassure the hon. Gentleman that had he been present for my opening speech—I understand that he was elsewhere—he would have heard that, although I accept the fact that the Government have the powers, I want to place a duty on them? That is what I was trying to do.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that explanation.

Let me turn to my philosophical objection to the Bill. The evil is the pollution caused by ship-to-ship transfer when oil pours into the sea because the transfer has not been conducted properly. I believe that we should be addressing the evil, not trying to rule out any potential cause of it. In normal circumstances, if ship-to-ship transfers were properly conducted, there would not be pollution. It is only when transfers take place incorrectly, either because they are badly managed by poor operators or because they happen by accident, that pollution occurs. It should be our duty not to rush round trying to find regulations and statutes to prevent people from doing anything that might cause something, but to address the cause of the evil. If there is pollution in British territorial waters caused by poor operations, we should be clear that it will be punished most severely because of all the consequences to birdlife, marine life and our coastlines. I find the Bill’s approach concerning.

My specific concern is about the effect of the Bill and the regulations on the Royal Navy and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service. I believe that the Royal Navy is exempt from the Merchant Shipping Act 1995, but that the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service is not. I am sure that hon. Members will correct me if I am wrong. There will be occasions on operations—perhaps when supporting fishery patrol vessels offshore close to British waters and especially when training—when ships of the Royal Navy and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary wish to make ship-to-ship transfers. I hope that when the Under-Secretary lays regulations before the House in the summer he will address that point and ensure that the Royal Navy can conduct operations and training if and wherever it deems it necessary. Training is obviously likely to be in British territorial waters. We should not impose extra burdens on the Royal Navy, because training is obviously important in sustaining the Navy around the world. We should not impose additional expense on the Ministry of Defence by forcing the Navy to sail even further away from its bases.

In 25 years, there has not been a single spillage during ship-to-ship transfers in Scapa Flow. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency has reviewed the figures for UK waters, and two minor incidents occurred, both before 1976. I do not believe that the danger to which the hon. Gentleman alludes is there, and we believe that the regulations will fulfil the objectives of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) in protecting the environment and—most important—the shipping industry. Delay in introducing the regulations could create additional uncertainty, which I am sure no hon. Member wishes to cause the shipping industry.

I am grateful for that intervention, which suggests that the evil that we are trying to tackle is minor. Based on experience, the risk is minor. I would be horrified if the Royal Navy and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service were not good at those operations. The scale, too, of the oil transfer is likely to be much smaller than for commercial operations.

The hon. Gentleman said that the risk was minor. I do not know whether he intended to say that but it should not be allowed to pass. The risk is substantial, but it can be managed and it has been successfully managed, especially in Scapa Flow, where, as the Under-Secretary said, that has happened for the past 25 years.

The consequences of an accident, especially with serious pollution, would be appalling. However, I understood the Under-Secretary to say that the probability based on experience of its happening was small. The risk is therefore small, although the consequences would be catastrophic.

I agree with the Under-Secretary’s concerns about the Bill—I hope that that will not get me into trouble with my colleagues. He has heard my views about making the Royal Navy and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service exempt from regulations.

I apologise to you, Madam Deputy Speaker and to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) for not being present at the beginning of the debate.

I want to make two brief points. One arises from a letter from my constituent, Jillian Atkins, who is a regular correspondent on environmental matters. Her letter encapsulates the sentiments that most Members have expressed. We do not wish to prohibit ship-to-ship transfers, but we want to ensure that strict procedures and regulations are in place to prevent the potentially catastrophic impact of an oil spillage on seabird colonies and their habitats, and on coastlines and beaches.

The reference to coastlines and beaches led me to look more closely at proposed new section 130(4A)(c) of the 1995 Act, which is the only paragraph that does not refer to oil or oil products. When the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith winds up the debate, perhaps he will clarify whether that provision could include the discharging of bilge-water, which might contain non-indigenous or predatory species, which can have a significant effect on the indigenous species in our waters, particularly if bilges are discharged close to our coastline. I noticed that the provision did not refer specifically to oil products, so perhaps it was the hon. Gentleman’s intention to include other substances, too. The Minister referred to ship-based pollution, so I wonder whether contaminated bilge-water or bilge-water containing non-indigenous or predatory species could be included in those provisions.

With the leave of the House, this has been a wide-ranging debate. It would not be appropriate in the time available for me to try to respond to all the points that have been made. I heard what the Minister had to say and I take issue with some of his points. If we take the avenue that he suggested or if the Bill proceeds, it would be possible in the consultation process both for me and for all the organisations that are keen to see the legislation taken forward to take up those points.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and will not take up much of his time. Like him, I have been approached by many constituents who are members of the RSPB. I, too, am a member and have been for 45 years. In fact, I have written to myself in no uncertain terms in order that I be here to support the Bill. Is the hon. Gentleman happy and does he think that the RSPB will be happy with the reassurances that the Minister gave?

My objective in promoting the Bill was to encourage the Government to bring forward regulations—indeed, the Bill would put an obligation on them to do so. I heard what my hon. Friend the Minister said. I am not interested in getting my name up in lights through a private Member’s Bill just for the sake of it; I want to get a result. If the Minister sticks to the time commitments that he has given, as I am sure he will, we could have regulations in place by the summer, which would be earlier than under the Bill. My wish is to bring those regulations forward.

I have spoken to RSPB Scotland, whose support for the Bill has been key. Its view is also that this debate should have a productive outcome, rather than going down in flames just for the sake of making a show. It is in the interests of the organisations that are keen to see the legislation come forward to have an early discussion and an early decision, and I am sure that that is in the interests of the shipping industry, too.

As the hon. Gentleman will therefore realise, although it is tempting to get a third private Member’s Bill under my belt—I have been more fortunate than him—and although that would take me some way towards the record of his predecessor, who I think had eight private Members’ Bills in his time, I want to get a result. Now that we have had our fun and games this Friday, I hope that hon. Members will appreciate that the important thing is to take the issue forward and to have a constructive debate in the consultative process. The Minister has given an assurance, which I know he will seek to fulfil, and Members on both sides of the House will no doubt monitor closely the way in which he does so.

In that spirit, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and Bill, by leave, withdrawn.

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Following yesterday’s mini-reshuffle of the Cabinet and the separation of the posts of Secretary of State for Wales and Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, which I warmly welcome, could you advise the House on whether you have been given any indication that there is likely to be a ministerial statement concerning the logical follow-on to that: the separation of the posts of Secretary of State for Scotland and Secretary of State for Defence?

I have not been made aware that any Minister is about to make a statement today, or, indeed, on Monday.