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Tankers (Lyme Bay)

Volume 507: debated on Tuesday 9 March 2010

The debate is about a matter of unashamed local concern rather than major national concern, although it affects not only my constituents in West Dorset, but those of other hon. Members in nearby constituencies—one such Member is seeking to enter the debate and will do so when she chooses. The extraordinary and simple fact is that several tankers are currently parked, to use a colloquial term, off Lyme bay. That is not a matter of dispute between anyone and anyone else, but simply a matter of plain fact.

My second statement is equally uncontroversial, although it is certainly a statement of values, if not one of fact. Lyme bay is one of the most beautiful places in the world. I do not say that unadvisedly, because it is a world heritage site. It has been recognised by UNESCO as one of the most important places in the world, after considerable efforts by many people involved, including myself. That was not because of its natural beauty, which is wholly outstanding, but its extraordinary geological significance, as it is the part of the world most responsible for the evolution of modern theories of evolution. It is the place where the significance of fossils was first understood, and it still yields the most astonishing variety of evidence about the planet’s very ancient history.

When one considers the bay’s astonishing beauty, combined with its great scientific importance, one might conclude that our laws and administrative systems should protect it. After all, as a country we have over a long time developed a whole array of protections for important sites. We have areas of outstanding natural beauty and rules about what can and cannot be done in them, sites of special scientific interest and rules about what one can and cannot do in them, and we have areas that are preserved in one way or another and rules about what one can and cannot do in them.

The House has just gone to the trouble, with considerable cross-party consensus, of passing a Bill to protect the marine environment, for which I and others campaigned for many years, and it is highly relevant to Lyme bay. I congratulate the Minister and others on the new Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, which my party supported, as did Liberal Democrat Members. The Act was created largely to preserve and enhance the marine environment—and quite rightly, too. Considerable powers have been given to various bodies to ensure that the marine environment is as well protected as the land-based environment has been by a succession of legislation and administrative action over the past 50 years.

Given all that, the average punter or MP might be forgiven for thinking that there would naturally be some method for ensuring that the biggest ecological risks were minimised in the most important sites. Therefore, when the tankers arrived off the coast of Lyme bay and various local groups began to agitate about the matter—I pay particular tribute to the wildlife groups that brought it to everyone’s attention—it seemed natural to me that Ministers, whom I have mentioned in relation to the 2009 Act, would be concerned about it, would have an array of powers at their disposal to combat those ecological risks and would take action. After several days I discovered that nothing seemed to be happening and wrote to the Department to ask what could be done. I pay tribute to the Minister for the polite and relatively timely response, which I guess was as good as one could expect to receive. To paraphrase—the Minister may wish to qualify my account—the letter essentially stated, “Yes, this is happening and we accept that there is an issue, but unfortunately it is not unlawful in any way for those giant objects with large amounts of toxic material in them to park there more or less indefinitely. We are very sorry, but although we love you dearly there is nothing we can do for you.” That is broadly what the letter stated.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and for representing that wonderful coastline. I, too, have received one of those bland letters in response to inquiries about the tankers. Dorset Wildlife Trust’s head office is in my constituency, so I am here representing the views of my constituents. I hope that he will agree that there obviously has to be a better solution. Rather than taking risks, the vehicles should not be parked in the bay at all, but perhaps somewhere at Portland. If it is not a question of being able to apply the law, surely some common sense and negotiations could be used.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, and a little envious that the headquarters of the Dorset Wildlife Trust is in her constituency. I must make a mental note to encourage that admirable organisation to move to my constituency. I accept entirely that she and I are actuated by the same concern to advance the ecological interests of Dorset as a whole, Bournemouth and Poole and a large part of Devon, as we are talking about a pretty widespread area. If the Minister’s letter was in good faith and accurate, which I am sure it was, and if he will tell us today that he has no powers to do anything about the matter, then I agree with the hon. Lady that what is required is the taking of powers to do something about the situation, or some administrative action that would make it unnecessary to have those powers by achieving a result. That is exactly the burden of my tale.

I am not an administrative lawyer, so I do not know whether the Minister has powers to deal with the problem, but I take it at face value that he does not. I do know, however, that it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever for the UK to have a huge array of environmental and ecological legislation and yet be unable to stop large objects containing large amounts of highly toxic material parking in an area where, in bad weather conditions, for instance, there might be a catastrophe and a spillage—we hope that that will not happen—the ecological significance of which would be colossal. Clearly, we must be able to stop that. It makes no sense for a UK Minister to be unable to stop that happening.

I was therefore surprised and disappointed to discover not that the Minister did not have the powers, though such things can happen, nor that he is concerned, which is a fine thing, but that there was no sense of urgency about doing something about the situation. We need a sense of urgency; something needs to be done.

If you, Mr. Bayley, and I were both in the next Parliament, as I hope I shall be—[Interruption.] I say that only to avoid any suggestion that I am talking down the Conservative party. If we were to find ourselves again in this Chamber discussing this subject, but what we were discussing in those circumstances was an ecological catastrophe as a result of the very thing that I am talking about—a weather condition leading to a spillage disaster—it would be impossible for whoever would then be the Minister to explain why action had not been taken to prevent it when so clearly it was possible to envisage that it might happen.

Thinking oneself into that position, I do not see how a Minister could possibly stand up in good faith at that stage and say, “We were warned, we knew that this could happen, we watched the ships sit there but didn’t do anything about it, they did spill, and now we’re very sorry.” That would be an impossible position to be in. The Minister would have to say, “This is a catastrophe. I’m off.” The time to take action is now, before anything happens, and I do not see any reason to delay. The time to start taking action is today; in fact, the time to take action was some weeks back when the matter first came to light.

The last thing I want to say is that I shall not in any way try to engage in the naive action of specifying from the outside what the Minister needs to do. I am perfectly aware that he has what I do not: a Department full of people who are expert about these matters, who are intelligent, who are knowledgeable about the kind of administrative action that could be taken, and who, I hope and believe, know the actors involved. I am not in that position; I am just trying to represent my constituents.

I am making a point that seems to be irrefutable: we ought not to be bearing this risk. If the Government were properly in control of the ecological agenda, they would deal with it, and I am asking the Minister to deal with it. Whether he deals with it by negotiating positions—by going out there and trying to use the considerable leverage of the UK Government to persuade the owners of the tankers to do something different with them—as the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) suggested, whether he discovers some recess of the law that allows him to engage in further regulation that would give him powers that he could use as leverage or directly impose, or whether he needs to engage in legislation, whatever it is that he needs to do, he needs to do it; and it is him, not me, who needs to decide what it is. My point is simply that it needs to be done.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr. Bayley. I congratulate the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) on securing this important debate. He said at the beginning of his speech that the matter does not affect everyone but that it is important. I concur with that 100 per cent. It is obviously important to his constituents and others who are affected in such a way, but it is also important to the United Kingdom as a whole. Indeed, several other right hon. and hon. Members, including the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), my right hon. Friend the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform, and the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard), have raised this issue and others about shipping within the area of their own constituency.

Let me make it clear that the Government, particularly the Department for Transport, seriously take on board the issues that the right hon. Member for West Dorset has raised, and that if there were no provisions and no monitoring of the situation, I would concur that action needed to be taken immediately. However, it is worth laying out clearly the provisions within UK legislation and international conventions that apply to shipping, which, obviously, is an international business. Let me, without disagreeing with the right hon. Gentleman, set out the situation.

Yesterday morning, eight oil tankers were anchored in Lyme bay. In addition, two general cargo ships and a tug were at anchor. Just to help the right hon. Gentleman, he might find that the terminology is “at anchor” rather than “parked”. At any time, there are vessels in Lyme bay which are under way—they are moving about, and departing.

The right hon. Gentleman and others will know that Lyme bay is a body of water close to the English channel, which is one of the biggest and most heavily used shipping seaways in the world. It is an accepted fact that ships take advantage of the sheltered waters at Lyme bay in anticipation of, for example, bad weather, and that they wait at the designated western end of the bay for the embarkation and disembarkation of deep sea pilots. It is also normal for vessels to wait there for instructions from their owners or operators to go elsewhere. I understand that many of the tankers that were waiting there yesterday were doing just that: waiting for instructions to move on.

Why are ships allowed to do that in part of the UK’s territorial sea, and why can they stay there for longer than just days? It is true and absolutely right, in terms of merchant shipping operations and so on, that there are no valid grounds for making ships go away if they are not acting unlawfully or demonstrably posing a threat to the UK’s seas and coasts.

Before the right hon. Gentleman jumps to his feet, I will deal with the threat issue.

There are a couple of points that I would make about Lyme bay. First, there are designated anchorages within the limits of Tor Bay harbour that are controlled by the harbour authority. They are primarily used by ships waiting to enter the harbour. Yesterday morning, there were three such vessels: two cargo ships and a tug. Secondly, outside the Tor Bay Harbour Authority limits, there is a deep-draught anchorage that is used for shelter, and for ships waiting for deep sea pilots. The situation in Lyme bay in areas other than those is that, subject to good seamanship and provided that ships keep clear of obstructions, wrecks, cables, pipelines and, of course, each other, there are no statutory restrictions on anchoring, nor are there any statutory restrictions on the number of ships that can be in an area at any one time.

However, I would not want this House to believe that there are no safeguards or protection for the UK’s seas and coasts. I want to set this in context. We must remember that from a long way back in our history—I shall not necessarily go back to Jurassic times—we have been a maritime nation. Therefore, we have to work within a recognition that the importance to us of maritime industry and shipping is second to none.

Does the Minister accept that what he has just said amounts to saying that, as things stand—I am not suggesting that this would occur at any time in the near future—if 100 large tankers decided to spend a year stationed outside Lyme bay, he would have no basis on which to prevent them from doing so?

I was coming on to this. International guidance on the proximity of vessels to each other would provide cover in that regard. I will mention the role of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency in maintaining and keeping a close eye on the necessary provisions in respect of ships at anchor for any period, whether for a day, a week, a month, or whatever. I shall also mention some points that are covered by various conventions.

Let me put on the record that I recognise the fundamental ecological importance of the Lyme bay coastline and its complex geology. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned old fossils found there that help us to understand a great deal about our development. I recognise that it is a world heritage site: it is commonly known as the Jurassic coast because of the rich finds that he mentioned. The last thing that any Government, including this Government, would want is to put that area at serious threat. Therefore, I will run through some of the protections that exist in respect of our coast, particularly Lyme bay.

I have mentioned the role of the MCA, which monitors the situation around our coastline, including the conduct of ships at anchor, especially in known anchorages—and Lyme bay is one such area. If the weather or the condition or conduct of the ships give cause for concern, there are procedures in place under which the MCA takes advisory and warning action.

Does the Minister accept that the MCA’s supervision of Lyme bay, although no doubt welcome, was already in place in the not-too-distant past when a minor disaster happened involving a cargo vessel, not a tanker? He will be fully aware of that. Does he accept therefore that it must be the case the MCA cannot be wholly relied on to prevent all disasters? If a tanker was involved, the disaster would be on a different scale from those that we have so far witnessed.

As I was saying, it is not just one process that is relied on to ensure that the protection and procedures that are needed are in place: there tends to be a multilayered or multifaceted process. The MCA is an important part of that process. I accept that there can be times when things will not go as planned—that is so in any walk of life and in any aspect that we look at—but it is worth noting, equally, that, as part of the international safety management code, shipping companies provide guidance to masters on how close vessels should be to each other. That relates to the numbers that could be in any given space, which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned in his earlier intervention.

Anchored vessels must be maintained in a fully operational state. They cannot be left in a state in which they are not able to move on immediately and they must comply with internationally agreed safety and pollution prevention standards under the international convention for the safety of life at sea, commonly known as SOLAS, and the international convention for the prevention of pollution from ships, commonly known as MARPOL. Work has been going on, through the international forums and the International Maritime Organisation, to strengthen those processes and ensure that they get stronger and better. Various changes have happened to MARPOL, including annexe VI, which is to do with sulphur emissions, and so on. All that work goes on. It has invariably to be done at international level, because we are talking about an international business. Many of the vessels in Lyme bay are not under the UK flag but are under the flags of other states, which is why an international position is needed. When UK-flagged ships are in other ports, they need to be covered by the same protections as the right hon. Gentleman wants to see at Lyme bay.

If the material condition or readiness of a ship causes concern, the MCA can conduct an inspection, subject to weather conditions and safety, and undertake the necessary work. Where anchoring has the potential to interfere with the right of innocent passage and other freedoms of navigation, the MCA issues navigation warnings to affected mariners.

We need to put this matter in context. At any time some 1,400 vessels can be within 30 miles of the UK coast, most of which are under way, but some are at anchor. Yesterday, in addition to the vessels at anchor in Lyme bay, a number of vessels were under way, moving to and from the bay. They are all monitored under the UK’s vessel traffic monitoring regulations. The MCA monitors UK waters using resources that include the automatic identification system, commonly known as AIS, routine surveillance and communication systems to allow us to monitor not only shipping movement, but ships at anchor, which are a cause for concern for the right hon. Gentleman.

The Government have a highly developed strategic approach to protecting the UK’s seas and coasts from pollution from ships. I shall list the elements of that approach, because they are important in understanding, as I said earlier, that there is not just one approach and it is not about using one organisation: there is a multifaceted approach. A number of provisions are in place, including the following. There is a network of shore-based stations around the UK coastline to monitor vessel traffic using AIS. We have achieved agreement in the forum of the International Maritime Organisation on ships’ routeing measures, which will reduce the risk of groundings and collisions. We are ensuring that powerful tug boats are available to go out and assist ships, particularly those that can no longer manoeuvre under their own 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 also have a highly effective structure for command and control of an accident and incident, were it to happen, in which the Secretary of State’s representative for maritime salvage and intervention plays a major role. We have fully developed the national contingency plan for marine pollution from shipping and offshore installations, which ensures the UK’s preparedness and response to a marine pollution incident, if it should happen. We participate actively in international assistance and co-operation arrangements of a bipartite, multipartite or regional nature, which, again, is consistent with the oil pollution preparedness response and co-operation convention.

I would not want right hon. and hon. Members to believe that there is not a monitoring process to ensure that the rules are properly followed so that ships are not threatening the ecological base of, or the safety of other vessels using, the facility in Lyme bay. The provisions that we have made in legislation in respect of looking after the environmental aspects of maritime matters provide other options for consideration as they roll out. The key thing as far as the Government are concerned is ensuring that we have a safe, effective, efficient merchant shipping industry, as a maritime nation, and protecting major heritage sites such as Lyme bay.