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Ship-to-Ship Oil as Cargo Transfer

Volume 514: debated on Tuesday 27 July 2010

I welcome the opportunity to have my first Adjournment debate under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan.

The regulations on the ship-to-ship transfer of oil as cargo excite passions right along the Forth and elsewhere, in a way that the dry title of the debate might not credit. Many of my constituents and those of my parliamentary colleagues feel strongly about the need for the regulations, as do all the local authorities in the east of Scotland and a range of environmental organisations, such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds—I should declare that I am a member of the RSPB, as I am sure many colleagues are.

I place on record that I accept the assurance offered by the Minister that he did not intend to give the impression that the Government were sneaking out the U-turn on the regulations. Labour Members accept that he was merely badly advised by his civil servants, who either did not realise or did not inform him of the hostility and anger that the Government’s announcement would cause in Scotland.

I was going to let the hon. Gentleman have a free run, but the decision about when to lay the statutory instrument was not the result of ill advice by civil servants—it was my decision. Thursdays are full sitting days in the House. Every single MP who had shown an interest was e-mailed a letter and a copy of the statutory instrument. The measure was laid on a full sitting day—Thursday—and was not sneaked out. I resent how that has just been portrayed.

I reiterate, I do not believe that the Minister was trying to sneak the statutory instrument out by using the form of a written statement. I hope he understands that many Scottish Members of Parliament would have been grateful for the opportunity to have a debate on the subject, perhaps after an oral statement, so I very much welcome today’s opportunity.

Giving a background to the subject might be helpful. The regulations followed a commitment by the previous Government after my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) withdrew his private Member’s Bill, the Environmental Protection (Transfers at Sea) Bill. The Bill was itself the result of an outcry in Scotland against proposals by Forth Ports to start carrying out ship-to-ship transfers in the firth of Forth. The Bill followed the introduction of new Scottish regulations, brought in by the Scottish Government in 2007, which dealt with those aspects of environmental regulations devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Significantly, those regulations were supported by all parties in the Scottish Parliament, including the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives.

Let me clear up one myth that opponents of the regulations—the shipping lobby in particular—have been perpetuating, namely, that the regulations have been rushed in some way. The 2010 regulations took the Department for Transport two years and two consultations to produce. They were eventually laid before Parliament in the so-called wash-up in April, to get through which we assume they must have had all-party support. Therefore, further delay and a third consultation are frustrating. It is unclear to us what new, previously unavailable information might be obtained by the third consultation that was not available from the first two processes. I hope that the Minister’s reply will clarify that point.

May I also make it clear that Labour Members do not oppose ship-to-ship transfers in principle? The Scottish Government and environmental bodies such as the RSPB do not do so either. Furthermore, the Scottish Government cannot be accused of nimbyism when they are championing the use of other Scottish waters. However, because oil spills into the sea are an environmental and tourism disaster, we believe that ship-to-ship transfers must be regulated. We only need to look at what happened in the gulf of Mexico, or closer to home in the Shetland islands with the Braer oil tanker a few years ago, to see what can happen to our environment when things go horribly wrong.

Regulations should ensure two things—that ship-to-ship transfers are carried out in the right and safest place; and, secondly, that they meet the current environmental regulations. Therefore, long-standing good practice should be permitted to continue, as in Scapa Flow, which is sheltered, overseen by the harbour authority and in close proximity to pollution control equipment and expert staff. However, the use of potentially hazardous places such as the firth of Forth, which is open sea, uncontrolled and with little if any nearby pollution control, should be prohibited.

The 2010 regulations, in our opinion and that of the shadow team before the general election, provided just such an approach. They also provided a means to ensure that the operations comply with current EU regulations, otherwise the Government would be at risk of committing an infraction, as I am sure the Minister will confirm.

I do not believe—I suspect that colleagues would not disagree—that the shipping industry should be allowed to pursue the policy of self-regulation for which it is lobbying. Before entering Parliament, I worked at a nuclear power station and on the railways. No one in their right mind would argue for allowing either the nuclear or the railway industries to self-regulate. Given that we require independent, statutory regulation of those two industries, and given the risks involved in the activity that we are discussing, why should the shipping industry believe that it should be allowed to self-regulate? I hope that the Minister will rule out that option today when he replies or, failing that, will expand on his thinking on self-regulation.

The shipping lobbyists and their supporters will complain about the cost to them of following the regulations. However, I understand that the cost is only about £9 million a year, and the proposals would add only an extra half-day’s sailing to reach Scapa Flow rather than the Forth. I do not believe that £9 million is too high a price for the protection of our environment.

As I have made clear, the subject concerns a great number of my constituents. It is rare indeed when the SNP Scottish Government, the Lib Dem and SNP-run Fife and Edinburgh councils, Labour MPs, and Labour, SNP, Lib Dem and Conservative Members of the Scottish Parliament all speak with one voice. That, I hope, demonstrates to the Minister the level of anger felt by many people in Scotland.

The RSPB is one of the big campaigners on the issue. My area certainly experienced such campaigns when I was on the council, which was before 2007—that is how long we have been talking about the matter. The RSPB stated that it could not understand why the regulations could not go ahead. Was my hon. Friend aware of that?

My hon. Friend has been a champion on the issue in Edinburgh for quite a while. She is right that the RSPB is unhappy. I think it is fair to say that it feels that its voice has not yet been heard in the debate. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us a guarantee today that, as part of his consultation over the next six months, he will find an opportunity to meet with the RSPB and me, as well as with my right hon. and hon. Friends, if he can find time in his diary, perhaps in September or October. The RSPB could then have an opportunity, in person, to make its case.

I am conscious that I have been pursuing this issue for some time.

I appreciate that there was some confusion about who would raise this matter, there being two new Members from Scottish constituencies with the same first name. I understand that that caused a little confusion.

I have been aware of the issue for some time, having worked in the Scotland Office. I wonder whether my hon. Friend is aware that, at the time of the build-up to the regulations being laid, there was a considerable period in which there was significant resistance to them from the Department for Transport, although the Scotland Office and other bits of the Government were pushing for them. Could the Minister respond to that point, which is of concern to some of us on this side of the Chamber?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those comments. He obviously has particular expertise and knowledge of the mechanics of government from his former life. I would be grateful if the Minister could respond to that point. It might also be worth his clarifying what representations, if any, he has had from either the Secretary of State or the Under-Secretary of State for the Scotland Office. We understand that they are supposed to be Scotland’s champions in the Government, and, given that the Scottish Government and the local authorities have raised the matter with his ministerial colleagues, it would be helpful to get an understanding of whether the Scotland Office has been asked for, or has proactively provided, any input to the review.

I am conscious that I am beginning to approach the Minister’s time, so let me make one final observation. Of course, we would never seek to use early-day motions as a method of gauging the overall strength of feeling in the House. I suspect that the Minister and I would be at one in suggesting that they are not necessarily the best way to make policy. However, it may be worth looking at the two early-day motions that were tabled on this subject.

One was from the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton), who I welcome to the debate. I am sure that she will have some thoughts for us in a moment. Her early-day motion, which began

“That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty”,

asked for the regulations to be annulled, and attracted four signatures.

The counter to that early-day motion was early-day motion 308, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith and which attracted 28 signatures. Basically, it said that the House welcomed the regulations, and asked for them to be enforced. Curiously enough, however, the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mr Hancock) seems to have signed both motions. Far be it from me to try to establish why a Liberal Democrat might think that he can be both in favour of and against something simultaneously—I suspect that the Minister might have more experience of that than I do.

In conclusion, I welcome the opportunity to have this debate. So that we are all clear, I accept the Minister’s assurance that he was not seeking or intending to sneak out the announcement. I hope that he can give us some reassurance on the points that we have raised on regulations and other subjects, and I very much hope that he will be able to shed some light on who has made representations to him so far, and on his plans to take further representations from Members on both sides of the House.

Order. Before I call the next speaker, I remind Members that it is normal practice to allow the Minister at least 10 minutes to wind up and to give appropriate answers.

Thank you, Mr Sheridan, for allowing me to speak. I also thank my hon. Friend the Minister for allowing me to make a few comments.

On the early-day motion, Members probably know that one is forced to table an early-day motion to pray against a set of regulations, so my motion was a technical intervention to register my concern about the regulations and to pray against them, in the hope that the Minister might consider my arguments for reconsidering them.

To reassure Opposition colleagues, I, too, represent an area that might be viewed as the other part of the Celtic fringe. Some hon. Members who represent constituencies at the other end of the British isles certainly refer to it in that way. I represent an equally beautiful part of the country that prides itself on its natural environment, and it is of the utmost importance to me and all Members from Cornwall to protect that environment.

I also represent the port of Falmouth, which is the third-largest natural harbour in the world. It is a special area of conservation, and we very much prize its environment. It has the last oyster-fishing fleet still under sail in Europe. We manage to consider the environment, while having a vibrant commercial port that not only has contracts with the RAF for servicing its ships, but has ship-repairing, yacht-building and oil-bunkering businesses.

I received representations from constituents who were concerned about the operation of the regulations as laid before the House. We all absolutely understand the importance of protecting our natural environment. I grew up in Cornwall at the time of the appalling Torrey Canyon oil spill, which blighted all the beaches of Cornwall and caused devastation to wildlife. I have lived through such a situation, and the last thing that I would want is to be associated with anything that would jeopardise the environment or cause such degradation.

I felt that it was important to make representations to the Minister, and I am absolutely delighted with the course of action that he has taken to ensure that any regulations passed by the House are enforceable. My concerns were about the enforceability of the regulations and ensuring that they did, in fact, deliver what we all want, which is a balance between environmental protection and a vibrant shipping industry, which makes a great contribution not only to my constituency but to the British isles as a whole.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan, for the first time speaking from the Government Benches. I have been chaired by you before, but only when I was in the Opposition.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) on securing this debate—his timing is perfect, just as we go into recess. If he looks around, he will find that many colleagues have disappeared north and south, even though this is a full sitting day. I know about the difficulties of travelling to different parts of the country when the House adjourns. For some time, Thursdays have not been one of the longest sitting days—not very much business was whipped on Thursdays. However—I am afraid that we may all have to get used to this—they are very much a full day, and we could have Friday sittings as well. Written ministerial statements will be tabled on Thursdays.

There was a debate when I first took on this job and looked at the regulations, when I asked about the correct method for informing the House and the country that I had some concerns about how they had been laid. In May, when I became the Shipping Minister, there was a huge pile of paperwork to go through—that is natural enough, for a brand-new Minister. One of the things that struck me, before I received any representations from anyone, was the legislation that had been put through in the wash-up period.

I was here for only five years before the hon. Gentleman was elected, and I do not know all the processes. However, I know that not everything that goes through in the wash-up period has received general agreement, especially when it comes to statutory instruments. It does not work that way, so it is wrong to say that everything was agreed and was fine—it was not. Putting in a statutory instrument three days before the House rises for an election is perhaps not the way to have open government or to discuss things, be able to pray against them and move forward.

I accept the hon. Gentleman’s concerns that the statement was made on a Thursday and that Scottish MPs were on their way back to Scotland, but the House was sitting. The written ministerial statement was tabled by 9.30, and by 9.36, every MP who had shown an interest, including every Scottish Member who had done so, as well as Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government, was e-mailed with the written ministerial statement and a letter from me explaining why I was going through the process.

On the point about the wash-up, can the Minister clarify what representations either the Conservative or the Liberal Democrat transport teams made against the regulations being introduced in April? That might clarify matters for us.

I understand where the hon. Gentleman is trying to go. Let me be honest and say that I do not know. In the way that I am looking at the matter now, I do not think that that matters, because it is about whether Parliament was fully informed and had an opportunity to go through the process that was required for such important regulations.

I set out in my letter quite firmly that, although this important issue seems techie, it is not. The environment comprising this country’s shores is important. This is not a devolved matter. I listened intently to hon. Members’ comments. Although we have to take into consideration the views of other Parliaments in the United Kingdom and those of other Members of Parliament, this decision is being made by one of the few ministerial roles that still deals fully with the United Kingdom. I am proud of that.

I considered carefully, and understand exactly, what the regulations were trying to do: protect the environment and bring some ports inside regulation—the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife mentioned Scapa Flow earlier—that are outside both it and the European habitats directive, which is not acceptable.

I accept that regulation is required—there is no argument about that—but we are looking for suitable regulation for the process, which is why we have gone into consultation. We need to consider whether the regulations are a sledgehammer to crack a nut, in certain respects, and whether they are enforceable. That is why I asked for the consultation and suspended the implementation of the regulations, scheduled for October. I did not revoke the SI, which was another option that could have gone ahead. Instead, I delayed its implementation for six months so that we could consult fully—Parliament should do that—and find out about any other concerns that the public, those involved in shipping, the RSPB and others may have about how the regulations will work in practice. I do not know what those concerns are, because the consultation is not over. My hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) has already mentioned the concerns in Falmouth about how the regulations will work.

After such a long gestation period for the regulations, does the Minister understand the scepticism and anger in the communities that have campaigned about this matter and want to see it happen? I came off Edinburgh city council in 2007. We were discussing regulations then and there was a bit of confusion about the degree to which the Scottish Parliament could take part. After such a long time, does the Minister understand how people feel, and is he prepared to give clear reassurance to those who want clear regulation in this regard?

I understand the public’s concern, throughout the country, about what would happen if there was an oil spill and about the dangers to the environment. I also understand that the consultation was lengthy. But the regulations are sitting there and there is genuine concern on both sides of the argument about whether they go far enough. As the Minister responsible, it is crucial that I ensure that the legislation that is put before the House is fit for purpose.

I was heavily lobbied on this issue immediately after I was elected and I listened to a lot of businesses that are concerned about the job prospects in the Lowestoft area as a result of the ban. I should like to mention in particular the Regulatory Policy Committee’s report, dated 13 April, the summary opinion of which is:

“The case for the prohibition of ship-to-ship oil transfers in UK territorial waters outside of harbour areas has not been made. There appears to have been little assessment of risk in drawing up this proposal, and it is not clear that the environmental benefits will be achieved. Furthermore, there is no adequate explanation for the enhanced environmental benefits of the preferred Option 3, over Option 2.”

Will the Minister confirm that he has had regard to the findings of the Regulatory Policy Committee in coming to his decision?

Not only have I had those findings, but I will look at them after the consultation is concluded.

One of my biggest concerns is whether all the regulations are likely to work. That is a point of law. If they are not going to work in law, what is the point of having them? The measures in respect of Scapa Flow, the habitats directive and the environmental consequences will have to happen: that is part of the regulations. I understand that the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife vehemently does not want ship-to-ship transfer in the Forth, but we have to consider whether there is a legal way of ensuring that that does not happen. Although the hon. Gentleman does not want ship-to-ship transfers, ships could move 12.1 miles off the coast and do the transfers legitimately there. Under the regulations, we cannot do anything if they move outside the 12-mile limit. That worries me an awful lot.

Ship-to-ship transfers also take place off the Suffolk coast. My hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), who is not in this Chamber today, is concerned about whether ships will move outside the controlled environment, where transfers happen at the moment, and go beyond the 12-mile limit. My hon. Friends the Members for Truro and Falmouth and for Waveney (Peter Aldous) have mentioned concerns about jobs being jeopardised.

The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife asked whether I would rule out self-regulation. There will be regulation: there is no argument about that. This is about how far regulation goes and whether it is enforceable: that is the crucial thing with any regulation made in the House.

My scepticism is not based on my lack of willingness to protect the environment. Anyone looking at my track record will know my views on the environment. I am a fisherman and have fished in many of the coastal areas that the hon. Gentleman represents. We have to consider the risk. The hon. Gentleman mentioned earlier what has happened in respect of BP in the gulf of Mexico. Sadly, that might happen—God forbid that it does—on any of the rigs sitting out there today. There has not been a spillage from ship-to-ship transfer. The regulations are preventive and will put a burden on the shipping business: there is no argument about that, because that will happen. If we put such a burden on shipping, will ships sail up to Scapa and go in and pay their dues, or will they move a few miles out? I am not a shipping person, but I understand that the margins are not huge. That may happen.

A lot of ships doing the transfers are Russian. As hon. Members know, the Russians have a large fleet, some of which is not the best quality. I hope that the Russians do not get upset about that, but it is a fact. If we can at least see the ships and control them to some degree within our territorial waters, we stand a chance. If they sit offshore, we will not be able to protect them at all.

It is crucial that Parliament sets laws that are enforceable and fit for purpose. I will return to this point. I suspended the regulations because I am concerned that they may not be enforceable and are possibly not fit for purpose. However, I stress that that does not take away the requirement for regulation. I am disappointed that, as revealed in earlier comments, there seems to have been a lack of communication or co-operation between the Scotland Office in the previous Government and the Department for Transport. I assure the hon. Gentleman that that does not exist now and that there is now real co-operation between all the relevant Departments.

I will meet as many different people and representative bodies as possible, including the RSPB. I am conscious that I have not had the sort of representation from the RSPB that I should like to have seen, but I expect to receive it during the consultation.

Of course, the shipping industry is concerned, but it is not just about the shipping industry, as we have heard from hon. Members from around the country, who are concerned about whether these are the right regulations to protect the environment and jobs and whether they are a sledgehammer to crack a nut. I will consider that matter carefully during the consultation period.