Skip to main content

Wreck Removal Convention Bill

Volume 525: debated on Friday 18 March 2011

Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee, considered.

Third Reading

Queen’s and Prince of Wales’s consent signified.

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

After that comedy of errors, it is appropriate that it is red nose day today. I will open with a quick question. What do you find lying on a seabed shivering? The answer is a nervous wreck. Perhaps I am a bit of a nervous wreck because I finally get to speak to the Bill that stands in my name.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to introduce this Bill. In my constituency, which contains the premier port of Felixstowe, large ships, including many cargo tankers, as well as container ships, are a feature on the horizon looking out across the North sea. However, they also bring to mind the risk of the greatest possible casualty for any marine vessel and any mariner—a shipwreck. Although the seas can be a dangerous place, we are justly proud of our record in this country in preventing accidents and dealing with those that do occur.

However, complacency is no place to be, and we have an opportunity through this Bill to implement the International Maritime Organisation’s international convention on the removal of wrecks. The underlying principle of that convention is that the liability for removing wrecks is placed firmly with the shipowner rather than the British taxpayer. The wreck removal convention is a new international instrument negotiated by the previous Government, and primary legislation is required to implement it. I commend this to my hon. Friends because it is not a European competence; the powers of this House are required to initiate this important law.

The Bill’s provisions will be enacted only if nine other nation states ratify the convention. One state has already done so, and eight have proceedings under way. I believe that the United Kingdom Parliament, by enacting this in due course, will lead as an example to other nation states in encouraging them to get on with it and put this important convention in place.

I thank my hon. Friend for that. One can imagine that I picked my Bill carefully so that it was not a money Bill and required our primary competence.

Is it not correct that if my hon. Friend were to take all the possible provisions that she could have promoted in the House on a random basis, there would be a seven out of eight chance that she would pick something that was not a European competence?

That may well be true, but when I came to choose my Bill I wanted something that was relevant to the people of my constituency and to the United Kingdom, and I am proud to have done so.

Why does this Bill matter? A wreck can cause a number of problems. It may constitute a hazard to navigation, potentially endangering other vessels and their crews. It may block a port, which would be highly damaging to our country’s trade, as well as to offshore infrastructure such as oil rigs, buoys, wind farms and similar. It may cause substantial damage to the marine and coastal environments, both of which are precious. It can also be exceptionally expensive to deal with. Currently, there is no requirement for a shipowner to remove a wreck or pay for its removal, except in specific cases of pollution, where the Secretary of State can already act. Even then, however, the cost of recovery is not guaranteed. The UK has no powers to act on UK and non-UK ships outside its territorial seas, except in circumstances of pollution within the UK’s pollution zone.

Let me offer in support of the Bill two examples of recent incidents. In 2007, MSC Napoli, a UK-registered container ship, suffered flooding in her engine room during severe weather conditions. Due to the risk of pollution, SOSREP—Secretary of State’s Representative—an agency of the UK Government, in conjunction with the French authorities, used its emergency powers to intervene. To date, the Government’s costs in dealing with this wreck are approximately £2.8 million, which they do not expect to be able to recover in full. If this convention had been in place, we could have done so.

A second example, which is a bit closer to home for me, is that of the Lagik, a non-UK registered ship that was grounded on the River Nene in 2000. A combination of the weight of the ship and the cargo of steel broke the ship’s back as the tide ebbed. It was declared a total constructive loss. That incident closed the port of Wisbech for 44 days. I dread to think what would happen if the port of Felixstowe was closed for a similar length of time. The Lagik was abandoned by her owners, so the task fell to the Government and their agencies at a cost of about £1.25 million. Despite attempts to recover the costs through legal action, not a single penny has been recovered. Again, that would not have been the case if the convention had been in place.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing the Bill. It clearly has the potential to save the taxpayer a great deal of money. Does it extend as far as covering the costs of consequential damage caused by a shipwreck, such as that caused by the escape of its cargo, which could be oil and would thereby have a tremendous, adverse environmental impact?

I understand that consequential costs could also be recovered. There are already powers to deal with pollution, including oil spills.

The purpose of the convention and of the Bill is to lay primary responsibility for the removal of the wreck and subsequent clearing costs with the shipowner, while providing powers to the Secretary of State to act if the shipowner does not do so expeditiously.

The Bill requires ships of 300 gross tonnage and above to maintain insurance for this liability, which will be enforced through a wreck removal insurance certification scheme. I assure hon. Members that as soon as 10 nation states implement the convention, that will effectively become a worldwide requirement, so it will not deter boats from coming to UK ports. Importantly, the UK authorities will be given the power to take action to recover costs directly from insurers.

It is a great privilege to take a Bill through this House and I am happy to be doing so in my first Session. I hope that it will progress well in the Lords, and indeed in this place. My predecessor, Lord Deben, was never fortunate enough to be called in the ballot, so this is one small achievement that I now have as the Member for Suffolk Coastal. This is an important Bill and I commend it to the House.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) on bringing the Bill successfully to this stage. She said in her maiden speech, which I read yesterday, that you, Mr Speaker, had given her training in public speaking some years ago. Clearly it has paid off, because she did not come across as the nervous wreck that she joked about. She outlined clearly why the measure is important not only to her constituents, but to the UK. She also said in her maiden speech that she was often told on the doorstep that she had big shoes to fill in taking the place of Mr John Gummer, who had a distinguished career in government and in Parliament. In bringing this Bill forward, she has made a very good start in filling those shoes. There are not many Members who, in their first year of service in this place, have the chance to introduce a Bill, let alone to pilot one through successfully, if hon. Members will forgive the shipping pun. She has achieved that, so I commend her and pay tribute to her ability, tenacity and success in getting to this point.

I will be brief because, as the hon. Lady said, we supported this measure when we were in government. In Committee, the Minister said:

“In line with the ‘polluter pays’ principle, the owner of a ship creating a problem should bear the costs.”––[Official Report, Wreck Removal Convention Public Bill Committee, 7 February 2011; c. 4.]

The hon. Lady has reiterated that and we support that position. The adoption of the international convention by the International Maritime Organisation indicates the support of the shipping community worldwide. We are rightly proud to have the IMO’s headquarters in London. Efthimios Mitropoulos, the secretary-general of the IMO, leads that organisation with great dignity and vision. He is a good friend to the UK, and is a good friend to the shipping Minister. He certainly was in my period in that office. My only query about the Bill is where we go from here. That was outlined by the hon. Lady, and I am sure that the Minister will say what timetable he anticipates for this measure being ratified and coming into international law.

The hon. Lady has done a service to the House and the country, and I congratulate her on bringing this Bill forward. We support Third Reading.

It is a pleasure to be here today. I did not get elocution lessons or speaking notes from you many years ago, Mr Speaker. Perhaps I would have done as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) did a few moments ago if I had. We did, however, share many platforms together many years ago.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on steering the Bill through so quickly. It has shocked some colleagues just how quickly it has progressed. It has done so because it has cross-party and international support. It is a very important measure. The International Maritime Organisation will be watching us closely—it is based only a short distance across the river. I hope that other maritime nations will also be watching, and will implement their part of the measure as soon as possible. It is imperative that we get the support of the 10 nations as soon as possible, so that the convention can be ratified.

This great seafaring nation has more than 10,500 miles of coastline, which we need to protect. Our coastline has many areas of outstanding natural beauty, as I have seen many times. Some of those are in my hon. Friend’s constituency, which I know very well, and in the last few days I have been in the Western Isles and on Shetland, which have amazing beauty. We must ensure that we protect that beautiful coastline.

The Bill has the full support of the Government and the Opposition. I hope that it has a quick and safe passage through the Lords, to use another seafaring term. The key, as the shadow Minister said, is that we lead on this matter, and we intend to do so. I will speak to other seafaring nations in the next few days and urge them to push forward as fast as possible, as we have done. It is not for me to tell them how to do that in their Parliaments, but we must get to 10 nations as fast as possible to get ratification and implementation, because it is crucial that the polluter pays. We will do the work and clear up, but at the end of the day, the cheque will come from the polluter. This Bill will make sure of that.

I hope that the Bill passes speedily through the other place and that the other states that need to ratify the convention do so. The IMO has done a wonderful job to pilot the convention through, and the hon. Lady has done a wonderful job to pilot the Bill through the House in her first term, and I congratulate her on doing so.

I apologise for being in weekend clothes, Mr Speaker.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) on her success with the Bill so far, and I welcome the words from both Front Benches. My seafaring experience is limited to seven weeks serving on a cargo ship coming back from Brisbane to Liverpool in 1963, so I do not claim that it is up to date. I was also the chairman of the parliamentary maritime group at one time.

The IMO has done well on this matter, and the convention will help. I pay tribute to our lighthouse, harbour and conservation authorities for the work that they do. If anyone thinks that we do not mark our wrecks at the moment, they are wrong. However, the convention will place an obligation on us and on others.

I think I will be permitted to say briefly that the biggest task of all is to prevent ships from becoming wrecks. There is the danger of collisions and other things going wrong because of the manning of vessels, especially at night in the busy channels. That often leads to wrecks—it is not only bad weather, but bad navigation. People who read the professional maritime press will understand the risks and dangers that have to be guarded against every hour of every day in every part of our waters.

There is the slight consequential problem that when there is a wreck and there are removal costs, the insurance requirement will be imposed only on vessels that come into our harbours or go to one of our offshore installations. My reading of the convention and the rules is that vessels that are making a passage will not have to have the certificate. I hope that at some stage we will be able to place that requirement on people passing through restricted waters as well. However, I welcome the Bill and the convention.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.