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Draft Merchant Shipping (Fire Protection) Regulations 2023

Debated on Monday 27 March 2023

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: Carolyn Harris

† Brennan, Kevin (Cardiff West) (Lab)

Buckland, Sir Robert (South Swindon) (Con)

† Costa, Alberto (South Leicestershire) (Con)

† Cruddas, Jon (Dagenham and Rainham) (Lab)

† Djanogly, Mr Jonathan (Huntingdon) (Con)

† Everitt, Ben (Milton Keynes North) (Con)

† Fletcher, Colleen (Coventry North East) (Lab)

† Holden, Mr Richard (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport)

† Kane, Mike (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab)

† Logan, Mark (Bolton North East) (Con)

† Mullan, Dr Kieran (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con)

† Osamor, Kate (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op)

† Saxby, Selaine (North Devon) (Con)

Sheerman, Mr Barry (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op)

† Skidmore, Chris (Kingswood) (Con)

† Vaz, Valerie (Walsall South) (Lab)

† Young, Jacob (Redcar) (Con)

Huw Yardley, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

Third Delegated Legislation Committee

Monday 27 March 2023

[Carolyn Harris in the Chair]

Draft Merchant Shipping (Fire Protection) Regulations 2023

I beg to move,

That the Committee has considered the draft Merchant Shipping (Fire Protection) Regulations 2023.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Harris. The draft statutory instrument relates to the fire safety of all passenger ships on international voyages, a limited class of passenger ships on non-international voyages and all cargo ships of 500 gross tons or over. It makes provision for different generations of ship, with the fire protection requirements differing slightly between the generations.

The draft instrument will be made under safety powers conferred by the Merchant Shipping Act 1995. It is subject to the enhanced scrutiny procedures under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, because it revokes an instrument that was amended by section 2(2) of the European Communities Act 1972. However, the draft instrument does not implement any EU obligations.

The draft regulations implement the most up-to-date requirements of chapter II-2 of the international convention for the safety of life at sea 1974, known as SOLAS. They bring UK domestic law up to date and in line with internationally agreed requirements. They contain direct references to the vast majority of the SOLAS requirements. Those references are ambulatory, so future updates to the provisions will be given direct effect in UK law when they enter into force internationally. That assists us in keeping the UK up to date with our international requirements.

The draft regulations will revoke and replace the Merchant Shipping (Fire Protection) Regulations 2003 and the Merchant Shipping (Fire Protection: Large Ships) Regulations 1998. The 1998 regulations were amended through section 2(2) of the European Communities Act 1972. The draft regulations will further improve fire safety standards for ships. They will enable the UK to enforce the requirements against UK ships wherever they may be in the world, and against non-UK ships when they are in UK waters.

SOLAS chapter II-2 contains provision for structural fire protection, fire detection and fire extinction on ships. That includes, for example, prevention of fires and explosions, suppression of fire, escape from fire, operational requirements, alternative design and arrangements, and other requirements that are specific to particular situations. SOLAS is supplemented by the fire safety systems code and the fire test procedures code. All are amended from time to time at the International Maritime Organisation. A number of amendments have been agreed at the IMO and have come into force internationally.

The Minister is making an interesting speech. I am looking at regulation 5(2)(d), which refers to fishing vessels. Does that include every size of fishing vessel? Obviously, the other regulations refer to ships. Does that include small fishing vessels as well as the larger ones?

My understanding is that the regulations are for all cargo ships, but I will write to the right hon. Lady on the specifics if that is not the case for all fishing vessels.

Amendments in 20 resolutions have been agreed at the IMO since 2003 to further improve the safety standards of fire protection, but they have not yet been implemented into UK law. The UK supported those amendments during the IMO discussions, and as a party to SOLAS, the UK now has an obligation to implement those further updates.

The Department held an eight-week public consultation on the draft regulations. None of the five responses received were contentious, and no changes to the regulations were made as a result. Responses were issued, as well as a post-consultation report, which was published on We have 440 ships on the UK flag, 324 of which are partially owned in the UK. They are expected to be already compliant with the requirements of the draft regulations. Making the regulations will enable the UK to enforce the same fire protection requirements as other states.

Further to the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South, there is reference in the draft regulations to smaller ships, which make up about 3% of the fleet and have fewer than 50 people employed on them. How does that relate to what my right hon. Friend was asking about small fishing vessels and whether the regulations apply to them?

My understanding is that some fishing vessels over 500 gross tons, especially those with mixed functions on board—for example, canning at sea—are treated like cargo ships. Other smaller vessels are in different categories, but the measures apply to those larger vessels.

Making the regulations will enable the UK to enforce the same requirements as other states—requirements to which UK ships are currently subject when entering foreign ports. That will provide greater equality between UK shipping companies and foreign operators. Members have highlighted the importance of the regulations: they improve safety standards, meet the UK’s international obligations and ensure a level playing field for UK shipping companies. I trust that we have cross-party support for this statutory instrument, which implements important updates to SOLAS regarding fire safety in UK domestic legislation. I therefore commend the instrument to the Committee.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Ms Harris.

Twenty resolutions relating to fire protection at sea have been implemented by the International Maritime Organisation since the UK integrated the Merchant Shipping (Fire Protection) Regulations 2003 into UK law. Those resolutions have, for example, updated the requirements for firefighting systems on ships by adding water mist nozzles to onboard sprinkler systems back in 2010. Another resolution, in January 2020, updated the requirements for ease of access to escape routes for ship passengers. A further resolution, in July 2004, updated the requirements for how dangerous and/or flammable goods should be stowed on board. All that will be implemented in UK law by this SI.

The draft regulations will apply to passenger ships engaged on international voyages. They will apply to a small class of passenger ships engaged on domestic voyages and to cargo ships of 500 gross tons and above, as the Minister said, engaged on both international and non-international voyages. They will also apply to sailing ships of 500 gross tons and above and to United Kingdom pleasure vessels of 500 gross tons and above.

We know how dangerous a workplace ships can be. Many carry dangerous or hazardous cargo and large amounts of fuel. They are cramped working environments, despite their size, and the ocean is very unstable. It is vital that we take steps to make those workplaces as safe as we can for all our seafarers, because when things go wrong at sea, escape routes and rescue missions can be as perilous as the fires our seafarers seek to escape.

Just a month ago, a Dutch-flagged vessel caught fire in the gulf of Riga when travelling between Lithuania and Latvia. The fire is thought to have broken out in the engine room, and staff tried valiantly to extinguish the fire. Because of the sheer size of the vessel—named the Escape, as it happens—and the very nature of its load, containers, it was thought that some of the cargo was hazardous. Thankfully, all 15 crew were picked up by a nearby vessel and did indeed escape.

Another recent example, in the last month, was the Felicity Ace, which was a specialist cargo ship carrying more than 4,000 cars that caught alight near the Azores. Again, thankfully, the vessel’s 22 crew members were evacuated, but the fire continued to burn for several days, fuelled by lithium batteries in electric vehicles on board. The rescue of this abandoned ship sadly ended in it sinking to the bottom of the Atlantic. The rescue was going well, but during towing it began to ingress water, lost its stability and sank. Thankfully, its fuel tanks remain intact, although there is no guarantee that that will remain the case, and it could lead to yet another environmental disaster. Thankfully, no souls perished on this occasion. However, there will be environmental damage caused by the incident, and damage to international supply chains will be colossal.

I have met multiple Ministers multiple times to debate such statutory instruments and to discuss elements of these regulations covering a number of safety areas, such as life-saving appliances, bilge pumping and warnings, damage stability, as well as these regulations covering fire protection. I asked some time ago what stage we were at with the delayed maritime legislation. I know the Minister several incarnations ago said he would write to me to update me, but I do not recall receiving that letter. I ask this Minister if he can help with this matter. Our priority must be ensuring that those working at sea or travelling on vessels as covered by the instrument are kept safe from harm. We will therefore not oppose this statutory instrument today.

I thank the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East for his comments. The statutory instrument looks to implement fire safety requirements into UK domestic law, bringing our domestic law in line with international requirements and fulfilling our international obligations, and I will refer to a couple of the specific points raised.

On fishing vessels, only those over 500 gross tons that have an extra manufacturing facility on board, such as canning, are covered by this instrument. Fishing vessels themselves are covered by other regulations in this area, so I hope the right hon. Member for Walsall South will rest assured that that matter has been cleared up.

Regarding the broader issues around the maritime backlog, I am happy to write to the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East to let him know where we are on that matter. One of my predecessors, my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts), made a commitment to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee in October 2021 about clearing the backlog, and I will happily write to the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East with an update.

I hope that I have answered the questions raised today, as well as giving that extra commitment to the hon. Gentleman, and that the Committee will agree that this SI, which will improve fire safety requirements, is necessary. Given the safety requirements of the instrument, it is right that it is brought into law as soon as is practicable.

Question put and agreed to.

Committee rose.