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European Communities (Definition of Treaties) (Maritime Labour Convention) Order 2009

Volume 711: debated on Wednesday 10 June 2009

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved By

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the European Communities (Definition of Treaties) (Maritime Labour Convention) Order 2009

I would like to introduce the draft legislation which we are considering this afternoon and, in doing so, explain and emphasise the importance of it. The International Labour Organisation’s, ILO, Maritime Labour Convention 2006 is an excellent example of international co-operation; it is the product of around five years of deliberation at the ILO involving Governments, ship owners’ associations and seafarer unions. I am proud to say that it was the United Kingdom that took the lead in negotiations. All stakeholders have played a role in its development and give it their unequivocal support. It is now being referred to as a super-convention.

Life at sea is a difficult and often dangerous occupation. This convention aims to address current shortfalls in seafarers’ working conditions. It will ultimately lead to safer and more efficient ships, and therefore healthier and cleaner seas.

The draft European Communities (Definition of Treaties) (Maritime Labour Convention) Order 2009, which is before us, would declare that the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 is to be regarded as a Community treaty, as defined in Section 1(2) of the European Communities Act 1972. The principal effect of declaring the convention to be a Community treaty is that the provisions of Section 2 of the European Communities Act 1972 will then apply in relation to it. As noble Lords will be well aware, Section 2 contains powers which may be used to implement Community obligations, which include obligations in Community treaties. After the order comes into force, the Secretary of State for Transport intends to use the Section 2 powers in the 1972 Act when making secondary legislation to ensure that the convention is fully implemented into UK law.

At its 94th maritime session held in Geneva in February 2006, the International Labour Conference adopted the Maritime Labour Convention 2006. The new convention consolidates and updates over 60 maritime labour instruments adopted by the ILO since 1920. The object of the convention is to provide a comprehensive set of global maritime labour standards for all seafarers. The convention covers: minimum standards for working on a ship, including minimum age, medical certification, training and recruitment; conditions of employment, covering employment agreements, wages, hours of work, annual leave, repatriation, employer liability, manning and career development; accommodation, recreational facilities, food and catering; health protection, medical care, welfare and social security protection; and compliance and enforcement, including flag state and port state responsibilities.

Having played such a leading role in the development of the convention we are committed to its ratification as soon as domestic law and practice are fully in line with the convention’s requirements. The Government’s commitment to ratification is shared by our partners in the European Union, as is reflected by the Council decision on 7 June 2007 authorising EU member states to ratify the convention for those parts of it that fall within Community competence, and exhorting member states to ratify by the end of 2010. It is this target date for ratification that the Government are working towards. At present we believe we are on schedule to achieve it, although there is detailed work to be done. I should emphasise at this point that there is neither a surrender of sovereignty nor an extension of European Union competence implied by the legislative path that we have chosen.

The convention will come into force internationally one year after it has been ratified by 30 ILO member states, representing 33 per cent of the world’s tonnage. Currently, five states have ratified—Liberia, Bahamas, Marshall Islands, Panama and Norway—and by virtue of these five states ratifying, the tonnage requirement has already been met. It is expected that a further 25 members will ratify by late 2010, which means that the convention will come into force in late 2011.

I turn now to the steps that the UK is taking to implement the convention in our domestic law. There are a number of areas covered by the convention in which we need to change UK law in significant ways. A total of 14 sets of new or amending regulations have been identified in order to implement the convention into UK law, covering legislation on minimum age, medical certificates, health and safety issues, hours of work, crew accommodation and food and catering. In addition, of course, there are a number of areas where UK law already meets the requirements of the convention and where no change will be necessary.

It is important to remember that the detailed proposals for implementing the convention are not in the draft Order in Council we are debating today. That is why the Explanatory Memorandum identifies no costs arising from this instrument and refers to the fact that there is no impact assessment. Instead, the detailed proposals will be brought forward in secondary legislation in due course. These detailed statutory instruments will be a product of our work with our social partners, with appropriate public consultation. Impact assessments for the individual measures will be published at that stage.

There are already powers under the Merchant Shipping Act 1995 which would enable some changes to be made to UK law which would help to bring us in line with the convention, but these powers would not be enough on their own. It is for that reason that it is necessary to have the Order in Council which is before us today.

It is appropriate to specify the Maritime Labour Convention in the draft Order in Council before us because it is ancillary to the existing Community treaties. It is ancillary because it contains significant matters that lie within the competence of the European Community, both exclusive and shared. There is shared competence, for example, in relation to minimum age, working time and medical treatment on board vessels.

There is exclusive Community competence in the co-ordination at European level of social security provision. Even where the specific subject matter may not fall within Community competence, there remains a close connection with the promotion of social protection and the raising of standards of living and employment for seafarers so that the relationship with other matters dealt with at the European level is clear.

I should like to make clear the thinking behind this choice of instrument as opposed to new primary legislation. It would, of course, be possible to use primary legislation to implement this convention, but the Committee will recognise that Parliament’s time is limited and so, as the European Communities Act permits us to use secondary legislation, the Government propose to take this approach. We consider it is the most efficient route for implementing a convention which enjoys such wide support among maritime stakeholders on all sides.

Therefore this order will be made under Section 1(3) of the European Communities Act 1972 in order to use the vires in Section 2(2) of that Act. This will facilitate the implementation of those provisions of the convention that are not already either implemented in UK law or capable of being implemented using existing powers, thus facilitating the ability of the United Kingdom to meet its international commitments and obligations in this important regard.

I am grateful to the Minister for introducing the order and for the clear and comprehensive way in which he has explained its purpose. For the reasons explained by the Minister, the order is very desirable and I have no difficulty with it. It is to be hoped that the convention will be seen as the beginning of the end of unfair employment agreements for seafarers, and we look forward to the implementation of the MLC.

However, the MLC is the fourth pillar of the international legal regime for the global shipping industry. The others are SOLAS, MARPOL and STCW, the Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers. I am extremely concerned, as are many others, about the effectiveness of STCW.

At 00.20 hours on 21 July 2000, the container feeder vessel “Coastal Bay” ran aground in Church Bay, Anglesey, because the chief officer was alone on the bridge and failed to make a planned alteration in course. This was because the chief officer had probably been asleep for about 20 minutes before the course change was required. This is not unusual. In June 2003, the coaster “Jambo” ran aground off the coast of Scotland. Again the cause was the chief officer falling asleep and failing to make a planned course change. In September 2004, the “Jackie Moon” ran aground in the Firth of Clyde. Guess what. The chief officer had fallen asleep. There are plenty more examples. It is also reasonable to expect that there have been many more near misses, close shaves and errors made for similar reasons.

The interesting point in all these examples is that the safe manning requirements had been met but the workload of the officers was too great and they had not had enough sleep; they were suffering from fatigue. Noble Lords may be surprised to hear how few crew these ships are obliged to carry. For instance, the motor vessel “Coastal Bay” had a crew of just seven, comprising the master, chief officer, chief engineer, two able seamen, an ordinary seaman and a cook. The safe manning certificate for the vessel issued in March 1999 required only a minimum of three deck ratings in addition to the three officers. Therefore the cook was carried in excess of the requirements.

There are regulations about hours of work, but the recent Nautilus survey exposed some serious problems. For instance, question 11 asks: “Are your records a genuine reflection of your hours?”. Eighty three per cent of UK seafarers said, yes but 16 per cent said no. The reasons given for this by the respondents was fairly predictable.

So far, we have been relatively lucky, although many ships have been lost. That, of course, imposes a cost on industry; but, sooner or later, one of these ships will run into something much more vulnerable when the officer on watch is asleep or, perhaps, incapacitated, as has happened in another incident. One only has to think of the consequences of a large merchantman running into the side of a passenger ferry or LNG tanker. I am not accusing the Minister or the department of failing in their duty. It is not easy to secure an increase in manning levels. Shipping is very sensitive to crewing costs, and it is essential to secure an international agreement. There is little point in increasing requirements for our own fleet only to see business lost to lower-cost foreign-flagged vessels.

The MLC order that we are debating is the result of much hard work and difficult negotiations over five years, as the Minister explained. However, the simple fact is that this type of accident is entirely avoidable by slightly increased manning. It is not for me to get involved in the detail, but the Minister should do everything in his power to improve matters.

I will not detain the Committee for long. I, too, am concerned about safety, particularly as regards competition from ships of any countries which do not ratify the convention. Perhaps the Minister will deal with that in his reply.

I thank the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, for his illustration of an area of concern, which we acknowledge. Regulation 2.7 of the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 states:

“Each Member shall require that all ships that fly its flag have a sufficient number of seafarers employed on board to ensure that ships are operated safely, efficiently and with due regard to security under all conditions, taking into account concerns about seafarer fatigue and the particular nature and conditions of the voyage”.

The paragraph also states:

“When determining, approving or revising manning levels, the competent authority”—

in the UK this is the Maritime and Coastguard Agency—is obliged to,

“take into account the need to avoid or minimize excessive hours of work to ensure sufficient rest and to limit fatigue”.

It is also required to take particular account of the principles set out in applicable international instruments, especially those of the International Maritime Organisation.

UK legislation and procedures followed by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency already comply with the convention’s requirement in this regard and with the requirements of the other “applicable international instruments”. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency is committed to reducing seafarer fatigue and, to this end, a three-year plan has been agreed, covering the following three main areas: placing greater emphasis on enforcement of hours and work regulations—which addresses one of the points made by the noble Earl—very importantly, securing recognition internationally of the problem of fatigue at sea and its link with seafarer manning levels; and seeking to achieve a cultural shift over the longer term, whereby excessive working hours are no longer acceptable, either to employers or to seafarers.

The second of those principles is key to success in improving manning levels on ships. Until we achieve change internationally, forcing the issue of manning levels on UK ships risks losing ships from the register. A loss of ships from the UK register would undermine the MCA’s influence further, as there are fewer enforcement options against non-UK ships, even when they are operating in UK waters.

I turn to the advantages and the question of states that do not ratify. Ships from non-ratifying states could potentially face delays and additional costs, as convention requirements will be applied by ratifying states to vessels from non-ratifying states on the basis of no more favourable treatment. Therefore, they will face having to meet the convention requirements even though their flag state has not ratified.

This has been a useful discussion on a subject that naturally raises considerable interest in this country where almost all our international trade in goods comes and goes by sea. The convention has been described as a super-convention, which is as appropriate a description as any for a convention which consolidates and updates more than 60 disparate instruments, dating back almost 90 years, into a single set of standards which set a modern benchmark and which can henceforth be amended relatively easily to ensure that the standards are kept updated and relevant. The Government are proud of the leading role played by the United Kingdom.

I hope that I have addressed the key issues raised today and that the order will be approved. I take note of the concerns, but this convention shows that the international community is able to come to a single agreement. When I was introduced to this subject today, I was extremely impressed by how far we have moved in six years but, equally, we must continue to move forward in this area of employment.

Motion agreed.