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Shipping: Towing Vessels

Volume 731: debated on Thursday 3 November 2011


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government why they have decided to withdraw funding from emergency towing vessels; why funding has been arranged for an interim replacement project only in Scottish waters; and what provision they have made to protect the English coastline from oil spills.

My Lords, the Government believe that ship salvage should be a commercial matter and that there are sufficient tugs around the majority of the UK coast to respond to ships in difficulty. There are fewer commercial tugs available in the waters off north and western Scotland so the Government have funded two tugs for an interim period to allow locally interested parties time to develop plans for sustainable provision without recourse to taxpayers’ money.

I thank the Minister for that reply. He will recall the “Sea Empress” disaster in 1996 when 73,000 tonnes of crude oil spilt along the south Wales coast, and also the foundering of HMS “Astute” last year. Is he aware that the withdrawal of these tugs means that there are simply no replacement tugs with the bollard-pulling power to effect a rescue? How comfortable is he with the responsibility being passed to ship owners, given that ownership is usually as clear as mud?

My Lords, the world has moved on since the report of Lord Donaldson. We have port state control and inspection of ships, the integrated safety management code of ships, much more reliable ships and much better situational awareness for the coastguard, coupled with the SOSREP system. Finally, most tankers are double-hulled. Single-hulled tankers are not allowed in UK waters except in exceptional circumstances.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is a growing perception that the coalition Government are suffering from collective sea blindness? We have just discovered that over the last few weeks we have no ship at immediate readiness for counterterrorism or disasters around the UK—no Royal Navy ship at all. We have got rid of our broad area surveillance in the SDSR. We have just heard about the tug towing, and I have to say there are still a lot of single-hull tankers around, not least in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary because there has been no money to replace them. The National Maritime Intelligence Centre, which he referred to, is not up and running at full speed, which it should be. I can go on and on.

I am sure these perceptions are not right, but could the Minister confirm that the Government are looking at this in a co-ordinated way because there is very real worry? Perceptions often seem more real than reality, and there is a very real perception that this is not being pulled together.

The noble Lord is right, he has gone on—he has gone on about defence matters. This is a commercial matter. One of the impacts of the Government funding an emergency towing vessel, say at Falmouth, is that it prevents commercial operators from stationing an ETV at Falmouth because there is no work for them.

My Lords, can I ask my noble friend what he believes to be the maximum acceptable steaming time to effect a rescue after the contracting process has been completed?

My Lords, that was about the most articulate ministerial answer I have heard in this House. While the Minister is right to draw attention to great advances such as port state control, the ISM code and double hulling, even cumulatively they are not enough when a ship has foundered. Is the Minister aware, when he puts an emphasis on commercial tug companies, that they can be expected to act commercially? This is why it is necessary for government support to ensure that in any and all conditions—however unprofitable they may initially seem commercially—those tugs are available right round the British coast.

The noble Lord makes some quite sensible points. However, it is important to understand that one of the recommendations of the Donaldson report was the SOSREP, the Secretary of State’s representative, and he has extensive powers to direct that ships will assist other ships in difficulties. It is also worth pointing out that the emergency towing vessels have not yet been decisive in rescuing any super-tanker because none has come to grief.

My Lords, would the Minister agree that the greatest risk occurs in the Dover Strait, which is one of the most heavily trafficked maritime areas in the world? The French have somewhat reluctantly moved one of their two large ETVs up from La Rochelle to cover the gap left by the withdrawal of our “Anglian Monarch”. Would he also agree that the Dover Strait is special because many of the ships transiting are deep draft vessels operating in comparatively shallow water? This leads to the danger that, if there were an accident, there would be a motorway pile-up situation—as last happened with the Norwegian car carrier “Tricolor”, which was run into by two other ships after she had sunk, and over 100 other ships passed within the clearly marked exclusion zone.

The noble Lord makes an extremely important point and his analysis is correct. However, although the Dover Strait is an area of higher likelihood because of the concentration of ships in the area, experience indicates that the consequences of a grounding are likely to be lower because the seabed is flat and sandy rather than rocky. Regarding his point about the motorway pile-up, the coastguard, with automatic monitoring of ship movements, will be aware immediately a ship stops moving and can warn other ships of the difficulties.

My Lords, is it not the case that the Government are not prepared to pay the relatively modest insurance policy to guarantee that we have adequate towing tug capacity in British waters? If a major disaster occurs, we will be dependent upon Rotterdam or other foreign ports to produce the necessary towing and tug equipment. Is that not a dereliction of duty on the part of the Government?

My Lords, the noble Lord makes an important point about Rotterdam. Rotterdam and the Dutch have great experience in salvage operations. There are lots of tugs operating out of there. If we withdrew the funding, which we have, from the Falmouth tug, someone will probably station a tug in Falmouth in order to pick up the market. Currently, however, we are distorting the market by paying out large sums of taxpayers’ money to no good effect.