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Merchant Shipping (Alcohol) (Prescribed Limits Amendment) Regulations 2015

Volume 764: debated on Monday 7 September 2015

Motion to Consider

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Merchant Shipping (Alcohol) (Prescribed Limits Amendment) Regulations 2015.

Relevant document: 1st Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments

My Lords, these regulations will bring in new alcohol limits for professional mariners in UK waters or serving on board UK-flagged ships wherever they are in the world. These limits, more restrictive than those in place today, are aligned with those agreed at the International Maritime Organization to apply to all shipping around the globe, with the intention of improving maritime safety.

Noble Lords will be aware of the vital contribution made by the maritime industry to the well-being of this country. In this London International Shipping Week we are celebrating the fact that 95% of our imports and exports are carried by ship, and that the maritime sector contributes up to £13.8 billion of direct gross value added to the UK economy each year. It is therefore crucial that we seek to ensure the safe operation of this industry, working with shipping and port operators and with other maritime nations around the world. One source of risk that we can tackle together is that posed by alcohol consumption, which can impair the ability of mariners to fulfil safety-critical duties.

On the roads, a driver with 100 milligrams or more of alcohol in 100 millilitres of blood is seven times more likely to be involved in a fatal motor vehicle crash than is a driver who has not consumed alcohol. If the amount of alcohol is 150 milligrams or more, it is roundly 25 times more likely. The same underlying principle applies on a ship; excessive alcohol consumption increases the risk of error and accident. The current alcohol limits for professional mariners were introduced by the Railways and Transport Safety Act 2003 and are the same as those applied to motorists in England and Wales—in the case of breath, 35 micrograms of alcohol in 100 millilitres; in the case of blood, 80 milligrams of alcohol in 100 millilitres; and, in the case of urine, 107 milligrams of alcohol in 100 millilitres.

At that time, there was no internationally agreed alcohol limit for mariners. This situation changed in 2010, when the Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping Convention of the International Maritime Organization was amended. For the first time, mandatory alcohol limits for mariners globally were agreed—in the case of breath, 25 micrograms of alcohol in 100 millilitres, and, in the case of blood, 50 milligrams of alcohol in 100 millilitres. These regulations will bring UK legislation into line with the alcohol limits agreed internationally, with the addition of a limit in the case of urine of 67 milligrams of alcohol in 100 millilitres. In doing so, we will reinforce the importance of these limits in securing the safety of ships, and all those who travel on them.

Furthermore, having common international limits helps to ensure that mariners know what is expected of them wherever they are, and enforcement when people are found to have exceeded those limits, national borders not being visibly marked at sea. The regulations also require the Secretary of State to review the impact of the amendments they make and publish a report of the review’s conclusions. This provision seeks to ensure the continued effectiveness of the alcohol limits set for professional mariners for the long term. Her Majesty’s Government are committed to maintaining safe navigation around these shores and, indeed, wherever ships registered in the UK may sail. These new limits on mariners’ consumption of alcohol are an example of how we are doing this in co-operation with our international partners. I commend these regulations to the Committee.

Once again, I thank the Minister for his explanation of the purpose and objectives of this order, which again we support. Before the introduction of the International Convention for the Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers in 1978, the training standards for seafarers were established by individual Governments, which almost inevitably meant widely differing standards between different countries. Since it came into force in 1984, the STCW convention has been subject to a number of revisions and this country has supported and implemented all of the previous amendments. The amendments agreed at the STCW Manila conference in 2010 further updated the convention and the code, and included, for the first time, putting mandatory limits on alcohol consumption, instead of an advisory one, for those on watch-keeping duty. These amendments came into force on 1 January 2012, with a five-year transitional period ending on 1 January 2017.

The STCW convention is incorporated into European law, and the new alcohol limits which are the subject of the order we are discussing are covered by a 2012 EU directive. This order changes the UK’s existing alcohol limits for professional mariners to match those now set by the STCW’s watch-keeping standards for fitness for duty by amending Section 81 of the Railways and Transport Safety Act 2003. As the Minister said, the levels are being changed to 25 micrograms of alcohol in 100 millilitres of breath and 50 milligrams of alcohol in 100 millilitres of blood as required by the STCW and EU directive, and to the commensurate figure of 67 milligrams of alcohol in 100 millilitres of urine for consistency.

The Explanatory Memorandum refers to the consultation exercise on the Manila amendments, including the ones covered by this order, and indicates that all the bodies consulted agreed that the alcohol limits for professional mariners should be amended to match those set by the Manila amendments. Why does it appear to have taken over 10 months to seek the approval of this House to an order with which, apparently, all those consulted agreed? The transposition note in respect of this order also states, in respect of Article 2 on transposition, that compliance with the EU directive was required by 4 July 2014. I am assuming that was not the deadline date for approving this order, but perhaps the Minister could say what it was we were required to do by 4 July 2014, and whether we met that date.

The Explanatory Memorandum states in paragraph 4.2 that the limits for alcohol prescribed in Section 81 of the Railways and Transport Safety Act 2003 apply to professional mariners only,

“as the provisions relating to non-professional mariners in Section 80 have not been commenced”.

Would the Minister confirm that the STCW convention and code, and the EU directive, apply only to professional mariners and not to non-professional mariners as well? Assuming that to be the case, why have the provisions relating to UK non-professional mariners in Section 80 of the 2003 Act not been commenced for a lengthy number of years? What are the current alcohol limits for non-professional mariners?

The regulations, which, I repeat, we support, deal with a safety issue. Indeed, some shipping companies take a much firmer view on what is an acceptable alcohol limit than those provided for in current or proposed legislation. I am not personally aware of how serious is the problem of breached alcohol limits by professional mariners in UK waters. If the Minister cannot say so immediately, I hope that he might provide some information on how many instances there have been over an appropriate 12-month period of UK professional mariners in UK waters or on UK-registered ships being in breach of the current statutory limits, and how many instances there have been of non-UK professional mariners being in breach of those limits in UK waters.

My Lords, I once again thank the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, for his support of the Government’s proposals and the regulations before us. He is right that this was decided upon by the 2010 Manila conference. For the first time it is being looked at from an international basis, which is very much the right way forward in ensuring that standards are maintained.

The noble Lord raised the issue of this taking 10 months. This was part of the wider effort to ensure we transposed all the Manila amendments. That has taken some time, even though this part was agreed to by the consultees, as the noble Lord mentioned.

On the 4 July deadline, all other parts of the Manila amendments were transposed by March 2015 in advance of the 4 July deadline. The passing of the regulations will ensure compliance in that respect.

The noble Lord raised the issue of non-professional mariners. Indeed, I raised that question myself in looking at the regulations. At the moment, it applies specifically to professional mariners. It is my understanding that the question of whether these rules should apply to non-professional mariners has been consulted upon. Part of the challenge posed during the consultation in the 2000s—I believe during the time that the noble Lord’s party were in government—was how this would be monitored and, more importantly, applied effectively. Nevertheless, as he rightly pointed out, it is an issue that has not been commenced. As far as the Government are concerned, it is an issue that we will continue to look at as we move forward with the new regulations on professional mariners. Nevertheless, he is right to raise that issue.

The noble Lord also spoke on the evidence of accidents relating to alcohol consumption. The Marine Accident Investigation Branch has identified 19 accidents where alcohol consumption played a significant part since 2009. One led to a fatality and two led to the complete loss of a ship. Many of the others presented a significant risk to human life and the marine environment, where it was fortunate that a worse outcome was avoided.

With those responses, and once again thanking the noble Lord for his support, I commend the regulations to the Committee.

I apologise for not being here at the beginning of the discussion, but the Minister and my noble friend Lord Rosser mentioned non-professional seafarers. I remember debating this issue about 10 years ago. I recall the legislation saying that the limit was the same as the alcohol limit on drink-driving. We had a big discussion at that time on how it was to be enforced. Whether you are a professional or an amateur seafarer, and whether you are in a rubber dinghy or running a cruise ship, you can cause just as much damage. I never got a satisfactory answer—I think that one of my colleagues was the Minister at that time—to how you enforce somebody who is going back to a boat late at night in a rubber dinghy. I think that a policeman is the only person who can make an arrest, but how many policemen are hanging around a small port at closing time?

It is a bit distressing that it is taking so long to become accepted wisdom that you should not be in charge of a boat, whether you are paid to be so or not, if you are under the influence of alcohol. I hope that the noble Lord will take that into account and try to push things forward a bit more.

As I said in my remarks to the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, this is an area which I myself raised, and I shall certainly take back his comments. As the noble Lord acknowledged, the challenge posed was that of enforcement. However, he is also right to point out that, whether one is a professional mariner or not, the damage that can be caused by alcohol consumption is very much the same as the impact that alcohol consumption can have on our roads. I note the noble Lord’s concerns in that respect.

I fully take the Minister’s point that the issue of non-professional mariners has been going on for some years, but do the STCW convention and the code apply only to professional mariners or do they apply to both?

My Lords, I welcome these regulations, which are a move in the right direction, but I point out, as the Minister has done, that there are still quite a number of instances where alcohol results in either the loss of a ship or the loss of life. Over the years, alcohol has traditionally been the scourge of the seaman. I am glad that we have moved on from the bad old days when even captains were drunk for days on end. However, I must point out the pressures of working at sea today. Working under great stress and with a minimal crew, often you do not have anybody to talk to, so the temptation to drink is still very much there. It is something that I fear is not going to disappear overnight but I think that this is a move in the right direction.

Motion agreed.