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Emergency Tug Vessels (West Coast of Scotland)

Volume 606: debated on Monday 22 February 2016

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Simon Kirby.)

We have heard much today in the debate on our future in or out of the European Union about the issue of our security. It is right that Parliament takes seriously its security responsibilities. As part of this debate, we need to take seriously our responsibilities for the marine environment.

It is worth recapping why we had emergency towing vessels. They were a response to Lord Donaldson’s 1994 report following the Braer oil spill off the coast of Shetland. Following that disaster, 86,000 tonnes of oil were released into the North sea. We got lucky to some extent in that the oil was largely dispersed. In other areas and in other circumstances, such an oil spill could be devastating. The ships were put in place to protect human and marine life following the Braer experience. It was right in 1994, and it remains right today. The desire to provide marine safety cannot come at the expense of a penny-pinching Government walking away from their responsibilities. It is a responsibility of this Government to maintain that protection.

The UK Government kept telling us during the Scottish referendum that we were better together. How can there be any shred of validity in that statement if the Government do not take seriously our marine safety? What price better together then? Our safety cannot be traded away on the desire to save costs in Westminster. If the Government compromise on safety, they compromise their legitimacy to govern.

In 2011, the UK Government announced the removal of the vessels, although there was a subsequent agreement to retain one vessel in Orkney. That vessel is now under threat of being removed next month. Sir Alan Massey, the chief executive officer of the Marine and Coastguard Agency, said in Edinburgh two weeks ago that, following a formal risk assessment, the removal of the ETV for the far north and west was unacceptable. I agree with Sir Alan. It was also unacceptable to remove the Stornoway vessel. If there is a risk in the Northern Isles, there is a risk in the west. Put simply, the Northern Isles vessel is too far away to respond quickly enough to any incidents off the west of Scotland.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. As one of the five Scottish National party Members for the highlands and islands, he will of course be aware that we have repeatedly called on the Government to address the maritime safety deficit caused by the removal of the Stornoway vessel in 2010-11. Does he agree that this cannot be done properly by having a single ETV based in Orkney alone? It is deeply worrying that the only existing ETV in Kirkwall is currently under threat. The position that we find ourselves in—

Order. The hon. Gentleman’s intervention is very long. If Members keep their interventions brief, more Members can come in.

My last point is that the coast has been left vulnerable. Does my hon. Friend believe that the removal of the ETV at Kirkwall would be utterly unthinkable?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and he is quite correct. We cannot comprehend the possible risk of the loss of the vessel in Kirkwall. It is also true that there is no way in reasonable time that that vessel based in Kirkwall can get to Argyll and Bute or indeed to large parts of my constituency. We have been placed at an unacceptable level of risk. Does the Minister agree with the chief executive of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency that the removal of the Kirkwall-based vessel is unacceptable, and will he give the House an assurance that the Government will find the necessary funds to make sure that that vessel remains in place? That is a simple question, and it requires a simple yes or no answer.

Throughout Europe, the provision of emergency towing vessels is commonplace, for example in France, Germany, Norway and the Netherlands. It is good practice to protect your marine environment and coastal communities —we should do the same. The Netherlands put in place such a capability only in April 2014 to provide protection for shipping, the marine environment and their coastal communities. Many other countries see the sense in that, so why do the UK Government not accept their responsibilities? That is all we are asking.

There has been some chatter that perhaps, just perhaps, the Orkney vessel might be saved. That would be welcome—the threat should never have been there in the first place—but it does not go far enough, as my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) said. We need the reinstatement of the second vessel. I say to the Minister, do the right thing: deliver some good news, and put the two vessels back where they should be, in the Northern and Western Isles. Show us, Minister, that the Government take our safety seriously—do not leave us exposed to the threat of environmental disaster.

Does my hon. Friend agree that on safety and on all the issues that you have highlighted, the UK Government need to take into account the fact that in the coming years there will be more than 200 movements of nuclear material from Dounreay, and some of that material will be transported by sea?

Order. Before the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) continues, I remind Members that they should speak through the Chair. At the moment, Members are addressing one another directly, and I should be grateful if they addressed their comments through the Chair.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I agree with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan). I would argue that there is a wider point, because if we had responsibility for our marine environment in Scotland we would make sure that we had ships in place to protect our coastal community. Moreover, the unbelievable threat that we face from nuclear waste being moved by sea down the west coast of Scotland would certainly not be tolerated by an independent Scottish Government.

Let us think about the risks that we face on the west and north coasts of Scotland: extreme weather, treacherous coastlines and changing tidal patterns throughout the year. In those treacherous waters are general cargo boats and tankers, and there is even the threat of nuclear waste, as has been said. The thought of nuclear waste being transported down the west coast leaves me cold. The possibility of no emergency towing vessels being available horrifies me.

The need for such vessels was demonstrated clearly when two days after the announcement of the withdrawal of the vessels in 2011, the ship-towing vessel based at Stornoway was sent to the aid of a nuclear submarine, HMS Astute, which had run aground off Skye. We do not know whether Astute was carrying nuclear weapons—it is a moot point—but a nuclear sub colliding with the Isle of Skye was quite an incident. Who is to say such an event could not happen again? We need the security of an emergency towing vessel. I might add that the towing vessel would provide some security for us; a useless Trident nuclear submarine presents no security to the people of Scotland.

Where is the Government’s responsibility to my constituents—what will happen if there is another Braer, heaven forbid? We have learned that ETVs are not a statutory responsibility of the MCA and are not a budget priority. Even so, the MCA admits there is an increased risk if ETVs are not available. One almost could not make this up: there is acceptance of risk, but here is the rub, those of us in these far-off communities, well, we can take the risk—we are expendable. That is the message from this Government. Why should the Minister care? As a local MP, I care for my communities—I will fight for my communities—and I want the Government to take responsibility. What is the point of the MCA if such provision is not a statutory responsibility? Why will the Minister not make it a statutory responsibility?

Let me deal with the issue of vessels in the constituency of Ross, Skye and Lochaber. This wanton disregard for marine safety takes place at a time when the MCA is considering an application for ship-to-ship oil transfers in the Cromarty Firth. Here again, the Government seem to be coming up short in discharging their responsibilities to consult effectively and take environmental considerations seriously. It is environmental concerns that demonstrate the need for our marine safety to be taken seriously, and our communities need the comfort of knowing that emergency towing vessels are there as part of the Government’s responsibility.

The Scottish Government are responsible for marine safety yet, incredible as it sounds, we do not know whether Marine Scotland was consulted as part of the process. The application for the ship-to-ship transfer dated 5 November states that the MCA confirmed that the main consultees would be the local government authority, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and Scottish Natural Heritage, with the appropriate wildlife non-governmental organisations. There was no mention of Marine Scotland. Why not?

That is why I tabled a question to the Minister dated 9 February, which was answered on 15 February, stating that Marine Scotland was consulted. I have not been able to clarify whether this was the case or not. Perhaps the Minister can do so this evening. Why was Marine Scotland not listed in the consultation document? Was it consulted? In the interests of transparency, will he publish any related correspondence?

I return to the clear need for ETVs both on the west coast of Scotland and in the north. I mentioned the Donaldson report from 1994. We also had the Belton report in 1995, which stated:

“Once a ship has irreparably broken down and is drifting towards the shore tugs represent the first and only line of defence.”

Well, that is pretty clear. We also need to examine the scale of the risk. The Minister has an issue with costs.

I am pleased to see in this Parliament so many attending such a debate. In the previous Parliament, before SNP Members were so numerous, there would be very few Members at a debate such as this.

The UK Government are playing fast and loose because of an event that might happen once in 25 years, once in 50 years or once in 100 years. They have no insurance policy because they are a penny-wise, pound-foolish Government who are playing fast and loose with the Scottish coastline, which my hon. Friend and I represent and care about. If the UK Government respected Scotland and genuinely thought of the UK as a family of nations, they would step up to the mark now, instead of abdicating their responsibilities.

I thank my hon. Friend for that fine intervention. I look forward to hearing the Minister answering it, as we have not had an answer yet. Five of us went to see the Minister last November. We have been waiting quite some time for this Government to take their responsibilities seriously.

As I was saying, the Minister has an issue with costs. What the Government should be doing is looking imaginatively at making ETVs multifunctional in conjunction with other Government Departments to spread costs. There are many possibilities—for example, increased lighthouse dues, port dues or MCA inspection fees, as well as deploying the ETVs on other activities. Time does not allow a full exploration of potential revenue streams, but there are many opportunities for growing income.

In a letter to me and colleagues on 17 November last year, the MCA stated that there is no formal vessel traffic management system in the Northern and Western Isles region and that no mandatory reporting requirement exists in these areas. There is a voluntary reporting scheme. I find it remarkable that in this day and age we do not know what ships and what dangerous cargoes are afloat on our waters.

Be that as it may, the voluntary scheme showed that in the Northern Isles, the Pentland firth and the Fair Isle channel there were 81 tankers and 290 general cargo vessels over a 30-day period to 9 November last year. For the Minches and west of Lewis the respective figures were 66 tankers and 202 general cargo vessels. We are not talking about the odd cargo. As my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) said, whether it is a one-in-25-year or a one-in-50-year risk or even a one-in100-year risk, these are risks that we cannot afford to take. That raises the issue of a mandatory reporting scheme, because we need to know exactly how many vessels are in our waters. The numbers I have given suggest that my communities need the protection that ETVs offer.

The same letter from 17 November lists the towage provided in the Northern and Western Isles since 2011. It includes, for example, an incident on 19 March 2012, when the MN Flinterspirit ran aground off North Uist. There is no ETV in the Western Isles, so the Orkney-based vessel was deployed, and the MN Flinterspirit was refloated. A month later, the Orkney ETV went to the aid of a fishing vessel that was on fire 50 miles from Orkney. On 7 April 2014, it went to the aid of MV Norholm, which had broken down off Cape Wrath.

More recently, the Orkney ETV went to the scene of the grounding of the MV Lysblink Seaways at Kilchoan, in Ardnamurchan. Interestingly, the report I have states that the location was well outside the ETV’s operational area, so there we have it: the MCA itself accepts that the vehicle in Orkney was not ideally situated to give succour to constituents in Ardnamurchan. Let us just dwell on that: the MCA concedes that the distance from Orkney is too great to offer security. If there is one thing that demonstrates the need to maintain one ETV in Orkney serving the Northern Isles and one serving the west coast, that is it. Are we just to sit back and hope for the best, or will the Government meet their responsibilities and provide security for the marine environment and our coastal communities?

My hon. Friend asks a pertinent question. He says we do not know what boats are going up the west coast of Scotland at the moment. Actually, looking at a marine traffic app, we can see that an 11,000-tonne oil and chemical tanker is going up there just now—it is between South Uist and my hon. Friend’s home in Skye. There is no insurance policy for that boat travelling through the Minches, because of the UK Government’s negligence. He makes a salient point when he says that we do not know what is going up the west coast; in fact, we do, but the point is that the UK Government do not, because they are not looking at these apps, and they are not worried, because this is Scotland.

It is too far from Westminster. Why should they care? However, my hon. Friend makes an important point. The vessel that ran aground at Ardnamurchan—the Lysblink Seaways—was a general cargo vessel. Can we just stop and think for a minute about what would have happened if an oil vessel had run aground at Ardnamurchan? We should just think about the environmental damage that could have happened. We should think about the threat to the tourist industry in Ardnamurchan—this is a fragile economy that depends on tourism. We cannot accept that risk. The Government have to act to protect communities up and down the west and north coast of Scotland.

On 7 May 2015, the MV Industrial Kennedy broke down 94 miles north-west of Shetland and was towed to Lerwick. That and the other incidents I mentioned are just some of those in which the Orkney ETV was deployed. From my information, it appears that the ETV was deployed on 13 occasions between November 2011 and November 2015. That is a significant number of incidents. More importantly, however, we should remember that these vessels are required as an insurance policy, as my hon. Friend said.

I am just going to wind up.

Incidentally, the Costa Concordia, which was involved in a grounding with calamitous consequences in Italy, was in Orkney just before it was deployed to Italy—yet another warning of the need for an ETV.

The costs associated with these vessels are insurance against the much more significant costs to society of an environmental disaster from, for example, a significant oil spill resulting from a tanker grounding along our coastline. Providing such vessels is a price we must all pay, and I ask the Minister to respond positively this evening.

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) on securing this important debate and, indeed, on having the foresight to do so on a night when the main business in the Chamber collapsed early, which will allow a few other Members to contribute. I hope other hon. Members will have something to say, because the hon. Gentleman has explained at some length the importance of this issue to our island and coastal communities.

It was not a great surprise when we heard after the autumn statement that the provision of the emergency towing vessel was no longer a priority for the MCA and the Treasury, but it was an exceptionally short-sighted decision. The extent to which the MCA has been culpable in relation to the management of this resource—this is the point I was going to make the hon. Gentleman towards the end of his speech—is demonstrated not just by the fact that we now have only one ETV in Orkney, but by the fact that the MCA has been much more reluctant to task it in recent times. The hon. Gentleman referred to the MV Nordholm, which was a work boat from a fish farming company that was owned and operated by constituents of mine. I have been in contact with them and in correspondence with Sir Alan Massey about the incident. In essence, the boat was left with the lifeboat holding it off the rocks, and it was quite some time before the MCA could be persuaded to task the tug. That is illustrative of its attitude towards emergency towing vessels.

On 10 February, the MCA, to its credit—I use the term in the loosest possible sense—held a stakeholders event in Edinburgh at which it outlined its risk assessment. It was one of the most concerning explanations that I have heard from any Government Department or agency in my 14 and a half years as a Member of Parliament. First, its risk assessment was not done in accordance with the industry standards—that is, it was not done by people independent of the agency or a panel of people but by one person, who is an employee of the MCA. When we heard about the risks that it had assessed, we found that it had drilled down, at some length and in some detail, into the question of collision. In fact, because of the volume of traffic, collision in the Minch, Pentland firth, the Fair Isle channel and elsewhere in the Western Isles or Northern Isles has never really been a problem, so the MCA assessed a risk of something that has never happened in the past while ignoring the actual risks that have been encountered in everyday situations, some of which the hon. Gentleman touched on.

The MCA looked in detail at the traffic in the Minch and Pentland firth, which not exclusively but principally consists of ferry traffic. The ferries are good, modern, well maintained vessels which, by and large, tend not to go to sea when the conditions are particularly difficult or challenging. The MCA did not even look at the tanker traffic going through Yell sound into Sullum Voe in Shetland, so the oil tankers going into Shetland that formed the basis of the need for the ETVs in the first place were not part of its risk assessment. It was a seriously deficient piece of work. For all its apparent deficiencies, it still concluded that removing Herakles, the ETV that is currently stationed there, would leave the north and north-western waters of Scotland exposed to unacceptable levels of risk. The MCA then went on to speak about the availability of alternatives. It was pretty well apparent from the discussion that followed on 10 February that it does not see where these alternatives are going to come from.

All this comes a mere seven weeks before the contract is going to end on 31 March. This is all work that, if the MCA was serious about discharging its responsibilities with regard to maritime safety, should have been done before it was prepared to offer up the removal of the ETV in the comprehensive spending review, but it was not done. Frankly, we are left with a mess. It is not the Minister’s fault—the fault clearly lies in Southampton with the MCA—but it is his responsibility. I do not see how it can possibly be fixed between now and 31 March. Apparently we will go back to Edinburgh on 4 March, so we will hear what the MCA has to say at that point. Frankly, however, given the parameters it outlined to us on 10 February, I do not think we will hear anything new.

If nothing else, will the Minister please offer us a little more breathing space so that the work that should have been done thus far can be done? It would be criminally irresponsible for the Government to allow the contract to lapse on 31 March and for there to be no coverage thereafter. Concerns have been raised not just by different industries but by local authorities. If the Minister is prepared to offer us a bit more time, I hope he will agree to meet me, parliamentary colleagues and the local authorities of the Highland region, the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland, which made that direct request of the MCA on 10 February. Perhaps he will tell us whether he is prepared to do that and, even better, to hold that meeting on the isles or in the north of Scotland.

Breathing space would give us the opportunity to look again at how the contract has operated in the past. It is an expensive contract—we know that—but it is worth paying for. Given the volume of work available to tugs with the required bollard pull capacity, there is an opportunity to get a good deal for the Government and the taxpayer. The chair of the tug operators association was present at the session on 10 February, and he openly said that it was possible to secure a price for a contract that could run for five, 10 or even 15 years. That would provide good value for money and give our island and coastal communities the knowledge that we had provision and that we would not just be living from one comprehensive spending review to the next.

The hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber reminded us of the genesis of the tug provision, which came about as a result of the 1995 Donaldson report. The Braer ran aground off Quendale in Shetland in 1992, and I was still dealing with the long tail of resulting cases when I was first elected here nine years later in 2001. It is no exaggeration to say that the lives of hundreds, possibly thousands, of people in Shetland were changed forever the night the Braer ran aground. We talk about the impact on the industries and about the economic and environmental impact, and that is absolutely true, but the human impact of such an event is absolutely phenomenal, and I just do not know how we can put a price on that.

I have seen what happens if such things are not taken seriously and are allowed to happen again. That is what happened in Galicia in the north-west corner of Spain. When the Prestige ran aground there, it was the second major oil spill in that area in 10 years. I remember visiting the area as a newly elected MP in 2002 and being absolutely horrified by the post-traumatic effect on communities that had been blighted not just once but twice.

Given the location, geography, history and background of the communities under discussion, they are among the most precious and fragile in our country. That is why, as the hon. Gentleman said, it would be unacceptable to leave them exposed to further risk in the way currently proposed.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) on securing this debate on the subject of ETVs. Only the Department for Transport could come up with a three-letter acronym for a three-letter word—tug. Let me be clear from the start that I share the hon. Gentleman’s passion for protecting the Scottish coast. The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) said that I did not care about Scotland. I assure him that Scotland is every bit as much part of my country as is Yorkshire or any other part. I do care for the environment around Scotland and for the welfare of seamen on that part of our seas.

I am grateful to the Minister for mentioning me and for giving way, as is the convention in the House. Will we see his concern and his fine words manifested not only in the retention of the ETV in the Northern Isles, but in the return of the ETV to Stornoway, in the Hebrides?

Let me develop my argument, and I will return to that point. Scotland is not only a stunning landscape but the home of important industries such as agriculture and fishing, which are economically important to Scotland and the whole United Kingdom. Protecting the environment and safety at sea are our top priorities. The hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber mentioned the Cromarty firth oil transfer licence. Marine Scotland was directly consulted on 10 December, and on 8 February, when the consultation ended, it had not responded. When it was asked whether it intended to respond, the answer was no. I hope that that clarifies that point.

Shipping has a good safety record, but we must guard against complacency, because incidents happen. The last major environmental tragedy to befall the Scottish coast was the loss of the oil tanker Braer in the early ’90s. We are very lucky that because of the seascape, much of the oil was dispersed. As a member of the European Parliament Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety, I, like the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), visited the Galicia area and saw some of the devastation caused to the beaches, the marine environment and the marine ecosystem by the heavy oil. The oil clogged up the beaches, and it was heartbreaking to see the seabirds that were affected by it.

That was 23 years ago, and it is to the credit of the shipping industry and the skills of its seafarers that we have not had an incident on the same scale since. As we have heard, the late Lord Donaldson of Lymington conducted an extensive review of safety after the Braer incident. His report, “Safer Ships, Cleaner Seas”, was published in May 1994. It is easy to select quotes from Lord Donaldson’s excellent report. He recommended that the Government set up a system to ensure that tugs with adequate salvage capacity were available at key points around the UK’s coast. He also said that salvage was, and should remain, a primarily private sector service. That is, of course, what happens around the UK’s coast, with the exception of Scotland. The shipping industry pays directly for towage where it is required, at no cost to the public. Lord Donaldson was equally clear that the costs of pollution prevention should be met by potential polluters rather than by the Government and the public.

The Minister’s arguments are all well and good if there are tug boats available to do that work, but what if there are no tug boats available? Where coastal communities and our coastline are at risk, a responsible Government would make sure that that capacity was there where the market and the private sector were failing. The market and the private sector are failing in that on the north and west coast of Scotland. My hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) has secured the debate because of that failure and the lack of those boats.

If the hon. Gentleman will relax a little, I will come on to some of those points. He might find that he need not be quite as irate as he is, because I share his concerns.

The world has moved on in the more than 20 years since Lord Donaldson wrote his report, and shipping safety has moved on, too. We have seen the introduction of the new global maritime distress and safety system, electronic charts, bridge watch systems, integrated bridge navigation systems, automatic identification systems, better standards of training for seafarers, improved and more reliable ship propulsion and engine systems, and the international safety management quality code. Those have all added to the tools available to support safer navigation practice.

I agree with the Minister’s points about the improvements that have taken place, but they would still not prevent things such as the Lysblink Seaways, which ran aground on Ardnamurchan, or indeed the Costa Concordia. That is the point. Even with the improvements that have been made, there is still a risk to our communities from something like that happening —an unexpected happening, such as an oil tanker running aground. This is about how we provide such protection, even with the improvements that have taken place in the shipping industry.

The hon. Gentleman’s point is absolutely valid. I am talking about some of the other vessels that we have been able to remove from around the coast because of other factors.

There is improved automatic monitoring of ship movements from the shore, both by Her Majesty’s Coastguard and by port authorities. That is why we felt it was right in 2011 to decide to withdraw the Government-funded tugs operating in the Dover strait and in the south-west approaches off Falmouth. The savings were substantial. Withdrawing the ETVs elsewhere in the UK saved the public purse approximately £32.5 million over the last spending review period. The ETV based in Orkney in the Northern Isles is funded until 31 March, at a cost of roughly £2 million to £3 million per year.

The availability of commercial tug and salvage operations in such areas persuaded us that it was no longer appropriate for the UK taxpayer to fund that provision. That decision has been borne out by the fact that commercial tows have provided assistance where that has been necessary. However, we recognised that the picture was different on the Scottish coast, where there is a lack of larger commercial tugs. One Government-funded tug has been retained since then, based at Kirkwall in the Orkneys, and can operate both to the north and to the west.

The positioning of the ETV was carefully considered and was based on the density of shipping across the Northern and Western Isles region, notably of tanker vessels; the availability of shelter during inclement weather; and the ready availability of effective logistics support. On balance, the density of shipping, particularly of tanker vessels, carried the greatest weight and predicated the stationing of the tug in and around the Orkney Islands. That provision costs the taxpayer between £2 million and £3 million annually, as I have mentioned.

Since its retention in 2011, the emergency towing vessel Herakles has been used to offer a tow just four times. The tug has been asked to stand by and ready itself for potential towage on other occasions purely as a precautionary measure. At no time has any ship needing a commercial tow failed to secure one, nor has there been any occurrence of pollution within the marine environment through a lack of a timely and effective towing service. It is therefore right that we consider whether it is appropriate for the UK taxpayer to continue to fund that provision. We have not included the provision in our current spending plans.

In fairness to the Minister he is genuinely allowing us to have an exchange of views. However, I find his argument akin to saying, “My house was built in 1906 and it has not been on fire since, and therefore I do not need fire insurance for my house.” The reality is—this is the point made by the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber in this debate—that we should have an insurance policy. The Minister is telling me that, no matter the age of my house, I do not need insurance for my house—or, in this case, coastal insurance. In that, the UK Government have been found short and very wanting.

The hon. Gentleman is quite correct to raise the issue of risk. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland talked about the MCA looking at all potential risks. Indeed, the risk assessment by the MCA looked at all factors, including mechanical failure, collision risk, traffic volumes and the weather, including the very severe weather that can affect that part of the world. The stakeholder meeting on 10 February scrutinised the risk assessment, and all parties agreed with the assessment, including the fact that risk levels increase without ETV provision. The MCA will carry out further refinement of the risk assessment in the light of stakeholder discussions.

I am listening very carefully to the hon. Gentleman, who is being very considerate with his time. He is identifying that there is a risk from the removal of the ETV. We already know that a grounding has taken place at Ardnamurchan. We already know that the MCA has referred to the time it took to travel to that vessel. The Orkney vessel cannot provide that degree of protection in a timely manner on the west coast. To give security to our community, we need to retain the insurance cover that many of us have mentioned. We need the vessel in Orkney, but we desperately need the vessel on the west coast. What will the Minister say if we end up with an incident at some point in the future—heaven forbid—if we could have had such an ETV to give us at least a degree of protection. That is the price we are asking the Government to pay tonight.

I have made the point that the one vessel we have is best stationed where it is because of the risk and the type of traffic to which it can respond.

We have not made a final decision on whether this provision should continue. I have asked the MCA to consult all interested parties on two questions. First, what is the shared view on the risk of pollution off the coast of Scotland and how has that changed since 2011?

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Simon Kirby.)

The second question is what alternative arrangements are available to maintain an appropriate towage capability that could reduce the burden on the UK taxpayer.

As we have heard, the MCA held its first consultative meeting in Edinburgh on 10 February. It was attended by the agency’s chief executive, Sir Alan Massey, which demonstrates the priority the Government give to this matter. I was delighted to hear that the engagement of stakeholders and interested parties was positive and constructive.

In refining the risk assessment, there are many factors to take into account, including the density of shipping, the variety of cargoes, the size of today’s ships, the scenarios in which ships may get into difficulty and, of course, the picture of available tugs and salvage solutions. The MCA’s officials have gathered a great deal of additional information to add to their understanding of the current risk. It is clear, however, that the overall risk picture is similar to how it looked in 2011, when the decision was taken to retain one Government-funded tug.

I did not intend to speak in this debate, but I have heard the Government talk about risk on so many occasions and it strikes me that they are being very badly briefed, because they do not seem to understand what risk means. At the very simplest, two components are being misunderstood. The first is the probability of an event occurring. To follow what my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) said, even if something might happen only once every 50 years, it could happen next week. It does not mean that we will have to wait 50 years for it to occur.

The second point, on which very little has been said, is that we must take account of the nature of the negative outcome. I would argue, as have many people, that because of the nature of shipping today and the types of cargo that are being moved, such as waste, the catastrophic nature of the negative outcome is greater than it would have been 20 or 30 years—

Order. I know that the hon. Gentleman said that he was not going to make a speech, but if he kept his interventions a bit shorter, we would all be very grateful.

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that the Government are acutely aware of the risk and the damage that could be caused to the environment or, indeed, the loss of life that could occur if that risk is not correctly assessed and the response correctly put in place.

The meeting on 10 February started to explore whether there might be alternative ways to provide a tug capability. Another meeting with stakeholders is scheduled for Edinburgh on 9 March. We may find that a longer-term solution rests not on one approach, but on a combination of options. I want to give the MCA time and space to work through all reasonable options with the stake- holders to find a longer-term solution. That considered thought and the development of expert advice simply cannot be achieved before the current funding ends on 31 March.

I can therefore announce to the House that I have instructed the MCA to make immediate arrangements to extend the provision of a Government-funded emergency towing vessel to mirror the current arrangement until 30 September this year. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland for making the case for that in such a positive way. The MCA and my Department will find the money for the additional provision from any underspend across our budgets. This is not additional expenditure.

The Minister is to be congratulated on this announcement. It is clearly not the end of the story, but it is a significant act of good faith. I thank him for taking this step this evening. Will he take away from the House the message that came from the stakeholder engagement meeting on 10 February, which was that this work has to be done again and it has to be done properly? The standard and content of the risk assessment is not good enough. He has given us time. Will that time be used to do the work properly?

I have already made the point that the level of risk has not changed substantially since previous assessments, but we do need to explore other ways in which that risk could be addressed. The point was made about the availability of tugs because, sadly, of the demise of the North sea oil industry and other areas where we may be able to come up with something more cost-effective.

We welcome the announcement the Government have made this evening. That is the right thing to do. What I would say to the Minister, however, is that we explained what happened in Ardnamurchan. The ETV cannot get from Orkney in a reasonable time. In the light of the decision the Minister has made this evening and of the risk assessment that must take place, will he revisit the need and desire for a second vessel based in Stornoway to cover the west coast, based on a realistic understanding of risk as outlined by me, my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Roger Mullin) and others? We cannot accept that our communities should be left at risk. This is a small price to pay. We need that insurance policy. I am grateful that the Orkney vessel is being kept on for the next six months, but please let us make sure we get a solution that protects all our communities. That means the re-establishment of a two-vessel solution for the north and the west of Scotland.

I certainly hear what the hon. Gentleman says. The provision of the ETV and the steaming times to get to certain locations where it may be needed is something we need to address. I urge all those with an interest to seize the opportunity this extra time brings to work with the MCA to implement a longer term strategy to meet this need. I hope right hon. and hon. Members will give their encouragement for that.

As I have said in response to questions from hon. Members, the Government recognise the importance of ensuring shipping activities off the coast of Scotland remain safe.

I am very grateful for the Government U-turn, although it is only for six months. We have concentrated a lot on pollution, but two months ago the cruise ship Star Pride ran aground at 6.15 am on 22 December near Isla de Coiba, Panama. In such a situation many lives are in peril. Luckily, the climate was better there. There is increased cruise traffic off the west coast of Scotland. Where are the tug boats or the security to ensure that such a situation would not turn into a human catastrophe? We talk about environmental catastrophes, but we have to be aware of human catastrophes. The Government are making a U-turn, but I hope that they carry on steaming further south and think of the Hebrides and the west coast too.

I have already made it very clear that we have two considerations in terms of the marine environment and pollution, particularly from vessels carrying oil, but there is also the potential loss of life from vessels that cannot receive timely assistance.

I will make a final decision about whether it is right for the UK taxpayer to continue funding the emergency towing vessel provision in the light of the MCA’s advice before the end of September. We look forward to colleagues giving evidence and giving their views on that consideration. I will, of course, be consulting Scottish Ministers on those options before a final decision is made. As I have said, I am happy to meet island councils to hear their ideas for the future. Indeed, I look forward to travelling north, if the diary allows and now there will be a bit more daylight up there, to visit some of the locations and hear at first hand from people on the ground.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.