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Hovercraft (Application of Enactments) and Merchant Shipping (Prevention of Pollution) (Law of the Sea Convention) Amendment Order 2022

Volume 822: debated on Wednesday 15 June 2022

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Hovercraft (Application of Enactments) and Merchant Shipping (Prevention of Pollution) (Law of the Sea Convention) Amendment Order 2022.

My Lords, this order amends two distinct instruments to give the Government powers in two areas: first, to apply pollution prevention requirements in the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers, which I will refer to as the STCW convention, to hovercraft; and, secondly, to provide strengthened enforcement powers for breaches of requirements by all ships, including hovercraft, relating to the prevention of pollution. These powers must be contained in an Order in Council because the Merchant Shipping Act 1995 and the Hovercraft Act 1968 require it.

This order has no impact in itself on the only commercial hovercraft route in the UK—Southsea to Isle of Wight—in respect of which there is one operator and two hovercraft, operating in inland waters. In addition, there is no impact because this order simply creates powers to make secondary legislation. These powers are needed as a result of the repeal of Section 2(2) of the European Communities Act 1972, following the UK’s exit from the European Union, which provided the powers for the pollution prevention requirements in the regulations that currently implement the STCW convention. The repeal of Section 2(2) means that such provision relating to hovercraft cannot be made, or existing provision remade.

The STCW convention sets the standards required for seafarers to obtain the internationally recognised certificates required for seafarers to work on vessels that operate internationally. The convention has been subject to a number of recent amendments affecting seafarer training; these amendments are intended to be implemented in regulations, replacing existing regulations that implemented the STCW convention. Criminal sanctions relating to breaches apply to shipowners, operators and masters who fail to ensure that their seafarers are qualified, certified and discharge their obligations in accordance with the convention requirements, including the latest amendments to the STCW convention. Although these amendments do not affect hovercraft, other provisions of the STCW convention, such as manning, watchkeeping and the requirements to ensure that seafarers are trained and certified in accordance with the convention, will continue to be applied to hovercraft and will be contained in the new replacement regulations.

In the absence of Section 2(2), the current powers to provide for criminal sanctions for a breach of STCW training and manning requirements relating to the prevention of pollution do not include custodial penalties. This contrasts with the criminal sanctions available for breaches of safety requirements, which include custodial sentences of up to two years. It is therefore necessary to have the same provision available for contravention of the pollution prevention requirements in the new regulations implementing the STCW convention, as the training and manning requirements in the convention relate to both safety and prevention of pollution. Without the powers created by this order, the recent amendments to the STCW convention cannot be adequately enforced in UK law, and existing provision for custodial penalties and hovercraft cannot be remade. This order provides those powers.

In even more detail, this order will ensure that the pollution prevention obligations in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, known most commonly as UNCLOS, can be applied in full to hovercraft in the same way that they apply to ships. It also applies other up-to-date pollution prevention-enabling powers in the Merchant Shipping Act 1995 to hovercraft. This means that UK regulations governing hovercraft can include provision for pollution prevention that derives from UNCLOS. This order also enables manning requirements in Section 47 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995, which apply to ships, to be applied to hovercraft. Finally, this order makes discrete amendments to the order enabling the implementation of the pollution prevention obligations in UNCLOS. The UNCLOS order needs to be updated so that regulations made under it can prescribe custodial sentences in respect of offences for breaches of requirements in those regulations.

I have highlighted the importance of this draft Order in Council so that, in the absence of Section 2(2) of the ECA, we can, first, continue to apply pollution prevention provision in the STCW convention to hovercraft and, secondly, impose custodial penalties in relation to all ships in so far as they relate to prevention of pollution. I look forward to contributions from noble Lords.

My Lords, I have no comment to make on the hovercraft provisions but should like to raise two points. I am concerned about possible creeping criminalisation for seafarers. A pollution incident could take place due to a fault in a valve, a pipe or some such—work that could have been done by a shipyard or other third party—or something for which the crew are arguably not specifically responsible. I want the Minister to be very careful about extending to seafarers in this way criminalisation which might not be appropriate.

The second point is that shipping is a reserved power, but the legislation will generate different actions depending on the registered port of the vessel, so that a vessel registered in Aberdeen would not be liable to action, whereas a vessel registered in Southampton would. It would not matter per se whether the incident happened in the UK or elsewhere in the world, but the provisions in Scotland appear to be different and, if the ship is registered in Scotland, British ships could incur different penalties for a similar offence.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her introduction of this very interesting SI. My first question is: why now, apart from the fact that Brexit has happened? We have all been travelling on hovercraft for 40 years or more, and one could assume, therefore, that it has been all right to pollute from hovercraft for 40 years without anyone worrying and you need only one person on the bridge because the regulations do not apply to hovercraft. Can the Minister explain why hovercraft are different? There are other types of fast passenger boats around these days—they are probably called “jet boats”, or something like that. I am not sure why a hovercraft is so different, apart from the fact that it gets its lift from air which does not leak out. It is still a craft and therefore obviously still needs to be subject to the pollution regulations and the manning rules.

On manning, is the intention to make rules for hovercraft the same as for any other passenger vessel, where, I think, the rule is that if you do not have more than 12 passengers, you can have one person as the crew, whatever the size of boat? But then there are various rules according to the number of passengers, size of ships, weather conditions and everything else. Hovercraft generally do not operate in bad weather in the way that many ships can. Perhaps the Minister can explain how the manning regulations would be different on a hovercraft from an ordinary ship in the number of crew wanted.

Lastly, I think that, as the Minister said, the only service now in the UK is the one across to the Isle of Wight, but there used to be one across the channel. If that re-emerges in some shape or form—between the UK and France or another EU country—will we get into the same knot as has happened with P&O Ferries with manning and everything else? I hope that will not involve coming back here with some more regulations; I hope it is already covered. I look forward to her answers.

I thank the Minister for her introduction, and the noble Lord, Lord Mountevans, for pointing out that the situation will be different in Scotland. It will also be different in Northern Ireland, so far as I understand it from my reading of the SI.

No, the situation will not be different in Wales; as so often, it is a case of “England and Wales”.

I join the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, in asking why this is happening at this point. My research suggests that not only is there only one public hovercraft service left in Britain, but there appears to be only one commercial hovercraft service left in the world. If that is the case, hovercraft really are yesterday’s technology. They are even less likely to make a comeback following the huge increases in the price of fuel, because they consume very high amounts of fuel as well as being unreliable as a passenger service, of course, because they are difficult to operate in bad weather—and we get a lot of that in the UK. In modern terms, although hovercraft are exciting and interesting to travel on, they are environmentally unacceptable because of their high fuel consumption.

My suspicious mind led me to wonder whether there was a specific Isle of Wight issue. I would be grateful if the Minister would address in her answer whether specific aspects will be applied to the Isle of Wight service, which, despite all that I have said, is an important part of the infrastructure connections for people living on and visiting the island.

When I had stopped wondering why the measure was being introduced now, after all these years, I wondered whether this was part of the major catching-up exercise that the Minister has bravely embarked on in her department. We know that the Department for Transport has a backlog of marine legislation that long pre-dates her coming into her position there. Is this part of a routine catching up to ensure that we can apply rules to hovercraft that apply to other types of seagoing vehicle? I would be grateful if the Minister could answer my questions now, or in writing afterwards if she is unable to do so immediately.

My Lords, I welcome this order to support the Government in meeting pollution prevention requirements and ultimately making our waters safer in compliance with international standards. Hovercraft are a technical wonder but can be particularly harmful to the natural environment. Although the usage of these vehicles in the United Kingdom is not particularly widespread—indeed, it is not spread at all—Ministers are right to consider how we can eliminate their negative effects.

Although the UK is currently no longer a world leader in sea transport, by decarbonising maritime we can certainly aspire to become one yet again. I hope this instrument can form a small contribution towards that goal.

However, it is disappointing that the development of this order has not been used as an opportunity to properly engage with the limited hovercraft industry that exists today in the UK. While I appreciate the reasons given by the department for not formally consulting on this legislation, I hope the Minister can at least clarify that discussions took place with those who operate in the sector. I also hope she is able to confirm the Government’s wider strategy for improving the cleanliness of the seas through better regulation of the maritime environment.

The noble Lord, Lord Mountevans, raised a point about the criminalisation of seafarers, and I am sure we all share with him that this should not be unreasonable. But we are in an environment—I think Grenfell has brought this environment to our attention—in which the assurance that regulations are fit for purpose, which is the responsibility of government and its agencies, and the execution of those requirements must have a clear responsibility chain. I have no idea about the detail of these orders, but it has to be a good thing for seafarers to be required to be responsible for their craft and confident, as far as reasonably practical, that the state of their craft and its operation are properly regulated.

I am all in favour of this sort of regulation. The important thing is that it must be good regulation that is easy to understand and fairly implemented. There is no case for poor regulation. There is much that good regulation does, and in circumstances where it breaks down it sometimes has a catastrophic consequence.

I thank all noble Lords for their consideration of this order. It was a helpful discussion, and I will address some of the points raised as I am able. I may well write a letter, but I hope not to on this occasion because I think I have some answers, which makes a change.

I turn first to the noble Lord, Lord Mountevans, and the creeping criminalisation of seafarers. It is right that seafarers are held to account, and we should not expect anything other than that. However, it is also the case that we need to make sure that the right seafarers are held to account, and that it is not those at the bottom of the tree who bear the brunt and end up receiving the penalties. It should be those with the responsibility for ensuring that vessels meet the requirements, wherever they come from. It is not our intention to criminalise unnecessarily, but we want to make sure that the appropriate penalties are available where breaches occur and, in this case, that breaches of both safety and pollution prevention incur criminal penalties.

The noble Lord mentioned differences between Southampton and Aberdeen, but I am not sure that there would be. The order enables the Secretary of State to make regulations to make provisions to impose fines and a custodial sentence of up to two years, and that would be the same under the Scottish system as under the England and Wales system. If I have got that wrong, I will write to him. It would not be right that vessels could just go off to Aberdeen and say, “Sorry, you can’t put me in jail up here because I am in Scotland”. I am sure nobody wants that. I will look into that in a little more detail.

The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, asked: why now? This is resulting from an international obligation, and we are very keen to make sure, particularly on maritime—as the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, pointed out—that we really are working in as close a lock-step as we possibly can. Noble Lords may say, “Why hovercraft? Aren’t they some outdated technology, et cetera?”. We may think that now, but that does not mean it will be the case in future. Who knows what may come along in future?

The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, also questioned why it is different. There is an entirely different legislative underpinning to hovercraft, as I have now learnt. They are viewed as very different vessels. Certain regulations apply just to them because they have their specific foibles. The point about what we are trying to do today is to make sure that there is as level a playing field as possible. It is all about bringing together as many vessels as appropriate under the same umbrella to create that level playing field, which I think noble Lords would all agree is fair.

More specifically, hovercraft are subject to something called the high-speed code, within which many of the underlying requirements are the same. For example, manning requirements are the same, although the training required under the high-speed code is slightly different. That is where the differences really occur for hovercraft. This is really more about good housekeeping: because we have lost Section 2(2), we need to make sure that we still have that power available so that everybody has the same requirements as are needed.

The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, asked about the maritime backlog. I am reliably told that this order is not actually part of that backlog, but who knows? There is still a maritime backlog, but it is getting better. My colleague the Minister for Maritime, Robert Courts, appeared in front of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee and we were able to update that committee in April this year to say that there are now nine SIs left to make, out of the original backlog of 13. I think that backlog of 13, which is now nine, possibly has things in it which are slightly more substantive than this provision. This is just an opportunity that we took.

The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, asked about discussions taking place with those who operate in the sector. This is difficult, because nobody actually operates in the sector and there is no indication that the people who currently operate to the Isle of Wight, which is an internal service, are going to change their service at all. They would therefore not be covered. The noble Baroness, in her suspicious way—I was very perturbed about this—assumed that something terrible was going to happen to the Isle of Wight service. I can reassure her that this has nothing to do with the Isle of Wight, so she should not worry: that service will continue.

There will of course be consultations and impact assessments relating to the wider STCW regulations, but that is not for today. That is a whole different kettle of fish that we will, no doubt, have much enjoyment with in due course. For the time being, I hope I have managed to cover all of the questions, apart from that of the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, about decarbonisation of the maritime sector. I probably do not have time for that today, but perhaps will on another day. In the meantime, I commend this instrument to the Committee.

Motion agreed.