Merchant Shipping (Safety of Navigation) Regulations 2002

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Andrew George (St. Ives): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Griffiths.

The regulations are important, and I agree with the hon. Member for Vale of York that some important questions need to be asked. The hon. Lady asked many of those questions, which I shall not reiterate, other than to emphasise that a forum such as this is perhaps not the most appropriate place to test the technical features of international shipping. We need to ensure that new technical arrangements for shipping are also scrutinised by Select Committees and by other methods.

The debate has highlighted the need possibly for further legislation. I do not know whether the Minister would care to comment on the altered position regarding not only safety at sea but security from terrorist outrages. The increased use of satellite navigation and transponder systems enable not only other shipping but security vessels and establishments to interrogate a ship about what it is carrying. I hope that the Government would welcome more information being available through satellite surveillance and transponder systems, although that is not covered by these regulations. Such information is already used to implement enforcement measures that apply to fishing vessels over 25 m.

Several questions arise. I am told by one seaman, Captain Tony Starling Lark, whom I consult on all maritime matters and who happens to be chairman of the sea safety group, that, under chapter V of SOLAS, a captain can switch off the AIS so that no one can interrogate the ship. To allow AIS to be switched off when everyone is supposed to be using it will detract from the effectiveness of the system. According to Captain Starling Lark, the master of a vessel can switch off the AIS system when it is desirable to do so.

Schedule 4, paragraph 22 refers to ''reasonable steps''. I do not know whether that term applies to the throwing-off of AIS systems, but it would be helpful if the Minister gave the Committee an idea of what taking ''reasonable steps'' refers to. According to Captain Starling Lark, systems can be turned off not only in emergencies but on other occasions. That raises security questions, as well as safety questions.

With regard to enforcement, an issue in which I am particularly interested, I should like the Minister to say in how many inspections and boardings the British authorities have engaged in recent years. Are there records of that? How many inspections are planned? How many offences have been detected in the past couple of years? How many convictions have been made, and what sentences have been imposed? How many of those convictions were secured against vessels

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registered in the United Kingdom, and how many against foreign vessels? Can the Minister say where the main enforcement problem lies? Many comments are made about the varying standards for different countries' flag vessels, so it would be interesting to have an answer to those questions.

Schedule 3, paragraph 4 refers to reporting systems, and it would be helpful—although perhaps only to me—to know how often the Minister thinks that ships should be reporting. Will it be a regular event, and in what circumstances should ships update their reports to coastal authorities? Is the Minister happy about whether the systems are adequate for safety? Captain Starling Lark tells me that using AIS in anti-collision situations is ''a seaman's nightmare.'' A set of regulations that is adhered to by 95 per cent. of people already exists. Most of the other 5 per cent. use very high frequency radio transmission, and problems occur when they misunderstand what is being said. The use of radar as an anti-collision device should be written into chapter V of SOLAS.

I should mention the point made by the hon. Member for Vale of York about the failure on the part of mariners to respond properly, as well as the issue of whether the opportunity for consultation was given. Is the Minister concerned about the view expressed by Captain Starling Lark, and the need to comply with IMO and SOLAS requirements? There are differences of view among very senior mariners.

In a recent article for the Parliamentary Maritime Review, Captain Starling Lark says that

    ''the number of recorded collisions and serious incidents are increasing again. The majority of those recorded, show the cause to lie in actions taken by watchkeepers in contravention to the very Collision Regulations that lie at the foundation of the safe navigation of all vessels.''

The Minister will also be well aware of the excellent report by Rear Admiral John Lang, chief inspector of the marine accident investigation branch, which highlighted concern. He says:

    ''I am concerned by an apparent decline in bridge watchkeeping standards'',

which was a theme that he developed in the report itself. On the basis of the information on recent evidence of collision and serious incidents at sea, does the Minister genuinely believe that the implementation of these international developments, which I welcome, will improve safety standards and reduce the numbers of collisions at sea?

5.5 pm

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge): I apologise for detaining the Committee. I will not try to get my head around some of the more complicated issues, but I have been reading through the regulations as I have been sitting here and I have three points of clarification. The Minister, with his vast experience, may be able to help me with them. I apologise if they are blindingly obvious, but Uxbridge is a long way from the sea.

First, regulation 2(4) refers to hovercraft, so I presume they are included in the measures. What size must the hovercraft be? Do the measures relate only to

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seagoing hovercraft or to anything capable of going to sea?

Secondly, regulation 4(2)(c) states that the regulations do not apply to

    ''ships navigating solely the Great Lakes of North America and their connecting and tributary waters as far east as the lower exit of the St. Lambert Lock at Montreal in the Province of Quebec, Canada.''

It may be obvious why that area is excluded, but are other areas also excluded? What happens if a ship is suddenly sold and moved to that area?

Finally, regulation 8, which relates to restrictions on the granting of exemptions, states:

    ''The Secretary of State shall not grant an exemption under regulation 7 unless he is satisfied that

    (a) compliance with such provision is either impracticable or unreasonable for the class of ship or individual ship concerned''.

When might it be impracticable or unreasonable?

5.7 pm

Mr. Jamieson: I thank the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) for his usual careful and studied comments on this matter. In his opening remarks, he asked about scrutiny of the regulations. I agree that a Committee such as this is not the place for detailed scrutiny of the technical aspects of the measures—I imagine that none of us is equipped for that. That is why they have gone through all of the processes and had such detailed examination by those who understand the issues, and why they have gone to consultation. Those who are knowledgeable in the subject can make their views known to us—both at the stage at which discussions take place in the IMO and now, when we introduce the regulations. Although this forum may be inadequate for detailed scrutiny, in a parliamentary sense it is a good forum in which to raise the matters that are important to hon. Members.

I know Captain Starling Lark and appreciate the views that he expresses. I seem to bump into him in various places throughout the country. The hon. Gentleman asked about matters relating to satellite surveillance. That is not part of chapter V, but is currently under discussion in the IMO for inclusion in chapter II of SOLAS, which deals with security. Those provisions may come into effect from 2004 onwards.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the ability to switch off the system. In a general sense, it would not be in the interests of the captain or owners of a ship to have the system switched off. However, there are circumstances in which there may be perceived dangers—from pirates, for example. That is not a problem around our coast, but in certain parts of the world it is a problem. It may be appropriate in those circumstances for the master to take action that he thought correct, but we would not expect that to be the general practice. Ships would not have anything to gain from doing so, because they would then be unable to receive warnings of hazards from coastal stations.

The hon. Gentleman referred to what he called the seaman's nightmare. The AIS is not intended to facilitate VHF bridge-to-bridge communications, but

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it helps navigation by giving extra information that radar cannot give, such as the heading and rough size of a ship. That complements the radar system and gives more information on screen as it is required, which can sometimes be very useful. Another advantage is that because it is a global positioning system, it will give a pinpoint identification of the ship's position, whereas radar systems are accurate to only about 1 per cent., which can lead to large differences in determining where a ship is.

The hon. Gentleman asked about inspections. Ships have an annual survey of their navigation equipment, and port state control, both in this country and around the world, may carry out random checks. As he will know, our Maritime and Coastguard Agency is excellent at carrying out such inspections. I do not have to hand the figures on convictions and particular vessels, but I get regular reports from port state control and know that we are extremely vigilant, particularly with ships from countries where there is not the same vigilance. When we feel that their flag state inspections are not as good, we ensure that our port state control inspections are better. As the hon. Gentleman will know, it is a matter of pride for the United Kingdom that we have the best record in the world for port state control inspections. I am proud and pleased to be able to say that.

The hon. Gentleman asked about legislation on security and whether there would be further amendments to SOLAS. We are considering employing SOLAS chapter V precisely to that end, and much intensive work is going on in the IMO with a view to revising SOLAS to address some of the important security issues to which he referred. It is hoped that an agreement will be reached to revise SOLAS to take account of security concerns at the diplomatic conference in December this year.

I am pleased to see the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall)—we keep bumping into each other in Committees. He asked about hovercraft. For the purpose of the regulations, they are ships when operating in domestic waters, so they are covered. He asked why the Great Lakes of North America were mentioned. That is because the regulations apply to international waters and are based on a standard SOLAS provision.

On regulation 8 exemptions, the wording comes from SOLAS chapter V and was agreed by the IMO. Regulation 4(1) is a standard regulation made under section 85 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995 to apply to all United Kingdom ships wherever they may be and to other ships while they are in UK waters. I hope that that has helped the Committee.

The measures have been discussed at the IMO at great length and will provide a major contribution to safety at sea. I commend them to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

    That the Committee has considered the Merchant Shipping (Safety of Navigation) Regulations 2002 (S.I., 2002, No. 1473).

Committee rose at fourteen minutes past Five o'clock.

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The following Members attended the Committee:
Griffiths, Mr. Win (Chairman)
Barker, Gregory
Barnes, Mr.
Barrett, John
Betts, Mr.
Campbell, Mr. Ronnie
George, Andrew
Jackson, Helen

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Jamieson, Mr.
McIntosh, Miss
Randall, Mr.
Ryan, Joan
Shipley, Ms
Smith, Llew
Watts, Mr.

 
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Prepared 22 October 2002