Draft Offshore Chemicals Regulations 2002

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Brian Cotter (Weston-super-Mare): The hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) drew attention to environmental inspection. It is probably fair to ask not only who will be responsible, but whether there will be proper training. Chief responsibility for the regulations seems to lie with the Department of Trade and Industry, but there is some concern as to whether the sharing of responsibility with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will ensure that matters are dealt with properly.

There was discussion about a fine, although I may have missed the basis on which fines will be levied, and at what level. The document referred in passing to chemical spills. Does responsibility for accidental chemical spills belong to the DTI or other Departments? Perhaps I should know already. Are the Government continuing to upgrade their response to such spills in view of what has happened in the past?

4.51 pm

Mr. Wilson: I am grateful to Opposition Members for their comments and questions, and I shall try to deal with them. The hon. Member for Salisbury recalled the Committee that considered the poll tax in 1990, on which he and I served with you, Mr. O'Brien. I cracked one of my better jokes then, and it is worth repeating. At one point, Sir Michael Shaw was in the Chair, and he drew attention to the fact that three Tory Members of Parliament were reading books and ruled them out of order. On a point of order, I said that the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames)—he was then the hon. Member for Crawley—should be exempted from the stricture, on the grounds that he was colouring his in. I do not crack many good jokes in Committee, so I still remember that.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Salisbury for his comments about the guidance notes. I must modestly point out that my officials were responsible for them, and I am sure that they appreciate his words, which will no doubt be passed on to and appreciated

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by others involved. As usual, his remarks and questions were thoroughly researched, and I respect him for that.

We do not want to be rash on the form of public notice, or do anything to undermine the requirement to advertise in local newspapers. However, I will consider the hon. Gentleman's point about electronic responses. He was right to say that it should be possible to respond electronically, but we must protect the right of people not equipped to respond in that way. The wording of the notice that he read out is the standard format for such notices, with no additional complexity.

The hon. Gentleman raised the subject of flexibility in the implementation period. I am told that the mechanics of that period have been agreed with the industry, so that all operators are aware of when they need to apply for permits. Nevertheless, there is in-built flexibility, and we will continue to work with the industry to develop that.

The hon. Gentleman also asked a variation of quis custodiet ipsos custodes—who the inspectors will be and who will keep an eye on them. Ensuring compliance will be the responsibility of my Department's offshore inspectorate. It already visits installations to check on the application of offshore environmental controls. In addition, we are developing a programme to monitor the marine environment at the discharge points, which will suggest whether predicted discharges are in line with actual discharges. The details of such a programme will have to be discussed internationally.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of unforeseen use provisions and the availability of officials. The regulations and guidance recognise that operators will need to use chemicals in circumstances that could not be foreseen.

The guidance says that operators should consult my Department as soon as possible—that is the crucial distinction—and that permission will not be unreasonably withheld. Contact can be by any practicable means, such as the telephone. We have experts available at all times to respond throughout

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the year. I should perhaps clarify whether that is at all hours of the day and night.

We are well aware of the difficulties of operating offshore, and I can assure hon. Members that we will apply these provisions sensibly and flexibly. There is also a defence in the regulations available to operators about what to do if they had made best efforts to inform, but we will clarify that.

I have nothing to add on costs. The £1.2 million cost must be viewed in perspective: operating costs offshore are about £8 billion. Everyone recognises that £1.2 million is the initial cost, and it will fall as time goes on. I am told that the offshore chemical market is worth about £200 million a year, so even in that context the costs involved in the regulations are not large.

The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Brian Cotter) asked about fines. They will be for the courts to determine. Inspectors will be professionally qualified representatives of the DTI, and will have experience of working in the industry. The question of the quality of the inspection is well taken care of.

The risk assessments prepared by operators as part of their applications for permits will reflect the individual circumstances pertaining to each installation.

The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare also asked whether the DTI has been working with environmental bodies. I am pleased to assure him that the DTI has worked in conjunction with environmental bodies throughout.

4.56 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

5.10 pm

On resuming—

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Offshore Chemicals Regulations 2002.

Committee rose at ten minutes past Five o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
O'Brien, Mr. Bill (Chairman)
Atherton, Ms
Cotter, Brian
Drew, Mr.
Hamilton, Mr. Fabian
Hoban, Mr.
Key, Mr.
Pearson, Mr.
Price, Adam
Purnell, James
Ross, Mr.
Stewart, Ian
Wilson, Mr.

 
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Prepared 8 May 2002