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Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, once again I thank the Minister for his explanation of the Government's amendments and for his comments on amendments that I and my noble friend have tabled. The debate gives us the opportunity not only to consider the amendments but also to reflect on the interim report to which the Minister has already referred. Many of the issues involved in the "Sea Empress" incident have entered the public domain, but perhaps not always in altogether praiseworthy circumstances.
There has been an extensive programme on the BBC on this matter. The programme sought to articulate certain anxieties regarding the system that is deployed by the Government at the present time. Other agencies of the media have also dwelt at some length on these matters. Therefore there must be considerable public concern about the situation. I do not propose to adopt those criticisms because I believe we should await the findings of the final report. However, I propose to ask the Minister certain questions that have been posed. I shall not reach any conclusions as that would be wrong for two reasons. First, these are leaked reports and the final report may not comply with the criticisms raised. We do not know. Secondly, where people or organisations have been criticised it is right that the Minister should have an opportunity to consult with those bodies to give them an opportunity to offer any rebuttal of the criticisms. That is done in the course of all forms of inquiry; and I believe that there is no reason for us to depart from it on this occasion. However, for the reasons that I have already adduced, it is important that we should proceed with the publication of the report at the earliest possible opportunity to dispel some of the criticisms made and/or to ensure that necessary action is taken at the earliest opportunity.
Viscount Goschen: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his constructive and responsible attitude and the remarks he made at the beginning of his intervention on the subject. However, when I respond it is unlikely that I shall be able to answer specific points if they relate to parts of the document that were issued in confidence to those named parties affected. As the statement by the chief inspector said, to do so would be to breach natural justice. I know that the noble Lord will not refer to specific parties in the remarks that he will make. However, we are at present in the middle of an investigation of all the issues. It is clearly in everyone's interest for the investigation to be completed and the report issued as soon as possible. I join with the noble Lord wholeheartedly on that. However, I believe that we should constrain our discussions in particular as regards what is supposed to have been said in a leaked report which forms part of an ongoing investigation.
Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for those observations. I hope that I shall not cause any embarrassment by the questions that I pose. But I start with what was a grave reflection on an individual where action was taken, not by the Government but by the Milford Haven port authority. While the investigation was proceeding, it suspended the pilot who was on board the vessel in what I believe was a wholly unforgivable and premature way. Subsequently, the pilot was reinstated following a further investigation. That is not the way to ensure good relations which are essential between pilots and the port authorities.
I say now as I said earlier that I am the president of the United Kingdom Pilots (Marine) Association. It is a responsible body; I could not be the president otherwise. The fact is that it was a reckless thing to do and I hope that it will not be repeated by any other harbour authorities in any situation which might arise in the future. I say no more about it. However, I hope the Minister will recognise that in the light of what occurred that is a justifiable criticism and does not reflect in any way adversely upon the Government.
There will be government reaction or reaction from others about some of the other matters raised. One matter requires the Government to offer some response now. The Minister has been in touch with NUMAST, the officers' union, about the question of tugs. What the Minister said in effect--he will correct me if I misrepresent the position in any way whatsoever--is that one has to have some regard to the cost involved in using tugs. The question is: how many tugs do you use? How many do you have available? I do not raise now the question whether it would have been appropriate to have more tugs available, and whether in any future situation we shall have to apply to a Mongolian restaurant for translation purposes as was done here with a Chinese takeaway. However, if the Minister says that there are cost implications, as obviously there are, will
It is important to relate the cost also to the cost of not having the tugs available. It is always a difficult factor to measure; but concerning environmental matters we are required to recognise not only the costs of preventing damage to the environment but also the costs of not doing so.
There is an immediate problem. Whether the leaked report is right or wrong is important and worrying, and does not brook delay. The problem relates to the value of the navigational charts which exist in that and other areas. It is said that the navigational charts around the mouth of the harbour were outdated and inadequate. Without commenting on whether that is a justifiable charge, I wish to hear from the Minister whether action is being taken to ensure that navigational charts in sensitive areas in the first place are brought up to date. Perhaps he will comment not on the specifics of the Milford Haven situation but on the action that the Government are taking in a more general way. Information relating to tides is very important. I hope that the Government will be able to assure the House that they are doing their best to ensure that around our coasts accurate information relating to tides is provided.
I understand the Minister's situation. I have suffered myself from what has been called "salvage by committee". It is very difficult because so many interests are involved. One has the sense that if one does not consult while such situations are going on, people with a pecuniary or other interest will feel that they have not been treated fairly. On the other hand, it is very important to ensure that the swiftest possible and most direct action and responsibility is taken when such situations arise. I do not cast blame on the Government even if they are ultimately found to be responsible in some way or another in the final report. I know the pressures that are on the Minister. I know that mistakes can be made by any government. These are largely regulatory matters. Therefore, except where there has been an action taken deliberately (I do not say at this stage that it happened in this case) to take avoiding action or action which might mitigate a disaster on a political basis, I do not criticise the Government. I want to make that very clear.
I repeat: I believe that wider lessons can be learnt than will be available from consideration of the reports that will be made available to us. I have said on many occasions, having consulted the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, that I believe it would have been right--I still believe that it may be right, and it is not too late--to reconvene the committee to see whether any wider lessons can be learnt. I put that point to the Minister once again. I am sorry that I have taken so long, but it is important to comment on some of these matters.
I now turn to the amendments. Amendments Nos. 7 and 8 seek to define the circumstances that trigger intervention. They are comparable in seeking to define an accident. They are not exactly similar but the objects are clearly the same. I suggest that Amendment No. 8 adds certain important components; namely,
The Minister said that the Government take their position from Article 221 of the UNCLOS intervention convention of 1969. He thereby recognises the inadequacy of the existing law. That is why his amendments are before the House today. However, while that definition would probably encompass a systems failure on board, there remain difficulties in the requirement of an imminent threat of material damage to the vessel or to cargo. But when damage is imminent, may it not be too late to intervene? Therefore we suggest expanding the definition of "occurrence" to extend, as in Amendment No. 8, to,
We await the Minister's response to this matter. It is possible that guidance will be issued following the lines of our amendment. I suggest that the Minister might take that idea on board. However, if there is any doubt and he is reluctant to do so, I suggest that our amendment is needed to ensure greater effectiveness and safety of the intervention that is proposed. The suggestions we have made provide in this respect a more secure way of dealing with the matter than that proposed by the Minister.
The Minister dealt with the other amendments. We sought in Amendment No. 4 to clarify the status of the Marine Pollution Control Unit's national contingency plan by giving it formal recognition in the Act. The Minister does not want to do so at this stage.