Powers of Fire Authorities

Merchant Shipping and Maritime Security Bill [Lords] – in the House of Commons am 6:45 pm ar 17 Mawrth 1997.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Dr Norman Godman Dr Norman Godman , Greenock and Port Glasgow 6:45, 17 Mawrth 1997

I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 5, line 6, leave out 'whether or not'.

The Minister knows of my concern about the clause. I begin by quoting the excellent notes on clauses provided by his officials, paragraph 3 of which reads: This clause adds a new paragraph (dd) after paragraph (d) enabling fire authorities to employ the fire brigade or use their equipment anywhere at sea, whether or not within the United Kingdom's territorial sea". If it were accepted, which I doubt it will be, the amendment would change the clause by leaving out the words "whether or not".

In response to the Minister's kind and generous invitation to write to him with my reservations, I did so—and I see that he has received my brief letter. In it, I quoted a letter that I received from Firemaster John Jameson of Strathclyde fire brigade. I know of no firefighter who would refuse to go to the assistance of someone caught in an emergency, but the clause creates real problems for firemen and firewomen.

John Jameson says in his letter, of which the Minister has already seen a couple of paragraphs: The Fire Service in Strathclyde for humanitarian reasons would wish to respond to any life threatening incident, including an incident at sea. The response can only be effective if the fire fighters are well trained, have reliable transportation and are properly equipped for the incident. Section 1 (i)(a) of the 1947 Act states that the Fire Authority shall secure the service of such a Fire Brigade and such equipment as may be necessary to meet efficiently all normal requirements". Firemaster Jameson goes on to say: Fire fighting at sea is such a rare event in Scotland that it could not be described as a normal requirement for Fire Authorities to be equipped and trained to meet. It therefore requires special training and specialised equipment to enable fire fighters to deal safely with a deep sea incident. My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) has mentioned the specialist training facilities at the centre in McDonald road, Edinburgh. I have visited those facilities, where I know many mariners have been trained to fight fires at sea in simulated conditions. I think that John Jameson is right to stress the fact that fighting fires at sea requires special training. He goes on to say in respect of health and safety: The requirements of the Health and Safety legislation, quite properly in my view, place very stringent responsibilities upon the Fire Authority and the personnel of the service to ensure adequate steps have been taken with regard to the health and safety of persons. To meet the requirements of the legislation the Brigade would be required to provide the following: all personnel would require to undergo survival at sea courses and attend revision courses. Survival suits including helmets would be provided for all offshore personnel. Special carriers for firefighting equipment would have to be purchased. Extensive ship firefighting training would require to be carried out covering not just wholetime fire personnel but also the retained members. Helicopter training would be extensive and costly in financial terms. Boat to boat transfer training for the high seas would be costly in time and finance". I have quoted this letter at length because it comes from a highly experienced Scottish firemaster, and no one in this place should disregard the serious concerns voiced by such a fine and honourable man.

There are other problems. Professor Robert Black, professor of Scots law in the faculty of law at Edinburgh university kindly gave me a copy of the opinion that he wrote for the Fire Brigades Union. He had a number of things to say that the Minister and his officials need to "take on board"—perhaps I should say, need to take seriously.

Professor Black says: The very real likelihood in an offshore firefighting situation that the person whose negligence caused the firefighter's injury, and who is thus the potential defender in any action for damages, is not domiciled in Scotland, presents grave legal and practical obstacles to the successful pursuit of the firefighter's claim". We all of course hope that no one will ever be injured in an emergency, but injuries are inflicted on firemen. He goes on to say: These difficulties are exacerbated if the firefighter's injury was sustained outwith United Kingdom territorial waters (generally twelve nautical miles from the coastal low-water line)". The professor is saying that the general rule under Scots law is that a person seeking legal redress must apply for it in the courts of the place where the person against whom it is sought is domiciled. He goes on to say that if an injury from an emergency is sustained in our territorial waters, the Scottish courts could then deal with such a claim: It follows that in all cases where the accident to the firefighter did not occur in Scotland (as defined above)", the injured personwould have to seek redress against a defender whose domicile was outwith Scotland in the home courts of that defender and not in the courts of Scotland". I should like to hear the Minister's response to this key element in the opinion. Professor Black goes on to say: If the delict occurred in the territorial waters adjacent to the coast of Scotland then Scots law alone falls to be applied as both the lex fori and the law of the place of the delict (lex loci delicti): see Private International Law: Choice of Law in Tort and Relict". He then quotes his sources, and continues: If the delict occurred on the high seas (and does not fall within … the above) … and is not purely internal to a single ship, then the maritime law of Scotland alone falls to be applied … If the delict occurred on the high seas (and does not fall within sub-para (a) above) and is purely internal to a single ship, the double actionability rule applies and the pursuer must satisfy the court of the entitlement to damages under both the law of the flag (or port of registry) of the ship (as the lex loci delicti) and Scots law (as the lex fori)". Those are important warnings; the professor is firing across the Minister's bows.

The professor talks about a practical difficulty in Scotland. I do not know how the law stands in England, but before cases are heard in Scottish courts precognitions—a statement made before a court hearing—are frequently sought. The professor asks how such precognitions can be obtained when a firefighter has been injured on the high seas tackling an emergency. He claims: More seriously, there is no mechanism whereby witnesses resident outside the UK can be compelled to come to Scotland to give evidence at a proof here. Where a foreign witness is willing to give evidence, but is unwilling to travel to Scotland to do so, it is normally possible for the Scottish court to arrange for that witness's evidence to be taken, before a commissioner appointed by the Scottish court, in his country of residence. He refers to paragraph 35.11 of the "Rules of the Court of Session 1994".

8 pm

Another means of obtaining evidence from overseas is the letter of request procedure, but it is not very satisfactory because, under the Hague convention on the taking of evidence abroad, dated 18 March 1970, there can be no guarantee that the foreign court will accept the request, or will act upon it timeously or efficiently. The 1970 Hague Convention has not been ratified by such major maritime flag states as Greece, Liberia and Panama. There are problems relating to taking firefighters to the scene of the accident by helicopter. If there is an accident, firefighters' families may be unable to claim compensation. Professor Black finishes by saying that it will be appreciated that the process of obtaining damages for an injured firefighter against a person or corporation domiciled outside the UK is likely to be a complex, troublesome and expensive one, even where the Scottish courts have jurisdiction. A fortiori is this so where the Scottish courts do not have jurisdiction. Firemaster Jameson says that there are serious practical problems. He claims that, despite the undoubted commitment of all our firemen and firewomen to go to the aid of those in danger, resources and special training are needed. He points out that firefighters are rarely taken offshore, but let us not forget the Piper Alpha disaster—God forbid that there is ever a repeat of that dreadful event—in which the emergency services, not firefighters but others, were found to be lacking in trained personnel and in resources. Most of the stand-by vessels, which should have been able to react promptly, were old side trawlers, which were useless for tackling that type of emergency. As Lord Cullen readily acknowledged, the crews were remarkably brave men, but their resources—the aging side trawlers—should not have been there.

I know that the Minister will take it seriously when I say that Firemaster Jameson is right to warn of these problems and that the warnings by Professor Black need to be taken on board so that our firefighters can be protected. If they must go to sea to tackle an emergency, they should be able to do so secure in the knowledge that, if they are injured, they will have recourse to adequate compensation—where Scotland is concerned, in our courts.

Photo of Nick Ainger Nick Ainger , Pembroke

I shall add a few comments in what I am sure will be a short debate. Before I was elected to this place, I was a member of Dyfed county council and of its public protection committee. That committee ran the fire service in Dyfed, which, since the mid-1980s, has been one of the few fire brigades that has had a ship firefighting capability and has trained a select few of its full-time and retained men for offshore firefighting. Milford Haven is one of the largest oil ports, so there is a constant risk of fire on board ships in, or entering or leaving, Milford Haven.

Interestingly, several times firemen from Dyfed fire brigade have fought fires on board tankers within the confines of Milford Haven port authority. The most famous one was on board a ferry, the Naronna, when she was midway between Pembroke dock and Rosslare, slap in the middle of St. George's channel. There was a fire deep in the vessel, producing a great deal of smoke, as a result of which one passenger died. However, the fire crew was able to reach the vessel, using the search-and-rescue helicopters then based in Brawdy in my constituency, and within an hour of the mayday call firefighters were on board the Naronna, bringing the fire under control, saving tens, if not hundreds, of passengers' lives.

The other fire brigade with offshore firefighting capability is Kent fire brigade, which covers not only the usual shipping traffic in the Dover straits but the ferries that sail out of Ramsgate, Dover and other ports on the Kentcoast. I know from my experience with Dyfed fire brigade that whenever a new ferry comes into use, the fire brigade trains on board, getting to know it extremely well internally, in case there is a fire.

As we were constantly told by the finance committee of the county council, all that extra equipment and training was not paid for by anyone. One hoped that to some extent that it was taken into account when the grant that then in some cases came from the Home Office was calculated. Bearing in mind the specific risks posed by the presence of a large petrochemical complex on the shores of Milford Haven, it may have been so organised or arranged that, over the years, the Home Office took the additional cost into account when calculating the grant of the county council. That is obviously a matter for debate. I am certain that, when calculating grant for many coastal county councils and fire authorities, no account has been taken of offshore firefighting capability or the need for it.

The Minister needs to understand that we are not talking about a cheap option; the people who fight fires in a house or factory cannot be immediately transferred to an offshore incident. In the brigade, the idea of training firemen to be delivered by lifeboat was once considered. I know from experience that once one is wearing kit to be ready to go into action quickly—perhaps wearing breathing apparatus or almost ready to enter a situation that requires it—on a lifeboat, when the sea is choppy, certain things start to happen, and that is a significant problem. Ideally, training should always be with helicopters and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) said, that costs money and needs proper planning. I do not argue against what has been included in the Bill; I ask that the Minister recognises that my hon. Friend has highlighted a real issue in terms of resources, training and equipment that the fire authorities will require.

My hon. Friend's second point is worrying, because I am sure that the same legal problems, about which he went into great detail, probably apply in England and Wales as well. If there is no recompense in relation to an injury to a firefighter—or even a death—that needs to be clarified very quickly. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising these issues, because they are very serious. An offshore firefighting capability would be another tool in preventing pollution and possible disasters on board ferries. The Scandinavia Star was travelling only a short distance between Denmark and Sweden but suffered a serious fire that resulted in nearly 200 deaths on board. There was no offshore firefighting capability to deal with that.

This is a very important issue, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow for raising it.

Photo of Mr John Bowis Mr John Bowis , Battersea

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Ainger), who, in a sense, answered the point made by the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) about the need for the ability to fight fires outside territorial waters.

The hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow made important points about equipment, training and so on, and that applies to fighting fires at sea however far out they are. I am sure that his points will have been heard even if they are not totally germane to the amendment. He did me the courtesy of writing to me, as I invited him to do, and I am grateful for his letter, in which he set out some of his concerns. I hope that I can allay them.

Clause 4 is in the Bill as a result of the fire authorities themselves, which asked us to include it because of the lack of clarity on their power to deploy their services to fight fires anywhere at sea, whether or not they are within the United Kingdom's territorial sea—the 12-mile limit. In answer to the hon. Gentleman's general concerns, I repeat the assurance that I gave him in Committee: decisions on whether to deploy their resources at sea will remain a matter for the fire authorities. There can be no question of anybody directing them. It will be their decision whether to respond to a request for help.

In this context, there is no reason to draw a distinction between the territorial sea and waters beyond the 12-mile limit. The fire authorities accept that and, in 1995, a sub-committee of the Scottish Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council said, it is illogical and unacceptable that fire brigades should be authorised to provide assistance to HM Coastguard by way of attendance at incidents at sea only if such incidents occur within the 12 mile limit". The report recommended that the law be changed; clause 4 does that, and we have drawn it to the attention of officers of the Strathclyde fire authority.

In his letter to me, the hon. Gentleman raised two points, which he developed this evening: first, that special training and equipment is required. I accept that, but that applies to fires 11 miles offshore or 13 miles offshore. There is no reason to distinguish between fires inside territorial waters and further out. There is a memorandum of understanding between the Coastguard and the Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers' Association, which covers operating procedures for fighting fires offshore. If a particular fire authority has concerns about the equipment that it should use in such circumstances, it should discuss it with the Coastguard.

The hon. Gentleman's second point concerned the legal and practical problems that might arise if a firefighter was injured while fighting a fire outside territorial waters. It is correct to say that, in those circumstances, if the firefighter wished to bring an action against a ship owner who is not domiciled in Scotland, the action would have to be brought in the courts of the state of domicile of that ship owner. That reflects the long-standing position on the allocation of jurisdiction between states.

In any event, as I have explained, the clause does no more than allow—I stress the word "allow"—fire authorities to fight fires at sea; it does not compel them to do so. No fire authority has suggested to my Department that that possibility would deter it from fighting fires at sea. Indeed, when the Bill was published in draft for consultation last year, all those who commented on the clause were in favour of it.

I understand the points that the hon. Gentleman raised and am grateful for them, but I hope that in the light of my comments he will feel reassured and will withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Dr Norman Godman Dr Norman Godman , Greenock and Port Glasgow

Whoever is in office over the next few weeks will need to study very carefully what Professor Black said in the learned opinion that he gave to the fire brigades union. I have no wish to divide the House on this matter. I have raised the concerns that people have voiced to me and will continue to campaign on their behalf.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.