Amendment to the Motion

Merchant Shipping (Fire Protection) Regulations 2023 - Motion to Approve – in the House of Lords am 7:33 pm ar 2 Mai 2023.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Baroness Scott of Needham Market:

Moved by Baroness Scott of Needham Market

At the end insert “that this House regrets that the draft Regulations represent a 20-year delay in the implementation of vital international safety resolutions; and calls on His Majesty’s Government to take urgent action to address the backlog of international maritime legislation awaiting implementation.”

Photo of Baroness Scott of Needham Market Baroness Scott of Needham Market Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol

My Lords, I have tabled an amendment to the Motion—unusually, not because I disagree with the content of the statutory instrument but for precisely the opposite reason. This is a very important instrument concerning the most serious occurrence that can befall a vessel at sea—namely, a fire. Despite everything the Minister has said, I find it incomprehensible that it has taken the UK Government 20 years to bring these international regulations into domestic law. I am not attacking the Minister, who I know to be diligent and committed to the maritime sector, and nor am I attacking her team of civil servants. However, many Ministers and very many civil servants have been in place over the last 20 years since these regulations needed to be incorporated into domestic law.

As the Minister referred to, the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee’s report on this instrument describes the further 20 IMO regulations that have been agreed to apply to ships exceeding 500 gross tonnes. The Minister mentioned one regulation that was as recent as 2020—but that is still three years ago. The same report noted that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency said that UK ships were “mostly in compliance”. It then went on to say that the ships would have risked being unable to trade in other jurisdictions had they not been in compliance. In other words, the UK has been relying on other countries to enforce these regulations. I put it to the Minister that this is not only bad in itself but damaging to our reputation as a leading maritime nation.

In its most recent report, published earlier this week, the SLSC considered an SI relating to seafarers’ documents. Since 1958, the ILO’s Seafarers’ Identity Documents Convention has included fishermen in its definition of seafarers, but the UK has neglected to bring its regulations in line until now. This is not a theoretical matter—it caused great distress during the pandemic, when fishers were not treated as seafarers—so it is right that it should be corrected now. Again, for a seafaring nation, we have to ask why it was not dealt with sooner.

In October 2021, the then Minister Robert Courts was questioned by the Select Committee about the backlog. The following January, the committee commented on the inadequate information provided to it on a number of SIs. It is a different issue, but it is troubling nevertheless. The International Relations and Defence Committee of our House, in its March 2022 report on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, said:

“It remains unclear why the UK Government has not signed the 1986 Convention on Conditions for Registration of Ships, and we regret that this has not happened”.

It feels to me that this is systemic; a pattern is emerging.

It is fascinating that, in this country, we have spent pretty much the last decade debating sovereignty in its many forms. We have walked away from a 50 year-old alliance to achieve sovereignty, but what we see here is that, in this interconnected world order, many things transcend national boundaries. In that sense, true sovereignty is a myth; it is about the trade-off between the benefits and loss of sovereignty. In the case of shipping—and there are other cases, such as aviation—we give up the right to fully determine our own laws to ensure a safe and competitive shipping industry worldwide. After all that debate, we have a situation where, in the scheme of things, relatively small matters of law have not been brought into domestic legislation, and we have relied on other countries to do that for us.

I am very grateful for, and reassured by, the Minister’s comments on addressing the backlog and that it will be completed this year. However, on her point about resources—and I do understand the problem of resources—can she say that she is confident that she has the resources to continue to keep this up to date in the way she described? As difficult as it is for anyone to comment on retained EU law in this time of uncertainty, does she agree that there is a potential problem if a large number of retained EU laws relating to transport need to be dealt with by the end of the year, as the Bill originally proposed?

The global leadership to which this Government aspire is not just about talking big; it is about being a reliable international partner that respects laws and conventions to which it is a signatory. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Berkeley Lord Berkeley Llafur 7:45, 2 Mai 2023

My Lords, I support the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, and the points she made. I too emphasise that this is not a criticism of the present Minister, who I know is trying very hard to catch up with these regulations; the problem goes back many years before she was appointed.

Today, the issue of fires on ships is very topical, because, as noble Lords will have seen, the ferry “Pentalina” caught fire near Orkney at the weekend and was grounded. I do not think that we know what the cause was, but, luckily, nobody was hurt. It indicates the importance that must be attached to fire prevention on ships. Its sister ship, MV “Alfred”, managed to hit a rock off the Orkney islands last summer—luckily, in broad daylight. Again, nobody was hurt, but these accidents happen, for whatever reason.

It is interesting to reflect that, while the noble Baroness’s amendment mentions a 20-year delay, the issue of lifejackets and bulkheads in river steamers was raised last year, which was 33 years after the “Marchioness” accident, in which a lot of people died. I appreciate that the Government are trying to catch up, but we have to comply with international regulations, and I hope that this work carries on. I am sure that we will all be monitoring the progress that the Minister outlined when she introduced the regulations.

I have one or two questions on some of the issues that the Minister outlined and on things in the Explanatory Memorandum. As we found when we were talking about seafarers’ wages, it is quite difficult and complicated. We are talking here, if I read paragraph 6.1 of the Explanatory Memorandum correctly, about

“passenger ships engaged on international voyages”, which I think means being registered in the UK, and

“a small class of passenger ships engaged on domestic voyages”.

I suppose that includes the ships I have been talking about in the Orkneys. Does it include the ferries to and from the Isle of Wight? Where is the cut-off? It probably includes the “Scillonian III” going to the Isles of Scilly. I have no problem with this; I would just like to know what it applies to and what it does not. If you get a foreign-registered ship operating within the UK, I trust that the regulations still apply to it. It is terribly important that they do, of course.

I was interested to see in paragraph 6.2 the exceptions to the small ships regulations are that

“government ships and naval ships are not within scope of that instrument”.

Does that mean that it does not matter if naval ships catch fire or is there some other reason for not including them? Is there some alternative regulation? Naval ships, like any other ships, have had the habit of catching fire in the past and, clearly, preserving not only the lives of the seafarers but the government asset is pretty important.

I believe there is a sort of boundary between the 500-tonne ships included here and earlier regulations for smaller ships. I think the Minister has mentioned this before, but it would be nice to have some clarity on that.

My final point is on paragraph 7.2 of the Explanatory Memorandum. In her introduction, the Minister mentioned

“fire protection, prevention of fire and explosion, detection and suppression of fire, escape from fire, operational requirements, alternative design and arrangements and other requirements”.

That is a pretty wide-ranging definition. Presumably when the MCA gets round to the detail of this everybody will know what it is talking about but it is not very clear from this. It clearly has the right intention of reducing the risk and the scope of fire.

I suppose the issue that came up in the Explanatory Memorandum, which again the Minister referred to, is the fact that there are 19 different changes under paragraph 7. This indicates that the MCA is keeping up with different changes. That is very good but perhaps she could also explain what “ambulatory” means in relation to fire on ships. I look forward to her responses and again I congratulate her on bringing this forward because it is very difficult, very complicated and going to do good when it becomes legislation. I have posed a few questions and I look forward to her responses.

Photo of Lord Greenway Lord Greenway Crossbench

My Lords, I think this is the first occasion we have had to welcome the Minister to her new post as Shipping Minister. My mind goes back nearly 40 years to when it was almost de rigueur for the Shipping Minister to reside in this House, so it is extremely welcome to have a Shipping Minister back with us again.

These draft resolutions are extremely important, as has been pointed out by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott. Fire, as she said, remains one of the major areas of disaster at sea. Ships, thank God, are not usually built of wood any more but they carry all sorts of noxious substances that burn like hell if they catch fire and there have been a number of notable examples recently even of car batteries catching fire and sinking ships.

I should say we are almost here again. Every time we have one of these regulations coming forward, we say the same thing: why has it taken so long for this to be incorporated into British law? The original fire protection regulations were in 2003 and almost immediately there was a change in 2004. As we have heard, there have been about 20 such changes since then. Why has it all suddenly come into one thing nearly 20 years later? It hints, dare I say it, at a certain amount of sloppiness in the department that these things have not been dealt with more promptly.

Our standing is still, thank goodness, very high in the International Maritime Organization but things like this cannot help in due course. I know we do not have the merchant fleet we had many years ago but we are still an important player in the maritime scene and I think we should be acting more promptly to agree new regulations.

The “ambulatory reference” provision is most welcome because I hope it will put an end to all this complaining about delay because when new regulations come out of the International Maritime Organization it will be automatic in future.

I certainly have a lot of sympathy with the noble Baroness, Lady Scott. The performance of this country has not been up to scratch in these maritime matters, but I welcome the fact that everything should be sorted out by the end of this year.

Photo of Baroness Randerson Baroness Randerson Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Transport)

My Lords, I start by thanking my noble friend for tabling her amendment and giving us the opportunity to raise these important issues. I also thank the Minister and acknowledge her efforts to tackle this backlog which is of such concern to us all. I want to mention here the role of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, of which I recently became a member. I have often referred to its excellent work in making sure that our attention is drawn to these important lapses.

As others have said, this SI relates to a total of about 20 IMO resolutions which successive UK Governments have so far ignored. Some of these, as has been pointed out, date back 20 years. The Minister referred to resources and I think that reveals to us how hopelessly beyond the Government’s capacity are their plans for the future revocation of EU law. If they cannot manage 20 year-old IMO regulations on fire, they are not going to manage several hundred transport-related pieces of legislation.

All of this relates, of course, to fire protection and, as has been pointed out, fire is one of the greatest dangers faced by mariners and their passengers. It is important to remember that these regulations relate to passenger vessels. That means that there will be people on board who are not professionals, not trained in how to respond if a fire breaks out, and not familiar with how things work or the layout of the ship; in other words, there are lots of people on board—the passengers—who are an additional risk, so it is not just mariners and their status we should be concerned about.

Some of these 20 regulations are about fire detection—the design of extinguishers and storage arrangements. As the Minister said, they are very technical. But some of them are about the basic design and construction materials of the ships concerned. So we could be talking about a maritime version of the Grenfell situation, where dangerous materials have been used. I have no reason to believe that that is the case, but I have no evidence, and neither do any of the rest of us, about whether there is a problem, because it has not been the subject of regulation.

I was surprised that the Explanatory Memorandum, in the section on impact, in paragraph 12.3, said:

“Routine surveys … have established that the ships … are … mostly in compliance with the updated Convention requirements”.

If they are not in compliance, of course, they cannot trade internationally. But the phrase “mostly in compliance” is not very reassuring.

I have another question for the Minister. Paragraph 6.2 of the Explanatory Memorandum makes it clear that these regulations do not apply to

“government ships and naval ships”.

The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, referred to this, and I want to press the point. Why do they not apply? What standards do apply to government and naval ships? Is there a technical reason why they are not subject to the same standards? Is there a separate IMO regulation for government and naval ships, or is it an exemption that the UK Government are seizing to avoid imposing the same standards?

Paragraph 6.3 states that regulations for ships operating only on domestic voyages are “currently being reviewed”. The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, also referred to this. I would like to press the Minister on the timescale. How long will it take for this review to be concluded and why would they be any different? A fire at sea is of equal danger whether it applies in UK waters or when the ship is travelling internationally. Can the Minister assure us that domestic shipping will have equal standards of protection? How long will it take to get there?

Finally, I welcome the process outlined in paragraph 6.10, which means that in future the Government will accept new IMO regulations and incorporate them more or less automatically into UK law. That is so sensible, and it is a breath of fresh air to see this Government face up to their international responsibilities rather than try to cut us off from major international organisations. I wonder whether anyone has told Jacob Rees-Mogg that the Government have adopted that policy, but I am fully in support of it.

Photo of Baroness Taylor of Stevenage Baroness Taylor of Stevenage Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport) 8:00, 2 Mai 2023

My Lords, first, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, for moving this regret amendment, which has enabled a good discussion around the issues of compliance on these very important regulations—and I thank the Minister. I certainly get a sense that a real grip is now being taken of some of the issues raised by the amendment. I was grateful for a very detailed and thorough response. I echo the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, in that my comments are certainly not directed at the Minister who is responsible for this now, or at the civil servants dealing with this backlog.

There cannot be many more terrifying prospects than of a fire at sea. The enormous risk to crew and passengers and to those who are charged with rescue, as well as those in adjacent ports and harbours, are incalculable. Therefore, while we would not wish to hold up the implementation of these much-needed regulations, we, too, feel that questions need to be answered relating to the inexplicable delay, in some cases of 20 years, in implementing such a critical safety regime. We note that contained within the wording of the regulation and the Explanatory Memorandum is the detail of a very significant backlog in implementing international legislation which needed very urgent attention from the Government.

We, too, were very grateful for the report of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, which pointed out that the IMO requirements on firefighting and fire protection matters were last implemented in 2003. We note the 20 further IMO resolutions agreed that apply to ships of more than 500 gross tonnes, whether carrying cargo or passengers. It quotes DfT figures that there are 440 ships on the UK flag subject to the IMO requirements in this instrument, of which, as the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, said, 324 are “mostly in compliance” and wholly or partially UK-owned. It is the Maritime and Coastguard Agency that has determined that these are “mostly in compliance”. However, I am a bit concerned about that term as well. What does “mostly in compliance” actually mean? Do we have a specific number of those surveyed, and what are the gaps in compliance? Is the Minister able to estimate how many ships are not currently compliant with these regulations and what steps will be taken to inform them of the importance of compliance before these regulations go any further in being implemented? As the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, said, “mostly in compliance” is not very reassuring, and I would agree with that.

It is only when these regulations come into effect that the UK can enforce the same requirements on foreign-flagged ships in UK waters. Can the Minister respond to the question asked by the SLSC about why the DfT has taken so long to address the backlog? She partially gave us some answers to that but, as she said, there was a report to the House of Commons from Robert Courts MP in 2021-22, and she stated that the backlog would be cleared by the end of 2023. If I heard her correctly, four of the regulations have taken 20 years to produce. Will we get the other nine done by the end of year? I hope that is the case.

The Minister stated that resources have been a very significant issue in that backlog. The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, said that this seems like a systemic failing, and I cannot help but feel the same thing, with all the instances documented by the SLSC. It is very worrying. I wonder whether the Health and Safety Executive, for example, would take as an acceptable justification that resources were the issue, if there was non-compliance. I say that having been the leader of a local authority that was subject to Health and Safety Executive regulations.

I note that there is provision in the instrument for five-yearly reviews, which we are pleased to see with such important safety legislation. However, will sufficient resources be made available to carry out this thorough review process, if they have not been to implement the regulations themselves?

I have a number of questions on the regulations. I note the requirement for the Secretary of State to give approval to submissions relating to ships. Will these approvals be done on submission of written evidence, or will there be a requirement for inspection to ensure compliance with the relevant merchant shipping notices?

In relation to the exemptions set out in Clause 10, how does the Secretary of State reassure himself or herself that the exemption is valid and, under Regulation 10(7), where does the liability sit if the Secretary of State signs off an exemption which is later found to have resulted in loss of property or life? Is it with the owner or master, or with the Secretary of State?

Regulation 11 sets out details of a regime of engineering analysis in relation to exemptions. What analysis has been done of the likely workload for this and the capacity within the DfT to manage the review of the submitted engineering analyses? If the answers to those questions are not available immediately, I am happy to take written responses.

My noble friend Lord Berkeley gave the example of the “Pentalina”. On that incident, I commend the work of the RNLI, which very quickly rescued all 60 passengers, which was its usual fantastic work. I was also very reassured to hear my noble friend with his customary advocacy for Scilly passengers. I want to mention the example of the “Felicity Ace”, given by my honourable friend Mike Kane MP and mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Greenway. The Commons debate on these regulations set out new risks associated with the carriage of electric vehicles on shipping. In this example, which was cited, a serious fire took place on the “Felicity Ace” earlier this year. Some 4,000 cars were being carried, and although, thank goodness, no lives were lost on that occasion, the ship sadly sank to the bottom of the Atlantic, as the fire continued to be fuelled by the lithium batteries in the cars. I am aware that the land-based fire service has some concerns relating to similar risks, so this is clearly an important issue for shipping fire safety regulations to take into account. Can the Minister give us an update on how that risk is being considered, specifically in relation to fire safety on shipping?

The Conference on Fire Safety at Sea, held in 2022 in Lisbon, identified 20 specific challenges for vehicle-carrying ships. These are currently being assessed for their impact on risk reduction and cost, and advisory groups are being set up with operators and flag states. It is estimated that the potential of this work to significantly strengthen independent fire protection is between 35% and 45%. Will that data be considered as these regulations are implemented?

Lastly, I note that only five responses were received to the consultation on these regulations. Can the Minister tell us what consideration was given to extending the consultation or to approaching operators directly to achieve a better response rate? We also note that four of the five consultation responses, while supporting the ambulatory reference provision contained in the regulations—we agree that it is very sensible that these regulations are now updated automatically, as international regulations are updated—asked that arrangements be put in place to consult operators to ensure that changes are discussed with them before they are made. Will the Minister comment on any steps that have been put in place to do this?

We look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to the further points raised in this debate. I am sure there can be no argument relating to the critical importance of safety at sea, so we are keen to hear why this has all taken so long and to learn how any lessons learned from the delay will be used to improve the process for the future. Our maritime nation depends so much on our ability to trade, travel and ship goods safely. We owe it to all those involved to ensure our ships meet the highest fire and other safety standards, without decades of delay for the implementation of internationally agreed regulations. I do not think there is any disagreement across the House on any of that. We need to make sure that the systems and resources are in place to deal with it.

Photo of Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness Vere of Norbiton Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

My Lords, I am enormously grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate covering the ground of the regulations themselves and of course the backlog, which I am aware has been debated a number of times in your Lordships’ House, both in the Chamber and in Grand Committee in the Moses Room. Indeed, we will probably debate it again a few more times before the end of the year, as the backlog will once again resurface, and there will no doubt be further debates on the bits of secondary legislation that come through. However, I believe I can give myself some credit. I was a bit savvy before the debate today, in that I wrote to the SLSC last week; towards the end of the week, I placed a copy of the letter in the Library, and I will obviously share it with all noble Lords who have spoken today. It is the latest update on the international maritime backlog. If I could wish it away, I sincerely would, but I will no doubt be on my feet in front of your Lordships many times to explain that I am doing my absolute utmost to make it go away.

It is important to note that, in all circumstances, resources are never unlimited—they simply are not. The noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, said that I stated that this was a very significant issue. I never said that—I did not say that at all. Of course resources must be considered, and of course any Government of any colour will need to prioritise. In these circumstances, we did prioritise: the Department for Transport and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency prioritise in the secondary legislation that we bring through. The Department for Transport has an enormous secondary legislation programme, and one of the limiting factors is not resources in the department but the time that your Lordships have to consider secondary legislation—parliamentary time is one of our biggest challenges in getting secondary legislation, or indeed other legislation, through.

Photo of Lord Berkeley Lord Berkeley Llafur 8:15, 2 Mai 2023

Before the Minister finishes on resources, can I make a comment? Most of the detailed work on catching up falls on the MCA. I have heard quite a few comments from people who deal with it saying that it is very short-staffed. The Minister shakes her head but I have heard it from other people. They say it is partly because the pay rates are pretty low but also because there is a shortage of people with the necessary highly technical experience. Perhaps she would look into that. I hope it is not what is restraining catching up.

Photo of Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness Vere of Norbiton Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

Obviously, the MCA is quite a large organisation and has many different people fulfilling different roles. The question is whether we have the right people focusing on the backlog at this moment. We absolutely do, and I still intend to get the backlog cleared by 2023. I think that would be welcomed by all.

On the various other issues mentioned by noble Lords, it is worth reflecting on the impact of the delays of these regulations to UK ship fire safety. The vast majority of the ships on the UK register, to which these regulations apply, trade internationally. The vast majority will have been built with these regulations in mind. They already operate internationally and therefore need to comply with these requirements in other port state jurisdictions. We have seen no evidence that delays in introducing this instrument have led to an increased risk from fire on ships to which it would apply. Indeed, looking at the MCA surveys and detentions data, we believe that compliance with the requirements of SOLAS chapter II-2 has been very good. Since 2015, 21 UK ships have been detained for fire-related non-compliance, but none of these detentions related to contraventions of the requirements of SOLAS II-2.

As I noted in my opening remarks, there are other ways for the MCA to enforce against unseaworthy and unsafe practices on ships. We consider the elements within the contravention at all times. The MCA already provides advice on the convention, whether or not those amendments have already gone into UK domestic law, because they are advising ship owners and operators about when they are travelling beyond UK waters, when they will have to comply. It is not the case that we are starting from a clean slate and have ship owners and operators who do not know that this is coming down the track. They absolutely do: these are international ships plying international waters, and therefore they will be complying. The MCA has found no evidence that they are not. There is no question that the MCA is not keeping up with the changes per se, as a noble Lord or noble Baroness mentioned. It is just that the legislation has not been put in place.

A number of noble Lords mentioned the ambulatory references. The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, seemed to imply that it was a new thing but, again, it is not. We have been doing it for quite some time, particularly for maritime regulations. As the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, pointed out, that is a way that we can stop this backlog building up again in the future, because one does not then need to go back to the original secondary instrument and change it whenever amendments are made. That is why we do it. Indeed, there are many more amendments coming into force on 1 January 2024, I believe.

There are safeguards that should be in after consultation with the industry. We are satisfied that we have very good consultation routes into the industry around SOLAS changes. If there are objections and the UK Government decide that they want to object to something, we would pass further secondary legislation to exempt that particular thing. In general, we believe that we have a high standing within the IMO, and we nearly always agree with the changes that go through. Therefore, we feel that putting in ambulatory references is absolutely the way to go.

I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, to the SLSC. I do not know whether I should be more or less terrified now as my secondary legislation goes through that committee, but I am sure that her immeasurable experience will be very helpful in that scrutiny. As I noted, there will be a few more to come before the end of the year.

I cannot give a timeline on the review of the domestic legislation and regulations for domestic voyages and ships. In maritime, there are different regulations for different types of vessels on different types of water, which is why it is so very complicated and needs to be reviewed and why we did not simply lump all the domestic vessels in with these regulations; that would not have been right. If I have any further information on the timeline, I will certainly write.

Which regulations cover other vessels is hugely varied. It never ceases to amaze me how many classes of ships there are. There are regulations relating to workboats, fishing vessels, domestic passenger vessels and so on, so I cannot provide a specific example covering all possible types of vessels. In general, naval ships will follow these regulations. However, they may have certain exclusions because of their need to carry out warfare, so they might be slightly different. The MCA still inspects naval ships, but they have a slightly different arrangement with the MoD, given the different tasking of those vessels.

I briefly want to cover the retained EU law point. Obviously, the retained EU law Bill is continuing its passage through Parliament. My department has the resources available and is starting to plan the legislative programme that will follow that Bill when it comes into law.

I am convinced that there are other things that I have not yet answered, but I will be very happy to write. In doing so, I will include a copy of the letter that I wrote to the SLSC on a recent update. I look forward to discussing maritime secondary legislation again with noble Lords in the future.

Photo of Baroness Scott of Needham Market Baroness Scott of Needham Market Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol

My Lords, I also thank everyone who has taken part in this short debate, particularly the Minister, who I believe is committed to dealing with this backlog, much as we all regret the fact that it appears. I remain bemused that, in effect, we will continue to rely on other countries to enforce our legislation for us because we do not have the resources, whether parliamentary or Civil Service time, to put it into domestic law. I am sure that the Minister would privately agree that that is not a satisfactory situation.

With the best will in the world, I hope that we do not have to come back to this again—I am sure the Minister hopes that too—but we will watch the progress with great interest. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment to the Motion withdrawn.

Motion agreed.