Merchant Shipping (Counting and Registration of Persons on board Passenger Ships) (Amendment) Regulations 2023 - Motion to Regret

– in the House of Lords am 8:20 pm ar 4 Rhagfyr 2023.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Lord Berkeley:

Moved by Lord Berkeley

That this House welcomes the contribution to passenger safety made by the Merchant Shipping (Counting and Registration of Persons on board Passenger Ships) (Amendment) Regulations 2023 but regrets the delay in the introduction of the regulations and that they do not cover passengers travelling on non-passenger ships.

Relevant document: 49th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, Session 2022-23.

Photo of Lord Berkeley Lord Berkeley Llafur

My Lords, I am pleased to move this Motion to Regret tonight. Effectively, I am trying to probe some of the issues that are raised in these draft regulations. I must say to start with that I support everything that is in them, because they have very serious and helpful safety implications.

I suppose my first question for the Minister is the usual one with such regulations. Why has it taken 24 years from the original 1999 regulations for this new draft to be brought before your Lordships’ House?

I think it is really important that there is a requirement to record the number and details of the passengers on passenger ships, both going around the UK or going to or from the UK, but I have a number of questions on the way these regulations are drafted. It may be because I am too stupid to understand them, but it may be that other people share that concern, and I shall be pleased to hear the Minister’s answers.

My first question, which also applies to the regulations of 24 years ago, is why these regulations appear to apply only to passenger ships? Many people go on journeys in freight ships; sometimes they are long, probably going internationally, and sometimes they are around the coast. I rather too regularly use a freight ship that goes from the Isles of Scilly to Penzance, which is beyond 20 miles and so comes within that limit. It is a freight ship, and it is quite good for taking freight. It is not particularly comfortable, but it will take up to 12 passengers—and of course the number 12 is quite critical for many other safety rules. I think it has seats for about six, and it is very nice that, when the crew are having a good fry-up on their four or five-hour journey, they will not make you a cup of tea either.

That is irrelevant, but what appears odd is that there seems to be no requirement of the operator to report who the passengers are. In other words, if something happens to that ship and we all drown, I do not know how the authorities will know who we are. If it had been a passenger ship, the names would have gone to the coastguards or wherever, which would have helped with identifying the bodies and everybody else. I hope none of that happens, but it seems extraordinary to me that, on a freight ship, the operator apparently does not have to do report who is on it and their names and addresses.

I suppose the biggest question I have concerns Regulation 9, on “exemptions”. I am not quite sure what “exemptions” means. Again, I may just be being ignorant and stupid, but are they exemptions from actual reporting or exemptions relating to how you report? We are moving into the electronic age, and it is quite right that the quicker the passenger list can be transmitted off the ship, the faster the ship can leave, which is a good thing. But it is a bit odd that, having brought in these regulations, we have so many exemptions, which means that, basically, anybody can be given an exemption.

Regulation 9(2) says that

“the Secretary of State may exempt any passenger ship … if the scheduled voyages of such ship, class of ship or group of ships render it impracticable for that ship, class of ship or group of ships, to comply with those requirements”.

I cannot see what circumstances would prevent the master or owner of the ship telling the coastguard who is on the ship and giving their names and addresses; they will have provided them before they get on the ship. Maybe the Minister can help me with that. If these exemptions are important, the whole point of this regulation is almost lost. If there are so many ways that the Minister can wriggle out of it, for good or bad reasons, what is the point of it?

In its 49th report, the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, in answer to question 4, has a good list of comments. It says that the restrictions came from the original directive, and that:

“The exemption provisions were complex and restricted the scope of the exemption power to just certain vessels on certain types of routes with restrictive conditions”.

It goes on to say that, basically, the Secretary of State can decide to change whatever these restrictions are. Question 5 asks:

“What makes it ‘impractical for the shipowner to comply?’”

The Minister’s answer is:

“This would depend on the circumstances … on a case-by-case basis”.

I know a lot of work has gone into this document and I am sure it is very good overall, but whether shipowners and skippers understand what they have to do, and whether it was worth all the effort, I am not sure. Can the Minister perhaps explain to a landlubber like me what it is all about, why it is so important and who can wriggle out of giving him any information? I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Greenway Lord Greenway Crossbench

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, for allowing us to discuss these regulations. Before I go further, I would like to welcome the Minister to his new maritime role. He has a steep learning curve, and I can only wish him well.

We are moving more and more to computers, left, right and centre; everything is computerised. In a way that is a good thing and I welcome it, but we all know that computers go wrong so I am slightly worried that systems that are meant to work will not always do so. What is the back-up position if that happens?

The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, mentioned his regular trips to the Isles of Scilly and, in particular, the small cargo ship called the “Gry Maritha”. Before congratulating him, I will say that I remember making a voyage in what was not much more than a square box. It was highly uncomfortable. I think I am right in saying that in days gone by, when we had many regular cargo liners regularly operating to all parts of the world, almost all of them carried 12 passengers. They could not carry more because, if you had more than 12, then you had to carry a doctor on board, which was an extra expense. I wonder whether that would apply to the ship that has been mentioned. Perhaps the Minister could confirm that.

We have debated a number of maritime regulations over the past two or three years, and there has been the rather unfortunate delay in many of them that the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, mentioned. I only say that in passing because we have got this thing moving forward. The coming into effect of the new digital reporting has been put back by a further two years. I take it that perhaps it has taken longer to set up the system then was at first envisaged.

However, I generally welcome these regulations, complex though they are, and I hope that in the long term they turn out to work very well.

Photo of Baroness Randerson Baroness Randerson Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Transport) 8:30, 4 Rhagfyr 2023

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, for his assiduous attention to these issues. I need to make it clear to the House that I am a member of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, which drew the attention of the House to our concerns at the less than clear responses to our questions on behalf of the Government.

There are two issues that I want to raise. First—and this follows on directly from the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Greenway—these regulations are undoubtedly a casualty of the long-standing backlog that has been built up by the Department for Transport in its international maritime legislation. We in the UK are a maritime nation; we pride ourselves on our maritime traditions and they are an important source of our economic strength. The mess that we have got into in keeping up with the latest legislation on maritime issues, almost all of which is associated with safety, is a source of national embarrassment. The Minister, newly in this role, has my profound sympathies. His predecessor worked to try to deal with this issue, but there is still a long way to go.

In probing behind the official obfuscation of the Government’s explanations, the opaque replies to the SLSC basically lead me to the conclusion that the Government’s new online system is not ready—that they have fallen behind in the work—so the delay is basically nothing to do with giving the industry more time to adapt and so on but is all to do with just not being ready. I am sure the Minister will come back to me on that if I have concluded inappropriately.

My specific question to the Minister is: can he explain exactly how, in technological terms, the numbers on board and personal details are reported now? Surely in this day and age, it already has to be through some form of electronic communication. In the tragic event of a situation where people have to abandon their vessel, surely the ship’s master does not leap over with a paper logbook; it all has to have been done electronically. Are we right to assume that there is an electronic system but that it is not done officially to the right format, in the right scheme of things or on the right computer programme?

The second point I want to make is that this is all about safety, and we must not lose touch with that. This is not about petty bureaucracy but safety, and it is essential that, when an accident occurs—sadly, they do, on a regular basis—rescue services know immediately how many people they are looking for and exactly who those people are. Are there any children, any elderly people or anyone with particular health problems?

I am concerned not only at the delay but—I join the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, on this—because the Government have introduced new exemptions, where it is impractical for a ship to comply. This apparently includes, potentially, where a voyage involves a deviation from the usual route. Surely this may well involve an unfamiliar route for the crew on board, and it is in just those sorts of circumstances when an accident is more likely to occur. Can the Minister explain why that has been chosen as a potential exemption?

Finally, most international sea voyages from the UK are to, for example, Ireland, France, Spain, the Netherlands and so on. These are EU countries. Can the Minister answer a specific query that I have as to how this will work? Once the vessel enters EU waters, will not the EU countries concerned require full and proper records of who is on board and in the full, proper and up-to-date format? Will not those who are working the vessel have to fulfil that requirement, even though the UK Government do not require them to? I may have got the wrong end of the stick on how this will work, but I cannot see the EU allowing a British ship to adhere to different standards once it is in its own waters.

Photo of Lord Tunnicliffe Lord Tunnicliffe Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Minister (Transport)

My Lords, often described as the lifeboat of the UK economy, the merchant shipping industry plays a pivotal role in ensuring the smooth running of people’s day-to-day lives, aiding the transition of goods and ships while supporting over 180,000 jobs in the UK, according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research. On the global scale, the industry facilitates the economy through the wider supply chain, supporting the running of 680,000 jobs.

According to the Office for National Statistics, looking solely at shipping, the sector contributed £6 billion to the economy in 2020, accounting for 19% of the transport industry. I am pleased to share my support for the merchant shipping industry and the introduction of the necessary regulations, which have been long awaited. This instrument will update and modernise the 2021 regulations, implementing corrections in the light of mistakes existing in the earlier legislation. Further, it postpones the deadline for all ships in UK waters to report data on the persons on board by two years.

Subsequently, from 2025, UK-flagged passenger ships, wherever they are located, and passenger ships within UK waters, will have to use an electronic method to report information regarding passengers on board. Search and rescue authorities will then quickly have access to essential information needed in the event of an emergency. This will reduce the loss of, and the risk to, lives at sea.

I therefore empathise with and support my noble friend’s Motion. Indeed, these highly significant regulations are welcome and long overdue. Further, I understand his concerns relating to the inadequate protection for passengers travelling on non-passenger ships. I am pleased that the House has the opportunity to discuss these protections today.

I would like the Minister to provide clarity on three central concerns. First, how did the Government learn of the mistakes in the 2021 regulations and what would be the consequences if they were not corrected? Secondly, given the postponement, how have the Government calculated that there will be no safety risk? Is the Minister not concerned that prolonging its implementation will only prolong the safety risk? Finally, given that the Explanatory Memorandum notes that the consultation on these changes received only seven responses, can the Minister explain the consultation process a little more? Is he satisfied that the results are credible, given how few responses were received?

To support the UK’s global position as a great trading nation, as well as a healthy and thriving economy, is to support the merchant shipping industry. I am positive that this instrument will play a vital role in the future of the industry by strengthening safety protections, and I therefore welcome its laying before the House.

Photo of Lord Davies of Gower Lord Davies of Gower Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their consideration of these regulations. I will try to respond to the specific points raised. I must confess that I find this quite a technical issue and subject matter. Where I cannot answer questions this evening, I undertake to write on specific points to noble Lords.

The Motion mentions the delay in the introduction of these regulations. They are not part of the maritime backlog and are therefore not late in that context. The regulations were made in 2021 and implemented the latest EU directive on persons data obligations, including a deadline for the electronic reporting of data, and placed additional restrictions on exemption powers. We have progressed the changes requested by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments in the 2021 regulations with much urgency. However, for reasons of efficiency, we have used this legislative vehicle to also take forward some post EU exit opportunities, which do not reduce safety standards and go some way to relieving the pressures on operators—namely, a postponement on electronic reporting obligations and the addition of flexibility to the exemption provisions. This allows the Secretary of State, through the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, more discretion to implement the regulations pragmatically.

The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, raised some interesting issues. He questioned why the person-counting obligations do not also apply to non-passenger vessels. Non-passenger vessels that normally carry only crew are accounted for by their operators, who hold all the necessary detail required for an emergency search-and-rescue operation. The few ships that routinely carry passengers but carry fewer than 13—and therefore are not defined as passenger ships—are generally much smaller, and the application of these obligations would be disproportionate for these small vessels. This approach is the recognised one in the international maritime community.

The regulations are not part of the UK’s international maritime convention backlog, as they are not late in implementing international amendments. They are also not part of the domestic backlog, as there has been no public commitment to bring them into force. These regulations do not impose any additional burdens on industry, and in fact they refine the existing regulations to enable a more pragmatic application of obligations, furthering post-EU exit opportunities. Good progress has been made on the maritime backlog, and the department has been working on 13 international measures, 10 of which have been completed, and the final three are on track to be completed by spring 2024. Additionally, of the seven domestic measures identified, five have been completed and the remaining two should be completed in the autumn of 2024.

The regulations address some points raised by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments in relation to the drafting of a set of amending regulations made in 2021, as well as taking advantage of some post-EU exit opportunities. These include delaying the unnecessarily onerous deadline for reporting persons’ data electronically through the maritime national single window, and introducing flexibility into the exemption provision, which was made inconveniently narrow under an EU directive, enabling the pragmatic enforcement of legislation.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency held a four-week public consultation on the draft 2023 amending regulations and the accompanying draft merchant shipping notice amendment. The consultation ran from 28 February to 28 March 2023, and vessel operators affected were consulted and were supportive of these deregulatory measures.

The department has allocated more resources, particularly legal resource, to address international obligations, and it plans to identify forthcoming amendments to conventions. The negotiating stage has also been enhanced. The use of an ambulatory reference to automatically incorporate technical amendments into UK law has been incorporated into merchant shipping legislation over a period of years, to ensure prompt implementation into domestic law.

The regulations have come into force in time to postpone the reporting deadline of 20 December 2023 to 20 December 2025. Postponement of the electronic reporting deadline does not affect safety, as the necessary data is already collected and retained in a way appropriate for its purpose. These regulations are also essential to provide the flexibility required in exemption provisions for situations where particular requirements are disproportionate or impractical—for example, if a ship is in an area where there is no internet connection and cannot report the data through the internet-based maritime national single window.

The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, raised concerns about safety. These amendments do not reduce safety standards, as the data being collected about persons on board a ship is already being satisfactorily collected by other means. Exemptions will be given only in exceptional circumstances and when it is safe to do so. The move to electronic reporting is being postponed, but the data is still being collected manually, under the 1999 regulations, by a registrar who makes it available to His Majesty’s Coastguard in an emergency—so safety is not affected. The exemption provision inherited from EU law is unnecessarily complex and cumbersome, not only to understand but to apply. The EU requirements removed the discretion for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency to use pragmatism in situations that allow it.

I turn to a couple of points that the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, raised. It has not taken 24 years, as these are revisions to regulations that were previously amended in 2021. The 1999 regulations brought in the original requirements and the 2017 directive updated them and was implemented by the 2021 regulations. The 2023 regulations introduce flexibility.

The noble Lord, Lord Greenway, raised the point about passenger ships, and these regulations apply only to passenger ships—that is, to those carrying more than 12 passengers.

On the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, about how data is currently collected and reported, I can say that it varies from ship to ship. The method of collecting and reporting is checked by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

I think that it was the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, who raised this—but there were no mistakes in the 2021 regulations, which implemented EU directive 2017/2109. That directive was unnecessarily onerous in some administrative areas, to which I alluded earlier.

I am conscious that perhaps not all the technical points have been answered. As I said at the outset, I shall respond to them in writing. I hope that noble Lords agree that these regulations are important to ensure a sensible approach that combines safety and pragmatism for UK passenger ship operators. The requirements do not need to apply to non-passenger ships, as operators can make their own appropriate arrangements for the very small numbers of passengers that may be carried on those vessels.

Photo of Lord Berkeley Lord Berkeley Llafur 8:45, 4 Rhagfyr 2023

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his comprehensive reply. He is new to the post, and I think that he has tried very hard and given us some good answers. I am very grateful to other noble Lords who have contributed to this very short debate. I look forward to the Minister’s answers in writing in due course.

However, I have one question on the issue of passengers on freight ships. The Minister said that on non-passenger vessels the company—the skipper, presumably—holds all the details of the passengers. Sadly, ships do sink, as the noble Baroness said earlier. The last one that I recall is a car-carrying ship that sank off the Netherlands; it set itself on fire and it sank. I do not think that there were any casualties, but there could have been. There is not much point, if a ship sinks, of all the records going down with it. This is not so much to do with this particular instrument—it is outwith its scope, I think—but the Government might want to look at the fact that it is an international agreement that you do not have to keep the information about people somewhere other than on the ship. Perhaps the Minister could put that in his letter when he replies. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion withdrawn.

House adjourned at 8.52 pm.