The main object of the Bill is to enable Ireland to ratify the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, 1974. This convention is the fifth in a line of conventions on safety of life at sea — commonly known as SOLAS Conventions. The Bill, therefore, is totally concerned with safety and, when enacted, it will enable Ireland to enforce the highest international safety standards in respect of Irish-registered ships and other ships which use Irish ports. I will now set out the background to the latest SOLAS Convention.
Towards the end of 1974, a conference of the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organisation (IMCO), which is the United Nations specialised agency concerned with maritime affairs, was held in London to consider a revised convention which would replace the 1960 SOLAS Convention. The conference had two main objectives. The first was to incorporate into a new convention all the amendments to the 1960 convention which had yet to come into force. Some of these amendments were up to eight years old and were clearly needed to improve safety and yet, under the terms of the 1960 convention, they could not come into force until there had been a large number of positive acceptances by individual governments. This led to the second objective of the conference. Apart from the need to implement past amendments, it was plain that action was needed to quicken the pace at which future amendments would come into force. The conference, therefore, agreed to adopt an accelerated amendment procedure to prevent delays in the future. As a result of its deliberations, the conference adopted the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, 1974.
The 1974 convention replaces the Safety of Life at Sea Convention adopted by IMCO in 1960 and is the latest in a series of conventions going back to 1914. SOLAS 1974 includes the numerous technical improvements incorporated in the amendments to the 1960 convention. These include changes in the regulations concerning fire safety, radio equipment, the carriage of grain and equipment to improve the safety of navigation.
An important feature of the 1974 convention is the new "tacit acceptance" procedure which will make it much easier to bring future amendments of a technical nature into force. The new procedure means in effect that, with regard to future technical amendments to the SOLAS Convention, contracting States will be automatically deemed to have accepted them within a specified period unless they take specific steps to seek an extension of the period. This procedure does not apply to the main articles of the convention or to the more fundamental provisions of the Annex, that is provisions relating to scope, surveys, inspections and certificates. Here, amendments can only enter into force six months after their being explicitly accepted by two-thirds of the contracting States. As a result of the revised amendments procedure being included in the latest convention, it is envisaged that SOLAS 1974 will be the last SOLAS convention in the series. In the future, technical amendments can be incorporated as they arise, thus avoiding the need to draft a new convention due to a backlog of amendments, as in the past.
In consideration of recommendations by its Maritime Safety Committee, the Council of IMCO decided on 25 May 1977, to convene the International Conference on Tanker Safety and Pollution Prevention, which was held in London in February 1978.
As a result of its deliberations the conference adopted two Protocols, the Protocol of 1978 relating to the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, 1974, (SOLAS Protocol) and the Protocol of 1978 relating to the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, 1973, (MARPOL Protocol). In this Bill, we are only concerned with the SOLAS Protocol.
The SOLAS Protocol modifies certain requirements of the 1974 convention and adopts some additional requirements. These modifications mainly concern the type and frequency of inspections and surveys and the duration and validity of certificates. A significant addition calls for intermediate surveys, that is surveys within the period of validity of certificates, to be made for tankers of ten years old and over. The protocol is particularly aimed at increasing tanker safety. Revised fire safety measures for tankers are set out in it. For example, it requires that tankers of 20,000 metric tonnes deadweight and over shall be fitted with a fixed deck froth system and a fixed inert gas system. Under the 1974 Convention this requirement applied only to tankers of 100,000 metric tonnes deadweight and upwards. The additional requirements contained in the protocol reflect international anxiety over the growing number of accidents involving oil tankers.
We in Government, and indeed the country as a whole, are acutely aware of the risk of such accidents occurring, especially when we recall the disaster at Whiddy Island in January 1979, in which 50 lives were tragically lost. The importance of the contribution which this protocol can make to increasing tanker safety was recognised in the report of the Whiddy Tribunal, which urged the implementation of the requirements of the protocol, in respect of inert gas systems, as soon as possible. Implementation of the SOLAS Protocol will, therefore, give effect to that particular recommendation of the Whiddy Tribunal Report.
The 1974 SOLAS Convention came into force between contracting States on 25 May 1980. The SOLAS Protocol came into force in May of this year. Recognising that both of these instruments can make a significant improvement to the safety of ships and the lives of persons on board, the Conference on Tanker Safety and Pollution Prevention, referred to earlier, adopted a resolution calling on those States which contemplate becoming parties to the SOLAS Convention to do so in respect of both the convention and the protocol simultaneously. The convention and its protocol are treated as two distinct instruments, even though both are concerned with the safety of life at sea and one is, in effect, an extension of the other. Both instruments are required to be ratified separately and only parties to the Convention may become parties to the Protocol. This Bill, when enacted, will enable Ireland to accede both to the 1974 SOLAS Convention and to the SOLAS Protocol.
Having laid out the background to the convention, I now turn to the Bill itself. The IMCO text of the convention is a long and complex technical document. In comparison, the Bill appears to be short and simple. The reason is that existing statutory powers allow for the making of the necessary regulations to implement the vast majority of the requirements imposed by the convention.
There are, however, a number of provisions in the 1974 convention which cannot be implemented under existing powers. Power to implement these provisions is provided for in section 2 of the Bill. The convention lays down, for the first time, rules on the oil fuel used in machinery on board ship by prohibiting the use of fuel which is liable to ignite at low temperatures. Subsection (4) of section 2, therefore, makes amendments to the 1952 and 1966 Acts to enable the necessary regulations to be made.
Processed grain, which can be as hazardous a cargo as natural grain in that it is equally liable to shift and disturb a ship's stability, is now made subject to the grain regulations which currently apply only to natural forms of grain. Also, the convention now covers all ships carrying grain, regardless of the volume of cargo in relation to the size of ship. The previous position was that only ships whose cargoes of grain exceeded one-third of their tonnage were affected. Subsection (5) of section 2 provides the powers to make rules in respect of these two developments in the grain regulations.
I shall next deal with the question of future amendments to the convention, which is covered in section 3. I have already stressed that the conference which framed the convention was concerned to accelerate the pace at which amendments come into force. The procedure which was eventually adopted is contained in Article VIII of the convention. I shall not go into the complexities of the new amendment procedure but the aim is clear — to accelerate the introduction of amendments needed to maintain up-to-date safety standards consistent with the fullest possible consultation between contracting governments. No government would be bound to accept or implement any amendment to which it objected, so there is no question of a loss of national sovereignty. Section 3 provides me with the power to implement by the making of regulations any future amendments made in accordance with Article VIII of the convention.
The next section of the Bill, section 4, is a very important one in that it makes provision for offences in respect of ships which are unfit to go to sea without danger to human life. I already have powers, under sections 459 and 462 of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, to detain an unsafe ship, either absolutely or until the ship has been made safe. Section 4 provides for the imposition of fines of up to £50,000 on the owners and masters of such ships. These powers, taken together, provide a strong deterrent to be used to prevent substandard vessels from entering Irish ports, and they effectively implement a recommendation on that subject contained in the report of the Whiddy Tribunal of Inquiry.
Section 5 provides me with the power to make regulations requiring such ships as are specified in the regulations to carry adequate and up-to-date charts, sailing directions, lists of lights, notices to mariners, tide tables and all other nautical publications necessary for the intended voyage. This power is necessary to give effect to the requirements of SOLAS 1974 in respect of nautical publications.
Sections 7, 8 and 9 of the Bill amend the legislation relating to passenger certificates in order to improve the enforcement of the law in this area. This has been achieved by providing the Garda Síochána with the power to examine passenger certificates and to detain vessels which do not comply with the requirements of the law relating to passenger vessels. The fines for contravention of these requirements have also been increased.
Sections 6, 10, 11 and 12 simply amend certain sections of existing Merchant Shipping Acts for the purpose of extending the provisions of such sections, so that effect can be given to the requirements of SOLAS 1974 in respect of pilot hoists, navigational equipment and cargo ship safety construction certificates.
The Bill, as Senators will note, is primarily an enabling measure. The actual process of giving statutory effect to the detailed technical requirements of the convention will be done through technical regulations to be made under powers contained in previous Acts and in this Bill. These regulations will take the form of statutory instruments and they will be laid before the Dáil and Seanad in the customary manner.
I confidently recommend the Bill for the approval of the Seanad.