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Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 17 Dec 1981

Vol. 96 No. 16

Merchant Shipping Bill, 1981: Second Stage.

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

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.

I approve of this Bill which is a technical, enabling measure designed to enforce the convention requirements. There are some very important points in the Bill for the enforcement of safety standards at sea. One of the most important sections is that enabling the Garda to examine passenger certificates, while in section 4 there is provision for offences in respect of ships which are unfit to go to sea without danger to human life. This section provides for the imposition of fines of up to £50,000 and puts the onus on owners to have the ships in proper mechanical order. It is important that this recommendation, which was contained in the Whiddy Report, be implemented.

This is obviously a very sensible and non-controversial Bill. The contents of the Bill have been fully explained. It is concerned with one of the sources of greatest danger to our ecology, to tourist areas, to marine life, biology, and is something which could not have been provided for 20 or 35 years ago. We are dealing with one of the greatest manmade hazards in our civilisation, a far cry from 50 or 60 years ago when a shipwreck generally meant good news for the people in the areas close to where the ship was wrecked with the unexpected bounty of tea, rum or whatever might be washed ashore. All that has changed and it did not take the Whiddy disaster to bring home to us the consequences of what happens when the highest safety standards are not rigorously enforced, especially when we are dealing with the larger tankers. Already a name like Amoco Cadiz has found its way into everyday language, symbolising the incredible disaster which can befall marine life, oyster beds and also entire areas which depend on tourism for their income.

The problem is largely because of pressures on the owners of tankers to build ever bigger tankers, to keep these in operation for an ever greater length of time, and to cut corners to ensure that maximum use is gained from these tankers. Inevitably when high capital and operating costs are involved safety often tends to be the greatest sufferer.

It should not have taken disasters to bring home to us the consequences of what we are dealing with and I am glad that the Bill is so much concerned with safety. I am especially pleased that there will be provision for intermediate surveys of tankers which are ten years old and over. Over the past number of years many faults which were unforeseen and unprovided for in the design of these tankers arose after a certain number of years in service. There was no provision for periodic inspection to ensure, if necessary, that these ships would be taken out of the water completely. Some of these, as was the case with the tanker in the Whiddy disaster, virtually constituted sailing time-bombs capable of going off at any stage and bringing disaster on a scale hitherto unthought of. I am also glad that provision is made that tankers of 20,000 tonnes and over will have a fixed deck froth system and a fixed inert-gas system. The fact that up to now tankers of under 100,000 metric tonnes did not have to have these devices was a very severe omission and is something which I am glad is now being remedied.

The heart of the Bill is in sections 4 and 5. The provisions for fines in these sections are probably adequate. The main point is, are these going to be enforced? Do we have the means to ensure that ships will be examined periodically to ensure that they are up to the highest standards? Will the new regulations be rigorously enforced? Will ships coming into Irish ports know that they face the certainty of a rigorous inspection? Will we have a situation which is common in so much of our road traffic regulations at present where we have excellent laws to ensure high standards of safety in regard to the condition of engines, tyres and on the age of vehicles and regulations which insist that trucks are not overweight, that they go at a certain speed in the interests of safety, and which ensure that it is illegal for trucks to emit noxious fumes in built-up or open areas. The likelihood of these laws being rigorously enforced is very slight and as a result during the beet season we have trucks which are grossly overweight travelling at excessive speeds for much the same reason as determines the unsafe use of tankers — simply because of the problem of recouping the large capital outlay on these trucks. I would like to be assured by the Minister that we have the means to enforce the very high standards which are being laid down in this Bill, to ensure that the services responsible will not be undermanned and will have the technical expertise available so that ships cannot use our ports freely in the knowledge that regulation safety standards will be let go.

I welcome this Bill. I hope that section 5, which deals with charts and so forth, will be examined and that we will have the means to ensure that it is appropriately enforced. The Bill is an important measure on an extremely important topic. It is not controversial. There will be general agreement that it is necessary. However, I would feel more reassured if I knew that the means of implementing it rigorously were available and if they are not that steps will be taken to ensure that they are.

I would like to thank the Senators who have spoken. It is, of course, a very desirable measure. There is some significance in the fact that the convention which is of such long standing has only now come to be implemented. One of the features of the Bill is that it enables us to participate in the future implementation of regulations without having to go through all the tedious procedure of summoning international conventions. Yet, our sovereignty is protected, as I mentioned in opening the debate, in that amendments of a technical nature agreed on are enforced among the contracting nations unless a contracting party specifically seeks an extension of time within which to obey it. Of course, we must obey it at some stage because to refuse to obey it would mean leaving the international Community in that particular area.

If there are more fundamental amendments which relate to the surveys or inspection of ships it is a question of scope and they can only come into force when two-thirds of the contracting parties adopt them. So there is protection for our sovereignty and, at the same time we obviate the long delays that have occurred in the past in bringing these in.

The point raised by Senator Manning is a relevant and key point to the success of this legislation. That is, in regard to the enforcement procedures. There is one significant new enforcement procedure or power provided for in that the Garda are given power now to inspect passenger certificates. Very often, in areas where over-loaded boats are moving out, there is no nautical inspector from the Department on the scene and it would be impractical to have one on every quay in the country. But, very often, a member of the Garda is on duty and he can call to see the ship's certificate and can check that no over-loading takes place. This is something which needs this extra power and is something which is, I am afraid, abused from time to time. The new power for the Garda will, I hope, put an end to it.

With regard to the general enforcement of the more technical matters, I am glad to tell Senator Manning that, over the years, extra marine surveyors have been recruited on to the staff of my Department and there are plans now to increase further the complement of marine surveyors in the coming year. We would like to increase it by even more than is planned, but there are constraints at the moment. However, we are satisfied that we will have an adequate force, both in terms of numbers and skill, to enforce these new regulations and to ensure that our own Irish registered shipping complies with all these regulations and that foreign shipping using our ports will also comply with them and to ensure that there will be no question of Irish ports being areas where foreign masters can come in in the knowledge that they are not going to be inspected or where they can trade without any danger to them of the sanctions under this Bill if they are in breach of the regulations. I assure Senator Manning that we are conscious of the need to enforce these regulations, we have the staff and we have the provisions for increasing the staff and if in the future it turns out that even more will be required we will arrange to get them.

Question put and agreed to.
Agreed to take remaining Stages today.