The Shetland Oil Disaster: Prescott urges Europe to act on sea charter

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The Independent Online
Britain and its European neighbours must take unilateral action to improve tanker safety by developing their own charter for the safe passage of environmentally hazardous cargoes, John Prescott, Labour's transport spokesman, urged yesterday amid continuing pressure for the Marine Accident Investigations Branch inquiry to be widened.

Mr Prescott said while the issues of route, ship construction and crew competence were essential areas of inquiry for the Department of Transport's MAIB investigation, 'the most essential factor is that we now consider the whole role of flag of convenience vessels and the possibility of Europe taking unilateral action in the same way as the Americans'.

A charter that banned shipping failing to meet minimum standards of construction, crew competence and routes taken from European coastal waters and ports would be the biggest deterrent to unsafe shipping, Mr Prescott said.

Citing the case of the Torrey Canyon, where the vessel's master took a short route to catch a tide after spending 8 months on board without a day off, Mr Prescott said that while minimum standards were not a requirement, commercial pressures would mean that companies would continue to take the cheapest option.

'All European nations should now agree that access to coastal waters and to ports will only be available to vessels meeting those requirements,' he said.

John MacGregor, the Secretary of State for Transport, has said he will consider whether further inquiry is necessary in the light of developments.

Whatever form the inquiry may eventually take, however, action following any adverse findings against the master, crew or those responsible for maintainance of the Braer will be a matter for Liberia, where the ship was registered.

The aftermath of the Herald of Free Enterprise tragedy provided a precedent for unilateral action rather than the Government's preferred option of seeking the agreement of all countries via the United Nations International Maritime Organisation (IMO), Mr Prescott insisted. The IMO had turned down a request for greater stabilitity on ferries but Britain had gone ahead and made it a requirement.

In a letter to the Prime Minister yesterday Jim Wallace, the Orkney and Shetland MP, also called for the terms of reference of the inquiry to be widened to cover the safety of ship structures, crewing arrangements and operational safety, including radar surveillance and routing.

Mr Wallace, the Liberal Democrat fisheries spokesman who warned of the prospect of such a disaster 18 months ago, added: 'A strong local view is being expressed that heavily loaded tankers should not be allowed to pass through such a sensitive channel as that between Fair Isle and Shetland Mainland, certainly not without the kind of radar surveillance which I understand covers shipping in the English Channel.'

Mr Prescott said the inquiry should also look at the priorities of ships' masters facing emergencies.

'The first inclination is to ring the shippers, before letting the authorities know, causing delay.' Captains could be made liable for wrongly refusing to take a tow from a tug, Mr Prescott said. But nations were most reluctant to do that because of the impact of salvage laws giving tugs rights to claim cargo.

Chris Smith, Labour's environmental protection spokesman, told the Institute of British Geographers Conference: 'There are obvious lessons to be learned, about the need for better routing for tankers around our coasts, about the need for strict rules on the construction and robustness of vessels, about the need for better emergency planning and a dedicated transport safety executive, and about the need for less flag- of-convenience operations. All of these are matters the Americans (following the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska) took to heart four years ago.'

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