Cost cuts that flag disaster: The Shetlands oil spill shows the need for a strong merchant fleet, argues Brian Wilson

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The Independent Online
THE MORE that becomes known about the ill-fated Braer, the more it acquires classic flag-of-convenience symptoms. The Liberian-registered, American-owned tanker had been through a couple of name changes and a plethora of managements while carrying a discontented, low-paid international crew.

There is, of course, no proof that this chequered pedigree was responsible for the Braer suffering total engine failure and ending up deserted on the rocks of Shetland. As the Earl of Caithness (revealed to an astonished nation as our Shipping Minister) insists, it could have happened to anyone.

He has described the Braer disaster as 'a million-to-one chance', quite unconnected to the tanker's status. However, a minister who takes this line should be cautious of entering the waters of statistical probability.

Over the past five years world shipping losses have been running at 0.28 per cent. What remains of the UK registered fleets holds the world's best safety record at 0.01 per cent - a fact which we might seek to build upon. Flag-of-convenience records are between 10 and 100 times worse. The Cypriot flag, for instance, has chalked up losses of 0.92 per cent.

So while it is theoretically true that a Braer-type disaster could happen to anyone, the inescapable truth is that flag-of-convenience vessels are more likely to be involved than those sailing under flags which reflect a real connection with the country of ownership.

Indeed, one wonders why government ministers seek to challenge so self-evident a conclusion. The answer is that they have been happy to encourage 'flagging-out' by our own ship owners on grounds of deregulation, union-busting and cost-cutting. This inhibits them in acknowledging the extent, or even existence, of a worldwide problem in the system.

In 1981 Norman Tebbit declared: 'If British owners can switch their ships to a flag-of-convenience and, as a result, increase profitability, then it seems sensible that they should do just that.' In the absence of contrary incentives, British ship owners followed his advice and our merchant navy declined to its present shadow of 280 UK-registered vessels.

Despite pleas from all sides of the industry, policy on the merchant navy has scarcely changed since then. Not even the humiliation of the Gulf war, when almost all the merchant ships chartered flew foreign flags, has persuaded the Tories that perhaps it would be a good idea for a maritime nation to retain a strong merchant fleet of its own.

The Braer disaster must finally generate this debate. Of course we need to find out precisely what happened on that grim Shetland morning and the role of the management, inspection and crewing of the vessel. But the questions must go further.

They must cover the wisdom of having such a high proportion of Britain's, and the world's, vessels operating under a regime which exists as a device for ducking expensive safety and crewing regulations, and to enable ship owners to avoid paying tax in their own countries.

It is difficult to understand why a system invented by the American oil industry for precisely these purposes of evasion has been allowed to become the rule rather than the exception for world shipping. It would not be tolerated for other forms of transport.

A maritime union official put it this way: 'The equivalent would be to have Liberian-registered lorries operating in Britain, possibly under British ownership employing Filipino drivers, immune to British safety standards and with no requirement to pay tax or national insurance.'

A hard-pressed Department of Transport inspectorate does its best to take a look at foreign flag vessels which enter British ports. However, it manages to see less than one quarter and finds around 60 per cent to have 'significant defects'. Against all advice, including the advice of the House of Lords Select Committee, this inspectorate is being reduced on grounds of cost.

There are no checks at all on ships such as the Braer which are merely in transit through British waters. It remains a matter of luck whether or not they have been inspected elsewhere. Yet it would be well within the competence of the British government to insist that vessels carrying hazardous cargoes may enter British coastal waters only if they have been subject to internationally credible inspection.

Many of the measures required, including de-recognition of blatantly substandard flags of convenience, might need international action. Far from giving a lead in such matters, the Government is hopelessly compromised by its own uncritical support for the flag-of- convenience principle. If an inquiry into the Braer disaster takes the form of a behind-closed-doors review conducted by the Department of Transport, then none of these wider

issues will receive the attention they deserve.

A secretary of state with nothing to hide would announce a full, wide-ranging public inquiry under a senior legal figure - with powers to make recommendations on all relevant matters including safety at sea and the effectiveness of national and international supervision.

Such an inquiry would not only lay bare the full facts behind the Braer disaster, which is surely the least that is owed to the Shetlanders, it could also be an effective agent for transforming international maritime policy - and saving our own Red Ensign.

The author is Labour MP for Cunninghame North and Opposition Transport spokesman.