Sixth Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.


Thursday 20 July 1989



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The Committee consisted of the following Members:


Amess, Mr. David (Basildon)

Buckley, Mr. George J. (Hemsworth)

Budgen, Mr. Nicholas (Wolverhampton, South-West)

Callaghan, Mr. Jim (Heywood and Middleton)

Clark, Dr. Michael (Rochford)

Cohen, Mr. Harry (Leyton)

Critchley, Mr. Julian (Aldershot)

Dorrell, Mr. Stephen (Loughborough)

Howarth, Mr. George (Knowsley, North)

Kirkwood, Mr. Archy (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

Parry, Mr. Robert (Liverpool, Riverside)

Portillo, Mr. Michael (The Minister for Public Transport)

Snape, Mr. Peter (West Bromwich, East)

Tapsell, Sir Peter (East Lindsey)

Temple-Morris, Mr. Peter (Leominster)

Wells, Mr. Bowen (Hertford and Storyford)

Wheeler, Mr. John (Westminster, North)

Wilkinson, Mr. John (Ruislip-Northwood)

Mr. J.R. Rose, Committee Clerk

3 Sixth Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. Thursday 20 July 1989

[MR JOHN MCWILLIAM in the Chair]


10.30 am

The Minister for Public Transport (Mr. Michael Portillo): I beg to move, That the Committee has considered the draft Hovercraft (Application of Enactments) Order 1989. I wish to draw the Committee's attention to an error in the draft order. The second paragraph of the preamble to the order refers to the Hovercraft Act 1968 and states "section 1(1)(h) and (3)(b)". It should state "section 1(1)(h) and (3)". I hope that the Committee will accept my apologies for the error.

Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East): Will the Minister say whether the Department of the Environment's habit of making one error after another will continue? I am not suggesting that the Committee should display the rowdiness that took place on the Floor of the House yesterday, but rightly or wrongly, I regard the Department of Transport as a subsidiary of the dreadful Department of the Environment. The Government seem to be taking a slipshod approach to such matters. We accept that mistakes can be made and do not wish to make too much of a song and a dance about the issue, but I hope that the Minister will not reveal any more errors in the order. If he does, I fear that Conservative Members might scrutinise it more closely than they have already.

Mr. Portillo: I assure the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) that we do not take a slipshod approach to such matters. It is regrettable that errors creep into the drafting of legislation. I imagine that this error must have thrown the hon. Gentleman considerably in his preparation for this morning's debate. I apologise most heartily for that. The order provides for the amendment of the Hovercraft (Application of Enactments) Order 1972 to apply to hovercraft operating in a marine environment the provisions of merchant shipping legislation concerning marine pollution and casualty investigation. It further applies sections of the Merchant Shipping Act 1979 for legislative procedural purposes. The Hovercraft Act 1968 recognises that hovercraft are vehicles in their own right—not ships or aircraft—and provides general enabling powers to make provisions for hovercraft. That includes the power to apply to hovercraft other enactments and instruments relating to other means of transport. Through the Hovercraft (Application of Enactments) Order 1972, a wide range of such legislation is applied to hovercraft, including Merchant Shipping Act provisions relating to the investigation of casualties. 4 The purpose of the order is, first, to apply to hovercraft international requirements arising from the international convention for the prevention of pollution from ships. The main purpose of that convention is to ensure that oil, oily mixtures and garbage are not discharged into the sea or coastal and inland waters navigable by seagoing vessels. The convention applies to hovercraft and it will be brought into effect for United Kingdom hovercraft by applying, with modifications, sections of the appropriate Acts, which I shall list for the Committee if I am pressed to do so. The effect will be that United Kingdom hovercraft operating in a marine environment will need to meet similar requirements to prevent pollution that are already applied to ships. Secondly, the order will revoke the provision of the Hovercraft (Application of Enactments) Order 1972, which applies the casualty investigation sections of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894 to hovercraft. The casualty investigation provisions of the 1894 Act have been replaced. The order will apply, with appropriate modifications, the new legislative provisions and so bring up to date the powers to investigate hovercraft casualties in line with those currently operating for ships. Thirdly, it is intended to allow greater flexibility in the legislative process for applying merchant shipping safety legislation to hovercraft. At present, it is necessary to make regulations which apply to ships but make a separate enactment order to apply regulations to hovercraft. An example of where this flexibility will save parliamentary and official time is in the United Kingdom implementation of amendments to the International Regulations for Prevention of Collisions at Sea 1972. I hope that the Committee will appreciate the need for the order to ensure that developments in maritime safety and pollution regulations are applied, as appropriate, to hovercraft engaged in maritime operations.

10.35 am

Mr. Snape: The Committee will be grateful to the Minister for his explanation of the order. I do not wish to detain hon. Members but I have one or two questions that I hope the Minister will be able to answer. The Minister said that hovercraft were neither ships nor aircraft—not fish, fowl nor good red herring perhaps. Therefore, why are the merchant shipping Acts applicable to safety on hovercraft, casualties and so on? On the few occasions when I travelled on hovercraft, their crews' jargon appeared to be more aircraft-based than ship-based, although I am not an expert on either. Would it not be more appropriate for the Civil Aviation Authority to maintain responsibility for those objects? I almost described them as "those craft", which would have undermined the point that I am trying to make, but however, inadequately I may have expressed it I hope that the Minister understands that there is some confusion about why craft that are neither ships nor aircraft are regarded as ships for the purposes of the order. There is a further problem relating to safety. Part A to schedule 1 lists various subsections which deal with hovercraft accidents involving personal injuries and loss of life. Has the Minister any information about the number of inquiries that have been held under the terms of the Hovercraft Act 1968 since hovercraft were introduced? Although hovercraft are regarded as an extremely safe means of crossing the Channel and other stretches of water, I wonder why the provisions of that Act have had to be invoked 5 and those inquiries were set up. The Opposition take the view that on safety, as in other matters, there is too close a relationship between the Department of Transport, and the operators of hovercraft and similar craft. We would prefer safety matters to be entrusted to an independent body such as the Health and Safety Executive. It will be interesting to discover whether the Opposition's fears have any basis, depending on the Minister's answer about how many inquiries were held. Regrettably, hovercraft operators are diminishing in number. They do not recognise the two major trade unions—the National Union of Seamen and the National Union of Marine, Aviation and Shipping Transport Officers. Does the Minister think that such organisations have a justifiable role to play in relation to maritime safety? The unions feel strongly that they should be consulted about those matters but if they are not recognised by the operators they cannot be. The draft order makes no provision for safe manning levels on hovercraft. Do the Minister and his Department have any views on that matter and are any minimum standards laid down? The development of hovercraft was hailed as a great British invention and we were told that it had various applications for civil and military purposes throughout the world. Regrettably, like so many other great British inventions, the development costs were borne by not the private operators but the state and the taxpayer. As so often happened, the early hopes for commercial success were largely unfounded. Nevertheless, given the recent takeovers, the number of hovercraft operated by United Kingdom owners from United Kingdom ports has remained fairly constant. Does the Minister have any information about the next generation of hovercraft and what developments might take place, or shall we see orders such as this causing the use of hovercraft to wither away?

10.40 am

Mr. Portillo: The hon. Member for West Bromwich, East was worried about hovercraft being neither ships nor aircraft, and the implications of that for licensing and safety requirements. The hon. Gentleman will have noticed that I referred to applying maritime legislation to hovercraft operating in a marine environment. It is recognised that hovercraft fly, which makes the Civil Aviation Authority responsible for the safety requirements of design, construction and maintenance. The Department of Transport is responsible for operating requirements, such as the conditions under which craft may operate, specific routes, terminal arrangements and manning and crew qualifications. Those matters do not arise in the order, but they are covered. The British hovercraft safety requirements have been developed by the CAA over a number of years in consultation with the hovercraft industry. The procedure involves type certification of hovercraft, as is the practice with aircraft, and the approval of design consultants, manufacturers and operators. It is operated in close cooperation with the industry through the hovercraft committee of the air registration board, which represents all aspects of the industry. Merchant shipping safety legislation makes 6 no provision for hovercraft and the safety regulation system has evolved in a different way. The hon. Member for West Bromwich, East was anxious about the lack of independence of the investigation bodies. However, it is common ground that the air accident investigation branch has a fine reputation. The Department has recently made moves to establish a marine accident investigation branch, which we confidently expect to enjoy a similar reputation as the air accident investigation branch. Although the powers to investigate are the same as apply in the maritime environment, the methods of investigation will be different because there is a pool of expertise on hovercraft within the Department. It was not thought right to pass accident investigation to either of the other branches, as they lack the particular expertise desirable for the proper investigation of hovercraft accidents. There have been three inquiries into hovercraft casualties since the legislation was introduced. I cannot help the hon. Gentleman with his speculation about the future of hovercraft. I believe that hovercraft provide a valuable service to passengers and have a deserved reputation as a safe and effective form of transport. It is not for the Government to decide whether there should be developments, or whether hovercraft should be more widely used in future, but we are confident that by recommending the order we are providing an appropriate regime to ensure not only safety but the important question of pollution.

Mr. Snape: Before the Minister concludes, will he answer my question about the National Union of Seamen and the National Union of Marine, Aviation and Shipping Transport Officers? Will the non-recognition of those unions by hovercraft operators impinge on safety? Does the Minister believe that the representatives of those two unions have the expertise and willingness to participate in discussions with hovercraft operators about the important issue of safety?

Mr. Portillo: I am confident that non-recognition does not jeopardise safety. Those working in my Department and the Civil Aviation Authority are happy about the safety regime and I believe that those on the maritime side, who have considered what should be applied to hovercraft, are also happy about it. The procedure that is undertaken by the Civil Aviation Authority for type certification involves consultation with the industry. It is for all the responsible bodies to conduct that consultation with the industry in the manner that they see fit, but they would not be satisfied if they believed that any aspect of the safe operation of the craft had been neglected for any reason, including lack of trade union representation. I must rest on the result, which is that all those bodies are satisfied with the safety arrangements for the operation of hovercraft.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Committee has considered the draft Hovercraft (Application of Enactments) Order 1989.

Committee rose at fourteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.



McWilliam, Mr. John (Chairman)

Amess, Mr.

Budgen Mr.

Callaghan, Mr.

Clark, Dr. Michael

Critchley Mr.

Dorrell, Mr.

Parry, Mr.

Portillo, Mr.

Snape, Mr.

Tapsell, Sir Peter

Wheeler, Mr.

Wilkinson, Mr.