Britian decided to scrap emergency towing vessel cover around the coastline
Britian’s decision to scrap emergency towing vessel cover around the coastline is now almost certain to face legal challenge, with opponents of the idea set to argue in the High Court that such a step would breach both international treaty obligations and domestic law.
The government initially unveiled the move in October 2010, as part of the biggest round of public sector cuts seen in Britain for almost 90 years. Ending ETV cover is designed to save 32m ($51.5m) over four years, as a contribution towards an 81bn overall reduction in state spending.
However, reaction within UK shipping has been almost unanimously hostile, with many doubtful that reliance on free-market salvage operators is an adequate substitute for having four tugs provided by JP Knight on call 24 hours.
They point out that the present system was introduced in light of past experience, on the recommendation of Lord Donaldson’s report into the 1993 Braer disaster, and that one repetition of such an incident could dwarf any savings made by ending it.
Seafarer union Nautilus International today confirmed that it and one other party, which it declined to name, were now talking to maritime law firms with the intention of launching an application for judicial review.
Owing to the likely high cost of the proceedings, the initiators are urging other shipping interests to join them in the action. With cover to be axed at the end of this month, speedy resolution of the question is essential, they believe.
Under English law, the courts in England and Wales are able to supervise the exercise of power by ministers, local councils and statutory tribunals where they are deemed to have acted unlawfully. They can order that decisions be set aside, and award damages. They can also issue injunctions to compel public authorities to stop acting illegally.
The legal basis of the challenge will be along the lines of written evidence from law firm Holman Fenwick Willan tabled to the House of Commons transport committee on the government’s decision not to renew the ETV contract.
The HFW document brands the withdrawal of funding for the towing vessels without providing alternative emergency response capability as “extremely unwise, seriously flawed and quite possibly illegal, being materially driven solely by short-term financial considerations”.
Government-funded ETV fleets are now in place in Spain, France, Holland, and Germany and other jurisdictions, with Norway constructing purpose-built ETVs for this task.
“There is therefore considerable stupefaction abroad about the UK’s decision, which greatly undermines the robustness of the western European ETV network,” HFW asserts. “It seems to be a significant and unwelcome step backwards in this combined maritime response capability that is likely to undermine international co-operation in this domain for years to come.”
Because of the liability situation, removal of ETV services might even discourage operators from calling in the UK, and see them switch to continental ports instead, it is claimed.
It would also be in breach of the environmental provisions of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, particularly article 98, which sets down a duty to render assistance to ships in distress, and article 194, which requires states to take “all measures” to “prevent, reduce and control pollution” by using “the best practicable means at their disposal”.
Possible breaches of the 1992 Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic and the 1990 International Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Co-operation are also cited. In English law, HFW maintains that breaches of case law are possible.
A spokesman for the Department for Transport said: “The government’s position remains that state provision of ETVs does not represent a correct use of taxpayers’ money and that ship salvage should be a commercial matter between a ship’s operator and the salvor.
“The government is prepared to consider a short extension to the provision of ETV capability for the Minches, based in Stornoway, if it can be satisfied that a credible proposal to secure funding for the ETV, from parties outside of the department exists, and that an extension would allow provide interim cover until that funding plan is finalised.
“Shipping minister Mike Penning met representatives from interested parties on July 25. He explained that the government would be happy to discuss the issue further if ongoing funding could be delivered.”
Source: Lloyds List 2011/ IMDO