Campaigners warn of push-back boats stranding pilots

Image copyright Huw Owers Image caption Huw Owers says nalligozas are dangerous vessels and invite law breaking

The government has been told that pushing push-back craft to the bottom of the Irish Sea was unlawful under EU rules.

Huw Owers, an official with the UK Marine Agency, said the drive-backs could threaten lives and the environment.

But he told the BBC the force of the current could support mooring.

Ports Minister Rory Stewart told the BBC it was not immediately clear if efforts to shelter larger vessels in flotation buoys should continue.

Mr Owers, representing the agency, said despite strict new rules on the vessels, the agencies were still “trying to get it right” and the UK was trying to make compliance with EU rules “as easy as possible”.

The international civil aviation organisation recommends pilots manoeuvre these craft to within five knots to avoid creating a hazard.

But the UK Government has asked port authorities to enforce a “safe margin” of safety of no more than 10 knots, above the 3.8 knot average current current speed.

The Ministry of Defence says all vessels should be moored within about 100 nautical miles of the nearest place of safety.

But under EU rules, legislation has to be updated as needed, meaning vessels must actually be able to be anchored within a 30km safety zone.

Last week, the Ministry of Defence published guidance on the legislation for the first time.

Image copyright Swales/AP Image caption The Marine Agency says the vessels pose a danger to rescue services and the public

Mr Owers said: “This will include consultations on whether to stop or to continue with installations in line with the advice given to us by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA)”.

The territory surrounding Ireland is a crime hot spot

The Maritime Agency is trying to fix the shipping lane in the Irish Sea, and that has led to push-back boats becoming mooring points.

To what extent the vessels would be allowed to moor has yet to be decided.

But Mr Owers said: “I do hope it would be through this [low-density driving of mooring buoys].

“We are going to be looking at whether it is absolutely necessary to have even more high-density buoys.

“If there is going to be anything to anchor, there is a duty on us to put it out.”

He warned that the vessels were “a massive safety hazard” to the forces of rescue and emergency services, and to the public.

“They are causing unnecessary obstruction for harbour, rescue, rescue helicopters and air operations.”

He also cited fears about them being taken out to sea to find tourists and holidaymakers.

“That is a real problem. People have a legal right to a ferry to go on holiday and then to turn round and have to return to the UK.

“We have to make sure that we are not giving anybody an expectation that when we give them a ferry or an aircraft that they are going to get off, make a stop, get picked up and say, ‘Crap. I want to go to the beach’.”

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: “A trade gap cannot be made up and the safety and welfare of the travelling public must come first.

“There have been a small number of safety issues within these [push-back] boats and we have been working with agencies to address them.

“We will continue to liaise closely with the UK Government’s designated agencies to monitor these issues, and to explore what the next steps need to be in line with our regulatory framework.”

Progressive MEP Catherine Bearder, who is chair of the European Parliament’s environment committee, raised the issue in a letter to the environment secretary Michael Gove earlier this year.

She said Mrs Bearder’s office had found “new evidence” on the dangers of the boats and the “clear risks that in times of distress the lifeboats can be sunk”.

The Environment Agency has defended its work in designing and issuing the rules to protect the coastal environment.

“Our work over many years to create an international environmental law which embraces, but is flexible to change, rapid change and the cutting edge demands of the 21st century.”

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