A last ditch legal challenge could be mounted in the High Court against the coalition government over its plans to scrap coastguard emergency tug vessels.
Maritime union Nautilus International is considering the move after pointing to evidence from a major law firm which insists the legal basis for the cost-cutting move is “unsound” and “in clear breach” of international treaties.
The union says documents from legal firm Holman Fenwick Willan to the House of Commons transport committee’s enquiry into proposed coastguard cuts, which ran earlier this year, shows MPs would be “wholly unreasonable” to withdraw funding for ETVs.
In an article in the leading maritime industry newspaper Lloyds List the legal firm dismisses axing the tugs as “extremely unwise, seriously flawed and quite possibly illegal, being materially driven solely by short-term financial considerations”.
It adds government attempts to save £32 million by ditching the vessels and relying instead on private operators in emergency or clear-up operations “undermines the robustness of the Western European ETV network”.
Publicly-funded ETV fleets operate in Spain, France, Holland and Germany.
“The clear conclusion to every single report that we have seen on the subject of ETVs makes it clear that the risk-benefit analysis always falls in favour of retaining a year-round specialist ETV fleet,” the submission said.
It’s also feared removal of ETV services might discourage operators from using UK ports amid fears over liabilities.
The news comes as negotiations continue to secure a six month extension to the current contract, which is fast approaching its 30th September cut-off point.
It is hoped any extension will give breathing space for measured negotiations to take place in order to secure a future agreement which represents better value for money.
Isles MP Alistair Carmichael is still holding talks with Treasury ministers over the extension.
Asked about the possible legal action, he said: “I would hope that this legal challenge may be ultimately unnecessary, but if the removal of the tugs would be illegal then clearly it could not be allowed to go ahead.
“Governments must obey the law, whether it is on the provision of tugs or going to war in Iraq.”
SIC convener Sandy Cluness is expected to meet shipping minister Mike Penning shortly to discuss the importance of retaining the tugs, which were introduced following the release of the Lord Donaldson report into shipping safety after the 1993 Braer disaster.