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"Sea Empress"

Viscount Goschen: My Lords, I understand that this may be a convenient moment to repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport.

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    "Let me reiterate my unstinting admiration--which I am sure the whole House shares--for the tireless work which the teams of salvors, together with members of the emergency services, military and civilian helicopter crews, the ship's crew, Admiralty salvage experts, members of the MPCU and all those involved, have put into the salvage operation since the accident, often in diabolical conditions of danger, gales, freezing temperatures and acute physical discomfort. It is all too easy to criticise their efforts from the comfort of the armchair, the studio or the news room.

    "Nonetheless, for all their Herculean efforts the vessel remained stranded for five days and some 65,000 tonnes of oil have been spilt. I know the House shares my disappointment and frustration at the repeated failures of the earlier salvage attempts and my deep concern at the environmental consequences. We must find out why, and whether there is any more that could be done to make a future salvage operation more likely to succeed. To that end I have asked the Chief Inspector of Marine Accidents to extend the scope of the current investigation to include the salvage operations. This will include consideration of the planning and execution of the operation, examination of the contingency plans that were made and of the input and supervision of the operation by the shipowner, his insurers, the harbour authority and the marine pollution control unit. The chief inspector has told me he is appointing independent consultants to assist with this part of his inquiry. I look to all those involved to co-operate fully with this aspect of the investigation. I shall publish the chief inspector's report.

    "It is also essential that we undertake rigorous scientific assessments of the damage that has been caused on land and sea and of the effectiveness of the clean-up operations.

    "My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Wales announced yesterday that up to £250,000 is being made available for a comprehensive environmental assessment and long-term monitoring programme in the area affected by the spill. The work will start immediately and will be undertaken by the Countryside Council for Wales, acting in partnership with other statutory agencies and voluntary environmental groups.

    "It is intended to assess the impact of the spillage both on coastal and marine habitats, and of the effect of dispersing the oil both naturally and by chemicals on the concentrations of flora and fauna, including seabirds, seaducks and marine mammals. This will include a full assessment of the damage done to the Skomer Marine Nature Reserve and Milford Haven waterway. The levels of oil pollution in the seawater and coastal sediments will be measured, and changes monitored, as will the long-term recovery of the biological systems in general. The immediate need is to minimise to the extent that is possible the environmental effects of the spill. But we must not lose sight of the need to learn for the future.

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    "This assessment by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Wales will be complemented by work to be done by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who are arranging for diversion of the research vessel "Corystes" from its current research work to a new mission of fishing and environmental monitoring. The "Corystes" will be collecting samples of fish and shellfish for analysis of residues of oil. This will supplement the present and ongoing programmes of monitoring and will enable us to determine what restrictions are necessary and to say when fishing can safely resume. In the meantime, voluntary action ensures that fish on the market remain safe to eat.

    "I also wish to express our appreciation of the work of those involved in the clean-up operation who are often working in exposed and unpleasant conditions. Nonetheless, we will also need to assess the pollution response and clean-up operations. At this moment it is impossible to estimate how extensive these operations are likely to be.

    "At-sea operations are the responsibility of the marine pollution control unit, while operations on shore fall primarily to the local authorities, assisted by MPCU and, in this case, by the oil industry. In consultation with my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Wales I propose to appoint an independent assessor to undertake a rigorous examination for us of the response and clean-up procedures and techniques employed following the "Sea Empress".

    "As the report of the Ecological Steering Group established after the "Braer" recommended, it is essential that these examinations of the environmental impact and of the clean-up operations are brought together and published in a form which will provide clear guidance for the future. This will be done.

    "We believe that the measures necessary to reduce the risk of pollution were clearly set out in Lord Donaldson's report, Safer Ships, Cleaner Seas. When we have completed the investigation and the assessments I have referred to in this Statement we will be in a position to assess the lessons on this particular spill and set them in the context of Lord Donaldson's findings and recommendations, the vast majority of which we have accepted.

    "The Government are determined to find out exactly what happened, to publish the results and to learn and apply the lessons. The House would expect no less".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.31 p.m.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place. I pay tribute to those individuals who, at considerable personal risk, were involved in seeking to salvage this stricken vessel.

This accident was extremely serious. At this stage it is difficult to measure the damage caused to that fragile and beautiful coastline and to its fish and wildlife. It is clear, however, that the damage could have been

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infinitely worse. The environmental damage was limited substantially through good fortune rather than good planning.

As the Minister said, many questions must be posed. How did the accident occur? Was the salvage operation carried out efficiently? How can we best protect our coasts? How can we ensure to the best of our ability that there is no recurrence? And how best can we have the matter fully and objectively investigated?

Another salient question was omitted totally from the Statement. Were the Government at fault in any way? Were they not on notice as to the vulnerability of Milford Haven to accidents of this kind, bearing in mind that one occurred only four months ago involving a double-hulled vessel? The Government's own department carried out an internal investigation-- a follow-up to the Donaldson Report--which I understand was produced to the department last June. Why has that not yet seen the light of day, given the desire made transparent today on the part of the Government to be absolutely open?

Because the Department of Transport is so closely implicated in these matters, the Opposition take the view that an investigation undertaken by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch alone is inappropriate. I hasten to add that I cast no aspersions whatsoever on the MAIB. A Minister may laugh at that; but I held these responsibilities and I know that the MAIB will do whatever it is asked to do with considerable skill. However, that said, I do not believe that the necessary remit for this investigation is covered by its immediate competences. Moreover, since the Department of Trade and Industry's actions, or failures to act, must also be investigated impartially--because serious questions affecting environmental issues also have to be raised--we believe the most appropriate form of inquiry would be for the Government to ask the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, to reconstitute his committee.

After all, why was that committee set up in the case of a much less serious accident, the "Braer"? Are there not more lessons to be learnt as a result of this particular incident? That view is taken not simply by the Opposition; it is taken by many non-governmental organisations and other people. Certainly the Donaldson Report gained much credit from the fact that it was carried out by a distinguished judge and Member of this House. That redounded to the advantage of this country in the international counsels of world shipping. If that is right, it seems somewhat fruitless to run two investigations concurrently. But the Government have already started the investigation by the MAIB. Is there a place for a further Donaldson report? I certainly believe that there is. A decisive advantage is that much work has already been done by the Donaldson Committee. There is always the possibility, if the Minister is concerned about timing, for a preliminary report to be published if the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, were to undertake this work, and one could be requested.

Other issues have to be addressed. First, was the accident avoidable? At what point did a pilot come on board? Was it right that he came on board some

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15 minutes before the ship entered the harbour? Bearing in mind that large tankers take a very long time to change course, was that anything like sufficient? Any investigation will certainly examine that matter. Having regard to the fact that another incident had occurred, as I said, only four months earlier at that very same port, would it not have been a wise precaution to have a large tug available on all such occasions, bearing in mind the vulnerability of that area? That is a matter for the Government, not for the salvors or anybody else. Had there been, as was reported in the press, other, unreported incidents of a similar kind? The Minister may like to comment on that, or least indicate that the Government will carry out a full investigation into that aspect of the matter.

Secondly, did the Government pay sufficient heed to the Donaldson recommendations regarding the availability of tugs? The specific recommendation was that tugs should be available in the Western Approaches. That was intended to prevent accidents of this kind. After the collision, is it right that the Government should have declined to bring in additional tugs? Would the presence of more powerful tugs, based in our busiest mainland oil terminal, have assisted? The Government say no. But that is a point of view convenient for them to adopt. We should like to know, from an impartial investigation, whether that government view is right.

Thirdly, was there no radar to control ingress to Milford Haven? Has that been the position over a period of something like six months? How could that situation have been permitted? Did the Department of Transport know about it, and if so, what did it do about it?

Fourthly, in terms of communications, was it not extraordinary that in order to communicate with the large Chinese tug that was required a Chinese restaurateur had to be persuaded to leave his take-away in order to assist in the necessary interpretations? The whole matter is farcical.

Fifthly, should not the whole question of double hulls be carefully and impartially examined? The United States has taken a very decisive view; namely, that no single-hulled tanker should be allowed to gain access to ports of an environmentally sensitive nature. Do the Government believe that view to be right, or not? Are there dangers in retrofitting existing tankers? As I understand it, these questions were left open by the Donaldson Report. They now assume huge significance.

Sixthly, what are the environmental and economic consequences likely to be? The Minister dealt in part with that question in his report, and I am grateful for that. Many people will be affected: fishermen, hoteliers, and others. I understand that compensation will ultimately be available--but how soon? Is there to be a mechanism for providing interim payments in suitable cases? Will claimants who make reasonable claims, which may be very complex in undertaking, be given an indemnity to cover reasonable legal costs? As I understand it, legal aid will not be available because there is no litigious process in what we contemplate.

The Government have said that much responsibility falls on local authorities. What additional financial support is to be made available to those local

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authorities? They will have to undertake expenditure immediately. It is true that ultimately they will be able to make a claim on the funds that are available. But why do not the Government provide the support now and then stand in the place of the local authorities, so that they can recover the moneys that are due? It is patently unfair that the local authorities should have to bear the brunt of the expenditure immediately.

Seventhly--the Minister's Statement was rather long and I am perfectly entitled to put these points, even if it irritates some of those on the other side of the House--is there evidence that cargo and shipowners have been involved in cutting costs and corners, thereby making accidents far more likely?

Eighthly, will the Minister confirm that the European Union's pollution taskforce has been sent by the Commission to help clear up the oil spillage? Has the Commission also pledged financial support for the area to the extent of £250,000, with more being made available for environmental organisations if necessary to help save wildlife?

Do the Government not regard it as essentially contradictory that, while they preside over the collapse of the British merchant fleet, as undoubtedly they do, increasing numbers of substandard flags of convenience ships carry goods to and from our ports? Is there not something inherently contradictory in that attitude? At the same time they cut the Coastguard agency. They impose cuts on the Marine Safety Agency and the Marine Accident Investigation Branch. Are those not very important issues which also have to be tackled? How can the Marine Accident Investigation Branch do that work? All those are issues which should be investigated by a reconstituted Donaldson Committee.

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