Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount for repeating the Statement. I share his wish to recognise the experience of individuals involved in the rescue procedures. Nevertheless, the Statement glosses over the fact that this is an accident which should not have happened. No, it is not stupid to say that. We had the example of an almost identical accident which happened in an identical place at a very similar time of day in terms of the tidal pattern in those waters. We also had the advice of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson--I see he is in his place and I shall not therefore discuss his report: it is, after all, his report and not mine--that we should pay particular attention to the approach to Milford Haven. It is ironic that most of our busiest oil ports are in areas of extreme environmental sensitivity, areas such as the Shetlands, the northern coast of Scotland and so on. Indeed, the "Sea Empress" had been involved in an incident at the Shetland port of Sullom Voe some months ago.

I want to concentrate on the issues of navigation. I shall attempt not to occupy quite so much time as the previous speaker. There are some important points to be made. What strikes me, as an amateur lover of boats and ships, is that, as reported at an early stage, the vessel was holed on the starboard side by rocks on the sandspit

22 Feb 1996 : Column 1164

lying on her port side as she steamed towards the harbour. That suggests that the vessel was very seriously out of the correct path in the seaway.

I accept the seriousness of what the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, said about the pilotage. It might be very sensible to bring pilots aboard by helicopter at an earlier stage in the approaches to Milford Haven. If a pilot arrives by helicopter, the ship does not have to slow down in order to take the pilot on board. The ship does not lose way and therefore is less likely to be incapable of making the steering manoeuvres that may be necessary as she begins to move off course. I should like to hear the Minister's response to that point. It appears that the managing company for the "Sea Empress" is investigating these matters and has expressed concern that the grounding of the two vessels happened in very similar circumstances and in the same place.

The Statement speaks of the need to look at all the various factors--the ownership, the management of the vessel, and so on, and the design--which may have contributed to the accident. Does the fact that the vessel is Spanish-built, Norwegian-owned, registered in Cyprus, sailing under a Liberian flag of convenience, managed from Glasgow, chartered by the French and crewed by Russians make the investigation more difficult? As well as the questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, about the need to investigate whether or not single-hulled vessels should ever come into our ports, especially into ports in such sensitive areas, I should also like to ask whether or not the Minister agrees that the increased use of flags of convenience makes the control of shipping in our coastal waters more difficult. That point has been raised by a number of commentators.

This has been an extremely dangerous accident. It has been dangerous for the fishing industry, which is already under stress; dangerous for the tourist industry, which is very important in that part of south-west Wales; and extremely dangerous potentially to the environment. There have been suggestions in the press that a certain complacency had developed towards the environmental danger. The suggestion was made that the sea after all could help to clean itself. All that is true. But there must be a limit, particularly in coastal waters, to the amount of absorption which can be anticipated. There seem to be obvious dangers in relying on that as a method of getting ourselves out of trouble.

One matter not mentioned in the Statement is the assertion by the noble Viscount's honourable friend the Minister in another place on the radio this morning that the principle of the polluter pays will be obeyed and put into effect in this instance. Is the Minister satisfied that there are sufficient funds available from various international resources and/or from the insurance policies of the shipowner to satisfy that requirement?

Viscount Goschen: My Lords, I welcome the contributions from the Front Benches opposite. This has, of course, been an extremely serious accident. The Statement attempts to highlight our resolve to find out what has gone wrong.

22 Feb 1996 : Column 1165

The first point I should address is the inquiry into the cause of the accident. I was slightly puzzled by the approach taken by the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis. He took pains to say that he felt that the MAIB was independent of government. He explained that he had held the portfolio in charge of shipping, so he is well placed to accept that independence. The MAIB is beyond the influence of the department and Ministers. We cannot interfere. It has the expertise. It was set up with the specific aim of investigating accidents of this very kind. That is its stock in trade. I see no reason why that position should not continue and why that body should not be the responsible and appropriate body to investigate this accident as it would investigate any other accident.

The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, said that he felt that the MAIB should not conduct the investigation because the Government may be implicated. I do not believe that the Government are either more or less implicated in this accident than in any other accident. All accidents around our coast have the potential to be extremely serious and are investigated by the MAIB. It has an international reputation. Its integrity is unquestioned and I do not believe that the argument that it may criticise the department is a reason for it not to undertake the inquiry. It has criticised the department and its agencies before--the Marine Safety Agency and the coastguard--and it has the ability to do so again if it believes that that is the correct course of action.

The second major theme raised by both noble Lords was that of emergency towing vehicles--the emergency tugs--and the recommendations made in the report that we commissioned from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson. We accepted that report, specifically 86 out of 103 recommendations made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson. The report is widely accepted as making a major contribution towards maritime safety and pollution prevention.

As the House will be aware, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, identified that, as a priority, there should be two locations in which emergency towing vehicles should be positioned; in Dover and in the Minches in Scotland. We have taken forward that recommendation and acted upon it. Emergency towing vehicles are now stationed at those locations. They have been called out and used a number of times.

The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, suggested that we ask the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, to reconvene his inquiry. He contrasted that with the approach of using the Marine Accidents Investigation Branch. I believe that there is some confusion. In the "Braer" incident the body which investigated the accident was the Marine Accidents Investigation Branch. The inquiry of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, was set up to consider wider issues of safety and pollution prevention. It has been extremely successful in addressing those issues. But on the specific point of investigating the accident itself there was absolutely no quibble; the MAIB was the responsible and appropriate body in those circumstances and it is so in these circumstances also.

22 Feb 1996 : Column 1166

A number of points were raised about the circumstances of the accident; what happened; whether there was deviation of the vessel from a planned course and so forth. Those are points which the MAIB inquiry will investigate in detail; it will take evidence from all parties concerned. It will interview the relevant people and produce a thorough report, which will be published. That is the forum for investigating those issues and I should not like to comment on that. Beyond that, many of the issues to which the noble Baroness referred in particular are the responsibility of the port authority. It has a proper responsibility. It is a trust port and its responsibilities and the responsibilities of the master of the vessel are clearly defined and the boundaries clearly laid down.

The noble Baroness said that it was an accident that should never have happened. That goes for every accident in the maritime field and elsewhere: no accident should happen. It was an extremely serious incident. We recognise that a substantial loss of oil into the marine environment and on the coast will cause real environmental problems. But that does not alter the fact that there was an accident which can be investigated and the details of which can be produced by the MAIB.

The noble Baroness asked about the international nature of the ownership, management and crewing of the vessel in question. It is common in the shipping world for that situation to occur. Shipping is an international business; it has always been that way and resources of many seafaring nations are drawn together to provide facilities for shipowners.

The noble Baroness asked also about flags of convenience. She will be aware that we have put substantial resources into the issues of port state control and addressing flags from countries other than the UK in those matters. We inspect around 30 per cent. of all the vessels with foreign flags that call at our ports, whereas our international obligation is only 25 per cent. That is a powerful tool. I agree with the noble Baroness that persuading administrations to conduct their responsibilities of flag state control more appropriately is something on which we should concentrate through the national maritime organisation and we give that a priority.

The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, talked of the issues relating to the Marine Safety Agency, the coastguard agency and the MAIB in terms of funding. I can give an assurance that those bodies are given the appropriate funding by government. Safety will in no way be compromised. That is the view of the chief executive of the two agencies in question and I can repeat that assurance. We will not look for efficiency savings within those organisations which compromise safety and that is our final position.

This accident caused extremely severe difficulties in terms of the environment. I am pleased only that the ship has been recovered, though it has taken a long time. The assessments that we have now put in place will determine the actual causes of the accident and assess

22 Feb 1996 : Column 1167

the nature of the salvage operation and of the environmental clean-up operations that go ahead. We will learn from the experience.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page