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Viscount Goschen: My Lords, local authorities will be able to claim from the IOPC fund. Specific compensation arrangements have been put in place. It is an organisation agreed by international treaty and has the ability to call upon approximately £57 million worth of funding to provide compensation. It did a good job following the "Braer" in the Shetland Islands though there are legal claims still outstanding.
Lord Elis-Thomas: My Lords, my feeling on this issue is that the Minister's response has been totally disappointing. Indeed, that disappointment is now turning to anger among those of us who have been concerned about the coastal environment for many years.
The environmental response of the Government has been totally inadequate in view of what was a near ecological disaster along the coast. I urge him to consult immediately again with his honourable friend in another place, the Secretary of State for Wales, to institute a full public inquiry where all the issues concerned with coastal zone management will come forward and all the ecological issues can be discussed. It makes nonsense of the deliberations of this House and of government to talk about sustainable development while such disasters continue to happen.
The European Union should immediately initiate a new proposal for regulations to control the transport movements that create this kind of pollution so that we can receive a serious response, rather than the totally inadequate response from the Government to what is a major environmental disaster.
Viscount Goschen: My Lords, I understand the noble Lord's extreme concern for the environment of the region with which he is so closely associated. But there is a possibility that two issues are being confused. I understand that the Government's reaction in physical terms--in putting forward the agreed contingency plans, mobilising the aircraft with dispersant spraying units, bringing forward the beach-cleaning operations and so forth to deal with the oil itself--is giving the noble Lord cause for concern.
Everything is being done that possibly can be done, mobilising considerable assets to deal as far as we can with the oil. A full public inquiry will not help in any way to address the issues of the clean-up now. An inquiry, against the procedures that I have put forward, is another question. A public inquiry will take time; it will inevitably provoke bitter controversy, legal representation, cost to those who want to make points and so forth. Our concern is to get to the nature of what
Lord Berkeley: My Lords, in piecing together what happened in this accident, I have to agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, that it was an avoidable one. The weather was bad, but it was not that bad. I have to surmise that the tanker was probably late, that the master wanted to avoid paying overtime to the people in the port and that he was cutting corners. One marine expert--I hope that he is not the one who will be conducting the inquiry--was quoted in the Guardian yesterday as saying that the problem was that the tide was too high and that it goes up and down by 25 feet. But it does that every fortnight or so and has been doing it for millions of years. So that was not a very helpful suggestion. He cut the corners. As the tide goes up it also goes in and out, sideways, probably by three or four knots across that entrance, which I know quite well. He was pushed to the side, the pilot came out too late and there was a problem of communications. I do not think they got their act together before they went into the harbour. One thing professional seafarers know is that you should not enter a harbour until you are ready. Is it not true to say that the whole accident was saved from being worse by a Chinese tug with someone from a Chinese takeaway helping to translate? It is a pretty poor reflection on life.
Viscount Goschen: And that is a pretty poor question, my Lords. I would have expected rather better of the noble Lord. Yes, there were real communications difficulties with the tug in question--we can all have a big laugh about the Chinese takeaway and it is something that the press have centred on; yes, that tug was not useful; and yes the tug was not used. But other tugs were used. It was up to the salvors to determine the tug capacity they wanted. They got the tugs there.
A great deal of comment has centred on the issue of tugs when in reality the problem towards the end was buoyancy and not pulling power. You can pull a vessel that is on rocks too hard and she will just break up. The noble Lord appears to have conducted his own inquiry and has come to his own conclusions extremely rapidly. I shall not follow him on that course and I shall not pre-empt our inquiry.
Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that this big ship was on the Liberian register and that whatever may be the merits of that country it is not a maritime country nor one capable of carrying out any effective supervision over the management of shipping? If the ship was on the Liberian register, is there not a case for deciding to impose restrictions on the movements of ships, particularly of big ships, from non-maritime countries?
Viscount Goschen: My Lords, it is extremely difficult to determine what is and what is not a maritime country. Liberia has a very substantial register indeed. The reasons behind that are numerous and there is a long history after the Second World War of vessels across the whole spectrum flagging out of their national registers.
The Earl of Halsbury: My Lords, it is customary on these occasions to thank the Minister for making a Statement. However, I understand that on this occasion we have very much more to thank the noble Viscount for than making a Statement. His qualities of decision-making and impromptu leadership as the Minister on the spot have been quite outstanding. For that he deserves the thanks of your Lordships' House.
Lord Crickhowell: My Lords, as a former Member of Parliament for Pembroke and as someone who has had some involvement in the shipping and ports industry, perhaps I may first thank those who at considerable risk to themselves succeeded in finally salvaging this vessel. May I ask that the MAIB, in whose efficiency and integrity I have complete confidence, should look with particular urgency at an early stage in its inquiry at the whole question of following the practice of powerful tugs escorting every large tanker into port and to consider as a priority whether there should not be large tugs escorting tankers through the extremely dangerous and exposed entrance to Milford Haven?
Secondly, will my noble friend ask that all those who are inquiring into this affair look at the ecological damage and the possibilities of preventing ecological damage to the wonderful environment around the Pembrokeshire coast, but also bear in mind when looking at proposals for limiting entry only to double hulled tankers, and so on, at the importance of Milford as an oil port and to the huge importance of the oil refineries there to employment in West Wales? We have to find a balance between protecting the environment and recognising the significance of Milford in those respects.
Viscount Goschen: My Lords, the Marine Accident Investigation Branch will be looking at the issues of the approach of the vessel, the use of pilots, whether any lessons can be learnt and how tugs should be utilised. But my understanding from speaking to people on the spot is that at Milford Haven the tides and currents are such that a very rapid approach has to be made through the entrance to the haven itself, and for that reason the use of tugs is not suitable. Vessels have to move very quickly and it is not a comparable situation to where oil tankers entering another type of port or harbour might be able to move more slowly and therefore benefit from the use of tugs. But, having said that, the inquiry will also look into that point.
My noble friend made an extremely important point in that Milford Haven is an important oil terminal with a very large refinery. There is, therefore, a considerable requirement for oil and the passage of oil tankers. That balance is at the heart of this issue. It is in an extremely sensitive area, but we must do everything we can to ensure that the shipping is as safe as possible.
Baroness Hilton of Eggardon: My Lords, does the Minister agree that, in a sense, we have so far been very fortunate from an ecological point of view that the wind has been northerly? There is now a 16 kilometre long oil slick out at sea and as the winds go round to the more normal south-westerly a far worse ecological disaster may result than anything we have yet seen. Is the noble Viscount satisfied that sufficient is being done to try to prevent that oil slick ending up on those sensitive shores?
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