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Viscount Goschen: My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right that we have been relatively fortunate with the direction of the wind in terms of the direction that the large oil spill has taken. As for the spill itself, at sea the main weapon we have is our dedicated fleet of Dakota spraying aircraft. They have been spraying where the oil is far enough offshore not to have associated environmental disadvantages with the dispersant itself coming ashore. That is the main weapon that can be used on oil at sea. Beyond that, we are largely in the hands of the elements.
Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, I shall be brief, and some noble Lords will remember that I used to be brief when I was on the Opposition Front Bench for more than four years dealing with government Statements. In a Starred Question last week I raised the importance of preventing oil pollution of the sea very shortly before the "Sea Empress" went aground. Will my noble friend accept that I make no claim to Highland second sight, which is sometimes attributed to me, but that I and other noble Lords are very concerned on the general subject and, of course, deplore this accident? While informed comment must, I believe, await the results of the inquiry, can the Government assure us that they will now assist in every way to mitigate the damage to wildlife on Skomer and other islands and to the coastline in the path of the slicks?
Lord Greenway: My Lords, while echoing what the Minister said earlier that the salvage of a ship of this size from rocks is a very much more complex business than large sectors of the media and the population believe, is it not the case that 20 years ago Milford Haven was used by tankers twice the size of this one and without the need for helicopters or escort tugs? Should we not be looking more carefully at the apparent reduction in standards at sea, which I believe are behind a lot of these distressing incidents that we are seeing today?
Lord Brabazon of Tara: My Lords, will my noble friend resist the call for a public inquiry into this matter and allow the MAIB to get on with its job? Is my noble friend aware that in the aviation world there has not been a public inquiry into an accident for nearly 25 years and that most aviation accidents are infinitely more serious (usually involving loss of life) than the one which has taken place in Wales? The reason for that is because the reputation of the Air Accident Investigation Branch is extremely high and its reports highly regarded throughout the world. We all want to see the MAIB gain that same reputation. Unless it is allowed to do its work it will never acquire the same reputation. Will my noble friend also confirm that one of the advantages of the MAIB approach is that interim recommendations can be made, sometimes in a matter of days? Lastly, before all noble Lords condemn flags of convenience out of hand, will my noble friend confirm that the most serious recent accident of this kind involved the "Exxon Valdez" in Alaska, and that ship was American crewed and owned?
Viscount Goschen: My Lords, when discussing foreign-flagged vessels there is often the temptation automatically to assume that a foreign flag equals sub-standards. That is not the case. A great number of foreign-flagged vessels have been shown to be substandard and I emphasise that. However, the "Sea Empress" is a relatively new vessel and only about three years old. She is not the sort of rust-bucket that one might have deduced from initial reports.
My noble friend is quite right to highlight the usefulness of the MAIB approach. Our priority is not political expediency in immediately declaring an enormous inquiry to look into this matter. The MAIB is a body which has the technical expertise, integrity and independence to look specifically at these issues and to do so quickly. Speed is also important. I believe that my noble friend was quite right to highlight the issue of interim reports, which can be extremely useful in preventing further accidents.
Lord Rochester: My Lords, perhaps I should declare an interest in that I am an owner of a small property on a part of the Pembrokeshire coast, which I fear has already suffered pollution from this oil tanker. Will the Government now implement a recommendation of the Donaldson report, which I understand is still under consideration and which clearly affects Milford Haven,
Viscount Goschen: My Lords, I am very pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, raised the issue of environmental high-risk areas. As he mentioned, it is one of the recommendations made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, in his report that we are considering. Despite that, the fact is that Milford Haven, with its oil terminal and the refinery, cannot be designated an area to be avoided because oil tankers have to go there. However, I agree with the noble Lord that it is an area of extreme sensitivity and that we must find the best methods of balancing those two very contrasting issues. We have seen what can happen when a great deal of oil is spilt in this highly sensitive environment. But as my noble friend Lord Crickhowell mentioned, the refinery and the terminal are extremely important to the economy of this area of Wales.
Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, most of the Statement, and much of the discussion this afternoon, has surrounded the events that happened immediately when and after the "Sea Empress" hit the rocks. It behoves us all to make the seas as safe as we possibly can. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, that we have to make sure that these accidents are reduced to the absolute limit. It is now possible to use satellites to place cars and even missile silos with pinpoint accuracy. Therefore, does my noble friend agree that satellite global positioning ought now be used to check on the course of all high-risk shipping in our waters at least? It should not be beyond the wit of man to set up a central control to determine a ship's position from her previously agreed, logged and safe, chartered course, as indeed happens already with aircraft.
Viscount Goschen: My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that technological developments have made navigation a great deal easier. However, there are still the difficulties of very strong tides and currents to be taken into account. We do not yet know whether this accident was caused by an error of navigation, steering failure, engine power plant failure or whatever. We believe that technology is extremely important. A transponder should be fitted to vessels and that is something we are working on with the international community.
Baroness Nicol: My Lords, I pay a tribute to the noble Viscount for his fortitude in dealing with this event on the spot. It is fair to say that he kept his cool throughout in more ways than one and many of us admire him for it. As regards Skomer, which has been referred to, when claims for compensation are made there will be loud voices from many interests calling from along the coast. Will the Government make sure that Skomer--there is no loud
Viscount Goschen: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her extremely kind words. I receive them with great gratitude. As regards the situation of Skomer, it is clearly a very important wildlife reserve. Extreme environmental sensitivities are involved. There is a great variety of bodies working extremely hard to make sure that the effects of this accident are minimised. They are concentrating their efforts on those islands. As regards compensation for pollution from the IOPC fund, that depends on economic loss or reasonable measures being taken to prevent pollution. However, as I said, there are several other bodies which are extremely concerned, and in financial terms, with these extremely important reserves.