HC Deb 10 November 1960 vol 629 cc1359-68

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Whitelaw.]

10.13 p.m.

Mr. Denys Bullard (King's Lynn)

I wish to raise tonight the question of a wreck in the harbour at Brancaster Staithe on the north Norfolk coast which is causing annoyance and considerable danger to the fishermen and others who use that small port.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary for coming to the House tonight to deal, I hope satisfactorily, with this matter. He shares the position of second-incommand of a very great Department with huge responsibilities all over the country in road, rail and shipping, and I hope that he does not think that this is a small matter which ought not to be occupying his time. I see by the signs which he is making that he does not think that at all, and I am grateful to him.

I know that my hon. Friend has these vast responsibilities, because there are other schemes in my constituency which I should very much like a similar opportunity to discuss if that were proper, but I will not go into them tonight, nor will I go into the details of the history of the wreck at Brancaster, because I have already had correspondence with my hon. Friend in which I have set out the position very fully.

Briefly, the harbour at Brancaster has a channel which follows a westerly course almost along the north Norfolk coast. On the landward side of the channel there are the remains of tubular anti-invasion defence works, which are still there despite the efforts which I have made to get them removed. They form an obstruction on one side of the channel. On the other side is this wreck of the ship "Vina", which was deliberately sunk there during the war, or just at the end of the war, as a target—I think that is right—by the Air Ministry for practice purposes. Everybody assumed that when the war was over and conditions were more normal it would be removed. It was marked with a buoy by the Air Ministry and remained so marked until 1959, but in the meantime responsibility for the wreck passed into the hands of the Ministry of Transport through the predecessor of my right hon. and hon. Friends.

The mistake was made in 1957, when the wreck was sold as scrap to a merchant. In theory, the responsibility for moving it passed to the merchant, but in practice my hon. Friend has found it very difficult to enforce this condition. The matter has been complicated still further because, since then, the original purchaser of the wreck has sold it, so that we are now dealing with the purchaser at second hand.

After repeated complaints by the fishermen of Brancaster, I wrote to my hon. Friend and on 11th May I asked him a Question in the House. He was very kind. He said that he hoped to be able to remove the wreck before very long. He told me later that he was not getting on quite so well, but hoped that the buoy would be reaffixed to the wreck.

That happened, but the buoy scarcely qualified for the full use of the term, because it was a painted oil drum fixed to the wreck, which, by this time, had been cut into three by oxy-acetylene cutters. Its position was not much improved—in fact, it was made worse—by being cut to pieces.

In storms a month or so ago the painted oil drum came adrift. We are back to the position in which we were originally. The wreck is still there, now cut into three pieces, having been sold twice. I am not sure what has happened to its responsibility in the process of sale, but the obstruction, annoyance and danger remain.

There is one primary reason why I feel justified in raising this matter on the Adjournment. The fishermen in Brancaster, who are chiefly fishers for shell fish, whelks in particular, are individualists. They have no organisation to work for them. They are not within the jurisdiction of a local authority. If this was a road matter, for instance, there would be a county authority to whom complaints could go and, in turn, be passed on to the Ministry of Transport. These fishermen are individualists engaged in a dangerous occupation. They have to come in and go out of the channel. They have to negotiate the defences on the one side and the wreck on the other, the latter constituting a very grave danger and difficulty.

Although this may be merely a small matter, I hope that in view of the facts I have laid before the House my hon. Friend will do everything in his power either to insist on the original responsibilities of the purchaser being carried out or ensure that a proper buoy—not merely a painted oil drum—is affixed. I am assured by the fishermen that buoying is not the answer and that the removal of the wreck from the channel is the only solution. I ask my hon. Friend to consider whether he can by some means achieve this object—not "before very long", as he said before, but at the earliest possible moment.

10.19 p.m.

Mr. R. Gresham Cooke (Twickenham)

As a sailing man I should like to add a few words to what my hon. Friend the Member for King's Lynn (Mr. Bullard) has said and to congratulate him on raising this topic, which is important to those who live in that part of the world.

I have sailed, man and boy, in and out of all these harbours—Blakeney, Wells, Burnham and Brancaster. I know them all intimately. It is not generally understood that the tides and the tidal rush in and out of these harbours is very severe. At the full moon or the new moon a 25 ft. tide runs up into the marshes and harbours and comes out again at great speed. The enormous rush of water is very dangerous.

I can sympathise with the fishermen of Brancaster who have found it extremely difficult to get in and out of that narrow harbour with this obstruction on one side. Many a time I have tried in a dinghy to sail up against the tide and a southwest wind and tried to get into one or other of these harbours. It is a very dangerous thing to do, and I was quite often in danger and sometimes in fear of my life. In fact, there have been fatalities on that coast. I have seen fishing boats rushing out on an ebb tide going at an enormous speed—10 knots, because the tide was already going at four or five knots.

I know that north Norfolk coast, where one does not have proper buoys, but painted oil drums, which are quite normal up there, but it is not good enough in all states of the weather and also in darkness for these fishermen, who sometimes go out in the early mornings or come home late at night. On the edge of Blakeney Harbour, there is a wreck that has been there since 1917. It was a Swedish ship which had been torpedoed and sank on the edge of the harbour. Fortunately, it is not quite in the main fairway.

Brancaster Harbour has a much narrower entrance and a ship like this causes some danger. I believe that this boat was sold for a few pounds, probably to some scrap merchant, and I think it is now up to the Ministry of Transport to spend a few hundred pounds on moving this dangerous obstruction from the tideway. The wreck is not exactly in the fairway, but out in the tideway. It would not be a great thing to ask, but I think that, on behalf of the fishermen of north Norfolk and the sailing people, for this is a very popular part of the world for sailing, the Parliamentary Secretary should say that he would give his attention to it and perhaps have a few hundred pounds spent on moving this dangerous wreck, which is so dangerous to the sailing and fishing people at Brancaster Harbour.

10.23 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. John Hay)

I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for King's Lynn (Mr. Bullard) straight away that I am very glad to have the opportunity of speaking tonight about this wreck in Brancaster Bay. This is something with which I have lived for a couple of years now, because my hon. Friend and his predecessor, Commander Scott-Miller, whom we all remember, have been assiduous in bringing the problem of this wreck to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport.

I can best help my hon. Friend and the House tonight by stating, first, what is the history of the matter, and, secondly, by saying something about the responsibility and where it rests. As the House has already been told, this wreck is of a ship called the "Vina", built, I understand, about 1894, and a vessel of 1,021 tons gross. During the war, it was used by Coastal Command as a target ship for bombing practice by aircraft, and as a result of this treatment, it is not surprising that it became a total wreck, and has been, since the end of the war resting in two fathoms of water at Brancaster.

In 1948, the Air Ministry gave up the bombing range, and agreed then that it would mark this wreck with a buoy if at any time it became necessary. I should tell the House at this point that the vessel, just before it had become a wreck, and, of course, subsequently, remained the property of the Crown in the possession of the Minister of Transport. In 1953, there were a number of complaints from fishermen and others about the wreck, and the Air Ministry then agreed to carry out the undertaking which it had given earlier, and to mark the wreck with a buoy. In fact, a green unlit buoy was provided and kept in position.

May I say that this is not a cheap affair. The provision of these buoys and their maintenance can be quite an expensive item. This is something that is not often realised by those who do not have to deal with maritime matters, but, particularly on exposed coasts, it can be extremely expensive to keep these buoys in position.

In 1957, the Ministry of Transport sold the wreck to a firm called Messrs. P. F. Rose and Son, of Peterborough, for scrap. There was then a clear understanding that Messrs. Rose would accept all existing and future liabilities in respect of the wreck. They undertook, moreover, to start to clear the wreck, and to get rid of the metal within two months. On that understanding, the Air Ministry agreed to continue to maintain for that period the buoy that they had there since 1953, until the wreck had been removed. That was the situation in 1957.

I am sorry to say that the firm which had bought the wreck did nothing to work it, and by the middle of 1959 no work at all had been done on the wreck. At that time, the Air Ministry buoy, that had been there since 1953, broke adrift, and the following month we got in touch with the owners, Messrs. Rose, who then said that they had sold the wreck to a Mr. Clark, of Wisbech. We made repeated efforts to get Mr. Clark to mark or remove the wreck, but without conspicuous success.

In May of this year he promised to remove the wreck "shortly", and in the following month, as my hon. Friend has said, he marked it with a green-painted 40-gallon oil drum which, I understand, has been not unsuccessful—although it has now disappeared. We kept up pressure on Mr. Clark to remove the wreck, and on 5th October last we had a letter from him, a copy of which I have here, in which he told us that he was at the moment engaged on clearing another wreck belonging to the Air Ministry at Terrington; that this job would be completed by the end of November—this current month—and that he would then start work on the "Vina".

On 26th October, my hon. Friend wrote to me pointing out that the buoy that Mr. Clark had put there some months before had broken adrift. After some difficulty, we managed to get in touch with Mr. Clark by telephone, and he has now promised to mark the wreck again this weekend by putting up another buoy. That is the first bit of news I can give about this matter tonight. That is the history as the matter stands at the moment, and I now come to the responsibility, and where it rests.

It is quite clear that Mr. Clark is at present the legal owner of the wreck. It is also established under the law that he has an obligation to take all reasonable measures to ensure the safety of other vessels. This rests on a judgment of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, given in 1893, in the case of the "Utopia". This is something that perhaps Mr. Clark has not had the opportunity of reading recently. As long as he owns the wreck and has not abandoned it, he is responsible for the marking of it. That is where his liability lies.

I have made very extensive investigations, and have discovered, not without surprise, that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport has no power to mark or remove the wreck, or cause the wreck to be removed by someone else. There remains, however, Trinity House. Section 531 of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, vests in Trinity House a power to remove or to mark any vessel that has been sunk, stranded or abandoned in the fairway or on the sea shore, but that obligation arises only in two circumstances: first, if there is no harbour or conservancy authority with power to raise, remove or destroy the wreck; and, secondly, if, in the opinion of Trinity House—which is unfettered in any way—the vessel is or is likely to become an obstruction or a danger to navigation.

Those two conditions must be complied with before Trinity House has power to remove any vessel of this kind. If Trinity House incurs any expense in carrying out this duty, the expense can be charged against the General Lighthouse Fund. The House may know that this is a fund that is supported by contributions from the shipping industry, and not from the fishing industry. I think that Trinity House is liable to take the view that the General Lighthouse Fund, being supported by the shipping industry, should, therefore, be used for the removal of wrecks which are a danger to shipping and navigation, and not necessarily a danger or inconvenience to the fishing industry as such.

It is clear that there is no general navigation in this area. It is true that fishing vessels and private yachts come in and out, but there is no fairway here far big ships. The view is, therefore, taken that the wreck is not at present an obstruction or a danger to navigation in the sense in which Section 531 of the Merchant Shipping Act uses the phrase.

In any event, whether that be true or not, it is clear that the wreck has not been abandoned. It belongs to Mr. Clark and, as I said, the Section itself only gives this power of removal to Trinity House where a vessel has been sunk, stranded or abandoned. Therefore, Mr. Clark continues to own it. There is legal authority for saying that Trinity House would not have power to intervene to destroy or remove it without Mr. Clark's permission. If they did it without his permission they might be liable to damages. Therefore, Trinity House have told us in those circumstances that they do not propose to exercise their powers under Section 531.

Mr. Gresham Cooke

I do not think that it ought to be supposed that no ship uses Brancaster Harbour. I think there is an occasional merchant ship which goes in, apart from fishing vessels and private yachts.

Mr. Hay

That is something that I did not know. I asked specifically about this, but was informed that no general shipping used this harbour at all. That is something that I will inquire about, as my hon. Friend has raised the point.

If I may sum up the case on responsibility, it is clear that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport has no powers either to mark this wreck with a buoy or in any other way, nor to remove it. Secondly, as things stand at the moment, Trinity House appear not to have powers themselves to remove it, and they are certainly extremely doubtful about using any powers even if they have them. Thirdly, it is clear that Mr. Clark is the owner. As such, he is responsible for marking the wreck and for its eventual removal. He has promised us that he will replace the buoy by this week end and he has also promised us that he will start the removal of the wreck at the beginning of December.

We shall just have to wait and see whether these promises are carried out, and I sincerely hope that they will be because Mr. Clark must realise what a lot of trouble this has caused not only to my right hon. Friend's Department and his officers, but also to all those who use this estuary. I hope, therefore, that he will get on with the job. If not, we shall have to consider whether there is anything further that we can do.

In the meantime, I hope my hon. Friend the Member for King's Lynn will feel that the news I have been able to give tonight, the explanation I have been able to give of the history of the matter and where the responsibility lies will be of some value and use to his constituents whose difficulties he has so ably represented to us in this debate.

Mr. Bullard

Despite all that my hon. Friend has said, was it not a grave error of the Ministry of Transport to have parted with the responsibility?

Mr. Hay

One has got to look back at the time when this happened. At that time there was a great demand for scrap metal. I understand that we advertised this wrecked vessel, but received only three offers. The first was an offer which was found on examination to be of no value at all because the people did not follow it through. The second one was the offer from the firm that I have mentioned, who offered to pay us £25 for the wreck. The third was from a firm who said that they would take the wreck away if we paid them between £500 and £600. In the circumstances, we were inclined to accept the second offer. We anticipated that the wreck would be removed because there was no doubt that at that time there was a great demand for scrap metal. We never expected that we should get ourselves involved in this long chapter of incidents. Perhaps, if this had been known at the time, it might well be that a different decision would have been taken then.

Mr. Wedgwood Benn (Bristol, South-East)

May I pursue the hon. Gentleman on this point? I have listened to the debate having known nothing about the matter before, and I have heard the case of the fishermen with regard to this wreck ably stated by the hon. Member for King's Lynn (Mr. Bullard) and the case on behalf of the yachtsmen made—appropriately enough in evening dress—by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke).

If Mr. Clark has responsibility for the wreck now, it is clearly a responsibility which was exercised by the Ministry. The Ministry discharged it by selling the wreck. If Mr. Clark could find somebody to buy it for 2d., he could, presumably, discharge his obligation. Is it really satisfactory to say that serious responsibilities for marking with a buoy or for removal which rested upon a Government Department, because of Crown property, could be discharged by sale to someone else, with no power then to enforce the terms of sale?

Was it the Ministry of Transport's responsibility originally? If so, had the Ministry a right to sell that responsibility, and, if it had, is it, after having sold, absolutely free, as is claimed, from responsibility for enforcing the terms of sale? If the Ministry still has responsibility for enforcing the terms of sale, why does it not take action against Mr. Clark by means of some procedure in the courts?

Mr. Hay

By leave of the House, I will answer those questions. To begin with, it is perfectly clear that we had responsibility, at the time the wreck was in our ownership, to safeguard other vessels. We would have been in no different position from that of Mr. Clark today, under the case of the "Utopia" which I mentioned. The decision to sell was taken. It was by no means unusual; it was done with a great many other vessels of this kind around our coasts after the war. The decision to sell being taken, at once the Minister of Transport, qua owner, parted with all responsibility for the wreck. That then passed to the firm of Rose, who in turn sold to Mr. Clark. He is now the owner and, therefore, he has the responsibility.

In the circumstances, we are no longer in any way responsible as owners for this wreck. But the question may arise whether the Minister of Transport, as representing the Government, has some responsibility. On that, as I have said, we have made very extensive investigations, and we find, first, that we have no responsibility for this wreck—the Statute does not give it to us—and, secondly, we have no power to require Trinity House, Mr. Clark or anyone else to remove it.

It would be open to Mr. Clark as the present owner to sell to someone else, if he chose—there is no one who could stop him—or he could abandon it if he chose to do so. If he abandoned it, certain other provisions might come into play, but I have no time to go into those now.

That is the precise legal position, as I understand it. Whether the House considers it satisfactory or not is really not for me to say. As I think the House knows we are now considering the whole question of the Merchant Shipping Act. 1894, and this might well be a matter also to be considered in that connection.

Mr. Benn

The hon. Gentleman has raised questions of legislation, which Mr. Speaker would quickly rule out of order if—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member has already spoken once on this Question.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes to Eleven o'clock.