HC Deb 05 February 1968 vol 758 cc39-43

Mr. James Johnson (by Private Notice) asked the President of the Board of Trade if he will make a statement about the missing fishing trawler "Ross Cleveland".

The Minister of State, Board of Trade (Mr. J. P. W. Mallalieu)

The House will be profoundly shocked to hear that another Hull trawler the "Ross Cleveland", with a crew of nineteen, has been lost. News of the tragedy is still reaching me, but I understand that around midnight last night the vessel disappeared from the radar screens of the "Odinn", an Icelandic gunboat, and other trawlers who, like her, were riding out atrocious weather conditions off West Iceland. It would be wrong to hold out hope for the vessel or the crew, and I am ordering a preliminary inquiry which will be followed by a formal investigation. Once again, I have to express my deep sympathy with the relatives of those who have been lost.

I am urgently considering what restrictions should be imposed on the operations of trawlers having regard to their size, the area of operation, the season of the year and their stability and freeboard. I am asking representatives of the trawler owners' associations and the unions concerned to meet me immediately to discuss these matters and any other measures that might be taken forthwith to reduce the risks to which trawlers operating in these arduous conditions are subject.

Mr. Johnson

Is the Minister aware of the total despair felt by the people of Hull over this third tragedy in so few days? I thank him for his sympathy, and I am sure that the whole House will extend to the widows, relatives, dependants and people of my constituency its deepest sympathy at this sad time.

Perhaps I might ask the Minister two questions. First, bearing in mind that the vessel went down in the view of sister ships and an Icelandic patrol boat, does the Minister not agree that there is a serious need now for the utmost care and investigation into the stability and design of fishing vessels, particularly in high seas such as they encounter?

Secondly, will the Minister set up at once a high powered commission on the lines of the Devlin Commission to investigate the fishing industry concerning not only stability and design of vessels, but safety measures as well, the hours and working conditions, and perhaps it might consider a close down of fishing at this dangerous time, which I understand the Canadian fishing fleet does in winter weather? I understand the Minister is meeting a deputation of union leaders and wives tomorrow, and I can tell him that they would demand no less of him when they come to see him.

Mr. Mallalieu

I can well imagine the distress in Hull today, and I repeat my very deep sympathy with those who have been bereaved.

All the questions that my hon. Friend has mentioned will be considered at this urgent meeting I am having with the owners and the unions. Indeed, they are being considered already. We have a working group on safety on trawlers which has been at work for the past six months and I am hoping to have a report very soon. Quite clearly, it seems that more urgent intermediate action must be taken.

Mr. Wall

I associate myself with the sympathy expressed by the Minister on this third terrible tragedy. May I ask the Minister if there is not now evidence to show that all these three ships were overwhelmed in conditions which prevented the use of any known safety equipment? Will he therefore consider calling an international conference to discuss not only the possibility of a closed season in Arctic waters, as has been suggested, but the organisation of an international control, communication and rescue organisation?

Mr. Mallalieu

In fact I.M.C.O. has been considering these matters for the best part of two years, and the first progress report will be available next month, but I will consider whether some further activity is necessary. I cannot say what was the cause of the two previous disasters. It seems obvious that this one was hit with the stern down and a tidal wave coming over.

Mr. Hector Hughes

Does the Minister realise that the disasters that have occurred are a warning not only to the Hull trawlers, but to all the trawlers in the North-East of England and Scotland? Will he say what precautions he is taking to ensure that there are adequate radio connections between the trawlers and the trawler protection fleets in the North Sea and also with the shore?

Mr. Mallalieu

Yes, Sir. On the point of communication, that, generally speaking, is being done. I have two things to say to the House. With all the precautions that one can take, it is not possible to provide absolute safety at sea in certain conditions. Sea states and so forth can be so hazardous that no kind of precautions, other than staying away from them, can possibly be effective.

I would also say that, tragic as these events are, in perspective it is not that trawlers are being sunk all over the place. In the last twenty years, out of an active fleet of about 600, the number of disasters has been twelve. That is too many, but not too vast.

Mr. G. Campbell

Besides considering the safety of vessels as a whole and the possibility of a close season, which these tragic events have highlighted, will the Minister also give urgent consideration to the question of individual safety measures to try to improve the situation and minimise the risks of fishermen being lost by being swept overboard?

Mr. Mallalieu

Yes. That is exactly the sort of question that the working group is considering. We may have to take some steps immediately.

Mr. Dobson

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is now a need for his Department to take urgent steps to ask trawler owners not to sail from the port of Hull unless their vessels carry a trained radio operator on board? Secondly, will he have further discussions with the Met Office to ensure that adequate warning of the very disastrous weather that we are experiencing now is received regularly on trawlers?

Mr. Mallalieu

That, of course, is done already. The trouble with that part of the world is that the sea comes up very fast and one may be caught in it however much warning one has.

On the question of radio operators, as I have told the House, we are considering that. But in this instance there was an absolutely first-class radio operator and his reporting was right, but still the vessel went down.

Sir K. Joseph

Will the Minister accept from the whole of this side of the House our deep sympathy for this appalling catastrophe? Can he tell us whether his provisional inquiries show that there is here any change in weather pattern; whether this area is experiencing an un-precedentedly heavy series of overwhelming weather conditions to explain these three disasters in so short a time?

Mr. Mallalieu

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his expression of sympathy. I do not think there is any sign of a change of pattern, but there is not the slightest doubt that during the last three weeks conditions up there have been appalling.