HC Deb 29 January 1968 vol 757 cc879-82

Mr. McNamara (by Private Notice) asked the President of the Board of Trade if he will make a statement on the reported disappearance of the Hull trawler "St. Romanus".

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

The trawler "St. Romanus" left Hull with a crew of 20 on 10th January for the Norwegian fishing grounds. Sea and air search operations were mounted on 26th January at the request of the owners and are continuing from the coast of Norway to Iceland. I am keeping in close touch with events and am awaiting the results of the search before considering what further action should be taken.

Mr. McNamara

While thanking my hon. Friend for that reply, may I ask him if he is aware of the concern that is felt in Hull that we might be facing our second great fishing tragedy in just over a year? I am sure that the whole House will join with me in expressing sympathy to the people who are greatly worried over this matter in my constituency and in the city of Hull.

While hope is to some extent sinking fast, will my hon. Friend immediately inquire into the following matters? First, why was there delay in reporting the May Day distress signal of 12th January? Secondly, why did not that arrive until last week? Thirdly, why was the question of the life raft, which was discovered on 13th January, not reported until Friday of last week? Fourthly, why did it take 10 days to discover that an alleged message from the ship had, in fact, come from another ship? Fifthly, will he explain why the alarm was not raised earlier in Hull in view of the fact that the last report was on 10th January, it being customary to make daily reports in one way or another? Sixthly, is he aware——

Mr. Speaker

Order. I know the deep sympathy which the hon. Member feels about this grave problem, but questions must be fairly brief.

Mr. McNamara

This industry has suffered a tremendous number of fatalities, probably the largest number in the country. Will my hon. Friend inquire into whether it is correct that wireless operators had refused to serve in this ship, and even though the skipper had a supplementary ticket, it would be impossible to fight for the safety of the ship and at the same time send out May Day messages?

Mr. Mallalieu

I, too, wish to express my sympathy for the families who are going through this anxious period. My hon. Friend has asked a series of very important questions, and I assure him that I am already inquiring into them. If it turns out that this fishing boat is, unhappily, lost, we will, of course, have a preliminary inquiry and in the light of that decide whether a formal investigation is necessary.

Mr. Fletcher-Cooke

I hope that the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) will accept, on behalf of his constituents, the sympathy of my hon. Friends for those who are suffering the agony of indecision in this matter.

Is the Minister of State aware that there seems to have been incredible delay in this matter; that the last news we heard of this vessel was on 10th January and that we are now almost at the end of January? Does it not seem extraordinary, in these days of radar and efficient telecommunications, that we should have known nothing about this? Is he aware that there are strong rumours that there was no wireless operator aboard this vessel, which again seems extraordinary in these days? Will he consider instituting an inquiry at the very moment that the vessel is presumed missing because those concerned—not only financially but, more important, humanaly—about the crew are living in a state of great distress at present and should not be left in this position any longer?

Mr. Mallalieu

I entirely accept the hon, and learned Gentleman's comment that the length of time it has taken to report this matter is extraordinary. We will certainly have an investigation the moment we are unhappily forced to presume that the vessel is lost.

As for his remarks about the presence or absence of a radio operator, I, too, have heard these, and I am checking them up. I understand that it is true that there was no radio operator aboard. However, it is fairly normal for the skipper to assume such duties; but I am inquiring into the matter.

Mr. Ogden

Does the Minister agree that communications from ship to ship and ship to shore are absolutely essential? Does he further agree that nothing that has been said in the House today and nothing within his knowledge can be said to be critical of the radio officers who serve our merchant ships?

Mr. Mallalieu

Good communications are, of course, essential, but unhappily radios break down sometimes, and that may have happened in this case.

Captain Elliot

Is there an organisation which keeps track of these vessels and receives periodical reports from them? If not, or if such organisation as exists is not adequate, will he consider setting up a satisfactory organisation to undertake this task?

Mr. Mallalieu

The Board of Trade sent out a circular about 18 months ago requesting that these vessels should report their positions daily; and that has normally been done.

Mr. Ellis

Would not my hon. Friend agree that the House is right to be perturbed about the undue length of time during which no communications of any kind were established with the ship? Will he go into this angle very quickly and ascertain that it is not happening with other trawlers and with other ships?

Mr. Mallalieu

I think that the House is perfectly right to be critical, but I do not want to prejudice matters. I want to ascertain the facts.

Sir A. V. Harvey

As the relatives of other trawler crews are also concerned with communications, will the Minister undertake to make a statement to the House or to the Press at an early date on what communications are between vessels and base?

Mr. Mallalieu

Indeed, I will.