HC Deb 27 October 1970 vol 805 cc31-6

Mr. Crosland (by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry whether he will make a statement on the shipping accident off the Isle of Wight and of the resulting threat of oil pollution.

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and President of the Board of Trade (Mr. John Davies)

An explosion in the engineroom of the Liberian tanker "Pacific Glory", following a collision with the Liberian tanker "Allegro" on the evening of 23rd October, led to a serious fire.

Search and rescue operations were undertaken at once and the survivors were brought ashore at Portsmouth; 13 of the crew are presumed to have lost their lives in the explosion.

During salvage and firefighting operations under the control of the Navy, the vessel stranded on a shingle bank about 4 miles off the south-east coast of the Isle of Wight. During the weekend there was some escape of diesel oil from her bunkers and of crude oil from a damaged cargo tank. Tugs and naval vessels under the control of my Department succeeded in dispersing the oil before beaches were polluted.

Local authories in the area were alerted and have been standing by to deal with oil on their beaches, but this has not so far been necessary. Salvage of the vessel and her cargo is now being undertaken by a Dutch salvage company appointed by the owner, who will be working in conjunction with the Navy and with Shell, the vessel's charterer.

Officials of my Department are keeping in close touch with the salvors. There remans a threat of serious pollution if the vessel were to sustain further damage during attempts to refloat her, and vessels equipped for dispersing oil are continuing to stand by.

The causes of the collision between the two tankers and of the explosion on the "Pacific Glory" have not yet been established. Marine surveyors of the Department of Trade and Industry are carrying out a preliminary inquiry under the Merchant Shipping Acts. In the light of their report I shall consider what further action is required.

The responsibility for the organisation to deal with pollution of beaches rests with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. Since the incident involving the "Torrey Canyon" all the coastal authorities in the area have prepared contingency plans for dealing with coastal oil pollution. On Saturday, 24th October, my right hon. Friend asked that the nominated oil pollution officers in the area be contacted to ensure that their organisations were in a state of readiness and that their equipment capability was adequate to meet the immediate threat.

My right hon. Friend was encouraged by the assurances given and on his instructions an operations room in the Department of the Environment is manned on a 24-hour basis to receive reports on the risk of pollution of the beaches. By daily contact with local oil pollution officers the local authority capability for dealing with any actual pollution is being kept under constant review.

I should like to pay tribute to those concerned with containing the fire and the spillage.

Mr. Crosland

First, I warmly congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on what is, I think, his first appearance at the Dispatch Box. I should also like to associate myself and all my right hon. and hon. Friends with the tribute that he paid at the end of his statement.

I have three short questions.

First, since by far the most disturbing part of the incident was that the collision occurred in the first place, will he assure the House that, after the preliminary inquiry to which he referred, there will be an inquiry which is thorough, which is British, and the reports of which are published?

Secondly, do I understand the right hon. Gentleman to say—I think that this is implicit in his statement—that this event has at least shown that there has been an immeasurable improvement in our defensive measures against oil pollution since the "Torrey Canyon" disaster?

Thirdly, as the Government are rightly showing themselves responsible for the avoidance of pollution in this matter, would it not be a good thing if they also showed themselves responsible for settling the council workers' strike, which is likely to lead to pollution in many parts of the country?

Mr. Davies

On the first question, the rules provide that the inquiry is instituted by the country whose flag is borne by the ship, or ships, concerned. However, under arrangements which have recently been arrived at, it is possible for a country like ours to be involved in that inquiry. We shall be making our views known to the Liberian Government with a view to being so involved.

As regards the preventative measures available to us, I think that developments in the last few years have certainly added to the efficacy with which we can deal with these problems.

The third question is another matter entirely. No doubt the right hon. Gentleman will put down a Question on it.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

In joining in the sympathy which has already been expressed to the relatives of those who lost their lives and in the congratulations to my right hon. Friend, may I ask whether he will look again at the recommendations made in the last Parliament in the Report on Coastal Pollution by the Committee on Science and Technology and, in particular, whether he will examine why it is that a whole day of comparatively calm weather appears to have been lost already with a view to getting the oil out of the ship?

Mr. Davies

I will gladly look at the advice and recommendations made by that Committee.

A day has not been lost. It has been used to provide for the operations necessary to carry out the salvage work. I do not think that there has been any significant delay.

Mr. Thorpe

First, I wish the right hon. Gentleman well in his new-found empire and congratulate him on his maiden appearance. I should also like to be associated with his congratulations to those who, with great gallantry, carried out very dangerous jobs with great success.

I should like to ask two questions. First, without going into this case, which is sub judice, is the Minister satisfied that international law is adequate to deal with cases of collisions which may be outside British territorial waters but none the less produce a pollution problem affecting our marine boundaries?

Secondly, since this race of monsters is now increasingly to be produced, may I ask whether the Minister has seen the criticisms of the Trinity House representative on the inadequate designs both as to lack of regulations about lighting bridges built at the stern and propulsion by single-screw propellers, which reduce in the first place, vision, in the second place, manoeuvrability, and in the third place, adequate indications to other vessels on the high seas?

Finally, if the Minister takes the view that they are inadequate, will Her Majesty's Government take the initiative in this matter?

Mr. Davies

My Department is certainly deeply involved in the development, on an international basis, of more satisfactory regulations to cover potential damage to our coast line. It is effectively involved in this topic at present.

My Department is also involved in questions affecting the design of ships. Indeed, it is instigating work in the spheres mentioned by the right hon. and learned Gentleman, as conditions permit.

Mr. Judd

Is the Minister aware that amongst people living in the Solent area there is the deepest possible respect for the determined and, at times, highly courageous action of those involved in containing the disaster?

With respect to the problem of getting the balance right in research on prevention rather than cure for incidents of this kind, may I ask whether the right hon. Gentleman is aware of a certain degree of public disquiet about the amount of direct and indirect subsidy expected to be available from local authorities, national authorities and lowly-paid public service personnel who have to cope with the consequences of disasters of this kind?

Mr. Davies

I am conscious of the loyal and effective action of those concerned. I do not think that particular reference to a special series of people in relation to their rates of pay would be appropriate to a consideration of this issue.

Sir D. Walker-Smith

Can my right hon. Friend be a little more explicit about recent modifications in practice and procedure in these matters to which he has referred? In particular, can he say whether they give this country any rights in regard to inquiries, or whether it is merely a matter of representation, in which the decision will rest with Liberia, having given such consideration as it will to the representations that we make?

Mr. Davies

A resolution adopted by the Intergovernmental Maritime Consultative Organisation following the "Torrey Canyon" disaster provides for investigation into casualties, especially those involving oil pollution, to be undertaken by the flag Government with the participation of Governments of countries affected by the casualty. Consequently, this country, as a sufferer, or potential sufferer, has no specific rights, but we have means of pressure, which we shall certainly exercise.

Sir C. Taylor

Can my right hon. Friend say whether, if the danger of oil pollution increases, there will be no argument with local authorities on the south and south-east coasts about who will pay for anti-oil-pollution measures?

Mr. Davies

If costs are incurred in relation to pollution of beaches, the matter will be given sympathetic consideration by the Government. This situation has not yet arisen.

Sir M. Galpern

Is the right hon. Gentleman saying, in effect, that if, in the opinion of the Government, adequate steps are not being taken by the parties concerned to avert the possibility of pollution the Government are powerless in the matter?

Mr. Davies

No, Sir. I have said that the Government are not in a position where they can force another Government to undertake an inquiry. They can try to persuade one to do so, and this they will do. The containment of pollution is a matter for international understanding and discussion. Such discussion is now in course.

Mr. Farr

Can my right hon. Friend say whether the reason for the grounding of the "Pacific Glory" while under tow will be the subject of inquiry, as well as the major matter of the collision?

Mr. Davies

That is a matter for the preliminary inquiry which we are now undertaking.

Mr. Crosland

I must press the right hon. Gentleman on the nature of this inquiry. I understand the point about international maritime law under which the Liberian Government are bound to have inquiry of their own, but I believe that public opinion in this country will not be satisfied, whatever the niceties of maritime law, unless we have an inquiry which is thorough, which is British, and the results of which are published.

Mr. Davies

As I said, we have instituted a preliminary inquiry. That inquiry has certain rights, notably in relation to obtaining evidence from people who are present in this country. It has no rights in relation to commanding evidence from those who are not.

Mr. Murton

May I ask my right hon. Friend whether, when the Government are considering this grave problem, in particular in relation to navigation in narrow waters, he will bear in mind the great dangers which could arise should pollution take place in enclosed waters such as harbours, which might mean irreparable damage to the flora and fauna of those places?

Mr. Davies

Those considerations are very much present in the mind of my Department.