HC Deb 18 November 1974 vol 881 cc896-8
Mr. Teddy Taylor (by Private Notice)

asked the Secretary of State for Trade if he will make a statement on the incident on board the "Asiafreighter" at the week-end in which a number of seamen were overcome by fumes escaping from the cargo.

The Secretary of State for Trade and President of the Board of Trade (Mr. Peter Shore)

I understand that during the morning of 14th November, four men entered the lower hold of the British-registered vessel "Asiafreighter" on a routine inspection at sea. Some hours later, they became seriously affected by fumes, were flown ashore by helicopter on the morning of 15th November and taken to hospital in Truro, and later flown to hospital in London. They are responding to treatment but I regret to say that they are reported to be still very ill. One other man was subsequently affected to a lesser degree during attempts to ventilate the holds, and he and the rest of the crew were taken ashore for examination and treatment at Falmouth.

I am sure the House would wish to join me in wishing those affected a very speedy recovery. I have appointed an inspector to investigate this incident under Section 728 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894.

Mr. Taylor

I am sure that the whole House echoes the right hon. Gentleman's hope that the men will soon completely recover. Will the inspector he has appointed also be charged with the task of examining the procedures for notifying port authorities before the arrival of dangerous industrial gases and also of reviewing the arrangements whereby these gases are transported by lorry once they arrive in port?

Mr. Shore

My information is that the ports and the customers concerned should know in advance the character of the cargoes which ships are carrying. I cannot say much more than that at present. Whether it was known in this case is one of the matters which the inspector will have to investigate.

While the subject of the second half of the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question does not fall immediately within my departmental responsibility, I wholly understand his concern and I will see that the investigation takes account of the whole journey, not merely across the seas but to the particular destinations in the United States and Britain to which it was heading.

Mr. McNamara

My right hon. Friend will appreciate the concern felt by his own Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), and of the union that helps to send him here to Parliament. Will my right hon. Friend also bear in mind that his and my union, the Transport and General Workers' Union, has an important interest in this matter, as it supplies the men who load and unload these ships? What regulations are we to have to ensure that cargoes containing such dangerous substances are stowed safely in future? What arrangements are to be made to unload this unfortunate vessel, the "Asiafreighter"?

Mr. Shore

When I receive the inspector's report, I shall be looking for any general lessons in it which will enable me to improve the safety of the crews in ships which carry such cargoes.

On the second part of my hon. Friend's supplementary question, all I can say now is that, if the task of unloading the "Asiafreighter" is carried out in this country, we shall take whatever steps are necessary, in conjunction with the Department of Employment, to ensure that it is carried out with the maximum safety and to a carefully controlled plan.

Mr. Donald Stewart

I associate myself with the right hon. Gentleman's good wishes for a speedy recovery by the four men most seriously affected. Two of them are constituents of mine. I also thank the right hon. Gentleman for his action in having an inspection carried out under the Merchant Shipping Act. When dangerous and toxic cargoes are being carried, should they not be reported on a separate manifest, and should not the master of the vessel concerned be informed of the appropriate counter-measures or antidotes to use should hazards arise?

Mr. Shore

I am not sure about the latter part of the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question, but on the first part my clear understanding is that a copy of the manifest containing a list of dangerous substances being carried should be provided and is normally provided to the master of the ship concerned.

Dr. M. S. Miller

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, from the medical point of view, we are gratified that the men involved are making a recovery in hospital? Is my right hon. Friend in a position to state the exact destination of this cargo and for what use it was meant?

Mr. Shore

I am informed that the destination of the cargo was the firm Air Products Ltd., of New Malden, and that it is used in a much diluted form in the processing of electronic parts.

Mr. Dalyell

Is it clearly within the inspector's brief to examine the customers' obligations in general in this context?

Mr. Shore

I think that anyone who ships a dangerous substance—that is to say, whether he is the owner of the ship or the supplier of the goods—has an obligation, certainly under United Kingdom law, to declare those goods and to make them appear in the appropriate part of the manifest.

Mr. Heseltine

I associate my right hon. and hon. Friends with the concern widely expressed for the victims of this tragic event and welcome the inquiry announced by the right hon. Gentleman. Will he ensure that in the inquiry the possibility is considered of re-examining the definitions of the products carried to be sure that there is a clear use of language, as opposed to the slightly loose use of language which might, in this case, it has been suggested to me, have confused the people examining the manifest?

Mr. Shore

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his expression of sympathy, which is shared by the whole House. He asked about the definition of products of a dangerous kind which are entered into the manifest. I would think that this is one of the matters we need to look at carefully, considering whether a case may not have been established for a special category of particularly dangerous substances.