HC Deb 16 March 1976 vol 907 cc1283-94

11.30 p.m.

Mr. Douglas Henderson (Aberdeenshire, East)

It must be a rare, if not unique, occasion to have the privilege of on Adjournment debate on the day on which a Prime Minister announced his retirement. I tried for several weeks in the Ballot for this debate, and I suppose that it is just my luck that I should have been successful on this day of all days.

The subject that I have chosen—the problems of the fishing industry as a result of oil development—is cast in somewhat wide terms. I could talk of the difficulties which fishermen face in obtaining on-shore services such as mechanical and electrical engineering maintenance facilities in competition with the oil companies and their camp followers. I could talk of the inflation of house prices, shop prices and service prices in those fishing ports most directly affected by these new developments. I could discuss the pressure on roads, schools, hospitals and other publicly financed amenities as a result of over-rapid expansion of oil projects.

However, I have chosen to speak of one of the most important considerations to fishermen—namely, the additional danger to vessels, nets, gear and sometimes to life itself of the activities of the oil companies and their associates in the seas in which our fishermen traditionally have followed their calling and made their livelihood.

The problems arrived with alarming rapidity on my desk after my election to Parliament about two years ago. The first came on 3rd May 1974 when Skipper Baird of the Peterhead boat "Starlight" wrote telling me that his nets had been damaged by two caustic soda drums in grounds where he had fished for years without difficulty or interference.

This example was quickly followed by others. In all, almost a dozen skippers from my constituency alone wrote telling me of similar incidents. Other hon. Members may well have had similar experience and had similar representations. I have taken up the matter with the Secretary of State for Energy, the Secretary of State for Scotland and in one case with the Lord Advocate when it appeared that prima facie there was a case for prosecution.

In June 1975 the Government announced the establishment of a compensation fund for fishermen whose nets and gear had been damaged as a result of oil debris. The Under-Secretary at the Scottish Office, who will reply to the debate, wrote to me on 26th June 1975 saying: Because of the concern you have expressed on earlier occasions about the problem of oil-related debris damaging fishing gear, I am writing to let you know that a fund has been established by the United Kingdom Off-shore Operators' Association to provide compensation for that cases in which the debris is not attributable to the activities of a particular oil company. For the first year of operation the fund will be of the order of £30,000. I want to make it clear that I welcome this step as a valuable contribution to obtaining justice for the fishermen and as a recognition by the Government and the oil companies that something had to be done about the situation. I hoped then that, while the amount of £30,000 seemed modest in these inflationary times, the battle in principle had been won and that all that might be needed thereafter was a revision of the amount in the light of experience.

This decision by the Government left the fishermen in two situations. The first situation was where the damage had been caused by debris left by a company which could be identifiable, in which case the fishermen could take action against the company concerned. The second situation—the case which the fund is destined to cover—was where no identification could be found or provided and where the fisherman could then make his claim against the compensation fund.

I had hoped that the provisions of the compensation fund would have been such that they would have allowed the fishermen in all cases, whether or not there had been identification of the debris, to have made the claims against the fund rather than having a humble skipper or his crew taking on the might of some of the large oil companies in battles through the courts. That may well be an aspect that could be reconsidered in the light of our experience tonight.

The Under-Secretary knows that I have written to him about a number of cases that have been settled. They seem to take a long time to settle and the fisherman feels at a disadvantage when taking on some of the biggest giants in the country in terms of financial and legal resources, and some review of the position may be desirable.

However, it seemed from information given by the Minister at the time that in cases where the offender could not be identified there was a clear way for the fisherman to make a claim against the compensation fund. I hoped that that would lead to a new period of understanding of the fisherman's problems and a quick settlement of his difficulties.

However, I was wrong, because the small print in the compensation scheme has undermined much of the value of the very favourable reaction of the fishermen to this welcome concession. On 16th September 1975 Skipper Milne of Peterhead, a constituent of mine, was fishing some 7½ miles NNE of an oil rig when he found that the propeller of his boat, the "Starella", was fouled by what turned out to be 50 fathoms of synthetic hawser 9½ ins in circumference. I do not know whether any hon. Member has experience of being in a fishing boat when the propellor has been fouled and it seems impossible to do anything about it.

Skipper Milne's boat had to be towed to port in Peterhead. The bill for repairs was some £11,000 and he estimated the loss of fishing time at some £7,000. I understand from him that his crew has been depleted as a result of the length of time required for repairs, because fishermen are not the type of men willing to lounge about a pierhead while waiting for lengthy repairs to be completed: they want to be at sea fishing. That has put Skipper Milne in an unfavourable position.

A few weeks later, there was a similar incident affecting another boat from my constituency. This was the "Duncairn", skippered by Mr. George Baird. It was trawling off Aberdeen and was relatively close to port so that the tow was relatively short. Nevertheless, it was a serious matter for Skipper Baird and his crew in terms of the cost of repairs and the loss of fishing time.

I am sure that Skipper Baird and Skipper Milne will agree with me that potentially the most serious such incident occurred on 10th January 1976. It involved the "Honestas" from Peterhead, skippered by Mr. Mitchell Hughes. This incident not only involved heavy finan- Cial loss, but put at risk the crew and the vessel. Once again, the propeller was fouled by a 50-fathom rope. I am advised that the rope was 18 centimetres in diameter. It was attached to a star buoy which had no identifying marks.

The vessel was left helpless in a force 10 gale. When we hear radio forecasts and gale warnings, we should reflect that a force 10 gale is the most serious weather there is for a fishing boat, even with all engines going and with a propeller working properly. To be left in such a gale without a propeller is to be left in a most dangerous situation. It is just this side of miraculous that the boat was not sunk. It was five hours before it was towed back to Peterhead. I have not yet heard from Skipper Hughes of the financial consequences of this incident and I hope that I shall do so before very long, but it is clear that the dangers to which he and his crew were subjected were severe in the extreme.

In all three cases, the "Starella", the "Duncairn" and the "Honestas", I have been informed by the Scottish Office that there is no redress against the compensation fund as the fund covers only gear and nets and makes no provision for damage to vessels or loss of fishing time. This is scandalous and undermines the initial purpose that fishermen understood would be achieved when the fund was established. There is no other redress for the fishermen as the hawsers and buoys in these instances carried no identification.

I have raised this issue tonight to see whether the Government are prepared to take a tougher line with the oil companies and the contractors to protect the interests of the fishing industry. In particular I should like the Minister to answer the following questions.

Is he satisfied that the Government's powers in the Dumping at Sea Act and other legislation are adequate, or does he consider that the time has come for stronger powers to curb irresponsible dumping? Is he satisfied that the enforcement procedures in that Act and in other legislation are sufficiently effective?

It would be interesting to know how many visits are made to oil rigs, production platforms, pipe-laying barges and service vessels, and whether the visits are scheduled or unannounced. What transport facilities exist for those making the visits? Do they have helicopters or reconnaissance aircraft at their disposal? What facilities are made available to them, or are they just a Cinderella service fitting in the visits when they have the time and when the people on the rigs, the platforms and service vessels know well in advance that they are coming?

Will the Minister say what procedure there is for following up complaints and how many prosecutions have ensued from those complaints? Is it not time to require the oil companies and those who service them to identify all of their equipment in some way, including buoys and hawsers, so that they can be required to face the consequences of their actions in a court of law? It seems to me that certainly buoys should have some clear form of identification. Surely, too, it is not beyond our wit to devise some form of code for hawsers to identify their owners so that we should know who was responsible.

The Minister made the point to me in a parliamentary Answer that perhaps it was not the oil companies which were responsible, that all sorts of people went to sea and dropped hawsers overboard. If we can get from the oil companies a clear undertaking and a clear set of procedures so that they identify all their equipment, that would eliminate them during any inquiry following an incident of this kind.

Until we do that I have to take the word of my skippers, who have traditionally fished in these areas without trouble difficulty and danger of this kind for many years. It is only now, since the oil developments started, that the troubles have arisen.

Will the Minister press for an extension of the compensation fund to cover the sort of cases I have referred to—the "Honestas", the "Starella" and the "Duncairn"—to meet the cost of damage to vessels as well as to nets and gear? It should also cover in some way the loss of fishing time, which is so vital to our fishermen today. There are many days when conditions will prevent them putting to sea, and every day at sea is especially precious in view of the restrictions imposed on fishing.

What efforts are the oil companies and the contractors making to eliminate these difficulties? Do they realise the serious and sometimes near-fatal consequences of their irresponsibility in this matter?

The fishermen of Scotland are a strong and independent breed of men who are accustomed to facing danger every day in their struggle for a livelihood. It is quite intolerable that they should have to face additional danger arising from the carelessness and irresponsibility of those who should know better. I hope that in his reply the Minister will hold out some hope for the fishermen in dealing with these problems.

11.45 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Hugh D. Brown)

The hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. Henderson) said that this was a historic day. I am not quite sure whether history will judge this Adjournment debate more important than the resignation of a Prime Minister. However, I accept that it is an important subject and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the matter on the Adjournment.

As the hon. Gentleman has said, he has written to me frequently about the cases he has mentioned tonight, and others. I say immediately that the Government take very seriously the difficulties encountered by the fishing industry, and are concerned to ensure that so far as possible they are kept to a minimum.

At the same time, I think it is fair to say that, having regard to the magnitude of the oil development operations, it would be unrealistic to expect that the fishing industry's problems which arise from these operations can all be made to disappear immediately, or that there will never be related incidents which cause concern to fishermen. The aim of all concerned, including the fishing industry itself, must be to understand and appreciate each other's difficulties and together to make steady progress towards seeking and finding solutions, many of which can be expected to call for compromise. It is gratifying and promising for the future that there have already been encouraging developments in this direction.

The consultative process is valuable in establishing and fostering good relationships between the industries. This allows an open discussion on matters of mutual concern and ensures that misunderstandings and difficulties from lack of information can be avoided. Although there are many consultative meetings between representatives of the fishing industry and oil companies on particular developments—

Mr. Hamish Watt (Banff)

Take your time.

Mr. Brown

The hon. Gentleman does not know how much I have to say. I want to do justice to this important subject. I should get extra time to compensate for that intervention.

Although there are many consultative meetings between representatives of the fishing and oil companies on particular developments such as the routing of submarine pipelines, where the fishermen's extensive knowledge of the sea-bed could work to the oil company's advantage, the main instrument in this consulative process is the Fisheries and Offshore Oil Consultative Group.

The group was set up by the Government in July 1974 to exchange information on general matters concerning the fishing and oil industries and to discuss broad principles with the object of enhancing close relations between the oil and fishing industries. The group meets at regular intervals and representation is drawn from Scottish and English fishing interests, the United Kingdom Offshore Operators Association as well as various Government Departments.

The group has now been in operation for well over a year, and during that time its work in examining various general problems has been useful. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it has led to a better understanding between the two industries. In the group both industries have adopted a co-operative attitude in tackling some of the conflicts which existed and significant progress in reducing these has been made.

In July 1975 the group published a report of its first year of work. It was apparent that offshore oil activity created possible navigational hazards in the forms of drilling rigs, production platforms, seismic surveys and pipelaying operations, and after a detailed survey of the situation the group instituted the issue of weekly information bulletins and the daily broadcast of radio warnings at appropriate times convenient to the fishermen and for their specific attention to complement the navigational warnings which the Hydrographer of the Navy issues to all mariners.

Another area of concern where progress has been made is that regarding the laying of buoys. A system of identification markings for buoys is in the process of being implemented so that those which break adrift can be readily identified, and again there have been improvements in the procedure for notification of buoys which break adrift as well as improvements in the inspection and maintenance of buoys. It is in matters such as these that the group has been successful in its aim of minimising interference.

The hon. Gentleman has stressed the serious concern and difficulties of fishery men whose gear is lost or damaged as the result of debris in the sea. I readily understand the feelings of fishermen in such circumstances but, while there remain problems, it is also fair to point to progress. The Consultative Group has devoted much attention to this particular aspect. It has promoted various educational measures by means of a poster and articles in oil industry magazines to bring home to the men on the supply ships, rigs and barges the message of good housekeeping.

It has to be recognised that accidents can occur and, with the severe weather conditions which can be experienced in the North Sea, particularly during the winter months, items of equipment and other material can be lost overboard. However, the oil companies share the general concern about debris, and it can be against their own interests if it accumulates on the sea-bed. They have issued strict instructions to all their personnel that all waste materials must be brought ashore for proper disposal. In essence, measures have aimed at the prevention of indiscriminate dumping.

I am satisfied that the powers are adequate and that enforcement as such is effective, given that it is a very difficult job which I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not seek to underestimate. I have to confirm that there have been no prosecutions. There have been one or two complaints, which we have followed up, but to date there have been no prosecutions. That is not to say that we are discouraging anyone from making a complaint. However, that is the factual position.

Mr. Watt

Does not the hon. Gentleman realise that most of our fishing constituents are concerned mainly with fishing and that they do not want to be hindered by spending their time appearing in court to argue against people who have dumped this stuff? They are concerned with getting on with their fishing. They realise that to do what the Minister says—to go to court and to specify the stuff which has been dumped—is to waste valuable fishing time.

Mr. Brown

That is a little unreasonable. I was not saying anything of the kind. I was merely saying that if anyone made a complaint, which presumably would not take a great deal of time, if there was evidence and the rest of it, the normal process would be for the Lord Advocate to be consulted. I was asked specifically how many prosecutions there had been. The answer is "None".

There has been a tangible recognition of the debris problem in the setting up by the United Kingdom Offshore Operators' Association of a compensation fund, effective from 1st July 1975, for damaged or lost gear from oil industry debris which could not be attributed to the activities of a particular company. This fund does not in any way remove the liability of individual oil companies in attributable cases. The evidence is that oil companies in such cases have been willing to offer settlements to cover the damage incurred, and to date my Department has been informed of 57 cases where oil companies have met claims for damaged fishing gear.

I think, therefore, that we are entitled to claim that there has been a modest degree of success, although I admit that the fund does not cover the point about damage to propellers caused by hawsers. This is a matter which I shall mention in a moment.

All claims for compensation are considered sympathetically, but inevitably some have been rejected simply because there was no reasonable evidence that the debris could be attributed to oil-related activities. This, I know, has been very disappointing for the fishermen concerned, but it is a hard fact that the sea and sea-bed contain debris which is not oil-related and which can damage fishing gear, and it would be unreasonable to expect the oil companies to pay compensation in such circumstances. It is a matter for the fishing organisations to produce the evidence.

But what is the evidence? Is it only now, because of oil, that there has been damage to propellers? My information is that there has always been damage to propellers and that that is one reason why they have been given insurance cover. There will be more now. Nevertheless, it was a normal occupational hazard—

Mr. Watt


Mr. Brown

—which could attract insurance cover because it was not an uncommon occurrence for propellers to be fouled. That was pre-oil days.

The hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, East mentioned four vessels in particular. I am well aware of the case involving the "Starella," and I share the hon. Gentleman's concern in this matter. I accept that fishermen may, with some reason, assume that a fair amount of this kind of trouble is a result of oil-related activity. However, large ropes and hawsers are used for many other purposes, and once they are lost overboard, if they are synthetic, they have a long life and may be carried by currents and tides for many miles.

In these circumstances, it might be unreasonable to apportion all the blame to the oil industry. In fact, that incident occurred just off Aberdeen, and the victim could as easily have been an oil rig vessel. Indeed, we have knowledge of oil rig vessels having their propellers fouled by discarded fishing nets.

I am not blaming anybody. That is not my approach; nor is it the hon. Gentleman's approach. Nevertheless, I recognise that there is difficulty.

The damage to the other two vessels mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, the "Duncairn" and the "Honestas", is un-attributable as far as we are aware. We believe that claims have been made against insurance regarding the "Honestas" and the "Starella", but we have no specific details. The "Starlight" incident happened in April 1974.

Damage to fishing vessels' propellers is not included in the compensation fund arrangements, for the reason I have given. Nevertheless, it is one of the issues which will be further discussed in the Fisheries and Offshore Oil Consultative Group. I hope that some arrangement can be worked out to ensure that fishermen do not suffer financially as a result of such incidents, but, as I have said, it is one of the more difficult subjects and at present there is no prospect of compensation unless the hawser can be positively identified.

I think that both the fishing industry and the oil companies have been constructive. It might be unreasonable to insist on the oil companies being the only outfits which should positively mark hawsers. Somebody might say that it was time that all craft at sea did that. I am sure that that would meet with some resentment considering the many problems facing the fishing industry today. Therefore, we must be reasonable.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government are anxious to ensure that the minimum of disruption is caused to fishing by the oil industry's operations. I am sure that fishermen, despite their difficulties, generally recognise that these operations are vital to the prosperity of the nation as a whole. I feel sure that, with the continuing good will of all concerned, further progress can be made towards achieving amicable working arrangements between the two industries.

That kind of spirit has been evident in the consultative group. With our blessing, encouragement and prodding, where necessary, I am sure that it will continue.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Twelve o'clock.