HC Deb 08 May 1978 vol 949 cc778-88
Mr. Fell

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Trade whether he will make a statement on the oil slick now affecting Norfolk and Suffolk beaches.

The Under-Secretary of State for Trade (Mr. Clinton Davis)

The Greek tanker "Eleni V" and the French bulk carrier "Roseline" collided in fog at about 12.15 p.m. on Saturday 6th May, some eight and a half miles east of Happisburgh and six miles off the coast of Norfolk.

I am glad to be able to inform the House that no lives were lost and that there were no serious injuries reported. The 39 crew members of the tanker were taken aboard the "Roseline" and have been taken to France.

The "Eleni V" was cut in two about one quarter of the way from its bows. The larger after section is under tow and is off the Hook of Holland, awaiting entry to Rotterdam. The smaller forward section tilted through rather more than 90 degrees, to leave the bows almost vertical with about 20 feet above and some 80 feet below water.

Given the condition of the forward section and in view of some deterioration in the weather outlook at about Sunday midday, it was decided to attempt to beach the forward section off Yarmouth, in a reasonably favourable position for further salvage operation.

Unfortunately, the forward section swung on touching the bottom this morning, and the tow line parted. The last report I have is that, after drifting south, the section is on Corton Sand, about three miles off Lowestoft. A Trinity House vessel and four tugs, including two equipped for spraying, are in attendance and are seeking to secure a line to that section.

The "Eleni V" was carrying some 16,800 tons of heavy fuel oil from Rotterdam to Grangemouth, including approximately 5,000 tons in the forward section.

My Department's anti-pollution organisation was activated immediately after the collision. A helicopter reconnaissance on Saturday afternoon, in poor to moderate visibility, located only one oil patch of any size. Reconnaissance flights are continuing.

By midday on Sunday, eight spraying vessels were in operation off Yarmouth, with a naval vessel acting as on-scene commander, and succeeding in breaking up the patch into smaller slicks. Ten spraying vessels are there at present.

Some oil has come ashore this morning on 15 miles of coastline between Winterton and Lowestoft. At worst it is about 25 feet wide but in most places it is in patches. The local authorities are satisfied that they are coping with this oil.

I am very conscious that the remaining oil on the forward section—perhaps 3,000 to 4,000 tons—represent a potential pollution risk. Our objective is to remove this threat of pollution as soon as this can practicably and safely be done.

The French authorities have put in hand an inquiry into the conduct of the master and crew of the French ship and it is also hoped to take evidence from the personnel of the Greek ship. I have only just been advised that the Greek authorities are proposing to undertake a public inquiry.

Mr. Fell

I should like to thank the Minister, first for his statement and secondly because his Department, I think, has worked well and as hard as it can—both his local people and he himself and his people in London. I pay tribute to the work done by the coastguards and the other services on the spot, who have worked splendidly, and to the personnel on the ships which were prepared and got out to sea yesterday to try to cope with the oil slicks.

I should like to ask three or four questions to which answers are urgently necessary. First, would the Minister consider revising his plan for decision-making in London? In other words, immediately something of this nature happens, wherever it be on the shore of the United Kingdom, the key personnel should be dispatched to the area to see what is happening and to make decisions on the spot. Had the decision been taken yesterday morning when I was there at 10 o'clock instead of at 12.40, the weather would still have been moderate and we might have got hold of this wreck. As it is, the wreck is careering up and down the coast of Norfolk like a rogue elephant on the loose, and they cannot get a line to it—as the Minister has just confirmed. Speedy decisions are absolutely essential.

Second, will the Minister ensure that an immediate instruction is given to the salvage people to salvage the wreck? That is the only thing which will get things moving. Will he now leave it to local people and the salvage people between them to make their own decisions about what they will do with the wreck when they can get hold of it?

Thirdly, what control will the Minister try to get over foreign ships? It is ludicrous that we have no control at all over ships which have just collided within our territorial waters. It is disgraceful and we must do more about it.

Lastly, will the Government be prepared to assist the local authorities there to get the mess cleared of our beaches within the next four weeks before the summer season starts?

Mr. Davis

The hon. Member has asked a number of interesting questions. First, I thank him for his tribute not only to my Department but to all those who are involved in this difficult operation. On the need for speedy decisions, I assure not only the hon. Gentleman and the House but all those involved near the coasts which are or might be affected that there is no reason to suppose that speedy decisions will be impaired. The chain of authority has been well thought out. There is a principal officer on the spot, and if an emergency arises he has full authority to take a decision without reference to London. If there is no such emergency, he will of course refer the matter to London.

We are trying at the moment, of course, to put lines on the wreck so that it can be salvaged and the oil pumped out or dealt with in some other appropriate way. That is not an easy operation. It is difficult, protracted and expensive, but the first priority is to get hold of the wreck.

I cannot accept what the hon. Gentleman says about control of foreign ships. This collision appears to have occurred in international waters. The only way in which one can take appropriate action in those circumstances is with the authority of international law and through the responsible international organisation, IMCO. As the hon. Member knows, IMCO is seized of that matter, particularly in the light of the "Amoco Cadiz" incident.

Government assistance to local authorities is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.

Mr. Prescott

My hon. Friend must surely be sick and fed up of appearing with monotonous regularity at the Dispatch Box to explain his actions to deal with yet another spillage of oil into our seas, due either to a collision or to the running aground of a vessel—no doubt because of the incompetence of the crews involved. Is it not time for him to give up waiting for the ratification of international conventions and ask the nations bordering the North Sea and the South Atlantic approaches to convene an IMCO regional conference to reach an agreement on greater safety standards, salvage rules and compulsory traffic lanes, especially for tankers—enforced by the denial of access to our ports for those who ignore them?

Mr. Davis

I take no delight, I assure my hon. Friend, in coming to the Dispatch Box in order to make statements of this kind, but the House is entitled to know what is happening when a situation like this occurs. My hon. Friend must not try to put me in the position of prejudging inquiries which are to be held in France and Greece concerning the competence or otherwise of the crews concerned.

As for international action, my hon. Friend knows very well that a conference was held by IMCO in February to deal with tanker safety and pollution and that agreements were reached. I hope that action will be taken with considerable speed internationally to implement those agreements. A vital conference is to be held by IMCO in June and July to deal with the training and certification of officers. That goes to the heart of my hon. Friend's concern.

Traffic separation schemes or routing schemes for tankers are peculiarly difficult in this area because of shifting sands. I do not believe that it would be possible with international authority to have an authorised traffic separation scheme in that place.

Mr. Prior

May I associate myself with the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Yarmouth (Mr. Fell) and ask the Minister whether he can confirm that so far the pollution has been nothing like as bad as might have been expected and that, provided that there is no further pollution, there is no reason to think that there will be further damage to beaches?

May I ask the Minister to say whether he has been in touch with his right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food about any implications for the local fishing industry?

Lastly, will the Minister consider carefully about what his hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) said with regard to the training of crews and the routes that these ships should follow? It seems that the British should take a lead in this matter, because the position round our coasts is very vulnerable at present. Many people regard the present position as highly unsatisfactory in that other people are not training their crews properly and are employing very poor quality personnel to man their ships, with disastrous consequences to us. The truth of the matter is that these people want a jolly good clobbering.

Mr. Davis

I confirm the right hon. Gentleman's view that the pollution that has occurred thus far is not particularly serious, but of course it still leaves some costs to be borne by the local authorities which, it is hoped, will be compensated through insurance schemes. But the damage is nothing like as serious as that which occurred just a few weeks ago off the French coast. However, I do not think that that is any reason for being complacent.

It goes without saying that there is consultation with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. There is consultation to consider the ecological consequences, not only of the effect of oil but of the effect of spraying that has taken place. I understand that there is no reason for anxiety in this regard at present.

1 have already given an answer on the question of the training of crews and routes. It is that to take decisive action in this matter it is necessary for there to be international authority behind it. It would be useless for us to act unilaterally. That is why Britain was in the forefront of those arguing for a conference to be held—as it is now to be held in June and July—by IMCO this summer. Considerable gains were also obtained as a result of the April meeting of the maritime safety committee of IMCO following the "Amoco Cadiz" disaster.

Mr. Freud

I wonder whether the Minister will look into the fact that it cannot be difficult to have compulsory fitting of radar on all ships that use the Channel. I wonder, secondly, whether the Minis- ter will consult his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment when it comes to giving financial relief to the local authorities. It is essential that such relief be realistic and not conditional.

Mr. Davis

On the last point, I do not think that the pollution that has occurred should cause us too much alarm. Although my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment will consider these matters, I do not think it right to make a judgment at present. It is very early hours, let alone days.

On the question of radar aids to avoid collision, at the February conference to which I have referred it was resolved that all ships between 1,600 and 10,000 gross tonnes should be fitted with radar, while all ships of 10,000 gross tonnes and above should have two radar systems each capable of operating independently, on the date of the coming into force of the protocol to the 1974 SOLAS Convention.

Mr. John Ellis

Does not my hon. Friend realise that if this had happened a few miles further north there would have been oil in the Humber estuary, which would have meant that oil would have gone as far up as Goole and right down into Lincolnshire? These incidents happen over and over again. Some of us find my hon. Friend's attitude very complacent. There is now a case for limiting the use of large tankers in the North Sea and the Channel and allowing only very small tankers to operate there and then only when there are no other vessels around. We must tackle this problem before there is a real disaster on a monstrous scale, for it will then be too late.

Mr. Davis

I hope that I have not conveyed to the House any attitude of complacency. It was certainly not my intention so to do. I have tried to establish a proposition which I think is undeniable, that the only way to get effective action is through international authority.

In reply to my hon. Friend's specific question, this was a very small tanker—

Mr. John Ellis

Then make the limit apply to even smaller vessels.

Mr. Davis

We must get the matter into perspective. More than 1 million tons of oil a day are carried through the Channel. That is equivalent to about 20,000 "Amoco Cadiz" vessels since the "Torrey Canyon" incident. During that time we have had two major incidents and a few smaller incidents. There is no reason for complacency, but I repeat that effective action can be taken only under international authority.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. With the co-operation of hon. Members, I will call those hon. Members who have risen. However, there is an application under Standing Order No. 9 and also a personal statement to follow.

Sir W. Elliott

May I ask the Minister to enlarge a little on his answer to the first question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Yarmouth (Mr. Fell) about the chain of command in regard to decision-taking? Is he aware that further north than the Humber there are some of the finest beaches in the United Kingdom, on the North-East coast of England? He said that there is an emergency officer on the spot to take immediate decisions. Will he give the House an idea exactly how many emergency officers there are around our coasts and where they are situated?

Mr. Davis

I understand that there are nine principal officers around the coasts. Without notice, I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman their exact location. The principal officer concerned was sent to Gorleston with great expedition. He has the authority that I have outlined.

Mr. Dalyell

May I put a question which has been put by some of my constituents, for whom this cargo was in fact destined at Grangemouth? Why is it necessary for a cargo from Rotterdam to go so near a coast on its way from Rotterdam to Grangemouth?

Generally, at the next IMCO conference, cannot the Government look into the possibility of regulations being made which would make it much more difficult, as in the case of the "Amoco Cadiz", for any of these tankers to go gratuitously so near coastlines?

Mr. Davis

The difficulty about this particular coastline, as I think the hon. Member for Yarmouth and the right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) will be able to confirm, is that there are shifting sands which make it very difficult to have a regulated internationally authorised traffic separation scheme. As to the particular incident, I cannot at this moment come to any conclusions what either of these vessels was doing in those positions.

Mr. Emery

Does the Minister realise that although everybody at present sympathises with the problem in East Anglia there are many places round our coastline—I think particularly of Lyme Bay—where super-tankers transfer cargo to smaller ships every day of the week? The population's fear is that accidents are likely to occur and that the beaches will be inundated.

Does the Minister remember that his predecessor, the present Lord Greenwood, gave an assurance to the House, when he was Minister of Housing and Local Government, that he would ensure, first, that there was a massive amount of British relief always available to deal with any spillage so that it would never be on the level of the "Torrey Canyon" disaster again and, secondly, that oil companies would set up a fund so that local authorities would never have to be called upon again to meet any of these costs? This was British initiative. It does not need international control or authority. What has the Minister done to honour those assurances?

Mr. Davis

The hon. Gentleman, who has been a Minister should know that compensation schemes have been established—not only TOVALOP but also another one which rejoices in the name of CRISTAL—and there is also an international convention. It cannot therefore be said that the matter has been left to drift. As regards the adequacy of the British response on this occasion, I do not believe that it can be said—nor do I think that the hon. Member for Yarmouth suggested—that our response was inadequate. On the wider issue, of course we have lessons to learn in the light of the "Amoco Cadiz" situation, and these matters are the subject of internal inquiry as well as being considered internationally, too.

As regards lightening operations off Lyme Bay, I have told the hon. Member for Torbay (Sir F. Bennett) that I am prepared to receive a deputation from the local authority concerned. However, I do not believe that there has been any serious oil pollution recently. The matter was raised in the House some two years ago, and since that time, although there has been some concern recently following the "Amoco Cadiz" incident, there has not, I believe, been any serious cause for concern.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

Having had responsibility in the last Conservative Government for dealing with pollution in Cornwall, the Humber and elsewhere, I assure the Minister that he has my sympathy in being caught in the middle of this one. However, can he answer three questions? First, if there is a Greek inquiry and a French inquiry, will there also be a British inquiry into why it happened that radar was not available on these ships, and secondly, why, when those involved started to tow one end of the vessel towards land, they took it into shallow water and caused the tow lines to part? We need an answer to that. Next, will the Minister tell us exactly what sort of help the hard-pressed Suffolk and Norfolk County Councils can expect in their rate support grant?

Mr. Davis

The hon. Gentleman knows that that latter question is for the right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, who is on the Front Bench and has heard the question. In reply to his point about the inquiry being held by the United Kingdom authorities, I must tell the hon. Gentleman that we simply have no locus here. It was a collision on the high seas between a Greek vessel and a French vessel. The master and crew of the tanker have been taken to France. We could not, therefore, hold a meaningful investigation involving the calling of evidence. We have no power to subpoena in the United Kingdom, and we have no powers under the Merchant Shipping Acts to hold an investigation. Therefore, although I should not have minded holding one, I am afraid that I have no power to do so.

Mr. Nott

I join my hon. Friends in paying tribute to those who have been involved in the operation so far, and at this point I ask the Minister two questions. It is not clear to me—I do not think that it is clear to the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell), either—why, when there was a traffic separation scheme operating in this area about three years ago, it is not now possible to have one in the future.

I understand the problem of shifting sands, but why do the vessels have to be so close inshore? That was the question asked also by the hon. Member for West Lothian, and I do not think that the Minister has answered it. The shifting sands were shifting three years ago, and I wonder why we cannot have a fresh separation scheme. Secondly, we are concerned about progress in IMCO. Can the Minister say when the French proposals, which were made following the "Amoco Cadiz" disaster, will be considered in full by the maritime safety committee of IMCO? When will IMCO make decisions on the full French proposals? As the Minister says, international action here is crucial.

Mr. Davis

IMCO is seized of the urgency of this matter. It considered the situation in a preliminary way at the April conference of the maritime safety committee, and further meetings are to be held. I cannot off the top of my head give the exact dates, but these matters are being dealt with urgently by the appropriate committees. The matter involves the legal committee as well to deal with questions of salvage and so on. There is a variety of questions to be considered here.

On the question of a routing scheme, the difficulty is that such schemes require international authority—if they are outside territorial waters, we cannot impose a scheme ourselves—and the problem created by the shifting sand banks is that permanence cannot be given to any routing scheme, which is another difficulty to be contemplated.

Charts covering this area are frequently updated. There is no reason why the masters concerned should not have had—for all I know, they may well have had—the most up-to-date charts covering the area. But I repeat that I cannot make a judgment while inquiries are being put in train.