HC Deb 17 December 1979 vol 976 cc29-34

Mr. Myles (by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for Trade if he will make a statement on the feared loss of the Banff-registered fishing vessel "Ocean Monarch"BF144 in Shetland Waters and the possible tragic loss of the seven men on board.

The Under-Secretary of State for Trade (Mr. Norman Tebbit)

The fishing vessel "Ocean Monarch" sailed from Peter head about noon on Thursday 13 December bound for Bressay Bank fishing grounds with a crew of seven on board.

The last known contact with the vessel was at 0420 hours on 15 December, when the "Ocean Monarch" was in VHF communication with the fishing vessel "Valkyrie". Weather conditions at the time were severe—gale force 8 increasing to storm 10. "Valkyrie's" later attempts to contact the vessel by VHF were unsuccessful. At 1028 hours on 15 December the skipper of the fishing vessel "Valkyrie" reported to Aberdeen coastguard via Wick Radio that he was concerned for the safety of the "Ocean Monarch". All shipping in the area was alerted and a sea and air radar and visual search was immediately initiated by Aberdeen coastguard with an RAF Nimrod, the fishery protection vessel HMS "Orkney" and eight fishing vessels.

During the morning of 16 December some debris, including fish boxes, was sighted by an RAF Nimrod and later, about midday, two empty life-rafts were sighted, one by the Nimrod and the other by a German vessel. Both rafts were recovered and positively identified as having come from the "Ocean Monarch". The search operation was terminated at 1430 on 16 December and I very much regret having to inform the House that the "Ocean Monarch" must now be presumed lost with all hands. My Department has commenced a preliminary inquiry into the loss of the vessel.

Through my responsibility for marine safety I have come to realise how a tragedy of this kind saddens the whole of the fishing community. I am sure that Members will wish to join with the Secretary of State for Scotland and me in expressing deepest sympathy particularly with the families and relatives of the crew of the "Ocean Monarch", who I understand come mainly from the fishing port of Buckie, which suffered the tragic loss of the "Corinthia" in June.

Mr. Myles

I thank my hon. Friend for that statement. I will carry the sympathy of the House to the relatives in Buckie when I visit them at the end of this week.

I do not relish becoming acquainted with the procedure for private notice questions in connection with such a tragic incident. Many questions will be asked. Why is it that so many young men lose their lives in this way?

I will read out the names of those young men for the record. The skipper of the vessel was Gordon Taylor, of 138 Douglas Crescent, Buckie, aged 29 years. The mate of the vessel was John Alexander Reid, aged 32, of 20 Merson Street, Buckie. The engineer, who was well-qualified, was Walter Thain, 37 years old, of 26 Great. Western Road, Buckie. The other men were John Clark, 31 years old, of 17 Logie Avenue, Cullen Barrie Sudding, 23 years old, of 28 Rannas Place, Buckie and William Coull, 33 years old, of 42 MacKenzie Road, Buckie. Also lost was the apprentice, A Ian Sutherland, who was 17 years old, of 6 Mid Street, Buckie.

Is there any connection with the fact that this vessel had its gear towed away by the French trawler "Cap Gris Nez" a little more than a week ago—a matter that I have taken up with the Scottish Office—or with the fact that the main wireless of the "Ocean Monarch" was damaged and put out of action last week? Or is it that there is just too much pressure on fishermen, with the approach of Christmas, tight quotas, and the inadequate price of fish?

Mr. Tebbit

It would not be right for me to speculate on the possible causes of the loss of this ship, though I do not believe that the loss or impairment of the vessel's wireless could have had any part in the loss of that vessel. My hon. Friend asked why we suffer such losses. I can only say that the weather was severe in this case—indeed, it was extreme. There have been reports today of storms round the British coast, with waves up to 100 ft in height. As long as men go fishing—as they must do, and have done for many years—and have to meet conditions such as I have described, inevitably, though sadly, we shall occasionally have these tragic loses.

Mr. John Smith

I am sure that all Opposition Members wish to associate themselves with the condolences expressed by the Minister and the hon. Member for Banff (Mr. Myles). We share the sense of loss that that community, which suffered a loss earlier this year, suffers once again. We are grateful that a preliminary inquiry has been started by the Minister's Department, but as five fishing vessels have been lost off North-East Scotland over the last 15 months, is the time not appropriate for further discussion between the Government and the fishing industry about ways in which safety might be increased?

Mr. Tebbit

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he said. We have constant discussions with the shipping industry as a whole on ways in which safety might be increased. If anybody in the fishing industry believes that he has any constructive ideas to put forward we shall be happy to meet that person to see what we can do to assist.

Mr. Donald Stewart

I associate my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson) and myself with the expressions of sympathy made by the Minister. I accept that the weather was extreme, but does not the Minister think that, with the mounting toll of losses over the last year or two, there is now need for an inquiry into the rising number of inshore fishermen who are lost? I put this matter to his Department a few weeks ago.

Mr. Tebbit

I do not think that there is any necessity for such an inquiry at present, because I do not believe that we could do much more. At present, there is little more that we can do. Tragic though these losses are, there is no evidence that they have been increasing over the last two or three years.

Mr. Sproat

I add my sympathy to that already expressed by my hon. Friend the Minister and others. Can my hon. Friend give us his latest estimate of the effectiveness of automatic electronic beacons? What consideration he is currently giving to making these devices compulsory on vessels?

Mr. Tebbit

My hon. Friend will be interested to know that I have looked closely at these devices, their effectiveness and what snags there might be in their use. There is certainly no bar to their being carried, and in my Department we are doing what we can both to help people design such devices that are more effective and to encourage skippers to carry them.

Mr. Robert Hughes

I associate myself with the expressions of sympathy for the bereaved in Buckie and the tragic loss. It proves once more what a dangerous place the North Sea is at this time of year. Can the Minister tell us how the reporting-in procedure is operating? Are vessels regularly reporting their positions? As the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has approved an automatic beacon system, will the Minister continue his efforts to encourage skippers to carry such a system?

Mr. Tebbit

The answer to the second point is "Yes". On the question of the open line communications channel, this is working reasonably well now, and the fishing vessel "Valkyrie" made contact with Wick Radio on the open line on two occasions on 15 December on behalf of a group of vessels, including the "Ocean Monarch".

Mr. McQuarrie

I associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Banff (Mr. Myles). This vessel left Peterhead, in my constituency. The whole of the North-East has suffered great blows over the past 15 months in the loss of lives. Is it not the case that there is considerable reluctance on the part of fishermen, once they are at sea, to report back to the various radio stations? Is it not time that the Government introduced some form of compulsion to report back, rather than making it a voluntary practice? Surely that would be more satisfactory and would lead to less loss of life in such tragic circumstances.

Mr. Tebbit

My hon. Friend is right. There is a reluctance on the part of some skippers when fishing in particularly good grounds, to give their positions over the radio. On the other hand, many companies insist that their ships report to the company, if not to the coastguard. Although I do not know very much about this, I have had some experience, having been associated with these people in the past eight months, and I believe that compulsion would not be effective. We must resort to continuing persuasion and education. I hope that that does not sound too paternalistic, because we are dealing with a bunch of individualistic and brave men.

Mr. Spriggs

Is the Minister aware that those who have worked in association with the fishing industry know that all fishing ports around our coast have had their share of tragedy, with men being lost as a result of power being in the hands only of the skipper to decide whether he will continue fishing or run for shelter while there is still a chance before disaster overtakes his ship?

Mr. Tebbit

I am an enthusiast for democracy, but I do not think that doing anything to change the present circumstances, in which the skipper and no one else is the master, would lead to an improvement in safety. Indeed, I believe that it would lead to a very great loss of safety.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

I propose to call the hon. Member for Moray and Nairn (Mr. Pollock).

Mr. Pollock

I wish to associate myself with the expressions of sympathy already voiced by hon. Members on both sides of the House. The disaster occurred in a constituency neighbouring mine, and we regard ourselves as part of the same fishing community. I note the Minister's statement with interest, and ask him to convey to the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Air Force our gratitude for the way in which RAF personnel contributed with great bravery to the search and rescue operations. Without their efforts the lives of our fishermen would be more perilous than they already are.

Mr. Tebbit

I pay tribute not only to the bravery and devotion to duty of members of the RAF in these matters, but to those in the Royal Navy, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, other civil ships and their masters, and the coastguards of my Department who have contributed on countless occasions. None of these services has ever failed to do its utmost to save lives in the most difficult circumstances.