HC Deb 12 February 1979 vol 962 cc788-93

Sir John Gilmour (by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for Trade if he will make a statement on the loss of the motor fishing vessel "Tarradale II".

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

The fishing vessel "Tarradale II" sailed from Peterhead at 1520 hours on Thursday 1 February, bound for the Norwegian fishing grounds, with a crew of seven on board. On Friday 2 February, the skipper of "Tarradale II" reported to his owners, via Stonehaven radio, that he had commenced fishing off Norway. The last known contact with the vessel was with Stonehaven radio at 1600 hours on the same day. Her position at that time was about 170 miles east-north-east of Peterhead. On 2–3 February, storm force 10 winds were reported locally. This was more severe than had been generally forecast.

At about 1500 hours on Wednesday 7 February, the agents for the ship reported to the Aberdeen coastguard that the vessel was overdue. Coastal radio stations in Scotland and Norway immediately broadcast an alert. In addition, United Kingdom and Norwegian helicopters en routine flights in the area were asked to keep a look-out for the vessel.

A co-ordinated air search of the fishing area was also undertaken and an RAF Nimrod commenced searching at 0830 hours on Thursday 8 February, assisted by aircraft from Danish, German and Norwegian rescue services. At 1500 hours on Saturday 10 February a Nimrod sighted a fishing marker buoy, fish boxes and wreckage in the possible area of loss. These were recovered by a Norwegian coastguard cutter on Sunday 11 February and are being taken to Aberdeen for possible identification. Search action was finally concluded at dusk on Saturday 10 February.

I very much regret having to inform the House that the "Tarradale II" must now be presumed lost. My Department has accordingly commenced a preliminary inquiry into this casualty. I am all too well aware that tragedies of this kind cast a shadow over the whole of the fishing community and I am sure that hon. Members will particularly wish to join with me in expressing deepest sympathy with the families and relatives of the crew of the "Tarradale II".

I would say, in conclusion, that I have agreed to the Fishing Industry Safety Group's recommendation that there should be a special radio communication channel for the exclusive use of fishing vessels. It is proposed that this will operate overnight, between 1700 hours and 0900 hours, on 2381 kHz. It is not intended to replace distress calls on the frequency of 2182 kHz, but will enable vessels to make quick contact with the shore in the event of difficulties developing. It should also encourage more frequent contact, thus helping to establish the whereabouts of vessels while fishing.

Urgent talks are to be held between my officials, the Scottish Fishing Federation and the Post Office on the detailed arrangements for the scheme. These will commence on Thursday 15 February. It is hoped that the scheme will operate from 1 April 1979, initially for a period of two years.

Sir J. Gilmour

I thank the Minister for that statement. Although, as he will know, the vessel sailed from Peterhead, almost the entire crew came from East Fife and, therefore, my constituents and I would join with the Minister in his condolences to the families concerned. I would also like to pay tribute to the search undertaken by the Nimrods, by other fishermen and by the coastguards.

Is there any possibility that this new frequency, due to come into force from 1 April, can be brought forward, say, to the middle of March? As the Minister will know, this is the second time that a vessel has been lost in the same area, and the matter is giving great concern. Will priority also be given to the possibility of an efficient marker buoy for discovering wrecks, so that some of the vessels that founder can be raised and we can try to find out the cause of the trouble?

Mr. Davis

I am sure that the whole House will join with the hon. Gentleman in the remarks that he has made and the tribute that he has paid to those engaged in the search and rescue operation. It is difficult to bring forward the date, because instructions and guidance have to be given on the operation of this new system. It is important, in order to have proper effect, that the system should be readily understood. If the matter can be brought forward, this will be done. We are giving the matter the most urgent consideration, as I have already indicated.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the question of the marker buoy. I presume that he is also referring to the emergency radio beacons—the EPRBs. This matter was considered again by the Fishing Industry Safety Group at a meeting a few weeks ago. The group is not convinced that a fully efficient system is yet capable of being brought into operation. Until that happens, there would be no point in making a system mandatory.

Mr. Robert Hughes

I should like to associate myself with the remarks of sympathy for the bereaved, as I am afraid we must now accept they are, made by the Minister and by the hon. Member for Fife, East (Sir J. Gilmour). Although I do not represent the constituency from which the crew came, I have close associations with that part of the country.

I congratulate the Minister and the Fishing Industry Safety Group on its proposals to try to achieve a much better system of reporting and quick action when a vessel goes missing. Is it possible to set up a full-scale search when a vessel does not report in? Often in these waters, at this time of year, the length of time a survivor is in the water makes a difference between life and death. I realise that this would be expensive and difficult. But given the good will of the fishing industry over reporting in every day, could more not be done to achieve earlier identification of a missing vessel, as opposed to a vessel that has simply not reported?

Mr. Davis

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the observations that he made about the new system. I pay tribute to those representatives of the industry and various Government Departments represented on the Fishing Industry Safety Group in making this proposal. The suggestion that my hon. Friend makes is not practicable, because we must depend upon fishermen reporting in. In this respect, the system breaks down. Regrettably, fishermen do not comply with instructions, sometimes, possibly, for very good reasons.

It would be impossible to mount a search and rescue operation every time the present system, which is voluntary, breaks down. One of the reasons why I want to see the new system brought into operation as quickly as possible is that it will, we hope, encourage people to adopt more efficient reporting-in systems.

Mr. Grimond

I join in the expressions of deep regret over the loss of this fishing boat and in the sympathy expressed to the families of those lost. Were the initial calls from the boat picked up anywhere else except Stonehaven?

I am glad that the new frequency is to come into operation. Will it cover virtually all the sea areas around the coast of Scotland? Will the Minister confirm that this fishing boat was presumably lost so far away that the helicopter rescue services could not have reached the scene of the tragedy?

Mr. Davis

So far as I know, the call from the boat was picked up only in the place that I have mentioned. The intention is that the trial period of two years will operate not simply around the coast of Scotland but far wider. As for helicopters, as I said, United Kingdom and Norwegian helicopters were on routine flights in the area, but it was not possible, as I understand it, for helicopters operating under the search and rescue aegis to get to the scene in time. It was just not possible.

Mr. Younger

Is the Minister aware that I should like to associate my right hon. and hon. Friends with all the expressions of sympathy for the relatives of those concerned—which we warmly endorse? Will he, in the discussions that he mentioned, pay particular attention to the time lag in this case? Does he agree that, even allowing for the difficulties about reporting and so on, it seems an extraordinary length of time from 4 p.m. on 2 February until 7 February, when the vessel was reported missing? Does he not think that a completely fresh look at reporting is urgently needed?

Mr. Davis

The question of reporting in has, of course, been in the forefront of the considerations of the Fishing Industry Safety Group, but unfortunately the industry has not found it possible to conform with any regimental procedures which were originally devised, so they broke down. We can only exercise persuasion and influence to try to bring some reason to bear on this matter. I hope that what I have announced will be of some assistance in that direction.

As for the extraordinary lapse of time, to which the hon. Gentleman rightly referred, that will be in the forefront of the minds of those carrying out the preliminary investigation and any possible formal investigation which will have to follow. It would not be appropriate for me to comment on that, save to say that I understand that the owners in this case had issued certain instructions for reporting in. There appeared, however, to be no reporting in within the periods to which I have referred.

Mr. James Johnson

May I associate myself and, I am certain, all English Members with fishing constituencies with the deep sympathy expressed from all parts of the House for the bereaved of these men who have gone down? May I turn my hon. Friend's attention to what he said about the EPRBs, the emergency radio beacons? He said that his advisers in the fishing group were not yet fully convinced about the need for or the efficiency of these beacons. I thank him for having had two of his advisers in Hull looking at an EPRB indicator made by a firm in my constituency. We do not ask my hon. Friend, as the Minister, to make the use of this device mandatory, in the sense that the Norwegians, the Canadians or even the Americans do, but if he is satisfied with the findings of his two advisers who went to Hull, will he give it his blessing? We think that it will make an enormous difference throughout the fishing industry.

Mr. Davis

I am obliged to my hon. Friend, who has courteously drawn these matters to my attention over a fairly long period and who has shown a long interest in this topic. The situation in the other countries to which he referred is somewhat different, and does not, therefore, persuade those in the industry that we ought to make mandatory the system that my hon. Friend would like. However. there is nothing to prevent owners of fishing vessels from installing these devices. I am sure that it would be helpful. I agree with my hon. Friend on that. Perhaps those who are concerned will recognise the great interest, not simply in the industry but among the wider public, in matters of this kind, as has been shown in the House today. Perhaps they will take that to heart.