HC Deb 06 November 1979 vol 973 cc229-33
Mr. Clinton Davis

(by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for Trade if he will make a statement on the loss this morning of the coaster "Pool Fisher" carrying a 15-man crew.

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

The "Pool Fisher", a general cargo vessel of 1,028 gross tons, left the German port of Hamburg at 1300 hours on 3 November with a full cargo of potash in bulk. The vessel carried a crew of 14 and one passenger and was on voyage to Runcorn, where it was due to arrive on the evening of 7 November.

At 5.49 this morning Niton coast radio informed the coastguard that the "Pool Fisher" had transmitted a distress call on VHF ship-to-shore radio from a position west of St. Catherine's light, on the Isle of Wight. The "Pool Fisher" is believed to have capsized and sunk very shortly afterwards.

The coastguard immediately launched the Yarmouth and Bembridge lifeboats and scrambled helicopters from Lee-on-Solent and later from Portland and Culdrose. The search and rescue operation is being carried out, in severe weather conditions, by three warships, six merchant vessels and two lifeboats, assisted by four helicopters.

Two survivors from the vessel have so far been rescued and transferred to hospital; two bodies have also been recovered. We must all hope that the extensive search and rescue operation, which is continuing, will be successful in locating further survivors.

My Department is carrying out a preliminary inquiry in order to establish the cause of this casualty.

I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House would wish to join me in expressing deepest sympathy to the families and relatives of those who have lost their lives as a result of this tragic casualty.

Mr. Davis

Is the Minister aware that the Opposition wish to associate themselves with his expression of sympathy to those already bereaved and also to those families who are in desperate anxiety about those who are missing?

I welcome the preliminary investigation that the Minister announced. Will he indicate the age of the vessel and whether there is any information at present available to him to show whether that vessel complied with manning requirements? Does he expect to receive the full co-operation of the German authorities about the loading of the vessel? That is clearly a matter of considerable interest.

As to the search and rescue operation, is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Opposition very much appreciate the swift response with which this call was met by all those engaged in the matter? Is it possible that the search will continue during the hours of darkness? If not, when does the hon. Gentleman expect the rescue operations to be able to continue? Is there any likelihood of the severe weather conditions of which he spoke abating in the next few hours?

Is the Minister aware that the Opposition hope that the devoted activities of those engaged in the rescue operation will be marked with success?

Mr. Tebbit

I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he said about the devotion of those engaged in the rescue operations. He will probably find that the Meteorological Office is a better guide than I am about the weather. We can only hope that it will abate sufficiently to allow the continuance of a more effective search for the survivors. The search will continue whilst there is hope of saving life.

I have no reason to think that the co-operation of the Germans has been lacking in any way. I would be astounded and shocked if it were. I am sure that we shall receive their full co-operation.

As to the level of manning, I am not in a position positively to say whether the vessel was fully and correctly manned. However, the fact that there was a crew of 15 on a ship of 1,000 tons would probably be a broad hint in that direction. [HON. MEMBERS: "Fourteen."] I think that the number is 15.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman about the condition of the ship. The safety equipment certificate, which was issued by the marine service office in Liverpool on 26 February 1979, expires on 22 February 1981. The cargo ship safety construction certificate was issued on 28 April 1977 and expires on 28 February 1982. The load line certificate, issued by Lloyd's Register of Shipping on 22 July 1977, expires on 24 February 1982. The general inspection carried out at Hull on 1 May 1979 found the vessel to be satisfactory.

Mr. Stephen Ross

Is the Minister aware that the Liberal Members of Parliament would like to be associated with his remarks and with those made by the Opposition spokesman? I pay a tribute to the lifeboatmen in my constituency who are out in rough weather at this time. I trust that they meet with success.

Is the Minister aware that this is the second such incident in the same area that has taken place in the past 48 hours? The other concerned the "Aeolian Sky", which was carrying dangerous chemicals that are now washing up along the shores, including those of my constituency, and costing local authorities a substantial amount of money to deal with. There were reports on the radio earlier today from the skipper of the "Esso Penzance" that the vessel that went down was listing last evening. Does that not suggest that we require much closer surveillance of ships using these busy waters and greater discipline among the masters of these vessels?

Mr. Tebbit

First, as far as I know, no chemicals have come ashore from the "Aeolian Sky". Secondly, the best possible surveillance that we can devise is being carried out on shipping. We are moving through the international organisations in every possible way to increase the standards of safety of ships, their construction, their operation and the standards of operation of their crew. However, we must say, time and again, that ships at sea meet hazards that are often unexpected and beyond the ability of the crew or the ship to weather. No doubt for a long time to come ships will continue to be lost in bad weather. It would be wrong for me to suggest that there was some magic means by which we could change that. We can only do our best to improve the standards of construction and seamanship—and that we are doing.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call the three hon. Members who have been seeking to catch my eye. Mr. Adley.

Mr. Adley

Is my hon. Friend aware that everyone will want to express not only sympathy but admiration for the rescue services? Is my hon. Friend further aware that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) and I have over the past few years expressed concern about the numerous bodies, including the Minister's own Department, that have responsibility for maritime affairs in the West Solent area? This is not meant as a criticism of anyone in particular, but does not the Minister agree that it is time for the position in the West Solent to be clarified? Could he take an initiative to see whether all the bodies concerned could be brought together, so that there could be a much clearer line of definition of responsibility for maritime activities off the coastline of my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Isle of Wight?

Mr. Tebbit

I take note of what my hon. Friend says, but I do not think that mariners are in any undue doubt about who is responsible for the safety of their ship when it is at sea, and this ship was at sea under the command of her master.

Mr. Prescott

The seamen of this country are entitled to expect this House to provide them with the best possible safety and rescue services, and they are grateful for what is being done at present by those services, but is the Minister aware that for a number of years seafarers have been expressing concern, as have courts of inquiry, at the continuing cutbacks in these services? Can he assure the House that further cutbacks, as highlighted in a publication of the Civil Service unions, sent to all hon. Members of this House, will not further reduce safety standards for our seafarers?

Mr. Tebbit

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that he would do better to take my word that nothing that is done in my Department will degrade safety at sea than to believe all that he reads in publications of that sort.

Mr. James Johnson

The Minister will know that this disaster follows closely upon similar disasters in the fishing Industry. Would he care to comment on the possibility of lives not being lost if it were made mandatory for ships of this sort to carry, in the manner of fishing vessels, electronic position-indicating radio beacons, known as EPIRB, for the assistance of men who may be in the water?

Mr. Tebbit

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the question of the carriage of electronic position-indicating radio beacons was under consideration in my Department for some time before I took office. I have continued to take a close interest in the question. The object of my concern is to ensure that when such devices come into use they will be reliable, that they will not cause false alerts, and that they will be effective in leading searchers to the survivors. I look forward to their coming into use when we have achieved those objectives, because I believe that potentially they could save lives.