HC Deb 03 February 1981 vol 998 cc263-70

12.7 am

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn—(Lord James Douglas-Hamilton).

Sir Bernard Braine (Essex, South-East)

Last summer saw the resumption of an unusual public inquiry. This had opened five years previously with the task of deciding whether planning permission for an oil refinery on Canvey Island should be revoked. The issue was whether it was right to add yet another safety hazard to the massive concentration of gas, chemical and oil processing and storage on the island and in neighbouring Thurrock uncomfortably close to a large residential population. At the resumed inquiry, four independent scientific experts gave evidence that the level of risk faced by my constituents is too high and should be reduced. We are now awaiting the inspector's report and recommendations.

The reason for this long-drawn out process is that, while in 1975 the inspector conducting the first stage of the public inquiry came to the firm conclusion that the proposed refinery should not be built, he recommended that the newly established Health and Safety Executive should first look at the totality of risk to which my constituents were exposed. The Government of the day agreed.

Accordingly, the HSE carried out an investigation and published its findings in June 1978. In the event, the Canvey report, as I shall call it, confirmed our worst fears. It identified an appalling array of risks to health and safety, and, indeed, to life itself, which no community ought to be asked to accept. Unfortunately, the conclusions it reached did not match up to the gravity of the situation it had uncovered.

One of the most glaring weaknesses of the report was its failure to deal adequately with the special dangers posed by tankers carrying hazardous cargoes being involved in collisions and fires while berthed at jetties in Canvey and Thurrock. There had been no consultation with the professional pilots who understood the problem and no proper assessment of the long history of accidents involving such vessels, any one of which might have triggered off a disaster involving the land-based installations.

Within a few months of the report's publication, as if to chide us for these omissions, the French oil tanker "Betelgeuse", berthed at the Gulf terminal on Whiddy Island in Bantry Bay, blew up with the loss of all 43 of its crew and eight other persons on the terminal jetty.

That terrible accident is relevant to our situation because similar vessels come into the Thames and discharge at jetties which are much closer to land-based hazardous installations. Moreover, while at Whiddy Island only 61 families have their homes, there are 34,000 people living on Canvey all the year round and well over 40,000 in the summer months. Local safety officers and the fire brigade are agreed that if such an explosion had taken place at Canvey Island it could have led to a cataclysmic fire extending landwards and causing heavy casualties.

If the gravity of Canvey's situation is to be understood one point needs to be grasped by my hon. Friend from the outset—the island faces not one but a multiplicity of risks, any one of which could trigger off a train of disaster. Indeed, the greatest hazard of all is not an oil refinery or chemical storage but the British Gas methane terminal where a tanker arrives every week carrying 12,000 tonnes of liquefied natural gas, the energy equivalent, I am told on good authority, of six Nagasaki-type atom bombs.

Huge quantities of liquefied gas are stored at the terminal close to the residential area in what has long been obsolescent below-ground storage which, I am glad to say, British Gas is planning to decommission, and in large above-ground tanks where neglect of safety was the subject of three enforcement notices served by the HSE last year.

For full measure I should perhaps mention that I elicited from my hon. Friend's Department in 1979 that there are no facilities on the Thames estuary for decanting the lethal cargo of a liquefied natural gas tanker should it become involved in a serious accident, such as fire or explosion aboard or a collision, save by bringing it into the Canvey terminal and carrying out the operation close to a large residential population. To be fair, although the HSE gave no attention to this problem in the Canvey report, I am certain that, in the light of present knowledge, the regional director would not permit this to happen today and the stricken tanker would have to be towed out to sea, if that were feasible. I should be glad if my hon. Friend would confirm this.

What is more, although there has been a slight decline in the number of tankers arriving in the Thames over the past decade the proportion of fire and collisions has not fallen. The fact is that over the years we have had experience of many incidents which could have had serious repercussions for Canvey. I have given the House full details on other occasions and I refer my hon. Friend in particular to what I said on the subject during the passage of the Merchant Shipping Act in 1978 and 1979.

We should not be surprised. In recent years there has been a general deterioration in safety standards at sea. Last year, for example, Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organisation experts investigated 1,000 incidents involving oil tankers and classified 200 of these as serious. The number of fires and explosions was the highest since 1972 and pollution incidents were the highest on record, 500 of these occurring in our own coastal waters.

Last October it was revealed that the HSE had been conducting a spot check of ships carrying hazardous cargoes into our ports. It found that one out of every three vessels had safety faults and half of these were potentially serious enough to cause a disatrous explosion. Unbelievably, the HSE inspectors found that even in the case of tankers fitted with safety systems either these were faulty in themselves or the crew did not know how to operate them. The faults were found not only on flag of convenience ships, but on British and Common Market ships too.

Let me give examples of what was found on three tankers carrying the most hazardous of all cargoes—liquefied gas. I quote from an account given by a senior HSE inspector at a conference on tanker safety held last October: A liquefied gas tanker was visited; the Master was ashore and the Chief Officer was aboard engaged in cargo operations. This man's experience in tankers was limited to 3 months. He had been on the LPG ship for only 3 weeks. The ship's gas monitoring system was found to be switched off, the Chief Officer did not quite know how to operate the equipment nor did he know whether it was set for monitoring toxic of flammable ranges. On another gas tanker it was found that the gas monitoring device was set for sampling the wrong gas; there was no record of any tests having been carried out, no one on board knew how to carry out such tests nor was there any span (testing) gas on board. On yet another gas tanker, when the Chief Officer was required to switch on his monitoring system, it alarmed in 2 spaces (or compartments). The inspector was informed that these were spurious alarms and for that reason the equipment had been switched off. No one on board was capable of remedying the defect or carrying out running repairs. Following that I put down a parliamentary question and elicited the alarming fact that since January 1979—when the "Betelgeuse" blew up in Bantry Bay—the Health and Saftey Executive had served 19 enforcement notices and three prohibition notices on vessels bringing hazardous cargoes into the Thames alone. Since the bulk of tanker explosions and fires occur while such vessels are in port areas, the significance of that revelation to our situation at Canvey will be readily grasped.

Against that background consider, Mr. Deputy Speaker, three incidents that have happened off Canvey in recent weeks. In the early hours of 27 November a fire broke out on the tanker "Texaco Oslo" while moored at the Texaco company's oil storage depot on the island. That, incidentally, was the installation where the IRA planted a bomb two years ago. Fortunately, the fire was brought under control by the Essex fire brigade, but not before a young Norwegian woman radio-operator had lost her life. At the inquest it was revealed that the tanker's own fire alarm was not connected to the land-based alarm system and was not even audible to the jetty supervisor. The fire brigade was alerted by a worker on the jetty who smelt smoke. As a consequence there was a 20-minute delay between the fire being discovered aboard and the fire brigade being called.

As I have already said in a letter to the chairman of the PLA: whether the woman's life could have been saved had the Brigade got to the ship twenty minutes earlier is not for me to say, but the absence of any effective interconnection was disgraceful and it begs the question as to what surveillance the PLA exercises in these matters with reference to vessels with hazardous cargoes discharging at Canvey or, for that matter, anywhere else in the river". Yet, less than two months later, in the early hours of 18 January, at the same jetty, a second fire broke out on the tanker "Texaco Norge" while discharging its cargo of 13,000 tonnes of petrol, 5,000 tonnes of gas oil and 1,500 tonnes of kerosene. Ironically that happened on the second anniversary of the IRA bomb incident at the same installation.

On that occasion it took the Essex fire brigade only six minutes from receiving the alert to reach the scene—a highly commendable performance. However, here again there was a delay of 23 minutes between the fire being discovered on the vessel and the fire brigade receiving the first call. Bear in mind, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the tanker was carrying 13,000 tonnes of petrol. The fire was quickly put out, but it could have been a very different story.

I have consulted the chief fire officer and the regional office of the HSE and they are deeply perturbed about incidents of this kind. Well might they be, for it was entirely fortuitous that the fires did not spread and had they spread there could have been major disasters.

Exactly a week later, in the early hours of 25 January, the 283,000 tons deadweight oil tanker "World Brasiliana", partially laden, collided with the Mobil Oil Refinery's No. 4 jetty at Coryton, destroyed the control tower and severed a fuel oil line.

No fire was caused, but it was as though Providence was warning us again, for that was the very jetty at which more than 10 years previously a Spanish passenger liner, "Monte Ulia", travelling at speed, had veered off course and crashed, severing oil pipelines and releasing hundreds of tons of blazing oil into the river which then set fire to two barges which drifted towards a tanker discharging benzine at Canvey. We were saved from disaster only by the turn of the tide.

Were any lessons ever learned from that frightening experience? We cannot be sure. When I asked my hon. Friend's predecessor for sight of the report on the "Monte Ulia" incident and the recommendations made, I was told that this was a matter for the Department of Transport. But that Department replied that it had no responsibility for such inquiries: it was a matter for the Department of Trade. Then my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport added this: Neither the Department of Trade nor ourselves have powers to direct the PLA to make copies of their own reports available to the public. The PLA's report is a confidential, internal document, which they do not wish to release. I am sorry I cannot be more helpful. When I put this to the chairman of the PLA he replied in a letter which I have only just received today that it was the Department of Trade that conducted the inquiry. He tells me that the recommendations were not released publicly, nor did the PLA receive details of them … There could therefore be no question that the PLA would not release the recommendations—it did not have them. I am not suggesting that the PLA did not carry out safety improvements at oil terminals following this incident—if not it would have been gravely wanting in responsibility—but I am saying that the muddle and confusion over this matter, the fobbing-off of inquiries and the fact that the local authorities and the public have thus been prevented from knowing what lessons were learned and how far recommendations for improvement have been implemented is disgraceful. Who is telling the truth over this sorry episode? I am determined to find out. What were the recommendations and how many have been carried out?

These questions are relevant because of what has happened since. The Bantry Bay disaster was investigated by a court of inquiry presided over by a distinguished Irish judge assisted by assessors of great experience who, incidentally, are very familiar with our Canvey situation. The ensuing report made a series of valuable recommendations in respect of safety. How many of these are directly relevant to conditions in British ports? How many have been implemented?

The HSE, to its credit, has taken one of the main lessons to heart and has carried out spot checks which have revealed the scale of neglect.

I have no doubt that the PLA and my hon. Friend's Department also had their eyes opened by the recommendations of the Bantry Bay report and the shocking revelations of neglect of safety revealed by the HSE spot checks on tankers. But what are they doing about it?

I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to tell us. In particular, I would be glad if he would answer the following questions. First, what specific steps have his Department and the PLA taken to deal with the neglect of elementary safety precautions in our ports? I understand that there is a joint working party on port safety. What are its terms of reference? Who belongs to it? What is it doing? Am I correct in saying that the fire service is not represented on it? If so, why not? One would have thought this absolutely essential.

Secondly, are the terms of reference of this joint working party such that it can report without fear or favour on what needs to be done, not only to ensure that the risks to the crews of tankers carrying hazardous cargoes are sharply reduced, but also the risks to the workers ashore in high hazard installations adjacent to jetties and to the general public living close by?

Thirdly, what is being done specifically to ensure that the fire alarms aboard tankers discharging hazardous cargoes are clearly audible and are linked directly with the land-based alarm system? Can this be enforced on foreign vessels?

Fourthly, what is being done to require stand-by tugs at oil berths to be fitted with fire monitors capable of reaching the decks of large tankers, and other high freeboard vessels?

Fifthly, what is being done to ensure that jetties are adequate—I am advised the Texaco jetty at Canvey is not—to facilitate easy access for fire appliances and to provide a proper escape route? I am talking of circumstances in which fire officers, who place their lives on the line, must move along inadequate jetties to reach vessels where carelessness has led to the outbreak of fire.

Finally, will the Minister give me an undertaking that a clear message is passed to all the Government Departments involved—Employment and Environment in particular—that until the present level of risk from storing and transhipping oil, chemicals and liquefied gases at Canvey Island is reduced, and is seen to be reduced, no additional hazard, however small, will be tolerated on the island?

12.24 am
The Under-Secretary of State for Trade (Mr. Reginald Eyre)

I have long admired the diligence with which my hon. Friend the Member for Essex, South-East (Sir Bernard Braine) works on behalf of his constituents, and I much appreciate his vigilance and energy in pursuing the matters that he has raised tonight in the interests of safety and of those living on Canvey Island. They are of considerable importance.

The incidents to which my hon. Friend has drawn attention and the real issues that he raises are concerned with the main fabric of marine safety. I shall seek to answer his questions in that connection as they come within my Department's responsibilities. I must make one immediate point, and I know that my hon. Friend will understand it. A number of the important matters that he raised are not within my Department's responsibilities but concern the Port of London Authority, for which the Department of Transport has a certain responsibility. The PLA is, as he knows, responsible for the safety of traffic in the Thames and navigational control. The Health and Safety Executive also has responsibilities for some of the matters raised, for which the Department of Employment eventually has responsibility. For other matters there is a Home Office responsibility. I undertake to ensure that all such matters will be brought to the attention of those responsible. I am sure that my hon. Friend will also understand that within the limitations of time tonight I may not be able to deal with all the points that he has raised. If there are any outstanding, my noble Friend, who has responsibility in the Department for shipping matters, will write to him.

It must be recognised that there will always be an element of danger inherent in taking ships to sea and in the activities associated with their operation, such as loading and unloading in ports. It would be quite unrealistic to suggest that we or any safety authority had the answers to all the questions. The view of my Department is that there will never be room for complacency in safety matters. My hon. Friend has asked what measures are being taken to maintain and improve safety standards in our ports so that the risks may be reduced. I shall try to deal with the particularly important questions of training, ship safety and enforcement.

A great deal is being done in those areas. There are already comprehensive safety provisions, which are being improved and extended. There is general recognition of the need to concentrate accident prevention on the human element and to provide proper training, high standards of qualifications, examinations, and certificates for officers and crew. My hon. Friend has expressed concern about laxity in observing fundamental safety precautions. As he said, bad habits and slackness in that connection can have disastrous consequences, and I endorse fully his remarks in that sense.

New certification requirements for deck and engineer officers serving on United Kingdom tankers will come into operation on 1 September 1981. As from that date, the master, deck officers and engineers on tankers and ships carrying liquid chemicals and liquefied gas cargoes and masters, chief engineers, chief officers and any other designated cargo officer will each need to have obtained a dangerous cargo endorsement to his certificate witnessing his having undergone special training and/or having had previous experience in a responsible capacity on ships carrying petroleum, liquid chemicals or liquefied gases, as the case may be. Generally speaking, deck and engineer officers employed on United Kingdom registered tankers and ships bringing hazardous liquefied cargoes to this country are properly certificated and trained personnel. It is expected that those requirements will enter into force late in 1982 or in 1983 for foreign flag ships in British ports.

With regard to the safety of ships themselves, I wish to mention the following: first, extensive rules for the transporting of hazardous cargoes are in force, and also special design, survey and certification procedures for chemical and gas tankers, the implementation of which is well advanced. All United Kingdom registered chemical tankers and half of the gas carrying ships have already been issued with certificates of fitness.

Secondly, new inert gas safety requirements for oil tankers are being implemented from 1 June this year for both United Kingdom and foreign tankers. Thirdly—and I am sure that my hon. Friend will be glad to know this—comprehensive mandatory annual surveys for all ships, including tankers, United Kingdom and foreign, commence of 1 May. There will also be a special intermediate survey for older tankers. Fourthly, from 1 May all tankers will be subjected to a survey of their cargo piping and pumping systems and electrical installations in dangerous zones, which would include the area that my hon. Friend has in mind.

In that context I should mention the working party, to which my hon. Friend referred, on the conveyance and storage of dangerous substances in port areas. That is not primarily a question for my Department, as the membership is very wide ranging and advises the Health and Safety Executive. I can say, however, that the terms of reference do have the object of controlling all aspects of the movement and storage of dangerous goods in port areas, including the loading and unloading of ships.

The report on the Bantry Bay disaster, which my hon. Friend mentioned, is also relevant. That report has been carefully studied by my Department. As regards the United Kingdom fleet, most of the recommendations are either already in force, or will be implemented shortly. Others are being considered at an international level in IMCO next month. These studies may show a need for further measures.

Finally, I wish to deal with enforcement. It is one thing to produce all these rules and regulations, and another to enforce them and, so far as is practicable, ensure that they are observed responsibly and achieve the desired effect at all times. My hon. Friend will be aware of the outcome of the recent ministerial European conference on maritime safety in Paris about which my right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State for Trade, now Secretary of State for Defence, wrote to him on, I think 8 December last year. The conference which was attended by 13 maritime nations, was actively concerned to adopt positive measures to ensure that safety conventions were not only brought into force as early as possible but also were effectively policed.

In that context the United Kingdom has already entered a positive commitment to increase inspections of foreign ships in our ports during this year. My Department's marine survey service carried out well over 2,000 ad hoc general inspections in 1980, of which more than half were on foreign ships. My hon. Friend will be glad to know that this also included two periods when efforts were directed specifically at tankers in our ports—some 200 ad hoc inspections of tankers were carried out at the Thames and Canvey Island terminals. There are very few marine authorities in the world that could lay claim to such an effort which, I must point out, is over and above the fundamental regular statutory survey programme which is itself being reinforced during this year with the introduction of comprehensive mandatory annual surveys.

I wish to say a little more about my Department's marine safety service. It is no exaggeration to say that the service sets itself a standard which has rightly won the respect of all those concerned with the safety of ships—not only in this country but also in the international maritime community. It cannot be coincidental that the United Kingdom's maritime standing and safety record is second to none, and in this context a very great deal is owed to the marine survey service. It has to be recognised, however, that there will never be unlimited resources available for tasks of this kind.

One further precaution affecting tanker safety—again, I think this will be of great interest to my hon. Friend—concerns the agreement reached in the Community on the so-called "tanker check list" directive. Broadly speaking, this introduces a harmonised regime whereby all but the smallest oil, gas and chemical tankers report in to Community ports before arrival, have available a check list giving details of various international safety certificates, and report deficiencies and incidents which may decrease the normal safe manoeuvrability of the vessel, affect the safety and easy flow of traffic or constitute a hazard to the marine environment and adjacent areas". We hope to lay the necessary implementing regulations in the near future.

My hon. Friend will know that vessels when in port are also liable to inspection by the Health and Safety Executive. Safety in ports is, of course, also a matter for the port authority, and it would be remiss of me if I omitted some reference to the excellent work of the Port of London Authority in this respect. Having direct responsibility for controlling navigation within the considerable area of the river is, of course, a major task for the PLA in its own right. The authority is absolutely committed to maintaining the highest standards of safety and navigational discipline and has in fact achieved remarkable success.

There are substantially in excess of 30,000 shipping movements per year in the Thames and the vast number arrive, load or unload and depart safely and without incident or endangering safety in any way.

I assure my hon. Friend that my noble Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Trade takes very seriously the points which he has raised. I repeat to my hon. Friend the undertaking which I gave to ensure that the matters raised by him tonight which relate to the responsibilities of other Departments, namely, the Department of Employment, the Department of Transport and the Home Office—as well as those within the responsibility of the PLA—will be brought immediately to their attention.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having, continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-three minutes to One o'clock.