HC Deb 25 November 1986 vol 106 cc142-8 3.43 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Michael Spicer)

My Department was advised of reports of structural damage to the Hong Kong registered vessel Kowloon Bridge late on Tuesday 18 November. In view of the possible connection with the loss in 1980 of the sister ship Derbyshire, the Department agreed with the Hong Kong authorities that the Department's inspectors should investigate the damage to the Kowloon Bridge and conduct an inquiry on their behalf.

An inspector was immediately appointed to conduct a full investigation into the damage and report to the Department. He boarded the vessel at some personal risk on 20 November in Bantry bay, where she had put in for repairs. Although the inspector's report has not yet been finalised, early indications are that the damage to Kowloon Bridge was entirely consistent with the very severe weather conditions encountered during the voyage across the Atlantic.

Late on 22 November, the Kowloon Bridge broke away from her anchor. The master decided to put out to sea. She then suffered a loss of steering and a Mayday call was put out. The House will wish to acknowledge the skill and bravery with which the crew were taken off by RAF Sea King helicopters with no loss of life. The vessel eventually drifted on to rocks near Baltimore after drifting for 24 hours in severe weather conditions. She has since broken her back between No. 2 and 3 holds.

Inspectors from my Department have also been appointed to investigate on behalf of the Hong Kong Administration the vessel breaking free from her anchor, the loss of steering and the subsequent grounding. The inspectors will complete their work and submit reports on the two investigations as soon as possible. These reports will be published. When I have received them, I will consider what action needs to be taken and whether they indicate any link with the loss of the Derbyshire in 1980, which might be cause for appointing a formal investigation into the loss of that ship.

Mr. Roger Stott (Wigan)

I thank the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for responding to my request yesterday to make a statement to the House on the circumstances surrounding the sinking of the Kowloon Bridge. May I on behalf of the Opposition join him in congratulating the Royal Air Force rescue crew, who showed considerable valour in rescuing the crew of the Kowloon Bridge in extremely dangerous and hazardous conditions? That should be placed firmly on the record.

The Kowloon Bridge, formerly the English Bridge, is one of six ships built by Swan Hunter in the early 1970s. In 1980, one of those ships, the merchant vessel Derbyshire, was carrying iron ore from Canada to Japan when it sank without trace in the South China sea with a loss of 44 British seafarers' lives. In 1982, another sister ship, the Tyne Bridge, suffered severe structural damage in the North sea in the region of frame 65. Her crew had to be helicoptered to safety. That was yet another performance by the rescue services in hazardous conditions. An inquiry by Lloyd's Register of Shipping discovered that the ship had not been built according to the designers' plans and, accordingly, all other ships in that class were substantially modified under the supervision of Lloyd's Register.

Since 1980, the families who lost their loved ones aboard the Derbyshire and the seafaring unions have been fighting a campaign to persuade the Department to hold a formal inquiry into the tragedy because they feel that the incidents that have happened to her sister ships are not unconnected.

The Department has had two internal inquiries into the loss of the Derbyshire and has decided that no formal inquiry is necessary. That view was conveyed to me by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State last Tuesday morning in a letter. Within half an hour of receiving that letter telling me that there was to be no formal inquiry, I was informed that her sister ship, the Kowloon Bridge, similarly en route from Canada and, similarly, carrying a cargo of iron ore, had put into Bantry bay in Ireland suffering from structural cracks in the region of frame 65—yet another ship of the same class suffering from similar structural defects.

In his statement the Minister outlined what happened to the Kowloon Bridge thereafter and we shall await the inspectors' report with interest. Can he confirm that when the surveyor examined the ship in Bantry bay he instructed the ship's captain that it would be unsafe to proceed? Can he assure the House that the surveyor's report of structural damage before the ship broke free from her anchor will be made available to the House and will be considered and compared with the structural faults that occurred in the Tyne Bridge? Will the remaining ships in the class be inspected as a result of the inspectors' finding cracks in the Kowloon Bridge?

In his letter to me of 18 November the Minister made it clear that a report on the Derbyshire had been published in 1981. Neither the seafaring unions nor I have had sight of that report. Will he make it available to them and to me?

Surely it is now time that the Department of Transport acknowledged the depth of concern felt by hon. Members on both sides of the House whose constituents lost their lives when the Derbyshire sank, as well as the concern and anguish felt by the families of those 44 people. In the light of the evidence from the Tyne Bridge and Kowloon Bridge, should not this matter now be laid finally to rest, and that can be done only if the Secretary of State for Transport agrees to a formal inquiry into the loss of the Derbyshire?

Mr. Spicer

I thank the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott) for his opening remarks. I know that he is extremely knowledgeable about the subject and that he has taken a great deal of interest in it over a number of months.

The hon. Gentleman asked a number of questions, perhaps the most fundamental of which was why there had not been a formal inquiry and whether there needs to be one now. There are two reasons why there has not been an inquiry to date. First, with regard to the Derbyshire, and as the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, there is no evidence to go on. It sank without trace, and that has bedevilled the investigations. I think that is common ground on both sides of the House. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there has, however, been a very detailed investigation indeed into the possible connections between the three sister ships that experienced problems in the early 1980s and the sinking of the Derbyshire. The lengthy report was published in March this year and is freely available to hon. Members and the public. It was by no means a whitewash, nor was it bland. For example, the final paragraph states: The fact that no distress signals were received might be thought to support the explanation that massive structural failure was the cause of the loss of 'Derbyshire'. There is no mincing of words. The issue is whether there is anything more to find out. That is the only question. These formal investigations are elaborate procedures and are expensive, not only in terms of the public purse but for those who make representations. Therefore, there must be good reason to hold one, and the Government's position is that if any new evidence emerges from the Kowloon Bridge incident, and if there is good reason, they will seriously consider—given that there is something new to look at—the case for a formal investigation.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the advice that was given to the captain before the ship sailed. I must be careful because I cannot prejudge. Two investigations are going on at present, one into the damage itself as the ship arrived at Bantry bay, and the second into the events thereafter. I must not prejudge and, therefore, cannot go much further than what I said in my statement, except to say that effectively it was the master's decision to take the ship to sea. I must not further prejudge the investigations, which will certainly have to concentrate on the issue that the hon. Gentleman has raised.

I can categorically say that the reports of the two investigations now taking place will be made available.

The safety and condition of the remaining ships in the class are very important. They are formally certified as safe and comply with international standards. Those investigations have been undertaken by the appropriate authorities. If any matters arise out of the investigations into the Kowloon Bridge which affect those ships, I should have thought that the certification authorities would be bound to take them into account.

I shall immediately look into the availability of the report published in 1981 and make sure that the hon. Gentleman is sent a copy.

Sir David Price (Eastleigh)

Is my hon. Friend aware that, in spite of all that he has said, there is no reason not to have a formal inquiry into the Derbyshire affair? Like many other hon. Members who have constituents whose relatives went down in the Derbyshire, I have files of circumstantial evidence, and all the evidence that is available about the loss of the Kowloon Bridge supports that circumstantial evidence.

My hon. Friend spoke about rough weather, but my information is that it was force 8 rising force 9, which is nothing to compare with typhoon force 11 rising force 12, in which the Derbyshire went down. Let us have a formal inquiry for the sake of the people and families concerned. This is not a narrow lawyer's point. On the lawyer's point, my hon. Friend is aware that the people can be found guilty of murder, even when there is no body.

Mr. Spicer

On the specific point about the potential connection between the Kowloon Bridge and the Derbyshire, the first signs are that the weather conditions were very tough. There had been 10 days at storm force 10 or 11 in the Atlantic, which is tough by any standard, and another ship was even more severely damaged in crossing from Canada. There was 40 ft of water on the boat deck and the aft was completely submerged and the ship had taken a tremendous pounding. It was not until 24 hours later that the ship began to break up. It did not break up in the area of frame 65, the area on which most interest has been concentrated in the Derbyshire case, because of the other ships that had had that problem. I repeat that if there were any further evidence from the affair we should look closely at holding a formal investigation.

Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)

Is the Minister aware that many people from Merseyside, some from my constituency and some from others who lost their lives, and some of us have been arguing for a long time that it should be taken as a priority that the families of those people should be given compensation? The responsibility for this is on those who built the ship with a bad design, and the Government could have taken the action before.

There should have been a formal inquiry before, but at least let us have one now. Will the Government assure us that this will take place immediately so that my constituents and others on Merseyside will get a square deal, after losing their husbands or sons? It is scandalous that the Government have done nothing about this since 1980.

Mr. Spicer

That last point is not true. The Government made a massive inquiry, the report of which has been published. It has been made clear to British Shipbuilders that compensation contingencies must be in the accounts should any compensation be required. Compensation, and who is responsible for paying it, has not been at issue. The issues are whether more information is required and whether a formal inquiry would produce more information on the basis of which claims can be made. Already, on the basis of the Government's published report, writs have been served with a view to compensation. We have made it clear that compensation arrangements would be made. The only issue in dispute is whether a formal inquiry will generate new information. If there are any signs that that would be the case, particularly in the case of the Kowloon Bridge, the Government stand ready to consider that.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

This is clearly not a partisan matter and all that we wish is to urge my hon. Friend the Minister to hold a full inquiry. The evidence in the report has been challenged professionally on dozens of points—for instance, the statement that the Kowloon Bridge, formerly the English Bridge, broke up purely because of heavy weather damage. The captain said of the damage that it was between the No. 9 hold and the pump room, which is the same place as on the other vessels—for example, the Tyne Bridge in 1982.

Some important questions were not addressed in 1982. For example, why did the shipbuilder deviate from the original design drawings for the six ships? Who authorised that deviation, and did the designer know? Until those questions are answered, there will be the suspicion of a cover-up. However uncomfortable it may be for ship owners, shipbuilders, Lloyd's and the other people involved, we must press for a public inquiry with full speed, because ships with the same faults are still afloat.

Mr. Spicer

I do not want to prejudge the results of the two inquiries. We shall publish the reports of those inquiries, the first one very soon. The first indications are, as I have already mentioned, that it is not hold 9 but holds 2 and 3 that are involved. I shall not trouble the House with the quotation, but today there is a lengthy article in Lloyd's List which confirms that the early signs are that the damage is consistent with storm damage. If there is any new evidence, we shall consider it. In no way are the Government prejudging the outcome of the inquiy, and we shall consider carefully what my hon. Friend has said.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

Does the Minister accept that many people would consider that the sudden loss of a vessel of the Derbyshire's tonnage would, for that reason alone, merit an immediate inquiry? It is unfair to the relatives of those who were lost in the disaster that nothing has been done in the meantime. Does not the Minister agree that after the accident to the Kowloon Bridge it is imperative that the matter should be investigated without delay?

Mr. Spicer

It will certainly be investigated. There is no dispute about an investigation. The only dispute relates to the narrow point concerning a formal inquiry. If there is any evidence about new facets, or if there is anything that might connect this disaster with the Derbyshire disaster, we shall seriously consider whether a formal inquiry ought to be held.

Sir Ian Lloyd (Havant)

Does my hon. Friend know whether the iron ore that was loaded on to the Kowloon Bridge in Canada was in a dry or a wet condition? If wet, may I draw to his attention the very serious representations that have been made to me by a constituent of mine who is an expert in ship loading, all of which had been passed on to him, in which he offered very serious criticisms of the international regulations that apply to the loading of wet ore?

Mr. Spicer

I shall certainly look into that matter. I do not have an immediate answer, but I shall write to my hon. Friend.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

Is the Minister aware that 17 of the 44 seamen who were lost when the Derbyshire sank six years ago were from Merseyside and that there is continuing worry, frustration and anger among the bereaved families on Merseyside? I hope that the Minister will take that into account when deciding whether to reopen the inquiry into the sinking of the Derbyshire. Will he also say whether the report in yesterday's edition of the Financial Times—that Swan Hunter said yesterday that it had no record of the construction of the Kowloon Bridge because of the intervening nationalisation—is true? Will he also say what discussions have taken place with the Irish Government about the pollution of the coastline from the spillage of oil from the Kowloon Bridge?

Mr. Spicer

On the hon. Gentleman's second point, this information was passed to the new owners. The records are with British Shipbuilders. There is no question of there being no records. I listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said on behalf of his constituents, just as I listened carefully to what was said by hon. Members on both sides of the House about their constituents. I repeat that if there is any new evidence, or if there is any sign that there is any connection, or any potential connection, between the two, we shall seriously consider holding a formal inquiry.

Mr. Richard Ottaway (Nottingham, North)

Will my hon. Friend accept that he is right not to rush into an inquiry into the loss of this vessel? It is not unusual for vessels to break up in heavy weather. I have in mind the Neptune Sapphire and the Castletown which broke up in the 1970s. They were of a completely different design from the Swan Hunter design that is in question.

Mr. Spicer

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but I maintain that the Government are open minded about this matter. There is no Government prejudice.

Mr. A. E. P. Duffy (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

As the Minister has repeatedly reminded us, we must not prejudge the matter. However, will the inquiry bear in mind that the master took the ship from a sheltered haven into violent seas, presumably against advice, presumably when a replacement cable could have been made available and presumably without the repairs having been carried out? One question that obviously arises is whether masters may now be under too much pressure to deliver on time. Incidentally, a further question which must be in the minds of most hon. Members, certainly those with maritime interests, is why a ship was abandoned rudderless, with the engines still running. What discussions will be held with the Irish Government about the ecological disaster that now threatens the coastline of County Cork?

Mr. Spicer

As to the events that led up to the taking of the ship out to sea, there will be two sets of inquiries. One inquiry will be concerned with the initial damage to the vessel. The other will be concerned with the incidents and events leading up to the vessel becoming a casualty—that is, being taken out to sea and thereafter breaking up. The results of those two separate inquiries will be published, the first very soon.

I am advised that there is very little likelihood of the United Kingdom coastline being polluted. As for the potential pollution of the Irish coastline, that is a matter for the Irish authorities. No doubt we shall be discussing the matter with them.

Mr. Ted Garrett (Wallsend)

There is no more interest in this sad and tragic series of events than there is in the north-east. I am pleased that the Minister has made this statement today. If my memory is correct, on a cold, wet and damp autumn day I saw one of those ships launched in the river Tees in virtually a gale force wind. Will the Minister seek to assure as many people as possible, especially influential people in the shipbuilding industry, that the present management, design teams and work force of Swan Hunter are in no way linked with the design teams of the previous period? Every step must be taken to keep to the fore in the hard commercial world the name of Swan Hunter as a good shipbuilding company that has good design teams. Those who watch the Sir Galahad go down the slipway on Saturday 13 December—I hope that the Minister will be invited—will see what craftsmanship is. Despite all that has been said, I fear that the loss of the Derbyshire may go down in history as just as a great mystery as the loss of the Marie Celeste.

Mr. Spicer

I completely support the hon. Gentleman's general proposition about the quality of Swan Hunter and the superb workmanship that it produces. However, I must not go into too much detail, for fear of prejudicing the results of the inquiries and the legal action that might be taken. I cannot go into too much detail about linkages, but I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman's general point.