HC Deb 22 April 1991 vol 189 cc755-6
3. Dr. Godman

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport how many United Kingdom registered fishing vessels have been lost in each of the past four years; and what was the number of fishermen drowned in such vessel losses.

The Minister for Shipping (Mr. Patrick McLoughlin)

Figures for 1990 are not yet available. For the years 1986 to 1989 inclusive, the numbers of United Kingdom fishing vessels lost were 19, 14, 22 and 22. The numbers of related deaths of fishermen were 11, four, 18 and 16.

Dr. Godman

Since I tabled the question, the Portsmouth trawler Wilhelmina has been lost, with its six-man crew, as the Minister will know. He and his officials need to do far more to enhance the safety of fishermen. When will he acknowledge the need for the provision of immersion suits on every fishing vessel over 10 m long? The carriage of such suits would save the lives of some fishermen. When will the Minister come to terms with that need?

Mr. McLoughlin

The hon. Gentleman will know that an investigation is continuing into the Wilhelmina. It is always sad and unfortunate to have to record the loss of a fishing vessel. Over the past 20 years, the number of losses each year has not changed very much, although in each case it is a particular tragedy. I will look at the question of immersion suits.

Mr. David Martin

My hon. Friend will recall that I raised with him last week the loss of the Wilhelmina J, a Portsmouth vessel, over Easter. There was a memorial service last week in Portsmouth, where the incident was taken very seriously. We all have sympathy for the relatives of the six people who lost their lives on board that vessel. My hon. Friend has assured me that an inquiry is proceeding as fast as it can and I do not wish to anticipate its findings. Can my hon. Friend confirm that the Zulfikar, the Cypriot ship involved, was stopped off Lisbon, earlier than it was at first thought possible to do as it sailed to Egypt, and that evidence will be gathered as soon as possible? Perhaps the lessons that can be learnt are——

Mr. Speaker

Order. Let us have not the lessons now, but the question to the Minister, please.

Mr. Martin

Perhaps the lessons once the inquiry has reported could be that technological devices can be improved. Should not the application of radar transponder devices and collision avoidance for smaller vessels also be covered by legislation?

Mr. McLoughlin

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. The whole House shares in the sympathy for those involved in the tragic accident of the Wilhelmina. It is always tragic when fishing vessels go down because they are usually from small communities and the effect on such communities is substantial.

I confirm that the inquiry is taking place and that the inspectors have already interviewed the master of the ship involved. The application of transponders will be brought to the attention of the inspector and he will probably address it when he makes his recommendation. I hope that we shall have an interim report in the next few days. When we shall be able to publish any of it remains to be seen.

Mrs. Ray Michie

The Minister will recall the sinking of the fishing vessel Antares, which sailed from Carradale in my constituency, in which four of the crew were lost. Does he agree that in view of the special circumstances and evidence surrounding that tragedy, the Ministry of Defence should take responsibility for funding representation for the families at the forthcoming fatal accident inquiry? If the Ministry of Defence continues to refuse to do so, will the Department of Transport consider helping those families, who have suffered a great deal already?

Mr. McLoughlin

The inquiry into the loss of the Antares is in progress. The points that the hon. Lady makes are first and foremost for the Ministry of Defence, but I shall bear in mind her comments and consider possible solutions.

Ms. Walley

Does the Minister agree that we need a complete overhaul of safety in all aspects of shipping? In respect of the incident about which we have just heard, does he agree that the failure of the Department of Transport and the Ministry of Defence to get together and resolve the matter is matched by the failure to approve and test the specification for the pinger devices which could do so much to improve safety when submarines are around? Was not that research interrupted because of the Gulf war and when will the Minister reach agreement with the Ministry of Defence so that our fishermen can fish in safety?

Mr. McLoughlin

I am fed up with the Opposition attempting to make party political points on what is a serious matter. If we are to start making party political points—I have tried to avoid doing so—we can look back and see that total losses were 37 in 1975, 35 in 1976, 37 in 1977, 38 in 1978 and 42 in 1979. Those were far greater losses than take place now. How dare the Opposition make cheap party political points?