HC Deb 22 October 1991 vol 196 cc797-802 3.31 pm
Mr. Martin O'Neill (Clackmannan) (by private notice)

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement about the determination on the MV Antares.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Kenneth Carlisle)

The sheriff principal of North Strathclyde published this morning his determination following the fatal accident inquiry that he conducted after the terrible accident on 22 November last year involving the fishing vessel Antares and the submarine HMS Trenchant, which was on a submarine commander's training course. We are now studying this very detailed determination.

The sheriff principal concludes that Antares sank as a direct result of HMS Trenchant snagging her fishing gear, and that this led to the tragic deaths of the four crew members of the Antares. This conclusion is similar to that of the Royal Navy's own board of inquiry. We have already expressed our very deep regret at this awful loss of life and I do so again. I understand what an irreplaceable loss this was to the families of the four men and indeed to the whole community of Carradale.

The sheriff principal concludes that the accident was caused by human error on board HMS Trenchant. The Royal Navy will consider whether disciplinary action is right once the Crown Office has decided whether to take any further action. The House will understand that I cannot comment further on this point.

We attach very high priority to the safety of fishing vessels in the vicinity of dived submarines and we recognise that fishermen are very anxious after the loss of the Antares. In the light of this tragic accident, we have already made a number of changes to training and procedures, showing our determination to ensure that submarine operations conducted in the Clyde are as safe as possible.

We are now giving urgent consideration to all the recommendations made in the sheriff principal's detailed report. His most urgent recommendation is that a 3,000 yd mandatory separation zone should be established around fishing vessels. I can tell the House that, in view of our wish to take every measure we can to improve the safety of shipping, we are with immediate effect increasing from 2,000 to 3,000 yd the distance by which dived submarines should be separated from vessels which are fishing—navigation and shipping constraints permitting. Instructions have already been sent out to this effect and will apply throughout United Kingdom waters. We shall consider the sheriff principal's other recommendations as quickly as we can.

I note that the sheriff principal commented that the need for submarines to train for their operational role is not in question. We must ensure that our submariners are properly trained to operate in coastal waters so that they can operate effectively in wartime. Those who serve in our submarines value good relations with the fishing community and share to the full our sense of grief at the loss in this tragic accident. We believe, however, that the needs of the Royal Navy and the interests of fishing communities can be accommodated, and we are determined to achieve this.

Mr. O'Neill

I thank the Minister for his statement. I join him in expressing the sympathy of the whole House for the bereaved families who, once again, have been brought face to face with the tragedy that confronted the community of Carradale.

Opposition Members recognise the importance of the training of submariners. They must live alongside fishermen who, with the greatest respect to the Royal Navy, have lived in the area a good deal longer than the Navy has. We recognise also that the timely response in extending the area from 2,000 to 3,000 yd will be welcomed and that it will assist in ensuring greater safety.

What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that the tactic, which is widely alleged by fishermen, of submariners using fishing craft as camouflage when they are diving does not happen again? In the light of the sheriff's statement and the statement of the Royal Navy board concerning the procedural and personal failings that took place, will he guarantee to take whatever disciplinary steps are felt appropriate by the Crown Office? Will the Minister take the necessary steps to ensure that the United States and Soviet navies, which also use those waters for whatever purposes, are made aware of the new regulations and of the need to ensure that the safety of our fishermen is just as important as the training of our submariners?

Mr. Carlisle

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. I am grateful also that he understands the importance of training. We recognise that we must do everything possible to give confidence to local fishing communities. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we do not use fishing boats for camouflage. One of the things that we have done since the accident is to get far better communications with the Clyde Fishermen's Association. It now has notification of our submarine movements. Our intention is to explore every avenue to improve those communications and relations.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that, if the decision of the Crown Office is not to take legal action, we will consider carefully what disciplinary action we have to take. We have to await the outcome of the Crown Office's consideration. I assure the hon. Gentleman that those measures will apply to all our submarines. We are determined that safety should be a priority in the Clyde area.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

My hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) is ill today; otherwise, she would deal with this matter, which involves the loss of life of some of her constituents. I add my condolences to those that have already been expressed.

The advance notice that I now understand is in place for the Clyde Fishermen's Association is welcome, together with the Minister's statement that the zone is to be extended to 3,000 yd. Given that, last week, he was able to announce a significant reduction in low flying, will he undertake to consider whether there is an opportunity significantly to reduce the number of training exercises which need to be done, particularly in areas where there is considerable fishing activity?

Although human error has been identified in this case, much concern has been expressed in the House and outside, even before the loss of the Antares, that such events were happening. Trawlers were having their nets snagged by diving submarines. Will the Minister examine whether human error has been at fault and whether, in part, that has been brought about by a system that leads to that human error—in fact, it is a system operated by the Ministry of Defence—rather than put the blame on one or two individuals?

Mr. Carlisle

The hon. Gentleman recognises that it is important to spread the training. One of the recommendations of the report is that we should look at relocating training to other coastal areas in the United Kingdom. We will obviously give that matter considerable thought.

In answer to the point about general safety and notification, we have sent a list of all our submarine movements to the fishermen. We talk to them carefully about what we are planning to do and shall see whether we can extend that practice even further.

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)

My hon. Friend will be aware that nothing that we say today can in any way reduce the pain and loss that the families concerned are experiencing or can bring back those men, so surely the important thing is to recognise that there are real lessons to be learned and that those lessons must be put into practice. The submariners and the fishermen recognise that they must live and work together in the same waters and, as the Clyde Fishermen's Association has clearly demonstrated, they ask simply for an arrangement that makes it safe for the fishermen to carry out their duties while the submarines are also safe, and allowed to do what they have to do if they are to be up to the job that is required of them in time of war.

Mr. Carlisle

My hon. Friend makes a good point. He might be interested to know that, in 1990, the Ministry of Defence started to produce a publication entitled "Fishing Vessel Avoidance: Flotilla Guidance" which is continually updated and seeks to instruct submariners about how to look out for fishing and other vessels. We shall continue to update it. As part of his training, each submariner now spends a day on a fishing vessel so that he can be fully up to date with fishing equipment and methods.

Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton)

The House should note that meaningful dialogue took place between the Clyde fishermen and the MOD only after that tragic accident. Given that the limit of 2,000 yd between submarines and fishing vessels was in force at the time of the accident, is the Minister aware that, after 2 am on 22 November, HMS Trenchant moved towards the fishing vessel, and that the fishing vessel had capsized before 2.18 am? Therefore, the accident happened despite that rule being in force.

What assurance, therefore, can the Minister give us now that the new procedures will stop what is commonly referred to in the Clyde as "snuggling up" by the submarines, so that their noises are obliterated by those of the fishing vessels? Does the Minister agree with the sheriff principal's report that submarine warfare training in the Clyde is incompatible with fishing activities?

Mr. Carlisle

Many of those matters were mentioned in the report. There is no question of submarines "snuggling up" to fishing vessels. There has always been a principle of separation and, as the hon. Gentleman knows, we have now extended that separation to 3,000 yd. That was a quick response to the report, which we were glad to make.

On the night of the incident, HMS Trenchant surfaced carefully and as quickly as she could. She spent two hours searching and then, having convinced herself of the position with all the details at her command, returned to her exercises. That matter is dealt with in the report. We must consider whether that was the right practice and how we can revise our operations should such an unfortunate occurrence happen again. Obviously, that matter is given detailed consideration in the report.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

Does the Minister accept that a policy that allows submarine exercises in fishing waters is inherently dangerous, and that whatever the catalogue of human errors that were immediately responsible for the tragedy, that policy cost the lives of four fishermen? Why does the Minister seek to misrepresent the views of the sheriff principal who, far from conceding operational reasons for exercises in fishing waters, said exactly the opposite—that no evidence was led to justify that? Furthermore, will the Minister now institute an instant ban on submarine activity in Scotland's fishing waters?

Mr. Carlisle

Aspersions like that do no service to the seriousness of this matter. We must address these matters with the utmost care. The basic principle is that our submariners are highly skilled, dedicated people, who ply a difficult operation with considerable courage. If they are to be effective in war, it is essential that they can practise in coastal areas. As I have said, we try to give as much warning as possible to fishing vessels and to give them information about all our movements. As I have said, however, the important principle is that such training is absolutely essential if we are to have an effective submarine force.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Bristol, East)

Is my hon. Friend aware how welcome it is to hear a Minister from the Ministry of Defence facing up to the responsibilities accepted by the MOD? As one who has been to sea in both conventional and nuclear vessels, I know how difficult it is, using even the most modern sonars, to note where nets are. Often those are large drift nets on fishing boats which are drifting. What is being done to investigate the use of sonar reflectors on such nets and other matters instituted by the MOD before the sheriff principal's report so that the possibility of such tragic accidents is reduced in future?

Mr. Carlisle

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. The House might be interested in two technical matters. First, the submarines have new VHF transceivers to improve the command and control arrangements. We are also making headway in the application of pingers to nets. We have drawn up technical specifications and distributed those to interested companies. We are now moving towards trials, details of which will be discussed with the Clyde Fishermen's Association. We hope to have a trial some time this winter.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

Will the Minister accept that the sheriff's main recommendation that the submarine exercises should be held in the vast areas of the sea in which fishing does not take place was suggested to the then Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger). more than two and a half years ago by some of my colleagues and myself? If it had been accepted then, the men crewing the Antares would be alive today.

Why can the hon. Gentleman not accept that recommendation now? In memory of the men who died on the Antares, will he call off the naval exercise scheduled for the Clyde next month, which is a replica of the exercise in which they died? Otherwise, it will be an insult to the memory of those brave men.

Mr. Carlisle

The sheriff principal fully accepted the need to train in coastal waters. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] He fully accepted that need. He knew that the Navy had to have that training. However, as I said, he has recommended that we should spread training more widely to other coastal areas, and we shall consider that carefully, together with our studies of the report.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I have to have regard to the subsequent business and this is an extension of Question Time. I shall take two more questions from each side of the House and then move on.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

Taking up a point made by Opposition Members, does my hon. Friend agree that much defence work is inherently dangerous, which is why so much scrupulous care is put into the training and operation of submarines? Does my hon. Friend also agree that the submarine service believes that it can be justifiably proud of its safety record but will welcome the extension of the safety zone, which should make safety still greater?

Mr. Carlisle

The Royal Navy was as distressed as anyone else by the tragic accident to the Antares. The Royal Navy is determined that it should operate and train safely. Therefore, as I have said, following the tragic accident, we have introduced a range of measures which should make and are making training safer and, following the inquiry, we shall extend those measures. I can assure my hon. Friend, who represents a naval community with great care, that the Royal Navy wants to get it right and wishes to ensure that, in its vital training, an accident of this nature does not happen again.

Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunriinghame, North)

Will the Minister accept the deep sense of hurt that there will be that again a Minister has come to the Dispatch Box who does not have a background in this incident and who has repeated many of the mistakes which were made by the then Ministers at the Dispatch Box in the days after the Antares incident?

Does the Minister realise that people in fishing communities around the country are certain that, if a blind bit of notice had been taken of the many similar incidents reported to the Ministry of Defence over the years, and if the Ministry had reacted sensitively and sensibly to those reports instead of arrogantly ignoring all the points put to it, the tragedy could not have happened?

In the light of that truly horrific background of neglect when matters had been brought to the Government's attention, do the Secretary of State and the Minister not agree that it is now incumbent upon the Ministry of Defence to show some humility and to accept in full and without delay Sheriff Principal Hay's recommendations on the Clyde and to extend exactly the same principle to other coastal waters around Britain?

Mr. Carlisle

The hon. Gentleman has not been listening. I stated categorically the measures that we have taken since the tragic accident, and they are not insignificant. I have also announced an extension of the separation distance from 2,000 to 3,000 yd. We have had the report for only a day or two, and because of safety considerations, our action has been speedy. I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says.

In addition, I have said that we shall study the report in great depth and introduce any further necessary measures.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

My hon. Friend will know that there is a great deal of naval activity around my constituency, which emanates from the submarines which exercise from Portland. There is also a large fishing fleet. I hope that the Ministry will in no way look for scapegoats among the crew of the nuclear submarine. I had the privilege of seeing some of those very personnel in action, and I can vouch for their professionalism.

Perhaps we should devote the absolute maximum effort, as we did in the Gulf war, to finding a suitable way for submarines to detect nets, because there will always be problems where fisherman and submarines are together. Portland has a wonderful Admiralty research establishment, and I am sure that, if it were given the task of tackling that problem, it would do so with vigour.

Mr. Carlisle

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his tribute to the dedication of submariners. On the wider national scene, we consult the fishing industry safety committee, which has a national interest in this matter. We are also willing to talk to any other fishing association on our coasts. We want training to be as safe as possible. We value good relationships with fishing organisations and wish to ensure that both naval training and fishing can live in harmony.

Mr. Calum Macdonald (Western Isles)

The Minister mentioned notification agreements. While the ideal solution is completely to separate submarine activity from fishing activity, would the Minister consider extending the existing notification arrangements beyond the Clyde area and the areas that are now covered to include all the fishing waters off the west coast? That should now be a matter of urgency.

Mr. Carlisle

Obviously, we will be happy to look at that matter and at any other issues that the hon. Gentleman, with his interest in this area, wishes to send to my Department.