HC Deb 22 February 1996 vol 272 cc493-508 3.30 pm
The Secretary of State for Transport (Sir George Young)

On Monday, I made a statement to the House on the Sea Empress. In it, I referred to the difficulties of such operations and said that the resolution of the incident would take time. I stressed that the weather would remain the crucial factor in determining progress. I am now informing the House of the steps that have been taken since Monday and the further steps that the Government propose to take thoroughly to assess the incident and its consequences, and to establish what lessons should be learned and what further action needs to be taken.

Since my earlier statement, the elements have posed considerable dangers and difficulties for the salvors engaged by the ship's owners. Difficulties with wind and tide have led to the ship regrounding on a number of occasions and to the loss of additional and significant amounts of oil. Despite those difficulties, immense efforts have been made by the salvors to try to stabilise the ship to prevent further loss of oil and to remove the oil still on board.

Where oil has escaped, my Department's marine pollution control unit's aircraft have sprayed it with dispersants. At the same time, between 150 and 160 people, organised by the MCPU and supervised by qualified beachmasters, have been working to clean up oil that has been washed ashore. There has been no shortage of manpower or resources: all the equipment that could physically be brought on to the beaches has been made available. The local and harbour authorities and voluntary bodies have also been working hard to protect the environment.

As the House knows, the ship was successfully refloated last night and towed to a jetty in Milford Haven, where it is now protected by a boom. There was some further escape of oil from the vessel during those operations. It is proposed to unload the vessel into smaller tankers that would be brought aside. That operation needs to be carefully planned and prepared, and is likely to take some days. Every effort will be made to prevent any further discharges from the ship.

We are not yet in a position to confirm precisely the amount of the ship's cargo that remains on board. Indications are that up to half the cargo, some 65,000 tonnes, has been spilt. Of this light crude, around a quarter will have evaporated. However, there is considerable pollution at sea and on parts of the coastline. Much of the pollution at sea is in the form of sheens, but there are also patches of thicker oil. When it is appropriate to do so, those thicker patches are being sprayed with dispersants by aircraft.

Three oil recovery vessels are also currently operating at sea, and two further oil recovery vessels are proceeding to the area. Oil recovery operations are also continuing within Milford Haven.

There is pollution on parts of the coastline. The clean-up techniques used will vary between sites, and are decided in full consultation with environmental experts and interests, under the overall control of a joint response centre established by the MPCU and the harbour and local authorities in Milford Haven. The clean-up operations are being undertaken by local authority and oil company personnel and by specialist contractors.

Every assistance is being given to the voluntary organisations that are dealing with oiled sea birds. I pay tribute to those organisations for all the valuable work that they are doing.

The House will want to know what the Government will do to find out, first, the causes of the accident, secondly, the lessons that can be learned from the way in which the salvage operation was conducted, and, finally, the extent of environmental damage and the effectiveness of the response and clean-up operations.

First, as I told the House on Monday, the marine accident investigation branch has already initiated an inquiry into the causes of the grounding of the Sea Empress. MAIB inspectors have been on the scene since Friday, and have made good progress. The chief inspector of marine accidents will provide me with a full report, which will be published. I am sure that the MAIB is the right body to do that. That is the purpose for which it was set up under an Act of Parliament.

We need a thorough professional examination of what went wrong, so that we can learn whatever lessons there are to learn for the design, operation, management and pilotage of tankers. MAIB, like the parallel body for the investigation of air accidents, the air accident investigation branch, has the highest reputation for professionalism and integrity. I assure the House that, in this case, as in others, its investigation and its report will be independent.

Secondly, I shall explain the conduct of the salvage operation. Salvage operations can only be undertaken by skilled, experienced professionals, and the consortium engaged by the ship's owners includes one of the world's leading salvage firms. The responsibility for the conduct of the salvage operation rests with the salvors. Although their proposals have to be considered and agreed both by the port authority and by the marine pollution control unit, responsibility for their initiation and execution rests with them. The salvors had to determine the resources needed and to ensure that they were to hand.

I reiterate my unstinting admiration—which I am sure the whole House shares—for the tireless work that the teams of salvors, together with members of the emergency services, military and civilian helicopter crews, the ship's crew, Admiralty salvage experts, members of the MPCU and all those involved, have put into the salvage operation since the accident, often in diabolical conditions of danger, gales, freezing temperatures and acute physical discomfort. It is all too easy to criticise their efforts from the comfort of the armchair, the studio or the news room.

None the less, for all their herculean efforts, the vessel remained stranded for five days, and about 65,000 tonnes of oil has been spilt. I know that the House shares my disappointment and frustration at the repeated failures of the earlier salvage attempts, and my deep concern at the environmental consequences. We must find out why that happened, and whether anything more might be done to make a future salvage operation more likely to succeed.

To that end, I have asked the chief inspector of marine accidents to extend the scope of the current investigation to include the salvage operations. That will include consideration of the planning and execution of the operation, and examination of the contingency plans that were made and of the input and supervision of the operation by the shipowner, his insurers, the harbour authority and the marine pollution control unit. The chief inspector has told me that he is appointing independent consultants to help with that part of his inquiry. I look to all those involved to co-operate fully with that aspect of the investigation. I shall publish the chief inspector's report.

Thirdly, it is also essential that we undertake rigorous scientific assessments of the damage that has been caused on land and at sea, and of the effectiveness of the clean-up operations. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales announced yesterday that up to £250,000 is being made available for a comprehensive environmental assessment and a long-term monitoring programme in the area affected by the spill. That work will start immediately, and will be undertaken by the Countryside Council for Wales, acting in partnership with other statutory agencies and voluntary environmental groups.

It is intended to assess the impact of the spillage on both coastal and marine habitats. It is also intended to assess the effect of dispersing the oil, both naturally and by chemicals, on the concentrations of flora and fauna, including sea birds, sea ducks and marine mammals. This will include a full assessment of the damage done to the Skomer marine nature reserve and Milford Haven waterway.

The levels of oil pollution in the sea water and coastal sediments will be measured, and changes monitored, as will the long-term recovery of the biological systems in general. The immediate need is to minimise, to the extent that is possible, the environmental effects of the spill. However, we must not lose sight of the need to learn for the future.

This assessment by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales will be complemented by work to be done by MAFF, which is arranging for diversion of the research vessel Corystes from its current research work to a new mission of fishing and environmental monitoring. The Corystes will be collecting samples of fish and shellfish for analysis of residues of oil. This will supplement the present and on-going programmes of monitoring and will enable us to determine what restrictions are necessary, and to say when fishing can safely resume. In the meantime, the voluntary action ensures that fish on the market remain safe to eat.

I also wish to express our appreciation of the work of those involved in the clean-up operation, who are often working in exposed or unpleasant conditions. None the less, we will also need to assess the pollution response and clean-up operations. At this moment, it is impossible to estimate how extensive these operations are likely to be.

Operations at sea are the responsibility of the marine pollution control unit, while operations on shore fall primarily to the local authorities, assisted by the MPCU and, in this case, by the oil industry. In consultation with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales, I propose to appoint an independent assessor to undertake a rigorous examination of the response, the clean-up procedures and the techniques employed following the Sea Empress incident.

As the report of the ecological steering group established after the Braer recommended, it is essential that these examinations of the environmental impact and of the clean-up operations are brought together and published in a form that will provide clear guidance for the future. This will be done. We believe that the measures necessary to reduce the risk of pollution were clearly set out in Lord Donaldson's report "Safer Ships, Cleaner Seas".

When we have completed the investigation and the assessments that I have referred to in this statement, we will be in a position to assess the lessons on this particular spill and set them in the context of Lord Donaldson's findings and recommendations, the vast majority of which we have accepted. The Government are determined to find out exactly what happened, to publish the results, and to learn and apply the lessons. The House would expect no less.

Ms Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood)

I join the Government in paying tribute to the bravery of the people involved in the salvage operation. Whatever mistakes may have been made, hon. Members will wish to know that the coastguards praised the amazing bravery of the salvors, and said that the Dutch in particular had risked life and limb to save the Sea Empress and to prevent a disaster. I am sure that we all wish to send a message of thanks to all concerned.

I appeal to the Government to reconsider their decision and to accept that an inquiry by the Department of Transport's marine accident investigation branch is not an adequate response to this disaster. One of the questions that has to be asked is: did Ministers fail to implement the Donaldson report recommendations to ensure that adequate tugs were available? Surely the Secretary of State for Transport can see that it is not credible that a unit of his Department could properly investigate the possible failings of its Ministers.

I also put it to the Secretary of State that the second question is, did Ministers fail to use their powers to ensure the salvage operation was properly conducted? It now seems clear that large numbers of extra tugs were offered and refused by the salvage company employed by the shipowners, on a no win, no fee basis.

The Daily Telegraph tells us: the disaster has exposed how little control the Government has over salvage. It quotes the Department of Transport as saying that salvage was essentially the responsibility of the firm contracted by the ship's owner. Is that true? Did Ministers have powers to intervene and to take decisions on the calling of other tugs? Did Ministers fail to use their powers, and thus are they partly responsible for the disaster? The Secretary of State must realise that a unit of his own Department cannot answer those questions properly.

I press the Secretary of State to think again, and to recall Lord Donaldson. Clearly, his expertise is such that a speedy, independent investigation is possible. Does the Secretary of State agree that we must find out the truth and learn the lessons? Can the Secretary of State see that his refusal to recall Lord Donaldson will leave many people thinking that the Government have something to hide?

I also press the Secretary of State to make urgent arrangements—I am surprised that it was not announced in his statement—to ensure that all local people who have suffered damage and threats to their livelihoods will be provided with full advice and proper compensation.

Lastly, I put it to the Secretary of State that the continuing decline of British shipping and the British fleet as a result of cost-cutting is part of the explanation of the disaster. Today's edition of The Independent refers to the ship as being Built in Spain; owned by a Norwegian; registered in Cyprus; managed from Glasgow; chartered by the French; crewed by Russians … carrying an American cargo. I might add that its rescue was attempted by a Chinese tug, with a local Chinese chef interpreting. Does the Secretary of State agree that such a splintering of responsibility is bound to lead to problems?

I repeat my request to the Secretary of State to establish a high-level working party, chair it himself, and take action to restore the British fleet and the better standards of seafaring that we clearly need.

Sir George Young

I welcome what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms Short) said at the beginning, when she uttered some kind words about those who were involved in the exercise. I hope that she had time to read today's edition of The Independent, which contains a perceptive article by a member of the Donaldson inquiry. He writes: The immediate issue is too important to be turned into a tug-of-war between political parties. In my view, the salvors pursued the only course they could. I turn now to the details of the specific questions posed by the hon. Lady. I do not agree with what she said about the inquiries that I have established. The unit to which I referred is not part of my Department. It reports directly to the Secretary of State; it does not go through my Department—nor has it shrunk from criticising my Department in the past when it has seen fit so to do. It is impartial and independent.

As to the hon. Lady's questions about the refusal of tugs and other resources that were offered to the salvage company, that will be covered by the inquiry to which I referred in my opening remarks. Yes, it is the case that Ministers have powers to intervene, but I hope that the hon. Lady will reflect on whether Ministers have the resources, the experience and the skills necessary to second-guess a firm of professional salvors who have all the skills to deal with crises of that kind.

I turn to the hon. Lady's comments about Donaldson. Lord Donaldson did not institute an inquiry into the Braer incident. He provided a thorough, comprehensive and wise review on the general subject of the prevention of pollution and how to make merchant shipping safer. I have that report: the Government have accepted 86 of its 103 recommendations, and we are considering a further 13.

In this case, we have done exactly what we did with the Braer: we appointed an inquiry under the marine accident investigation branch to report on what occurred. We can then test the results of that inquiry and of the inquiry into the salvage operation against the basic parameters set out by Lord Donaldson, which the Government accept. At this stage, there is no case for reopening Lord Donaldson's comprehensive work, most of which is accepted by both sides of the House.

I repeat that the Government have launched an independent inquiry into the three aspects that most concern the House: why the accident happened, how the salvage operation was conducted, and how the clean-up operations were then implemented. I think that that is the appropriate approach for Government, and that we shall learn the lessons that must be learned.

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

As president of the sea safety group and sponsor of the Merchant Shipping (Salvage and Pollution) Act 1994, I consider that my right hon. Friend has done the right thing in setting up detailed and wide-ranging inquiries. Will he make sure that those inquiries cover a number of issues?

First, will the inquiries examine the use of language and the inability of some seafarers to understand English—in particular, the recommendation that the International Maritime Organisation should consider making English the recognised language of the sea? Secondly, will he look again at the stationing of tugs, which is undoubtedly a key issue, and the way in which salvage operations are conducted? Although I agree that it is wrong and ridiculous for Ministers to be countermanding people at sea, nevertheless there is a need to examine carefully the mechanism of mounting salvage operations.

Sir George Young

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend has said. In regard to communication, shipping is an international industry, but if serious communication problems occurred in the salvage operation, they would be a matter for the inspector. As for the stationing of tugs, the Belton report—one of the follow-up reports of the Donaldson inquiry—will be published shortly. It confirmed Lord Donaldson's initial findings about the two priorities for locating the tugs. It did not identify west or north Wales as primary or secondary areas.

I should have responded to the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms Short) on compensation. People will be entitled to compensation for financial loss, and I shall ensure that they have access to the necessary information to enable them to pursue that.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Surely the remit for the inquiries announced this afternoon is too narrow. For example, I understand from reports today that the oil slick could threaten Lundy and the west country coast, making the environmental implications even greater.

Let me take the Secretary of State back to the final sentence of his statement, when he said: The Government are determined to find out exactly what happened, to publish the results and to learn and apply the lessons. Surely there is a much more basic question: why did the accident happen, and could it have been prevented? In that respect, will the Secretary of State examine the role of the coastguard?

As the right hon. Gentleman will know from the debate that I initiated last week, there are real concerns about the manning of the coastguard service. I understand that, when the tanker went aground last Thursday night, the coastguard marine rescue centre responsible for the Milford Haven approaches was undermanned. There was one senior watch officer on duty and one regular, when there should have been at least three on watch. The officer monitoring channel 16 VHF had to listen to that frequency and to landlines for a 12-hour stretch instead of a maximum of two hours.

Will the Secretary of State undertake swiftly—without waiting for the inquiries—to look into whether the coastguards' role in the incident was affected by undermanning?

Sir George Young

I made it clear on Monday, and I do so again today, that efficiency gains in the two marine agencies and the MAIB have not and will not be made at the expense of safety. Safety is and will remain paramount, as has been made clear to the chief executive of the Coastguard Agency and the other agencies. In answer to the hon. Gentleman's first question, of course we shall look at the environmental impacts, wherever they occur. If pollution spreads to the area that he mentioned, the assessment to which I referred in my statement will examine the impact on that area as well.

Mr. Nick Ainger (Pembroke)

I, too, would like to place on record my appreciation for all the work that has been done by the crews of tugs and the clean-up crews on the beaches, sometimes in appalling conditions. However, the Secretary of State's statement was quite appallingly complacent. My constituency faces an environmental and economic disaster. The tourist industry has already received massive cancellations, in my view totally unnecessarily, as I am sure that virtually all the beaches will be clean within a month.

I waited for the word "sorry" or an apology to come from the Secretary of State's lips, and we heard neither. The Secretary of State and the Department of Transport are culpable in the disaster. We should not forget that the vessel ran aground at 8.10 on Thursday night. Until 7 o'clock on Monday night, it was under the control of the tugs operated by the salvors. The vessel bounced from rock to rock in the entrance of St. Anne's. We were told by the Donaldson report that far more powerful tugs were required. It is clear from the statements made by Lord Donaldson that the recommendations for more powerful tugs around our coast have not been fully implemented.

At lunchtime, I was engaged in a radio broadcast with Professor Maclntyre, and he concurred with the view that the recommendations were not fully implemented. There was no powerful tug in the vicinity, and there are still insufficient powerful tugs around our coasts.

Until Monday night, that vessel bounced from rock to rock. In calm conditions, at 7 o'clock on Monday night, it was put on the rocks by the salvors, at a time when there were no adverse weather conditions. As a result, 70,000 tonnes of oil spilt. Until Monday night, only 1,000 tonnes had spilt. That is the responsibility of the Department of Transport, first because the Secretary of State did not implement the Donaldson report, and, secondly, because he allowed that farce to carry on for four days.

The Secretary of State had the power to intervene, and he did not. Now, he offers us an inquiry within his Department. My constituents have no confidence whatever in that type of inquiry. The only person who should conduct that inquiry is Lord Donaldson, because he has the expertise and the background. I urge the Secretary of State to change his mind, even now, and appoint Lord Donaldson to carry out a full inquiry.

Sir George Young

I remind the hon. Member that on Monday, in The Guardian, he was reported as saying that he had no criticism of the salvage operation.

Mr. Ainger

I believed what I was told.

Sir George Young

That was three days after the incident took place.

I also regret that, on Tuesday, after a meeting with me, the hon. Gentleman put out a press release which attributed to me remarks that I did not make. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will, on reflection, reconsider what he did.

On the hon. Gentleman's first point, one of the lessons that we have learnt from the Braer incident is that the reporting, in some cases in dramatic terms, of the incident does far more damage to tourist and other industries than the incident itself. That is a point that the hon. Gentleman made just now by reporting—rightly—that the beaches are likely to be cleaned in the near future. I am sure that no one would want to say anything in the House that would damage the tourist industry in Pembrokeshire.

I repeat what I have said and what my noble Friend Lord Goschen has said about the availability of tugs. My Department made available one of the two tugs that are available on standby to the salvors, and they declined it because, in their view, they had access to the tugs they needed. The independent review that I have announced will consider all the important issues that the hon. Gentleman has rightly raised in his questions.

We understand, of course, the strength of feeling on the matter, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not imply that the inspectors I have appointed will be anything but independent and impartial. As the inspectors have done in the past, they will criticise my Department if it deserves criticism. [HON. MEMBERS: "And you."] Yes, and me.

Mr. Walter Sweeney (Vale of Glamorgan)

While I note my right hon. Friend's comment that most of the recommendations of Lord Donaldson have already been implemented, will he specifically deal with the recommendation that tugs be stationed permanently all around the coast and the likely cost implications if that were to be done?

Sir George Young

Lord Donaldson made it clear that he did not think that that would be a practical use of resources. That was clear from his report, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point.

Mr. Cynog Dafis (Ceredigion and Pembroke, North)

The Secretary of State's statement that it is not always possible to overcome the forces of nature will be regarded as extraordinarily complacent. The view held locally, with every justification, is that, if resources had been properly and efficiently deployed, the forces of nature could have been overcome in this case.

The Sea Empress incident is more serious than the Braer, because it is likely to have a much more severe environmental impact. If the inquiry is any less searching, complete and open than the Braer inquiry, there will be great anger in south-west Wales—just as there is anger because, whereas heavy tugs have been deployed off Dover and the north of Scotland, they have not been deployed in south-west Wales—despite that coast being subject to extraordinarily busy tanker movements, great environmental sensitivity and importance, and one where seafaring is inherently hazardous. In those circumstances, heavy tug facilities should certainly be available there.

I ask the right hon. Gentleman to make it absolutely clear that the cost of restoring the area and of all compensation to the local economy and to the people of the wide area affected will be fully met according to the "polluter pays" principle—just as the oil industry and the shippers should meet the cost of deploying heavy tugs, so that such an incident does not happen again.

Sir George Young

I confirm that the polluter will pay. Up to the first £10 million is borne by the ship's insurers. Any sum over that is borne by the international oil petroleum compensation fund, as with the Braer.

Lord Donaldson did not indicate that the area around Milford Haven should have the same priority in respect of heavy tugs as Dover and the Minches. The inquiry that I have announced will be the same type as that initiated for the Braer incident—it will have the same powers, and be conducted every bit as rigorously.

Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)

Following the Braer incident, many conservation bodies, scientists and the Scottish Office gained a great deal of practical first-hand information. Will my right hon. Friend consider applying some of that knowledge in the weeks ahead, while Pembrokeshire is being cleared up? As a crumb of comfort to the people in Pembrokeshire who have been so grievously hurt, I can confirm that the insurers and the oil industry paid up the compensation that was expected of them after the Braer disaster, without too much difficulty.

Sir George Young

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that assurance, and I will certainly pass on his generous offer of assistance in the recovery operation.

Mr. Gareth Wardell (Gower)

My hon. Friends have made clear the anger felt by the people of Wales at an incident in an area of tremendous marine importance that is part of the national heritage of Wales.

Commercial shipping throughout the world is an unregulated industry relative to others. Donaldson makes it clear, in the report that is at the right hon. Gentleman's side, that the United Kingdom has excellent facilities for cleaning up oil spills. In view of that, what will the Secretary of State do to guarantee that the beaches of Gower and the shellfish industry of north Gower will not suffer as a result of the Sea Empress incident?

My hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke (Mr. Ainger) made clear his concerns. I am surprised that the Government still need to be taught lessons. I hope that the Government have good teachers—as good as Lord Donaldson, because their response is the same every time that a disaster occurs. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman can tell the House what new lessons he will learn this time.

Sir George Young

It would be advisable to await the result of the inquiries before I say what new lessons can be learned. Of course I understand the hon. Gentleman's anger. I visited the area on Friday, and I understand the concern of those who live there. He is not quite right to say that the industry is unregulated. For example, we detain ships when they are sub-standard, and publish the names of the countries that are offending. We take safety very seriously. We take action against ships that are unsafe, and detain them until appropriate precautions are taken.

The hon. Gentleman rightly reminded the House that we have good facilities to deal with these incidents. We are one of the few countries with aircraft on standby that are dedicated to the spraying of dispersants in such incidents. A total of seven Dakotas and Cessnas are available solely for that purpose. We set up the marine pollution control unit, which has the highest technology available to plot the impact of tides on pollution. It was in place in Milford Haven within four hours of the ship going aground.

The hon. Gentleman asked me to give an assurance that parts of his constituency will not be affected. Of course, I cannot give the categorical assurance that they will not, but if they are, they will be cleaned up and restored as quickly as possible.

Mr. James Hill (Southampton, Test)

My right hon. Friend has the sympathy of the House, inasmuch as no one seems to take into account the fact that it was one of the worst hurricanes to strike the coast for many years. [HON. MEMBERS: "Nonsense!"] One of the queries in the Donaldson report was about the lack of oceangoing tugs of sufficient quality and quantity to be able to bring a tanker of that size off the rocks. Has my right hon. Friend any plans to investigate whether money can be spent on essential stationing for oceangoing tugs around our coastline?

Sir George Young

On the last point of my hon. Friend's question, we have already taken action on the priorities that Lord Donaldson identified, and have placed two tugs in strategic places at the Minches and at Dover. We shall shortly publish the Belton report, which outlines where resources should be placed next. The availability of tugs will be examined by the inquiry, but, as has been clear from some initial comments, it is not just the availability of the tugs that is important but their manoeuvrability and their ability to work as a team in the narrow straits of the channel into Milford Haven.

My hon. Friend rightly pointed out that the rescue operation was not assisted by the weather. There was a real risk to life and limb in undertaking the operation at certain times of the week, and one cannot totally discount the impact of the weather, the tide and other factors on the safety of this particular salvage operation.

Mr. Eddie Loyden (Liverpool, Garston)

The Minister referred to the use of planes, but does he realise that that happens only after the event? We are talking about the prevention of such tragedies. I believe that the Government have been culpably negligent as far as taking the advice of Donaldson and the situation around our coastal waters are concerned.

The Government have sat back and watched a reduction over the years in the standards of coastal lights in estuarial and coastal waters. That ship should never have been allowed to enter estuarial waters in the conditions that prevailed at the time. If the maritime organisation had been as efficient as it should be, that vessel should not have been allowed to come in until the risk had passed.

Regardless of whether a pilot is on board or not, the vessel should not have been allowed to enter estuarial waters with the danger of suffering damage to its hull. How long must we wait before we impose the standards of double skins on these tankers to avoid what is happening? It is a disgrace that the Government sit back after what Donaldson had said. I underline the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms Short). The marine accident investigation branch covered up what happened to the MV Derbyshire for years before it conceded that the matter should be referred to another body.

When will the Government act on these matters?

Sir George Young

I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says. The Government established the Donaldson report. We commissioned it, we published it, and we accepted 86 of the 103 recommendations. The United Kingdom has set and implemented higher standards of sea safety than most other countries. The hon. Gentleman is right, of course, to say that these accidents should not occur. That is why I have set up an inquiry to ascertain what went wrong in this instance, so that we can learn the lessons and take steps to ensure that such an incident does not happen again.

The Milford Haven port authority has all the powers it needs to exclude vessels if it thinks that they are unsafe.

The issue of double hulls was taken up on Monday. I urge the hon. Gentleman to read what the Donaldson report says about double hulls. The report urges caution before they are advocated as a panacea to the difficulties that have detained us this afternoon.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. I am not prepared to tolerate further statements from Back-Bench Members. I want brisk questions. If they are not forthcoming, the statement will have to be closed down.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the possible conclusions that might be drawn from this incident is that it would be better if more British cargoes were carried in British-registered vessels crewed by British nationals? When P and O and the Shell tanker group are flagging out more of their vessels, will my right hon. Friend give the House the assurance that he will speak urgently to my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer in discussing the recommendations currently in front of him from the Chamber of Shipping?

Sir George Young

As my hon. Friend says, the course he advocates is one for my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He will know that, in last year's Finance Bill, as it then was, when I happened to be Financial Secretary to the Treasury, we introduced an element of fiscal roll-over relief for British ships, which was welcomed. I shall pass on my hon. Friend's remarks to my right hon. and learned Friend.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Does the Secretary of State recall that I asked him on Monday how many sea birds were affected by the oil pollution? He said that six had died. How many sea birds have now been affected—not only those that are dead—by the oil pollution? How many people are working on rescuing wildlife? What is being done to save the roosting sites, which are among the most important in the world?

Perhaps we should be grateful that a Chinese tug turned up. Given the Government's incompetence, I am surprised that it was not three tonnes of chicken chow mein.

Sir George Young

I do not have exact information now about the number of birds that have been affected. If I am able to procure that information, or if my noble Friend the Minister for Aviation and Shipping is, it will be passed on.

There is some limited oil on Skomer, but there is not a large population of birds there at present. They are expected to return in about four to six weeks. The species most affected has been gulls, with a number reported as being stained. My latest information is that relatively few birds have been found dead or are being cleaned.

Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight)

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the inquiry ascertains whether a satellite navigation system was available to both the master and the pilot of the vessel, and whether it was the pilot or the master who was giving instructions when the vessel grounded?

Will he consider the inquiry ascertaining also when the vessel last docked in the United Kingdom and whether she was inspected, and publishing the report, if there was one, of that inspection? Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the inquiry considers the role that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has to play in liaising in disasters of this sort, bearing in mind that it has a useful input in trying to save some of the sea birds?

Will my right hon. Friend consider asking the Department of Education and Employment to ascertain whether the Natural Environment Research Council might undertake a long-term study of the implications of oil pollution in the area affected, so that we might gain some scientific knowledge?

As I was a Member of this place following a marine accident in my constituency, single-handedly, with no support from any Member on either side of the House, my efforts led to the publication of maritime accident reports, to bring them into line with the air accident reports produced by my right hon. Friend's Department, will he utterly reject the slur that has been cast on the marine accident investigation branch?

Sir George Young

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he said, and especially for his final comments. One of his questions concerned the Department of Education and Employment. I think that the Countryside Council for Wales may be doing part of the work to which he alluded. I shall certainly take up his other points on that theme.

My hon. Friend's question about responsibility for the initial accident and where it should fall goes to the heart of the matter. I hope that that will become clear when the MAIB report, following the inquiry into the accident, is published.

Mr. Alan W. Williams (Carmarthen)

I accept that double hulls are not a panacea, but vessels of that size, which carry such enormous cargoes, are by definition extremely unstable and extremely vulnerable. I should remind the House that, four months ago, there was an incident in those very same waters, when the Borga ran aground, and that the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Ainger) warned that a major accident could happen at any time. The Borga was double-hulled, and there was no major leakage. Will the Secretary of State re-examine the use of double-skinned ships, especially in areas such as the Pembrokeshire coast, which have such high value for nature conservation?

Sir George Young

Yes, I shall consider that. It is important not to draw too many conclusions when contrasting the Borga incident with this one, because the speed of impact may have been different, and the ships may have come aground at different parts of the coast.

In relation to double hulls, I should remind the House that Lord Donaldson said: We have some doubts on the merits of double hulls and consider that there is scope for discussion". He also makes the point that, in certain circumstances, double-hulled tankers can be more dangerous than those that are single-hulled. One must approach that issue with some caution.

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, throughout this disaster, the Minister for Aviation and Shipping, Lord Goschen, appears to have been camped out on a promontory, providing information not only to the nation but to the Government? Does my right hon. Friend wish to divorce himself from the racist and snobbish remarks about the Chinese gentleman, who chipped in his translation skills in addition to his culinary skills to help out in a very difficult situation?

Sir George Young

I agree with my hon. Friend's final remark. I also pay tribute to my noble Friend, the Minister for Aviation and Shipping, who went up to Milford Haven on Tuesday and returned only this morning. He took a personal interest in the responsibilities that my Department have with the marine pollution control unit. I shall pass on my hon. Friend's kind words to him.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody: (Crewe and Nantwich)

Does the Secretary of State agree that the removal of air-sea rescue from Brawdy, cuts to the coastguard and changes in the marine accident investigation branch have had any affect on what has happened? Does he seriously suggest that this incident should be investigated by a branch of his own Department, which is also suffering considerable cuts?

Sir George Young

I am satisfied that the MAIB has all the necessary resources to produce the type of report that I announced at the beginning of my statement. I have made it quite clear—I shall do so again—that safety is our paramount concern, and that it will remain so. The chief executives of the agencies have that message from Ministers clearly in their minds.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Why is it that everything that goes right is a result of the work of Ministers, while anything that goes wrong is the fault of someone else? The Secretary of State has blamed the weather, the press and the judgment of the salvors.

Has not this accident turned into a catastrophe because the tugs did not have enough pulling power, and because they were not pulling the vessel, but the vessel was pulling the tugs—back on to the rocks? Is not that the Government's responsibility, because they failed to carry out the Donaldson report recommendation that big tugs should be located at five centres, and that three of those tugs should have been set in place as an interim measure? The tug at the western approaches has not been set in place, and that was the Government's responsibility. Why does not the Secretary of State say the word that the whole country is asking him to say: sorry?

Sir George Young

Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I did not attribute blame in my opening statement. I said that I was setting up inquiries and reviews to find out exactly what happened. That is the right way to approach the matter. It may be that the MAIB apportions blame differently from the way in which the hon. Gentleman has, but I do not know. We must await the report.

In relation to the tugs, I urge the hon. Gentleman to read the article in The Independent, because the matter is not necessarily as simple as many people might think. The author of that article makes the point that, at a key stage, more tugs and more pulling power might have done more damage to the hull when it was impaled on a pinnacle.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

To what extent has the environment recovered—and how long did it take to do so—from the Braer disaster? Did my right hon. Friend read the article by Matt Ridley in The Daily Telegraph earlier this week, in which he said that, mercifully, things recover from such incidents in a shorter period than most people fear?

Sir George Young

I read that article, as well as several other articles that have made the same point. There is a robustness in the marine ecology, to which my hon. Friend has rightly drawn attention. One must, of course, take all the necessary steps to minimise such accidents, but one should not over-dramatise the long-term consequences.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

"Safer Ships, Cleaner Seas" has a hollow ring about it today. Those of us who know and love that part of south-west Wales care very much about the environment that has been severely damaged—we cannot underestimate the damage to the environment. How many such disasters is the Minister willing to put up with—one a year as an annual event, one every two years, or one every three years? Is he aware that the oil industry itself believes that tougher regulation of the industry is the only answer, and that will only come from the Government's initiative?

Sir George Young

One accident is one accident too many. This country takes the lead in driving through the International Maritime Organisation higher standards, not least on ferry safety. There is a meeting on the subject this week designed to achieve higher standards of safety.

Mr. Roy Hughes (Newport, East)

Bearing in mind the fact that people's livelihoods are at stake, will the Secretary of State give the House some idea of the criteria for compensation? Will it embrace fishing interests, tourism and other interested parties? How far along the south Wales coast will the compensation provisions apply?

Sir George Young

Compensation is available for property damage, economic loss and reasonable preventive measures. Claimants should initially discuss the matter with their solicitors or with the fund I mentioned to assess whether their claim will be eligible. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) said, so far claims have been met promptly by those involved.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

As the hon. Member who represents Hound point in the closed waters of the Forth, may I ask what the time scale is for the discussions on double skins?

Sir George Young

The IMO has decided that single skins should be phased out over a period. That period varies from country to country—for America, I think that it is about the year 2013. Discussions are continuing, not least in the light of evidence about whether or not double-skinned hulls are the only answer. It is important to aim at improved safety. Double hulls may be an answer, but there may be other ways of achieving the same safety.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

Lord Donaldson was wrong when he suggested that, in exceptionally heavy weather, very large crude carriers and other big vessels should use the Minches. The dreadful event in Wales has caused serious concern to fishermen who fish the Minches. I shall tell the Secretary of State, as I told his predecessor, that, in heavy weather, such big vessels should stand well to the west of the Western Isles. I urge the Secretary of State to take advice from our fishermen.

Sir George Young

I take seriously the hon. Gentleman's point. He asks me to bring his comments to Lord Donaldson's attention, and I shall of course do so.

Mr. Stephen Day (Cheadle)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, on the night of this tragic accident, he was not personally on the bridge of the Sea Empress, as, listening to Opposition Members, one would think that my right hon. Friend drove the ship on to the rocks himself?

Sir George Young

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing out that the Government did not own the ship and were not on board the ship. The Government's responsibility is to set the parameters, which we are happy to do. But ultimately, the responsibility for many such accidents rests with the individuals involved.

Ms Roseanna Cunningham (Perth and Kinross)

In his statement, the Secretary of State said that we must not lose sight of the need to learn lessons for the future. What is the oceangoing tug cover in the north and west of Scotland? Does he consider that adequate in terms of the Donaldson report? Does he—yes or no—believe that tug cover in Milford Haven was adequate following that report's recommendations?

Sir George Young

On the first question, I can answer for the tug cover provided by my Department, but Donaldson's point is that other tugs are available and must be taken into account. I will send the hon. Lady a reply to that question. On Milford Haven, the salvors' reaction was that they had enough tugs available to turn down the Government's offer of one of their tugs, either from Dover or from the Minches.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central)

Tug availability is central to this matter. Was the Secretary of State aware by the weekend that the only powerful tug available was crewed by Chinese—none of whom could speak English—and could not be used effectively? If his office was not aware, why not? If it was aware, why did it not intervene to send a powerful vessel with an English-speaking crew from Dover to Milford Haven, or an even closer vessel in Brest, which had a French-speaking crew but presumably someone on it could speak English? He had the power to intervene. He should have known. Why did he not?

Sir George Young

I am not in the business of second-guessing professional salvage firms. The Chinese tug was in Falmouth. Initially, it looked like a valuable resource, but, when it was used, it was found that it was not a salvage but a towing tug, that the crew lacked expertise, and that the tug was not suited to complex salvage work in confined but highly tidal waters.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North)

It appears not only that the Secretary of State was not on the Sea Empress's bridge on Thursday night, but that he has not been at the Department's bridge in the subsequent five days. The heart of the matter is that the salvage company offered advice about adequate tugging power which has proved, at best, to be grossly optimistic—but, above all, it was advice. Who accepted that advice, who failed to question it, who was responsible, and who took the decision not to send adequate tug power to the disaster scene?

Sir George Young

The hon. Gentleman simply has not been listening to what I have said. I have set up an inquiry that will find the answers to the questions that he poses. I invite him to have some patience and to wait for the independent inquiries, the results of which we will publish as soon as they are available.