HC Deb 29 October 1997 vol 299 cc875-82 1.30 pm

On resuming

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

Four weeks ago to the day, the Sapphire—Peterhead-registered fishing boat 285—was lost about 12 to 15 miles from its home port. My constituents Adam Stephen, Robert Stephen, Bruce Cameron and Victor Podlesny lost their lives. Our proceedings are being heard by representatives of those men's immediate families and by the only survivor of the tragedy, Victor Robertson. These are people who are united in grief and also united in a campaign to have the bodies of their loved ones returned to their families, if that is humanly possible, to allow a family burial.

The campaign, which is being conducted with the most enormous dignity, is supported by the local mission, by local councillors, by the wider community of Peterhead and by every fishing community the length and breadth of the country, there being a special bond that unites people facing tragedy.

I want to do three things in this brief debate. First, I want to set out an argument as to how we should deal with people in the circumstances that I have outlined, including the right attitude to adopt, and the modern and correct attitude towards family burials instead of services of remembrance.

Secondly, I want specifically to focus on what I regard as a huge anomaly within our system of public administration, which is that no one has any public responsibility for recovering the bodies of men lost at sea. It is extraordinary that there should be no such responsibility, and it is a situation that cannot be allowed to continue.

Thirdly, I want to present to the Minister information that I made available to her yesterday evening on the results of a feasibility study commissioned by the families, which shows beyond any reasonable argument, I think, that it is possible to recover the Sapphire and to have a good chance of recovering the bodies—all or some—of the lost men.

The traditional attitude in fishing communities was towards sea graves, but there has been a substantial change in recent years. The reason above anything else is that we have seen 25 years of new technology in the North sea. We have an oil industry that daily uses techniques and technology to recover many things from the sea bed, from oilfield debris to second world war mines. Millions upon millions of pounds are expended in that process. It is now technically possible to locate, survey and raise fishing vessels that are lost at sea. That was not the position in the past.

Over the past few years—I know this from speaking to inspectors privately in the marine accidents investigation branch—in virtually every instance of a fishing boat being lost, there has been a real and passionate demand from the families involved to have the bodies of the lost men recovered.

Seven years ago, there was a well-publicised campaign, supported by right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House, including many hon. Members whom I see in their places today, to raise the Antares, a boat which sank in different circumstances but which was the subject of a vociferous campaign by Clyde fishermen over several weeks before the Ministry of Defence agreed to do what I believe it was duty bound to do, and raise the Antares—from deeper water, incidentally, than that in which the Sapphire is lying. The exercise resulted in the bodies of three men being recovered. One body was later recovered in the estuary.

I was speaking recently to Patrick Stewart of the Clyde Fishermen's Association. He was in no doubt that the recovery of the Antares greatly assisted the grieving process, and that the recovery of the men's bodies was of substantial comfort to the families involved. I therefore think that feelings within the fishing community and in the wider community have changed.

The attitudes that have changed in the fishing community, as so clearly demonstrated in recent tragedies, are mirrored in the general attitudes of society. For example, in past conflicts, men lay as they fell. In more recent conflicts, such as the Gulf war and the Falklands, service families have had the option of having the bodies of their lost ones returned for family burials, and rightly so. Our attitudes as a society are changing, and because of improved technology, the change of attitude has been especially rapid within the fishing community.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

As my hon. Friend knows, I have already written to the superintendent of the mission in his constituency expressing the condolences of the fishing communities of Moray on the loss of the Sapphire, which has recalled for many of us the loss of the Premier. My hon. Friend might care to extend the debate slightly further, because there are instances of fishermen being lost at sea without the loss of the boat on which they were sailing. There is a strong case for investigations to be undertaken in all losses of life at sea in such circumstances, and I refer particularly to the loss of my constituent, Neill Wood.

Mr. Salmond

Only too tragically, my hon. Friend and other Members who represent fishing communities will have similar experiences. Many Members—some of whom are in the Chamber today—have written to me and my constituents over the past few weeks expressing their sympathy and condolences.

My hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) brings me to my second point. It is remarkable that no public agency has any formal responsibility for recovering the bodies of men lost at sea. As a society, we spend millions of pounds recovering second world war mines, which are a danger to oil installations. One was recovered quite recently at a cost of several million pounds, and rightly so. But there is no agency with responsibility for recovering the bodies of lost men. The remit of the MAIB is confined purely to determining the cause of the incident.

My constituents and the wider fishing community are acutely concerned to ascertain the cause of the sinking of the Sapphire. There is also concern that the bodies of the lost men should be returned. That concern is not answered formally by any public agency.

The Sapphire sank on 1 October. On 19 October it was located and surveyed by a remotely operated vehicle. It is arguable—it is almost definite—that the boat would not have been found if it had not been for the intervention of one of the widows, Isobel Podlesny. She was able from her knowledge of the fishing community to determine new co-ordinates from where an oil slick had been seen. The surveying vessel proceeded to these co-ordinates, and found the Sapphire just before the contract expired. I mention that because it shows the determination of the families involved, including their relatives, to have their men returned if humanly possible.

The Sapphire was located and surveyed. It is lying in 83 m of water—270 ft, for those who still think in "old money". It is lying on its starboard side and is intact, as if it had been placed on the sea bed. Determining the cause of the accident is the responsibility of the MAIB, and I am sure that it would be greatly assisted by having the physical evidence that would come with the return of the vessel. Even within the narrow bounds of present public responsibility, I submit that the Minister can ask for that to be done.

The Minister should institute a review and give an agency the responsibility—whether the MAIB or another public body—of examining the feasibility of recovering boats lost at sea. No one would argue—certainly not my constituents—that recovery is possible in every case. In many instances, the boat cannot be found. In some, the boat will be so badly damaged as to make its recovery impossible. In others, there will be a huge element of danger, making it impracticable to recover the boat. However, someone should have responsibility—with the onus on recovering the bodies of lost men, if that is possible—to examine feasibility and to come to a considered judgment.

It is totally unsatisfactory that no one had that responsibility. Investigations proceed on a time scale that is designed purely for the official investigation into the cause of an accident. It is now four weeks to the day since the Sapphire sank, and that time scale has been painfully slow for my constituents.

I do not blame the inspectors or the management of the marine accidents investigation branch, who are working to a remit in determining the cause of the accident. But we, as the people who frame legislation, should fill this public responsibility vacuum, ensuring that some agency has such a function and remit, and answers the call of these families in their grief.

I hope that the Minister will take this opportunity at least to consider that wider element, so that no families in future suffer the agony of uncertainty that my constituents and many constituents of other hon. Members have suffered in recent years.

The Minister has written a letter to the relatives in which she sets out the reasons why the boat cannot be recovered. She argues that informal advice from the MAIB shows that a dive to recover the bodies would involve an element of danger to the divers concerned. Quite properly, she considers that such a dive would not be justified and could not be undertaken. All my constituents agree with that.

The families, passionate and determined though they are to recover their lost relatives, would not argue that any human life should be placed in jeopardy in that enterprise. These are fishing families, so they are aware of the dangers of the sea, and would not argue for anyone to be put in that position.

Fortunately, and overtaking the Minister's correspondence, we have available a feasibility study—I faxed a copy to the Minister last night, after she had written the letter to the families—which was published a few minutes ago in its full terms.

This study into the feasibility of lifting the vessel from the sea bed and recovering the bodies of the lost men was conducted on behalf of the relatives by Dronik Consultants, the company employed by the MAIB to survey and locate the vessel. It agrees with the informal advice given to the Minister that a pressurised dive at that depth to a vessel lying on its starboard side would be dangerous and unjustified. It would also be a costly operation: the cost is estimated to be £800,000.

Luckily, there is an alternative. The feasibility study sets out how that alternative can be carried through. The technology of lift barge vessel recovery is available, and would be cheaper and totally safe, because it does not involve the use of divers, but merely a remotely operated vehicle.

Luckily also, by coincidence a vessel with the capability to lift the Sapphire from the sea on to its deck and bring it back to port is at present in Scottish waters: Tak Lift 4 is available from today for the next 21 days, with no schedule of work. A plan to lift the Sapphire could be carried out by that vessel at an approximate cost of £380,000. It would involve no danger, no pressurised diving and no jeopardy of any other human being, and would enable the bodies of these men to be returned to their grieving families.

I hope that the Minister will take careful note of this new information, and agree to consider her position. This information has come to light through the initiative of the Sapphire families. I accept that this is a difficult question, as do the families, but we must have a considered public response.

There is no doubt that recovery of the vessel would assist the process of determining the cause of the accident, and it is possible for the Minister to order its recovery within the terms of her remit and that of the MAIB. The sum of £380,000 is not insignificant, but in relation to the massive expenditure on the North sea, it is a very small sum indeed. Given the impact that it would have on the lives of my constituents and the grieving families, it would be a massive step forward. By forcing us as a society to accept public responsibility through an agency that would examine feasibility in future cases, it would be a step well worth taking.

It is not always in politics that we get a chance to do the right thing. I am hoping that the Minister will take the opportunity to do it today. The right and just thing is to accede to the families' demands to lift the Sapphire, and to give them hope that some or all of these men will be returned to their homes. On this occasion, we should let humanity prevail.

1.45 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Glenda Jackson)

I am sure that I speak for all hon. Members when I express my deepest sympathy for the families so grievously bereft by this tragedy. I am sure that we all send our commiserations to the surviving skipper of the Sapphire, who continues to suffer the trauma of this terrible accident. I am equally sure that the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) wishes with all his heart that there had been no necessity for him to raise this debate. However, there is a necessity to debate the matter, and it is entirely right that the House should do so.

Mindful of the agony of not knowing for the families so grievously bereaved, I am assured that the staff of the marine accidents investigation branch kept them fully informed of progress during the search for the vessel and the on-going inquiry, and I am grateful to them for that. The families have also been shown the complete video of the underwater survey of the Sapphire. A full photographic survey of the wreck was made, despite difficulties in manoeuvring the remotely operated vehicle around nets and wires floating in the vicinity.

No bodies were seen. That does not imply that they were not there—merely that nothing was visible to the camera. I am told that the families viewed the video with great dignity—surely a harrowing experience for them—and it remains their collective wish for the bodies to be recovered.

Searches for and recovery of bodies can, theoretically, be carried out by divers. The hon. Gentleman referred to a feasibility study, but I regret that I have not seen it in detail, and I am dependent on the advice that has been given to me by officials. Although the feasibility study shows that recovering the Sapphire is technically achievable subject to fair weather, it also shows that it is a difficult operation. The estimate of costs is almost £400,000, but that should not be central to our considerations.

The marine accidents investigation branch has sought expert opinion on the prospects in this case. Although it would be technically possible to deploy divers under saturation conditions, the presence of nets and other obstacles makes that task extremely hazardous. Furthermore, the trauma suffered by divers in undertaking the terrible task of recovering bodies, if they could be located, must be taken into account.

The MAIB's philosophy with regard to diving on wrecks is that divers' lives must not be put at risk unnecessarily, and the operator's decisions on their deployment is paramount. I am extremely reluctant to risk compounding this tragedy by promoting actions that are not justified on grounds of safety, and that could lead to further loss of life.

Mr. Salmond

As soon as we received the feasibility study yesterday evening, I faxed it to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. We have a meeting later this afternoon at which these matters can be further discussed. The feasibility study suggested that divers would be put at unacceptable risk, and it does not recommend such action. It would also be a costly operation. The study suggests that the option of lifting the vessel from the sea bed is very real, and has a far greater chance of success than sending down divers.

We are aware that there is no certainty in this life, and certainly none in dealing with the sea; but the feasibility study by a company employed by the Government to survey the vessel suggests that there is a very good chance of a lifting vessel being successful in the enterprise, and a good chance that such a vessel will be available in the Scottish sector over the next 21 days.

Ms Jackson

I will try to read the feasibility study before I meet the hon. Gentleman and the families. I take his point, but it does not strike me as a point of principle that I could endorse at this stage.

The decision on whether to raise a wreck can sometimes be finely balanced. It may be appropriate to raise or remove a wreck that is a hazard to navigation, to prevent or minimise pollution from cargoes, or to determine the cause or causes of loss. The Sapphire is lying on her starboard side in a depression on the sea bed at a depth of about 90 m; at that depth, the wreck does not pose a hazard to navigation. As for the need to prevent or minimise pollution from cargoes, here again there is no argument to support raising the wreck.

The decision on whether the Sapphire should be raised to determine the cause of her sinking lies with the chief inspector of the MAIB. If the chief inspector finds that he cannot establish the cause of a vessel's loss by examination of the available evidence, he will consider raising a wreck. In the case of the Sapphire, however, it now seems likely that sufficient material is available to allow the inspectors to make progress with their investigation without raising the wreck.

Since its formation in 1989, the MAIB has raised only one wreck, the much smaller Gorah Lass, off the north coast of Cornwall earlier this year. On that occasion, unlike the occasion involving the Sapphire, there were not enough leads for the investigation to proceed without recovery. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Antares—to which he referred—was raised by the Royal Navy.

The feasibility of raising a wreck will vary according to the size of the vessel, the depth of the water, the time taken to locate the vessel and many other factors. While I acknowledge that the recovery of a vessel may be of assistance in an investigation, experience shows that the process of raising a wreck may sometimes destroy crucial evidence. That, I believe, is another factor when we are considering the possibility of raising such a wreck for the recovery of bodies. Equal damage could be caused. Even if a wreck is recovered intact, there can be no guarantee that the evidence will be of value to an MAIB investigation.

Recovery of bodies from wrecks is a difficult issue. Even the most expert diving operation has its limitations. There is always the prospect that divers will never be able to search every part of a wreck. Even if some bodies are discovered and subsequently recovered, there remains the prospect that others may never be found.

There are also strong arguments for protecting, as graves, sunken wrecks associated with loss of life. The Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 provides the Secretary of State with powers to protect war graves; unauthorised interference with wrecks designated under those powers is a criminal offence. The Merchant Shipping and Maritime Security Act 1997 provides power to implement international agreements relating to the protection of wrecks outside the United Kingdom's territorial sea.

The Government will shortly use that power to implement, and become party to, the agreement on the wreck of the Estonia. The agreement designates the wreck site as the final resting place of the victims of the disaster, and requires parties to make interference with the site a criminal offence. The UK is also participating in negotiations with Canada, France and the United States on a multilateral agreement on the wreck of the Titanic.

Let me return to the tragedy of the Sapphire. I am sure that the House wishes to pay tribute to the search and rescue effort that was mobilised when the Aberdeen coastguard was alerted to the sighting of two red flares by the fishing vessel Elegance, a partner vessel to the Sapphire. The search involved two RNLI lifeboats, two RAF rescue helicopters, one RAF Nimrod aircraft and 19 fishing and oil industry support craft.

The search for the four missing crew members was suspended at 2300 hours, and resumed at dawn the next morning. An RAF rescue helicopter from Lossiemouth, along with the RNLI lifeboats from Peterhead and Fraserburgh, carried out a search in the area. The area was thoroughly searched by numerous craft, and the Aberdeen coastguard, in consultation with other authorities, terminated the search at 1100 hours on 2 October.

A search is not called off until all possible areas have been thoroughly searched and there is no likelihood of survivors' being found. That is never an easy decision, and it is made only after the most careful consideration.

In general terms, I must emphasise the Government's concern for the safety of all fishermen. The Marine Safety Agency is responsible for the implementation of the Government's strategy for marine safety—

Mr. Salmond

Will the Minister give way?

Ms Jackson

I would, but, with respect, I have already allowed the hon. Gentleman to intervene once—

Mr. Salmond

There is plenty of time.

The Minister wrote to my constituents expressing her condolences: the letter arrived in Peterhead this morning. She founded her argument, properly and legitimately, on the case that an operation by divers to recover the bodies from the Sapphire would not be justified because of the danger involved.

We have produced a feasibility study carried out by a company with impeccable credentials, which shows that a cheaper and better option with far more chance of success is available to the Minister. Surely she will now give me an undertaking that she will at least consider the study, and, at the meeting that we are to have with the families this afternoon, will undertake to look at it and see if she can return to the subject and consider whether an operation by lift barge would not be possible and well justified in the circumstances.

Ms Jackson

I am perfectly prepared to give the hon. Gentleman and the families involved an assurance that I will look at the feasibility study, but I am not in a position to give an assurance that I will accept its findings. There are serious considerations, regardless of this or any other feasibility study, which must be given due weight. I am prepared to read the study, but I am not prepared to give an assurance that I will change my initial position—which, as the hon. Gentleman said, I made plain in my letter.

The chief inspector of the MAIB concluded that it was necessary to try to locate the sunken vessel, and to inspect it using video cameras mounted on a remote-operated vehicle. That is a normal method of carrying out underwater surveys. A suitable vessel was chartered following the normal process, and a 72-hour contract was placed on 20 October. Unfortunately, the wreck was not located during that period, and the contract was therefore extended by 24 hours to widen the search area.

While the extended search was under way, on the evening before the search was due to be completed, one of the next of kin contacted the MAIB with the position of a previously unreported oil slick, which had been passed to her by the crew of another fishing vessel. That position was found to correlate with a very small target that had already been seen on the sonar trace. A further extension in contract time was necessary to investigate that contact.

The decision to do that was made, and the remotely operated vehicle was launched to investigate. It discovered and positively identified the Sapphire, lying—as I said—on her starboard side in a depression that was uncharacteristic of the sea bed in the region. That is why it had not shown up more extensively in the original search. Throughout that time, the next of kin were regularly updated on how the search was progressing.

In view of the importance of finding out why the Sapphire capsized, and because of the public interest, the status of the investigation will be that of an inspector's inquiry. A report will be submitted to the Deputy Prime Minister within 12 months of the incident. Subject to his approval, it will be published.

The sea can be a cruel and exacting master. Since the loss of the Sapphire, two further lives have been lost in fishing vessel accidents. My own family has paid such harsh dues to the sea, in both peace and war. But, however cruel the sea may be, I believe that it is—by virtue of those who have given their lives to it—not only a peaceful but an honourable, indeed noble, final resting place. I hope that the families who have experienced such grievous loss in this tragic incident will be able to contemplate it as a final resting place for their loved ones.

It being Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Sitting suspended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 10 (Wednesday sittings), till half-past Two o'clock.