HL Deb 27 October 1970 vol 312 cc27-33

3.42 p.m.


My Lords, in answer to the Question put by the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, it may be for the convenience of your Lordships if I repeat the Answer which is being given by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to a Question in identical terms in another place.

"An explosion in the engine room of the Libertan tanker 'Pacific Glory', following a collision with the Liberian tanker 'Allegro' on the evening of October 23, led to a serious fire. Search and rescue operations were undertaken at once and the survivors were brought ashore at Portsmouth; I very much regret that 13 of the crew are presumed to have lost their lives in the explosion. During salvage and fire-fighting operations under the control of the Navy the vessel stranded on a shingle bank about 4 miles off the South-East Coast of the Isle of Wight. During the weekend there was some escape of diesel oil from her bunkers and of crude oil from a damaged cargo tank. Tugs and naval vessels under the control of my Department succeeded in dispersing the oil before beaches were polluted. Local authorities in the area were alerted and have been standing by to deal with oil on their beaches, but this has not so far been necessary.

"Salvage of the vessel and her cargo is now being undertaken by a Dutch salvage company appointed by the owner, who will be working in conjunction with the Navy and with Shell, the vessel's charterer. Officials of my Department are keeping in close touch with the salvors. There remains a threat of serious pollution if the vessel were to sustain further damage during attempts to refloat her, and vessels equipped for dispersing oil are continuing to stand by.

"The causes of the collision between the two tankers and of the explosion on the 'Pacific Glory' have not yet been established. Marine surveyors of the Department of Trade and Industry are carrying out a preliminary inquiry under the Merchant Shipping Acts. In the light of their report I shall consider what further action is required.

"The responsibility for the organisation to deal with pollution of beaches rests with my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. Since the incident involving the 'Torrey Canyon' all the coastal authorities in the area have prepared contingency plans for dealing with coastal oil pollution. On Saturday, October 24, my right honourable friend asked that the nominated oil pollution officers in the area be contacted to ensure that their organisations were in a state of readiness and that their equipment capability was adequate to meet the immediate threat. My right honourable friend was encouraged by the assurances given and on his instructions an operations room in the Department of the Environment is manned on a 24-hour basis to receive reports on the risk of pollution of the beaches. By daily contact with local oil pollution officers the local authority capability for dealing with any actual pollution is being kept under constant review.

"I should like to pay tribute to those concerned with the containing of the fire and the spillage."


My Lords, the House is grateful to the noble Lord for repeating the Statement made in another place. May I first of all associate noble Lords on this side of the House with the expressions about the loss of life, and the compliments rightly paid by the noble Lord to those whose responsibility it has been to look after the ship and to stand by to clear up the mess, if there is one. I am particularly glad to hear that that drill is working well, because the last Government took a great deal of trouble to get it set up after the "Torrey Canyon" incident. I ask the Government to remember that this is the second potentially major disaster of this nature in three years. I hope that the Government will take an early opportunity of reviewing the entire flag of convenience system in the oil shipping world, and of reviewing, where appropriate, in the International Maritime Consultative Organisation, the present system for checking on the initial and continued ability of masters to conduct their ships safely, the system controlling lighting of super tankers and the possibility of introducing a traffic control system in crowded seas which should be more than advisory or optional.

Finally, I hope that the Government will insist on holding a full inquiry into the cause of this accident. If it is found that the accident took place outside British territorial waters, nevertheless I hope that the Government will either find a way of holding a full inquiry or will agree that it is necessary to consider the extent of territorial waters themselves.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord for the very careful way in which he has put his questions and for the contribution that he has made to the action that may be required once the preliminary investigations are completed. I think he will agree that it is desirable to await the completion of those investigations before I make any further comment on that aspect of the matter. I note what he says about the further investigation in this country. From what he says it is plain that he is well aware that the power to investigate a casualty involving a foreign flag ship outside territorial waters is given by the Merchant Shipping Acts if witnesses are found in the United Kingdom, but the main investigation of course has to take place under the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organisations rulings in the country of what is called the flag Government, that is, the country whose flag the ship flies. In those circumstances, I think it is right to say that it would be necessary to wait for the Liberian Government itself to conduct an inquiry. In the meantime, of course, a preliminary investigation will be carried out, and as I have already said, my right honourable friend will consider in the widest aspect what action is required.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for making the Statement. The noble Lord, Lord Kennet, has asked several pertinent questions about the causation of the accident, but I should like to ask one question about how we should deal with it. Can we be assured that a full report will be made to both Houses of Parliament, indeed, to the nation, on how the pollution, if such there be, is dealt with this time? On the last occasion there was considerable disquiet about the amount of pollution that resulted from such an accident. Steps were taken by the last Government. We should like to know how they work on this occasion. We hope the pollution will not be as great, but we should like a report as to what happens.

3.50 p.m.


My Lords, we shall all agree that there must be the fullest possible inquiry into this accident and into everything that has happened, but would it not be possible immediately to set on foot some proposal, in regard to which I suggest Her Majesty's Government might take the lead, to try to get international agreement on how these tankers are to operate? What is quite intolerable is the occurrence of these sudden accidents. I say nothing against the Chinese, who are admirable people, but there does not seem to have been a single European on either of these ships. It is quite intolerable that two tankers should be so close together so near to these shores. Surely, what is required, and what every nation would, I believe, welcome, is a plan under which there are agreed international rules as to how tankers should operate and how near one tanker should get to another. I greatly hope that Her Majesty's Government will take the lead in proposing such a negotiation.


My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for that important suggestion which I shall certainly convey to my right honourable friend. In reply to the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, I would repeat that the pollution that has occurred so far has been dispersed and there does not seem to have been to any extent any pollution of beaches. Should there be, then we shall have to consider what action should be taken, and no doubt the results will be reported; but I very much hope that that contingency will not arise.


My Lords, may I pursue a little further the point raised by the noble Earl, Lord Swinton, that not only should there be international regulations dealing with these matters but that there should also be an international tribunal or control in case those regulations are breached?


My Lords, coming from the source it does, I think that that is a most important suggestion. Again, I shall pass it to my right honourable friend.


My Lords, emphasis is quite rightly laid by the Government upon the problem of these big tankers and their operation. There is, I think, another point which arises in connection with some of the accidents which have occurred; namely, the risk of explosion. That has occurred in this last case. I happened to be sailing up the Channel yesterday on the "France" and I saw this tanker beached off the Isle of Wight. It is rather a grim sight. But also one notices the mass of shipping in the Channel. Most of it to-day seems to comprise tankers. Obviously this presents a great risk; but the risk of explosion is most serious. It has happened in this case, and as one knows it has happened with certain large tankers which have not been in collision at all. It seems to me that the Government should initiate an inquiry into the problem of explosion.

During the last war I was associated with aircraft. There was always a big risk of explosion with aircraft engines, and great precautions were taken in order to avoid it. Proper methods of extinction were used for all aircraft engines. Methods of detection have improved enormously, so that to-day it is possible to contain an explosion after it has started. This involves a quite ingenious device. It seems to me that these precautions are not being practised on tankers to-day, and that therefore this is not merely a matter of pollution, which is grave and serious, but also one of avoiding the risk of explosion.


My Lords, again I will ask my right honourable friend to take into account what the noble Lord has said. I believe that it is true to say that this matter is under investigation by Lloyd's marine underwriters. However, I should not like the noble Lord to think that any such matter that arises out of the investigation will not be thoroughly dealt with.


My Lords, would the Government consider setting up an international committee to deal with narrow waters such as the English Channel, so that the spacing of shipping should be controlled, and that oil tankers should take one route and ordinary commercial shipping should take another up and down the Channel? Thus, an accident such as here occurred could not occur in future.


My Lords, certainly we will consider the noble Lord's suggestion. I am afraid I am not qualified to say whether this should be done or not.


My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, would allow me, perhaps in the form of a question, to help the House. IMCO has published a traffic control system for the Channel, and indeed for many other congested waters around the world; but so long as territorial waters extend for only three miles what happens outside those three miles is utterly uncontrollable by any organisation whatsoever, whether national or international.


My Lords, I am very much obliged to the noble Lord for his helpful answer.