HL Deb 13 May 1981 vol 420 cc606-14

6.25 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have completed their inquiries into the loss of the MV "Derbyshire" in September 1980.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Unstarred Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. I hope that the Government will be able to provide as much information as possible about the mystery of the sudden disappearance of a very large, modern vessel, the "Derbyshire" owned by a British company and in a completely seaworthy condition. Eight months have passed since the "Derbyshire" disappeared about 650 miles from Tokyo Bay. I know that the Government have been engaged in making as wide inquiries as they can.

My noble friend Lord Trefgarne who is due to reply to this debate is a Minister in the department concerned—the Department of Trade. Many people in this country and abroad will be very anxious to learn what conclusions he tells the House this evening have been reached by the Government. This is a matter of concern not only to those in the industries and businesses involved, especially the shipping industry, but also to everyone connected with safety at sea. Members of the public, too, naturally harbour disquiet about what, at present, is still a mystery. It is also a disaster of huge proportions.

I declare a personal interest of a general nature in that I am a member of Lloyd's—an external member in the terminology now in use. About 80 per cent. of the insurance was placed, I understand, in London. Indeed, it has been said that the "Derbyshire" may become the biggest single British flag loss for many years.

I shall outline briefly what is known about the incident. My sources are Lloyd's Log and the Government's statement of 27th October last. The ship was built in the United Kingdom in 1976 and was 169,000 tonnes deadweight. It was owned by Bibby's of Liverpool—a long-established company with a high reputation generally and a good safety record. She was a combination carrier—that is to say, she could be an oil tanker or she could carry dry cargoes such as coal or ores. She was carrying a cargo of iron ore from Canada to Japan when she disappeared on 9th September. The last message was that she was hove-to in a tropical storm. That storm became a typhoon named "Orchid".

Whatever happened must have caused the ship and those on board to be overwhelmed in a very short time. No distress signal was picked up and it seems that there was no time to send one. The 44 people on board have all been presumed lost at sea. They were the master, the crew and two wives of members of the crew. I understand that all except one were United Kingdom nationals. The House will wish to join me in expressing deep sympathy with the families of those who perished with the ship.

The Government Statement of 27th October recorded that inquiries under the Merchant Shipping Acts had been initiated. The preliminary inquiry into the cause of the casualty was then continuing. Today I hope that the Government can announce whether their inquiries have been completed and, if so, what were the results. In particular, why was no distress message ever received? Is the Minister now proposing to hold a public inquiry? If so, that would presumably now be carried out in the usual way by a court of formal investigation. I ask these questions because we must endeavour to find out as much as we can in the interests of learning any lessons and improving codes of safety. My noble friend may be able to tell us today that most of what it is possible to discover from scanty evidence will be in his statement.

The ship must have sunk approximately in the area from where the last message was sent. Accordingly, the wreck will be too deep down on the sea bed for examination. What traces of her have there been? I understand that the only significant trace was a lifeboat. It was sighted about six weeks after the disappearance of the "Derbyshire" by a Japanese vessel. Press reports indicate that though the Japanese vessel was unable to take what was a large lifeboat on board, it did positively identify it as belonging to the "Derbyshire" because the name was on the boat. That seems to be the only real clue which has been reported in the media so far.

Therefore, I ask my noble friend whether he can tell us more this evening. For example, can he indicate whether the lifeboat had been launched or whether it was simply a bit of debris? There might be a clue there. From the way in which the ship must have been overwhelmed, it seems more likely that the lifeboat, being a very buoyant item, wrenched itself free and floated. But it would be of interest to know whether there was any evidence to show that it had been launched.

The Government's inquiries may have been able to eliminate some of the possible causes which have been discussed since September. That would be useful. I should like to touch on two or three. First, there is the possibility of an explosion. This has been suggested because two Norwegian vessels—combination carriers of the same kind—are thought to have sunk after explosions. I refer to the "Berge Istra" and the "Berge Vanga". They were carrying ore after voyages with oil cargoes. The theory has been advanced that an explosive gas can accumulate in those conditions. However, the "Derbyshire" had not carried oil for 11 months and her dry cargoes during that period were regarded as safe combinations. Furthermore, I understand that she underwent a thorough survey in April of last year.

Another possibility which must be considered, but which I suggest is unlikely, is collision. I would remind your Lordships that a few weeks ago a small tanker was sunk off the shores of Japan after a collision with a United States submarine. That Japanese vessel was very much smaller than the "Derbyshire". A ship of the size of the "Derbyshire" might be holed by such a collision but would not have foundered as rapidly as she obviously did. Moreover, a submarine of whatever nationality would have been lost or severely damaged in such a collision. So this seems a most unlikely cause, though one has to consider it, bearing in mind the collision that did recently occur in that area of the world.

Therefore, we must return to the typhoon as the probable cause. When he replies, my noble friend may be able to tell us about the method of loading cargo and the possible shifting of that cargo in very heavy seas. Another possibility which must be taken very seriously is that the ship broke in two. It did have a very heavy cargo—about 158,000 tonnes of iron ore. I am sure that all concerned with the design and seaworthiness of ships will study the Government's statements most carefully. She was a long vessel, of a kind which has been in favour in recent years. Might she have been suspended, momentarily, upon massive waves?—perhaps only two or three? Is it possible that her hull could not withstand such unusual conditions?

I do not pretend to know the answers. At present this must remain a mystery. If the Government cannot solve these problems today, I would advocate continuing research into the effects of tropical storm conditions on different strengths and designs of hull with cargoes in most suitable positions. Seafarers do not underestimate the fury of a typhoon. Joseph Conrad vividly conveyed the experience. More recently Herman Wouk also, in The Caine Mutiny, gave us a glimpse of the impact on men and ships of a raging tropical storm. Nowadays weather conditions and reports, aided by satellites, can help ships to pass round and avoid gales and storms on occasions. None the less, ocean-going vessels are expected to stand up to typhoons. They have to be able to withstand the severest of storms at sea. In order to do everything possible to avoid a recurrence of this tragic accident at sea, and to add to our store of knowledge of marine safety, I trust that the Government will continue to pursue any line of inquiry which might lead to an explanation of what happened.

6.38 p.m.

Lord Ferrier

My Lords, I had not intended to contribute to this debate, but as a result of what my noble friend has said, I should like to inform your Lordships that I was a partner in a firm which was the agent for the Bibby Line in Bombay, and I can confirm what he said about the quality of their vessels, their design and their maintenance. We handled many ships and I well remember having a row with the war transport people about the "City of Cairo" because the master would not take more than a certain quantity of manganese ore in her bottom. We were ordered to load another 1,000 tons, and the captain refused. I got into trouble for supporting him and said that the owners should be consulted. The owners cabled back saying "Consult master". The master took the view that this particular type of cargo in the bottom of this ship, to which he referred as a very "stiff" vessel, was too dangerous to contemplate taking round the Cape of Good Hope in the bad season.

I have sailed in the waters to which my noble friend has referred, but I have never experienced a typhoon. However, I have friends who, in their large ketch, were completely turned over by an enormous wave near Cape Horn. The story about that event includes a photograph which was taken from one of the German cruisers—their raiders—showing a vast wave which my friend described as the only photograph that he had ever seen which compared with the wave that turned them over.

This leads me to ask one other question of the noble Lord who will reply, because my friends attributed this vast wave which caught them, perhaps to a seismic disturbance. Would it be any contribution to our discussion to know whether the earthquake and seismic records in the neighbourhood recorded any large movement at the time of the loss of the "Derbyshire"?

6.40 p.m.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

My Lords, it must be of concern to all noble Lords that the "Derbyshire", a modern ship built in 1976 by a well-known firm of shipbuilders, Swan Hunter, should disappear without any trace in the Pacific with the loss of 44 lives. This ship was equipped with all modern navigational aids: magnetic compass; gyrocompass; automatic pilot; radar; echo sounder; speed log, and satellite navigator. It had, according to the investigations which have been made, complied with all standards that are laid down, and yet the disaster occurred. This contains a lesson for us, in that we have to be continually vigilant and continually ensure that those safety requirements are being updated all the time.

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, in bringing this to the attention of your Lordships this evening, for which I am grateful to him, spoke of the loss of the "Derbyshire" as one of the biggest losses for merchant shipping. Of course in real terms the loss of the "Titanic" was the major loss of a merchant shipping vessel. I am always conscious of the "Titanic", as the inquiry into that loss was presided over by my great-grandfather. Mention of that particular inquiry is important because out of that inquiry came the establishment of many safety requirements in the merchant shipping world. We need to know what was the cause of this particular disaster so that we can see that new standards are established to ensure that we do not in fact have further disasters of this sort. That is why it is so important that the Department of Trade should be continuing with all its inquiries to try to come up with the reason why this particular disaster occurred.

One cannot help feeling that very often the standards are imposed and those who adhere to those standards are building ships, or building bridges as the case may be, to too fine margins, with the effect that when something exceptional happens the standard has not proved to be high enough. This is an area of continuous concern. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, referred to various possible causes for this particular disaster. He came to his own conclusion that it was probably a typhoon which caused this particular disaster. He raised the question as to what effect the typhoon can have had on the movement of cargo on this particular boat and whether, as a result of that movement, undue stress could have been placed on the hull of the vessel.

I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, who has to reply to this debate, will be able to tell your Lordships of the results of such investigations as the Government have carried out, and will also be able to tell your Lordships that the Government are continuing, in carrying out their investigations, to try to establish the cause of this particular disaster.

6.45 p.m.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I want first to say how grateful I am to my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy for raising this matter since, of course, the loss of the "Derbyshire" was indeed a serious and tragic marine casualty. It was without doubt one of the most serious losses sustained by the United Kingdom fleet for very many years, especially, and very sadly, in terms of loss of life. I recognise, therefore, that it is very important that I give your Lordships a full and clear account of my department's response. This, I propose to do, and I shall also take into account one or two points raised in the course of the debate.

Before proceeding further, however, I would like to say that, although this casualty occurred before I assumed my present ministerial responsibilities for marine safety, I have been very saddened indeed by the story, which brings home all too tragically the latent dangers of life at sea which are always present. I am sure that your Lordships would wish to be associated with my noble friend and I in expressing deepest sympathy to the next of kin in their great loss, and also to the owners of the vessel.

It would, I think, be helpful if I commence by outlining events as disclosed by my department's inquiries, which indeed do not depart very far from the story described by my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy. The Motor Vessel "Derbyshire" was a combination bulk cargo vessel—of conventional design known as an OBO (oil-bulk-ore carrier)—owned by Bibby Tankers Ltd. On this fateful voyage the vessel sailed from Sept Iles, Canada on 11th July 1980 with a crew of 42 and 2 wives on board, carrying a bulk cargo of iron ore concentrate destined for Kawasaki, Japan. On 9th September the vessel was in the north-west Pacific about 270 miles east of Okinawa. Her last known message was to the owners on that day and read: "Now hove to due to severe tropical storm: estimated time of arrival Kawasaki 14th hopefully". The storm referred to was Typhoon Orchid.

When the "Derbyshire" failed to arrive in Japan as anticipated on 14th September an extensive air and sea search was mounted by the Japanese Maritime Safety Agency who had been alerted by the owners and by my department. The search commenced on 5th September and continued until 20th September; routine patrols continued to search thereafter. I think I need mention only two details of significance in this context. On the first day of the search oil was seen bubbling to the surface in the relevant area which could conceivably have come from "Derbyshire".

A small sample secured by one of the Japanese search vessels, and later compared with bunker oil of the kind known to have been taken on by "Derbyshire", showed a degree of similarity but was not conclusive. Much later, however, on 24th October, a Japanese tanker sighted a drifting empty lifeboat and positively identified it as coming from the "Derbyshire". My noble friend has drawn attention to this. Unfortunately, the lifeboat could not be recovered for inspection and no further sightings have been reported, nor have any bodies or identifiable wreckage been recovered. The limited evidence available to my department about the condition of the lifeboat indicates that it was not launched and had probably been wrenched from the davits. My noble friend referred to this possibility.

Perhaps I might mention here the search operation. I should like to record Her Majesty's Government's appreciation of the efforts of the Japanese Maritime Safety Agency, and for responding so readily to our request for assistance. Their thorough and extensive search continued over a period of six days and I am quite sure that the Japanese authorities did all that was possible in the circumstances. I now turn to my department's inquiries to try to establish the cause of the casualty.

As with all serious marine casualties, once it became clear that the "Derbyshire" had to be presumed lost, my department immediately appointed an inspector under the provisions of Section 465, of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894 to carry out a preliminary inquiry. The inspector's inquiries were exhaustive and included interviews with the owners and various crew members who served on the ship before her last voyage. He discussed the search operation with the Japanese Maritime Safety Agency and visited the dockyard at Sasebo, in Japan, where the ship had been dry-docked in April 1980. The inspector also went to Sept Iles to establish details of the loading of the "Derbyshire's" last cargo of iron-ore and witnessed the loading of ships with similar cargoes. In carrying out this difficult inquiry, my department has received the utmost co-operation from all concerned and this had been greatly appreciated.

I think it would be right for me to emphasise at this point that, as a result of our inquiries, my department has no reason to believe that the "Derbyshire" was in anything but good repair and seaworthy when leaving Sept Iles for her last voyage. The vessel had in fact been recently surveyed and held valid certificates in respect of all statutory safety requirements under the Merchant Shipping Acts. In reply to my noble friend, I would emphasise that the inspector's inquiries, and my department's consideration of his report, have been as thorough and careful as the circumstances have permitted. But the House will no doubt appreciate that the absence of the ship, any survivors, or any wreckage, is a severe handicap in reaching positive conclusions.

It has to be asked: how can such a huge, modern and well equipped ship virtually disappear without trace, or at least some last desperate distress signal? On the question of distress communications, we have no reason to conclude that, given the opportunity, the "Derbyshire" could not have transmitted an emergency call. Due to the weather, the atmospheric conditions in the area were perhaps unfavourable at the crucial time, but it must be noted that early on 9th September the vessel was able to communicate with the owners when hove-to in a tropical storm. Our inquiries in this connection do not suggest that weather conditions were the most probable reason why no distress signal was heard.

There is one related point that I should perhaps touch on at this stage, since it may be noted that the "Derbyshire" was out of radio contact with the owners or any shore-based stations for several days, from the time of the last known message early on 9th September until she was overdue in Kawasaki on the 14th. It has been established, however, that such a period of radio silence should not be regarded as untoward on a voyage of the kind in question and, given the master's signal that at the earliest he expected to arrive in Japan on 14th September, the absence of a subsequent message in the intervening period would not normally be regarded as a matter for concern.

It does, therefore, appear from our inquiries that whatever happened to cause the loss of the "Derbyshire" was both immediate and catastrophic, providing no chance for those on board to react. What this was can only be conjectured: a massive explosion, a structural hull failure resulting in rapid sinking, or possibly the vessel was overwhelmed owing to a sudden shift of cargo. The fact is, regrettably, that we do not know, and I have to tell the House that it has not been possible to adduce any evidence to support any one of these theories; and, inevitably, the outcome of the inquiry has been inconclusive.

My noble friend asked whether there is to be a public formal investigation and, if not, what my department proposes to do in the aftermath of this casualty. As the House will know, powers are available under the Merchant Shipping Acts to order a public formal investigation into shipping casualties where such an inquiry is deemed necessary in the interests of marine safety. The primary purpose of formal investigations, which are quite independent of my department and are presided over by wreck commissioners, is to try to establish clearly the cause of marine casualties and to determine whether any lessons might be learned to contribute to the general interests of marine safety. Where a very serious casualty occurs, and especially one involving heavy loss of life as in the "Derbyshire", the question of the need for a formal investigation is of considerable importance, and I have accordingly given the most careful consideration to whether such an inquiry should be held into the loss of the "Derbyshire".

I have given particular thought to the possible expectations of the next of kin, who may well feel that the circumstances are such that they should be aired in public. I can, of course, readily sympathise with such reaction, but the overriding question, I believe, is essentially whether anything would be gained by a public hearing; would such an investigation add to our knowledge of what happened and help my department formulate any necessary and relevant new safety measures? In the absence of any material evidence, I have concluded that a court could not reasonably be expected to establish clearly the cause of this casualty; as I said, we have no ship, no survivors, nor any wreckage with which to assist any further investigation. That, therefore, is my department's considered view, and I have accordingly decided that a formal investigation would serve no useful purpose and cannot be justified. I would add, however, that I should be prepared to reconsider this decision should any new and material evidence come to light, but I do not think that is at all likely.

As my noble friend rightly said—and I certainly do not need reminding, because I am very conscious of my important responsibilities for marine safety—we cannot leave matters where they are. It is essential to consider how best to react to the catastrophic disappearance of a vessel such as "Derbyshire" with the loss of so many lives. We have to decide what further measures may be desirable or relevant to marine safety in the future. Safety standards in the United Kingdom merchant fleet are acknowledged to be of the highest, but there is no absolute level of safety and we must never lose respect for the sea. Accordingly, my department intends to pursue further investigations in consultation with appropriate expert bodies; these investigations are concerned with the stability, survival after flooding assuming a major structural failure has longitudinal strength in relation to the loading conditions and wave parameters.

Additionally, there are several areas relevant to this casualty in which my department is presently pursuing research. These include a large-scale project into all aspects of ship stability which may lead to a review of current regulations and studies into the behaviour of mineral concentrate type cargoes where past experience has shown tendencies to shift during a voyage. Needless to say, if the results of this work indicate that further action is necessary to promote greater safety of ships, appropriate measures will be taken in concert with the industry and other interested bodies. This research, by its nature, will obviously take time and I am very conscious that in the meantime there are many having a direct and personal interest in the fate of the "Derbyshire", especially the next of kin, who may well seek to have factual details relating to the "Derbyshire's" last voyage. My noble friend no doubt also had such considerations in mind.

I have, therefore, arranged to make immediately available a factual statement concerning the loss of the "Derbyshire", based on my department's inquiries, which includes details of the ship, and her certification, voyages previous to the last one, the loading of the ore at Sept Iles, the voyage towards Japan, the typhoon she encountered, and the search which was conducted when the ship became overdue. I am arranging for copies to placed in Libraries of both Houses.

Before concluding, I would refer to the point made by my noble friend Lord Ferrier, who asked in particular whether perhaps a seismic disturbance in the area, leading possibly to a huge wave, had been the cause of the disaster. I can tell him that our inspectors of course inquired into the sea conditions in the area around the time when the "Derbyshire" must have met her fate. While those sea conditions have indeed been reported as fairly bad, there is no evidence that there was any kind of freak wave in the area at the time, as my noble friend has thought possible. I hope that your Lordships will agree that my department has done all that it properly can in the circumstances to find a solution to this matter.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, I should like to thank him for that very careful and considered statement and to add that, for my part, in the circumstances which he has described I would not expect a public inquiry, but I hope that the investigations that he has described will continue to try to see whether improvements can be made in safety.

Lord Ferrier

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I should like to say that I had previously had no intention of taking part in the debate. First, with regard to the point about the "City of Cairo" and her being a stiff vessel, I would say that the War Department agreed to accept the captain's view that that was the way in which he wanted his ship loaded. Secondly, referring to the Bibby Line, I can say that the quality of their sailors and officers was very high.

With regard to the photograph that I told your Lordships about, I now remember that it is in a book entitled Once is Enough, by the well-known ocean sailor Brigadier Miles Smeeton, and the photograph was taken from the records of the raider "Graf Spee". It was extraordinarily interesting. It was only in conversation with the brigadier and his late wife, who was actually at the helm when the wave was encountered, that the suggestion of seismic disturbance was mentioned; I do not think that it is mentioned in the book.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I have listened with great interest and very carefully to what my noble friend has said, and I would in particular confirm his view about the standards of operation of the Bibby Line, to which he also referred.