HL Deb 25 November 1986 vol 482 cc453-7

3.57 p.m.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement on the "Kowloon Bridge" which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Mr Michael Spicer. The Statement is as follows:

"My department was advised of reports of structural damage to the Hong Kong registered vessel 'Kowloon Bridge' late on Tuesday, 18th November. In view of the possible connection with the loss in 1980 of the sister ship 'Derbyshire', the department agreed with the Hong Kong authorities that the department's inspectors should investigate the damage to the 'Kowloon Bridge' and conduct an inquiry on their behalf.

"An inspector was immediately appointed to conduct a full investigation into the damage and report to the department: he boarded the vessel at some personal risk on 20th November in Bantry Bay, where she had put in for repairs. Although the inspector's report has not yet been finalised, early indications are that the damage to the 'Kowloon Bridge' was entirely consistent with the very severe weather conditions encountered during the voyage across the Atlantic.

"Late on 22nd November, 'Kowloon Bridge' broke away from her anchor. The master decided to put out to sea. She then suffered a loss of steering and a 'Mayday' call was put out. The house will wish to acknowledge the skill and bravery with which the crew were taken off by RAF Sea King helicopters with no loss of life. The vessel eventually drifted onto rocks near Baltimore after drifting for 24 hours in severe weather conditions. She has since broken her back between No 2 and 3 holds.

"Inspectors from my department have also been appointed to investigate on behalf of the Hong Kong administration the vessel breaking free from her anchor, the loss of steering and the subsequent grounding. The inspectors will complete their work and submit reports on the two investigations as soon as possible. These reports will be published. When I have received them, I will consider what action needs to be taken and whether they indicate any link with the loss of the 'Derbyshire' in 1980, which might be cause for appointing a formal investigation into the loss of that ship."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4 p.m.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Viscount for repeating the Statement. We heartily endorse what is said about the skill and bravery of the RAF personnel in being able to save the whole crew of the "Kowloon Bridge". We all appreciate that.

I note that in the first paragraph of the Statement the damage to the "Kowloon Bridge" is linked to the loss of the sister ship "Derbyshire" in 1980, when all lives were lost. The Statement says that it was agreed that the department's inspectors, should investigate the damage to the 'Kowloon Bridge' and conduct an inquiry on their behalf—. The last paragraph of the Statement says: The inspectors will complete their work and submit reports on the two investigations". Does that mean that there is now to be an investigation not only into the "Kowloon Bridge", but also into the tragic loss of the "Derbyshire" in 1980?

Until we get official replies from the Minister we can only work on what the media tell us. I gather that an inquiry of some kind into the "Derbyshire" was commenced but it was stated then that there was no conclusive evidence. As they were sister ships it is necessary to clear up the position completely. Is there a difference between an inspector's report and a full inquiry? I recognise the expertise of the inspector, but I am sure that the public will wish to have their fears allayed by a full inquiry. Will either the report or, as I hope, an inquiry look into the allegations that the "Kowloon Bridge" put to sea against advice? What advice was that, and why was it given?

It has been suggested—and again we can only go on the media reports—that there were structural faults to the "Tyne Bridge", another sister ship, in 1982, following which structural alterations were made to two vessels. It is essential that everything possible should be done to clear up the whole of this question of structural faults; first, to allay public concern, and, secondly, in the interests of the shipbuilders themselves. Until the position is clarified they will be under a cloud.

I understand that there is only slight oil spillage from the "Kowloon Bridge". What is the position with regard to pollution in a case such as this, which involves a vessel off the coast of a foreign country? Whose responsibility is it?

Lord Walston

My Lords, we too on these Benches endorse strongly the praise that has been given to the brave and skilful men who, in appalling conditions, rescued the crew from the "Kowloon Bridge". I should like to ask for a little more amplification than the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, has asked for, with regard to the inquiry. The inquiry will look at the structural condition of the "Kowloon Bridge". The Statement says that, early indications are that the damage … was entirely consistent with the very severe weather conditions encountered during the voyage". While undoubtedly the weather was very severe and that area of the Atlantic is an extremely awkward one, surely such a bulk carrier should have both design and construction to enable it to survive, without severe damage which renders it unseaworthy in waters and gales of that kind.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, about the inquiry into the loss of the "Derbyshire" in 1980. It is not clear from the Statement who is going to carry out the investigation and what co-ordination there will be between that investigation, which, apparently, according to the last paragraph of the Statement is going to take place, and the present inquiry into the "Kowloon Bridge".

Some of your Lordships may have seen a small paragraph in The Times today which suggests that there were weaknesses in bulkhead 65 in two other of four similar ships. It would be valuable for us to have further information about this. Is it the case that weaknesses in the bulkheads have been found and that weaknesses were found in identical bulkheads? If so, when were the ships built? Were they also built in the same yard as the "Kowloon Bridge" and the "Derbyshire"? Are these structural or design faults? Assuming that there are two other ships with these weaknesses, what is the position in regard to them? Are they still free to sail on the high seas without further inspection?

Again, I reiterate what the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, has said. It is essential that these investigations should be carried out fully and speedily to allay any fears in the seagoing fraternity; and to reassure those who are contemplating placing further orders for tonnage in British yards that this situation cannot possibly be repeated, and that the high standard of British yards is as good as ever it has been.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lords, Lord Underhill and Lord Walston, for their reception of this Statement and underline once again the admiration and high regard which your Lordships have for the skill and courage shown by the crews of the Sea King helicopters.

I may not have made it completely clear that two investigations have been put in hand. The first one mentioned refers to the inquiry into the damage to the "Kowloon Bridge" after it had crossed the Atlantic and arrived at Bantry Bay. Regarding the severe damage, I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Walston, that an Italian tanker was much more severely damaged than the "Kowloon Bridge". It was when it arrived at Bantry Bay that an inspector was appointed to go out and see how bad the damage was. That damage was entirely consistent with storm damage after the weather the vessel had encountered. I am advised that this inquiry will report within a week.

The second investigation relates to the loss of the vessel after it left Bantry Bay. As the Statement said, it is a question of looking at the loss of steering, the breaking free from her anchor and the subsequent grounding. That will take a little longer and I cannot at this stage say when the report will be received. It will certainly be published.

With regard to comparisons with the "Tyne Bridge" and the "Derbyshire", I can only draw your Lordships' attention to the fact that everything to do with any previous incidents involving similar vessels has been covered in detailed reports which are all to be found in the Library of the House. The present incident is the subject of the two inquiries I have mentioned, and I am unable to prejudge the result of those inquiries. I am therefore unable to speculate on any of the points of detail which noble Lords have raised and therefore am unable to make any further comment about that.

As regards pollution, I should add that the vessel was carrying iron ore and the only oil on board was the oil fuel, in bunkers, used for propulsion. I am advised that there is very little danger of pollution of United Kingdom beaches.

Viscount Massereene and Ferrard

My Lords, I was a director of a company which owned ships carrying iron ore, although they were only small ships of about 12,000 tons. In the Statement my noble friend said that the "Kowloon Bridge" lost her anchor. However, if there is any wind at all a ship does not rely on just one anchor but always has two anchors out. Ships have other anchors on board, too. The ship also had her engines. In fact, because it is cheaper to build them so, most of these iron ore carriers and tankers have only one screw. I know that some have two. If the ship had suffered damage coming across the Atlantic it was rash of the captain to take to the open sea.

There is another point. Presumably the ship drifted in the night, but the captain ought to have taken his bearings on the shore. If there was no light from which to take bearings he should have arranged for that. The situation seems most odd to me.

If the ship's rudder jammed when the captain got out to sea and the ship had only one propeller, he was then in a hopeless position. A ship with twin screws can to some extent steer even with a jammed rudder. I should just like to make that observation.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, my noble friend has made certain observations but I will not comment upon them because, obviously, we are awaiting the result of the inquiry. However, I am sure my noble friend's remarks will be noted.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the only debate which took place on the loss of the sister ship, the motor vessel "Derbyshire", was the debate initiated by me in this House on 13th May 1981? Concern was expressed at that time about the possibility of defects in the hull. However, the only common fact appears to be that both vessels were carrying iron ore. Will my noble friend take into account in the inquiries the investigations which the Minister who answered at that time promised would be made into the loss of the motor vessel "Derbyshire"?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I can assure my noble friend that that will be taken into account.

Lord Greenway

My Lords, is the noble Viscount able to tell the House—I suspect that at such short notice he cannot—that the reason the ship had to put to sea after she lost, as I understand it, one of her anchors and, therefore, in the existing weather was unable to lie to her remaining anchor, was due to the fact that since the closure of the Whiddy Island oil refinery there were no longer any tugs available in that area?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, again I find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to comment on that. All I can do is repeat one sentence of the Statement which says: the master decided to put out to sea".

Lord Cayzer

My Lords, is it not a fact that there are six sister ships which were built at Swan Hunter?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I believe that is the case.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, can the noble Viscount confirm that in the Statement he mentioned loss of steering, while the newspaper reports that I read stated that the ship had lost her rudder? A rudder post is a massive item and it would seem to me that if a ship loses her rudder she would almost certainly go down by the stern.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, it is up to the noble Earl to decide whether he wants to believe the Statement or the press.