HL Deb 24 November 1992 vol 540 cc915-7

2.45 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are considering urgently the recommendations, published on 10th September, of the inquiries into recent collisions of vessels in the English Channel.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, there were 11 recommendations in the two reports. The Department of Transport has accepted eight, partially accepted another two, and action has already been implemented on five.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that encouraging reply. As those collisions were found to have been caused by negligence—one by a foreign registered vessel and the other by an unknown vessel—costing the lives of 11 British fishermen, do the Government favour compulsory identification by radio on entry into the Channel and eventually the automatic electronic labelling of ships?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, my noble friend raises an extremely important point. Under current requirements—that is, under the international law of the sea—what he proposes cannot be done mandatorily. That is why the matter is now being discussed in the IMO. We are putting an enormous amount of effort into trying to achieve a better situation than that which pertains at present.

The Earl of Selkirk

My Lords, is there nothing to require ships to use radar? It is well developed and it is quite simple to use. Should it not be used almost universally in all areas where there is heavy shipping?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, probably all ships in the Channel use radar. It is rather a question of somebody looking at the radar and somebody keeping a good look out at the same time.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, 11 lives were lost and it is not impossible for such a situation to occur again. The Minister has indicated that his department is working with the IMO. What pressure is he bringing to bear and what kind of timescale does he envisage for the discussions relating to this issue? When can we expect some kind of action to evolve from the discussions?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, if we were in charge of the IMO, I could give the noble Lord some definitive answers. However, the noble Lord knows well how the IMO works and that the views of other member states must be taken into account. I assure the noble Lord that we are pressing hard to make progress on this matter.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, is the Minister taking any action or is he able to indicate whether he is seeking to co-ordinate a European Community effort in this regard? This is a matter of the greatest possible importance and such an initiative could pay dividends in terms of the discussions with the IMO.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to say that it is an important matter. That is why I have raised it on two occasions recently with my French opposite number and that is why there will be discussions with the French on 4th December.

Lord Harvington

My Lords, if my noble friend consults his records he will find that this noble Lord was involved in just one of the incidents to which my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy drew attention this afternoon. The department took immediate active steps. The incident involved a British ship in the Channel. I was crossing the Channel from Cherbourg and the other ship refused to get out of the way when it should have done so. The result was that a Department of Transport official dealt with the skipper. That ship was registered in Hull. If any British ship about which there was a complaint were dealt with in this way, it would be helpful.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, my noble friend puts his finger on a very important point; namely, the question of identification. Where we can identify people who transgress the rules of the Channel, we do so. Last year there were 1,312 occasions on which we detected that the rules were not being obeyed. We managed to identify about 585 vessels, which accounted for under half the number of transgressions.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that in busy and restricted waterways around the country, merchant ships are required to take on pilots? Would it not be worthwhile contemplating, along with our Community partners, moving down that road with regard to the Channel, which is extremely busy and which has merchant ships sailing on it? Often those ships are not very heavily crewed and on occasions, there are no properly qualified people on the bridge to keep a watch. Pilots would ensure that ships are taken safely through.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, with the amount of traffic in the Channel, I wonder whether my noble friend's suggestion is practical and whether it would be as beneficial as he hopes. Pilots are used extremely successfully in narrow waters that are difficult to navigate. But with all the modern aids, I am sure that most merchant ships would be able to navigate the Channel properly if they behaved themselves.