HL Deb 04 February 1993 vol 542 cc343-5

Lord Clinton-Davis asked Her Majesty's Government:

What interim action they propose to take pending the completion of the inquiries they have announced into the sinking of the oil tanker "Braer".

The Minister of State, Department of Transport (The Earl of Caithness)

My Lords, Department of Transport officials today met organisations representing oil companies, tanker operators and shipping interests. I am pleased to report that agreement has been reached on voluntary measures in the form of a code which will be promulgated by mid-March and which will be transmitted to the IMO for consideration and endorsement by the maritime safety committee in May this year. It is too early to anticipate the detailed provisions of the code, but it is intended that it will place voluntary restrictions on tankers operating in sensitive areas including the Fair Isle strait, the Isles of Scilly, the Minches and the Pentland Firth. We are still considering what other measures might be taken.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will welcome what the Minister said. I congratulate the Government very firmly on the action which has been taken as an interim measure pending wider international agreement. But will the Minister answer this: is there not an urgent need, made more so by falling standards among ships sailing the international seas, to restore higher standards and to resuscitate the British fleet and British seamanship, which stand for higher standards? What are the Government doing in that respect, bearing in mind that defects in foreign ships visiting Britain which have been inspected have trebled over the past five years?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his initial remarks. It is more than just a question of maintaining the high standards which we have in the United Kingdom. What we have been pressing for, particularly through our presidency of Europe in the past six months—and we shall continue to do so—is to improve the standards both of vessels and crews throughout the world. Shipping is a very international business. Unless we raise standards throughout the world, which is what we are trying to do, we shall not achieve the success which we are aiming for.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, while one rejoices to hear the news in my noble friend's original Answer, can he say something about the methods of enforcement and what chances they have of being effective?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, that is one of the difficulties with the present situation. Although these are United Kingdom territorial waters there are also international rights of passage through those waters, agreed by Parliament and registered in the United Nations and at the IMO. Therefore, monitoring the codes is extremely difficult. That is why it is important to get the agreement of all the participants or as many of them as possible. There are about 3,000 tankers in the world and about 2,300 owners. It is very difficult to get an effective code on a voluntary basis. That is why there are these interim measures. We await the full report of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, from these Benches I also welcome what the noble Earl said. As regards policing the code, surely an important part of that is to identify the offenders. Can the Minister say what are the chances of ensuring that some radar provision is made in these narrow waters so that the offenders can be identified when they are breaking the code?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the question concerns not only radar, which is but a small part of the problem. As regards the identification of ships, that is under discussion with the IMO. These are voluntary codes. We have no mandatory right under international law to monitor the shipping. The system relies on the good will of all the parties and that is why it is important to get the agreement of all the organisations.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, does my noble friend recall that the tanker was registered in Liberia which, I believe, it never visited? Have the Liberian Government taken any part in the discussions and if not, should not consideration be given to tankers being registered only with responsible countries?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the Liberian registry is in fact run from New York and not from Liberia. It is also run by a Scot. The Liberian record for accidents is below the world average.

Lord Rea

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that, according to information I received this morning, no payments have yet been made from the bridging fund set up for the purpose of helping the inshore fishermen and salmon farmers who have suffered severe financial loss as a result of the disaster? Can the noble Earl say when the bottleneck is going to be overcome so that these unfortunate fishermen can receive the interim compensation which they deserve?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the noble Lord's question is well wide of that on the Order Paper, but it is an important point. Work is being undertaken at this precise moment to try to ease the bottleneck.

Lord Mottistone

My Lords, can my noble friend say how successful has been the use of the Frogmat and the Vikoma system in disposing of the oil in the particular event which is the subject of the Question?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, again I believe that that question is rather wide of the Question on the Order Paper. It was the sheer, raw power of nature —the power of the sea—that dispersed the oil. Certain man-made provisions such as the matting and the dispersants certainly helped.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether the welcome voluntary code will include two matters which do not need to wait for the inquiries: first, that such vessels in certain waters should have a secondary standby power unit; and, secondly, an anchor which is usable in bad weather?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, as I said in my original Answer, the full terms of the code have yet to be decided. The principle was agreed this morning. My noble friend raises important points which I believe are wider than the code itself and which are much more suited for the inquiry to be held by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson of Lymington.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, at the risk of being told that my question is wide of the Question on the Order Paper, can the noble Earl say whether there is any information available now about possible contamination of the food chain as regards human beings?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, there is considerable monitoring taking place. Besides the two inquiries into the shipping side of the matter, an ecology study undertaken by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland is continuing to monitor all the kinds of questions which the noble Baroness asks.

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