HL Deb 09 February 1993 vol 542 cc527-30

2.45 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

What estimate they have now made of the number of birds killed and of the damage to fish (including shellfish) and to farm crops resulting from the wreck of the "Braer" on the coast of Shetland.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Lord Fraser of Carmyllie)

My Lords, the total number of birds found dead is now close to 1,600. The number may increase as dead birds are washed ashore or are found in locations which have not yet been searched. Some birds recovered alive for cleaning may not survive. Some oil was carried on to the land by high winds and has affected an extensive area in the south of Shetland. Vegetables on some 25 crofts have had to be condemned and some 2,000 sheep have been moved off the worst affected grazing. The impact on sea fisheries and fish farming has been greater. But it is too soon to say what the full extent of the damage will be. Any long-term effect on the fish—for example, of ingestive hydrocarbons—is still being examined.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble and learned friend for that Answer, especially as sufficient time has passed for rough estimates to be made. What redress is available to the owners of farmed fish which have been rendered inedible and will probably have to be slaughtered—thought to be about one-quarter of the Shetlands stock—and what redress is available to sea fishermen whose customary fishing grounds lie within the exclusion zone?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, I am pleased to report to the House that last week the International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund agreed to accept claims for salmon due to have been harvested this year but which will now have to be slaughtered. It is too early to take decisions about other farmed salmon. If sea fishermen find that their catches in the exclusion zone are down it will be open to them to claim compensation from the fund. However, it would be premature to reach a conclusion about the future. I understand that the likely cost of claims for the salmon which would have been harvested this year is in the region of £7 million. Clearly, that matter must be worked out between those insuring and those making the claims.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, considering the magnificent work done by voluntary and other organisations to save the lives of the employees on the "Braer", have the owners of the ship been asked to contribute towards the damage that it caused?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, there are two funds from which compensation will be payable. As cargo insurers Skuld P & I Club of Norway has a limited liability of £5.5 million. In addition, the International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund will amount to some £50 million. It is still early days but there is every expectation that all legitimate claims will be met out of those sums.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, I realise that my question is marginally outside that on the Order Paper. Has my noble and learned friend any information on otters and seals?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, yes, I have some information about otters. I understand that of the otter population of Shetland four have been found dead, as have approximately 12 seals. Surprisingly, a large number of seals are basking on rocks not far from the position where the "Braer" foundered and they are surviving satisfactorily.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, the Minister has given an indication of the various funds out of which compensation may be paid. Is he aware that time is of the essence of the contract as regards many people who are affected? In view of the fact that some of the claims may take some time to settle, will the Minister undertake that the Government will make an effort to ease the cash flow problems of the firms and companies involved?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very good point. It is for that reason that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has established a bridging fund of something like £1 million which is to be administered by Shetland Islands Council. Its purpose, pending the settlement of claims, is to provide the cash flow cover to which fish farmers in Shetland in particular must have access if their businesses are to survive.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, the effect of the disaster goes wider than the fish farmers, does it not? Crofters have lost grazing land and vegetable growers have lost crops and are unable to get their crops to market. Will the fund also help those people?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, certainly. I singled out salmon fish farmers as they are clearly the most affected group within Shetland. However, as I said in my original Answer, vegetables and crops have been damaged and a number of sheep have been moved away. I understand that the insurers are already paying for additional fodder and grazing on other parts of the island. Those people thus affected will have access to the fund should they require it.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, is it not accurate to say that the consequences would have been infinitely worse had it not been for the violent weather at the time?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

Yes, my Lords. It was originally anticipated that the consequences might be quite as disastrous for the wildlife as the disaster in Alaska. However, it is clear from the final casualties of the sea bird population that nothing like the same degree of damage has been caused to the wildlife, although I regret to say that there have been losses of, for example, the great northern diver, a rare species.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, since sand eel colonies are affected by oil spillages, can the noble and learned Lord say whether the current research into sand eel populations will be extended by the Government? I understand that the present project is almost finished. Has the Minister yet had the results of the present project and will it be continued in view of the accident? Has the JNCC finished identifying all those areas which need to be identified as special protection areas?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, I cannot indicate to the noble Baroness the outcome of that research although, in a broader sense, the population of the sand eel is critical not only to fish around the Shetlands and Orkneys but also to the bird population. However, there will be continuing research in relation to the exclusion zone and the fish population around the Shetlands in order to identify whether there is any longstanding damage to the fish caused by the hydrocarbons.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, perhaps I may reinforce the remarks made by my noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington and the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, as regards the number of claims made for compensation. We must remember that many of those affected will be small businesses which will be in dire straits. I hope that the Minister will give some idea of how many claims have been made and how rapidly they will be processed. Will he make sure that there is no red tape which will delay the payment of compensation?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, the news last week that the fund has already agreed to make payment of compensation indicates that claims are being settled in the Shetlands very much faster than elsewhere in the world where comparable disasters have occurred. I cannot give the noble Lord a figure of the number of claims but I can indicate that of some 64 salmon fish farmers operating 148 sites in the Shetlands, there are only about 17 sites in the exclusion area which presently have fish in the water.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords is my noble and learned friend aware that the International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund, to which he referred, has operated well in previous tanker disasters of this kind? However, the process takes a considerable time. Will the Government do what they can to make sure that the mechanism for payment is speedy because the salmon fish farmers in particular will need interim payments if they are to stay in business?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, I trust that the mechanism which we have set in place—namely, the bridging fund within the agency of the Shetland Islands Council—will be sufficient to meet any interim claims. However, I assure my noble friend that should any difficulties emerge, the Government are very keen to ensure that the fish farmers in Shetland should not be affected by the disaster.

Lord Richard

My Lords, I understand that following the "Exxon Valdez" disaster, the United States of America insisted that tankers using its waters should be insured with unlimited liability to ensure that the polluter really did pay for the damage that he caused. Are the Government considering any comparable legislation as regards British waters?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, that matter will have to await the outcome of the inquiry which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, is undertaking. However, I assure the noble Lord and the House that funds are available to those who have suffered loss and damage on the Shetland Islands from the two sources I have indicated. It is anticipated that those two funds will in no sense be exhausted in meeting the claims which those individuals have.