HL Deb 22 February 1996 vol 569 cc1157-73
Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I understand that this may be a convenient moment to repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport.

"Madam Speaker, on Monday I made a Statement to the House on the "Sea Empress". In that Statement I referred to the difficulties of operations of this kind and said that the resolution of the incident would take time. I stressed that the weather would remain the crucial factor in determining progress. I am now informing the House of the steps that have been taken since Monday and the further steps the Government propose to take thoroughly to assess the incident and its consequences and to establish what lessons should be learnt and what further action needs to be taken.

"Since my earlier Statement the elements have posed considerable dangers and difficulties for the salvors engaged by the ship's owners. Difficulties with wind and tide have led to the ship regrounding on a number of occasions and to the loss of additional, and significant, amounts of oil. Despite these difficulties, immense efforts have been made by the salvors to try to stabilise the ship in order to prevent further loss of oil and to remove the oil still on board.

"Where oil has escaped, my marine pollution control unit's aircraft have sprayed it with dispersants. At the same time, between 150 and 160 people, organised by MPCU and supervised by qualified beachmasters, have been working to clean up oil which has been washed ashore. There has been no shortage of manpower or resources: all the equipment which could physically be brought onto the beaches has been made available. The local and harbour authorities and voluntary bodies have also been working hard to protect the environment.

"As the House will know, the ship was successfully refloated last night and towed to a jetty in Milford Haven, where it is protected by a boom. There was some further escape of oil from the vessel during these operations. It is proposed to unload the vessel into smaller tankers that will be brought alongside. This operation needs to be carefully planned and prepared and is likely to take some days. Every effort will be taken to prevent any further discharges from the ship.

"We are not yet in a position to confirm precisely the amount of the ship's cargo that remains on board. Indications are that up to half the cargo—some 65,000 tonnes—has been spilt. Of this light crude, around a quarter will have evaporated. However, there is considerable pollution at sea and on parts of the coastline. Much of the pollution at sea is in the form of sheens but there are also patches of thicker oil. When it is appropriate to do so these thicker patches are being sprayed with dispersants by aircraft. There are also three oil recovery vessels currently operating at sea and two further oil recovery vessels are proceeding to the area. Oil recovery operations are also continuing within Milford Haven.

"There is pollution also on parts of the coastline. The clean-up techniques used will vary between sites and are decided in full consultation with environmental experts and interests under the overall control of the joint response centre established by the MPCU and the harbour and local authorities at Milford Haven. The actual clean-up operations are being undertaken by local authority and oil company personnel and by specialist contractors. Every assistance is being given to the voluntary bodies who are dealing with oiled seabirds. I would like to pay tribute to these bodies for all the valuable work they are doing.

"The House will want to know what the Government will do to find out, first, the causes of this accident, secondly, what lessons can be learnt from the way the salvage operation was conducted, and, finally, the extent of environmental damage and the effectiveness of the response and clean-up operations.

"As I told the House on Monday, the Marine Accident Investigation Branch has already initiated an inquiry into the causes of the grounding of the "Sea Empress". MAIB inspectors have been on the scene since Friday and have made good progress. The Chief Inspector of Marine Accidents will provide me with a full report that will be published. I am sure that MAIB is the right body to do this. This is the purpose for which it was set up under Act of Parliament. We need a thorough professional examination of what went wrong so that we can learn whatever lessons there are to learn for the design, operation, management and pilotage of tankers. MAIB, like the parallel body for the investigation of air accidents, the AAIB, has the highest reputation for professionalism and integrity. I can assure the House that in this case, as in others, its investigation and report will be independent.

"Secondly, the conduct of the salvage operation. Salvage operations can only be undertaken by skilled experienced professionals and the consortium engaged by the ship's owners includes one of the world's leading salvage firms. The responsibility for the conduct of the salvage operation rests with the salvors. Though their proposals have to be considered and agreed both by the port authority and the marine pollution control unit, responsibility for their initiation and execution rests with the salvors. The salvors had to determine the resources needed and to ensure that they were to hand.

"Let me reiterate my unstinting admiration—which I am sure the whole House shares—for the tireless work which the teams of salvors, together with members of the emergency services, military and civilian helicopter crews, the ship's crew, Admiralty salvage experts, members of the MPCU and all those involved, have put into the salvage operation since the accident, often in diabolical conditions of danger, gales, freezing temperatures and acute physical discomfort. It is all too easy to criticise their efforts from the comfort of the armchair, the studio or the news room.

"Nonetheless, for all their Herculean efforts the vessel remained stranded for five days and some 65,000 tonnes of oil have been spilt. I know the House shares my disappointment and frustration at the repeated failures of the earlier salvage attempts and my deep concern at the environmental consequences. We must find out why, and whether there is any more that could be done to make a future salvage operation more likely to succeed. To that end I have asked the Chief Inspector of Marine Accidents to extend the scope of the current investigation to include the salvage operations. This will include consideration of the planning and execution of the operation, examination of the contingency plans that were made and of the input and supervision of the operation by the shipowner, his insurers, the harbour authority and the marine pollution control unit. The chief inspector has told me he is appointing independent consultants to assist with this part of his inquiry. I look to all those involved to co-operate fully with this aspect of the investigation. I shall publish the chief inspector's report.

"It is also essential that we undertake rigorous scientific assessments of the damage that has been caused on land and sea and of the effectiveness of the clean-up operations.

"My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Wales announced yesterday that up to £250,000 is being made available for a comprehensive environmental assessment and long-term monitoring programme in the area affected by the spill. The work will start immediately and will be undertaken by the Countryside Council for Wales, acting in partnership with other statutory agencies and voluntary environmental groups.

"It is intended to assess the impact of the spillage both on coastal and marine habitats, and of the effect of dispersing the oil both naturally and by chemicals on the concentrations of flora and fauna, including seabirds, seaducks and marine mammals. This will include a full assessment of the damage done to the Skomer Marine Nature Reserve and Milford Haven waterway. The levels of oil pollution in the seawater and coastal sediments will be measured, and changes monitored, as will the long-term recovery of the biological systems in general. The immediate need is to minimise to the extent that is possible the environmental effects of the spill. But we must not lose sight of the need to learn for the future.

"This assessment by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Wales will be complemented by work to be done by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who are arranging for diversion of the research vessel "Corystes" from its current research work to a new mission of fishing and environmental monitoring. The "Corystes" will be collecting samples of fish and shellfish for analysis of residues of oil. This will supplement the present and ongoing programmes of monitoring and will enable us to determine what restrictions are necessary and to say when fishing can safely resume. In the meantime, voluntary action ensures that fish on the market remain safe to eat.

"I also wish to express our appreciation of the work of those involved in the clean-up operation who are often working in exposed and unpleasant conditions. Nonetheless, we will also need to assess the pollution response and clean-up operations. At this moment it is impossible to estimate how extensive these operations are likely to be.

"At-sea operations are the responsibility of the marine pollution control unit, while operations on shore fall primarily to the local authorities, assisted by MPCU and, in this case, by the oil industry. In consultation with my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Wales I propose to appoint an independent assessor to undertake a rigorous examination for us of the response and clean-up procedures and techniques employed following the "Sea Empress".

"As the report of the Ecological Steering Group established after the "Braer" recommended, it is essential that these examinations of the environmental impact and of the clean-up operations are brought together and published in a form which will provide clear guidance for the future. This will be done.

"We believe that the measures necessary to reduce the risk of pollution were clearly set out in Lord Donaldson's report, Safer Ships, Cleaner Seas. When we have completed the investigation and the assessments I have referred to in this Statement we will be in a position to assess the lessons on this particular spill and set them in the context of Lord Donaldson's findings and recommendations, the vast majority of which we have accepted.

"The Government are determined to find out exactly what happened, to publish the results and to learn and apply the lessons. The House would expect no less".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.31 p.m.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place. I pay tribute to those individuals who, at considerable personal risk, were involved in seeking to salvage this stricken vessel.

This accident was extremely serious. At this stage it is difficult to measure the damage caused to that fragile and beautiful coastline and to its fish and wildlife. It is clear, however, that the damage could have been infinitely worse. The environmental damage was limited substantially through good fortune rather than good planning.

As the Minister said, many questions must be posed. How did the accident occur? Was the salvage operation carried out efficiently? How can we best protect our coasts? How can we ensure to the best of our ability that there is no recurrence? And how best can we have the matter fully and objectively investigated?

Another salient question was omitted totally from the Statement. Were the Government at fault in any way? Were they not on notice as to the vulnerability of Milford Haven to accidents of this kind, bearing in mind that one occurred only four months ago involving a double-hulled vessel? The Government's own department carried out an internal investigation—a follow-up to the Donaldson Report—which I understand was produced to the department last June. Why has that not yet seen the light of day, given the desire made transparent today on the part of the Government to be absolutely open?

Because the Department of Transport is so closely implicated in these matters, the Opposition take the view that an investigation undertaken by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch alone is inappropriate. I hasten to add that I cast no aspersions whatsoever on the MAIB. A Minister may laugh at that; but I held these responsibilities and I know that the MAIB will do whatever it is asked to do with considerable skill. However, that said, I do not believe that the necessary remit for this investigation is covered by its immediate competences. Moreover, since the Department of Trade and Industry's actions, or failures to act, must also be investigated impartially—because serious questions affecting environmental issues also have to be raised—we believe the most appropriate form of inquiry would be for the Government to ask the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, to reconstitute his committee.

After all, why was that committee set up in the case of a much less serious accident, the "Braer"? Are there not more lessons to be learnt as a result of this particular incident? That view is taken not simply by the Opposition; it is taken by many non-governmental organisations and other people. Certainly the Donaldson Report gained much credit from the fact that it was carried out by a distinguished judge and Member of this House. That redounded to the advantage of this country in the international counsels of world shipping. If that is right, it seems somewhat fruitless to run two investigations concurrently. But the Government have already started the investigation by the MAIB. Is there a place for a further Donaldson report? I certainly believe that there is. A decisive advantage is that much work has already been done by the Donaldson Committee. There is always the possibility, if the Minister is concerned about timing, for a preliminary report to be published if the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, were to undertake this work, and one could be requested.

Other issues have to be addressed. First, was the accident avoidable? At what point did a pilot come on hoard? Was it right that he came on board some 15 minutes before the ship entered the harbour? Bearing in mind that large tankers take a very long time to change course, was that anything like sufficient? Any investigation will certainly examine that matter. Having regard to the fact that another incident had occurred, as I said, only four months earlier at that very same port, would it not have been a wise precaution to have a large tug available on all such occasions, bearing in mind the vulnerability of that area? That is a matter for the Government, not for the salvors or anybody else. Had there been, as was reported in the press, other, unreported incidents of a similar kind? The Minister may like to comment on that, or least indicate that the Government will carry out a full investigation into that aspect of the matter.

Secondly, did the Government pay sufficient heed to the Donaldson recommendations regarding the availability of tugs? The specific recommendation was that tugs should be available in the Western Approaches. That was intended to prevent accidents of this kind. After the collision, is it right that the Government should have declined to bring in additional tugs? Would the presence of more powerful tugs, based in our busiest mainland oil terminal, have assisted? The Government say no. But that is a point of view convenient for them to adopt. We should like to know, from an impartial investigation, whether that government view is right.

Thirdly, was there no radar to control ingress to Milford Haven? Has that been the position over a period of something like six months? How could that situation have been permitted? Did the Department of Transport know about it, and if so, what did it do about it?

Fourthly, in terms of communications, was it not extraordinary that in order to communicate with the large Chinese tug that was required a Chinese restaurateur had to be persuaded to leave his take-away in order to assist in the necessary interpretations? The whole matter is farcical.

Fifthly, should not the whole question of double hulls be carefully and impartially examined? The United States has taken a very decisive view; namely, that no single-hulled tanker should be allowed to gain access to ports of an environmentally sensitive nature. Do the Government believe that view to be right, or not? Are there dangers in retrofitting existing tankers? As I understand it, these questions were left open by the Donaldson Report. They now assume huge significance.

Sixthly, what are the environmental and economic consequences likely to be? The Minister dealt in part with that question in his report, and I am grateful for that. Many people will be affected: fishermen, hoteliers, and others. I understand that compensation will ultimately be available—but how soon? Is there to be a mechanism for providing interim payments in suitable cases? Will claimants who make reasonable claims, which may be very complex in undertaking, be given an indemnity to cover reasonable legal costs? As I understand it, legal aid will not be available because there is no litigious process in what we contemplate.

The Government have said that much responsibility falls on local authorities. What additional financial support is to be made available to those local authorities? They will have to undertake expenditure immediately. It is true that ultimately they will be able to make a claim on the funds that are available. But why do not the Government provide the support now and then stand in the place of the local authorities, so that they can recover the moneys that are due? It is patently unfair that the local authorities should have to bear the brunt of the expenditure immediately.

Seventhly—the Minister's Statement was rather long and I am perfectly entitled to put these points, even if it irritates some of those on the other side of the House—is there evidence that cargo and shipowners have been involved in cutting costs and corners, thereby making accidents far more likely?

Eighthly, will the Minister confirm that the European Union's pollution taskforce has been sent by the Commission to help clear up the oil spillage? Has the Commission also pledged financial support for the area to the extent of £250,000, with more being made available for environmental organisations if necessary to help save wildlife?

Do the Government not regard it as essentially contradictory that, while they preside over the collapse of the British merchant fleet, as undoubtedly they do, increasing numbers of substandard flags of convenience ships carry goods to and from our ports? Is there not something inherently contradictory in that attitude? At the same time they cut the Coastguard agency. They impose cuts on the Marine Safety Agency and the Marine Accident Investigation Branch. Are those not very important issues which also have to be tackled? How can the Marine Accident Investigation Branch do that work? All those are issues which should be investigated by a reconstituted Donaldson Committee.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount for repeating the Statement. I share his wish to recognise the experience of individuals involved in the rescue procedures. Nevertheless, the Statement glosses over the fact that this is an accident which should not have happened. No, it is not stupid to say that. We had the example of an almost identical accident which happened in an identical place at a very similar time of day in terms of the tidal pattern in those waters. We also had the advice of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson—I see he is in his place and I shall not therefore discuss his report: it is, after all, his report and not mine—that we should pay particular attention to the approach to Milford Haven. It is ironic that most of our busiest oil ports are in areas of extreme environmental sensitivity, areas such as the Shetlands, the northern coast of Scotland and so on. Indeed, the "Sea Empress" had been involved in an incident at the Shetland port of Sullom Voe some months ago.

I want to concentrate on the issues of navigation. I shall attempt not to occupy quite so much time as the previous speaker. There are some important points to be made. What strikes me, as an amateur lover of boats and ships, is that, as reported at an early stage, the vessel was holed on the starboard side by rocks on the sandspit lying on her port side as she steamed towards the harbour. That suggests that the vessel was very seriously out of the correct path in the seaway.

I accept the seriousness of what the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, said about the pilotage. It might be very sensible to bring pilots aboard by helicopter at an earlier stage in the approaches to Milford Haven. If a pilot arrives by helicopter, the ship does not have to slow down in order to take the pilot on board. The ship does not lose way and therefore is less likely to be incapable of making the steering manoeuvres that may be necessary as she begins to move off course. I should like to hear the Minister's response to that point. It appears that the managing company for the "Sea Empress" is investigating these matters and has expressed concern that the grounding of the two vessels happened in very similar circumstances and in the same place.

The Statement speaks of the need to look at all the various factors—the ownership, the management of the vessel, and so on, and the design—which may have contributed to the accident. Does the fact that the vessel is Spanish-built, Norwegian-owned, registered in Cyprus, sailing under a Liberian flag of convenience, managed from Glasgow, chartered by the French and crewed by Russians make the investigation more difficult? As well as the questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, about the need to investigate whether or not single-hulled vessels should ever come into our ports, especially into ports in such sensitive areas, I should also like to ask whether or not the Minister agrees that the increased use of flags of convenience makes the control of shipping in our coastal waters more difficult. That point has been raised by a number of commentators.

This has been an extremely dangerous accident. It has been dangerous for the fishing industry, which is already under stress; dangerous for the tourist industry, which is very important in that part of south-west Wales; and extremely dangerous potentially to the environment. There have been suggestions in the press that a certain complacency had developed towards the environmental danger. The suggestion was made that the sea after all could help to clean itself. All that is true. But there must be a limit, particularly in coastal waters, to the amount of absorption which can be anticipated. There seem to be obvious dangers in relying on that as a method of getting ourselves out of trouble.

One matter not mentioned in the Statement is the assertion by the noble Viscount's honourable friend the Minister in another place on the radio this morning that the principle of the polluter pays will be obeyed and put into effect in this instance. Is the Minister satisfied that there are sufficient funds available from various international resources and/or from the insurance policies of the shipowner to satisfy that requirement?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I welcome the contributions from the Front Benches opposite. This has, of course, been an extremely serious accident. The Statement attempts to highlight our resolve to find out what has gone wrong.

The first point I should address is the inquiry into the cause of the accident. I was slightly puzzled by the approach taken by the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis. He took pains to say that he felt that the MAIB was independent of government. He explained that he had held the portfolio in charge of shipping, so he is well placed to accept that independence. The MAIB is beyond the influence of the department and Ministers. We cannot interfere. It has the expertise. It was set up with the specific aim of investigating accidents of this very kind. That is its stock in trade. I see no reason why that position should not continue and why that body should not be the responsible and appropriate body to investigate this accident as it would investigate any other accident.

The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, said that he felt that the MAIB should not conduct the investigation because the Government may be implicated. I do not believe that the Government are either more or less implicated in this accident than in any other accident. All accidents around our coast have the potential to be extremely serious and are investigated by the MAIB. It has an international reputation. Its integrity is unquestioned and I do not believe that the argument that it may criticise the department is a reason for it not to undertake the inquiry. It has criticised the department and its agencies before—the Marine Safety Agency and the coastguard—and it has the ability to do so again if it believes that that is the correct course of action.

The second major theme raised by both noble Lords was that of emergency towing vehicles—the emergency tugs—and the recommendations made in the report that we commissioned from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson. We accepted that report, specifically 86 out of 103 recommendations made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson. The report is widely accepted as making a major contribution towards maritime safety and pollution prevention.

As the House will be aware, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, identified that, as a priority, there should be two locations in which emergency towing vehicles should be positioned; in Dover and in the Minches in Scotland. We have taken forward that recommendation and acted upon it. Emergency towing vehicles are now stationed at those locations. They have been called out and used a number of times.

The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, suggested that we ask the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, to reconvene his inquiry. He contrasted that with the approach of using the Marine Accidents Investigation Branch. I believe that there is some confusion. In the "Braer" incident the body which investigated the accident was the Marine Accidents Investigation Branch. The inquiry of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, was set up to consider wider issues of safety and pollution prevention. It has been extremely successful in addressing those issues. But on the specific point of investigating the accident itself there was absolutely no quibble; the MAIB was the responsible and appropriate body in those circumstances and it is so in these circumstances also.

A number of points were raised about the circumstances of the accident; what happened; whether there was deviation of the vessel from a planned course and so forth. Those are points which the MAIB inquiry will investigate in detail; it will take evidence from all parties concerned. It will interview the relevant people and produce a thorough report, which will be published. That is the forum for investigating those issues and I should not like to comment on that. Beyond that, many of the issues to which the noble Baroness referred in particular are the responsibility of the port authority. It has a proper responsibility. It is a trust port and its responsibilities and the responsibilities of the master of the vessel are clearly defined and the boundaries clearly laid down.

The noble Baroness said that it was an accident that should never have happened. That goes for every accident in the maritime field and elsewhere: no accident should happen. It was an extremely serious incident. We recognise that a substantial loss of oil into the marine environment and on the coast will cause real environmental problems. But that does not alter the fact that there was an accident which can be investigated and the details of which can be produced by the MAIB.

The noble Baroness asked about the international nature of the ownership, management and crewing of the vessel in question. It is common in the shipping world for that situation to occur. Shipping is an international business; it has always been that way and resources of many seafaring nations are drawn together to provide facilities for shipowners.

The noble Baroness asked also about flags of convenience. She will be aware that we have put substantial resources into the issues of port state control and addressing flags from countries other than the UK in those matters. We inspect around 30 per cent. of all the vessels with foreign flags that call at our ports, whereas our international obligation is only 25 per cent. That is a powerful tool. I agree with the noble Baroness that persuading administrations to conduct their responsibilities of flag state control more appropriately is something on which we should concentrate through the national maritime organisation and we give that a priority.

The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, talked of the issues relating to the Marine Safety Agency, the coastguard agency and the MAIB in terms of funding. I can give an assurance that those bodies are given the appropriate funding by government. Safety will in no way be compromised. That is the view of the chief executive of the two agencies in question and I can repeat that assurance. We will not look for efficiency savings within those organisations which compromise safety and that is our final position.

This accident caused extremely severe difficulties in terms of the environment. I am pleased only that the ship has been recovered, though it has taken a long time. The assessments that we have now put in place will determine the actual causes of the accident and assess the nature of the salvage operation and of the environmental clean-up operations that go ahead. We will learn from the experience.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, before the noble Viscount sits down, perhaps he will be kind enough to respond to the question concerning local authorities and compensation for individuals.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, local authorities will be able to claim from the IOPC fund. Specific compensation arrangements have been put in place. It is an organisation agreed by international treaty and has the ability to call upon approximately £57 million worth of funding to provide compensation. It did a good job following the "Braer" in the Shetland Islands though there are legal claims still outstanding.

4.57 p.m.

Lord Elis-Thomas

My Lords, my feeling on this issue is that the Minister's response has been totally disappointing. Indeed, that disappointment is now turning to anger among those of us who have been concerned about the coastal environment for many years.

The environmental response of the Government has been totally inadequate in view of what was a near ecological disaster along the coast. I urge him to consult immediately again with his honourable friend in another place, the Secretary of State for Wales, to institute a full public inquiry where all the issues concerned with coastal zone management will come forward and all the ecological issues can be discussed. It makes nonsense of the deliberations of this House and of government to talk about sustainable development while such disasters continue to happen.

The European Union should immediately initiate a new proposal for regulations to control the transport movements that create this kind of pollution so that we can receive a serious response, rather than the totally inadequate response from the Government to what is a major environmental disaster.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I understand the noble Lord's extreme concern for the environment of the region with which he is so closely associated. But there is a possibility that two issues are being confused. I understand that the Government's reaction in physical terms—in putting forward the agreed contingency plans, mobilising the aircraft with dispersant spraying units, bringing forward the beach-cleaning operations and so forth to deal with the oil itself—is giving the noble Lord cause for concern.

Everything is being done that possibly can be done, mobilising considerable assets to deal as far as we can with the oil. A full public inquiry will not help in any way to address the issues of the clean-up now. An inquiry, against the procedures that I have put forward, is another question. A public inquiry will take time; it will inevitably provoke bitter controversy, legal representation, cost to those who want to make points and so forth. Our concern is to get to the nature of what caused this accident and to find out what lessons can be learnt. Those are our top priorities in terms of investigating the accident.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, in piecing together what happened in this accident, I have to agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, that it was an avoidable one. The weather was bad, but it was not that bad. I have to surmise that the tanker was probably late, that the master wanted to avoid paying overtime to the people in the port and that he was cutting corners. One marine expert—I hope that he is not the one who will be conducting the inquiry—was quoted in the Guardian yesterday as saying that the problem was that the tide was too high and that it goes up and down by 25 feet. But it does that every fortnight or so and has been doing it for millions of years. So that was not a very helpful suggestion. He cut the corners. As the tide goes up it also goes in and out, sideways, probably by three or four knots across that entrance, which I know quite well. He was pushed to the side, the pilot came out too late and there was a problem of communications. I do not think they got their act together before they went into the harbour. One thing professional seafarers know is that you should not enter a harbour until you are ready. Is it not true to say that the whole accident was saved from being worse by a Chinese tug with someone from a Chinese takeaway helping to translate? It is a pretty poor reflection on life.

Viscount Goschen

And that is a pretty poor question, my Lords. I would have expected rather better of the noble Lord. Yes, there were real communications difficulties with the tug in question—we can all have a big laugh about the Chinese takeaway and it is something that the press have centred on; yes, that tug was not useful; and yes the tug was not used. But other tugs were used. It was up to the salvors to determine the tug capacity they wanted. They got the tugs there.

A great deal of comment has centred on the issue of tugs when in reality the problem towards the end was buoyancy and not pulling power. You can pull a vessel that is on rocks too hard and she will just break up. The noble Lord appears to have conducted his own inquiry and has come to his own conclusions extremely rapidly. I shall not follow him on that course and I shall not pre-empt our inquiry.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that this big ship was on the Liberian register and that whatever may be the merits of that country it is not a maritime country nor one capable of carrying out any effective supervision over the management of shipping? If the ship was on the Liberian register, is there not a case for deciding to impose restrictions on the movements of ships, particularly of big ships, from non-maritime countries?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, it is extremely difficult to determine what is and what is not a maritime country. Liberia has a very substantial register indeed. The reasons behind that are numerous and there is a long history after the Second World War of vessels across the whole spectrum flagging out of their national registers. Rather than discriminate by country, we feel it is appropriate to discriminate in terms of condition. That is why we examine vessels which come into our ports. We use port state control. If vessels are substandard, we detain them; and if we detain them, we publish the details of the vessel and of her detention and pass them on to the maritime community. That must be the technique we use instead of trying just to say that because such and such a country does not have as long a maritime tradition as we do, therefore it shall not trade.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, it is customary on these occasions to thank the Minister for making a Statement. However, I understand that on this occasion we have very much more to thank the noble Viscount for than making a Statement. His qualities of decision-making and impromptu leadership as the Minister on the spot have been quite outstanding. For that he deserves the thanks of your Lordships' House.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear.

Lord Crickhowell

My Lords, as a former Member of Parliament for Pembroke and as someone who has had some involvement in the shipping and ports industry, perhaps I may first thank those who at considerable risk to themselves succeeded in finally salvaging this vessel. May I ask that the MAIB, in whose efficiency and integrity I have complete confidence, should look with particular urgency at an early stage in its inquiry at the whole question of following the practice of powerful tugs escorting every large tanker into port and to consider as a priority whether there should not be large tugs escorting tankers through the extremely dangerous and exposed entrance to Milford Haven?

Secondly, will my noble friend ask that all those who are inquiring into this affair look at the ecological damage and the possibilities of preventing ecological damage to the wonderful environment around the Pembrokeshire coast, but also bear in mind when looking at proposals for limiting entry only to double hulled tankers, and so on, at the importance of Milford as an oil port and to the huge importance of the oil refineries there to employment in West Wales? We have to find a balance between protecting the environment and recognising the significance of Milford in those respects.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, the Marine Accident Investigation Branch will be looking at the issues of the approach of the vessel, the use of pilots, whether any lessons can be learnt and how tugs should be utilised. But my understanding from speaking to people on the spot is that at Milford Haven the tides and currents are such that a very rapid approach has to be made through the entrance to the haven itself, and for that reason the use of tugs is not suitable. Vessels have to move very quickly and it is not a comparable situation to where oil tankers entering another type of port or harbour might be able to move more slowly and therefore benefit from the use of tugs. But, having said that, the inquiry will also look into that point.

My noble friend made an extremely important point in that Milford Haven is an important oil terminal with a very large refinery. There is, therefore, a considerable requirement for oil and the passage of oil tankers. That balance is at the heart of this issue. It is in an extremely sensitive area, but we must do everything we can to ensure that the shipping is as safe as possible.

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, in a sense, we have so far been very fortunate from an ecological point of view that the wind has been northerly? There is now a 16 kilometre long oil slick out at sea and as the winds go round to the more normal south-westerly a far worse ecological disaster may result than anything we have yet seen. Is the noble Viscount satisfied that sufficient is being done to try to prevent that oil slick ending up on those sensitive shores?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right that we have been relatively fortunate with the direction of the wind in terms of the direction that the large oil spill has taken. As for the spill itself, at sea the main weapon we have is our dedicated fleet of Dakota spraying aircraft. They have been spraying where the oil is far enough offshore not to have associated environmental disadvantages with the dispersant itself coming ashore. That is the main weapon that can be used on oil at sea. Beyond that, we are largely in the hands of the elements.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I shall be brief, and some noble Lords will remember that I used to be brief when I was on the Opposition Front Bench for more than four years dealing with government Statements. In a Starred Question last week I raised the importance of preventing oil pollution of the sea very shortly before the "Sea Empress" went aground. Will my noble friend accept that I make no claim to Highland second sight, which is sometimes attributed to me, but that I and other noble Lords are very concerned on the general subject and, of course, deplore this accident? While informed comment must, I believe, await the results of the inquiry, can the Government assure us that they will now assist in every way to mitigate the damage to wildlife on Skomer and other islands and to the coastline in the path of the slicks?

Viscount Goschen

Yes, my Lords, I can give my noble friend that strong assurance. We have already taken action and we shall continue to do so.

Lord Greenway

My Lords, while echoing what the Minister said earlier that the salvage of a ship of this size from rocks is a very much more complex business than large sectors of the media and the population believe, is it not the case that 20 years ago Milford Haven was used by tankers twice the size of this one and without the need for helicopters or escort tugs? Should we not be looking more carefully at the apparent reduction in standards at sea, which I believe are behind a lot of these distressing incidents that we are seeing today?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right. This is a highly complex issue and it is very difficult to encompass it in a soundbite, as it were. People are looking for easy explanations to a very difficult problem indeed, and one which involves a huge range of factors. I believe that the key factor in this case is that the world's leading salvage experts were on hand. It was their expertise in this highly specialised and technical field which was relied upon. The noble Lord identified the issue of human failings and the associated questions of training and standards of seafaring. Those are vital questions. The noble Lord was absolutely right to highlight them. It is also worth noting that a pilot was on board the vessel at the time.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, will my noble friend resist the call for a public inquiry into this matter and allow the MAIB to get on with its job? Is my noble friend aware that in the aviation world there has not been a public inquiry into an accident for nearly 25 years and that most aviation accidents are infinitely more serious (usually involving loss of life) than the one which has taken place in Wales? The reason for that is because the reputation of the Air Accident Investigation Branch is extremely high and its reports highly regarded throughout the world. We all want to see the MAIB gain that same reputation. Unless it is allowed to do its work it will never acquire the same reputation. Will my noble friend also confirm that one of the advantages of the MAIB approach is that interim recommendations can be made, sometimes in a matter of days? Lastly, before all noble Lords condemn flags of convenience out of hand, will my noble friend confirm that the most serious recent accident of this kind involved the "Exxon Valdez" in Alaska, and that ship was American crewed and owned?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, when discussing foreign-flagged vessels there is often the temptation automatically to assume that a foreign flag equals sub-standards. That is not the case. A great number of foreign-flagged vessels have been shown to be substandard and I emphasise that. However, the "Sea Empress" is a relatively new vessel and only about three years old. She is not the sort of rust-bucket that one might have deduced from initial reports.

My noble friend is quite right to highlight the usefulness of the MAIB approach. Our priority is not political expediency in immediately declaring an enormous inquiry to look into this matter. The MAIB is a body which has the technical expertise, integrity and independence to look specifically at these issues and to do so quickly. Speed is also important. I believe that my noble friend was quite right to highlight the issue of interim reports, which can be extremely useful in preventing further accidents.

Lord Rochester

My Lords, perhaps I should declare an interest in that I am an owner of a small property on a part of the Pembrokeshire coast, which I fear has already suffered pollution from this oil tanker. Will the Government now implement a recommendation of the Donaldson report, which I understand is still under consideration and which clearly affects Milford Haven, that marine environmental high-risk areas should be established around United Kingdom shores without waiting for international agreement?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I am very pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, raised the issue of environmental high-risk areas. As he mentioned, it is one of the recommendations made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, in his report that we are considering. Despite that, the fact is that Milford Haven, with its oil terminal and the refinery, cannot be designated an area to be avoided because oil tankers have to go there. However, I agree with the noble Lord that it is an area of extreme sensitivity and that we must find the best methods of balancing those two very contrasting issues. We have seen what can happen when a great deal of oil is spilt in this highly sensitive environment. But as my noble friend Lord Crickhowell mentioned, the refinery and the terminal are extremely important to the economy of this area of Wales.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords—

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend two questions?

Noble Lords

Lord Skelmersdale!

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, most of the Statement, and much of the discussion this afternoon, has surrounded the events that happened immediately when and after the "Sea Empress" hit the rocks. It behoves us all to make the seas as safe as we possibly can. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, that we have to make sure that these accidents are reduced to the absolute limit. It is now possible to use satellites to place cars and even missile silos with pinpoint accuracy. Therefore, does my noble friend agree that satellite global positioning ought now be used to check on the course of all high-risk shipping in our waters at least? It should not be beyond the wit of man to set up a central control to determine a ship's position from her previously agreed, logged and safe, chartered course, as indeed happens already with aircraft.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that technological developments have made navigation a great deal easier. However, there are still the difficulties of very strong tides and currents to be taken into account. We do not yet know whether this accident was caused by an error of navigation, steering failure, engine power plant failure or whatever. We believe that technology is extremely important. A transponder should be fitted to vessels and that is something we are working on with the international community.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, I pay a tribute to the noble Viscount for his fortitude in dealing with this event on the spot. It is fair to say that he kept his cool throughout in more ways than one and many of us admire him for it. As regards Skomer, which has been referred to, when claims for compensation are made there will be loud voices from many interests calling from along the coast. Will the Government make sure that Skomer—there is no loud voice because no one lives there except for a warden—is not overlooked if it needs compensation? We hope that it will not, but it may.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her extremely kind words. I receive them with great gratitude. As regards the situation of Skomer, it is clearly a very important wildlife reserve. Extreme environmental sensitivities are involved. There is a great variety of bodies working extremely hard to make sure that the effects of this accident are minimised. They are concentrating their efforts on those islands. As regards compensation for pollution from the IOPC fund, that depends on economic loss or reasonable measures being taken to prevent pollution. However, as I said, there are several other bodies which are extremely concerned, and in financial terms, with these extremely important reserves.