HL Deb 19 June 1996 vol 573 cc309-11

Viscount Caldecote asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, in the event of a shipping accident which may result in pollution of the coastline, the port authority with jurisdiction over the area concerned has overriding authority to direct salvage operations so as to minimise the pollution which may occur.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (Viscount Goschen)

No, my Lords, under Section 137 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995 the Secretary of State for Transport has the overriding authority to intervene if this is necessary to minimise pollution.

Viscount Caldecote

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that somewhat weak Answer. However, the Secretary of State is not present at the scene of the disaster. In repeating the Statement on the "Sea Empress" made by his right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport, my noble friend said: The responsibility for the conduct of the salvage operation rests with the salvors … their proposals have to be considered and agreed both by the port authority and the marine pollution control unit".— [Official Report, 22/2/96; col. 1158.] Does that not give every opportunity for delay at a critical moment in the salvage operations through having to get agreement from three different sources? How does the Secretary of State operate his ultimate responsibility? Is there someone who goes to the scene of the action, and if so does that person have full knowledge of the local geography and sea conditions at the relevant port?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I utterly reject my noble friend's assertion that I gave a weak Answer. I cannot see for the life of me how saying that the Secretary of State for Transport has the ultimate authority and has wide-ranging and stringent powers to intervene to direct persons involved to take certain action, or even to take control of the operation himself and possibly eventually sink or destroy the ship, could be described as a weak Answer. We certainly believe—we have planned for this through the national contingency plan—that it is better to make use of the resources of specialist knowledge that people such as the salvors have. It is certainly for the salvors to run the salvage operation themselves but they must have their salvage plans agreed by the marine pollution control unit, which is effectively the Secretary of State's agent. That ensures that all the specialist knowledge is there and is used. However, if there is a failure and if the Secretary of State, through his agent, feels that this is not the correct procedure he can invoke his wide-ranging powers and take control of the operation himself.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I would normally agree with his noble friend in characterising the Answers we receive from the Government as weak? On this occasion, however, I think the description is wrong. As there has been reference to the "Sea Empress", does not the Minister consider it extraordinary that the Milford Haven Port Authority, which, along with others, is under investigation as to its role in that accident, should have taken upon itself a sort of pre-emptive strike by taking disciplinary proceedings or action against the pilot involved? Is that not unacceptable as the Marine Accident Investigation Branch is investigating the matter? Will the Government reconsider the reconvening of the Donaldson Committee to look into the wider implications of the accident—implications which involve his department and also environmental considerations affecting the Donaldson Report itself? Will the Minister reconsider that matter?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, is right to draw attention to the fact that the MAIB is investigating the whole incident, both the original grounding and the consequent salvage operation. It will consider the command and control of the "Sea Empress" incident and the effect of current salvage law on the handling of the incident. We have rehearsed these arguments many times. The Government firmly believe that the MAIB, set up by Parliament to perform a specific function, is the correct body to take the matter forward. After its investigation the MAIB may make recommendations which could well require further work. We shall consider those issues when we have the final recommendations of the MAIB. That is why I would not want to comment specifically on the "Sea Empress" situation. With regard to the action taken by Milford Haven Port Authority, that is a matter for that authority. It has the ability to act under the Pilotage Act 1987 which governs such matters.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that at the heart of the matter is rapid reaction? Surely the public want a standard of reaction which matches that of the fire brigade.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, my noble friend is right to draw attention to that fact. That is why we have a specialist marine pollution control unit dedicated to the task on permanent standby. It can go into action to combat pollution at very short notice. The national contingency plan must be put into action within 30 minutes of a report of a major oil spill. In the instance we are discussing, within four hours personnel had flown up from Southampton and were on the scene.

Early flights by reconnaissance aircraft had already taken place. The system worked very quickly. It remains our belief that rapid reaction is important.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, while a 30-minute reaction time is splendid, does my noble friend agree that some minutes are longer than others?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I shall have to reflect on that question. Apart from those minutes spent at your Lordships' Dispatch Box, the minutes I have come across have been of somewhat equal length. However, it is important that we react quickly, as we do. We have personnel on permanent standby to react for that very purpose. Those plans are put into place extremely quickly.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, is my noble friend convinced that pilots at Milford Haven are on board large ships early enough, bearing in mind that such vessels require a long distance in which to stop or turn? It may take three-quarters of an hour or more to stop. Is my noble friend aware that there are rumours that in a recent incident the pilot was on board only 10 minutes before the ship struck?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I do not wish to comment specifically on procedures that are under way at Milford Haven. They are a matter for the Milford Haven authorities. Just such matters are being investigated by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch. If it makes recommendations we shall consider them extremely carefully when deciding future action.

Lord Archer of Weston-Super-Mare

My Lords, is the Minister aware that people at Milford Haven wish we would stop talking about the issue? The oil has been cleared from the beaches, and such talk is greatly harming the holiday industry.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point. There was huge media coverage at the time of the accident, with predictions of terrible consequences. It was a very bad spill. We wish to take all measures to stop that occurring again. However, in the final analysis the oil was well cleared up. I pay tribute to those who performed that task. The beaches are now clear. The fact that Tenby North won a prestigious blue flag award—it was one of only four beaches in Wales to do so—is testament to that fact.

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