HL Deb 27 March 1996 vol 570 cc1697-701

2.45 p.m.

Viscount St. Davids asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will take steps to reconstitute the Donaldson Committee in order to inquire into the wider ramifications of the accident involving the "Sea Empress" in February 1996, in addition to the investigation being undertaken by the Marine Accidents Investigation Branch into the causes of the accident; and, if not, why not.

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

My Lords, the report of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, completed less than two years ago, set the broad framework for the Government's policy towards marine pollution from ships. Until the Marine Accidents Investigation Branch has completed its investigation into the cause of the "Sea Empress" grounding and the conduct of the subsequent salvage operations, it would be premature to examine whether its findings justify reconsideration of the report's recommendations.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his reply, although I think that it will bring little joy to Wales. I declare an interest as vice-president of the Welsh Wildlife Trust. Is my noble friend aware that it has been widely reported that the two-page interim report by the Marine Accidents Investigation Branch contains a number of errors of fact? Will he assure the House, and thus place on record, that the report contains no such errors?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I understand that the Chief Inspector of Marine Accidents has written to the honourable Member in another place who made these allegations defending and explaining the accuracy of the original bulletin. I therefore believe that bulletin to be accurate.

Lord Murray of Epping Forest

My Lords, will the Minister give an assurance that at an appropriate time, given the quality of the Donaldson Report, the noble and learned Lord will be invited to review the application of his report generally and at that stage take into account subsequent developments, including the consequences of the grounding of the "Sea Empress"? In relation to one particular recommendation of the Donaldson Report, can the Minister confirm or deny statements that the Government intend, for the sake of saving a little money, to cease stationing strong tugs at the Minch and off the Straits of Dover from the end of April at least until the beginning of October? Given the fact that those are key areas where dangers to shipping are particularly strong, if that is a true statement of intention, will the Government review their decision?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, on the noble Lord's first point, I can assure the House that we will take extremely careful note of recommendations that the Marine Accidents Investigation Branch might make in its inquiry not only into the grounding of the "Sea Empress" but also into the conduct of the subsequent salvage operation. We will therefore use those recommendations and the information put out by that independent inquiry to look again at the recommendations of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, to see whether they justify further work.

On the second point, it is important to know that until two years ago there were no government-sponsored tugs around the coast of this country. Subsequent to the Donaldson Report, we acted on its recommendation. We have held two trials—to put two powerful tugs for winter-only periods in Dover and in the Minches. We are currently reviewing the results of those trials. We will of course make clear our intentions for the future.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the ramifications referred to in the noble Lord's question are wide and very serious? Does he further agree that they have caused profound concern in Wales, and especially in south-west Wales, where this terrible tragedy took place? Could he say when the report of the Marine Accidents Investigation Branch is likely to be published? Will he give an assurance that the suggestion by the noble Lord that the matter should be referred to the Donaldson Committee will be considered very carefully? Further, will he tell the House whether the Secretary of State for Wales has been consulted on this matter, and what his reactions are?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, in reply to the noble Lord's first point, we understand the genuine concern of people throughout the country and especially within the region that has been hit by that very severe spill. Of course we understand their environmental concerns and concerns for the economy of the region.

Secondly, with regard to the estimate of time, the best indication is that the investigation into the "Braer" incident in the Shetland Islands took just under a year. We must give the chief inspector the time that he needs to make a thorough investigation into all the consequences and obtain all the information and all the facts as well as to interview all the witnesses that he needs to hear. We should not dream of constraining him in that regard. But I know that the chief inspector fully realises that the country is waiting to hear what his recommendations might be and his assessment of the situation.

On the noble Lord's third point, I believe that in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Murray, I gave a full explanation of the way in which we would take forward any recommendations that the chief inspector might make.

Baroness White

My Lords, is the Minister not aware that this very morning in Bangor, the Secretary of State for Wales made a very long and detailed comment on the whole situation? Has he not been informed of that? Has his office not been able to keep pace with what is happening in Wales? Is he not aware that this morning the Secretary of State appointed Professor Edwards to chair a steering group, which will have some extremely distinguished members in it, some of whom we know and trust?

We are still concerned about the rumours of commercial rivalry between local firms in the early stages at Milford Haven having seriously delayed effective salvage operations. I am astonished that the Minister has not been informed. All that information was available this morning. My noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis, myself and several others have full details.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I am astonished at the question and that the noble Baroness says that I am not informed by the Welsh Office. We have been working extremely carefully both at ministerial and official level between the two departments. The noble Baroness is confused between the technical investigation into what happened with the grounding and subsequent salvage operations and the environmental assessment that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Wales spoke about. They are two separate issues. Of course, we need to make sure that all the technical aspects are covered and that we learn all the relevant lessons for shipping safety. We must also make sure that we know exactly the consequences of the clean-up operation, including all the environmental consequences as well. There is nothing between the Secretary of State for Wales and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that those of us who in the past have carried the responsibilities that he now carries believe that he has acted prudently, sensibly and in the best interests of all concerned? I am sure that that would also be the view of the noble Lord on the Opposition Front Bench who is about to ask a question, for he too carried those responsibilities and is well aware of the difficulties which he experienced from time to time in dealing with such matters.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his very kind words. I would not seek to pre-empt the question which may be about to emerge from the noble Lord sitting opposite. My noble friend is quite right. These are difficult and complicated issues. We must make sure that we have the best shipping safety regime that we can practicably have and that we learn all the lessons that come out of that unfortunate incident to try to ensure that it is not repeated.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, from previous experience I am very much aware of the problems that the Minister faces. But does he agree that it is now self-evident that the narrow remit of the investigation currently being undertaken by the MAIB is insufficient? We already know that there are wide environmental implications involved and that wide international as well as national issues remain. The Government themselves to some measure are involved and their conduct has to be investigated. Is he aware that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, would be prepared to have his committee reconstituted in order to deal with these matters? Does he agree that that would be a much more thorough way of dealing with the matter, particularly in the light of his suggestion that we may have to wait for one year before the report of the MAIB is available? What is now being done in relation to Milford Haven to ensure that no further accident of that kind can happen before the report is tendered to him?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, the noble Lord is missing the essential point. The Marine Accidents Investigation Branch was set up to deal with specific circumstances such as this one. Following the awful tragedy of the "Herald of Free Enterprise", it was felt that the best way to investigate serious marine accidents was to set up a government body that would be totally independent of Ministers and officials from whatever department to investigate the cause of accidents and make recommendations to stop them happening again. The inquiry of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, produced a much wider ranging report which looked at all aspects of maritime safety and pollution prevention. It is only two years old. It was a very thorough report and covered all the issues.

We have said that we shall look very carefully indeed at the recommendations and the findings of the Marine Accidents Investigation Branch report. We shall then consider whether the recommendations made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, only two years ago in his report, Safer Ships, Cleaner Seas, need to be re-examined. That is the essential point. We need to find out the facts and do it as quickly as possible.

With regard to Milford Haven, the chief inspector is able to put up interim recommendations and if he feels that those are required, he can do so at any point.