HL Deb 19 December 2002 vol 642 cc782-4

11.28 a.m.

Lord Burnham asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking to prevent further collisions in the English Channel.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Marine Coastguard Agency is working very closely with the French authorities to prevent further collisions with the wreck of the MV "Tricolor". In addition to the procedures of the Channel navigation information system, the French police vessel "Glaive" and our HMS "Anglesey" are guarding the wreck, in addition to two salvage boats. Coastguards are broadcasting navigational warnings at 20 minutes to, and 10 minutes past, the hour and this is increased to four an hour when there is bad visibility. Three wreck buoys have been placed to mark the site and a further one, with radar response capability, is planned for Friday.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, so far as concerns this individual collision, that Answer is most satisfactory. As this is the last Question of the year, perhaps I may take the opportunity to wish the noble Lord a very happy Christmas and express the hope that in the New Year he may be required to answer for one or two fewer departments.

On the assumption that the Government are monitoring collisions in the English Channel, what evidence is there to show whether those have increased or decreased and what steps are the Government taking to ensure that, in future, there is compliance with the codes relating to the separation zone?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, do not spoil my fun next year! This is a serious Question and that is why we have a traffic separation scheme in the Channel. After all, it is only 45 miles wide at that point and that is why there are separate east, north and southbound lanes. The Channel navigation scheme, which came into force in 1971, has been successful in avoiding serious damage. We have not had anything like the accident between a tanker and a cargo ship which occurred before the separation scheme came into force and which involved loss of life. I do not have statistics covering the past 30 years, but I can certainly write to the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, on that point.

Lord Greenway

My Lords, I acknowledge what the noble Lord has just said with regard to separation lanes and their undoubted success in reducing the number of collisions in the Channel. However, does he agree that this latest incident shows up one of the potential weaknesses of the system where there is a crossing point between lanes going north/south and east/west—in fact, a type of maritime Piccadilly Circus? Has he also seen the letter in today's Daily Telegraph from a Trinity House pilot, who acknowledges that, while seafarers today are very much au fait with radar and electronic gismos, they are woefully lacking when it comes to mental arithmetic and interpreting what they see on their screens in relation to what is going on outside the window, if, indeed, they look out of the window?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the accident to which we are referring took place in thick fog and looking out of the window would not have done very much good. The noble Lord, Lord Greenway, is right. The accident took place at the crossover point between the north/east lane, which is the responsibility of France, and the south/west lane, which is the responsibility of this country. He is also right that there is a constant exchange of information via telephone, computer transmission link and facsimile. His comments on mental arithmetic raise wider aspects of the training of maritime officers.

Lord Bradshaw

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the recent accidents—I refer to the "Prestige" accident and the one in the Channel—raise serious questions not only about the type of ship which is permitted to be used but also about the standard of crewing on many ships, which is appallingly bad? Can he give us any reassurance that we are trying to improve standards?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, of course, we do not know who was responsible for the accident involving the "Tricolor", and inquiries are still taking place. The "Tricolor" is a Norwegian-registered ship. It was crewed by a Norwegian captain and a Swedish officer and 22 Filippino sailors. Fortunately, they were all saved without injury following the collision. But clearly, even if we consider only the language capability of some of the people crewing ships, questions of communication, as well as questions of training, must arise.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, I was the Minister who introduced the idea of traffic separation schemes in the 1970s. Will my noble friend confirm that those schemes seem to have been extremely successful but that there are real problems relating to fog? What lessons is the department inclined to draw from the present situation?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on the work that he did in setting up the traffic separation scheme. It was the first in the world to be established; it was the first to operate under radar surveillance; and it was the first to be adopted by the International Maritime Organization. As I said in answer to an earlier question, we have avoided serious incidents involving loss of life, such as the one that occurred before the scheme was set up. Therefore, we need to congratulate ourselves on what has happened. As for the issue of fog, we do not yet control the weather. Radar surveillance is the current technology available.

Lord King of Bridgwater

My Lords—

Noble Lords

We have run out of time.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton)

My Lords, I take this opportunity to apologise unreservedly for failing to turn up in time for my Question. I did so because I was under the mistaken belief—it was entirely my fault— that Questions were being answered at 3 p.m. I apologise unreservedly to the House. I apologise, in particular, to my noble friend Lord McIntosh, who did not expect to have to cover quite so many departments. I understand from everyone to whom I have spoken that he did a much better job than I would ever have done in answering the Question.