Perhaps I may begin again, Mr. Speaker.
I beg to move,
That this House approves the White Paper on the "Torrey Canyon" (Command Paper No. 3246), endorses the actions taken by Her Majesty's Government and resolves to refer to the Select Committee on Science and Technology the question of future measures against the pollution of our shores in the light of the experience gained from the wreck of the "Torrey Canyon".
This debate is taking place in circumstances of somewhat lesser tension than might have been expected 10 days ago. This is, no doubt, partly due to the success, not yet complete—for they could not have been so; but substantial success—of our operations of prevention and cure. Much more, however, it is due to the change of attitude on the part of the Opposition. This has not occurred because of a change of policy on the part of the Government. Had the Opposition urged us to take a particular course, and had we then taken it, following their advice, it would have been perfectly reasonable for them to change their attitude. But this is not at all what happened.
During the difficult days of decision, not a word of advice emerged from the Opposition. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bexley (Mr. Heath) was, I believe, recovering from his exertions at the Icelandic Press ball and elsewhere, and, no doubt, other right hon. Gentlemen were equally preoccupied. But, whatever the reasons, not a word emerged from them not merely until we had taken the decision to fire the ship but until the first part of that hazardous operation had been carried out and had proved a substantial success. Then the right hon. Member for Bexley, pontificating with the courage of hindsight, asked why we had been waiting, why we had not done it before. Speaking, as I think he described himself on television, as a seaside man himself, he wondered what we had been waiting for.
At first, the right hon. Gentleman was alone among right hon. and hon. Members opposite, but not for long. On the Friday evening, 31st March, 10 days ago, three other right hon. Gentlemen joined in. Their handouts from Conservative Central Office bore all the marks of a concerted campaign. What did they say? First, we had the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Grantham (Mr. Godber), whom I am glad to see here. He said:
To be told that you have to wait 11 days to learn that a loaded oil tanker could be set on fire by bombing is an insult to the intelligence of any child".
Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman's children did take this view. To be honest, I must confess that one of my children took it. But it certainly was not an insult to the intelligence of scientists and oil experts, both governmental and outside, and I shall later describe how they regarded it as an extremely complex problem with a highly doubtful outcome.
Then we had the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter), whom I am sorry not to see here—
Not at the moment; perhaps later.
The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames said:
The handling by the Government of the 'Torrey Canyon' affair was absolutely characteristic".
From the tone of his subsequent remarks, I do not think that this was intended as a compliment, though I may be misjudging the right hon. Gentleman. But it now looks like a rather glowing tribute. Certainly, if we can handle any equally difficult and unprecedented situations which may develop in the future and emerge with not merely as little criticism, but with praise, such as was expressed by Cornish Members when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made his statement last week, and with the same position in the House of Lords when the statement was made and in the debate on Thursday—and with the Opposition's apparent intention to endorse the White Paper—we shall not be doing badly.
I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Bexley is leaving us. He has not been notable for consistency of attention throughout this matter. I hope that the right hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames stands by the tribute he paid to the Government 10 days ago.
I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Bexley has gone, because I gave him notice that I wanted to refer to him in the opening part of my speech. The handling of the "Torrey Canyon" affair by the Opposition has been absolutely characteristic of the right hon. Gentleman's leadership. We have had that combination of rashness and indecision, that eagerness to wound but failure to strike, that inability to distinguish between what is and what is not a legitimate party issue, of first deploying and then having to withdraw forces—we may well ask why no right hon. Gentleman from the Front Bench who uttered a word two weeks ago is allowed to speak in this debate, characteristics which are now only to familiar, not only to this side of the House but to the opposite side as well.
The right hon. Gentleman tries to suggest that nobody passed criticism about the firing of the ship until it had been done, but that is not true. All Members from the South-West who met his right hon. and hon. colleagues urged that course much earlier. I myself made that abundantly clear to one of his right hon. colleagues.
The hon. Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery) misheard me. I said, "No right hon. Gentleman from the Front Bench", and although we are glad to see the hon. Gentleman back in the House he is not yet a right hon. Gentleman, and he is not yet back on the Front Bench. However, I have now finished with the political background, though we heard a great deal of the political background during the week when things seemed to be going with difficulty.
I want to deal with three main topics, on each of which, I think, the House would like to hear more from the Government: first, developments in dealing with the oil at sea and on the coasts since the publication of the White Paper on 4th April; secondly, lest there be still some misunderstanding about this, the timing of the action taken by the Government; and, thirdly—the House may well agree that this is now the most important—the action the Government are taking to guard against similar threats in the future.
First, I shall deal with events since the publication of the White Paper, which indicated that the scale of damage still in prospect should be less daunting than was at one time feared. I am glad to be able to report that that remains true. It would be foolish to try to assert exactly what tides or winds will do in the future, but our best assessment now is that there will be no further widespread pollution.
The Plymouth headquarters continues to report that there is no oil on the Devon beaches. Local authorities all along the south coast have rightly made plans for dealing with the oil if, against expectations, it should reach them. Detergent stocks are available in all counties, and local authorities will be warned at once if a threat of pollution to their beaches should again develop.
But the threat has so far diminished that the Government have been able to advise local authorities that, with a few special exceptions, no booms need now be constructed east of Lyme Regis. The limitations of booms have been demonstrated by the weather of the past few days, but I am sure that we were right to give them a trial. It was a situation in which we had to improvise without being certain what the results would be, and we should have been wrong not to attempt measures which gave no guarantee of success. If we had not attempted them we would rightly have been criticised.
In Cornwall, men and machines are at work to clear the dozen beaches at present seriously affected by oil. Units of the Armed Forces sent to assist the Cornish authorities are still at work, and they were joined recently by a contingent from the 3rd United States Air Force. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government will describe in more detail later tonight—perhaps a great deal later now, I fear—where and how the work is proceeding, the methods being used, the further experiments being made, and the success achieved so far. The efforts of the local authorities, supported by the Armed Forces, the fire services, local volunteers and many other persons—not least by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government—have achieved a magnificent success in cleansing and preserving the Cornish beaches.
Many formidable problems still remain. Some of both the untreated and emulsified oil has penetrated deeply into the treated beaches, especially those of shingle, and the oil may be thrown up by subsequent tidal action unless measures are taken to turn the top layer over and allow the tide to wash the emulsion away.
Another difficulty is removing oil from inaccessible rocky parts of the coast: the oil tends to adhere very strongly to the rock surface and detergent is often difficult to apply. It seems possible that in some cases part of the oil may be washed off by the tide and recontaminate other beaches; alternatively the oil may harden and leave the rocks stained for a very long time. Methods to overcome these difficulties and to provide effective treatment of contaminated mud flats and saltings are still being actively investigated.
Reports on the success of dealing with the oil at sea continue to be encouraging. At the beginning of last week two major oil slicks remained, both about five miles in diameter. The first lay between the Lizard and the Scilly Isles, the second north-west of Guernsey. Royal Navy ships continue to spray these patches and in the first days of the week the slicks were much reduced in diameter and showed signs of breaking up. By Thursday, they had been totally dispersed.
There then appeared to be no oil at sea thick enough to require continued spraying by detergent, and all such operations, which began quickly on the day the tanker went aground, and at one time involved over 50 ships, ceased on that day. In the unlikely event of an oil slick again threatening the coast the Royal Navy would again be able to deploy forces at very short notice.
The tanker lies broken on the Seven Stones. Rough weather and the dangers of the reef, together with other hazards like unexploded bombs, have so far made detailed inspection by divers impossible. Plans, however, are ready for an inspection to be made as soon as conditions permit. But reports from aerial reconnaissance show that all the oil tanks are breached and empty. Slight seepage of oil from the tanker continued for a time—and there were some exaggerated reports on this—but the amount was very small, and it now seems to have stopped. It appeared to be fuel and not crude oil, and was no more than would be expected from the total wreck of any oil-fuelled vessel.
As we explained in the White Paper, local headquarters, each under a Minister, have been operating from Plymouth, Portsmouth and Folkestone. The Plymouth headquarters continues in working operation, but with the removal of the threat of further gross pollution of any beach, there is no longer a requirement for a Minister to remain at the three headquarters. These, however, are primarily matters for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government, who has been in charge of the whole of the south coast, and who spent the critical days of the emergency at Plymouth.
Finally, in this first section I would like to give the latest position about marine life and wild life. The advice on which we acted was that neither the fish, nor the fishing grounds, in the deep sea would be affected by the oil or detergent. Events have so far fully borne this out. A research trawler belonging to the Marine Biological Association has, in association with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, been fishing in the affected areas round the Seven Stones reef, near Wolf Rock and in Mounts Bay, and the fish caught have been examined in the laboratory for signs of damage and possible health hazards if eaten.
None has been found, and the fish are untainted and apparently as plentiful as ever. As the White Paper explained however, care was taken to avoid methods of coagulation which could carry oil to the sea-bed.
Close in shore, where it was thought that shellfish might be affected, only very few crabs and other shore-haunting fish have been found dead. This was in areas heavily polluted with oil where substantial quantities of detergent have been used. This is being kept under close review by experts reporting to the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, and local authorities have been asked to restrict such detergent operations wherever feasible.
Among wild birds, both native and migratory, there have, unfortunately, been a lot of casualties. But great efforts to treat birds affected by oil have been made by all the organisations to whom reference is made in paragraph 33 of the White Paper, assisted in many cases by voluntary workers. Action is now being concentrated on rescue operations and on prevention of further pollution of estuaries. The R.S.P.C.A. is coordinating the operations, and the Nature Conservancy has been in close touch with the three Ministerial headquarters and local authorities about preventive measures, especially for Nature reserves. About 7,000 birds have been brought to cleansing centres set up by the R.S.P.C.A. and treated for oil pollution. Money for these operations is being made available through the "Torrey Canyon" Special Fund of the World Wildlife Fund.
I now turn to my second main point, the timing of the action taken by the Government. As the White Paper makes clear, we had from the beginning three broad courses open to us. The first was to try to pump the oil into other vessels. Had this been possible, it would have been the most satisfactory course of the three. It would have offered the best safeguard against pollution of the coast—which was throughout the Government's overriding consideration.
But it was not practicable. Why? First, because the tanker's pumps were completely out of action and there was no possibility of repairing them. The alternative method was to get a vessel alongside and to pump the oil out into shallow draught coastal tankers, which could have stood a little further off. But this would have needed calm weather, and a very prolonged period of calm weather, for we could not have proceeded at a rate anything like normal since the "Torrey Canyon's" pumps were not working. To dispose of the 90,000 tons which remained after the impact would, therefore, have taken many weeks, even several months.
Even in calm weather this would have been a hazardous as well as a long drawn-out process. A spark from the pumping apparatus could have caused another explosion, similar but more extensive than that which killed the captain of the salvage team on 21st March.
Is it the right hon. Gentleman's case that the explosion which did occur was the result of the accumulation of gas, or that it was the result of the compressors working on the tanker's deck?
My evidence is not related to a detailed analysis of the explosion which occurred. It arises from the completely unanimous advice that any pumping operation would have been extremely dangerous. The nature of the danger associated with work on or near the ship was shown by the explosion which did take place, with fatal results.
To have attempted such a pumping operation in the boisterous weather which prevailed would have been not merely hazardous but suicidal. It would be interesting to know whether the hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Patrick Jenkin) is merely trying to pick holes for the sake of keeping the debate going, or is seriously suggesting what I have not heard suggested yet by any Opposition spokesman or anyone else—that pumping would have been a feasible operation.
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not press the implication that I am trying to waste time. What I was trying to make out was that exactly the same argument applies to the question of laying charges. I wanted to establish whether it was the presence of gas which made operations on the tanker deck in the early stages so hazardous, or whether the right hon. Gentleman was relying on the evidence of the actual explosion as evidence. The salvage captain was not in any way burned. This suggests that the explosion had nothing to do with gas.
I will come to the laying of charges in continuation of my argument.
The main point I am making now is that any activity near or on the ship carried grave danger of an explosion. It would have been impossible, in these circumstances, to have carried out this extremely long drawn-out pumping operation. The risks to those working on or close to the ship would, in the Government's view, have been quite unacceptable. It would not only have been human lives, but the whole objective of the operation which would have been at risk. The sides of the tanker might have been split by the explosion and all the remaining oil spewed out into the sea. A pumping operation would have been highly desirable but, at least in the conditions which prevailed, quite unattainable.
The next best course would have been to refloat the ship and tow it away. The professional advice of the experts directly concerned was that this was a real possibility. It was the advice of the Dutch salvage firm—probably the most experienced in Europe. It was also the advice of the Chief Salvage Officer of the Navy Department. This officer had joined the salvage crew on Monday, 20th March. He had gone on board the tanker; he had closely discussed the position with the salvors and other experts.
As a result, until the tanker's broke her back, the Navy Department's view was that every effort should be made to refloat her. And, contrary to the impression since created, the British Petroleum experts did not dissent. This advice was given, and considered, in the knowledge that rising spring tides were gradually increasing the depth of water around the tanker, and would improve the chances of refloating her until they reached their peak on Monday, 27th, and Tuesday, 28th March.
When the reasonable possibility of this course succeeding is considered in conjunction with the uncertainties of the third course—firing the ship—there is no doubt in my mind that we were right to give the second course its chance. In the event, the second course failed and the third course succeeded. There is, in consequence, a natural tendency to think that this must have been obvious from the beginning. I can assure the House that it was far from obvious to anyone with expert knowledge and in full possession of the facts.
The right hon. Gentleman says the Government consulted a Dutch salvage firm. Will not he agree that this firm had a great vested interest in persisting to the bitter end in trying to refloat the ship? Was that taken into account?
I have indicated the position fully. Had we taken no further advice than that of the Dutch salvage firm, we would be open to criticism. At the same time, it is somewhat unreasonable to believe that this firm would have been totally lunatic in its approach to the matter and would have wished to go on with an operation which was killing members of its team and which had no hope of success.
Even so, had we taken no other advice I think that we could to some extent have been open to criticism, but, as I have said, the Chief Salvage Officer of the Royal Navy was working in the closest co-operation with the Dutch firm, was on board the "Torrey Canyon" on four different occasions and discussed the situation with the firm. We depended on his advice to a somewhat greater extent than that of the firm itself. I hope that, with this explanation, the certain amount of misunderstanding—I think genuine—which has arisen will be cleared up.
The Royal Navy was dealing with the operation right from the beginning. As the White Paper points out, a naval helicopter was over the ship within a few hours of the wreck. When I say "we" I mean, of course, the Government. That is the normal case with Ministerial statements. I mean the Government, acting on the best professional advice available to us. This is the reasonable meaning to be attached to "we" in these circumstances.
Previous experience of firing tankers has not been encouraging. The Persian Gulf example was cited in the White Paper. And in any event, had we, from the beginning taken a more pessimistic view of floating-off, time was needed to prepare for firing. First, we needed to experiment with the possibilities of firing oil on the sea. Bombing was likely to spill the oil out without destroying it, and if we could not subsequently ignite it, this would have done much more harm than good.
The scientists who had been working on this problem, almost from the beginning, were not ready with practical experiments until the Easter weekend. In the event, these experiments, with sodium chlorate devices, gave over optimistic results. But to have risked spilling huge quantities of oil without knowing what we were likely to have been able to do with it when spilt, would have been irresponsible in the extreme.
There have been several references to a tanker in the Persian Gulf. I have not been able to discover what tanker this was or when the disaster occurred. Can the right hon. Gentleman enlighten us?
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we went into this matter very closely. I think that it was about a year ago that the tanker was fired. It burned for a very long time, I believe for several months. At the end of this period, not quite half the oil had been destroyed. I am giving the facts from memory and should I have got them anywhere wrong, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government will be able to give a more detailed account.
Second, it was always our advice that if we were to fire, blowing open the decks with charges laid upon them was likely to be a more precise method than bombing. But in the weather conditions of the second half of the pre-Easter week, the laying of such charges was an impossible operation. But it might well have become possible before the ship broke up. Therefore, even if we had abandoned the possibility of towing away at a much earlier stage than was, in fact, reasonable, our advice would still have been to make more thorough preparations.
The first important change occurred on Easter Sunday evening, when we were flying back from our Ministerial meeting in Cornwall. The ship then broke into two parts. We were informed of this immediately we landed. Between then and the first bombing attack, almost 44 hours elapsed, and it has since been suggested that, whatever the previous position, this delay was too long.
I will tell the House, first, why this delay was not of great significance, and secondly, why it was unavoidable. It was not of great significance because not much further oil got out during this period. The two big spillages were at the time the ship hit the rocks on the first Saturday morning, and at the time of the break-up on the second Sunday evening. More important, it was unavoidable for the following reasons.
The first news of the break-up did not destroy the hope of towing away. On the contrary, it might have made it more likely. The stern of the ship was firmly embedded. That was the essence of the early problem. The break-up might have improved the chances of getting the bow part away. It was not until late on Monday, when the bow part had broken away, that it became clear that this was not so. In the meantime, however, the scientists were instructed to consider the new situation with the greatest urgency, and to report to Ministers at the earliest possible time—the middle of Monday afternoon.
That I understand was the original position. Our first knowledge was that the stern part was most firmly impaled.
At that meeting on Monday we were at first advised that a considerable period would be required for firing preparations. We decided that this period should be drastically reduced. Corners should, if necessary, be cut. In this way, and as a result of herculean efforts by the scientists, that drastic reduction was secured. Much later on the Monday we were advised that the firing could be risked on the Tuesday, though it was a big risk. But there were still three considerations to be dealt with. The Seven Stones lightship had to be towed away and shipping had to be warned—and many small ships only listened to such warnings at nine in the morning.
Next, it seemed only common sense to try to fire an oil slick by bombing before running the risk of creating more such slicks. That attempt—unsuccessful as it proved—was made the next morning at ten, the earliest possible time after the warning. But that was not a cause of delay, for the bombing of the wreck itself could be best done at low-water. The first time that that occurred—after the warning to shipping—was at four on the Tuesday afternoon. At precisely that hour the first bombing attack on the wreck itself took place.
There was not a single hour of unnecessary delay, but what certainly remained was a great deal of risk. The first attack was successful, but only partially so. It was not a quick, once-for-all operation. It had to be continued on two successive days and eventually almost the whole of the remaining oil was destroyed. But it remained until the end a difficult, delicate operation. These are the facts of the decision-making process. I do not believe that any hon. Member who considers them objectively will believe that it was either an easy or a dilatory process.
I now come to the third main part of what I want to say to the House, which is concerned with future action. One of our immediate objectives will be to recover as much as we can of the cost, so far approximately £2 million, which the taxpayer has to meet. The Treasury Solicitor wrote to the owners' lawyers on 31st March, giving them notification of a claim for damages by Her Majesty's Government. The legal situation is complicated as my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General indicated at Question Time. The matter will be energetically pursued.
There are a variety of possible places where it could be pursued. It will be pursued in those places which are best from the point of view of the interests of the British taxpayer and the inhabitants of Cornwall. I do not think that it would be useful for me at this stage to go further than the Attorney-General has already gone. Other matters for the future involve both national and international action. Both embrace a complex variety of questions, involving research and maritime law and practice.
On the international side, our aim is to strengthen wherever necessary and practicable, the international arrangements designed to prevent accidents of this nature, and to deal with the consequences if they should occur. As the House knows, the Government have taken the initiative in convening an early meeting of the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organisation, to consider such questions. We hope that the Council of the Organisation will meet on 4th and 5th May.
The meeting will be asked to consider matters such as the passage of ships containing oil and other noxious and potentially dangerous substances, where shipwreck can cause damage to neighbouring shores. It will also be asked to consider, particularly in the light of the increasing size of ships, questions affecting navigation in and near to territorial waters.
National action will include examining the possibility of control of maritime movements close to our shores; the problems of carrying hazardous cargoes in waters where an accident could affect British interests; salvage operations and the methods which were used and which were suggested for dealing with the oil in the tanker on the sea and on shore.
Sir Solly Zuckerman, the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser—to whose work throughout the period of crisis I cannot pay too high a tribute—with his working party of experts, will continue to review the results of the numerous research projects which have been carried out in the past three weeks. They will also consider many of the suggestions which have been volunteered from outside. These research projects made use of the resources of the Warren Springs Laboratory of the Ministry of Technology, the Hydraulics Research Station, the Fire Research Station, the Admiralty Oil Laboratory, the Royal Army Research and Development Establishment, the Fisheries and Shell Fish Laboratories of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the laboratories of the Royal Navy Marine Services Directorate and the Marine Biological Association.
Having reviewed the results of the research, the Chief Scientific Adviser will recommend any further research which may be desirable to increase the effectiveness of the measures which were taken or devise new methods of dealing with similar disasters in the future. Consideration will also be given to hazardous cargoes other than oil and to the dangers which they might produce, the precautions which should be taken to prevent them and the measures which should be taken to counter the effect of any accidents which, nevertheless, occurred. The results of all this work and research will be put to the Select Committee on Science and Technology so that it may examine them and make recommendations to the House.
This wide-ranging action for the future is bound to take some time and I cannot tell the House exactly when it will be completed. But it will all be most urgently pressed ahead. The problems to be examined will grow more and not less acute as time goes by. As the scale of our industry becomes larger and our technology more advanced, the menace of a disaster, when it occurs, is liable to be correspondingly greater. Safety precautions must keep pace with the other developments and reduce the likelihood of such disasters. But if a disaster does take place, its consequences make the questions we are considering of the greatest national importance. The Government will seek to resolve them all as quickly as possible.
I end, as I began, with the Motion. It asks the House to accept the White Paper, which tells in bare and unembroidered outline the story of the "Torrey Canyon" wreck and the Government's measures to deal with the problem. It asks the House to endorse those measures. It does not propose a Select Committee to inquire into the past. An inquest is certainly not called for. But it does suggest that the Select Committee on Science and Technology, fed with all the work which has been and will be done by the Government scientists, can make a most valuable Parliamentary contribution towards what should now be the main concern of all of us—how we can best avoid similar troubles in the future.
I must first, somewhat ruefully, declare an interest as a member of an underwriting syndicate of Lloyd's. Secondly, on behalf of the Opposition, I should like to join the Government in paying tribute to the Services, local authorities, ancillary services, voluntary bodies, volunteers and the representatives of Government Departments. We on this side of the House welcome the better news which the Home Secretary has given today. We shall study the prospects as described by him and his comments on the effect of what has happened on wild life and fish.
The Home Secretary has read us rather pompously and sanctimoniously a speech which he introduced by saying that we were having this debate in an atmosphere of less tension than had been expected. He attributed this—and this is why I say that his speech was sanctimonious and laced with humbug—to a change of attitude on the part of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. But the truth is that the country and the Government have been saved by something outside the Government's control, namely, a shift of the prevailing wind. If the prevailing wind, which is south-westerly, had blown for more than a few days during the past three or four weeks, there would still be a great deal of tension underlying this debate. It was, therefore, evasive of the Home Secretary to make no reference to this in his introductory remarks.
The right hon. Gentleman no doubt will be aware that this is not the first occasion on which the coasts of Britain have been saved by a change in the prevailing wind. I refer to the Armada, with which the West Country had something to do.
On that occasion the then Monarch sang the Magnificat in praise of God for having saved this country and did not make a boastful, arrogant speech claiming the credit for the Government. It is for the Government to come to the House and to justify their action and not to pullulate about how the Opposition tackled the problem. The Opposition did not have to tackle the problem. It is for the Government to tackle it, and it is for the Government to justify what they did.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition criticises the Government when he thinks it justified. But on this occasion he was scrupulous in saying that we must wait for evidence. The remarks which the Home Secretary has dragged out of context—and I have the Press cutting from the Liverpool Daily Post of 29th March before me—were made, not in a statement by my right hon. Friend, but in answer to a question during a Press conference, when he was asked whether the bombing might not have occurred earlier. He had said in his statement that he welcomed the apparent success of the bombing and that he thought that the Government should tell the House and the country what had happened so that a judgment on their behaviour could be made.
We have witnessed another classic example of the way in which the Prime Minister's and Paymaster-General's minds work. Being under very heavy attack from the Press a couple of weeks ago, they decided to build up the questioning of my right hon. Friend as if it had amounted to a Motion of censure. I challenge the Home Secretary or anyone else to produce any statement by my right hon. Friend amounting to more than the sort of questioning which everybody was carrying out at the time. If it comes to criticising leaders of parties, I notice that the Home Secretary, in a 40-minute speech, was careful not to follow the red herring about flags of convenience which the Prime Minister dropped when things looked critical for the Government.
Up to the concluding paragraphs of the Home Secretary's speech, the Opposition's main point had been met. The Opposition have all the time asked that when action had been more or less concluded there should be an inquiry into what had happened and into the lessons for the future. This the Government appeared to concede, and that is why the Opposition were, and are, prepared to accept the Motion.
However, the Home Secretary, in the last moments of his speech, seemed to rule out any examination of the past. He said that there was no question of an inquest. Let us be clear about this: obviously the Government do not want an inquest. We think that we cannot draw conclusions for the future unless there is some degree of examination of the past. We assume, therefore—and I hope that the Minister of Housing and Local Government will answer a number of questions on this—that the Select Committee on Science and Technology will be enabled to look at the past so far as it is relevant to the future, and that must include a judgment on the Government's behaviour.
So far from the Government being anxious to avoid discussion of what occurred, as the right hon. Gentleman must be only too well aware, it has been the Government who, throughout, have thought it highly desirable to have a full day's debate on this matter at the earliest opportunity.
We shall still expect the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Housing and Local Government to answer a few very straight questions about the powers and scope of the Select Committee to which the Government propose to refer this question.
The Select Committee on Science and Technology already has on board a heavy inquiry into the nuclear reactor programme. I understand that its staff is already under some strain. Do the Government, therefore, propose to reinforce the staff? I know that the Chairman of the Select Committee is present, and we on this side of the House, of course, entirely agree about the authoritative capacity of the Committee, if properly equipped, to tackle this job.
Secondly, do the Government propose that the membership of the Committee should be reinforced and, in particular, that perhaps assessors should be co-opted to the Committee on specific highly technical subjects, such as oil chemistry, navigation and the law of the sea? Is it suggested that it is to be the Select Committee on Science and Technology which considers the state of the law and any changes of the law? We entirely accept that it is for the Government to recommend and to set in hand any changes in the law, but will the law be considered by the Select Committee?
We assume that the Select Committee will have power to summon witnesses and to have papers produced for it and that it will sit in public. We assume that it will be free to consider what the Government did and the assumptions made by the Government and the advice given to the Government, if the Committee so decides. We expect the Minister of Housing and Local Government to answer these questions, which are at the heart of the debate.
Surely all the questions which the right hon. Gentleman has posed are for the Select Committee on Science and Technology to decide. It is not for the Government to tell us how the Committee shall go about its work. They have only to draw up the terms of reference and it is then for the Committee to decide how to interpret the terms of reference, whether to sit in private or public, and so on. We are already empowered to sit in public if we want and it is our job to decide whether we want assessors, and all the other questions which the right hon. Gentleman has put to the Government.
To a large extent that is true, but I am asking whether the Government will play their part in giving the options to the Committee, particularly about staff and powers and assessors. It was the Prime Minister himself who told the House, in reply to questions after his statement that if there were a Select Committee it should have not only "details of our experience"—those were his words—but also the "lessons we have drawn".
I now turn to a few of the questions which the Select Committee may wish to consider. First, there can be no question of the Government pleading that they had not been warned about this sort of crisis. Sometimes I get the names muddled when I think to myself of the "Torrey Maru" and the "Tokyo Canyon", because it was only a few months ago that the "Tokyo Maru" released a great deal of oil off our shores. That should have warned the Government to look to the country's defences in that way, but in fact evidence of Government indifference to this subject came on 6th February in a debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Loveys).
On that occasion he and my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Sir C. Taylor), my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, West (Mr. Wingfield Digby) and my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport and Fareham (Dr. Bennett) pressed the Government to make preparations and to provide financial compensation for the defences of local authorities on the coast against the release of oil.
On that occasion, the Government were represented by the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, who took a very stalwart and robust attitude. He said that no grants were available to local authorities and went on to say that the Government had no powers to pay grants to local authorities and, moreover, did not intend to obtain such powers. Moreover, he put on record the view of a North Country Member of Parliament representing an industrial constituency—
… who sometimes wonders whether people on the coast realise their advantages."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th February, 1967; Vol. 740, c. 1077.]
I gather from my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport and Fareham that the Parliamentary Secretary did not even
follow up his undertaking in that debate to write to my hon. Friend on a technical question which then arose. That shows that the Government did not exactly prepare themselves in the light of the "Tokyo Maru" and the warnings of my hon. Friends for what has since happened. We would be grateful if the Minister of Housing and Local Government would tell us whether he yet has powers to pay grants to local authorities, or whether there will need to be legislation for the purpose.
Another question which the Select Committee will have to ask—that is presumptuous I should have said that another question which the Select Committee may wish to put to itself—concerns the apparently slow tempo of the first week's conduct by the Government. Despite all the bustle, there was very little evidence of grip. Let us consider the position as it was three and a half days after the "Torrey Canyon" went on the rocks, on the Tuesday evening. At that time, so far as I can piece the evidence together, there was a total reliance by the Government on the Admiralty salvage expert who, of course, was a great expert on salvage, but who did not have to take a comprehensive view which took account of pollution dangers.
It may have been right—and I do not presume to question it—to try floating off the ship first. It may have been right, although I imagine that the Select Committee will want to weigh the scepticism of all local opinion, the scepticism of the oil companies, the doubts within the Admiralty itself and the doubts which the Prime Minister himself confessed to have been shared by the Government.
Even assuming that it was right to give priority to floating off, surely it would have been sensible, if the Government had a firm grip on events, to make preparations for the second alternative, namely, firing, and to make those preparations in the calm spell at the beginning, in the first three and a half days. In fact, as far as I can make out, there were no preparations for firing. The Home Secretary used this word "firing" which, in this sense, is a very respectable word, to cover two quite different operations. On the one hand, there is firing by way of charges, a relatively precise and filigree operation, and, on the other, there is bombing, which is a blunt weapon to use in this sort of situation.
There were no preparations for firing and no testing of firing until later in the first week and no meeting of scientists even, until the Wednesday, and—and this is a damning piece of evidence—not even a meeting of the emergency committee of which the Home Secretary is chairman. I suggest that the Select Committee may wish to consider the relatively slow tempo of that first week and the evidence of a lack of grasp of the options available. It appears to the layman observer that there was all the pantomime of a combined operation, but very little of the reality.
It may have been right to hold the firing in reserve until floating-off had failed. No doubt the Select Committee will make a judgment on that, but the Prime Minister's answer to the question why no preparations for placing demolition charges were made during those first days does not stand up to the evidence. My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport and Fareham squarely put to him the question of why, in those first days of calm, the Government had not arranged for demolition charges to be put on board. The Prime Minister replied that the ship was a bomb, that it might have gone off at any time and that it would have been most dangerous to place charges.
I do not think that the Prime Minister can have realised that my hon. Friend was referring to those first three or four days during which the crew, the salvers and the Under-Secretary of State for the Navy were themselves on board. If it was good enough for them—and I accept that they might have been taking great risks—it was not unthinkable that demolition charges could have been placed. I am sure that the Select Committee will wish to inquire whether Admiralty advice to place demolition charges in order to preserve the option of firing was given during those first three or four days.
Is not the right hon. Gentleman willing to draw a distinction between the first eight days, when the ship was on the reef, when it was a ship, and the period thereafter, when it was a wreck? Bombing the wreck was one thing. Bombing the ship, with all the repercussions in international law and the opinion of other countries, was totally different.
I apologise to the hon. Member. I had thought that he was.
I hope that the Select Committee will consider the mystery of legality. The Prime Minister and the Government now adopt a posture of almost boastful indifference to the law. There is nothing wrong, it seems to me, with respect for the law, provided that in a situation like this the Government reserve the right to go outside the law if they are justified in the national interest in doing so.
Why, however, is there all this impression of defiance of the law? In answer to questions on 4th April, the Prime Minister twice dragged in the Government's complete indifference to international law, and in paragraph 3 of the White Paper we find the same boastful defiance. The Select Committee may wish to consider the state of the law as it appeared to the Government because, plainly, it is important for the future that Governments should know what is within the law and what is not.
I get the impression that all this boasting is a cover-up operation to disguise the fact that from the beginning the Government regarded themselves as totally shackled by law and finance, the two together.
We hope that the Select Committee examine what the Government's legal obligations were. Here, however, we have two Ministers contradicting completely the views put by the Prime Minister and the White Paper. There was, first, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy, a Minister of the greatest integrity, who said on two occasions in the first week, on the Monday and the Friday, that no action was possible until the owners' agreement had been received.
If I may clarify this—it was quoted in another place in the debate last Thursday—on the Monday morning I made such a statement in response to a question asking why we would not destroy the vessel. I went on to say that at that moment our own salvage experts were on board. Later that day, on the Monday evening, I announced that the findings of our salvage experts were that we should give every assistance to the salvors to refloat the vessel. That was the statement which I made.
That does not answer the fact that the Under-Secretary it seems to me perfectly properly, asserted that the law would influence what the Government did. He said the same thing again on the Friday.
It was not, however, only an Under-Secretary who said that. In the House, the Secretary of State for Defence said on 20th March that the Government
are not in a position to be able to set fire to the ship until"—
give their agreement".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th March, 1967; Vol. 743, c. 1056.]
The right hon. Gentleman spoke later of "legal problems".
We on our side have no complaint about the Government considering legal problems. It is their job to do so. What we find odd is that they should take such pride in appearing to take no notice of legal problems. We suspect that there is something behind this. It may be that the Prime Minister was seeking to avoid the charge of kowtowing to American oil interests—the owners. All that he said did not save him from a rather sharp cartoon in last week's issue of the New Statesman. Altogether, we believe that on the question of the law the Prime Minister "doth protest too much".
We hope that the Select Committee will look at the efforts made by the Government to make use of the most suitable decontamination agent—that is, the most effective, the most available and the least damaging to all forms of life. We have doubt whether the Government seriously tried out all the possible decontamination agents that might have been useful. I have evidence in letters of several tested and tried decontaminants that were offered to the Government, some of which, indeed, were tested by the Government. We would like to know how the Government went about the assessment of the best agents and how they will continue to keep abreast, possibly through Warren Springs, of what is most suitable.
It is important that the Government should not simply take what is immediately available without consideration of what is the optimum. In this case, it was the initiative of B.P. which made the detergent available. As far as I know, the Government did not take adequate steps to try out the alternatives that could equally have been available and might have been more effective.
I turn now to a difficult technical question on which, as a layman, I can only touch, and that is the persistence of the oil. In another place, Lord Shackleton told the House that the oil normally gets what he called "degraded" in about two months in sea conditions. What does this mean? Will the Select Committee seek evidence about what happens to the oil? Does, on the one hand, decontamination and, on the other, firing only destroy the top particles of the oil, leaving a sludgy residue behind? I ask not because I presume to know the answer but because the possible future damage to our shores depends very much on how much of the oil can be destroyed by which method.
Will the oil persist for many weeks still to be a danger to our shores? The Prime Minister certainly thought so when he spoke on 4th April, and the White Paper states that more oil may be expected in weeks to come. On the other hand, we have the good news from the resorts, we have the good news which the Home Secretary has given this afternoon and we have the wonderful good luck and good fortune of a northerly or north-easterly wind which is rapidly driving the oil slicks far away from our shores.
We would like to hear from the Minister of Housing and Local Government more about whether the Government contemplate any form of compensation to fishermen, hoteliers, shopkeepers and those bodies which are trying to do their best for wildlife. We would like to know whether the Government contemplate any action on the domestic insurance front. We would like to hear much about the Government's proposals for changes in the law. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Sir J. Hobson), who will be seeking to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, will be asking a number of questions on the law, but the summary of them for the right hon. Gentleman who replies is set out in these two sentences. What alterations will the Government seek in international law, and by what means? Do the Government have any proposals for amending our domestic law?
The House will expect to hear from the Government their first thoughts on how future emergencies will be dealt with. Do they contemplate a standing agency, perhaps the National Environmental Research Council or some other agency, which would be a central body for the collection of whatever might be the suitable expertise if a crisis occurs? As the Home Secretary has rightly said, the potentiality of disasters gets bigger in this modern world and we might be faced with a wreck involving noxious chemicals or atomic waste. It would be inexcusable if the Government were not ready to deal with it. We hope that they will tell us more about the equipment which they think should be standing by, whether there should be a decontamination fleet and whether there should be any changes in the equipment of the Navy for this purpose.
Finally, I return to the point that matters most to us on this side, namely, now that the safety of the country has been assured by Providence—[Horn. MEMBERS: "Oh."] That is true. The point which matters is the powers and scope of the Select Committee. Will the right hon. Gentleman be sure, please, to tell the House whether the Government propose to reinforce the Committee, its membership and its staff? Shall we be told what powers and what scope the Committee has? In deference to the hon. Gentleman's point, I defer all questions of its sitting in public or in private—
I do not wish to take any part in the debate, but I would point out to the right hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph) that it is the normal practice of the Select Committee at present to sit in public.
Three weeks and two days ago the tanker "Torrey Canyon" ran ashore on the Seven Stones Reef. On most of the days since that time, oil has been coming ashore over a large part of the coastline of my constituency, and I want to express some of the doubt and concern which has been felt in my constituency, while, at the same time, welcoming enthusiastically the White Paper and the actions which have been outlined in it. The House will forgive me if I do not go as deeply as did the right hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph) into the problems of the Select Committee.
This shipwreck took place shortly after nine o'clock in the morning, in broad daylight. It took place in comparatively good weather—good, that is, for this part of the country. It took place when visibility was good. We are told that the ship was travelling at some 17 knots when it struck the reef, which is a high speed for an oil tanker as long as the Palace of Westminster.
I should like to ask my hon. Friend whether some of the other rumours which are circulating in my constituency are true. Did the tanker pass sufficiently close to the lightship for the crew of that lightship to come on deck and shout to the tanker to stop? Is it true that, when they did that, they could see no one on the bridge of the tanker? Is it true that there was no one on the deck of the tanker at the time? It seems to me that, in this case, as a navigational instrument the radar screen has perhaps been replaced by the alarm clock.
Shortly after the shipwreck took place, oil began to escape. However, I must underline the considerable anxiety which has been felt by many people at the theory that an appreciable part of the initial oil pollution occurred as a result of deliberate pumping out of oil from the ship. When my hon. Friend replies to the debate, perhaps the House might be told to what extent that was so, because it may have some bearing on subsequent legal proceedings.
Very soon, we in West Cornwall realised that we were facing a major crisis and threat to our beaches and coastline. It brought with it a consequent threat to the whole economy of our county, which depends to a large extent on the beauties of its coastline and the holiday and tourist trade related to it. The oil pollution was the main threat, but there were inevitably secondary effects. There was the threat of the detergent, particularly to marine life, and there was the risk of explosion which has been mentioned already. Ideally, we would want to prevent that sort of disaster, but we were faced with a situation where we had to cure the pollution which had arisen already.
At all costs, we had to ensure that the tanker did not go down under the surface of the sea with a significant proportion of its oil aboard. If that had happened, we should have had a virtual undersea oil-well which could have pumped out oil in dribs and drabs not just for weeks, months or years, but even for decades. There are wrecks under the surface of the sea in some parts of the world which are doing precisely that and which carried very much less oil than the "Torrey Canyon".
I do not want to go into detailed consideration of the problems involved. We should ask ourselves not whether these decisions were right or wrong but whether the Government took the advice of the right experts. I believe that the White Paper shows that that was done and was done at the right time. From my own professional training, I know how unwise it is for one who is not versed in the technicalities of a subject to venture too deeply into any discussion of that subject, and I am no expert on exploding ships stuck on reefs.
I must express appreciation of the cooperation that was evident between Government Departments, local authorities and other organisations from the early days of the crisis. The local authorities in this part of the county are small. In my constituency and that of the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Nott), which are the two most directly threatened, there are no less than 11 local authorities. There is also the county council and a river board directly and intimately affected. A considerable number of Government Departments were also affected, and the Armed Services came into the picture at an early stage. I must pay tribute to the degree of co-operation and to the hard work and long hours put in by people involved in all these different branches of the Government and the Services, at one point over a holiday weekend. I pay tribute, too, to members of the United States Air Force who are at the moment helping on some Cornish beaches. I pay tribute as well to the French Service personnel who co-operated at certain stages when we were dealing with problems in the Channel. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy, whom I am pleased to see in his place, in the first few days played a bigger part in achieving the success of this co-ordination than anyone else.
I mentioned the part which the French Services have played already in the crisis. We hear today that pollution from this wreck is now beginning to appear on the shores of Northern France. When my hon. Friend replies to the debate, can he assure us that we will pass on to the French Government, without question, all the information and knowledge which we have acquired, and that, if necessary and practicable, we will exchange equipment and vessels to assist them in facing the sort of crisis which we in Cornwall have been facing over the last three weeks?
I want to deal with one or two of the special problems mentioned in the White Paper which have been touched on already in the debate. I refer first to the problems of pollution, by which I mean not just surface pollution on the beaches, because I believe that that is being combated fairly effectively and efficiently, but pollution which inevitably has occurred on the rocks and coves which form the major part of the coastline which has been affected so far.
In the White Paper, we read of experiments being conducted to try to solve this very difficult problem. I should like to know a little more about the type of experiments being conducted and the degree of success which is being achieved. It makes my heart sink to walk along the cliffs on the northern side of my constituency and look down on areas of coastline which, admittedly, tourists and holidaymakers rarely see but which local people know well, and see them still drenched with hard, black, shiny oil.
Even on the beaches, although the surface problem is under control, there is the difficulty of oil soaking into the beaches. It is heart-breaking to look at golden sand, scrape it with one's foot and, half an inch under the surface, find that the colour has changed to dark brown. If one picks up some of this material, one's fingers are stained. Will this sort of contamination be washed down with the tides twice a day? Shall we have to employ other methods of using detergents? Are experiments taking place and, if so, what are they?
Turning to the problems of booms, as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said when he opened the debate, we have experimented with the use of booms, though not with great success so far. I appreciate that the technical problems are enormous. The boom which was originally to be strung round the "Torrey Canyon" was strung across the Fal Estuary. The first time that we had a force 5 wind, it fell apart and was deposited on the shoreline of the constituency of the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Geoffrey Wilson). A force 5 wind is nothing unusual in the Fal Estuary. What progress is being made in designing and producing effective oil-resistant booms?
I should especially like to ask about the position of the Fal Estuary and that of the Helford River, because those are two estuaries on the southern coast of the county in each of which we find combined an enormous amenity value together with industry. In the Fal Estuary, we have very attractive rural countryside coming down to the river, and we also have ship repair yards of world renown. The Helford River area is extremely attractive and the oyster beds there form a local industry.
The suggestion has been made that one or two unscrupulous tankers have used this tragedy to discharge oil into the sea in recent weeks off the shore of Cornwall. I hope that this suggestion will be looked into by the Government and that, if possible, stringent international action will be taken.
Looking to the future, what steps do the Government envisage taking to meet the possibility of this problem recurring in future years? Are they considering the setting up of depots containing detergent and other equipment in areas like Cornwall, where the risk is obviously greater than in other parts of the country? If so, will this detergent be provided free, as in this case, and is the whole problem of financing further oil clearance operations in years to come being kept under review? I do not agree with those who have, with hindsight, been critical, but I trust that this matter will be kept closely under review.
I urge the Government to express in more detail their attitude towards the problem internationally, in particular the problem of the increasingly large size of tanker now being used. Should we not limit the size of these tankers, the routes by which they may travel the world and their speed? I suggest that these vessels are, first, travelling too fast, are, secondly, too big and, thirdly, as in this case, are in the wrong places.
I do not feel as convinced as some who have spoken on this subject since the disaster occurred about the problem of flags of convenience, although I feel some anxiety and have certain doubts about the whole question. I read in my Sunday newspaper last weekend that more ships are being built for Liberia than any other country and I understand that Liberia's merchant fleet is now second to none.
I am referring to registration. However, in that country maritime traditions are virtually nil. Some of the difficulties have been mentioned this afternoon. My constituents who have had dealings with ships sailing under flags of convenience share my doubts. Many of these people who are associated with ship ownership take the view that many of the ships sailing under flags of convenience form a type of unfair competition and some of those who work in the shipbuilding industry have doubts about the quality and standards that are being maintained by these concerns.
Would the hon. Gentleman take his argument a stage further and urge the Government to cut the taxation on shipping, an imposition which is driving so much of the registration of shipping to foreign countries?
I do not intend to conduct a long debate about flags of convenience. This year's Statesmen's YearBook comments in the section about Liberia:
The Liberian Government requires only a modest registration fee and an almost nominal annual charge …
… and maintains no control over the operations of ships flying the Liberian flag.
I do not want to see those sorts of financial arrangements coming into the British maritime industry.
Salvage methods have, if only by implication, been criticised today. Several hon. Members have referred to the way in which salvage companies are paid for their work. It appears that they secure their income in a way that is only proportionate to the extent to which they salvage ships. This method of paying—purely by results—is, in maritime terms, wrong and out-dated. It may mean that salvage operators will take greater risks than they would otherwise take. This may possibly be one of the reasons for the tragedy that occurred on the "Torrey Canyon" in the first few days.
There is also the risk that salvage operations will be prolonged, with forlorn attempts being made to salvage a vessel because the financial reward is so great. It is reasonable to suggest that such things as oil pollution along the Cornish coast may not be sufficiently well to the fore in the minds of salvage operators as it is in the minds of most other people.
It is stated in the White Paper that unexploded bombs still exist on the reef. How many such bombs are there and how great a hazard do they represent? What further steps are in the mind of the Government to get rid of them?
In retrospect, it is fair to say that in the last three and a half weeks we have seen in the far South-West one of the greatest peace-time operations any Government of this country have mounted. This operation is a guarantee to the holiday-maker that he can come to the South-West, to Cornwall, for his holiday this year without fear. I must add—although perhaps I should not say this—that some of the beaches may be cleaner than they were before. If anybody cancels his holiday because of what has occurred he will be acting shortsightedly and out of stupidity. To those who are in doubt, I say, "Book now", because if bookings are not made immediately potential holiday-makers will face the same problem as they have faced for many years, and will fail to get a booking.
I give the same advice to hon. Members. Last year in my constituency—and I am sure that this applies to other constituencies in West Cornwall—we entertained a record number of hon. and right hon. Members. I hope that last year's record will be broken this year by a great attendance of M.P.s.
It is right that the principal subject of discussion in this debate should be the national and international lessons that can he drawn from this disaster to ensure that such an accident does not happen again. In this respect, I congratulate the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Dr. John Dunwoody) who made an excellent speech. Whatever quarrels I may have with his right hon. Friends—and I have some; I will come to them in a moment—I seldom have any disagreement with him, my neighbour in West Cornwall. Similarly, I welcome this further opportunity of adding my tribute to the Royal Navy, the Army, local authorities in Cornwall, particularly those in my constituency, to voluntary bodies like the R.S.P.C.A. and to the many hundreds of people who turned out to help clean the beaches when the disaster first occurred.
Having said that, I feel that my principal task today is to look to the past and hold an inquest on what occurred because I was the constituency hon. Member most affected by this incident and I believe that there are many lessons to be drawn from the way in which it was handled. I wish, first, to consider the whole question of oil pollution on our shores before the "Torrey Canyon" went aground and whether it was tackled with sufficient urgency by the Government. Secondly, I wish to consider the action which the Government took when the vessel foundered on the Seven Stones. I do not find post mortems enjoyable, but someone with personal knowledge of the incidents that occurred from the moment the "Torrey Canyon" went aground is entitled to examine the statements made in the White Paper and the options which the Government faced at the time.
I find the White Paper a most inadequate and disappointing document. I had hoped that when it was published it would contain the different judgments of the experts which the Government considered. But the White Paper does not contain nearly enough detail on these aspects. I am critical of many aspects of the Government's handling of the affair. I at least share this criticism with practically every journalist of every newspaper who was on the spot in the early days following the incident. I do not recall an occasion when the journalists of practically every newspaper—of whatever political complexion, if that has anything to do with it—were so unanimously agreed that there had been a lack of decisiveness in the early days and that that led to a great deal of pollution which might not otherwise have occurred.
That being so, I must ask some questions. First, I ask whether this disaster was of such an unprecedented nature that it could not have been foreseen, or at least whether the Government might have foreseen some aspects of it. Secondly, I must inquire into the decision-making process which led up to the decision to try to salvage the vessel, as explained in the White Paper. While it is true that the grounding of the "Torrey Canyon" on the Seven Stones could not have been foreseen—although there was a high statistical probability that an accident of this sort was likely to occur at some time in the future—nevertheless it is true that the pollution which occurred, although perhaps not to such a great extent, certainly could have been foreseen and the Government had had many warnings of the dangers of such pollution in the past.
Let me confine myself to 1966. In that year, to use the words of the recent report of the Advisory Committee,
… oil pollution around the coasts of the British Isles has been the worst for many years.
My right hon. Friend has referred to the "Tokyo Maru" incident which occurred in May, 1966. On that occasion a Japanese supertanker discharged oil off the Isles of Scilly and the oil covered eight square miles of the seas around my constituency.
When I tried to get the Government to take action on that event there was great reluctance to do so. Because there was reluctance in response to my telephone calls, I wrote to the President of
the Board of Trade on 26th May. In my letter I said:
The Isles of Scilly and my constituency depend for their livelihood on the tourist industry and over the past eighteen months some of the best beaches have been despoiled by oil pollution. There is very serious concern indeed about this matter on the part of the local authorities and the whole community.
I went on to ask specifically of the President of the Board of Trade in May of last year what redress was available should pollution occur and should oil be discharged between the three and 12-mile limits—the very question which the Government are now urgently considering following the "Torrey Canyon" disaster. I also asked questions about grants and whether local authorities could have grant assistance to clear up the oil. My letter was passed by the President of the Board of Trade to the Minister of Housing and Local Government, now the Leader of the House. He did not answer my letter.
As I received no reply from the then Minister of Housing and Local Government, I raised the matter, as the Parliamentary Secretary is aware, in the Standing Committee of the Local Government Bill. On Clause 9 I asked the Minister, now the Leader of the House, whether he would again consider this question of grants to local authorities. He replied:
The hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Nott) has put into my head the matter about oil pollution … The hon. Member has made a case for saying that there might be a specific grant for coastal problems. I will certainly bear that in mind."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee F, 7th July, 1966; c. 212.]
Patiently I waited for months and months for some action to be taken on this matter, but none came.
On 12th December, 1966, I wrote to the Minister of Land and Natural Resources and sent a copy to the Minister of Housing and Local Government, whom I am glad to see here today. In his reply the Minister of Land and Natural Resources said that he, the Minister of Housing and Local Government, would
certainly bear in mind"—
this was in December—
the suggestion you made to Dick Crossman during the Committee stage of the Local Government Bill that there should be a grant towards expenditure incurred by local authorities … But, as I have said, so far there is little evidence of financial hardship and,
while not ruling out the eventual possibility, we feel that it is still too early to take a decision on whether direct aid from the Exchequer is justified.
That was many months after the Japanese tanker had discharged eight square miles of oil into the sea.
Still the Government took no action on this type of problem. Throughout 1966 and early 1967 the Government received, among other things, many recommendations from the local authorities in my constituency. I cannot go into all of them. I have a whole file of the recommendations which the Government received throughout last year. Among these recommendations were: first, that pressure be brought on the Government to deal with oil at sea by the use of Service craft and the purchase by local authorities jointly of standby equipment. That recommendation might have been implemented when this question was raised last year.
The local authorities recommended, secondly, that emergency teams should be formulated to tackle oil pollution; and, thirdly, that the Government should inflict far heavier penalties on offenders under the Oil in Navigable Waters Act. This the Government are now considering as a matter of urgency. It requires a disaster on this scale to get the Government to understand that local authorities have been trying to get action out of the Government for many months.
A fourth recommendation—these recommendations are taken from many which the Ministries have received—was that one Minister should be responsible for co-ordinating the activities of the seven Ministries in Whitehall which are responsible for the different aspects of pollution.
One can imagine the astonishment and anger created in Cornwall when the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy, perhaps in an unguarded moment—we can all make these mistakes, but I feel that he should be censured for this—said:
… the fact that nothing has happened it-the last few days might have lulled them "—
that is, the local authorities—
into thinking that everything is all right.
Then he made that famous statement that some local authorities in my constituency "have been lethargic". It was the Government who were lethargic throughout
1966 in paying no attention to the recommendations that the local authorities had sent them. The Government could not have foreseen the stranding of the tanker on the Seven Stones but they were warned repeatedly about the dangers of oil pollution, by local authorities in West Cornwall who had recommended the very type of co-ordination and structure and administrative framework which the Government say they have created to tackle the "Torrey Canyon" affair.
On the Saturday morning, a few hours after the "Torrey Canyon" went aground, following my normal procedure I picked up the telephone and tried to get Whitehall into action. I think this was before the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy came into the affair. At Saturday lunchtime the Navy was standing by and had sent out one ship with spraying equipment to tackle the oil slick. The Navy had asked the Treasury how much money it could have to deal with this disaster. The Treasury had granted the Navy £1,000 at lunch time on that Saturday. By tea time, following the protest that I had made in Whitehall that this was one of the greatest disasters which had hit Cornwall for many years, the Treasury agreed to grant the Navy £5,000 to tackle this disaster. I only say this to indicate the problems which we have had in Cornwall over many months and years. This was the sort of response that we have had before, and I hope that my hon. Friends and hon. Members generally who represent Cornish constituencies will confirm this.
May I quickly pass on to the second of my points, which is the question of the decision-making processes during the early days, and the words that are used in the White Paper. I find the White Paper a thoroughly unsatisfactory document. It does no justice whatsoever to the well-meant criticisms which were made by journalists, by the Press widely, including The Guardian, the Observer. the Sun, The Times—take any newspaper you like. I met some of the journalists down in Cornwall during these two weeks and we all felt deeply that no decision was being taken. When I say that these were well-meant criticisms, I mean that they were not made for party political reasons at all. We were concerned with the oil which was coming on to our beaches, and we were genuinely concerned that something should be done with rapidity.
No one would dispute the grave dilemma which faced the Government in the early days of the disaster. Any positive attempt to consume the oil by fire required a very tough and ruthless decision and, indeed, such a decision would have involved very high risks. It involved the risk that either the tanker would burn very slowly indeed—the incident of the tanker in the Persian Gulf has been quoted—or it inolved the risk of an enormous explosion.
One accepts the dilemma of the Government in this respect. But the situation called on that first Sunday and Monday for tough and ruthless action to prevent the oil from spreading and to consume it while it was still containable and could still be fired. I do not believe that tough and ruthless action was taken. The tough decision would have been to blow the hatches off, let the air in and fire it. That is what should have happened.
I sent a message to the Prime Minister at 11 o'clock on the Monday morning suggesting that the tanker should be fired. No one can say that this is an ex-post facto judgment on my part. Many of my hon. Friends representing West Country constituencies within the three days following the disaster—we admitted our lack of scientific and technical knowledge—suggested that this seemed to be the solution which in the interests of Cornwall, the South-West and the country should have been taken.
I do not understand how it was that the Prime Minister could have made the statement from the Dispatch Box that he did last week. I understand that Shell was never consulted on the issue about whether the oil could be fired or not. If it was, perhaps the Minister would say something about it when he winds up. However, I am told by Shell that it was never consulted about whether firing was technically feasible.
I was in touch with B.P. on Saturday at lunchtime before the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy came into the matter, in order to get detergent into Cornwall. There were only 6,500 gallons available in the West Country. This was something that the local authorities had recommended should be obtained and kept in stock. As I say, I was in touch with B.P., and was told that firing was feasible. I know that B.P. took part in discussions with the Government. I am aware that a representative of B.P. was present. But I believe that the representative of B.P. was never asked straightforwardly whether firing was scientifically and technically possible. I believe that B.P. was there to advise on legal and other considerations.
Perhaps I could explain the matter. The B.P. manager of operations travelled down with me on the Sunday, the day following the wreck, in order to go on board on the Monday morning to look at the salvage possibility. The day after the wreck, on the Sunday, the general manager of B.P. authorised a statement, which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister read out from the Dispatch Box, which stated clearly that if the ship could not be refloated and if the legal complications could be overcome, firing would be recommended. These were the words of the general manager of B.P. in a statement the day after the wreck occurred.
I fully accept that from the Under-Secretary, of course. I spoke to a director of B.P. before the Under-Secretary's journey down to Cornwall with the general manager. My question to him was: was it technically feasible to fire the oil, and he thought yes. B.P., I appreciate, issued a statement subsequently saying that it felt that what should be done was that the ship should first be salvaged, or attempts to salvage it should be made, and then firing should be tried. These are two different points. I was referring to whether or not the oil companies thought it technically feasible to fire the ship, which is a slightly different point from that of the Under-Secretary.
I am rather puzzled about one thing, and perhaps the hon. Gentleman could clear up this point. I understood that he said that he and his hon. Friends had sent telegrams of advice that the ship should be fired. Did he send telegrams of advice that the ship should be fired, or did he advise that consultations should take place with B.P. and other authorities to ascertain whether firing was feasible?
I could give the hon. Gentleman the exact text from my message to the Prime Minister—I have it in a file—but the House would be delayed while I looked for it. However, I asked whether the Government had considered, with the experts and other authorities, the feasibility of firing the "Torrey Canyon" in view of the fact that oil could be consumed while on board the vessel and that if it escaped there would be an unprecedented disaster. That was the nature of the message.
I know that on the Monday—I am sure that the Under-Secretary will confirm this—the Royal Navy in Plymouth was standing by at lunchtime waiting to fire the ship. They told me so themselves. I was in touch with the Navy at Plymouth, and I was told that the Navy was standing by waiting to fire the ship on the third day.
This is totally untrue. The Navy was standing by on the Monday morning for a report from our own salvage expert who went on board the vessel on the Monday; In the light of his report the Navy offered every possible assistance from that Monday on in the refloating process.
Clearly, I cannot say who it was in the Navy who told me this, but I can only repeat that I was told that aircraft were standing by ready with napalm to go out and fire the ship. I was told by someone who is a member of the Services that the Navy was waiting for the U.S. owners of the vessel to arrive in this country—they were due to arrive on the Monday—and there was then to be a meeting between the Under-Secretary for the Navy and the U.S. owners to discuss the legal aspects of the case. That is what I was told, and I merely state it. I do not in any way question what the Under-Secretary says, but the information that came to me was certainly very different from what he now tells the House.
The tough decision was to fire the ship. But there was an easy option, and that was to try to salvage the ship, to negotiate the international and legal aspects, to discuss the matter with the U.S. owners and then perhaps to play for time and keep the options open.
That was the easy option, and it was the option that the Government took. I say that it was an easy option because it coincided with the wishes of the salvagers and the U.S. owners, and it avoided the risks of a huge explosition on the one hand and of a slow-burning wreck on the other; and I accept that they were risks. Nevertheless. I think that the Government were culpably wrong in taking the easy option. I was on the spot in Cornwall at the time, and I believe that the ship could have been fired, and that if the Government had taken all the expert advice into account that is what would have happened.
On the question of salvaging the vessel, if one sets aside the Dutch salvage experts, who had a huge sum to gain in rewards for trying to salvage the vessel, and the report of the naval salvage expert, who was a Service person and could not be considered independent—[Interruption.] If he was not a member of the Services, he was a member of the Naval Department, was he not?
So he was a member of the Ministry of Defence, and he drew his pay packet from the Government. I am saying that he was not independent. I am not attributing any motive to the gentleman. I am merely saying that he was not completely independent. Surely this is a perfectly fair statement.
Apart from this, it was perfectly well known that no ships had been salvaged off the Seven Stones for, I think, 60 years. The fishermen who fish these rocks every day of their lives said that there was not a chance of the ship ever being salvaged. Some members of the Government pooh-poohed the fishermen's advice as West country folklore. The Government may consider the views of those fishermen to be folklore, but I am inclined to say that their advice on this score was probably worth taking into account.
I wonder what the hon. Gentleman's reaction would have been if the Government had taken the advice of the fishermen of St. Ives, against the advice of all the experts, and the operations had gone wrong? What would the hon. Gentleman then have said?
But the Government's action went very wrong, and this is now an inquest into the White Paper. This is what we are here to discuss. I have few fishermen in St. Ives. If the hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe) would like to come to my constituency, I could introduce him to some of my fishermen in Newlyn.
Finally, the rates quoted at Lloyd's—the people there must surely be the greatest experts in the world at assessing risks—were in themselves sure evidence that Lloyd's thought there was very little chance of the ship ever being salvaged off the Seven Stones.
The hon. Gentleman has mentioned the fishermen of Newlyn. Will he not agree that they have just brought back a record catch of fish despite the tale of gloom he recounts to the House?
I am absolutely delighted that they have brought back a record catch of fish.
But even suppose a miracle had been achieved and the Government had successfully salvaged this ship, what would they have done with it? They say subsequently in the White Paper that they would have towed it out into the Atlantic. According to the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy when he kindly held that Press conference in London on the first Monday, and showed a diagram, half the tanks in the ship were fractured, her hull was torn, and gales were coming up and were predicted for the Thursday and Friday. Can it really be believed that the Government thought it possible to tow the tanker over 1,000 miles into the Atlantic? It would require to be 1,000 miles out for the job to be carried out successfully or else the Gulf Stream would have carried the oil back to the Cornish coast. Do they really think they would have been able to tow this vessel out, even had they managed to get it off the reef?
But look at it from the other side. Suppose the salvage was not likely to succeed. Suppose there was not a high possibility of success. Then I believe the Government were under an obligation to attempt to fire the ship in the early days, because of the consequences of allowing the oil to escape—as eventually it did escape—on the coast, an unprecedented disaster to the poorest county in the country, a county one-third of whose income is derived through tourism.
There is a statement in the White Paper that
Neither financial nor legal considerations inhibited the Government action at any stage.
I find this an astonishing statement because there is a vast amount of prima facie evidence that legal and technical considerations played the most important part in this in the early stages. The Secretary of State for Defence in answering my Private Notice Question, and supplementary questions, on 20th March said:
We are not in a position to be able to set fire to the ship until they"—
that is, representatives of the American company—
give their agreement that this can be done.
Later he said:
As I have said, I hope that it will be decided later this afternoon by the owners whether they wish to go on trying to refloat the ship or whether they would agree that steps should be taken to destroy it and to try to fire the oil aboard. But there are many difficult practical problems as well as legal problems, and I do not wish to go further on that matter.—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th March, 1967; Vol. 743, cc. 1056–58.]
I would say that this is sufficient prima facie evidence that the Government did take fully into account at an early stage the legal and financial consequences.
I believe the Government made an error of judgment in this case. It was not an easy decision to make. There were dangers in deciding to fire the ship in the early days. I am surprised, however, as were journalists covering the story, that having attempted unsuccessfully to salvage her on the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, when the Government knew that gales were coming, they did not at that later stage attempt to fire the ship.
The other astounding aspect of the matter is that Sir Solly Zuckerman and his team of scientific advisers called together by the Government did not make their tests into whether Kuwait oil would burn until—I think it was—Easter Sunday. The ship went aground on Saturday, 18th March. It was not until Sunday, 26th March, that tests were carried out on this oil in London to see if it would burn. The Home Secretary was reported as saying that the test was successful. I believe he said that all but 1 per cent. of the oil was consumed. Why was it, if the Government were considering all the options and alternatives, that they did not take steps with experiments into the firing of this Kuwait oil until Easter Day, Sunday, 26th March?
There are many questions to be answered on this. The White Paper does not answer them. I fully appreciate the problems and difficulties of the Government, but they should have been prepared for pollution. They were warned. I believe myself that their decision-making was at fault, and I believe they should be censured for it.
The hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Nott) has a very real constituency interest in this issue. His speech has shown the House how involved and committed he has been, and I should certainly like to pay tribute as a fellow West Country Member to him for his interest in this matter and express agreement with him in his wish to see his constituents' interests preserved. I can understand that he feels very strongly and is also, possibly, critical of the Government because of his interest that the oil should have been cleared away before it came to the shores of his constituency, but I think that he has tended to veer into the dangerous field of being wise after the event.
I know that the hon. Member has documented his advice to the Prime Minister, but I think the point was really made in an interjection, that it is very easy now, looking back, to choose the different course, to talk about Lloyds underwriters, and to talk about fishermen's advice. If after a failure to bomb the ship and after allowing the oil to spread along the coastline, and having used those two reasons as their criteria, the Home Secretary or the Minister for Housing and Local Government would have been laughed out of this House, and quite rightly so, had they acted on such advice then. The Ministers' job was to get the best technical advice.
This debate is beginning to centre around what is essentially a technical judgment. I do not quibble about this, and the House tonight is going to pass a Motion which will refer the judgment to a Select Committee of this House, which I think is right. We would hope to have all the evidence and expertise which has been assembled, and to assemble the evidence in order to draw conclusions for the future from the past. I am a member of that Select Committee, and I hope that it will be possible for me to be on the sub-committee which looks into this. I am not going to prejudge the issue by going into the question very far now, but I think we should try to question whether there has been any political judgment here, because that is our main job today.
The Government would have been extremely inept if, in deciding whether to salvage the vessel, they had not taken expert advice. It is a very true point that the Dutch salvage people had an interest in this matter. I am sure that when the hon. Member for St. Ives talked about the advice given by the Service salvage expert he did not wish to imply what his words certainly seemed to imply—that he was not really independent. The fact that that expert was in the Ministry of Defence surely did not mean that he would have been prejudiced in his advice. This was not a British ship. Surely, this was probably the best independent advice available to the Government at the time. I think this needs to be said quite clearly, that that advice— it may have been wrong—should have been sought by the Government and due weight should have been attached to it.
I should like to pay tribute to the work of the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy who, I know, from the very start kept West Country Members of Parliament informed about the situation, and certainly when I attended a briefing we did discuss this issue and we looked at the ship on the Seven Stones, where she seemed very firmly lodged, I must confess that I agreed with what he said. I am not myself a great expert on this, it seems to me that it was clear at that stage that the question whether to bomb the ship and to fire the oil was one which called for technical advice and the Government were acting on the best technical advice available. To my mind, the answers he gave as to the reasons why he thought that they could salvage the ship then seemed reasonable. It was clear to us all at that meeting that the Minister had taken the best advice, and most of us felt that this was the right course to take.
Looking back with the benefit of hindsight and much more information, it may be said that we should have come to an-
other decision, but we cannot make this into a criticism of political judgment. The question of political judgment would have arisen if the Government had decided to flout international law in order to save the beaches. Some Members feel that this should have been done. I am extremely concerned about paragraph 6 of the White Paper which says that:
Neither legal or financial considerations inhibited Government action …
I read this to mean that the Government, having taken all due advice, took the decision irrespective of legal and financial considerations only because those considerations did not intrude. I hope, however, that the Government would take notice of legal implications in the normal course of events. I reject utterly the attitude that because one's own shores are affected one can flout international law. It is absolute nonsense.
I also find bitterly distasteful some journalists' comments on these events, inciting the Government to do what they liked irrespective of international law. The Government are committed to uphold international law. If, in some cases, we feel bound to go against international law, those cases are matters of political judgment, but in normal circumstances we should take every consideration, international and financial, into account. I hope that paragraph 6 does not mean that the Government did not consider international law; I hope that it means that the action the Government took was quite independent of the financial and legal implications.
Surely the hon. Member will agree that if the situation had occurred off the coast of Miami the American authorities would have come to a firm decision to fire the ship straight away, and would have flouted international law—and in that case would have been quite right, as we would have been.
The hon. Member for Torrington (Mr. Peter Mills) has no evidence for that purely hypothetical argument. I hope that the Americans would not have done this. I believe that they have respect for international law, just as we have. What the hon. Member has said is just the sort of jingoism that has been going around, as expressed in the correspondence columns of The Times in such terms as, "Am I alone in wondering what Churchill would have done?" I hope that Churchill would have taken note of international law, just as any other statesman should. The hon. Member has no evidence that the Americans would have fired this ship if this incident had occurred off Miami.
The hon. Member says "Of course they would", but he has no evidence. If they did so they were not taking international law into consideration, and they would be extremely foolish. So would this Government have been. It would have been a political judgment. If, having taken such a decision, the Government had been proved wrong, the House could well have argued about it.
I suggest, however, that this was a technical judgment, based on the best technical advice. I do not want to pursue that aspect. It is pointless to do so. The most important thing at the moment is to make sure that the West Country is not adversely affected by what has happened over the last few weeks. I cannot stress enough to the House and the country that there has been gross exaggeration of the extent of the pollution. I concede that we were in a very difficult position. The West Country is a long way from London, and the people on the spot at the time had to mobilise Government action rapidly. The natural tendency was to make this into something of a great disaster.
I do not want to minimise the seriousness of the disaster to those towns and beaches which have been polluted, but a picture has been put round that the whole West Country is submerged in oil. That is nonsense. It needs to be said again and again that those beaches which were most heavily polluted have in many cases since been completely cleared. That is the fact that we want to get across to the country at large. Having spent ten days enjoying the splash of headlines about the beaches and the extent of the pollution, the Press ought now to spend a little time painting a proper picture of the present situation, and the situation as it will be, we hope, in the next three or four weeks. There is no reason why anybody should postpone a holiday in the West Country because of oil pollution, The battle of the beaches, as it has been called, has been largely won.
Here I want to pay tribute to some other people, namely, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government and his colleagues, who have done a great deal for the West Country. This fact is accepted by West Countrymen of all political parties. Considerable anxiety has been felt in the West Country because this subject has been brought into the political arena. The general feeling in the West Country is that, given the limitations of the facilities available for mounting a major operation of this kind, involving many Ministries, the Government acted rapidly. Great concern has been felt for civil servants who have been criticised, but who have given up their holidays, as have Ministers and Service men, to help the West Country. The West Country is extremely grateful.
I urge the Government to carry this help a stage further, in a positive way, and not in any way to cut off now financial help, especially to the tourist trade. I know that many suggestions have been made to my right hon. Friend with the idea of promoting the realisation throughout the country that this pollution is not as bad as has been suggested, and that a more optimistic picture should be put out. Practical suggestions have been made, such as the production or a film showing the beaches as they were when polluted and then being cleared by Service men and volunteers and, later, showing them completely cleared. It has been suggested that the film should be in colour and sent round the world. We must not forget that tourists from all over the world, not least from America, come to the West Country. Such a film would be of great benefit, and I hope that it can be made.
Another suggestion is that all tourist and travel agencies should have available brochures showing that the Cornish beaches are clean and that there is no need to postpone a holiday, thereby generating a more optimistic picture. Nothing could have done more to help the West Country than the picture of three girls bathing in the sea, taken a few days after the pollution arrived on the beaches. We should be grateful for a few more such pictures.
The situation in the West Country has been very difficult. Many of the workers there have had to make do with equipment which was not specifically designed for the job. There has been a great voluntary spirit and the Government have helped considerably, both financially and in kind.
The Opposition should be careful about making this into a political issue. We should examine the problem and learn from it. It may be that a similar disaster will happen again, although I hope not. We must resolve that if such a thing ever happens again adequate preparation will have been made and the necessary material and expertise will be able to go in instantly. I suggest that the Government should consider delegating one Minister with overall responsibility for this sort of thing.
I hope that the Natural Environment Research Council, which has a fairly considerable establishment in Plymouth, will look into the question of pollution. We know that it is looking into the effects on marine life, which are long-term and probably most important of all, but I hope that we shall carry on adequate research long after this disaster has been forgotten, and shall show a determination to ensure that adequate preparation is made for any next time. Perhaps the Select Committee on Science and Technology can make its contribution to achieving this end.
The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Dr. John Dunwoody) described himself as one of the two Members of Parliament representing constituencies most likely to be damaged by oil. I can describe myself as one of the two Members of Parliament representing constituencies which were seriously damaged by oil. The constituency which was most damaged was that of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Nott). I think that my northern coastline is longer than that of my neighbour in Falmouth and Camborne. It was the north coast of Cornwall that received a good deal of the damage.
However that may be, I agree with the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Dr. David Owen) that there has been much exaggeration of the amount of damage and its continuance. In fact, the beaches have been cleared to a large extent. Nobody need cancel his holiday because he fears that beaches in the West Country are polluted.
I understand that this disaster is to be the subject of a further inquiry. Everyone must agree that the White Paper gives a detailed explanation of what was done by the authorities and why, and also of why a number of other things were not done, including a suggestion which I made at a very early stage. I was the first person to ask a question in the House about the possibility of off-loading the oil. It is possible to argue about whether the decisions taken by the Government were the right ones or were taken in the right order, but no one can complain that the White Paper does not give an explanation as to why the decisions were taken and why others were not taken.
I was glad to hear that this matter is to be further considered, not only by the Select Committee on Science and Technology, but also that the legal aspects are to be studied, particularly with regard to international law. One point which has not been explained in any of the newspapers or in the House is how it is possible for any ship, with every modern navigational aid, to run into such a well-known hazard as the Seven Stones in daylight when that well-known hazard is guarded by a lightship which claims to have given the ship warning. Various explanations have been tentatively suggested in the Press. One is that perhaps the "Torrey Canyon" was obstructed by fishing vessels, changed course, and could not get back on course. Whatever the cause, if a ship is not able to manœuvre in a channel seven miles wide, something is seriously wrong. Either its steering apparatus is insufficient or it was going too fast.
I agree wholeheartedly that consideration should be given to the question of having speed limits in dangerous waters. Consideration should be given inter nationally to this question. If large ships cannot manœuvre at high speed, consideration should be given to placing some limitation on the speed at which they travel. I am more familiar with transport by road and rail. For many years there have been speed limits on the railways and on the roads in circumstances where unlimited speed would be dangerous.
I do not know about that. I suppose that in certain cases there are limits on landing speeds.
Further study should be devoted to the question of what can be done about off-loading stranded tankers. We have had an explanation of why that could not be done in this case. Are we satisfied that in the general run of cases tankers are so constructed or have the necessary equipment to remove the oil, if other circumstances permit, in the case of stranding?
The White Paper admits that much the best way of preventing oil pollution is to prevent oil from getting into the sea. However, if a tanker is stranded, what can be done? Have we mobile pumps, or a rescue tanker with the necessary pumps, to pump the oil out of a stranded vessel? Is there another method by which oil could be transported at sea which would not be so dangerous as putting it into very large tankers but which would have the advantage of volume which is claimed for the large tankers? I have in mind the idea of a sectional ship which has been canvassed by a Liverpool firm. Most Members of Parliament will have received documents from the firm on this matter. If a sectional ship had gone aground on the Seven Stones, the undamaged part could easily have been towed away.
Further consideration must also be given to how oil which has got on to the water can be dealt with. This question will be considered by the Select Committee on Science and Technology. We have been told that oil is difficult to burn or disperse. We are told that the most effective way is to spray it with detergents, as was done. We have been told that this does not do any damage to fish. This we are glad to hear. Some doubts have been expressed as to what will happen to shellfish. Oysters in the West Country are a substantial crop, worth about £1 million a year. If the spillage of oil, or if oil which has been dispersed by detergents, causes damage to oysters, this is a matter which should be further considered with a view to ascertaining what could be done to prevent such damage from occurring if another spillage occurs, which is almost certain to happen. If detergents are not satisfactory and if a boom does not work, how are we to protect the oyster beds in the South-West or, indeed, in any other part of the country from such pollution?
I raised in a question to the Prime Minister the matter of the cost of the remedial measures. The Government have promised a grant to local authorities. I questioned whether this would not be rather a hardship on inland ratepayers who might be called upon to contribute a 2d. rate towards the cost of oil dispersal. In a major disaster like this, local ratepayers may not have any serious objection, but if oil pollution is to become a feature which we are likely to meet again and again I think that ratepayers will have some objection if they are called upon to make a contribution towards a service from which they are gaining no more benefit than any other taxpayer. Consideration must be given to the question how the cost of any permanent service for the dispersal of oil should be met without its falling on local authorities.
Although the oil menace is serious, it has been exaggerated in this case. Fortunately, we have to a large extent cleared the pollution. With the increasing quantities of oil in use, it will become more and more of a menace.
Perhaps this disaster may have been a blessing in disguise in that it has drawn attention to the seriousness of the matter, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives pointed out, has concerned the West Country for a long time and which we have pressed should be dealt with further. I hope that the matters which have arisen in this case will give us all an opportunity to look further into the questions which it raises and that, after the necessary advice has been received from the Select Committee and the other bodies to which the Government have referred various considerations, we shall implement proposals which will mitigate the damage which any future disaster could cause.
I am very glad to follow the speech of the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Geoffrey Wilson), who is my neighbour and who, as everyone on both sides will agree, has, as usual, made a constructive and objective contribution to the debate—a great deal more constructive and a great deal more sensible than the contribution which we had from the Opposition Front Bench.
I appreciate how much my colleagues representing Cornish constituences have worked during the past three weeks. I have been particularly fortunate. My constituency is the only one in Cornwall where no oil has so far appeared on the beaches as a result of the wreck of the "Torrey Canyon", and I hope that this condition will prevail throughout the summer. But I know that the constituencies of my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe) and other Cornish hon. Members who have spoken in the debate so far have suffered severely, and I am delighted to learn today that the situation is now so well under control.
There are many aspects of the matter which we should like to debate, but no great benefit is to be gained from going over past ground. I shall touch briefly on one or two aspects of responsibility, but, first, I take the question of the manner in which this ship was crewed. I find it impossible to believe that a ship of this size, carrying such a valuable as well as such a toxic cargo, can have been properly skippered if she managed, in relatively calm conditions, to run aground on the Seven Stones. In my view, there is a question here to be put to the Italian maritime authority about the issuing of captains' certificates. It seems to me that, if a vessel of this kind can be chartered by a company, can be registered in Liberia, a country which has no real resources, and can then be crewed by a crew which, obviously, could not have been competent to deal with the ship, there is a matter to be investigated at international level.
Then, too, there must be some responsibility on the owners of the ship, moral if not legal, for engaging a crew which appeared to be totally inefficient.
Before the hon. Gentleman leaves that point, perhaps he will be a little careful in saying "moral if not legal". Surely, it is a clear principle of law that one is responsible to see that the contractors whom one employs are fit and proper persons for the employment which one seeks to impose as their duty.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because that strengthens the point I was making. Clearly, there must be some legal responsibility. No doubt, the Government are looking into that and we shall hear more about it later.
I feel that the owners of the cargo, British Petroleum—I have said this before and I do not hesitate to repeat it—showed indecent haste in their anxiety to disclaim any moral or legal responsibility. The fact remains that it was their cargo being carried from a port in the Middle East to their own refineries in South Wales. I think that they had at least a moral responsibility—I hope that the hon. Member for the Isle of Thanet will accept this—if not a legal responsibility to ensure that a cargo of this sort passing the shores of Britain was carried by a ship which was properly registered and properly skippered. There is every reason to suppose that neither of those conditions was fulfilled.
Is the hon. Gentleman saying that, in international shipping, each of the owners of a mixed cargo, who may number 1,000, has a moral responsibility for how the ship is controlled?
I said nothing of the kind, and the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows that I did not. I referred to a specific cargo, the cargo of the "Torrey Canyon". I referred to British Petroleum. I made no suggestion about mixed cargo. A large toxic cargo of this kind is very different from a mixed cargo.
The question of flags of convenience has been referred to many times. There are many who will disagree with me about it, I know, but I think that the Prime Minister was right to raise the question. I do not regard it as a red herring. I regard it as a matter closely pertinent to this whole subject, and I consider that we should look carefully into the question of ships being registered in countries which, obviously, are unable to meet any obligation to us or to any other Power when a disaster of this sort occurs. I hope that the British Government will look into the matter at international level and that it will be the subject of discussion between us and other nations.
I come now to the question which has been debated so much today, the question of what action should have been taken when the ship foundered. I very much agree with the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Dr. David Owen) when he says that we can all be wise after the event. It may well be that the fishermen of Newlyn were right. It may well be that some of the expert opinion which was thrust upon me and other Members representing constituencies in the South-West, day and night, by telephone, by letter and by telegram, was right. But, even if it was right, the Government would have been mad to accept it. Clearly, the Government responsibility was to accept the recognised technical advice available to them, the advice of the Royal Navy and of people competent to deal with the salvaging of ships, and to consider the legal considerations as well, which I do not discount for a moment, as the ship was outside territorial waters.
The Government had to weigh these things in the balance and, if they had taken any action which had discounted those important considerations, the Opposition today would have slayed them, and rightly so. To pretend now that the Government should have acted upon the advice of the fishermen of any particular part of Cornwall or upon the advice received from people far removed from the scene of the accident is, to my mind, quite irresponsible.
I come now to the only criticism which I make. There were three possibilities. One was to refloat the ship. The expert advice, including that of British Petroleum, apparently, was that this should be attempted and that firing should be attempted only if refloating failed. This should be put on record because there has been confusion about it in the debate today. The second question was whether she could have been unloaded. I have never been entirely satisfied by the answers given to the hon. Member for Truro, the first hon. Member to raise the question of unloading the cargo.
If I have one point of criticism, it is this. If it was possible to put salvage teams aboard, if it was possible to put compressors aboard and to put compressed air into the compartments in the hope of creating the bubble, about which the Parliamentary Secretary told us at one of our briefings, to enable the ship to be refloated off the rocks, it must, surely, have been possible to have some kind of apparatus aboard the ship in order to get away at least a large part of the cargo. This in itself could only have helped to lighten the vessel and, possibly, assist in the process of refloating. That is one matter that the Committee should examine very carefully.
Next, there is the question of the decision to fire the ship. We heard from the Secretary of State for the Home Department this afternoon about all the considerations that had to be taken into account, and we have also heard the Prime Minister speak about this. I still believe that on balance it was right to take the decisions to attempt to refloat her and eventually, when that became impossible, to fire her by the means at the Government's disposal at that time.
The question remains whether it would have been possible to fit charges to her when she was still in one piece, and thus make firing easier. I do not know whether that could have been done, and I doubt whether any right hon. or hon. Member can say with certainty what would have been the right course. Again, it was a matter of the Government to accept the judgment of the experts, and if that judgment was wrong, that is not the Government's responsibility.
I now turn to the question of the actions taken to prevent pollution. I join the Secretary of State and the right hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph) in paying tribute to the work of the Royal Navy, the Army and the Royal Air Force, which was prompt, efficient and effective. I also pay tribute to the work of the local authorities. I am naturally biased towards those in my constituency, which worked together so willingly, accepted all the suggestions made to them by the Minister of Housing and Local Government and others, and acted upon them promptly. They made every conceivable preparation to meet a disaster, which, happily, did not occur in my consituency although, alas, it occurred elswhere, particularly in the constituency of the hon. Member for St. Ives. He will agree with me that the work of the local authorities in Cornwall has been exemplary in this matter.
In addition, we should not forget the work of the fire services, not only of Cornwall, but those which came so readily from other parts of the country, and the work of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which was remarkable. It was done on a voluntary basis and was a contribution to the overall work carried out in Cornwall.
I confess that at my first meeting with the Minister of Housing and Local Government I felt some anxiety about what had happened in the previous week. But after the meeting on 28th March it would be wrong to say that the Government did not act fast. To use the expression I used last week, their actions were dynamic. Clear written instructions were sent out to the local authorities that day. There was clear direction on matters affecting booms, detergent, supplies of detergent, and everything else from that day onwards.
I pay tribute to the tireless efforts of the Minister of Housing and Local Government during that week. I speak for my constituents and, I believe, the vast majority of people of all political opinions in Cornwall when I say that we deeply appreciate the personal concern he showed, and which was so obvious to all of us who had contact with him during those days. I also pay tribute to his hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary. Whenever I telephoned he readily answered, and he dealt with all the queries I sent him with an expedition that is an example to any Government. The organisation under their control and the Command at Plymouth appeared to me to work efficiently and well and that is also true of the headquarters at Truro. I cannot speak for Exeter since I have no contact with it.
Within 48 hours of the arrival of the right hon. Gentleman I felt that the Government were completely on top of the whole organisation for dealing with any emergencies. I also agree with the right hon. Member for Leeds, North-East that we had very good fortune concerning the winds. The prevailing north-westerly was unusual at that time of the year, but it would be stupid to pretend that it is unique. It has happened many times. I do not know how much time the right hon. Gentleman has spent in the West Country. I have lived there all my life. I have lived in Cornwall for the past 12 or 14 years, and before that in Devon. I assure him that a north-westerly wind is not a freak occurrence, but I agree that if we had had a south-westerly, which is generally the prevailing wind, it would have been disastrous. We were fortunate to that extent, but I also believe that the work which had been done to prevent serious oil pollution would have been sufficient to meet any emergency, certainly after the first 10 days.
There has been too much drama about the whole matter—too much drama in today's debate, too many attempts to find little things to criticise. I do not believe that that reflects the feeling of the people of the West Country. The most objective speech, which best reflected the feelings of the people of Cornwall, was made by the hon. Member for Truro.
Now we look to the future. Oil pollution is an old problem. It was right for the hon. Member for St. Ives to point out that the Government have been very dilatory in this matter. He and I have raised this matter, and my predecessor as Member for Bodmin, Sir Douglas Marshall, raised it many times when the Conservative Party were in office. But nothing was done. I hope that now we shall see dynamic action in the matter. This problem has caused grave anxiety to local authorities, which lack the resources to clear the beaches and are prevented by statute from spending more than a limited sum of money for that purpose.
It is very important, therefore, that we should have continuous action in the matter. I should like to see the appointment of a Minister to co-ordinate the services in the event of any disaster of this kind occurring in the future. We should have a blueprint available for local authorities to meet any form of massive pollution which might occur.
There is a need for tightening international control on shipping. I agree with the hon. Member for Truro about limitation of speed. We have it on land and in the air, and that suggestion should be-examined.
This was an unprecedented situation, and it is no use pretending that anything that happened in the past could have given any clue to the Government as to the actions they should take in it. On behalf of my constituents, I repeat my thanks to the Government for their action. It may well be that it should have been different in the first few days. I do not know, and I do not believe that any right hon. or hon. Member is qualified to say; only the experts can decide that issue. Concerning the actual danger, I believe that the work done was adequate and is appreciated by everyone associated with it.
The Select Committee on Science and Technology will have a tough task. I hope that this overworked Committee will be allowed to increase its membership and, if necessary, appoint a sub-committee to deal with the subject. I hope that there will be proper facilities for the chairman to do his work effectively, because an inquiry of this sort is likely to be long drawn-out and will need to be exhaustive.
There has been an atmosphere of party politics in this debate and I regret it. I do not believe that there could be a worse contamination in Cornwall in the summer months which lie ahead than the contamination of political parties seeking to take advantage of what was, after all, a great tragedy, one which was dealt with as best it could be within the limited knowledge available to the Government at the time. I hope that we can work together to ensure that nothing like this occurs in future and that, if it does, we shall tackle it as we have tackled it so far in Cornwall—on a none-party basis.
Having listened with great interest to the debate, I feel that one of the lessons the House should take to heart is that there should be some restriction on sea lanes and shipping routes round our coasts. From Press reports of preliminary inquiries, there appears to have been something very wrong with the course on which the "Torrey Canyon" was bound. It has been reported that it was a question of drift. To those of us who have navigated small boats, drift is a matter of some anxiety. When one is handling a ship of this size, a little more competent navigation should be involved.
I would have thought that if the captain—and this has only been reported—did realise that he was off course, he should have taken immediate steps to rectify the matter. As it is, this was a great tragedy. It could well, but for the mercy of Providence, have been an even greater one. But we have to remember, when we talk about lethal and toxic cargoes, that, as technology advances, we are shortly to be faced with the additional problem of nuclear-propelled ships. Should one of these ships in certain circumstances be stranded near our coast there would be the most frightful disaster, not only interfering with the livelihood or general happiness of our people and entailing large loss of wild life, but possibly causing the loss of human life. A country should have a very strict say about the navigation of large ships around its coasts, even when they are outside territorial waters. As I have pointed out, nuclear-propelled ships carrying toxic cargoes may in future come near our shores.
There is only one point on which I would like to have taken issue with the Home Secretary had he been present now. It is on the question of what I consider to be the inevitable conflict of interest of the salvors on the one hand and the Government on the other. Paragraph 10 of the White Paper states categorically:
Until the ship broke up the best professional advice available to the Government was that, although the chances of refloating were not as high as the salvors believed, this course still held possibilities of success.
As I understood it, the right hon. Gentleman said something entirely different today. I hope that the Minister of Housing and Local Government will take up this point and tell us whether there was a conflict of interest and, if not, why paragraph 10 suggests that possibly there was.
With all due respect, 118,000 tons dead weight striking a reef at 17 knots and tearing a hole of 100 ft. in a ship's bottom makes for permanent stranding. I am no expert, but we have read of the various problems which had to be faced by the experts and one would have thought that some success might have been found through the adoption of the process of what one can call "explosive surgery". If a charge could have been put round that part which was stranded it might well have broken up the ship and the portion of it not stranded might have been towed away at an early stage.
We have been told that this could not possibly be done because of the danger of an explosion. On the other hand, when the ship did break up and the oil began to flow the broken ends of the ship must have been grinding together. Sparks must have been generated. But there was no explosion.
It has been suggested that the unfortunate death of that gallant Dutchman might have been caused by an explosion of oil, but I understand that it was to do with the compressed air equipment put on the ship. I understand that this caused the explosion and not the gaseous nature of the oil. I am open to contradiction. It would be interesting to know whether the right hon. Gentleman knows this fact and whether this accident was something to do with the compression equipment.
Paragraph 12 says that the Government
… were making arrangements to buy out the salvors if the ship was refloated…
I cannot help but feel that rather than negotiate, contrary to what certain hon. Members opposite have said, the Government should have acted ruthlessly because it was a matter of grave emergency. They should have taken the matter into their own hands from the outset. This was a job for the Royal Navy, and I consider that the naval salvage experts should have taken over at once and that the question of compensation for the cargo and the remains of the ship should have been discussed afterwards. This was an operational matter affecting the sea lanes of the country and the Navy should have had full and unfettered control of the situation.
I am not a lawyer. But if I were laced with taking a decision, I would take it and damn the consequences if a situation arose where people's lives or even livelihoods were in danger. Fortunately, by a change in the prevailing wind, there has not been too much loss financially to the inshore fishermen of the west coast.
I hope that if loss is proved, the Government will consider compensation for these men whose livelihood depends upon inshore fishing. The Government must also press on with their research in depth into the effect this accident has had on the wild life, both flora and fauna. We must see what effect the oil and the detergent have had upon marine life and what harm has been done to birds and may be done within the coming months.
I am told on inquiry that three species of the auk—the guillemot, the razor-bill and the puffin—have suffered much. As a species they are already in decline because of the predatory nature of gulls and other birds, and also because of the previous effects they have suffered from oil. If the disaster to them is of the magnitude which experts think—already 7,000 such birds have been treated—it could mean that this species will be greatly depleted for many years to come. Many of them are also being found suffering from detergent poisoning quite apart from the effects of the oil.
We must say that we are extremely thankful that the wind changed and that the oil has drifted away. I wish to pay tribute to all those who have fought so hard to mitigate the disaster.
It could have been very much worse. In Poole Harbour there are 100 miles of landlocked coastline, composed of saltings and mud flats. So far scientists have been unable to find any means of decontaminating them. It would have been an irreparable disaster for the wild life in the harbour, for those who sail in it and those who live round its shores.
Poole obtained a boom to put across the harbour mouth, but because the current flowing into the harbour reaches six knots at various stages of the tide it would have been impossible for any boom to withstand it. The boom cost £15,000 and cannot be used for its original purpose. We are hoping and praying that the oil does not come to our harbour. The various estuaries and inlets round the coast could be seriously affected by such a disaster.
I urge the Government not to let up and to use this as a lesson. It was something which came out of the blue and was very nearly a disaster. It has caused us much trouble, particularly those who have been directly affected. Mercifully it has not spread as far as it was once thought it might do. The Government must go into all these matters; they must investigate the question of international law, and the restriction of large ships sailing in some channels round our coasts. They should go into the question of strandings of this nature and the technical problems arising. Let us be forewarned and prepared, so that if such an occasion occurs again we are able to cope with it.
Even if I had not heard the damning evidence given by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Nott) about complacency and even indifference by members of the Government before this unhappy episode, I would still have been critical of the Home Secretary's speech. It was too optimistic and complacent. What for the time being saved the Government's bacon was the strong north-westerly winds which blew for a considerable and unusual duration after 24th March, and more recently the north-easterly winds that followed.
The Home Secretary and members of the Government have only to look at what is happening on the north-west coast of France and to draw the inference. The oil which might have swept up the Channel and contaminated our coasts has gone over the Channel and is causing damage to our next-door neighbour. The Home Secretary was too optimistic about the cleansing of the beaches and the rocks, and about the upset to the balance of nature. It will be many months before we know the outcome of that. We know that the effect on sea birds at the beginning of their breeding season has been most serious. About 7,000 have been cleansed—how many have died we cannot guess.
In this connection I must mention two constituents of mine, Mr. and Mrs. Donald Risdon, who have a great experience of birds kept in captivity and are providing facilities in conjunction with the R.S.P.C.A. They are providing a sanatorium for birds recovering from the cleansing process and awaiting return to their proper home. In mentioning those who have been helping, one ought to mention the honourable name of the R.S.P.C.A., the many volunteers who have done such good work in the area, and also the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals, which has sent to those coasts its mobile veterinary units to give all possible help.
The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton. (Dr. David Owen) said that if any criticism lies here it is a criticism of technical judgment. Governments have to make technical judgments. It will be some time before we can be sure whether the technical judgment was right in this case. The hon. Member for Sutton was quite wrong when he said that the battle of the beaches is, to a large extent, over now. I shall be very pleased if he is proved to be right, but unfortunately the persistence of the oil and our past experience have proved that it is not quickly overcome.
From the word "go", the Government took far too much for granted. Marine salvage organisations are always optimistic—they would not be in business if they were not so. This is particularly true in the case of those operating on a "no cure, no pay" basis. When it is said that the Navy Department salvage expert was on board in company with these Dutch experts—and I want to say nothing to decry their technical ability and expertise, they are well known to be some of the world's greatest experts in this sphere—it is obvious that if the Navy expert discussed the problem with these men in an atmosphere of optimism he would not be a very human person if his ideas were not coloured by that optimism.
Too great store was set on that. It should have been realised from the start that a ship of that size, running at that speed upon a hazard of that nature, had very little chance indeed of being salvaged. In any case, salvage is a question of prolonged good weather when dealing with a ship and a cargo of this size. Such good weather is never to be expected in that quarter and at that time of the equinox. Lloyd's underwriters never rated the chances of salvaging the "Torrey Canyon" very highly according to Mr. Anthony Grove, Chairman of Lloyd's Register of Shipping, as reported in The Times.
In this case the Government's view was:
… that the best action would have been to tow the ship into mid-Atlantic, if possible beyond fishing grounds and the influence of the Gulf Stream, and to sink her.
It seems somewhat naive to suggest that this was the best action—a hypothetical, theoretical solution at the very best, but quite impracticable with a ship of this size, heavily aground on a hazard of that nature and with so much in her hull, very
badly holed in several places. Even it she was towed off the rocks, the hazards and difficulties of towing her for a long distance would be enormous. If the effort had been successful, and she had been towed into mid-Atlantic or near mid-Atlantic, she would have been a source of leaking and seeping oil for many months up-wind and up-current from the British Isles.
The Prime Minister's remarks about flags of convenience were perhaps deliberately unspecific. The ships sailing under these colours are often A.1 at Lloyd's, well built, well found and well maintained. However, their standards of manning have sometimes been open to doubt. Whether the number of crew is adequate, whether they are adequately trained and disciplined in the sense of seamanship and marine skills have been questionable. Any seaman has grave doubts about what a ship of such a size was doing in such a place, on such a course and at such a speed. If the weather was thick at the time of the disaster it was no—