MV Braer (Oil Pollution)

– in the House of Commons at 3:30 pm on 11 January 1993.

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Photo of Mr John MacGregor Mr John MacGregor Chair, Privileges Committee, The Secretary of State for Transport, Chair, Privileges Committee 3:30, 11 January 1993

With permission, Madam Speaker, I would like to make a statement. MV Braer, a fully loaded Liberian registered tanker, drifted on to rocks at Garths Ness in Quendale bay, south Shetland, and was confirmed aground at 11.19 am on Tuesday 5 January.

Prompt action by the rescue services enabled the captain and crew, 34 persons in all, to be rescued before the ship grounded. I would like to pay tribute to the skill and courage of the helicopter crews and the professionalism of our coastguards in preventing loss of life, despite the violent storm conditions. Those who risked their lives in an attempt to get a line aboard when the drift of the ship unexpectedly provided extra time deserve particular praise.

Very sadly, it did not prove possible to avert a major oil pollution incident in this ecologically sensitive area. This is one of the biggest spills we have experienced in this country and the consequences for the people of Shetland and their livelihoods, and for the islands' marine life and birds and their habitats, are potentially very serious. I am sure that the whole House will be deeply concerned at this accident, and will sympathise greatly with the people of the Shetland Islands who are being affected by it.

A great deal of oil has escaped from the wreck. I had hoped to say that much is still retained in the tanks, but I regret to say that, in the past few minutes, I have heard that, owing to today's extreme weather conditions, very large additional quantities of oil are now escaping from the ship; it is too early to say how much or to assess its implications. The oil concerned is a light crude, a quarter or more of which will evaporate as it is released.

Rapid deployment of my Department's marine pollution control unit aircraft enabled dispersant to be sprayed throughout daylight hours on 6 January covering most of the oil on the sea surface. The continuing strong winds and big waves have aided dispersion and made spraying unnecessary on a number of days, while keeping the bulk of the spill near the ship. Nevertheless, the extent of the pollution so far, until the latest information, which I have just given the House, was available, though serious, is less than might have been feared and this will make, or would have made, the clean-up operations more manageable.

The Shetland Islands council and the marine pollution control unit have established a joint response centre to co-ordinate clean-up action in accordance with the national contingency plan. I saw this for myself on Friday, and I would like to congratulate all those concerned on the magnificent way in which they have risen to the occasion, particularly the local people and the voluntary organisations who have given unstintingly of their time, expertise and energy.

Inevitably, important questions arise about the events leading up to the accident. I announced that a full investigation by the marine accident investigation branch was being started immediately. I will, of course, publish the chief inspector's report to me in full. The investigation is covering the causes of the accident, the action taken to prevent it, the action taken after the event, the seaworthiness of the vessel, the competence of the crew and the safety of navigation. A parallel investigation is being carried out by the Liberian authorities. At the same time, I announced that I would be considering, following my visit, whether further inquiry action was necessary. This accident raises wider questions about tanker movements around our coasts, as well as many other issues. I have therefore decided to commission an additional inquiry with the following terms of reference:

To advise on whether any further measures are appropriate and feasible to protect the UK coastline from pollution from merchant shipping. Due consideration should be given to the international and economic implications of any new measures. The inquiry will be held in public except to the extent that the chairman feels any matters need to be heard in private. I am delighted to say that Lord Donaldson agreed to be chairman of the inquiry.

Clearly, dealing with the incident will be costly and there will be economic loss to individuals as well. The Government strongly uphold the polluter-pays principle. The United Kingdom is party to international conventions that provide for compensation following oil pollution incidents.

Under the 1969 civil liability convention, the shipowner is strictly liable for damage caused following an oil spill. In the case of the Braer, some £50 million will be available from the insurer and the international oil pollution compensation fund.

Compensation under the conventions is paid for costs incurred, including clean-up costs and the costs of reasonable restoration. Compensation is also available for economic loss. It can thus cover loss of income by local businesses affected by the consequences of the spill. I announced in Shetland on Friday the decision of the ship's protection and indemnity club and the international oil pollution compensation fund to establish a claims office in Lerwick to advise on and receive compensation claims arising from the incident. The Government are discussing with the director of the international fund ways of securing the earliest possible payment of compensation, particularly in cases of economic hardship.

This is a very serious pollution incident. Dealing with the consequences will not be quick or easy. I repeat that I am sure that the whole House will share my concern about this accident and will want to join me in expressing great sympathy with the people of the Shetland Islands who are being affected by it. I will keep the House informed of developments.

Photo of John Prescott John Prescott Shadow Secretary of State, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

May I thank the Secretary of State for his statement on this terrible maritime environmental disaster and express the sympathy and concern that is felt by all Members of the House for those affected by the sinking of the Braer. We are thankful that, despite the devastating effect on the environment and the appalling consequences for wildlife, miraculously no one was killed.

May I place on record our admiration for the courage and skill shown by those involved in the salvage and rescue operations, especially those helicopter pilots who braved extremely hazardous weather conditions to winch the Braer's crew to safety. The lives of many seafarers are owed to the courage and tenacity of those helicopter pilots.

I welcome the Secretary of State's announcement of the widening of the inquiry into the Braer disaster and its separation into two parts. The House will welcome the fact, albeit with some suspicion, that Liberia has at least promised to hold an inquiry. But under what circumstances will that inquiry be held? Has the Secretary of State requested that it be held in Britain under a British judge, as has occurred on a number of other occasions? Does he agree that it would be unacceptable for Britain to be left to face the consequences of this major pollution tragedy and for Britain alone to carry the heavy burden of the necessary inquiry costs, which will run into many millions of pounds, without any charge on the Liberian Government?

Does the Secretary of State accept that the practice of some countries of prostituting their flags for a few pieces of silver, allowing shipowners to put out to sea second-rate vessels with second-rate crews, has contributed to a loss rate three or four times greater than that of traditional maritime countries and the death of 300 seafarers with the loss of 24 tankers in the past few years? Those deaths have attracted far less publicity than the images of oil slicks on beaches, no doubt because blood washes away quicker than oil.

In recognising the principle that the polluter should pay, will the Secretary of State now insist that those countries that sell their flags for short-term gain should bear the long-term costs of their irresponsibility? Does he now accept that the loss of more than 1,000 ships from the British flag—many to flags of convenience countries and many of them tankers—has meant the loss of experienced British crews and the deterioration of vessel standards and has contributed to these terrible tragedies? Year after year we have warned the Secretary of State of such tragedies, and how they will result in the loss of the British maritime fleet. Does the Secretary of State agree that the merchant navy of an island nation such as Britain should be able to restore its fleet and not have to witness its own elimination?

Does the Secretary of State accept that the full public inquiry must concede the public's right to know and to contribute to the debate that is necessary to force changes to reduce the possibility of such tragedies happening off our coasts in future? Does he accept that all who wish to give evidence to the inquiry must be allowed to do so?

Will the Secretary of State tell the House whether all contingency plans for such tragedies were subjected to an environmental impact assessment of the effects on the environment—human and wildlife—and particularly on the food chain? Will the inquiry consider the role of the International Maritime Organisation and its conventions in securing the necessary measures to guarantee the standard of vessels, competency of crews and safety of routes? Will the Government consider a separate European convention—which I discussed with the European Commissioner 10 months ago—laying down standards and enforcing them in respect of all vessels entering British waters and ports?

Will the inquiry consider the delays that have occurred between the onset of danger and the notification of the emergency services due to pressures on captains to inform the shipowners first? As that has been the case in other tragedies around the British coast, why have the Government failed to sign the IMO salvage operations convention of 1989?

We should not delay action on any such issues until the result of the inquiry is known or the European legislation is enacted. Therefore, will the Secretary of State make it abundantly clear to all oil companies and carriers of hazardous materials that it is totally unacceptable for them to take dangerous routes that may be cheaper and quicker in commercial terms, but more dangerous and damaging to the community? Such policies are totally unacceptable to the House.

Is it not time that Britain recognised the inadequacy of relying on quick improvements through IMO, which is dominated by the flags of convenience countries that are reluctant to agree to good international practices? Will the inquiry consider the possibility of establishing a European convention on the carriage of hazardous cargoes and protection against marine pollution—possibly under the present international maritime conventions—that will unilaterally impose all the necessary policies to reduce the likelihood of such tragedies occurring in future?

Does the Secretary of State accept that the main burden of such incidents is usually carried by the polluted, not the polluter? Does he know that the owners of the Braer will receive more compensation for the ship than it is worth on the open market? Does he know that those who use flags of convenience will continue to pocket their immoral earnings, while communities such as those in the Shetlands will have their lives disrupted, their environment destroyed and their fishing industry paralysed and will face greater uncertainties about the compensation available? The rest of Britain will be affected by the pollution once it works its way through the food chain. The British taxpayer will have to pay for someone else's cynical irresponsibility, which is unacceptable. It is time for change.

Photo of Mr John MacGregor Mr John MacGregor Chair, Privileges Committee, The Secretary of State for Transport, Chair, Privileges Committee

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) for his support for the two inquiries that I have set up, and I am glad that he agrees that they should be separate. I felt that it was right to announce immediately the marine accident investigation branch inquiry, which is a highly professional technical inquiry and should proceed in the normal way. It was important that it should start its work and interview the crews immediately. I think that the hon. Gentleman recognised that important point.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the Liberian inquiry. As is proper in such circumstances, that inquiry is being held in parallel, and is currently taking place in the Shetland Islands. The inspector for the Liberian inquiry has been working with the inspectors of the marine accident investigation branch and interviewing the crews since Wednesday in the Shetland Islands.

I have one important point to make in relation to what the hon. Gentleman said about Liberia. Given that the hon. Gentleman referred to higher losses among ships registered in such areas, it is important to stress that the Liberian loss ratio is only half the world average. It is also important to establish that the Liberian authorities carry out thorough inquiries in cases of this sort.

It is not possible at this stage to make any allegations or accusations about the vessel or crew—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree—because they must be a matter for the MAIB inquiry.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about the implications of flagging out. He will know that, whatever has happened to the United Kingdom fleet, enormous numbers of vessels from other countries are travelling in international waters all the time; hence the importance of looking at these matters at the IMO level.

The hon. Gentleman asked me whether the full public inquiry will lead to changes. It will be for the chairman of that inquiry to decide what recommendations to make, and I will be happy, if either he or the MAIB inquiry feels it necessary to make interim or urgent recommendations, to have them followed up.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether all who wished to give evidence would be allowed to do so. They certainly will. As I have said, we intend the inquiry to be held in public except when the chairman comes to the view that there are good reasons for not doing so. He will then explain those reasons.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East asked about contingency planning for dealing with clearing up. During my visit on Friday I asked all concerned whether they felt that any more could be done and whether they had any suggestions to make to me. They told me that co-operation was excellent, that the contingency plans for clearing up had been implemented quickly, and that everything possible was being done in that respect. The fact that we got the unit in quickly, as well as the Dakotas and all the other equipment, shows that the planning worked. Clearly the inquiry will look into this aspect as well.

The hon. Gentleman referred to separate discussions in the European Community. As the House knows, during our presidency of the last six months of last year we took up and pushed through a proposal for a new directive on ships carrying dangerous goods and on reporting procedures which had been under discussion already for about three years. We gave priority to getting the directive through, and I am glad to say that we got it through. It affects oil tankers.

We are one of the member states taking the lead in all these matters. We also gave strong support to encouraging the Commission to produce proposals for maritime safety in general. The hon. Gentleman knows that we have been pressing at both IMO and European Community level on ferry safety matters. Although that is not strictly relevant, it does show the extent to which we are trying to drive forward higher standards in the IMO and the Community. We expect the Commission's communication on maritime safety within the next few weeks. I believe that the Community has a real role to play in ensuring that international standards are applied and enforced in a determined and consistent way. We have urged, and will continue to urge, other Governments to participate wholeheartedly in these efforts. I believe that our efforts during our presidency to push these matters have already borne some fruit, and we shall go on pressing.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the inquiry would look at some of the delays. I do not want to comment on that today because it is clearly a matter for the inquiry itself, but it will be for the MAIB inquiry, in the first instance, to examine the matter because it encompasses the causes and all other aspects of the accident. I will certainly make arrangements to ensure that anything that the MAIB inquiry reveals is made available to the chairman of the wider inquiry.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the salvage operations convention. We hope to be able to ratify it as soon as we can find a legislative opportunity; it requires primary legislation.

Photo of Mr John MacGregor Mr John MacGregor Chair, Privileges Committee, The Secretary of State for Transport, Chair, Privileges Committee

The salvage operations convention was only recently agreed. We are looking for an early opportunity to implement it, but a number of other countries must also ratify it so that there are sufficient numbers before it comes into force. [Interruption.] I have already stressed that we are looking for an early opportunity to implement it and I note that the hon. Gentleman will support that.

The second and relevant point is that the salvage operations convention is already being applied commercially in practice in this case. I have looked into that thoroughly, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that we do not need the convention to take all the appropriate measures relevant to this accident.

Photo of Mr John MacGregor Mr John MacGregor Chair, Privileges Committee, The Secretary of State for Transport, Chair, Privileges Committee

It is not terrible. The convention is already being properly applied. The hon. Gentleman is beginning to show that he has slightly lost his sense of perspective. If the convention is being applied, as I am assured it is, we can at least be satisfied that anything that could have happened under the convention will happen. We shall certainly endeavour to legislate at an early opportunity.

My next point in relation to the International Maritime Organisation is important. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman recognises, many of these issues have to be negotiated at international level if they are to be effective. That is why it is important in so many cases to try to reach agreement in the IMO. I as much as the hon. Gentleman regret the occasional delays, but the measures will be effective in practice. I suspect, although I do not wish to prejudge the matter, that some of the recommendations of the wider inquiry will require pursuit at IMO level.

At the weekend the hon. Gentleman complained that the Government had not taken action similar to that taken in the United States. He said that he regretted that we had not acted along the lines of the Oil Pollution Act introduced in the United States following the Exxon Valdez disaster. That Act was passed by Congress against the wishes of the American Administration, and I believe that it has considerable defects. I am certain that nothing that occurred in this accident would have been affected or improved in any way by the provisions of the Oil Pollution Act of the United States. That demonstrates the importance of trying to reach agreement at IMO level. As I have said, we shall actively pursue any issues arising from the two inquiries that I have announced.

Photo of Mr Robert Adley Mr Robert Adley , Christchurch

In unreservedly welcoming my right hon. Friend's action, may I ask whether he agrees that it is tragic that it takes a tragedy before he can set up the inquiries that he has announced? Is he aware that in March 1979 the Committee considering the Merchant Shipping Bill accepted a new clause of mine that would have placed liability for pollution of the sort that is occurring in the Shetlands on the cargo owner rather than on the carrier? The thinking behind the new clause was to prevent oil companies from chartering rotten ships with cheap crews.

Can that matter be looked at by the inquiry? The new clause was a victim of the demise of the then Callaghan Government and the noble Lord Callaghan of Cardiff told me that he was under enormous pressure from the oil companies to remove it. Will my right hon. Friend stand firm against pressure from the oil interests, and will he ask the inquiry to look into the links between oil companies and detergent manufacturers?

Photo of Mr John MacGregor Mr John MacGregor Chair, Privileges Committee, The Secretary of State for Transport, Chair, Privileges Committee

It will be for the chairman of the inquiry to look at any aspect he wishes. My hon. Friend will have noticed that the inquiry's terms have been widely drawn and that it will be open to anyone to give evidence or to make recommendations.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) regrets that he is not yet able to be here. The first flight from Shetland left at 10.50 this morning. I spoke to him when he was at Edinburgh airport and he told me that he hoped to be in the House by 4.30. Hon. Members are aware of the weather in the Shetlands and will, I hope, understand the reason for his delay.

On behalf of my colleagues, may I join the Secretary of State and the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) in paying tribute to all those who have successfully worked to save lives and who continue to work to mitigate the damage to the islands and their communities? I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland. As I saw when I was in Shetland on Friday, he has been working round the clock in his constituency to support his constituents at this hour of their greatest need.

Can the Secretary of State give the House the assurance that the inquiry will be, as legally defined, a proper public inquiry, entirely independent of the Department of Transport, so that the terms of reference, in addition to those announced, can include other matters of concern to the communities affected if they so wish and, above all, so that the reason why warnings given in years gone by were not heeded? The warnings included those from my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland about the need for surveillance and surveillance mechanisms and for different routing arrangements. A truly independent inquiry will ensure that there will be no doubt that, after this most public of disasters, the communities of Shetland, which are among the most economically important communities in the kingdom, will know that, just as the damage has been public, so the inquiry and its conclusions will be public and that nothing will be private except with the consent of their elected representatives.

Photo of Mr John MacGregor Mr John MacGregor Chair, Privileges Committee, The Secretary of State for Transport, Chair, Privileges Committee

I pay tribute to the work of the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) and I fully understand why he is not able to be present. I also met him on Friday and I know that he has been assisduous in pursuing all aspects. I am sure that he will agree that the Department and the marine pollution control unit have been working closely with the Shetland Islands council and doing everything possible in this tragic situation.

As the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Southwark (Mr. Hughes) will know, the marine accident investigation branch inquiry is independent and I have made it clear that its findings will be made public and that its report to me will be published in full.

As to the wider inquiry, what is taken in public and what is taken in private will be a matter for the chairman of the inquiry. Because he is out of the country, in the time available, I have not yet been able to discuss all the details with the chairman, and that includes matters such as assessors, which he will want to have. I hope to be doing that shortly. However, I have already made it clear that it is the intention that the inquiry will be held in public except where the chairman—not the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland—feels that it should be taken in private and then he will give reasons for that. I think that this is the right way to approach the matter and the best way to consider issues such as surveillance mechanisms and whether they would have had any effect in this case.

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson , Eastbourne

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the announcement of the inquiry by Lord Donaldson will be widely welcomed not only in the maritime community but beyond it? Will he confirm that one of the issues that the chairman will consider is the permanent provision around our shores of dedicated, ocean-going salvage tugs of sufficient size? Similar arrangements are made in countries such as France and South Africa.

Photo of Mr John MacGregor Mr John MacGregor Chair, Privileges Committee, The Secretary of State for Transport, Chair, Privileges Committee

That would be a matter at which the chairman of the inquiry could look within the terms of reference and given the conditions laid down in relation to economic and international impacts, obligations and interests.

Photo of Mr Robert Hughes Mr Robert Hughes , Aberdeen North

Let me begin by expressing my concern about what has happpened and my appreciation of everything that has been done since the accident.

I welcome unreservedly the Secretary of State's decision to set up two separate inquiries, and especially the undertaking that, if anything comes up quickly, action will be taken. However, there may be conflict between his inquiry and the Liberian inquiry. If they come to different conclusions, will not this affect the question of how quickly compensation can be paid? Would it not be much better if the Government took on themselves the capacity to pay compensation now and for them to argue with the insurers after the event as the amount of compensation might not match what was necessary?

Can the right hon. Gentleman allay one fear—that the dispersants used are poisonous to people? What can he tell us about that?

Photo of Mr John MacGregor Mr John MacGregor Chair, Privileges Committee, The Secretary of State for Transport, Chair, Privileges Committee

I have made it clear that we strongly believe in the polluter-pays principle. I have outlined the steps that we are taking, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland will shortly have something further to say on that matter. It was decided after consideration that the inquiries should take place separately but that the two should co-operate with each other.

I know that there has been a great deal of interest in, and concern about, dispersants. I assure the House and the hon. Gentleman that the Department uses only dispersants that have been carefully tested to ensure that the toxicity of the dispersant when combined with oil is no greater than the toxicity of the original oil. The decisions to spray the dispersant were taken in conjunction with a considerable number of people, who were consulted and who gave their agreement.

The chief executive of the Shetland Islands council reassured the people of the Shetlands in a public notice that he put out on 10 January that The composition of the dispersants used has been made known to the medical authorities and it is considered that, if used by correct methods, then risk to the general public is so low as not to be measurable. He added:

In fact, what people have been suffering from is the effects of oil in the air and the use of dispersants would reduce the problem. I know that there are arguments on both sides in relation to dispersants. That is why they are used only when on balance they have advantage in dispersing the oil. That is why dispersant has been used on only certain occasions in this instance. I think that the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland was able to observe on Saturday the way in which the Dakotas were carrying out dispersal work. I believe that every effort has been made to keep the dispersant on the sea. I can assure the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) about the effect of it in the way in which I have just sought to do.

Photo of Anthony Steen Anthony Steen , South Hams

Is my right hon. Friend aware that a tragedy on a similar scale might have happened off the south Devon coast shortly before Christmas, when a Chinese oil tanker was being towed across the channel by a Russian tug? In the gale the oil tanker broke loose and hit the rocks on the Devon coast. As the tanks were not full, only engine oil went on to the rocks. It has since been dispersed.

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the possibility of ship traffic control, like air traffic control for aeroplanes, is considered? Such a system would enable there to be a round-Britain network. It would be possible to know the position of all ships by the use of computer screens.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that local authorities will not be charged a penny piece when accidents of this type take place, and that local taxpayers will not be expected to foot the Bill?

Photo of Mr John MacGregor Mr John MacGregor Chair, Privileges Committee, The Secretary of State for Transport, Chair, Privileges Committee

My hon. Friend's point about local authorities and taxpayers is a matter not for me but for my right hon. Friends who are involved with local authorities.

We have much tighter control over ships that are coming into our ports than over those that are operating on the basis of international rights of passage under international law. One of the effects of the steps that we took recently within the European Community, to which I have referred, is that we shall be able to have much greater knowledge and information about dangerous goods that are being transported, where they are on ships and what they contain. Wider considerations of what might be done are a matter for the inquiry.

Photo of Mr Calum MacDonald Mr Calum MacDonald , Na h-Eileanan an Iar

Will the Secretary of State confirm that over the years his Department has received numerous warnings from Scottish local authorities and from hon. Members of the possibility of just such a disaster on the north-west coast of Scotland? Why was a study such as that to be made by Lord Donaldson not commissioned a long time ago, which possibly could have prevented the disaster?

Photo of Mr John MacGregor Mr John MacGregor Chair, Privileges Committee, The Secretary of State for Transport, Chair, Privileges Committee

Steps have been taken through the International Maritime Organisation. A large part of the seas around Shetland, including the area where the tanker was eventually beached, was declared in 1991 to be an "area to be avoided" as a result of British efforts in the IMO's assembly. There is no evidence—this is a matter for the MAIB inquiry—that the tanker was in the area to be avoided before its engines failed. The tragedy is that following engine failure it moved into that area.

Many steps have been taken over the years, but I believe it right in a case such as this to ascertain what further steps we can take. The House should be under no illusions about some of the difficulties. As I have said, there is the view that the American oil pollution legislation, following the Exxon Valdez disaster, will not prove to be very effective in practice. It might have been better to operate through the IMO, as the American Administration itself wished to do. That is always the inevitable constraint. It is right to consider thoroughly the wider circumstances surrounding the accident to determine whether we, together with other nations that have similarly suffered, can bring further pressures to bear through the IMO.

Photo of Mr David Harris Mr David Harris , St Ives

I represent a constituency that suffered badly from the Torrey Canyon disaster many years ago—a not dissimilar accident. I welcome the wider inquiry announced by my right hon. Friend and I extend my sympathy to the Shetland islanders.

If I understand my right hon. Friend correctly, the wider inquiry will cover pollution risks in the United Kingdom as a whole, not just the results of the disaster in Shetland. May I press my right hon. Friend to widen the inquiry even further to consider the whole question of safety at sea? I am president of the sea safety group, which is concerned about collisions at sea, especially those between large merchant vessels and fishing vessels. Would not it be timely to widen the inquiry in that way?

Photo of Mr John MacGregor Mr John MacGregor Chair, Privileges Committee, The Secretary of State for Transport, Chair, Privileges Committee

I understand my hon. Friend's concern. The inquiry will cover a wide area, so I should be reluctant to widen it much more as that might mean further delay. I think that it is right to focus on pollution from merchant shipping, which is the result of the accident. However, I share my hon. Friend's interest and concern. We are looking forward to the European Commission's proposals on maritime safety, which I hope will be published shortly. We can then decide how to follow up those proposals.

Photo of Mr Robert Maclennan Mr Robert Maclennan , Caithness and Sutherland

The right hon. Gentleman will recognise that as the neighbouring Member of Parliament to my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace), whose constituency has been so adversely affected, and as my constituency is surrounded on three sides by coastal waters and is in peril of suffering a similar accident, I have a particular interest in the matter. Does he accept that his decision to lean heavily against the American solution will dismay a number of people, who feel that the American legislature showed greater wisdom than did the outgoing President in this matter? Although it is necessary to have acceptable international solutions operated through the IMO where that is possible, if it is not possible we must operate higher standards in the waters around our coasts—not only United Kingdom waters, but the routes to, from and by the United Kingdom.

Photo of Mr John MacGregor Mr John MacGregor Chair, Privileges Committee, The Secretary of State for Transport, Chair, Privileges Committee

I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern. I mentioned the doubts about the American legislation simply to show that I have heard reservations and criticisms of it and that it is as yet untested in practice. I was simply showing that there are no easy solutions to the problem. I do not wish to go further than that because such issues are matters for the inquiry, its chairman and all those who wish to give evidence.

Photo of Richard Ottaway Richard Ottaway , Croydon South

I warmly welcome the inquiry under Lord Donaldson. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the inquiry should bear in mind the fact that, in all the marine losses in 1991, 82 per cent. of the vessels were more than 15 years old? The Aegean Sea, which went aground on the Spanish coast in November, was 19 years old; the Braer was 17 years old. Is not it obvious that there is a link between age and safety? Is it not high time that we considered an age limit on ships that wish to trade on an international or global basis?

Photo of Mr John MacGregor Mr John MacGregor Chair, Privileges Committee, The Secretary of State for Transport, Chair, Privileges Committee

I hope that my hon. Friend will understand if I am somewhat circumspect today because we do not know whether the condition of the Braer was a material factor. It would be right for the MAIB inquiry to consider that point thoroughly and then to reach conclusions. It is clear that the wider inquiry will wish to consider the general issue raised by my hon. Friend.

Photo of Nick Ainger Nick Ainger , Pembroke

I have 14 years' experience of the oil industry at Milford Haven. Many people in that town have said about the Braer and many other such incidents that they are disasters waiting to happen. During that 14 years, I have seen ships coming into Milford Haven that have been poorly maintained, poorly crewed and with poor officers.

I refer to a telephone call that I received from a constituent whose son is a master mariner, who left the company chaired by Lord Sterling because he was sick and tired of having to give his crew members written instructions that had to be checked against a dictionary so that the orders could be translated. That is the kind of thing that is happening on the high seas.

I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman is not prepared to take unilateral action, as the United States appears to be doing, particularly in relation to double-skinned hulls. At least that would make those who charter vessels realise that something must be done and shipowners appreciate that a real investment must be made in their large tankers. The only answer will be unilateral action. We require proper regulations that are properly enforced.

Photo of Mr John MacGregor Mr John MacGregor Chair, Privileges Committee, The Secretary of State for Transport, Chair, Privileges Committee

I have not ruled out unilateral action. I was pointing to the fact that, given the nature of international shipping and the huge number of ships from other countries that move through international waters, the more that agreement can be reached at international level the better. I was simply making the case that some unilateral actions may not be fully effective and may occasionally be unproductive. Those are aspects that the inquiry will have to weigh up.

The hon. Gentleman may know that the IMO has already agreed new rules for double hulls, that double hulls for all new ships will be introduced in 1995, and that there will be an insistence on double hulls for older ships over a progressive period. The IMO has taken steps on that front.

Photo of Jacqui Lait Jacqui Lait , Hastings and Rye

I add my voice to those who share in the tragedy that has affected the Shetlands and islanders there. I welcome the extension of the inquiry to the whole United Kingdom coastline and the proposed new investment in extending coastguard surveillance to my constituency, on the Fairlight cliffs. Will the inquiry consider the special problems and hazards of shipping in the English channel?

Photo of Mr John MacGregor Mr John MacGregor Chair, Privileges Committee, The Secretary of State for Transport, Chair, Privileges Committee

I have made it clear that the inquiry will be concerned with the United Kingdom coastline, which clearly means the whole United Kingdom coastline.

Photo of Brian H Donohoe Brian H Donohoe , Cunninghame South

Why is it that in the past week I received a letter from the Royal National Institute for the Blind and from other voluntary organisations asking for money and why, in this instance, have the Government not given an undertaking that all the costs of those voluntary organisations will be met by the Government? After all, after the fire at Windsor castle, the Government were quick enough to state that all the costs of that disaster would be met. Why have they not done the same on this occasion?

Photo of Mr John MacGregor Mr John MacGregor Chair, Privileges Committee, The Secretary of State for Transport, Chair, Privileges Committee

I did not refer to that because my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland will be doing so in his statement.

Photo of Mr Michael Stephen Mr Michael Stephen , Shoreham

Will my right hon. Friend instruct the United Kingdom representative at the International Maritime Organisation to press for the raising of standards of training for masters and crew and of the standards of maintenance of vessels up to those expected of British masters and crew and shipowners? Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in the event of serious maritime accidents anywhere in the world, an inquiry should be conducted by an inspector appointed by the IMO itself and not by the Government of the country under whose flag the ship sails?

Photo of Mr John MacGregor Mr John MacGregor Chair, Privileges Committee, The Secretary of State for Transport, Chair, Privileges Committee

I shall have to reflect on my hon. Friend's final point, but I thought that it was right to establish an inquiry straightaway so that we could get on with the matter and come to a United Kingdom view. As to my hon. Friend's first point on training, the Government have been pressing that matter in the IMO.

Photo of Mr Eric Clarke Mr Eric Clarke , Midlothian

The Secretary of State continually referred to the incident as an accident and used the word "disaster" only in relation to the Exxon Valdez. Is it the Government's view that it was only an accident? I am sure that Scotland, the whole of the United Kingdom, and the rest of the world regard it as a disaster. Miners know historically that legislation sometimes results from disasters; but the price paid by the people and the environment is too high. It may be that we should look to our laurels and see whether we can offset the effects of such accidents or disasters. Is the Braer incident a disaster in the Government's eyes?

Photo of Mr John MacGregor Mr John MacGregor Chair, Privileges Committee, The Secretary of State for Transport, Chair, Privileges Committee

On Friday, when I visited the area, I described the incident as a disaster and a tragedy, as I have done on a number of occasions. It was also an accident. It is clearly a major issue about which we should all be very concerned; that, too, I have made clear on several occasions.

On the other hand, I emphasise all the effort that is being made to deal with the incident, to ensure that the clean-up takes place as quickly as possible and to ensure that all the potential further effects are avoided. I know that the Shetland islanders feel that that is very much in their interests. I should also emphasise all the work that is being done to restore the coastline, and every other aspect of the Shetlands, as quickly as possible.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack , South Staffordshire

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on setting up the Donaldson inquiry. Does he accept that few people in these islands, wherever they live and whatever areas they represent—and many Members come from coastal areas—do not regret the decline of the British merchant fleet and the concurrent increase in flags of convenience shipping? Will he assure us that Lord Donaldson will be able to examine all aspects of the operation of flag of convenience ships?

Photo of Mr John MacGregor Mr John MacGregor Chair, Privileges Committee, The Secretary of State for Transport, Chair, Privileges Committee

That will certainly be an aspect of the inquiry, and Lord Donaldson will be able to make whatever recommendations he wishes to make. As I have said, the terms of reference are To advise on whether any further measures are appropriate and feasible to protect the UK coastline from pollution from merchant shipping. Consideration must, of course, take into account the international and economic implications of any new measures. But that will be a matter for Lord Donaldson to consider, and for us to consider subsequently.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , Linlithgow

May I return to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald)? Given the current appalling weather conditions, why can tankers still go through the closed waters of the Minch? Why has nothing been done about that, even now?

May I also return to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke (Mr. Ainger)? Can it possibly be true that the wireless operator on the Braer had an imperfect command of the English language?

Photo of Mr John MacGregor Mr John MacGregor Chair, Privileges Committee, The Secretary of State for Transport, Chair, Privileges Committee

As I have said, steps were taken in relation to those waters. The arrangements, however, were agreed under the United Nations convention on the law of the seas, and we must abide by them and seek changes by the same means. That is the most effective way of securing change.

As for the question of the wireless operator, I do not think that it would be right for me to comment on press reports and similar matters. The issue is one of many that the marine accident investigation branch is now considering.

Photo of Mr Timothy Devlin Mr Timothy Devlin , Stockton South

We are now part of the world's largest single market, with which every country in the world wishes to trade. Is not the European Community the best forum in which to dictate the terms on which we will allow goods to be carried into and out of the Community? Should we not seek a European package providing, for instance, MOT tests for ships and the use of a single language on board ships? Should not that be done as soon as possible?

Photo of Mr John MacGregor Mr John MacGregor Chair, Privileges Committee, The Secretary of State for Transport, Chair, Privileges Committee

We all have obligations under the IMO and the law of the seas convention, which includes some 136 countries at present—the number fluctuates. Given the international nature of shipping, that is the arena in which many such matters must, if possible, be decided.

I have endeavoured to bring about further action in the European Community on a number of shipping fronts. I am happy to say that we recently managed to agree one aspect of dangerous goods at sea, as I said at the last Council meeting. I know how difficult it can be to reach agreement in a Community of 12. I hope that we shall be able to make progress in the Community when we have the Commission's report on maritime safety. A wider debate on shipping is also going on in the Community.

Photo of Charles Kennedy Charles Kennedy Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

The hon. Members for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) and for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) both raised the question of the Minch. Surely the Secretary of State recognises the massive local and national concern about the continuing dangers posed to the Western Isles and the west coast of Scotland—especially the highlands—by the passage of large tankers carrying crude oil through those waters.

The route west of the Hebrides is not mandatory; it is only advisory. While this welcome inquiry is under way, cannot the Government at least take interim steps to require oil-carrying tankers to have proper pilotage if they are using the route through the Minch, until Lord Donaldson is able to report and recommend?

Photo of Mr John MacGregor Mr John MacGregor Chair, Privileges Committee, The Secretary of State for Transport, Chair, Privileges Committee

In this instance we are talking about ships going through British waters according to international law. If we are to get those laws into a form whereby they can be compulsorily applied, it is important to reach agreement through the International Maritime Organisation. That is what we should endeavour to do. It will of course be for Lord Donaldson, if he wishes to do so, to make interim recommendations, which we could then consider.

Photo of Mr Brian Wilson Mr Brian Wilson , Cunninghame North

Is there anything to stop the Secretary of State for Transport immediately ordering tankers to sail at least 50 miles to the west of the Hebrides? The argument has always been that there would be international repercussions. The argument has never been that it is not open to the Government to do that. Will the Secretary of State therefore clarify his answer?

Will the right hon. Gentleman also confirm the answer that he appeared to give, that the inquiry under Lord Donaldson will be able to take account of all aspects of flags of convenience shipping and of the effect on the environment, as well as of the disastrous rundown of our merchant navy that has taken place under this Government? Will he immediately act upon the House of Lords Select Committee's report and increase the number of inspectors so that more than one in four of foreign flag ships visiting British ports are inspected and do not just go on their merry way? Will he take action immediately, without waiting for any report? If he does not do so, the Government's culpability in allowing the flag of convenience scandal to fester in this country during the last 13 years will be compounded.

Photo of Mr John MacGregor Mr John MacGregor Chair, Privileges Committee, The Secretary of State for Transport, Chair, Privileges Committee

On the last point, there is no need for me to take further action, because we are already taking it. On the hon. Gentleman's point about one in four ships visiting our ports being inspected, that is the international target, but we are more than exceeding that target. We are meeting our own target of 30 per cent. Therefore, 30 per cent. of ships are being inspected under our own port state control. I am pleased to see that the hon. Gentleman acknowledges that that is a positive response.

As for the hon. Member's second point, I do not think that it would be for the inquiry to go wider into questions of the British fleet as such. However, issues such as flags of convenience, in so far as the chairman regards them as relevant to any further measures appropriate and feasible to protect the UK coastline from pollution from merchant shipping", would be relevant. They could involve, if he so wished, crewing.

On the hon. Gentleman's first point, if we are to abide by our international obligations, we cannot take unilateral action of that kind 50 miles from our coastline. I am advised that the Oil Pollution Act would not have enabled the American Administration to take the action for which the hon. Gentleman asks in relation to their tragic accident. We cannot do so, either.

Photo of Robert Wareing Robert Wareing , Liverpool, West Derby

Does not the Secretary of State agree that we should regard this recent disaster as a nail in the coffin of the farce of flags of convenience? Should we not ask ourselves who these flags are convenient for? They are surely not convenient for the Shetland islanders. Are they designed only to protect well-heeled shipowners and oil companies that wish to exploit cheap labour, thus ignoring the needs of our environment? Is it not time for the Government to take a lead in the International Maritime Organisation and to end this farce once and for all?

Photo of Mr John MacGregor Mr John MacGregor Chair, Privileges Committee, The Secretary of State for Transport, Chair, Privileges Committee

The Government have taken a lead in the IMO in relation to a number of matters, including, as I have already said, crewing. It would be wise to await the outcome of the inquiry and to establish whether in this case crewing was or was not a factor. I certainly do not have any evidence either way on that point at the moment, and it is a matter that I have asked the MAIB inquiry to consider.

Photo of Mr Roy Hughes Mr Roy Hughes , Newport East

Is there any truth in the allegations made in the Observer at the weekend that the Government have repeatedly resisted attempts to keep ships carrying oil and other dangerous cargoes away from our shores? If that is so, the Government stand condemned.

Photo of Mr John MacGregor Mr John MacGregor Chair, Privileges Committee, The Secretary of State for Transport, Chair, Privileges Committee

I did not see that report; and I am not absolutely clear what the hon. Gentleman is getting at.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley , Glanford and Scunthorpe

I welcome the fact that there will be an inquiry into the shipping routes of large crude oil carriers. The Minister should turn his attention to the Government's response to the effects of the spill. Long after the headlines have gone and long after the clean-up, people will have moved away from the Shetlands.

I think that I am right in saying that there has not been a spill on such a scale of this sort of crude oil in such weather conditions. That has led to the oil dispersing in the water column, being ingested by marine animals and, therefore, being transmitted through the whole ecology of the Shetlands. It affects fishing. Perhaps the Minister could say whether any research is being undertaken into the matter.

Photo of Mr John MacGregor Mr John MacGregor Chair, Privileges Committee, The Secretary of State for Transport, Chair, Privileges Committee

I understand the importance of the matter raised by the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley). I can assure him that this is not a case of simply waiting for the immediate impact and effect to be over. We shall be closely monitoring the impact and effect all the way through. Certainly the inquiry will examine all the aspects. The particular point that the hon. Gentleman raised will be covered in the statement which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland is about to make.