Shetlands (MV Braer Incident)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:25 pm on 11th January 1993.

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Photo of Henry McLeish Henry McLeish , Central Fife 4:25 pm, 11th January 1993

While I welcome the suggestion made today that we shall have a wider inquiry rather than a narrow departmental one, and while I welcome the Secretary of State's assurances about health aspects and about reviving the Shetland economy, Opposition Members remain concerned about the complacency and confusion which have surrounded initial responses from the Government. That is reflected in the anxieties that have been expressed to several Opposition Members.

May I also take this opportunity to praise, as the Secretary of State has done, the efforts which have been made by all involved—statutory services, local council people and the voluntary sector—to tackle the devastating crisis which now faces the Shetland Islands.

As I said, it is difficult to extend the same praise to Scottish Office Ministers—[Interruption.] That is an important matter which has to be mentioned on the Floor of the House because concerns have been expressed to us.

In the brief time available I must mention three issues on which the Secretary of State commented. I am afraid that his comments on the extent of compensation were equivocal. The people of Shetland will be disappointed that the Secretary of State has not stated clearly that no person on Shetland will be at a disadvantage in the immediate future because of the consequences of the tanker spillage. Compensation is crucial, not only to the well-being of many islanders, but to reassure them that the Government are with them and to build confidence during a difficult time for the community in the north of Scotland. We agree that the polluter should pay, which is equally important, but surely to goodness, even with the set-up that the Secretary of State mentioned in his statement, islanders will be worried that the amount of money to be made available will not cover the tremendous costs involved as the story unfolds during the months and years ahead.

I note that the Secretary of State said that there is every reason "to believe" that the resources available will meet all eligible claims, but Shetland islanders want something more specific. I want the Secretary of State to tell the House this afternoon that no Shetland islander whose economic well-being is affected will be worse off. It would be appalling if we had to wait until the due processes of law had taken place to know the terms of any compensation.

The saga has been a cruel irony in that the Shetland isles and the islanders are a model of the way in which an authority should handle complex oil-related issues. Through no fault of their own a tanker has gone down, in astonishing circumstances, and they are being left to foot the bill. My plea is that this afternoon the Secretary of State will assure them that they will not be out of pocket.

The second issue that has been mentioned by a number of my hon. Friends concerns the routing of tankers and the Secretary of State for Scotland must have a role to play in that. Concerns have been expressed about the Minch. There are valuable and sensitive environmental areas around the entire British coastline. While I accept that the International Maritime Organisation and the European Community should review tanker routes, would it not be appropriate and in the interests of Scotland for the Secretary of State to remove tankers from sensitive areas at this stage, pending the outcome of the review?

We have talked about the economic well-being of the Shetlanders and the damage to wildlife, the ecology and environmentally sensitive habitats, but there is also growing concern about the possible impact on health of hydrocarbons in the air and I welcome the Secretary of State's statement about monitoring that impact. I sincerely hope that, during his visits and those of his hon. Friends, they will do everything possible to minimise the impact. The community is particularly fearful of the impact on children and, as parliamentarians, we must talk seriously about that issue.

Finally, we must deal with the question of spraying. I welcome the Secretary of State's comments about the possibility of further damage being done to the environment by adding toxicity to the problems created by hydrocarbons spewing from the tanker, but I want his reassurance that that toxicity is being monitored. There has been speculation in the press about the damage being done by spraying. I hope that he and his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will deal with that issue.