SS “Richard Montgomery” - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:33 pm on 3rd July 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Patten Lord Patten Conservative 7:33 pm, 3rd July 2019

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, on the way in which he has assembled his arguments and the thoroughness with which he has presented them to the House—and also on the slight note of passion in his voice. Obviously he knows this subject extremely well. I have four points to make and none of them seeks to undermine health and safety matters—I am not a jeerer at health and safety matters at all. First, the excellent wartime tag, Keep Calm and Carry On, is a pretty good one provided that one is not complacent.

My second point is that risk assessments of threats to life and property are a real public good—of course, I agree with the noble Lord about that—whether on the coastline that we are discussing this evening where the Liberty ship “Richard Montgomery” rests or indeed all over London every time there is deep excavation or groundworks preparing a site for some heavyweight high-rise building to be constructed. The risks are always there, whether they are of unexploded bombs or risks to our architectural or archaeological heritage. Risks are there all the time.

In making my third point, I should declare where my interest has come from and how it has been piqued because this is not a well-known special subject for me in your Lordships’ House. A few years ago—I have always thought it was an excellent decision—I took the precaution of marrying an Essex girl. She was born and brought up in the northern part of Essex: estuarine Essex on the sea. That is one reason. Secondly, I learned a lot from her because her distinguished grandfather, Commander Lightoller, went down with the Titanic. He happily popped up again and survived and had the great honour of being played in “A Night to Remember” by Kenneth More. He was a very brave sailor in the First World War, cruising up and down in his destroyers in the North Sea dealing with U-boat threats and got a clutch of distinguished service crosses.

Towards the end of his life, he went out in his own ship, the “Sundowner”, from London down that very estuary, not very far from this wreck, and proceeded in Operation Dynamo to load up “Sundowner” with 127 soldiers and bring them back from Dunkirk. Four years later, of course, trying to help the Allied efforts, the ship that we are discussing came to an end. That is why I have been particularly interested in this. I have read quite a lot of the stuff to which the noble Lord referred and I will not repeat it, because he has given us a masterly tour d’horizon.

My fourth point, which is important for noble Lords to consider, is that no one, to the best of my knowledge, has died because of this wreck, including the very brave stevedores who went out on the wreck for some weeks, as the noble Lord said, trying to unload and empty some of the munitions from this Liberty ship before it sank deeper and the task became absolutely impossible. Nor has anyone ever been harmed who has been involved in the continuous and detailed monitoring of what may be the most monitored shipwreck in the world. I do not know whether it is or not, but it must be high on the list of those that might be—quite rightly. I do not know how much all this monitoring costs and I will not ask my noble friend Lady Barran to come up with a total figure because that will take a shedload of calculations from civil servants and take even more money away from what should be spent on continuing to safeguard this wreck by the detailed calculations and monitoring of the Department for Transport and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. Of course, we have had reassurances in the past from Mr Boris Johnson that, should his island airport ever be built quite close by, it would not be a problem—so I am reassured by that, as I am sure the whole House is.

The sorts of surveys that are being conducted are not cheap. More is being spent on the current environmental monitoring following the earlier wreck surveys completed by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency in 2017 and 2018, and we are told to expect the report on the 2018 survey in the fourth quarter of this year. I hope that those responsible in the Department for Transport will ensure the publication of that environmental assessment. We certainly need to be told about it. Nothing is being wasted by all the money that has been spent. It has been spent to protect people, land and life. It has also led to considerable advances, which are not to be sneered at, in the science that has been developed in this monitoring, which should be welcomed.

Much good science has been spun off into marine archaeology and other sub-sea surface work, particularly the use of lasers, so monitoring is not a wasted undertaking in any sense at all. Others using such analytics might be helped in respect of maritime rescue in other ways. Of course, with the growth of data analytics worldwide, there are such a lot of wrecks like this around the world that I suspect there is a lot of big data analysis of the handling of such wrecks, albeit in different environments—not all in the plashy Thames estuary but in tropical waters and elsewhere.

All through this process, there has been a great advance in learning. However, I think that the next time—and I bet that this is the case in the fourth quarter—we have a report published, it will repeat that the risk of a major explosion is believed to be remote. “Believed” is a key word, because it protects the writer, quite rightly. It is their belief, and no one can be certain because some of the things that the noble Lord has pointed to could well happen. The risk is as remote or as present as it has ever been: I do not think that there is necessarily a cumulative growth in the risk. We need to continue monitoring, and so, with that thought in mind, I return to how I opened my brief speech and say, “Keep calm and carry on monitoring”.