SS “Richard Montgomery” - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:41 pm on 3rd July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Berkeley Lord Berkeley Labour 7:41 pm, 3rd July 2019

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on not only securing this debate but giving us such an interesting and thorough description of what the situation appears to have been in the past and what it is today. Certainly, I would not accept the view of the noble Lord, Lord Patten, that the risk is remote. As my noble friend said, we need evidence. There is an awful lot of other evidence suggesting that these kinds of explosives, having been sitting on the seabed for 70 years or so, actually get more dangerous rather than less, but we have to wait for the report.

My interest in this is that I have often sailed past the site, and it is nice that there are 12 buoys marking it and that there is an exclusion zone. I am grateful to some of my colleagues in the United Kingdom Maritime Pilots Association, of which I am honorary president. One of the pilots from the Medway, Ian McMahon, sent me a little bit of information about what it is like taking big ships past it several times a day. It is very close: it is monitored, they say, by 24-hour CCTV and 24-hour radar. I am told that if anything enters the zone, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, SOSRep, the Receiver of Wreck and the duty marine manager are notified. That is all very good: it needs monitoring, as the noble Lord, Lord Patten, said.

Interestingly, I am told that when the large LNG vessels go past it within 150 metres, they have an escort of three tugs. That is a very expensive piece of kit. One wonders why somebody has suggested that LNG carriers need tugs, but other ships do not. They just go up under the Nore pilotage operations with no extra precautions. It seems to me that the biggest risk is of somebody or some ship or something colliding with the SSRichard Montgomery” and setting off an explosion, as my noble friend has said.

My noble friend has also described a number of instances where ships have not gone where they were supposed to have gone in spite of having a pilot on board. I know of one instance on the River Thames where a pilot got on board the ship as it was coming in. When the pilot went up on the bridge, he shook hands with the skipper, looked to see what the navigation equipment was like and whether it worked, and went through the usual routine. Was there a depth sounder? No, it did not work. Was there a compass? No, it was jammed. Was there radar? No, the fuse was gone. What about navigational equipment such as GPS? No, that did not work either. In the end, the pilot said to the skipper, “Well, can you tell us where you have come from?” He said, “I came from Stockholm”. The pilot then said, “How did you navigate from Stockholm to the Thames?” The answer was, “Well, I followed that ship over there”. This is the kind of shipping that we have to deal with.

I live in Cornwall and we had an instance about three months ago when a freight ship going to the Isles of Scilly was going into the dock and the skipper decided to slow down and turned to starboard to berth, and for some reason the ship decided to go straight ahead at full speed and hit a fishing boat. Okay, it was not a 70,000-tonne tanker, but these things do go wrong. Any of those examples and many more could cause a ship to hit the “Richard Montgomery”.

My final point, which is new to discussions like this in the past few years, is about the ability of a drone to do the same thing. We know that drones can bomb people; we know that they can interfere with airports, which happened last Christmas, but there is no reason not to suppose that if anybody wanted to cause serious trouble they could put a bomb on a drone and decide to bomb the SS “Richard Montgomery”. They might think it was fun. It is a risk that we have to take.

If we still accept the evidence that this kind of cargo on the ship is pretty unstable and could go up with the slightest incentive, then we have to take very seriously the possibility of anybody hitting it with anything from the air or the sea. I am told that there is a way of removing most of the cargo from the ship in a safe manner. It seems to me that we have a duty not only to press the Government for the information that my noble friend has asked for but to get the widest possible expert procedure and method statement of how the cargo could be removed. The sooner this is done the better, because it is going to go on breaking up, as my noble friend said, and at some stage if it breaks up that much, perhaps the explosives will go over the seabed, but perhaps some of it will come to the surface and cause some very nasty accidents. It is in a pretty built-up area, and we owe it to everybody who lives around there to get this sorted as soon as possible.