SS “Richard Montgomery” - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:03 pm on 3rd July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Rosser Lord Rosser Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport) 8:03 pm, 3rd July 2019

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Harris of Haringey is to be congratulated on again pursuing the key questions that he has asked today about the wreck of the SS “Richard Montgomery” and the threat it still potentially poses after 75 years. The wreck is designated as a “dangerous wreck” under Section 2 of the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 and, consequently, regular surveys are undertaken.

I suppose I must have gone close to it twice last autumn on a cruise liner from Tilbury and, having listened to my noble friend’s speech, I am not sure that I want to venture east from Tilbury again.

The official view, it seems, is to quote the background information from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency that is provided in the Library briefing for this debate that,

“the risk of a major explosion is believed to be remote”.

Why is the risk “believed” to be remote when the wreck has been designated as being dangerous under the 1973 Act because of the amount of explosives remaining on board, with regular surveys needing to be undertaken? Believed by whom? The official view is not that the risk of a major explosion is remote but that it is believed to be remote, which is certainly not as emphatic or definite a statement and not entirely reassuring.

What is the hard evidence about these explosives and the state they are in that justifies the view that the risk of a major explosion is believed to be remote? Is it because the wreck is deemed largely stable where it is, but if that situation changed the risk would no longer be believed to be remote? Or are the munitions still on board deteriorating with time in such a way that there could now no longer be a major explosion if they did go off?

Is it considered more dangerous to try to remove the remaining munitions than it is to live with the situation of the wreck as it is today, with the munitions on board? What would have to happen to the wreck or the remaining munitions still in it to make it more likely than “believed to be remote” that the remaining munitions would be the cause of a major explosion? What would it cost to remove the munitions still on board, assuming that this is feasible? What is the cost per annum of the current security and protection arrangements for the wreck—provided, as I understand it, by the Medway Ports Authority—and who pays the cost?

What do the Government think would be the impact on surrounding areas and on the Thames itself if the remaining munitions were now destroyed in a controlled explosion, and what would be the cost? If that approach was to be adopted, who has the final authority to make that decision? What do the Government think would be the impact on surrounding areas and on the Thames itself if the remaining munitions blew up in an uncontrolled explosion? My noble friend Lord Harris of Haringey has asked a number of specific questions of the Government and I hope they will be able to respond to at least some of them today.

The SS “Richard Montgomery” had a cargo of some 7,000 tonnes of munitions, according to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency briefing, and crossed the Atlantic in a convoy in August 1944, before ending up on a sandbank in the Thames Estuary, where it remains today. A salvage effort, as we have already heard, led to approximately half the cargo being removed before the vessel flooded completely. The latest survey of the wreck by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency indicates that some 1,400 tonnes of munitions remain in the forward section. Where and when, then, did the 2,000 tonnes or so of munitions go that make up the difference between 1,400 tonnes and the up to 3,500 tonnes left after approximately half the 7,000 tonnes on the SS “Richard Montgomery” had been removed in 1944? My noble friend Lord Harris of Haringey raised this question in his opening speech, on the basis of some much more precise figures than are contained in the Maritime and Coastguard Agency briefing.

The Library briefing contains the latest survey report of the SS “Richard Montgomery”, commissioned by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. The report outlines the outcome of the surveys of the wreck undertaken, as I understand it, in November 2017 and April 2018, and indicates that the wreck is stable overall, with more accelerated levels of deterioration in the structure since the previous survey, which I think may be as recent as 2016, limited to three out of six key areas, which have been noted in previous surveys and which have now shown structural changes since the previous survey.

As far as I can see—I may be wrong—the report does not comment on how much longer the structure of the wreck is likely to remain intact and without significant change or on what the impact of any new significant change might be on the remaining munitions, and does not address the current state of the remaining munitions and whether they represent a decreasing or increasing hazard or risk as time goes on. Are the Government able to provide answers to these issues or are they questions that are neither asked nor answered?

The latest survey report also indicates, as the noble Lord, Lord Patten, said, that the DfT has commissioned some environmental monitoring around the wreck that will require the placement of scientific equipment on the seabed just outside the prohibited area. What exactly has prompted the commissioning of this environmental monitoring, and what is it intended to check or ascertain? The survey report says that the equipment is expected to be placed on the seabed for at least a 12-month period and that results are expected at the end of this year. Is this still the timeframe for the environmental monitoring? Finally, what was the cost of the latest surveys undertaken in, as I understand it, 2017 and 2018, and what is the expected cost of the environmental monitoring currently being undertaken?

There appears to be a significant difference of view between the Government, and indeed previous Governments, and my noble friend Lord Harris of Haringey, in the powerful case that he has made today, about the likelihood of a major explosion on the wreck of the SS “Richard Montgomery” materialising. The questions that he has posed today deserve a fully and considered response, backed up by supporting evidence.

Subject to what the Government might say in response, I am concerned by the background information document from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which, I repeat, provides the far from comforting words that,

“the risk of a major explosion is believed to be remote”.

As my noble friend Lord Harris of Haringey said in his concluding sentence: who will take responsibility if it all goes horribly wrong? My guess is that if it all went horribly wrong, it would result in one of the biggest buck-passing exercises in history.