§ Mr. Costain
(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry whether he will make a statement on the tanker explosion which occurred in the English Channel off Folkestone on Monday, 11th January.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Anthony Grant)
At 4.10 a.m. on 11th January the motor vessel "Texaco Caribbean", of 13,604 gross tons, registered in Panama, was in collision six miles off Folkestone with the motor vessel "Paracas", of 9,481 gross tons, registered in Peru. The "Texaco Caribbean" was proceeding down-Channel in ballast for Trinidad and the "Paracas" up-Channel. An explosion occurred in the "Texaco Caribbean" and the vessel was split into two parts, the bow section being submerged at once. Eight men, including the master, were lost. The stern section was abandoned by the remainder of the crew and drifted for some hours before sinking. Twenty men were picked up, and landed at Dover. The "Paracas" was towed to Hamburg. The explosion caused some damage to property in Folkestone and district. At 7.30 a.m. on 12th January the motor vessel "Brandenburg", of 2,695 gross tons, registered in the Federal Republic of Germany, sank in the vicinity of the earlier accident. The "Brandenburg" was bound for Curacao. Eleven of those on board were brought ashore, and 21 are feared dead or missing.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has ordered a preliminary inquiry under Section 465 of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, into both casualties in order to obtain as much information as 67 possible. I must emphasise to the House, however, that, since all the vessels concerned are foreign-registered and the casualties took place outside the United Kingdom territorial waters, it would not be appropriate to order a formal investigation. We have approached the Governments of the flag States concerned to seek permission for officials of my Department to attend any inquiries that they may hold.
I should like to express profound sympathy with the relatives of all who have lost their lives, and also express my appreciation of the rescues which were carried out by local fishermen and others.
§ Mr. Costain
In thanking my hon. Friend for making that statement, may I, on behalf of my constituents who took part in the rescue, say how much they appreciate his remarks; and express sympathy for the relatives of those who lost their lives?
As the inquiry must be limited in scope, will my hon. Friend make special note that those authorities in Folkestone who have expressed concern about the Channel route—a point I made on 27th November—are able and willing to give evidence?
The town clerks of Folkestone and Hythe very much appreciate the help they are being given by Government Departments in minimising oil pollution. May I have an assurance that this help will continue?
Will my hon. Friend's Department advise those of my constituents who have suffered damage on how they can get compensation for it?
Does my hon. Friend realise that the last Government withdrew the helicopter service at Manston which would have been extremely valuable in an accident of this sort? Can I have an assurance that this matter will also be considered?
§ Mr. Grant
My Department will be prepared to receive evidence and information from anyone who can assist in this inquiry.
As to oil pollution, three tugs fitted with spraying equipment are at present operating from Dover to disperse the fuel oil which is still seeping from the stern section of the "Texaco Caribbean". The work is under the professional control of 68 officers of my Department, and the spraying equipment is being operated by men of the Royal Corps of Transport.
Helicopters were employed from Thorney Island, and our view is that in this case there would have been very little difference had they come from Manston. The question of the use of helicopters is being considered, and I hope it will be possible to make a statement soon.
With reference to damage sustained by property owners at Folkestone, their first obvious course is to contact their insurers. I am advised that the likelihood is that the normal policy covers such a contingency. We do not know the full extent of the damage that these people have sustained, but if there is other damage of a serious nature which is not covered by insurance, it is not a matter for my Department but probably one for local authorities to discuss with the Department for the Environment.
§ Mr. Mason
May I associate my right hon. and hon. Friends with the Minister's expressions of sympathy for those who lost their lives and his expression of appreciation and praise for the rescues which were carried out by the local fishermen?
The Minister is aware that we are talking about the busiest straits in the world, a highly congested channel with 750 ships passing to and fro every day. Will he tell the House, first, what has happened to the proposal made to him by the pilots that they wish to board these highly lethal vessels—tankers, methane carriers, and so forth—long before they enter the straits so that they can give them better guidance?
Second, what has happened to the proposal made to the Minister by the master mariners and the Elder Brethren of Trinity House who, in the interests of safety, have decreed that it would be better to reverse the flow of traffic in the Channel?
Finally, will he take the initiative now with our Western European maritime neighbours to secure stricter anti-collision rules in the Channel, to establish a regional agreement, and to get the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organisation to endorse it?
§ Mr. Grant
There is a number of different views as to the merit or necessity 69 of having a pilot well outside coastal waters where a pilot's expertise is necessary. I remind the House that the "Pacific Glory" had a pilot on board whom she had taken on from Brixham to take her all the way to Rotterdam, if she had ever reached there. Nevertheless, there is no reason why a vessel cannot take on a pilot voluntarily. For there to be compulsory pilotage would require international agreement and would be difficult to ensure or enforce.
We are well aware that Trinity House has suggested that the traffic lanes should be reversed and that this suggestion has the support of the Honourable Company of Master Mariners and of some pilots, but it is opposed by the United Kingdom Chamber of Shipping, the Institute of Navigation, which has investigated the suggestion carefully, and, indeed, by certain European institutes of navigation. I assure the House that the matter is not nearly so simple as has perhaps been posed. Our view is that to change the traffic lanes and put them in the reverse order could create a greater risk than there is at present. Nevertheless, we shall be endeavouring to pursue this matter through I.M.C.O. and we hope in March, after consultation with interests in Britain, to bring modifications of the present scheme before the International Committee.
In our view, a European scheme would not wholly satisfy the problem. We believe that it is best for a wholly international agreement to be made. There would be very great difficulties about enforcing a purely European scheme against countries which were using the straits and were not parties to such an agreement.
§ Mr. Pardoe
Is the Minister aware that the whole House will wish to join him in his expression of sympathy with those involved in the accident and in his congratulations to those who helped in the rescue operations?
Is the Minister aware also that a Select Committee warned more than two years ago in a published report that 1 in 10 of all sea accidents in the world took place in the Western Approaches and the English Channel? In the light of those accidents and that statistic, is he satisfied that the present traffic regulations are adequate? Does he agree that, if the 70 recommendation of Trinity House had been in operation, this accident could not have taken place?
§ Mr. Grant
I must make clear to the hon. Gentleman our view, after studying the question very carefully, that if the Trinity House proposal were in operation it could cause an overall greater danger to shipping and greater dangers of collision than is the present position. This view is reinforced by the views of other very authoritative bodies.
On the question of traffic regulations generally, we are never satisfied that anything is perfect. Indeed, it was the United Kingdom's initiative that caused the Straits of Dover to have the traffic separation scheme and we are again taking the initiative in I.M.C.O. to try to get improvements to this scheme in the meeting in March.
§ Mr. Murton
In view of the extreme danger which may arise through future collisions in these narrow waters by ships going up and down the Channel, will my hon. Friend consider the possibility of proposing to the appropriate international body that there should be a minimum standard in seniority and qualifications for deck officers in navigating, particularly to foreign tanker owners?
§ Mr. Grant
I recognise that, as my hon. Friend rightly points out, very different standards of skill apply to those operating these vessels. However, as my hon. Friend doubtless realises, this is an international problem and it is important to get international agreement. This is another matter in which the United Kingdom is active and is taking the initiative in seeking agreement.
§ Mr. Prescott
Is the Minister aware that the number of deaths and accidents occurring in these waters is ever increasing and that United Kingdom seamen, whose union I represent here with my constituents, are increasingly concerned—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]—at the number of deaths that is occurring? We do not find it satisfactory for the Minister to answer that the Ministry is convinced that the present regulations concerning navigation and standards of seamanship in this busiest waterway in the world are the best that could be operated. Should not the Minister consider applying Lord Rochdale's proposal to shipping and 71 setting up a marine authority to examine the very conflicting problems that exist in this very busy waterway?
§ Mr. Grant
I quite understand the hon. Gentleman's anxieties, which I know are shared by everyone in the House, and which are certainly shared by me, about the dangers to the seamen who undertake this very hazardous task. I thought I had made it perfectly clear that we are not satisfied that the present arrangement is perfect. This is precisely why we hope to make further proposals to the international body, after consultation with all interested authorities. We are also giving urgent consideration to the question of a marine authority.
§ Mr. C. Pannell
My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) declared his close interest with seamen and the union. I thought that it was proper for my hon. Friend to do so, by saying that he represented seamen, as he does in a real sense, as well as his constituents. I hope that you, Mr. Speaker, will indicate that this did not merit the derision of hon. Members opposite.
§ Mr. Speaker
I heard nothing improper in what the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) said.
§ Mr. Callaghan
May I ask a question as the Honorary President of the United Kingdom Pilots Association, a rôle in which I succeeded a Conservative Member?
Despite the Minister's painstaking replies, is he not putting action off until the Greek Kalends if he is aiming at full international agreement among about 40 seafaring nations on the question of traffic in the Channel? Is he aware that it would be possible, although I would not say that it would be finally the right answer, to get consultation on the question of pilotage amongst the nations which border the Channel and which have pilots? They might agree amongst themselves to extend the limits of compulsory pilotage so that fully qualified pilots board these vessels when they are within the ambit of any of the countries bounding the Channel? Will the Minister undertake to reconsider the Government's attitude and not wait for full international 72 agreement, which we all know is bound to take years, but call a conference of the nations immediately concerned?
§ Mr. Grant
We do not rule this out as a possibility. Should it prove to be impossible, which I do not accept, to secure international agreement, obviously we will consider a more regional one. I was stressing that this would obviously be less satisfactory than having an international agreement. A number of ships other than European ships use these crowded waterways and this is the whole purpose of securing international agreement. After all, the previous Government, of whom the right hon. Gentleman was a member, succeeded in obtaining agreement on the traffic separation scheme in the Straits of Dover. This is voluntary, but it is observed by 95 per cent. of shipping. We hope that it will be possible to obtain agreement to make this compulsory.