§ Mr. Higgins
(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Trade and President of the Board of Trade whether he will make a statement on the reported loss of the North Sea survey vessel "Compass Rose III".
§ The Secretary of State for Trade and President of the Board of Trade (Mr. Peter Shore)
It is with regret that I have to announce that the "Compass Ross III" a survey vessel operating in the North Sea on behalf of Total Oil Marine, appears to have been lost with all hands.
The "Compass Rose III" is a Panamanian-registered vessel, but I understand that the parent company is either Belgian or French. The crew and technicians on board were of Spanish and French nationality, although there was one United Kingdom citizen on board who I understand to have been a Decca employee. The hon. Member will appreciate that less information is immediately available than would have been the case if this had been a British ship.
The last radio contact with the vessel was understood to have been on 7th April, when technical information was reported to Total Oil Marine Ltd. in Peterhead. However, it was not until the evening of 15th April that the vessel's operators, Saunier Maritime, of Marseilles, asked the Coastguard at Wick to make inquiries. Shipping was alerted at once, and an air and sea search was 666 begun at dawn the next morning. A body which was picked up by a fishing vessel on 14th April—that is, before the "Compass Rose" was reported missing—was subsequently identified as that of a French crew member of the "Compass Rose". The search failed to find any trace of the vessel, or any survivors, and was called off at 21.00 hours on 16th April.
We have informed the Panamanian, French and Belgian authorities, and an inspector has been appointed to obtain statements from those in Britain who may have some knowledge of the circumstances in which the vessel was lost. Clearly, an inquiry is necessary, and we are in touch with those concerned, including the flag State.
I am sure the House would wish to join me in offering its deepest sympathy to the relatives and friends of those who lost their lives in this tragic occurrence.
§ Mr. Higgins
The whole House will wish to join with the Minister in expressing his sympathy to the bereaved.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the loss of this vessel gives particular cause for concern in terms of safety at sea? Of course, it was a comparatively large vessel compared with some of the vessels which have recently been lost. It appears that no search began until a body from the vessel was recovered. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the interval between the last report from the vessel and the beginning of the search—namely, a period longer than a week—was far too long? Will he carry out urgent consultations with the other countries concerned to ensure that vessels sailing from European ports are adequately covered? Finally, as several recent tragedies have resulted from delays in communication between ship and shore, will the right hon. Gentleman consider a more general inquiry into that aspect of safety at sea?
§ Mr. Shore
I certainly acknowledge what the hon. Gentleman has said about the cause for concern which arises in this case as in other cases where ships have been lost in the past months. However, I must point out to the hon. Gentleman that the criticism that he has voiced does not seem to me to be appropriate—namely the allegation of perhaps undue delay in the response of our air-sea rescue services. The whole point of the matter 667 is that the ship did not communicate. Obviously, that may have been for reasons which none of us at present can yet determine. At this stage none of us can say what happened. Such matters must await the inquiry. The vessel's operating base appears to have been Marseilles. It is not for me to utter criticism at this stage, but obviously we would want to know what arrangements were made between the ship and its base on regular reporting and radio contact.
§ Mr. McNamara
Is my right hon. Friend aware that it could be said—"Flags of convenience—told you so"? Further, is he aware that, following fishing tragedies in the North Sea, we have insisted on 24-hour radio contact? I acknowledge that we are not dealing with a British ship, but surely we can do the same for ships operating for British owners with British oil interests and communicating with Peterhead as we have done for diving regulations for foreign ships. If they operate under contract for British interests and for British oil companies they should adopt the same sort of regulations as apply to our own ships. Until we have agreed on the 200-mile limit will my right hon. Friend consider making it mandatory for ships in these dangerous waters to have to report every 24 hours if they are operating from British installations?
§ Mr. Shore
I thank my hon. Friend for that suggestion. He will understand the difficulty that we have with foreign-registered ships. Clearly, any attempt to increase our control in the interests of safety must mean that we must proceed with perhaps more patience than we would wish to exercise in dealing with British vessels. I can assure my hon. Friend that his point has been noted. I shall study carefully whether it is possible to move along the lines that he has suggested.
§ Mr. Grimond
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that my right hon. and hon. Friends would like to be associated with the regrets that have been expressed concerning the loss of this ship?
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that from time to time there have been representations for better radio communications at Wick and other places? I hope that the Minister will look again at that matter. 668 Further, can he give us any information about the weather conditions when the ship was lost? Will he make it as widely known as possible that the conditions in this part of the ocean are extremely tough? That fact does not seem to be realised by all the companies—some of them are from the Mediterranean—now carrying out operations in the North Sea.
§ Mr. Shore
The right hon. Gentleman is entirely correct in what he suspected about the weather conditions. Although I have yet to have a full report on the conditions prevailing at the time of the incident, it is my preliminary information that there was a very heavy sea and a very high wind. I take the right hon. Gentleman's point entirely that full knowledge of the kind of conditions which are experienced in the North Sea has to be brought home strongly to those who are used to operating in more clement weather conditions.
§ Mr. Alexander Fletcher
In view of the many Russian vessels operating in the North Sea, will the right hon. Gentleman say to what extent, if any, they assisted in the search for this ship?