HC Deb 24 April 1996 vol 276 cc408-16 1.30 pm
Mr. Nick Ainger (Pembroke)

At the outset, I put on record my tribute to those individuals who were involved in the struggle to save the Sea Empress and to limit the pollution that resulted from her grounding. I pay tribute also to those who have been involved in cleaning up the significant oil pollution affecting not just my constituency but that of my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Williams) and those of other hon. Members who represent West Glamorgan.

The debate is about the need for a wide-ranging inquiry—independent of the Department of Transport—into how 70,000 tonnes of oil was allowed to pollute probably the most sensitive and environmentally important marine habitat in the United Kingdom. The Government have asked the marine accident investigation branch to conduct an inquiry, but we do not accept that the inquiry is independent, as Ministers, officials and agencies of the Department of Transport were involved in the disaster, either directly or indirectly. It is the first time that the MAIB has been asked to investigate the actions of Ministers and of civil servants who were operationally involved in an accident which resulted in probably the most damaging oil spillage ever to affect United Kingdom shores.

To appreciate why the marine accident investigation branch inquiry is inadequate, one must understand the events leading to the grounding of the Sea Empress at 20.07 on Thursday 15 February, its subsequent grounding on the night of Monday 19 February, and its final refloating from that position on Wednesday 21 February. The vessel ran aground at seven minutes past 8, and she was refloated within three hours. It is now accepted that less than 2,000 tonnes of oil—possibly as little as 250 tonnes—was spilt in the initial grounding, as the vessel was rapidly refloated by harbour tugs.

On Friday morning, the salvers, Smit Tak—in consortium with the towing companies Cory and Klyne—were appointed. A strategy was apparently agreed early on with the salvers, the marine pollution control unit, the Coastguard Agency and the Milford Haven port authority, that the vessel should be lightened using a small tanker, and held in position in deep water from where she could float safely. It was then planned either to bring the vessel into port or to take her elsewhere for repairs. In the press conferences—fronted by an official from the marine pollution control unit—that were held regularly over the weekend, the media were informed that the situation was under control.

On 15 March, Lloyd's List International published an interview with Mr. Geert Koffeman, the salvage master working for Smit Tak. When asked about the strategy and the decisions that were taken, he replied: We did not make this decision alone. All parties, from the owner, to the coastguard to everyone involved, contributed to the decision". It is patently obvious that the marine pollution control unit and the Coastguard Agency were involved in the decision-making process regarding the salvage operation.

Sadly, the expert knowledge of local pilots was ignored, and two opportunities were lost to take the vessel away from what is probably the most dangerous stretch of coastline in western Europe. On Saturday afternoon, an opportunity was lost to move the vessel from its position, when a pilot with more than 20 years experience suggested that he could take the vessel out to sea safely at high tide. The harbour master informed him, "I'm in a room full of men, and they are all saying no." I believe that the strategy was fundamentally flawed, because the tugs available were not powerful enough to hold the vessel safely in position.

On Monday afternoon, the Secretary of State for Transport made a statement to the House, in which he said: Every effort will be made to prevent any further release of oil."—[Official Report, 19 February 1996; Vol. 272, c. 34.] Within two hours of the Secretary of State's resuming his seat, the salvers had put the Sea Empress on to the rocks in calm weather, during one of the highest tides not just of the year, but of the decade. Despite claims to the contrary, the incident occurred in good weather. That night, I asked pilots who were involved in the operation what had gone wrong. They said that the vessel had been towing the tugs and not the other way round. That is a very important point.

The Government have accepted 80 of the recommendations in Lord Donaldson's report "Safer Ships, Cleaner Seas"—including those relating to salvage. In chapter 20, paragraph 127 of the report, Lord Donaldson says: We therefore propose that there should be interim arrangements during the winter months until the new system is fully operational. He is referring to placing powerful salvage tugs at key positions around the United Kingdom coast.

Lord Donaldson continued: the UK Government should be prepared to bear the full cost of such interim arrangements. We cannot specify just what interim arrangements will be needed, but they should concentrate on the three key areas we identified: north west Scotland, the Dover Strait and the Western Approaches. Only two salvage tugs were put in place—one in the Dover strait and the other in north-west Scotland. No tugs were placed in the western approaches. Lord Donaldson also recommended that five powerful salvage tugs should be stationed around our coast.

As a result of the failure to control the Sea Empress, 70,000 tonnes of oil was spilt. Eye witnesses allege that, following the second major grounding on Monday evening, oil was forced from the cargo tank in order to increase the vessel's buoyancy and refloat it. It had been planned to force water from the tanks, but it is alleged that oil was also forced from the vessel in order to allow it to float free. In other words, oil was discharged deliberately—which we know is an offence—and it is claimed that that was done with the agreement of the marine pollution control unit.

The damage caused to the coast of south-west Wales, to the Bristol channel and to the Irish coast is quite appalling. More than 3,000 seabirds were killed. A similar number were cleaned, but, unfortunately, many of them will not live very long. Two marine nature reserves, Skomer and Lundy, were polluted, and 26 sites of special scientific interest were affected. Many forms of wildlife have suffered, and we believe that one—a rare species of starfish, the asterina phylactica—has been wiped out. It was only discovered in 1979 in West Angle bay, and that bay was the one most polluted by the spillage.

Miles of holiday beaches have also been heavily polluted. The whole fishing industry operating between St. David's head and Port Eynon point has been put on stop, as well as all angling on the rivers leading into that sea area. In addition to the massive environmental damage, from which the area will take years to recover, there is likely to be long-term economic damage.

The main holiday beaches have been cleaned and other beaches are being tackled. I pay tribute again to all the people who have done that excellent job. There is no reason for tourists not to return to those beaches. The intention is to have all amenity beaches fully cleaned by Whitsun—but the damage has been done. It is impossible to cost the environmental damage. What price a rare starfish or oiled scotes? The estimated clean-up costs are in the region of £10 million, and compensation for the fishing and tourist industries is likely to run into many tens of millions of pounds.

No wonder such anger is felt in my constituency, in Wales and throughout the United Kingdom. Last night, I presented a petition to the House signed by 25,000 people, calling for an independent inquiry. This morning, I was part of a deputation that delivered to 10 Downing street pledges and petitions signed by more than 80,000 people, calling for the protection of wildlife and an independent inquiry. More than 100,000 people have expressed their outrage at the environmental damage done, and the need for a truly independent, comprehensive inquiry.

Not only individuals but literally every organisation directly or indirectly connected with the environment—including local councils, community councils, district councils, new unitary authorities, the National Trust and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds—is calling for an independent inquiry, which should examine not just why the Sea Empress grounded and the salvage operation, but why Lord Donaldson's recommendations were not fully implemented.

The inquiry should also examine salvage law and the operation of Milford Haven port authority, which did not have an operational radar covering the entrance to a particularly dangerous stretch of water. That inadequacy is almost beyond belief, and that radar is still not fully operational.

It is clear from evidence already available that the current marine accident investigation branch inquiry is perceived as an inquiry by the Department of Transport into itself. How can we ask civil servants—at the end of the day, that is what they are—to investigate and comment on the decisions of their political masters, Ministers, in relation to whether Donaldson's recommendations were implemented? How can we ask civil servants to investigate their colleagues in the Department of Transport who were directly involved in the salvage operation?

The MAIB inquiry cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be perceived as independent. It is like the arms to Iraq scandal, which Lord Justice Scott was rightly appointed to investigate. What would have been the public's response if civil servants from the Department of Trade and Industry and the Foreign Office had been asked to investigate the actions of Ministers and other civil servants? Such a proposal would have been laughed out of court, yet that is the situation in relation to the Sea Empress incident.

I do not cast any aspersions on the integrity or expertise of the marine accident investigation branch, but it is totally unfair of the Secretary of State to make it undertake such an inquiry. The Secretary of State has told me that nobody questions the independence of the air accident investigation branch. However, as far as I am aware, the AAIB has never been asked to investigate an air crash in which civil servants from the Department of Transport were in the pilot seat and the Secretary of State was in the air traffic control tower—which was the comparable situation in the case of the Sea Empress.

The Government fail to understand that the Sea Empress incident was different in its size and impact from any other major pollution incident. It was also more complex, and, most importantly, Ministers and civil servants were directly or indirectly involved in the whole operation. It is vital for my constituents, the rest of Wales and everyone concerned about the environment that the inquiry and its report has credibility and the confidence of the individuals and organisations affected directly or indirectly by the pollution. The inquiry's recommendations must carry weight.

Effective recommendations are urgently needed and lessons must be quickly learned, so that such a disaster can never happen again. I urge the Government to appoint Lord Donaldson of Lymington, who has already said that, if the Government were minded to invite him to oversee the inquiry, he would be pleased to accept. That is the only way to produce rapidly a report that is thorough, objective and independent.

I have been assured by my hon. Friends on the Front Bench that, when the next Government are in place—and it will be ours—they will insist that an independent element is injected into the inquiry. We do not want to restart the inquiry, but if the report is to be credible, it is vital that the inquiry is independent and that Lord Donaldson is asked to oversee it.

1.46 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Steve Norris)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Ainger) on securing a debate on the circumstances surrounding the Sea Empress disaster. I heard a large number of assertions, anecdotes, conversations at third hand and snippets of apparent conversations with some of the persons involved in the inquiry. No doubt some of that material is relevant, but I suspect that a great deal of it will prove not to be so.

There is no disagreement between us that, following the grounding of the Sea Empress at the entrance to Milford Haven harbour on that fateful 15 February, the subsequent salvage operation was severely hampered by heavy weather—and that, by the time the ship could be successfully refloated and its remaining cargo transferred to another vessel, an estimated 72,000 tonnes of oil, roughly half the ship's cargo, had been spilled.

The Government—not only the Department of Transport but the Welsh Office; I note that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Wales is in his place—are as concerned as anyone about the incident, particularly as it occurred in an area of outstanding natural beauty and environmental importance.

I acknowledge entirely what the hon. Member for Pembroke said about the crisis nature of the effect on some of the flora and fauna; that is to be regretted, whatever the outcome of subsequent inquiries or proceedings. It is accepted that, despite the best efforts of Governments and industry in every country, we will never be able totally to eradicate the possibility of marine accidents of that type. We must do, we are doing and we will continue to do, all that we can to reduce the risk.

The marine accident investigation branch, about which I will say more later, has begun a comprehensive investigation into all aspects of the grounding and the planning, execution and direction of the salvage operation and its effectiveness in minimising the pollution. It has already released a special bulletin that included its interim findings on the cause of the incident. The MAIB's final report will be published.

The MAIB was established by Parliament in 1988 to provide an expert body capable of carrying out investigations of the kind that we are discussing today, independently of the shipping industry and of the Department of Transport. The chief inspector of the MAIB reports directly to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. Under the terms of the legislation which created the MAIB, its investigations are to determine the circumstances and causes of accidents, with the aim of improving safety of life at sea and avoiding accidents in the future.

The chief inspector will consider all evidence and arguments submitted to him which he feels are relevant. He has said that the investigation into the Sea Empress will consider, in addition to the issues that led to the grounding, the conduct of the salvage operation; the availability of salvage tugs—

Mr. Ron Davies (Caerphilly)

Will he consider ministerial competence?

Mr. Norris

—the implementation of Lord Donaldson's recommendation that consideration should be given to a salvage tug being stationed in the western approaches; the question of double hulls, which the hon. Member for Pembroke did not mention, although I know he has raised the question before—

Mr. Davies

What about ministerial incompetence?

Mr. Norris

—the safety of port operations, which the hon. Member rightly raised today; and the effects, if any, that current salvage law may have had on the actual conduct of the salvage operation.

I shall now deal with the sedentary remarks from the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) about the competence and culpability of Ministers. The hon. Gentleman is the shadow Secretary of State for Wales, but he is free with his remarks on a wide variety of subjects. I always listen to those remarks with avidity and interest, but on this occasion we should confine his responsibility merely to Wales.

The implication of the hon. Gentleman's remarks is offensive to the chief inspector and staff of the MAIB, and I say that in all sobriety and seriousness, for the following reason. It is quite outrageous to suggest that the chief inspector would be prepared to do other than to report fully, in terms, about the causes, circumstances and necessary remedies surrounding the Sea Empress disaster. If there were to be questions that touched on the competence or conduct of Ministers, be they my noble Friend Lord Goschen or my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, the chief inspector would not for a second hesitate to address them.

If I may say so, the extraordinary remarks by the hon. Member for Caerphilly are matched by the equally offensive implication from the hon. Member for Pembroke that the independence of the marine accident investigation branch would be so compromised that, simply because both its staff and the officers in my Department are civil servants, the marine accident inspectors would not be prepared to criticise the conduct of fellow officials.

The hon. Gentleman made a laughable comparison with the Scott inquiry, as if there were the slightest relevance to the Scott inquiry. The hon. Gentleman is a very bright Member of the House, and he knows perfectly well that the real analogy is the equal independence that is afforded to the air accident investigation branch.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Norris

No, I will not, because I have only six minutes left.

The hon. Member for Pembroke asked whether there had been any precedent for the investigation of the conduct of Ministers. It may not or may not be the case that this is the first occasion on which an Opposition Member has alleged that somehow a Minister has been personally responsible for the conduct of operations of that sort: I cannot comment on that. However, whether that assertion arises from Opposition Members or from any other source, if there is the slightest substance in such an assertion, the chief inspector will report on it.

I confirm, here and now and on the record, that the chief inspector need not fear for one second the consequence of making whatever recommendations he feels are right. I can say that, in the entire confidence that the chief inspector and all his staff are officials of the highest integrity, for whom we have the greatest respect.

Mr. Ainger

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Norris

I am sorry, but I cannot give way. The hon. Gentleman took his allotted time, and I refused the request of the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen). I now have just under five minutes.

The hon. Member for Pembroke said that he has managed to persuade many people that they should sign petitions calling for a public inquiry. That is not an entirely astonishing result, given that, for the vast majority of people, the idea of a public inquiry is synonymous with the idea of coming to an independent result and conclusion on an issue that is undoubtedly of considerable importance.

I am frankly not in the slightest surprised that the hon. Gentleman managed to collect thousands of signatures—indeed, had he been more diligent, he would probably have collected many more. I am astonished at the ability of countless thousands of our fellow citizens to sign petitions, and I admire immensely the comprehensive nature of their understanding of such issues.

Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)

The Minister is being contemptuous.

Mr. Norris

I may have been contemptuous to the hon. Member for Pembroke, but I am not contemptuous about those who have signed the petitions.

My assertion, which the hon. Gentleman would not seriously seek to deny, is—I guarantee it—that the vast majority of those who signed those petitions were unaware of the existence of the MAIB. I defy the hon. Gentleman to tell the House that his petition, at any point, referred to the relative merits or otherwise of a public inquiry or a MAIB inquiry; I note that he does not seek to do so.

The Government have frequently made the point that a public inquiry is an adversarial inquiry, involving legal representation, which takes a long time to organise, to hear and to sift through enormous amounts of wide-ranging evidence and to produce a report. It would also be difficult to prevent the evidence to a public inquiry from ranging far beyond what is relevant to the Sea Empress accident.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse)

I hope that this is a genuine point of order, because there are only two minutes to go in this debate.

Mr. Jones

Is it in order for the Minister to ignore completely the issue which is being debated here today, for an independent inquiry—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The Minister is responsible for his speech.

Mr. Norris

I note the further time-wasting by the Opposition.

Experience has tended to show, if one compares the relative merits of an MAIB inquiry with a public inquiry, that the latter tends to obscure the truth rather than illuminate it.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

What about Donaldson?

Mr. Norris

The hon. Gentleman who speaks for the Liberal Democrats is far too intelligent to fail to appreciate that the Donaldson report considered all matters relating to vessels' safety and the prevention of pollution from merchant shipping following the Braer disaster. It was not, as he well knows, an inquiry into the accident itself.

Until the MAIB report and Professor Edwards' assessment—Professor Edwards will report to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales—have been completed and their recommendations considered, it would be inappropriate to suggest that there is a need to re-examine or amplify any of Lord Donaldson's recommendations. We have made it clear that we respect the conclusions of Lord Donaldson's report—

Mr. Deputy Speaker


It being Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Sitting suspended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 10 (Wednesday sittings), till half- past Two o'clock.