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Mv "Lovat" (Loss)

Volume 885: debated on Monday 27 January 1975

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With the permission of the House, I should like to make a statement.

As the House will know, the British cargo ship "Lovat" foundered in heavy seas 30 miles south of Penzance early on Saturday morning. It is with distress that I have to report that only two of the crew of 13 survived. I am sure the House will wish to join me in sending heartfelt sympathy to the relatives and friends of those who lost their lives in this tragedy and in wishing the survivors a speedy recovery.

It has been customary for Ministers to await the outcome of a preliminary inquiry before deciding what further action to take. But I should like the House to know at once that in this case immediately after the event I decided to ask for a public formal investigation to be held before a wreck commissioner appointed by the Lord Chancellor. In order to gather facts for the formal investigation it is necessary for a preliminary inquiry to be held; that inquiry has already begun and will proceed with the greatest expedition.

The inquiries will fully investigate all aspects of the tragedy, including the shift of cargo, the adequacy and use of the life-saving equipment and the search and rescue operation.

I am sure that the House would wish me to pay tribute to the helicopter crews, the lifeboatmen and others engaged in the search and rescue operation, which took place in the most appalling weather conditions.

The whole House will wish to join in the hon. Gentleman's expression of sympathy for the bereaved and for all those who suffered as a result of this tragedy, and will endorse his tribute to the courage and devotion to duty shown by the rescue services. No one who has been in a small ship in winds above force 8 will underestimate the dangers and difficulties involved when things go wrong on board or the problems of attempting rescue. It would seem appropriate for a full public inquiry to be held and for the House to await its report before drawing final conclusions. None the less, I should like to put two questions to the hon. Gentleman which his inquiries so far should enable him to answer.

First, will the hon. Gentleman tell the House whether shifting boards were fitted to the vessel, and, if so, whether they had been fitted for this voyage or earlier? Had his Department recommended their use or inspected them before the "Lovat" sailed?

Secondly, since it appears from reports that the davits which were fitted were inadequate to launch the lifeboats, is the hon. Gentleman satisfied that the design was the best possible, and, if the boats could not be launched, was the alternative equipment, particularly the liferafts, adequate to bear all those who were on board?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his initial observations. His two questions raise matters which fall within the scope of the inquiry, and I am inhibited about making comments on the adequacy of the apparatus on the vessel. However, the vessel was surveyed relatively recently, in 1974, and it passed that survey. It therefore follows that the equipment which was fitted appeared to be satisfactory then.

The alternative life-saving equipment complied with the IMCO requirements. There was a sufficiency of lifeboats and a sufficiency of liferafts. Therefore, without wishing in any way to prejudice the inquiry, one can say that the equipment on board appeared to be satisfactory and adequate.

My hon. Friend has acted with commendable speed. Is he aware that there is considerable concern in the Swansea area, from which the ship in question sailed? Two Swansea men on it were drowned. It is said that the skipper of another vessel, the "Heemskirk", refused to take the load, recognising that a combination of fine anthracite dust and water leads to a very unstable load? Will my hon. Friend ensure that this matter is fully investigated?

I can assure my hon. Friend that that matter falls within the scope of the inquiry and that it will be formally investigated.

My colleagues and I on the Liberal bench would like to associate ourselves with the expressions of sympathy to the next-of-kin and express our admiration for those who tried to save the men's lives. Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the great distress which must have been caused to next-of-kin by the televised interview with the helicopter crew, who described their failure in carrying out the attempted rescue? Does he think that it is very bad to let interviews of this sort take place before the next-of-kin have been informed?

I have a good deal of sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman has said. It is impossible for me to determine how a television interview will be conducted. One hopes that a certain amount of sensitivity will enter into these matters. I hope that the point raised by the hon. Gentleman will be noted where it matters.

Is my hon. Friend in a position to say whether the recommendations for the loading of cargoes such as coal are governed by marine notice regulations or by statute law? Is he satisfied with the co-ordination of the air-sea rescue operation?

The question is covered by marine notices, but such notices are of an advisory nature. My hon. Friend will know of the concern which I have already expressed about the failure to adhere to M notice requirements from time to time, although I am making no comment about this specific issue. Therefore, several months ago I authorised work to be undertaken in my Department to determine which M notices should have the force of law. This work is proceeding satisfactorily. However, additional legislation will be required, and I cannot say that it will be achieved in this Session.

My hon. Friend's question about the co-ordination of the rescue services impinges on the nature of the inquiry that will have to be undertaken. We constantly keep in mind the changing requirements. We try to ensure that the rescue services co-ordinate properly, but it is a matter for the formal inquiry to determine whether they were co-ordinating satisfactorily in this instance.

Although the vessel apparently passed its marine survey as recently as 1974, is the Minister absolutely satisfied about the way in which marine surveys are carried out, or does he think that some expansion of the system or an increased number of personnel are necessary? Is he satisfied that the IMCO regulations and the United Kingdom regulations as to the safety of lifeboats are entirely satisfactory? If not, will he bring forward either legislation or regulations?

The hon. Gentleman should know that when dealing with matters of this nature it would be dangerous to say that one is entirely satisfied. These matters are kept constantly under scrutiny and will continue to be kept under scrutiny. It would not be proper for me to make any comment upon the survey undertaken in this case beyond that which I have already made to the House.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that there might be some need for increased personnel to carry out surveying requirements, but I understand that under the administration which he served and in the Department for which he was responsible there was some decrease in the number of personnel required for that purpose.

As to the IMCO regulations, IMCO—as we do—constantly keeps these matters under surveillance. If there are lessons to be drawn from this and other unfortunate mishaps at sea, both we and IMCO will take those lessons to heart.

I do not wish to ask the Minister to comment in advance of the inquiry, but will he answer a factual question? How many liferafts were aboard the ship?

There was one liferaft on the ship, which was wholly consistent with the IMCO requirements.

May I associate myself with the expressions of sympathy to the families of the crew members and of congratulations to those who took part in the rescue?

Where Sea King helicopters are available in any given area, will the Minister consider whether they should be placed on standby at any time when the forecast winds in the locality exceed gale force 8?

Secondly, is the Minister satisfied with the arrangements which were made yesterday for the search for the Grimsby trawler "Morena"? It appears to have taken 18 hours to get the search and rescue under way. Is he inquiring into that?

Finally, is the Minister aware that a large number of coastguard stations around our shores are incapable of getting a DF bearing on a distress signal? I am sure that that is not a related factor in this case, but will he consider that deficiency and remedy it as soon as possible?

I will certainly take into account what the hon. Gentleman said about Sea Kings. We co-ordinate very effectively, by and large, with the Ministry of Defence in this sort of situation, as I think the hon. Gentleman will agree. Nevertheless, the point made by the hon. Gentleman is worthy of consideration, and I undertake that it will be dealt with.

The "Morena" is an entirely different matter. But, subject to your permission, Mr. Speaker, I am able to make a short statement about it in response to the hon. Gentleman's inquiry. The first report of the concern which was felt for the Grimsby fishing vessel "Morena" was made to coastguards at 9.50 a.m. on Sunday 26th January, but the position given was inaccurate. During the morning a link call was made by the coast radio station to the vessel but without response. Another position of the vessel was passed to the coastguard, and confirmation of the most likely position was not given until 1300 hours.

The PAN broadcast was then begun, contact was made with the Services Northern Rescue Co-ordination Centre at Pitreavie and a request for an aircraft search was made at 14.37 hours, but by then there was too little daylight to allow a search by a Nimrod aircraft to be undertaken that day. The search was begun at first light today.

The factors taken into account in not asking for an aircraft search earlier were uncertainty regarding the vessel's position and the fact that about 20 vessels were already searching for it. There have been reports of this kind about once a month recently owing to radio equipment aboard fishing vessels not functioning. In the event of the vessel being lost, a preliminary inquiry into the casualty will be ordered. I shall, of course, keep the House informed of the situation.

The Minister will be aware that it has been reported in the Press that the helicopter winch line was severed. In all the tens of thousands of successful rescues carried out by helicopter units I do not recall a previous incident of that kind. Will that matter be included in the terms of the inquiry? If not, perhaps the Royal Air Force might be asked whether in such appalling conditions anything might be done to improve the situation?

Quite apart from the circumstances here, a great deal of information has become available—and further information will no doubt become available as a result of the inquiries—about what safety equipment is required in these appalling conditions. Even on safety equipment which complies fully with existing regulations a certain amount of research is required. The lifelines for crews in non-commercial vessels are an example. Is the Minister able to consult firms which manufacture this equipment and discuss with them how the quality can be improved, and, where small sums are required, will he look favourably upon the provision of those small sums?

I will certainly give the matter raised in the last part of the question most careful consideration. My Department considers carefully with the manufacturers of safety equipment its reliability under pressure. Nevertheless, the right hon. Gentleman has made a useful suggestion which I shall take fully into account.

The right hon. Gentleman's question on the winch line will fall within the ambit of the inquiry. In this instance it is a matter for the Royal Navy, and I will consider the matter with the Ministry of Defence because both the RAF and the Royal Navy could be involved in such a situation.