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Trawler "Morena" (Loss)

Volume 885: debated on Thursday 30 January 1975

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(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Trade what further information he has regarding the missing trawler "Morena".

The following Question stood upon the Order Paper:

74.

To ask the Secretary of State for Trade whether he proposes to order an inquiry into the loss of the fishing vessel "Morena".

With permission, I will answer this Question and Question No. 74, for Written Answer, together.

I much regret to have to inform the House that the search for the "Morena" was called off at dusk on 28th January and it must be assumed that the vessel and her crew of three, one of whom is British, have been lost. I understand that before starting her voyage the "Morena" had been purchased by a person understood to be a Danish citizen, and it was, therefore, struck off the United Kingdom register on 9th January 1975. None the less, since witnesses to the circumstances of the disappearance may be found in the United Kingdom, I have ordered a statutory preliminary inquiry to be held under Section 464 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894.

I am sure the House will wish to join me in extending sympathy to the relatives and friends, both in this country and abroad, of those who must be presumed to have lost their lives.

The House will, naturally, wish to join the Minister in his expressions of sympathy. Is he aware that his statement on Monday regarding this matter gave some cause for concern? He suggested that the aircraft search was not asked for earlier because the position of the fishing vessel was not known and because some 20 vessels were already looking for it. Surely in these circumstances there would be a stronger case for an aircraft search rather than a lesser one.

Second, the Minister indicated that alarms of this kind were being raised about every month or so, and clearly, in these circumstances there is some danger of cries of "Wolf" and reactions being correspondingly slower. Will he consider looking into the question whether the radio equipment on board such vessels should be raised to a higher standard?

Third, on the question of timing, it would appear, again from the Minister's answer on Monday, that there was a delay of at least one and a half hours. If that had not happened, it might have enabled some search to be made about 14 hours before it was actually made. While in no way diminishing the splendid work done by the rescue services, may I ask the Minister to look into this point very carefully and to consider what improvements can be made, particularly on the question of communications, in situations in which obviously time is very important?

I must preface my observations on the hon. Gentleman's question with the inhibitions I mentioned in relation to the other matter about which we were being questioned on Monday: that once a form of inquiry—a preliminary inquiry or a formal inquiry—is set afoot, there are difficulties in going into the merits of the matter. However, subject to that, the hon. Gentleman has asked whether there is a stronger case for aircraft search where a number of vessels are already searching for a missing vessel. The presence of a large number of vessels can inhibit a search by aircraft. There is the difficulty of identifying the missing vessel. I do not wish to reflect upon the Opposition attitude in this specific case, but one must take account of visibility and weather conditions, the possibility of a false alarm, and so on, before embarking upon a search by air.

We have to take account also of the people who are directing operations on the spot. We do not want to impose upon them some stereotyped form of approach from Whitehall which may have no relevance to their problems.

As for radio equipment, on 1st January we introduced new radio rules for fishing vessels. These will require a considerably higher standard of radio installation in fishing vessels, although, of course, this particular vessel may not have been covered by the regulations since they apply only to vessels of 24·4 metres and over in length. There will have to be a transitional period to enable these new rules to become effective, but I think that they represent a substantially important part of the provisions that the hon. Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins) is seeking.

The question of the delay must be a matter for the preliminary inquiry.

Although the men concerned are not my constituents, may I, by courtesy of my right hon. Friend the Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland), be allowed to voice my deepest sympathy and condolences to the families of the missing men? The fishing community of Humberside is at one in this matter; both banks feel together about it.

Will my hon. Friend confirm, in spite of criticisms from the Conservative benches, that this is a matter for the preliminary inquiry? If the Minister orders a formal inquiry the facts will all come out then. As for the weather, is he aware that skipper Kjeerguard of the "Andolas" was fishing at this time and was in touch with the "Morena"? He says that he has never seen such weather conditions in 20 years in the North Sea. He was 150 miles off shore, and in his words it was
"sheer murder with waves over 60 ft high."
Is my hon. Friend aware that the Humberside coastguard and RAF Leconfield and other stations have a wonderful record of rescue at sea, and I wish to pay tribute to those who have done this work. I have been in touch with Hull, and I may say on behalf of skippers and seamen that they feel that any measures that could have been taken were taken.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland) will appreciate the observation that my hon. Friend has made on his behalf. I do not want in any way to criticise the hon. Member for Worthing, who made perfectly proper observations from the Opposition Front Bench in seeking information from me about this unhappy episode.

Undoubtedly the weather was appalling, and that fact made the search that much more difficult. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks and the appropriate tribute he paid to the coastguard and to those who are involved in the difficult enterprise of trying to save life at sea. It may be appropriate for me to add to that tribute by saying that the number of persons assisted last year was 6,760 compared with 5,060 the previous year, and that in its own way pays sufficient testimony to the invaluable work of these people.

Will the Minister bear in mind that this is not the only loss of its kind that we have heard about in the House over the last several years? Would it not be helpful if every fishing vessel carried a survival rescue beacon of the kind which is available to every pilot who has to bale out over the sea? It would operate on a frequency which could be picked up by the Royal Air Force immediately. As I understand it, the principal problem in these searches is to locate the last known position of the vessel, and this could be done quite readily with equipment which is already available.

I announced quite recently that this subject is under inquiry by my Department. [An HON. MEMBER: "Speed it up."] It is not easy to come to a quick decision about technical matters of this kind. We want to ensure that the best equipment is installed in vessels and that we do not rush into something we might regret later.

Will my hon. Friend take measures that would provide prevention rather than a cure that comes too late? Will he take into account the fact that masters of vessels, no matter how small the vessels, determine for themselves whether the vessel shall put to sea and whether a fishing vessel shall remain fishing in heavy weather? Will he take special measures to consider these points and to provide that there should be a definite rule that when weather warnings are given a master must run for shelter?

It is extremely difficult to prescribe specific rules to deal with a situation of this kind. We are dealing here with the competence of a master to adjudge a particular situation, and it may be that a number of them fall down on their job. If they do and if a tragedy occurs, it is a little late in the day to complain and criticise. By and large, however, it would be unfair for the House to give the impression today that there is a wholesale abandonment of the proper discretion exercised by masters of vessels of this character.

When will the proposed regulations on safety at sea be published, and when will the House have an opportunity to debate them? It is too bad that it requires a tragedy at sea to bring these safety matters to the attention of the House.

I cannot give the hon. Member an answer because matters of safety of life at sea cover a very wide area. It is within the hon. Member's ability to apply for a debate at a given time if he wishes to raise a specific matter.

Has it not now become apparent, with the loss of the "Lovat" over the weekend and the assumed loss of the "Morena", that there are understandable difficulties in co-ordinating an air-sea rescue service? I make this point seriously as an ex-seaman. I am trying to convey the fears which are now felt by my colleagues in the industry. Is it not now time for my hon. Friend's Department to consider seriously the possibilities of creating an air-sea rescue servcice under a statutory marine authority which would be able to deal with the position of ships which are faced with these prevailing conditions at sea?

My Department is considering the subject. I do not think that the answers are very easy, although the question is an easy one to ask. There is no assurance that even if we had a substantial department or organisation handling this matter we would necessarily overcome the problems we already experience from time to time. However, I am certainly not seeking to give the impression that I set my mind against the concept of a marine authority. The pros and cons will be very carefully considered within the course of the next month.

Can the Minister say what individual has the responsibility in such circumstances of initiating an air search and deciding whether it is a bona fide case which merits a Nimrod being sent? He will recall that in his statement to the House on Monday he said that one of the reasons why a Nimrod had not been sent was that the position given for the "Morena" was inaccurate. How can he be sure of that, as no search was being made?

The coastguard has the prime responsibility for co-ordination in these matters.

In his second question the hon. Gentleman was asking me to comment on a matter which clearly falls within the ambit of the preliminary inquiry.