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Fishing Vessel "Silver Lining"

Volume 886: debated on Monday 10 February 1975

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9.49 p.m.

I wish to raise a constituency question which is the present position of the fishing vessel "Silver Lining" and the position of her owners. I also wish to raise a broader issue concerning the general interest in the disposition of public funds for assistance in building fishing boats as well as the particular issue of equity which arises.

May I explain the circumstances of the case? Mr. Johnstone, a fisherman resident in my constituency, and his partner, who is resident in East Aberdeenshire, together wished to buy a fishing boat. I gather that the question of the choice of yard and design is left to the fishermen, and these two men went to the Bute Slip Dock Company at Rothesay, in the west of Glasgow, where, I understand, the director, a Mr. Cumming, had built six very satisfactory fishing boats in the recent past. They ordered the "Silver Lining"—one of the most sophisticated fishing boats built in Scotland in recent times—from the yard.

Mr. Cummings, the director of the yard, designed two sister ships on what, for practical purposes, were identical lines. One was the "Trident" and the other was the "Silver Lining". I gather that in order to make these fishing boats turn more rapidly he cut the keel by 4 ft. and altered the stern design, compared with normal fishing boats, to remove a certain bulginess which is normally associated with them and gave these two boats, as it were, a flat stern section which was somewhat different.

The point that exercises fishermen in Scotland is that the "Trident" went down with all hands after reports that she was basically unseaworthy. The "Silver Lining" was impounded as unseaworthy or unstable and is still lying rusting in dock, although she is an expensive ship, because her seaworthiness and future and the savings of those who own her have not been established.

I should like to put my finger on the public involvement in this matter. This fishing boat cost £160,000. Its present value, or the value of that kind of boat today, is reckoned at over £250,000. The £160,000 paid for the "Silver Lining" was made by a Government grant from the Herring Industry Board of £48,000, a loan of £65,000 on which the owners have to pay the current rate of interest which is extremely steep, while the two owners found £47,000, which represented their life savings. It is clear that this was a modern expensive fishing boat, that the two men involved put their total life savings into it, and that public money was involved. Therefore, apart from the question of the safety of men at sea, the public interest is important.

The problem is that when the Government, through an ad hoc body like the Herring Industry Board, give a grant and a loan, one assumes that a reasonable check is carried out on the satisfactoriness of the expenditure. In this instance, that means the seaworthiness of the boat involved.

I looked carefully into what check the Herring Industry Board carried out on the seaworthiness of this boat in view of the public money that it was lending and granting. I was shocked to find that the board asked for certain calculations about the shape of the vessel, which it checked, but that it did this without remeasuring the boat to discover whether it was built according to specification. Secondly, the figures were checked by surveyors, who were not marine architects. Why they were not marine architects, I do not fully understand.

Finally, the boat was launched and taken to Peterhead on the other side of Scotland and, on 4th March 1974, a stability test was undertaken. However, it was not undertaken by the body that granted or lent the money, but by the builder who had a vested interest in establishing the seaworthiness of the boat. The builder certified that the boat reached the minimum standards specified by the International Marine Consultative Organisation—IMCO, as it is known. The Herring Industry Board accepted the builder's verdict as a certificate of seaworthiness and allowed the boat to proceed to sea. The public involvement in terms of the grant and loan was thereby established.

When the "Silver Lining" went to sea the skipper complained that it was unstable. Later I found that the Chairman of the Herring Industry Board asserted that that was because of subsequent additions to the deck of the boat. I do not think that that was adequately borne out by the subsequent stability tests. Nevertheless, the skipper complained that the boat was unseaworthy and he had eight tons of rock ballast put into the bottom of it to try to make it a little more stable.

Meanwhile, the sister ship the "Trident" was at sea. There is some dispute about this, but I understand from people in the area that the skipper and other members of the "Trident" likewise complained about the unseaworthiness of that boat. Whether or not the fact is established, it is rumoured and talked about among the fishermen there. The "Trident" sank with all hands on 3rd October 1974, and a public inquiry has been instituted into why this vessel should have sunk under these conditions.

Directly the "Trident" sank the authorities insisted that the "Silver Lining", the sister ship, should not go to sea again because its stability was in question, and on 11th October an inclining test was held, this time not by the builders, as in the first instance, but by other authorities, and the boat was impounded until the results of the test could become known.

My constituent Mr. Johnstone, who had put his life savings into the boat, was thereby deprived of his source of income. He became unemployed, yet he had to pay the on-going rate of interest on his share of the £65,000 loan involved in the construction of the boat.

At this point the situation became much more complicated, because three different groups of people were involved in the stability test. The first was the White Fish Authority because it has joint surveyors with the Herring Industry Board. On 11th October the authority investigated the stability of this boat and wrote a letter to the owner of the boat, Mr. Johnstone who passed a copy of it to me, saying:
"The stability of this fishing vessel does not fully satisfy the stability criteria as laid down in the draft Fishing Vessel (Provisional) Rules."
Furthermore, the writer say that the operating assumptions on which the boat was designed were unrealistic, and that in future they should be made with the mutual agreement of the owner, the designer and the Department's surveyor.

At the same time the Department of Industry took an interest in this stability test, and here a discrepancy arose. One of the problems is the number of public authorities involved in this whole question. I have here a letter from the Under-Secretary in which he said that
"whereas the boat was unsuitable for going to sea, it was unstable only when fully loaded. When unloaded it was stable".
That is contrary to the report on the same test carried out by two other public authorities.

A third group interested in this matter was the Napier Company, a naval architect firm. It was employed originally by the owners of the boat, but the company's reputation is such that the Herring Industry Board accepted that its judgment could, in a sense, be an impartial arbitration on the matter. The company investigated the stability of the vessel by means of the same inclining test and said quite flatly that the boat was unseaworthy not, as the Department suggested, only when fully loaded but under all conditions. All these three authorities made no mention of extra gear or extra equipment being placed on the deck of the boat causing it to become unstable. They said it was the fundamental design of the boat that rendered it unseaworthy.

What is to happen? There are two problems here. The first is the general principle of public money being put into vessels of this kind. The second is what is to happen in this particular case.

Dealing first with this particular case, during the Christmas Recess I went along with another Member of Parliament, who has a constituency interest, to see the Chairman of the Herring Industry Board. He received us courteously and assured us that the test report would show that the boat was basically completely stable and that any problem was that of added equipment on the boat deck. Both assurances turned out to be inaccurate because the boat is not inherently stable according to the report of the three authorities.

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

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Miss Margaret Jackson.]

Neither of these two assurances turned out to be accurate because all three authorities say that the boat is not stable and none of them draw attention to any subsequent additions on the deck. All draw attention to the basic construction of the vessel.

So there is this basic problem and certain difficulties have to be faced. First, is it satisfactory that large sums of public money should be given in grant and loan on fishing boats when no adequate check is being made that this money is being spent on boats that are inherently seaworthy? I know that stability is a difficult problem. I know that there are probably some boats which have fished for years successfully which, if tested, would prove to be unstable. I know that it would cause great difficulty if the new standards were to be imposed across the whole fishing fleet. Nevertheless, surely with new boats, on which public money is being spent, there should be a more adequate check than just the view of the builder himself, who has a vested interest in the stability of the ship.

We want an external check on the stability of the boat and one ought not to have to wait for disasters such as the total loss of the "Trident" for the kind of external check we want to be made. In this situation, one ought not to give out certificates that a boat coincides with, or meets, minimum requirements when there has been no check other than that of the builder.

I now turn to the particular case of my constituent, Mr. Johnstone. When I visited the Herring Industry Board, it clearly felt a certain sympathy with Mr. Johnstone. It certainly felt that there was some case in which a relationship of trust between him and the board had been breached and it suggested that if the boat were cut in half—quite how one does this I do not know—and lengthened by 11 ft and a box keel added, the boat would become seaworthy and stable. This is interesting in view of what was said to me by the board, that the proposals for improvement made no mention of removing deck gear. So this argument that it was deck gear added subsequently goes by the board because if that had caused instability it could just be taken off. But the Herring Industry Board said that there had to be fundamental changes in the design of the vessel, that is to say, lengthening by 11 ft. and the addition of a box keel at a cost of £22,000. I take it that the Herring Industry Board feels some responsibility for letting this situation arise, because it was prepared to grant immediately 30 per cent. of the cost of this alteration and a moratorium on the interest on the boat.

But the problem goes far further than this as far as my constituent is concerned. At first the marine architects said that this particular change would not be suitable. Later, the marine architects said that if, in fact, the boat were lengthened but, instead of a box keel, the fuel tanks and water tanks were altered, that would have a lowering effect on the centre of gravity of the ship and it would then become seaworthy.

On this point, I think that the paragraph in the original letter from the marine architects hits the nail on the head as far as this ship is concerned. It says:
"There are various alternative ways of improving the stability. If money was available these could be undertaken. The unfortunate aspect, however, is that the crew has lost confidence in the boat and we doubt if any changes, no matter how effective, will restore this. … We are trying to find someone to buy her to overcome this problem and our friends and agents throughout Europe are doing their best. So far, unfortunately, we have had no success. There is a big demand for this size and type of fishing boat but apparently"
—indeed, understandably—
"the first question any interested party asks is the reason for the sale, and on being told interest vanishes despite our assurances that the stability could be made satisfactory".
The simple situation is that no man will go to sea in this boat, and no one will buy this boat because all know that the sister ship sank and that it is fundamentally unstable.

So my constituent's life savings are wrapped up in a fundamentally unsaleable boat, which had a certificate of seaworthiness which was checked inadequately or checked by no one. I feel a sense of unease that this man has not been treated fairly, though I appreciate that the HIB now feels that it should do something—though quite what, I know not—to try to help him.

My worries about this case, therefore, are genuine and serious. I am pointing the finger at no one. I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has no direct responsibility and that the boards concerned have done everything possible to encourage fishing and to build up the Scottish fishing fleet. But this very sad episode has put its finger on two particular problems, which I repeat. The first is that grant and loan is being given without adequate supervision of the seaworthiness of the boats. The second is that as a result, in this particular case, an unfortunate pair of skippers have lost their life savings, without any possibility—as far as one can see at present—of any restitution or compensation.

I draw the attention of the Government to this matter in the hope that something can be done, although perhaps not within the present rules, to ameliorate the situation.

10.7 p.m.

My hon. Friend the Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Mackintosh) has given a very clear account of his constituent's difficulties. I certainly appreciate his concern. I am sure that he believes, as I do, that there are two occupations which he probably never has any ambition to follow—one is mining and the other is fishing. In other words, I have a great admiration for people who go to sea in fishing vessels. My hon. Friend is accurately representing the difficulty which we all face here, because as well as being courageous and very experienced people, once there is a hoodoo or an element of superstition in the minds of fishermen it becomes a serious problem. Therefore, I appreciate the point that my hon. Friend has made.

I should like to make three small points. I am not sure that the figures given by my hon. Friend about grant and loan are absolutely precise, but they are near enough for it not to matter. I do not know that my hon. Friend is very sound on the point he makes when he says that it should be some kind of naval architect who checks a specification.

Or a marine architect. Although it is not, strictly speaking, involved in this matter, just as a general observation I would say that an architect designs a house, but it is usually the quantity surveyor who checks at the end of the day that the specification has been complied with. However, my hon. Friend has fairly stated the case.

As I am sure the House will appreciate and understand, my difficulty is that I am somewhat confined in any reply that I can make. The construction of this vessel was a commercial transaction between the buyer—the fisherman—and the seller—the boatyard. It would be quite wrong of me to say anything which could possibly be interpreted as prejudicial to the respective positions of the owners, the designer, or the builder. Moreover, the "Silver Lining" is a sister ship of the "Trident", as my hon. Friend said, and the House will recall with sadness the disappearance of the "Trident" with all crew last October.

Again as the House will know—my hon. Friend having referred to it—an inquiry has been ordered by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade. Obviously, that means that to some extent I have to tread more warily than normal tonight. If there are any detailed points which I do not cover, I shall write to my hon. Friend or discuss them with him in as helpful a way as possible.

Mention has been made of the rôle of the Herring Industry Board and of Departments, and I think that it would be useful if I set out the actual position here. Parliament provides funds for the giving of grants and loans for the construction and improvement of fishing vessels. The day-to-day administration of these arrangements has, however, been given by Parliament to the Herring Industry Board and the White Fish Authority. The rôle of Ministers is to lay down the basic framework within which the authorities administer the schemes, and Ministers are, of course, responsible for broad questions relating to whether the funds advanced to the authorities are used in accordance with the wishes of Parliament. Ministers are not, however, responsible for the action taken by the authorities in particular cases.

Ministers ensure that there are safeguards within the arrangements—this was my hon. Friend's point—so as to ensure the proper use of public funds. It is, for example, in order to protect public funds that the statutory grants scheme requires the board to approve the building contract. Again, to safeguard the public investment the board employs surveyors in order to ensure that construction is in accordance with the specification, that the workmanship is satisfactory and that payments are made to the builder at the proper time. Thus, as a result of these safeguards the board is closely involved in the construction of the vessel. On account of its expertise and experience it also—as one would expect—attempts to give advice to the fishermen in an era of ever-growing complexity in vessels. It is no rôle of the board, however, to attempt to guarantee the completed vessel, as such. My hon. Friend suggested that it should be, but at the moment that is not necessarily the case.

Perhaps here I should make some general observations on standards of stability for fishing vessels in relation to the particular interests of the Herring Industry Board and the Department of Trade. As long age as November 1968 the Intergovernmental Maritime Consultative Organisation, through its Maritime safety Committee, published its recommended standards for the intact stability of fishing vessels. The United Kingdom had been prominent in the international discussions which led to the establishment of these standards and the Department of Trade. As long ago as November 1968 national findings domestically by passing them on to United Kingdom fishing vessel owners and builders with the recommendation that they be adopted. In addition, partly as a means of further testing the recommended standards and partly to honour the relevant recommendation in the Holland-Martin Report of 1969, the Department of Trade continued its investigations into the stability standards of existing distant water trawlers, bringing a few near and middle water vessels into the investigation at the same time.

An almost complete degree of compliance with the international standards was found in all vessels thus investigated and those for which data was subsequently submitted voluntarily by owners. The HIB, since the IMCO recommendations were published, has ensured that the specification for a new vessel requires the IMCO standard of stability to be met. This was done for "Silver Lining". In practice, however, the skipper was not happy with the vessel's handling and approached the Department of Trade, which readily agreed to help with the necessary calculations. The required information was still awaited at the time of the sad casualty to the "Trident". Meanwhile, the skipper and the builders have had their own investigations made.

I can now inform the House that the Department of Trade has just completed its calculations on "Silver Lining" and is examining the results. Although in certain conditions the international standards of stability will not be met, a number of alternative methods by which they could be met suggest themselves. The Department of Trade findings are being collated for urgent presentations to all the parties directly involved—

My hon. Friend says that the only interest of the Department is to see that public funds are properly spent—but that it does not deal with individual cases. In this case, an IMCO certificate was given to this vessel. The Department's test has shown that the vessel did not meet these standards. Is the Department satisfied when public funds are given to boats—as a general principle, not in specific cases—and the certificate is given to boats when subsequent detailed tests show that they do not meet these standards? Is my hon. Friend not worried about this? What will he do about it?

Obviously I am worried about it. I do not suppose that either of us would be here if we were not worried about it. Because there has been an inquiry and because the findings have not yet been made available, I think that there should be a pause. There will be no question of covering up—there is nothing to cover up, and the very relevant and pertinent point that my hon. Friend has made will certain be looked into and answered in great detail.

There is never an absolute guarantee that something which, on paper, is up to standard will turn out to be so when it is on the water. I am not an expert and I do not know whether my hon. Friend sails a boat, but I am sure that these things can happen. There is no accounting for it. It does not destroy the general argument on the provisions that have been made. United Kingdom Departments are aware of the need to get up to this international standard and it is accepted by the trade.

I am suggesting that there should be a pause in this specific case.

The Chairman of the Herring Industry Board has assured me that he will do all he can within the limits of his powers to secure a satisfactory outcome for Mr. Johnstone and Mr. Bruce. The chairman will be calling an early meeting of all the interested parties in the near future. This is the way to seek a solution to this difficult problem. I hope that some satisfactory solution to the difficulties of these fishermen will emerge. My Department will continue to give any help it can.

My hon. Friend has spoken in general terms of the responsibility of the board for public investment. If we look at the picture as a whole, we see that since 1953 the board has been involved in the construction of 183 vessels of varying types. This is, however, the first occasion on which a problem of seaworthiness has arisen. That is no reason to be complacent. Any one accident or tragedy should give us all food for thought. Nevertheless, by any standard of efficiency I claim it is a good record. In the light of such a record it is not surprising that there have been no complaints from the industry about the board's administration on this score.

Having said that, however, I know that the board would agree that there may be areas in which procedures could usefully be reviewed, and I know that the board would be only too glad to discuss any problems with the industry.

I am not making any comment on the legality or otherwise of the situation. It is a fair assumption that there exists a kind of paternalistic atmosphere where, while the board has its direct statutory responsibilities, in the past fishermen generally may have assumed that it was responsible when, in fact, it was not directly responsible in that statutory sense. After a system has been working and everybody seems quite happy with it, when something different occurs, obviously everybody starts looking at whose fault it is, who is responsible, and where the legal liability lies. It is in this context that everyone will want to review the procedures and the problems that have arisen from this incident.

As I have already said, the work of the Department of Trade on the stability of fishing vessels has hitherto been carried out on a voluntary basis. I am glad to say that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade will shortly bring in a most comprehensive set of regulations governing the safety of fishing vessels, including the stability of vessels of 12 metres and upwards in length. This statutory backing to the existing practice of the Herring Industry Board and the White Fish Authority in relation to new vessels should be a useful measure in promoting the safety of our fishing fleet.

I ask my hon. Friend to accept that in good faith the Chairman of the Herring Industry Board has given an assurance that he will call a meeting of all the interested parties. I certainly approve of that. I regard it as the way to proceed, and, given good will and understanding in a difficult situation, I believe that the outcome will be valuable. There are two possibilities—one, a legal battle, and two, an attempt to sell a vessel to the fishing communities. My hon. Friend has already said that if there is an attempt to sell something which has not been cleared there could be problems for the owner, and I do not believe that any of us would wish to contemplate a state of affairs which created difficulty for any one of the interested parties.

I hope that my hon. Friend accepts the assurance that there will be a helpful meeting in an effort to seek a solution, and will recognise our concern for the owners, as well as the responsibility which we have in the Department. If confidence has been lost by those who work in the industry in either the board or a certain type of vessel, we should fail in our responsibility if we did not seek ways and means of restoring that confidence. It is that which is uppermost in our minds, as well as the desire to do justice to the constituent so well represented by my hon. Friend tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes past Ten o'clock.