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Fishing Vessel (Sinking)

Volume 181: debated on Friday 23 November 1990

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11 am

(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the sinking of the fishing vessel Antares from Carradale, with the tragic loss of four lives, following an incident involving one of Her Majesty's submarines.

At approximately 02.40 yesterday morning, the Royal Navy submarine HMS Trenchant reported that whilst operating submerged in the Clyde area, certain unexplained sounds on her starboard side led her commanding officer to believe that she might have snagged the gear of a fishing vessel. The submarine therefore surfaced and conducted a visual search of the area, sighting two fishing vessels some 3,500 yds astern. The crew recovered a length of trawl cable from the casing and, believing that she may have snagged the gear of one of the vessels sighted, attempted to make contact on VHF radio. The fishing vessels did not reply.

The Royal Navy then advised the coastguard, who also tried to make contact with fishing vessels in the area, but without success. The submarine remained on the surface for some two and a half hours in good visibility and, as it appeared that the fishing vessels were in no difficulty and that there were no other untoward signs, she continued her operations before returning to Faslane.

Following the call from the Navy, the coastguard initiated inquiries in an attempt to account for all vessels that may have been in the area. During the course of the morning, it was established that the fishing vessel Antares, a 16 m pelagic trawler from Carradale, with a crew of four, was unaccounted for. A search and rescue operation was initiated immediately, and I can now report that the Antares was discovered on the sea bed at 03.40 this morning in the area in which Trenchant reported the previous night's incident.

The search for the crew continues but, sadly, it now seems extremely unlikely that they will be found alive. This is of course a tragic loss for the small community of Carradale, and I know that the whole House would wish to join me in expressing the deepest condolences to the families of the four men. The crew of Trenchant and the entire submarine community are also, I know, shocked and deeply saddened.

The Department of Transport will of course be conducting a full inquiry into the incident, as will the Royal Navy, and I would not wish to speculate on the outcomes at this stage. Royal Navy submarines have been operating in the Clyde area for more than 80 years, with an excellent safety record. Fishing vessels are almost always present in the areas where our boats operate, and submariners are accustomed to maintaining a constant and careful watch for them. I believe that our record and our safety procedures are excellent, but we will of course look carefully at the results of both inquiries to see what lessons can be learned from this tragic accident.

I am grateful to the Minister for expressing his sympathies, in which I know the whole House shares, to the wives and families of the crew members who have been lost. The shock and sorrow is very real in Campbeltown, and particularly in the small, tightly-knit community of Carradale, where the boat came from.

I welcome the announcement that there will be a full and extensive inquiry, and I hope that we will receive an early report. Meanwhile, will the Minister suspend submarine operations in the firth of Clyde, because this is not the first such incident? Will the Minister acknowledge that I and other Members of Parliament representing constituencies in the firth of Clyde area have repeatedly asked the Ministry of Defence to devise a solution to the danger that the accident highlights? There are various options for allowing submarines to identify fishing gear, which often swings a considerable distance away from the position of the fishing vessel itself. I have myself discussed the matter at length with Navy personnel, and they have worthwhile ideas on how to overcome that problem.

Will the Minister explain why the rescue services were not alerted earlier? Finally, it would help the bereaved families enormously in their sorrow if the Navy were able to refloat the wreck, which I believe is lying in 80 fathoms of water, so that the bodies of its crew members can be recovered.

I am grateful to the hon. Member. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who is in his place, will report this exchange also to our noble Friend the Minister of State in another place.

We shall make every attempt to produce an early report on the incident. Delay is in nobody's interest, and we will ensure that that report is produced as soon as possible.

It would be extremely difficult to suspend Royal Navy operations meanwhile, as that would inhibit extensively the Royal Navy. The hon. Lady said that this is not the first such incident. That may be so, but in the 10 incidents involving the Royal Navy and the two involving the US navy since 1979, there was no loss of life, although two yachts were sunk in the Clyde area. The incident that I have reported is most tragic, but it seems to have been a freak accident.

The hon. Lady asked what can be done. We are reviewing the question of attaching bleepers to nets. The Ministry is sponsoring research by the Admiralty research establishment. Trials have already been undertaken, and more will be commissioned. The results so far have given us cause to be very pleased. That innovation could make a massive difference. At present, a submarine can only listen to a fishing vessel's engine noise. If bleepers are fitted to the cables themselves, that will make a major difference to safety. We will place all the emphasis that we can on continuing research into that aspect from here on.

We certainly have plans to recover the wreck. Recovery vessels will shortly be dispatched, and we hope to discover more about what happened when the wreck is brought to the surface.

My hon. Friend will appreciate that everyone in Scotland is saddened by the incident. The submariners themselves, as well as fishermen, are deeply concerned, because they too are at risk from anything that can snag their equipment when they are operating below the surface. The inquiry should bear in mind not only the submariners' operational needs, which are paramount, but their safety.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I repeat: the submarine community is equally distressed, because submariners spend a great deal of time with fishermen during their training, and they regard it as a matter of professionalism to ensure that they do not become involved in such accidents. That matters very much to the submariners, and I know that they are deeply concerned and upset that the accident should have happened.

Campbeltown is only miles from Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland's fishing industry has a close working relationship with fishermen on the west coast of Scotland. On behalf of the Ulster Unionist party and our fishing industry in County Down, I extend sympathy to the families in Campbeltown who have been so sadly bereaved and to the whole fishing community there.

Will the Minister acknowledge that what has happened was forewarned? It was inevitable, as fishermen have been saying for several years. It was a tragedy, and it should not be dealt with lightly. It requires not only a specific inquiry into what happened in the firth of Clyde but a wider inquiry into the operation of submarines of the Royal Navy and the United States off the west coast of Scotland and right down the Irish sea.

The fishing industries of Northern Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man and the Republic of Ireland—for which, oddly enough, I can speak today—are concerned about the number of incidents involving submarines, of the deaths and losses that have occurred and of the increasing threat in the sea which is attacking all our fleets. I therefore ask the Minister to widen the terms of the inquiry to the operation of submarines in the Irish sea and the firth of Clyde and to report on how there can be better co-ordination between fishing fleets and the submarines of various nations.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the sympathy that he sends the families, and I know that his views will be echoed by everybody in the House.

There have not been many incidents. It has been implied that submarines were involved in accidents with fishing vessels, but on investigation a number of those accidents were found to have occurred in water that was too shallow for submarines to operate in. We must be careful before attributing to submarines every accident that happens to fishing vesseles in coastal waters around Scotland or Northern Ireland, because that is not the case.

We shall see what lessons can be learned from the inquiry and what can be done to improve our procedures. We must be careful not to rush into saying that this has implications for all submarine activities. We must press on to make the position of fishing vessels safer. I have high hopes for the bleepers that can be fitted to nets.

We all sympathise in this most tragic incident and express sympathy for the bereaved.

As the Defence Minister answering this private notice question, my hon. Friend will confirm that the Royal Navy carries out the most scrupulous checks in surfacing and submerging and that, if necessary, he will tighten anything that needs to be done by the Royal Navy.

Does he agree that it would be wrong for the inquiry to concentrate only on the Royal Navy's procedures, because the procedures of fishing boats may also need investigation? For instance, the procedures for cutting nets may need to be improved. Will he confirm that the inquiry will consider the procedures of not only the Royal Navy but fishing boats?

Yes. I should like to confirm that there will be two inquiries. The Department of Transport inquiry will carefully consider the implications for the fishing industry, and the internal inquiry of the Royal Navy will be more concerned about whether the right responses were made in the submarine and aspects of what occurred.

The Royal Navy's submarines operate to the highest standards. The reaction of Trenchant, tragic accident though it may have been, was as the Royal Navy would have required: she surfaced and looked around the area to see whether anything could be done. It seems that the fishing vessel concerned had sunk so quickly that she was not visible on the surface.

Would not the submarine's detection equipment have identified in advance how many vessels should have been in the area? When it surfaced, it would have been absolutely clear that a vessel was missing. Therefore, will the Minister say how much time elapsed between the first awareness of the incident and the first contact with the rescue services?

On the point made by the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) about the temporary suspension of activities—we all understood the long-term problems of suspension—is not the submarine such a specific piece of equipment that, in the present international context, it is difficult to conceive that temporary suspension would cause any hardship?

I do not think that we can take that view, because it is important that our submarines keep training for an emergency. We would be running risks by suspending their activities. We must bear in mind the defence interests of keeping our crews properly trained.

The right hon. Gentleman said that the submarine should have known how many fishing vessels were in the area. That is the question that arises, but we must leave it toi the board of inquiry. Submarines are required to listen for engine noise and, as a result of being able to pick them up, to avoid fishing vessels. The inquiry will have to consider that point and why the submarine, if it was responsible for snagging the nets, had not identified the fishing vessel earlier.

I am afraid that I do not know the answer to that, but I shall write to the right hon. Gentleman.

Will the Minister confirm that this is another incident in a catalogue of catastrophes that have characterised this Government in the past 11 years? People will ask, if the Minister says that bleepers can be used to assist in operations and to prevent such incidents from taking place, why it is necessary to proceed with operations until bleepers can be fitted? Secondly, if there have been other incidents involving Irish boats and perhaps others, surely bleepers should have been fitted before now?

The whole business of bleepers arose on an earlier incident, and we have been pressing ahead to develop them in the light of that.

The hon. Gentleman said that this is a catalogue of disasters, but it is not. There has been no evidence——

This is hardly the time to discuss broader aspects of Government policy, and I do not think that this is the right context in which to do so. No loss of life has been associated with Royal Navy submarines prior to this, but we have pressed on with the development of bleepers, which offer an answer for the future.

May I first express sympathy to the bereaved and identify with the great sadness which yesterday descended on Kintyre? The Rev. Alistair Dunlop of Saddell and Carradale parish church said:

"Some tragedies can never be prevented, but this kind can. If it's a freak wave you can do nothing. If it is a submarine, you can."
Will the Minister recognise that fishermen working in waters off the west coast of Scotland and in the Irish sea have for too long had to live with this unnatural threat to their lives, on top of all the other dangers that they daily confront? Will the Ministry of Defence finally abandon denials and silences in order to recognise, and thus deal with, the persistent scale of this problem?

Will the Minister confirm that technology exists which has been researched in this country for submarines to recognise and thus avoid fishing nets? Will he confirm, in particular, that the Net Nay system, which has been developed by a firm called Sea Metrics, was discounted in March by the Department of Transport, presumably after discussion with the Ministry, on grounds of complexity and cost? As we mourn the loss of the Antares, does he agree that neither of those grounds appears adequate today?

Will the Minister accept the view of the secretary of the Clyde Fishermen's Association, with whom I spoke this morning, that the search for a solution has been retarded by the Ministry of Defence's refusal to admit responsibility for the problem—an attitude which, I regret to say, he appears to be perpetuating this morning by discounting the possibility of naval involvement in previous, as yet unexplained, incidents?

On the specific events of yesterday morning, will the Minister inquire closely into the response of the submarine Trenchant after its master became aware that something had indeed been struck? What breakdown in communications prevented the true fate of the Antares from being revealed during that crucial period? Why was it not recognised that where previously there were three fishing boats, only two were visible to her?

Will the Minister reconsider his response this morning and give an immediate undertaking, out of sympathy and understanding for the fishing families in the area and along that coast, to divert submarines away from recognised areas of fishing activity until measures can be introduced to safeguard against such tragedies? Never again must fishermen working in flat calm, diligently pursuing their livelihood in coastal waters, lose their lives in such circumstances.

The hon. Gentleman suggests that we should abandon our policy of denial. I stand here in the House making a statement precisely spelling out what happened but denying nothing whatever. The hon. Gentleman's comment was inopportune. On admitting responsibility, it must he for the board of inquiry to conclude who was responsible for the incident. I have outlined all the details of the case as I know them. In those curcumstances, we can reach our own conclusions, but it is impossible to say that it was definitely the responsibility of the submarine, because we do not know what findings the board of inquiry will make.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether we intended to admit to previous unexplained incidents. If we take that logic through to its conclusion, the Royal Navy would have to take responsibility for any fishing vessel which for some reason or other happened to be involved in a tragedy and sank, simply because no one else could be found responsible. That would be nonsense. We have gone into the most incredible detail in examining where our submarines were operating, whenever incidents took place in the past. If there was a submarine in the area, we have admitted it. But in some of the cases that we investigated, people accused submarines of sinking fishing vessels in waters which were too shallow for submarines to operate in.

We shall not admit liability for every fishing vessel that gets into trouble. I am afraid that there are cases in which fishing vessels go down with no explanation whatever. Such cases are great tragedies, but we cannot expect the Royal Navy to take responsibility simply because no other outcome can be found.

The hon. Gentleman said that, previously, there were three fishing vessels in the area and then only two could be found. I gather that such fishing vessels do not necessarily keep in contact with their colleagues in other boats. Fishing vessels can go down without people being aware of it. We reported back as soon as we possibly could. A search was carried out and the wreck has been found.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the sympathy that he expressed for the. families. We all share that sympathy in the House today.