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Mt Gaul

Volume 301: debated on Tuesday 25 November 1997

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Ms Bridget Prentice.]

10.16 pm

This debate will deal with an issue that is of great concern to the people of Hull. As I discovered this week, however, the issue strikes a chord across the country, particularly in seafaring communities.

In this very short debate, I shall try first to make a case for reopening the inquiry into the loss of the Hull trawler the MT Gaul, which disappeared in February 1974 without trace and without sending any sign of distress. I shall argue also that the inquiry should be extended to cover the arrangements that were made to find the wreck of the Gaul. Finally, I shall ask the Minister to meet representatives of the families of the 36 men—the entire crew of the Gaul—who were lost. I know that the Minister appreciates that those families are the other victims of the tragedy.

The Gaul was a so-called super-trawler, and it was state of the art in every respect. Its design and safety features included automatic steering, a dual radar system and high-quality radio and telegraphy equipment. It was almost the first trawler to have safety equipment that 50 people could use in automatically inflatable life rafts. It substantially exceeded recommended stability criteria, and was thought to be unsinkable. It was less than two years old, and it had an experienced skipper and crew. Like all Hull trawlers, it fished in Arctic conditions, and was built to withstand such extreme weather conditions.

The Gaul disappeared in the vicinity of the North Cape bank in the Barents sea. There were fierce storms when it disappeared, but such storms were common. There were 17 other trawlers in the area, all of which rode out the storms on that dreadful evening.

In November 1974, the formal investigation in Hull—I make no criticism of its conclusions—determined that there was no trace of the Gaul. There had been no distress calls; no oil had been found on the surface; and no wreckage had been discovered, other than a lifebuoy that appeared three months afterwards—posing another mystery, which I do not have time to explore in this debate.

The inquiry, dealing with a hypothetical situation, did the best it could. It dismissed the theory that water had accumulated on the Gaul's factory deck—perhaps because a door had been left open, as tragically happened some years later on the Herald of Free Enterprise. Such an explanation for the Gaul sinking was dismissed because, had it happened, there would have been time to send a distress signal.

In the end, the inquiry concluded that the Gaul capsized and foundered as a result of being buffeted by heavy seas, when it was broadside in the midst of a turning manoeuvre against the oncoming weather. A subsequent two-year study by the National Maritime Institute concluded that the ship was so stable that that could not be the only reason it sank. It concluded that there must have been a contributory factor, such as damage being caused to the bridge by a large wave, affecting the steerage and radio contact.

Those were the results of an inquiry and subsequent examination that had only supposition and theory to guide them. I do not criticise that work, but I wish to draw attention tonight to a significant development.

The wreck of the Gaul has now been found, 270 m down on the seabed and 60 miles off the coast of Norway, by a film crew working on a Channel 4 documentary. Using a remotely operated vehicle, the film proved three important facts. First, it established that the wreck was, beyond any doubt, that of the Gaul. Secondly, it established that there was no damage to the bridge— and, indeed, its windows were still intact.

Thirdly, there appeared to be no damage to the superstructure of the ship, which would have been expected if it had taken a buffeting from heavy seas and fallen 1,000 ft to the bed of the Barents sea. One other fact emerged from the documentary—the wreck was facing almost directly into the weather rather than broadside, as the inquiry had concluded.

We should be grateful to Channel 4 for finding the Gaul, but it is now the Government's responsibility to ensure that it is fully and properly surveyed. The new evidence that necessitates the reopening of the inquiry appeared in the Channel 4 documentary, and there is no good reason for delaying the announcement of its reopening.

I turn now to the subject of the search for the Gaul, which should be part of a reopened inquiry. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for replying so quickly to my written questions on the subject. I asked how many reports had been received about the possible location of the Gaul, and in particular I asked whether the fishing protection frigate, the Mohawk, had made a report. The Minister replied that the Mohawk reported only on her involvement with the search and rescue operation, but that 13 other reports were received about the Gaul's location and they varied widely.

It was on that basis that the Government refused to launch any search for the wreck of the Gaul. Indeed, least year, the Ministry of Defence stated:
"because of the limited information about the Gaul's position when she went down it would be necessary to search hundreds, probably thousands, of square miles of sea bed."
At the heart of the debate is the belief that the only thing that was limited in the search for the Gaul was the authorities' determination to find it. It has now been revealed that a Norwegian trawler, the Riaro, had reported a sonar reading showing an obstruction on the seabed some 60 miles off the coast of Norway, shortly after the Gaul was lost. Testimony has also been produced from crewmen on the Mohawk, who reported that they found the wreck in the original search but were ignored.

How did Channel 4 track down a wreck that the full might of this maritime nation could not discover in 23 years? What time and expense was involved for the film crew? I can tell the House that the television producer involved, who has no seafaring experience, sat at home with naval charts that it is open for anybody to look at, and, using the sightings that had been reported to the authorities and the charts, established the likely location of the wreck. He then hired a boat that used to be a ferry but which had been turned into an underwater survey vessel, and found the wreck. It cost less than £50,000, and took only two days. That is very disturbing for the families of those who were lost on the Gaul. It is not true to argue that side scan sonar technology has only recently become available. Side scan sonars were available to the military before the tragedy. They have been in widespread use since the discovery of offshore oil in 1980. The lack of available technology cannot be used as an argument.

My constituent Sheila Doone is the widow of radio operator John Doone. There are fears in my constituency that there has been an official cover-up about the boat having been involved in a spying exercise. People are concerned that the veil of secrecy should be lifted after so many years.

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. It is a feature of the documentary that needs to be mentioned. I accept that it is not the responsibility of the Minister, but it is part of the argument for reopening the inquiry.

In August 1974, the then Defence Minister Bill Rogers—now Lord Rogers—wrote to the relatives of the crew, saying:
"I can assure you that the British trawler fleet is not involved in any way in any intelligence gathering."
That denial was repeated as recently as March 1992.

It is beyond dispute that Hull trawlers were used consistently and extensively to spy on the Russian northern fleet in the strategically vital Barents sea. The trawlermen and their skippers, who, in the best traditions of the British working class, would not risk betraying their country by broadcasting their involvement, have known that all along. It has been common knowledge among the families of Hull trawlermen.

As a result of two television documentaries and press inquiries, we have the testimony of a scientist who worked in British intelligence, a Russian-speaking naval wireless operator specialising in interception, the managing director of a major Hull trawler company, and a former rear admiral. They, among others, have confirmed that Hull trawlers were used for espionage and counter-espionage in the Barents sea. Lord Rogers now accepts publicly that he was misled.

The families of those lost understand the sensitivity of the operations, and accept that the Gaul may not have been involved in such work. They accept that, during the cold war, Governments could not be as open as they would have liked. They know that other trawlers from the same company were used by the British Government, and that the Government continued to deny any involvement. They say that, logically, now that the cold war is over, there can surely be openness and honesty on the issue.

The television documentary shown on 6 November threw up a new mystery, revealing that close to the wreck of the Gaul was a cable stretched taut and running for several miles in both directions. The strong supposition is that it is a communications cable associated with the sound surveillance system—the SOSUS project— designed by the American intelligence service to monitor the passage of Russian submarines. Those points add to the case for reopening the inquiry.

I am grateful for the opportunity to express my support for the reopening of the inquiry. There is considerable interest in my constituency, because the Gaul was built at Brooke Marine shipyard in Lowestoft. Local people know that it was a fine boat. Being a seafaring, fishing community, the people of Lowestoft well understand the grief that disasters at sea cause. It is most unsatisfactory that the mystery has remained open for so many years.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. The people of Hull appreciate the messages of support that they have received from Lowestoft and elsewhere. I appreciate the presence at this late hour of so many hon. Members for this important debate. It will be greatly appreciated by my constituents and others.

Hull is used to losing men at sea. As I said in my maiden speech, our men fish the deepest and most dangerous Arctic waters, and 900 Hull ships have been lost in the past 150 years. Hundreds of men have been swept overboard or lost in other ways in separate accidents. The hard and unrelenting cruelty of the sea has bred those qualities of stoicism, courage and dignity which characterise fishing communities the world over, and which make those communities so special.

Not all the crew came from Hull. As my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) said, the radio operator came from Nelson, in his constituency. Six of the crew came from North Shields, in the Tynemouth constituency, and my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell) has been extremely supportive.

The families of the crew ask only that their grief and anguish over the past 23 years be respected by our ensuring an open and honest investigation into the circumstances of the loss of their loved ones on the Gaul.

I believe that I have two minutes, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have an agreement with my hon. Friend.

I am sorry, but the Chair is not aware of any agreement. Has the hon. Member for Hull, West and Hessle (Mr. Johnson) made an agreement?

10.30 pm

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, West and Hessle (Mr. Johnson) for letting me speak, and it is not my intention to keep the House for long. However, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) and I are the only Hull Members now remaining in the House who also represented the port when the great tragedy happened, so I want to say a few words.

In Hull, when we have lost trawlers we have generally been able to overcome our grief; there has been public mourning and recognition. Although there was some of that for the Gaul, the fact that the vessel went down without any trace, without any bodies and without any evidence caused many questions to be asked. Most of those have been asked by my hon. Friend, but there are many more.

The real concern is: how was it that, for £50,000, that ship could be found in two days, when at the time, despite all the appeals by the then Members of Parliament for Hull, by the Conservative Members for the East Riding and by Anthony Crosland, who was then my right hon. Friend the Member for Grimsby, it was impossible to find it? Now we just do not know what to believe.

That is the real problem. The anguish is there, and the anger about how easily the wreck has been found is reflected in our community. We just do not know, and we are very unhappy about that.

10.31 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions
(Ms Glenda Jackson)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, West and Hessle (Mr. Johnson) on having secured the debate, and thank him for his generosity in allowing an intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara).

The importance of the debate, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, West and Hessle has rightly pointed out, is underlined by the presence in the Chamber of so many of our colleagues, and also by the presence beside me on the Front Bench of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence.

I am confident that the whole House would wish to join me in extending sympathy to the relatives of the crew of the Gaul who were so desperately bereaved in the tragedy—a tragedy exacerbated and made a thousand times worse by the fact that, for a quarter of a century, the families did not know where the vessel lay.

The marine accidents investigation branch is now examining the evidence provided by the television documentary team to determine whether it can clarify how the Gaul was lost. Inspectors met the maker of the Channel 4 "Dispatches" film, "Secrets of the Gaul" on 13 November to discuss their latest findings. The meeting lasted two hours and was very useful, as the programme maker was especially co-operative.

The marine accidents investigation branch was not formed until 1989, and therefore had nothing to do with the previous investigation into the tragedy. However, the files raised during the investigation are now held in the MAIB's Southampton offices.

My hon. Friend suggested that the loss of the Gaul may have been in some way related to intelligence gathering— a point also made in an intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice). That is more properly a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, but the Government are determined to be as open as possible on the subject, so as to ensure that no misunderstanding about the role of British trawlers in intelligence gathering is allowed to expand. There is no evidence that the Gaul was involved in intelligence gathering, or that Royal Navy personnel or Ministry of Defence equipment were on board. A very limited number of other fishing vessels assisted the Government in specific intelligence gathering. This practice, I must tell my hon. Friends, had ceased before the loss of the Gaul.

Returning to the subject of the investigation into the causes of the accident, it is worth recalling that the formal investigation into the loss of the vessel was held during September and October 1974, some seven months after the tragedy. My hon. Friend the Member for Hull, West and Hessle was correct in stating that the formal investigation concluded that the vessel capsized and foundered due to being overwhelmed by a succession of heavy seas when she was broadside to the sea. Severe weather prevailed at the time of the disappearance, with wind speeds up to force 10 and wave heights reported by other vessels in the area of over 40 ft.

Although the Gaul was, as my hon. Friend pointed out, regarded as a stable vessel, extensive model tests and flooding experiments have shown that, in certain circumstances, water could accumulate on the factory deck and lead to a loss of stability.

My brother Keith was a member of the crew of the Gaul but, fortunately for him and his family, he signed off just before she sailed on that fateful trip. Is it not the case that fishermen who fish those waters have known about her location for many years, and that many of them do not believe for a moment that she was broadside on when she foundered?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. The issue of where she is lying is something I intend to touch on later. In terms of the knowledge possessed by fishermen in the area, it is my understanding that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, West and Hessle pointed out, the snagging of nets upon the Gaul by the Norwegian vessel Riaro in 1975 was the basis for the investigation which the makers of "Dispatches" eventually produced.

Evidence was heard at the formal investigation from 48 witnesses, and affidavits were received from 12 others, including next of kin, expert witnesses and members of the public who had made representations to the Department of Trade, which was then responsible for marine safety. However, the investigation found no direct evidence of how the tragedy had occurred.

A major constraint on the investigation was the absence of any evidence from the wreckage. The only wreckage recovered was, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, West and Hessle said, a small buoy. The exact location of the wreck was not established.

Following the loss of the Gaul, the Department of Trade considered a number of proposals for searching for the wreck. Proposals from the Royal Navy and commercial sources were discussed, but were not pursued, as it was decided that the considerable cost of each proposal could not be justified. Departmental records show that the lack of a positively identified search area was an important factor in these decisions.

It is important to remember that mid-1970s technology was less able than the technology available today to positively identify underwater objects from the surface. It was also less capable than current technology of surveying and salvaging wreckage at depths estimated to be 900 ft. Existing departmental records contain one report from HMS Mohawk, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, West and Hessle pointed out, about her involvement with the search and rescue operation conducted following the disappearance of the Gaul. Several reports on possible locations of the wreck were received from fishing vessel skippers, and six from other sources. The positions given varied widely.

An accident investigation may be reopened at any time if new and important evidence is forthcoming. However, as a general rule, once an inquiry has completed its business, no further work is undertaken unless important evidence becomes available. Although a variety of possible positions of the wreck of the Gaul became known in the years following her loss, there was insufficient positive evidence to justify mounting an underwater search. This leads on to the question why the wreck was found relatively easily in the search undertaken last summer. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, West and Hessle pointed out, the essential research was conducted by the producer of the programme "Dispatches".

The search area was based partially, but not exclusively, on the position of a new wreck site identified by the Norwegian trawler Riaro—a vessel to which I have already referred—on 15 November 1975. Once it was found, the total time of video filming using a remotely operated vessel was approximately one hour and 45 minutes, of which 20 to 30 minutes constituted significant material. MAIB inspectors have viewed it all. The search was successful, and revealed that the wreck was indeed the Gaul. That positive identification rules out the possibility that she was taken into a Soviet port, as some had argued in the past.

Only a small part of the wreck was surveyed. On the initial viewing of the material, it is not possible to confirm that she sank owing to flooding because of foundering. However, the survey showed very little damage to a funnel, the bridge front, the deck immediately above it, the deckhouse forward of the bridge, the whale back and the starboard bow.

The fact that panes of glass were still intact, and the absence of damage to the other parts seen in the underwater video rule out an explosion, high-impact damage or attack by any form of weapon. The lack of any evidence to suggest implosion and explosion owing to pressure effects as she sank suggests that the ship had a good deal of water on board as she left the surface. Thus, the evidence seen so far does not contradict the finding of the formal investigation that she foundered.

The formal inquiry concluded that the most likely scenario that led to the ship's capsizing was that she was broadside to the sea. In fact, she is now lying as if facing the weather. It is difficult to determine whether her orientation at a depth of 900 ft bears any direct relationship to her orientation on the surface at the time she sank.

On the basis of what has been seen so far, I am not convinced of the need to reopen the formal investigation. The more immediate question is whether there is a need to conduct a more detailed survey of the wreck. That could be undertaken only in the summer months, when there is a reasonable chance of an extended period of fair weather.

We now know where the Gaul lies. We know that she played no part in intelligence-gathering activities, we know that she was not sunk by an explosive or other large impact, and we know that she must have shipped a considerable amount of water as she left the surface.

I will consider very carefully the points raised by my hon. Friend and others. Until new and important evidence comes to light that calls into serious question the findings of the formal investigation, my decision may well be that there is no need to reopen that investigation. I will, however, very carefully consider commissioning a more detailed survey of the wreck next summer, when, as I have said, it is to be hoped that the weather will be clement.

My hon. Friend began by asking whether I would agree to meet the families of those involved. I would, of course, be very happy to meet them: it would be a privilege. They are a testament to how to deal with a particular tragedy, without ever losing sight of the fact that what they wanted most to know was what had happened.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seventeen minutes to Eleven o' clock.