Skip to main content

Submarines and the Fishing Industry

Volume 599: debated on Wednesday 16 September 2015

[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered submarines and the fishing industry.

It is a pleasure to bring this matter to the House for consideration. A number of hon. Members have indicated an interest in the subject matter. In particular, may I mention my colleague and friend, the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie), who also wishes to make a contribution? I have made the Minister aware of the need for the hon. Member for South Down to make a contribution.

I have been trying to secure a debate on the subject since May, and it seems appropriate that we discuss it this week in light of recent developments. On 15 April 2015, an Ardglass prawn trawler, the Karen, was fishing in the Irish sea when it was almost pulled under the water by a Royal Navy submarine. The four-man crew deserve high praise, because it was only as a result of their quick thinking that the Karen did not meet a fate similar to that of the Antares and her crew in 1990. Not only was the trawler dragged backwards at 10 knots and almost pulled underneath the water, but it was almost pulled apart. The boat’s hull was almost destroyed; this was not a simple snagging, as it was initially described.

Not only was the net found on the seabed separated from the bridle, but the saddle connecting the bridle had also been cut off. What is more, the full details have not been made known by the Minister, the MOD or the Royal Navy. We were initially informed by the Royal Navy that none of its submarines were in the Irish sea, and the Minister told Parliament that a UK vessel was not responsible. That has changed in the past week or 10 days. Originally, suspicions fell upon the Russians, as we were led to believe that a Red October had been responsible. That was after being informed by the Royal Navy that its nearest submarine was 150 miles from the location of the incident with the Karen. Not only was that completely inaccurate but it has taken the Royal Navy five months to accept blame for the incident, which should make us uncomfortable because that in itself suggests a possible attempt to cover up.

This is not the only incident this year. In fact, there have been two such incidents. In March, the trawler Aquarius almost met a similar fate when it came into contact with a submarine. Captain Angus Macleod said that he and his four crew were “extremely lucky” after his net was dragged in front of his 62-foot boat off Lewis. Again, the Royal Navy denied involvement in the incident, which is too similar. In light of recent revelations, trust must be restored between fishermen and the Navy, because trust has understandably wavered considerably.

Are there any protocols or a code of practice in place in relation to the Karen? Are those protocols and that code of practice being adhered to, and are they effective?

I will set out the protocols and the system that were in place. Protocols have been in place for a great number of years, but in this incident the protocols were clearly not followed, which is of concern to me, as it is to the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members.

This is the first year since 1993 in which there has been an incident involving the submarine service and a fishing vessel. We are grateful that the code of practice has been effective, but it is simply unacceptable to have two incidents within a month. Not only did it take a considerable time for the Royal Navy to accept responsibility, but initially there was complete denial that submarines had even been in the area. When we get down to the details of the submarine, the incident becomes even more bizarre. It is little wonder that the Royal Navy seriously needs to reconcile itself with fishermen across the United Kingdom to ensure that safety is paramount and that such actions do not happen again.

The submarine in question, HMS Ambush, which is aptly named, is the Navy’s latest hunter-killer submarine. The submarine can supposedly detect fishing trawlers up to 3,000 miles away. With that in mind, how was HMS Ambush able to get so close that it dragged the trawler 10 knots backwards? Furthermore, submarines should be able to detect the noise of boats. Again, I find it difficult to comprehend how the submarine’s crew were oblivious to the fact that it had just dragged a fishing boat across the sea, causing substantial damage.

Another issue is the supposed claim by the Royal Navy in its letter to the captain of the FV Karen that the submarine did not correctly identify the Karen as a fishing vessel:

“the submarine therefore approached too close to you and ultimately became entangled in your nets”.

That was the explanation given to Mr Paul Murphy and Mr Tom Wills, who are present here today. The nets were retrieved from the seabed by the Portavogie trawler, Deliverance, and it transpires that the submarine’s propeller had caught in the net, which is what caused the Karen to be dragged backwards. When the nets were found—this is something that has to be answered to today—they appeared to have been neatly cut from the boat not by a propeller but, I suggest, by divers. The cuts were clear, neat and uniform. The nets were still in excellent condition and, other than having been physically detached from the boat, had sustained no damage. That is not in keeping with the Royal Navy’s explanation. If the propeller had been caught in the trawler’s nets, one would expect to see nets that had been badly torn and ripped and that were ultimately beyond repair. As I have explained, that was not the case. Given the circumstances, it is completely impossible that the submarine’s propeller became entangled in the Karen’s nets. It appears that we have yet another untruth regarding this incident.

That brings me to another point, because protocols were not followed. The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) has referred to protocols, which are important because they are laid down to ensure that such incidents do not happen. The protocols are in place to ensure that submarines and fishermen can work separately and harmoniously at the same time and in the same area. They were introduced to ensure safety at all times following the loss of the Antares and its crew, yet in 2015 we have seen that these guidelines were not followed in two incidents. In the Karen’s case, the protocols seem to have simply gone out the window.

We are all aware of the Subfacts system for managing the relationship between the Royal Navy and fishermen. Under that system, the Royal Navy should make the Belfast coastguard aware of any submarine activity at 7.10 am and at 7.10 pm daily, which allows the coastguard to send out warnings to fishing trawlers in the area, but that was not done. At the time of the incident, the Joint Warrior exercise was taking place involving 55 ships from 14 countries. Warnings were given to HM Coastguard at Aberdeen, Clyde and Stornoway. Belfast was not informed of any activities in its waters. Why not?

The second item of protocol that was obviously not adhered to is that submarines have to keep a distance of at least 150 feet from any trawlers. If that is not possible and they come into close contact, the submarine is supposed to surface. Again, that did not happen. Not only that, but in the Joint Warrior exercise, the Navy switched off the GPS and used gunnery, which is obviously not acceptable because fishermen are completely oblivious to whether submarines are operating in their area. That is why HM Coastguard Belfast should have been informed, and I am incredulous that it was not.

There are several critical factors in this debate, and I am sure that the Minister will be able to give a full and satisfactory response, as Mr Murphy and Mr Wills are listening intently. I understand that Admiral Matthew Parr sent letters in which Mr Murphy and Mr Wills were told that they would shortly be contacted by the Ministry of Defence to discuss compensation. As yet, neither man has been contacted about that. The letters were dated 4 September and 6 September, but given the nature of the incident and the MOD’s subsequent behaviour, contact should already have been made and the two men should have been informed of what compensation would or could be available. That is particularly important, because a simple apology will not suffice, especially because of the regrettable way in which the case has been handled.

After the incident, the Karen made its way back to Ardglass, where part of the deck had to be lifted because it was so badly damaged when another section was completely ripped off. The damage to the boat is estimated at some £10,000. We thank God that nobody was injured, but compensation must be paid.

My first question to the Minister, in addition to the questions I have already asked, is when exactly does the MOD intend to get in touch with the men involved to discuss compensation, and when can the gentlemen expect to receive it? It is important that they have this compensation so that they can move forward. My second point applies to every fishing fleet in the United Kingdom, because their relationship with the Royal Navy has been damaged. We cannot overestimate that damage and the lack of confidence and uncertainty that fishermen feel. The hon. Member for South Down has stated in the press:

“Fishermen must be confident that their vessels will not be damaged by submarine activity and where incidents do take place, the government will own up to it immediately.”

She is absolutely right, and it is imperative that trust is restored. That will be difficult, and it will take much longer than the repairs to the Karen, but none the less let us get the process moving. Let us have reassurance, and let us give confidence back to the fishing industry and the fishing sector that fish the seas around the coasts of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Physical damage, although inexcusable, can be repaired, but the loss of trust is not so easy to resolve. So far, the MOD and the Minister have not assisted in that process. In light of that, what will she and the MOD do to ensure that relationships are healed, that trust is restored and that, if any incidents occur in the future, the Government take responsibility immediately, rather than repeating the long adherence of some five months?

I will end on this point, because I want to give the hon. Member for South Down an opportunity to speak. I have been reliably informed that the Royal Navy has changed protocols regarding fishing vessels, but whom, if anyone, did it consult from the fishing industry? In the Public Gallery today are representatives of the fishing industry, who tell me they have not been consulted. If changes have been made to the protocol—and I understand that they have—what exactly are they? Are they changes for the better? There must be a consultation with the bodies that look after the fishing industry. It would be ludicrous to put in place a protocol without involving those people in the changes. Surely in these circumstances the fishing industry cannot be kept in the dark. It needs to ensure health and safety at all times. That is the critical factor. There must be co-operation with the fishing industry to make this a reality.

We do not want to hear about any more such incidents. I look forward to the Minister’s full response, and I hope she will provide clarification and explain openly and honestly what exactly took place on 15 April.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for affording me this opportunity to make a contribution on behalf of my constituents. Mr Wills, who owns the boat, Mr Paul Murphy, the skipper of the boat, and the chairman of the Northern Ireland Fish Producers Organisation are with us today. They are all my constituents from Ardglass in County Down.

We met the Minister earlier today, and I was grateful for the opportunity to outline to her the exact circumstances of what happened on 15 April and to set out our grave annoyance at the fact that the submarine did not adhere to the proper protocols by coming to the surface. I understand that, as a consequence, the Royal Navy is currently exploring new protocols and will be holding direct discussions with the fishing industry to come to a proper determination.

The incident happened on 15 April. On 17 April, I met Mr Murphy in Ardglass. Following the incident, he was suffering from a great level of trauma because his fishing nets had been snagged and his fishing boat had been dragged backwards. He was on the boat with his crew members. We want to ensure that the fishing efforts deployed by Mr Wills, Mr Murphy and the other fishermen who ply their boats in the rich fishing grounds of the north channel and the Irish sea can continue unhindered. Impediments must not be put in their way by the Royal Navy or any other jurisdiction’s vessels that are carrying out other activities.

I was told in a parliamentary answer on 10 June, and on the Floor of the House in Defence questions on 15 July, that it was not a Royal Navy vessel. I understand from what the Minister told me today that further investigations were carried out as part of the Marine Accident Investigation Board inquiry, which took evidence from the Royal Navy. It was then discovered that it was a Royal Navy vessel. That determination was made on 6 August, following the Minister’s probing. I hope that, as a result of that probing, the compensation due to my constituent will be made payable.

I also hope that the Ministry of Defence will give an undertaking through the Minister that such an incident will not happen again and that fishing efforts will not be interfered with. Fishing makes an enormous contribution to my constituency, in which two of the three County Down fishing ports are based—Ardglass and Kilkeel. Other incidents in the Irish sea must equally be investigated, such as the incident of 14 February 2002, which was subject to an investigation. Three people lost their lives, and their relatives want the investigation reopened.

I have several questions about this incident. I am grateful that the Minister has today directly apologised to Mr Murphy and Mr Wills for what happened and the trauma they suffered. She said in that meeting that the incident should not have happened. I would like her to put that on the record today clearly and unequivocally. We would like to know why the protocols set up in 1993 as a result of a previous incident were not adhered to. What consultations will be carried out on the new protocols? Will the fishing industry—the fishermen and those in the fish producer organisations—be directly involved in the consultations and in helping to devise the new protocols? Only the fishermen have a direct knowledge of those seas, the amount of fish in them and the places where spawning takes place, where there is biomass and where there are other issues.

What was the operational programme for the submarine activity on that day in the north channel and the Irish sea? The hon. Member for Strangford referred to the Subfax text, which clearly states that there was to be no submarine activity that day. That information was directly exchanged with the fishing industry, so why was there an error? Why did the Royal Navy breach protocol by not bringing the vessel to the surface? Why were the British Government so quick, as has been suggested by others, to blame a vessel belonging to another country? When will the new protocols be finalised? When will the report of the Marine Accident Investigation Board’s investigation be published? Will it be made available publicly to members of the fishing industry—in particular, Mr Wills and Mr Murphy—and will a copy be made available in the Library?

Several other questions arise. This incident was one of many involving fishing trawlers and submarines around our islands. It is a major public safety issue, and fishermen’s lives are at risk. Why was a UK submarine so close to the coast of Northern Ireland? It is our understanding that naval exercises take place in the north-east Atlantic, not the Irish sea. Why did it take so long to admit that?

Other issues have been raised directly with me. Was it a Trident submarine? We know it was the HMS Ambush, but was it on such a mission? Will the Minister conduct a separate inquiry, or will the incident be covered only by the Marine Accident Investigation Board inquiry? I think I gathered from the Minister earlier today that it is all to be part of that inquiry. She will understand from the viewpoints that I, my colleague, the hon. Member for Strangford and my constituents have expressed that we need to know that such an incident will not happen again. My constituents must get the full compensation they are entitled to, and there must be discourse between the fishing industry and the Royal Navy. Any incidents since 1993 must be fully investigated and, if necessary, reopened so that such an incident can never happen again in the Irish sea.

Our local fishing industry, which comes out of the County Down fishing ports, must be fully protected. The significant contribution it makes—both onshore through processing and offshore through fishing efforts—must not be interfered with. We already have to deal with possible marine conservation zones, and there has been a general conversation about wind power in the Irish sea. We must ensure that those issues and bits of infrastructure do not interfere with our fishing industry—an important part of our local economy. Above all, our fishermen must feel satisfied that they are safe when they get into their vessels and go into the Irish sea. We must not forget that there was a loss of fishing days, and we are already penalised by the days at sea restriction. I thank you, Mrs Main, and the Minister for being here today.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this debate on a subject that I know is of great importance to him and his constituents. I also thank all hon. Members who spoke and made representations on behalf of their constituents. I welcome the opportunity to address Members’ concerns and those of the fishing community, for whom safe and secure operations of our military vessels in the vicinity of their activity are essential. I repeat what I said in my written ministerial statement on 7 September: this incident and the delay in identifying and addressing the events and their consequences are deeply regretted.

I have written to the Karen’s master and met him and the owner to acknowledge the Royal Navy’s responsibility for the incident and to offer my personal apologies on behalf of the Ministry of Defence. A representative of the Royal Navy met them both personally to apologise on behalf of the Navy for the incident and the delay in acknowledging responsibility. I touched on compensation previously with the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie). Of course, there must be full compensation. My role in that process is to ensure that that happens swiftly. If there are any concerns about that process, please feel free to let me know.

Can we have a timescale for the compensation? The hon. Members for South Down and for Dunfermline and West Fife are also interested in that issue. There has been delay: five months of not working while the boat is repaired. There has been £10,000 worth of damage, so we need a timescale. Let us have it in black and white.

I will be happy to put in writing to the hon. Gentleman the process that will now happen. The delay is clearly unacceptable. I will talk about the reasons for it, but now that we know what happened, there should be no delay in ensuring that these people are properly compensated for the trauma they have endured as well as the material damage.

The Karen was very close to sinking and I have no doubt at all that that must have been a terrifying experience for the crew. The fact that the vessel did not sink was almost wholly attributable to the crew’s swift and professional response. They took immediate action to release the brake on the winch and prevent their vessel from capsizing. They are to be commended for their actions, which undoubtedly prevented a much more serious outcome.

As Members will be aware, the Royal Navy stated it was confident that no submarine was involved and I gave that advice to the House. New information that came to light as a result of the Royal Navy—not as a result of an external investigation or my inquiries—confirmed that, in fact, a UK submarine was responsible for snagging the Karen’s nets.

Once that information was confirmed, the Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon) was informed on 6 August. During August, I held meetings to establish the full facts, question the Royal Navy and discuss changes to policy to ensure the safety of fishing vessels. I wanted to ensure that all the facts had been captured, that the incident and failings by the Royal Navy were fully understood, and that we had in place a policy that would provide reassurance to the fishing community and to the crew of the Karen in particular. That work was done at speed and took about a month to complete. I then took the earliest opportunity to inform the House and put the record straight on 7 September.

That answers given earlier were proved to be incorrect is deeply regretted. I am sure that the House will appreciate that our standing policy is not to comment in detail on submarine operations. However, I can say that the incident occurred because the submarine did not correctly identify the Karen as a fishing vessel with nets in the water and thus did not give her the berth she otherwise would have had.

People have questioned why the submarine did not surface at the time of the incident. It has also been suggested that the recovered fishing gear shows evidence of having been cut, further raising speculation that the submarine surfaced after the incident to remove the material. I can only repeat that the submarine was not aware of the incident at the time. I expect the issues raised by hon. Members to be covered by the Marine Accident Investigation Board report.

If the submarine had been aware of the incident, the protocols in place under the code of practice for submarine operations in the vicinity of fishing vessels would have required her to surface and remain on scene to render assistance.

I thank the Minister for giving way. In her response, will she indicate when the report will be made available and to whom and where it will be placed?

Certainly. As I have already said to the hon. Lady, that report will be produced in short order. I know that there is a meeting on 24 September between Commander Operations Royal Navy and that body and I will do everything I can to facilitate the report’s circulation by placing a copy in the Library of the House of Commons.

If I were able to tell Members the full details, I think they would come to two conclusions. Although why the incident happened might be understandable—due to the nature of submarine operations—it is in no way acceptable. It is clear that our policy on fishing vessels and reporting such incidents must be improved and made more consistent. Having identified the very specific circumstances of the incident, the Royal Navy has already taken steps. I will come on to consultation in a moment, but changes took place with immediate effect because I felt that was incredibly important.

First, the process by which a vessel is classified has been reinforced, using stricter criteria to prevent incorrect assumptions being made. The instructions issued to submarine commanding officers have been updated to reflect the lessons learnt, which will also inform the training given to future commanding officers. If a vessel’s identification cannot be established, the commanding officer must assume that it is a fishing vessel with nets in the water and behave accordingly.

Secondly—this is critical—the Royal Navy’s reporting procedures have been reviewed to enable it to confirm more quickly whether a UK submarine was involved. For operational reasons, if we cannot confirm that it was not us in short order, we will assume that it was. There should be no delay in verifying whether a Royal Navy submarine was involved, regardless of the kind of submarine it was and the operation or activity it was conducting. We should respond within a few days and take action accordingly. I assure the House that the safety of our submarines and that of other mariners is most important to the Royal Navy.

Can I ask the Minister why Her Majesty’s Coastguard in Belfast was never informed? If she cannot give an answer today, perhaps she can give the answer to that and the other questions we have asked later? I would appreciate that.

In the brief moments I have left, I am looking at what is known as a Subfax. Clearly, we want that to be as comprehensive as possible. It cannot include submarine operations from other nations, but I am looking at that and I will happily follow up with the hon. Gentleman on that. On other issues raised, with regard to speculation that it was a Russian vessel, that is not something that we have said, although I can understand the speculation in the press on that.

The importance of the relationship between the Royal Navy and the fishing communities is fully recognised. That is why the code of practice was drawn up. The Royal Navy will step up its engagement with the fishing community. Good work has been done to date: for example, close working relationships have been developed with the Clyde Fishermen’s Association and other organisations on the west coast of Scotland. However, we want to do more. Following the incident, I have asked the Navy to establish a formal working group to improve communications and consultation with the Northern Ireland fishing industry in particular and, as I have already expressed to the hon. Member for South Down, I welcome input on that.

I am afraid that I have run out of time, but I assure the House that we want to do all we can to ensure that those in the fishing industry can go about their business not only in safety, but without fear. I will be happy to write to hon. Members to give them further details.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).