Another View: Oil spill inquiry open to question

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More than 100,000 people have signed petitions and pledges calling for an independent inquiry into the Sea Empress oil spill disaster and for the protection of sensitive marine habitats. The petitions and pledges were delivered to Downing Street and the House of Commons yesterday and an adjournment debate was held between myself and the transport minister, Steven Norris, on the issue.

The Government has consistently refused to appoint a truly independent panel of inquiry because, I believe, of a fear that it would reveal serious shortcomings by ministers, including Dr Brian Mawhinney, the Conservative Party chairman (formerly Secretary of State for Transport), in not implementing in full Lord Donaldson's recommendations after the Braer disaster in 1993.

The Government has appointed the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) of the Department of Transport to carry out an inquiry into the actions that led to the grounding of the Sea Empress and related matters. For the first time, civil servants are being asked to investigate the actions of their political masters and their colleagues in the Marine Pollution Control Unit and the Coastguard Agency. These officials were directly involved in the decision-making process of the salvage operation that turned an accident which spilt less than 1,000 tons of oil when the vessel first grounded into probably the largest oil pollution catastrophe to hit UK shores, when under control of the salvors the ship ran aground again four days later and spilt 70,000 tons of oil.

Lord Donaldson's recommended that powerful salvage tugs should be in position around our coasts, and he specifically recommended that a powerful tug for the western approaches should be on station by the winter of 1994/95. This was not done. There is also evidence from interviews given by the salvors that Department of Transport officials were involved in all decisions taken during the salvage operation and, it has been alleged, they may have agreed to the deliberate discharging of oil to refloat the vessel.

It is vital that the public, particularly those who have been directly affected by this disaster and those who are concerned with the protection of our environment, have confidence in the final report and recommendations. That can only come if the inquiry has an independent element supervising it. I, and the Labour Party, have asked the Government to recognise that and appoint Lord Donaldson to oversee the inquiry.

In yesterday's adjournment debate I was disappointed, but not surprised, that the Government failed to appreciate the importance of public perception. The only new point was that Steven Norris stated that ministers would be examined by the inquiry team. That is a vital step forward, and I expect Dr Mawhinney and Sir George Young (the present Secretary of State for Transport) together with the shipping minister, Lord Goschen, to be interviewed as soon as possible. I am sure their evidence will make interesting reading when it is published.

The writer is Labour MP for Pembroke.