HC Deb 06 April 1965 vol 710 cc392-404

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. O'Malley.]

10.1 p.m.

Mr. James Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, West)

Tonight I speak of men who go down to the sea in ships. I come new to fishing debates. I wish to begin with a personal note which may evoke a sympathetic answer from the Minister. The Minister and I are both of mining stock. Coal mining is a dangerous occupation, as he well knows. It is a man's job.

Representing a constituency in Kingston upon Hull, I am in close contact with deep-sea fishermen, and this has given me deep admiration and a healthy respect for the men who venture out to high northern latitudes in fog, ice, snow and darkness to hunt for food for the nation. To lose one of these men is a saddening experience, but to lose the crews of the "Boston Pioneer" and the "Blue Crusader" is a tragedy. If so many men were lost in a pit disaster, it would mean banner headlines. It would, indeed, be a national tragedy. It is in this spirit that I address the House, for the sea is in this country's blood, and safety at sea is something in which the House is always keenly interested—alas, perhaps, more keenly interested when disasters occur.

I realise that the Minister may have had little time to get to grips with the subject in the past, because he has been so immersed in and has been working so hard in the shipbuilding industry. However, I should like to know whether he is satisfied with the position. He is a pocket dynamo of energy, and I shall gladly give him ample time later to tell us what he is doing in this matter.

It is generally known that the International Safety Convention signed in 1960 will come into force on 26th May. I should like to know from the Minister something about the practical effects of this convention. Can he tell us the main improvements in safety which will come about as a result of the convention? Are they merely measures to provide equipment to save people when a casualty occurs, or do they include measures to make the ships themselves safer? Action afterwards is obviously important in itself, but I hope that my hon. Friend can assure me that he is making continuous effort to avoid casualties in the future.

In this connection, what can my hon. Friend tell us about the use made of the testing tank at the National Physical Laboratory, Feltham? Is it used to study the behaviour of ships under adverse weather conditions or in states of loading which might lead to their loss? Is there a scientific approach to safety at sea? Are we merely learning by experience from the loss of life which occurs? Does my hon. Friend insist on buoyancy tests, either dynamic or static, for trawlers, and, if so, what is the length of vessel to which these tests are applied? It seems to me that most casualties occur in fishing vessels. Is the Minister honestly satisfied that these vessels are all that they ought to be? Does he feel that everything is being done to insist on the provision of safe and effective search and rescue methods and of life-saving equipment?

The hon. Lady the Member for Aberdeen, South (Lady Tweedsmuir) called attention last January to the fact that the owners of the "Blue Crusader" apparently did not know that the ship was lost until two weeks after it had foundered with the loss of all on board. She asked then that all ships should contact their shore base after a bad gale. Are there sufficient shore bases? If so, have they adequate facilities? I hope that they have in order to avoid the queueing up of ships of either the middle or near water fleets wishing to make contact with the shore.

Some owners insist that the boats make contact with their sister vessels daily. I am assured by skippers that that is the best method, but maybe some are a little shy of doing so if they are among lucrative shoals of fish, when they do not wish to give away their positions.

What is the Minister doing about radio telephony? I understand that the Department issued a notice to owners, masters and officers of merchant ships, yachts and fishing vessels dealing with the question of radio telephony distress procedure. The international Convention of 1960 requires that a card of instructions about these distress signals must be displayed on the bulkhead facing the radio telephone operator. I understand that this will be compulsory for all passenger and cargo vessels above 300 tons and for all fishing vessels above 140 ft. in length. But this would leave out many fishing vessels which are less than 140 ft. in length.

What is the Minister doing about these smaller vessels which, of course, often suffer more damage in gales? Apart from merchant ships and fishing vessels, every summer we read in our newspapers of loss of life and casualties in yachts and other vessels of this nature. The enjoyment of boating has increased in our affluent society over the last 13 years and will increase much more in the next 13 years of affluence under a Labour Government. Is the Minister doing anything to make this form of recreation safer?

I am no killjoy and I have no desire to have any test for the safety of these vessels, but the Minister was questioned some time ago by hon. Members about a new specification for life jackets. May we have an assurance that there will be soon a general improvement in the effectiveness of this very personal piece of life saving equipment? I hope that these jackets are both bigger and better and consequently more efficient.

I know that British Governments of whatever party have always placed considerable faith in international co-operation on safety at sea. We have played a leading part in that co-operation. Coordination has now been taken over by the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organisation, generally known as I.M.C.O. Is my hon. Friend satisfied with the work being done by I.M.C.O.?

Does my hon. Friend find that the existence of such an organisation assists him in providing the best possible safety measures for British ships? Is there a possibility that perhaps it is impeding the Government and is leading to acceptance of the lowest common denominator? After the "Lakonia" disaster I was told by some people who are more versed in sailing matters than I that our standards are not perhaps what those of some other nations are.

Incidentally, I understand that I.M.C.O. is the only United Nations agency in London, a fitting recognition of our maritime history and the acceptance by other nations of the lead which we have given in the past.

I hope that in the time I have allowed him my hon. Friend will be able to give full and adequate answers to some of the questions I have posed, and I hope that he can give us some good news, for nothing is more important than that we should safeguard the lives of the intrepid men who go down to the sea in ships.

10.10 p.m.

The Minister of State, Board of Trade (Mr. Roy Mason)

We have been discussing saving money all day, but now at this late hour we are discussing something much more important—the saving of life, and particularly the saving of life at sea. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. James Johnson) for giving me the opportunity to say what is being done about this most important subject. Incidentally, the debate is most opportune, because at this moment there is much to say about it.

I treat with the utmost concern my responsibility to make sea travel as safe as possible for members of the public and for the seafarers who earn their livelihood from the sea. I am mindful of the responsibilities which Parliament has placed on successive Ministers in Merchant Shipping Acts going back as far as 1894 and even earlier, and I am also mindful of and grateful for the essential contribution to our national life which is made by the officers and men of the Merchant Navy.

I should like first to deal with the subject of international co-operation. We place great store on international cooperation in achieving safety measures in ships, and for many years we have been leaders in promoting it. Now that the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organisation, known to every one by the initials I.M.C.O., has come into being, we are no less active in taking a leading part in this work. To answer my hon. Friend's specific question, almost the last he asked, I would certainly say that the work of I.M.C.O. is most valuable in providing a forum for discussion among international experts.

Some may say, and my hon. Friend even implied, that there is a risk that a universally accepted standard may be low, but, should it be necessary, we are not prohibited from achieving higher standards than those set by international conventions. However, in an international business like shipping it is best for the owners, crew and travelling public alike that there should be common standards of safety to which all nations will adhere, and it is that for which we continuously work. As my hon. Friend knows, the new international safety Convention comes into force on 26th May and Parliamentary approval to its adoption was given in the Merchant Shipping Act, 1964.

I shall shortly be making many new regulations which will apply the detailed provisions of the Convention to British ships, and these regulations will be laid before the House in the usual way. The regulations have been drafted in full consultation with shipowners, shipbuilders, the seafarers' unions and other interested organisations, and I believe that they will command a wide measure of acceptance. I am glad of this opportunity to thank all those who have helped us in our task.

In the short time available to me, I can answer my hon. Friend's questions only by giving a few examples of the new measures to be introduced. One major step forward is that all cargo ships over 500 tons and trading internationally will, in addition to the survey which they have had to undergo in the past, now undergo periodic surveys of the hull and machinery.

Another important change is the introduction of inflatable life rafts on both passenger and cargo ships in addition generally to the lifeboats which they already have. The United Kingdom has "peen the pioneer of inflatable life rafts and it was our initiative at the interiational conference which led to their being accepted by other nations. I relieve that this additional above-water support in the event of a casualty is a great step forward.

Another important advance in safety is the application of the radio provisions of the convention to cargo ships between 300 and 500 tons which make international voyages. This will mean that a considerable number of additional ships will participate in the communications organisation which is available in times of distress.

I might also mention another international Instrument which was drawn up at the time of the 1960 Safety Conference, namely, the revised international regulations for preventing collisions at sea. These Regulations will come into force on 1st September next, and one of the principal features is recognition of the importance of the proper use of radar by vessels navigating in restricted visibility. As regards the structure of the ship itself, the main step forward is added structural fire protection, but the Conference also made a number of recommendations that other aspects of ship construction should be studied. This is being done by a working group of I.M.C.O. in which we are taking a leading part.

Apart from the implementation of the 1960 Safety Convention, we are heavily engaged in the preparatory work for an international conference in 1966 which has been called by I.M.C.O. to revise the International Load Line Convention. This coming conference will take into account the changes in modern ship design and construction and will set the pattern for the future. The assignment of load line for determining the draught to which a ship can be safely loaded is something to which this country has made a great contribution in the past and, as all hon. Members know, it was pioneered with the Plimsoll line. I am confident that we shall play no less a part in the coming international conference.

One of the matters which my hon. Friend did not specifically mention but which is of great importance is that of the carriage of dangerous goods in ships. This is, of course, no new problem, but an increasing international trade in chemicals and other dangerous substances is providing an even larger share of the cargoes carried in ships and it is therefore becoming more important from day to day.

One of the working groups which have been set up by I.M.C.O. has this matter very actively in hand and it has been preparing a code governing the safe packing and stowage of dangerous chemicals in ships. For our part, we are revising our national Blue Book to take account of this new code, and I understand that a completely new Blue Book will be presented to the Board of Trade for approval some time later this year. The Blue Book consists of recommendations on which we base our regulations for safety at sea regarding dangerous cargoes—explosives, and so forth.

I.M.C.O. has recommended the adoption of United Nations labels for the carriage of dangerous goods by sea and we intend on 26th May to give effect to this recommendation in the hope that these labels will, before long, be adopted for all forms of transport with the consequential benefit to our exporters.

Members question whether study of safety measures is carried out continuously or whether we merely galvanise ourselves into activity when there is a casualty. The promotion of safety is a continuous process. Apart from very extensive studies by I.M.C.O., my Department, through its corps of surveyors, has a continuing responsibility for ensuring that ships, and in particular passenger ships, are built and maintained to the highest standards. The professional staff of the Department serve on all appropriate domestic and international committees and are in day to day touch with British shipowners and shipbuilders. On policy matters, we have a long-standing tradition of close working with the Chamber of Shipping, the Shipbuilding Conference, the seafarers" unions and Lloyds Register of Shipping. I can truly say that safety is very much a national concern.

Perhaps at this stage I might take the opportunity of paying tribute to the members of the Board's Marine Survey Service, who carry heavy responsibilities and whose work unquestionably influences the high reputation for safety which British ships hold in the eyes of the world.

My hon. Friend asked what use is made of the testing tank at the National Physical Laboratory. This tank is primarily of service to the shipping industry in determining the most efficient hull form and propeller design. The use of the tank for the determination of safety standards is of more recent development, but it is beginning to play a useful part in this field. For example, trawler forms have been tested with a view to developing a hull which will limit the amount of spray coming on board. This is important for trawlers in order to reduce the possibility of ice accumulating on the rigging and deck with consequent loss of stability and possible loss of the ship. Also, stern trawler designs have been tested in waves to ensure that there is no risk of swamping from following seas. Moreover, modern types of high-speed craft such as hydrofoils are also run in model form at the tank to determine their behaviour under sea conditions to ensure that they will maintain stability in service.

My hon. Friend drew particular attention to fishing vessels. I appreciate his concern. He is chairman of the Fisheries Committee on the Government side of the House and he represents a constituency from whence the trawlers travel out to the middle and distant waters. They do, indeed, present special problems of safety and I should like to pay tribute once again to the courage and endurance of those who pursue this hard and often dangerous occupation.

I have time to mention only three of the things which are being done to further the safety of fishing vessels and their crews. First, stability. I.M.C.O. has set up working groups to study the problems of stability generally and a separate group of experts will devote its time solely to fishing vessels. My Department is playing a full part in this work.

Secondly, the new regulations, which have been framed in full consultation with the fishing industry and the unions, will contain new or improved life-saving, fire-fighting and radio provisions for fishing vessels. For example, fishing vessels over 40 ft. in length will be required to carry a life raft for all on board and those over 55 ft. in length will have to carry sufficient for twice the number of those on board. Vessels over 60 ft. in length will also have to carry portable radio sets which, in the event of a casualty, can be taken into the life rafts or boats. I believe that these new requirements are a big step forward in providing fishermen with a means of communication and of providing homing assistance to rescue ships or aircraft. The larger fishing vessels will additionally be required to have fixed radio installation and to maintain a listening watch on the distress frequencies.

Thirdly, like hon. Members I have been disturbed at the loss of the "Blue Crusader" and then of the "Boston Pionair", both of which were seemingly lost without trace. These were the first two serious casualties to British ships which occurred after I took office. As I told the House at the time, one of the aspects of the "Blue Crusader" which disturbed me most was that the ship was last heard of on 13th January but that it was nearly a fortnight later when the presumed loss was reported and an air and sea search could be started.

I have been giving considerable thought to whether the existing arrangements for reporting positions of fishing vessels by radio could be improved. I have had a series of meetings on this subject and I shall be writing very shortly about this to the organisations which represent the owners and crews of fishing vessels. It may be necessary, in conjunction with the G.P.O., to consider in more detail the question of communications at sea to ascertain whether and to what extent this can be developed.

My hon. Friend also asked about the new specification for lifejackets. The International Safety Convention laid down certain basic requirements and we have carried out, with the co-operation of the manufacturers, a considerable number of tests with different prototype jackets. The whole problem of design has been studied by the Board's officers in conjunction with representatives of the shipping industry and of the seafarers" unions and others. I might say at this stage that we are particularly grateful to Professor Pask, of Newcastle University, for all the help which he has given us in our researches. The specification for the new lifejacket is now agreed and will be incorporated in the statutory rules shortly to be laid before the House. I myself intend to try out the new jacket shortly so that I may have first-hand knowledge of the comfort, buoyancy and, above all, the improved safety standard between the new and the old.

It is easy to say what a lifejacket should do but not so easy to achieve it with a garment of practical size and type. It must be borne in mind that a lifejacket is the last line of defence. The first objective must be to make the ship itself safe, and the second to provide out-of-water support by way of lifeboats and liferafts. Our new requirements will improve both of these, and it should be our hope that lifejackets will nat have to be used. Nevertheless, we believe that the new jacket will prove itself a considerable advance on the past.

Now I should like to turn to the question of yachts and pleasure vessels. This is a difficult question because of the numbers and different types of craft involved, and I cannot go into this very fully tonight. At present statutory requirements for the carriage of life-saving and fire-fighting equipment are confined to vessels of 15 tons burden and over. In the statutory rules to which I have referred we shall bring the requirements up to date, and at the same time change the limit to 40 ft. in length rather than the present tonnage basis as this will be much more convenient.

But I am considering whether I ought to make rules for vessels down to, say, 20 ft. in length, and my Department is in touch with the yachting associations and other interested organisations about this. We are to have discussions with all those concerned in the coming months, and in the light of these I shall decide whether it would be appropriate to make additional regulations.

In conclusion, I should like to say a few words more about I.M.C.O. to which, inevitably, I have referred a number of times this evening. The United Kingdom took the initiative in calling the first three international Conferences on Safety of Life at Sea. The first, which met in the shadow of the loss of the "Titanic", met in London in 1914 and though, because of the First World War, its recommendations were not adopted internationally, it did result in the setting up of the North Atlantic Ice Patrol.

The second International Conference met in London in 1929 and drew up a convention which governed international standards before the Second World War. In 1948 we held the third International Conference and brought the 1929 standards up to date, especially in regard to life-saving and fire-fighting equipment on cargo ships. In 1958 I.M.C.O. came into being, and the responsibility to call a further International Conference in 1960 therefore fell to that particular international body.

I believe that the international cooperation which has been brought about by the Conferences has been of the greatest value in promoting safety of life at sea, and I am quite confident that I.M.C.O. is carrying, and will continue to carry, the torch that was lit by this country. I am also taking a close personal interest in safety at sea, and I feel greatly satisfied that tonight I have been able to announce some of the improvements upon the existing safety measures.

10.28 p.m.

Mr. Eric Ogden (Liverpool, West Derby)

This is the first time in the life of this Parliament that Merchant Navy affairs have been debated at any length. They have been mentioned, and reported on, in statements, and I should like to thank my hon. Friends for their initiative in this matter.

Equally, it is appropriate that three ex-miners on this side of the House who are debating the Merchant Navy should be joined by the hon. and gallant Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan Giles) who, although he was a little late, perhaps because he was held up in another place, came along to save the honour of his side of the House. I contrast this interest in the Merchant Navy with the vast assortment of brass that came along to debate the Royal Navy, and I hope that it will be possible for my hon. Friend the Minister of State to persuade his colleagues in the Government to give us one day, or at least part of one day, to debate in full the affairs of the Merchant Navy.

As my hon. Friend knows, my constituency is in Liverpool, and I am probably the only ex-Merchant Navy man in the House. In the past we have concentrated a great deal on the affairs of the Royal Navy—which, after all, is fairly well equipped to look after itself—but we have not paid enough attention to the Merchant Navy. I repeat that I hope my hon. Friend will ask his colleagues to give us time to debate the affairs of the Merchant Navy, and I hope that he will concentrate on research and development contracts for safety of life at sea. This can be arranged through the various organisations and industries concerned, as is done in the aircraft industry where research and development contracts are placed with various firms. If this can be done for safety of life at sea, it will be very welcome.

10.30 p.m.

Rear-Admiral Morgan Giles (Winchester)

I thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden) for the welcome he gave me. I am sure that with his Merchant Navy background he will agree that it is very important for the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy to be together in their thinking in peace time, as we know they have been in two world wars.

Mr. Mason

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He must recognise that, for the first time, we have a Minister for Shipping who is concerned with shipping matters. I take note of what my hon. Friend said. I have some sympathy with his reasons for wanting Parliamentary time to discuss shipping matters. This may mean pressing the Leader of the House for a little crack in all the legislation that we are trying to introduce.

With regard to research and development contracts, a lot of work is being done with the British Shipping Research Association and the shipping division—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-nine minutes to Eleven o'clock.