HC Deb 12 December 1986 vol 107 cc699-702
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Michael Spicer)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement.

In the statement I made to the House on 25 November I undertook to make public the reports of the inspectors who investigated the damage to, and subsequent loss of, the vessel Kowloon Bridge on 23 November. I have now received the first report from the inspector who examined the vessel when anchored in Bantry bay on 20 November, and I have placed a copy of his report in the Library. A second report has been commissioned into the subsequent loss of the vessel, which will similarly be made available to hon. Members as soon as it is received.

In my statement I referred to the possibility of a link between the damage suffered by the Kowloon Bridge and the loss of the Derbyshire, one of her sister ships which disappeared in the Pacific ocean in 1980 with the loss of 44 lives. I undertook to consider whether, in the light of the loss of the Kowloon Bridge, there might be a case for holding a formal investigation into the loss of the Derbyshire.

The inspector's report contains details of cracks and distortions in the deck and hatch coamings of the Kowloon Bridge and of other damage sustained during her voyage across the Atlantic. The report concludes that there was no evidence of design defects or of structural failures of the kind that were suggested might have been the cause of the loss of the Derbyshire. However, I recognise that more than one interpretation of these findings may be possible. I also recognise that the subsequent loss of one of her sister ships has increased public concern about the unexplained loss of the Derbyshire, which was reflected by hon. Members on 25 November.

In these circumstances, I have decided that a formal investigation into the loss of the Derbyshire should now be held. Arrangements for the investigation will be made as soon as possible.

Mr. Roger Stott (Wigan)

I thank the Minister for his statement. From the evidence that I have received, I agree that different interpretations could be placed upon the inspector's findings. The Derbyshire was lost without sending a Mayday call, and with all hands on board, six years ago. Since that time, the families of those on board and the seafaring unions have attempted to persuade, first, the Department of Trade, and then the Department of Transport to conduct a formal investigation into the loss of that vessel. It has been a long, trying and difficult six-year campaign.

Although nothing can compensate for the loss of the 44 people who died on board the Derbyshire, this news will be the best Christmas present that the families of the crew of the Derbyshire could receive. On behalf of the seafaring unions, the families of those who were lost aboard the Derbyshire and hon. Members, I thank the Minister for his statement and for conceding that a formal investigation is required.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

I thank my hon. Friend for his courageous decision and for the speed with which he took it. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Sir D. Price), who is not able to be present, also thanks the Minister on behalf of his constituents whose relatives drowned on the Derbyshire.

There has never been an attempt to seek recriminations or financial gain in our request for a formal investigation, but, rather, that every possible stone should be turned over that could prevent a similar occurence with sister ships. I echo the words of the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott). The news of the investigation is the best possible Christmas present for the families concerned.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

I join the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott) in thanking the Minister for acceding to the pressure for an investigation. At the risk of sounding churlish, I hope that the Minister will put down a marker for the Department that, when a vessel of the size of the Derbyshire disappears without trace, it owes it to the families of seafarers to see that immediately an investigation is carried out.

Mr. Spicer

Over the years, detailed inquiries have been carried out. This year, in March, a detailed report on the matter was produced. The only issue was whether a formal inquiry would produce new evidence about a ship that disappeared without trace. Today I said why we have taken the view that we have. There has never been any question of the Government not wishing there to be the maximum information about this disaster.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

Seventeen of the 44 families who lost men on board the Derbyshire come from the city of Liverpool. For the past six years, many have pressed for an inquiry. I join other hon. Members in thanking the Minister for announcing this investigation. Many hon. Members have asked how on earth this ship got a certificate of seaworthiness in the first place. Does the Minister agree that, in general, with more British companies flagging out, standards will drop even further?

Mr. Spicer

It is probable that the formal investigation will take place in Liverpool, which was the home port of the vessel. It is customary that such investigations are held in the home port. The classification societies or registries involved will not be affected in any way by flagging out. Obviously, from the point of view of insurance as well, which is largely based in this country, standards will be maintained in future.

Dr. M. S. Miller (East Kilbride)

I declare my interest as medical adviser to the National Union of Seamen.

I thank the Minister for his frankness this morning. Does he not think that seafarers suffer enough hardship and danger without extra problems being put in their way by ships such as the Derbyshire, which seemed to have some structural problem? The Kowloon Bridge has some structural problem, but I do not know whether it is the result of its fabrication.

The Minister was complacent when he said that flagging out has no bearing on the matter. The object of flagging out is to make more profits for the owners. I do not reject that; I do not object to profits. Even the new general secretary of the National Union of Seamen, Mr. McCluskie, said the same thing in an interview. He said that he does not expect companies to run their ships at a loss.

Does the Minister think that the goods that we export and import should be carried in ships made in Britain, which fly the British flag and which are manned by British sailors? Seafarers want a fair deal. The comparisons between our seafarers, and other seafarers are not fair. Will the Minister consider the reduction of our merchant fleet? It was once biggest and proudest in the world.

Mr. Spicer

The hon. Gentleman has asked a perfectly fair question. The immediate question which it raises is whether obstacles are put in the way of seamen and whether what has happened over the past six years reflects the fact that there have been obstacles. I would argue that there never has been any question of depriving anyone of information. The problem has been how to obtain information about a ship that went down without any trace and whether a formal investigation would add to the information. That has been the only issue at stake.

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, a great deal of flagging out, especially recently, has been with countries whose ships fly the Red Ensign—Hong Kong, Bermuda, and, increasingly, the Isle of Man. In those countries, the standards of the classification societies apply. I think, therefore that there is not quite the concern, that the hon. Gentleman perhaps imagines.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley)

I join in the welcome given to the Minister's statement and I should like to echo many of the comments made by other hon. Members. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will recall that he wrote to me about the Derbyshire only the week before the problems of the Kowloon Bridge arose. He stated all the reasons why a formal inestigation should not be carried out and the difficulties that might arise in such an investigation. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that it is now possible to overcome those difficulties and that this investigation will be relatively genuine?

Mr. Spicer

The difficulties remain. There will now be a long process of formal investigation. I have to say that it is very difficult to see what new information will be forthcoming. Having heard what was said in the House, having noted the great feeling on both sides of the House and having looked at the inspector's report, I took the view—not that there was doubt perhaps in the Government's or inspector's mind—that there were different interpretations which led me to believe that there was not as strong a case for not holding a formal investigation. It was a balanced and very fine judgment. I have never felt dogmatic about this. I felt that the loss of the Kowloon Bridge just tipped the balance. I do not disguise the fact from the hon. Gentleman or from the House that there will be great difficulty in trying to investigate an event that took place six years ago when there is very little additional evidence.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is not the truth of the matter that the Government are not very good about holding inquiries when it is possible that some of their friends in business might come out of them badly? Six years ago, the Derbyshire went down. Since then, the hon. Gentleman has been resisting any form of inquiry. The fact is that he should not be getting compliments for deciding to hold an inquiry. It should be plainly stated that it has been dragged out of him. The only reasons for the announcement are that another ship has broken its back and that my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott) and other hon. Members asked questions some weeks ago about the Kowloon Bridge and were able to inform the Minister that there might be some connection.

Will the hon. Gentleman give a guarantee that, when the inquiry is finalised, proper compensatory payments will be made retrospectively to all the families whose relatives were victims in the Derbyshire disaster?

Mr. Spicer

The hon. Gentleman is not being quite his normal generous self. He said that the Government were defending some vested interest. I should like to know what vested interest that was. Was it, for instance, the good name of the British shipbuilding industry? One might argue about that. If it was compensation, to which the hon. Gentleman finally referred, he is absolutely up the creek.

Mr. Skinner


Mr. Spicer

Because, in respect of who is likely to have to pay compensation if the courts so decide, appropriate arrangements have already been announced. When Swan Hunter was sold by British Shipbuilders, the indemnification was made. What more can the hon. Gentleman require than that proper indemnification was made at the time of the sale? The hon. Gentleman is making, as usual, a hard political point which is totally unjustified and unmerited.