HC Deb 07 February 1986 vol 91 cc541-59

Order for Second Reading read.

9.35 am
Mr. Albert McQuarrie (Banff and Buchan)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill has all-party support. It is designed to bring into legislation a number of safety at sea measures which are at present subject to Member certificates or notices issued by the Department of Transport, but which are not mandatory, and other measures to strengthen the regulations governing safety at sea.

I shall deal with the clauses, leaving clause 3 until the end, as it is one of the most important parts of the legislation. Before going into the detail of the clauses, I think that it would be right for me to explain why, with the co-operation of colleagues on both sides of the House, I decided to introduce the Bill.

The legislation is not intended to apply to yachts or similar craft, or to ferries.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

Is my hon. Friend aware of the concern expressed by the Royal Yachting Association and other yachting interests that the legislation might have applied to yachts and other pleasure craft? Will my hon. Friend confirm that he will move amendments in Committee that will make that point clear?

Mr. McQuarrie

When the Bill was drafted, it was not intended that its provisions would affect yachts or similar craft, or that it would apply to ferries. This morning I received a number of suggested amendments from the parliamentary draftsman to the Royal Yachting Association which will clarify the position for the association. I am perfectly happy to give my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) the assurance that he seeks. I hope that that makes the position clear to all yachting organisations. The Bill is not intended to affect yachting associations.

Those of us from fishing constituencies often visit the relatives of fishermen who have gone down to the sea and have not returned. On many occasions we are asked to introduce safety at sea measures. Requests have been made for legislation, rather than recommendations, by the Department of Transport. The sad incidents on the Ocean Harvest in October, the Bon Ami in December and the Mhairi L last February led me to decide to introduce the Bill.

This morning I received a letter from Mrs. Helen Maxwell, who is in hospital in Dumfries and whose son was on the Mhairi L. She expresses the great hope that the Bill will help to save fishermen. She says: We will grieve for our lost sons for the rest of our days … We know you are fighting for all the fishermen in Scotland. So my thoughts and prayers will be with you. I should like to pay tribute to Mr. Andrew Thomson, Mr. Terry Hayward and other management and staff at Dunlop-Beaufort in Birkenhead for their great help and cooperation not only in drafting parts of the Bill but in giving me an insight into the vast detail investigated by that firm in connection with technical research and production of safety at sea equipment. I should like to thank also Mr. Barnes of Berndept Electronics, Electronics Marine, and others who have been such a help to me with respect to the distress beacon. Those firms, especially Dunlop-Beaufort, were kind enough to assist me in the safety at sea exhibition which was held yesterday in the Palace of Westminster. I am grateful to all my colleagues who saw the exhibition. It was a first-class presentation and gave us many opportunities to see the problems with which the Bill deals.

I should also like to thank Mr. Harry Barrett, the managing director, and Mr. Ian Strutt and the staff of Fishing News for the tremendous amount of research that they carried out. They provided me with information about accidents and fatalities involving fishing vessels at sea. Other people, too numerous to mention, have my thanks for the help, encouragement and co-operation they gave me in presenting the Bill.

Clause 1 relates to the fitting of a float-free emergency radio beacon, which will increase safety at sea as it will automatically transmit on aircraft frequencies 121.5 MHz and 243'MHz prepared for sarsat-satellite homing. The emergency beacon will float free and activate automatically should the vessel sink. There is seldom time to broadcast a mayday message for long enough to provide a reliable radio fix for search and rescue agencies if the vessel sinks. Even if there is time, such a radio fix will indicate only the point where the vessel was lost.

Mr. Barry Henderson (Fife, North-East)

Has my hon. Friend had any discussions with Her Majesty's Coastguard on that part of the Bill and the way in which those signals might communicate with its co-ordination facilities and search and rescue functions?

Mr. McQuarrie

I am grateful for that comment. I have not so far discussed the matter with HM Coastguard It is my intention, and I am sure that of my hon. Friends who support the Bill, that if the Bill receives its Second Reading we shall consult widely with all organisations involved, to ensure that when the Bill returns to the House on Third Reading we shall have had the fullest discussions so that all the points that must be made about distress beacon signals are fully covered. That will ensure that fishermen have additional facilities, if they can be operated by HM Coastguard.

By fitting a hydrostatic release unit to the radio beacon, the system is activated by water pressure as soon as the vessel sinks. That action releases the lashings which hold the beacon canister securely in the deck-mounted cradle. Once the lashings are loosened, the two halves of the spring-loaded canister break open, allowing the self-buoyant beacon to float free from the sinking vessel. At the same time, the operation activates the beacon transmitter, which then broadcasts on the civil and military air distress frequencies.

If vessels are fitted with those emergency position indicating radio beacons—commonly called EPIRB—it means that they will aid the maritime and aircraft rescue services in pinpointing the location of the sinking vessel. That is an important factor, because on many occasions when the vessel goes down the problem is to pinpoint its position. Rescue services then have to search over hundreds of square miles to try to find the vessel. That will be an important factor once the beacon has been established as a type that can be used for identification.

Signals can be identified at distances up to 100 miles. Aircraft will not be constrained by the prevailing conditions or the size of the vessel in distress. Distress signals from the beacon can be transmitted for at least 72 hours. That is another important factor. If the beacon can continue to transmit once the vessel goes down, it means that civil and military aircraft can get to the scene and alert fishing and other vessels in the disaster area. Beacons are a must for fishing vessels. They can save lives at sea. For that, if no other reason, they should be fitted.

As long ago as 1981 the Department of Trade reported a change of policy with regard to the fitting of EPIRBs. Until then, the Department had felt that their use gave fishermen too much confidence. The Department announced that the use of those distress beacons would greatly improve the chances of locating persons when a vessel had gone down. However, the Department did not bring in the necessary legislation; it merely recommended their use on fishing vessels. The Bill seeks to compel the use of approved distress beacons to save more lives. I hope that the Department of Transport, which is now responsible for shipping, will ensure that that requirement is enforced if the Bill becomes law.

Clause 2 will require fishing vessels of between 30 ft and 300 ft to have on board sufficient life jackets for the crew and any passengers. It will also require that life rafts should have hydrostatic release units fitted, so that the life raft will inflate automatically and float free if the vessel sinks. Most vessels carry life rafts, but not all have hydrostatic units fitted. If lives are to be saved, it is vital that the fitting of those units should become compulsory.

There may well be no opportunity free a life raft if it has been stored on the deck or on top of the wheelhouse. If the hydrostatic unit is used, it is guaranteed that the life raft will come to the surface. A life raft with a unit attached has a painter made fast to the weak link system of the hydrostatic unit. The location of the HRU is such that it is readily accessible and is located on the seaward side of the vessel. When submerged to a depth of 1.5 m to 3.7 m, the hydrostatic unit operates automatically. Freed of its lashings, the container rises to the surface, paying out the inflation painter line as it goes, but retaining it to the HRU by means of the weak link. It is the combination of the rising container and the sinking vessel which provides the painter tension which activates the gas cyclinder and starts inflation once the free painter line is paid out. As the vessel sinks, the weak line will break, releasing the life raft from the vessel. The weak link breaking strength is such that the raft is not dragged under by the sinking vessel, thus ensuring that survivors have another chance of being saved at sea. Without that essential piece of equipment, the chances of survival at sea are slim. In that connection, I should like to refer to the loss of the MFV Mhairi 1 in the eastern section of the Irish sea on 20 February 1985. The Department of Transport report on that sinking was published in December 1985.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, technically, the report was not published, although a number of us pressed that it should be published officially? It was presented to the Secretary of State for Transport. Some of us are anxious that it should be published and that its recommendations should be widely known.

Mr. McQuarrie

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because I was about to say that he might wish to refer to that tragedy. I agree that the report was not published, but it should be published, because the public are entitled to see such reports. We are here today to try to obtain more safety at sea. If we can encourage people and in particular fishing organisations, to read such reports, they will know what the Department proposes to do about such matters.

Paragraph 6.7 of that report stated: Lives might have been saved had the ship's life rafts been fitted with hydrostatic release units so that they floated free when the ship sank. Merchant shipping notice M1173 recommends that such units are fitted in fishing vessels, and the tragedy of Mhairi L underlines this advice. The Department of Transport report merely restates that the fitting of such units is a recommendation and not mandatory. We seek to introduce legislation which will make the requirement mandatory.

Mr. Nicholas Fairbairn (Perth and Kinross)

As my hon. Friend goes through the various devices, will he tell us approximately what percentage of vessels carry them, without legislation, and what percentage are foolhardy enough not to do so?

Mr. McQuarrie

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for asking that question. Unfortunately, I cannot give him those figures. I can only confirm that very many vessels do not have those devices. There is an urgent need for them to be fitted. We should not simply recommend that, but should make it mandatory. That is what I am seeking in my Bill.

Paragraph 5.2 of the report stated that a trawl had fouled a cable, and as it was likely that all hands were on deck—I want to reinforce the fact that all were on deck —in an effort to clear the cable, they would have been thrown into the water. As the vessel's life rafts were not fitted with hydrostatic units, and so did not inflate and float free, there is no doubt that the crew could not have survived for long. That terrible tragedy, which resulted in the loss of five fishermen's lives, illustrates how vital it is that the Department of Transport recommendation should now become obligatory.

If the cost of the unit were prohibitive, I could understand resistance from the fishing industry. However, a new hydrostatic unit, such as that approved by the Department of Transport, costs about £80. The unit also attracts a 25 per cent. grant from the Sea Fish Industry Authority and is tax deductible as a business expense. Is that too much to pay for saving the life of a fisherman? Is it too much to pay to avoid the tragedy of the widows and children left on shore? For too long we have relied on "M" notices to implement safety at sea measures that will save lives. Now is the time to introduce legislation that will allow fishermen to return from their dangerous work to the safety and comfort of their homes and families.

As I said earlier, I shall not deal with clause 3 now, because of its importance to the Bill. I shall deal with it later.

Clause 4 deals with wheelhouse visibility. I wish to make it quite clear that the clause is intended to apply to new vessels or to vessels undergoing major overhaul. Existing vessels will be exempted form the clause, because I am aware of the problems that its application could cause, especially to the inshore fishing fleet. I have been persuaded to exempt fishing vessels because I was made aware that many of those vessel owners had already taken steps to ensure that safety at sea measures would be incorporated in any modernisation.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has clarified the position and confirmed that the clause will apply only to new constructions. Can he enlighten me on the meaning of subsection (3), which states: No such vessel shall be constructed nor repaired to return to sea". Does that not cover existing vessels? There would be strong opposition to that from fishermen because of the expense of covering welldecks on fishing boats if existing vessels were obliged to fall into line with the provisions of the clause.

Mr. McQuarrie

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising that point. An amendment will be introduced in Committee to provide for existing vessels to be excluded from the clause. I am sure the right hon. Gentleman understands that, because of the time factor and the method of drafting of the Bill—it must be done by hon. Members, not by the parliamentary draftsman—it was impossible to have full consultation. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the matter will be dealt with.

The clause will require new and modernised vessels to be constructed in such a manner that the view from the conning position in the wheelhouse is not obscured by the superstructure. It is important for the safety of the crew that all new vessels or major modernisations should be so designed and capable of operation that the person in control of navigation has his view of the horizon obstructed as little as possible.

The boat builders must endeavour to foresee every operational condition for which the vessel is designed, with particular regard to the trim. For major modernisation, there is a requirement for the boat builders to ensure that any modification does not impair the visibility from the wheelhouse. It might be that, to achieve that end, the wheelhouse would have to be raised from the deck to maintain at least the previous standard.

The advent of new electronic equipment fitted for navigation and fish detection within small wheelhouses has curtailed forward visibility, which has caused collisions, with disastrous results. The clause is yet another measure to ensure safety at sea. It should be welcomed by the fishing industry.

Clause 5 deals with load lines. Fishing vessels are exempt from the legislation on load lines laid down in the Merchant Shipping (Load Lines) Act 1967. The reason is that fishing vessels are not loaded in the peaceful atmosphere of a port, when it can readily be seen when cargo is overloaded. When vessels are loaded at sea, it is difficult to observe whether they are depressed below the load line.

There is a provision that each vessel should have a stability book giving details of such information as maximum weight of cargo in various conditions. There is also legislation on the safety of fishing vessels, in particular the Fishing Vessels (Safety Provisions) Act 1970. The trouble is that load lines are not compulsory for fishing vessels, and if we want safety at sea, we must turn our minds to that aspect.

In a written answer to the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell)—I am pleased that he is in his place this morning—on 15 February 1979 Mr. Clinton Davis, the then Under-Secretary of State for Trade, said that the working group on the occupational safety of fishermen had recommended the marking of safe working loads on fishing vessels, usually called the Plimsoll line. He said that work would be put in hand immediately in consultation with all interests concerned. That was 1979, but no legislation has been introduced.

The hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) also raised the matter of the Plimsoll line with that same Minister during the Committee stage of the Merchant Shipping Bill in 1979. He was assured that the question of load lines on fishing vessels carrying our bulk shipping was being actively considered. If we are to have safety at sea, that active consideration should have been concluded long before now.

Mr. Fairbairn

I can understand the operation of a load line in port, where the water is flat and the lines in the water can be seen by someone standing on the shore. However, I cannot understand the operation of a load lire at sea, when the sea may be rough, and someone would have to get off the boat and stand on some other object to see whether the vessel had reached the load line.

Mr. McQuarrie

We must recognise that modern vessels, with a massive amount of new machinery, must have some sort of a Plimsoll line to ensure the correct loading of the vessel. They must be able to measure capacity and the extent to which the loaded vessel will drop in the water.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

Cargo vessels similarly do not remain in port all their lives—they go to sea and sail in rough waters. However, the Plimsoll line is applicable to them so it can equally be applied to fishing vessels.

Mr. McQuarrie

I am grateful the hon. Gentleman for making the very point that I wished to make.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Mitchell)

Surely the point is that if a vessel is loaded in a harbour it is possible to see in the calm water the effect of loading on the Plimsoll line, whereas it is more difficult to see the effect of loading when it takes place at sea. I think that that is a point that my hon. Friend will want us to discuss further in Committee.

Mr. McQuarrie

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I am sure that he will take account of what the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) said.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

The Plimsoll line is a means of persuading the captain to conform to loading regulations. The Minister is right, but it is practical to measure the weight of cargo taken on board a fishing vessel even in seas that are less than calm.

Mr. McQuarrie

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. If a fishing vessel has a Plimsoll line, the inspectors will be able to see whether a fishing vessel is overloaded as it comes into port. Not long ago, there was a dreadful incident in the south-west in which a bucking fishing vessel went over because the catch shifted. How many more vessels must topple over, and how many more crews must drown, before we have legislation requiring load lines? Too many lives have been lost because of overloading. Clause 5 must be considered seriously, because history has proved the need for it. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Minister has said that we will consider the matter in Committee. As I have said, the hon. Members for Great Grimsby and for East Lothian raised the issue in 1979, but still nothing has been done.

Clause 6 covers smaller fishing vessels. It would ensure safety at sea for the crew. Clause 6(a) and (b) are at present implemented by most vessels because they are part of an M notice issued by the Department of Transport. Many of the vessels already carry a lifeboat or life raft, which is highly commendable, but they should be required to be fitted with a hydrostatic unit. The clause would make compulsory the wearing of lifejackets when working on deck and the provision of 10 per cent. extra lifejackets in case of loss or damage.

The size of fishing vessel to which the clause refers has suffered more than any other in terms of loss of life. The additional requirement is just another chance to ensure that a father returns to his wife and children, or that a son returns to his mother and father. The cost of a lifejacket is negligible compared with the cost of a fisherman's life. I hope that the clause will be welcomed by everyone in the fishing industry.

Clause 7 deals with debris at sea. Ever since the discovery of North sea oil, fishermen have experienced serious problems because of debris dumped at sea. I am aware of a fund called United Kingdom Offshore Operators Association, which is supposed to deal with compensation claims by fishermen when a vessel's gear or catch are damaged by debris. Fishermen's problems were illustrated by a recent incident concerning the MV Faithful PD67. For those who do not know, PD67 means that the vessel comes from Peterhead, which is the largest fishing port in Europe and in my constituency.

The vessel is owned by my constituent, Mr. Walter Milne. He encountered oil-related debris at sea. It was a hawser which had been severed at both ends by cutting or burning. It took 32 hours to tow the obstacle back to Peterhead, and when the crane lifted it out of the water, its identity was established. My constituent was quite right when he told me about the sheer stupidity of those who had dumped the debris, in view of the danger to the vessel, the danger to his crew and the loss of his catch and of his gear. For 23 years Mr. Milne has watched with concern the dangers of dumping debris at sea. His view is shared by the whole fishing industry. He rightly says that fishermen will still be fishing in the North sea long after the oil men have gone; that is if many of them survive the dangers of dumped debris.

What are the chances of compensation for fishermen? The cost to Mr. Milne was £30,000. Loss of gear amounted to £8,000, crane hire to remove the debris was £650, divers' costs to inspect the damage were £475, additional fuel used to tow the debris back to Peterhead was £1,400 and the value of fish lost was £20,000 as the Faithful was pair trawling with the MV Sunlight, and both vessels lost their catch.

Mr. Milne applied for compensation. Did he get full compensation? No. He was offered, as he put it, "pennies rather than pounds". That is a scandal which the fishing industry has had to bear for far too long. I accept that proving who dumped the debris will not be easy, but if there was legislation under which to prosecute and fine culprits, and provision for full compensation for the owner of the vessel, that would be a major step forward and could prove to be a deterrent which rids fishermen of this great problem.

Mr. Henderson

I agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said about getting rid of this hazard, and the clause is helpful, as it refers to debris from whatever source. Will he confirm, however, so that there is no misunderstanding in the oil industry, that there is already legislation which makes it illegal for oil industry people to leave debris after a wellhead has been closed off? There is firm legislation to ensure that the oil industry does not create such hazards for fishermen, so the clause is aimed at other parts of industry.

Mr. McQuarrie

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I am not sure whether the point that he is trying to drive home is entirely covered by present legislation. I am led to understand that if an oil company wants to dispose of a rig which is no longer used for drilling, and the well has been closed off, it seeks the authority of the Department to lower the rig to the sea bed. That is not necessarily a satisfactory solution when dealing with debris. What my hon. Friend said must be taken on board by the Department, because, when the rigs are finished and the oil has dried up, there will be a massive amount of debris from skelton rig and other pieces on dismantling, which cannot be retrieved no matter how much care is taken. We should be careful, therefore, as debris could become an even bigger problem. As we have said many times, fishermen will be there long after the oil has gone. It is our responsibility, as legislators, to protect and safeguard the future of the fishing industry.

There is a drafting error in clause 8. It should provide: All persons of age 50 or less who sail in fishing vessels for the first time shall undertake". The words "for the first time" have been omitted.

Mr. Robert Hughes

Can the hon. Gentleman explain why he has limited the clause to those aged 50 or less, and has not included all entrants?

Mr. McQuarrie

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I was advised that few people want to go into the industry for the first time when they are aged over 50. If the hon. Gentleman can provide examples and thinks that the limit should be raised, I should be happy to consider the matter in Committe.

Some years ago the Sea Fisheries Training Council reported that more than half of all United Kingdom fishermen had never had any training in survival, fire fighting or first aid, and that many school leavers went to sea without any instruction. The response to that was immediate, as the industry saw the need for safety at sea. During a period of two years, 3,200 fishermen were provided with a one-day course in survival at sea and fire fighting. The courses were arranged by a network of training centres which were set up near the main fishing ports. I have visited the centre in my constituency, which is run by Mr. William Milne, a training officer at Peterhead, where the north-east of Scotland training centre is located. The courses are excellent and give fishermen the necessary safety at sea knowledge to cater for any eventuality. The trouble is that the courses are not compulsory.

While I accept that the number of fishermen who have had no training in safety at sea is not now 50 per cent. of those who go to sea, it remains too high. One bad cog in the wheel can prevent any engine from running smoothly, and one fisherman on a vessel who is untrained in survival at sea can be a great danger to his fellow crewmen. The courses are neither difficult nor time consuming. If we are to ensure that all who sail in fishing vessels have had training in safety at sea, legislation must ensure that the training schools continue to exist and that the work carried out by dedicated officers is put to use.

That is an important point, because at present the courses are financed by the Manpower Services Commission and the Sea Fish Industry Authority. I understand that the MSC will be phased out in 1986, so some means will be required to finance the courses thereafter. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take that matter on board and say how the courses will be financed when the MSC goes out of existence.

Clauses 9 to 16 cover miscellaneous matters which are self-explanatory. Some clauses will need to be amended in Committee, particularly clause 12, under which the owner or skipper of a vessel should not necessarily be liable for the action of others. I shall be pleased to make such amendments, as in a Bill of this mature the drafting is bound to require revision. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North for his helpful suggestions about that clause and others. I am grateful to him for helping me consider matters before, rather than after, today's debate.

I return to clause 3, which deals with the compulsory wearing of life jackets on deck. I am well aware that when the clause was announced fishermen resisted it. That was mainly because they were unaware that the life jackets were not the traditional type which handicap men working on deck but are a new model which is neither cumbersome nor a problem to work in. It is a harness manufactured by Dunlop-Beaufort and is extremely useful. Unfortunately, time did not permit consultation with the fishing industry, which I should have liked, but fishermen will have ample time and opportunity to test this type of life jacket.

Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)

I apologise for arriving late, but I am afraid that Brisih Rail delivered me late, so I missed most of my hon. Friend's speech. Clause 15(3) states: For the purposes of section 7 'vessel' includes", and then gives the definition. Why is that definition limited to clause 7, and what would the difinition of "vessel" be in clauses 3 and 1?

Mr. McQuarrie

I shall consider that point in Committee and have it clarified if necessary. If my hon. Friend would like to comment further, he should drop me a line before the Committee stage, and I shall certainly consider his points.

The new design has been geared to the needs of fishermen. Too many lives have been lost at sea because fishermen could not get at their life jackets when disaster struck. Hon. Members who are involved in the fishing industry know that most fishermen have a life jacket on board, but under their pillows. I make no criticism of that. Although they have one, they cannot get at it when they need it. Many fishermen have been lost overboard because they were not wearing a life jacket. In many cases when a man falls overboard he strikes his head, is knocked unconscious and cannot reach a life line. When a man falls overboard, unconscious or otherwise, this new life jacket will automatically inflate. It inflates only when it hits the sea and the automatic release triggers the action. It can also turn a man over to be face up. Therefore, he will not drown, even if he falls in unconscious.

Fishermen must seriously consider wearing life jackets. I am aware that it is not the custom to wear life jackets on deck, but, as with seat belts in a car, it requires only one person to be saved when wearing a life jacket to prove the need for them. It will be difficult to persuade fishermen to use them constantly, and it has been said that implementing the legislation will not be easy. I accept that. It will be said that the life jackets are too expensive, but what is the cost of a fisherman's life? How many more widows and fatherless children must there be before the message gets home that fishermen who ply their trade in hazardous conditions are loved and wanted at home? If they are drowned at sea, they leave only sad memories and dashed hopes.

It has been my sad experience to visit the sorrowing relatives of the men on Ocean Harvest, from Macduff, which went down in October 1985, and those on the Bon Ami, from Whitehills, which went down on 20 December 1985, both with the loss of all hands. Since 1977, 89 fishermen from my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Mr. Pollock) have been drowned at sea. I wonder how many of those lives would have been saved if they had been wearing life jackets with an automatic release which would have kept them afloat until the rescue services arrived. Between 1961 and 1980 there were 909 recorded deaths at sea involving fishermen. This ever-escalating figure is too high to be acceptable. I cannot repeat often enough that the number of widows and fatherless children who are left to mourn a husband and father drowned at sea is far too great. It is our responsibility, as legislators and caring people, to create greater safety at sea, through means acceptable to fishermen.

I would not for a minute suggest that fishermen do not apply safety at sea measures when they are out in the cold, dark, waters, but they, like all of us, are only human. As the motorist has been protected by the use of safety belts, which now have a proven record of accident prevention, the time has come to move forward and introduce legislation to save lives at sea. Such legislation will be difficult to enforce, but so was seat belt legislation. Time, experience and habit will bring the wearing of life jackets into everyday use at sea.

The Bill is not the end of the line of legislation for safety at sea. The safety group will continue to make new recommendations in its report to the Secretary of State for Transport, who will in turn lay them before Parliament in accordance with clause 9. The Secretary of State has power under the Bill to make amendments in the interests of greater safety at sea.

I am well aware of the great responsibility that the presentation of the Bill to Parliament brings to me and my supporters. I am distressed that the Scottish Fishermen's Federation should say that quite explicitly they cannot support the Bill in its present form. I have always had the highest regard for this organisation, and I am disturbed that it has made such a comment when the purpose of the Bill is to save the lives of fishermen.

I am glad to say that yesterday I met Willie Hay, the President, Sandy Baird and Gilbert Buchan and took note of their concern about some of the Bill's clauses. I expressed my hope that they would accept the Bill, in the knowledge that it was for their benefit and that of their fishermen. I accepted that they would want to make constructive observations and have a full and technical dialogue with me and my colleagues who will steer the Bill through Committee, and promised to consult them fully, just as I am sure my hon. Friends will consult the fishermen in their constituencies. I told them that I would be pleased to discuss all aspects of the Bill with the SSF and any others. However, I must make it clear that I and my colleagues have had the courage of our convictions in bringing these measures forward and that we intend to complete the legislation, after the fullest consultation with all concerned in the fishing industry during the Committee stage.

If the Bill saves more fishermen from drowning, if it means fewer widows, sorrowing parents and fatherless children, and less need for tears or mourning, it will achieve that which many of my constituents have asked me to do. I promised that I would introduce a Safety at Sea Bill if ever I had the opportunity to do so. I was given that chance, and I commend the Bill to the House, in the hope that it will have a safe passage to the statute book at an early date.

10.21 am
Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. McQuarrie) on his good fortune in drawing a place in the ballot for private Members' Bills and even more on the good purpose for which he is using that opportunity.

It has been said that the legislation proposed in the Bill will not eliminate the tragedies that take place at sea, and one accepts that. Far more sophisticated vessels than fishing boats, such as liners with the most up-to-date lifesaving equipment, can get into trouble. However well ships are covered by such safety devices, inevitably the loss of life can be fairly high.

In recent years there has been a horrendous tale of loss of life at sea in the fishing industry — a far more dangerous industry in terms of fatalities than even the coal industry. It has been aggravated in recent years by small vessels being obliged to go into more dangerous waters. We had the tragic loss on 20 December of the crew of the Bon Ami.

Mr. Willie Hay, the president of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, has said that Scottish fishermen are not irresponsible and that they consider the safety of the crew. I cannot see that the Bill implies anything to the contrary. As the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan said, many of us wore safety belts in cars before legislation made it compulsory. There is little argument about the improvement that the compulsory wearing of seat belts has made in reducing serious accidents and death on the road.

In the Fishing News of 7 February Mr. George Sutherland, chairman of the Scottish White Fish Producers Association, said: The industry should be left alone to settle its own affairs. With respect to Mr. Sutherland, that is what the House cannot agree to, although we accept that the fullest consultation with fishermen should be maintained during the passage of the Bill. I am pleased that the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan has said that he will do that.

The clause about distress beacons cannot be argued against. It is extremely important that the site of an accident at sea should be pinpointed as early as possible. Sometimes, crew members are in the water and it is vital, especially in the kind of weather that we are having, that they should be got out of the water as quickly as possible. The period of survival in low temperatures is extremely short. The distress beacon is an excellent suggestion.

The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan has said that life jackets are not at the moment worn at sea, and that is understandable, for a good reason. They are extremely bulky, and men gutting fish on deck and doing other work on the vessel would be hampered greatly. Yesterday, I had the opportunity to see the life jacket proposed in the legislation. I think that men wearing such a life jacket could work, even on a fishing boat in rough weather, without any undue obstruction to their movements. It is hardly any more obtrusive than the braces that we wear to keep up our trousers. It can be inflated by the action of seawater, and, when inflated, has a tremendous bouyancy that would maintain a fisherman, even in his heavy clothing, for a considerable length of time.

Mr. Henderson

I think that the life jacket is a wee bit heavier than the galluses that I am wearing. However, the kind of braces that a fisherman wears to hold up his heavy waterproof trousers are similar to the size and shape of the life jacket to which the right hon. Gentleman is referring.

Mr. Stewart

I accept that point. I was not speaking entirely to the last millimetre when I spoke about braces. The life jacket is a bit bulkier than that. However, compared with previous life jackets, it is virtually nonexistent. It is a great improvement. I feel that, with due respect to fishermen, once they have started wearing them, they will not be aware of them most of the time.

Some fishermen have said that they will stow the new life jackets away, and they will never be used. That attitude may be met in all types of industry. In the woollen trade there is a process for dirty wool that is called "teasing" and the air is full of dust all the time. By law, woollen mills are obliged to provide face masks for men working in teasing houses. I recall going to one of those places where the men were not wearing their masks because, they said, it was easier to work without them. However, the masks had been provided to the men for their safety, just as the Bill suggests that life jackets be provided for the safety of fishermen.

Fishermen are independent, but I hope and am confident, that, in time, they will accept the necessity for wearing these life jackets at all times, especially because of the excellent feature that men who are washed overboard unconscious are turned over face up in the water. That is a great thing in itself. The Bill also deals with load lines. When there have been heavy shoals of mackerel, I have seen vessels coming into Stornoway harbour—no doubt this happens in other harbours as well—loaded so dangerously low down that the hawser holes were almost at sea level. Fortunately, the weather was good, but if a sudden gale had come up, the ship would have been swamped. It is a good idea to ensure that the safety level is not exceeded.

I am not so sure about the point about debris at sea. There will be many difficulties. Fishermen losing a net or a trawl will have to pinpoint it and go out and collect it at a later date, at considerable cost. I hope that in Committee that part of the Bill will be carefully examined. I have no doubt that in the meantime the fishermen will make known their views on that.

Mr. McQuarrie

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the call for some form of legislation to deal with debris at sea has come primarily from fishermen because of the great problems that they have experienced? I illustrated during my speech the long length of cable that Mr. Milne's fishing vessel had to drag back to port. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is essential that there should be legislation to compensate fishermen for that kind of incident?

Mr. Stewart

That is a fair point. I am aware that fishermen have been annoyed about debris, particularly since the installation of oil rigs in the North sea. However, my point is that fishermen will be caught by the clause and made responsible for creating debris. They might not be very happy about that.

Apart from the life-saving devices and other measures that are proposed in the Bill, I hope that comprehensive training courses will continue. I am glad that the Bill contains a training clause. The course should include sea survival, fire fighting, first aid and aspects of radio communication connected with sea rescue. It was a mistake to abandon the Sea Fisheries Training Council, but 90 per cent. of the men in the Western Isles fishing fleet are now trained in survival methods. I hope that survival disciplines will eventually be incorporated in the Bill.

I welcome the Bill. It is essential, and the time for it is now. I wish the Bill a safe and speedy passage. The numbers of tragedies to which we have grown accustomed in recent years may be decreased by implementation of the provisions in the Bill.

10.31 am
Sir Walter Clegg (Wyre)

It is, as ever, a pleasure to follow in debate the right hon. Member for the Western Isles (Mr. Stewart). I, too, welcome the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. McQuarrie). It is quite an achievement. Hon. Members receive very little practical help with the drafting of Bills. This Bill is highly technical, and my hon. Friend has had little time in which to prepare it. When we refer, therefore, to amending it in Committee, we are not doing my hon. Friend an injustice. He has made a Second Reading speech that deals with the general principles of the Bill which we can use to build upon in Committee.

Fishermen have underestimated the time that my hon. Friend has had to hold detailed consultations with them. I am glad that some of the fishermen were able to attend yesterday's exhibition. I hope that before the Bill becomes law the exhibition can be taken around the fishing ports so that other fishermen may see it.

Mr. McQuarrie

I can assure my hon. Friend that I have been advised that Dunlop-Beaufort has advised me that it will be willing to take the exhibition around all the fishing ports in the country to demonstrate its hydrostatic unit and life-saving jacket.

Sir Walter Clegg

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I hope that the exhibition will come to Fleetwood, because the manufacturers of this equipment are in the north-west of England. All hon. Members want safety at sea to be improved, but we have to remember the fears of fishermen about the cost of this new equipment. Times are so hard for the inshore fishing fleet at Fleetwood that undue pressure on costs would make life very difficult for them. However, the cost of this new equipment could be alleviated by a grant. My hon. Friend said that a 25 per cent. grant will be made available for purchases from the Sea Fish Industry Authority. I hope that the grant will be increased to more than 25 per cent.

Mr. McQuarrie

My hon. Friend is suggesting that the grant of 25 per cent. ought to be increased. A vast amount of money is spent upon air and sea rescue services when there is a disaster at sea. It may be possible for the cost of air and sea rescue services to be diverted to the provision of distress beacons and other safety at sea measures. Ultimately this could lead to the equipment being provided free to fishermen.

Sir Walter Clegg

I very much hope that that will happen. However, the cost of this equipment has to be taken into account.

I am also concerned about the date when the Bill will take effect. It is to take effect within six months of the Bill becoming an Act. We shall have to look at that point in Committee. We must ensure that sufficient equipment is available by the time that the Act takes effect. I was assured yesterday at the exhibition that there would be few problems about that, but we must ensure that we do not introduce regulations before the fishermen can comply with them because the equipment is not available.

Clause 3 deals with the wearing of approved life jackets. The new style of life jacket was graphically described by the right hon. Member for the Western Isles and by my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan. It is a new departure. These life jackets will surprise fishermen who see them for the first time. They appear to be so easy to use without being a major encumbrance while performing fishing operations.

I support my hon. Friend's Bill. He has done a very good job, but I am sure that he will agree with me that during the Committee stage we can hone it and polish it until it is much better than it is now.

10.37 am
Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. McQuarrie) on his good fortune in the ballot. I regard it as a rare privlilege to be one of the sponsors of his admirable Bill. I compliment him upon his moral courage and intellectual integrity during his searching re-examination of his approach to this deeply disturbing issue. He will not forget the incident when he gently chided me on 5 June 1984, when we were debating the Inshore Fishing (Scotland) Bill. He said: I believe that there are sufficient safety powers in respect of the vessels that go the sea."—[Official Report, 5 June 1984; Vol. c. 245.] I am gently chiding him now, although I admire his courage in coming back to the House with his Bill. I know how difficult fishermen can be to deal with. I speak with knowledge because I come from a family of fishermen. My mother was a fisher girl, and fisher girls are even more difficult to deal with.

I sincerely hope that Mr. Bob Allan and his colleagues in the Scottish Fishermen's Federation will re-examine their attitudes to this laudable and honourable Bill. In The Scotsman of 9 February 1984, a long article on fishing vessel safety, which is an important subject for Scotland, states: At the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, Bob Allan, the chief executive, confessed to a degree of surprise at the figures"— the figures of deaths and vessel losses. The article continued by quoting Mr. Allan: 'Over the years we have been saddened and perplexed on the occasions when vessels are lost without apparent explanation.' In the wake of Holland-Martin"— the committee of inquiry into trawler safety set up by Lord Wilson in 1969— everyone became very safety conscious and there had been a tremendous number of strides forward, with the Scottish fleet being more modern that the rest of the United Kingdom. 'Frankly, I don't think there is any more we can do, he said. I have much respect for Bob Allan, but I regret to say that much more can be done. That is why I am privileged to be a sponsor of the Bill.

On Wednesday, I asked the Secretary of State for Transport to give me some idea of the number of United Kingdom registered fishing vessels that had been lost since 1975. The figure is 424. That is an appalling loss of vessels and of men.

My first personal experience of tragedy at sea was when my uncle Midge died when the Hull trawler Boston Seafire encountered severe weather on its run down to Hull from the Norwegian fishing grounds. I remember as a young man several of my school friends losing their fathers when the Hull trawlers Lorella and Roderigo foundered off north-west Iceland in 1955. There have been many other losses. I remember also, because I had many friends on board the vessels, the three Hull trawlers that went down in 1968. That prompted the setting up of that useful and fine committee on trawler safety. One aspect of those tragedies that will stay with me always, which is why I welcome the Bill, is that only one man survived when those three trawlers foundered within days of each other. The mate of the Ross Cleveland, Harry Eddom, survived because he was wearing an immersion suit, albeit of a primitive kind.

I hope to be here for the winding-up speech of the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan, but I have to go to Carlisle to take part in a televised debate on child abuse.

All the clauses are important, but clause 3, relating to the wearing of lifejackets, is an especially fine clause. I compliment the hon. Gentleman for helping to organise the display and demonstration yesterday. I put on one of the belts, and an official of the company inflated it. I was impressed by its lightness and the fact that it appeared, in the safe confines of the House of Commons Dining Room, not to impede or restrict movement of the trunk, arms and hands.

However, clause 3 should go further. Every vessel should carry immersion suits for each member of the crew. I believe that they cost about £300 each. I take on board what was said by the hon. Gentleman earlier, but every vessel should carry immersion suits. France, Norway, Denmark and the Federal Republic of Germany have regulations to ensure that immersion suits are carried on merchant and fishing vessels. I may be wrong, but I am fairly certain that that is the case. The clause should be amended to include the carriage of immersion suits. They will not always save lives, but, as the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan said, if they save only a handful of lives, the costs—it is possible to obtain grants and tax relief on their purchase; but perhaps the Minister will correct if I am wrong—of acquiring, carrying and stowing the suits in a sensible place—not in the bunkers or tucked away in a locker under a bunk—will be worth while. As I said, the only man to survive in those dreadful tragedies off north-west Iceland was wearing an immersion suit. He clambered on to a life raft with three other members of the crew. Unfortunately, they were wearing only semmit and drawers. They all died, with the exception of Harry Eddom who was wearing an immersion suit.

Fishermen will not like me for saying that they should be compelled to wear safety helmets when working on the decks of their trawlers. They work in a harsh environment and the sea is never like Dylan Thomas's "fishingboatbobbing sea," or some the advertisements that persuade us to buy those horrible fish fingers. We should always buy fresh fish. The sea is almost always rough. On the last voyage that I made on an Aberdeen stern trawler, we were away for 15 days. I am a fair weather fisherman, but I had to suffer every day and night of that appalling trip in a force 5 or force 6 gale. Every member of the crew should wear a safety helmet when working on the deck of a trawler under those conditions. If they are worn on construction sites, why not on the decks of trawlers?

As the Minister stated in reply to a question that I asked earlier this week, accident and death rates among fishermen are far higher than in coal mining or construction. If I am lucky enough to be on the Committee, I give the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan warning that that is the type of amendment that I shall seek to make. It is essential that fishermen working in that harsh environment, on the heaving deck of a trawler, often with unprotected deck machinery, should have the benefit of safety helmets. The hon. Gentleman said that if someone is knocked overboard unconscious, a lifebelt would help him. If he is wearing a safety helmet, he might not be bounced over the side.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Sea Fisheries Training Council. I had the honour to serve on the council as an educational representative. I was thrilled and privileged to be part of a movement that developed training so widely in the fishing industry. I regret to say that the Government decided that it had to go. It was set up by a Labour Government. However, in fairness—I am almost as even-handed as the Social Democrats—the Government have given money to the Sea Fish Industry Authority to continue the training, and it must be continued.

All fishermen must be trained in survival techniques — not only in fire-fighting precautions, but in firefighting techniques. All fishermen should be medically examined annually and all young fishermen should undertake survival and fire-fighting training.

What is the position of the Department of Transport on the recommended code of safety for fishermen? I declare an interest, in that I was a member of the committee that produced this important booklet in 1976. Is it still in print and is it still distributed to skippers? If not, why not? It is a first-class code of safety for fishermen. The Merchant Navy has a code of safety which is much thicker than this booklet. What is the Department's position on protective gear for fishermen, especially safety helmets? Has research been undertaken into the effect on the stability of vessels caused by the conversion to shelter decks? I am not a naval architect, but I have often wondered about the problems created by such conversions. I welcome anything that makes the job of fishermen easier, but what will be the effect on stability?

Who will police the regulations? It is all very well to say, "You will carry a safety harness and safety helmets for the members of your crew," but we must ensure that fishermen comply with the regulations. Will we have a seagoing fisheries factory inspectorate, or will we ask the fisheries protection service, which does an admirable job in other areas, to police the regulations? I foresee immense difficulties. We all know of people refusing to wear protective gear in land-based industries. The Bill does not tackle that problem, but I am sure that it can be amended in Committee. I wish to hear the Minister's views on that. It is not true that many of the clauses could be dealt with by way of statutory instrument?

The Bill must be amended to strengthen it, but I give it a most sincere welcome.

10.52 am
Mr. Alexander Pollock (Moray)

I add my warm congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. McQuarrie) on securing first place in the ballot and on his choice of subject. Those of us who know him well are not surprised that he should have chosen to introduce a Bill on a subject that is dear to his heart. As a neighbour of his on the Moray coast, I can understand why. Like him, I have had the harrowing experience during my years in Parliament of visiting the bereaved, attending memorial services after the loss of vessels at sea and being conscious of the tragic heartache involved.

I pay tribute to my predecessor in the Banff part of my constituency, Mr. David Myles. He, too, took those duties seriously and discharged them with a quiet dignity that struck a warm chord on both sides of the House. It is also incumbent on me to pay tribute to the superintendents of the missions for the work that they do in those trying times, along with local ministers.

The concept of safety at sea and its promotion has, understandably, found support on both sides of the House today, and the Bill has an impressive list of supporters from all parties. It was also encouraging to see the number of hon. Members who visited the exhibition organised in the House yesterday, which enabled us to see the striking new equipment that is so relevant to the Bill.

I could summarise my position on the Bill by saying that I applaud its objectives, but I have several reservations about some clauses remaining in their present form. Perhaps I might deal with some of those in turn. In so doing, I join my hon. Freiend the Member for Wyre (Sir W. Clegg) in saying that I do not attack my hon. Friend' s good intentions in drafting the Bill as he did. I know many of the restraints under which he had to work. However. as he recognised, some obvious flaws must be corrected and some definitions must be more tightly drawn.

Furthermore, if the Bill is to have the desired effect, Parliament must take the fishermen with it as far as it can. Given that there has not been full consultation with the leading fishermen's organisations, we must be ready to hear their point of view and do our best to work together to finalise legislation acceptable to all. I welcome the willingness of fishermen's leaders, such as Willie Hay and Sandy Baird, to enter into a dialogue with a view to making constructive suggestions as to how best to secure the passage of the Bill through the House in a form acceptable to the industry.

I am glad that my hon. Friend made it clear that the purpose of the Bill is to promote safety measures only on fishing vessels. Were that not the case, the Bill would be too wide-ranging and run the risk of attracting criticism from those with whom it is not primarily concerned.

Although clause 1, which deals with the provision of distress beacons, may not save the lives of fishermen, we should remember that it may lead to substantially fewer risks encountered by air-sea rescue services, such as the Nimrods from RAF Kinloss and the Sea King helicopters from RAF Lossiemouth, both in my constituency, and to which I also pay warm tribute for the work that they do. They are often required to search for long periods in wretched and dangerous conditions after a fishing vessel is believed to have gone down.

The clause will also help to relieve the heartache of the widows and parents ashore, many of whom have repeatedly told me of their anguish when their men's bodies cannot be found and brought home for a proper burial. Against that background, the cost of the beacon and the hydrostatic release seems small indeed.

Clause 3, which provides for the compulsory wearing of lifejackets, will be the most controversial measure. It is perhaps natural that an industry composed of individuals should be suspicious of such compulsory requirements. Men who spend their lives pitting their wits against the elements may think that they already take sensible precautions and resent being told what to do by Parliament. They have two key questions to ask. First, is there a design on the market which allows fishermen to carry out their essential duties with the minimum of discomfort and interference? Secondly, is there a design robust enough to withstand the normal rigours of their daily work? Many of us have seen the exhibition and tried on the new equipment. I hope that more facilities will be provided to allow such equipment to be readily seen and tried at first hand by fishermen round our coasts.

If there is such a design, could recent tragedies have been avoided by wearing such lifebelts? If there is evidence in the affirmative—I believe that there is—Parliament must be prepared to take the lead and, if necessary, impose its view on a suspicious industry. The parallel has been drawn with seat belts. I was a late convert to the compulsory legislation. To begin with, I considered it to be an intrusion on liberty, but the facts are chiels that win a day, and in this case clearly they have their place. The precise extent of any enforcement, the nature of any penalty and, more particularly, the question of upon whom any penalty might be imposed are surely matters better kept for further and fuller exploration in Committee.

With regard to clause 4, dealing with wheelhouse visibility, I am glad that my hon. Friend has made it clear that the clause cannot remain in its present form, that it will need substantial redrafting and that it will not apply to vessels already fishing. That will certainly allay a number of fears.

In conclusion, these few remarks will have shown my keen interest in the Bill, as well as my reservations about some of the clauses as they now stand. Those reservations can be fully explored in Committee. Meanwhile, I join in wishing the Bill, if not a wholly smooth voyage, at least a very worthwhile passage through the House.

It being Eleven o'clock MR. SPEAKER interrupted the proceedings, pursuant to Standing Order No. 5 (Friday sittings).

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