HC Deb 07 February 1986 vol 91 cc575-600

Question again proposed, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

11.47 am
Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

On behalf of my colleagues in the Liberal and Social Democratic parties, I warmly endorse the spirit of the Bill whose Second Reading was moved by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. McQuarrie). I have listened intently to all the speeches, and I have come to the conclusion that the standard of the debate that we have in this place on a Friday often exceeds by a long measure some of the party political dogma and dog-fights that we have on other days of the week.

I start by paying tribute, as other hon. Members have, to the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he introduced the Bill. In a very short space of time, he has been assiduous in putting together a Bill dealing with detailed and important points. The House should rightly pay tribute to his continuing and genuine interest in a subject that affects not just his constituency but other parts of Scotland. Hon. Members have also referred to the exhibition that was organised in another part of the House earlier this week. It was extremely instructive. The hon. Gentleman also takes the credit for organising that exhibition.

The hon. Gentleman is correct in his main intention that underlies the essence of the Bill, which is that statutory requirements are now essential. I listened carefully to the remarks of the hon. Member for Moray (Mr. Pollock), who said quite rightly that we must attempt to take the industry and the fishermen with us on this matter. If there is disagreement and they do not want to operate statutory provisions, I believe that the House has a duty to take the lead and to make decisions, even if they are unpopular. However, we must obviously have full consultation with the industry.

Since coming to the House, I have been surprised at the amount of time that has, quite properly, been devoted to the structure of the fishing fleet, the common fisheries policy of the EEC, the details of quotas and so on. However, this is the first debate dealing with the specific question of safety at sea. The hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) made an interesting speech on the matter. I know that, to his credit, he has raised the matter during Question time and on other occasions. We are certainly not having this debate before time.

I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan say that yachts would be excluded from the provisions of the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) has received a great deal of correspondence from the Royal Yachting Association, which has more than a passing interest in the Isle of Wight and yachting. In a letter on 3 February its chairman said: I can imagine riots on the ferries to the Island if all the passengers are made to wear life jackets in compliance with clause 3. However, the hon. Gentleman's assurance should satisty the RYA and other interested parties.

I hope that there will be full and proper consultation. I quite understand that constraints on time have made it difficult to examine the fine detail of the Bill. The hon. Gentleman has assured the House that he will consult on the detail before the Committee stage.

I hope that under clause 13, which deals with exemptions, we can include such events as local fishing festivals. The life jackets that are provided for in the Bill have been described as galluses that would suit the trousers of the Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Henderson). If the Eyemouth herring queen were to come round St. Abbs head in Berwickshire next year wearing galluses, that would somewhat detract from the festival —[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan is physically demonstrating the life jacket to the House. I do not believe that it would add much to the ceremonial dress of the festival queen and her attendants. Such fishing trips—often with children on board—are undertaken only in fine weather, and the festival committee is a responsible body. Therefore, I hope that the herring queen and her equivalents in other local festivals will not have to wear the contraption that the hon. Gentleman has just waved above his head. I think that some angling trips, such as deep sea fishing, should also be excluded.

Mr. McQuarrie

I assure the hon. Gentleman that clause 13 is a wide exempting clause. If the hon. Gentleman will remind me when we reach the Committee stage, we can discuss it then.

Mr. Kirkwood

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his helpful response.

As the hon. Gentleman is aware, the industry has suffered some recent financial difficulties. When the European directive on mesh sizes comes into operation, the industry will face further financial liabilities. Therefore, we must remember that additional costs for installing the equipment provided for in the Bill could cause added difficulties to the industry. I am, however, aware that there are grants and tax concessions, but the industry has had to face many increased on-costs, such as fuel, and smaller vessels have suffered most from that. I hope that if the industry can demonstrate that the on-costs will be a critical factor in the difference between wide acceptance or wide reluctance, the Government will reconsider the grants and other incentives available through the Sea Fish Industry Authority.

Mr. McQuarrie

I want further to clarify the point about exemptions. Clause 15 provides that vessels used other than for profit will be excluded.

Mr. Kirkwood

That is good news.

Fishermen, by nature, are antipathetic to any additional bureaucracy or impositions that they think are unnecessary. They have to take risks which I would certainly never willingly take. I suppose that they get used to living in dangerous conditions at sea and so become a little blase or perhaps even complacent. Therefore, the House is right to take a close interest in all aspects of safety at sea.

I am aware that not all sectors of the industry are happy about the Bill, but they should now be satisfied with the hon. Gentleman's assurances to consider the detail in Committee. The Government should respond positively to the Bill. The hon. Member for Wyre (Sir W. Clegg) said that the Bill could be used as a basis on which to provide for other aspects of safety in the fishing industry.

No one has yet referred to the need for helicopters, especially in the north-west of Scotland. the Western Isles.

Mr. Foulkes

British helicopters.

Mr. Kirkwood

Yes, we could use Westland helicopters. I know that the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan has been very active in trying to obtain helicopters for that area.

The problems of sea debris are tackled well in the Bill. It is a positive and constructive step, which the industry should welcome. I know that training aspects are also causing concern. If the Manpower Services Commission withdraws some of its current support, that will be quite unforgivable. The Government should carefully consider that. Indeed, I hope that the Minister will say something about it when he replies to the debate.

I agree with the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow about the provision of an immersion suit, although I know that the costs of that could create difficulties for the industry.

The Social Democratic and Liberal parties welcome the Bill and look forward to continuing our discussions in Committee. I hope that we will achieve a Bill which not only fits the requirements of the industry, but measures up to the real fears that have been expressed in this interesting and useful debate. At the end of the day, hon. Members have a responsibility for ensuring that there is adequate legislation to deal with the safety of our fishermen who go down to the sea and do business in great waters.

11.59 am
Mr. Gerald Malone (Aberdeen, South)

I should like to add to the congratulations that have been heaped on my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. McQuarrie). This is an extremely worthwhile Bill. The House's only regret at its passing into law is that we shall be deprived of the sight of my hon. Friend walking the Corridors of the House clad in a variety of interesting life jackets and bearing a distress beacon, no doubt because it is difficult to find him from time to time.

Hon. Members know that my hon. Friend has provided us with great interest and a fair amount of amusement occasionally during the past few weeks, but that is not to denigrate the great efforts that he has made in a short time to impress upon us the importance of the Bill. The Bill addresses an extremely serious matter, as those of us with constituency fishing interests are only too prepared to acknowledge.

My hon. Friend has been sensible to introduce a Bill that tackles several straightforward but nevertheless important issues. Clause 1 deals with distress beacons, the provision of which could have saved a great deal of time finding vessels in trouble. Delay has caused substantial loss of life. It is sad that the industry, which could have reduced the loss of life, has not acted as quickly as it should have done. We have an obligation to support legislation such as this if industries do not voluntarily take steps to reduce death or injury.

As for inflatable life rafts, my hon. Friend's useful provision will impose little cost on the industry. He was at pains to stress that little cost will be imposed on the industry or the masters of vessels by the Bill. Nevertheless, the changes will be exceptionally useful. He has given examples of how life could have been saved if such devices had been fitted.

There is some anxiety about clause 4, which deals with wheelhouse visibility. My hon. Friend has explained that vessels currently in use will not have to be modified except when they go into dock for substantial repair, and that the provisions will apply to new vessels. That explanation is useful. I am confident that the anxiety that the industry would face prohibitive expense, or that vessels would not be able to set to sea, as soon as the legislation went on the statute book will have been substantially relieved.

As for load lines, I cannot help but contemplate that, as a Mr. Plimsoll became rather famous for a certain piece of legislation, we might have the McQuarrie line when clause 5 becomes law. Perhaps the Bill itself will act as a testament to what my hon. Friend is doing. It has been said that it might be difficult to apply load lines at sea. My hon. Friend addressed that point when he said that inspectors would be able to see clearly whether vessels were overloaded when they came back to port. The Bill will encourage a habit among the fishing industry where there is none at present. The practice of overloading is occasional, but it would stop if it were known that there was a possibility of inspection and prosecution for regular overloading.

Mr. Fairbairn

I am worried about clause 5. The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) fell into my trap earlier. There is a difference between loading a vessel in flat water, where it can be seen when the weight pushes the McQuarrie line, if that is the appropriate thing, under the water, and loading the vessel with fish at sea. where there is not the slightest possibility of knowing at what point, were the water flat, which it most certainly is not, the line would be beneath the water. The test which my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Malone) has suggested is that some nasty official can see that a vessel's McQuarrie line is below the surface back in the safe water of Aberdeen harbour. How is the fisherman to discover that the vessel is below the line when he gets back if he cannot tell when the load is put on?

Mr. Malone

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend, who represents farming interests. If he represented fishing interests he would understand that fishermen know to the last cod what they can load. That is certainly true of those who sail out of Aberdeen harbour. The Bill would introduce a habit of not stretching the limit and therefore incurring danger. We are encouraging good habit and good practice. My hon. and learned Friend's fears will not be realised.

My hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan made another important observation. An increasing amount of gear is put on the decks of vessels, and it would be useful for the operators to see the effect that the gear has on the vessel's ability to contain the catch.

The provision of approved life jackets speaks for itself. The ones that I have seen in the useful demonstration that my hon. Friend has made available to hon. Members show that they are not the cumbersome items of apparel that they once were. They will not inhibit fishermen from carrying out their duties. Once again we are encouraging a good habit. My hon. Friend used the analogy of safety belts. Clunk-click every trip in the car has become a habit as well as a statutory requirement, and I believe that people would continue with the practice even if it were not legally required. I am not sure whether clunk-click is the right description, but the habit of wearing a life jacket will eventually become difficult to break.

I have some worries about the provisions concerning debris at sea. I accept what my hon. Friend said about the difficulties of drafing legislation, especially at such short notice, but, as drafted, there is absolute liability. It will be difficult to continue that. I hope that my hon. Friend will take that up in Committee. Some element of negligence must be introduced, or fishermen who sometimes have to cut gear or throw items overboard because of problems might be put in some difficulty. I know that my hon. Friend will address that matter in Committee.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on presenting the Bill in one of the most able and comprehensive Second Reading speeches that I have heard. I do not want to make any allusions to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, but if legislation were introduced on the same lines as my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan has suggested in his Bill, the House would be most grateful. I congratulate him and wish him every success.

12.9 pm

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

I join hon. Members in all quarters of the House who have congratulated the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. McQuarrie) on his good fortune in the ballot and, especially, on his choice of subject for a private Member's Bill. It is no pun when I say that we shall give the Bill a fair wind.

One of the strengths of the House of Commons is that hon. Members come from different backgrounds, occupations and areas. It is amazing how, when hon. Members visit a constituency with which they have had no contact before their election, they become immersed in its work and begin to recognise the fears and anxieties of the constituents. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) and I probably know better than most the psychology, fears, anxieties, kinship, family affinities and communities of the fishing industry as we both come from fishing families. There were fishermen on both sides of my family. My late father went to sea at the age of 11 as a cook on the family drifter, Restless Wave, which sailed from Pittenweem. I spent many happy holidays as a youth, and even went to school for a short time, at Whitehills in the constituency of the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan. Therefore, we have strong family connections with fishing, and when we hear of vessels, such as the Bon Ami, going down, it is not simply a statistic or a name flashed across the television screen, but families we have known for generations. We understand that kinship, and the heartaches of families whose kinfolk are at sea, waiting in weather such as we have today and wondering whether they will return.

Fishing has always been a hard and dangerous job and a tough life. My father always said to me, "Never go to sea." He would not necessarily have approved of my present occupation, but I am sure that he was glad that I never went to sea as a working fisherman. Conditions have improved and vessels are bigger and better built. There are much better navigational aids, weather forecasting and weather radio communications are better, and the work, which is still hard, has been helped by the invention and widespread use of hydraulic winches. Nevertheless, it is still a hard and dangerous business.

The statistics are chilling, and each time they are produced we wonder why they have not improved. I pay tribute to Dr. Mark Reilly of the department of community medicine at Dundee university, whose research work has helped to concentrate our minds on and brought together the facts. The loss of life and ships gives us great cause for continuing anxiety. The reports make it clear that fishermen are on average four times more likely to die in accidents than miners, and we have always regarded mining as the most dangerous occupation. Indeed, the mortality and accident rates for fishermen are much higher than for construction workers. Moreover, in mining and construction, the mortaliity and accident rates are improving, whereas in fishing they continue to grow worse.

Mr. McQuarrie

In paying tribute to Dr. Reilly, would the hon. Gentleman not also wish to pay tribute to Professor Mair of Dundee university who has worked hard with Dr. Reilly to produce this essential information about the industry?

Mr. Hughes

I gladly join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to Professor Mair.

It is a fact of life that when a vessel is lost with its entire crew, it attracts the attention of the media, and involves the public. However, many individual fishermen go overboard, and they do not attract the same attention. Nevertheless the tradegy to the family is as great. We should not neglect to mention that, besides the loss of life, we are considering the severe accidents and injuries caused at sea. They must also be kept at the front of our minds. That is why I particularly welcome clause 9, which makes provision for a report to Parliament on all aspects of safety at sea, and for proposals for the improvement of existing regulations relating to safety at sea. We need a report, not merely "from time to time", but annually. I hope that in Committee the hon. Gentleman will accept an amendment to that effect.

Mr. Fairbairn

Parliament is well aware of road accidents and injuries. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that when putting in scale the extent of accidents and injuries at sea, we should remember that road accidents and injuries are minute compared with accidents and injuries at sea?

Mr. Hughes

I agree with the facts. I am not sure what conclusion the hon. and learned Gentleman draws, but my conclusion is that it does not make any difference whether 10, 15 or 1,500 people are lost, because we are concerned with safety and the prevention of death or injury, wherever it may occur.

One may draw an analogy between fishermen and motorists, in that they regret it when the law impinges on their activities and makes them do something which, to begin with, they regard as an infringement. The compulsory wearing of seat belts has attracted a great deal of publicity and many complaints, and there will undoubtedly be some expression of anatagonism about wearing lifejackets. But the number of lives saved and serious injuries prevented through wearing seat belts is a good example of how wearing lifejackets can have the same effect.

We need perpetual and eternal vigilance over safety at sea. It is many years since the Holland Martin report followed from the loss of the trawlers, the St. Romanus, the Kingston Peridot and the Ross Cleveland in 1968, all of which foundered within a period of 26 days. That was a spectacular event. The report produced many important recommendations, most of which are now incorporated in statute, but that was 18 years ago. We cannot simply produce a report on safety at sea when we have a series of major tragedies which excite public interest. I hope that we shall have annual reports.

Clause 5, which deals with load lines, has aroused much discussion. It may be argued that it is difficult to judge the load line, especially at sea when the water is never calm and the vessel is rolling, but too much is being made of that. Fishermen know within a relatively safe approximation how much fish they are carrying. Indeed, most of them know when the vessel is overloaded. But we need to compel them to take more cognisance of that, and to ensure that the pressures on them do not tempt them to go beyond the safety limit.

The matter is not as complicated as people suggest. I am no naval architect—I am sure that naval architects would tear my theories to pieces—but when a vessel is designed the designers have two points in mind. The first is stability. I believe that there is something called the stability line. As an engineer, I would call it the centre of gravity. We know precisely what the stability line is.

Naval designers have also to calculate what the roll of the vessel is, both loaded and unloaded, in different conditions. Clearly, there must be a calculation for the freeway, which has to be worked out in calm water levels. It is the level of the water compared to the height of the gunwale, so that, when the vessel rolls, it does not dip under and founder.

Those two calculations must be in the design of the vessels. In the more sophisticated shipyards there will be model testing. Much information is available. I am sure that the calculation can be done to provide a load line that is much more visible than the present Plimsoll line, which is a circle with three lines drawn through it. These lines represent tolerances in relation to when the ship is ballast or fully loaded. A broad band running two thirds around the hull of the fishing vessel could be used as a guide when the skipper is wondering how much fish he can take on board. I am sure that can be accommodated.

Mr. Fairbairn

I am concerned about this matter. I can understand that overloading a ship could put it at peril. Of the accidents of which we know, is there any suggestion that the cause was that the catch had overloaded the ship to such an extent that it foundered?

Mr. Hughes

Agreat deal of research is going on into that, and I hope that the Minister will tell us what research is going on in his Department. One of the difficulties is that it is rare to find a vessel that founders at sea. In many cases, when the vessel has gone, its precise location will not be found. One does not know the exact conditions in that spot, never mind the loading of the vessel. All these imponderables have an effect. There are accidents such as that of the Bon Ami, but that was a different case. Usually the vessel rolls in the sea, goes down, and nothing is known for several days.

A number of measures must be examined. There must be more rigorous regulations about reporting in. It is not unknown for skippers who have found a good shoal of cod not to report in because, if the news came over the airways, like seagulls other vessels would join, although that may be a rare occurrence. Reporting in would help to alert people to vessels foundering, especially if the men are afloat in water or on a liferaft. If they do not report in by a certain time, the Nimrod spotter aircraft and other vessels in the North sea could be on the lookout for them.

Clause 8, which concerns training for survival at sea, must be strengthened so that all entrants, not just new entrants, undergo survival courses as well as safety courses, which are also extremely important.

The new lifejackets are extremely easy to wear. The mobility and dexterity of those wearing them are not affected. We have been speaking jokingly about galluses. In case anybody needs a translation, they are braces. It is a pity that those who have not seen the exhibition will not know what the jacket looks like. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan is holding one up, so hon. Members can see that it is compact. It would not affect people's movements or agility.

We need to incorporate a clause about medical examinations. In an occupation as dangerous as that of a fisherman, health can be extremely important. Therefore, I hope something can be done about this. I understand that Dr. Renfrew, who for many years was the port medical officer at Grimsby, has compiled a set of standards based on his experience. I hope that, as a result of that, regular health examinations will be required.

We can never eliminate the loss of life or of vessels. Fishermen describe lumps of water that suddenly descend on a ship in bad weather. Even design, security and the acumen of the skipper in charting his vessel through heavy waters cannot eliminate that. The Bill, however, deserves support.

I am disappointed in the SFF. I know Willie Hay, Gilbert Buchan and the others as well as anybody. I am sorry that they have taken a rather negative attitude towards the Bill. I should have been happier if they had taken the same view as that of the Transport and General Workers Union, which wrote to me to say that it gave its full support to the Bill. No doubt, it will suggest constructive amendments, but that care and interest in its members should be copied by the SFF. The Bill deserves support to prevent accidents to, and loss of life in, fishing vessels. I give it my full-hearted support, although we shall have to work hard in Committee to make it even better.

12.22 pm
The Minister of State, Department of Transport (Mr. David Mitchell)

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. McQuarrie) on his initiative in introducing a Bill dealing with safety at sea, particularly the safety of fishermen and fishing vessels. I congratulate him also on his vigorous and persuasive exposition of the principles of the Bill, both in the Chamber today and to hon. Members in other parts of the House over the past fortnight. It is easy to be in favour of greater safety—who is not? The important distinction to be made is between those for whom this is merely an empty slogan and those who, like my hon. Friend, the Government and the fishing industry, are prepared to do something constructive to promote greater safety. Government and industry will continue to work closely on this, and I welcome the contribution that the Bill can make.

Last year I had direct responsibility in the Department of Transport for shipping matters, including fishery safety, and I was deeply concerned at the number of fishing vessels that were lost. The House has already heard that total losses between 1975 and 1984 inclusive come to some 424 vessels, and I confirm that, alas, those figures are correct. Happily, many of those losses of vessels did not involve injury or loss of life, but nevertheless this is still a serious problem. It must involve risk to lives, and we recognise the need both to ensure safety at sea and to improve the prospects for saving the lives of those involved in accidents.

It may be helpful if I give the exact figures of accidental deaths. They include those who died from drowning and also from other causes—for example, accidental death caused by machinery. Unfortunately, during the period 1976 to 1984 inclusive the number of deaths on fishing vessels of 24m and over amounted to 70. On fishing vessels of under 24m the number of deaths amounted to 175. The total of deaths during that nine-year period amounts, therefore, to 245.

I am sure that all hon. Members will join me in saying that these figures are unacceptably high. The number of deaths led me last year to meet the sea fishing safety group. At that meeting I called for further active work to be carried out into the causes and prevention of accidents in the fishing fleet.

My hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan rightly drew attention to the widespread concern about the tragic loss of life in some recent casualties in the Scottish fishing fleet. In February 1985 the Mhairi L sank in the Irish sea with the loss of its five crew. The Department has issued a report which, among other things, supports two of the proposals in my hon. Friend's Bill—the carriage of emergency position—indicating radio beacons and the fitting of automatic release arrangements on inflatable life rafts.

I join my hon. Friend in his sadness and sympathy for the relatives. I personally met some of them in my room in the House. At their request, I arranged for an underwater film that had been taken when the vessel was located on the sea bottom to be shown in Scotland. I confirm that all the evidence shows that the crew of the Mhairi L were on deck. That has relevance for the Bill.

The Ocean Harvest sank off the north-east coast of Scotland in October 1985 with the loss of its crew of four. Most recently, and sadly, in December 1985 the Bon Ami ran aground off the north-west coast of Scotland. All of the crew of six were lost when the vessel broke up and sank, despite the gallent efforts of other fishing vessels to rescue them. Again the whole House has a sense of sadness and sympathy for the relatives of those involved. My Department is still investigating the two latter cases.

Experience suggests that losses are almost always due to a combination of circumstances. It is rare for there to be a simple cause with simple conclusions which would prevent further tragedies. Nevertheless, my Department is determined to establish as far as possible the reasons for these casualties and to see what lessons can be learned for the future.

The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) suggested that we should publish a full, detailed account of the investigation in the case of the Mhairi L and other vessels. It may help hon. Members if I explain the position. If we were to publish a full, detailed account of our preliminary investigation, people who in some way might have contributed to the accident would be inhibited from giving us a full, factual account of exactly what happened, because legal complications or charges of negligence might arise from their being outspoken. Our purpose is to get to the cause of the accident, to draw what lessons we can from understanding the cause and to make consequential recommendations.

If everything that everybody said were to be taken down and could potentially be used as evidence against them, we fear that people would be inhibited from coming clean on every aspect that they knew about. Therefore, we allow people to talk in confidence without the fear of exactly what they said being exposed in a report. However, we publish a report which gives an analysis, to the best of our ability, of our assessment of the causes of the accident, so that we may make the necessary recommendations that will help to prevent future accidents.

Mr. Robert Hughes

I have not looked at the details for some time, but after an inquiry it is possible that a skipper may lose his certificate. How does the preliminary inquiry fit in with that possibility? If there is the possibility of culpability or negligence being proved, everybody will be careful about what they say.

Mr. Mitchell

Perhaps it would be helpful if I wrote to the hon. Gentleman in some detail. As I have set out, the principle is to get to the bottom of the cause with the least inhibition on people contributing as fully as possible to help us to identify it. I am sure that we are agreed that that is the right way to proceed to obtain the maximun information possible.

It is helpful to put the proposals in the Bill in the context of the Government's record in promoting greater safety at sea and on fishing vessels. One matter which is clear from the record and which I believe should be emphasised is the prime importance of consultation with the fishing industry before safety rules are introduced, and close co-operation with the industry to ensure that rules are fully enforced. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan will agree that there should be active consultation before and during the Committee stage.

Although safety is important, we must not lose sight of the costs for the Government and the industry, neither of which has a bottomless pocket. Before new safety rules are introduced, it is essential to ensure that, in a widely fragmented industry, full consultation is carried out to ensure what is practicable and cost effective. For that reason, and because of the speed of technological change, it is necessary to draft safety requirements in primary legislation without going into too much detail.

I shall comment later on some of the specific proposals in the Bill, but in that context I should mention that hydrostatic release units are now available in a form that need no servicing. They can be thrown away at the end of their useful life rather than be serviced at considerable expense. This illustrates the importance of allowing regulations to specify what type of equipment should be carried on a vessel, so that primary legislation is not overtaken by technological change. I am sure that hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan, will recognise that fact. Old-fashioned and out-of-date concepts enshrined in legislation can be inhibiting, because we would have to wait for the opportunity of primary legislation to make the necessary changes required by modern technology.

It is now more than 10 years since the Department introduced safety requirements for the construction and equipment of fishing vessels of 12m in length and over. That action was prompted by the high level of fishing vessel losses at the time and the recommendation of the commitee of inquiry into trawler safety in 1969. Following the committee's recommendation, detailed requirements were introduced in the Fishing Vessels (Safety Provisions) Rules 1975 covering the design and construction of fishing vessels, including stability, weathertight integrity, structural strength and structural fire prevention, and their machinery and essential equipment, such as navigational aids, lifesaving equipment, fire extinguishing appliances and radio. Those rules applied to new vessels and to those in service. As a result, no fewer than 2,000 vessels had to be surveyed, which entailed an immense amount of work. I pay tribute to the work of the surveyors of the Department of Transport for carrying out what was not always an easy task.

The surveys were supposed to be renewed every four years, with periodic inspections in between. The initial surveys, with minor exceptions, have all been carried out, but it took almost 10 years to achieve, against the six years originally envisaged. Even then, it was necessary to defer the first renewal survey for a further four years. In spite of the length of time that it has taken to complete, I regard that as a significant achievement for the industry and the Department. It is also a cautionary tale. Unsurprisingly, fishermen do not always see eye to eye with us on the application of statutory requirements.

Mr. McQuarrie

indicated assent.

Mr. Mitchell

I see that my hon. Friend agrees with me. However, over the years, especially through the work of the fishing industry safety group, which is widely representative of the interests of the industry, mutual respect and co-operation have increased in the common pursuit of improved safety at sea. At the same time, we have come to recognise that to reach declared objectives may take much longer and be more expensive than was first thought.

Objectives must be realistically defined, and a line must be drawn between what can be done and what should be done in an ideal world. What would have happened to the timetable for implementing the 1975 rules if, instead of catering for fishing vessels of 12m and more, the line had been drawn so as to include the remaining 5,000 fishing vessels within the statutory system of surveys? From the experience of how long it has taken to achieve surveys on 2,000 vessels, we must ask where we draw the line in seeking to apply regulations to all vessels, as some parts of the Bill do. We shall wish to consider that in Committee. We must remember that we could achieve perfect safety by the simple expedient of driving the owners of smaller vessels out of business altogether.

There has been insufficient improvement in the fishing industry's safety record, although progress has been made in some areas. The House will be interested to hear the statistics of non-fatal accidents on fishing vessels of 24m and over. In 1976 there were 813 such non-fatal accidents; in 1977 there were 609; in 1978 there were 573; in 1979 there were 413; in 1980 there were 207; in 1981 there were 97; in 1982 there were 90; in 1983 there were 64; and in 1984 there were 73. Members will realise that a reduction from 813 to 73 during nine years is at least an encouraging sign that progress has been made in that area, although there is still an unacceptable level of loss in the fleet and a completely unacceptable number of fatalities. However, the extended timetable for the completion of the existing statutory survey requirements for larger fishing vessels has delayed the full benefits of that programme for major vessel losses.

In response to the recommendations of the Holland Martin committee of inquiry and to other initiatives, the Department has taken other steps to promote the safety of fishing vessels and fishermen. I assure the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) that a comprehensive code of safety practice is available to fishermen. It was published in 1978, together with an illustrative safety booklet, which has recently been revised in consultation with the industry. I have here a copy of the booklet, which is obtainable at a cost £1.50 from Her Majesty's Stationery Office.

I would also mention the medium wave, open line, ship-to-shore radio link for fishermen funded by the Department of Transport to provide a special listening watch and communications for vessels working in the North sea beyond the range of the Coastguard's VHF radio facility on the coast. The Department also funds a special three-day weather forecast for the North sea fishing fleet.

New regulations for the certification of skippers, second hands and engineers have recently been made to improve standards. In co-operation with—

Mr. Donald Stewart

On the radio link, it is well known in fishing ports that some skippers do not take advantage of it, although their vessels might be at sea for a week, because they are afraid of giving away the area in which they are fishing at any time. However, I agree that it is a useful aid.

Mr. Mitchell

I wholly agree with the right hon. Gentleman. I have said both in the House and to the fisheries safety group that it is unsatisfactory that resources should be put into providing a service if people do not use it. I shall certainly value any encouragement that the right hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan, with their close contacts with the fishing industry in Scotland, can give to the use of the system. There is no point in incurring the expense for the provision of resources if those for whore the service is intended do not use it. I join the right hon. Gentleman in saying that not nearly enough use is made of the facility, which would help considerably in ensuring greater safety for vessels at sea.

I have mentioned that the Department funds a special three-day weather forecast for the North sea fishing fleet and the new regulations for certification of skippers, second hands and engineers. In co-operation with the National Maritime Institute, the Department has produced films on the safety of fishing vessels with special regard to stability. These films have been widely shown and appreciated both in the United Kingdom and abroad.

Until recently, I had responsibility for the Coastguard service. One of the things that I was most anxious to achieve was cross-referencing of VHF distress calls. In the modern, much more sophisticated stations, instead of visible watching from the coast we have encouraged the installation of VHF radio on any vessel going out to sea within our coastal areas. Again, I stress the importance of using this facility as an absolute must for the safety of those on board.

We have had a system which enables us to identify the direction from which a distress call comes on a given line. We are now installing other stations which can also pick up the signals so that we can cross-reference by reference to a second line. Knowing where the two lines cross will enable us to identify much more precisely the area from which the distress call comes. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan will appreciate that additional safety facility. As a result of my insistence, I can today announce that by the end of this year five extra direction-finding systems will be in use in Scotland. This will be a considerable aid to search and rescue within the 30-mile limit around the coast.

I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of the Coastguard service. My hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan is absolutely right to seek to improve safety at sea and to increase to ability of people to survive with life belts, arrangements for identification of vessels, and so on. The constant watchfulness of the coastguards—both auxiliary and full time—who silently and without much public recognition constantly monitor and watch for distress signals, ready to send the search and rescue operation into action, is a service to which the Whole House will wish to pay tribute.

The timing is peculiarly fortunate in that in making that tribute to the Coastguard service I can pay special tribute to Tim Fetherston-Dilke, the chief coastguard, who is retiring after some 20 years in the service. I am sure that the House will wish me to record our appreciation of all that he has achieved and to wish him a long and happy retirement after a job well down.

We cannot rest on our laurels. When I had direct responsibility for marine matters. I opened a dialogue with members of the fishing safety group on what more needed to be done, and I am sure that that will bear fruit in due course. I commissioned research into the causes of fishing vessel casualties, and that will result in a report that will be available to the fishing industry safety group for its April meeting. I think that that will prove a useful means of examining closely a number of important issues.

The Department is carrying out, in close consultation with the industry, a comprehensive review of the 1975 fishing vessel rules to ascertain what changes need to be made. I am sure that it will come as no surprise to my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan to hear that emergency position-indicating radio beacons, automatic release arrangements for inflatable life rafts and life jackets on fishing vessels below 12m are all under consideration already for further improving safety on fishing vessels. Due to my hon. Friend's decision to introduce the Bill, we have an opportunity to make progress in a number of these areas.

I was glad to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan confirm that his interest is in fishing vessels only and not in pleasure craft. Safety on yachts is important, but there are significant differences in the way in which fishing vessels need to be treated for safety purposes. I think that it is sensible for my hon. Friend to concentrate on fishing vessels on this occasion.

So that some of my remarks on the more specific proposals in the Bill are not misunderstood or regarded as criticism of my hon. Friend's intentions, I wish to emphasise how much of what he proposes is in train, is being done by my Department, or is under active consideration. It is fortunate that my hon. Friend has secured legislative time by his good fortune in the ballot for Private Member's Bills, which has enabled us to move forward rapidly. The Government believe that amendments can be introduced in Committee that will lead to substantial improvements to the Bill and, therefore, pave the way to improving safety on fishing vessels.

I think that we all recognise how difficult it is for Back Benchers to draft Bills. Any Back Bencher who has tried to draft a Bill, as I have, will appreciate the difficulties. I congratulate my hon. Friend on having tackled the substantial difficulties that are involved. However, there are a number of amendments that I hope he will feel able to accept. My hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Mr. Pollock) drew attention to the need for some of them.

Clause 1 is directed to distress beacons and provides for the compulsory carriage of EPIRBs. I am glad to say that, subject to redrafting to ensure that the provision relates only to fishing vessels in excess of 12m, the Government can accept the proposal. Indeed, they welcome it.

There have been many sudden and tragic losses at sea when the vessel, for whatever cause, may have been unable to send a distress message in any form. A radio-alerting beacon that would float free from the stricken vessel and automatically set an alarm has been seen by my Department as an urgent need. Despite much work being undertaken here and abroad, that goal could not be achieved using the conventional terrestrial radio systems. However, with the advent of satellites there has been a dramatic change, and we are on the threshold of one of the most significant contributions to maritime safety since the introduction of radio.

The signal from a radio beacon can be detected by an over-flying satellite, processed and passed down to a ground station, which in turn alerts search-and-rescue operations. The local user terminal is at Lasham, and it will be able to receive signals from distress beacons in virtually the whole of the search-and-rescue area for which the United Kingdom is responsible. Supplemented by similar terminals in Norway and France, it will be possible to cover all of the area in which our fishing vessels are likely to operate. From these signals it will be possible to identify the stricken vessel and locate its position to within 1 or 2 nautical miles.

Mr. Fairbairn

What is the magic of 12m? I should have thought that the smaller the vessel, the greater the risk. Why will vessels below 12m be exempted?

Mr. Mitchell

The exact size of the vessel will be given careful consideration in Committee. Expenditure will be incurred and we must ensure that some boats going around within easy sight of the coast are not compelled to carry equipment which may be of greater value than the boat itself. One must be realistic, but I agree that that point should be examined. I am not dogmatic about 12m being the right length.

Mr. McQuarrie

The point raised by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Perth and Kinross (Mr. Fairbairn) is covered in clause 6 on vessels of less than 12m.

Mr. Mitchell

We can look at such matters closely in Committee. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for replying to the point.

A specification for the distress beacon is being worked out urgently so that manufacture in quantity can begin. Three British firms have produced prototypes which the Department has used to evaluate the system. It is hoped that full-scale production can begin within a year. We shall have to consider in Committee the appropriate time for the introduction of that requirement in connection with the equipment on the appropriate wavelength for the Lasham monitoring arrangements. Clearly it would not be particularly appropriate to require it in respct of wavelengths which cannot be picked up with a system which is coming on stream so shortly.

Clause 2 provides that life rafts with automatic release equipment should be carried by a wide range of vessels. The Government cannot accept that requirement in respect of vessels other than fishing vessels, and then only with some qualifications. The present regulations already require that every fishing vessel of 12m in length and over must carry lifeboats or life rafts to accommodate at least the total number of persons on board. Fishing vessels of less that 12m are not at present required to carry life rafts, but they must carry lifebuoys. That requirement is at present under review. The Department is consulting the industry and has commissioned a research project which will deal, among other things, with the optimum siting of life rafts on board fishing vessels—a problem which is particularly relevant to small vessels.

My Department has for some time strongly recommended owners of fishing vessels to fit hydrostatic release units to all life rafts. We have not, however, introduced statutory requirements similar to those for merchant ships. This is because there are a number of practical difficulties which have to be overcome. The research project is addressed to these. When we have the results, and after proper consultation with the industry, we intend to make regulations that would make the carriage of life rafts mandatory in prescribed cases. I should emphasise that these requirements would relate to automatic release arrangements for life rafts and not simply hydrostatic release units. We cannot rule out that other float-free systems may be acceptable, or even preferable, for fishing vessels.

In summary, subject to appropriate amendment, the Government welcome clause 2 and would propose to use it to introduce regulations requiring the fitting of automatic release arrangements for life rafts as soon as practicable.

Clause 3 requires that persons in a wide range of vessels should at all times when on deck at sea wear an inflatable lifejacket of an approved type. The existing regulations already provide for the carriage of lifejackets on fishing vessels of 12m and over, and lifebuoys on fishing vessels of any lesser size, but the regulations do not require lifejackets to be worn all the time when on deck.

The regulations allow the use of inflatable lifejackets which meet specified requirements as well as the conventional non-inflatable type. I understand that such inflatable lifejackets have only recently been developed but that they should become generally available soon. My hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan has been helpful to hon. Members in demonstrating this type of lifejacket. Earlier this week must have been the only occasion—I am sure that it did not break the rules of the House—on which an hon. Member was seen in the Tea Room wearing a lifejacket, which was when my hon. Friend demonstrated it to me.

I can support the proposals that lifejackets for at least the number of persons on board should be carried on all fishing vessels. However, I have much more difficulty over a mandatory requirement for a lifejacket to be worn at all times when on deck and the requirement that the lifejacket must be of an inflatable type. In Committee and in consultation with the industry we must give careful consideration to whether an inflatable lifejacket might impose risks in connection with machinery, winding equipment, and so on, and to the problem of wear and tear. In short, it could impede work and lead to early deterioration and damage of the lifejacket. It would be impossible to enforce such a provision, and we shall have to carefully consider that point. It is a matter in which I am very much aware that an individual should act on the advice of his skipper.

Clause 4 on wheelhouse visibility provides that fishing vessels should be constructed so as to afford a clear view ahead and, in particular, that there should be an unobstructed view to the horizon from the wheelhouse. We shall need to consider in Committee whether that provision is necessary. There are regulations concerning construction of vessels over 12m. I refer the House to rule 5 of the collision regulations requiring a proper lookout. Clearly a proper lookout cannot be provided if there is not visibility from the wheelhouse in the way that my hon. Friend requires in clause 4. We must consider whether there is any reason why existing regulations are not proving effective.

Mr. Fairbairn

Why should the horizon be taken as the concept of visibility? One can envisage many occasions at sea when one might be able to see the horizon, but not the danger which is closer or, alternatively, when one might not be able to see the horizon but one can see the dangers.

Mr. Mitchell

That is an interesting point. I can see that there is much opportunity to examine these matters in Committee.

Clause 5 provides that the statutory rules for calculating loadlines for merchant ships should be applied, with appropriate modification, to fishing vessels as well. Again, I have to say that this provision will need careful consideration in Committee to ascertain whether it is necessary or practicable. The statutory rules, with one exception, already apply to fishing vessels. The actual marking of loadlines has not been required because such vessels load at sea and the loadline cannot be observed from on board. That view is endorsed by the International Maritime Organisation and incorporated in the international convention for the safety of fishing vessels 1977.

The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North made certain suggestions, which should be carefully considered. The right hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) referred to vessels returning to port overloaded. The Department has a rogues' gallery of photographs and newspaper cuttings which people have proudly obtained and, in some cases, treasured showing vessels coming into harbour weighed down to the gunwales with fish, in effect saying, "What a marvellous people we are. What a great harvest of the sea. Never has a vessel come into harbour so loaded with fish." Our surveyors are horrified. That point must be considered carefully, and I welcome the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North.

There are complications and difficulties about examining the loadline of a vessel which is pitching and tossing, but we must consider all possible alternatives for dealing with the problem of the overloaded vessel, which my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan correctly identified.

Clause 6 relates to the requirement for vessels of less than 12m in length to carry a bouyant heaving line attached to a lifebuoy, to carry six distress signals of a specified type and to carry 10 per cent. more lifejackets than the number of persons on board. The first and second of those requirements are already provided for in existing regulations.

I accept that there should be a requirement for the carriage of lifejackets for all persons on board fishing vessels below 12m in length. I have questioned the proposal that all lifejackets should be inflatable. However, I am pleased to consider, in consultation with the industry, a safety margin in the number of lifejackets carried.

Clause 7 would make it an offence to leave debris at sea that may damage fishing vessels and their gear. It would enable the owner of a fishing vessel damaged in that way to claim compensation from the owner or master of the vessel that left the debris. The Government are not prepared to support that provision. Permitted operational discharges from ships are regulated by the international convention on marine pollution. The Food and Environmental Protection Act 1985 imposes licensing arrangements on the deposit of substances and articles withia British fishery limits or by United Kingdom registered ships anywhere.

Mr. Fairbairn

Is there to be a distinction between territorial and international waters, because the law on compensation and reparation can be applied in territorial waters but not in international waters on the same basis?

Mr. Mitchell

My hon. and learned Friend is a noted member of the legal profession. He has a detailed understanding of these matters which goes beyond my knowledge. By the time we are in Committee, I shall have full cognisance of the matter that he mentioned.

Clause 8 provides that all persons aged 50 or under who sail in fishing vessels shall, within six months, obtain a certificate which demonstrates that they have satisfactorily undertaken a sea training course which would include fire precautions. Voluntary training for that purpose is already widely available. Considerable effort has been made in recent years through the Sea Fisheries Training Council, now under the auspices of the Sea Fish Industry Authority, and the group training associations, to encourage all fishermen to attend training courses on basic sea survival. The House heard from the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) about a sole survivor from a ship who survived as a result of his clothing. There are many lessons to be learnt from that.

My Department has inspected and approved 33 centres where those courses are conducted. In addition, the new certification requirements for skippers, second hands and engineers on fishing vessels of 16.5m or more in length provides for mandatory attendance at courses for basic sea survival. Through the fishing industry safety group, and in other ways, the Department is willing to continue to encourage as many other fishermen as possible to attend those courses. I do not believe, however, that such attendance should become mandatory for all fishermen, because of the problems of enforcement and because of the costs that it would impose on the fishing industry.

Clause 9 refers to reports to Parliament. It would require the Secretary of State to make, and lay before Parliament, reports on all aspects of safety at sea and to make proposals for improving existing regulations on the subject. I believe that provision to be unnecessary. The published annual return "Casualties to Vessels and Accidents to Men" provides statistical information covering both merchant ships and fishing vessels. The provision of additional information in the reports is being considered. For fishing vessels, the fishing industry safety group provides a widely representative medium for presenting reports of all kinds, including reporting of accidents.

The remaining clauses of the Bill relate to the mechanics of the administration of the provisions in the earlier clauses. Before I say a few words about these remaining provisions, it would be right to add that my Department will endeavour to identify provisions which are likely to be thought generally desirable and which, since they would be within the ambit of the long title of the Bill, could be introduced in Committee. I hope my hon. Friend will consider that so that we can make use of his good fortune in the ballot. I have in mind, in particular, a provision to amend section 28 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1970 so that skippers as well as seamen on fishing vessels commit an offence if they are drunk on duty. I think that this provision would meet with general support.

I have no comments on clauses 10 and 11. The fine of £2,000 prescribed in clause 12 is a matter on which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department will need to be consulted. Statutory provisions on fines fall within scales of penalties.

I have no comment on clause 13. Clause 14 provides for money to be provided by Parliament for the purposes of the Bill. However, I am advised that a money resolution is not required in this case. Clause 15, on interpretation, will need redrafting in order to define accurately the categories of fishing vessels affected by the earlier provisions. Clause 16, as drafted, provides that the Bill shall come into force six months after its enactment. For the reasons that I have explained to the House, it will be prudent to amend this clause so that various parts of the Bill come into force on days appointed by the Secretary of State.

In conclusion, I again congratulate my hon. Friend on having brought forward a measure that will be of great value not only to his constituents, but to the fishing industry as a whole.

1.12 pm
Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby)

I join in the warm congratulations to the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. McQuarrie) on introducing the Bill, which is an important and welcome measure. I also congratulate him on his efforts to promote the Bill and on the exhibition held yesterday. However, I must tell him that he looked better in his jacket with the spray hood up than he did with it down.

At last a measure is being introduced for the fishing industry, which has been sadly neglected both in this House and in the preoccupations of the Government. It is especially welcome that something is being done about a problem which has become a major scandal and which has been allowed to fester for a long time.

I shall try to be brief, because I also wish to support the Crown Immunity Bill, which is hovering in the wings. Indeed, I received the impression that the length of the Minister's speech was motivated, not by a passionate desire to support this Bill, but by a desire to talk out the Crown Immunity Bill. However, that might be an unworthy and uncharitable thought.

Mr. David Mitchell

The hon. Gentleman is quite right—it is both uncharitable and unworthy. I have long had a deep concern about fishery safety needs. That was why I went to the fishing industry safety group last year, and why I have paid such particular attention to the problems of and opportunities for our Coastguard service. I am sure that, on reflection, the hon. Gentleman will not wish to leave that point on the record.

Mr. Austin Mitchell

It was unworthy and uncharitable, but we have just delayed the Crown Immunity Bill a little longer.

I welcome the Bill that we are debating, but that does not mean that it is completely satisfactory. Much of what it proposes could be introduced by statutory instrument. It is unfortunate that such provision has not been made. The classic example of that was given by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan—the Plimsoll line, or McQuarrie line as its might be called. Several of us have pressed for a loadline for ages. The Government were committed to introducing one in 1979, but we still do not have it. That shows clearly how the real needs of fishing are neglected.

The importance of the Bill is that it collects various essential reforms. Assuming that I have the good fortune to serve on the Standing Committee, I shall try to strengthen the Bill and consult the industry widely. The Bill can operate only if it has the industry's consent and support. The industry's first reactions have been somewhat negative. It deserves much wider and much more elaborate consultation so that it can make representations which we can take into account in Committee. We must cope with the industry's objections and satisfy its needs. There are real problems from the Industry's point of view.

Something must be done, however. A fisherman is four times more likely to be killed at work than is a coal miner. The fishing industry has the worst death and accident record. The safety and accident record of other industries has improved, but that is not true for fishing. The reason might lie in the state of the industry.

The fishing industry in England has been hit harder than that in Scotland. It does not make an adequate return to invest in modernising vessels. Fishermen are therefore putting to sea in vessels which are smaller than the distant water ones which we used to have when we fished in Iceland, and many of them are old. Much of the Grimsby fleet has been fishing for 25 years and needs renewing, but the industry does not make capital to renew or update it, or to provide for safety, so fishermen are more at risk. Present financial conditions create the possibility—it is no more than that, but there have been rumours—of staged accidents and staged sinkings for the insurance return. That is a real danger when the industry is in financial difficulties, as the English industry is.

Until last year, when the church decided to cancel it, we had a harvest of the sea service in Grimsby at which the death roll was read out. We were read out our share of the 424 fishing boats which had gone down since 1975 and our share of the 245 deaths since 1976. It was a deeply moving ceremony, not least because each year's list was as long as the previous year's. The tragedy is that there has been no improvement.

I shall not go into detail, but I welcome the Bill's contribution to safety. There is a problem with fishing vessels that are hired by fishermen for pleasure. Are they covered? If not, can they be included in Committee? The Bill is restricted to fishing for profit. Much of the English industry is fishing, not for profit, but to keep going, but hired vessels are effectively being used for profit and there is a safety problem because there is an inadequate supervision framework. I hope that the Bill can be applied to them.

There is a case for providing Government finance to encourage safety. In European Community countries many improvements in the industry are financed by Governments without infringing EC rules on competition. If money can be made available for new nets and equipment, for example, in Denmark, surely we could provide money for safety improvements of the sort designated in the Bill. At least Sea Fish Industry Authority grants should be available for safety improvements, which are a financial burden on the industry. If vessels had to carry immersion suits, as I think they should do, that would place a considerable financial burden on the industry. Even these provisions impose a burden, which should be eased through Government grants. It is unreasonable and encourages a negative reaction from the industry to impose improvements without providing the necessary help.

For the most part, the hon. Gentleman's analogy with seat belt wearing is valid. There will be objections to wearing lifejackets, but wearing them will become a habit. Therefore, when the requirement is imposed it will be accepted as a necessary safety device. I hope that similar pressures will eventually be applied as that have been for the extension of seat belts to back seats by encouraging a demand for greater safety. In Fishing News, Fraserburgh skipper George Sutherland states: Please leave us alone to settle our own problems. Everybody is going to be steamrollered into this by a person who started on the subject only two months ago"— that is incorrect— yet is now supposedly going to set the whole world to rights. We are very conscious the whole time of the safety aspect when we are at sea. The answer to that is the bad safety record of the industry, which shows the need for this measure . I hope that the measure will turn that negative reaction into a greater desire for safety.

The industry is reacting in the way that it is doing because it has been badly treated. The National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations, which is centred in Grimsby, has strong reservations, and echoes the views of Scottish fishermen. That reaction is coming both from organisations and from individual share fishermen. They feel that they have been maltreated, ignored and neglected for years. Therefore, they are resentful when new burdens are imposed on them without any of the reforms and changes which they wish being conceded. It is the paranoid reaction of people who have been persecuted. The industry has been tragically neglected and its way of life has cut it off from the wider community.

The share fishermen in Grimsby come to me with genuine problems. The fishing season has been extended because of the desperate need to catch fish up to the quota. Fishermen are working later and longer in the year. They are often saddled with debt, yet supplementary benefit, which used to be paid to them in those circumstances, is no longer available. Since 1980 they have had to be classified on the same basis as self-employed people to be eligible for benefit. Although they pay a special stamp which recognises their special terms and conditions, the DHSS is not bound by the same rules as the Department of Employment, and they cannot get supplementary benefit for 15 days. That is one example of how fishermen are neglected and brutally treated, and explains why they develop the inevitable reaction of resentment at Government interference in their industry.

It is our responsibility to fight and argue for fishermen, and it is also our responsibility to say, when there is a real problem, as there is in safety, that the fishing industry has to play its part. While we shall consult it and make changes to represent its interest, it is in its interest to accept this legislation.

The Bill is right. It will save lives, protect vessels and reduce the risks to those who, while they do business in great waters, will always be in peril on the sea. I hope that we can regard it as part of a new and better deal for fishermen, so that they are no longer neglected, but are helped, encouraged and fought for, while their safety is protected by measures such as this Bill.

1.25 pm
Mr. Nicholas Fairbairn (Perth and Kinross)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. McQuarrie) on his Bill because, unlike some other measures, it was not promoted in a flash Harry television film that highlighted the problem but was something that my hon. Friend identified and is responsibly attempting to address.

The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) suggested that I was an inappropriate person to intervene as there are no fishing interests in my constituency. It would be unfortunate for the Scottish tourist industry and the fishing industry if the concept that there was no fishing interest there were to get about. However, I accept that I do not have a maritime fishing interest except in the Tay. Nevertheless, I have had the privilege of being a commissioner for the northern lighthouses for some years and therefore have seen at first hand the risks and dangers for fishermen, and the ferocity of the sea. I have also seen the bravery and courage of those who carry out their business in great waters.

In the course of my professional career, I have also represented the families of those who have suffered loss or injury in the fishing community. It is their astonishing courage and bravery that has perhaps given rise for the necessity for the Bill because, as the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) said, there is resistance to safety measures. The bravest men frequently say that they do not need a parachute because they can jump on their own. I particularly welcome the Bill because it gives to those whose courage is so great that it may on occasion become foolhardiness, a protection that they would never be sufficiently unproud to ask for themselves.

The Bill demonstrates the dilemma of legislation. I am against statute law, preferring the common law, because it is law of principle while the statute law is that of detail. The Bill illustrates the difficulty of such a choice because the moment that things are made simple they run into the difficulties of definition that simplicity creates. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan on bringing in a Bill which is comprehensible when it is read and also simple.

There are difficulties of definition in the Bill that caused me great anxiety and I do not want to go into them more than to illustrate that, for instance, in the concept of debris at sea, one is talking about innumerable manifestations of debris and results from it. There is a common penalty of a fine not exceeding £2,000. If the iceberg that sank the Titanic had fallen within the concept of "debris", it would clearly be an inappropriate penalty for the person who put the iceberg there to be fined only £2,000.

That illustrates the difficulty of trying to be simple. Nevertheless, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan on the simplicity of his measure. I hope that the Committee will bear in mind that the simpler the legislation, the more likely it is to be applied and the more likely it is to be obeyed.

The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North, who has left the Chamber, will remember the piracy case involving the Mary Rose and another vessel which left Aberdeen. If the evidence of sobriety at sea among the crew in that case is anything to go by, we must undertand that fishermen will obey legislation only if they believe it to be in their own interests. They will not necessarily obey legislation which actually is in their own interests.

Having made that comment upon human conduct, I assure the hon. Member for Great Grimsby that I welcome the belated sibling of the Crown Proceedings Act 1947, the next measure to be debated, even more than he does. I have not spoken to frustrate the hon. Gentleman or his Bill. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan for introducing a measure that is simple, humane and thoroughly justified. It will benefit a courageous community.

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

I do not think that I can follow the speech of the hon. and learned Member for Perth and Kinross (Mr. Fairbairn) because I did not really know where it was going. It seemed to be without direction—the compass had gone astray.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. McQuarrie) upon his determination and good sense in introducing the Bill. He is known — I think affectionately — in the north-east of Scotland as the Buchan bulldog. However, the tenacity he has shown in introducing the Bill is reminiscent more of a terrier than of a bulldog.

The Minister of State, Department of Transport, said that it is wonderful that this important measure has been introduced. If, however, the name of the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan had not come high in the ballot for private Members' Bills, or if he had not decided to introduce his Safety at Sea Bill, I wonder how long we should have had to wait before the Government took it upon themselves to introduce such an important measure. All credit, therefore, must be given to the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan.

There are four fishing ports in my constituency: Dunure, Maidens, Girvan and Ballantrae. Sadly, they are not operating as fishing ports because of various problems. I am dealing with some of the problems that are being experienced at Maidens. I hope that in the near future it will, once again, become a fishing port. Girvan needs to be dredged so that it can be restored to carry out its proper function as a fishing port. We hope that the area will soon be restored to an active fishing area so that my constituents no longer have to use Ayr and other harbours.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) and the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan, I represent a large number of fishermen. That is why it is important, as the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan and the Minister of State said, for the views of fishermen to be taken into account when the Bill is considered in Committee.

I spoke to Willie Hay yesterday. I believe that people like him have some important things to say. I sent a copy of the Bill with a letter to fishermen's leaders in my constituency, who are members of the Clyde Fishermen's Association, asking for their views. I hope that other hon. Members will take the opportunity to consult their representatives and to feed back their ideas. I hope also that some account will be given to them. That does not mean that we should do everything that the fishermen ask, because Parliament must make up its own mind. However, I am glad that the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan mentioned consultation.

I am sorry that some hazards are missing from the Bill. Debris is not the only hazard of oil operations and rigs. Oil operations create other hazards. The increasing extent of oil operation now foreshadowed in the Clyde could create problems for Clyde fishermen. The supply of rigs, fuel spillage and several other matters can create problems. I hope that there is an opportunity in Committee to consider those factors.

The second area of hazard is submarine operations. There have been one or two instances of pretty near misses between fishing vessels and United Kingdom and American submarines. It is difficult to designate and rigidly adhere to special areas. I know that there are security problems about informing fishing vessels or the Coastguard of the movement of submarines, but, from the fishermen's point of view, some understanding would be helpful, so that the likelihood of potential clashes could be minimised.

The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan mentioned the sinking of the Mhairi L, and the Minister made some helpful comments. I wish to discuss the lessons to be learnt from the sinking of the Mhairi L. On 5 March 1985 I asked the Minister about the number of fishing vessels and other boats that had disappeared in unexplained circumstances. There was one in 1980, two in 1982, two in 1983 and another in 1984. I was worried about the loss of the Mhairi L, but, more importantly, the relatives of those who were lost were worried about the facts that the Mhairi L went missing in unexplained circumstances.

Much pressure was put on the Department of Transport to ensure that the result of the Mhairi L inquiry would not be another "cause unknown". A great effort was made to carry out a full inquiry and to use the resources of the Royal Navy. The huge resources of the Royal Navy should be mobilised in those circumstances.

I pay credit to the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment, the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Lang), from whose constituency the men came, who raised the matter. He was supported by many people and by the media. We discovered the cause of the sinking of the Mhairi L. I have a copy of the report that was eventually presented to the Minister. The Minister made the report available only to the relatives, interested parties, the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale and myself. I pressed the Minister to publish the report, but he said that such reports were normally confidential to the Department and were sent only to interested parties. I cannot understand why. The report contains several recommendations and suggestions that are vital to the fishing industry. The report should have been published and recommendations should have resulted from it.

I wish to mention briefly the three main points that arise from the report. The first is that 40 hours elapsed between the last radio contact with the Mhairi L and the Coastguard being alerted. We heard earlier about the importance of alerting the Coastguard as soon as any anxiety is felt. It was suggested that the boat may have discovered a large shoal of fish and did not want anyone else to know about it. Safety is much more important than that. The Department should set out some procedure which ensures that the Coastguard is alerted after a specified period. There should not be a 40-hour period before the Coastguard is alerted.

The second point is that it was clear that, in an attempt to free the trawl, which had fouled the cable, the combined weight of the men on the deck caused the capsizing which led to the vessel sinking. The report clearly states: Compensation is payable for gear lost: if fouled gear cannot readily be freed it should…be slipped and buoyed and a report made to the Fishery Officer. That should be made clear to fishermen repeatedly so that people do not sacrifice their lives trying to save something that can be replaced.

Mr. David Mitchell

indicated assent.

Mr. Foulkes

Their lives are much more important, as the Minister seems to agree, than the recovery of fishing gear.

Thirdly—and this is why it was vital that the report should have been published—the report stated that the life rafts on the Mhairi L had no hydrostatic or automatic release units, so they could not inflate and float free. Although merchant shipping notice M1173 recommends that such units be fitted, there is no mandatory requirement. The Bill would make it mandatory, and that is the main reason why I think it is an excellent Bill. It can never be proved absolutely, but there is a strong likelihood that, if the Bill had been law before the Mhairi L sank, and if she had been fitted with life rafts with automatic release, those men would be alive today.

The Minister has already replied to the debate, and I do not ask him to intervene again. Recently, he provided me with a written answer saying that the Government intend to take some action. I hope that during the later stages of the Bill, the Minister will clearly say what will happen to the recommendations arising from the report on the loss of the Mhairi L. I hope that future inquiries carried out by the Department of Transport to discover the causes of boats sinking will use all the resources available, including Royal Navy resources, without the need for pressure for those resources to be used. I hope that future reports will be published so that we may know any recommendations that arise from them and whether those recommendations should be or are being followed up.

It is vital for the fishing industry to learn the lessons of each loss. If that is a result of the sinking of the Mhairi L, the sad loss of those brave men's lives may not have been completely in vain.

Mr. Jack Ashley (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is there any way in which the House can register its deep disgust at the fact that the Minister spoke for 46 minutes on a Back-Bench Members' day?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

The right hon. Gentleman knows that that is not a matter for me. I cannot determine the length of speeches.

1.38 pm
Mr. Barry Henderson (Fife, North-East)

In the interests of brevity, which would appear to be desirable, I shall not take up the remarks of the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes). I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. McQuarrie) not only on the objects of the Bill, which are admirable, but on the way in which he presented the Bill to the House today. His commitment to the fishing industry is well known in Scotland and much appreciated among fishermen.

I say that by way of preamble, because I did not sponsor the Bill and I have reservations about it. I would not trust many people with a blank cheque, but I would trust my hon. Friend. However, I would not trust him with a blank Bill. It is for that reason that I did not seek to become a sponsor of the Bill. I understand the Scottish Fishermen's Federation feeling slightly aggrieved at not having been consulted about the Bill. My hon. Friend explained in opening why that had to be. I now understand why it was and I hope that the federation will now understand that it was impracticable to consult everyone in the time available before bringing the Bill before the House.

We warmly welcome the fact that my hon. Friend has dealt with some of the preliminary objections that have been raised. I apologise to my hon. Friend and to the Opposition Front Bench for missing their speeches. I have explained the reasons to them. My hon. Friend has given reassurance on many points. Most important, he has already not just consulted but looked at the equipment that he wishes to be required and used on fishing vessels. Indeed, he enabled demonstrations of the kit to be given to other people. I would have hoped that we might have a demonstration in the House today.

I also welcome my hon. Friend's commitment to consultation not only with the fishing industry but with other relevant interests—not least with the coastguards, as he agreed in his opening speech, as they have particular responsibility for co-ordinating search and rescue activities and have gathered a great deal of information about the problems which arise on crisis occasions. I shall certainly consider the Bill, and especially the speeches made today, with fishermen in the East Neuk o' Fife. At this stage, I comment on just two points.

I have doubts about the practicality of clause 4(3) which provides that the place from which navigation is controlled must have an unobstructed view of the horizon in all conditions in which the vessel is designed to operate. With a vessel bouncing up and down fore and aft in gale conditions, I wonder whether it is feasible to build a wheelhouse which is not 50 ft. above the deck but from which the horizon can be seen in all conditions. Practical considerations of that kind will have to be considered in relation to various aspects of the Bill.

I am also most uncertain about the provisions of clause 5 in relation to load lines, not from the safety angle but because of the practical problems of implementing load line certificates. I have been in correspondence with my hon. Friend the Minister about the salvage vessel for which it cost an amount in the low thousands of pounds to obtain a load line certificate. It turned out in the end not to have been necessary, but that is by the way—a matter of the Department, in my view, nitpicking and going for safety for the surveyor rather than for the ships at sea.

Those two points illustrate my anxieties about the Bill. I share the objectives that my hon. Friend is pursuing and I appreciate the way in which he intends to pursue the further progress of the Bill. I hope that it will ultimately become a first class Bill and will receive the assent of the whole House. Finally, I advise my hon. Friend to keep it as short and as simple as possible.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 42 (Committal of Bills).