HC Deb 24 July 1987 vol 120 cc678-95 2.30 pm
The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Paul Channon)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about the report of the formal investigation into the loss of the vessel Herald of Free Enterprise which capsized outside Zeebrugge harbour on 6 March this year. Mr. Justice Sheen was appointed the Wreck Commissioner to conduct the investigation, assisted by four assessors. He has today delivered the court's report. I have placed a copy in the Library.

I thought that the House would wish to have an immediate statement before we rose for the summer recess. However, I apologise, in particular to the Opposition, for the fact that I was unable to give them the usual notice of this statement. The judge has only just finished delivering his findings, and the alternative would have been no statement. I hope that the House will understand, and I apologise to the Opposition if, in any way, I have inconvenienced them by this course.

The court found that the Herald of Free Enterprise put to sea with her outer and inner bow doors fully open, and thereafter, as speed built up, water entered on to the vehicle deck in large quantities and destroyed her stability. The ship then capsized rapidly. Fortunately, the vessel sank in shallow water. Thanks to great efforts by the Belgian authorities and others, 350 people were rescued, but at least 188 lost their lives.

The court found that the capsize was the joint fault of the master, the chief officer, the assistant bosun, and of Townsend Car Ferries Ltd. at all levels of management. The court has suspended the certificate of the master for one year and of the chief officer for two years.

The court found that the vessel's construction conformed with the relevant statutory requirements. She possessed a valid passenger ship safety certificate, and she carried life-saving equipment in excess of the minimum statutory requirements. However, the court made severe criticisms of the management of Townsend Car Ferries Ltd. and in particular the failure of the company to give clear orders about the duties of the officers on the Zeebrugge run: this contributed greatly to the cause of the disaster. The report draws attention to failures on the part of the management of the company to give attention to warnings from the masters of the vessels in their fleet, or to suggestions of ways of improving safety. In particular, the company did not give proper attention to complaints that ships had proceeded to sea carrying passengers in excess of the permitted numbers, to suggestions for the fitting of warning lights on the bridge to indicate whether the bow and stern doors were open, and to problems over reading the draughts of the vessels. However, the report notes that a new top management has since been appointed to the company, which has taken to heart the gravity of the catastrophe and has shown a determination to put its house in order.

The report contains a number of recommendations for measures to improve the safety of passenger ro-ro ferries. These are divided into those for immediate action. those for action in the near future and those for action in the longer term. Many are of major importance. The House will appreciate that in the short time available I have not been able to reach a firm view on all of them. I will be discussing the report and its recommendations with representatives of the ferry operators and port industry next week. However, there are certain measures that I can now announce.

I am straightaway undertaking the necessary statutory consultations to make mandatory the following three items: first, the fitting of the indicator lights to show the position of superstructure doors; secondly, the fitting of closed circuit television monitors for surveillance of the car deck and to enable the position of the car deck doors to be monitored from the bridge; and, thirdly, the provision of self-contained emergency lighting units of the type proposed in the report. I propose that these requirements will be applied to all ro-ro passenger vessels operating to or from ports in the United Kingdom, regardless of flag. Next, I am consulting the industry, as a matter of urgency, on three further measures recommended in the report: first, the fitting of draught gauges; secondly, the fitting of load indicators; thirdly, the design of windows, including the use of toughened or laminated glass.

The number of passengers on board the Herald of Free Enterprise at the time of the disaster was within the permitted maximum, but, as I have mentioned, the report draws attention to a worrying number of reported incidents of ferries carrying passengers in excess of the permitted maximum. The court considers that it would be possible to introduce a system under which every passenger has a boarding card. The number of cards issued for each voyage would correspond to the permitted maximum number of passengers, which would automatically avoid the risk of carrying excess numbers. I shall be pursuing this proposal with the ferry operators.

The court found that on her departure from Zeebrugge the Herald was probably significantly overloaded as to weight, although the overload was not in any way a cause of the casualty. The report draws attention to problems in measuring the weight of vehicles on ferries, and in identifying the effect of the distribution of the load on the draught and trim of the vessel. In my discussions with port authorities and ferry operators, I shall be pursuing the suggestion in the report for making greater use of weighbridges for improving information supplied to masters about the weight of vehicles loading on to ferries. In addition, I shall examine with the industry the problems which can arise when the design of a berth makes it physically impossible for a vessel to close its loading doors before it has pulled away. As recommended by the report, my Department will also conduct an analysis of the weight of long-distance coaches.

In his statement on 9 March immediately following the disaster, my right hon. Friend and predecessor announced that the Department's surveyors were embarking on a programme of checks on roll-on/roll-off ferries in United Kingdom ports to ensure that all loading door mechanisms were in working order and that officers and crew were aware of the correct operating procedures. I can announce today that the arrangements will be extended to include random checks on ferries to ensure that statutory requirements about loading, stability and passenger numbers are being observed.

In its recommendations for the longer term, the court recommended detailed investigations and model tests with a view to increasing the stability of ro-ro passenger ferries, and to examine the implications of the provision of bulkheads on vehicle decks. My Department is therefore making available an additional £1 million to support an enhanced programme of research into this difficult area.

As part of the continuing process of improving safety standards, the stability regulations for passenger ferries were revised in 1980. Although the Herald was built in accordance with the 1980 standards, the report draws attention to ferries built to those previous standards, which date from 1965, and suggests that those which cannot meet the 1980 standards should be phased out. Although there is no reason for undue concern about the safety of these older vessels, my Department will reassess their stability standards against the standards adopted in 1980, and in the light of this assessment decide what further action is necessary.

During the hearings different views were expressed about whether the act of taking a vessel to sea with its bow doors open constituted an offence under the Merchant Shipping Acts. The court was clearly of the opinion that no statutory offence had been committed. This disaster has demonstrated the appalling consequences that can follow when a ferry proceeds to sea with its bow doors open, and in my view this should be a criminal offence. I shall therefore include in the Merchant Shipping Bill, which I intend to introduce in Parliament after the recess, a provision to strengthen the law in this respect.

Mr. Justice Sheen, his assessors, and others who participated in the investigation are to be congratulated on producing such a comprehensive report so rapidly. I will ensure that my Department takes forward with equal urgency further action following consideration of the recommendations. I am sure that the whole House will join me in once again expressing sympathy for the injured and bereaved and will share my determination that no effort should be spared in making sure that a disaster of this kind shall not happen again.

Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East)

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that Mr. Justice Sheen's report amplifies a horrifying state of affairs? When the Herald of Free Enterprise left the quayside at Zeebrugge that fateful night, the captain had been told that there were fewer than 1,300 passengers aboard, whereas a later count showed 1,550. The ferry started to sea with the bow doors open, and not for the first time. Ship's rules show that the captain was to assume that the doors were closed until otherwise informed. The captain had only three officers, instead of the usual four, with the result that Chief Officer Sable had two jobs to do in different places—one at the bow doors and one on the bridge. Some lorries on the vehicle deck were overloaded, and others were carrying illegal chemicals, including cyanide. Vehicle drivers were habitually allowed to remain in their cabs. The vessel was bow down because of an unknown quantity of water in the bow ballast tank No. 14.

The Herald of Free Enterprise was a latterday Titanic, wrecked on an iceberg of Department of Transport indifference, managerial incompetence and working methods that were apparently designed only to shorten turn around times, regardless of risks to passengers and crew.

We believe that the recommendation to suspend two crew members is deplorable. The two men worked to arrangements that had been condoned or approved by management. Those same arrangements were probably adhered to by most other principal officers in the Townsend Thoresen fleet. Neither the captain, nor the chief officer, nor any other member of the crew was under the influence of alcohol. At no time did they disobey company instructions. The pleas of Captain Lewry and other senior officers for better arrangements, such as warning lights on the bridge, were consistently ignored by the company. These men are the victims of an incompetent safety management system. The company's management is responsible under law for the safety of the ship and for the people who are on board. The company, and not those officers, should therefore he brought to account. It has become clear during the inquiry that the company lacked competent safety management and directions. Under law, the company has a legal duty to provide safe systems of work, a safe place of work, the necessary training, and the necessary instructions, information and supervision to its staff. On all those counts the company was negligent.

I turn, if I may, to the part played by the right hon. Gentleman's Department. The Department of Transport has a duty to ensure the safety of ships and persons on board. That duty, over many years and under many Governments, has been neglected. So far as I am aware — the report does not disagree — at no time were unannounced inspections made for the purpose of ensuring that the ship was loaded within the required limits for passengers and cargo, that safe working arrangements applied, that prohibited, dangerous goods were not carried and that records of the ship's draught were not being falsified.

The Department of Transport is consistently reducing the number of inspectors who are charged with responsibility for ensuring that such breaches do not take place. Over many years, the Department has taken a leisurely view of its responsibilities. It has failed to create a climate in which proper safety standards are observed on the cross-Channel fleet. The Herald of Free Enterprise demonstrated that, left to their own devices, shipowners are less stringent with themselves on safety matters than they should be, and the right hon. Gentleman's Department was content to let that state of affairs continue.

The report has something to say about the issue of the design of ro-ro ferries. The report shows, and previous inquiries held by the Secretary of State's Department show, that ro-ro ships that take on water to the main vehicle deck or its equivalent sink within 10 minutes. The Herald of Free Enterprise sank in less than two minutes. The report acknowledges that there are no specific design regulations for ro-ro ships. The governing regulations are derived from those that apply to conventional cargo ships, which are subdivided above and below the water line.

The report points to the fact that the Department of Transport has had previous warnings. The court of inquiry into the loss of the European Gateway recommended that consideration should be given to catering for the possibility that a vessel may have to be abandoned when listing to more than 15 degrees. Preliminary research was completed in 1985. Neither the Government nor the shipowners would put up the money for that research to continue.

The present position is that research is undertaken in conjunction with the General Council of British Shipping. So far, the research has been conducted by two consultancy companies—Three Quays, a subsidiary of P and O, and Hart Fenton, a subsidiary of Sealink. In evidence to the court of inquiry the Sealink consultants said that there was nothing inherently wrong with passenger ro-ro design. It is clear to us, however, that design research is needed. That research must be independent of the shipping companies and entirely Government financed. It should also be conducted over a sufficient period for its conclusions to be properly validated.

I wish to put a number of questions to the Secretary of State. Will the Government ensure an early debate in the House on ferry safety? What action do the Government intend to take towards the rapid negotiation of EEC agreements on ferry loading and safety? In the meantime, will they act unilaterally in relation to ferries using British ports'? Will the Government institute proper vehicle weight checks for all lorries at ferry ports? Would riot the computerised weighbridges readily available throughout the world not only assist ferry captains and operators properly to assess ships' loads but have the spin-off benefit of eradicating the dangerous menace of overloaded lorries on Britain's roads?

What action do the Government intend to take to ensure that ferry companies hold accurate and complete passenger logs? Will the Government now ensure proper segregation of passengers and vehicles on ro-ro ferries? What improvements do the Government intend to institute in ferry design to reduce the rate of accidents? Will they insist on changes in ships' working practices, and how will those rules be enforced?

Will the Government take action to ensure that the latest jumbo ferries are fitted with a proper system to predict and check their stability, so as to reassure intending passengers that ships such as the newly launched and quaintly named Pride of Dover do not take 2,300 people to a premature and watery grave? Will the Minister confirm that the Taskmaster system has been in service since 1982, but has not yet been installed in any ro-ro vessel of the Townsend Thoresen fleet?

The inquiry has been held into a tragedy as avoidable as it was horrific. It is the Secretary of State's duty to ensure that the cosy world in which the Department has colluded with indifferent ship owners to ensure that turn-around speed and company receipts took precedence over passenger and crew safety is no longer allowed to continue. The time is long overdue for the Department to carry out its legal duties in terms of maritime safety.

The Department's call for action against crew members but not against the company is deplorable. The Secretary of State must assure the House today that the questions and recommendations that I have put will be acted upon forthwith.

Mr. Channon

I shall do my utmost to answer the questions put to me by the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape), who has raised matters which I take extremely seriously, as does the whole House. He will forgive me if I do not accept many of his criticisms of the Department, but we can perhaps debate those matters fully on another occasion. The arrangement of a debate is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, but I shall certainly draw his attention to today's exchanges and I am sure that he will give sympathetic consideration to the case so cogently made by the hon. Gentleman.

The treatment of the crew members is a matter for the court, not for me. Mr. Justice Sheen and the court reached that conclusion. It is not a matter for me or for the Department.

Mr. Snape

Yes, it is.

Mr. Channon

The hon. Gentleman is under a misapprehension. I set up the inquiry, but the judge makes the decisions. It is the judge who decides whether a master's certificate should be suspended or withdrawn. That is nothing to do with me and I have no locus whatsoever in the matter. I assure the hon. Gentleman that that is the situation — I have checked it extremely carefully.

I have already explained the situation in relation to the company. The view expressed by the court, not by me, is that no statutory offence has been committed. That is the view of the court, not mine.

I tried in my opening remarks to cover some of the points that the hon. Gentleman has raised. The judge has divided his recommendations into three groups. Clearly, those of most immediate concern are those that he recommends for immediate action. I am undertaking the necessary statutory consultations to make mandatory the following three items which cover sonic of the points that the hon. Gentleman made: the fitting of indicator lights, closed-circuit television monitors, and self-contained emergency lighting units.

I am consulting the industry about weight checks, and the question of separating passengers from vehicles is being examined carefully. I am doubling the funds available for research into the important matter of ferry design. That will cover the whole question of stability and all the other technical points that are contained in the report and about which, with respect, I do not think it is wise for the House to form a final view until we have had more time to study and know exactly what the technical situation is.

As the report shows, it is extremely important that companies that are operating ferries, or indeed any other type of ship, should have proper operating practices, so that the masters of those ships know where they stand, and so that they are responsible for their ships. Company managements should lay down proper operating practices. The hon. Gentleman made severe criticisms of the management of Townsend. Indeed, so did the judge. What the House must, in fairness, also take into account, because it is extremely important that the public should understand this, is that the judge specifically went out of his way of say that the new management that has taken over— [Interruption.] The House must understand that there are new managers. That is not my view; that is the view of the court. That is what the court said.

If I have not covered all the other matters that the hon. Gentleman raised, I shall certainly examine them in great detail and speed, and be in touch with him.

Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)

The report is an indictment of the sloppy practices that have gone on for many years between shipping companies and the Department in defining safety regulations for vessels. It has been encouraged by the deplorable practice of promising owners that they would not be prosecuted if they co-operated with inquiries. The Government have acted against the crew members and officers of vessels, as in this case, while companies have got off scot-free.

Is the Secretary of State aware that, while he has repeated the court's claim that it is not a statutory offence to proceed to sea with the doors open—the Merchant Shipping Act 1984 does not say that that is an offence—it is clearly an offence to send a ship to sea in an unseaworthy condition? To have open bow doors is clearly an unseaworthy condition, and the death of 188 people bears testimony to that.

The Secretary of State is not prepared to face his responsibilities and prosecute the company and seeks to hide behind the court in respect of the Merchant Shipping Act 1984, but his own regulations, placed before the House in 1984, place an obligation on companies to provide safe places of work and safe working practices. Any breach of those 1984 regulations is a criminal offence. On the basis of the report, it is possible to prosecute the company. Therefore, will the Secretary of State now face up to his obligations and prosecute the company, instead of hiding behind the fact that it has a new management? Will he prosecute the company for committing this offence?

Mr. Channon

With respect, it is not my view, but the view of the court. I quote the words used in the judge's findings: The court is able to deal with this question on this occasion because it is clearly of the opinion that no statutory offence has been committed. The court has taken the view that no offence has been committed. That is why I propose to introduce in the autumn specific measures under the Merchant Shipping Act to change the position. I should have thought that the House would welcome the fact that we are taking an early opportunity to make the law completely clear on this point. The officers are not being prosecuted. The hon. Gentleman misunderstands. The court decides whether, in its view, there has been negligence by the master or the officers. On this occasion the court decided that there was negligence by the master and the chief officer, and it has taken steps that it thinks right. I am prepared to face up to my responsibilities, and what I have announced this afternoon is probably the most comprehensive list of changes and improvements in safety that has ever been announced from this Dispatch Box.

Mr. Terence Higgins (Worthing)

Can we be clear about this? Is my right hon. Friend saying that it is not a statutory offence to take to sea a ship that is unseaworthy, but he proposes to legislate to make it so?

Mr. Channon

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the vessel itself was not unseaworthy. The court found that it sailed with its doors open, and that was the serious situation that caused this appalling disaster. The court takes the view that no statutory offence has been committed. I shall change the law to make sure that in future it will be a statutory offence.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

The Secretary of State may be trying to escape liability on the issue of criminal offence, but he repeated the judgment of the court that the fault lay with named officers and with the company. The country will not understand his attitude unless he admits to the House that Townsend Thoresen was grossly negligent. The country will want to hear what action is being taken against the company for that negligence.

Is it, as it was suggested, because the Department fears that some of its officials will be seen to have been negligent that it is not willing to request and initiate action? I fear that unless action is taken, and unless the Secretary of State concedes that gross negligence occurred as a result of the behaviour of the company and possibly that of the Department, the legacy of this terrible tragedy will be that those who died paid the price of free enterprise. That will be the motto of this incident.

Mr. Channon

It must be clear from my statement and from the judge's findings that he considered Townsend Thoresen to have been negligent. I have already said so in my statement. If I had found that there had been criticism of my Department which showed that the Department or senior officials had been negligent, I would not have hesitated to take the appropriate action. There is no such suggestion in the report. I have already explained fully to the House the judge's view of the company's management at the time that this took place. I am glad to say that he does not take that view of the present management.

Mr. John Ward (Poole)

Do not the remarks already made reflect the importance of studying the whole report and considering it carefully before making comments? I shall concentrate on one small but important aspect of what I have already heard. My constituency has a roll-on/ roll-off ferry. We have sophisticated weighing machines, but they are used only on a voluntary basis. There is evidence to suggest that drivers of overloaded vehicles use other ports without such sophisticated weighing devices, or where they are inoperative. Would not one small but important aspect of this inquiry be that there should be compulsory weighing of vehicles whenever entering or leaving ports, and preferably, by agreement with the EEC, that such weighing should take place at the departure point on the continent as well?

Mr. Channon

My hon. Friend makes a fair point with which most hon. Members will agree, that the report is long and needs detailed study. The House will wish to come back to the subject. We should study it with care before corning to final conclusions about many of its points.

I shall be pursuing the greater use of weighbridges for improving the information supplied to masters about the weight of vehicles loading on to ferries. I shall be examining that as a matter of urgency in the discussions with port authorities and ferry operations that I shall carry out next week. I make it clear that that is an important point, but it was not the cause of this disaster.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

With respect to the ship's rules and regulations, if there was no system of positive reporting required by the company, why is the company not wholly responsible for what happened? Does the report go into that? Secondly, does the report deal with the terms and conditions of service of the officers and men? How secure was their employment? Were there any terms whereby renewal of employment was required at short notice or in the short term? If that matter was not dealt with by the report, will the Minister make inquiries?

Mr. Channon

The report did not go into the latter point raised by the hon. Gentleman, or if it did, it was not dealt with in any great detail. I shall, of course, make inquiries into that matter.

With regard to the responsibility for the disaster, in the final section of his report, the judge answers questions submitted to him. He was asked: What caused the Herald to capsize? How many lives were lost? The questions raised other important points. They included: Was the capsize caused or contributed to by the fault of any person or persons, and if so whom and in what respect? The answers were as follows: Yes, by the faults of the following: Mr. Mark Victor Stanley, Mr. Leslie Sable, Captain David Lewry, Townsend Car Ferries Limited at all levels from the board of directors through the managers of marine departments down to the junior superintendents. As to the respects in which each of those people was guilty of cause or at fault, the whole report must be studied to get all the details.

Mr. John Wheeler (Westminster, North)

My right hon. Friend is right to tell the House that the report must be considered very carefully. However, the interests of the nation require that justice should be seen to be done. Will he assure the House that all the facts and evidence relating to this appalling affair are examined by the Attorney-General and the Director of Public Prosecutions as an additional safeguard?

Mr. Channon

I certainly cannot object to my hon. Friend's suggestion. However, I would mislead the House if I did not remind it that the court has clearly come to the view, and states in black and white, that it believes that no statutory offence has been committed.

Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline, West)

Does the Secretary of State concede that our thanks are due to Mr. Justice Sheen for the work that he and his colleagues have undertaken in bringing to light the unhappy events surrounding the disaster? Those of us who have taken time — there may be many, although I am not sure — to attend the public inquiry will feel, as I felt, that it was one of the most horrific experiences of our lives. It was particularly horrific for me as a former seagoing engineer.

I draw the Secretary of State's attention to page 22, paragraph 10.3, of the report, which examines the background. It states: In October 1983 the assistant bosun of the Pride had fallen asleep and had not heard 'Harbour Stations' being called, with the result that he neglected to close both the bow and stern doors on the sailing of the vessel from No. 5 berth, Dover. A general instruction issued in July 1984 which prescribed that it was the duty of the officer loading the main vehicle deck, G deck, to ensure that the bow doors were 'secure when leaving port'. Was that incident reported to the Secretary of State's Department? If so, what action was taken? Some of us may be guilty of trying to be wise after the event, but it appears as though someone was not wise prior to the event.

I am not sure whether I follow some of my colleagues with regard to the responsibilities of the master and the officers of the ship. However, they have been punished in the working and public domains. They will bear the scars for the rest of their lives. Because of the withdrawal of certificates for one year or two years, I doubt whether these gentlemen will ever go to sea again.

However, what of the company? If anything is written into the history of the merchant service, it should be paragraph 14.1 of the report, which states: At first sight the faults which led to the disaster were those of the aforesaid errors of omission on the part of the Master, Chief Officer and assistant bosun, and also the failure by Captain Kirkby to issue and enforce clear orders. But a full investigation into the circumstances of the disaster leads inexorably to the conclusion that the underlying or cardinal faults lay higher up in the Company. The Board of Directors did not appreciate their responsibility for the safe management of their ships. They did not apply their minds to the question: What orders should be given for the safety of our ships? The dirctors did not have any proper—

Mr. Speaker

Order. It is unfair not to ask a question. I appreciate that there has not been an opportunity to read the report.

Mr. Douglas

I appreciate your stricture, Mr. Speaker. The paragraph continues: From top to bottom the body corporate was infected with the disease of sloppiness. What does the Minister propose to do and what avenues are available to ensure that the company and the people who were truly responsible are called to account?

Mr. Channon

First, the July 1984 incident was not reported to my Department. If it had been, appropriate action would have been taken. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman has read the telling quotations which appear in paragraph 14. I have already made clear to the House that the judge has been extremely scathing about the management of Townsend. I am sure that the House will wish to study the report in full, it being difficult to scrutinise it adequately in a short time. We have had the report for only a short time and with respect I think that it is unwise of the House to press too hard on issues which few of us have had the chance properly to examine. The management is severely criticised in the report but there is no question of a criminal offence. It is extremely important to understand that the management concerned is no longer in charge of the company. That must be a safeguard for the travelling public.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South)

Will my right hon. Friend do two things quickly? First, will he take further legal advice on whether it is an offence to take a ship with a hole in it to sea? Secondly, will he immediately request all ferry companies to institute a boarding card system as from 1 August, bearing in mind that that is the height of the holiday season?

Mr. Channon

I am seeing the ferry companies next week, and I shall discuss that issue with them. The boarding card suggestion is an important one, but it would not have prevented the disaster. The House and the country must understand that the disaster was caused because a ship sailed with its doors open and that steps are being taken to ensure that that can never happen again. That is the crucial issue in the short term. I have already explained the measures that I am already setting in hand, which I believe are far-reaching, and I think that it will be realised that the most energetic steps are being taken to protect people's safety on board ferries. I am sure that my hon. Friend will understand that I have already taken the best legal advice that is available.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

Does the Secretary of State agree that over the past few years the number of inspectors has been reduced in his Department? Does he agree further that the frequency of inspections has decreased, with the result that there has been an increase in sloppiness? Does he accept that his Department has some part or blame to share in this appalling disaster?

Mr. Channon

I am advised that the frequency of inspections has not decreased. However, I shall check what the hon. Gentleman has said and write to him about the matter. It is an extremely important issue. Having been Secretary of State for the Department of Trade and Industry for only six weeks, I intend in future to make sure that we have an adequate system to ensure that the House is fully satisfied about future arrangements in this area.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

I welcome the Government's response to the report, especially the proposal for extra funding for the research into and design of roll-on/roll-off ferries, but I find it somewhat odd that my right hon. Friend has not seen fit to condemn the company for its part in the responsibility for this tragedy. Whatever we think about the merits of the Channel tunnel, it is in British interests that there should be as many efficient, cheap and safe ferry crossings to the continent as possible. While we must ensure that there is never a repetition of this tragedy, will my right hon. Friend bear in mind Britain's long-term interests?

Mr. Channon

Of course I shall, and I entirely share my hon. Friend's views. He says that I have not condemned the company, but I do not think that any Minister could have made more scathing comments about the company's management. That echoes what the judge said in his report. I am sure that there is common ground in the House about the necessity for the greatest possible number of routes, and the safest possible routes, across the Channel — whether they are by ferry, by the Channel tunnel or by any other means — and I shall do my utmost to achieve that.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

Leaving aside all the legalistic bobbing and weaving, will the Secretary of State agree that this is exactly the sort of subject for the methods and discipline of the diagnostic engineer? Does he accept that diagnostic engineers have been saying for years that such an accident was waiting to happen—that a car deck without bulkheads and weirplates, and with water swilling around, was guaranteed to produce such an accident, regardless of how many or how few people were on board? Will the right hon. Gentleman give the House an assurance that the one legacy that he will leave us of his tenure of office is the introduction of regulations to ensure that any ferry using a British port will have provision similar to the provision in the car parks under the House to protect the property of hon. Members, which is sometimes stuck there for two or three years on end? No threat to mankind is involved there. Will the Secretary of State ensure that regulations are introduced which make certain that no swilling of water on ferries can possibly happen again?

Mr. Channon

The hon. Gentleman has raised an important point. He will recall from my statement that the court recommends in the longer term that detailed research should be carried out into increasing the stability of ro-ro passenger ferries, and that the implications of the provision of bulkheads on vehicle decks should be examined. That is my policy. I have already announced that I am doubling the amount of research available on the matter, and I shall keep the hon. Gentleman in touch with progress.

Mr. Terry Dicks (Hayes and Harlington)

How can negligence at officer level be an offence, while negligence at company level is not? Most people in this country cannot understand why the company is still being allowed to sail ferries across the Channel. May I ask my right hon. Friend to do something different from what he suggested, and to take to himself and his Department powers to license ferry operators, rather than just looking at the seaworthiness of ships? If he had had that power at the time of the accident, Townsend Thoresen ferries could have been taken off the sea, and he would have been empowered to ensure that they never sailed again. The people have the right to know the truth, whether public or private enterprise is involved. They want to see the management of Townsend Thoresen punished, and I think that the sooner the company is closed down in one way or another, the better it will be.

Mr. Channon

Let me deal first with the question of licensing. The arrangements for ships are very different from those for aeroplanes and other forms of transport. The House will wish to consider whether we should go down that road; it has far-reaching implications, and I am not prepared at one hour's notice to give a definite answer. Licensing ferry operators would be a complete change in our marine shipping law, which has existed through many Governments and many centuries. But I shall consider my hon. Friend's point.

I well understand my hon. Friend's views about the treatment of the master and, as he sees it, the treatment of the company. According to the court, neither has committed a criminal offence. The court has found—I am not talking about my findings—that the master was guilty of negligence in exercising his master's certificate, and it is for that that he has been suspended for a year.

Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)

What is the Secretary of State's personal message today to the buccaneers of free enterprise at Townsend Thoresen who will for ever be remembered as merchants of death?

Mr. Channon

I do not wish to use the hon. Gentleman's language. This was a terrible disaster, and there is, I hope. reasonably common ground in the House on why it happened. Certainly, the report is very clear about the cause: the accident was due to a combination of factors, which the report outlines in detail. The company and, I am afraid, some of the crew were partially responsible. It is a terrible disaster in the history of the sea, and the management of that company is no longer in charge.

Mr. Harry Creenway (Ealing, North)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I shall never forget the agony of some of my constituents whose children died in this tragedy? I was glad to hear him say that he sympathises with the bereaved. Is my right hon. Friend further aware that many of those who appeared in the inquiry continue to be extremely ill, particularly psychologically ill, and that that is perhaps irreversible? What will be done for them?

Mr. Channon

The House knows that the Government have already made a very large contribution to the disaster fund. Other compensation measures are available. I shall write to my hon. Friend on that very important point. I share his distress at the appalling situation in which many people still find themselves, either because of the loss of friends or relatives or because they are still very ill after the appalling disaster. I shall, of course, sympathetically consider anything that can be done to help them further.

Mr. David Young (Bolton, South-East)

Will the Secretary of State take on board the fact that many fair-minded people will believe that the crew members have been used as a scapegoat to cover the omissions of the company? Will he reiterate that, although crew members may have been punished for sins of commission, the sins of omission by the company were far more serious? While we are waiting for his legislation, what message will he give to the other companies that indulge in bad practices? What warning will he give to them, and will he make the action against them retrospective?

Mr. Channon

I very much hope that the hon. Member does not believe that other companies continue to indulge in bad practices. If he does, I hope that he will give me evidence about it straight away so that I may investigate it at once. My inspectors have already carried out the requisite checks, and I am satisfied that no ship will ever again sail under similar circumstances. The House was told some months ago that the inspectors had been carrying out additional checks. It is important that people should understand that action has already been taken. I have announced a programme for future action and I shall he meeting the companies next week.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (Norfolk, North-West)

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will press hard for a full debate on this issue when the House reassembles in the autumn. I have not yet had an opportunity to read the report in full, but it reveals neglect by Townsend Thoresen that verges on the criminal. Townsend Thoresen has brought shame on the British merchant marine, not just as a result of this horrific incident but as a result of many years of slovenly, incompetent management. Many of my constituents sail regularly on cross-Channel ferries. They will be dismayed that this company is still allowed to operate ferries. They will be even more dismayed if my right hon. Friend cannot promise that action will be taken against the company. It is not good enough to say that the company has a few new managers. The management is obviously rotten to the core, and the people of this country expect really tough action to be taken by the Minister and the Department.

Mr. Channon

As to my hon. Friend's point about the need for a debate on the subject, I sense that in all quarters of the House there is a desire for a debate. I have already said that I shall consult my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House about the matter, and he has assured me that he will consider it sympathetically. Therefore, I hope that before long I shall be able to meet my hon. Friend's point.

A debate would provide a better opportunity to discuss the matter. Hon. Members will then have had an opportunity to study the report. It is no one's fault that there has been no opportunity to study it. The choice I had to make was either to make a statement now, when no hon. Member has had a chance to read the report, or to allow the House to go into a three-month recess without my having made a statement. I took the view that the House would prefer me to make a statement today.

As hon. Members have not had a chance to study the report, I hope that they will consider carefully what they are saying. I have already explained to the House that if criminal offences were involved, people would be prosecuted, but the court has taken the view that no criminal offences are involved. I explained to the House many months ago that the formal investigation mechanism makes it extremely difficult for prosecutions to take place. It is unprecedented for there to be a prosecution after a formal investigation.

Mr. Prescott

No, it is not.

Mr. Channon

If the hon. Gentleman has a precedent, I shall be very glad to have a look at it, but I am advised that there are no precedents. [Interruption.] I have checked carefully, but if the hon. Gentleman has any evidence to the contrary I should like to look at it. It is a very important point. It makes me wonder whether our regulatory machinery and the conduct of the investigations that I inherited is the best way to proceed.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I take up the point just made by the Secretary of State. If there is to be a debate, hon. Members will have had an opportunity to study the report. Today, will hon. Members please ask questions and not repeat the points that have already been made by other hon. Members?

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

Is the epitaph of the tragedy that profit prevailed over safety? Why did it take the deaths of so many people to persuade the Department to take the action that it was pressed to take for a long time? Will the Secretary of State understand that many people believe that the captain and crew have been made scapegoats and that the company has been protected, as a major contributor to the Conservative party?

Mr. Channon

I hope that, on reflection, the hon. Gentleman will regret that remark. I should have thought that it is the sort of issue in regard to which, on normal occasions, both sides of the House would be united in trying to find ways of going forward to make sure that something like this never occurs again. I have been extremely scathing in my remarks about the company, and in doing so I have echoed what the judge said. I have announced measures that I shall take with the greatest urgency to make sure that something like this cannot occur again. I hope to have the united support of the House in that. That is the way in which I shall proceed.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett (Pembroke)

Looking to the future, when my right hon. Friend considers what recommendations should be put into practice, will he look at three matters? First, he talked about the tightening up of company operating practices. Is there a clear case for a statutory code which will apply to all companies and which will have criminal penalties if they are not carried out? For instance, I refer to the criminal penalties in regard to health and safety at work. We should look at that matter. Secondly, I refer to random inspections without warning. We must make sure that they take place and that the companies do not know that they are happening. Thirdly, I refer to the lessons that we learnt about rescue co-ordination during the rescue. As I understand it, the rescue services of both countries acted quickly and saved many lives as a result of their co-ordination.

In my own part of the world, different ferries operate on the Irish sea—a much wider area. Can we be assured that proper co-ordination is taking place in all ports and on all sea routes, that contingency plans exist, and that practices take place on a regular basis?

Mr. Channon

My hon. Friend raised three extremely important points. I shall examine the possibility of a statutory code of company operating practices, but I do not wish to give an answer about it this afternoon. It will be extremely relevant to proceedings on the Merchant Shipping Bill when it comes before the House later this year. I shall bear in mind what my hon. Friend said. Perhaps he would like to be in touch with me about it.

We shall have more random inspections. It is important not only to have more random inspections but to have inspections of all parts of ships, not simply areas to which only passengers can go. There is some conflict between making random and covert inspections and allowing inspectors to get into all areas of ships where, normally, only crew members are allowed to go.

The rescue co-ordination worked extremely well during the tragedy. The only point that arose concerned helicopter noise. My hon. Friend may wish to read the section relating to helicopters when he has a chance to study the report. Some small improvements may be effected in that regard. I shall certainly consider the points that he made about rescue co-ordination throughout the United Kingdom. Of course, we are reviewing that matter at present.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Is the Secretary of State aware that concern has been expressed over many years about the lack of bulkheads on large deck areas on roll-on/roll-off ferries? Is he also aware that, on ocean-going container vessels, it is common for waterproof bulkheads to cross decks to prevent just the kind of accident that happened at Zeebrugge? Will the Secretary of State assure the House — as my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) asked—that the investigations into ferry design will be independent of ferry operators and shipping companies, will be financed only by Government, and that a report will quickly be furnished? Will the Secretary of State ensure that the necessary design changes are introduced immediately to prevent a similar accident happening on cross-Channel ferries? Obviously, shipping operators on trans-Atlantic lines recognised that danger a long time ago.

Mr. Channon

I shall certainly examine the hon. Gentleman's point. Conditions for crossing the Atlantic are different from those for cross-Channel operations and requirements may prove to be different in practice. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have announced a programme of research into ferry design and doubled the funds that are available for that. I am not sure how quick — [Interruption.] No, I have had this job for only six weeks. This afternoon I have announced measures that will take us further along that road than anyone else. I shall make sure that the hon. Gentleman's considered points are carefully examined.

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West)

The Secretary of State has said that 180 people lost their lives on that night. Can he advise the House of the number of people who have since died as a result of Zeebrugge? Those of us who have been in the Merchant Navy and who have been involved in shipbuilding and ship design have known for many years that the initial design of those ships was likely to lead to disaster. The Secretary of State said that it was the fact that the bow doors were open that caused the disaster. However, even if the bow doors were open the ship might not have overturned if there had been internal bulkheads. That is the key to this issue and the Secretary of State should make that his immediate priority and should not concentrate on other matters, which could be dealt with simply.

Mr. Channon

I shall examine what the hon. Gentleman has said, but I do not think that that is what the judge found.

Mr. Ross

What would the judge know about the design of the ship?

Mr. Channon

He is the Admiralty judge. He is the one expert—[Interruption.] If anyone can express a view on this, it is the Admiralty judge, supported by four expert assessors. With respect, I should have thought that that judge is as likely to know as anyone else in the United Kingdom. The hon. Gentleman's comments were not the view of the judge, but that does not mean that I shall not consider what the hon. Gentleman has said.

I am afraid that I do not have the figure for those who have died since the tragic disaster, but if I can find out, I shall get in touch with the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

Will the Secretary of State introduce retrospective legislation when he introduces the other measures that he put before the House so that action can be taken against Townsend Thoresen, and in future against firms that commit similar practices?

Mr. Channon

I shall consider the hon. Gentleman's comments. However, he must face up to the fact that, as I said a few moments ago, that there has never been any prosecution after a formal investigation of this type in history.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley)

With respect, will the Secretary of State accept his own advice, and will he and his Department study the report in greater depth? I accept that we have not yet had sufficient time to consider it, but it contains a serious condemnation of the management of Townsend Thoresen, and it will seem to the public an absolute outrage if action cannot be taken against that company.

Will the Secretary of State assure us that, if he reconsiders the report and finds some way of taking legal action against the company, that action will be taken? Will he ensure that the new procedures that are used for embarkation and boarding in this country, where regulations are already tighter than in other countries, are enforced in continental ports, which at present are much more relaxed when compared with the new regulations that are in operation at Dover and at other ports here?

Mr. Channon

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we should study the report in much greater depth than we have so far had the opportunity to do—that includes my Department and myself. We have done our best to make an initial judgment of the issues that we should take forward with the greatest urgency, and I announced those to the House this afternoon. Yes, we shall consider the new procedures, and if we think that the procedures in continental ports need changing —that would require negotiations—I shall consider how that can be achieved.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

Does the Secretary of State accept that many people outside the House will see his statement as conniving at making two officers the scapegoats for this horrific tragedy, while the directors walk away from the offence absolutely scot free because they happened to get out of the company conveniently in time to escape any of the consequences? Was it a lack of inspectors in his Department — the Government have made repeated claims that they are sacking as many civil servants as they can—which prevented it from following up Merchant Shipping Notice No. M. 1188, entitled "Good Ship Management", listed on page 37 of the report, and which emphasised the safe operation of ships at sea? Was there complacency on the part of his Department which for nine months made no attempt to ensure that that notice was followed up and put into practice? No prosecutions were entered into under the 1984 regulations. What is the cause? Is it the sloppiness of the Conservative Government, the shortage of civil servants or the sloppiness of the Department of Transport?

Mr. Channon

With respect, the hon. Gentleman is wrong about this. It is most unreasonable and unfair of him to make those comments. This afternoon I am merely reporting to the House what the judge has found. The suggestion that I have been conniving with the judge is astonishing and from an experienced Member of Parliament like the hon. Gentleman I find it surprising indeed. I have not made the decisions about the master and the chief officer: the judge has. [HON. MEMBERS: "The Secretary of State has powers of his own."] I do not have powers. In a formal investigation of this sort it is for the judge to make powers to remove the certificate. It is not me who decides that; it is he who decides that.

The hon. Gentleman's criticisms of the Department of Transport are not echoed in the judge's report. The hon. Gentleman will have a chance to study that in full and then he will be able to make up his mind. We can return to the subject when we have all had a chance to study it.

There have been some reductions in the number of inspectors in my Department. The decline in the fleet has been far faster than the decline in the number of inspectors. [Interruption.] The percentage of inspectors compared with the numbers of the fleet is still virtually unchanged. [Interruption.] If anything, it may have increased. Hon. Gentlemen are trying to create an issue out of nothing. [Interruption.] No. If the judge had made those criticisms of my Department, I would not have shirked telling the House.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Is it not true that, despite the fact that the judicial inquiry has found that a prosecution should not be brought against the company, the Director of Public Prosecutions is a free-standing authority in these matters and can examine all the documents if the Secretary of State submits them to him? Is it not true that if the director decides that there is a basis for prosecution, he can bring it, irrespective of the report that the Secretary of State has announced to Parliament today?

Mr. Channon

The hon. Gentleman neglects the important point about the formal investigation and the position that arises after a formal investigation of this type. I have a great deal of sympathy with some of the points made this afternoon, but that is inevitable and has always been the practice. It may well be that the system needs to be changed.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Surely the Secretary of State is aware of the extreme disquiet on both sides of the House that Townsend Thoresen is getting away almost scot free? It is as though there has been a whitewash job. Three named officers will have to live with this on their conscience for the rest of their lives. In all justice the Secretary of State should be seen to penalise the company for the various mistakes that the management clearly made. Will the Secretary of State now say that he will tell Townsend Thoresen that it will have no more ferry movements until it has carried out all the proposed modifications and his Department has investigated the new management structure to ensure that the same mistakes will not be repeated? Will the boarding card system also mean that there is a named passenger list so that in the event of this happening again constituents, relatives and friends will not have to spend days in anguish waiting to know whether they have had someone on that ferry?

Mr. Channon

I am not sure that a named passenger list is the solution that the House wants. We should certainly consider it, but it is not necessarily a good idea or, indeed, one that would be welcome to the overwhelming majority of passengers for a variety of reasons, including the speed of getting on and off ships. Nor would it necessarily be accurate. I am not immediately attracted to the idea, but we shall consider the whole boarding card circumstances, as I have announced to the House.

The new management structure is already in place. In his report, the judge referred to that and to the fact that Townsend Thoresen has taken the necessary steps to make its ships safe. I am not responsible for what the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) calls a whitewash job. I report to the House the facts as the judge found them. The idea that I have not criticised the company or that the company has not been criticised in the report is not true. The company has been criticised extremely severely in the report and the House will be able to study it.

Mr. Neil Thorne (Ilford, South)

My right hon. Friend has made some sensible and practical suggestions on what might be done to ensure that this type of accident never happens again. He has also told us that next week he expects to meet the various parties concerned in the shipping industry. After he has discussed the matter with those parties, will he consider announcing a timetable of when the practical steps can be implemented, because I am sure that that would go a long way to confirm the reassurance that is required by the public as to the future of ro-ro ferries?

Mr. Channon

I think that that is an extremely good idea.