HC Deb 29 June 1987 vol 118 cc243-4
8. Mr. Home Robertson

asked the Secretary of State for Transport if he intends to take any action to improve safety precautions on roll-on/roll-off ferries.

Mr. Channon

My predecessor ordered a formal investigation into the capsize of the Herald of Free Enterprise. The hearings have now been concluded. I hope to receive the report within about a month and when I have it I will give the most urgent consideration to its recommendations.

Mr. Home Robertson

Will the Secretary of State acknowledge the inherent conflict between the pursuit of profit and the achievement of safety standards in all forms of transport? As it is his personal duty to apply safety standards in transport, why did he say in reply to the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley) that he intends to take no effective action against a company which exposed its passengers and crew to such terrible and avoidable peril?

Mr. Channon

I have already answered a question about the latter point. I do not accept everything that the hon. Gentleman has said. As to his first point, I believe that these enterprises should be profitable and safe. If they are not safe, I shall take the necessary action—[HON. MEMBERS: "When?"] The House would expect me to wait until I receive the recommendations of the inquiry, which I hope will be out in about a month.

Mr. Gale

Those of us who represent constituents who were on the Herald of Free Enterprise—and I think that there is not an hon. Member in east Kent who does not find himself in that position—will welcome any new safety measures that enhance the safety not only of passengers but of those who work on ships. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the results of the inquiry will not lead to a vendetta against all RO-RO ferries? Does he recognise that many ferry companies, including the Sally Line of Ramsgate, already observe watertight bulkheads and have a 100 per cent. safety record?

Mr. Channon

I note what my hon. Friend has said. I want to get the report, publish it as soon as possible, allow everyone to think about it and take speedy action where it is required.

Mr. Leadbitter

Does the Minister accept that there are two outstanding elements in this unfortunate disaster that he should take into account? First, to what extent will the Secretary of State for Transport accept responsibility? Secondly, since even partial flooding is likely to be critical in such ferries, is not their design a matter of deep concern? What work is his Department doing in that regard?

Mr. Channon

If the Department bears some responsibility, we shall have to accept our share of it. I do not wish to prejudge the results of the inquiry. Flooding and design may be covered by the recommendations from the inquiry. If they are, we shall consider them urgently. There is much to be said for research into those issues as a matter of urgency.

Mr. Stott

My hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) asked the Secretary of State what action he intends to take to improve safety on such vessels. I draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that he has power under regulation 408 of the Merchant Shipping Regulations 1984. It is clear that the Herald of Free Enterprise was operating contrary to those obligations. The company failed to maintain a safe place of work or a safe system of work, and the ship's log did not give an accurate description of the draught of the vessel before leaving Zeebrugge. All those things were contrary to the regulations, and the Secretary of State has the power to deal with shipping companies which flout the regulations. Is it not time that his Department set an example for safety at sea and safety for passengers?

Mr. Channon

The hon. Gentleman may say that, but he has not made any specific suggestions. I should have thought that what I am doing is entirely reasonable and that the whole House would recognise it as such. An inquiry is going on and it will report in a month. We shall then decide to take urgent action if that is required. What could be more reasonable than that, and what more could any other Secretary of State do?