HC Deb 09 March 1987 vol 112 cc21-6 3.31 pm
The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. John Moore)

With permission Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about the loss of the vessel Herald of Free Enterprise.

Shortly before 7 pm GMT on Friday 6 March, the rollon/roll-off passenger ferry "Herald of Free Enterprise" capsized, without warning, in a position about three quarters of a mile outside the entrance to the port of Zeebrugge. She had left Zeebrugge about half an hour before on a passage to Dover. It is my sad duty to inform the House that a total of 53 people are known to have died and 82 others are believed to be missing. A total of 408 passengers and crew were rescued. I am sure that the whole House would wish to join me in expressing our deepest sympathy to the bereaved and the injured.

Immediately the tragedy occurred, the Belgian authorities took charge of the search and rescue arrangements, with assistance from Her Majesty's Coastguard and the Ministry of Defence rescue co-ordination centre at Plymouth. Two British warships were immediately dispatched to the scene, together with search and rescue helicopters carrying divers and other rescue equipment. I wish to pay tribute to all those involved in the rescue arrangements, especially to the Belgian authorities and the Belgian people, without whose speedy response the casualties would have been much greater. I should also like to pay tribute to the police, hospitals and fire services on both sides of the Channel, the staff of Townsend Thoresen and the British ambassador and his staff in Belgium for their assistance to the injured and bereaved.

A team of marine surveyors from my Department led by Captain Vale have begun to conduct a preliminary inquiry into the loss of this vessel.

I have decided that a full formal investigation should be held into this disaster. It will be conducted under the provisions of the Merchant Shipping Acts. I am pleased to announce that after consultation with my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor, the hon. Mr. Justice Sheen, the Admiralty judge, has been appointed to be the commissioner for the investigation. He will be assisted by four assessors who will be appointed shortly. The date and venue for the inquiry will be announced when arrangements have been made, but I am anxious that there should be no delay.

It will be for the formal investigation to investigate the causes of this disaster and to make recommendations to ensure that all possible lessons are learnt. But the preliminary reports which I have received suggest that the cause of the capsize of the vessel was an inrush of water through the bow loading doors. I have no evidence to suggest that this was due to any fundamental fault in the design of the ship.

My Department has today embarked on a programme of checks on roll-on/roll-off ships leaving United Kingdom ports to ensure that all loading door mechanisms are in working order; that officers and crew are aware of the operating procedures, that all openings in the hull and superstructure must be closed before ships proceed to sea in accordance with statutory requirements, and that recommendations of safe practice should be observed.

I am also advising owners of roll-on/roll-off ferries to fit warning lights on the bridge of the vessels to show whether the loading doors are properly closed. Clearly, I shall consider whether to make this a statutory requirement.

Understandably, there is anxiety about the financial difficulties of the injured and bereaved both immediately and in the long term. As regards immediate needs in Zeebrugge, the British consul and his staff are offering all possible consular assistance. In this country, the Department of Health and Social Security is providing emergency arrangements so that people arriving at Gatwick and Dover can be given immediate help. As regards concern about long-term financial entitlements a team from the Department of Health and Social Security is going out to Zeebrugge today to give advice on the spot.

I understand that P&O has announced today that it has set aside £250,000 to meet the immediate personal needs of those in distress following the tragedy. This fund will be handled by the Townsend Thoresen office in Dover. The company will also be advertising in the national press tomorrow with details of the central point for claims. I have its assurance that all claims will be dealt with as quickly as possible.

On the initiative of Dover district council, a Channel ferry disaster fund has been established to assist the victims and their relatives. This will not affect claims for compensation. The Government will contribute £1 million to the fund. Parliamentary approval to this payment will be sought in a supplementary Supply Estimate for the transport services and central administration vote. Pending that approval, the £1 million donation will be met by a repayable advance from the contingencies fund.

Every year some 28 million passengers are safely carried on United Kingdom ferries and it is tragic that our fine record of safety has been marred by this disaster. I share the grief and anguish of those who are bereaved, and of those who are still uncertain of the fate of their friends and relatives. I am sure that the thoughts of all hon. Members of this House are with them

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

On behalf of the Opposition I express our shock at the magnitude of the tragedy and loss of life. We give our condolences to all those who lost family and relatives, and to the injured. It was a particular shock to many of us who have seafaring connections.

I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to the rescue services and the Belgian authorities, which acted with exemplary speed and efficiency. I also pay tribute to individual passengers and crew members. Reports are coming in of individual acts of heroism and it is clear that passengers and crew alike put their lives at risk and may, indeed, have lost their lives, trying to save other people.

I thank the Secretary of State's staff who, after I spoke to them on Friday night, kept me in constant touch over the weekend. I thank the Secretary of State for phoning me when he returned from Zeebrugge on Saturday night. I thank the Government for the donation of £1 million to the Dover disaster fund.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is of paramount importance that we discover as quickly as possible whether the primary cause of the disaster was the ship sailing with the doors open? I am glad that he has already put his surveyors on the ships to check the mechanisms to ensure that there is nothing wrong with them. I am pleased that he is insisting that all roll-on/rolloff ferries are now fitted with monitoring devices and warning signals so that the skipper or the crew on the bridge can know immediately if something has gone wrong. Will he not hesitate to use section 21 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1979 to insist that that is done? I cerainly hope that it will not be necessary for him to use compulsion.

Will the Secretary of State discuss with European Transport Ministers of maritime nations how they can instigate common safety procedures? We want to ensure that all ships have proper standards of sailing procedures, no matter which port they are leaving—not just our ports or Belgian ports. Will he undertake an immediate examination of the need to secure vehicles before vessels leave port? It appears that there may have been a contributory factor of vehicles moving rapidly because they were not secured.

Will the inquiry look at the possibility of fitting stanchions in these vessels, which have no bulkheads, to prevent the vehicles from moving quickly in the event of such disasters, or in the event of a collision, because movement of vehicles affects the stability of the vessels? Will there be an inquiry into the ship's design, especially with regard to stability? The most important question to be answered is how, within 45 to 60 seconds, a vessel such as this could roll over.

Will the right hon. Gentleman ask the inquiry to look at the possibility although it is extremely expensive, of fitting moving bulkheads, if not to existing vessels, to new vessels, as some sort of bulkhead would at least buy some time to evacuate people safely?

I agree that we want a thorough and urgent report. Will the Secretary of State undertake that there will be interim reports so that any safety lessons that emerge will be put into effect without any delay? Will he urge the inquiry to look at the commercial pressures that may be compelling vessel owners to have swifter turn-rounds? Whatever lessons came out of this, in no circumstances can commercial pressures be allowed to militate against the safety of our people and our passengers.

Mr. Moore

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his initial comments. I know that he speaks for all hon. Members in what he has said, and I welcome it. I start with his last point. Safety cannot be inhibited by any pressures. It is the first prerequisite, and all hon. Members would expect it to be the prerequisite of any Government, to establish regulations on safety at sea. The hon. Gentleman was right to pay tribute to the passengers and the crew. It is difficult at this stage to be precise, but in my conversations at Zeebrugge and again this morning, with Jeffrey Sterling, it is clear to me that there are many, as yet untold, heroic actions both by members of the crew and passengers. I am sure that the former would have done their duty in the standards and tradition of the British merchant navy.

The hon. Gentleman asked me to establish the inquiry urgently—of course we must. To follow up another of his questions, I make it clear that no action will be inhibited by the time that it takes us to establish the precise cause. The preliminary investigations that I started on Friday night and Saturday morning are already under way. If there are, as a consequence, any actions to be taken, or if actions become necessary because of what the formal inquiry presents, we shall not be inhibited in taking those actions by the inquiry process.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the Act and the way that I might use other sections of the Merchant Shipping Act and section 21 in particular. I would not hesitate to use them. There is already a considerble number of regulations in this sector, as he knows. There are no statutory regulations on the physically securing of vehicles. It is done by advice to the masters of the marine. Whether that should be turned into statutory regulations is something that I should be more than happy to consider.

With regard to stanchions, the inquiry will not be inhibited in any aspect. It cannot be and should not be. We shall look at that point. With regard to the European Transport Ministers, the House may not be aware that the Commissioner for the European Commission, Mr. Stanley Clinton Davis, and some of his staff, spent most of Saturday with me. Not only did he show sympathy and concern, but he wishes, with the European Transport Ministers, to look at and discuss this matter.

With regard to the character and design of the ship, the public inquiry will no doubt address the design and safety margins for such ships. For the present, I stress again, as it is important for the many millions who travel by sea, that there is no evidence to suggest any reason for imposing restrictions on their operation. I would not have said that without clear advice. I would not inhibit, but encourage, the inquiry to look at this and all aspects of the issue.

Mr. Peter Rees (Dover)

I thank my right hon. Friend for the statement and for his decision to make an immediate grant to the Dover district council disaster fund. His prompt visit and that of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to Zeebrugge to see the aftermath of the disaster was much appreciated. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) and I appreciated the prompt visit that the Minister with responsibilities for shipping paid with us to the coastguard station at Dover and to the headquarters of Townsend Thoresen on Saturday.

Will my right hon. Friend accept that many people in east Kent will wish to be associated with the tributes that he has paid to the rescue services, and with the expression of gratitude that he made to our neighbours in Belgium for their prompt and sympathetic response?

I welcome my right hon. Friend's prompt decision to set up a judicial inquiry under the Merchant Shipping Act. Will he ensure that the judge and his assessors are accorded all of the resources and assistance that they require, so that, while their inquiry will be a thorough one—it must be that to command confidence—it will also be a fairly speedy one? The obvious uncertainties over the reasons for this incident, and therefore over the passage of the ferries, may prejudice the ferries, which have had, until now, a well-deserved reputation for efficiency and safety in carrying millions of people across the Channel every year.

Will my right hon. Friend consider whether, in incidents of this kind, the methods of contacting and informing the families of those directly involved could be sharpened up? I know that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe and I came across one or two distressing cases over the weekend of families who were left in considerable uncertainty for a long time. One appreciates that, when an incident has occurred in foreign waters, and the primary responsibilities for the rescue lie with foreign authorities, the difficulties may be considerable, but I know that my right hon. Friend will be sensitive to that particular point.

Mr. Moore

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend and start by saying how much my Department appreciated the assistance that he and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) gave by going to the rescue centres and information areas in Dover and Folkestone and ensuring that they did everything that they could to help the relatives of those who were looking for their kin.

As to the Belgium authorities, may I reiterate to the House what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said, and what I said when I was in Belgium? I cannot express enough the thanks of the House and the British people for the extraordinary courage, efficiency and care with which the Belgian authorities and the Belgian people greeted us on this occasion.

The inquiry must not be restricted in any way as to resources. It is essential that it does its job properly; it would not wish to do anything else. I understand the point that my right hon. and learned Friend is making about speed. It is essential that we move as fast as we possibly can because, as he said, this involves an important industry that safely carried 28 million of our people across the Channel last year.

I heard the points that my right hon. and learned Friend made concerning the difficulties that occurred with regard to some of the telephone lines. Some 26 telephone lines were put in in the Maidstone special emergency area. I shall ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to look at this matter again, but it is very difficult when an incident has occurred in somebody else's jurisdiction. I shall certainly look at the point because of many of the difficulties that the bereaved found in these circumstances, and still find, is something that we all appreciate.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

I associate my right hon. and hon. Friends with the expressions of sympathy for the bereaved and injured. I also pay tribute to the emergency services, the rescue services and to all those who supplied comfort and assistance to the injured and bereaved in Belgium and on this side of the Channel. From information supplied by my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), who has constituents missing, presumed dead, I know that the prompt and sensitive response of the staff of Townsend Thoresen has been particularly welcomed.

I welcome the announcement that the Minister made of Government support for the disaster fund and also the very prompt steps that he and his Department have taken to ensure safety and to reassure the public, who will need to have their confidence rebuilt after what has happened.

The Minister said that a full and public inquiry will take place, which will perhaps establish how the water got in. No doubt the Minister will be aware of the great concern that has been expressed at the volume of open space on the car deck. Will he confirm that that will be one of the matters that the inquiry will be looking into? The Minister can be assured that, if there are findings that suggest safety measures that could, perhaps, be said to conflict with commercial pressures, he will have our support in ensuring that safety is paramount.

Mr. Moore

I thank the hon. Member for what he said on behalf of his party. He will know that nothing can take second place to safety. He must understand that, and I reiterate the point.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks about Townsend Thoresen. Those who have been involved in the tragedy are fully aware of the enormous resources that the company has devoted to try to make sure that the difficulties are handled with as much sensitivity as possible.

The hon. Member is absolutely right to say that, as far as we can, we must take every action quickly. I will not let the inquiry inhibit action to reassure people.

I said earlier that the public inquiry will no doubt address the design of the ship and the safety margins of this type of ship, but I also said carefully that, as far as we could see at this stage, there is no evidence to suggest that we should impose restrictions on operations, apart from the additional action that I have announced today.

Mr. Terence Higgins (Worthing)

While joining in the expressions of sympathy to the bereaved, may I ask whether my right hon. Friend is satisfied that steps to recover and identify the remaining bodies in the wreck are being taken without delay?

Mr. Moore

I thank my right hon. Friend for that question. He has drawn attention to a difficult and important issue. I have spoken to Sir Jeffrey Sterling and to the people involved and there is no question but that the only criterion that concerns them is the raising of the vessel in such a way as to obtain the bodies of those currently entombed in the ship. That is the first, last and only important criterion that they are addressing, and that must be right. It is a very difficult operation, as those who have been involved know. Therefore, I am afraid that it will take time, but we wish them speedy success.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

May I associate myself with the expressions of sympathy and with the thanks offered to the rescue services for the fact that, despite the tragic deaths, many passengers were rescued alive? Like other hon. Members, I represent a constituency which is served by roll-on roll-off ferries. I make no imputation against that type of vessel, but will the Secretary of State include in the public inquiry a general review of roll-on roll-off ferries?

Mr. Moore

I made it quite clear what I suggested that the public inquiry should examine and I do not think that I need to repeat the words for the third time. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his initial remarks. He is right to remind the House of the extraordinary achievements of the rescue services. It is impossible to describe how cold the waters were. To get 408 survivors out of 543 passengers in such conditions is one of the most remarkable miracles. We are all desperately sad at the death toll that we already know about and at the deaths that we suspect, but the achievement of the authorities and of everybody else is something for which we must all thank God.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. In a tragedy of this magnitude there is hardly an hon. Member whose constituency has not suffered loss or injury. I think that it would be fair to all concerned if we moved on, because it is impossible for me to decide or discover who has suffered most.