HC Deb 30 March 1988 vol 130 cc1201-27

'1. That the Secretary of State shall annually report to Parliament on matters affecting safety at sea and that in particular such a report must include:

  1. (a) all actions taken by the Chief Inspector of Marine Accidents.
  2. (b) all discussions with representatives of other nations concerning safety at sea.
  3. (c) all changes in primary and secondary legislation intended to improve safety at sea.
  4. (d) all voluntary agreements concerning safety at sea reached by, or with, private companies.
  5. (e) an assessment of the need for change in the design of ships, in the furtherance of safety at sea.
  6. (f) an assessment of the effect of the working practices or seamen, masters and companies, on safety at sea.
2. That the duty on the Secretary of State in sub-section (1) above, shall not be deemed to be fulfilled, until the report has been accepted by affirmation of both Houses of Parliament.'.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Robert Hughes

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

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to consider the following: Amendment (a) to the new clause, after subsection 1(f), insert— '(g) an assessment of the impact of Safety at Sea legislation covering registered British fishing vessels; (h) an account of the financial assistance provided from public funds to defray expenses incurred in meeting statutory training requirements on skippers and crew members of registered British fishing vessels' New clause 13 — Safety at Sea of British fishing vessels

  1. '(1) The Secretary of State shall report annually to Parliament on matters affecting the safety at sea of registered British fishing vessels and that such a report will include an account of the financial assistance provided from public funds to support the training costs of skippers and crew members of registered British fishing vessels incurred in meeting statutory training requirements.
  2. (2) The duty on the Secretary of State imposed by subsection (1) above, shall not be deemed to be fulfilled until the report has been accepted by affirmation of both Houses of Parliament.'.

Mr. Hughes

The new clause relates to safety at sea. It is, tragically, just over a year since the Zeebrugge disaster —a night that none of us will ever forget. We heard first that the vessel had gone down and the grave danger that all the passengers had been lost, along with the crew. There was then a partial sense of relief when the news came through that the vessel had capsized and was on a sandbank. Then came the awful news about the number of people who had lost their lives.

Part of the reason for the new clause is to make absolutely sure that the issue of safety at sea is kept in the front of our minds on every possible occasion. Those of us who have seaport connections or who have a family history of seafaring, know that all too often people make the right noises about death at sea. In some cases, collections are taken and funds set up. People give generously, but then they forget all about safety at sea until the next major incident. Sadly, "out of sight, out of mind" is a phrase that applies all too often to merchant shipping.

It is essential that we keep the issue to the fore, and that is the intention of the new clause. We should consider two aspects of safety at sea. The first is the design of ships, their seaworthiness and maintenance. The second is manning and how proper management and crew practices can assist safety. Despite what the Government have done since the Herald of Free Enterprise sank—I concede that things have been done to improve safety — the bulk of the Government's actions have been in relation to the human element of safety.

10.45 pm

There is a major disagreement between the Secretary of State and myself, and between the General Council of British Shipping and the organisers of the Herald of Free Enterprise Families Association, on the safety of the basic design of ro-ro ferries. In a letter to me on 13 January, the Secretary of State said that the Government do not regard existing ro-ro ferries as unsafe.

None of us wishes to be alarmist, and to some extent I accept the statistics that are given. They are always comparative statistics. The number of deaths at sea was comparatively small before the Herald of Free Enterprise sank. It was a benchmark in disaster for ro-ro ferries. It is true to say that more people have been killed because of Boeing 747s crashing than because of ro-ro ferries sinking, but that does not alter the fact that there are serious grounds for doubting the inherent safety and stability of ro-ro ferries.

It is commonplace to say—the Minister said it on Second Reading and it has been said since—that ro-ro ferries are perfectly safe as long as they do not sail with their bow doors open and water does not get in. That goes without saying. But one could say with equal truth and emphasis that the Titanic was a perfectly safe ship as long as it did not hit an iceberg. To say that a ship is safe as long as water does not get in proves nothing at all. The problem with ro-ro ferries is that once water gets in they become unstable and can capsize quickly.

The statistics on ro-ro ferries are alarming. There are about 2,500 ro-ro ferries in the world, 400 of which have been involved in serious incidents. In 1981, a Norwegian organisation reported on 243 ro-ro ferries that had been involved in incidents at sea over a 20-year period, and it found that 60 per cent. of them had sunk in less than 10 minutes. That is a very short time. In 1981, when the German ship the Ems sank, it was the 19th incident involving ro-ro ferries in two and a half years. The insurers were so worried that they began to add premiums to the insurance. Since then there have been many incidents. In 1980, the Tollan and the Zenobia capsized. Nearer to home, in 1981, the Anion beached. European Gateway keeled over in 1982, and on 5 March this year the Vinca Gorthon capsized in the North sea.

For many years people have warned about the dangers of capsizing. Indeed, the International Maritime Organisation has been discussing the problems of large, open-deck ships since the 1960s. Several reports on the danger of capsizing have been published. One could go through all the reports that have been published, but it is late, so I shall consider reports that are immediately to hand in Britain. In February, the Nautical Institute warned of the "inherent vulnerability" of ro-ro ferries. It recommended that bulkheads should be fitted, that there should be moveable shutters and protection for the rear bow in terms of water ingress.

I am not one of those people who often refer to what they have said before, but on the day that we had the statement from the Secretary of State about the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise many of my hon. Friends, and I argued that we needed some method to provide stability for much longer than is currently the case.

A few days ago, the Royal Institute of Naval Architects said: ro-ro passenger ships … despite their full adherence to the law and regulations, are unacceptably vulnerable in that there is a likelihood of rapid capsize and that could lead to "catastrophic loss of life." The International Maritime Organisation is the only organisation that appears to support the Government's view that there is no real need to do anything. As long ago as 1977, that organisation said that it did not think that ro-ro ferries required special consideration.

I accept that there has been consultation about closed-circuit television, draught gauges, escape windows, deck doors, and so on. That is welcome, but it has been rather slow in coming. I do not believe that the Government have addressed the central issue of design with sufficient urgency.

I accept that if the modifications that we regard as necessary are put in place they will be expensive. It has been argued that such modifications could cost between £250,000 and £500,000. That price must be paid. If the Secretary of State thought it necessary to provide Government assistance to carry out the necessary safety requirements, I would not argue against that. I still believe that it might be the responsibility of the ferry companies to make the ships safe, but I would support the Secretary of State were he to say that, in the interests of safety, such things had to be done and that, to protect the competitive edge of British shipping, he wanted to inject some money into the industry.

This is an important matter. The Secretary of State, however—I want to be as fair to him as I can—gives the impression that he is laid back and does not want to get too excited about it. In a letter to the General Council of British Shipping, he said: The Government is not interested in making rules that fail in their basic objective. That is one of the major quarrels between us. I believe that it is absolutely necessary to make the modifications to make the ships safe. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will take a stronger line when he replies.

The hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) made a characteristically vigorous speech, and I do not object to that. However, I object to him giving the impression in a previous debate that I am not concerned about the safety of ferries or their passengers. In case there is any doubt in his mind or in anyone else's, I want to emphasise that I believe that the safety of ships, passengers and crew is paramount. That is why we want improvements to be made.

So far, I have concentrated on ferries because, naturally, they are in the forefront of discussion at the moment, but deep sea vessels should also be considered. I know that the Secretary of State is bound to be concerned about that. Indeed, the father of my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney)—he is not in the Chamber at the moment—who was a Front-Bench spokesman on transport for many years, tried to persuade the Government to set up an inquiry into the loss of the motor vessel Derbyshire. I am glad that the Government set up that inquiry, but it took I forget how many years for it to happen. The Secretary of State should have a duty in law to report to the House on ferry safety.

Other issues might be discussed tonight, and perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd) will be able to deal with some of them later. Crew hours and fatigue are important issues. If a crew are overworked and tired because they do not have proper off-duty hours they cannot be expected to be up to the mark on ferry safety. I hope the Secretary of State will accept that the new clause is intended to be helpful. No sensible person in the shipping industry would object to his reporting annually to the House on safety at sea.

Mr. Salmond

I subscribe to the remarks of the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes). I also want to extend the debate to considering the crucial issue of safety at sea in the fishing industry.

The amendment and the new clauses would require the Secretary of State to account to Parliament annually for safety at sea in the fishing industry, particularly as it is affected by public funds for training for safety. Such accountability is needed to expose the scandal of the lack of support for such training to meet mandatory training requirements that are shortly to be imposed on the industry—requirements to do with fire fighting, survival and first aid.

The House has been made aware many times that sea fishing is an extremely dangerous industry—four times as dangerous as mining. When my predecessor, Sir Albert McQuarrie, introduced his Safety At Sea Bill in 1986, he enjoyed general support from all sides of the House. Hon. Members considered it an important measure, but talk is cheap. That support was not backed by a guarantee or offer of public provision. The Safety At Sea Act 1986 was passed with no Government undertaking to provide public funds to support the mandatory training that was required by the legislation.

Support for training in the fishing industry is under pressure in the Sea Fish Industry Authority — first, because it is extending training to the onshore sector, which hon. Members will agree is a valuable exercise. Secondly, the authority is under pressure because support under the authority's development programme is not guaranteed by MAFF beyond next year. The third cause of pressure is the additional training that will be required by the mandatory requirements of the Safety At Sea Act.

The Government say that, because the Act was a private Member's Bill, it involved no Government commitment to funding. That might be true, were it not for two important facts. In 1986, the mandatory provisions on training in clause 2 of the Bill were drafted by the Government. It was, in effect, a Government clause within a private Member's measure, and the Government brought it forward on Report.

Serious questions must be asked about how the clause on mandatory training was introduced. The Minister of State said of the requirements: In Committee, I also said that it was right for the fishing industry, not the taxpayer, to meet the cost of training. It was most encouraging, therefore, to learn that at the meeting the following day of the fishing industry safety group the body representative of the views of fishermen's organisations on safety matters, no objections were expressed to the proposal to introduce a new clause dealing with training on this basis." —[Official Report, 9 May 1986; Vol. 97, c. 382.] I looked back at the minutes of that meeting of the Fishing Industry Safety Group held on 24 April 1986. Far from no objections being raised, I found that in the last part of the minutes both Mr. William Hay, president of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, and Mr. Gregg of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations, made it clear that they had reservations about the lack of public financial support for the mandatory training requirements in the Safety at Sea Act 1986. I do not know whether the Minister of State was being economical with the truth, but he was most certainly being economical with those minutes.

11 pm

We have an impasse that is reflected in the response to the industry by Lord Brabazon of Tara in a telex of 25 March. In that telex he justified the injustice in the Bill. The Bill provides for £3.5 million to meet the annual training costs of the merchant shipping industry. No one would deny that that is a good measure, but in no measure are the Government willing to introduce public support for mandatory training and safety in the fishing industry, which would cost less than a tenth of what is proposed for the merchant shipping industry.

In his telex to the fishing industry representatives on 25 March, Lord Brabazon of Tara would not even concede a meeting to those representatives to discuss the future public provision for training in the industry. That is a measure of the Government's contemptuous attitude to this important matter. We need an annual report to Parliament so that we can have an account of the intransigent and contemptuous attitude that the Government are taking towards safety at sea as it affects the fishing industry.

I do not know whether the Minister is aware of the anger and frustration caused in the fishing industry by the Government's intransigence in this matter. To provide fully public funded support for mandatory training would cost about £250,000 a year. In the wholeness of Government funds, that is not a large sum. Can the Minister not find it within himself to say that the Government will look again at this matter and offer some public support for safety training in the fishing industry? That would show that they regard the lives of fishermen as being as important as the lives of people in other industries.

Mr. Adley

I am grateful to have this opportunity to speak to the new clauses. The fishermen of Mudeford in my constituency would doubtless benefit from the annual report suggested in the amendment to the new clause. Oil exploration has given rise to hitherto unforseen hazards for many fishermen, certainly in the comparatively crowded waters of Christchurch bay. The mere fact that a report would be presented to Parliament could concentrate the minds of those undertaking oil exploration on the potential hazards that that could create for fishermen.

I should like to speak to the opening sentence of new clause 5, which says that the Secretary of State shall annually report to Parliament on matters affecting safety at sea". Her Majesty's Coastguard training school is in Highcliffe in my constituency. I recently visited that excellent establishment and I am afraid that I found some rather unhappy and uneasy men, who feel that the Department of Transport, which is their lord and master, has no long-term plan for that establishment. There is no more dedicated body of men in the ranks of the Civil Service than those in the coastguard. It was therefore disquieting to receive a letter from a constituent who works at the coastguard training school. He was constrained to write: We do feel pawns in some large scale game about which no-one bothers to inform us. He went on to refer to a telex, and this might interest the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond). That telex, received a few days ago from the Department of Transport, refers to the closure of the sub-centres for maritime rescue at Hartland Point, Moray and at Ramsey on the Isle of Man. My constituents say that the district controller of one of those sections knew nothing about the closure until he received the telex. That is a thoroughly unsatisfactory state of affairs.

Perhaps the reason why I cannot reveal the name of my constituent's name to the House might appeal to my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken). The letter goes on to say: After all, the Government expects us to show loyalty and accountability to our Minister and not to discuss policy with the media or even MPs under threat of the Official Secrets Act, and yet the Minister is allowed to treat his own staff in this cavalier way. All we are asking for is better communication and a little consideration. I make my few remarks in an attempt to put those points on the record. Let me give the Secretary of State another example. My constituents were asked to prepare a report on the breeches buoy and spent many months preparing that report. On the very day that they sent it off to the Department, a message arrived saying that the Department would no longer use the breeches buoys. I can think of no better illustration of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing.

The excellent establishment at Highcliffe has substantial facilities.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will tell the House whether he knows what conclusions that report drew on the question of maintaining the breeches buoy?

Mr. Adley

I should be happy to discuss that matter with the hon. Gentleman, but, at this late hour, it would be unfair to hon. Members who wish to speak in the debate to enter into a technical discussion for the reasons for the Department's decision. I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not think that I am discourteous. I am more than happy to pass on to him any information in my possession on that subject.

Facilities for training overseas staff at Highcliffe coastguard training centre are undoubtedly the most up-to-date in Europe and revenue could undoubtedly be earned by doing so. My constituents are simply asking that the Department gives them some indication of its thinking on the matter.

Much of the equipment is at best antediluvian and only experienced, determined and courageous men could make proper and effective use of it. Coupled with that, there are technical changes in communications equipment. Decisions are now taken by people in the Department who are far away from the coastline and often have no practical experience. One is left with the uneasy feeling that money is the main priority, rather than safety. Decisions taken on communications equipment get the priorities the wrong way round for those who might find themselves in the unfortunate position of having to use that equipment.

Local authorities are being canvassed for their views on taking over the cliff rescue service, an important part of coastguard work. Again, my constituents running that excellent establishment simply wish to know what is the Government's thinking on this matter.

If my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is unable to accept new clause 5, I hope that he will at least reply in detail to my recent letter as soon as possible and do everything possible to allay my constituents' fears and to produce a five-year plan so that this fine body of men may know that they have a firm and secure future.

Mr. Bob Clay (Sunderland, North)

The hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley) referred to a constituent who said that he had the impression that money is a more important consideration then safety. That sums up the attitude of shipowners and the Government to this matter.

I am particularly concerned about the roll-on/roll-off ferry system, which sums up the choice facing the Government and shipowners—that between money and safety. If they were not putting money before safety, the Government would already have legislated. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) quoted from the report of the Royal Institute of Naval Architects. It does not have an axe to grind against this Government, and is not great friend of the Opposition and the trade unions, but that report makes interesting reading.

Apart from what my hon. Friend has already quoted, it says: In the light of circumstances which now pertain it is considered that current designs of Ro-Ro passenger ships now in service, despite their full adherence to the law and regulations, are unacceptably vulnerable in that there is a likelihood of rapid capsize under certain conditions, particularly collision. That should be the end of the matter, unless the Government can produce overwhelming evidence that the National Institute of Naval Architects does not know what it is talking about. If there is a risk, why take it?.

Let us spell out the scale of the risk. I understand from talking to professionals, some of whom were associated with the production of this report, horrific as it is to say this, that the Zeebrugge disaster could have been worse. The loss of life on the ironically named Herald of Free Enterprise would have been a small incident compared with the potential catastrophe that could happen with roll-on/roll-off ferries. The Herald of Free Enterprise was on its own. It was not in collision with another vessel. It was in shallow water, and it was not one of the largest of the modern generation of the roll-on/roll-off ferries. I am not an alarmist, but if two ferries larger than that one collided in mid-Channel, in deep water, there would be a loss of 4,000 to 5,000, so quickly would everybody go down. That is the size of the potential disaster.

The Government's attitude is extraordinarily complacent. What needs to be done? According to the Royal Institute of Naval Architects: Longer term research will refine solutions, but the means of reducing the likelihood of rapid capsize should he adopted now. These include the fitting of door or shutter-type transverse bulkheads on vehicle decks; the judicious use of longitudinal bulkheads; the addition of sponsons or bulges; the reduction of permeability by filling spaces with buoyant material and various similar improvements. If the shipowners will not carry out such measures immediately, and argue that they will lose the competitive edge and cannot afford to have ferries out of service, the Government should oblige them to do it, and they could start that process by accepting this new clause.

Furthermore, if the Government were to provide grants to compensate ferry owners for the loss of service while the ferries were being adapted, and for the cost of the adaptation, it would be reasonable for the Government to do so in exchange for an obligation on the part of the ferry owners to have the work done in British ship repair yards. All of them are screaming out for work and are placed in areas of high unemployment, like my constituency. We could place contracts for all the work that needs to be done to all these ferries without the need for competition between one yard and another. If the work is placed in all the different shipyards, it would be done more quickly.

The only argument against this logical and sane proposal, apart from its cost, is that it will give foreign ferry owners a competitive edge. That seems to me to be an illogical argument. The Government should come down from cloud-cuckoo-land and accept that the work needs to be done to make the ferries safe. They would find that British ferries that had the work done would have a very considerable competitive edge over their foreign counterparts. If not only the ferry owners but the British Government could point out that we now had the only safe roll-on, roll-off ferries in the world, that would be a popular unilateral move with passengers not only in Britain but universally.

11.15 pm

There is every reason for doing the work; it is crying out to be done. Thousands of lives may be at stake, because a greater tragedy than that involving the Herald of Free Enterprise could still happen. The amount of money required is not enormous, yet the Government will not do the work. In the recent Budget, the Government gave away £2.1 billion in tax cuts to those paying over the 40 per cent.mark. They are making a £650 million handout to British Aerospace for taking over Rover. The cost of this proposal is chickenfeed in comparison; the mere millions of pounds needed could be made available tomorrow, and we could start making the ferries safe, which is our main concern. As a useful side product, socially useful work would be provided in shipyards and ship repair yards in areas of desperately high unemployment.

Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, South)

New clause 5 is a well-intentioned new clause, and the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) was absolutely right to remind us all that the memories of the Zeebrugge disaster still cast a long shadow over our proceedings. They cast a longer shadow still over the east Kent coastal communities, which my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) and I have the honour to represent. They have suffered sad losses, and the scars may not heal in people's lifetimes.

Against that background, there is one aspect of safety that the House should ask the Government to comment upon, because it has an effect on the current dispute which has troubled the House this evening and which is causing so much anxiety in the communities of east Kent and to travellers this Easter. There is a fierce—even bitter— feeling that safety is being jeopardised by some of the proposals that are being put forward. That may be a very unfair suggestion, but I have no doubt that the many officers and seamen who have advanced that argument to me at constituency surgeries have done so with complete sincerity and not because they are trying to protect their jobs or defend their livelihoods, even though that may be part of their obvious posture in such a dispute. There is a genuine and sincere feeling that some of the proposals advanced by P and O Ferries will have an impact on the safety not only of crews but of passengers. I hope that the Secretary of State can be persuaded to comment on that and perhaps reassure us on it.

There are two sides to the question. On the one hand, P and O says, "In order to save money and make ourselves competitive with the Channel tunnel, and so on, we need new manning levels." On a purely commercial basis, few people can disagree with that suggestion. It is the company's right to make such changes, unless, of course, they affect safety. But P and O says, "Don't be ridiculous. We are doing no more than bringing in manning levels that exist on many other ferries plying several other routes—foreign ferries in particular. We have two and half crews per ship, which is in line with other companies. It is ridiculous to suggest that we are jeopardising safety merely by introducing the same manning levels as other companies."

The ferry men, on the other hand, say, "We are suddenly being asked to work 72-hour shifts — three days on the trot— and we are being allowed rest periods of only six hours per 24-hour shift. We will be very tired officers if such shift patterns are allowed to prevail." The one thing that the Zeebrugge disaster and the findings that flowed from it have told us is that a tired seaman can be a dangerous one. Thereafter, one listens to representations about fatigue. Moreover, a short sea route seaman is likely, when trying to get his six hours sleep, to be disturbed by a cacophony of noise — klaxons, lorries moving and anchor chains being drawn up. It is therefore not easy to obtain proper rest periods on such routes.

The Secretary of State's officials must have given some consideration to this matter. The Government have a clear duty to ensure that safety at sea prevails. What I want to hear is that the Government have considered representations such as I have described. Are they satisfied that the proposed shift arrangements will not adversely affect safety at sea? I think that that is a reasonable question and the right one to ask tonight.

The fundamental concern is not whether the ferry company has a right to manage in its best commercial interests—of course it does—nor whether the seamen have a right to put forward their own arguments about manning levels — of course they do. Only the Government can say whether a certain pattern of sleep and rest periods is adequate. I was pleased to see that the new clause requires the Secretary of State to report annually to Parliament on the voluntary agreements reached at sea and on the pattern of work and their effect on safety and fatigue.

Is the Secretary of State happy with the new rostering proposals? I do not mean that he should interfere in the company's right to manage, but he should ensure that safety is not affected. That is what I hope to hear from him in his winding-up speech.

Mr. Terry Fields (Liverpool, Broadgreen)

Before I came to this debate, I was given a note from the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack), who asked me to say that he could not be here because he is involved with some other business in the House. I do not usually carry on as a fag for the Tories or anyone else, but at least the hon. Gentleman had the decency to see the families of people who died in the Herald of Free Enterprise and arranged a meeting with the Secretary of State to discuss some of their problems. I therefore do not mind passing on a message from the hon. Member, which is more than I can say for the few Conservative Members present who were members of the Committee but made no valuable contributions to our debates, in spite of the widely known fact that the vessels we are discussing are unsafe. They just sat there like dummies and, at the appropriate time, voted with the Government.

When my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott) was talking about the unions, I heard the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris), who is no longer present, say, from a sedentary position, something about crocodile tears. In Committee, he had a lot to say about training fishermen. He explained that he had only recently been down at his local seaport and that the men who had gone to sea had not come back. There had been an accident. I feel sorry for them. I feel sorry for any group of workers who suffer injury or death in the course of duty. When he was making that contribution, the local television fellow and the press were there. Immediately after making his speech, he went out and gave a press report.

At the next sitting, the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) moved an amendment asking for finance for training the crews of the various fishing boats. The hon. Member for St. Ives stood up in Committee and said that he was attracted to what the hon. Gentleman had proposed and he would support the amendment. However, when it came to the vote, the Minister spoke against the amendment and the hon. Member for St. Ives turned tail and voted with the Government, having made a wonderful speech about his committment to his constituents. Conservative Members give support only in words.

In the Lobbies, hon. Members said that new clause 4 was the most important one under discussion. From the point of view of trade unions it was important. But if there is no safety at sea, it does not matter if one has a union card in one's back pocket. The new clause is important for the seafarers and their families.

We hesitate to express an opinion as to why, in Committee, the Government, through the Minister, refused time and again to acknowledge the instability of the ro-ro ferries, despite the evidence that was presented to them.

On 12 March, the New Scientist reported: When Margaret Thatcher visited the rescue effort at Zeebrugge last weekend she spoke about design failures. She told reporters: 'It is the fundamental design of the ferry that I understand is the problem. That is a factor that will have to be looked at very quickly because public confidence has been very severely jolted.' A spokesman from the Department of Transport reiterated the point, adding that it was 'well known' that ro-ro ferries had design problems. By Monday afternoon the Government had changed its view to coincide with that of Townsend Thoresen's management, which claimed that the issue was one of operating procedures, not design. John Moore, the Transport Secretary, told the House of Commons: 'I have no evidence to support that this [the accident] was due to any fault in the design of the ship.' However, he suggested that, in future, ferries should have alarm lights on their bridges to warn of open sea doors. The current Secretary of State was asked whether improvements will take into account the fact that such vessels sink so quickly. He replied that the sinking of such vessels is, fortunately, exceedingly rare. Yet we have a catalogue of such ferries sinking over a period of five or 10 years. That is a fact, whether we are talking about the Herald of Free Enterprise or the European Gateway. Lord Justice Sheen was critical of the tardiness of the Department of Transport. When told that the recommendations of the European Gateway inquiry, which reported in 1984, had not been implemented, he said: I cannot understand the reluctance to lead in the field of safety. In Committee, I made certain statements about the cosy relationship between the Government, P and O and other parties. P and 0 is trying to screw the workers, take away their trade union rights through the courts, drive down their living standards, reduce their numbers and extend their working hours. Why are the Government doing nothing to stop the carnage for which Townsend Thoresen and P and O are responsible? I would have liked to include in the Bill the liability of the Government, because they know about the ineffectuality of the reporting and the unsafety of the ro-ro ferries, but they have done nothing about it.

A little investigation shows that the chairman of P and O, Sir Jeffrey Sterling, in the 1988 edition of "Who's Who", lists as his clubs the Garrick club, which has on its books the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the Carlton club, which has on its books the Thatchers, Lord Whitelaw and Tony Brooks, who used to work for MI5 and was involved in the scandal with the Wilson Government. I did not know that the Secretary of State for Transport is also a member of the Carlton club. Sir Jeffrey Sterling was the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry's adviser. The Prime Minister appointed Lord Justice Sheen to head the inquiry into the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster. Sir Jeffrey Sterling is a member of the Hurlingham club; so is Lord Justice Sheen.

In 1985, 1986 and 1987, P and O made large financial donations to the Tory party. If I went to the Liverpool, Broadgreen masonic lodge I should find that although these people wring their hands and beat their breasts they do not give a damn for those who lost their lives on the Herald of Free Enterprise. If Conservative Members were interested in safety at sea, they would join us in the Lobby.

11.30 pm

I could give the names of 20 or 30 experts in maritime affairs who have said that the ro-ro ferries are unsafe, but Conservative Members refuse to accept what they say. They stand condemned by their inactivity. It is no use them telling the families of the 200 people who died in the Zeebrugge disaster that they are interested in safety. A personal friend of mine and a good comrade, Geoff Haney, a cook from Manchester, went down with that ship.

If the Government are sincere when they say that they want to provide better safety for the travelling public, they should join us in the Lobby when we divide on the new clause. Millions will be condemned to death if the Government take no action. If they do not introduce legislation to provide better safety at sea, they will be exposed as having failed to deal with the needs of ordinary people.

Captain Spencer, a member of the Honourable Company of Master Mariners and managing director of Baltic Control UK Ltd., wrote to Lloyd's List International and said: Needless to say, the class societies are still servant of the owner and subject also to the will of government giving them the usual conflict of interest. There is a conflict of interest. The Government had better come clean. If Conservative Members want to do something positive tonight, they should vote for new clause 5.

Mrs. Ray Michie

I support the new clause because safety at sea is so important. I regret that no provision has been made for financial assistance to fishermen who take survival courses. I referred to this point on Second Reading. I am sorry that the Secretary of State for Transport has been unable to incorporate that provision in the Bill. I am even more sorry that between Second Reading and today there was no meeting to discuss the matter with the Scottish Fishermen's Federation. The peremptory manner in which the Under-Secretary of State for Transport dismissed the idea of holding a meeting with the Scottish Fishermen's Federation was disturbing.

I wish to refer briefly to the withdrawal of the breeches buoy rescue equipment. I have received a number of letters from the islands off my constituency. Not all of them are from coastguards: many of them are from community councils, whose members are deeply disturbed about the matter. Many hon. Members visit the islands, and will know what I am talking about. On the island of Tiree, for example, the water around the shore is very shallow. There are many inshore fishermen, whose number is vastly increased in summer, and wind-surfing is a popular sport. There are, however, no other rescue facilities to operate in the event of an inshore accident. On the island of Coll, helicopter and lifeboat services are at least an hour away.

Deep concern has been voiced by the people on those islands, particularly about the short notice given of the withdrawal. I believe that a statement was made about five weeks ago, and the equipment is to be withdrawn on 31 March. I hope that the Minister can give me some reassurance about how rescues will be carried out when helicopters and lifeboats are not easily available.

Mr. Loyden

I spoke earlier about the state of vessels that went to sea in the pre-war period, and indeed during the war, and the degree of safety and maintenance then prevalent on merchant ships. I do not wish to dwell on that topic. Let me say, however, that we are now in an entirely different position. We are now talking about modern technology in both the building and the design of ships, and we are bound to take into account not only design but manning when considering the question of safety.

Before I came to the House, when I earned a decent, honest living, I remember being involved in negotiations with an employer about manning of vessels in the bay and river of the Mersey. The company's view was that, because it owned the vessels, it had the right to determine the necessary insurance for their safety. It considered the manning scale to be part of the premium, and so had to determine manning levels in accordance with safety requirements.

There was a certain logic in the argument that the owners of the vessels should determine the premiums, whether in literal, insurance terms or in manning terms. The two are, in fact, inextricably bound up. I said, "Yes, you own the vessels, and you have a right to determine how much risk you are prepared to take in relation to those vessels. But you do not own the lives of the people who work on them." If a passenger vessel had been involved, I would have added "and the lives of the passengers." The company, I said, had no right to determine manning levels in a way that put lives in jeopardy.

Our demands are minimal, but I recognise the problems that face my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench in securing a response from the Government that will enhance safety. My demands would have gone much further, but I accept that we are facing one of the most reactionary Governments of my lifetime. Indeed, they are probably the most reactionary Government to have been in office for many years before that.

We have every right to be concerned about the design and manning of vessels. These are issues that the Government can no longer ignore. They cannot be left to those who own and run shipping companies.

Over the years, naval architecture has been an honourable profession. The members of the profession have been concerned with safety and they have applied themselves to enhancing it with diligence and sincerity. Vessels that go to sea must be considered safe, but I am not suggesting that an unsinkable vessel can be designed. The Titanic was considered to be unsinkable until it hit an iceberg. The Bismark was unsinkable until it was caught in a Norwegian fjord. In the foreseeable future, we shall not see an unsinkable ship.

Instead, we must consider what is avoidable and what is not. There is little that we can do about unavoidable accidents. However, when avoidable marine disasters occur, we must examine the Government's legislative response. It is unfortunate that the Government have failed to intervene so far. Instead, they have allowed more and more deregulation to take place. This means that everything is left to market forces, including the safety of crews and passengers.

There is no doubt in my mind that roll-on, roll-off vessels are unsafe in every sense of the word. Those who design them come under pressure from the companies that build them. The vessels are built under the constraints of profit margins, commercial judgments and quick turn-rounds. Those are the main requirements that a designer has to fulfil.

Naval architects and their honourable profession are under pressure to design ships that will meet the standards of their owners, who do not regard as paramount the safety of the crew and the passengers. Their interests lie in profitability and commercial considerations generally.

Safety is a Government responsibility and the Government should intervene. They must understand that roll-on, roll-off vessels have to be modified and that future building must take into account their vulnerability and the possibility of further marine tragedies that will result in loss of life and injury to passengers and crews. If they fail to reach this understanding, none of us has any right, especially Conservative Members, to mouth condolences and shed tears for the families of the bereaved when marine tragedies take place. We must eliminate the cause of these disasters. If we fail to do that, we have no right to carry out a ritual in this place.

The Secretary of State has a clear responsibility to consider the arguments put forward in Committee and on Report. He should recognise that some matters are above commercial or profitable arguments. There is a point where so-called competition has to be viewed against the backdrop of what effect such a policy has on the safety of crews and passengers on United Kingdom vessels.

11.45 pm
Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight)

The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) mentioned the withdrawal of the breeches buoy equipment. Had she taken the trouble to consult the coastguard service, she would have realised that it agrees with its withdrawal. I am reliably informed that it has not saved lives in recent years and has been used in anger only once since 1981. The replacement cost of the equipment is about £250,000. Given the frequency with which the equipment is used, it is hardly an effective way to spend taxpayers' money. Indeed, the search and rescue service, especially that based in the north of Scotland, is now operated by the coastguard service.

When my right hon. Friend deals with the point raised by the hon. Lady, will he consider the retention of the 41 mm pistol and rocket with the floating head? It serves a useful purpose as it is a small arms weapon that fires a light line into the surf. It has been used on a number of occasions to rescue people inshore and to put a light line aboad inshore vessels and yachting craft.

Mrs. Ray Michie

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman did not quite hear what I said, which was that I had heard from the coastguard service, and not just from community councils. It voiced its concern about the withdrawal of that life-saving equipment.

Mr. Field

The professional coastguards in my constituency take the opposite view and welcome the withdrawal of that equipment because it has not been used frequently and does not represent good value for the taxpayers. The search and rescue helicopter service now provide the service that that outdated equipment used to provide.

Mr. Adley

I do not know whether my hon. Friend was present when I spoke—

Mr. Field

No, I was not.

Mr. Adley

In that case, I must inform my hon. Friend that the coastguard training centre is in my constituency, which is not too far from his. My constituents have clearly expressed the view that there was inadequate consultation about the withdrawal of the breeches buoy. There is by no means unanimity among the coastguards around the coast that it should be withdrawn. Its replacement by helicopter would consume such a large percentage of the budget of the coastguard service that it would be virtually incapable of providing a proper service. Perhaps my hon. Friend will join me in asking the Government to provide it with additional funds for the helicopter rescue service.

Mr. Field

I have actually witnessed the firing of the Lager rocket on the breeches buoy. The manufacturers, Schemuli, will only guarantee that rocket to fire into the wind at force 6 and below. Above that, they cannot guarantee that it will reach its destination. I am sure that my hon. Friend appreciates that the equipment is usually required in above a force 8 wind. The last time that it was used on the Isle of Wight in anger was in Sandown bay, when the wind was above force 8 and the rocket kept returning over the heads of the coastguards firing it. Eventually the crew were rescued by wading ashore the following morning.

I do not believe that the equipment, which has a capability of slightly over half a mile, is relevant to the size of today's ships. In fact, if the large ships were to come ashore in a situation in which a breeches buoy would be required, I do not believe that that equipment would reach them today.

Dr. Godman

I rise in support of the new clauses and amendment (a). I refer first to the questions that have been asked of the Secretary of State about the stability of large vessels, especially ferries. Is his Department satisfied with the stability dynamics of small fishing vessels which have had shelter decks added to them after their construction? It seems to me that that raises some issues to which he should attend.

With regard to new clause 5(b), referring to discussions with representatives of other nations concerning safety at sea, I should like to ask the Secretary of State whether any account is paid to the deliberations of the European Community's joint committee into conditions in the sea fishing industry. Is it not the case that from time to time that committee debates issues relating to the occupational safety of fishermen?

I have a great deal of sympathy for the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond). I was privileged to be a sponsor of the Safety at Sea Act 1986 which was proposed by his predecessor, the then Mr. Albert McQuarrie, now Sir Albert.

If I can catch the attention of the Secretary of State, I should like to ask him a question concerning line 12 of that amendment. My question relates to the carriage of immersion suits on United Kingdom-registered fishing vessels. What progress has his Department made in that important respect? I remind him that the carriage of immersion suits, especially the latest, such as those used by French fishermen, can lead to the saving of lives.

I remind him also of the terrible tragedy that overtook a French trawler that foundered west of St. Kilda in February. He will recall that 27 men went over the side in something of a desperate hurry. My figures may be slightly inaccurate but I believe that about 13 of those men had the time in which to don their immersion suits. Their 13 or 14 colleagues did not have the time to put on their immersion suits and went over the side in shirts and trousers. The 13 men wearing immersion suits all survived immersion in the freezing water. Their comrades all died quite quickly, which was not surprising given the appalling weather conditions. I repeat that the men wearing the immersion suits survived.

The Secretary of State may contradict me, but I believe that French maritime law stipulates that no registered fishing vessel of a certain overall length and above may leave a French port without sufficient immersion suits for all the crew. Is that the case, or is it not? If that is the case for French fishermen, why should it not be the case for fishermen on United Kingdom-registered fishing vessels?

I remind the Secretary of State of the appalling tragedy that overtook the three Hull trawlers in 1968, when 59 men died and one survived—the mate of the Ross Cleveland, Harry Eddom. He was the only man wearing an immersion suit, which he had purchased himself. I do not say that all the other men would have survived the appalling conditions off north-west Iceland in February 1968, but Harry Eddom went over the side in an inflatable dinghy with two comrades from the crew of his vessel. They, dressed only in vests and trousers, died quickly. Harry Eddom survived that appalling experience for several hours.

What is the likelihood of a similar instruction, which the French industry now accepts without question, being given to the United Kingdom fishing industry? I am not referring to the small vessels—the creel vessels—that one finds in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald). But even boats with two or three crew members should carry immersion suits. That view does not make me popular with fishermen, whether at Scarborough, Whitby or Barrow, but despite the anger that I have aroused by calling for the carriage of immersion suits, I stand by that demand. I moved an amendment to Mr. McQuarrie's Bill, but I withdrew it rather than damage the interests of the Bill. I genuinely believe that some fishermen would be alive today had their vessels carried immersion suits.

Despite the opposition of some fishermen, the Secretary of State must introduce such an instruction. I think I am right to say that it does not require legislation. Such an instruction could be issued to the industry by way of the fishing vessel safety rules. The Secretary of State and his officials must stop pussyfooting round. The instruction must be given to the industry. I know the father of a Scottish fisherman who was drowned, who is now a keen advocate of immersion suits. It is a disgrace that Ministers duck that unpopular decision.

Finally, may I refer to the financial assistance which the catching sector of the industry demands, rightly, that the Government give to meet statutory training requirements? We have heard of the peremptory way, as the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) described it, in which Lord Brabazon treated Bob Allan, the chief executive, and Willie Hay, the president, of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation. Similar treatment was meted out to senior members of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations.

The United Kingdom leads other maritime nations in the training of fishermen. It has a good record. The implementation of the training was not welcomed by many fishermen, especially in the inshore sector among share fishermen, but now they are stout defenders of training—

Mr. Aitken

Oh, come on!

Dr. Godman

I shall ignore the malicious comment of the hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken). This is an important issue for fishermen, and we should be debating it in prime time. He offers his sedentary intervention with his characteristic mixture of dimwittedness and exhuberant malice.

We are discussing extremely important issues. Financial assistance should be given for the training of fisherman, and fishing vessels should carry immersion suits for their crews.

12 midnight

Mr. Macdonald

I should like to lend my support to the new clauses and amendment (a).

New clause 13 relates to safety at sea for fishing vessels and fishermen. I share the dismay of the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) at the attitude of the Under-Secretary of State to the reasonable request from the Scottish Fishing Federation to meet and discuss safety at sea and the implementation of the McQuarrie Act. It is disturbing that the Government would not agree to discuss the matter.

I understand that the Government's attitude is that the McQuarrie Act started as a private Member's Bill and that therefore they do not take any responsibility for it. But it is part of the law of the land. The Government cannot simply wash their hands of the Act's financial implications for the fishing industry, especially the small-scale fishermen in my constituency who are already hard hit by other Government impositions, such as lighthouse dues. It is asking too much to expect fishermen to bear the entire cost of the safety at sea legislation.

Mr. Salmond

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the impasse that has been reached regarding the implementation of the safety at sea training provisions is a direct result of the Government's refusal to offer any public assistance to the industry?

Mr. Macdonald

That is true.

The fishing industry cannot be expected to bear the costs entirely on its shoulders; the Government must step in. The McQuarrie Act is the law of the land and the Government have a duty to implement that law.

When the Secretary of State replies, I hope that he does not repeat the arguments made in Committee—that the ro-ro ferries are entirely safe so long as they do not collide with another ship or sail with the bow doors open. One must distinguish between the immediate cause of accidents that have befallen ro-ro ferries and the factors that have contributed to the gravity of such accidents once they have occurred.

A parallel is presented by inflammable foam furniture. I do not seek to make such a parallel in a light-hearted sense. The Government neglected to solve that problem before it was too late, with similar tragic consequences They have maintained that such furniture is perfectly safe so long as no one drops a match on it. That is exactly the attitude that the Government have adopted to ro-ro ferries: they are safe so long as they are not involved in an accident. When such accidents occur, the very nature of ro-ro ferries makes those accidents much worse than they would be otherwise.

This month, the Royal Institute of Naval Architects said that ro-ro ferries are unacceptably vulnerable in that there is a likelihood of rapid capsize once an accident occurs.

In 1983, the Norwegian classification organisation reported that of 243 ro-ro vessels involved in accidents at sea over a 20-year period, 60 per cent. had sunk in less than 10 minutes. That supports our point that the very design of such vessels is unacceptably unsafe. It is not good enough for the Secretary of State to say that if they are not involved in accidents they are safe. They are involved in accidents, particularly in areas such as the English Channel, which is full of shipping.

Ro-ro ferries must be judged not only by how well they sail when nothing happens to them, but by how well they respond in accidents, which are inevitable in waterways such as the Channel.

Mr. Channon

This has been an extremely important debate. I recognise that the issue of safety — of ro-ro vessels and in other areas—is of deep concern to all hon. Members. So much has been clear from the wide-ranging debate.

I could speak for about an hour on this issue, but I have a feeling that that not might not be appropriate now. I shall try to deal with the essential points that have been raised; if I omit any, I guarantee that I shall carefully study hon. Members' speeches in Hansard and write to them.

Before I come to the main issue in the debate—the safety of ro-ro vessels—I want to speak about two other important matters. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley) and others raised the subject of the coastguard. I shall examine everything he said about that. I share his admiration for the coastguards, and anyone who knows anything of their work will know that they are a wonderful body of men who do the country a great service. I assure my hon. Friend that if I thought there was any question of endangering safety with any of our new measures, I would not have authorised them.

I have already been in touch with my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson) about this matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch can be assured that I shall examine the points he raised about his constituency.

The figures given me about breeches buoys bear out what my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field) said: they have been used only twice in the past five years. I shall write to other hon. Members and to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) about this. The hon. Lady spoke about the difficulties created by the remoteness of her constituency. I hope I shall be able to convince her, as we are convinced, that all our proposed measures for the coastguard represent an improvement, not a deterioration. If I had not thought that, I should not have agreed to the proposals.

A quick word about the training of fishermen, about which the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) and other hon. Members spoke. The proposal that the Government should take powers to provide financial assistance towards the training of fishermen was discussed in Committee. The proposals for assistance in the Bill are born of the Government's concern at the sharp decline in the number of merchant seamen being trained and the implications which that has for the number of seafarers likely to be available for service in future in an emergency.

There are already a number of different sources of assistance available for training fishermen—for example, the Sea Fish Industry Authority currently spends about £800,000 a year on training. I would outline some of the other contributions to training to the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan, but I am sure he knows them well. It was fair enough for him to say that, at the time the Safety At Sea Act 1986 was passed. The Government made it quite clear that the cost of safety training introduced as a result of the Act would have to be met by the industry and not by the taxpayer, and that the Government would not introduce any new regulations unless there was a prior undertaking from the industry that it would meet the cost of the new requirements. That is not, therefore, a great surprise to the industry.

There is still some disagreement in the industry about the scope and content of new training requirements. It is difficult to deal with this until we know the industry's agreed view, and until the industry is in a position to give the necessary undertakings on finance. I undertake to consult my right hon. Friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, who are primarily responsible for fishing matters. I shall make sure that their attention is drawn to the remarks of the hon. Gentleman and of other hon. Members who have spoken about this issue.

Mr. Salmond

Total funding of the mandatory safety requirements under the Safety at Sea Act 1986 would be only about £250,000 a year. In the context of the importance of this matter, does the Minister not feel that funding at this level would be appropriate?

Mr. Channon

I note what the hon. Gentleman says, but as I said a few moments ago, and as he said in his speech, the Government's position was made perfectly clear about the Safety at Sea Act 1986. Nothing has changed about that point of principle. I shall draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend and my right hon. and learned Friend what the hon. Gentleman has said about the costs and ensure that the point is carefully studied. I cannot go further than that tonight.

I should like now to deal with the important question of safety and ro-ro ferries. I entirely agree with what the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) said about the importance of the issue and the absolute necessity for it to be taken seriously. I am aware of the views held by all hon. Members about the appalling tragedy of Zeebrugge. I do not think that that is a matter of controversy between us—at least, I hope it is not.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden) asked for more Government intervention. With respect, I have been more interventionist during my few months on this front than practically any other Minister in the history of dealing with these matters. I have here a long list of the measures that we have already taken in respect of ferry safety. The list mentions indicator lights, boarding cards, change in the law, draught gauges, loading computers, reinclining and other matters. I shall not read out all of them because hon. Members are aware of them and many answers have been given in the House about this matter. There are also legal requirements on shipowners and managers and others to exercise due diligence and to take responsible steps to ensure safe operation.

Hon. Members asked about inherent stability and the fundamental design of ro-ro ferries. Two major accidents have befallen British registered passenger ro-ro ships since the mid-1950s. They involved the European Gateway and the Herald of Free Enterprise. I think that it is common ground that both accidents resulted not from the design of the ships but from the way in which they were operated.

Mr. Terry Fields


Mr. Channon

I am surprised that the hon. Member will not accept that point.

It is clear that the Herald of Free Enterprise sank because the bow doors were left open. However, that is not to say that substantial improvement in the design of ro-ro ferries is not possible. In response to Mr. Justice Sheen's report on the Herald of Free Enterprise, a ro-ro research steering committee was set up in my Department under the Surveyor-General. It consists of six qualified naval architects, including the immediate past president of the Royal Institute of Naval Architects, Professor Caldwell. I have made available more money for research over a three-year period.

Work has so far been done to assess improved standards of residual stability of passenger ships and we shall put that to the International Maritime Organisation next month. We have a project on risk analysis, and some possible design improvements must be considered. For example, longitudinal and transverse bulkheads on the vehicle deck, raising the vehicle deck or adopting unconventional deck arrangements, sponsons and improved water dumping arrangements are being assessed. I shall place a note describing the programme in the Libraries of both Houses.

I have had meetings with all those involved and I understand the views of the general council of the Royal Institute of Naval Architects. My noble Friend had a meeting with the institute earlier this month and there was a great deal of common ground. I think that the only difference between us relates to the perception of the council that technology for preventing capsizes can be put into effect immediately.

There must be a period of assessment. The institute has identified five possible improvements and all five are part of my Department's programme. We have to assess the feasability of these and of other approaches and take rational decisions about which, if any, of the options should be chosen. It would be quite wrong for me to say that they have to be chosen before proper research has taken place.

Mr. Terry Fields

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Channon

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, but I know that the House wants to get on.

Mr. Fields

The Secretary of State said that all this takes time. Lord Justice Sheen said in his report that the Department of Transport had not acted since the European Gateway disaster in 1983. Why has the Secretary of State done nothing about that?

12.15 am
Mr. Channon

That is not so. I could weary the House, if hon. Members were sufficiently interested, with all that has been done since that incident in 1983. Mr. Justice Sheen made very few criticisms of the Department. The hon. Gentleman is misleading the House when he says that the Department was much criticised in the Sheen report. To save time, I shall write to the hon. Gentleman about those important points.

The Government's research programme into fundamental design improvements is similar to the suggestions of the Royal Institute of Naval Architects. I hope that we shall have some results from that research by the end of the year and we shall then have to decide whether it is necessary to use models. The research will go ahead with all urgency and I hope that it will be completed by the end of the year, except possibly for model tests. We shall then review the matter and discuss it with other European Governments.

From time to time, hon. Members say that, if ro-ro ferries have a hole in them, they are in great danger. Of course they are in some danger, but ro-ro ferries are like other ships in that they have to be able to take the so-called prescribed level of damage. That means that they have to be designed to take a gash in the hull, extending above and below the water line for one tenth of the length of the ship, without capsizing or sinking. Much work has therefore already been done.

Of course, if more severe damage occurs, the ship may capsize or sink, but, with steady improvements in design, we can achieve better survivability. That has been the aim of the Government's research programme and of work in the International Maritime Organisation and other bodies in recent years.

We must put the matter in perspective and make it clear to the House that we are already carrying out a fundamental programme of research into all the points raised by the Royal Institute of Naval Architects and by hon. Members tonight. I should like to assure the House that the Department takes the matter with the utmost seriousness. I am sure that the House will take a continuing interest in the matter, and I shall keep it in touch with our progress.

The Department will set up a marine investigation branch as soon as the Bill is enacted. I shall ensure that it produces an annual report, which will be laid before the House. The House will decide whether it chooses to debate the report.

I cannot accept the new clause because it goes far further than would be reasonable. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Broadgreen (Mr. Fields) will accept that there are many technical points wrong with the clause. For example, it would be an extremely unusual concept to require an affirmative resolution for the report, but the House will be able to debate the report if it wishes. I shall initiate a report and place a copy in the Library. I am carrying out the fundamental research that the House wants.

In the light of that, I hope that the House will not press the amendment to a Division. If it does, I shall have to ask my hon. Friends to vote against it.

Mr. Tony Lloyd

The Secretary of State tells us that the new clause contains extraordinary measures, but we are dealing with extraordinary matters—the safety of people at sea, in the light of the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise, and, in the long term, the question of operational safety at sea.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden) said that, in his opinion, the Opposition were being a little modest in putting forward these minimal demands. Many of the measures that we are seeking do not require primary legislation in the form of a Bill, but they do require the Government's concentration on these issues. That is why it is important to ensure that safety is constantly at the top of the political agenda.

Secondary legislation can be formulated in Committee on a regular basis. That would include, for example, limitation on hours of work at sea and adequate structural changes to ro-ro ferries. All that can be done by secondary legislation. There is no limitation on the Government doing that. We want to put safety firmly on the political agenda to make sure that no Government, and particularly this Government with their disastrous record on safety, can avoid the political consequences.

Mr. Loyden

I was not criticising my hon. Friends who are Front-Bench spokesmen, because I know the strain under which they work. I was merely pointing out that the demands that are being made to the Secretary of State are limited by what we can extract from him.

Mr. Lloyd

My hon. Friend raises an important point about what we can extract from the Government. Therefore, it is a matter of great regret that the Secretary of State has not accepted the need for a continuing debate on safety. The right hon. Gentleman is always vociferous with claims that the Department and the Government insist on the primacy of safety, but his deeds are few. The progress that he claimed was made before the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise was in direct contradiction to the actions and activities of the Department in the years before that event.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Broadgreen (Mr. Fields) drew attention to certain criticisms. Whatever the Secretary of State may say about this, Lord Justice Sheen criticised his Department during the inquiry into the sinking of the European Gateway. As recently as March last year, a couple of weeks after the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise, the then Secretary of State answered a question about the official inquiry into the capsize of the European Gateway in 1982. He said: These recommendations have been implemented for all new ships and virtually implemented or are being discussed internationally for existing ships." —[Official Report, 19 March 1987, Vol. 112, c. 568.] Five years after the sinking of the European Gateway, the matter was being discussed only with regard to older ships. For these matters to go through the Secretary of State's research think tank and then to be discussed in the international forum is not good enough. It is also not good enough that the marine survey department was constantly cut by his predecessors so that they could make savings.

Mr. Barry Field

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, since the terrible sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise, all the offshore ferries working from United Kingdom ports under the United Kingdom flag have been required to rework stability characteristics as a result of the directive from the Department of Transport?

Mr. Lloyd

The hon. Gentleman may be surprised to hear me say that I was fully aware of that, but that does not stop criticism of these ferries by reputable organisations such as the Nautical Institute and the Royal Institute of Naval Architects, which are firmly of the opinion that even these changes of calculations are not sufficient. These recalculations had to be made because of the way in which these ferries were being maloperated by the operators. Even with those recalculations, reputable bodies and experts said that the extent of the instability of the ferries was unacceptable in terms of protection of human lives and safety at sea.

The Secretary of State says that there is continuing research, but that is not satisfactory when there have been reports from expert bodies that things can be done now. Jesse Jackson recently said that if one were in barracuda waters, one would not turn round to ask for a research programme to look into the problem—one would act. The Secretary of State and the Department have failed to act on this issue. That is a major condemnation of the way in which the Government tackle problems.

The Government are irresponsible when it comes to safety, and they have been culpable. Ministers may shake their heads in disagreement, but in recent replies to questions they could not tell me how often roll-on/roll-off ferries were inspected at sea or in port before the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise. They did not have records available; they did not know what inspections had been conducted. Yet the Government claim that they have a great record on safety and that they are concerned about what happens at sea.

They have given the lie to their claims about safety in answer to parliamentary question after parliamentary question. For example, a written answer from the Minister this week showed that the Herald of Free Enterprise was never inspected while at sea. We know why the ferry sank. The Secretary of State was right, that the primary cause was operational failure. Yet not once during the ship's life did the marine surveyor's department attempt to find out what the ship was like under operational circumstances. It is true that it was inspected in port, but in port there was no way of knowing whether the bow doors would or would not be closed in a routine or non-routine fashion. The Government simply did not make the necessary surveyors available to undertake this important work. That is the record of a Government who claim that they care about safety.

The Secretary of State is right to say that, since the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise, there has been a massive turnround. It would have been fundamentally morally derelict had there not been a rethink. The failure of the Department to rethink matters following the sinking would have shown not only contempt before the tragedy but indifference after it. I will say one thing for the Secretary of State: I do not think that he views human suffering with indifference. Nevertheless, some of the practice that built up in his Department in the past quite simply showed indifference.

The hon. Member for Thanet (Mr. Aitken) made a very reasonable speech. He questioned whether adequate consideration had been given in the present dispute at Dover to ferry manning levels and wondered whether fatigue might be a problem. The hon. Gentleman suggested that seamen might now be operating 72-hour shifts. The reality is a little different. In some cases, they will be operating 168-hour shifts for a period of two weeks with a one-week rest period at the end of it. I submit that that represents a level of employee commitment above and beyond anything that would be accepted in any shore-based job. That will lead to loss of performance, and ultimately a serious risk of tragedy.

While on the subject of fatigue, let me cite the schedule of one chief officer. We had a debate in Committee about the Government's intentions to regulate hours of work. I have information from the schedule of a chief officer on board a very large crude oil carrier—a carrier weighing 270,000 tonnes. Of a total working period of 228 hours, the chief officer concerned worked 176 hours. He had 52 hours rest, including four periods of seven hours each, which were the longest rest periods that he had.

To ask people to work such schedules is totally unacceptable, yet when I raised the matter in Committee, the Minister said that it was not the time to legislate. When he was kind enough to respond by letter to the same point, he said: as you know, hours of work for seafarers are not specifically regulated at present. My Department did issue for comment in 1982 draft regulations which would have established detailed duty and rest requirements for watchkeepers. There were objections to these proposals (including some from the unions) and they would not as drafted have applied to ferries (for which alternative arrangements were proposed). We have not abandoned the draft regulations and will continue to keep them under consideration. Four years after the draft regulations appeared, we still have chief officers, who do a very important, very responsible job with serious implications for safety, undertaking a 228-hour working period with 176 hours of active service. A Government who will not legislate to prevent that are irresponsible in the extreme.

The Secretary of State had an exchange of correspondence with Kerry St. Johnston, the president of the General Council of British Shipping, who asked what the Government intended to do about the cost of modifying or phasing out ro-ro ferries if it proved necessary. The Secretary of State replied: Perhaps this question, too, is premature until we know what is involved. But I think I would be misleading you if I were to suggest that there was a chance of the Government paying for this. It is the practice, throughout industry and the transport industry in particular, that industrialists and operators themselves must pay the cost of meeting the Government's safety requirements. I see no prospect of departing from this principle in this particular case. The Secretary of State may take some comfort from my saying that when companies such as P and O are making vast profits, they canot come to the Government with a begging bowl and say that the future of their operations will be jeopardised if the Government do not stump up the money. If, however, the Secretary of State is saying that the Government are not prepared to pay anything to ensure safety at sea, their culpability of the past is multiplied.

We want the new clause because, in the past, progress on safety at sea has been made only after tragedy at sea. We want to establish a vehicle that will enable us to debate safety rationally and without loss of life. It is the Secretary of State and the Government who are not prepared to do that. They are therefore not prepared to guarantee the safety of the travelling public and those who work at sea.

12.30 am
Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

I know that the House wants to come to a conclusion on this matter—I shall not keep it for long.

I came to the Chamber to listen to the debate because, just over one year ago, a most appalling tragedy affected the maritime activity of the nation. It was a source of horror to our European neighbours and no doubt it made world news. It was but chance that the ship did not take less water rather less quickly and go down a mile or two further on in deeper water. Had that happened, there would have been an even greater outcry and it might have been recorded in history as the equivalent—perhaps it is, psychologically—of the Titanic, which still grips the imagination.

As a consumer, I have been disappointed in the debate. This nation is a maritime nation, or it ought to be. We are debating late at night, with a hurried and inadequate reply from the Secretary of State, a matter of supreme importance to the safety of our citizens and the confidence of those who travel across the sea, who include many of us during the summer. I do not believe that the timing of the debate or the manner in which it has been conducted is commensurate with the importance of the topic and the role that the House should play in discussing serious affairs of the nation. I do not blame my hon. Friends or the Secretary of State, because he does not make the timetable.

The nation would expect us to have a much better and higher quality debate than we have had on this very important topic.

Mr. Adley

The hon. Gentleman has not been here long.

Mr. Spearing

I have been here most of the time.

Mr. Barry Field

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Spearing

No. I shall save the time of the House.

The basis of the debate is the age-old one of the adequacy of statute in relation to safety and operating or movement costs. That has been the theme of safety at sea from the time of Samuel Plimsoll. It is also the theme of similar problems, such as flights to and from London City airport and those at King's Cross. I know that the Secretary of State has considered all these problems with sympathy and would-be understanding. To some extent, the technical problems have overtaken him. They could have overtaken any other Secretary of State. I thank him for the courtesy and attention that he has paid. In his reply to this matter, however, he has not understood what I understand to be the fundamental problem.

It is known that the basic design of the vessels is not what it should be and that there is an inherent risk in he way in which they are designed, constructed and operated. If any Conservative Member — including the Ministers on the Front Bench — does not agree with that statement, I should be most grateful if he would rise and contradict what I have said.

It is no good the Secretary of State saying that he has set up a committee to carry out research into the whole problem. We know what the problem is. If there is to be research, it should be research into how that problem is to be solved in an international way. The Secretary of State's efforts must go into seeing how the known and inherent faults in the design of the vessels can be dealt with on an international basis and in such a way that there is no intervention or disequilibrium in the market. That would relate to the way in which Conservative Members think at the moment. As far as we know, there have been no signs of that. I do not believe that the Secretary of State, try as he might, has really understood the nub of the problem.

In conclusion, I express dissatisfaction with the way in which the debate has been conducted, its timing and in the degree to which Conservative Members—some of whom made good speeches — did not give safety at sea the importance due to it. I hope that the Government will arrange future debates on such matters at a time which is better for everyone, and that the Secretary of State will not be constrained and rushed in his reply. If we in Parliament do not take these matters as seriously as the nation does, the nation will not take Parliament as seriously as it ought.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 27, Noes 147.

Division No. 246] [12.36 am
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE) Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Bermingham, Gerald Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE) Loyden, Eddie
Clay, Bob McCartney, Ian
Cryer, Bob Macdonald, Calum A.
Cummings, John Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Cunliffe, Lawrence Michie, Mrs Ray (Arg'l & Bute)
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly) Prescott, John
Ewing, Mrs Margaret (Moray) Salmond, Alex
Fields, Terry (L'pool B G'n) Skinner, Dennis
Foster, Derek Spearing, Nigel
Godman, Dr Norman A. Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Wallace, James Tellers for the Ayes:
Wilson, Brian Mr. Allen McKay and
Wise, Mrs Audrey Mr. Tony Banks.
Adley, Robert Knapman, Roger
Alexander, Richard Knight, Greg (Derby North)
Alison, Rt Hon Michael Lang, Ian
Allason, Rupert Latham, Michael
Amos, Alan Lester, Jim (Broxtowe)
Arbuthnot, James Lightbown, David
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Lilley, Peter
Arnold, Tom (Hazel Grove) Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)
Ashby, David Lyell, Sir Nicholas
Atkinson, David Macfarlane, Sir Neil
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley) Maclean, David
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N) McLoughlin, Patrick
Baldry, Tony Mans, Keith
Batiste, Spencer Marshall, Michael (Arundel)
Beaumont-Dark, Anthony Martin, David (Portsmouth S)
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke) Mawhinney, Dr Brian
Blaker, Rt Hon Sir Peter Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas Meyer, Sir Anthony
Boscawen, Hon Robert Miller, Hal
Bottomley, Peter Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Bottomley, Mrs Virginia Mitchell, David (Hants NW)
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich) Morrison, Hon P (Chester)
Bowis, John Moss, Malcolm
Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard Nelson, Anthony
Brazier, Julian Neubert, Michael
Bright, Graham Newton, Rt Hon Tony
Brittan, Rt Hon Leon Nicholls, Patrick
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Nicholson, David (Taunton)
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's) Nicholson, Emma (Devon West)
Burns, Simon Onslow, Rt Hon Cranley
Carrington, Matthew Oppenheim, Phillip
Carttiss, Michael Page, Richard
Cash, William Patten, Chris (Bath)
Channon, Rt Hon Paul Porter, David (Waveney)
Chope, Christopher Portillo, Michael
Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe) Powell, William (Corby)
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest) Raffan, Keith
Cope, John Rathbone, Tim
Cran, James Redwood, John
Currie, Mrs Edwina Renton, Tim
Curry, David Riddick, Graham
Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g) Roberts, Wyn (Conwy)
Davis, David (Boothferry) Ryder, Richard
Day, Stephen Sackville, Hon Tom
Dorrell, Stephen Sainsbury, Hon Tim
Dover, Den Shaw, David (Dover)
Dunn, Bob Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)
Durant, Tony Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
Fallon, Michael Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Farr, Sir John Shersby, Michael
Favell, Tony Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Field, Barry (Isle of Wight) Spicer, Sir Jim (Dorset W)
Fookes, Miss Janet Stanbrook, Ivor
Forman, Nigel Stern, Michael
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling) Stewart, Andy (Sherwood)
Forth, Eric Stradling Thomas, Sir John
Freeman, Roger Summerson, Hugo
French, Douglas Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Gale, Roger Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Garel-Jones, Tristan Thompson, D. (Calder Valley)
Gill, Christopher Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Glyn, Dr Alan Twinn, Dr Ian
Grant, Sir Anthony (CambsSW) Waddington, Rt Hon David
Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn Wakeham, Rt Hon John
Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn) Walker, Bill (T'side North)
Haselhurst, Alan Waller, Gary
Hayward, Robert Watts, John
Howarth, Alan (Strat'd-on-A) Wells, Bowen
Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W) Whitney, Ray
Hunt, David (Wirral W) Widdecombe, Ann
Hunter, Andrew Wilkinson, John
King, Roger (B'ham N'thfield) Wilshire, David
King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater) Wolfson, Mark
Wood, Timothy Mr. Mark Lennox-Boyd and
Mr. Kenneth Carlisle.
Tellers for the Noes:

Question accordingly negatived.

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