HC Deb 24 May 1988 vol 134 cc197-200 3.30 pm
Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, South)

(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the fire and subsequent air-sea rescue operation involving the Channel ferry Seafreight Freeway.

The Minister for Public Transport (Mr. David Mitchell)

At 9.45 pm last night, the Sealink ferry Seafreight Freeway, en route Dover-Zeebrugge, reported a serious fire on board, and indicated that it might be necessary to abandon ship. There were 75 persons on board: 41 passengers plus 34 crew.

An RAF Wessex helicopter based at Manston was immediately scrambled to the scene to airlift one badly burned engineer to Canterbury hospital. Dover, Ramsgate and Calais lifeboats were launched. Two Sea King helicopters from RAF Coltishall proceeded to Manston, and the coastguard helicopter from Lee-on-Solent was also dispatched. At the same time, a fire-fighting tug, Dexteros, sailed from Dover and a second tug, Deft, stood by at Dover to take on a team from Kent fire brigade. Calais lifeboat and a French tug, Astral Fish, also sailed for the scene.

By 11.30 pm the vessel was anchored 28 miles east of Ramsgate, and reported the fire contained but not out. The tug Deft left Dover with a fire-fighting team and equipment at this time. Just after midnight seven Kent fire officers were winched on board by one of the Sea King helicopters. A further eight fire officers were standing by the ship in the coastguard helicopter. By this time the fire was becoming under control, and shortly afterwards the master reported that the fire was out, and the coastguard helicopter, having winched extra fire fighters on board, returned to Manston. One person was still missing. His body was subsequently recovered from the engine room, and returned to Dover by the Dover lifeboat. I very much regret this sad loss of life and injury and I am sure the whole House will join me in extending its sympathy to the relatives and friends concerned.

The tug Astral Fish is currently towing the Seafreight Freeway to Dunkirk with passengers and crew, plus 13 fire officers on board.

Police and fire liaison officers were in attendance throughout, at the Dover coastguard rescue co-ordination centre, whence the rescue operation was organised. The contingency plans for such major operations appear to have worked well. I congratulate all those involved in carrying out the operation swiftly and professionally.

Two principal surveyors from the Department of Transport have been appointed on behalf of the Bermudan authorities to investigate the accident and have already started work. It would not be sensible at this time to make any further comment until all the facts have been established.

Mr. Aitken

I join my hon. Friend in his expression of sympathy to the bereaved and injured and in his appreciation of the skill and courage of the air-sea rescue services. May I particularly commend the medical rescue work of my constituent, Dr. John Beale, a Ramsgate general practitioner, who was winched on to the blazing ship through heavy smoke from the first RAF Wessex helicopter on the scene? I also commend the exemplary fire-fighting by the well-trained crew members on the Seafreight Freeway, which probably saved many lives.

At a time when safety on cross-Channel ferries is a matter of public concern, could the inquiry report as speedily as possible? May I express the hope that its findings will soon confirm the view of many of those on the scene last night that the fire was a one-off accident that is unlikely to reveal any inherent weaknesses in the overall standards of safety on such vessels?

Mr. Mitchell

I join my hon. Friend in commending the bravery and care for the injured of Dr. John Beale, who joined the vessel from a helicopter while it was still at sea and on fire. As for the report, we should wait and see exactly what it says. In the first instance, the publication of the report is a matter for the Bermudan authorities. However, if any lessons emerge, I shall ensure that a report is made available.

Mr. David Young (Bolton, South-East)

Is it not time that we asked the inquiry to consider that there should be a statutory obligation on transport companies such as ferry companies to pay money in respect of people who are killed or disabled while being transported, irrespective of whether there is a direct responsibility for blame? The families of people who die in such circumstances face severe problems. Is it not time, particularly after the two disasters one after the other, that there was a statutory obligation for responsibility for payments to be made to the relatives of the deceased?

Mr. Mitchell

That is somewhat outside the original question, but I shall write to the hon. Gentleman and set out the position for him.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)

Is my hon. Friend not slightly concerned that since Mr. Sherwood acquired Sealink from British Rail we have, shall I say, no more than coincidentally, had an increasing number of such incidents that cause some of us to remember the debate we had a few weeks ago on safety at sea? Will my hon. Friend look into the whole question of the operations of Sealink in the light of the legislation on safety at sea currently passing through Parliament? Would he not be doing us all a service if he did everything he could to ensure that the Channel tunnel was built as fast as possible?

Mr. Mitchell

Any fire must be considered to be a serious matter and I join other hon. Members in expressing regret over the loss of life and injury in this case. Any lessons that emerge will be taken fully into account when we decide what follow-up action is appropriate. International regulations for the protection of ships and those on board from the effects of fire are detailed and comprehensive. Nevertheless, I can assure the House that if this unfortunate accident produces any lessons, we shall not hesitate to act on them. I remind my hon. Friend that the merchant shipping regulations have recently been introduced in a number of areas.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is it not significant that only a few years after privatisation a Tory Member should complain in the House about the fact that Sealink has a query against it on safety matters? Would it not have been more unfortunate if one of the P and O ferries were placed in the same predicament as the ferry last night because the numbers of staff available would have been much reduced? Is it not also worth noting that at this time P and O is allowed to use the commando base at Deal free of charge to train some of its personnel because of the battle that it is having with the National Union of Seamen? If he is going to hold an inquiry—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is going very wide of the subject.

Mr. Mitchell

I regret that the hon. Gentleman should make a rather squalid attempt to introduce politics into a matter to which they are not relevant in any way. As for his remarks about the safety aspect, I have said that the matter is under investigation.

Sir David Price (Eastleigh)

Is it not clear that among the many people who deserve the congratulations of the House is the master of the ferry, who behaved in an exemplary manner, and that, in answer to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and everyone else, in no way can the responsibility of a master for the safety of his ship be handed over to anyone else? All the evidence is that on this occasion the master behaved admirably.

Mr. Mitchell

I have no reason to disagree with my hon. Friend.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Will the Minister tell us, in view of the praise that has been given to the crew of the Sealink vessel for its efficiency, what difference in conditions, manning and terms of employment there would have been if that ship had been a P and O vessel? Will he look at that as part of the inquiry?

Mr. Mitchell

I do not think that it would be right for me to speculate on that matter. The level of manning will be a matter covered by the investigation, and if any irregularity is revealed consideration will be given to whether there should be a prosecution.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

It is no surprise to Kent Members that the Kent fire brigade should be singled out for praise for being efficient. Does my hon. Friend agree that this is a further dramatic example of the way in which the rapidly growing cross-Channel traffic puts strains on the Kent fire brigade, and will he give the assurance that as the tunnel comes on line the additional responsibilities that will be carried by the Kent fire brigade will be taken fully into account?

Mr. Mitchell

Yes, certainly; and I should add, of course, that in this case the whole operation was co-ordinated by the coastguards, who also deserve the congratulations and appreciation of the House.

Mr. Eddie Loyden (Liverpool, Garston)

Does the Minister agree that nobody will take the Government seriously while they continue to ignore the need for statutory manning of vessels, as happened in the past under the Board of Trade, and that, until there is statutory manning, and while it is left to market forces, incidents of this kind will happen again and the Government will wring their hands again and weep tears as they have in the past? Does he not think that the inquiry should compel the Government to take action along those lines?

Mr. Mitchell

The question whether there is adequate manning and whether any offence has been committed will, of course, be covered by the inquiry.

Mr. Kenneth Hind (Lancashire, West)

Will my hon. Friend confirm that much of the success in the saving of lives in last night's accident was attributable to the good training of the Sealink seamen? Will he also confirm that this is the first fire on a Sealink ferry since Sealink was privatised, compared with three fires on Sealink ferries in 1980, 1981 and 1983, all in the engine room? Is this not quite a change and an improvement in safety standards since privatisation?

Mr. Mitchell

The matters of adequacy of training and any record in this matter are for the investigation rather than for me today.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Stretford)

The whole House will join the Minister in sending condolences to the bereaved and the injured. I should like to place on record my tribute to the many people involved in the rescue operation, which was highly successful. Certainly the skills of the crew members in the engine room were critical in keeping down the loss of life and injury.

Will the Minister—I should be grateful if he would pay careful attention to this—confirm that, had the fire taken place on a P and O vessel, rather than the five engineering officers and four ratings who were available, there would have been only three officers and three ratings? Will the Minister take into account the comment that has been made to me in the last two hours by an experienced officer who has regularly sailed on such vessels that, had this fire taken place on a P and O vessel, what was a human tragedy would have turned into a major disaster?

Will the Minister make sure that that point is taken firmly on board by the inquiry and that the inquiry will report in this country as well as in Bermuda, and as quickly as possible, so that we may ensure that the level of crewing of these vessels will not lead to loss of life in the future?

Mr. Mitchell

I join with the hon. Gentleman in his tribute to the crew, who clearly played a brave and distinguished part in ensuring that the fire was brought under control as quickly as possible.

The crew numbers of all the P and O ships involved in Channel ferry services have been checked and fully comply with the regulations. The hon. Gentleman need not draw any false implications from that.