HC Deb 17 April 1991 vol 189 cc447-9 5.12 pm
Mr. John Bowis (Battersea)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require minimum standards of visibility from the steering position of passenger launches plying on rivers and other inland waterways; to require the fitting of discotheque noise limiting devices in such launches; to make provision for signalling systems for traffic control in certain rivers; and for connected purposes. The subject of river safety inevitably makes us think of the tragedy surrounding the Marchioness and the lives lost. I wish to go back beyond that date and show that the lessons that should have been learnt were not learnt, and that lessons must be learnt from the Marchioness tragedy to ensure the future safety of passengers on our rivers and waterways.

In 1927, 40 people lost their lives in Sydney harbour in a collision between the Tahiti and the Greycliff. The inquiry into the accident concluded that the Greycliff had not seen the Tahiti coming up on it from behind. The inquiry said that it was incumbent on the proper authorities to impress upon masters of all vessels the obligation of keeping an effective lookout astern as well as ahead and abeam. As a first and important step, the owners of vessels should be compelled, in all cases where adequate structural facilities for enabling such a lookout to be kept do not exist, to provide them without loss of time. That was 1927. It is now 1991, and we are just getting round to doing that.

In 1981, the Bowtrader and the Hurlingham collided. The Hurlingham did not realise that the dredger was behind it, and altered course across its bows. The inquiry said that there was no adequate view aft from the Hurlingham. The Hurlingham was a similar structure to the Marchioness.

In 1983, the Bowbelle and the Pride of Greenwich collided. A subsequent report said that the Pride of Greenwich's visibility aft by night was virtually non-existent. Again in 1983, the Shell Distributor and the New Southern Belle collided. The report said that the tanker saw the passenger vessel and tried to signal on VHF, but there was no reply. It tried its whistle, but it was not heard because the music on the vessel was too loud. The report also said that there was no rear vision.

In 1989, the Bowbelle and the Marchioness collided with the loss of 51 lives. It is clear from the report of the inquiry into that accident that, again, a major factor was that there was no adequate rear vision from the Marchioness. A shouted warning from the dredger was heard by some of the people on the deck, but not in the wheelhouse. One of the major reasons for that was the disco music on board.

The two lessons that we must learn from that and previous accidents is that something must be done, first, about visibility and, secondly, about noise, and my Bill seeks to deal with both. It is clear that when a skipper has to leave the wheelhouse and go to the ship's side, climb a ladder or raise a hatch in order to see astern, that is not a proper lookout. It is recommended that regulations be introduced governing that aspect of passenger launch construction for new vessels, and that the regulations should also apply to existing vessels where the visibility astern does not reach a minimum safety standard. That must be right. I know that the authorities are discussing the problem, but that is not adequate. We need to introduce regulations.

I am aware that closed-circuit television is being considered as a means to solve the problem, but I am not convinced that at night that would be adequate to see that nothing was coming up behind. The report recommends that a lookout be placed if the structure is not right, but I should prefer the structure on the vessels to be put right.

As we sit in the Library on a summer evening, we are well aware of the noise of the disco music on boats as they pass. That may be irritating to us, but it is highly dangerous to the people on board those vessels. Even when the noise-limiting device is, in theory, adequate, there are ways to bypass and cut off those devices. We need regulations to ensure that that cannot happen.

The noise on board a vessel can interfere with the ability of the skipper to hear a VHF signal. It can also affect his concentration. There is plenty of research showing that noise affects concentration during long periods of work, to the detriment of performance. There must be a noise-limiting device. Obviously, there must be a cut-out device so that if there is time—which, sadly, there was not on the Marchioness—to give a warning to passengers, the music can be cut off in the passenger area so that passengers can hear the warning from the skipper. Those are the two major lessons that have not yet been learnt from tragic accidents—not only the Marchioness, but the other accidents that I cited.

We must also deal with the question of the bridges on the river Thames. Their alignment does not always make navigation simple. Indeed, the tides do not always make navigation simple. There are large vessels in the area above the Tower of London, and they can cause problems for smaller vessels. In theory, byelaw 19 of the Port of London authority gives some priority to larger vessels above the tower because of their restricted freedom to manoeuvre. However, that is not adequate, because dredgers and other vessels, including tugs towing barges, are not simply restricted in their freedom to manoeuvre, but have no freedom to manoeuvre other than within narrow limits. In many cases they cannot reduce speed—indeed, they must keep up speed for safety reasons so that they do not lose steerage way when approaching a bridge.

My third measure is to ensure that there is a system of traffic lights on bridges so that smaller vessels know when larger vessels are coming through. I know that experiments are being carried out and I hope that the Bill will ensure that lights are made mandatory on all bridges where such a risk is deemed possible.

My last point concerns the publication of reports following disasters. It is now almost two years since the Marchioness sank with the loss of 51 lives, yet the full report cannot yet be published. It cannot be debated in the House or by the public because of the Merchant Shipping (Accident Investigation) Regulations 1989, which are sometimes ambiguous. One of those regulations says: Where the Report … indicates that there may have been a breach of the law and that prosecution of the suspected offender should be considered, the Report shall not be published until either prosecution, including any appeal, has been concluded or it has been decided not to prosecute. That is not an adequate description of the purpose of the regulations. Another regulation says: The fundamental purpose of investigating an accident under these Regulations is to determine its circumstances and the causes with the aim of improving the safety of life at sea and the avoidance of accidents in the future. It is not the purpose to apportion liability, nor, except so far as is necessary to achieve the fundamental purpose, to apportion blame". Reports should not remain secret, hidden and unavailable for public discussion unless it can be shown that publication of part of a report or, as happens occasionally, a whole report would damage a defence case. The onus should be on someone wishing to prove that such damage would occur.

It is now past Easter and the crowds are beginning to come out on to our river. We hope that people will enjoy their river trips, but I want to ensure that those trips are safe as well as enjoyable. The lessons of the past have not always been learnt. We must learn from previous tragedies. The lesson is that if ships can see and be seen, hear and be heard, notice and be noticed, they are less likely to have, or cause, an accident.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. John, Bowis, Mr. Tony Banks, Mrs. Rosie Barnes, Mr. Gerald Bowden, Mr. Matthew Carrington, Mr. John Cartwright, Mr. Dudley Fishburn, Miss Kate Hoey, Mr. Simon Hughes, Mr. Toby Jessel and Mr. Ron Leighton.

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