HC Deb 11 March 1991 vol 187 cc653-4
2. Mr. Terry Davis

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what progress has been made on the implementation of a higher standard of residual stability to existing roll-on roll-off ferries as recommended in the report of the steering committee for the research programme recommended by the Sheen inquiry in July 1987.

The Minister for Shipping (Mr. Patrick McLoughlin)

The United Kingdom has taken the lead in bringing about the consideration at the International Maritime Organisation of a higher standard of residual stability for existing roll-on roll-off ferries. In February 1991 the specialist sub-committee of the IMO on stability matters considered the United Kingdom's proposal and agreed that a higher standard of survivability should be applied to all existing roll-on roll-off passenger ships.

Mr. Davis

It is now four years since the Herald of Free Enterprise tragedy, three and a half years since the Sheen inquiry recommended a programme of research into the problems with these vessels and more than a year since the steering committee for the research programme recommended that there should be an early international agreement to impose higher safety standards on existing roll-on roll-off ferries. When will something be done? The steering committee recommended that the Government should consider taking unilateral action if there was any delay at international level. When do the Government intend to do something, or are they waiting for another tragedy?

Mr. McLoughlin

A considerable amount has already been done. The Government have spent a huge amount of money on research. As I said in my original answer, we have already taken this to the International Maritime Organisation. We have always wanted to reach agreement through the IMO, as it is the most useful means of enforcing safety regulations, but we have made it clear that if we cannot obtain agreement at the IMO, we shall consider acting unilaterally in the case of all ships operating in and out of British ports.

Mr. Ernie Ross

The Minister must answer the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Davis) put to him. When do the Government intend to take action? How long shall we have to wait for the IMO to make up its mind? It is clearly seeking to delay matters even further, and it has not suffered the tragedy that the United Kingdom suffered. We need to take action now to ensure that there is no subsequent tragedy such as that which led to the Minister having to go to the IMO and argue Britain's case before it.

Mr. McLoughlin

It is universally accepted that the best way to act on safety matters is through the IMO. That is exactly what the Government are doing, but we have reserved the right, if necessary, to act unilaterally. That was applauded in two recent articles in Fairplay and Lloyd's List.