HC Deb 10 February 1992 vol 203 cc637-8
1. Mr. Harris

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what proposals he has to improve marine safety, particularly so far as fishing boat losses are concerned.

The Minister for Shipping (Mr. Patrick McLoughlin)

The United Kingdom has developed domestic legislation and regularly consults the fishing industry safety group about possible improvements. I expect shortly to receive reports from the marine accident investigation branch of a number of recent fishing vessel accidents. They will be studied carefully and I can assure the House that any necessary measures that are brought to our attention will be given very careful consideration.

Mr. Harris

I welcome that assurance, but does my hon. Friend accept that there is already a tremendous amount of evidence about some of the things that are clearly wrong with maritime safety? Is he aware that I have been carrying out my own investigations, including a trip through the channel? I have received a number of letters on the subject, and most people who are knowledgeable about the subject tell me—and I am sure that they are right—that the root cause is bad watchkeeping, mainly by merchant vessels but also occasionally by fishermen. Will my hon. Friend try to bring both sides together nationally—as is happening locally in Devon and Cornwall—to try to make some progress on this central issue, as well as pursuing the matter internationally?

Mr. McLoughlin

I am grateful for the constructive way in which my hon. Friend is addressing the problem. He rightly draws attention to the fact that it is not necessarily always one side that sometimes breaches the watchkeeping agreements and regulations. We want to consider those matters, and I shall certainly bear my hon. Friend's points in mind. I am about to meet him to discuss his recent trip and see whether any lessons can be learnt from it.

Dr. Godman

I know that the Minister has no direct responsibility for Ministry of Defence vessels sailing too close to fishing vessels, but may I remind him that the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) and I raised with the Ministry of Defence the recent incident in which a nuclear submarine surfaced within 1,000 yd of a fishing vessel, despite the promises given in the aftermath of the sinking of the Antares? Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that it is time that we ensured that no United Kingdom registered vessel puts out to sea without carrying on board immersion suits for each and every crew member?

Mr. McLoughlin

As I have said to the hon. Gentleman on a number of occasions, the matter is being evaluated and examined. I do not think that immersion suits are necessarily the answer to all the problems to which the hon. Gentleman referred—indeed, they could create mobility problems for fishermen on board vessels. I understand that the Ministry of Defence is renewing guidance to commanders of submarines in transit and exercise areas.

Mr. Wolfson

On the wider issue of marine safety generally, is the Minister fully satisfied with the safety of the older types of roll on/roll off ferry?

Mr. McLoughlin

We need to ensure that all ferries come up to the standards expected under the safety of life at sea conventions.

Ms. Walley

Does the Minister agree that we return to the whole issue of ship safety at every Question Time, and that the only difference between this time and last time is that we now have recourse to information from the National Audit Office, which confirms many of the concerns which we have been expressing about ship safety, especially as it affects fishing vessels? Does the Minister agree that the time has come to take responsibility for inspections away from the Department of Transport and to place it with an independent body in which we can have confidence—the Health and Safety Executive? Is not that the only way to learn the lessons of all the tragedies that we have experienced?

Mr. McLoughlin

It is certainly true that the National Audit Office report was interesting. It was compiled largely with the help of the surveyor general's department which repeated a number of points and the NAO went through its files and noted them. We will respond in due course to the NAO report. However, it is worth quoting Lloyd's List, which does not always say how virtuous the Department of Transport is. It states: But after reading the NAO report, it would be hard to get oneself worked up into a lather about either marine safety, or the Department of Transport's handling of it. One hopes that this does not promote complacency. It will not.