HC Deb 14 December 1993 vol 234 cc968-88 12.23 am
Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

I have no pleasure in raising the subject of the Marchioness disaster. We should not be here; it should not have happened; and it should have been cleared up by a public inquiry.

In my Adjournment debate on 10 July last year, we were given an answer by one of the Ministers who are now present. I suspect that either he or a colleague will reply to the debate. I understand why two are present; I think that other debates may follow. I asked at least 10 questions which were not answered in that debate.

One of the singular issues was that had the Marchioness disaster happened in June or July with the House in session, there would have been a statement within a day or two. There would have been an enormous furore, and I think that there would have been a public inquiry. Anything less would not have been, and I do not believe has ever been, acceptable.

Fifty people died unexpectedly and tragically in the centre of London. It is the only disaster we have had on the Thames in over a century, since the Princess Alice went down off Beckton. That illustrates the relative safety of the Thames and makes it all the more important that something should have been done.

Three former or existing residents of my constituency, including Stephen Perks, lost their life. One of the former residents was the skipper of the Marchioness, Mr. Faldo. However, my constituency interest is not the prime motivation or interest that I have in the issue. My interest started because this is the 50th year in which I have been fairly regularly navigating the tidal Thames. It is roughly 45 years ago, about the summer of 1945, that I came down the river in a dinghy and moored somewhere near Westminster pier on a buoy when some men in a steamboat said, "Come along, sonny. Get your tea out and moor alongside us." That was the Marchioness.

I have no commercial interest in the river, but I am a vice-president of the River Thames Society and a member of the Inland Waterways Association, Transport on Water, the Thames Traditional Boat Society and the Thames Wherry Trust. That is not the Wherry of the Norfolk sort, but the traditional type which for 200 or 300 years were on the river in their thousands.

I make mistakes on the river, as we all do on the road. One looks back afterwards, grateful that others were not making a mistake at the same time. So I have considerable sympathy for both men—one drowned and one alive—who were involved in the incident as skippers. Old Father Thames may seem nice in many ways, and he is; but he is a nasty old man between Blackfriars and the Tower.

Usually I tend to be rather detailed and legalistic. I hope that the House will forgive me if I become more colloquial in recounting the complex and horrific story of the events that took place after the disaster. I do not want to give way, except to Front-Bench spokesmen if they really wish to intervene.

This has been a story of inaction. After King's Cross and the incident at Clapham, there were, quite rightly, big inquiries. An inquiry asks questions and reveals and the Government and all of us should assist that process. Unfortunately, in this instance, as I will demonstrate, the reverse has been the case. Survivors and relatives have been thwarted not only in their attempts to get a decent public inquiry, but even in the matters that they have raised. I do not believe that they have been dealt with in the way that the House would wish.

After the refusal by the then Secretary of State for Transport to grant a public inquiry—the recess helped that—a former Director of Public Prosecutions brought a case. People thought that there would be action at last. It was a case about not keeping a proper lookout. In the courts, that meant that matters of liability, blame and factors other than failing to keep a lookout were not germane to the proceedings. I understand that the maximum fine for that offence was £2,000 or two years imprisonment. It meant that all other comments were sub judice. That went on for a long time. Unfortunately, the jury did not agree on the first case, and it had to be retried.

The Marchioness action group, which I met, ironically, at a conference on river safety some two years after the event, opposed that prosecution. Why was it brought by the Director of Public Prosecutions, and why did not the Attorney General use his powers, under what lawyers call "nolle prosequi", to stop that prosecution taking place? Surely it was not in the public's interest.

Time went on and the matter died down to an extent. It progressed only at an inquest by the Westminster coroner. I expressed concern about that at the previous debate on the matter, but I have had no satisfaction. Some of the hands of those who were drowned were removed by order of the coroner, who prevented, by some form of order, some of the next of kin from even identifying their loved ones and family.

When the case on keeping a look-out arose, the matter went sub judice and, when it was concluded some time later, despite requests from more than 30 families, the inquest was adjourned and has not been resumed.

So cutting off the inquiry was the second block. I understand why that may have been justified. In answer to a written question, the Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office told me: Under section 16(3) of the Act, the coroner may resume the adjourned inquest after the conclusion of the criminal proceedings if, in his opinion, there is sufficient cause to do so." —[Official Report, 13 December 1993; Vol. 234, c. 439.] That is usually when some other circumstances are connected with the death, but the coroner has an option to reconvene the case. In this case, he used the right not to do so, despite the clear need to take the matter further through the inquest.

Next, a private prosecution was brought by a relative of one of the deceased. Mr. Glogg's wife was drowned, and he brought a private prosecution against the owners of the Bowbelle, Ready Mixed Concrete, which is a large firm with strong links with this House, with both personnel and well-known financial connections.

The corporate case against RMC was against individual members of its management, but things went wrong. It would take too long for me to go into the complication, but the difficulty arose because the DPP intervened again. He has the power to take over a private prosecution if he thinks that it is wise to do so but, having taken it over, he can drop it.

There was an argument between him and the Marchioness action group about what was to happen. I understand that he said that he wanted to see all the group's evidence before taking a view on the matter. Members of the group thought it so outrageous that the DPP wanted to see the evidence before it was tried in court that they made the matter public and he then dropped it. I may not have got that absolutely right, but my description shows the difficulties that those people faced at least a year after the disaster.

The prosecution went ahead, but further difficulties arose when the firm involved understanably applied for a judicial review and tried to stop the case going ahead. Although it went ahead, the magistrate—it was held in the Bow street court—said that, if it was a matter of corporate liability, the condition of the craft and how it was managed would not necessarily count. He questioned whether it could be proved that the Marchioness had turned to port, as the inquiry had showed.

In the same way, one might have an accident with a motor car that comes across one's front. He said that it was impossible to tell whether that had happened. If it had, it would have made no difference how well the ship was managed or how responsible the company was. That is my understanding of that matter.

That took us, after two years, to the report of the marine accident investigation branch. Although that report was completed and some of the material that it contained, including the recommendations, were published, the report itself—quite properly—was not due to be published.

If the Marchioness action group—I am taking this a little out of sequence—wanted to pursue the corporate matter, as it did, it had a problem with the report, because it was about to be published. The action group went to the Attorney-General and said, "If the report is published at this time, the case that we are about to pursue based on the course of the Marchioness will be prejudiced. Please ask the Government to hold back the MAIB report, so that —as in all the other cases—the matter will be deemed sub judice, but this time on our terms, until that court case is finished." The Government did not agree.

The preface to the MAIB report is signed by Captain Marriott, who states: I submit my Report following the Inspector's inquiry into the collision between the passenger launch Marchioness and the aggregate dredger Bowebelle". Although Captain Marriott was the senior man in the MAIB, it was not his inquiry. He refers to "the Inspector's inquiry". Who conducted the inquiry? That is not stated in the report. The inquiry was conducted by someone who may be known but who was not named, and was sent by his superior officer to the Secretary of State for Transport. We do not know who formally conducted the inquiry, although we might have some guesses about it.

How did that arise? Unlike a proper inquiry, if I may put it that way, a maritime inquiry of that nature comes under the Merchant Shipping Act 1979 and Statutory Instrument 1172, the Merchant Shipping (Accident Investigation) Regulations 1989, which were published only a month or two before the Marchioness disaster, and which are highly relevant. Regulation 8(2), regarding the conduct of investigations, states: An investigation may extend to cover all events and circumstances preceding the accident which in the opinion of the inspector may have been relevant to its cause or outcome, and also to cover the consequences of the accident and the inspector's powers shall apply accordingly. Regulation 8(4) states: Upon completion of an investigation the inspector shall submit to the Chief Inspector his findings as to the facts of the accident and, where the facts cannot be certainly established, his opinion as to the most probable facts. He shall clearly distinguish between established facts and conjecture. He shall also submit his analysis and his conclusions together with such observations and recommendations as he thinks fit to make. The personality of the inspector who submitted his report to the Chief Inspector, Captain Marriott, is therefore most important. We are getting further and further away from what one would expect from a public inquiry in the form that one would expect, at which members of the public can volunteer information, and so on.

The MAIB report was well publicised at the time of its publication. Full summaries were sent to the press in August 1991, and it is true that it said some hard things about the way that Department of Transport officials and possibly Ministers handled safety on the Thames for a number of years. I will not quote those comments because they appear in the summaries and even more so in the Hayes report, to which I shall refer later.

It is interesting and important to note that not all the people who wanted to provide evidence did so. As I understand it, that happened without much knowledge of the victims who were on the boat or their families.

I am told that many of those who survived the traumatic incident gave statements to the police, and that was all they heard about it. One person of whom I know had to make great efforts to give evidence to the MAIB inquiry. Other people did not know that they had the opportunity to do so. Advertisements were placed in newspapers. Does that mean that the survivors' addresses were unknown? It was an extraordinary way to go about things.

I did not know the position at the time. I knew that the Bowbelle had been involved in several accidents before that disaster—neither the Bowbelle nor its sister ship was unknown on the river. As soon as the report was published, I looked to see what it could tell me about the accidents that I had seen in Lloyd's List. Out of seven or eight accidents of which I knew, only one was included in the report. I immediately wrote to the Secretary of State for Transport, who was then the right hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind). In my letter I stated that the Bowbelle had been involved in six accidents that were not mentioned in the report, and that there must be something wrong.

I found that many factors were wrong. I read the report and found that it raised as many questions as it answered. I wanted to know so many facts that were not included in the report. There were so many omissions and massive gaps that I could not regard it as a thorough or complete report. It was necessary to know the river to be able to identify them. I concentrated on the six accidents that were not reported. I corresponded with the hon. Member for Derbshire, West (Mr. McLoughlin), who was then a junior Transport Minister and we had a sort of tennis match in Hansard on complex issues.

On 12 December 1991, the Minister eventually told me that he had received no representations about omissions of relevant facts from the investigation. I said that I had sent him a letter asked questions only to be told that they were not relevant. The Minister's reply continued: The letter of 19 August from the hon. Member was received on 20 August: I replied on 19 September. That letter from the hon. Member was not considered to be a representation about relevant facts in the context of the Marchioness report. The marine accident investigation branch inspectors were aware of the number of incidents involving vessels, including Bowbelle, which had occurred prior to the tragic accident that they were investigating. Section 15 of the report discussed the reaction of the owners, PLA and the Department at some length. To have gone into detail on each incident would have greatly lengthened that section without adding to its value; the reason for singling out the incidents described in annex 11 of the report is that they had particular similarities to the Marchioness case."—[Official Report, 12 December 1991; Vol. 200, c. 511.] One of the cases happened in Sydney harbour in 1927. The six that I had singled out were not mentioned. The answer also mentioned "detail on each incident"—I was not asking for detail; I just wanted the matter listed.

Eventually, on 21 January 1992, the subject was placed on the record when I asked the Secretary of State for Transport whether he would draw the accidents to the attention of the Hayes inquiry established by him. The gaps in the report included the fact that it contained no account of the career or experience of both masters. There was no real investigation of the intensity of illumination—at least of the Bowbelle's lights. The inspector said that, if Captain Faldo had turned and the boat was in the line of vision, it was possible that he did not see it.

The report contained no description of the tidal sets—streams that run sideways across the river—which are important; or the depth of the water at that time. Speed tests were not carried out on the Bowbelle. There was no transcript of the Thames navigation service radio, which transmitted messages from various boats at that time. The transcript that is now in the Library has the phrase "unknown vessel" against one of the key transmissions.

Later—I emphasise that—the report states that both boats went through the centre arches of Southwark bridge. That is what the report says, and everybody agrees with it. There was no discussion about convergence speeds or line of sight at that point.

Most important of all, because rumour was rampant on the river at that time, there was no reference to when police took statements from those who were mainly concerned. I do not repeat rumour, but I can ask questions. There was a rumour, not mentioned in the report or denied, that a representative of Ready Mixed Concrete was aboard Bowbelle before the police. That may not be true; I do not know. All I am saying is that that was believed by some people. I ask the question: was that true or not true? Why was not it dealt with in the report as a matter of routine description?

We move to the next phase, when the Marchioness action group met the Secretary of State and asked for an inquiry. He had to do something about that, did he not? He then produced the Hayes report into river safety. That was trumpeted around, and resulted in headlines in the press. I shall quote the Department of Transport press release dated 19 December 1991. It was headed: Marchioness: river safety inquiry announced", and said: An independent investigation is to take place of the Department of Transport's past and present handling of river safety, Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Transport announced today. I do not know who wrote the headline. We have problems of our own in the subbing of headlines.

In fact, the Hayes inquiry was not into the Marchioness disaster. Its terms of reference stated: In the light of the Marchioness/Bowbelle disaster to examine the handling since 1980 by the Department of Transport of its responsibility for the safety of vessels on rivers and inland waters and to report on the effectiveness of the present approach. The enquiry should take account of developments in the field of marine safety at the international level. In correspondence, Mr. Hayes made it quite clear that, while he could consider that disaster and take some lessons from it, he was not entitled either to investigate the disaster itself or still less to make an evaluation of the MAIB report. Those terms of reference were set out in Cm 1991, which is the Hayes report published by the Government.

A remarkable statement was made in paragraph 1.7 of the report, when Mr. Hayes said: When the disaster occurred I understand that the decision not to order a public inquiry was taken at No. 10 Downing Street on advice from the Department. I do not suppose that the Minister can tell us why that was the advice. I should very much like to know. The only reason that I have heard was that, as in the case of an air disaster, the technical people could deal with it rather better than a public inquiry.

One of the principal recommendations of the Hayes report was: There should be an early review of the rescue arrangements and equipment on the Thames which should take account of the Marchioness/Bowbelle disaster. As the Hayes committee would not have been set up but for that disaster, we automatically expected that that would be accepted by the Department, because it was surely one of the principal recommendations.

I have lost count of the blockages that occurred in this sad story, but I shall cite another involving the present Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. MacGregor). In his reply to the Hayes report, he said: The Government have given careful consideration to the recommendation but have concluded that a further review of this kind would not be justified. Action is, however, being taken to ensure that the lessons…have been fully assimilated."—[Official Report, 7 July 1992; Vol. 211, c. 101.] One of the prime reasons for setting up the Hayes committee, even if, contrary to public expectation, it did not consider the Marchioness disaster, as that misleading headline suggested it might, was not accepted. But it gets worse, if one can imagine that.

On 19 July, a year later, the hon. Member for Romford (Sir M. Neubert) asked the Secretary of State for Transport: which recommendations in the marine accident investigation branch report into the collision between the Marchioness and the Bowbelle have now been implemented and what action has been taken on the recommendations in the report of the inquiry into river safety, the Hayes report. I am sorry to say that the Minister for Transport in London, who is present in the Chamber, answered thus: The MAIB report into the loss of the Marchioness contained 27 recommendations. All have now been implemented. The Hayes report contained 22 recommendations, and action is in hand on all."—[Official Report, 19 July 1993; Vol. 229, c. 78.] That is the nearest thing that I have seen to a falsehood in Hansard in my career. I hoped that I have phrased that correctly.

That leads, I think, to block six. I have lost count. We have stopped at almost every point. Requests for further action and a public inquiry were rejected. It was said, "Ah, we have had two court cases and two reports and all the facts are known. What more is needed? You are up a gum tree."

That was more or less the position until the debate that I initiated a year ago, when the 10 questions that I posed were not answered and which, unfortunately, did not receive much media attention—at least, until last Wednesday when the "Despatches" programme on Channel 4 went into the subject in a big way. I shall not deal with that in detail, because videos are as readily available as newspapers these days.

The programme did not spend much time on the disaster, except at the end, when it was very important, but it gave the background to the ships—alas, apparently badly managed—of Ready Mixed Concrete, a large organisation the characteristics of which I mentioned en passant a short while ago.

Several crew members of the vessels gave various accounts of what had happened. It may be that some will be questioned by the company; no doubt they will. The programme dealt with many things, some of which hon. Members may wish to refer to, which cast light on the management of all the vessels in the concern involved. It also made it clear that the evidence and experiences of various witnesses and survivors of the incident had not been taken into account in the MAIB report.

The programme went on to show, as the MAIB report says, that the facts suggested that, under all the circumstances, it was probable that the Marchioness sank somewhere between Southwark bridge and Canon street railway bridge, perhaps nearer to the latter, and was probably turning to port when it was run down. That is broadly what the MAIB reports says. Most of the evidence—not all of it—in the courts and taken by the MAIB suggested that that was so.

The programme suggested that at least there was some evidence the other way. But that evidence was not in the MAIB report, probably because, as I have said, it was not easy to give evidence to the inquiry. How could people know about it when details were not widely circulated, at least according to my information?

Yet time after time, Minister after Minister talked airily, as all Ministers do, about there having been a full and thorough inquiry, with all the facts having been made known. That was not so. They were brought out in the programme on Wednesday.

Therefore, I asked a question which was answered the day after the programme. I asked the Secretary of State for Transport if he will now reconsider the decisions made not to establish a public inquiry into the Marchioness disaster of comparable scope to those already conducted into the disasters at King's Cross and Clapham. The reply was: When the then Secretary of State considered the need for a public inquiry he concluded that the holding of a formal investigation was unnecessary given that a full, thorough and comprehensive inquiry had been carried out by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch—MAIB. Subsequently, the view has remained that a formal investigation would be unlikely to add to the inspector's findings,"— I suggest that it would be likely to do so— or to the 27 safety recommendations made in the MAIB report. The position was not changed by anything said in the Hayes report, which made no suggestion that a further inquiry into the accident was needed. Of course, the report made a recommendation which was not taken up that an inquiry should be held into safety in general. The answer continues: I therefore remain of the view that the case for a formal inquiry has not been made."—[Official Report, 9 December 1993; Vol. 234, c. 341.] That was the day after the broadcast.

Some people were stirred by the broadcast, including some survivors. I have received two letters since the broadcast which I should like to quote. One was from a lady called Gillian Moseley, who wrote: I am a survivor of the disaster and was the first person to climb out of the Boat after the Bowbelle ran over us and once the Marchioness 'bobbed back up'. I was in shock at the time and my senses were heightened and I described to many people the open water I came up in. We were definitely on the west of Southwark bridge and I was horrified to learn from the programme that it was assumed otherwise, and that this assumption was the basis of false conclusions which closed the case. It is true that the river may have been running at 2 or 3 knots and people may have been swept up river, but what about the letter from Mr. Simon Hook? Mr. Hook was a survivor. He was in a WC cubicle at the time of the collision. He said: there was a window on my left which was square with curved edges. The bottom part of the window was blacked out. The top part of the window slid open to let the air in and it was possible to see out. The Marchioness was on a straight course and had not changed course in any way when there was an initial lurch to the side as if something had hit us. At the time my hand was in the open window and I used this to steady myself. As the Marchioness lurched over on one side I saw through the open window, the underside of a bridge overhead the boat. I now believe this was Southwark Bridge. I could see the bridge because as we tipped up there was some light coming from the Marchioness and then immediately afterwards the lights went out. Before seeing the television programme I did not know that the official report and the prosecution had been based on the disaster occurring between Cannon Street and Southwark Bridge. I know from my own observation that this is not the case and that the Marchioness was under Southwark Bridge and can confirm what was said on the television programme by the eye witnesses on the Hurlingham.

They were the people who did not speak—the Sherlock Holmes dogs who were not allowed to bark. The Hurlingham rescued many survivors from the terrible tragedy. The skipper and many passengers were aboard that boat, some of whom gave evidence on the television programme which was contrary to the conclusions of the official inquiry.

The House cannot judge what evidence was right. We are not an inquiry which can do that. All I am saying is that there is evidence contrary to that included in the official inquiry, and that witnesses were not heard and apparently were not sought.

I asked a question, answered today by the Minister for Transport in London—the same person who answered previous questions, I make it plain, for the Secretary of State and previous Secretaries of State. I asked the Secretary of State: what relevant facts he now has in his possession, or have been drawn to his attention, which in his opinion are additional to those set out in the report of the Marine Accident Investigation Branch concerning the "Marchioness" disaster. The answer was: None. The witnesses may have got it wrong under cross-questioning, but can it really be said that the facts drawn to the Minister's attention are irrelevant? I do not think so.

So my submission is that the official report on which so much has been based, including the evidence about the turn to port between the bridges rather than possibly being struck under the middle of Southwark bridge, is that the report is inept, inadequate, incomplete, incompetent, inefficient, probably incorrect and was taken in private in Orpington—by a unnamed inspector. It might have been Mr. Marriott or Captain DeCoverley—I do not know.

A decent inquiry would have been held not only in public but in Greenwich, Southwark or Westminster. There is an inquest court and a high court in Westminster, and this is the high court—Parliament, where we must question not only Ministers' handling of this matter but the Department's handling of marine matters and the handling by the Government, successive Secretaries of State, Attorneys-General and the past DPP.

I put that point to the Leader of the House on Thursday, who, again reading his brief, said: I am advised that no new evidence has been produced to warrant a further inquiry and that the evidence cited in the television programme covered no ground that was not examined during the MAIB investigation."—[Official Report, 9 December 1993; Vol. 234, c. 488.] Anyone who has seen that video and read the report could not go along with that. I do not think that the Lord President does so, but he said that the inquiry had covered the ground, and I hope that I have covered quite a lot of the water.

The MAIB is not an awfully well regarded organisation. It has been heavily criticised in relation to other matters, and the recent record on maritime safety has not been good. The Derbyshire incident has not been dealt with and questions remain unanswered about the Pescado and the Ocean Hound.

It is no good the Government saying, "Let us do it like aircraft inquiries," at which the interests of passengers and the financial interests of air companies are in harmony. At inquiries into incidents involving cargo vessels, the interests of the safety of the crew and the financial interests of owners are in conflict.

I shall conclude by asking some questions. Why did the DPP initiate the case? Why did he then try to stop, in effect, a private prosecution? Why did not the coroner complete his investigation? Why were hands cut off? Why did the coroner deny identification? Why did not the Attorney-General apply nolle prosequi, and why did not he postpone the publication of the MAIB report so that the case could have got on? Why did not the Secretary of State have a Clapham or King's Cross style inquiry? Why did not he implement the recommendation of the Hayes report? Why are Ministers trying to say that they did, when they did not?

Every hon. Member whose constituent was drowned or who represents a grieving family or friend has a right to know why the Government do not want a public inquiry—and London wants to know, too.

1.2 am

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)

I begin by paying tribute to the relentless way in which my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) has pursued the scandalous sinking of the Marchioness and the more scandalous way in which British officialdom has attempted to deal with it.

I should like to put a question to the Minister: have Ministers seen the "Despatches" film right through? I will give way if the Minister can tell us. Apparently he has not. I do not know whether silence betokens consent.

There is a basic position: when a substantial number of our fellow citizens suffer sudden death, any Government, even a minimalist Government of the present persuasion, must recognise that they have a basic obligation to investigate those deaths as thoroughly as is humanly possible and to produce reports that are thorough and satisfactory and which satisfy all rational people, especially those who are involved either as survivors or as relatives of the people killed. In the case of the Marchioness disaster, in which 51 people died, British officialdom has failed on all counts. What has happened has brought our judicial and administrative systems into disrepute.

Let us begin by considering the investigation by the marine accident investigation branch. It was conducted behind closed doors and it has never been disclosed who gave evidence to it. We know, however, that some of the evidence that it considered was given to the police for other purposes. Questions relevant to the MAIB were not asked and the investigation received evidence that was irrelevant to its inquiries. No one has had the opportunity to challenge any of the evidence presented. It is clear even to a layman reading some of the technical evidence that the investigation was shoddily conducted. For example, the "spot the Bowbelle" tests bore no resemblance to the circumstances in which the sinking occurred.

The report did not deal with all the issues and it mixed up evidence and conclusions. It was a second-rate investigation and a second-rate report. The Government must bear some responsibility for that because they constantly tell their officials and the public that they do not believe in strict regulation and that any regulation of business is a burden on business and should be avoided at all costs.

The shoddy, second-rate report produced by the Department of Transport is wrong in even the simple matters. It states that it was not known what the skipper of the Marchioness was doing the afternoon before the accident. The Department had all the facilities of the state at its disposal, but it could not find out that he was visiting a friend's wife who had had a baby. Other people found that out, but British officialdom could not be bothered; apparently, it did not matter.

The report makes it clear that, because the Department had decided in advance that the movements of the Marchioness were the basic cause of the incident, more time was spent examining the visibility from the wheelhouse of the Marchioness than the visibility from the wheelhouse of the Bowbelle. It is clear that, because the Bowbelle was not properly ballasted, the bows were high out of the water. The nearest water in front of the Bowbelle that the people in the wheelhouse could see was 1,000 ft away, far beyond where the boat it ran into was located. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South said, the shoddy report managed to mention only one of the seven incidents on the river in which the Bowbelle had smashed into someone, something or some bridge.

Let us now consider the inquest on which Ministers rely when they say that they do not want a public inquiry. The inquest opened in April 1990 and lasted four days. In respect of all but seven of the people who died, what might be called part I of an inquest was completed. It established the identity of the victims and the immediate cause of death—drowning. The relatives of the seven people refused to allow part I of the inquest into the deaths of their loved ones unless an undertaking was given by the coroner to complete part II of his investigation. All were issued with interim death certificates, and some relatives have still not received final death certificates. The coroner has not returned to complete part I of the inquiry on the seven whose deaths were not dealt with in April 1990 and he has not returned to part II of any of the investigations. He said that he was not doing so because other investigations and judicial inquiries were doing the job.

The fact is that the deaths were not properly investigated or decided on by either of the two unsuccessful public prosecutions or by the private prosecution. The law states that, if a repetition of what had happened could lead to a further loss of life, the coroner is usually obliged to resume his inquest and complete it. That has not been done.

The master of the Bowbelle was prosecuted on the limited charge of not keeping a proper lookout and it was made clear that the offence was committed when he had left Nine Elms. Prosecuting counsel made it quite clear that that offence was irrelevant to the sinking of the Marchioness and the loss of 51 lives. The skipper never gave evidence. The jury did not agree. There was a retrial; the jury could not agree again. But in the words of prosecuting counsel, that prosecution had nothing at all to do with the sinking of the Marchioness, so that does not excuse the Government's unwillingness to hold a public inquiry or the scandalous unwillingness of the coroner to conduct his business properly.

Then there was the private prosecution, which at the outset was obstructed by the Director of Public Prosecutions, who harassed the lawyers representing people who had been killed. Following public uproar, the DPP had to withdraw from that scandalous approach.

Then we had the committal stage hearing. The judge stopped that, saying that, on the strength of what he understood at the time, the Marchioness might well have been at fault so the matter could not be put to the jury.

The next excuse for not holding a public inquiry and not completing the inquest is the Hayes report. That was not an inquiry into the Marchioness disaster. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South pointed out, its terms of reference did not ask or even empower it to investigate the Marchioness-Bowbelle disaster; it was charged with examining the handling by the Department of Transport of its responsibility for the safety of vessels on rivers generally. That was totally inadequate.

All those lawyers had to be paid for. At the end of all that expenditure, one basic thing is clear beyond doubt: the authorities still do not know for certain where the two boats crashed. It follows as surely as night follows day that, if we do not know where they crashed, we cannot begin even to consider how or why they crashed.

The survivors and the relatives believe that a substantial number of questions have not been answered. Worse still, they believe that some of the questions have been wrongly answered by those set in authority over us. They want the inquest reconvened and completed and they want a full public inquiry. The reason why they want a full public inquiry—and the House should support them—is that they feel that there should be an inquiry that covers all aspects of the accident. They think that each and every piece of evidence that is available should be challenged—and it would be challenged for the very first time.

Such an inquiry would provide an opportunity for evidence to be heard from the new witnesses revealed in the television programme and in the letters to which my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South referred and an opportunity to challenge the shabby technical evidence produced by the Department of Transport.

Further questions remain to be answered including the fundamental question: where did the accident happen? British officialdom says that it happened east of Southwark bridge. As far as we know, the only evidence that it has for that—we have not been told about anyone else with any evidence—is that provided by the lookouts who are alleged to have been on the bows of the Bowbelle. There are those who believe that the two dodgy witnesses on whom the Government rely were not there in the first place.

All the other witnesses who have made their views public say that the incident occurred west of Southwark bridge, or on the western side of the edge of the bridge as the boats went under it. That evidence is from people on the Hurlingham, the other pleasure craft that was around at the time, and from those who survived the Marchioness sinking themselves. If the sinking took place where they say it happened, the charge that the accident resulted from a change of course by the Marchioness is simply not believable—and if that did not happen officialdom's version of events simply collapses. Those who are concerned about the Government's inactivity and failure believe that the explanation in plain and simple: The Bowbelle ran down the Marchioness. It hit and ran; then it stopped, and then it went on again.

It did not render any assistance to the rescuers. Why not? There are doubts that the lookouts were in place. We know that the visibility was such that people in the Bowbelle's wheelhouse could not see a damned thing in front of them in the water. We also know that the man steering the Bowbelle—the poor man is now dead—had defective hearing, sight and speech. Such defects are not generally expected in someone in charge of such a boat.

The Bowbelle and her sister ships had been involved in more than 50 incidents of ramming, banging and bumping into other boats and bits of piers and bridges. The survivors and the relatives of the dead want to know why the Director of Public Prosecutions did not prosecute the skipper of the Bowbelle for more serious offences, and why he took no action against the company. We now know that that company knew all about the inadequacies of the communications, lookout and engine control systems.

Why did the DPP decide to try to obstruct the private prosecution? Why was the inquest not resumed after all three prosecutions had failed? Why were the police so slow in getting to the Bowbelle? A member of the company management got from Southampton to the Bowbelle before the police managed to get on to the boat. Who, other than the lookouts on the Bowbelle, gave evidence in secret about where the crash occurred? People want an opportunity to challenge that evidence.

People also want to know who decided to sever the hands of some of the victims in the water, and they also want to know why that was done. They want to know whether the hands of 26 victims were severed, as stated by the coroner, or whether it was the hands of six or seven victims, or no more than nine, as stated by different parts of the Metropolitan police.

Why has there been no public inquiry? People know from the Hayes report that the original call for a public inquiry was blocked by 10 Downing street. Why? Fifty-one people were killed in the Marchioness disaster. At King's Cross 31 people died and a public inquiry was held. At Clapham 31 people died, and again there was a public inquiry. What was different about the Marchioness?

We know what those disasters had in common. The people responsible for investigating the Marchioness disaster were from the Department of Transport; they were also responsible for regulating the river and had made a lousy job of it, so they were partly at fault for what happened, which means that they were also attempting to investigate themselves because they were responsible for the generally unsafe culture on the Thames at that time.

It was the same with the investigation into the Piper Alpha disaster and with the railway inspectorate's investigation into the disasters at King's Cross and Clapham. The difference is that this is the only major disaster in which the people responsible for it, the boat's owners, contribute substantial amounts to the Tory party. They contributed nearly a third of a million pounds during the 1980s. They have close connections with the Tory party and have ex-Tory Members on the board. At the time of the disaster, one was a consultant to them.

Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford)

That is sad.

Mr. Dobson

It is sad, but there are many things a hell of a lot sadder than exposing where the Tories get their money: 51 uninvestigated deaths are not just sad—they are a scandal and a disgrace on the Government.

The other reason why the Government do not want an inquiry is that they and their powerful friends are scared witless at the prospect of corporate manslaughter being accepted as the law of this land. That is why they do not want a full and thorough investigation. All the investigations into major disasters of recent times have been inadequate in one way or another. We need a review of the whole process. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

Order. I appeal to the Whips not to have conversations during a speech.

Mr. Dobson


Mr. Deputy Speaker

There must be no comments from a sedentary position.

Mr. Dobson

God bless you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

My final point is that the duty of the Government, and of the House, is not to protect corporate wealth and people who pay themselves well and say that they take great risks and bear great responsibilities but who do not want to take the blame when things go wrong in their organisations. That is not our duty; our duty is to the real people of this country—to the people who were drowned on the Marchioness, to their relatives, to the people who survived, and to the others who are concerned.

We owe it to them, and to all our constituents, to ensure that we have in place machinery that genuinely, properly, openly, honestly and competently investigates deaths, and presents reports that are acceptable because they are thorough and truthful. None of that can be said in the case of the Marchioness, and until it can we shall continue to support the survivors, and the relatives of those who died, and we shall join my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South in relentless pursuit of the slack, idle and incompetent Department of Transport.

1.20 am
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

First, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) for seeking and using the opportunity of the debate to raise again the subject of what happened to the Marchioness. In Southwark cathedral there is a memorial to the 51 people who died on that August morning four and a bit years ago. A memorial is a fine thing, and it is a fine memorial, but those who survived that incident, and the families of those who died, would rather have a different memorial.

I hope that I can persuade Ministers that they need to revisit the series of decisions that have so far meant that there has not been what is conventionally understood to be a public inquiry. There has been no opportunity for the people with the greatest interest to ask the questions that they want to ask, and to have them answered. I cannot for the life of me understand why the Government should be at all reluctant to allow that to happen now, if that should still be the request of the families and the survivors. Indeed, there is an obvious reason why it should happen now. I had rather the Minister gave a cautious non-committal reply tonight, and said that he would at least consider the question with the Secretary of State, than a speedy cavalier reply to the effect that what we ask is not possible.

I note that in the report written on the general subject of river safety—as the House has been told several times tonight, that report is, as it were, the second report following the sinking of the Marchioness—Mr. Hayes, the representative of the Law Society who was asked to undertake the report, wrote in paragraphs 1.6 and 1.7: I was aware that the Marchioness Group and others wanted a Public Inquiry which would have had wider terms of reference than those assigned to my investigation or that of the Marine Accident Investigation Branch. They argue that, with a full and public investigation into the tragedy, the whole story would have been out in the open and they could have come to terms with their loss and begun the process of grieving. They say that they cannot begin to live with their grief until a full public inquiry is held.

Mr. Wells


Mr. Hughes

I shall deal with that question in a moment.

Mr. Hayes's report continued: When the disaster occurred I understand that the decision not to order a public inquiry was taken at No. 10 Downing Street on advice from the Department, although earlier transport disasters on a similar scale had received a different response. In this case it was decided to follow the procedure regularly adopted for the investigation of major air accidents.

The time that has passed since the Marchioness sank will have helped the process of healing in some way. It has never been the case, however, that people who unsuccessfully persist in their desire to get to the bottom of things come to accept that they have reached the end of their quest. We know from history that families will go on asking what happened until they feel that they have got the answers. Unless we give them that opportunity, they will go on asking and the questions will not go away. It would be better, more politic and fairer for the Government to accede to the request for a public inquiry.

An odd sequence of events followed the sinking of the Marchioness. First, the Government responded quickly and decided to ask the marine accident investigation branch, which had been established the month before, to carry out what was its first inquiry. The MAIB is an anomalous body. It is also an unsatisfactory agency in terms of objectivity because it operates in effect from within the Department of Transport and it is not perceived as being independent of the Department. I am not saying that there should not be an agency to do a job on behalf of that Department, but that is a different matter. The hon. Members for Newham, South and for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson)—the Opposition spokesman on transport—and I want another agency, entirely independent of the Government, to consider what happens when people die as a result of a public transport or other transport accident.

An independent inquiry investigated the accidents at Clapham and King's Cross and there is no reason on earth in terms of British law and administration why a similar inquiry should not be held into the sinking of the Marchioness. It is not enough for the Government to say that, after the MAIB report, they then commissioned Mr. Hayes to produce the report on river safety. That report was meant to consider the safety implications for the country of the sinking of the Marchioness and to cover wider issues than that accident, and Mr. Hayes made it clear that it would not deal with factual questions relating to the Marchioness.

The Government may say that a large number of inquiries of one sort or another have been conducted into the sinking of the Marchioness. Inquests were held, court cases were conducted and reports were published.

Before I was elected to the House, I appeared at inquests as a lawyer. I also appeared in court cases when people were prosecuted for breaching health and safety requirements and other professional and employment rules. In case I am accused of not recording a relevant fact, at some stages I was also instructed by Ready Mixed Concrete. That does not preclude me from being as critical of that company as I need to be for the purpose of this issue and debate.

None of the inquiries has been satisfactory and the procedure behind them is grossly unsatisfactory. After an accident, inquests are held, criminal prosecutions may be undertaken and it may be necessary to hold an inquiry. Society has not sorted out how those procedural systems interrelate. We should not ever put people through the living hell of an inquest that starts and never finishes, with potential prosecutions that may follow or precede the inquest and then interrelate them with a public inquiry which may or may not ever happen.

I beseech the Government—the matter is not just the responsibility of the Department of Transport—to relay the matter back to other departments, such as the Lord Chancellor's Department, the Home Office and the Law Officers Department, so that it can be looked at again. If I had ever been lucky enough to get a private Member's Bill into the top 20, I would have considered introducing a Bill to reform the inquest procedure so that this was sorted out Once and for all, so that the sequence of events happened together and people were not discriminated against in terms of the danger of prosecution, that the facts are got at quickly, and matters resolved. There is a way through and that knot needs to be untied.

That has not happened, and the fact that we had an inquest, as we were bound to have, although it was never brought to a conclusion, and the fact that there was a prosecution, although there were arguments about what it should have been for, and that it was a rather anomalous prosecution, suggest that there still is a case that a public inquiry could answer.

I pay tribute to the crew who produced the "Despatches" report last week. The points that came up in that programme were those that they were prompted to investigate because the families and the survivors kept on pushing people to investigate them. I summarise them to make them clear. There were four factual ones, and a fifth substantive one that is also factual, but raises wider issues. The first was the visibility from the deck of the Bowbelle, which is now shown to have been poor. The ship was always too high to allow a view of river from its bow or control room. There was no view on the night in question. As the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras said, the whole saga up to that event shows how the Department of Transport did a poor job, which is why one suspects a cover-up. The Department was roundly criticised even by the MAIB and the Hayes report.

The Department's regulations state that the boat's maximum area of blindness should be no more than the length of two vessels. As the hon. Gentleman said, it was over 1,000 ft—twice the specified length. There was a recommendation that walkie-talkies should be used, but there was a refusal to issue them and there was no human lookout in place. The visibility question has not been adequately answered and dealt with.

The second is the telegraph system—the information system on the Bowbelle. The instructions from skipper to engine room were often inaudible and there had already been an incident involving the Bowbelle as a result of that failing. Although the crew had regularly asked for a fixed communication link, they had not received one. That must be negligence in the generic sense of the word, if nothing else. In the end, it was much more than that: such a link was not installed until 13 months after the first complaint.

Thirdly—this was alluded to all the time, and all of us who get the reports from the Port of London Authority knew it—there had been a whole series of incidents involving the Bowbelle and its sister craft. Any of us, whether on the shores of my constituency on the other side of the river, on the Southwark riparian edge, or whether from here on the Palace Terrace, have seen those long craft going up and down the river. Clearly, they are much more difficult to navigate, and they are much more liable to collision than a narrower or shorter craft.

The fourth matter, which was explicitly dealt with in the "Despatches" programme last week, and rightly alluded to by the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, was the clear unsuitability of one of the crew to do the job. None of us would criticise someone for having a disability or a handicap, but it is a cause for criticism if that person, by virtue of that disability or handicap, is not able to do his job. If a crew member cannot hear properly in a post where he is required to hear to ensure that he crews his boat safely, there is something wrong. Indeed, Department of Transport regulations stated that hearing aid users should not be allowed on deck, and dealt with such disabilities or handicaps.

The last and most important issue was the location point. Where did the accident happen? What actually happened? The "Despatches" film made it clear that the marine consultant to the Department now accepts that passengers on the Marchioness would have felt something—a severe lurch to the left—if, as officially determined so far, the Bowbelle's path had been crossed by the Marchioness. In fact, both the skipper of the Hurlingham—the sister crew ship—and passengers say that the Marchioness was on a straight course. They say that it did not veer, lurch or suddenly shoot across the path of the Bowbelle in the early hours of that Sunday morning, and that it was therefore hit under Southwark bridge at the rear of the Marchioness—not amidships.

If that is true, we are presented with a crucially different fact. In a collision, the key question is, "How did the collision occur? Which bit of which vessel impacted on which bit of which other vessel, and what were the consequences?" Let me say this to the Minister: even if the other matters have been touched on, as they have, the evidence that is now clear about the point of collision suggests that the matter needs to be examined again.

I ask Ministers not to be proud about the decision to let the MAIB act or the decision to let Mr. Hayes have his report, and not to be defensive about the history of the Department of Transport, but to do the one thing that would meet the very straightforward, persistent and continuing requests of the families and the survivors: to allow someone unconnected with the incident to hear from whoever wants to give evidence, so that the answers to the question, "What happened to my brother, sister, girl friend, child or me?" can see the light of day.

Unless people who were there, or relatives or friends of people who were there, can ask those questions and every other difficult question until they receive answers, we shall continue to have debates like this. I hope that the Department will be generous enough to say that a public inquiry should be held sooner rather than later: the sooner it is held, the more accurate the answers will be, and the sooner the grief of those still suffering will be ended.

1.37 am
The Minister for Roads and Traffic (Mr. Robert Key)

I thank the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) for raising this issue again. It is important for the House to act as a forum for important debates such as this. Let me repeat what I told the hon. Gentleman earlier this evening, when I explained why I would be answering the debate rather than my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Norris), the Minister for Transport in London: my hon. Friend will be replying to another debate later this evening.

In preparing for tonight's debate, I was much moved by the words of the hon. Member for Newham, South in his Adjournment debate last year. He repeated some of those comments this evening to set the scene. I come to this issue with an open mind; it is not a question of pride or defensiveness. I want to make that absolutely clear.

Let me respond to the comments in reverse order. What a contrast there was between the speech of the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) and the rantings of the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson). The hon. Gentleman asked specifically why No. 10 had decided to take a particular course without being certain that that was where the decision was made. It is perfectly obvious to me that, having just set up the MAIB to investigate this sort of accident, it would have been even more extraordinary if it had been bypassed and an alternative method had been chosen to investigate the disaster.

The inquest was not used to determine culpability. The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey made some extremely telling points, and he carried me with him. I shall draw his remarks about inquests to the attention of my right hon. and hon. Friends. He made a good point that needs examination.

Mr. Dobson

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Key

No. I only have about 10 minutes left. The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) asked whether the inquest would be resumed and if not, why not. An application to the divisional court for judicial review of the coroner's decision not to resume the inquest was dismissed on 9 July 1993. I understand that an appeal has been lodged, and it would be inappropriate for me to comment further on that.

The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras asked if I had seen the "Despatches" programme throughout. The answer is, no, but I have done better. I have had the opportunity of studying the transcripts in detail. That is rather better than the distraction which will inevitably occur when watching the programme right through. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that, in order to get to the heart of the problem, it is sufficient just to watch a television programme right through, I am surprised at him. He has sought to smear the judicial system and the official system and bring them into disrepute.

The MAIB report is not shoddy. It is an excellent report, carried out by professionals. I think that the hon. Gentleman will regret the gratuitous offensiveness in which he has indulged by attacking public servants. Tomorrow, I shall be attending the funeral of one such public servant, killed in the course of his duty of serving the interests of transport in this country. The hon. Gentleman's attack is totally misplaced and very ill timed.

We are facing a serious issue and hon. Members should take it sufficiently seriously. Anyone who has been involved in any tragedy involving loss of life, as I and I am sure other hon. Members have been, know the deep grief that it imposes on individuals, families and communities for many years to come. That is undeniable. The well-known concern of the hon. Member for Newham, South has again been aired. I express my condolences to those involved, because I come to the issue afresh. I know that the hon. Member for Newham, South has further interests in the disaster because of his considerable knowledge and experience, to which he has referred.

The aim of the television programme, which was to set out what it claimed was "exclusive new evidence" was not met. It told a story which was fundamentally at variance with the official version. There is nothing new in that. It asserted that the story deeply compromised the Government's claim that all the facts are known. The official version of the incident is the report by the chief inspector of the MAIB, which was published in August 1991. That report was a culmination of a detailed and thorough investigation carried out by inspectors from that branch.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Key

No. I am sorry, but I was given 20 minutes to reply to a debate lasting an hour and a half. I must get on.

The inspectors were all well qualified. They are highly professional and experienced seafarers who are appointed to investigate accidents to or on ships.

The branch in which they serve is completely independent of those who regulate marine safety. The chief inspector reports directly to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport on marine accident investigations.

The television programme's claim was that MAIB's investigation did not consider all the evidence and that the new evidence that the programme brought to light justified the call for a public inquiry.

The hon. Member for Newham, South will be aware that a public inquiry into a shipping accident is called a formal investigation. The procedures for such an inquiry are set out by statute, but the purpose of such an inquiry is particularly important. It is to establish what happened and to make recommendations to ensure that the accident or incident does not recur. Those terms of reference are no more and no less than those of an investigation carried out by the MAIB. They, too, are governed by statute and the Merchant Shipping (Accident Investigation) Regulations 1989 clearly set out, under regulation 4, the purpose of an investigation. So what would a public inquiry achieve that was not achieved by an MAIB investigation?

Let me pick out some of the points made in that television programme. First, it identified the problems of the Bowbelle's design, particularly in respect of how they affected the keeping of a proper and efficient lookout. It also indentified the communication problems between the fo'c'sle head and the bridge on those vessels and how three hand-held radios were on board the Bowbelle that night but were not in use.

The programme further commented on the fact that, traditionally, these vessels had been taken up river by pilots but that the practice had ceased some years before the Bowbelle-Marchioness accident. As regards the Marchioness, it identified the problems of keeping a proper and efficient lookout due to the vessel's design.

Although all those points were well presented in the programme, they were not new evidence. They were all dealt with in considerable detail in the MAIB report, although the programme makers omitted to say so.

The programme then listed a number of other points which, although their factual accuracy is not in question, were not relevant to the accident. One concerns the means of communication between the bridge and the engine room of the Bowbelle for the desired engine movement—the engine telegraph. It was described as an archaic system. Perhaps it is, but it had no relevance to the incident, as the captain of the Bowbelle made no attempt to alter the engine speed before the accident. Even after the accident, when he required a change in the engine speed, there is no suggestion that that archaic piece of equipment failed.

Another point raised in the programme and one that is dear to the heart of the hon. Gentleman was the Bowbelle's history. The fact that a significant number of incidents are recorded involving that vessel is not disputed, but they have no direct bearing on the collision that night. The MAIB report devotes a whole section to previous incidents and the actions taken, and clearly sets out those whose circumstances were distinctly similar to the accident under discussion.

The programme then devoted a considerable amount of time to looking into an accident that befell another of the Bow ships, the Bowsprite. That vessel broke in two in the southern North sea, sadly with the loss of four lives, approximately eight months before the Marchioness Bowbelle collision. How that accident helps support the argument for a public enquiry into the Marchioness Bowbelle accident is far from clear.

From there, the programme returned to the Marchioness-Bowbelle incident and began to focus on the involvement of the Hurlingham. That was another passenger launch, also on a night-time disco cruise, that was in the immediate vicinity of the accident and from which some people witnessed the accident. It explained in some detail the rescue efforts that were performed by those on board and stated that those efforts had never been recognised.

I do not question the fact that some of those passengers performed heroic deeds that night, and that fact is acknowledged in the MAIB report. In his introductory letter, the chief inspector states: My report would not be complete without recognition of the acts of bravery and skill that were performed during the search and rescue operation. These were not limited to the crews of the vessels involved in this operation but included a number of passengers. With two thirds of the programme now completed, it finally began to introduce its aim to set out the new evidence. In the words of the commentary, it would produce the evidence of one group of witnesses that seemed to have been ignored— The story the Government seems reluctant to hear".

That alleged new evidence was given by the skipper of the Hurlingham and two of her passengers. In essence, it was that the collision between the Marchioness and Bowbelle occurred either before the two vessels passed under Southwark bridge or as they passed through it. That evidence conflicts with the MAIB report, which considered that the collision occurred after the two vessels cleared Southwark bridge. The MAIB inspectors had access to that conflicting evidence and it was taken into account during the investigation, when the report was written.

The vast majority of witness evidence—completely ignored by the television programme—was that the collision occurred between Southwark and Cannon street bridges. That includes the evidence of passengers in the Hurlingham who saw the collision and who were sufficiently familiar with the river to recognise their whereabouts, of witnesses ashore and, perhaps most importantly, the mate of the Marchioness. It is particularly surprising that the programme made no mention of the mate's evidence on that subject.

The material evidence supports the same view. The wreck lay well to the east of Southwark bridge, and there was a strong flood tide. The programme presented the view of an expert that the alleged new evidence was supported by the nature of the damage sustained by the Marchioness. It was claimed that that indicated that she was struck near her stern, arguing that she was on a steady course and not heading across Bowbelle's bow—as the MAIB report found. That in turn would place more responsibility on the Bowbelle than implied in the published report.

The evidence provided by the damage to the Marchioness was fully considered by the MAIB, and careful examination of the relevant excerpt from the programme shows no inconsistency with the inspector's conclusions. There is no doubt that, as the expert said, the major damage amidships occurred when the Marchioness was rolled over, not at the time of initial impact. If anything, that supports the view that the Marchioness was heading slightly across the bow of the Bowbelle.

Mr. Dobson

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Key

I will, against my better judgment.

Mr. Dobson

If the Minister is so confident that there is evidence from witnesses to support the MAIB's conclusions, will he do that desired by relatives of victims and survivors—publish it? Until now, it has been secret.

Mr. Key

I was about to address that point.

The programme cited one further piece of evidence to support its conclusion—the transcript of radio messages received by the Port of London authority at Woolwich, and their timing. The inspectors were well aware of that transcript. The programme disregarded the effect of the collision on the progress of the Bowbelle and the fact that it led to her partly losing control of her steering and making contact with Cannon street bridge. When allowance is made for that, the timing is fully in accord with the collision having occurred where the report found.

To sum up that long review of the programme, I must advise the hon. Member for Newham, South that it did not produce any new evidence to warrant further inquiry. That cited in the programme covered no ground not examined during the MAIB investigation, and there is no case for a public inquiry into that accident, tragic though it was.

Ms Walley

In the last minute remaining, will the Minister say why he is not prepared to make public and to place in the Library a copy of the evidence—

In accordance with Mr. Speaker's ruling—(Official Report, 31 January 1983; Vol. 36, c. 19]—the debate was concluded.