HC Deb 05 April 1995 vol 257 cc1753-61 4.34 pm
The Secretary of State for Transport (Dr. Brian Mawhinney)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement on ferry safety.

The tragic loss of the Estonia raised again the question of safety of roll on/roll off ferries. Work has taken place in the United Kingdom, Scandinavia and, notably, within the International Maritime Organisation's panel of experts on possible ways of enhancing their safety. This work includes computer-modelling research, which I instructed the Marine Safety Agency to undertake. The research investigated the effect that bulkheads might have on survivability in the event of water invading the car deck.

The preliminary findings provide new insight into how ships can be designed or redesigned to avoid future losses such as the Herald of Free Enterprise and the Estonia. They show that the fitting of transverse bulkheads can further enhance the survivability of a ship with water on its car deck. The degree of enhancement will depend on the initial survivability standard of the ship. The higher the survivability standard, the greater the effect of fitting transverse bulkheads.

In the light of that research, I believe that it is incumbent on the Government, with operators and the international maritime community, to seek to agree further improvements to survivability standards and to introduce transverse bulkheads to roll on/roll off ferries as appropriate. As always, consideration of these measures must include evaluation of the potential safety benefits and costs involved.

The preliminary results of the research were made available to the IMO's panel of experts, whose interim report to the Maritime Safety Committee has just been issued. The panel recommends enhancing both the damage and the intact survivability of roll on/roll off ferries by requiring them to be able to survive with levels of water on the car deck. These recommendations point to the fitting of transverse bulkheads. The panel's conclusions and recommendations on enhanced survivability and other aspects of ferry safety will be considered by the Maritime Safety Committee in May, with a diplomatic conference to adopt amendments to the Safety of Lives at Sea convention likely in November. I will ensure that the United Kingdom will be closely involved in those discussions. Although the panel's many detailed recommendations will require full and careful analysis, I wish to place on record both our appreciation for the work that they have undertaken to date, and our support for the general thrust of its recommendations.

With regard to existing survivability standards, I am publishing today lists of the roll on/roll off ferries currently serving United Kingdom ports. These show whether they meet the survivability standards introduced by the IMO in 1990—referred to as SOLAS 90—or when they need to be modified in accordance with the north-west European ferry stability agreement, which applies SOLAS 90 to roll on/roll off ferries built before 1990. A copy of the lists and an explanatory note have been placed in the Library of the House.

Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West)

We welcome the right hon. Gentleman's statement on damage stability standards for ferries operating in UK waters, and what he said on transverse bulkheads, which is important, but is he aware that the concerns of the British public about ferry safety go much wider than the narrow range of issues that he has touched on today, in particular, public access to information in a readily understood form on ships, safety standards, crew competence on board ship, the proper enforcement of safety standards, and assurances on evacuation arrangements? Will he now ensure that the travelling public are able to use that information and to make informed choices regarding the ship on which they wish to travel? Will he now urge the ferry operators to link individual ferries to timetables, so that the public have some control over the safety of the ferries on which they travel?

Regarding the list that the Secretary of State is publishing today—we welcome it—of passenger ferries not meeting SOLAS 90 standards, will he confirm that 27 of those vessels will still not have to comply for another nine years and that a further 18 will not have to comply for another 12 years? What action is he taking to secure international agreement or, if necessary, to act unilaterally to reduce the still unacceptably long delays in implementation?

Is not it clear anyway that the SOLAS standards, even under the revised 1993 agreement, are inadequate when they are concerned only to ensure stability against waves of up to 1.5 m in height? Is not that much too low and does not it mean that SOLAS standards will be ineffective in the rougher seas when they are most needed?

How can the public have confidence in the Government's commitment to safety on ferries when the right hon. Gentleman, in a letter of 21 December 1994, a copy of which I have here, said that he was postponing delegating to classification societies the responsibility for hull and machinery surveys on ro-ro ferries and other passenger ships because of the widespread perception in the marine insurance industry and elsewhere that safety standards would deteriorate", yet he still proposes to go ahead with that later this year?

Is not it deeply cynical to put off the privatisation exercise temporarily because of the Estonia, yet still proceed with it now when it is widely regarded as dangerous, and even the Minister of State on 7 December last year has roundly condemned many classification societies as incompetent or worse?

How, equally, can the right hon. Gentleman say that he has an overriding commitment to ferry safety when at the same time he has cut the staffing of his Department's Marine Safety Agency by 15 per cent. in the past year?

The right hon. Gentleman omitted today the human factors which are known to be instrumental in some 85 per cent. of all marine casualties. Will he accept that his announcement today will be of limited use unless skilled and experienced British officers are available to maintain high operational standards in the ro-ro ferry sector?

Will the right hon. Gentleman further accept that that is now severely threatened by the catastrophic decline in United Kingdom seafarer training levels? Is he aware that while in 1981 some 5,200 cadets began training, the number today has dropped by no less than 90 per cent? What further action will he now take to restore training to the much higher levels that are still needed?

Will the right hon. Gentleman also acknowledge that, with the growing use of low-cost non-EU crews on UK-registered ships, it is vital that communication with crew and passengers in an emergency is immediately understood? Will he now withdraw his proposal to end the requirement that UK-registered ships must have British officers?

Increased competition and the growing presence of flag-of-convenience services present a real threat to the future of cross-channel safety. The right hon. Gentleman's commitment to safety will be judged not merely by his statement today, but by whether he is prepared to override his and his party's instincts for deregulation and privatisation which are so inimical to ferry safety.

Dr. Mawhinney

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the welcome that he gave to my statement—I think—and the joint view that we have taken in welcoming the result of the research that I commissioned, the fact that it has been forwarded to the panel of experts and that it is now being taken seriously along with others as the industry operators and Governments together turn to considering whether further steps can appropriately be taken to enhance even further the already high standards of ferry safety. I am glad that we agree on that.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about concerns on safety. They are understandable concerns. It is part of the responsibility of the House not unnecessarily to stoke up inappropriate or ill-founded concerns about safety and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman that he fell some way short of doing that. I agree with him that it is important for the public to have easy access to information. I note his suggestion that ferries should be linked to timetables, and I will convey it to the operators.

As I have said at the Dispatch Box before, we should have liked agreements on SOLAS 90 to be implemented earlier than was possible. The hon. Gentleman will recall that the International Maritime Organisation wanted a SOLAS 92; we rejected that, and consequently became involved in the north-west European ferry stability agreement. We are seeking to build on that. We shall continue to press for implementation of the highest possible safety standards, as quickly as possible.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned classification societies. He does not appear to understand that 80 per cent. of the inspection work to which he refers has already been done by classification societies; we are talking about adding another 5 per cent. of the total work. The hon. Gentleman must make up his mind: he must decide whether he considers the continuing debate about ro-ro ferry safety to be a legitimate part of our overall aim of establishing the greatest possible ferry safety. I believe that it is, and until I am satisfied that the discussion has been concluded we shall retain it as part of our general goal.

The hon. Gentleman is wrong about the Marine Safety Agency. He has been told before—as have his hon. Friends—that the number of inspections will not be reduced, and that there has been no reduction in the work done by front-line inspectors. I am seeking to establish as much common ground as possible, however. The hon. Gentleman spoke of the importance of crew communication, and on that we are as one.

I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree that it is important to stress that 50 million passenger journeys a year are made safely in and out of British ports on roll-on/roll-off ferries. That is a remarkable record, and a tribute to the current safety standards. It is, however, no cause for complacency—which is why I asked for the research to be done, and why we shall apply it vigorously.

Mr. Paul Channon (Southend, West)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Select Committee on Transport has just begun an inquiry into cross-channel safety? I endorse what my right hon. Friend has said about the large number of journeys taken each year in conditions that show that ferries must be very safe; but is it not welcome that the possibility of greater chances of survival has resulted from the research?

What will my right hon. Friend do in the IMO about the new research? It would obviously be better for him to work within the IMO if that is possible, but if it proves impossible—as happened with SOLAS 90—will he arrange something along the lines of the north-west European ferry stability agreement, so that we can have higher standards in the United Kingdom even if we cannot secure them through international organisations?

Dr. Mawhinney

I am grateful for what my right hon. Friend has said; I agree with all of it. I was aware of the Select Committee inquiry, and look forward to giving evidence in due course.

I thank my right hon. Friend for what he said about the new research, and for the compliment that he paid it in bringing it to the House's attention as soon as possible. That was, I think, the right thing to do. I assure him that we shall try to apply the lessons of the research and other information through the IMO: I agree that that would be the best way in which to proceed. I hope that we shall succeed, but I do not rule out taking the alternative steps that he mentioned should that prove necessary—which I hope that it will not.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

This is a timely statement, given that great many of our fellow citizens will be using ro-ro ferries during the Easter holidays. I am glad that the Secretary of State has come to the House now. There are obviously some important questions. Given that there was a seven-year delay between the tragedy of the Herald of Free Enterprise at Zeebrugge and that of the Estonia, can the Secretary of State assure us that the lessons that were learnt from the previous incident were available by the time of the Estonia? Why does it seem that no modifications had been made to prevent a second tragedy?

More importantly, and along the lines of the right hon. Gentleman's statement this afternoon, can the people using the ferries over the next few weeks be assured that the lessons that have been learnt from both episodes are sufficient to ensure that design and operation in future, when the modifications have been made, or the withdrawal of ferries to which the modification cannot be applied, will provide reassurance of complete safety? Survivability is extremely important and the schedules that the Secretary of State has made available to us show that it will be a long time before some ferries meet those standards.

Finally, how many ferries have changed their flags since SOLAS 90 was introduced? The right hon. Gentleman refers to a number in his explanatory notes, but no numbers are given. Clearly, it is a matter of great concern not just to people in the industry, but to people who use ferries generally.

Dr. Mawhinney

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks and his welcome, which I appreciate. All the recommendations that arose out of the inquiry into the Herald of Free Enterprise seven years ago were implemented and that has been a major source of reassurance in the intervening seven years. There is no final report yet on what happened to the Estonia. It would appear that the bow doors were torn off and there was damage to the internal bulkhead, but at the moment there is no definitive report, and we await that.

The hon. Gentleman and I share a common concern to reassure people, while not being complacent, that the Marine Safety Agency has responsibility for the safe passage of marine traffic in and out of our ports. It is satisfied with the standards and advises me that it has no concerns. I reinforce the point that the hon. Gentleman was seeking to support. The number of journeys in and out of British ports every year is a reflection of the high standards that we enjoy. That is no reason to seek to prevent those standards being enhanced, particularly if it can be done on an international basis, and that is what we shall seek to do.

Mr. Alan Haselhurst (Saffron Walden)

Does my right hon. Friend secretly share my disappointment at the somewhat grudging response to his statement this afternoon? It must be right to ensure that matters relating to the basic structure of roll on/roll off ferries are attended to ahead of almost anything else, however important, when further research and discussion takes place.

Dr. Mawhinney

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support and encouragement. I shall resist the temptation other than to say that I am grateful for the support that has been forthcoming across the Chamber.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Since the Secretary of State is doing such a good job of throwing out all the politically difficult questions from his Department before the next general election, will he go even further than he has gone today and announce firmly that the Marine Safety Agency, which has responsibility for bow inspection and the maintenance of a high level of safety on all the ferries going in and out of the country will not have its staff cut and might even consider moving its office from that well-known seaside resort of Orpington to somewhere slightly nearer the coast? Will he ensure that in future not only will there be tight controls over any operating ferry that comes into the country, but that if the timetable for the implementation of the changes that he has mentioned this afternoon becomes too elongated, he will take direct action and not wait for other people?

Dr. Mawhinney

I thank the hon. Lady and I interpret at least the first half of her question as a welcome for my announcement. She has maintained a consistent interest in these matters, although I am having difficulty persuading her of the consistency and truthfulness of the answers that I regularly and similarly give her. I assure here that the number of inspections will be maintained and the front-line staff involved in surveys and inspections will be retained. I hope that that will encourage her along the road towards accepting what I am telling her.

On the hon. Lady's last point, I reiterate what I said in my statement—that it was as a consequence of work that I asked the Marine Safety Agency to do, which culminated last November in my inspecting bow doors, that I asked the agency to do further work. It has reported on the improvements that transverse bulkheads can bring to survivability in certain circumstances. I took that seriously enough to bring it to the House, so the hon. Lady should not underestimate my determination to move forward.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

Will my right hon. Friend take account of the Scandinavian ferry disaster, where insufficiently clear instructions were given to the passengers when there was a fire on board? Will the transverse bulkheads hinder exit procedures? Will he ensure that the advice given by the Consumers Association about checking that passengers actually understand the safety announcements is acted upon?

Dr. Mawhinney

I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. We have welcomed and accepted the recommendations of the panel of experts, some of which dealt with evacuation procedures. We are happy to accept them.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that current regulations do not include maximum hours for officers and crew on duty for normal purposes? Why is that? Will he also confirm that, as a result of his announcement, at some stage in the future no ship operating on a British ro-ro service will be without transverse bulkheads on its main car deck? If so, will he tell us in what year he expects that to be in operation?

Dr. Mawhinney

As I made clear in my statement, I cannot answer the hon. Gentleman's last question. I made it abundantly clear that we need to have a series of discussions and investigations and that further work needs to be done.

What I have brought to the House today is, in effect, a statement of principle. Work has been done that has shown that enhanced survivability can result from the putting in place of transverse bulkheads. We now need to work with other Governments, with operators and with agencies—in particular, the International Maritime Organisation—to give effect to the added safety that the bulkheads or equivalent measures would achieve. I am happy to assure the hon. Gentleman that I will push forward in that direction with vigour, as will my officials in discussions within the IMO and within the panel of experts. We will not allow others to deflect us from putting in place standards that will even further enhance public confidence in the safety of ro-ro ferries.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

I commend my right hon. Friend on his measured response to recent tragedies, especially in the light of the many safe ferry journeys from British ports every year. What is the Government's attitude likely to be if, in due course, the IMO fails to recommend the fitting of transverse bulkheads?

Dr. Mawhinney

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) said earlier, it would be far better to reach agreement within the IMO. He then put to me the possibility that that might not happen and asked whether we would then consider something equivalent to a north-west European agreement—and I will. If that offers the sort of reassurance that the House seeks, I am happy to give it.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

The right hon. Gentleman said that there were 50,000 safe journeys. What does that mean? Fifty thousand people walk the streets of Chesterfield every day and get home safely. It does not mean anything. It needs only one ferry to go down and 200 or 300 people will lose their lives.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that one fellow, for certain, will be clapping his hands at what the right hon. Gentleman has said today—Jeffrey Sterling, the head of P and O? He could have been required to insert transverse bulkheads in all his ferries, had this Minister had the guts to do that to achieve proper safety measures. The reason why this Minister has done nothing today but waffle is that Jeffrey Sterling puts money into the Tory party.

Dr. Mawhinney

I am sure that the House is grateful for the hon. Gentleman's typically generous and kind-hearted welcome to what is an important statement on ferry safety. With a little more attention, he would have heard that there are 50 million—not 50,000—safe passenger journeys a year in and out of UK ports. He will be interested to know that it was, as he contemptuously puts it, this Minister who commissioned the research, and who brought its results for the first time to the House, which his hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) and other hon. Members welcomed. The House will draw its own conclusion, but it should not be surprised that, yet again, the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) is marching in the opposite direction from everyone else.

Mr. David Shaw (Dover)

Nineteen million people passed through Dover port last year using Dover's ferries, and they had good and safe journeys. May I declare my interest as someone who went on our ferries last week? We have the latest television monitoring system, early warning lights on bow doors, and better-designed bow doors than any other ferry system and service in the world. Our ferry systems include bow doors that have been designed very differently from those on the Estonia.

Dr. Mawhinney

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who speaks with great authority on these matters. As I said to the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), the measures that he mentioned and that are in place were precisely those included in the recommendations of the Herald of Free Enterprise inquiry. All were accepted and put in place. That is the sort of reassurance that the travelling public have a right to expect. I hope that they will feel that today's statement will add to that sense of reassurance.

Mr. Nick Ainger (Pembroke)

May I add my grudging welcome to the Secretary of State's announcement? I say "grudging" because, after all, the European Gateway sank because of the free surface effect, which could be combatted only by transverse bulkheads. The Herald of Free Enterprise sank because of that effect, which could have been combatted only by such bulkheads.

The survivors and families of the people who died on the Herald of Free Enterprise will be asking why it has taken until now for the announcement to be made. May I ask a further question, in which the hon Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) might be interested? SOLAS 90 gives survivability of only 30 minutes in 1.5 m waves and search and rescue helicopters require one hour to get into the Dover straits from the British mainland. Will the Secretary of State reconsider that issue in particular, because it is obvious that, if a major problem arose in the Dover straits, insufficient search and rescue cover exists? The Secretary of State's Department agreed about that.

Dr. Mawhinney

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his welcome—I shall leave out the word "grudging". He asks a reasonable question. I am advised that, during the Herald of Free Enterprise inquiry, transverse bulkheads were examined, but the conclusion was reached that they would not be of additional safety value. I challenged that by asking for further research to be undertaken and I have brought that research to the House. I attach importance to it—I hope that that is clear from my statement and from the way in which I have answered questions.

Because I attach importance to that research, I intend to ensure that it is progressed in such a way that, in due course, the hon. Gentleman will be less grudging in his welcome. He is right to say that the Dover straits are the busiest waterway in the world. He is not right, however, to say that helicopter cover from both sides of the straits is inadequate.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

Will the Secretary of State recognise that the Dover straits, which he has just said are the busiest crossing point, are heavy with other traffic using that part of the English channel? Does he accept that obviously inherent dangers exist there? There is increased pressure because of competition from the channel tunnel. Will he make it clear that the Government intend to ensure that passenger safety comes before quick turnround times and other factors in that competitive industry, that safety will be the No. 1 priority, and that ships are made absolutely safe?

Dr. Mawhinney


Mr. Roy Beggs (Antrim, East)

We in Larne have run second to Dover. Last year, 2 million people travelled through the port from the Scottish ports of Stranraer and Cairnryan. To give confidence to the growing number of people who travel as tourists into Northern Ireland, will the Secretary of State give a further assurance that the highest standards are being maintained on cross-channel ferries, and that the inspection level will not be diminished? I commend him on the action that he has taken to date, and ask him robustly to persuade the people who should be persuaded on early implementation of the research's conclusions.

Dr. Mawhinney

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I shall continue to be as robust as he would wish and, perhaps, even expect me to be in the circumstances. I pay tribute to the ferry safety levels around the coast, including ferries that sail in and out of Larne. As he will know, because he generously accompanied me, I had the pleasure of visiting Larne port just a few weeks ago.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Has the Secretary of State read the reports by the Consumers Association, the Royal Institution of Naval Architects and the Institute of Marine Engineers, which all say that the SOLAS 90 standards are not the highest but the bare minimum standards agreed as a compromise at the International Maritime Organisation? Out of its 150 members, only 15 have competent marine architects. Most of those run under flags of convenience, where the interest is in profit, not safety.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke (Mr. Ainger) is right. SOLAS 90 would have applied to the Estonia, but that sank like a stone. Although engineering differences exist between many ferries, the same principles apply to them all. All the disasters have occurred through a combination of human error and fundamentally unsafe and unstable design. As long as 20 years ago, the Government and the industry were told that that design would cause disasters. We have had disaster management.

Terrible events have occurred and solutions have come years after. After reading those reports, I assure you, Madam Speaker, that my family will not be travelling on any roll on/roll off ferry. The Secretary of State talks of people being alarmist, but does he think that the relatives of the people who died in the Scandinavian Star, the Estonia and the Herald of Free Enterprise would have appreciated a little alarm from parliamentarians before those terrible tragedies took place?

Dr. Mawhinney

The hon. Gentleman will speak for himself. He has done so and he does not take many hon. Members with him. He is certainly not taking any Conservative Member with him as he indefensibly tries to whip up scare stories that are designed to put people off a ferry service that is among the safest in the world. I say, I think for the fourth time, that there is no basis for complacency. That is why I asked for the work to be done, why I brought the results to the House for the first time, and why we will, as I said to the hon. Member for Antrim, East (Mr. Beggs), continue to pursue that robustly. I remind the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) that, if it had not been for the UK Government, there would not have been a SOLAS 90.