HC Deb 03 July 1996 vol 280 cc883-904

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. McLoughlin.]

9.34 am
Mr. Don Dixon (Jarrow)

I thank you, Madam Speaker, for giving us the opportunity to raise this issue on the Floor of the House this morning.

Many of my hon. Friends and I are annoyed and disgusted at the cavalier way in which the Government have treated the investigation and the MV Derbyshire Family Association—people who lost their loved ones in the tragedy some 16 years ago. I shall come to the details later, but first I pay tribute to the many people and organisations that have kept the issue on the political agenda for many years, including my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden), who has done more work than anyone in the House to keep the matter in the public eye. He has initiated emergency debates under Standing Order No. 20, tabled early-day motions, asked numerous questions, raised the matter in an Adjournment debate and presented a petition. He has been relentless in trying to get at the truth about this terrible disaster, as have other Members of Parliament whose constituents lost their relatives on the Derbyshire, not least my hon. Friends the Members for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) and for Sunderland, North (Mr. Etherington).

I also pay tribute to my old comrade, Jim Slater, who was general secretary—later president—of the National Union of Seamen. Jim spent the last years of his life fighting to get at the truth about the Derbyshire. Indeed, I recall sitting one Sunday evening at Littlehaven harbour in South Shields, watching the ships coming into the Tyne—something my wife and I often do on a Sunday night after I have left this place and gone back to civilisation—when Jim came along, taking his youngster for a walk. Within minutes, we were talking about the Derbyshire. Jim always had it on his mind. Unfortunately, that was the last time I spoke to him, as he died shortly afterwards while attending a war veterans' rally in Liverpool.

I also pay tribute to Paul Lambert, chairman of the MV Derbyshire Family Association, who lost his brother on the ship, and to the rest of the association. Those people have fought so hard and shown such patience in their fight for the truth and natural justice for their relatives who perished on the Derbyshire.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that I lost two constituents, Peter Taylor and Griffith Wyn Williams, on the Derbyshire. In view of what he was saying about the rights of the families, is it not high time that they had full representation in any further inquiries and access to any further information that is available, so that their suffering can at last be put to rest?

Mr. Dixon

I totally agree with my hon. Friend, and I shall come to that point later. I appreciate that he has also taken an interest and attended our meetings in the House.

I also pay tribute to the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers—formally the National Union of Seamen—which has been involved ever since the sinking; to the International Transport Workers Federation, which located the wreck; and to Dave Ramwell and Tim Madge, authors of the book "A Ship Too Far—The Mystery of the Derbyshire". I would recommend that book to anyone, and I sincerely hope that the Minister has read it.

On 29 January this year, I received a letter from Paul Lambert, chairman of the MV Derbyshire Family Association, in which he informed me that, at a meeting 10 days earlier, he was told by Mr. Frank Wall, representing the Department of Transport, that there would be no nominated experts from the association on the forthcoming return to the wreck of the Derbyshire. Following those representations from Paul Lambert, I wrote to the Secretary of State for Transport on 6 February, requesting that nominated experts from the MV Derbyshire Family Association be allowed on the forthcoming return to the wreck. I received a reply on 4 April from the Minister for Aviation and Shipping, saying that careful consideration was being given to my request, that he hoped to reach a decision soon and that he would let me have a substantive reply as soon as he had done so.

On 10 June, the Minister for Aviation and Shipping wrote to me, saying: we have concluded that it would not be appropriate for the Derbyshire Family Association … to be represented on the return expeditions. In January, an official from the Department of Transport told Paul Lambert that no member of the association would be represented. Six months later, after careful consideration, the Minister confirmed that. Like many other hon. Members who are present today, I do not believe that the Government ever intended to allow the association to be represented. That illustrates the shabby and disgraceful way in which they have treated the association.

Not until the loss of the Kowloon Bridge in 1986 did a formal investigation into the loss of the Derbyshire take place, six years after it sank. Had it not been for the efforts of those I have mentioned and the hon. Members who are here this morning, the Government probably would not have revealed the truth.

Let me give a few details of the tragedy. No doubt other hon. Members will elaborate on them. The Derbyshire was built by Swan Hunter at Haverton Hill, Teesside, in 1976. She was the last of the six Bridge class oil-bulk-ore combination carriers, which were the first of their kind to be built in the United Kingdom. The six ships were the Furness Bridge, later renamed the Marcona Pathfinder and launched in 1971; the Tynebridge, later renamed the East: Bridge and launched in 1972; the English Bridge, later renamed the Kowloon Bridge and launched in 1973; the Sir John Hunter, later renamed Cast Kittiwake and launched in 1974; the Sir Alexander Glen, launched in 1975; and the Liverpool Bridge, later renamed the Derbyshire, launched in 1976.

Of those six ships, only the first, the Furness Bridge, was built to the original design. Three of them had to undergo repairs at frame 65 to restore them to the original design and make them seaworthy. That left two, the Kowloon Bridge and the Derbyshire. The Derbyshire sank in September 1980, some 200 miles off Japan in the South China sea—amid waves, in a typhoon that she should easily have braved—while carrying iron ore concentrate from Canada to Japan, with the loss of 44 lives. She plunged two miles, so rapidly that there was no time to send a distress signal. There was not even time for an SOS.

The ship was 145 ft wide, the width of a six-lane motorway, and 1,000 ft long, the length of three football pitches. She was twice the size of the Titanic. She was only four years old—three working years old—and she remains the largest ship ever lost from the British register. Forty-four people died on the Derbyshire, of whom 42 were crew—officers and ratings—and two were wives of officers on board.

Despite the loss of so many lives, no formal investigation was carried out. Given such a massive loss of life, such an investigation should have been the norm rather than the exception; but, notwithstanding normal practice, the Minister announced in May 1981 that there was not enough evidence to justify an inquiry, although all the Derbyshire's sister ships had experienced problems.

On 11 March 1982, on a passage from Hamburg to Brazil, the Tynebridge—the second in the six-ship series—encountered a North sea storm, and started to split badly around frame 65. Such was the captain's concern that he arranged for most of the crew to be airlifted to safety. The ship, with a skeleton crew, was towed to Hamburg. Inspection of the ship in dry dock showed that she had not been built to design, and the damage was attributed to the change in the method of connecting the cargo section of the hull to the aft-end engine room section. The region affected was frame 65, which coincided with one of the ship's ribs. Let me explain to those who do not know the construction of ships that a ship's ribs that run horizontally are referred to as longitudinals, while those that run vertically are called frames. The frames are numbered from the aft rather than the forward end: frame 65 is near the aft end.

So alarmed were the surveyors of the damage to the Tynebridge that, unsolicited, they sent out warnings to the owners of similarly built sister ships. Two were given some strengthening treatment in the same year after similar damage was found in embryo form, and those repairs made the ships seaworthy for the first time. If actions speak louder than words, this is what the repairs said. First, the longitudinals—the spinal girders—should not have been terminated at and welded into the transverse bulkhead; they should have carried straight through the bulkhead.

In all my years in the shipbuilding industry—in which I worked from the time when I left school at the age of 14 until I retired from gainful employment and came to the House in 1979—I never worked on a ship on which the longitudinals were constructed in that way. The butts should have been staggered. When a house is built, the bricks are not placed in a single line; they are staggered to give them strength. The same applies to the longitudinals and frames on a ship. I believe that that is one of the reasons why the ship sank: there was a flaw in the bulkhead. I have no doubt that many of my hon. Friends agree—certainly my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman), who, like me, has served time as a shipwright. Some of my other hon. Friends who are present come from that dying breed of Labour Members who have not only seen a pair of overalls but actually worn a pair, and it is good to see that they have turned up to discuss this important issue.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

My hon. Friend kindly referred to me as an ex-shipwright. Let me say, as one former shipwright to another, that the fact that the longitudinal ended where it did indicates a distressing design fault. I do not think that that has anything to do with the way in which the ship was built by the lads at the yard.

Mr. Dixon

I agree, and I hope that some of my hon. Friends will elaborate on that. The ships were built to specifications laid down by law, and that is one of the reasons why I believe that there was a certain amount of cover-up over the sinking. The deck should have been at least 30 per cent. thicker, and the metal should have been D and E grade.

A question that has never been answered is this: how do those who claim that the hull of the Derbyshire was up to specification reconcile that claim with the fact that many thousands of pounds needed to be spent on strengthening and repairing that part of the hull on her sister ships? Only one other of those similarly built sister ships was not restored to the intended design; that was the third in the series, originally called the English Bridge and later renamed the Kowloon Bridge.

On 25 November 1986, the Kowloon Bridge, in an abandoned condition, struck Stag rocks, off the southern coast of Ireland, and gradually sank, splitting at frame 65. Following the loss of that ship, early in 1987. it was announced that there would be a formal inquiry into the loss of the Derbyshire. A report was published in 1989, stating: The Derbyshire was probably overwhelmed by the forces of nature in Typhoon Orchid", and adding: the evidence available does not support any firmer conclusion". I have a letter from Mr. J. F. Ibbotson, leader of the Australian branch of the MV Derbyshire Family Association. He writes: One of our Group. in command of an Australian registered Bulk carrier and taking the same course and the same cargo to Japan. heard no distress signal from Derbyshire because her end may have come too quick—in seconds. The same member did not consider the Typhoon to be much different from the 30 or 40 each year which occur in the Typhoon season in which he has made safe passages for many, many years. So much for the forces of nature.

Many people in the maritime industry believe that that formal investigation was a whitewash. It came about only because of the structural damage to the Kowloon Bridge, which finally embarrassed the Minister into calling the investigation. Some matters were not raised. The history of cracking throughout the fleet was virtually ignored. Even the evidence from the Kowloon Bridge, which gave rise to the investigation, was ignored.

Crucial witnesses such as Professor Bishop, an expert in ship science, were not called. David Swift, the Lloyd's Register of Shipping surveyor at the shipyard at the time of the "design change", wanted to give evidence, but was prevented from doing so. The wreck commissioner refused to consider reports that pointed to construction failure at frame 65. The "rule of bias" was broken as one of the assessors had already sat on the executive committee of Lloyd's Register of Shipping when its technical arm investigated the loss of the Derbyshire—the register has a vested interest in the outcome of the case. Some members of the MV Derbyshire Family Association were treated disgracefully when giving evidence at the inquiry.

Forty-four lives were lost on the Derbyshire. Many other seafarers' lives have been lost in bulk carrier tragedies and many more are at risk. If the accident had happened in any other mode of transport—in aviation, for instance—all aeroplanes would have been grounded and unlimited money would have been spent to identify and to rectify all the problems, but that is not so in the maritime industry. It seems that seafarers' lives are not counted in the same context as those lost on aeroplanes or trains.

I support and agree with the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers and the MV Derbyshire Family Association, which believe that the second survey should be a joint and open investigation—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley)—including representatives of the Ministry of Defence, the association's advisers, and appointed experts of the European Commission, under the control of an independent chairman. That would ensure that all parties accepted the second survey. After all. the association's advisers provided all the technical input for the first and successful wreck survey. It seems that Government Departments, having gleaned information from the association, have slammed the door firmly in its face.

If natural justice is to be seen to be done, the MV Derbyshire Family Association advisers should be included at all stages. Even at this late point, I appeal to the Government to have second thoughts and to allow those representatives to be on the survey.

9.51 am
Mr. Eddie Loyden (Liverpool, Garston)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) on securing this debate on the Floor of the House. His comments show the understanding in the House among those who either have worked in the shipbuilding industry or, like myself, were seamen. I first became involved in the MV Derbyshire case in the 1980s, through one of my constituents, who lost her husband in that terrible tragedy. Had there been no MV Derbyshire Family Association, the loss of the Derbyshire would have been long forgotten and none of the important things that have happened since then would have taken place.

I shall concentrate on my right hon. Friend's point about the way in which the MV Derbyshire Family Association has been treated over 16 years. We must remember that the first visit to the site of the Derbyshire disaster took place without the Government's assistance.

It was the association, the people who gathered around it, and people who know the business and come from the maritime world, who took the initiative and, against great odds—some said that it was an impossible task—found the Derbyshire. That was the first breakthrough for the association.

We must understand that, in times of war, when ships are sunk by enemy action, the families of the people involved suffer as much distress as the families of those who lost their lives on the Derbyshire, but they know how and why their brothers, sisters, husbands and fathers died. The Derbyshire families do not know how or why the Derbyshire crew died. Their determination has ensured that the matter has stayed on the agenda for 16 years.

It does the Government no credit to exclude the MV Derbyshire Family Association from the next visit to the wreck. There is no logical argument that convinces me—or any fair-minded person—that it should not be part of the return visit to the wreck site. It has assisted and constantly argued the case. It found the wreck, the first great breakthrough.

About two or three weeks ago, I attended a meeting in London. Up to that time, the MV Derbyshire Family Association was firmly of the view that it would be part of the team to visit the wreck. There was no reason to think otherwise. At that meeting, the bombshell was dropped that the association was not to be included. The view that that is an absolute scandal is shared across the political parties in the House. Those families have been tortured for the past 16 years. We must understand that only the bonding of those people has led to the matter staying on the agenda.

The ship was not rusted up or an old tramp steamer. It was built to a modern design, with all the technology available to man. A big question mark hangs over not just the Derbyshire, but bulk carriers in general. As my right hon. Friend said, that is why the issue goes far beyond the MV Derbyshire Family Association and the United Kingdom. Throughout the world, there is concern about bulk carriers. People who have lost relations on those ships are not satisfied. The Government have a clear responsibility to open the door for the families to ensure that nothing is hidden. The Government should have nothing to hide, but there is a suspicion, which is founded on fact, that decisions have been taken to exclude the families from the next visit.

As my right hon. Friend said, I hope that, even at this late stage, the Government will reconsider the position. Only yesterday, in an another place, Lord Dean of Beswick and Lord Clinton-Davis raised the matter again with the Minister for Aviation and Shipping, who will still not concede the point that the MV Derbyshire Family Association should be represented at the next visit to the wreck.

I hope that the House will recognise that this is no longer a single Member echoing the wishes and desires of the MV Derbyshire Family Association, but a cross-party matter. Between 60 and 70 Members of Parliament have signed a motion formally supporting the association. That support will be ever-growing in the other place and in this House.

The issue will not go away. The association will ensure that it does not. It is seeking compassion from a Government who apparently have no compassion. I hope today that the Minister will use his good offices to ensure that the House's opinions are passed on to the decision makers who have excluded the association, and that justice will be seen to be done by including it in the return trip.

9.58 am
Mr. Matthew Banks (Southport)

I am pleased to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in this important Adjournment debate. It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden), and I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) for persevering with his colleagues in seeking to be successful in the ballot for this debate. I am conscious of the fact that, because of his responsibility as a former deputy Chief Whip, the House has not had the pleasure of listening to contributions from the right hon. Gentleman. Towards the end of this Parliament, I am sorry only that we have had that particular pleasure now, on such a deeply upsetting subject.

There is broad agreement across the House on a variety of aspects concerning the Derbyshire, but I shall draw attention to one slight difference of emphasis. I agree with the right hon. Member for Jarrow that he and a number of his colleagues are a dying breed. I do not think that there are many shipwrights on Conservative Benches, but I am conscious of the right hon. Gentleman's point. I remember the maiden speech of the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Etherington) as a tour de force and one that I shall remember for a long time.

Dr. Godman

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Banks

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I do not intend to make a long contribution. As I know that the hon. Gentleman also wants to make a speech, and to be fair to other Opposition Members who wish to do so, I would prefer to make progress.

I have always been sympathetic to the MV Derbyshire Family Association's 16-year campaign. Its commitment and that of the RMT and the International Transport Workers Federation accurately to identify the causes of the sinking of the Derbyshire on 9/10 September 1980 has been total. No matter what caused the vessel to sink, the DFA's claim for compensation is much more understandable and deserving than the multifarious and cynical grievances that squeeze public finances these days.

Any Government must act responsibly even in the most wretched circumstances. As all the inquiries and reports have never dispelled doubts about structural failure, understandably Opposition Members, some of my hon. Friends and, to some extent, myself have consistently raised the spectre of a cover-up on behalf of the taxpayer since the privatisation of Swan Hunter, as the reason for compensation not being paid for the loss of the Derbyshire's crew. The DFA, perhaps naturally, has followed the lead of Opposition spokesmen in making such accusations, but I believe that some of them are groundless.

The Department of Trade and Industry completed a preliminary inquiry into the loss of the ship in November 1980, but the inspector concluded that, in the absence of any direct evidence, he could not draw any firm conclusions as to the cause of the vessel's loss. It was subsequently decided that a formal inquiry would not be held, because a court could not reasonably be expected to establish the cause of the casualty.

Replying to a parliamentary question in 1986, the then Secretary of State for Transport, the late Nicholas Ridley, stated: While I have every sympathy with those whose relatives were lost with the Derbyshire I have concluded that a formal investigation, conducted some five-and-a-half years after the loss of the vessel, is not likely to produce any significant additional evidence about the cause of her loss, beyond what is contained in the Department's report. I do not therefore propose to order one."— [Official Report,21 March 1986; Vol. 94, c. 315.] The Department's report into the circumstances attending the loss of the MV Derbyshire stated: in the last analysis the cause of the loss of the Derbyshire is and will almost certainly remain a matter of speculation. However, following the acknowledgement of structural problems with the Derbyshire's sister ship, Kowloon Bridge, after its break-up off the south-west coast of the island of Ireland, the then Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for South Worcestershire (Sir M. Spicer), announced on 12 December 1986 the establishment of a formal inquiry, while pointing out that the report of the damage suffered by the Kowloon Bridge concluded that there was no evidence of design defects or of structural failures of the kind that were suggested might have been the cause of the loss of the Derbyshire.—[Official Report. 25 November 1986: Vol. 106, c. 142.] The formal investigation was concluded on 10 March the following year and confirmed my hon. Friend's prognosis—although doubt still remained about possible structural failure. The report's main conclusion was: The Derbyshire was probably overwhelmed by the forces of nature in Typhoon Orchid, possibly after getting beam-on to wind and sea, off Okinawa in the darkness of the night of 9/10th September 1980, with the loss of 44 lives. The three main recommendations of the court dealing with maritime searches, tropical storm guidance and water drainage from cargoes were satisfactorily dealt with by the then Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin), who is in his place on the Front Bench. Despite tangible new evidence presented three years later, in 1990, by the hon. Member for Garston, the Brunel university paper and film of the Kowloon Bridge wreckage, the then Secretary of State, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind), accepted advice that the new evidence was apparently not tangible enough.

The RMT—with which I have the occasional disagreement—to its credit, and the International Transport Workers Federation found the funds to finance a marine search for the Derbyshire and succeeded in locating it two and a half miles beneath the South China sea, near a speck of an island called South Daitoo, 1,000 miles south-east of Japan. However, sonar and video material of the Derbyshire's resting place was judged inconclusive by the chief inspector of marine accidents.

I hope that any lingering suspicions about the Government's motives can be put to rest, not only because of the appointment of Lord Donaldson to initiate an assessment but because of their acceptance of his key conclusions and a return expedition. Successive Secretaries of State for Transport have acted honourably throughout this long-running saga, always on the advice of advisers. Even Opposition Members would have need of advisers if ever they took office—although one or two of them do their best at times to pretend in a cack-handed manner that they know it all.

The Government's actions have shown that opportunities have been given to overturn the original verdict and that the decisions not to do so were taken fairly. As Lord Donaldson said in his assessment: The United Kingdom cannot, in my judgement, be criticised for having failed to mount an expedition to find the wreck of the Derbyshire, hearing in mind the cost and the slim chance of success. However, the situation has been transformed by the discovery of the bow section and the opportunity which is now presented of making a truly scientific study of that section, of searching for and possibly finding and examining the stern section, and of a general study of the wreck site, albeit of a clearly defined nature. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Minister and his colleagues on the need to keep the return expedition entirely independent, which means—regrettably—that DFA representatives might have to be excluded. Their attendance would be as prejudicial to the gathering of evidence as sending a representative of Swan Hunter or the Treasury. I want a satisfactory resolution to the case as soon as possible, which means leaving as little to fortune as possible.

In an exchange in the other place last week, Lord Clinton-Davis, the Opposition's transport spokesman, pointed out the difference between the more profound motives of the DFA in comparison to the opposing interests of the ship's owners and insurers and of the cargo owners. The Government should not approach the matter in that light—no hostages to fortune is the mindset that the Government must adopt if the case is to be resolved as quickly and as fairly as possible. Lord Donaldson remarked that this really must be the last re-examination of the wreck.

Over the past 15 years, 149 bulk carriers have been lost at sea, with the loss of 1,144 lives. Nine of them were lost in 1994, with 123 lives lost that year. No major design modifications have resulted, which is unacceptable. As a member of the Select Committee on Transport, which has taken an interest in the matter—particularly, in this Parliament, in relation to the survivability of roll on/roll off ferries-I shall be interested in the evidence that returns with the expedition concerning the design of long, heavy ships—even if one bears in mind the fact that the Derbyshire was double-skinned and the relative safety of hatch covers on bulk carriers. Some people might say that the appalling record of bulk carriers in terms of losses is largely attributable to most of them being single-skinned and aging.

I hope that the independent expedition will be helpful to members of the International Maritime Organisation's maritime safety committee, which I hope will retain its interest in bulk carrier safety after the expedition has ended and despite the cessation of the correspondence group's activities, particularly concerning the 1966 international low-line convention.

Lord Donaldson wrote in his independent assessment: Under Article 94 of International Law of the Sea Convention, which in this respect is tacitly accepted as binding on the United Kingdom. flag states are under an obligation to investigate and report on the loss of vessels flying their flag. The purpose of this obligation is to ensure that lessons learnt become available to the whole international maritime community. If this obligation were taken seriously by all, or even most, flag states there would be a mass of information available on bulk carrier losses. Sadly there is not. The United Kingdom is no longer a major flag state, but we remain a world leader in the struggle to achieve safety at sea. The Select Committee on Transport has recognised the leading role that the United Kingdom has taken in pressing for improvements in safety standards. I trust that the Government will continue in that role.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. I understand that the winding-up speeches will begin at 10.30 am. Four hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye to speak in the 20 minutes before then.

10.10 am
Mr. Bill Etherington (Sunderland, North)

First, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) on being so succinct in his summary of the subject of this debate. I also appreciate the efforts made by my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden) and for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook), who have pressed this matter from the outset—long before I was elected as a Member of Parliament—and have kept it alive. I also echo the tribute paid to Jim Slater, who was conscientious and sincere in trying to get a good deal for his members and their families.

The former National Union of Seamen and the International Transport Workers Federation have accomplished something that the Government have failed to do. It is quite reprehensible that the Department of Transport has had to be dragged every inch of the way. This debate has been made possible only because of the endeavours of people who accomplished what the Department of Trade and Industry and its inspectors thought was impossible. Paul Lambert, chairman of the MV Derbyshire Family Association, has also been a stalwart in this matter.

I have two constituents who lost people on the Derbyshire, and I hope that they realise—as I hope that the DTI and Ministers realise—that this matter will not go away. The fact that 16 years have elapsed makes no difference. The matter must be pursued until a satisfactory conclusion is reached, regardless of what that conclusion might be.

It is interesting to note that when the Derbyshire was built in 1976 it was described as an "innovative design". One of the most important aspects when dealing with a new design is to ensure that it is built absolutely and entirely to specification. We have evidence that these ships were not built to specification. Even worse, perhaps, is the strange disappearance of the ships' plans made by Swan Hunter's naval architects. The plans should have been registered with Lloyd's, but they were never presented there and no one has had sight of them since. On the balance of probability, it is reasonable to assume that the Derbyshire was not built to specification, and that that was a paramount factor in what happened later. Apparently the MV Furness Bridge complied with the specifications, but it was the only one that did.

The failure to conduct a formal investigation in 1980 shows that the Government do not rate the loss of 44 lives very highly. It is a matter of fact and of history that seafarers' lives have always been relatively cheap, not only in this country but all over the world. They receive inadequate compensation and often work in appalling conditions for some of the worst employers the world has ever seen.

There has been much talk about frame 65. My right hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow mentioned that the longitudi-nals should have staggered joints. He used the analogy of building with bricks. To take the analogy a little further, when one builds a house one does not build four separate walls and then join them at the corners with cement. One interlocks them, for strength. If one built a house with one brick on top of another, there is automatically a line of stress that is almost guaranteed to fail.

It is also interesting to note that the shipbuilder had to send out warnings to the owners. Again on the balance of probability, that shows that the design was inadequate and that the ships had not been built properly. That is no reflection on those who worked in the yards. For those who do not know, I should say that shipwrights and shipyard workers work to drawings. If the foreman is satisfied with how the drawing is executed, that is how the job is done.

I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery) for sending me a copy of the book, "A Ship Too Far". I read it with great interest and learned much from it. It is one of the best books I have read, and I think that everyone should read it. All credit is due to those who wrote it.

The inquiry was appalling. Although we hear so much about open government these days, knowledgeable people—naval architects and others with great knowledge of shipbuilding and the effects of storms on ships at sea—were not allowed to give evidence as they wished. Such proceedings make an inquiry no more than a charade, and completely humiliate those trying to present their case.

It is deplorable that the most anti-union Government in the western world have had to rely on the trade union movement to further this investigation. That is an appalling indictment. I hope that not only the MV Derbyshire Family Association but everyone in Britain will take note of the way in which the Government have acted on this issue.

Hon. Members have mentioned Brunel university's investigation and the photographic evidence produced by the International Transport Workers Federation. That evidence should be seen by all hon. Members. One significant fact shown in the photographic evidence is that the load of iron ore reached the sea bed before the parts of the ship's structure. I always thought that steel was heavier than iron ore. I leave hon. Members to decide for themselves the implications of that, but it tells me—again on the balance of probability—that the ship broke up at or near the surface.

I ask the Minister to make resources available so that parts of the ship's structure can be raised from the sea bed. It can be done. We can land men on the moon. We have space probes. We live in an era in which we have the technology to accomplish that task; all that is required is the political will. I believe that the Government owe such an investigation to the 44 citizens of this country who perished. It is important for the families to be allowed, once and for all, to have some peace of mind and some rest. They have had 16 years of bashing against a brick wall with no worthwhile response from the Government. It is time to put that right.

It must not be forgotten that another ship, within a very short distance of the Derbyshire, managed to get through the "storm of all storms"—which we are now told was only an average storm for that part of the world. That should signify something.

There has been a catalogue of mistakes and a lack of political will to carry out investigations. It has been a shameful incident. Such conduct would be shameful for any Government—regardless of which country they governed or which party was in power—after such an incident.

10.18 am
Sir Fergus Montgomery (Altrincham and Sale)

I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) for raising this matter. He represents the constituency in which I was born, and I have many happy memories of that area.

I also wish to pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman publicly for the work that he did on the Committee of Selection, where he served with great distinction. Last Wednesday, we had a rather ill-tempered debate in which the hon. Members for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) and for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds) made some very unpleasant remarks about the Committee, which shows their wilful ignorance. If every Committee worked as amicably as the Committee of Selection works, the House would be a happier place. During the time he was on that Committee, he was always completely fair and always kept his word. I am grateful to him.

I became involved in this matter because of a constituent called Captain Dave Ramwell, who has made the Derbyshire a cause celebre. He has spent I know not how many days and weeks delving into the matter and finding out an enormous amount of information. He deserves praise for his efforts. His work has always been painstaking, and whenever he has written to me he has been extremely polite. I pay tribute to him because, but for his work, much of the information that has been gleaned about the incident would not have come to light.

The Derbyshire sank without trace way back in 1980 near Okinawa. In 1982, the sister ship—the Tyne Bridge—started to crack during a storm in the North sea. The Tyne Bridge sailed under the Italian flag and went to Hamburg, where it was inspected by an Italian surveyor who decided that the damage was caused by the method of construction at frame 65, a point to which the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Etherington) referred. I understand that Lloyd's Register of Shipping agreed with the Italian surveyor's decision and that the owners were warned about the difficulties that such ships, faced. At that time it also said that, of the four sister ships, only the first to be built—the Furness Bridge—had been built correctly. That brings me up to date and to the main thrust of my comments.

We are now to have the first forensic investigation of a ship that had hitherto disappeared. I believe that the information obtained must be disseminated as widely as possible. In this respect, I share the views expressed by the hon. Member for Sunderland, North.

Mr. Robert Atkins (South Ribble)

In view of the time available, I will make a short intervention rather than a speech. I simply wish to be associated with the campaign that my hon. Friends and the right hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) and his colleagues are waging. I, too, have a constituent who lost a relative on the Derbyshire and I take a continuing interest in the matter. I wish to record my appreciation of all those who have been leading the fight for the investigation and to ensure that the campaign continues because the issue will not go away.

Sir Fergus Montgomery

I am grateful for my right hon. Friend's intervention.

The MV Derbyshire Family Association wants its representative involved. The Department of Transport promised that the association would be kept informed of all developments. I attended an all-party meeting in the House on 30 April this year at which we were told that no decision had been made as to whether the DFA would be represented. We were also told that no decision had been taken on the direction that the investigation would take. I think that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden) tabled a written question and received an answer on 7 May which confirmed that position.

Mr. Loyden

indicated assent

Sir Fergus Montgomery

The hon. Gentleman confirms what I have said. What I find difficult to understand is that, on 10 May, a seminar was held during which a man called Professor Faulkner let the cat out of the bag and said that things were not quite as we had been told.

I shall conclude my remarks shortly because I know that the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) is desperate to make a contribution to the debate, but I will first quote briefly from the most recent letter that I have had from my constituent, Captain Ramwell. He writes: The Viscount"— Viscount Goschen, Minister for Aviation and Shipping— did not explain to the DFA his reasons for denying their representative a presence on the expedition: he merely informed Paul Lambert of the decision. There were so called reasons given, but they were cosmetic. If DOT appointed assessors are not balanced by a DFA assessor then the maritime world will not be able to place confidence in that part of any report that falls under the DOT. This is not to reflect adversely on the DOT appointed assessors; it is to say that the Rule of Bias—as at the Formal Investigation—is being broken. The first visit was backed by the families' union representatives … Far from that being a drawback, it precipitated the re-investigation about to take place. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister has listened to the pleas made by right hon. and hon. Members from both sides of the House because members of the DFA feel very aggrieved at what has happened.

10.23 am
Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

This is the first contribution made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) since he was appointed to the Privy Council. I congratulate him on that elevation, and on being successful in securing this debate.

I have about 100 pages of notes on this subject. It is a constituency interest, as the Derbyshire was built in my constituency. I must say that it was built despite the work force's protestations that the standards of workmanship imposed on them by management were unacceptable. The Lloyd's surveyor was also moved on because he so consistently and persistently pointed to the technical defects highlighted by my colleagues today. I agree with everything that my colleagues have said and with every tribute that they have paid. To repeat their comments would simply waste time and cut short the time available to me, so I shall concentrate on the facts that others have perhaps not been able to put together.

In this context, I thank the hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Banks) because the inconsistencies that he pointed out provide a good framework in which to place my comments. The hon. Gentleman said that he is an active member of the Select Committee on Transport. In the post this morning I received a copy of Which?, a publication not renowned for a lack of reliability. It states on its front cover, "Not again! When disaster strikes, why are the safety lessons so often ignored?" The accompanying article has the sub-heading, "Too little is done after a public transport disaster to make sure the same thing can't happen again". While the hon. Gentleman might think that the Select Committee is doing a good job, Which? has different ideas. I recommend that he read it.

The hon. Member for Southport highlighted other inconsistencies which deserve further illumination. First, the Donaldson report stated that the views taken of the debris field on the ocean bed were inconclusive. The natural response to that is that they deserve a better and closer examination. Secondly, however, Lord Donaldson said that this must be the last visit to the debris field; 'in other words, we had better make sure that this investigation is a good one.

I am sorry to labour the point about the MV Derbyshire Family Association's technical advisers, but who found the wreck? It was the technical advisers funded by the unions. Despite protestations to the effect that the Government had made various efforts in this respect, nothing was done other than to go through the motions of an investigation. Indeed, it is on record that informed commentators such as, for example, the Lloyd's surveyor were debarred from giving evidence. They were not invited to do so, despite their consistent appeals to be heard. I suggest that that is a clear indication that the pursuit of the truth was less than energetic.

Photographs of wreckage—specifically a lifeboat—were taken by a passing Japanese tanker. The photographs were then transferred to the owners of the Derbyshire, Bibby Line. Astonishingly, they were then returned to Japan and cannot be found. However, it has been established that the photographs showed clearly that the damage to the lifeboat was consistent with its having been ripped from its davits—in other words, due to a sudden submersion. Why did the photographs go missing? Why are the drawings not available? Why are the technical advisers not being allowed to accompany the expedition to ensure that it is conclusive and exhaustive and that the people who had the nous and the technical know-how to find the wreck in the first place have the opportunity to comment on behalf of the families now?

The Government say that they want to keep the survey independent. They say that the Department of Transport, the Marine Safety Agency and the marine accident investigation branch will also not be represented, creating the perception that it is a completely independent expedition. However, the Marine Safety Agency and the marine accident investigation branch are merely divisions of the Department of Transport, and the Department of Transport is certainly being represented as it is the Department that has appointed the two assessors and is paying them.

The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery) referred to Professor Faulkner, who was one of the two principal advisers to the Donaldson inquiry. He will be a member of the survey and he has been a principal spokesman. I like Professor Faulkner, but in all my work on the issue, I have been aided by a constituent, Gordon Finlayson, who served as an engineering officer on the Kowloon Bridge and who experienced some of the problems. He and I have written numerous letters, two of which elicited this comment from Professor Faulkner: Both letters show a refreshing breadth of objectivity— I am pleased about that— compared with what I now regard as depressingly closed minds from the DFA advisers". It was not depressingly closed minds that set about finding the wreckage field. It was not depressingly closed minds that were persistent enough to take photographs of the wreckage and to bring them back to prove that they were right. Yet now, when we are to have a conclusive, exhaustive and final examination, those minds are suddenly described as depressingly closed.

The Department of Transport has been condemned for its lack of vigilance over the incident. Many vessels have been lost and hundreds of lives have been wasted, quite apart from capitalist concerns such as lost cargo and insurance pay-outs. I appeal to the Minister, who is normally a most reasonable man—I do not say that facetiously—to have second thoughts on this occasion. For God's sake, let him do the decent thing and allow at least one technical adviser to go to the site who knows what has happened and what we may find.

10.31 am
Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) for cutting his remarks short. I will do the same to allow the Minister to have 15 to 20 minutes in which to reply, because we wish to hear from him.

This debate shows the House at its best and its worst. It shows it at its best because the issue raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) has persistently been raised on the Floor, through the use of every possible parliamentary device, by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden), whose work is an example to us all of the way in which a constituency Member should carry out his job—with great tenacity, using every device in the House.

The debate also shows our weakness, in that Parliament has been unable seriously to hold the Government to account over the past 16 years in order to get a serious and full investigation into what really happened to the Derbyshire. People who care about our Parliament, regardless of party, should pay close heed to that point. Let us get it right this time and let us ensure that in future Parliament has the teeth to ensure that such incidents are investigated thoroughly and quickly, even if the Executive choose to handle the matter differently.

It is unacceptable that, after 16 years, we still have not had a proper and full investigation of the Derbyshire incident. That has not only let down the families of those concerned, but has meant that the crucial issue of bulk carrier safety has not been raised. It was only when I assumed this brief for the Labour party six months ago that I realised the full horror of the safety record of bulk carriers.

One estimate is that a large bulk carrier has been lost every month since 1971. That is an incredible figure. More than 2,000 lives have been lost. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow said, if such an accident happened at Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted or one of our regional airports, there would be an outcry. The Government would be brought to book at the Dispatch Box day after day until an answer was found. Yet the loss of one bulk carrier a month is regarded as something that we can pass over relatively quickly.

Mr. Frank Cook

Many are lost without trace.

Mr. Allen

As my hon. Friend says, many bulk carriers have disappeared without trace. Last year, six bulk carriers and 84 lives were lost. Some 118 bulk carriers have been lost in the past six years, with 587 lives lost. We can rattle off statistics, but what they prove is that life is cheap at sea. I could give many more examples, but I am keen to move on so that the Minister has time to reply.

We need to analyse what happened to the Derbyshire and we need to ensure that the wreck is thoroughly examined. In addition, there is the wider question of the British merchant fleet, which is now in a parlous state. We are about to lose critical mass unless we ensure that we produce ships that are absolutely safe and of very high quality. If we do not, we shall not be able to compete with the Filipino crews and the foreign-registered vessels. It is essential that we recapture our reputation for high quality and high safety. That will be to the benefit of seafarers, masters and ship owners in this country, as well as to the benefit of the invisible earnings from ship broking and insurance about which we hear so much.

Mr. Winston Churchill (Davyhulme)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Allen

No. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will allow me to press on, because I must give the Minister some time. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.

The figures that I have given are for the years after the regulations were tightened and after the International Maritime Organisation increased its efforts to ensure that ships were safer. The figures for the years before the loss of the Derbyshire are probably a lot worse than those that I have given today.

It is a scandal that the dependants of the seafarers who died were not on the list of the named parties. It was only after NUMAST—the National Union of Marine, Aviation and Shipping Transport Officers—made an official application to the wreck commissioner that the families were finally able to contribute to the proceedings. Even then, the cost of representation for families and dependants had to be met by the two UK maritime trade unions, despite their substantial contribution to the investigation and despite the fact that solving the mystery of the MV Derbyshire was clearly in the public interest. Why was representation funded from public sources for those associated with the King's Cross fire, the Piper Alpha disaster and the Clapham rail crash, but not for those involved in the tragedy of the MV Derbyshire?

Colleagues on both sides of the House have pointed out the weaknesses of the assorted investigations that have taken place since the tragedy. I will not list them again. It took an expedition organised by the MV Derbyshire Family Association, with funding from the International Transport Workers Federation, to find the wreck at a depth of 4,000 m. The expedition used the company that found the Titanic and the Bismarck. There are almost echoes of a tragic film script in going to such lengths to try to get to the truth.

Last year, Lord Donaldson reported on structural reliability. He said that it was a "realistic possibility" that design faults had led to a fracture at bulkhead 65—the very point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow. We now know that a further expedition will visit the site later this month as reconnaissance, and that a fuller investigation will take place next year.

One or two colleagues referred to insurance. Insurance practices should deter poor maintenance of ships by, for example, penalising builders or owners for malpractice. I hope that the Minister will make it clear what further steps to tackle poor standards he will urge, in conjunction with responsible ship owners and insurance companies, at Euro-pean Union and International Labour Organisation level.

The vessels were built by the private owners of Swan Hunter, but the liability is consequent upon Government and Lloyd's. If the Derbyshire families make a breakthrough and the Government and Lloyd's become liable, how will that affect the dozens—indeed, hundreds—of bulk carrier losses since 1971? That may provide a clue to why the Government have dodged and edged and not been clear, open and honest about what happened to the Derbyshire. When big money is at stake, it seems that lives are cheap, but insurance is expensive.

Finally, I should like to ask the Minister a number of questions. I hope that he will answer them today. If he cannot, perhaps he will do us the courtesy of writing to hon. Members. Why does the Minister continue to refuse access to the remaining documents held by his Department relating to the Derbyshire when there should have been full disclosure of the documents for the Government inquiries in 1987 and 1988? Lord Donaldson was given access to those documents, but the MV Derbyshire families were refused. Approved drawings of the construction of frame 65 would be crucial in any normal legal proceedings. Why has the Department of Transport never insisted on such plans being produced? Did they go missing from the original source, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North suggested?

The Department of Transport claimed that the 1985 draft report into the loss became the bland 1986 version in the light of comments received and further information that came to light. Why will the Department not reveal the nature of that information and those comments? The MV Derbyshire Family Association released all the information that it has on the case, including evidence recovered from the wreck.

Why were there no investigations of the shipyard that built the MV Derbyshire and her sister ships—in respect of quality control, material and standards of workmanship—to determine whether she was sound when launched? If they really believed that the Derbyshire was structurally sound, why did the builders finally warn owners of similar vessels of the dangers? Why did they warn the Liberian flag state of the potential failure of the World Pathfinder—a renamed sister ship—at frame 65?

I emphasise the concerns of hon. Members on both sides of the House that representatives of the families should be involved in any further investigations. They are not from Lloyd's or the shipowners. They will not be strong-arming officers in the Department of Transport. They need to be involved for fundamental emotional reasons. It is important for them to find out the truth, not to screw compensation or insurance payments out of the Government.

I hope that the Government will listen carefully to the cogent, eloquent and experienced voices that have been raised on both sides of the House. Although I have a number of further queries for the Minister, I shall not take up any more time. We need to hear from him, as do the MV Derbyshire families. He can rest assured that, weak as we are in holding Government to account, if we fail to get an adequate response hon. Members who are here today will continue to raise the matter in the House until our concerns are satisfied.

10.42 am
The Minister for Transport in London (Mr. Steve Norris)

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) on his recent elevation to the Privy Council, which has caused great pleasure among hon. Members on both sides of the House, and on securing this morning's important debate. In the 16 minutes left to me, I may not be able to do justice to all the points that have been made. That is a matter of great regret and deep frustration, as a number of serious points have been made and some important matters need to be put on the record on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and my noble Friend Lord Goschen, the Minister for Aviation and Shipping.

The right hon.Gentleman spoke about the Government revealing the truth about the Derbyshire as if the Government were aware of the truth, but did not want it to be known and were unwilling to allow it to be disseminated. The hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) suggested that it was part of the Government's intention to conceal liabilities that might otherwise accrue to their fat-cat friends in Lloyd's. I completely reject any such assertion.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and his predecessors who have dealt with the matter over the years entirely share the ambition of right hon. and hon. Members to determine, if at all possible, the reasons for the loss of the Derbyshire, not least so that lives may be saved in future.

Reference has been made to the number of bulk carrier accidents. Such accidents are a tragic reality. I should make it quite clear at the outset that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, my noble Friend the Minister for Aviation and Shipping and all those Ministers who have dealt with the matter, which includes me, share a sense of urgency and a strong ambition that the matter should be exposed as much as possible.

I am extremely mindful of the concerns of the MV Derbyshire Family Association, to whom my right hon. Friend and I wish to express our heartfelt and deepest sympathy. We know that a wider public share those concerns. I pay tribute to the long-running campaign of the DFA. Its perseverance has ensured that investigations into the ship's loss have progressed this far and I commend it heartily for that.

Let me deal first with the length of time that it has taken to mount an expedition, because the Government have been accused of a reluctance to carry out a detailed investigation. I do not agree with that assertion. At the time of the loss, in the absence of any material evidence about the cause, it was thought that a formal investigation would serve no useful purpose. The Department commissioned extensive research into the structural design of the ship and investigated reports of defects in sister ships. Those reports have been published.

There is a clear rationale for the difference between the draft report and the final report. The hon. Member for Nottingham, North invited me to write to him. In view of the concerns that hon. Members have expressed, I shall take up that invitation, but I am quite clear that no sinister implication can be drawn from the fact that the interim and final reports reached differing conclusions.

Following the loss of the Kowloon Bridge in 1986, a formal investigation was set up into the earlier loss. That formal investigation—an independent, wide-ranging public inquiry—reported in January 1989 and found that the evidence available supported no firmer conclusion than, as my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. Banks) said, the Derbyshire was probably overwhelmed by the forces of nature in Typhoon Orchid. No doubt that comment will be familiar to the right hon. Member for Jarrow.

In 1990, at the request of the then Secretary of State, two items of new evidence were considered. The first was the research paper by Professor Bishop that attempted to demonstrate that the Derbyshire fractured at frame 65, and the second was underwater film of the Kowloon Bridge, which purportedly revealed a fracture at frame 65. Both those items were examined by the marine accident investigation branch.

In March 1991, the chief inspector of marine accidents advised the Secretary of State that the material did not constitute new and important evidence and did not warrant the reopening of the formal investigation, but that position was transformed by the success of the International Transport Workers Federation expedition in 1994, which located the wreck. That gave a new impetus to the real possibility of discovering the cause of the loss of the vessel.

In March 1995, therefore, the then Secretary of State for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Minister without Portfolio, appointed Lord Donaldson to carry out an independent assessment with the following terms of reference: first, to assess what further work would be needed to learn more about and, if possible, make a judgment about the cause of the loss of the Derbyshire; secondly, in respect of each option for further work, to assess the probability that the cause can be determined with reasonable confidence—if it cannot, we shall have to consider whether it is a prudent exercise to undertake; thirdly, to assess the costs likely to be incurred for each option; and, fourthly, to investigate what benefit to ship safety would be secured if the cause of the loss of the Derbyshire, or better understanding of it, were established and whether that would justify the likely costs involved.

In his report, Lord Donaldson made a clear recommendation in favour of a second, extended and last examination of the wreck". He also concluded that although such an examination might cost about £2 million, it would be fully justified in the light of the potential benefits to ship safety. Importantly, he pointed out that the Department cannot be criticised for not having mounted a return expedition, bearing in mind the cost and slim chances of success". As the House knows, we accepted Lord Donaldson's recommendation to carry out a further re-examination, and in view of the potential wider benefits to ship safety, the European Commission is sharing the cost with us. We announced on 3 June that the return expedition would be carried out in two phases. The first phase, which will be an initial and more detailed photographic survey than was possible during the 1994 ITWF expedition, is expected to take place later this month, and the second phase, the main expedition, will be carried out in early 1997. Oceaneering Technologies has been appointed to carry out the first phase. Its bid was the best technically of those we received, and it will use an advanced remote-operated vehicle.

Officers from the Admiralty salvage office of the Ministry of Defence have been appointed to co-ordinate and manage the expedition, acting on the advice of the independent technical assessors. I have every confidence in their ability. Dr. Remo Torchio, the EU assessor, Professor Douglas Faulkner and Robin Williams, the United Kingdom assessors, Morgyn Davies and James Ward from the MOD and salvage officers and project managers will be on board the phase 1 survey vessel. I emphasise that officials of the Department of Transport, the Marine Safety Agency and the marine accident investigation branch will not be on board. We have an unique opportunity to make a truly scientific study of the wreckage site and especially to search for and possibly find the ship's stern.

I am aware that, since our announcement to undertake the return expedition, the DFA has campaigned for full—as it puts it—"hands on" involvement and claims not to have been consulted about the arrangements for the return expeditions. It also claims that the expedition cannot be objective and impartial if it is not represented on it. I must differ with those assertions.

We welcome the DFA's involvement and participation in planning the return. It has been invited by the assessors to comment and put its views on a number of occasions. For instance, at the Royal Institute of Naval Architects colloquium on 15 March, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery) referred, the assessors invited those present, including the chairman of the DFA. to submit their views. The assessors have held discussions with the DFA's advisers and have continued to stress that they welcome comments and contributions from any party on the conduct of the return expeditions. I assure the House that the technical assessors have been, and remain, happy to discuss matters with the DFA and other interested parties at any time.

We have given sympathetic consideration to the request from the DFA that it should be represented on or have some control over the return to the ship, but have concluded that that would not be appropriate. The association is one of a number of parties with an interest in the outcome of the return expedition. This is the most important point that I want to get across: for one of the parties but not others, such as British Shipbuilders, Lloyd's Register of Shipping or Bibby's, to be represented on the return expedition could lead to suggestions that the findings lacked balance or objectivity and should be challenged.

The hon. Member for Nottingham, North said that if, for example, Lloyd's was found to be at fault in some way, its liabilities might be great. He said that that is why the Department has in some mysterious way colluded with Lloyd's to hide information. That is nonsense. Much more important, the hon. Gentleman must accept that, on that basis, if the DFA were allowed to attend on the return but not the other parties involved, such as British Shipbuilders, Lloyd's Register and Bibby's, the balance and the objectivity of the exercise would genuinely be compromised.

It has been suggested that we allow a DFA observer on the return expedition. I believe that it is in its best interests not to be on board the return expeditions. In order to satisfy a formal investigation and/or to mount any international safety initiatives, it is absolutely essential that the results of the evidence gathered are seen as impartial, objective and thorough. To have the DFA represented would lead to challenges that the return expedition was partial, lacked objectivity and was undertaken with a specific purpose in mind. The same objections would of course apply to sending a nominated representatives.

Mr. Loyden


Mr. Norris

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, who has prosecuted this case with assiduity. I hope that he will be brief.

Mr. Loyden

Have any of the organisations that will be on the return voyage to the wreck voiced any objection to the DFA being part of the team?

Mr. Norris

My understanding is that British Shipbuilders has indeed indicated its concern at allowing a DFA representative on board. I do not want to offer the DFA technical or legal advice, but I really think that those who clamour for a DFA representative on the ship should be aware of the extent to which the integrity of the expedition could be questioned if a representative of the DFA were allowed on the vessel but other interested parties were not. If that were allowed, the implications for the families of those on the Derbyshire—the DFA itself—would be very serious. The Department has no interest whatever in allowing information to be concealed from the DFA or anyone else. The manner in which the call for attendance has been made is simply misguided, and for very important reasons.

Mr. Frank Cook

Is it not a basic tenet of this country that for justice to be done it must be seen to be done? Would it not therefore make sense to have representatives of all interested parties on the vessel so that they can see that their interests are being fully served? If none of them is allowed on board, they will not know whether they are or not.

Mr. Norris

It is clear that there are only two possibilities. One is that none of the representatives be allowed to be included, and the other is that all be allowed. I do not want to speculate on that because I do not have time to do so and it would not be appropriate. There is no question whatever about the integrity of the independent assessors, or about the integrity or impartiality of the European Union assessor. There is no question whatever of those assessors being compromised by the presence on the vessel of officials of the Department of Transport or the MAIB.

In such circumstances, attendance of a representative of the DFA, unaccompanied by representatives of all other parties who may have a substantial and direct interest in the investigation's outcome, would be prejudicial to the prospects of the DFA and its interests. If the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) wants to pursue the notion that, somehow, all parties should be represented, I am sure that he will do so. I stress that the representation is in the interests of all concerned.

There have also been calls for media representation and direct transmission equipment on board. I assure the House that all interested parties will be given access to the raw data that are retrieved, but direct satellite links or other media involvement would be wholly inappropriate. The media will not be represented on phase 1. The expedition will simply be concerned with gathering photographic evidence. A final decision will be taken nearer the time on whether the media will be included in phase 2,

In the minute that remains, I should make it quite clear that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, his predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney), who I know took a great personal interest in the matter and whose decision it was to call on Lord Donaldson to examine the prospects of this further inquiry, and my noble Friend Lord Goschen have all made it absolutely clear that their interest, like mine, is in ensuring that, if there is anything to be learned from the wreck of the Derbyshire, it is learned in the interests of those who carry out their business in the great waters of the oceans and whose lives we all have a duty to protect.

I know that we will never be able to satisfy all those who feel aggrieved about the circumstances of past investigations.

The Department believes that it is now time to move forward, and we can do that only if all parties co-operate and share their knowledge and expertise, to establish what lessons can be learned in relation to the future safety of bulk carriers. I know that the people in the Department, including Mr. Frank Wall, whose correspondence has been mentioned, have at all times acted in a conscientious and concerned way, which is a great credit to their objectivity and to their tenacity in attempting to uphold the highest possible standards of discovery and disclosure.

Mr. Deputy Speaker


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