HC Deb 15 June 1999 vol 333 cc169-73 4.13 pm
Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require testing of the competency of users of pleasure and recreational craft; and to require the carrying of minimum safety equipment while at sea. I am delighted to be given the opportunity of raising an issue that is important to many people and causes concern to hon. Members with maritime constituencies. There is an on-going problem in dealing with competency and safety factors relating to leisure craft.

If most Englishmen believe that every Englishman's home is his castle, every Briton believes that he is a born sailor and has gifts of navigation and knowledge of the sea, without ever attempting to gain such expertise. Because of that, every year—if not every day or month—people's lives are put at risk.

There are 3.5 million leisure craft in the United Kingdom and barely 35,000 of the people who use those craft have signed up for recognised competence courses. I accept of course that many more people have those skills, having gone through the recognised courses organised by the various sailing associations and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, but a number of safety issues need to be addressed. My local newspaper, The Portsmouth News, has campaigned hard on this matter because weekly, and sometimes even daily, it records incidents in which people's lives were put at risk because they simply did not have the knowledge, or the equipment on their leisure craft, to get back to harbour safely or to summon help.

Reading those reports has sickened me, and only a few weeks ago three men in a boat—none of whom were swimmers and all of whom lacked any competence—were nearly run down by a supertanker out in deep water. A supertanker has great difficulty in navigating in coastal waters, let alone trying to avoid three people in a small craft which is out of control in front of it.

Once again, we, the community, are faced with picking up the bill for the enormous cost of trying to help people and get them out of danger. I believe that prevention is better than cure and would hope that the Government will seriously consider introducing legislation which is long overdue. At least one person on board a leisure craft should be competent, understand the rules of the sea, know the tides and the area in which the craft is operating and have the necessary navigational skills to take the craft in and out of harbour. More important, there should be safety equipment on board, such as life-jackets or flares to summon help. On some occasions, a simple mobile phone could be the difference between life and death in coastal waters. Mobile phones should be part of the equipment taken to sea.

I am led to believe that the average cost of boats at the marina close to where I live is between £25,000 and £30,000. People will invest that amount of money and spend thousands of pounds a year on mooring fees, but they will not spend tens of pounds to supply life-jackets or to buy a box of flares, which would give them at least a chance should they run into danger. I recognise that organisations such as the Royal Yachting Association, the RNLI and the Coastguard Agency are all working hard to increase awareness of safety at sea, but too many people totally ignore their advice.

Any one of us could buy a fast leisure craft, put it on a trailer and take it out to the sea, although we may be without much engineering skill apart from being able to get our cars started if they have a fault. We could invite two or three friends and their children along and take them out into deep waters—in the channel or anywhere around our shores—without at any stage having to prove whether the boat is seaworthy or whether we have the skills and the safety equipment necessary to ensure that they would at least have a chance if an incident occurred. We might also have no means of communicating with people on shore should we run into difficulty. That cannot go on, because too many lives are at risk.

According to recent Coastguard Agency figures there were 5,500 recorded maritime incidents in 1987. Some people might be critical and say that those figures embrace all sorts of incidents, which they do, and deal with commercial and ferry operators, but 251 people died in sea-related accidents in 1997. In 1998, there were 11,500 incidents and 249 people died. That is a horrendous waste of life. The Coastguard Agency says that, in the overwhelming majority of cases, many of those lives could have been saved if simple competence or life-saving equipment had been possessed. What a needless waste.

The cost to the agencies concerned is remarkable. Raising the coastguard helicopter for a search and rescue mission costs £4,000 an hour and a service helicopter costs £8,000 an hour. Launching a coastguard search and rescue squad costs £3,500 an hour and launching a lifeboat costs about £1,000. That is a horrendous cost for risking those people's lives just because the operators of such leisure craft have behaved stupidly and arrogantly in our waters.

We must give a lead, and act responsibly. Some have suggested the creation of a licence similar to those that people need in order to drive cars; others have proposed a tax to pay for the rescue services, an idea with which the Coastguard Agency has flirted. I do not want that. What I want is strong action, and for us no longer to allow incompetent people to take great risks, on their own behalf and on behalf of those whom they invite to accompany them—in many instances, young children, most of them without life-jackets, who could not swim in deep, rough water even if they wanted to.

Many hon. Members will have stood on a quay in a coastal resort and seen leisure craft leave the marinas and harbours. All of them look wonderful, but how many people on them are wearing safety harnesses? Professional sailors, and those who are keen on their sport—racing sailors, and the leisure yachting fraternity—take stringent safety measures. They are the ones who can stand up and be counted, but too many others cannot.

The stark difference is this. When a professionally organised regatta goes badly wrong in Weymouth bay and 55 people are in the water because of a sudden change in the weather, all of them have proper safety equipment, all are picked up, and the whole disaster—or possible disaster—is over in minutes. Let us compare that with what happened to three inexperienced sailors in the middle of the Solent when something went wrong. Such people risk their own lives, and the lives of others on ferries and other craft on the Solent. More important, they risk the lives of those who work on our behalf: the winchmen in the helicopter, or the lifeboat crew, who have to go out to save them.

A colleague of mine recounted a story about what happened after a firework display after the end of Cowes week last year. As his craft was returning across the Solent, a sudden fog descended. There were dozens of boats on the Solent, most of them with no navigational lights. Their only means of getting back to harbour safely was to follow the Isle of Wight ferry into port. Can hon. Members imagine the disaster that could have occurred if at that time of night a large tanker had left the Fawley terminal? What if a tanker weighing a quarter of a million tonnes, steaming down the Solent and heading into deep water, were confronted with that sort of nonsense in the middle of a fog? There is no excuse for it. We simply cannot allow such arrogance to continue.

I hope that the House welcomes the opportunity for the issue to be aired. An abundance of literature from all the agencies asks people to join the safety campaign and to take note, but that is not enough. Fewer than 1 per cent. of those currently using leisure craft around our coasts have signed up to such commitments. That should not be allowed to continue. I commend the Bill to the House, and hope that we shall now see some action from Government to bring about a substantial improvement in the position.

4.23 pm
Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

I oppose the Bill, although I am glad that the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) has raised the issue, and agree wholeheartedly with what he has said about safety equipment and the importance of people knowing how they should operate on the sea.

This is, in a sense, a typically Liberal Democrat measure, in that we are not sure what would be in the Bill if it were printed; but the hon. Gentleman appears to be suggesting that everyone should be qualified to go out in a boat. I learned to sail when I was 12, and I suspect that the person who taught me was not qualified. For many years, I taught scouts to sail. I suspect that I, too, was not qualified when I started to do that, other than by experience. Indeed, the Scout Association decided that everyone supervising scouts should have RYA qualifications. We went to a lot of trouble in Yorkshire to acquire those qualifications. The centre there runs scout sailing and has fully qualified instructors under the RYA scheme, but it is one of the few places where people can learn to sail. People with the opportunity to sail a boat—for example, an experienced sailor—cannot simply say, "I am going to take a group of scouts out." That is the great problem.

We have to put the matter into context. I know that the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South asked for advice from the RYA about the size of the problem. Are we doing badly in the United Kingdom? I understand that he has been sent a copy of a table from Ocean Projects Ltd, which shows the United Kingdom, for once, at the bottom of a league table where it wants to be at the bottom: the UK has the fewest number of deaths per vessel in the whole world. That supports what we are saying.

The UK's system is working extremely well. Of course, we must ensure that people are constantly told of the dangers of going out to sea, but I am always wary of saying that a person is qualified because he did a course for a week and came out with a bit of paper at the end. The one thing people know who have been sailing as long as I have is how little we know and how difficult things can get if we suddenly find ourselves in a situation where the gear has broken, or whatever. On such occasions we have to use our long experience to deal with the problems.

I happen to have a British Canoe Union certificate because of my scouting involvement. I happen to have an RYA certificate, again because of my scouting involvement, but my experience based on years of sailing is much more important. That is a sensible arrangement.

I am wary of the situation where we should have licences for those on boats. In my garage, I have a canoe that has not been out for several years. I suspect that, if I had to have it licensed, or to have something of that nature, it would never get out because I would always think, "Is it going out this year?" I have a windsurfer. Unfortunately, I have been out with it only once this year, but, again, the opportunity to go out is important. People do have to operate simply. [Interruption.] For anyone who wants to talk about my majority of 77, it is now equivalent to a majority of 120 per cent. over both the major parties in my constituency, and two and a half times that over the Labour party candidate. I am grateful for the heckle, but I do not want to stray from the subject.

We must keep telling people about the safety problem, but the most significant point is that the RYA is wholly against what the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South is proposing, despite the fact that it would run the training courses and make all the money out of certificating people. It wants to encourage people to learn, but to keep the dead hand of regulation from leisure boating. We all have to work together. I welcome, as I say, what has been said because it highlights the fact that we need to be aware of the problem, but we should also congratulate ourselves on our safe record.

The previous Government and the present Government have all pressed for additional safety equipment, particularly in the professional area and for larger boats. All sorts of things are currently available to stop people getting into trouble. My neighbour has bought a boat. He has never been sailing or boating before, but, sensibly, he is working with people who know how to operate a boat. He will gain the necessary experience. I suspect that most of those people who will offer that sensible help and buy all the right equipment do not have a paper qualification that says that they are qualified to be on that particular vessel. It is important to bear that fact in mind.

I am grateful that the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South mentioned safety in Weymouth bay because it experienced the sort of incident that no one expected. Suddenly, from nowhere, a squall came up and waves appeared, the like of which we had never had in the bay before. As a result 70 vessels were left in the water—I believe that the hon. Gentleman said that 58 were in the water. I think that even more people were in the water. Many people had to rescue themselves. The rescue service was fantastic and the House should pay tribute to those involved. I notice the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson) in her place. I hope that she will not mind me saying that one of the chief officers of the local authority telephoned me and asked me to make the point that if Weymouth were to lose its co-ordination centre, there would not be the effective co-ordination that we saw on that occasion.

I hope that the Minister will take that in the spirit in which it is meant and that we can look at what is going to happen.

We rely on our Coastguard Agency and all the helicopters and other services. The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South talked about the Englishman's home being his castle and so on, and leisure boating is one of our freedoms. If the Government want to do something, I suspect that one way to save lives would be to ban the use of airbeds on the sea. That is one of the most dangerous things that people can use. We should look at things such as that rather than trying to overregulate. Let us spend money telling people about the importance of having proper safety equipment on board and of experience, but we should not put a hurdle in the way of more people getting on to the water.

I am sure that the House will be happy to know that the House of Commons versus the House of Lords sailing race was held on the Thames this morning and was won by the House of Commons. We do not need to abolish the House of Lords to win such things. The House of Lords is ahead by six to five in the series and we should keep the House of Lords so that we can beat it fair and square rather than try to abolish it. I oppose the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Mike Hancock, Mr. Brian Cotter, Dr. Rudi Vis, Mr. Paul Flynn, Mr. Bob Russell, Mr. Peter Viggers, Mr. Syd Rapson, Mr. Richard Allan and Mr. Nigel Jones.

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