HC Deb 14 February 2000 vol 344 cc603-15 3.30 pm
The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. John Prescott)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement about river safety.

The House will recall that a little over 10 years ago, on 20 August 1989, on a fine, warm summer evening, 132 people were enjoying a riverboat party on the Thames. Within minutes, their boat, the Marchioness, would be sunk, struck by a dredger, the Bowbelle; 51 young people would lose their lives and many more would be injured. Many questions about the cause of the collision, the reason why so many died, and the handling of the whole affair following the incident have remained unanswered.

The search for the truth was not helped by the failure of the then Government to institute a full public inquiry. On 18 August last year, I announced a wide-ranging public inquiry into safety on the River Thames and the circumstances surrounding the Marchioness disaster. It was chaired by a senior judge, Lord Justice Clarke. It was an open public inquiry. Its scope was broad and its examination detailed, including written and oral evidence. For the first time, all the relevant documentation was gathered in one place and everyone concerned could make their case.

The inquiry reviewed current safety standards on the river and Lord Justice Clarke's report was published quickly, as I requested, on 2 December 1999. Lord Justice Clarke was also asked to advise Whether there is a case for a further investigation or inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the Marchioness disaster and its causes. His second report, dealing with that issue, is being published today. Copies of both reports are in the Library of the House. I am greatly indebted to Lord Justice Clarke and his team for producing such thorough, well-considered and impressive reports so quickly.

Lord Justice Clarke recognised that the regulation of safety on the Thames is much improved since 1989. This is due in no small part to the efforts of the survivors of the Marchioness tragedy and the relatives of those who died. The Government accept all 44 of Lord Justice Clarke's recommendations; 10 have already been implemented on the Thames, and action is well advanced on implementing the rest.

I have today placed in the Libraries of both Houses an action plan on river safety, explaining how my Department, working with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and the Port of London Authority, intends to implement the recommendations. These include a consultation on the consumption of alcohol by people in charge of vessels; funding a formal safety assessment on search-and-rescue facilities on the Thames; and funding the provision of experimental life-saving equipment at locations along the Thames.

Although the inquiry's recommendations are confined to the Thames, our approach will be to pursue the recommendations on a UK-wide basis. Safety is as important on other rivers as it is on the Thames, as I am sure the House will agree.

In his second report, Lord Justice Clarke considers the case for a further investigation or inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the Marchioness disaster and its causes. He concludes: I have no doubt in my mind that if such a tragedy happened today, there would be a widespread public demand for an inquiry. In my opinion such a demand would be entirely justified. He goes on to say that the tragedy cried out for public scrutiny in order to discover how it was that such a terrible event could occur. To put matters right, I can announce today that I have ordered a judicial inquiry, under section 268 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995, into the collision between the Marchioness and the Bowbelle, and the searchand-rescue operations that followed the collision.

The Lord Chancellor has agreed to appoint Lord Justice Clarke to conduct the inquiry, which will have the power to obtain documents, to issue summons for the attendance of witnesses, to take evidence on oath and to order cross-examination. Lord Justice Clarke considers that the scope of the inquiry will be sufficient and that the public interest does not require a further inquiry into the police investigation, the two inquests or the failure to secure criminal convictions. The Government accept his recommendations on those matters.

I recommend right hon. and hon. Members to read Lord Justice Clarke's searching and thorough review. Lord Justice Clarke also addressed the question of the relationship between inquiries, inquests and criminal and civil proceedings. That can be a cause of great frustration and is an issue which concerns me greatly. It can sometimes lead to delays in inquiries, or in the publication of reports. Those problems can extend far beyond transport.

We therefore need to consider Lord Justice Clarke's proposals carefully, across government. The Government will report to Parliament when we are in a position to do so. However, on one issue, I intend to go beyond what he recommends. The bereaved families have expressed forcefully their great distress at the removal of the hands from the victims for fingerprint identification purposes, without advising the next of kin. Lord Justice Clarke looked at that matter in detail but did not recommend that it be covered by the inquiry. However, in consideration of the anguish that that incident caused, I have set up a non-statutory public inquiry into that specific matter under Lord Justice Clarke to run side by side with the judicial inquiry. The full terms of reference will be published today and have been placed in the Library.

On the matter of costs, I shall look favourably on applications made by the relatives of the victims and the survivors for reasonable legal costs to be met from public funds. Such funds need to be used efficiently so that work is not duplicated and the inquiry's timetable is adhered to. Lord Justice Clarke will ultimately decide on the award of costs at the inquiry.

The Marchioness disaster was the last and worst of a series of collisions on the Thames. It raised concerns about boat design, numbers of crew, the readiness of emergency services and the way people were treated after the incident. The Marchioness families and many others over the last 10 years have made representations to this Government and the last Government. The families have felt strongly that no full public inquiry took place and that they had had limited opportunity to express their concerns. In 1992, I myself condemned the "legal fancy dancing", which caused confusion and stood in the way of a full public inquiry.

The Marchioness families have lived with their grief for 10 years. A new public inquiry cannot bring their loved ones back, but it can, I hope, bring some peace of mind to know that their case can be told and lessons can be learned for the future. Our main purpose is to look to future safety on our rivers. There must never be a repeat of those events of 20 August 1989.

I am sure that the whole House will join me in welcoming Lord Justice Clarke's report and looking forward to this new inquiry, which can at last draw a line under an incident that shook the nation at the time and left a legacy of misery and grief with which the Marchioness families have lived ever since.

Mr. Archie Norman (Tunbridge Wells)

First, I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his statement to the House and for providing me with an advance copy. We join him in his objective of ensuring that everything possible is done to contribute to transport safety in general and safety on our rivers in particular, and to ensure that there is no repetition of that appalling incident. I also join him in expressing sympathy for the families of the 51 victims, as well as the 80 survivors of that appalling disaster.

The Marchioness action group and the families have fought a longstanding campaign on the issue and we pay tribute to their vigour and resolution in pursuing the matter. We recognise, too, that the accident and its aftermath raised several aspects of deep concern. For instance, it is clear that one of the vessels involved, the Bowbelle, had been involved in half of the 18 collisions on the Thames in the previous 20 years, but no steps were taken after the collision to investigate why that was the case. It is reported that the captain of the Bowbelle was under the influence of drink at the time and yet, to date, there are no restrictions on so-called drink-driving on the river.

In the light of the circumstances surrounding the tragedy, in 1995 a coroner's court decided that the 51 people killed had been unlawfully killed, yet no successful prosecution subsequently proved possible.

The Deputy Prime Minister also mentioned the very worrying specific incident of the removal of the hands of 27 victims—a bizarre episode that has caused understandable further distress to the families and to the bereaved. We welcome the right hon. Gentleman's inclusion of this within the scope of the inquiry.

Despite a series of thorough investigations, there has never been an opportunity for all the issues to be aired in public, and for witnesses and relatives to satisfy themselves that no stone has been left unturned in the pursuit of justice and a proper explanation of the background to the incident.

For all those reasons, particularly in the light of the conclusions of Lord Justice Clarke's report, we welcome the public inquiry and hope that it can be conducted thoroughly and expeditiously to resolve finally the remaining questions surrounding the disaster. It is, however, important that the initiation of the inquiry does not give rise to a general lack of public confidence in river transport. This will not be the first time that the disaster has been investigated, although it will be the first time that it has been investigated in a public inquiry. The Deputy Prime Minister has described the various investigations as "fancy dancing". However, the disaster was substantially investigated at the time, albeit not in public forum.

The day after the accident, for instance, the then Secretary of State for Transport, now Lord Parkinson, announced two measures to improve passenger safety, and they came into force on 12 April 1990. In addition, within two weeks of the accident, an interim report by the marine accidents investigation branch published a series of recommendations to improve river safety. However, in April 1990, the Director of Public Prosecutions announced that the master of the Bowbelle was to be prosecuted. This meant that the report of the chief inspector of marine accidents, due at the same time, could not be published as it was sub judice, but the then Secretary of State for Transport accepted all 27 of its recommendations and made sure that they were published at that time.

A further inquiry carried out by John Hayes, Secretary of the Law Society, which made further proposals in July 1992 for improved safety, was implemented and the then Secretary of State for Transport acted upon the conclusions.

In June 1993, the first annual summary of the progress made on the recommendations following the disaster showed that recommendations had been implemented in all 27 cases.

The House will also recognise that the marine accidents investigation branch was set up specifically with the purpose of providing thorough, prompt and definitive investigations of marine accidents, along parallel lines to the air accidents investigation branch. It is important that the public and the Government recognise the good work undertaken by both organisations since that time.

Since the implementation of the MAIB recommendations, the safety record of the River Thames has been encouraging. In a period of more than 10 years, eight incidents have required investigation, of which only one, very unfortunately, involved a fatality. Therefore, although there are exceptional circumstance surrounding this case, and we accept the understandable and proper demand for an inquiry in which all the issues can be publicly aired, it is important to keep in perspective the fact that the river remains a safe place to travel. That was confirmed by the report of Lord Justice Clarke. The issues were, for the most part, thoroughly investigated at the time, and although that is no reason for complacency, the recommendations published were acted on properly and comprehensively when they were made.

In conclusion, may I ask the Deputy Prime Minister to clarify various aspects of his statement? First, will he take this opportunity to express in full his confidence in the MAIB, its structure and its operations, and to confirm that the decision to instigate a public inquiry in no way reflects poorly on its standard of work and professionalism?

Secondly, how soon will the inquiry begin, and how long does he expect it to take?

Thirdly, will he elaborate on his own serious point about Lord Justice Clarke's recommendations on the relationship between inquiries, inquests, and criminal and civil proceedings? In his statement, the Deputy Prime Minister said that the Government will report to Parliament on that matter when they are in a position to do so. How long will it take them to form their conclusions? Fourthly, why does he feel that further consultation is needed on consumption of alcohol by people in charge of vessels when there is a strong suspicion that that was a determining factor in the Marchioness disaster? The case for introducing legislation on that matter is, on the face of it, clear.

Finally, given that the Deputy Prime Minister promised in 1991 that the next Labour Government will grant a public enquiry immediately on the Marchioness, why has it taken the Deputy Prime Minister nearly three years to deliver on that commitment?

Hon. Members

Shame. Outrageous.

Mr. Prescott

The hon. Gentleman's last comment was, indeed, completely outrageous. I have tried to approach this matter impartially, and I thought that he was right in what he said about safety and in welcoming our inquiry and our investigation into the removal of hands from the bodies for identification. The hon. Gentleman's tone on those matters was absolutely right, and I was grateful for his support.

The hon. Gentleman asked for reassurance that confidence in river safety would not be undermined. That is one of the reasons why I ordered the first part of the inquiry to be into river safety. Indeed, that report was produced in only a few weeks because I was concerned about the increase in river traffic, particularly with the millennium celebrations. Lord Justice Clarke produced an excellent report, and there has been considerable improvement in safety on the river since 1989, partly because of the Hayes report, as the hon. Gentleman said.

The hon. Gentleman is new to his job, and he will find out that the Hayes report was not about the sinking of the Marchioness, but about river safety. Hayes was unable to investigate the Marchioness, and one of the greatest problems with that matter was that relatives were ruled out of giving evidence in various forums, including inquests and public and private inquiries, which caused great dissatisfaction. Many conclusions were not properly drawn, and a lot of the evidence was not even given.

I said in 1991 that I believed that there should be a public inquiry. If we had been elected, I would have hoped to implement that promise, but that was not to be. I said what I said in 1991, but it is a bit much of the hon. Gentleman to suggest that it has taken us so long to implement an inquiry that, frankly, should have been carried out immediately. He would do himself a favour by reading Lord Justice Clarke's report. Lord Justice Clarke found it confusing that the Government at the time did not set up an inquiry; he did not understand that. The reason given was that the investigation had been referred to the MAIB. Frankly, the MAIB did not do that job properly and did not conduct a full investigation, which is why we are setting up an inquiry.

When the hon. Gentleman reads Lord Justice Clarke's report, he will find that one of the gravest limitations of the previous inquiry was that it could not take public evidence. It was believed at the time that such inquiries could adopt the same procedures as those used in aircraft investigations, but that did not work out well. It has taken us 10 years to clear up the mess.

I am proud to announce that an inquiry will take place. The procedures that I have adopted are correct. First, I asked the Clarke inquiry to investigate the safety of the river. Secondly, Lord Justice Clarke was asked to look into the circumstances surrounding the loss of the Marchioness. His report is detailed and thorough, and I advise the hon. Gentleman to read it before he reaches any conclusions. The investigation process has taken time, but such a thorough approach should have been taken by the previous Administration, who could have prevented a lot of damage and grief among relatives who felt that their concerns were not properly addressed.

We are consulting on alcohol, as is proper. There are differences of opinion, and the Port of London Authority feels that it does not have enough powers in certain circumstances to enforce fines. Several bodies are involved, and it is right that we should consult, as Lord Justice Clarke points out.

As for confidence in the MAIB, I am the Secretary of State at the Department concerned with that body, and I work closely with it. The MAIB has done better since the Marchioness inquiry, and is striving to do better still. However, it would not have been sufficient to order a private inquiry, instead of a public one, into the circumstances relating to the loss of 51 lives on the Thames. It would not be fair to judge the MAIB against that background. It has a job to do—to improve safety; it will continue to do that job and I shall give it the necessary support.

In relation to the conflicts over the various bodies and courts involved, currently there is much controversy about corporate manslaughter—corporate killing as it is now called. The Law Commission has reported on those difficulties and the delays that might result. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is preparing a consultation document, which will be released shortly. We shall then be able to correct that aspect of the law.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that no one who lost someone on that night will ever accept that justice has been done, and has been seen to be done, until their real worries and fears are explored in public and on the record? My right hon. Friend's announcement today will begin a healing process that is long overdue. We hope that, even now, the evidence will show clear examples of the need to improve river safety—perhaps through co-ordination between the emergency services. The whole House, and anyone who was involved, will know that my right hon. Friend's announcement is a long overdue and deeply needed response to the real misery and unhappiness of the families concerned.

Mr. Prescott

I thank my hon. Friend for her support and for the work of the Transport Sub-Committee, which she chairs—especially the Committee's work on safety. I reassure her that, of the 44 recommendations made by Lord Justice Clarke in his first report, 10 have already been implemented; the rest are to be implemented through an action plan that I have deposited in the Library. Furthermore, over the next two or three years, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency will undergo an audit covering the same matters. We shall report to my hon. Friend's Committee and to the House; people will then be able to make a judgment.

I have no doubt that we have the right priorities; we are improving safety. Indeed, since 1989, safety has already improved. I want to improve it even more, especially on the Thames—although, as I said earlier, we are talking about safety not only on the Thames but on all the rivers in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

Bearing it in mind that publication of today's report will reinforce the memories of that dreadful incident in 1989, may I reiterate, from the Liberal Democrat Benches, our sympathy to the friends and families of the 51 people who died?

I unreservedly congratulate the Secretary of State not only on having established the initial Thames safety inquiry, but on honouring today his commitment to set up a judicial inquiry. I reject—at least on the part of the Liberal Democrats—the implication of the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman), that the Secretary of State has, in some way, taken the deaths of 51 people out of perspective. We do not believe that he has done so.

Mr. Norman

I did not say that.

Mr. Foster

The implication was clearly there.

I welcome the action plan that the Secretary of State announced. Will he confirm that the various measures will apply to estuaries as well as inland waterways?

Although I welcome the action that the Government are now taking, as a result of Lord Justice Clarke's concern about the relationship between inquiries, inquests and criminal and civil proceedings, does the Secretary of State agree that the matter has been on the Home Secretary's desk since he took office? In the light of the Law Commission report, will the Secretary of State initiate discussions between all the political parties to try to find an urgent solution to the problem?

Mr. Prescott

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words of support and, especially, for the remarks he made about the relatives of those who died in such terrible circumstances. I also welcome his support for the establishment of the inquiry. It is not the only such inquiry that I have dealt with—the Derbyshire and the Gaul inquiries were also about enabling relatives to find out what happened when those vessels were lost.

The relatives have been experiencing grief for a long time. If the House can make things better for them by instituting an inquiry for the first time—as in the case of the Marchioness—or by reopening earlier inquiries in relation to the Derbyshire and the Gaul, those are important steps that will help people find some peace and will help to reconcile them to the circumstances surrounding the loss of their loved ones.

We are concerned about safety on estuaries and inland waterways. I have asked the Department to study the matter to see how we might cover it in our transport safety review, which is in its final stages. Safety is important, whether on estuaries, inland waterways or rivers. Many vessels ply those waters for pleasure and commercial reasons. We shall deal with that, and I shall write to the hon. Gentleman about that in our next stages.

I did raise the issue of inquiries with the hon. Gentleman. I have always been an advocate of that method of dealing with this matter. I am pleased that it was mentioned in the Labour party election manifesto at the most recent general election. We did receive a report from the Law Commission; my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is studying that. We are now in the final stages of preparing the draft copy before it goes out for consultation. I hope that we shall then get justice in this area, which has created such a great feeling of injustice.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)

My right hon. Friend will recall that I was the shadow Minister for Transport in London at the time of this tragic event, and that the contact that I had with the families at that time was one of the most difficult things with which I have ever had to deal. I therefore thank him very much indeed for a personal promise kept. When he said that there would be a public inquiry, we put our faith in him, not knowing just how long it would take, but none the less waiting for this day.

I thank my right hon. Friend further on behalf of all our constituents in London, because on the night of that event and in its aftermath, every family dreaded the idea of any family member taking a pleasure trip on the Thames. For those reasons, I thank my right hon. Friend and urge him to continue with the work that he is undertaking to ensure that we are all safe on our great river at any time.

Mr. Prescott

I thank my hon. Friend for her words. We had to deal with this matter ourselves when we were in the same Front-Bench team on transport, and we felt very strongly about that promise. No one could feel less so, having met the relatives. The fact that we are now delivering on that promise is something that I am especially pleased about—more important, so are the relatives. My hon. Friend played quite a part in ensuring that that came about, and I am grateful for her support.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

May I invite the Deputy Prime Minister to join me in congratulating the efforts of the Marchioness action group, led by my constituent, Margaret Lockwood-Croft, on the tremendous resilience that they have shown and on their indefatigable determination to ensure that a full public inquiry was brought about? Although there have been various other inquiries, I believe that the only way to resolve the matter finally was to use the mechanism of a full judicial inquiry.

However, will the right hon. Gentleman accept that many changes made under the Conservative Government have led to a safer river, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) made absolutely clear in his remarks?

Can the right hon. Gentleman tell the country why, uniquely, those who are in charge of vessels on our waterways are not subject to the same laws relating to alcohol as those who are in charge of every other form of transport? The country will be slightly concerned to know that the Government are not going to act more swiftly on the matter.

Mr. Prescott

I am finding some difficulty—the question starts pleasantly and ends with a sting. May I just say thank you very much for the remarks that were made about the relatives? There are a number of action groups. I met them before I came here to say that we would be making a statement today, and I believe that they are watching this event on the parliamentary channel. I believe that we would all want to say that we are well aware of the dedication and patience that those groups have shown in attempting to obtain an inquiry into the Marchioness disaster.

Although I readily agree—indeed, I said it in the statement—that improvements in Thames safety have flowed from a number of these inquiries, the reality is that the relatives knew, as the hon. Gentleman will know, that they wanted a full public inquiry. Every year they have asked for it, and every year they have been denied it. I am delighted to have announced such an inquiry.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that alcohol is not treated in the same way on river as it is on land, but that has been pointed out in several reports, published over many years, on which the previous Administration did nothing. I immediately set in hand a consultation process to see how we could correct that anomaly. We published a consultation document. It does not only concern people who are in charge of a vessel; youngsters can buy liquor on these vessels because the laws on ships differ from those on land. We are now trying to correct that difference, and consultation has been going on. I hope to see a conclusion to that. I do not believe that we can be criticised for acting in the first two years of a Government on problems that were known for 20 years, and on which the previous Administration did nothing.

Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham)

My right hon. Friend is right to consider the announcement of the inquiry a matter of pride and to say that all the families and the Marchioness groups should receive a tribute for their determination and courage in ensuring not only that what happened on that fateful night more than 10 years ago is properly investigated, but that such events do not happen again. The fact that the Thames and other rivers are safer now and that we can encourage greater use of them is also partly attributable to their actions.

The House will very much welcome the action plan on safety. However, given Lord Justice Clarke's comments, is there an issue about the role of the Port of London Authority, which has a major control centre in my constituency? We all know that the PLA places the highest priority on issues of river safety and that it is giving them greater priority. However, is there not a conflict of interest, in that the authority has to obtain much of its income from charging river users and, at the same time, to police those users to ensure river safety?

Mr. Prescott

I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks and words of support and very much endorse what he said about the role of the relatives. I also thank him for giving evidence to Lord Justice Clarke. Along with other Members, he gave evidence on the improvement of Thames safety.

My hon. Friend asked about the role of the PLA and about a possible conflict of interest. The PLA is responsible for navigation on the river and my Department is responsible for the administration of that. Lord Justice Clarke took account of my hon. Friend's remarks and has dealt with that point in his final report. He did not find the conflict of interest that my hon. Friend is concerned about, but I suggest that my hon. Friend reads the report to see what is said about it. There is a difficulty of duplication and Lord Justice Clarke raised the issue of democratic accountability on the river. Consideration of the Greater London Authority Act 1999 raised the question of whether greater responsibility could be handed to the new authority for London. At present, direct responsibility is with my Department, but I ask my hon. Friend to consider what Lord Justice Clarke's report says about the specific issue of a conflict of interest.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

First, I join others in thanking the Secretary of State for his commitment and consistency on the issue, his private office for its work and Lord Justice Clarke and his officials. The right hon. Gentleman's commitment has ensured that we have arrived at this day and I thank him on behalf of not just the relatives and survivors whom we both know, but my constituents and Londoners as a whole, who have waited far too long for this day. The right hon. Gentleman's determination to have an inquiry is in marked contrast to the approach of Baroness Thatcher and her transport Ministers, who did not deliver one.

The right hon. Gentleman will receive all-party support if, with his colleagues in the Home Office, he is minded to introduce legislation to deal with alcohol regulation on vessels before the end of the Parliament or in the next parliamentary Session. Such legislation is urgently needed.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to join me and others in finding a way to honour those who helped in the rescue. I single out those who were on the Hurlingham and who risked their lives to save lives on that terrible night 10 years ago last August.

Finally and slightly more controversially, I follow the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond). When the Secretary of State considers the recommendation on who should have responsibility for search and rescue, will he take account of the strong case for making that body publicly accountable? Can we not at least have an open debate about that and ensure that, in future, we do not have the secrecy surrounding such issues that, I am afraid, has been the way of officials and, indeed, the wish of some officials? We must put that behind us in legislation and in practice in the future.

Mr. Prescott

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his words of support and for acknowledging the role played by the relatives. I thank him also for his encouragement, because this has not been an easy time. There are people who felt strongly that we should not have a public inquiry and who had genuine doubts. I have arrived at my judgment, and I am grateful for the support that I received from the hon. Gentleman and others in the House. It is always difficult when relatives feel for a long time that they have not had justice, and people do not always get what they want.

I should have said before that the Home Office intends to produce in March a White Paper on licensing matters, which will deal with the differences between licensing laws onshore and on the water.

Great courage was shown by many people on that evening, particularly by those on the other boat, the Hurlingham, in providing assistance in those difficult circumstances. One of the rewarding factors of reviewing such matters, after the heat of the moment, is realising that there are many people who are prepared to do a great deal to help others in such circumstances, whether in a train accident or a boat accident. We should acknowledge the emergency services, whose members play a wonderful part in dealing with those difficulties.

Search-and-rescue matters have been considered and are in the action plan. We shall consider the important issues that the hon. Gentleman raised of democratic accountability and openness, which were missing in this case and caused such grievance, and decide whether they should be dealt with by London's new elected authority. We shall be able to find a satisfactory solution. In the meantime, responsibilities lie with me, and I can delegate them.

Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. I was not a Member of the House when the tragedy occurred, 11 years ago, but I represent a Thameside constituency and many of my constituents work on the Thames and use it daily. My right hon. Friend will be aware that many craft are plying the Thames with no qualified personnel whatever. Will he assure the House that the inquiry will consider that issue?

Mr. Prescott

I thank my hon. Friend for his support. If he looks at the action plan, he will find that the earlier report on the safety of the river dealt with that point and made a number of recommendations for the various bodies involved in qualifications, including not only the Department but the PLA, which has responsibility for navigation. Some recommendations have therefore been made, but the inquiry will consider performance and other factors that contributed to the loss of the Marchioness.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

As one who was the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State on the fateful evening of the accident, I realise that the right hon. Gentleman will have had many difficult meetings with the relatives. I, too, had meetings with relatives, along with Secretaries of State for Transport, Lord Parkinson and Malcolm Rifkind.

One reason why it was decided not to hold a public inquiry was that the marine accidents investigation branch had been set up. It is worth noting that the air accidents investigation branch has long been accepted as an authoritative body, and there has not been a public inquiry into an air accident since 1976, although there have been serious incidents involving great loss of life. Is it the Secretary of State's wish that the MAIB should be held in the same regard and respect as the AAIB, and that he would therefore look to the MAIB to carry out future inquiries?

Is the Secretary of State considering the problems that arise when a public inquiry takes place immediately after an accident, when necessary legal proceedings may also be in the melting pot? That was certainly one of the great impediments to faster progress in this matter.

Mr. Prescott

I am aware of the hon. Gentleman's involvement in the matter. There were difficult decisions to make at the time. I was involved in transport matters on the Opposition Benches at the time and I know that there was a hope that the MAIB, the maritime body, could get the same reputation as the aviation body. Unfortunately, the Marchioness was the MAIB's first case and it could hold hearings only in private. Fifty-two people had died. A public inquiry was ordered right away into the loss of the Herald of Free Enterprise. Is it simply the number of deaths that decides whether a public inquiry, or an inquiry by the maritime body, is held? Those are difficult questions. That is why we are looking at the various inquiries and trying to find a consistent approach.

I hope that the MAIB will get the same reputation as the aviation body and develop in such a way that people can have confidence in it to carry out such inquiries, but people want public, open examination. Lord Justice Clarke is absolutely right. It is part of the proposal. If we do it in private, it will be extremely difficult. All the MAIB does is take evidence from people and make a judgment; it is like a court of experts, if you like, that gives its opinion. That is not the proper way in which to do it. In a matter as serious as the Marchioness accident, a mistake was made.

I understand that the number of court cases that was pursued by the Crown Prosecution Service made such action much more difficult. I was critical of that at the time, because it complicates the matter. When a long time passes, people say, "You cannot hold an inquiry now because it is so long after the event." I am doing it 10 years after the event. I think that it is right because the circumstances surrounding whatever investigations took place denied the relatives the opportunity to put their case. That is what made it more difficult.

In the meantime, we have to build on the safety bodies that we have, ensure that they can do a good job, and get proper terms of reference, so that we can decide how inquiries take place. After all, relatives who are watching the debate will have said to themselves after the Paddington rail crash, "A public inquiry has been automatically announced. Why has one not been announced for us?" They will have been right to ask that question. I am answering it today.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his statement and for the opportunity to demonstrate to the bereaved that our thoughts continue to be with them. I think that we are all mindful of the fact that, with the dome, there is probably more boat traffic on that stretch than hitherto.

May I make a plea that accidents on any river be treated in the same way as accidents at sea? The Deputy Prime Minister mentioned the Herald of Free Enterprise. When that disaster and the Estonia disaster happened, boat design was looked at for a simple reason: to try to keep boats afloat for as long as possible, should a similar disaster occur. I wonder whether the Deputy Prime Minister has had any thoughts on that.

May I make another plea? Rather than concentrating, as I know the Government are under great pressure to do, on the amount of alcohol in the blood of drivers on roads, will he please make some limitation on alcohol on boats on any river a higher priority?

Mr. Prescott

I thank the hon. Member for her remarks of support. She is right that we are not just concerned with the Thames. I know that she is readily informed on matters of the Ouse and the York and vessels that ply them. It is important to do that. That is why we have made it clear that not only the Thames but all rivers will be looked at. It is important for us to take the opportunity to do so.

Looking at the design of vessels is important. The Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman), mentioned that the Bowbelle had been involved in about 50 per cent. of such incidents. It was also clear that all those incidents involved vessels that had restricted visibility—namely, the launches that the Bowbelle collided with in one form or another. All investigations showed that there was restricted visibility. It is tragic that, over 20 years, nothing was done about restricted visibility, which contributed to the Marchioness disaster. What happened with the Marchioness has happened a few times over the 20 years, and reports were made under those circumstances. Frankly, nothing was done. It is an important issue and we shall look at it.

With regard to the alcohol issue, we hope that our White Paper will bring together shore and sea. We are looking at the other circumstances surrounding alcohol use by crew members. The matter is raised in some of the recommendations that have already been made and that are under consultation. No doubt the issue will be visited again by the inquiry.