HL Deb 30 June 1953 vol 183 cc26-32

3.56 p.m.

LORD BALFOUR OF INCHRYE rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are now prepared to make a statement on the findings of the inquiry into the loss of the Irish cross-channel steamer "Princess Victoria," and what action is proposed as a result of these findings. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. I feel sure that you will permit me to renew once more the expression of sympathy to which your Lordships gave utterance from all parts of the House for those who suffered in this major marine disaster. My Question asks the Government: … whether they are now prepared to make a statement on the findings of the inquiry … and what action is proposed as a result of these findings. I am aware, of course, that the matter is sub judice as to the individual and collective responsibility of individuals, and. to some extent as to the administrative lessons which can be learnt. It is sub judice because of the rights which exist under the present law with regard to appeals by the British Transport Commission against the findings of this inquiry. Therefore, I ant sure the Secretary of State will agree that it would be improper for me to endeavour in any way to debate the collective or individual responsibility of individuals. Moreover, I think it would be extremely difficult for us to debate the administrative lessons to be learnt until we are free from the present restrictions.

I can, however, ask three specific questions of the Minister. I think it is right that at this time the public should be made aware of the position with regard to the liability of the British Transport Commission in connection with their rights of appeal. Am I right in thinking that the British Transport Commission have, first, a right of appeal to the Minister, and that if the Minister accepts a submission that some evidence available has not been produced, or that some evidence has been given which is incorrect, he may order a re-hearing? Secondly, am I right in saying that the British Transport Commission have a right of appeal to the courts in respect of the accusation of negligence in connection with their liability? As I understand it, their normal liability is restricted to £15 per ton weight, which in the present case is, roughly speaking, £40,000, but if negligence is proved, then their liability is something very much greater in respect of each individual passenger. I understand that the British Transport Commission have a certain limited time in which they can lodge either of those appeals, first to the Minister or secondly to the court, in respect of their liability. I think it would be as well if the Minister would be so good as to make a short statement to the House upon what the position is. I think I am right, but it may be that I am not. In any event, it would be to the public interest that we should know the position.

My second point is this—and I am sure this will be granted at once. Will the Minister use his good offices, through the usual channels, to arrange that we have an opportunity for debate in this House on some future occasion as and when the decks, as it were, are cleared of the question of appeal? My third question is: what steps have been taken, quite irrespective of the question of appeal, to safeguard the immediate position? The Report of the inquiry says that the "Princess Victoria" was lost because her stern doors "were not sufficiently strong and because the car space was not adequately provided with freeing arrangements." Whether that conclusion is or not contested, I think we should like some assurance that, British weather being what it is, rather unpredictable—it is always possible that there may be another tremendous storm—the position has been safeguarded by those responsible during the what I may call interim period until the matter can be debated and considered fully by your Lordships' House, and possibly by another place. With those few words, I beg to ask the Question standing in my name.


My Lords, before the Minister replies, I should be grateful if he could answer this point. There are various matters concerning the immediate safety of passengers which are revealed by these findings and which, it seems to me, it would be proper to mention to the House to-day, although no one wants to take any action which would be embarrassing in view of the possibilities of appeal. I should be glad if the Minister would tell us whether, in his view, it would be convenient to deal with certain immediate questions of safety which arise on these findings.

4.2 p.m.


My Lords, it is not yet possible to make any full statement on the findings of the Court of Formal Investigation which inquired into the circumstances attending the loss of the "Princess Victoria," for the Report of that Court is still being studied in the Ministry of Transport and by the British Transport Commission, who have, under the Merchant Shipping Acts, a right of appeal to the High Court. Your Lordships will already know that the Court found that the vessel was unseaworthy because of the inadequacy of her stern doors, which yielded to the stress of the seas, and because the freeing arrangements for clearing water from the car space were also inadequate. The Load Line Rules, which contain the statutory requirements relating to freeing arrangements, are being examined, and if necessary they will be amended. The Court also made a number of observations on the life-saving and rescue arrangements, and these observations are also being examined. The Report of the Court will be published to-morrow, and I have arranged for copies to be made available to your Lordships in the Printed Paper Office.

May I say a word in regard to the questions that have been asked me on the subject of liability. Of course, it is too early yet for me to embark on this at any length because, as the noble Lord said, it is sub judice and it is open to the British Transport Commission to appeal. I think I should say right away that the Minister has no intention of ordering a re-hearing, so the British Transport Commission have, I think it is, three weeks from to-morrow in which to make up their minds whether they intend to appeal. During this intervening period one can say very little, since the whole thing is sub judice.

I should like also to say that steps have already been taken to ensure immediate attention to the ships sister to the "Princess Victoria"—there are four of them—in respect of their stern doors and the clearing away of any water that may get into the car deck. These steps are already in hand. As a matter of fact, this work was put in hand before the Court issued their findings, so that is already on the move. As regards the question of a debate, we shall be only too happy at the right time, when we are able to speak freely on this matter, to deal with the whole of this question. It is a most serious matter and a considerable number of interests are involved in it in one way and another. The whole question will be probed to the utmost, and at the earliest moment I shall be pleased to come back and give your Lordships all the information that is available.


My Lords, may I say to the noble Lord that I was recently on board the s.s. "Dinard." I do not know whether the s.s. "Dinard" is one of the sister ships of the "Princess Victoria." When I got on board, I asked if they could show me the washboards on the car deck. They showed me three washboards on each side. In my submission, they are utterly inadequate in area for freeing the car deck of water if it gets seriously flooded. Is the s.s. "Dinard" one of the ships that is to be tackled?


I cannot say precisely whether she is a sister ship of the "Princess Victoria." She may be of a kindred type and so will also require attention. I assure your Lordships that these arrangements, not only in respect of the sister ships but also in respect of any other ships which are closely akin in their construction to the "Princess Victoria," will be carefully considered and dealt with.


My Lords, I should like to mention this matter now so that the Minister may take it into consideration in the study of the Report which he will be making. According to the evidence in the Inquiry, it appears that the hazards were added to greatly by the fact that the ship was unaware of her exact posit on and that, therefore, she was unable to give precise indications to the rescue craft as to where she was. It seems that this particular ship, and in fact the other ships engaged on that crossing, belonging to the public authority, were not, as is the case with nearly all the privately-owned ships on equivalent service, equipped with the Decca Navigator system, which is now almost standard with passenger ships on these crossings. Had that been fitted, since this whole area is equipped with transmitting stations, she would have obtained automatic and continuous information of her exact position, despite the list of the sinking vessel. It seems to me that this matter should be looked into at once, for this system is a most valuable modern aid to navigation. It is no use relying on the fact that it is a narrow sea and that one can, in good weather, see one's position. In this case it was not so. I think urgent steps should be taken to deal with this shortcoming.


My Lords, I appreciate the significance of that observation. I am alive to it up to the hilt. Being a ship owner myself in my normal days, I assure your Lordships that I share the view that has been expressed on the developments that have come about by the particular method that the noble Lord has described, which has been adopted in all my own ships. All this will be looked into with great care.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, has raised this matter in a most helpful and temperate manner. There is one point the noble Lord did not touch upon, however, which I feel is of the greatest importance to the dependants of the master, officers and seamen on the ship, who were completely exonerated by the inquiry. If there is an appeal this will involve a great many parties. Presumably it will involve the Railway Executive, the Load Line Assigning Authority and the Passenger Survey Issuing Authority, as well the Ministry of Transport; but in view of their vindication, surely the master and officers will not be involved. Can we have an assurance that their dependants will be compensated without their being involved in further litigation? This is a matter of great importance to the organisations which represent those dependants. If we cannot be assured that they will not be involved in further litigation resulting from an appeal, can we be assured that consideration will be given to their costs being paid, which, in fact, the court which hears the appeal would have power to direct? As the master and officers have been vindicated by the finding of the Inquiry it would seem most unfair to me that their dependants and those representing them should be involved in further cost and expenditure.


My Lords, I am sorry I cannot give a clear-cut answer to a question of that sort, because the legal difficulties are going to remain with us for a time, and we must see the upshot of the appeal that is made. I do not think I could in advance commit the British Transport Commission to anything in the way that has been suggested, although I appreciate the spirit in which the suggestion has been made.


I only beg that the noble Lord will give consideration to the facts which I have ventured to bring to his notice.