HL Deb 09 March 1987 vol 485 cc834-40

3.51 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (Lord Brabazon of Tara)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement on the loss of the vessel "Herald of Free Enterprise" which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport. The Statement is as follows:

"Shortly before 7 p.m. GMT on Friday, 6th March, the roll-on/roll-off passenger ferry "Herald of Free Enterprise" capsized without warning in a position about three-quarters of a mile outside the entrance to the port of Zeebrugge. She had left Zeebrugge about half an hour before on a passage to Dover. It is my sad duty to inform the House that a total of 53 people are known to have died and 82 others are believed to be missing. A total of 408 passengers and crew were rescued. I am sure that the whole House would wish to join me in expressing our deepest sympathy to the bereaved and the injured.

"Immediately the tragedy occurred the Belgian authorities took charge of the search and rescue arrangements, with assistance from HM Coastguard and the Ministry of Defence Rescue Co-ordination Centre at Plymouth. Two British warships were immediately dispatched to the scene, together with search and rescue helicopters carrying divers and other rescue equipment. I wish to pay tribute to all those involved in the rescue arrangements, and particularly to the Belgian authorities and the Belgian people, without whose speedy response the casualties would have been much greater. I should also like to pay tribute to the police, hospitals and fire services on both sides of the Channel, the staff of Townsend Thoresen and the British Ambassador and his staff in Belgium for their assistance to the injured and bereaved.

"A team of marine surveyors from my department led by Captain Vale have begun to conduct a preliminary inquiry into the loss of this vessel. I have decided that a full formal investigation should be held into this disaster. It will be conducted under the provisions of the Merchant Shipping Acts. I am pleased to announce that after consultation with my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor, the honourable Mr. Justice Sheen, the Admiralty Judge, has been appointed to be the commissioner for the investigation. He will be assisted by four assessors who will be appointed shortly. The date and venue for the inquiry will be announced when arrangements have been made, but I am anxious that there should be no delay.

"It will be for the formal investigation to investigate the causes of this disaster and to make recommendations to ensure that all possible lessons are learnt. But the preliminary reports which I have received suggest that the cause of the capsize of the vessel was an inrush of water through the bow loading doors. I have no evidence to suggest that this was due to any fundamental fault in the design of the ship.

"My department has today embarked on a programme of checks on ro-ro ships leaving UK ports to ensure that all loading door mechanisms are in working order; that officers and crew are aware of the operating procedures and that all openings in the hull and superstructure must be closed before they proceed to sea in accordance with statutory requirements; and that recommendations of safe practice should be observed. I am also advising owners of ro-ro ferries to fit warning lights on the bridge of the vessels to show whether or not the loading doors are properly closed. I shall consider whether or not to make this a statutory requirement.

"Understandably there is anxiety about the financial difficulties of the injured and bereaved both immediately and in the longer term. As regards immediate needs in Zeebrugge, the British Consul and his staff are offering all possible consular assistance. In this country, the DHSS is providing emergency arrangements so that people arriving at Gatwick and Dover can be given immediate help. As regards concern about longer term financial entitlements a team from DHSS is going out to Zeebrugge today to give advice on the spot.

"I understand P & 0 has announced today that it has set aside £1/4 million to meet immediate personal needs of those in distress following the tragedy. This fund will be handled by the Townsend Thoresen office in Dover. The company will also be advertising in the national press tomorrow with details of the central point for claims. I have its assurance that all claims will be dealt with as quickly as possible.

"On the initiative of Dover District Council, a Channel Ferry Disaster Fund has been established to assist the victims and their relatives. This will not affect claims for compensation. The Government are contributing £1 million to the fund. Parliamentary approval to this payment will be sought in a Supplementary Supply Estimate for the Transport Services and Central Administration Vote. Pending that approval, the £1 million donation will be met by a repayable advance from the Contingencies Fund.

"Every year some 28 million passengers are safely carried on United Kingdom ferries and it is tragic that our fine record of safety has been marred by this disaster. I share the grief and anguish of those who are bereaved and of those who are still uncertain of the fate of their friends and relatives. I am sure the thoughts of all Members of this House are with them".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, I am certain that the whole House will appreciate that the Minister has repeated a Statement on a very tragic occurrence which has shocked the entire nation. I find it difficult to put into words sympathy for those who have suffered bereavement and for families who do not know what has happened to those who are missing. At the same time, we wish to place on record our appreciation of many of the reports of courage shown by passengers.

We welcome the report in the Statement about the action of the rescue and emergency services, particularly the prompt action taken by the Belgian authorities. From all the reports which most of us have read or heard on radio or television, that part of the Statement deserves our wholehearted support. We are pleased that the Government have moved quickly to set up a formal investigation and that the Statement says, I am anxious that there should be no delay". I am certain that there are many points that noble Lords may wish to put, but I do not believe that this is the time to put detailed questions. There is great public concern. What I think the public wants is an interim report which will indicate exactly what happened and perhaps make recommendations for future practices. I am pleased to note that the department has given instructions concerning the operating procedures for loading doors. I hope it will give serious consideration to the suggestion that there should be warning lights on the bridge of the these vessels. I think most of us were somewhat surprised that there has been no technological installation of such equipment. I do not know whether the investigation will cover this, but it is hoped that there will be an inquiry into the design and construction of these vessels, particularly the superstructure and the arrangement and structure of the vehicle decks. I think there is considerable concern. As one who has used the ferries quite frequently, though never the one to Zeebrugge, I can appreciate that there is need for detailed investigation. I wonder whether there is international consultation with other maritime nations which have a need for this type of ferry. In conclusion, let me say how much we on these Benches appreciate the urgent action taken by the DHSS, the £1 million grant and the grant to be given by P & 0. We on these Benches fully support what is being done. We should appreciate reports from time to time on the progress of the DHSS arrangements.

4 p.m.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, this is an occasion upon which there is no difference among the different parts of your Lordships' House. We are all deeply sorrowful about what has happened. We extend our sympathies from these Benches.

I should like to thank the Minister for what to my mind was an excellent Statement. It covered virtually every point that one might have made on the subject. I should also like to congratulate the authorities both in this country and in Belgium on the speed with which they reacted. It was a remarkable achievement that people were on the spot in such a short time. Again, I should like to praise the courage of all those involved, whether passengers, crew, divers, helicopter pilots or members of the services which were brought so quickly into action.

I am glad that it has been found possible, with the assistance of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, to appoint an Admiralty judge as commissioner of the investigation. Such an investigation needs such weight behind it. We have every confidence that the investigation will get to the bottom of this disaster so that we can make sure that nothing like it happens again.

What has been needed in the last 24 hours has been a degree of reassurance to those people who continue to travel. I have a relative who is travelling on a cross-Channel ferry tonight. I feel somewhat relieved after the Statement, particularly as the Secretary of State has stated that there is no evidence to suggest that the incident was due to a fundamental fault in the design of the ship. That will set at rest at least some of the qualms people may have had following statements reportedly made by the Prime Minister when she was in Belgium. Doubtless she was badly advised at that moment, as is perfectly understandable in a situation where there is so much emotion.

I note that the department has embarked on a programme of checks on ships leaving United Kingdom ports and has drawn the attention of operators to the operating procedures. It seems likely that there has been some failure in that area and I should like to have the assurance that operating procedures will be carried out on both sides of the Channel and not just on the United Kingdom side.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, I am glad to see that stress is being laid on warning lights. I again congratulate the Government on the speed with which they have reacted in contributing to the fund set up by the Dover District Council. Beyond that, all that we can do is to hope and pray for the injured people and offer our immense sympathy to those who are bereaved.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for their reception of the Statement. I should like to endorse what they have said, particularly with regard to the prompt action by the Belgian and other authorities and about the efficient way in which the rescue was co-ordinated. I should also like to offer a tribute to the action taken from this side of the Channel as well.

So far as the inquiry is concerned, the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, suggested that an interim report should be published. I cannot say whether that will be the case. However, I assure the House that any recommendations coming out of either the preliminary inquiry or the formal investigation can and will be acted upon as soon as possible.

As regards international consultation, the ships comply with the International Maritime Organisation regulations for passenger vessels. Therefore, they are up to international standards. As far as the point of the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, is concerned, I should like to reaffirm, for the reassurance of those continuing to travel, that the correct operating procedures are complied with. I have every reason to believe that all these procedures will continue to be complied with, not only because our operators are going to check that that is the case but because all responsible operators will now wish to make doubly certain that there is no cause for alarm.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, will my noble friend consider one matter which will not necessarily come before the public inquiry which he has announced? Every civil aircraft leaving this country leaves behind a passenger list. Apparently the ferries do not follow that procedure. If in this case such a passenger list had been left behind, much agonising anxiety might have been spared for quite a number of people. Will the Minister consider making it mandatory to follow the civil aviation precedent in respect of ferries and compel them to leave behind a full passenger list?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, consideration will be given to that, However, there are great practical difficulties in compiling an accurate passenger list for this type of travel. I believe that as many as 200 people can arrive at a ferry port from a train at one time. Probably all of them have through tickets and it would cause great practical difficulties to compile an accurate passenger list. Of course, the numbers of passengers carried must be compiled accurately. However, that will be something to be taken into account.

Lord Gladwyn

My Lords, we assume that the company concerned is fully insured against any loss arising out of this dreadful disaster.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I understand that that is the case. The parent company of Townsend Thorensen is P & 0, which is one of the world's leading shipping operators.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, all Members of your Lordships' House fully support what has been said by previous speakers about the people who took part in this terrible tragedy as rescuers. If we can say that any good has come of such a tragedy it is in the number of people who were saved when the ship was engulfed so quickly. However, I find part of the Minister's Statement a bit different from what was said at the weekend. The Minister said, and he repeated in the Statement, that no evidence was found to suggest that the design of the ship was at fault. I should think that that part of the Statement is a bit premature, bearing in mind that the Prime Minister, when interviewed on television over the weekend, hinted that one of the possibilities was that there could be a flaw in the design.

Those of us who have been glued to the television set all weekend will have heard reports from a wide number of people with specialist knowledge on shipping who think that there is a case to be investigated and that there may well be flaws in the design. If it appears early on that the design is flawed, will the Government do as they do with flawed aircraft which are considered unsafe and instruct that they be withdrawn from service until they are made safe?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I have already spoken about the problems as regards the fundamental design of the ferry. It is well known in marine circles that there can be a stability problem with high-rise ferries if sea water enters the vehicle decks. However, both construction standards and operating procedures are designed to ensure that that does not happen. The public inquiry will no doubt address design and safety margins for this type of ship. For the present, there is no evidence to suggest any reason to impose restrictions on their operation.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn

My Lords, I congratulate the Minister on the way in which he carried out his broadcast yesterday morning and the way in which the Government have given as much information as they possibly could to those waiting to receive messages about relatives, friends and so on. The Minister conducted himself exceptionally well in the broadcast, to which we listened with great sorrow.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord. I thank him very much.

Lord Greenway

My Lords, I welcome the arrangements which the Government have put in hand, especially in regard to the placing of warning lights on ships' bridges. Does the Minister agree that perhaps the most worrying aspect of this disaster is the fact that, so far as I am aware, this is the first instance of a roll-on, roll-off passenger ship sinking in calm weather, in that the damage was not caused through stressful weather or through collision? Is he also able to confirm that it is not inherently unsafe for one of these ferries to cross the Channel with her outer doors open, as indeed was the case for a number of weeks some years ago when the French railways' ferry "Cote d'Azur" damaged her outer doors? They were removed for repair and the ferry operated with only her inner door for that period.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, as I said in the Statement, it is against regulations for ferries to travel on the open sea with doors open. I certainly would not recommend anybody to try it.

Lord Pitt of Hampstead

My Lords, may I refer back to the Minister's reply about keeping a list of the passengers? It would not be that difficult if all passengers were required to leave their names and addresses before they boarded the ship.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, as I said, there are practical difficulties. We are talking about very large numbers of people travelling on these ships. It is almost like travelling on a train. There is no requirement to leave names and addresses before going on a train. But it is a matter which will have to be looked into.