HL Deb 22 March 1988 vol 495 cc162-8

7.37 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (Lord Brabazon of Tara) rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 3rd March be approved [19th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move. With the leave of the House I shall speak at the same time to the second order standing in my name—the passenger boarding cards order.

These regulations would extend to foreign ships when in UK waters the provisions of two sets of regulations which are already in force for UK ships. Both orders are required to be made by affirmative procedure by the terms of Section 21(1) of the 1979 Merchant Shipping Act, the enabling power, and by Section 49 of that Act, which sets out the parliamentary procedures for Section 21 orders. Both sections were modified by Section 11 of the Safety at Sea Act 1986. In summary, the requirement of the enabling legislation is that orders applying to foreign ships must be made by affirmative procedure unless the requirement is the subject of international agreement.

The first of the two orders deals with the immediate cause of the loss of the "Herald of Free Enterprise", which was that she put to sea with her bow doors open. In fact, the Government are following the recommendations of the Sheen Report and introducing no fewer than four new requirements to prevent a recurrence of those events. Two of them concern equipment; namely, the requirements to fit indicator lights and closed circuit television to the loading doors—requirements which are already in force. The other two are of an operational nature and are applied to foreign ships by this first set of regulations before the House, which would extend to them the provisions of the Merchant Shipping (Closing of Openings in Closed Superstructures and in Bulkheads above the Bulkhead Deck) Regulations 1988; Statutory Instrument No. 317. That order has been in force for UK ships since 9th March.

First, it is a statutory requirement that all the doors be closed at the berth before casting off or, if that is physically impossible (as it generally is for bow visor-type doors), as soon as possible after casting off and, in any case, within one ship's length of the berth. Secondly, it is a requirement in Regulation 3 of the closing of openings regulations that an officer shall verify that the doors are closed and locked, and that he report that fact to the bridge. This is the so-called "positive reporting" requirement which was so conspicuously not in effect on the "Herald".

I turn now to the second of the two orders. This will extend to foreign ships when sailing from United Kingdom ports from 1st April. The provisions of the Merchant Shipping (Passenger Boarding Cards) Regulations 1988 (Statutory Instrument No. 191) have been in effect on UK ships since 29th February. The report of the court of formal investigation into the loss of the "Herald of Free Enterprise" recognised that the number of passengers on board was within the permitted maximum. The report described a series of incidents where ro-ro passenger ferries had carried passengers in excess of the numbers for which they were certified. It proposed the introduction of a system under which every passenger would be issued with an individual boarding card.

The boarding card regulations provide a reliable count of the number of passengers on board, ensuring that permitted numbers are not exceeded. They also require that the master be informed of the numbers before sailing. Operators are also required to keep counterfoils of cards issued for each voyage so that marine surveyors can readily check all the sailings for the past week and ensure that the system is working.

There are of course penalties for infringing these provisions. On summary conviction (that is, at a magistrates' court) the maximum fine is £2,000, but for conviction on indictment there are unlimited fines and imprisonment. There are similar penalties for infringing the boarding card regulations. For each individual offence care has been taken to ensure that either the owner or the master or both are responsible, according to the precise nature of the offence.

This summarises the content and effect of these regulations. These are only part of the extensive series of measures introduced in response to Mr. Justice Sheen's report. The full programme was set out in a Written Answer by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport in answer to a Question from my honourable friend the Member of Parliament for Dover in another place on 3rd March. Besides secondary legislation—there will be more orders following these two dealing with other of the department's consultative documents—there are important changes in primary legislation in the Merchant Shipping Bill. There have been administrative measures and merchant shipping notices; there have been international initiatives and, last but not least, there is an urgent research programme to consider the possibility of more fundamental improvements in ro-ro ferry design.

The Government believe that every possible step must be taken to prevent a catastrophe such as that which occurred to the "Herald of Free Enterprise" at Zeebrugge. The measures now before your Lordships' House are one more part of that programme. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 3rd March be approved [19th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Brabazon of Tara.)

7.45 p.m.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, may I say at the outset that the Opposition not only welcome the two sets of regulations but give them wholehearted support. I am not complaining that originally we had the negative procedure. That enabled the provisions to be brought in very, very quickly. All noble Lords will appreciate their importance. On the other hand, the affirmative procedure that we have tonight enables us to discuss certain matters arising.

One factor strikes me immediately; namely, that the regulations are operational. I should like to know whether other countries whose ferries use our ports have agreed to these measures. I ask that because the point will arise in the course of something else I wish to say. The Minister referred to the Written Answer of the Secretary of State of 3rd March. I recognise the many actions taken or proposed to be taken by the Government as outlined in that lengthy Written Answer. It included reference to a research programme to be set up on 30th October into the stability of ro-ro ships. As we are dealing with regulations on the closing of loading doors, obviously that is a very important matter; it is one to which the Minister referred.

When the statement was made about the research programme, I questioned whether a three-year period for the research was not too long. I repeat that question again today, particularly in the light of the recent capsize of the Swedish ferry "Vinca Gorthon" only 10 months after its launching. The vessel is, I believe, twice the size of the largest P&O ferries. A further reason for asking whether a three-year survey is not too long is the statement issued by the Royal Institution of Naval Architects that the design of ro-ro ferries, makes them unacceptably vulnerable to rapid capsize". I believe noble Lords will recognise that the Royal Institution of Naval Architects is a very professional body representing ship designers. It has a very distinguished president, the noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote. Statements have been made on behalf of the Department of Transport. I am not criticising any civil servant; I realise a statement would not be made without ministerial permission. But some statements have been made very quickly disagreeing with the statement of the Royal Institution. I wonder whether such statements are not unnecessarily precipitate.

I draw attention to an article in the Observer of Sunday, 6th March. It stated: Department of Transport officials agree that it would be unfair to force British owners to abide by modern safety standards unless their European competitors were made to do so too.". Is this the correct position? It brings me back to the original question I asked as to whether the substance of the two measures before the House tonight were agreed with other countries whose ferries use British ports. The article also quotes a letter to the General Council of British Shipping sent by the Secretary of State. It says that the Government, fully recognises that the safety of British passengers cannot be preserved by applying measures only to British ships". That is why I was so pleased that these two measures apply the original regulations Nos. 317 and 191, to non-UK shipping.

The media has been stressing that the process to reach agreement on a worldwide basis with an international convention on ship safety is likely to take 10 years, particularly as this matter is to be raised through the International Maritime Organisation. It may be recalled that I put a supplementary question a few days ago to the Minister on the question of ferry safety through the IMO. I want to ask the Minister: can we possibly wait, first of all, three years for a review of the stability of ferries; and secondly—this is possibly more important—can we wait 10 years for action to be taken through the International Maritime Organisation? Might not we need to take emergency action ourselves and if necessary ensure that any ferries from whatever country that use British ports shall conform with any decision we ourselves wish to make on the question of design and stability of ferries. This seems to be most important.

I believe the Minister has been quoted as saying that this is not a matter to be raised through the EC. If so and if the IMO is going to take years and years before any international convention is made, then Britain itself must take action to ensure—as we are doing tonight—that anything we say on the question of design and stability must be dealt with and this should apply to any ferry using British ports. Having said that, we heartily support the two measures before us.

Lord Greenway

My Lords, I should like to welcome these two regulations. I believe it is only right and fair that foreign ferries operating in and out of our ports should be subject to the same regulations as already apply to UK ships. I believe that these are measures which any prudent operator would have brought in as a matter of course following the "Herald of Free Enterprise" disaster. The Government are only reinforcing something which I believe would have been done anyway.

I should like to ask one specific question. I have a feeling that I have raised it before but as I have not given the noble Lord notice this time I do not expect an answer this evening. What is the position when a foreign ferry comes to one of our ports, as happens on occasions, with a floating exhibition? They often arrive carrying people who will be assisting on the stands for the exhibition. That ship might come only once to one of our ports. Is that ship also subject to these regulations, which in the main are intended to apply only to those passenger ships operating regularly in and out of our ports?

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, raised the question of ro-ro stability. This subject was brought up again yesterday by the statement from the Royal Institution of Naval Architects. There seems to be slightly more evidence now to suggest that under certain circumstances a ro-ro might not be quite so stable as an ordinary compartmented merchant ship. However, be that as it may, the roll-on roll-off ships operating today have been built and designed by these selfsame naval architects to the latest internationally recognised standards. The operators and shipowners have confidence in them. Only this week a large ferry was ordered in Scandinavia. Passengers still have confidence in them. We have only to look at the vast numbers of people who travel in such ships every day.

The Government already have a research programme under way. As the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, mentioned, the IMO is also looking at ro-ro stability. It is a problem that should be looked at internationally. I hope that when the Government start getting some results from their research programme they will work closely with the IMO to see that any changes in the design of such ships are brought in universally and across the board and are not applied just to one country. The fact remains that at the moment the roll-on roll-off ferry is the most efficient and cost-effective way of transporting passengers, cars and freight vehicles across short and longer stretches of ocean. The large numbers of people who use these ferries every day, in safety in the main, bear witness to the fact that there exists at the moment no other more efficient way of performing this task. The record shows that no more roll-on roll-off ships are lost at sea than ordinary compartmented merchant ships. Perhaps the Minister can confirm that. On the face of it, there is no more danger attaching to roll-on roll-off ferries than to any other type of ship at sea.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Underhill and Lord Greenway, for their support for the two sets of regulations. In view of the debate on the last amendment at the Committee stage of the previous Bill, I would remind the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, that the 1979 Act was passed in the last days of the previous Administration and that they were the ones who decided to have the negative procedure for the main orders. We have had a brief but useful debate and I am encouraged to hear the wide measure of support for the application of these proposals to foreign ships.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, asked me a number of questions. Perhaps I may start with the acceptance of the measures by foreign ships and what we are doing in Europe on this matter. There has already been strong support in the IMO for our proposals for the mandatory closing of opening doors before departure.

Two meetings of officials have been held—in November and February—with the administration of the 10 European countries with which we have ferry links. There are three non-EC countries with which we have ferry links and three EC countries with which we have no ferry links. It is better to deal with this by our meetings with those countries with which we have ferry links. In those meetings we have encouraged them to take measures similar to our own and have informed them about the United Kingdom proposals submitted to the IMO.

We have also asked them to agree a system of letters of compliance to be issued by foreign administrations to indicate that their ships comply with the United Kingdom measures. Ships carrying such letters, which of course currently relate only to those United Kingdom measures submitted in the first package of amendments to IMO, would be subject to normal port state control inspections and, unless something untoward was detected, not to detailed inspection. Most countries have decided to participate in these arrangements. That is encouraging.

On the timing of IMO procedures, we have obtained the support of the IMO for the accelerated procedure for these proposals. We aim for adoption this year, with the measures becoming binding on member countries 18 months later. We would expect voluntary early implementation by other European countries.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, referred to an article in the Observer and said that the department had yielded to shipowner pressure. This is quite untrue. Shipowners have expressed great concern about the Sheen report's recommendation that some 30 or so ships certified before 1980 should, if they did not meet current standards, be modified or phased out. The department remains committed to assessing the shortfall from current standards during the summer using basic data supplied by shipowners and reaching a decision by the end of September. The allegation in the Observer that the department will take no action because ships that fail the test could simply be transferred to foreign flags is supported by a very selective quotation from a letter from the department. This emphasised the need to obtain foreign support for any radical measures so that they could apply equally to United Kingdom and foreign ships serving the United Kingdom. In that way we do not discriminate against the United Kingdom fleet and we can protect the British public fully.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, asked whether we would learn from the capsize of the Swedish roll-on/roll-off ferry. That ship was a cargo ro-ro and subject to less stringent design requirements than passenger ro-ros. It is true to say that it took several hours to sink and that all her crew were rescued by helicopter. We are seeking information from the Swedish authorities to see whether there are lessons to be learnt. It may well be that a shift of cargo in the storm was the decisive factor.

The noble Lord, Lord Greenway, referred to the number of ro-ros lost compared with other types of conventional ship. I do not have the figures with me but it is my understanding that overall the record is very similar. One has to remember that any ship can sink in the wrong circumstances. The noble Lord asked whether the regulations woud apply to a roll-on/roll-off ferry visiting the country for the purpose of an exhibition. It is my understanding—and I shall write to him if I am incorrect—that, yes, as regards the regulations about closing the doors the ferry would be subject to that provision; but if it was carrying fewer than 12 passengers the boarding card regulations would not apply.

We have of course heard much this evening of the recent conclusions of the Royal Institution of Naval Architects who are professionally responsible for the design of the great majority of UK ships. I am reluctant in this rather special forum to go into the matter at great length. However, I met with my noble friend Lord Caldecote yesterday; it was a very constructive meeting. I believe that the differences between the institution and the Government have been considerably exaggerated.

The Government are carrying out as quickly as they possibly can an urgent programme to assess the practicality, feasibility and effectiveness of all the design improvements that the institution has suggested. We have said that we will do everything we can to obtain results from the work by the end of the year. The work is being supervised by a ro-ro research steering committee which contains no fewer than six members of the institution, including the immediate past president, Professor Caldwell. He was actually president when the committee was originally set up. When the results are available we hope to be able to take decisions on what, if any, improvements we need to require of ships flying the UK flag and to press for international agreement thereon. However, the programme is a three-year research programme, of which the latter two years will be largely taken up by model tests and therefore it might well be possible to make decisions before that time has expired. Of course we shall have other opportunities in the coming months to consider this matter when I bring forward further—there are several of them—statutory instruments. In the meantime, I commend the regulations to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.