HL Deb 26 March 1990 vol 517 cc569-71

2.48 p.m.

Earl Attlee asked Her Majesty's Government:

When they intend to implement the recommendations of Professor Ivan Brown's report on hours of work and fatigue at sea and those of the report by the National Union of Marine, Aviation and Shipping Transport Officers, Seafarers' Hours: Time to act.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, Professor Brown's report on hours of work and fatigue at sea was forwarded to the National Union of Marine, Aviation and Shipping Transport Officers and other representative organisations on 2nd February for comment by the end of March. The union's report, Seafarers' Hours: Time to act, will be taken into account together with any further comments that it may wish to make on Professor Brown's study before any decision is made on what further action, if any, is appropriate.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount for that reply. Will he appreciate, since he had the courtesy to discuss my Question with me beforehand, that I am naturally disappointed? Is it not strange that airline pilots, bus drivers and drivers of heavy goods vehicles are restricted by law as to the number of hours they can work without a rest period but this does not apply to Merchant Navy officers? Does he further agree that unless the hours that are being worked at present are substantially reduced, there is the potential for a catastrophic accident with massive loss of life and damage to the environment?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I note what the noble Earl says. However, I must remind him that draft regulations which would have established duty and rest periods for watchkeepers for seagoing ships over 1600 grt other than ferries were circulated to the industry in 1982. However, there were union and shipowner objections to some of the detailed proposals and no progress was made with the regulations beyond the draft stage. We hope that the unions will now send in their comments by the end of March— that is, by the end of this week. They will be taken into account in the discussions on Professor Brown's study.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, will my noble friend and the Government watch very carefully and with caution the possibility of imposing on British shipping anything which further weakens its competitive edge against foreign shipping, given the lamentable extent to which that competition has prevailed against it? Will my noble friend bear that very much in mind in considering this matter?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, yes. I certainly take my noble friend's very important point on board.

Lord Murray of Epping Forest

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the developments in recent years, notably the reduction in crewing levels, the faster turn-round time in ports and the increase in criminal penalties on masters and officers, have all tended to increase the fatigue felt by seamen? Are the Government willing to discuss with the National Union of Marine, Aviation and Shipping Transport Officers ways of alleviating such factors?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, the research was commissioned by the Department of Transport to help the Government to decide whether regulating hours of work at sea would be justified in the light of the present knowledge about the effects of fatigue. That is the work that Professor Brown has carried out.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, if the Government believe that there is a potential hazard involved in the present lack of regulation of hours, does the noble Viscount consider that a more important matter than awaiting the approval of the TUC and the shipowners? Is it not a matter for the public at large?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, as the Government commissioned the research by Professor Brown on the problems of fatigue at sea, the Government thought it right, when the report was received, to send it immediately to the unions for their comments. We have asked for comments by the end of March, which is this week.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, does the noble Viscount agree that it must primarily be a matter for the unions and the employers? The public at large are shocked and shattered by terrible accidents but they do not know the cause and they never intend to find it out. What the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, has suggested is quite ludicrous. It is the unions and the employers' organisations which together have to examine what happened in the past and to make sure that it does not happen again.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I am not sure whose side I am on. However, I believe that the Government are in the middle and trying to do the right thing.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, is not the view of NUMAST— the officers' organisation— well known? Its report is the result of a two-year study in which it has heard the personal experiences of masters and other officers on all types of vessel. What is needed is consultation not on what should be done but on the nature of regulations that ought to be framed. Will the Government have made their minds up by the joint meeting of the International Maritime Organisation and the ILO on this matter which will be held in September?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I hope so. However, I said in my orginal Answer that the report will be taken into account together with further comments that the union may wish to make on Professor Brown's study.

Lord Greenway

My Lords, I appreciate that fatigue at sea has become a serious and possibly dangerous problem. However, does the noble Viscount agree that the International Maritime Organisation is the best forum to deal with the matter rather than taking precipitous unilateral action?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I believe that all interested bodies must be seen to be agreed on this.

Baroness White

My Lords, the point made by the noble Viscount's noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter is valid. However, we must do our very utmost to obtain international agreement on standards. Therefore, working through the IMO is probably the most effective way forward. Will Her Majesty's Government take full cognizance of the importance of the international element? Otherwise our shipping will be still further disadvantaged by foreign owners who register under other flags.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I shall certainly ensure that my right honourable friend is acquainted with the comments that have been made today.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, following the question of the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, is there not a deeper issue that is illustrated by his question? The competition that has taken place over the past few years among the members of the maritime community has left many of our ships grossly understaffed in relation to the safety regulations. Has not flagging out caused competition in staffing levels which in itself is increasing hours and therefore increasing the dangers to seafarers?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I note what the noble Lord, Lord Hatch, has said. In considering the Question on the Order Paper, his question was a long way from it.