HL Deb 25 October 1994 vol 558 cc435-7

2.48 p.m.

Viscount Caldecote asked Her Majesty's Government:

Which of the categories referred to in paragraph 6 of the Merchant Shipping (Ro-Ro Passenger Ship Survivability) (No. 2) Regulations 1994 would have applied to the "Estonia" if that ship had come within the scope of those regulations.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (Viscount Goschen)

My Lords, preliminary inquiries have revealed that the "Estonia" had a two compartment standard of subdivision and an A/Amex of just over 95 per cent.

Viscount Caldecote

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. First, will he tell the House for how long the ship would have been able to operate under the regulations referred to without being modified to full modern safety standards? Secondly, the Royal Institution of Naval Architects issued a statement following the "Herald of Free Enterprise" disaster warning that such ships were highly vulnerable in a damaged state. The institution recently having issued a further statement, will the noble Viscount now urge his right honourable friend to take steps to ensure that those ships cannot operate after the end of 1995 unless they have been modified to the latest safety standards?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, had the "Estonia" come within the scope of the UK regulations, which it did not, it would have been required to comply by 1st December 2004 with the requirements of the Merchant Shipping (Ro-Ro Passenger Ship Survivability) (No. 2) Regulations 1994 as they relate to damaged ability standards. I believe that the United Kingdom has been in the forefront in pushing for strict regulations. We are doing everything that we can. We shall be taking forward further research on survivability and stability of ro-ro ferries.

Lord Carver

My Lords, will the noble Viscount tell the House what progress the Government have made in seeking to persuade the International Maritime Organisation that formal safety assessment is the right principle upon which to base ship safety regulation?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, as I mentioned, the United Kingdom has taken a leading role in pushing for higher standards. Indeed, we did not accept the standards which the IMO put forward. We brokered our own agreement with our European partners in order to bring forward the higher standard we preferred.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, would the "Estonia" have qualified under the regulations to which the noble Viscount referred? He stated that because it did not come under those regulations, he did not know whether that was so. Surely he knows now.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, that is not what I said. I said that had the ship come under the regulations, the date referred to in 2004 would have been the required date.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, would the ship have qualified?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, the reason the ship did not qualify was that there was a special agreement brokered and negotiated by ourselves with our European partners concerning vessels operating to and from the United Kingdom. The "Estonia" was not such a vessel.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, when one hears of a disaster such as that relating to the "Estonia" one naturally thinks of the "Herald of Free Enterprise". At the inquiry into the "Herald of Free Enterprise" it was believed that a system failure caused the problem; that is, the inadequacies of the drill for closing the doors. Are we now sure of that fact? Does that belief not shield the fact that, as well as inadequacies in that respect, there may have been more important inadequacies of design, a factor we have certainly discovered with the "Estonia"? Is the department looking at all of those factors?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right. We have put great emphasis on improving the operating regime. Since the "Herald of Free Enterprise" tragedy, we have introduced a safety operation regime which requires, for example, that ro-ro ferries are fitted with doors-closed lights, TV monitoring of the doors and a positive reporting system which informs the master that the doors are closed. I have every conviction that the inquiry into the "Estonia" tragedy will look at every aspect of its operation and construction.

Lord Sterling of Plaistow

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that my company owns P&O European Ferries and I am chairman of the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company? Is the Minister further aware that our ships have been passed by the Marine Safety Agency and that, as the biggest British ferry company, we are totally committed to supporting any safety work which has been carried out? Does the Minister agree that it is important that precipitous action is not taken until we are aware of what happened to the "Estonia"? At the moment there is a purely preliminary report and as yet it is not known under what operational standards the ship operated.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I welcome my noble friend's assurance of co-operation which is of great value to the Marine Safety Agency. I agree that we must put this terrible tragedy in the context of the millions of passenger journeys that are travelled in safety. We shall take fully into account the findings of the inquiry when it is completed and the findings are published.

Lord Greenway

My Lords, we fully appreciate that a new type of ro-ro ferry might well have to be designed in the longer term. At the same time I should point out that travel by ferry is, by and large, seven times safer than travelling in a motor car. Will the Minister agree that priority should be given to the maintenance of the highest standards of operation and crewing? Moreover, particular attention should be paid to the efficiency of current methods of evacuation of water from car decks, systems which are designed at present to cope with water from a sprinkler system in the case of a fire.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I quite agree with the noble Lord that operating standards are of crucial importance. We have learnt great lessons from the "Herald of Free Enterprise" and we continue to put forward an operating regime which is of the highest standard and which examines the very issues which the noble Lord mentioned.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, will the Minister take my question on board? It is very simple: if the standards of construction which apply to our own ships had been applied to the "Estonia", would the ship have passed them?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, it is not possible for me to answer that question. The "Estonia" was not operating to or from the United Kingdom. It was operating on an entirely separate route. It is, therefore, certainly not possible for me now to make any pronouncements on the fitness or otherwise of the "Estonia" before the relevant authorities have examined the report of the inquiry.

Lord Callaghan of Cardiff

My Lords, is it not clear that any through-deck ship is inherently more unsafe than the traditional type of vessel with compartments? Are the Government addressing their attention to that matter as well as to the safety of the opening of the ship at the bow? May I inquire whether that is the Government's policy?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, we are examining every aspect of the operation, design and construction of roll on-roll off ferries. We believe that when they are properly operated and maintained they are safe, with that strong proviso. A great deal of research has gone into the design of the ships. We are co-operating with the International Maritime Organisation on that research.