HL Deb 03 November 1997 vol 582 cc1219-21

2.50 p.m.

Lord Spens

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will honour the undertaking given by the Deputy Prime Minister on behalf of the Labour Party in August 1991 to hold a public inquiry into the "Marchioness" and "Bowbelle" disaster.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman)

My Lords, we are considering very carefully the case for a formal investigation under the Merchant Shipping Act into this disaster. My colleague, the Minister responsible for shipping, met representatives of the "Marchioness" Action Group in August to discuss their concerns. The Government understand the distress the group has endured during its long campaign, but any decision to hold a further investigation would have to be based on justifiable and objective grounds.

Lord Spens

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is she aware that the dredger presently on top of the Thames barrier, formerly called the "Bowknight", is a sister ship of the "Bowbelle", owned by the same group, Ready Mixed Concrete? Now that there are no longer the connections between Ready Mixed Concrete and No. 10, does she not agree that it is time that this inquiry was speeded up and the process of taking a decision accelerated?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am aware that the "Sand Kite" is owned by the same company, South Coast Shipping Company of Southampton, that owned the "Bowbelle" dredger. The Marine Accidents Investigation Branch is currently conducting an inspector's investigation into the cause of, and circumstances surrounding, the accident at the Thames flood barrier.

As regards the issue of an inquiry, we are assessing very carefully the evidence submitted by the "Marchioness" Action Group in support of its call for a formal investigation. The Chief Inspector of Marine Accidents, Rear Admiral John Lang RN (Rtd.), who took up his post in April 1997, will be presented with the evidence when it is complete to determine whether it justifies reopening the MAIB's accident investigation.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the House as a whole expects the obligation that was explicit in the terms of the undertaking freely given by the Deputy Prime Minister to be scrupulously honoured?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I understand what my noble friend is saying. However, noble Lords will be aware that since 1991, when the Deputy Prime Minister gave that undertaking, several important developments have taken place. In December 1991 the Hayes Inquiry into river safety was commissioned. That report was published in 1992 and, of the 22 recommendations, 21 have already been implemented. In 1994 the Court of Appeal ordered that the inquests into the deaths of the victims should be remitted to a different coroner for a fresh decision. In April 1995 the jury returned its verdict of unlawful killing. In view of those developments, it is important that we assess carefully the case that has been submitted for a public inquiry, and we are making that assessment.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that a full inquiry was carried out by the Marine Accidents Investigation Branch? One of the purposes of setting up the MAIB was to get away from the confrontational nature of formal investigations and to have a similar set-up to the Air Accident Investigation Branch. There has not been a public inquiry into an air accident since 1972. The purpose is to get to the facts without confrontation.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I understand that. I understand also the feelings of the families involved that, because of the different processes that have taken place, there has not been a holistic view of what happened. There is a possibility of re-opening the MAIB investigation if that is justified. In order to determine whether such a reopening or other form of inquiry is justified we must look carefully at the evidence to see whether it is new and fundamental.

Lord Bowness

My Lords, I understand the distress felt by the families of the victims and their desire to obtain as much information as possible. However, can the noble Baroness confirm that not only were the recommendations in the report on river safety by Mr. Hayes implemented, but also that the previous government responded quickly and positively to the recommendations in the Marine Accidents Investigation Branch report referred to by my noble friend?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, it is true that the majority of procedures and recommendations set out both in the MAIB report and the subsequent Hayes report have already been implemented. We intend to address the outstanding issue—that is, alcohol abuse on board ship—and in due course issue a consultation paper on applying alcohol limits and post-accident testing to mariners.