HL Deb 14 January 1998 vol 584 cc1051-3

2.50 p.m.

Lord Spens asked Her Majesty's Government:

Why there has not been an independent public inquiry into the "Marchioness"/"Bowbelle" disaster, contrary to the undertaking given by the Deputy Prime Minister in August 1991, when in opposition.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, the noble Baroness said on the previous Question that we were not labouring on this side of the House. We are reviewing the case for ordering a public inquiry into the disaster very carefully. Under the terms of the merchant shipping Acts we have to justify the case for a formal investigation on the grounds that there is new and important evidence which calls into question the conclusions of previous investigations. In addition we are considering the suggestion of the Marchioness Action Group that a wider public inquiry should be held to look at all aspects of the incident, including procedures at inquests and criminal prosecutions.

Lord Spens

My Lords, this is a bit of a nonsense, is it not? On the one hand, there is an unconditional, unequivocal undertaking and on the other hand a number of hurdles keep being put up in front of the Marchioness Action Group. Is the Minister aware that the latest request from the Department of Transport is that witnesses who have already given copious witness statements should come along and be interviewed personally by departmental officials? Is she aware that the witnesses are not prepared to do that because they are concerned about their jobs and what the officials will do to their witness statements? Can the Government provide an unequivocal response that they will hold an inquiry in accordance with their original undertaking?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I believe that those who look at the position carefully will recognise that it has changed considerably from 1991 when that particular statement was made. Since the undertaking several important developments have taken place. In December 1991 the Hayes Inquiry into river safety was commissioned. Its report was published in 1992. Twenty-two recommendations were made, all but one of which have been implemented. In 1994 the Court of Appeal ordered that inquests into the deaths of the victims should be remitted to a different coroner for a fresh decision. That happened. In April 1995 the jury returned its verdict of unlawful killing and further safety recommendations were made.

We are assessing very carefully the case for a public inquiry but it must be done on the basis of what we know now. It is important, given that fresh evidence must be shown, that witnesses come forward and give evidence that has not been considered previously. In trying to move the process forward we have agreed to meet the reasonable costs of the group's solicitors in helping to contact those witnesses and get statements. This is not a matter of unreasonable barriers being put up but of a proper assessment being made of whether a further investigation or inquiry would he in the public interest.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, in the aftermath of this tragic accident a number of suggestions were made that alcohol among the crew members was a contributory factor. Can my noble friend comment on why the regulations governing alcohol consumption among commercial vessel crews may be different from those governing air crews or road and rail drivers'? Is there an argument for harmonisation across all modes of transport?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I said that 21 of the 22 Hayes recommendations had been acted upon. The 22nd recommendation related to alcohol abuse. That was also a matter to which the inquest jury referred. We intend to address the issue. There are already offences relating to drunkenness on the part of the master or member of the crew of a ship. Under existing by-laws to be drunk in charge of a ship or boat is an offence. PLA launch crews are equipped with breathalyser kits and are authorised to carry out breath tests under the current by-laws. However, the Government intend to issue a consultation document shortly on applying alcohol limits and post-accident testing to mariners.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, does the noble Baroness accept that it is rather difficult for witnesses, who have already made substantial statements in places where they have been legally recorded and received, to be asked once again, many years after the event, to search their memories for an exact account of what happened. or what they think happened, on a particular day? I am not surprised that if that is to be done in a place without legal protection—the offices of a civil servant—certain witnesses may well feel some reluctance to do so, even if it can rationally be assumed that their evidence is better today than it was all those years ago. I believe that lawyers would have certain doubts about that. When does the Minister believe that her department will reach a conclusion on the matter?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, there is a difficulty here. Under the merchant shipping Acts we must be rigorous in our assessment of whether there are justifiable grounds for opening a formal investigation. To do that we must establish that new and important evidence has been submitted to justify the opening of a formal investigation and that there are still safety lessons to be learned and applied, or that there are grounds for suspecting that a miscarriage of justice may have occurred. We shall put to the Chief Inspector of Marine Accidents the evidence, when complete, for his advice as to whether it justifies reopening the MAIB's accident investigation. His recommendation will be considered by the Secretary of State before an announcement is made. I recognise what the noble Baroness says about the difficulties, but those difficulties are inherent in the length of time that this matter has taken. I believe that, to take forward the issue constructively and to make a proper assessment, witnesses should be encouraged to come forward and make their statements.