I am caught in the crossfire, which will not do my speech much good.
I want to tell the House about further developments, because it is right to set out accurately the history of these events.
On the evening of Sunday 6th March the discharge of the cargo began, and it seemed possible that the vessel would be ready to sail by the evening of Tuesday 8th March. Since then various difficulties have arisen. First, the main cargo pumps had to cease operation owing to mechanical problems and more recently owing to trouble with the diesel generators. In consequence, the latest report is that there is no power aboard, and the radio survey is held up.
Additionally, it has not yet been possible to complete the safety equipment survey. Moreover, the manning of the ship on the engineering side is not yet adequate to permit the ship to sail in a safe condition. Generally, the programme for discharging the cargo and making ready to go to sea has fallen back.
In those circumstances it is likely to be some time yet before the ship is in a fit condition to sail. I have every confidence that my Department's surveyors will keep the paramount need of safety very much in mind in their dealings with the French authorities, senior officers on board and the owners of the vessel. I come now to the very important questions raised by my hon. Friends and also raised by the statement from the TUC this afternoon. I have not seen the precise terms of that statement, but I understand that it calls for a wide investigation into this unhappy affair. Perhaps I may start by outlining the powers which exist and then go on to tell hon. Members what I have done in this regard.
The provisions for inquiries under the Merchant Shipping Acts are clearly directed to shipping casualties, such as collisions or groundings. I think that it is extremely doubtful whether these powers could be held to extend to an inquiry into the circumstances of this case in which there was no shipping casualty as such, so there is a problem there.
In any event, an inquiry under the Merchant Shipping Acts would have to be strictly limited to what occurred on board the vessel and could not extend to cover all the circumstances surrounding the case, such as the recruitment of the boarding party in this country, about which my hon. Friends are properly deeply concerned because this matter could have wide and dangerous implications. Moreover, important witnesses—namely, the Filipino crew—are now back in their home country. Therefore, it may be difficult to make them available. I am not suggesting that that matter cannot be overcome, but it is relevant to the point that I am making.
There is the possibility, I suppose, of a tribunal of inquiry. That would need to be set up by resolution of both Houses of Parliament under the Tribunal of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921. As the Royal Commission on Tribunals of Inquiry reported in 1966, such tribunals should be set up as sparingly as possible and should always be confined to matters of vital public importance concerning which there is something of the nature of a crisis of confidence.
I do not deny that this was a very serious matter, but I doubt whether the setting up of a tribunal of inquiry of this kind, with the full panoply involved, even if it could be justified on other grounds, would be the right vehicle for this matter. It is early for me to judge that. Of course, it is not entirely a matter for me. I believe that is one essentially for the Lord Chancellor. I should not want to preclude any possibility. I am merely presenting some of the problems in those two areas. In any case, it would not be desirable, even if it were possible, for such a procedure to be established before the question of criminal proceedings had been investigated. It is to that matter that I now turn.