Orders of the Day — Marchioness Disaster

– in the House of Commons at 6:57 am on 9th July 1992.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South 6:57 am, 9th July 1992

I take no pleasure in raising the issue of the Marchioness tragedy and, in particular, the publication two days ago of the report of the Hayes inquiry.

At this stage, it should not be necessary for an hon. Member to raise an issue which it is the Government's responsibility to pursue. I very much regret that the Government have not yet been seen to do so. The Minister was only appointed to the Department of Transport, with particular responsibility for London, in this Parliament. Most of the matters to which I shall refer were the responsibility of his predecessors in the previous Parliament, so I absolve him, but he has a hot potato to handle.

I shall make my own position clear. One of my constituents was unhappily a victim of the Marchioness tragedy, but I raise the issue rather because it is 50 years next year since I first navigated the tidal Thames, and I have been doing so fairly regularly ever since. In politics, emotion has a part to play, and in this instance it has given me the necessary steam. In the mid-1940s when I was a teenager, I brought a small craft down river and moored it to a buoy at Westminster pier. I had my tea alone in that small boat. I looked up at Big Ben and thought, "Goodness, wouldn't it be extraordinary if ever I were in that place." I have been here now for 22 years. I found that I was on the wrong mooring. A boat came along—it was literally a steamer— and a member of the crew shouted, "Come along here, sonny. Moor against us." I did so and chatted to the watermen. That craft was the Marchioness. It was then in its first edition, as it were, as a steamer.

Apart from that specific interest, I have taken a non-political interest in rail and water transport for some years. It is the responsibility of the House and of the Government to have a structure of protection for marine, road and rail transport which helps to provide safety. When things go wrong, we have a responsibility to ascertain why. In the case of the Marchioness, those who are left bereaved and those who are concerned about the matter are determined that those who died so close to the House should not have died in vain.

When the tragedy occurred there was not a great deal of surprise, unfortunately, among the river fraternity. The Bowbelle had been known for some time as a rogue vessel. It and its two near sisters, the Bowtrader and the Bowsprite, were well known on the river. The Bow boats had been involved, so the Hayes report tells us in the appendix, in no fewer than 40 incidents on the river since 1965. It is notable that only the Hayes report, which was published two days ago, has brought out that fact. It could not he inferred from the earlier report of the marine accident investigation branch, which was published in August 1981.

One would think that the purpose of a statutory inquiry —the Hayes inquiry was one because the then Secretary of State for Transport requested that the matter be examined —is to ensure that we pinpoint problems and ensure, as far as possible, that repetition does not occur. That should be the purpose of statutory inquiries. Unfortunately, I do not think that there can be public confidence in the report which has been so recently published. If anything, the position is the reverse of that.

There have been three unsatisfactory phases. First, the content of the MAIB report was clearly deficient, as was the manner in which it was produced. Members were not properly notified and it was difficult to obtain copies of it. The report leaves much to be desired, as I shall demonstrate. Secondly, after much agitation the then Secretary of State, in December 1991, appointed the Hayes inquiry, which was popularly supposed to be a follow-up. As I shall demonstrate, its terms of reference were somewhat constrained. Thirdly, one of its principal recommendations has been turned down. The current Secretary of State for Transport welcomed the report, but promptly turned down one of its major recommendations even before some Members had been able to read I t and before there had been an opportunity to debate the report in the House. It was thought by some—cynically, perhaps —that the report would be published later next week after the House had adjourned for the summer recess. Ai least we have had the small mercy of its publication earlier this week.

The statutory side of the procedure has been dealt with in three phases. There is the coroner's procedure, which may not yet have been completed. I think that everyone would agree that a coroner's court is not necessarily the best place to deal with some of the technicalities which arise in transport tragedies. Such a court does not necessarily have the scope to investigate the technicalities. The Director of Public Prosecutions has brought a charge against the master of the Bowbelle. Two court cases ended in the juries failing to agree.

There has also been a private prosecution against the owners of the Bowbelle, but a few days ago the court decided that it could not proceed. There is now no sub judice block on debate in this House or outside. However, as yet there is no sign, other than the completion of the coroner's proceedings, that there can be any further public inquiry. Indeed, so far as I am aware, the Secretary of State's decision earlier this week—taken before there was much opportunity for informed comment or debate—is that there will he no further inquiry. That is is not good enough. The proceedings to date have left as many questions unanswered as were answered during those proceedings.

I shall start with the legal proceedings in the court, and I shall use lay language. The Director of Public Prosecutions brought the marine equivalent of a charge of driving without due care and attention against the master of the Bowbelle. I understand that that was done because bringing any higher charge might not have led to a successful prosecution, as the DPP explained on the radio only a few days ago. Although it might appear not to be a grave charge in view of the results of the tragedy, we can at least understand its nature.

To be successful, however, the DPP had to prove that there was no contributory cause. I understand that, contrary to what may be the public 's impression, only a limited number of witnesses were called in the proceedings. I have some sympathy, as we all have, with the master of the Bowbelle. Despite the traumatic experience, he was not called and he did not volunteer any evidence. The jury disagreed. There was a second case hearing—

Photo of Mr Steven Norris Mr Steven Norris , Epping Forest

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the jury disagreed, and then disagreed again on the second trial.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South

I was about to say that. If I am inaccurate in my speech, I should like the Minister to intervene again and say so. We want to get the matter right and not have to correct ourselves.

We all waited for the MAIB report, which arrived in August last year. Some of us who know the river and know something about that tragic affair read the report with considerable interest. Frankly, I was shocked. I knew—it is in Lloyd's List—that the Bowbelle had been involved in six previous collisions. Only one was mentioned in the report; the others were not. I wrote to the Secretary of State pointing that out. However, that was only one of a number of matters of concern about the report. There were no quotations from eye witnesses, but there must have been quite a few of them. There did not appear to be the same logical description of events that we found in the two parallel inquiries that everyone has in mind: King's Cross and Clapham.

There was no description of the qualifications, experience or biographical details of the two skippers concerned, or of the background to the instructions of their respective firms. That was dealt with only in outline, if at all. Another matter that the report did not cover was a question which arises immediately, but was not even asked: why did the Bowbelle not stop after the accident? We know from the description that the man was standing by on the bows ready to let go of the anchor. That was one of his duties. It is suggested in the report that he was more concerned with that than with keeping a look out. Why did he not do that?

Fifthly, even if the Bowbelle had decided to proceed for whatever reason, or was instructed to do so, what about throwing overboard some of the floating equipment which must be carried by sea-going vessels, or launching a boat? Could it have moored at Tower pier, only a few hundred yards further downstream? That vessel could manoeuvre easily because it was going against the tide at that point. That was not raised in the report.

Sixthly, we read that the two other Bow boats had arrangements for an officer to be on the fo'c'sle during such a journey, but for a reason which does not carry much conviction, that was not done in the case of the Bowbelle. That was not followed up.

Seventhly, there is not much in the way of description of the Thames navigation service and tapes which I believe were taken by the Port of London authority officials at the barrier controls. That is not gone into. So far as I know, evidence was not taken from those persons either.

Eighthly—this is only a selection of matters which should have been raised—there is the whole question of the considerable time taken for the rescue vessels to reach those still in the water. That is not dealt with in the report either.

So from the time when the report was published until the belated appointment of the Hayes inquiry, there was great concern. In fact, it was rather more than that. I would say that there was evasion on the part of the Secretary of State. I wrote immediately to the Secretary of State to ask about the six collisions. I tabled a question to be answered when we returned on 14 October last year asking what representations the Secretary of State had had relating to facts not in the report and he said that he had had none.

After a series of exchanges through written questions, it emerged that the Secretary of State or the Minister thought that the six collisions were not relevant factors.

Yet they were clearly relevant to any sort of investigation at that point. It was not until 21 January this year, when I used the device of asking the Minister to refer the six collisions, which I listed, to the Hayes inquiry, that we finally got those on the record at column 157.

The Hayes report, although headed "The Marchioness", was not just about the Marchioness, as people may have thought it to be. The terms of reference are as follows: In the light of the Marchioness/Bowbelle disaster to examine the handling since 1980 by the Department of Transport of its responsibility for the safety of vessels on rivers and inland waters and to report on the effectiveness of the present approach. The enquiry should take account of developments in the field of marine safety at the international level. In other words, although the Marchioness disaster was relevant, the terms of reference of the Hayes inquiry were not specifically related to that tragedy, or any deficiency in the report already published, but tangential to it. The conditions on inland waterways of the United Kingdom, particularly non-tidal waters, are different from those which pertain on the relatively dangerous tideway of the Thames. After initially being glad to have a proper inquiry, those concerned were perturbed because of the relatively limited nature of the Hayes inquiry.

Having looked at the Hayes inquiry and consulted others, I had the impression that it did a good job, but only within the limits of the terms of reference. I submitted evidence asking Mr. Hayes to send it to the MAIB for its comments on what I considered were deficiencies in its report. He did not feel able to do so, because in his view —with which I sympathise—the terms of reference did not cover that point.

Mr. Hayes's main recommendation is very germane. Paragraph 2.5.8 on page 5 states: There should be an early review of the rescue arrangements and equipment on the Thames which should take account of the Marchioness/Bowbelle disaster and the views of those who witnessed it. The results should be published and it should be undertaken by an independent person. The recommendations from such a review should be disseminated widely and considered as a basis for action by Riparian and Canal Authorities. It will need to be wider in scope than the present POLACAP emergency plan"— a plan which the Port of London Authority implements when it has problems on the river.

Although I would welcome such an inquiry, it does not seem to amount to what was required following the King's Cross and Clapham disasters—and, indeed, the Marchioness disaster. More than one person may be needed to conduct the inquiry, and it may need to be even more precise than the recommendation suggests. On Tuesday—as you will know, Madam Deputy Speaker; you made some helpful comments, which can be found in column 275—the Hayes report was published, and Lord Caithness, the Minister for Aviation and Shipping, made some radio and television broadcasts. A summary of the report was sent to the press, and appeared the next day. The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) and I were not officially informed, although we had been heavily involved in the matter; we were informed by Thames Television. Even before we were informed, however, the Secretary of State for Transport sent out a press statement, which said Mr. Hayes recommended that there should be an early review of the rescue arrangements and equipment on the Thames. The Government has given careful consideration to the recommendation but has concluded that a further review of this kind would not be justified. I am staggered that in 1992 a Secretary of State, knowing all about the public concern that was felt about this terrible tragedy, and knowing that it had not been examined to the same extent as two rail tragedies which had preceded it, could make such a statement, even before those most closely concerned had so much as seen the report, let alone read or debated it. It struck me as extraordinary behaviour for any Secretary of State. I do not know whether the present Secretary of State could possibly have reached such a conclusion: he is new to the job, but he was a good Leader of the House. Perhaps the Minister can give us some of the background.

As I have made clear, many questions have been left unanswered. The Hayes report is good as far as it goes, but it could not go very far. Paragraph 7.10 contains a couple of sentences about the inadequacies of a previous report, mentioning that survivors had not been interviewed. Of course it is difficult to interview survivors and report on the interview, but Hayes merely says: They also confirmed the view expressed in paragraph 4.2 of their report that 'requiring them to rehearse yet again the events of the night would in many cases simply have added to their distress without any gain to the Inquiry'. It is difficult to criticise MAIB for wishing to protect survivors from further anguish but there are a number who still feel that they had material evidence which was not considered during the investigation. The unfortunate people who were in the water are not the only ones who feel that. It is also felt by those who know something about these matters, who presented evidence to the Department, the MAIB or Hayes and who know that that evidence has not received due consideration.

Now the Secretary of State is apparently putting a stop on any further investigation of any sort. As I understand it, it is still open to the Government to institute a proper inquiry even wider than that recommended by Mr. Hayes, which the Minister turned down.

The Minister must tell us why there has been such a degree of reticence. All sorts of wild rumours about what happened on that terrible night are heard up and down the river. I have not repeated any of them. The only question that has been asked is about the relationship, if any, between the ultimate owners of the Bowbelle and any political funds which may have benefited from that firm. That question is in order, and if the answer to it were positive, that would make clarity in such matters even more important. If there were any such connection, it would be unfortunate if people drew the wrong conclusions.

The House has debated the tragedies which took place at Clapham and at King's Cross. Surely it is the duty both of the Government and of the House to ensure that those who died in the middle of our city in such tragic circumstances did not die in vain. Only a proper inquiry, parallel to the other two, can clear the air. It is the Government's duty to set up such an inquiry, and if they do not want to do so it is the duty of the House to insist that one takes place.

Photo of Joan Ruddock Joan Ruddock , Lewisham, Deptford 7:20 am, 9th July 1992

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) on his success in initiating the debate and on its timeliness. I congratulate him, too, on the excellent manner in which he presented his case.

My hon. Friend and I have both had a long involvement with the issue, since the tragic disaster in August 1989 in which 51 people were killed as a result of the collision between the Marchioness pleasure craft and the dredger, the Bowbelle. Since then, I have worked closely with the Marchioness action group and have presented its considerable concerns to the various Secretaries of State for Transport who have been in post since that time.

As my hon. Friend said, that group has consistently called for a proper public inquiry, such as would be established—indeed, such as has been established—for other comparable transport disasters. However, as we have heard, those arguments have always been rejected by the Government, who first authorised the marine accident investigation branch to carry out an inquiry and then set up the broader inquiry into river safety conducted by Mr. John Hayes.

As usual in such cases, the Department of Transport made the Hayes report available to the press but not to Opposition spokespeople. The report is welcome, but it is no substitute for a public inquiry into the Marchioness disaster.

Before I comment further on the report, I wish to put on record the continuing distress caused to survivors and to the families of victims of the disaster because of their great sense of injustice. The lack of a public inquiry has prevented those who survived from cross-examining experts and has prevented public scrutiny. Many questions remain unanswered—my hon. Friend listed some of them. Not least among those questions are those about possible negligence on the part of the operators, about the lack of observation of the rules of navigation and the lack of enforcement by the Department of Transport, and—perhaps more significantly—about the lack of a proper analysis of the rescue operation. I remind the Minister, who is new to his post, that on that fateful night more people died in the water than in the fabric of the Marchioness.

The survivors and the families are still pressing for the resumption of the inquest. Part one has yet to be held for seven of the victims, and the holding of part two is still a matter for debate. It is imperative that the proceedings are resumed as quickly as possible.

I apologise to the House, I have lost my place m my notes, due to the late hour and lack of sleep and concentration—or perhaps I should say the early hour rather than the late hour, depending on where one considers we are as between night and morning.

We are deeply concerned that the inquest proceedings should be resumed as quickly as possible. I ask the Minister to state his view of those proceedings, and to comment on the inquest legal expenses incurred by the victims' families. Many of them have been in financial difficulties as a consequence, which adds to their sense of great injustice.

The Hayes report is welcome, and it author must be commended for his attention to detail and care. I congratulate Mr. Hayes and strongly support his recommendations for improving river safety.

The report's key finding was that the Department of Transport must take considerable responsibility for failing to give a lead on river safety. The marine accident investigation branch report referred to an historic malaise in the Department and listed a number of its failures. They included, in particular, lack of attention to improving the conspicuousness of passenger launches, lack of action to improve visibility from the wheelhouse and the fact that it allowed to remain on the river vessels whose design hindered the task of lookouts. Those are serious charges.

Mr. Hayes supports those statements and draws his own conclusion. He states: the Department showed technical competence and dedica-tion but lacked the vision and the drive to lead the river marine industry into accepting that high safety standards and commercial success were compatible. Mr. Hayes specifically draws attention to the hands-off culture promoted by the Department in the 1980s, which asserted that less regulation was required in order not to fetter business. Although Hayes does not suggest that safety was put at risk, it is clear that the Government's ideological preoccupations at the time meant that the Department did not take the lead that it should have taken in creating a safety culture on our rivers.

Such inactivity is all the more inexcusable when set against the growing awareness of many of the dangers posed by pleasure launches and the problems of lack of manoeuvrability of vessels such as the Bowbelle. The Hayes report states that, despite being aware of the problems and agreeing measures to improve the situation, the Department agreed that the responsibility for enactment should rest with the operators themselves. No checks were made on those operators. That failure to take a more proactive role meant that when incidents occurred no action was taken, when it should have been.

In answer to a parliamentary question of mine, the Minister's predecessor admitted that the Bowbelle and her sister ship the Bowtrader had been involved in 14 accidents since 1981. The collision between the Bowsprite and the Bowbelle in 1983 highlighted the lack of a lookout. That failure was to prove critical in the Marchioness disaster. Mr. Hayes comments that, despite that warning, the Department took no action to require lookouts, believing that the company itself would remedy matters.

The Bowbelle has at last been barred from the Thames—presumably in response to Mr. Hayes's concluding question. He asked whether large vessels with limited manoeuvrability and pleasure boats with limited vision could safely remain on the same stretch of water, especially at night. The answer is clearly no.

I echo the concern expressed in the report that implementation of the new regulations from the MAIB that were drawn up after the Marchioness disaster is again being delayed for commercial reasons. The consultation period is to be extended, which will further delay the regulations' implementation. I endorse Mr. Hayes's warning to the Government against going for the lowest common denominator.

The regulations cover vital safety aspects, such as minimum standards of visibility and hours of work and giving boatmen's licences statutory status. They must be implemented without further delay and I ask the Minister to comment on that when he replies.

I want to comment on and draw attention to several specific points in the Hayes report. I make no apologies for first reiterating the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South about recommendation 8 which states: there should be an early review of the rescue arrangements and equipment on the Thames which should take account of the Marchioness disaster. Like my hon. Friend, I am appalled by Government's precipitate and negative response. It is extraordinary that, despite all the clear evidence that improvements to the rescue operation are needed, despite what Hayes has said and despite the fact that more people died once they were in the water than died because they were trapped in the boat when it sank, the Government immediately responded negatively to the request for an early review of the rescue arrangements and equipment.

There is no statutory authority responsible for rescue in inland water accidents. That problem is compounded in London by the absence of a Londonwide strategic body. The Marchioness disaster showed confusion between the existing emergency services. The Port of London authority does not deem rescue to be its responsibility. Some person or some organisation should have the responsibility for rescue equipment.

I also want to support and draw attention to the recommendation that the Department of Transport should promote legislation to introduce a breath test for skippers and crews similar to that applied to car drivers. I understand that the Department is considering that idea and we are glad about that.

When the Minister replies, I hope that he can tell us what further steps he intends to take to control the design of craft like the Marchioness. Clearly, if there is insufficient visibility, the passenger certificate should be withdrawn. Repeated concerns have been expressed to me that those boats are totally unsuitable for conversion to their present-day use.

The Marchioness action group has asked me to raise another point which is of concern to the group. The group will shortly publish its own report now that the sub judice rules, which have hung over the case for the past two years, have been raised. The report will contain many issues that will have to be addressed by the Government. One of the group's concerns is that there is still no provision for lifejackets on pleasure boats, nor do those boats have rope ladders or ling rope around the side, which is an important safety issue. The survivors strongly believe that if there had been lifejackets on the Marchioness, some of the victims would have survived. I ask the Minister to comment on that particular point and its relevance to the Hayes inquiry's call for a proper investigation into the rescue operation.

It is time for clear and consistent policy on marine safety and it is obvious that such a policy is long overdue. I hope that the Minister will take up the challenge issued by the Hayes report. It is not good enough to depend on self-regulation and market forces. It is up to the Department to ensure that the highest safety standards for our rivers are formulated and enforced.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South said in conclusion that it was our wish, desire and determination that never again should river safety on the Thames be so jeopardised that we could have a disaster of such proportions, resulting in the death of 51 innocent people.

Photo of Mr Steven Norris Mr Steven Norris , Epping Forest 7:33 am, 9th July 1992

I thank the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing} for giving us the opportunity to consider the Hayes report this morning. I acknowledge his considerable interest and experience in these matters. I acknowledge also the interest and concern of the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms. Ruddock), who is also present this morning. I hope that the hon. Lady will allow me to call it "this morning". I normally refer to 25 to eight as the morning, but no doubt our clocks, as in so many other matters, are differently arranged.

The hon. Gentleman referred to legal actions that have taken place since the disaster. He will know that it is not appropriate either for me or, dare I suggest, for him to rerun cases which have been heard in the courts. The hon. Gentleman was generous enough to allow me to intervene on his speech. I did so just to confirm that, as he knows, on the first occasion, the Director of Public Prosecutions instituted against the master of the Bowbelle proceedings under the merchant shipping Acts in which the jury failed to agree a verdict. That of itself may or may not be significant. As I have said, it is not appropriate for me to draw any conclusion from that other than to note the verdict.

What is perhaps of greater interest is that, on the second occasion on which the DPP instituted a rerun of the first case proceedings, the jury again failed to reach a verdict. I shall not go over the reasons why I conclude that. The hon. Gentleman will know what principal issues would have been of interest to the jury, but it is worth putting it on record that there has been no lack of enthusiasm by the DPP in bringing appropriate proceedings. On the two occasions when evidence has been heard, the jury have failed to agree. The hon. Gentleman will know also that the private prosecution which was brought against senior officials in the company which managed the Bowbelle also failed.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South

I assure the Minister that I, too, do not suggest having a rerun of those three cases, but they underline my point about the need for a wider inquiry. In prosecuting the skipper, who may have been under some constraint over which he had no control, perhaps any hon. Member would have come to the same verdict as the jury. To emphasise the personal responsibility of either the officials of the firm or the skipper is surely not the right way to consider the totality of the tragedy, which illustrates the inappropriateness of using the normal courts in respect of such a tragedy. That is why there should be a big inquiry.

Photo of Mr Steven Norris Mr Steven Norris , Epping Forest

As the hon. Gentleman will expect of me, I shall refer to the desirability of any further inquiry proceedings. In essence, the hon. Gentleman has raised two issues. The first is his long-standing concern about previous collisions in which the Bowbelle was involved. As my predecessor explained to him last year and as the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, the MAIB was aware of those collisions but it considered that only one of them was relevant to the collision with the Marchioness. That is why the others were not mentioned in the MAIB report. That is a matter for the investigation board, but it was also for Mr. Hayes to decide what should be included in his report to the Department. Hon. Members have acknowledged that Mr. Hayes produced a good piece of work—one which challenges the Department. He, too, took the view that those incidents, which were related to the disaster and which referred to the history of the Bowbelle had been appropriately treated. I merely leave that on the record.

As for the idea that there should be a further public inquiry, there have been two major inquiries into matters connected with the Bowbelle-Marchioness collision. One was the MAIB report and the other was the report by Mr. Hayes. They are substantial pieces of work. Evidence was collected widely. Advertisements were placed in the press for contributions to the work. In addition, there have been the three prosecutions to which I referred, all of which have been unsuccessful.

Hon. Members will know that the purpose of a public inquiry is to establish what happened and to ensure that the accident or incident does not recur. There is no case for one in this instance because, as far as we are aware, all the facts have been established. An inquiry would therefore serve no useful purpose. It is worth noting that the Hayes report does not suggest that a public inquiry or any other investigation into the cause of the Marchioness disaster is needed.

If the hon. Members for Newham, South and for Deptford have any new evidence, they should conic forward with it at the first opportunity. Knowing the assiduity of the hon. Member for Newham, South, I am sure that he would have done so if he had such evidence. Although I understand that, for example, some members of the Marchioness action group have called for a public inquiry—a call reiterated by the hon. Member for Deptford this morning—there is no case for an inquiry. It is clear that all the facts have been established.

Photo of Joan Ruddock Joan Ruddock , Lewisham, Deptford

I do not believe that the Minister can substantiate his remark that all the facts have been established.

Photo of Joan Ruddock Joan Ruddock , Lewisham, Deptford

The hon. Gentleman asks from a sedentary position, "What facts?" If he waits a moment, I shall try to explain my position. I had hoped to make a brief intervention.

Those who survived the disaster, who might have most information on what happened that night, and the eye witnesses have not been given the opportunity to present their evidence in a public arena. Just as importantly, they have not had the opportunity to cross-question the assumptions, presumptions, opinions and judgments of the experts who compiled the reports. For those two salient reasons, the Minister cannot substantiate the assertion that all the facts are known. We are convinced that they are not known. Those who have suffered most—those who survived and the families of the victims—have an on-going sense of deep grievance at the injustice of not having had a public inquiry.

Photo of Mr Steven Norris Mr Steven Norris , Epping Forest

I understand the sincerely held feelings of grievance among relatives of those who lost their lives in the disaster and of the survivors. I understand their natural concern. We are in difficult territory when either of us attempts to allege that all the facts are known or not known. However, in support of my proposition, I have the reports of the inquiries which have already been held. Both reports are substantial. On the hon. Lady's own admission, Mr. Hayes's report is challenging. I know that she does not suggest for one second that either inquiry has attempted to cover up information which is available and ought to be in the public domain. Therefore, the onus is on her. If she makes allegations that evidence is available which has not so far been adduced, I suggest in all seriousness that it is for her to bring that evidence forward.

As Mr. Hayes concluded more expertly than I, on the basis of what is currently known, no grounds exist for a public inquiry. That is not to say that many of those who were involved in one way or another in that accident do not have an understandable desire to express their feelings about the actions of some people on that dreadful night. I quite understand that. It is the most natural human emotion in the world. But we are dealing with the proposition that a public inquiry is needed. The basis for that inquiry would be that some part of the affair needs to be investigated because it has not previously been considered and material conclusions relating to it have not been drawn. I do not believe that either the hon. Lady or the hon. Member for Newham, South has made that case.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South

The hon. Gentleman mentioned me as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms. Ruddock). May I draw the Minister's attention, when he reads Hansard, to the six unanswered questions in the MAIB report which I listed. There are many more. Surely it is not merely a question of the opportunity of witnesses to give evidence. For example, witnesses on the Hurlingham are not quoted at all. Questions which have arisen in the informed public's mind should be investigated and answered. I produced some questions that were not answered.

Photo of Mr Steven Norris Mr Steven Norris , Epping Forest

Perhaps I may say a few words about the Hayes report, and in that context we may be able to answer some of the detailed questions that the hon. Gentleman asked. I intend to cover much of the ground that he mentioned.

Photo of Mr Steven Norris Mr Steven Norris , Epping Forest

I hope that the hon. Lady will allow me to continue for a few seconds.

Last December, as the House will know, Mr. Hayes was invited to conduct his inquiry into river safety. His precise terms of reference were: In the light of the Marchioness/Bowbelle disaster to examine the handling since 1980 by the Department of Transport of its responsibility for the safety of vessels on rivers and inland waters and to report on the effectiveness of the present approach. The enquiry should take account of developments in the field of marine safety at international level. I shall deal with the report first and then come back to the specific matter of the Marchioness disaster.

Photo of Joan Ruddock Joan Ruddock , Lewisham, Deptford

It is helpful that the Minister has given way at this point because he has just given the terms of reference, which contradict his recent statement that the facts of what happened in the Marchioness disaster had already been established. It is clear, from the terms of reference of the Hayes committee, that Hayes was not charged with finding out what happened during that disaster. He was charged with wider terms of reference and therefore it is wrong to say that Hayes and his report have established the facts of what happened during the disaster.

Photo of Mr Steven Norris Mr Steven Norris , Epping Forest

But the hon. Lady did not hear me say that, precisely because I entirely accept her definition of what Mr. Hayes was dealing with. She has ignored the existence of the MAIB report, to which I shall refer later.

I remind the hon. Lady that the Hayes inquiry is the subject of our debate and that it was conducted on an informal and independent basis. Mr. Hayes had two advisers, one to cover marine matters and one to advise on safety. The inquiry received written and oral submissions from more than 130 sources and was given full co-operation by the Department of Transport. Mr. Hayes completed his work and submitted his report in May, and it was published by HMSO on Tuesday 7 July.

As I believe that the whole House acknowledges, Mr. Hayes has prepared a thorough and comprehensive report. He has not pulled his punches, and the report is all the more valuable for that. It makes it clear that there is, of course, a fundamental obligation on those who provide services for profit for travellers. But, as he also points out, it is the Department of Transport which, with the Port of London authority, is responsible for regulating the operators on the Thames.

I make no bones about straightforwardly saying that Hayes has concluded that while the Department showed technical competence and dedication", it lacked the vision and drive to lead the marine industry into accepting that high safety standards and commercial success were compatible. That is straightforward and, as I think that the House would agree, it does not mince words in any sense. It makes it clear that the Government, together with industry and the authorities concerned, have to aim higher in the future.

The report made 22 specific recommendations, which cover the future organisation of marine safety, specific action on river safety, the staffing and organisation of the marine accident investigation branch and its role in the dissemination of information, specific minor improve-ments to marine legislation and merchant shipping Acts in various contexts and new powers over boat owners and operators. I want to make it clear to the hon. Member for Newham, South that we are considering all those recommendations carefully, because he said that some had already been rejected. My specific advice is that all those recommendations are being considered.

Some recommendations will require further considera-tion and consultation with other interested organisations—as the report suggests—so we cannot give a full response to them now. Action on others, however, can be taken quickly. In some cases, action is already in hand. That has been fully described in the set of initial responses to the report, which we also released on Tuesday.

Several of the Mr. Hayes's recommendations concern the Department's overall approach to the exercise of its functions in this sector. The report urged the Department to take a much higher profile in promoting safety among a variety of disparate operators and regulators. We clearly intend to do that. The House will know, however, that part of the background to this matter is that a variety of bodies have responsibility in relation to safety on rivers and inland waters. That is as it should be, but it follows that a uniform approach would not necessarily be practicable, because conditions vary so greatly between one part of the country and another and between one river and another.

Photo of Mr Steven Norris Mr Steven Norris , Epping Forest

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman acknowledges that.

The police and harbour authorities and the Health and Safety Executive have different safety responsibilities and it is proper that they should continue to have those individual responsibilities. We have therefore decided, as the hon. Gentleman knows, to establish a series of district marine safety committees throughout the United Kingdom, which will be based on the Department's six marine districts.

The committees will review in each area the way in which the responsibilities for safety, rescue and accident prevention are currently distributed. They will identify the scope for improvements; suggest ways of making those improvements; and most importantly, ensure that the improvements are implemented and maintained. They will also make proposals for legislative change if they think that that is necessary.

We intend that each committee will include represen-tatives of relevant organisations in the district, both public and private, and will be chaired by a departmental chief surveyor. We will achieve national co-ordination and a consistent approach to how those committees undertake their work through a national steering committee. I am sure that the House would agree that it is appropriate, on that basis, that after two years, we should review what those committees have achieved and consider whether they should be established as permanent bodies.

We have endeavoured to accept that it is right that a multiplicity of bodies should have responsibility in various locations for various safety issues of local importance. We also believe that there should also be a mechanism to ensure that the new impetus, which Mr. Hayes has charged us to give to the matter, is maintained.

Mr. Hayes also made a number of recommendations about the way in which the surveyor general's organisation—SGO—should exercise its responsibilities in future concerning safety on rivers and at sea. Following recent reports by the National Audit Office and a Committee in another place, an internal review of this matter has been carried out. It recommended that the SGO be reconstituted as a marine safety agency; it would be responsible to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and would have the same degree of independence as other next steps agencies. Work is now in hand to establish whether the organisation should become a candidate for executive agency status. The conclusions on this will be announced in due course.

The hon. Member for Deptford spoke of the importance of recommendation 8 of the Hayes report, which I know we will all agree is the most crucial: it is that there should be an early review of the rescue arrangements and equipment on the Thames. We have reflected on this carefully, but our conclusion, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, and as we discussed earlier, is that a further review would not be justified.

Action is being taken to ensure that the lessons learnt from the Marchioness-Bowbelle disaster have been fully assimilated. The Home Office is asking the main parties involved in the rescue—in this case, the Metropolitan police and the PLA—to confirm that they have drawn the appropriate lessons, that their contingency plans have been amended and that those plans are regularly reviewed and practised. In addition, Thames rescue arrangements and equipment will be examined by the relevant district marine safety committee under the new arrangements that I mentioned earlier.

Mr. Hayes recommended a number of measures that, as I have said, are already in hand. For example, we have increased tenfold the number of spot-checks on Thames passenger vessels since the loss of the Marchioness, in addition—I want to make this clear in case there is any doubt—to the annual survey of every passenger vessel. I know that Opposition Members will know that, rather than there being on average less than one spot-check a week, there are now half a dozen spot-checks in addition to the annual safety check. We are monitoring the effectiveness of the bridge lighting system. The hon. Member for Newham, South has a lot of experience of this, and that was shown by the way that he narrated the history of the Bow class vessels. He will know that passenger certificates will not be granted to any vessel that does not satisfy the new stringent visibility criteria.

Photo of Mr Steven Norris Mr Steven Norris , Epping Forest

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's acknowledgement of that.

We are also reviewing the M notice system to make sure that the whole process is much more user friendly, and I think that that will be useful. I am sure that everyone will agree that to issue notices to all the vessels where the advice in those notices need apply to only a small number is the wrong way to ensure that those operating that small number of vessels realise that this is one of those countless pieces of paper that they should read and understand. Full details of our initial response to the Hayes report are available in the Library. We shall inform the House as our consideration of the recommendations proceeds and we are able to give firm responses.

I should like to say a little about the Marchioness-Bowbelle disaster. I know that the House will want to join me in saying that, despite the passage of time, the grief does not lessen. We shall all want to express our sympathies to the survivors of, and those bereaved by, one of the most horrific disasters that we can remember. This is my first opportunity to express my personal condolences.

Although the Hayes inquiry looked at the overall issue of river safety, it was clearly prompted by the concerns expressed after that disaster, which happened in August 1989. The Government were, and remain, determined that a disaster such as that should never happen again. An investigation by the independent MAIB was at once mounted and some new safety measures—for example, passenger counting and safety announcements—were initiated immediately after the accident. The MAIB's interim report was made 10 days after the accident and included six further safety recommendations, considera-tion of which was put in hand immediately. The MAIB carried out a thorough investigation and produced a hard-hitting report. It made 27 recommendations, all of which were accepted.

Although the report could not be published at once because of the proceedings that were then being taken against the master of the Bowbelle, its recommendations were published in July 1990 so that action could begin as quickly as possible. The Department has moved rapidly to implement those recommendations.

It being Eight o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.