Orders of the Day — Marchioness Inquiries

– in the House of Commons at 10:59 am on 23 March 2001.

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Photo of John Prescott John Prescott Deputy Prime Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Environment, Transport and the Regions, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the Marchioness inquiries.

In the early hours of 20 August 1989, 51 people tragically lost their lives in the Thames following a collision between the dredger Bowbelle and the pleasure craft Marchioness. Many members of the public were profoundly shocked that such an event could happen in the centre of London, on a warm August night.

Since the tragedy, the survivors and families of the victims have campaigned for a full public inquiry. On 14 February 2000, I reported to the House Lord Justice Clarke's conclusion—from his Thames safety inquiry—that a formal investigation should have taken place soon after the incident. He recommended that I should now order one, and I agreed to do so.

I also established a non-statutory inquiry into the identification of victims following major transport accidents. I thank Lord Justice Clarke for undertaking those difficult tasks so well. At the outset, he clearly indicated that the purpose of the investigation and inquiry was not retribution, but to establish what had happened and to learn the necessary lessons for the future. Copies of both reports have been placed in the Library of the House, together with our response to the 30 recommendations made in the formal investigation report.

The exact circumstances of the collision have been a matter of dispute for more than a decade. Never before have all the relevant documents been assembled and subjected to such scrutiny.

The formal investigation finds that responsibility for the accident lies with the master of the Bowbelle, Captain Henderson; the Bowbelle's owners, East Coast Aggregates Ltd.; its managers, South Coast Shipping Ltd.; the skipper of the Marchioness, Mr. Faldo; and its owners, Kenneth Dwan and William Ludgrove of Tidal Cruises Ltd., because of their failure to establish and maintain an appropriate lookout on their vessels.

The investigation finds that both vessels were in breach of collision regulations and of Port of London authority byelaws. It finds that Captain Henderson of the Bowbelle was in breach of his obligation to broadcast a mayday and to launch life-saving equipment.

The investigation also criticises the Port of London authority and the former Department of Transport. The Port of London authority failed to require vessels with limited visibility forward—such as the Bowbelle—to locate a lookout with an effective means of communication with the bridge. The Department failed to apply its policy that all pleasure craft on the Thames should have all-round visibility from the bridge, and did not give adequate thought to means of escape when the Marchioness was converted in 1980. The Department also failed to ensure that a condition requiring an extra lookout was imposed each time the Marchioness passenger certificate was renewed. As Secretary of State, I apologise unreservedly for the past failings of the Department—especially to the relatives.

The investigation deplores the amount of drink Captain Henderson had taken before he rejoined his ship. However, expert medical advice at the investigation indicated that he would not have been adversely affected by alcohol at the time of the incident, although his rest may have been disturbed. The report concludes that Mr. Faldo, of the Marchioness, who unfortunately lost his life, had not been drinking alcohol that night, although he may have been fatigued by the long hours that he had worked.

During the investigation, Captain Henderson of the Bowbelle admitted that during the 1980s he had forged a signature on watch-keeping certificates and his discharge book in order to gain his masters certificate. Captain Henderson did not volunteer that information to the marine accident investigation branch in 1989.

Having considered the legal arguments advanced during the investigation, including Captain Henderson's entitlement to have his civil rights determined within a reasonable time, Lord Justice Clarke did not take disciplinary action against Captain Henderson. That is a shameful consequence of the failure to hold a formal investigation following the disaster. Nor has Lord Justice Clarke recommended that action be taken against any other party found responsible for the accident.

The preliminary advice that I have received is that there is little prospect of a successful prosecution of Captain Henderson. However, I am referring the entire formal investigation report to the Director of Public Prosecutions for him to consider what action would be appropriate against Captain Henderson or any other party. I have also asked the Maritime and Coastguard Agency to undertake an urgent review of Captain Henderson's fitness to hold a British masters certificate of competency under the Merchant Shipping Acts.

Lord Justice Clarke previously reviewed safety on the Thames and made 44 recommendations; we have acted on all of them. He makes 30 further recommendations in this report; we will take forward all of them and our detailed response to those recommendations has been placed in the Library with the reports.

Lord Justice Clarke warmly welcomes my Department's decision to undertake a comprehensive formal safety assessment of small passenger vessels. Work is already under way.

Although drink-driving is an offence on the roads, it has not been on the river. We recently announced our intention to introduce, in the forthcoming safety Bill, an alcohol limit for those in charge of vessels. We also strongly support the recommendation that all shipping companies should have a clear policy regarding both alcohol and drug taking by their crews and the means to monitor its observance.

We are also putting in place new arrangements to co-ordinate search and rescue and to provide additional rescue facilities on the Thames, including three permanently manned lifeboats provided by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. The coastguard accepts overarching responsibility for search and rescue on the tidal Thames—as elsewhere in the UK.

Lord Justice Clarke singles out the role played in the rescue by the Metropolitan police officers. He commends their efforts and those of members of the public—including the so-called Hurlingham boys—who came to the rescue. I am sure that the House will want to join me in supporting those comments.

I now turn to the non-statutory inquiry that I ordered at the same time. It is hard to envisage the distress that relatives must have felt when they learned that hands had been removed from the bodies of some of those who died. Lord Justice Clarke considered the concerns of the relatives, including the removal of hands for identification; the failure to inform relatives that hands had been removed; and the refusal to allow relatives to view the bodies.

Lord Justice Clarke finds that the removal of hands for identification purposes should not have happened, except as a last resort. The responsibility for authorising the removal of hands lay entirely with Dr. Knapman, the coroner. He is criticised for failing to make it clear that this was to be an action only of last resort.

Lord Justice Clarke stressed the importance of respecting the dead and their relatives and of working with sensitivity throughout; of ensuring that full, honest and accurate information is given to the relatives at every stage; and of respecting the request of a relative to view the body. I am sure that the House will be in accord with those sentiments.

The Government are acting on Lord Clarke's recommendations. With advances in DNA techniques, it is now rare for hands to be removed. However, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has decided to ask coroners to report to the Home Office any future cases where hands are removed.

The inquiry revealed a failure, in three cases, to reunite the severed hands with the bodies, as Dr. Knapman should have required. Westminster mortuary is also criticised for its procedures. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has agreed that the review of the Human Tissue Act 1961, following the Alder Hey inquiry report, will be widened to cover Lord Justice Clarke's recommendations.

Today, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is announcing the terms of reference of a fundamental review of the coroner system, which will now also reflect these recommendations. Moreover, a copy of the report will be sent to every coroner. I ask them to consider it carefully, to see whether existing practices can be improved. The police service is also developing guidelines to improve its own procedures.

After the hearings, it emerged that tissue samples taken from four of the Marchioness victims had been found 11 years later in Westminster mortuary. Post mortems were carried out on all 51 victims after the tragedy and small samples of tissue removed, in accordance with normal forensic practice. Most of the samples were destroyed after six months, but four remained at Westminster mortuary. I should emphasise that, contrary to newspaper reports, these were small amounts of tissue, not the organs themselves, and that the material was not used for research.

Lord Justice Clarke wrote to the Secretary of State for Health about those samples, and my right hon. Friend has agreed to refer the matter to the newly established Retained Organs Commission for further action, in consultation with the relatives. The Home Secretary has also agreed to undertake a review of practice and procedures in all public mortuaries in England and Wales, to ensure compliance with best practice.

After 11 long years, Lord Justice Clarke has provided the definitive account of the Marchioness tragedy. Responsibility has at long last been attributed and laid at the door of the skippers, the owners and the managers of both vessels. Criticism has been levelled at the Department of Transport, the Port of London authority, the coroner and the mortuary.

The lessons of the accident continue to be learned. The Thames is a safer place than it was in 1989. It can and must become safer still. The sinking of the Marchioness profoundly shocked the nation. A full public inquiry should have been held years ago. Lord Justice Clarke states that he hopes that his inquiry will help to ensure that nothing like this happens again. He says that his report may not satisfy everyone, but he hopes that the inquiry will have played a small part in helping the relatives and survivors to put the appalling tragedy behind them and contributed to improving safety on the Thames in future. The reports provide a chilling reminder of the need for vigilance and will stand as a permanent rebuke to those found at fault.

Finally, I am sure the House will join me in paying tribute to the tenacity and courage of the relatives for their tireless campaign to secure a full public inquiry. The improvements that we have seen to river safety are a lasting testament to their commitment. I commend the reports to the House.

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Shadow Minister (Transport)

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for giving me an advance copy of the report and of his statement—and I thank Lord Justice Clarke for his report.

No one can who reads the files and recalls the memories of this terrible tragedy can fail to be moved. The loss of so many successful and talented men and women, destroyed in the prime of their lives, can leave nothing but an inconsolable sense of waste. From the moment that the accident was reported, it became apparent that it should have been avoidable.

There were failings, and I join the Deputy Prime Minister in saying that I am very sorry for those failings, which are underlined in the recommendations arising from the marine accident investigation branch report. Subsequent inquiries have produced further recommendations, including those in the Hayes inquiry under the previous Administration, and Lord Justice Clarke's. interim recommendations.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister have confidence in the safety management and procedures on the River Thames today? He has announced further improvements, but river traffic is growing rapidly. Is he confident that safety management is matching that growth? May I ask him to express confidence in the marine accident investigation branch in respect of its role in river safety? Does he think that it has learned the lessons from the episode?

Is not the overwhelming lesson that safety management must be proactive and that every vessel must be constantly capable of navigating safely at all times? Following the recommendations, what procedures will the right hon. Gentleman's Department pursue to keep river safety up to date-for example, to make maximum use of technology? Can he confirm that those recommendations will be extended to other similar waterways in the United Kingdom?

On the non-statutory report, everyone will share the right hon. Gentleman's sense of revulsion at the treatment of the dead and bereaved after the accident. We can ensure that those events are never repeated. I welcome the action that the right hon. Gentleman proposes and the widening of the Alder Hey inquiry to consider them, but is that expected to delay the Alder Hey inquiry in any way?

Finally, I join the Deputy Prime Minister in paying tribute to the relatives of those who perished. They will never be able to draw a line under the episode. They will live the nightmare of that night for the rest of their lives. The improvements to river safety a announced today and since the disaster will provide some comfort, and, as the right hon. Gentleman said, they are a lasting testament to the relatives' commitment to river safety.

Photo of John Prescott John Prescott Deputy Prime Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Environment, Transport and the Regions, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his response and for welcoming Lord Justice Clarke's recommendations. May I also say, together with him, how much the House appreciates the very hard work that Lord Justice Clarke put into the inquiry? It was essential that he defined what happened on the night because previous Governments had failed to do so. He restored confidence in the type of investigations that can take place in the event of such tragedies, which we all want to avoid. I am grateful to him for his support and congratulate him on all that he has done. The report is a remarkable piece of work.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's support for the recommendations. Our views on them can be read in the document that has been placed in the Library. We always need to be vigilant about safety management on the river, whatever rules and regulations exist. Individuals often take decisions in difficult circumstances, which can contribute in some way, but we have to be assured that we have a regulatory framework that can ensure that the best standards are applied. Anyone reading Lord Justice Clarke's report will find out about the sloppiness that existed in the companies, as well as on board ship, for which responsibility has to be taken. No doubt we shall come to that argument when we discuss corporate responsibility in the near future.

We all welcome the fact that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency is now in charge of search and rescue and of imposing good safety standards. The House will generally welcome the fact that the Royal National Lifeboat Institution is very much involved. We have ensured that the standards are applied to other rivers around the country. A review is taking place to ensure that the same standards are maintained in other rivers.

The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point about whether the marine accident investigation branch has learned its lessons. The report shows what can happen when discretion is involved in deciding whether there should be an interim inquiry and a public inquiry. It is necessary to hold the interim inquiry first. The record of the past 10 years clearly shows that people were making decisions and recommendations, but did not exercise the right to hold a public inquiry.

I would not want people to think that the marine accident investigation branch was the only means of conducting an investigation. It was thought in the Department at the time that the MAIB could act in the same way as the air accidents investigation branch. I am not sure that that is the right way to proceed; the MAIB can be involved but, ultimately, discretion on whether to hold a public inquiry lies with Ministers.

Those who look at the record can decide for themselves, but, frankly, I think the process failed. The marine accident investigation branch cannot be totally totally to blame. Its terms of reference required it to discover what happened, not to look behind that to find out what the faults were and whether there was any blame. In any inquiry involving a vessel that has gone down with the loss of 55 lives, that should happen. That gives me the opportunity to deal with the controversial issue of whether an inquiry could be held up because of the possibility of legal prosecutions. I think that the inquiry should continue, whatever is happening with prosecutions, but we are discussing that matter at the moment. The Lord Chancellor is addressing himself to that problem, about which the House has from time to time expressed concern.

On whether the Alder Hey inquiry will be delayed, I shall ask the Secretary of State for Health to write to the hon. Gentleman with a response. I do not think it will be delayed, but I would prefer to allow my colleague to respond.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks about the people who have had to carry this heavy burden for so long. They demanded a public inquiry, and Lord Justice Clarke has responded to them. He has made his recommendations and I have given the House the Government's view of them.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Since 1989, I have been the constituency Member as well as the party representative most associated with the tragedy, and I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his unique commitment to ensuring that there was an inquiry. I thank him for that without qualification. He knows that both the families and I respect him greatly.

I join the Secretary of State and the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) in paying tribute to Lord Justice Clarke and those who helped him. They did an excellent job. I also join in the tributes to the families of those who survived and those who did not. The families did not give in, in spite of the amazing obstacles that were placed in their way. They and the so-called Hurlingham boys—the people on the other boat that night who came and saved lives—deserve unqualified thanks. I hope that this statement is some consolation to them above all.

The conclusion of these two full reports is that terrible and fatal failures took place before, on and after the night of the sinking. Those failures led to the tragic and unnecessary deaths of 51 people with huge potential. I share the view of the hon. Member for North Essex. The obvious conclusion is that this sinking should not and need not have happened, and all those responsible should have been held responsible.

I choose my words carefully, but I think that the previous Conservative Government made the disgraceful decision not to hold the inquiry that was asked for from the beginning. I accept that the right hon. Gentleman played no part in that decision. However, if an earlier inquiry had taken place, many of the remedies that are not now available would have been available. Unfortunately, that failure cannot now be put right.

I shall not do anything other than welcome all the Secretary of State's recommendations—I support them. However, I wish to ask some specific questions. Can he assure the House that, in addition to the referral of the Captain Henderson case, he will satisfy himself that any other legal action that can be properly and fairly taken will be considered and, if appropriate, taken?

If there is no election this year or if the Secretary of State and the Labour party are in government after an election, will he undertake that legislation will be introduced at the earliest opportunity to cover corporate responsibility for deaths and manslaughter? Such legislation should have been introduced a long time ago, but the sooner we get a law on the statute book, the better.

The Secretary of State made the welcome announcement that the Home Secretary will consider the provisions for coroner's inquests. However, will he undertake that that consideration will cover the issues to which he referred? Coroner's inquests, calls for a public inquiry and criminal and civil proceedings often all come together, so a co-ordinated and sensible approach must be taken to them.

The Secretary of State said that the coastguard will take responsibility for search and rescue. Does that mean that, in future, in every search and rescue operation on inland waterways, the coastguard will direct the police, the river police and the appropriate port or river authorities? One of the lessons of this case is that no one took ultimate responsibility, but someone should ultimately be responsible for what happens on the Thames and other inland waterways.

The lessons of Lord Justice Clarke's second report appear to be that no one had clear responsibility for looking after the victims and their families from the moment of the accident, and the bodies of the dead were not sacrosanct. I hope that the Government are saying that, in future, anyone who ever loses a relative in such a tragedy will know that limbs, organs and body parts cannot be taken without the authority of the family. That conclusion must be drawn from this and other cases; I hope that the Government will make that the legal position from now on.

Photo of John Prescott John Prescott Deputy Prime Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Environment, Transport and the Regions, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks about my personal involvement in this matter. In these difficult times, we have had to make difficult decisions and have had to ask relatives to trust us. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the support that he has given me in securing the trust that has enabled us to make a definitive statement of what happened on the night of the accident. I am also grateful that he expressed appreciation and paid tribute to the relatives, and to Lord Justice Clarke for his report.

I agree that much needs to be done if we are to learn the lessons. The recommendations that have been made represent a major step towards doing that and I want them to be implemented as quickly as possible and without delay.

On the hon. Gentleman's question about Captain Henderson, I am referring the whole report to the Director of Public Prosecution, and I have not limited my request for advice to Captain Henderson. I would like advice about any party who has responsibility in this matter.

The hon. Gentleman rightly pointed to the delays that occurred and they relate to other pieces of legislation and the human rights of the people involved in this case. However, as Lord Justice Clarke has pointed out, the delays have meant that we cannot take any further action. In addition, the two or three court cases delayed the proper inquiry, and one court did not come to a decision, which prevented any secondary charges being made. All those events have added to the complications, which is why my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor is reviewing the business of the inquiries and prosecutions that can take place when there are such conflicts. Delays are unacceptable to the relatives and those who are interested in these cases, so we are addressing ourselves directly to that point.

On corporate responsibility, the Home Office has conducted a review, which was finished in September. We have said that our conclusions will appear in a new safety Bill that will be introduced if we are re-elected.

The way in which coroners deal with such cases is actively under review. Indeed, the report makes a number of specific recommendations which we have accepted. A review is being conducted by my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Health to improve the position.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the coastguard. We have introduced for the Thames provisions similar to those for most of our estuaries and rivers, but the coastguard does not operate in every river where there are passenger boats. We are therefore conducting a review of what are called the class 5 vessels that are found in rivers and estuaries throughout the country. We want greater uniformity in the system and I shall report to the House when we have completed the review.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the trauma that the victims have suffered, and that has been a feature of all the accidents that have occurred in the past couple of decades. Our provisions for handling trauma have improved, as we can see from the fact that companies involved in railway tragedies are better informed. Local authorities are also more helpful. However, if a post mortem is necessary, nothing should be done to the bodies of the loved ones without the agreement of the relatives. That recommendation has been made strongly, but Lord Justice Clarke makes it clear that, for obvious reasons, coroners have a right to conduct post mortems; however, we must achieve a better balance and I think that the recommendations achieve that.

Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Labour, Poplar and Canning Town

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and, more important, for initiating the two inquiries.

Much safety legislation reaches the statute book only when lessons are learned from transport and fire tragedies. That has happened time and again and it appears that we react to tragedies instead of being proactive. Surely any multiple loss of life should automatically lead to a full public inquiry to ensure that the causes are completely examined and to obtain public confidence. What assurances can my right hon. Friend give the House that future Governments will act as he has done in promptly calling for a public inquiry when there is a tragedy? In the case of the Marchioness, families and others encountered difficulties because the then Government blocked the initiation of a public inquiry. Can he assure us that public inquiries will take place if there are disasters and tragedies in future?

Photo of John Prescott John Prescott Deputy Prime Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Environment, Transport and the Regions, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. He makes a powerful point about the circumstances that should lead to a public inquiry. He mentioned one of the criteria; the loss of life. In the terrible train tragedy at Great Heck, lives were lost, but no one disputed the facts behind that accident: it was not the fault of the railway system, but a combination of circumstances. I use that example without passing judgment on what happened at Great Heck. Sometimes a public inquiry is needed to find what happened and, if necessary, to apportion blame. There is an element of discretion in that difficult area.

The then Government started properly, with a preliminary inquiry into the sinking of the Marchioness. The first decision was taken by the Prime Minister herself on the day. She had a meeting at No. 10 with the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) —then the Minister of State, Department of Transport—because the Secretary of State was out of the country. They decided, first, to hold a preliminary inquiry, and to leave open the option for a full inquiry. The problem was that people began to find different reasons for not having a full inquiry. That led to suspicion among the relatives and to bad feeling; particularly as the Government had ordered a full inquiry into the loss of the Herald of Free Enterprise without such consideration.

I want to be fair to the previous Administration. It is proper to have a preliminary inquiry, but eventually discretion must be used by Ministers about whether there should be a public inquiry. As a result of the recommendations, we are reviewing the rules governing inquiries with the Lord Chancellor and others. As Lord Justice Clarke said, loss of life is one of the criteria when deciding whether to hold an inquiry, but there are others and we have to make judgments.

I cannot envisage a system in which discretion is not exercised, and, if it is, Ministers should be accountable to this House for their judgment. On balance, that is the better way of dealing with these matters and we can, I hope, come to the best judgments. Sometimes we cannot; if so, we are accountable to this House. If we do not settle the issues, such terrible matters could go on for years with nothing being done. That in turn leads to arguments because, when so much time has passed, it is impossible to pursue a proper prosecution or any further action.

In this case, there was a desire for a maritime accident report. However, when 10 or 11 years pass without a public inquiry, there is a chance of misinterpretation. People then believe that there is bad will and bad feeling, and that those involved are not doing enough. Public inquiries clear the air, with Ministers being answerable to this Chamber.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister very much for coming to the House so promptly and for making such a full statement. Is he satisfied—as far as he reasonably can be—that after learning the lessons from what has happened and from the report, we now have the combination of onshore and on-vessel systems and equipment that are necessary to provide the guarantee of safety that we need, given the welcome increase in traffic on the Thames? That is obviously important not just for Londoners, but for tourists. Is not the main thing that can come out of this process the maximum reassurance that I hope the Deputy Prime Minister feels able to give today, as that would be a fitting testament to those who died in the tragedy?

Photo of John Prescott John Prescott Deputy Prime Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Environment, Transport and the Regions, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his remarks. The question that he poses is the one that every one of us should ask. Looking at the statistics about the increasing traffic on the river, I cannot say that there has been a tremendous drop in the amount of incidents. They may not be the most serious types of incident, but the Thames is a busy river and traffic on it is growing all the time. The report showed not that there was a failure of manning or of competency, but that recommendations were just not observed. There was a certain sloppiness in the system which I believe contributed to the collision of the two vessels, although the main cause was that neither maintained lookouts, as was required under the Government's regulations on safety on the river. It is question of vigilance and accountability.

We have instituted some new checks and controls and, along with the 70-odd recommendations in the report, I believe that these will cause improvements. However, I have been involved in transport safety for a long time and I know that we can never be sure. All we can do is make sure that the checks are done properly and that vigilance is maintained. We must allow people to enjoy the river, but remind them that it can be dangerous. I would like to be able to say that there will never be another incident, but it would be foolish of me to do so. However, we are doing all that we can to prevent another one.

Photo of Mr Chris Pond Mr Chris Pond Labour, Gravesham

I thank my right hon. Friend for his personal commitment to the issue, without which we would not have learned the lessons from Lord Justice Clarke's inquiry. Clearly, those lessons—if, as he has said, they are implemented in full—will make the Thames a safer place. I also endorse my right hon. Friend's tribute, repeated by other Members, to the families, relatives and survivors of the Marchioness disaster. I have worked closely with them for the past four years, as has the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). My admiration and respect for the families, and for their determination and courage, has increased year by year.

I understand the families' anger that it has taken so long to find the answers to their questions. I note that the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) is unable to be in the Chamber this morning, although, as we have heard, he was the duty Minister at the time, and was responsible for the decision that the inquiry should not take place. Would it not be appropriate for the right hon. Gentleman to come to this House to give his own apology for not having an inquiry? That inquiry would have allowed the families and the relatives to put to rest their loved ones and would have allowed us to learn lessons which, if implemented, could have made the river a safer place over the past 11 years.

Photo of John Prescott John Prescott Deputy Prime Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Environment, Transport and the Regions, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks, especially those concerning the families. With regard to his remarks about the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea, I said at the beginning that he met the Prime Minister on the day, as I would have expected; particularly when one considers that the Secretary of State was out of the country. It is a question not of individual responsibility, but of collective responsibility. A number of different Ministers and Secretaries of State have replied to the House on the subject over the past 10 or 11 years. Each came to the conclusion that there should not be a public inquiry. They may have made that decision for different reasons and at different times, but they all arrived at the same conclusion. That conclusion, in my view, was wrong.

The maritime accident report said that no fault had occurred that could result in disciplinary action. That was wrong. The body responsible was in constant discussion with Ministers. Lord Justice Clarke's report states that the recommendations from civil servants—arising out of an exchange in the Hayes report, which came after the maritime accident inquiry set up by the Government—were that perhaps Ministers should not have a full inquiry, but that if they did, they, the civil servants, would not be surprised. That is where discretion comes in.

Although my hon. Friend talks about individual responsibility for the matter, each must make his own decision about how he deals with the matter. I am in the unfortunate circumstances of apologising for a previous Administration but, in the circumstances, it is right for me to do so, as I have responsibility now. There was collective responsibility and, frankly, there was collective failure. That is brought out by Lord Justice Clarke's report, and that is where I would address my remarks about the failure to hold a public inquiry.

Photo of Mr Nick St Aubyn Mr Nick St Aubyn Conservative, Guildford

None of us should pay too much attention to the cheap remarks of the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond) on this serious occasion. As the Deputy Prime Minister said, the benefits to be derived from a public inquiry must be balanced against other considerations; for instance, the need to collect evidence for a criminal prosecution. In that context, could he tell the House whether Lord Justice Clarke has identified any recommendation which, had it been acted upon earlier, might have averted subsequent tragedies on the Thames?

Photo of John Prescott John Prescott Deputy Prime Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Environment, Transport and the Regions, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

It is a matter of balance; I am faced with striking a balance on the recommendations that I have received from Lord Justice Clarke, and deciding whether I take further action. I am trying to be fair to everyone concerned. I know that the relatives feel strongly that the human rights of those who say that they should be immune from prosecution must be balanced against those of the 55 people who died. That is a difficult balance to strike, and Lord Justice Clarke addressed the point.

On whether we have learned lessons, what contributed to the accident was a failure to observe the law of the land: under the collision regulations, there should be a lookout on a vessel on the Thames. We have not changed that law; it is just that it was not observed. The Clarke report states that individuals, such as Captain Henderson, did not observe the regulations. Some may face charges. Tragically, the captain of the Marchioness died in the accident. Companies also have responsibility. Because our law is not adequate to take action against the companies involved—to be fair, some of the relatives did take action—the courts were not prepared to entertain corporate responsibility or corporate manslaughter charges. Therefore, we are back to changing the law.

Great sloppiness is evident, and it is probably a criticism of the Department at the time that there was not just one accident. A few years previously, the Bowbelle was involved in similar collisions when it did not keep proper lookout. That should have alerted the Department to the need to take more action against such companies and the individuals working for them. It did not. The matter is not one of improving the regulations, although we are making improvements, but of ensuring that they are observed.

Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Labour, Slough

There are obviously many lessons to be learned from the inquiry, particularly for those who are concerned with safety on the river. The lesson about which I am most concerned is the one for us as politicians: how do we deal with matters such as this?

I have read the report of the marine accident investigation branch inquiry, and particularly in view of the latest report, it seems a seriously deficient piece of work. It suggests that there was no wilful misconduct in either vessel contributing to the collision", yet later it finds that there was a failure to provide lookout. Indeed, as the Deputy Prime Minister has pointed out, at least one of the vessels was involved in another incident because of that failure. As the Clarke report suggests, Captain Henderson was in breach of his obligation to call a mayday and to launch rescue vessels.

It seems that there has been a degree of complacency about accepting the MAIB inquiry without seeing in it some very clear signals, in the historical context, that a better piece of work was required. Can I be assured by the Deputy Prime Minister that while we are in government, we will never be guilty of such complacency?

Photo of John Prescott John Prescott Deputy Prime Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Environment, Transport and the Regions, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I must tell my hon. Friend that such circumstances often occur and Secretaries of State appear at the Dispatch Box to explain why, but I will do everything that I can to ensure that complacency does not have an effect on our regulations.

My hon. Friend makes a fair point about the MAIB report. Since it keeps coming up, I shall quote from it: The inspectors' final finding that there was no wilful misconduct in either vessel contributing to the collision, foundering or the loss of life is fully borne out by the preceding sections of this report and I make no recommendations for any disciplinary action to be taken. That was not published until two years after the event, and 12 months later it was delivered to the Department.

Anybody reading Lord Justice Clarke's report will see that lookouts were not maintained, and that that was following two or three similar events in preceding years. That raises the question whether that was wilful misconduct on behalf of the captain or the companies. They certainly were not carrying out their responsibility. Their attitude was very complacent; I say no more than that. I shall do all that I can to see that we learn the lessons, and the 70-odd recommendations aim to do that.

I should make one correction. I made a mistake in talking about 55 deaths, when I should have said 51. I apologise for that. All in all, there are many lessons to be learned. At the end of the day, that was what Lord Justice Clarke's inquiry was about—to find out the truth, what went wrong and to see what we could do to prevent such an accident from happening again.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

May I say how much I welcome the Deputy Prime Minister's announcement that there will be liaison and discussions with the Lord Chancellor's Department on whether there can be a public inquiry while there may also be criminal prosecutions.

The Deputy Prime Minister mentioned in his statement the question of visibility. Has his Department given any thought to the use and compulsion of use of proximity radar, which would automatically sate whether another vessel is nearby? The right hon. Gentleman also mentioned that an assessment is being made of all small passenger vessels in use on the Thames. When will that assessment be completed?

Photo of John Prescott John Prescott Deputy Prime Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Environment, Transport and the Regions, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I thank the hon. Member for his remarks. He makes an important point. If he looks at Lord Justice Clarke's inquiry, or the Hayes inquiry, which the previous Administration set up, he will see the difficulties with communication—whether vessels are located by radio, as normal, or by radar. Such vessels have those facilities.

As has been pointed out, the disco music on the Marchioness was so loud that the radio could not be heard. That is of serious concern. Visibility from the bridge was another matter of concern. As I said 10 years ago, somebody must have made a mistake. When the vessel was given a second deck on which passengers could dance, lack of visibility was obvious. When the vessel's stability was changed and it was given another deck, somebody must have agreed that it was safe and that there was full visibility. Clearly, it was not safe. That applied not only to this accident—similar incidents were reported concerning restriction of visibility on a number of vessels two or three years previously. So, it is not as if we did not know about such matters.

I am in a way risking my hand in saying that the real problem is that sometimes, recommendations are made but, on receiving them, people sit back. When asked why the owners did not implement them, it was simply said that they just did not do so. There was an argument over whether the lack of visibility required another crew member, which presumably had cost implications.

Either way, too many people looked in different directions and did not deal with the problem. That is at the heart of the matter. We must ensure that inspections systems are reviewed regularly. By the way, such systems were checked on this occasion, but nobody said that there was anything wrong. There was something wrong, and there is evidence to that effect. The case reveals sloppiness in the Department, but we are doing everything to see that that is corrected.