National Lost Trawlermen’s Memorial Day

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:31 pm on 13th December 2021.

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Photo of Robert Courts Robert Courts Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 9:31 pm, 13th December 2021

I thank my hon. Friend for making the point so beautifully, so poignantly, so eloquently. All I can do is pay tribute to her again for her fortitude and for her passionate campaigning. I hope very much that she will take part in the work we do as we explore the proposal further. I am glad that it may offer her, and others like her, comfort and solace.

I hope the House will allow me, while we remember those we have lost, to say a word or two to focus on what we can do to make the industry a safer working environment for the men and women working in it today and in the future. The 1980s, 1990s and 2000s saw new requirements to improve safety. For example, we now have basic safety training for those who want to work on a fishing vessel. Skippers must have certificates of competency. We have better health and safety requirements, such as the need to assess risks. We have seen the progressive introduction of new standards for smaller fishing vessels. Those changes have had a significant impact on fatalities in fishing, which have reduced from 60 a year in the 1960s to an average of six in recent years, as we have heard. Of course, that is still too high. It is true that the numbers fishing at sea have reduced by about 45% since those days, while fatalities have reduced by 90%. That must show that the safety changes have had an impact.

While that is a massive improvement on where we used to be, sadly this year we have seen the loss of 10 fishermen to date. No one should lose their life to provide food for our plates, so there is more to be done to make fishing safer and to protect those who choose to work in this historic industry. After all, fishing remains the most dangerous industry in the United Kingdom. On average, there are approximately 53 fatalities per 100,000 in fishing, set against 0.5 per 100,000 for the general workforce. For us, this continued loss of life is unacceptable. To think otherwise would be a betrayal of the memory of those we have lost over the years.

As my hon. Friend Robin Millar told us so movingly, the loss of life continues right up to today. The loss of the Nicola Faith on 27 January 2021 resulted in the loss of Alan Minard, Ross Ballantine and skipper Carl McGrath in the Colwyn Bay area of north Wales. Again, this matter is still under investigation by the marine accident investigation branch. While I can say nothing further, I of course send my condolences and thank my hon. Friend for his moving contribution.

What more can be done? Do we accept that fishing is dangerous and the loss of life therefore inevitable? My Department and I do not believe that to be the case. I say that as someone who reads all the marine accident investigation branch reports before they are published. I am determined that more can be done.

We should be encouraged by what has been achieved in Iceland. In the 1980s, it experienced on average more than 12 fatalities a year in its fishing industry. From 2017 to 2020, there were none. Our fishing industry can be safer. That is why the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, the Sea Fish Industry Authority and the national fishing federations, partnered together in the Fishing Industry Safety Group, have the aim of eliminating preventable fatalities by 2027.

We know that in the UK, based on the investigations undertaken by the marine accident investigation branch, there are three main causes of fatality: people going overboard, vessel stability and personal accidents. The MCA and its partners are working tirelessly to address those challenges. I will say a word or two about each, if I may.

Starting with going overboard, ideally not going overboard in the first place is the best option. To help fishermen think about how not to go overboard, in 2018 new health and safety regulations were introduced that require risk assessments. Risks that might cause someone to go overboard now have to be recorded alongside steps to prevent it happening, or at least to reduce the chances. The new requirements cover everyone on board, not just those under contract.

Where the risk of going overboard cannot be eliminated, people must wear a personal flotation device. The industry has been working hard for many years to get fishermen to wear personal flotation devices. Seafish and the national federations have provided more than 8,000 devices free to crews, particularly those on small fishing vessels. We have heard from Luke Pollard how valuable that is and the massive difference it has made in his constituency. I thank him for his work, as well as other Members who have helped spread the word about personal flotation devices around our coasts and in their constituencies. Excellent work is being done by the RNLI and Seafish through practical demonstrations at environmental pools around the country.

Even with the great work that is going on, sadly we still see regular fatal incidents where fishermen enter the water and are found not wearing a personal flotation device. When the encouragement, training and guidance fail, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, as the regulator, can use its aerial surveillance capability to check that personal flotation devices are being worn when the risk of going overboard has not been eliminated, and it can take action.

I will say a word about vessel stability. Requirements have existed for larger fishing vessels since the introduction of new rules in 1975 as a result of the work of the headscarf revolutionaries, but no such requirements existed for small vessels, making up the majority of the fleet. Unlike going overboard, which normally involves just one person, capsize can be a sudden and catastrophic event that ends the lives of everyone on board. The loss of vessels such as the Stella Maris, the JMT, the Purbeck Isle, the Sarah Jayne, the Nancy Glen and the Heather Anne, to name but a few, led to the introduction in September of new stability requirements for smaller vessels.

We heard of the importance of safety and newer vessels and new safety requirements from my hon. Friend Neil Parish, and he is right. Just last week, we saw the launch of the latest phase of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency’s “Home and Dry” campaign, with videos on how to conduct tests and avoid compromising a vessel’s stability. Since 2008, the MCA has invested more than £3 million to support training in stability awareness and other safety skills. It is anticipated that, next year, the MCA will consult on introducing mandatory stability training.

Although stability nowadays is a problem for small fishing vessels, the working environment of a fishing vessel, with the dynamic movement of the vessel and equipment, means that accidents for those on board are all too common. Despite the challenging working conditions, accidents are not inevitable. The good maintenance of equipment, safe operating systems, regular review of those systems and following good safety behaviours can reduce or eliminate the risks, whether someone is working a machine on land or fishing gear at sea. I am heartened that the industry has developed a free online safety management system that helps to achieve those things. I encourage all those fishing commercially either to adopt that system or develop their own in line with the MCA’s maritime guidance note covering the topic.