Clause 76 - Professional staff off duty

Railways and Transport Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:45 pm on 27th February 2003.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of John Randall John Randall Opposition Whip (Commons)

Unlike many other members of the Committee, I have no nautical bent, although, like the Minister, I have an uncanny resemblance to Captain Birdseye, albeit a younger, slimmer one. I was once on a sailing vessel around Cape Verde islands in pursuit of my passion for bird-watching. That is the only time when I have been on such a vessel. The only way to be there was to be part of the crew, which was interesting for a landlubber from Uxbridge. I understood how important it was to know that something could crop up at any time when one is at sea. We talked about emergencies, but on a sailing vessel one can be suddenly woken from one's slumbers to find that the sails and rigging need to be changed. I found the various bits of rigging disconcerting at first. I am the first to say, ''Let people enjoy themselves and have a drink from time to time.'' From my limited experience, however, when a ship is at sea, all staff have a duty to ensure that they are in a fit state to handle anything that crops up.

In our debate on the previous clause, we talked about fishing vessels. Does clause 75 apply, and does it need to apply, to professional staff off duty on fishing vessels? I presume that the same things apply whether they are on or off duty.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Transport)

My point is not dissimilar. It relates to an earlier discussion and the Secretary of State's remarks about off-duty professional mariners being treated as if they are on a vessel and might be needed in an emergency to protect passenger safety. I understood that it was not the mood of members of the Committee to accept the Minister's clarification. Will he confirm his remarks?

Without being too pedantic, I understand the Government's intention behind the clause, which relates to professional seamen who I presume are qualified and paid to do the job and who, while off duty, would be charged in the event of an emergency, presumably for the protection of the safety of passengers. They will need guidance on the circumstances in which they will not experience a conflict. The Minister rightly said that, given the amount of time that professional mariners spend at sea, their off-duty time is precious to them and they need to be allowed to enjoy themselves as best they can. The Minister will say that the provisions refer only to those boats used in UK waters, so we are not

talking just about river boats or UK-registered ships. Any ship in UK waters might be subject to the provisions. It would be helpful if the Minister would confirm that.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge, I have some difficulty reading clause 76 in conjunction with clause 75. We are not satisfied that there is sufficient recognition. I repeat that we support the Government proposals. We are simply trying to be helpful and to probe the Minister, with a view to that clarification, at the earliest possible stage for the purposes of those who spend substantial amounts of time at sea and who feel that there is no conflict. They will want to know that when they are definitely off duty, they are not in danger of breaching the provisions and being prosecuted as a result of enjoying themselves and perhaps having a drink.

Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Conservative, Westbury

For the avoidance of doubt, I should say first that I support clause 76. However, we need to go into this with our eyes open, because it extends the remit of the Bill quite substantially. We need to remember that, for seamen, their ship is often their home, and we are curtailing their liberties quite severely with this measure. We also need to appreciate the changing nature of life in the Merchant Navy in particular and, often, on cruise ships, which spend just a few hours in port and then continue on their voyage.

Stipulating that seamen should limit themselves in the way proposed places quite a severe constraint on their ability to go ashore, enjoy themselves and relax. We are extending the spectrum of the measure from the man who drives the ship and is in charge—the captain of the vessel—who is, of course, at all times safety critical, to those who may at some point be safety critical in the event of an emergency. We are bracketing all those individuals together and treating them as one for the purposes of the legislation.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Minister of State (Department for Transport)

We are approaching agreement on this issue, but I want to stress something to Conservative Members. There has been a tendency in this quite useful section of the debate to merge clauses 76 and 75. Let us be clear: clause 76 applies to crew members who might, in the event of an emergency, be required to take action to protect the safety of passengers. Therefore, it does not apply to a considerable number of other carriers that do not have passengers on board. In this context, we are talking about passenger vessels or ferries. We are considering the fact that, in the event of an incident, those crew members may well be required to provide assistance for the protection and safety of passengers. That is important.

We take account of many of the points that have been made about the fact that, for crew members, the ship is their home, although for many of the other ships that have been described, that is less likely to be the case. As I said, we are talking about ferry ships. That is different from UK vessels that sail the seven seas and, as the hon. Member for Westbury said, often call into ports briefly for rapid offloading and taking on of containers. That is precisely why we are trying to create a differentiation. We are focusing on where the measure is required for safety, rather than having a

blanket measure that would be an onerous burden on crew members. I commend the clause to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 76 ordered to stand part of the Bill.