Second Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.


Thursday 17 December 1987



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The Committee consisted of the following Members:


Field, Mr. Barry Isle of Wight)

Lloyd, Mr. Tony (Stretford)

Macdonald, Mr. Calum A. (Western Isles)

Maclean, Mr. David (Penrith and The Border)

Martlew, Mr. Eric (Carlisle)

Michie, Mrs. Ray (Argyll and Bute)

Mitchell, Mr. David (The Mnr for Public Transport)

Radice, Mr. Giles (Durham, North)

Spicer, Mr. Jim (Dorset, West)

Taylor, Mr. Teddy (Southend, East)

Thomas, Mr. Jack (Wansbeck)

Thompson, Mr. Patrick (Norwich, North)

Twinn, Dr. Ian (Edmonton)

Walters, Mr. Dennis (Westbury)

Warren, Mr. Kenneth (Hastings and Rye)

Winnick, Mr. David (Walsall, North)

Woodcock, Mr. Mike (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

Young, Sir George (Ealing, Acton)

Samson, Ms. E. C, Committee Clerk

3 Second Statutory Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. Thursday 17 December 1987

[MR. JOHN MCWILLIAM in the Chair]

Draft Merchant Shipping (Passenger Ship Construction) (amendment No. 2) Regulations 1987

10.30 am

The Minister of Public Transport (Mr. David Mitchell): I beg to move, That the Committee has considered the draft Merchant Shipping (Passenger Ship Construction) (Amendment No. 2) Regulations 1987. Perhap I may say, first, Mr. McWilliam, that it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, this being the first time that I have done so. The regulations, which were laid on 6 November 1987, require the approval of the House in accordance with section 49 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1979, as modified by section 11(3) of the Safety at Sea Act 1986. This is because the regulations will apply certain safety requirements, which do not relate to any international agreement, to non-United Kingdom ships while they are in United Kingdom ports. The measures now before the Committee, in association with the Merchant Shipping (Passenger Ship Construction) (Amendment) Regulations 1987, SI 1987 No. 1886, which apply identical requirements to United Kingdom ships, are the first of a substantial number of measures that the Government intend to introduce to improve the safety of roll on—roll off passenger ships. These requirements are based upon some of the recommendations of the report of the court of formal investigation that examined the Herald of Free Enterprise tragedy off the port of Zeebrugge, and in particular the recommendations relating to door indicator lights, television surveillance and supplementary emergency lighting, to which the Secretary of State for Transport referred in his statement to the House on 24 July 1987. The other recommendations of the court—measures to require the installation of draught gauges, the introduction of boarding cards, and making it mandatory to close the main vehicle deck doors before leaving the berth or as soon as physically possible thereafter—are being urgently discussed with the industry with a view to making further regulations as quickly as possible. The Committee will remember that the capsize of the Herald of Free Enterprise was initiated by a tremendous ingress of water through open bow loading doors. To assist in preventing a recurrence of such an event, the regulations will require the provision of an indicator light system to protect against flooding through doors and other closing devices in the superstructure which, if left open, could 4 cause major flooding of the vehicle space. The system will provide indication on the navigating bridge showing whether the doors are open or closed and secure. Television surveillance of these doors with monitors provided at the navigating bridge will also be required. The court's report recommended that television surveillance of the entire vehicle space be recommended to the industry. My Department considered the advice from the industry on this matter in conjunction with the results of an investigation. The conclusion reached was that television surveillance of the entire vehicle space was impractical on many ships, particularly when high-sided freight vehicles were loaded. There is simply not a clear line of sight. Consequently, the shipowner has an alternative procedure available to him in the regulations—the implementation of vehicle space patrols whilst the ship is on voyage. The final item of equipment that the regulations deal with is supplementary emergency lighting. The Committee will recall the distressing accounts given by survivors of the conditions in the ship after the capsize. Their circumstance were made much worse by the absence of any light after the emergency lighting system failed when it was subjected to conditions for which it was not designed. The regulations will require the installation of supplementary emergency lighting in all public passenger spaces and passageways. This lighting will illuminate the escape routes for at least three hours, and the light fittings, being self contained, will operate at angles of list up to 90 degrees. Similar lighting with, in this case, the option of readily available rechargeable handlamps will be required in the crew spaces. The Committee will be aware that the procedure previously adopted by the United Kingdom to improve the safety of ships on international voyages was to submit proposals to the International Maritime Organisation. In addition to the action that these regulations represent, similar proposals have been urgently communicated to the secretary-general of the IMO in October. The proposals will be considered by the maritime safety committee of that organisation in April 1988, with a view to adopting them as amendments to the international convention for the safety of life at sea 1974. Pending such agreement however, it is necessary for any U.K. action to be by the affirmative procedure. That is why we are here this morning. It may be helpful to some members of the Committee if I briefly cover the legal background. Statutory Instrument 1987 No. 1886, the negative order applying to U.K. ships, took effect by amending the voluminous 1980 and 1984 regulations on the construction of passenger ships, whose full titles are given in the Explanatory Note. The 1984 regulations impose, in certain respects, higher standards than the 1980 regulations, reflecting more recent amendments to the safety of life at sea convention, and apply to new ships. The 1980 regulations apply to other ships. SI 1987 No. 1886 made identical amendments to the two sets of regulations in respect of the new equipment that I have just described, but only in respect of U.K. ships. The instrument now before the Committee extends 5 those amendments to foreign ships and is required to be made by affirmative procedure by section 21(1) of the Merchant Shipping Act 1979, the enabling power, and by section 49 of that Act, which sets out the parliamentary procedures for section 21 orders modified in both cases by section 11 of the Safety at Sea Act 1986. In summary, the requirement of the enabling legislation is that orders applying to foreign ships must be made by affirmative procedures unless the requirements are the subject of an international agreement. We are hoping for such agreement in this case, but it has not yet been achieved. The Committee will no doubt be aware that, for similar reasons, the other measures that the Government plan to take will also, in relation to foreign ships, have to be made by the affirmative procedure. It is the Government's intention, where possible, to group such affirmative measures together, so that a number may be considered simultaneously. I recommend the regulations to the Committee. Their purpose is to improve the safety of the ro-ro passenger ships that visit our ports and to protect the persons on those ships, a high proportion of whom are United Kingdom citizens.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Stretford): I join the Minister of State in offering you, Mr. McWilliam, my somewhat belated congratulations on your recent appointment to the Chairmen's Panel. Clearly it would not be appropriate for the Opposition to divide the Committee on the regulations, but I want to take the opportunity in welcoming them to put one or two comments on the record. As the Minister has already said, the regulations arise directly from the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise and the tragedy surrounding that and from the inquiry into the sinking and the recommendations stemming from it. I want to put a general comment to the Minister, and I have no doubt that he will respond by rejecting it. For many years, considerable concern has been expressed about the safety of ro-ro ships in various reports, specifically in the French reports in 1976. My understanding is that, since that time and up to the sinking of the Herald earlier this year, Britain had not played a major part in putting forward recommendations to the IMO. Therefore, although we welcome the response to the inquiry, that response has been, in a historical context, piecemeal, stemming more from the committee of inquiry and its recommendations, welcome and important though they were. What should have been taking place and what I hope the Minister will say has been taking place since that time is a thorough review of safety on ro-ro ferries, so that safety is considered not simply in terms of the Herald disaster but overall. These worries are precisely those put to me by those directly involved in the industry. It would not be appropriate for us to have a wide-ranging debate on the Herald now, but this is the first opportunity that we have had to comment directly on what has been achieved since the disaster. The Opposition have been in something of a difficulty in seeking debates on the Herald because of possible prosecutions, and theoretically that is still the case, but the time must come when a proper debate takes 6 place on events surrounding the Herald. That time is clearly not this morning. You would rightly rule me out of order, Mr. McWilliam, were I to proceed more widely, but we want that debate at some time and we want it on the Floor of the House and not in Committee. I should be grateful if the Minister responded to that point. I also want to put two important points about the administration of any legal framework. Clearly, in passing any law, we must pay attention to two aspects. The first is that there should be adequate monitoring of the legal framework and the second is that there should be an opportunity, through the legal process, to bring to justice those who do not conform to the law. On the latter point—the Minister is not unaware of this—considerable concern has been expressed that to date there have been no prosecutions following the Herald disaster. I know that the Minister will say that they are still a possibility, but we are now a long way from the date of the sinking. For that reason, the concern is that there is no will in the Department to prosecute those who are in breach of specific regulations. Will the Minister take this opportunity to state his Department's policy in that regard in respect of these regulations, although his statement would have ramifications for all other areas of safety? We are also concerned about the mechanisms for ensuring that the requirements in these regulations and other safety measures are implemented. The Department of Transport surveyor said at the inquiry into the sinking of the Herald that no spot checks were possible on ro-ro ferries because of a shortage of staff in the inspectorate. It is a statistical fact that the number of surveyors in the Department of Transport has decreased since the time of the sinking. Against that background, it is incumbent on the Minister to reassure the Committee that it will be possible in future for the type of spot check to take place which will guarantee that the requirements in the regulations are implemented. I should be grateful if the Minister dealt with those points, as they are points of substance and the Committee is entitled to hear his answers. I also invite the Minister, even if it is technically out of order, to comment on the possibility of a debate in the House on the Herald. 10.45 am

Mr. Kenneth Warren (Hastings and Rye): As you know, Mr. McWilliam, a number of my constituents died in the unfortunate accident to the Herald of Free Enterprise. What is clear from the personal accounts of survivors is the revelation of a surprisingly low standard of safety in the kind of ship operation to which the regulations apply. I welcome the regulations and what the Minister has said about door indicator lights and television surveillance, but I ask that in due course his Department look at the need to go considerably further. As you know, Mr. McWilliam, my background is aeronautical engineering, and what surprised me about the Herald of Free Enterprise operation was that it could be possible to sail at all with the doors open. In aircraft it is impossible to reverse the thrust of the engines on landing until the micro-switches on 7 the landing gear indicate that the aircraft is on the ground. I see no reason why it should not be possible to have a locking system in the closing of the doors so that the ship cannot proceed unless there is positive indication that the doors are secured. Secondly, we have all used the excellent services across the Channel at various times and we are talking about one accident in what has happily been a fine record of safety over decades. But I hope that the Minister, with his responsibility for ports also, will look at the fact that, when one checks in at a port as opposed to at an airport, there is a sort of open loop. People who arrive do not necessarily come off at the other end. The small paper work exercise, which again is normal on aircraft, should be possible in these days of modern communications systems. I also wish to direct the Minister's attention—perhaps he will think about it in due course; he does not need to give a reply this morning—to the balance of the vehicles loaded on the decks. No account appears to have been taken of the weights of the lorries and whether they were laden or empty. Although they are reasonably well parked on each side, it is often not known whether they are carrying heavy loads, which would require the ship to be trimmed differently than if they were empty. I believe that safety must be an integral part of any transport operation. There are many other features which I am sure the Minister will in due course consider—for example, the fact that there are no escape windows on most ferries. There is no way of getting out. There is also no indication of the way in which passengers can leave the ferry as quickly as possible. We must remember that many passengers are pensioners or young children, and no briefing of the kind that is normal on aircraft is given on how to get out in a hurry if that is necessary. I welcome the emergency lighting inside a ship, but I ask the Minister to remember that one of the problems on the Herald of Free Enterprise was that, even when the people got outside, they could not see where they were, Therefore, I hope that the emergency lighting will apply to the external structures and particularly to the hull, because a ship without doubt will go over one way or the other, and boats coming to rescue passengers on the Herald of Free Enterprise could not see what was going on or where people were. In conclusion, I welcome the IMO conference and hope that we can set standards which others will follow. 10.49 am

Mr. David Mitchell: I thank hon. Members for the points which they have made. The hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd) sought to put a number of remarks on the record. He has done so. He had some doubts about ro-ro as a type of vessel. There is no evidence that casualties on ro-ro ships are greater than on conventional ships. The IMO considered proposals for ro-ro ships in 1979 when it was decided that there was no proven need to make specialist requirements in respect of that type of vessel. We play a major part in the work of the IMO; we are of course the host country. The Surveyor-General is the chairman of its maritime safety committee and we 8 play an active part. The Herald sank because the bow doors were open, not because there is anything intrinsically wrong in the design of a ro-ro ship, properly used. The hon. Gentleman will know about the research programme of £1 million on ro-ro ships which the Secretary of State announced on 24 July. We believe that it may lead to new regulations, and we must wait and see what comes from it. But we are already reviewing a number of aspects, in addition to those that I have mentioned to the Committee, of the operation of ro-ro ships. The hon. Member for Stretford asked for a debate on the Floor of the House. He will not be surprised to hear that this is a matter for the usual channels. I do not know whether he will find that the Second Reading of the Merchant Shipping Bill will provide him with the wider forum for the debate that he seeks, or whether he wants a more specialised debate. Either way, it is for the usual channels to consider the matter. The hon. Gentleman reminded the Committee that there had been no prosecutions. As the papers are with the Director of Public Prosecutions, I should perhaps say nothing which might prejudice the position. The hon. Member for Stretford also asked perfectly reasonable about the reduction in the number of inspectors and inspections. It is true that the number of inspectors in the Surveyor-General's organisation has gone down over recent years, but it has not gone down as fast as the decline in the UK fleet. Therefore one must look at that in its proper context.

Mr. Tony Lloyd: I understand the arguments. Statistically, it is a matter of fact that the number of UK-registered ships has decreased, as has the number of inspectors. The Minister of State is right to give himself that fig-leaf of respectability. But at the inquiry into the sinking of the Herald, it was the Department's own inspector who said that there were not enough inspectors to carry out spot checks on ro-ro ferries.

Mr. Mitchell: I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that, up to the end of October, 28 general inspections were carried out in addition to the full annual inspections on UK ships. In addition to that, more than 20 incognito inspections were carried out. Therefore it is fair to say that there has been the amount of activity on the ground which the hon. Gentleman is seeking. He will also wish to know that there have been checks on passenger number counts. Understandably, members on both sides of the Committee will be interested in that. We all commiserate with my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Warren) on the deaths of his constituents in the tragedy at Zeebrugge and we extend our sypathy to their relatives and friends. In his usual forward-looking way, he drew on his experience in aviation and the technologies employed there. In have made careful not of his helful comments. My hon. Friend also drew attention to the need for people to be briefed on how to excape from a vessel. Notices are displayed on vessels saying where to assemble in the event of an emergency, and so on. But I take my hon. Friend's point. 9 Something verbal, which I understand is what he is asking for, may be appropriate, and in shall give that careful consideration. My hon. Friend also mentioned lighting. Emergency lighting is covered in the regulations. He was referring to external lighting to ensure that, in the event of an accident at sea, the rescue services come to a vessel which is to some extent illuminated and can therefore see what is going on. That is a constructive suggestion which I shall also consider. The Committee has looked assiduously both at the regulations and at the possibility of further activity in this regard which will be covered in future regulations in a number of ways and there will be disscussion 10 about it. Indeed, it will be partly covered by the Merchant Shipping Bill, which the House will consider in the new year. Therefore, the Committee may now feel that its work has been done this morning.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Committee has considered the draft Merchant Shipping (Passenger Ship Construction) (Amendment No. 2) Regulations 1987.

Committee rose at three minutes to Eleven o'clock.


McWilliam, Mr. John (Chairman)

Field, Mr. Barry

Lloyd, Mr. Tony

Maclean, Mr.

Michie, Mrs. Ray

Mitchell, Mr. David

Spicer, Mr. Jim

Thompson, Mr. Patrick

Warren, Mr.

Woodcock, Mr.

Young, Sir George