Second Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.


Tuesday 23 October 1990


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The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Geraint Howells

Atkinson, Mr. David (Bournemouth, East)

Baker, Mr. Nicholas (Dorset, North)

Bendall, Mr. Vivian (Ilford, North)

Boyson, Sir Rhodes (Brent, North)

Buckley, Mr. George J. (Hemsworth)

Callaghan, Mr. Jim (Heywood and Middleton)

Fearn, Mr. Ronnie (Southport)

Illsley, Mr. Eric (Barnsley, Central)

Loyden, Mr. Eddie (Liverpool, Garston)

McLoughlin, Mr. Patrick (Minister for Aviation and Shipping)

O'Hara, Mr. Edward (Knowsley, South)

Ruddock, Ms. Joan (Lewisham, Deptford)

Skeet, Sir Trevor (Bedfordshire, North)

Speed, Mr. Keith (Ashford)

Speller, Mr. Tony (Devon, North)

Sumberg, Mr. David (Bury, South)

Townsend, Mr. Cyril D. (Bexleyheath)

Wiggin, Mr. Jerry (Weston-Super-Mare)

Mr. M. D. Hamlyn, Committee Clerk

3 Second Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. Tuesday 23 October 1990

[MR. GERAINT HOWELLS in the Chair]


10.30 am

The Minister for Aviation and Shipping (Mr. Patrick McLoughlin): I beg to move, That the Committee has considered the Draft Hovercraft (Application of Enactments) (Amendment) Order 1990. This is a fairly straightforward order and I hope that it will be unnecessary to detain the Committee for long. The order is needed, first, to repeal legislation on the collision regulations following the coming into force of the Merchant Shipping (Distress Signals' and Prevention of Collision) Regulations 1989, which also apply to hovercraft. Previously, the collision regulations did not apply directly to hovercraft. Secondly, the order gives legislative powers to investigate hovercraft casualties similar to the powers given to the Marine Accident Investigation Branch to investigate shipping casualties.

10.32 am

Ms. Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): This is a simple and technical measure and, given the late hour at which the Minister and I departed the House of Commons last night, I am sure that we would all be grateful not to debate the order at length. However, I have one observation to make and one question to ask the Minister. My observation is that the main operator, the main hovercraft company, is Hoverspeed Ltd., a company which does not recognise trade unions. The Minister may be aware, or even unaware, of the anxiety among seafarers about safety, and staffing levels in particular. There is a suggestion that on-board crewing levels are not commensurate with passenger service and safety provision. What monitoring is the Minister carrying out of the industry? Why does the order not provide for cover of the industry by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch? We have repeatedly expressed concern about the lack of independence, as we see it, of the investigative authority when accidents occur, and there are far too many accidents in the shipping industry. We understand that the Govenment sought to create independence from the Department by setting up the MAIB. If that is their argument, why does the same argument not apply to the investigation of accidents involving hovercraft? We maintain that there should be complete independence for any such investigative inspectorate:it should be independent and, in our view, in the Health and Safety Executive.


10.34 am

Mr. Ronnie Fearn (Southport): I wish to mention one small matter. Paragraph 3(b) of the order refers to "(Prevention of Pollution by Hovercraft)" and states: "for 'The Merchant Shipping (Control of Pollution by Garbage) Regulations 1988(e)' substitute 'The Merchant Shipping (Prevention of Pollution by Garbage) Regulations 1988"'. The only difference is (e). What is (e)?

10.35 am

Mr. McLoughlin: I thank the hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Fearn) for his interesting and observant question. I hope that I can give him an answer before long, if pens can move fast enough! The hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms. Ruddock) asked a question about safety. Safety cannot be compromised and no one would ever wish it to be. The inspections that apply to ships do, I believe, apply directly to hovercraft. The hon. Lady asked why the Marine Accident Investigation Branch could not deal with hovercraft. We created the MAIB, and it has worked well in the short time that it has been set up. The relevant order came into effect shortly after I was appointed to this job, and hot on the heels of that the board started its first, large investigation, and did a very good job. We decided not to include hovercraft in the MAIB's remit because of the few hovercraft in operation and the specialised knowledge that would be needed. We did not believe that the MAIB should develop the expertise to deal with the few hovercraft incidents that take place because we wanted to get it up, running and recognised, and that has happened. A decision to make the MAIB responsible for hovercraft casualties would require enactment of an order under the Hovercraft Act 1968. We have not ruled out that possibility, but at present we do not feel that it is right to ask the MAIB to carry out such investigations and to develop the expertise that would be required. If the demand becomes apparent, we shall, of course, reconsider the matter. We have an open mind and I am not giving the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford a definite no for an answer. No major policy issue is involved. We have merely been giving the MAIB the opportunity to get up and running. I have not been able to find the answer to the question about the change in wording to which the hon. Member for Southport referred but I shall write to reassure him. I hope that my not being able to answer his question this morning will not lead to him voting against the order. We have consulted throughout the industry and have received no objections from any of the interested bodies.

Ms. Ruddock: I thank the Minister for his reply. I do not think that it is a question of numbers, either of operational craft or of incidents. The central question that needs always to be answered in all cases of collision, or any other event at sea that causes any form of destruction to property or to life, is whether the investigation is objective and independent. Whenever that question remains within the Department concerned there will be suspicion that real objectivity does not exist. Therefore, I am not satisfied with the Minister's answer. I am glad, however, that the Government have an open mind, and I expect that approach to continue.


Mr. McLoughlin: I have just been given an accident rating. I did not realise that it would be so low. We shall not become complacent, but one of the great problems with safety is that operators, crew, or whoever tend to become complacent when few accidents occur. In the past 20 years, only one accident has occurred with a hovercraft, which resulted in one death. To ask the MAIB to develop expertise in this area when there is so much else going on in the shipping industry perhaps would not be the best use of its resources.

Ms. Ruddock: The Minister has made his case. I contend, however, that although the possibility of an accident happening is tiny, should it happen it could be catastrophic. If we were to lose a hovercraft full of people, that would be tragic. I hope the circumstances will never arise, but in so many other accidents, such as the one involving The Marchioness on the river in front of us, the relatives of those concerned have asked whether they were treated properly, whether a proper investigation took place and whether it was truly independent.


Mr. Fearn: I look forward to receiving the Minister's written reply to my question, and thank him. I asked the question because the statutory instrument mentions the Mersey basin. When the Minister replies, will he say whether that term covers all estuaries as well as ports? It is not usual to have many hovercraft on the Mersey, but there is no doubt that occasionally they use it. I want the Minister to cover that point.

Mr. McLoughlin: I shall certainly make sure to take up that point in my written reply.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Committee has considered the draft Hovercraft (Application of Enactments) (Amendment) Order 1990.

Committee rose at twenty minutes to Eleven o'clock.


Howells, Mr. Geraint (Chairman)

Baker, Mr. Nicholas

Bendall, Mr.

Buckley, Mr.

Fearn, Mr.

McLoughlin, Mr.

Ruddock, Ms.

Speller, Mr.

Sumberg, Mr.

Townsend, Mr. Cyril D.