Fifth Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.


Thursday 22 July 1993


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The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. James Hill>

Austin-Walker, Mr. John (Woolwich)

Brown, Mr. Michael (Brigg and Cleethorpes)

Bruce, Mr. Ian (South Dorset)

Budgen, Mr. Nicholas (Wolverhampton, South-West)

Carlisle, Mr. John (Luton, North)

Gale, Mr. Roger (Thanet, North)

Gilbert, Dr. John (Dudley, East)

Gillan, Cheryl (Chesham and Amersham)

Gunnell, Mr. John (Morley and Leeds, South)

Hall, Mr. Mike (Warrington, South)

Harvey, Mr. Nick (North Devon)

Hill, Mr. Keith (Streatham)

Hordern, Sir Peter (Horsham)

Howarth, Mr. George (Knowsley, North)

Norris, Mr. Steve (Minister for Transport in London)

Trend, Mr. Michael (Windsor and Maidenhead)

Walley, Ms. Joan (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

Willetts, Mr. David (Havant)

Mr. P. C. Seaward, Committee Clerk

3 Fifth Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. Thursday 22 July 1993

[MR. JAMES HILL in the Chair]

Merchant Shipping (Local Passenger Vessels) (Masters' Licences and Hours, Manning and Training) Regulations 1993

10.30 am

Ms. Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North): I beg to move, That the Committee has considered the Merchant Shipping (Local Passenger Vessels) (Masters' Licences and Hours, Manning and Training) Regulations 1993 (SI 1993, No. 1213). This debate is important as there is much concern about safety on all inland waterways and particularly on the river Thames. An independent inquiry was undertaken after the tragic Marchioness and Bowbelle disaster, and it is important that the Government should be made aware of the malaise, referred to by the inquiry, that affects the Department of Transport and the shipping industry. It is regrettable that we need to point out continuously that the Government respond to aspects of safety only after a disaster rather than in anticipation of one. For that reason, I want to hammer home that we do not need only one set of regulations here and another there—a piecemeal, fragmented approach—but a new approach to shipping safety and maritime matters. As a result of the Government's response to the Piper Alpha disaster, safety matters were transferred to the Health and Safety Executive. We should now have a separate safety inspectorate for the maritime sector. The safety inspectorate is not yet separate from the Department of Transport and, although the regulations are welcome insofar as they will improve safety standards, we are no nearer forming the separate safety inspectorate that is so badly needed. We believe that safety requires a precautionary approach, but the regulations do not achieve that. I wish to say in the strongest possible terms that we need a comprehensive safety strategy. The regulations will bring some improvements to safety on the river Thames, but in view of what the Minister for Transport in London has been telling us about the importance of the Thames as a waterway and thoroughfare for London, we need to pay particular attention to safety there. The Minister has responsibility for shipping and for promoting the Thames as a waterway, so I hope that he will tell us his thoughts on that matter. Together with some of my hon. Friends, I was on the Royal Princess last night, which belongs to Tidal Cruisers Ltd—I do not know whether other hon. Members were there. During our trip on that passenger vessel, we were told about the concern following the demise of 4 the Greater London council and how the responsibility for piers was transferred first to the Thames water authority and then to the Port of London authority. There is much concern that responsibility for piers—including Westminster pier—will be transferred to the London Docklands development corporation. Does the Minister have such plans? The captain of the Royal Princess told me last night that, although regulations to improve safety are welcome, the Government should consider the overall issue of traffic up and down the Thames. I was told that, where a passenger vessel is banned from using the middle bridges down the Thames and has to use the smaller side bridges, at high tide the span could be as little as 1ft 6in. We need to consider a review of the way in which vessels are using the Thames. The problem is a little like that of a double decker bus passing under a low bridge. Surely, we should be considering the way in which operations on the Thames are governed.

The Chairman: Not this morning. I should be obliged if the hon. Lady would stick to the statutory instrument.

Ms Walley: Thank you for that guidance, Mr. Hill. I certainly intend to do that. Unless the regulations are set into the wider context, they will not bring about the improvement in passenger safety that we want. Other issues need to be considered. How extensive was the Minister's consultation on the regulations? There is concern in some quarters that we are all to be masters. Have the Minister and the Department considered that in formulating the regulations? To what extent has the Department of Transport's proposals been watered down down as a result of commercial pressure? That is another bugbear of ours—regulations keep being proposed which are far more watertight than those with which we end up. Commercial pressure is great. Passenger vessels may have only a short summer season in which to operate, and clearly such commercial factors are taken into account. We do not want safety to be compromised as a result. How will the Minister ensure that the regulations will be properly enforced? We hear a lot at present about how the Government are going to get rid of superfluous regulations. We welcome these regulations, but they will be of no use if the Department of Transport and the various other organisations responsible for their implementation do not have the necessary resources. How does the Minister propose to ensure that the regulations will be fully implemented? Has the Minister considered giving the issue of safety a higher profile? The Department of Transport spends large amounts of money on useful campaigns, such as ensuring that people are aware of the dangers of drinking and driving in the summer. Will the Minister make the same sort of inroads into building up the public's awareness of the importance of ensuring that the passenger vessels on which they travel have been properly inspected and comply with the regulations? That is an important point: the regulations will be of no use if the 5 Minister cannot guarantee compliance with them and that safety checks will be made. How many surveyors will there be? How will the Department of Transport, in conjunction with the port authorities and others, ensure that, for example, limits on the number of hours worked will be enforced? Why is it that the regulations do not cover all passenger vessels? As I understand it, they do not cover vessels carrying fewer than 12 passengers. Surely vessels that carry 12 passengers or fewer are at just as much risk as vessels that have more people on board. The number of hours worked is an issue on which the officers' union and the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers have campaigned for a long time. It seems from the regulations that the Department of Transport has finally accepted the principle that we have consistently advanced—that the number of hours worked causes stress; that as seamen work longer and longer hours, they are subjected to cumulative stress; and that the consequent fatigue results in errors of judgment because the crew are exhausted. We have long wanted the Government to take that principle on board. The Minister has accepted that stress, fatigue and hours worked have an important effect on safety, and that regulations should be introduced to safeguard the crew and maintain safety. So why have we no regulations that apply to sea-going vessels? Can he assure me that in the near future he will introduce regulations for sea vessels, similar to these regulations for passenger vessels? Time and time again the Government respond in a piecemeal way to shipping disasters. As the Opposition spokeswoman on shipping, I know how stressful it is to have to deal with the families of those who have been the victims of a shipping disaster of some sort. The regulations will take safety one step forward, but that is not enough. I hope that the Minister will take that on board and understand that we must adopt a precautionary approach, rather than dealing with the issue piecemeal.

The Chairman: Before I call the Minister, may I point out that magazines and newspapers must not be read in Committee, unless they are aids to a debate.

10.42 am

The Minister for Transport in London (Mr. Steve Norris): I underline your comments, Mr. Hill, as I know that my colleagues are all greatly concerned about the matters before us. But I know that my colleagues, who are busy men—

Mr. Michael Trend (Windsor and Maidenhead): And women.

Mr. Norris: Indeed. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. GilIan). My hon. Friends will see that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) is trying to 6 make a splash on a quiet news day through the cynical exploitation of an issue that is gripping the nation. In the first few seconds of her little trip round the bay, she said that the regulations were welcome, so it seems either that she is about to vote against regulations that she welcomes, or that the Committee has been entertained by remarks that have no direct relationship to the regulations. I shall try to respond to the points raised by the hon. Lady. Let me deal first with the seriousness with which the Government viewed the Marchioness disaster. Whatever view we may take about having to gather here to consider the annulment of the prayer, the Government are clear that the tragic accident which occurred on the Thames on the night of 20 August 1989 should never be repeated. As a result of the terrible collision between the Bowbelle and the passenger launch Marchioness, 51 people lost their lives in circumstances which most people, including those who had plied the Thames all their lives and still do, never foresaw. The marine accident investigation branch conducted a thorough inquiry into the causes of the accident and produced a number of very valuable recommendations designed to ensure that such an event did not recur. The Secretary of State accepted those recommendations in their entirety and has over time issued regulations to implement the recommendations. One of the more ludicrous propositions advanced by the hon. Lady is that we have been introducing regulations piecemeal. What she means is that when the Government could act swiftly—within days—they did so and that when it was necessary to consult they did so, which meant that regulations took a little longer to make. When regulations were contentious, the period allowed for consultation may have been extended, but the Government persisted and introduced the most comprehensive safety regime possible on the Thames to ensure no repetition of the tragic events of 1989.

Ms Walley: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Norris: If the hon. Lady would like to add to her already rather disparate remarks, by all means.

Ms Walley: It is important to place on record our position. Had the Department and, indeed, had the Minister and the Government adopted a precautionary approach, a set of safety regulations would have been in existence in anticipation of such accidents. We need to take a precautionary approach to maritime safety.

Mr. Norris: There are few things to which I look forward were my party ever to be in opposition—few indeed, given that I would have to consider the prospect of the hon. Lady's party being in power—but one of the few joys would be the splendid and pure joy of 20:20 hindsight. The hon. Lady is indulging in that to a quite ludicrous degree. I fear for anyone in the transport industry in any part of the United Kingdom, if the sort of nonsensical approach that the hon. Lady has described were to form the basis of a Government strategy on transport safety. She ought to consider these matters in a slightly more mature fashion and to 7 consider the hundreds, nay thousands, of years of accumulated experience of boatmen and watermen. The hon. Lady seems to have spent an enjoyable evening last night chatting to the captain of the Royal Princess when some of us were debating the Croydon Tramlink Bill on the Floor of the House. I shall pass over that. She had the decency to arrive at two minutes to 10 to support the Bill and I am grateful to her for that. She will no doubt have talked to the master and she will have recognised the accumulated experience of his years of service on the Thames. She should ask him whether he or his colleagues foresaw the need for the sort of safety regulations that have now been introduced. The hon. Lady raised the matter of consultation. The idea that we did not consult widely is yet another canard. The original consultation paper was sent to more than 1,000 addressees. The second round was sent to more than 400 addressees and elicited a large number of replies. I fail to see how the Department could have consulted more widely or comprehensively. The hon. Lady mentioned enforcement. She should know that the Department has 18 marine surveyors in 18 marine offices throughout the United Kingdom. She asked why passenger vessels carrying fewer than 12 passengers are not included. She should know, as she is said to be an Opposition spokesman on transport, that vessels carrying fewer than 12 people are not regarded as passenger vessels for the purpose of the regulation. It is perfectly sensible that if I take my rowing boat out on the Thames and carry my good lady wife with me, I am not actually using a passenger vessel for the purpose of this or any other regulation. I shall deal with the main thrust of the hon. Lady's remarks about the Thames. I shall draw her contribution to the debate to the attention of the Port of London authority which is responsible for such matters. I am grateful for her participation in the Thames working group, which is considering the issue of passenger and freight traffic generally. The hon. Lady's final point concerns the extraordinary proposition that the Labour party divined the great truth that people who work very long hours get tired. I shall pass over the origin of that proposition, but point out that the regulations that we are considering today—thanks to your indulgence, Mr. Hill, we ought to deal with them for half a second—concern four particular recommendations consequent on the Marchioness disaster. As the hon. Lady will know, they involve the minimum operational crew and passenger launch standards, especially those regulations that relate to the human factors of operating passenger ships on rivers, canals, lakes and estuaries. 8 The hon. Lady knows that there are regulations that lay down the maximum number of hours that masters can work. Under section 31 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1988, masters have an obligation to ensure that their crews are properly rested when they go about their duties. I do not wish to detain the Committee, but I regret that my colleagues have been brought here this morning to resist the annulment of this prayer, especially as the hon. Lady opened her remarks by saying that she agrees that the regulations are necessary. The points that she made have all been answered perfectly adequately, so I urge the Committee to ensure that the regulations are allowed to pass into law.

10.50 am

Ms Walley: It is important that steps to improve safety should be taken, but we do not want the piecemeal approach that we seem to have. For that reason, it is important to make that point at every opportunity because we do not want to find ourselves pressing continuously for reforms in the law on behalf of the families of victims of disasters. I was interested in the Minister's comments on hours and fatigue, but I wonder whether he is aware that his colleague in another place claimed that it would be impractical to introduce legal limits on hours in for the shipping industry, which is what we wish for. We all want improvements in safety on passenger vessels. The Minister referred to fewer than 12 passengers—

Mr. Norris: Vessels carrying fewer than 12 passengers.

Ms Walley: I stand corrected. The point is that it is up to the Minister, the Government and the Department of Transport to change or introduce whatever regulations they wish to ensure comprehensive safety. That is what we want and for that reason we considered it important that there should be a debate on the regulations this morning.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved. That the Committee has considered the Merchant Shipping (Local Passenger Vessels) (Masters' Licences and Hours, Manning and Training) Regulations 1993 (S.I. 1993, No. 1213)

Committee rose at eight minutes to Eleven o'clock.



Hill, Mr. James (Chairman)

Austin-Walker, Mr.

Brown, Mr. Michael

Bruce, Mr. Ian

Budgen, Mr.

Carlisle, Mr. John

Gale, Mr.

Gillan, Cheryl

Gunnell, Mr.

Hordern, Sir P.

Howarth, Mr. George

Norris, Mr.

Trend, Mr.

Walley, Joan

Willetts, Mr.