All at sea

JohnPrescott.jpgJohn Prescott on the government’s plans to dilute the law on inquiries into lost sailing vessels

Today in the Lords, the government will press on with trying to reduce the safety and security for seafarers on board British merchant ships. The plans – within the Deregulation Bill – will dilute the present statutory requirements (under the 1955 Merchant Shipping Act) of the powers of inquiry into the loss of a vessel. At present, the law requires an inquiry to be made when a ship is lost at sea, and allows a second inquiry if evidence is found later to influence the judgements of the first. But the government wants to remove the legislative requirement and leave the decision on a second inquiry down to ministerial discretion.

As ten years a seaman, and during my time in Parliament, I have fought for the reform of the Merchant Shipping Act – the one remaining area of Master/Servant legislation. My experience as the Secretary of State for Transport responsible for investigation and inquiries into the loss of vessels leaves me concerned that second inquiries will end up limited to solely those were there has been a clear miscarriage of justice.

Examples of my concern include the loss of a bulk carrier, The Derbyshire in 1980, where the first inquiry stated lost at sea with a possibility of crew failure. She was found 18 years later giving me the reason for a second inquiry, something the relatives of those who had died demanded. We found that The Derbyshire had sunk because of inadequate equipment, not crew failure.

Another example is the case of the Hull trawler The Gaul was lost at sea in 1974 due, according to the first inquiry, to bad weather. She was found in 1997 and had been sunk off the north coast of Norway. The relatives were convinced that trawlers were being used as spy ships by the Royal Navy and believed The Gaul may have been torpedoed. I agreed a second inquiry to survey the ship to see if the damage was military or otherwise.

And then there was the case of The Marchioness – a Thames pleasure boat which sank in 1989 due to a stern collision with another vessel. Eight years later, I ordered a second inquiry (something the previous Tory government had refused) over whether she was in a proper seaworthy condition. A dance floor built on to it restricted the visibility of the Captain from seeing any vessel approaching. That inquiry that discovered that the Transport Department shared some of the blame, something for which I apologised to the House of Commons. At the start, I was opposed by the Department’s legal advisers, who said there wasn’t a legal power. I ignored their protestations and the inquiry revealed the Department’s fault.

In all of these examples, the law made it clear that a second inquiry had to take place because of new evidence that might have led to a different conclusion first time around. Now, the Coalition wants to put the decision in the hands of Ministers, prior to any inquiry independently determining whether any new evidence was relevant.

It’s not just about getting to the facts. It’s about bringing together all of the information to the satisfaction of the relatives who have lived with the injustice in these cases and others for many, many years. Their campaigns for justice have been successful and has made the government nervous about giving them the right for a proper investigation into the loss of their loved ones.

Merchant shipping has long had legislation to improve safety, security and accountability. I hope I can persuade colleagues across the Lords to pressure the government to change its mind, and to do so on behalf of those seafarers and passengers who have lost their lives at sea.

Lord John Prescott is a backbench Labour Peer and a former Secretary of State for Transport. He tweets @johnprescott

Published 4th November 2014

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