A year since I challenged the Government in the Commons on its proposals making it harder to get to the truth of disasters at sea, the issue returned to the Lords yesterday. Had the Government been listening?
Unfortunately not. This isn’t just that the Transport Ministers and the Government have failed to acknowledge the serious drawbacks of their proposals despite the protestations of Members in both Houses, from trade union members and families of the victims of seafaring tragedies. It is sadly part of a pattern over the past year where we have seen a series of Government decisions to water down safety measures in the wake of their so-called Red Tape Challenge, which could risk ending up playing fast and loose with safety and security at sea.
In the House of Lords that seasoned campaigner Lord Prescott spoke on 11th February opposing plans to remove the duty on the Government to reinvestigate a maritime disaster when new evidence comes to light. That duty is something that I as Shadow Maritime Minister have fought hard to retain, because I know how vital it was to the families of those lost when the largest British ship ever to to be lost at sea, the MV Derbyshire, sank in 1980 killing 42 on board. The first investigation laid blame on the crew of the ship, but after trade union initiatives helped discover the wreck 14 years later, John Prescott as Transport Secretary subsequently used that power to reinvestigate the sinking. As a result, factors in the ship design were blamed, and the crew absolved. Also, vital safety lessons were learnt for the future.
The argument for retaining the duty to reinvestigate is a powerful one, yet the Government refused to budge in the House of Lords. This is not wholly surprising, however. In the past year we on Labour’s Transport team along with others have been shining lights on a whole series of changes that the Government is making that risk compromising safety standards, often standards put into place after painful and tragic experiences. It is all done under the mantra of cutting bureaucracy, but it fails ultimately to take on board either the opinions or the practical experience of those whose lives are on the line on the ships in question. Taken individually they constitute the weakening of shipping safety standards; taken collectively they are indicative of a Government more interested in political positioning than in obeying the precautionary principle to secure the safety of passengers and the workforce in our waters.
Secondly, the Transport Select Committee’s call in late 2013 for a review of the capacity of Maritime and Coastguard Agency illustrated the anxiety that resources were being spread too thinly. Since then, I have consistently drawn attention to the serious concerns over the reduction in the number of Coastguard centres. In a centralisation plan driven by cutting budgets and untested reliance on new techniques, we’ve lost valuable local knowledge and large numbers of experienced coastguards who’ve left the service, and with recruitment struggling to cover the numbers we’ve seen dangerously common understaffing around our coasts. Government’s failure to heed the call for an MCA review goes much deeper. The Agency’s other work is stretching its resources with new responsibilities for the safety of the ships in our waters, monitoring the impact on the environment and promoting British shipping to international business. All laudable initiatives – but this combination of declining resources and increasing responsibilities is a dangerous one.
Thirdly the Government is proposing that the MCA’s formal checks on vessel safety, the MOT of the maritime world, should be reduced from once every six months to once every two and a half years. This has alarmed the maritime unions, concerned as I am that however useful self-regulation may be, it is no substitute for an 80% reduction in inspection.
Lastly, the Government announced last summer its intention to whittle away a further four sets of regulations covering safety at sea. These were first put into legislation following the catastrophic sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise in the Channel in 1987 which killed 193 passengers and crew. Just as the tragedy of MV Derbyshire led to new protections which are now being removed by this Government, so these changes threaten to undo the lessons learnt from the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster. After the concerted efforts of the unions, the Government has now relented in their staggering suggestion that not all ships need to carry emergency equipment on their top deck. But other regulations learnt from the lessons of the Herald Free Enterprise including the uneven distribution of cargo on a ship and the protocol for communication between officers, are still under threat of being revoked.
Everyone in the shipping sector is sensitive to the financial pressures on companies’ competitiveness. We all want UK maritime to be helped to grow and create more UK jobs, particularly at a time when there are major opportunities for the industry worldwide. But excellence in safety not only strengthens the reputation of UK shipping and provides it with a sound sustainable base for that growth, it’s also what we owe to those who serve on those ships and the passengers in their care.
In the 19th Century it took the dogged efforts of a courageous Victorian MP, Samuel Plimsoll, to overcome inertia and the dogma of laissez-faire and get legislation through Parliament that established the famous Plimsoll line – the markings on a ship’s hull indicating maximum safe draft and thereby banishing the spectre of the un-seaworthy “coffin ships”.
This Government should seriously reflect on this lesson from history if they want to get the balance right on maritime safety. No one objects to the removal of redundant bureaucracy. But the actions catalogued here stoke fears that it is obsessive dogma that’s fuelling this Government’s ‘red tape’ challenge, which risks crossing the red line of safety at sea.