Previous SectionIndexHome Page

10.49 am

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): It is always a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), although I am not sure that he was right to say that these matters may fall to the next Parliament. I suspect that the general election may well be delayed. The Prime Minister has a difficult choice to make. He knows of the crisis that faces farmers the length and breadth of our country. At the same time, he will be conscious of the economic crisis that faces the world and our country. He will be only too aware that, while he has boasted that his Government have presided over boom and boom, if we are heading for a bust, it will not say much for his understanding of economic policy.

Mr. Forth: Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the factors that the Prime Minister will have to take into account when considering whether to call a general election will be private Members' Bills such as this one? If he calls a premature election a year ahead of when he need do, this Bill, along with many others, could become a victim of that decision.

Mr. Fabricant: My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point. There has been so much speculation that there will be a general election in May that people do not realise that constitutionally, under the Parliament Acts, the Prime Minister could leave it until June 2002.

My purpose today is to talk not about the date of the general election but about this admirable Bill. I feel that I have to rise as a non-Norfolk Member of Parliament.

23 Mar 2001 : Column 597

There has been much talk about the importance of the Bill to Norfolk charities, but we should make it clear that the same applies to charities throughout the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, it is right and proper to pay tribute to the work of the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson). I congratulate him on having the good luck to be drawn so high in the ballot that he can present a Bill, and on his good intentions and good judgment in presenting this one.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) spoke about the excellent work of Paddy Seligman. If I were her, I am not sure that I would be so pleased with his description of her as "gutsy but explosive". I am a fan of Indian cuisine, and it sounds like a description of a Sainsbury's vindaloo, which I tried last night and can confirm was indeed gutsy and explosive.

It has been a unique experience for me to see how so many people and organisations have worked together for good common purpose to see this Bill become law. It is extraordinary that the provision applies only to the National Lottery Charities Board. I shall be grateful if the Minister will confirm that only the NLCB is affected by the Bill and that the lottery boards for sports, heritage and the arts are not constrained in the establishment of endowments. If they are so constrained, ought not the Bill to be expanded so that those boards also have the freedom to do so if they see fit?

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) raised an important point. He said that, although it might not be wrong to set one up, an endowment would create difficult choices for the relevant lottery board. Interest rates are low at present. We may be heading for a period of economic decline over the next few months as the Stock Exchange collapses and the boom that has lasted since 1993, although the rate of growth of the economy has slowed since 1997, comes to an end. If we are entering a period of bust, interest rates will go even lower, unless of course we join the euro.

If we join the euro, we will not be in a position to decide our interest rates. We will be in a strange position. If Germany were enjoying a strong economic position, the interest rates set in Frankfurt would not apply to the position in the United Kingdom. I digress; I will not further consider whether we should enter the euro.

Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Surely those who make the decisions, be it anonymous boards of bureaucrats or the charities, to go for an endowment approach to take money now for immediate benefit will have to factor in forecasts of trends in interest rates, which is a hazardous business. Does he think that that has been brought out sufficiently in the debate so far? We have heard glowing accounts of how wonderful endowments are, but there is a down side.

Mr. Fabricant: There is always a down side. Money does not grow on trees, and difficult decisions always have to be made. The NLCB will have to bear it in mind

23 Mar 2001 : Column 598

that if it establishes endowments for tens or even hundreds of millions of pounds, that money, as my right hon. Friend says, will not be available to give in grants for day-to-day expenditure in a particular year. However, that is not an argument for saying that endowments should not be established. He is right that there is a down side as well as an up side.

My right hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) raised an interesting point when he said that, at a time of economic downturn when interest rates are low, it might be necessary to draw on capital sums from the endowment. Presumably, charities would pay back into the endowment when interest rates were higher. Will the Minister confirm that such flexibility will be possible? Will the boards be able to draw on the capital amounts set on the endowment at times of low interest rates in order to return the sums at times of high interest rates? Such flexibility will be important if lottery funds are not to be irrevocably damaged.

There are many examples of organisations that have been funded with large capital grants by various lottery boards. In my constituency, the heritage lottery fund has given large sums of money to a series of projects. I live next door to the Erasmus Darwin museum in the centre of Lichfield. Erasmus Darwin house was severely damaged by earth subsidence some years ago and lovingly restored with a grant from the fund. It is now an open secret that the museum is having difficulty funding its day-to-day operations.

If a lottery board felt that it was worth continuing with such projects--projects throughout the country are experiencing difficulty with their day-to-day funding--provided that the difficulty was temporary, it would be right and proper to provide assistance with the day-to-day running of an organisation. I make it an important proviso that the difficulties should be temporary. An endowment might be the ideal way to do that, but it is important that endowments should not be used to prop up lame ducks. If they are, the money will not be available to fund programmes such as those that the hon. Member for Norwich, North has already spoken about, or other worthwhile projects.

The Bill has exposed an anomaly in the way in which the lottery funding boards were established. It seems strange that the sport, heritage and arts lottery boards are impeded by the problem. I think that the Minister will confirm that that is the case. This admirable Bill will ensure that the anomaly is corrected and in that respect, I support it.

10.59 am

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): I must admit that I am torn by the Bill. I see a number of aspects to it. It is in many ways the ideal private Member's Bill. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) for presenting it to the House. It is focused and deliberately narrow in its intention, although much broader in its potential effect. It is on the face of it--

It being Eleven o'clock, Mr. Speaker interrupted the proceedings, pursuant to Standing Order No. 11 (Friday sittings).

23 Mar 2001 : Column 597

23 Mar 2001 : Column 599

Marchioness Inquiries

11 am

The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. John Prescott): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the Marchioness inquiries.

In the early hours of 20 August 1989, 51 people tragically lost their lives in the Thames following a collision between the dredger Bowbelle and the pleasure craft Marchioness. Many members of the public were profoundly shocked that such an event could happen in the centre of London, on a warm August night.

Since the tragedy, the survivors and families of the victims have campaigned for a full public inquiry. On 14 February 2000, I reported to the House Lord Justice Clarke's conclusion--from his Thames safety inquiry--that a formal investigation should have taken place soon after the incident. He recommended that I should now order one, and I agreed to do so.

I also established a non-statutory inquiry into the identification of victims following major transport accidents. I thank Lord Justice Clarke for undertaking those difficult tasks so well. At the outset, he clearly indicated that the purpose of the investigation and inquiry was not retribution, but to establish what had happened and to learn the necessary lessons for the future. Copies of both reports have been placed in the Library of the House, together with our response to the 30 recommendations made in the formal investigation report.

The exact circumstances of the collision have been a matter of dispute for more than a decade. Never before have all the relevant documents been assembled and subjected to such scrutiny.

The formal investigation finds that responsibility for the accident lies with the master of the Bowbelle, Captain Henderson; the Bowbelle's owners, East Coast Aggregates Ltd.; its managers, South Coast Shipping Ltd.; the skipper of the Marchioness, Mr. Faldo; and its owners, Kenneth Dwan and William Ludgrove of Tidal Cruises Ltd., because of their failure to establish and maintain an appropriate lookout on their vessels.

The investigation finds that both vessels were in breach of collision regulations and of Port of London authority byelaws. It finds that Captain Henderson of the Bowbelle was in breach of his obligation to broadcast a mayday and to launch life-saving equipment.

The investigation also criticises the Port of London authority and the former Department of Transport. The Port of London authority failed to require vessels with limited visibility forward--such as the Bowbelle-- to locate a lookout with an effective means of communication with the bridge. The Department failed to apply its policy that all pleasure craft on the Thames should have all-round visibility from the bridge, and did not give adequate thought to means of escape when the Marchioness was converted in 1980. The Department also failed to ensure that a condition requiring an extra lookout was imposed each time the Marchioness passenger certificate was renewed. As Secretary of State, I apologise unreservedly for the past failings of the Department--especially to the relatives.

The investigation deplores the amount of drink Captain Henderson had taken before he rejoined his ship. However, expert medical advice at the investigation

23 Mar 2001 : Column 600

indicated that he would not have been adversely affected by alcohol at the time of the incident, although his rest may have been disturbed. The report concludes that Mr. Faldo, of the Marchioness, who unfortunately lost his life, had not been drinking alcohol that night, although he may have been fatigued by the long hours that he had worked.

During the investigation, Captain Henderson of the Bowbelle admitted that during the 1980s he had forged a signature on watch-keeping certificates and his discharge book in order to gain his masters certificate. Captain Henderson did not volunteer that information to the marine accident investigation branch in 1989.

Having considered the legal arguments advanced during the investigation, including Captain Henderson's entitlement to have his civil rights determined within a reasonable time, Lord Justice Clarke did not take disciplinary action against Captain Henderson. That is a shameful consequence of the failure to hold a formal investigation following the disaster. Nor has Lord Justice Clarke recommended that action be taken against any other party found responsible for the accident.

The preliminary advice that I have received is that there is little prospect of a successful prosecution of Captain Henderson. However, I am referring the entire formal investigation report to the Director of Public Prosecutions for him to consider what action would be appropriate against Captain Henderson or any other party. I have also asked the Maritime and Coastguard Agency to undertake an urgent review of Captain Henderson's fitness to hold a British masters certificate of competency under the Merchant Shipping Acts.

Lord Justice Clarke previously reviewed safety on the Thames and made 44 recommendations; we have acted on all of them. He makes 30 further recommendations in this report; we will take forward all of them and our detailed response to those recommendations has been placed in the Library with the reports.

Lord Justice Clarke warmly welcomes my Department's decision to undertake a comprehensive formal safety assessment of small passenger vessels. Work is already under way.

Although drink-driving is an offence on the roads, it has not been on the river. We recently announced our intention to introduce, in the forthcoming safety Bill, an alcohol limit for those in charge of vessels. We also strongly support the recommendation that all shipping companies should have a clear policy regarding both alcohol and drug taking by their crews and the means to monitor its observance.

We are also putting in place new arrangements to co-ordinate search and rescue and to provide additional rescue facilities on the Thames, including three permanently manned lifeboats provided by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. The coastguard accepts overarching responsibility for search and rescue on the tidal Thames--as elsewhere in the UK.

Lord Justice Clarke singles out the role played in the rescue by the Metropolitan police officers. He commends their efforts and those of members of the public--including the so-called Hurlingham boys--who came to the rescue. I am sure that the House will want to join me in supporting those comments.

I now turn to the non-statutory inquiry that I ordered at the same time. It is hard to envisage the distress that relatives must have felt when they learned that hands had

23 Mar 2001 : Column 601

been removed from the bodies of some of those who died. Lord Justice Clarke considered the concerns of the relatives, including the removal of hands for identification; the failure to inform relatives that hands had been removed; and the refusal to allow relatives to view the bodies.

Lord Justice Clarke finds that the removal of hands for identification purposes should not have happened, except as a last resort. The responsibility for authorising the removal of hands lay entirely with Dr. Knapman, the coroner. He is criticised for failing to make it clear that this was to be an action only of last resort.

Lord Justice Clarke stressed the importance of respecting the dead and their relatives and of working with sensitivity throughout; of ensuring that full, honest and accurate information is given to the relatives at every stage; and of respecting the request of a relative to view the body. I am sure that the House will be in accord with those sentiments.

The Government are acting on Lord Clarke's recommendations. With advances in DNA techniques, it is now rare for hands to be removed. However, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has decided to ask coroners to report to the Home Office any future cases where hands are removed.

The inquiry revealed a failure, in three cases, to reunite the severed hands with the bodies, as Dr. Knapman should have required. Westminster mortuary is also criticised for its procedures. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has agreed that the review of the Human Tissue Act 1961, following the Alder Hey inquiry report, will be widened to cover Lord Justice Clarke's recommendations.

Today, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is announcing the terms of reference of a fundamental review of the coroner system, which will now also reflect these recommendations. Moreover, a copy of the report will be sent to every coroner. I ask them to consider it carefully, to see whether existing practices can be improved. The police service is also developing guidelines to improve its own procedures.

After the hearings, it emerged that tissue samples taken from four of the Marchioness victims had been found 11 years later in Westminster mortuary. Post mortems were carried out on all 51 victims after the tragedy and small samples of tissue removed, in accordance with normal forensic practice. Most of the samples were destroyed after six months, but four remained at Westminster mortuary. I should emphasise that, contrary to newspaper reports, these were small amounts of tissue, not the organs themselves, and that the material was not used for research.

Lord Justice Clarke wrote to the Secretary of State for Health about those samples, and my right hon. Friend has agreed to refer the matter to the newly established Retained Organs Commission for further action, in consultation with the relatives. The Home Secretary has also agreed to undertake a review of practice and procedures in all public mortuaries in England and Wales, to ensure compliance with best practice.

After 11 long years, Lord Justice Clarke has provided the definitive account of the Marchioness tragedy. Responsibility has at long last been attributed and laid at

23 Mar 2001 : Column 602

the door of the skippers, the owners and the managers of both vessels. Criticism has been levelled at the Department of Transport, the Port of London authority, the coroner and the mortuary.

The lessons of the accident continue to be learned. The Thames is a safer place than it was in 1989. It can and must become safer still. The sinking of the Marchioness profoundly shocked the nation. A full public inquiry should have been held years ago. Lord Justice Clarke states that he hopes that his inquiry will help to ensure that nothing like this happens again. He says that his report may not satisfy everyone, but he hopes that the inquiry will have played a small part in helping the relatives and survivors to put the appalling tragedy behind them and contributed to improving safety on the Thames in future. The reports provide a chilling reminder of the need for vigilance and will stand as a permanent rebuke to those found at fault.

Finally, I am sure the House will join me in paying tribute to the tenacity and courage of the relatives for their tireless campaign to secure a full public inquiry. The improvements that we have seen to river safety are a lasting testament to their commitment. I commend the reports to the House.

Next Section

IndexHome Page