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Mr. Prescott: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks about my personal involvement in this matter. In these difficult times, we have had to make difficult decisions and have had to ask relatives to trust us. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the support that he has given me in securing the trust that has enabled us to make a definitive statement of what happened on the night of the accident. I am also grateful that he expressed appreciation and paid tribute to the relatives, and to Lord Justice Clarke for his report.
I agree that much needs to be done if we are to learn the lessons. The recommendations that have been made represent a major step towards doing that and I want them to be implemented as quickly as possible and without delay.
On the hon. Gentleman's question about Captain Henderson, I am referring the whole report to the Director of Public Prosecution, and I have not limited my request for advice to Captain Henderson. I would like advice about any party who has responsibility in this matter.
The hon. Gentleman rightly pointed to the delays that occurred and they relate to other pieces of legislation and the human rights of the people involved in this case. However, as Lord Justice Clarke has pointed out, the delays have meant that we cannot take any further action. In addition, the two or three court cases delayed the proper inquiry, and one court did not come to a decision,
On corporate responsibility, the Home Office has conducted a review, which was finished in September. We have said that our conclusions will appear in a new safety Bill that will be introduced if we are re-elected.
The way in which coroners deal with such cases is actively under review. Indeed, the report makes a number of specific recommendations which we have accepted. A review is being conducted by my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Health to improve the position.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about the coastguard. We have introduced for the Thames provisions similar to those for most of our estuaries and rivers, but the coastguard does not operate in every river where there are passenger boats. We are therefore conducting a review of what are called the class 5 vessels that are found in rivers and estuaries throughout the country. We want greater uniformity in the system and I shall report to the House when we have completed the review.
The hon. Gentleman also referred to the trauma that the victims have suffered, and that has been a feature of all the accidents that have occurred in the past couple of decades. Our provisions for handling trauma have improved, as we can see from the fact that companies involved in railway tragedies are better informed. Local authorities are also more helpful. However, if a post mortem is necessary, nothing should be done to the bodies of the loved ones without the agreement of the relatives. That recommendation has been made strongly, but Lord Justice Clarke makes it clear that, for obvious reasons, coroners have a right to conduct post mortems; however, we must achieve a better balance and I think that the recommendations achieve that.
Much safety legislation reaches the statute book only when lessons are learned from transport and fire tragedies. That has happened time and again and it appears that we react to tragedies instead of being proactive. Surely any multiple loss of life should automatically lead to a full public inquiry to ensure that the causes are completely examined and to obtain public confidence. What assurances can my right hon. Friend give the House that future Governments will act as he has done in promptly calling for a public inquiry when there is a tragedy? In the case of the Marchioness, families and others encountered difficulties because the then Government blocked the initiation of a public inquiry. Can he assure us that public inquiries will take place if there are disasters and tragedies in future?
Mr. Prescott: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. He makes a powerful point about the circumstances that should lead to a public inquiry. He mentioned one of the criteria; the loss of life. In the
The then Government started properly, with a preliminary inquiry into the sinking of the Marchioness. The first decision was taken by the Prime Minister herself on the day. She had a meeting at No. 10 with the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo)--then the Minister of State, Department of Transport--because the Secretary of State was out of the country. They decided, first, to hold a preliminary inquiry, and to leave open the option for a full inquiry. The problem was that people began to find different reasons for not having a full inquiry. That led to suspicion among the relatives and to bad feeling; particularly as the Government had ordered a full inquiry into the loss of the Herald of Free Enterprise without such consideration.
I want to be fair to the previous Administration. It is proper to have a preliminary inquiry, but eventually discretion must be used by Ministers about whether there should be a public inquiry. As a result of the recommendations, we are reviewing the rules governing inquiries with the Lord Chancellor and others. As Lord Justice Clarke said, loss of life is one of the criteria when deciding whether to hold an inquiry, but there are others and we have to make judgments.
I cannot envisage a system in which discretion is not exercised, and, if it is, Ministers should be accountable to this House for their judgment. On balance, that is the better way of dealing with these matters and we can, I hope, come to the best judgments. Sometimes we cannot; if so, we are accountable to this House. If we do not settle the issues, such terrible matters could go on for years with nothing being done. That in turn leads to arguments because, when so much time has passed, it is impossible to pursue a proper prosecution or any further action.
In this case, there was a desire for a maritime accident report. However, when 10 or 11 years pass without a public inquiry, there is a chance of misinterpretation. People then believe that there is bad will and bad feeling, and that those involved are not doing enough. Public inquiries clear the air, with Ministers being answerable to this Chamber.
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): I thank the Deputy Prime Minister very much for coming to the House so promptly and for making such a full statement. Is he satisfied--as far as he reasonably can be--that after learning the lessons from what has happened and from the report, we now have the combination of onshore and on-vessel systems and equipment that are necessary to provide the guarantee of safety that we need, given the welcome increase in traffic on the Thames? That is obviously important not just for Londoners, but for tourists. Is not the main thing that can come out of this process the maximum reassurance that I hope the Deputy Prime Minister feels able to give today, as that would be a fitting testament to those who died in the tragedy?
We have instituted some new checks and controls and, along with the 70-odd recommendations in the report, I believe that these will cause improvements. However, I have been involved in transport safety for a long time and I know that we can never be sure. All we can do is make sure that the checks are done properly and that vigilance is maintained. We must allow people to enjoy the river, but remind them that it can be dangerous. I would like to be able to say that there will never be another incident, but it would be foolish of me to do so. However, we are doing all that we can to prevent another one.
Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham): I thank my right hon. Friend for his personal commitment to the issue, without which we would not have learned the lessons from Lord Justice Clarke's inquiry. Clearly, those lessons--if, as he has said, they are implemented in full--will make the Thames a safer place. I also endorse my right hon. Friend's tribute, repeated by other Members, to the families, relatives and survivors of the Marchioness disaster. I have worked closely with them for the past four years, as has the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). My admiration and respect for the families, and for their determination and courage, has increased year by year.
I understand the families' anger that it has taken so long to find the answers to their questions. I note that the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) is unable to be in the Chamber this morning, although, as we have heard, he was the duty Minister at the time, and was responsible for the decision that the inquiry should not take place. Would it not be appropriate for the right hon. Gentleman to come to this House to give his own apology for not having an inquiry? That inquiry would have allowed the families and the relatives to put to rest their loved ones and would have allowed us to learn lessons which, if implemented, could have made the river a safer place over the past 11 years.