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Mr. Prescott: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks, especially those concerning the families. With regard to his remarks about the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea, I said at the beginning that he met the Prime Minister on the day, as I would have expected; particularly when one considers that the Secretary of State was out of the country. It is a question not of individual responsibility, but of collective responsibility. A number of different Ministers and Secretaries of State have replied to the House on the subject over the past 10 or 11 years. Each came to the conclusion that there should not be a public inquiry. They may have made that decision for different reasons and at different times, but they all arrived at the same conclusion. That conclusion, in my view, was wrong.

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The maritime accident report said that no fault had occurred that could result in disciplinary action. That was wrong. The body responsible was in constant discussion with Ministers. Lord Justice Clarke's report states that the recommendations from civil servants--arising out of an exchange in the Hayes report, which came after the maritime accident inquiry set up by the Government--were that perhaps Ministers should not have a full inquiry, but that if they did, they, the civil servants, would not be surprised. That is where discretion comes in.

Although my hon. Friend talks about individual responsibility for the matter, each must make his own decision about how he deals with the matter. I am in the unfortunate circumstances of apologising for a previous Administration but, in the circumstances, it is right for me to do so, as I have responsibility now. There was collective responsibility and, frankly, there was collective failure. That is brought out by Lord Justice Clarke's report, and that is where I would address my remarks about the failure to hold a public inquiry.

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford): None of us should pay too much attention to the cheap remarks of the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond) on this serious occasion. As the Deputy Prime Minister said, the benefits to be derived from a public inquiry must be balanced against other considerations; for instance, the need to collect evidence for a criminal prosecution. In that context, could he tell the House whether Lord Justice Clarke has identified any recommendation which, had it been acted upon earlier, might have averted subsequent tragedies on the Thames?

Mr. Prescott: It is a matter of balance; I am faced with striking a balance on the recommendations that I have received from Lord Justice Clarke, and deciding whether I take further action. I am trying to be fair to everyone concerned. I know that the relatives feel strongly that the human rights of those who say that they should be immune from prosecution must be balanced against those of the 55 people who died. That is a difficult balance to strike, and Lord Justice Clarke addressed the point.

On whether we have learned lessons, what contributed to the accident was a failure to observe the law of the land: under the collision regulations, there should be a lookout on a vessel on the Thames. We have not changed that law; it is just that it was not observed. The Clarke report states that individuals, such as Captain Henderson, did not observe the regulations. Some may face charges. Tragically, the captain of the Marchioness died in the accident. Companies also have responsibility. Because our law is not adequate to take action against the companies involved--to be fair, some of the relatives did take action--the courts were not prepared to entertain corporate responsibility or corporate manslaughter charges. Therefore, we are back to changing the law.

Great sloppiness is evident, and it is probably a criticism of the Department at the time that there was not just one accident. A few years previously, the Bowbelle was involved in similar collisions when it did not keep proper lookout. That should have alerted the Department to the need to take more action against such companies and the individuals working for them. It did not.

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The matter is not one of improving the regulations, although we are making improvements, but of ensuring that they are observed.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): There are obviously many lessons to be learned from the inquiry, particularly for those who are concerned with safety on the river. The lesson about which I am most concerned is the one for us as politicians: how do we deal with matters such as this?

I have read the report of the marine accident investigation branch inquiry, and particularly in view of the latest report, it seems a seriously deficient piece of work. It suggests that there was

yet later it finds that there was a failure to provide lookout. Indeed, as the Deputy Prime Minister has pointed out, at least one of the vessels was involved in another incident because of that failure. As the Clarke report suggests, Captain Henderson was in breach of his obligation to call a mayday and to launch rescue vessels.

It seems that there has been a degree of complacency about accepting the MAIB inquiry without seeing in it some very clear signals, in the historical context, that a better piece of work was required. Can I be assured by the Deputy Prime Minister that while we are in government, we will never be guilty of such complacency?

Mr. Prescott: I must tell my hon. Friend that such circumstances often occur and Secretaries of State appear at the Dispatch Box to explain why, but I will do everything that I can to ensure that complacency does not have an effect on our regulations.

My hon. Friend makes a fair point about the MAIB report. Since it keeps coming up, I shall quote from it:

That was not published until two years after the event, and 12 months later it was delivered to the Department.

Anybody reading Lord Justice Clarke's report will see that lookouts were not maintained, and that that was following two or three similar events in preceding years. That raises the question whether that was wilful misconduct on behalf of the captain or the companies. They certainly were not carrying out their responsibility. Their attitude was very complacent; I say no more than that. I shall do all that I can to see that we learn the lessons, and the 70-odd recommendations aim to do that.

I should make one correction. I made a mistake in talking about 55 deaths, when I should have said 51. I apologise for that. All in all, there are many lessons to be learned. At the end of the day, that was what Lord Justice Clarke's inquiry was about--to find out the truth, what went wrong and to see what we could do to prevent such an accident from happening again.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): May I say how much I welcome the Deputy Prime Minister's announcement that there will be liaison and discussions with the Lord Chancellor's Department on whether there can be a public inquiry while there may also be criminal prosecutions.

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The Deputy Prime Minister mentioned in his statement the question of visibility. Has his Department given any thought to the use and compulsion of use of proximity radar, which would automatically state whether another vessel is nearby? The right hon. Gentleman also mentioned that an assessment is being made of all small passenger vessels in use on the Thames. When will that assessment be completed?

Mr. Prescott: I thank the hon. Member for his remarks. He makes an important point. If he looks at Lord Justice Clarke's inquiry, or the Hayes inquiry, which the previous Administration set up, he will see the difficulties with communication--whether vessels are located by radio, as normal, or by radar. Such vessels have those facilities.

As has been pointed out, the disco music on the Marchioness was so loud that the radio could not be heard. That is of serious concern. Visibility from the bridge was another matter of concern. As I said 10 years ago, somebody must have made a mistake. When the vessel was given a second deck on which passengers could dance, lack of visibility was obvious. When the vessel's stability was changed and it was given another deck, somebody must have agreed that it was safe and that there was full visibility. Clearly, it was not safe. That applied not only to this accident--similar incidents were reported concerning restriction of visibility on a number of vessels two or three years previously. So, it is not as if we did not know about such matters.

I am in a way risking my hand in saying that the real problem is that sometimes, recommendations are made but, on receiving them, people sit back. When asked why the owners did not implement them, it was simply said that they just did not do so. There was an argument over whether the lack of visibility required another crew member, which presumably had cost implications.

Either way, too many people looked in different directions and did not deal with the problem. That is at the heart of the matter. We must ensure that inspections systems are reviewed regularly. By the way, such systems were checked on this occasion, but nobody said that there was anything wrong. There was something wrong, and there is evidence to that effect. The case reveals sloppiness in the Department, but we are doing everything to see that that is corrected.

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