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"Marchioness"/"Bowbelle" Collision

2.58 p.m.

Lord Spens asked Her Majesty's Government:

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The Lord Chancellor (Lord Mackay of Clashfern): My Lords, your Lordships will recall that there have already been two prosecutions arising from the tragic sinking of the "Marchioness". Proceedings brought by the Crown Prosecution Service against the master of the "Bowbelle" for an offence contrary to Section 27 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1970 resulted in a directed acquittal after the jury twice failed to agree. An application for judicial review of the initial decision by the CPS not to proceed for manslaughter failed. A private prosecution against the owners of the "Bowbelle" also failed when the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate ruled that there was no case to answer. The Crown Prosecution Service is reviewing the evidence given to the inquest jury in combination with the pre-inquest evidence. It has also sought the advice of senior counsel. When this task is complete, a decision can then be made on whether further criminal proceedings are warranted.

Lord Spens: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for that Answer. Would he agree with me that it has been seven years since this dreadful incident and 15 months since the last inquest, which was achieved only with the aid and help of the noble and learned Lord who allowed legal aid to the families? Is it not time that some decision was reached? Is it not true that the transcripts took eight months to move from the Coroner's Office to the Crown Prosecution Service and that the Crown Prosecution Service has now had six months to look at information which it has known for a very long time? After seven years we ought to be getting a decision, ought we not?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, as the noble Lord says, it is true that the evidence from the last inquest took a considerable time to reach the Crown Prosecution Service. But the CPS owes it to the circumstances to make a thorough examination in the light of the evidence at the second coroner's inquest to see whether, in view of the verdict, any prosecution is justified. It is a very complicated matter which must be considered thoroughly and the final decision taken as soon as the investigations are complete.

Lord Irvine of Lairg: My Lords, is not the key point that the inquest jury in April 1995--that is four years after the two trials to which the noble and learned Lord referred--heard further evidence and returned a verdict of unlawful killing, in terms saying expressly that its verdict was not inconsistent with the outcome of the two previous trials? In those circumstances, is it not now urgently necessary that the Crown Prosecution Service should reach a prompt decision as regards whether or not to prosecute for manslaughter? I well recognise that it is a very difficult decision to reach but the CPS should come to that decision as promptly as may be in the interests of all the relatives of the 51 victims and in the interests of the peace of mind of the captain.

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The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, I strongly agree with that, subject to the proviso that it must take sufficient time to examine the detail--and quite a lot of detail there is--to ensure that the decision taken is the correct one.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, is my noble and learned friend aware of the profit or purpose of raising this Question in your Lordships' House?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, I often have a tendency to speculate on reasons for some of your Lordships asking questions, but happily, it is not my function to deal with those speculations. I merely try to answer the questions to the best of my ability, which is what I have done.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the noble and learned Lord has acknowledged that it took eight months for the transcripts to reach the Crown Prosecution Service from the coroner's inquest. Why did it take that long?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, because, as I understand it, the transcripts were not complete and ready to be handed over until the expiry of that period.

British Library: NAO Report

3.2 p.m.

Lord Donoughue asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What is their response to the report of the National Audit Office on the problems attending the building of the new British Library.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of National Heritage (Lord Inglewood): My Lords, the Committee of Public Accounts in another place will be taking evidence on 24th June from the accounting officer of the department and the chief executive of the British Library. Your Lordships will be aware of the convention constraining comment on the report before the Committee of Public Accounts has taken evidence.

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that shrewdly constraining reply. Is he aware that the report listed what was described as a catalogue of technical disasters leading to an overrun of the completion date of eight years and a trebling of the original costs? Is he aware further that the report put the main blame on the Department of National Heritage and its predecessors? Would the Minister like to speculate with the House whether anyone will be held responsible for that--given the fact that we all accept that Conservative Secretaries of State are never responsible for anything?

Lord Inglewood: My Lords, I am of course constrained in my reply to the noble Lord, but this matter has a long history. The noble Lord says that the department has been blamed, but the department has been responsible for the project only since 1992. Indeed,

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the project ante-dates the department. The noble Lord says that the costs have trebled, but of course the project itself has changed during that period and there have been factors such as inflation and the imposition of VAT.

Lord Strabolgi: My Lords, perhaps I may ask the noble Lord a different, if related, question. Have the Government yet made any decision about the vacant land site to the north of the St. Pancras building, as that will be needed for very important expansion, since the number of seats has been reduced from the original figure of 3,000 to just over 1,200? That is not many more than there are in Great Russell Street.

Lord Inglewood: My Lords, the noble Lord asks two distinct questions. As regards his first question, the land to the northern part of the site is potentially going to be used during the construction of the Channel Tunnel CrossRail site and may be subject to compulsory purchase until the year 2007.

As regards the provision of seats, it is not merely a matter of the number of seats provided but the use to which they are put. Different forms of delivery are required other than people merely appearing in person. I am advised that the provision of seats is adequate for the purpose for which they are required.

Lord Dean of Beswick: My Lords, will the Minister explain why the costs of such a prestigious building can treble without anybody being brought to account? Why were those costs allowed to treble? How was the money made available? I remind the Minister that if local authorities slightly exceed what they are allowed to spend, they are severely surcharged and called to account.

Lord Inglewood: My Lords, as I said in response to the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, bearing in mind the history of the project, the way it has changed and the financial circumstances during that period, I do not accept that the cost has trebled. In view of my original reply, I had better leave the second part of the noble Lord's question unanswered.

Earl Russell: My Lords, I must declare an interest as a member of the advisory council of the British Library. Will the Minister confirm the statement in paragraph 14 of the report that the British Library has never had any management or contractual responsibility for the construction of the project? Does he agree further that any errors by the contractors or others involved in no way diminish the need for a new British Library which will work?

Lord Inglewood: My Lords, I can confirm the first part of the noble Earl's comments. As regards his second question, this has been a sorry story but I do not believe that there is a possibility of the final denouement being that, after 14 years and the spending of £500 million, the Library was not necessary. No, this Library is required.

Lord Annan: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that I raised this matter in an Unstarred Question several

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years ago when I asked the Government whether they would appoint one single person to be responsible for the whole project? Has that been done?

Lord Inglewood: My Lords, in July 1995 Mr. David Trench was appointed project manager. His job is to deliver the project on time, which is by the end of this year, and within the cost target.

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