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House of Lords

Monday, 3rd November 1997.

The House met at a quarter past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Lichfield.

Lord Higgins

The Right Honourable Sir Terence Langley Higgins, KBE, having been created Baron Higgins, of Worthing in the County of West Sussex, for life--Was, in his robes, introduced between the Baroness Young and the Lord Weatherill.

Lord Burlison

Thomas Henry Burlison, Esquire, having been created Baron Burlison, of Rowlands Gill in the County of Tyne and Wear, for life--Was, in his robes, introduced between the Lord Gladwin of Clee and the Lord Whitty.

Lord Razzall

Edward Timothy Razzall, Esquire, CBE, having been created Baron Razzall, of Mortlake in the London Borough of Richmond, for life--Was, in his robes, introduced between the Baroness Hamwee and the Lord Tope.

Lord Keith of Kinkel--Took the Oath.

Lord Scarman--Took the Oath.

The "Marchioness"/"Bowbelle" Collision

2.50 p.m.

Lord Spens asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will honour the undertaking given by the Deputy Prime Minister on behalf of the Labour Party in August 1991 to hold a public inquiry into the "Marchioness" and "Bowbelle" disaster.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman): My Lords, we are considering very carefully the case for a formal investigation under the Merchant Shipping Act into this disaster. My colleague, the Minister responsible for shipping, met representatives of the "Marchioness" Action Group in August to discuss their concerns. The Government understand the distress the group has endured during its long campaign, but any decision to hold a further investigation would have to be based on justifiable and objective grounds.

Lord Spens: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is she aware that the dredger presently on top of the Thames barrier, formerly called the "Bowknight",

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is a sister ship of the "Bowbelle", owned by the same group, Ready Mixed Concrete? Now that there are no longer the connections between Ready Mixed Concrete and No. 10, does she not agree that it is time that this inquiry was speeded up and the process of taking a decision accelerated?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I am aware that the "Sand Kite" is owned by the same company, South Coast Shipping Company of Southampton, that owned the "Bowbelle" dredger. The Marine Accidents Investigation Branch is currently conducting an inspector's investigation into the cause of, and circumstances surrounding, the accident at the Thames flood barrier.

As regards the issue of an inquiry, we are assessing very carefully the evidence submitted by the "Marchioness" Action Group in support of its call for a formal investigation. The Chief Inspector of Marine Accidents, Rear Admiral John Lang RN (Rtd.), who took up his post in April 1997, will be presented with the evidence when it is complete to determine whether it justifies reopening the MAIB's accident investigation.

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the House as a whole expects the obligation that was explicit in the terms of the undertaking freely given by the Deputy Prime Minister to be scrupulously honoured?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I understand what my noble friend is saying. However, noble Lords will be aware that since 1991, when the Deputy Prime Minister gave that undertaking, several important developments have taken place. In December 1991 the Hayes Inquiry into river safety was commissioned. That report was published in 1992 and, of the 22 recommendations, 21 have already been implemented. In 1994 the Court of Appeal ordered that the inquests into the deaths of the victims should be remitted to a different coroner for a fresh decision. In April 1995 the jury returned its verdict of unlawful killing. In view of those developments, it is important that we assess carefully the case that has been submitted for a public inquiry, and we are making that assessment.

Lord Brabazon of Tara: My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that a full inquiry was carried out by the Marine Accidents Investigation Branch? One of the purposes of setting up the MAIB was to get away from the confrontational nature of formal investigations and to have a similar set-up to the Air Accident Investigation Branch. There has not been a public inquiry into an air accident since 1972. The purpose is to get to the facts without confrontation.

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I understand that. I understand also the feelings of the families involved that, because of the different processes that have taken place, there has not been a holistic view of what happened. There is a possibility of re-opening the MAIB investigation if that is justified. In order to determine

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whether such a reopening or other form of inquiry is justified we must look carefully at the evidence to see whether it is new and fundamental.

Lord Bowness: My Lords, I understand the distress felt by the families of the victims and their desire to obtain as much information as possible. However, can the noble Baroness confirm that not only were the recommendations in the report on river safety by Mr. Hayes implemented, but also that the previous government responded quickly and positively to the recommendations in the Marine Accidents Investigation Branch report referred to by my noble friend?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, it is true that the majority of procedures and recommendations set out both in the MAIB report and the subsequent Hayes report have already been implemented. We intend to address the outstanding issue--that is, alcohol abuse on board ship--and in due course issue a consultation paper on applying alcohol limits and post-accident testing to mariners.

Millennium Exhibition Site

2.55 p.m.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What is the likely cost of the millennium dome, when will it be completed, and what means of transport will be available to those who are expected to visit the site.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the overall cash budget of the New Millennium Experience at Greenwich and the associated national programme is £758 million. That includes allowances for inflation and contingencies. Costs attributable to individual components of the project are subject to contractual negotiation. They will be published in the accounts of the New Millennium Experience Company Limited at the appropriate time.

The dome structure is planned to be completed in September 1998. Installation of internal structures and content is planned to be completed in September 1999. There will be a wide variety of public transport modes for visitors to choose, including the new Jubilee Line station next to the experience site and river services from central London.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, how did a new Government, not all that respectful of the ideas and plans of their predecessor, pick up on this one? The project is extremely expensive, not easy to reach and there is uncertainty as to what it will contain. Is not the Minister a little apprehensive that this huge project could turn out to be just a massive monument to the conceit and vanity of those who conceived and constructed it?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, it would not be appropriate for me to intrude on disagreements

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within the Conservative Party. Other disagreements within the Conservative Party are perhaps more in the public eye at the moment. However, the noble Lord will be aware that we carried out a review of the millennium dome project when we came to office in May. The Cabinet concluded that, first, it would be a considerable waste of the money already spent if we abandoned it at that stage. Secondly, it concluded that there were enormous advantages to be gained from a project which I can say without fear of contradiction will be the greatest millennium project in the world. It will trumpet out the virtues and plans of this country for the next millennium.

Lord Strabolgi: My Lords, can my noble friend say what is the anticipated life of the millennium dome? How long is it expected to last?

Noble Lords: One thousand years!

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I like that idea. The dome is to be built of PTFE--polytetrafluoroethylene. The oldest building of that material is in California and was built in 1973. It is still in extremely good condition so the dome will have a life of at least 24 years. The steel structure is planned to have a life of 60 years.

Lord Marsh: My Lords, can the Minister give the House some indication, if this extraordinary project is successful, of the expected increase in traffic on a journey which takes in excess of one hour--I speak as a former Member of Parliament for the area--through one of the most crowded areas of London?

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