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MV "Derbyshire"

8.47 p.m.

Lord Dixon rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have received the second survey report on MV "Derbyshire"; and, if so, what action they are proposing to take.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in tabling this Question, I should like to comment on some of the more unsatisfactory aspects of this long-running saga, and try to put them in context with the current investigation. It is now over 17 years since MV "Derbyshire" disappeared on 10th September, 1980, 200 miles from Japan, in a typhoon that many felt she should easily have braved, resulting in the loss of everyone on board; 42 crew and two wives of officers.

Despite the loss of life, the Government of the day refused to have a formal investigation. If this accident had happened in any other mode of transport--in aviation for instance--all similar types of aeroplane would have been grounded and unlimited money would have been spent to identify the cause. Given such a loss of life, an investigation should have been the norm rather than the exception. Instead the Minister announced in May 1981 that there was not enough evidence to justify an inquiry.

Since the disappearance of the "Derbyshire" we have had 12 Secretaries of State for Transport, the current one being my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister. The Derbyshire Family Association has fought amazingly hard and showed much patience just to seek the truth and achieve natural justice for the relatives who perished on the "Derbyshire". I, along with others, have been angered over the years by the cavalier way in which the Department of Transport has at times treated the association, in my opinion denying them natural justice. Indeed, if it had not been for the Derbyshire Family Association and the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers and their technical advisers, the loss of the "Derbyshire" would have been a footnote in maritime history. For it was those, along with the International Transport Federation, who found the funds to finance a marine search and succeeded in locating the wreck two and a half miles beneath the China Sea.

The "Derbyshire" was a Bibby Line-owned bulk carrier built by Swan Hunter at Haverton Hill on Tees-side in 1976. She was the last of the six Bridge class oil, bulk and ore combination carriers. They were the first of their kind to be built in the United Kingdom. Out of the six ships only the first, the "Furness Bridge", was built to the original design.

On March 11th 1982, on passage from Hamburg bound for Brazil, the "Tyne Bridge"--the second of the six-ship series--encountered a North Sea storm and

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started to split badly around frame 65. Such was the captain's concern he arranged for the majority of the crew to be airlifted to safety. The ship was towed to Hamburg for repairs. Inspection of the "Tyne Bridge" in dry dock showed that she had not been built to design and the damage was attributed to the method of connecting the forward cargo section of the hull to the after-engine room section. So alarmed were the surveyors of the "Tyne Bridge" damage that, unsolicited, they sent out warnings to the owners of similarly built sister ships. Two were given the same strengthening treatment in the same year.

If actions speak louder than words this is what the repairs said: one, the longitudinal--that is, the spinal--girders should not have been terminated at and welded to the transverse bulkhead; they should have carried through the bulkhead. I have spent 34 years as a shipwright building and repairing ships. I never in my life experienced this type of construction.

Two, a thick longitudinal should never be butted to the thinner one aft of the bulkhead. Three, the metal should have been either D or E grade. Four, sharp edges should always be avoided on ships because they raise stresses. Five, the deck should have been 30 per cent. thicker.

The question that has never been answered is how do those claiming that the hull of the "Derbyshire" was adequate and up to specification reconcile those claims with the fact that hundreds of thousands of pounds needed to be spent on her sister ships on strengthening and repairs?

Out of the six sister ships, one was built to original design, three had to undergo repairs at frame 65 to restore them to the original design and make them seaworthy; the two that were left were the "Kowloon Bridge" and the "Derbyshire".

On 25th November 1986, the "Kowloon Bridge", in an abandoned condition, struck Stag Rocks off the southern coast of Ireland and gradually sank, splitting at frame 65 as she sank. It was not until the loss of the "Kowloon Bridge" that a formal investigation into the loss of the "Derbyshire" took place, six years after the tragedy.

The report was published in 1989 and stated that:

    "The Derbyshire was probably overwhelmed by the forces of nature in Typhoon Orchid".

It added that:

    "the evidence available does not support any firmer conclusion".

It was an investigation which many in the maritime community felt was a complete whitewash.

I received a copy of a letter from Mr. J. F. Ibbotson, leader of the Australian Derbyshire Family Association. In it he said:

    "One of our Group, in command of an Australian registered bulk carrier and taking the same course and the same cargo to Japan heard no distress signal from the Derbyshire because her end must have come too quickly--in seconds. The same member did not consider the typhoon to be much different from the 30 or 40 that occur each year in the typhoon season, in which he has made safe passages for many, many years".

So much for the forces of nature.

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After the finding of the wreck by the DFA, the RMT and the International Transport Federation, the Government commissioned the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, to carry out an assessment into what further work should be undertaken to identify the cause of the sinking of the "Derbyshire". Although it was a well written report, one has to ask if this assessment was necessary. If a plane crashes into the sea, we do not have to have an assessment as to whether you can go in and retrieve the black box.

I always understood that the criteria for reopening a formal investigation is that there has to be a new and important evidence. Surely the finding of the wreck must have met this criteria? If so, the formal investigation could have then been reopened, and the expedition planned and carried out with technical experts from all interested parties. In that way we would have had a balanced expedition. Unfortunately, the Department of Transport took control of the investigation--the very party that is known to have a vested financial interest in its outcome.

I will explain that financial interest. In 1986 the shipyard which built the "Derbyshire" was privatised, and in order for the deal to go through the Government gave the new owners indemnity against any claims that might arise from the sinking of the "Derbyshire", thus making the Government liable to meet any successful claims. Some have said that is why there were significant differences between the draft report in 1985 and the final report in 1986.

For the present survey the DoT appointed the Ministry of Defence as project managers and appointed two UK assessors who were known to favour a particular loss scenario--"hatch cover failure", the same as put forward at the formal investigation by the shipbuilders. These two assessors made a sort of league table of probabilities, and sure enough the hatch cover failure came way out on top, promoting a loss scenario that would favour the builders and the DoT cannot be described as being objective.

As a member of the All Party Derbyshire Committee, I was disturbed to learn that one of the assessors--Professor Faulkner--got together with a technical expert who represented the builders of the "Derbyshire" at the formal investigation and co-authored a technical paper. This paper also included work that was sponsored by the builders, Swan Hunter. Hardly impartial or objective behaviour.

We took a delegation to the shipping Minister Viscount Goschen to complain about this and other matters. Unfortunately our protests fell on deaf ears and Professor Faulkner continued to promote his pet theory. I can accept that the theory addresses a point of valid concern, but I cannot accept the behaviour of the assessor in presupposing that hatch failure was the cause of the ship's loss.

If we need further evidence of the UK assessors swinging away from hard circumstantial evidence of structural failure, there is the fact that the assessors went into print and stated that the structural failure circumstances of the sister ships "Tyne Bridge" and "Kowloon Bridge" were not relevant to the loss of the

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"Derbyshire". I understand that Professor Faulkner has now been asked to resign. This was long after our delegation went to see the Minister.

In a letter of October 28th from my honourable friend the Minister at the Department of Transport, Glenda Jackson, she says:

    "Professor Faulkner's active promotion of the theory that the DERBYSHIRE sank when her hatch covers gave way is a matter of dismay for the Department. Officials have written to Professor Faulkner to convey the Department's displeasure in his untimely interventions. In response, he has offered his resignation as an Assessor ... "

This was over a year after we complained about his lack of impartiality.

Probably one of the most important aspects of this investigation was to retrieve certain pieces of wreckage for structural and metallurgical analysis. This was requested by the families and by the All Party Group of MPs. It was rejected by the assessors. Instead they opted for a cutting system, that was unproven, in which they proposed to cut only small samples to validate the photos of the fracture faces, not for analysis as was required. I am informed that this cutting equipment failed. I would therefore ask my noble friend if any attempt was made to retrieve any wreckage. I understand that the survey vessel was equipped with alternative methods of retrieval, such as a deep water grab system, and diesel bags that could float wreckage to the surface. This is a proven method of retrieval. If they did not obtain samples, I would like to know why not, as it is of paramount importance to determine the quality of steel used in the "Derbyshire's" construction.

Not trusting the independence of the assessors, the DFA solicitors sent a letter to them requesting they look for quality deficiencies that were known to exist in her sister ships, such as defective welding, misalignment, etc. The assessors refused to do this. Again, I believe that that showed a lack of objectivity.

Contrary to what had been stated, the DFA has never been involved in any planning of the expedition, only attending meetings with assessors in order to be kept informed of developments. The families made suggestions, but they were not accepted by the assessors, for what I consider to be unconvincing reasons.

Such is the families' distrust of the Department of Transport's investigation that they cannot put their faith in the assessors' report and are now setting up a trust fund to finance their own experts to analyse the data and produce their own report. It is a terrible reflection on the Department of Transport when the dependants of the deceased have to find the wreck themselves and then find a considerable amount of money to fund their own independent experts to examine the evidence. They should be able to have complete faith in the assessors' report, but, because of the assessors' unacceptable and biased conduct, they simply do not trust them. In saying that, I do not in any way question the integrity of the EEC assessor, who carried out his duties in a most professional and impartial way.

In the light of what has been stated and bearing in mind that data will form the evidence in any future court of inquiry, may I ask my noble friend whether the analysis and interpretation of the data brought back from

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the wreck site can now be carried out by an independent team of experts? Will the Department of Transport provide the funds for such an exercise in order to inject some fairness and impartiality into the proceedings? All that the DFA and the maritime community ask for--

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