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Lord Annan: My Lords, how often is the flight path over central London to Heathrow changed?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I shall write to the noble Lord on that matter. If the noble Lord is referring to the general flight path, there are a limited number of routes. Helicopters are an entirely different matter.

Baroness Fookes: My Lords, can the Minister refer to the danger from noise to the hearing of those at play? I refer to the noise from discotheques, which the young seem to enjoy, and which very often is at a dangerous level?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the noble Baroness is correct. The Health and Safety Executive has issued guidance on

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the level of noise and, in the context of its responsibility for workers in discotheques and other places, attempts to enforce those standards. There is a problem and it is being addressed.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that there is a perception that work is usually carried out inside buildings and that some people may have the misconception that because they are engaged in agriculture and work out of doors noisy machinery will not affect them and they therefore do not need to wear ear defenders? Does the Minister agree that an enormous amount of social isolation is incurred as a result of deafness and that many young men who operate machines such as chainsaws are in danger of impairing their hearing? What is being done to inform them of the dangers?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I agree with the noble Countess that there are dangers in working in the open air with certain machinery and that the same awareness of the risks does not appear to be present. Information is provided by employers in the agricultural and construction industries on the same basis as in other work situations. By and large, the same regulations apply, but I accept that there is a greater difficulty with enforcement in those areas.

The Earl of Carlisle: My Lords, can the Minister inform the House what discussions the Health and Safety Executive has had with the Ministry of Defence about the hearing of servicemen which is often degraded by high decibel levels of noise emitted by both equipment and weapons systems?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I had better write to the noble Earl with reference to current servicemen. I am not aware of specific discussions. However, I know that the Ministry of Defence is concerned about the matter. As regards service pensioners, noble Lords may be aware that my noble friend Lady Hollis has conducted two independent inquiries since the advent of this Government. Those experts concur with the previous position: that the hearing loss incurred during service life is not worse for elderly people than it would otherwise have been. My noble colleagues are keeping the matter under review.

Lord Swinfen: My Lords, what safeguards are in place to protect those in properties adjoining the premises in which the noise is generated from damage to their hearing rather than the hearing of those working in the building itself?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, both the environmental health Acts and the law of nuisance would apply in such circumstances. It would not, however, be the direct responsibility of the Health and Safety Executive.

Earl Attlee: My Lords, what progress is being made with regard to the noise emissions from heavy commercial vehicles?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the manufacturers of new heavy commercial vehicles are engaged in improving

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standards relating to the creation of noise. As regards roadside noise, the noble Earl will know that there is a substantial programme by the Vehicle Inspectorate to check the noise levels of all HGVs. Spot checks are carried out.

"Rema" Investigation

3.31 p.m.

Lord Razzall asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What action they are taking following the sinking of the "Rema" off Whitby, North Yorkshire, with the death of five members of the crew.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the Belize registered "Rema" sank on 25th April 1998 with the loss of all four (rather than five) members of her crew. All the crew were British nationals. Although the ship is foreign flagged and sank outside our territorial waters, the Marine Accident Investigation Branch is undertaking an investigation into the loss. The investigation has included underwater examination of the vessel, part funded by the ship's insurers. The investigation is ongoing.

Lord Razzall: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that answer. Does he accept that the first statement was the most relevant: that it is a Belize registered vessel? Does the noble Lord accept that Belize has one of the worst records of the so-called flag of convenience countries in that area despite being a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea? Does he accept that Belize is not a far-off country run by people over whom we have no control? Is he aware that the Belize merchant marine registry has, as a 50 per cent. shareholder, a company chaired by Mr. Michael Ashcroft, who as far as I am aware is the acting treasurer of the Conservative Party? Will he use his influence to ensure that Mr. Ashcroft procures the compliance of Belize in particular with the provisions of Article 86 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea that there must be a genuine link between the flag state and the registered ship? Were that to happen, does he agree that these accidents would be less likely to occur?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, with reference to the latter part of the noble Lord's question, I suspect that it is not for me to answer on the conduct of the treasurer of the Conservative Party. As noble Lords will know, in past life I have had cause to look at the finances of the Conservative Party and people involved in it, first with envy and then with horror. It appears that things have not changed.

On the central question, it is true that the Belize register has a pretty poor record. Considerable anxiety has been expressed in the maritime community about that record. Until the investigator's report has been completed, it would be wrong for me to indicate whether there is a direct relationship between that and the accident.

Lord Brabazon of Tara: My Lords, first, does the Minister accept that we on this side of the House agree

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very much with his last statement: that it would be wrong to come to any conclusion until the final report of the MAIB is published?

Secondly, does the noble Lord agree with me about the very tenuous link between Mr. Michael Ashcroft and his interest in the Belize register and the tragic sinking of this ship? Can the Minister say what possible link there can be? Does he agree also that this ship sank a year ago? It is therefore difficult to understand why the noble Lord, Lord Razzall, should decide that it is a topical question for this particular Thursday.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, that may be a question for the noble Lord, Lord Razzall. I suspect that it is a topical question because the issue had recent substantial media coverage.

In terms of who runs the Belize register, it is somewhat indirect but nevertheless of interest as to how that register is run. The fact of the matter is that there has been a poor record in terms of number of ships lost and the general level of safety in those ships. That is a matter of concern. As the noble Lord and I have indicated, that may or may not have had a direct effect on the nature of this tragic accident.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, will the Minister agree with me that this question about a sinking which took place more than a year ago is indeed an abuse of the topical questions offer? Will he further agree that the question put down by my noble friend Lord Monro about job losses caused by Kvaerner's decision earlier this week, including 2,000 job losses in Govan on the Clyde, is more relevant and topical? The Liberal Democrat Party is showing its usual propensity to operate the politics of the gutter while at the same time pretending that it is above those matters.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, recognising that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, never descends to the politics of the gutter, I believe that the substance of his question is a matter for the House authorities and not for me.

Earl Russell: My Lords, when we refer to flags of convenience, to whose convenience are we referring?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, it is normally to unscrupulous owners. However, we have pointed historically to many countries which have run flags of convenience which now have effective maritime systems. We should not ignore that. But from the facts it does not appear that Belize is one of them.

Lord Newby: My Lords, whether or not being the chairman of a company which has a 50 per cent. interest in the Belize register of shipping is a tenuous link, does the Minister agree that the public realm would be served well if there were a statutory requirement for large

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donations to any political party to be registered by the donor so that people could then form their own views as to whether potential conflicts of interest might arise?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, as noble Lords will know, I have long held that view. But the issue is incredibly wide of the Question. Nevertheless, I congratulate the noble Lord on getting the point in.

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