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Westminster Hall

Thursday 16 November 2000

[Mrs. Sylvia Heal in the Chair]

Fishing Safety

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.--[Mr. Clelland.]

2.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill ): I am delighted that the Speaker saw fit to allow this debate on fishing safety. It is many years since the House was able to debate safety at sea, and it is clear from the attendance in this Chamber that the matter excites considerable interest in all parts of the United Kingdom.

Fishing is one of the UK's longest and proudest traditions, and for many fishermen the history of our fishing industry is in their blood. They accept the reality of hard, physical work in harsh and sometimes dangerous conditions, and the fact is that for many, the rewards are variable at best. What they sometimes find harder to accept is the regulation of their activity in the interests of safety.

Sadly, however, there is also a tradition that goes hand in hand with the business of fishing: the loss of fishermen's lives. We have only to think back to the loss of deep-water trawlers in the late 1960s and the 1969 Holland-Martin inquiry into trawler safety to remind ourselves how true that is. By comparison with other UK industries, including those long regarded as dangerous, such as mining and quarrying, sea fishing still has by far the worst record of fatalities. On average, more than 20 fishermen have lost their lives in each of the past five years as a result of accidents on board their vessels. With the loss of 30 fishermen already this year, the record of fatalities in 2000 looks like being the worst for 10 years. Add to that accidents where fishermen survive more by luck than good judgment, and one sees that the problem is even worse. It is appropriate to say something at this point about the considerations that have followed the 1998 consultation on fishing vessel accidents and those lost at sea.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde): Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that all of us have a particular concern for the protection of young, inexperienced fishermen? I would ask him--if he needs urging--to keep a close watch on the investigation into the sinking of the Karianda, which the Scottish media allege was deliberate. The young boy involved made some serious allegations about the sinking of that vessel, and I urge my hon. Friend to tighten regulations if the inquiry calls for such action.

Mr. Hill : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. He will understand that, as that matter is now subject to criminal inquiries, it would be quite wrong for me to comment on it. Having said that, I take on board his general observation about young entrants

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into the fishing industry, and I shall say something about the proposals that we have for them. We are all very conscious of the matter, and the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Morgan) will, I dare say, want to talk today about the Solway Harvester tragedy.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes): I represent Brixham, which is the second largest fishing port in England and Wales. The Minister will appreciate that although the dangers of the sea are recognised, so is the cost of doing what is expected on safety, security and hygiene. The Government are expected to spend unlimited amounts of time and money putting things right in those three areas. Does he agree that there must be an assessment of the cost and likely risk of new regulations? If he does not, he may find that he is putting fishermen, especially shell fishermen, out of business. As my constituency has the largest crab and lobster fishing fleet in the south, I would not want him even to consider anything that would do so.

Mr. Hill : The hon. Gentleman refers to anxieties that have been well vented in our consultation on the safety code for under 12 m vessels. I am sure that he will have the patience to wait for me to deal with some of his concerns in the course of my remarks.

I was referring to the 1998 consultation on fishing vessel accidents and the recovery of those lost at sea. Government policy continues to be to regard the wreck site as an honourable burial ground, but we recognise that that view is not always shared by the families of those who are lost. Therefore, consideration is being given to the practicalities of establishing a trust fund that could be called on to recover bodies of fishermen when accident or criminal investigations do not require their recovery. Work to follow up the Clarke report on the loss of the Gaul will also help us to trace vessels that sink so suddenly that they are unable to transmit explicit distress messages.

Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives): Does the Minister accept that, because the families involved and others collected money to raise the Sapphire, important evidence in the investigation into the tragedy was uncovered? That helped to get closer to identifying the cause of the tragedy.

Mr. Hill : I am certainly aware that the families succeeded in generating significant sponsorship to secure the raising of the Sapphire, but not that the raising of the vessel yielded further evidence about the causes of the sinking. The general policy of the marine accident investigation branch is that vessels are raised only in cases of suspected criminality, or when it is deemed that raising them will make a specific contribution to discovering the reasons why they sank.

If hon. Members will forgive me, I have a rather hefty speech to make. For the sake of permitting a wide range of debate, I had better make progress.

Why do so many fishermen, often skilled and experienced individuals, die while earning their living? The investigations carried out by MAIB identify the primary causes of accidents. Flooding, capsize and "man overboard" incidents result in the greatest loss of

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fishermen's lives, but we must look behind those "labels" to see how accidents are caused, or how they escalate from problems to catastrophes. In doing that we begin to see what needs to be done to prevent those accidents from happening repeatedly.

In many cases, the underlying cause is human error. People often know what should be done, but for some reason do not do it. Fishermen often think that they know what should be done, but discover too late that they are wrong. Once the error is made, it may be too late to prevent the consequences. It is worth taking time to consider what that means. Flooding is a major cause of vessel losses, and when the vessel is lost, lives are at risk.

The causes of flooding can vary. Perhaps the pipe work is of poor quality or poorly maintained; perhaps the bilge-pumping system has not been checked; perhaps the bilge alarm is not working, or worse still is switched off, denying those on board the opportunity of an early warning of a problem. Another obvious cause of flooding is the leaving open, for convenience, of doors and hatches that should be closed at sea, allowing water to flood into the vessel.

There are also cases of more sudden and potentially more catastrophic capsizing, which occur when the vessel's stability is compromised. That may be due to the shifting on deck of a weight such as a heavy catch, the exertion of forces on the vessel by powerful winches when trying to free fishing gear from an obstruction on the sea bed, or a lack of control of the weight of a catch as it is brought inboard. The last of those is a particular problem on beam trawlers.

I shall pause to recognise the work that has been done by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency in conjunction with the fishing industry to follow up a MAIB recommendation on beam trawler safety following the loss of the Margaretha Maria. A study of the sea-going stability levels of a sample of beam trawlers is leading towards a new operational stability regime. What will happen if, despite all precautions, an accident occurs with little or no warning? Will the emergency position-indicating radio beacon work? It will not do so if it has not been correctly maintained, or if the float-free mechanism has been compromised by painting over or is incorrectly secured.

Mr. Frank Doran (Aberdeen, Central): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, as he has a heavy speech to make on a serious subject. I am anxious because all the technical deficiencies that he mentioned are symptoms of the problems. I know, because I represent a fishing area, that the most significant problem is that there is no safety culture. The priority is catching fish. Fish stocks are declining rapidly, and the Government are discussing next year's quotas with Brussels. My fear is that, as stocks decline, safety will become even more of a problem. My hon. Friend has already said that deaths in the fishing fleet are the highest for many years, and I want him to address the culture issue.

Mr. Hill : My hon. Friend is right. Culture is central to any discussion of safety at sea, and I shall say a few

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words about it in due course. Safety is lacking in the fishing industry, especially at the margins, and we shall seek to improve the culture, which is central to the delivery of safety.

I was discussing the failure of precautions: life rafts can float free if the hydrostatic release unit is wrongly connected or if the life raft is not otherwise secured to the vessel. Even if correctly secured, the position of the life raft needs to be carefully considered if it is not to become trapped in the vessel's rigging or superstructure as it inflates and rises to the surface.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, Central (Mr. Doran) mentioned the safety culture. What happens if fishermen become careless through over-familiarity with the routines of fishing or through fatigue? A moment of inattention or loss of concentration may be fatal if the fisherman is operating machinery, keeping watch or simply moving around on deck.

I am not in the business of scaremongering; the scenarios that I have described appear in the report of the marine accident investigation branch--some with depressing regularity. Neither the Government nor the fishing industry should be willing to accept that so many fishermen lose their lives each year or that many more only just survive an accident that should never have happened. Fishermen do not set out to put themselves or others in danger. I can understand why they may not want to be reminded of the risks that they face, but the danger is that a lack of awareness, convenient rather than safe working practices, and over-familiarity with the routines of fishing may have a desensitising effect.

What can Government and the fishing industry do to change such a culture? The solution lies in creating a positive safety culture, where identifying risks and taking action to mitigate them is part of the way that a fisherman thinks. Fishermen say--some said it in response to consultation on the code of practice for small fishing vessels--that they think about the risks before every trip, but just thinking is not enough. It must be reinforced with information about and awareness of the risks to which their vessels are exposed, and with effective measures that will mitigate those risks.

The fishing vessel owner, the skipper and the crew member must first ask themselves the "what if" questions: "What if my vessel were to flood, capsize or catch fire? What if I or another member of the crew were to fall overboard?" Fishermen must then ask themselves the "what can I do" questions: "What can I do to prevent those things happening? If I cannot prevent them, what can I do to reduce the consequences? If, despite all I have done, the worst happens, what can I do to ensure that the crew survives?"

In asking and answering such questions, the fisherman is undertaking the process of hazard identification and risk assessment. That is a much more effective way of addressing operational safety issues than prescriptive regulations. The problem is that, although many fishermen dislike any regulation that appears to get in the way of their earning their livelihood, the absence of prescription is unfamiliar. It places responsibility on them to take decisions about risks associated with their vessels and the actions that they need to take to mitigate those risks.

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Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge): I have listened closely to the Minister, whom I am delighted to see in his place, for reasons that I shall elaborate on in due course. Fishermen tell me something fundamentally different from what he has been outlining. They make the point that they are not members of a suicide squad. They are concerned that their experiences and views about what might improve their safety are often dismissed out of hand by people who are conducting a consultation exercise. Until Ministers understand that feeling among fishermen, we shall not make much progress.

Mr. Hill : I am grateful for those observations, with which I am familiar. I have had several meetings with representatives of the fishing industry as part of the consultation process, including one yesterday in the company of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Gilroy), and I am aware that there are deep suspicions and misgivings about the Government's intention in the consultation process. It will be part of my purpose, in my remaining remarks, to dispel many of those anxieties and--I hope--correct some of the misinformation that has developed.

Perhaps it is asking a lot of an industry that for the past 25 years has been used to the prescribed requirements of the Fishing Vessel (Safety Provisions) Rules 1975, but it must be right that those who know the vessel best take responsibility for such decisions--albeit with appropriate guidance. When that is done well it is a significant step towards building a positive safety culture.

On that note, when I met the fishing industry safety group earlier this month, I was encouraged by what I learned of industry organisations' activities to promote that positive safety culture. Initiatives include a working group on safety at sea, studying pipe-work failure; support for a research project on health and safety issues, including fatigue, on board fishing vessels; support for training; and the provision of constant-wear life-jackets.

The last item builds on the spontaneous reaction of industry in the south-west of England in promoting the wearing of life-jackets, following the death in January of Daniel Kebble, a single-handed Cornish fisherman. The campaign represents a significant breakthrough: the promotion of a positive safety culture by industry at local level. Those who would once have laughed at their fellow fishermen for wearing personal buoyancy equipment while on deck now wear it themselves and encourage others to do so. If such an approach can work with personal buoyancy equipment, it can work with all the other issues that I have mentioned--but it depends on Government and industry working together to get the message across to the grassroots of the industry.

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire): On a recent visit to the south-west, I met Daniel Kebble's mother and father and heard about their campaign. They want the Government to make the wearing of life-jackets mandatory for all fishermen, particularly those on smaller boats, so that, otherwise, insurance claims will not be paid, and so on. Have the Government investigated ways in which to make the wearing of life-jackets mandatory?

Mr. Hill : Although I totally understand the motives of Daniel Kebble's parents, Government action towards

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establishing a mandatory system would create precisely the hostility and suspicion towards the relationship between Government and industry that we want to dispel. We of course maintain that some basic pieces of equipment are necessary for safety on vessels, but on the whole our purpose is to create a safety culture, to work with the industry and to go with the grain, encouraging more and more fishermen to wear buoyancy equipment. We want to work with them on deciding which equipment is appropriate.

Many fishermen have deep misgivings about life-jackets. They say that they become tangled with gear and that the danger that they create is greater than their contribution to safety. That might or might not be so. Perhaps certain types of life-jackets could be used. My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) has powerful views on the matter, and I dare say that he will allude to the wearing of immersion suits, which the fishing industry seems to resist. I want to work with, not against, the industry.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency is responsible not only for developing and enforcing high standards of marine safety, but for promoting them. It is working with the fishing industry and organisations such as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution to find new and better ways of getting safety advice and information into fishermen's hands and minds.

More fundamental approaches are also needed. That is why the Government have taken a fresh look at the objective of providing safety grants, which have been used to subsidise the purchase of statutory safety equipment. A new generation of safety grants is seen as providing an opportunity to promote fishermen's safety awareness and a positive safety culture through training.

I am delighted that fisheries departments have agreed to fund, over the next three years, the development and delivery of industrywide courses, which will provide, first, safety updates for older fisherman who have been exempt from basic safety training requirements. Secondly, they will provide accident prevention and risk awareness courses for all fishermen. Thirdly, there will be a training package for new entrants, which will encompass existing basic safety training in sea survival, first aid and fire fighting, and introduce basic training in risk awareness and accident prevention. The fishing industry has asked us to consider supporting fishermen's attendance on training courses and we will do so. On safety grants, fisheries departments are also keen to support the trialling of innovative experimental equipment that might have a safety benefit.

I have said little about the regulation of safety, but in building a safer industry, a statutory framework must set the standards. Those relating to the safety of fishing vessels are encompassed in regulations that are a quarter of a century old. Regulations that govern fishermen's safety training, and training and certification, though not as dated, are also in need of review. A great deal has changed in the fishing industry since those regulations were developed. We will incorporate the review of the regulations in a comprehensive strategy for safety in the fishing industry, which brings together regulations, education and other initiatives to meet the needs of a modern industry.

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The review process began with the development of the code of practice for small fishing vessels--those under 12 m--and work is beginning on a code for larger fishing vessels of between 12 m and 24 m. Requirements for fishermen's training and certification are due for review. I shall focus on the code of practice for small fishing vessels and round off the consultation process on it. I see this debate as the natural culmination of that process by allowing parliamentary colleagues to express their views.

As I said, the development of a code of practice for small fishing vessels marked the beginning of the first major review of fishing vessel safety regulations since 1975. The principal aims in developing the code were to update the safety equipment requirements for small fishing vessels and, building on the concept of hazard identification and risk assessment that already applies to health and safety on board the vessel, to introduce an assessment by owners of the fitness of their vessels.

The industry's reaction to the code, both in its development and in response to consultation, has been mixed. There is broad acceptance by some, strong resistance from others and some evident misunderstandings. Points of detail must be addressed before conclusions are reached.

I shall deal with some of the concerns and misunderstandings. Representatives of the under 12 m sector have often asked why the regulations for smaller fishing vessels need to be changed, because that sector appears to have a better accident record than larger, more heavily regulated vessels. In assessing relative accident rates, some account must be taken of the greater time spent at sea by larger vessels, at greater distances from shore and in greater extremes of weather. The MCA is working with the industry to refine the assessment's parameters. However, the simple answer is that accident rates may be better in the under 12 m sector, but they are not so overwhelmingly good that they can be ignored. Perhaps the most significant fact is that accident rates in the under 12 m sector improved during the years that the code of practice was under discussion--the result, I believe, of increased safety awareness in that sector. It is important to maintain that awareness by implementing the code effectively.

It is suggested that the introduction of the code will place such an enormous cost burden on the industry that fishermen will be driven out of business or forced to put to sea in worse conditions in order to earn the money to pay for the additional equipment requirements. The balance between safety and cost is not easy to strike, but we are proposing minimum requirements aimed at reducing accident levels through increased vessel safety in foreseeable operating conditions and improved survival rates in the event of an accident. At the end of the day, fishermen must decide, as part of the risk-assessment process, whether it is safe to go to sea. They must also decide whether, if their business is close to the margins of viability, they can operate in accordance with the regulations applicable to their vessel.

Mr. Steen : I am most grateful to the Minister for giving way twice. I also want to thank him for seeing yesterday some Devon fishermen who greatly

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appreciated his approach and his kindness to them. May I ask the Minister one question? Does he know, from the consultation process, whether any shell fishermen or others who fish in boats of under 12 m approved of the proposals, or whether every one of them disagreed? My information is that every fisherman who goes to sea in a boat of under 12 m believes that the proposals are neither right nor good, and will not work.

Mr. Hill : I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's kind remarks. We received several hundred responses to the consultation exercise, and I have to confess that I have not analysed each of them. The response was mixed. In the under 12 m sector, about a third--mainly those in Scotland and Northern Ireland--are broadly in favour of the proposals. I guess that they include some of the categories of fishermen to which the hon. Gentleman referred. There were also mixed responses from elsewhere in the United Kingdom, although, there was almost universal agreement with the safety equipment list among all groups, despite difficulties with other aspects of the proposals.

I am conscious that I am speaking at length; the Chamber can be assured that the end is in sight. Let us consider the costs of the proposals in the safety code. I shall deal first with the additional items of equipment required by the code, why they are important and what the one-off costs are. First, a VHF radio costs between £200 and £400. The industry says that several fishermen in the under 12 m sector are already equipped with VHF radio; others argue that a mobile phone is a cheaper option and just as good. Coverage, however, is patchy and batteries get flat--no use at all when fishermen are in serious trouble and need to call for help. Secondly, bilge pumps and bilge alarms together cost about £400. I have already spoken about the problems of flooding, which can affect some small vessels as much as their larger counterparts. For the smallest vessels, the minimum requirement is a bailer.

Thirdly, a magnetic compass costs up to £500. Again, it is likely that reasonable numbers of vessels under 12 m are already equipped with a magnetic compass, but it is not unreasonable to regard it as an essential item for all vessels. Fourthly and finally--and only on larger vessels from 10 m to 12 m--a life raft costs about £1,000. That takes us back to what I said earlier about the hazard identification and risk assessment, where the question is, "And if, despite all I have done, the worst happens, what can I do to make sure the crew survives?" I need hardly say more on that.

Let me tell the Chamber about two further matters. First, the industry says that many fishermen on smaller vessels already choose to carry life rafts. Secondly, in response to consultation, fishermen asked why we did not require all vessels under 12 m to carry a life raft. For all those equipment items, it is important to appreciate that the requirement will be for items that are fit for the purpose and not necessarily those that are formally approved.

Another major concern is the cost of inspections. There is a significant misunderstanding here. The consultation draft of the code made it clear that existing inspection arrangements would apply for the first two years of the code's existence. Let me emphasise that there will be no charge for the first visit to a vessel. No fees will be incurred if the vessel complies with the code

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or if any defects found can be rectified without the need for a revisit. Fees would be incurred only where the defects were significant enough to warrant a revisit and would, in all probability, have resulted in the vessel's detention. That is a clear incentive to comply with the code.

One of the most difficult areas for the industry has been the requirement for a fitness-of-vessel assessment. Again, misunderstandings have arisen in the minds of some fishermen who appear to see that as the first step towards making smaller fishing vessels subject to the same requirements for survey as those over 12 m. That is emphatically not the case. The concept behind the fitness-of-vessel assessment is akin to that of the health and safety risk assessment in that the fishing vessel owner himself assesses the hazards to which the vessel is exposed--flooding, capsize, fires and explosions--and the action needed to mitigate them. No guidance currently exists, although it does for health and safety assessments, and that, I believe, has been a significant part of the problem for the industry.

For that reason, I am considering whether the requirement for a fitness-of-vessel assessment should be remitted to the committee that will review the code after its first two years of operation. However, if the matter were to be remitted to that committee, I should want the Maritime and Coastguard Agency to work during the intervening period on the development of draft guidance, which might assist the committee to reach a decision on the future inclusion of a fitness-of-vessel assessment.

Mrs. Ray Michie (Argyll and Bute): I have many fishermen who belong to the Clyde Fishermens Association in my constituency, as does the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman). Could the Minister say something about the appeals procedure for those who are found to be in breach of the code of practice? My constituents are concerned that the appeal would be determined by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which is the enforcer. There may well be a conflict of interest.

Mr. Hill : I am grateful to the hon. Lady. I hope to deal with that question towards the soon-to-be-arrived-at conclusion of my remarks when inspiration finally reaches me. [Interruption.] Inspiration has now reached me. There will be an appeal to the local manager and then to the headquarters of the MCA and then to an outside body. There is quite clearly a good deal of scope for pursuing an appeal beyond the level of the local administration. I hope that that is of some use to her and the fishermen whom she represents.

Development of the code of practice for small fishing vessels has proved a long and hard road for Government and industry alike. I know that not all of its members would agree with me, but we have listened to the fishing industry. We listened in 1997 to their concerns about the complexity and cost of the draft code. We listened again in 1998 when the industry suggested a code based on schedules of safety equipment and risk assessments. We listened again before the current consultation by leaving existing inspection arrangements in place and in making it clear that fitness-of-vessel assessments would not be required until guidance had been developed. We are still listening as we move towards a decision on the code.

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The work that lies ahead of us in modernising the fishing vessel safety regulations for larger vessels and for fishermen's training and certification will, I am sure, have its own share of difficulties. However, the Government are committed to working with industry to create positive attitudes to safety, which are the key to driving down accident rates and creating a safer industry. From my meetings with its representatives, I know that the fishing industry is also committed to that and I look forward to meeting the challenges that lie ahead.

I welcome the opportunity to co-operate with fishermen in raising safety standards and am aware, from regular joint meetings, how much is happening on both sides of the fishing industry. We still have a long way to go, but we know that everyone wants more safety. There is potential for improvement.

3.4 pm

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole): I, too, welcome the debate, which is long overdue. It gives many hon. Members an opportunity to express their concerns. The subject concerns me, both as shadow Shipping Minister and as representative for Poole which, apart from being a port, has a small fishing fleet. I shall not speak at length, given the number of hon. Members present, but will briefly address a few topics--coastguards, fishing vessel safety grants and the code of practice--and make a few general comments. I shall also ask the Minister a few questions.

Last year, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency decided that it would close five coastguard stations by 2003. Those involved were Oban, Pentland, Tyne-Tees and Liverpool, while Portland and Leigh-on-Solent were to merge. As I understand it, Liverpool was reprieved, but Oban, Pentland and Tyne-Tees have closed or will soon close. Following the intervention of Lord Donaldson, Portland and Leigh-on-Solent are to remain open and independent stations. The condition of the buildings and equipment in both stations is not of the highest standard. I therefore seek an assurance that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency will upgrade them as a matter of priority because the stretch of water between Portland and Leigh-on-Solent is one of the busiest in the world. I expressed concern when the closures were first proposed because it has always been clear to me that local knowledge is an important commodity among coastguards. I would like further reassurance that the coastguards are happy with the arrangements as they are proceeding. The hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson), who was involved with some of the original announcements, gave reassurances on that at the time. We are further down the road and a few further reassurances are necessary.

On fishing vessel safety grants, the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food decided on 21 May 1999 to end the grants that had been given for several years to larger fishing boats, for what were described as budgetary reasons. In a written answer, the relevant Minister spelled out that the Department had looked at that aspect as part of the comprehensive spending review and decided that it would not proceed with the grants. Since the budgetary position is somewhat better at this stage, perhaps the Minister will ask his colleagues why the Government have not reintroduced them, and what the Government's strategy is. The matter has caused some controversy, as my hon. Friend the

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Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) has said on several occasions--he will probably raise it in more detail during the debate.

The Minister stated that the code of practice was the key reason for the debate. All of us with fishing constituencies, particularly those with small fishing boats, have had quite a lot of correspondence on the subject. I understand that Mr. Alan Cubbin has received considerable correspondence from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency--some of which sounds a little irritable. There are real concerns in the industry. I received a letter from the South Coast Fishermen's Council, which expressed concern that it had not had any input into the latest proposals and was not satisfied with the consultation. The letter points out:

The South Coast Fishermen's Council, which represents 400 boat owners between Lyme Regis and Portsmouth, summarised its objections by saying:

The Minister's mention of inspection fees may have clarified matters because, even if one started softly, perhaps saying that the regime would not change for a year or two, people would still be suspicious of what might happen in future. The fear is that if the regulatory regime were to change suddenly, the costs would fall on those who are already finding it pretty difficult to earn a living. My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) was right to say that we all want a safe fishing industry, but a balance has to be struck between the real cost of upgrading boats and the real safety of the fishing vessels. The Minister also mentioned the appeals procedures. I am a little happier to know that there is a means of going beyond the agency; it is important to have a degree of independence.

People are worried about the code of practice. The Minister used the phrase "mixed response". I wonder whether a summary of replies or copies of some of the letters might be kept in the House of Commons Library. I know that 700 hundred letters have been received, and that they will have expressed various different opinions,

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but if the real weight of consultation is against the change, Members ought to know that and not simply be told that the response is mixed. We are all politicians, we have all undertaken consultation, and we all know that different opinions can be expressed and that "mixed response" can mean many things. The phrase does not shed much light on today's debate.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency does an excellent job. It reported that the accident rate among fishermen had fallen since 1995, but seemed to suggest that there had been under-reporting because some people in the fishing industry were unnecessarily unwilling to be included in the statistics. However, some changes are welcome, and the safe fishing campaign and the spot-the-risk competition are good ideas. Nevertheless, although we need to change the culture, we must be sensible about it.

The director of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution told me recently that he believed that some fishermen thought that wearing a life jacket meant that one was a bit of a wimp. As my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) made clear, it is important to try to change that culture.

That is all that I have to say. I welcome the debate, and I look forward to the Minister's answers to some of the points that I have raised.

3.13 pm

Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives): I am grateful to the Minister and the Government for making time for this overdue debate. Although I had an Adjournment debate on the matter in July 1998, things have moved on since then. However, our worries about safety in the fishing industry have not gone away. As the Minister said, despite the fact that the fleet is being reduced and mechanisms to improve safety and communication systems to maintain contact with land are becoming more sophisticated, the number of lives lost is increasing. The figures for this year are already unacceptably high. That confirms the fact that fishing is, without question, the most hazardous occupation in the country, and has been for many years. The Government are right to take the view that they should not simply step aside, and that safety is an issue on which they should intervene. They do not accept that that danger is simply a fact of life and that Government intervention is inappropriate.

Many hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Grennock--

Dr. Godman : Greenock.

Mr. George : The hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman); pardon my Cornish pronunciation.

As hon. Members have said, it is a sad and all too regular fact of life that lives are lost in the fishing industry. Such loss formed part of my upbringing in Cornwall. A few decades ago--the culture continues--risk taking was sometimes admired as bravery. The industry needs to face up to that culture, as do we, as representatives of constituencies in which there are fishing ports.

Following the tragic loss of the Margaretha Maria, to which the Minister referred, Herculean efforts were made in the port to establish a fisherman's reporting and

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positioning scheme. We did not know that the tragedy had occurred until many days after the event; such a scheme would enable continual reporting between the boat and someone on land. There should be a mechanism to detect the problem that occurred on the Margaretha Maria, when the emergency-release mechanisms for the emergency position-indicating radio beacons--EPIRBs--and life rafts did not work. Even in Newlyn, however, it is difficult to persuade fishermen to sign up to such a system, despite the fact that they know that information would not be disclosed to their competitors at sea who were chasing the same fish.

The Minister emphasised the initial response to the Government consultation on the under 12 m code. As other Members have noted, he said that the response was mixed. However, I have spoken to several people in the industry who did not respond but said that they were generally happy with the proposals. There were aspects of the code that they did not like but, broadly speaking, there was no contention over the safety equipment check list, or over the proposals for self-assessment, self-certification and risk assessments. Those to whom I spoke did, however, have a problem with the proposals over the fitness of vessels--a point to which the Minister referred. I hope that the Government will review their approach in that regard, as the Minister implied.

I can cite a recent example of the problems created by such an approach in my constituency. The inspector involved was responsible for interpreting the generalised regulations with regard to a working boat with a good record. A draconian interpretation of the rules nearly put a marine operator out of business. That is the sort of thing that the industry fears, so I welcome the Minister's undertaking to review the matter. It would be helpful if, when winding up, he described the approach that will be taken to charges when inspections are carried out by Maritime and Coastguard Agency surveyors. When a boat owner fails to comply with the regulations, an MCA surveyor could become involved. At what point will charges be imposed on the industry?

Following the tragic death in March 1997 of my constituents William Pirrie, Steven Cooper and Philip Benney as a result of the Gorah Lass disaster, the first recommendation to the MCA was for it to consider funding a research project into the behaviour of under 12 m fishing vessels in rough seas, to establish how the risk of capsize or swamping is related to freeboard, freeing ports, static stability and bilge keels. I am not aware that such work has been undertaken or that any report has been published on the outcomes of any such research. Issues arose from the marine accident investigation branch inquiry into that sinking from which we should learn lessons, but I am not certain that we have done so.

There are broader issues to be considered. Life rafts, EPIRBs and hydrostatic release units have failed many times and, on some occasions, for inexplicable reasons. Admittedly, at times they had been tied down or had not been maintained, but on other occasions a proper explanation has not been given for such failures. The MCA is undertaking further research into the matter and it would be helpful if hon. Members who have a close interest in the subject were kept informed of any progress.

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As for safety equipment on board, I welcome the Minister's recognition of the excellent campaigning of the Cornish family of Danny Kebble--of Polperro--who died earlier this year. I strongly support campaigns that encourage the use of permanent-wear life-jackets, particularly on single-handed vessels. That has been long overlooked. I agree that it is partly a culture issue, but such campaigns need encouragement and to be led from the front.

The MAIB's digest of lessons learned from fishing accidents identifies several problems with working conditions on vessels. Some commonly encountered serious issues cause accidents on board fishing vessels, but could be corrected at relatively little expense. I refer to fish rooms without ladder access--climbing or jumping down during rough conditions can be extremely hazardous. In difficult conditions, unpreserved wooden decks covered with fish slime can become ice rinks. Bent booms on beam trawlers can be hazardous. Indeed, the beams themselves can pose a danger for the men, especially during rough conditions. In my experience, the sheer weight of the beams are a cause of concern. Sometimes, there are devious warp winches and warps are poorly maintained. I shall refer later to exhausted fishermen. It is hardly surprising that mistakes can be made in certain conditions. Watertight integrity breaches are a worry, as are inaccessible life rafts, the lack of upper deck lifeline rigging and clutter, especially old netting that is unsecured on the upper deck.

I draw attention to the positioning of safety equipment and the working conditions on boats. I recently experienced some time aboard a fishery protection vessel. We have very well trained fisheries inspectors working in the Royal Navy and inshore. While on board to inspect the catch, they could provide a helpful support service by offering fishermen advice. Fisheries inspectors tell me that they witness some extremely dangerous working conditions on boats, such as the strapping down of life rafts, on which they are not permitted to comment while they are on board. That is a wasted Government resource. With a little inter-departmental co-operation, those issues could be discussed and that advice given. I am not suggesting that fisheries inspectors should become safety inspectors, but they could offer advice and should be encouraged to do so.

The Minister rightly identified serious concerns about the stability of trawlers following the tragic loss of the Margaretha Maria to which he referred, which resulted in the loss of four men from my constituency--Robbie Holmes, Vince Marshall, and John and Kerry Todd--in November 1997. The MAIB report into that incident identified, not before time, that static stability tests in the harbour may not have given a true picture of the sea-going stability of beam trawlers.

The recommendations of the MAIB's report were welcomed at the time, and last year's Wolfson report, and the subsequent roadshow around the ports of the UK, provided an opportunity for skippers to discuss the issue. A lot of expertise was injected and their input was extremely welcome. Some experienced beam trawler skippers expressed to me a serious lack of confidence in MCA inspectors. There should be a closer relationship between the MCA and beam trawler skippers: the MCA should call on their experience a great deal more.

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From my experience on board a beam trawler, it is clear that I would probably turn it over in two minutes. Enormous experience is required, but fortunately the experience of beam trawler skippers around the coast is first class, and that is what keeps those vessels afloat. However, beam trawlers can be extremely dangerous in the wrong hands. I hope that the work on that front is taken further.

We support the proposed training and the training grants, which are welcomed by crews. However, skippers feel that the fishing industry is not being treated in the same way as the merchant shipping industry, where skippers are given grants from the small firms merit award for research and technology to fund maintenance and course fees. The Minister should go further and offer support to skippers, because, after all, skippers set the tone for safety on board vessels. Correct training at that level will percolate through the rest of the industry and certainly through the crews.

The fishing industry is in crisis, as the Minister is aware. The crisis relates to the impact that high fuel prices might have on safety at sea, which has not been covered so far in today's debate. The 200 per cent. increase in fuel prices in the past two years is putting pressure on the industry. Fuel costs have risen from between 10 and 20 per cent. of a vessel's earnings to more than 50 per cent. Although last week hauliers were given sweeteners, the fishing industry has not received any support, unlike other European fishing industries. The Government could help the industry by means of many measures that are in their gift, such as survey charges, light dues and landing dues.

The tone of the debate has been absolutely right. All too often, debates in Parliament tend towards juvenile point scoring. That is clearly inappropriate in the case of fishing safety, as all parties have a genuine and sincere interest in improving the unacceptably poor level of safety in the industry. The Government are right not to accept that they can have no impact on that safety record.

We welcome the under-12 m code, the review of the fitness of vessel requirements and recommendations following the Gorah Lass sinking that work should continue on improving equipment reliability; that the use of fisheries protection vessels to offer advice at sea should be considered; that anxieties about the stability of particular vessels should be considered; that the Minister should speed up the review process; that training should include skippers as well as crew; and that, in the light of the fuel crisis, the Minister should consider taking action before the crisis leads to a fatality at sea.

3.32 pm

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde): I begin by responding to a comment made by the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. George) about fisheries protection crews. They do a great job, but he must remember that they are maritime policemen. He obviously has no experience of the people whom I would describe as the toughest maritime policemen in the north Atlantic--the Norwegians. My brother, Leslie, is the skipper of a freezer trawler. While fishing off northern

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Norway recently, he was visited by such a bunch of policemen from the fisheries protection service in Norway, and they were on board his vessel for four hours.

We need tough policing, because many fishermen will fish illegally. I have been on vessels that have fished illegally off Shetland, Bear Island and Norway. The hon. Member for St. Ives may say that I keep disreputable company, but many fishermen will cheat if given the chance--not that my brother Leslie would.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not referring to the company that he was keeping last week.

Dr. Godman : You and I were in the company of Orange Order representatives in Drumcree, Mr. Deputy Speaker--not that I would say that they were disreputable.

This is an important issue. I have known about the involvement of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister in campaigns to improve the safety of mariners since the early 1960s, when we were both so-called mature students at Hull university. I disagree with him about the national air traffic control system, which I shall not discuss, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as you will rule me out of order.

The recent sinking of the Karianda was a deeply disquieting affair, but I accept what my hon. Friend the Minister said about the matter now being sub judice. On the sinking of the Solway Harvester, when I think of the young lads involved, some of whom were constituents of the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Morgan), I am deeply concerned, as is everyone in Scotland. I believe that our Ministers, including my hon. Friend here today, do their best to protect and promote the interests of our fishing communities. That was not always the case with Conservative and Labour Administrations, but I have no time to discuss that now. I believe that our Ministers fight their corner well in Brussels.

In that context, the dismissal of the Scottish Fisheries Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson), was unfortunate and deeply regrettable. His dismissal is especially unfortunate given that the Fisheries Council meets tomorrow. Rhona Brankin is a formidable woman and a formidable politician, and I am sure that she will become an equally formidable Scottish Fisheries Minister. I want a Scottish Fisheries Minister to be treated as an equal, along with my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, in negotiations in Brussels. The Scottish fishing industry is an important industry, and, comparatively speaking, much bigger than that south of the border.

Mr. Alasdair Morgan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that he is seeking a constitutional impossibility? Regardless of how equal he would like the two Ministers from different jurisdictions to be, under the current constitutional set-up there can be only one UK negotiating position in Brussels.

Dr. Godman : I knew that the hon. Gentleman would not be able to resist that observation. I have long argued

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that, given the contrasting importance of the industry north and south of the border, the Minister leading the negotiations should be from the Edinburgh Parliament. However, that is another story. I am talking about the safety of fishermen.

I was 12 years old when my mother told me that my Uncle Midge had been killed. He was the mate of the Boston Seafire when a wave demolished the bridge of his vessel. I remember, as a young teenager, the loss of the Norman, the Lorella and the Roderigo, which accounted for the loss of about 60 men in terrible conditions. The terrible loss of the three Hull trawlers in 1968, to which the Minister referred, led to the setting up of the Holland Martin inquiry. The most recent statistics, to which the Minister, the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. George) and the Opposition spokesman referred, were given to me in an oral answer by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. He said:

I make no apology about returning to the issue of survival suits, or, as they are now called, immersion suits. I am happy to respond to the Minister's comments about my campaign to have a regulation introduced at national and European Union level. Such a regulation would require the skippers and owners of vessels to carry immersion suits for all crews. My hon. Friend the hon. Member for Aberdeen, Central (Mr. Doran), who unfortunately had to leave the debate early, reminded me of remarkable developments in lightweight immersion suit design by BP--in relation to which I do not have to declare an interest--which have been produced in collaboration with Gore-Tex. My hon. Friend suggested that the new suits felt like underwear; I do not know what kind of underwear he wears, but I cannot imagine that even the most lightweight immersion suits are as lightweight as that. My hon. Friend made a serious point: BP has adopted the Gore-Tex suit, which costs £150, for its offshore oil and gas industry workers.

Many members of the Scottish fishing industry chastise me for continuing with the campaign, and I hope that the Minister is listening closely to what I say. BP has also introduced a personnel locating device that can be worn like a wristwatch, and if a man goes over the side and cannot get his arms out of the water because of the gear he is wearing, the device can send out a signal, which can be picked up by an answering device from several feet below the surface.

I ask the Minister to take the BP development seriously and to respond to it. When a ship is going down and everything is in darkness it is a horrible experience, but if a fisherman or other mariner has the time to put on an immersion suit, he has a much better chance of being picked out of the water than a lad who goes over the side wearing his ordinary gear. For

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example, about 13 or 14 years ago, a large French trawler, with a crew of 27, went down off St. Kilda. The fourteen men who were on watch had time to put on their immersion suits, which in those days were big, clumsy things. It was February and there was a force 8 gale blowing, but those men survived upwards of two and half hours, which was enough time for a helicopter to come from Lossiemouth, which was quite a long way away. The men and youths who were in their bunks when the ship went down had to jump over the side in their sleeping gear and they all died within minutes.

A more recent example of which the Minister will be aware, as it was in all the Scottish papers, is an Orcadian deckhand who was knocked overboard from a purse-seiner off Shetland and was in the water for about half an hour. Fortunately, he was wearing a survival suit and he was rescued. His skipper said, "I have not paid much attention to the need for survival suits, but from now on everyone on my ship will have one." It is a disgrace that there are no European Union and national regulations on the issue.

I am reminded of the character in Sir Walter Scott's "The Antiquary" who said, "It's no fish ye're buying--it's men's lives." Men's lives are being sacrificed because we have failed to introduce regulations. On a fishing vessel, especially a single-handed vessel, if a fisherman who is leaning over the side to get the pots falls in, he is likely to drown, I am sad to say. However, if he is wearing an immersion suit he has a chance of surviving long enough to be rescued.

I am pleased to support the proposals on safety training for youngsters and the refresher training outlined in the Scottish Fishermen's Federation brief, of which the Minister has a copy. The federation and others in the fishing industry's safety and health group are to be complimented for helping to sponsor research into fatigue at Aberdeen university.

3.43 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4 pm

On resuming--

Dr. Godman : I am coming to the end of my speech, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

On the provision of safety aids, I must say to my hon. Friend the Minister that where they are introduced, especially on vessels of less than 12 m, the Government must give serious consideration to grant aid. Am I right in thinking that such domestic aid is quite common in other maritime member states of the European Union, and that the same holds true for emergencies? I know that French trawlers cannot leave port without carrying immersion suits, but I think that that applies only for trawlers of more than a certain overall length. The kinds of trawlers that we--unfortunately--see fishing in our traditional fishing grounds certainly carry them.

On EU funding for safety equipment and training and all other matters relating to the catching sector of the fishing industry, I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to give me an assurance in writing, and to send a copy to the Library, that we receive the same kind of aid as, for example, the Spanish fishing fleet, and the fleets of other

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member states. There is a perception among our fishermen not that we are less generous than other maritime member states of the Union, but that they get more. I have no illusions about our fishermen, being the son of one and the brother of three of them. We know that some of them are chancers, but I think that they have a genuine case for receiving grant aid for the introduction of safety equipment. They make a legitimate request that we should examine our record on EU funding for equipping our crews and vessels to the very best standards.

I am pleased by the Minister's commitment to safety. We have to improve the safety record of our industry for the fishermen themselves, their families and their communities. Some may think that I have been critical today, but let me end by complimenting the Government.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. If the hon. Gentleman wants his compliment to be recorded, will he stop drifting away from the microphone? If he does, he will not be recorded upstairs.

Dr. Godman : I always drift to port, and one might say, "Don't drift to starboard with this character next to you." I beg your pardon, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I apologise to the Hansard official.

I want to compliment the Government on the compensation that they have awarded, largely at the behest of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister. My hon. Friends the Members for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) and for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) and others from the fishing ports have also played a role. The compensation is going to those elderly ex-fishermen who lost their jobs when the Icelanders--rightly and properly, I think--sought to protect stocks for their indigenous industry. I have heard of one ex-fisherman in his mid-70s receiving £18,000. That is not a great sum, but it will make his life a little easier. I offer my sincere compliments and congratulations to the Government on behalf of him and all the other ex-fishermen. Much more must be done on safety, so that our fishermen's lives are a little safer as they go about this most hazardous occupation.

4.4 pm

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge): It is always a great pleasure to speak after the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman). When he saw me coming into the Chamber, he said that he thought that I would be here. I could not work out whether he had thought so in a spirit of hope or dread.

I did not expect to say this, but I greatly valued the way in which the Minister opened our debate today. He will understand that some of what I must say will sound critical, but the tone of what he said was excellent and absolutely right. The content may not be right yet, but it is early days. He has obviously listened to the points made today.

To some extent, the debate is a precursor to the major fishing debate that we always have in December. I am afraid to say that the same cast will probably reassemble

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for it this year, though with a different Minister. It is good to be able to talk specifically about safety today, and not to have to do a tour d'horizon, as we must do during the annual fishing debate.

We are really debating the new fisheries safety grants that were produced on 6 November. Despite what I said about the Minister, it may be instructive if I briefly state how we find ourselves in the current position. I do so not just to be critical, but to try to explain why many people in the fishing industry, although they will be pleased with the tone of what he has said today, will be sceptical about whether he can carry it through.

The regulations were introduced on 6 November, but the background goes back to Whitsun last year when a, doubtless planted, written answer was sneaked out at the last moment in the grand old tradition of politics. It was an announcement by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food that he would withdraw the fisheries safety grants. Unsurprisingly, that caused a stir among those of us who take an interest in such matters. It certainly caused a stir in the west country, especially because it was within a matter of days of the European elections.

At that stage, something dramatic happened. The Western Morning News was told by the Deputy Prime Minister to hold the front page, because he had a marvellous announcement and would come down to the west country to make it. He slightly spoiled the effect by saying that he had heard about the withdrawal of the grants on the radio, that they would not be withdrawn and that it was all a misunderstanding. It was obvious that there was confusion at the heart of the Government. I did what any concerned Member of Parliament would do: I wrote to the Prime Minister to ask who was correct. He followed a safe and prudent course, and has yet to reply.

In the ensuing months, there was pressure to find out what was happening. By the middle of October, my "friends" in the press were telling me that MAFF officials were unofficially saying that there was no question of the grants being restored, and that the Deputy Prime Minister was wrong. By 21 October, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was taking a different line. He said:

That was clearly confirmation in ringing tones that the original press story was right. Confusion was piled on confusion, so I put down a priority written question to try to work out what was going on. The instructive answer was:

Matters then moved on. In the annual fisheries debate there was an exchange, as there often is, between myself and the Parliamentary Secretary, who said:

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There are many opportunities for Opposition Members to attack the Government. You will remember that well, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as you were no bad hand at it. I do not particularly like to use an occasion such as this to do it, but it is relevant. There was obvious confusion about what the devil was going on. I take what the Minister said today at face value. I do not know how these turf wars resolve themselves in the end, but I suspect that it comes down to departmental budgets. A scheme has now been installed, and I am delighted that the Minister will be responsible for it on a day-to-day basis.

I said that I welcomed the tone in which the Minister spoke, but there was a problem with the content. The reason is simple. It has been echoed by the Minister's comments today, although I suspect that he toned down some of the initial draft that he was offered. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency apparently assumes that fishermen belong to a suicide squad and want to go to sea in the most hazardous conditions and risk their lives in a macho fashion. There may be people like that out there, but they have not spoken to me. Fishermen are almost the last of the hunter gatherers. Undoubtedly, when the stocks are there, there is a strong inclination to go for them, but I do not recognise the notion that they willingly and deliberately put themselves at risk and flout safety regulations that are designed to help them.

Over the past 18 months to two years I have tried to understand why the MCA takes that view. In fact, that attitude is probably shared by the Deputy Prime Minister himself. There is no doubt that as an ex-seaman he has a passionate concern about the safety of those who go to sea. I accept that to the hilt. But all his remarks, especially the unscripted ones, and his body language suggest that he believes that fishermen are part of the great downtrodden, mythical working classes who are chased off to sea in coracles by top-hatted capitalists. It is not like that any more, if ever it were. We are for the most part, although not exclusively, dealing either with the self-employed or with people with a real share in their catch. There may be examples of downtrodden people chased out to sea by rapacious employers, but it is not the general position.

Dr. Godman : I am reluctant to intervene, given that I have just made a speech. I know of the hon. Gentleman's commitment to the fishing communities, but when the Deputy Prime Minister referred to fishermen being placed in danger of their lives, his remarks related, in many cases, to incidents at the behest of bosses of small trawler companies on the Humber. I can assure him from personal experience that trawler companies have an appalling safety record. We are not talking about share fishermen.

Mr. Nicholls : The hon. Gentleman speaks from long experience. I suppose that, to an extent, we speak as we find. He speaks from what he knows from his locality,

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and I speak from what I find in mine. For the most part, it is true to say that for entirely honourable reasons, the Deputy Prime Minister has the wrong attitude. That is important, because, if the safety regulations are to work, there has to be a degree of ownership. Those on whom they will be imposed must believe that they will do them some good. If they do not believe that, they will break them and flout them. The improvements that we all want in safety records simply will not happen.

My second point is more sombre, but it has to be made. Fishermen who speak to me have the impression that an understanding, almost an obligation, is being imposed on them, that fishing can be as safe as any other occupation. However, it cannot; fishing is a dangerous and hazardous occupation. That should never stop us trying to improve safety, but the idea that it can be as safe to go to sea as it is to go to Westminster simply is not correct. That must be acknowledged.

Fishermen tell me that the regulations with which they are threatened have not arisen as a result of their experience. No one has said, "Look, you've got to improve your game. How do you think that can happen?" They feel that those in the front line at the MCA who are directly charged with such responsibilities are mostly retired master mariners with a big-ship mentality. Why, indeed, should they not have such a mentality? That is how they gained their experience, but fishermen believe that the proposed regulations have no relevance to the way in which they conduct their working lives.

In what is inevitably a short debate--I am grateful to the Government that it is taking place--I cannot give a range of the examples that have appeared in the west country press, but perhaps two will suffice. Fishermen have told me that if they wore a regulation life-jacket on some of the boats that they take out, they would be unable to get into or out of the wheelhouse. As a piece of kit for jumping overboard, it might be a good idea, but it has obviously been devised by people who do not understand what conditions on such boats are like. Fishermen tell me repeatedly that that is typical of the way in which the MCA treats them. There is a fear that, in the end, the MCA will inspect their boats as well. Confidence between fishermen and the MCA simply does not exist, and it needs to be built up.

I can do no better than quote Dave Pessell, of Plymouth Fishermen's Association, whom the Minister knows. I have always found that Mr. Pessell gives a good account of himself and the industry and deserves to be listened to. He recently said:

In a press notice of 16 October, the MCA said:

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I hope that the Minister will tell the MCA that not all fishermen are members of a suicide squad or determined to flout the rules. Ultimately, it is the fishermen who go to sea in what will always be a relatively dangerous occupation and who are concerned about their standards.

Today we have seen a new Minister at the helm. If he is prepared to consider what fishermen are saying and accept that they must have some ownership of the regulations, a great deal of good could come from this debate. If not, I fear that ultimately the fishermen will suffer.

4.19 pm

Mr. Alasdair Morgan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale): My constituency is perhaps not best known as a fishing area, despite its extensive coastline along the Solway. The fishing industry is not insignificant, particularly scallop fishing and its on-shore processing. We have a significant export industry to France. When people buy scallops in France, they have probably come from Galloway.

Our lack of a national reputation for fishing was cruelly changed on 11 January, when the Solway Harvester was lost off the Isle of Man. The accident highlighted many features typically associated with sea disasters. As hon. Members have said, many of the crew were young and either related or boyhood friends. The skipper, Craig Mills, was the father of a five-year-old daughter. Also in the crew were his brother Robin Mills, whose wife was pregnant, and his 18-year-old cousin, David Mills. David Lyons, aged 17, and Wesley Jolly, also 17, were others. We should recognise that not all of their families had a fishing background, but in the economic climate in the southern Machars of Galloway, few jobs were to be had. Martin Milligan and John Murphy also died in the tragedy.

The tragedy typically impacted on the small, tight-knit communities of the area--in this case, the Isle of Whithorn and Garlieston. The communities came together in their grief and much support was given to the bereaved families. If anyone ever doubted the necessity for constant efforts to improve fishing safety, attendance at the funerals of these seven lads would have convinced them of the need for unstinting attention.

I do not want to comment on the reasons for the disaster, which are still under investigation by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch. I learned during an adjournment that the result may not be released until

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May next year. Having looked at the MAIB website at lunch, I wanted to urge the Minister to press for its conclusions on accidents to be delivered much more quickly. A comparison of the dates on which the MAIB published its reports with the dates of the accidents revealed considerable delays, which seems inexplicable.

I want to make a specific point about the Solway Harvester disaster. There will always be fishing accidents: we are talking today about reducing the likelihood of their occurring, or reducing their tragic consequences as much as possible. Accidents will never be eliminated, so the recovery of wrecks--and the bodies on them--is important. The traditional view is that the sea is the final resting place for people who have drowned, but the MAIB will fund recovery of a vessel if it is practical and necessary to ascertain the costs of the accidents.

Fishing communities are among the most traditional in the country, so we might expect them to hold to traditional views. However, things have begun to move on significantly in that respect. We have had 25 years of North sea oil technology. It is now possible to accomplish things at depth in the ocean that it was impossible to accomplish 25 years ago. The technology that makes that possible is in daily use. In many more cases than was hitherto practicable, we can recover wrecks, and bodies if they are in them.

Social attitudes have changed even in traditional fishing communities. People want their loved ones brought back, if possible. They want to finalise the grieving process and provide comfort to the families. In recent military conflicts such as the Gulf war and the Falklands war, bereaved relatives had the option of having the bodies of their loved ones brought home.

The Minister alluded to the fact that, after the campaign to raise the Sapphire by public subscription, in which my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) played a prominent part, the Government set up a consultation exercise. The result of that consultation, like the results of other consultation mentioned earlier, seems to have been somewhat mixed--if not contradictory. In a letter to me, the Minister summarised that consultation by saying that

Mr. Andrew George : Has the hon. Gentleman found from speaking to his constituents, as I have found from speaking to mine, that there is a strongly held view that funerals are love's last act? I do not know of a single family that would not strongly wish to have the bodies of its loved ones recovered.

Mr. Morgan : Yes, I agree. That was certainly the unanimous feeling among the relatives whom I visited in the case of the Solway Harvester disaster. It was unanimous also among the relatives of those killed in the Sapphire disaster. The universal feeling is that, if it is practical, people want their loved ones brought home.

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I hope that the Minister will confirm that the Government are investigating the setting up of an industry trust fund. How much has been achieved, and when does he expect to be able to draw some conclusions from that investigation? Has he given any thought to the fact that the Government might wish to make a contribution to that fund instead of leaving it solely to the industry?

In the Solway Harvester case, the families were fortunate--that is probably the wrong word--that the incident did not happen in UK territorial waters, but in those of the Isle of Man. The Isle of Man Government immediately committed themselves to recovering the vessel, and persevered with that recovery despite the significant delays caused by the weather and the increases in the budget set for that recovery. I put on record my thanks and the thanks of my constituents to Donald Gelling, Chief Minister of the Isle of Man, and Alexander Downey, the Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries and Forestry, both of whom subsequently came to my constituency and visited some of the bereaved families.

Some of my constituents believed that the Government were being shown up by the Isle of Man, because, despite its having an enviable gross domestic product per capita, its total resources are much less than ours. We expected that the Government would do more. I asked the Minister if the Government could not offer some contribution to the Isle of Man's expenses. He replied:

There are too many fishing accidents, but how many boats can we expect to founder in the territorial waters of the Isle of Man--or even those of the Channel Islands, which is the only other jurisdiction where it is likely to happen? Surely we are morally bound to take action, and I ask the Minister to reconsider the Government's position even at this late stage.

My second point is on a different matter. A constituent of mine is having a new vessel built at Hepworth yard in Hull. Work on the vessel, which will be 24 m long, has started. My constituent needs to decide by early next year whether a shelter deck should be installed. He wants it primarily for crew comfort and safety, but following a recent European Council ruling, tonnage is, I believe, strictly monitored. The cost resulting from extra tonnage units to cover the shelter deck could be £100,000. However, the Council has also ruled that member states can increase their multi-annual guidance programme capacity, to make allowance for safety improvements such as a shelter deck of the kind envisaged. How flexible are responses likely to be to requests for extra tonnage capacity to install vital safety measures? In that context, I echo the point made by the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) that financial assistance in general should be available for the many extra safety features that are being considered.

I support what has been said about the need to inculcate in the industry a real culture of safety. We should recognise, however, the huge commercial

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pressures on fishermen. In the scallop fishery alone, many areas off Scotland have been closed for fishing at various times this year due to amnesic shellfish poisoning. That, of course, increases the pressures on fishermen at the times when the grounds are open. They must bring in their year's catch in a much shorter time. We need a realistic regime and culture, which can survive the pressures that work against it.

I welcome, as did the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde, the proposals for training, and the positive impact that the Scottish Fishermen's Federation has made in drawing those up.

4.32 pm

Mr. Hill : The debate has been an important one, with many valuable contributions. The numbers present are depleted relative to when we began the debate, but that is perfectly understandable due to the exigencies of the transport situation. Various colleagues who were present earlier have apologised to me for their necessary absence. I shall of course endeavour to respond to the points that they made, so that they will appear in the Hansard record.

The hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) asked for an assurance that the buildings and equipment at coastguard stations at Leigh-on-Solent and Portland will be upgraded at the earliest opportunity. They will be. He asked for further reassurance that Ministers are content with the programme of closures in respect of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. The answer is yes. He also asked about fishing vessel safety grants and why there was no intention to reintroduce grants for safety equipment. I remind the hon. Gentleman of a point that I want also to explain in response to some comments by the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls).

Such safety grants previously applied only to vessels of more than 12 m and are therefore not central to a debate about the provision for smaller fishing vessels. Those grants were largely devoted to subsidies for statutory safety equipment, but the Government have chosen not to persist with that. Our strategy now is to focus on safety training. To that end, £1.2 million has been allocated over the next three years, about which I shall say a little more later.

The hon. Member for Poole mentioned the response of the South Coast Fishermen's Council on the proposed code. In response, I offer the reassurance that there is no absolute requirement for a written risk assessment. There is simply a recommendation that any changes to the code be subject to discussion with the industry, through the committee responsible for the review--which will include the industry--and that responses be publicly available. That was mentioned by other hon. Members. Responses to the consultation are publicly available in the Maritime and Coastguard Agency summary of responses, which will be published and placed in the Library. I hope that that helps the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. George) made a wide-ranging and knowledgeable speech, as befits an hon. Member representing a constituency in which fishing plays such a major part. I was grateful for his general support of the Government's efforts and for his welcome of the under-12 m code. I was encouraged by his report of the positive attitudes of those fishermen

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who did not respond to the consultation. We will have in some way to embrace them in our considerations on those matters. He also asked about the charges of the MCA surveyor. Charges for follow-up visits will be made in accordance with the fee regime applicable at the time. Fees are currently applied to all time on board and in the office, plus a maximum of four hours travelling time.

The hon. Gentleman then asked about lessons learned from the sinking of the Gorah Lass. The first phase of the report on that ship has recently been completed and the results are being discussed with the industry. The second phase, which should be completed early next year, will be aimed at obtaining more details. The hon. Gentleman asked whether I would undertake to keep hon. Members informed of progress on that research; I certainly do so. I hope that that helps the hon. Gentleman. He asked about co-operation between the MCA and sea fisheries officers. British sea fisheries officers already carry out checks on vessel safety certificates and on the certification of officers and we will certainly consider, with the fisheries department, what more can be done in terms of co-operation.

The hon. Gentleman next asked about the health and safety rules on beam trawlers. The new rules require that all skippers and owners consider the risk for the crew while working on board, which includes conditions of decks and the beams on the beam trawlers. There are clear requirements on beam trawlers in the new health and safety rules.

Mr. Andrew George : On the issue of the stability of beam trawlers, as the Minister knows well, as a result of the inquiry into the loss of the Margaretha Maria, serious questions have been asked about beam trawler stability. Although the Wolfson report has come out, subsequent phases of the follow-up work have not been completed. The speed with which we broadcast information to the industry is important and would ensure that issues of stability are properly addressed.

Mr. Hill : I fully accept that point, and reiterate my undertaking that that information and final report will be available early next year. We recognise the urgency of the matter, but we must obviously draft as comprehensive, detailed and proper a report as possible.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the working time directive in connection with fisherman fatigue. The Government are committed to extending the protection of the working time directive to workers in the sea fishing industry. However, we recognise that a balance must be struck between a fisherman's need to earn a living and the requirements of the directive. My officials are working with the industry to implement the directive in a way that meets its aims without threatening the livelihoods of those employed on fishing vessels. That kind of balance always needs to be struck for the fishing industry.

The hon. Gentleman said that other member states were giving aid to the industry to combat the fuel crisis. The United Kingdom fishing industry already benefits from tax-free fuel, as I am sure he is aware. We have

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pressed the European Commission to ensure that any measures adopted by other member states comply fully with the community's state aid rules, and the Commission is taking action on that.

I note the positive response of my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman), who remains heavily involved in the European dimension of the matters that we are discussing. His intervention reflects a lifelong study of maritime issues and especially of safety issues. I remember his service on the Labour party national executive committee's working party on the law of the sea in the 1970s; he was brought in as an expert on those matters. He will not remember my being there, because I was there only in a support capacity, as a mere minion--a researcher--but I have a distinct recollection of, and respect for, his contribution.

My hon. Friend expressed concern about the treatment of young fishermen. The loss of the Solway Harvester, and other incidents in which young fishermen have been lost, has raised awareness of the requirement for basic safety training and, reassuringly, the demand for courses has increased as a result.

My hon. Friend also referred to the question of immersion suits and the campaign in Europe, as I had predicted that he might. Under the Fishing Vessels (EC Directive on Harmonised Safety Regime) Regulations 1999, immersion suits must be carried on new vessels of 24 m and over. Those regulations certainly apply to the French vessels to which he referred, but they are not intended to impose new domestic requirements in excess of those called for by international or European obligations. The owners of existing vessels of 24 m and over and of smaller vessels remain free to make such provision voluntarily. I am confident that my hon. Friend will maintain his campaign on that matter.

My hon. Friend asked about the experience of other maritime countries, especially European countries, with regard to grant aid. I undertake to write to him on that subject, as he requested. I was grateful for his warm remarks and congratulations on the recent announcement of compensation for those who lost their livelihoods as a result of the Icelandic fishing disputes. He also referred to personal indicator beacons worn on the wrist. I am told that they cause problems on radio frequencies, but I assure hon. Members that the matter is under review.

On the general question of immersion suits, I give an undertaking to my hon. Friend that we will look at the BP designs to which he alluded. I am open-minded on the design question, and I know the problems experienced by fishermen in the use of personal buoyancy equipment. I would regard it as the abiding monument of what will doubtless be a brief tenure as Minister with responsibility for such matters if we secured progress and agreement on the issue.

I was grateful for the kind remarks made by the hon. Member for Teignbridge about the Government' s tone and approach on safety matters. He is right that there is a history of uncertainty in relation to safety equipment grants. As I said to the hon. Member for Poole, such grants applied only to vessels of more than 12 m. To that extent, they are not central to our discussion of safety

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arrangements for small vessels. However, £1.2 million has been allocated to safety training over the next three years, which has been widely welcomed by the industry.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the industry's misgivings about the attitude of the MCA. First, the MCA does not believe that fishermen are a suicide squad. It is concerned, as we all are, about the lack of a safety culture among some, but by no means all, fishermen. The MCA wants to work with the industry to ensure that a good safety culture prevails. As for the fishermen's apparent impression that the MCA is run by a group of master mariners, it has introduced ex-fishermen into the organisation and is working with fishermen to improve the approach to safety matters. I agree with the hon. Member for Teignbridge about the need for ownership by fishermen of the safety regime in the industry. I recognise that we can succeed only if the Government work with fishermen to achieve common safety objectives.

The hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale reminded us of the tragedy of the Solway Harvester and its devastating impact on the local community, especially the families affected, on the Isle of Whithorn. It was a timely reminder that in dealing with such matters we are dealing not only with the deaths of fishermen but with the dreadful ramifications for families and whole communities. The hon. Gentleman expressed concern about delays in the publication of marine accident investigation branch reports. I remind him that, in connection with the Solway Harvester, the MAIB issued a safety bulletin following the initial investigation, which highlighted points of concern and addressed the issues of hatch covers and safety training. Furthermore, a major reason for the delay in the Solway Harvester report is the Isle of Man police investigation into the loss.

The MAIB, for which I have the highest esteem, is extraordinarily hard pressed--especially so at present, for the reasons that we discussed at the beginning of the debate--but seeks to issue reports as quickly as possible. For a tiny organisation, its work rate is phenomenal. It deserves support, both public and in terms of resources.

The hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale referred to the recovery of vessels and the recovery of those lost at sea. I must say to him in all candour that no Government could undertake always to recover bodies from sunken vessels. There may be many practical difficulties with the recovery operation and no one would wish further lives to be put at risk in an attempt to retrieve trapped bodies.

Mr. Alasdair Morgan : I was talking about recovery not in all circumstances but where it is practical and does

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not pose undue danger to those engaged in the recovery operation. We all agree that such criteria would have to be met. It is the current blanket insistence that recovery will not happen that people consider unsatisfactory.

Mr. Hill : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that qualification of his remarks. Such matters must be considered seriously. We have agonised over the issue and will continue to do so, but our position remains as I have stated.

The consultative document on the recovery of those lost at sea is in the House of Commons Library. The hon. Gentleman seemed to identify a contradiction in that consultation process, but the majority of the respondents upheld the tradition that for those who are lost, the sea should be the final resting place. They recognised that, when there was a desire on the part of families to recover the bodies, that should be made possible. To that end, we are examining the practicality of establishing a trust fund, primed at least in part by public money. I offer that specific positive response to the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale. We envisage in principle that the fund would administer moneys that could be called on to recover the bodies of fishermen when there was no case for doing so to assist accident or criminal investigations. A board of trustees would be entrusted to determine the feasibility of an operation before any funds were released. We are considering how to take that proposal forward and I am sure that we shall be making an announcement about it in due course. Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked about extra tonnage capacity. Quotas for tonnage are considered when a vessel is designed.

I have attempted to respond to the many specific points that have been raised in the debate in appropriate detail. I reiterate my gratitude to those who have participated in our discussions. They have made an important contribution to the consultation process and we shall consider their proposals thoroughly.

Undoubtedly, difficult balances will have to be struck between education and regulation and between the cost of compliance with regulations and the safety benefit. There will always be some people who consider that the balances are not right. The test is whether those balances result in fewer accidents and fewer lives lost. If they do not, we must try to understand why and make the necessary changes more speedily than we have done in the past. I personally look forward to that challenge. Let me say again that the views and ideas that have been put forward today have provided valuable food for thought in the quest for a safer fishing industry.

Question put and agreed to.

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