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Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for giving me an advance copy of the report and of his statement--and I thank Lord Justice Clarke for his report.

No one can who reads the files and recalls the memories of this terrible tragedy can fail to be moved. The loss of so many successful and talented men and women, destroyed in the prime of their lives, can leave nothing but an inconsolable sense of waste. From the moment that the accident was reported, it became apparent that it should have been avoidable.

There were failings, and I join the Deputy Prime Minister in saying that I am very sorry for those failings, which are underlined in the recommendations arising from the marine accident investigation branch report. Subsequent inquiries have produced further recommendations, including those in the Hayes inquiry under the previous Administration, and Lord Justice Clarke's interim recommendations.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister have confidence in the safety management and procedures on the River Thames today? He has announced further improvements, but river traffic is growing rapidly. Is he confident that safety management is matching that growth? May I ask him to express confidence in the marine accident investigation branch in respect of its role in river safety? Does he think that it has learned the lessons from the episode?

Is not the overwhelming lesson that safety management must be proactive and that every vessel must be constantly capable of navigating safely at all times? Following the recommendations, what procedures will the right hon. Gentleman's Department pursue to keep river safety up to date--for example, to make maximum use of technology? Can he confirm that those recommendations will be extended to other similar waterways in the United Kingdom?

On the non-statutory report, everyone will share the right hon. Gentleman's sense of revulsion at the treatment of the dead and bereaved after the accident. We can ensure that those events are never repeated. I welcome

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the action that the right hon. Gentleman proposes and the widening of the Alder Hey inquiry to consider them, but is that expected to delay the Alder Hey inquiry in any way?

Finally, I join the Deputy Prime Minister in paying tribute to the relatives of those who perished. They will never be able to draw a line under the episode. They will live the nightmare of that night for the rest of their lives. The improvements to river safety announced today and since the disaster will provide some comfort, and, as the right hon. Gentleman said, they are a lasting testament to the relatives' commitment to river safety.

Mr. Prescott: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his response and for welcoming Lord Justice Clarke's recommendations. May I also say, together with him, how much the House appreciates the very hard work that Lord Justice Clarke put into the inquiry? It was essential that he defined what happened on the night because previous Governments had failed to do so. He restored confidence in the type of investigations that can take place in the event of such tragedies, which we all want to avoid. I am grateful to him for his support and congratulate him on all that he has done. The report is a remarkable piece of work.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's support for the recommendations. Our views on them can be read in the document that has been placed in the Library. We always need to be vigilant about safety management on the river, whatever rules and regulations exist. Individuals often take decisions in difficult circumstances, which can contribute in some way, but we have to be assured that we have a regulatory framework that can ensure that the best standards are applied. Anyone reading Lord Justice Clarke's report will find out about the sloppiness that existed in the companies, as well as on board ship, for which responsibility has to be taken. No doubt we shall come to that argument when we discuss corporate responsibility in the near future.

We all welcome the fact that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency is now in charge of search and rescue and of imposing good safety standards. The House will generally welcome the fact that the Royal National Lifeboat Institution is very much involved. We have ensured that the standards are applied to other rivers around the country. A review is taking place to ensure that the same standards are maintained in other rivers.

The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point about whether the marine accident investigation branch has learned its lessons. The report shows what can happen when discretion is involved in deciding whether there should be an interim inquiry and a public inquiry. It is necessary to hold the interim inquiry first. The record of the past 10 years clearly shows that people were making decisions and recommendations, but did not exercise the right to hold a public inquiry.

I would not want people to think that the marine accident investigation branch was the only means of conducting an investigation. It was thought in the Department at the time that the MAIB could act in the same way as the air accidents investigation branch. I am not sure that that is the right way to proceed; the MAIB can be involved but, ultimately, discretion on whether to hold a public inquiry lies with Ministers.

Those who look at the record can decide for themselves, but, frankly, I think the process failed. The marine accident investigation branch cannot be totally to

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blame. Its terms of reference required it to discover what happened, not to look behind that to find out what the faults were and whether there was any blame. In any inquiry involving a vessel that has gone down with the loss of 55 lives, that should happen. That gives me the opportunity to deal with the controversial issue of whether an inquiry could be held up because of the possibility of legal prosecutions. I think that the inquiry should continue, whatever is happening with prosecutions, but we are discussing that matter at the moment. The Lord Chancellor is addressing himself to that problem, about which the House has from time to time expressed concern.

On whether the Alder Hey inquiry will be delayed, I shall ask the Secretary of State for Health to write to the hon. Gentleman with a response. I do not think it will be delayed, but I would prefer to allow my colleague to respond.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks about the people who have had to carry this heavy burden for so long. They demanded a public inquiry, and Lord Justice Clarke has responded to them. He has made his recommendations and I have given the House the Government's view of them.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): Since 1989, I have been the constituency Member as well as the party representative most associated with the tragedy, and I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his unique commitment to ensuring that there was an inquiry. I thank him for that without qualification. He knows that both the families and I respect him greatly.

I join the Secretary of State and the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) in paying tribute to Lord Justice Clarke and those who helped him. They did an excellent job. I also join in the tributes to the families of those who survived and those who did not. The families did not give in, in spite of the amazing obstacles that were placed in their way. They and the so-called Hurlingham boys--the people on the other boat that night who came and saved lives--deserve unqualified thanks. I hope that this statement is some consolation to them above all.

The conclusion of these two full reports is that terrible and fatal failures took place before, on and after the night of the sinking. Those failures led to the tragic and unnecessary deaths of 51 people with huge potential. I share the view of the hon. Member for North Essex. The obvious conclusion is that this sinking should not and need not have happened, and all those responsible should have been held responsible.

I choose my words carefully, but I think that the previous Conservative Government made the disgraceful decision not to hold the inquiry that was asked for from the beginning. I accept that the right hon. Gentleman played no part in that decision. However, if an earlier inquiry had taken place, many of the remedies that are not now available would have been available. Unfortunately, that failure cannot now be put right.

I shall not do anything other than welcome all the Secretary of State's recommendations--I support them. However, I wish to ask some specific questions. Can he assure the House that, in addition to the referral of the Captain Henderson case, he will satisfy himself that any other legal action that can be properly and fairly taken will be considered and, if appropriate, taken?

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If there is no election this year or if the Secretary of State and the Labour party are in government after an election, will he undertake that legislation will be introduced at the earliest opportunity to cover corporate responsibility for deaths and manslaughter? Such legislation should have been introduced a long time ago, but the sooner we get a law on the statute book, the better.

The Secretary of State made the welcome announcement that the Home Secretary will consider the provisions for coroner's inquests. However, will he undertake that that consideration will cover the issues to which he referred? Coroner's inquests, calls for a public inquiry and criminal and civil proceedings often all come together, so a co-ordinated and sensible approach must be taken to them.

The Secretary of State said that the coastguard will take responsibility for search and rescue. Does that mean that, in future, in every search and rescue operation on inland waterways, the coastguard will direct the police, the river police and the appropriate port or river authorities? One of the lessons of this case is that no one took ultimate responsibility, but someone should ultimately be responsible for what happens on the Thames and other inland waterways.

The lessons of Lord Justice Clarke's second report appear to be that no one had clear responsibility for looking after the victims and their families from the moment of the accident, and the bodies of the dead were not sacrosanct. I hope that the Government are saying that, in future, anyone who ever loses a relative in such a tragedy will know that limbs, organs and body parts cannot be taken without the authority of the family. That conclusion must be drawn from this and other cases; I hope that the Government will make that the legal position from now on.

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