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10 Jan 2007 : Column 87WH—continued

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): First, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson). She excellently set out the practical reasons why, at this last stage of the proceedings, this debate has commanded so much support from parliamentarians across the House who know about these issues because they have been involved with the Thames and the people who work on it. We represent those people and are therefore telling the Minister that we want him not only to hear what we
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are saying, but to implement the request that comes both from this debate and the prayer in the Order Paper that the regulations dated 4 December and laid before the House on 7 December, for which the statutory period in which the House can make a decision has not yet ended, should be annulled.

We are in the ridiculous legal position, which you will know well, Mr. O’Hara, that the Government can lay a statutory instrument that can come into force before the end of the time in which the Houses of Parliament can decide whether they agree with it. Although the new regulations technically came into force on 1 January, at this moment the House can say no to them. We ask the Minister to tell the business managers that we want a debate on the regulations in Government time at the earliest opportunity. At that stage, we would like the Government to say that they will take back the proposal and listen to the advice that they have heard from hon. Members on both sides of the House. If he is not persuaded by the advice and views that he has heard today, I assure him that there is plenty of supporting evidence and advice available elsewhere.

My constituency name reflects that it is a riverside constituency. The Southwark borough has sent MPs here since the 13th century to represent the riverside community. Bermondsey has sent MPs here for over 100 years to represent an archetypal riverside community—the docks community—and it was hugely populated by people with a docks and Transport and General Workers Union background. When I was first selected, I came to this House from my constituency by boat to represent that importance.

This is not about self-interest and protection but a matter of public interest and the safety of the people who use the Thames. I was the MP for North Southwark and Bermondsey on 20 August 1989 when the Marchioness sank at 2 am. I received a call about three quarters of an hour later and I was on the riverside that night. I worked with colleagues such as the former Member for Newham, South, and Lord Brooke, who was then the Member for Cities of London and Westminster and with families and survivors, including the Dallaglio and Perks families, for 10 years. Eventually, the Deputy Prime Minister, to his great credit, agreed that there should be a public inquiry. That is one thing for which I shall always be grateful to him because it was his decision and the public inquiry was held.

At the inquiry, which I attended, Lord Justice Clarke was very clear. He made 74 recommendations in his two reports. There were two follow-up reports in November 2001 and February 2003. The reports made absolutely clear the danger of the Thames. I have been on the Thames often enough in good weather and bad. I have been on the tidal and non-tidal Thames and I have even fallen in it once—actually, I was thrown in, but that is another story—so I know from my good and bad experiences that it is a dangerous river.

We are trying to bring tourism to this capital city. If we think that it is in Britain’s interest in the run-up to the Olympic games to risk a reduction in safety in the Thames, we are sadly misguided. My friend, the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), and I are trustees of the Mayor of London’s Thames Festival Trust—I am the chair. Over 10 years, the festival has brought
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hundreds of thousands of people to celebrate the river. It is partly a celebration of the fact that the river is now a much safer place for people to use for travel. What do we want of the river? We want it to be an even safer place. We want it to have more business, not less. We want more freight on it, not less. We want it to be more busy, not less busy.

So, what should we do? We should listen to the expertise of people who know what they are talking about. The problem in this debate is that the Company of Watermen and Lightermen is a name that sounds medieval, so people think that its views must be medieval. That medieval background comes from the fact that it has hundreds of years of experience. I shall cite one example of that from a letter that I received on this subject from a licensed waterman and lighterman, who lives in Deptford but was born in Rotherhithe, in my constituency. It stated:

of the Thames. This is the sort of experience that we are talking about.

This is not a closed shop, because there are about 600 licensed watermen and lightermen, and about 60 new people join every year. That is the rate of application from young people and there is no barrier to people coming—people who were born in Orkney, Shetland, Scilly or abroad can join. I was at a local fire station the other day, and I know that firefighters who were born in America work in the London fire service. There is no barrier or discrimination on this matter, but there is one requirement—that people are well prepared and are willing to come to do the particular apprenticeship that is required to ensure that they do the job properly.

The directive was published in 2006. I have read the good briefing notes and the explanatory memorandum on the regulations being proposed and the directive. They make it clear that the UK can derogate, as the Minister knows. The explanatory memorandum states:

That situation applies, and therefore the Government have said, “Yes, we will do our own thing.” Having decided that we will do our own thing, it is clear to me that we are allowed to decide in law that we can have a particular regime for a particular place. In a way, this is not the same as the situation in respect of the Rhine, because that river crosses different countries, whereas the Thames runs through just one country. Therefore, we are allowed to have a requirement.

All the notes make it clear that the Government can impose higher standards than the minimum standards required under the EU legislation. I understand the case for EU legislation, and I do not oppose such legislation, but there is a particular situation involved.
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People can apply from anywhere in the world to get the standard, but they must have the required training and qualification.

In July, some of us took a petition to Downing street with watermen and lightermen. We talked to both them and the unions before, during and after that event, up to today. Thus we are clear that this matter is about ensuring that, if it is humanly possible, there is never another terrible tragedy like the sinking of the Marchioness. They want there to be jobs for people of this great city on the river, as that is a valid concern, but their first concern is that the experience of centuries should not be lost.

I ask the Minister respectfully and sincerely to say that it would be the greatest foolishness to go down the road that the Government propose. They might have all the professional advice from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency that they need, but if they do not listen to the experience of the people who work the river and their representatives, they are taking incomplete and insufficient advice.

There is a chance to change this proposal. I hope that in the next few days we shall have the opportunity to debate it and that the Government will announce that they will re-examine it. I hope that they will come up with the requirement to sustain the higher level of qualification for work on the Thames than is required elsewhere. It needs to be higher because this is the most dangerous river in this country and there is a requirement to ensure that people who travel on it are safe.

10.24 am

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) on securing the debate. I think that all hon. Members agree with every word she said. I have no disagreement with any comments made, so I shall not go over any of the ground already covered.

I represent a riverside constituency, as does the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), and I live by the river. In my many years as a Member of Parliament, I have seen the increased use of the River Thames. If the Government get away with what they are trying to do, it will leave the people who use and work on the river at risk. It will also bring this great city into disrepute.

From the beginning of the process, and in our meetings with the Minister, I always thought that common sense would prevail. Anyone who knows anything about the River Thames, particularly the non-central part of it, knows just what a dangerous river it is. Given that the Government seem to have gold-plated every other European Union directive, it is amazing that they want to downgrade this one and that they do not want to use the power that we have to maintain those extra, higher standards on the Thames. I do not understand it. I do not know whether the Minister will be able to explain why we are even thinking of taking this course of action. So far he has not been able to do so; he has merely referred, in that rather glib way, to a cosy club.

I am not an expert on the Thames, but if I had to choose between the advice and guidance of the Minister, his civil servants and even people from the
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Port of London Authority, and the advice and practical experience of those members of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers who work on the river and the members of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen, who have worked on the river for many years, I know which side I would come down on. The public would also come down on that side.

Along with many of my colleagues, I have prayed against the proposal. The Minister has had an opportunity to listen to the united views expressed today and to all the views expressed during the consultation. If he does not do so, we will have to find a way of voting on the issue somewhere in the Palace. As a riverside MP, I am not prepared to allow my Government to put through something that without doubt will put people’s lives at risk without having had a chance to show that I totally oppose it.

I ask the Minister to re-examine the issue and come back to us with some common-sense proposals. We must ask why we are adopting this proposal, because it does not make sense given that we have a standard that has been fought for and achieved. I hope that he has listened to the strong views expressed by hon. Members from all parties.

10.28 am

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): I almost feel like an interloper because I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a Member who represents a Thames-side constituency. However, I do represent an island constituency that has a number of treacherous stretches of tidal water. My constituents’ experiences, and their views about respecting the potential danger of tidal waters and the need for and importance of local knowledge, would find a ready resonance with the debate.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) on the way in which she opened the debate. The reasoned and measured way in which she put her powerful and cogent case is to be commended. The debate has been exceptionally good. I hope that the Minister will take on board the fact that we have heard views from a wide range of people, many of whom are not what would be referred to as the usual suspects. The contribution by the hon. Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate) was particularly powerful and useful, because I would normally regard him as being something of a Government loyalist. His position was well reasoned and powerful, and I have no doubt that opposing his Government was not easy. I commend him for that and hope that it will be recognised by the Minister.

The debate’s tone stands in marked contrast with the tenor of the Minister’s remarks yesterday as reported in the Evening Standard. I shall read a couple of them for the record. It reported that the Minister said:

There is more than the merest whiff of academic snobbery in that comment and I hope that the Minister will dissociate himself from it. He was asked if he referred to a cosy club and said:

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I find the tone of those remarks completely reprehensible. From my contact with watermen and lightermen on this issue it seems that they are a body of very well-qualified men who take an exceptional pride in the experience and standard of service that they can offer to the community.

Hon. Members referred to the Marchioness disaster. Let us not forget the role that the watermen played in the weeks following the disaster when many of them were finding bodies after the official authorities had given up the search. That is the sort of experience that they have endured and it makes them understand and value the nature of their profession. For such reasons, they are determined to defend the practice that they have enjoyed to date. That should not be denigrated in the way that the Minister chose to do.

Hon. Members referred to the reinvigoration of the Thames, and that should be welcomed for many reasons. The Minister is on the record as having said on several occasions that he is a fan of short sea shipping as an effective and environmentally friendly way of moving goods around. With the advent of the construction of the Olympic site for 2012, that will increase. For that reason alone, surely we should maintain the highest possible standards on a difficult stretch of water. To replace a five-year apprenticeship relating specifically to the Thames with a two-year apprenticeship applying to all inland waterways is asking for trouble. Why is it that every time the Government seek to level standards there is always a levelling down from the gold standard? The practice and history of the watermen and lightermen should be celebrated and protected rather than denigrated and downgraded, as the Government seek to do.

The great frustration of Westminster Hall debates is that the Minister is left with just 10 minutes at the end during which he can do little other than read a speech that has been prepared for him. We have had an excellent debate, but we have not heard much from him and there is no opportunity for cross-questioning, so I shall conclude my remarks and hope that during his response he will allow a wide range of interventions from hon. Members who feel strongly about the issue.

10.34 am

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) on securing this debate and on her remarkable speech when introducing it. I also congratulate all the other hon. Members who have spoken. There really is a consensus that the proposal is simply not good enough.

The Minister has the power, in theory through Parliament, to set the standards of training and safety on the Thames. Those who travel and work on the Thames expect him to put safety first. He has chosen to dismantle the system that was put in place on the river as a result of the tragic sinking of the Marchioness in 1989. I, too, pay tribute to Margaret Lockwood Croft and her campaigners who have done so much to highlight the implications of the tragedy—the things that needed doing—in their campaign for a public inquiry. I pay tribute to her for her role in fighting the changes and the regulations.

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I shall give one example of what is wrong. The new regulations allow a boatmaster from the continent, who may never have operated in tidal waters, to come to London for six months, take one test—perhaps in ideal conditions—and then skipper a boat with 500 passengers on one of the world’s busiest waterways. Incredibly, the same regulations will require someone who has worked the Thames all his life to be retested every five years.

No doubt the Minister will tell us about the European directive. The Select Committee on Transport, whose distinguished Chairman is with us here today, described the Government’s handling of the directive as an example of gold-plating at its worst. The problem is compounded, as several hon. Members said, by the way in which the licence is being implemented. The statutory instrument was laid before the House on 7 December, leaving barely a week and a half for hon. Members to object before the new regulations came into force. They have already come into force and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster told the House, the computer has crashed and people are operating boats technically illegally, and their licences are effectively proof of posting their applications.

We have seen the depth of concern among hon. Members on both sides of the House. The matter should be subjected to a proper, full debate upstairs with Government proposals that are acceptable to the House as a whole and the community that works on the Thames.

Simon Hughes: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Brazier: Briefly. Like the Liberal Democrat spokesman, I want to leave time for the Minister to respond.

Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman said that he wanted a full debate upstairs. Given the breadth of concern, will he reconsider and suggest that the debate should be, as is permissible, on the Floor of the House so that we can expose the issues more broadly? That is what some of us would like.

Mr. Brazier: I am so sorry. I had a slip of the tongue. What I meant from down here in Westminster Hall was on the Floor of the House. I thank the hon. Gentleman for correcting me.

The River Thames is unique in Europe with 50 million tonnes of goods and 5 million passengers carried each year. It has waters that rise and fall by as much as 25 ft twice a day. Boatmen must navigate 27 bridges and negotiate the waters with as many as 12,000 vessel movements a month. It is little wonder that from time to time things go wrong. The consequences can be massive, final and tragic.

A great deal has rightly been said about the tragedy of the Marchioness. When 52 innocent people were killed in the London underground the year before last, the Government promised measures to help to prevent a repeat of the tragedy. We have had new legislation, and billions of pounds have been committed to try to
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prevent another such outrage. Yet in 1989, 51 people—only one fewer—died needlessly and nastily in the waters of the Thames. The inquiry called it a

There were many causes of that terrible waste of life and Lord Justice Clarke’s investigation was detailed. He made 44 recommendations, which were formally accepted by the Deputy Prime Minister in 2000. In his report, Lord Justice Clarke praised the watermen and lightermen licence for requiring

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