Select Committee on Transport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180 - 199)



  Q180  Chairman: Mr Williams, would you like to begin?

  Mr Williams: I talk really as a member of the public and a survivor of the Marchioness. However, that was 18 years ago now and in the intervening years I have attended many investigations and inquiries to give information or to help the process and they have not been easy because every time I get drawn back into discussions my day-to-day dreams and lifestyle is interrupted by memories and images, which is very unpleasant, but I manage that. In 1989 I remember walking onto the deck of the Marchioness feeling that I was going to have a good time and I was in safe hands. I anticipated that people would be knowledgeable, experienced and in a fit state to ensure my safety, but in the event all those factors did not seem to play, and I found myself struggling for my life in the river in the middle of the night. After 12 years of waiting, the public inquiry was held and Lord Justice Clarke made recommendations which seemed to me to have a major effect on the way in which the safety of the river was considered. Major changes were made and issues around training for watermen and boatmen were impressive to me as a laymen and it made me feel that maybe my friends—and the majority of my friends I had made in London died that night—had not died totally in vain and there may be something happening to honour them in some way of achievement. The knowledge I am picking up now is that all this is being changed and that sense of something happening seems to have changed and the rigorous and stringent measures seem to me, from what I have been hearing and reading, to be being seriously relaxed, so my concerns have been raised. My concerns were further raised—and I can only really relate to what I see in public—by an article in the Evening Standard recently where there seemed to be great differences of opinion and a polarisation of views between Dr Ladyman and his experts and the people who actually run the river, the watermen and the boatmen, which also gave me great concern. It seemed to me at the time that the newspaper article showed the boatmen in a bad light in this sense. I felt that was unfair at the time but I realised from that article that they seem to be being accused of running a closed shop and having to work to onerous rules which might prevent the development of a more diverse workforce. In the same article what concerned me more was a suggestion that Dr Ladyman had got it wrong. He commented: "What a horrid thought that changes I made might cause someone to lose their life . . . " but he went on to say: "I am absolutely confident that if anything I have erred on the side of caution." My sincere hope, Chairman, is that the arguments over whether the boatmen maintain a closed shop or not and how to encourage a more diverse workforce do not in any way deflect attention from the important things they have to say about their work and how to maintain their high standards of training. I had thought that the higher standards of training and the so-called "onerous rules" had in fact been instigated by Lord Justice Clarke—

  Q181  Chairman: Mr Williams, we want to ask you a number of questions that will touch on these things.

  Mr Williams: So can I come quickly to my last point?

  Q182  Chairman: If you would.

  Mr Williams: My feeling is that I am very grievously anxious that if the phrase "absolute confidence" does not turn out later to be true then many people are not going to be impressed, particularly those parents and families and friends who lost people in that incident.

  Q183  Chairman: Thank very much, that is very helpful. Mrs Lockwood Croft?

  Ms Lockwood Croft: Firstly, Chairman, thank you for inviting the Marchioness Action Group here today. In 1991, we started campaigning for there to be national licences covering the different avenues of water—canals, lakes, rivers, tidal waters and offshore waters—so we do welcome that. We feel sad that they did not take up our recommendation then which was to have an independent research team looking at what was out there in training, whether there were incidents in any parts of Scotland, England, Wales or Northern Ireland that were recorded, and to assimilate all that information before making licences. We took the opinion from the start that you could not have one size fits all. You would have to research first to see what type of comprehensive training is appropriate to those particular waters. We consider it is necessary for all personnel, managers and owners to have training because we view this as a corporate responsibility. We feel if that had occurred our country would be the lead to Europe and we could have presented to them rather than the EU Directive being presented to us, so I consider time and resource has been wasted. If that had occurred we would not be here today. It concerns me now that we have a licence that does not cover the different perspectives across our country, I think that is important, because we do not have the true facts and figures. I want to remind the Committee—and I am not wanting to be derogative because any remark I make I want positivity to be taken out of it—of what caused the incident in 1989 and that departments can and have made errors, and I feel that at this juncture another error has been made and I hope it will be rectified. The Port of London Authority withdrew pilots on the part of the River Thames where the incident occurred. The Ministry of Transport of the day, as it still does, issues licences and they issued licences for craft like the Marchioness and its sister ship the Hurlingham to have decks added to them causing lack of stability and for them to be unbalanced. They were not weighted the right way so if you all rushed to one side, the ship went to one side and it took on water. It concerns us that there are still craft like that were built for upper reaches and non-tidal waters plying their trade on tidal waters. I can back that up with physical evidence and send it to the Committee because we were given the original architects' drawings of the Marchioness that were presented to Lord Justice Clarke. A reminder too that there were two combined departments, which to us facilitated that disaster occurring. That is why we had recommended after the death of our loved ones that there should be independent research handed back to the government; as I said time and effort wasted. It concerns me now with this new licence—and this can be validated by the professionals themselves, the watermen and lightermen, particularly Captain Scott Newton and Alex Hickman and others, that with this new licence they could go on to the Mersey—

  Q184  Chairman: I am going to stop you there, I am sorry Mrs Lockwood Croft, I am going to be a bit brutal because it is important that we ask you these questions related to the points we want to raise. Thank you very much, that is very helpful. I need to be quite clear in my own mind; are you saying that you object to a national licence or not?

  Ms Lockwood Croft: No, as I said before, we have been campaigning since 1991 that there should be one.

  Q185  Chairman: So in fact it is not the principle, it is the way in which it is going to be implemented?

  Ms Lockwood Croft: Yes, and there is not sufficient diversity to cover the inland waterways.

  Q186  Chairman: What measures have been taken in response to the Marchioness disaster that have contributed to improved safety?

  Ms Lockwood Croft: Through our campaigning, with the support of the Deputy Prime Minister and other Labour MPs, which we acknowledge with gratitude, we had the inquiry. Many people facilitated data to that from many different groups. From that, slowly over a period of time, safety has changed; attitudes to it, procedures and laws. One thing we fought and campaigned for is that there should be alcohol and drug law the same as we would have on our roads. We also fought for and did fundraising to obtain the search lifeboats which have proven, and the RNLI can validate this, to be the busiest crafts throughout the UK. We were told by professionals that they were not necessary so we have proven that wrong. We have also campaigned that there should be emergency exercises, in line with what national airlines have annually to see that we could deal with an incident. The very first combined one took place on 1 November 2006 on a bright, clear day with 25 volunteers to be survivors and 25 dummies thrown in to be people rescued, and even on that clear day five of the dummies went missing. To us that would be five dead people that the family liaison police officers would be knocking on people's doors to say, "I am sorry, your loved one is dead." It showed that you need that and I picked up 10 glitches which they have taken on board. I understand from the professionals that they are considering doing that once every four years. To us safety should be reviewed annually and exercises like that taken on board. All boat owners working on the River Thames should do that also with their own crews and their own staff to add safety. Solely through the loss of 51 people we have achieved these standards and the additional safety factors that have been put in place.

  Q187  Mrs Ellman: It has been argued that the Port of London Authority licensing system was based on time served rather than assessing skills which is central to this licence. Do you agree with that?

  Ms Lockwood Croft: We have always maintained that you need comprehensive training and we have pushed that it should be college based with exams as well as practical training. We also have advocated over the years—and we have written about it—saying that we would like to see such training as a national licence base coming within our educational system, so that it is recognised as a college or university degree, depending on which area they are working in, whether they are bargemen or sailing in offshore waters or tidal waters. We are also very concerned about the Port of London Authority in this respect: they are a trust and, sadly, there is a loophole in the Freedom of Information Act that trusts are exempt, so that is an area that we would like to see changed as well, I appreciate that will probably take several more years of campaigning to get the amendment to the law so that trusts like that cannot be exempted. We cannot get the information or facts or figures ourselves from them.

  Q188  Mrs Ellman: What sort of information have you been trying to get?

  Ms Lockwood Croft: To get the full information on how they deal with incidents on the River Thames, the procedures, and how many they have had, and whether they were qualified watermen and lightermen pilots or whether they were not qualified persons who have been practising under the new EU licence, because there has been some sort of research or practice on that basis, and we feel that is important.

  Q189  Mrs Ellman: Have you tried to get this information?

  Ms Lockwood Croft: Yes we could not because the answer I got back was they were trusts and they are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. That was validated by the agency that deals with complaints when I wrote to them, because I was trying to get details about coroners and I was informed by them that the coroners are not exempt so they do have to make comment, but a trust is exempt. We have said before about safety issues, and our recommendations were again that safety issues should be under a separate body perhaps because it could be perceived—I am not saying it necessarily occurs—that there is a conflict of interest between commerce and safety and we would see that risk of compromise taken away if it was a separate body dealing with safety.

  Q190  Mrs Ellman: I want to look further at the provisions of the new licence. One of the issues of concern that you raised before was about the medical fitness of people in charge of boats?

  Ms Lockwood Croft: Absolutely.

  Q191  Mrs Ellman: Under the new licence there is to be a medical assessment and that did not exist before; does that not give you more confidence?

  Ms Lockwood Croft: We welcome that but, as I said before, we pointed this out many years ago back as far back as 1991 to the Ministry, having got documents that happened to be conveniently passed on to me showing how the helmsman of the Bowbelle at the time had been passed as A1 when the poor gentlemen had cancer of the throat, wore a hearing aid and bifocal glasses. Under the maritime laws he should not have been given a licence.

  Q192  Mrs Ellman: But this will be changed in the new licence.

  Ms Lockwood Croft: Absolutely and we welcome that. There are areas within it that we positively welcome. I cannot see that one size fits all. We consider medical fitness to be necessary and, as with driving, if you had epilepsy or some illness then you would not be able to hold your road licence, so that to me is logical and practicable.

  Q193  Mrs Ellman: So this is a positive change?

  Ms Lockwood Croft: Absolutely, I welcome the positive change. What I do not welcome is the fact that you have gone from five years' training and a college-training base and extended training facilities down to—

  Q194  Chairman: We must try and get everything in. Mr Williams?

  Mr Williams: My concern is that the issue of experience and there being no substitute for it is not lost entirely and the comment about the feeling that the watermen base too much on that very aspect of it. When it comes to working on the river, experience is crucially important and this is what the watermen and lighter boatmen say, and I am prepared to believe that.

  Q195  Mr Wilshire: Can I just say at the outset that I too am a bereaved parent, under different circumstances but equally difficult I suspect, and I therefore understand how you react to issues of this sort, but forgive us if we press you a bit. You refer in your submission to relaxing standards; can I just press you on the detail of what you see is relaxation, not just the one or two main ones but all of the issues where you think standards have been relaxed?

  Mr Williams: The initial impression I had from looking at the way in which the qualifications had been reduced from five years to two years is that there has been some collapsing of the importance of experience in that, and it felt like some sort of fast-tracking qualification was being introduced. From my own experience in my work, fast-track qualifications lead to shallow learning and shallow learning leads to mistakes. When safety is involved it concerns me that shallow learning might become the major baseline for this new licence. I do not think you should streamline anything in any way where safety is a major issue. That comes from my work in working in child abuse when social services tried to streamline services but had to give many exemptions to the child care departments in order to protect the fact that they did need more qualifications and more experience.

  Q196  Mr Wilshire: Having identified those as possible causes of trouble if they are relaxing standards, is there any evidence subsequently to demonstrate that your anxieties are well-founded?

  Ms Lockwood Croft: If this licence remains, time itself will prove from the day-to-day workings by the experts who work on those rivers and from our personal experience there will be defects and problems. I have no doubt whatsoever that incidents will occur on the River Thames and not just on the River Thames because it is cross-applied to other tidal waters and other areas, and there will be incidents in other areas of the British Isles which could lead to loss of life. We cannot say at this time because the licence was only introduced on 1 January. We need a period of it being in use before we can make further comment. However, I do not want to see that time proving our experience and other people's experience who have the expertise and work on these rivers and inland waterways on a day-to-day basis right. As I said to you, I wanted to highlight points that had gone wrong in the past that the departments have made. It saddens me that we have gone forward and they have supported our campaigning gradually over the years—and I have to say those things that we have succeeded in have been us being like a dripping tap and nagging people and getting support from MPs to see that the different stages of recommendations were implemented—but if you have spent hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money on inquiries, again what I would put forward straight away is that you should have an oversight body afterwards to see the recommendations made are complied with within a reasonable time-frame. I did not expect 18 years (as it will be this August) after the death of my son and the other 50 people that I would still be having to chase to see that safety standards went forward. As I said, we have craft there that in my opinion, having researched in Europe, on the Seine and in the Netherlands and Germany, that should have been removed a long time ago.

  Q197  Chairman: Did you want to add to that, Mr Williams?

  Mr Williams: Yes just briefly. I remember Lord Justice Clarke at the time of the inquiry praising the watermen and lightermen's licence exactly for requiring a two-year apprenticeship followed by three years as a professional waterman. I want to know what has changed since then. As a member of the public and a layman on the subject, I think, "Fine, that sounds great," but what has changed in the last 10 years? Has the river got less busy? It is going to get busy with the Olympics coming up. I am hearing from the people who work the river, the watermen and lightermen, that the present licensing arrangements are not enough. I can only say, "Really, are they not? You should know." That is what I feel and 10 years or 12 years ago Lord Justice Clarke saw fit to praise just that regime of training.

  Q198  Mr Wilshire: Can I just press you on the question I actually asked you and that was about any evidence that has arisen. I can understand given where you are coming from and the expertise you have built up that you can point to these things and say, "They look like lowering of standards to me." Can I just ask you again: is there any evidence subsequently of these things producing either an accident or a potential accident?

  Ms Lockwood Croft: There is some evidence. I wrote to my local MP, Gerald Howarth, to see if I could get the information on the facts and figures of incidents which have occurred over the last couple of years, which he obtained. The NCA do not routinely record all incidents to define non-qualified persons who have had incidents to the qualified, and the number of unqualified incidents far outweighs any of the professionals—

  Q199  Chairman: Mrs Lockwood Croft, I need to know what this evidence was from. Was it from the Department?

  Ms Lockwood Croft: Dr Ladyman's Department.

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